Kim Chevalier has spent the better part of the last four years exploring exploring her adopted home Â— the Arihge region of the Pyrii Mountains. The Washington, D.C. native enjoys hiking and other outdoor activities with her husband and two children in this beautiful mountain range which separates France and Spain.
Kim, a graphic artist, created www.ariege.com, a web site devoted to promoting the area. She generously agreed to offer GORP's visitors some information and insight into getting the most from an outdoor-oriented visit not only in the Arihge region, but in all of France.
GORP: Tell us about hiking in France. Is it comparable to walking in Britain, for example, where active travelers can enjoy village-to-village treks?
Chevalier: Village-to-village is hiking more popular in the U.K. than in France for various reasons. Britain is more densely populated and you can't go very far without coming to a village, where there is almost always a pub where you can get a room. Also, there are no real mountains in the U.K. to act as a magnet for the serious trekkers.
GORP: So how would you describe hiking in France?
Chevalier: The French walker's prime concern is,"Where am I going to eat?" France has the same size population as the U.K. but almost twice the land mass. There are parts of the country where you can walk all day without seeing a village with any commercial activity, let alone a decent restaurant. French people tend to rent a "gnte rural" (country vacation house) or stay at a small hotel which they use as a base for day walks. In the mountains, the major hiking trails, such as the GR10 that runs the length of the Pyrii , have "gntes d'itapes" at regular intervals Â— converted barns and old stone houses with dormitory-style sleeping arrangements and a kitchen area. Some have a live-in caretaker who will provide a cooked evening meal.
(Editor's note: "GR10" stands for Grand Randoni 10. A Grand Randonni is a direct, long distance hiking route.)
Chevalier: So in France there are no well-known routes outside the mountains, though every human landmark has plenty of places to walk nearby. Very often the tourist office has a map of walking circuits near the site.
One exception is the Chemin de St. Jacques de Compostelle which is an old pilgrimage route from somewhere in northern Europe, through France, to a town in northern Spain near the Pyrii There are traditional halts along the way at certain churches where pilgrims stay overnight or in accommodations nearby. The churches and sometimes other structures along the way are marked with an imprint of a scallop shell, the symbol of St. Jacques. Many people continue to make this journey on foot, which follows both roads and trails. There are a number of secondary routes, one of which passes through Arihge.
GORP: What can you tell us about the Chemin de la Liberti?
Chevalier: It is one of the routes through the Pyrii into Spain followed by escaping allied airmen during WWII. There is renewed interest in these routes, especially by the descendants of some of the airmen who used them. Scott Goodall, an Englishman living in Arihge, has written a detailed guide in English to this route and it will be published sometime this year. He is the only person to have walked the trail and taken precise notes oflandmarks Â— important because while the route was blazed a few years ago it is not well-maintained. It's a tough, four-day hike and sometimes you need ropes.
Other interesting historic routes are the ones that pass by the Cathar Fortress at Montsigur [in the Pyrii ] that were used by heretics and smugglers.
Also, there's a circuit near where I live, le tour de la vallie du Garbet, which would be interesting to Americans because the valley has an unusual link to the U.S. involving bears. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the inhabitants of the valley captured bear cubs in the mountains and trained them to perform tricks, then toured around with them from town to town throughout Europe and eventually the Americas. A large number of them settled in New York and eventually went into the hotel and restaurant business before returning to Arihge to retire.
Many relatives back in Arihge took advantage of this connection and went to New York to work in the restaurants, saved money and returned to buy land back home. Many descendants were born in the U.S. and move back and forth between the two countries. So in this valley it's quite common to meet really old people who speak English. The village of Erci has an exhibit about the history of the"montreurs d'ours". See www.ariege.com for details of this history. There is a gnn weeklong walk around that area.
GORP: Let's turn to another beloved French pastime: bicycling. What should visitors know about bicycle-riding in France?
Chevalier: The cycling tour operators that offer hotel-to-hotel cycling vacations in France seem to favor the Dordogne, Provence, the Loire valley and Burgundy, mainly because of the easy terrain and all the lovely chateaux. Serious road cyclists who like to climb go to the Alps and the Pyrii . Because they are further south, the Pyrii are hotter in summer than the Alps but on the other hand they are less visited and so there's much less traffic.
Best to stay away from the coasts in summer because of heavy traffic. Really, all of France is great for cycling. Few Europeans who come to France on vacation choose a destination because of the cycling, unless they're really into climbing mountain cols. They just bring their bikes along and cycle when they please. It's such a varied country in terms of geography that there's something for every level of cyclist.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication