Donkey trekking: Donkey hire from Gilles Romand, Rue de l'Entressac, Pradelles (00 33 4 71 00 87 88; www.bourricot.com; e-mail: [email protected]).Other donkey hirers (and places to stay) are in the leaflet "Suivre les traces de R L Stevenson", available from the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail Association
(00 33 4 66 45 86 31; www.chemin-stevenson.org).National Association of Donkey Trekking: www.ane-et-rando.com
Suggested reading “Downhill all the Way” by Hilary Macaskill & Molly Wood Published by Frances Lincoln Limited. The map: “The Stevenson Trail” (GR70)
Getting there. With your vehicle from Hull: P & O Ferries : http://www.ferrycheap.com/routes/Hull/Zeebrugge/POF
The nearest rail hub is at Le Puy-en-Velay, accessible via Paris and Lyon from London Waterloo and Ashford (Rail Europe: 08708 371 371; www.raileurope.co.uk
Robert Louis Stevenson, may have inspired dreams of travel and adventure in the books and films “Treasure Island and Kidnapped” but his first published success was “Travels with a Donkey” This was based on a trek he made through the Cevennes. Modestine, his donkey was there, not to ride, but to carry his baggage. Today the route is well marked and you can follow in their foot and hoof steps.
It’s the sort of thing that fires the imagination so we decided to visit the area on our way to the South of France with a VW Camper-van.
France by the quiet roads is a delight. You slow down and drive into history; for while they erect smart new houses, they don’t seem to bother pulling the old ones down. Some villages, full of charm, appear to have buildings that are supported by the woodworm holding hands.
In the High Loire, where Stevenson arrived in 1878 we drove into the hills, to Le Monastair-s-Gazeille where he bought his donkey, Modestine. Together they put the little town on the tourist map and are celebrated local heroes. Along the trail that they travelled (reluctantly on her part at the start,) you will now find Bed and Breakfast places that cater for both man and beast.
It took them 12 days to cover the 220 kilometers to St Jean du Guard but if you use a car you can visit many of the places recorded in his journal in a much shorter time, (use Michelin map 76.) Along the way you will want to stop to admire breathtaking views. As the small roads climb up the hills you drive above the valleys and seem almost to be flying with the eagles.
Other traffic is likely to be tractors and the yellow post vans. When you walk it can be on a carpet of pine needles or through an abundance of wild flowers.
At the small village of St Martin de Fugères, outside a café that appeared to be the focal point of the community, a dog laying in the sun, raised its head as we approached and gave a soft soprano howl of welcome. We joined him and at sat at a table in the sun to enjoy a fresh warm baguette complete with goat cheese, honey and coffee. It all seemed perfect and it was approaching noon when I commented on the peacefulness of the place. A few seconds later the tranquility was shattered and we became aware that the church directly opposite had in its tower four of the largest bells in the area. The effect was vibrating.
Not everyone follows the trail assisted or encumbered by a donkey and at Goudet a couple with their walking poles crossed the bridge over a fledgling River Loire. High on a rocky pinnacle above them the sun shone through scudding clouds on the ruins of Chateau Beaufort
A few kilometers further on at Le Bouchet-St Nicholas we wandered round ancient lanes and found a large wooden statue of Stevenson and Modestine. The inn where he stayed has long since gone but five minutes up the track there was a hotel with a restaurant at the edge of a beautiful lake. I tried the ‘menu of the day’ which turned out to be rabbit. I enjoyed it; you might say I lapped up my ‘lapin’ in spite of comments about fluffy bunnies from my travelling companion.
But we must hop on. You may, if you wish copy Stevenson efforts and rent a donkey as a companion for your walk. The local tourist office will give you details but from what I can gather, beautiful as Modestine was with her lustrous eyelashes, they can be stubborn creatures and do have minds of their own.
Once you have persuaded them to go in the direction you want, some may do so only at a pace of their own choosing. But don’t take my word for it, you may have a natural affinity with the animals.
I can recommend a visit to this part of the Haut-Loire. For us it made a perfect break in the journey to the Mediterranean. We eventually went about as far south as we could in France to Argeles-Plage and Collioure near the Spanish border. An autumn chill and rain might have been hitting the UK but there in mid September we had 10 days of sunshine and swam in the sea on each of them.
There was definitely an ‘end of season’ air about the place and despite the temperature hitting twenty five to thirty degrees many campsites were closing down.
Those remaining open were well patronized by motor caravanners many of whom determined to stave off the worst of winter by visiting Portugal.
I felt that it was a good time to be there and enjoyed being with the local people in Argeles Village, at the markets and watching folk tales reenacted at a superbly costumed dance festival.
It was colourful, so to were the changing autumn leaves on the trees as we drove back home, tanned and almost ready for winter.