Travel: Walking in Europe: your complete guide

In the first of a three-page special on the pleasures of hiking, rambling and walking, Jeremy Atiyah takes a look at what our nearest neighbours have to offer

THERE IS no better way to combine healthy exercise with fresh air, rural scenery and a spot of gastronomy, than taking a walk through Europe.

How to approach your walk? One way is just to buy a detailed map and to set off making things up as you go along (the Michelin maps can hardly be bettered, though for anything more detailed contact Stanfords Map and Travel Bookshop, 12-14 Long Acre, London WC2, tel: 0171 836 2260.) Assuming that your route takes you through well-cultivated areas with plenty of villages you'll find small hotels, B&Bs and pensions, but a snag of this type of impromptu walking is that those charming dotted paths on the maps can sometimes turn into three-hour circuits of nuclear power stations.

Alternatively, you may end up in high-altitude wilderness areas. If so, then of course you will have to be prepared, 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 put off by the term "hut" which can refer to clean, comfortable youth-hostel style rooms in which good-looking continentals sip claret and discuss the niceties of hiking.

If you don't want to carry your luggage, and if you want to be sure that your route is going to be a scenic one, an all-inclusive package of a week or more along a pre-determined route is a pretty excellent idea. Such walks are sometimes guided (in a group) - otherwise you can do them on your own. Either way, they enable you to wake up to breakfasts of croissants on sunny terraces, before striding off through meadows of buttercups with nothing more than a baguette under your arm. Your tour rep will be carrying your luggage by car to the next hotel where your room (and dinner table) is already reserved.

Britain

Among all those bureaucratically named long-distance walks in Europe, Offa's Dyke is outstanding for its name, and it's not a bad walk either. This classic British stroll delineates 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. There are plenty of hills along the way, and you would be very hard pressed to complete the walk in a week (two weeks would be fairly leisurely). Acorn Activities (tel: 01432 830083) can arrange independent packages.

Offa's Dyke may have the historic credentials, but the Pennine Way, the first official long-distance footpath in Britain, is even longer, running up the Pennines from the Derbyshire Peak District to Scotland. The whole walk, which can be pretty strenuous at times, would take at least three weeks. If you want to sample sections of the walk in a friendly, group situation, call HF Holidays (tel: 0181 905 9558).

By the way, if you are worried by the down-market side of long distance hikes (camping, anoraks etc) try Wayfarers (tel: 016973 22383) whose walks are very upmarket - reckon on around pounds 1,200 for a six nighter, all-inclusive, and staying in very salubrious hotels.

France

France is a country of serious long-distance walkers, as well as pompous walking nomenclature: the long-distance walks are known as Grande Randonees. Not that it's all hard stuff: for a leisurely, civilised walk, try the independent walk "From the Alps to the Mediterranean" offered by Inntravel (Tel: 01653 628811), which begins at La Brigue in the Alpes Maritimes, and finishes at Menton on the sea.

The tough stuff is epitomised by the Corsica High Route, known in French officialese as the Grande Randonee 20, running from peak to peak for 88 miles over the spine of the country and normally requiring about a fortnight (though in 1991 one ultra-fit Corsican managed it in 37 hours). 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. The best times to walk are May/June and October. Tourism Verney (tel: 0171 495 6877) can tailor-make a walk for you, or put you into a guided group.

The French Tourist Board is on 0891 244123 (premium rate line).

Germany

Being Europe's most advanced country in terms of environmental awareness, Germany is naturally bulging with opportunities for walkers. The whole country, in fact, is covered by well-signposted and maintained footpaths. Its best-known long-distance walks have slightly twee names but don't let this deter you: The Clockmakers' Trail for example is not merely tourist kitsch, but a 17th century trail around the Black Forest, along the route walked by clock merchants who walked from village to village collecting clocks from craftsmen's workshops. If you can endure the cuckoo-clock paraphernalia, you'll love the Black Forest. For a very leisurely eight- day individual walk along the route, beginning and ending at Triberg, call Der Travel Service on 0171 290 1111. Other tour operators offering German walking holidays include Moswin Tours (tel: 0116 271 9922).

The German Tourist Board is on 0891 600100 (premium rate line).

Greece

At only 11 miles, and taking a mere six or seven hours , the Gorge of Samaria in Crete may not be on the scale of a Grande Randonee but it is still the longest gorge in Europe, and can be walked from as early as April, though watch out for floods in spring and crowds in summer. 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. For a detailed account of Cretan gorge walks, including Samaria, see page 7 of this section.

For a different kind of environment altogether, you should consider the Pindhos mountains in north-western Greece. This area, dotted with old stone villages, is hugely scenic. Of the many walking trails here, the most famous and popular pass is through the awesome Vikos Gorge (again see page 7). A major long-distance trek, which takes in all the highlights, is known as the 03 and is best started from Monodhendhri, one hour by bus from Ioannina. Exodus Travel (0181 675 5550) and Waymark Holidays (01753 516477) both run organised long-distance walks in the area.

The Greek Tourist Board is on 0171 734 5997.

Italy

For the country's longest walk, try the famous Grand Traversata delle Alpi through the Italian Alps. Starting in the Viozene area of southern Piedmont this 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.

For other Alpine walks, the Alternative Travel Group, (tel: 01865 315678) one of the pioneers in the field of long-distance walking in Europe, runs an excellent organised walk in the Dolomites.

Down on lower territory, Tuscany would be where the Gods would walk, if Gods walked. Gently rolling landscapes and superb gastronomy make this a walker's heaven. For organised group walks in the area, try the Wayfarers on 016973 22383 or, for independent walks, Headwater (tel: 01491 614 660) or Inntravel.

The Italian Tourist Board is on 0171 408 1254.

Spain

Mention "Spain" and "walk" and mention of the Camino de Santiago cannot be far away. 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, the path follows the pilgrimage route from northern Europe to Santiago de Compostela. At 500-plus-miles the 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.

For walks in the Spanish Pyranees, try Alto Aragon (01869 337 339). One interesting idea of theirs is to walk the entire Pyrenean Traverse, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, in four two-week stages (spread over this, and the subsequent three years). The first stage takes place this year in July and September.

Finally Andalucia - avoiding the heat of high summer - is another fantastic area for walking, whether that be through the gentle olive groves of Jaen or the high Alpujarras south of Granada. The Alternative Travel Group (01865 310 399) and Inntravel (01653 628811) both offer walks in the area.

The Spanish Tourist Board is on 0891 669920 (premium rate line).

Switzerland

The Tour du Mont Blanc is a five or six-day walk around the mighty Mont Blanc massif, which actually incorporates sections of France and Italy as well as Switzerland. 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: the Schweizerischer Jugendherbergen, Schaffhauserstrasse 14, Postfach CH-8042 Zurich (tel: 00 41 1 360 1414), or the Verlag Schweizer Alpen-Club, Postfach 1347004, Chur (tel: 00 41 81 286 9045).

The Swiss Tourist Board is on 0171 734 1921.

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