I woke up on the second day and realised I couldn’t move a millimetre without causing agony. With much grunting and groaning, I rolled over onto my front. Then by inching myself out of the bed, feet first, I managed to crawl on all fours to the shower. There I soaked my back in boiling water and obtained some relief as the muscle-spasm relaxed. I gradually acquired a bit more flexibility and mobility and, after twenty minutes stretched out on the tiled floor, was finally able to stand up and get dressed, though putting shoes on was hilarious. I slowly went down the spiral stone staircase to breakfast and my crooked posture and pained face started Madame Caro fussing about calling the doctor. I managed to calm her down and ate the abundant breakfast with some enthusiasm despite the discomfort of sitting on her upholstered chair.
Getting the bike up onto the street from the cellar of the house was a bit of a comedy and required a good five minutes because of the limited movements I was capable of. With Madame Caro’s help and much sniggering and yelping, I finally managed it and left her with a promise of a late evening return on the 28th. She eyed me sceptically and ventured to suggest that the whole enterprise might be a bit foolhardy given the state of my spine.
I left nonetheless, but it was as I crossed the Place du Plot that I realised my handicap and decided

La Place du Plot, Le Puy-en-Velay

to avoid making things worse with the long climb to Retournac referred to in Higginson’s guide. I swallowed my pride, made directly for the station and bought a ticket to the village in question, but resolved that this would be the only concession to the creaks and groans of my protesting skeleton.

At Retournac, I began to suspect that Higginson’s remarks about a long climb into Retournac were wrong: the climb was clearly out of the village and not into it. I deduced this from the fact that the road from Le Puy followed the Loire pretty closely and the bridge near the station was still only a few feet above the river.

The view on the Loire from the bridge at Retournac

My suspicions were soon confirmed as I began the slog uphill out of Retournac towards the D46 and Beauzac. The train journey had been a complete waste of time in one sense, even though it had saved me a good hour or so in another: it had completely failed to accomplish its purpose and the second day began with a back-torturing ascent after all. I kicked myself with irritation because I’d missed one of the pleasantest rides along the river and gained nothing.

Since I left my GPS on, a detailed examination of the map above will show the train route to Retournac – which is very similar to the road route – and then from there my own route to Aurec. This second section of the day’s journey was pretty uneventful. I stopped in Beauzac to buy provisions. The guy in the supermarket looked half crazed and grinned at me manically. I bought the usual cheese, water, charcuterie and fruit and when I went back into the shop to get a bag of boiled sweets, the chap was still goggling at me as if I’d just materialised in front of him. Sometimes the denizens of French villages are profoundly mysterious beings who seem to live in another time and at a different pace from some of us.

Arriving at Bas-en-Basset I did a quick tour but found nothing of note except the fortress on the hill. This medieval structure, begun in the 12th century was on the border between the independent provinces of Velay – the old territory of the Ligurian tribe the Vellavi – and Forez – which took its name from the Gallo-Roman town of Forum Segusiavorum (now Feurs), part of the territory of the Segusiavi. The presence of the fortress  indicates the political tensions that existed at the time between these statelets whose identity, going back to pre-Roman times, continues to this day to leave a significant mark on local geography.

The Château de Rochebaron near Bas-en-Basset

Just north of Bas-en-Basset, I stopped at a little aire de repos at a point that looked like the end of the long climb. The picture below shows how far the road had risen above the Loire at this point.

The view on the Loire from the pic-nic area just north of Bas-en-Basset

It was just after setting off up the continuing incline after lunch that I encountered my first ever malicious, cycle-hostile driver in France. I was approaching a gentle left-hand bend and puffing a little from the exertion when a white van came tearing round the corner at sixty-plus on the wrong side of the white line. It was clear to me that the driver of the vehicle, as soon as he spotted me, decided to give me a fright. He could have easily corrected his ill-judged trajectory on the wrong side of the road, but instead of this he deliberately swerved further to the left and came directly towards me. It was clear to me that he was out to intimidate me, but since I was incapable of making sudden movements because of their effect upon my back, I held my course and at the last moment, the van swerved away. I caught sight of a grinning cretinous face looking out of the driver’s window and that was that: he was gone before I was able to turn around and note his registration plate. I made a contemptuous gesture and continued on my way.

The descent to Aurec was a welcome respite from the effects of climbing and around 2.30 I was installed at a bar drinking a beer. I waited around until 4.00 or so and then went off to find the chambres

The view of Aurec-sur-Loire from the bridge over the river

d’hôte. The address turned out to be a fairly modern, tasteless looking house near the river. There was no-one there when I knocked and I had to wait another hour or so before I could get into my room and release the tension in my crazy back with another hot shower.
The lady of the house, a certain Madame Loubier, was a grim and unsmiling person with the air of a Mother Superior who informed me without regret that I was too late to order a dinner at her establishment (see: http://www.lescedrelles.com/).

There were little notes everywhere in the room – inexplicably called la chambre bleue – with acid comments about the unadvisability of doing this or that. In the shower, for example, the note read (my translation) “the pressure in the shower is very high and it is easy to turn the bathroom into a swimming pool – this is disagreeable both for you and for us when we come to clean up after you”.
The house was cluttered with religious junk, paintings and sculptures and the like, and in my room there was a pile of magazines called La Famille Chrétienne stuffed with photos of popes. The lady was clearly very devout. Pity that her piety seemed to do little for her humanity.

Place de L'Eglise, Aurec-sur-Loire

At 7.00 sharp, I took off for the only restaurant in Aurec that seemed likely to provide an eatable meal. The patron informed me when I arrived that he’d need another twenty minutes before he could start serving, so I sat down on the terrace of the bar in the picture above, drank a Pastis and boned up on a bit of local history. It seems that the most notable feature of the history of Aurec was that its possession was constantly disputed by the rulers of Velay on the one hand and those of Forez on the other. An agreement between the church authorities in Lyon and the counts of Forez apportioned the part of the town on the right-hand bank of the river to Velay and the other to Forez. When this compromise failed to work, a papal bull by Clement IV (himself loyal to his family connections with Velay) put the town under the control of the bishops of Le Puy.

Dinner at the little restaurant Le Château was abundant and wholesome and I left the as it began to fill up with local regulars planting noisy kisses on the cheeks of the patronne – always a good sign, and for me confirmation that I’d chosen the right place. Another hot shower on the back and I fell into bed at around 9.30 wondering what the morning would reveal about the state of my vertebrae.

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