Monday, 30 June 2014
Distance 26 km
Duration 5 hours 50 minutes
Ascent 563 m, descent 319 m
Map 154 of the TOP 100 lime-green series
In the morning the rainstorms had gone, leaving a pale, washed sky – we had timed our night in the hotel perfectly.
Breakfast took place in the dining room where we had eaten our evening meal, at the same table in fact, and once again we were the only people there.
Through the large window we looked out on the strangely tropical scene of palms and banana trees. How they got through the French winter was a mystery.
Our hostess brought croissants, bread, butter, jam and a copious supply of coffee, all of which we devoured. We could feel it bolstering our reserves for later in the day.
As we took our leave, madame told us that we were magnificent and asked how old we were. I did not want to alarm her with the information that we were over 70, so I answered with a vague wave that we were probably about the same age as her parents.
It was only a few steps from the hotel entrance to the bridge over the Vézère. On the other side we kept going straight ahead, across the busy D1089 and later over the railway line.
Soon after that we came to the small road that we had trudged along in blinding heat in 2009, so it was a point of intersection and required us to stop for a ritual kiss.
Beyond that the flat riverside fields ended and we climbed steeply through a wood until we came to a communications tower. At its base there was a man asleep in a yellow postal van, seemingly in no hurry to go back for the next load of deliveries.
We continued on our peaceful way, undisturbed by anything as vulgar as a car, and after a time we passed through the dozen houses of Gumond, where a large woolly black dog rushed up and tried to lick us. “He thinks everyone is his friend”, said his owner regretfully. She had probably got him as a guard dog.
Having crossed over the howling torrent of the autoroute, our little road rose steadily through undulating land covered with vegetable farms and orchards.
We had worked out an ingenious short cut to the village of Yssandon, but when we got to where it turned off, we realised that we had forgotten about the contours – it plunged far down to a stream and up the other side, so we stayed on the ridge, where the road went.
At les Pirondeaux there was a fork in the road and we turned left, still on the ridge, threaded our way through a wood and soon came to Yssandon.
It was at the base of a huge steep-sided hill that we had seen from a long way off, the Puy d’Yssandon. We were not surprised to learn that it had a ruined tower on top.
The houses were of fine old stone, and each stood apart from its neighbours, which gave the village a rather scrappy look.
Beyond the Mairie and the community hall, both covered in putty-coloured plaster, was a little shop which doubled as a bar, but as it was Monday it was all locked up.
This was not the disaster that it could have been because we were still going strongly, thanks to the hotel breakfast. Also the weather was cool and fine.
Leaving the village, we climbed around the forested flank of the Puy and joined a slightly bigger road, the D3, going north through rich farmland. I admired a magnificent vegetable patch right beside the road,
We could see the church and clustered houses of Perpezac-le-Blanc on the next ridge, but they were not as near as they looked – there was a deep valley between us. (We later found out that the suffix Blanc was to distinguish it from Perpezac-le-Noir, about 20 km away to the north-east).
It was only a kilometre or two before we turned off on a thread of a road that coiled down into the valley.
Towards the bottom we came to the biggest array of solar panels that we had ever seen. They covered the roof of an enormous barn which had evidently been built especially for this purpose, although the farmer had hay and machinery stored in it.
Once over the stream, the long twisting ascent to Perpezac began, past fields that were so steep, we wondered how the livestock could remain upright in some of them.
When we finally made it to the ridge, and into the streets of the village we were delighted to see, just opposite the church, an awning with the words “Cafe Tabac”.
The door beneath was open and we were soon comfortably settled inside, next to a massive stone fireplace and surrounded by old-fashioned knick-knacks.
Two old matrons sitting behind the bar interrupted their conversation just long enough to produce a couple of coffees for us, and were puzzled when I expressed surprise that they were open on a Monday – evidently the annoying French habit of closing on Mondays had not penetrated to these parts.
It was midday when we emerged, much restored, and set off through the village, but although it was pretty, we did not stay to admire it, as there was still a long way to go.
The road went up for a short way until we met the D2, at which point we turned off along a newly mown green path under ancient, hoary oaks, shady and surprisingly level.
Crossing another small road, we plunged into a wood, but not before catching sight of our destination, the village of St-Robert on the ridge ahead. We were in a pleated landscape of ridges and valleys, all draining into the Vézère.
