Most of your walk along the GR5 will be in lovely, even stunning, terrain. You will pass charming villages and pastures at lower altitudes, forests, wild flowers, and meadows at mid-altitudes, and jagged peaks and glaciers at high altitudes. So what is the significance of the special attractions listed here? They are unique experiences along the way that should not be missed, even if it involves a detour, or special towns where you should definitely try to spend the night, rather than just passing through.
I have given one star to towns where you should spend the evening, or to attractions which you should consider even if it costs a bit of money and time. Two stars are for experiences worth a large detour or an extra day. Three stars mean the area is worth several days, even a whole vacation.
Lake Geneva Steamer*
Morning and afternoon ships from Geneva call at Thonon-les-Bains and at Evian-les-Bains. Is there a better way—in good weather—to get to your trailhead? In second class, the voyage costs about 20 Euros to Thonon-les-Bains, 23 Euros to Evian-les-Bain, and 30 Euros to St.-Gingolph. (See the Lac Léman steamship company timetable at: http://www.cgn.ch/_library/pdf/hor_ete04.pdf. Change the last two digits of the URL to reflect the year you need.
You could make the trip by train from Geneva in one-third the time and and at one-third the cost. From Paris you can bypass Geneva entirely and connect directly to Thonon or Evian. So the boat is a luxury , but a pleasant one!
(For St. Gingolph, your best bet, whether by boat or train, is to take a taxi or bus there from Evian-les-Bains.)
Forget about the Dent d’Oche if the weather is misty or foggy. Otherwise this spire and its refuge is surely worth the extra climb and the detour of a few kilometers. But to get there you have to scramble up one very short, steep portion of rock with the aid of a chain, and perhaps a boost from below. Don’t worry too much: children and the elderly do it.
Sunset over Lake Geneva, from the Dent d’Oche.
Click to enlarge any photo.
Once at the refuge you have an unforgetable view over lake Geneva, from end to end (although Geneva probably will be lost in the haze).You’ll want to spend hours watching the sun set. The view to the south is not bad either: ranges of mountains, with Mont Blanc on the distant horizon, a week’s walk away.
If you have the energy and the heart, climb up the ridge trail to the top of the spire.
The refuge is classified as high altitude: the lodgings and the food are basic and the pricing is a bit higher than most. It opens in June only on the weekends, and closes in late September. Telephone (in France) for reservations 04 50 73 62 45 or 04 50 73 16 14.
A charming town with good hotels and restaurants at moderate prices, Samoëns in well worth spending the evening in, rather than Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval, even if it means a longer walk the next day.
Chamonix area*** (a slight detour; consider allowing three or more sunny days)
The Chamonix area is the only tourist destination on this list to which I give three stars.. I have been in Chamonix at least ten times, and I never tire of it. It is not directly on the GR5, but it you can walk (steeply down) there just as quickly as you can to the town on the official route, Les Houches, and get there much quicker than Les Houches if you are a non-purist and take the télépherique (mountain lift).
The town of Chamonix has charm, and contains hotels, gîtes d’étape, rentals and restaurants of all types and within many price ranges. In the nearby valley villages, accommodations are less expensive. The main reason to visit Chamonix, however, is not the town, but the natural wonders in the area. The view from the valley of Mount Blanc, Europe’s highest peak, is more than beautiful.
Sixty Euros costly (2009) for each adult person and worth every penny is the télépherique (enclosed cabin lift) trip to the 12,000 foot high Aiguille du Midi**, followed by the télécabine (cabin dangling from a cable) crossing over the glaciers of the Valée Blanche to Point Helbronner, and return. Marvel at the immensity and beauty of the glacier. Watch Alpinists wend across the glacier on the way back from Mount Blanc’s summit, and others climb various nearby needles and the Aiguille du Midi itself. At Point Helbronner, walk down and put your feet on the snow while taking in the vast white expanse before you. Usually parapente-gliders are circling around before you. Allow a half day.
