Tuesday, 12 July 2016
Distance 27 km
Duration 6 hours 20 minutes
Ascent 727 m, descent 373 m
Map 149 of the
Topoguide (ref. 650) Sentier vers Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle : Genève – Le Puy
We walked out the gate of the camping ground at 6:30 am and left the highway a few minutes later.
Whereas on the other side of the road, when we arrived, there had been apple orchards stretching for miles, on this side peach trees reigned. We took the liberty of removing a few juicy specimens as we passed.
The little road descended to the outskirts of the village of Clonas-sur-Varèze, coming to a halt at a low cliff-line choked with vegetation, where a staircase led to the street below.
The centre of the village consisted of a church, a school and a small bar, closed at this time of day.
We strolled on and as we approached the Rhône, the ground flattened out. It was covered with a tangle of roads, railway lines and powerlines, but because we were now back on the GR65, we followed the red and white markings with no trouble.
The route was circuitous, as GRs often are, but we finally made it onto a cycle path beside the main road to the bridge. At the entrance to the nuclear power station (daintily referred to as the “Centrale”) we had to dodge a line of cars arriving for the 8 o’clock shift.
The bridge itself was enormously long and we took almost ten minutes to cross it.
This was the mature Rhône, twice the size of the one in Haute-Savoie, now swollen by the waters of large tributaries like the Saône.
It was hard to believe that Julius Caesar had built a temporary bridge over it in ten days, in order to frighten the German tribes.
Behind the bridge the ground rose to blue peaks, on which a roof of clouds rested. Fine misty drizzle hung in the air, but not thickly enough to bother us.
The village on the other bank, Chavanay, clung to a steep wooded slope above a side stream, and the GR took us up to the main street through a pleasant park planted with trees.
At the boulangerie we enquired about bars. There were two, said the baker, one just opposite and the other further up, which had a terrace.
The nearby one looked dark and poky, so we walked on to the imposing Bar de la Halle, which did have a terrace, but nobody was on it because of the slight rain.
We sat in the grand, mirrored interior, in the company of some local workmen, and had breakfast of coffee and croissants, which revived us wonderfully.
Returning down the street, we found the GR again and set off across the stream, which at this point was a small lake held back by a barrage and flanked by a round stone tower.
Then the road climbed suddenly and at the top we took an even steeper dirt path up through a pine forest for about a kilometre.
The GR swerved to the left, but we thought we could get through to join another track straight ahead. There was no way marked on the map, but we found a thread of a path that did exactly as we had hoped, and soon we were on a wheel track that led to the hamlet of Gencenas, high above the Rhône.
As we came out of the forest we started to see vineyards, orchards and fields of sunflowers.
We reconnected with the GR at Bessey, having saved a considerable distance and given ourselves the satisfaction of finding our own way.
But the reunion was brief, no more than a crossing point, before we deviated again.
Our aim this time was not so much to shorten the route as to visit the bigger village of Maclas, which looked big enough to have refreshments.
The entry was not promising, with grey, boarded-up shops and run-down houses along the street, but when we got to the church square everything brightened up.
There was a flourishing hotel, a bar, a supermarket and many other shops, and we had coffee outside the bar, although the air was cool, and getting cooler.
We left the town on a rising road that joined the D503 and reunited us once again with the GR, but we had only gone a few hundred metres along this road when we saw turning signs to the left. Our map did not show this turn, so we ignored it and continued along the road.
At le Viallon we wondered about the roofless wreck of a large factory or mill beside the stream, but there was no information board to satisfy our curiosity.
The road continued on its level course, flanked by steep fields going up to be swallowed by the forest, which in turn was swallowed by a low-hanging blanket of cloud.
At Pourzin the GR reappeared and we joined it for the fourth or fifth time that day.
At first it was a little road that climbed into the woods (and into the cloud), and then it became a rocky path. We put on our rain capes and stumped along as the rain increased.
Ahead of us we saw another walker, which was sufficiently unusual to make us want to catch up and talk to him, but he was at least as fast as we were.
The track climbed and climbed until at the top we came to a wayside cross with a comfortable looking, but deserted gîte standing alone behind it.
A switchback gravel road descended into the next valley, and the GR followed it. However, on our map we had seen a little path going directly down, cutting off the switchback, and we took it with more hope than confidence.
