view south from aguille d'argentiere
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Week Four: Trekking in Southern France

   We left Annecy after two days and drove down the Rhone valley towards Avignon. Dave and I were planning to go trekking for the week while the others went to stay in Iestyn's parents' caravan. Our trekking plans were rather sketchy. We had perused a few magazines and guides back in Chamonix but were unable to find a suitable map. We decided to get dropped off in the town of Privas near the Ardeche valley. We arrived and left the others to continue south arranging to meet again at the end of the week. Privas appeared quite a dead place but we did manage to find a suitable map covering the area we wanted - the Ardeche and Cevennes regions where we planned to walk for four days. As we had not yet devised our exact route, we opted for a map of the whole area which worked out significantly cheaper than buying four or five maps at a larger scale. The 1:100000 scale map was not going to be ideal for navigation but it did have enough detail to get us started, including the GR routes and other major trails which we were likely to stick to.

   We decided it would be better to get further into the area before we started walking and set about hitching 30 miles or so west to a small village called Largentiere. Our first ride took us most of the way there and the pleasant couple from Marseille who picked us up treated us to a coffee en route in Aubenas. We were deposited beside the junction for the road up to Largentiere in the heat of the afternoon sun. The land was extremely arid and we spotted in a few lizards in the dusty verges of the road. Traffic on the side road was infrequent and we eventually set about walking towards our destination. Not long after starting, a woman stopped and ferried us the 10km or so up the road. Largentiere appeared as a classic Mediterranean village nestled away in the hills. It was situated on a small river which surrounded it on three sides and we approached it from above descending to the perimeter road with its many bridges across to gates breaching the village walls. We get dropped off just outside the village at the beginning of a track leading to the end of the GR72.

   It was about 5pm and we decided to set off along the trail for a few hours walking that evening avoiding the heat of the day. As we were travelling lightweight with just enough equipment to bivouac, we had to find a suitable spot to spend the night in any case. Right from the start there was an abundance of wild fruit including grapes, apples and blackberries - something which lasted the whole week. We ended up walking over 10km to a small settlement called le Gua. The landscape was now quite vegetated and hills rolled to the horizon, intertwined with a maze of roads leading to holiday villas and outlying agricultural concerns - predominantly vineyards and olive groves. The route passed a fire lookout highlighting the dryness of the land at this time of year. Upon reaching le Gua, we set about looking for a suitable bivouac site. Signs clearly prohibited visitors spending the night beside the pleasant river (though we did use it for a refreshing swim) and we were forced to continue a short distance up the hillside where we found a flat area hidden from sight, except from the fire lookout across the valley. We were careful to conceal the firing stove from view in the now dark evening and were soon into sleeping bags to the sound of the local multitude of crickets.

   In the morning we awoke and were soon on our way again. We made for Loubaresse some 14km west. The scenery was not dissimilar to the previous evening and we arrived at our destination in the early afternoon. The sun was now blazing so we took the opportunity for a well-earned break. The rural village had a solitary shop - a general stores - run by an old woman from the front room of her house. The set-up seemed very domestic and traditional having no doubt remained much the same for the past fifty years or more. The woman kindly stayed open while we deliberated over the spartan supplies on offer before closing for a siesta. We ate our lunch around the village well which we also used to top up on much needed water. In the afternoon we walked another 15km to a larger town by the name of la Bastide Puylaurent, continuing along the GR72. We passed by St Laurent les Bains on the way which, as its name suggests, was built around a thermal spa. The modern baths and health complex was clearly the retreat of well-to-do folks from the cities although a small well remained in the centre giving the water temperature at 42°. We arrived in la Bastide as the skies threatened to open. Thunder could be heard nearby and we set about finding a suitable site to spend the night - hopefully sheltered from a potential downpour. After eating, we went into the town and looked around. Not much was happening except for a young man disturbing the tranquillity of this quiet town by constantly driving around aimlessly in a noisy old car. We eventually found a hotel and sat outside with a drink or two for the evening before returning to our bivouac site in some nearby woods.

