Wednesday, 11 July 2018
Distance 16 km
Duration 3 hours 30 minutes
Ascent 151 m, descent 143 m
We were on the move before
This was actually a very short stage, as we had decided not to stick to our original idea, which had been to go straight to La Charité-sur-Loire in one day. Instead we would potter along and take two days to get there.
Our early departure was largely a matter of habit, combined with the threat of another hot day.
For once, we were not the first people in the camping ground to rise – the school children were already taking down their tents and receiving bowls of what looked unappetisingly like gruel.
We had to remind ourselves that the river was no longer the Allier, but the Loire. From the bridge it looked wide and shallow, with the bleached skeletons of trees from a former flood marooned on sandbars.
The great square-towered cathedral did not seem to be very high above the river, but it required a stiff climb through the streets to get to it. Although it was not yet 8 o’clock, a tour group leader was explaining the finer points of ecclesiastical architecture to his glassy-eyed flock.
We slipped past, descending to the Place Carnot, where the cafés were just opening. The pastries from the boulangerie were warm and delicious, as were the two rounds of coffee that we drank with them.
It was the time of day when everything seems fresh and promising, but already the customers sought the shade.
With the help of a map on a street panel, we worked out which of several main roads was the one to lead us out of town.
We walked past a beautiful formal public garden, then a jail, then an interminable sprawl of suburbs.
An hour later we finally emerged from the houses into open countryside.
It was verdant as usual, but not spectacular, with patches of woodland among the fields, interrupted by marching lines of electricity pylons and an autoroute (the A77).
We crossed the autoroute twice, first on an overbridge and then on a rough track through an underpass.
After that we came to the tiny village of Priez and climbed to the crest of a forested ridge.
From there the road dropped like a stone to the highway, which we crossed, and continued downwards into the streets of Pougues-les-Eaux.
We came to a Temple (as the French disparagingly call a church of the protestant “cult”) and found a sad-looking bar beside it, with one bedraggled customer, but a few steps beyond that, on the main road, was a livelier place with a boulangerie opposite.
A second breakfast at 11:30 am was just what we needed, and we enjoyed the feeling of being part of village life, although we were not really.
An amazing thing happened as we sat there – another walker appeared! Naturally we exchanged stories.
He was from Normandy and was rambling through his native land for a couple of weeks. It seemed a miracle that we had met him, given the scarcity of other walkers so far this year.
To get to the camping ground we had to walk another kilometre, through the centre of town with its handsome fountain, and down past a line of grand mansions, some immaculate in ornate grounds, others decaying and weedy.
This air of decaying splendour was explained by the fact that the famous thermal waters of Pougues-les-Eaux, with all their associated wealth, had closed in 1975.
The hotels and shops had gradually faded, and the baths themselves had been converted into a centre of contemporary art.
From the roundabout at the bottom we saw playing fields, a swimming pool, a large casino with crazy towers, and the camping ground, which turned out to be empty except for a few caravans and a party of school children, all packed up and ready to leave.
We walked in and chose a spot, pursued by the responsable who was keen to collect his €8.14.
Keith had a shower and reported that the facilities were excellent, but the water was cool, so I just had a wash.
Then we took the somewhat unusual step of having lunch, as we had bought half a baguette in town.
For the rest of the afternoon Keith slept, and I tried to read, but I felt miserable – bored, homesick and lonely. This happens occasionally, especially in almost-empty camping grounds, and was no reflection on the town itself.
At about 6:30 pm we set off to have a drink at the bar that we had visited before. At this hour it was crammed with locals, and their friendly chatter quickly dispelled my gloom.
We found out from the barman that Thursday (tomorrow) was their day off, so there would be no coffee in the morning, and therefore no point in coming back into town.
He said sadly that Pougues was slowly becoming a desert, with more and more empty shops and houses, but I replied that it was still a very pretty town, and there was perhaps hope of a renaissance.
It was now time to eat. At the central fountain there was a palatial Asian restaurant, which for some reason was not open, and on the other side, a small creperie/pizzeria, which was.
It was next door to the defunct Grand Hotel, now decaying but obviously magnificent in its day. We went in and had a modest but satisfying meal of steak, salad, bread and wine.
On the wall was a photo of the Grand Hotel in its glory days, and our host said that it had closed thirty years ago, one of the casualties of the closure of the thermal baths.
Our host said that his daughter had actually visited Australia, which is an uncommon thing for a French person, but he himself never ventured more than twenty or thirty kilometres from home. Very wise, I said, thinking of my miserable afternoon.