Sweaty and tired after several hours of hiking on a trail in southwest France, Jasmine Petrelli was ready for a breather. At the bottom of a steep hill, the path opened into a cobblestone area and an image she says she’ll never forget. “On the edge of this tiny village was a river with a pretty mill surrounded by a field of brilliant flowers,” she recalls. “Three old ladies sat on a bench by the mill pond, and close by was a woman with an easel and her watercolors. It looked like a scene from a book.”
Picturesque rural France came alive for Petrelli, a Chicago yoga instructor, as she spent eight days walking quiet country trails from village to village with her mother, stepfather and sister – an adventure that was physically demanding yet culturally rewarding. “Each day of walking was a discovery,” she says. “A breathtaking vista, the golden light illuminating a house, a pasture or vineyard – each more magical than the day before.”
To the delight of those who like to get off the beaten path using their own two feet, France is blessed with an elaborate system – a whopping 110,000 miles – of well-marked, well-mapped, long-distance footpaths called the Grande Randonnée (GR). On these trails, intrepid walkers can meander from chateau to chateau in the Loire valley, trek the Alps’ mountain passes, wander Burgundy’s famous vineyards, breathe Brittany’s salty sea air, or traipse the hills of Provence.
Best of all, you can walk France on your own, at your own pace, with little more than a good map, a light pack with a few essential clothes, and a companion of choice. Although organized, guided tours are a popular vacation choice, few Americans are aware that independent walking through France is easy, thanks to the French Long-Distance Walking Federation (FFRP), an organization that began marking and mapping trails in the 1930s. Though some routes are new, many are simple footpaths that medieval farmers blazed between their fields and local towns. Now, centuries later, easy-to-follow markers direct hikers along these pedestrian throughways past vineyards, pastures, forests and even people’s backyards.
“Walking through the French countryside on your vacation is like lingering over a leisurely feast,” writes retired chef Bruce LeFavour in France on Foot (Attis Press, 1999). “In contrast, driving through France is a 10-minute gobble in a fast-food joint – speedy but not very satisfying.”
In his book, LeFavour outlines the details of how to plan your own self-powered but relaxing adventure in Europe’s most popular tourist destination – without the crowds. In fact, you may walk for miles along GR trails without seeing a soul.
Tour and Trek
Because France’s trail system links one quaint village with another, a cross-country excursion, though done on foot, needn’t be grueling. Instead of lugging dehydrated backpacker food and camping gear, you travel light, dining at restaurants on regional specialties and local wines, and staying in small hotels or chambres d’hôtes (bed-and-breakfasts). “When my feet were sore from walking, I took comfort knowing that at the end of the day I could take a bath, eat a sumptuous dinner, and sleep in a soft bed with a pillow,” says Petrelli. Unless you are walking during busy August or you intend to stay at a particularly popular destination, you rarely need reservations, although you could ask your innkeeper to call ahead to an accommodation that you will reach later that day.
While it may require a leap of faith for you to live out of a backpack for a week or two and walk alone through rural France – especially if you don’t speak the language – LeFavour reports that worries tend to disappear after a day or two. “This sort of trip engages the adventurous spirit of people of all ages – both young and old,” he notes. Soon, he insists, you’ll relax into a routine: a morning walk (two or three hours), a stop for a picnic or lunch at a restaurant, the afternoon walk (three to five hours), and arrival in town in time to find a hotel, shower, and have a multicourse dinner.
Preparing physically can also help put your mind at ease. Although you can choose your own pace, most villages are eight to 10 miles apart, so expect to walk six to eight hours a day. (It’s up to you how many rest days you want during your trip.) A month or two before you depart, you’ll need to include several miles of regular walking in your exercise program to get in shape – and to break in your hiking boots.
Choose a route that matches your fitness level, recommends Mark Beffart, owner of Walking Tours of France, a company that sells maps and trail guides online. Beffart has hiked in France since the 1970s. “Around Paris, the Loire and Brittany’s coast, trails are relatively flat and easy,” he says. “But you need greater endurance and physical preparation for the high altitudes and rougher physical terrain in the Alps.”
Before making her trek, Petrelli focused on strengthening an achy shoulder that still hurt from a car accident years before. The training paid off because she was able to comfortably carry her 25-pound pack along her route. The challenge of long-term walking made her nervous, because her yoga practice didn’t prepare her for a cardiovascular workout, but her overall fitness level compensated. “I was surprised how quickly our group adjusted to the long hours of walking,” she says. “It helped that we weren’t on a forced march and took time to stop, take off our packs and enjoy the scenery.”
However, even fit people can encounter physical problems after days of walking, as Petrelli learned. Two days from the end of the trip, her knee, which was unaccustomed to hilly terrain, got too stiff and sore for her to continue on foot. Fortunately, her family came up with an alternative: Petrelli rested at a lovely French manor while the others walked on. The next day, she rented a car and met them at their final destination.
Ambling a hundred miles over a week and winding past centuries-old villages and romantic castles is a healthy change of pace for speed-driven Americans. By slowing down enough to really experience the countryside, walkers have time to smell the roses, the vineyards, the French lavender – and to explore the local culture, from the food and wine to its people.
“Because we took our time walking on paths that people have used for a thousand years, we noticed details we wouldn’t have seen from a car, like birds and wildflowers, back-yard gardens, ancient stone walls and shrines built into fields,” says Petrelli. “We didn’t know their history, but we got the sense of how their presence marks a passage of time and culture.”
The leisurely schedule enhanced the family dynamic as well. “We found it refreshing to spend quiet days together without all the distracting input of our usual get-togethers like shopping or museum visits,” she says. “By being active and spending most of our waking hours together outdoors, our family shared a very satisfying experience.”
Putting one foot in front of the other for miles has another advantage: It allows the traveler guilt-free license to partake of two of France’s major attractions – its cuisine and wine. Far from sophisticated Paris, it’s common to find elegant dining rooms serving field-fresh gourmet menus in even the most remote locale – at a surprisingly reasonable price.
Beffart recalls a particularly memorable meal that he and his wife ate one stormy April evening at an old country inn in the Auvergne region. “The wind was howling, and it was starting to snow, so we stopped at a humble auberge for the night,” he says. “For dinner, we were served lavish appetizers, foie gras, duck, fish, and a fabulous dessert of white-chocolate mousse. When they brought us the bill, it cost $20! What’s more amazing is there are fine restaurants like this right off the trail all over France.”
Experiencing France on foot also allows you more contact with the locals, who are usually friendly and curious about where you’re hiking. In rural areas, fewer people speak English; yet despite the language barrier, most are generous and polite, if a little reserved, as is the French custom. “While walking through vineyards, we’ve met farmers excited about showing off their latest wine,” says Beffart. “Several times, we’ve been invited to their cellars and given a bottle to taste.”
Good food, quaint villages, a stroll through the woods – these are just some of the rewards that await the traveler rambling through France. “I could do this same walk all over again without being the least bit bored – there’s no end of delightful things to see and experience,” confesses Petrelli. “However, I would slow down my progress even more so I could spend two nights in some places.
“The beauty of this type of travel is the flexibility. If for some reason you’re in an area you don’t want to be, or if the weather isn’t cooperating, you can always hop on a train, rent a car, or hire a taxi and go somewhere else,” she continues. “You truly can do anything, depending on your time frame, your imagination, and the direction you point your feet.”
To date, Boulder, Colo., writer Laurel Kallenbach's favorite place in France is the tiny town of Yvoire on Lake Geneva.