Unlikely as it may sound, both schemes worked. Today, many Parisians escape to their country home and their âne, which they see not as an unemployed beast of burden but as a symbol of a valued bucolic past. And if French donkeys no longer haul heavy milk cans or who knows what for the guy who waters them, then they spend summers lugging camping gear or small children for vacationers who pay by the day to walk in their company along rural lanes.

If You Go

Rent
Donkey rentals are available in most rural parts of France. For information on Vivi’Âne, the rental place that Viviane Bidaut runs in the Normandy countryside of Gavray, see www.vivi-ane.fr. For donkey rentals elsewhere in the country, La Fédération Nationale Ânes et Randonnées (National Federation of Donkey Trekkers) lists its nearly 60 member agencies on the English-language version of its website: http://preproden.ane-et-rando.com.

Some 140 donkey renters can be found at www.bourricot.com — select “Les Professionels de l’âne” to view a clickable map of France. There’s also a brief English-language overview of donkey trekking at www.hikingwithdonkey.com.

Eat
Le Krill in La Baleine serves lunch and dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays from May through September, Wednesdays through Saturdays the rest of the year and Sunday lunch year-round. Visit them at 50450 Le Bourg, La Baleine. Reservations can be made by calling 011-33-233-51-39-42 or by emailing lekrill.labaleine@live.fr.



That last part is where I come in. We don’t own a French country home to accessorize with our very own donkey, but we do spend time each year in Normandy, where I knew donkey rentals were available. I took to the Internet and read repeatedly that country walking with a donkey is a surefire antidote for what the French cleverly call “le stress.” Donkeys walk slowly, I read, forcing you to take in your surroundings in a way that can’t be matched when hurtling through the countryside in a car or even on a bicycle.

Because my usual walking pace is somewhere between rushing to a meeting and avoiding a mugger, I thought a forced slowdown sounded inviting; I was sold. Nancy was sold when I found a convenient donkey renter just a short ramble from a terrific-sounding restaurant. My research suggested that occasionally a donkey will follow the cartoon stereotype and refuse to move. I pictured our long-eared hire sitting stubbornly on his haunches, scraping his backside on the dusty road as I pulled on his lead while cursing. I figured if that happened, I could handle it. But that’s not what happened.

It’s a pleasant, warm day when we pull up at a farm in Gavray and meet Viviane Bidaut, who fled the Paris rat race after 15 years managing apartment buildings and took to the countryside to feed her lifelong passion for animals. “That Parisian life!” she moans. “Working until midnight, the métro always crowded, always broken down … .” Now she lives — and earns her living — surrounded by chickens, ducks, turkeys, goats, sheep, dogs, cats, five horses and four donkeys. “Here I have cares, maybe some worries,” she says, “but never stress like in Paris.”

Viviane introduces our trekking companion — a 15-year-old named Kaïd — heaves a pair of packs over his back so he can relieve us of our effects, shows us how to hold the braided lead and instructs: Keep the weight evenly distributed, be careful around dogs, don’t let him eat roadside flowers. If he spooks and decides to take off on his own, she warns, drop the lead and let him go. “He’s a big one,” she says. “He probably weighs 400 kilos. If he doesn’t want to be controlled, there’s nothing you can do. He’ll find his way home.”

She teaches us the three necessary commands: “Marche!” (“Giddyap!”), “Holà!” (“Whoa!”) and “Doucement!” (“Easy there, big fella!”). As it turns out, Kaïd understands the first two perfectly, the third not so much.