The GR5 - The Lorraine Valley

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August 9th 2009
Published: September 6th 2009
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Hello. Before describing the two weeks or so that I spent in the Lorraine Valley from Luxembourg to the Vosges mountains, I would like to thank people for their warm messages of support following the almost shocking revelation in my last entry that I have managed to loose some weight. Comments such as "you must weigh 9st" or "I bet you're mega suntanned and looking buff from all the walking" are welcome, if a little wide of the mark. At least for the moment.

I should also add from the start of this blog, that I'm able to draw more heavily on my guidebooks this time to pad out the blog (not that it needs it I'm sure you'll say). So, if anything should appear informative, insightful and well researched that will undoubtedly be from a book. However, anything that is subjective, vague or opionated, well that's all me.

From Luxembourg, the GR5 takes you south through the valleys of the Meuse and the Moselle as far as Nancy before turning east to cross the Moselle river and follows the Lorraine plateau towards the Vosges mountains. For the most part the walking was through woods and farmland, quite often along rural D roads that link little villages together a few kilometres apart. For pretty much the whole fortnight, the temperature was unbearably hot (for me anything over 20 degrees is a bit uncomfortable but I did check and it was regularly over 30 degrees).

After several false starts (including boarding the wrong train in the wrong direction from Luxembourg Ville) and a couple of hours walking, I finally left Luxembourg and entered the Pays Lorraine, passing through an area of forest, wide open fields and past tiny villages, which were all to become very familiar to me over the next fortnight. The walking from Burange (Lux) to Algrange (Fr) was fairly comfortable until the final descent into town along muddy forest tracks made trecherous by recent heavy rain - I was slipping and sliding for most of the way down, only just avoiding a spectacular fall on more than one occassion.

After the varied and beautiful landscapes of Luxembourg, the area around Thionville can come as a bit of a shock. The Meuse Valley is (or at least was) a major industrial area with massive steel plants and heavy manufacturing built on large deposits of iron ore and coal. The area is a bit like South Yorkshire with heavy job losses since the 1980s leaving the area relatively poor compared to the rest of France. My plan was to go by bus to Thionville, a place that I had been warned to "avoid at all costs", and so was naturally intrigued to vist. The city itself is ok if a bit quiet, with a historic centre that had an Italian feel to it with its pedestrianised streets and plazas. The surrounding areas are, however, a bit grim and its easy to see the recent industrial decline.

After my night in Thionville, the next day's walk started in an unusual and completely unexpected manner. At a shrine to miners who used to work in the hills around Algrange, I met two Dutch women who have been walking the same route as me, on and off, for the past twenty years. After explaining what I was up to, one of them turned round and quite unexpectedly described me as a hero (the other one was more circumspect in her praise) and insisted on having her photograph taken with me. I was taken aback - I've never been described (twice!) as a hero before. Reflecting on it, I can see that in many ways she's right but modesty prevents me from dwelling on this point too much.

From Algrange there is a climb through woodland and then a decent across fields lined with wild flowers (another very common sight in the Lorraine) to reach the town on Fontoy. As it was a Sunday and nearly all the shops in France are still shut, my brunch consisted of patisserie from the local boulangerie. It was at this point sat in the main square that I began to doubt that there was anything worth seeing in this part of France. It was then that a women walked past with supermodel legs on her way to buy the daily baguette and I decided that I should be a bit more trusting in fate to deliver.

The rest of the walk to Rombas was proceeding uneventfully (apart from an interesting chat with some retired men from the local area) until I heard shouting behind me. I turned to find a guy running after me. It turned out that he was a 38 year old Belgium who was also walking (part of) the GR5 and he had been tracking me for the past couple of days. Lievun was to join me for the entire trip through the Lorraine and was good company. My abiding memories are the click of a cigarette lighter a few paces behind me, the end of walk beers and him scribbling corrections with fag in mouth or beer in hand, as we took one of the many diversions or amended routes not noted in our guidebooks. It was refreshing to find that not all people you meet live up to the national stereotypes.

