France on Foot WHY WALK?
by Bruce LeFavour
Walking through the French countryside on your vacation is like lingering over a leisurely feast, the equivalent of the best meal of your life. In contrast, driving through France is a ten-minute gobble in a fast-food joint, speedy but not very satisfying.
Everyone has a personal vision of the ideal vacation. Before I knew better, mine included traveling in France by car, but after three years of vehicle-centered leaves and passes from the army while I was stationed there during the early 1960s, I came to dislike such holidays. After only two or three days on the road, I'd find myself bloated from a combination of too much rich food and no exercise, bored with kilometer after kilometer of driving and annoyed that much of what was important--the small villages, the people--was going by too fast, a blur on the bug-splotched windshield.
Once free of Uncle Sam, my solution was to bicycle through France whenever I could take time off from my career as a chef. This slower method of transportation was far superior to the automobile because- bingo!--it introduced me to the fact that exercise could be combined with self-indulgence. I didn't camp out. Instead I stayed in hotels. I drank my share of wine. I ate well and, when I could afford it, very well. And most important, I was exposing myself to the details--people, smells, sounds--of what lay between my destinations.
Ultimately, however, bicycling itself became unsatisfactory. I was covering only thirty to seventy miles a day, but that was still too fast. Also, as France prospered over the years, traffic, even on the secondary roads, increased dramatically, and pedaling became more and more dangerous. That's when I discovered that it was possible to walk, and when I did, I made sure to port over the proper attitude. No camping gear, no cooking out. I was still in France to enjoy what that culture had to offer and now, walking, I was just doing it a bit more slowly and a bit more thoroughly than before. By necessity I was paying even more attention to the details and I found the experience delightful.
All fine and good, but here you could be forgiven some confusion and a question: How is it possible to spend a vacation walking in France?
It's easy enough to imagine the English out on a long-distance walk, clomping along in heavy leather hiking boots, wearing tweed over bulky wool sweaters and carrying droopy old-fashioned canvas packs. This is simply a crude caricature of what we picture the English to be. But the French? Walking? Such an idea doesn't fit our stereotype at all. But as unlikely as it may seem, France even more than England is a walker's paradise: France, only three times England's size, has more than eight times the mileage of public footpaths. These are not just secondary roads cobbled together and called trails but real paths, dirt tracks passing through forests, vineyards, gardens and fields, that are well marked, well mapped and open to anyone who has both the knowledge and the determination to use them.
And once you decide to walk in France you'll do it on your own. Many people dislike joining a group to travel, but at the same time they are at a loss about how to plan and then take a trip independently, particularly when it involves more than just driving around the countryside in that moving isolation booth, a car. There are some activities--trekking in Bhutan, scuba diving in the Solomon Islands, visiting Antarctica--that, if you are to do them at all, absolutely require that you use an adventure travel company, but setting off with a few friends or with your family to walk cross-country in France is not one of them. There's no need to walk with a tour guide and a group of strangers; you can do it on your own with the people you choose.
But, let's get one thing straight. As I have already hinted, walking in France is not backpacking in France. Walking, as I define it, means sleeping in a hotel bed, not in a sleeping bag on the ground. Walking means dining in restaurants, not downing freeze-dried dinners around a smoky fire. Walking means stopping in a sidewalk café for a cold draft beer, not drinking tepid water from a canteen. Yes, like a backpacker you will carry a pack with all your clothes, your books and whatever else you need to live comfortably, but unlike that backpacker you will not carry food, cooking pots or camping gear. And by choosing your clothes and accessories carefully, you can reduce the weight of your pack to a very comfortable minimum yet still carry everything you'll need for even weeks of independent travel.
Walking is to backpacking as strolling on the beach is to running a marathon; both involve physical exercise, but the one is a leisurely, often social experience while the other is a punishing personal challenge, individual and intense. Put another way, walking in France is a glass of good wine while backpacking is a tumbler of ice water. Cold water is good for you and all that, but in this book we are definitely talking wine. After all, it is your vacation.
