After 25 years of marriage and with a newly empty nest, my husband and I decided it was time for the best vacation ever. (Parents newly liberated from teenagers will understand why we felt so deserving.)
Our wish list included elements that don't usually share a travel itinerary: hiking through beautiful foreign terrain, taking in historical sights, eating gourmet food, and sleeping in comfortable beds. No sleeping on lumpy ground and dining on dehydrated entrees.
We managed to find the cushy, civilized hiking trip of our dreams - a self-guided walking tour in the Dordogne region of France in October - just after sending our youngest child off to college.
It was a soft-adventure vacation with just the right physical challenge for the semi-wimpy set - those who like to sweat and rack up about 80 miles over six days without risking broken bones or discomfort.
We tramped along paths that have been used for centuries, moving at our own pace, our only goal for the day to transport ourselves from one exquisite medieval town to another in time for a shower and a lavish dinner. Our bags were whisked from one hotel to the next. All we had to carry were small backpacks containing rain ponchos, water, an extra shirt should it get chilly, and picnic supplies.
"Self-guided" doesn't mean we had to be as self-reliant as the term suggests. We were on vacation, after all. Detailed maps, written directions (in French) and tourist information were provided. Dinners, breakfasts and hotels were prearranged and prepaid, all part of a package deal from La Pelerine, a French company that specializes in such excursions.
We chose a route from Figeac to Les Eyzies, a journey of eight days and seven nights, with six days of walking. The distance ranged from 10 to 16 miles a day, for a total of 81.4 miles.
The cost for the walk itself was 515 euros, or about $675 each. Add to that your round-trip flight to Paris and $440 per person for train transportation to and from the walking route, which is five hours to the south. Incidental expenses were minimal: a few dollars for lunch, wine (not included) with dinner, and souvenirs.
The experience was a perfect blend of culture and nature to soothe and refresh the soul and to reconnect as a couple. We even talked about things besides our kids. My sister, who lives in Paris, joined us for half the walk, and her fluency in French was welcome, although we managed just fine before she joined us.
There was a measure of inspiration in following in the steps of countless spiritual seekers, walking one of the most-traveled routes taken by pilgrims ancient and modern on the Way of St. James, one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during the Middle Ages. The route eventually leads to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where the apostle St. James the Great is said to be buried.
Our accommodations were thankfully designed for modern pilgrims who like their plumbing indoors. Our rooms were modest, comfortable and equipped with private bathrooms.
Our trek began with a five-hour train ride from Paris to our starting point in the small town of Figeac. Our hotel room overlooked the Cele River and a picturesque bridge into the center of the village, much of it built in the 12th and 13th centuries.
The next morning, we brought our luggage downstairs and ate a breakfast of fresh croissants, yogurt and strong coffee before saying goodbye. Our bags were whisked to the next hotel on our route.
Each morning, we would stop in little shops or at street markets to buy the day's picnic supplies - fresh bread, goat cheese, chocolate, apples and carrots - and load the treats into our packs, which already held the day's maps and directions.
To travel in France is to eat wonderful food, which we were reminded of in the most delicious way imaginable at the end of our first day of hiking. In the little town of Lacapelle Marival, we dined on a rich mushroom soup with fresh thyme, delicate roasted rabbit served with potatoes whipped with herb butter, and a dessert of fresh figs sliced paper-thin and served on top of what seemed to be crème fraîche flavored with anise.
Other memorable dishes included salmon in puff pastry, duck breast, celery-root salad, rich pâtés, lemon sorbet, salad with hot gizzards (a regional specialty), cassoulet with duck sausage and white beans, fish in phyllo dough, and panna cotta topped with a syrup of strawberry and fresh mint.
Given such menus, it seemed like metabolic magic that we actually lost a couple of pounds. I guess if you walk four to eight hours every day, you can eat without restraint.
The weather in early October was perfect for walking - warm in the sun and cool in the shade. We had one bout of rain, but our ponchos kept us dry and warm. Going in the off-season meant we had the trails to ourselves.
