Hiking in France: the GR5 trail

France is crisscrossed with well-marked trails known as the GRs (short for Grande Randonnee, which means Big Walk). The GR5 is one of these and runs all the way from Holland to the Mediterranean coast. However, the most popular section is the final 600-odd kilometre stretch through the French Alps from Lake Geneva to Nice. It is considered one of the most beautiful trails in the world. I see no reason to dispute that claim.

I walked this trail in the August of 2015. I covered between 600 and 750 km with a net elevation change of somewhere between 35000 and 40000 m (seems like a lot, doesn’t it? I could have climbed Mt. Everest four times!). I didn’t track my numbers while walking, except for occasional glances at my guidebook, and occasional conversations about the numbers with a Swiss couple who were meticulously tracking their progress. On the trail, I hardly took out my phone. I didn’t have a GPS watch. It was just me, walking in the Alps, getting to the next place to stay.

Moonrise from Refuge de Trebentaz
Moonrise from Refuge de Trebentaz

If you do walk this trail, the actual distance and elevation depend on which fork in the road you take at a few points on the trail. Your experience will not vary much with this choice, except at two places. When you enter the Vanoise National Park (about halfway through), I recommend going along the GR55, which rejoins the GR5 and takes the same number of days. However, this trail is at a higher altitude on average and the views are better. Later, down in the South, as you approach the Mediterranean, a choice has to be made whether to continue on the GR5, which ends in Nice, or take the GR52 variant, which passes through the Mercantour National Park and ends in Menton. The Mercantour National Park is beautiful, and it is fully worth the extra days and the difficulty (and the scrambling in one portion). The only reason you have to stick to the GR5 is if you did not have enough days, of if you really want to spend more time in Nice.

Mountains and Clouds
The view from the clouds

It took me 29 days to finish the trail, at a pretty relaxed pace. I met a girl on the last day from Switzerland who blazed through the trail in 21 days. You can do it in even less – I’ve heard that there are some people every year who walk through the whole thing in 13 days! I strongly recommend taking your time, unless your goal *is* to walk very quickly. The views, the villages, the food; all these things require deliberate attention for you to actually experience them. Take the time to smell the roses, enjoy the rain, and admire the view.

I carried a tent, a sleeping bag, and a sleeping pad with me, but I ended up camping only about half of the time. France (and the neighbouring countries in Europe, at least) have refuges in the mountains. These are mountain cabins with dormitory style shared accommodation. They usually run as restaurants during the day and provide a fixed-menu dinner and breakfast. A spot in these refuges (including dinner and breakfast, the so-called demi-pension) costs about 40-50 euros, of which 15-20 euros were for the bed and the rest for the food. A picnic lunch was usually available to carry with me when I left in the morning. When I bought one of these, I would take two days to finish it. I ate almost exclusively in these refuges and the food ranged from average to absolutely excellent.

Every night —except the one night where I starved, and that other night where I ate at an expensive restaurant — I had a three-to-five course meal, including at a bare minimum, soup, a main course, and dessert. Sometimes, there was a salad with greens, but the vegetables were usually present only in the soup. Many people asked me if missed spices, but what I really missed were vegetables. That’s not to say the food was bad. Far from it. It was amazing! Some of the things I had: mountain-style sausages, cheese plates, charcuteries, pizzas, stuffed tomatoes and excellent desserts. It’s been a year now, I’m writing this entry without looking at my notes, and I can still remember the flavours of all of those dishes.

One thing I did get tired of was the Tartiflette, a traditional alpine dish with potatoes, meat and cheese. It’s hearty and very tasty, but eating it almost every day – while it made me feel like a local – was pretty boring. A dessert that I ate almost as regularly as the Tartiflette was the Fromage Blanc (fresh cheese) with blueberries. This, I did not get bored of, at all.

A lot of refuges even had cows that they took care of, so the milk was fresh and the cheese was made in house. The most common cheese of the mountains in France is called Tomme. I don’t know much about cheese, so all I can say with confidence is that Tomme was hard and very, very tasty. In one refuge, there was a cheese plate with three different ages of the Tomme cheese, and I was told by the lady guardian that each age brought out a different flavour, and it did!

The table is set for dinner at a refuge
The table is set for dinner at a refuge

Imagine that: You’re in the mountains, hiking a long distance trail in the wild. Your cellphone doesn’t have a signal. There’s no hot water. The only electricity is the lights. But the food you get is fresh, tasty, homely, honest and awesome. I can’t think of a better way to describe France.

I was walking briskly one day, my thoughts occupied with where I would stop for lunch when I realised my mind was just as cluttered here as it had been back when I was working in Seattle. Hiking this trail had become a full-time job: wake up, eat breakfast, hike, eat lunch, hike, eat dinner, sleep, repeat. Here I was, in France, in the Alps, forgetting to look around.

I slowed down till I could hear my the crunch of my shoe against the trail. I felt the wind, and when the wind stopped, I held my breath and listened to the silence. I closed my eyes, and waited for my mind to calm down. I now know that the peace that I felt at that moment was the peace I had left everything behind to find. This peace: it is a peace to be treasured, and while I am slowly making my way back into some semblance of the “real” world, I know that it is a peace I have to nurture very carefully.

Walking the GR5 is one of the most memorable things I’ve done in my life. I remember fondly the day I hiked 30 km on an empty stomach, the day the donkeys ran away, my blisters, the moments (there were many of them) of complete silence where the whole universe seemed to pause for a bit, the storm that developed right beside me and then lashed out at me, my ear infection that I thought was me starting to hallucinate, and more. While on the trail, I didn’t think too much about what was happening, but now I look back and my memories are excited and bubbly.

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