Walking and trekking
Romania is a massive country, circular in shape and bisected with a reverse ‘L’ of mountain ranges which dominate the country’s central region and broadly fall under the classification of the Cartpathians or Eastern Carpathian mountains. This goes some way to explain the fact that Romania is an absolutely superb country for the hill-walker – atmospheric, swathed in myth, largely unspoiled and with excellent infrastructure. Camping is allowed anywhere in many of the mountain areas, and there is an excellent network of signed trails and huts.
The main areas which will draw visitors for walking and trekking are located in the regions which are unsurprisingly located along this mountain belt, namely Transylvania, Muntenia, Oltenia, Moldavia, Bucovina and Maramures.
Within these there are several particular mountain massifs which draw special interest: the Fagaras, which contains the highest mountain in Romania, the Ciucas, the Hasmas, the Retezat, Piatra Craiului and Baiului Mountains.
The highest peak of Moldoveanu (2544 m) itself is located almost in the geographical centre of Romania, and is a gothic-silhouetted, serrated peak which dominates the Fagaras range. While largely non-technical, there are some approaches which aren’t for the faint-hearted due to precipitous ridgelines, scree and large drops. The most popular paths to reach Romania’s highest peak take you over the Vistea Mare Peak (2527m), by routes coming from Podragu, Sambata, or by the Vistea Valley.
The nearest village is Victoria, on the north side. On the south side it is accessible from northwest of Câmpulung.
A popular expedition is linking the high glacial ridges of the Fagaras mountains together into a series of traverses, such as that between the Fagaras and Iezer mountains between Iezeral Mare and the Transylvanian village of Sebesu de sus. The Fagaras Ridge is an exemplary mountaineering expedition: almost 70km long, it is one of Europe’s longest high-level walk, staying over 2,000ft for most of its length. Accommodation can be found along the way either by camping or staying in the mountain huts (‘cabana’) of which there is a very good network across Romania.
Another trekking attraction is the crossing of the main ridge of the mighty Carpathian Mountains, which can be done either from east to west or west to east in the north of the country.
Accommodation may be found in tents, mountain chalets and boarding houses.
The Ciucas Mountains are gentler, easily accessible mountains, convenient for Brasov and provide a fascinating ridge dotted with landforms of exceptional beauty, sculpted from limestone and conglomerates. These mountains are exceptionally varied and interesting, and the higher reaches are home to a unique display of towers, columns, mushrooms, and bare rocks.
The Hasmas Mountains, situated in the centre of the Eastern Carpathians, are a popular tourist attraction due to their landscape, which features the impressive Gorges of Bicaz, with their challenging mountaineering routes and caves.
There is also interesting trekking on the Baiului, Bucegi and Postavaru mountains, situated in South East part of Transylvania. Accommodation for a trek into these is best located Brasov city and Poina Brasov resort, and there are huts in the hills.
Another lure of Romania is quality winter mountaineering, which can be found in South-Eastern Transylvania in the Piatra Craiului and Bucegi Mountains. They belong to the Southern Carpathians and cover an area of 300 square miles, culminating in Omu Peak – 2,505m. This can be climbed in winter by a number of its varying difficulty routes, though there is avalanche danger to be aware of and you must be an experienced winter mountaineer.
The Retezat mountains are the highest and rockiest of the western half of the southern Carpathians, they have the highest average altitude in the entire chain of the Romanian Carpathians, reaching the maximum height in Peleaga peak (2,509 m.) The Retezat mountains form an extraordinary landscape dotted with uncountable glacial lakes. Here is the deepest glacial lake of Romania ( Taul Zanoaga, 29 m). The Retezat Mountains and also Rodna Mountains located in the northern part of the Eastern Carpathians. Both are National Parks, with walks for all abilities.
Mountain skiing combined with ski touring are popular in Bucegi and Fagaras Moutains. Going up the Bucegi Plateau from Busteni or Sinaia, and going down the northern valleys of Morarului and Cerbului Valley are just two excellent options. These tours are more challenging in Fagaras Mountains and their length is considerably longer than the ones in Bucegi. Also, snowshoeing is superb in Romania; the best time is December, January, February and March in the Moeciu de Sus – Fundata area.
Considering these tours are taking place in open air and temperatures could be lower than – 10 degrees, anyone intending on doing either of these activities must have the appropriate equipment, who are in great physical shape and are used to the rough stuff.
For amateur geologists, the Bucegi plateau’s wind and rains have turned the rocks into spectacular figures, such as the Sphinx, a rock with the shape of a human face, similar to our own Sphinx Rock on Great Gable.
Romania also has a potent, folky culture, especially in the cities of Bucharest and Brasov, where wandering the atmospheric streets is really all you need to amuse yourself. You can enjoy some watersports on the Black Sea Coast, or take a cruise down the Danube, which is a UNESCO world heritage site and an important biosphere reserve.
Dracula was real, and lived in Transylvania. True and False. Dracula was reputedly based on Prince Vlad Tepes III, better known as Vlad the Impaler, an unfortunately-moustached monarch who had the questionable habit of impaling his enemies on stakes. Although Vlad was born in Transylvania, his main stronghold was Poenari Castle in the Fagaras Mountains. And unsurprisingly, he wasn’t a vampire.
Must see and do
- Visit ‘Dracula’s’ Castle not the tourist castle in Bran (which was the inspiration for the fictional Dracula’s Castle) but the real Dracula, Vlad Tepes. The castle is called Poenari Castle, in the Fagaras Mountains.
- Walk the Fagaras Ridge The Carpathians are Europe’s second most impressive mountain range, and are worthy of proper exploration. The ridge is also called the Transylvanian Alp Ridge, and at 70km is one of Europe’s longest high-level walks.
Walking and trekking
Brazil may not seem the first choice for mountain walkers. But it is the spiritual home of everything wild, home to the jungle uplands and downlands of the Amazon. And it is utterly colossal in scale, so don’t for a minute think it isn’t a worthwhile destination for walking.
Brazil's most mountainous regions are the central states of Minas Gerais and the southern state of Santa Catarina. The former is home to the national parks of Ibitipoca and Aiuruoca, both of which are well worth a visit. Ibitipoca particularly is home to some extraordinary caverns and waterfalls, table-top mountains and thickly vegetated jungle.
The highest mountain however is in the far north, on the border with Venezuela, in the province of Amazonas. Pico da Neblina, a whisker under 3,000m, is a stunning mountain, rising to a sharp point and is quite incongruous in its surroundings. It was first climbed in 1965 and lies within the Yonamami territory, so permits are required for access, obtainable from the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), and they in turn require you to be accompanied by a guide. This is a serious expedition into tough jungle terrain, and is a magnificent all-in-one experience that will test you: from the town of São Gabriel da Cachoeira you have to go to Iazinho river by truck, then by boat along four rivers, then on a jungle trail with three camps before the ascent, which takes you over steep and difficult terrain but isn’t technical. The mountain is intermittently closed, so take advice from the IBAMA before planning your itinerary.
For something a little easier to access, Pantanal – located in the Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso du Sol regions of Southwest Brazil – is 140,000km2 of amazing wetland, bordering Bolivia and Paraguay. The terrain is varied, and the basin provides a variety of altitudes, as well as variable ground conditions. Travelling just after wet season will entail some wading for the more adventurous.
For more accessible hill-walking, Chapada Diamantina National Park holds the north-eastern province of Bahia's highpoint, Pico das Almas (Souls Peak) at 1980m. This is a truly breathtaking region, filled with caves, azure rock pools, and the famous tepuis – the cliff-rimmed plateaus rising from the rainforest made iconic by Conan Doyle’s the Lost World. The Chapada is also home to the famous Glass Falls, also known as Cachoeira da Fumaca (smoke Waterfall) whose free-falling water drops more than 415 meters in to Poco Encantado (Enchanted Well). Also in the north east, the Visconde de Mavá to Ilha Grande is an advanced-level trek through three protected areas of the Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Forest) Biosphere Reserve. The trek descends from the mountains to sea level, crossing the Mantiqueria and Bocaina mountain range and circling the island of Ilha Grande, giving a tantalising experience of the different altitudinal zones and ecosystems of the Atlantic Rainforest.
Besides a considerable amount of partying and lying on a beach, there is much in the way of other outdoor activities in Brazil. Scuba diving and snorkelling is very popular, especially in the waters of Fernando de Noronha, a small archipelago made up of a large volcanic landmass and twenty smaller islands, where you can view spinner dolphins, nurse sharks, lemon sharks and barracuda.
Iguacu Falls are located in the region of Parana in the Iguacu National Park, and consist of some 275 falls across a distance of 2.7km. Some falls measure up to 82m and there are opportunities for water sports and rock climbing in the park.
