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CroakeyEXPLORE: In the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson and Modestine

lesley-mapCroakeyEXPLORE is a series that seeks to profile healthy, active, sustainable holidays and other cultural pursuits, undertaken both at home and abroad. We are open to your ideas, so please contact us if you’d like to make a contribution.

In this latest longread, veteran walker and Croakey GO contributor Dr Lesley Russell heads off, with friend and novice walker Elizabeth Dax, in the footsteps of author Robert Louis Stevenson. Their 250 kilometre journey took them across spectacular countryside, into fascinating history and to explaining (and apologising for) Australia’s asylum seeker policies over dinner.


Lesley Russell, with Elizabeth Dax

Readers of Croakey and my Twitter followers know that I have a serious case of the “walking in France” bug. I have written about my previous walks on the Camino le Puy and in the Perigord Noir. This is the story of my most recent trip with Elizabeth (Liz) Dax, taken  September-October in the Cévennes Mountains in south-central France.

We were following in the footsteps of author Robert Louis Stevenson, who in September 1878, with his donkey Modestine, walked from Le Monastier-sur-Gazielle to St Jean-du-Gard, and then on to Alés. He chose this isolated, mountainous area because it has a strong Protestant tradition that survived the Wars of Religion and the purges of the 17th century.

He wrote about his trip and the Camisards (French Huguenots) in “Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes”. I was also drawn to this area because I had read “ A Good Place to Hide” by Australian journalist Peter Grose, which tells the little-known story of how the local Protestant communities had defied the edicts of Vichy France during World War TWo to save  3,500 Jews.

Liz and I were eager to explore this little-known, sparsely populated area, learning more about its history, enjoying the food and the spectacular countryside, and challenging ourselves with a 250 kilometre walk that included considerable changes in altitude.

As on my previous walks, we worked with a specialist walking company who booked our accommodations (which included breakfasts and dinners), provided us with maps and detailed directions to assist with following the relatively well-marked trails, and, importantly, moved our bags each day so we only needed to carry a day pack.

We began our trip at Le Puy-en-Velay, half a day’s walk from Le Monastier. This lovely town is also one of the traditional starting points for the pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela. It is surrounded by puys or rock pinnacles of volcanic origin made more spectacular by the monuments perched on them – the 10th century chapel of St Michel de L’Aiguille and the 27m high Notre-Dame-de-France, made from melted-down cannons captured from the Russians during the Crimean war. We had lovely accommodations in the old centre of town – a maze of narrow streets and stairs. There was plenty of exercise for our first day, hauling bags up those stairs and climbing those pinnacles.

lesley-with-liz
Liz Dax (left) and Lesley Russell, underway

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Day 1.  Saint Martin-de-Fugères to Le Bouchet-Saint-Nicholas (16km)

After a plentiful breakfast, we skipped the pilgrim mass at the cathedral (we had visited it to see the Black Madonna the day before) and took a quick ride through Le Monastier to St Martin-de-Fugères where we started our walk. The trail took us through farming countryside and small villages, past stone ruins and the restored Chateau de Beaufort above the Loire river. RLS wrote that Modestine, with an enormous, poorly-loaded pack, was reluctant to climb some of the “interminable hills”.  However, we were fresh, eager and urged on by new views around every bend and lots of late wildflowers.

We soon settled into what was to become our routine: me out ahead, directions in hand, on the lookout for the next signpost; Liz more sedately behind, seeing the expansive views and the details of nature with an expert photographer’s eye. We alternatively urged each other on, pondered the big and small questions of life, occasionally sang or recited poetry, ranted about politics, and talked about food.

That night we lodged in the agricultural village of Le Bouchet-St Nicholas where dinner, despite the modest surroundings, was superb. This is the home of puy lentils, so there was cassoulet on the menu and dessert was preceded by an amazing array of cheeses – something that was to become a nightly delight.

Day 2.  Le Bouchet-Saint-Nicholas to Pradelles (21km)

The day dawned with grey skies and soon the rain and mists arrived to obscure the rolling farmlands. We put on our rain gear (lightweight jackets with hoods, pack covers, all topped with plastic ponchos) and kept walking. The rain cleared after several hours and our pant legs (the only bits to get wet) quickly dried. In 12 days of walking, this was our only rain. For the remainder of our trip we enjoyed perfect autumn walking weather; crisp mornings, often with a frost, but clear sunny days with temperatures usually around 22°C.

