Monday, 20 June 2016
Distance 20 km
Duration 5 hours 0 minutes
Ascent 34 m, descent 15 m
Map 135 of the
As we crawled out of our tent, the sun was shining for once, and there was even another human being awake, – an elderly cyclist soaking up the warmth from the comfort of a folding chair.
Yesterday when we arrived in Decize, cold and footsore, we were in no mood to explore the streets, but this morning was another matter.
We did not intend to leave town until we had had a substantial breakfast, and the place to find it was in the crooked lanes of the old town at the top of the hill.
We limped back in good spirits, first along the leafy boulevard to the bridge, then up in the direction of the church (always a good idea for those in search of a bar). The first thing we came to was a boulangerie, where the man assured us that were two bars further along the street.
Both bars were in a square with a tall clock tower in the middle and the Hôtel de Ville at the back. The first had a pleasant outlook but the terrace was in shade at this hour, so we went over to the second one and sat in the sunshine, or rather in the diffuse glow of sun through light cloud.
Soaking up the delicious warmth of the morning, as well as that of our coffee, we set to work on the pastries, which were both light and filling. Because of my morbid fear of hunger on the track, we have taken to having two pastries each, where in previous years we would have had only one.
From there it was not far down to the main Loire (the one with water), and after crossing the bridge we turned upstream for half a kilometre until we came to a short channel connecting the river to the Lateral Canal.
This was occupied by a boat harbour crowded with magnificent white pleasure craft. A traditional small river boat made of old, blackened timber was tied up incongruously on the other bank.
Beyond the harbour we joined the canal itself and swung along the wheel track beside it.
At first there were several bends in the canal, but then it shot straight across the flat landscape, not as straight as a Roman road, but almost. We were both suffering from blisters so our pace was not what it normally was.
A couple of hours of this featureless walking, even with the entertainment of Oliver Cromwell’s tumultuous reign on my podcast, was enough to require a rest beside the track. There were no villages to be seen, let alone villages with bars.
As we set off again we were surprised to see a pair of walkers coming towards us, who turned out to be two women from Brittany, walking from Digoin to Nevers.
They were staying in pre-booked chambres along the way, very wisely given the recent weather. Naturally they urged us to try walking in Brittany, the most beautiful part of France, and we mendaciously promised to do so.
After this pleasant encounter, the towpath degenerated into a weedy, soggy, muddy mess, which slowed us down even more.
My blisters were so bad that I started to wonder whether I could go on, and Keith had to stop and wait for me several times.
At long last we arrived at the bridge and boat harbour of les Vanneaux.
The village of Gannay-sur-Loire, with its camping ground, was a kilometre or more off the canal, but there was a little café next to the harbour and we decided to pause there.
Poor Keith had to go and make sure it was open before I was willing to take the extra steps to get to it.
Everything was spick and span around the port, including the café, which looked very new.
It had a view over manicured lawns and picnic tables to the little harbour, where a line of boats was moored.
We discovered later that in earlier times the Loire itself flowed where the canal does now, and that les Vanneaux was an important boat-building centre and port until the river changed course.
The village of Gannay, originally at les Vanneaux, moved to its present location in pursuit of the river trade.
In the café a few people were finishing lunch, but we just had coffee. Having checked that the place was open in the evening, we set off for the final push.
The road to the village had been recently beautified, presumably at the same time as the port, with a gravel path, flower beds and graceful street lights, but it was all lost on me as I forced myself along. I was having great difficulty putting my foot to the ground.
A remarkable sight in the village was the stump of a long-dead tree wearing a little pointed roof. Apparently it is the last remnant of a line of trees planted five hundred years ago by order of Sully, to mark the route from Moulins to Nevers.
We hobbled on past the houses and found the camping ground in a hedged field planted with young trees and sparsely populated by Dutch caravans. At one end stood two large farmhouses draped in vines, which turned out to be a guest house and restaurant respectively.
Not finding anyone to apply to, we wandered over to the field and put up our tent on the squelching grass. We laughed to see a fire extinguisher attached to a nearby post – an inflatable raft would have been a better idea. Without even the normal rituals of showers and clothes-washing, we crawled into the tent and collapsed, while a million mosquitoes banged their heads against the screens outside. It rained off and on while we dozed.
Eventually Keith gathered the strength to go back to the house and find someone to pay – a Dutch person of course. We were in a Dutch bubble in the depths of France.
The price was €12 and the buxom Dutch lass who helped in the kitchen said we could be included in the dinner for the house guests, although there might not be enough pieces of fish for us to have one each. Altogether it was good news, because we did not think we could walk back to les Vanneaux that evening.
It was all I could do to shuffle to the shower block, twenty metres away, but when I did it was a real joy. The strong hot water washed away my tiredness and even made my blisters feel a bit better.
Dressed in our clean clothes, we walked at snail’s pace over to the main house to write the diary, but there were so many mosquitoes in the covered terrace that we retreated indoors to the restaurant, which had some comfortable sofas as well as the long refectory table.
For dinner, all the guests sat at the long table and the dishes were shared. Everybody was Dutch except for us and a couple from Cornwall – there were no French people insight, and we were the only diners who were not staying in the guest house. The food was delicious and plentiful, and so was the wine.
We had fish (there was plenty of it and we were even urged to take a second piece) with light, creamy mashed potato and dishes of colourful vegetables that looked as if they had been picked that day.
I sat next to a sweet-faced nurse from Utrecht, recently retired, who was staying here for a week of gentle cycling with her friend, another nurse. The couple from Cornwall said that they had only left London that morning, which astonished us, as we felt remote from the world after having walked through the Burgundian countryside for almost a week.
So the day ended very pleasantly, and we looked forward to breakfast at the same table in the morning, ignoring the warning of the pessimistic serving girl that we would not get any croissants, as they only ordered the number required for the house guests.