Grand tours: Stevenson (and his donkey) survey 'the Cevennes of the Cevennes'

The second in a series which follows the world's greatest writers through adventures in literature
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1850. Travels with a Donkey, published in 1879, is one of his earliest books. It describes a journey he made through the Cevennes (now a national park) in southern France with the donkey Modestine a year earlier. Despite his chronic ill health, Stevenson was an inveterate traveller, an enthusiasm he shared with his American wife, Fanny, whom he met in France in 1880. The family settled in Samoa in 1889, where Stevenson, by this time the acclaimed author of classics such as Kidnapped and Treasure Island, was nicknamed Tusitala ("teller of tales") by the islanders. Stevenson had hoped that the South Sea climate might alleviate his tuberculosis, but he died of a brain haemorrhage in 1894. He was only 44.

The track that I had followed in the evening soon died out, and I continued to follow over a bald turf ascent a row of stone pillars, such as had conducted me across the Goulet. It was already warm. I tied my jacket on the pack and walked in my knitted waistcoat.

Modestine herself was in high spirits, and broke of her own accord, for the first time in my experience, into a jolting trot that set the oats swashing in the pocket of my coat. The view, back upon the northern Gévaudan, extended with every step; scarce a tree, scarce a house, appeared upon the fields of wild hill that ran north, east and west, all blue and gold in the haze and sunlight of the morning.

A multitude of little birds kept sweeping and twittering about my path; they perched on the stone pillars, they pecked and strutted on the turf, and I saw them circle in volleys in the blue air, and show, from time to time, translucent flickering wings between the sun and me.

Almost from the first moment of my march, a faint large noise, like a distant surf, had filled my ears. Sometimes I was tempted to think it the voice of a neighbouring waterfall, and sometimes a subjective result of the utter stillness of the hill. But as I continued to advance, the noise increased and became like the hissing of an enormous tea-urn and at the same time breaths of cool air began to reach me from the direction of the summit. At length I understood. It was blowing stiffly from the south upon the other slope of the Lozère and every step that I took I was drawing nearer to the wind.

Although it had been long desired, it was quite unexpectedly at last that my eyes rose above the summit. A step that seemed no way more decisive than many other steps that had preceded it – and, "like stout Cortez when, with eagle eyes, he stared on the Pacific," I took possession, in my own name, of a new quarter of the world. For behold, instead of the gross turf rampart I had been mounting for so long, a view into the hazy air of heaven, and a land of intricate blue hills below my feet.

The Lozère lies nearly east and west, cutting Gévaudan into two unequal parts; its highest point, this Pic de Finiels, on which I was then standing, rises upwards of five thousand, six hundred feet above the sea, and in clear weather commands a view over all lower Languedoc to the Mediterranean Sea.

I have spoken with people who either pretended or believed that they had seen, from the Pic de Finiels, white ships sailing by Montpellier and Cette. Behind was the upland northern country through which my way had lain, peopled by a dull race, without wood, without much grandeur of hill-form, and famous in the past for little beside wolves. But in front of me, half veiled in sunny haze, lay a new Gévaudan, rich picturesque, illustrious for stirring events.

Speaking largely, I was in the Cevennes at Monastier, and during all my journey; but there is a strict and local sense in which only this confused and shaggy country at my feet has any title to the name, and in this sense the peasantry employ the word. These are the Cevennes with an emphasis: the Cevennes of the Cevennes.

Follow in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson

Where to stay

Monastier-sur-Gazeille, east of Le-Puy-en-Velay, is the town where Robert Louis Stevenson bought his donkey companion, Modestine. The main hotel is the Hotel de Provence (00 33 4 71038237) which marks the starting point of the journey. If you want to complete your Cevennes journey in the same vein, spend your last night in St-Jean-du-Gard. The best place to stay is the Hotel l' Oronge (00 33 4 66 853034). It is named after a rare type of edible mushroom unique to the Cevennes. Rooms cost from £17 per night.

A donkey companion

Donkeys are still available for an accompanied hike on a number of routes. Gentiane (00 33 46 641 0416; www.florac-tourisme.com/ecrans/gentiane/gentiane.htm) near Florac will arrange for a guide and accommodation. A week will cost you £130.

A night among the pines

Stevenson spent several nights camping out during his journey: one chapter is titled "A Night Among The Pines". The campsite of Camping La Foret (00 33 46 685 3700) is right on the edge of a pine forest, providing the perfect backdrop.

The trail

The Cevennes is now a National Park, yet despite the popularity of Stevenson's book it is still relatively undiscovered. The route Stevenson took crosses two significant peaks, Mont du Goulet (1497m) and Mont Lozere (1699m)but the walk is not too demanding and you can follow the original route without much difficulty. You can also stop at Notre Dames des Neiges (Our Lady of the Snows), where the monastic order which gave Stevenson shelter for the night is still brewing today.

Getting there

Sherpa Expeditions (020 85772717)(www.sherpa-walking-holidays.co.uk) arrange eight or 10-day self-guided inn-to-inn walks in the region from £693 from June to September. Alternatively , you can fly to Paris which costs from £132 with British Airways (0845 733377; www.britishairways.com) From here you can take a train to Nîmes which can be arranged through Rail Europe (0990 848 848).

Comments