Saturday, 11 May 2002

GPS 44° 43.324'N 3° 17.038'E +1063m to home

At least it has stopped raining, but it's chilly. Headline news on the TV this morning is Potter's Bar derailment, so groan at thought of travel disruption. French railways probably seem better because they run so few trains (often if you miss the train you want, it's a case of wait to tomorrow; and here at Aumont, most of the trains are coaches).

Breakfast is standard issue - bread, croissant and jam.

Buy cheese and fruit when the grocers opens, check out, and go stand opposite the station for an hour. Meet some of the folk who I passed yesterday, also waiting. Coach not too crowded, and only makes one other stop - St Chély d'Apcher, twinned with Tadcaster. But there are two kids - burbling under fives - who I'd gladly strangle by the time we get there.

Long motorway haul to Clermont, breathless scramble to train. Which then waits for another late train.

And I'm in a compartment now with three more brats. *sigh* The one old enough to sit and read Harry Potter, and comics, is only annoying when he sucks the drawstring of his hoody, or later complains about something to do with his Gameboy (and is taken out into the corridor for strict telling off). The younger two fidget, burble, and ask if we are there yet. The corridor is narrow and busy with through traffic to the Buffet car, and the vestibule by the loo at the end serves as refuge for smokers and users of mobile phones. I alternate position as I am driven.

In Paris by just after half four, but it is raining from solid overcast, though the forecast had promised broken cloud and some sun. Metro to Chatelet, stop at the Trappiste for salad and Rodenbach, then back into the crush for the Gare du Nord.

Arrive with an hour to spare before check-in (could easily have caught an earlier Eurostar), and go up anyway for aircon comfort. Coach bloody miles up the platform, but Halleluiah! No-one in the seat next to me - especially not the huge sweaty pleb who boards shortly after me. One couple misread the class as the coach number, but are sent back to correct coach. And off through misty drizzle we set.

It was after the tunnel that the rot set in. Phoning home, I'm told not to worry, there's an emergency timetable, running every half hour, so decide to use King's Cross line rather than Liverpool Street. Half an hour late - with no announcement that we were going to be - at Waterloo, arrive at King's Cross just to miss a train. A few minutes before the next one, we're told to wait for an announcement. There are a series of these, saying that it's on its way, and so it's eventually there 15 minutes after promised. This train is full of overexcited Arsenal supporters, flush from having won the double, but find the least noisy coach. They get off at Stevenage, and then the quiet guy in the suit sitting across the way from me starts throwing up, so off to another coach, where some girls are talking about the families in the audience of the performance of Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang they'd just been to see as we sit in Hitchin station. The driver then pours on the coal, and drives like the clappers. Even so, it's gone midnight by the time I'm home, having left the hotel at 9 UK time.

Bath, beer (real beer, even if in a half-litre bottle rather than real pints) and bed.

French holiday diaries continue in my main blog.

Friday, 10 May 2002

GPS 44° 48.246'N 3° 25.460'E +1129m to Aumont-Aubrac

Dark clouds when I get up, but then sun through a low gap under them. Forecast says rain in the morning on one channel, afternoon on another.

Most inedible breakfast to date - "French toast", last night's left over bread from supper grilled more to desiccate than brown. Not even a croissant as well! Choked down a couple of slices, but most of calories came from sugaring the coffee. Meanwhile all the other tables were sending out for seconds!

Sun gone when we set out, but will make brief appearances during the day. The hotel being off the main route, only a few today - the couple from day one, and two "hares". Our breath steams in the chill air. Meet the counter-marching guy again. Tells us that Jacqueline with the two dogs - it turns out she's Swiss - is ahead, or in the lead. Unsurprisingly, we don't catch her up, but I do meet him one more time on the way. Two miles down the road, at the only town en route (St. Alban), we have lost the retired couple, and when I get out the other side, the other two have vanished. Second breakfast?

Briefly lose GR65 on reaching the D4, so go to crossroads with D987, and pick up the trail as it leaves the 987 later.

Off road now, on chalk track, just enough brightness to make it sticky, with the promise of rain always in the wind. More of the clear-cut and abandon, with sparse lines of trees around spaces where trunks have been left until they weather to grey. Overtake other walkers, exchange brief greetings. Not too much of the eroded streambeds today, and not so many long descents. Emerge from final long off-road, to find a local entrepreneur has advertised his taxi service ("Allo Taxi") just on the corner - "any baggage, any distance, equipped to handle travel for medical reasons".