Brazil is legendary for its beaches, and there is a new wave of sports becoming popular which mean that you don’t just have to lie supine to appreciate them. You can take a buggy trip on the North Coast from Natal, travelling over the beaches of Jenipabu, Pitangui. And Jacuma, or you can simply find a serene spot to take a swim and enjoy the spectacular views.
Then of course, there is the jungle. The best place to snare an operator to take you into the Amazon Rainforest is Manaus, a sprawling city which sits close to the Amazon River. Try and book with a reputable operator in the UK before you go, or exercise considerable caution. While Brazil is overall a safe place to travel, the Amazon Rainforest is not a place you want things to go wrong.
Brazil is one of the most populated countries in the world. TRUE. With 183 million people, it is the sixth most populated. But it isn’t one of the densest populated. Put it this way, it is 35 times bigger than the UK, yet only has two and a half times its population.
The Amazon is the world’s largest river: TRUE and FALSE. The Nile is longer, but the Amazon carries more water.
Must see and do
- Rio - Rijuca Rainforest, Sugarloaf Mountain, the breathtaking summit up to Christ the Redeemer on Corvacado Mountain, Copacobana beach – you have to experience Rio once in your life. http://www.riodejaneiro-turismo.com.br/en/
- The Amazon - Take a jungle boat trip from Manaus down the Amazon river, and you can expect to see river dolphins, exotic animals and birds, alligators, snakes and a few species of monkeys. There is also the option of staying a few nights in a jungle lodge.
- Praia do Forte located in the lusted-after Bahia area, famous for its beautiful beaches, is Praia do Forte. Combining this exquisite beach life with the experience of provincial Brazil. There are coconut groves, lagoons and mangroves as well as beautiful coral reefs and natural pools, home to some incredible wildlife
- Chapada Diamantina – meaning ‘steep cliffs of diamond,’ this magnificent national park lies in the Bahia region and is covered in outdoor winders such as tepuis, caves, waterfalls and gorges.
Walking and trekking
Hungary is a great destination for walking, and is surprisingly diverse. There are several major mountain ranges which are of a comparable scale to British hills, split into five main ranges: the Alpokalja (foothills of the Alps) in the west on the border with Austria, the Transdanubian Medium Mountains, the Mecsek in the south, and the Northern Medium Mountains, which hold most of the country’s highest peaks. The highest mountain, Kekes, is something of a lump, and isn’t particularly dramatic. But it is hugely popular, and has a rolling charm which will please lovers of gentler mountain terrain.
The majority of the country sits in the Carpathian Basin which is known as the Great Plains, but The Northern Uplands are home to part of the Carpathian Mountain Range. Here you will find the Bukk and Matra national Parks, each offering great, expansive views. The North East of Hungary is a pleasing mix of the Great Plain and the Northern Uplands, gently rolling hills followed by a flattish terrain and gently sloping hills, and is an ideal place to find easy-medium level walking trails. Transdanubia is a hilly region lying west of the Danube and extending to the Austrian foothills of the Alps, and includes Lake Balaton - the largest freshwater lake in central Europe, and a popular tourist destination.
With well signed trails it is easy to get around but there are also many companies offering guided walking tours, ranging from day trips to wek long expeditions. Hungary is also home to the Hungarian section of the European Long Distance Walking Route E4. (Országos Kéktúra, or OKT). The total length of the blue tour is 1106 km and can be called relaxing: the total climb is a mere 26 metres on the whole route. It starts on the top of the Irottk Mountain (884m), which stands on the Austrian-Hungarian border and then winds its way through the northern part of the country coming to a stop at the village of Hollóháza at the Hungarian-Slovakian border.
Outside of Budapest, Hungary is relatively unknown as a tourist destination. But there is a lot for the outdoor enthusiast to do here: Horse riding, caving, rock climbing, quad biking, hot airballooning, carraige driving, and canoeing are just some of the many activities available for those searching for an adrenaline fix, usually at a fraction of the cost of UK prices.
Being landlocked, Hungary often experiences a lot of snow come winter and there are some places to ski in the Northern Uplands, including several pistes on Kekes, the country’s highest mountain. For those who to relax, there are hundreds of wine cellars offering tasting sessions, and many places to go bird watching and butterfly spotting. Hungary is also known as the land of springs, and there are hundreds to be found all over the country, and the thermal waters are said to have healing properties. Golf is also popular, and there are some upmarket resorts such as Zala Springs, and hour from Budapest, where a golfing break can be combined with wine and thermal springs.
The word ’Hungarian’ refers to the fact that Hungarians were descended from the Huns. FALSE. The English translation sounds similar, but the people who live in Hungary call themselves Magyars and always have done so. It is unlikely to ever come to light if there was ever a connection between the two. Despite this Atilla still remains a popular name in Hungary and almost all Hungarians believe they are related to the great Huns.
Must see and do
- Aggtelek National Park. (UNESCO site) Situated in the north-eastern part of Hungary. It is the first national park in the country which was primarily created for protecting geomorphological formations such as karst monoliths and caves. http://anp.nemzetipark.gov.hu/index.php?lang=en
- Bükk National Park. Famous for karstic formations, caves, canyons, striking cliffs of Bükk-mountains and the rarities of its flora and fauna. It was thefirst highland national park of Hungary, it currently has 43,254 hectares of conservation area. http://bnp.nemzetipark.gov.hu/index.php?lang=en
- Gellért Hill and the Citadella - Visible from almost everywhere in Budapest, Gellért Hill (hegy), with the impressive Freedom Monument on its peak, is one of the city's memorable landmarks. The summit is best approached along paths leading from opposite the Gellért Hotel and Spa. You can take a look around the Cave Church on your way up.
- Állami Ménesgazdaság in Szilvásvárad is a must for all horse lovers. It is the home of the celebrated Lipizzaner horses, considered to be the best riding horses in the world. Several shows and competitions are held here throughout the summer. http://www.menesgazdasag.hu/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogcategory&id=2&Itemid=9
Walking and trekking
The first place to mention is perhaps an unusual name for a prime walking area, but its remarkability and proximity to Prague makes it a must. The Bohemian Paradise is a protected landscape of a mere 92km2 is a delight, comprising thickly bedded sandstone which was once a seafloor. This has been heavily eroded into some astonishing shapes, such as rock windows, buttes and caves which have given rise to the designation of certain areas within the paradise as ‘rock towns’, warren-like formations which are at their most spectacular at Trosky. Here there is also Trosky castle, a 14th century ruin built on two rock spires which give it a truly arresting profile. There are walking trails (signed in white), and cycle trails too. A great, quirky area to get started or wind down in.
Another excellent walking location is Czech Switzerland National Park, (or Bohemian Switzerland National Park) which is also home to much arresting geomorphology of eroded sandstone, but also to the Kamenice River Gorge near Hrensko, which leads up a trail taking in ledges, walkways, tunnels and trout filled streams, overlooked by towering sandstone faces. It is a wooded and rocky area right on the border (with Germany, interestingly) and is well worth a visit.
Adrspasske rocks (properly Adrspasské Skály) lie just outside a little city called Adrspach in the Northern part of the Czech Republic, and featured in the movie version of the Chronicles of Narnia. It is like a pine forest, but made from rocks. Surreal.
Moving away from quirky geology, the Sumava mountains are the oldest mountains in the Czech Republic, stretching 125km along the border with Austria and Germany. These are excellent mountains for walking and trekking, and are covered in unspoiled, ancient forest which gives the area a dusky, medieval feel. The mountains are hardly sky-piercing - think the Howgills, but more spread out – but the area is very out of the way, large and unspoiled, with many rivers, lakes and walking trails.
Another area for superb walking is the Krkonose Mountains, on the Polish Border, upon which the Czech Republic’s highest mountain – Snezka – sits. It is not the most beautiful mountain you are likely to climb, being home to several buildings on its summit, as well as the aforementioned border, which adds considerable novelty to any ascent. However in winter the mountain is transformed into a stunning pyramid; it is possible to climb in winter, though considerable care must be taken as there is a high risk of avalanche in certain snow conditions. Remarkably, the Krkonose Mountains – nicknamed the Giant Mountains - are part of a geological system which terminates in Wales, at Snowdon. There is much walking to be had here, especially around the town of Spindleruv Mlyn, high in the mountains and ideally placed as a base to explore the highest peaks of the Czech Republic.
In the north-east of the country, the Beskydy mountains (or Beskids) are a low extension of the Carpathians, and offer good walking, endless hill and forest trails, terrific views of the Tatras, as well as good skiing in winter.
