Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Day 1: From Le Mont Gerbier-de-Jonc to LePuy-en-Velay. This was in many respects the hardest day of the whole ride. In future I'd make it shorter.

The picture below shows the Mont Gerbier-de-Jonc in the Ardèche the starting-point for my ride along the Loire.

Gerbier-de-Jonc is the source of the Loire - or rather the sources. There are in fact three sites here all claiming to be the real source of the longest river in France and they're no doubt all justified in their claim. The mountain is a volcanic plug composed of a rock called phonolite on account of the peculiar acoustic properties it has. On the day I left this spot there was a light aircraft flying in the vicinity and its sound was distorted by a strange reverberation from the mountain that resembled the grinding and clattering of some gigantic subterranean machine. The sound seemed to come from beneath my feet. Small wonder that in the past people imagined all manner of strange goings-on under the earth in these parts.

I did the trip from Le Mont Gerbier-de-Jonc to my chambre d'hôte at La Bigue on the evening of the 15th June, the day before the ride proper was to start, just so as to be able to say I'd done it.

View La Bigue to Le Puy-en-Velay in a larger map]

The view from the mountain isn't particularly impressive for the source of France's longest river, but the course of the infant Loire can be guessed at by the shape of the valley that zig-zags towards the south-west. The descent is understandably far more pleasurable than the ascent and I made the decision, in the course of it, to take the route through Le Béage rather than the one through Sainte Eulalie and Usclades. (This alternative route can be seen on the 'Alternative Route' page.)

The 'Monts du Velay' - Gerbier-de-Jonc is the pimple on the right

The view back towards the heights shows the so-called Monts du Velay and is rather prettier than that from Gerbier-de-Jonc itself which is reproduced below.

The view from Gerbier-de-Jonc towards Sainte Eulalie the south-west.

I left the chambre d'hôte at La Bigue on the 16th of June at around 9.00 (see: http://www.chambre-hote-labigue.info/index.html ) and immediately ricked my back trying to avoid a large, over-friendly dog that insisted on running in front of me. I had to sit down at the road-side for half an hour while the worst of the pain subsided. Getting back in the saddle took me a good few minutes and fortunately I was alone on a narrow country lane, so there was no-one around to witness the farcical shenanigans.

Madame Rippert's establishment La Bigue, the first chambre d'hôte

Having lost so much time at the beginning of my day, I no longer regretted going against my purist inclinations to opt for the easier route. I knew that there were a number of pretty taxing climbs around the village of Usclades and I was anxious to make progress towards my destination in Le Puy-en-Velay. So it was with some relief that I turned left along the D122 rather than right since the state of my back made climbing more than a bit of a trial. I soon arrived in Le Béage and there then followed another long downhill section towards the Lac d'Issarlès.

At the bottom of the descent I stopped for lunch at a café situated at the junction of the D16 and the D116. It was raining at this point and I was already soaked. I toyed with the idea of turning off to see the Lac d'Issarlès but decided against it and sat down to order my lunch. On the menu was either a cheese or ham sandwich - nothing else. The being who delivered this news had the face of a rodent and, as far as I could judge from the shapeless mass of clothing in which she was swathed, the body of a toad. I requested the cheese option. She disappeared and then slithered back in with a huge chunk of bread into which had been pushed a sliver of Gruyère and nothing else. She deposited this appetizing item on the table and returned to her own meal with all possible haste. I ate the half loaf of bread and washed it down with water from my own bottle, since the idea of ordering anything else seemed inconceivable. I paid my bill and took off as soon as I was able.

View La Bigue to Le Puy-en-Velay in a larger map]

The rain soon became considerably more serious and by around 2.00 it had turned into a thundery downpour. I wasted a lot of time sheltering under trees, but the rain was so heavy that soon these provided no protection at all. There was nothing for it but to continue as clothes and luggage got steadily soaked.