As it was a Sunday, we faced the very considerable problem of finding somewhere to stay given that we were relying on public transport to take us to the city of Metz (both the availability and frequency of public transport and accommodation were to prove major problems during the fortnight). Eventually we made it to the Hostel in Metz and managed to endure quite possibly the longest check-in in history. Metz itself is a city that is very easy to warm to with a compact historical centre that stretches down to its 3 rivers that all criss-cross through the city. Originally a Roman town, its is based on major historical trade routes and has many narrow cobbled streets and interesting buildings.

The next couple of days were spent travelling out from Metz to do the day's stage before returning to the Hostel for the evening even though this meant enduring the frequent "deviations" that the buses took to avoid the all too common roadworks. From Rombas we passed a large recreational area before climbing to a viewing platform that gave us excellent views of the Moselle Valley and Metz in the distance. Passing through one of the numerous small villages around Metz looking for somewhere to grab a drink and a rest, we came across six retired men playing pétanque. When I asked them if there was a café in the village, they said no (most small villages have lost their café or local shop) but insisited that we join them for a beer instead. Hardly one to turned down such a good offer, we readily accepted. They were a nice bunch of guys - one had even walked the Pilgrim's trail so knew a bit about what we were up to - and it was really good fun to learn a bit about the local area and to watch grown men swear and mock each other like schoolboys, especially in a foreign language. Their hospitality was typical of the genuinely warm attitude of the locals to the strange Belgian and Englishman walking through their villages.

The next day's walk from Saulny to Ars-sur-Moselle was similar to the one before it - passing over more rolling hills and through tiny villages where nearly all the houses are lined with hanging baskets and covered in flowers. Most people seem to have gardens crammed with fruit trees and vegetable beds. Indeed we stopped for a chat with one old man who was digging up his potato crop and who told us that people had fenced off their gardens to protect their produce from the wild boar and deer that live in the forest (I can believe it as there are lots of notices warning you that people hunt in the area). He also said that the valley used to be covered in strawberry fields forty years ago but are now mostly forest. The other highlights during the day were passing the house (now museum) of Robert Schuman the father and architect of a United Europe although it was closed (see earlier comments about Sod's Law) and an impromptu stopping off at the wine cellars of Chateau de Vaux. Having missed out on a wine tasting session in Luxembourg, I decided to try my luck in France. Thankfully, the women who showed us around was very patient and allowed us to see the wine presses, bottling plant and the cellars (the oldest of which date back to the 13th century). We even managed a tasting session and bought a bottle each (although it adds considerably to the weight of the bags).

After three days in Metz, we continued to head south following the Moselle Valley stopping in Nancy each evening. Nancy is a city that I just couldn't bring myself to like. It has a splendid main square named after Stanislav (named after the father-in-law of Louis XV who was given the city as a consolation prize having lost the Polish War of Succession), as well as lively bars and restaurants in the surrounding streets. However, the rest of the city is a sprawl of suburbs spreading out for kilometres in every direction none of whom have any character or distinguishing features. We were staying in the Youth Hostel 4kms out of town in a place called Chateau Remicourt. The day we got there, there was a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere - people coming and going through reception and out, sitting around drinking beers and chatting to staff. The women on duty even ordered us pizzas. This probably accounts for the slightly embarrassing conversation I had a couple of days later with the young lady on reception. Returning hot and bothered after a long day's walk, I asked if I could have a beer and maybe order a pizza again. However, in my exhausted and broken French, I think I came across as "Beer, Pizza, Now (Bitch)". Certainly she seemed taken aback by my "demands".

From Ars-sur-Moselle it is a short journey to the remains of the first century Roman aqueduct that used to take water the 22km to Metz. A short climb through woodland follows until you reach a viewpoint overlooking the valley, and then it is downhill to the town of Gorze and the source of the aqueduct. The stage from Pagny-sur-Moselle to Montauville was like an introduction to French history, as we passed the old fortress of the Dukes of Lorraine until the 17th century, which was followed by the statue, memorial and cemetary that marks the WW1 battlefield of Bois de Prete, where 7000 Frenchmen are buried (the Germans lost an equivalent number). From Montauville we caught the bus to Pont à Mousson, with its 16th century houses, abbey and church. The highlight on the main square is the house of 7 deadly sins, which are celebrated in the carvings on the exterior of the house.

