GR49 - narrative

GR49: the first GR sign, in St Raphael The GR49 (Grande Randonnée 49) is a long distance walking path from St-Raphaël on the Côte d'Azur to Rougon near the Gorge du Verdon. If you like the idea of a linear walk, continuing from place to place, this is good for having lovely views, tasty French cooking, and being a manageable length - 6 days. This is one of the shorter GRs, and so it is easy to do the whole thing, which is pleasing.

It passes through a nice variety of countryside, from the big city start, through charming villages, to Europe's largest and most dramatic Gorge. Doing it in Spring was lovely (warm days and cool evenings), as some parts were lush and green, while others were more arid. The seasons changed depending on how high we were.

DAY 1: GR49: path above St-Raphael Knowing in advance that there was nowhere for lunch, we bought a picnic from one of the many good boulangeries on the road out of town. Leaving the St-Raphaël suburbs took surprisingly little time, and we were soon among the limestone hills, with rolling views.

The cistus and lavender bushes were being pollinated by the bees, and there were several splendid yellow butterflies. There was a pleasing variety of trees, including pine, holm oak and eucalyptus.

The walk was on a mixture of rocky paths, open tracks and balcony paths. Crossing the A8 wasn't as bad as you might imagine from the map, and there was a pretty lake just the other side. With the detour to a hotel in Bagnols-en-Forêt, it made for quite a long first day, and the final bit was rather tedious. (Actually, using the 1:25000 map we found a shortcut into town. The path was lovely but there were lots of 'Beware of the Dog' notices, and the overall effect was rather creepy. However, it came out just by our hotel.)

Vociferous frog lake
DAY 2: As we had left the GR49, we had to find our way back without paint; occasionally we had some trouble in the woods, and the map seemed less accurate! With the benefit of hindsight, it might have been better to use the minor roads.

However, we passed a wonderful little lake, positively teeming with noisy frogs, so I named it the vociferous frogs lake. As it was a hilly area, it was not so dry as yesterday, and some bits were quite like English meadows, with lush grasses and daisies. There were more buildings, and the cork trees in the forests were new.

GR49: Mons boulangerie DAY 3: The weather changed, the cloud was low, and it drizzled on and off all day. There were thick pine forests, which allowed us only occasional views of the big ravine along to the source of la Siagnole. The lack of a good picnic spot was redeemed by having bought earlier a delicious frommage chèvre for lunch.

The long climb up to Mons was also in the cloud, but Mons itself turned out to be a delightful hill village. Shopping there took a long time because of all the 'bonjour Monsieur, bonjour Madame' greeting that took place whenever anyone came or went. Delightful if you're not in a hurry, which we weren't.

DAY 4: Again preparing lunch in advance, we found some nice quiche lorraine and courgette flan at the Mons boulangerie, and then set off on the first climb, up to a big plateau.

The longest climb of the day was after lunch. More rain made the trail finding harder, and the cloud blanked out the views. It was winter up there, even with some snow at the top. We enjoyed it more when we got back down among the spring meadows. I hadn't found anywhere to stay in La Bastide, so we went 2 kilometers to the south, to Le Coq en Pâte in La Roque-Esclapon; it was shut when we arrived, so we waited under shelter, but it turned out to be a very friendly pub-like place, frequented by the locals, with very good pizza cooked in a wood oven.

GR49: view back along la Siagnole
DAY 5: This was the longest day - 20 kilometres. But route finding was easy, and we were encouraged by a beautiful sunny morning and great views. We indulged ourselves at the nice cafés in La Bastide and Bargème before getting out onto the woodland paths and pretty countryside. At one point a wild boar had nested near the path, and ran away when we appeared, followed by its four tiny piglets.

The weather changed after lunch and we did a long climb through heavy rain. Having crossed the River Jabron, we were near huge limestone crags, with a delightful variety of countryside. The storm cleared and we had sun in the late afternoon, walking along the river under the citadel town of Trigance. Up the hill, in town, there were fine views of the valley below. We stayed at Le Vieil Amandier. Both it and the village had a slightly pretentious atmosphere, and it was our least favourite place; however, we bought cheese and wine and had a very convivial evening.

GR49: morning clouds, looking back to Tourrettes DAY 6: At only 9 kilometres, this was a relatively short day, but quite a tough walk. With the variable weather so far, we were slightly worried by the mist in the valley first thing; however it burnt off and turned into a clear, sunny morning. We walked up through the old village, enjoying the stone houses set in narrow alleys, and the occasional water well. Clear views showed us that the countryside was growing grander. After going over the top to the next valley, there was a long walk down through pine trees and spring flowers: violets and primroses, plus a few lizards sneaking in and out of the vegetation. Even though the leaves were that lovely fresh green while just budding, they were too thick for us to get proper views.

Finally we got down to the Pont de Tusset and the rushing chalky turquoise River Verdon. Then it was a long climb up to the Point Sublime in the heat of the day. The Auberge at the Point Sublime is a nice, friendly place, with delicious home made ice cream and florentins, a great place to relax and celebrate the effective end of the walk.

GR49: river and Gorge du Verdon DAY 7: Having come this far, we wanted to do the Sentier Martel through the gorge - it's a highlight of the walk. It's a very popular path, and even on a week day in April there were plenty of other walkers. We shared a taxi with others from the Auberge, to Le Chalet de la Maline. The morning had started sunny, but gradually more cloud appeared as we climbed down to the river, with its now familiar gushing cloudy turquoise torrent. We were deep among the dramatic and spectacular cliffs. There was a nice variety in the day, sometimes ambling by the river, enjoying blossoms and light green young leaves, and sometimes clambering the hillside, deep in the cleft below the crags. Near the end, the path goes through two tunnels (yes, it's definitely worth bringing a torch), with the second one being 600 meters long. We had some rain, but it was a beautiful bright evening to finish - a lovely day. And back to the Auberge again.

At the top, on the GR4, above Castellane DAY 8: As there wasn't a bus when we were there, we walked from Point Sublime to Castellane, along the GR4. It was a satisfying end to the walk, with great open views, a nice contrast to the enclosed Gorge. Despite a cloudy start to the morning, it had burnt off when we set out. There was a steep climb to Rougon, the official end of the GR49.

After coffee there with a fabulous view over the town below, it was on up again, with another tough climb to a broad plateau at the top, which might be sheep summer pastures.

We took a wrong turn when distracted by a pretty shepherd's cottage; it was just after a col, and we should have looked harder for the next paint flash, on a tree ahead. Once we refound the route, there was then a long amble above the next valley. The big loops of the balcony paths followed the curves of the mountains. It was a dark afternoon, but we had no rain. The long slow descent through grand scenery eventually joined a rural road into Castellane. This was a nice unpretentious town focused on river and mountain activities. There are quite a few little hotels round the central square.

There's a daily bus from Castellane to Nice; however it left rather late for us, so we got a taxi to St-André-les-Alpes, which is a sweet 1950s station, and took the rattly little Train des Pignes into Nice, and walked round the old town.

Even with variable weather, we enjoyed the walk a lot. The pretty countryside, the atmospheric old hill villages, and the pleasantness of French culture and cuisine all made for a good holiday and worthwhile journey.

© 2010 Diana Ambache