France's Grandes Randonnies
As you start researching European long-distance walking trails, you'll encounter information about the multinational "E" trails, so called because they are identified by the letter E and a number. The E-trails are less a formal system than a way to interconnect the trail systems of many countries. On a map, the network of E-trails is impressive, with lines stretching from central Scandinavia to Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria.
But this system, like America's system of national scenic trails, is far from complete. Most often, it is an incomplete conglomeration of hiking trails through a series of countries. In France, some E-routes use portions of the well-marked and mapped French GR routes. But once you cross the border into another country, you may find conditions (and trail markings) very different. For example, the E-2 is said to start in Stranraer in southwestern Scotland; follow the Southern Upland Way across Scotland, then turn south into England, cross the channel, and continue south on the GR-5. In Scotland, though, you won't see any indication at all of the E-2Â—although the Southern Upland Way is consistently marked. Other "E" trails are in similar states of incompletion, which means, among other things, route finding and/or road walking.
English increasingly may be the lingua franca of trade and foreign relations, but it's far from becoming the lingua franca of the farmers and grocers of Europe's small towns. Even in countries like Holland where "everyone" is said to speak English, the walker who wanders off the paths of commerce and tourism will find plenty of people who don't. In France, you can go for days without encountering a single person who speaks a word of English. Learning a few phrases can make your life immeasurably easier. French isn't the world's easiest language, though, so practice with a phrase book and maybe a tape. Also keep in mind that French (not English) is often the second language in countries bordering on France, like Spain and Italy.
The headquarters for French hiking is the FFRP (Federation Francais des Randonnie Pedestres, or French Federation of Walking Trails), http://www.ffrp.asso.fr, which sells French guidebooks (called topoguides). These guides contain maps as well as written descriptions, including some interpretive information about cultural, historic, or natural features, and basic information on lodging. Guidebooks for major routes, or some of the more popular parts of major routes, are available in English.
If you don't speak French and want to hike less trammeled paths, don't despair: Good maps are available. The Series Verte (green series) contains maps at the scale of 1:50,0000; Series Bleu (series blue) is 1:25,000. The maps in the French-language topoguides are perfectly adequate. After all, contour lines are the same in any language. If you speak French (or have a friend who can be pressed into service), the Institute Geographique Nationale has an exhaustive list of French maps. In the United States, Maplink (www.maplink.com) may also be able to help.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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