Golf is huge in the Czech Republic, and is home to several extensive grass courses at Karlstejn Konopists and Cihelny near Karlovy Vary. The golf course in Mariánské Lázns is placed in an attractive spa environment with magnificent natural scenery. Cycling also has good infrastructure in the country, and many trails which link up with the European trail network of EUROVELO. The first route that opened, the Greenways route, connects Prague and Vienna. Other long-distance trails run around the Lipno Lake and through the Sumava mountains. The Czech Republic is also excellent for trout fishing, especially the Vltava River, the Otava near Susice, the Lipno dam reservoir, the Jizera near Harrachov, the Kamenica, the upper stream of the Orlice and the Morava. These can be fished between April and November, and permits are required from whichever administration is responsible for the watercourse. The Cesky and Moravský rybársky svaz (Czech and Moravian Angling Union; www.rybsvaz.cz) should be able to give you the info you need.
Windsurfing, yachting and rowing, as well as other types of watersports, are also readily practised in Czech Republic. The lakes of Lipno, Orlik and Slapy are particularly popular, and although they are reservoirs, have attractive infrastructure and are pleasant places to make for.
Geological formations are manifold in the Czech Republic, culminating with the Moravian Karst – a beatiful, heavily wooded area near Brno, where you can visit canyons and some 400 caves created by the subterranean River Punkva.
Finally, aside from the intoxicating culture of Prague, there are plenty of spas where you can de-tox.
The Czech republic is called the ‘roof of Europe:’ TRUE. But not because it is the highest point, far from it. The main European watershed extends through the country, dividing the drainage areas of the north and south seas. Here we can even find the massif, Kralicky Snezník (1,423 meters), from which water runs into three different seas according to which slope receives rain. The North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea meet here.
Must see and do
- Walk aross the Pravcicka brana Located in Czech Switzerland, Pravčická Brána is the largest natural stone bridge in Europe and a natural monument of our country. Sadly, you can’t walk across it, but its situation and scale is astonishing, as is the adjacent chateau. http://www.pbrana.cz/en/
- Walk through Adrspasske rocks Just to see the arresting geomorphology of these rocks is worth the trip alone, but a walk through them is a must. See a 360 panorama of them here:
- Detox at Karlovy Vary One of the most famous spas in the Czech Republic, and renowned for its regenerative waters and distinctly Victorian air. A bit like a Bohemian Banff.
Walking and trekking
Oman is an extremely exciting place to trek at the moment: the country is undergoing something of a revolution, with walking trails being marked and signed for the first time, and more and more visitors being encouraged to visit by a government which seems to have recently woken up to the fact that it has something quite remarkable to offer the outdoor enthusiast. Oman is particularly enticing to western visitors as it blends the mystical feel of the east with some truly arresting, eminently walkable landscapes of limestone canyons, ragged-ridged tabletop mountain ranges, desert wadis, and many wild areas which were inaccessible until about a decade ago. This is truly Arabia’s wild east. Onesuch is the Al Hajar mountains, which stretch along the northern coast and through the north-east of the country and contain Oman’s (and eastern Arabia’s) highest point, Jebel Shams (3,075m). While its height is impressive, it’s the canyons which lie on its flanks which make this a truly unmissable destination, as they are far more interesting than the summit itself. One of the most popular treks in Oman is the Jebel Shams Rim Walk, which starts at the village of Al Khateem. Immediately the trekker is rewarded with sumptuous views of the canyons of Wadi Nakhr and Wadi Ghul (the prefix wadi refers to a river-cut canyon which often floods in heavy rain). It is a challenging, loose and at time exposed walk, which makes it ideal for the adventurous trekker who enjoys mountain terrain. The route contours around the mountain, offering breathtaking views of the canyon below. Traditional Omani markets andvillages line the canyons around Jebel Shams, as do ancient cliff dwellings and some thrilling rock climbs. Easier options for walking can be found in the Capital Area around Muscat. Wakan to Hadash is a classic walk which is very beautiful, offering panoramic views of traditional Omani life and scenery over Wadi Mistall and the extensive Ghubrah Bowl – a depression ringed by high peaks, where a number of walks leave from the picturesque mountain farming village of Wakan in the western Hajar mountains. The treks around here can be challenging, but offer a sumptuous slice of what makes this country so special.
Oman provides plenty to keep rock-climbers interested. Here you can find some extraordinary sport climbing via three terrifying via ferrata routes in the Grand Canyon region at Wadi Nakhr. There are also many multi-pitch climbing routes, both bolted or traditional. The monolithic towers of Wadi Al-Ghool in A'Dakhliyah Region reach a height of 300m and offer Alpine-style climbing at its best. The challenging south-western façade of Jabal Mishfat offers climbs from 120 to 500 m. But Jabal Misht beats all of these to the crown of Oman’s ideal climbing location, due to its huge exposed façade, which is thought to be one of the largest climbable face on the Arabian peninsula: the southeastern façade extends for 6km and rises to 850m, giving Alpine style routes of all grades.
Oman has over 3,000km of coastline, and the diving here ranks among some of the best in the world, especially off Fahal Island, the Damaniyyat Islands and (gulp) Cemetery Bay. Visibility is excellent and night diving is a big lure due to dramatic phosphorescent algae in the waters of the gulf. The limestone geology also yields an array of caves, including Majlis Al-Jinn in the A'Sharqiyah Region – one the world's largest caves and the most challenging in Oman. This is a serious cave and is only for experts (it still hasn’t been fully explored); a less technical but only marginally less spectacular grotto can be found at Al-Hotah. And this being the new Arabia, the shopping is spectacular and the dining is exquisite.
Ranulph Fiennes once tried to overthrow the government of Oman. FALSE: while critical of the Sultan’s government, Fiennes actually led several raids against the rebels who were attempting to launch a coup. He ended up being decorated for bravery.
Must see and do
- Snake Canyon Via Ferrata – a mixture of ziplines, via ferrata and wire traverses across a precipitous canyon. High adventure. Watch Julia Bradbury doing it here: http://travel.five.tv/trips_oman.htm
- Attack the desert in a 4x4 – Wahiba sands is a good place to do this. Dial it into Youtube to get an idea of what this place is like.
Walking and trekking
What can be said about Nepal that hasn’t already been gushed by everyone from hardened mountain-killers to septugenarian trekkers, except that to say it’s glorious, and go. Nepal’s mountain attractions seethe with clanging, fluttery eastern magic, and do not disappoint. Two of the world’s greatest treks in the world can be made here: the Annapurna Circuit, and the Everest Base Camp trek. The Annapurna Circuit is by far the more superior of the two from a trekking point of view, both in content, aesthetics and environment. Covering some 300km, the full trek lassoos the Annapurna massif (8,091m) and offers views of Dhaulaghiri (8,167m) and Machhupuchhare (6,993m) – or ‘fishtail’, long a shoe-in for the title of world’s most beautiful mountain.
The trek leaves from Birethanthi, and there are many variations which trim the itinerary into manageable portions, such as the Annapurna Sanctuary trek. The circuit classically tops out at 5,300m on the Thorong La pass, where it skims the edge of the Tibetan plateau. Though you don’t always feel like you are in the middle of mountain range, you do trek through a very broad spectrum of cultures and environments, offering the best all-round experience of high Nepal. But there is a big itch that this trek doesn’t scratch: Everest. The Base Camp trek is justly popular – a trek into the heart of the Khumbu Himalaya to the bottom of the world’s highest mountain. Leaving from the famous trailhead at Lukla, the classic trek (again, there are many variations) winds through sherpa villages such as Namche Bazaar, trade routes, market towns and into the white wilderness of the Himalayas, immersing the walker in this famous and grand region. Treks to Base Camp usually feature a walk to the summit of Kala Pattar, the famous viewing platform which is a must-get photo for anyone who makes the trek. Basecamp itself infamously offers no view of the mountain, but is instead a sprawling town of tents, litter, oxygen cylinders, wreckage, prayer flags, exhausted climbers, research stations and memorials huddled beneath the chaotically jagged Khumbu Icefall – the first barrier to anyone who attempts the mountain. It sounds like a madhouse, and it is – but to be amongst the melee of a climbing season at basecamp is a priceless experience and a fine way to spend time in the mountain’s sway, even if you’re not one of the ones going for the top. Most trekking companies run trips to Everest base camp, and itineraries vary so there is plenty of scope to pick to suit your ambition.
Those who want to bag a true Himalayan peak can find some extraordinary but eminently achievable challenges in Nepal also: trekking mountains such as Mera Peak (6476m) and Island Peak (6189m) are exemplary, high-altitude mountaineering expeditions which offer insurmountable views of the world’s highest mountains. Island Peak is more technical and far more shapely – named by Eric Shipton for being an ‘Island in a sea of ice’ – than Mera Peak, and concludes with a satisfying snow crest leading to a compact summit offering some fine views of Everest. Other trekking highlights of Nepal include the junglyChitwan National Park, home to fiercely endangered mammals such as tiger and rhino in their natural habitat. Times are changing in Nepal, with restrictions being proposed to restrict unguided trekking and the continuing friction within the government, but experienced in a responsible way, Nepal remains the most illustrious destination for trekking in the world.
