Trekking the GR5 from the North Sea to the Mediterranean - Highlights
The GR5 (Grande Randonnée 5) is a trail – a marked route in some places – that begins in Hoek van Holland and runs for about 2300km through the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and several regions of eastern France (Lorraine, Alsace, the Jura and the Alps), plus small segments of Swiss territory around Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), to Nice.
Mary and I had hiked for two months on the GR5 in 1989 (Vosges, Jura and the Alps), and since then we had dreamed of hiking the whole thing, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. I retired on 1 January 2015, and Mary took extended leave from her job, so we were finally ready for a hike that would take about four months. In 1989 we had camped along the trail, but this time we left the camping gear behind and would wallow in the relative luxury of hotels, B&Bs, chambres d’hôtes, gîtes d’étape and mountain refuges. This is the first in a series of three articles from Carroll about his trek south through Europe.
I filled a small container with water on a beach in Hoek van Holland, near Rotterdam, intending to carry that sample of the North Sea along the GR5 trail all the way to the Mediterranean. It was 30 April 2015, and the next day my wife Mary and I would start our long trek southward.
On 1 May, fortified by a copious breakfast at our hotel in Hoek van Holland, we started hiking. A GR5 marker – white and red rectangles – was visible on a pole across the street. We’d set off! Our destination: Nice.
The GR5 traverses the Delta region to Bergen op Zoom. The trail is flat, often along bicycle paths. Water is everywhere: rivers, canals and ponds – not to mention the nearby North Sea, the source of great storms that sweep suddenly inland, with high winds, lightning and hail. This environment is home to many aquatic birds, including ducks, grebes, coots, herons, geese and swans. In May their offspring were learning how to navigate in the water – sometimes following mother in dutiful lines, sometimes paddling away in their first experiments with independence.
It is easy to get acquainted with Dutch people, since they are friendly with strangers and generally speak English well. We especially appreciated Dutch hospitality the day I lost my glasses during one of those big North Sea storms. Jeroen, our host at the B&B in Herkingen, sprang into action and took me to an optician in nearby Middelharnis where I could order a new pair. A week later, when the glasses were ready, Jeroen returned to the optician, picked up the glasses and drove to Noorderwijk in Belgium to meet us and deliver the new glasses. Dank je wel, Jeroen!
We stopped for our first rest day in Bergen op Zoom, a convenient place to shop for small items of gear and clothing that a week of hiking had shown to be needed. Mary found a shoemaker who could repair the stitching on one of her boots.
The GR5 turns inland at Bergen op Zoom and crosses the Belgian border. We hiked for nearly two weeks across northern Flanders, a land of lush, opulent farmland. Mary, who grew up in rural northern California, was impressed by the quality of the horses that we saw grazing in fields beside the trail.
A hike across a wide swath of Europe inevitably produces chance encounters with interesting events. On Ascension Day, 14 May, we found ourselves walking with 4000 participants in the Abdijentocht (‘Abbey Tour’), an annual walk from Tongerlo Abbey to Averbode Abbey. We paused at a refreshment stand, where we stood out in the crowd with our big backpacks. A Flemish TV reporter who was preparing a report on the Abdijentocht struck up a conversation. We chatted with him for a while, describing our hike, and he interviewed us for his report.
After Flanders the GR5 crosses Wallonie, the francophone region of Belgium. We hiked into the Ardennes, where we encountered our first hilly terrain – a hint of the more varied topography that lay before us. We had not seen many other long-distance hikers on the trail so far, so we were pleased to meet Omar, a fellow American, in Spa. He, too, was hiking the GR5. He hiked faster and further than we generally did, but our stages matched his for several days, so we enjoyed dinners with him before he outpaced us in Luxembourg.
The GR5 enters Luxembourg at the point where its border touches those of Belgium and Germany. A beautiful forest trail follows the Our River, on the eastern border of Luxembourg, and later passes through an area of spectacular sandstone formations called La Petite Suisse Luxembourgeoise. This is a tamed wilderness: we were deep within forests, beside scenic rivers, but the trails were smooth and sometimes had steps built into steep sections. We even saw two traffic cones on a forest trail, marking a small area where the trail had subsided.
After reaching the Moselle River, the GR5 crossed vineyards and then curved westwards in mostly open territory towards Dudelange, an old industrial city near the French border.
