France on foot
Fancy a walking holiday in France but don’t know where to start? Activity expert Judy Armstrong offers her essential guide to putting your best foot forward...
Moon rise. A ball of white gold eases across the black sky, bouncing light off glaciers and peaks. An armful of stars, thrown wildly against the night, glitters. Standing outside the mountain hut I breathe deeply, inhaling the chill, the spectacle and the solitude.
Not for long, though. The night is cold and inside the hut is a roaring fire in a wood burning stove, litres of rough red wine and plenty of companions to share it with. I turn a complete circle, absorbing the lightshow one last time, then return to the comfort and warmth. It will be a long day tomorrow, over a high summit and along a ridge to the next hut, and it is time to plan the route, check the forecast and rest.
Nights like this in mountain refuges are one of the wonders of walking in France. The network of huts is unsurpassed, and the key to enjoying the wild places. And there are plenty of those for the adventurous walker. France’s national parks, regional natural parks and other protected areas, combined with thousands of kilometres of signposted trails, make the country a haven for hikers. Recently my husband asked where I would like to walk next. I let my mind drift across the globe, thinking about possibilities in South America, Asia, Africa. And then, I answered: “I could easily spend the rest of my life exploring France on foot.”
In the beginning France’s extraordinary network of paths was born out of necessity. Shepherds moved animals between winter and summer pastures. Tradesmen travelled with the seasons, following work. Foresters and farmers cut tracks to remote holdings and through woodland. Pilgrims crossed the country on long distance paths; the most famous are the four Ways of Saint James from Le-Puy-en-Velay, Paris, V�zelay and Arles to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
In the late 18th century, mountaineers targeted the alpine peaks, with the Club Alpin Fran�ais (CAF) which was formed in 1874. Other walking clubs were founded and began marking out paths in massifs including the Vosges. By 1945 it was estimated that France had one million kilometres of sentiers (paths) and chemins (tracks). In 1947 the Comit� National des Sentiers de Grande Randonn�e was established to promote recreational walking, and thousands of kilometres of paths were waymarked into recognisable routes. The CNSGR later became the F�d�ration Fran�aise de la Randonn�e P�destre (FFRP), and set about securing legal and permanent protection of France’s paths and tracks. Today, almost 200,000 kilometres of sentiers and chemins are waymarked, either as grande randonn�e long distance routes or shorter walks. Urbanisation has threatened many of the traditional paths, but under the protection of national parks and the vigilant FFRP, France’s heritage of walking remains strong into the 21st century.
Footpaths France’s best-known group of footpaths is the grande randonn�e, or GR. Waymarked with red and white paint slashes on rocks, trees, even houses, GR routes lead novice and experienced walkers alike through lowlands, over mountains and across country. Designed for long-distance walking, they can also be tackled in sections. The GR5, which runs from Lac L�man to Nice, is a classic example: one of the world’s most spectacular long-distance trails, the 674 kilometres can be hiked in a month but most people break it into week chunks, enjoying it over several summers. Staying close to the Italian border, it takes in the best of France’s alpine terrain, from Chamonix into the Vanoise, Queyras and Mercantour parks. The GR10 is another justly popular route, traversing the Pyr�n�es from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Other GRs are more localised, such as the GR20 on Corsica, or the GR54 around the Parc National des �crins and the GR1 around the �le-de-France. For more details, visit the website www.grande-randonnee.fr, which includes a forum for information exchange.
At a more provincial level, are the sentiers de pays, also called sentiers de grande randonn�e de pays (GRPs). These have red and yellow stripes, rather than the red and white stripes of a full-blown GR. They are also, quite often, circular routes which have the huge advantage of starting and finishing at the same place. If you don’t have much time at your disposal, pick up the sentiers de petite randonn�e (PRs) which, confusingly, can also be called sentiers de pays. These are intended for local exploration – a short wander, or a full day’s walk, but no longer – and are usually waymarked with a single yellow stripe. As paths are signposted by local clubs and volunteers, the colour can change, but provided you have a map and follow a consistent colour, you’re unlikely to go too far wrong.
The FFRP, through clubs and volunteers, has waymarked 65,000 kilometres of GR and GR de Pays, and 115,000 kilometres of PRs. For more information go to www.ffrandonnee.fr
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Parks Around two per cent of France’s land area (around 1,257,200 hectares) is given over to six national parks. The first was the Parc National de la Vanoise in the Alps east of Grenoble. This was formed in 1963, partly to protect the bouquetins which were becoming endangered through hunting. The largest is the Parc National des C�vennes. In addition, there’s a national park on Guadeloupe, with two more created in 2007 in Amazonian Guyana and R�union Island.
