The GR2013 at Marseille-Provence airportThe Grande Randonnée GR2013 is a new long-distance footpath through the varied rural and urban landscapes of Southern Provence. logoClick here to book a hotel in Provence

France already has a very extensive network of footpaths, administered by the Fédération française de la randonnée pédestre (FFRP), the national rambling federation. These cover the whole of the country: over 58,000 km / 36,000 miles of long distance footpaths, or Grandes Randonnées, and 120,000 km / 74,500 miles of local ones.

So why create another one? The GR2013 was born in 2013 as part of the MP2013 European Capital of Culture programme. And, mapped out by a collective of artists who are also keen ramblers, it's a footpath with a difference.

It doesn't just pass through some of the magnificent countryside and familiar tourist attractions for which Provence is justly celebrated. Shopping malls, industrial areas and a disused railway line are on the agenda too.

The idea is to take hikers to unusual places and enable them to discover the region's striking urban and commercial landmarks. Nearly half the route follows made-up or tarmacked roads.

Graffito on the Grande Randonnee 2013In fact, the GR2013 is described by its creators as "the first metropolitan and artistic hiking trail. Often the Grandes Randonnées go through remote rural areas," they continue. "This one goes to places that you pass through every day without necessarily looking at them."

Their aim is to go beyond the clichés of Provence and unveil its sharply contrasting vistas: city and country, land and sea, past, present and future.

topoguide 2013The GR2013 runs 365 km / 227 miles, should take 15 days to walk and is shaped as a large figure of eight (the artists who designed it like to compare the route to the sign for infinity or to a Moebius strip).

A 200-page topoguide (a definitive illustrated guide) has been been published by the Fédération française de la randonnée pédestre.

On the left page is a map and on the right page a description of the track, with information about services in the villages that the route passes through.

Unlike conventional topoguides, there are also commentaries, photographs and drawings by the artists who collectively created the route.

Insider tip for the GR2013 Grande RandonneeBuy the GR2013 topoguide on French Amazon for substantial savings: it's less than a third of the listed price on Amazon UK. Find the Topoguide GR2013 on Amazon France.

This map also gives an overview. Click on it to enlarge the image.

Map of the Grande Randonnee 2013Because of the severe fire risk throughout this region in summer, access on foot is restricted by law between 1 June and 30 September.

During this period there are three risk levels: orange (access authorised), red (access authorised between 6am and 11am) and black (access banned).

The level varies according to weather conditions and is set daily at 6pm for the following day. It's available on the official helpline, tel (+33) 8 11 20 13 13, in English as well as French and published (in French only) on the website of Météo France.

Even on days when access is authorised, the heat - amplified by the sun and reflected by the white rocks - will make hiking disagreeable in the middle of the day, and July and August are best avoided altogether whatever the weather. The best times of year to go hiking in Southern Provence are the spring and autumn.

Plenty of water and protective headgear are essential, as well as the usual equipment. As the terrain here is very rocky and stony, you're advised to wear hiking shoes or thick-soled walking shoes rather than open sandals.

Any parts of the trail involving climbing could be dangerous on days of the Mistral (Provence's fierce, gusting wind). You should be sure to check the weather report before setting out.

One loop of the GR2013 extends as far as Miramas and encircles L'Étang de Berre (the Berre Lake) to the north-west of Marseille.

Few tourists are aware of the fact, but Southern Provence is highly industrialised, and this trail skirts the oil refineries and trading estates in the vicinity of Fos sur Mer, the suburbs of Marseille and Marseille-Provence airport at Marignane. It intends to open our eyes to the starkly contemporary beauties of areas where we might not think of walking.

The other loop of the GR2013 goes round the spectacular Etoile mountain range inland to the east of the city.

Mont Julien, L'Etoile range near AubagneMore traditional hiking territory, it passes through the landscapes of Aubagne made famous in the books of Marcel Pagnol and skirts both the calanques and Paul Cézanne's beloved Mont Saint Victoire. Pictured: Mont Julien at the eastern edge of the Etoile range.

Surprisingly, it's the first time that a Grande Randonnée has been set up through L'Etoile. And this stretch also contains some unexpected discoveries, such as an abandoned train line between Aubagne and Bouilladisse.

The two circuits cross each other at Aix TGV station, one of Provence's key transport hubs and a centre of its economy.

The creative force behind the Grande Randonnée 2013 includes the writer and "urban ecologist" Baptiste Lanaspèze (who originated the project), the performer Mathias Poisson, the architect Nicolas Mémain and the experimental artist Liliane Lijn.

Aix TGV station on the Grande Randonnee 2013For a year and a half, these enthusiasts met regularly to test out portions of the route which is marked out with the FFRP's red and yellow Grande Randonnée signage.

Throughout 2013, the artists organised special events such as son et lumière shows, musical "soundwalks", random artworks and gourmet picnics at intervals all along the way.

But it's not all over now for the GR2013. It's designed as a long-term project that can be walked in the conventional manner, either independently or in an organised group, and regular hikes and other activities are programmed on the website for the Grande Randonnée GR2013.


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