In the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson on the GR70
8 minute read
Some 140 years after Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey Modestine set out on their 12-day hike through France's Velay and Cevennes regions, Nike Werstroh, the author of Cicerone's The Robert Louis Stevenson Trail, followed in his footsteps
The trees were dressed in autumn colours and there was a nip in the air. A young, skinny man wrapped in a light coat and a small brown donkey walked through the village. The poor animal clearly struggled under the weight of the huge bulky bag. The man nodded to the group of curious people near the church and then the unusual pair left Le Monastier-sur-Gazielle.
It was the morning of 22 September 1878, the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and Modestine the donkey set off on a 12-day hike through the Cévennes.
Stevenson? Asked the lady smiling at my backpack as she handed me a crusty baguette in the bakery in Le Monastier-sur-Gazielle. It was a bright morning in June, some 140 years after Stevenson's journey and as the GR70 long distance trail – that follows the writer's footsteps as closely as possible – starts from the village, it was not unusual to see hikers.
Trekking the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail
The GR70 through the Cevennes/Massif Central
Guidebook to the GR70 through France's Velay and Cevennes regions, which follows in the footsteps of author Stevenson and his faithful donkey, Modestine. At 272km, this long-distance trail from Le Puy to Ales is ideal for people new to walking holidays, and promises an interesting journey with an historical and literary flavour.More information
Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a donkey in the Cévennes is a classic of travel literature. The GR70 long-distance trail is based on the author's route, allowing walkers to follow in the footsteps of Stevenson and his four-legged companion Modestine through the beautiful Cévennes region on the edge of France's Massif Central. The route is ideal for both first-time trekkers and more experienced hikers, covering around 272km of gently undulating countryside from Le-Puy-en-Velay to Alès. It can be completed in under a fortnight.
In 1878 it was unthinkable that someone would just go for a multi-day trek. But things have changed significantly since Stevenson's walk as hiking is an activity enjoyed by many, the Robert Louis Stevenson trail/GR70 trail is well signposted and the locals are welcoming.
Stevenson was in his late 20s, still dependent on his parents but in love with a women 10 years older than him. He wanted to gather material for a new book that would earn him enough money to become independent.
Stevenson experienced lots of problems with his stubborn donkey, he had to deal with unpleasant weather and he got lost during the first few days of his hike. But he carried on and as a talented writer he recounted all the events with humour and wisdom.
We followed the GR70 trail along fields and through tiny hamlets but the scenery was slowly changing and soon tree covered hills dominated the landscape.
On the third day we walked through the small group of houses, Fouzilhic, where Stevenson was desperately lost. Maybe he could have planned his day better but he spent the morning in Langogne writing up his journal and only left the town late, he then couldn't find the way to Cheylard l’Êvique.
As nightfall was approaching rapidly, and the locals were not too helpful, he had little choice but to spent the night in the forest despite the unsettling legend of the infamous beast of Gévaduan.
The feared beast haunted in the area between 1764 and 1767 and took several children and at the time of Stevenson's visit, its legend still made some locals wary. Today without a threat of beasts, and with helpful GR70 signs, it is an easy section and we needed a strong imagination to see how it might had been difficult to navigate for Stevenson.
We walked day after day and gradually the rolling hills became higher and there were fewer hamlets to walk through as the GR70 trail entered the Cévennes.
On the morning of the seventh day we left Le Bleymard. Looking back from the ridge I could work out the mountains we traversed the day before. But without a doubt the landscape there was dominated by Mt Lozére (with its highest peak, Finiels).
Trees soon petered out and gave way to smaller shrubs, and soon we climbed the standing stone-lined path.
The peak of Finiels seemed teasingly close but we only reached the summit – the highest peak of the Cévennes and the highest point of the entire trek – at around midday. And just like Stevenson, we were greeted with sweeping views. Staring at the almost endless undulating hills it was not difficult to see why Stevenson was taken by the scenery.
We then descended on the broom hedged path to the charming Le Pont de Montvert, where we spent the night. Stevenson dined in the village but he then camped beneath chestnut trees by the river not far from the village.
Mountains dominated the views all the way to Florac and leaving the town we walked through lush forest and then the GR70 trail followed the old railway line by the rocky gorge to Cassagnas.
In the morning of the 10th day we left the gite – housed in the old railway station building – and climbed steadily. By the time Robert Louis Stevenson and Modestine reached that area they were tired, and they only left Florac in the afternoon.
Not surprisingly they didn't cover a great distance and they camped in the forest in the Mimente Valley not far from Florac. But it seemed that Stevenson enjoyed that part of his trek. He experienced less trouble with Modestine and in his journal he focused more on the landscape and the people he met.
When the tired Stevenson arrived at Saint Jean du Gard, his faithful companion Modestine was declared unfit for travel. Stevenson was eager to get to Alés, so with a heavy heart he sold Modestine and took a coach. It is remarkable that with a slow donkey and with his laid back attitude to walking (he often only walked in the afternoon) he managed to walk from La Moanstier-sur-Gazielle to St Jean du Gard in just 12 days.
Some hikers choose to finish the trek in St Jean du Gard, just like Stevenson did, but we walked the last – sometimes difficult but very scenic – section to Alés.
We walked through the small village of Mialet following the almost brand new GR70 signs, as this part of the trail was only signposted a few months previously to our hike. Then leaving Mialet we climbed on narrow paths with views towards the tree-covered hills.
The dusty leaves didn't move in the shimmering air, and the rocks were so hot that only the bravest lizards sunbathed. From the ridge we could steal the last glimpses of the mountains that we traversed the previous days.
Somewhere in the hazy distance, on the slopes and in the valleys there were tiny villages with grey stone houses and bakeries selling fresh baguettes. There were the broom-fringed footpaths, rushing streams, lush forests and somewhere among the trees there were hikers following the GR70 trail in the Scottish writers footsteps.
Make it happen
Divided into 12 stages, the trek is suitable for first time and experienced hikers alike
The best time to hike the GR70 trail is from Easter to October as most accommodation is closed during the winter months
If you can, take a copy of Robert Louis Stevenso's book: Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes and read the relevant pages each night and see what happened to Stevenson on any given stage
How to get to and from the trail
From the UK fly to Lyon, the closest airport to Le Puy en Velay. From Lyon take a train to Le Puy en Velay. See the SNCF website for more information.
There are also flights to and from Nimes
Finishing the trail at Alés, you can take a train back to Lyon or to Nimes
Book your preferred accommodation before your trip as the GR70 is a popular trail. Details of gîtes, auberges and chambres d'hôtes are given at the end of each stage in the guidebook.
There is also a leaflet updated annually, with a list of gîtes and chambres d'hôtes along the trail that you can download from the Association Sur le chemin de RL Stevenson website.
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