Wednesday, 19 June 2019
Distance 25 km
Duration 5 hours 45 minutes
Ascent 439 m, descent 243 m
True to our habit, we arrived back in town at a minute past seven, just in time to be the first customers at the boulangerie.
The shop was being renovated by the new managers and presently had no door. Instead there was a large hole in the wall, through which a cheery woman passed out our croissants and pain aux raisins.
It was an icy morning and it must have been cold work for her.
Around the corner, the bar was also just opening and we went into the warm interior for coffee.
Comfortably installed, we had two rounds with our double ration of pastries, while a stream of people came and went, buying cigarettes more often than coffee.
Smoking these days seems to us a very old-fashioned and peculiarly French habit.
With a pleasant feeling of fullness, we shouldered our packs and set off, back past the entrance of the camping ground and then up the highway, until we came to a little track that our map promised would connect to the side road, the D987. It did not – instead it dissolved into a tangle of undergrowth and piles of raw dirt.
After thrashing about for a while, we retreated to the highway and in a short time we were on the D987.
The temptation to follow these little threads has often got us into trouble, but on this occasion not much harm was done.
The road that we were on was quiet and picturesque, winding along the slope above the Sioulet.
After a kilometre or two we once again gave in to the temptation to branch off on a track.
It was a wide, deeply-scored wheel track that curved around a hill, but it got more and more overgrown as we climbed.
Not for the first time, we marvelled at the difference between fertile, well-watered France, where neglected tracks can be swallowed up by the vegetation in a matter of months, and our own dear damaged country with its thin, poor soils and scanty growth, where it takes years for a track to vanish.
This track shrank to a tunnel, with long leafy arms closing in hungrily around us, and we were starting to worry about having to turn back when we suddenly emerged into a grassy field, with the thick forest safely confined on one side.
So in the end this short cut worked better than our first one.
Not long after that we emerged onto a road and saw a little yellow house with a bar sign and an array of rickety metal chairs and tables in front.
The umbrellas were down but the door was open, so we went in and a sweet-looking old woman made coffee for us (probably in a saucepan) and brought it out to where we had succeeded in getting one of the faded, broken-spoked umbrellas up.
It was quite delightful and rather strange, sitting on the side of the busy road while cars whisked past inches from our feet. As it was an hour and a half since breakfast, we ate some dried fruit leather with the coffee to keep up our strength.
From there it was just a few hundred metres on the side road to the village of Combrailles, with its handsome white and grey church.
Many of the houses looked onto the church square and there were a surprising number of local people about, whereas most villages are like graveyards in the middle of the day.
One woman called out friendly encouragement from her window as we passed.
At the edge of the village we once again took a short cut, but not an adventurous one, just a wheel track through some fields, and joined another road, on which we crossed the Sioulet and pressed on for half an hour or so, until we turned off towards the hamlet of Matriollet.
The countryside was abundantly green, sometimes shaded by lines of trees and sometimes out in the open.
Matriollet was a rather haphazard collection of stone houses (some of them derelict), barns, tottering wooden sheds, manure piles and the like, looking much the same as it had probably looked for centuries.
As we were leaving the village, a farmer on a tractor stopped beside us, opened the door of his cab and asked to see our map. He stared at it for a while, then declared that he had never seen anything like it and that it did not make sense. We told him that we were heading for Giat, to which he replied that we needed to get ourselves to the highway and follow it – that was the only way to get to Giat.
Thanking him, we continued on our chosen route, a wheel track that did indeed lead to the highway, but only to cross over it and plunge into the fields beyond.
We found ourselves in quite a maze of footpaths, but it was easy to navigate our way through.
The hillside was patterned with squares of flowering pasture and young wheat with its lacing of vivid blue cornflowers, punctuated by crooked grey fences and patches of forest.
After half an hour of gentle descent, we came to a tiny bitumen road which took us back up to our former height.
It was only a gradual rise and the road was shady for the most part, but we started to feel tired, and sat on a log beside the road. It was five hours since breakfast, and three hours since coffee at the little roadside bar of Combrailles.
Luckily we only had a few kilometres to go. We crossed a defunct railway line and soon arrived at the entrance of the village of Giat.
It was a handsome little place with a line of trees arching high above the main street.
We passed a boulangerie which was closed for congé (annual leave), then a lively bar full of people eating, as well as various other shops of less interest to the passing traveller.
We had already found out that the nearby camping ground was closed for renovations, as was the other one, also run by the commune of Giat, a few kilometres to the west, on a lake. They had evidently taken out a bulk contract for renovating the two of them, which meant that we had to stay in the hotel.
This was not all bad, because we were now higher than we had been so far this year (760 metres) and the night would probably be colder than ever. We had already been wearing every garment we possessed inside our sleeping bags, so it might have been hard to sleep if we had been camping.
The hotel door was opened by a sensible-looking round-faced woman, who took us up to a high room looking to the south.
The first thing we did was try the shower, which was extremely elaborate and modern, and then we collapsed for a siesta.
By this time we had transformed the neat, pretty room into a morass of dangling wet washing and rumpled bedding.
Our hostess had told us that dinner was at 7 pm and we descended to the dining room punctually.
The family (parents and a couple of grown sons) were eating at another table and we found out that they were Swiss, from Montreux.
Madame said that she cooked during the week when they were not busy, but her husband cooked at the weekend. Both were chatty and monsieur was keen to try out his English, which was good for Keith. Apart from an old local gentleman who came in for dinner, we were the only diners.
The menu was markedly Swiss. Keith began with a plate of charcuterie adorned with slabs of blue cheese – a real protein hit – and I had a lovely mountain of crudities.
These came with bread and wine as usual. There were flowers on the table and the atmosphere was relaxed and pleasant.
After that Keith chose rösti with lardons and ham and I had a chive omelette, both very filling dishes.
Having arranged to have breakfast at about 8 am, we went back to our eyrie and sank into the snowy sheets. With the voluminous Swiss duvet over us, we had the window flung wide all night.