The GR5 - Southern Alps (Briancon to Nice)

France's flag
Europe » France » Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur » Nice
October 29th 2009
Published: December 4th 2009
Edit Blog Post

Welcome to my final blog covering my epic trek from the north coast of Holland to the south of France.

So after a week's break on the Côte d'Azur with the family, I returned to Briançon feeling refreshed (well as refreshed as you can be after 3 connections and a 9 hour bus journey). Briançon is officially the second highest town in Europe, behind Davos in Switzerland. It is also famous for the series of forts that encircle the old town. I had time for a quick tour that evening wandering up and down the empty narrow streets, flanked by tall town houses before settling down to watch football, eat pizza, drink beer and plan my route for the next two weeks - I can’t emphasize enough the importance of good quality preparation.

The next morning I was back on the GR5 and ready for the final push to the Mediterranean and the end of my journey. It is a very circular route out of Briançon as the path goes the 'wrong' way eastwards up a valley through forest (which offers limited views of one of the higher forts) before the path loops back around the side of a mountain and across fields to reach the edge of town. From there you climb steeply up a dirt track, winding your way through forest and past a cliff face to reach the hamlet of Chalet des Ayes (1711m). Throughout there are views back towards Briançon and the Serre des Aigles which towers above the town. Thereafter, the path climbs again through forest before leveling out with grassy slopes and a collection of stone buildings at the top of the valley. Crossing the Col des Ayes (2477m) meant that I had entered the Parc Naturel Régional du Queyras. The climb that morning was a bit of a wake up call after a week lounging in a hammock by the pool and confirmed that there was a lot of hard walking to go before I could say that I’ve finished the whole trek and relax properly.

At the summit there are views of barren mountain tops and distant peaks with a few isolated chalets scattered across the grassy valley below. The GR5 descends via a series of rocky switchbacks before the path become a dirt road leading down the next valley. The path is flanked by huge cliff faces as it drops past a few small lakes before reaching the villages of Brunissard and La Chalp. I was hopeful about finding somewhere to stay and getting a good feed, as the guidebooks list plenty of accommodation and restaurants. However, I was walking right at the end of the season - it was the 1st of October and everywhere was shut waiting for the ski season to start. I was very lucky, therefore, to persuade a woman who runs one of the gîtes to let me stay the night even though they were closed for refurbishment. It did mean, however, that I had to cobble together a meal from whatever was left in my rucksack.

From La Chalp the GR5 heads out along a forest path which keeps its height as it moves down the valley to reach the tiny hamlet of Les Maisons, a collection of concrete block houses with rusting metal roofs. The path then climbs past slopes covered in dried yellow grass before reaching Lac de Roue with its overgrown vegetation and mountains reflected in its still waters. Yet another steep and tricky descent leads to a rocky ledge that overlooks Fort Queyras, an impressive stronghold that dominates the valley. Dropping down to the main road you take your life in your own hands as you have to follow the road as it clings to the mountainside with vehicles coming towards you out of numerous blind spots. After a good refreshment stop (you have to take every opportunity) in the little village of Château-Queyras, it is a long 3½ hour climb to the top of the Col Fromage (2301m). It is very steep at first but then flattens out (relatively) and the walking becomes pleasant as the tree canopy thins to reveal flashes of bright autumnal colour on the surrounding hillsides. The path leads up to the twin peaks of the Point de la Salle before reaching a false summit after a couple of hours. The path goes round the flank of a mountain to finally reach the Col Fromage. From the top there are views ahead to snow covered peaks and back over rocky slopes covered with patches of red and gold vegetation.

