Chateau de Joux on the GR5 trek

Trekking the GR5 from the North Sea to the Mediterranean - History

The GR5 (Grande Randonnée 5) is a trail – a marked route in some places – that begins in Hoek van Holland and runs for about 2300km through the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and several regions of eastern France (Lorraine, Alsace, the Jura and the Alps), plus small segments of Swiss territory around Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), to Nice. To hike along the GR5 is thus to walk through European history. Following Carroll's previous article about his and wife Mary's trek south through Europe, for four months in 2015, this article describes some of that history. 


The Treaty of Verdun, in AD 843, divided the Carolingian Empire among the three sons of Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne: Charles the Bold would rule West Francia (eventually part of France), Louis the German received East Francia (later the heart of the Holy Roman Empire and eventually Germany) and Lothair gained Middle Francia (today’s Benelux, Lorraine, Alsace, Burgundy, Provence and northern Italy). Had Lothair wished to tour his vast and varied territory, he could have travelled along the route of the modern GR5.

The GR5 begins at Hoek van Holland. In Lothair’s day, Dutch land reclamation had not yet linked and expanded the islands in the Delta region. Lothair would have had to travel mostly by boat during the first days of his tour of Middle Francia. Even today, the GR5 hiker crosses the Nieuwe Waterweg (the ‘New Waterway’, opened in 1872) from Maassluis to Rozenburg by ferry (pedestrian fare: €0.80). Elsewhere, there is evidence of the prodigious works of land reclamation and water management carried out by the Dutch over the centuries: for example the Haringvlietsluizen (completed in 1971, as part of the Delta Works project), with its 17 huge sluice gates extending along 1km, which the GR5 crosses between Rockanje and Stellendam. As they say, God schiep de aarde, maar de Nederlanders schiepen Nederland: ‘God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands’.

Nieuwe Waterweg ferry on the GR5
Mary approaches the Nieuwe Waterweg ferry in the Delta region (Netherlands)

The area crossed by the GR5 is a major fault line in European history. Generations of Europeans coveted and fought over the lands of old Middle Francia, which were commercially important and crossed by strategic lines of communication. The great medieval castle of Haut Koenigsbourg, towering over the Alsatian plain, is a striking example: it was captured, sacked and burned by a Swedish army in 1633. After a steep hike up the hill on which the castle (now a late 19th century reconstruction) stands, the GR5 hiker can stop for a beer and admire the view that commands the plain.

Ancient Times

Hiking over Alpine passes reminded us of history’s most famous crossing, that of Hannibal and his army (with elephants), who crossed the Alps in 218bc on their way to attack Rome in its homeland. It isn’t known which pass they crossed, although enormous efforts have been made to answer this question, guided by the two authors who described the exploit, Polybius and Livy. One of the candidates is the Col de Montgenèvre, on the Franco–Italian border, the route taken by the GR5.

The modern hiker, wearing high-tech clothing and carrying lightweight gear, inevitably reflects upon long-distance travellers – soldiers, merchants, pilgrims – in pre-industrial times. Imagine the clothing they wore and the loads that they carried as they walked right across Europe

The Roman Empire, at its height, encompassed all of the territory through which the GR5 passes. There are remnants of the Roman presence here and there on the trail. The ruins of a Roman aqueduct that carried water from a prized source near Gorze to settlements along the Moselle River in Lorraine stand beside the trail. The Romans left their mark in the depths of a forest in the Vosges, south of Abreschviller, in the form ofbornes militaires, boundary stones set out by Roman soldiers to mark distances on their roads. In one place, it was the Romans themselves who built the GR5 trail: the rocky path that the GR5 follows down a hill toward Nyon (in Switzerland) incorporates the remains of a Roman road – which is in better condition than the modern path!

Medieval Europe

In the Vosges we walked beside the Mur païen, an extraordinary wall built with enormous blocks of stone. There has been much debate and speculation about when it was built, from as early as the Bronze Age to as late as the 7th century ad.

Cathedrals and castles conjure up images of medieval Europe. We passed one château after another in the Vosges, where the high ground offered obvious strategic advantages. For example, in two days we passed the Châteaux de Bernstein, Haut Koenigsbourg, Haut-Ribeaupierre, Saint-Ulrich and Guirsberg – all perched upon steep slopes of the mountains, looking over the plain, and we marvelled at the human and material resources – extracted primarily from the peasantry – that were required to build and maintain those castles.