In the steeply descending mass of trees we followed a rough wheel track marked with red paint, expecting to come to a triple fork as our map showed, but this never happened.
Instead we went on and on through the forest and finally came out into a walnut plantation. We went down sharply to a bitumen road and saw a village high above us.
By this time I was lost, but Keith worked out that we had got ourselves onto the D95, below the village of Ayen-Bas. A road sign confirmed this at the next turn-off.
Our mistake was not such a bad thing, as all we had to do was walk along until we rejoined our intended route.
One car and one tractor came past us in the fifteen minutes we spent on this road.
The last part of the day’s walk was on a narrow bitumen road climbing relentlessly to the village of St-Robert.
We staggered up through an archway and arrived in a lather on the main square, a big, rather desolate space occupied by a few cars and flanked by a cafê, an êpicerie, some houses, the Mairie and the huge, heavily buttressed church.
The cafê was milling with kids on bikes but for once our interest was elsewhere – we were looking for the hotel, the one thing not present on the square.
We sat on a bench under a line of plane trees until we got our breath back, then set off along the street, seeing nothing except houses until we got near the end.
Here there was a restaurant, la Table d’Aline, so we went in and asked for directions. The young woman (presumably Aline) told us it was further down and first on the right.
This information only increased our puzzlement. We wandered on and came to a big intersection, where a passing driver took pity on us and stopped to help. This time we were directed down the main road (the D5), which ran below the square.
The hotel was 50 metres away, said the helpful woman. Off we went and had walked about three times that far with increasing qualms, when we suddenly arrived.
It was the last building in the village and looked just like all the other houses, except for a tiny sign saying Hotel Restaurant, and a small menu board.
It was a great relief. We went down some steps into a flowery courtyard set with tables, beyond which was a dizzying view of the valley. At one side was a pool, and on the other the building.
We went inside and rang the bell several times without result, until eventually a whiskery old man appeared and exclaimed “Les marcheurs!”
He led us out into the street and to the house next door, which turned out to be also part of the hotel. Our room was a revelation – we had never had such luxury in all our travels.
The floor was of dark old boards gleaming with wax, and there was an antique carved sofa, a walnut dresser, mirrors in graceful frames, soft side lighting and a bathroom screened off by white drapes, with snowy bathrobes hanging beside a tray of tea-making facilities.
The bed was the only plain thing in the room. From the window we could see the whole wide valley and the hills behind, including the little road up which we had so recently toiled.
We discovered that the bath was actually a spa bath, so we had a lot of fun wallowing in it. Having washed off the sweat of the day, we slipped into the white bath robes, spread out one of the towels on the bed and had a lunch of deplorable frugality, considering our surroundings.
After a good sleep, we exchanged our bathrobes for normal clothes and went out to explore. It turned out that there was a steep lane going straight up from the hotel to the main square, a much shorter journey than the one we had made to get there.
St-Robert justified its listing as a Plus Beau Village by its wonderful church, with its curved apses and grand octagonal steeple, and by the many charming, crooked stone cottages around it.
The original priory was a refuge for pilgrims on the Way of Vézelay (those taking the alternative route from Limoges to Perigueux) and there is still a chimney on the church which sent out a column of smoke to guide pilgrims towards the refuge.
Back in the hotel, we made ourselves a cup of tea and reclined on our pillows to watch some football players running around on TV, then at 7:30 we stepped next door to the terrace and ordered apéritifs.
There was no-one else there at first, so we took the comfortable chairs at the end, where there was nothing but a glass wall between us and thin air. Before long other couples arrived and filled the tables, so we joined them.
It was a cool evening but everyone ate outside. We wore our warm tops and I had socks on under my sandals.
Our first course, as usual, was salad – this one was a fresh and plentiful Salade Végétarienne, with hard-boiled eggs, asparagus and other good things.
Having refilled the bread basket, our host brought the main dishes, a confit de canard (duck) for me, and the inevitable steak for Keith, both plates adorned with sautéed potatoes and other vegetables.
The buzz of conversation around us, the ethereal view, the wine, the wisteria overhead, the pots of flowers, all added up to a deeply satisfying end to the day.