By Guest Contributor Susan Funk
Church bells tolling far down in the valley, accompanied by the tinkling of much smaller replicas dangling from the throats of sheep grazing upslope, and the gurgling of a nearby stream—sounds of the GR 10, the hiking trail stretching across the southern border of France through the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. And, in early June, the visuals rival the auditory—a centuries-old sheepherder’s stone refuge in the high alpine valley surrounded by indigo blue gentians, bright yellow buttercups and remnants of winter snow. This trail is a trekker’s dream, regardless of your approach to a hiking holiday.
Some crazy folk tackle the entire length in one bold push, setting aside more than 50 days and trudging up 157,000 feet of ascent to cover the 538 mile distance. But, most of those committed to hiking the entire route often do so in several trips. Thru-hikers can travel light: inexpensive accommodation is available in mountain refuges or gites (hostels), which eliminates the need to camp. And because the route travels through many villages, resupply is almost never a problem.
Our group, however, opted for a less ambitious approach, tackling six separate segments in the Gavarnie region (a World Heritage site in the Haute Pyrenees department of southwestern France) on leisurely day hikes. Distances ranged from ten to thirteen miles allowing plenty of time for photos and proper French picnics along the way. We utilized a couple of bus/taxi ferries to and from more distant trailheads, but most of our hikes started right outside our door. Nights were spent in cozy village hotels. A glass of wine accompanied each post-hike bath (this is France!) and hearty dinners followed. Evenings closed tucked under a down comforter listening to the night noises through an open window. And thinking, tomorrow more of the same....
Planning a hiking trip along the GR 10 is relatively straightforward. The Institut Géographique National (French National Geographic Institute), or IGN, publishes a series of maps, the Series Bleue (Blue Series), covering all of France at a scale of 1:25,000 (American hikers are familiar with the similar USGS topo maps, which use a 1:24,000 scale). And, the Fédération Francaise de la Randonnée Pédestre (French Long-distance Hiking Federation) uses map sections from the Series Bleue in their excellent series of GR 10 trail guides, the FFRP Topoguides. These guides are only available in French, but basic tourist French is adequate to navigate through them.
There are also several guide books written in English, which prove to be useful in selecting an area of interest before investing in the more expensive small scale maps and guides. Self-guided hiking services can also be used to help with logistics: luggage moving, taxis, hotels and route selection. Bredeson Outdoor Adventures
assisted us and it was a pleasure to work with them. Also, individual hotels are a great help in arranging taxis (usually a nephew or cousin) and wading through bus schedules. And there is the usual treasure trove of information available online.
Before or after your hiking holiday, be sure to save enough time to visit the Grotte de Niaux (near Foix) to see the 15,000 year old cave art and to scramble up to the ruins of some of the magnificent Cathar castles in neighboring Languedoc.
About the Author: Susan Funk has spent much of her life exploring the outdoors, including British Columbia, New Zealand, Nepal, China, Vietnam, Spain, and Greece. Her favorite adventures, however, are those closest to her Minneapolis home in Minnesota's Boundary Waters and Wisconsin's Northwoods. A former lawyer and consultant, Susan is also the author of the modern mystery Bone Flour set in the upper Midwest.