France on Friday
Book:Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson (Published 1879. I read the centennial edition from my library, which I cannot find on line)
A Scot in France
“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake.”
This is where most people stop in quoting Stevenson, with a comfortable thought, but they should go all the way.
“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied with our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future?”
And it is with this thought in mind that Robert Louis Stevenson, then 28 years old, set out on a trek in a little-traveled part of France. Travels With A Donkey appears on many best travel literature lists, and my readers have recommended it, so I plunged in–and loved it.
Ordering books from the public library can be pot luck. But sometimes you get lucky. And with Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, I hit the jackpot.
My library, bless the Tucson-Pima Public Library, coughed up a lavishly illustrated edition of Travels With a Donkey (1978) published on the centennial of Stevenson’s trip through this out-of-the-way corner of France.
An introduction by Robin Neillands, a prolific Scottish travel and history writer as well as a long-distance walker, adds greatly to the book. He recounts a re-creation (albeit sans donkey) on the centennial of Stevenson’s trek.
Although he became known for the mystery Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the adventure stories of Kidnapped and Treasure Island, Stevenson’s first love was visiting exotic places and writing about them. At the time of this trip, Stevenson had been living in France for some time and so knew the language. He was waiting for his beloved to travel to America and divorce her husband so they could be married.
I mention this romance, because it poignantly surfaces a few times in the book, like when he hears a woman singing on a far hillside and imagines it is a love song. He could join in, he thinks, and sing of:
“How the world gives and takes away, and brings sweethearts near only to separate them again into distant and strange lands…”
He travels some 125 miles total, over some steep mountains, in twelve days. The trip would have been shorter, except that he stopped for some days at the monastery, Our Lady of the Snows. His companion, the donkey Modestine, loves him and he persuades himself that he hates her until, at the end of the trip, he sells her and sheds a few tears.
He describes the landscapes–some austere and some lush farmlands–with a seemingly endless flow of fresh images. Toward the end of the trip he becomes increasingly philosophical, particularly about religious matters. He is steeped in French history, and this area was wracked by wars between the dominant Catholics and the Protestants in the late 18th century.
The book is magnificent, and one which I will be buying to add to my own travel library. What a travel companion Stevenson makes!
See some pictures of the country side at the Walkopedia magazine site. For more information on the Robert Louis Stevenson trail in France, (in French with English language downloads available), www.gr70-stevenson.com lists guest houses and other information. All of the photographs here come from Flikr and are licensed under Creative Commons.