Day 26: Saint-Paulien to le Puy-en-Velay

Walking in France: Breakfast at the Hôtel des Voyageurs, Saint-Paulien
Breakfast at the Hôtel des Voyageurs

Wednesday, 20 July 2016
Distance 19 km
Duration 4 hours 40 minutes
Ascent 145 m, descent 335 m
Map 156 of the TOP 100 lime-green series

As is our habit when staying in hotels, we had showers again in the morning, a thing that we never do when camping. It is so easy in hotels, and so difficult in camping grounds.

We arrived in the dining room at about 7:15 am to find many guests had already eaten and gone – breakfast starts at 6 am in these parts.

Walking in France: Leaving Saint-Paulien
Leaving Saint-Paulien

An array of cereals, fruits, croissants, baguettes, jam and butter was set out and there was a coffee machine on a trolley that we were invited to use as often as we liked. In our case that was three times each.

We sat near the open door with the shadow of the great church on the street outside. The sky was blue from one horizon to the other and the day promised to be hot.

Having settled the bill (€96 for everything), we set off for what we thought would be a short, easy morning’s walk back to le Puy.

Walking in France: Twisted pine forest
Twisted pine forest

A farm track behind the hotel took us up through newly mown wheat fields, and we saw below us on the left a surprisingly suburban looking estate of new houses around a lake – presumably a dormitory for some local industry.

Half an hour passed and we found ourselves in a forest of twisted pines, seemingly the same species as the ones called “bakers’ pines” in the Cévennes (they were used for firing the bread ovens there).

Walking in France: Descending to Borne
Descending to Borne

The land dropped off on either side until we were on a high spine, and then the track plunged over the edge to the valley of the Borne (the very river that we had been camping next to, lower down, for the past two nights) and crossed into the village of the same name.

The village was tiny but the road that went through it was enormous – the N102. On the corner was a bar.

Walking in France: Coffee stop in Borne
Coffee stop in Borne

It was only an hour and a bit since breakfast but we were quite able to face another coffee break on the sunny terrace.

Walking in France: Only five maps left!
Only five maps left!

Crossing the highway, we took a small road through grassy fields beside the river, and came to a side track over a bridge, which was the way we wanted to go, but to our surprise, there was a “keep out” sign. which was unambiguous.

Walking in France: Definitely not welcome
Definitely not welcome

We considered just ignoring it and trying to scuttle past the farmhouse unseen, or if seen pretending to be ignorant foreigners, but the possibility of being bailed up by dogs put us off.

Continuing a few hundred metres along the road, we saw that it went under a railway line, and we hoped that we would be able to climb up and walk over this bridge on the rails, then get down onto the track after that, beyond the farmhouse.

It turned out to be impossible to get through the prickly vegetation and fence beside the railway line.

Walking in France: No way through
No way through

The farmhouse further on was deserted and there was no sign of a track continuing past it, so in the end we had to admit that we were beaten and retrace our steps to Borne.

Walking in France: Not the usual route out of Borne
Not the usual route out of Borne

The barman was sympathetic but had no suggestions other than to trudge down the N102 to le Puy.

On our map there was a thin road that cut off a big loop of the highway, starting with a steep track that the barman assured us did not exist. With nothing to lose, we went to investigate and found it easily.

The only trouble was that it was massively overgrown, the forest having encroached from either side.

We struggled up onto the small road and set off, at which point I realised that I had lost my camera, which is normally attached by velcro to the waist band of my pack.

Walking in France: Near the top of the climb
Near the top of a climb

I went back and grovelled about in the tangled undergrowth for a while, and to my amazement, I found it.

Feeling very relieved and lucky, we strode along until we came to the N102 after about a kilometre.

Walking in France: I thought I was going on a pleasant walk in the country
I thought I was going on a pleasant walk in the country

We were now off our maps and could only hope that we would eventually find ourselves back on one of them, and not have to walk too many miles in the emergency lane of this busy arterial road.

