Exploring a continent on foot: 5 good walks

From Julian Alps to Hadrian's Wall, hikes that don't require roughing it

Destination: Europe

July 24, 2005|By Christopher Solomon | By Christopher Solomon,New York Times News Service

With all due respect to campfires, cowboy coffee and "roughing it," it's hard to beat ending a good day of hiking with a glass of beer, a comfortable bed and a dinner whose preparation doesn't include the direction "just add boiling water."

For those who lean toward a little nurture with their nature, Europe is the answer to a hiker's prayers. In almost every Old World country, there are civilized multiday hikes sprinkled with lodges, inns or mountain refuges: treks through France's Alps, walks along Hadrian's Wall in England, trips across glaciers in Switzerland -- you name it.

Here are a few options -- classics as well as new destinations -- for the traveler who wants to explore Europe on foot.

Hadrian's Wall path, Britain

In A.D. 122, the Emperor Hadrian ordered a 73-mile-long wall to be built near what is now the border with Scotland to separate northernmost Roman Britain from the "barbarians" beyond.

Those walls and turrets today are a World Heritage Site -- a lichen-speckled vestige of Roman domination reaching from Wallsend in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west.

In 2003, Hadrian's Wall was given another designation, as an 84-mile national trail. Walking to the east for six days to keep the prevailing winds (and occasional lashing rains) at their backs, groups led by nine-year-old Lomond Walking Holidays begin among the salt marshes and peat bogs of the Solway Firth estuary and soon cross the pastures and villages of Cumbria.

The trip's highlight is Day Three, a 15-mile section through Northumberland National Park between Banks and House-steads, where hikers ramble through rough grazing uplands and rolling moors that are home to some of the best preserved sections of the wall.

Each afternoon, a shuttle carries the group to a small, family-run guesthouse or inn and returns them to the trail in the morning. Eventually, the trail drops into lowlands again, and hikers walk beside the River Tyne and through the industrial city of Newcastle and finally end in Wallsend, where Hadrian's legacy disappears under the accretion of centuries of change.

Grunt Factor: Stages are 12 to 15 miles daily, across mostly flat ground, but with some short, steep pitches and steps.

Signpost: Trip dates are July 31 to Aug. 5 and Oct. 23 to Oct. 28. The cost, $925, at $1.87 to the pound, includes all meals, lodging, guides and daily luggage transfer.

Information: www.walking holidaysuk.com.

Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy

Originally a royal hunting reserve, Gran Paradiso became Italy's first national park in 1922. Now this sanctuary of 13,000-foot peaks, plunging valleys, larch forests, ibex herds and wildflower meadows near the French border is the happy hunting grounds of waffle-tread-wearing hikers.

Each summer, an American guide named Armin Fisher, who lives and works in northern Italy, leads groups along a corner of this 173,000-acre park, from Valgrisenche to Cogne.

Starting at the park's westernmost valley, the group spends a week crossing high passes and traipsing through meadows of nodding edelweiss and mountain lilies, where golden eagles waver in the thermals overhead. "You're walking across sort of The Sound of Music terrain," Fisher said.

Each afternoon, the group arrives either at a rustic, high-mountain hut -- usually above tree line -- that's run by the Italian Alpine Club or, at midweek, the Albergo Savoia, which is in a valley low enough to offer luxuries like showers -- and plenty of good Italian wine and polenta.

Those who sign on for a longer journey (no extra charge) can pick up crampons and an ice ax near trip's end and climb the 13,323-foot Gran Paradiso; though it is the highest peak in the park, the ascent isn't especially steep (no previous mountaineering experience required) until the last 100 feet. Trips end at the village of Cogne and a visit to a nearby Alpine botanical garden.

Grunt Factor: Four to seven hours of moderately difficult hiking daily, with 1,500 to 3,000 feet of daily elevation gain.

Signpost: Trips available through September. The cost, $1,200 to $1,500, varying with group size (four to eight people) and includes six to eight nights' lodging (depending on group's desires), breakfast and dinner, guide fees and use of any gear.

Information: www.moun tainsandmore.com.


Americans have only recently awakened to the hiking opportunity on the rugged Mediterranean island of Corsica, France's "mountain in the sea."

Those who don't want to commit to the GR20 -- the spectacular and arduous 130-mile route that many claim is Europe's best backpacking trail -- aren't out of luck. Active Travel, based in Austin, Texas, offers eight-day self-guided trips that give hikers tastes of the GR20 and other trails while also letting them experience the comforts of rural village life.

Hikers lace up their boots at Calacuccia, a lakeside town of homes with thick stone walls. Equipped with detailed itineraries and maps, they spend the next several days in pleasant repetition:

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