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Walk on the Wild Side
RLS' Route in the Cévennes
The long, steady climb to the rounded summit of Mont Lozère is a popular route with both hikers and mountain bikers – not just for the 360º views but also because you don’t have to be super-fit to tackle it. Highest point of the Mont Lozère ridge is the Sommet de Finiels, some 1700 metres above sea level and an hour’s comfortable tramp from the tiny ski resort of Le Bleymard/Mont Lozère.
You’ll frequently find families following the menhirs up the sandy trail or pausing for a picnic at the summit, but you may also run into a very different kind of traveller. For this section of the GR70 long distance footpath also forms part of the Stevenson Trail, a route followed by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson in September 1878.
Stevenson set out from Monastier in the Auvergne, heading for the granite peaks and deep valleys of the Cévennes. He needed a pack animal – ‘something cheap and small and handy, and of a stolid and peaceful temper’ – so he bought a donkey called Modestine, who soon turned out to have firm ideas of her own.
The story of their 12-day relationship was published the following year in a slim volume entitled simply Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes and today Modestine is one of an elite band of literary donkeys that include Pooh’s mournful friend Eeyore and Shrek’s bothersome buddy, Donkey.
Transport may have cranked up a few gears in the intervening years, but 21st century travellers can still follow in Modestine’s hoofbeats, thanks to the Stevenson Association. This group of hoteliers and restaurateurs, donkey-owners and taxi firms was formed 12 years ago to cater for the growing number of tourists who wanted to follow all or part of the trail, with or without a long-eared companion.
Donkeys still look perfectly at home in this unspoilt landscape, dotted with hamlets and small villages. Roads may have been upgraded, but many of the views have barely changed since the 19th century. Stevenson and Modestine covered around 120 miles in 12 days but we joined the route near the midpoint of their journey at the peaceful village of Le Bleymard in Lozère.
Most northerly department of Languedoc-Roussillon – and the only one without a coastline – Lozère is an area of low mountains, rough farmland and thick forests, where hill communities once eked out a living from the wool trade. Today it is amongst the least densely populated departments in France, but one of the most unspoilt – a paradise for walkers and nature-lovers.
There seems a real sense of community here in the stone villages that dot the lower slopes and the river valleys. Weekly markets and seasonal festivals bring everyone together, making Lozère into a great destination for anyone who likes meeting the locals in a traditional rural environment.
Le Bleymard itself is a pleasant little village on the northern boundary of the Cevennes National Park, created in 1970 to protect the plant and animal species, and ensure harmonious human development in this unique environment.
Stevenson writes evocatively of the landscape and villages, the mountain people he meets en route, and the turbulent relationships between the local Protestant community – the Camisards - and the dominant Catholics. Plus, of course, his up-and-down relationship with Modestine.
We collected our very own Modestine at the ski station just outside Le Bleymard, where Jean-Pierre Marie, his daughter Sophie and their 22 donkeys work with local schools and disabled children, as well as with travellers like us.
Pack donkeys are equipped with panniers to hold up to 40 kg of luggage, so a couple travelling light can easily carry their clothes and picnic with them. For those on the Grand Tour, local taxi firms will transport your luggage for you. Partner hotels and restaurants have nearby fields where donkeys can safely be left overnight and at the end of the trip, the animals return to base by horsebox.
After a thorough briefing on donkey care and handling, we set confidently out across the car park towards the piste, where a group of British teenagers were enjoying a geography field trip. This, of course, was where Bazane decided to test out his new companions, planting his dainty hooves firmly in the rough turf and refusing to budge.
We’d tried pushing, prodding and pulling, all without success, when Jean-Pierre’s words came back to me.
‘Encourage him, praise him, and tell him he’s wonderful,’ he’d slipped in as we were leaving. So I did. Constantly. And from that moment on, Bazane behaved like an angel – well, most of the time.
Stevenson describes how Modestine started off so slowly that he had to suspend each foot in the air to avoid overtaking her. Baz, however, walked rhythmically on, stopping only to stare at some distant spot on the horizon or sniff the droppings left by an earlier animal. The donkey calling card.
From the Sommet des Finiels, we strode down through the woods towards Finiels itself, a tiny hamlet with an enchanting chambre d’hôte, La Maison Victoire. This attractive granite farmhouse with its spacious bedrooms was built only ten years ago by owners Mario and Jacqueline Galzin and is amongst the more upmarket accommodation choices along the route. Hotels, whilst clean and comfortable, tend to be simple village affairs serving traditional country fare.
Heading downhill from Finiels, a GR70 signpost near the valley bottom gave us a choice of fording the river or taking the longer, higher road – advisable in times of flooding or when accompanied by a waterphobic donkey. With some 15kms under our boots already, we decided to risk the water but whilst Baz bravely strode through the first shallow stream, he refused firmly but politely to have anything to do with the second, leaving us no choice but to retrace our steps.
Still, we parted on friendly terms that evening – him to a welcoming field, us to our hotel beside the river Tarn in pretty Pont de Montvert. The Camisard rebellion of 1702 began in the village with the murder of Abbot Du Chayla, who persecuted local Protestants, and a series of information panels points out places of interest.
Don’t miss the friendly Auberge des Cévennes, a granite inn overlooking the gothic bridge and clock tower. Stephenson describes his lunchtime encounter here with Clarisse, the sturdy but sexy waitress whose sepia photo now hangs in the dining room.
Next morning, we browsed the colourful riverside market, laden with fresh breads and local jams, fruit, vegetables, and juices. A long queue waited patiently to buy small round pelardon cheeses and the charcuterie stall was doing a good trade in wild bull and wild boar sausages, though I determined not to let Baz see the small basket of donkey sausage.
Stevenson followed the Tarn valley west from Pont-de-Montvert but today this is the main thoroughfare for vehicles, so the Stevenson trail takes an uphill detour through the pine forests to the Col du Sapet. From the menhir at the summit, the blue hills of the Cévennes stretched hazily into the distance, the isolated hamlet of Pierrefort far below on a rocky promontory.
The river Tarn rises 1600 metres above sea level on Mont Lozère and flows west through Pont de Montvert, before cutting a spectacular gorge through the limestone massif of the Grand Causses between Ispagnac and Rozier. Don’t miss Sainte-Enemie, classified one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France for its Medieval buildings and cobbled streets. For a sumptuous overnight stay, try the turreted splendour of Château de la Caze (Tel: 00 33 (0)4 66 48 51 01, www.ila-chateau.com/caze).
Our route wound steadily downhill along shady forest tracks fringed with orchids and wild berries until we dropped down to the river Tarn beneath the cliffs at Cocurès. After a refreshing swim, we walked on to explore the adjacent village of Bédouès with its quaint streets and eye-catching painted chapel.
Stevenson stopped off in Florac, a few kilometres west of Bédouès. Nestled beneath a craggy limestone plateau, this bustling small town is the western gateway to the Cévennes and home to the National Park headquarters. Despite a modest population of 2000 inhabitants, Florac boasts regular theatre productions, a sizeable street market and a busy programme of events including … an annual soup festival.
Our short journey on the Stevenson trail finished in Florac, but the Scottish adventurer carried on to St-Jean-du-Gard where he sold Modestine for 35 Francs. Despite their differences, he felt bereaved, recalling his friend as ‘patient’ and ‘elegant in form …Her faults were those of her race and sex; her virtues were her own.’ Stevenson admits he shed a tear as the coach took him off towards Alès and as we left Bazane grazing contentedly beneath the trees, we knew exactly how he felt. Lonely!
On RLS route, Cevennes
(c) Gillian Thornton
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