Following in Stevenson’s footsteps

Cévennes © T. Joly
At the end of the 19th century Scottish writer R.L Stevenson went to discover the Cévennes. On the occasion of the 130th anniversary of his trip events will be organized all along the path he took offering the opportunity to take in some breath-taking scenery.

[ Practical ]

Getting to Le Puy
- By road
540 km from Paris on autoroutes A 6, A 10, A 71 and A 75 till exit 20, then N 102 till Le Puy.
- By Train
TGV Paris – Saint Etienne Chateaucreux then TER till Le Puy.
Getting to Saint-Jean-du-Gard- By Road
690 km from Paris on autoroutes A 6, A 10, A 71 and A 75 till Le Monastier-Pin-Mories, exit Mende, then N 88, N 106, D 907, D983, D 9260 and D 907 till Saint-Jean-du-Gard
- By Train
TGV Paris Gare de Lyon – Nimes then bus to Saint-Jean-du-Gard with Coopcar. Timtable :
Getting to other towns
- Langogne : Corail train Paris Gare de Lyon - Langogne via Clermond Ferrand.
- Bus Le Puy – Monastier en Gazeille. Transports Masson : 0471038580
- Bus Le Puy – Landos – Pradelles. Huchon Tourisme : 0466490381,
- Bus Ales – Cassagnas – Florac. Transport Reilhes : 0466450245
- The Topo Guide « Le Chemin de Stevenson » from the Fédération Française de Randonnée and the website have a list of accommodations.
- Editor’s pick
Gîte d’étape of Malaffosse
Gîte d’Etape of Pont de Buren
Gîtes d’Etape of Mijavols
Gîtes d’Etape Le Refuge du Moure, in Cheylard L’Evêque
Gîtes d’Etape of Pradelles
Abbaye Notre Dame des Neiges
- CDT de Haute-Loire
- CDT de Lozère
- CDT du Gard
- Topo Guide « Le Chemin de Stevenson » from the Fédération Française de Randonnée
- Association « Sur le Chemin de R.L Stevenson”
In 1878 R.L Stevenson was still at the beginning of his career as a writer and hadn’t yet published the novels that would make him famous, “Treasure Island” and “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. A young man of 27 years old suffering from a broken heart, he decided to go on a voyage to forget and to take stock of his life. But not just anywhere. This practising Presbyterian chose to go and explore the Cévennes, an area in the South East of France where the Protestants were persecuted by King Louis the Fourteenth in the 17th – 18th Centuries.

Monastier © T.Joly
 A twelve days hike
However, badly informed, he started his journey much further North, in Auvergne, in the department of Haute-Loire. Taking a donkey named Modestine with him to carry his belongings, he began his hike on September 22nd. Twelve days and almost 200 km later, he arrived in Saint-Jean du Gard, north of Nîmes, sold the animal and boarded a coach. A journey he immortalized in “Travel with a Donkey in the Cévennes”, a diary full of anecdotes recounting his adventures that is a precious testimony about rural life at that time. Today a hiking path, GR 70, the so called Stevenson Path, follows his itinerary quite closely. Only the parts where the 19th Century tracks have become wide asphalt roads have been modified. Chock-full of gites, bed and breakfasts and hotels, it allows visitors to follow in the Scottish writer’s footsteps for a few days of for the whole of his trip. For the latter 10 – 12 days are needed. To stick even closer to his adventures, on some sections it’s even possible to hire a donkey, an option much appreciated by children.

Le Puy © T.Joly
 Four very different regions
The route goes through four very different regions. Velay, Gévaudan, Mont Lozère and the Cévennes. It starts at Monastier-sur-Gazeille, an important village that has conserved a castle, monastic buildings which now house the town hall and a Romanesque church containing magnificent frescoes and a beautiful treasury. A pillar erected in 1965 by the American Betty Gladstone commemorates the departure of Stevenson who lived there for about a month. Because of problems of access, many hikers begin their journey about 20 km further north, in Le Puy. A picturesque town spread over a series of volcanic peaks. Also the starting point of one of the pilgrim routes leading to Santiago de Compostela, this city deserves a visit for its medieval streets, old churches and its cathedral which shows oriental influences and houses a statue of a Black Madonna which has been venerated for centuries. The high point of this cult is the 15th of August when she is carried through the town by penitents dressed in white reciting canticles.

