Saturday, 23 June 2018
Distance 20 km
Duration 5 hours 30 minutes
Ascent 576 m, descent 606 m
Nowadays we try very hard not to start walking on an empty stomach. We have had too many disappointments in the past, setting off unfed in the hope of finding refreshments along the way.
Also, we very seldom bother with muesli, as we find that it does not give us the stamina that a proper French breakfast does. Consequently, while paying the bill the previous night, we had asked what time the bar opened in the morning, and found that it was at
Our silent Dutch cyclist neighbour was out of bed before we were. He was sitting in a folding chair a long way from his tent (but in the sun), and this time he was quite communicative.
He said that he had started from Bordeaux a week ago and would finish tomorrow in le Puy, then catch the train back to his car in Bordeaux and be home the following day. To our Australian ears this sounded very foreign, as a trip to Europe for us is an exhausting and expensive business.
We left his to his sun-baking, and after a short stroll along the riverside path, we climbed the steps beside the bridge, stocked up at the boulangerie and were at the door of the bar when it opened .
Four large coffees and four pastries later we marched out happily, ready to face any amount of exertion.
This was just as well, because as soon as we left the houses, we started to climb drastically through a wood, on a stony wheel track which was marked with the red and yellow stripes of a GRP.
It finally emerged from the trees and levelled out as it reached a road. From there we had an expansive, if hazy, view of all the country that we had crossed yesterday, with the town of Langeac crouching almost at our feet.
Not far along this airy ridge we came to the few houses of Volmadet, solid and prosperous-looking, after which the bitumen gave way to dirt and we began to descend again.
We were soon swallowed up in trees as before, and after half an hour we turned off the wheel track and continued downwards on a grassy lane, overgrown in parts, but marked with the signage of four different routes – a GRP, a GR, a PR (yellow) and something else which was orange. There was no danger of getting lost.
It was a beautiful walk and we tried not to think of all the height that we had laboriously gained earlier, and were now losing.
On the other hand, if we had followed the river itself, even if it had been possible, it would have been a very long walk. The Allier at this point looped and twisted about like a tormented snake.
At the bottom of this track, almost at river level, we climbed briefly on a tar road and then took to a track again.
A wide, mossy stone bridge over a rivulet hinted at the former importance of this route.
As we came down to another road, we met a party of about a dozen French walkers, armed with poles, clattering up towards us. They were doing the same walk as us, in the opposite direction, and we had an amiable chat.
We crossed the D585 (the direct highway from Langeac to our destination, Lavoûte-Chilhac) and set off across the grassy hillside to the village of Achaud, which was pretty but entirely devoid of life, apart from a few sleeping dogs.
We could see, beyond the fields and the river, the remarkable perched town of Chilhac, with its great grey fluted skirt of rock falling to the Allier.
In half an hour we managed to cross the bridge – a solid stone affair held together with steel ropes – and scramble up the vertiginous streets to the level of the village proper, where there was a fine square surrounded by important-looking buildings, but no sign of a bar.
We asked a couple of passing women, who directed us through an arched tunnel to a wide descending street, with the bar immediately opposite, with its strings of flags of every nation (except our own) adorning the little terrace.
As the only bar in the village, it was a haven for all comers. There was a group of loud, happy young motorcyclists having beer and chips at the next table to us.
Meanwhile a fragile, meticulously coiffed ancient lady, dressed from head to foot in yellow (even her shoes), crept inside for her luncheon.
We confined ourselves to coffee, and were soon on our way again, much revived.
It was only three kilometres to our destination, and we ambled gently down through the sunlit fields, on a well-graded old track, right into the upper streets of Lavoûte-Chilhac.
The old part of this Plus Beau Village is squeezed into a tight loop of the Allier, and naturally there is a religious edifice there – a priory, replacing an earlier château. The arched stone bridge is the only one on the Allier to have survived since medieval times, having weathered many terrible floods.
We reached the camping ground after crossing the bridge and descending to the grassy river flat, where willows hid the village from view.
There were numerous caravans and tents on the riverbank, and we had no sooner installed ourselves than our neighbours, an elderly Dutch couple, hurried over with two chairs – the sight of us sitting on the ground evidently brought out their protective instincts.
Later they brought us two plates of ham and melon. Our neighbours on the other side were Scottish and did not seem nearly as concerned for our welfare.
At seven o’clock we walked back along the riverbank, past the long, down-sloping gardens of the houses up on the road, then crossed the bridge and had a glass of rosé at the Café de la Tour, whose terrace overlooked the rushing river.
All the other drinkers were in shorts and skimpy tops, but we were well rugged up with long trousers and jackets.
We were still drinking when the owner said he was going to close, but he told us not to hurry, just to leave our empty glasses at the door when we left – which we did.
It was only a few steps along the road to the Hôtel des Pécheurs, also overlooking the river, where tables and chairs had been set out under the trees on the gravel forecourt, and many people were already eating.
We were pleased to see that one other diner thought it appropriate to wear long pants and a fleecy top, as we did.
The menu was simple – all entrées were €8, all mains €12 and all desserts €6. We were tempted to try everything, but because of the neighbourly ham and melon that we had already eaten, we only ordered one course each.
I chose fish – I hoped from the river – truite meunière, with a simple citron sauce, accompanied by courgettes and tomatoes roasted with handfuls of herbs, and plenty of salad. The plate was a veritable work of art.
Keith stuck to his habitual steak and chips, with the same lovely vegetables. Rounded out with lots of bread and wine, it was a superb meal, the best so far on this walk, and the surroundings were a delight.
As we were paying the bill, the waiter assured us that the hotel opened for breakfast at 7 am, which was good news, as there was little prospect of refreshments along the way tomorrow.