Wednesday, 26 June 2019
Distance 19 km
Duration 4 hours 35 minutes
Ascent 89 m, descent 458 m
It had been slightly spooky for me during the night in the almost-empty camping ground, but dawn brought back my courage.
The air was cool and clear as we strolled back up the hill to our breakfast assignation, past the lake and the neat new bales of hay in the tiny field.
We got a bag of pastries and reported to the bar on the stroke of 7 o’clock, finding it already in full swing instead of just opening its doors as they had told us.
We sat outside and shared the terrace with a couple of old men and a group of garbage men who were mixing duty with pleasure (this seems to part of the job in France).
The village looked charming in the first rays of the sun, and we fortified ourselves with two rounds of coffee and two pastries each.
The waitress asked where we were going, and when we said Argentat, her brow darkened and she warned us that it would be hot down there.
Here at St-Privat, in the high country of the Xaintrie, there was always a breeze, she said, but down on the Dordogne it was a different world, hot and sultry.
We, on the contrary, felt that we were more likely to feel hot in the sun-filled open fields of the Xaintrie than beside the river, shaded by the overhanging forest.
It was certainly warm for the first couple of hours as we walked along two tiny roads, both with “e” after their name, indicating tininess. The farmland around us was, as expected, a manicured green paradise.
Approaching Servières-le-Château, we got slightly lost in a maze of intersecting roads and had to double back to get into the town.
With some difficulty we found a boulangerie, and then, just around the corner, a bar-hotel. Unfortunately it did not open until 10 o’clock, and it was only 9:30, but an old fellow was sitting outside with his coffee, which was promising.
At that moment a woman emerged from the building and asked (in German) whether we were German, then swapped to flawless English.
She herself was German, and a Michelin 3-star chef, who had run a cooking show on German TV in the past before retiring to France with her husband. She said it was a pity that we could not stay for lunch.
We sat on the small terrace, under a heavy canopy of leaves, and madame brought our coffees, which were in traditional twelve-sided French cups, the gold rims almost worn off by use.
When we admired them, she said that they were very old, made locally (in Aurillac) and she offered to sell us a couple for €5.
For some reason, although we have a golden rule never to load ourselves down with things like that while walking, we agreed. Our timing was terrible, as we soon found out.
Pleased with ourselves but considerably weighed down, we plodded cheerfully up to the château, which was on the very brink of the drop into the Dordogne.
Behind the château, a track plunged into the fast-falling forest, but it was well-defined and marked with man-sized wooden crosses at every bend, so it was not difficult.
It also formed part of a larger walking circuit around the northern part of the Xaintrie, marked with red and yellow GRP signs.
Having descended sharply for a while, we crossed a bridge and climbed up some massive boulders, where the chapel of Notre Dame du Roc huddled among dangerous looking overhangs.
It was a sweet little building, and there was a lawn on the other side, where we sat briefly and looked out over the valley.
After that the track was wider, and we came to an incongruous car park (completely empty) which apparently connected to a bitumen road further down.
However we kept going down the track and after about a kilometre we came out onto the river Dordogne, which we had last seen as a sluggish trickle when we crossed it three days ago.
By now it was a broad, brimming expanse reflecting the blue of the sky and the wooded hills on the other side of the water.
After admiring the chapel of Glény with its beautiful bell wall, we set off along the road, and, as we had hoped, it was shaded by the steeply rising forest.
It was about seven or eight kilometres of flat walking to the camping ground at Argentat, and we felt that we would have no trouble getting there.
It turned out that the waitress in St-Privat was right – it was oppressively hot, even under the trees, and we soon began to fade. Carrying a couple of extra kilos in the form of coffee cups did not help.
We trudged along for over an hour, at the end of which we hated the river, hated the road, and above all hated a boatload of sightseers who glided past at their ease.
Then we came to the big hydro-electric barrage of Argentat, and realised that it was possible for walkers to use it as a bridge. This shortened our suffering by at least two kilometres, but even so we made heavy weather of this final section, which was up and down through the streets.
At last we came to a little avenue that led down to the camping ground, and prayed that it would be functioning.
Even before we arrived, we knew that our prayers were answered, because of the beautifully tended flower beds lining the avenue, and when we got there we saw many vans parked on the grass under a canopy of plane trees.
Dumping all our stuff in a hedged enclosure, we flung ourselves thankfully into the showers and then onto our mats, where, with great relish, we polished off the duck leg and bread from last night.
After a period of blissful repose, we looked at our maps and decided that, in view of the predicted heat, our chosen route for the next day would have to change.
That route involved a stiff climb from the river (on the GRP of the Xaintrie Noire), and the crossing of a lot of open country exposed to the sun. Instead we thought we would stay close to the river on a small forested road, which was longer, but shadier and flatter.
Then we set off for town. Some Dutch neighbours had told us about a short cut along the river, and this proved to be very pleasant. The air was still roasting hot but somehow the sight of the water cooled us. There were small fields between the path and the backs of the houses, reminiscent of the tiny field at St-Privat.
As we strolled along the dusty path we saw an old man, who no doubt lived nearby, emerging from the Dordogne like an elderly river sprite, picking his way with care over the slippery rocks. This looked like his regular summer evening ritual.
It was lovely to see the river still being used for these simple pleasures, as it probably had been for thousands of years.
The waterfront near the big nineteenth-century bridge looked very pretty, with a row of old houses and cafés looking out onto the river, and a big dark boat (known as a gabare), complete with a bronze oarsman wielding a very long oar. This commemorated the ancient river trade of the town.
We went up an alley to the burning hot main square, where we found the Office of Tourism, and asked about where to dine this evening, to which the reply was that there were a couple of classy hotels, plus more humble fare along the river bank.
We decided that humble fare would suit us well, largely because of the beauty of the scene down on the water.
Then we walked around asking all the bars we could see, what time they would open in the morning, and none of them opened early. This was a blow, as we needed to leave as early as possible for fear of the heatwave.
With these problems swirling about in our heads, we went back to the waterfront and had coffee under a mixture of young plane trees, pink umbrellas and shade cloth.
This was delightful, and we could have stayed there for dinner, but we decided the pizzeria nearby would be better, as we needed to save something to eat as marching food in the morning.
The pizzeria, which was hard up against the bridge, had two levels of outdoor tables and we chose the upper one. There we had a wonderful view of the river and the jumble of old houses opposite, as well as a welcome breeze.
Keith had a Napolitaine and I had a Reine, both of them utterly delicious, and we folded up the remaining slices for tomorrow’s breakfast.
All our worries were solved for the moment and we walked back in a happy frame of mind.
Dusk was approaching, but we passed a couple busily winnowing their cut hay in one of the little fields behind the houses.
Like the hay-baling last night at St-Privat, it was quite a moving sight, resembling an illustration from a mediaeval book of hours.