Velay © T.Joly
 Fertile plateau
The first region encountered, the Velay is a 800 to 1100 m high fertile plateau mostly dedicated to farming. It is spotted by puys, former volcanoes easily recognizable by their shape and whose slopes are covered by forests. The hiking here is suitable for all ages. The only two slight difficulties are a steep stretch on leaving Le Puy and the ascent following the crossing of the Loire river, here no more than a stream deeply embedded between mountains. Certain areas have a more rugged look to them, such as the surroundings of Bouchet Saint Nicolas where the meadows are full of thistles. An sight that must have reminded Stevenson of his homeland. Exhausted when he got there, he abandoned the idea of going to see Lake Bouchet, which occupies a defunct crater and whose slopes are covered by fir trees. A pleasant spot and well worth a detour. It’s also advisable to plan a few hours or a night in Pradelles to enjoy this pretty little town with winding streets lined with medieval buildings perched on a crest overlooking the surrounding countryside.

Lozère © T.Joly
 The Beast of Gévaudan
A few km further on, the historical centre of Langogne is almost as interesting. It has kept the circular plan of the medieval ramparts of which a few towers remain, and contains an old covered market and a church notable for the capitals of its columns which are adorned with carvings of monsters. Built on the bank of the river Allier, this town is the gateway to the department of Lozère and to the Gévaudan. A region sadly famous for the monstrous beast that killed dozens of women and children during the 18th century. Was it a wolf, a dog trained to kill or even the work of a sadist ?... The enigma was never clearly solved and a veil of mystery still covers those dramatic events. A story that will make you shiver and which seems well suited to the rough, wild and sometime inhospitable look of the area. Swamps, peat bogs, thick forests, moors beaten by the wind and rock strewn landscapes make up this part of the route whose relief is more uneven but remains accessible to all walkers.

Mirandol © T.Joly
 Rural depopulation
Agriculture is limited to the breeding of rustic cows and farms are scarce. Much more so than in the time of Stevenson. Rural depopulation has taken its toll as the houses and hamlets left in ruins and invaded by vegetation can testify. So it is not rare to walk for hours and hours without meeting anybody. On the other hand nature lovers will be delighted to be able to spot roe deers, wild boars and other animals. There are nevertheless some villages full of charm where one can buy provisions and find a bed for the night, such as Cheylard L' Evêque, dominated by a small chapel, or Luc, snuggled up around the ruins of an impressive medieval castle.
As Stevenson did, it’s a must to spend a night in the Abbey of Notre Dame des Neiges. A haven of peace and serenity nestled in the middle of woods which is run by the Trappist Brothers and where Père de Foucault was ordained priest. And the delicious Belgian Trappist beers sold at the Abbey shop are of great comfort to the walkers.

Mont Lozère © T.Joly
 An austere landscape
Further away, in Mirandol, a village hidden at the bottom of a gorge, the GR passes under an immense railroad viaduct. A sign of the rigour of the wintry climate, the railroad is half buried and covered with paving stones in places to avoid being blocked by snow. Then, after passing by the source of the Lot and the hamlet of Alpiers, the ecosystem of Mount Lozère begins, the highest point of both the department and the GR with an altitude of 1 699 m. A long and tough ascent which can be split into two legs by sleeping at the ski resort found at 1 421 m of altitude. Beyond this point the trees slowly disappear, giving way to vast stretches of heather and scrubland sprinkled with stones and swept by the wind where herds of sheep come to graze in summer. An austere and grand landscape that takes on a phantasmagorical dimension when the mist descends. When this happens there is no other way to find your bearings than by following the Montjoies, tall granite stones planted in the ground by the people who live in the country so as not to get lost when they were surprised by such weather.

