FRENCH ALPS – hiking the GR5

An easy section. But it looks like there are tougher bits up ahead.

I don’t normally have jam on my morning baguette, but in the mountains you take all the calories you are offered. I’ve paid for them and by golly I’m going to use them.

We’re hiking the GR5, one of the French Grand Randonnees (Great Hikes), a classic long distance route that officially begins in Belgium and ends in Nice, on the way passing through Luxembourg, the hills of the Jura and the mighty French Alps.

This week’s stage is from Briancon to Barcelonnette, 109.78 kilometres according to my trusty Garmin GPS, with 6,524 vertical metres to climb along the way.

We’re a few days into it, our muscles a little harder, so today’s 13km stage from Ceillac to Maljasset should hold few terrors, though navigator and map reader Klamie warns it includes a solid thousand metre climb over the 2700m Col Girardin.

Packing the rucksacks at les Baladins (the Hikers) Auberge.


After the aforementioned bread and jam breakfast in the Gite-Auberge Baladins in Ceillac we make a quick trip to the boulangerie, and add a couple of baguettes to the fromage and saucissons in our backpacks.

My rule for buying French sausage is to pick the ugliest, most misshapen specimen available. If it doesn’t taste good I can at least pride myself on being a daring gourmand francais.

The sign directing us off the road and up the steep GR5 trail reads ‘Lac Miroir 2h, Col Girardin 4.5h’. ‘H’ is ‘heures’.

The GR5 is generally well signposted and easy to follow, with little red and white markers stencilled on rocks and trees every few hundred metres. But we occasionally stray from the path, accidentally or to take a short-cut, so it’s advisable to carry a map and guidebook.

For a brief moment I'm able to look down on Edwin.


It’s a steep climb, through pine forest broken occasionally by rocky outcrops and waterfalls, and clusters of pink azaleas.

As one by one we stop to catch our breath, in my case under the guise of needing to take a photo, the group strings out into its customary formation, Bert and Edwin (the youngest and the skinniest) leading, the rest of us trailing behind.

It’s a six hundred metre uphill slog, but the forest is beautiful, and when the track emerges at the promised Lac Miroir, the ‘Mirror Lake’, it has been worth the effort.

This is it, Lac Miroir. Worth climbing an hour and half to see.

It’s still early in the day, but I need to get rid of some French sausage and Bert needs to lighten the packet of Dutch stroopwafels he’s carried since leaving Amsterdam.

A barely puffing hiker at Lac Ste Anne. Photo: Bert Dautzenberg.

So we eat an early lunch while we wait for the rest of the party to filter in, then head on over the hill and up another two hundred metre climb to Lac Sainte Anne. That’s worth coming here for as well.

From Lac Ste Anne the real work begins. The steep slope up to Col Girardin is covered in loose glacial moraine, inclined to slip treacherously away under our feet, even on a perfect fine day.

It’s probably not as dangerous as it feels, but in places I have to force myself to watch the track and not the drop.

Once on top we eat lunch again. Lunch 1 was sausage and stroopwafels, so we make Lunch 2 stroopwafels and sausage. Strange that we can do all that walking and not lose weight.

The view from Col Girardin, Lac Sainte Anne far below.

From the Col we roll down the hill. For my ageing knees, going down is only marginally easier than going up, though the rest of my body marginally prefers descending; it doesn’t make you as thirsty on a hot day with too much salty sausage in your bloodstream.

Marmots won't usually let you get close to them, but my camera has a long lens.


Entertainment on the way down is provided by spotting marmots.

These rodents (someone’s going to tell me they’re not really rodents) look like a cross between a beaver and a prairie dog, with the meerkat-like habit of mounting guard, then whistling and diving into their burrows.

It takes a good two hours to pick our way down the rocky slope to Maljasset, a village of wood and stone, where our accommodation supervisor Marga has arranged for us to spend the night.

One of these houses has beds and beer waiting for us.

Ahh - a chair!

The sign over the entrance, made from old horseshoes, says ‘CAF’. It’s not that someone has stolen the ‘E’; this is an auberge of the Club Alpin Francais.

And oui naturellement, monsieur, they do have beer.

Maljasset’s mysteriously named Church of Saint Antoine of the Desert provides a final photo opportunity for the day.

Thanks to the late sun breaking through the clouds, the lighting is perfect.

