As early as 1947, a network of long-distance footpaths with uniform signposting (white and red markers) was developed in France. In 1959, an enthusiastic group of Walloon hikers worked together to extend one of the French routes, the GR 5, into Wallonia. In the 1960s, the Flemish Youth Hostels developed a cycling trail through Flanders and decided to extend the GR 5 even further, initially in the form of a cycling route. At the time, long-distance hiking trails were not deemed feasible in Flanders, given the region’s highly urbanised landscape.
The first GR hiking trails in Flanders
Due to the growing interest in walking in the 1970s, the idea of developing a network of long-distance hiking trails in Flanders eventually took shape. The trails were called Grote Routepaden to keep the initials GR, which were already used in France and Wallonia. In the early 1970s, a first GR route was drawn up from Deurne through the Kempen in Antwerp to Diest, which later became part of the GR 5. Next, the GR 561 Dommel – Nete – Demer was developed between Valkenswaard and Diest. The trail was officially inaugurated in March 1977.
Grote Routepaden becomes an official organisation
The Dutch-speaking GR Secretariat, which was nestled within the Flemish Youth Hostels, quickly grew into a fully-fledged Flemish hub alongside the Walloon one. They distributed guidebooks, hiking maps and information about the entire trail network, and started publishing their own guidebooks and the magazine GR-messages, which evolved into Op Weg later on. In September 1977, Grote Routepaden became an independent non-profit organisation and joined the European Ramblers Association.
Close to 5,000 km of hiking trails
The number of long-distance hiking trails grew fast across all of Flanders. One trail was inaugurated after the other and guidebooks were published for all routes. Today, the Flemish GR network comprises close to 5,000 km of permanently and uniformly waymarked hiking trails. Over the past decades, volunteers have worked hard to reroute the trails when infrastructure changes demanded so. Even today, they remain on the lookout for ways to improve the quality of the trails by including new nature reserves or military domains, as well as “slow roads” (intended for non-motorised traffic) that open to the public.
In the early 1990s, interest in long-distance cycling peaked, so Grote Routepaden created the LF network, signposted with yellow-blue markers. At the turn of the century, we joined forces with VISITFLANDERS and developed a network of LF routes, which later turned into the nine iconic cycle routes.
Over four decades later, Grote Routepaden is more active than ever. The interest in our trails continues to grow, which is reflected in our organisation’s rising number of members. All of this is thanks to the tireless efforts of over 240 committed volunteers, who continue to pass on their enthusiasm for long-distance cycling and hiking.