The cloud was below us, flat opaque and completely obscuring Gavarnie. The setting sun was sending almost horizontal shafts of light across the valley, creating pinkish silhouettes of the mountains to the west. The only sounds were the sheep bleating and their bells tinkling softly.
France is probably the best organised country in Europe for long-distance footpaths (Grandes Randonnees); and for mountain huts that enable the trekker to walk for days on high trails without having to rely on the valleys for food and accommodation. And, France being France, it comes as little surprise that the quality of the food in the huts, though variable, is generally very good.
Besides the luxury of a four-course meal at the end of a hard day's slog over peak and mountain pass, the attraction of the high trails are many: pausing to rest and identify distant mountains; walking on the balcon sentiers and watching the birds and small planes flying below; seeing and smelling the profusions of wild flowers that grow on the high green meadows; listening to the wind and the water of streams; and watching the sun setting across the peaks.
France's best-known Grandes Randonnees are in the mountains: GR5 runs from Holland to the Mediterranean and has a superb mountainous section from Geneva to Nice; GR10 traverses the Pyrenees from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic; GR20 crosses Corsica; GR54 (Tour D'Oisans), GR55 and GR58 are circular tours in the Ecrins, Vanoise and Queyras National Parks respectively. But perhaps the most famous of all, the Tour of Mont Blanc, has no GR number.
The accommodation is largely in gtes in the valleys or in mountain huts run mainly by the Club Alpine Francais (CAF). They vary in quality, those in the Pyrenees generally being of a lower standard than those in the Alps. Hot water should not be relied on, though last year in the Queyras, only three of the 11 places we visited did not have hot showers. The dormitories are either bunk beds or rows of mattresses, laid together at one, two, or even three levels. Sheet sleeping bags are usually adequate, as most huts have blankets.
The food is transported to the hut, assuming it is not on a road, by horse, mule, even helicopter. Frequently a good house wine is on sale.
The food on the Tour D'Oisans was so good that our group renamed it 'The Gourmet Randonnee 54'. The exception is Corsica where none of the huts supplies food.
Perhaps the main problem with hutting is that, during the French holiday period - 15 July to the end of August - trails and huts can become very crowded, particularly in the popular areas such as the Pyrenees and the Tour of Mont Blanc. The CAF huts are not supposed to turn anyone away, but club membership can be an advantage in negotiating entry; early arrival and advanced notice are points to remember.
The cost of the huts last year was pounds 13-pounds 15 for bed, breakfast and evening meal. The gtes can be anything from converted barns and stables, youth hostel-type accommodation or the basement of a hotel. They do not usually serve meals, but as most are located in or near villages with restaurants, that is not a problem.
The trails themselves are marked with red and white paint slashes on the rocks or trees. Snow can easily obscure these signs, so proficiency with map and compass is essential.
Accommodation can be up to nine hours' walk away, so fitness is essential. Experience in mountains is important, as weather conditions can change very quickly; this, perhaps, is why some people book mountain hutting tours with one of the specialist firms.
Most trails give access to a number of walkers' peaks: the Pic du Midi D'Ossau in the Pyrenees provides a memorable scramble up a distinguished-looking peak, which in July is so covered in gentians that you can hardly avoid treading on them; the Pointe de Turbat on the Tour D'Oisans is a challenging scramble - with breathtaking views of the Ecrins National Park - dominated by the climbers' peak of the Olan.
The villages are mostly unaffected by tourism or skiing. St Veran on the Queyras Tour is particularly attractive, and claims to be the highest year-round inhabited village in Europe. Much of the village is constructed with wood, but it is best known for its painted sundials on the southern sides of many buildings.
Guidebooks: There are three types of guidebook to France's long-distance footpaths: the French Topoguides, the English Footpaths of Europe series published by Robertson McCarta, and the Cicerone Press series of about a dozen titles.
When not working as a solicitor in Leeds, the author is a tour leader for Waymark Holidays, 44 Windsor Road, Slough, SL1 2EJ (0753 516477).Reuse content