A six-day trek in Provence with a donkey
Isabelle leads us through a tiny courtyard and up a beautifully restored medieval staircase to a pretty twin room with a balcony overlooking the church and the street below. After a quick freshen up, we take our seats outside La Sarrasine in Villes-sur-Auzon.
Finally, we’re in Provence, about to embark on a real donkey trekking adventure, something I’ve dreamed of doing ever since I read The Wisdom of Donkeys by Andy Merrifield, although plenty of others have done it too. I’m here with Lula – seasoned traveller, experienced trekker and the perfect companion on this bizarre escapade.
I’m still taking in the gorgeous surroundings when Isabelle places a small glass gently in front of me and tells me it’s Vin de sureau (Elderflower wine) made from local elderberry flowers. Tears fill my eyes. I’ve missed my beloved France. There’s something magical about the way they do things here.
We’re joined by a lovely German couple, Maria and Klaus, who are also here donkey trekking with their 7-year-old son. They’re back for a second time and hiring the same donkey they had last year – Chico.
Le Dîner: Vin de sureau Elderflower Wine 🍅 Salade d’oeuf Egg Salad 🍅 Vin Wine 🍅 Gratin d’agneau Lamb Gratin 🍅 Fromage de chèvre Goat’s cheese 🍅 Fraises Strawberries
We talk non-stop over dinner and Maria gives me some handy donkey trekking tips. Then it’s straight to bed – we’ve got a big day tomorrow.
Le Petit Déjeuner: Café Coffee 🥐 Pain Bread 🥐 Confitures: coing, cerise blanche, fraise Jam: quince, rainier cherry, strawberry 🥐 Jus d’orange Orange juice
We fill up our water bottles with fresh spring water at the fountain, then Eric collects us and we take a short drive to La Petite Ferme.
The farm is a ramshackle collection of goats, rabbits, chickens, geese, horses, ponies, a large cow, two dogs and nine donkeys. It’s an educational farm and Eric makes frequent trips with the animals to schools, nurseries and colleges as well as welcoming visitors to the farm. His son and daughter live and work there too.
He introduces us to Copain, a beautiful grey donkey, 11-12 years old, and takes us through our maps and instructions for the walks. Then we learn how to pack the donkey and the essentials of tying up, hoof care, grooming and feeding.
I’m already having a mild panic. The saddle bags are big and Copain is a large donkey. Being under 5 foot I can hardly lift them. Never mind. We’re off, heading up the path that leads off the farm. Copain pauses briefly and looks back at Eric, who reassures him he won’t be alone.
We’re walking to Monmoiron today, past red sands and ancient ochre quarries. Much of the walk is through pine forests and we stop for lunch in a shady clearing. As instructed, we tie Copain to a tree with a long chain, which gives him room to move around and even have a roll if he wants to.
We take off the pack saddle and dry out the saddle pad in the sun (it gets sweaty). We find trees to lean on and enjoy our picnic before packing up and heading off again.
Le Pique-nique: Couscous aux tomates et oignon Tomato and onion couscous 🍑 Sandwiches 🍑 Fruit
Around two hours later we find ourselves back in exactly the same spot. This is a bit of a blow but we have no choice but to carry on. We then proceed to get lost three or four more times, which causes me to have a bit of a meltdown.
Eventually we find ourselves approaching Monmoiron. We pass the lake where we were hoping to stop for a swim but it’s too late. We need to get to our chambre d’hôte in time for dinner.
Eric pulls up in his van just as we arrive – he’s come to drop off Copain’s hay. It’s nice to see him and I waste no time in telling him proudly what a tough day we’ve had. He assures me it gets easier.
We unpack Copain, put him on the long chain and join the other guests. Lula does a brilliant impression of me having a meltdown, rocking back and forth with my head in my hands, hyperventilating.
