In 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson set out on a walking tour of the Cévennes behind Modestine, the donkey that carried his baggage. The one hundred twenty-mile trip was through difficult country, and Modestine proved to be less than agreeable, too. Although Stevenson's adventure lasted only twelve days, his account suggests a much longer journey, with all sorts of backward glances, detours, and retracing of steps, both on the terrain and in spirit. Stevenson's third book, Travels with a Donkey was originally intended as a lighthearted sketch, a companion-piece to his recent Inland Voyage. Although he would not be recognized as a major author until the publication of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, one can see his voice developing. Full of charm and instruction, Travels with a Donkey serves as a guide to alternatives to the restless and distracted standard of contemporary travel.
A donkey is also Robert Louis Stevenson's main companion on his hike through southern France, described in Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes. It is a classic of travel writing, and a beautiful book for lovers of natural history writing. Stevenson chose the preciously beautiful region of the Cévennes for his 12-day journey on foot. The Cévennes is a mountainous region located in the Massif Central in south-central France, covering parts of the départements of Ardèche, Gard, Hérault and Lozère. The ruggedness of the terrain has offered various people a refuge from persecution, most notably the Huguenots in the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth centuries, and Jewish people during the Twentieth century holocaust. Stevenson may have chosen the region as the situation of the Huguenots-Camisards' 1702 rebellion against the Catholic King reminded him of the Jacobite risings in Scotland. The episode is described in the book.
Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes is a lovely and short tale to read. In many places it is humourous, particularly Stevenson's exploits with the donkey, whom he christened "Modestine". There are beautiful descriptions of the landscape, nature and the people he encountered in the best tradition of travel literature, particularly hiking in the south of France.
Although he doesn't explicitly state why he chose this area for his tramp, it becomes clear in the telling that the link to the suppression of protestants in the area in the early 1700s is a key factor. As a Scottish protestant, I would guess that RLS was fed tales of his fellow protestants fighting the good fight against the papists.
However the historical trigger does not really impact on the tone of the short work - which is more along the lines of Thoreau than a polemic.
Read Nov 2015
A donkey is bought at the beginning of the hike and christened Modestine - but the animal turns out to be very obstinate and difficult to manage. Very funny situations with that beast in the remote, mountainous region in southern France.
Stevenson is very good at observations and try to distill some thoughts on traveling, religion and life in general out of the experiences he has.
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 civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.
Some of the highlights is his short stay at a Trappist Monastery - a challenge for him as a Protestant, but he likes the simplicity of life among the monks. And sleeping at an inn in a little room with a married couple. Mostly though he finds the farmers he meet quite inhospitable - and even reluctant to show him the way when he’s lost - at least twice he has to sleep outdoors in a homemade sort of a sleeping bag.
I thought that it would be interesting to learn more about Stevenson.
Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes is an excellent way to meet him. He shares a personal trek through the southern French countryside - the location of a religious clash over 150 years previously. The Camisard rebellion was a violent reaction by French Protestants in protest to the attempts by Louis XIV to put down the Protestants in favor of Catholics. He reflects on the long term results by visiting residents of the rural area.
So why did he do this as a young man?
"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 civilization and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints."
Nearly any younger person could explain this yearning today as long as they are within range of a cell tower.
A short read about a short(ish) hourney - well worth spending some time on.