The longer the better (when it comes to hiking)

The great walking routes of Europe are now big business and treks can take anything from three days to three months. Jeremy Atiyah digs out his rucksack and bivvy bag and heads for the mountains, valleys and history
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The Independent Online
To know Europe as it used to be it is hard to beat the experience of walking across a chunk of it. Not only can you escape the motorways and urban life, but you can, in some cases, follow in the footsteps of travellers of ages past.

Admittedly, several of the walks mentioned here are far too long for most people to complete in their entirety, but you can always join and leave the trail at points of your choice. These days, long-distance walking is big business, with marked trails straddling entire countries, and tour operators offering all-inclusive walking packages ranging from a couple of days to as long as a month long.

Most of the following grand European walks can only be sensibly undertaken in the summer months as they often pass through mountainous areas. For the same reason, a reasonable level of fitness will be required, as will a readiness, in places, to sleep overnight in fairly basic accommodation. This can mean mountain huts, refuges or (in France) Gite d'tapes in which dormitories are the norm. Don't be deceived, though, by the term "hut" which often actually refers to busy, comfortable youth hostel-style accommodation where walkers sip claret as they rest their limbs.

In summer the mountain huts are often full and advance reservations may be required. Serious planning should start with maps from Stanfords bookshop and your walking equipment will obviously include boots, waterproofs, cooking utensils and survival blankets. For detailed lists of refuges, contact the relevant tourist boards well in advance of your trip.

Offa's Dyke

This classic British walk meanders along the border between England and Wales for 177 miles between Prestatyn on the coast of north Wales and Sedbury Cliffs on the Severn Estuary. Remains of the dyke are still visible in some places en route. The walk can be done in a fairly leisurely fortnight, though there are some hilly sections.

The Pennine Way

Covers 270 miles along the spine of northern England, from Edale in the Derbyshire peak district to Kirk Yetholm just over the border in Scotland. The first official long-distance footpath in Britain, it was opened in 1965 and runs through moors, valleys and hills, including the highest point of the Pennines at Cross Fell. The whole walk, which can be pretty strenuous at times, takes at least three weeks. HF Holidays run organised tours.

ITALIAN ALPS

The famous Grand Traversata delle Alpi through the Italian Alps starts in the area of Viozene in southern Piedmont and follows a network of Alpine refuges north through the province of Cuneo, the Valle di Susa and the Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso, finishing on the banks of Lake Maggiore. Access is from Turin. You can get a detailed map covering the walk called Percorsi e Posti Tappa GTA from the Turin tourism office at Via Roma 226, as well as information about refuges. Allow at least a couple of weeks for the whole walk. The Alternative Travel Group, one of the pioneers in the field of long-distance walking in Europe, runs an organised walk in the Dolomites, as does Inntravel.

Tour du Mont Blanc

This is a five or six-day walk around the mighty Mont Blanc massif. The walk takes in France, Italy and Switzerland and along the way you'll enjoy the highest mountain scenery in Europe, though the route is really feasible only in July and August. For access, the best approach is from Geneva, and then by coach or train to Les Houches via St Gervais. Using Les Houches is recommended to first-time visitors as a gentle starting point (though the trail can be joined anywhere en route). For more general information on walking tours, as well as details of refuges in the Swiss Alps, there are a couple of useful organisations to contact in Switzerland. These are the Schweizerischer Jugendherbergen or the Verlag Schweizer Alpen-Club.

Corsica High Route

Known in French officialese as the Grande Randonee 20, this is one of the toughest walks in Europe, running for 88 miles over the spine of the country and requiring about a fortnight (though in 1991 one proud Corsican managed it in 37 hours). The refuges are basic and do not provide food, so you need to stock up in villages en route. Walking from south to north - from Conca near Porto-Vecchio in the south to Vizzavona in the north - is said to be the easiest way round. Some of the many delights of the GR20 include the relatively mild weather, the sea-views and the Mediterranean atmosphere. On the other hand, some sections are seriously strenuous and should not be attempted by people without mountain experience. The route is clear of snow from June to early November.

Camino de Santiago

(Grande Randonee 65). Otherwise known as the Chemin de St Jacques or The Way of St James, this is in many respects the grandfather of all great European walks. Starting from St Jean Pied de Port in the French Basque Country, it is simply the modern version of the medieval Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route from northern Europe to Santiago de Compostela. The 500-mile route can take as long as three months for leisurely pilgrims, but it does take in the magnificent scenery around Pamplona in the Spanish Basque country and, later, the Picos de Europa. Short sections of the route won't earn you a place in heaven but they are highly recommended. An ideal place to fly to would be Biarritz in south-west France.

The Pyrenees

There are several famous walking trails that cross from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean along the Pyrenees. These are the physically rigorous Haute Randonnee Pyreneene, which runs virtually from peak to peak, and the much less demanding but longer Grande Randonee 10 (both in Spain) and the Spanish Gran Recorrido 11. Covering any of these in their entirety can be a matter of a month or even longer, so short sections are ideal. Useful airports in the region include Bilbao and Biarritz. The Alternative Travel Group covers sections of the walk in the Spanish Basque country, while Alto Aragon also specialises in treks in the Pyrenees.

Gorge of Samaria, CRETE

At only 11 miles, and taking a mere six or seven hours , this may be the shortest walk in this series but it is still the longest gorge in Europe, and one of the few walks that is a joy off-season as well as on. Amid pine forests and wild flowers, nearly 450 species of plant flourish as well as a rare kind of horned Ibex called the kri-kri. From top to bottom, the route runs from Xyloskalo, which is accessible on foot from Omalos in the eastern part of the island, down to Ayia Roumeli on the coast. However, be warned that although this is a short walk, you'll still need solid boots. Watch out for flooding in spring and crowds in summer.

Pindhos Traverse

The Pindhos mountains in north-western Greece are hugely scenic and dotted with superb old stone villages. Of the many walking trails, the most famous and popular pass is through the awesome Vikos Gorge. The major long-distance trek, which takes in all the highlights including the gorge, is known as the 03 and is best started from Monodhendhri, one hour by bus from the regional centre of Ioannina. Exodus Travel and Waymark Holidays both run organised long- distance walks in the area.

FACT FILE

Maps

Stanfords, 12-14 Long Acre, London WC2 (0171 836 2260).

Tourist boards

France 0891 244123; Switzerland 0171 734 1921; Italy 0171 408 1254; Austria 0171 629 0461; Spain 0891 669920.

Offa's Dyke/Pennine Way

HF Holidays 0181 905 9558.

Italian Alps

The Alternative Travel Group (01865 310 399) Inntravel (01653 628811).

Tour du Mont Blanc

Schweizerischer Jugendherbergen, Schaffhauserstrasse 14, Postfach CH- 8042 Zurich (tel: 00 41 1 360 1414), or the Verlag Schweizer Alpen-Club, Postfach 1347004, Chur (00 41 81 286 9045).

Pyrenees

Travel Group (01865 513333); Alto Aragon (01869 337339).

Pindhos Traverse

Exodus Travel (0181 675 5550) and Waymark Holidays (01753 516477).

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