As one of my ‘go-to-gang’ for my physical health, Sharon Livingstone is my awesome massage therapist. It was whilst she was kneading out the knots and meaty bites from my body, that she began telling me about her own passion for walking and how she was planning an extended walking holiday (solo) in France. It raised many questions in me and so I asked her to share her story with us here. Oh and did I mention… she’s also written a great collection of short stories (actually, ‘flash fiction’) available on Amazon – Multi-talented indeed!
Despite a physically demanding job as a massage therapist, when I take a holiday, I want to be active. I’m the person who goes to a tropical island and hires a bicycle to explore the back roads and commute between cafes. I still like to sit by the pool sipping cocktails but in moderation.
This year I wanted to tackle a walking trip in France. I’m an unashamed Francophile. Walking is my passion. It seemed a natural choice. Do I speak French? Not really. I know a lot of words and phrases but conversation is limited. I get by.
My initial research involved guided walks but they were either traversing Mont Blanc or those leisurely themed walks that focus on the theme and not the walking.
Or there are self-guided walks where your bags are picked up and dropped off at your next hotel each day. Adding the single supplement and the solo traveller charges to an already inflated price, the cost of these walks were beyond my reach.
That’s when I decided to plan my own walk. France has an extensive network of marked Grandes Randonées (GR) trails. These criss-cross the country, so all you need to do is choose which region(s) you want to discover. I wanted village to village walking, so this suited me.
One thing I found intriguing was the response from friends when I announced my plans.
“On your own? Is that safe?”.
Did they mean my physical ability, navigation skills or was it purely gender based. Sadly, it’s the latter. Of course, it never occurred to me because I’m a regular solo walker in Sydney’s bushland and in the Blue Mountains, and a long time solo traveller. There are crazy people everywhere in the world and my chances of meeting them in rural France were about the same or less than in Sydney. There’s something so wonderfully challenging in adventuring on your own and gender has nothing to do with that. Besides, none of my friends are serious walkers and even though one of my sisters and her husband might have been arm-twisted, I knew they had already booked two overseas trips this year (including a challenging walking trip).
My philosophy is to be aware not scared.
Months of physical training, route planning, gear research and way too much time in Sydney’s Kent Street’s plethora of outdoor stores followed before I was finally France bound in late August.
My golden rule for this trip was: Things change.
The weather might be too awful to allow walking.
I might get injured.
Walking everyday might do my head in.
I might meet other walkers and prefer to join them.
And if things changed, I wasn’t to let it ruin my holiday.
I started my walk in Angoulême, a large town in the Charente-Maritime region of southern France. Day 1 was a 25km slog in the heat when I was fresh from a Sydney winter. It was a tough day but I had a lovely surprise when I came into a village my research had shown had a hairdresser but no shop for refreshments, to find an open restaurant with tables in the shade. The final 5km that day were extremely slow as I stopped in almost every patch of shade. Arriving at my accommodation with a beetroot-hued face, little energy and groaning under the weight of my pack, I booked myself into a room at a remote chambres d’hotes (B&B). One cool shower, a nap and an hour in the recovery tights later, I was being plied with the local Charente Pineau (a mix of cognac and fermented grapes) by the property owner as he explained how he renovated the property from derelict to gorgeous.
An average 23km per day was taking a toll on my body with aching hips, a blood blister under my big toenail and sore shoulders. I took to having a day off every 2-3 days and working a few short walks in by catching a bus or train part of the way. Those days off helped my body to recover and, in turn, made the long walking days more enjoyable. Lots of long distance walkers use walking poles to ease the impact on their hips/knees. I think they look a bit weird, even if they are effective. My hips were fine after 3 days and never whinged again.
I loved seeing the landscape change as I walked. From rolling countryside with fields of sunflowers and maize or cattle grazing in the Charente-Maritime, to steeper gradients and wide, shallow rivers with fruit heavy grapevines as I entered the Dordogne. And large, rocky hills overlooking the twisting, winding River Lot further south. Yellow ochre houses and pigeonniers dotted between chateaux, churches and castles. Faded blue shutters and extravagant door knockers lined narrow medieval streets and everywhere the most elegant street lamps. Most of the villages I encountered are not easily accessible by trains/buses.
I was walking across farming land, through forestry areas, in forests and along minor roads. Sometimes following the marked GR and other times diverting to a more direct route between villages.
With feet that would constantly ask “are we there yet” and coping with the increasing heat of the day, simple things became pleasures. A shady stretch of walking track, plump ripe blackberries (or a fig/apple/peach tree), an open bar serving coffee and cold drinks, a sit-down (not squat) public toilet or a shower at the end of the walking day. Each evening I indulged myself with fine meals of local produce. Always a glass of local wine and something sweet from the menu, including one exquisite, unforgettable tarte tatin.
Everywhere I went, kind, funny and generous locals brightened my day. On a particularly nasty walking day in pouring rain with thunder storms chasing me, a local stopped his car to check that I was all right and offered me a hot drink. Another occasion, I was struggling to figure out the confusing markers for the GR trail when a disembodied voice shouted that I was on the wrong track and needed to take another. The voice shouted again when I was on the right track. I looked but couldn’t see him amongst the few lodgings of the village. I raised my thumb and sent my thanks as I continued on.
My 260km walk ended as I crossed the Pont Valentré in the Lot department town of Cahors.
Did I ever feel unsafe? Apart from several encounters with unruly, undisciplined French dogs and the erratic driving of the locals, there was only one time I felt worried. I was on a forestry track used mostly by local farmers, forestry workers and walkers. A car came up behind me and began to drive slowly. There was plenty of room for them to drive past. It was the only vehicle I’d seen for over half an hour and my spidey senses were tingling. I started to plan my options – running into the forest and hoping I was still pretty good at hidey. At this point, the car stopped. I walked faster. The car started up again at a normal pace. As they passed me, I saw that it was two elderly couples, probably a little lost and had been checking their maps, with no idea how much they had scared the crap out of me.
Although I had planned on camping, ultimately I hated camping and managed only two nights. I demolished my budget and stayed at chambres d’hotes and 2 star hotels. Sometimes a good night’s sleep and electricity are better than having a lot of spending money.
My budget was spent on accommodation, transport, food and drinks. I only paid for entrance fees to one castle and one museum (on my days off).
Would I do it again? Oh hell yes. Maybe with a friend but alone would work too.
What did I take? Here’s a rundown:
- Osprey Kyte 36 litre women specific pack that included a 3 litre water bladder. With water and food, my pack’s weight was around 13kg. Although Osprey suggest this pack should work optimally with up to 18kg, I think this would be closer to 10kg.
- MSR Hubba NX (1 person) tent with a self-inflating mattress and sleeping bag.
- 2 merino walking shirts
- a casual shirt
- a lightweight dress
- long hiking pants
- merino shorts
- swimming costume
- 2 pairs of merino socks
- 2 pairs of merino undies
- a sports bra for walking
- everyday bra for evenings
- a lightweight Goretex jacket
- a hat
- Swiss Army knife,
- lightweight cutlery
- basic toiletries
- first aid kit
- fold up water bottle (for pack-off walking time)
I had my mobile phone and bought a French SIM and data. I took my Samsung tablet loaded with books, my travel docs and television shows.
Got a question or want to know more? Add a comment below.