The R.L. Stevenson’s trail in southern France: as if nothing has changed since 1878 – Meanderings through France
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
In 1878 the 28 years old Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson decided to go on a walking trip across the Cevennes in an attempt to forget that his beloved Fanny Osbourne had gone back to America (they finally got married in 1880). He also meant to discover the country where the Protestant Huguenots called Camisards fought the royal army of Louis XIV during the 17th century to gain the right to live out their faith in freedom and peace. It took him 12 days to complete the 220 km long way across this little known region boasting wonderful natural beauty.
On September 22nd 1878 he set out from Le Monastier in the Auvergne accompanied by “Modestine” a tiny grey donkey with kind big eyes. It soon became obvious that Modestine had no intention at all to let Stevenson lead the way since there was only one rule she would follow: her own pleasure. And although Stevenson was known as a nice guy he soon started to molest her hating himself each time he hit and pricked her. Based on this strange relationship, the beauty of the landscapes he walked across and the people he met on his way, “Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes” is his first successful book written years before “Treasure Island” or “Kidnapped”.
Thanks to the book this trail was not forgotten and has been a hiker’s dream for decades. It is now known as the GR 70 (GR is the name for hiking trails in France) and is properly waymarked with the usual white over red GR marks. There are many ways to travel along the trail: alone, with your friends or your family, by foot, by bike, with a donkey or a horse, for the full trail or for one or two days, camping or staying in a B&B or a hotel… Everything is possible and can easily be organised.
The present GR 70 is a little bit longer than Stevenson’s trail, starting in Le Puy en Velay in the Auvergne going south to Alès in the Languedoc Roussillon. But of course you can choose to walk in Stevenson’s footsteps from Le Monastier to Saint Martin du Gard. Due to the rural exodus during the 20th century the region is mostly unspoilt and little has changed since 1878 allowing you to walk on the very same paths he used. Meeting local people on your way you will discover that they still feel very close to Stevenson and talk about him as if they met him the day before! They feel genuinely proud that their country inspired such a talented author.
And it is indeed a beautiful region. Volcanoes and rivers designed magnificent yet wild and harsh landscapes. Fortunately weedkillers and pesticides have seldom been used here and nature mostly looks as it did in the 19th century. Walking on the GR 70 is far from being monotonous: deep gorges dug for millenniums by rivers, chestnut forests, lakes set in extinct volcano craters, the steppe like Mount Lozère, pastures and meadows full of flowers, birds or marmots… And of course charming medieval villages, castles perched on top of rocky spurs, beautiful stone bridges spanning over freezing cold torrents! Mealtimes are great opportunities to meet local people in small cafés and unpretentious restaurants and share your experience with other hikers in a friendly atmosphere.
If you choose to follow the way with a donkey which is great especially with children it will be easy to hire a better trained and more obedient one than Modestine! Even if donkeys are clever and kind animals you’ll need to make yours understand that you are in control. So before setting out for your trip you will be given an introductory course and learn how to lead it, packsaddle it, feed it and eventually treat it. Of course you’ll have a detailed map and the GR 70 is also well waymarked with big S topped with a donkey, impossible to get lost! To make it easier you can even have a guide that will accompany you all along the way. And in the evening when you’ll stop off at your hotel or lodge everything will be ready to accommodate your donkey. Saying goodbye to your furry friend will surely be the most difficult time of your journey!
The Stevenson’s trail will take you walking in the Massif Central over low mountains and is not too demanding. But depending on your training and your more or less good shape you’ll just have to choose the right option and enjoy a slow discovery of this magnificent region far from tourist hordes!
For more information: www.chemin-stevenson.org
To travel with a donkey: www.ane-et-randonnee.fr
About pony trekking: www.relais-palheres.com
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny