Long distance walking tracks across France are called Grandes Randonnées (GRs), whereas tracks that loop around through a particular area are called Grandes Randonnées du Pays (GRPs), and shorter tracks are Promenades et Randonnées (PRs).
There are colour-coded markings for these – a red and white stripe for GRs, red and yellow for GRPs and yellow for PRs – and there are three symbols: “straight ahead”, “turn” and “go back”.
On the whole they are well marked, but it takes practice not to miss some of the markings, which can be in rather obscure places, such as on tree trunks (often behind a clump of foliage), on fence posts or on the sides of barns. Some are even on the ground.
The association of French walking clubs, the Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre (FFRP), publishes very useful guides (Topo-guides) for many of the tracks.
They all follow the same format – on the left page is a map and on the right page is a description of the track, with information about the services available in each of the villages that the track passes through.
The scale of the maps is 1:50,000, i.e. 2cm = 1km. They are in French but are quite easy to follow, even for non-French speakers.
However, they do get out of date rather quickly and some new editions of older guides don’t seem to have any fresh information in them.
For example, we used the GR7 topo-guide “Traversée du Haut-Languedoc” in June 2004. Our copy, the ninth edition, was published in July 2003, only a few months earlier, and was hopelessly out-of-date!
We now try to use only very recently published first editions. If they are not available, we use TOP 100 maps, combined with information from local Offices of Tourism. A full list of available Topo-guides can be seen and bought on the FFRP website.
We have found the “Cartes Tourisme et Découverte TOP 100″ series of maps, published by the Institut Géographique National (IGN), very useful. The scale of these maps is 1:100,00, which is 1cm = 1km. They are designed for walkers and cyclists, and show all the GRs, as well as bike paths.
Since 2010, a revised series of TOP 100 maps has appeared. These have a different numbering system and unfortunately their borders do not coincide with the old series.
All the topo-guides and TOP 100 maps are available in the IGN shop in Paris, which is well worth a visit. It is at 107, rue La Boétie, 75008 Paris, just off the Champs Elysées. Their products can also be bought online.
In the provinces, the village newsagency (presse) usually has a selection of TOP 100 maps of the local area, and occasionally Topo-guides as well.
Another extremely useful source of information is the Géoportail website. It is the French equivalent of Google Maps, but it shows many more features, such as camping ground locations and walking tracks.
In addition to this system of GRs, the four main pilgrimage routes (the ways of le Puy, Vézelay, Tours and Arles) have another set of markings altogether, and follow slightly different paths to the GRs.
The signs are blue and yellow, with a stylised cockleshell and a broad arrow labelled ‘Compostelle’. Sometimes this is reduced to the broad arrow only. These routes are managed by the Association des Amis de Saint-Jacques.
They often coincide with the GR, but seem to have a more determined attitude towards the goal of getting to Compostela.
They do not hesitate to use minor roads between villages rather than thrash about on circuitous tracks just to keep off the bitumen, as the GRs do.
Most walkers cut corners on the GR for this reason, especially in wet weather, when the GR is often a muddy trench.
These pilgrim routes have a whole set of maps and guides of their own. The maps are on separate laminated pages in a folder and make up a block with the size and weight of a paving stone.
We find it best to refer to other people’s copies (for instance at night in a gîte), and write down a list of place names that the track passes through, which can be found on the TOP 100 map.
This ensures that you are not led astray, as we have been, following pilgrim signs without knowing where they are heading.
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