Monday, 16 July 2018
Distance 25 km
Duration 6 hours 5 minutes
Ascent 407 m, descent 410 m
Even amidst the frenzy of yesterday’s football final, we had not forgotten to ask the barwoman what time they opened in the morning.
The answer had been a very satisfactory 6:30 am, so at that hour we left the camping ground to its slumber and walked back beside the canal, past the port with its moored pleasure boats.
It was no more than a taste of canal walking, but our first for this year. It would not be our last – in a couple of days’ time we would be following another canal.
When we presented ourselves at the bar at 6:45, we found the place wide open, but to our surprise the boulangerie next door did not open until 7 am.
The only thing to do was to have a first round of gran’crèmes while we waited, then another with the freshly baked pastries when Keith fetched them.
The bar was a very different place from yesterday, relaxed and quiet.
Thus fortified, we set off up a steep street, following the GR654 (the Way of Vézelay), and were soon traversing a high grassy meadow, and looking back on the village.
The valley in which Clamecy sat was that of the Yonne, a shallow, meandering stream, difficult for transporting the timber from the Morvan that was the staple industry of Clamecy.
That was why the canal had been such a success when it was first built.
To our right a line of thick forest fell away towards the river and the path did the same.
Our trouble was that we could not find the place where it dived into the trees, with the result that we kept on skirting the edge of the forest, searching in vain for a red and white marker.
After a while we gave up looking and marched straight across a broad wheatfield in the direction of a small road that we could see on our map.
Scrambling over a fence and across a ditch, we set foot on the bitumen, turned right and within five minutes had rejoined the GR as it crossed the road.
Back on the straight and narrow, we soon found ourselves joining another road, which went into a wood.
This was a typical forestry road, uncompromisingly straight, except for a small bend where a roofless house marked the centre point of Frasse.
A kilometre further on we came to a track and meandered along it through the last of the forest, emerging into fields just before the tiny village of Crai.
This place seemed to have been forgotten by history, and we expected to see peasants in smocks wielding hoes, but in fact it was only a few hundred metres from the D951, the main highway from Clamecy to Vézelay, and there were shiny cars outside the ancient cottages.
From this village we had a choice – the GR, which climbed over a ridge, then went down to the highway at Chamoux and back up again, or the much shorter road.
We would have taken the road, but someone in the bar at Clamecy this morning had surmised that there was a café at Chamoux, so we thought it worth a look.
We crossed a ford below the village and walked under the trees in beautiful filtered green light, up and over to Chamoux.
At the first house we saw a woman washing her car, and asked her about a bar, at which she looked mystified and said that the nearest one was at Vézelay.
We were slightly disgruntled, but the return to the high ground did not take as long as we expected and the fields at the top were full of brilliant sunflowers.
After a couple of kilometres we came to a gently descending road and just as it started to plunge, the GR turned off (to Buisson Chrétien) and became a deep, fast-falling trench, probably the old main road, walled with blackened stones and shaded by overarching branches.
This old path ran into a bend of a small modern road and from there we could see the roofs and spires of Vézelay on the opposite hill, beyond fields of every shade of green.
We meandered down this road and then climbed, arriving in the lower streets where there was a parking area the size of a football field, full of buses. From there a set of stairs led us up to the centre of town.
The street was crowded rather unpleasantly with hotels, restaurants, hoardings, cars, buses and tourists, so we just kept walking, as we had made the obligatory pilgrimage to the cathedral on an earlier visit, in 2006.
Without much trouble we found the well-worn GR track and began to descend through fields of golden grain.
To our left the land rose steeply, clad in vines and surmounted by the enormous bulk of the cathedral, which was as long as an ocean liner with its two towers like smokestacks, one dark and one light.
After about a kilometre of further descent we arrived at river level in the placid village of St-Père, which had everything that the walker could desire, or had had when we last visited – a camping ground, a boulangerie, a bar and a restaurant.
Before going to the camping ground we thought it wise to check that these other comforts were still operating, so we walked back along the highway a short distance and found them all. We even booked a table at the restaurant, just to be sure.
Crossing the bridge, we then strolled along beside the river Cure to the camping ground, which was at the confluence with a tributary. The responsable looked like a man but turned out to be a polite, helpful woman.
As usual, most of the campers were in caravans, campervans or large tents, but there was a cluster of small tents occupied by young canoeists, and there were a few cyclists, but no other walkers.
We realised that we had not met a single pilgrim all day on this supposedly popular route. We guessed that it was probably too late in the season to be this far away from Compostela.
Our pitch was on the grassy bank of the Cure. We strung up our washing between two trees, almost dangling over the water, and had a grand picnic lunch made from the accumulated scraps that we had been carrying – a tin of sausisses-lentilles, half a baguette, some ham and salami and a few lettuce leaves. Plus a small cherry tart that we had forgotten about. Meanwhile the young canoeists floated past regularly, in what looked like a blissful daze.
Later a solitary cyclist arrived and set up his tent next to ours. He had a forbidding, unsociable look, but when we approached him he was friendly and forthcoming.
He said that he had cycled all the way from Amsterdam (where he lived) to Compostela, then had caught a train back to Pamplona and was now riding homewards, but perhaps only as far as Maastricht. He explained that his heart was telling him it was time to be at home.
At 7:30 pm we walked back to the restaurant, which was in a large old house on the highway. At this time of year everyone was dining outside, in the garden.
Tables were set up on the gravel under great spreading trees, hidden from the road by a high stone wall.
Our hostess spoke English and French with equal ease – she was Canadian, although not from the French-speaking part.
The menu at €18 was gastronomically and visually excellent.
To begin, Keith had three plump, crisply fried seafood parcels with salad and I had a fine salade composée.
Since boeuf bourguignon was on the menu, the choice was already made for Keith, but I decided on sautéed veal with potato gratin, spinach and carrots.
After this, Keith’s last course was two scoops of ice cream (coffee and rum-and-raisin), and mine was a plate of various cheeses.
The bread was dark and un-French, but very good. The wine was also very good, but we had noticed lately that carafes of local wine are expensive in this part of France, which is strange as it is a well-known wine-producing area. A half litre costs as much as €12, whereas in other places it can be €5, or even less.
On the way back through the village to the camping ground, we took a narrow old road, flanked by graceful terraced houses adorned with hollyhocks and wistaria spilling into the street.
This quiet mediaeval village was a lovely place to end our pilgrimage to Vézelay, away from the commercial circus of the upper town.
From Vézelay, catch a SNCF railway bus (autocar) to either Sermizelles-Vézelay or Milly-La-Ville, which have railway stations. From there you can go to almost anywhere in France.