Tuesday, 21 June 2016
Distance 30 km
Duration 7 hours 30 minutes
Ascent 23 m, descent 16 m
Map 141 of the
Rain fell in the night but it stopped before dawn. We felt fresh and strong after a good sleep, but as we got dressed, we tried not to look at the war zone that was our feet.
In my case, I had a blister on every toe and another between each toe. The soles of my feet were one big blister, but for some reason my heels were perfect.
Outside the tent, everything was saturated, but we managed to pick our way over to the dining room without getting our feet wet.
The plump Dutch dairymaid was in attendance, as gloomy as ever about our chances of getting croissants with our breakfast, although she admitted that they always ordered one extra, so we could share that. In the event there seemed to be plenty of them.
There was also lovely fresh bread, cereal, orange juice and an abundance of coffee. At first there was only one other person eating, a wiry, beaming little yellow-clad Korean who had not appeared for dinner, although he was staying at the guest house (we had seen him last night, warming up a bowl of noodles before scuttling away).
He spoke good English and it turned out that he was a retired university professor, who seemed to have travelled everywhere, even to Australia. At the moment he was on a solitary cycling trip around Burgundy, which he seemed to be enjoying greatly.
When he left, his place was taken by other early risers as we continued our steady demolition of the breakfast offerings. In the end, even we reached our limit. We did not know it at the time, but that was to be our only proper meal for the day.
We finally got moving at about
The wheel track that followed the canal here was at first free of the soggy vegetation that had made us so miserable the day before, and we swung along in fine style, hoping for a ceasefire in the blister war this morning. But soon the mud and the wet weeds returned.
After a couple of hours, as we approached a bridge, we came to a set of steps in the grassy canal embankment. This led down to the main street of Garnat-sur-Engièvre.
Apparently its original name was Garnat-sur-Loire, until the Loire annoyingly changed course, leaving the village with no more than a thin trickle, now called the Engièvre.
We were hoping for a bar here, and we found one just opposite the fine old brick church. It seemed to be the only shop in town.
We quickly installed ourselves inside, as the weather looked threatening. It was a typical old-fashioned tabac, with a shelf of cigarettes, some betting machines, a newspaper stand, and a couple of tables and chairs for drinkers.
We indulged in large coffees, which were served in beautiful traditional dark green cups with gold rims worn by age. Naturally we had taken off our shoes to relieve our feet, and I had to hobble across the street in my socks to visit the public toilets.
Thus refreshed, we went back to the canal and pressed on, but only a kilometre or two later we turned off again, heading for the bigger village of Beaulon, which was a bit of a distance off the canal. This was partly to relieve the monotony of the towpath and partly on the principle that too many café stops are never enough.
A narrow road led through an emerald green deciduous wood which eventually opened out to reveal the church spire of the town. The wide central square was delightfully lined with half-timbered houses, one of which was a bar, but it was closed until Tuesday – a common story for country bars after lunch on Sundays.
However the crèperie nearby was still operating, with several diners eating away inside. The waitress, realising that the bar was closed, obligingly made coffee for us and we drank it outside in order to not disturb one of her nicely set tables. It was cool and cloudy but we felt warm enough after our walk.
The waitress came out after a while, holding a school atlas, and asked us to point to the part of Australia that we came from.
To her it was a mythical country, she said, and she had never actually met an Australian. Obviously we were a bit off the beaten track.
Returning to the canal along a curving street lined with houses, we came to a bridge and it was hard to tell which side the towpath was on – both banks looked heavily overgrown.
We tried the far side, passing a cottage where two small dogs angrily snapped at our legs, followed by their owner, equally angry, who ordered us back across the bridge.
After an hour of wading through long, unkempt grass, we arrived at the lock of les Bessays, where the grass was meticulously mown and there were tubs of flowers set out prettily on the gravel. It was only a momentary reprieve, unfortunately.
We toiled on, although we were getting tired. Keith started to feel a painful tightness above his ankle, but he ignored it – blisters were our main worry.
At the abbey of Sept Fonts the towpath veered off onto a road passing in front of the handsome facade of the place, with its line of lopped trees like upside-down green mops put out to dry.
This abbey was set up by the Cistercian order in 1132, on an ill-favoured, uninhabited stretch of marshland.
Like so many French monastic institutions, it was ravaged in the Hundred Years War and again during the Wars of religion, but after that it flourished until the Revolution, when the buildings were sold off and the monks expelled.
Fifty years later this community of monks, now become Trappists, managed to buy back the ruins of Sept Fonts and re-establish the monastery.
They now run a shop that sells all sorts of health products from their fields, like bee pollen, wheatgerm, royal jelly and other things that we had never heard of.
However we did not think they would have anything to cure our blisters, or our exhaustion.
Beyond the abbey we went past another large imposing building. This one was several centuries younger – a factory, ramshackle in some parts, new and shiny in others.
From it emanated an ominous rumbling and a vile stink that made us hurry to get out of range, hoping that it was not making poison gas.
The towpath after that was much more civilised, but by then we were worn out.
Once I lay down full length on the damp towpath, just to take the weight off my poor suffering feet, but Keith could not even manage that, and had to bow over the railing of a canal bridge in an attitude of prayer.
It was only three kilometres from the poison gas factory to our destination at the village of Diou, but it took a long time.
When we got to the road leading down to the town, we sat on a park bench and considered our situation. It was then that Keith noticed that his lower leg had swelled up like a balloon. The skin was shiny and red, and looked ready to burst. We had no idea what was wrong with it.
The best plan seemed to be to settle in at the camping ground, then retire to the restaurant as soon as it opened and stay there until bed time. As there was only one restaurant in the village, we had taken the precaution weeks ago of checking with the mayor by email, so we knew it was functioning.
It began to rain as we arrived at the camping ground, which was on the banks of the Loire. Judging by the muddy, flattened grass, we guessed that it had only recently emerged from the floodwaters. We hastily put up the tent and stowed our packs under the flaps, then went in search of the manager.
Amazingly, we found him in the little wooden room that served as an office. It must have been just chance that he was there, considering the amount of business he was not doing today.
There were only two or three caravans and no tents, apart from ours, in the whole place, and very little likelihood of any other arrivals.
Like our two previous hosts, he was a Dutchman. Presumably all these Dutch expatriates have moved to France for the weather, but this year they must have been wondering whether they had done the right thing.
When we mentioned our plan to spend the evening in the restaurant, he informed us that it was closed tonight, as the owner was ill.
We were horrified, but our spirits lifted when he added that his wife ran a pizza service for the campers, only to be dashed again with the news that she too was ill.
Through clenched teeth we thanked him and returned to our tent. The people in the caravan next to us came and kindly told us the WiFi code for the camping ground, which we did not need, but it was a lovely warm gesture that we appreciated in our dismal situation.
After a while we had hot showers in the spacious bathroom and then went back to lying in the tent. Dinner was a bowl of muesli each.
We talked about what to do next, as it was clear that we could not keep walking with Keith’s leg in such a state. We had another month to spend in France and the thought of just drifting around by public transport from town to town was very appealing. We decided to start by getting ourselves to Digoin the following day, whether by bus, taxi or hitch-hiking we were not sure. Digoin was a big town about 20 km along the canal, and was to have been the next day’s destination on our walk. From there we would be able to go by train all over France.