Riding in the steps of a forlorn lover - In Céventh Heaven - CycleBlaze

Riding in the steps of a forlorn lover

It was already hard upon October before I was ready to set forth... I was determined, if not to camp out, at least to have the means of camping out in my possession; for there is nothing more harassing to an easy mind than the necessity of reaching shelter by dusk, and the hospitality of a village inn is not always to be reckoned...

A tent, above all for a solitary traveller, is troublesome to pitch, and troublesome to strike again; and even on the march it forms a conspicuous feature in your baggage. A sleeping-sack, on the other hand, is always ready - you have only to get into it; it serves a double purpose - a bed by night, a portmanteau by day; and it does not advertise your intention of camping out to every curious passer-by.

This is a huge point. If a camp is not secret, it is but a troubled resting-place; you become a public character; the convivial rustic visits your bedside after an early supper; and you must sleep with one eye open, and be up before the day.

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THE CÉVENNES are something of a secret to people outside France. The classic places to travel are the Loire valley and Provence. The first runs roughly across the middle of the country, from east to west, along a river so calm that it hides its reputation as the greatest source of drowning in France. The other is in the south-east, above the Mediterranean, and heavily populated by English second-homers who read about widespread crickets and mistook the insect for a game played at tedious length on village greens.

Robert Louis Stevenson knew where the Cévennes were because he was a starving author living in France, a man not yet famous for writing Treasure Island and the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was in love with an American woman. And when she went off back to California he realised he needed the money to pursue her and that neither his parents nor his legal training were likely to provide it.

And so he invented a sleeping bag so that he could travel through the wild countryside of central southern France of the late 1800s. The bag, as he says in a complicated way, was a tent by night and a soft suitcase by day. It worked well but only because it was so bulky that he needed a donkey to carry it.

Stevenson set off for 12 days to write a book that would pay the royalties to get him across the Atlantic to Fanny, his girlfriend. It was a commercial venture. The donkey, at first just a beast of burden, turned out to have even more character than the hippie-like Stevenson and it ends up being the master not only of the author but of the tale.

It isn't hard to find references to Stevenson these days. A minor industry has developed in his memory, as I realised as I sipped a grand crème outside a bar which boasted it was an étape officielle on the Stevenson trail and had a sign to prove it.

Times have changed. My donkey was a touring bike. My sleeping bag needed not a beast but a corner of a single pannier. I could flatter myself by staying at campgrounds.

And here I should explain something. We have here in France an organisation called Cyclo-Camping International. There is a big national cycle-touring club as well - the largest in the world, as it happens - but its members are largely those who ride on Sundays and, if they tour, do it from hotel to hotel with their baggage in a van behind them. Cyclo-Camping International on the other hand is an enclave for those who know cycle-touring as we know it.

One of its achievements is a summer of week or two-week rides in which nothing is organised except each night's campground. There is no charge to take part. You ride as many of the daily stages as you wish, join when you like, leave when you want. There is no set route. The campgrounds are just 50km apart, sometimes less, which encourages creative, exploratory riding that discover an area rather than just pass through it.

My plan was to leave from Nîmes, ride north for three days over a collection of cols, and join a group of fellow members at Mende. I would then spend a week in their company before, at the westernmost point of the circuit, riding off home.

And that is how I came to be pushing my bike out of Nîmes station, an hour later after a failed level crossing near Toulouse.

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