In the autumn of 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson was holed up in Le Monastier-sur-Gazielle nursing a wounded heart. He’d had a relationship with an American woman who’d left her husband due to his infidelities and was living in France. To the dismay of RLS, as he’s known here, she had decided to return to America to address her marital issues. Seeking distraction and material for a new book, RLS decided on a rather mad plan to walk alone through the countryside and mountains to the town of Saint-Jean-du-Gard with a donkey as a pack animal.
We say rather mad because although the total distance was only about 226km, he was poorly prepared and, to be frank, had very little idea what he was doing. He kept a diary which he used to write Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes which was published the following year, and his writings make a number of things clear. Firstly, he had no idea how to manage a donkey. Secondly, he had no clue about what to pack. Thirdly, he wasn’t much of an orienteer and even his map reading skills were questionable.
Still, he survived the journey, and the book enjoyed some modest success. Both the book and RLS’ journey were largely forgotten over time, until the 1980s when a trickle of hikers started to retrace his route. There was no official path but the walk gained popularity. In the mid 1990s, work was undertaken to establish a continuous, properly marked trail including negotiating permission to cross a couple of sections of private farm land to reduce significant detours and re-routing some sections to avoid roads. It was christened the Stevenson Trail, and is officially the GR70.
Since then, the trail has grown in popularity and prior to Covid was attracting about 6,000 walkers a year. A modest number by the standards of European walks, but sufficient to inject much needed tourist money into some of the small villages along the way which would otherwise be ghost towns, and enough to make famous RLS’s loyal but obstinate and unlovable companion, the donkey named Modestine.
Although RLS began his walk in Le Monastier, the trail begins about 20km further north in Le Puy-en-Velay where RLS purchased his donkey, and runs to Saint-Jean-du-Gard, where RLS ended his journey, a distance of 245.6km. It’s usual to complete the whole trail in around 12 days taking into account the location of villages at suitable intervals for accommodation. Conveniently, the trail is segmented into roughly even ‘north’ and ‘south’ sections for those with constraints that prevent them walking the full trail.
We walked the Stevenson Trail North which runs from Le Puy through to Chasserades. Six days walk, a total of 131km, just over half the total trail. Our friend David was with us for the first three days before having to return home for other commitments.
Aside from the RLS connection, Le Puy is known for several things. Everyone’s heard of Puy green lentils. These tasty critters have been grown in the region for over 2,000 years. They have a unique peppery flavour which comes from the area’s volcanic soils and are also prized because they hold their shape when cooked. The name is appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) protected in France and protected designation of origin (PDO) protected throughout the EU and UK, so only lentils grown in the prefecture of Le Puy can be called ‘Lentille verte de Puy’.
Le Puy is also well known as a centre for religious activity which for centuries has drawn pilgrims from across Europe and beyond. The Christians seem to have mastered the art of snapping up the highest points in any landscape for their churches, and Le Puy offered an abundance of opportunity to do so. Le Puy and the surrounding area are dotted with rock pinnacles, ancient volcano plugs which have proven to be popular sites for religious constructions.
The highest is Corneille Rock on which is perched the town’s cathedral. It was built in stages and layers from the 5th to the 15th century and has been a centre of pilgrimage since Charlemagne was Holy Roman Emperor in the late 700s.
It is the start of the Chemin du Puy, one of the origin points for the pilgrimage route commonly known as the Camino. Commencing at Le Puy’s cathedral, the trail winds 1,532km all the way to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.
Looming over the cathedral is the just-a-little-bit-tacky statue of Our Lady of France. She was cast from the iron of 213 guns captured by the French in the Battle of Sebastopol in 1855/56. Until the erection of the Statue of Liberty she was possibly the largest statue in the world. She’s visible from just about everywhere.
It’s possible to climb the 262 spiral stairs inside the statue but we can report it’s rather pointless. At the very top is a steel ladder leading to a Perspex dome peeping above the crown on Our Lady’s head but you can’t see anything from it.
A more than adequate panorama is on show from the viewing balcony at her base. There’s a fine view down over Le Puy.
