Tuesday, 15 June 2004
Distance 28 km
Duration 6 hours 5 minutes
Ascent 259 m, descent 217 m
Map 64 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
The rot has really set in now. We can not leave in the morning until we have had our pastries and coffee. There is something about early morning in a town, with streets being swept, shops opening, people hurrying past, that gladdens the heart of the idler at a café, sitting in the sun at a table laden with steaming coffee, the remains of croissants and the local paper.
When we could prolong this pleasure no more, we looked briefly at the market in the square, then we went to a pharmacy in search of sticking plaster to prevent blisters. Pharmacies in France are no joking matter. They are grand emporiums devoted to female beauty, selling an array of miracle cures for cellulite, wrinkles, age spots, obesity and so on.
However, they do have humble things like sticking plaster hidden away, and the pharmacist covered her counter with different rolls, but we declined them all, as their sticking power was weak (every nation has its field of excellence and it seems that Australia’s is sticking plaster).
We then went to a newsagent in search of a map, but could only see a road atlas. From this we worked out the best way to Dourgne by back roads and surreptitiously drew a sketch map.
For the first part of the walk we could not avoid a long trudge on the edge of the highway, the Piste Verte having ceased to exist. It was particularly tiresome as there was no space between the traffic and adjacent rough, weedy waste ground, onto which we had to step constantly to avoid being annihilated by passing trucks.
But all things pass eventually, and we made it to Labruguière just in time to get into the Office of Tourism before it closed its doors at midday. The women on duty were eager to help but knew nothing about walking tracks. They told us that the camping ground at Dourgne was open, as was the restaurant, and that the best way to get there was initially along the main road to Soual.
Of these three statements, only the second was true. We should have used our own route information from the newsagency in Mazamet, but for some reason we both forgot about it. Our brains had been fried by the road bash, perhaps. We had lovely coffee just across the street in the main square, then lunch in a park, and that completed our visit to Labruguière.
In the heat of the afternoon we set off for a second long road walk, this time on a slightly quieter road, but one just as exposed to the blaze of the sun.
A grizzled cyclist approached and stopped to shake our hands. Naturally he assumed we were on our way to Compostela, and he said that he had been there himself, but by bike. When we told him we were from Australia, he replied rather scathingly that it was the same as being English. We only had 15 km to go, he said airily as he sailed off.
When we came to a tiny side road we were not sure whether it would take us to Dourgne, but a man in a beaten-up car stopped and assured us that it would, and gave us very good directions. It was a relief not to be skipping out of the way of trucks all the time.
Soon we came to a hamlet where two men were examining a plot of vegetables. They gave the exact opposite directions to the car man, and said we had 15 km to go, the same as the cyclist had said an hour ago. I asked them whether we were near Sud Affrique, a village we had seen on the map in Mazamet, and they laughed a lot, then kindly told us its name was actually Saint Affrique. One of them was just going to Dourgne and was most pressing in his offer to take us there, but we politely declined.
So off we went again, over the hill, skirting Saint-Affrique on a rather busy road. We were starting to run out of water and could find nowhere to fill our bottles. All we could do was keep going.
The countryside was attractive undulating crop land but we had lost interest in the scenery. A man mowing the verge stopped his big tractor and raised the mowing arm courteously to let us pass.
After a while we came to the village of Verdalle, which we thought far too small to have a bar, but we were delighted to be proved wrong.
We both had delicious cold beers and a lot of water. The beers did us no harm, only mellowing the last hour of our boring day on the roads.
We passed by two enormous abbeys, En Calcat and Sainte-Scholastique, before we swung into Dourgne.
The main square, which was slightly off the highway, had a double row of plane trees flanked by the church, a bar, a hotel and some shops.
Signs pointed up the hill to the camping ground and we continued straight on, as it was already 5 o’clock.
Not far beyond the top of the street we arrived at the camping ground, a grassy area beside a chapel.
The entrance was barred and the shower block was choked with last autumn’s dead leaves. Nevertheless, we pitched our tent and stretched out for a rest. Our damp washing from yesterday hung, perhaps sacrilegiously, on a line between a tree and a metal cross.
Back in the square, we sat under the trees for apéritifs. We could see the waiters setting out tables further down at the La Montagne Noire, under a large canvas shade, and expected to be the only diners, in a village like this on a Tuesday, but we were comprehensively wrong. Flocks of people arrived by car and we were lucky to get a table at all.
At the next table we heard English being spoken, to the surprise of both parties, as we all felt we were far from the tourist beat. They were New Zealanders renting a gîte somewhere near.
We had an elegant dinner attended by a waiter in a black waistcoat. As the establishment did not sink to carafes, we had a bottle of wine – a 1998 Minervois, dark and powerful, like an Australian shiraz.
We shared a salad while we waited for the main courses to arrive, as there was a half-hour delay for Keith’s cassoulet to be cooked. I had lamb with garlic cream and an array of vegetable side-dishes, such as celery frittata, ratatouille and baked potato.
The meal was expensive but the cost was offset by our free accommodation, the lonely hollow by the chapel, where we spent an uncomfortable night on hard, lumpy ground.