AS WE stood looking at the map, it was some consolation that Robert Louis Stevenson had also got himself lost upon leaving Langogne. Three days previously we had left Monastier, a tiny village that clings grimly to the hillside, while pondering the thought that in 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson had set out from Monastier with Modestine, his recalcitrant donkey, on a 12-day walk he later described in Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes.
Since it was published in 1879, the book has never been out of print and Monastier counts the month-long sojourn of Stevenson as its greatest asset, despite possessing a 13th-century abbey. (The chemist shop, which was formerly the inn that Stevenson stayed at, even has a plaque marking the spot where man and beast went forth.) Why Stevenson had liked the place so much was a mystery to us but we decided that, by following in his footsteps, we might better appreciate the cherished book.
For the first two days, our misgivings mounted with the miles. The countryside stayed stubbornly less vivid than Stevenson's prose. Le Bouchet St Nicolas still had a bar-tabac, but the inn whose keeper made Stevenson a goad to aid Modestine's mobility was erased from living memory. Pradelles, we admitted, was a mediaeval gem. Its Museum of Working Horses boasted not only a stable of donkeys but also an animated tableau in which Stevenson and Modestine creakingly trot through papier mache hills.
But our hopes for Langogne were punctured at first glance. Serious searching revealed the odd charming corner but, with its thundering main road lined with more bars per unemployed head than anywhere in France, it felt down- at-heel and grubby. It started raining, and we were ready to leave.
We were soon thoroughly lost, but the sun had started shining and our spirits began to soar.
Southwards stretched a hilly maze, almost unbroken, to the Mediterranean. On the 16 miles from Langogne to Luc we did not meet a soul. Theoretically the route is waymarked by blue paint, but as this remains mostly notional neither the sense of adventure nor the necessity for maps is eliminated.
With its ruined chateau above the River Allier, Luc seemed idyllic but, providentially for literature, Stevenson had not slept well. "Why anyone should desire to visit Luc is more than my much- inventing spirit can suppose. I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." Years later, having sold Modestine, the aspirant writer began a much longer journey to a Samoan grave, aged 44. Robert Louis Stevenson should surely be the travel writer's patron saint.
Seven miles on, buried in dense forest, the Cistercian monastery of Notre Dame des Neiges felt as much a world apart as when Stevenson arrived. Approaching with similar fatigue and trepidation, our welcome was as warm. …