Chemin de Saint Jacques (Les Faux to St Chely)

Day 4 - Les Faux to Aumont-Aubrac (21 km - 480m ascent - 710m descent)

Our night in the gite dormitory passed more quietly than expected - just a few muffled snores - and we awoke feeling a lot more refreshed after the hard walk of yesterday. The recovery powers of the human body never cease to amaze. As well, today was "le grand bleu" - not a cloud in the sky. We joined our friends, Karen and Daniel, for a hearty breakfast and set off into the sun-filled French countryside - it was good to walk with friends and chat and laugh about past memories, future plans and the meaning of life - interrupted by the odd red squirrel running along a drystone wall.

Typical Lozere countryside near Le Rouget

The grey slate rooves of St Alban-sur-Limagnole

Perhaps one of the oldest stone crosses

Passing the village of Le Rouget, we pushed on in the warm sunshine and sounds of insects and birds to reach the town of St Alban-sur-Limagnole - its slate-roofed, stone houses laid out neatly on the slopes beneath us. We stopped for a long coffee break next to the impressive triple bells of the cathedral, before finally saying farewell to Karen and Daniel. They had to walk back to their car at Les Faux via a loop and return to Montpellier - we had to push on another 15 km to Aumont Aubrac.

With Karen and Daniel at the door
to the chateau of St Alban

Blossom time in Lozere

Triple bell tower of the romanesque
church of St Alban

Heading quickly out of town, we followed local roads up and over a hill to the village of Graziers-Mage before picking up a footpath that climbed steadily into a landscape of fields and spruce groves.

Gnarly path through the spruce

A pair of draught horses

Roadside pilgrimage marker

Skirting the village of Chabanes-Planes, we continued across this small plateau, before a short, but steep descent through the spruce forest brought us to the village of Les Estrets. It was lunchtime and we soon found ourselves lazing in the soporific sunshine at the local gite, wondering whether we really wanted to go any further.

Landscape near Chabanes-Planes

A curious slab hut in the forest

The answer was probably not, but we pushed on anyway, crossing the Estret stream before climbing steadily up a long dirt road to the hamlet of Bigose. From here we followed a small valley for a short distance before continuing our climb. On this warm and languid day, the scents of wild daffodils in the fields and the yellow-clusters of broom in the forest hung sweetly in the air.

The streets of Les Estrets

Fascination with old stone crosses

Wildflowers and contented cattle

Eventually the road began to decend and soon after, we were on the outskirts of Aumont-Aubrac. There was a big festival in the region - the Transhumance - and we were lucky to find a place to stay, in a hotel rather than a gite this time. The Transhumance is a celebration of the movement of stock in spring from their winter quarters to the high country pastures and occurs on the third weekend in May - remember that if you plan this walk - both as something special to see and to book accommodation well in advance.

A land of pastures interspersed with spruce groves

Broom and spruce scrub

Pilgrims waiting to stamp their creanciales

11th century church of Saint Etienne
at Aumont-Aubrac

The Beast of Gevaudan

Still it was a comfortable hotel and gave us a chance to do some essential laundry and sample the regional speciality of aligot (a large plate of mashed potato blended with cheese and garlic to give it an elastic texture) at dinner. Not surprisingly, even though we were walking over 20km a day with a heavy pack, we were looking like putting on weight rather than losing it.

Day 5 - Aumont-Aubrac to Montgros (24.5 km - 510m ascent - 360m descent)

Encore le grand bleu!! We have been very lucky with the weather so far. After a short unplanned circuit of the town, we spotted a pack of pilgrims heading out in the right direction and followed them. Aumont seemed to be a starting point for people doing the latter part of the walk to Conques, as there were many more people heading out of town than had appeared to arrive. Soon we had crossed beneath the autoroute by tunnel and were on our way along a "chemin blanc", as the French call the hard-packed gravel roads that roam through the countryside. Today we had eased our pace a bit to conserve our energy, as it was going to be another long section and much of it would be beneath a hot sun across the shade-deprived Aubrac plateau.