Looking over the Loire gorge after a soaking

The naive fantasy I had once harboured that following the course of the Loire would be mainly a downhill ride was by now completely dissipated. From Issarlès to Goudet there are no very punishing climbs, but from Goudet to Saint Martin-de-Fugères the upward grind took me far longer than I wished and did little to improve the back problem. Near Goudet I spotted the Château de Beaufort through the drizzle - a fine medieval pile

Le Château de Beaufort

constructed in the thirteenth century and beseiged by the dastardly English during the Hundred Years War. This is the second château of the Loire after that of Arlempdes and was closely linked to the fortress of Arlempdes by the alliances between the barons of Velay. However, I felt unable to linger since the ascent to Saint Martin would require all of my energy and I was beginning to worry about arriving at Le Puy on schedule.

After Saint Martin, things got a little easier. The rain became lighter and gradually petered out altogether. The Loire gorge was a little more visible.

A view on the Loire gorge from the bridge on the D27 near Chadron

As my clothes dried on me, my spirits improved and even the back situation seemed to ease. There then followed the last climb of any note towards the village of Solignac-sur-Loire.

The view towards Solignac near the end of the climb
The view back down the valley from the church of Solignac

After Solignac, it wasn't all plain sailing, but there was a lot of descent and I began to feel optimistic about securing my bed for the night.

View La Bigue to Le Puy-en-Velay in a larger map]

I began the long descent through Cussac and Valhory at around 6.30 and by 7.00 I was speeding down the long incline into the town of Le Puy-en-Velay with a huge sense of relief. A large sign advertising Le Puy as 'the capital of Velay' greeted me. Unfortunately, the capital of the old kingdom was probably not here at all but rather further east in the scruffy little village of Chapteuil (coruption of the latin capitolium).

The view of Le Puy on a gloomy evening from the N88

Ten minutes later I was pushing me bike over the cobbles of the old town of Le Puy-en-Velay towards the chambres d'hôte of Madame Annick Caro, my cycling shoes slipping and sliding on the wet volcanic stones (see: http://prat-du-loup.fr/index.php).

'La Maison au Loup', Madame Caro's fine B&B

I stumbled gratefully into the warm gloom of the seventeenth century nuns' residence, now resplendantly restored and updated to a comfortable townhouse. I was assigned to the chambre Soeur-Thérèse. I showered immediately in the far from spartan wetroom, luxuriating in the hot water on the tormented back. Then after a fine lasagne and half a litre ofChinon at the Marco Polo in the rue Raphaël I tumbled into bed at around ten and remembered nothing until the alarm sounded at half past seven.

Day 2: From Le Puy-en-Velay to Aurec-sur-Loire. This was an easy day, since I cheated. The back situation forced me to take the train for a stretch.

I woke up on the second day and realised I couldn't move a millimetre without causing agony. With much grunting and groaning, I rolled over onto my front. Then by inching myself out of the bed, feet first, I managed to crawl on all fours to the shower. There I soaked my back in boiling water and obtained some relief as the muscle-spasm relaxed. I gradually acquired a bit more flexibility and mobility and, after twenty minutes stretched out on the tiled floor, was finally able to stand up and get dressed, though putting shoes on was hilarious. I slowly went down the spiral stone staircase to breakfast and my crooked posture and pained face started Madame Caro fussing about calling the doctor. I managed to calm her down and ate the abundant breakfast with some enthusiasm despite the discomfort of sitting on her upholstered chair.
Getting the bike up onto the street from the cellar of the house was a bit of a comedy and required a good five minutes because of the limited movements I was capable of. With Madame Caro's help and much sniggering and yelping, I finally managed it and left her with a promise of a late evening return on the 28th. She eyed me sceptically and ventured to suggest that the whole enterprise might be a bit foolhardy given the state of my spine.
I left nonetheless, but it was as I crossed the Place du Plot that I realised my handicap and decided

La Place du Plot, Le Puy-en-Velay

to avoid making things worse with the long climb to Retournac referred to in Higginson's guide. I swallowed my pride, made directly for the station and bought a ticket to the village in question, but resolved that this would be the only concession to the creaks and groans of my protesting skeleton.

