In August, I was invited on a backpacking trip in the south of France. This was the perfect low-budget escape from my apartment, which in the summer was about as comfortable as the inside of a volcano. I was told we’d be hiking through the Gorges du Verdon – touted as the “Grand Canyon of Europe.” Ha! The plan was to hike 4-5 hours every day, and eat in local restaurants each night. My first and only backpacking experience was in Yosemite, and this sounded very easy in comparison.
“Easy” is the last word I’d use to describe our trip. Our first night, we slept in an almost-empty lot after 9 hours of driving. Needless to say, we weren’t in top form the next day. Within the first half hour of hiking, I realized this was going to be more than just some light hiking. It was boiling hot and what felt like an instant steep ascent. However, the beauty of the trail more than made up for it’s difficulties. I quite enjoyed the varied views we were treated to the whole time. It was always a surprise when we’d round a bend and come upon a huge plateau, or a deep canyon, or a thick forest. The trails were littered with wild thyme, lavender, and other herbs. I became addicted to reaching down and grabbing a few sprigs to place in my pack straps or crumble on top of myself to combat some of my hiking stink.
Backpacking with French people is the same as it is with Americans – you walk, sweat, chat, and sing. You admire the scenery, you complain, you give each other massages and share snacks and water. However, there is one notable and awesome difference. French people, at least the ones I know, seem to have an inability to go anywhere without wine. Despite the full and heavy packs we all carried, somehow at each lunch break a bottle of something would magically emerge. We used the various bodies of water we encountered as natural refrigerators. Hiking in the heat was made bearable by all the chilled rosé we had!
Our first night, we had a glamping experience and stayed in a really nice gîte (hostel/hotel sort of thing). For just €40 each we had a whole house with several rooms to ourselves for the night, as well as dinner at the adjoining crêperie and breakfast (complete with local honey). It also happened to be the annual music festival in the tiny town, so after dinner, we walked about ten steps to the tent set up in the town square and checked out the music. We first saw an interesting act of a woman singing karaoke-style to some 80s hit, followed by a talented husband and wife duo.
On the second day, we reached our planned campsite around dusk only to discover that it was dirty and too close to the edge. Even though we were running low on water, we decided to keep hiking and find another place to do camping sauvage (real camping, outdoors in tents). Though we were exhausted from over 12 hours of hiking, we pressed on, knowing that in the morning we’d be closer to the little town where we could restock our water and food supplies.
We finally found a suitable (ish) place to camp. There was just enough space among a mini forest of trees for our three tents, which we pitched for the first time in the dark! Our makeshift campsite was next to a cow patch, so all night long we had a soundtrack of clanging cowbells and the occasional moo. 5 out of 6 of us agreed that the trees were too thick and there was too much combustible material around to build a fire to cook our sausages for dinner. We had about 1/2 liter of water for all six of us.
It was not the best situation to be in – but remember that I was with French people! So, we busted out our bottle of red wine, and we even had some whiskey and vodka. Best of all, I remembered that I had brought a bag of marshmallows, and one of the boys had brought a little bunsen burner. So our dinner was alcohol and toasted marshmallows. Dinner of champions, I tell you! We gave each other foot massages with some healing essential oils and looked at the stars through the trees, listening to the cows. Even though this was the roughest and scariest night (if I really stopped to think about our situation), it was my favorite one. From then on, our little group had a nice bond and lots of inside jokes to laugh about for the rest of our trip.
After a rough night’s sleep on top of a few tree roots and many rocks – this is why I don’t recommend pitching a tent in the dark – we hiked a short way to the village and refueled. Then we commenced another insanely hard day of an instant climb to the top of a peak in high heat. We drank all of our water and finally reached the next spring, only to discover that it had dried up! So again, we problem-solved by drinking a box of rosé and taking a long break to enjoy the view at the top of the mountain and wave to people paragliding above us and into the clouds. Paragliding is definitely on my wish list of activities to do – it looked so cool!
The rosé helped me fearlessly descend for an hour or so on steep, winding paths littered with jagged and loose rocks. I was carrying the tent this day and the extra weight as well as the dehydration from the wine really wore me out. But, we finally made it down the mountain to the road. We decided to hitchhike the rest of the way to the campsite, where we pitched our tents in daylight, had showers, and a great pizza recovery meal.
The following morning I woke up with insect bites all over my hands and feet, a few on my arms, and worst of all, my face! I applied lots of the anti-itch cream I had brought with me (I ALWAYS get bitten by mosquitos, why meeeee) as we ate breakfast, but I knew I was going to break down. I tried to hold it together but I started crying just imagining trying to manage the itching with the heat, the heavy pack, and the difficult mileage ahead that day. Everyone was really nice to me and didn’t make me feel like a brat. We decided to do a really light day and then hitchhike the rest of the way. Luckily I wasn’t alone in my complaints – the two girls were suffering from bad sunburns and bursitis, and the boys were really tired and sore as well.
We packed up and went for lunch at a restaurant in the town up the hill and tried to rally. After a trip to a pharmacie for help with our various ailments, we still weren’t getting a move on. The boys ordered some digestifs – another part of French dining that I love! We got some génépi – a delicious liqueur that reminds me a bit of chartreuse. It’s herbal and a little bit sweet, but bitter at the same time. Anyways, I loved it, and apparently everyone else did too because we all wanted a second shot. It made more sense price-wise to get a bottle, and then after that bottle we all wanted another because it was so good.
Then we got hungry again and grabbed some amazing pâté and baguette from the nearby butcher and boulanger, and then all the French people were like “Non non non, ça va pas, il faut pas manger du pâté avec du génépi, on doit boire du vin rouge avec” so we got a pitcher of red wine…and thus our 4th day of hiking turned into la folie. You only live once, right?! Plus the drinking numbed my bug bites.
After that lovely day, we made it to our next campsite by way of the generous people who live in the south of France. Seriously, everyone there is SO NICE. I want to move down there! This was a nice campsite, and we spent the evening chatting with our nice neighbors and then walking into town for some dinner. At the restaurant we received free digestifs and I fell in love with another kind of liqueur – thyme liqueur, a specialty of the region! Herby and refreshing.
The next day, we hitchhiked to Lake St Croix – we were working towards this the whole trip. Even though we cheated on the last two days, we did hike about 100km total and we were really proud when we got our first view of the lake. We had a mini bbq, so we grabbed some food at the market up the hill and spent the afternoon on the shore drinking – you guessed it – more rosé and eating kebabs and grilled zucchini. Oh, and swimming in the lake! It was so beautiful and crisp and perfect lake weather. I only saw a few tiny fish that didn’t come anywhere near me so I was happily floating for hours. We finished the night toasting champagne over an overpriced meal at a restaurant up the hill. Good times!