Sunday, 1 July 2012
Distance 27 km
Duration 5 hours 45 minutes
Ascent 327 m, descent 370 m
Map 171 of the TOP 100 lime-green series
A slight veil of rain drifted down as we prepared ourselves to depart and lugged our gear up to the snack bar for breakfast. We went past the sandalled pilgrim who was still asleep, with his head poking out of his tiny tube-like tent into the rain.
Naturally the snack bar was closed at this early hour but it had sheltered tables outside, where we ate our muesli.
As usual we were keen to avoid unnecessary exertion and to maximise our chances of a coffee stop along the way, so we decided to ignore the GR and take a thread of a road which skirted around the base of the Alpilles via the village of St-Étienne-du-Grès.
We would join the GR as it came down at the far end of the range and get to Fontvieille with hardly an upward step.
Once through the great gates of the camping ground (which yawned open when we put in the code), we walked into town, graveyard-like at this early hour, and wandered around the circle, past many radiating roads until we found the right one.
Just as we did so we noticed a bar opening across the street so we hurried over for the unexpected pleasure of early morning coffee.
We were quietly sipping our coffee and reading the paper when suddenly, with a burst of lightning and a cataclysmic roar, a storm swept in, lashing the footpath with rain and causing us to move back further under the shelter of the awning.
It was delightful to be sitting snug and dry instead of cowering under a hedge somewhere, as we would have been except for the lucky chance of the bar.
The storm was soon over and we set off along the deserted little road. It was just after 7 am.
Our way was flanked by forest on one side and tall reeds on the other, and we were pleased to see that we were following a set of signs – yellow circles with a dark, squat arrow – which we fondly imagined might be for pilgrims to Compostela, who often take a different route from the GR. We had noticed these signs for a day or two previously and wondered what they were.
After half an hour we came to a side road at the so-called Tower of the Cardinal, of which we could see no trace. However, the signs indicated a turn onto this side road so we obeyed, expecting to be taken to some pleasant little parallel track, but this did not happen.
We started climbing into the Alpilles and the more we rose, the more we regretted turning. A kilometre or so further on we noticed GR signs beside the road – we had inadvertently joined it after all.
There was nothing for it but to continue on the GR. It soon left the bitumen and meandered upwards on a series of wide forestry tracks, through a scrubby forest of pine and oak.
Eventually we gained the ridge and had a view to the south over the wide coastal plain of the Rhône.
This was the junction of the GR653 with the GR6 and there was a post bristling with signs, where we sat down for a rest.
A few minutes later, the smooth-legged “pèlerin de luxe” marched up, having come on the GR all the way. We kept quiet about the details of our route.
All three of us set off together on the downward run. The Alpilles were covered with a veritable web of tracks, but we were guided by the GR marks and got to the edge of the farmland without difficulty.
At this point the GR doubled back into the hills, but straight ahead was a small road leading down to the village of St-Étienne-du-Grès, our original destination.
We waited a few moments for our companion to disappear into the scrub, then hurried down into the streets of the village.
It was further than we expected, but once on the main road we were rewarded with the sight of a boulangerie and a large bar. For the second time that morning, we had the pleasure of sitting under an awning drinking coffee, and this time we had pastries as well.
Leaving St-Étienne-du-Grès, we walked beside the main road for two or three kilometres of complete flatness until we came to a large intersection feeding onto the N570.
We were at the western end of the chain of the Alpilles, where the GR came down to the road. Although this place now seems isolated, it was once the meeting place of three great Roman roads, one running along the north of the Alpilles, another along the south, and the third coming up from Arles towards Avignon.
Near the junction there was a little jewel of a chapel set back behind a screen of olives, the chapel of St-Gabriel, said to be from the twelfth century.
Following the GR, we left the road on a grassy farm track which wandered through fields and orchards, from one of which we collected yellow plums for tomorrow’s breakfast. Then the GR joined a minor road for the last push into Fontvieille.
The road was a lot busier than it looked on the map but it was quick to walk on and we were anxious to arrive before the heavy sky degenerated into rain.
In fact it began to drizzle before we got there. We were tempted to visit the old village which was below the road, down a staircase, but the threatening weather put us off.
In the main square with its cafés, halle and church, there was a sign to the municipal camping ground (Les Pins) 1 km away, so we hurried on up the street. Later we discovered that this was the long route – there was a much more direct path for walkers. Nevertheless we arrived.
The camping ground was alone in a stand of tall, thin pines and presented a dreary sight. It was almost empty, with only a few caravans close to the ablutions block, and the bare, wet ground was compartmentalised by straggling hedges. It was hard to believe it was a three-star establishment.
Surprisingly there was a woman in the office at that hour – it was after 1 pm. She was plainly a control freak and proceeded to inform us of the rules.
We were to go to the spot allocated to us, we were not to eat or drink in the TV room (the only shelter in the place) and as for the short-cut to the village, she said we must not use it, as it was closed for fear of fire. The most dedicated arsonist would have had trouble getting anything to burn today.
The place that she had directed us to was particularly unappealing, so we moved to another one which was not as sloping and had a patch of grass on it.
When the tent was up we started to have lunch but were interrupted by a flurry of rain and had to retire indoors. Our new tent proved highly satisfactory, as we could sit up comfortably while eating.
By the time we had finished the rain had set in for the afternoon and we lay down and slept. It was late afternoon by the time we emerged for showers and clothes-washing. A man came past and told us that we were in the wrong place and would have to move, but as there was not another camper in the whole section, he agreed to change his records instead. His wife would not have been so lenient.
At 7 o’clock we left for town, using the forbidden short-cut, which took us down past the swimming pool, through a park and into the streets. It was now not only raining but very cold and we had forgotten to bring our warm jackets. We only had our light plastic rain capes.
The bar on the tree-lined square was still open, although about to close, with a few hardy souls propping up the counter. We ordered apéritifs and asked where we could get a meal, which turned out to be next door, on the corner of the square.
It was a bright, welcoming little restaurant, already half full. There were folding glass panels along one side which were unfortunately still wide open, as there was a table which blocked the way and the manager was too polite to disturb the people dining there.
Consequently it was freezing and we sat as far away as possible from the opening, shivering inside our plastic capes. After a while the people left, the glass was speedily closed, and everybody smiled with relief. It soon warmed up but I kept my cape on.
We each had a single dish. Keith had an entrecôte and I had filet mignon of pork, both beautifully adorned with vegetables. With it we had two baskets of bread and a generous half-litre of wine, a delicious and reviving meal which as usual compensated for all the hardships of the day.
We got wet again on the way back and our washing had blown off the clothes line into the mud, but we did not care.