Trekking from Hoek van Holland to Nice on the GR5
Advice for hiking the GR5 through the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France
Author Carroll Dorgan joins Hannah this week to talk about the entire GR5 trail, from the North Sea all the way down through Benelux, Lorraine, the Vosges, and past Lake Geneva to the South of France. Find out about the history of the route, the variations you can take, and what tips Carroll recommends.
Carroll Dorgan has also written 'Walking the Brittany Coast Path, The GR34 from Mont-Saint-Michel to Roscoff', available to pre-order now on the Cicerone website: Https://www.cicerone.co.uk as well as our three guidebooks on the GR5.
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Carroll Dorgan on the GR5
Hannah: Hello, and welcome to Footnotes. The Cicerone podcast, a podcast to inspire you about outdoor travel and activities in the UK and across the world. I'm Hannah. And you can email me with your thoughts or your questions on live@Cicerone.co.uk. Today I am talking to Carroll Dorgan, who is an American author who lives in France.
Hannah: And he's going to be talking to us about the GR5 trail an incredibly long route that goes from the Hook van Holland, all the way down to Nice in the French Alpes
Carroll: I'm Carroll Dorgan. And I live in France. I'm an American who's lived in France for 30 or so years, done lots of hiking and cycling here in France and especially. The GR5, which is one of my all-time favorite trails.
What is the GR5?
Hannah: We chatted recently about doing some marketing for your Brittany coastal path book. And, when we were talking about that, we just happened to mention the GR5 because you have written a guide book to the GR5. But not the entire route.
Carroll: I've hiked the entire route a couple of times and lots of shorter hikes around there. But when I got around to writing Cicerone had already published two guide books to this great long trail. And so there was a gap in the catalog that I stepped into to write a guide book to the, what I call the Northern GR5 from the North Sea at Hook van Holland. All the way to the Vosges, the Northern Vosges in Schirmeck. It's about a thousand kilometers of trail that I wrote about in my guidebook.
Hannah: Yeah. So Cicerone has got three guidebooks to the GR5 the first one that came out was just called the GR5. And it's a bit like the Camino, isn't it. When people say they're doing the GR5, or they're doing the Camino, they just mean a particular stretch of the GR5. So, the sort of most common bit is from The Schirmeck down to Nice. But actually, the GR5 trail, like you said, starts at Hook van Holland and comes all the way down through Benelux and Lorrain. And then the Vosges Jura before you get to the GR5 trail that the original guidebook covered
Carroll: That's right. And for me, I always want to insist that the GR5 is the entire trail, but it's true that the Alpine part, which takes about a month to hike and is really dramatic over the mountains is perhaps the best known. And you'll certainly see the most people. Hiking it on that, that section of the GR5 you have fewer people hiking through the Benelux and then Lorraine you have some people do parts of it. When you say GR5, people are often thinking of the Alpine part, but anyway, it's a trail that or a marked route that covers about 2,300 kilometers from Hook van Holland, all the way to Nice on the Mediterranean.
And so, it's, it's a, it's a really, really spectacular trail and it covers a lot of different places, a lot of variety in terms of terrain. Variety in terms of the different countries you're walking through with different languages, different traditions, different food. So, it's, that's one of the great advantages in my mind of hiking, the whole GR5 is because you go through this variety of places and different kinds of terrains starting off in flat country like the Delta region of the Netherlands, where you're walking through polder land and on dykes and look through dunes, forested, dune land, and then the countryside in Flanders where you are inland walking through forests and countryside and Heath land, several very beautiful national parks there.
And then you move into Wallonia in the Southern part of Belgium. And there you enter a hilly region or small mountains in the Ardennes region, which extends then into Luxembourg, also in the Ardennes. And then you finally finish Luxembourg along the Moselle River near the vineyards or across the vineyards and enter France in Lorraine. And there it's rolling countryside, forested areas that you walk through, especially south of Metz, and then you turn east and walk. And then after a few days, you see. the Vosges Mountains, the outline of the Vosges Mountains on the horizon.
It's a beautiful site, exciting to see real mountains out there and you get to the Vosges Mountains and basically turn right turn south and walk across the Vosges for a couple of weeks and it's, it's a really wonderful area to walk through. Very interesting. We can talk more about all those but that then leads to The Jura. Also mountainous, not as big as the mountain says as the Vosges was still up and down significantly many places or through river valleys and up onto Plateau that then leads to Switzerland Lac Léman and cross lake, and then get started in the, in the Alps on the other side of the, on the Southern side of the lake for about three, four weeks of hiking through the mountains, crossing about 40 passes to get to Nice. So that's in a nutshell what you're doing.