From Montauville we set off once again through forest and across fields heading for the Medieval town of Lieverdun which is built high on a hill overlooking an oxbow bend in the river Moselle. Most of the day was spent in the sweltering heat watching the farmers get the grain harvest in, as we passed numerous grain silos and huge machines in the field. Once again, we were reliant on public transport to get us to the start of each stage and back to Nancy in the evening. This proved to be a particularly hard task, especially at weekends requiring detailed planning, patience and improvisation. Despite our best efforts, it was impossible to make the connections work for the stage from Liverdun to Brin-sur-Seille and so we had to do the stage over two days, including 19km on the first day backwards and 10km on what should have been a rest day. Although we passed through some more picturesque villages, we were having to walk in the heat of the afternoon sun, which left us hot and exhausted. That and the feeling that we were walking the wrong way was a bit disheartening.

From Nancy/Liverdun, the GR5 leaves the Moselle and heads east towards the Vosges mountains passing through the Pays du Sel and the Pays des Lacs. The first few days were spent crossing a flat plane along D roads and across fields in the baking heat of the sun passing large arable fields where many of the crops had been harvested and where the farmers were turning over the soil.

Walking to Vic-sur-Seille - a charming if quiet medival town - we were caught in a heavy rain storm, which left us soaking wet and in need of a shower, a change of clothes and a good meal. Unfortunately, there was little accommodation available in the town - the hotel had closed some time ago and the Gites were full. Having hailed a women who was leaning out of her third story window overlooking the main square, we were directed to the local Maire and were told to try our luck at the local campsite. It was at this point that we were able to flag down a passing bus which stopped for us in the middle of the street and was going to the nearest city. It was pure luck as they had recently changed the schedules so this bus was running with no formal number or timetable! The driver was very kind and told us of several places we could try and even offered to wait for us and take us back if we couldn't find anything. We found some rooms above a bar/restaurant and the locals were keen to find out if we had seen any of the sights. The patron interrupted our replies to explain that walkers and cyclists aren't interested in sightseeing or having fun, they just want to get from A to B as quickly as possible. I have to say there is something in that - anything that is more that a 30 minute round trip off route doesn't really get a look in. "What's that? The Eiffel Tower you say... Listen, it's just too far away and I bet it looks just like the one in Blackpool".

From Chateau Salins, an early start allowed us to have a good look around Vic-sur-Seille with its 15th century mint (or money house) and its old fort. From there the next significant landmark was Marsal, an old Salt town - where salt was extracted from underground and collected in huge salt pans to be seperated from the water - but which became one of many military garisons to be designed by Vauban. An imposing gateway now marks the entrance to the town. Thereafter, the walking was pretty dull before reaching Chateau Alteville and the start of the lakes.

Chateau Alteville was perhaps the highlight of the fortnight in the Lorraine. I had chosen to stop there as it was the only place that one of my guidebooks explicitly recommended staying in along the whole of the GR5 route. It is a big country house and working farm built by a salt baron and then owned by one of Napoleon's generals before passing to the current family for three generations. It is run as a Chambre Chateau where each room is furnished with antique furniture and wallpaper. We knew we were staying somewhere a bit different when we were told to relax and take a stroll around the park - not garden - before dinner. We chose to take demi-pension (room-dinner-breakfast) and it was a very civilised affair. It was the sort of place where people dressed for dinner. Our fellow guests in shirt and trousers whilst I was wearing my one shirt but I did go to the special effort of spraying my feet to try to lessen the smell. We all met for apéritifs in the drawing room before a four course meal, wine, coffee and a digestif. The owners were excellent hosts, knowledgeable about the local area and its history. I even got to understand the rules to billiards and to have a go myself.

