Best for literature lovers: Cévennes

You wouldn't have picked her out as the ideal holiday companion. Yes, she was pretty and petite, with soulful eyes and beguiling eyelashes. But Salomé was also narrow-minded, with a strident voice, crooked teeth, a curious body odour and a broad, hairy backside.

Then again, she was available. Ultimately, that's all that matters. My wife agreed. We had decided at short notice to spend a few days trekking in the Cévennes, near Millau in southern France. The children – then aged nine and 11 – were struggling to see the point. It made sense to sweeten the pill by using the region's most famous form of transport: a donkey.

Tourists have been seeking asinine assistance when walking in these parts ever since Robert Louis Stevenson published Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes in 1879. Many still follow religiously in his footsteps, retracing the author's 12-day hike from Le Puy-en-Velay to St-Jean-du-Gard along what is now "The Stevenson Trail".

Others are driven by practical considerations. The Cévennes are less backward than they were in Stevenson's day, but no less steep. A beast of burden can lighten the walker's task considerably – in theory. In practice, we had barely climbed the first hill before Clare and the children ruled that it was "cruel" to ask so slight a creature to carry our giant rucksack. This flew in the face of what her owners had told us, but I didn't put up much of a fight. Even with a 40lb load on my back, I quickly realised that, as we walked, all sorts of cares were slipping from our shoulders.

A rough path took us through an ancient forest which thinned occasionally but never quite ended. Sometimes we emerged at a high vantage point, to gaze over thrilling green seas of wilderness. Then the trees would swallow us again. There was nothing much to look at – just the hypnotic complexity of unspoilt nature. We walked; we chatted; we drank in the dappled sunlight and the forest scents. The sound of our footsteps was lost in birdsong and rustling leaves. And the whingeing, which we would have expected to begin within an hour or so, was strangely absent – apparently diffused by Salomé's presence.

The children took it in turns to lead her, and occasionally had short rides. She seemed to enjoy it and, indeed, to like our company. (When we stopped for the night, she trotted to meet us with a joyful bray in the morning.) Sometimes, though, her agenda baffled us. She would refuse – for no fathomable reason – to pass over a particular stretch of path. No amount of tugging, shoving or bribery would dissuade her, although she could be tricked into relenting if you led her round in a circle first.

Yet our struggle to see the world through her eyes proved oddly rewarding. Our excursion yielded many delights: the lush forests, the occasional views, the wildlife (squirrels, eagles, a nocturnal wild boar), the remote, tumbledown settlements, and the friendly keepers of the region's various hostels. But the part that lives on most vividly in our family memory was our brief relationship with the enigmatic beast who was the expedition's focal point. When our trek ended, back at its starting-point in Castagnols (near the southern end of Stevenson's 120-mile route), we learnt that Gentiâne, Salomé's owners, don't just hire out donkeys to walkers. They also offer extended sessions of expert-supervised "asino-thérapie".

The donkey, it seems, is "très proche de sa nature, de ses besoins, de ses instincts" and, as such, is ideally qualified to help human beings to reconnect with their natural selves, promoting psychological and emotional well-being. We would have laughed at such an idea before we met Salomé. Now, it would have been hard to think of a better description of what had happened to us.

I wonder what she's doing now?

Ways with words

# Every decade, some 2,000 people from Oberammergau, in Bavaria, stage a biblical play dating back four centuries. This year, the traditional 19th-century text has been reworked and a new set and costumes will contribute to this five-hour theatrical marathon, the last-surviving example of a once-common German tradition. Oberammergau-passion.com

# Scotland's desolately magnificent Cairngorm mountains are the setting for James Matthew Barrie's 150th birthday. The creator of Peter Pan was born in a weaver's cottage in Kirriemuir and the town is producing an arts festival and new collector's edition book commemorating their literary son. kirriemuirheritage.org.uk

# Damian Barr is hosting a literary salon weekend in the deepest Sussex Downs, with guest author David Nicholls. Expect cosy fireside stories, decadent dinners and plenty of bibliotherapy. 19-21 February, £385pp, including accommodation, food, drink and a library of books. tiltonhouse.co.uk

# With smart new hotels, hot bars and cool museums, Beirut is currently a city on the up. And there's no better time to visit than this spring, during the Beirut 39 Festival (hayfestival. com/beirut39) when 39 writers under the age of 40 will present the new voices of Arab literature.

# Dublin is rich in pubs and poetry and its Literary Pub Crawl (dublinpub crawl.com) makes the very most of both. The guides, all actors, start with a pint of Ireland's finest and a rousing reading from Samuel Beckett before moving on to Behan, Wilde, Joyce et al.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - York

    £18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - Y...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us