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A Chance Walk in France

It’s rarely difficult to find a suitable walk in France.

Visit a tourist information office in any French town or village, ask them to suggest a randonée or ballade and they’ll invariably provide you with a mapped route. Tell them how far you want to go and how many hours you’d like to spend and they’ll dig out a leaflet or occasionally a laminated version. Sometimes it’s free. Sometimes there’s a small charge. It’s a great service.

At the lovely b&b Chambre d’Hôte where we were spending a couple of nights we had been given a photocopied map of an itinerary starting in nearby Nerac - but we couldn’t find anywhere to park. Barbaste, a small town around two hours northwest of Toulouse turned out to be an attractive and interesting alterative. We strolled down to the River Gelise and crossed the 12th century stone bridge to the fortified medieval Moulin des Tours. A pretty legend claims it owes the different heights of its four towers to the original owner, whose daughters differed in stature. More like a castle than a mill, it was inherited by the Bourbon King Henry IV. Built at the crossing of two trade routes it was used as a toll booth before reverting to flour milling and then the manufacture of cork products. The nearby weir and grassy riverbanks make it a lovely picnic spot. Behind it is the tourist office. In defiance of the opening times shown on the door it was closed

Continuing a short way upstream we came across a dash of yellow paint on a tree trunk indicating we were on a PR (petit randonnée). Small, that is, as opposed a GR (grand randonnéee), which is a long distance route. Taking care not to miss these signs – or the cross that warns you’ve gone wrong - you can usually follow these without a map. But how long would this walk take us? And assuming it was circular, how many kilometres would we have to walk?

We retraced our steps to the tourist office seemingly vain hope of finding someone there. Our luck was in. The manager had popped back after showing a group around the mill. He quickly found a map of the route. It was a modest 10.2km long, with hardly any ups and downs but, the day having been disrupted by indecision, we had limited amounts of water, there was no time to seek out a shop selling it - and the afternoon was heavy with the threat of a storm. A wrong turning didn’t help, adding an extra kilometre or two as we climbed through a corn field, past a tree laden with those fat, knobbly quinces that seem so often to fall unwanted, until the path disappeared in a tangle of undergrowth. Back on course we climbed again, to a track running parallel with the quiet valley road, shaded by oaks.

Before turning back towards Barbaste the route emerged from the shadows and crossed a flat valley floor burned yellow by summer heat. In the village of Cauderoue it skirted a fortified mansion a red tiled, cone capped tower and grey stone walls that must conceal a treasury of stories. The path became sandy, just as the water in my bottle dwindled to a few millilitres. Now those ten kilometres began to feel like twenty. It was a sharp reminder never to set out without at least a litre. Back in town, the first bar we found was at a busy junction, blighted by heavy lorries, but did we care? Rarely has a cold pression been more welcome.

I should add that the instructions with the map were only in French. They often are. But even if you hardly understand a word of it this shouldn’t be a problem as the directions are usually very clear. As for me, I learned that a chene-liege is a cork oak. Not something A level French taught me but another example of the titbits of information you pick up when you go exploring the countryside on foot.

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