Walking your way across France 'Big hike' trails take pedestrians on tours lasting days or months

May 30, 1993|By Tony Castanares | Tony Castanares,Contributing Writer

Like long-distance hiking but hate carrying a heavy pack? Want a shower before dinner, and a real bed to sleep in afterward? Enjoy eating some of the world's best food and drinking its greatest wines?

Then consider France's long-distance footpaths. There is no better way to get to know France's regional foods and wines, its varied countryside and its people than on foot.

The Grande Randonnee ("GR" loosely translated as "big hike") network consists of more than 25,000 miles of well-marked and well-maintained trails. They crisscross every region of the country, providing opportunities for foot journeys ranging from two days to several months.

GR trails make every effort to avoid large cities and industrial areas, and to include the best of a region's art, architecture, historical sites and scenic attractions such as mountaintops, lakes and viewpoints. A GR trail is definitely not the shortest distance between two points, but a carefully planned pedestrian tourist itinerary of the area it traverses.

Access is easy, because trails almost always begin and end in towns with public transportation, hotels and shops. On some of the itineraries, it is possible to find campsites, but you can hike most of the GR trails hotel-to-hotel.

This flexibility means these trips are available on a wide range of budgets, from shoestring to luxury. When you are on foot, and can't just jump back in the car and go on to the next town, there are times when you will spend more than you would like on a hotel room or a restaurant. Occasionally,

you won't be able to find as much luxury as you would like to buy. More often than you would think, you will either splurge or find an unexpected bargain.

A moderate plan might include a room and private bathroom (including shower or tub) in a two-or three-star hotel, a picnic lunch on the trail and dinner in a restaurant with a bottle of regional wine. You can easily get all that for $175 per day per couple, as an average.

French small-town and country hotels can be quaint and romantic or quite ordinary, but they are always comfortable. And outside the big cities, I've never seen a dirty hotel room in France, even in the most dubious-looking places.

As for the food: Well, in a country where all the bad restaurants must have gone out of business several centuries ago, you really have to make an effort to find bad food. On the negative side, the French breakfast -- coffee, bread and jam -- is insufficient fuel for a strenuous morning hike, so it's nice to supplement it with a fairly major snack shortly after starting out each day.

Even at the busiest times of year, you will have little difficulty getting hotel rooms if you call for reservations a day or two in advance.

Courtesy in the country

The French people, widely rumored to be surly and discourteous, are burdened by one of the worst bum raps in history. It's true that you'll find some fairly rude treatment in Paris, but the people you meet on a walking trip in the countryside are almost always helpful.

You will have one prejudice to overcome: It is not directed against Americans, but against people who arrive with backpacks, and is based on the fact that backpackers are generally on such a tight budget that they don't spend money. Remember that in the small towns and countryside, hotels are family-run, and it matters to the family's income that hotel guests eat in the hotel's restaurant instead of elsewhere or (worst of sins) picnicking in their rooms.

This prejudice is easily overcome: when you call to reserve your room, reserve a table for dinner. If you wish to eat in a particular restaurant that isn't part of a hotel, try to choose a hotel that doesn't have a restaurant.

The ability to walk from hotel to hotel also means you can hike for weeks or months with an extremely light pack. There is no need to carry tent, sleeping bag, kitchen gear, or more than a day's food and water. In summer, it should be possible to hike virtually indefinitely with no more than 20 pounds, except in the high Alps and Pyrenees.

The trails, with rare exception, are easy to follow. They are blazed with red and white paint stripes on trees, curbstones, lampposts, buildings, rocks, and many other places.

Best of all, though, is the quality of the available guidebooks. Since 1948, the Federation Francaise de Randonnee Pedestre (French Hikers' Association) has supervised the GR trail system and published a series of pamphlet guidebooks called Topoguides. Open one, and the left-hand page will be a color copy of the relevant portion of the excellent topographic map of the area, marked to show the trail.

The right-hand page describes the itinerary in text, including a detailed description of the trail itself. It names the towns on the route and has symbols indicating whether the towns offer hotels, hostels, campsites, tourist information, shops, restaurants, and rail and bus stations. In addition, it names the principal tourist attractions.

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