Walking and Hiking in France
Ever found yourself gasping in wonder at the splendour of the great outdoors? Or feeling that you share an unspoken bond with the trees and the birds?
The busier our lives in concrete cities are, the stronger our need to rekindle our friendship with Mother Nature is. That’s why so many Brits dedicate their holidays to answering the call to adventure. And France is one of our favourite destinations to do so, as the country’s versatile landscapes allow us to take part in a variety of invigorating activities in the open air.
Walking is probably the best way to combine pleasant exercise and true appreciation of your surroundings. Let us take you on a journey to some of France’s most compelling hiking sites, starting with the Côte d’Opale, of which the beauty rivals that of the Côte d’Azur, and finishing with the legendary forest of Brocéliande in Brittany.
The magnificent Côte d’Opale owes its name to the painter Édouard Lévêque. Mesmerised by the lighting that the two French villages he was painting were basking in, he compared its shimmering colours to that of an opal. Today, the expression refers to the 120km long coast that runs from the Picardy department to the Belgian border, making it easy to drive anywhere along it from the port of Calais. Thanks to its endless white-sand beaches, dunes caressed by the wind, and chalk cliffs, the Côte d’Opale is a hiker’s paradise. One of the region’s greatly prized jewels is the Cap Gris-nez, a 25-metre cliff that Napoleon himself stood upon in July 1803 to gaze across the Channel at the defiant coast of England. Another imposing headland, the Cap Blanc-nez, situated only 10km from the Gris-nez, will present you with another enviable sight of Great Britain. And a mere hour’s drive from Calais will get you to Marquenterre and the sublime bay of Authie, where local hiking tours are organised. Children will especially enjoy encountering the adorable harbour seals which have found a safe haven along the Côte d’Opale.
Don’t be fooled by the name – you won’t have to drive all the way to Montreux to discover Swiss Normandy. Located about four hours from Calais, this treasured land of the Calvados department earned the ‘Swiss’ epithet simply because of how much it resembles the Swiss Alps. Although you won’t see snow-covered mountains over there, you will find spectacular cliffs – including the 118-metre-high and 540-million-year-old famous Rock of Oëtre. From its top, you will be treated to a breathtaking view of Norman Switzerland’s verdant wooded valley. On your way down, take a moment to observe the rock’s profile: you will be able to distinguish a nose and a human-looking face. Venturing into the valley’s pathways means entering a dense forest, filled with peculiar quartz-encrusted pink granite. Their oblique shape comes from volcanic activity long ago. The river Rouvre runs peacefully through the forest, and is a rich habitat for eels, salmon, trout and molluscs, such as the freshwater pearl mussel. The ecosystem here is full of wildlife found in very few other places in France, making spotting species under the pristine water a real treat for adults and children alike.
Burgundy is the perfect holiday destination for those who are keen to appreciate the region’s renowned wine and cathedrals, but it’s also a great hiker’s destination, especially for those who want to see historical landmarks en route. Julius Caesar sought to defeat the Gallic chief Vercingetorix in the battle of Alesia which took place nearby, and his victory led to the subjugation of the whole of Gaul. A fascinating museum is dedicated to this decisive event, but an explorer like yourself will prefer to follow the ancient commanders’ physical footsteps. Where centurions and Vercingetorix’ men marched centuries ago, you will walk too, following an ambitious 120 km-route that will take you from the settlement of Bibracte to the one of Alesia. Shorter trails are available, so whichever distance you decide to take on, your adventure will allow you to experience the dignified beauty of this verdant land. Just make sure to wear proper hiking boots and not Roman sandals.
Located near the bucolic village of Paimpont in Brittany, the labyrinthine 7000-hectare forest of Brocéliande boasts many curiosities deeply linked to the Arthurian legends. Ever since the epic writings of Wace and Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century, Brocéliande is believed – in literature at least – to be a major centre of supernatural activity. Wandering into the woods, you may not encounter the Lady of the Lake, but you will cross paths with the tomb of the mischievous wizard Merlin, upon which offerings are left to this day. Considered the heart of the forest, the fountain of Barenton invites you to try out magic tricks; observe the bubbles that reach its surface and wish upon them, or attempt to summon the rain by throwing stones into its pristine water. Before you end your Arthurian quest, stop in at the rocky Val sans retour. A valley of red metamorphic rock formations, majestic oaks and pines, this is supposedly where the sorceress Morgana imprisoned unfaithful lovers. You can play the tour guide yourself and impress your family with this trivia, or book an organised excursion, such as the five-hour-long route through the megalithic sites surrounding Brocéliande.