Wednesday, 3 July 2019
Distance 24 km
Duration 5 hours 30 minutes
Ascent 614 m, descent 386 m
In the morning, for the first time in many days, we woke feeling energetic, fit and confident. We were ready to hit the road again.
My foot strain had gone and my delicate innards had recovered, while Keith was fully hydrated after days of idleness, and his hip pain had subsided .
Before leaving we made one last trip to the brasserie, where we had coffee and croissants as usual, while studying the tiny map given to us by the Office of Tourism. This would be our only guide for today’s walk.
Saying goodbye and shaking hands with our amiable hostess, we marched off along the D48, which rose at first through the streets of the town and then between steep cowfields.
It was still early and the sun slanted across the domed hill behind St-Céré, picking out the two sentinel towers that defined it.
The road was shaded by a fringe of trees, and the cows looked up only briefly from their munching as we swung past.
When we got to the turn-off to St-Vincent-de-Peridit, which had looked a possible alternative route on our map, we saw that it actually plunged alarmingly into a side valley and so was out of the question.
Pressing on up the ever-rising D48, we entered a forest of birches and oaks, intensely green in their summer garb.
Towards the top of the rise, after many twists and turns and another unappealing side road, we came out of the forest and there was a third turn-off, this time to the village of Bannes.
We decided to take this one, as we were getting sick of trudging along the direct road.
We had no hope of finding any tracks or paths, with only the little tourist map to rely on.
The fields around Bannes were emerald green and the village looked charming, but we did not linger there.
We said good morning to a woman pottering in her garden and then set off up the hill in the direction of the bigger village of Leyme, where we hoped there would be a bar.
According to our map, this little road would deliver us into the centre of Leyme, but when we came to a junction with a bigger road (which turned out to be our old friend the D48), there were no houses in sight.
We could not even decide whether to turn left or right, so we flagged down a passing car and found out that we needed to go left.
It was a steep, tree-lined downhill zig-zag into the valley of Leyme, and at the bottom the houses straggled along the road for a long way before we got to the centre.
There we found a boulangerie (closed), a few sad shops, and a large, dormer-windowed building which turned out to be a hotel.
We went in and rang the bell, and after a long time a woman appeared, explaining that she had been preparing for lunch – apparently droves of people come here at midday to enjoy her cooking,
She took us into the shed-like dining extension at the back to admire her enormous trays of hot food before inviting us to sit down for coffee.
We had two rounds of coffee and two travel-weary croissants from St-Céré, and felt very pleased that we were going so well. It was not yet 11 am and we had done at least half the walk.
After that things began to deteriorate.
It seemed that the heat had escalated while we were having our coffee, and we felt it like a blow torch as we walked down, past the church and across a sort of water meadow, then into a deep forest.
The road began to climb, and veered seriously to the left. Naturally, our tiny map did not show the network of little roads that we could have taken, which would have greatly shortened our trip, not to mention spared us from plodding up the bitumen.
All this walking on the edge of the road twisted my foot again and brought back the pain that I had just recovered from.
Once over the crest of the ridge, the road came out into open fields, upon which the sun pounded relentlessly.
The last few kilometres into Lacapelle-Marival reduced us to a state of decrepitude no better than at the end of our last three stages. In fact, ever since we came down from the Xaintrie we had been crushed by the heat.
Luckily for us, the camping ground was on the near side of the town, and we had been there before, so we arrived without getting lost.
It was a wide, pleasant swathe of grass and trees, sprinkled with caravans. As the office was closed we chose a spot and flopped down in the shade.
Keith went to sleep immediately, but I was annoyed by flies crawling over my sweaty limbs, so I had a shower, by which time the office had opened. The man in charge also operated the adjacent town swimming pool and he looked like a water creature himself, sleek and fleshy – perhaps a reincarnated seal.
We had no idea what to do tomorrow. When we left St-Céré this morning, our intention had been to walk on from here to Figeac, retracing our steps on the GR65 pilgrimage that we had done previously in the opposite direction. But now that my foot strain had come back we were not so sure, and the heat was starting to undermine our resolve.
Casting that anxiety into the back of our minds, we walked into town via the remembered lane, and arrived at the massive bulk of the château, surrounded by neat gardens and dwarfing the church on the other side of the road.
The church square was attractive in a slightly ramshackle way, with an old half-timbered café (closed at the time) in the middle and a motley assortment of houses and shops around it.
