What: easy coastal hiking on the GR 34 and GR 223.
Where: Roscoff to Cherbourg, France.
When: May 10 – June 2, 2007 (23 days).
Distance: about 540 miles.
Highlights: attractive coastline, historic sites, good food, easy logistics.
Why we went
Between 2002 and 2006 we took five walking trips in Britain, so for variety we decided to try a hike in France. There is an extensive network of walking paths in the country and there was a lot to choose from. Since we enjoy coastal walking, we focused on researching routes along the shoreline. It quickly became apparent that a fine option would the walking the so-called Rose Coast in northern Brittany. There is a well-established walking route, the GR 34, along that coastline and we were able to find a reasonable amount of published information about the route.
We did not carry a camera and regretfully have no photos.
This was a successful, straight-forward, pleasant trip. The walking was easy, the food was fantastic, the people were friendly and helpful. I don’t think I will ever tire of walking along oceanic coasts.
As we had recently hiked along the coasts of Cornwall and Devon, just across the English Channel, I can not help but compare this coastal walk to the Southwest Coast Path on those coasts.
Whereas the Devon and Cornwall coasts are dominated by coastal cliffs and crashing waves, the Brittany and Normandy coasts offer many beaches with extensive intertidal zones that often extend several hundred meters from shore. Both types are beautiful, but the cliffs are more dramatic and thrilling.
The English coastal communities are vibrant villages, occupied year round, that feel like places I’d be happy to live. Many of the French coastal communities we visited appeared to be seasonal, and it was strange to walk through communities where 90% of the buildings were shuttered. I had the feeling that some of these coastal towns would be chaotic frenzies during the summer holiday period, and then overnight revert to a shuttered shell of a town.
I was struck by the impact that historical inheritance laws have had on the nature of coastal walking. In England, primogeniture and entail laws governed the transfer of estates for centuries. This resulted in very large estates staying intact. Currently, high inheritance taxes and a societal desire to protect open spaces has allowed the National Trust to purchase and preserve very large tracts of rural coastline. Walking along the coast of England has an aesthetically pleasing pattern of villages and small towns separated by five or ten miles of undeveloped coast, where the surf crashes to one’s left and the sheep graze to one’s right.
France, on the other hand, starting in 1794, required equality among heirs, and estates were thus divided equally amongst the heirs; the result is that the properties have been divided into smaller and smaller chunks. There is much more blurring of the boundary between the villages and the rural areas in between.
In summary, I was thrilled to learn that, like England, France is criss-crossed by an extensive network of well documented and waymarked hiking paths. I would not hesitate to continue to plan other hikes on GRs in France. If I had to choose only one coastal walk, I would recommend England’s Southwest Coast Path over this combination of the Gr34 and GR223. Bear in mind that the Southwest Coast Path is, for me, an extraordinary route on my Top Ten List.
It was interesting walking the French side of the English Channel, after spending time on the British side. The differences between these two neighboring cultures with very common roots, Breton and Cornish are two very closely related languages, was quite evident. Food at all levels was so much better on France than in England that we were surprised at how little influence French cuisine has had in Cornwall and Devon. The French drink wine at meals and the British drink beer. The French provide skimpy continental breakfasts while the British serve massive “fry ups”. British bakeries are rarely enticing while French patisseries are fabulous places where choosing between various delectables is an almost impossible task.
The small coastal villages in England are lived in year round by people for whom the place is home. They have their village pub and church and their lives are based in these places. In contrast, a great many of the French towns were primarily vacation destinations and compared with the number of buildings, the places were devoid of people. English public bathrooms were generally very tidy while the French equivalents were often disgustingly filthy.
I enjoyed the walk as much because it was a new place as for the walk itself. The route is scenically pleasant, but rarely awe-inspiring. The French coast is a lot less rugged than the English side, so the views were less interesting and wild feeling. The walking was very easy and pleasant and other than finding food when the shops were closed, the trip was hassle free. This walk was a nice way to spend time outdoors, a good way to learn something about French life, and I have no reservations in recommending it to others.
Notes for Potential Hikers
The GR 34 is a mostly coastal route in northwestern France that runs from Le Tour-du-Parc on the Atlantic coast near Vannes to the inland town of Vitré in eastern Brittany. We hiked a portion of it, travelling east along the English Channel from Roscoff to our intended destination of Mont-St-Michel. We arrived there well before our scheduled flight home and decided to continue north along the Normandy coastline. We had done no advanced planning for this section and roughly followed the GR 223 north along Normandy’s Cotentin Peninsula to the town of Cherbourg.
The GPX track on our CalTopo map is only approximate, as we did not carry a GPS on the trip and did not mark up our maps as thoroughly as we should have. We stayed on the GR 34 reasonably consistently, diverting mostly in towns to find groceries, meals, or occasional lodging. In a number places we also left the trail to find campsites. We took the ferry between Dinard and St. Malo. At the town of Hirel, the primary GR 34 continues inland, but we stayed on the coastal variant all the way to Mont Saint-Michel, where we left the GR 34 for good.
We were less rigorous on the GR 223. Our maps were 1:100,000 scale, so the resolution of the trail was somewhat limited. The route, at least when we were there, was less consistently marked on the ground than the GR 34. And finally, we elected to follow the beach in a number of places instead of going inland in order to minimize road walking. Since the area has a significant tidal swing, beach walking is not always possible.
The routes on the ground do get moved around as improvements are made and land use changes. There are several published versions of the GPX tracks for the GR-34 and the GR-223 and they do not always agree with the IGN maps or the guidebooks. However, you will always be able to find a way to get to where you need to go.
