Have you ever dreamed of exploring the glorious French countryside, wandering from village to village, poking around ancient churches and long-abandoned châteaux, and finishing each day with a delicious meal and a glass of local wine?
Our friend, and walking holidays in France expert, Melinda Lusmore is here today to share with you a different kind of travel experience – exploring the villages in France through long-distance walking!
Sounds like an amazing adventure to me.
Long-distance walking holidays in France don’t have to be hard work!
For many people, long-distance walking conjures up images of badly blistered feet, lining up to secure a bed in the refugio and sharing a room each night with a dozen snoring strangers.
Movies such as Wild (the story of Cheryl Strayed’s life-changing journey along the Pacific Crest Trail) and The Way (where Martin Sheen carries his son’s ashes along the Camino de Santiago) tell a warts-and-all story – albeit one where such minor annoyances are far outweighed by the lessons learned and the friendships forged along the way.
But, in France, where competition for a bed each night is far less frantic, long-distance walking can be a memorable, almost leisurely experience.
Of course, along with the Michelin-starred dinners, there will still be the occasional hiccup—such as the hotel bathroom with no blinds on the windows (thankfully we were on the second floor) and towels no bigger than a tea-towel!—but you can guess which night we still laugh about today!
A Walking holiday is not for everyone!
You will come to appreciate the everyday things you now take for granted—access to public toilets, an endless supply of band-aids and the ability to buy a cup of coffee whenever the urge strikes.
But walking offers the opportunity to make new friends with similar goals (please God, help us to find our hotel before dark tonight) and to offer advice to complete strangers on subjects you know nothing about (we’ll be taking this shortcut alongside the river).
Who is long-distance walking for?
A long-distance walking holiday in France is for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness (or you can do a lot of short days) and a love of the outdoors.
If you prefer your holidays unplanned and unstructured, then pack your sleeping bag and set out each morning with no goal other than reaching a village 25 kilometres (15 miles) away – or more if the weather is good and you’re feeling fit.
Perhaps you are more like me and like to stop at every ancient chapel, lean against the stone walls and ponder the hands that built them a thousand years earlier; to climb every medieval tower, look out through observation slits and imagine invading armies charging up the hill.
You may want to plan an itinerary which includes a mixture of long and short walking days and lazy afternoons for relaxing or exploring.
Will your walk be part of a longer visit to Europe?
Don’t want to carry your dancing shoes on the trail?
Then pre-book your accommodation (no more lining up for a bed!) and have your luggage transferred ahead to the next hotel.
Time your visit right and you’ll be able to stock up on a trail mix of locally grown fruit, fresh figs, olives and nuts at the weekly market or pick up a fresh baguette and some locally produced cheese for a picnic lunch.
Walking is the perfect way to immerse yourself in all the charms of rural France
Luckily, the French also love to walk and there are hundreds of well-marked walking trails to follow.
No matter where you’d like to go—the vineyards of Burgundy or Champagne, the breathtaking valleys of the Dordogne, the rugged coastline of Brittany or a nice, easy FLAT walk alongside a canal, there is likely to be a walking path with your name on it.
All walking paths in France are overseen by the Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre (FFRP) and maintained by volunteers.
Long-distance paths, or Grand Randonnées, are referred to as GR paths—such as the GR65 Chemin de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle which takes walkers from Le-Puy-en-Velay in central France to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, starting point of the Camino de Santiago.
Tips for walking in France safely and considerately
All holidays flow a little more smoothly when you can say hello to the locals and have a basic understanding of the culture. Long-distance walking brings its own set of challenges, so:
- Always take as much water as you can carry comfortably and refill your water bottle whenever you have the chance. REMEMBER: if water is marked as non potable, do not drink it.
- Bakeries and grocery stores will close around noon for lunch and may not reopen until three in the afternoon. If you can, stop at the boulangerie for a baguette and a tarte aux fraises (strawberry tart) on your way out of town each morning.
- The usual rules of etiquette apply when walking in France – always take your rubbish with you and leave gates, open or shut, as you found them.
- And finally, smile a lot and say bonjour Monsieur or bonjour Madame to everyone you encounter.
Keen to go but can’t decide where? Start here with a few of my favourite walks in France.
Best walking adventures in France
- Follow the Chemin de Saint-Jacques du-Puy, walked by pilgrims for the past one thousand years on the way to the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
- Explore two châteaux (and the remains of a third), the underground lakes and caves of Gouffre de Padirac and six of France’s ‘most beautiful villages’ while walking from Martel to Rocamadour.
- Visit seven châteaux, eleven churches, one abbey and two of the ‘most beautiful villages’ in France along the Burgundy Canal.
- Of course, most visits to France start or finish with a stay in Paris. Find dozens of ideas for things to do in the City of Lights here.
- Flights booked but you don’t have a walking buddy? Check out some tips for solo travel here.
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