The Forêt des Vert-tiges is a fantastic tree top rope course on the northern outskirts of Pau, south west France. We spent October half-term this year in Pau with our friend Jacqueline. What a great play on words: Forêt des Vert-tiges. Yes, it really is a forest of both vertigo and green branches. It’s described as a “Parc accrobranche” – originally a brand name, but now used all over France to denote “high ropes” courses in forest settings.
Forêt des Vert-tiges is a tree-to-tree adventure course. You can find your feet on the rope bridges, wobbly crossings and zip wires. Below this, winding through the forest, you can free your feet on a barefoot trail. Here’s your chance to really connect with nature, in the tree tops and on the ground. The writer Astrid Lindgren wrote children’s stories about playing in nature, and I’ve written about them in a recent blog post. Everything in the Forêt des Vert-tiges is made of wood – there’s no plastic to be seen anywhere and the sight and smell of the wood has a really calming effect.
My daughter loved the high ropes course. You need to understand French to do the course, because the written and verbal instructions are all in French.
“When you enter the Forêt, it’s a surprise to find that the setting is undisturbed – no tacky billboards or concrete paths. After our friend dropped us off at the small car park between the corn fields, we walked along a gravel path surrounded by corn plants browned by the sun – “les épis de mais”. We bought our tickets at the log cabin from which you can see some of the climbing paths – “les parcours”. At this point Mum opted out of the climbing, choosing the “Sentier pieds nus” instead. This is a trail around the forest where you feel different surfaces with your feet – from river bogs to pebbles.
I chose the medium climbing level, age 9+. They expect you to take about 3 hours and it costs 17 euros. I was kitted out with the harness and helmet. I went with other children doing the same level to another cute wooden cabin to watch the safety video. If at any point we needed help we were to shout “Gigi!” and an instructor would come straight away.
We had a practice run on an easy trail, then it was time to begin. It was then that I noticed that all the other children were with their families and all of them seemed to know each other. And they all seemed to know where they were going. When I asked one of the instructors for the way to start, he led me to a board with a map in the centre. He told me that I couldn’t go above the difficulty level shown by the 3 leaves symbol and then he left me. Right, let’s be independent then, I thought.
As I went through the trails on my own I increased them in difficulty. The hardest one I did was a trail right up in the tree tops, with zip wires connecting trees. Extremely scary. But I was actually standing in the tree tops and I had fantastic views of strawberry fields!
At one point in this trail, I saw a sign for the next section which said “Attention!…” and I didn’t get the rest of the message. There was a verb I didn’t understand. It was a high path of wooden tube things to walk across. Easy enough, I thought. I took one step, one of the wooden tube things rolled, I slipped and was left dangling by my harness a LONG way off the ground. It turned out the phrase I missed was “they roll”. The girl in front of me was worried for my safety: “T’as besoin d’aide?” But I managed to hoist myself back up onto the path.”
Back to Mum:
I’m glad I didn’t see my daughter dangling from the platform of “wooden tube things” even if completely safe on a harness.
In the meantime I was keeping my feet on the ground. I was sloshing, scrunching and balancing my way along the barefoot trail, or “sentier pieds nus”.
I’d heard of “Barfusspfaede” in Germany. It turns out that there are lots of these trails around Europe. Most of them are in Germany and Austria and they’re popular in Switzerland, Hungary and Denmark as well. Click here for a list of recommended paths in Europe and some information about the whole concept of walking without your shoes on.
I can imagine the trails being popular with Germans and Austrians because of their love of outdoor activities and the heritage of Sebastien Kneipp, a 19th century naturopathy enthusiast. Naturopathy is a holistic health system including hydrotherapy, phytotherapy (plants), exercise, good nutrition and a balanced mind. Kneipp believed that natural stimuli would bring therapeutic benefits and he emphasized the importance of having a healthy circulation. Perhaps that’s why Germans now seem to worry about their “Kreislauf” (circulation; literally “circle run”).
The barefoot trail is a new addition to the Forêt des Vert-tiges, having just been opened this year. It costs 5 euros. At the log cabin where you pay and get your towel, they tell you that the trail (le parcours) takes about 45 minutes and it’s about 1 km long. The sign at the entrance refuses entry to “nos amis les chiens” – this phrase makes me smile as it softens the blow for dog owners. Our canine friends are not allowed on the trail for hygiene reasons, of course. The sign suggests you switch off your phone to enhance the relaxation effect. Off you go, to waken your senses! On y va.
I love going barefoot on the beach and paddling in the sea. On the first warm day in spring I can’t wait to walk on the lawn with my shoes off. On the barefoot path I’d be able to walk on lots of different natural surfaces without worrying about stepping on fox poo or a rusty nail. A new experience. I thought it would be like having a foot massage.
