Showing posts with label France. Show all posts
Showing posts with label France. Show all posts

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Tips for hiking in France

On this trip I have hiked 1 1/2 months all over France and consider it a great country for long distance hiking. There are several reasons for that: 

Trail marking on the GR 7
France is a centralised country and that reflects positively on the trail system. All the long distance trails called GR (Grand Randonne) are uniformly marked with red and white stripes and numbered. One central organisation, FFRP is overlooking them and publishes the relevant guidebooks called topoguide. IGN publishes maps for the whole of France in various scales and there is one overview map with all French long distance trails that is fantastic for planning purposes. When you have decided on your route you can easily mailorder the appropriate guidebooks and maps. But it gets even better: on GR-info.com you can download all those trails as a gpx track for free! All this is almost perfect but there still are some flaws. The topoguides are in French only but I would still recommend them even if you don't speak French. They contain all the maps, give hiking times and use universally understandable pictograms for town services plus addresses and info on gite d'etapes. Unfortunately there aren't topoguides for all trails and they are difficult to obtain along the trail. Maps are sold almost everywhere but mostly 1:25000 scale only which is too detailed for long distance hiking. You have to carefully plan ahead or ship the maps/guidebooks to yourself, otherwise you might find yourself without decent maps. The gpx tracks I mentioned have to be treated with a grain of salt, too. Although some were very accurate, others were rather vague with too few track points and some hopelessly outdated. Especially on the GR 7 there have been major reroutes that were kilometres off the gpx track! 

Public water hydrant
Stealth camping was incredibly easy in France and I never had a single problem. The GRs generally avoid big cities and there is usually so much forest around that you don't even have to do a lot of pre-planning. Only Southern France posed a bit of a problem but only because the ground was so rocky and the vegetation so dense. There are lots of other advantages for the wild camper like the availability of water. I am not talking about natural water sources here that vary depending on the region. But in France almost every little village has a public fountain or at least a water tap. Sometimes those are elaborate old fountains, sometimes it is just a plastic hose our even a hydrant. And by the way, the cemeteries have water taps, too. So if you pass through a village you can almost be sure to find water without any problems. 

Unfortunately, another one of my little tricks did not work that well. Although French churches do have electrical outlets for recharging your devices most churches are locked nowadays. Only less than half the churches I have tried were open. 

No electrical outlets here...
When it comes to food there is good news and bad news. The good news is that French food is incredibly good. I absolutely loved French cheese. There are thousands of varieties from soft goat cheese to hard Tome. I could not stop trying different sorts. There is also excellent salamis and almost every little shop sells bread as well. Excellent ingredients for hiker meals. But this is also the end of the good news. Because the French are so proud of there food they don't sell dehydrated pasta and rice meals that like Lipton or Knorr. Nada, nothing, no matter how big the supermarket is. I mean I don't particularly like that stuff either but it is very practical for backpacking. There only is some flavoured couscous - sometimes. And very rarely flavoured risotto rice that takes forever to prepare. The only other option is fresh pasta like tortellini that you can get from the fridge section but it is very heavy, bulky and doesn't keep very long. As long as you are close to civilisation and shops you can live on bread and cheese and fresh pasta. But long lonely stretches or weekends are a problem. And worst of all for me chocolate is very expensive here and I eat a lot of this stuff. Generally food is more expensive here than in Germany. There are discount supermarkets here like my beloved Lidl and Aldi but you won't find many along the trail, only in bigger cities. 

To make resupply even more complicated there is the opening times problem. Except big supermarkets all shops in France close for lunch. Unfortunately lunch break times are unpredictable and can be anything from 12 noon to 5 pm. Sometimes only 2 hours, sometimes 4. Also small shops tend not to open some days or afternoons which can be Monday or Wednesday afternoon. And of course these small shops are not on the internet and therefore you cannot google their opening times. More than once I arrived hungry at a shop only to find out that it had closed 10 minutes ago and would only reopen in 3 hours... 

The French are very proud of their country and their language. Unfortunately this translates into a general lack of foreign language skills - or reluctance to speak them. Even in some small tourist offices staff would only speak French. Do not expect anyone to speak English. The French expect you to speak French. To make things worse a lot of French do not even try to understand your efforts in rudimentary French or sign language, although I have also met multilingual and very welcoming French people. So it definitely helps to speak at least some words of French, don't rely on English only. 

Although France has a great trail network hiking if not as popular here as for example in Germany or the UK. This leads to a lack of decent outdoor shops. Of course there is Decathlon, a huge chain of shops for outdoor stuff and sport. But they mostly sell their own cheap brand Quechua which is cheap but of very low quality. Even widespread international brands are mostly unavailable in France. For example I could not find a replacement TAR Prolite sleeping pad or Keen hiking shoes in France, not even in online shops. Also keep in mind that France uses a different system of gas canisters. You will not find screw top ones, only the blue Campingaz canisters, with and without valve. But there are adapters to solve this problem although I have not seen them for sale in France. 

Refuge in the Pyrenees
Most French hikers I have met were out on a day hike. Very few hikers were going for a couple of days and hardly anyone was camping. Almost everyone is staying in the refuges or huts. This hut system is very extensive - but also expensive! There are no fixed prices for the refuges. They very from hut to hut depending on the amenities and the location. They can be add cheap as 10 Eur or as expensive as 30 Eur. For me they were out of question and I never stayed in one. Keep in mind that a lot of those refuges don't have a permanent keeper and have to be booked in advance. If you arrive withouth a prior booking you might find a refuge completely locked up and usually there is not even an emergency shelter open! So do  not rely on these refuges for emergencies!