At the top of the Col I met an Australian and New Zealand guy who were lounging on the grass in the afternoon sun. They had decided to take some time out to walk across the Alps and were so laid back that they had already taken a month to get this far - I had by contrast covered the same distance in 18 days (something I was secretly very pleased with). They were free camping and apart from one day when they had been soaked on the mountainside were finding it very easy to make their way through the Alps. I by contrast was finding it hard as the season was drawing to a close - my schedule was being dictated to me by which refuges, gîtes and shops remained open. After spending a fun half hour chatting away, we agreed to try to catch up over a beer later that night in Ceillac and I pressed on down yet another long rocky slope into the village. The village was surprisingly nice with rough cut timber buildings, an old church with an impressive belfry and sundial, and lambs frolicking in the fading evening sun (I even asked a passing shepherd to see if this was ‘normal’, as it was October. I don’t think he could have held me in more disdain what with me clearly being English and a city boy. I got a gruff ‘oui’ and that was it). I should add that I was enjoying some very good weather at this point but it was noticeably colder in the shadows once the sun began to set - a recurring theme in the Alps. I was thankful, therefore, to finally get a room and settle down in the pub for a few drinks.

The next day was a tough one, as I had decided to do an extra 11km in anticipation of problems to come finding accommodation in the days ahead. So having restocked, I set off early along the road out of Ceillac, crossed the river and then tackled a steep switchback climb through forest to the bottom of some cliffs. From there it was a tough climb straight uphill using rocks and roots as footholds until the path came out above the tree line. On the way up I caught and then passed a group of seasoned day walkers winding their way up the hill. Now there is part of me that is really competitive. This may come as a surprise to many of you, as I don’t think I’ve ever won anything in my life and I very happily play for teams who seem to lose most times they play, as long as there is a good tea or a pint afterwards. However, on the trek this competitive spirit pushed me forward up the climbs as I focused on passing the person in front of me. I got a buzz out of beating people to the top and I forgot about the fatigue until I was out of sight. So it was that I found myself standing by Lac Miroir (2214m) with impressive views of the “serrated, snow streaked peaks of the Crête des Veyres” reflected in the water.

From the lake the path wound its way gently upwards past a ski slope and télésiège towards a small chapel on the shores of Lac Ste Anne. Along the way I passed three young attractive women walking the other way. I guess it’s a bit like buses. You wait ages for one and then three turn up at once. The landscape was mostly barren with tufts of wiry grass growing amongst the boulders strewn across the ground and the peaks of the mountains were bare except for patches of snow left clinging to the rock face in dark crevices where the sun couldn’t reach. From Lac Ste Anne you make your way up to the Col Giradin (2706m), the departmental boundary between the Hautes-Alpes and the Alpes de Haute-Provence.

It is a steep, tricky and long descent down from the top of the col. At first the path crosses some gentle grassy slopes with the shrieks of plenty of fat marmots to keep you company. However, walking down the valley was like stepping into a wind tunnel as I was buffeted by strong, chilly winds. The path then outflanks a cliff and becomes a real pain in the ass (literally when I slipped and fell over) as it zigzags steeply across loose rock for a good hour or so. Eventually (and much to my relief) I reached the tiny hamlet of La Barge, with its crumbling stone buildings. Passing through, I was invited to rest and join an old woman who was sitting outside a tiny chapel. She was a wonderful talker. It seems that only 3 of the houses remain occupied in the village by old people who are too stubborn to leave. The young people have gone to big towns and cities in search of work (and I would imagine some form of entertainment). She and her husband survive because every fortnight a grocer’s van comes to their house. She also told me a distressing story about a walker who had recently gone missing on one of the mountains overlooking the valley. He had not been found despite a full blown search and rescue effort (including helicopter) and was presumed dead. I had not really thought about it too much but I guess it demonstrates that the dangers of walking in the Alps can’t be underestimated. Plus if it makes me seem braver and tougher in your eyes, then I’ll go along with that.

The next few hours were spent reliving my time in Holland, as I trudged along the side of a road for the best part of two hours down the valley with high peaks flanking me on either side. The road finally leads to the Pont du Châtelet, an impressive stone arch bridge built in 1882 which spans a deep gorge. At this point I was pretty knackered but had to steel myself for a final 3km climb up yet more forested slopes to reach the village of Fouillouse, which is perched at the top of a ravine. It was a real struggle towards the end - my body was aching but I had no choice but to continue until I reached the refuge and was able to sit down to a hearty mountain meal, which was a good reward for the efforts of the day.