Lorraine is a land of beautiful, rolling countryside, with long forest trails. The region has not recovered from the decline of its steel industry: the blast furnaces are mostly cold now, but the Lorraine people’s hospitality still glows with undiminished warmth. Hiking alone for a few days (while Mary supervised renovation work in our apartment), I greatly appreciated this hospitality. My first night in Lorraine, I stayed at a chambre d’hôtes in Angevillers. My host, Fabrice, invited me to join a convivial barbecue with neighbours that he had organised.
Mary rejoined me a few days later. Together, we continued to enjoy the hospitality of Lorraine. In Bioncourt, a nondescript village east of the Meurthe River, we spent the night at Le Clos des Pommes, one of the most comfortable chambres d’hôtes on the GR5. Our hosts, Claude and Marie-Paule, were friendly and helpful, and the dinner that they served was delicious. Two days later we reached the Château d'Alteville, a collection of buildings and farmland with a history dating back to the 16th century. David, a scion of the family that has owned and run the farm since 1906, welcomed us warmly in the part of the château that is devoted now to chambres d’hôtes. It was a sybaritic moment for two long-distance backpackers!
Another two days of hiking gave us our first view of Vosges Mountains on the horizon – la ligne bleue des Vosges, as they were described by the French after Alsace (along with part of Lorraine) was annexed by Germany in 1871.
Alsace is the domain of the venerable Club Vosgien, which has marked a dense network of trails in the Vosges Mountains. We passed signs with as many as a dozen different symbols marking various trails passing a single point: the GR5 hiker has many options and alternatives along the route.
Our first day in the Vosges it rained steadily. After that the weather cleared, and soon a fierce heat wave (canicule) settled over France. Temperatures rose and stayed in the high 30s Celsius. A glass (or two) of Alsatian Riesling was welcome refreshment at the end of a day hiking on the crest of the Vosges in such heat!
The day we hiked from l’Etang du Devin to Les Trois Fours was one of the most memorable. It was long and tiring, but also interesting and beautiful, a quintessential day in the Vosges. The trail that climbed through a forest from l’Etang du Devin to the Tête des Faux was marked by the stigmata of World War I – old concrete bunkers, tangles of rusty barbed wire and a military cemetery. Walking across the open Gazon du Faing, we admired vast, 360° views from high points such as the Tanet (1292m). We spent the night in a mountain refuge, Les Trois Fours, with fellow GR5 hikers and an animated group of teenage cyclists.
The canicule continued as we hiked over the Ballon d’Alsace (1247m.), at the southern end of the Vosges, and crossed the Belfort Gap (Trouée de Belfort), en route to the Jura. By 7.00am on 7 July 2015, as we ate our breakfast at a chambre d’hôtes in Evette-Salbert, the temperature had already risen to 27°C.
The GR5 hiker in the Jura can expect many encounters with the Doubs, a meandering river. The trail winds its way through dense forest, bounded by rocky cliffs, as it follows gorges from Saint-Hippolyte, past Goumois and La Rasse, to a waterfall at the Saut du Doubs, near Villers-le-Lac. Several dams and hydroelectric power stations control the flow of the river. In some places, the river is calm, its current imperceptible; elsewhere, narrowing banks force the river to flow more rapidly. One of the highlights of the hike in this area is the climb down a series of long, steep ladders, called (with a touch of exaggeration) Les Echelles de la Mort.
Our trail left the Doubs at Villers-le-Lac (to rejoin the river at its source in Mouthe about six days later), and crossed rolling countryside, with occasional sections on country roads. The GR5 climbed dramatically as it followed a ridge south of Hôpitaux-Neufs, up to the summits of Le Morond (1419m) and Le Mont d’Or (1461m). The surrounding countryside, seen from these heights, was beautiful, but most spectacular view was the vision of the Alps spread across the southern horizon. The great massif of Mont Blanc seemed to float above the haze.
The GR5 reaches the northern shore of Lac Léman at Nyon, an attractive Swiss town. Nyon is the psychological, if not the geographical, mid-point of the GR5. Major sections of the trail lie behind: Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Lorraine, the Vosges and the Jura. But across the lake loom the Alps!
