Western Europe has borne witness to some of the most epic walks of all time, from Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps to the expeditions of authors like Patrick Leigh Fermor and Nicholas Crane. In fact, when it comes to walking in Spain, France and Italy, epic is something of a watchword, with many routes seemingly designed for endurance.
A bewildering number of E-Paths (European long-distance paths) crisscross the Continent, each several thousand miles in length — the E1, for example, runs from south of Naples to Northern Norway. There are also the GR routes, which are, with only a few exceptions, challenging excursions.
This is the key difference from walking in the UK: the rest of Europe has traditionally always had fewer of those accessible, medium-distance way-marked routes so beloved by British ramblers, such as the Cotswold Way, where fingerpost signs shadow your every step. Generally, walking routes in France, Spain and Italy have been oriented to the mountains, with public footpaths at lower levels harder to come by.
Fortunately, things are beginning to change, and today hikers in France, Spain and Italy have never been better catered for, with attractive, bespoke routes springing up, making some of those hardy iconic routes more accessible. As Simon Scutt, managing director of On Foot Holidays, explains: “It’s only in the past few years that these countries have come to realise that mountains aren’t the only places Northern Europeans want to walk in.”
On the whole, British walkers tend to tackle European walks with the help of walking companies offering tailor-made routes, usually between two attractive locations, with hand-held directions and even signposting provided along the way.
“Walking in those countries is as much about the culture as walking per se,” says Simon. “Some people do it for health reasons but the majority want to experience the whole thing — the walking, the views, engaging with their hosts, and almost certainly drinking a bottle of wine or two. These things are equally as important for walkers abroad. Walking is a vehicle for getting under the skin of an area or country.”
In France the standout walking tends to be in the south and south west, with routes following forest tracks and high passes. In Spain, walking trails are concentrated in the north and east, distinguished by hilltop churches, grape vines and olive trees — in contrast to the arid centre. Catalonia’s hills are also well trodden. Walking in Italy tends to be a much more cultural experience; you are, after all, often walking through history. Popular regions include the Dolomites, Cinque Terre (five fishing villages on the Italian Riviera), Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast.
On a practical level, France’s walking maps are generally better than those in Italy and Spain, while Spain’s trails tend to have the best signposting and way-marking on the ground. But on the all-important matters of scenery, culture and ambience it’s hard to think of three better countries to explore on foot.