GR 5

Years ago while in Zurich I picked up a book about two women who hiked the GR5 from Hock von Holland to Nice.  The pages are falling out as I have read it and re-read it numerous times.  These two women opened my world to inn-to-inn hiking on a GR (grand randonee) route.  While most GR routes are in France, when they traverse more than one country they become E-routes or European routes.  The GR5 is also known as part of  the E2.

The two women began their hike in the spring in Holland and made their way south in time for the summer season in the Alps.  While I was intrigued with the hiking, what interested me even more was the food and lodging, the sense of place.  I loved hearing what was for breakfast and how it changed as they went from country to country.  I loved the little hotels with the timed lights and bathrooms down the hall.  I loved the local cheeses and wines.  These were the things that would continue to draw me down the trail for years to come.

My first adventure on the GR5 came as a result of the foot and mouth epidemic in England.  Those trails were closed so that spring we ventured across the channel to Holland and began our first really long, long-distance trail.  We weren’t sure how we’d hike it so we didn’t book the lodging, opting to gather information and book it as we went.  This was a good idea and the pattern used today.  We found interesting places by using the local tourist offices and accommodation guides.  If we wanted to move ahead or take a day off, we weren’t locked into the lodging.

We have hiked most of the trail from Holland to Nyon in Switzerland with the exception of some of the pavement days in Holland and Flanders.  We enjoyed spending time in both of those places, but we didn’t want to spend our whole trip on this kind of terrain.  Once at Liege, the route became more of a mountain path.

The GR5 introduced David and I to places we never would have considered.  I had never thought of hiking in Holland or Luxembourg.   We were so enthralled with the Vosges Mountains in Alsace and the  Juras on the border between France and Switzerland that we’ve returned over and over.  We’ve gone back and hiked shorter GR routes in the same area such as the GR53 in Alsace.

In the fall we do a guided trip in Alsace and on the fourth day we walk on the GR5.  It’s always like visiting an old friend.

Here is a brief description of the trail by country as far as Nyon, Switzlerand.

Holland– While well-known for biking, few hikers find themselves in Holland.  Although tracks and pavement were not my favorite terrain,  hiking on the dykes and through the small towns along the canals was super cool.   We decided to hike about 4 days, then took the bus ahead into Flanders.  I have to mentioned that the Dutch were some of the nicest and most helpful people we’ve ever met.  We quickly learned that all we had to do was pull out the map, look perplexed and someone came running.  One older couple gave us their phone number and told us emphatically that if we got into trouble, we were to give them a call.

Flanders (Belgium)– This was probably the least interesting part of the trail since the terrain was flat with lots of pavement and the area was more urban.  Having said that, I enjoyed the days we spent here.  I especially enjoyed the subtle change from hiking near the sea then turning inland to the smells of freshly mown grass and dirt.   We enjoyed our lodging stops primarily because as walkers we were such a novelty.  Everyone was so nice to us.  This leg of the journey prepares you for what is ahead with a gradual change from flat fields to gentle rolling hills.

Wallonia (Belgium)– The northern area of Belgium, Flanders,  speaks Flemish, while the southern part of the country, Wallonia, speaks french.  The line is drawn near Liege, a beautiful European city with sidewalk cafes and beautiful shops.  From here south, the trail becomes hilly.  If you’re a WWII history buff, you’ll love Wallonia, home to the Ardennes.  Village greens have Sherman tanks and almost always display a sign with the names of American service men from WWII.  The American War Museum at Bastion is worth a day or two.  With this theme in mind, this section of the GR5 is worthy of a trip by itself.

Luxembourg– At some point the GR5 turns slightly east then south running along the Moselle and the border with Germany.  For days you hike in the tiny country of Luxembourg, a place full of old-world charm.  The trail here  is different from any place else.  It meanders through woods and onto forested cliffs with bright green moss-covered rocks.  Below the town of Echternach the trail travels through the steep white wine vineyards.  Barges float on the Moselle River below.  This was another one those “not often visited places” for walkers.

Loraine (France):  The GR5 continues south for a couple of days from Echternach before leaving the river and heading east.  A couple of walking days later there is a sign “TURN LEFT FOR FRANCE.”  Any trail of length is going to have a few days of connecting trail to get from one interesting  place to another.  These are usually  more urban areas, even industrial.  If you have the time, they can be interesting in that you have an open book into the economy and way of life in a country far apart from the normal tourist.  Accommodations can be sparse.  The long-distance walker will need to learn the advantages of the local bus.

Alsace (France)– The GR5 enters France in Lorraine and heads south.  It then turns east and travels several days across wide open farmland.  The walker is being lured, for in the distance is the blue outline of the Vosges Mountains.  Here the walker enters a new world.  First, it is the world of tourist amenities.  Lodging is nicer, Magnum Bars more plentiful.  On the eastern side of the Vosges is Alsace.  While Alsace has been linked with Lorraine due to both being under German occupation, the two areas couldn’t be more different.  Lorraine is thoroughly french while Alsace is a blended culture, maybe the best of both.  In the middle of the Vosges are the medieval vineyard towns with cobble-stoned streets and brightly colored half-timbered buildings.  It’s higgily-piggily nature gives the aura of a childhood storybook.  It has become one of my favorite places in the world.

Jura (France)– The GR5 exits the Vosges Mountains and continues across a rolling plain known as the Belfort Gap.  It then enters the Jura Mountains.  The Juras are a tilted upland that rise abruptly from Switzerland then slant gently into France.  The high plateaus are cut through with deep rivers.  You’ll find fly-fishing, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing here.  The people are an independent breed.  I once made the mistake of calling a Jura cheese, Munster, which is Alsacian.  “No, no Munster!!”   The woman practically slapped my hand.  The hiking along the river at the beginning is difficult on the river rock sections, but it is so unique.  I especially loved the lower section into the small ski towns which were more like old farm towns with a few hotels.  There is no pretense in the Juras.  This fact alone made me go back and hike it again.