Wednesday, 27 June 2007
Distance 24 km
Duration 4 hours 45 minutes
Ascent 452 m, descent 288 m
Map 59 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
Topoguide (Ref. 700) le Chemin de Stevenson
We had decided not to be too exact in retracing the steps of Robert Louis Stevenson. On the map, the lower part of the trail looked circuitous and in parts very steep – and unlike him, we would be going in the uphill direction.
Our plan was to borrow the road and reconnect with the GR half-way to Saint-Germaine. We reasoned that RLS would have taken the normal way used by the local population at the time, and the fact that this line now consisted of a small road did not alter the case. We were with him in spirit, we felt.
That having been decided, we had chosen a camping ground (les Sources) a little way out of town in that direction. It also happened to be the closest one, although it was a bit of a climb to get there. From here we had a flying start on our way into the mountains.
After the first ascent, the road followed the upper reaches of the Gardon de Mialet, and apart from the occasional council truck or local car, we had the road to ourselves.
Through the trees we caught glimpses of the twisting river below and the rugged skyline above. We rose steadily and presently crossed from the department of Gard into Lozère.
Roadside signs appeared, instructing travellers to throw no more rubbish out of their cars, the implication being “You’re not in Gard now!”
After a couple of hours of walking, the GR came in from the left and joined us, and not long afterwards we arrived at the village of Saint-Étienne-Vallée-Française, set in a small flat clearing.
The biggest thing about it was its name, but to our great relief it did have a bar, as well as a boulangerie and a tiny supermarket.
Laden with fresh bread and a bag of pastries, as well as tinned fish and powdered milk for later, we sat down at the dilapidated bar terrace for our very welcome first coffee of the day.
We had to put our jackets on, as we were now quite high in the mountains.
For the rest of the ascent to Saint-Germain-de-Calberte the GR stayed close to the road and the river, as there was no reasonable alternative in such precipitous terrain.
Like the previous village, this one looked charming from a distance but was less so up close.
The Protestant church and most of the houses were stuccoed and there were a few shops and a boarded-up bar in the main street. Fortunately, there was another establishment just opposite, and this proved to be the heart of the village.
It supplied rooms, dinner and breakfast for the many walkers passing through on the Way of Stevenson. It could even accommodate donkeys at a pinch.
We had coffee and looked at the paper, in which we discovered that the rest of France had been drenched in rain, while we had only had cloud. Several other walkers arrived as we were leaving.
In the main street stood the tiny Catholic church, described by Robert Louis as “a thimbleful of Rome in such a wild and contrary neighbourhood”. At the time of the Camisard uprisings, only 9 out of the 275 families in the district were Catholic, and for all we knew the ratio was still the same.
The camping ground was a kilometre and a half away, which did not sound bad, but it meant a long, drastic drop down a side road. Walking on the road and the GR during the day, which largely followed the contours, had made us forget how steep the Cévennes really were.
By the time we got to the camping ground, we wished we had booked into the rooms in the village. We were still nowhere near river level and the tent sites were terraced into the steep hillside. Only a few of them were occupied.
Our hosts were a short, dark man, who gave us a friendly welcome, and a big blonde dog, who did not. It was cold in the shadow of the mountains, but the showers were hot and the surroundings were beautiful.
At 6:30 we made the long climb back to the village for dinner, in the company of a British cyclist, who was on his way to buy ingredients for dinner, leaving his exhausted girlfriend at the camping ground. He politely pedalled at our pace. They were on a three-day excursion from their base in Anduze.
At the shop, we also made some purchases, extra lunch food to get us through the long stretch to Florac tomorrow.
We arrived at the bar and stepped inside for a glass of rosé before dinner. The room soon filled with other hearty types, all French except for a Scottish couple. They were all walking the Stevenson trail in the correct direction (the opposite of our way) and staying at the rooms.
Dinner was a typical gîte meal, with plain fare and no choice. We had salad to start with, then steamed fish with pasta, and finally tinned fruit salad or cheese. With a lot of fresh bread and a jug of wine it was very pleasant.
All our fellow walkers had come from Cassagnas that day, and strongly recommended that we stop there, rather than trying to press on to Florac.
That night we wore every garment we possessed inside our sleeping bags and were barely warm enough to sleep.