There is plenty to do in Nepal, most of it inextricably linked with the mountains or the deep-rooted culture that surrounds them. This is all good news: the whole country is thick with mysticism, and there is nobody who can hear the rumble of a Buddhist horn or the tinkle of prayer wheels in the surroundings of the high Himalaya and not feel something stir. In Kathmandu an easily achieved highlight is the Monkey Temple, perched high on a promontory overlooking the uninspiring sprawl of the city. It’s an atmospheric place, even in high season, and there is a monastery up here you can visit and catch a glimpse of Buddhist monks at prayer and performing their charismatic dirges. There are also many monkeys here, hence the name. The city is a great place to wander browse and absorb the chaotic bustle and tussle of rickshaws, temples, holy men, taxis, food sellers and the inevitable procession of knackered mountaineers and tourists. A must for those who aren't trekking is a mountain flight, which can be had for around US $200, and will fly you alongside Everest and its surrounding peaks. Check with the operator how close you get to the mountains - all the flights are worthwhile for the views, but some get you closer to the mountains than others.
If you fancy escaping Kathmandu for a place less chaotic and closer to the mountains, head for Pokhara, at the foot of the Himalayas in the shadow of Dhaulaghiri. Here lakes and temples against a backdrop of sharp, icy mountains make for an intoxicating atmosphere.
Everest is named after a surveyor. TRUE. Contrary to myth, Everest was not named by a man named George Everest - it was named for him, by his successor as Surveyor General of India, Andrew Waugh in 1865. There was no small amount of subterfuge, either – Waugh ‘pretended’ there were no local names for the mountain, despite their being two: Sagarmartha, and Chomulungma,
Nepal was ‘closed’ until 1949: TRUE. Like Bhutan, Nepal did not particularly welcome outsiders until well after World War 2, which scuppered mountaineers who wanted to attempt the as yet unclimbed Everest from the south.
Must see and do
- See Everest preferably by trek; if you’re adventurous, from a summit; if necessary, from a plane. But see it somehow.
- Have a drink at Rum Doodle legendary climber’s haunt in Kathmandu, whose walls are covered in cardboard yeti footprints recording mountaineering exploits through the years. The walls are like a history book, and all the greats are here if you look hard enough – Hillary, Messner, Bonington, Hinkes. A shrine. www.therumdoodle.com
- Go trekking! If ever there was a country that was built for walking, it’s this one – so don’t visit without getting into the mountains. Visit one of these companies to see what’s on offer. www.keadventure.com
Walking and trekking
It seems as if South Africa has been pre-eminent as a tourism hotspot for ever – probably because of the initial surprise that greeted everyone when the county’s 1994 Democratic Elections suddenly made it a much nicer place to be. It’s a big place, and culturally and geographically quirky: the complicatedly bordered north abuts Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana. Swaziland extends into South Africa like a lightbulb, and little Lesotho is entirely contained by the country. The south of the country is composed of ‘capes’, with the large central area the ‘free state,’ and the whole is scattered with a mixture of Germanic, Swahili, French, British and Zulu placenames. An East London sits next to a Bisho, a Newcastle next to a Vryheid, a Petit Retief next to a Mkuze – indicators of South Africa’s complex past. Walking-wise, South Africa is excellent: here you can find the highest mountains in Africa south of Kilimanjaro (doesn’t sound much but it’s a big place, Africa) and a variety of reserves and national parks which offer a truly diverse mix of areas. A good place to start – indeed, essential - is the Drackensburg area of KwaZulu-Natal, a breathtaking area deep in Zulu country filled with mountains extending 200 miles along the border with Lesotho. Called by its infinitely more pleasing Zulu name uKhahlamba, it means ‘barrier of spears’, which gives you an idea of the sort of landscape it is. The landscape has an ancient feel which is like much of Africa’s mountains, particularly distinctive - all flat-topped mountains with razor-edged ridgelines tapering down to wooded valleys. It has a history of human occupation stretching back almost a million years, and has famous 35,000 year old cave inscriptions- some 40,000 in total - which attest to this area’s heritage. From the massive basalt cliff cauldrons of its northern reaches to the sandstone buttresses in the south – by way of the world’s second highest waterfalls, the Tugela Falls, Drackenburg offers the ultimate South African location for anyone who needs to escape. Walking high in these mountains will appeal to lovers of long, flat sywalks – as the main ridges are typically one long escarpment, and once you’re up, you’re up, and it’s possible to do multi-day traverses maintaining an altitude of above 3,000m the whole time. Around the Giant’s Castle area is particularly impressive, and you can climb the country’s highest mountain, Mafadi, via a straightforward, non-technical route from the Injasuthi campsite, approached from the town of Ladysmith, and then via a route known as Leslie’s Pass. Elsewhere in South Africa, The Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve offers some magnificent walking and is readily accessible from Cape Town. Here you can walk to Africa’s south-westernmost point – Cape Point - along some fantastically windswept coastline. The views back to table mountain are, naturally, awesome. The walks from Gifkommetjie and Platboom Beach on the west coast (a good place for windsurfing) are recommended. Baboons hang out around here which makes for an arresting sight when walking, but don’t approach or feed them.East of Plettenberg on the extreme south coast is Tsitsikamma National Park, which is also a stunning place to walk, as is Wilderness National Park to the west. This park is at the heart of South Africa's famous Garden Route, and is an intoxicating blend of lakes, rivers, estuaries and beaches against a backdrop of lush forest and mountains. Then, or course, there is Table Mountain itself: famously serviced by a cable car, you can also walk to its 1,086m summit via the Platteklip Gorge ("Flat Stone Gorge") which splits the main cliffs, which was the route taken by Antonio de Saldanha on the first recorded ascent of the mountain in 1503.
If you’re homesick, you also might want to climb Ben Macdhui – a 3,001m mountain in the eastern cape.
South Africa is yet another country which has tagged itself ‘The Great Undiscovered Adventure Capital of the World’, which – despite being ubiquitous – usually is a good sign for lovers of slightly extreme outdoor pursuits. You can raft, mountain bike, kite surf, abseil, gorge jump, land board, dive, climb and ‘kloof’ (sort of a reverse ghyll scramble which involves the descending of a deep, narrow gorge which could be wet or dry, via scrambling, walking, climbing, abseiling or even jumping). Typically, beach-lover magnet Durban or Cape Town will offer many operators to satisfy you on this score. South Africa is also a hotspot for those who want to dive with Great White Sharks, especially around the seal colonies at Mosselbay and Gansbaai.Operators leave from Cape Town. But the best thing to do when you get off the trail is to visit one of South Africa’s world-beating game reserves: Kruger National Park, in the far north-east, is the size of a small country - a truly vast area which extends from northern Swaziland to the border of Zimbabwe, with ideas mooted to double its size into Mozambique. This reserve encompasses a range of habitats that gives a true feel of what much of Africa must have once been like, and is one of the premier reserves in the world for watching lions, white rhino and water buffalo scrapping it outin their natural habitat. The St Lucia Wetland Park, also in the east, is clustered around one of the largest estuaries in Africa, and is home to 800 hippos and 1200 crocodiles. The relative proximity of Durban to both of these and the Drackensburg mountains makes it an ideal base if you only have a fairly short amount of time.
The flat tops of South Africa’s mountains used to be ground level. TRUE The flat tops of the sandstone/basalt Drakensburg in particular were once part of the African plateau. The sandstone was deposited by a gigantic lake that occupied much of what is now Southern Africa, whereas the Basaltic layer was deposited 220 Million years ago in a cataclysmic volcanic eruption (linked with the splitting of the tectonic plates of Africa and South America). Subsequently, water and wind erosion (principally from the east, facing the Indian Ocean) has cut into the enormous plateau, producing the unique landcape.
The Cape of Good Hope is the southernmost point in Africa. FALSE: this is an oft-quoted myth, perhaps confused with Cape Horn in South America. Cape Agulhas, 200 miles west, holds the accolade.
Must see and do
- Kruger National Park – the kind of all nature reserves. Offers Africa at its most wildly primal.