Le Dîner: Salade de mozzarella, de tomates et de basilic Mozarella, tomato and basil salad 🍅 Cassrole de porc aux pâtes Pork casserole with pasta 🍅 Mousse au chocolat Chocolate mousse
Le Petit Déjeuner: Café Coffee 🥐 Croissant 🥐 Pain Bread 🥐 Confitures: abricot, cerise Jam: apricot, cherry 🥐 Yaourt Yoghurt 🥐 Jus d’orange, de pomme et de raisin Orange, apple and grape juice 🥐 Jambon fumé Smoked ham 🥐Saucisse Baloney 🥐Emmental
Today we’re climbing up to the church of Notre Dame Des Anges, then down to the quiet village of Blauvac and on to Méthamis.
Copain never brays but he snorts as he’s walking, which I like. I also like feeling his warm breath on my hand as we walk along. Today we fall into a rhythm, clippety-clop, clippety-clop. He stops when he hears a donkey braying in a nearby field. He doesn’t bray back but just stands and listens with a gentle expression on his face.
In the morning we lose our way again among the vineyards, despite asking a local vineyard grower, who claims to own all the surrounding vineyards, for help. I guess we should have had doubts when she asked to see a completely different page of the map. We get back on track and we climb and climb but where’s the church?
Le Pique-nique: Salade de riz, saucisse, oeuf, petits pois Rice salad with frankfurter, egg and petit pois 🍑 Pain Bread 🍑 Fromage Cheese 🍑 Oranges, Bananes Oranges and bananas
Finally, at midday, in the searing heat, I phone Eric in desperation. He’s too busy to come and fetch us and I have no idea where we are anyway so it wouldn’t help. He tells us to keep following the Grande Randonée (marked by red and white lines on the trees).
We keep climbing and although we never do find the church, we somehow end up on the right road. We arrive in Méthamis and begin the seemingly never ending ascent to our destination.
By the time we reach la Gîte des 4 Vents, I’m ready to collapse into the motherly arms of our host Andrée. I expect it’s not the first sweaty hug from a tired and dusty traveller she’s ever received.
We tie Copain to a tree and give him some water. He immediately drinks the whole bucket down. Andrée kindly refills it, this time with the added treat of some bobbing apples. There’s not room for him to go on the long chain this evening. I had imagined that he would have his own little field each night and wouldn’t need to be tied up. Fortunately he doesn’t seem to mind too much.
After a quick swim I join Lula and Andrée and discuss the plan for the rest of the week. With an estimated three hour walk turning into an eight hour walk yesterday and a four hour walk turning into a nine and a half hour walk today, I think we need an intervention.
We keep getting lost and Copain stops constantly. It’s also unusually hot for June, with temperatures reaching 38°C (40-45°C in the sun). Thankfully, when I speak to Eric again, he’s managed to change things around and magically shorten our remaining walks.
We sit down for dinner with Andrée. She’s made all kinds of gorgeous goodies for us including olive tapenade, made with olives, anchovies, green flowers, garlic and olive oil, courgette salad made with lemon, mint, olive oil and the first courgettes from her garden. The tomato sauce is made with basil and tomatoes, also from the garden.
Le Dîner: Tapenade d’olives noires Black olive tapenade 🍅 Patte de cochon sauvage Wild pig paté 🍅 Cerises marinées Pickled cherries 🍅 Salade de courgetts râpée Grated courgette salad 🍅 Lieu noir froid Cold Pollock 🍅 Sauce de tomates froide Cold tomato sauce 🍅 Gratin de legumes chaud Warm vegetable gratin 🍅 Clafoutis aux cerises chaud avec de la glace à la vanille Warm cherry flan with vanilla ice-cream
The church bell rings at 7am, it’s time to give Copain his morning hay. We have to feed him first as it takes him an hour to eat.
Le Petit Déjeuner: Café Coffee 🥐 Pain Bread 🥐 Confitures: abricot, cerise, orange, pomme, pruneaux Jam: apricot, cherry, orange, apple, prune 🥐 Jus d’orange Orange juice
We’re heading back to Villes-sur-Auzon due to the change in plans. It feels even hotter today but we’re in good spirits. We leave Méthamis and climb up stony paths to be greeted with stunning views. There are flashes of bright green as lizards scurry into the undergrowth. We stop for a break and Copain nuzzles Lula. This shows he’s beginning to trust us. It’s a sweet moment that brings a tear to my eye.