One last word on telecommunication. In every country I try to buy a local SIM card and stay connected with the rest of the world. In contrast to Germany and Spain telecommunication is an expensive business especially if you have to go prepaid. Rates for national calls are as expensive as 39 cent per minute no matter what company. Only Orange offers a very decent internet flat rate for 9 EUR per month, but getting the SIM card and subscribing to the flat rate takes more than 24 hours and the whole procedure is definitely not customer friendly.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Carcassonne to GR 11

Sunflower fields along the GR 7
My main problem now is that I am running out of time. There is so much to see and I have probably miscalculated the mileage but more on that in a separate post. Bottom line is that I have to take shorter routes than planned in order to be finished in time for my next adventure. Being an organised ex business woman I had already foreseen that possibility in the planning stage and prepared several alternative routes and I now took one of them. Instead of changing onto the GR 36 and meeting the GR 11 at Puigcerda I continued on the GR 7.

Along the Canal Midi
This first treated me with a nice albeit short walk along the Canal du Midi. I love canal walks. They are easy, flat and fast and remind me of my happy narrow boating times in the UK. Equally nice and fast was an ensuing walk on an old railway line. A couple of days out of Carcassonne I could already see the Pyrenees looming out of the horizon promising lower temperatures and a relief from the heat. Every day I camped at higher altitude and soon I would cross my first pass over 2,300 m, the highest point so far on this hike. The GR 7 had been quite easy so far and I expected a smooth run to the GR 11 on the Spanish side. Again I was awfully wrong.

I was approaching my first high Pyrenean pass in the evening expecting a quick hop over and a camp on the other side. But I could not see any feasible way to cross the mountains... The GR was routed over a huge steep boulder field and then an incredibly steep trail up to the pass. Not being the most sure footed hiker I hate boulder fields, especially when being alone and late in the evening. But somehow I made it to the top only to find the next surprise. The GR 7 had been re routed and the marked trail did not coincide with neither my GPS track nor my map. Should I bushwhack or follow the trail and hope for the best? Bushwhacking in this steep terrain seemed like suicide and so I decided to follow the markings that luckily brought me down the right valley and to decent camp sites.

The same thing happened the next day. What looked like a nice and easy walk along a stream turned out to be a boulder hopping disaster. 4 km took me 2,5 hours and I felt like Mahoosuk Notch revisited. Again I was way behind schedule. I went through dramatic mood swings: one moment I was overwhelmed with joy and happiness because the mountain scenery was so incredibly beautiful... and then I stumbled across the next boulder field thinking that I should just quit this route instead of risking injury and death by boulder hopping. Part of my misery stemmed from the fact that I just had a sketchy map instead of a decent guidebook with descriptions and times. Things would be better on the GR 11 for which I had detailed maps and a good guidebook. But I still had to get there and this would be tricky.

My French map only showed French trails and there was a gap of about 5 km between the GR 7 and the GR 11. Normally not a problem, in the worst case you just bushwhack. But after nearly killing myself on several boulder fields bushwhacking was out of question for me. Either there was a trail or I would have to walk a long detour. But none of my maps or people I asked could confirm if there was a trail or not. I decided to walk into Porte Puymorens, buy food and try to find a good map. Good plan, but it didn't work as Porte Puymorens had a train station but no shop whatsoever... In my frustration I hopped on the next train to la Tour, the train terminus and border town to Spain. A newspaper booth in the over dimensioned train station brought the answer to my trail question. According to a recent map there was a connecting trail between the GR 7 and 11, called GR 107. Good news since all the GRs are waymarked. I even found a small supermarket and thus fortified I took the bus back. The bus dropped me in a thunder storm that quickly passed.

To my big surprise there weren't any boulder fields on my next ascent, only cows. I am a bit cow phobic and these beasts did have horns! We eyed each other suspiciously and then danced around each other. But where would I camp in cow country? I am horribly afraid of being trampled on in my sleep by cows. Luckily there was a shepherd's hut in the middle of all those cow pastures where I spent my last night in France. And the next morning everything went according to plan. Up a pass and yes, there was the GR 107 that eventually brought me into Spain and onto the GR 11. One last surprise worth mentioning: during all my 1 1/2 month in France I had not met any French person who volunteered to speak English with me, bit on my last two days I met two French hikers who chatted with me in fluent English. And on my very last day in France the young train conductor sold me a ticket in fluent English.. There is hope!

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Cevennes to Carcassonne

This stretch has been the most tedious in whole France! Why? First of all because it was hot, hot, hot. As I had already noticed before hiking in Southern France in the height of summer is not really the smartest idea. Most of this stretch is way below 1,000 m and the sun was relentless. The only thing that brought a little bit of relief was the wind, although it was of a strange kind. One minute you are caught in a strong gust that nearly rips your tent apart - and then there is nothing for a quarter of an hour. No constant subtle breeze but unpredictable gusts.

The trail wasn't really exciting. There was a lot of road walking which is unusual. So far I have encountered much less road walking in France than on comparable trails in Germany. But now all of a sudden there are long stretches on country roads. Not really bad as there is hardly any traffic on these roads but painful for your feet especially when your shoes are falling apart and there is no more padding left... But the other alternative if not much better: if you are not routed on country roads you have to fight your way through heavily overgrown trails. Not many people hike this stretch of the GR 7 and therefore the trails are not very well maintained. Especially troublesome are blackberry bushes that stick to everything and are a real problem if you are carrying a delicate Silnylon backpack. At least I am reminded of why gaiters are really useful... the rest of my legs is full of cuts and scratches. And the damn blackberries aren't even ripe yet!

Apricot tree
Which brings me to a more positive topic: fruit on the trail! Apricots are ripe now and an apricot tree is one of my favourite sights along the trail! But now I have discovered the peach trees and it is difficult to day which is better. But eating sun warm juicy fruit is one of the best experiences for a hungry hiker. I am also passing an endless amounts of vineyards but the grapes are far from ripe. But maybe by the time I get to Spain?...