Hannah: So that's several thousand kilometers in about a minute, that's pretty good going so I can see why Cicerone have decided to publish this route in three guidebooks, because actually it's, it's an enormously long distance. And as you said, just the last chunk of the trail takes about a month to walk. I mean, how many people do it as a, through hike?
Carroll: Well, I wouldn't be able to tell you exactly how many people do it. I don't know. I have met some people doing it, but it's much more common of course, for people to do sections of it.
I've met people who were doing say two, three weeks each summer when they have some holiday time, some vacation, but I've met only a few people who did it all the way straight through. And of course, I couldn't do it myself until I retired from my regular job. And my wife and I hiked about two months of the GR5 years ago when I was between jobs.
And that was, we just did the mountain part from the Vosges to Nice. And we I remember as we walked into Nice saying, ah, I feel like just turning around and going back and doing it all again. Let's make it a goal sometime, a dream of doing the whole thing. And it was the first thing that I did with my wife after I retired. We went up to Hook van Holland and walked to Nice, we spent about four months.
Hannah: Wow. It must be so weird when you finish, what do you do the next day after you've walked thousands of miles and you just stop?
Carroll: Yeah, that's right. Is it just a little bit of decompression? I wrote a blog as I was walking the whole thing. This was in 2015 and I remember. How I sat and wrote the last blog entry, sitting in a cafe in Nice and feeling quite strange. You get to a city like this, and there are so many cars and so many traffic lights and roads and things like that. And I mean, the GR5 is not a wilderness trail. It's not a wilderness experience. It's not like say the Pacific coast trail in the United States or the continental divide trail where you really are out in the wild and you won't see many towns. You have to carry food for two weeks at a time. Things like that. The GR5 isn't like that, but it is still very much out in the country, in the mountains.
I remember crossing a road over an auto route once in Lorraine, somewhere. I think it was. And it really, it was strange to see cars zipping by at 130 kilometers an hour. I said, this is it's a strange world, you know? So, it just is a transition. There is a sort of shock to returning to civilization when you've been living with all your possessions on your back. Especially for if you camp, we didn't camp seven years ago, but we did back in 1989. And so, you really are out a little bit more out in the wild then when you're camping.
Hannah: When you walked, when you first retired, did you have an idea that you wanted to be a guide book writer then, or did that appear out of walking the route?
Carroll: I think that appeared out of walking. There was a very good book about hiking. The written by two American women published in the mid-eighties, Hiking Europe from top to bottom. And it was not so much a guide book as a memoir of, of hiking. Although you can get some guidance reading it.
It was very well-written and very inspiring. And so, as I read that, I was thinking, you know, maybe I could step in and write a new version of this or something like that. So, the idea was working there, but I was just then getting acquainted with Cicerone in the first place. And so it was something that developed as I was walking.
Hannah: How many countries do you go through when you do the GR5?
Carroll: You go through five that really, I'd say are an important part of the trail. There's Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Benelux and then France. A lot of France, of course. And then some of Switzerland when you arrive at Lac Léman and then a few days later, there's a half day of walking through a bit of Switzerland over between two passes.
So those are the five principal countries that you visit, but you also step briefly once or twice into Germany. We went over to Germany a couple of times just to get a place to spend the night. And then you go a little bit of Germany through Schengen where the treaty was signed years ago. And then also there. There are little sections of Italy. One of them is through a variant of the GR5. And this maybe the most interesting part of Italy is near Briançon. And it's actually part of France, but it was Italian territory, a little sliver of Italian territory that France annexed after World War II.
And so, it's part of France, but it is very Italian. They speak Italian, there, there are Italian telephone numbers, and they serve polenta for dinner. And so, you really feel like you've stepped into, into Italy. And it's a really beautiful. You know, there were supposedly some strategic reasons for taking that pass, which are no longer important anyway, but I think my theory is the French took it because it's so beautiful.
History on the GR5
Hannah: You’re really into your history. So as a history lover, what does that add to the experience of walking in the GR5?
Carroll: Well, it adds a lot for me because I look around and I understand, or I learn, try to learn as I’m walking, learning more things about what was significant about this place or that building, or why it's attracted so much attention. Often unfortunately, conflict or rivalries. And the GR5 is really lies upon a kind of a fault line of European history, where there were lines of communication rivers and things like that. Important passes were significant and so forth. So, you know, attention commerce military activities and so forth, focused on those areas.
