European GR trails to dream about…

“Not all those who wander are lost” – J. R. R. Tolkien

As spring fast approaches we are busy preparing for our upcoming 1000 mile hike along the GR1 ‘Sendero Historico’ and, later in the summer, the GR5 ‘Grand Traverse of the Alps’. There were many enticing choices for long distance hikes in 2016, not least of which were great American trails such as the John Muir, or even the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). Although our choice to hike the GRs 1 and 5 this year was based on a mix of factors, it has started me thinking about the European ‘GR’ routes and what they have to offer. It is also an opportunity to highlight some of these diverse, yet underrated journeys.

Cicerone guides

The prefix ‘GR’ stands for ‘Grand Randonee’ in France or ‘Gran Reccorido’ in Spain, and is followed by an identifying number. There are hundreds of GR routes to choose from, mainly in France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands, although just a few are famous and popular enough to warrant their own guidebook. The GR’s are often major, cross regional trails and are way-marked along their length by the unmistakable red and white blazes, although the consistency of these is variable. It is important to note that GR numbers can be duplicated between countries, the GR11 in Spain runs along the Pyrenees, the GR11 in France is the ‘Grand Tour of Paris’! However, some GR’s are so popular that, if someone talks about the ‘GR20’ for instance, most people assume it refers to the route of that name in Corsica. The same applies to many of the GR’s mentioned in this post.

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Waymarks are often supplemented by cairns, great for poor visibility on high cols.

On the GR11 we found the way-marking to be mostly excellent, with some sections having been recently repainted, and only needed to check the guidebook occasionally. In some places, as on many trails, the blazes are supplemented by cairns, a God-send in poor visibility or broken, rocky terrain. On the GR1 by contrast we expect way-marking on some sections to be sparse and will need a GPS back-up. Trail conditions can vary a lot too, again depending on the popularity of the trail and regional funds to maintain them. Towards the end of the GR11 we had to bush-wack in places as the trail had not been maintained recently and there were also far fewer hikers to help keep it clear.

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An unusual fuente provides water with a smile on the GR11.

Often there is a logic to a GR, they may follow landscape features such as mountain ranges, rivers or coastlines, they sometimes link points together such as coast-to-coast, they may follow ancient tracks, transhumance or pilgrim trails, and often they travel through places of cultural or historical interest. In fact, GR routes frequently do all of these things and it is this logic, in traversing and linking landscapes (both natural and human) that is also their great appeal. These imagined cartographic lines with their enigmatic GR codes can lead a walker deep into Europe’s landscape and culture, and although they may be following a ‘route’ the journey each hiker makes is very much their own.

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The GR11 coincides with a pilgrim Camino (yellow scallop shell).

When we stumble upon a GR waymark when out hiking in Europe, I am always excited to imagine where it might lead, inspired by the mystery of this trail unravelling into unknown places and the enticement of a journey waiting to be undertaken. It is ironic that the diminutive, uninspiring names of many GR’s, like the GR11 for instance, belie the beauty and experiences that await anyone who sets-out upon them.

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The GR1 ‘Sendero Historico’ traces a line through Spain’s history, and past some terrific landmarks such as Loarre Castle in Aragon. (GR1 reconnaissance hike winter 2015)

It is likely that anyone who regularly goes on a walking holiday in France or Spain will have, knowingly or not, been on part of a GR route. The GR’s often intersect with other regional or local trails, pilgrim Caminos and sometimes parts of more major trans-European ‘E’ routes. The GR’s vary greatly in length, from walks that take a few days to potentially multi-month trips. But the beauty of any given GR is that they don’t have to be walked in one go. People often select a route and return over several years to complete it, turning it into a sort of hiking ‘project’.

We met many people ‘section hiking’ the GR11 in this way, returning for a week or two each year to walk the Spanish Pyrenees from coast to coast. For those with the inclination or time, the GR’s can also offer the enticement of an end-to-end ‘thru-hike’, the chance to walk the length of a river or mountain range as a continuous journey, a kind of hiking adventure that, for its demands and commitment, has its own special rewards.

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Some sections of GR routes can be blessed with regular accommodation options for hikers who don’t want to camp, but on other routes it can be difficult to reach accommodation each night.

Of course, some GR’s probably aren’t worth walking in their entirety, some because of their length, inevitably cover ground that is less interesting, and for those with time constraints, these bits are not worth the effort. End-to-end ‘thru-hikers’ will often accept these poorer or boring sections as part of the journey, the endurance of these bits adding to the sense of accomplishment and ‘purity’ of the hike. The GR11 for instance was exceptional for the high quality it maintained for much of its 500 mile length, by contrast there are some sections on the GR1 this spring that we expect to just have to ‘get on with’ to reach better terrain. A guidebook is nearly always invaluable for planning, and while not all GR’s have them, there is a slow trickle of books appearing that are ‘opening-up’ new GR’s to walkers, the recent GR1 guide being an example.