Mont St-Michel is a must visit UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is very popular with tourists and often crowded, but still worthwhile. Its location out in the tidal flats is stunning and the old commune is well worth the time it takes to walk through it.
France has a 37,000 mile trail network consisting of major walking paths called Grande Randonnées (GR), Les GR de Pays (GRP), and Les sentiers de Promenade et Randonnée (PR). These routes are generally very well marked and documented.
Building and maintaining the GR system is a national effort between the French government and private walking groups. Trail way-marking is a system of red and white paint marks that have a consistent meaning. We found these way-marks easy to find and follow, and think it is as good a method of marking trail that we have experienced anywhere. The GRP’s have a similar system, but use other colors, so it is always easy to stay on the main route. No language skills are required to decipher signs.
Like many other European trails, the GR’s wander through fields, woodlots, and towns. The trails are completely integrated into the landscape and are used frequently by local people for short walks and to get from here to there. We used the French IGN 1:100,000 maps and found them adequate for the navigation we had to do. As that scale is rather large, the level of detail was limited, but we never got significantly off track. There are more detailed IGN maps available. We had not yet started to use an electronic GPS device, so relied entirely on the paper maps.
There are stretches of walking on roads of various kinds. Many of these are unpaved farm lanes. Others are quiet country roads near villages with little to no traffic. Finally, there are portions on pavement with traffic, primarily entering and leaving medium and large towns and through the settled areas.
As in most western European countries, the public transportation system in France is extensive and easy to use. We flew to Brussels, where we took one train to Paris and then another on to Roscoff.
On our return trip, we took a late afternoon train from Cherbourg to Carentan, a randomly chosen small town, to spend the night. We were lucky to arrive as celebrations commemorating the June 1944 D-Day landings and Normandy liberation campaign were being held. The local villagers still commemorated those events with, among other things, many people dressed in World War 2 military costumes living in a camp next to town equipped with vintage and reconstructed military vehicles, tents and the like. It was touching to see how this small French village still honored their liberation by the Allied forces more than sixty years previously.
The next morning, we continued on to Paris and then Brussels via rail.
In theory finding food should not have been an issue as the route passes through many towns and villages, However, two things worked against us. First, at least along this section of coast, many of the towns were largely uninhabited as the area is primarily a vacation destination fully populated only during the holiday season. Many buildings were shuttered and the streets were so empty that it felt downright weird at times; shops and restaurants were often closed for the season.
The other problem is that French shopkeepers have erratic and unpredictable hours. Many are closed at mid-day and others during the afternoon. So even when we found a shop that was theoretically open in the off-season, it was often closed because we arrived at the wrong time of day. Finally, many places were closed entirely on Sundays. Even when we were in a town, we could not always purchase food or meals.
When the shops were open, food selections were generally good with local products frequently available. The shops tended to specialize, with one a butcher, another a wine shop, and a third selling fruits and vegetables.
Many restaurants were also closed for the season. But the food in the ones that were open was uniformly good. We ate a lot of fresh mussels, which are grown in huge numbers just off the Brittany coast. Finally, the French patisseries, or bakeries, were fabulous. Even the tiniest village would have at least one, they were always open early in the morning and the pastries were always extremely tasty. The patisserie ladies (and they were always ladies) were very friendly, always offering a crisp bonjour when we entered and waiting patiently while we tried to decide which of their offerings to buy. The pastries were so good we often stopped at a patisserie more than once a day.
There are lots of public sources of clean drinking water, such as town fonts, in France.
We found very few public campgrounds along this walk. In fact, we only camped in one of these facilities, a free municipal campground south of Locquirec. However, it was never very difficult to find a place to set up a tent for the night. We were never sure of the legality of what we did as the French differentiate between camping and bivouacking. A bivouac, to the best of our understanding, is considered setting up your tent in an out-of-the-way place in the evening and being gone early in the morning. Whatever the rules, we never had an issue with the local residents; on several occasions people passing by our tent would recommend a better site nearby.
We camped in a variety of places: on beaches, in the woods, in fields, behind old abbeys, and once on a duck blind mound. Our best site was near Mont Saint-Michel where we found a totally private spot in a sheep field just above the high tide line on the flats south-east of the abbey. From there we had a fabulous unobstructed view of Mont Saint-Michel and were able to watch the evening illumination show that is put on for the tourists.
We spent a few nights in paid lodgings. Most of these were the French equivalents of a B&B and are called Chambres-d’Hote. In larger towns, the Tourist Information Centers were helpful in finding a place to stay. Most of the proprietors spoke very little to no English, but with our primitive French and some arm waving, we had no problems.
There was some precipitation on about half the days during our walk. It rarely rained long or hard, usually just light intermittent showers for a portion of the day. Temperatures were comfortable and, being near the coast, were relatively constant. Occasionally we would have muddy sections of trail due to the rain, but for the most part, the paths were well drained. We carried Go-Lite umbrellas and found them quite useful and frequently we had no need to put on rain gear to stay dry.
This walk was mostly flat. There are a few small changes of elevation along bumpy sections of the coast, but nothing steep. We did a lot of beach walking, mostly in Normandy. The tidal swing along the Brittany coast is huge, so accessible beaches would come and go. The sand varied from quite firm to soft stuff difficult to walk through. We had some rocky sections, particularly on the lovely pink granite of the Rose Coast.
Birding was decent on this trip. Coastal areas often have good species diversity as there are many habitats mixed together. We saw about 100 species, many of them almost on a daily basis, but no new life birds. On one day, we recorded 81 different species.