Clive Darley treks the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail across the French Cevennes in a variety of bad weather, grim weather and horrendous weather. Nevertheless he finds plenty to philosophise about and tries to travel with Stevenson's ethos.
‘I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more clearly; to come down off the feather bed of civilisation and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints’.
This quotation by Robert Louis Stevenson is often précised as ‘it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive’. Either way, it summarises the philosophy underpinning the rationale for trekking: a process of moving along a trail that assumes its own momentum, casting aside the trivial agendas that impinge on our everyday lives. It enables one to focus on the landscapes, the people and the cultural and historical insights that serve to enrich and enhance the physical elements of such a journey. It was with this in mind that we decided to undertake the Stevenson Trail across the Cevennes in southern central France.
Stevenson famously set off with comparatively little forethought, and his trials and tribulations of route finding and baggage carrying were exacerbated by his decision to hire a donkey to relieve the physical burdens. The navigational challenges that were faced on the route back then are mitigated nowadays by guidebooks, maps, and the route being well signed with the familiar red and white GR markings. The GR in question is the GR70, which winds south from Le Monastier near Le Puy-en-Velay, to the end point at St Jean du Gard on the southern fringe of the Cevennes. This is remote and challenging country with a reputation for non-conformism.
Tracks on the Central Massif follow rarely used tarmac roads or ancient drailles, forest trails or footpaths. The downside is that there are long sections, particularly in the south, where the forests close in, so that hours of walking pass by with only fleeting views through the vegetated cover. Villages are few and far between, but all huddle within the contours of the landscape as if they had grown organically from it.
The weather in September varied from sublime to apocalyptic, and this meant that we sweated in the full glare of the southern sun but crossed the highest point of the Cevennes in full winter gear in bitterly cold conditions.
Despite all of the above, it was an interesting trek, endorsing Stevenson’s views that such a journey develops its own singular purpose while providing experiences that remain lodged in the mind. We met engaging people, stayed in some characterful and historic places, ate some distinctly vernacular food and learned a great deal.
Le Monastier to Bouchet St Nicholas
We began the walk at Le Monastier, near Le Puy. It was not a propitious start, climbing the first steep track out of the valley to rolls of thunder, flashes of lightning and torrential rain. Within 30 minutes, however, the first rent of blue in the sky heralded an improvement that continued for the rest of the day.
The vistas on the volcanic plateau were immense; a rolling landscape punctuated by the occasional wooded volcanic cone and divided into a patchwork of browns and greens. Moving across wide, open country, we finally descended to the bridging point over the Loire at Le Goudet, a place overlooked by the ruins of the Chateau de Beaufort on a bluff above the river. After a brief uphill slog along the D road we struck off to climb a steep, gravelly track composed of volcanic rubble, which wound relentlessly back to the plateau at Montagnac, some 1000ft above the Loire valley. Refreshments were available in the tiny hamlet of Ussel, at the only bar-restaurant in town. This was a convivial place to have a break in the sunshine for lunch before carrying on across open country with expansive views of broad fields, the chequered landscape interrupted by the occasional glimpse of terracotta roofs and forested caps of volcanic mounds.
From here to our destination of Bouchet St Nicholas, it was plain sailing. A first day of 24km with significant ascents was quite enough, and we were pleased to arrive in good shape and spirit. At our chambre d’hote, we were treated to our evening meal of chestnut-based liqueur, followed by a beautiful boeuf bourgignon. First day done and dusted!
Bouchet St Nicholas to Langogne
Breakfast concluded, we set off on a misty morning on the next leg to Langogne, a distance of over 26km. The first section was across the monumental volcanic prairie landscape to Landos, a distance of about 8km along well-established sandy, cindered or gravelled farm tracks.
Sunlight filtered through the mists and there were ethereal vistas towards newly ploughed fields.
Landos was quiet but had an air of prosperity about it. We continued along a grassy and gravelled track to reach the railway line, a distinctly incongruous element in this predominantly agricultural landscape. By the time we reached Arquejol it was blisteringly hot and humid, with thunderclouds gathering in ominous dark regiments to the west. Rumbles of distant thunder reverberated around the hills as we dropped down beneath the impressive railway viaduct that spans the narrow valley. It has 11 elegant arches and is clearly a major engineering feat that in many ways resembles Ribblehead or Smardale. The lines are still in place and occasionally seem to be used for tourist bogies or cabooses, one of which clattered across the viaduct as we ducked underneath it.
The afternoon had now turned drab and dank as Pradelles was approached. This place is described as ‘one of the prettiest villages in France’, but it looked far from this on a miserable day. After a beer, we decided to complete the walk down a broad cindered track to Langogne on the Allier, the largest town encountered on the Stevenson Trail.
