Saturday, 16 July 2016

The Le Puy Route - Part 2

Across the Aubrac - Les Faux to Saint-Chely-d’Aubrac

Day 4 – Les Faux to Aumont Aubrac

23.65km / Ascent = 619m / Descent = 680m

We had a slightly shorter day in prospect today after yesterday’s lengthy stint, and we woke to find the weather looking promising for the day ahead. With only around 23k to walk we could afford to take our breakfast at a leisurely pace, and so it was around 8.45am by the time we eventually set off.

Looking out across Le Rouget

It was bright but still cool as we made our way back to the main GR65 and dropped down through the hamlet of Le Rouget. On the way, we chatted briefly to a Canadian father/son pairing who were through-hiking from Le Puy to Santiago over a two-month stretch. Almost 9 continuous weeks of walking, discovery and enjoying the Camino experience – now that's what I call a trip!

Go West! Pelerins en route

The route into Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole was slightly circuitous. From reaching the edge of the town, we were taken right round the top side on a ridge with good views, then directed into the centre past the hospital complex (in this instance a real, modern hospital, not the old use of the word as a hostel, with each ward named after a famous artist).

Hospital with wards named after artists

It's a nice little town when you get there – a mix of new and old architecture that actually works quite well together. We bought savoury tarts for lunch, and stopped at a small bar for coffee and to read the papers – France beating Ireland to make the next round of Euro 2016 had temporarily replaced Brexit as front page news. Mind you, that was only in the sports section.

Looking back to Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole

We left Saint Alban along the side of a busy road, then cut to our right along a track that climbed to a low ridge with views back to the town. From then on, we experienced some of the best walking of the trip so far – the climb up to Chabannes (where we took our first lunch) along a sun-dappled, rocky path through woods reminiscent of those in Corsica being perhaps the highlight.

A metier a ferre les boeufs - a stall for containing
oxen while they are being shod

Les boeufs

The great scenery continued all the way to Les Estrets, a pretty, quiet little village at the foot of a steep descent where we took a break at the gite for drinks.

Sleepy Les Estrets

River Truyere

Moving on, we crossed the River Truyere – a slow, lazy river, rather like the Lathkill – and climbed out of the valley. Following another delightful track as we rose to the head of a shallow side valley, we walked in sight of other pilgrims for the first time since Saint-Alban.

Heading towards the D7 road

After a short break, we eventually reached the D7 road, crossed it, and followed a cinder track to meet the road again a while later before the final descent downhill into Aumont Aubrac, a small town most notable for its association with the “Beast of Gevaudan”.

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The Beast of Gevaudan

Legend has it that in the latter half of the C18th, a fearsome man-eating wolf-like creature with “formidable teeth and an immense tail” terrorised the local population, reputedly resulting in the death of over 100 people. There are various theories as to what the Beast actually was – hyena, lynx or pack of wolves seeming the most likely.

But whatever the actuality, the C21st pilgrim has little to fear in Aumont Aubrac – at least from legendary Beasts.

Narrow building, Aumont Aubrac - its not often you can
see the front and back of a building at the same time

We are staying in a gite tonight, quite a simple room but with a TV so we can watch the England v Iceland game! We dined at the hotel, getting in early while the locals cheered on Italy's 2-0 win over Spain.

We had steak with aligot, a highly elastic sort of cheesy, garlicky mashed potato very specific to this area and traditionally served to pilgrims on their way to Santiago. Aligot is taken very seriously in these parts – there are aligot festivals, with prizes for the best examples – think of the passions stirred by the correct recipe for Cornish Pasty (no carrots involved) and you’ll get the basic idea!  

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Aligot, served here with Toulouse sausage

It had been a lovely day – great scenery, charming villages, interesting towns and quiet countryside, with only occasional other walkers met on the trail and decent weather too. It feels like we have seen a glimpse of local life as well today, not just the tourist side of a major walking route, and we seem to have relaxed nicely into our trail routine.