And you, if you're thinking about have your eyes open, you can notice and understand why they were important for people in history for, for commerce trade industry, as well as for in national rivalries and, and, and conflict too. You're walking along, you see Castles and forts and medieval fortifications and 20th century fortifications, like the Maginot Line, sad moments of 20th century history you go past in the, in the Vosges, an old German concentration camp. And struck off near Schirmeck. So, I think for me, it's just, it's part of the whole experience is to be aware of the history around me.
And when I walk a long way on a hike, I sometimes think about it. What it's like for people back hundreds of years ago. Who got everywhere. They went on foot for the most part. And it makes me think a little bit about what was called the Spanish road, which was a, a route that was used by Spain to send soldiers from Spain to the low country during the 16th century. And when the Dutch were rebelling against a Spanish rule and the Dutch had Naval forces that were strong enough to make it very difficult or dangerous for the Spanish to send ships with soldiers around, from Spain up to, to the Netherlands.
So the Spanish. Loaded their troops into ships and sent them across the Mediterranean from Spain to Northern Italy, that would disembark in Genoa and then walk from there to Brussels, which is pretty much like the GR5. And so, I imagine these 16th century soldiers and all of the camp followers, men and women, you know, moving their way up over Alpine passes and around Geneva, but well enough away from Geneva because the Geneva ones might attack them otherwise. And then up through Lohan in Luxembourg, they imagined the shoes that they were wearing and the clothes and the shelter. And then compare that with my experience here, there's an affinity for these four soldiers, but also I'm a lot more comfortable. So that sort of thing I find quite interesting. And so it's true that the history is a big part of it for me.
Hannah: This might sound a bit strange, but I always think about the rocks and the trees.
Carroll: that's not strange at all. People think I'm strange.
Hannah: Well, just that experience of time compared to ours. And I think wouldn't it be fascinating if we had some sort of webcam that would stick in all the trees and then just watch it back and see what. I have been able to see over the years. It is just fascinating.
Carroll: I just, yeah, I find it very interesting to go back and imagine that. So I'm a little bit better on human history than geology or botany. So, there's more geology, I think, in, in the other Cicerone guidebooks.
Hannah: Yeah. And then we do let you sometimes write articles for us. It's around extra, where you get to indulge that enthusiasm. If any listeners want to read those. I mean, I think very few people who will be doing these walks are doing it. Just for exercise. You know, most people are doing it because they're interested in the history or the environment or, or the, the rocks or something that they've usually got.
Carroll: As I was saying before, it's, you know, it's very much a walkthrough societies. You're not isolating yourself from the world as much as you would in the wilderness. Trek in some ways. And, so you meet people at one place they're speaking Dutch somewhere else they're speaking Luxembourg dialect or something like that. I wrote somewhere that, that this trail could be a museum tour. I mean, there is quite an interesting collection of museums, right along the route, you know, some really well-known world-class art museums, like the Pompidou in Mets, but then also a little funky little museums that you would not expect. You wouldn't go out of your way maybe to, to visit, unless you you're really into that particular subject. But they're quite interesting just to stumble upon like a tug boat museum and a Flint Museum in Belgium and paper Museum and a wine museum in Luxembourg and on and on. So I, I find those things interesting as, as well. And, and so if a person is hiking, they mean some people will just be wanting to walk, you know, boom. One thing to do here, I'm going to walk, I'm going to rack up 30 kilometers at least every day, but others might want to linger here and there.
And then. If you're taking a long hike, which would GR5 would be a very long hike. If you're doing it in one go, it's good to take a day off here and there or a half day. And there are many, many interesting towns and cities along the way where you could enjoy. A little time off and pop into a museum if you're interested or, or simply walk around and learn a bit about the history of the place, of course, and things like that. Quite a few spots, but I like to do that anyway. Sometimes, sometimes you get sort of antsy after a full day, but maybe I stop around midday, have a nice lunch and then go visit a museum. The next day, you're ready to go.
Hannah: I guess there's so much flexibility that you could make it last a week or two weeks or a month or six months. You can take as much time as you wanted.
Variants of the GR5
Carroll: And one thing to notice about the GR5 and hiking, a lot of places, there are many variants along the trail. You don't just stay on one GR5 and back there are, for example, in the Vosges. Mountains. There's a very, very dense network of trails that have been marked, laid out and marked very systematically by the local hiking club, the club, you'll see, you can see science with a dozen different symbols. You know, they have discs. Lozenges and rectangles in circle and all sorts of things. And you'd go in various, you can follow these trails all over the place, so you can do a little variance and go off there somewhere else in the Vosges, or just follow the GR5, which follows a red rectangle in the Vosges.
