3 Men and a Donkey – Notes on hiking Le Stevenson in the Cevennes

I’ve just got back from hiking Le Stevenson with a donkey and thought I’d jot down some notes while they’re still fresh in case it helps anyone else.

What is Le Stevenson?

In September 1870, Robert Louis Stevenson was waiting for his American sweetheart to finalise her divorce and to kill time set off with a donkey to hike through the Cevennes. He later published his notes in Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, which brought him fame and the beginnings of his career.

Le Stevenson, aka the Chemin de Stevenson and the GR70 is a “Grand Randonee” of about 140 miles that tries to follow his route.  It isn’t wholly accurate to the route RLS took (partly because he often got lost, partly because at times a more scenic route as been edited in) but it’s a pretty good likeness and goes through the same villages he mentions.

In terms of ups and downs, as with all these sorts of walks, some days are better than others and terrain is mixed. The below is from the guide that can be found at most tourist informations and in many of the gites and hotels.

When to go/How long does it take

July and August were hot – pushing 30 degrees most days but still manageable thanks to shade and a donkey carrying our things. People in the Cevennes suggested Spring and early Autumn as the best both for temperature and colours.

Unless you’re superfit or wanting to run the whole thing, 14 days is about right for the whole thing. It is topped and tailed by a day’s walk from Le Puy en Velay to Monastier (where RLS actually started) and from St Jean du Gard (where he actually finished) to Ales. These are there simply for logistics as it’s easier to get to Le Puy and Ales than Monastier or St Jean.

We came across a number of folk chunking the walk, either because they didn’t have enough time to do the whole thing in one go or because they were with children. A lot of the villages are tiny, though, so I’d have thought Pradelles, Langogne and Florac are the best bets for chunks.

Costs

For us, donkey hire and half-board accommodation (breakfast & supper included) came in at a little over 1000 euros each for the fortnight. Below are the details of where we stayed – there were 3 of us sharing a room which was good in terms of value, possibly questionable in terms of quality of sleep.

Sandwiches could often (but not always) be bought along the route. We found it better to order packed lunches at the Gites the night before, but be ready to tire of cheese and ham baguettes if you do. There’s a butcher in La Bastide after the monastery who does an amazing deal

Distance Destination Accommodation Cost (Euros) Notes
Prologue Puy En Velay Gîte Bellevue 81 nuit et petit-déjeuner – supper in town
Day 1 19.3km Monastier  Gîte l’Estella 119
Day 2 23.6km Bouchet St Nicolas Gîte L’Arrestadou 142
Day 3 20km Pradelles Gîte Terre d’Accueil 140
Day 4 15.5km l’Herm  Gîte La Tartine de Modestine 118 In a yurt …
Day 5 19km Luc Gîte de la Huchette 137
Day 6 16.5km Notre Dame des Neiges Staying in a Trappist Monastery so“donations” are asked for rather than fees.
Day 7 17km l’Estampe Gite Le Relais de Modestine 170
Day 8 21km Station du Mont Lozère 150 euros
Day 9 14km Pont de Montvert L’Auberge des Cévennes 141
Day 10 23km Cocurès l’Hôtel La lozerette 203 More boutique hotel than gite – amazing wine list
Day 11 24km Cassagnas Relais Stevenson 159
Day 12 21.6km Lébou La Ferme de Patience 149 Our hands down favourite
Day 13 16km St Jean du Gard.

Maps, Books and GPS

Le Stevenson is very clearly marked all the way with red and white signs indicating both where to go and where not.  In general, the website for the Association Sur Le Chemin de Robert Louis Stevenson is very full and complete.

We had a range of books, maps and guides with us. Alan Castle’s book ended up being slightly annoying – lots of “the last time I was here it was better” comments – so we ditched that. The maps we had (details here) were basically a back up if the GPS failed and we didn’t use them once. A combination of the ViewRanger app and this GPS Route for Le Stevenson saw us safely along the way. The only times we went wrong were down to us chatting away and being oblivious to things, not due to unclear directions.

Backpacks, Baggage and Donkeys

Lots of people carried their own kit and quite a few used a service called La Malle Postale , which takes your bags from A to B for a small fee.

Caline, our brilliant companion

We hired a donkey (Caline not Modestine) from Canelle Labaume of Arts and Nature and it was all a lot easier than we initially feared. Essentially the set-up is this:

  • You get an initial training in how to groom the donkey and the do’s and don’ts before you start, how to put on a harness and bags etc.
  • Grooming involves: picking stones out of the donkey’s hooves, brushing her, adding ligament to any nicks and grazes she may have picked up, and pasting on some anti-fly juice.
  • Grooming needs to be done morning and night, before and after the walk. We were told that a lot of families didn’t do this and the donkeys end up either injured or truculent.
  • Donkeys are meant to be fed in the morning and in the evening and given a drink. In practice, we found it impossible to effectively stop Caline from munching what she wanted along the route but it never stopped us for long and was often a welcome breather.
  • Each place we stayed had a field nearby to put Caline in. Donkeys sleep out and usually the food is the foliage and grass in the field. Some gites provide proper food though. Most of the gites owners knew far more about donkeys than any of us ever would so we took their advice.
  • The maximum load for the donkey is 40 kg. We had about 30kg and this had to be balanced evenly in side-sacks. Inners for rucksacks are perfect for putting in these. Plastic bags also work but you might find your clothes end up smelling of turps and donkey for a while after the trip.
  • Caline was far surer footed on many of the paths than we were so while we panicked at first that she wouldn’t be able to make things she was always fine.

Water & Last Words

One final note is water. Ironically, given you are traipsing around Europe’s largest watershed, there is no guarantee of regular water. Many of the villages you pass through are virtually empty and you are in a National Park for a lot of it.  Unlike the Via Francigena or some other Caminos, there are no pilgrim taps. It’s well worth taking more than you think you’ll need. Your donkey can always carry it.

There’s probably a lot I’ve missed out, but the main thing that surprised us was how easy the donkey was and what a good companion she was compared to Modestine. It’s hard work but a great fortnight.