Trekking the GR5 from the North Sea to the Mediterranean - Logistics
Third and final article in the series, covering the logistics of trekking the GR5 long distance hiking trail. The route goes from the North Sea to the Mediterranean through The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France and parts of Switzerland.
In 2015, my wife Mary and I hiked the GR5 (Grande Randonnée 5) from Hoek van Holland to Nice. I describe here the logistics of our four-month hike – practical matters such as sources of information about the trail, accommodations, food & drink, etc. In separate articles, I summarize the highlights of our hike and the history that surrounded us on the trail.
Topoguides are the most useful source of information about the GR5. These are small booklets with maps, descriptions of the trail, practical information (e.g., accommodations, transport options) and information about flora and fauna, geology, historical and cultural landmarks, etc. Ten topoguides cover the GR5: Those for the Netherlands and Flanders are in Dutch; the topoguide for Wallonie and Luxembourg and those for France are in French. All of these topoguides can be purchased online and in specialized shops. Individual titles are sold in shops in the areas that they cover.
The topoguides are relatively heavy; the complete set of ten weighs 2.6 kg. We made arrangements to pick up topoguides as we hiked. A friend sent individual topoguides to post offices in towns along the GR5, poste restante, a couple of weeks before our anticipated arrival in those towns.
An alternative to carrying paper topoguides is using electronic versions of those books. Some of the French topoguides are now available in electronic versions. Of course, one must use some sort of device (such as an iPad) to read the electronic files, and the device and its charging cable may weigh more than a single topoguide.
While the topoguides can be useful even when one has only a limited knowledge of the language (that was the case for us, using the two Dutch-language topoguides), one may prefer a guide in English. There appear to be no English-language guides to the northern sections of the GR5, but Paddy Dillon’s The GR5 Trail, published by Cicerone, is a helpful guide for the Alpine portion of the trail. There is also a Cicerone title, Trekking in the Vosges and Jura, which is out of print, but available from second-hand booksellers. Walking Europe from Top to Bottom, by Susanna Margolis and Ginger Harmon, describes their hike on the GR5 in 1984. It is out of date for some practical information, but remains an excellent and inspiring narrative. Two recent personal accounts of hiking the GR5 are Sean Rothery’s A Long Walk South and Daniel Graham’s A Walk to the Water.
There are various internet sites in English, French and Dutch describing part or all of the GR5. Among them is the author’s blog, a daily narrative of our hike, with photos.
All along the GR5, there are variants and alternative trails. Some are related to the GR5 itself (e.g., the GR52, which departs from the GR5 in Saint-Dalmas-Valdeblore and leads to Menton on the Mediterranean). Others are simply trails in the area crossed by the GR5, such as the network of trails in the Vosges.
We chose several variants during our hike: For example, we followed the GR57 in Wallonie in order to visit Liège. We took the “high mountain” variant in the Vanoise, the GR55, and thereby avoided the Tignes and Val d’Isère ski resorts. It was convenient to hike through the center of the Queyras on the GR58, which took us to the excellent Refuge de Furfande.
Since we used topoguides for the entire hike, it was unnecessary to carry maps as well. But we did buy and use some maps along the way. Smaller scale maps, covering a broad area, can be useful for various purposes, such as identifying distant landmarks, planning days in advance, etc. Dutch maps include numerous bicycle routes with way points linked to sign posts on the ground; these were useful for orientation along short-cuts and to places off the GR5 where accommodations may be located. There are some areas, such as the Vosges, where large-scale maps (e.g., the IGN Top 25 series) show all of the many trails around the GR5. These maps can be used to follow variants and alternate routes that are not marked in the topoguides. Local maps are generally available for purchase along the route.
In theory, a GPS receiver loaded with software showing the route of the GR5 would be an alternative to paper maps. However, such software is expensive. We saw only one group of people using a GPS for trail orientation.
The standard GR marker consists of two horizontal rectangles, white over red. These way marks are used in the Netherlands, Belgium and France (except in the Vosges, where the GR5 is marked with red rectangles). Variants and other GR trails are marked with the same white and red blazes, so care must be taken to follow the correct trail.
The trail marking system in Luxembourg is completely different: The GR5 follows a route along national trails that are marked by different symbols. We started with yellow discs and later followed green triangles, yellow rectangles and yellow triangles. Signs marking the trail do not refer to the GR5, so it is important to know what blazes to follow and one’s next destination. The topoguide was useful in this regard, as it shows the color and shape of the blazes for each section of the trail in Luxembourg. Finally, the short sections of the GR5 in Switzerland are marked by yellow “Tourisme pédestre” signs and blazes in lower country, and white-red-white blazes in the mountains.
