Saturday 8 July 2017

The Le Puy Route - Part 4

Les Grangettes, Long Days & Life on the Road - Conques to Cajarc

Late May 2017 found us back on Camino again for the first time in about a year, amidst more upheaval back in the UK. Last time around, it was Brexit: this time, we arrived in the wake of the Manchester Arena bombing. We seem to be living through turbulent times, so the prospect of a few peaceful days strolling through the beautiful French countryside has much to recommend it.

With flights and transfers running to time, we arrived at our first digs near Conques, Les Grangettes, at around 1.30pm, only to find there was no one in! No matter, we waited on the veranda for a while, eventually ringing a mobile number gleaned after a complex telephone rigmarole, just as our hosts returned. We’d surprised them by arriving earlier than expected.

Les Grangettes

Les Grangettes is a lovely place, rural, rustic and seemingly rough at the edges, but with an underlying chic and two lovely owners. We were showed to our room – a small, two-floor accommodation – after which we walked the 5k into Conques for a warm-up before tomorrow’s exertions – warm being the operative word, as it's about 30 degrees in the shade.

Abbey Sainte-Foy

Later, we wandered up to the library for beer before aperitifs at 7.30pm and dinner at 8.00. It was a fantastic evening, and very sociable. We ate with our hosts and family (Sybille and Jean-Pierre, her sister Delphine and her son) and another family, and the conversation in French and English flowed all night. As a poor French speaker, I loved the way we were made to feel properly included.

We took aperitifs and canapes in the library, then had dinner in the main kitchen (pate and ham to start, braised venison, strawberry ice cream to finish) with wine and cheese – a very civilised couple of hours, and a million miles away from the usual rushed meal in front of the TV!

Day 1: Conques to Decazeville

19.75k (12.25 miles) / Ascent = 786m / Descent = 846m

We woke to a bright morning, and took breakfast in the communal kitchen – toast and jams, sheep’s yoghurt, coffee, bread, cold meats and cheeses. There was so much to choose from, we could only eat a little of what was on offer. Jean-Pierre wasn’t about, though: he was busy flying to work in his private plane!

Sybille gave us a lift into Conques, and we said our goodbyes. We had only spent a few hours together, but it had been so relaxing and enjoyable it felt like much longer, as if we had arrived as strangers and parted as friends.

Porte du Barry

Conques was busy. There was some sort of old car event going on, and the streets were full of cars and people. We bought quiches from the bakery, and set off downhill, excited to be on the Camino once more.

It's holiday time in France, with a clutch of Bank Holidays close together encouraging walkers out onto the GR network. Consequently, the path was the busiest we had seen it since starting out on the Le Puy route. Climbing past the Chapelle St Foy, a group of around 15 people coalesced, passing and repassing each other through the day.

Looking back to Conques from the Chapelle Sainte-Foy

It wasn't too bad, though – everyone found their own pace, as they do when long-distance walking, so the group stretched out and we had plenty of quiet, and for the most part walked alone.

Chapelle Saint-Roch

We stopped for drinks in Noailhac; stopped again for lunch at the Chapelle St Roch. Then began an 11k stretch where the route barely passed a house, let alone a village, as it wound its way through idyllic countryside. It was quiet, and quite lovely – and hot!

Typical signage - left turn ahead

Since the climb up past the Chapelle St Foy early in the morning, we had been on high ground for much of the day, the countryside perhaps resembling the uplands of the Cotswolds or the White Peak more than anything else, with a mix of quiet lanes, tracks and paths leading us on.

Walking beside the D606

After a brief stop to top up on food, sunscreen and hydration salts, we carried on. Keeping energy levels up and staying hydrated are important, especially when you are not yet acclimatised to hotter temperatures and the demands of walking for several hours each day.

At the start of the descent into Decazeville

The descent into Decazeville followed a narrow lane, and was quite steep in places. But we eventually reached the town, crossing road junctions and ducking under the bypass. Our hotel was easily found, but again it wasn't open, so again we had to ring them up and were given an access code with the promise that someone would be there “à bientôt”.

Once installed inside, we had a wash and brush up and a rest before dinner. Today’s walk was not that long, but it was quite hot. As we have two much longer days to come, time available to rest up and relax was gratefully accepted.

Central square, Decazeville

We walked out for a few minutes either side of dinner, checking out options for supplies for tomorrow. Dinner itself consisted of a ham and melon starter, steak and chips, tarte aux pommes and lots of water.

So, it was mission accomplished today – do the distance, without getting too tired, footsore, sunburnt or dehydrated, for tomorrow is a big day!

Day 2: Decazeville to Figeac

30.25k (18.75 miles) / Asecnt = 997m / Descent = 946m

We woke early and enjoyed a simple breakfast of coffee, orange juice, fruit and croissant. Quite a big day beckoned and we were eager to be underway, so by 8.30am we had checked out, got a stamp for our passports, bought lunch from the local patisserie and set off.

Crossing the Lot on the way into Livinac-le-Haut

The first objective was the climb out of Decazeville, rewarded by great views over the Lot valley as we reached the ridge and enjoyed a level stroll for a couple of kilometres. Dropping down into Livinhac-le-Haut, a little town that was almost asleep in the bosom of warm sunshine, we crossed the River Lot before a more gradual climb back out of the valley.

Sign in French and Occitan

Gaining height, we followed a series of lanes and tracks to reach the hilltop village of Montredon, where we stopped briefly for pear and apricots and a short rest by the church, watched over by an insouciant cat.

Viewpoint on the way into Montredon

Moving on, we followed lanes and tracks towards the Chapelle de Guirande, where we got another stamp to make up for missing yesterday! We took another short break, and topped up with water from the nearby fountain.

