Trip Summary

What: backpacking on sections of the GR34, GR3, and Nantes-Brest Canal path.
Where: Brittany, France.
When: March 27-May 7, 2024 (42 days).
Distance: about 800 miles.
Highlights: easy walking, good weather, nice variety of habitats, lovely countryside.

Resources

Downloadable gpx tracks for all French GR, PR, and GRP routes.

In our experience, the GR routes in France are so well maintained and well marked that walking them does not require additional guidebooks or maps. Prior to our trip, we used Google maps to locate all of the  grocery stores and bakeries.

We used the excellent iPhone app Omio: Book train, bus & flight to book all of our buses and trains within Europe.

As for all our trips, we used Gaia GPS while hiking. Their extraordinary selection of map sources includes the detailed French IGN maps. We also carried and used Caltopo; this app has some useful features missing from Gaia.

Why we went

Early in 2024 we decided to take a long walk in Europe to celebrate our 65th and 75th birthdays. We had previously mapped numerous possible routes and eventually decided that completing the GR34 was the overall best choice. A bit over 1300 miles long, this French Grande Randonnée follows the entire coast of Brittany.

We had walked the eastern segment of the GR34, between Roscoff and Staint-Malo, in 2007. We walked the central section,  Roscoff to Hennebont, in 2019; Hennebont to Saint Nazaire remained undone. The unfinished portion was too short to justify a trip to France on its own, so we designed a longer loop that started and ended in Nantes. Although not directly on the GR34, Nantes is easy to access via train or plane, is an interesting city, and has logical walking connections to the GR34.

Click map to open an interactive CalTopo map in a new browser tab. Instructions for using CalTopo.

Amy’s Assessment

I thoroughly enjoyed this walk.

We don’t usually start a walk this early in the spring because the days are shorter, and we deliberately waited until after the equinox. The benefit of the early start was getting to watch spring unfold. When we started the deciduous trees and shrubs were bare, and by day 10 they were all flushing their leaves. By the end of the trip we were in full summer conditions with lush green trees and flowers blooming everywhere. Watching the transition from spring to summer was a highlight of the trip.

The entire route was on level well groomed trails or beaches, so the walking was easy, stress-free, and didn’t require paying any attention. Although the scenery was not stunning, it was always pleasing and was very diverse: unfolding of spring; canals and their locks; coastal tides; megalithic sites; walled cities; the amazing hand-groomed salt pans; surfers; kids building sand castles; the dramatic shoreline of Belle-Île-en-Mer; a few days in the enormous inland marsh. There was so much variety that it didn’t feel repetitive.

The bakeries in France are a treasure for hikers. Every village of any size has a bakery. They are open for extended hours, usually from 7am to 1:30pm and again from 4:00 to 7:00pm. In addition to pastries, they offer fresh sandwiches and often quiche or other savory items.

I am grateful that such easy delightful hiking routes are available to us, so we can continue to take long hikes even as we get older.

James’ Assessment

This walk proved quite satisfying. It was very easy walking and that allowed me to spend a lot of time just enjoying my surroundings instead of watching where I put my feet. To this outsider Brittany seemed to be a very calm and peaceful place. There was little commotion, outside of supermarkets no chain stores cluttering the towns, people drove small vehicles in a civilized manner and the pace of life seemed very unstressful. The people we met along the way were generally friendly and open. The scenery, while not spectacular, was quite beautiful and harmonious. While on the coast, we could watch the huge tides come and go, visibly swallowing and revealing the beaches. It was also very satisfying to watch spring unfold, from bare branched trees when we arrived to vast field of blooming wildflowers when we completed our journey.

At some level I missed the physical challenge of crossing a high mountain pass or dealing with awful weather. The sort of things that stick in your memory long after a walk is done. But this trip was so easy and relaxing that I will likely try to plan another one like it in the future.

Notes for Potential Hikers

Route Description

Our route consisted of portions of five different paths.

  • For the first week, we walked the Nantes-Brest Canal path from Nantes to Pontivy. In 2023 we had walked many enjoyable miles along canals in the UK, so decided to start our trip with a similar type of route.
  • At Pontivy, we turned south onto the La Blavet Canal path, which we then followed for a few days to Hennebont, where we connected to the terminus of our 2019 hike on the GR34.
  • From Hennebont, we continued toward the coast and soon onto the GR34. We followed the GR34 for about three weeks.
  • At the tip of the Quiberon Peninsula, we left the GR34 and took a ferry to Belle-Île-en-Mer where we spent about three days hiking around the beautiful island on the coastal loop trail GR340. After that walk, we returned to the mainland and the GR34.
  • We left the GR34 at Le Pouligen, about 15 miles shy of its terminus in Saint Nazaire, in order to avoid its final heavily urbanized section, and instead headed north, approximately following the GR3 to Nantes. This route visited the Parc Naturel Region de Briere, a beautiful and vast freshwater marsh.
  • We had intended to complete our hike in Nantes, but our flight schedule allowed us to continue hiking inland on the GR3 and other Loire Valley riverside paths for a few days. The GR3 is an 800 mile long trail that roughly follows the Loire from the sea to its headwaters; we completed our walk in Angers.

We frequently diverted from the GR to find campsites, markets, restaurants and most importantly, patisseries. We also left the GR34 in many places to visit megalithic archeological sites. When the tide was low, we walked the beaches instead of following the official, more interior path. Finally, Brittany had had a very wet winter and spring in 2024, and the official route was impassibly flooded in some places; this required us to occasionally go off-route. The GR itself has several published variations and alternate routing, forming a framework for a walk rather than a specific route to rigorously follow.