The GR65 passes beneath the autoroute (lovely artwork!!)

Pilgrims strolling along a "chemin blanc"

16th century murals in the Chapelle de Bastide

A pleasant little lake, but ......

Still the town of La Chaze de Peyre arrived quickly, where many of our fellow randonneurs stopped to visit the church. We pushed on along the now sealed road to the tiny Chapel de Bastide, with its 16th century ceiling mural, and then through the village of Labros, where we finally left it to begin a short climb on another chemin blanc.

The Chapelle de Bastide near Labros

Cattle on the way to the high country for summer

Walking on the edge of sealed roads is probably the least enjoyable part of this journey and it seems that the GR65 cannot avoid them totally. Now well away from the sound of traffic, we stopped in a shady spot for our quick rest, only to watch the first of many large groups of French randonneurs pass by - it was the Monday of a long weekend and the French were out on one or more of the many walking trails that traverse this region, chatting away and looking forward to that big lunch at some distant auberge. In the forest, a cuckoo called, softly expressing its opinion at our plans to walk all the way to Conques.

... with not so pleasant inhabitants ...

... apart form the odd friendly frog

On our way again, we reached Les Quatre Chemin, a crossroads with a small café on the edge of the Aubrac. The trees started to thin out quickly as we picked up a narrow walking track that took us out into this region of hilly pastures, subdivided by ancient stone walls, where contented cattle grazed.

Heading out from Les Quatre Chemin

Moles at work!

The Aubrac - a land of Isolated farmhouses and cattle

The pastures and track sides were speckled with dandelions (or piss-en-lit as the French quaintly call them), violets, golden and white daffodils, blue-black anemones and many other wildflowers. There was a profound silence passing through this landscape that we had not experience before, giving it a real sense of isolation.

This time the marker cross is made of iron

The emptiness of the Aubrac

Drystone wall with buttercups

A field of daffodils

Eventually we reached the village of Finieyrols - it was time for lunch in the pine-shaded gardens of the local gite, a pleasant break from walking beneath the full sun.

Passing through Finieyrols

Old stone shed on the outskirts of Finieyrols

A climb out of the village brought us to a high point, where we could look across the bare granite-boulder strewn landscape towards the north and see the distant snow-dappled mountains of the Massif Central.

In the land of granite boulders

View across the rocky plateau to the snow-dappled mountains of the Massif Central

Country lane crossing the Aubrac Plateau

A cool wind blew across the Aubrac, cooling us down without hiding the fierceness of the sun. The fair Nello and I, coming from a land of even fiercer sunlight, had covered up.

Strangely, many Europeans don't seem to appreciate the power of the sun and soon we were noticing many bright red sun-roasted legs, arms and faces amongst the walking groups we passed - a painful end to an enjoyable day outdoors.

Blossom time

Farm house and barn amongst the dandelions

Typical stone and slate house in Rieutort

Descending from the high point, we picked up another sealed road, which led us through the stone-walled, slate-roofed houses of the village of Rieutort d'Aubrac and beyond, before crossing an old stone bridge. After several kilometres of walking beside this road, just ahead of a well-wined peloton of French randonneurs returning from lunch at the auberge, we were glad when the GR65 led us away from it and up to the hill-top hamlet of Montgros - glad to be away from the road and glad to be out of the sun at our accommodation for the night.

Wide reach of La Bes rivulet

Old stone bridge crossing La Bes near Montgros

La Maison de Rosalie - our home for the night

Our hostel was a charming stone building, where a refreshing glass of cold and yeasty Aubrac beer awaited to relieve hot and tired walkers. Somehow, I suspect that the large amount of energy we burned up today, was quickly replaced by the four course dinner of traditional Lozere dishes and cheeses - walking in France is as much a culinary adventure as a physical and visual one.

Day 6 - Montgros to Saint Chely d'Aubrac (19.5 km - 290m ascent - 670m descent)

Not quite "le grand bleu" today, but blue enough, with only a few wisps of high cloud above. We had our latest start so far, as it would be our shortest day of walking. Setting off from Montgros, we were quickly down in the town of Nasbinals.

