Walking in France: Step out on the wild side
Samantha David shrugs on her backpack and laces up her hiking boots
Walking holidays are ideal in the autumn or spring. The heat and holidaymakers have either not yet arrived or subsided; prices are cheaper and there is still plenty to enjoy. There is no wonder they are increasingly popular, appealing to people wanting ‘slow’ holidays or keen to be part of the ‘green tourism’ boom. As well as also offering good exercise, they are a fabulous way of getting up close and personal with everything France has to offer, be it coast, country or city.
It is easy to create your own itinerary using a map and booking accommodation independently. Alternatively, ready-made itineraries are available. You can even simply sign up for a day’s hiking – if you want to experiment and see if you like it. Most rural tourist offices have information about guided hikes in their area, and some also have maps you can use to go on a self-guided walk.
The network of GR (Sentiers de Grande Randonnée) paths in France runs to about 60,000kms – and then there is the PR (Chemins de Petite Randonnée) network and a host of other smaller trails maintained by local associations and mairies.
GRs are marked by a short red band above a matching white band, and PRs with a yellow one, often painted on tree trunks or fence posts, particularly at crossroads.
GRs are numbered in the same way as roads and the network makes it possible to travel right across the country.
This massive resource means that France offers walks suited to every taste, physical ability and budget: guided or self-guided, based in one place with multiple walks around the base, fast-paced, gentle stroll, or maxi-challenge. If you do not want to walk with a backpack, you can even get someone else to drive your luggage to the next hotel on your itinerary.
Discover ‘real’ France
Emily Bailey, the French Regional Manager of InnTravel, which organises walking holidays, says that walking holidays are part of a trend. “People are looking for a more authentic experience and walking holidays really get you in touch with France. You smell mint and rosemary underfoot, fresh grass. Even in the rain you get great scents.
“Getting off the beaten track means learning about ‘real’ France, eating and drinking, more authentic experiences, meeting people who don’t work in the tourist industry, and you are more likely to stumble across unknown places, bars, shops, villages, and little museums.
“Our walkers arrive at Rocamadour, in the Lot, on foot along the valley floor, for example, which is a very different experience from arriving in a coach.”
Many walkers remark just how uncrowded the GR and PR paths are in France. “The network is so large, in fact, that there is ample space for everyone and people walking in more remote areas like the Cévennes or Alsace often say they haven’t met any other hikers for hours!”
The paths are so well maintained and marked that it would be practically impossible to get lost.
Ms Bailey says that walking is an ideal antidote to modern life. “All you think about is the walking, the views, and the only thing you have to worry about is whether to have your picnic at this beauty spot or the next!”
She adds that being outdoors all day makes your skin feel different, gives people a huge appetite and allows them to enjoy a fabuloous dinner with a clear conscience. People on walking holidays also sleep well, and there is enormous satisfaction in seeing how far they have walked. Not to mention the fact that being out in the countryside is a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle of town life.
Ms Bailey believes walking holidays have evolved, and in much the same way as camping now includes so-called glamping, their walking holidays are about relaxing and having a good time.
“The image of bedraggled people sweating their way up steep hills in scratchy socks and huge boots with a giant rucksack on their backs simply isn’t true any more,” she says. Equipment has evolved, and so has what is on offer for those on walking holidays.
InnTravel, along with many other walking holiday experts, offers holidays geared to any level of fitness. You can even build in days off, so you can just laze around a swimming pool all day. Another advantage of self-guided walking holidays is being able to walk at your own pace, stopping whenever and wherever you like to admire the view.
Some walks, on the Côte d’Azur for example, take hikers through lots of little villages and past small museums, whereas walks through the volcanic Auvergne region are more demanding and isolated.
“Through walking holidays, people are actually getting to know France in detail and there’s such a lot to explore.
“From the half-timbered houses near the German border to the chateaux of the Loire Valley; from the Mont Saint-Michel to the Camargue; from Paris to Corsica – there’s something for everyone.”
New views, fresh challenges
Artist David and Susie Hawson, from near Aberdeen, were inspired by their walking holiday in Auvergne with InnTravel. As well as taking the usual batch of holiday snaps, David also did a selection of water colours and published them here.
“We walked from hotel to hotel with a two-night stop at either end of the route and the entire walk was cleverly set up in terms of challenge, views and interest. It’s great to have a destination every day because it makes you feel you’re on a real journey. You have a sense of purpose.”
Their route mainly used GR and PR paths, but David says it was obvious it had been designed by someone with local knowledge, because the directions were so clear and included things no one could have known in advance by just looking at a map. “It was challenging because the area is mountainous, but not impossible.
“We walked along the ridges, enjoying the most fantastic views, and we’d never seen such a profusion of wild flowers.”
He says they also enjoyed the knowledge that if the weather closed in, they could have used an alternative, lower-altitude route, and that if they’d wanted to, for no extra cost, they could have jumped into the taxi which took their luggage from hotel to hotel.
“We also met lots of very interesting people, including another couple who were doing an interlinking walk, so it was sociable in that way.”
Hiking is not confined to the countryside. Walking tours are are great way of getting to know a city, particularly when they take in the historic old centres which are now pedestrianised.
Many tourist offices run group walking tours with a qualified guide, and other cities have set up walks like the Parcours de la Chouette in Dijon. You get a free map from the tourist office and follow the owl symbols on a circular walk around the city which takes in all the main sights. Spotting the next owl, on a brass plate set into the pavement, or as a stone bird on a ledge for example, is fun and you can start the walk at whatever point you like.
