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Walking France’s coastal paths

Hiking with a view

Whether or not Napoleon was a keen walker is not fully documented (he was certainly no stranger to a long march). What we do know however is that he decided that the French coastline was part of the nation’s heritage and so gave all citizens the right to access it.

In 1976 the Sentier du Littoral (coastal path) was formally created on a national scale with an unbroken three metre strip along the entire length of France’s coast.

Along with France’s magnificent Grande Randonnée network of long distance footpaths, it forms a vast network from the GR21 on the Alabaster Coast in the north to the GR51 on the south coast, linking Marseille to Menton on the Italian border.

Today there is no single unbroken path, largely due to urban sprawl and factors which were not present in Napoleon’s time (not least naturist campsites and high end housing). In some areas, the land is now privately owned but with public rights of way across it.

There are some 5,000 km of designated coastal paths, mostly accessible and relatively straightforward terrain. Some stretches are more challenging, in fact in places you should be very careful indeed, such is the precarious nature of the terrain and ground underfoot. Wherever you are, you will need appropriate clothing, sun protection when hot and plenty of water.

The pleasures of walking the coast

Walking has many obvious appeals – constantly changing scenery, a sense of purpose and gentle exercise (helps you feel just a little virtuous when perusing the evening menu later!).

Following a coastal path adds other dimensions: sweeping seascapes, coastal terrain of various types and bracing sea air.

Brittany is renowned for its ancient smuggler’s paths. Around Concarneau you can trace the steps of many a shipwrecking scoundrel and imagine the customs officers in hot pursuit. You’ll come across massive boulders, gorse and rocky outcrops, not to mention the mesmerising pink granite of the Pink Granite Coast which runs along the north coast.

France’s west coast is an endless sandy beach, stretching roughly from Nantes to Biarritz, backed by fragrant and shady pine forests. When the going gets hot and sticky, these paths allow the indulgence of a quick splash in the gently shelving waters of the Charentais or the Landes beaches.

The Mediterranean coast is different again. Twisting paths in many places are challenging, with gnarled trees clinging on to sheer cliffs, rocks below pounded by the surf.

But the azure blue waters of the Med and the scintillating light of Provence combine to create something magical. It is no accident that so many artists have sought inspiration here: Picasso, Van Gogh, Miró, Matisse and many others. Perhaps they were also keen walkers?

Spotlight on…

Breathtaking Brittany
This Belle France holiday takes you to the south-western tip of Brittany, stretching into the waters of the Atlantic. There’s a mix of sandy dunes and marshes, giving way to dramatic granite cliffs as you approach the stunning Pointe du Raz. Highlights include coastal paths, charming fishing towns, the Ile de Sein, sandy beaches and Quimper, the cultural heart of Brittany. 

Golden Islands
Our provençal coastal walk on the Côte d’Azur boasts some of the most untamed coastline along the Mediterranean, and the island of Port Cros is a paradise of cork oaks and walking paths. Explore some of the best kept secrets of the Riviera: spectacular coastal paths, and two of the Golden Islands, an absolute paradise of nature.

You may also like to read: The simple pleasures of a walking holiday and Choosing your walking boots