- Climb Table Mountain – a South African icon, excellent viewpoint for the Cape of Good Hope, and a fine mountain in its own right. You can get a cable car down as well, if you like. www.tablemountain.net
- Visit the Drackensberg Mountains – majestic and unique amongst mountains (only the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia look even slightly like them) this area offers the perfect blend of grandeur and culture in the heart of Zululand. www.drakensberg.kzn.org.za
Walking and trekking
Kilimanjaro is the first thing most people thing of when the subject of Tanzania as an outdoor destination arises, and rightly so: Africa’s highest mountain is an obscenely glorious lure to anyone who has mountaineering hankerings or wants to get one of the Seven Summits scratched intotheir boots. But glance at a map of Tanzania and it suddenly becomes clear that Kili – secreted in extreme north east – is merely the fairy on this huge country’s Christmas tree, as Tanzania is rammed with other attractions just as illustrious. Indeed, some of Africa’s most famous natural wonders lie within Tanzania’s borders, making it indisputably the number one African country to visit in your lifetime.
Walking wise, you are spoilt. Kili is a stunning and utterly unique mountain, rising out of the grizzled, giraffe-strewn savannah with the subtlety of a mushroom cloud. Kili is unique for a dozen reasons; it’s a volcano, sitting on the African Rift, which is slowly pulling east Africa apart. It’s also one of the highest freestanding mountains on earth, and is magnetic to trekkers as it is, most definitely, a walk – besides a stern constitution, excellent fitness and the psychological ability to push yourself when altitude is making your world hurt, the ability to hill-walk is about the only extra skill you’ll need to get up it. Its setting – amidst an otherwise flat world of desert, in the heart of Africa – makes any ascent to its summit a transcendent physical and spiritual experience which frequently leaves summiteers weeping uncontrollably at the top. But don’t let that put you off: the trek usually takes 6-8 days, and travels through savannah, jungly slopes, creepy volcanic formations and onto the fabled glacier ice cap, and is highly recommended. Packages are run by most UK trekking companies. Inevitably, some (usually delusional) people sniff at Kilimanjaro as an over-commercialised tourist tramp; this be your view, there is another large hill 50 miles across from it which is often used as an acclimatisation trek for those on extended trips to the area. Mount Meru (4,566m) is a blast-scarred, horseshoe-shaped volcano which takes an arguably more scenic and less straightforward route than Kili, and has the advantage of being much less walked and far cheaper. It’s a very primal mountain to climb - exacerbated by its setting - and is a good option if Kili isn’t your thing.
Further west, another fine place to walk is the Crater Highlands, a verdant chain of mountains and volcanoes which include the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and a sprawl of Masai tribal through the most extraordinary scenery in Tanzania. Hiking safaris take visitors from the tempestuously volcanic Ngorongoro Crater to the foot of the unique Ol Donyo Lengai 2878m – the astonishing sacred mountain of the Masai. As much as a mountain can, this looks like an ancient skeleton, and is an active volcano, though it can be climbed. What is remarkable about this mountain is that is spits out a lava which, instead of fiery, molten basaltic lava, is a peculiar blend of potassium and sodium which is black, comparatively low temperature and quick to weather – in essence, this volcano erupts carbon. Elsewhere in Tanzania, further highlights for the walker include the area around Tukuyu, near Livingstone’s fabled Lake Malawi, in the area of the country known as the Southern Highlands. The Mahale Mountains National Park is on another famously beautiful lake, Lake Tanganyika, and has some beautiful walking, as does the Eastern Arc range, which rises above the Masai steppe throughout the east of the country. But the real prize in Tanzania for adventurers is the Udzungwa National Park: a lost world of ancient 2,500m mountains, peculiar mammals such as the Colobus (a type ofprimate), jungle, steppe, hundred-foot trees, waterfalls, plateaux and grassland. This area is Africa at its most verdant and colourful, and despite an excellent network of trails, this area has still not been fully explored for the many species unique to it. The park itself – and this is the kicker – is only accessible on foot, and most approach from Mikumi. Outdoor-wise, if you want a place to witness where humankind came from, watch the earth being made, see wander through landscapes unlike anywhere else and bag a seven summit to boot, Tanzania is tough to beat.
As mentioned, there is a lot to see in Tanzania. If you have an interest in the (occasionally unsavoury) Victorian exploration of Africa, you will be a gibbering wreck after looking at a map of the country. In the north lies Lake Victoria, hewn into legend as the focus – along with Tanzania’s other great lakes, Tanganyika and Malawi - of much of the confusing, mishap-strewn efforts of explorers Livingstone, Stanley, Burton and Speke. Victoria is the second largest freshwater lake in the world, and is a magnet for birdwatchers and fishing enthusiasts. Rubondo Island National Park is a magnificent area to chill out. Down south, the sinuously gigantic Lake Malawi follows the line of the Great African Rift – demonstrated by the Livingstone Mountains running alonsgside and plunging straight into the lake at some points – and is very deep: the lake’s surface lies just under 500m above sea level, but in the north reaches a depth of 700m, demonstrating the enormity of this rift fault. Malawi is stunning as a lakeshore destination, with beautiful golden beaches, rich culture and opportunities for watersports. The world’s most famous wildlife preserve is also in Tanzania, the legendary Serengeti National Park, which is bigger than Wales (by a third) and plays host to one of nature’s greatest spectacles – the migration of two million wildebeest – and their relentless tracking by what seems to be everything that was born with teeth and a predatory instinct. Happily, this migration coincides with the prime trekking season of December – March, and can be observed from campsites in the Ndutu or Kusini safari areas within the park. And if you’re in the mood for something more sedate and quintessentially exotic, go to Zanzibar which – in a scene with which its name has become synonymous – is a palm-dotted, sandy Tropicana of white sand, turquoise water, rickety piers, little boats with triangular sails and very friendly people.
Lake Victoria is the source of the Nile. TRUE. Well, in part: it is the source of the longest branch of the Nile, the White Nile, which also has other lesser sources in Rwanda. The Blue Nile starts at Lake Tana in Ethiopia.
David Livingstone received his famous greeting from Henry Morton Stanley near the Livingstone Mountains, which now bear his name in reference to the event. FALSE: Stanley greeted the ailing Livingstone in the town of Ujiji, on the Tanzanian shores of Lake Tanganyika. Many historians doubt whether Stanley – who was a well-known self-promoter – ever uttered the line “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”
Kilimanjaro is an inactive volcano. TRUE: although gas is still emitted from the volcano and it is estimated that molten magma lies a mere 400m below the surface in some places, there is no history of recent eruption. There is a possibility the mountain could re-activate though – the presence of gas and magma confirm that it is merely inactive, not extinct.
Must see and do
- Visit Zanzibar – you’re in the country, so why the hell not? Even if it’s just to have a drink and say you’ve been there. www.zanzibar.net
- Go safari the Serengeti takes up a huge chunk of the north, lies in the same arc as Kilimanjaro and Meru, so don’t miss out. www.serengeti.org
- Walk into the Udzungawa Mountains primeval park teeming with life and excellent walking opportunities for the adventurer. www.tanzaniaparks.com
Walking and trekking
Sweden sometimes gets unfairly labelled as Norway’s naturally inferior sibling, lacking the fjords and peaks which make its neighbour so illustrious with outdoor lovers. By this reasoning, Sweden must therefore be one of the greatest outdoor secrets in Europe.Bergslagen and Abisko National Park, Gotland Island, Laponia World Heritage site and the ferociously wild Sarek National Park are as good a walking destinations as you can imagine. Sweden also has a total of 4,300 miles of coast which – while perhaps not quite as spectacular as Norway’s – is home to many fjords, inlets and irregular topography which – in the north - make for world-class destinations for anyone who likes to walk in breathtakingly bleak, ethereally-lit places. The ‘high coast’ is on the Gulf of Bothnia, a northern outpost of the Baltic Sea. Shaped by glaciation and the emergence of new land from the sea, the coast is uplifting at higher rate than anywhere in the world, and has been dedicated a UNESCO Heritage Site for its demonstration of glacial forces. The High Coast Trail is one of the highlights of this area.
For the mountain lover, Sweden has a surprising amount, and what is here seems magically remote. There are 12 peaks in Sweden over 2,000m, all of them in the northern tundra of Lappland (yes, it is a real place; a Patagonia-style region of vagueness between Finland and Sweden) eight in Sarek National Park and Stora Sjöfallet National Park, and the other four, including the highest peak of Kebnekaise in its namesake National Park further north. Sweden has an amazing 28 National Parks, most of which are hilly and modest in size, and the largest and more mountainous of which are located in the northern region of the country. The best one experience in Sweden for lovers of mixed, long-distance trekking is definitely the King’s Trail (Kungsleden) - a 425km trail in the far north of Sweden, well into the arctic to Abisko, in Lapland. This trail is without doubt one of the world’s greatest walks, traversing through an expansive landscape of birch forests, glaciers, rivers, and the highest mountains in Sweden. Mountain lovers should head south on this from Nikkaluokta and walk into the Kebnekaise range. Climbing the highest peak requires experience of walking on a glacier and alpine mountaineering, as the mountain is reasonably technical and has an ice cap. In true Scandinavian style, you can climb it all year – but you’ll be ski mountaineering it in winter! Further south, you approach more illustrious mountain regions, in Sarek and Padjelanta National Parks. Despite being largely pristine wilderness (Sarek in particular has few walking trails and is utterly pristine – it is Europe’s largest National Park) along the entire Kungsleden trail there are strategically placed mountain cabins for overnight accommodation and provisions, as well as two youth hostels.
