These are our favourite books about France and walking
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, by Robert Louis Stevenson
The wild Cévennes region of France forms the backdrop for this pioneering travelogue Travels with a Donkey, written by the young Robert Louis Stevenson. Seeking adventure and hoping to make enough money to become a full-time writer, Stevenson embarked on the 200 kilometre, 12-day trek in 1878 and recorded his experiences in this journal. His only companion for the trip was a predictably stubborn donkey called Modestine. As a Scottish Protestant, he was drawn to this part of France because of its history of Protestant uprisings.
Reading this book added to our enjoyment and appreciation of the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail (GR70).
The Generous Earth, by Philip Oyler
Philip Oyler describes his discovery of the Dordogne region of southern central France in the years after World War I. He found a region completely unexploited by commerce or tourism and soon settled there, immersing himself in a way of life that had hardly changed for centuries (and now is no more). Oyler writes of rural husbandry rooted in tradition and a beautiful countryside where the balance of nature had not been ruined by man; of country inns where the fare is abundant, fresh, local, and superbly prepared; and of the great generosity and fierce independence of country people.
A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
At the age of eighteen, in 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor set out on his epic walking journey across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. This first volume covers his trip as far as Hungary.
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book explores a remarkable moment in time. Hitler has just come to power but war is still ahead, as he walks through a Europe soon to be forever changed; through the Lowlands to Middle Europe, to Teutonic and Slav heartlands, through the baroque remains of the Holy Roman Empire, up the Rhine, and down to the Danube.
Three Rivers of France: Dordogne, Lot, Tarn, by Freda White
This book reveals the delights of the south-west, one of our favourite parts of France. Written in 1952, it is particularly interesting to compare the photographs of villages in the early editions of the book with how they look today. The book also contains much information about the region’s wealth of prehistoric remains.
Journey Through Europe, by John Hillaby
In 1969 John Hillaby undertook a long distance walk from the Hook of Holland on the North Sea, via the Alps, to Nice on the Mediterranean. This book was read by Keith in 1973, and was an inspiration for us when we started to think about actually undertaking a long walk in France ourselves.
Clear Waters Rising: A Mountain Walk across Europe, by Nicholas Crane
Alone – though he was just married – and on foot, in 1992 Nicholas Crane embarked on an extraordinary adventure: a seventeen-month journey along the chain of mountains which stretches across Europe from Cape Finisterre to Istanbul. His aim was to explore Europe’s last mountain wilderness and to meet the people who live on the periphery of the modern world.
La Belle France: A Short History, by Alistair Horne
Despite being over 400 pages, La Belle France is a short history of France from the Roman Empire to 1996. Horne shows us a country that has suffered and survived seemingly endless warfare: the Hundred Years’ War, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, the Franco-Prussian War, World Wars I and II and colonial battles in Indochina and Algeria.
Horne discusses of the lives of the peasants, the haute bourgeoisie, the sansculottes of the Revolution and the great philosophers and writers, artists and composers who have helped shape Western thought and culture.
The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb
An historical geography of France from the Revolution to the First World War. As part of his research Graham Robb travelled 20,000 kilometres around France on a bicycle. In the book he recounts the epic journeys of mapmakers, scientists, soldiers, administrators, and intrepid tourists, of itinerant workers, pilgrims, and herdsmen with their millions of migratory domestic animals. He explains how France was explored, charted, and colonised, and how the imperial influence of Paris was gradually extended throughout a kingdom of isolated towns and villages.
The Ancient Paths, by Graham Robb
This book challenges the accepted wisdom that the Gauls, prior to the Roman invasion, were little more than primitive hunters and gatherers. This was the view put forward by the conquering Romans, and the one that is generally held today, but Graham Robb argues persuasively that the Gauls (or Celts) were highly sophisticated and technically advanced. They had schools and universities, good roads and fast telegraph systems, as well as an elaborate philosophy based on a network of grid lines aligned with the rising sun of the solstice. Traces of these grid lines can still be seen today. Reading it was quite a revelation, and it has changed our view of the French countryside.