The villages along the trail are quite interesting as well. I hit Lodeve right at the one night when they had a big music festival going on. As soon I realised that I gave up all hopes of a nice Nero day in a gite: of course everything was fully booked and I met a desperate pilgrim who couldn't find any accommodation. Thank God for my tent! Whereas she had to take a long expensive ride to an even more expensive hotel I just hiked on and pitched my tent in the next forest.
Camping in an orchard

Camping has become rather difficult and rather uncomfortable. The ground is rock hard with stones everywhere. And of course all the vegetation is only out there to stick needles into you. On my last night I encountered even more adversaries: I had left my underpants outside the tent to dry them. In the morning I just grabbed them and just wanted to put them on - when about 20 huge ants fell out and scurried away all over my tent and inside my sleeping bag. After that incident I was awake.

Lamalou Les Bains was a lovely spa town with gorgeous old villas - and plenty of reconvalescents. Every other person on the street was missing a limb or had terrible burns. I was most happy about the Lidl supermarket and bought way to much chocolate that only melts in the sun.

I couldn't wait to get to Carcassonne where I had two resupply packages. But would they really be there? I had never used poste restante in France before and it had been rather difficult to find out if and how it works. Therefore I was rather nervous when I entered the main post office and asked for my poste restante. The clerk took my passport and disappeared - only to reappear without any package. No mail under my name. My heart plummeted. Luckily I asked him specifically for parcels now. That seemed to be a different matter and he disappeared a second time - and reappeared with one parcel. That was at least a start. I told him that there should be two parcels and he disappeared a third time - and reappeared with my second parcel. Now I was a happy hiker again, especially since I was also able to buy maps for the next section in the bookstore nearby.

Carcassonne
As I had not been able to find a CS host in Carcassonne I had booked myself into the youth hostel and there my luck continued. Despite holiday season I had a dorm room for myself. I decided to splurge on the hostel washing machine instead of hand washing my clothes but the machine was broke and did not spin. I told the receptionist who did not believe me but put on a second washing cycle for free. Didn't work either. She finally washed them a third time in the staff only machine and I guess my dirty hiker clothes really deserved the three washes.

Carcassonne is a really beautiful mediaeval city, but I was hot and tired. I decided to spend a rest day mostly lying on my bed and thoroughly enjoyed it. I even found a bottle of wine on the hostel's few food shelf. I have to make a mental note to take more rest days! I still managed to mail stuff away, do my resupply and replace broken gear. Tomorrow I will head out again and I will probably be levitating along the trail in my new shoes...

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Cevennes

Cirque de Navacelles
I left Les Vans refreshed and with repaired gear. I had bought a cheap cell foam sleeping pad because my Thermarest had delaminated and I needed some more padding in my sleep than a flat Thermarest. I had also bought Superglue and had glued the soles back onto my shoes. That still didn't provide soft padding for my feet but at least I wasn't collecting grass any more with my soles when walking through a meadow. Of course a long ascent was waiting for me out of Les Vans but it brought a nice change. Once above 1,000 m I was back in real trees instead of shrubs and that meant shade and that brought tolerable temperatures. The Cevennes go up to 1,500 m and high up there I was actually a bit chilly at night, not much, but enough to put on a sweater for breakfast. And after all that heat that felt great!

The Cevennes are donkey country and I don't know whether Robert Louis Stevenson started it or whether he just made it fashionable. In any case he once travelled across the Cevennes on a donkey called Modestine and wrote a book about it aptly called "Travels with a donkey". This book must have been real popular, at least the French named the GR 70 which runs across the Cevennes "Stevenson Trail". I had hiked the GR 70 several years ago and therefore I had now chosen a different route which coincided with the GR 70 only for a couple of hundred metres.

Still there were plenty of donkeys and horses. Interestingly enough no one was riding on them. The humans were walking next to their four legged friends which made me wonder why they had even bothered to rent them in the first place. To my big surprise I even saw a donkey INSIDE a National Park information centre and none of the staff seemed to mind. Everyone was walking around the donkey which looked a bit lost between book shelves and tourists but at least it didn't leave any smelly souvenirs on the floor.

River Tarn
I was also surprised how much water I encountered in the Cevennes as I was expecting another water shortage. But I even ended up swimming in the river Tarn! Although this turned out to be more difficult than expected. First I had to wait for a family to leave. But whenever I started to undress to go skinny dipping some tourists showed up and took endless pictures of the river and the old bridge. I wanted to avoid them taking pictures of me instead.... But the refreshing swim was definitely worth the wait.

Cirque de Navacelles
In the end the Cevennes surprised me with a spectacular view: the Cirque de Navacelles which I can only describe as France's mini Grand Canyon. A relatively tiny river has carved a deep canyon into the mountains and right in a river bend is the little, but heavily touristed village of Navacelles. A winding road makes the village accessible by car and therefore the huge amounts of tourists. But the further away you hike along the canyon the less tourists... and the GR 7 follows the canyon for several hours. I was just happy that I didn't have to camp in here as everything was steep and rocky.

I had really enjoyed hiking in the pleasant temperatures of the Cevennes, the well marked trails and the great scenery. There are several trails criss crossing the Cevennes making it an ideal destination for loop trips, too.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Ardeche

The mountains were lower now but the hiking no less demanding especially due to the hot weather. When planning this route I had realised that hiking in Southern France in the height of summer might not be the best idea but there was not much choice - and now I was sufferings the consequences. I felt like back on the Arizona Trail! Only the trail was easier to hike on the AZT!

Ardeche Gorge
This area between the Rhone and the Cevennes mountains is dominated by the gorges of the Ardeche and several other rivers. This is holiday adventure trip country. Along the roads dozens of boat rental places and camp grounds are lined up. Tourists are everywhere, but of course this is high season now. Strangely enough it is mostly Belgian and Dutch tourists here instead of my fellow German compatriots. After 2 days of frying in the hot sun my mood was dropping. It did not help that my shoes are slowly disintegrating and my Thermarest sleeping pad is delaminating. This is about the eighth or ninth sleeping pad flat is delaminating in my long outdoor career. It is always exchanged for free under warranty but the whole exchange procedure is a pain in the butt. In this recent case I had to find out that Thermarest is almost non existent in France and therefore no chance for an easy exchange en route. I mail ordered one in Germany and although I could have it shipped directly to France this was not an option because I only have a Poste Restante address. Only German mail could be used for shipment but most online shops use different couriers... therefore the sleeping pad had to go to my German "trail manager" who has now forwarded it to France.

