France is a paradise for walkers, with about 180,000 km of marked walking tracks.
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”. Various other colours are used for local walks.
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 However, they do get out of date rather quickly and some new editions of older guides don’t seem to have any fresh information in them.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 Our copy, the ninth edition, was published in July 2003, only a few months earlier, and was hopelessly out-of-date!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.
Not all GRs have a topo-guide. In this case you can use TOP 100 maps, published by the Institut Géographique National (IGN), combined with information from local Offices of Tourism. The scale of these maps is 1:100,000, which is 1cm = 1km.
They are designed for walkers and cyclists, and show all the GRs, as well as bike paths. However, if you are not following a GR, their lack of detail results in a lot unnecessary road walking.
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.
The best maps of all are the IGN TOP 25 series, with a scale of 1:25,000, which is 4cm = 1km. On these, camping grounds and even the tiniest paths are marked. The drawback is that you would need a huge stack of them for any reasonably long walk.
All the TOP 100 and TOP 25 maps, and the topo-guides, can be bought on the IGN wesite. They are also available in the IGN shop in Paris, at 50, rue de la Verrerie 75004, near the Hôtel de Ville, and is well worth a visit.
We used to carry TOP 100 maps, but now we make our own strip maps before we leave home.
We do this using a combination of Google Maps and the Géoportail website, which is the French equivalent of Google Maps and makes use of both TOP 100 and TOP 25 maps.
Google Maps allows you to design your own route. Use the “Get directions” option and choose the Walking symbol.
This provides a good approximate route, but improvements can usually be made (such as avoiding main roads) by pulling the blue line with the cursor, so that it jumps to a more desirable track. It also gives an accurate distance for the walk.
This map can be saved by going to the cog icon at the bottom right corner. Alternatively, if you have a Google account you can use My Maps, which gives you greater flexibility in designing your route.
Now go to the Géoportail map and adjust the scale to show 500 m, which is equivalent to a TOP 25 map. Take a screen shot of this map, crop it using Photoshop, and print it.
Often during this stage we see further refinements that can be made. Finally mark the route with a highlighter (unfortunately this cannot be done electronically).
We usually set off with around 100 double-sided A4 pages of these maps, and discard them as we go along. This sounds a lot, but it is only the weight of six TOP 25 maps, whereas we would need at least 25 of them to cover the same distance.
Another tool that we have found useful is Google Street View. Using this you can take a virtual drive on certain roads, and this allows you to see the state of possible walking tracks as they cross the road. It can also help in villages, to check for bars, restaurants, hotels and camping grounds.
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.