Friday, 22 June 2018
Distance 16 km
Duration 4 hours 10 minutes
Ascent 219 m, descent 619 m
Before going down to breakfast, we had showers again – an indulgence that we would never dream of in a camping ground – and carried our packs down to the dining room at 8 am. No other guests appeared.
The daughter of the family, in school uniform, was eating there too, and she told us that she was eight and her little brother was three. The big boy who had been in the bar the evening before was not her elder brother, but the apprentice.
We set off at about 8:45 and left the bitumen at the cemetery on the edge of the village, taking a wide, flat dirt road bordered by fields of young corn.
The fresh GR signs on this route were a mystery to us, as our map did not show any GR in the vicinity (it subsequently appeared on IGN maps as the GR300).
At the far side we crossed a tiny river and climbed the opposite bank through vivid greenery.
The track had evidently been a major thoroughfare in the past and the cobbles were still mainly intact, although half swallowed by grass.
We entered a pinewood and after passing over an old stone bridge we came to the village of Vissac and a tar road. The tar only lasted a few hundred metres before we were back on a dusty wheel track, rising towards a pass between two dome-like hills.
There were grassy meadows around us and a thick wood above. As we got to the pass we joined a GRP, which immediately plunged down the other side, but our route turned off and circled around the further hill (Mont Briançon) on a wide forestry road.
According to our map, this would lead to a fast-descending track which went under a railway line and into the river flats of the Allier.
All seemed well for a while. The forestry road was easy to walk on, but it seemed to continue for a long way, and when it suddenly switched back uphill we realised we were lost (later we found that we had taken the wrong road right back where we left the GRP).
The only thing we could think of was to retrace our steps, a depressing idea.
We trudged along morosely for a short while, and then noticed an obliquely descending track blocked off by cut branches which had clearly been deliberately put there.
It was going the way we wanted to go, so we fought our way down through the obstacles, and soon lost the track altogether.
However we reasoned that if we kept descending we would get off the mountain eventually.
The forest was not hard to negotiate, even without a track, as the undergrowth was sparse, and we were encouraged when we came to what looked like the mossy ruins of a wall, possibly marking an ancient road.
Soon after that we found ourselves on a distinct track, almost a trench, that went straight downhill and suddenly burst out of the trees at the railway underpass, the very place that we had been trying to reach.
After that everything was easy. We could see the whole valley spread out peacefully before us, backed by the river and the hills beyond.
A grassy lane took us through the few houses of Navat and onwards through newly-mown hayfields and patches of wildflowers, to finally join a bitumen road at the edge of the town of Langeac.
We were now finally on the Allier river, which we were to follow for the next two or three weeks, from here to its end.
As we came over the bridge, with its white concrete arch, our first view of Langeac was dominated by the abbey of St Gal, probably constructed in the eleventh century, its dark tower frowning over the river.
The early history of the town was concentrated on the river – the great trading highway in the centuries before such new-fangled things as canals and railways arrived. Langeac was one of a string of thriving trade towns along the length of the Allier.
The rest of the town looked pleasant, and worth exploring, but at that moment we were more interested in getting to the camping ground and settling in.
We found it on a nearby bend of the river, with all the virtues of soft lawns, shady trees, spotless showers and plenty of fellow campers.
It was a municipal camping ground and beside it was a tall, magnificent gîte, which seemed to have only one occupant, a little hunched-over cyclist.
Once we had washed ourselves and our walking clothes, we lay down to enjoy an afternoon of repose, but the air was so chilly that we decided to put up the tent and have our siesta inside.
Having foolishly put it up in the sun, we soon discovered that it was like an oven, and had to emerge, put on our warm jackets and long pants, and make the best of it in the cold outdoors.
Not far away was another small tent, beside which was a bike and a bare-chested man spreadeagled in the sun, ignoring the cold breeze, and seemingly disinclined to notice his neighbours. We guessed that he must be Dutch. After a while he cooked up a sorry little feed for himself on a spirit stove.
As evening approached we went to the camping office and paid our dues (€11). The woman on the desk said that they had never had Australian visitors before, and I replied “there’s a reason for that!” (referring to the difficulty of getting from Australia to here), at which she laughed sympathetically.
We walked back to the bridge along a riverside path, and looked at the old town, most of which was confined within a semi-circular perimeter street, perhaps a former defensive wall.
There were several restaurants to choose from, but we ended up at the one just near the bridge that we had seen as we first arrived.
It was a bar also, and looked livelier than the rest. In the adjoining warm, smoky bar there were many drinkers watching a World Cup match, while the diners were below in an area enclosed by plastic curtains, also pleasantly warm.
The meal was simple but satisfying. We began with plates of charcuterie (or vegetable macedoine) with salad.
When the waitress took our order, she went out a side door, crossed the alley, and disappeared into a low doorway, emerging sometime later with our dishes.
For the main course, the same thing happened. We had some rather spindly sausages with another mountain of salad, augmented by a plentiful supply of bread and a jug of wine. That filled us up completely and we retired to our tent feeling very pleased with the day.