Through a lane at the back of the square we found the Office of Tourism, where we asked about a good place to dine this evening.
The enthusiastic suggestion was Le Glacier, which had wonderful food, all home-cooked. We remembered that we had eaten there last time and found it distinctly unglamorous, but at least it was a possibility.
The other possibility was the Logis hotel at the bottom of the village, with menus starting from €35 – not a place for the shabbily-dressed walker to aspire to.
Outside the Office of Tourism was an ancient halle (market hall) and a little winding street lined with old houses, which turned out to be the Grande Rue, in other words the former main street. The arrival of modern roads had destroyed the shape of the village and resulted in its present muddled form.
Our next stop was the Bar des Sports on the present main road, for apéritifs, which we felt we had earned.
There was a jolly crowd there, mostly workmen on their way home by the look of them. We kept ourselves under the shade of the awning but even there it was stifling.
The barman also recommended Le Glacier as the place to eat, and it was only a little way up the street, so we went there, only to find the door locked.
Peering through the window, we saw the tables all nicely set, but nobody answered our knocking and as it was almost 8 pm, we decided to waste no more time there.
Back in the church square, the Café du Midi was now open and the outdoor tables were occupied by local drinkers, some of them obviously English, judging by the sound of their French.
At another table sat a lone male walker with his pack and stick, drinking a cold drink.
We spoke to him and discovered that he was walking from Rocamadour to le Puy, in the opposite direction to all other pilgrims.
Eventually he wandered off, presumably to sleep in a hedge or a barn somewhere.
The menu at the Café du Midi was of the simplest but we were in no position to be choosy, so we ordered steak and chips and a carafe of red wine.
Across the way at the château, well-dressed people were streaming into the opening of an art exhibition. We found out from our fellow drinkers that the building is owned by the commune and holds frequent cultural events.
By that time we were trying to think of ways to get to Figeac without walking there. A teenage girl at a nearby table said that there were no public buses from here, but that we could catch the school bus, which left at 6:50 am from near the château.
That was a great relief, but an even greater relief followed. An English ex-pat sitting near us said that he was driving to Figeac tomorrow, to have lunch with his son, and that he would give us a lift. We arranged to be at the gates of the camping ground at 11 am, and retired to our tent very happily.
We didn’t know it at the time, but our walk for 2019 had just ended.
The nearest railway station to Lacapelle-Marival is about 20 km away at Figeac. We were told that the only public transport from Lacapelle-Marival to Figeac is the school bus that leaves at 6:50 in the morning. Alternatively, you might be lucky, as we were, and be offered a lift.
We had not renounced the idea of walking on after Figeac, even though we were getting a lift there.
It was a stage that we had done before, and therefore if we pressed on after that, we would not have a gap in our long, intertwined, but continuous trajectory, developed over the past seventeen years.
It was a witheringly hot morning, but we did not care. We had a leisurely breakfast in the shade at the Café du Midi, with pastries from the boulanger in the square.
By 11 am we were sitting up at the entrance to the camping when our benefactor, whose name was John, drove in, and we sat three across in the front of his van.
The journey took about 45 minutes, as he took us by the scenic route, past his charming house (a former farmhouse) and over a range of hills, where we had a beautiful view of the whole valley of the Célé and the Lot.
We were getting a bit muddled about the place names around here, what with the river Célé, the town of St-Céré and the river Cère.
He dropped us in the Place Champollion and we took the opportunity to visit the Rosetta Stone, or rather the large replica of it which paves a courtyard outside the Musée Champollion.
Jean-François Champollion, probably Figeac’s most famous son, used the Rosetta Stone to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, by comparing them with the other two scripts on the stone, Demotic and Ancient Greek.
After this perfunctory bit of tourism, we set off for the camping ground. It was midday and the heat pumped mercilessly off the bitumen and the ancient stones of the buildings.
We were relieved when we got to the railway overpass and turned off on the little road to the camping ground, which went along beside the river and was lined with trees.
Several groups of pilgrims came shuffling towards us, heading for the gîtes d’étape in town, and they looked as we felt – roasted alive.
The camping ground was on the banks of the Célé, next to the public swimming pool.
There was a large restaurant nearby, with an outdoor terrace from which lawns and trees sloped down attractively to the river. As there was a barrage nearby, the river was as wide as a lake at this point.
We set up our tent beside a tall cypress hedge, which cast thick shade on us as we lay on our mats, but we were nevertheless sweating profusely, and our minds were not in their normal state of repose.
