Friday, October 01, 2010

From Velay to Cévennes - Variations on Stevenson's Trail and Régordane Way

The Régordane Way

I am just back from a six days southbound hike over the Eastern side of French Massif Central, from Haute Loire to Gard, through Lozère.
Since I started long distance walking in September 2007, this is the first time I have hiked outside Great Britain. One might wonder why.
Well, among the rational motives, I would only mention that, from abroad, is pretty much easier to plan a long distance walk in Britain than in France; in particular, because there are more and better on line resources (I have already explained why I don't hike in Italy).

The special feeling I have with Old England and the unique and unforgettable experience of my first long hike (Norfolk) can definitely be reckoned among the most relevant inspirations.
It might seem incredible but the only European country which I find quite outlandish is the selfsame England!
Apart from the difference of language, I feel quite familiar in France, Belgium, Germany, etc while, in England, it is almost as I lived in a romance or a novel of old. Probably, there are also other inexplicable reasons.
But, I am going astray, back to the matter!


I would have liked to walk the whole Stevenson's Trail (252 km.) or the Régordane Way (240 km.) but I had only one week of vacation available so I made a kind of short melange: some stretches of the above ways mixed with other trails or country lanes or even roads.

The Cathedral of Le Puy

I set out from Le-Puy-en-Velay on Monday, 12 September and walked 19 km. of the GR 430 (GR: grande randonnée i.e. long distance trail) up to Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille in Haute Loire (where I spent the night at the Auberge des Acacias, a small neat and lovely hotel. € 45 en suite b.i.).
In the train from St. Etienne to Le Puy there where a lot of walkers but, probably, most of them were bound to San Iacopo de Compostela: I met very few hikers along my route.
An over-sixty lady takes place in front of me and, as we both carry rucksacks we soon start chatting. She is just retired and she is going to Compostela (1,500 Km.). I feel a tender compassion glancing at her huge and heavy rucksack. She is even wearing sandals, carrying a pair of boots in the rucksack which I reckon to be weighing over 15 Kg.! It is her first long distance walking; I try to give her some advice on the importance to be as light as possible and she says that she will probably ship back home some gear if she realizes to be unessential. I wouldn't seem an ultra-light-backpacking evangelist but, as I read on a French web-site on the topic: "A heavy rucksack is a rucksack crammed with anguish - Freud"

The Loire at Goudet
On Monday, 13 September I walked from Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille to Landos (less than 25 Km.), crossing the Loire at Goudet. I followed the GR 70 (Stevenson's Trail) up to Ussel. Then I got to Landos shortcutting by country roads. Mind you: from Stevenson's booklet A Travel with a Donkey in the Cévennes, we know the places where he went but not the ways he took.
Therefore the official route is a sort of hypothetical reconstruction to which one shouldn't feel obliged to stick too strictly.
So from Ussel I followed the D 491 (D stands for Départementale: numbered local road) where cars passed each quarter of an hour. Eventually, through the D 88 I got to Landos where I stayed at the Gîtes d'étape communal (a sort of youth hostel managed by the town council). For € 12 I had the luxury of a four beds en suite room (with kitchenette) only for me (few people walking in the area in September).
Landos is a small village but there is a nice romanesque church with "comb belfry" (clocher à peigne) typical of the area.

Régordane Gate at Pradelles
On Tuesday, 14 September I set out from Landos and again I took a non canonical route shorter than the Régordane Way. I reached the latter at Les Uffernets and then I sticked to it as far as Langogne (19 Km.). I stopped for a meal at a rather shabby restaurant in Pradelles, a nice though austere mountain stone village. In Langogne I stayed at the "Modest Inn" (the pun should sound familiar to the reader of the mentioned Stevenson's booklet: Modestine being the she donkey who carried the writer's pack). It is a full of books chambre d’hôte (i.e. B&B) run by Philippe, a nice southern Frenchman. I had my breakfast with a couple of French walkers I met again along the route.
Langogne Grain Hall
In Langogne, at last, I could buy a pair of insoles: I had forgotten to insert the original ones in my shoes before leaving home and in the long run it hurt! Actually it went even worse because the insoles I found didn't breathe and I soon got blisters!

Wednesday, 15 September. Cold (8° C.) but beautiful crispy blue sky. Perfect for walking. I climb from Langogne through pastures, then, I walk mainly through forests on the uplands (over 1,000 m.). Soon I leave the Stevenson's Trail and follow the Régordane Way. A short rest, the time to eat some plums and cheese. Suddenly the air and the flora change; I am now on the Mediterranean side; the ground is dry, more similar to Italy.
At Luc castle I met the couple of this morning breakfast. We take photos and we stop for a coffee at the local café. They move on before me: they want to stay at Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, like Stevenson. I walk leisurely directly to La Bastide where, for € 44,00, I take demi-pension (half-board) at Les Genêts, a basic, neat and functional hotel. The today leg has been of about 23 Km.
The hotel is full of middle-aged walkers, probably doing circular hikes in the area. I chat with a Frenchman from Strasbourg who is walking the whole Stevenson's Trail. He carries a rucksack weighing more than 12 Kg.! He seems a bit puzzled when I tell him that mine is no more than 5,5 Kg. water, food and camping gear included.

