Château-Arnoux to La Bastide-des-Jourdans

The Penitents and the canal

Because we had been so scarred by the ferocious heat on our last walk, we were determined to take advantage of the cooler weather in May. This turned out to be an over-reaction, and we shivered our way through a good part of this section, often being rained on.

For the first day we followed the big canal which stretched from Sisteron almost to the Mediterranean, and we did not quite understand, even after following it for a day, that it was not a normal French canal (with its shady towpaths, lock-keeper’s cottages and passing pleasure boats), but part of a big modern hydro-electric scheme. We found out later.

There were spectacular sights along the way, notably the Penitents, a line of terrifyingly tall columns of rock overhanging the town of Les Mées, and the beautiful carpets of vines that graced many of the valleys.

We were too early for the sunflowers, and in any case they would have been hanging their heads against the rain.

Getting to Château-Arnoux

Walking in France: Sydney airport - preparing for the long ordeal ahead
Sydney airport – preparing for the long ordeal ahead

We prevailed on one of our grand-offspring to deliver us to the railway station in Canberra, in exchange for his having the use of the car until we came back.

After all our frantic preparations we were stressed and nervous, but once we were on the train we relaxed into the rhythm of the wheels. It helped that it was a tranquil, sunny day.

After Bungendore the train rambled through frosty fields, where the infrequency of the railway service was demonstrated by the fleeing rumps of a flock of newly shorn lambs, terrified by this sudden monstrous noise.

We passed through undulating fields and patches of scrubby forest, whose innumerable thin, crooked white trunks gave us a pang of premature nostalgia before we had even left our native land.

As we sped along, we indulged in a railway lunch – roast beef, gravy and over-cooked vegetables, piping hot, just as our mothers used to make on Sundays,

Pretending to be already in France, but actually at Singapore airport
Pretending to be already in France, but actually at Singapore airport

After passing several unfamiliar villages, our train reached the edge of the great sprawl of Sydney, which was alarmingly ugly to my countrified eyes, and deposited us at Central station. A few minutes on another train and a short walk took us to the house of our friends, with whom we were going to spend the night.

Keith found this short walk very hard, although our packs weighed no more than seven kilos each. This should have been a warning to us. It was the first hint of what was to come.

After an excellent evening of food and conversation with our beloved friends, we rose the next morning feeling all sorts of emotions, from joy to fear. It had been four years since we had travelled anywhere.

Our friends walked with us to the airport, which was only a couple of kilometres away (Keith lagging ominously behind), and then we were sucked into the great sausage machine of the embarkation.

Walking in France: Boulevard Magenta
Boulevard Magenta

The best part of this tedious process was when the automated face recognition device did not think that I matched the frighteningly ugly photo in my passport and I had to go and be recognised by a human.

Many tedious and uncomfortable hours later we emerged at Charles de Gaulle airport, took the train into the Gare du Nord and then strolled down the Boulevard Magenta to the Gare de Lyon.

This has been our habit for several years when arriving in Paris, but this time the air was so freezing that we had to go indoors for our traditional breakfast of coffee and croissants.

Walking in France: Coffee and croissants on the Boulevard Magenta
Coffee and croissants on the Boulevard Magenta
Walking in France: Place de la Bastille, on the way to the Gare de Lyon
Place de la Bastille, on the way to the Gare de Lyon

At the Gare de Lyon, we had plenty of time, so we bought a couple of “sandwichs” – long filled baguettes – and settled down for an hour’s wait. Keith wandered over to the platform from which our train was supposed to leave and showed our tickets to an official at the gate, just to check. This was a mistake, setting the pattern for the rest of the trip. Luckily we did not know this.

There was a train already in the platform and the official, looking at our tickets, was horrified, saying that we needed to board immediately, as it was on the point of leaving.

Panic-stricken, we sprinted along to our carriage and flung ourselves inside, whereupon it immediately glided away. We had no time to wonder why the departure had been advanced by an hour.

Before we had time to find our seats, an inspector came and looked at our tickets. “But you are on the wrong train!” he declared. Not only that, but this train was owned by the wrong company (Ouigo rather than SNCF). At least the destination was correct!

Walking in France: Paris to Marseille on the TGV's bar stools in the buffet car
Paris to Marseille on bar stools in the TGV

He then told us that this train was fully booked and that there were no spare seats, so we had to go to the buffet car and perch awkwardly on bar stools for the next three hours until we got to Marseille. If possible it was even more uncomfortable than the plane.

From there (after a long wait at Marseille, an hour longer than it should have been), we took a small, frequently stopping commuter train up the Durance valley, a picturesque landscape down which we intended to walk in the next few days, so we took a great interest in the passing scenery.

When we got out at Château-Arnoux-Saint-Auban, which was little more than a siding among factories. it was 6:30 pm and we had four kilometres to walk to the village of Château-Arnoux.

Walking in France: Start of our 4 km walk to Château-Arnoux
Start of our 4 km walk to Château-Arnoux

As soon as we set off it began to rain, at first gently and then harder, but we eventually got there and saw the cheerful lights of the brasserie, which we knew was just across the street from the hotel that we had booked into.

The hotel itself was not the gracious establishment that we had imagined. It was dilapidated, dark and deserted. There was a phone number pinned on the door but our phones did not work in France.

The owner of the brasserie kindly rang the elderly hotelier, who shuffled out from some back street without a word of apology and let us in. We were the only inhabitants of the place that night.

Walking in France: Waiting for this year's first French dinner
Waiting for this year’s first French dinner

The next unpleasant surprise was that the brasserie was about to close for the night, but the owner pointed to a take-away pizza shop just down the road.

We went there, gloomily expecting to take the pizzas away to our horrid little room, but the young, chatty chap in the pizzeria produced two chairs and some cutlery for us and we sat cosily at a tiny table inside the room.

While we ate, a parade of locals came and went and as they all knew each other, we found out lots about the goings-on in the village.

Walking in France: Pizzas - the first of many this year!
Pizzas – the first of many this year!

There were signs propped up around the room with messages scrawled in chalk, such “You are never really grown up until your parents die” and “Your only limit is the one that you impose on yourself”. All very improving, but ignored, naturally, by everyone except us.

After this unexpectedly pleasant meal, we felt quite happy as we crossed the rainswept road to our room, and we slept very well.

Our route for this section

Our route for this section

Day 1: Château-Arnoux to Oraison

Day 2: Oraison to Forcalquier

Day 3: Forcalquier to Manosque

Day 4: Manosque to La Bastide-des-Jourdans

Back to this walk’s summary

Back to top