On this morning, we encountered the first of several instances on the trip when we could not make the written directions match the landscape and trails. In such circumstances, with no-one nearby to ask but with tracks which were generally well signposted (albeit not as expected), we simply made our best guesses. By good luck and (perhaps) good management, we always ended up in the right place without having to double back on our tracks.

lesley-pradelles
Pradelles – a photographer’s delight that did not impress RLS

And so we arrived at Pradelles, a picturesque medieval town spread across a hillside, the houses decorated with boxes of geraniums, a photographer’s delight. Interestingly, RLS described Pradelles as “a cheerless prospect, but one stimulating to a traveller” and did not linger.

Day 3.  Pradelles to Cheylard-l’Évêque (23km)

The early morning mists still wreathed the hills as we left Pradelles through the remains of the walls that once protected the town, walking through lush countryside to Langogne and then on forest tracks through a number of hamlets, now almost deserted. Unemployment is high in this area so many people have left for larger towns but have kept family homes and land for weekend use. Some of these cottages had walled vegetable gardens (potagers) and we admired the end-of-season produce that remained.

From the first day, Liz and I adopted a late afternoon ritual of a drink (usually coffee or wine, although our preferred tipple was an aperol spritz) and a joint reading of the passages in RLS’s book relevant to the day. We read that, lost on a black, rainy night, RLS had sought shelter and directions from families in these hamlets we had passed through, but they had fearfully turned him away and he and Modestine were forced to spend the night in the forest.

Like RLS, we learned the local myth about the Bête of Gévaudon, which supposedly killed more than a hundred people in the 1760s. The beast was perhaps a wolf or even a wild boar; we wondered over the next few days as our tracks took us through dark, dank forests where it was easy to imagine wild things lurking.

We were warmly welcomed at Le Refuge du Moure in the village of Cheylard-l’Évêque, home to just 62 people. There is a small chapel (described by RLS as “diminutive and tottering”) in the village and another, Notre-Dame de Tous Graces, on a steep hill nearby. The view from the top of this hill in the later afternoon sun was well worth the climb which was marked by stone niches showing the Stations of the Cross. Dinner that night was a hearty and riotous affair with some 15 walkers (all French except for us and a couple from Quebec) around the communal table.

lesley-mist
Early morning mist on the trail

Day 4.  Cheylard-l’Évêque to La Bastide-Puylaurent (28km)

There were more friendly exchanges at breakfast as we prepared to go our various ways at our individual paces. We were to meet up with a number of these walkers again, in some cases several times.

By mid-morning we had reached Lac de Louradou, a perfect spot for a morning snack, and a few kilometres further on we came to the ruins of the Chateau de Luc, crowned with a tall white statue of the Madonna, and with some fine views over the surrounding countryside. That afternoon we got lost again on forest roads on the route to the monastery complex of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges. Fortunately, the route we took turned out to be a little shorter than the one in the directions – but the monastery was rather disappointing. RLS had stayed here, rather fearful of the Catholic philosophies of his hosts the Trappist monks. The old buildings where he stayed were destroyed by fire in 1912 and the monks are now astute businessmen running a tourist complex.

After a long day’s walk we were very glad to finally reach our hotel accommodation in La Bastide –   and a well-deserved glass of wine.

Day 5.  La Bastide-Puylaurent to Chasserades (13km)

The day dawned cool and misty as we followed a trail over high country with lovely views, climbing to 1308 metres and then descending into the Allier valley. This area is one of the key watersheds of Europe, giving rise to headstreams of the Rhône and the Allier and Loire rivers. We then walked through forests to Chasserades. Our early arrival meant we could explore the village which has a 12th century Romanesque church and then spend a lazy afternoon reading in the sun.

Our host was an ebullient and magnificent chef and the dinner that night, which featured “Jurassic quail” was a highlight. It was becoming increasingly obvious that kilometres walked might not offset calories consumed.

Day 6. Chasserades to Le Bleymard (16km)

lesley-crucifix
One of the many, varied crucifixes and crosses along the Stevenson Trail

An early morning start soon got us to Mirandol where an amazing curving railway viaduct stands 30 metres high over the Chassezac River and the slate-roofed stone buildings of the attractive village below. This part of the railway was being surveyed at the time of RLS’s walk. The trail then climbs through forests to a col at 1413 metres. As we descended on an ancient drove road (draille), we passed the sad, crumbling remains of the abandoned hamlet of Serreméjan, slowly being taken over by the forest, and then crossed the small stream that eventually becomes the River Lot. On the way into Le Bleymard we passed an ancient stone crucifix in a style that was almost African. As with the Camino, the route here is marked with many crosses and crucifixes.

