The thought of walking 800 kilometres (500 miles) or more can be an overwhelming idea!
Who does that?? And how fit to you need to be??
Well, I can do it, and I’m not young and I’m not that fit! (But I won’t pretend that my feet aren’t tired at the end of the week!)
Broken down into a series of twenty kilometre (twelve mile) daily walks, with the occasional rest day thrown in, a long-distance walk becomes a delightful way to explore the French countryside.
Of course, it is not necessary to complete all 800 kilometres in one holiday. Start with a week or two and, if you like it (which I know you will), return the following year for the next stage.
Giving some thought to the things that make or break a holiday for you will go a long way towards making a long-distance walk enjoyable. So, what are the things you need to consider?
How far will you walk each day?
This is obviously a personal decision but it’s best to be honest up front or do some training.
I am happy to walk between twenty and twenty-five kilometres (twelve to eighteen miles) each day with an occasional longer day where necessary (more than thirty kilometres is a struggle for me). I am happy to stay in a hotel, chambre d’hôte or gîte but avoid camping.
If you know that you will only be happy in a hotel or cannot put in the occasional thirty kilometre (nineteen mile) day, then your options are more limited. Perhaps a rest day will ease any stiff muscles and sore feet if a longer day cannot be avoided. Distances between villages are given in the Where else will you find accommodation? sections of each walk (and, of course, are included in every I Love Walking in France digital travel guide).
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 set a target each morning and phone ahead to secure a bed. If you prefer not to plan or book ahead, what will you do if you arrive in town after a day’s walk and the only accommodation is full? Will you be happy to catch a bus or taxi (if there is one) to the next village or would you see this as a failure to walk the entire route?
Camping or a little of luxury?
Since I live in Australia, a walk in France will be one part of a longer holiday. I don’t want to carry my dancing shoes on the walk. Nor do I want to lug my tent through Paris, so camping under the stars—glorious as that may be—is just not a practical option for me. Neither is staying a gîte unless I can rent linen and a towel for the night.
The perfect solution is to have my luggage transferred between hotels each day (yes, this does need some advance planning!).
I have to be honest and say that I have stayed in a few hotel chains (not just in France) that also happen to have a restaurant onsite—but food was clearly not their core business. In small French villages, I have occasionally stayed in restaurants that also happened to have rooms available—if you get my drift. But, my goodness, what a dinner!! And, I should add, they were generally cheap, clean and with enough basic amenities to see me comfortably through the night!
If you are walking alone, staying overnight 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 the dormitory-style accommodation.
Is long-distance walking safe?
Will you worry about getting lost or being injured and unable to get help?
If this is a big 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 not to 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 sometimes, walks like these are partially about learning how we behave outside our comfort zone and that’s all part of the journey!
GR (Grand Randonnée) paths are well-marked wherever there is a fork or other deviation but there will not always be a blaze or marking in sight. Keep your eyes open and look out for markings in unusual places—on trees, houses, fences and kerbs.
Will it be fun?
If it rains for the whole time you are walking, will you wish you had stayed at home?
I have been blessed with perfect weather almost every day while walking in France but some parts of the Chemin de Saint-Jacques are a slippery, muddy nightmare after heavy rain. Having my luggage transferred ahead forces me to keep pace with my suitcase 😉 but you may prefer to take each day as it comes and stay put for a day or two if the weather turns bad. (TopoGuide maps show the walking path and the road making it easy to find an alternative route if you prefer to stick to a solid surface—but always be aware of traffic as the verge can be quite narrow.)
Canal towpaths, on the other hand, are often asphalt or gravel and not as affected by heavy rain. Wet-weather protection is still necessary, of course, but you are unlikely to find yourself tiptoeing gingerly along a muddy track.
Always carry sturdy garbage bags to protect your belongs inside your backpack as well as wearing good weatherproof clothing.
There is a walking holiday to suit every timeframe and every dodgy knee
France has so many options with accommodation and thousands of kilometres of walking paths that I do believe there is a walking holiday to suit every timeframe and every dodgy knee. Give a little thought to what you want the experience to be, spend some time planning to make sure it turns out that way and I know this will rate as one of your best holidays ever!
And of course, at the end of every day, reward yourself with a delicious meal and a glass of wine—as only the French can do!