There was an unexpected start to the next day’s stage, as I was invited to join an English couple at their table for breakfast. They were a diplomat and his wife who were driving to their holiday retreat in the mountains. The women lived up to every preconception I may have had. She was all smiles, chatty and full of enthusiasm - everything was wonderful. I was bombarded with well meaning questions, which I tried to answer as best as I could but she asked me three questions before I had time to answer one. Her husband was much more reserved but an interesting character nonetheless - in his youth he had cycled from Greece back to London. He was based in Tripoli, Libya, which he described as a “shithole” (it’s good to see that expensive public school education wasn’t wasted. I don’t think I could be tactful enough to make it as a diplomat). His description of the country did make me slightly hesitant about accepting his wife’s offer that I visit them in Libya - apparently I am to go to the embassy or consulate and ask for “John” (it seems the upper class are all on first name terms). The women was really lovely and seem to take a shine to me (well why wouldn’t you?). She insisted that I should apply for a job in the foreign office on the basis that I clearly like travel and was resourceful! The husband couldn’t hide his contempt for the idea (he gave one of those looks like he had just seen a bit of shit on the bottom of his shoe).

The walk to Larche was a bit of a Sunday stroll. A gentle climb up the valley takes you past flocks of sheep and abandoned gun turrets to the top of the Col du Vallonnet (2520m). The view at the top is dominated by the peak of La Meyna, which still had patches of snow clinging to its face. The terrain was incredibly barren with the only colours seemingly the pale grey of the rock or the parched yellow of the grass. I had been told by numerous people that the Southern Alps are substantially different from the Northern Alps in nearly all things - climate, flora, fauna, culture etc. This was becoming increasingly apparent as I headed south. Keeping to the right of La Meyna, the route then climbs past an abandoned barracks where a number of people were eating lunch in the ruined buildings before reaching the Col de Mallemort (2558m).

A long descent on loose rock leads to Larche. This tiny village is situated on the main (only) road into Italy and was totally rebuilt after WW2. It now consists of a hotel (closed), two gîtes (closed), a block of holiday apartments (open but not for people only wanting to stay the night) and a tourist information (closed). Having exhausted the very finite number of options available to me, I was once again fortunate that the owner of one of the gîtes was willing to let me stay the night in one of her dormitories. I was even luckier to find the other gîte / auberge was opening for that night only - a group of shepherds were coming down from the hills at the end of the summer and enjoying a celebratory meal. That was how I manage to get a decent meal and ended up drinking Génépi (the local spirit) to keep the cold out. Plan B was a Cuppa soup. Enough said.

At this point I was running pretty low on provisions. Now I’m not particularly demanding, as you know. I appreciate that it is not always possible to get a full English or continental breakfast, freshly ground coffee and a newspaper. I will happily accept a bit (ok a lot) of bread, butter and jam. Except at this point I couldn’t even get bread - the nearest shop was miles away. Once again my host came to the rescue. Over the unusual breakfast of biscuits and grit (sorry coffee), I listened to stories of her trip with her husband to the mountains of Tibet and discussed the day’s stage. I was feeling apprehensive, as I had to walk over 30kms for the first time in the Alps to find somewhere to stay that night. It was strange that I was beginning to doubt myself so late into the trek. The woman reasoned that if I walked from Holland, it should be no problem to the day’s stage. Fair point. Nevertheless it turned out to be a ten hour stage.

The GR5 heads out of Larche on a back road towards the Italian border before it turns to enter the Parc National du Mercantour. The path slowly climbs upwards past flocks of sheep and then over slabs of sandstone to reach a lake. It was surprisingly chilly as I waited for the sun to rise above the mountain tops that mark the border. Having rested up for a short while, I proceeded to go round the lake. It was at this point that one of the pastous - a big sheepdog with a white coat that guards the flocks - jumped over the fence of the pen and came bounding towards me only breaking off its “attack” at the last moment. It is quite an intimidating sight. Having determined that I wasn’t a threat to the flock (I’m not Welsh after all), I was able to continue past some large slabs and boulders of limestone before heading up the scree covered flank of the mountain to reach the Pas de Cavale (2671m), disturbing a small group of Chamois in the process. The summit marks the departmental boundary and the last leg of my trek as I entered the Alpes Maritimes. There were once again very impressive 360° views of… well mountains, which looked quite foreboding under the dark grey skies.