There are other reasons to walk in France beside the desire to experience the countryside more slowly.
Though some might be embarrassed to acknowledge the fact, the most basic is that the very idea of walking cross-country from one town to the next and then on to another is romantic and enthralling. At some very primitive level transporting oneself over long distances on foot--a return to much simpler times--appeals to an important part of our psyche. To walk from Paris to Avignon is a dream of mine that may never be realized. Yet, whenever I envision that adventure, the picture in my head unfailingly sets fire to my imagination and, as dreams do, sustains my spirit.
More practically, my wife Faith, whose successful career as a photographer demands that she spend a great deal of time on the phone and on the road, says that the main reasons to take a walking vacation can be put very simply: "No phone, no fax, no car!"
But even though these other reasons are compelling, the best reason to walk is still the fact that doing so makes the traveler slow down. This was forcefully brought home to me by a young Australian bicyclist whom my wife and I met in 1989 as we were setting off on a day hike up the Fillière Valley near Annecy in the French Alps. We and the bicyclist were outside the same small grocery store packing away picnics--reblochon cheese, ham and bread--when, hearing our English, he initiated a conversation.
It turned out that he was on his way around the world and had already been on the road for a year and a half. During that time he'd pedaled as much as was physically and politically possible from Australia through Southeast Asia, the Middle East and into Europe. After I remarked enviously what an interesting experience his trip must have been, he agreed that it had been that and more but then added that he had one regret, that he was not walking.
"Traveling by bicycle is just too fast," he said. Walking, he believed, dictates just the right pace, a pace that allows the traveler to become intimately involved with the country and, not incidentally, to meet more of the local people along the way.
"If only I had the time!" was his lament.
A walk in France is slow, and that is its glory. The pace forces the person on foot to notice not just the broad outlines but also the details: the formality and weed-free neatness of the backyard vegetable plots with leeks and carrots spaced just so, the bewildering variety of wildflowers in the fields, the eerie stillness of rural villages at midday and the newly planted field with a dead crow strung by its feet from the top of a pole as a warning to its brothers (a real scarecrow). You hear the joyful chaos of sound from a schoolyard at recess time and you not only see the color but also smell the knock-you-down perfume from a blooming hedge of lilacs. The foot traveler is not an isolated spectator but a participant, sensually as well as intellectually involved in the events of the moment.
Arriving at five in the afternoon in a small village that on the surface seems almost lifeless, the person on foot doesn't have the option of speeding onward in a car to another perhaps more exciting town or city. Instead, the walker must settle in and make do.
But those who remain open and curious will, more often than not, find hidden delights. Perhaps a huge, almost swimmable claw-foot bathtub in the bathroom off a spacious and comfortable room up under the eaves, the walls decorated with blue and white toile but somehow right in spite of that fact. Or a friendly café with an intense, pastis-fueled pétanque game in the dirt outside the front door. Or a small Romanesque church on the village square with primitive but moving wood carvings and a nicely proportioned apse. Maybe even the surprise of a simple but well-prepared meal in a rustic dining room that, if the truth were told, was better than the expensive but disappointing dinner eaten at a fancy restaurant the night before.
The leisurely pace of a walk in France doesn't permit the foot traveler to bounce frenetically like the traditional visitor from monument to monument, restaurant to restaurant and sight to site. Because you are circumscribed physically by the limited number of miles you can cover in a day, you are liberated from the dictatorial must-dos, must-sees and must-eats of the guidebooks.
With only a tentative itinerary and a schedule at the mercy of the weather, you have only one decision to make each morning: how far do you wish to walk? All the rest, all the other happenings of your day flow naturally and inevitably from that, leaving you free to appreciate and absorb whatever comes your way. You are carefree.
Paradoxically then, to walk in France is to relax in the true sense of the word.
From France on Foot, by Bruce Lefavour. Photographs by Faith Echtermeyer. Copyright © 1999 by Bruce Lefavour. Excerpted by arrangement with Bruce Lefavour. $24.95. Available in local bookstores, or call 800-888-4741, or click here.