And then in the Alps, there are some very, very interesting variants to take you off the it's particular. The in the Vanoise you have a choice of three different trails in the Vanoise, which are very well described in Patty Dillon's book, by the way. And you can follow the GR5 itself. There's a GR5 C I believe it is.
And then the best, one of all. Patty recommends. And I endorse is the GR55, which has stays at a higher level and then a joint rejoins the GR5 after three or four days. So those are options. And then there's the GR52 as well at the end, which peels off from the GR5, about five days before. You reach Nice and goes through the Mercantour National Park and then drops down to Menton instead of Nice. So you can certainly, if you start following those variants, you can turn it into a six month walk. Now that you just have to be careful about the weather, of course, in some places but north of the north of the Alps, it's a three-season trail, so you can hike a lot of different times.
How difficult is the GR5
Hannah: And I suppose there's something for everyone. If you're not a massively experienced Walker, you could do a shorter stretch of it and a slightly easiest stretch. And then if you are really experienced, you could do either just make it longer and do a longer part of it or do a slightly more challenging part of it. So can you highlight perhaps. A good chunk that would be sensible for beginners and then a more challenging chunk for more experience trekkers.
Carroll: Sure. I think I would pick out the Vosges for a beginner. Now it's one of the first places, I guess I hiked that was actually part of the GR5 years ago. And it's the trail. Everywhere you go, the trails are easy to follow there's. They have an element of challenge in them compared hiking across flatland say in Holland, but they're not as challenging physically as the Alpes. So, you're in the mountains. You have great views over distant areas. It's an interesting area, Alsace with a lot of history you could talk about there. And the trail is a huge network of trails, as I was saying, not just the GR5. So you have lots of options. And, and the way I discovered the first time, actually it was through day hikes. I was working as a teacher at the time. So I had summers off and I loaded up my car with a box of books and a tent and I drove down to, to a little village in the Vosges and pitched my tent and then went out every day for. For day hikes, you know, and I got to know the area that way before then hiking through it some, a few years later on the GR5.
So I'd say the to answer the first part of your question. And then for the second part I would say. Of course, you could pick out something little bit more challenging in the Alps. I could, I there's one, I could just, there's all sorts of possibilities in the Alpes. The Vanoise, is really spectacular. That high level route that I told you about the GR55 I would certainly recommend another route that I would recommend in the, in the Alpes, which would be, you know, Perfect.
I just did recommend it to a, to a friend I met in Brittany who was going hiking in the Alps about five days or so to leave from somewhere in the Northern Alps, which is in north of Chamonix and walked to the massif of Mont Blanc. And you go around, you pass a pass just north of Chamonix. And then continue all the way to the Beaufort and then even farther, if you can, to the Vanoise, that's a, that's a very, very nice section of the GR5 and you have views of Mont Blanc and spectacular views. You walk out before that you walk past a really magnificent lake which is near Chamonix after you go past Contamine-sur-Arve to another pass. And after that you pass a refuge and then there's this spectacular Ridge that you walk along.
Cicerone published a little reminisce, a memoir of an American, a young American hiker some years ago, and it's really quite spectacular. It's a narrow knife edge Ridge, and you walk along it for about an hour and you're up high. And when I walked in, I remember looking down and being fascinated to see birds flying around in circles below. I that's pretty special too. You have to have a kind of a head for heights there, cause it's a bit exposed in a few places, but it's a good trail. And it really, is a marvelous experience to go through there.
Hannah: Cicerone has got a guidebook for the Vanoise and I was looking recently at the tracks and the photographs and in that book and it just looks, it does look incredible.
Carroll: Mm. Yeah, it is. It's, it's a really good area to walk through. And as far as I haven't walked in, but I've walked on most of what's covered by that, that guidebook from various combinations. the GR5 goes through it, then there's the 55. Then you go around, you can do various loops. And, and it's, it's really, really beautiful. Yeah.
Accommodation on the GR5
Hannah: Yeah. It does look really beautiful. Okay. So, what's the accommodation like on the GR5?
