Sunday, 1 July 2007
Distance 27 km
Duration 5 hours 25 minutes
Ascent 204 m, descent 249 m
Map 58 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
We had decided that we could easily get to the end of the gorge in one more day, if we started early and did the first half on the road, as far as Les Vignes.
At 6:30 there was hardly any traffic on the road as it wound its way down, except for the bakers van from la Malène making its deliveries, and a man taking his powerful Porsche for a spin before the traffic arrived. Tourists do not usually get breakfast at their hotels until 8 o’clock.
The road descended gently, but the gorge was closing in and we soon came to les Détroits (the Narrows), a clean-walled canyon far below us, through which tourists boats go, but not at this hour. The skyline above was a series of bizarre knobs and spines of limestone, each one threatening to tumble at the first strong wind or thunderclap. Vultures circled menacingly.
We had to admire the marvellous engineering of the road, as we had that of the ancient foot track of the previous two days. Further down we came to a place, the Pas de Souci, where the gorge was almost blocked by an earthquake in the sixth century, the jagged house-sized chunks still lying in the river bed.
The story is that Sainte Énimie asked God to send this earthquake in order to frighten off the devil, which it surely must have done. The place to see it from was an outcropping rock beside the road, with ladders leading up and a kiosk selling tickets at the bottom, but the kiosk was closed, so we went up anyway.
Soon afterwards the gorge widened into a green valley and les Vignes came into view. It was only 8:50 am, and the shops in the upper village were still closed, but a woman told us there were several bars down near the bridge.
The one we chose had an enormous expanse of umbrellas and tables, completely empty, and a couple of locals in the warmth of the interior. We joined them, and even got croissants to go with our large coffees, so it was a very satisfactory second breakfast. In the Midi Libre we read that thunderstorms were predicted for the afternoon.
Whilst in the bar, Keith confessed that he did not feel like scrambling about on tracks for the rest of the day. He was not feeling quite himself, for reasons that became all too clear later. We decided to continue along the road instead.
After provisioning ourselves with sausage, cheese, tomatoes, nectarines and a baguette (delivered from la Malène), we set off for another stint on the bitumen. It was picturesque but uneventful.
Half-way to le Rozier we came in sight of the hamlet of la Sablière across the river, like Hauterives cut off from car access but connected by a flying fox to the road. Some of the houses were perched on raw rock. There was another such village, Plaisance, now inhabited only by ghosts, which we did not see, as it was off the river.
As we approached le Rozier, we crossed into the department of Aveyron, and the traffic and the camping grounds multiplied. The village was over the river, on a point of land between the converging gorges of the Tarn and the Jonte. As we crossed the bridge, we returned briefly to the department of Lozère.
The village was busy with summer visitors and we had an embarrassment of choice for our coffee of arrival. The bar we chose had a wide terrace looking onto the Jonte river, and over to the houses of Peyreleau on the hillside.
We had reached the end of the signposted walk down the gorge, and our plan for tomorrow was to take the minor road down the left bank to Millau. We saw signs to camping grounds pointing down to the nearby flat land between the rivers, but we also saw a sign saying “Camping 300m on the right” pointing in the direction we wanted to go tomorrow, so we went that way.
After 300m we turned right, across the bridge to Peyreleau, but no camping ground appeared.
We toiled up to the top of the town, where the road doubled back and began to descend into open countryside. After another kilometre we saw tents and caravans down on the river and hastened towards them, only to find that they belonged to one of the camping grounds that we had been about to go to in the first place, impossible to reach from this side of the river.
At that point there was another sign: “Camping 3 km”. We had been conned.
Trudging back, we were lucky to notice some walkers emerging up a staircase, which they said went directly to the bridge, so at least we shortened our return from this farcical mission.
There were three camping grounds close together near le Rozier, of which we chose the municipal one, where there were little hedges between the plots and thick, soft grass.
All was forgiven and we stretched out for lunch, followed by a nap. Suddenly it began to pour with rain, so we demonstrated, for our amused Dutch and Belgian neighbours, how to put up a tent in thirty seconds.
In the late afternoon, clean and rested, we wandered the short distance back to the village for apéritifs. It was no longer raining but the air had a chill in it, so we sat indoors.
Some local farmers were standing at the bar and one of them came over and presented a bag of cherries to us, explaining that he had just finished the six-week harvest of his cherry orchard and these were the last of them, the best cherries in France. They were big, black and shiny and we agreed with his assessment.
We found a so-called pizzeria in the rising main street, which looked charming and seemed to serve everything but pizzas. Whether the feast of cherries had anything to do with it we do not know, but by the time we were inside looking at the menu, Keith was starting to feel a hint of the kidney stone pain that had attacked him periodically in the last few months.
We asked for a jug of water and Keith hastily swallowed a lot of it, but the pain did not go away. After we had finished our salad, he decided to go back to the tent and get some pills.
Just then our main meals arrived, but the waiter kindly took them away to keep warm until Keith reappeared. I ate my steak and vegetables with gusto but Keith could hardly touch his.
He stumbled out into the street and vomited in the gutter on his way back to the camping ground. I followed a little while later and was almost caught in another sudden rainstorm, heavier than the afternoon one.
Poor Keith, still in agony after three strong painkillers, crawled out into the rain on hands and knees, stark naked, to vomit into the hedge. After two more painkillers, far more than the recommended dose, the pain subsided and he slept.