Several years ago, I read an article by Elizabeth Gilbert that I couldn’t get out of my head. The article, published in GQ, was called “Long Day’s Journey,” and it was about Gilbert’s obsession with a particular trip she’d wanted to take for years, and eventually did: Hiking across Provence on the Grande Randonnée (or, as it’s often called, the GR). As I’d come to learn, the GR is a series of interconnected trails that run from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, cutting across France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain—the trails in France alone cover almost 40,000 miles, linking nearly every village in the country.
An incurable (read: insufferable) Francophile, I’ve been going back to France for over a decade now—for school, for work, for play. I studied abroad in Cannes for a year as part of my undergrad degree and worked in Biarritz for several summers as a director for a French-language immersion program. A substantial part of my vacation time over the years has been spent wandering around random French towns. And yet, before reading Gilbert’s article, I had never heard of the GR. After the mere first paragraph, though, in which she recounts how some friends told her they’d just spent “two weeks walking and eating their way through Provence,” I was hooked. I shivered with delight, devouring her descriptions of the trip—the walking along centuries-old footpaths through the French countryside, the endless stream of baguettes and red wine, the tiny Provencal towns whose names were music to my ears (Joucas, Forcalquier, Viens). I’m pretty sure I ordered a GR map that day. It wasn’t a question of whether or not I would spend two weeks of my own life walking and eating my way through Provence; it was a question of when.
Fast forward to 2015. I was planning a wedding in a state of low-grade misery. I am happy to be married to the person I’m married to. Still, I was not happy to be planning a wedding—and while I don’t regret the decision, exactly (I have too many fond memories of the night for that), I can see now that I was sad and anxious for months, having never really wanted a big ceremony. But, it was during this time that the GR saved me. My soon-to-be-spouse and I decided to hike a small section of it for our honeymoon—we’d fly to Paris, take a train to Avignon, and from there, head to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, to commence three days of walking, ending in Roussillon—and amidst all that wedding-shaped anxiety, I found something to look forward to. I spent nights poring over blog posts and pondering itinerary ideas. I made packing lists. I had dreams about being on the trail—visions of cresting golden hills, watching the soil streak and change, inhaling the smell of fresh lavender. I could practically taste the cheese and the Cotes du Rhone.
The History of the Grande Randonnée
In retrospect, it’s handy that I was in the mood to plan a trip (read: avoiding thinking about the wedding at all costs) because the Grande Randonnée requires you to do a fair amount of planning—you can’t really just show up and see what happens unless you don’t mind getting lost and pitching a tent in a field. If you’re keen on staying in hotels (and, not to mention, carrying a lighter load along the way), though, you’re best off planning your route and booking lodging in advance. Personally, I rejoice in this kind of structure in my travels, anyway—even though I’m not a planner by nature, I like to know where I’m staying (and not much else) since this leaves more time for spontaneity and less time for stressing out about where to sleep. And because the GR is such an extensive trail system—often stretching miles away from civilization—it’s necessary to determine which section you plan to do (and also, crucially, to acquire a map) beforehand, to make sure you don’t stray off the path.
A little bit of history is necessary, too, of course. The Federation Francaise de la Randonnée Pédestre (FFRP) established and continues to maintain all of France’s walking paths, including the GR—the agency’s origins lie in the 1930s, before World War II, when a group of passionate hikers and outdoor activists got together to save the country’s medieval-era footpaths from the dawn of the automobile and ever-larger farms of modern agriculture (how I love you, France). Today, the FFRP (a typically French hierarchical mix of volunteers, local walking clubs, regional associations, and a national headquarters in Paris) is tasked with mapping, codifying, and maintaining 110,000 miles of trails, all of which are open to the public and free to anyone who wants to use them.
The GR specifically is blazed with red and white, differentiating it from other regional and local trails. Each of these trails is numbered (GR 7, GR 52, etc.), and they connect one place to another, rather than taking a closed, circular path. For example, it’s possible to walk the length of Corsica; to traverse the Vosges, Jura, and Alp mountains from Luxembourg all the way to the Mediterranean; to meander your way through the Loire Valley. Or, in our case, to walk across the rural heart of Provence.
The Walk from Fontaine-de-Vaucluse to Roussillon
With the dreaded wedding blessedly in the past, after a blissful week with friends in Paris and Avignon, my husband and I set out on our GR journey: We’d be hiking along the GR 6, from Fontaine-de-Vaucluse to Roussillon (with a stop in Gordes), through the region known as the Luberon—a ridiculously magical land of hilltop villages, rugged mountains, canyons, and lavender fields. We only had three days, so we’d be doing a mere 11 miles, but I already knew I’d be back. Because this kind of travel—walking slowly, glimpsing vignettes of pastoral French life, stopping to drink wine in a cherry orchard—this was for me, and I knew it immediately. After five minutes of being on the trail, I was astounded. I couldn’t believe, in all my years of traveling, that I’d never thought of planning a trip around walking. I’d spent ample time ping-ponging around European cities, yes, but I’d never gone from town to town on foot.
On the GR, you notice small, sublime details, the kind you’d miss by whizzing around in a rental car. Setting out from Fontaine-de-Vaucluse (a tiny, albeit touristy town with a wooden mill and lush trees thronging a mossy riverbank), we passed stone farmhouses covered in ivy, intricately built rock walls, olive trees, wild thickets of rosemary. I hiked with a baguette dangling out of my backpack, taking occasional bites of bread warmed by the sun. And then, the most dramatic entry to a place I’ve ever experienced: The trail took us atop a huge hill, so that we approached Gordes from above, giving us a sweeping view of the town’s tiered terracotta rooftops and church spires, with the Luberon valley spilling out below. It was an incredible sight, and one I’ll never forget.
There are so many images that will be forever imprinted on my consciousness, though. Sitting on a bench at sunset with no else around, overlooking a patchwork of green farmland and hills that temporarily glowed gold. Simple picnics of bread and cheese and fruit, offset by decadent meals at dinnertime (because this is France we’re talking about, there are world-class, Michelin-starred restaurants in towns with populations of 1,000 people). The bright red ochre mines of Roussillon. A field brimming with tiny white snails; then, around the bend, rows and rows of plump, pale green grapes on the vine. By the time we prepared to leave the GR, I could barely remember my wedding anxiety, or even what it felt like to be anxious at all.
I will always love the chaotic elegance of cities. A strong dose of art, culture, and humanity is often what I’m craving when I travel. But I also crave stillness and the remote. The space to meditate on the sounds of the countryside, to fall into a rhythm with my feet and mind, to find a moment of peace that will leave its mark on me—this, too, is what travel can do.
Tips for Hiking the GR in France
- Plan your hike (and hotel stays) ahead of time. The GR-Infos website is a great place for maps and general info about all routes. This is also where you’ll find updated lodging recommendations.
- Buy a physical map via the FFRP, the IGN Boutique, or at your local tabac when you arrive. This is crucial, considering that the trails aren’t all well-marked (and some aren’t marked at all).
- If you haven’t mastered the art of packing light yet, now’s the time to do so—you should only pack what you’re comfortable carrying on your back.
- Learn some French beforehand. Depending on which route you do, you’ll probably find yourself in less touristy towns (not to mention supremely rural areas), so don’t rely on the locals to speak English.
- Before you go, read "France on Foot," by Bruce LeFavour, a super-comprehensive (and entertaining) guide to all 110,000 miles of the trail system. This book offers a fantastic breakdown of each route in terms of what to expect, terrain-wise, along with more general info, tips, and history tidbits.