The principal seasonal factor to consider is, of course, snow: Lingering snow in mountain passes may be a problem through June (and may be present, but less of a problem, later). With the advent of autumn, the weather becomes colder and there is a greater chance of snow in the mountains. Of course, snow is possible at any time in the higher mountains, but snow that falls in August at the elevations crossed by the GR5 usually disappears quickly.
Accommodations are also seasonal in some places: Mountain refuges may not be open before late June, and they start to close in late September.
Clothing & Equipment
One naturally seeks to travel as lightly as possible, but one must be ready for all weather: hot and cold; wet and dry. We experienced intense thunderstorms (with wind and hail) in the Netherlands and at the Col d’Anterne north of Mont Blanc, a two-week heat wave in the Vosges, several long, rainy days in the Alps, and cold, windy weather crossing two high passes, the Col de Chavière and the Pas de la Cavale. In general, though, the weather was excellent! No special equipment besides standard hiking gear is needed on the GR5, unless one is camping. Of course, there are various optional items to consider: I carried a solar charger, plus battery, in the Alps, as I was uncertain whether I would have regular access to electricity in refuges. (I wanted to keep my telephone charged, for both communications and photography.) The charger was occasionally useful, but I might have managed without it, since electrical outlets were usually available in the refuges.
There are convenient train connections with the end-points of the GR5, Hoek van Holland and Nice. In addition, there are many options for transport by train and bus along the trail as it passes through towns and villages, not to mention the picturesque paddle-wheel boats that cross Lac Léman. Thus, it is easy to join and leave the GR5 at many points along its route. There are also possibilities of transport along the GR5. We were not purists during our hike. For example, we occasionally chose to avoid walking on a long section of the trail that followed a paved road. Entering and leaving cities, we sometimes took a bus or a train to avoid urban walking. We also hitchhiked several times and found that people were quick to give us a lift; they often went out of their way to take us to our destination.
Relatively few hikers on the GR5 choose to camp, but it is an option worth considering. One may camp in commercial or municipal campgrounds (which generally have washing facilities, toilets and showers) and in nature (“camping sauvage”). The backpacker who camps must, of course, carry the weight of a tent, sleeping bag and mattress, but modern gear can be relatively light. One of the great advantages of camping is flexibility; there is no need to worry about vacancies or to reserve places in advance. And the experience of camping in the mountains can be sublime!
We camped during a hike on the GR5 (Vosges, Jura & Alps) in 1989, and enjoyed the experience very much. For this hike, however, we left the camping gear at home and slept each night in a bed and under a roof. In the northern sections of the GR5, we stayed in hotels, B&Bs, chambres d’hôtes and the occasional gîte d’étape. In the mountains (especially in the Alps), we generally stayed in refuges.
Demi-pension (half-board) in a mountain refuge – comprising dinner, a bed for the night and breakfast – generally costs about € 40-45 per person. The refuge provides mattresses, pillows and blankets; the hiker should bring a sleeping bag liner (“sac à viande”) or sleeping bag. There has been considerable renovation and new construction of French refuges in recent years. One is more likely now to sleep in a room with several bunk beds, instead of a large dortoir with bunks for dozens of people. Hot showers are widely available and often included in the price of the overnight stay. It was sometimes difficult to find conveniently located accommodations. There are not many hotels or B&Bs near the GR5 in Lorraine. There are many refuges in the Alps, but occasionally it was necessary to walk farther than we would have preferred. The day that we hiked from La Chapelle d’Abondance we were unable stay at the Col de Bassachaux auberge (it had been fully booked for that night since April!), so we hiked on to the refuge at the Col de Chésery. It rained most of the day, and we arrived at 19:00, almost 11 hours after departing. Soup for the dinner had just been served; we kicked off our boots and sat down for a delicious meal.
The people who booked places at the Col de Bassachaux three months in advance were planning a one-week holiday. A long-distance hiker, on the trail for months, cannot lock in plans that way. We did find it helpful, however, to reserve rooms in hotels or B&Bs and places in refuges a few days in advance. Sometimes it was difficult to reserve a room, especially when (we discovered) a music festival or some other special event was taking place in the area. Other times, our reservations were unnecessary: We found upon arrival at some places that there were sufficient vacancies. And once we regretted not reserving in advance: In Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée, we found that the town’s one hotel was closed for some undisclosed reason, and the gîte d’étape had been closed for safety reasons. There were no rooms available nearby, since a trail running competition was putting pressure on accommodations in the area. This is when camping gear would have been helpful! Our solution was to take a bus to Nice, spend the night in a hotel there and then return to Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée by bus the next morning to resume our hike. Three days later, we arrived in Nice… on foot.
