What: coastal hiking on the GR-34 Where: from Roscoff to Lorient, Brittany, France When: May 14-June 12, 2019 (30 days) Distance: about 570 miles Highlights: a fascinating and beautiful coast, pâtisseries, friendly people, surfers, thousands of boats, birds, easy hiking.
We were in a pension in Trenčín, Slovakia deciding to abandon a planned multi-week walk after seven wet days on the trail. There were another five weeks prior to our flight home and we needed a new plan. Our research tools were a pair of smart phones and a good internet connection. Agreeing that finding an alternate hike was the best choice, we considered our requirements. We needed a route that would not necessitate any significant research or planning; we had to be able to book transportation from Trenčín to the start of the new walk; we had to have maps; and we wanted a destination that we felt highly confident would be good experience. We also hoped for better weather.
After considering walks in Italy, Denmark, Spain, and Britain, we decided to go to coastal France. In 2007 we had hiked from Roscoff to Cherbourg, mostly on the GR-34, and it had been a good trip. We knew the GR-34 continued westwards along the coast from Roscoff and thought that it would be satisfying to complete another portion of the route.
We were able to download a gpx track of the GR-34 that enabled us to estimate distances, calculate a likely endpoint, and confirm we could easily get from there to an international airport to return home. We rebooked our flight home and transportation from Trenčín to Roscoff and reserved places to stay during our multi-step journey to the French coast. Both of us are still a bit surprised we were able to do all of this in a few hours from a pension in Trenčín; normally we spend weeks doing extremely detailed planning prior to any long walk.
I loved this trip. The scenery was diverse, attractive, and captivating; the food was good; the people were cheerful, outgoing and engaging; the hiking was easy; the path was well marked and well maintained. We have taken many coastal hikes and I continue to be enthralled by them.
It was especially important to me to have a fun hike in France after our rather bland and unsatisfying week in Slovakia. While in Slovakia I wondered whether I have spent so much time hiking that it is no longer novel enough to be interesting. This hike on the GR34 confirmed that I still love hiking.
Additionally, as we age and climbing mountains seems harder than it used to be, it is reassuring to know that hiking in a place with very little altitude change is just as thrilling and beautiful as hiking in mountains!
After our disappointing week in Slovakia and the unplanned for extra travel across Europe, it was a great relief that this walk went well and was so satisfying. I have always enjoyed coastal walking and the Finistère coastline was as fine as any other we have walked. I thought it was quite different from, but on par with the English Southwest Coast Path, which has been a gold standard for our previous coastal hikes.
For me, the hike was mostly stress free and uncomplicated. The walking was physically generally easy and we were blessed with great weather. Other than an occasional challenge finding a meal, there were no notable problems of any kind.
I easily recommend this, or any portion of the GR-34, to anyone who wants a simple to organize and execute but highly rewarding long-distance backpacking trip.
Notes for Potential Hikers
A GR is a Grande Randonnée or French long-distance footpath. The GR-34 is a roughly 1,700 kilometer long route in Brittany that runs from Vitré, Ille-et-Vilaine to Tour-du-Parc, Morbihan.
The GR-34 is primarily routed immediately on the coast or around the perimeter of estuaries to the first inland bridge. Unlike the Southwest Coast Path in Cornwall, the GR-34 does not make the claim of being a coastal walk and it does go inland between Vitré and Mont Saint-Michel; between the Élorn estuary near Brest and the l’Aulne estuary near Trégarvan; and between Lorient and Saint-Armel. When the GR-34 leaves the coastline, a walker often has the option to stay closer to the sea by leaving the GR-34 and following alternate trails that are often marked with Sentier Côtier signs.
The portion of the GR-34 we walked was primarily in Finistère, the westernmost department in France and one of the three departments that make up the historic region of Brittany.
The GR-34 is also a portion of the E-9, one of the primary European transnational long distance walking routes.
The French TGV, or high-speed rail, connects to Rennes from most anywhere in Europe. From Rennes, a local train goes to the Morlaix gare (train station) from where there is a direct bus to Roscoff. Lorient has a TGV connection back to Paris.
