Day 18: Tonnerre to Chablis

Saturday, 27 June 2015
Distance 20 km
Duration 4 hours 40 minutes
Ascent 306 m, descent 296 m
Map 128 of the TOP 100 lime-green series

Walking in France: Waiting for breakfast near the Hôtel Dieu, Tonnerre
Waiting for breakfast near the Hôtel Dieu

We were off to Chablis without a map! Our sudden change of plan over dinner last night meant that today we were on our own, cartographically speaking.

We knew that there was a GR from Tonnerre to Chablis, part of the pilgrim way of Vézelay (the GR654), but judging by many of the GRs that we had followed in the past, the waymarking was likely to be erratic. However, we felt that if we kept going west, we would be bound to arrive somewhere near Chablis, and we were looking forward to the adventure.

We did not get going as early as we expected and it was 7 am by the time we reached the middle of town. By then there were three bars operating, in contrast with the previous evening when there were none.

We chose one opposite the square near the Hôtel Dieu and sat down at a table on the footpath in the fresh morning sunshine. Summer had arrived at last and we no longer needed to be indoors.

Walking in France: Breakfast

My arm was still painful and heavily bandaged, and I worried about whether it would develop into full-blown shingles.

To build up our strength for the unknown way ahead, we had bought three croissants and a pain aux raisins at a boulangerie, and we ordered a double dose of coffee to wash them down.

Entertainment was provided by a man walking his dog over the pedestrian crossing next to us, when the dog suddenly squatted and defecated in the middle of the road.

The poor man had to block the traffic briefly and scoop up the offending deposit into a plastic bag in front of everyone’s grinning gaze.

Walking in France: Following le Chemin de César near Tonnerre
Following le Chemin de César
Walking in France: Not as straight as when the Romans built it
Not as straight as when the Romans built it

When we were well padded with pastries and awash with coffee, we shouldered our packs and set off up the street. We were still on our own maps for the first two or three kilometres, and we quickly picked up the GR marks in a side street and started to climb.

Beyond the houses and past a graveyard, we scrambled up through a steep patch of forest on a rather overgrown track and emerged suddenly into a spacious tableland, planted with wheat.

The little white road that crossed it was called le Chemin de César and had presumably been rigorously straight in Roman times, but over the last two thousand years it had developed a few wiggles that would have disgusted the original surveyors.

Off the Roman road
Walking in France: What are you lookin' at?
What are you lookin’ at?

After traversing a wood, we came to the parting of the ways with the Roman road, and with our previous intentions. Throwing ourselves on the mercy of St Roche (patron saint of pilgrims) and the GR signage – not necessarily in that order – we strode off into the unknown.

The first half-hour was a straightforward ramble on a wheel track amongst fields of wheat in various stages of maturity, some fields square and others in abstract swirls around the undulations of the land.

Then we came to a bushy valley with a few sheds and a high fence beside the track. As we approached, a family of bristly black pigs rushed away into the undergrowth, then another. It was some sort of free-range boar farm.

Walking in France: Arriving at Tissey
Arriving at Tissey

Further down the valley we saw a village ahead and as we got nearer the silence was shattered by the whistling roar of a train. We realised that we were about to cross the main TGV line from Paris to Lyon.

There was an underpass, luckily, and we walked into the village, which was called Tissey.

In the few minutes that it took us to traverse this tiny place and start climbing the slope above, five or six trains thundered past. It was like being under the flight path of an airport – tough luck for the villagers.

Walking in France: Hope they are on different tracks!
Hope they are on different tracks!

The GR signs were looking after us well so far (as was St Roche no doubt), and keeping us off the bitumen.

Continuing over a forested rise and through more wheat, we got to another village, which we discovered was called Collan.

Walking in France: Following the GR654 through a wheatfield
Following the GR654 through a wheatfield

As the GR came up through this charming village we saw two signposts, Tonnerre to the right and Chablis to the left, a welcome reassurance that we were on the right track.

Beyond that there were further miles of wheat, and more grassy tracks, but after half an hour we saw something new in the distance – the intense green of vines. Soon we were surrounded by them.

The ground that they grew in was composed of the same coarse white stones as the road, but evidently it had what the vines needed, because they were bursting with health, although probably very old, by the look of their gnarled trunks (we felt that we had something in common with them).

Walking in France: Chablis vines
Chablis vines

The only land that was not cloaked in vines was on the hilltops, where forest still grew.

