I had retired in spring of 2005, and here it was autumn and I had not had a chance to go off by myself and do something outdoors. I had nearly decided to do the English coast to coast bike ride.
I had the maps and everything, but as I tried to plan the train route, and saw all the station changes, and petty rules about bikes, and as I contemplated the weather, and read web accounts of detours due to contaminated earth and being set upon by thugs in the Newcastle area, I thought, why the hell shouldn't I go to Cantal as I had originally
planned? I immediately booked a Eurostar round trip to Paris (£80), and SNCF tickets from Paris to Le Lioran. I stuffed my map, tent, clothes and other things into my backpack and caught the 5am train from Radlett to Waterloo.
The French train arrived at Le Lioran at about 5pm. The town was closed up, but I enjoyed the cool air and two sun-dogs as I climbed to Super Lioran, where there is a gite d'etape. But on the phone, the gite owner said she was full-up. So I climbed higher to where there was a ski village and another gite. All these were closed, and the sun was failing, so I started on the grand randonnee trail and camped just off it. The wind roared all night, but I was below it, sheltered by a ridge. I started The Kite Runner (bought at Eurostar terminal) but was unimpressed with the simplistic childhood fatal-flaw stuff, and nodded off.
The next day I set out and soon reached a ridge with a beautiful view. Because these volcanoes have been eroding for 30 million years, they give an exaggerated impression of vastness. So a little while later I peered over a new ridge into a new valley, and then beyond into a valley that displayed Puy Mary (1783m), another lovely peak. Right before it is the Brèche de Rolland, a rather steep cleft. I saw an old couple descending it toward me, using ski poles. Now, I once used a walking stick, until I decided it did not help my balance and was just one more thing to carry. In the Himalayas, I mostly used my ice-axe to threaten dogs. Anyway, these hikers soon said "Mon Dieu" and went back the way they came. I had been thinking that this would be a great hike for children, but the exposure here led to some nasty fantasies about what might happen. But what was with all the old people? I soon found out on the peak of Puy Mary. The way down the other side is paved like a sidewalk, and tour buses park at the bottom, near a souvenir shop on the Pas de Peyrol.
I had actually been fasting since I left London. So as I approached the souvenir shop, I found myself wondering if I could resist eating. I had just about decided to pursue my "good food diet" (only eat really tasty food - this works pretty well in England), when I stepped inside the stone building. There was a roaring fire and loads of French folks tucking in to succulent lunches. A particularly rotund man nearby was eating something that looked like choucroute without the sauerkraut: an abundance of fatty pig products with stewed cabbage, potatoes and carrots. He said it was Potée, and with that and a bottle of local red, my fast was over in a jiffy.
After lunch I headed southwest. While still on the road I passed a man and two women. He had uprooted three low-bush blueberry plants, and all of them were eating the few berries. Alas, when they spoke, it was in German. But then I was cheered up by the sight of three parachute-gliders. They were whirling around the sidewalk up Puy Mary and I could hear their whoops. I wanted to run back and buy a ride. Instead I plugged in my mp3 player and listened to the Marriage of Figaro while I headed past La Chapeloune, the Roche Taillade, and the Roc des Ombres. I phoned the Auberge de Récusset and booked a room for the night. I was the only one there (see the cute stone model of the auberge at the left). For dinner I got another Potée, but this time with only ham and tinned vegetables. But nothing could dent the happiness produced by a shower and clean sheets. The total bill for food and lodging was €62.