Langogne to Cheylard L’Eveque
There was not a vast improvement in the weather the next morning as we continued along the trail out of Langogne over Le Pont Vieux. It was not long before the tarmac gave way to a sandy track that continued to climb through woodland thick with Scots pine. A brief traverse round a gentle coombe then saw the trail descending sharply through thick woodland to a stream where, inevitably, another sharp ascent began after the bridge to the village of Saint-Flour de Mercoire. From here, we ambled along a track that passed through yet more woodland with some open heath covered in broom.
Beyond Fouzillac, where Stevenson had wild camped in the woods, the trail wandered through ancient woodland where the silence was sepulchral, the sense of remoteness and isolation complete.
The sunken path seemed endless, but then daylight appeared and at last we emerged into a more open pasture. With a beer in prospect, we descended down to the road sign indicating that we were about to enter Cheylard L’Eveque. This was a pretty little hamlet, enfolded by hills, with an ancient church in the square and a large statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking the settlement.
Cheylard L’Eveque to Chasserades
The sky was less threatening in the morning but was somewhat cheerless, and it was cold and windy. The route from Cheylard ascended along wooded slopes now beginning to assume the colours of autumn. Luc, our next destination, was not a memorable place. The white statue of the Madonna stands on its rocky plinth above the houses that spread along the valley side for a good kilometre. Unfortunately, it was dead! There was no café or bar and the place seemed soporific. Walking along a busy road to Rogleton, flanked by a railway line, we crossed the bridge over the infant Allier and then struck off on a footpath to La Bastide-Puy-Laurent, reaching the village by crossing the railway line.
The weather on this trek was proving stubbornly unsettled. There was a penetratingly cold northerly wind and streamers of mist and cloud as we set off early along a rough track out of La Bastide. As height was gained, the more southern hills of the Cevennes stretched out in the distance in a pastel blue haze. The hillsides were cloaked in broom scrub that gave way to forests of beech and Scots pine and plantation larch. The trail was well graded, ascending steadily until it opened out to a grassy clearing at La Mourade at a height of over 1300 metres. It was a gradual descent to the small hamlet of Chabalier. Here we crossed a trickle of a stream that marked the source of the Allier, one of France’s longest rivers. The silence was disturbed by the horn of a train passing though the station-halt at Chasserades, our overnight destination.
Chasserades to Le Bleymard
The section from Chasserades to Le Bleymard was characterised by persistent drizzle and long trudges through forestry tracks for the better part of the 25km.
Even in the rain, the viaduct at Mirandol was another spectacular piece of engineering, crossing the narrow valley in a series of graceful tall arches.
The railway track was followed as far as L’Estampe, but then the trail headed away into the Goulet massif via a sunken ‘draille’ or drovers’ path through the beech forests to the col at 1400 metres.
The descent now began between endless regiments of conifers until the ghost of a settlement appeared. In the enveloping mist was a poignant sight of the forest slowly reclaiming the abandoned hamlet of Serremajan. The crumbling gables and shells of buildings, dripping with moisture and colonised by moss and lichens was a melancholic metaphor for the day. Enshrouded in mist and entombed in a tunnel of trees without remission or the punctuation and relief of any wider vistas, our impressions mirrored those of RLS, who had similar reflections over a century ago.
After walking 50 metres, Serremajan had disappeared from view, swallowed up by the landscape that had formerly nourished and supported it. Fortunately, the trail was well surfaced and well graded as we climbed above the valley to join another ancient draille on the descent to the source of the River Lot, the leitmotif of a previous trek to Cahors along the Camino de St Jacques. It seemed strange that a river spanned by three strategic bridges at Cahors should now be crossed in a couple of strides. The descent into Le Bleymard seemed endless, but spirits were restored over a fine evening meal of guinea fowl.
Le Bleymard to Florac
Le Bleymard lies hunched in its valley below the broad granitic moors to the south and has a number of historic and interesting houses that would be easily missed by a road traveller just passing through. The main objective of the day was to cross the 5700m granite dome of Pic Finiels, the summit of Mont Lozère and the highest point of the Cevennes. It was bitterly cold with the blustering northerly wind, but the ascent was gentle and guided by a series of vertical granite slabs called ‘montjoies’. Allegedly, it is possible to see the Mediterranean from the broad, rounded summit, but today it felt Arctic. An obvious col marked the point at which one could climb another 70ft to the actual summit shelter. This would have been tempting if it would have afforded greater views, but with the distant hills to both north and south drowned in a watery mist, it seemed a better option to take the old alpine path that led steeply down to Finiels village.
This tiny hamlet occupied a cheerful setting, snugly nestling in a fold of the rolling hills above the Tarn valley.
Cattle grazed peacefully amid a quiet pastoral landscape. We set off down the hill on a good path to Le Pont Montvert, the fields on either side littered with granite boulders. Le Pont Montvert has an interesting history as the centre of the uprising against the Catholic Church, which rumbled on for decades and spawned the movement whose followers were known as ‘Les Camisards’.
