View from the village of Le Poët-Laval over hills and valley. ©B.Julien
The hiking trail, Sur les pas des Huguenots et des Vaudois, started as a project more than twenty-five years ago, and now includes in its itinerary parts of four European countries: France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. It was first conceived in the 1990s by a group of German Huguenot descendants who had returned to the province of their ancestors, the Drôme in France, in search of their Protestant roots. The friendships they formed there, combined with the input of several local historians, led to the creation of the trail’s initial itinerary: this was to start at Le Poët-Laval in the Drôme and progress through the départements of the Isère, Savoie and Haute Savoie towards Switzerland, from where it would go on into Germany, as far as Bad Karlshafen, in the Hesse land. This former spa town had received many seventeenth-century Protestant refugees fleeing persecution, and being the seat of the German Huguenot Society, the project was enthusiastically received. In 2009, Karlshafen was to become the base of the German national association supporting development of the trail. Now, in 2023, plans are afoot for the town’s Huguenot descendants to work with Danish Huguenot colleagues, with a view to expanding the trail into Denmark.
Over the past ten years, seven other départements in south-eastern France have been added to the initial itinerary, notably the Lubéron, where a large number of Waldensians had settled in local villages such as Merindol in the sixteenth century, and the Cévennes, an important centre of Huguenot departure for the countries of the Refuge, but also, one of strong resistance. There, the trail passes by Mialet, where one can visit the recently enlarged Musée du Désert, which bears witness to the struggle of the Huguenots to survive in the Cévennes throughout the years of clandestinity (le Désert, 1685-1787), when their faith had to go underground, and several exiled pastors returned secretly to the region to encourage the efforts of their flocks, at great risk to their lives. Enriched by the addition of these other centres of Huguenot diaspora, in 2022 the French association of 2011 became a federation. With headquarters at Dieulefit in the Drôme, its statutes allow for further expansion, should other areas wish to integrate the trail, and a collegiate governance structure has recently been put in place.
Many of Italy’s Waldensians [Vaudois], named after the itinerant preacher Waldo or Vaudès, and belonging to the proto-Protestant religious group living principally in the Piedmont mountains, were forced to leave their valleys as early as 1655 when Louis XIV incited his cousin, the Duke of Savoy, to persecute them as heretics. Large numbers were slaughtered, and survivors fled over the mountains into the Swiss Confederation, with many eventually choosing exile in Germany. There they worked on the land, often living lives of considerable hardship. Archives documenting the routes they took to go into exile, as well as those for the smaller group of Waldensians who returned to their mountains from Geneva in 1689 (the ‘Glorious Return’), are managed by the Waldensian Cultural Centre Foundation created in 1989 at Torre Pellice, in the Piedmont mountains.
In Switzerland, a foundation supporting the trail emerged in 2009, spearheaded by a group of Huguenot descendants who included the late Simone Saxer, a stalwart member of the Swiss Huguenot Society. With her strong conviction of the need to tell the story of Protestant refugees in the Swiss cantons, Simone sought to raise awareness of the trail among her Anglo-Saxon counterparts in the international Huguenot community by distributing early publicity brochures, translated into English. In 2015, the four national foundations joined together in an international union
Winding its way through several national parks, and taking in some breath-taking scenery, the trail now encompasses 1,800 kilometres over the four countries: France and Italy, which witnessed the flight of the refugees, and Switzerland and Germany, two of the countries which organised their reception within the Grand Refuge, principally from 1680 onwards. On 24 September 2023, the final segment of the route which crosses Switzerland from France, via the canton of Geneva, will be inaugurated. This will take place at Thayngen in the canton of Schaffhausen, on the Swiss-German border, and will officially link the French, Italian and Swiss sections of the trail with that of Germany.
As well as passing close to notable sights of Huguenot memory within nearby cities, towns and villages, the trail presents information through the use of signposts displaying QR codes, whereby a recording can be accessed from the hiker’s mobile phone.
