Reflections on the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail – France, Europe

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Walking la ligne des Cretes: The Stevenson Trail
Walking la ligne des Cretes: The Stevenson Trail

As part of its 130th anniversary celebrations of The Stevenson Trail, we sent a member of The Enlightened Traveller team (see link below) to walk the 252 kilometres from Le Puy to St Jean du Gard. Here are his considerations on a classic French trek.

I decided it was easier to fly into Nimes, make my way north on the Cévenol train, rather than struggle through Lyon, St Etienne and so on. I was right. The chance to catch a glimpse en route of some of the terrain I was about to walk across was a sneak preview I really appreciated – despite the sight of the snow-covered Virgin Mary on top of the Notre-Dame-de-Pradelles chapel. Yes, it had snowed overnight at the end of March. Nothing unusual in that, but fortunately the bulk of it had melted by the time I walked into the "Granite City" two days later.

The overnight stay in Le Puy was not great, despite having booked into a two-star national chain for that supposed extra bit of "reassurance". Like so many of the region’s inns, it had seen better days and was suffering from underinvestment. The welcome was poor to put it mildly, but was at least consistent with the failure to communicate by email – and I work for a tour operator prepared to give them business for nothing.

The room wasn’t ready until 16.00 hrs; the reversible heating system only worked one way, the radiators were cold at 16.30 and breakfast was an after-thought. I wouldn’t be arranging my picnic lunch here, then. Was this symptomatic of Le Puy? I recalled having had my head bitten off the last time I was in town (when walking The Regordane) as a result of asking for a second blanket for my bed. I was shocked to find myself forced to use the table as a plate for my croissant and jam the next morning. Thankfully, I took the opportunity to check out some alternative accommodation that was above average, and here lies the first reason for booking through a specialized and responsible tour operator – we stay in the same places we send our customers to and continually check out alternatives for their benefit. Nothing is left to chance in order that holidays run smoothly and comfortably.

The tried-and-tested taxi and baggage service was first class. Stevenson started his seminal trek from Le Monastier; our belief in offering authentic experiences rules out making customers walk from Le Puy. Le Monastier’s polychrome abbey is one of Velay’s finest Roman works of art and its contiguous chateau-cum-museum is a delight to behold. It houses a permanent Stevenson exhibition that my early start obliged me to forgo – I was in no mood to hang around for the June opening.

The walk to Le Bouchet is challenging, but immensely rewarding. First come the red soils of the volcanic uplands, followed quickly by a sharp rocky incline down to the Upper Loire Valley. Some of our customers actually opt to do the middle section only of Stevenson’s Trail, thus missing out on the memorable descent to Goudet that definitely qualifies it as part of our "best" tour.

Stevenson sketched the ruins of the Chateau de Beaufort at Goudet; you will delight in snapping it from multiple angles as you commence your climb to your night’s stop-over. Once again, I had chosen to risk-take in order to experience something new, but I hadn’t expected to find a brand new gite d’etape minus bed sheets and bathroom towels. Was I really going to add such items to my barely sufficient 15-kilogramme luggage allowance? Another night, another lesson learnt.

The following day’s highlights included the splendid Arquejols Viaduct. Like its counterpart at Mirandol to the south, it was not around during Stevenson’s time. Built in 1908, the line was closed for economic reasons over a decade ago. This wonder of industrial architecture remains eerily silent and sadly ignorant of the access requirements to France’s interior of the modern-day, back-to-nature, hiking fraternity.

Lozère, the department that boasts the highest average altitude and the lowest population in France, fears a similar fate awaits its one remaining railway line, Le Cévenol, which would spell the death of the what is left of the family-run accommodations; hard pressed to make ends meet as a result of the region’s glorious isolation. Whilst Stevenson was quick to laud the “sancta solitudo” of French country life, the heavy toll dealt by WWI (visible on the many cenotaphs in villages en route), and the subsequent rural exodus, sees the remaining locals worried sick about losing their main life-line to modern France due to narrow economic rationality.

Stevenson had other concerns to contend with as he trekked, like his own personal health problems, a departed lover and The French Wars of Religion. My preoccupations were much more profane: ensuring there had been no alterations to the route since my colleagues last walked it; taking photos for our website; and the gentle nursing of a nascent blister using a Compeed compound apparently not available in North America.

Stevenson slept out rough for the first time, and in inclement weather, at a place called Fouzillac, just north of Cheylard L’Eveque. Like our customers before me, I fared rather better, and chose to check out some alternative accommodation in Chaudeyrac. The day’s walking hadn’t been that good and rain had somewhat dampened my enthusiasm. The advertised one-and-a-half kilometre detour seemed more like four, but it was worth it: a warm welcome, great food and all mod cons. Other hoteliers could learn a few things from this proprietor, who has heavily invested in his business. Besides running the inn, he sells cepes, dried, mushrooms worldwide, raises wild boars and still has time to moan at his teenage daughter’s reluctance to do her half-an-hour’s homework in the evening – unfortunately in earshot of everyone in the hotelry but, as a father of two small and headstrong girls, it was rather like relating to my own future.