Along the way, the GR34 follows the coastline around the huge Golfe du Morbihan. At its mouth, the two nearest points of land, Port-Navalo and Kerpenhir, are 0.6 miles apart; it took us about 130 miles of walking to get around the Golfe.

Trail Conditions

In general, the GR34 is well marked with standard Grand Randonnée tags. In theory, much of the route could be followed without carrying a map but we do not recommend trying this. We carried downloaded trail data on our phones and as always, used Gaia GPS and Caltopo as our primary navigation tools. We also carried downloaded French IGN maps. We had no significant problems with either application and staying on route was easy.

Other than the unusual flooded areas, the trail was in excellent condition. It included footpaths, boardwalks, beaches, gravel or paved bike path and bits of road walking, especially in and near towns. Other than being forced to follow a couple of unplanned miles on a very busy road when the riverside path was under many feet of water, the road walking was safe and generally very quiet with few vehicles. On country roads, drivers were generally extremely polite and kept their cars well away from us.

We encountered very few obstacles on the trail, just a few recent blow-downs and no overgrown or brushy conditions. Beach walking varied from hard packed to soft sand, depending on local conditions and the state of the tide. Tidal swings greater than 10 feet were the norm. The entire route has minimal elevation change and the walking was very easy.

There are many small villages along the Brittany coast, but it is only heavily populated during in the July and August vacation season when the number of people goes up by a factor of ten or more. Town and villages were quiet and even popular tourist locations such as Vannes and Guerande were not particularly crowded or busy. We met fewer than ten hikers on long-distance walks. Day hikers and bicycle tourists were common in some places. We only met two Americans, day-hiking, while on the trail.

Archaeological Sites

Highlights on this walk were the numerous stone megalithic sites. We visited about forty different spots between the Blavet River and the Golfe du Morbihan. These ranged from individual menhirs, or standing stones, to Carnac, with literally thousands of emplaced menhirs. We also saw many dolmans and tumuli, which are thought to be ancient tombs. Some of these structures are open to visitors and have interior stone blocks with intricate carved graphics on them.

Some of the sites have visitor centers and guided tours. Others are marked with signs describing what is there, but many are unmarked, with no indication that they were built between four and six thousand years ago. At one unmarked site deep in the woods, we found a nice campsite right next to the stones.

We spent some worthwhile time at the Musee de Prehistorie de Carnac in the town of Carnac.

Food and Water

Obtaining food was rarely a problem. We had mapped the locations of markets, patisseries, and restaurants prior to the trip, so we knew where we could purchase meals. The main issue is that compared to the US most French businesses have limited hours . The majority of restaurants only serve meals between noon and two and again between seven and ten. Stores, even large supermarkets, are either closed or have limited hours on Sundays. Almost everything is closed on national holidays and we had three of them during our trip. Because of the closures we often carried two or three meals in our packs.

Boxed meals by Sebedo, available in most grocery chains, proved a good choice for our picnic meals; reasonably priced, durable to carry, and with enough variety to sustain interest for several weeks. We also bought many take-away sandwiches at patisseries, as well as quiche or pizza that they would heat up for us to take-out.

Of course the patisseries also had wonderful pastries; sometimes we could visit two or more shops in the same town and come away with multiple taste treats. Occasionally a patisserie would have a few tables where we could sit down, get coffee and eat the delectables in-house.

Finding water sources was more difficult than expected. We found no public fonts like those common in Spain and Italy and in some other areas in France. We filled our water bottles at patisseries and bar/tabacs or at public lavatories. Occasionally, we purchased water in markets. Because of the extensive agriculture and associated fertilizers and pesticides, we were reluctant to use surface water, so we only collected and treated water twice on the entire trip.

Camping

We camped on 39 of our 42 walking days. On three nights we stayed in commercial lodging, which we easily booked at the last minute using Air B&B and Booking.com.

We used municipal campgrounds on three nights. These are run by the local community and are inexpensive, clean, low-key, and during our off-season trip were quiet and nearly empty of other campers. They all offered hot showers and washing machines. The rest of the nights we wild camped; finding decent to excellent and comfortable places to camp was generally easy. Wild camping is technically in a legal gray area in most of France, and we practiced all of our standard stealth camping techniques.

Weather

Overall, we had excellent walking weather. Nightly low temperatures were between 40 and 45, and daytime high temperatures were 58-65. It never got too hot, nor too cold. We had rain and mostly overcast skies for the first 7 or 8 days, but only once was it heavy enough for us to take shelter, the rain during the rest of the first week was light and very intermittent. The middle four weeks of our trip were mostly dry, with just a couple of days with enough rain to require wearing rain gear. Even on those days, it rarely rained for very long. We had a bit more rain on our last few days, but it was persistent on only one day. Near the coast, late afternoon winds were common, but on only one day was it so strong that we altered our route plan in order to find a sheltered campsite.

Birds

We were a bit late for northbound spring migration, so water birds of all kinds were generally scarce. However, it was peak singing season for land birds and we were awakened every morning by a marvelous dawn chorus, and abundant bird song persisted all day for the entire trip. We observed 135 species, which was higher than expected. We had hoped to find a new life bird, Savi’s Warbler, that had eluded us on many previous trips, and we were fortunate to get excellent views of it.

Vending Machines

We encountered three new types of vending machines on this walk. Several patisseries had bread dispensers outside their doors for people who couldn’t get their daily baguette during open hours. For the truly desperate, we saw two kiosks that sold hot pizza; we didn’t venture to try them. Finally, some of the local shellfish farmers had machines where you could buy fresh oysters, along with lemons and shucking tools.