It proved to be a perfect walkers’ short cut, very steep but manageable, and we saved about a kilometre of more gentle descent. In doing so we got ahead of the other walker, and never saw him again.
The odd thing about this short cut was the line of little teetering pagodas of rock that somebody had carefully constructed all the way down. I brushed one by mistake and it disintegrated in a shower of stones.
After this shortcut, we stuck to the GR religiously until we got to St-Julien-Molin-Molette.
The path, later a road, descended gracefully under a canopy of oak and beech, above a cleared valley where cattle grazed.
Closer to the village there were vegetable gardens, with the obligatory patch of flowers – food for both body and soul.
The village was in a steep, narrow cleft, with a street on either side of the rushing stream. The first few shops we saw were derelict and we began to worry about dinner.
Crossing over to the other side, we were relieved to find a bar (closed but not dead) and a promising looking restaurant (les Pies Railleuses) with a tree-shaded garden in front.
We went in and booked a table for the evening, and madame offered us a drink, so we had glasses of beer to celebrate our arrival.
The restaurant was a beautifully restored old house with dark rafters and exposed stone walls adorned with amateur paintings and hand-made knick knacks.
Eventually the rain stopped and we walked the last half kilometre up to the camping ground, which was at the very top of the village, where the two streets met at a bridge.
It was an odd looking place. The approach to the reception building was lined with a jumble of dangling T-shirts, extravagantly painted bicycles, murals, cartwheels, mirrors, flags and general junk.
Every stone beside the path was painted a different colour, and there was a tumble-down outdoor eatery, also decorated with miscellaneous dangling things.
This was the third example of a culture of do-it-yourself arts and crafts in the area, the others being the restaurant and the short cut of the pagodas. We later found out that the village was a centre for artists.
The grassy allotments were interspersed with flower beds enclosed by multi-coloured rocks. It began to rain lightly again, so we put up our tent more promptly than usual.
Nearby was another small tent, from which emerged the moustachioed head of Walter. His unmistakable steed was parked close by, against a flower garden.
We shook hands and he said that it had been raining all day here, which was why he had not moved on.
We had showers, which were warm enough, but the process of having them made us so cold that we had to retire to our sleeping bags fully dressed until we warmed up a bit.
The French revolution on my podcast had now entered the Reign of Terror – another chilling thing to contend with.
Late in the day we descended the canyon-like street to the older part of town.
We found out that the odd name of the village was a corrupted form of its Roman name, Molendino Moletano, signifying mill and grindstone.
A thousand years later, the prefix St-Julien was attached to this already convoluted title, in honour of a passing saint. We wondered whether he had travelled the whole Way of Geneva, as this was the second St-Julien that we had encountered so far, and there was another one to come.
In Roman times the village was famous for its lead mines (the mill of its name being used to grind the ore), and in later centuries for its silk industry, but nothing remains of either of these.
We noticed that the bar opposite the restaurant was now open, although a sign said that it would be closed tomorrow.
Just then the two wordless walkers from Charavines came plodding up the street, still with their packs and boots on.
This was surprising, because they had left Clonas the day before we did – they must have spent the night at Maclas or some other village, and set off very late this morning. We pointed to the restaurant with encouraging nods, and they went straight in.
Meanwhile we stepped into the bar and had rosé, our apéritif of choice these days. There were plenty of other drinkers there and they were all spectacularly ugly, the women as well as the men. It was a sort of ugliness competition. However they seemed a good-natured bunch.
Crossing the road, we joined the company in the restaurant, which included two elegantly dressed French couples, the other walkers and us. Then a man came in – perhaps the walker we had pursued up the track earlier in the day – and sat near the others, whereupon they began speaking German.
The menu here was unusual. All meals consisted of a single large plate of salad, with the addition of either prawns, omelette, steak, pork, chicken or ham.
We both chose steak as the most nourishing of the alternatives, and our plates were veritable works of art.
There were cups of cold carrot soup and cucumber soup, a pot of shallot-and-red-wine butter for the steak, a small bowl of ratatouille, plump home-made chips and a pile of greenery. Rounded out by a basket of bread and a carafe of wine, it was a fine end to the day.