The windmills of Holland, the WW II battlefields of Belgium, the vineyards of France, and the highest peaks of western Europe: These are just a few of the attractions of the GR-5, which runs from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. “GR,” or “Grande Randonee” means “Great Hike” in French, an apt description for a trail that traverses Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, with short detours into Switzerland and Italy.
The Low Countries: Hiking the GR-5 in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg
The Dutch section of the trail is, in a word, flat. Much of the route is through settled suburbs and farmland, with pleasant, easy hiking across beaches and parkland, making this a better choice for walkers more interested in culture and towns than in wilderness. Although many urban Dutch people are fluent in English, rural residents are less likely to speak English, and a phrasebook comes in handy.
|GR 5 in Belgium|
Belgium is divided into Flanders, which is the Dutch (or Flemish) speaking side, and Wallonie, the French-speaking side. Many Belgians speak English as a second language. The terrain in Flanders is hillier than in the Netherlands, and has a more rural feel. The route passes a number of World War I and II battlefields, including some bunkers. Every village has a war memorial listing the names of the dead. History buffs should explore some of the local museums. The route becomes even more rural in Wallonie, where the hills get bigger, and more of the trail winds through forests and fields.
Luxembourg is a compressed country with an astonishing variety of landscapes, from World War II battlefields, medieval castles, sunny vineyards, and bucolic farms. There is a section of limestone cliffs and ravines that have earned the name Little Switzerland. Tails are well-maintained and marked. In the trailside towns, hikers will find interesting side trips to museums and monuments, and a cuisine that combines French style with German heft.
Hiking the GR-5 in France, Switzerland, and Italy
In France, walkers follow the GR-5 through Lorraine, Alsace, the High Alps, and the Maritime Alps. It occasionally darts into Switzerland and Italy.
In Lorraine, the GR-5 alternates between forests and heavily settled areas with a gritty working class feel. This was, after all, the heavily industrialized region of France coveted by Hitler, and the trail actually passes the fortifications of the historic Maginot Line. Residents are friendly to Americans, especially the elderly, who are happy to share family stories of World War II.
|The GR 5 in the French Vosges Mountains|
Next door, Alsace is more attractive to tourists with its riverside vineyards, pretty villages, and the Vosges Mountains. This region has a long history of merged France-Germanic culture; a side visit to Strasbourg is a must, as is a much more sobering visit to the Stuthof Nazi concentration camp, which is right along the trail.
After traversing the Vosges, the trail follows the the Swiss-French border near Lake Geneva. Hikers cross the lake by ferry and ascend into Switzerland for a few days. The trail then returns to France and skirts Mt. Blanc, the highest peak in western Europe. In the high Alps, hikers enjoy generally mild weather (although it can snow, even in summer) and a system of high country refuges that provides lodging and family-style meals. Walking south along the Italian border into the drier, starker Maritime Alps, hikers see scenery that combines Alpine drama with Mediterranean vegetation. Best of all, the crowds are thinner here than in the High Alps to the North.
The GR-5 can be hiked in its entirety in three to four months, depending on your hiking speed and your interest in exploring the small towns along the route. Or it can be broken into shorter journeys. It is well-blazed for its entire length, and described and mapped in a series of topoguides, some of which are available in English.