Sunday, 21 June 2015
Distance 31 km
Duration 7 hours 15 minutes
Ascent 67 m, descent 62 m
Map 136 of the TOP 100 lime-green series
Instead of bread and rillettes as marching food, we had the remains of the pizzas from last night. Cold and limp, they were not nearly as appetising as they had been, but we munched away dutifully for a while and then threw the rest into a hedge.
We had hoped to be able to walk along the old railway line but it was still being used by a tourist train, so we decided to go on the main road (the D33) for the first kilometre, then turn off at Oucherotte onto smaller tracks.
From the camping ground we took a pretty lane behind the school to reach the highway and we had only gone a little way when it began to rain.
With some difficulty we struggled into our capes, juggling the pizzas and our hats, and set off again. The road was quiet, as it was Sunday morning, and we made good speed. However we thought it best to stay on the main road in such wet weather.
A bit later on the rain stopped, so we took off our capes and our warm tops and carried them over our arms. After about four kilometres of this I realised that I did not have my hat, the beloved yellow hat that had been my companion for years of walking.
It seemed likely that I had dropped it while taking off my cape, so we hid our packs behind some bushes and walked back along the road for a kilometre or two, but saw nothing, so I resigned myself to the loss and we trudged back to our packs. However, I felt so bad that I started to sob a little bit, which gave Keith a fright, and we ended up trying to hitch-hike back to the village.
Many vehicles went past and we were on the point of giving up when a little blue car stopped. The woman said she was on her way to mass in Bligny.
She drove very slowly so that we could search the verge for a flash of yellow, then she let us out at Bligny, saying that she would be driving back after the service and would look out for us.
Hastening back to the school, where we had first put on our capes, I was overjoyed to see my dear hat lying crumpled and wet on the grass.
After this miracle, we did not mind having to retrace our steps along the highway, although we did make some slight attempt to hitch a lift.
Just as we reached the top of the rise the little blue car of our Christian benefactor tooted and stopped beside us. We showed her the hat and thanked her again, assuring her that we no longer needed a lift, and that she was a great ambassador for her religion.
We soon came to the hamlet of Thorey and it was all downhill from there to the Pont d’Ouche, where we met the Canal of Burgundy for the first time.
Under the massive overpass of the autoroute, we saw the welcome lights of a bar and hurried in for coffee. We had taken almost four hours to cover the six kilometres from Bligny to here.
Much revived and still euphoric over the rescue of the hat, we walked the few steps to the port and found another bar, with a pleasant terrace right beside the canal, so we stopped for a second round of refreshments, even though we still had a long way to go.
It was all very agreeable and we felt a sense of homecoming when we crossed the bridge and started off along the towpath.
The surrounding land was much hillier than on the Canal du Midi and it must have been difficult for its builders to find a route (although it was over a century later, so they had probably learned a thing or two). Pont d’Ouche was at the southernmost point of a sharp turn around a high forested bluff, and as the land continued to rise, there were frequent locks.
At Crugey we had intended to branch off up the road to the hill fortress of Châteauneuf, which was a Plus Beau Village, but we decided to stay on the canal, as we had already walked a lot further than we meant to, with the drama of the hat.
We felt that we could admire Châteauneuf quite well from below.
An hour or so later, we were striding along peacefully when Keith got a sudden excruciating pain in his leg and had to stop.
We were beside a lock, so he struggled over and sat on a bollard, then tried stretching and massaging the offending muscle, but nothing seemed to work.
We were nine kilometres from Pouilly-en-Auxois, our destination, but luckily only about one from the boat harbour of Vandenesse, where we hoped there would be some form of help.
As Keith hobbled at snail’s pace towards the village, my mind was whirling with possible ways out of our dilemma.
There seemed no hope of our walking as far as Pouilly, but we could perhaps get there by bus or taxi, and either have a day’s rest or, at worst, make our way back to Paris and go home.
If there was no transport from Vandenesse (quite likely on a Sunday afternoon), we could try to walk to the camping ground at the Lac de Panthier, which was only four kilometres away.
At the bridge of Vandenesse there was a closed café on the left, but we crossed over and found another one – the English Tea Room – where people were sitting at tables in the gravel forecourt, under hot pink umbrellas in front of a facade painted a violent mauve, clashing cheerfully with a blood red climbing rose. We sank down with relief and ordered coffee.