Carroll: For accommodation. If you take the whole GR5, you're going to probably sample a little bit of everything it's possible. I mean, what may people like to camp of those, I find that Europeans camp somewhat less than Americans do in, in their great wilderness areas where you pretty much have to in say the Rocky Mountains or the Sierras. And so, and it's not so necessary, for example, in the mountain. You can stay in the refuge or huts in the mountains, which are quite comfortable, sometimes a bit noisy, a bit stuffy, but, but they serve meals and companion, you meet people and things like that.
But camping is a good option in the mountains. A little bit more complicated in the north. In some places, it isn't really allowed, but if you're a discreet, you can do it. But there are also commercial campgrounds. Quite comfortable and convenient, you know, with showers and facilities like that, but you can also stay in there are there BnBs and hostels. And so, so there's a wide variety of accommodation.
Equipment to take on the GR5
Hannah: What sorts of equipment would you take on the GR5?
Carroll: The equipment would be basic hiking kit. You don't need anything particularly special. There are a few little items I would recommend if you're hiking in the mountains, if you're going to be staying in huts and refuge, bring along either a sleeping bag or much lighter, just a sleeping bag liner, silk sleeping bag liner is compact and light. And then also a little item that I've found useful in. I appreciated the suggestion and that is bringing along a little rubber sink stopper, because if you have a chance to wash clothing, there'll be a sink somewhere, but often no way of plugging it. So bring along a little rubber sink stopper and that makes it easier to wash clothes provides that. It's oh, and another point I would mention, especially if you're in the mountains and that is becoming pretty difficult to charge telephones and other electronic devices in a, in a refuge there's just too much demand. I think everybody's got a phone and maybe a camera, et cetera, and they just don't have the electricity to serve everybody. You know, they're maybe just dependent upon solar electricity, a solar power, or I know one place that has a little water turbine powered by a stream that runs down the hillside. So you'll find suddenly that there aren't plugs available for people used to be a little bit easier. I think.
So I carry an external battery for my phone. And if I think I'm going to be really out there too far away for too long solar power collector. And so that's something to think about, especially if you're going to be in huts in the mountains, if you're going to be in hotels. BNBs is of course that's not so much of a problem. So those are the, so there's not anything too special apart from these little items that I would recommend. And then for clothing you just need to be ready for just about any kind of weather any time of year.
I've been rained on pretty hard in the middle of the summer. I've gotten some, some snow or hail as well, but also 40 degree temperatures hiking across the Vosges, things like that. So a good, good hiker has all that they need and no more than they need.
Hannah: And with the accommodation, how far ahead do you have to book?
Carroll: I recommend booking ahead. If you booked too far in advance, then you're at a risk of having to make changes and that's awkward. But I think it's a good idea when you're booking into hotels and BnBs and places like that to book a day or two, at least in advance. You can, you can also book in nowadays with websites and things like that. You can book into refuges as well, which is something I didn't do back in the old days. And I don't think any refuge would actually turn someone away if they showed up at six o'clock in the evening and, and they, all the beds were filled, but you might then sleep on the floor.
Carroll’s Brittany Book
Hannah: It’s something you can look back on when you, when you've got to a stage where you can afford for me to stay somewhere more comfortable. It's like, ah, do you remember those uncomfortable days? Yeah. So a quick plug for your Brittany book then Carroll.
Carroll: Yes. Yes. Well, there's I say, I, I just a few years ago. Discovered Brittany, I went and decided to go hiking out there and exploring it and I really, really have enjoyed it. And as I've said before, you know, I'm interested in history and Brittany has very distinctive unique history and culture, its own language, its own traditions. It's links with Britain, for example, and things like that. And, and walking along the coast of Brittany is really quite spectacular. So, as I say, I have a certain loyalty to the GR5, but Brittany and the GR34 is also an excellent area to go walking in and I'm looking forward to going back and continuing where I left off. Which I plan to do the spring of hope.
Hannah: Great. I really feel like we could talk for ages about the and hiking and all sorts of things. It's always a pleasure to talk to you. But we are out of time. Any final thoughts?
Carroll: I would say start looking at the reports of snow in the mountains and get ready to head out for the GR5. And, and also, it's becoming a bit easier to hike now with the COVID a bit more under control. It was complicating things for people and refuge and so forth. But I would say get on the GR5 and don't neglect the Northern part. That's another message. Don't just go to the Alps, but start out there, go up to Hook van Holland. Stand by the, the ocean there. Wind blowing up from the North Sea, just imagine ahead of you 2,300 kilometers away is the sunny Mediterranean, all you have to do is walk there.
Hannah: Fantastic. Thank you, Carroll. That's it that's been great.
Carroll: You're welcome. And it was my pleasure.