The parallel strips of red and white paint appear on a boulder here, a tree trunk there. At times, there will be none for several kilometres as the trail leads through sand dunes. But as soon as that flash of red and white catches your eye, you feel a familiar rush of reassurance.
It’s all part of the fun of the Grande Randonnee 34 hiking trail in Brittany, northwest France. Running for some 1,800km, the so-called GR34 was created in 1791 to crisscross the coastline and prevent the smuggling of contraband goods.
It runs from the legendary Mont Saint-Michel monastery in the north of Brittany to the Saint-Nazaire Bridge in the south. A different landscape awaits hikers with each new bend in the trail. They’ll see rugged stone cliffs, isolated bays, crumbling abbeys and majestic lighthouses.
“The GR34 is our showcase,” says Gerard Edet proudly. The former chairman of the Brittany Hiking Association has trekked the entire length of the customs trail – in different stages.
Asked what his favourite stretch is, he nominates the Crozon peninsula – believed to be the end of the known world in Roman times.
Trail guide and geologist Yves Cyrille agrees with Edet. Now in his mid-50s, Cyrille grew up in the region as the son of a fisherman.
He works in a minerals museum in Morgat, and never goes to work without his hiking boots – the stretch of the GR34 between Morgat and the Ile Vierge beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, is a highlight of the trail.
Through towering ferns, yellow gorse and purple heather, hikers will catch sight of the turquoise sea – whose vivid colour was not lost on the customs officers who patrolled the trail in the 18th century, looking for smugglers.
Nowadays, the trail mostly leads through private land whose owners have granted permission for hikers to pass through. In return, the local council sees to it that the bushes are regularly trimmed and fallen branches cleared away. The result is a clear view of the ocean.
“I have never seen such a magnificent beach and such beautiful nature as here,” remarks a German hiker, Stephan Gentsch, after a five-hour hike around Cap de la Chevre. “We went past bays with crystal clear waters.”
Anyone hoping to hike the entire GR34 will need to set aside about three months. For the less ambitious, Jean Marie Le Berre of the Brittany Tourism Office recommends Crozon or the Cotes-d’Armor region.
“Elsewhere, there are still gaps in the available lodgings,” he says. – dpa/Christine Longin