For the lowland walker, there are around 50 marked walking trails that spider through lowland Sweden, all of which are accessible by public transport and easy to get to from the big cities. Well worth a visit is the 140km Åsleden trail in Skåne - part of the 1,000 kilometre-long Skåneleden, itself broken into about 80 day trips – which takes a meandering route through magnificent, primeval pine forests and ravines.
In the Småland region of southeastern Sweden - the “Kingdom of Crystal” - the 60km Lönnebergaleden Trail leads through deep forests and along lakes with beautiful views. Windshelters and platforms can be found on the trail to aid overnight stops. The Swedes love to sleep outdoors: aside from making probably the best tents in the world (Hilleberg), and the home of the midnight sun, Sweden has a public access right (Allemansrätt) which represents a set of laws giving the freedom to explore the country’s nature areas, including the right to camp outdoors – responsibly, of course – all of which adds up to make Sweden one of the best places to be outdoors, anywhere.
Few places balance culture and outdoor splendour quite to enviably as Sweden. Gothenburg and West Sweden is curiously marketing itself as one of the premier destinations in Europe for lovers, and it’s not difficult to see why – fairylight-lit cities, a craggy, cruisable coast at Bohuslän and lush, forested Lake Vahern are beguiling additions to cultural Sweden which should top the list if you want to bookend your walking with - er, wooing.
Sweden is also gastronomically outstanding, particularly on the coast, and especially if you like sea food.
Practically every other outdoor activity is catered for, from rafting (excellent at Klaralven) to – of course! – skiing. Also keep your eyes peeled for wildlife when you are in the far north in the summer – bears and wolverine are two of the rare animals you might be lucky (all being well!) enough to spot, and in winter keep an eye to the sky for aurorae. There’s an Ice Hotel at Jukkasjarvi, on the northern bank of the River Torne, which provides the ice blocks which annually are dug out and built into the hotel. It’s upmarket - but reindeer pelts, ice blocks and a room temperature of -5 deg C - what an experience!
Sweden has one of the highest suicide rates in the world: FALSE. Sweden is actually 15th on the list of suicide-prone countries in Europe (number 1 is Lithuania), the rumour sparked by a speech by US President Eisenhower who described Swedes as revelling in “sin, nudity, drunkenness and suicide” as a result of an over-generous welfare policy.
Must see and do
Wander the Kungsleden the long distance route in the north of Sweden is unquestionably Europe’s greatest expanse of pristine wilderness. And do it under the midnight sun in summer, and it’s fantastically weird, too. http://www.visitsweden.com/VSTemplates/Page____9655.aspx
Take a Swedish sauna though developed in Finland, you can find saunas anywhere in Scandinavia. Traditionally, die-hard Swedes languish in temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the sauna, then jump into something freezing.
Check out the ice hotel there are several in the far north, but the one at Jukkasjarvi is the original.
A unique experience, for sure.
Walking and trekking
It’s no accident Peru pulls in hoardes of walkers from all over the world: the natural display it presents is truly one of the world’s most magnificent. The largest Andean country by area, Peru offers a unique blend of culture, nature and history. Its network of high-altitude trails amongst one of the world’s greatest mountain ranges also give many access to the sort of otherworldly climes which would be unattainable for non-mountaineers elsewhere in the world. This is nowhere more arresting than the country’s main outdoor lure to the walker: the Inca Trail, the ancient, high-level route which travels from Chilica to the ‘lost city’ of Machu Picchu. Historically, the Inca Trail was a system of pathways which covered 14,000 miles down the west coast of South America, but these days the Peruvian section of the trail is by far the most popular. Indeed, in many ways the trail has become a victim of its own success, with environmental concerns prompting numbers to be now limited to 200 people a day embarking on the route from Cuzco to Machu Picchu, from numbers in excess of 500 a year or so before. Consequently the trail filled its quota for the ’08 trekking season by April. It is a hugely spectacular if you can get on it – a once in a lifetime-if-you’ve-lived-a-very-charmed-life experience, and the site of Machu Picchu is one you won’t ever forget.
If you can’t get on the trail there are plenty of alternatives, too. Cuzco sits on the edge of what is known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas, a verdant, jungly and breathlessly beautiful area fringed by snow-clad cordilliera and cut by the Urubamba River, which contains many Inca ruins and several other major trails which tend to escape the attention given to the main route to Machu Picchu. These include the Salkantay Trail – the fabled back way to the lost city – and the Choquequirao Trail, which leads to a similar-sized but less illustrious ruined city, which is still in the process of being unearthed. Elsewhere in Peru, a trip to the second most popular outdoor capital in Peru – Arequipa – is sure to spring up adventure opportunities, such as climbing the volcano of El Misti, which looms over the city, or heading for the walking goldmine of Colca Canyon. This canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, cut from dark rock and surrounded by some of the Andes most commanding peaks. Lost cities aside, this is Peru at its most emerald-terraced, sharply mountained, endearingly rustic best. Mountaineering pilgrims and those who don’t mind a long trip north may want to put the town of Huaraz on their list. Aside from being the flavoursome gateway to the High Andes most ice-axe wielding connoisseurs flock to climb, from here you can see the distinctive, scary profile of Suila Grande – the mountain Joe Simpson and Simon Yates immortalised in Touching the Void.
A note to backpackers: despite a huge increase in tourism, Peru has some decidedly dicey spots: Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrillas are still known to conduct occasional operations in the Ayacucho, Huancavelica, Huanuco, Junín and San Martín areas. Border areas with Ecuador and Colombia are crawling with drug traffikers. So – in the truest possible sense – don’t go there.
There is loads to do in Peru, and most of it is outdoors. The pyramids at Sipan are some of the more mystical of the ancient settlements in northern Peru – huge burial chambers which look like anthills, built by the Moche around 2,000 years ago.
Islas Flotantes are the man-made settlements of the Uros people, and are unique cultural stops if you find yourself in the Lake Titicaca area. The biggest of the Islands has a school, post office and a souvenir shops, though much of the culture still subsists in the traditional way. The Nazca Lines are the mysterious lines shaped like animals which are located near the coast, and offer a wonderful, desert foil to the jungly, high-level splendour of the interior. You do, however need to fly to make the most of this: you can jump on a tourist plane at Nazca’s airstrip.
Reserva EcologicaChaparri is an exemplary wildlife preserve near Chiclayo, and is home to both the ferociously rare spectacled bear and the Andean condor, the largest bird of prey in the world.
Peruvians put cocaine in their tea: TRUE the tea is made from leaves of the coca plant, from which cocaine is derived. The leaves are used in tea which is medicinal against altitude sickness, fatigue and thirst.
