If you’ve been toying with the idea of a long-distance walk, you may be imagining the rugged mountains and endless, grassy plains of the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. You may have seen the 2010 movie The Way and wondered if spending a night in a hay barn was a necessary part of the experience...
A long-distance walk can take many forms—I like to think that walking in France is an excuse to wander from one delicious meal to the next while exploring all the delightful attractions along the way (and so far, I’ve not had to spend the night in a barn!).
Before you start planning a long-distance walk, ask yourself these five questions.
What are you hoping to experience?
The French equivalent of the Camino de Santiago is the Chemin de Saint-Jacques (also known as the Way of Saint James or the Pilgrims’ Trail). People walk it for a variety of reasons—sometimes for the physical challenge, sometimes as a walking meditation, often for religious reasons. In addition to the glorious countryside it passes through, I love the camaraderie of the people I meet walking this ancient trail—making new friends and sharing stories over dinner.
Perhaps you love picturesque villages, ancient châteaux, grand cathedrals and tiny chapels? France has more than 150 classified ‘most beautiful villages’ so there are plenty of opportunities to soak up some history and spend the night in a medieval tower.
For spectacular scenery, the GR 34 path along the coastline of Brittany is hard to beat. Although parts of this trail are not a good choice for anyone with a fear of heights, for most of the way, it follows a gentle path around rugged headlands, across wide sandy beaches and through quaint fishing ports.
Maybe you’d prefer to start slowly with a flat, easy walk (or cycle) along a canal? Within walking distance (or a shuttle bus ride) of the Burgundy Canal, you’ll find eight châteaux, one abbey, three of France’s ‘most beautiful villages’, countless picturesque lock-houses and the historic city of Dijon.
Or perhaps you just love walking and find tiny chapels and ancient châteaux to be an unnecessary distraction? That’s OK, France has something for everyone. But having a clear idea of what you hope to experience will help you to choose a region and find the best walking path. And knowing whether to allow time for sight-seeing will guide you in planning your itinerary.
Plage de Kervel, GR 34, Brittany, France
What kind of accommodation do you prefer?
The most common concern I hear from those dreaming of a long-distance walk is…”Can I do this without camping or sharing a room with a dozen snoring strangers?” (usually from those who have seen the movie The Way).
Of course you can! Even in small French villages, there is likely to be a variety of accommodation available—from hotels, chambre d’hôtes (B&Bs), gîtes and campgrounds.
If you are walking alone, an overnight stay in a gîte is a wonderful way to make friends and perhaps find a walking buddy. If you prefer some privacy, single and double rooms are often available in addition to dormitory style accommodation.
If you prefer the anonymity of a hotel, or limit yourself to any one type of accommodation, you may find you need to put in an occasional longer day of walking to meet this requirement—but a rest day will usually soothe any over-tired muscles!
Competition for a bed in France is not as fierce as it can be along the Camino de Santiago in Spain and rising before daybreak in order to beat other walkers to a bed is not common—although even those walkers with only a loose plan will usually set a target each morning and phone ahead to secure a bed.How many kilometres can you walk each day?
How many kilometres can you walk each day?
It’s best to be honest with yourself and, if you think 15 kilometres (10 miles) a day is your limit, there is no point pretending you’ll finish a 500-kilometre walk in three weeks.
I will happily walk 20-25 kilometres (12-15 miles) each day with an occasional 30 kilometre (18 mile) day where necessary. But I know that thirty kilometres day in, day out will be gruelling and I’ll arrive at my destination each afternoon too exhausted to do anything but collapse on my bed. (And since I do like to poke around tiny chapels and ancient châteaux, I like to arrive reasonably fresh or build free afternoons for exploring—or relaxing—into my schedule!)
A practice walk before you start is always a good idea—so that you know what 25 kilometres of walking actually feels like—and to make sure your boots are worn-in and comfortable. And, of course, pre-booking your accommodation is excellent motivation to keep walking on the day!
Collonges-la-Rouge, GR 480, France
Will you worry about getting lost or being injured?
If you are walking alone and this is a concern for you, perhaps a canal is your best choice (and if it turns out you are the first person ever to get lost walking along a canal, I’d love to hear from you!). On the other hand, if the worst should happen and you fall and break a leg, it will only be a short time before a cyclist or a boat comes by to rescue you!
I can’t speak with authority on all walking paths but I can say that the Chemin de Saint-Jacques from Le-Puy-en-Velay has a fair amount of foot traffic. It was very rare for me to not be able to see another walker a few hundred metres ahead or behind me and I feel confident that if I were injured, someone would find me within an hour or two at most.
The Chemin de Saint-Jacques from Vézélay however, has fewer walkers and I’m not sure I’d tackle this one alone. I sometimes get lonely if I’m walking on my own and for me, the presence of other walkers is reassuring—both from a safety perspective and because it offers the opportunity for a chat. But I know many other walkers who say the perfect day is when they see no other people until dinner time!
5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Planning a Long-Distance Walk in France
Will you carry all your belongings with you?
If a long-distance walk in France is part of a longer holiday, you may find you have more luggage than you want to carry with you each day. I know I don’t want to carry my dancing shoes as I walk and I certainly don’t want to be lugging a tent around Paris.
My solution is to have my suitcase transferred ahead to my next hotel each day. Several companies offer this service along the more popular walking paths but if I find myself somewhere a little quieter, there is always a taxi willing to do this. (If you are walking alone, a taxi can be prohibitively expensive but costs can be reduced if shared among a group of five or six people).
Having my luggage transferred does mean I need to have my accommodation pre-booked. If you are more of a free spirit and don’t like your day planned, this may not suit you at all—but be prepared to travel light and carry everything with you.
Thousands of kilometres of walking paths criss-cross rural France. One of those paths has your name on it! Giving some thought to the above questions before you start planning will ensure you chose the path that’s the best fit for you.