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To get to the hike on the Stevenson Trail in France, I have to go back to Paris – again!
This will be my third time back, actually. I first visited the City of Light in 1979, in the company of a young co-ed named Janine. When she finished a semester abroad in London, we toured Europe via Eurail Pass. (Including two days in Paris.) The second time was in 2021, when I met up with three hiking companions. They were going to hike the full Camino de Santiago, starting from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees. I only hiked as far as Burgos, in Spain, for reasons explained in Countdown to Paris – 2021. (I’d already hiked to Santiago twice, but hadn’t hiked over the Pyrenees. And felt guilty about missing that.)
Next September, 2023, two of those hiking companions* and I will hike the Stevenson Trail, starting in Le Puy-en-Velay, 340 miles southeast of Paris. But first comes Paris. More specifically, first comes the half-hour train ride from De Gaulle airport to the Gare du Nord. As noted in the ’21 post, “I’ll take the RER Train B to the Gare du Nord. (18 Rue de Dunkerque.) Then out the exit past the Starbucks, and take a left and onto Rue la Fayette.” And by the way, in 2021 I had a heck of a time just getting out of the Gare du Nord, up one flight to the streets of Paris. I didn’t see any clear exit signs, but hopefully this time “experience will be the best teacher.”
In 2021 I had a list of things to do in two days on my own, including a visit to Notre-Dame:
But there is one place on the outskirts that I definitely want to visit… As I recently learned, Choisy-le-Roi is where Henry Kissinger conducted secret negotiations … to end the Vietnam war, in 1972. But back in 1979 it was also home to a youth hostel, and on the grounds of that hostel [Janine and I] camped in a little tent, between the Seine and Marne Rivers. With the moonlight shining through the tent flap… (Can you say, “romantic interlude?”)
I didn’t get to see Choisy-le-Roi in 2021, but maybe this time…
Back to the September trip. Early on, getting ready for that hike, I thought of visiting Arles. (In the south of France, of Vincent van Gogh fame?) I checked and saw a Grande Vitesse high-speed train connection for $43.87, from Paris to Arles. (Second class, Senior discount. A first-class ticket is $50.80, as best I can tell. Paris to Arles by Train from € 25.70 | TGV Tickets & Times.) But the trip from Arles to Le Puy-en-Velay cost almost the same, $48.60. And while it’s 471 miles from Paris to Arles, it’s 132 from Arles to Le Puy-en-Velay, where the hike starts. (Go figure.)
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More about that 150-mile, 15-day hike. It follows the trail Stevenson followed for his 1879 book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. The first of five chapters is titled Velay, referring to the township in south-central France where our hike will start. Known these days as Le Puy-en-Velay, it’s famous for its cathedral, a special kind of lentil, and lace-making. It’s also the starting point of the Chemin du Puy, one of many pilgrimage routes of the Santiago de Compostela. And finally, it’s known for its green liqueur “Verveine du Velay,” flavored with verbena. (A liqueur “normally taken after a meal as a digestif, but it can also be used in cocktails.”)
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Another note to get out of the way. This next hike may have been “preordained before the beginning of time.” Or at least strongly foreshadowed by a post I did in February 2015, On donkey travel – and sluts. (A heads up: Stevenson’s word “sluts” had a different meaning in 1879, explained in the notes.) The post started off saying Stevenson’s 1879 book inspired the theme and title of John Steinbeck‘s 1962 travelog, Travels with Charley. (Steinbeck called Stevenson’s 1879 book “One of the single greatest works of English literature.”) But mostly the Sluts post talked about why Stevenson, Steinbeck and other “old people” like us would put ourselves through such ordeals. (Mostly it’s because it “beats playing Bingo at the Senior Center!”)
So anyway, Travels with a Donkey recounted a “12-day, 120-mile solo hiking journey through the sparsely populated and impoverished areas of the Cévennes mountains in south-central France in 1878.” The book itself – considered a pioneering classic of outdoor literature – describes some of Stevenson’s trials and tribulations. (Which seem part and parcel of pioneering: “One of the first people to do something.”) One such trial involved what a pain it was to get the donkey – “Modestine” – to move at anything more than a virtual crawl. (She was, said Wikipedia, “a stubborn, manipulative donkey [Stevenson] could never quite master.”) Incidentally, hikers today can rent a donkey, for something like $1,000, but we chose to forego that option.
Another trial? The whole idea of “camping” – especially while hiking – was totally new:
[Travels with a Donkey] is one of the earliest accounts to present hiking and camping outdoors as a recreational activity. It also tells of commissioning one of the first sleeping bags, large and heavy enough to require a donkey to carry. Stevenson is several times mistaken for a peddler, the usual occupation of someone traveling in his fashion. Some locals are horrified that he would sleep outdoors … because of wolves or robbers.
But here’s a news flash. Wolves and robbers aren’t such a problem any more. (I hope.) Plus, the area is no longer sparsely populated, hikers aren’t seen as strange “peddlers,” and you don’t have to camp outside as Stevenson did. See Walking the GR70 Chemin de Stevenson – I Love Walking In France. Stevenson “could not have imagined that one hundred years later, thousands of walkers would be inspired to follow in his footsteps.” Also, “There are plenty of options for overnight accommodation* on a long-distance walk along the Chemin de Stevenson.”