Stop at convenient bench at edge of Aumont, eat melon (had the fromage blanc for elevenses), then head on in. Carry on past hotel to locate station for tomorrow, then back. No sign of a grocer, but pass plenty of boucherie/charcuteries, a news agent, a couple of shops selling general tat.

Turn back to hotel to arrive at same time as the Michels.

This far down the line, Chinese whispers seem to have attacked my name, so take a while to locate my reservation in their book (no, I'm not the M. Zeeman due tomorrow) but that sorted, my bag is waiting for me. Poky shower, so sponge bath when hot water finally arrives. This way I give my dodgy toe (slowly healing but only just faster than abrasion) a chance to air and dry.

After a while to recover, set out to locate any sign of cheese vendor, also to check out the station in more detail and do GPS fix. Find a grocer at last, down a tiny side street, then get to station in time to see the evening bus to Clermont arrive. Useful - now I know which side to wait. On the way back to the hotel, the rain belatedly starts. Meet Jacqueline, the dogs and the counter-marching chap, so make my farewells, before dashing for shelter.

Dinner is soup (diced vegetables in clear stock), a puff pastry cheese sauce thing, pork steak on pasta, cheese (Cantal and St Nectaire), and the bread and butter pud, which seems to be a local specialty.

Thursday, 9 May 2002

GPS 44° 57.572'N 3° 32.799'E +979m to Les Faux

More rain overnight, but stopped by daylight.

Breakfast was a buffet so I had three (small) bowls each fruit salad, and muesli+yoghurt, plus plenty of juice and just enough coffee. One of the Michels is sufficiently sleepy that he almost pours coffee into his juice glass.

As I was checking out, he and the rest of the fast crew from yesterday were walking out the door, and after I'd stopped at the p'tit Casino for fruit and fromage blanc, I thought the dots on the horizon would be the last I saw of them for the day.

The weather is cool, cloudy, damp, with some sun breaking thro' to make it steamy. Rain blowing on wind.

After an hour, I pass the others sitting by the side of the track, munching. Later, they pass me, and this happens three or four times, until I just have joke about the hare and the tortoise - having seen one yesterday, I didn't have to look up lièvre. But honestly they were at it like hobbits!

Today the route passes through a lot of rolling terrain with pines, clear cut in places, sometimes with the cut trees just left lying. In places the ground has been cleared of stumps and loosely ploughed, in othes the debris seems to have been left simply for the locals to help themselves to firewood. The trees, gorse, and dull weather reminded me of the journey from New Plymouth to Rotorua.

Ninety minutes in, suffered through what would have been an hour of soft weather, except for the wind bringing the drizzle in almost horizontally. A brolly was very useful - I was already soaked with sweat in the steamy heat, so wearing waterproofs would have been a disaster. Gaiters are useful too!

Sun comes out, so now have parasol as brolly dries. Winding through a little village, with a horrendous steep descent and inquisitive dogs - up to now all local wuffs encountered had been dozy.

There are tadpoles, legless so far, in the puddles!

I am sure that a chap who passes me in opposite direction about half eleven is the same as did an hour or more before.

By noon, I'm halfway up scramble under trees near Chanaleilles. I listen to my legs and stop - peach, yoghurt and an oeuf dur abstracted from the breakfast buffet.

Load thus lightened, stride up to encounter the hobbits again. A stream to cross with interestingly menhir-like bridge, where a stepping stone would have been less precarious. A gate to wrestle with - needed a lot of lifting to fit the bolt back. Now on main road, and decide to skip two miles of detour. Renewed rain rakes this fairly unanimous.

It stops just as I approach the St Roch chapel and refuge, but I stop anyway to have a lunch of oranges and fromage blanc. "Tea time" quips Michel as they pass me for the last time. Off the road now and back in woods. Sun emerges for brief Fangornish ("almost felt I liked the place") moment, before becoming dull again. On home stretch now, where I'm overtaken by two cyclists. One loses (it had come loose, and he simply removed it rather than reattaching it) his back mudguard, which he soon regrets, the path being rather muddy. Guide-book says to take care to take turn off the GR65 to the village a mile or so off to the side where I'm staying, but the only care needed is to not walk into the sign for the place! (I'd expected one as it had been signed on the path before I'd reached Saugues!)

