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For the ultimate French vacation, try hanging with a donkey for the day. How much you enjoy it, though, will be up to the donkey.


So here we are, deep in the most remote part of France’s Normandy countryside, lunching on the terrace of a simple but serious restaurant known for wood-fire cookery. My wife, Nancy, is swooning over the peppery grilled duck breast, and I’m enjoying the locally made country sausage topped with apple compote. The bread is crusty and delicious, the wine a Saumur Champigny rouge from the Loire Valley. Across the lawn, by the neighboring stone church, our donkey is tethered to a rail fence, eating grass.

OK, I agree: This calls for some explanation. Let me back up.

Donkeys have been farm workers in many countries for just about forever, appreciated for their strength, stamina, surefootedness on tough terrain and ease of care. Compared to their cousin the horse, who can be finicky and require costly upkeep, donkeys have fairly steady personalities and do pretty well mainly eating off the fat of the land — or, more precisely, the grass of the land — if you give them a daily bucket or two of water. This is why French farmers have called the donkey “the poor man’s horse.”

But that was before petroleum-powered agricultural machinery became the norm in developed countries and made the donkey, well, redundant. As the second half of the 20th century progressed, donkeys on farms throughout much of Europe were given the pink slip. Even in rural France, where les ânes (donkeys) were once nearly as ubiquitous as les baguettes, things weren’t good in the donkey world.

Enter the marketing and PR whizzes with two ideas: First, let’s make donkeys a trendy pet for French yuppies. Second, let’s build a rent-a-donkey industry for hikers, campers and tourists.

Really.