Must see and do
- See the Nazca lines one of the great mysteries of the ancient civilisations of Peru is how these things were drawn by people on the ground. Aside from monkeys, spiders and birds, drawings have been found of so-called ‘spacemen’ – so many believe the Peruvians had help. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazca_lines
- Walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu yes, everyone does it, but it is very special. http://www.incatrailbooking.com/
- Visit Caral this is billed as the oldest city in the Maericas, dating from 2600BC. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caral
Walking and trekking
Australia is an excellent walking country. There are a number of reasons why this may come as a surprise; the principle one being that the stereotypical view most outsiders have of Oz as being a landscape of flat, murderously hot nothingness with bongly names, a big red rock in the middle, something colourful under the sea to the east and a melee of imaginatively lethal creepy crawlies every few yards. To a certain extent all of these are true, but as Australia is a land of almost unimaginable scale (the sixth largest country in the world, its largest island and home to one of the lowest population densities anywhere) with a huge climatic range, it is a place where you will find all of the variety such dimensions suggest - and plenty of it. 'Bushwalking' - which is the general term for hiking in Australia - falls into a number of different styles, from decidedly moist rainforest walks to bone-arid desert tramps, which much in between. Another surprise to greet the walker is that there are mountains here, and reasonable ones too. The south-eastern segment of Australia – New South Wales and eastern Victoria – is home to the highest peaks of the Great Dividing Range, which span most of the east (it's tempting to say 'east coast', but on a UK scale they are well and truly inland) the highest of which is Mt Kosciuszko, which sits in its namesake national park at a not insignificant 2228m. These mountains, like most of Australia's physiology, are pretty unique, having been eroded from a much grander range built from volcanic rock into river-valleys, gorges, table-top mountains and - in the higher reaches, Alpine vegetation and glacial lakes beneath fairly benign mountains which are high enough to catch ski-able snow in the winter. To say that nothing is convenient in Australia would be unfair, but prepare yourself for a lot of road-time wherever you go: if you want to explore these highest mountains, the best base is the town of Jindabyne, where you can access numerous trails that will allow you to cover Mt Kosciuszko as part of a number of circuits of varying length. There is even a chairlift from the village of Thredbo up onto the main ridge. If you are used to fellwalking in Britain, you will find little to worry you other than the added height, which will only affect those who are very sensitive to altitude. Also hereabouts is the Jagungal Wilderness Area, The Kerries, Cooleman Caves (a limestone plateau with many distractions which is particularly excellent). Victoria and Tasmania – being in the southernmost part of the country – is wild and windswept, with ragged coastline, Alpine National Park (hardly France but very impressive) where a string of peaks nudging 2,000m form the crest of the Victorian Alps, including Mt Bogong (1986m) and Mt Feathertop (1922m). Both can be linked in a walk in the Bogong unit of the Alpine National Park. Other areas for bushwalking in Victoria include the pleasingly named Wonnangatta-Moroka Unit of Alpine National Park, Wilson’s Promontory in the south of the state, and the Grampians – low, impressively mangled sandstone mountains – in the west. Tasmania harbors Australia’s famous Overland Track, which includes Cradle Mountain and the wild upland of Australia’s prickly offspring, and is well worth a visit as it throws yet another unique spin on an already distinctive country. Queensland is rainforest territory, with Cairns the natural base for excursions inland and to Hinchinbrook Island, a Jurassic Park of mangroves, mountains and tropical waterfalls. If you are flying into the West – which few will, simply given the density of attractions to the east – there is still much for the walker, though what there is is ferociously remote: the Stirling Ranges, near the remote town of Albany on the south-west coast, is a dramatic and biologically important range of arresting mountains. Further north lies the Pilbara, an arid region of bleak beauty which is mostly visited for industry, while in the North, the legendary Arnhem Land is crocodile central. If you’re looking for a good base to explore a range of attractions, fly to Sydney and take it from there.
Where to start? Australia has long been a magnet for every type of traveller, from the retiring wrinkly to the hedonistic gap-year youth, and every demographic including and between the above can find plenty to do here. Firstly, the most obvious thing to mention would be perhaps Australia's greatest attraction: the Neighbours set, which can be visited in Melbourne. Failing that, you may want to check out the next most impressive sight: the Great Barrier Reef. You'll have to get yourself up near the very top of the East (Gold) Coast, where excursions run from Townsville, Cairns and just about every coastal town with a marina. While you're up here, also check out some of the rainforest preserves in this part of Australia, where some outstanding demonstrations of the country's massive vegetation can be observed, as well as the salt water crocodiles which inhabit the more verdant areas of Australia. The far north and the Northern Territories are Crocodile Dundee country, particularly around the town of Arnhem, and if it's an authentic bush experience and the sort of lakes and streams that warrant a cautious investigation before you jump in, this is the place to head. In the far south, the coastline is rougher and more rugged, and those of a suitably insane disposition may want to experience a shark cage dive. The town to head for if this is your bag is Port Lincoln, a notorious Great White (or White Pointer as they're known locally) hangout. Heading west into the interior, things get awfully flat and brutally huge, and assuming you haven't been to the interior on walking business (unlikely, considering the sparseness of everything) you may want to save your pennies and fly to Alice Springs, in the geographical centre of Australia's interior, hire a car and drive to one of the most oustanding natural marvels of the world - Ayers Rock, or Uluru. It is by all accounts a sight you’ll never forget, and for lovers of wilderness, reaching this lonely part of one of the world's great empty places will no doubt have considerable appeal. Though you will no doubt be tempted, don't climb the rock: it belongs to the Aborigines, it is sacred and they ask visitors not to climb it. Plus, considering it is the only thing to be seen for an area around the size of Europe, the view from the top really is no great shakes. Sit at the bottom and look at the rock instead.
Australians consume more beer per person than any other country: FALSE Australians are in fact moderate drinkers. The average Australian consumes 7% less alcohol than the average Brit, 25% less than the average German and 35% less than the average Irish.
A third of Australia’s entire area is given over to sheep rearing. FALSE. Half of it is!
Must see and do
- Uluru (Ayers Rock) – the obvious one. But it is perhaps the one image of Australia that has perforated the public’s consciousness and apparently – for a change – it is far more breathtaking than you imagine.
- Climb the Australian Alps – visit the marvellous mountains of Victoria and New South Wales and see a side of Australia you probably didn’t expect. www.parkweb.vic.gov.au/1park_display.cfm?park=41
Walking and trekking
France has everything the walker could want, in abundance. The country has a staggering 110,000 miles of trail, split into three divisions: the GRs (Trans-European paths) GRPs (Regional Paths) and Prs (Local Paths). What is of immediate surprise to a visitor is just how big the country is, and how rurally empty most of it appears. Geographically, it’s easy to see why France is such a lure to the outdoor lover; in the north and west, the bleak coastal plains are a low-level walker’s delight. In the middle is the astonishing volcanic region of the Auvergne. In the South-West the French Pyrenees wall the border with Spain and Andorra, and fall to earth via the delightful and historically rich Midi-Pyrenees region. Then we have the east – which is where mountaineers prick up their ears – with the Jura and the Alps, one of the world’s greatest mountain ranges and home to Western Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc, amongst a great many others. Starting high then the natural base for excursions into the high Alps is the town of Chamonix – Graceland for every living thing that ever wore skis or spikes. There’s a lot more to do here than just mountaineer, though: Chamonix offers visitors of every ability or desire something to do, from strolls through high Alpine pasture to ice climbing. If you want to tackle the big White Mountain (as Mont Blanc translates), the most straightforward route is the ever-popular Gouter route, which involves a cable car ride, a dawn traverse of the notoriously unstable Grand Colouir up into a realm of narrow snow slopes, fierce cold, steep drops and changeable weather. Despite its accessibility, Mont Blanc is the antithesis of a pushover – it is statistically the world’s most dangerous mountain, and you need to be hot to trot with Alpine skills, be well acclimatised and prepared to turn back if you lose the good weather.
Naturally, the views from the top are staggering, but are perhaps outweighed by the views from the valley, which is surrounded by a cauldron of speared peaks which rival anywhere in the world for spectacle. If gentler fare is more your thing, literally take a step down, checking out the towns in the hills to the west of the high Alps – a range of mountains cannily called the Préalpes – such as Castellane, Moustiers Sainte Marie and Greoux, where superlative hill-walking can be found. Hereabouts, in the extreme south-east, dramatic features such as the Verdon Gorge can be explored amongst surroundings of jaw-dropping beauty and intoxicating culture. If you want something unexpected, you can explore the volcanic region of the Auvergne lies within the Massif Central, a landscape of ghostly volcanoes covered in verdantly spreading vegetation – an image familiar from the Volvic bottle, named for the town of the same name in this region. The best walking lies within the Parc naturel régional des Volcans d'Auvergne, a regional national park. These regional parks are not to be confused with the seven Parcs Nationaux, which generally are governed by stiffer restrictions than those in Britain; visit the website shown in ‘links’ for more info. Any level of walking can be found here, as can in most regions of France, from walks along the Rhone to the windswept coastlines of Brittany and Normandy. These are just the highlights of an outstandingly varied country.
Skiing is massive in France, both amongst the French and the hoardes of tourists who flock resorts such as Courcheval, Chamonix and Les 3 Valles. Recent unreliable snowfall has caused much in the way of negative publicity, but the French ski industry is far from suffering. Culturally, France is also magnificent – a haven for gastronomes and lovers of café culture, and there are many seats of culture within striking distance of outdoor attractions. The city of Cleremont Ferrand, with its impressive Gothic cathedral is a fine base for the Massif Central; St Etienne is within striking distance of the Pre-Alpes, as is Nice on the south coast and Grenoble inland. All offer slices of uniquely French culture and make fine places to retire to if ski chalets aren’t your style. Rafting on the river gorges in the south east is popular, as is cycling, either on long, famously good country roads or the sinuous roads of the Alps – Grenoble makes a particularly good destination for the latter. Horse riding, rock-climbing and boating are also quintessential experiences, particularly along the beautiful Canal du Midi – an engineering marvel that cuts through thedreamy, rolling scenery of Languedoc and Rousillon, from the city of Toulouse via a series of wonderful towns all the way to Etang de Thau on the Mediterranean. If you like living on a boat, this is for you.