My guidebook warns about the descent over fractured limestone and narrow ledges, as it easy to slip and fall, which of course I did. After an unpleasant half hour or so picking my way through rock and sheep in equal measure, I reached flatter ground. Looking back it is impossible to retrace the path. The GR5 takes you around craters, across a dry riverbed and past a ravine before climbing up to the Col des Fourches, which is dominated by numerous concrete gun turrets. There is a very easy descent past an abandoned barracks down to the Hamlet of Bousieyas. After a short break that was just long to contemplate the insanity of the day’s stage, I climbed up through forest, across open grassland and finally up a dirt track to reach the Col de la Colombière (2237m). By this stage I had been walking at for eight hours and had had enough - I was looking for a quick finish to the day. Instead, there was a long, rocky and hard descent that wound around cliffs and ravines cutting a tortuous path down the hill towards the village of St Dalmas Le Selvage. The village itself is very attractive - it consists of four storey houses tightly compacted together at the foot of three mountains with charming little streets and squares that I would have enjoyed looking at if only I could have been bothered. However, by the time I entered the village I was tired and hungry, and my mood was not helped by finding the one restaurant closed and that the little épicerie had shut minutes earlier. Once I again I was forced to rely on the kindness of strangers. The only other guest was a French women from the Massif Central who was spending a few days walking in the area and who offered to share her meal with me.

The next day’s walk can simply be summarized as a long walk through the Tinée valley. It also marked my 100th stage on the trek. My morning started in the local tourist information office with the very difficult task of arranging accommodation for the days to come. I wasn’t helped by the fact that the valve on my water bottle (CammelBak) had broken some weeks before and was constantly dripping on the floor (and all over me) - I had to hold it up at an angle to try to prevent it dripping everywhere (making me look like a tea pot). Eventually, after much ringing around, I was faced with the prospect of two hard day’s walking and given the number for a guy called “Jean-Luc” who in the absence of any hotels, refuges or gîtes was my best chance of finding somewhere to stay that night. From St Dalmas it was an easy climb up to the Col d’Anelle (1739m), which was followed by a long descent past scrub, fields and terrace gardens on a rough stone path to reach the town of St Etienne de Tinée and civilization (or what counts for civilization in this part of the world). St Etienne consists of fine town houses, narrow streets, a church with a “landmark steeple” and you are able to access “all services” (but only if you get there before 12.30 as the town like many others in France shuts down for a two hour lunch break). I was finally able to buy some provisions and sit down to a proper meal. As I was leaving the town, I passed an old man at the bus station. He was looking at the timetable and asked me if I was going to Nice as there was a bus every hour. I said that I was but that I expected it to take me six days as I was walking. He looked at me with complete bewilderment but wished me good luck nevertheless.

If I thought it was going to be an easy approach to the ski village of Auron then I was very much mistaken. From the main road, there was a steep climb up a rough track before I had to follow a tough zig-zagging path up through forest for an hour. Just before reaching the village, I met a professor out collecting pine cones for his class. We had an interesting chat about the large number of English people who had settled in the region. His view was that the English don’t integrate well into the community as they insist on their own clubs, shops (selling English food) and don’t attempt to speak French. I insisted we aren’t all like that!

After a short break in Auron, I crossed the ski slope and headed up to the Col du Blainon (2014m). Once again I was confronted by a convoluted, rocky and steep descent, as I passed numerous abandoned farm buildings and huge flocks of goats and sheep that seemed to be taunting me as I stumbled along the path. At one point in a scene reminiscent of something from animal farm, I slipped and stumbled. Lying on my back, the animals seemed to form a tight circle mocking me. Or maybe I was just imagining things as I was pretty tired by this point. Finally I reached the collection of buildings that make up the village of Roya and tried to find Jean-Luc - a local craftsman who rents a room out to passing walkers like me when the gîte is closed. He was sitting outside enjoying a beer watching the sun set. He lives in an old farm building which just about had running water, gas and electricity and not much else. Not that I cared. I was able to get a meal, a shower and to sleep. And at the end of the day, that was all that mattered.