Of course this bit in the open was the only bit of blazing sun, and of course the auberge was the building on a rise that I passed going to the main road, so had to double back! There'll be a serious set of corrigenda this one.

Very much a restaurant on this Ascension Day holiday, so it takes a while to get lodged. The room's not en suite, but at least it's modern (a converted/extended old farm house). Much needed shower. I'd hoped to take a relaxing stroll, but by then chilly rain comes and goes outside, I sit and watch watch "Attack of the killer bees" dubbed into French. Soon I'm rooting for the bees, as the victims' stupid behaviour deserved them a Darwin.

Forecast says rain tomorrow morning, dull later. It is chilly now. Dinner comes with 25cl red on the table, kidneybean, corn tomato and egg salad, pork steak on mountain of peas and haricot verts, so it's likely to be windy tomorrow too :) then fromage blanc, bread and butter pud with plums, coffee. GPS makes this the highest stop so far.

Wednesday, 8 May 2002

GPS 44° 59.372'N 3° 40.738'E +892m to Sauges

Miserable breakfast - bread, jam, watery juice, at least coffee was self serve. Got free drinks without needing to ask as I'd had "une surprise".

On the road soon after eight, and met the overburdened woman from yesterday, who'd managed to lighten her load. Introductions, her name is Marie-Claude, most of the blokes in the ad hoc party that has assembled seem to be called Michel. Easy ascent to start, just have to keep an eye out for the often distant or tiny red and white waymarks. Having a team helps, so if I'm looking at the cherry blossom, others can spot a turning, or if one of the leaders misses a mark, I can yell. M-C keeps telling us to go on ahead at our own pace, but she is cracking along faster than I or the oldest Michel with the "ski-sticks" who I was pacing much of yesterday afternoon (until he'd fallen behind while I'd speeded up to tell about the dog's paw).

At Rochegude, we cross from Velay to Gévaudan - avec sa Bête - and have to make a long descent on an eroded path, with exposed rock, all sizes of loose, and tree roots. Michel with the ski sticks has an advantage with his "freins permanentes", but by the bottom we are all giggling with relief. Now in town of Montirol to cross the Allier, and nearly go astray by crossing nice new modern bridge. More descent to an old footbridge, and now a ninety minute ascent, zig-zagging back and forth sometimes with log steps or hand rail.

The slowest members of the group - those behind me - detach to take the main road while the rest struggle on to summit. Lunch as yesterday. Others have been snacking at every pause, but as usual, being in motion - and hot - kills my appetite. I am bombarded with - and have to decline - offers of bread and cheese and ham - despite water in handy carry pack to drink while walking (Platypus brand), my mouth too dry for such foods. I joke with them that I'm supposed to be losing weight, and pat my tummy. "Pas aujourdhui," quips M-C.

From now most of the way is gently rolling, so making a steady pace difficult, changing gears every couple of minutes as the gradient alters. Meet one chap going the other way to retrieve his car, then to collect his wife whose knees have given out. At one place the Belle France instructions talk of the track becoming a footpath - actually it narrows between barbed wire fences and becomes a stream with occasional ponds. Unlike the earlier wadis.

Finally long descent to Saugues. I stop to take a picture of town, with its tower fortified against the Angevins (the Tour des Anglais), and some abstract sculpture on the hillside. The lost Michels arrive on the main road as the main body of the group approach it, and they all head off down into town. Meanwhile I've spotted somethnng, and detour to a viewpoint just up the road where I take a photo of a sculpture carved in red wood of La Bête

(as made famous in the recent film Brotherhood of the Wolf (Pacte des Loups)), then, as it is still only just 2pm, I find a convenient bench to read a "Cat who..." until a sensible time to make the rest of the descent.

No screw-ups this time - the room is spartan, but modern, though it seems that pilgrims eschew the TV, so no weather forecast again. But there was a much needed hot bath. Today was mainly overcast, with a light breeze, and the early morning and noon showing some hazy sunshine, some sullen heat in arvo. Public holiday, so town dead. Hope there's some life tomorrow a.m. for restocking! It starts raining in the early evening, which stops later, but heavy low cloud.

