The Robert Louis Stevenson Trail
Reflections on France's Robert Louis Stevenson Trail – 130 years on.

The Enlightened Traveller walks the 252 kilometres of The Stevenson Trail once every year and was keen to participate in the Trail's 130th anniversary celebrations. Here are some considerations on a classic French trek from Le Puy to St Jean du Gard,

The overnight stay in Le Puy was not great, despite having booked into a 2-star national chain for that supposed extra bit of ‘reassurance.' Like so many of the region's hotels, it had seen better days and was suffering from under investment. 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; and 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 the next day was first class. Stevenson started his seminal trek from Le Monastier and 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 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 of' 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 next day's highlights include the splendid Arquejols viaduct which, like its counterpart at Mirandol to the south, was not around in Stevenson's time. Built in 1908, the line was closed for economic reasons over a decade ago. Thus 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 remaining family-run hotels, 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 WW1 (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 and, besides running the hotel, sells cepes 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 hotel but, as a father of two small but 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 Presbyterian 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 hotel 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 the memory.

The six-hundred-metre climb up Mont Lozere is challenging to say the least, but it wasn't enough to make me camp out on the north side and light up a cigarette as Stevenson had done 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 that following week 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 which, at 1699 ms, is 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 much 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' that afternoon was a real joy that I must repeat. The trail winds its way westwards, slipping over the ridge from the north face to south side, as you enjoy the delightful 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 and 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, conclusion to a memorable day.

After Florac, the remainder of the trail is a little disappointing - too much emphasis is placed on forestry trails and insufficient attention to more interesting alternatives – after all, unlike some genuine historic trails, such as the nearby Regordane, 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 justifies more than the nine days I gave it. Cassagnas, a Camisard 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 one has trekked; and when I finally reached the Col de Saint-Pierre, with just the steep and challenging descent into St Jean du Gard ahead (a fine finale) I was looking forward to dipping my feet in the Gardon River, to eating a simple pizza as opposed to ‘produits du terroir', and to showing my girls photos of where dad had been for the last ten days.

Walk The Enlightened Traveller's Best of the Stevenson Trail .

© The Enlightened Traveller 2008

.
“The Enlightened Traveller designs original self-guided and group walking tour packages, plus opportunities for active learning, recreation and regeneration in Languedoc and in Provence France.”
Copyright © UK-active.co.uk