The Robert Louis Stevenson Trail in South Central France

April 15th - May 1, 2016

Text by Tristan MacDonald and Photographs by Tristan MacDonald and others

(Note: each of the pictures on this page may be clicked on, to get a larger view of the picture.)

Our group of five walkers and one driver, all from St. Augustine, Florida, was comprised of Tristan MacDonald, Wilf Cameron, Bob and Ann Sullivan, Stefan Schnotalla, and Tassie Cameron, the driver and artist. We headed for Paris by way of Atlanta on the 15th of April, arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport the next morning.

After clearing customs and immigration, we headed for the train station in the airport. As we were descending an escalator to the platform, I heard a loud noise behind me. Turning, I saw a large black suitcase picking up speed and heading straight for my legs. This was closely followed by another of similar size. With my left leg, recently operated on, I managed to divert the first case with only marginal impact. Already being off balance, I prepared for the impact of the second suitcase, and it hit the calf muscle of my right leg, throwing me to the ground mixed up with luggage and others at the bottom of the escalator. The lady responsible for the avalanche of luggage followed somewhat more slowly, and was full of apologies in French.

The station staff gathered around, and I was put back on my feet, shaken and bleeding from the right leg. The station staff were quick to insist that I should be taken to a hospital, and I was equally insistent that I wasn't going. We hopped onto the train for Lyon just in time for its departure.

On arrival in Lyon, the car that Wilf had hired was unavailable, and the replacement too small to accomodate six people and our luggage. The solution was for Stefan and I to catch the next train for Le Puy en Velay, where we were to spend two nights before starting our walk on the 18th of April.

The day of recovery was used looking around this very ancient town, where all the routes for the Camino de Santiago converge to the massive cathedral. I was somewhat restricted by my injuries of the day before, but with the use of hiking poles, saw nearly everything, and visited the giant Madonna which looks down on the city from the Puy, or volcanic hill, upon which it stands.

Our first day of hiking, and several days thereafter, dawned bright and sunny, but cold, with the temperatures in the 30's. We were picked up by a shuttle van that took us to a most unpromising village of St. Martin de Fugeres. Here, after realizing that this was the first step of nearly 150 miles of walking in eleven days, we set out along the trail that Stevenson had trod in 1878, along with his donkey named Modestine.

St. Martin de Fugeres

The first day was a short walk of only 9.5 miles through undulating fields and hedges, which make up the approach to the Cevennes Mountains. After a little trouble we found our place of rest for the night — the owners did not feel it necesary to put up a sign — so we passed it twice before being directed by an old Frenchman sitting on a bench with his cronies. A great dinner was served at 7:30 PM, and we all went to bed happy and tired.

After breakfast at 7:30 AM we started out on a 13 mile stage toward Langogne and the Hotel DeL'Arche. The only problem was the hotel was not situated there — it was located in the previous village of Pradelle. Here is where Tassie and the car came into their own — we all piled in and drove back to the hotel that we had walked past earlier.

The weather was holding well and in fact we had no more than a few drops of rain in the whole trip, but cold starts in the mornings. The next stage to Cheylard L'Eveque was once more in excess of 13 miles. After buying lunch materials in Langogne, we set out from a little park with a metal silhouette of a donkey, and headed into ever increasing hilly country. We passed through many villages in the valleys, with their ever-present war memorials attesting to the depopulation of the area, first by two world wars, and then the lack of opportunity offered to the young. This was a particularly pleasant stop as Monsieur Ferreres had taken an old building and completely renovated it as a small hotel, with touches that spoke of the labor and money that had been spent.

On again the following morning for a 17.2 mile tramp through increasingly mountainous scenery. Cheyard L'Eveque actually boasted a bread shop and grocery, where we bought supplies for our daily lunch picnics. These comprised of sausage, cheese, fruit, and bread, of which we never tired. Each day started cold and always windy, with temperatures in the low 30's, but as the sun came out, the temperatures went up, and all that was left was the wind. Our next stop in Chasserades was a real treat. The village is built on a hill, on the top of which was an 11th century church of a wonderful construction and detail. I still haven't worked out how they were able to make those small stone arches stay in place for over 900 years. Today's walk was accompanied by plenty of wind and a shower or two, not enough to get you wet or even put on wet weather gear. Our stay was accompanied by a great dinner in a very busy restaurant.

