France has much to offer cycling enthusiasts. With miles of country roads and challenging mountain terrain there is something for everyone. Add to that the cultural affinity with the sport (think Tour de France), and there could very likely not be a better country to explore on two wheels.
Some popular road cycling destinations include the Regional Nature Reserve of the Luberon, in Provence, and the region between Vendtme and Angers along the Loir River in western France. The Loire valley, with its world-famous chateaux, is also a popular cycling destination.
Other great road biking areas are the Dordogne, in southwestern France, where the roads will take you to the famous prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux, past medieval castles and more. (The Lascaux caves themselves are closed to visitors, but "Lascaux 2" is a fascinating replica open to the public.) Burgundy makes for good cycling, not the least because it's heaven for food and wine lovers. The Alps and the Pyrenies are for road cyclists with powerful lungs and strong legs who love steep inclines.
Fat-tire aficionados will find much to love in France, too. While road cycling has been popular for as long as bicycles have existed, mountain bikes (VTT: Vilo Tout Terrain) have become extremely popular only in the last few years, and there are now many trails designed expressly for them.
If hiking is your passion, you will be at home in France. No, you'll be in paradise. There, as in all of Europe, a long tradition of seeing the countryside on foot endures. One advantage to hiking in France is its extensive, well-marked systems of trails. Hikers choose one of the Sentiers de Grande Randonnie (GR), which are direct routes and often run hundreds of miles. These footpaths might be compared to the Appalachian Trail or other National Scenic Trails in the United States. Shorter, less direct trails are known as"GR de Pays."
GR trails are marked with white and red blazes, and appear on hiking maps and on many Michelin road maps as dashed lines. GR de Pays are marked in yellow and red blazes. Short paths, suitable for day hikes, are marked in yellow.
Two of the main GR trails in the Alpes-Maritimes area, for example, are the GR5, which goes North out of Nice up through the Parc du Mercantour, and the GR51, along the "Balcony of the Ctte d'Azur," running east-west along hills overlooking the Mediterranean.
Active travelers looking for more remote terrain should head for locations such as the Civennes, a sparsely populated area in the Languedoc-Rousillon region of southern France. A fascinating, moderately strenuous route is the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail ('Trace Historique de Stevenson'), which commemorates the Scottish author's 11-day walk through the region with a four-legged friend. Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, immortalized the area and his hike with his book Travels with a Donkey in the Civennes, which has become a traveling classic. However, despite Stevenson's book, the region remains little known and therefore a treasure for outdoor-oriented travelers seeking solitude.
Off France's Mediterranean coast, Corsica is a spectacular hiking destination with leisurely strolls or multi-day treks along the GR20. Long, hot summers, temperate winters, dramatic sea cliffs, mountains and deep forests beckon the outdoor lover to Corsica.
Back on the mainland and moving west, the Pyrenies offer even more off-the-beaten-path destinations. Extremely fit hikers can follow a World War II escape route through these high mountains separating France and Spain. Le Chemin de la Liberti, a tough, four-day hike, retraces the steps of downed American and British airmen and French resistance fighters who fled Nazis on foot through the rugged mountains. This challenging route is gaining in popularity as more folks go the distance each year in annual commemorative hikes.
Another historic hike is an old pilgrimage route, the Chemin de St. Jacques de Compostelle."The Way of St. James," 870 miles long, is one of the four original pilgrimage routes to the legendary final resting place of martyred apostle James. The route passes from the Czech border, through northern Europe and France to Santiago de Compostela, on Spain's Atlantic coast. The churches and other structures along the way are often marked with the imprint of a scallop shell, the symbol of St. Jacques.
Paddling enthusiasts in France encounter no shortage of delectable waters to exercise their skills. Kayakers or canoeists can head for the Ardeche River in Rhtne-Alps for both adrenalin-producing canyoning and more placid paddling. Adventure-seekers can paddle the roaring Ubaye in the southern Alps or the Grand Canyon of France, the Gorges du Verdon, which runs through Provence not far from Nice, Monaco, and the Ctte d'Azur. The regional park of Verdon (Parc Naturel Rigional du Verdon) was founded in March 1997 to ensure the gorge and surrounding territory are protected for future generations. Further south, off the coast, the Mediterranean island of Corsica is a dazzling destination for adventurous paddlers, where mountain rivers rush down steep-walled canyons.
If you prefer more emphasis on sight-seeing and gentle paddling, the Dordogne River in southwestern France is a terrific destination, and canoes are a great way to explore the castles and villages along its banks. Other tamer rivers include those in the Loire Valley and in the Alsace region.
See Outdoor France: An Insider's View for more on hiking and other outdoor activities in France.
Special thanks to Russ Collins, Beyond the French Riviera for providing some of the information on this page.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication