to My Hike in France
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Author at Carcassonne, facing a fierce winter sun
I am a retired aerospace engineer with geography and writing interests, who sometimes hikes. After I retired, I had time for the hikes I'd just dreamed about. In my thinking, a meaningful hike is a long-distance one.
In 2007 I hiked the length of Britain from south to north, about a thousand miles - and in 2008 hiked in the other direction. The hike described here is across France from the Italian frontier on the Mediterranean to the Atlantic coast beyond Bordeaux. I started in 2010 when nearing 67 years old, covering "the second half" (Part B) first, and then walked the "first half" (Part A) in 2013 when nearly 70 years. The combined distance is about 700 miles.
I found these hikes really arduous, even if they're easy for others. But I got great satisfaction from finishing them. For me, they were the humble equivalent of epic journeys. So this account is not about a stroll in the park, or relaxing as a tourist, or even a weekend in the woods. It's hardly even about sightseeing. It's about the personal drama of covering long distances, often in poor weather, solving equipment problems, and enduring aches and pains, as well as about coping with life in a foreign land and a foreign language - including the logistics of finding accommodation and food - without transportation or onsite support.
With that as background . . .
Or skip all the words, and click slideshow.
Bridge at Gourgasse Vielle, Canal du Midi
Before there were ship canals, there were barge canals. A famous pair of such canals and rivers connected the Mediterranean with the Atlantic, enabling vessels to circumvent the Iberian peninsula (containing sometimes-hostile Spain), saving 1400 miles in the process. Barges of up to 100 ft could now reach the hinterlands of southwestern France which became part of the world economy.
My route followed the famous Canal du Midi from the Mediterranean to Toulouse (about 150 miles), but the waterway and my hike did not end there. At Toulouse, the Canal du Midi joins the less-famous but still impressive Canal latérale à la Garonne (or just Canal de Garonne) for an additional 125 miles until the Garonne river can take over. The Garonne river then flows into the Gironde estuary, which runs to the Atlantic (another 100 miles), all subject to tides.
In combination, the Canal du Midi and the Canal de Garonne are known as the Canal des Deux Mers (Canal of the Two Seas). Discussed since Roman times, and planned since 1516, the Canal du Midi portion was arguably the biggest construction project since Roman times when it was completed in 1680.
Canal routes are inherently level, save for locks, so the route climbs slowly to an elevation of just 620 ft at the Continental Divide before it starts an even slower descent towards the Atlantic. Exactly at the Continental Divide, a feeder canal supplies water from a large dam in the mountains. This water supply, which was key to the success of the whole project, replaces water that would otherwise drain to the two seas or be lost due to irrigation and seepage. As one passes the Continental Divide, the canal water direction changes, and the locks face in a new direction.
With ample water at hand, the whole route is mostly tree-lined and beautiful, close to vineyards, and tranquil along the canal portions. In winter, there's almost no boat traffic, and few liveaboards. The Canal du Midi is now a World Heritage Site. For long stretches, it's yours alone through the winter.
The Part B route starts at Agde, and passes through Béziers, Carcassonne, Toulouse, Agen and Bordeaux before ending at Soulac-sur-Mer on the Atlantic coast within sight of the famous Cordouan Lighthouse. It's about 375 miles long.
2013 Part A
For its first half, this route follows the Mediterranean and passes through well-known resort villages, towns and cities. It's almost exclusively a road route, but has only sparse traffic and few tourists in winter when I walked it - yet can be jam-packed in summer.
The route is not at all monotonous. Although it generally follows the Mediterranean coast, connoting tourism, in places it remains lightly-populated and rural. Some coastal portions wind tortuously at the top of cliffs and around bays. At other times, the route turns inland and is hilly. Beyond Marseille, however, which is France's second-largest city, it becomes flat. After crossing the Rhône at the Roman city of Arles, one enters the Camargue region with its wetlands and wild horses. Strong winds are common here, and can bring northern winter to the south of France. The winds are often channeled down the Rhône Valley through a funnel between the Massif Central (central mountains) and the French Alps.
I returned to the sea by following the Canal du Rhône to the medieval city of Aigues-Mortes. The route remains littoral after that, and confined to a coastal strip next to a string of lakes until it reaches Agde.
The initial, resort-portion passes through Menton, Monaco, Nice, Antibes, Cannes, Fréjus, St. Tropez (slight detour), Hyères, the naval city of Toulon (not a resort) and Cassis - and is over in Marseille. Beyond that and pleasant to visit are Arles, Montpellier (if you route that way), and then Sȇte before one reaches Agde.
Part A is about 325 miles.
Navigation and communications
Watching ships leave harbor, and reading about old naval adventures, plus a keen interest in the history of the sextant, explain why I love most everything about maps and navigation. I thought it a wondrous thing when hand-held GPS became available, and even more so in conjunction with moving map displays.
My experiences with this evolving technology are documented in this website.
