France’s abundant and beautiful landscape contains a lifetime of well sign posted trails to explore
MOST OF the main walking routes in France are marked out by volunteers from the Fédération française de la randonnée pédestre (FFRP), an association which has been promoting the sport since the end of the Second World War.
It is famous for its long-distance routes, the ‘sentiers de grande randonnée’, each of which has a number. These include the GR20, which crosses Corsica from north to south; the GR10 across the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean; GR65 along the Camino de Santiago from Puy-en-Velay to the Spanish border or the GR70 – the route Robert Louis Stevenson took accompanied by his donkey, through the Auvergne.
Walking an entire route, often covering hundreds of kilometres, is not for the faint-hearted and it is more common to do part of one or all of one, in stages.
There are also two other categories of FFRP hikes: Sentiers de grande randonnée de pays (GRP) and Sentiers de promenade et randonnée (PR).
A national map of all the GR routes, which cover some 65,000km in total, may be found at: gr-infos.com and there are links to click to open individual maps to each of the routes.
The GRs are aimed at serious walking over a number of days or weeks with a rucksack.
GRPs are shorter, often circular, routes to discover a particular region and they often have designated passerelles (links), which are alternative stretches, allowing you to vary the length of the route.
PR walks are short, local ones, also usually circular, lasting about two to six hours, to explore part of a department or natural park.
You will come across occasional signposts, however most footpath markings can be found painted on trees, rocks, walls, posts etc. GR routes are marked red and white, GRPs red and yellow and PRs, yellow.
Straight lines indicate you should continue straight on, a turn ahead is marked with an extra line (the vertical part indicates your direction of arrival and the pointed part shows the direction of the turn); crossed lines warn of wrong routes.
Look for cairns, the piles of stones made by walkers to indicate the route or the top of a summit, which may be seen from far off.
Some other markings you might see include orange lines (similar to PR), for bridleways or red ones with two circles and an inverted triangle, for mountain bikes. In wine growing areas you will also find ‘Sentiers vignerons’, which are well-signed, with explanation panels, worked out in cooperation between the FFRP, vineyards, councils and associations.
The FFRP produces Topo-guides to different walking areas as well as electronic version for iPads or iPhones. See ffrandonnee.fr and click “je recherche un Topo-guide”. You can choose according to region, department or GR route.
English translations are not available, however one good series of English walking guides to popular parts of France is published by Cicerone Press.
Some departmental councils also produce booklets of walks in their areas, available from tourist information offices.
When walking it is advisable to take a walking map of the area and a compass to minimise the risks of getting lost.
Where to walk
With all the choice available in marked footpaths, it is best to plan a route using these rather than unmarked areas. Paths that have no signs saying they are private or closed to access may usually be taken, but woods, meadows, fields etc.. always have an owner, who may not want people crossing their land. Crossing farmland without permission is not allowed and most forests are private and inaccessible. This will usually be indicated by a barrier at the entrance or a sign.
In theory, it is possible to walk along most of the coastline of France.
The most essential item is good boots, look for comfort before fashion. You will also want a rucksack (tailored to the length and difficulty of walks). Other important items include waterproofs, a water bottle, a compass and a first-aid kit.
Tailor your walk to the season and weather – ie. do not walk in the winter in areas likely to be snowbound and inaccessible or when there is a risk of very muddy conditions.
Check the weather at meteofrance.com
Be careful during hunting season, especially if you come across a beat. If you do, the FFRP suggests walking in a tight group and moving quickly out of the area as well as putting a yellow fluorescent vest over your rucksack.
If you are doing a multi-day hike consider mountain refuges and gîtes d’étape. Camping is not permitted on the seaside, protected sites, in most forests and in central zones of national parks.
Joining the FFRP
There are 3,500 clubs affiliated to the FFRP. Joining one and paying for a licence will enable you to take part in organised walks, do training sessions in skills like map-reading, have free delivery for guidebooks, walker’s insurance and an assistance service if you get into difficulty. A medical certificate is required. It is also possible to become a volunteer baliseur – helping maintain markings and reporting problems with routes.
There is a simple membership called Randocarte, for walkers who are not members of a club, which offers insurance, a magazine and reductions at various travel and accommodation companies.