For many people, the great crossing of the Alps is the GR5, and the month of hiking between Saint-Gingolph and Nice is a great and rewarding challenge. The GR5 hiker crosses about 40 passes in the Alps, the top ten of which stand between 2500m and 2800m. Looking back, the three months of hiking from Hoek van Holland to Lac Léman seemed like a prologue to the Alps.
Mont Blanc (4807m) looms over the GR5 for about a week’s worth of hiking. Approaching from the north, there are dramatic views of Mont Blanc from the Col d’Anterne (2060m) and the Col du Brévent (2368m) – weather permitting, which was not the case on our hike! We spent a night at the Refuge Bellachat below the Col du Brévent. The weather cleared in the morning, allowing us to admire Mont Blanc across the Chamonix valley. The GR5 then curves around the southwestern side of the massif. The day we hiked under sunny skies and scattered clouds from the Refuge de Balme (1706m) to the Gîte d’Alpage de Plan Mya (1860m) was one of the most memorable of the entire hike, as we crossed two passes – Bonhomme (2329m) and Croix du Bonhomme (2479m) – and then walked along the dramatic Crête des Gittes (2538m). We were fascinated to see birds soaring around in circles below us. As we hiked into the Beaufortain region the next day, we looked back for a final view of Mont Blanc dominating the horizon.
We entered the Parc National de la Vanoise on 15 August, the Feast of the Assumption, and hiked in heavy rain to the rustic Refuge d’Entre le Lac. Looking around, Mary declared that it appeared to be run by bachelors, but dinner was good and we were able to dry our wet clothes. What more could we ask for?
The next day, after crossing the Col du Palet (2652m), we followed the ‘high mountain’ variant, the GR55. There is nothing technically difficult about this route, which simply avoids the valleys apart from a descent to Pralognan-la-Vanoise (1418m), an attractive resort town. In spectacular terrain, we crossed the Col de la Leisse (2758m), the Col de la Vanoise (2522m) and finally – on a cold, windy day – the Col de Chavière (2796m).
We were dazzled by the Vanoise but really charmed by the Queyras, a lesser-known area of the French Alps. We especially enjoyed our hike from Brunissard to the Refuge de Furfande, following another variant, the GR58. That refuge was one of the best we encountered during our hike: newly built and quite comfortable, it overlooks a valley, with a range of mountains filling the southern horizon; the food is excellent, and the gardiens are friendly and interesting people.
We left the Queyras at the Col Girardin (2700m) and hiked through the Ubaye Valley. The ‘trail’ from Maljasset to Fouillouse was mostly a road, but the following day made up for that. Our route from Fouillouse to Larche crossed two passes – Vallonet (2524m) and Mallemort (2558m) – and combined two greatly appreciated qualities: easy walking and spectacular scenery.
Leaving Larche, we entered the Parc National du Mercantour. We got acquainted with groups of hikers whose stages on the GR5 matched ours. We, the ‘Americans’, enjoyed several convivial dinners and songfests in refuges with the ‘Savoyards’, the ‘Italians’ and the ‘Belgians’. We were pleased to share this experience with our daughter, who joined us for two weeks of hiking.
Hiking south, we observed changes in the climate and vegetation. As we encountered mélèze (larch) trees, lavender, thyme and other aromatic herbs, we sensed that we were approaching the Mediterranean. Finally, hiking from Aspremont on 9 September, we crested a modest hill below Mont Chauve, and the Mediterranean filled the horizon. We walked down the hill into the bustling city of Nice. We stopped at the Maison de l’Environnement, the official terminus of the GR5. We then continued to the Mediterranean, the true terminus of the GR5.
We walked into the water, and I performed the little ritual that I had planned back in Hoek van Holland: I poured some of the North Sea water that I had been carrying into the Mediterranean (thereby diluting the salinity of the latter by an infinitesimal amount). I then added Mediterranean water to the remaining North Sea water in the little container. That mixture of North and Mediterranean Seas will be a tangible souvenir of our memorable hike on the GR5.
Carroll Dorgan has lived in many countries: born and educated in the United States, he taught history in international schools in Iran, Belgium, England and France. His first project after retiring was to hike the entire GR5. He is now working on a guide to the Northern GR5 (Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Lorraine) that will be published by Cicerone.View Articles and Books by Carroll Dorgan