Saturday, 17 June 2017
Distance 15 km
Duration 4 hours 50 minutes
Ascent 436 m, descent 304 m
Map 143 of the
We did not make the spectacularly early start that we had intended, but by 7:15 am we were comfortably settled in the salon de thé at the back of a pâtisserie, the front counter of which was a work of art, with its rows of magnificent tarts and pastries.
The area at the back of the shop had been decorated in the Scandinavian manner – blonde wooden screens, soft, sky-blue seats, pearly window glass, hanging plants – and was evidently the place to be for Bellegardians first thing in the morning, as there was a constant bustle of customers dashing in and out.
We, on the other hand, had no intention of dashing. Not only did we have two pastries each (two croissants, a pain aux raisins and a chausson aux pommes), but also two large, lingering coffees.
When we rose at last, well padded with all this food, we felt capable of anything.
The first part of the day’s walk was up the valley of the Valserine, a substantial tributary of the Rhône.
According to our map, the track started from the railway underpass, but when we got there we could only see a road, so we followed it until a dusty lane went off towards the river in a promising way, but soon fizzled out in a large vegetable garden, where an old fellow was struggling with a water butt.
He knew nothing of a riverside path and advised us to go back and walk along the main road, which would get us to St-Germain in a mere seven kilometres. We were tempted to push down through his beds to find the track but it seemed impolite, so we withdrew.
After a few unedifying metres along the D1084, we came to a side road which crossed the river on a high bridge. Far below we could see the footbridge that we should have been on, but there was no way of getting there, short of hurling ourselves to our deaths.
Pressing on, we arrived at an old tramway (it turned out that the high bridge that we had just walked over was originally built for this tram). The tram operated between 1912 and 1940, and was reborn in 1991 as a walking track.
At least this track got us off the bitumen, and we enjoyed the wide, leafy, well-graded remnant of the tramway. Then we noticed a narrow path going down towards the river and followed it in hopes of finding the lost riverside track, but at the bottom it plunged straight into the water beside a huge rocky outcrop that barred the way upstream.
We struggled back through the tangled vegetation and continued along the tramway until we arrived at a proper wheel track descending rapidly to the river at Métral. This consisted of a no more than a couple of houses, a weir and waterfall. Annoyingly, there was a bright new sign pointing the way back to Bellegarde along the river bank.
The wheel track continued pleasantly beside the river for a while, and when it stopped we were at a natural crossing point – le Pont des Oules – where the rushing water had carved its way through the rock into deep, smooth channels, forming a line of stepping stones allowing easy passage across the river. No doubt it had been used as a bridge since the earliest times.
Having made this crossing, we entered a dark, dank forest and finally connected with the riverside track, which turned out to be rocky, slimy and tortuous, with many exposed tree roots and pools of black water.
The trunks of the trees were festooned with shaggy green lichen, giving the place a slightly menacing primeval feel. There were many forks in the path and we kept on coming to dead ends at the river and having to go back.
At this point we saw a group of other walkers higher up the slope, but before we could clamber up to them, they descended to us. They were local day-trippers, about twenty of them, all with poles, and they seemed to think that we knew the way, so we led on bravely, with only the occasional back-track.
When they stopped for a rest, we could not see the way forward at all until we noticed a steel rope going up very steeply through the trees, and after hauling ourselves up that, we began to see signs of civilisation – small bridges and flights of wooden steps.
This was all very encouraging, and shortly afterwards we emerged from the forest, ducked under an electric fence and crossed a sunlit field shaded by nice normal trees with no lichen.
Without warning we popped out onto a road, and the Pont de Coz was just in front of us.
It had taken us almost three hours to cover the five or six kilometres from Bellegarde and we were relieved to be out of the gloomy gorge. Beyond the bridge the road climbed through a forest of pines and we were able to stride out on the smooth, dry bitumen.
Half an hour later we came to a fork in the road and had a change of plan.
We did not like the look of the steep, serpentine route that we had chosen initially, and decided to take the shorter way, although it was on a slightly bigger road, but we had not seen a single car so far.
In little more than a kilometre, mostly of gentle descent, we had crossed the side stream and arrived at Trébillet on the river. The road went over a bridge but we did not.
Unfortunately we were now off the edge of our map, but we hoped that the small track that was marked along the northern edge of the river would keep going and deliver us to somewhere near our destination of St-Germain-de-Joux.
Consulting the MAPS.ME app on Keith’s iPod, we thought it should work. If not, we would have to retrace our steps and trudge along the highway, as the gardener at Bellegarde had suggested hours ago.
Passing a derelict sawmill, we set off along the track and were pleased to see an old sign reading “Route des Arcis” – les Arcis being the name of the place where we hoped to rejoin the road.
The wheel track was somewhat overgrown, but easy to follow as it wound its way amongst the trees, and in a surprisingly short time we joined a small bitumen road, with a pilgrim’s cockle-shell marker on the oak tree at the corner, which was surprising, as we were not on any pilgrim route that we knew of.
The rest of the walk was easy – about a kilometre on the road, followed by another kilometre of descending path through a sun-filled wood.
We crossed a footbridge over the stream and hauled ourselves up into the village, arriving just opposite the hotel where we were going to stay, the Hôtel Reygrobellet, pressed up against a steep pinewood, with its pink facade, white shutters and pots of flowers looking very cheerful.
It appeared to be the only commercial establishment in the village, and was buzzing with happy, noisy lunch diners. Madame was distracted but managed to give us the key to our room as she rushed past.
This was the last hotel that we were likely to see the inside of for several weeks so we made the most of it. First we had elaborate showers and washed our walking clothes.
Then we laid a clean towel over the bedspread and set out our lunch – baguette and cheese – and after that we slept, with occasional glances at the TV to keep up with the le Mans 24-hour race. The nearest we got to exertion was the writing of an email with the aid of Keith’s new iPod, an innovation that we would appreciate more and more as the weeks went by.
At 7:40 pm we went down to dinner. Although the dining room was quite full, the mad gaiety of lunch had subsided, replaced by a more dignified atmosphere. The tablecloths and serviettes were of crisp white linen and there was a vase of pink roses on each table.
This was to be my birthday dinner (only two months late) and we chose the €24 menu, which began with an amuse-bouche – a salmon paté with trimmings, fortified by several slices of bread and a glass of wine.
The main dishes on offer were trout and guinea fowl, so we ordered one of each and shared them.
Then the majestic cheese trolley was wheeled up, the cover rolled back, and we took a few slices of delicious cheese, with more bread.
To finish, Keith had a crème brûlée, rather soft in the crust but redeemed by strawberries and lemon biscuits, while I had another round of cheese, which I put away for the future.
The luxury of being able to simply go upstairs to bed was not lost on us. Often we have to walk a kilometre, in whatever weather, and then take our toothbrushes to the sanitaires before we can settle down for the night.