POSTSCRIPT TO STEVENSON
As I ought to have explained as an introduction to the piece, ‘On the Stevenson Trail’ , (part of my first post on 13th October ) was a consequence of the journey that I made in 2005 from Calais to the Pyrenees, much of it on foot. Three or four days south from Le Cheylard, at St-Jean-du-Gard, I was faced with a major decision.
From Saint-Jean-du-Gard, fold after fold of forested hills reached north, east and west as far as the eye could see. To the south, hidden in the haze of the early autumn day, was Bas Languedoc, the narrow plain which with hardly any elevation worth speaking of stretches from Avignon and the Rhône delta to the eastern Pyrenees. Significantly, none of the GR—the designated long-distance footpaths of France, runs from east to west across what is effectively the largest vineyard in the world. Even if walking for walking’s sake had been the sole and sufficient reason for my journey, which it was not, to persist in the grandiose intention of continuing to the Catalonian frontier on foot through country which the Michelin Green Guide describes as “monotonous” would be an undeniable folly. On the other hand, would the alternative be any better? Now, looking west across the magnificent vista of the forested foothills of the Massif Central, I had the answer. As my 1:25,000 maps had suggested, besides much singularly hard going on rocky trails, keeping to GR paths from the valley of the Gardon almost all the way to Carcassonne in the valley of the Aude would be to walk for too many miles among the trees.
Coming up to Colognac was partly a verification of deductions and thus a means of comforting myself, should such comfort become necessary, with the thought that at least I had not taken the easier option without giving the harder a try, and partly a consequence of my having been told that Colognac was as captivating a village as any in the Cevennes. It needed no more than the first three hours on the GR 61 out of Saint-Jean-du-Gard to demonstrate that my reading of the map had in no way been misleading: the very ancient, sinuous mule tracks were narrow, steep, stony and for the most part enclosed by chêne vert —the ubiquitous evergreen oak of Mediterranean France— relieved here and there only by sweet chestnut, the legendary châtaignier of the Cevennes. Even the once well maintained military roads used by the troops of Louis X1V in his excursions against the Protestant Camisards between 1702 and 1704 were closely overgrown. Later, alien pines allowed hardly a fleeting glimpse of the valleys below. Laudable though it might be to rise to the challenge, if the high road to Carcassonne meant a hundred miles or more of this, then, monotonous or not, Lower Languedoc would be bound to have my vote.
It was all of a 10-mile, 7-hour day up to the Col de Briontet and down to Lasalle and up to over 1,800 feet again before Madame Chartreux at the Bar-Tabac in Colognac was opening the shutters of a top floor room on the sort of view that I had seldom seen since morning. The sun had not yet gone, and in the chestnuts across the valley were the first faint colours of autumn. Sheep bells advertised a flock only recently arrived for the winter from the high pastures. There was a delicious scent of wood smoke in the mountain air.
Showered and changed, I slept for almost an hour, then was served the sort of dinner that is required by romantic conceptions of the typical French “inn” but which is as great a rarity as it is a joy. If Anne Chartreux’s home made tarte aux oignons was not the best onion tart that I have ever eaten memory has failed me. If there were ever better vegetables than those which had come fresh from her kitchen garden and were served with the local roast lamb I have never encountered them. Though the goat cheese was made on a nearby farm, I declined it. The crème caramel seemed faultless. The wine of Saint-Hippolyte-du-Fort was as acceptable as it was unpretentious. Where was the deliciously crusty bread from? I asked. “Oh; from the baker next door”.
In Saint-Jean-du-Gard I had spent an hour in the musée des Vallées Cévenoles, which deserves far more of anyone’s time. Here was not merely a collection of interesting objects appropriately displayed, but a simple yet moving evocation of an entire culture, illustrated by the authentic artifacts of a unique and almost vanished way of life. In Colognac I found vestiges of it. Half hidden by briars and nettles was one of the stone-built kilns resembling miniature cottages in which the chestnut harvest was dried. Nearby, another stone shelter in picturesque dilapidation was where silk worms were fed on their staple diet of mulberry leaves. Typically, women and young girls from the villages used to earn a pittance in the silk factories of the valleys, their 12-hour or longer working days starting at four or five o’clock in the morning. Bed and lights out were strictly at 9 pm.
With more time and stamina a man might have followed the GR 6 all the way down the Gorges du Gardon to the Pont du Gard, at the eastern extremity of Lower Lanquedoc. Instead, I took the ever-popular steam train to Anduze, then begged a lift to Alès (where Robert Louis Stevenson had ended his immortal journey with a donkey ) in a 30-year-old Peugeot belonging to a kindly English judge.