Travel writing is supposed to be about providing a lyrical introduction to a new place or at the very least, showing a destination in a new light with a quirky angle and new things to do. But how do you do that when said destination is the Cévennes - an area so beautiful, so wild and so historic that the world and its wife have waxed poetic about it? And worse still, when the experience you’re writing about has been done before by the luminous likes of Robert Louis Stevenson?
Stevenson’s 1879 Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes was one of the first travel tomes to grab the popular imagination and paved the way for the likes of Paul Theroux, Ryszard Kapuściński and William Darymple. His adventures along a 120-mile route through some of the most beautiful countryside on Earth with only Modestine, an entertainingly cantankerous donkey, for company, make for a wonderful read. So here I am, attempting to follow in some very illustrious footsteps, with an equine adventure of my own. Not for me though, the crotchety charms of a donkey (although you still can if you want to); instead, I was in the Cévennes in pursuit of an altogether more thoroughbred beast: the Arab.
As well as being the scene of Stevenson’s 19th century adventure, the Cévennes is also famous for its purebred Arabian horses, from whose bloodlines have sprung some of history’s most famous steeds. Napoleon adored them and two of his horses, Bijou and Marengo, are believed to have their origins in the area. Whether or not they did, Cévennes Arabians are still prized for their beauty, strength and speed. As a result, the area is also famous for its endurance races, including the 160km de Florac, which starts and ends at the pretty village of Ispagnac and takes in some punishing terrain and spectacular views en route.
I arrived in the run up to the annual horse-fest and found the picturesque little town of Florac buzzing with excitement. Once a bastion of Hugenot resistance, Florac sits in a deep valley with craggy tree-clad mountains rising up on all sides and bathing everything in a fractured emerald light. In the cafes of the central square, talk centred on the throng of horses that would soon clatter through the town’s ancient streets, while breeding and bloodlines were pored over with almost as much fascination as the names on the team sheet for the coming rugby match between France and Japan. In nearby Ispagnac, like Florac, a wonderfully pretty spot crammed with mediaeval stone houses, the buzz was palpable as an outlying field was turned into an equine campsite with snowy white marquees and timber fencing. And up on a plateau overlooking Florac’s valley, breeder Marie-Laurence Rieg was getting ready for the big day.
Slowly making our way up the mountainside from the small town of Barre-des-Cévennes, the road looped back and forth across the plateau taking us past a haven for the endangered Cévennes vulture, and less edifyingly, a site earmarked for fracking operations. Thanks to the efforts of local conservationists and tourist industry, gas processing is (for now at least) on hold but the site’s very presence is enough to remind you why there should be no let up in efforts to preserve the world’s natural wonders. A few miles down the road at the Elevage des Dolines, thoughts of fracking and the destruction of the Cévennes gave way to more pleasant ruminations about exploring them by horse. The Elevage des Dolines is a stud farm dedicated to the local Arabians but when it's not getting ready for the 160km de Florac, it offers visitors the chance to put the horses through their paces in some of the most spectacular scenery that France has to offer. For now, I had to content myself with meeting the horses for a quick cuddle, which in the case of the seriously cute foals, was almost as much fun as going for a gallop.
Back down in Barre-des-Cévennes, we bumped into a pair of latter day Stevensons – this time from Germany – ambling slowly along by the river with a pack donkey in tow. Much like Modestine, it didn’t seem too thrilled to be out and about and dug its heels in with amusing regularity. Perhaps they should have given it a break under a shady tree and come with us to meet Bernard, bee enthusiast and maker of some of the best honey I’ve ever tasted. Like pretty much anywhere you choose to name in France, Lozère is proud of its local specialities, most of which are based on chestnuts. The area is awash with chestnut trees and as a result, everything from biscuits to jam is made with their fruit. Another beneficiary of the trees are the local bees, whose honey has a uniquely nutty flavour courtesy of the region’s gourmet biodiversity. And of all the honey available, Bernard’s is among the best. This, he explained, is because unlike most commercial apiculturalists, his bees live in the same spot all year round so know exactly where to find the sweetest nectar. Whether that bit of archaic lore was true or not, it certainly tasted wonderful to me.
Need to know
Stay: Close to Mende and within striking distance of Florac is Les Dolines de Longviala, a small village of nine Mongolian yurts. Spread out over five hectares, the holiday spot boasts spectacular views of the surrounding area, huge comfy beds and quirky décor. Meals are hearty affairs based on locally grown produce. Prices start at €55 per night (for two), including breakfast. See www.yourtes-gorgesdutarn.fr for more information.
Getting there: Mende is as close as you’ll get to Florac before having to switch to a taxi, horse or two feet for the last few miles. Take the Eurostar to Paris, and head across town to Paris Bercy, where you’ll be able to hop onto a train bound for Clermont Ferrand. Once there, pick up the train to Mende in the heart of the Cévennes. See www.raileurope.co.uk for more information.
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