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French connections: Trail walking holidays in France’s Massif Central

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Trail walking in France’s Massif Central, Peter Sherwood finds himself following in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson.

 Arriving at the top of the highest point in the Cévennes, Pic de Finiels at 1,699 metres on the historic Robert Louis Stevenson Trail, there is no sign of habitation in any direction. By European standards, France’s Massif Central is a pretty remote region with only 10 people per square kilometre, yet this is a country with a population of 66 million and one of the most visited nations on earth. France would fit into my home country Australia 12 times. 

Isolated. That’s what I love about the place, plus it’s beautifully compact and the people take great care of its landscapes, villages, hamlets and small towns, as if everything is worth preserving. And it is. Compare that to bigger Spain to the south where the entire east coast has been devastated through rampant overbuilding and disdain for the natural world. (A Spanish friend calls it an environmental crime and catastrophe. Having recently driven it south to north, there is not much to disagree with.)

Grande Randonnée

With more than 100,000 kilometres of marked trails, through a stunning variety of landscapes, la belle France offers endless enriching hikes. This extensive network called Grande Randonnée (literally big walks) promises some delightful wandering.

From the first official Grande Randonnée (GR) route, the GR3 that follows the Loire River from source to the sea – about 1,200 kilometres – to thousands of short circular walks for families and majestic mountain treks ranging from ‘strenuous’ to ‘difficult’, France is simply in a league of its own. Many of these nature trails intersect, gifting endless possibilities restricted only by time and inclination.

Among the best are the GR10 from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean through the Pyrenees, and Corsica’s popular north-to-south mountain jaunt, the GR20. The latter, covering 180 rugged kilometres, is considered to be the toughest and most beautiful trail in Europe.

If you’re fit and experienced, the classic Pyrenees hike will take you about 44 days, the GR20 about two weeks. And of course the ultimate French mountain experience, the Alps, also beckons, although the higher trails, like the Pyrenees, are open only in summer. The magical Robert Louis Stevenson Trail (GR70) does not compare in difficulty, but it is a captivating few hundred kilometres that delights at every turn.

Robert Louis Stevenson Trail

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” That phrase was made famous by Robert Louis Stevenson in his first book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, a much-loved account of his 1878-expedition through remote southern France in the company of the small and cantankerous donkey, Modestine.

Stevenson’s phrase created a cliché; a largely misunderstood few lines that continue to inspire many of us to wander the globe, crashing aimlessly into whatever new peak or pasture lies beyond a brighter horizon.

In 1878, Stevenson was 27-years-old and no itinerant pilgrim. The great Scot walked to write about what drove him and whatever captured an imagination yet to show itself with the likes of Treasure Island and Kidnapped. He preferred to walk alone because “you must have your own pace, and neither trot alongside a champion walker, nor mince in time with a girl”. He walked in order to surrender himself “to that fine intoxication that comes from much motion in the open air, that begins in a sort of dazzle and sluggishness in the brain, and ends in a peace that passes comprehension”. 

Moving slowly on foot along the 250-kilometre route that bears his name, not much seems to have changed since Stevenson’s time. Cévennes National Park – over 900 square kilometres of low mountains, rolling hills, rocky peaks and forests – sweeps down to the plains, and it’s the only park in France with farms and villages at its heart. While the habitation is so widely scattered that it often disappears from the horizon, a fascinating picture of traditional French life emerges.

The landscape is dramatic at Gorges du Tarn and, at about the halfway mark, it rises gently up to the rounded hill of Pic de Finiels, the highest point in the Cévennes, where on a clear day the view is uninterrupted to the Mediterranean.

The trail ends at Saint-Jean-duGard from where you can take a 45-minute steam locomotive ride to the picturesque medieval village of Anduze. Nearby, La Bambouseraie de Prafrance, a 34-hectare private botanical garden, specialising in bamboo, provides a fittingly exotic finale to one of Europe’s most exhilarating cultural walks.

Chemin de Saint-Guilhem route

The Cévennes is so captivating, many hikers extend their exploration of the area on the Chemin de SaintGuilhem route. While close by, Chemin de Saint-Guilhem’s aspect is very different. That’s the beauty of hiking here.

For the sake of stark contrast, I’ll start at the finish, spiralling down the long white gravel trail leading through a richly scented forest to Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. On a warm afternoon, the bright path seems a continent removed from the damp chill of L’Aubrac, and reminiscent of the hot, stony mountain paths of the Greek islands, a trick of time and place that makes this trip so surprising, so memorable.

The Chemin de Saint-Guilhem route starts in L’Aubrac, an isolated region in the southern Massif Central. A granite plateau of 1,500 square kilometres at an altitude of 1,200 metres, it’s the highest area of that size in the country. The trail passes through the dramatic canyons of Gorges du Tarn, a sudden surprise after the high plains of L’Aubrac.

As an added attraction, L’Aubrac is said to have the best beef in France. It certainly has the most beautiful cows. As you pass by they wander over voluptuously, all dewy-eyed, with the long, flickering lashes of a 1930’s Hollywood starlet and looking more cuddly than edible.

The landscapes of the Chemin de Saint-Guilhem trail are ever-changing and challenging, and in 12 days you are unlikely to meet more than a handful of other hikers. I believe I could repeat the walk next week and have a very different experience. But then I can say that about every walk I’ve taken in France.

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