Take Spain in your stride
Follow in the footsteps of Martin Sheen on the Camino de Santiago, or explore one of the country's many other stunning hikes
Wednesday 11 May 2011
What's the attraction?
This Friday sees the release of the Emilio Estevez-directed film The Way, in which his father Martin Sheen shares the top billing with El Camino de Santiago, the 800km pilgrimage route that stretches the length of Spain's northern coast. Although the Camino is undoubtedly one of Europe's great walks, Spain has plenty of other exciting options. The country has come relatively late to the idea of walking for leisure, but there are now marked trails along the length of the Pyrenees and the river Ebro, national parks that are criss-crossed with paths, while specialist tour operators are constantly prospecting new routes.
Show me 'The Way'
Many walkers start the pilgrimage where the film begins, at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees. The full trip takes from five to six weeks to complete. You cross plains and mountains on paths and roads, and pass some of Spain's most beautiful churches, monasteries and cathedrals. Cheap food and accommodation is available for pilgrims who have a credencial – the pilgrim's passport, available from the pilgrims' office in St-Jean. There's no need to have a religious belief to tackle the Camino de Santiago, nor must you tackle the whole route. Several operators offer tapas-sized stretches of the pilgrimage with baggage transferred between hotels. Explore's new 15-day guided group "Highlights of the Way" holiday was devised in collaboration with Estevez and visits many of the filming locations. Prices start at £1,693 per person, including B&B and flights from London (0845 013 1537; www.explore.co.uk).
Show me another way
Spain's newest waymarked long-distance route is El Camino Natural del Ebro (the Ebro Way), otherwise known as the GR99 ( www.caminosnaturales.com/ebro). It follows the length of the river Ebro, starting in the Cantabrian mountains not far from Santander, crosses the vineyards of La Rioja and finishes in the marshy, bird-filled Ebro delta, between Barcelona and Valencia.
Much less travelled than the Camino de Santiago, but at least as much of an adventure, is the 1,000km Via de la Plata (Silver Route). Starting in Seville, it crosses the broad plains of Extremadura before entering green and hilly Galicia. For route information, see www.santiago-compostela.net.
Alternatively, for aficionados of mountain walking, a path named the GR11 runs along the entire length of the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean (or vice versa) and parallels the much better-known GR10 on the French side of the mountains. This year for the first time Collett's Mountain Holidays is offering a week's walking along the GR11, centred on the town of Panticosa. The price, based on two sharing, including all meals and airport transfer but excluding flights to Pau or Zaragoza, is £699 per person (01799 513331; www.colletts.co.uk).
The best walking country
A good rule of thumb is to head for the hills. Behind the hot, heaving beaches of Andalucia, there are several areas where you can escape the crowds. The Alpujarras, in the lee of the Sierra Nevada, have fine hill walks starting from the village of Pampaneira. Get there by car or bus via the town of Lanjaron, just off the A44, the motorway that links Granada and the south coast. Closer to the Costa, less than an hour's drive east of Malaga is a hilly region called Axarquia. Walk Andalucia (020 8385 2024; www.walk-andalucia.com) offers an eight-day group walking tour of the region. Prices start at £645 per person, including meals, accommodation in village houses and local transport. Flights are not included.
The Canary Islands benefit from coastal breezes and generally lower temperatures than the Spanish mainland in the hot summer months, but it's during the winter that Spain's Atlantic outpost really comes into its own. One of the must-do walks on Spanish territory is the ascent of Tenerife's dormant volcano Mount Teide: a day's trek through startling rockscapes starting near the Parador de Cañadas del Teide.
Two of the smaller Canary Islands, La Palma and La Gomera, are ideal for walking on trails through well-forested highlands. Sherpa Expeditions has an eight-day self-guided walking holiday around La Gomera, which costs from £599 per person and includes a mix of bed and breakfast and full-board accommodation, but excludes flights to Tenerife South and the ferry transfer to La Gomera (020 8577 2717; www.sherpa-walking-holidays.co.uk).
Off the beaten track
You can't get much further off-road while still being within easy reach of airports (in this case Girona and Barcelona) than the Catalan region of Garrotxa. In the south is a gentle landscape of ancient volcanoes and medieval villages, while to the north of the river Fluvia is a less-managed wilderness. Experience it with the seven-day Foothills of the Pyrenees itinerary offered by Inntravel (01653 617001; www.inntravel.co.uk). The price of £770 per person (£798 from 28 May to 30 September, £780 in October) includes accommodation, all meals and luggage transportation. Not included are flights to Barcelona or Girona or transfers.
Late in the day
The town of Sóller in northern Mallorca is an excellent walkers' base, particularly in late autumn. Get there on the narrow-gauge railway from Palma de Mallorca and stay at Hotel El Guia (00 34 971 630227; www.sollernet.com/elguia), with doubles from €89 including breakfast. There's nothing quite like the walk from Soller down to the delightful cove of Sa Calobra, where the sea – even in early November – is still warm enough for a well-deserved swim. Alternatively, the Exodus eight-day group walking holiday in this area, the Serra de Tramuntana, costs from £919 per person, including accommodation, meals and the flight from London to Palma (020 8772 3936; www.exodus.co.uk).
What Google will tell you...
"The GR7 starts in the municipal district of Tarifa in the province of Cadiz, on the furthest south-west tip of Spain, where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic... Although there are clearly marked red and white painted markers, which indicate the continuation of the GR7 along its tracks, some of these have been removed or have become hidden by overgrown shrubbery. We have found that it is not possible to walk the route based only on tourist office descriptions and the signposts alone. One missing signpost could result in a very long detour." ( www.andalucia.com)
What Google won't tell you... until now
Although there's no shortage of companies offering guided or self-guided walks, with or without luggage transportation, including or not including flights, it's not hard to organise it yourself. The most important single factor to bear in mind is the heat: during July and August, the old adage involving mad dogs, Englishmen and the midday sun definitely applies, particularly in the south of the country. April, May and June are the best months for seeing flowers and birds. Good maps are essential and not always easy to get. The most reliable single UK source for these (and for guides to the long walks) is Stanfords map shop (020 7836 1321; www.stanfords.co.uk).
'The Way' is released on Friday
Who said that?
"My clothes steamed and dried as the sun grew stronger. The sea shone white, a clean morning freshness after last night's smoky fires. The rising hills before me went stepping away inland, fiercely shaped under the great blue sky. I nibbled some bread and fruit, rolled my things in a bundle, and washed my head and feet in a spring. Then shouldering my burden, and still avoiding the road, I took a track south-east for Zamora."
Laurie Lee describes the first night of his epic walk across 1930s Spain in 'As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning' (published in 1969)
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