My notes for the next day’s walk simply read “bloody hell”. My feet were in pieces at the end of a 33km stage between Roya and Roure. The day started with a two hour climb passing through a crack in the mountainside known as the Barres de Roya where cracks in the limestone cliffs make them look like dry stone walls. The path eventually came out a small cabin surrounded by the biggest flock of goats and sheep that I had ever seen. I was walking across ground that was so deep in crap that I didn’t know where the soil ended and the shit began. After crossing a grassy landscape littered with boulders, the GR5 reaches a set of cliffs in a horseshoe shape. The path zig zags up one side to outflank the cliffs and after a short but intense climb it emerges at a flat plateau. It was very still and peaceful up there, as I made my way past a crystal clear stream before a final climb up a mountainside covered in scree leads up to the Col de Crousette (2480m). Somewhat unusually, the GR5 then follows a rough stony path that cut up the side of Mont Mounier to a ridge with panoramic views back over the Queyras, the Tinée valley, and down to the Mediterranean. On this final climb I had the pleasure of watching a pair of Eagles circling only a few metres above my head.

Crossing the ridge, I headed south-east across more stony ground to reach the Col des Moulines (1982m). It was hot and I was running out of water with little prospect of finding another water source any time soon. After lunch, I crossed grassy slopes and rocky river beds to pass a strange limestone rock formation near the tiny hamlet of Vignols. A slow climb under some cliffs eventually leads to the Portes de Longon and a long, open grassy valley. After what seemed an eternity (actually one hour during which time I only passed one chalet with a couple of donkeys), I reached the closed Refuge du Longon, which importantly had a pump outside with clean water. Somewhat relieved and refreshed, I had a difficult descent past some waterfalls and then through forest to reach a series of grassy terraces used for summer grazing. The Vallée de Tinée with its dense forest carpeting its very steep slopes provided a sharp contrast to the walking of the past week. I walked through the forest to the sounds of stags bellowing mating calls across the valley. Having passed a few cabins, I followed a long track through the forest before the GR5 becomes a tricky path of purple slate crumbling underfoot. Roure is a very attractive village that clings to the top of a valley with houses packed together almost on top of each other on terraces cut into the hillside. I arrived at the gîte to find 3 young French people packing up to leave. They worked in restaurants in Nice and were escaping to the mountains for a break at the end of the summer season. One guy worked as a patisserie chef and one was a chocolatier - definitely people worth keeping in touch with! The girl worked as a waitress and was memorable because she was the first French person I had seen in two months wearing a beret. After such a long day it was nice to have some good company and they were generous to a fault - they insisted of leaving me food, drink and pushed a cold beer into my hands (I don’t need to be told twice).

Thankfully the stage from Roure to St Dalmas Valdeblore was a short one. After a leisurely stroll around the alleyways in Roure, I followed an old mule track past terraces and isolated houses to reach the town of St Sauveur at the bottom of the valley. It was nice to have a good quality path so that for once I was able to descend with confidence. A steep road takes you out of town, which soon becomes a small path covered with acorns and chestnuts and leads out onto a chapel. From there a larger track of purple slate hugs the hillside and winds its way up through the forested slopes to reach the old fortified hilltop town of Rimplas, where the houses are hidden from view until the last minute. There are views of towns across the next valley as the GR5 heads down through scrub before climbing again up through woods thick with chestnuts and hazels. Gradually, the path brings you up to an open valley with lots of housing and even a college building - the first conurbation of note since I left Briançon.

The trek from St Dalmas to Utelle is a long one but worth it. It starts with a steep climb up out of the valley through a dark forest where lichen hangs from the trees before the GR5 brings you out at the top of a limestone ridge. The path follows this ridge southwards so that for most of the day is spent at the same height walking across open mountainsides and wooded slopes with excellent views down into the valleys on either side and onwards towards the sea. From the Col des deux Cairnes (1921m) it is supposedly possible to be able to see Nice on the horizon. As I couldn't make out much of anything, I pressed on along an excellent path which is cut into the hillside. It allows you to march along across the alpage and scrub at pace so that for the first time in the mountains I felt able to make good progress. Over the course of the day, I crossed 7 cols occasionally descending into the forested hillside below where I bumped into numerous groups of local people out collecting mushrooms. Eventually I made it to the Breche du Brec, a large rocky outcrop that dominates the local area. The path takes you up a ramp up to the top of a cliff face before you reach a breech in the rock and can get down the other side.