For the excursion, make sure good weather is forecast. Also be sure to get your tickets the day before (if possible) or as early in the morning as you can. You’ll probably have to wait several hours before you can actually board the télépherique. (If you wait until the afternoon to buy tickets, you probably won’t be able to depart that day at all.)
If you are an Alpinist or budding Alpinist, consider renting boots and crampons in town, and joining a group led by a Chamonix guide; you’ll walk from the Aiguille du Midi to Pointe Helbronner, learning arrest and glacier rescue techniques as you go.
You might want to save those boots and crampons for the Mer de Glace**. A cog rail train from Chamonix takes you up to the glacier overlook restaurant and back for 18 Euros (2009); or you can go one way and walk back down to Chamonix. From the restaurant, a trail and ladders lead down onto the glacier. From midsummer on, the glacier is “open”, which means all the crevices are visible. Using the lightest crampons, you can walk far up the glacier, dodging or jumping over the crevices; and then, on regular trails, climb steeply up the cliffs above the glaciers to various refuges that make excellent luncheon or overnight stopping places. These quite strenuous and exposed hikes should be done in good weather.
Another great day can be spent by taking a télépherique up to La Flégère (12.50 Euros in 2009), in the mountain range on the north side of the valley. Then walk to Lac Blanc**. After your visit, continue on along the haut balcon trail in the same northeasterly direction to its end at Col du Montets, whence you’ll find bus service back to Chamonix (get a schedule from the Chamonix Tourist Office). Your entire walk looks out at the glaciers of Mount Blanc and its chain on the other side of the valley. The trail is one of the prettiest parts of the well-known week long “Tour of Mount Blanc”.
Finally, I should mention a more placid destination that is only a short detour off the GR5 as you leave the Chamonix Valley and Les Houches heading south. After climbing to the Col de Volza, in good weather turn right up an easy slope, and in 20 minutes reach the Hotel-Restaurant Le Prarion*. While you have a drink or a meal or just sit, take in the fabulous view of Mount Blanc. Squinting and with binoculars, you will be able to make out Alpinists on the normal climbing route to the summit. Non-purists can reach either the Col de Volza by telepherique, or the Prarion directly by its own telepherique.
There are many other wonderful walks in the area, if you are staying for a week, but these you can find out about while you are in Chamonix.
When your Chamonix stay is over, walk 6 kilometers down the valley to Les Houches (or take the train or bus), officially on the GR5.
The military architecture of the town of Briançon—the Vauban fortified upper town that is—is quite sensational, and the views from the ramparts are splendid. The main street of the Vauban city is full of charm.
Descend south from the town to a little bridge and look straight down into the river gorge: You will begin to appreciate the reasoning behind the sensational military architecture—designed in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries to protect the frontier between “Italy” (not yet a country) and France.
Author’s special route out of Briançon.
If you have the fortitude and stamina to take my special itinerary out of Briançon up the fort-covered hillside to the south rather than the GR5 (discussed in the itineraries part of this Site), you will marvel at one fort after another, and at a succession of stupendous views.
Sospel* on the GR52, Apremont* on the GR5 before Nice.
Both towns, quite different one from the other, have considerable charm and deserve a night’s stay and some exploration
Col du Berceau**
At 1,100 meters (3,600 feet) and only 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from the Mediterranean, the views of the Mediterranean Coastline from here and on the subsequent descent are unforgettable.
Nice** and Menton**
You have reached the end of the trail. If you started at the North Sea, you have come a very long way, yes a long way too if you started from Lake Geneva. The Mediterranean stretches southward out of sight.
Old part of Menton, French Riviera.
It would be a shame not to spend at least one extra night on the French Riviera, the Côte d’Azur. Beaches of large round stones called galets in Nice, and of sand in Menton—beckon you to (relatively) warm waters. Take promenades with striking views of the sea and of chic apartments and hotels; visit Nice’s charming old town, old Menton, and from the cemetery at old Menton’s highest point look up at the mountain you were on. Famous towns and villages such as Eze Village, and Monte Carlo lie nearby. Go out for a great banquet, and celebrate your considerable achievement—in crossing the Alps by footpath.