The cyclists at the next table were eating hot chips and sprinkling them liberally with salt, which gave us an idea – if Keith was suffering from cramp, salt was what he needed.
I went over and borrowed the salt shaker, then Keith poured a pile into his hand and licked it up with a grimace (he hates salt). By the time we had finished our coffee the treatment was having its effect and he could walk. The muscle was still sore but not agonising.
We set off slowly and gingerly along the canal, which was rising even more than before, so that there was now only a few hundred metres between one lock and the next. It must have been hard work for the bargemen, with the next lock already in sight as they negotiated each one.
Lock-keepers’ cottages often have beautifully tended gardens and are sometimes decorated with whimsical things such as gnomes, sculptures or murals. We passed a wonderful example of this art, a frieze of old iron tools of every sort.
Before long the canal was enveloped in a deep channel and then swallowed into the shrubby hillside.
We had arrived at the watershed between the rivers Ouche and Armançon, which was in effect the divide between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean. Crossing this divide was the whole aim of the canal and it culminated in the cutting of this tunnel through the final ridge separating the two sides.
The canal stayed in the tunnel for three kilometres, leaving us to walk over the top, following a line of aeration towers. It was a straight, gently rising path edged with magnificent trees, a bit like a canal, but without the water.
At the end we joined a road and had a brief flirtation with a spaghetti junction of highways before getting back on the tree-lined path.
This descended fast and before long we were in the main street of Pouilly. Keith’s leg was going well, although it was painful to touch.
Just before the church we came to the main square with two hotel-restaurants and other shops. It was already 5 pm, so we only stopped long enough to book a table at the Hotel du Commerce, then kept going around the corner towards the camping ground.
It was almost a kilometre from there, past some market gardens, to the entrance of the camping ground, which stretched along between the canal and a field of wheat (there were no vines in these parts).
We had a pleasant chat with the people at the reception, who plainly thought us mad, and then chose a grassy plot for our tent, looking over a hedge onto the wheat field.
The ablutions block was hard to find until someone pointed us towards a tall, windowless bunker that we had mistaken for a machinery shed. Inside it was bright and modern and the showers were excellent.
We did not have much time to rest before setting off to the bright lights of town. The first thing we came to on our way back was the exit of the canal tunnel, this end lined with mown lawns and well-behaved trees, in contrast with the rough vegetation at the other end.
According to a sign, the tunnel had been built too narrow to allow barges to pass each other, so there were major delays as convoys passed through in one direction at a time.
This greatly reduced the usefulness of the Burgundy canal, and in any case it was not long before railways arrived and rendered the whole canal system obsolete.
As we approached the town we heard, for the first time this year, the frenzied pealing of church bells which often happens at 7 o’clock – what we call “crazy bells”.
At the Hotel du Commerce, the small back terrace was full of people, probably overnight guests, having drinks before dinner.
We found a spare table and ordered apéritifs – pastis for Keith and rosé for me. The rosé was as pale as the first hint of dawn, in the style favoured in Burgundy.
When it was time to eat we walked through the bar to the restaurant, a fine old dining room with original dark beams on the ceiling and a fire burning in the corner grate. This was for cooking the meat, not for heating, although the evening was cool enough for us to enjoy its warmth.
Our table was in a pleasant corner beside a window, looking onto the street. There was a glassed-in terrace at the front, where some hardy people were eating, but we preferred the comforts of the room.
The four-course menu was €20 and we started with salads as usual. One contained shrimps and avocado, the other fetta and olive tapenade, and they were beautiful, both in looks and in taste.
Following that, with our bread basket refilled, we pressed on to steak with green peppercorn sauce (for Keith) and roast duckling (for me).
A plate of cheese was soon dispatched, and then we had a cherry sabayon and a rhubarb crumble with lemon ice-cream.
Whilst eating we enjoyed the murmur of conversation around us, the coming and going of the waitresses, the sparkling cutlery, crockery and glassware – all a big contrast with last night’s windswept pizza from a box.
As we were leaving the restaurant at about 9:30, we saw something that we had never seen before in France. Some diners arrived and were told, politely but firmly, that they were too late. We had always been impressed with how people could walk in at any hour and be served, but evidently times were changing.
The walk back to the tent confirmed that Keith’s leg was much improved. The test would come in the morning, but we did not need to worry about that tonight.