The next day of our planned walk was very short, only 16 kms to Beduer, and that sounded possible if we started early, but after that the days were long, and the wave of heat from the Sahara showed no sign of abating in the near future.
After a lot of agonising we came up with a sort of a plan. We would catch a train out of here, either to Bergerac, where we could wait out the canicule in comfort and then resume our walk, or to Paris, if we decided to cut our losses and go home.
An electric cart came buzzing up and the woman asked us to go and pay at the office before it closed at 7 pm. She said that she had come past before but that we were asleep. “I usually kick people awake”, she added with a beaming smile.
At 6:50 pm we paid our dues (€13.90) and retired immediately to the nearby terrace of the restaurant for glasses of cold rosé.
A lovely scene was spread out below us, with families and other people playing games and having picnics on the lawns beside the lake.
One group had tied a slack rope between two trees and were taking turns to wobble along it, to much merriment.
The restaurant was also busy. Two long tables were occupied by a group of elderly locals They were having a set menu, which was not very appetising looking, but they were enjoying themselves all the same.
However our dishes were excellent. As we had reached the stage of decrepitude when a single dish filled us up, Keith had an entrecôte with blue cheese sauce for his single dish, and I had an enormous salad, full of seafood. With this we had a half bottle of red Marcillac.
That night I slept well but Keith lay awake worrying about what we should do. In the morning he wanted to go straight to Paris as soon as possible, and I fully agreed with him.
It was a wrench to renounce the rest of our walk but on the other hand, we had lost the urge. The last few days of struggling with the heat had been too terrible.
We walked into town and then up to the railway station, which was a steep little climb up from the river. Even that small amount of exertion reduced us to sweating wrecks, and confirmed our opinion that we could not possibly go on.
The railway station had been burnt out a few months before, but there was a sort of shipping container set up nearby, in which the SNCF woman sat.
She told us that today’s train to Paris was not running, but tomorrow’s definitely would. We were not convinced.
But first we had to change our flights, so we went back to town. All the streets in Figeac are narrow and twisting, hence picturesque, but inconvenient for drivers. We sat in the street for coffee and croissants while cars nosed carefully past our toes.
Then we found the Office of Tourism in a charming Renaissance maison, with a lantern of the dead on the side.
We asked whether we could use their phone (as we did not have one) to change our plane tickets but the woman on the desk suggested that it would be better to go to the travel agent (Fitours) in the next street, who, unlike her, would know what they were doing.
This proved to be the case. At the travel agent we were greatly helped by a fleshy and very competent young woman. She was on the phone for close to an hour, organising everything, and at the end we had new plane tickets, leaving Paris tomorrow.
Next we rushed back to the railway station and managed to get tickets on the morning train, so everything was organised and we strolled back with relief through the maze of lanes and out to the camping ground.
Lunch was being served at the lakeside restaurant, and as we walked past we saw our Swiss friends from St-Céré , Monica and Hans, sitting at a table.
We were all amazed at the coincidence, and kissed each other warmly. They had just inspected a house near Figeac, and had been told that if they made an offer, there would be a delay of two months to allow any French citizen to take priority over them.
In the afternoon we did no more agonising, but a lot more sweating, and dined at the delightful restaurant for a second night.
The next morning, anxious not to miss the 8:33 am train, we started out about 7 am. There is a line of pilgrims’ gîtes at the entrance to the town, and we could see through the open doors into the breakfast rooms. The food was all laid out but nobody was there. It occurred to us that we were not the only walkers to be bailing out – the pilgrims seemingly were also giving up in droves.
The train was a tiny capsule and quite crowded. We had to sit in the bike rack, and when we went through a heavy rain shower, streams of water came through the roof.
At Brive we changed to an enormously long train and got good seats at the back.
It was a long ride to Austerlitz, then a short, hot walk over the river to the Gare de Lyon, where we used up most of our cash on RER tickets to the airport.
Walking in to the great air-conditioned cavern of Charles de Gaulle airport, we felt cool for the first time in ages.
Everything went smoothly and after about 36 hours of airborne discomfort, we arrived in our freezing hometown and caught the local bus home.
We lit the fire, made dinner and ate it on the sofa with the soles of our feet up on the coffee table, basking in the firelight.
Eight months later, as we write this, the coronavirus is raging and it looks as if we may not be walking in France again for a long time.