Tomorrow looks set to be a longer day, and the forecast suggests temperatures into the 30s in the afternoon, so we will need to be prepared for that.

Day 5 – Aumont Aubrac to Montgros

24.62km / Ascent = 625m / Descent = 441m

We awoke this morning to the depressing news that for the second time in five days we have exited Europe – this time a dismal 2-1 defeat at the hands of Iceland in Euro 2016.

Nonetheless, we got cracking and were breakfasted and on the trail by 8.15am, taking advantage of the early cool.

Leaving town, there were a few early walkers setting off – as many as we had seen altogether at one time anywhere on the trail – but as we passed first under the railway line, then the motorway, the cluster thinned as everyone hit their own pace.

Regardless of numbers, it was a nice bright morning, and we were walking mostly on dirt tracks through woods before joining the road into the village of La Chaze-du-Payre – the sort of place where even in the relative cool of the morning, nothing much was happening and what was happening was happening slowly.

Chapelle de Bastide, Lasbros

We left the village on a narrow lane signed for Lasbros, gently rising until we met the D987 (the Voie d’Agrippa, the former Roman road from Lyon to Toulouse) where the small Chapelle de Bastide stood by itself at the junction of several roads. We popped inside for a quick look.

Carrying on through Lasbros, we left the main road and headed off on a track through woods towards the next objective – a junction of roads and paths known locally as Les Quatre Chemins sitting at over 1150m in altitude.

It had been the kind of slow, lazy morning where our main companions en route had been skylarks over the meadows and cuckoos in the woods. But nearing Les Quatre Chemins, we did see a Stoat on the trail to add to other recent wildlife sightings – Red Squirel, Jay, Song Thrush, rabbits, a hare, more Red Kites and a number of other large, unidentified raptors.

Notice, Chez Regine, Les Quatre Chemins
"WC: crosswords and suodku prohibited during peak hours"

At Les Quatre Chemins, we had a break for coffee at Chez Regine. Regine, if it was indeed her who served us, was a hunched-over, stick-thin woman about 5-foot-tall, probably in her 70s and looking like she weighed about 5 stone wringing wet. It was like being served by an anorexic Mrs Overall, and the faded, out-of-date décor did nothing to abuse us of the notion we had somehow walked back to the 1950s. 

Oh, and a sign informed us we were not allowed to do crosswords or sudoku when using the toilet at busy times - whenever they might be.

Gateway with cledo - a flexible gate of wire and palings

Moving on, we headed out on to the Aubrac plateau proper, an undulating upland of meadow pasture and rock-strewn hillsides at around 1200m. Criss-crossed with walled tracks and trails, punctuated at intervals by cledos (wire and paling “gates” across the track) and with little shade, you are very much open to the elements (in today's case, hot sun).

Typical path on the Aubrac plateau

By the time we had reached Ferme des Gentianes, we were ready for lunch and a longer break, so we indulged ourselves with salad, sandwiches and beers in the shade of the gite awning. Like most things hereabouts, it was not a hasty experience. But we had plenty of time to while away, and a leisurely French lunch was as good a way as any to do so.

The 10 Commandments of the path, Fineyrols

After a brief climb through the hamlet of Fineyrols, where we were informed about the 10 Commandments of the path, we headed out once more on to the Aubrac plateau to face the heat. Our guidebook describes this area as “deserted” which I suppose it is to an extent, but all round are signs of agriculture and work is evident, so someone must be farming it. “Who milks all the cows?” as Missy G put it.

Beyond Fineyrols, with the path ahead

We topped up with water from the fountain in Rieutort d’Aubrac, then followed the road in increasing heat for a couple of kilometres (saw a weasel) before reaching the bridge over the River Bes. 

Approaching Montgros

Cutting over a low hillside, we climbed gently to reach the village of Montgros and our digs for the night, the lovely Maison de Rosalie.

La Maison de Rosalie, Montgros

We had a bit of a relax, then went down for an aperitif before dinner – with WiFi available, a chance to contact family and friends and check work was behaving while I was away.