The following day was spent cutting across fields, through small villages (hardly more than a few houses with large barns grouped together) and walking past numerous lakes with people enjoying various watersports before following the canal to the village of Gondraxange. Once again finding somewhere to stay was looking difficult until the campsite owner put us up on camp beds in the community sports hall. Having sorted out that headache, I was free to join the other 50 or so people who were ignoring the "swimming is banned... and dangerous" sign for an evening dip.

The final day in the Lorraine Valley was spent steadily approaching the Vosges mountains which were looming on the horizon. We past through St Quirin, a lively tourist town that has existed since Roman times and used to attract pilgrims as its waters were known for curing skin diseases. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to see what they could do for my feet as we had to move on, and we were given a short taste of the mountains to come with the climb to Abreschviller. Having found our lodgings in a converted watermill, we were free to set off for a few drinks to celebrate completing another section of the GR5.

I found my time in the Lorraine Valley to be an enjoyable one even though it isn't the best place to go walking in France. The area doesn't really have the infrastructure that walkers need and its is the sort of place where it is better to bike or take a car - that's to say that there are nice views and interesting sights, it's just that the three hours or so you spend walking between them in the heat is just too much. That said the Lorraine Valley has a lot to offer - wild flowers seemed to border every field and road, each small village and town is a "ville fleuriale" with flowers everywhere and almost everyone has a small vegetable patch; Small birds (swallows?) fly overhead into the dilapidated barns and farm buildings where they seem to be nesting and it is possible to see the odd deer. Fruit trees grow everywhere so there was no need to buy anything on route - just stop off now and again to pick up an apple, pear, plum or the countless blackberries that grow in the hedgerows.

The best part of the journey, however, was definitely the interesting people I was able to meet. There is an idea that people get more friendly the further away you are from the major cities and tourist centres. I think there may be something in this as the GR5 passes through some real rural backwaters but the people were almost always friendly, curious and encouraging.

Due to the hot weather and sometimes relentless nature of the walking, we frequently stopped off in the local cafés or PMU bars (the PMU is a great place to indulge in many vices - drinking, smoking, gambling - under one roof) to get a drink, refill our water bottles or ask for the bus timetables. More often than not, we would start chatting with the owner and the regulars, who were keen to know where we were from and what we were doing in their part of the world. The answer "walking to Nice" would often get people shaking their heads but they would always wish us "bon courage" or "bonne chance" before we left. Perhaps the best illustration of this was when we met and elderly couple one morning - despite one of them having a walking stick they were still going to do a two hour promenade - and I told them what I was up to. The reaction - "Nice?" "A pieds?" "Non!" - perhaps best encapsulates the view of me being an eccentric Englishman abroad. In fact, I am the first Englishman that many people have met this year walking the GR5 - although there have been plenty of Dutch (naturally) and other nationalities - which feels good even though it is a complete irrelevance.

The one exception to the warm welcome we received, was a brief encounter with the Gendarmerie (Police). Whilst waiting for the bus one morning at the main bus station in Metz, a car pulled over and two officers asked to see our papers. Being naturally difficult, and having a vague recollection that the Police should at least have a suspicion of some crime being committed before stopping someone, I asked why. The response in true Hollywood bad guy voices - "Because WE ARE the Police" - was sufficient for me to forget about civil liberties and show them my passport. I figured that they wouldn't hesitate to put me in a cell for most of the day and I wouldn't get very far in such an instance. Still, it's good to know that some people are prepared to stand up for their rights (if not me).

The next blog, when I finally post it, will be for the Vosges and the Alsace.

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19th April 2011

Hello Matthew, I normally don' t read blogs, but after googling GR5 Lorraine, I made an exception and I don' t regret it. Next week my wife and I will continue our walk to Nice starting at the border of Luxemburg and probably till somewhere between Metz and Nancy. I don't know when you wrote this, maybe you already arrived in Nice, but if not: enjoy! That's what we will do also. Jo and Loes, also from Belgium

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