Day 25: Le Puy-en-Velay to Saint-Paulien

Tuesday, 19 July 2016
Distance 19 km
Duration 4 hours 40 minutes
Ascent 501 m, descent 310 m
Map 156 of the TOP 100 lime-green series

Walking in France: Le Puy's two puys, plus the cathedral
Le Puy’s two puys, plus the cathedral

When we had arrived back from dinner last night, our tent was hemmed in by several new ones, which turned out to belong to a group of cyclists.

In the morning there was a great commotion as they started making their breakfast on little stoves, meanwhile tripping over guy ropes, fumbling with pots, cursing, spilling hot water on the ground and generally making heavy weather of their first morning under canvas.

We got up, packed with the efficiency of long practice, and left while they were still at it, although admittedly we did not try to have breakfast. Our intention was to walk as far as Polignac, about four kilometres away, and have breakfast there.

A few steps from the camping ground we crossed the river Borne, then skirted the large hospital with its helipad (helicopters arriving in the middle of the night had disturbed our slumbers more than once, but it would have been churlish to complain).

Walking in France: On the GR3
On the GR3

Beyond that, the rising slope was a picture of middle-class prosperity. Everything was neat and new. At the top of the rise we looked back on the old town at the bottom of the bowl, with its two tall spires of rock and their unlikely adornments.

At this point we picked up the GR3, which we would follow for the next seven or eight kilometres, until it plunged off into the Gorges of the Loire.

In front of us the grassland dropped away and we saw the ruined fortress of Polignac on another rocky spur, with the village clustered around its base.

Walking in France: No breakfast in Polignac
Coffee but no breakfast in Polignac

The first part of the track had vestiges of cobbling and was flanked by a stone wall, indicating that it was once a main road, but lower down it became a dusty farm track and crossed the modern highway (the D136), then rose again into the streets of the village.

According to our map, there was a bar and a hotel in Polignac, as well as a boulangerie and a small supermarket, but when we arrived at about 8:15 am, the bar was closed, as was the hotel (now only a restaurant), although a sign said it would open at 9 am. The boulangerie was closed today because of sickness and the supermarket was defunct.

Our idea of coming here on an empty stomach was not looking so brilliant, and we sat on a bench outside the rather ugly church, wondering what to do.

Walking in France: Still no breakfast in Polignac
Still no breakfast in Polignac

The two possibilities that presented themselves were: to get out the muesli, powdered milk, bowls and spoons and have breakfast on the church bench, or to abandon the walk and turn back to the comforts of le Puy.

While we were weighing up these two unattractive options, the bar across the road opened its doors, and we rushed over gleefully. It was set high above the road at the foot of the old fortress, and we sat on the sunny terrace feeling much better. They had no croissants or bread, but the coffee was lovely.

Not long after that the so-called hotel also opened, so we went down to investigate. They had bread for sale but it had all been ordered in advance by the good citizens of Polignac, so we made do with another round of coffee, then shouldered our packs and marched off.

Walking in France: Descending from Polignac beside the graveyard
Descending from Polignac beside the graveyard

A cobbled lane took us precipitously down beside the graveyard and onto a small road, which we soon left again in favour of a gentle, grassy track through fields of wheat.

After a couple of kilometres we crossed a stream and the ground started to rise abruptly.

We came to a fork in the track, one branch going left along the base of the slope to the village of Blanzac and the other one continuing to climb.

It was a decision point for us – we had the choice of going to Blanzac for lunch at the auberge and then returning to le Puy, or pressing on quite a long way to St-Paulien and staying the night at the hotel (there was no camping ground in St-Paulien).

Such difficulties afflict people who have reached their goal and do not really need to press on.

Walking in France: Leaving Polignac and about to make a decision
Leaving Polignac and about to make a decision

In the end we decided to take the long way. We were not hungry yet, although all we had ingested so far today was two rounds of coffee.

We rose steadily, through the surprisingly suburban looking hamlet of Chanceaux, after which we climbed more steeply and eventually found ourselves on the very edge of the huge drop into the valley of the Loire.

Walking in France: Near Rachat on the GR3
Near Rachat on the GR3

Far beneath us, through the haze of distance, we could make out the village of Lavoûte-sur-Loire, through which we had passed on our ascent of the Gorges of the Loire in 2011.