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Hike a GR and meet the locals!

Although there are so many hiking itineraries to choose from, it seems to me a great oversight that the European GR’s, particularly a special few, are not more popular and widely known among walkers and the hiker-blogger community. This ‘gap’ in wider recognition is a shame as the GR’s ‘tick boxes’ to suit most hiking styles, interests and abilities. This blog-post is a small effort to remedy that, and in the list which follows I have selected 10 major GR routes to highlight. We have only walked one of these routes so far, so the list is mainly GR’s I have read about and found interesting. Some of them we plan walk, some we hope to walk and others we almost certainly won’t walk, but nonetheless, each one is the seed of an adventure.

1. GR1 ‘Sendero Historico’, Spain

Length: 1250km.  From-To: St Marti de Empuries to Puerto de Tarno

Tracing a great arc across the landscapes of rural Spain through remote sierras and limestone canyons, past castles, abandoned villages and ancient hermitages, the GR1 shows a side of Spain few people see.  Adding the Caminos Primitivo and Finisterre as an extension will include the pilgrim city of Santiago de Compostela and create an epic coast-coast hike to finish at Cape Finisterre in Galicia.  This is the heartland of Spain, a country of lonely blue sierras and forgotten places, we could not resist!

A description of the walk and lots of other helpful info can be found John Hayes blog here: www.johnhayeswalks.com

2. GR3 Loire Valley Trail, France

Distance: 1244km      From-To: Mont Gerbier de Jonc-La Baule

Following the course of France’s longest river, the Loire, through meadows, forests and vineyards, past old villages, historic cities and of course grand Chateaus, this is an interesting choice for Francophile hikers. The GR3 starts at the river’s source in the mountains of the Massif Central and finishes at the sea on the coast of Brittany, making an epic, meandering journey through the heartland of France. Some sections might be worth a miss unless hikers are very dedicated, and as far as I know there is no English guidebook yet….

3. GR5 ‘Grand Traverse of the Alps’

Distance: 400-450km (depending on variants). From-To: Lac Lemann- Nice

Starting on the shores of Lake Geneva the GR5 begins its journey south toward the Mediterranean, crossing high passes of the Alps, with views of Mont Blanc, before winding through the Vanoise, Queryas, Mercantour, and Martime Alps. Hugging the French/Swiss and later, French/Italian border for most of its length, this is a tasty slice of mountain hiking, with all the classic elements, and there are a number of variant-routes along the way to choose from.  We have not walked in the Alps before, and are both excited about our 2016 hike along the GR5….provided the GR1 does not ‘do us in’ first!

Nice trip report here that inspired us: longdistancetrail.wordpress.com

4. GR7, Spain

Distance: 1900km   From- To: Tarifa – Andorra

The GR7 in Spain is a mighty walk, running from Tarifa in Andalucía, via Murica, Valencia and Catalonia to Andorra. The GR7 tracks up the eastern side of Spain, staying inland from the coast, and climbs into the Andalucian Sierras.  In fact, the Andalucian section is probably the most popular. Within Andalucía the route splits, offering two options, one to the north of the Sierra Nevada through Cordoba and Jaen provinces, the second along the southern side of mountains through the white-washed villages of the Alpujarras. The GR7 in Andalucía was a strong contender for an early season hike for us this year, the sierras in spring will be alive with flowers, blossom and birds. We have put the GR7 on the back-burner for future consideration.

5. GR34 Customs Officers Path, Brittany

Length: 1700km.  To/From: Vitre in Ille et Vilaine- Vannes

Another French epic, the GR34 traces a route around almost the entire length of Brittany’s rugged coastline. The route originates back in the days of smugglers, who cast off with their contraband from this remote coast to try and avoid customs. Growing wise to this, the customs officers patrolled this coastline in all weathers and in so doing, wore trails along the coast that later gave birth to the GR34. The path often hugs the cliff-line, passing lonely headlands and lighthouses, small villages and towns, as well as traversing more famous sections such as the pink granite coast. Being one of the longest GR’s in France, the GR34 is potentially a magnificent challenge or ‘project hike’. Info on the whole route is scant, but we may keep an eye on this one for the future.

6. GR10 French Pyrenees

Length: 866km   To-From: Hendaye-Banyuls-Sur-Mer

The GR10 is the longer established ‘sister’ trail to the Spanish GR11, both of which run from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean along the Pyrenees. More trafficked than the GR11, the GR10 it has good infrastructure for hikers (particularly those wanting accommodation/meals), and has a loyal following. Like the GR11 also, it is notorious for the amount of ascent and descent, cutting as it does across the Pyrenean valleys. The French side of the Pyrenees is more forested and wetter than the Spanish side, and was the reason we chose the GR11 over it. However, the GR10 still has many charms and more gorgeous Pyrenean scenery than you can shake a stick at. We are certainly curious about the GR10 and what the Pyrenees look like from the ‘other side’, and sooner or later this curiosity may entice us back for for another Pyrenean adventure.

