Until yesterday, we were walking the Via Domitia. Today, and possibly tomorrow, we are walking the Via Do-Smithia. While researching yesterday about today’s trail and where to walk to, I had an epiphany. I had originally planned to walk to Les Vigneaux, a small village that seems to be on a side spur of the main Camino trail. Our guidebook – which describes our trail backwards, from Arles to Vercelli – said the today’s trail from L’Argentière climbed on forest tracks to Les Vigneaux “then there is a difficult choice of a long and tiring 500m climb then the descent to the valley floor or a unpleasant 10km walk on a main tarmac road” and it recommend the road option. Those choices didn’t sound like fun. I asked maps.me to plan a walking route from Briançon to L’Argentière and it bypassed Les Vigneaux completely, staying east of the river until reaching our hotel. This route was supposed to be 16km, compared to the guidebooks way of 23km and what actually looked more like 25 to 26km.
Our route stayed on the Domitia trail until the 6km mark in the village of Le Vilaret, at the bridge over the river. This route took us out of Briançon on a very quiet road for 5km, then a very nice downhill, multi-media, grass / rock / dirt / mud / gravel trail for 1km. At that point, instead of crossing the bridge over the river and getting on a busy road all the way to Les Vigneaux, we climbed back up the hill to our earlier quiet road, having bypassed 1.5km of it. This road took us another 3.5km during which about five cars passed us. At that point, it joined up with a busy main road (five cars every minute) that usually had a decent sized road shoulder marked off that theoretically kept us safe. This portion of busy road would take us the last 5km into L’Argentière.
I should mention a few things about this last section. First, in Saint Martin de Queyrières, just before joining the busier road, there is a small restaurant that is run by a very nice couple who have plans to let out rooms on the second floor, turning it back into the hotel it was a century ago. We only had something to drink there but the husband was very helpful to us with suggestions for finding more accommodation choices.
For those following, the 5km busy road looked on the map like it would only have two hairpin turns that could be somewhat dangerous. In fact, those hairpin turns were no problem at all. There were a half dozen or so blind curves that needed great caution and alertness as well as a few other places where the road shoulder disappeared for a short stretch. Be wary walking there but common sense and awareness will keep you safe… unless someone is drunk-driving, texting while driving, drinking coffee while driving, etc.
Also, there is an interesting landmark in the middle of the second hairpin turn. It is a giant statue of an alpinist, either that or a statue of a giant alpinist. It marks an important part of our walk today. After admiring it for a millisecond, we walked past it about 50m to a point where we were across the street from several road workers who were having a lunch break in the shade of their truck. Melanie called out a bonjour to which they all cheerfully replied. One of them asked where we were headed and we replied “another 1.5km into L’Argentiè”. He suggested going by the trail back up the hill that was off-road. I checked my GPS and saw no such trail. He crossed over to us and insisted that it was a much better way into town. I wasn’t convinced but it was like we couldn’t refuse the help either. He could not even describe where the trail started but we reluctantly turned around and started back up the steep road. We only made it back to the giant though when I saw a trail. This must be it! It looks like it was farted right out of the alpinist’s arse. We looked back to the road workers and they were all nodding and pointing. This was the right trail. Fantastic! Now thankful, we walked along this obvious dirt path through a field for a good 200m until the trail vanished. We searched and searched in a fairly small area between the mountain on our left and the road on our right. As best we could find, there was a very steep, shale covered mountain goat trail leading back down to the main road only 400m from where we were turned around by the crew. Very, very carefully and slowly, we made it down and back to the main road. We peeked around a bush to make sure the workers could not see us, then we practically ran down the wide road with its wide shoulder and gentle descent.
All in a day’s walk. Short, sweet and surprising.
EDITED TO ADD: for anyone following us, if you do stop in L’Argentière, you really, really to have a pizza in Casa Antica Pizzaria. I had probably the best pizza ever (called something like Lahamjoun). The guy who is the cook, waiter, cashier and busboy is a character and he only makes pizzas. Don’t ask for anything else except desert which were also awesome but made by another guy.