Saturday, 16 July 2016
Distance 24 km
Duration 5 hours 45 minutes
Ascent 628 m, descent 658 m
Map 156 of the
Topo-guide (ref. 650) Sentier vers Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle : Genève – Le Puy
Ever since crossing the Rhône we had suffered from inadequate clothing whilst camping, and this night had been no different.
Being mid-summer walkers only, we err on the side of lightness, and have to bear the consequences when the weather turns cold.
The appointed hour for breakfast was 7:30 am and as we walked towards the snack bar, a lad on a bike shot past us carrying a paper bag from the boulangerie in town.
He had the shutter rolling up by the time we got there.
We sat in the weak morning sun and had the full French spread – orange juice, croissants, a pile of fresh bread, butter and jam, and two rounds of milky coffee. An auspicious start to the day.
Back on the highway, we rejoined the GR and soon left the bitumen, climbing up through a pine wood and down again through birches and oaks.
When we emerged from the trees we started to see the characteristic conical hills of the area – old volcanic plugs known locally as sucs – which formed part of the Massif de Meygal.
The GR continued along small roads and dusty white farm tracks until, topping a rise with a wayside cross, we saw the village of St-Jeures ahead.
At this point there was a traffic jam. A herd of mild-eyed cows was ambling up towards us, but they politely made space for us to slip down beside them, and we were soon entering the village, climbing up past the walled graveyard, then through a street of grey-walled houses, interspersed with grassy plots enclosed by low stone walls.
It was a village of stone walls. Above us the great squat stone church crouched.
Apart from a closed restaurant, the only shop we could find was a tabac fronting onto the road near the war memorial. Fortunately it was also a bar, so we sat down inside, with the sun pouring through the window, and had coffee.
It was 10 o’clock, a good time for a break. Meanwhile the locals came and went collecting their bread and newspapers for the day, and there were also plenty of Saturday drinkers propping up the bar.
Leaving the village, we turned off from the D7 when the GR did, and continued along a track until it became a small tar road.
The town of Araules was above us, although invisible behind the trees. We crossed a stream and were very tempted by a path that led off beside it into the bushes.
That was the direction we wanted to go, but according to our map there was no way through, so we reluctantly trudged up the road on the GR, branching off half-way to cross a steep field.
We ended up at the edge of the village and almost immediately began to descend again on a wheel track, overarched by tall shrubs.
When we came to the stream we noticed a good path emerging from the bushes, probably the one we could have taken earlier, but we will never know.
Judging by the well-made stone walls and the occasional wayside crosses, the path we were on was a traditional main route. As we approached a road, we met a party of strollers coming towards us, who wanted to know where the path went, so we told them that the GR signs would take them up to the village. Like most French people, they were acquainted with GRs and their red and white signs.
After a small stretch of bitumen, we took to the fields again, then began climbing in a dense pine forest, borrowing the D18 briefly before finding another track.
Past the Quatre Routes we pressed on, still climbing, through a frothy mass of cow parsley, until we arrived at the top houses of the tiny hamlet of Raffy, tucked up high under the brow of one of the conical hills that were appearing more and more as we walked west.
Following the GR65, we dropped down to the road, but before going on we sat on someone’s garden wall and pulled out the bread and cheese that had been my dessert last night. It was nearly
From where we sat, the land below us was pimpled with fresh-looking mounds, as if an army of giant moles was about to burst into the daylight. The original volcanic eruption that had produced all these cones must have been remarkably porous and fragmented. All the peaks were cloaked in dark forest, while the flat land between them was cleared.
Setting off along the road, we were so impressed with the sight of a village (Queyrières) at the base of an enormous rock, that we forgot to look for GR signs and walked a long way downhill before we realised that we had missed the turn.
The GR was easy enough to find when we went back, although it was only a rough descending path, and as soon as we came to a road, we parted company with it and never saw it again that day.
We had a better idea about how to get to our destination – at least we hoped it was a better idea and not a monumental mistake.
Between two of the puys, or sucs (Mont Chanis and Mont Rouge), a track was marked on the map.
After taking a farm road a little way, we turned up what seemed to be the track we wanted and began to climb.
It was all surprisingly easy. Once over the saddle, we came to the isolated houses of Montchanis, where there were a few metres of bitumen road, and then continued down a grassy path through a vineyard.
An elderly farmer stared at us as we trudged past his vines – evidently he does not see a lot of walkers going by.
Before long we once again found ourselves on a road, and this time it kept going, delivering us onto the D28, the main north road of St-Julien-Chapteuil.
The camping ground was to the north of the town, so we reached it quite quickly. As is often the case in France, it was beside the swimming pool and the sports fields, on the low, flood-prone ground beside the river.
The grass was thick in the allotments, the showers were delightful, and we spent a little while stretched out in the shade, with the conversation from adjoining pitches providing a pleasant background murmur.
We were slightly surprised when our German walker friend from Tence arrived, as we knew he did not have camping equipment with him, but he said he was looking for a cabin (probably to get away from the communal squalor typical of gîtes). However, the cabins were all booked out, so he had to go on to the gîte.
The air still had an edge of ice in it, even though we had come down from the heights of Raffy (1300 metres) and were now only at 800 metres. Wearing our only warm garments, we walked up to the main intersection and started looking for somewhere to eat.
It seemed a lively town but the more we looked, the less we found. The brasserie at the bottom of the street was closed, possibly for ever, and the bar halfway up looked seedy.
High above the rising main street we saw the eyeless sockets of what looked like a ruin. It was actually the western bell-wall of a still functioning church, formerly a Benedictine abbey. There was a restaurant nearby, but it looked run-down and its menu did not appeal to us.
At the top of the street we came to the highway (the D15), on which were two hotels, a bar and a pizza van just setting up for the evening’s trade. Both the hotels seemed absurdly expensive for people in our state of dress, so we retired to the bar to think things over.
We sat outside, despite the cold, and the cheerful, chubby waitress brought us some nuts with our glasses of rosé, and later a bowl of crisps.
The other drinkers seemed to be regulars and there was a lot of banter and back-chat, ending with one of the customers trying empty a bottle of water on the waitress, who laughingly hid behind me.
We asked her what she recommended for dinner, and she suggested that we get a pizza from the van and bring it back to her bar. It was a friendly offer but we wanted a bit more ambience than that.
Eventually we wandered off and had another look at the menu at the Logis hotel. We had failed to notice the section listing menus for €13, €15 or €17. That sounded perfect for us, so we went in.
There were many walking poles stacked up near the door, but when we entered, none of our fellow diners looked like walkers. We had to assume that there were more people walking the Way of Geneva that we realised.
Having asked whether we had a reservation, the solicitous middle-aged waitress showed us to our seats and we felt very happy and relieved. The obsequious hush of a Logis dining room was just to our taste after our worries over finding a meal.
All the other diners were speaking French, except for one couple who seemed to be American, although we could not quite hear them.
I had a terrine to begin, and Keith had gaspacho, both very refined dishes.
Then Keith, feeling himself closing in on le Puy (the home of lentils), ordered the classic saucisses-lentilles of the region, and I had a beautifully cooked duck dish.
After that I was so full that I could eat no more, but our waitress kindly changed my order to “Menu express”, which was only two courses. Keith persevered with a Café Gourmand – black coffee surrounded by three tiny desserts.
On our way back to the camping ground, we stopped at the seedy bar halfway down the street, which was just closing at 9:30 pm, and asked what time they would be open in the morning.
The answer was 6:30 am, which was such good news that we laughed, and so did the barman.