After the few scattered houses of Rachat, the track climbed even more, but pulled back from the cliff edge, and when we came to a tiny bitumen road we took it, leaving the GR3 to make its zig-zag way down to the valley.

Walking in France: Getting hot
Getting hot

This high plateau was a patchwork of open fields, and far away we could see the blue line of the lower hills to the north. We tried to imagine how bitter it would be here in winter, but it was hard, as we were sweating copiously on the sun-baked plain.

A series of tracks and small roads brought us to a sharp plunge into the village of Soddes, where a short-cut was marked on our map, avoiding the sudden descent and ascent of the road.

Unfortunately, this short cut was choked by vegetation and had plainly not been used for years, so we had to take the road after all.

Walking in France: Arriving in Soddes
Arriving in Soddes

It was a pretty little red-roofed place with an air of remoteness, although it was only minutes by car from St-Paulien, and even le Puy.

We struggled up the other side on the road and entered a forest, which at least was a bit cooler. By this time we were starting to fade.

The last couple of kilometres, coming down to St-Paulien, were a test of character, and as usual we began to worry about whether the hotel would actually still be operating.

We joined the main road and walked towards the church, a great sprawling array of apses and transepts under a sharp-pointed steeple.

Walking in France: Lunch at the Hôtel des Voyageurs, Saint-Paulien - what a country to walk in!
Lunch at the Hôtel des Voyageurs – what a country to walk in!

Around the corner, the street was lined with chestnut trees, under which we saw, to our great relief, people dining outside the Hôtel des Voyageurs. By some miracle we had arrived in time to join them (1 pm) and in minutes we were sitting at our ease at a table, with our packs on the chairs beside us.

We chose the menu du jour for the amazing price of €9, which comprised pork casserole with rice and a courgette tart, followed by a dessert of îles flottantes or cheese.

Walking in France: Pork casserole with rice and a courgette tart for mains
Pork casserole with rice and a courgette tart for mains

Keith had the former, I had the latter. The lunch came with a half-litre of red wine and we felt that we were in heaven.

Walking in France: And îles flottantes and cheese to finish an excellent €9 lunch
And îles flottantes and cheese to finish an excellent €9 lunch

All the other diners were French except for one couple who were speaking some unintelligible tongue. Later they came over and spoke to us in English and it turned out they were Norwegians, far from home, although they laughed when we said so, given where we came from.

At the end of this wonderful lunch we booked in for the night and went upstairs to a light-filled room looking out over the mild countryside that we had walked through that morning.

We had showers and washed all our clothes, which we hung outside the window in the sun before collapsing gratefully for the afternoon.

It was too hot to contemplate a stroll around the town, although it looked pleasant.

Walking in France: The view from our window, Hôtel des Voyageurs, Saint-Paulien
The view from our window

Dinner was served from 7:30 to 8:30 pm. We descended at about 7:45 to find the dining room half full already.

It was old-fashioned but well looked after, and our sturdy waitress had an air of calm competence. She said that the hotel had been in her family for three or four generations.

Walking in France: Omelettes aux cèpes with salad to start
Omelettes aux cèpes with salad to start

The four-course evening menu was €14 and we preceded it with a glass of white wine as an apéritif. This was to be my much-delayed birthday dinner, so to mark the occasion we had a bottle of Badoit instead of the usual carafe of tap water.

For the first course we both had omelettes aux cèpes with salad, a fine provincial dish. Cèpes grow in the forests all over France and are gathered enthusiastically by country people.

We felt sure that the eggs, lettuce and tomatoes on our plates were also locally produced.

Walking in France: An obligatory sausisses-lentilles, and poulet milanaise, for mains
The usual sausisses-lentilles, and poulet milanaise, for mains

When we came to the main course, Keith, with admirable consistency, ordered sausisses-lentilles, the same dish that he had had for the past two nights.

I had poulet milanaise as it sounded light and I was already feeling a bit full. Even so I put half the chicken away in my ever-ready plastic bag.

Walking in France: Two Cafés Leigeois to finish
Two Cafés Leigeois to finish

Then we had a selection of cheeses, and finally dessert.

As part of my campaign to put flesh on my bones, I chose Café Leigeois, an extravagant tower of cream, ice cream and coffee, which I enjoyed very much.

The last little luxury was being able to stroll upstairs to bed, rather than walk to our tent, which could often be more than a kilometre away.

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