Thursday, 19 June 2014
Distance 29 km
Duration 7 hours 35 minutes
Ascent 568 m, descent 908 m
Map 162 of the TOP 100 lime-green series
As we had gone to bed so early, we woke before six and were ready to go by 6:30.
We walked the short distance back through the sleeping village and picked up the GR which went to Pont-de-Salars.
Unfortunately, the GR signs here had reverted to normal and were absent at the crucial point where the track left the road, with the result that we thrashed about trying various lanes and side streets without ever finding the way.
In the end we had to take the road, which descended to the highway (the D993) at Lestang, and walk along it for a couple of kilometres. The good thing was that it was too early in the day for traffic to be a problem.
When we came to a small river, the GR joined the road in order to cross the bridge, and from then on we stuck to it assiduously, even picking the ill-marked place where it turned off into the fields. It was a beautiful walk after that, and a nice change from the predictable tar road.
A gravelly wheel track, hedged with bushes, meandered down through meadows striped with morning sunshine.
We crossed a stream, climbed a little, and soon found our way blocked by the newly finished bypass section of the D911.
Luckily there was a concrete underpass, but on the other side we were confused by the GR sign and turned right instead of left, up a stiff little climb beside the road until the track fizzled out. It was another annoying example of the deficiencies of the signage in these parts.
Back at the underpass, we set off down hill and after a couple of hundred metres came to a GR sign on a fence post, which was reassuring but annoying.
Shortly after that the track swung away from the highway and we got our first view of the town below us, with its attendant line of wind turbines on the ridge behind.
The last part of our descent to Pont-de-Salars was abrupt and precipitous, in a boulder-strewn tunnel roofed with greenery. When we emerged onto the road we were almost at the river, and we crossed it on a rusty metal footbridge next to the car bridge.
A flower market was setting up in the square, but we were more interested in food and hurried on up the street in search of a boulangerie.
When we found one we bought a double ration of pastries – a pain aux raisins, two croissants and a rich, heavy rissole aux pruneaux – which we carried to the nearest bar, and settled down to make up for the starvation of last night. The air was still cold so we sat inside.
With two rounds of coffee and a layer of delicious pastry sitting comfortably inside us, we continued up the steep main street and through the houses at the top, following the GR signs which eventually led us back to river level underneath the new bridge of the D911.
By this time we were on the banks of the Viaur, on a small bitumen road, which became a wheel track after it passed a horse stable, then degenerated into a rough path and plunged into woodland.
Evidently it had been a wide, well-made road in former times, with a stone wall, now moss-covered, on the uphill side and the remains of cobbles underfoot. We crossed a side stream and scrambled along beside the river, which was not much more than a trickle here because of the dam wall just upstream from the town.
We ignored a sign pointing off to the church of St George, and after a while the track climbed away from the river into a sunnier, grassier forest.
We came to a road head, then dived down to river level again in dense forest. It was slow going. Another couple of sharp ascents and descents made us wonder how the ox-carts of earlier days would have coped. It was tiring enough for lightly burdened walkers.
At the sight of yet another plunge to the depths (signposted Camboularet) we decided to leave the GR and take a track going directly up to what we hoped would be flatter country. As it turned out, we were not far from where the GR met a road and also left the gorge.
Our escape route seemed to go on for ever and Keith accompanied every step with a groan.
We were on the flank of a steep side valley choked with vegetation and the climb was relentless until we switched to the other flank and suddenly emerged into weedy grassland. Further on there were fields and a muddy, branching farm road.
We had only the vaguest idea where we were, but it seemed a good idea to veer left where there were tractor marks in the mud, and almost immediately we found ourselves on bitumen. I kneeled down and kissed it.
This little road took us out to the highway, the same majestic D911 that we had walked under at the entrance to the gorge. Guided by a line of high-voltage power lines, we managed to get back to the GR by taking the turn-off through Ferrieu.
On the way we paused by the side of the road, under a tree, to drink water and recover from our exertions.
Having reconnected with the GR, we strolled along through gently undulating farmland until we came to the village of Inières, whose grand fortified church could be seen from a distance.
Just as we entered the place, we were astonished to meet a walker coming up towards us, a lone woman from Brittany, on her way from Rocamadour to Millau.
From Figeac she had gone to St-Côme-d’Olt on the pilgrimage (GR65) in the reverse direction, and then on the GR620.
By doing this she had kept well away from the Gorges of the Aveyron, our route for the next day, and advised us to do the same. After our struggles in the Gorges of the Viaur we were inclined to listen.