And across to several other pilgrimage sites perched on volcanic remnants.
The Chapel of Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe perched on top of an 82 metre pinnacle which can be climbed via 286 steps carved into the rocky flank was first established in 950 CE by a pilgrim en route to Santiago de Compostela.
And the Sanctuary of Saint Joseph of Good Hope, completed in 1918 which was built to resemble a medieval era fortified castle which previously stood on the site.
Down in town a couple of fine murals sum up Le Puy – walkers, pilgrims, the scallop shell which is the symbol of all of the Camino trails and the lacecraft for which the town was once feted.
Le Puy to Le Monastier-sur-Gazielle
RLS commenced his walk in Monastier-sur-Gazielle, about 20km south of Le Puy, but purchased Modestine here in Le Puy. Most walkers start here as it’s on a direct train line from further afield and, well, because the walk from Le Puy to Le Monastier-sur-Gazielle is beautiful.
It was chilly but bright and clear as we left Le Puy. Almost immediately we were crossing fields of green against a backdrop of gentle hills.
In an hour or so we reached the village of Coubon.
It was perfect walking weather and signs of spring were everywhere.
The walking was easy and the vistas throughout the day were just as we all imagine the French countryside should be.
Soon after lunch we could see Le Monastier in the distance.
By the time we reached it, the whole village seemed to have retired for an afternoon nap.
Except for a bar on the square, basking in the sunshine and perfect for a beer. And the first of many RLS statues.
Total walk distance: 19.1km
Le Monastier to Bouchet-Saint-Nicholas
RLS set out from Le Monastier intending a 12 day walk. For sustenance he took with him a leg of mutton, a bottle of beaujolais, brandy, bread, chocolate cakes and tins of sausages. He also had some rather random items, like a velveteen pilot coat, a railway blanket and an egg whisk. Go figure! Modestine proved to be recalcitrant from the beginning, ambling along “as much slower than a walk as a walk is slower than a run”.
We carried baguettes, terrine, cheese and saucisson, and not having to cajole a stubborn beast of burden, made much better time.
Mist was rising from the fields.
Many of the villages have a shrine or cross at their entrance, like this one on the approach to Le Cluzel.
Past the village of Goudet, we circled the ruin of the Chateau de Beaufort, a 13th century feudal castle.
Not much is left since most of its stone was ransacked after the French Revolution to build the village.
After the chateau, the trail heads up the hill behind. Modestine refused to climb and locals along the road laughed at RLS’s inability to goad her into action. He could not find his intended destination, Lake Bouchet. He’d designed what he thought was an ingenious sleeping sack which would double as a pack to be carried by the donkey. It was hopeless and kept slipping to one side or the other of Modestine’s belly. RLS decided to carry some of his belongings in a futile attempt to get Modestine to walk faster. It wasn’t long before he threw away the leg of mutton, a milk bottle and the egg whisk! He noted in his book that he was distressed to lose the whisk which ‘was dear to my heart’. How very strange.
Despite the troubles RLS encountered managing Modestine, a few modern day walkers have the crazy idea of emulating him. In some villages it’s possible to hire a donkey and although we didn’t see any travellers hiking with one, we did see several on farms along the way.
RLS arrived in Bouchet-Saint-Nicholas exhausted, well after dark. We fared much better, but that’s hardly surprising. We hadn’t spent the day getting lost, being ridiculed and given the run around from locals when asking for directions and thrashing a poor donkey who was seemingly immune to pain. We felt more sorry for Modestine than RLS though!
The inn where he stayed is still here, recently refurbished and with a tribute to Modestine out the front.
It’s a tidy little village with some interesting flourishes, like these carvings on the stones of a building on the square depicting hunting and other aspects of rural life and which are dated 1810.
And of course the obligatory RLS tribute.
We stayed at an auberge on the edge of town in a roulotte – a recreation of an old style French traveller’s caravan. Cute and very comfortable.
Total walk distance: 23km
Bouchon-Saint-Nicholas to Langogne
Leaving Bouchet-Saint-Nicholas the trail crosses a flat plain. Despite a forecast for rain, the sky was clear and remained so all day. It was very pleasant walking through more of that gloriously green farmland.