7. GR11 ‘La Senda Pirinaica’, Spain

Distance: 820km  From-To: Cabo de Higuer – Cap de Creus

Well, it’s hard for us not to be biased about this one. Our only GR hike so far, but what a one to start with! With over 40,000m of ascent along 820 mountain kilometres, the GR11 is not to be underestimated. But, for all the interminable climbing, we were rewarded with a glorious journey among the Pyrenean peaks, and a trail that offered great diversity of landscape and wildlife every step of the way. We liked the wildness and freedom to camp, and often felt like the only hikers on the trail. It was far from the easiest GR for us to start with, but we grew through it together, learnt a lot, and were left hungry for more. In my opinion the GR11, although not that widely known, is a world class mountain hike.

8. GR20 Corsica

Distance: 180km. From-To: Calenzana- Conca

Although a more modest 180km long, the GR20 is known as the hardest of the the GR’s. Climbing high onto the mountain spine of Corsica, the steep and rocky trail stays high and tackles some formidable sections including the infamous ‘Cirque de Solitude’ where hikers use chains to descend/ascend. The views on a clear day out over the island to the sparkling Mediterranean can be stunning, and the trail snakes between mountain spires with clinging pines, similar to a Japanese woodcut. The route is very popular and can suffer from overcrowding at holiday times. This is a walk on our radar for sure, but not during peak season.

9. GR70 Robert Lewis Stevenson Trail, France

Distance: 275km.  From-To: Le Puy en Velay- Ales

Crossing the landscapes of the Cevennes along ancient footpaths and bridleways, the GR70 was ‘designed’ to allow walkers to retrace the footsteps of author Robert Louis Stevenson when he travelled here in 1878. Stevenson was accompanied by his recalcitrant donkey Modestine and he recorded his journey in the book ‘Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes’. The Cevennes is part of the Massif Central in south- central France, and is protected within the Cevennes National park. The GR70 travels through remote and beautiful countryside, past old meadows, streams and ancient villages. Traditional farming methods co-exist with a rich biodiversity, and walking the GR70 may be a journey back in time to a older, slower Europe.  Autumn is beautiful here and the season we would choose to hike it in, if and when we get the time.

10. GR221 Drystone Route, Mallorca

Distance: 135km  To-From: Port d’Andratx- Pollenca

If there was ever a route that merges both landscape and culture perfectly, the GR221 Drystone Route must be a contender. Climbing from Port d’Andratx the GR221 journeys along the length of the Sierra Tramuntana on the west side of Mallorca before descending to Pollenca. The route uses old cobbled tracks and paths through the mountains between the ancient olive and almond terraces, passing several monasteries (which are being converted into simple accommodations) and other relics such as old charcoal ovens. From the tops of the Tramuntana, GR221 hikers can look right out over the dramatic coastline to the Med beyond. The time of the almond blossom in early spring would be our favoured time to visit, the days are still cooler then too.

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So many paths, so little time…

As well as being an insight into the GR’s that interest us, I hope this post might inspire some ideas for readers’ future journeys. I am passionate about what a special way hiking is to travel, and am keen to share this enthusiasm with anyone who will read or listen! Hiking is a chance to see the world as if we had eyes in the soles of our feet, we ‘see’ and ‘know’ through our footsteps as they trace the contours of terrain, we slow down to our truly human pace, we create time to notice, and all our senses are available to feel and absorb. Ironically, returning to a walking pace in the 21st century is, I believe, a progressive way to travel, a counter-current that restores us to what we are and what we do most naturally. As individuals and a perhaps even as a society, we could reclaim much through the simple rhythm of our footsteps.

It would be great to hear if any readers have walked the GR routes mentioned in this post, or if you plan to. Leave a comment below to share your experiences.

*PS: Sorry about the obnoxious ads that seem to be appearing below, some of them look unpleasant, this is a trade-off for using free blogging software*

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2 thoughts on “European GR trails to dream about…

  1. Hello Rebecca and Barry,
    Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you’ve found my blog useful and inspiring. GR5 and GR20 both done, very different type of walks. Actually, the GR20 is hardly a “walk” as it’s constant struggle and scramble along the rugged mountainsides. But worth it! 🙂
    I enjoyed a lot reading your GR11 report as it’s definitely on my to do list. Beautiful pictures, beautiful wild camp spots… but the Sendero Historico intrigues me a lot, too. Btw, which is your email, I would have liked to ask few questions? (a.rantsu at hotmail dot com)
    -A

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  2. Hi , great blog post , we see in the planning stages of our next hike so this has been useful to read , we are looking at the Gr11 or the Via alpina that’s a big one for u.
    We did the GR and there are amusing (I think) account of the trip it was done for family and friends but we will update it with wild camping spots :, ps thanks also to long distance trail as we used his wild camp guide for some of our spots
    Check out http://www.brownandbird.co.uk for some of the GR5 info it might help in your planing 😀

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