For the first few days walking in hot conditions, we drink quite a lot of water – maybe 3-4 litres or more each per day. I think many people, us included, spend much of their day-to-day lives a little on the dehydrated side, and that, alongside the significant loss of fluids (and salts) through perspiration, means it takes 2-3 days of frequent water stops before we are properly hydrated.

Interesting tiled roof

Our goal since spotting the sign near Livinhac was to reach a gîte in a tiny hamlet called Bord, somewhere that looked capable of selling food and drink. Options had been few and far between earlier in the day – even Livignac only had a grocer’s shop open.

We just about made it before tiredness and hunger set in, and it was well worth it. A shady stop with picnic tables, we bought cokes and ice creams and guzzled them down, and sat for half an hour just resting in the cool. We ate one of our quiches, too.

There were other walkers here as well – four or five groups, some of whom we would see over the next few days like the pair we dubbed the “Brazilian couple” – not that they were from Brazil, but she wore a bandana with “Brazil” on it.

As I paid, I struggled to make the lady understand we wanted to buy another coke. In the end, I paid our bill, held up a E2 coin and asked for a coke. Light dawned, and laughter too!

Shady path beyond Bord

Moving on, we skirted St Félix and soon came to the church of St Mirabel. We sat at a communal stop with drinking water and a large bicycle sculpture (commemorating some local Tour de France stage winner from 2004), eating fruit and drinking rehydration salts.

Bicycle sculpture with church of Saint-Jean Mirabel behind
Most of the final 6-7k were also nice, and a pleasant way of finishing a lengthy day. After a long stretch by the busy D2 road, the route threaded its way through countryside on tracks and quiet lanes, followed finally by a long descent into Figeac.

It seemed hotter lower down, the heat not mitigated by the cooling breeze of the tops, and the final trudge along a busy road that morphed into a town street of scruffy appearance wasn’t perhaps the most auspicious approach to a town.

However, this poor first impression gave way to a rather pleasant old town centre. Our hotel for the night is one Best Western chain, of quite a nice standard and with a smart room. 

Enjoying dinner beside the river

We had dinner on the terrace, sitting beside the River Célé, and I can't remember us ever having done that before. It was a nice meal, too – chicken salad to start with, salmon/duck for main course and crème brûlée/tarte au chocolat for dessert.

Our hotel on the river front

Afterwards, we took a quick stroll round the old town, checking out shops for restocking in the morning.

Day 3: Figeac to Cajarc

32.50k (20.25 miles) / Ascent & Descent not recorded

With another long day in prospect – longer than yesterday, in fact – a good early start was required. We breakfasted on the terrace overlooking the river, warm enough to eat out in just shorts and shirt even at 7.00am.

Early morning shadows

By 8.00am, we were on our way, heading out of town and starting our first steep climb of the day back up on to the plateau. The first few miles along the ridge were quiet and peaceful, with pilgrims only occasionally in sight before and behind.

Heading for the cafe in Feycelles

At Feycelles, a pretty village overlooking the Lot valley, we stopped for drinks and ice creams. We were served by Monsieur, polite and brisk, and two cokes were before us tout de suite. Madame, on the other hand, was a grumpy thing, whose demeanour erred a little too far towards surly to be charmingly quirky. She did manage a brief “Bonne journée” as we left, though.

Poppies in the hedgerow

A longish section followed – more lanes, tracks and paths, which were easy enough to follow except for the criss-crossing of a number of GR routes – we had to make sure we were following the right red and white blazes.

After another lengthy section, we stopped for a quick rest, snacks and a drink, then carried on to the village of Gréalou. Here, we took a longer rest on the green, topped up on sunscreen and potable water, and had a snooze prior to the final miles.

Taking a well-earned rest, Grealou

Those final miles were quite testing. Even though we passed a Neolithic dolmen to keep our interest up, we seemed to be walking for ages only to find we had barely knocked off another kilometre. It was like walking through treacle: would we ever reach Cajarc?

Neolithic Dolmen near Grealou

Eventually, we crested a hill and to our relief saw the town below, set in a loop of the River Lot in an amphitheatre of limestone cliffs. It still seemed some way away, but by following a cunning path below the cliffs we dropped suddenly to valley level and rolled into town unexpectedly quickly, with only our hotel to find. 

Path below the cliffs

We arrived at 6.30pm. The hotel is nice – modern and smart, suited rather more to business needs and family get-togethers than smelly pilgrims, but we enjoyed the facilities none the less. A brief tidy and we were ready for dinner – a lovely meal with a speciality salad starter, duck leg as the main course and a local pudding to finish, all washed down with large beers and a big bottle of fizzy water.

Relaxing before dinner after a long day

We have again drunk loads today – I reckon that from dawn to dusk I had about 5 litres yesterday, and it must be close to the same today. Keeping fit and healthy and avoiding dehydration is a must when days are long and the temperature is up in the 30s.

Sunscreen, too, is important. Walking in the heat of the afternoon, often out in the open in what must be in excess of 30°C in the shade, means taking precautions – besides plenty of fluids, a hat, covering up perhaps, and regular sunscreen applications are all recommended, especially as we have not been exposed to these kinds of temperatures when walking since this time last year.

Despite the heat, they have been good days, with an element of challenge too – something we like as part of our pilgrimage walking, especially when we have to get up and walk again the next day come what may.

Cajarc! A welcome sight at the end of a long day

Even though we may have done some preparatory hikes at home, the first two or three days of each trip always revolve around getting back into the fitness and routine required for multi-day long-distance walking. And, in a way, this is all part of the fun!

This time, we found slipping back into “trail readiness” quite easy – the baggage of our home lives easily surrendered, whilst our trekking baggage was properly organised from the outset.  

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