Outside Arquejol we passed under an impressive 11 arch aqueduct built for the rail line which opened in 1912. It only operated until 1939 for passengers although was still used for freight until it was completely decommissioned in 1988. Part of the old line is now available for ‘velo-rail’ trips for tourists. Open four-person carriages on rails are propelled along by two people peddling while the other two enjoy the views. A two hour hire from Pradelles lets enthusiasts peddle the 10km to Arquejol and back.
We spotted these fine specimens in a field. Which one is the renegade here?
After a picnic on the side of a hill we reached Pradelles. Perched on a ridge above the Allier River, it’s nickname is ‘The Balcony of the South’.
It is listed as one of the Plus Beaux Villages (Most Beautiful Villages) in France. Built as a fortified town in the Middle Ages, it was an important trading centre and many of its 16th century buildings are still in great condition.
Almost every town has a memorial to fallen soldiers but the one in Pradelles is unusual. Given it’s purpose, it’s design and bright colours seemed almost inappropriately cartoonish.
In one of those spontaneous events that changes the tide of history for a place, local woman Jeanne de la Verdette is celebrated for saving the city in 1588 during the Wars of Religion. She became so annoyed with repeated raids by the Huguenots that she threw a stone from the top of a staircase on the battlements, striking the Huguenot captain on the head. The raiding party turned tail and left. The gate where it happened is now named Porte de la Verdette, the steps are still there and a frieze celebrates her heroic act.
And from Pradelles a long warm walk took us through more of that stunning green landscape.
We ended the day in Langogne. It’s bigger and more modern than the previous towns we’d stayed in but it has a small ancient centre worth a look.
Walk distance: 27.5km
Langogne to Cheylard-l’Eveque
Today was a short walk, just 16km. We farewelled David and headed out of town in crisp, sunny weather. Once again, perfect for hiking.
At Saint-Flour-de-Mercoire, Saint Roche was showing off his sexy legs.
The landscape began to change. We entered a forest and the trail passed close to some interesting rock formations and caves.
Mid morning we reached Saone-Rousse and this is where RLS went seriously astray.
He had lingered in Langogne until 2pm, thinking it was a 90 minute walk across country to Cheylard-l’Eveque. Taking into account his travails with his donkey, he thought he would comfortably get there in 4 hours.
He vastly underestimated his prospects with Modestine. “In a path, she went doggedly ahead of her own accord, as before a fair wind: but once on the turf or amoung heather, the brute became demented. The tendency of lost travellers to go around in a circle was developed in her to a degree of passion and it took all the steering I had in me to keep even a decently straight line across a field”.
He reached Saone-Rousse around 4pm. Then he plunged into the Gevaudan woods, emerging two hours later, completely disoriented and not at all where he thought he would be. It has since been discovered that the earth’s magnetic field is disturbed here. Some have suggested this contributed to RLS’s disorientation, particularly when coupled with fog, impending nightfall, the proximity of the equinox and soaking wet feet. On his own reporting, his sense of well being also was not assisted by local legends of the Beast of Gevaudan, the ‘Napoleon Bonaparte of Wolves’ which was said to roam the forests of the area and to have been responsible for eating more than 100 locals.
He came to a village but found the locals “little disposed to counsel a wayfarer”. Their fear of the Beast kept them indoors after dark despite his pleas for help and offers to pay handsomely for a guide. After several more hours wandering in the wood and pushing through bogs he ended up spending a cold, wet, ink black night sleeping in a copse of trees after eating tinned sausages and chocolate cake – together! – for a meal.
In the daylight, the wood doesn’t look quite so menacing.
Despite attempting to maintain a very leisurely pace, and stopping for a long picnic, we still reached Cheylard-l’Eveque by noon. The path is easy to follow these days.
It’s just a tiny hamlet with a population of less than 30 people.
There was no one around and the one bar/guesthouse had a sign ‘reopening at 2.30pm’. We climbed the small hill behind the village to the Chapel of Our Lady of All Graces. It was locked.
