Day 1: Gannat to Ébreuil

Walking in France: Drying out my plastic poncho from yesterday's rain
A soggy poncho from yesterday’s rain

Saturday, 15 June 2019
Distance 17 km
Duration 4 hours 15 minutes
Ascent 384 m, descent 449 m

By some miracle, our body clocks had adjusted themselves to European time and we woke about 7 am, feeling rested and ready for anything.

It was a fine morning, with skeins of light cloud gliding overhead, as we set off for breakfast in town.

It was a walk of about a kilometre and it was very familiar to us by now, given that we had done it five times last year and twice yesterday.

Walking in France: Enjoying the interior of le Jardin de Gannat
Enjoying the interior of le Jardin de Gannat

Once past the mysterious band of decaying shops (which we finally worked out was the previous town centre, now migrated uphill for some reason), we got to the prosperous hub and headed straight for the big bar overlooking the main square (le Jardin de Gannat), having first armed ourselves with a bag of warm pastries from the boulangerie next door.

The interior was old-fashioned, with dark bentwood chairs, and morning light streaming in through lace curtains from the plane trees of the square.

Walking in France: Breakfast, and our pile of maps for this walk
Breakfast, and our pile of maps for this walk

A number of old-timers were propping up the counter or bent over the paper with their small black coffees, and a man hobbled in on a walking frame for his glass of white wine, which was put wordlessly in front of him as soon as he sat down.

We spread out our pastries and savoured the first proper French breakfast of this year. The thick wad of home-made maps on the table looked slightly daunting, but did not dampen our appetite, either for breakfast or for the road ahead.

Our idea was to follow the marked GR463 for most of the day’s walk, which would make for easy navigation, and to join it we went a short way through the streets of the village.

Walking in France: Pigeonnier, Gannat
Pigeonnier, Gannat

Standing oddly among them was a pigeonnier, all scrubbed up and freshly painted, which would have been a puzzling sight to the original builders – after all, its original unglamorous purpose was to collect bird excrement.

Just past that, the road turned and crossed a stream, but we kept going on a wide, soggy track that climbed a wooded ridge to a power line, before wandering along through fields to a farm.

This farm was all alone on a wide, grassy hill, but it had so many barns and outhouses that it looked like a little village of its own.

Walking in France: Approaching the farm
Approaching the farm
Walking in France: Descending in the rain
Descending in the rain

The track by now was a series of shallow puddles, and remained so as we turned downhill and crossed a rivulet.

After that we skirted a pine forest and reached a small road, on which we crossed over the howling torrent of the autoroute (the A71), then ascended again.

Walking in France: The GR463 turning into a fast-flowing stream
The fast-flowing GR463

It began to rain and we got out our plastic capes. Struggling into them requires two people, the wearer to pull down the front part and the other person to hoist the back part over the hump of the pack. How solitary walkers do it is hard to imagine – perhaps they have different rain gear.

By this time we were quite high, and about to discover that what goes up must come down.

The GR plunged into a dripping deciduous forest and continued to plunge as the rain hammered down, turning the stony track into a fast-flowing stream.

We hopped from side to side, trying to keep our feet dry, but soon gave up the attempt and just splashed through.

Walking in France: Out of the forest and approaching Ébreuil
Out of the forest and approaching Ébreuil

A couple of kilometres of this seemed to take an age, but at last we came out of the trees and onto a road, still descending but more gently.

The green fields of the valley of the Sioule extended all around us, backed by a line of low hills.

Walking in France: Crossing the Sioule to arrive in Ébreuil
Crossing the Sioule into Ébreuil

Half an hour later we crossed the ancient bridge, with its tacked-on modern pedestrian lane, and entered the town of Ébreuil.

It was now after midday, but the Office of Tourism was still open, so we asked their advice about where to dine this evening.

Their recommendation was the busy restaurant on the corner that we had just passed (les Plaisirs Partagés), where everything was home-made, they said.

Walking in France: On the banks of the Sioule, Ébreuil camping ground
Ébreuil camping ground on the banks of the Sioule

Meanwhile our immediate need was a bar, and we went to the one that we had visited last year, but this time we joined the crowd indoors. As we took off our streaming capes, a lake appeared on the floor, for which we apologised, but our host smilingly reminded us that it was only water.

While we warmed ourselves with our coffee, the rain eased off and stopped, so we pressed on the final kilometre to the camping ground.

To our relief it was open – we can never be sure – and we found a good spot on the banks of the river, putting the tent up quickly in case the rain returned.

Walking in France: Amazing - walking to the church of St-Léger under clear skies
Amazing – walking back to town under clear skies

We had showers and washed the clothes that we had put on in Canberra sixty hours ago. Amazingly, the sky cleared and our washing dried while we were asleep in the tent.

At about 7 pm we strolled back to the village. We were in no hurry so we wandered into the lanes near the river and found the monumental church of St-Léger, last remnant of the great abbey established here in the tenth century.

Beside it was a cloister under which tables had been set with white cloths, cutlery, glasses and so on. We guessed a wedding reception was about to take place.

When we arrived at our chosen restaurant, we were astonished to find that it was booked out – it had never occurred to us to book a table when we arrived at lunch time. Slightly at a loss, we went back to the church and looked into the pizzeria on the corner, but did not much like it.

Walking in France: Dining at Le Zabelle, Ébreuil
Dining at Le Zabelle

Then we remembered seeing a restaurant sign in the side street back near the bridge, so we investigated that and it turned out to be a fine old establishment (le Zabelle) with a view over a tree-shaded square. The blackboard outside offered three courses for €14.50.

We got a table near the window overlooking the square, and ordered our first course, which was a smoked salmon salad for Keith, and a serve-yourself buffet of crudities for me, an entrée that I always choose when it is available.

Walking in France: Our first courses; smoked salmon salad, and crudities from the buffet
Our first courses – smoked salmon salad and crudities from the buffet

After this excellent start, we both had steaks (bavettes to be precise), with salad and masses of fresh, lovely French bread.

To finish, Keith did his scholarly duty by a crème brûlée, while I ordered cheese but did not eat it. I slipped it into a plastic bag that I had handy, and it was much appreciated the next day,

Walking in France: Followed by bavettes with salad
Followed by bavettes with salad

On our way back to the camping, we heard meltingly beautiful singing coming from the open door of the church, and on peeping in we saw that it was the local male choir, all dressed in blue jackets, their voices soaring harmoniously into the dark heights of the ceiling.

Walking in France: The male choir singing in the church of St-Léger, Ébreuil
The male choir singing in the church of St-Léger

Once again we were reminded that life outside Paris is not the cultural desert that it is reputed to be.

Back at the camping ground, a noisy crowd had gathered in front of a TV screen to see the rugby grand final between the local team (Clermont) and Toulouse. The score was 6 -6 when we arrived, but soon Toulouse started to dominate and the noise died down to a gloomy murmur.

It was almost 10 pm by then and getting dark, so we scuttled off and slept like logs until morning.

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