Pont-de-Montvert © T.Joly
 A panorama which amazed Stevenson
As a historical curiosity, some of these stones carry a Maltese cross, a testimony of a time when Mount Lozère belonged to this order of soldier monks. If the weather is clear, the view from the summit is gorgeous. To the East can be seen the Alps and Mount Ventoux, to the South extends the succession of crests of the Cévennes which sometimes take on a bluish tint. A panorama which amazed Stevenson. On the other side, the landscapes are as spectacular although more wooded and more agricultural. The country of the Camisards begins in Pont-de-Montvert, a very beautiful village full of ancient houses which is located at the junction of three rivers, the Tarn, the Rieumalet and the Martinet. It is there that the revolt of the Protestants began and as a symbol of these former battles a church and a temple face each other on two hills.

Cévennes © T.Joly
 Fiery glow of broom and heather
If Mount Lozère is now behind them, the challenges are not yet over for trekkers because looming on the horizon is the Signal de Bouges and its 1 421 m. More than 600 m higher than Pont-de-Montvert !!! Here more than anywhere else, the forests abound in bilberries and wild strawberries. Something to help forget your suffering. And the scenery is doubtless the most beautiful of the trip with bare summits and ridges crossed by sheep, hamlets clinging to the sides of the mountains and the fiery glow of broom and heather. But for the inhabitants, the living conditions are rough and many moved away to look for jobs. Looking as though it has stepped right out of the past and entirely cut off from the world, the small village of Mijavols is a perfect illustration of this. There is now only one farmer left there.

Florac © T.Joly
 A charming town
Lower, in the Tarnon valley , Florac offers a milder face with its squares shaded by plane trees and its bar terraces where tourists take the sun. It is the biggest city encountered since Le Puy and possesses numerous attractions. A castle holding an information centre about the National Park of the Cevennes, an old picturesque district, a spring that flows out from a jumble of rocks, a warm atmosphere and good restaurants. The perfect place for those who want to rest before grappling with the last part of the journey. Once past Florac, the landscapes become drier, more Mediterranean and sweet chestnut trees are everywhere, cultivated on small terraces supported by low shale walls. For centuries their fruits were the staple food of the local farmers. It is also the heart of the country of the Camisard, where they had their hideouts and strongholds. And it remains a Protestant area to this day. Cassagnas is one of the only French cities to have a Protestant church but no Catholic one.

Saint-Etienne-de-Calberte © T.Joly
 Protestant area
The family graves one can see beside most houses remind us that non-Catholics were not allowed to be buried in cemeteries. The heat, more intense here, can make walking exhausting, as there are still some very steep stretches, even if the altitude drops below 1 000 m. One of these ascents leads to the watershed between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Over the space of 100 m, the vegetation changes completely. Beech gives way to holm oak. From here, a short detour leads to the Plan de Fontmort where a stone slab commemorates the Camisards.
Following ancient royal roads built to keep an eye on the population, the same ones that Stevenson took during his Protestant “pilgrimage”, the GR goes through rugged and harshly beautiful landscapes struck by heat in summer. Fortunately, nights are always cool and the charming villages situated along the road offer the opportunity to sit in the shade and quench your thirst on shaded cafe terraces.

Saint-Jean-du-Gard © T.Joly
 Beautiful Southern city
However, while the end of the trip is near, walkers are confronted by one final obstacle: the Pass of Saint Pierre. Granted it is only 596 m of height, but Stevenson rightly described this ascent as "long and painful". So it is better to make it in the morning, before it becomes too hot. Then, there are only seven km left to get to the end. A beautiful Southern city entered by the same old bridge as in the 19th century, Saint Jean du Gard combines charm and tranquility, everything that a walker could desire after so much effort and one can easily while away a few days there. A museum evokes life in the Cévennes valleys, a steam tourist train makes daily trips to Anduze with its vast bamboo plantation and, if you want to deepen your knowledge of the history of the Camisards, there is the very interesting Musée du Desert, in Mialet, only eleven km away.

April 06, 2012
Thierry Joly