10 great walking holidays in Europe
The far east of Iceland
Some parts of Iceland are well-trodden, but the east remains a vast wilderness of ice and fire. This eight-day adventure takes in an impressive array of what the island offers: you start with a warm-up walk to Strútsfoss, a thunderous 100m waterfall, then explore deeper into the country with an ascent of 1,833m Snæfell, a snow-capped peak that gives extensive panoramas of Vatnajökull, Iceland’s massive ice cap, and Bárðarbunga, a volcano that erupted in 2014 and continues to grumble. You might spot reindeer and pink-footed geese. A foray down the Jokulsa gorge is followed by three days of coastal and ridge walks that include areas deeply embedded in Iceland’s mythology such as Alfaborg, home to the elves. These may only be spotted, however, with the assistance of brennivín, Icelandic potato schnapps seasoned with caraway.
High Tatra, Slovakia
Moving from hut to mountain hut through scenery that is vertiginously beautiful is something you might associate with the Alps. The Slovakian High Tatra, however, offer a cheaper alternative that has all the same challenges and pleasures. With quick transport up to the foothills, useful cable car routes and efficient overnight huts, the Tatra is logistically well-prepared for the multi-day hiker. Things can get busy in high season, but even in August, the huts always seem to find room for everyone. This classic trek, designed by Travel Slovakia, takes you through the best of the Tatra with nights in some great huts – for example, a rambling wooden chalet perched on a precipice with bunk beds, lively and sociable cafeteria, and a tradition of drinking weird herbal teas. The walking is steep and stony. Take poles if you get sore knees.
Pirin and Rila mountains, Bulgaria
Bulgaria has some of Europe’s finest, but least-known, hill-walking. The neighbouring Pirin and Rila ranges in the south-west are home to pine forests, rare wildlife (bears and wolves), vast panoramas of glacial lakes and the highest summit in the Balkans, Musala at 2,925 metres. This week-long trek winds through both ranges and takes in lakes, waterfalls and good summits, including Musala and Vihren (highest in the Pirin at 2,914 metres). You might spot chamois, capercaillle and, in season, rare flower species such as the Pirin poppy. There is also chance to visit the best of Bulgaria’s many monasteries, the Rila, founded in the 10th century, with some intricate and colourful frescoes. A good level of fitness is needed, but your luggage is moved for you between several small family-run hotels.
Sibillini mountains, Italy
On the border between Umbria and Marche, 75 miles north-east of Rome, the Sibillini mountains are in the heart of Italy both geographically and culturally. The rounded summits are home to lots of rare wildlife (grey wolf and Marsican brown bear among others) plus antique hill villages and the medieval town of Norcia, a gastronomic heaven where tartufo nero (black truffle), wild mushrooms, and celebrated cured meats can be sampled, along with a mountain range of cheeses. This six-day circular walk takes you through the best of the sights both natural and human, with plenty of chance to explore historical and culinary traditions. Most of the range undulates between 2,000 and 2,500 metres but there are some steep, rugged sections, too.
Crossing Catalonia, Spain
It’s rare to find a really good walk that combines several radically different geographic types in one extraordinary week-long hike. This route starts in the Garrotxa Volcanic Zone, a park where 40 extinct volcanic cones thrust up from deep beech forests. The trek takes you past some of the cones, then onward to the town of Banyoles, noted for its lovely lake, before heading into the historic town of Girona for a day of rest and sightseeing. There’s a long 15-mile leg down to the Cost Brava, but then the final joy of a sparkling coastal stretch with fishing villages, remote beaches and coves. Walking days can be long, but they are on decent paths without any big climbs, plus the hotels and food are excellent.
The classic GR10, French Pyrenees
This is a world-class trail running the length of the Pyrenees on the French side, a total of 538 miles. That can take around 52 days if you are in good shape, but the real killer is the ascent: an incredible 48,000 metres, so that’s a main course of five times up Everest and for dessert, three Ben Nevis’s. This eight-day slice of the best action covers the stretch between the spa towns of Cauterets and Bagnères-de-Luchon (so plenty of chance to ease aching muscles at the end). On the way are some fabulous valleys, cols and summits with the chance to see the best of Pyrenean nature, mountain huts and villages. The highlight is undoubtedly the walk through Néouvielle national reserve, a section of footpath revered by hillwalkers. Watch out for lammergeier vultures, griffons and golden eagles.
Historic Bavaria, Germany
Germany has many well-established walking trails, a strong hiking culture, too, and some choice locations – such as this classic stretch along the Bavarian border in the heart of the country. It takes in ancient forests, unspoiled farmland and vineyards as well as several medieval towns full of timber-framed houses. Highlights are Rothenburg ob der Tauber, with its ancient city walls; Nördlingen, an almost perfectly circular town with dramatic gate towers; and Dinkelsbühl, home to some great beer cellars. En route you might spot deer, wild boar and goshawks in the forests. Food and wine are good: try the grilled meefischli, a river fish, washed down with the dry spätlesen wines.
High passes of the Valais, Switzerland
Home to vineyards, snowy peaks and the Matterhorn, the Valais is one of Switzerland’s top walking destinations. This trek starts in the Bernese Oberland with a seven-mile leg-stretcher to the Kanderfirn glacier. Next morning the real journey starts with a cable car trip and a hike over the Gemmi pass. The path then follows an ancient trade route down into the spa town of Leukerbad, where any preliminary strains can be dealt with at the thermal baths. Over the next few days you continue south, passing through vineyards towards the snowy peaks, on one day carrying an overnight bag as the hotel – the renowned Schwarzhorn – is quite isolated. The finish comes in Zermatt with views of the Matterhorn.
Path of peace, The Balkans
After the Kosovo war ended in 1999, one project to promote reconciliation was a peace path, which became Europe’s newest trail: the 120-mile Peaks of the Balkans. It deliberately winds across borders, uniting Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo into a single, extremely craggy, hike, starting in the Ottoman-era town of Peja (also called Peć) in the foothills of Kosovo’s Rugova mountains. From there, it winds up through remote villages to the 2,272 m Jelenak pass, where you cross into Montenegro before heading into Albania’s Accursed mountains, famed once for their impregnability but now more for stunning views. Another border brings you back down to the Montenegrin coastal town of Kotor.
Fjords and glaciers, Norway
Hiking in Norway in summer can be an uplifting experience. Yes, I hear you say, because your pockets won’t weigh you down. This trek, we reckon, is excellent value and takes you into some classic Scandinavian mountain country, using railways and cable cars to dodge some of the more challenging climbs. You start at Geilo with a choice of warm-up walks before moving on to Finse (a place popular with Antarctic explorers in winter). There’s opportunity here to add on a glacier walk with crampons. Your luggage now enjoys the spectacular train ride down to Flam while you walk the equally spectacular footpath down, spending a night in the pension there. A ferry journey then takes you on to Aurland for more walks, or – and this is highly recommended – one of the world’s great ferry rides up to Sognefjord. You finish by returning to Flam for that incredible train journey, with your bag.