On my 2007 and 2008 hikes, I used a primitive external GPS receiver, which sometimes connected (slowly) by primitive Bluetooth to my equally-primitive PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) on which I had stored electronic maps. In theory my PDA also had wifi for Internet connectivity in hotspots - and they sometimes functioned as advertised, but often did not. When functional, I typed by stylus on a 3 inch display, because an external keyboard using an IR (infra-red) connection was clumsy. This equipment, together with some back-up, and my camera and phone, needed five chargers. It was all a royal pain. But the alternative, as far as maps, was to carry more maps than could fit in my backpack - or arrange a complex mailing arrangement to receive and send maps in stages.
By 2010 and 2013, netbooks and tablets, with internal GPS and capable wifi, made mapping and communication better and easier. By 2013, I could pull my tablet out of my belly-pack, activate it in a minute, and display my position a minute or two later. Wifi was de rigueur in France (where they pronounce it "wee-fee"), giving me email and internet access. Accommodation in just about any establishment could be booked quickly online. Google maps were now excellent, with satellite as well as map views - and by 2013 with street views - and I was able to plan my route on it. But Google maps needs an online connection to function, and I hadn't found affordable cellphone data service in France - so, except for some cached map views, I could access Google maps only through wifi hotspots. However, I was able to transfer my route electronically to some decent carry-with maps ("Mapswithme") stored on my own equipment, so I had a map - with my location displayed - even when in the boonies.
For phone service in 2013, I used Skype in wifi hotspots, with which I could even call internationally to change air reservations. I carried a cell phone but used it barely ten times. The reason to abandon my phone in 2013 was a bad experience with a prepaid service in 2010. I had problems (described later) from the moment I picked up my SIM card at my French address of Poste Restante, Agde. The streets are not a great place to sort out phone service problems. After all, you usually need a phone service to get help with your phone service.
Overlays like routes can be prepared on one map (such as Google maps - just below)
and electronically transferred to another (like the French IGN map below that).
Mapswithme.com is also an excellent and affordable carry-with electronic map program for streets.
The route in the maps below is not my exact route, which lay closer to the coast.
Ready to go - twice
I talk about traveling light - but don't always walk like I talk. It's wrenching to leave behind things that have been essential or just helpful in the past - medications, blister treatments, electrical adaptors, spare clothes!
On my French trips, my backpack - sometimes including a bellypack that can be carried inside the backpack - weighed about 23 lb when fully loaded, not including water or food. Over the years, my clothes have gotten lighter but my electronics have gotten a bit heavier, so weight reduction has been slight. I still use the same faithful North Face backpack pictured below, and the same hiking pole and hats. The Gore-tex hiking jacket I used in 2010 was comfortable, but I saved weight by using a polyester one in 2013, even though I took some extra undergarments. As usual, I washed clothes at night, becoming adept at drying them near the room heater by erecting my hiking pole between a wall and a door, and hanging clothes from it. I ought to patent my clothes-drying methods, which sometimes include any hairdryer that comes with my room. (Hairdryers should never be allowed to overheat.)
My 2010 hike was partly on soft and wet surfaces, and I used the same Asolo boots as I used to complete my 2008 hike. In 2013, mostly on roads, I tried Merrell hiking shoes. They started well giving me no blisters, ended up usable but moderate blister-makers, and were always pleasantly lightweight.
For air travel, I used a kit bag to hold my backpack in 2010 - preventing the backpack straps from snagging baggage handling machinery (as once happened to me). In 2013, I tied up all the backpack straps and wrapped the backpack in various ways to guard against pilfering - and this worked well, too. So I was able to leave the kitbag, albeit weighing only 8 oz., at home. Because the backpack is so essential to the hike, yet too big to be carry-on baggage, you can imagine the relief with which I greet it after I land. The backpack has needed repair at least twice, so I carry a big needle and strong thread for that purpose.
In 2010, I arrived at Agde by train, worn out by overnight travel and then a train from Barcelona because my flight to Montpellier (near Agde) was canceled. With the time change, and full of antibiotics due to an infection, it made for a horrible first day.
In 2013, I reached Menton Garavan station by train, fresh and without a time-change. Here I walked a quarter-mile east to the Italian border, a featureless former customs post now used as a parking lot, where I took a few photographs and set out on my hike to the west. I was three years older than in 2010, and more like a mule than a racehorse, but it felt good to be back on the trail.
More about my route
"Canal du Midi" by Jean-Yves Grégoire (Rando Editions, France, 2007). A book for hikers and bikers, with descriptions of the route in segments, describing adjacent sights and some accommodation. In French.
"Voies navigables du Midi" by Par C. Vergnots (Editions Cartographiques Maritimes, Le Perreux-sur-Marne, France, 1986). A book for hikers and bikers, but especially boaters, covering the waterways described on this site in great detail, down to every bridge and lock. In several languages, including English.
Both these books describe the entire route between Bordeaux and the Mediterranean. Check Amazon, new or used.
Hiking in France generally
http://walkinginfrance.info is a wonderfully organized and presented hiking site by an Australian couple who have walked over 5000 miles in France over a period of ten years, mostly along the trails described below. In English. Highly recommended for readability, great pictures, and sound advice.
http://www.gr-infos.com/gr-en.htm lists the Grandes Randonnées, an established network of noteworthy hiking trails all over France, with maps of each. A great trip planner. In several languages, including English.
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© 2010 - 2013 Daryl May