France is covered by a network of some 180,000km of long-distance footpaths, known as sentiers de grande randonnée or GRs. They’re signposted and equipped with campsites, refuges and hostels (gîtes d’étape) along the way. Some are real marathons, like the GR5 from the coast of Holland to Nice, the trans-Pyrenean GR10 and the magnificent GR20 in Corsica. There are also thousands of shorter sentiers de promenade et de randonnée, the PRs, as well as nature walks and many other local footpaths. Note that in the south, many routes are subject to closure in summer at times of high forest fire risk.
Each GR and many PRs are described in the Topo-guide series (available outside France in good travel bookshops), which give a detailed account of each route, including maps, campsites, refuges, sources of provisions, and so on. In France, the guides are available from bookshops and some tourist offices, or direct from the principal French walkers’ association, the Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre (01 44 89 93 90). In addition, many tourist offices have guides to local footpaths.
Mountain climbing is possible all year round, although bear in mind that some higher routes will be snowbound until quite late in the year, and require special equipment such as crampons and ice axes; these shouldn’t be attempted without experience or at least a local guide. Accommodation when mountain climbing comes in the form of refuges.
No matter where you are walking, make sure you have your own water supplies, or find out locally if you’ll be able to fill up your water bottles on the way. You’ll also need decent footwear, waterproofs and a map, compass and possibly GPS system. Finally, don’t forget sunblock, sunglasses and a hat.
In mountain areas associations of professional mountain guides, often located in the tourist office, organize walking expeditions for all levels of experience. In these and more lowland areas, particularly the limestone cliffs of the south and west, you’ll also find possibilities for rock climbing (escalade). For more information contact the Fédération Française de la Montagne et de l’Escalade.
Walking holidays are popular in France, and there are many tour operators offering enticing packages.
There are around 60,000km of marked cycle paths (pistes cyclables) in France. Many towns and cities have established cycle lanes, while in the countryside there are an increasing number of specially designated long-distance cycle routes (véloroutes and voies vertes). Burgundy is particularly well served, with an 800km circuit, while the Loire à Vélo cycle route runs the length of the Loire valley from Nevers to St Nazaire. The Fédération Française de Cyclisme website has useful information in French on mountain-biking sites and tourist offices can provide details of local cycle ways; the Fédération Française de Cyclotourisme website provides links to local cycling clubs, and lists local trips by region. IGN sells various cycling guides through its website; their France-wide 1:100,000 maps are the best option for cyclists.
A large number of tour operators specialize in French cycle holidays.
Millions of visitors come to France to go skiing and snowboarding, whether its downhill, cross-country or ski-mountaineering. It can be an expensive sport to arrange independently, however, and the best deals are often from package operators. These can be arranged in France or before you leave (most travel agents sell all-in packages). Though it’s possible to ski from early November through to the end of April at high altitudes, peak season is February and March.
The best skiing and boarding is generally in the Alps. The higher the resort the longer the season, and the fewer the anxieties you’ll have about there being enough snow. The foothills of the Alps in Provence offer skiing on a smaller scale; snow may be not as reliable. The Pyrenees are a friendlier range of mountains, less developed (though that can be a drawback if you want to get in as many different runs as possible per day) and warmer, which means a shorter season and – again – less reliable snow.
Cross-country skiing (ski de fond) is being vigorously promoted, especially in the smaller ranges of the Jura and Massif Central. It’s easier on the joints, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s any less athletic. For the really experienced and fit, though, it’s a good way of getting about, using snowbound GR routes to discover villages still relatively uncommercialized. Several independent operators organize ski-mountaineering courses in the French mountains.
Lift passes start at around €35 a day, but can reach €50 in the pricier spots; six-day passes cost from €180 to around €260. Equipment hire is available at most resorts, and comes in at around €25 per day for skis and boots, while a week’s hire will generally set you back anything from €80–150, but can climb to €200 for the most high-tech or stylish gear.
The Fédération Française de Ski (04 50 51 40 34) provides links to local clubs, while france-montagnes.com is a good overall source of information in English, with links to all the country’s ski resorts.
Hang-gliding and paragliding are popular in the Hautes-Alpes of Provence, the Pyrenees and Corsica. Prices are around €160 for a day; contact local tourist offices for more information.
Caving is practised in the limestone caverns of southwest France and in the gorges and ravines of the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Massif Central. You’ll need to make an arrangement through a local club; they usually organize beginner courses as well as half- or full-day outings. For more information, contact the Fédération Française de Spéléologie (04 72 56 09 63).
As for all adventure sports, it is important to make sure that your insurance covers you for these rather more risky activities.
Horseriding is an excellent way to explore the French countryside. The most famous and romantic region for riding is the flat and windswept Camargue at the Rhône Delta, but practically every town has an equestrian centre (centre équestre) where you can ride with a guide or unaccompanied. Mule- and donkey-trekking are also popular, particularly along the trails of the Pyrenees and Alps. An hour on horseback costs from around €25; a day’s horse- or donkey-trekking will cost €50 or more. Lists of riding centres and events are available from the Comité National de Tourisme Équestre, or from local tourist offices.
France’s extensive coastline has been well developed for recreational activities, especially in the south. In the towns and resorts of the Mediterranean coast, you’ll find every conceivable sort of beachside activity, including boating, sea-fishing and diving, and if you don’t mind high prices and crowds, the clear-blue waters and sandy coves are unbeatable. The wind-licked western Mediterranean is where windsurfers head to enjoy the calm saltwater inlets (étangs) that typify the area. The Atlantic coast is good for sailing, particularly around Brittany, while the best surfing (Fédération Française de Surf) is in Biarritz; further north, Anglet, Hossegor and Lacanau regularly host international competitions. Corsica and the Côte d’Azur – which has a number of World War II-era wrecks – are popular for diving; contact the Fédération Française d’Études et de Sports Sous-Marins (04 91 33 99 31) for more information.
Most towns have a swimming pool (piscine), though outdoor pools tend to open only in the height of summer. You may be requested to wear a bathing cap and men to wear trunks (not shorts), so come prepared. You can also swim at many river beaches (usually signposted) and in the real and artificial lakes that pepper France. Many lakes have leisure centres (bases de plein airs or centres de loisirs) at which you can rent pedaloes, windsurfers and dinghies, as well as larger boats and, on the bigger reservoirs, jet-skis.
Canoeing (Fédération Française de Canoë-Kayak) is very popular in France, and in summer practically every navigable stretch of river has outfits renting out boats and organizing excursions. The rivers of the southwest (the Dordogne, Vézère, Lot and Tarn) in particular offer tremendous variety. Canal-boating, particularly in the Loire and Burgundy, is also a favourite water-based activity.