The next day I walked along the valley floor toward Salers, a medieval town that several people, starting with my waitress at lunch, told me I had to see. When I first saw the Cantal, I figured it was a "French Hobbiton with Volcanoes". Check out the cute stone roof tiles at the left. The proprietress at the auberge had said that many English and Irish had bought houses around here. As I walked in the early morning, a farmer leapt across his field to intercept me. Was I English? He just wanted to chat. He told me not to miss the weekend cow market at Aurillac (but I did). I asked him about the path to the Cheese Museum up the rim of the valley, as indicated on my map. He said it never existed, or at any rate was blocked now. Hah, what do locals know. Plenty, I decided an hour or so later, badly scratched from bushwhacking up and down. The trouble is that there are too many cow trails, all of which seem to end in barbed wire or brambles. So I continued along the road to Salers, where I had a big lunch of Salers beef and chips and wine and sorbet. The town is certainly cute. I think I might have been there before. And it had internet access. But ultimately, it did not suit my mood. So I set off along the D680 to the cheese museum. There I bought a slab both of the summer cheese (cows fed on high-altitude herbs) and winter cheese (cows fed on crisp packets and leftover TV dinners). Both were superb, as you can see from my smile below. Behind me extends about half the length of the valley I had walked down on the low road, and was now walking up again on the high road.
I continued past the Col de Néronne on the D680, and turned up the GR400 back to the ridge of Impramau, which I had passed by previously. I figured it was a good place to camp and catch the sunrise. Have you ever camped alone in the woods? The noises would amaze you. I once camped in the woods above Nara, Japan, having passed old wooden temples in the gathering dark. Then I heard stealthy footsteps, one at a time, approaching my tent with inhuman patience. All the folk stories about Japanese vampires etc (I have read a lot of these) ran through my head. Finally, wielding a flashlight, I hurled my magnificent half-naked body out of the tent, and scared off the pesky deer, for which Nara is famous. So when I heard the same sound now, with a bit of deep snorting thrown in, I ignored it. Messing with zippers ultimately scared it off, with a final crash and "I vant to suck your blood!" What really preyed on my mind was the idea that an angry farmer or hunter would come get me. So I turned on my nifty
headlamp, using the special stealth red-lens feature to foil phototropic fauna, and read more in The Kite Runner. Even though an Afghan native wrote the book, it did not seem foreign enough to me. Also, there was something moving under the tent, which was really bugging me. I used the book to whack the floor, but it was ineffectual. At last the protagonist made it to America, and I fell asleep in the hope that the pace would pick up.
Friday dawned, and it was to be a Big Day. The sun lay low, and the shadows were long. And I nearly wet my trousers when I saw a mama sanglier and five babies trotting across my path! I had not brought my telephoto lens because I thought it would be too heavy. Never again.
Speaking of trousers, I think I changed to my other shirt on this day. My green one had so many crispy white salt stains, that I thought it was too interesting a look, even for me. Shortly after seeing the wild boars, I spotted a small herd of chamois. They floated up the Roc des Ombres, posed magnificently on an outcrop, then came down the nearly sheer face, all in a matter of minutes. It would take me an hour to get up it myself. The chamois moved like a pod of dolphins.
Oh, and speaking of boots, will these Merrell leather boots never break in? They are like steel. On their website they do not sell this type any more, and I can see why. I had a blister at the end of this long day. Ages ago I had a pair of leather Thom McAnn work boots that laced right up the shin. Man, they were comfortable. Too bad they fell apart, as all boots will eventually, even these damn Merrells.
I sat atop the Roc peak to eat breakfast (more cheese). Swifts flew overhead with a rustling like a woman's slip. In airy perches like this you really envy being a bird. I played a game with them: they flew over, and I tried to see if the autofocus could snap them. The swifts won.
A bit later I noticed that in this remote valley, I was not alone. Four small human figures were below me. They had no guns or packs. They did not respond to my wave. They shouted a lot, nonsense that sounded like "engadez" and "engadou". And sometimes they mooed. I finally decided that they were dangerously nuts, and moved off back toward Puy Mary. It was a couple of days before I figured out what they were doing, though I suppose you have spotted it immediately.
Jet fighters tore overhead occasionally.
