I used to have a list of ever-increasingly harder, but modest climbs to do. Lead E2 on my 50th, E3 on my 60th etc etc….Looking back I’ve achieved an awful lot and can’t complain – so I’m not going to. I’ve pushed my limited physique to enjoy a few good decades of climbing, first traditionally in Britain and many places abroad and more recently sports climbing in the latest hotspots. My well-documented problem with my left big toe and its associated pain have limited my climbing recently – but I still hobble up to Craigy for a short session. I was surprised therefore to find on my pinboard a list of to-dos – without a single climb. The list had been concocted last year whilst I was recovering from a toe operation and hopeful of some easy rehabilitation and was entirely composed of straightforward walking routes. There must be a link here to my recent post on what motivates me.
As you can see I’ve already ticked off some of the list at the end of last year, most satisfying was the completion of the GR7 through Spain. This route has given me many weeks of superb walking and immersion into Spanish society that I’ll never forget. But onwards I go and now I find myself starting on the GR131, a linear walk recently discovered in the Canary Islands. One has to fit the season to the walk [or vice versa] and now is the optimum walking time out in the Canary Islands.
The other listed walks can wait for suitable times and companions. Maybe I’ll find mine…….
In September 1878 R L Stevenson bought a donkey, Modestine, and walked the 140miles from La Monastier sur Gazelle to St. Jean du Gard. He subsequently wrote his now celebrated book Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes. It is worth reading this as it gives a real feeling for the period and for Stevenson’s quest for adventure. I downloaded it for free on Kindle to read each stage whilst on route. I know the times have changed but the feelings of the walking haven’t much, this area of France is still remote and mainly untouched by high commercial tourism.
The route starts in the volcanic Velay, wanders through the historic Gevaudan, climbs the Lozere mountains and finally explores the endless ranges of the wooded Cevennes. So a great variety of scenery and culture. Each day is certainly different. Originally the route was followed by eccentric English walkers and was never waymarked. But 20 years ago the French took it to heart, waymarked and promoted it and eventually it received a GR number – 70. It is now firmly established and seems mainly used by the French, where are all the patriotic Brits? Donkeys are optional. There are plenty of places to hire them but the few people we met using them were not finding it easy. In retrospect I think it would have been fun for a few days but not the whole trip.
My photos on the trail and posted on my blogs were taken using my mobile so do not really capture the beauty of the villages and countryside.
So the route is not demanding, stages can be shortened, paths generally good, the signing is excellent, accommodation characterful, plentiful and frequent, the scenery brilliant and the bonhomie top class. I highly rate this route and it would be an ideal 1st GR trail for anyone.
Cicerone produce an English language comprehensive guide book and there is an excellent FFRandonnee Topo Guide which gives basic maps so you don’t need to purchase any. There is an excellent website http://chemin-stevenson.org/en/
The usual French gite breakfast of coffee, bread and jam….Our host was busy weeding in his crocus fields when we left to stroll down the road into St. Etienne V F itself. A busy little market village of narrow streets with a chateau above. We did not linger as we have a bus to catch this afternoon although not exactly certain at what time, we keep getting different opinions from everyone we ask. Shortly after the village we cross the river at Martinet and start the climb up through the woods to Col de St. Pierre. Again this is an ancient winding track cut into the bedrock in parts. The rock here is largely composed of Mica sheets and glints brightly as you walk by. As we climbed there were good views back to the St. Etienne valley and over this area of the Cevennes. Of course chestnut trees were everywhere, they are called the bread tree here as the dried fruit was ground for flour. Nowadays they are used in local recipes and sold as confiture which is delicious on toast. We were privileged to watch a red squirrel in these trees. The col itself was on a busy road but soon the rocky path went back into the sunlit woods for a last wild, winding descent through purple heather above yet another tree filled valley. The heat built up and you sensed the Med. getting closer. A steep path through some old houses brought us onto the busy main road. We had to walk along this for a poor couple of kilometres before a path alongside the River Gardon de St. Jean took us into town, passing the beautifully arched old bridge. We arrived at the station just in time to see the busy tourist steam train departing to Anduze. This departure seemed to leave the town empty of people. St. Jean du Gard was the end point of Stevenson’s journey with Modestine and he sold her here before progressing by coach. The village has embraced this history and there are many references to him and his donkey in the streets. There is not a lot more to recommend this village. We caught our bus along with some other hikers finishing the trail. We all agreed that it had been an excellent trek. The 50k bus journey to Nimes only cost a subsidised 1.60 euro. An evening was spent in the narrow lanes of the old part of the city and next morning we were back in Liverpool by 11am.