Difficult camping
A couple of days ago it dawned on me that I had made another mistake again: not taking enough rest days and this was the main reason why I was getting so grumpy. My birthday was approaching and I decided to stay the night before in a gite d'etape, a cheap hiker accommodation. But when I arrived in the little village all sweaty and tired the gite was nowhere to be found. Even the locals did not have a clue. And therefore I realised at 7 pm that I would have to hike another 6 km before I would be able to find a decent camp spot. But I gritted my teeth and voila, right before it got dark I found a nice spit high above a very scenic river gorge. This was a very nice surprise as camping has become rather difficult recently. The ground here is extremely rocky, sloping and the vegetation is mostly macchia shrubland, an impenetrable dense vegetation where everything is prickly and thorny. My legs are full of scratches and cuts from looking for stealth campsites.

But sometimes you are lucky and you find old farm house ruins in the middle of nowhere. There usually is flat ground, often terraces made for agriculture and off you are really lucky, there of am old orchard. Very often I am feasting now on some kind of little prunes and apricots. Wayside free fruit is definitely one of the advantages of hiking in Europe. But that night I came to the conclusion that I urgently needed a rest day, especially since the next day would be my birthday. In the morning I slept in, hiked 7 km in the burning sun and made it to the tourist office in Les Vans. I asked for the local gite d'etape but was told that it was closed. Oh no, I did not want to hike on on the relentless sun. But I was lucky: the lady found me a decent hotel even with a swimming pool and because of my birthday I didn't mind the splurge. After a wonderful shower I even treated myself with a lunch in a restaurant - and then spent the rest of my birthday lying in my nice soft hotel bed not doing anything. Wonderful!

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Vercors

My next rest stop was Grenoble and luckily I didn't have to worry about finding a CS host there... because I had already found one months ago. When I was all doing research for this trip I had come across a CS host who was offering help specifically to hikers. I had contacted him back then asking him for advice on my route through the Vercors. And now I would stay with him. Jack even met me right on the trail in order to show me a shortcut to his lovely apartment with a great view into the mountains. He had already bought the next topo guide for me as well as some resupplies. We went through the maps together and he showed me another shortcut through the Vercors. But best of all he had a telephone flat rate with which I could call land lines all over the world for free... As Jack went teaching the next day I spent hours on the phone connecting with old friends and solving a lot of organizational problems.


It was incredibly hot in Grenoble and the only thing I did for sightseeing was a visit to the art museum because they had air conditioning there... But I loved Grenoble, especially thanks to my fantastic host Jack. Therefore I left at the very last minute not looking forward to an almost 1,800 m straight climb out of Grenoble which I decided to split in half. Still I had to climb 1,000 in the afternoon and read very happy when I found a campsite at dusk. The Vercors is really beautiful but I want to day first that by now I was a bit tired of the constant steep ups and downs and the difficult rocky terrain. Yes, the scenery was great, but I felt that I wanted to do a bit more progress. Since the Vosges I had been struggling with difficult terrain and now I wanted something easy - and the Vercors is anything but easy...

A rare water source
One big problem is water...or the lack of it. 1,000 m ascents are made much more difficulty when you have to carry 4 l of water and still sweat like a pig. On my second day in the Vercors I hiked on the parklike high plateau. Very scenic - and very hot... I made it to the spring much later than expected with not a single drop of water left. But I knew from the guidebook and from Jack that the spring would be there and running and I was not worried. A couple of hundred metres from the spring were several spring fed troughs but not a single cow in sight. I was so happy about the cool water that I decided to have dinner right at the spring, something I hardly ever do. I am usually cooking in my tent at the end of the day. I had just begun to eat when I heard bells approaching and I immediately started to worry. I quickly packed up all my stuff that was lying around and then I saw them: hundreds of sheep galloping down the mountains. The ground was shaking under their hooves and I felt like witnessing a stampede. Luckily the sheep were all ignoring me. They were just after the water troughs and passed me with a distance of 100 m. I already thought that I was out of danger when a wild looking black beast came running straight towards me: the sheep dog. I grabbed my trekking poles ready to defend my life - when the dog just sat down beside me happily washing its tail... Finally the shepherd approached who turned out to be a young shepherdess. Despite my basic French I learnt from her that she and her dog were looking after this herd of 1,500 sheep! I also learnt that the sheep were locked up at night being an electric fence because of the wolves in the area who had so many sheep to eat that I should not worry about myself... I didn't and slept very well that night.

The weather forecast got the next day was very bad and I gave up on the shortcut. Instead I opted for a longer, but safer and lower route. But first of all I had to deal south another sheep problem. As soon as I was approaching the next shepherd's hut a huge herd was moving. And as soon as the sheep dog noticed me he made it very clear that I should stay out of the way. He did not bark out jump up on me, he just blocked my way. And the blood spots on his fur told me that I better obeyed...As soon as the herd had passed I was free to go again. I learnt from the shepherd that this was a famous Patous, the typical sheep dog in this region that looks like a huge wolf with a sheep fur.

My rescue in the rain
The rest of the day was pretty horrible: first I hiked in almost total white out that was at least blocking out the sight of ugly ski lifts, then I was having lunch in a road tunnel to escape the drizzle and the rest of the day I hiked in constant rain. I was shooting for a cabane, a free shelter and was positively surprised when I found an open forestry hut before that. I was so soaking wet that I was just happy to be out of the rain. I did not only stay the night, but the whole morning as the rain continued to fall. And I was so happy to have opted for that longer route that allowed me to wait out the train in a nice and cosy shelter. I only briefly panicked in the morning when angry dog barking came closer. Out there on the pouring rain was a guy mushing 10 huskies. The world is full of surprises...