   Thankfully the rain never came and by morning the weather was looking brighter again. After a visit to the Boulangerie for breakfast we continued on our way. Today we were heading south to the town of Villefort - still on the GR72. Our route passed by a high point of just over 1000m though the landscape still seemed to indicate it was less, despite the hilliness. We arrived at the Lac de Villefort, just short of our objective, in the early afternoon. This man-made lake (presumably a reservoir for somewhere) seemed very appealing for a swim from the heights above as we descended. As we drew closer, an artificial beach could be seen close to the route we were taking. Not to miss the opportunity, we descended to the lake and went in. We also took the opportunity to wash some clothing before letting it dry in the afternoon sun while we lay there. I overheard someone quote the temperature as 36° so it was hardly surprising that our clothes were dry again in no time. We walked the short distance along the road to Villefort and purchased more supplies. Despite its size and evidence of light industry, the settlement maintained a close-knit feel and a group of men played boules beneath the trees in the centre. With time to spare, we set off up the hillside looking for a place to stop for the night. Planning ahead for the following day indicated it would be worth continuing for a while so we climbed the ridge for a few hours before stopping just short of the sprawling mass of Mont Lozere - the highest point in the Cevennes. As night fell, we took in the excellent views back down to the lake we had swum in earlier and to much of the route we had walked for the last few days.

   On commencing in the morning, we quickly found we had lost the GR route we were meant to be following. Our trusty small-scale map had let us down for the first time! After battling through thick undergrowth for twenty minutes, we found our way to a road coming out not too far from the crossing point of the trail. Rejoining our route, we passed our high point for the week at around 1500m and descended for around 7km to Vialas for lunch. Unfortunately we arrived during the midday closing period for most amenities in the small village. One cafe on the quiet high street was open however and we sat down at one of the tables lining the road. Despite being a high street, there were only a handful of shops, the rest of the frontages being of houses, all of which led directly onto the narrow street cluttered with chairs and tables from the cafe. We gobbled down a pleasant cheese baguette each and a few drinks before continuing on our way. We now headed back east to the town of Chamborigaud, following two rivers crossing a small ridge in between. Like la Bastide, Chamborigaud lay on the railway. The line was originally the main route from Marseille in the south to Paris and no doubt these settlements sprang up with the advent of the trains. Chamborigaud seemed to offer a multitude of privately run general stores and we selected what appeared to be the friendliest and most lively after touring the centre. We finally decided on a bivouac site for the night before once again returning into town for a few drinks.

   We decided that walking to Ales the following day would not be too dissimilar in nature to the previous three or four days and, having walked over 100km already, decided to take the day easy and travel to Avignon to prepare for our journey home. We walked to the end of town and quickly got a hitch the 30km to Ales where we spent the morning exploring. Ales seemed to be just another large French town with little to attract the foreign visitor so we set about hitching the further 60km to Avignon. This proved slightly harder than the morning's run but we eventually got there with three lifts. Although the mediaeval city deserved more time to explore, we decided to set about find the site where the others were. This proved remarkably easy and, after exploring the bus timetables, decided to walk the 5km out of town.

   The caravan site had a swimming pool which Dave and I went for a refreshing dip in before eating. Again, the night was pleasant so we decided to sleep outside once more in preparation for the long drive home the following day. We set off mid-morning and slowly made our way north. We started by avoiding the autoroutes, therefore also avoiding the tolls but quickly realised our journey would be significantly quicker to take the Payage and would cost less than 10 each between four of us. We joined the autoroute south of Lyon and continued north for several hours. By nightfall we were approaching Paris and looking for food. It seemed logical to stop off at Fontainbleu though there was no time for bouldering. We found a pizza take-away and ordered food which turned out to be very pleasant and were shortly back on the move. The carriageways around Paris proved rather a free-for-all but finally we managed to find our way on to the Calais road to join the steady stream of British cars. The month's holiday was drawing to a close and we drifted back up the quiet roads through the night and across the Channel to return to our normal lives. It had been an excellent trip but the end had come, though the memories and hopes to return for more in the future would keep some of the spirit in which it was enjoyed alive.

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