Dogs bark wildly at nearly every house we pass. Copain, completely unfazed, just keeps walking. I give him my orange to quench his thirst. He dribbles a lot and seems to enjoy it.
Andrée has prepared frozen bottles of water for us, which keep our water bottles and picnic cool all day. It’s a brilliant idea. Usually, by lunchtime, everything is close to boiling!
The walk is much easier today. In fact, we don’t go wrong once, although Copain keeps lunging at the hedgerows. Bulrushes and thistles are particular favourites.
Perhaps he’s extra hungry after the long walk yesterday but he seems to want to eat everything. One of his tactics is to stop, supposedly to scratch his leg (he does have an itch on one front leg where the flies have got to him) and when I stop to let him, he makes a break for it.
We’re learning to keep one step ahead and anticipate his next move. It’s a bit like looking after a toddler. As soon as you take your eye of the ball, he’s gone again. He constantly wants to stop. Sometimes we let him, sometimes we don’t. We pick our battles.
Le Pique-nique: Salade de pâtes aux tomates, oeuf, olives, maïs sucré Pasta salad with tomatoes, egg, olives and sweetcorn 🍑 Pain Bread 🍑 Emmental 🍑 Pommes, Bananes Apples and Bananas
When we’re climbing, he seems to need quick pauses just to catch his breath and then he carries on without much prompting. He’s a good donkey really. We give him our apples and bananas.
When we arrive in Villes-sur-Auzon, we stop at the café. The owners set up a table for us on the pavement opposite where we can tie Copain to a tree and sit in the shade.
I order a Diablo Menthe (lemonade with mint syrup, an old favourite from childhood holidays in France), Lula orders a café au lait and we feed Copain sugar lumps. Passers-by take photos. I lead Copain to the fountain for a drink, nearly knocking the table over in the process. Having a donkey with you is not always easy!
It’s good to have some down time after the shock of the first two days. Eric comes to take Copain back to the farm for the night but has a job getting him into the trailer. Perhaps he likes us more than we thought.
Later on we take a stroll around the village and, over a nice cold beer, Lula tells me about her adventures survival hiking in Nepal, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. This trip must seem small fry in comparison.
Back at La Sarrasine, Isabelle introduces us to her husband Bertrand and her mother Mireille, who made the Elderflower wine, taught by her mother, who was taught by her mother before that. Flowers, including Elderberry flowers, cherries and nuts grow in abundance here and can be picked freely. She describes how the flowers are dried out to make the wine, which has to rest for 45 days. I manage not to cry this time.
Le Dîner: Vin de sureau et de noix verte Elderflower and green walnut wine 🍅 Salade verte avec lardons Green salad with bacon 🍅 Poulet grillé aux herbes et moutarde Grilled mustard and herb chicken 🍅 Gratin au courgette et pommes de terre Courgette and potato gratin 🍅 Fromage de chèvre Goat’s cheese 🍅 Pêche au vin de sureau Peaches in elderflower wine
Le Petit Déjeuner: Café Coffee 🥐 Pain Bread 🥐 Pain Perdu Lost Bread 🥐 Confitures: cerise, abricot, fraise Jam: cherry, apricot, strawberry 🥐 Jus d’orange Orange juice
This morning, Bertrand serves us le Pain Perdu (Lost Bread), a cake made with milk, eggs, sugar and leftover bread and jam.
After breakfast he takes us back to the farm where we fetch and pack Copain before heading off again. He’s a slow starter this morning. We go up the wrong hill but find a lovely meadow to stop in for lunch.
I’m wearing a fetching combo of a sleeveless t-shirt with two large brown stains on the front, where I’m level with Copain’s nose, and a sawn off nightdress. The nightie got the chop last night as I needed something else to cover my shoulders in the sun. Let’s just say we didn’t have a slide rule so it’s an interesting cut.