Getting back to the sluts. In the part, “Upper Gevaudan – A Camp in the Dark,” Stevenson wrote of trying to get to Le Cheylard l’Évêque, “a place on the borders of the forest of Mercoire.” There was no direct route, and it was “two o’clock in the afternoon before I got my journal written up and my knapsack repaired.” Besides – he was told – it would only take an hour and a half to get there. But he got lost, and finally “rejoiced” when he found Sagne-Rousse.
He went on his way “rejoicing in a sure point of departure.” (He knew where he was on the map.) In the meantime it rained and hailed alternately, and the wind kicked up. Two hours later he ended up “tacking through” a bog when he finally found a village and a crowd of locals, including children. But when he moved toward them to ask directions, “children and cattle began to disperse, until only a pair of [12-year-old] girls remained behind.” The local peasants were – he said – “but little disposed to counsel a wayfarer,” and one “old devil simply retired into his house, and barricaded the door.” That left only one source of guidance, but:
As for these two girls, they were a pair of impudent sly sluts, with not a thought but mischief. One put out her tongue at me, the other bade me follow the cows; and they both giggled and jogged each other’s elbows.
So he proceeded on. He finally found another village, but no one answered when he knocked on doors seeking shelter for the night. Finally he had to set up camp in the pitch-black night:
All the other houses in the village were both dark and silent; and though I knocked at here and there a door, my knocking was unanswered. It was a bad business; I gave up Fouzilhac with my curses. The rain had stopped, and the wind, which still kept rising, began to dry my coat and trousers. ‘Very well,’ thought I, ‘water or no water, I must camp.’
So much for being a pioneer. And incidentally, at the end of “Camp in the Dark,” Stevenson brings up “the infamous Beast of Gévaudan,” a man-eating ogre said to prowl the area. (“Gévaudan, 48700 Monts-de-Randon” is 54 miles southeast of Le Puy-en-Velay.)
I definitely need to do more research on that topic before starting the hike, and maybe for my next gearing-up post. But in the meantime, “First comes Paris – Again!”
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The upper image is courtesy of Robert Louis Stevenson Trail – Walking in France. I used it as the lead image for the February 2015 post On donkey travel – and sluts, in my companion blog. I did a follow-up post on the Trail – kind of – in March 2015’s On “I pity the fool!”
Re: “City of Light.” Something I didn’t know, all those lights were installed to prevent widespread murder. “In the 1660s, Paris was Europe’s murder capital. Even senior police and bureaucrats were being found in pools of blood… To prevent Paris’ violent crooks” – and murderers – “from hiding in shadows, the king ordered almost 3,000 street lanterns be erected to light Paris brightly at night, making it the first large European city to have evening illumination and earning it the City of Light title.” From the link, Paris’ Nickname ‘the City of Light’ Has a Gruesome Backstory.
Aside from posts noted elsewhere, the bibliography for this post includes, beginning with my own Countdown to Paris – 2021, from this blog: Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – Wikipedia, GR 70 – Wikipedia, Robert Louis Stevenson Trail GR70 – The Enlightened Traveller, and Stevenson Trail Gr-70 – my 11 days hike through France. See also On donkey travel – and sluts, February 2015, On “I pity the fool,” March 2015, On St. James, Steinbeck, and sluts, from September 2016, and On Saint James the Pilgrim – and “Transfiguration 2021,” from October 2021, all from my companion blog.
Re: Companions. In September 2021, the hiking companions were my brother Tom, his wife Carol, and Carol’s brother Ray. I hiked over the Pyrenees with them, and through Pamplona to Burgos in Spain. The full Camino route they took was the French Way. In September 2022, Tom, Carol and I did a 15-day hike in Italy. See Some highlights – Way of St. Francis 2022.
Re: Plenty of options for overnight accommodation. See the I Love Walking In France post:
There are plenty of options for overnight accommodation on a long-distance walk along the Chemin de Stevenson… The longest section, from Le Pont-de-Montvert to Bédouès-Cocurès, requires a walk of 23.5 kilometres (14.7 miles) or, if you wish to spend the following night in Florac, you will need to cover an additional five kilometres (three miles) of walking. To avoid this, a shortcut along the GR 68 will allow you to reduce the walk by six kilometres.
(Click the link to see the full list of possible places to stay for the night along the Trail.)
For the last part of this post I borrowed extensively from The Annotated ‘Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes’/A Camp in the Dark. Also, Sagne-Rousse is a “hamlet in Lozère, Occitanie … situated nearby to the localities Lou Debarras and Gourgouline.” As to Fouzilhac, see GR®70 Segment 4 : From Langogne to Fouzilhac – AllTrails. From Langogne to Fouzilhac: “Head out on this 7.8-mile point-to-point trail near Langogne, Lozère. Generally considered a moderately challenging route, it takes an average of 3 h 18 min to complete.”
The lower image is courtesy of Paris City Of Love – Image Results. Or Google “paris city of lights.”
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