On the trail of Robert Louis Stevenson: An Irishman’s Diary on the novelist’s journey through southern France

In autumn 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson set off with his donkey, Modestine, through a wilderness region of southern France later immortalised in his book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.

Some 140 years on, the area through which he travelled remains a brooding landscape of craggy rock formations, granite and schist mountains, and has entered part of French mythology.

In its autumnal glory it is a paintbox mixture of gold, yellow and green, alongside chestnut and plane trees, as well as swathes of the French broom known as genet.

Twelve days and many adventures after setting out from Le Monastir-sur-Gazeille, Stevenson arrived exhausted at journey’s end in St-Jean-du-Gard. One of the reasons for his trip was to recover from the return to America of his sweetheart, Fanny Osbourne.


His luggage, which the animal carried, included a leg of lamb, an egg whisk, a six-foot square fur-lined sleeping sack he bought for 65 francs, and some brandy. The memories of the trip with his donkey, known to him as a “diminutive she-ass”, are flourishing.

Le Chemin de Stevenson has become a classic route across the hills and valleys of this part of rural Occitanie. It runs for 220km along the scenic Grande Randonnée (GR70) and is one of the most popular long-distance trails with 6,000 hikers each year. Look around and it's not hard to see why Stevenson imagined himself coming down off his "featherbed of civilisation". "My road lay through one of the most beggarly countries in the world", he wrote. "It was like the worst of the Scottish Highlands, only worse; cold, naked, and ignoble, scant of wood, scant of heather, scant of life. A road and some fences broke the unvarying waste, and the line of the road was marked by upright pillars, to serve in time of snow."

The GR70 has been considerably developed since it was inaugurated in 1994 and was certified in 2015 as a European Cultural Route of the Council of Europe. This year new information signboards “The Way of Stevenson 140 years later” have been installed in different places to commemorate his journey.

At his final stop, St-Jean-du-Gard, a photograph of the writer and his donkey adorns a granite block with a route map. A spectacularly rugged area on the south-eastern ridge of the Massif Central, the Cévennes lies to the north of the French Mediterranean lowland yet few people ever visit it, although it is just a two-hour drive north of Montpellier.

A pastoral landscape, it is redolent of an older France, a mix of steep cliffs, extensive forests and open plateaus where mediaeval villages cling to steep slopes. Walk along cobbled streets or over an ancient hump-backed bridge and the rushing stream at Florac, and you will find it has not changed much since Stevenson’s day.

Stray cats and dogs lurk along back alleyways, lizards scurry up walls at speed, and excitable cicadas dominate the soundscape. While the houses are dressed up with window boxes, there is a shabby-chic feel to them, creating the impression that villagers seem to enjoy living in the past. The landscape has been designated by Unesco on a world heritage list and the RLS Association meets regularly. His name has been commercialised and you do not have to look far to find a plethora of guides, route maps, postcards, sketches and watercolours reflecting both Stevenson and Modestine.

He finished his walk at St-Jean-du-Gard selling his faithful companion for much less then he had paid. The author returned to Britain to write up his notes made during the walk, reworking them into a travel account that has been reprinted many times. His publisher gave him £30 for the book which became a much-read minor classic and was enough to take him to California where he and Fanny were reunited.

He went on to write such best-sellers as Treasure Island and the gothic novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But it is his solo ramble through the south of France which remains enigmatic and was also a quest to help his poor health. The area attracts a mix of Atlantic and Mediterranean weather with heavy downpours and humidity, and the mountains produce a micro-weather pattern, called l'épisode Cévenol. "If the Garden of Eden be anywhere", wrote Stevenson, "it is here in the valley of the Tarn as it goes to Florac. It is precisely here, nestling in these unspoilt natural surroundings, that you will find Florac, the nerve-centre of the Cévennes."

Numerous writers have gone in his footsteps, and these days you can sample an unfiltered and unpasteurised Stevenson craft beer. And as you soak up a toast to the man who made it all possible, you may also drink in an intoxicating mix of the fragrant garrigue countryside accompanied by the overpowering peacefulness of a wild mountain region.