Updated: Sep 1
I have been riding horses since I was very small, four years old to be precise. I got my first pony at 11 and spent my evenings, weekends and holidays riding around the countryside. When I was 11 there was no gps, no internet and so, like everyone in those days, I learnt to read a map.
The Ordnance survey maps were always so clear, so easy to read, with the footpaths, bridleways and byways clearly marked. So when we came to france, I obviously assumed it would be as simple here. Its not.
Having lived and walked and ridden in France since 2006, I can categorically say, its not the same as good old British OS maps. Now, yes I know there is such a thing as the internet now but if you wish to find a local footpath, a short circular or such like on said internet, you will find it very difficult. There are some very good walking routes, with very good signposts, but generally the publicised routes are ones which are long distance ones like the Grand Randonee routes (GR).
So I thought I would pop down in a post here some of the information that I have gleaned from my time in France.
Ok so there are 4 different types of marked footpaths.
Firstly we have the (GR) Grande Randonee routes, these are generally long distance footpaths that are easily found on the internet and maps, marked GR and a number, our local one is the GR22 which is actually a 600km footpath that runs from the Notre dame Cathedral in Paris to the Mont St Michel, crossing 6 departments. We also have the GR226 that runs from near Ger up to Conde en Normandie which is 61kms. GR routes are always sign posted with double Red/ White markers. They are usually clearly marked and accessible to walkers, but not always riders.
Second, There are (GRP) Grande Randonee de Pays routes, which have double red/yellow markers. We have the GRP balcons de sud Manche which loops around as at Mortain.
Thirdly, we have the local circuits (PR) which have single coloured markers, yellow, black, blue, green, red, purple etc. There are several of these local to us.
Finally in some departments there are footpaths marked with a sign saying randonnee pedestre, a name, distance etc. Mayenne have some of these. Very smart.
The markers always have the same formats, a single line for straight on, an upsidedown L shape for either direction like these. And an X tells you it's not that way, usually when you should have turned. Sometimes these markers are clear and obvious. Often they are sneaky and hidden. Sometimes they are faded and peeling. Regularly the local coloured circuits are not to be found on any map or internet site, so you have no idea where they go or how long they are until you follow the whole route. These are the markers...
VTT are mountain bike trails and the Piste equestres are bridlepaths.
There is also the Voie Verte which is a network of paths that have been made from the old railways, Paris to Mt St Michel, Cherbourg and lots of others. (Probably a post in itself) but perfect for walkers, cyclists and horse riders.
If you head to the local mairie, (bigger ones usually are better or the tourist info) often you can get details of local circuits, most of which follow two or more colours of the balisages (markers) and don't correspond with any circuits you thought you knew.
Ok so those are the marked trails. Now, if you are like me and you like to sit at home and pour over a map, working out where to go, how far etc, a nice short circular from home, then you need to get a good map. The IGN carte bleu maps are the best for walking and riding. Available in supermarkets, online and in most stationary shops.
They are detailed and mildly inaccurate. Half the tracks on them don't exist anymore and some that do exist are not on the maps. However, they are the best we have. So if you are used to the good old OS maps then don't get your hopes up. France has a huge network of footpaths, tracks and lanes, but they do like to keep quiet about them.
On the carte bleu maps you want to be looking for these small black lines. (Green arrow) On the key they are marked as 'chemin d'exploitation'. basically that means they are green lanes or tracks.
The double lines like these (Red Arrow) are lanes and if the lines are continuous on one side and dotted the other, usually they are just stony and not tarmac tracks. So far these are generally all still exisiting, but its those pesky little black line tracks that you want.
Its a good idea to keep a look out on car rides for the ends of these tracks and see if visually they look open and then go and investigate on foot. We live in an area that is mostly bocage, the hedgerows and tracks are much more protected here. There is less arable farming and more pasture so many of the green lanes and sunken tracks are still used for moving cattle and cutting corners in tractors. Quad bikes and trail bikers keep them open as well. In the more arable areas a lot of the tracks have gradually been ploughed in to the fields and forgotten, but they are still on the maps.
In this picture you can see the black track with the green arrow, this still exists and is fully passable. We use it regularly.
The black track with the Red arrow, no longer exists, its now a field entrance.
The yellow circle suggests there is no track here at all, when in actual fact there is a marked footpath with blue markers that runs around our property and down a centuries old sunken lane to join the lane at la Rastiere and the route to St Clement. This footpath is part of a circuit that is not on any local maps and even the mairie couldn't tell me where it goes!
Anyway, this shows that these maps are not always accurate and you can't trust that the tracks and paths will be there, but that gives you a great reason to get out and go and look!
France is full of paths, track and lanes, its a beautiful country. Go and explore!!