Saturday, 29 June 2019
Distance 21 km
Duration 5 hours 25 minutes
Ascent 323 m, descent 305 m
Judging by yesterday, when we had been sweating copiously even while lying in the shade, it was going to be a challenge to get ourselves to St-Céré today, but the distance was only 20 kilometres and we knew that there was a hotel at Port-de-Gagnac where we could have breakfast.
We set off unfed at 6:30 am, taking the long, straight D940 through the outskirts of Beaulieu.
A warm, clammy mist clung to the ground, wrapping us in its unwelcome embrace, and after about a kilometre I felt so terrible that I burst into tears and sobbed for a while on Keith’s chest. Lack of sleep and a sick stomach had defeated me.
We decided to turn back, and actually did for a few steps, but then changed our mind and resolved not to be beaten so easily.
A bit further on we parted company with the D940 and took a smaller road that climbed interminably through a pine forest to the crest of the ridge.
It was shady but unpleasantly hot and humid. We had walked this way before, in 2003, but it had been cool weather then.
The hamlet at the top, Guilles, looked exactly the same, to the degree that we expected to see the same old woman looking down from her window on us as we sat and rested in the same spot, However, she did not appear.
Going down the other side was not as hard, and just after 8 o’clock we emerged from the forest, crossed the railway line and turned onto the main road, with the river Cère beside it. We could see the houses of Port-de-Gagnac ahead, promising breakfast.
The hotel that we remembered from 16 years earlier had been joined by a second one, which we took as a good sign. As we approached, some merry young guests emerged, got into their car and drove off. We knocked on the door but there was no reply.
Moving next door, we discovered that the second hotel was closed for congé (annual holidays), so we went back to the first. No amount of banging and calling out could raise anybody and eventually we tried the door, which opened. Inside the place was unnervingly like the Marie Celeste.
This was deeply dispiriting, to say the least, the only redeeming factor being that we found a tap outside and refilled our water bottles.
Then we sat on the terrace drinking tepid water instead of the coffee and croissants that we had imagined.
Although we had only been walking for a couple of hours, we felt pretty ragged.
We started off again and soon came to the bridge over the little river, where we were to turn uphill towards the village of Gagnac-sur-Cère. I felt that I could easily dissolve into tears again, and Keith was not enjoying himself either.
Then we were struck by an idea – we could just keep walking along the river road for three kilometres, to the bigger village of Biars-sur-Cère, which had a railway station and the possibility of escape from our predicament. Greatly relieved, we walked a little way along this road, only to find our relief draining away and being replaced by a sense of defeat. It seemed so weak to be giving up like that, and we told ourselves sternly to show a bit more backbone. So, for the second time this morning, we forced ourselves to press on with the original plan.
It was not far to Gagnac, a pretty little place centred around its church, and as we walked into the square we were overjoyed to see a café, part of a multi-service épicerie.
In the next instant we realised that it was closed for congé, which was another blow, but by that time there was no going back so we trudged on.
From Gagnac the road climbed steadily and we occasionally glimpsed Biars-sur-Cère below us through the trees. We were sweating freely by then, but were determined to carry on.
Beyond Glanes the road began to descend and there were vineyards and walnut farms, the first cultivation that we had seen all day.
Shortly after that we left the bitumen for the first time today, which was a relief, even though all the roads had been small so far.
For several kilometres we followed an undulating grassy path through groves of young walnut trees, which would have been pleasant if the air had not felt like the breath of a dragon.
The heat was wearing us down, we felt very tired, and we were also running short of water. On top of that, I still felt rather sick from last night.
Passing a quarry, we came to a place where our path crossed a road, and we could see from the map that we were only about three kilometres from St-Céré and salvation.
The grassy track that we were on climbed up and over the shoulder of a hill, whereas the road went around the base, with buildings marked beside it which looked like possible shops, even bars.
In our hot, exhausted state, we decided to take the road. At first it was easy enough, but then it joined a much bigger one, the D803, a shadeless expanse of melting tar. The possible shops turned out to be aeronautical engineering workshops.
We were going very slowly by the time we came to the first houses of the village, where at least there were a few trees.
Suddenly Keith said that he felt dizzy and needed to sit down, so we sank onto a low wall. It was clearly the beginning of heatstroke, a very dangerous condition.
Keith put his head down and I looked around, only to discover that we were sitting at the very entrance of the local hospital. Fortunately we did not have to go in, as they may not have been very sympathetic.
After the disaster of 2003, the French nation is nervous about heatwaves, and the government’s instructions are to stay out of the sun, to drink lots of water and to refrain from strenuous activity, all of which we had disobeyed.
Eventually Keith pronounced himself able to go on, and soon we entered the canyon of the main street, which was criss-crossed with festive red and yellow bunting.
At the first place that looked like a bar we went in, to find it full of lunch diners. It was actually a restaurant, not a bar, but the woman in charge kindly sat us down and brought cold drinks, followed by coffee. We were saved, but it had been a close thing,
Thanking the merciful woman, we limped on, through the main square, over the little river Bave, to the camping ground, and collapsed on the velvety grass, where we stayed for a long time.
It was a lovely place, with hedges and spreading trees – mostly plane trees and lindens – and many people installed around us, which is always a good feeling.
We both felt very decrepit, Keith because of his painful hip and his close encounter with heatstroke, and I not only because of my upset stomach, but also because I had developed a strain in my right foot from too much walking on the sloping edge of the road.
However, after showers and sleeps we felt better, and walked back to town to join a lively crowd of locals on the terrace of the Grand Hotel in the main square, for our usual apéritifs. Then we looked around for somewhere to eat.
There were many pleasant looking restaurants in the side alleys of the town, but we ended up back in the main square, at a cheerful little outdoor pizzeria, which also served pasta and salads.
The pasta machine was out of order so we ordered a huge pizza and an equally huge salad, and shared them.
While sitting there we decided that we needed a day off tomorrow, despite the fact that we had only been walking one day since the last day off.
That lifted a weight off our minds and we went back to our tent in a happy frame of mind.