Salmon tartlet w/melted cheese, chicken breast and fancy mash, cheese (St Nectaire and chevre), fruit pie. 1/2 bt Côtes du Rhone red.

Tuesday, 7 May 2002

GPS 45° 2.431'N 3° 53.321'E to St Privat.

After a steep climb to the cathedral (45° 2.735'N 3° 53.050E altitude 666m :) ), arriving just at the same time as late Mass begun (at 09:00), so skipped the peek inside, and descended to begin the walk, taking snaps of the town as I went.

On the outskirts, saw a much overladen young lass - I'd thought I'd overdone it by that stage, but she had maybe 3x the load I was carrying! Was caught up by a pleasant couple from Chateauneuf du Pape, who looked to be youngish fifty-somethings, but were retired. Indeed most of the walkers look older than me, and a whole lot seem to be on the whole 1400km shindy! (Apparently there were 30 at the early Mass for pilgrims). Behind us, the tower of Polignac thrust up, giving the finger to the entire district, overlooking the town. Unfortunately, it got washed out in the glare behind it in the photos I took looking back.

Up on the top of the ridge leading from le Puy, it didn't look too much different from the Dales, except for that peculiarly French style of rural dereliction. That and laying in this year's crop of Puy lentils rather than just grazing sheep.

Found out that this week has two public holidays, Wed and Thur, even though they had the first as Mayday.

Stopped for elevenses at St. Christophe, a peach and a yoghurt from the Casino at Le Puy, and was there caught up by overburdened lass, but I was definitely feeling far too loaded to help, now that the sun was blazing down. Hope she got to her destination and can shed some load.

This route very well waymarked, with only one tiny need to retrace where the red and white mark was not obvious on a farm building. Lunched on some bread pud, and more of the usual fruit and yoghurt. I parted company from the couple for a while, as I ate more simply - no thermos of soup, or such.

They caught me up later as we were entering Montbonnet, but just at that point, dived into a wayside church and I didn't see them again 'til supper. By now, four hundred meters above start, despite some descents. And another two hundred loomed. New companions by now, all looking or sounding tired and less banter. A stiff ascent to Lac de l'Oeuf, and cloud cutting sun to leave chilly wind. In pinewoods at top, the wind was blocked leaving a sullen heat in background.

Get caught up by a lass with two dogs who I saw on the local train to le Puy on Monday, and one dog grabs the ankle of my trousers, nearly tripping me. She is clearly the youngest so far I've seen on the trail, and despite being burdened with full camping gear including tin mugs and coffee pot, is striding faster than the older walkers, despite all their ski-pole like walking sticks. Her calls to the dogs, who have too much energy to make comfortable watching, marked her as German, the only non-francophone I meet (discounting the one Quebecker).

Later, the little dog who nearly tripped me started pausing and chewing at her toes on one foot, which I could see as they were all ahead of me by now. Caught up when the girl stopped to pick cowslips, which are plentiful here, and recited some preassembled German to tell her - and dog obligingly demonstrates, so I add "comme ça." Two thorns are duly removed from the paw, and the trio sped ahead down the patella-popping descent to St Privat, which had already detached the two of us from the other walkers. Hollow laughter on emerging from woods from what otherwise seemed a dead end to see a "Ralentissez Enfants" sign. Any kids would have run me over!

Arrive at hotel to find it shut. Find person at local bar down the road to open it. By now desperate for loo, stretchdown and shower. But disaster! Room not beddered! Manage first two, drag on sweat soaked outfit, back down the road to complain. No en suite rooms left, and no bedder to fix this one! Change to what's on offer and sponge-bath. Only thing firm about the bed is the bolster. Feeling v chilled now, so snuggle under covers in cleanish clothes 'til supper. Anonymous pinkish cream-of-veg soup, pallid sausage on huge heap of lentils vanish as fuel, don't really start noticing details until the fromage blanc. Too soon. The cold apple pie was more just fuel. Intend to argue for free wine to offset room downgrade tomorrow. If the lingo will take it. Getting more frustrated with ersatz stylus.

Monday, 6 May 2002

To Le Puy en Velay.

After last night's parties in the rain, just another Monday morning. Cold, windy with leaden skies, but TV weather forecast says tomorrow will be warmer.

