Friday, 11 July 2014
Distance 25 km
Duration 5 hours 5 minutes
Ascent 77 m, descent 105 m
Map 139 of the TOP 100 lime-green series
In this hotel, breakfast was served from 7 am and we descended at 7:05, to find the room full of young men in working clothes, who had surely been there for a lot longer than five minutes, as most of them were just finishing their meal.
Our rotund, bald little host announced us proudly as if we were celebrities – not only were we from Australia, but we were travelling on foot! The workers looked down shyly and uncomfortably at their plates.
As they left the room, each of them shook the hand of our host and his wife, wishing them a good weekend. We realised that it was more of a boarding house than a hotel, and that since it was Friday, the boarders would be going home tonight, to return on Sunday. Apparently they worked at the nearby nuclear power station.
We took our time over breakfast, determined not to repeat yesterday’s self-inflicted starvation. We had orange juice, then two croissants each, two pieces of baguette liberally spread with butter and jam, and two or three refills of coffee. Only then did we think it safe to begin the day’s walk.
With heartfelt thanks to the couple who had given us such a lovely break in our routine, just when we needed it, we left the hotel and took a back street which rejoined the highway near the bridge, where there were flower farms in bloom.
Once over the river, we turned immediately to the right and found ourselves on the dead level flood plain of the Vienne, amongst wheat and hayfields.
There was not a building in sight except for an odd little chapel beside the road and, another one opposite, which seemed to have been swallowed by a house. Why that was the case was a mystery that we never solved.
Not much further on we joined a bigger road and started to see the ghostly towers of the nuclear plant disappearing into the clouds, and later the village of Civaux with its pale church steeple sitting like an elf at the feet of giants.
Having discovered that the only bar in the village was closed (a fact that did not upset us, as it was only an hour since breakfast), we pressed on and at the edge of the village came upon an extraordinary sight – an enormous cemetery containing hundreds of ancient graves.
It was guarded by a line of upended headstones, over which we could see a great jumble of tombs amongst the yew trees.
It seems that they were the graves of Frankish soldiers killed during the first of the three Battles of Poitiers, in the year 507. (The other two were in 732 and 1356, but that is another story).
In the first battle, the Frankish king Clovis defeated the Visigoths at Vouillé near Poitiers and drove them back to the Mediterranean, thus creating a kingdom encompassing most of modern France and Germany.
His descendants, known as the Merovingians, ruled this kingdom for 300 years, until overtaken by another Frankish dynasty, the Carolingians.
A few steps past this extraordinary sight was another very different one – the nuclear power station up close, its sky-high towers belching steam.
At their base was a building that looked like the result of some radioactive mutation. It was a sort of flying saucer with arrows poking through its roof and a sign announcing that it was the Planet of the Crocodiles.
We hurried past, and also past the intimidating towers, looking for something sane and natural to rest our eyes on.
But first we had to skirt a fenced distribution centre from which radiated about a dozen lines of high-tension electricity pylons marching off across the landscape like headless skeletons.
At this point we took to the spacious fields near the river, where there were plenty of farm tracks, and before long we came to a road which crossed the Vienne at Cubord.
We were now on a busier road (the D749), which was not very edifying, so as soon as we could we veered off around a bend of the river, on a tiny road which became a dirt track.
Across the wheatfields we could see the slender spire of the church of St-Martin-la-Rivière, long before we arrived there.
As we reached the village near the bridge, we were gratified to see a bar ahead, and soon we were installed on its terrace under a curtained canopy, with a round of coffee which was pleasant but not as direly needed as usual, because of our hotel breakfast.
St-Martin-la-Rivière was a tiny village, but amazingly it had a traffic light, because the main road cut through it. We crossed over and continued up the slope to the graveyard, where there was a lane going parallel to the highway across the fields. After a while we turned up to another hamlet, and beyond the last house the road began to peter out.
As we entered a forest it degenerated into a track, but we swung along without trouble until it was suddenly blocked by a mass of regrowth.
There was no way forward and we had the nasty feeling that we would have to go back to the main road, but then we saw a cleared field through the foliage to our left.
We forced our way down to the fence line, losing a bit of skin as we did so, and then it was easy to follow it out to a small road.
This road led us up to a broad plateau planted with wheat and in due course, to the village of Villeneuve.
By then we were only about three kilometres from Chauvigny, our destination for the day, and we turned off on a wheel track, hoping to get there more directly, instead of having to go on the road.
The wheel track became a cobbled path between stone walls overgrown with blackberry, and plunged towards a small river choked with trees.
The nearer we got, the more we expected to be stopped by a tangle of vegetation, as we had been before, but we crossed the stream easily and ascended into cultivated land full of sunflowers. Presently we joined a main road (the D54) heading in to the town and started following the signs to the camping ground.
After a bit of trudging through the streets we saw a gaunt ruin looming over the houses. This was the wreckage of the cité médiévale, twelfth-century seat of the bishops of Poitiers.
It sat on a rocky spur high above the town, an advantageous spot in times of war (which was most of the time in those days).
The camping ground was just below it, next to a public park with lakes and lawns. There was a short cut through the park but as we did not know about it, we took the long way around by the road the first time.
The camping ground was rather grand, with large flower beds, a line of cabins and plenty of occupants.
The office door was open but nobody was there, so we flopped down under a tree in an empty allotment and had a bite of lunch. We had no bread, but we had a tin of mackerel that we had been carrying for a week, so we ate that off a spoon.
Later Keith went to pay. The woman on the desk became very angry, and as Keith had no idea why, he summoned me.
It turned out that she took exception to our having settled in without her permission. I said that the office had been empty but she shouted that we should have rung the bell (which was hidden behind the open door).
My offer to move if she liked made her even more furious. I advised her not to worry, it was normal in other camping grounds to do what we had done. There followed another tirade about our sins.
I was tempted to say that if we had not come voluntarily to the office, she would never have known we were there at all, but I thought she might have a seizure. I also refrained from suggesting that she was perhaps in the wrong line of work. Meanwhile the other customers were smiling wryly at us, waiting their turn to be abused.
As the day declined we walked into town to see what we could see. It was a proper little metropolis with a main street lined by shops and a generous tree-filled square not far from the bridge, where cafés and restaurants abounded.
There was something deeply comforting about it after the succession of slightly struggling villages that we had been through lately.
We began with a long coffee break under an umbrella in the square, which was full of couples and families out for a Friday evening stroll. Then we had a look inside the adjoining church before starting the hunt for dinner.
We ended up at the pizzeria right in the square, whose red awning lent a festive air to the gardens and fountains around it. Rather than sit outside in the chilly breeze, we went indoors, where a lot of diners had preceded us. Jackets, long pants and socks were in fashion this evening. At the table next to ours there was a family from Spain on their way to Paris Disneyland. They were all competent in English, even the ten-year-old boy, so we had a lively chat.
Taking our time, we had glasses of rosé to begin with, then a salad as entrée, although the waitress warned us that our main courses, lasagne, came with a salad also.
We never miss a chance to top up our salad levels, as we seem to have a permanent deficiency of both salad and red meat while on our long walks.
The lasagne were excellent and very filling. By the time we had scraped our plates clean and drunk the last of the dark, intense local wine, we were ready for bed, but before setting off for the camping ground we stepped next door to the large boulangerie-café and asked what time they opened in the morning.
We hoped to be able to call in on our way past tomorrow, but recent experience had not been promising. When the man said 6:30 am, we laughed with relief, and he laughed too.