At this point the bad weather, which had held off for most of the day, started to look very threatening. As I was exposed on the top of a mountainside with no shelter I was very keen to get down as quickly as possible. With storm clouds gathering, I stumbled down a steep and rugged path to the next col before following a path that flanked one side of a mountain. My urgency to get down might explain how it was that I ended up driving a herd of goats along the path for the best part of a kilometre. As the herd was blocking my path I tried to "shoo" them along. Instead of moving to the side, they panicked and started to bolt down the path. I took this opportunity to walk faster which seemed to make them even more agitated. As the mountainside was very steep in places there was nowhere for them to go but forward blocking my path. All that was missing was the Benny Hill music as I chased this herd of goats across France. Eventually, I reached the final col of the day by which point a fine mist with light drizzle had come in, completely obscuring any views. All that was left was to climb down to the historic village of Utelle, a hilltop village that was fortified against the Saracens who used to raid the coastline.

The penultimate stage of my trek saw me hike the 25kms from Utelle to Aspremont, another fortified hilltop village. I made a slow start to the day as I was feeling the exertion from the day before and my kit was playing up. Leaving Utelle behind, the GR5 continues down the valley past scrub and forest where I was surprised to find a young lad who looked no more than 16 wearing a bright orange jacket and pointing a gun at me. Apparently it was hunting season for wild boar. Knowing how clumsy teenagers can be, I wasn't keen to hang around, so pressing on I reached a small hamlet before dropping down into the gorge to cross the river. The path climbs past the canal de Vesubie, which runs through a tunnel in the mountains, up towards the town of Levens. The landscape was now very Mediterranean - stone terraces, olive groves and the pink terracotta tiles on the roofs. In Levens, I got chatting to the patron of a cafe who had done his military service in the Alpine mountain rescue service so we spent an enjoyable half hour or so discussing the route and the sights. It was a real slog in the afternoon to pass the Rocca Partida and the flank of Mont Cima with only the views of the sea providing any sort of relief from the walking. Finally, I reached Aspremont and was able to settle down to a few beers and an excellent evening meal with Lewis, an old school friend, who had flown out for the final leg of my trip. Quite wisely, he had decided to skip the hard bit and help me with the important task of celebrating my arrival into Nice.

There was a lazy start to the final day’s stage as Lewis and I patiently worked our way through an enormous breakfast buffet in the hotel and did a quick circuit of the old town of Aspremont, with its concentric narrow, cobbled streets hiding numerous little courtyards and terraces. We set off on the final 13km of the trek under bright blue skies and in unseasonably warm weather. The final approach to Nice is a lot nicer than you might imagine as it keeps to the high, open ground of the slopes of Mont Chauve with views back towards the Alps, down to the large industrial river valley and then finally over Nice Ville and the shining blue of the Mediterranean. All that was left was to navigate our way through the back streets of the town towards Place Alexandre Médécin, where a sign allegedly marks the official end of the GR5 (naturally we couldn’t find it despite a long and frantic search). I had expected to feel euphoric, elated, overjoyed at finishing. Instead it was all a bit underwhelming probably because I wasn’t able to share the moment with people who had been through what I had experienced. None of the locals seemed to have heard of the GR5 and what’s more didn’t seem to care (well why would they?!).

However, I was determined to celebrate my achievement. Having stopped off for lunch, a beer and to check into a hostel, we finally made it to Promenade des Anglais and the beach. I had done it! I had walked literally from the North Sea to the shores of the Mediterranean. All 2,273kms (give or take). Stumbling on the large pebbles and stones that count for a beach in Nice, I waded into the sea clutching my bottle of ‘champagne’ and proceeded to celebrate Formula 1 style, spraying and drinking the ‘champagne’ as best I could whilst trying not to be knocked over by the surprisingly powerful waves. I must admit that we got a few quizzical looks from the other people on the beach. All that was left was to sit in the sun, drink and celebrate. I had bought a good bottle of champagne with which to toast my achievement but Lewis had had the good idea to buy some cheap plonk for 2Euros to spray about in the sea. Ironically, we ended up drinking the cheap shit on the beach and I ended up bringing the proper stuff back home on the plane. Perhaps it says something about the whole trek.

