We spent three nights and two days in Cantal last week, which wasn’t nearly enough. But we got in two good, long walks and the weather was glorious. The countryside is superb, especially in early autumn when the trees are turning. On Day 2 we managed to get out of bed, despite the 15 km steep uphill trek of the previous day, and set off for the town of Murat.
We drove along the Cère Valley, flanked by forested green hills, and through the tunnel under the mountains at Le Lioran. Murat is at the crossroads of two major routes. There aren’t many of those in that area, since the mountains tend to get in the way. The old part of Murat is of medieval origins with winding streets, dominated by its church and bell-tower.
Yet again, we were struck by the friendliness and helpfulness of the Cantal people. We wondered why so many parking spaces were free in front of the Mairie. A bearded man in a 4X4 painstakingly explained to us that this is a zone bleue and you have to buy a special permit to park there, which allows you only a couple of hours.
‘They’re all over France,’ he said.
Mm, well, not where we live. We retreated down to the main road and parked there.
The previous day, when we thought we were lost on our way up to Elancèze, we flagged down an obvious father and son combo in a flat-bed truck. They puzzled over our map and contradicted each other but the son even turned off the ignition while they pointed out the right route. They waved away our apologies and thanks.
From Murat, our walking route took us high above the town. A hideous white statue of the Virgin Mary dominates it from an outcrop of basalt rock. Cardinal Richelieu demolished the château that previously stood there in the 17th century in an attempt to bring the independent-minded Cantaliens under the royal thumb. The statue was erected in the 19th century.
Fortunately, we soon left it behind and walked on ancient trackways bounded by massive stone walls to the sound of cowbells. We have often remarked on the enormous barns in the Cantal. Sometimes they have a much smaller house tacked on the end. The cows graze in the pastures only between early June and early October. This means the farmers have to get in as many cuts of hay as they can. The barns are crammed full of fodder for the winter. They are beautiful buildings, constructed in the local stone with fishscale slates on the roofs.
The village of Chastel-sur-Murat sits at the foot of an Ayers Rock-type formation topped with la chapelle de Saint-Antoine. We sat on a stone in the shade of the village church for a snack with this communal bread oven opposite (only to discover picnic tables on the other side of the village afterwards).
Two elderly men remarked on the weather and wanted to know if we were going to climb up to the chapel. In view of the previous day’s exertions, we decided not to. Instead we continued through rolling countryside to la Denterie, where we found this delightful, tiny chapel (locked, alas) and picnicked on top of a hill with panoramic views.
Narrowly avoiding being savaged by an elderly and blind but fierce Alsatian outside a farmhouse, we joined up with one of the Saint-Jacques de Compostelle routes. It’s a good thing it was waymarked with the signature scallop shell, since it would have been easy to lose ourselves in the steep meadows.
It was even hotter than the previous day and we were glad to get back to Murat. Two cold beers at the café in the shade of the church went down well. As we drove away from our hotel at Thiézac the next morning, I felt a familiar pang of regret. But we brought home a bottle of chestnut liqueur so I can make kir with it and achieve a Proustian recollection of my Auvergne.
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