Dream trip with Robert Louis Stevenson in the French Cevennes
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
It all began with a broken heart in 1878. That autumn 28 years old Scottish author R. L. Stevenson decided to go on a walking trip across the Cevennes in an attempt to forget that his beloved Fanny Osbourne had left him to go back to America. This part of the story ended well and they finally got married in 1880. But that was not before he had a hard time with another female named Modestine!
The Cevennes is a small mountain range of southern France that is 1699m at the Finiels Peak, its highest point. This is the harsh land 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. Stevenson had always been curious about their story and this moment in his life seemed to be the right one to learn more. It took him 12 days to complete the 220 km long way across this little known region boasting wonderful natural beauties.
Stevenson met Modestine on September 22nd 1878. She was a tiny grey donkey with kind big eyes but 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 and of course on the beauty of the landscapes he walked across and the people he met on his way, he wrote his first successful book “Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes” years before “Treasure Island” or “Kidnapped”.
The book was so successful that Stevenson’s trail was not forgotten and has been a hiker’s dream ever since. 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 and 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.
Actually the GR 70 is a little bit longer than Stevenson’s trail. It starts in Le Puy en Velay in Auvergne and goes south to Alès in 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.
This region truly is gorgeous. Over the centuries volcanoes and rivers have designed magnificent yet wild and harsh landscapes. In this blessed region weed-killers and pesticides have seldom been used and nature mostly looks as it did in the 19th century. Walking on the GR 70 is far from being monotonous. From deep gorges dug for millenniums by rivers to chestnut forests, from deep dark lakes set in extinct volcano craters to the vast steppe of Mount Lozère, from pastures and meadows full of flowers to clearings filled with birds or marmots, you will have plenty to discover. Not to forget 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 where you will share your experience with other hikers.
Going on the GR 70 with a donkey is great, especially with children. There are many places where you can hire a donkey and you will easily find a better-trained and more obedient one than Modestine! (more information following the links below). 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 well waymarked with big “S” topped with a donkey. No way 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 family and … your donkey. Saying goodbye to your furry friend will surely be the most difficult time of your journey!
For more information about the region: www.chemin-stevenson.org
To travel with a donkey: www.ane-et-randonnee.fr
About pony trekking: www.relais-palheres.com