Le Pique-nique: Couscous aux tomates et oignon Tomato and onion couscous 🍑 Sandwiches au jambon et salami Ham and salami sandwiches 🍑 Oeufs durs Hard boiled eggs 🍑 Pêches blanches White peaches
It’s Copain’s turn for a meltdown today. He keeps charging into the undergrowth and lodging his head between two trees so we can’t budge him. He stands with his back to us, refusing to move.
At lunch, we unpack him and put him on the long chain. He has a poo and eats plenty of grass which reassures me that nothing is seriously wrong with him. We notice the bags are a bit lopsided – we didn’t do a great job of packing him this morning. After lunch we do much better and I’m rewarded with nuzzles and scratches.
We arrive at Les Mas des Baux and there is Chico!!! Copain has company for the night. They munch their supper together under the trees. I wash my hair and it dries in 5 minutes. Then it’s time for a long swim in the pool. Heaven.
We eat at the busy village restaurant overlooking the vast countryside and pull up a table to eat with our German friends. Klaus orders snails and we all try them. Even veggie Lula is up for it, in fact she has four. At 10 o’clock it starts raining but it only lasts for about a minute.
Le Dîner: Kir (crème de cassis et du vin blanc) Kir (blackcurrant liqueur with white wine) 🍅 Tapenade d’olive verte Green olive tapenade 🍅 Salade composée Mixed salad 🍅 Taglietele à la bolognaise Spaghetti bolognaise 🍅 Glace aux framboises et au citron Raspberry and lemon ice-cream
Le Petit Déjeuner: Café Coffee 🥐 Pain Bread 🥐 Croissant 🥐 Confitures: cerise, abricot, fraise Jam: cherry, apricot, strawberry 🥐 Jus d’orange Orange juice
Today we’re walking to Bédoin, an ancient agricultural village with a bustling main road, full of terrace cafés and shops. There are cyclists everywhere. It’s the annual race to the top of Mont Ventoux on Saturday. Two to three thousand cyclists take part every year and many are already here practising, some going up three or four times a day to get used to the climb and the heat.
We arrive in time for lunch and tie Copain to a tree at the edge of the shady town square. Children from the school come rushing out to stroke him. I run to the chemist to fetch sun block and lotion for my lips, which are sunburnt (I can’t smile or talk properly).
Le Pique-nique: Omelette au fromage et au jambon Ham and cheese omelette 🍑 Salade de pâtes Pasta salad 🍑 Pain Bread 🍑
Whenever we’re approached by someone with a dog not on a lead, it makes me nervous. Donkeys can kill dogs with one kick if they feel threatened. In the afternoon, a collie comes racing out of one of the houses, barking like crazy and running towards us. Lula throws a stone towards it. It doesn’t hit the dog but it makes him back off completely. It’s a trick she learned on her travels.
We arrive at Les Conils chez Madame de Chabassol (Katarina) and, once we’ve tended to Copain and had a rest, we sit down for dinner round a big table outside, once again overlooking magnificent views.
In a strange play-like scenario, we’re joined at various points of the evening by a Belgian man, two French couples, a cyclist from the Netherlands, Katarina, who holds court, and her male assistant, a mysterious figure who barely says a word.
The cyclist disappears before dinner but the wine flows and the conversation is lively. After dinner Lula vanishes, she’s gone to take photos of the sunset – the sky has filled with rolling blankets of pink and orange clouds.
Le Dîner: Vin de cerise, d’orange et de noix Cherry, orange and walnut wine 🍅 Tapenade d’olives vertes et noires Green and black olive tapenade 🍅 Salade verte à l’ail Green salad with garlic dressing 🍅 Jambon Parma et Melon Parma ham and melon 🍅 Saumon rôti à la sauce hollandaise Roasted salmon with hollandaise sauce 🍅 Fromage Cheese 🍅 Fraises Strawberries
Copain has room in the garden to be on the long chain until we go to bed. He has a good forage and a couple of rolls. He almost brays when the gardener comes to say hello, perhaps he recognises him. This is the first and only time we (nearly) hear a single bray from Copain.