Dinner at La Maison de Rosalie

Dinner was really nice: a set menu of peasant ham, melon and coleslaw to start with, pork chop and aligot (the elastic potato and cheese mash that is a speciality of this very small region) for main, cheese and a fruit salad for afters. Really lovely, simple food, and just the job after a full day walking.

Day 6 – Montgros to Saint-Chely-d’Aubrac

20.00km / Ascent = 485m / Descent = 888m

After a breakfast involving homemade bread and jam, croissants and coffee, we were out on the trail at a leisurely 8.45am – allowable given we only had about 20km to cover today.

Looking down to Nasbinals

The first section took us through farmland, and from the ridge overlooking the descent into Nasbinals you could easily be forgiven for thinking you were arriving into Hartington or Kettlewell, such was the similarity to those places. In fact, the track we were walking was so similar to the walled lanes between Hartington and Biggin as to be uncanny, and we might just as likely have been greeted by a cheery “Ey up, mi duck!” as a respectful “bonjour madame, monsieur!”.

Church, Nasbinal

But once in the village the differences were apparent, the buildings being more typical of the local stone and vernacular architecture. We popped into the Romanesque church and enjoyed a brief reunion with three of the people we ate dinner with at Mme Martins in Saugues.

Statue of St Jacques (St James)

Plaque outside Nasbinals church

Moving on, we climbed back on to the plateau. As a reminder of just how high we were, we passed a sign for a ski station – evidence that in the winter months these slopes are properly snow-covered.

Back on the plateau

Our path continued to climb gently and gradually rose, bringing us out onto high pasture. 

Near the high-point of the walk at 1300m

The stretch between Nasbinals and Aubrac offers almost 10km of walking without hamlet or farm, topping out at over 1300m altitude (not far off the height of Ben Nevis) but basically traverses farm pasture where small groups of cattle reside – pods of 30 or 40 beasts, mainly cows and calves, but with each herd presided over by a patriarchal bull looking out for his harem.

Modern sculpture on the way into Aubrac village

Approaching the village

Cow sculpture, Aubrac

Aubrac village was undergoing renovations on a large scale. To be honest, it was rather needed as it was looking a bit sorry for itself. We stopped for a drink, but soon carried on, and we ate our lunch a little later by the side of the trail.

On the descent from Aubrac

If the morning was characterised by the high, open plateau of the Aubrac, the afternoon was all about the descent off the plateau towards the Lot valley. We descended around 500m over the course of two hours walking – mainly through woodlands on rocky sunken paths and tracks – first to the hamlet of Belvezet, then on to Saint-Chely.

Saint-Chely is a nice, quiet village, but geared up for pelerins of the GR65. Our hotel is lovely, too – small and quite chic. We checked in, had a wash and brush up, did a bit of shopping then relaxed with a local Aubrac beer, watching the world go by.

Our hotel, Saint-Chely-d'Aubrac

Dinner was another nice set menu. We had beef terrine and salad for starter, a super beef dish called paleron (chuck steak cooked with onion, wine, herbs and carrots, rather like boeuf bourguignon) cheese, and a caramelised apple tart. Lovely!

To settle the meal, we had a stroll to the end of the village and back before turning in.

A right pair of pilgrims

We had really enjoyed the last 3 days crossing the Aubrac plateau. The weather had been good, and so had the views, and we were constantly presented with glorious scenery that wouldn’t have been out of place in the White Peak or Yorkshire Dales. It was almost as if a second Norman Conquest had established French as the native tongue of the North of England limestone country.

If the scenery had a familiarity about it, we had really enjoyed the feeling of being in authentic rural France – a tranquil, sedate countryside of food-loving locals, traditional recipes, strong on local ingredients and the quality of their provenance. Like the aliogt, time was elastic and stretched to suit: nothing was hurried, and there was a lazily relaxed attitude to life that matched beautifully to the pace of a walking trip.

Tomorrow, we would be leaving these high pastures and descending into the Lot valley. The Aubrac had treated us well, but we were now heading for a different flavoured corner of this part of France.

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