Another trend is privately organised tour guides. In Lille (www.lillefreetour.com/en) walking tours are arranged for which you just pay what you think it’s worth! Tours in English start every weekday at 10am and 2pm (there are also 10am tours in French) and last around two hours, taking in history, architecture and lots of amusing quirks.
You do not have to reserve in advance and you can join or leave the tour at any point. You can also arrange for a personalised private tour, for which there is a fixed fee which depends on what length tour you want.
Tourist offices in Paris are stuffed with suggestions for guided walks, cycle rides, and even Segway tours. But one of the most fun is organised by the association Mobile-en-Ville and is aimed at people on wheels, i.e. in pushchairs or wheelchairs or on rollerskates. “We love the mix of people on rollers and in wheelchairs,” says the association’s Mathilde Brodel.
“Our events are open to everyone on wheels. It’s completely free to members, and membership only costs €10 per year. You just have to contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org about 10 days before an event to reserve a place.”
They run an event every third Sunday of the month, usually from 2pm to 5pm although sometimes there are exceptions, such as an evening tour the group organised in July. “It’s always in central Paris and each event has a different theme. It could be fountains, or statues or anything.
“We always start at our headquarters in the 14th arrondissement and we go all over the place. It’s a great alternative way to discover Paris and see a more authentic side of it, rather than the big tourist spots. But mainly, it’s massive amounts of fun!”
Take a hike – but which holiday will suit you best?
The biggest difficulty when organising a walking break in France is deciding where to go. The country is blessed with such a varied range of landscapes that it can be almost impossible to choose
For wine lovers who like rolling countryside, the wine villages of Alsace could be a good choice, as wine tastings could be incorporated into the walk. And, as in all the wine-producing regions of France, if you go walking in the autumn, you may be lucky enough to be there during the vendange – the brief grape harvesting season.
If bracing sea air is more your style, a walk along the fabulous Brittany coastal paths would suit you.
Walks are mainly flat and there are lots of picture postcard villages to visit, many of them with cafés and bars, where you can refresh yourself with local dairy products and seafood. This is an ideal option for less experienced walkers, and especially those who tend to wilt in the heat – and it can still be warm in France in the autumn and spring. Brittany’s mystical expanses of forest offer more verdant options for hiking trails.
If you are after a major challenge and want a monster-sized physical challenge, you might think about tackling the famously tough 180km G20 which runs along the mountainous central spine of Corsica.
It takes most people a fortnight to complete it, although the incredibly energetic François D’Haene managed it in 31 hours in June 2016.
Most people only do half of it at time, taking the train to Vizzavona and either heading north to Calenzana or south to Conca.
The northern half is steeper and higher, but watch out for the sun in the lower-altitude southern half, which can be roasting in the warmer months.
ccommodation in ‘refuges’ along the way varies but most tends towards the Spartan rather than the luxurious.
If you’re interested in photography, living history and Alpine traditions, you could opt for a walk with Teresa Kaufman (www.teresakaufman.com) who runs photo walks in the Alps around Chamonix.
She will explain photography techniques even as you discover traditional Alpine villages where time has stood still. She will also introduce you to local artisans and farmers along the way.
There is no better way to enter this forgotten world – and it is ideal for beginners wanting a gentle one-day walk to get away from it all.
If you really want to get off the beaten track, however, head for the Cévennes. Known as France’s terre de refuge because of its isolation, this is where the Camisards (Huguenots) took refuge when it was made illegal to be a protestant in 1685, where French and German jews were sheltered during World War II and where many so-called soixante-huitards ended up after the events of May 1968, when a series of massive demonstrations and general strikes paralysed the country.
It is also a place where peasant farmers have for generations scratched a living from the mountainsides in scorching summer heat and winter temperatures which descend as low as -15C.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879) is arguably the best known, but Janet Teissier du Cros’s autobiographical account of World War Two in the Cévennes, Divided Loyalties is far more compelling.
Go to Le Vigan, sit in Café Le Continental facing the cinema and look at the balcony above the main doors.
Then read her account of Nazi soldiers sitting on that balcony watching the townspeople come and go, and feel the hairs on your neck stand up.
Then head for the hills, you can walk across the National Park for days without meeting a soul.
If your style is more classic however, and you prefer walking on the flat, lots of companies offer walking holidays along the Loire Valley, through vineyards, stunning little villages and of course a treasure trove of fairytale chateaux.
This is a great option if you want to combine walking with sightseeing, and of course the area also does offer ample opportunities for wine-tasting.
Kendal Mint Cake may be the go-to snack food for hikers in the UK, but they do things differently in France. The traditional answer to a snack-attack en route is a hearty hunk of dried saucisson, or a piece of hard cheese with bread torn from a baguette picked up from the local boulangerie that morning.
Hike and Dine
Bistrot de Pays organises regular hikes for lovers of good food. Walks take in hilltop villages, vineyards and hidden corners of the local area – before a hearty meal featuring the best regional produce is offered at a cafe or bistro in a small town. Visit bistrotdepays.com for routes, prices and more details.
If you go out walking in one of the country’s forests, watch out for ticks, which infected more than 30,000 people in France with Lyme disease last year. If undetected, it can lead to years of illness including joint and heart problems, chronic pain and neurological problems. To avoid being bitten, wear skin-covering clothes and closed shoes. Use insect repellent on uncovered skin. After a walk, check your clothes and body, and those of your children. Pharmacies sell a tool for picking ticks off clothes and skin (known in French as a tire-tics).