We spent our final morning at Lake Vassivière cleaning and packing, managing to reclaim all our deposit. We had a long drive back to Limoges airport to return Mummy Finch to her homeward flight. We had a brief stop in the very pretty town of Eymoutiers for a slow, hot walk around the centre by the river, to break up the two hour drive. We parked up at the airport and said goodbye to Nicky’s mum, then drove back west again beyond where we had begun.
We decided to cut an hour off the route time by taking the motorway, one we had been assured was toll free all the way. It wasn’t. From north-east of Brive most of the way to Clermont we were charged €18 for the privilege. We cut off and drove up winding tracks to a seemingly abandoned ski station and hotel set high on the mountains above the resort town of La Bourboule. There were some signs of workmen around, but we couldn’t decide if they were attempting to renovate the buildings, or were in the process of stripping them out before demolition. We walked around a small pond and along a few nearby tree-shaded trails that were marked as mountain bike routes, but it all looked a little unloved and unused, out of season. We passed a quiet night with birdsong our only companion.
The next morning we headed off, back down the steeply winding roads to the valley floor, passing through the town centre of La Bourboule and onwards. We stopped in a large carpark adjacent to a ski lodge hotel, empty except for one other car. This was the designated start of a 14km walking loop we had planned, taking in the highest point of the Massif Central, Puy de Sancy, at 1886m high. We started by neat rows of chairs taken from a ski-lift and stored for summer on the grassy meadows. The path rose quickly, becoming steeper and steeper, and we knew we would absorb most of the height gain in these first three kilometres, before following the ridge around multiple peaks and saddles. We passed through loose herds of grazing cows, looking lazily around as they gently chewed the new grass.
The gravel path turned to larger stones then to tall boulders that had to be climbed over. Once on the ridge, we were immediately inundated with thick swarms of black flies, and tourist groups that emerged as if from nowhere. We walked quickly with heads down and closed mouths, for to do anything other led to the unwanted ingestion of many of the pesky mouches. Not far from the saddle we could see timber platforms built around the summit, like a crow’s nest on a ship’s mast. Puy de Sancy top was quite a disappointment as it was served by a gondola, the only ski-lift currently in operation, and masses of unsuitably attired people had crammed themselves along the wooden walkways and platforms that lined the peak. We weren’t sure which invasion was worst – the flies or the tourists.
We quickly passed on, down a steep run of stony cut-backs that were still in the process of being constructed. We watched guys from the Gendarmerie Mountain Rescue rush past us, stacked with rescue kit, to assist a lady with a poorly leg. Little did we know this would not be our only meeting with these men on the mountain today. Our route was to take us over Puy de Cacadogne and Roc de Cluzeau, before reaching the Grande Cascade, a large waterfall central to the mountain horseshoe. But we never made it that far. On a simple rocky path after a short upwards climb Nicky had an innocuous twist of her ankle. We got no further, as she could not support her weight. We sat for five minutes and considered options, and decided it was best to turn around and hobble back by a shorter route.
As we slowly hobbled down, with the occasional bout of piggy-backing to speed the descent along, we were caught up by the descending vehicle of the Gendarmerie Mountain Rescue. They stopped to enquire to our well-being and immediately ousted a man with large kit bag to look after Nicky until the car could deliver its current injured passenger to safety, and then return for us. A precautionary splint was applied to Nicky’s leg, and around 15 minutes later the vehicle reappeared and we hopped, literally in Nicky’s case, in. The road down was a hugely rutted track, necessitating slow, awkward driving and we scraped loudly as we grounded a couple of times. It definitely would have been very difficult to walk down and we would have really struggled had they not been passing us.
After many busy years, decades even, of climbing, hiking, running and skiing in high mountains all over our wonderful planet, this annoying simple twisting tear was the only time either of us were unable to deliver ourselves back to the bottom of the slopes under our own steam. (I once skied the length of the Three Valleys, from Val Thorens back to our accommodation in La Tania, nursing a broken shoulder). But our GMR saviours kindly delivered us safely down, right back to Benny’s door. A very relieved Nicky donated two slices of her very yummy home-made coconut cake to the rescuers for their valiant efforts, since they were likely missing lunch to help us. Their assistance was so very gratefully received – many thanks for their kindness, expertise and professionalism.