The route to Florac climbs up a cobbled path to an exposed plateau from which there were occasional distant views, although today these were muted in a mire of summer haze. Florac lies beneath a pronounced limestone scarp from which emerge a number of springs that feed into the river Tarn. Situated beneath the scarp to the west and steep wooded uplands to the east, it has a number of promenades lined with plane trees that lead to narrow streets where the old buildings seem within touching distance. Florac’s main feature is the old chateau, which is now the administrative centre of the Cevennes National Park, and the gardens that surround it.
Florac to Cauvet
We knew that the next stage would be a long haul, and on a very misty morning we crossed the valley of the Mimente over an old bridge. Open ground was finally reached above the tiny hamlet of St Julien d’Arpaon. We stopped here at the bridge over the Mimente, discarded heavier clothing, and began the several kilometres of relatively easy walking along the old track bed of the disused Mimente railway.
Some respite was offered at the Gare ge Cassagnas at the head of the old line, along with the entertainment of a long-rehearsed duel between a Jack Russell terrier and a number of cats. Most of the Stevenson trail trekkers tend to spend the night here at the gite, but we were booked in several miles further away at the Chateau Cauvet. After a brief rest we carried on, crossing a stream and beginning another steady climb along forestry plantation tracks. A signpost eventually appeared directing travellers to the Col de la Pierre Plantee, the high point of the following day’s walk. Somewhere en route from here was a small path leading downhill to Cauvet, our overnight destination. It had been over eight hours since we left Florac; it was hot in the late afternoon sun and we were becoming tired. The chateau was a family enterprise bought in the 1980s and converted slowly from a tottering ruin into a refurbished building with distinctive architecture, best described as ‘shabby chic’.
Cauvet to St Etienne Vallee Francaise
It was a steep climb in the morning to rejoin the GR70 at the Col de Pierre Plantee, where a vertical slab of rock or menhir marked not only the saddle but also a significant watershed.
We were heading south and as if to emphasise that fact, the sun came out and it felt very warm as we descended gravelly woodland tracks to the outskirts of St Germain de Calberte.
St Germain itself was a pleasant place, built along a terrace surrounded by more open woodland and pasture. Its church square sported a bar/restaurant, where we could not resist the temptation for omelette and chips. Unfortunately, such indulgence made the restart of the walk something of an effort, but this was compensated by extensive views that had been lacking for so long. Ahead of us rounded wooded hills spread limitlessly to the horizon, with isolated farms occupying cleared patches. The destination was St Etienne Vallee Francaise, where over our evening meal we listened to the rumbling thunder that we hoped would clear for the final day’s walk into St Jean du Gard.
St Etienne Vallee Francaise to St Jean
Hopes were to be dashed. The final day began as our Stevenson Trail trek had begun, in relentless rain. Nevertheless, in full waterproofs there was sense that we could cope with anything the elements could conjure, and the climb to the final col at St Pierre was completed at a good pace. The Col de St Pierre is also a road col; the Corniche des Cevennes running along the crest of the wooded ridge via the D9. It seemed strange to share this brief section with traffic, but from the shelter at the top of the col it was downhill all the way to St Jean du Gard. However, the schists were steep, rocky and slippery, and it was necessary in some sections to slither down cautiously. The path followed the left bank of the river Gardon, which had been the scene of destructive flooding just over a week ago that had cost seven lives. We arrived at St Jean absolutely soaked but elated that we had completed the RLS Trail in just 12 days in often inclement conditions.
Final impressions? The paths along the Stevenson Trail are impeccably waymarked, and the historical and cultural insights are fascinating. The 21st century has not exactly passed the Cevennes by, but its remoteness from the rest of France and its peripheral situation in relation to the rest of Europe must make any attempts to modernise and provide sustainable employment very difficult. Villages and hamlets are widely spread and in most there are signs of dilapidation and the withdrawal of basic services. The abiding impression is that the development and publicity given to the Trail greatly economically benefits many communities along its route in much the same way as the Coast-to-Coast walk in Northern England has revitalised places like Shap.
Even in our dotage, it is good to consider challenges that would stretch people of any age. The motif for this trip reflects Stevenson’s own philosophy that we travel not to go anywhere but simply to go. Carpe Diem!
We flew Easyjet to Lyons and returned via Toulouse.
South of Florac we relied on the two guidebooks. Maps can be obtained from Stanford’s and The Map Shop. References for map coverage via www.ign.fr
The following maps proved useful:
- 1:100,000 series no 156- Le Puy-en-Velay Privas (covers the route as far south as Le Bleymard)
- 1:25,000 series 2739 Mont Lozere Florac
Accommodation was booked in advance via Mac’s Travel, Glasgow.