On the summit of Puy Chavaroche I lunched off more museum cheese, and topped up my Virgin mobile account. On the way down I met a man coming up, who paused and said, "Waiting for the girlfriend!" He had taken the quick route up from Mandailles; I was going for the long way round. I told him about the wild boar, and he said he had only seen a red squirrel so far. Then his girlfriend caught up and he took off. Guys, this is a sure way to charm the girlfriend. Yes, they love it that, once you have rested and heard fascinating animal stories from wayfarers, you then clear right off so they do not have a chance to do the same. Oh yes, that fills their unsclerotic little hearts with joy. I saw this snake soon after.
Further along was a cool abandoned buron with a vaulted roof. Further along still was a refuge, that might be cosy in winter, but was dark and dank now. I made the mistake of polishing off the last of my water here. I had kind of hoped there would be a source at the refuge. The water tasted wonderful.
I made a recording of the cow bells using my mp3 player. It's very faint, sorry. Sound carries well in the valleys, and you can hear the bell symphony most everywhere.
That GR400 just keeps going, around the Puy de Bassierou, down and down, and then, godammit, up and up again, to get back above some streams. I really wanted some water, and I really wanted to be done. My eyesight was getting the way it does when you have not got a lot of blood sugar to go around. And then I came across some French lumberjacks. I could tell they were ridiculing me, something along the lines of "big deal hiker, tired after a walk, not like us lumberjacks, though we get paid a euro a day", because they told me so (je vous rigole is the phrase, I think). They reminded me of Asterix the Gaul. Kind-heartedly, they shared their water, and I gave them some of my blueberry caramels from the souvenir shop. I wish I had taken their pictures, but the old brain was not too acute at that moment. I learned that anyone resident in the area more than six months out of the year gets free firewood. Socialists.
I finally made it to St Julien-de-Jordanne, but nobody was at home, so I trucked on to Mandailles. There I came to the zero-star hotel Au Bout du Monde. And look what awaited me. They had to reach way up to the top shelf for the big glass.
After this I felt good enough to consider walking 50 feet up the road to the two-star hotel for dinner. But when I returned the glass, the proprietor of the Bout asked if I wanted to eat in, so I said yes. When the time came, each table was already set with baguettes and carafes of red, a good sign. The kids were doing their homework at a separate table. I started with pounti, a local delicacy I had never heard of. Sort of a savory plum loaf:
That was nice and filling. My main course was a perfect piece of Salers beef, cooked au point with a big helping of truffade, which is an exquisitely unctuous potato-cheese thing. I was feeling mighty fine when the innkeeper came by to talk about cheese and dessert. I told him that I had kind of had enough cheese for a while, but had been dreaming all day of a tomato salad. I expected the usual five thin slices of semi-green tomato, but instead he presented me with a huge platter, perfectly vinaigretted. That man is my hero.
The other tables were eating truite au lard with every indication of enjoying it as much as I was my meal. One table was five Frenchmen, who again could not resist poking fun at me. Fine, it must be a French national trait. The other table was a father and son. By their footwear, and by the way they conversed by gargling low in their throats, I knew they were English. They said they visited here often, and clever men they are too. I decided to take a rest day in Mandailles, and in the morning asked to extend my stay, that I might study the truite au lard more closely. Alas, they were booked up for the weekend. Total expense: €63.30.
So the next day I walked to Thiézac, via the Col de Pertus and the peak of l'Elancèze. On the way were some old wolf pit-traps. A sign said that farmers used to take the wolves to the city to display them, and then hang them. It was not too far from here that that whole Beast of Gévaudan thing happened. There was a whole lot of religious stuff above Thiézac: statue of archangel Michael, hermit cave where some miracle happened, rustic chapel, Klieg lights.
At Thiézac I stayed at the only place that was open (both campgrounds were shut): the uninspiring-looking hotel l'Elancèze. Even that was a near thing, because it was mostly full with some old-folks group who arrived on a bus. They were called "The Amicable Circle of Friends" and probably know where the grail is. The concierge only let me stay when I told her I was on foot. Then she served up a coq au vin black as black, because it was made with "plenty of blood". Mmmmm, blood.
