Day 4: Fabrezan to Lagrasse

Walking in France: The great downpour
The great downpour

Friday, 12 June 2015
Distance 12 km
Duration 2 hours 35 minutes
Ascent 127 m, descent 77 m
Map 174 of the TOP 100 lime-green series

We woke to a whisper of rain but it faded away before we got up. Taking advantage of our luxurious situation, we had another round of showers, by which time we could hear distant rumbling – either trucks or thunder, we thought. Unfortunately it was the latter, and soon torrents of rain lashed the glass doors.

When it passed we made a quick escape. Our immediate destination was the bar, where we intended to have breakfast, and on the way we got a croissant and a Jésuite at a boulangerie. We made it to the bar just in time for the second downpour.

Walking in France: Coffees with a croissant and a Jésuite for breakfast
Breakfast in the bar

The smokers sitting outside were soon forced indoors, as cascades of water blew under the awning and splashed on the tables.

Indoors it was like a siege, but without the fear. We all laughed companionably as the street turned into a raging river and a solid curtain of water dropped from the awning. We stayed there for two hours. After despatching the pastries and two rounds of coffee, we looked at the local paper.

Walking in France: Terrible news from Corsica
Terrible news from Corsica

The two things that caught our interest were the weather forecast (storms for the rest of the day) and the headlines about a party of walkers who had been swept away to their deaths after storms in Corsica.

A portly Englishman who had taken refuge in the bar told us that he had been turned back from the nearby autoroute because it was closed due to flooding.

Our plan had been to walk through the hills on unmarked paths as far as Ribaute, and then join the GR36 for the rest of the way into Lagrasse, but we now preferred plan B – to stay in Fabrezan for another night and then go straight to Montlaur next day, bypassing Lagrasse altogether.

Walking in France: Putting plan C into action
Putting plan C into action

Having decided this, we noticed that the rain had eased somewhat, so we came up with plan C – to take the road directly to Ribaute, which was only about 8 km, then the GR after that.

Swathed in our flimsy plastic rain capes, we hurried off through the lanes, past the hotel and out into the countryside.

Walking in France: In the valley of the Orbieu with a maladjusted rain cape
In the valley of the Orbieu, with maladjusted rain cape
Walking in France: Rain finished?
Rain finished?

The flat valley of the Orbieu was carpeted wall to wall in vines, luridly green in the dim light, and the hills on either side were half hidden in cloud.

A few cars sluiced past, sending up plumes of spray, but after a while the rain stopped and we took off our capes with relief. The humidity within was starting to cook us.

Walking in France: Coffee in Ribaute
Coffee in Ribaute

It took about an hour and a half to get to Ribaute. The village was small but it had a bar/restaurant on the main road, with a leafy terrace beside it, not looking its best at the moment.

Inside they were setting up for lunch in the front room, so we sat at the back with our coffee, which was pleasant but not as direly needed as usual.

The GR36 passed conveniently up a staircase right beside the bar, and we quickly found ourselves high above the village in a light mist. There was thunder but no more rain.

Walking in France: Climbing out of Ribaute on the GR36
Above Ribaute on the GR36

We zig-zagged up to an airy saddle and came down the other side in the same way, joining the main road at the long curving entry into Lagrasse.

From above Lagrasse looked suitably mediaeval (it was a Plus Beau Village), with its bunched houses on one bank of the river and the great sprawling abbey on the other.

Walking in France: Lagrasse

Swinging into the main street, we were impressed with the handsome trees arching over the road, and the many café tables set out in their shade. It promised to be our sort of town.

The accommodation was a bit problematical, as the camping ground was a kilometre back up the steep entry road.

Walking in France: Muesli for lunch with Bert
Muesli for lunch with Bert

On the map we could see a good short cut to it – under the bridge and up a wheel track – but the sky looked threatening, and so far this year all the camping grounds had been wastelands. It seemed a good moment for another hotel.

We burrowed into the mass of lanes and eventually found the Office of Tourism, where we were told that there was only one hotel (l’Hostellerie des Corbières, in the main street) and we were soon installed there feeling very pleased, particularly when it began to rain.

We indulged in long showers, then sat on the bed for a sort of lunch of muesli and dried fruit. The room was slightly cramped and dark, but to us it was palatial and there was the added advantage of an electric jug with a supply of tea and coffee. We reclined on our pillows with cups of tea and then slept.

At about 5 pm we stepped out to explore the town, with the help of a brochure from the Office of Tourism. The sky had lightened and a few tourists were promenading about.

Walking in France: Exploring Lagrasse
Exploring Lagrasse
Walking in France: Abbey of Ste Marie d'Orbieu, Lagrasse
Abbey of Ste Marie d’Orbieu, Lagrasse

We crossed the river and turned towards the abbey, past a fine old twelfth century hump-backed bridge, which was positively new compared to the abbey itself.

That was founded by the Benedictines in 799 under the charter of Charlemagne, in what must have been an idyllic spot, a rich little valley on a loop of the river, protected by hills.

Walking in France: Gardens beside the Orbieu
Gardens beside the Orbieu

Not much remains of the original buildings, and the abbey is now a mish-mash of centuries and styles. For example, the defensive walls were built in the Hundred Years’ War and the present tower dates from the sixteenth century.

We pressed on beside the sandy bed of the Orbieu, where there were gardens of vegetables and flowers, then crossed on a low footbridge and entered the village proper through one of the last remaining portals.

Walking in France: Re-entering the village proper
Re-entering the village

The tightly knit web of lanes was full of craft studios, gourmet food shops, wine merchants and the like, and in one square there was a lovely old church.

Walking in France: Church tower, Lagrasse
Church tower

The thing that was not so plentiful was restaurants. The few that we saw were outrageously expensive by our standards (fine dining is wasted on us in our humble walking clothes, ravenous after a tiring day).

However, we had hopes of a good meal on the main street, which was less dainty in tone. But when we looked more carefully, we found that nearly all the eateries that had looked so promising earlier were no more than bars, and the rest were lowly take-away pizza or kebab shops. It was surprising and disheartening.

Our last hope was the restaurant at the hotel. It was also ridiculously expensive but there was a vegetarian platter for €17 which we decided to try. The dining room had a hushed air, with a few tables occupied by couples who had evidently taken a vow of silence.

Walking in France: Tiny entrées at l’Hostellerie des Corbières, Lagrasse
Tiny entrées at l’Hostellerie des Corbières

The best part was the view from the window onto a wide grassy field, which the waitress said had been a vineyard until recently, until the old vigneron had died.

Naturally there was no house wine so we ordered a half bottle of red.

As an entrée we asked for a green salad, although it was not on the menu, and got a little mound of rocket. The bread basket contained four tiny rolls and was not refilled.

Walking in France: Even smaller mains than last night!
Even tinier mains than last night!

The vegetarian platters were dismayingly small – a few slices of eggplant scattered with rocket.

Considering that we had only eaten a pastry and a bowl of muesli all day, it did not really do the trick, and we rose from the table almost as hungry as when we sat down. Nevertheless it was one of the most expensive meals of the whole walk (€55).

Back in the room we had a cup of tea and hoped for better things tomorrow.

Previous day: Bizanet to Fabrezan

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