We began descending towards Chablis, visible far below at the base of a vine-clad bowl, with its low brown-roofed houses pressing tightly around the flying buttresses of the church.

The GR marks directed us down a wide concrete chute or drain, and at the bottom we crossed a street and pressed on through a vineyard towards the main road.

Walking in France: Going down the drain to Chablis
Going down the drain to Chablis

It felt like the wrong direction, as the town was now to our right, and when we got to the D965, the GR crossed it and set off in an even sillier direction.

At this point we lost our faith. We had suffered in the past by following GRs that made absurd detours to avoid town centres.

So we trudged back beside the highway, almost to the street that we had first encountered, scrambled over a deep ditch and then kept going until we saw a sign pointing to the centre.

Walking in France: Coffees of arrival in Chablis
Coffees of arrival in Chablis

After crossing two branches of the river, one of them no more than a canal, we arrived in the central square.

We had been to Chablis many years before (in 2006) and it looked much the same, that is to say very touristy. This is no bad thing in our estimation, because it brings with it comforts such as bars and restaurants.

Having got a town map at the Office of Tourism, we went the nearest bar (the Chablis Bar) and celebrated our arrival with a round of coffee. Looking at the map, we realised that we had walked in a big arc after leaving the GR and it would have been much shorter if we had obeyed the signs. But this had been our only mistake on the mapless traverse from Tonnerre, and overall it had been fun.

Walking in France: Relaxing at the camping ground, Chablis
Relaxing at the camping ground

It was after midday and the bar was full of diners as we lingered over our well-deserved coffee.

From there it was only a few hundred metres to the camping ground, and as the office was closed, we settled down in a grassy spot under the trees.

Later Keith went to pay (€9.20) and was given a glass of Chablis for his trouble – they are very proud of their wine in this town.

During the afternoon, cars, campervans, caravans and bikes poured in. There were some American cyclists in the enclosure next to us and we compared notes about our tents, our sleeping mats, our itineraries and so on. We also chatted with Dutch and Scottish neighbours, who were in caravans.

Walking in France: Apéritifs

Later a car arrived, driven by a very chatty German dentist. He said that he was on his way to Chartres, but since all the hotels in Chablis were booked out, he would sleep in his car. Actually he was not fond of France – he much preferred Italy, he said, and was learning the language. So we swapped to Italian and conversed laboriously, but with great enjoyment, for a while.

As we passed the office on our way back to town for dinner, our hosts said that we could walk through the parkland beside the river, over a couple of footbridges, and get there more easily, and so it proved to be.

Walking in France: In the Syracuse restaurant, Chablis
At the Syracuse

Once back in town, we looked around for a restaurant and decided on the one that we had been to ten years ago, the Syracuse. The menu was good and its leafy courtyard looked very inviting.

Having booked a table for 8 pm, we wandered off in search of a bar. The one opposite the Syracuse had a terrace with a line of plane trees, but all the shady tables were taken so we retreated to the Chablis Bar, which had a big awning.

For apéritifs, we had a glass of Chablis (for me) and a pastis (for Keith) – he had already had his glass of Chablis at the camping ground. My arm was still bandaged but it seemed to be getting better, to my great relief.

It was just as well that we had booked at the restaurant, as several couples who came in later were turned away.

Walking in France: Entrées

The menu was €22 and I began with a repeat of the delicious oeufs en meurette that I had first had at Venarey – after all, we were still in Burgundy and it was a speciality of the region. Keith had gazpacho, one of his favourite entrées.

Making an exception to our habitual allegiance to red wine, we had a half-litre of Chablis in a carafe – the lowest you could go, but still a treat.

Walking in France: Mains
Main courses

For the main course, Keith remained loyal to steak, whereas I had a fillet of excellent fish with a lemon sauce.

Finally, Keith had a tiramasu in a glass cup, and I ordered cheese, not to eat but to smuggle out between rounds of bread for another day.

Walking in France: And a tiramasu for dessert
Tiramasu for dessert

On the way back to our tent, we tried to work out where the GR was going, as we would not get back onto our detailed maps until halfway through tomorrow’s walk to Auxerre.

Something had obviously changed since 2006. We followed the red and white marks through the streets until they veered off at right angles, and we were not sure where they were going. In the end we decided to just march out on the highway to the west and see what we came to.

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