We were now at the halfway point of our journey and about to enter the Cévennes Mountains. RLS saw this as passing from a “bleak country” to a countryside that “moved me to a strange exhilaration”. In part he was swept along by an idealised history of the Camisards, which he saw as a “romantic chapter” (it was in fact incredibly brutal).

Day 7.  Le Bleymard to Finiels (16km)

We left Le Blemard, headed into the countryside that RLS called “the Cévennes of the Cévennes”. Our trail today traversed the Mont Lozère massif, passing the Mont Lozère ski area (which looked particularly bleak without snow cover and is probably not much better with snow) and entering the Cévennes National Park. There was a gradual ascent up a rutted drove road to the top of Pic de Finiels, at 1699 metres the highest point of our trip. The route through a landscape of grasses, heather and billberry bushes, is marked for several kilometres by a line of vertical granite pillars (montjoies), each about 2 metres high. These ancient marker stones are to guide travellers through the fog that often envelopes the mountain. We luckily had spectacular views in all directions (although we were very suspicious about the claim that it is possible to see to the Mediterranean), but a cold wind served notice that the weather could be unpredictable.

The ascent was through pine woods where RLS had slept; he found this accommodation provided by nature so pleasing that he left a monetary payment in the forest. Then we emerged to long views over green, boulder-strewn fields and the sonorous clanging of bells round the necks of grazing cattle.

We were guests that night in a wonderful gîte, eating “au famille” at a huge table in a dining room with a 15th century fireplace (taken from a ruined chateau) that was large enough to sit in. The five-course meal was all local home-made produce, including the aperitif and the wine. Outside, by the large vegetable garden, there was a small, ancient cemetery, a reminder of the days when Protestants were buried in family gardens as they were not allowed to be buried on publicly-owned land.

lesley-pont-de-montvert
The cobbled stony path that climbs above Pont-de-Montvert, with Finiels and Mont Lozère in the far distance.

Day 8.  Le-Pont-de-Montvert to Florac (27km)

This was to be a long day so we were grateful for a ride to Montvert which also meant we had time to explore this lovely village on the Tarn river. Its sleepy beauty today belies its bloody past – this is where the War of the Camisards broke out in 1702 with the murder of the local archbishop.

The trail taken by RLS and Modestine from Montvert is now a busy road so ironically this day’s walk, arguably the most spectacular of the whole trail, was not taken by our hero. We began with a long, steep climb up an ancient cobblestone track with amazing views down to Montvert and back to Finiels and Mont Lozère in the distance. We reached the Cham de L’Hermet plateau and then climbed again to follow a long, high ridge that eventually descends to the valley of the Tarnon river and the town of Florac. The vistas were awe-inspiring: line after line of mountains in increasingly misty and various shades of blue, just as described by RLS; huge expanses for forests; the looming edges of the limestone plateaux (causses) to the west. Overhead the blue sky was traced with a few vapour trails left by high-flying commercial flights and military jets practising their dogfights. The fighter jets’ roars and birdsong were the only disturbances, otherwise we felt alone, at peace in a piece of heaven on earth. We just couldn’t stop taking photos.

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Florac – described by RLS as a “perfect little town”.

Florac was described by RLS as a “perfect little town”. It sits under high limestone cliffs at the confluence of the Tarn, Tarnon and Mimente rivers. There are many small bridges and narrow laneways and the streets are lined with plane trees. Our accommodation was a charmingly renovated historic home with a restaurant run by a friendly couple.

Day 9.  Florac to Cassagnas (21km)

After leaving Florac we were soon alternatively ascending and descending forest trails, crossing rivers several times until we came to the buildings and old castle of Saint-Julien-d’Arpaon. From there we had a lovely stroll along a former railway line, through tunnels and along a path cut into the side of a valley with the Mimente river far below. The last several kilometres of the day were up a steep gravel track, until we burst onto our accommodations – chalet-style cabins set in an isolated location with peaceful views and a tranquil garden – where cold drinks were immediately offered and accepted with alacrity.

We shared dinner that night with some of the walkers we had previously encountered. They were intrigued that Australians had come so far to emulate RLS. The conversation took a philosophical bent and at one point we were obliged to explain/apologise for Australia’s refugee policy (yes, they knew about Manus and Nauru) – in French!

Day 10.  Cassagnas to St Étienne-Vallée-Française (23km)

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Remains of Neolithic tomb – a spectacular burial place!