At the entrance to the path you leave your shoes and socks and loan towel on a shelf, then you roll up your trousers and set off to walk the walk.
As I expected, the path was very clean and well maintained. It was obvious that a tremendous amount of work had been involved in constructing it. Most clients are probably people like me who chicken out of the high ropes. It doesn’t matter how muddy you get because you know there are foot-cleaning facilities at the end, in the river. The beginning of the trail is quite gentle. So if you have disabilities you can just do the beginning and stop when you’ve had enough.
There are lots of options during the walk: if any experience is too intense you can side step it. You get to walk on various natural materials with your bare feet. You get soil, mud, water, grass, straw, sand, stones, twigs…
Some of the materials were completely new to me, with or without shoes. I’d never walked on palm leaves or cocoa bean husks before. Welcome to the tickle trail.
You get the opportunity to balance on logs and large stones. I had to mould my feet onto the surface of them to keep my balance.
My feet would have tipped if I’d stood on the stones in shoes, especially in those solid-soled hiking boots I find so uncomfortable. Hiking boots do the essential job of supporting your feet and stopping you from twisting your ankle, but you can’t bend your feet in them. You can’t feel what’s under your feet and you can’t grip with your toes. Your feet are insulated on a fixed flat surface.
The same applies to climbing. On the barefoot trail your toes are suddenly free to wrap round things and help you climb. I found this hard because my feet were just not used to it. Wake up, feet.
The trail winds about in the forest and then emerges onto a field.
Just when you think you’re nearly at the end, the path is suddenly obscured by hessian screens: you have to navigate through a maze in order to continue the trek.
At the end of the trail I stood in the river and scrubbed my feet clean with brushes hanging from a rope across the water. Despite the cold of the October river water, my feet felt warm.
This had been a multi-sensory experience – not just the alternating intense/soft sensations under my feet, but also the lovely forest smells and the refreshing scent from the cocoa husks. And I was immersed in the soft greens and browns of the forest.
If you do the path alone as I did, you can enjoy the peace and take in all these sensory experiences. Nobody else was on the trail when I was there but it could be awkward and distracting if it was busy. If you come with friends or family, and especially with kids, it’s a different kind of adventure, a chance to get all nice and messy. You can have a laugh and encourage each other.
Afterwards my feet were definitely more relaxed, but now I was more aware of some tension in my shoulders….
It hadn’t been quite the soft option I’d expected, but it was the best foot massage ever!
The high ropes course blends so well with the forest trees that the climbers are difficult to locate. I managed to take some photos of my climber daughter
Everyone I met along the way was very friendly and helpful; probably most of them were locals and go to Vert-tiges regularly. The instructors were very attentive: my daughter said that if someone got stuck, help would be there very quickly and she admired their skill in quickly extricating people and returning them onto the course.
There’s a sort of “waiting field” with deckchairs, drinks and food from the log cabin. You can also take a picnic. That’s where I enjoyed 27 degrees in the sun after I’d finished the trail. Relaxing in a deckchair, I was more aware of my feet than I’ve ever been. Here’s the view of the tree top course from my deckchair:
The barefoot trail gave me some food for thought…
I remember at university there was a student who never wore shoes. Not ever, and it’s cold in Leeds in January. Her experiences showed up on her feet. I’m not advocating going barefoot all the time!
If you walk barefoot more often, it must surely make your feet stronger and more flexible. Your toes learn to splay out and dig in as they’re supposed to. Apparently human feet have as many as 26 tiny joints. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors must have had strong and nimble legs and feet.
As a toddler, my daughter never wore socks or shoes in the house. She used her feet to grip onto things and didn’t seem to mind the cold. She was too busy exploring.
Now I know why yoga classes include foot exercises; it’s strange that your feet get ignored in other exercise classes. For practising balance, it’s easier to take your shoes off first and you can feel the muscles working in your feet and calves to keep you upright. Elderly people can strengthen their muscles too and that can improve their balance. And if we have stronger legs, we’re less susceptible to knee pain and our circulation improves – back to Kneipp.
To walk barefoot we have to roll our feet more; our gait becomes more natural and our heels don’t strike down so hard. Less impact means less damage to the discs in our back.
When I buy a new pair of running shoes I look for a good cushioned sole to lessen the impact when my foot strikes the ground. But some runners prefer special shoes with no cushioning at all. These emulate barefoot running and give your feet some protection from whatever might be lying on the ground. Runners start using these shoes gradually as it takes time for the foot and leg muscles to get used to them and start working as they would do naturally.
If you wear narrow or pointy or high-heeled shoes all the time, your feet start to take on the shape of the shoe, they can’t work properly and then in older age it seems you end up at the podiatrist.
Maybe this little guy at Heidelberg Zoo had the right idea – he was using his toes like fingers: