The book that inspired me

'Travels With A Donkey In The Cevennes' By Robert Louis Stevenson

As we stood looking at the map, it was some consolation that Robert Louis Stevenson had also got himself lost upon leaving Langogne. Three days previously we had left Monastier, a tiny village that clings grimly to the hillside, while pondering the thought that in 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson had set out from Monastier with Modestine, his recalcitrant donkey, on a 12-day walk he later described in Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.

Since it was published in 1879, the book has never been out of print and Monastier counts the month-long sojourn of Stevenson as its greatest asset, despite possessing a 13th-century abbey. (The chemist shop, which was formerly the inn that Stevenson stayed at, even has a plaque marking the spot where man and beast went forth.) Why Stevenson had liked the place so much was a mystery to us but we decided that, by following in his footsteps, we might better appreciate the cherished book.

For the first two days, our misgivings mounted with the miles. The countryside stayed stubbornly less vivid than Stevenson's prose. Le Bouchet St Nicolas still had a bar-tabac, but the inn whose keeper made Stevenson a goad to aid Modestine's mobility was erased from living memory. Pradelles, we admitted, was a mediaeval gem. Its Museum of Working Horses boasted not only a stable of donkeys but also an animated tableau in which Stevenson and Modestine creakingly trot through papier mâché hills.

But our hopes for Langogne were punctured at first glance. Serious searching revealed the odd charming corner but, with its thundering main road lined with more bars per unemployed head than anywhere in France, it felt down-at-heel and grubby. It started raining, and we were ready to leave.

We were soon thoroughly lost, but the sun had started shining and our spirits began to soar.

Southwards stretched a hilly maze, almost unbroken, to the Mediterranean. On the 16 miles from Langogne to Luc we did not meet a soul. Theoretically the route is waymarked by blue paint, but as this remains mostly notional neither the sense of adventure nor the necessity for maps is eliminated.

With its ruined château above the River Allier, Luc seemed idyllic but, providentially for literature, Stevenson had not slept well. "Why anyone should desire to visit Luc is more than my much-inventing spirit can suppose. I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." Years later, having sold Modestine, the aspirant writer began a much longer journey to a Samoan grave, aged 44. Robert Louis Stevenson should surely be the travel writer's patron saint.

Seven miles on, buried in dense forest, the Cistercian monastery of Notre Dame des Neiges felt as much a world apart as when Stevenson arrived. Approaching with similar fatigue and trepidation, our welcome was as warm. As we watched the Pÿre Hÿtelier, a Friar Tuck-like figure who manages the guest house, jovially serving supper to the visitors, the scene eerily resembled Stevenson's description. After a prayer, home-grown food and ever-flowing wine, discreet enquiries suggested that Fr120 (£12) would be an appropriate donation for our simple room and board.

Striding on to Le Bleymard next day - where Stevenson grabbed another bite - I met Audrey Bourgois, the young proprietor of Le Bleymard's Hotel Remise. She has walked the 200kms, read the book and yearns to print the T-shirt. Her Association Stevenson promotes the walk in a region with few other commercial opportunities and estimates that 2,000 people, mostly Anglo-Saxons, attempt it each year. Yet, the flying Scot is hijacked all along his route. Monastier's Steven-son Fair has Robin Hood-style archery, and Pont de Montvert's Stevenson Day concludes with a rock disco.

It was drizzling next morning as we started up the Mont de Lozÿre, with the springy drovers' road turf helping us on our way. For Stevenson the summit marked the frontier to the South and, seeing for myself the labyrinth of hills, snatches of his writing floated into my head: "The old unwearied hope of finding something new in a new country."

When travelling on foot you experience intensely the character of places, and arriving in Florac from the hills, the town felt like Camelot. With 2,000 inhabitants and a shady esplanade packed with cafés, it combines charm with metropolitan buzz. We chose Florac for our rest day, and lounged by the pool of the Hÿtel du Parc - a treat footsore Robert missed by 14 years since it opened in 1892.

On the walk's last two days we managed again to get seriously lost. But sometimes getting lost brings unexpected pleasures. Our last night was thus at the Château de Cauvel, where we enjoyed an organic four-course dinner on the terrace, the hills of the Cévennes dissolving to infinity in the setting sun.

In our final destination of St Jean de Gard we did find a Bar Stevenson, but the town made less of being the journey's end than Monastier did of being the start. Our 10 days on foot took just four hours by bus and train to return. How big the world must have seemed to Stevenson then.

Rail Europe Direct (the French Railways outlet in Britain, 0990 848 848), has a fare from London Waterloo via Paris to Langogne for £139, but timings make it necessary to overnight in Paris at your expense.

By air, Ryanair (0541 569 569, ryanair.com) has flights from Stansted to St Etienne and (from this summer) Nimes, which are both two or three hours away by train from Langogne.

A useful guide is available from the Stevenson Association (00 33 4 66 45 83 31, cevennes.com/association).

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