National parks, which are concentrated in mountainous areas, are superb destinations for walkers. They generally have very good hut networks and waymarked walking trails, with an abundance of information on routes and itineraries from the (generally) well-funded Maisons du Parc, or information centres. Strict regulations exclude horses and cyclists; dogs are also banned from national parks.
Mainland national parks are Vanoise (www.vanoise.com), Pyr�n�es (www.parcpyrenees. com), C�vennes (www.cevennes parcnational.fr), �crins (www.les-ecrinsparc- national.fr) and Mercantour (www.mercantour.eu). The tiny Parc National de Port Cros, the second park to be created, is a speck in the Mediterranean, just off the C�te d’Azur (www.portcrosparcnational.fr). For more information visit Parcs Nationaux de France: (www.parcsnationaux -fr.com). Regulations in the parcs naturels r�gionaux are more relaxed than in national parks. There are currently 45 scattered throughout France, including Corsica. They offer protection to landscape and fauna but also have sizeable human populations. The point is to balance natural and cultural heritage with tourism, environmental education and traditional rural activities. As well as paths for walkers, there are trails for cyclists and horse riders.
F�d�ration des Parcs Naturels R�gionaux de France: www.parcs-naturelsregionaux. tm.fr
Mountain huts If you’re planning a multi-day walk – a weekend, a week, a month – you need to know about the refuge, or hut system. These are sometimes basic, sometimes quite elaborate, often at altitude, usually in national parks or natural regional parks.
They can be operated by the national park authority, by the Club Alpin Fran�ais (CAF: www.ffcam.fr), by the local commune, or they can be private but open to visitors. Intended for overnight stays, they are also open to day-walkers: in summer, a guardian will offer food and drink; off-season picnickers are welcome to use the facilities for a small fee.
As a general rule, huts run by the CAF, national park and communes are open all year but with a guardian only at high season or, occasionally, on request for a group. This tends to be summer for walkers, spring for ski tourers and snowshoers, and major holidays. The sleeping quarters are usually basic, with two or three tiers of platforms (known as alpine bunks), with mattresses wedged together. Blankets are usually provided, and sometimes pillows. You must have your own sleeping bag or, at the least, a sleeping sheet. Ear plugs are highly recommended! There are basic kitchen facilities including gas rings, pots and pans, eating utensils, plates and glasses. When the guardian is in residence, the evening meal will usually comprise soup and bread, a meat and pasta dish, and maybe a piece of cheese. Wine and beer are also available. Out of season, the kitchen and contents are open for use but never assume that the gas bottles will be full. Most huts have outdoor toilets and, occasionally, showers (cold spring water from a hose); the odd exception has hot indoor showers and flush toilets.
When the huts are guarded, it pays to reserve a place, indicating what you require in terms of food. This enables the guardian to plan meals and should guarantee you a sleeping place. Cash is king, although euro cheques are also acceptable. The average cost for a sleeping place is €10-€15; evening meals cost around €15 and breakfast around €7.
Maps & books The Institut G�ographique National (IGN) series of topographical maps at a scale of 1:25,000 are indispensable for walkers. Map number 93 shows all the GR and most GRP routes. This is very useful as an overview to follow a particular long distance trail, or for selecting an area rich in waymarks for shorter walks. The TOP 25 maps show contours at 10 metre intervals, refuges, footpaths and ski touring routes, as well as full topographical detail.
IGN maps are available in outdoor shops and Maisons de la Presse in France. They can also be bought online, either from IGN (www.ign.fr) or from specialist map outlets such as Map Kiosk (www.mapkiosk.com) and Maps Worldwide (www.mapsworldwide.com).
FFRP publish Topo-Guides, which are guidebooks for walkers with IGN maps, usually at a 1:50,000 scale. There are 280 Topo-Guides; find out more at www.ffrandonnee.fr
The most prolific publisher of guidebooks for walkers in France is Cicerone Press (www.cicerone.co.uk). Comprehensive guidebooks to the most popular GR routes, plus themed distance and regional day-walks, provide meticulous route detail, with information on when, where and how to go, plus colour photography and maps. Examples include Walking in the C�vennes (31 walks plus the Tour of Mont Loz�re) and The Robert Louis Stevenson Trail (following the GR70 from Le Puy to Saint-Jean-du-Gard).
A general guidebook, Walking in France, was published by Lonely Planet in 2000. This is now out of print, but is a handy tool for an overview, if you can find a back copy.