In The Cevennes Journal, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “Why any one should desire to visit either Luc or Cheylard is more than my much-inventing spirit can suppose.” One hundred and thirty years later, and with even less of Luc castle remaining, I have to agree with him. The February snow storms had taken a heavy toll on some of the Gardille forest’s pine trees, many of which lay savagely snapped in two under the sheer weight of the deluge. Yet, as with life in general, perhaps it’s the dull forestry trails that make us appreciate more the splendour of walking the crest of the hill. And many are determined to walk the walk, come what may.

As a Presbytarian married to a French Catholic, I decided to give the Trappist Monastery at Notre-Dames-des-Neiges a wide berth, fearing imminent conversion, stomach upset (they brew some renowned liquor) and foot swelling from the extra distance. I settled for the night in my comfortable room in La Bastide and looked forward to better things. I was not disappointed. Whilst the next day’s walking to Le Bleymard had its high spots, it was the following day, and the day after that, Day Seven, that will live long in my memory.

The six-hundred-metre climb up Mont Lozere was challenging, but not enough to make me camp out on the north side and light up a cigarette as Stevenson did one late September evening. At a watering hole by the ski centre, I met a modern-day shepherd, whose job it was to rent out donkeys to inexperienced and unsuspecting tourists. He was awaiting a visit from some Spanish journalists and delighted in telling me he was expecting the English Press, although he couldn’t remember the name of their paper. Donkeys were great companions apparently, and quite cheap to run as well; but woe betide he who tries to dominate them. You have to negotiate, he said. Not having the time to explore the niceties of donkey diplomacy, I bade him farewell and continued on my way.

Snow still covered parts of Le Pic de Finiels, the highest point of the trail and of Lozere itself. The general appearance of the summit, in all its lunar splendour, is a field day for 1969 space conspiracy theorists that would have even the most ardent of NASA spokespersons running for cover.

The chaleur of the Catholic welcome in Le Bleymard was in stark contrast to the salutations Cévenoles proffered in Protestant Le Pont de Montvert – and they don’t put the draught lager on until June. So when the TV imploded in the packed Bar du Commerce at half time during the Barça – Man Utd Champions’ League semi-final – there seemed nothing else to do than retire and administer more Compeed.

I met my second brace of French geography and history teachers early the next day. Critical of President Sarkozy’s recent flirtations with the Jet Set (as if that had altered their opinions of him), they failed to see how fortunate they were at being sponsored by the Private Sector to walk for four days in a lunar orbit around Florac. Yet the fact they were camping seemed to suggest the sponsorship was insufficient to combat the rising costs of living within the Euro-zone.

The southward climb up and out of Le Pont de Montvert and onto the Cham de l’Hermet, was scenic indeed; and the walk along the ligne des crêtes, peak line, that afternoon was superb, a real joy I must repeat. The trail winds its way westwards, slipping over the ridge from the north face to the south side, as you watch the juxtaposition of sun kissed and broomy Mediterranean flora one moment, followed by lush, alpine vegetation the next. As we approached the final leg of Day Seven, the smart teachers disappeared down the GR 68 to Florac, whilst I was duty bound to see it through on the newly-elongated GR 70. I had a bad feeling about it; the experience confirmed my fears. It’s one thing being true to history, but when the tourist board re-writes the ending, which should have been a big finish, maybe it’s justified to take the shorter and more scenic to conclude a memorable day.

After Florac, the remainder of the trail is somewhat disappointing. Once again, too much emphasis is placed on forestry trails and insufficient attention to more interesting alternatives. After all, unlike genuine historic trails such as the nearby Regordane Way, in most cases we do not really know which path Stevenson took.

Perhaps I was just getting a bit weary by the end, as the full trek definitely justified more than the nine days I gave it. Cassagnes, a Camisard, French Protestant militant stronghold, deserved more time, and I thoroughly enjoyed my night in an unclassified inn at Saint–Germain-de-Calberte, where the Catholic landlord’s son welcomed me with a handshake that would have made the most ardent of Huguenots feel at home. Sadly, the bathrooms failed to live up to the same billing.

The Signal Saint-Pierre and its table d'orientation offers a superb view back up the Vallée Française along which you have trekked. When I finally reached the Col de Saint-Pierre, with just the steep and challenging descent into St Jean du Gard ahead (a fitting end to any full-length trek), I was looking forward to dipping my feet in the Gardon River, to eating a simple pizza as opposed to produits du terroir, soil products, and to showing my girls photos of where their dad had been for the last ten days.

Scott Anderson, is Director of The Enlightened Traveller and lives on The Regordane.

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