Inières was a tiny, pretty village completely out of scale with its formidable church. Nothing was stirring as we wandered around.
It was the junction of two GRs and there were plenty of red and white marks, but nothing to tell us which referred to the GR620 and which to the GR62, so we took the coward’s way and followed the road uphill for the first two kilometres, until it joined the GR62.
On the way we passed a square of flattened gravel dedicated to Quilles à Huit, a local Aveyron sport which we had not encountered for years, not since Espalion.
We stopped for a rest on a grassy verge beside a farmhouse, and I asked a man leaning on the gate to fill our water bottles, which he did in complete silence.
At the top of the ridge there was a complicated junction of small roads, so we were glad that the GR signs were adequate for once. Shortly afterwards we turned off the road on a cobbled lane, dropped sharply to the river, then walked beside it until the towers of Ste-Radegonde appeared on the high ground opposite.
The GR crossed the river and scrambled up a very steep lane towards the town, passing a huge ravaged expanse full of earth-moving equipment, presumably a new suburb for Rodez. The old village around the church contained a florist and an institute of beauty but, to our disgust, no bar.
We were getting tired, possibly from lack of lunch (it was 2 pm). If we had known that there were no refreshments to be had here, we would have skirted around the base of the village.
As it was we had to take the road down the other side to rejoin the river that we had just left, then climb a long way on a foot track, cross a road, and begin the descent into the valley of the Aveyron.
The distant cathedral of Rodez had been visible for some time across the fields, but it was now swallowed up in the heavy tree cover.
We could hardly believe how far we had to go down to get to the Aveyron. We felt as if we would soon arrive at the centre of the earth. As we plodded along, I said to Keith that when we got to the camping ground, I intended to lie down and die. “I’m looking forward to it”, I declared melodramatically.
After an age we emerged at a car park and found ourselves on a riverside path full of promenading couples, joggers and pram-pushers.
In the river was an island occupied by an elaborate public garden of flowers, lawns and paths, and we had to walk quite a distance before we came to the bridge, a lovely old stone arch which was the original bridge across the Aveyron.
Once over the river, we doubled back along a road and got to the entrance of the camping ground. The office was closed so we staggered to an empty pitch and collapsed. Later Keith went back and paid the grand sum of €8.80 for the night’s accommodation.
Eventually we put up the tent and settled in. We were surrounded by the usual mighty vans, but not intrusively, as there were hedges between the plots. The showers were deliciously warm and generous, all the more welcome because of last night’s privations.
On the map we had seen that the centre of Rodez was very close to the camping ground, and so it was, but when we set off to explore, we realised that there was a stupendous height difference that we had not taken into account.
We never found out how cars got from river level to the top of the town, but the walking path was intimidating. It reared up at first as a cracked slab of concrete with a high stone wall on one side and a tangle of vegetation on the other. When it got too steep it became a staircase and we arrived at a road with great relief.
However, we were only half way – there was another interminable staircase ahead, followed by a stiff pull up a street, before we arrived in the fashionable heart of the place, which was almost flat.
There were several wide squares amongst the lanes and houses, and some impressive public buildings. Needless to say, our interest was in more mundane things such as bars and restaurants.
We stopped for apéritifs at an outdoor bar in a large sloping square, and then retired to another square for dinner at les Jacobins. There were people eating on the vine-covered terrace, but I felt too cold for that so we ate indoors.
After two evenings of semi-starvation and a hard day’s walk, we really appreciated every detail of the occasion – the pleasant room, the murmured conversation of other diners, the shining glassware, the courteous waiter – and that was even before the food arrived.
We began with a dish of crudities to share. When we order a dish to share, it often comes on a single plate, with a second empty plate for the other person, but in this case it had been artistically divided in the kitchen.
It was a light and lovely introduction to the main courses, which were steak and veal, both with an array of vegetables. It was a blissful experience, but our stomachs had shrunk in the past few days and we found that we had to put some of the meat into my ever-ready plastic bag for a later time.
Meanwhile we talked about what to do tomorrow. Our few kilometres of rough going in the Gorges of the Viaur had convinced us that tackling 36 kilometres of similar track in the Gorges of the Aveyron was not such a good idea, especially as there was zero prospect of refreshment (i.e. coffee) along the way. We decided to have a day off, enjoy some comforts and work out an alternative plan.
Consequently, we felt very happy as we made the long descent to the camping ground.