La Garde-Guérin
Posing with Savoyard Hikers
Thursday, 16 September. After La Bastide, I walk at last, on the true Régordane Way: a trail excavated on the stone with evident cart tracks which the legend (Le Charroi de Nîmes) ascribes to the passage of Guillaume d'Orange, with a cart full of armed men, directed to reconquer Nîmes (see first picture on this post). I stop for a bite at rustic B&B (Albespeyre) where I share the table with two couples from Savoy. It turns up that the men are two brothers of Italian stock. Descendants of old emigrants from the Italian Alps (near Bergamo). We have a nice and friendly chat and we discuss even the present distracted times of Italian politics. I pose with them for a photo. They start before me but I meet them later at La Garde-Guérin, a lovely medieval walled village.
Eventually, I spend the night in a pretty shabby hotel at Villefort, where I arrive exhausted after 22 Km. of walking manly on loose stones tracks. I am so tired and disheartened because of the pain from blisters ache that I am resolved to finish there and get the train to Nîmes the following morning.

The Cévennes
Friday, 17 September. The arnica ointment has done miracles: nearly no more pain from the blisters! So, I decide to continue the hike. But, instead of following the Régordane - which now runs mainly on a valley - I take the GR 68. I climb the steep ascent to the ridge where wonderful views open over the Cévennes. A sea of mountains and forests as the eye can see!
On the ridge the going is easy: always on tracks but for the peak of Le Bousquillou (1,115 m.) where I have some trouble in finding the path among dense brooms and in scrambling a rocky descent. At the end of the scramble I meet three middle-aged ladies bound to Villefort who ask me information about the difficulties of the route.
Eventually, in the late afternoon, after a very strenuous descent on loose stones mule track, I get to Génolhac: the end of my journey.
The leg (c. 25 Km.) has been particularly hard but worthwhile: probably the best of the whole hike.
I find a room at the at Le Commerce (€ 32 w.b.), a basic hotel where I feel back to the fifties.
All the following day I am excrutiated by a violent headache: too much gluten in French breakfasts? Sadly I cannot enjoy the lovely and lively city of Nîmes where I spend the afternoon before going to catch my flight at Lyon Airport.


It is probably wrong to compare but I cannot resist to put down some reflections I made on my journal.
The landscape I saw in this French hike is probably more varied (I am starting with the positive aspects) than the average one I saw during my walks in Britain. The weather is definitely drier! Grocer's shops are easier to find and, generally, they are better-stocked.

On the other end, while British villages are almost always well kept and harmonious, in the French area where I have walked the villages are a bit like in Southern Italy: old splendors mixed with buildings of any shape and style.

There are other aspects similar to Italy. During my hike in France I have never walked a path in a meadow among cattle or flocks nor in any evident private land. In Britain, even let alone the special custom of Scotland, one walks mostly on private land. The right of way seems something impossible in France or Italy. Probably, while in Britain there is a consolidated awareness of the citizen's respect for other's property, in France as in Italy there is a sort of mistrust and jealousy of landowners who, at least in the latter country, tend to obstruct even public footpaths (see the relevant topic on old post).

An other difference I have noted concerns wildlife: I have seen in France very few animals; it is like they were scared by humans. Besides, in some area, there were many hunters.
British dogs are different as well: in Britain I have very seldom heard barking while in France, like in Italy, each time I passed near a house or a farm I was welcome by furious barking. I passed even before a farm from whose open gates got out two big nasty looking dogs advancing towards me with threatening mien. Luckily they stopped in front of my aggressive insults!

Public transport is sparser in France than in England. Trains are equally expensive but, in Britain, one has the resource of a dense network of relatively cheap coaches and buses.
The I.G.N. 1:25 000 maps are fine but, apart of named trails (GR, GRP and PR) there isn't any indication of right of way. Ordnance Survey maps trace in green any right of way, even related to the smallest footpath.

