On this trip I have hiked 1 1/2 months all over France and consider it a great country for long distance hiking. There are several reasons for that:
|Trail marking on the GR 7|
France is a centralised country and that reflects positively on the trail system. All the long distance trails called GR (Grand Randonne) are uniformly marked with red and white stripes and numbered. One central organisation, FFRP is overlooking them and publishes the relevant guidebooks called topoguide. IGN publishes maps for the whole of France in various scales and there is one overview map with all French long distance trails that is fantastic for planning purposes. When you have decided on your route you can easily mailorder the appropriate guidebooks and maps. But it gets even better: on GR-info.com you can download all those trails as a gpx track for free! All this is almost perfect but there still are some flaws. The topoguides are in French only but I would still recommend them even if you don't speak French. They contain all the maps, give hiking times and use universally understandable pictograms for town services plus addresses and info on gite d'etapes. Unfortunately there aren't topoguides for all trails and they are difficult to obtain along the trail. Maps are sold almost everywhere but mostly 1:25000 scale only which is too detailed for long distance hiking. You have to carefully plan ahead or ship the maps/guidebooks to yourself, otherwise you might find yourself without decent maps. The gpx tracks I mentioned have to be treated with a grain of salt, too. Although some were very accurate, others were rather vague with too few track points and some hopelessly outdated. Especially on the GR 7 there have been major reroutes that were kilometres off the gpx track!
|Public water hydrant|
Stealth camping was incredibly easy in France and I never had a single problem. The GRs generally avoid big cities and there is usually so much forest around that you don't even have to do a lot of pre-planning. Only Southern France posed a bit of a problem but only because the ground was so rocky and the vegetation so dense. There are lots of other advantages for the wild camper like the availability of water. I am not talking about natural water sources here that vary depending on the region. But in France almost every little village has a public fountain or at least a water tap. Sometimes those are elaborate old fountains, sometimes it is just a plastic hose our even a hydrant. And by the way, the cemeteries have water taps, too. So if you pass through a village you can almost be sure to find water without any problems.
Unfortunately, another one of my little tricks did not work that well. Although French churches do have electrical outlets for recharging your devices most churches are locked nowadays. Only less than half the churches I have tried were open.
|No electrical outlets here...|
When it comes to food there is good news and bad news. The good news is that French food is incredibly good. I absolutely loved French cheese. There are thousands of varieties from soft goat cheese to hard Tome. I could not stop trying different sorts. There is also excellent salamis and almost every little shop sells bread as well. Excellent ingredients for hiker meals. But this is also the end of the good news. Because the French are so proud of there food they don't sell dehydrated pasta and rice meals that like Lipton or Knorr. Nada, nothing, no matter how big the supermarket is. I mean I don't particularly like that stuff either but it is very practical for backpacking. There only is some flavoured couscous - sometimes. And very rarely flavoured risotto rice that takes forever to prepare. The only other option is fresh pasta like tortellini that you can get from the fridge section but it is very heavy, bulky and doesn't keep very long. As long as you are close to civilisation and shops you can live on bread and cheese and fresh pasta. But long lonely stretches or weekends are a problem. And worst of all for me chocolate is very expensive here and I eat a lot of this stuff. Generally food is more expensive here than in Germany. There are discount supermarkets here like my beloved Lidl and Aldi but you won't find many along the trail, only in bigger cities.
To make resupply even more complicated there is the opening times problem. Except big supermarkets all shops in France close for lunch. Unfortunately lunch break times are unpredictable and can be anything from 12 noon to 5 pm. Sometimes only 2 hours, sometimes 4. Also small shops tend not to open some days or afternoons which can be Monday or Wednesday afternoon. And of course these small shops are not on the internet and therefore you cannot google their opening times. More than once I arrived hungry at a shop only to find out that it had closed 10 minutes ago and would only reopen in 3 hours...
The French are very proud of their country and their language. Unfortunately this translates into a general lack of foreign language skills - or reluctance to speak them. Even in some small tourist offices staff would only speak French. Do not expect anyone to speak English. The French expect you to speak French. To make things worse a lot of French do not even try to understand your efforts in rudimentary French or sign language, although I have also met multilingual and very welcoming French people. So it definitely helps to speak at least some words of French, don't rely on English only.
Although France has a great trail network hiking if not as popular here as for example in Germany or the UK. This leads to a lack of decent outdoor shops. Of course there is Decathlon, a huge chain of shops for outdoor stuff and sport. But they mostly sell their own cheap brand Quechua which is cheap but of very low quality. Even widespread international brands are mostly unavailable in France. For example I could not find a replacement TAR Prolite sleeping pad or Keen hiking shoes in France, not even in online shops. Also keep in mind that France uses a different system of gas canisters. You will not find screw top ones, only the blue Campingaz canisters, with and without valve. But there are adapters to solve this problem although I have not seen them for sale in France.
|Refuge in the Pyrenees|
Most French hikers I have met were out on a day hike. Very few hikers were going for a couple of days and hardly anyone was camping. Almost everyone is staying in the refuges or huts. This hut system is very extensive - but also expensive! There are no fixed prices for the refuges. They very from hut to hut depending on the amenities and the location. They can be add cheap as 10 Eur or as expensive as 30 Eur. For me they were out of question and I never stayed in one. Keep in mind that a lot of those refuges don't have a permanent keeper and have to be booked in advance. If you arrive withouth a prior booking you might find a refuge completely locked up and usually there is not even an emergency shelter open! So do not rely on these refuges for emergencies!
One last word on telecommunication. In every country I try to buy a local SIM card and stay connected with the rest of the world. In contrast to Germany and Spain telecommunication is an expensive business especially if you have to go prepaid. Rates for national calls are as expensive as 39 cent per minute no matter what company. Only Orange offers a very decent internet flat rate for 9 EUR per month, but getting the SIM card and subscribing to the flat rate takes more than 24 hours and the whole procedure is definitely not customer friendly.