I wander along the river to the Eiffel tower, then back to the station. Cold it might be, with fat, nigh full grown ducklings huddled all together, looking miserable, on the rim of the pond near Cleopatra's needle, but I was still drenched with sweat on arrival, after 2.5 hours walk with all my kit.

Travelled on the top deck of a double-decker TGV to St Etienne. Lunch a couple of pastries from the Upper Crust at Waterloo that would have been too greedy to eat on Saturday. The clouds started to break up into fair weather cumulus, and even gave some glimpses of sunshine! Changed to smelly local train (full of others who look like they'll be walking too) for last leg along the Loire, as clouds gathered again, no sun, some glimpses, getting less frequent, of blue.

Saw a heron on a rock in the Loire about half-way. A brief shower of rain greeted me at the station for the short walk to the hotel. A warm (eventually) shower at the hotel. Am instructed cryptically as I check in to turn up at 7:30 for dinner when manager will explain.

Dinner turned out to be done in mass production for guests, who all look to be doing the trail. Start with puy lentil potage (english sense) with a small sliced beefsteak tomato aux fine herbs and soft-boiled egg, followed by not so nice turkey leg and potato duphinoise. Then a blue and some Pont l'Eveque, finally proper vanilla ice-cream and fresh strawberries. Vin rosé with and coffee to follow. By now it was half eight, and there was some last weak sun, but as Canal+ had Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on, I decided to watch that rather than wander around a nondescript French town. The walk through the town will do for sight-seeing, and I passed a Casino on the way here, so shopping is sorted. Much repacking. Hope it all works.

Sunday, 5 May 2002

Paris

Walked to Pere Lachaise cemetary and found Oscar Wilde's tomb,

which was covered with lipstick kisses, and Jim Morrison's tiny plot.

The place was gloomy, but with atmospheric avenues of trees.

Detritus includes twig suitable for temporary stylus (including fitting in the carrying slot) after a little whittling by handy Swiss tool. There was rain on the wind and I was feeling rough so headed back to the hotel (Flor Rivoli, Rue Deux Boules, a basic place to crash near the center of Paris) for siesta. Discover that the feeling of irritation by my big toe is a now raw blister. Ugh!

After the siesta, I wandered up the Rue St Martin past Jospin's abandoned campaign HQ, to République, then to the canal and up to Stalingrad, across to Sacre Coeur, down through Montmartre to the Louvre, then the Trappiste again for supper. It very conveniently offers salads as well as beer, so I had a salade Ardennaise with a Leffe brune, then fromage blanc with raspberry coulis and a frambozen lambic. By now it was about 8pm, and a cheer went up all around the place when the TV showed the projection of 17.9% for le Pen! Had another Rodenbach, and so to bed while Paris partied in the rain.

Saturday, 4 May 2002

Velay walking : To Paris

With various domestic crises, I didn't do such a holiday in '01. Now in '02, I turned to a walking holiday of the same "they carry your bags" type along the first section of the St Jacques de Compostelle trail from Le Puy-en-Velay (aka GR65), where Belle France were simply acting as intermediaries for a French concern. While I was the only Belle France person doing the tour, at least this time the popularity of the walk meant that I was not alone as I travelled (as the Auvergne and Dordogne cycling had been). And unlike the other tours, I kept a diary as I went, PalmOS PDAs being useful like that.

It was not an auspicious start when the ticket machine at Waterloo International swallowed my ticket as being too sweaty (carried in an inside pocket, between me and a small ruck-sack carried in front (big backpack on back) and chewed it up. Realised I'd left the decent camera at home - just in time to get another one-use one, and now find I've left my Palm stylus behind, and to cap it all, the hotsync I did before setting out has managed to get the keyboard hacks fighting each other, so I am stuck with the default one, and no way to reset now but wait for the timeout before fixing it. *sigh*

At Calais saw brazen queues of migrants heading to the track side in broad daylight, with no sign of any official presence at all. Lunch was a sausage roll and a pastie from the Oggy Oggy Pasty shop at Euston station.

Paris was much as usual, and, this being the day before the presidential election, I was pleased to see very few pro le Pen posters or graffiti. Had a pint of Rodenbach at the Trappiste (4 Rue St. Denis, a usual haunt for a beer-lover like myself), foie gras and magret de canard en cidre at la Galtouse (a traditional French paysan cooking restaurant in Rue Pierre Lescot near Les Halles). And I really need a stylus!