Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Following Stevenson through the Cévennes

A mountain village
In 1878, when Robert Louis Stevenson decided he would travel through the Cévennes, I'm not absolutely sure that he had considered the seasons, the weather or the look of the countryside.  In his book 'Travels with a Donkey' he mentions to his friend, Sir Sidney Colvin (1845-1927), curator, literary and art critic, that 'we are all travellers' through the 'wilderness of this world'.  Later, in writing about his visit to Luc and Cheylard he says that he travels 'not to go anywhere, but to go.'  He admits he 'travels for travel's sake' and to 'feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly.'  So I am left wondering, as I have on every other occasion when I've read his book, why he chose to visit this part of France in September and October, as June, in my view, is one of the best times to be here.

As I cross the Col de la Pierre Plantée I marvel at the myriad shades of green around me.  From the pale green of the grass to the dense, inky, champagne-bottle green of the pines.  And in amongst this verdancy are the sunshine yellow clumps of the mimosa that jewel the landscape along with the grey of the vast boulders that seem to be growing out of the ground.  I'm reliably informed that these vast boulders have a specific name - glacial erratics.  Apparently, millions of years ago when this vast untamed area was being formed, the shifting ice sheets brought with them enormous lumps of rock and, as the ice melted and receded, the rocks remained.  I glance at the map and think, technical name or not, I'm with the French on this one.  If they can have a col named after planted rocks, then so can I!

The colours of the Cévennes

Stevenson was not very complimentary about the tiny village of Luc - my destination for today's blog and I have to disagree with him.  The village sits in the valley of the Allier with an old chateau above on the strategic high point.  The path to reach the ruins is rough and begins at the top of the village.  As I am about to begin the climb I meet a modern 'Stevenson' coming down.  I ask him if his donkey is called 'Modestine'.  He hesitates for a moment, then shakes his head and says 'Mouka'.  And then he is gone.  I would have liked the opportunity to talk further, but it is clear he is a man on a mission and I gain the impression that French is perhaps not his first language.

From the chateau ruins it is possible to begin to understand the wildness of this place and how solitary any existence here is.  I can hear cowbells in the distance as the Aubracs sit in the sunshine, graze and then sit again.  Madame at my campsite told me the other day that the last snowfall this year was on May 1st.  Autumn is cold and often brings the icy winds that herald snow and when the snow arrives so do the cross-country skiers.  And just to give some perspective, the chateau at Luc is about 1000m above sea level.  The Col de la Pierre Plantée is 1263m above sea level and my campsite is more or less the same.  Ben Nevis is just over 1300m in height.  So, Stevenson and me are effectively travelling the highest mountain in Britain.  At this height, the population is sparse, the villages small and the air is clean and sharp.
The Valley of the Allier from the chateau at Luc
At 'aperitif-o'clock', in the quiet of the early evening sunshine, I raise my glass to my book and say, 'Robbie, as old and as trusted a friend you are, you picked the wrong time of year to be here.'  As the breeze dies, the pollen from the trees settles and the scent of the air is heavy with pine and chestnut and wood sap.  'Robbie, you missed the taste and the colour of the Cévennes'.

There's more from RLS and me here

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