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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

This information makes the Topoguides indispensable, even to the hiker who doesn't read a word of French. But now the Topoguides for several of the major GR itineraries have been translated to English. These translations are published as a part of the "Footpaths of Europe" series by Robertson McCarta Ltd. of London.

While the translations do not cover the entire 170-plus-volume French-language Topoguide series, they cover the most popular itineraries, such as the Alps, the Loire Valley, the Auvergne, the Dordogne, Normandy, Brittany, Provence, Corsica and others.

Do your homework

A hiking trip in France will amply reward any homework you do in advance, and there's plenty you can do.

Start by deciding on an itinerary and getting the appropriate guidebook or Topoguide (one that names every town with hotels on the route). Now look up each town in a guidebook to France that recommends hotels and restaurants, such as the Michelin Red Guide or the Hachette Guide to France, or in listings which you can obtain from the French National Tourist Office, and make notes in the trail guide or on a separate sheet of paper, including telephone numbers so you can call for reservations as you go along.

Don't carry either of the general guidebooks to France, since each weighs more than a pound and a half and contains mostly data on places you aren't going. But allow yourself the luxury of carrying the Michelin Green Guide to the area you are visiting -- it contains the most tourist information per pound of anything I know.

Check the area you plan to visit in a guidebook to French regional foods, such as "The Food Lovers' Guide to France," by Patricia Wells; also check one of the several available wine guides.

Learn as much of the language as you can. In the small towns and countryside of France, the people are likely to be monolingual. But they will be interested in you. While you can travel on foot quite happily in France without any French at all, you will be glad for anything you can understand and say.

Tempted? I'd recommend reading "Walking Europe from Top to Bottom," by Susanna Margolis and Ginger Harmon, two American women who hiked some 1,500 miles in Europe in 1984 -- the last 950 or so miles on the GR5 in France.

The GR5 isn't the longest route in France, but at 950 miles, it will do. It begins at France's border with Luxembourg, and heads south along the Moselle River before turning east to the crest of the Vosges Mountains, the border between Lorraine and Alsace.

On history's trail

The sense of history in this part of the country is awesome. In one day, we stood under a Roman aqueduct, read a plaque commemorating the conquest of the area by Attila the Hun around 450 A.D., visited the remains of a castle destroyed by Cardinal Richelieu's troops in the 17th century, walked through farm fields pockmarked by foxholes and trenches from World War I, andspoke to eyewitnesses to World War II battles.

At the crest of the Vosges Mountain chain, the trail turns south again, and permanently so. The Vosges run parallel to the Rhine River, France's border with Germany, and the Alsatian plain in between produces some of the world's greatest white wines. The trail follows the rounded summit ridge of these old mountains until they end, allowing the hiker to stand on the summits of several of the highest peaks, most of which are at the extreme southern end of the range. Clear weather grants a thrilling view of the Alps, two mountain ranges away.

The intermediate range is the Jura, along France's border with Switzerland, a land of placid rivers, white cliffs, dense woods and stupendous cuisine. Our favorite dish was a compendium of several varieties of wild mushrooms gathered by the chef.

At the southern end of the Jura, the trail enters Switzerland briefly, and the hiker boards a steamer across Lake Geneva to St. Gingolph, a town on the lake's south shore bisected by the French-Swiss border. Hint: Stay in a Swiss hotel, but eat on the French side.

From a hiking standpoint, everything up to this moment has been prelude. From St. Gingolph, about 30 hiking days remain before Nice. The last two are easy. Everything in between is strenuous enough to satisfy the toughest hiker.

The trail coincides with an itinerary called "The Great Crossing of the French Alps," and follows the spine of the range along the French-Italian border into the Maritime Alps before finally dropping out of the mountains and almost directly into the Mediterranean.

For all their ruggedness, the Alps reward the hiker with some of the most splendid mountain scenery imaginable, ranging from the glaciers flanking Mont Blanc to the herb-strewn slopes of Provence.

No matter how avid a hiker you are, the end of the trail is welcome after a walk of this length. We'd spent 75 days on the trail, and relished bathing our feet in the Mediterranean. When we got home, we learned that our feet had flattened out, and thereby grown a full size, requiring us to replace all our shoes and boots.

Still, we returned to walk through the Loire country on GR3, and we're looking at the guidebooks for next year.

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