Getting to Château-Arnoux
We do not normally begin our walks in France in the middle of May – more the middle of June – but because we were so scarred by the ferocious heat on our last walk (which was in 2019, before Covid), we were determined to take advantage of the cooler weather in May.
We prevailed on one of our grand-offspring to deliver us to the railway station in Canberra, in exchange for having the use of my car until we came back.
After all our frantic preparations we were stressed and nervous, but he was comfortingly calm, and once we were on the train we relaxed into the rhythm of it. It helped that it was a sunny, tranquil day.
After Bungendore the train rambled through frosty looking 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 contraption.
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,
After passing several unfamiliar villages, our train reached the edge of the great sprawl of Sydney, 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Day 1: Château-Arnoux to Oraison
Day 2: Oraison to Forcalquier
Day 3: Forcalquier to Manosque