Tuesday, 17 June 2014
Distance 17 km
Duration 4 hours 20 minutes
Ascent 535 m, descent 312 m
Map 162 of the TOP 100 lime-green series
Disgorged at the railway station in Millau, we thought first of refreshments and hurried down to the main square, with its fountains encircled by flower beds and cafés, to have coffee in the shade of an awning. With the coffee we had lovely flaky croissants from a bakery nearby. We were starting off as we meant to continue.
The bells of midday were pealing as we tightened our boots and set off, crossing the railway line on the D911 and turning left at the next roundabout into the Rue de Montplaisir.
On the corner was a small supermarket where Keith tried but failed to find a tube of toothpaste of less than 100 mls (his had been confiscated by the security inspectors at Sydney airport, even though it was mostly empty, on the grounds that the stated contents were more than the limit of 100 mls).
Soon we turned right onto the Rue de la Mère de Dieu, then veered off along the Rue de Tenens, a quiet suburban street going uphill for a long way between the houses.
It was no surprise that we were going up so much, when we remembered our breathtaking descent on the other side of the Tarn valley, coming from the Causse of Larzac to Millau a couple of years earlier.
As we climbed, the houses thinned out and the bitumen gave way to dusty gravel and then to loose stones. We were now on the official GR62 which was coming up from Millau by a different route.
Before long we saw the famous Viaduct, stretched like a thread of gossamer over the valley to our left. It looked so fragile but we remembered walking under it on an earlier trip, and seeing the massive pylons, each the size of a block of flats at the base.
Our track then joined a small road which went through an opening under the autoroute, and then did a little switchback, but we scrambled up a loose, slippery short cut which turned out to be much slower and more difficult.
Back on the GR62, we turned away from the autoroute, crossed a saddle and began plunging down on a stony wheel track beside fields of astonishing steepness.
At the bottom the GR curved to the left around a wooded hill, but we had given in to the urge to explore unmarked byways, and had decided to go to the right along the valley.
We cut the corner, down through a fearsomely steep field, aiming for the dirt road just across the stream, but when we got nearer we saw that there was a high fence along the road, impossible to get through.
However there was a farm track on our side of the stream and we had to content ourselves with this. It was a delightful woodland walk, given extra spice by a slight sense of uncertainty about our route (I fear that we are addicted to this feeling, which is why we sometimes come to grief).
After clambering over a couple of gates, we came eventually to the antiquated hamlet of les Vals, whose air of remoteness was contradicted by the roar of traffic on the autoroute just through the trees. We realised that we had been on the best side of the river all the time, as there seemed to be no access to the hamlet from the other side.
There was a small bitumen road winding up to join the D515, where we turned left and walked a couple of kilometres on the bitumen until the GR rejoined us. From then on we stuck with the red and white markers, turning off to the right on a narrow road and very soon leaving it in favour of a wheel track winding through a tunnel of trees.
When the trees thinned out we could see the village of Azinières on the slope above us. There was a car stopped on the track, with an unconscious man inside, either dead, drugged or asleep.
It was hard to tell. I decided not to reach in and shake him, which was just as well, as soon afterwards he came driving past us with a cheery wave and turned up towards the houses.
We kept going along the track, mostly through open fields which looked rather neglected by French standards, with patches of straggling regrowth here and there.
One of these patches half-hid an impressive domed building five or six metres high, made entirely of corbelled stones. It was much larger than the bories (low shepherd’s huts) that we were used to seeing, and could have housed a whole flock, a whole harvest, or even a whole extended family.
The track contoured around until it came to a road, where we made a sharp right turn. Not much further on we got a glimpse of our destination, the little town of St-Beauzély, far below.
At that moment it began to rain, so we struggled into our capes, only to find that the rain had stopped and we had to get out of them again.
The GR then left the road and descended the loose, rocky gully in hairpin bends. It was more like skiing than walking, except that our falls were more painful.
Finally the slope flattened out, the track turned to bitumen and we passed a sports field and a few houses.
Instead of crossing the bridge into the main part of the village, we turned right past the houses and through a lovingly tended little park beside the stream, with a footbridge that delivered us straight to the camping ground.
Here the grass was neatly mowed, the showers were immaculate and hot, there were flower beds and a row of cabins, but no living thing other than us. We put up our little green tent and after washing ourselves and our clothes, dragged over a plastic table and chairs from one of the cabins. Then we set off to explore the attractions of the town.
The first thing we saw when we got up to the main road was a little Vival supermarket. Then we noticed a bar with a terrace pleasantly shaded by trees, but it did not have a lively look and it turned out that Tuesday was its day off.
Looking further afield, we were pleased to see a huge banner in the street above, proclaiming “Restaurant”, and went to investigate. It was obvious as we peered in through the glass doors that it had not operated for a long time. Dusty tables and chairs were stacked up on one side of the empty room and the terrace was weedy and neglected.
This was dispiriting but luckily the supermarket was still open so we assembled bread, cheese, wine and paté. “Your restaurant dinner has changed into a picnic!” said the shop woman approvingly.
Back at the tent, we laid out our simple meal on the borrowed table. A man approached with his dog and said he was the guardian of the camping ground. He seemed surprised to find anyone there, and after relieving us of €12.50 he stayed for a chat.
The restaurant had closed last September, he said, and would reopen on the 25th of July, six weeks too late for us. He apologised for the brown patches in the grass, which were caused by the scorching heat of the previous week, but we said it was a delightful place, with the trees and the little river nearby.
Before we could eat, we had to get the cork out of the wine bottle. Neither of the knives that we were carrying this year had a corkscrew and we tried in vain to gouge the cork out with a blade.
In the end we took the bottle to the nearest house, where a very old woman was sitting outside sorting bits of sheep’s wool. As she only had two teeth in her head, it was hard to understand her, but she understood us and limped inside obligingly to fetch the necessary gadget. She asked us where we were from and looked mystified at the mention of Australia as if she had never heard the word before.
We ate the picnic and went to bed early, tired from our travels. Just as we were drifting off to sleep, there was a voice outside the tent and we emerged to find the wife of the guardian standing hesitantly with a 50 centime piece in her hand.
Her husband had overcharged us, she said. Then she produced two small round goat cheeses which she had made herself, one ashed and one not, presumably by way of apology. It was an example of the warm, courteous manners of the French nation, and gave us a very happy feeling.
We slept blissfully on the soft grass, with the stream clucking like a contented hen beside us. A few rumbles of thunder and a squall of rain did not bother us.
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