Walking and trekking
France has everything the walker could want, in abundance. The country has a staggering 110,000 miles of trail, split into three divisions: the GRs (Trans-European paths) GRPs (Regional Paths) and Prs (Local Paths). What is of immediate surprise to a visitor is just how big the country is, and how rurally empty most of it appears. Geographically, it’s easy to see why France is such a lure to the outdoor lover; in the north and west, the bleak coastal plains are a low-level walker’s delight. In the middle is the astonishing volcanic region of the Auvergne. In the South-West the French Pyrenees wall the border with Spain and Andorra, and fall to earth via the delightful and historically rich Midi-Pyrenees region. Then we have the east – which is where mountaineers prick up their ears – with the Jura and the Alps, one of the world’s greatest mountain ranges and home to Western Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc, amongst a great many others. Starting high then the natural base for excursions into the high Alps is the town of Chamonix – Graceland for every living thing that ever wore skis or spikes. There’s a lot more to do here than just mountaineer, though: Chamonix offers visitors of every ability or desire something to do, from strolls through high Alpine pasture to ice climbing. If you want to tackle the big White Mountain (as Mont Blanc translates), the most straightforward route is the ever-popular Gouter route, which involves a cable car ride, a dawn traverse of the notoriously unstable Grand Colouir up into a realm of narrow snow slopes, fierce cold, steep drops and changeable weather. Despite its accessibility, Mont Blanc is the antithesis of a pushover – it is statistically the world’s most dangerous mountain, and you need to be hot to trot with Alpine skills, be well acclimatised and prepared to turn back if you lose the good weather.
Naturally, the views from the top are staggering, but are perhaps outweighed by the views from the valley, which is surrounded by a cauldron of speared peaks which rival anywhere in the world for spectacle. If gentler fare is more your thing, literally take a step down, checking out the towns in the hills to the west of the high Alps – a range of mountains cannily called the Préalpes – such as Castellane, Moustiers Sainte Marie and Greoux, where superlative hill-walking can be found. Hereabouts, in the extreme south-east, dramatic features such as the Verdon Gorge can be explored amongst surroundings of jaw-dropping beauty and intoxicating culture. If you want something unexpected, you can explore the volcanic region of the Auvergne lies within the Massif Central, a landscape of ghostly volcanoes covered in verdantly spreading vegetation – an image familiar from the Volvic bottle, named for the town of the same name in this region. The best walking lies within the Parc naturel régional des Volcans d'Auvergne, a regional national park. These regional parks are not to be confused with the seven Parcs Nationaux, which generally are governed by stiffer restrictions than those in Britain; visit the website shown in ‘links’ for more info. Any level of walking can be found here, as can in most regions of France, from walks along the Rhone to the windswept coastlines of Brittany and Normandy. These are just the highlights of an outstandingly varied country.
Skiing is massive in France, both amongst the French and the hoardes of tourists who flock resorts such as Courcheval, Chamonix and Les 3 Valles. Recent unreliable snowfall has caused much in the way of negative publicity, but the French ski industry is far from suffering. Culturally, France is also magnificent – a haven for gastronomes and lovers of café culture, and there are many seats of culture within striking distance of outdoor attractions. The city of Cleremont Ferrand, with its impressive Gothic cathedral is a fine base for the Massif Central; St Etienne is within striking distance of the Pre-Alpes, as is Nice on the south coast and Grenoble inland. All offer slices of uniquely French culture and make fine places to retire to if ski chalets aren’t your style. Rafting on the river gorges in the south east is popular, as is cycling, either on long, famously good country roads or the sinuous roads of the Alps – Grenoble makes a particularly good destination for the latter. Horse riding, rock-climbing and boating are also quintessential experiences, particularly along the beautiful Canal du Midi – an engineering marvel that cuts through thedreamy, rolling scenery of Languedoc and Rousillon, from the city of Toulouse via a series of wonderful towns all the way to Etang de Thau on the Mediterranean. If you like living on a boat, this is for you.
It’s rude just to say ‘bonjour’. TRUE. Well, sort of. It is one of the quirks of French etiquette to use ‘monsieur’ or ‘madame’ as a suffix, depending on who you’re talking to. It’s not exactly rude, but it’s better to err on the side of caution!
The Eiffel Tower was a gift to France from the USA as a thank you for the Statue of Liberty. FALSE – It was built for the Paris World Fair by Gustav Eiffel in 1887.
Must see and do
Visit Chamonix – even if skiing or rock-climbing aren’t your thing, a visit to French mountaineering’s literal and spiritual home- if only for the magnificent views and the railroad which takes you there – is an experience not to be missed. www.chamonix.com
Look into the Verdon Gorge – aside from being a marvel of nature in itself, the gorge lies in one of the prettiest parts of France, studded with picturesque villages where you can spend the night, such as Castellanne. www.provenceweb.fr/e/groupes/verdon/gorges.htm
Eat Escargot – the jewel in the shel…ahem, the crown of French cuisine. We won’t tell you what it is. But it tastes a bit like chicken.
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