France's Grandes Randonnies
Hiking is popular throughout Europe, but perhaps no country has a more extensive network of hiking trails and as much natural variety as France. From the wine country of Alsace to the high Alps, from the Basque sea-coast to the heart of the Pyrenees, from the island of Corsica to the Massif Central, French trails wind, climb, and meander through an astonishing variety of terrain, not to mention history, culture, and cities.
The French word for trail is randonnie. French trails are divided into three categories: the grandes randonnies (GR), or great walks, which are long-distance trails marked with red and white paint blazes; regional randonnies, called randonnies de pays, which are marked in red and yellow; and local trails (promenades and randonnies), marked in yellow. The long-distance system, in which routes are given internationally recognized numerical IDs, has spread into adjoining and nearby countries like Holland, Belgium, and Spain, and some of the routes cross international borders.
The GR-5, for instance, runs 2,200 kilometers (1,364 miles) through Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, and a slice of Italy. The GR-10 meanders for 900 kilometers (558 miles) across the Pyrenees on the French side of the Franco-Spanish border; the GR-11 runs across the Pyrenees on the Spanish side. The GR 20 follows the mountainous spine of the island of Corsica. In all, France boasts 60,000 kilometers (37,200 miles) of long distance paths and another 80,000 kilometers (49,600 miles) of regional and shorter footpaths.
Recreational hiking may have been born in Europe, but it grew up in the United States. Like siblings raised on different continents, Euro-style hiking and its American counterpart have evolved in two very different ways. While in America hiking is often synonymous with wilderness, in Europe hiking is a tamer, more civilized affair. In part this is because there isn't much real wilderness left in populated Western Europe. Almost all the land you'll see has been shaped and affected by human settlement: logging, grazing, farming, roads, industry, and even war. Roman roads run along the flat ridges of the highland; highways cross the valleys below; in between, hollows and hillsides are speckled with villages and towns.
What this means to the backpacker is that hiking France's old country offers a completely different experience than North American trails. With few exceptions (the frozen Scandanavian north country and a few mountainous pockets above tree line) you won't find thousands of acres of untamed wilderness. But what you will find instead makes a trip across the pond worth the journey.
In France, hikers looking for high mountains and rugged terrain can head to the Alps (GR-5 as well as many shorter local paths), the Pyrenees (The GR-10), or Corsica (GR-21). Those interested in an experience that incorporates more towns and historical sites might turn to the GR-5, especially in Alsace. No matter where you find yourself in France, a hiking path isn't far away. A visit to a local bookstore, tourist office, or outfitter will point the way to a well-marked trail. A warning, however: To Americans with a solitary bent, the crowds in the Alps and, to a lesser extent, in the Pyrenees national parks, can sometimes seem overwhelming.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication