Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gorges de l'Allier

It's been so terribly cold out and I've been such a hibernating bear lately that I decided that a summer trek from the archives was in order.

Another summer weekend, another train to parts unknown. I’ve got a bunch of Mondays off, so I’ve been working Saturdays at the bench and taking Sunday-Monday as my weekend. I’ve been getting a load of work done, but the train schedules aren’t always convenient. Some day: a car.
On the last trip to Langeac, which I’ll transcribe for you later, I was right at the bottom of the Gorge of the Allier, a long, spectacular canyon carved by our own tame little Allier. I vowed to hike upstream from the same town, and finally I’m going.
I’m living dangerously this time, without reservations or even information on any place to spend the night. Last time there was not a room to be had in Langeac, and the next town down the rail with a station, Monistrol d’Allier, is even smaller. Solution: go only as far as Brioude today and see the old town. Brioude is big enough to be certain of lodgings and some kind of meal tonight. Then the early train to Monistrol. That same train leaves Clermont at 6:30, but better to start after lunch and spend an extra evening out than get up annoyingly early on my day off. Then I’ve got all day to hike to Prades (13 km) and take an alternate route back for a total of nearly 30 km. Train back to Clermont at 6 pm.
Well, nearly; if I take the loop and don’t get back by 6 I’ll be stranded.

Brioude is starting to worry me. The hotel across from the station is closed. Wandering about town I see plenty of signs for restaurants, but few for hotels. Here’s one in the historic old town. Closed at the moment, the sign says the hotel will be open from 7 to 8 pm. They’ve got 10 rooms, all well within my budget. I just can’t find out if any of them are available tonight until after 7. great. It’s not quite 4 now.
And it’s starting to rain. Lightly, but still rain.
After a stroll around in fits and starts, from awning to doorway all around the center of Brioude, I locate just two more hotel signs. The first one looks decent, and open. It is open, and they’ve got a room. Score! I don’t bother with the second.
I hadn’t though a town this size would be so short on lodging. It’s quiet as a ghost-town, too. Understandable for a summer Sunday afternoon, but this area is a least a little something of a local tourist destination, isn’t it? Yeah, but apparently more for camping than for hotel-staying. Definitely camping territory.
I’ll see how rolled-up things really are later this evening when it’s time for some dinner. I only need one open restaurant. Just one! Nothing too fancy; I’ll be dressed in hiking shorts and sandals, and the spare shirt hanging up to de-wrinkle.
As I’ve been writing this, the rain has stopped. Time to explore!

Brioude is a nice place. A town of about 30,000 all told, it has an extensive heart of cobbled streets forbidden to cars. In the middle is a magnificent old brick basilica, mostly red and ochre tones with some black that could be stone imported from Volvic or sandstone gone bad in polluted air. I would very seriously regret not having my camera if only the whole thing were not swathed in scaffolding.
I’ll come back in five years when they’ve finished. Spots of intricate designs are beginning to peep out already.
The medieval heart is surrounded be the usual sort of late-20th century town, with car-friendly roads and bigger houses, shoddy apartment blocks and shops without interest. Following along the Allier leads out of town fairly quickly, into a series of camping areas and vacation centers. The view of an arching, red brick railroad bridge is quite nice, but in an hour of walking I don’t get away from the crowds. I’ll get my nature walk in tomorrow. Today the filled campground is a good sign that there may be more interesting fare than takeout pizza and bar food available for dinner.
And there is. There’s a very nice, simple, family-run place just down an alley from the basilica. François Marquet it’s called, and Madame is greeting customers. She sees me writing and says I have to say Hi from Claire.
Hi from Claire!
The food is wonderful.

There’s nobody at reception when I get back to the hotel. There don’t seem to be many guests, either. Earlier the guy said something about setting up a wake-up call. Dial 8 (or was it 9?) and the four numbers of the time you want.
I do that, but nothing obvious happens and I’m not confident of a call at 7. In the lobby, a card at the desk says “dial 9 for assistance”. Maybe it’s busy, maybe it just doesn’t work; hard to tell what the odd noise means. It’s “busy” for hours. Some assistance.
Eventually I just go to bed, thinking to get up whenever it’s light out so I don’t miss my 7:40 train on to Monistrol for a real hike. It’s the only way to get there, and missing it is missing it for good.
I do get up right on time - not too early, not too late, and without the wake-up call ringing. It’s a quarter to seven by the lobby clock when I come in to settle the bill. Monsieur is on his way out and is a little peeved to have to stay five minutes while I pay for my room.
Hey guy, this is a hotel. People have trains to catch. I’ll be perfectly happy to leave without paying if you’d rather not be disturbed.
The elderly man in charge of the breakfast buffet is more genial, opening the dining room a few minutes early for me. He serves me a pitcher of coffee sufficient for a table of four, then putters around behind the bar. A friend of his stops by for a normal-sized coffee, but no other customers appear before it’s time for me to go.

It’s a cloudy, cool morning. For a while I regret not wearing jeans, but I know I’d be changing back to shorts by mid-morning, and then I’d have a useless pair of heavy jeans to haul around all day. One pound can become 10 by the end of 20k.
It’s a beautiful ride up the river valley. Quiet and sleepy. The valley narrows to a gorge at Langeac, and it’s only the train that follows the river from here nearly to the headwaters. No road - no cars making noise and pollution and bringing too many people.
Most prominent in Monestrol are the riverside beach and campground complex, the hydroelectric plant, and the backpackers hostel. Bed and a meal, 20 €, if you dare. 20 years ago, or even 10, I would have.
This village is a crossroads for hiking trails. Because of the steep terrain, trails going opposite directions take the same detour into town, but that isn’t clear on my map. It takes me a good twenty minutes and two false starts to get on the right one to take me back downstream to Prades, but finally I’m on my way.

It’s a highway out here. A steady stream of St Jacques de Compostellers is heading in the opposite direction. I really need to make a stop and relieve myself of some of this coffee, but there’s somebody coming along every two minutes and not much of anywhere to hide.
Up out of the gorge and onto the plateau of woods and farmland. The trail winds between fields of cows or corn or newly mown hay, usually lined with blackberry brambles, the fruit still unripe, to keep hikers and livestock properly segregated. Sometimes we walk along roads, but not often. Then up through a forest of twisted pines and huge granite boulders spilling down the slope.
Suddenly I come to the top, to the ancient village of Rochegude. The village is composed of a dozen farmhouses crowded up against a point of rock overlooking the river.on the rock is a miniscule chapel, still in use though cobwebbed and musty in the shadows. Higher up, on the highest point for miles around, is an old ruined tower.
It’s a magnificent spot, with the grey stones covered with lichens in orange and yellow, the grass and bushes emerald green with dew in the overcast morning, the village of stone and wood, flowers in every window and garden.
There’s no modern-looking construction anywhere in the Gorge, either. There’s a house being built in Rochegude, but on the outside it’s just like the houses of hundreds of years ago, though with bigger windows. How wonderful that they’ve fobidden a cinderblock-and-siding invasion. This constraint on construction serves in two ways to keep the gorge looking so nice - the houses have to be of traditional stone and wood so they fit in aesthetically, - and this makes them so expensive to build that their numbers are naturally limited.
Again it takes me several tries to find the right way out of town, in spite of the town being tiny. The pilgrimage trail goes off to the east, but I’m supposed to head north, toward Conac. Finally, I ask directions from a farmer loading a trailer with hay. Ah, yes, the tractor is blocking the way. It looked to me like his driveway.
As it is, but that’s how trails are in the countryside. They do cut through people’s farms and fields and sometimes it’s hard to see the difference between private property you should go around and private property your path cuts across.
From this high vantage point it’s down through Conac, down to the river. The water is low, and lively where it spills over rocks. Inviting swimming pools abound, filled with trout. Signs are posted everywhere there is access to the water: Danger. No swimming or wading. Even in good weather there may be sudden changes in flow. It’s the hydroelectric plant upstream. You never know when they’re going to release a bolus of water: better not venture out into the river, no matter how inviting it looks.
The river here is fairly flat, but the trail goes up and down, up and down between the water’s edge and the plateau above, wherever there is room for the trail and right-of-way.

Prades. My turnaround point. To the right: spectacular basalt formations, towering crystals of black rock that jut straight up, then twist. Pieces have broken off quite recently, leaving unweathered tracks on the textured cliff-face. Stunning. I could look at it all day.
Those who do look at it all day are to the left. A whole beach & campground as big as the village itself is spread out on a bight of river. There’s a road that comes in from the west, meaning a traffic jam, even on a Monday, and children yelling and teenagers riding motorbikes pointlessly up and down the single street.
It’s 12:30. The village of Prades is blessed with a 12th centure church, twenty or so old stone houses, and one bar/bakery/convenience store. A ham & cheese baguette and a beer, please. I eat out on the terrace. Luckily, the umbrella is enough against the light rain that begins, because inside the bar is a dark, smoky cave.
Even luckier, the rain stops while I’m inside paying.

Back in Monistrol by 4:30, I have time to relax before my train home. First thing, a nice cold Perrier with mint syrup on the terrace of the big bar overlooking the vacation complex. Not much is happening there, in spite of it being the height of tourist season.
Then a turn around town, where I discover that the real town where most of the houses are, is down the road and across the river. And like the rest of the villages along the gorge, this one has strictly preserved its ancient stone character, its cobbled streets, and its medieval church. It’s all spotlessly clean, bright with flowers, and nearly deserted of people.
Eventually my feet get tired of wandering around on the stone paving and I settle down to read at the station. And I read, and keep reading. Watch cars go by, and trucks with hay, and people walking their dogs, and dogs just hanging around. The train is late. Some passerby seems to be informed that it’s running 40 minutes late, which is a shame - I was hoping to have time for a snack during my hour wait in Alleyras for my connection. My sandwich & beer in Prades are long gone.

Getting off the train eventually in Alleyras, a tiny bourg with no central town to speak of, the conductor points out the station call box, for use in case of problems.
Problems? Like what, if the train fails to stop?
Well, yes.
Ah, so the train has been known to fail to stop here. That would be bad. Alleyras is even smaller than Monistrol. Much smaller. It does appear to have a bar and hostel. I don’t walk the two blocks to this ratty-looking establishment, not wanting to miss my train, especially if I have to flag it down. But the wait becomes long. The other person waiting tries the call box, and to her astonishment it works right away. It looks like they’re used to ‘problems’ here.Eventually, the train does arrive, and it does stop for us. By then I’m again regretting not packing a pair of jeans and some more significant snackage. It’s not so warm in the evenings around here. But it has been a wonderful day and I’m exhausted and it’s time to go home and feed the cats.

July 30, 2006

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