All offers of photography contracts from National Geographic, Lonely Planet and manufacturers of jigsaw puzzles seriously considered.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION:

Getting there: There are train stations along the GR5 at Modane and Briancon. Other towns (including Ceillac, Larche and Barcelonnette) have bus services.

Staying there: There are numerous gites and refuges along the GR5, as well as small hotels in some towns. Cost is about 35-40 euros a night for demi-pension (bed, dinner and breakfast). Alcohol is extra!

Route description: www.grfive.com has a good English description of the route and the GR5 experience.

17 Comments

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17 responses to “FRENCH ALPS – hiking the GR5

  1. You are very brave to tackle those climbs. The views look incredible – so beatiful.

  2. Of course I meant beautiful.

  3. BdL, I’m still surprised that in supposedly overcrowded Europe there are still such wild places. Though in most of France the nearest village, with the necessities of life (food, drink, bed and wi-fi), is usually only a few kilometres away.

  4. Dear Richard,
    There is certainy magnificent natural terrain around Ceilliac. Lovely snaps! You could do a lot worse than jam on your baguette here especially if you are too close to high cliffs as you obviously are. I hope I can use up some of those hidden calories in stroopwafels among your party someday and I do look forward to being in a corner of any prospective jigsaw no matter how small! By the way, did you get to see the amazing gorge nearby? I believe its breathtaking. Have fun, Therese
    PS Don’t forget to wash your sox!

    • The socks have been washed, Therese.

      And yes, we crossed the bridge over the gorge just south of Maljasset. Remarkable that anybody could put it up there, particularly since it only leads to the tiny village, Fouillouse, on the other side.

  5. This looks great, Richard. Looks exactly like the scenery from the book I’m reading at the moment, ‘A Time of Gifts’ which is an old mans memoir of when he was 18 and walked from Rotterdam to Constantinople in the 30s. How much of it are you doing? Is it an organized/paid tour group? That’s excellent if they have them, but how difficult would it be to do something like this off your own back? I’m an inspired yet impoverished student…

    ps: did you hear about how someone stole the Banana’s in Pjs mascots from the Melbourne ABC last month? haha. Returned safely, you’ll be glad to know.

    • I’ll look for that book, Julia.

      We’ve walked almost the whole GR5 from Lake Geneva to Nice now – a week at a time, spread over five trips (and ten years!) It’s not a commercial tour – we just do it ourselves, which is not hard to organise, because there are guidebooks and plenty of accommodation in refuges, gites and auberges along the way. It just takes a bit of time to plan. The cost is about 35-40 euros a night for bed, breakfast and dinner, but we make it a bit more expensive by drinking beer and wine too. Look at the website http://www.grfive.com for an English description of the route.

      Hope you can do it some time, and I look forward to reading YOUR blog about it!

      • Nice post, Richard, and some really spectacular pics. I’m envious, but I’m afraid our hiking days are done. The better half never had depth perception, and these days the vision just won’t allow for hikes like that. But we can still kayak!

  6. Kayaking still sounds pretty good, John. I’m using up what’s left of the knee cartilege first; then I’ll work on some flexibility and see if I can prise myself into a kayak. Or maybe a Canadian canoe where I can sit more upright will be the go.

  7. Peter m.h. Dautzenberg

    Great story and beautiful pictures Richard!
    Looking forward to oud next hike,
    This week we are leaving rainy & dark Amsterdam to go ice skating on te weissensee in austria. Hope to see you soon
    Greetings from Peter & Sonja

    • Thanks Peter, I’m looking forward to the next adventure too.

      This week I’m leaving sunny, warm Sydney to go to sunny, warm Indonesia to spend a couple of weeks teaching writing classes on a tropical island.

      What a tough life we all have!

  8. Hi Richard, photos look great! I’m impressed with the Marmot one, I can see them from chairlifts but never on the ground!
    Me and a couple of friends are planning on hiking the length of the GR5 from Lake Geneva all the way to Menton this summer, I was wondering if we could ask you a few questions?
    Alex

  9. This looks awesome… now to start persuading a few friends that they want to spend their summer holidays walking in the Alps!

  10. Pingback: HEADING FOR THE HILLS – back soon | Richard Tulloch's LIFE ON THE ROAD

  11. Pingback: HOW TOUGH IS A WALK ON THE GR5? | Richard Tulloch's LIFE ON THE ROAD

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