Our little country stroll was turning out more complicated than we expected.

It took us about 45 minutes of plodding along the hot bitumen before we arrived at the straggling warehouses and emporiums of the industrial area of Polignac, where our original route crossed the highway.

After that we had no more troubles. Just before the high tension wires we veered off onto a small patched and potholed road that looped around and descended gracefully to the valley of Polignac itself, on the opposite side of the fortress from our approach the day before.

Walking in France: Leaving the N102
Finally off the N102
Walking in France: Almost at the top of the ridge
Almost at the top of the ridge

This time we were not in search of refreshments so we continued on the low road past the houses until the ground began to rise again.

After going through an underpass of the D136, we climbed sharply on a stony track to the ridge, and suddenly a vista of le Puy opened out below us.

We plunged into the streets and followed a smoothly descending narrow road, at one point threading through a low stone archway, sure sign that we were on a traditional thoroughfare. We came out at the hospital, where our small road was subsumed into the N102 arriving from the right.

The way we had just walked from Borne to le Puy (including the overgrown steep path and even the unedifying kilometres on the N102) had all the attributes of a pre-industrial main road – it was admirably direct, efficient and well-graded, without the need for embankments or cuttings.

Walking in France: The traditional route from Borne to le Puy
The traditional route from Borne to le Puy

By this time at was almost 1 pm and getting hot. We crossed the Borne on the highway and clambered down some steps into a cool and picturesque riverside park with flower beds and tennis courts.

This adjoined the camping ground, and as we re-entered it, I crumpled up the last of our home-made maps and threw it in the rubbish bin with a flourish. We had started with more than two hundred of them.

Walking in France: Goodbye to our final map
Goodbye to our final map

Settling back into a shady corner, we lay on our mats and ate the delectable remains of the lunch and dinner at St-Paulien. Even in the shade it was hot, but after showers we found it pleasant enough.

Our last evening began with cold beers at the Aviation bar, where we were entertained by a procession of people in national dress frisking along the street, holding up the name of their country. We never worked out what it was for.

Later we did a tour of the restaurants in the vicinity, which were many, and ended up at exactly the same place as before in the Place du Plot.

Walking in France: One last sausisses-lentilles
One last sausisses-lentilles

Not only that, but we ordered exactly the same dishes – vegetarian lasagne for me and sausisses-lentilles for Keith. It was the fourth night in a row that he had chosen the regional speciality, which I thought was overdoing the loyalty a bit.

As before, the atmosphere was convivial and we soon fell into conversation with a couple eating nearby.

They were Parisians, starting tomorrow on a five day walk on the pilgrimage, and hoping to get to Aumont-Aubrac if the weather did not hold them back. The forecast for the next few days was 35 degrees or more.

We envied the way that French people could do a few days’ walking at a time on these classic routes, whereas we have to undertake great expeditions of several weeks. On the other hand, long expeditions take you into a different state of mind that is very seductive, even addictive.

Walking in France: Farewell breakfast in le Puy
Farewell breakfast

Leaving le Puy

The following morning we packed up, as we had almost every morning for the last six weeks, but this time it was final.

Back in town, we had a protracted farewell breakfast in the main street, then wandered down to the station for the 10:30 am train, which whisked us down the Gorges of the Loire to St-Étienne, a route that we had walked up in the past.

Walking in France: Last croissants in le Puy
Last croissants

From there we got a TGV through Lyon to Paris, walked over the Seine to connect with the Metro, then took the RER to the airport.

The itinerary of our flight had been changed after we booked it, and the plane stopped in Amsterdam, then Kuala Lumpur and then Jakarta (this last for six excruciatingly slow hours) before depositing us in Sydney.

The final leg was a three-hour bus trip to freezing Canberra, by which time we had been travelling continuously for 44 hours and were more dead than alive. However we soon recovered in the warmth and comfort of home.

Previous day: Le Puy-en-Velay to St-Paulien

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