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Getting Creatively Lost: A Ramble Through France

Simple Pleasures

The road to Saint-Céré.

The next day, I took my last village-to-village walk, to Saint-Céré, and the shortest, only about an hour and a half. I spent almost the entire route along a highway, unpleasant and nerve-wracking, but the simplest, most direct way to town. At the chambres d’hôte in St.-Sozy, I’d heard a few Israeli visitors complaining that St.-Céré wasn’t worth the trip, but that depends on your point of view.

It won’t make anyone’s list of the most beautiful towns in France, but beauty isn’t everything. For starters, St.-Céré has a laundromat, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to have discovered this in the tourist brochures in Autoire. Since I hadn’t washed anything since St.-Sozy, and since that last night there, I could smell my wardrobe from my hotel bed, I made that laundromat my first stop in St.-Céré. Trouble was, I had no place to change out of what I was wearing; the supermarket around the corner had no bathroom.

So I persuaded the woman who ran the hairdressing salon next door to allow me to use hers for a quick change. It took some doing, since she was at first dead set against it, and she resented having to remove everything valuable from that tiny room before I went into it–as if I would load up on her spare shampoo and stuff it into my backpack–but she did it. I thanked her profusely and offered her money, but she refused.


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Friendliness

A curious onlooker.

On the way back from the grotto, walking a back road, a guy pulled up in a small car. He looked familiar from my jaunt to the grotto, and turned out, he was. He said he’d seen me walk that same road in the other direction, asked where I’d gone, and expressed admiration for my spirit of adventure. Encounters like that made me feel less lonely.

That back lane also confirmed what I’d noticed before, a lovely perfume in the breeze. It wasn’t honeysuckle, though I saw it from time to time, but another plant, with white flowers. The scent was subtle, understated, but noticeable–very French. I also heard a woodpecker, for the first time in France.



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Grottes de Presque

A formation inside the Grottes de Presque.

Shortly afterward, I headed out to the Grottes de Presque, a grotto about four miles away. Part of the route involved a highway, one lane in each direction, which I disliked. But French drivers are generally very respectful of hikers (saving their aggression for each other), and even semis crossed the center line to give me plenty of room when they could, which they didn’t really have to do. And for the first time since the start of my trip, my feet didn’t hurt at all.

I liked the grotto itself, though it wasn’t worth forty-five minutes, during which the guide talked constantly, rat-a-tat-tat. But the grotto was gorgeous, with formations of calcium, iron, and manganese, often in forms that resembled whatever a French person would see in them: rabbits, a nun, a dog, intestines, or a crèche. The guide referred to the Christian symbols as if they were universal, whereas I wouldn’t have recognized the nun, for instance. I had to laugh to myself when the guide, who knew I was American–the only foreigner on that tour–asked me privately what the English word for crèche was.


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In Autoire

Above Autoire.

After the castle, I made a steep descent on a rocky, twisting path, unkind to a bad toe, and was rewarded again, coming on a lovely, shaded path through the woods, past a waterfall and a brook.

Another half-mile brought me to the village of Autoire, where there’s not much to do except admire the few houses, drink on the hotel terrace, or buy mushrooms from the shop down the street. However, it’s gorgeous, especially at night. As the light falls, the silhouette of the surrounding hills (and the English castle) fades, and the village towers etch themselves against the darkening sky. My hotel room even had a balcony, from which, the next morning, I watched the mist gradually lift from the same view under the brightening sun.


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To Autoire

A path between Loubressac and Autoire.

The path to Autoire impressed me more than any I took between villages. It had everything a hiker could want–views, an antiquity, a waterfall and brook, and a pretty destination where a cold Leffe was waiting to be drunk.

Much of my route went through woods, for once, with low stone walls on either side, and climbing a back road brought me to a lookout to end all lookouts. Farther on, I came to “the English castle,” doubtless a relic from the Hundred Years War, which ended in the fifteenth century. Built into a hillside, the masonry, still in excellent shape, had a light, tawny color, and the crossbow slits offered marvelous views. As with Taillefer, I think it must have been a guardhouse/lookout.


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What a Peach Is

Loubressac

My last breakfast in Carennac, I learned what a peach was. I never knew; not really. A peach is soft, yet firm; juicy, sweet, but not cloying; flesh that melts in your mouth (and all over your chin). That’s a peach, my friends, grown locally, my host told me.

So fortified, I was primed to get lost on my way to Autoire, my next village, so I did. I was trying to avoid a steep up-and-down that had tuckered me out on the way to the Taillefer ruins, so I took what my map suggested was a viable detour. Wrong. By the time I found the good, old GR652 to Loubressac, a key waypoint, my dogs were barking.

Loubressac, though pretty, didn't grab me, and I had no urge to dawdle. Legions of tourists go there, because it makes the list of most beautiful villages. The houses are larger than in other villages I visited, set back farther from the road and one another, and often fenced or behind hedges. Loubressac lacked the character of a place lived in and felt like a rich person’s retreat. But it did have a viewpoint, a spectacular one, and a grocery where a hungry traveler may buy lunch. No peaches, unfortunately.

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