France's Grandes Randonnies

Continental Comforts
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One of the first things you'll notice about hiking French trails is that many of your fellow hikers won't be carrying full backpacks. With towns spaced close together, there is usually an opportunity to stay in small hotels or hostels along the routes of most hiking trails. In the mountains, there are systems of huts and refuges; in villages, you can stay in small hotels and may also have the opportunity to stay with families who offer meals and beds. In fact, in some more developed areas, it may be difficult to find a legal "backcountry" place to pitch a tent. No such problems in developed recreation areas, where you'll find tons of trailer parks and public campgrounds.

So one advantage to a French trek, or to most European treks, is comfort: a lighter pack, a softer bed, and, let's face it, much better food. Some of the highlights I've enjoyed on a few European trips: Spanish paella, Belgian beer, Swiss fondue, and bakeries everywhere. But in no other country does the hiker enjoy the creature comforts of France: Basque seafood, Provencal cassoulet, Alsatian choucroute, and French wineries, to name just a few. It sure beats the freeze-dried stuff most hikers have grown accustomed to!!

While Europe's wilderness offerings can't match the American backcountry, continental hiking does offer something American trails can't: thousands of years' worth of history on display. On a recent walk on the multinational GR-5, I had an opportunity to walk along Roman roads, across Flanders battlefields (complete with poppies), and past thousand-year-old castles. When the trail entered France, in the history-rich region of Alsace and Lorraine, it took us past the old Maginot Line fortifications, World War I bunkers, yet more castles, historic chateaux, ancient pilgrimage sites, and (on a more serious and haunting note) a World War II concentration camp. If you follow the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) in France and Spain, you'll be walking in the footsteps of millions (yes, millions) of pilgrims who have, for a thousand years, made this one of the world's great sacred walks.

Europe's network of trains and bus service also offer plenty of opportunities to interrupt a hike with side trips to major cities. So if your interests include museum hopping, cathedral gazing, or window shopping, you can easily incorporate them into your hiking schedule. On the French GR-5, for example, hikers can stop to visit the cities of Metz and Nancy in Lorraine, Strasbourg in Alsace, the famed beach resort of Nice on the Mediterranean Sea, as well as Geneva, across the Franco-Swiss border.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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