Tuesday, 25 May 2010
Distance 31 km
Duration 6 hours 35 minutes
Ascent 164 m, descent 121 m
Map 36 of the TOP 100 blue series
Map 35 of the TOP 100 blue series (or Map 135 in the new lime-green series)
Topoguide (ref. 6542) Sentier vers Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle via Vézelay
For breakfast we had muesli au naturel, without fruit of any kind. There had been no shops open yesterday and our usual stand-bys – wayside cherries – were nowhere near ripe yet, owing to the severe spring weather which had only relented a few days ago, in time for our arrival.
It was a beautiful cool morning as we made our fourth crossing of the great iron bridge, turning left as soon as we reached dry land. This was how we had started twice before – crossed the Loire and turned left – and it was starting to feel like a replay.
The road we were on was evidently about to be decommissioned. It was rough and crumbling, with signs forbidding cars to use it, but several did come past, weaving at speed amongst the potholes as if on a slalom course.
When we reached the canal we took the towpath, which was peaceful and picturesque, although the grass was still heavy with dew. We felt sure of a second breakfast at Cuffy, which looked a substantial village on the map.
It was not much further along the canal, and when we saw the church steeple, we crossed a footbridge and climbed into the main street.
To our disgust there was no shop of any kind, only a Mairie and some other offices. This was hard to bear for comfort-loving ramblers like us. It was one of those villages that we look back on with hatred, taking their lack of facilities as a personal insult.
We had no choice but to trudge down the road towards the D976, where we would finally rejoin the Way of Vézelay and be able to use the Topoguide. Up till now we had only had a photocopied fragment of a TOP 100 map to go by.
Along the way, we were startled by what sounded like someone clearing their throat into a megaphone. It turned out to be a donkey, which delivered itself of a good medley of brays as we walked past.
Just as we arrived at the alimentation canal – a small branch that fed water from the Allier to the lateral canal of the Loire – we saw before us, as if in a vision, a fine old inn with red awnings over the windows and the corner door flung open – la Grenouille.
Once again we were transported from gloom to joy in an instant. Such is the way when one’s wants are as simple as those of a long-distance walker.
Inside, there were frogs everywhere, carved, moulded, drawn, painted and photographed. We asked for coffee and a croissant, but got a full breakfast with orange juice, bread, butter, and jam.
A cyclist, who was just finishing his breakfast as we started ours, was the first of countless pilgrims we were to meet now that we were on the GR654 at last.
Our stomachs agreeably distended and with coffee flowing in our veins, we set off along the alimentation canal, having thrown away our beloved little piece of map which we had come to the edge of.
Past the railway line, we crossed a bridge and continued on an overgrown track close to the sandy shallows of the Allier. This great river had only a few more kilometres to run before merging into the Loire and had already taken on the same lazy, meandering look.
Soon we came to a strange circular lock, which was the connection between the river and the canal, built in 1848 to allow barges to carry sand and stone from the Allier for destinations all down the lateral canal of the Loire. For example, the stone for the cathedral of far-away Orléans came through this lock.
From there we had a short road bash to the village of Aprémont-sur-Allier, the only Plus Beau Village in the department of Cher, and a particularly fine one.
Unlike most of the examples we had visited, this one was neither surrounded by a defensive wall nor perched on a hilltop. It sat peaceably beside the river, its little houses with their creamy walls and chocolate-brown roofs surrounded by lawns and flower beds.
There was a castle on the slope beyond, and a fine garden, modelled on Sissinghurst, at its foot.
Contrary to the information in the Topoguide, there was a bar, not just a restaurant, so we had the gratification of another round of coffee, under an umbrella in a bower of roses.
After Aprémont, the GR turned away from the river and traversed a dense deciduous forest. It was a tar road (the D76) but a small one, and we flew along, enjoying the coolness under the trees.
After an hour we emerged into farmland, where blonde Charolais cows were munching on buttercups, and took the obvious short-cut past the Château of Grossouvre.
This took us into the village of Grossouvre and the first thing we saw was a brasserie serving lunches. We sat down outside and ordered coffee yet again.
For a morning that had threatened to provide no coffee at all, it had been splendid. While we were there, we ate our simple lunch of bread and cheese.
Further on, at the other end of the village, we came to a massive factory stretched out along the bank of the Canal de Berry. Although the canal had been decommissioned, the factory was still operating, making tiles, and we hoped that the conditions inside were not in keeping with its dark, Dickensian exterior.
From this point the GR followed the Canal du Berry, and we resumed our acquaintance with towpaths, which had constituted the greater part of our walk so far this year.
At first we were exposed to the full force of the sun, but then the track became overgrown and shady. The canal was stagnant, but we had to admire the work that had gone into building it.
Eventually we saw the outlying houses and factories of Sancoins, crossed a road and continued, sweating, through a town park until we got to the bridge, where we left the canal and made for the centre.
It was a sizeable market town with several squares and many shops. There was no camping ground at Sancoins, and the women at the Office of Tourism seemed ignorant of the gîte that was supposed to exist, so we decided a hotel would be a nice change.
In the church square there were four of them, so we went around enquiring about prices. Meanwhile there was an occasional odd rumbling noise.
Having made up our mind on the Logis de France hotel at the lower end (the St-Joseph), we stepped into the lobby and at that moment there was a tremendous crash and the rain came down like a firehose. People fled, cars stopped, gutters overflowed, but we were unscathed. The only moisture on us was the remains of the sweat from our hot canal walk.
We got the corner room looking over the main intersection, which was noisy but interesting. The violent storm made us enjoy our snug interior even more. We had showers in the sparkling bathroom, then slept in the luxury of a real bed until dinner time.
It was still raining, although less copiously, as we descended the stairs, so we ate in the restaurant of the hotel.
After the pasta, pizza and Turkish barbecue of the preceding nights, it was a pleasure to have a proper French meal, and the room was a delight, with its chandeliers, huge wall mirrors and fancy flower arrangements.
Other guests were already dining in the refined hush peculiar to Logis de France hotels. We had one menu for €11.50 (two courses) and one for €15 (three courses), sharing the first course of crudités.
For the main course, I had pintadeau (young guinea fowl), while Keith had steak tartare (raw minced steak with garnishes).
The final dish for both of us was a magnificent café liegeois, a tower of cream and icecream laced with coffee syrup.
The whole evening (dinner and room) was a birthday treat from me to Keith. It was a little late, as his birthday was last October, but worth waiting for, he said.