There are great cathedrals near the GR5, which we visited during rest days. Our B&B in Liège was next door to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, a collégiale which became a cathedral in 1802 following the destruction of the medieval Saint-Lambert Cathedral in 1795. The cathedrals of Metz and Strasbourg are among the most renowned in Europe. The Collégiale Saint-Thiebaut in Thann (Vosges) is a lesser-known gem. It is said thatStrasbourg a le plus haut, Fribourg le plus gros, Thann le plus beau – ‘Strasbourg has the highest, Fribourg the largest, Thann the most beautiful’.

Roman Road near Nyon
Roman road leading to Nyon (Switzerland)
Mur païen on the GR5
Carroll tests the solidity of the Mur païen (Vosges)

Early Modern Europe

We arrived in Brielle on 2nd May, the second day of our hike, in the midst of a holiday commemorating the liberation of the Netherlands by Allied forces in May 1945. Brielle has its own special place in Dutch history: on 1 April 1572 the watergeuzen (‘sea beggars’) descended upon the city and seized it, an event that gave impetus to the Dutch war for independence. Mocking Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba and the Spanish governor of the Netherlands, the Dutch like to recite a pun: ‘Op 1 April verloor Alva zijn bril – ‘on April 1st, Alva lost his glasses’.

The Open Air Museum at Bokrijk (near Genk) is a fascinating place, preserving buildings, furniture and artefacts of pre-industrial Flemish society. We had visited Bokrijk years ago and were looking forward to seeing it again, as it lies beside the GR5, but it was closed on the day we arrived (Monday).

The GR5 is never far from borderlands that were in dispute and subject to conquest, in particular France’s eastern border. Modern France incorporates territory taken from virtually the entire length of Lothair’s Middle Francia, and of course such territory had to be defended. The GR5 passes many fortifications from the 17th to the 19th centuries along France’s mountain borders:

•        We walked over a hill crowned by the ruins of the Fort du Salbert, built between 1874 and 1877 as part of a network of fortifications planned by General Séré de Rivières to defend the Belfort Gap (Trouée de Belfort) between Alsace and the Jura after the Franco–Prussian war.

•   We paused for lunch at Fort Mahler (Cluse-et-Mijoux), another Séré de Rivières fort built between 1882 and 1884 to protect the Château de Joux (built from the 11th to the 19th centuries), where the leader of the rebellion that led to the independence of Haiti, Toussaint-Louverture, was imprisoned, dying in 1803.

•   The GR5 passes through Briançon, one of the celebrated fortresses planned by the Marquis de Vauban in the 17th century to defend France’s eastern borders with Savoie and the Swiss Canton of Vaud.

•   The Fort de Virayse, between the Col du Vallonet and the Col de Mallemort (Ubaye), was built in the 1880s when Italy was a potential enemy. The ruins of the barracks below the fort are a good place to stop for a picnic lunch (and seek shelter in case of bad weather)

Pont d'Asfeld on the GR5
Pont d'Asfeld completed in 1734 (Briancon)

Borderlands

The GR5 travels along parts of the historic linguistic border between the Romance and the Germanic languages. At the border between the Netherlands and Belgium there is a seamless passage from Dutch to its cousin Flemish, although the spoken languages do differ. Within Belgium, the language border is distinct (and fixed by law). Entering the Province of Liège, one passes from the Flemish-speaking region to the French-speaking region.

There is also a small German-speaking area in Belgium (Eupen-Malmédy, taken from Germany after World War I). Communication was difficult at the B&B in Braunlauf – our German-speaking hosts were not comfortable in French and English, and our German was very rusty – but we all managed to make ourselves understood.

History is revealed in border stones (bornes): the GR5 follows sections of the Franco–German border as it existed between 1871 (when Germany annexed Alsace and part of Lorraine) and 1918 (when France recovered the lost territory). We passed bornes that had been placed along the border in Lorraine, between Gorze and Vandières, and along the border in Alsace north of the Col de la Schlucht. Originally, the letters F and D were neatly chiselled on the western and eastern sides of these bornes, respectively. In most cases, the Ds had been chiseled off – tangible evidence that this is no longer the Franco–German border.

The GR5 follows a length of the Franco–Swiss border in the Jura, which is also marked by bornes. There have been no recent changes to the border itself, but internal changes have had an impact on the bornes: many of them date from around 1817–1819, shortly after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy following the defeat of Napoleon. On the French side, there was a coat of arms with the fleur de lys. Most of thosefleurs de lys have been chiseled off – presumably some time after the overthrow of the French monarchy (or, at least, the Bourbons) and the establishment of the Republic, which occurred in several stages over the course of the 19th century: 1830, 1848, 1875. The bornes on the Swiss side reflect developments in Switzerland’s history, too: the early 19th-century stones display the coats of arms of Swiss cantons (Berne, Neuchâtel). Switzerland’s modern federal constitution was adopted in 1848, and so the 20th-century bornesdisplay the national symbol, a cross.