Next day brought me into Die and a resupply and I had hoped that all the steep climbs would be over - but my hopes were in vain. Although the mountains were lower now I seemed to climb all the time. My shoes are almost destroyed from the rocky terrain and the summer heat does not help either. For three more days I struggled up every mountain in the Vercors, but eventually, one week after I had left Grenoble, I crossed the Rhone again and was out of the Vercors.

Don't get me wrong: the Vercors is a great hiking area. Great scenery especially on the high plateau, very well marked trails and plenty of lovely cities and villages. Only problem is the lack of water - and my lack of enthusiasm for daily 1,500 m elevation gains...

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Chartreuse

Culoz is the last city on the GTJ and from a viewpoint high above the city you have a spectacular view on what is to come next: you see down on Culoz, the river Rhone and far in the distance the high cliffs of the Chartreuse mountains. In good weather you can also see the snow capped mountains of the Alps, but on this trip I will skip them.

After the long descent into Culoz I first rewarded myself with a long shopping trip to the local big supermarket and then headed off to a long walk along the Rhone. I thoroughly enjoyed some flat fast walking after all those climbs and descents. The GR9 coincides here for about 1 1/2 days with the GR65, a pilgrimage trail leading to Santiago. During lunch break I met the first pilgrim, a Spanish cyclist. But judging from the guestbook entries in the churches most pilgrims are Germans. No surprise that all the interpretive signposts along the trail were in French and German.

For two days the GR 9 now meanders sound in the Rhone valley. Sometimes along the river, sometimes high above it with incredible views. Vineyards are everywhere. I was mostly feasting on wild strawberries though that were growing everywhere. Unfortunately they are not very nourishing and very time consuming to pick, but they taste great.

The Chartreuse is a little gem and please mark both words. It is just a little regional park and you could traverse it on two days. Which would be a shame as it is incredibly beautiful and there are several trails that would allow you more extended hiking trips up to a week. But keep in mind that this is demanding hiking. Lots of steep UPS and downs plus very rocky terrain with difficult footing and even some climbing stretches with steel cables. As I am running a bit out of time I choose a short route through the park. From St. Pierre d'Entremont I ascended 1,500 m first to l'Alpette de la Dame, walked along the beautiful plateau to the Col de Belleforte and reached there the highest point of my hike so fast: 1,902 m. The views were incredible and the scenery reminded me a lot of a Lilliput Sierra Nevada. I saw several mountain goats and tons of marmots. After that you ascend through a place that is very fittingly called Chaos de Bellefort. Rocks are everywhere and make hiking very strenuous - and finding a campsite almost impossible.

After a very uncomfortable night I woke up to a slight drizzle and lots of clouds not knowing that the most difficult part was still ahead of me. I ask had to descend over the limestone cliffs onto the next pass. The rain had made the rocks very slippery and everything was so steep that steel cables were needed to help you down. I was surprised that there weren't any warning signs as this descent could be really dangerous in wet weather. I was happy to reach the pass - and see several day hikers heading up the direction I had just come down. This is close to Grenoble and a popular day hike even on a normal Tuesday. I was fed up with all the slippery hiking and had already taken a bad fall on a muddy trail. I just wanted to get down and have my rest day in Grenoble.

Still I want to highly recommend the Chartreuse. Due to its proximity to Grenoble this park is not a secret in France, but very beautiful. Well signed trails, plenty of water, lots of wild life and some of the most spectacular scenery so far on this hike. Ideal for hiking trips up to one week in alpine scenery that can already be hiked very early or late in the season and easily accessible via Grenoble.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Tips for hiking in the Jura mountains

I want to highly recommend the Jura for hiking out of several reasons. Firstly you will encounter very different highlights which makes for varied hiking. There is the Doubs valley, the lovely mountain pastures and the breathtaking views onto Lake Geneva and the Alps. Secondly the Jura had an alpine flavour without really being that high altitude. This makes it an ideal destination for people who are looking for alpine hiking when it is too early or too late for the Alps themselves. Of course the Reculet is not Mont Blanc, but the Jura is an interesting middle between real alpine hiking and just rolling hills. In mid June there was not a bit of snow left and I guess they are hikeable by early May. Plus there are a lot of snow shoe trails.

But what makes then most interesting is the possibility of doing various loop hikes as most of the time the GTJ (Grand Traversee de Jura) and its variants are paralleling each other and interconnect. You could fly into Geneva, take one of the almost hourly trains to Bellegarde for just 6,70 EUR and start a loop hike from there. Or just hike from Bellegarde to Culoz in 2 days from where there are several trains back to Geneva via Bellegarde. The ascent/descent Bellegarde/Reculet is very steep and tough, whereas the climb out of Culoz onto the Jura range is long but gentle.

I found wild camping relatively easy, but there are also plenty of refuges and gites. Try to get the relevant topoguide for the GTJ that describes not only the GTJ itself but ALL the variants and possible accommodation.Waymarking in the Jura was much better than in the Vosges and on the GTJ you will not need a GPS, only on the less hiked variants waymarking could be a bit better. There aren't many hikers in the French Jura, it is still a bit of a secret. The only problem I encountered was the lack of water on the crest, but with a little bit of planning you can easily manage. I recommend a water capacity of 4 liters. Now go and enjoy yourself !

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Haut Jura

In the Jura mountains several trails are paralleling each other: GR 5, GR 9, all their variants and the GTJ that mostly coincides with one of those. I usually took the trail that was most suitable to the weather... you don't want to be on an exposed crest in the rain. There are shelters along the trail, but unfortunately they are mostly locked and have to be booked ahead. I walked a long day to get to the shelter in the picture and found it completely looked up! I ended up camping in the tiny and sloping hallway because outside there was cattle and cow poo everywhere... Not very hiker friendly!

