A Literary Trek Through Southern France

A Hiker crosses the bridge at le Pont de Montvert on the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail in Lozere, France.
A Hiker crosses the bridge at le Pont de Montvert on the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail in Lozere, France.Jon Sparks / Alamy

The Languedoc-Roussillon coastal region of southern France would probably be a household name like Bordeaux or Normandy if it didn’t have a francophone tongue-twister of a name. After all, Languedoc produces more wine than any other French region, gave the world its first taste of blue cheese, invented denim (originally called “de Nîmes” for the town of its birth), and received a quite favorable review from no lesser man than Thomas Jefferson, who called its 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard the finest ruin on earth. There are also water fencing tournaments, Templar Knights’ castles, and rafting trips through the Gorge du Tarn, but the best reason to visit is to purposelessly amble along the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail.

Before pirate tales made Stevenson famous, the sickly Scottish writer was having a bad 1878. His girlfriend, an older American visiting Europe with a grown daughter, left him to return to her husband. His writing career had fizzled out. And his parents were hounding him to return to an abandoned law career in Edinburgh. Instead, Stevenson bought a donkey and headed for the hills.

His resulting work, ‘Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes,’ is a minor travel classic that cuts across much of Languedoc’s finest scenery. It’s less remembered for its comical depictions of local life in Catholic and Protestant villages than an eternal travel creed that bore out of his walk. Despite the pine-tree valleys and ancient cathedrals he hiked past, Stevenson summed up his purpose in almost austere terms: “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake.”

In the ensuing 135 years, “travel not tourism” types have made those words into a mantra. And it is a sensible approach to the GR70, or the “Robert Louis Stevenson Trail,” which turns 20 this year. Loosely following Stevenson’s original 140-mile journey, the trail is busiest in summer. Some hikers opt to forward luggage village to village via the peppy La Malle Postale shuttle service.

The trail, which covers about a week’s worth of groomed trail, requires about seven or eight hours of walking a day between guesthouse-like gites, where a simple room and big French dinners run about €30 to €50 (about $50 to $70). Strolls can become hikes for those who desire to take on the pass at Mont Lozère, but are generally notable only for their almost comical Frenchness – goat bells clang in the hills, wood fires fill the air with the smell of wood fires, and old guys in berets chatting in the courtyard at the center of the village of Cheylard-l-Evêque.

Among the notable spots described in Stevenson’s great book is the “tottering church” in the small town, which welcomes travelers willing to go through the process of finding a local courteous enough to find the village priest, who carries around the old-fashioned keys and offers brief tours. Sly visitors will notice a proliferation of soft-pornographic engravings on the pews their guide has tried vainly tried to rub out (there’s only so much you can do with a penis that large).

The village meant little to Stevenson, who dismissed it as “little worth of all this searching.” Though some villages, like Pont du Montvert or Florac, are so atmospheric, it becomes impossible not to get annoyed with the ‘Treasure Island‘ scribe’s dourness. Then again, Stevenson hadn’t come to Languedoc for the scenery. He just wanted to be left alone.

The great writer’s real search only began when his Cévennes hike was over. He sold his donkey, took a ship to New York, took a train across America, tracked down his “girlfriend” in California, persuaded her to divorce her husband, got married, honeymooned in an abandoned mine, then moved to Samoa. Crediting a restorative stroll through Languedoc-Roussillon with Stevenson’s big second act might be taking things a bit far. On the other hand, maybe not.

More information: The Robert Louis Stevenson trail begins in Le Monastier near Puy-en-Velay and ends in St. Jean-du-Gard – or the other way around – a distance of roughly 125 miles. Hikers should be prepared for a bit of a workout, but nothing extreme.

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