On the right path

Spain's varied countryside provides the perfect backdrop for walkers

"As I sat down at my computer one April morning..." When you think of a good long-distance walk, Spain isn't the first destination that springs to mind. In the heat of midsummer Andalucía, for instance, anything more than a short stroll from the beach to the bar is quite off the agenda. Yet, if you pick your season and region with care, you'll find that Spain now offers a range of paths and trails to match any in Europe. With some planning, and effort, you can invoke the spirit of Laurie Lee, walking out one May morning, that dwells within us all.

"As I sat down at my computer one April morning..." When you think of a good long-distance walk, Spain isn't the first destination that springs to mind. In the heat of midsummer Andalucía, for instance, anything more than a short stroll from the beach to the bar is quite off the agenda. Yet, if you pick your season and region with care, you'll find that Spain now offers a range of paths and trails to match any in Europe. With some planning, and effort, you can invoke the spirit of Laurie Lee, walking out one May morning, that dwells within us all.

The mother of Spanish trails, and indeed of all European long-distance walks, is the pilgrims route to Santiago de Compostela: el Camino de Santiago. This pilgrimage has attracted walkers for over 1,000 years. The section within Spain stretches from the Pyrenean pass of Roncesvalles to the cathedral of Santiago in the Galician city of the same name. The whole journey through Spain usually takes four to five weeks. As 2004 is "Un Año Santo", a Holy Year, this year's pilgrims have the bonus of receiving a plenary indulgence - a remission of their lifetime's sins.

For a much less-frequented walk of similar length, the Vía de la Plata, the so-called "Silver Way" starts in Seville and follows stretches of Roman road on its way to Santiago de Compostela.

Other areas where you'll find enjoyable and often challenging routes are the central Sierra de Gredos and the northern Picos de Europa, while Galicia, Spain's Celtic fringe has more than pilgrim routes to offer. The coastal walk around the rugged and beautiful Costa da Morte, in the northwestern corner of A Coruña province, is a couple of days of great views and isolated beaches. You can combine this, the "Spindrift Walk", with other shorter inland walks and it has the advantage of a much cooler summer climate than most of the rest of Spain.

The most spectacular Spanish walk goes by the unenticing name of the GR11; "GR" stands for Grande Recorrido, the "brand name" for more than 50 waymarked footpaths, each 50km or more, around Spain. This Pyrenean traverse goes from Irún on the Atlantic to Cabo de Creus on the Mediterranean. It parallels both the Franco-Spanish border and the better-known GR10 on the French side of the mountains. Spain's trail crosses wilder and less populated landscapes, though perhaps because of this, it is not as well waymarked as its French equivalent.

The whole trek takes about six weeks but it can be broken down into stages as short as a day. In early summer, a splendid array of wild flowers appears, and for birdwatchers the two migration seasons bring the chance of spotting all manner of unusual birds of prey as they cross the mountain passes.

Spain's GR10 is an epic walk: it starts at Puçol, north of the third city, Valencia, and aims west towards the Portuguese frontier and indeed all the way to Lisbon. The longest of them all, the GR7, crosses the whole country on a diagonal from the geo-political anachronism known as Andorra to the Andalucian port of Algeciras, close to Gibraltar. The full path is not yet complete, but one of its best stretches developed so far takes you on a four-day trek through the Sierra Nevada, the Andalucian range that boasts Spain's highest peaks. The GR7 also forms part of the little-known "Els Ports" four-day circuit which loops through the passes, gorges and isolated villages in the northern part of the Valencian region.



Recommended reading: 'Walking in Spain' (Lonely Planet, £14.99).

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