The GR-34 is very well marked with the traditional red and white GR stripes and was very easy to follow. We could almost have done the entire walk without a map. However, having a map proved very useful for when we occasionally missed a waymark, when we frequently went off trail for food, and for choosing our own alternate routings. Also, there are many other trails that intersect with and sometimes overlap the GR-34, so the trail signs are occasionally a bit confusing.
The GR-34 as shown on the IGN map, the actual trail markers on the ground, and the track that we downloaded did not always exactly match. This is often the case as trails get rerouted over time and maps lag those changes. We simply choose the option that looked most appealing, generally following the waymarks on the ground. We were not attempting to walk the entire “official” GR-34, so while we used the route as a baseline we modified our walk as needed. The Caltopto gpx track shows the route that we walked, and the file also includes downloaded reference gpx data.
We often left the waymarked trail for short distances to stay closer to the water. The GR-34 is designed to be passable at the highest tides but we could frequently stay closer to the sea than the map and trail signs indicated as only the highest tides will completely block a beach; doing this also allowed us to often avoid walking on an inland road.
The GR-34 cuts across the base of the Roscanvel Peninsula, but we chose to walk around it following the coastline. Along the way, we saw signs for the GR-34, so either it had been re-routed or we walked a marked alternate. We also left the mapped track coming into Lorient, again following the coastline instead of cutting inland.
After reaching Lorient, we had a few days before we needed to return to Paris for our flight home. We decided to head inland along the Blavet River estuary instead of continuing south on the GR-34 because we needed to be able to easily return to Lorient for our train and did not want to be dependent on finding other transport back to town. When we reached Hennebont, we learned that during the 19th century, the river had been engineered into a canal with a fine towpath along its banks. We walked this extremely pleasant trail until we ran out of time and had to turn back, returning to Lorient via a different route and thus completing a fine three-day mini loop.
The trail network was very well maintained and there were only a few very short stretches with any thrashing through the undergrowth. We saw frequent evidence that people were actively cutting back encroaching plants and we even encountered a busy few trail crews. While we were there the path was mostly dry and we had no significant issues with mud. There was no wading required to follow the official route, although we did voluntarily wade across a few watercourses to avoid longer inland detours.
While most of the route is on footpaths, some portions of the walk are on pavement, especially in or near towns and villages. We also diverted onto roads to go around a few military installations and tracts of private coastal property. Traffic was never an issue as French drivers were universally extremely polite to pedestrians; they always stopped when we were using a crosswalk and they gave us a wide berth whenever passing us on a road.
None of the walk can be considered wilderness as people have lived in and modified the environment along this coast for thousands of years. However, long stretches of the coastline feel quite natural and are very beautiful. There are forested sections, dramatic rocky coastal bluffs, tidal wetlands, and both large and small sandy beaches. Much of the walk is relatively flat, but some sections have continuous and sometimes steep ups and downs. The quality of the beach walking varied, as it always does; there were a few sections of tedious soft sand, but most of the beaches were flat and hard-packed, making walking easy
Brest and Lorient are small cities with all the facilities a hiker could possibly need. Like many European cities, they have various cultural attractions including historic buildings and museums.
The remaining towns we passed though ranged from tiny to mid-sized. Some of these were little villages with no tourist infrastructure or shops; some had fancy shops and restaurants and art galleries, while others catered to beach-loving families on holiday. Many coastal communities were dominated by short-term rental houses, and since it was not the holiday season, these places were quite deserted with many of the houses closed up.
Old fortifications dot the coastline, ranging from castles built hundreds of years ago to the remnants of extensive concrete bunker systems and artillery emplacements constructed by the French in the 19th century and the Germans during World War II. The largest of these are the German submarine pens in Brest and Lorient; these structures have concrete roofs up to twenty feet thick.
Particularly in the countryside and smaller towns, the built environment is quite lovely and very harmonious. Most buildings are constructed of local stone and are built on a modest scale. We saw many attractive gardens and the countryside was full of blooming wildflowers. There was very little clap-trap and no giant hotels like those infesting the warm water beaches in southern France.