L-R: Stefan, Bob, Tassie, Ann, Tristan, Wilf

To Le Bleymard the following day was only 11.6 miles, towards the highest point of our walk, Mont Lozere, the weather remained very windy. As we set out little did we know that this would be the day that didn't work. We left the hotel at 8:30 AM as usual. Wilf, Stefan, and Bob paused at a bridge at the exit from the village. Ann and I walked on into the outskirts, with Ann stopping for a wardrobe adjustment for a few minutes. I followed the trail to the south and up the inevitable hill leading to the top of Mont Lozere. I kept going, with the certainty that the rest of the team were following. The others took a left, and circumvented the village, collecting Ann on their way. They arrived back at the starting point, i.e., the hotel. Tassie had still not left in the car, so it was decided by all but Wilf to take the car option, and meet in the next village. Wilf by this time was at least 2 hours behind, and unlikely to catch up.

I pressed on up the interminable hill, to the ski resort at just over 5000 feet, where I noted the anemometer on the resort was recording a steady 100+ kilometers per hour — over 60 miles per hour — of wind. After getting a little lost leaving the ski area, I found the trail which was marked by large granite monoliths, and I was marching across the frozen landscape. In an increasing wind and temperature well below freezing, I managed to reach the top. Not pausing for more than a few moments to take a photo of the frozen landscape, I headed down to the village of Finiels, where I met Jacqueline, who had stopped her car to give me directions a few hours before at the ski resort. Jacqueline and Mario had restored this beautiful old farmhouse into a really delightful chambres d'hote. We enjoyed their company and that of four other travellers over a home-prepared dinner with homemade wines to accompany it.

Next morning, the 17 mile walk to Florac was begun, with slightly better weather and the resolve to stay more together. The resolve was met, and apart from a light shower or two, we met with no incidents. The trail and scenery had changed markedly, as we walked through vast beech forests, with the ever-present chestnut trees lining the sides of the old cart tracks on which we were walking.

On our descent into Florac we met up with Stefan, who suffering with a cold had taken a ride with Tassie. He then hiked up to meet us some 3 kilometers from our destination. The last 1.5 kilometers down the trail, which was medieval in origin, was one of the steepest and rockiest I had ever encountered. Florac was a rather bigger town than most others, and had many beautiful features. Water in the form of streams and rivers were all over the town. Like all water in the region, it was crystal clear like glass, and fish were clearly visable in all the streams. Florac being the capitol of the region has a lovely chateau in the heart of the town. This has been converted to offices for the Cevennes National Park.

Leaving Florac, everybody felt good about the next day, marked on the itinerary as just 14 miles. Our village of destination was reached, and obviously no Chateau Cauvel anywhere in sight, so we climbed up yet another 2 miles or so, and were deeply concerned after reaching the top to see no indication of its whereabouts. Wilf having cell service gave the Chateau a call in mixed French and English, established that if we were to take the path which looked little more than a game trail, we would arrive at the Chateau where we were to spend the night. Sure enough, after a steep descent of 3/4 mile the Chateau appeared, and was a picture-book French Chateau castle from the 13th century.

Everything was perfect here, including the dinner shared by a multi-lingual family, with two children. Their dad is an interpreter and English, mum is a psychiatrist and French. What a family! The dad was working, so we were unable to meet him.

On to the next Chateau the follwing morning, leaving the most pleasant of stops at the usual 8:30 AM. We climbed a precipitous path blazed by pink paint to regain the Stevenson trail on our way to St. Etienne Vallee Francaise. This was a 14 mile walk in beautiful weather, and we arrived at this 14th century chateau to find Tassie relaxing in the garden, but as always very busy with her sketch book. Our rooms were huge and cold, as the heating had been turned off because it was April. It made no difference, as we had the best night's sleep of the trip.

With only 8 miles to go, we relaxed the following morning, stopping for a wonderful picnic lunch in an apple orchard just outside of St. Jean du Gard. The trip was over for us, and with 366,000 steps as measured by my Fitbit, and just under 2,000 floors climbed, we owed ourselves a great meal, which we had at L'Oronge Restaurant just down the street from our hotel.

The following morning goodbyes were said, as Stefan and I went off to start our journey home. The remainder of the party had another week of car travel in the south of France.

If you found the account of this trip interesting, you might wish to find other accounts of travels by one or more members of this group and others HERE.

© 2016 by Tristan MacDonald

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