Wednesday, 22 June 2016 to Monday, 27 June 2016
When we woke up, the offending leg still looked ready to burst and it was a relief to remember that we were not going to walk any more.
As if in confirmation, the perpetual cloud of the past week had given way to a clear blue sky, which greatly improved our mood.
We had found out from the camping manager that there was a bus to Digoin at 8:03 am, but we nearly missed it by waiting at the station instead of outside the Mairie.
A workman nearby told us of our mistake, by which time it required an undignified sprint down the street to get to the bus stop. We arrived, panting heavily, moments ahead of the bus.
Sinking into our seats with a delicious sense of relief, we enjoyed the novelty of speeding through the countryside with no effort. The road followed the canal and after half an hour we swept into the streets of Digoin, where we were deposited at the station.
Walking back towards the church in search of breakfast, Keith was really struggling with his swollen leg and I was not much better because of my blisters.
As expected, there were lively cafés all around the church square and we had two rounds of coffee and two pastries each, thanking our lucky stars that we had escaped from miserable Diou.
We hobbled on and came to the banks of the Loire, where two things caught our interest – first a large, busy brasserie on the corner (Chez Lily), and then the entrance to the camping ground.
As we were still full of pastry, we continued to the camping ground, which was mercifully very different from the one at Diou. For one thing, the sun was now shining cheerfully, but also it was not flooded and was full of other campers.
Our hostess suggested a site along the levee bank at the back, shaded by plane trees, and lent us a table and two chairs for the duration.
We stayed in this little paradise for two days, venturing out to Chez Lily for all our meals, but otherwise just sleeping and reading. The couple of hundred metres from the camping ground to the brasserie was as much as we could manage.
Our plan, vague as it was, was to spend the next four weeks travelling about on public transport, visiting places that we had missed on our various walks.
By the third day (Friday) we were recovering some of our vigour and we decided that it was time for new sights, starting with Paray-le-Monial.
We limped back to the station and on the way we went in to a pharmacy to buy some anti-inflammatories for Keith’s leg. The two crisply white-clad attendants were aghast at the sight and wondered whether he had broken his ankle. They reluctantly sold him some pills but made him promise that he would go to a doctor as soon as possible.
At the station we waited for the railway bus to Paray-le-Monial, but before the bus arrived we changed our mind, and instead caught a train in the opposite direction, to Moulins.
This turned out an excellent idea. Moulins is a handsome, prosperous town, the capital of the department of the Allier, but one little visited by tourists. The long sloping church square is the centre of town life and the medieval lanes around it are also charming.
We spent two happy days there. The first night was in the so-called camping ground on the other side of the river, which proved to be no more than a parking place for camper vans.
There were no showers, only a toilet block and a single cold water tap. However the grass was luxuriously soft and it was free.
For dinner we walked back over the Allier, noticing the masses of flood debris wrapped around the piers of the bridge – whole trees amongst other things.
The church square was a cheerful scene and we eventually ate at Valentino’s, a classy Italian place where we had rigatoni and canelloni. The owner was a real Italian, so I had a little chat with him in rusty Italian.
The next day we moved to a tiny hotel in the centre – la Normandie – where we were able to have a shower at last.
Apart from eating and sleeping, the only thing we did was to visit the cathedral and have a special viewing of the triptych by the Master of Moulins, which is hidden away in a side room. An ancient cleric let us in to see it.
Next to our hotel, a shop was having a sale and I found a cloth hat to replace the one I had dropped on the Canal du Nivernais.
We dined once again at Valentino’s and it was just as good as before. This time we had lasagna and tortellini for our main courses.
We were lucky to get a table inside as it was packed with Saturday night diners, and outside it was too cold for our limited wardrobe.
The following day there was a market in the square and we spent the morning eating croissants and drinking coffee at the elegant Café Central, watching the passing tide of humanity.
We amused ourselves by looking for a stylish mature woman for me to emulate, and a mature man for Keith to do likewise. Considering how ill-dressed we were at the time, we were very hard to please.
In the afternoon we caught the train further along the line to Nevers, and walked through the hot, torpid Sunday streets to the bridge over the Loire. On the other side was the camping ground and this time it was a proper one, not just a repository for camping cars.
The grassy flat near the river was crowded with tiny tents like ours, possibly belonging to pilgrims on the Way of Vézelay. But probably not – we have never noticed much of an appetite for camping among pilgrims. Also many of the tents had bikes parked outside.
Later we dined at a place recommended by the big-boned German who was on the desk at the camping ground.
It was away from the town on the Lateral Canal, near a port full of pleasure craft – a funny little shack called la Marine, with tables set outside under a low roof. People were dining there, but we thought it too cold so we went inside.
We had salad and then steak, feeling the need for some heavy protein after our pasta diet in Moulins.
Walking back to our tent, Keith announced that he would finally go to see a doctor the next day (Monday). However, when we woke up next morning, his leg was much less swollen and less red.
It had been improving slightly over the past few days but this was a big change, so big that Keith decided that he was fit to start walking again.
The doctor idea was abandoned, with some relief on my part as it spared me from discussing the technicalities of legs in French.
Instead we walked into town and had a breakfast of croissants and coffee in a sunny square near the cathedral.
After a bit of minor tourism in the beautiful old quarter of Nevers around the chapel of St-Étienne, we went to the station and bought tickets for St-Julien-en-Genevois, which was as near as we could get to Neydens. This was the place that we would have arrived at about a week later, if we had continued our planned walk instead of skipping a great section.
The train journey was surprisingly long. We shared a carriage with an extremely cultivated old Parisian gentleman who was on his way to Chamonix for a week in a comfortable hotel.
He was scathing about the way French food has gone to the dogs in the last decades, and mentioned that he had over 300 tickets already booked for concerts, plays and ballets in Paris next year.
At 84 he was still full of zest for life, and we shook hands warmly with him as we stepped out of the train.