We had no trouble finding our way. If you have had some college French and bring a decent pocket dictionary, the directions are easy to decipher. As a bonus, your landscape vocabulary will grow. By the end of the trip you'll know that un etang is a pond, un sentier a path, une passerelle a footbridge, un chemin sablonneux a sandy path, and so on.
In addition to having written directions and detailed maps, blazes - little red-and-white stripes painted on trees - mark the way, which was along one of the many networks of walking trails, called Grandes Randonnées, that cover France. We walked along the GR6.
The route was wonderfully varied, winding through rolling green hills, mostly along dirt trails, with only a few hours of walking along roads.
The pace allows for an appreciation of details in the landscape, and each day brought new ones to relish: bright periwinkle-blue doors and shutters; scarlet-orange melons (called potirons) glowing in vegetable gardens; geese, ducks, lambs and cattle; chateaus with huge, circular towers; the rocky ruins of an ancient mill on a pretty river; trails carpeted with the spiky hulls of fallen chestnuts; and glimpses of people hunting for cepe mushrooms.
Day 1. We walked to the tiny town of Lacapelle Marival, with an imposing chateau from the 13th century at its center.
Day 2. We hiked out of a pretty green valley to the hillside town of Gramat, a larger, bustling city with medieval history.
Day 3. We reached one of France's great tourist attractions: Rocamadour. It features a grand medieval church built in the 15th century into cliffs that tower 400 feet above the Alzou River. Its romantic charms include a broken sword said to be a fragment of the weapon wielded by the chivalrous hero Roland.
Day 4. In Souillac, we saw a charming well that is still in daily use and a 12th-century Romanesque church that features fantastic carvings of devilish creatures.
Day 5. We trimmed the 26-kilometer route by about a third by starting out with a short taxi ride At the end of the day, we arrived in Sarlat, the prettiest of the towns on our itinerary. Sarlat's maze of golden-stone buildings tower along winding lanes in a wonderfully cozy mishmash. It is one of the largest and best-preserved collections of buildings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in all of France. It was a great place to sit at a sidewalk cafe and admire the chic European tourists sipping coffee and aperitifs.
Day 6. The final day of walking brought us to Les Eyzies, where prehistory comes alive thanks to the artifacts and cave paintings left behind by Cro-Magnon communities that flourished here 35,000 years ago. Because we were at the end point of our tour, we had a train to catch and didn't have time to explore the famous painted caves. Instead, we settled for the exhibits of the National Museum of Prehistory, next to our hotel.
We walked the short distance to the train station to return to Paris for a couple of days before flying home. Back in the big city, we found ourselves strapping on our walking shoes all over again and racking up even more miles.
Once you get into a walking rhythm, it's hard to stop.
Before you take off on a self-guided walking tour, there are a few things to consider.
Be realistic about your fitness level, how hard you want to work physically, and how long you wish to walk every day.
Don't pack too much stuff. Although your luggage will be transported for you, you'll have to move it yourself at the beginning and end of your tour.
Stuff you will need
Comfortable, sturdy walking shoes broken in before you leave.
Good socks, moleskin and bandages.
Comfortable walking clothes, in layers to deal with changing temperatures.
A day pack to carry water, picnic lunch and snacks, extra shirt or sweater, and a compact rain poncho.
A casual outfit for dinners and comfortable light shoes for strolling from your hotel.
Books to read in the evening, when you'll enjoy getting off your feet.
To book a tour
Mount Pleasant, S.C.
Offers dozens of self-guided walking tours in many parts of the world.
Randonnee Self-Guided Vacations
Walking, hiking and cross-country skiing tours in North America, France, Ireland and Italy.
Self-guided touring by foot and bike all over Europe, with an emphasis on French travel.
Offers walking tours, with a few self-guided options, including one in the Loire and one in the Burgundy region.
E.E.I Travel/Uniquely Europe
Self-guided walking tours and trips by barge.
The Ramblers Association
A charity that promotes walking in England, Scotland and Wales.
The National Trails
About 2,500 miles of public footpaths in England and Wales, including the 102-mile Cotswold Way between Bath and Chipping Campden.
For information on rail travel in France, visit www.voyages-sncf.com.