The scenery is a knockout.

The scenery is a knockout.

I think I’ve now spent more time walking in the French Alps than any other place in the world, even including the hiking I’ve done in Australia and New Zealand.

This year’s leg was six days hiking the GR5 and its variants between St Paul sur l’Ubaye and St Martin de Vesubie.

It’s still an annual highlight of my life to spend a week in the mountains with my Dutch friends.

Here’s why I keep going back there:

(1) The scenery

The French Alps have an enormous variety of landscape, from rolling farmland, dense forests, and rocky snow-capped peaks.



(2) It’s challenging but achieveable

We’re not getting any younger, and when the daily walking poked up over seven hours with climbs and descents of 1500 metres each day the knees felt it. But the fitness level built through the week and the pain subsided.

Significantly, most of the people we see hiking here are active 50 plussers, nearly all of them French. Those wimpy kids are doing it on mountain bikes.

Slogging through soft snow is hard work, but safe.

Slogging through soft snow is hard work, but safe at this time of year.

(3) The accommodation

We stay in a mixture of refuges, gites d’etappe and auberges, usually with shared facilities, rough but charming. (Thanks, Marga, for booking all the accommodation.) Food is hearty mountain fare, with beer and vin available. The cost of demi-pension (bed, breakfast and dinner) is usually between 35 and 40 euros a night.

Inevitably we meet other hikers and sometimes spend a few days walking together. Thanks, Gerben and Ineke for the company during the week.

Dinner in La Vacherie - an old cow shed converted to  a hikers' refuge.

Dinner in La Vacherie – an old cow shed converted to a hikers’ refuge.

(4) The lunches

We pick up excellent bread, cheese and saucissons in the villages we pass through every couple of days, to supplement the nuts and fruit we’ve brought with us from Holland. We normally have time to pick an attractive spot on the grass for an extended dejeuner.

Dejeuner sur l'Herbe.

Dejeuner sur l’Herbe.

(5) The villages

We love the French mountain villages with their picturesque church steeples, narrow alleyways and sleepy town squares.

St Martin du Vesubie

St Martin du Vesubie

(6) The trail marking

Getting lost on the GR5 is seldom a problem. We follow the red and white markers on rocks and trees beside the trail. But it also helps to have Klamie and Kees with their maps and guidebooks. Thanks, gentlemen, for the expert route planning and the navigation!

Navigation on the GR5 is seldom a problem.

This way!

(7) The logistics

Some villages on the GR5 have train stations, but most do not. There is usually a bus that comes along some time, with time for a cafe as we wait for it.

There may be a wait for a bus, but it will come eventually. Meanwhile, look cool.

There may be a wait for a bus, but it will come eventually. Meanwhile, look cool.

(8) The locals

If you thought French people were arrogant and unfriendly, especially to those of us with limited language skills, a week in the Alps would change your mind. Yes, we were lucky to have our French amie Agnes to do the serious talking, but everybody is made to feel welcome. Merci!

Milking the goats at la Vacherie

Milking the goats at la Vacherie

(9) The final destination

This time it was Nice. Always nice.

Pizza and beer in a Nice cafe.

Pizza and beer in a Nice cafe.

(10) The company.

As with any travel, it’s the people you meet. And the ones you spend time with. Thanks to the team, and also to those of our regular members who sadly weren’t able to make it this year. We missed you!

Thanks, Peter, Sonja, Klamie, Bert, Agnes and Kees!

Thanks, Peter, Sonja, Klamie, Bert, Agnes and Kees!


Filed under France, Hiking


  1. steven

    Great post! Great effort!

  2. Fantastic. What a great annual event you have established. Envious indeed!

  3. Agnès

    Wat een leuk verslag weer Richard!
    The french amie, Agnès

  4. Fabulous post! I was thinking of going to the French Alps this year to work in one of the ski resorts. Do you have any suggestions?

    • We liked Pralognon in the Parc de la Vanoise – an old-fashioned ski village. Serious skiers may prefer Espace Killy (?) at Val de Tignes. It’s much more modern, though it rather ruins the environment for us summer hikers.

  5. Were we hiking the Alps at the exact same time? Next year we should co-ordinate a little better, Richard, and see if our paths cross at one of the refuges. Great report, great pictures!

  6. Sounds delightful, Richard, but rather hard work for someone of my advanced years! These days I limit myself to reading about other people’s adventures and when I walk I go to local parks, walkways or the beach. I’ve lost my nerve a bit after having got lost while on a 4 hour hike up Mt Samson….we inadvertently wandered off into the never-never which is the D’Aguilar Ranges. The SES was just about to put the heat-seeking helicopter into the air the next morning when news arrived that we’d been found. Scary stuff! (Thinks….should write a post about it!)

    You’re right about the French…….. In my experience, once they realize you’re not from England they are very warm and friendly. My first comment to them was always ‘Je suis australienne’.
    Thanks for the lovely photos too…..they .brought back lots of happy memories.

    • It is great, bm, and sometimes tough walking. Though there are also places where people can walk or drive into the National Parks (Mercantour in this case) and do day walks.

      Yes, you should blog about your Mt Samson adventure – bad news is a good story and it’s a happy Hollywood ending when there’s some heat for the chopper to seek.

  7. Last August my dad and I did Tour de Vanoise and loved it. Very similar to what your describe in this post. Have you done that hike yet? If not I have it all on my blog.

  8. Well done on another epic mountain trek! Stunning photos.

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