I shall write an overview of the route in my next post.
Having stayed an extra night in Florac we were able to enjoy another buffet breakfast at the Grand Hotel. H had a near miss with what he thought was a hard boiled egg – he was just about to crack it when I asked him how long he had boiled it for. He had not realised that you boiled your own in the heated container – that raw egg could have been messy.
We wandered across the bridge to catch the same bus as yesterday, stood around awhile until a man approached us and enquired whether we wanted the bus which was about to leave. This time it was white and from a different place – could easily have been stranded, however we were soon back at Cassagnas Gare. The difference is that it is tossing it down today. Now I’m not one for walking too far in the rain when there is no visibility so I suggested we keep to the road up to the Plan de Fontmort for easier walking and the remote possibility of a lift. No sooner than we had made this decision than a friendly carpenter in a van picked us up for the what seemed like an endless three kilometre ride to the Plan. Thank you! The heavy rain stopped on our arrival. Here there is a monument to the protestant bloody resistance against the catholic majority in the 17th century.
Forest tracks passed old gariottes on the way and several standing stones suggesting the antiquity of the route. At the Col de la Pierre Plantee we paused for a snack next to a standing stone. Downhill now to reach the village of St. Germain de Calberte. Here another monument emphasises the local protestant strength. By the wayside is an old military jeep. Most of the village was closed but we found an aging bar terrace with a man serving slow coffee. the sit down was welcome. Other walkers passed us by.
A rather lengthy session in the chestnut forest high above the valley passing renovated holiday homes eventually deposited us onto a valley road. We had booked at Mas Stevenson gite but had no idea where it was. However after a couple of kilometres of road walking a van drew up alongside me and the man asked if we were the Englishmen who were staying at his gite. ‘My old man said follow the van’
The Gite Mas Stevenson turned out to be the best of the trip. An old renovated farmhouse with a modern dining extension and good modern bunk rooms. A party of horse riders shared the accommodation tonight. The couple running the place could not have been friendlier, they cultivated Crocus bulbs for saffron and bees for honey. The wet summer had not been kind to them in either respect. The communal supper served by our hosts with the chatty Cavaliers was a great experience. French beans and beetroot, barbecued chicken and potato Dauphinoise and local cheeses. Perfect.
We couldn’t get any accommodation at the end of this stage but fortunately there was a bus connection. So we booked a second night in Florac, Enjoyed a superb breakfast and caught the 9.30 little blue bus to Cassagnas from where we walked back. From the main road stop we walked down into the valley of Cassagnas old station and set off along the dismantled railway line westwards. This gave us easy walking down what in parts is a dramatic gorge. We marveled at the skill of the engineers responsible for this line. A lot of the time it was cut into the gorge side and there were several tunnels and viaducts. We recognised lots of walkers going the correct way and by the numbers could see why we had failed to get accommodation. We met our friendly French 4 just below a castle high on the hillside. At the end of the railway section where we crossed a road we met up with ‘la voiture rouge’ jolly group picnicking as usual. They generously invited us to share a glass of rose and a snack with them. We stopped ourselves for lunch soon after and felt quite soporific with the sun and wine, I believe we may have nodded off.
Across the road the path climbed unexpectedly into the forest and became a balcony style route. Most of the trees were chestnuts and there was a steady fall of ripe sweet chestnuts around us like grenades. This old path has been found and cleared by the Stevenson Association to provide wonderful walking high above the river. Alongside is evidence of old terracing suggesting an active agricultural past of hard labour. The afternoon disappeared up here and we were glad to eventually start descending into the outskirts of Florac. We approached the town from a different direction and found ourselves in a more attractive old district than yesterday. Our opinion of the place improved as we explored the narrow streets. There were several mill ponds within the town, complete with trout, adding to the attractions.
