Sunday, 16 June 2019
Distance 28 km
Duration 6 hours 15 minutes
Ascent 280 m, descent 209 m
In the morning, all hint of the rain was gone and the sky was an innocent blue.
We had no wish to walk back to the village, as it was in the wrong direction, and also we had not seen a bar that opened early enough for us.
We knew that there was a hotel at Chouvigny, about eight kilometres along the river road, which did not sound far to our over-optimistic ears, so we set off before 7 am in the direction of breakfast, full of enthusiasm.
An hour and a half later we were not quite as keen, and the hotel was still a way off.
We joined a GRP (Tour of the Valley of the Sioule), which was picturesque but hilly.
In the distance we could see the few houses of Chouvigny halfway up the hillside, and that was all that we would ever see of it, as we were only interested in the hotel, which was down below at river level, and which we came to after a final weary trudge on the bitumen road.
We were surprised at how tired we were, but it turned out to be from lack of food rather than lack of fitness.
The hotel was a lovely old building smothered in vines and roses, and the restaurant was just across the road, on the very edge of the river.
Inside, some hotel guests were still having breakfast (it was 9 am) and we were shown to a table overlooking the shallow, stony-bottomed, rushing little river Sioule.
Our hostess apologised that they had no more viennoiseries, but offered us home-made tarts and a mountain of bread, butter and jam to go with our coffee, so we were very happy.
Much restored in body and spirit, we set off along the road again. There was no other way, as the thickly forested escarpment fell dramatically to the river, and the road was carved into the cliff side.
We even went through a short tunnel in a rocky bluff, but as there were very few cars on the road, it was not as risky as some of our previous tunnel dashes.
Although the scenery was so wild and uninhabitated looking, it was evidently a popular area for tourists, especially of the fisherman variety. We passed two other hotels within half an hour, and after that there was nothing but the steeply rising forest on one side, and the river with its shining pools and rapids far below on the other.
Presently we came to a village, le Pont de Menat, where there was a high modern bridge, which we crossed, followed by a much lower and older stone bridge, now used only by walkers and cyclists.
Then the road left the riverbank, for reasons unknown, and we slogged up a stultifying ascent, with the ruined château of Blot looming above us.
There were several more twists and turns on the ever-rising road, before we descended gratefully to river level at the hamlet of Lisseuil. This was hardly more than a few simple houses, but among them stood a large, magnificent restaurant.
The dining room was packed with Sunday diners, and the happy chatter was deafening. Waiters squeezed among the tables delivering plates of good things to the crowd.
We sat outside, enjoying the festive noise and bustle from a distance. We looked forward to being part of just such a scene this evening, as we knew there was a classy restaurant, l’Escale, open tonight in Châteauneuf-les-Bains.
Meanwhile we just had coffee, with which we finished the tarts from breakfast and the bread and cheese from the night before. It amounted tp quite a good lunch in the end.
Pressing on along the mercifully flat river road, we soon came to a point of decision. We could either cross a bridge and cruise into Châteauneuf-les-Bains directly, or keep going on this side, then take a path around a long loop of the river to arrive.
The latter looked more adventurous but twice as long, and we had learned to distrust tracks marked as broken lines on the map.
Also we were getting tired, so we took the unadventurous way along the road.
At the edge of the village, where the river looped almost back on itself, we came to a large, old-fashioned white edifice, the Thermes de Châteauneuf-les-Bains, where seekers of a cure for rheumatism could bathe in the mineral-rich waters of the Sioule.
It was still functioning, although its heyday had been long ago, in the nineteenth century.
The village had two camping grounds, and we chose the second one, opposite the restaurant. Before settling down we walked over to book a table for this evening.
The terrace was attractive, and as crowded as Lisseuil, to the degree that the Complet sign was propped up at the entrance.
But our enquiry about this evening brought the dreaded reply that there would be “une fermeture exceptionelle”. Some family crisis had come up and the place would be closed tonight.
There was nowhere else to eat in the town, so madame kindly made two long sandwiches for us, and said that we could buy cans of beer at the camping office.
We then went for a walk to the rest of the town, and there was certainly not much to see.
The two hotels marked on the map were both sad wrecks, and had been so for decades by the look of them, no doubt casualties of the decline in the popularity of therapeutic spas.
The only thing open was a bar, which was about to close for the evening. However we found out from the sour-faced barwoman that it opened at 8 am the next day.
Back at the camping ground, we paid the man and bought four cans of beer, which he kindly put into a special outdoor fridge for us, in case he was away when we wanted them.
Having put up the tent and finished our ablutions, we sat on a sagging sofa outside the office, opened the first two of our beers, and began to relax and enjoy ourselves.
There were a few other campers wandering about, enough to make it feel friendly.
At about 8 pm, back at our emplacement, we broached our big ham and salad sandwiches, which were delightful, and polished off the last two beers.
To our surprise, local people started to arrive at the sagging sofa, more and more of them, making an agreeable murmur of conversation and laughter.
It seemed that the camping ground had become the de facto evening bar for the village, in the absence of anything else.
The night was cold, as it had been yesterday, and we got into our sleeping bags with all our warm clothes on – long trousers, fleecy jackets and socks – which was only just enough.
Previous day: Gannat to Ébreuil
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