Volcanos and vinyards

Map part 1

GR5 'Grande Traverse des Alpes'

The GR footpaths are a series of long distance marked trails that extend all over Europe. Originally set up as 'Grande Randonée' in France by the French hiking association (FFRP) they can now be found in France, Netherlands, Belgium and Spain. There are over 60,000km of trails in France alone.

I first heard about the GR20, a route that winds through the mountains of Corsica which several friends had walked. In 2019 I noticed more trails when walking in the Rhone and then spotted a guidebook in a shop in London to the GR5 'Through the French Alps from Lake Geneva to Nice'. It was only in 2021 that I realized that the GR5 goes past our village in Switzerland. After a long walk in Scotland this summer this would be good for a next adventure!

The whole GR5 goes from the Hook of Holland to Nice but for most people it means the 'Grande Traverse des Alpes' from Lac Leman (or Lake Geneva) to Nice on the Mediterranean. Thousands of walkers set out on this trail every year. The whole route is between 400-450 miles depending on variants walked. Our walk in Scotland was 250 miles so we plan to split the walk over two years. Having persuaded some friends to join me in starting from Champery in Switzerland next June, I decided to walk the first two days from Lac Leman in October 2021 as a test outing.

When we walked the Cape Wrath Trail we carried 14kg packs with tents, sleeping bags and food for several days. The GR5 passes sufficient climbing huts (refuges), and villages and towns with B&Bs, gites or hotels, that you don't need to camp or cook your own meals. My pack for a two day walk was 7kg and wouldn't need to be much heavier for a longer walk. There are two great guides to the walk, Paddy Dillon's Cicerone guide, Trekking the GR5 Trail, and also a set of four French TopoGuides. The advantage of the French guides is that they include the IGN walking maps. For Brits the Paddy Dillon guide is easier to read! Both give estimated times for the walks and I was interested to see how the times compared to my walking speed.

On a sunny Sunday morning in October I arrive in St Gingolph on the French/Swiss border on a little Swiss regional train. The water is calm and boats are moored on the lake in the morning light. Walking across an old stone bridge brings me into France past an empty customs post. No worry about Covid passports here! I quickly spot the first signpost and head steeply up hill, leaving the village and joining a riverside track passing gorges and waterfalls. I wonder how the villages up the hill get electricity as there are many fallen trees lying across power lines. Novel arrives more quickly than I expect and I find my way on up through narrow lanes. At a carpark above La Planche families are gearing up for day hikes in the lovely weather.

Day 1

Day 1 - 1st sign on GR5, autumn colours above Novel, signpost after Novel

Beyond La Planche the path moves away from the road and winds up across fields and through woods. There is still frost on the ground and some snow and ice on the path in places. I am heading for the Col de Bise and a little before this I reach the top of the first line of cliffs. There are great views back across the lake and a fine lookout point which makes a great spot for an early lunch. In Scotland we had instant soup for lunch everyday and I continue the tradition getting out my little stove.

Descending to Sourlies

Lunch spot looking back to Lac Leman

Just above my lunch spot I come to the chalets de Neuteu. These chalets were used by the Novel villagers as summer homes when they took their cows up to the 'alpage'. Dating back to the 18thC they were abandonned in the early 1970s and then restored in the 1980s as simple holiday cottages. Definately somewhere where you can get away from it all - apart from walkers on the GR5! Not far above here you meet a crossing where people who start the GR5 at Thonon join the route. Another 20 minutes bring you to the Col de Bise. Suddenly there are lots of other walkers as they drive up to the Chalets de Bise and walk up from there. From the col you get the first views of mountains to the south including the Grand Combin and Aiguille Vert (see page header).


Chalets de Neuteu

The path down to the Chalets de Bise is busy with other hikers, families and dogs, all out enjoying the gorgeous weather. Cows graze and in the valley are a couple of restaurants and a little museum. One of the restaurants is clearly very busy with loads of cars outside. I skirt the museum and climb up a much quieter track to the Col de la Bosse. This is next to the impressive rocky cliffs of the 'Cornettes de Bise' which tower over the Abondance valley. A group of rock climbers are standing on top of a pinnacle a third of the way up the face. More great views, this time of Mont Blanc and the Dents du Midi. From here it is downhill all the way to la Chapelle-d'Abondance. I miss the GR5 at some point and follow another track going in the same direction. The GR5 signs appear again and the track continues down past a carpark into a very quiet la Chapelle. I have been looking forward to a beer at the end of the day but have to walk some way along the road towards Abondance to find a bar that is open. Then I backtrack up the road to Chalet Peloton where I am booked in for the night and am royally looked after by ski instructor Kevin and his wife.

Day 3

View of Mont Blanc, the Dents du Midi and Chapel d'Abondance from Col de la Bosse

Kevin's chalet is well situated for the start next day. I cross some fields and then follow the river on a good track. It is cold and frosty. The water is fast flowing and little birds flit up and down. After a while the path turns up hill and climbs through the woods. Early on there is an impressive waterfall, and higher up chalets in the woods and clearings with good views back across to the peaks above Chapel d'Abondance. A couple of chamois are grazing on the open slopes of Mont de Grange and higher up I see a family under some trees. Eventually the trail breaks out onto open ground on a shoulder of the mountain at Les Mattes. There are great views to the south as the path crosses the shoulder and thens drops down into a big open valley.

Cascade, view back to the Cornette de Bise, in the forest

Chamois, Les Mattes on the shoulder of Mont de Grange with the Point Percée in distance

Although not far from areas that I know well I have never been in these valleys before. The trail crosses a valley then climbs past a barn (L'Etrye), middle distance in photo below left. It then continues up the slope before zigzagging up to reach a good forest road. This goes right around the end of the Abondance valley with views back across to familiar ski slopes - Linga and Plain Dranse. You cross several junctions before following a smaller track across boggy moorland and then climbing to a restaurant on the ridge at the Col de Bassechaux. More new views, this time down to Lac Montrion and the Roc d'Enfer beyond - very familiar to us from skiing in the Portes du Soleil.

Chalet du Pron with the trail beyond, Abondance valley

From the Col I am on familiar ground, traversing the slopes under the Point de Chesery avoid the higher VTT track where mountain bikers come flying along from time to time. The track swings left with the Mosette ski restaurant up above to reach the small Cabane de Chesery. This is the end of day two for most walkers but I press on down to Les Crosets and then through the woods to Sur Cou and Champery. A long day - 31km and 1600m of ascent - but gorgeous weather and a good introduction to the GR5.

Next year we hope to hike from Champery to Briancon via Mont Blanc and the Vanois national park. Weather permitting we should do this in 12 or 13 days. We can then try to complete the route to Menton on the Mediterranean in 2023 if our legs don't give out before hand!