France walking vacation highlights
Walking vacations map
The word for ‘hike’ in French is randonner, and throughout the country there is a network of long distance, waymarked trails known as the Grandes Randonnees, or GR (pronounced Jay-Err). French hikers will always refer to the GR10, for example, which traverses the Pyrenees, the GR50 and GR54 in the Parc National des Écrins, or the GR52 through the Alpes Maritimes in the Mercantour National Park. Consequently, there is a super impressive infrastructure that has grown around the GRs and other trails, many based on ancient shepherd routes or hunting domains. Whether it is through the alpine wonders of Mont Blanc or Haute Savoie, the Pyrenean promeneurs’ paradise or ancient woodlands of the Poitou-Charentes, France walking vacation highlights are many and varied.
To describe the French Alps invites every conceivable superlative: titanic peaks, ice-white glaciers and sparkling sapphire lakes, but to see them first hand will leave you speechless. The Giffre Valley, an exciting almost eerie terrain of towering cracked limestone cliffs sits beside champagne Chamonix, the iconic backdrop to 007’s stunt-tastic ski chase; a wonderland of adventure.
If verdant rolling hills bedecked with vineyards, walking from hotel to hotel, feast to feast, appeals, then Burgundy reigns. Most walking trips start in Dijon, one of the most beautiful towns in France, from where you can hit walking trails equating with epicurean ecstasy. Such as the “Chemin des Grands Crus”, or the Plateau of “Volnay”, with its prolific Premier Crus. Good thing you are walking not driving.
A patchwork of countryside studded with traditional chateaus, Renaissance buildings and the lush meadows that line the banks of its eponymous river (just one of seven). It has a ruddy-cheeked, earthy and reassuring charm about it. It’s known for its fascinating prehistoric cave art and rich, gourmet treasures. To walk here is to journey through a massive chapter of France’s history and living culture.
France has 10 national parks and this is one of the largest, a whopping 918km² criss-crossed by steep narrow valleys and centuries-old smuggler’s footpaths, which combined add up to first-class hiking grounds. Less crowded than majestic Mont Blanc, but as much of a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts, whether you are going for the full on climbing vacation or just a mountainous trek.
A bit like an edgy cousin of the Alps, the Pyrenees has a rougher beauty than its loftier counterpart, but is still a snow-capped Shangri-La for walkers. It’s Cirque de Gavarnie, a beautiful bowl-shaped hollow, was described by Victor Hugo, as a ‘coliseum of nature’, with its Grande Cascade, one of Europe’s highest waterfalls, a crowning jewel. It’s collection of isolated valleys make for superb snowshoeing too.
The land of pretty Alpine chalets, with walking trails straight out the front door, such as the Haut Giffre, with over 900km of trails alone. Although you’re not walking on the mother massif of Mont Blanc, you have splendid views across to it. There are cable car lifts up to high ridges, lake swimming galore, and glacial gorgeousness throughout, such as the natural amphitheatre, Bout du Monde valley.
Nothing like a beautiful castle at the end of a rollicking ramble. Welcome to the Loire’s sky-high turrets that call out across expansive plains, highlighting the beauty of the Loire’s very noble past. Its paysan culture is also tangible as you hike along the “Le Chemin aux Boeufs”, the ancient cattle route to Paris. Or the ancient washhouse in medieval Fougères-sur-Bièvre. A highlight of any hike. As is the wine.
Take a mountain train into the other worldly wonders of the Alpes Maritimes and Alpes de Haute Provence, all part of the relatively unknown Mercantour National Park. A popular area for walking with donkeys to carry your bags, you follow in the steps of shepherds who still do the same, along waymarked ways through ancient forest, up rocky inclines, and along icy river valleys.
The highest peak in Western Europe, it has seven main valleys feeding off it inviting some of the world’s finest hiking. It’s covered in snow and ice all year round so, although ascent trips are available, most people hike the Tour de Mont Blanc, a 170km lower level circuit taking you through France, Switzerland and Italy. Because Mont Blanc is a tripartite triumph of nature.
Easy to reach by TGV from Paris, this is the France that French hikers know about, with mild weather, ancient woodland trails, and classy guesthouses. The Pays de Gâtine area, in particular, is exquisite escapism with typical rural scenes, be it ancient farmland, orchid-filled woodland, blissful Beugnon Lake or medieval villages. And a plethora of local wine, toasting fields fecund with local produce.
The Provencal cliché: wafting lavender; stone villages; smiling people sipping wine. It exists, and it is wonderful, but the region is actually very diverse. Discover the limestone escarpments of the Luberon, the Verdon Gorges canyons, the turquoise Lac Sainte Croix or the pine forests leading up to the dustily dramatic Plateau de Vaucluse. And everywhere, Provencal produce to wine and dine upon.
Walking on the Riviera is the best way to get to know the real Med, maritime and mountain cultures which segue so smoothly here. Hike inland along the lower slopes of the Alpes Maritimes, not pushing up peaks all the time but strolling from one stunning village to another. Or take on stunning headland walks such as the Cap Martin Peninsula or around Menton.
France walking vacation highlights
RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL’S SUPPLIERS RECOMMEND
Peter Roche, co-founder of our supplier, Le Moulin du Chemin, shares his top France walking vacation highlights:
“For walkers who enjoy seeing birds, ‘Bocage’ in the Pay de Gâtine in Poitou-Charentes, especially May and June, is recommended, when nesting birds are at their most active. Mixed countryside with woods, small cultivated fields, meadows and pastures with ancient hedgerows, orchards and lakes is the best for seeing birds and makes for more-interesting walking. The Anse de l’Aiguillon (just north of la Rochelle on the Atlantic coast) is the best place in Europe to see wading birds. 250,000 birds congregate here each autumn in wonderful maritime walking country”.
France walking vacation highlights from Liz Lord, co-founder of our supplier, Space Between: :
“You do need to do your research well as France is very diverse. So, consider your wish list; it is very likely that you will find a solution – even if you want beach, mountain, culture, glitz! For example, the Alpes-Maritimes has it all: the Riviera and the Mercantour National Park, with Liguria to the east and Provence to the west.”
Sally Guillaume, from our supplier, Undiscovered Alps, shares her advice for getting off the beaten track in the mountains:
“The Valgaudemar Valley is a big, austere, narrow Alpine valley with glaciers and peaks of over 3,000m on either side and was discovered by famous Alpinist, Edward Whimper, but has never gained the reputation of say the Barre des Ecrins because the summit is a little bit lower, so it doesn’t hold the same kudos as doing a 4,000m peak. The advantage in terms of mountaineering is it’s totally off the beaten track, so you’re not going to be sharing a refuge with 200 other people and treading on their poo and rubbish outside. It feels how Alpinism was when Alpinism first started; fewer crowds and a fantastic climbing experience that makes you feel on top of the world, but with the advantage of being away from the honeypot.”