We were delighted and impressed by the thousands of boats we saw along this coast. Every tiny little cove that could hold them had a few fishing boats. Marinas in the larger town and cities berthed huge numbers of recreational craft. The estuaries were full of boats either floating on the high tide or sitting in the mud at low tide. The big ports had large commercial vessels, big commercial cranes, dry docks and other repair facilities. We saw several large, extremely high-end, racing sailboats and even an old submarine on display. We also saw a number of French Navy vessels, including new ones under construction and old ones abandoned and waiting to be scrapped.
Given the French love of food, finding meals on our hike was surprisingly difficult. Restaurants and cafes have restricted hours: they serve lunch between noon and 1:30 or 2:00. Dinner is not served until 7:00 or 7:30. They will not provide a meal during off-hours. The only restaurants we found that were open all day were located next to a few very large and popular beaches. Cafes and bars were open all day and you could always get a drink and occasionally a crêpe, but no other food was on offer.
Small grocery stores generally close for three or four hours in the afternoon. Large grocery stores, like Carrefours, are usually open all day except on Sundays when they often close at noon. Many small towns had no grocery store at all.
Our style is to walk steadily but fairly slowly from sunrise until a few hours before sunset. We would often found ourselves arriving hungry in a town well before noon when restaurants were closed, or between 1:30 and 4:30 when both the stores and the restaurants were closed. We diligently checked Google Maps to determine the hours of upcoming stores, and we carried enough supplies to get us to the next store that would hopefully be open when we arrived.
The saving grace in all of this is that most towns had a fabulous pâtisserie and/or a boulangerie. The mostly female counter staff were universally cheerful, friendly, efficient, and quite patient with non-French speaking customers. Every shop had fresh bread and croissants, plus an amazing assortment of delectable pastries. On our best day we shared seven different pastries! Many pâtisseries also sold fresh sandwiches and quiches and thus provided lunch. People on diets should stay far away from these places.
We used AirBnB to find lodging on three nights, otherwise we wild camped. Finding acceptable to great campsites was never a problem. Nobody seemed to care where we camped and we set up our tent in churchyards, on unused football pitches, in picnic areas, in fields, near the beach, and once on a small island next to an old canal lock. We saw only one or two other people camping outside of municipal or commercial campgrounds.
We met one other person doing a multi-week hike on the GR-34 and he was wild camping the same as us. We did encounter many people in camper vans staying overnight in a convenient place, often a beach-side public parking lot.
We found the French to be extremely friendly and welcoming. People greeted us with a cheerful bonjour when we met on the trail. Many folks seemed interested in what we were doing and we had many friendly conversations. One couple we met on the trail invited us to stay at their nearby home and gave us showers and a nice hot meal: French Trail Angels!
Amy speaks a little bit of French, enough to order meals and have very basic conversations. Some people we met spoke fluent English, some none at all, but everybody was extremely tolerant of her limited language skills and many of them deliberately slowed down and used basic words and phrases to help her out. Waiters and waitresses always cheerfully helped make sense of a menu. All in all, we found in France the warm connection with the local people we had so missed in Slovakia.
The weather was fabulous during our trip. There were a few days with short sprinkles, but only a single day with enough rain to be a bit of a nuisance. We had many sunny days, but it never got uncomfortably warm. Late afternoon breezes were common, and thus we often looked campsites with some shelter from the wind. This was not the normal weather pattern for this time of year, when rain usually falls much more frequently.
Birding was reasonably good. We saw about 115 species including one new life bird: Eurasian Nightjar. Springtime bird song and nesting activities were abundant and satisfying. Our most unexpected sighting was of a pair of European Bee-eaters near Le Courégant.
We encountered almost no grazing animals so dealing with rambunctious cows was not an issue. Dogs were the least problematic of any hike we have taken. There were no dogs guarding sheep flocks and no loose aggressive dogs. Much to our delight, it is the cultural norm in France to have pet dogs under control, either on a lead, well-trained to respond to voice commands, or behind a fence.