In addition, during the summer season, live events ranging from guided walks, lectures, exhibitions and workshops are offered along the way, transforming a day’s hike into a convivial learning experience. This year, a travelling exhibition organised by the French federation, Prendre Racine: Hommes et Plantes en Exil [Taking root: men and plants in exile], 25 July to 15 October, explores the experience of displacement through the lens of the loss and subsequent re-cultivation in exile of those edible or botanical plants which would previously have constituted the staple diet, or a means of livelihood, for many among the Huguenot population. Intrinsically linked to the refugee experience, much of this agricultural and botanical heritage was informed by the writings of the father of French agronomy, the Huguenot Olivier de Serres, 1539-1619, an important renaissance figure who features large in the exhibition. Le Domaine du Pradel, De Serres’ original agricultural institute in the Vivarais (Ardèche) still functions as a testament to his pioneering farming methods and his experiments in botany, oenology, and sericulture. Lauded by many, De Serres’ stature was recognised by the eminent English agro-economist Arthur Young, who visited Le Pradel in August 1789, leaving behind a personal hommage to his great predecessor. Members of the Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland who participated in an international Huguenot reunion in the region in 2012, had the privilege of spending a day at Le Pradel during their stay.
Within the exhibition, QR codes allow visitors to listen to the escape accounts of individual refugees, such as Jean Armand, who, at the age of twenty, left La Motte-Chalençon in the Dauphiné to travel via Switzerland and Germany to Denmark, where he settled at Fredericia with his wife and children; there he developped tobacco farming, and introduced the potato into the local diet.
Sur les pas des Huguenots et des Vaudois is a learning project on many levels: to walk the escape routes and learn about the hardships faced by the first European refugees over three hundred years ago, and to explore how alienation was eased in some cases through the cultivation in exile of familiar plants and foodstuffs, enhances our perception of refugees in general, and of the Huguenot refugee in particular. Although many were skilled artisans or had trained in the liberal professions, others were gardeners, raw silk producers, farmers, cooks, or butchers deeply rooted in their terroir, who brought a body of specific knowledge to their country of adoption.
In some areas the trail’s infrastructure has revitalised the local economy, largely due to the provision of accommodation for the hikers in the form of gîtes, campsites and boarding houses, and to the arrival of shops, restaurants and cafés which have sprung up on the trail’s periphery. Details of accommodation and other services are listed in the guidebooks available from the various national foundations of the international union supporting the trail, and also within the interactive map detailing the many stages which compose its itinerary. This online information is available in French, German and English, and sometimes also in Italian.
With its human and cultural values well demonstrated, the international trail Sur les pas des Huguenots et des Vaudois received recognition in 2013 as a cultural route of the Council of Europe, an accolade which was reconfirmed in 2017, and again in 2021. Within France, the trail has also been integrated in the list of the Grands Itinéraires Pédestres. With such credentials, it represents a prestigious achievement, and a worthwhile experience for individual hikers as well as larger groups of walkers to engage with.
Sur les pas des Huguenots et des Vaudois: http://www.surlespasdeshuguenots.eu
Exhibition press release: https://www.surlespasdeshuguenots.eu/prendre-racine-dp-bd.pdf
Cultural Routes of the Council of Europe https://www.coe.int/en/web/cultural-routes/home
Olivier de Serres, ‘Le théâtre d’agriculture et mesnage des champs, extraits'. Introductions par Gustave Thibon et Charles Forot, Gravures de Jean Chièze (Aubenas, 1968).
Huguenot Society Blog posts: www.huguenotsociety.org.uk/blog
Karlshafen, A Huguenot town in Germany.
Uckermark, a Huguenot Refuge in Germany.
The Huguenot Society in Denmark.
L’Assemblée du Désert, 1911-2021.
Relief for ‘Poor Protestants’: Public appeals for Refugees before 1685.
Huguenot Gardens and Gardeners at the French Protestant Hospital.