There are marked and maintained hiking (randonnee – ron-don-ay) trails all over France. The trails cover 60, 000 kms in every region of the country. The Grande Randonnee (rambles in the UK) trails were established as far back as 1947 by hiking enthusiasts, and has been embraced by clubs, families and serious hikers ever since. Joey and I were lucky enough to be turned on to these trails within weeks of living here. Our friend Andrea runs the tourist office in Lussan, a beautiful medieval town not far from our town. Andrea gave me a hiking map at a gathering at her home in Audabiac, the absolutely charming village right outside of Lussan, and explained the basics of how the trails work.
There are markers in key locations, like crossroads or landmarks, with signs pointing to various destinations, indicating the direction, elevation and the number of kilometres to the next marker. Along the path you must look for slashes of various colours. The GR (Grande Randonnee) are marked with a red and white x, the shorter local hikes with a yellow horizontal slash. These yellow trails have become our almost daily habit. The maps that you can buy for each region recommend hikes and tell you about the interesting sights, landmarks and history of the ground you will cover. We often find a 5 to 15 kilometre hike that starts within a half hour drive from home, and head off with our back pack, a couple of apples, a bottle of water, the map and have an adventure. We have also often driven to a place of interest and cruised around until we have found a hiking marker, winging it and almost never being disapointed.
The first hike we took was recommended by Andrea and took us to les concluses, a stunning gorge and series of caves carved out of limestone cliffs by the ancient sea and famous for the sighting of the last wolf in France swell as being the hiding place for outlaws during the religious wars. It was a round trip that included some quite serious climbing out of the gorge (with no gear, but I was glad we did not have the kids with us at times as it was extremely steep with huge drop-offs), country lanes through nearby villages, lavender and sunflower fields and finally back to the trail to the caves. We had brought sandwiches and stopped for a picnic at a hunter’s camp along the path. The day was clear and warm, and after we were back at our car, having lost our trail only once during the 15 kilometre journey, we were hooked.
Since then, we have probably hiked over 500 kilometres and have hardly ever repeated a trail. We have returned to a few with visiting friends, like les concluses, la vielle cite, medieval ruins of a town up on a high ridge across the valley from Celas, Mont Bouquet, a mountain not far from home with an abandoned weather station atop it to name a few. We have brought our kids on some wonderful hikes on weekends, and although they are rarely thrilled at the prospect of walking for several hours, we find packing cookies and making the walk an adventure makes for a great family time.
We hardly ever see other people out on the trials. I’m sure that is due to the season. The french are not as immune to the cold as we Canucks. If we do see other hikers, they are inevitably more “geared up” than we. They carry ‘randonnee poles’, like cross-country ski poles, and have special boots and pants and hats. The french love to have the right gear!
I love these marked paths and have become a little obsessed with them. I see the yellow markers everywhere as we are driving and try to make a mental (or actual) note about the location so that we can investigate the trails and see if it would make a good hike. I also notice the yellow slashes everywhere. It’s like learning a new word and suddenly hearing it constantly. The yellow slashes can be on walls, trees, traffic signs, telephone poles, rocks and even houses. If you wander down the wrong branch of a trail, you will be greeted by a yellow x, indicating the wrong direction. Sometimes we need to branch out and take different routes for a few hundred meters to find the next slash. It’s like a giant scavenger hunt, and it scratches the same itch that playing Swiss Family Robinson did when I was a kid. It’s like being lost without being lost.
We have erred on out travails occasionally. Once when we were hiking along a first century road that is now a forest trail beside an ancient rock wall, we thought we had time to form a circuit back to our car before we had to leave and pick Audrey up at school by 3:15. We couldn’t find the next marker but continued forward for half an hour, sensing it would be around each corner. Finally we decided we had to turn back. We thought we could just make it, but the way back was uphill and we were losing time. We did not want to be late to get Audrey, as she had been traumatized by being signed up for an after hours program the second week of school which I had forgotten to remind her about in the morning. She has not forgiven me for that, nor does she EVER want to stay for the after school program, EVER. If we are even a few minutes late, we are admonished and reminded about that early betrayal of trust. The wrath of Audrey is not something we want to face.
We had to do something. We were in the middle of nowhere, knowing we were at least an hour from the car. We decided, almost spontaneously, that I would take all the gear (pack pack, extra jackets, water) and Joey would run back to the car, go get Audrey then come back to the spot where the car was parked and get me. Joey took off, and I continued on at a somewhat leisurely pace. I was doubling back through the forest along the old rock wall, feeling quite confident, but also a little uncomfortable being out there alone. More worried about an aggressive dog than a human, I was hoofing along when I heard a deep voice behind me. I almost jumped out of my skin, but turned and discovered the voice belonged to Joey! He had taken a wrong turn, and was further behind than me. Joey was sweating buckets and wearing his blundstone boots, not running shoes, but he still felt he could make it in time. I watched him run off into he woods.
I got back to the spot where the car had been in good time. I had time, in fact, to have a better look at the old community bread oven, built into the side of a cliff from free stones. I walked down to the road, careful not to veer off the route that Joey would be taking back, and low and behold there he was with Audrey in the back seat, right at the bridge by the main road. Whew, we pulled it off.
He had been right on time. We did learn from this stressful hike, though and we always leave more time now. We also don’t balk at turning back anymore. Although doing a loop is much more satisfying, we find that the trail is always different on the way back and we notice different views and details this way.
I am so happy to have re-discovered hiking as a pastime, and plan to continue the practice back in Ontario. I also would like to try geo caching and orienteering. Maybe an adventure race?