When the weather is good the Jura is truly spectacular. On to of the crest the views are incredible. Very often you can see all the easy to the Alps. I remember coming up a steep mountain side and being in a really grumpy mood because of the exhausting ascent when all of a sudden the trail was topping out and I could see across the next valley... all the way to the snow capped Alps. My mood improved rapidly and I could not get enough of the breath taking view.

The stretch towards Geneva is the most outstanding. You are climbing up to Crete de Neige, the highest point in the Jura range, shortly followed by the Reculet, almost equally high and very prominent. The views onto Lake Geneva and the city are incredible, and I was very lucky to have fantastic weather. You then follow the crest at an altitude of around 1,500 m for the test of the day. Views to both sides of the crest are fabulous, but the hiking is incredibly hard. Constant steep ups and downs and of course there if no water on top of the crest. And although tree line is up to 1,500 m I seemed to be hiking mostly in the sun.

Water has become a bit of a problem lately and you have to plan ahead carefully. But even then you can encounter bad surprises: one day I had trusted my guidebook that had promised a fountain in the forest at the end of the day. But that fountain was nowhere to be found although it was even shown on my GPS maps. I had one let of water left and survived a bit of a thirsty night- and learned that I will have to increase my water capacity. Another issue turned out to be less problematic than expected: cattle! I am still a bit shell shocked when it comes to cows after some near death experiences with aggressive bulls in the UK. But compared to their UK colleagues French cows are incredibly well behaved. Maybe the cow bells double as tranquilizer, but French cores just ignore you. Plus the cow bells prevent that they can sneak up on you and attack you from behind...

View from Reculet
My next rest stop was Geneva and after my rather frustrating CS search in Basel I started to send out requests early - but again only declines and no answers until a woman took pity on me. Couch surfing in big cities seems to be a big problem as potential hosts get swamped with requests. The descent into Bellegarde from where there are lots of train connections to Geneva was a real bone crasher. You loose more than 1,000 m of altitude on steep and slippery slopes. Luckily it didn't rain that day. Exhausted I arrived in Bellegarde but in time to get into Geneva before the Tourist information closed. Another hiker I had met in a refuge the night before was so fed up that he contemplated giving up on his hike.

In Geneva everything went according to plan. I got a city map, found the guidebook for my next section and made it to my CS host. The next day was spent relaxing in Geneva. Luckily the municipal museums are free so I could do some inexpensive sightseeing in an otherwise really expensive city. Shopping for the next stretch of my hike was expensive but I wanted take advantage of the Swiss supermarkets that carry dehydrated packaged food- something that does not exist in France. I enjoyed walking around not doing much. I only made it to two museums... And after another night in a bed (or air mattress to be correct) I am back on the trail today- with a 1,000 m ascent waiting for me.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Doubs valley

After I had regained my hearing I was more than happy to continue my hike - despite the bad weather forecast. The Jura was quite different from the Vosges mountains, but equally beautiful. The scenery was more alpine now, still lots of forest but interspersed with lots of meadows and pastures complete with happy cows that must be all deaf from the ringing of their cow bells. I was still on the GR 5, but it was now called "Grand Traverse de Jura". I was following the French-Swiss border, first along a mountain range and then along the river Doubs. What had looked quite inconspicuous on the map turned out to be another highlight of this trip: the walk along the river Doubs.

Shelter in a chapel
The Doubs can be anything from a quiet wide river to a trading white water canyon and the GR 5 shows you all those aspects. When you first meet the river you encounter a white water race course and that sets the tone for the next half day. You always follow the river closely as it gushes down its narrow bed mostly on steep single file trail. A much as I liked the spectacular scenery I started to wonder where I would be able to camp... Nothing but a narrow trail and steep river banks. Finally the trail came down to the river and there where some little patches for a tent but there were also several fisher men and nowhere to hide. I did not want to take a chance and continued hiking until I came to a huge parking lot by a hydroelectric power plant. Lots of flat space but I did not really want to camp at such an easily accessible place. I had become somewhat desperate when I finally spotted the shelter which was an old wooden chapel. Huge and clean it seemed perfect but it was next to the parking lot. Could I dare it? Yes, I could especially since I had discovered that you could lock the chapel from inside and the stain glass windows where so high up that you could not see inside. I spent a lovely night there and when the last fisher men had left the parking lot at 10 pm I was all alone until the first tourists arrived at 9 am in the morning.

The next day the spectacular river walk continued first along a wide open bend in the river and then along an even more spectacular canyon. The valley became narrower with steep high rock walks on the Swiss side. The trail was getting more and more difficult with lots of blow downs and slippery ascends and descends. It felt like in a wilderness, not like in the heat of Central Europe. I was much slower than expected due to the difficult terrain but it was definitely worth it. This stretch was one of the most fascinating river walks I have ever done and I can only highly recommend it. I came across two other shelters but it was too early in the day. Strangely enough I didn't encounter many other hikers, only a group of disoriented Germans.

Pontarlier
After one and a half day the trail finally turned away from the river - and the weather turned bad again. It just rained and rained and rained and when I saw on the forecast that it would rain straight through the next day I for once did the right thing: I detoured into Pontarlier, a nice little provincial town with a youth hostel. And thanks to my smart phone I knew that beds were available. I showed up looking like a drowned rat, but my mood immediately improved when I was given a double room for the price of a dorm bed. After that I did not complain any more about the lack of language knowledge of the receptionist nor my not functioning key card. I had a lovely room complete with shower and toilet. The hostel kitchen was tiny but despite two grumpy Germans I thoroughly enjoyed my sausages I had bought on my way to the hostel.