Tonight the restaurant at the Grand Hotel was open, saving us wandering the streets, and we dined in classic vintage French style. The dining room was busy, background piano music [sadly recorded] set the scene. The waiters were attentive and informative. the menu and wine list extensive, the food brilliant.
All for 24 euros for three courses, of course the local Cevenne wine cost an arm and a leg but was worth it.
After a ‘grim faced’ breakfast in the farmhouse we packed and said good luck to the donkey trio who were going down valley. The two French teams were always away before us. It was a perfect morning as we climbed the few hundred metres back up to the ridge. We arrived at the Col du Sapet, 1080m, and chatted to mushroom gatherers on the road that crosses the path. The rest of the ridge was easy walking in mixed forest.The GR70 does a long descending loop through the forest to arrive above the infant River Tarn, most well known lower down for its gorge and the Millau Bridge. Up here the waters are sparkling and quick flowing through rapids and pools.We passed ‘la voiture rouge’ group having their lavish lunch and then found ourselves a couple of seats at a campsite cafe [closed!] to munch a bit of fruit. Old riverside paths took us to a main road at the junction of the Tarn and the Tarnon rivers, we followed the latter upstream into Florac. Walking in at 2pm when everything is closed gave the impression of a rather grim town, sitting at a cafe with the local alcoholics didn’t improve matters. We booked into the impressive looking Grand Hotel du Parc, a complete contrast to last night’s gite. The elderly lady on reception was from another era as was the hotel itself, think 1940s and Noel Coward. We confused her by changing rooms and then locking ourselves out but she took it all in her professional stride with a smile and a Gallic shrug. At supper time we came down to eat and asked her where the restaurant was, she pointed down a corridor and said take a left. I did and ended up in a lounge, second time she pointed further and I exited a door onto a side street! No sign of their restaurant there. On return she this time accompanied us out of the door and pointed left up the street towards a square with cafes. The reason was that the hotel’s restaurant was closed that night and she was sending us elsewhere. I think she was glad to see the back of us. Eventually we found a pleasant restaurant and enjoyed another good French meal including escargot as a starter.
This morning was almost a rerun of yesterday’s – steep uphill on old paved tracks into the forest. Wild boar hunting was going on and there were lots of people out with their baskets mushrooming. We had decided to split the long section to Florac into two more reasonable days by a slight diversion to a gite d’etape. We therefore had plenty of time to enjoy the surroundings and scenery. The views back down to Pont Montvert as we gained height were sensational. By the time we had reached the top of the first climb at Col de la Planette it was lunch time. We had caught up with the donkey team, two German women and Paprika. They had unsaddled Paprika who was grazing trees and grasses happily whilst they lunched. We had a hands on demonstration of donkey loading and they wandered off up the trail. It all looked idyllic but the girls talked of problems with the, at times, stubborn beast who knew the trail well and had her own ideas of pace and stopping places. We followed leisurely behind up the ridge to the summit of Signal du Bouges, 1421m. It was a glorious day and we lingered to enjoy the views back to yesterday’s route over Mt. Lozere and the views to the south into the Cevennes.
Mt. Lozere range
The ridge led onwards through purple heather. To reach our overnight lodgings we left the ridge halfway and descended steeply to a remote hamlet – Mijavols. On the way down we met the German women clutching onto the reins of the donkey who had been spooked by a dog and set off at a canter – it is difficult to hold onto a donkey!! The gite was a basic barn amongst agricultural buildings. A room downstairs served as a dining area with attached kitchen, the next floor had a dorm and washrooms and above was another six bunked room – all very cosy. The donkey arrived and was put into its own field for the night, the guardians providing grain for it. The two French couples we had met for the last few days turned up and a larger jolly group who were being followed and supplied from ‘la voiture rouge’. We had time to watch the rural life in this remote spot where not much has changed in 50 years or more. Our dinner was served down in the hamlet at the farmer’s humble house. The wife had a rather stern presence but served up a wonderful meal of her own products – Ham, Blette and sausage, omelette, goats cheese and cake. And no one snored in the crowded dormitory! Another glorious day.