Friday, 19 May 2023
Distance 18 km
Duration 4 hours 05 minutes
Ascent 220 m, descent 67 m
In the flurry of our wet, exhausted arrival last night, we had agreed to have breakfast at the hotel, but this morning it did not seem such a great idea. For one thing, it would not be served until 8 am and for another, it would cost €15 each, far more than we normally pay at a café.
We packed up and went to the reception desk but there was nobody there, and nobody came when we pressed the bell, so we waited, more and more impatiently, until the worried man finally drove up with a large paper sack of bread.
He was not best pleased when we explained that we were leaving, and much less pleased when our card was declined (the new one that we had got especially for international payments).
We tried our other cards to no avail (their system was not working, it turned out), and eventually we just gave him the card details plus our email address and departed.
The walk back to Oraison did not take long in the fresh, rainless morning, and we got a bag of pastries from the boulangerie before settling down with a double round of coffee.
Keith had a sugar-encrusted pain aux raisins and I got a square of hot pizza. This was more like it! We felt that our troubles of yesterday were over – poor innocents that we were.
The first part of the walk to Forcalquier was along a road (the D4B) lined with majestic old plane trees, so close to the widened road that we had to pick our way along through the weeds behind them.
We crossed the canal of yesterday just after it had emerged from a tunnel, then a highway, then a railway line, and finally went up steeply into the village of Brillane, perched on the ridge.
There was a café clinging to the side of the drop so of course we stopped there for more coffee, not because we needed it but more to have a break from the road-walking.
It was run by a Portuguese man and we were his only customers, so we had a pleasant chat with him (not in Portuguese!) before shouldering our packs and pressing on, across a flat, thinly vegetated tableland.
For a couple of kilometres we marched along the side of a busy road (the D4100) and then turned off, with considerable relief, onto a much smaller and shadier one, devoid of cars. Shortly after that we left the bitumen altogether, crossing a stream via a massive, rusty, flat, military-looking bridge. Beyond was a grassy field which the farmer was mowing.
I made a mistake here – instead of taking us round the field to the right, I went left, which would have never got us anywhere. It was rough going along the unkempt edge of the field and by the time I worked out that we were going the wrong way, we had added twenty minutes to our time.
Turning back (which is something we never like to do), we eventually got around to the other side of the field, struggled under an electric fence and up through a tangle of regrowth to the top.
There we found a couple of houses, evidently unoccupied at the moment, with shutters closed and gardens unkempt.
By this time Keith was feeling the effects of the pills that he has been taking lately, which greatly reduce his stamina.
We had planned our route to follow various rough little tracks through the hills to Forcalquier, but now we thought that retreat would be the better part of valour.
At the end of the dirt track that served the holiday houses there was a bitumen road that plunged back to the D4100, and before taking it we sat on a large stone, prettily surrounded by springtime flowers, and ate some dried peaches.
It was an airy spot – the land dropped away in all directions except the one that we had planned to take, where a stony track climbed relentlessly to the skyline. This confirmed our intention to retreat.
Without meeting a single car, we descended to the highway, and then began a long, soul-destroying trudge on the side of the road with traffic whistling past. A thin, dismal rain began to fall, a case of nature imitating our mood.
After some long indeterminate time, a car stopped just next to us, and we recognised the driver as the worried man from the hotel, who had failed to get any of our cards to work and no doubt thought that we had intentionally absconded.
With ill-disguised hostility, he took the number of one of our cards (which we had already given him), then rang his wife, who was back at the hotel reception desk, and dictated it to her, whereupon it was accepted.
The fault was obviously with their system, not our honesty. He then cheered up but did not apologise, and we parted with strained smiles all round.
Resuming our toilsome progress, we finally came to the base of the climb into the village of Forcalquier.
The drizzle had stopped and the incline ahead was not great, but somehow the sight was so tiring that we had to sit down on a flowery bank and gather our strength for the final push.
When we set off again, we found that it was not as bad as it had looked from below. and we were soon in the outskirts of the village.
Past a large, inexplicable silo surrounded by houses, then around a sharp bend, we found ourselves in the and into the main square., which was perched on the very top of the hill, with streets falling away like maypole streamers in every direction.
It was a lively scene, with tables and chairs everywhere under the spreading trees. There was a lot of dining going on, as it was lunch time, and the sun had come out, spilling greenish shade onto the tables.
A waitress pointed us towards a descending lane, marked at the top by a tall column, where there were two boulangeries, she said, but we found that one was closed and the other had only a few gigantic loaves left.
There was nothing for it but to retire to the square and have lunch under the trees.
We were tempted, but we thought that we would reserve the pleasure of eating out until the evening, and meanwhile we were in search of some bread for lunch.
We chose a place that was offering a bavette and frites for €15, and supplemented the delicious platefuls with a basket of fresh bread and two glasses of the local red. Once again we felt that our troubles were over and everything would now go beautifully, as it had on previous trips.
Having asked directions to the nearby camping ground (there were so many descending streets to choose from), we hastened to it with light hearts, and were shocked when the man at the desk said that they were booked out. This had never happened before, in all our years of camping in France, and we were flabbergasted.
He explained that there was a sporting festival on this weekend, the Trail de Haute Provence, which was a long-distance running and cycling competition and that the participants had booked all the campsites weeks ago.
The woman next to him (incongruously dressed in a pale blue full-length fur coat) evidently felt sorry for us and tried to persuade him but he was adamant – we had to go.
She finally wheedled him into walking around the place and when she pointed out a site with an unoccupied caravan, he reluctantly gave in, to our great relief.
We were allowed to squeeze our tent into the far corner of this site, and we could not have been happier.
Before having showers we thought that we would have a little rest in the tent.
As we stretched out luxuriantly in our sleeping bags, well fed and optimistic for the rest of the walk, we heard light pattering rain outside, becoming heavier as we slipped into a happy doze. This was at about 3pm and the next thing we were conscious of was the pealing of the church bells at 6 o’clock the following morning.