The next day would be a long one, as I wanted to take the old Roman road up to the highest peak, the Plomb du Cantal. There had been a heavy dew, and the air felt damp. Not far from the porte du lion, a natural arch in the Chaos de Casteltine, I came across a crocodile of fresh-faced French hikers, who said they had spent the night at the refuge of La Tuillière. A while later I met two girls, one with a frilly white skirt, and the other with a revealing pink top that revealed among other things some tattoos that I hope were temporary. I said they looked awfully chic for hikers, and they scowled. I think white-skirt was the daughter of the house, because she coaxed me in to La Tuillière, which had a fire going and a lovely smoky atmosphere (no electricity). I limited myself to a bottle of apple juice, and moved on before I could wonder what amazing specialities the matron could cook up for dinner. Inside were also two young couples who did not even make eye contact. I figured they were from Paris, and were making a pilgrimage to the nearby Montaigne du Prat (a real name on the map). The matron opined that the rain had arrived, and she was right.
It was a long but gradual slog up to the top of Plomb du Cantal, and then there was not much to see. The rain was mild at first. It cut down on the sunburn and the need for drinking water, and added variety to the landscape. I always say there is no bad weather, only stupid clothing. At the top I met three nice French hikers from Clermont-Ferrand wearing shorts (speaking of stupid clothing). It then began to rain really hard, and got cold, and foggy, and thundered a bit. Not a sound one likes to hear when one is the highest object in the département. I suited up in my Gore-Tex suit, which kept me dry, though my hands got cold and my boots leaked (need greasing). I had thought of camping above Super Lioran, but it was pretty miserable out and anyway the whole place was an open ski area. I got down to the gite that had been full when I started the trip, but now it was closed tight. Luckily, I saw some folks doing tai chi in a nearby hotel that proved to be open, and very cheap too (something like €40 for room and board). In my room I found that my North Face backpack was now as waterproof as a party frock. I had been wondering about the eczema of its plasticky lining. Everything inside was wet, The Kite Runner proving particularly absorbent. It swole to twice its original size. Dinner was soup followed by something forgettable.
I booked the hotel for another night, and left my pack there while I climbed Puy Griou for old-time's sake. There are lots of mountain-bike trails around this area. Then I went down to St-Jacques-des-Blats, which a website touted as having many great shops and hotels. But all of these were shut. Only one bar was open, where I got a beer and some crème des myrtilles to take home for blueberry kirs.
Outside Les Gardes I was sitting at a bench phoning P about arrival times, when some farmers drove up and opened a gate to a field, shooing me away. Cows spewed out, some hopping over fences in the wrong direction. Another farmer raced up in a tractor. He chased one stray white cow, who burst through some barbed wire with her chest to get back on the road. He gave her a kick in the udder. After a while I followed the excited poo-splats up the road to where the cows were in a new field, and the farmers were just hooking up the electric fence with the serious satisfied air of professionals. The whole thing had been as frenzied as if the Bank of England had suddenly raised rates. Even farmers generate stress for themselves. And now I realised what the "engadez" nutters had been doing up at the Roc des Ombres.
On my way back via the Buron des Gardes I saw a weasel. He had a mouse in his mouth, before playing hide-and-seek with me.
I finished Kite Runner that evening. I did not like how objects like steel balls and straight-edge razors were obviously there for plot events shortly afterward. I did not like the psychopath. I did like the little passage where Amir learns from the beggar that Amir's mother "once used the word 'profoundly'".
In the morning I took trains back to London. By the way, remember to buy your cheeses and things before you get to the Gare du Nord. There are no nice shops around there, and the Hediard inside the Eurostar terminal sold Cantal cheese with mold on it. I hope it was the smell of this cheese that made the person next to me on the Eurostar seek a new seat, but I fear it was my well-used hiking vest.
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