At night, we tie his rope so that it reaches the ground. It needs to be long enough for him to lie down (donkeys sleep standing up and lying down) but not so long that he can get tangled up.
I’m covered from head to toe in bites, stings, scratches and heat rash and I’m itching all over – plus it’s too hot to sleep. Copain is right outside my room and during the night I can hear his slow rhythmic munching as he chomps on his hay.
Le Petit Déjeuner: Café Coffee 🥐 Pain Bread 🥐 Croissant 🥐 Confitures: cerise, abricot, fraise Jam: cherry, apricot, strawberry 🥐 Jus d’orange Orange juice
We’re a couple of old pros by now. Leading, packing, we’ve really got the hang of it. In fact, it’s nice to simply walk in silence, enjoying the sound of the birds and plodding along in rhythm with Copain. If I look at him while we’re walking, he seems to be looking at me too, with those big deep donkey eyes that I love.
We pass the lake and this time we have plenty of time for a swim. Le mistral has started, the infamous spring wind that results from air rushing down from the Alps. It can blow continuously for several days, usually until a storm breaks. For now, it’s bringing a welcome breeze.
Le Pique-nique: Sandwiches au jambon et au fromage Ham and cheese sandwiches 🍑 Tomates Tomatoes 🍑 Nectarines
Back at the farm Copain re-joins his herd. After I unpack him he turns his head towards mine and softly nuzzles my face. I’m sure it’s a kiss goodbye. A cherry seller arrives and unloads huge piles of cherries for the donkeys. They’re the ones he can’t sell. I notice that Chico spits out the stones. The others seem to eat the whole thing, stone and all.
Eric won’t be back for a while. He’s out on a visit with the animals but his son is there and makes us a really good cup of coffee. He talks about the farm and life in Provence and then takes us on a mini tour.
The garden is his domain and at the back, past the apricot tree, is le potage, where he grows onions, shallots, tomatoes, green beans, artichokes, lettuces, courgettes, sweetcorn, wheat, lemongrass and strawberries.
Eric pulls up and immediately lets out a rabble of goats and chickens and the large cow from the trailer. The goats run riot and then start on a huge pile of hay that’s meant for the donkeys. Suddenly, the sweet fluffy dog we saw on our first visit comes flying past and, with nothing more than a nod from Eric, herds the goats into their enclosure in about two seconds flat. I’ve never seen anything so fast.
Eric drops us back at La Sarrasine for our last night. My home away from home. We say an emotional goodbye. It’s hard to believe that the week is over, it’s all been a bit surreal.
Le Dîner: Vin de sureau Elderflower wine 🍅 Salade de tomates Tomato salad 🍅 Lasagne 🍅 Fromage de chèvre Goat’s cheese 🍅 Fraises au vin de sureau Strawberries in elderflower wine
After dinner I stand on the balcony for a while to cool down. I want to soak up every last bit of this French paradise. The air, the peach coloured sand stone houses, the blue and green shutters, the fountain, the church, the alleyways. It’s dark and the stars are out.
I get into bed but I’ve got the itches again. The minutes tick by and I can’t sleep. I get up as quietly as possible so as not to wake Lula and step back out onto the balcony. As I look up I have to stifle a gasp.
The stars have multiplied a thousandfold. It’s a swirling sea of sparkling silver, dancing against the black sky in layer upon layer. It grabs me in the pit of my stomach and wrenches me up.
I don’t know what I was expecting from this week. If I was hoping to gain some deep philosophical insight from spending time away from everything in the company of such a thoughtful creature as a donkey, there really hasn’t been time. But France has cast its magic spell on me like never before and as I stand there, trying to take in that vast, shimmering sky, tears are rolling down my face.
Copyright 2017 Amy Swift