In Britain there is such a wealth of on line information that planning a hike goes on so smoothly!
Let alone National Trail web site, one can find descriptions, maps, leaflets, etc for a huge number of other trails; from a couple of hours stroll to a thousand miles hike.  Let me only mention The Long Distance Walkers Association which, among other things, allows you to find walk through various queries, combining distance, area, etc.
Nothing comparable exists for French trails. Even planning hikes from scratch it is not that easy. Actually, IGN (Institut Géographique National) allows only text search for its 1:25 000 maps (by town or place or grid reference). Sadly, no visual search on scalable maps is available, as at Ordnance Survey. The only tool that might help is ITINERAIRES DE GRANDES RANDONNEES EN FRANCE, a 1:1 000 000 map showing all the long distance trails of France.

I hope I have not been too biased in my comparison. Anyway it has been a wonderful hike!


When I look back to the 8 Kg. gear of my first long distance walk, I can appreciate the progress I have made along the way to ultra light backpacking: on this hike I have carried a rucksack a little bit heavier than 5 Kg. but with camping gear included and the luxury of Stevenson's booklet.
For more details you can look at list below and compare it with that of my first long distance walk.
Let me add here just some comments about the lightening process which results from my experience and that of others as well.
  • Eliminated anything not absolutely indispensable: map case, pedometer, pyjama, shorts, spare glasses, emergency blanket, shirt, dental paste and floss, dried apricots and sesame bars.
  • Reduced the number of items: 1 t-shirt instead than 2; 2 pants instead of 5; 1 ricecakes packet instead than 2; 2 pairs of socks instead than 6.
  • Replaced some articles with less heavier ones: Quechua heavy fleece (551 g.) by Montane Prism 2.0 Jacket (420 g. and windproof extra!); Quechua 40 l. rucksack (1,800 g.) by Jam 2 Golite (51 l. 700 g.); Quechua torch (75 g.) by Photon Micro-Light II LED Keychain Flashlight (9 g.).
  • Replaced two items by one multifunction item: e.g. waterproof jacket and rucksack rain cover by a poncho.
Now, if somebody took pains to calculate the balance between the two configurations he would find more than only 3 kg. The early greater difference, due to the above lightening process, has been reduced by the items I have been obliged to add in order to camp. Beside, the mentioned poncho (wich actually works as a tent as well) now I carry also: tent harness, pole and pegs; metal mug; solid fuel tablets; lighter; mat (which works as rucksack stiffner as well);  sleeping bag; towel; an extra fleece for cold nights camp and, finally, thermometer-compass.

For the sake of details eager backpackers or of anybody else, I conclude this post with the list of gear I have carried during this last hike.

Item Weight per unit Number worn Number in rucksack Total weight worn Total weight in rucksack
Camera 121 1
121 0
Camera battery spare 15
Canteen 29
Cell phone 77 1
77 0
Cell phone battery charger 43
Chocolate bar 106
Cleenex 27 1 1 27 27
Coffee (instant) 2
Cutlery 39
Documents (guides, maps, etc.) 424
1 0 424
Fleece light (Montane) 231
1 0 231
Fleece light Active (Montane) 257 1

Hat 107 1
107 0
Jacket (Montane Prism 2.0) 421
Lighter 10
Mat (Thermarest Z-Lite) 387
Medicine 120
Mug (Tibetan Titanium 450) 75
1 0 75
Notebook 32 1
32 0
Pants 28 1 1 28 28
Pen 11 1
11 0
Poncho-Shelter (Gatewood Cape) 323
1 0 323
Rice cakes 124
1 0 124
Rucksack (Golite Jam 2) 700
1 0 700
Sewing kit 8
1 0 8
Shoes (Inov-8 Roclite 318 GTX) 636 1
Sleeping Bag (W. Mountan. HighLite) 499
1 0 499
Socks 78 1 1 78 78
Solid Fuel (Esbit) 85
1 0 85
T-shirt 134 1 0 134 0
Tent Harness 20
1 0 20
Tent Pegs 10
6 0 60
Tent Pole 55
1 0 55
Thermometer-Compass (Recta Micro) 10 1
10 0
Tooth brush 15
1 0 15
Torch (Photon Micro-Light II) 9 1
9 9
Towel 48
1 0 48
Walking trousers 374 1
374 0
Wallet 143 1
143 0
Water 1 l. 1,000
1 0 1,000
Total (in grams)

1,666 5,286


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Australian Health said...

I do a lot of distance walking and keep lists and weights so was delighted to read your list to compare!

A friend of mine recently did a 450 km walk over two weeks in the Australian outback.

As an aside, his story won him the chance to meet former Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh (as a Johnnie Walker promo).

A condensed version of his meeting with Steve Waugh is at Steve Waugh Video.

Anita said...

Are you going again any time soon? I'm taking my first walking tour middle of August this year and would feel better if I were not going alone! Thanks for the info on the gear. Anita

Anita said...

Are you going again anytime soon? I am taking my first long distance walking tour (in a foreign country) in Mid August and feeling nervous doing it alone... Should be okay, but... thanks for the gear items list.


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