The next morning it was still training cats and dogs and I visited every possible museum and church in order to avoid hiking in the rain. But at noon I had to face it: 4 km walk along a busy highway in order to get back to my trail. But the forecast was good and I well rested. The trail does not follow the Doubs after that but it passes its source later on. I was expecting a tiny trickle but instead there is a huge stream already gushing out of a subterranean cave system. Very impressive - as is the rest of the Doubs river walk.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Hay fever, hearing loss and a French doctor

On the way into Belfort
 After I had finally secured a CS host (or vice versa)e everything fell into place. Thanks to my unexpected detour on another GR I even arrived earlier in Belfort than expected. A short visit to the Visitor Information solved another problem: how to get back to the GR 5 after my visit in Basel. Thanks to the maps on sale I found a walk along a canal. Very short and flat and fast... I even arrived in Basel 2 hours before my host wanted to meet me which gave me time to do all my errands first. I had a fantastic stay in Basel: a very nice host, a room for myself and unlimited access to the internet with a German keyboard. No surprise that I hardly made it out of the house but I finally managed to make it to an interesting but awfully expensive Jeff Koons exhibition. The museum had the advantage of being so close to the German border that I had German net reception and could even make some phone calls. Still I felt very bad about having spent 25 CHF on a simple exhibition and had to comfort myself with going resupply shopping at Lidl.

I had such a comfortable stay that I left very late the next day to do my canal walk back to the GR 5. Unfortunately next to the canal was not only a very noisy motorway but also a lot of meadows. I suffered a bit of hay fever and my eyes were itching. Still I made it to a nice forest before sun set, had dinner and slept like a log.

Next morning started with a very bad surprise: When I woke up I could not hear any more in one ear!!! There had been no indication of a hearing loss the day before and I could not believe what had happened. I had suffered from hearing loss many years ago and from back then I knew that some causes of this need immediate medical attention to avoid permanent damage. On the other side it just felt like a tube congestion. No matter what I had to get out of bed first and start walking. Maybe the hearing would come back on its own. But at noon things had not changed a bit. The different hearing abilities in the two ears were not only annoying but also influenced my sense of equilibrium. I decided to have lunch first and then decide what to do. I bought a loaf of bread at a little village store and was just looking for a place where to sit and eat when I saw another hiker with a Z pack. A Z pack is an ultralight backpack made in USA and not something you expect to see on a trail in France. I introduced myself in rusty French and it turned out that the other hiker was an American.When I had told him about my Triple Crown and all the other hiking I have done he took out his wallet, gave me 100 EUR and told me that he wants to be my sponsor. Wow! Nothing like that has ever happened to me before.

And when I told him about my hearing loss he said that he was a retired emergency doctor.... It does not get better than that. He assured me that my ear problem would go away itself in a couple of days, but I was sceptical. It had also just dawned on me that I had taken health insurance without a deductible this time. The next ear specialist was only 4 km away, but if I didn't go now it would be very complicated to get back into civilisation further along my hiking route. And so I decided to go and see a French doctor. 4 km were easily hiked and I found the ear specialist immediately, but then I ran out of luck. The waiting room was full and no further patients admitted today. Come back tomorrow or see a General Practitioner. I had nothing to loose and went to the GP address nearby. It was an old house that reeked of cigarettes and the waiting room looked more like in the job centre in Berlin than like a doctor. Two ladies were waiting and I asked where the receptionist was. No receptionist, no appointments, no nothing. But yes, it was a real doctor. I had never come across a doctor without assistant before...

Happily hearing again
After waiting only 15 minutes it was my turn and I explained my problem in broken French. The doctor looked into my ears and throat, took my temperature and explained that all this was due to hay fever. He gave me a long prescription and charged me only 23 EUR! To cut a long story short: I was sceptical but went to a pharmacy to get the medication. And after only one dose of nose spray the congestion cleared and within 15 minutes I could hear perfectly well again! With that good news it did not matter that I hiked directly into a thunder storm and spent the evening in my wet tent. I still suffer from hay fever now, but no more hearing problems!

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Vosges: Tips for hikers

I have hiked the whole Vosges mountain range from the German border to Belfort. The Northern part of the Vosges is still below 1,000 m and Douglas firs dominate. The further South you go, the higher the mountains and the more daily climbing you will have to do. Also, a lot of places along the crest are not forested and therefore very exposed. This is lovely with breathtaking views if the weather is nice - but very uncomfortable when the weather turns bad. On my second last day I had an almost complete white out situation due to fog!

The trail marking is decent but not great. You would get by without a GPS and only a paper map or guide book, but you might get lost a couple of times. No big deal, but it can be time consuming to navigate. Do not trust the times given on the sign posts - although mostly correct I have encountered various signposts that were one hour or more off!

Water is usually not an issue. There are lots of springs in the mountains, sometimes even real fountains. Most villages had beautiful public fountains with drinking water, but don't count on that. When you desperately need them, they are usually not there...

There are very few shelters along the trail. There are some huts (abri) that are permenantly open and they are very comfortable and luxurious containing even a wood burning stove and benches and tables. But there are not too many of them and they are never around when you need them. There are also official refuges run by ski and hiking clubs but unfortunately those are usually locked and only open on weekends. During the week they are completely locked and not even an emergency shelter room is open. On weekends you will see plenty of cars parked around them. Apparently they are more used for family and friend reunions than by hikers.

Although you will have to hike on forest roads and sometimes even on pavement a surprisingly high percentage of the route is on single file trail. The Southern part of the trail follows a tourist road called "route des cretes". I normally hate road noises when I am hiking but in the Vosges this was not much of a problem. There is very little traffic on the road (mostly tourists) and very often you don't even see it. Only on weekends noisy (German) motorcyclists can be a bit of a problem. This seems to be a very popular route for bikers - but also for cyclist. So if you are after a pure nature experience the Northern part of the Vosges is better where the GR 53 and GR 5 are far away from roads.

And last but not least: Due to the high altitude there were hardly any ticks! Only a few in the North, but none in the South.