After a spot of restorative downtime, we drove about a half hour to Chambon-sur-Lac and set ourselves up in a comfortable little paid aire, €10 per night including services and electricity, near the banks of the pretty lake. Here we sat and watched the world pass, with me tending to and ensuring Nicky properly rested her ankle. On a later short test walk we noted that even with huge, unmissable ‘camping cars interdits’ signs at the entrance, the adjacent car-park was home to some twelve vans overnighting, some even with their awnings out. Still, we had a sweet spot. We saw some visitors walking around the lake frontage still dressed in jeans and thick jumpers, some even wearing scarfs; a reminder to us that this sticky heatwave we are struggling with is still considered quite mild by some.
The next day I went for a muggy 6km run around the perimeter of lake, taking in the nearby town of Varennes. It was stinking hot in the open fields, but the lakeside path had beautiful patches of deep shade from overhanging trees that provided welcome relief. Nicky followed around on her bike to avoid exacerbating her injured foot, enjoying the fresh lake air and mountain views. The blue lake was home to Île d’Amour, Love Island, a small circular coppice of trees. Afterwards we sat on the beach and enjoyed the sunshine and a few cooling dips in the lake. We watched as a guy in a wetsuit persistently combed the lake bottom with a metal detector. The setting, surrounded by mountains with patches of snow still on their steep slopes, felt a little like Scotland, except the 30 degree air and 20 degree water told us a different story.
The following morning, after a minor altercation at the services with a French queue-jumper, we took off for a long drive east, discounting the motorway option for a glimpse of the rural villages of the region. We drove up and down hills and valleys in glorious sunshine, surrounded by lush meadows, tall firs and wide fields of not yet out sunflowers. The villages wore uniform red clay tiles and light stone walls, and were either nestled into protective bowls at the bottom of valleys or set high on the top of hills, each with a tall central church prominently standing like a famous star in a circle of adoring fans. We stopped for lunch at the Col des Pradeaux, still a way short of Saint Étienne. From here the timeless rolling rural landscape reluctantly gave way to built-up urban sprawl as we approached the city, and it never quite relinquished its grip all the way through to Lyon and around.
The traffic was busy but flowing, and east of Lyon we rediscovered a more gentle rural experience, reaching the banks of the Rhône. We were treated to a spiky, snow-topped backdrop as the glorious Alps slowly grew tall on our distant horizon. We passed places and names we began to recognise, from cycling near here on an earlier part of our travels. We’d previously stayed in Belley, not more than a handful of miles away from our target of Virignin. This was home to a spacious, free aire, lined with lavender, set at a recently constructed marina with impressive boat locks and a hydro power station taming this stretch of the Rhône. With a few other vans and day visitors, it had a picnic and party feel much of the day and we were treated to a fireworks show that night to celebrate Midsummers.
The next morning we reached Lake Bourget, starting with a short visit to Abbaye d’Hautecombe. We walked through the gardens to the water’s edge in search of a dip, but signs suggested that swimming was forbidden here, and for once we complied as commercial boats were operating and there were lots of customers. Instead we drove north along the edge of the water, stopping suddenly to spend a day on a spotted beach at Conjux. We managed to park nearby and squeezed ourselves into a corner spot on a strip of grass next to the water. It was a popular place with the ring of conversation and laughter and the smell of barbecue wafting across the beach. Lots of kayaks, canoes and SUPs came and went, filled with screaming kids or gallivanting teens, adding colour and noise to the experience.
From here we climbed upwards to overnight at Serrières, near to another smaller but very popular swim spot. The free aire was full of day-trippers but we managed to sneak into the only vacant space, perhaps only recently vacated as it was a good one. If the aire had been empty we would likely have chosen this same space for ourselves, back right-hand corner with our British hab door opening out onto a neat and private grassed area. We settled in, awning out and later slowly walked round the lake, dodging groups of supine sun-worshippers everywhere. It was too hot for much activity or thought and there were barely-clothed bodies lying haphazardly all over the grass, as if they had simply fallen over when the heat became too much to bear. We completely understood; we were on the verge of doing similar.