At Retournac, I began to suspect that Higginson's remarks about a long climb into Retournac were wrong: the climb was clearly out of the village and not into it. I deduced this from the fact that the road from Le Puy followed the Loire pretty closely and the bridge near the station was still only a few feet above the river.

The view on the Loire from the bridge at Retournac

My suspicions were soon confirmed as I began the slog uphill out of Retournac towards the D46 and Beauzac. The train journey had been a complete waste of time in one sense, even though it had saved me a good hour or so in another: it had completely failed to accomplish its purpose and the second day began with a back-torturing ascent after all. I kicked myself with irritation because I'd missed one of the pleasantest rides along the river and gained nothing.

View Le Puy-en-Velay to Aurec in a larger map]

Since I left my GPS on, a detailed examination of the map above will show the train route to Retournac - which is very similar to the road route - and then from there my own route to Aurec. This second section of the day's journey was pretty uneventful. I stopped in Beauzac to buy provisions. The guy in the supermarket looked half crazed and grinned at me manically. I bought the usual cheese, water, charcuterie and fruit and when I went back into the shop to get a bag of boiled sweets, the chap was still goggling at me as if I'd just materialised in front of him. Sometimes the denizens of French villages are profoundly mysterious beings who seem to live in another time and at a different pace from some of us.

Arriving at Bas-en-Basset I did a quick tour but found nothing of note except the fortress on the hill. This medieval structure, begun in the 12th century was on the border between the independent provinces of Velay - the old territory of the Ligurian tribe the Vellavi - and Forez - which took its name from the Gallo-Roman town of Forum Segusiavorum (now Feurs), part of the territory of the Segusiavi. The presence of the fortress indicates the political tensions that existed at the time between these statelets whose identity, going back to pre-Roman times, continues to this day to leave a significant mark on local geography.

The Château de Rochebaron near Bas-en-Basset

Just north of Bas-en-Basset, I stopped at a little aire de repos at a point that looked like the end of the long climb. The picture below shows how far the road had risen above the Loire at this point.

The view on the Loire from the pic-nic area just north of Bas-en-Basset

It was just after setting off up the continuing incline after lunch that I encountered my first ever malicious, cycle-hostile driver in France. I was approaching a gentle left-hand bend and puffing a little from the exertion when a white van came tearing round the corner at sixty-plus on the wrong side of the white line. It was clear to me that the driver of the vehicle, as soon as he spotted me, decided to give me a fright. He could have easily corrected his ill-judged trajectory on the wrong side of the road, but instead of this he deliberately swerved further to the left and came directly towards me. It was clear to me that he was out to intimidate me, but since I was incapable of making sudden movements because of their effect upon my back, I held my course and at the last moment, the van swerved away. I caught sight of a grinning cretinous face looking out of the driver's window and that was that: he was gone before I was able to turn around and note his registration plate. I made a contemptuous gesture and continued on my way.

The descent to Aurec was a welcome respite from the effects of climbing and around 2.30 I was installed at a bar drinking a beer. I waited around until 4.00 or so and then went off to find the chambres

The view of Aurec-sur-Loire from the bridge over the river

d'hôte. The address turned out to be a fairly modern, tasteless looking house near the river. There was no-one there when I knocked and I had to wait another hour or so before I could get into my room and release the tension in my crazy back with another hot shower.
The lady of the house, a certain Madame Loubier, was a grim and unsmiling person with the air of a Mother Superior who informed me without regret that I was too late to order a dinner at her establishment (see:http://www.lescedrelles.com/).

There were little notes everywhere in the room - inexplicably called la chambre bleue - with acid comments about the unadvisability of doing this or that. In the shower, for example, the note read (my translation) "the pressure in the shower is very high and it is easy to turn the bathroom into a swimming pool - this is disagreeable both for you and for us when we come to clean up after you".
The house was cluttered with religious junk, paintings and sculptures and the like, and in my room there was a pile of magazines called La Famille Chrétienne stuffed with photos of popes. The lady was clearly very devout. Pity that her piety seemed to do little for her humanity.

