We were planning our getaway into the countryside as soon as the first phase of Deconfinement was announced, looking for the best place to escape the city within 100km of Paris. No stranger to the Ile-de-France countryside – I even still had the stack of regional Michelin maps from the summer I researched the Paris & Ile-de-France Adventure Guide – I knew there were plenty of amazing places to go hiking less than two hours from the périphèrique.
But getting the details right can be the tricky part: where to safely (and legally) park your car, how to avoid the trails accessible by RER sure to be overrun by stir crazy Parisians, and how to make sure we didn’t end up getting lost in the middle of the forest without cell phone reception as night fell. We wanted something that would last longer than a few hours, but not force us to start at the crack of dawn. We wanted trails that were mostly un-paved, but preferably signposted so we didn’t have to totally rely on print maps, a compass and our cell phone GPS to direct us.
How Helloways Makes it Easy
You could say Helloways made it into my inbox at just the right time. On the surface it’s an easy-to-navigate website promoting hikes and “Micro-Adventures” in France (Ile-de-France, Bordeaux, Lyon, Nantes, Annecy, Marseille, and Strasbourg) and Brussels, Belgium. But they’re far more than just a money-making platform for some international IT startup. Helloways is a socially and environmentally responsible company started by Clément Lhommeau and Nicolas Chevolot that puts people and the planet before profits:
- 70% of the income goes to pay the local writers and contributors who map and maintain the trails, hikers who map the hikes and maintain the trails (many who are members of the Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre).
- They promote local hikes and adventures, most which are accessible by public transport, and encourage slowing down and simply contemplating nature, not “consuming” it
- In addition to search criteria such as distance, elevation, hiking level, and the kind of sites you want to see on your hike, you can also sort for trails that wheelchair friendly or suitable for those with limited mobility
- Their charter of responsible hiking includes: no littering, no damaging the natural environment, and behaving in a way that’s respectful of the areas where you’re hiking and the locals who live there
- They don’t publish any print guides, books or brochures (to save trees), and they promote the activities of local environmental organizations
- Their website is meant to give the essential information needed to get outside, not cluttered to “keep” you on the site longer than necessary
You can ogle the pretty pictures and get a taste of the hikes for free browsing around their site, but once you want the maps and play-b-play directions you’ll need to pay for it. The prices, however, are more than reasonable when you consider the reliable information you get in return. When you join the Club (€39.90/year), you get to download an unlimited number of the hiking maps with directions and GPS coordinates, live chat support, ad-free browsing on the site, and discounts for events. Not ready to commit? You can buy credits to use for hikes (8 credits for €9.90 or 24 for €24.90).
After browsing and narrowing our search to three day hikes that we could agree on, Fred and I decided to sign up for the Club membership so we could download all three and decide at the last minute. The Bellot hike won the final vote a 4-hour loop of 17km about 75 minutes east of Paris by car.
Preparing Our Daypacks
Reading the description thoroughly and checking the weather forecast, we packed accordingly for cool morning breezes and hot afternoon sun, and trails that would cut through the forest, through villages, and along farm fields. We wore sturdy shoes for the rockier paths, light pants for the nettles, light jackets for the morning, and sunglasses and hats for walking in full sun through the fields. Our packs included lunch, tick tweezers (just in case), and a few bottles of water (which came in handy since we didn’t see anywhere to refill the along the way).
We left the city at about 10am and arrived close to 11:30am at the starting point, the Eglise de Bellot, which has free parking and is conveniently located right across the street from a small food market that sells cold drinks, locally made honey, and other treats you may want to stock up on before or after your hike.
We almost got lost immediately because the path was blocked by a fallen tree (one of the neighbors saw us wandering around in the courtyard and told us to just go around the barrier and we’d be able to continue along the path). The street takes you past the local swimming pool and then up a hill and into the forest.
Then it’s full on countryside, with rolling farmland, contented cows, and a fox that looked as stunned to see us as we were to see him (he probably hasn’t seen any humans out there for at least the past two months). We passed through several post-card-perfect little farm villages with gorgeous flowering gardens…and barking dogs that look ready to leap over their short fences if you get too close taking photos. Aside from the few locals we saw sunning themselves or puttering around in their yards, we didn’t actually pass anyone on the trails.
No Getting Lost
This particular hike has 100% of its route marked by yellow “PR” (Petite Randonnée) trail markers, so throughout the hike you’ll see them on trees, lamp posts and stone walls telling you when to turn or continue straight (along with the helpful “X”s when you’ve taken the wrong path). Keep an eye out for them to be sure you’re going the right way if you’re not already following along with Helloway’s maps and GPS coordinates.
We printed our maps and used our phone’s GPS as backup to make sure we were going the right way. At one particularly tricky spot we ended up going the wrong way twice, but still ended up joining the right trail (only later when we were looking at Google satellite images did we figure out the turn we missed, and sent a note to Helloways so they could update the directions).
The Helloways site put the Bellot hike at four hours, and we’re pretty good walkers, but we took a long picnic lunch and a few wrong turns so it ended up being closer to 5.5 hours by the time we arrived back to our car. And yes, we popped into the food market – surprised to find it open on a Sunday at 5pm – for cold drinks and some chocolate cookies.
There’s nothing within 100km of Paris that matches the hikes we’ve done in the Pyrenees, in Arizona, or in Iceland, but even we couldn’t help being impressed with how picture-perfect the hike was (although maybe all that fresh air after two months of confinement was making us high). The scenery was varied enough to keep our interest, difficult enough to make us feel we really stretched ourselves (enough to earn some cookies, anyway), and remote enough to make us forget about Paris and the pandemic for the day.
Sure, some people can organize a great day hike close to home using their own guide books, free websites, and Google maps, but Helloways is for the rest of us who need a bit of encouragement, expert guidance, and peace-of-mind before we venture into unknown territory far from any taxi stand or metro station. Helloways somehow figured out how to make these local discoveries enticing enough to get the jaded Parisians out of the city, accessible enough so we don’t use the whole “but I don’t have a car” excuse, and reliable enough that we’re not afraid of embarking on longer, more challenging adventures.
More Things We Like about Helloways
The interactive aspect of Helloways (especially when you’re a Club member) is reassuring because you can chat with real humans if you have questions, and contribute photos and trail reviews. I originally posted a few pics on my Instagram account and one of the Helloways staff invited me in a private message to share them on the site. I promised I would, along with the additional directions we thought should be added to the trail notes for other hikers. They added this information right away to the site. The difference between some anonymous “crowd-sourced content” platforms and Helloways is that – at least from what I’ve seen so far — Helloways takes responsibility for the content on their site.
Yes, it’s only in French, but with all of the easy translation apps out there, that’s not really an issue these days. Check out their site and give it a try yourself: https://www.helloways.com/
Note: This isn’t an advertisement; we had no contact with Helloways before our hike, and don’t receive anything if you sign up.
Another similar site that helps you plan Micro-Adventures in France is Chillowé: https://www.chilowe.com/
And for printed guidebooks in English try Annabell Simms’s excellent classics, Half an Hour from Paris: 10 Secret Daytrips by Train or An Hour from Paris: 20 Secret Day Trips by Train from your local English bookstores.