The Mont Blanc massif, from le Brevent. (Note: le Brevent, not Mt. Brevent...don't ask me why.)
The GR5 was one of the tracks my wife and I took during our three month walking trip of France in mid-2007. The gear we took was previously discussed in our gear list article. A special 'feature' of this trip was the very bad weather we experienced for the first two months: it was meant to be summer, but we had rain, hail, and snow. Coping with this bad weather for weeks on end with ultralight gear required some skill, but we managed. Another 'feature' of the trip was the significant change in altitude almost every day. We were yo-yoing from valleys at well below 1,000 m (3,000 ft) and cols and ridges around 2,500 m (8,000 ft). It kept us fit, but our appetites grew huge.
The name 'GR' stands for 'Grande Randonnée' (or 'Great Walk') in France. The French have lots of them, so obviously the GR5 was created a long time ago. It runs from the resort town of Thonon-les-Bains on the Lac Léman to the city of Nice on the Mediterranean, but we bypassed the last bit. Instead we took a spectacular high variation called the GR52 going from a little mountain village called St. Dalmas Valdeblore to Menton on the Mediterranean. These notes will cover the GR5 section only.
We arrived in Thonon by train. I highly recommend the French trains, especially the TGV or 'Train a Grand Vitesse' (high speed train). They are smooth and comfortable, but you need to book a seat some time in advance, or you may find yourself standing. We were in Thonon for a few days resting: we had already been walking for a month, and I had cracked an ankle bone just before we got there. At the time I thought it was just a sprain, but the length of time it took to heal showed otherwise. I could walk, but with some problems. In Thonon we stayed in a hotel called 'The Red Count' - named after some local lord who, hundreds of years ago, used to return from battle covered in his opponents' red blood. Great stuff if you aren't squeamish!
Before I start, I had better explain some terms I will be using and some local features:
- French shops are mostly shut down between 1:00 pm and 4:00 pm for a siesta. Don't ask me why. This strange and annoying custom made food shopping difficult at times.
- Even small villages were likely to have a shop with enough of a range that we were able to buy what we needed for a couple of days. Fresh bread was almost always available - the French have a thing about fresh bread...and so did we.
- Refuge, guarded: a mountain hut with staff providing dinner, bed, and breakfast, and usually cut lunches as well. May be run by an Alpine Club or the local town. If they are staffed, bedding is usually provided, but you bring your own towel and liner sheet/bag. Showers are normally coin-in-the-slot. Unfortunately, many also have car access for tourists.
- Refuge, unguarded: a mountain hut without staff. Usually has mattresses and may have gas stoves, but bedding would be unusual, and there isn't any food. Showers are unlikely.
- Gite: usually a converted farmhouse, providing the same facilities as a guarded Refuge. Also may have car access for tourists.
- Hotel: just that, but the smaller ones are used to wet, muddy walkers. Hot showers and towels were provided, and breakfast was sometimes included in the price.
- Most lacs (lakes) exist because of a barrage (dam) at the end, built a long time ago for hydro power.
- The French have a custom of making drinking water readily available from public 'fonts' or faucets in many places. Town water is almost always safe, so we used the fonts a lot.
- Some National Parks and other areas are designated no camping, and I am told that the Rangers do patrol the place. However, tent sites were seen...
- The local Topo-Guide books published by the Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre (FFRP) are highly recommended. They don't give distances, only the far more relevant heights and standard times for the sections. We usually managed just slightly better than the book.
- Balcon: geological feature; a sort of high shelf running along the side of a valley for a long way.
- Alpage: high open grassy pastures located up in the mountains above the forests. Lovely places.
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