Many thanks to John and Paddy at Word on the Water, Alexander Fyjis-Walker and Anais Métais at Pallas Athene and to my lovely family, friends and readers for making this launch such an enjoyable happy occasion!
What is a GR route? French footpath signs (hiking trails) explained
It took me years to understand the logic of French footpath signs, finally resolved by attending a weekend course for baliseurs, the volunteers who actually paint the signs. You can read more about this fascinating experience inThe Nature of the French. The most revealing thing I learned was that the signs are meant to be discreet. Practical usefulness is all very well, I was told, but aestheticism is more important. Not all French walkers agree. A helpful French website explaining how not to get lost when following the signs is http://www.randonner-malin.com/le-balisage-en-randonnee-ce-que-vous-devez-savoir/
The footpath signs were created by the FFRP (Féderation Française de la Randonnée Pedestre, https://www.ffrandonnee.fr/), the equivalent of the Ramblers’ Association in the UK or the American Hiking Society in the US. Their volunteers are responsible for maintaining the system of letters and coloured markings which help you find your way across country. These waymarked footpaths are shown in red on the IGN (Institut Géographique National) large-scale maps.
On the ground the red and white or yellow markings are deliberately rather discreet, usually painted at eye level on a tree or lamp-post. However, once you start looking for them you will notice them everywhere, including central Paris. It is generally a good idea to follow the FFRP paths, which avoid busy roads as far as possible, sometimes leading to an unsuspected underpass or taking you through a pretty wood.
Footpaths are classified as follows:
GR (Grande Randonnée): Major footpath crossing several regions. Red and white stripe.
GRP (Grande Randonnée de Pays): Major footpath circling an entire region. Red and yellow stripe.
PR (Promenade et Randonnée): Shorter circular routes taking one to eight hours. Yellow stripe.
Two horizontal stripes mean you are on the right path, a horizontal stripe above a right or left angle means turn right or left at the next fork and a horizontal cross means you will stray off the path if you take this route. More unusually, two horizontal stripes with a vertical line through them indicate that the path is a diverticule, a waymarked deviation from the main one.
I’m in the process of revising 10 new daytrips less than 30 minutes from Paris by train to be called Half An Hour From Paris.
As the name implies, La Ferté sous Jouarre is actually two small towns. La Ferté is in the Marne valley and Jouarre is on a hill about 3 km away. Above is a photo of Martine (standing), the 68-year-old owner of the café Chez Martine in La Ferté. She tells me she is thinking of retiring in two years as she runs it single-handed. We sympathise – it’s an all too familiar story – and then go on to road test my directions for the country walk to Jouarre.
It seems much quicker than when I first did it, as I now know exactly where I am going. There is no need to revisit the Merovingian crypt at Jouarre as I have already photographed it. There is a cloudburst while we are there so we shelter in the deserted giftshop of the Benedictine abbey, the only place which seems to be open, and I end up buying two tiny handmade cards decorated with pressed flowers. Also, some home-made local fruit jellies which are so delicious that we finish the lot. The old nun at the till, on hearing we are about to walk back to La Ferté in the rain, says ‘Quel courage!’ My friend, being Scottish, looks up at the murky grey skies and says ‘It’s clearing up’ and sure enough, after a few minutes the sun comes out and the countryside beneath us is bathed in sparkling light.
We are almost back at La Ferté when I see from the map that there is a promising detour along the Petit Morin river to where it joins the River Marne, which we don’t have time to try out. There is also a protected wood on the other side of the station which I have decided to exclude from the book, as it looks as if a ramble there might take all day and the Merovingian crypt is the point of the visit. But it’s an excellent reason to go back for the fun of it – and to test out that little detour before I draw my map.