Nasbinals streetscape

The 11th century romanesque church

Beneath the shade of the beech

A tranquil stream near Le Pascalet

We stopped briefly to visit the impressive 11th century romanesque church and also to buy some more sun-cream at the local pharmacy - having rapidly used up our supply over the past few days. Then it was off again, out of Nasbinals to follow another chemin blanc that began our long and steady climb back up to the top of the Aubrac.

The maternal instincts of the Aubrac breed of cattle

Back on the road again

There was a lightness in our step that was absent from the past couple of days - perhaps it was that we didn't have as far to walk, perhaps it was that most of the route today would be far from the sealed roads, perhaps because for the first time in a while we could walk beneath the shade of bright-leafed trees, or perhaps it was just that this section of French countryside was particularly pleasant in the morning sun and gentle cooling breeze.





Moreover, our new packs had by now moulded our bodies to suit their shape and seemed to weigh that bit less. Since leaving Montgros, trees had begun to return to the landscape, now a mix of beech groves and broad green pastures, speckled with orchids, violets, jonquils and other cottage garden plants.

A grove of beech on the plateau

Isolated farmhouse

After a while, we left the country road to follow the GR65 into this splendid setting, climbing up into the undulating hills, passing isolated stone farm buildings and contented cows grazing quietly. This section was certainly one where the pilgrim could get some good meditational time. A sudden load roar as a French airforce jet fighter blasted over the crest of the hill in front brought us back to the reality of modern times. In fact, looking up, the sky was beginning to become criss-crossed by the contrails of numerous passenger planes - people on their way to important meetings, family reunions, holidays, secret rendezvous .... the world still turned as we slowly made our way across the peaceful green landscape of Aubrac.

Another typical pastoral scene

Passing through several farm gates, we followed a low rock wall, before climbing yet again along the grassy track of a draille (the wide path between stone walls used for moving the cattle) to our high point of 1364m. From this broad saddle you could imagine the vaste snow-covered isolation of this region in winter - no wonder the French love it for cross-country skiing.

From here, we could also see the slate grey turrets of Aubrac beyond, and rapidly descended towards the village. As we were approaching, the jangling of cow-bells rang out across the fields and, in the distance, we watched the last herd heading out from town up to the hill pastures, decorated with flags and flowers - we had just seen the last act of the Transhumance 2010.

The movement was highly symbolic, as several truckloads of cattle then passed us by carrying the rest of the herd to their summer pastures.

The last hurrah of The Transhumance 2010

The domerie of Aubrac

The 14th century Tour des Anglais

The Domerie of Aubrac was built in the 12th century to provide shelter for pilgrims from the bitter cold, wolves and bandits of the region. We stopped in for a cheese and tomato tartine and a bottle of orangina - how times have changed. Once finished, we soon came to the edge of the Aubrac Plateau, with views way beyond towards the distant valley of the Lot.

On the edge of the Aubrac Plateau - with the valley of the Lot beyond

It was time for a change in landscape as we left the open expanses of the plateau behind to start the big descent into the forested valleys of the Lot. A stony path led us rapidly off the plateau beneath the trees, before levelling out and crossing some mid-level flats.

After rounding the basalt plugs of an ancient volcano, we reached the hamlet of Belvezet and started a steep descent on a rocky footpath, crossing babbling streams beneath the shady forest that lined the track, before eventually emerging on the sealed road just above the village of Saint Chely d'Aubrac.

Volcanic plug near Belvezet

Descent towards Belvezet

Cascading rivulet

A stone-walled path above St Chely

Back into forest again

Typical lauze-roofed farm building

Saint Chely d'Aubrac

The little house on the river

A short walk down the road and we were in the village - booking into the gite communal for the night after one of the nicer sections of the Chemin St Jacques. With no demi-pension provided at the gite, we took the opportunity to cut back on our food intake, settling for a filling soup and salad - one small step against the irresistible attraction of the hearty helpings of delicious food that we've enjoyed so far.