Sur Les Traces de la Bete
Situated in the south-central part of France is the Massif Central, a large elevated region of mountains and plateaus. Though not as famous or as spectacular as the French Alps or the Pyrenees, the area abounds with deep river gorges, high green plateaus, volcanic mountains and dark forests.
The Sur Les Traces de la Bete is a route put together by Adrien Pouchalsac, a local artist and historian. The route traces the steps of an ancient beast, La Bestia, who killed over 100 people between 1764 and 1767. While I may not have been interested in the story at the beginning, I did find that it leant a certain “mystery” to this little known area of France.
The route had all the ingredients to make a great trip: interesting out-of-the-way place, route, food and lodging. It was linked together with existing GR and GRP routes which were not hard to follow and was already broken up into 14 moderate stages with a list of lodging opportunities at the end of each stage. Preparation and booking were easy.
We hiked this trail in April and found ourselves post-holing through snow on parts of the trail due to an unusual spring snowstorm. This didn’t dampen our experience. In fact, we may have enjoyed our evenings that much more since we arrived tired and often cold and wet. Greetings seemed friendlier, rooms seemed cozier, showers seemed hotter and evening meals seemed to be more savored and appreciated. We flat out enjoyed ourselves.
Small grey-stoned villages huddled here and there offering at least one lodging place. There were several very nice hotels along the way, but our favorites were the no-star hotels and the gites. They were full of local flavor, old-fashioned (dated) and cheap. The food was no-nonsense and good. The people were down to earth and hard-working.
The route hits the famous St. Jacques de Compostelle (GR65) on four nights and walks on the 65 for two days. It was fun to experience, but it also made us appreciate the quiet and solitude of “the bete.” While lodging on the Compostelle was good and there was definitely more of it, it was also more expensive and the experience more homogenized- sort of like an assembly line. They were used to having lots of business.
We had the added bonus on this trip of meeting Adrien and his wife, Marlene, who were so excited to have Americans hiking their route.
This is not touristy France. It’s not exotic adventure travel. Lodging is not fancy and food is seldom gourmet. But if you love real countryside, tractors, cows and a true sense of place, this trail is for you.
HOW IT STACKS UP
This is another one of those routes that won’t wow the person wanting to add prestige to their hiking resume. Most people know little of the Massif Central, the Aubrac or the Margeride. The area is steeped in history, but you won’t find famous tourist sites. There are no fancy hotels, resorts or spas. I’m not trying to talk you out of this route, but I am trying to weed out those that wouldn’t appreciate it’s strength which is it’s authenticity. It is not difficult underfoot as tracks are wide and mountains seldom steep. Would I do it again? How about next fall.