The Vosges: GR 53 and GR 5

The Vosges mountains have definitely been the highlight of this trip so far. If you like hiking in the forest this is the trail for you. I had really been looking forward to this section but my expectations were even surpassed. And this was about time as this hike so far had not been the greatest hike and I had not been too enthusiastic so far. For year I had wanted to hike the Vosges and had already bought the relevant French topoguide guidebook when I was still a part of the German workforce. Now it came in very handy.

The nice part already started in the Southern Palatian Forest, where I was surprised by fantastic huge rock formations on the French-German border. But most impressive was the forest: Continuous old growth forest for days on end! One third of Germany is forested, too - but in Germany it is mostly bigger or smaller patches of forest interspersed with farmland and villages. In the Vosges it is forest wherever you go. Very little meadows or farmland and not too many villages. In Germany you will find a lot of spruce plantations that can be quite boring to look at (albeit good for camping...) whereas in the Vosges you will mostly find very old mixed forest. Especially in the Southern Vosges there are a lot of Douglas firs, a tree that is native in North America and has only been introduced into Europe in the 19th century. There were so many of those majestic trees that I felt like hiking in California. The smell of those trees was so familiar that I felt like on the PCT.... It must have helped that all of a sudden summer had come back with nice temperatures in the mid 20s!

But the forest was not the only nice thing. After the rather ugly German Eifel villages I was now back to beautiful romantic little villages with timbered old houses. Plus around every corner seemed to be the ruin of a medieval castle or fort. Every mountain top (and there are lots of mountain tops believe me!) was crowned with some ruins. And of course the trail had to visit every single one of them.... My daily amount of climbing skyrocketed - and my interest in medieval ruins plummeted. I must say that after a while they all tend to look the same... Some of them like Haut Koenigsbourg have been completely restored but I always happened to be there outside their opening times.

The same happened at Struthof, a former German concentration camp. I arrived after hours and missed the documentation centre, but at least could see the former installations. Scary, to say the least. German history was everywhere as the Alsace was once German and changed hands between Germany and France various times over the centuries. Almost all villages and towns have German names and even most family names sound German. A lot of bloody battles took place here during WW I and therefore I came across several war cemeteries and old military installations that had survived a hundred years by now in the middle of the forest. It was hard to believe that here in the peaceful beautiful forest incredibly bloody battles had taken place a century ago - now only placques and some concrete installations are the only reminders.

Monastery St. Odile
 The most impressive sight for me was Mount St. Odile. This 763 m high mountain is dedicated to St. Odile, the patron saint of the Alsace. In the 11th century a chapel and monastery was erected and the relics of St. Odile are still kept there. This is a place of "eternal adoration" meaning that the chapel is open 24 hours and pilgrims are praying there around the clock. I visited over the long Pentecost holiday weekend and the placed was teeming with tourists. In fact it felt  more like a zoo than a pilgrimage place. I arrived around midday determined to find a place where to recharge my phone and cook same food. I then found the pilgrimage hall that turned out to be a huge cafeteria with cheap food. I immediately decided to give up on cooking Top Ramen Noodle soup and treated myself with chicken and vegetables for 5,80 EUR. I situatued myself in a corner with an electrical outlet and recharged my phone with electricity and myself with food and rest. It was interesting to watch the masses of people, half of them Germans. But the most impressive sight at Mount St. Odile was the Stations of the Cross, huge terracotta reliefs put high up on the rock faces of the mountain.

The further North I got the higher become the mountains. Soon I was hiking above 1,000 meters which was very nice for impressive sights, but very exposed and tiresome when you had to descend into a valley only to have to climb up again. As long as the weather was nice this was ok, but in the end this deteriorated greatly. It became very windy which was a real problem on the sometimes exposed crest and when it started to rain the situation became very uncomfortable. I had decided to take a rest day once I got into the vicinity of Belfort and two days before the weather became unbearable. One morning I woke up and could hardly see 50 m due to fog. Unfortunately this was the day were I was supposed to hike across Ballon d Alsace, one of the highest points in the Vosges. The forecast was for wind and continuous rain. No thank you! Luckily I had the Garmin topo maps on  my GPS and found a low altitude alternative route. Instead of the GR 5 I detoured on the GR 592. It was a bit weird to hike only with a GPS and now paper map whatsoever. It was difficult to estimate distances and judge were you are. But the weather was so bad that I was glad of not being on an exposed ridge and I even arrived in Belfort half a day earlier than expected.

From Belfort I had decided to take a trip to Basel in Switzerland and have a rest day there. As there were a lot of Couchsurfing hosts in Basel I did not expect any problems, but it turned out the be the hardest quest for a CS host I had ever experienced. I had sent out 11 requests but half of them declined and the other half did not bother to answer. The night before I still had not found a place where to stay and I had already resigned to the idea of staying at a hostel. I set up my tent in the pouring rain and checked my smart phone a last time. Unfortunately I had very bad internet connection at that place....  It took more than 5 minutes to download a simple email that contained the redeeming message that a lady had taken pity on me and agreed to host me the next day. Hurray!!! Of  course I wanted to respond immediately and confirm that I am coming - but internet coverage was not on my side. I tried for half an hour but could not send out a message. Finally I put on my wet and muddy boots again and walked around in the forest in the dark in order to find a place with better reception until I could finally send my message. I fell asleep very relieved.

Snow on Grand Ballon
It had stopped raining over night but of course it started pouring again the moment I had put down my tent. I still had to find out where and when to meet my CS host so I was desperate to find a place with good reception. So I was walking along the muddy trail staring at the reception columns of my phone - and promptly slipped in the mud. Naturally I wanted to rescue my phone and fell flat face into the muck onto my trekking poles that promptly bent. I saved my phone, but the whole situation must have looked like straight out of a slapstick comedy. In the end everything worked out great. I quickly arrived in Belfort where I found a nice cemetery with running water to wash up, took a train to Basel, went shopping for some outdoor stuff and met my CS host. After having a shower and washing my clothes life was good again. And today I am having a lovely day off with internet access!