Food & Drink
Our hike on the GR5 matched our hopes, dreams and expectations – except that I did not lose as much weight as anticipated. That was probably attributable to the great food and drink that we enjoyed during the hike. There were local and seasonal specialties: Asparagus is everywhere in the Benelux in May, and figs ripen in the southern Alps in September. Based upon extensive, daily research, we found what a friend whimsically described as “la ligne de partage entre les pays de la bière et les pays du vin” (the continental divide between the lands of beer and the lands of wine). My favorites were Orval beer in Belgium and the Riesling wines of Alsace. Everywhere, we enjoyed great cheeses: Gouda in the Netherlands, Herve in Belgium, Munster in Alsace, Comté in the Jura and the great Alpine trio: Beaufort, Reblochon and Tomme.
We discovered different breakfast customs: In the Benelux, breakfasts are copious, with cheese and charcuterie, fruit, eggs, bread, fruit juice, etc., accompanied by coffee, tea or hot chocolate. In France, breakfasts are variations upon a more limited theme: bread, butter & jam, accompanied by coffee, tea or hot chocolate, and perhaps orange juice and yoghurt.
We generally bought food for picnic lunches on the trail, but that was not always as easy as one might expect. The economic decline and stagnation suffered in parts of Lorraine have led to the closure of many businesses, including village grocery stores (“épiceries”) and cafés. We were lucky when we shopped in Gondrexange for food that we would need that evening in a self-catering gîte d’étape: A sign in the window of the small épicerie announced its closure in 10 days. Of course, the shelves of this doomed shop were not well-stocked…
We enjoyed dinners in restaurants when we stayed in hotels. Some hosts in B&Bs and chambres d’hôtes offer dinner, called table d’hôte in French. We were even invited to dinner by a man in Kalmthout (Belgium) whom we stopped in the street to ask directions to our B&B. We enjoyed a delicious risotto and a pleasant evening with him and his wife. In mountain refuges, the demi-pension includes a set dinner, which is substantial and satisfying (comprising soup, meat with some starch, cheese and dessert). Wine can, of course, be purchased to accompany the meal. And if one is lucky, after the meal the gardien(ne) of the refuge will serve a digestif – often génépi – that he or she has produced. At the Refuge du Longon (Vacherie de Roure), the bottle of génépi contained a preserved snake! It had been a jolly evening with a big group around the table, so we did not hesitate to sample that génépi.
Mobile telephone networks are available in populated areas along the GR5, but the signal may be weak in the countryside. In the mountains, there is rarely a mobile signal, except where one’s location (at a pass, for example) might fleetingly be within range of a signal coming from the valley.
Wireless internet networks are usually available in hotels, B&Bs and chambres d’hôtes, but of irregular quality. We found that very few have installed range extenders, so the WiFi signal in upper floors of a large building was sometimes weak or absent. Not surprisingly, WiFi is not available in mountain refuges.
A generation ago, before the ubiquity of portable telephones, email and social networks, travelers often relied upon poste restante to remain in contact the folks back home. Modern methods of communication have marginalized poste restante – but it still exists, and it worked well for us as a means of picking up topoguides along the GR5.
Virtually the entire GR5 lies within the euro zone. The only exception is Switzerland, where the GR5 hiker walks for a day from Les Rousses to Nyon and a few hours from Col de Chésery to Col de Coux. Euros are readily accepted in these border areas of Switzerland (at an exchange rate against the Swiss franc set by the seller, of course).
Credit cards are now sometimes accepted in mountain refuges, but the most convenient way of paying remains a check drawn upon a French bank. Otherwise, cash is the way to pay in the mountains.
One of the attractions of hiking across Europe on the GR5 is the opportunity to meet interesting people. Language is not a barrier, especially if one can manage a conversation in French as well as English. We spoke English in the Netherlands, apart from a few conventional phrases in Dutch. We were prepared to speak French (one of the national languages of Belgium) in Flanders, but found that Flemings mostly prefer to speak English rather than French. We settled comfortably into speaking French in Wallonie (with some difficulty one evening in the German-speaking area of Belgium), Luxembourg, Switzerland and France, but many of the people we met could communicate in English if necessary.
All along the GR5, we met people who were friendly, helpful and interesting. The hospitality of hosts in B&Bs and chambres d’hôtes was memorable. Hotel receptionists generally received us in a friendly, courteous manner. They are used to scruffy hikers arriving at their desk. Most memorable of all were the encounters with fellow hikers. Evenings in mountain refuges, sitting at a long table and exchanging stories, were among the most enjoyable moments of human contact 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 by Carroll Dorgan