Longwalk 2011 ~ Chemin d’Arles, part 1
Books & Trail Guides
In 2011, we plan to return to Europe for several weeks of walking in France on the long-distance GR hiking trails, called les sentiers de grande randonnée. The exact route(s) are still being considered, as is the departure date, but we are currently planning to walk along the ancient series of trails known as the Chemin d’Arles (the road from Arles), starting in early Spring. This article covers the FFRP topo-guides, trail guides, and books about the various sections of the GR 653 route.
The first part of the trail is actually the approach to Arles, from the Italian border, designated by FFRandonnée as the GR 653D. It follows a major route used by Italian pilgrims making the journey to Santiago de Compostela during the Middle Ages, but its heritage is far greater.
The voie Domitienne was the first Roman road built in France, then known as Gaul. (Eventually, a web of Roman roads crisscrossed the country, many of which remain as part of the FFRP Grande Randonnée trail system.) It was built circa 112 BCE as a land route connecting Rome with Hispania (now, Spain). Its antiquity reaches even further back, as the probable route used for Hannibal’s attack on Rome in the second century BCE, and even to the mythical journeys of Heracles.
The GR 653D begins in the alps at Col de Montgenèvre, in the Hautes-Alpes departément. (A col is a mountain pass.) From this natural gateway it wanders down the Durance river valley, across Provence, to the shores of the Rhone River. The complete section, a distance of 459 kilometers (290 miles) ends in Arles, where the Via Tolosana begins. It typically takes about three weeks to walk. Although this is one of the great classical routes of Europe, and there is a full range of services for hikers and walkers along the way, it is one of the quieter routes in the GR system, compared to others like the one that follows, from Arles.
The FFRandonnée topo-guide for this part of the route, reference #6531 is difficult to find outside of France, but is readily available directly from the FFRP in Paris, or AMAZON-France.
Chemin d’Arles ~ section 1 ~ Voie Tolosana
The second part of the trail continues on from Arles. This ancient city, long predating its conquest by the Romans circa 120 BCE, sits at the top of the Rhone estuary, just below where the Rhone river splits to form the Camargue delta. It’s colorful history includes references to Phoenician traders, Celts, and Romans on up through the complex Middle Ages, always in the shadow of Marseille, to become a favorite of artists such as Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso. (It was here that Van Gogh infamously amputated his ear.)
Arles was a major gathering point during Medieval times for pilgrims heading toward St-Jacques-Compostelle (the Way of St. James). It is the trailhead for the Voie Tolosana, which heads west-northwest, more or less parallel to the Pyrénées on the south, often through steep country. In parts it is quite remote, with long days between rest stops, and remains the quietest, least traveled of the four French routes to Santiago. Over its full length, the Chemin d’Arles is the only one of the four that does not pass through Saint-Jean-Pied-de Port and into Spain over the Route de Napolean; instead climbing up the Aspe River valley to the Somport pass. This guide covers the trail section from Arles to Toulouse.
The FFRandonnée topo-guide for this part of the route, reference #6533, is difficult to find outside of France, but is readily available directly from the FFRP in Paris, or AMAZON-France.
Chemin d’Arles ~ section 2
Toulouse sits proudly on the banks of the Garonne river, where it has existed since early in the first millenium BCE. It’s ancient name was Tolosa, which is still celebrated in the name of the famous trail running to it from Arles. Like much of France, this area has changed hands and fallen under the influence of many clans and cultures over the ages, including the Celts, Romans and Franks. Unlike many of its sister cities in France, Toulouse has a long history of commercial vibrancy, principally as an important overland crossroad between the Iberian peninsula, the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and all points to the north. Today, it’s the fourth largest city in France, and among its many industries, is the final assembly-point of the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the Airbus A380.
The final section of the of GR 653 continues on from Toulouse, drifting southwest into the Haut Béarn region until reaching Oloron-Sainte-Marie. Here, the sentier (trail) veers sharply south as it follows the classic Chemin Aragonais (Camino Aragonés de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle) pilgrimage route. It climbs into the Pyrénées to Col du Somport (“summit gate”), the highest point on any of the routes to Santiago de Compostela, at an elevation of 1632 meters (5,350 feet). The topo-guide continues down the south flank of the mountains to Jaca, in Spain. From this point, there are other trail guides describing the walk to Puente la Reina, where those heading toward Galicia join the westbound traffic of the Camino Francés.
This volume also describes the alternate route through Lourdes. The FFRandonnée topo-guide for this part of the route, reference #6534, is difficult to find outside of France, but is readily available directly from the FFRP, or from AMAZON-France.
All topo-guides are Highly Recommended by Longwalking.
Chemin d’Arles ~ the Miam Miam Dodo
The Miam Miam Dodo books are an extremely valuable collection of companion guides to some of the major French paths to Santiago de Compostela, and several other hiking and biking trails through France. They are not intended for pathfinding like the topo-guides, but have extremely concise, thorough, and easy to understand information about (most) of the available resources along the trail. (For more about Miam Miam Dodo, including examples, see Yummy Sleeping.) We used Miam Miam Dodo on the Chemin du Puy in 2009, and found it invaluable. If available for a trail I’m walking, I wouldn’t travel without one. Whereas the guide to the heavily trafficked GR 65 Le Puy route is updated annually, The Miam Miam Dodo: Arles to Puente la Reina receives only biannual updates, as the Chemin d’Arles and Camino Aragonés are far less commonly traveled. The current edition (2010-2011) was published in late 2009. This isn’t really a huge problem, as the changes of trail conditions and services tend not to change much from year to year.
The Miam Miam Dodo is uncommon in the US. If you do find one, make sure it’s the latest edition. You can purchase it from the publisher, Editions du Vieux Crayon, a somewhat difficult website, with little information, or AMAZON-France.
Miam Miam Dodo is Highly Recommended.
Chemin d’Arles ~ the Rando Guide
Among other trail guides I recommend, are the series of French language Rando Guides. I used one of these for a portion of my walk from Lyon to Le Puy-en-Velay in 2009. In this case, I expect to primarily use the FFRP topo-guides for much of the walk, but for the final stage in Spain, as well as trip planning in general, this is a great choice. They use the same IGN 1:25,000 scale topographical maps, but the layout of the book tends to chop them up in a less convenient way than the orderly two facing map and text structure of topo-guides. You often have to flip the pages back and forth to compare the text and maps. But they are accurate, highlight different aspects of the trails and villages than the FFRP guides, and provides information on other route variations.
Additionally, since I have never found a single resource guide that lists all of the possibilities for lodging and food, (including the topo-guides, the Miam Miam Dodo and regional tourist brochures), I like checking as many sources as possible. Morevoer, where there is overlap, you can often get a sense of what your preference would be by triangulating the comments in the different guides. I’ve met many hikers who carry only these guides, our paths sometimes weaving back and forth as they occasionally follow different routes.
From a purely weight-sensitive, ultralight point of view, the Rando guides are briefer and therefore lighter. This isn’t because of a lack of trail description, but because there aren’t nearly as many pages devoted to culture, history, and wildlife commentary (which I really like) as there are in the FFRandonnée guides. Consequently, this single tome covers the entire route from Arles to Puente la Reina in Spain, the same as the Miam Miam Dodo – further than both topo-guides 6533 and 6534 combined. The newest edition was published in 2009. This and the other Rando Guides are available from AMAZON-UK, and AMAZON-France.
Summary and Recommended Links to the Guides
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