Ariding holiday used to be my ultimate dream: for 30 horse-mad years, I stared out of car windows and imagined galloping across moors and fields, fast and free. But middle age and a bad fall have done their insidious work and while I still love horses, I can’t shake the feeling they can be too unpredictable to trust. Time to test a more sedate kind of equine holiday: donkey trekking in rural France, walking with, rather than riding on, the donkey.
I’m trying it out in the heart of pilgrim territory, a picturesque section of the Santiago de Compostela trail between Lot and Aveyron, where meandering paths link medieval hill villages. Pilgrims have used Pyrenean donkeys – strong, sure-footed and hardy – as pack animals for centuries, but now families are getting in on the act. A donkey can easily carry a younger child as well as baggage (up to 40kg total).
My teenage sons have never shared my equine dreams. Mainly, they dream of me leaving them alone with a high-speed wireless connection, but I’ve brought them along anyway. My French husband is game, but bemused by the economics of donkey hire: “Wouldn’t it be better to buy a donkey, then at the end of the trek make a nice sausage out of it?”
He’s instructed not to mention this when we reach the Ânes de Monédiès trekking centre. Set in a peaceful Aveyron hamlet, all birdsong and wild flowers, it’s run by Pier Paolo and Victoria Zenoni. Pier Paolo, a Belgian mechanic, fell for the Pyrenean donkey that accompanied him on pilgrimage 20 years ago and now he has 58 of them, with up to 30 out trekking (some as far as Compostela itself, 700 miles away) at a time. We’re introduced to our companion Lulu, a handsome chap who flicks an underwhelmed glance at us then goes back to his hay.
After a meaty DIY barbecue with truffade, the addictive local Cantal cheese and potato concoction and a night in Pier Paolo’s luxurious yurt (vast and cool with a view over a field of heavily pregnant lady donkeys), it’s time to set off. Monédiès offers anything from easy one-day rambles to bespoke three-month pilgrimages, with donkey-friendly accommodation at each stop: we’ve opted for a two-day tour to the Unesco heritage site of Conques. Victoria shows us how to fit Lulu’s pack and saddlebags and gives us directions, then after receiving strict orders not to let him graze until lunchtime, we’re off.
I love walking, but a donkey adds a new dimension. It’s less like horse riding, more like having an enormous, stoic dog to amuse you, but also carry your bags. We sling our miraculously free arms around Lulu’s neck, admire his gigantic ears and squabble over leading technique. His sure hooves pick an unerring path, easily managing the off-piste scrambles caused by navigational hiccups (trails are well marked but somehow we still get lost).
Our accidental detours don’t matter, because the terrain is so spectacular: we cross shaded chestnut groves and climb rocky paths, catching our breath surveying miles of undulating rock and forest. There are freezing streams, hedgerows full of wild strawberries and mint, tiny lizards basking and herds of pretty, doe-eyed cows that follow us, fascinated by Lulu.
It takes five hot hours to reach Conques, a pilgrimage site for a full millennium, clinging dramatically to the hillside. The ancient abbey guesthouse – a cool, simple refuge for pilgrims – is our home for the night and, once Lulu is settled, contentedly grazing in their field, we explore. From the Roman bridge to the soft pink half-timbered houses and the extraordinarily grisly carving of the Last Judgment on the 11th-century Romanesque church, it feels unchanged in centuries, though the boys inevitably manage to find a bar with wifi. We leave them there while we admire the relics of Sainte Foy in their Trump-worthy jewelled and gold reliquary, stolen from Agen in a 9th-century heist by two monks.
After a copious communal dinner at the abbey and a night in a dormitory shared with New Zealand pilgrims and hardy French pensioners, we’re back on the trail. Walking with Lulu, we become the Kardashians of Conques: people exclaim with delight, and rush to take pictures. Everyone wants to know if he’s well-behaved: fresh from my morning struggles to clean his hooves and remove his vast, freakishly strong head from someone’s flowerbed (no one has explained the “no grazing en route” rule to Lulu), I am not sure what to say. He’s strong-willed, funny and obsessed with apples; he’s perfect. By the time we hike back to Monédiès, my husband is converted to the non-sausage benefits of donkeys.
This trip – water, castles, donkey – would be ideal with younger kids, but even my jaded giants enjoy it. The 15-year-old actually says so.
Read more at www.theguardian.com