Place de L'Eglise, Aurec-sur-Loire

At 7.00 sharp, I took off for the only restaurant in Aurec that seemed likely to provide an eatable meal. The patroninformed me when I arrived that he'd need another twenty minutes before he could start serving, so I sat down on the terrace of the bar in the picture above, drank a Pastis and boned up on a bit of local history. It seems that the most notable feature of the history of Aurec was that its possession was constantly disputed by the rulers of Velay on the one hand and those of Forez on the other. An agreement between the church authorities in Lyon and the counts of Forez apportioned the part of the town on the right-hand bank of the river to Velay and the other to Forez. When this compromise failed to work, a papal bull by Clement IV (himself loyal to his family connections with Velay) put the town under the control of the bishops of Le Puy.

Dinner at the little restaurant Le Château was abundant and wholesome and I left the as it began to fill up with local regulars planting noisy kisses on the cheeks of the patronne - always a good sign, and for me confirmation that I'd chosen the right place. Another hot shower on the back and I fell into bed at around 9.30 wondering what the morning would reveal about the state of my vertebrae.

Day 3: From Aurec-sur-Loire to Epercieux-Saint-Paul. A very mixed day - the wind blew me uphill in the morning and then blew in my face all afternoon.

Getting out of bed in la chambre bleue with its sagging matress proved quite as difficult as I'd expected. Again, I inched gingerly onto the floor and then crawled on all fours to the shower for the heat treatment wondering whether Homo Sapiens Sapiens wouldn't have been better off without the upright posture despite its alleged liberating effects on the swelling grey matter (mine felt like cold porridge). The protests from my lower vertebrae quietened down and I made it to the gloomy dining-room at 8.00, conscious that the grim-faced lady had been very insistent about the precise timing of breakfast. She appeared immediately and served the coffee and croissants. I told her my plans for the day and since she'd noticed my stiff posture, and heard my explanation without visible reaction, she informed me with a certain relish that there was a very long climb ahead of me before I reached the plain around Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert.

View AurectoEpercieux in a larger map]

I left her establishment in a thin drizzle reflecting that the clothes I'd dried overnight and that were now receiving a further wetting at least smelled fresher than they would have done otherwise. The road out of Aurec was choked with rush-hour traffic because the small town is now a dormitory for the rapidly expanding Saint Etienne. Nevertheless, I was able to overtake much of it on the downhill route to Saint-Paul-en-Cornillon. I was determined to enjoy this while it lasted because Madame Loubier's dire warnings about climbs were weighing on my mind, or at least my back.

The Loire at Saint-Paul-en-Cornillon a few miles out of Aurec

I found the D108 to Chambles and turned onto it. The contrast with the D46 that I'd been following up to that point couldn't have been greater. The traffic disappeared and the hill in front of me looked near vertical. Mercifully, the climb turned out to be a lot less demanding and indeed a lot more agreeable that I'd expected. There was a stiff breeze at my back for most of the time and the gradient felt almost imperceptible despite looking pretty punishing both in front and as I glanced behind. The ascent to Chambles was about eight or nine kilometres long, but Madame Loubier was proved wrong by it: it wasn't tough and had no effect on my back at all. I reached the top without breaking a sweat.

The view south on the Loire from Chambles

The picture above looking back to the south gives an idea of the height climbed in the course of those eight kilometres. From Chambles one could however also look north and see the first plain of the Loire stretched out ahead, providing the delightful prospect of a long gravity-fuelled and restful coast of eight or nine kilometres to compensate for the earlier exertions.

The view north on the first of the Loire plains from Chambles

I arrived in Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert in time to get a few provisions for lunch. But I was itching to keep going

The Romanesque church of Saint André de Saint Rambert-sur-Loire XII and XII centuries

and although I tried to visit the Romanesque church of Saint André de Saint-Rambert-sur-Loire, the doors were firmly shut and locked though it was the middle of the day.

From Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert, I tried to navigate a decent route on the small roads, but got rather lost and tetchy because I couldn't be bothered fumbling with reading-glasses in order to consult the GPS every five minutes. I found my way through Saint Cyprien but got in a muddle at Craintilleux and went off in the wrong direction. It was sheer haste that caused the mistake. I got too impatient to look at the GPS. In the end it was only when I stopped for lunch that I really got a good look at the device and found my bearings. It was then that I understood the miles of tedium that lay ahead. After getting lost a second time, I found the D1082 that I was to follow to my destination for the evening.

Lunch at a riverside lake near Craintilleux

The D1082 was one of the most boring bits of road I have ever ridden along. But its mind-numbing monotony was compounded by a stiff headwind that buffeted and unsettled me and blew dust in my eyes. i couldn't understand why the wind had turned around and was coming in the opposite direction from earlier in the day; but that was indeed the case.

A glance at the map beneath will give some idea of what was entailed on this old Roman route that runs the whole length of the plain without a bend for twenty-odd kilometres from Vauche to Balbigny.

View AurectoEpercieux in a larger map]

The road took me through Montrond-les-Bains

The Château of Montrond-les-Bains

and Feurs (the name illustrates what the French peasants did to Roman names: this stump of a word, as already mentioned, is all that remains of the sonorous Forum Segusiavorum).

The statue of the doughty Michel Combe - fervent Bonapartist - in the middle of Feurs

It wasn't until I turned off this road and onto the narrow lane that led to Les Barges my chambre d'hôte (see:http://www.montagnesdumatin.com/fr/desc_longue.php?id=sitraHLO433803 ) that the wind began to die down and the weather become more benign.

'Les Barges' - the wonderfully hospitable and relatively inexpensive B&B at Epercieux

Once again, my first action on arriving in my room was to dive into the shower to ease the aches and pains. Dinner fortunately turned out to be a first-rate meal of magret de canard with asparagus, a wonderful ratatouille and a selection of ripe local cheeses. The excellent local wine did much to settle the twanging nerves and the conversation turned out to be remarkably entertaining thanks to the presence of a crusty old retired civil servant who had plenty of acid comment to make on the current state of France. Mine host and his wife were a bit taken aback by the risqué comments of the old buffer, but the wine helped to smooth things over and had his wife not begun to nod off at the table, we may have made a long night of it.

Day 4: From Epercieux-Saint-Paul to Marcigny. This was another day of two halves, but a very pleasant one, with lots of empty roads.

I left Les Barges in Epercieux at around 9.30 in wonderfully clear weather and conscious that the back issue was resolving itself. The last bit of straight road took me to Balbigny where again I got a bit lost. Eventually, I found the route along small roads down to the Loire and from there got onto the D56 that was to take me most of the way to Roanne.

View EpercieuxtoMarcigny in a larger map]

The D56 was a real pleasure, not only because it hugged the banks of the Loire and thus ran downhill, but also because it was closed to traffic on this morning on account of some street-party type of event that was being organised at one point along its length. The road does rise up the coteaux at two points, but the rest of its length is a very restful meander through the Loire gorges.

A view on the Loire from the D54 about half an hour from Balbigny

The D56 first leaves the bottom of the Loire gorge as it rises up to the village of Saint Jodard. The street party was just at the junction of the D56 with the D38 that goes up over the bridge in the picture below. So from here the road was open to traffic and that much less restful.

The view back to the Loire gorge from the D54 as it rises to Saint jodard

Once past the village of Saint Jodard, the road drops back down into the gorge again just at the right point to view the little Château de la Roche on its island in the middle of the river.

The Château de la Roche

It was then simply a matter of following the D56 along the Loire as far as the junction with the D18 which goes across the dam forming the Lac de Villerest.

Le Barrage de Villerest - the dam forming the Lac de Villerest.

This dam, which was built in response to the drought of 1976 was started in 1978 but not finished until 1984. Its function is to control the wild fluctuations of the river between drought and flood and above all to stop the kind of catastrophe that happened in 1856 when towns downstream such as Orléans and Tours were badly damaged by very high water. Along with the Barrage de Naussac near Langogne in the Auvergne, this artificial lake achieves complete control of the Loire and allows a regular, predictable flow to the river.