That took all of about 10 minutes. So then we just sat outside the bar and waited. Over the next hour, four other walkers arrived. We sat. At 2.30pm the door opened and it was time for a beer. All good.
And next morning with breakfast, the ultimate homage to Modestine – donkey shaped biscuits!
Total walk distance: 16km
Cheylard-l’Eveque to La Bastide
The forecast was for rain but once again the day dawned clear and as we hiked up from the village we had a view over the forest that so confounded RLS. Of course it was more extensive back then.
The trail led eventually to Lac de Louradou, a popular camping and fishing spot.
The trail became quite a goat track, heading first steeply downhill to a deep ravine and then back up again. RLS described coming upon the ruins of a chateau “carrying on a pinnacle a tall white statue of Our Lady” which was shortly to be dedicated. The chateau is still there and in fact some restoration has been undertaken in recent times. The original white statue still remains on top.
From the hill there’s a nice view down over the nearby town of Pranlac.
We climbed down the valley to the town and crossed the river. Missing a newly available shortcut, we followed the original trail up the next hill instead of skirting the base, but the walk across what felt almost like an alpine meadow at the top was very pleasant.
Back down in the river valley there were houses that looked like they’d been grand estates in their heyday.
After stopping for a picnic lunch, the weather seemed to get hotter and hotter. We climbed a steep hill on a gravel road which doubled as the walking track and an access road to a communications tower. At the top, we were disappointed not to get any real views. We’d hoped to spot Notre Dame des Neiges (Our Lady of the Snows), a monastery where RLS spent a night with a silent order of Trappist monks, but it was buried below somewhere in the trees. In any case, the monastery is very different now. The buildings from his time were destroyed in a fire in 1912 so the current buildings are more modern. The monks are no longer silent. They engage in a range of commercial activities including producing and selling bottled fruit and wine. As at December 2021 there were only 10 monks left and they have decided to close the order due to a lack of new novices. It is understood the property will be taken over some time this year by Cistercian nuns.
This just left an anticlimactic walk down to the next valley and the rather unremarkable village of La Bastide. It had been a long walk, and the predicted rain hadn’t materialised but thunderheads were looming so we were glad to arrive. The first drops fell as we downed a beer. Exquisite timing.
Total walk distance: 27km
La Bastide to Chasserade
A very short day to finish. We left La Bastide on a trail up through the forest.
The landscape was changing again as the trail enters the high country with views to the Cevennes mountains.
The trail winds through the Forest Domaniale de la Gardille and on to the sleepy village of Chasserades.
We finished the walk here and caught a shuttle bus back to Le Puy, ready to head to Strasbourg and a visit to the Alsace wine region.
Total walk distance: 12km
Wrap up: We loved this walk. For the most part, it was gentle walking across a picture perfect landscape. We were incredibly lucky with the weather – cool, crisp mornings, warm days, long evening twilight, rain only at night when we were tucked up inside warm and dry. The villages were pretty and the food was hearty and local. It felt like a slice of rural France not (yet) altered by tourism, with a pace of life best matched by walking. Despite his travails, RLS was onto something.
And just as a post script – it all worked out for RLS and Modestine in the end.
At the end of his walk, RLS sold Modestine admitting in his writings that “up to that moment, I had thought I hated her” but found himself weeping once he relinquished her. It’s said she lived out her days at leisure on a local farm.
As for RLS, after publishing Travels with a Donkey, he headed to the USA. His lady love had divorced her husband and after a few more dramas, she and RLS reunited. They married in 1880 and although he suffered chronic poor health, they led an adventurous life. Travel was clearly in his blood. After living in the USA and the UK, they travelled extensively in the Pacific. They bought a boat and sailed to and lived in Hawaii, the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, Tahiti and Australia. Many of his books referenced his travels. They eventually settled in Samoa and remained happily married until he died suddenly, aged just 44. While opening a bottle of wine he suddenly exclaimed ‘what’s that’ and collapsed, dying a few hours later, probably as a result of a cerebral haemorrhage. We can think of much worse ways to go.