TRURO, ENGLAND — It’s about 80km through English countryside from this city in the heart of Cornwall to the coastal village of Coverack, and I could easily have driven it in about 90 minutes. Instead, I walked, and it took me five days.
Within an hour of setting out on the first day, the rhythmic motion of my limbs was curing transatlantic jet lag, clearing my mind and opening up my senses. I walked through villages steeped in medievalness, across fields, along beaches, down sheer cliffs, up grassy hills medallioned with sheep, along sandy coves, past lone farms in the centre of high-walled fields, and through forests thick with legend. The landscape was real — I could smell it, feel it, hear it.
That was my first walking trip nearly 30 years ago, and I was hooked for life. In addition to England, I have since walked in Wales, Northern Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Greece and Cyprus.
Although anyone of average fitness can walk anywhere in Europe on their own, there are considerable advantages to joining an organized walk. Many of my walks have been with The Wayfarers, a British outfitter that has been offering walks in Europe for nearly 40 years.
Above: Walkers get to stroll along seashores on their walking journey across Europe.
Walking is an art perfected over the millennia by tramps, pilgrims, drifters, rolling stones, gadabouts, poets, nomads, vagabonds, and beachcombers from all walks of life. And today, walking is becoming ever more popular among travellers as a way of combating the isolating patterns of conventional tourism. Few places offer more rewards at the speed of 5km per hour than Europe. In a quarter-century of walking in Europe, I have accumulated into a traveller’s treasury of rewards.
In England, I trod on well maintained footpaths, past cattle, sheep and plowed fields. I have opened and shut numerous gates, climbed over fences via wooden and stone stiles, and dodged minefields of sheep manure. I have met all the characters of the English countryside – long-strided outdoor types with their trousers tucked into their socks, amiable bucolics with well-mannered dogs, families three generations deep and earnest, bespectacled bird watchers.
There is always time to stop and savour the spontaneous. On a walk in the Yorkshire Dales, my group came across a ewe licking her just-born lamb. The suspense built as it lay motionless for several minutes; then cheers resounded off the valley walls as the newborn stirred and struggled to its feet. In the beautiful Lake District, I became part of a festive crowd watching the foxhound trailing competition.
In France, I have walked through the fields of Provence bathed in the same magical light that dazzled Van Gogh, Cezanne and Picasso; past contorted olive trees and children playing soccer next to a 13th Century chateau; and into towns with streets named after poets, old men with baguettes tucked under their arms like swagger sticks and the café smells of espresso and garlic.
Above: On their journey, walkers are sometimes forced to climb fences and share trails with the local sheep.
In the French town of Troo, my group was served tea by a painter who lived in one of the many cave dwellings — houses built into the porous slopes above the river — only a facade, with the rooms hollowed out of the soft stone. The troglodyte dwellings are linked by alleys, steps and secret passages that date back to the Middle Ages, when more than 4,000 people lived there.
In Italy, I have walked the Chianti region of Tuscany, stopping to savour the medieval wine towns between Florence and Siena — Castellina, Gaiole, Radda and Volpaia. Each of these hill towns seemed a setting for a movie with their ancient markets, towers, loggia, church bells duelling over the exact moment of noon, and arched alleys trod by stoic, black-shawled women and old men with canes.
In the tiny Tuscan town of Rietine, Dora Landi, a farmer's wife, showed us her olive oil cellar. She said the oil has to be moved from one container to another every few months to get rid of the sediment. "But never on a Tuesday, and never, absolutely never, if there is no moon," she added, waving an admonitory finger. Her voice sinking collusively, she explained: "It is not good for the oil."
Left: Walkers stop to admire the idyllic parkland of Pennine Way. Right: Crossing Northern Ireland's Carrick-a-Rede Bridge.
In the French region of Alsace, the foothills of the Vosges mountains are laced with the vineyards of family-owned wineries that have produced light, dry fruity wines for four, five and six generations. Alsace is considered France’s third most important wine area, behind Burgundy and Bordeaux. At Bernardville, we walked into the testing room of Geiger Koenig, who produces some 40,000 bottles annually. We try a reisling, a sylvaner and a gewurztraminer — using, according to Alsatian tradition, a tulip-shaped glass with a long green stem.
When you walk 15km or so a day, you can let down your calorie guard. In Britain, our walks began with a full English breakfast — coffee, tea, dry cereal, granola, fruit juice, porridge, grilled kippers or haddock, eggs, sausage, bacon, and grilled mushrooms and tomato halves. In France, that second slice of quiche for lunch poses no problem to your waistline. In Italy, you can soak up the last of the fagioli all'olio with an extra piece of bread, have a scoop or two of gelati in the afternoon and probably still not gain weight. In fact, you may even lose a little.
For the traveller, walking is cheap and flexible. It requires no gym, no lessons, no special equipment beyond a good pair of shoes or boots. Walking is the diet without denial, the medicine without prescription, the exercise without equipment, the vehicle without pollution and the therapy without a couch. Walking is rich in variants: tramping, hiking, rambling, strolling, sauntering, slogging, trudging, traipsing, wandering, meandering, roving. Running?
In Europe, cars and politicians run; lovers and poets walk.
Above: A van takes the walkers' luggage to the next town.
One day in not long ago in France, a glassy tour bus, trailing a haze of uncombusted petrol, wedged down the narrow, cobbled street into the square of the tiny Provencal town of Provencal; with a gasp of air brakes, it stopped near the fountain. Its sedentary, air-conditioned occupants stared out the window pityingly at us as we hoisted our sweat-damp backpacks and started walking out of town. We looked back at them pityingly, wondering if they knew what they were missing.
JUST THE FACTS
• Wayfarers takes care of the logistical details of mapping each day's journey, moving luggage from one inn to the next, and providing for three meals a day, plus frequent snacks along the road. In addition, there is always motor transportation available for a walker who is injured or becomes fatigued. Walkers stay in locally owned hotels and eat in locally owned restaurants.
• A typical Wayfarers' walk is restricted to between eight and 16 people; they walk between 10 and 18 kilometres a day under the direction of a walk leader, who is knowledgeable in the footpaths and lore of the local area. Walkers carry small backpacks for sweaters, rain gear, water bottles, cameras, maps, and other necessities.
• For more information, http://www.thewayfarers.com