Home > Books, Travel > France on Foot, by Bruce LeFavour

France on Foot, by Bruce LeFavour

This seems like an unlikely book for me to have read, but I picked it up from the library, thinking that it could help me as I prepared for the El Camino pilgrimage that I walked with my mom, last year. I was right! It was an excellent resource, just to understand the day-to-dayness of walking a long distance among other things. And, I read this book from cover to cover. LeFavour mixes the right amount of practical advice, with personal stories and descriptions of the French countryside and food to keep the reader intrigued.

Ok, so while this book doesn’t address the Camino, in particular, it’s very good for getting one to think about how to eat when walking long distances, and what to wear, etc. All from someone who has spent time walking long distances in the French countryside. There was even a website by the author, but it has since disappeared.

The biggest shocker when I started reading this book – and I mean this was really quite shocking (but in a good way) because I have spent an incredible amount of time in France – is that France has more walking paths than England. I knew that England is littered with public trails that cover private property, but the number of trails in France greatly surpasses those in England. France has 110,000 miles of trails.

The trail system in France is documented in several different map formats. The France Grande Randonnee (IGN) Map 903 published by the Institut geographique national or IGN shows 37,500 miles of trails. And, surprisingly, there are more than 1600 local walking clubs in France, according to LeFavour.

The origins of these paths is quite interesting and maybe slightly unexpected:

Originally, most of the trials in the agricultural areas of France like the Loire, Normandy, Picardy, Lorraine, much of Brittany and all the wine regions were rights-of-way from the villages to the fields surrounding those villages. In medieval times the French peasant was threatened regularly by robbers, marauding armies, imaginary ghosts and all-too-real wolves, so as to protect himself and his family, he retreated with others into the relative security of villages near but not next to his fields. During the day the family ventured out to their fields warily on foot or horseback, using a warren of muddy paths. At night they scuttled back to the village over those same tracks. Since all the villagers needed to walk the paths, they were public, not private. Those that are left today, remain so.

There are four kinds of trails in France:

  1. National Trails – 37,500 miles of long-distance sentiers de grande randonnee or GR trails. They use white and red blazes as markers. These trails take the walker from one place to another. They are not closed loops
  2. Regional Trails – the sentier de grande randonee de pays or GRP cover one region, and often in a circuit. They can be quite long – up to 134 miles by LeFavour’s accounting. These trails are blazed in yellow and red.
  3. Local Trails – the sentier de promenade et randonnee or PR cover local walks only. They radiate out from towns and villages all over France and use only yellow blazes but when they criss-cross they may use other colors as well.
  4. International Trails – the itineriere europeen  or E are the continuation in France of trails that cross other countries.

Most towns have an office called the Syndicat d’Initiative, which distributes, for a small fee or for free, trail maps of the local area. You can also check with the local bookstore (librarie) for maps.

LeFavour promotes staying in bed-and-breakfasts (chambres d’hotes) and farms that accept guests (gites ruraux). Surprisingly, the French countryside is home to far fewer people today than at the end of WWII. LeFavour says, which I tend to concur with through personal experience, that the French are willing to spend a great deal of public money in support of their conviction that the quality of life and not just the accumulation of material goods is a large part of what makes life worth living. This is in the context of the money the government gives to support the parcs naturels regionaux.

Good maps to get:

Overview: France grande randonnee IGN 903

Planning: Michelin cartes routieres et touristiques (Michelin road and tourist maps). 5x more detailed than the IGN 903.

IGN blue maps: carte bleu serie bleu

Where to buy maps if not in France:  Adventurous Traveler Bookstore

Final Tips: Book restaurants ahead of time if you have done research and know they are good. They make only one booking per table in the evening because it is assumed that you will take your time, to enjoy what is prepared for you.

Guidebooks to buy: Michelin Hotels-Restaurants, the Logis de France, the Chambres et Tables d’hotes and the Gites d’etape & de sejour

LeFavour suggests making your own book from everything that you have gleaned and carrying that instead of all of the guidebooks suggested above.

Buen Camino! Or happy any other walk and/or pilgrimage you may be on.

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