I ended up staying 4 days in Nice. My plan had been to continue to Corsica and do the GR20 but it was the end of the season and the advice was that everything in Corsica would be closed. Plus I was exhausted and really couldn’t face the thought of another fortnight of hard walking. Instead, I ended up eating a lot of great food - Lewis was on a mission to eat as much patisserie as humanly possible and I was more than happy to be his wing man.

So what do I feel now that I have actually done the 'impossible' and finished the trek? There are some strong emotions - relief, pride, joy - but my over-riding feeling by the end was one of mental and physical fatigue. For the last couple of weeks of the trek, I was almost solely focused on getting to Nice and crossing the finishing line. After four months on the road, I had nothing left to give. However, having had time to reflect and let things sink in, I find myself at a bit of a loss. Despite my frequent complaints, the trek provided a purpose and structure to my daily life that is hard to replicate. I also miss the satisfaction of having achieved something and I don’t think many people can say they get that each day.

One question I do get is ‘have I grown’? Thankfully not! I managed to lose one fifth of my body weight - over 20kg - during the four months I was away but then again I was very fat when I started out. I may even have discovered the fad diet of 2009 - you can eat anything you want (in fact it’s almost compulsory to eat 4000+ calories a day) and you can still lose weight! The only condition is that you have to walk up to 9 hours a day. My only problem is that now I'm back in the UK I'm a little loathe to give up my gluttony. I'll have to sort myself out.

But seriously, have I grown as a person? I don't know. I'm really not that deep. What I know was that I was frustrated with where my life was going and I set out to change that. I wanted to lose weight and become fitter and more active. And I did. I wanted to see if I could still speak some French and see parts of the country that I hadn’t visited before. I wanted to raise money for a worthy cause and make a difference to people’s lives. And I’ve done that. I raised enough money to provide hundreds of people with access to clean water. Most of all, I wanted to be proud of myself for achieving something genuinely challenging and to be able to stand up, look people in the eye and say that I've done it. And I can.

P.S. I'm still fundraising so any support you can give this worthy cause is appreciated - visit According to Pump Aid, £2 provides one person in Africa with access to clean water for life. So it's probably worth your while taking two minutes to look at the site. Thank you.

Additional photos below
Photos: 36, Displayed: 36


20th July 2010

My past and my future!
I just found your blog and have really enjoyed all the narrative and photos. I walked the southern part of the GR5 in France (Lake Geneva to Menton) in 2007, and the northern part (Luxembourg city to Lake Geneva) in 2009. I will be doing the rest in 2011, traveling north this time from Luxembourg City to the North Sea, following the Pieterpad as you did. I feel like my life was changed forever by the beauty and the challenges of the trip. I don't expect such dramatic scenery or experiences, of course, from the northern third, but am very excited about finishing the route. Thanks so much for taking us all along on your epic journey, although it almost caused me pain to see the pictures of the Alps. You see, we are Americans who had the great pleasure of living in Evian for six years, having just returned to the U.S. (to landlocked Ohio) in October, 2010. We appreciated every day, living in paradise, but are now happy to be nearer family. C'est la vie!
26th September 2010

Thank you
Thanks for such a great blog. It is a pleasure to read something so clear, forthright, complete and well-illustrated. One thing that you seem to bring out is that the terrain south of Briancon is tougher and trickier than the terrain in the Alps to the north. In particular the descents seem to carry more risk.. you mention steeper, rockier sections and falling on occasion, something you do not report from the more northern Alps. Is this generally the case? I have already hiked the GR 5 through to Chamonix (usually in somewhat shorter stages than you took on) and I found the paths in general to be manageable in terms of security and stability, even where they are steepest. This is particularly important for me since I will be hiking alone a lot of the time, as you did. Am I going to find sections in the southern Alps a lot less pleasant, or even unsafe?

Tot: 0.221s; Tpl: 0.027s; cc: 8; qc: 47; dbt: 0.0106s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.5mb