The Alps of the GR5 trek
Vallee Etroite (Valle Stretta)

Ian Kershaw’s recent history of Europe 20th century is entitled To Hell and Back. Stigmata of this tumultuous history lie along the GR5.

The Franco–Italian border was shifted after World War II and the Treaty of Paris in 1947, as France annexed small territories in the mountains for strategic reasons that are no longer important. The GR5 passes through one of those territories: the Vallée Étroite (Italian: Valle Stretta), south of Modane. The Vallée Étroite is an anomaly in France, remaining thoroughly Italian in its culture. People there speak Italian, and the two refuges at the Granges de la Vallée Étroite serve lots of polenta. Telephones are connected to the Italian telephone network, using the Italian country code (+39), rather than the French (+33), while in winter the Vallée Étroite is accessible by road only from Bardonecchia in Italy. 

World War I

The GR5 does not cross iconic battlefields of World War I, such as Passchendaele, the Somme, the Chemin des Dames and Verdun, where the casualties amounted to millions: instead, it passes little-known battlefields where smaller numbers of soldiers fought intensely and died for little purpose. Seeing such places and recalling their history, the hiker gains a new insight into the horror of the war.

In Lorraine we walked through Bois-le-Prêtre and a nearby military cemetery, northwest of Pont-à-Mousson, where intense fighting took place in late 1914 and early 1915. A sign beside the trail states that French casualties amounted to 7000 killed and 22,000 wounded, and that German losses were roughly the same.

In Alsace we climbed through a forest to the Tête des Faux, passing bunkers built by German forces, tangles of barbed wire at the top of the hill, and a French military cemetery on the other side. Further south we passed Hartmannswillerkopf, the scene of bitter fighting during 1915 that left the battle lines essentially unchanged, but at the cost of some 14,500 dead on the French side (many interred at the national cemetery there) and 12,500 Germans.

World War II

On our first day on the GR5 we passed an old German bunker in the woods near Hoek van Holland, overgrown with vegetation and now protected as a reservation for bats (vleermuisreservaat). Further on the GR5 passes Eben-Emael, on the Meuse River between Maastricht and Liège, the location of a major Belgian fort captured by the Germans in an audacious airborne attack on 10th–11th May 1940, at the beginning of their offensive in the West.

German bunker on GR5
German bunker now a reservation for bats (vleermuisreservaat) near Hoek van Holland (Netherlands)

Further south, a small memorial near Larche, on the Franco–Italian border at the northern end of the Mercantour National Park, marks one of the areas attacked by the Italians when they opportunistically joined the war on Germany’s side in June 1940. At the Hôtel de la Balance in Montbéliard we stayed in the room that was used by General Lattre de Tassigny as his residence during the Allied offensive through the Belfort Gap (Trouée de Belfort) into Alsace between late 1944 and early 1945; the décor from that time has been preserved.

Walking through the Ardennes, we encountered familiar place names and memorial plaques commemorating the Battle of the Ardennes, December 1944–January 1945. Most memorable of all was the German concentration camp at Struthof, near Schirmeck in the Vosges. We had visited Struthof in 1989 and planned to do so again this year: however the camp was closed to visitors that day, because a special ceremony was being held. We walked past the camp and the quiet cemetery, with plans to visit again some other time. In the evening, in Le Hohwald, we shared a table in a restaurant with a Norwegian couple who had attended the ceremony. The man’s father, a member of the Norwegian Resistance, had been imprisoned at Struthof. The Norwegians were friendly and interesting people, and  we enjoyed our dinner with them very much.

Struthof Concentration Camp
Struthof Concentration Camp near Schirmeck (Vosges)

Post-War Europe

The GR5, departing from Ouren, Belgium, passes a point near the Our River where the borders of Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany meet. Nothing marks the actual border between Belgium and Luxembourg, apart from a change in the road markings, but nearby there is a monument commemorating the signature of the Treaty of Rome (1957), an important step in the post-war reconciliation of Europeans.

About a week later we passed close to Schengen, the city in Luxembourg where the treaty establishing borderless travel between certain European states was signed in 1985. The entire GR5 now lies within the ‘Schengen Area’, and we didn’t show our passports from Hoek van Holland to Nice. We hope that the Schengen system survives the current crises confronting Europe.