The first part of this day’s walk was along an old road, with fine views of the “blue mountains” and several ancient stone water troughs designated “Pour Les Ânes” (for donkeys). The forests (mostly planted since RLS’s time to tackle erosion caused by over-grazing) are a mix of pine, beech, oak and chestnut and these regularly opened up to stunning views. Ripe chestnuts were in profusion here; they were an important food staple in RLS’s day but now are often left where they fall. There are a number of interesting, ancient stone features along the trail, including a prehistoric tomb (now empty), and the hillsides are dotted with caves used by the Camisards and much later, by resistance fighters in World War Two.

For the latter part of the day we walked on tracks bordered with ancient stone walls and old coppiced trees. That night we stayed just outside St Étienne-Vallée-Française in a beautifully-restored stone house with magnificent valley views, run by an eccentric Englishwoman. It took me some time to realise that she wasn’t responding to my French conversation because, after 30 years, she still did not speak French: our stay had an air of Fawlty Towers.

Day 11.  St Étienne-Vallée-Française to Saint-Jean-du-Gard (13km)

This was our last day on the trail and so we savoured the last steep climb up to the Col de Saint Pierre and the 360-degree view. We said our farewells to the Cévennes Mountains before we began a perilously steep, stony descent. RLS had goaded a reluctant Modestine down this track in the dark as he was eager to reach St-Jean-du-Gard; we cautiously picked our way and stopped for lunch amid the heather.

A final walk on a flat trail alongside the Gardon river brought us to St-Jean-du-Gard, our destination. We crossed into the town and immediately sought out the RLS memorial fountain to officially mark the end of our wonderful journey. We were exultant and a little sad –  and definitely in need of celebratory aperol spritzes. That night we ate dinner at the inn where RLS had supposedly eaten 138 years earlier. RLS sold Modestine here, and she lived out her days in nearby fields while he walked on to Alès in tears at leaving her.

The next day we packed up our boots and poles and took the bus to Nîmes and then train back to Paris. The buzz from a wonderful walk still lingers even now.

lesley-traillesley-trail-2Some advice

I have written previously about getting fit and having the right gear, and I would only repeat that advice. Being fit and having the right footwear is essential if you are to enjoy these walks. The rugged Stevenson Trail really requires boots with good ankle support and walking poles (I use one, Liz prefers two). Pay attention to your feet and don’t let any soreness go unattended if you want to prevent blisters. Little things make a difference – a range of Ziploc plastic bags, safety pins, a notebook, nail scissors, a small container of laundry detergent that is guaranteed not to leak, a set of picnic cutlery, a lightweight, foldable umbrella. Don’t forget sunscreen, regardless of the season.

We bought food along the way for picnic lunches (bread, crackers, hard cheese, tomatoes, fruit, apple sauce), but planning is essential as many small hamlets do not have shops or opening hours may be limited. On several days, we bought packed lunches from our hosts and these were always excellent and very generous. Potable water is readily available. Trail mix provides an energy boost.

We found the people of the area very welcoming and friendly, although little English is spoken. It was autumn so we regularly encountered people gathering mushrooms and chestnuts and hunters (with dogs and guns); there were also forestry workers and vehicles on some of the trails. Personal safety is not an issue.

We love what walking does for us physically, mentally and even spiritually, but it’s also a great learning opportunity. With ubiquitous free wifi and our I-pads, we were able to look things up and read more about what interested us. And we could skype home each day with our news.

Comments and advice from Liz

lesley-chapel-le-puy-en-velay
Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe chapel, Le Puy-en-Velay

What was I to do when my very fit friend asked me to join this very attractive walk? I found a very understanding and firm personal trainer who had three months to ready me for this fairly strenuous excursion. She did a wonderful job in getting my core strength to a useful level. However, there was no short-term cure for years of neglect, so ascending some of the steeper parts of the RLS walk was difficult – but far from impossible.  I had a patient walking companion!

Some years ago it became apparent that I had developed sensitive gluten intolerance. French food revolves around bread so I had some anxiety, especially because we were going to be “off the beaten track”. There was no need! I carried corn cakes and gluten-free crackers and threw them away at the end of the walk. I did use the gluten-free bread picked up at a couple of places along the way but I could have done without it. All but one restaurant was aware of gluten sensitivity and provided ably and well.

Just one warning from a confirmed coffee addict: those lovely big bowls of milky coffee served at breakfast in France don’t substitute for a strong caffe latte to kickstart the day.

In conclusion

The Stevenson Trail has to rate as truly splendid – magnificent scenery, fascinating history, great hospitality and some good physical and mental challenges that left us both exhausted and exuberant. We can heartily recommend it. Our walking partnership continues as in June 2017 we are headed off to walk the Le Puy Camino route from Moissac to Aire-sur-l’Adour. Stay tuned!


Monuments to RLS and Modestine

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