The Lac de Villerest from the top of the dam

After lunch at the dam, I headed off to Roanne where the Loire emerges once more from its gorge

The last of the Loire gorges, just downstream from the Lac de Villerest

and begins again to flow across a wide plain.

The Loire, having emerged from the gorge, approaching Roanne

Roanne is a fairly tatty sort of place and things were not improved by the ubiquitous travaux in the town centre destined to create pedestrian zones and renovate the infrastructure. The mess at the moment is pretty horrendous.

Eglise Saint Louis, Roanne
The Place Georges Clémenceau in the centre of Roanne

From Roanne, the D482 which turned into the D982 (same road) took me the whole way to Marcigny.

View EpercieuxtoMarcigny in a larger map]

This is a rather featureless road, similar in many respects to the ride of the day before through Montrond and Feurs and it was only around Saint-Pierre-la-Noaille that the landscape got a little less flat and a little more wooded. The road, however, remained pretty straight and flat which perhaps was no bad thing. I tried to get off the main road and explored the possibility of following the little lanes nearer to the river itself. But these wound so unpredictably around every tree and bush that finding a route would have taken me more time than I had and then following it even more. So I stuck to the D482/982.

From Iguerande there is a cycle track the goes all the way to Marcigny. I missed this at its start, so I was still battling with lorries on the D982 a dozen kilometres from Marcigny when I spotted the track running along the river and got onto it with some relief.

Once on the piste cyclable it was downhill and traffic-free until Marcigny. I cycled around the little town for a while until I located the Tour du Moulin and thus the chambres d'hôte called La Musardière in the rue de la Tour.


The medieval Tour du Moulin, now a museum

Marcigny is a pleasant little town, a quiet backwater living on the memories of its heyday as a river fishing-port. Its other claim to fame is as the location for one of the monasteries founded as part of the Cluniac revival. The wealth of the church of course attracted predatory attentions and the town was besieged in 1366 by the Black Prince and then in subsequent centuries by sundry other nobles and royals.

La Place des Halles, Marcigny

The town walls that were constructed in response to these depredations have since been torn down. The closure of the priory in the nineteenth century saw a downturn in the town's fortunes, but these picked up again almost immediately with the new industries of tanning and pottery.

The Eglise Saint Nicolas - mostly medieval, Romanesque, but with bits tacked on

I arrived at La Musardière around four-thirty but found no-one there to receive me in spite of the fact that all the doors were wide open. Eventually a chap with very disconcerting eyes - a bit like Marty Feldman - appeared from a cellar and showed me to the room. This was Jean-Pierre Ricol. He and his wife Catherine not only run the B&B and a series of rentable Gypsy-style caravans, but also sustain a considerable business as travelling entertainers, doing impersonations of famous actors and singers from the past.

'La Musardière' - my B&B inMarcigny

The room I was assigned is stuffed with theatre- and cinema memorabilia. The bathroom is entirely in rose bonbon but the enormous bath allowed me to soak away the wear and tear of the day. The whole place has a genteel if slightly dilapidated air about it. Higginson apparently stayed here when he was preparing his guide; but he doesn't say anything about it. The Ricol couple are delightful people, full of character and very friendly, if a bit scatty. Breakfast, for example, was a bit chaotic, since Madame Ricol had miscalculated the number of German guests who had filed into the cellar-cum-breakfast-room before me; and I had to sit around while her husband nipped out to buy my croissants. But I would recommend this place to anyone without hesitation (see: http://lamusardiere.net/).

Dinner was a plate of friture with chips and salad at an establishment bearing two names, Le Bar du Marché, and also Le Restaurant Le Vieux Puits located on the market-square. Once again, I seemed to have been lucky in my choice, or at least the appetising smells that came out of the door had been a reliable indicator, since the place rapidly filled up with locals most of whom ordered the friture as well.