It’s rude just to say ‘bonjour’. TRUE. Well, sort of. It is one of the quirks of French etiquette to use ‘monsieur’ or ‘madame’ as a suffix, depending on who you’re talking to. It’s not exactly rude, but it’s better to err on the side of caution!
The Eiffel Tower was a gift to France from the USA as a thank you for the Statue of Liberty. FALSE – It was built for the Paris World Fair by Gustav Eiffel in 1887.
Must see and do
Visit Chamonix – even if skiing or rock-climbing aren’t your thing, a visit to French mountaineering’s literal and spiritual home- if only for the magnificent views and the railroad which takes you there – is an experience not to be missed. www.chamonix.com
Look into the Verdon Gorge – aside from being a marvel of nature in itself, the gorge lies in one of the prettiest parts of France, studded with picturesque villages where you can spend the night, such as Castellanne. www.provenceweb.fr/e/groupes/verdon/gorges.htm
Eat Escargot – the jewel in the shel…ahem, the crown of French cuisine. We won’t tell you what it is. But it tastes a bit like chicken.
Good For (World) :
Walking and trekking
Think of the quintessential Alpine country and chances are you the reality of your image is closer to Austria than, say, Switzerland. It’s a country of almost inexpressible mountainous beauty, located centrally between Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia (which are no slackers when it comes to mountain ranges – Austria is the central nucleus the hilliest bits of these countries point towards) and its good-at-everything climate consequently makes it one of Europe’s most popular all-year destinations. Enjoying Austria from an outdoor point of view is, aside from being the ideal walking pleasure, also one of the most rewarding ways to see Austria as you dodge the expense and crowds of the big cities. Around 62% of this bulky country is mountainous.
The best walking for those who like the high mountains is in the west, where the stamped-on tadpole shape of Austria narrows to a corridor of Alps which slides between Italy and Germany, with predictably vertical results. These are the regions of the Vorarlberg and the Austrian portion of the Tyrol, shared with northern Italy.
It’s here that the legendary resort of Innsbruck caters for the downtime ambitions of outdoors types, and it does this job exceedingly well. Sitting just on the nib of the eastern Tyrol lies Austria’s highest peak, the impressive Grossglockner. It’s an incredible looking mountain, a slice of sharp-looking Himalayesque menace sharkfinned above the surrounding massif with extraordinary presence. It is ranked the second most prominent peak in the Alps – which means the massif sticks out from its surroundings further than most. It’s a hard climb, too – one of the Alps’ more technical highest peaks. It’s a paradise for ice climbers, and the easiest ascent - over glacier and ice banked to over 50 degrees in places – is given an Alpine grade of PD, making just about anyone who attempts it an honorary ice climber. The normal route ascends from the Erzherzog-Johann-hut, and if you want a great photo of it, the place to aim for is Lucknerhaus. Those with loftier ambitions might want to lug their camera to Franz-Josefhaus, where the mountain’s legendarily prickly north face begins to unfold. It is truly one of the alps most awe-inspiring visages. If you want to climb it and are unfamiliar with alpine climbing to PD (tricky scrambling covered in ice by British standards), hire a guide – and if you are uncomfortable with the mountain as a whole, there are many others which are more accommodating, and the enviable network of mountain huts all over Austria’s alps make it one of the best places in Europe for hut-to-hut walks. The Zillertal Alps, on the border with Italy, make for a stunning place to do this; Cicerone produces a book dedicated to just this. (www.cicerone.co.uk)
Further down into the valleys, there is much in the way of green-blue -white Alpine colour spectrum,, where you can walk amongst meadows and gaze at the mountains beyond. Salzkammergut is a lake-based resort in northern Austria which was granted UNESCO World Heritage status given its magnificent, verdant beauty, and there are many marked walking trails for those who want to explore an almost painfully pretty, villa-dotted, cowbell-tinkly area which is less vertically inclined. But worthy of special mention is the Tirol’s flagship long distance path – the Adlerweg, or Eagle’s Walk, a route which stretches in the rough shape of an eagle across the Tirol. This walk takes in a breathtaking range of scenery, from high mountains, steep gorges, pretty traditional villages, cool woodland, flower-filled meadows and stunning, natural river valleys. The trail also provides good insight into the culture, traditions and history of Tirol. You can do as little or as much as you want, as although the route is hundreds of miles long, it is broken into easily digestable chunks. Happily, the head of the eagle is Innsbruck.
As well as mountains, the other thing Austria does achingly well is cities, which are at their best cavernous mixtures of baroque, gothic and sympathetically modern design concealing many establishments designed for you to sit and be very, very civilised – even when alcohol is involved. Austria is big on beer and food, so you really must take one for the team and sample both to suitably reverent levels. One of the best places to do this is the Augustiner Braustubl in Salzburg , a brewery of great heritage, having been founded by Augustine monks in 1621 and perfectly encapsulating everything rich and flavourful about Austrian alpine culture. Which means it tastes great and will make you smile with silly contentment. (www.augustinerbier.at) Vienna is a city which is culturally essential on any travellers list, architecturally magnificent as it is and historically entwined with the likes of Freud and Mozart.
Salzberg fortress is also a must, as is the Imperial Palace in Hofburg. Watersports are popular on Austria’s lakes, but where Austria excels (again) is in its winter sports. The resorts of Innsbruck, Obertauern, St Anton and Solden are legendary: think big fores, knitted jumpers, steins, plush wood – the works.
Austria’s tourism ambassadors are penguins. TRUE. Joe and Sally are the Austrian penguins, designed to demonstrate the diversity of what Austria has to offer. The reason is worth explaining at length:
“Joe and Sally are inquisitive and experienced holidaymakers having already extensively travelled the world. Finally, Joe and Sally arrive in Austria. Their gestures and poses convey a deep sense of well-being, happiness and satisfaction from their being in Austria. This is all depicted in images which are part of out marketing activities" says the Austrian Tourist Office in Germany.
Must see and do
- Grossglockner – Austria’s highest mountain is a mountain you must at least see, if not climb.
- Salzburg - Salzburg is known as the "Rome of the North" because of the sheer number of churches it possesses. A compact city, it is packed full of attractions, and should be an essential part of any visit to Austria.
- Salzkammergut – UNESCO approved resort which captures all of the dripping beauty of the Austrian Alps in one place.
- Austria Tourist Board – excellent official tourism portal for Austra.
- Innsbruck – rich guide to Austria’s undisputed outdoor capital.
- Menu guide – Austrian food is great, but there are a few unpleasant surprises for the conservative gourmet. Here’s a translation of a few common dishes.
Good For (World) :
Walking and trekking
Ireland is vastly underrated as a walking destination. Even if we don’t include Northern Ireland (which we will) there is a multitude of walking options available through scenery which really does hold a a torch to the best Scotland can offer.
Starting spectacularly in Kerry, the most impressive (and highest) mountains in Ireland can be found, frequently swathed in brooding cloud but obviously dramatic in form and nature. Here two peninsulas: the Iveragh peninsula and the Dingle peninsula hoard mountains away from the rest of Ireland and privide a big reason for making the trip this far south west. Highest of them all is Carrauntooil (1,039m) balanced in height between Snowdon and Scafell Pike, but more serious in many respects than both. A swirling monster of ridgelines, steep drops and frightening neighbours, Carrauntooil is in spectacle a mountaineer’s mountain, but can be climbed by anyone with stamina, a head for heights and a brick-solid knowledge of navigation. The mountain is the crown of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, a Cuillin-alike ridge on the Iveragh peninsula which include Beenkaragh (1010m), Cnoc na Pieste (988m) and Cruach Mor (932m) – all of them fine and challenging peaks.
Hereabouts the glens are thick with legend: just a glance at the map and you are confronted with disguised names which, when translated, hint at the legend in these parts: Lough Cailee (the Hag’s Lake) Lough Cumeenapeaste (the Lake of the water monster), The Devil’s Ladder. If you want to explore the Reeks, (and how could you not?) the best way up is from Lisleiblane. This part of Kerry is also the setting for the famous ‘Ring of Kerry’ – a 176km circuit around the towns of Killorglin, Glenbeigh, Caherciveen, Waterville, Sneem, Kenmare, and Killarney. As well as intermittent views of the crashing Atlantic, the mountains of Kerry at your disposal should you wish them and a landscape dotted with relics from the past such as stone circles and burial grounds from ancient Celtic settlers (many older than Stonehenge) this is a fine walk that will please any walker regardless of grade.
Also in Kerry (there’s a lot here) is Brandon Mountain, on the famous Dingle Peninsula. This sees a lot of traffic, but it is a deeply beautiful peak with superb rock architecture and staggering views, most entertaining by its east ridge.
Moving east into Mayo, walkers are tempted by a number of charismatic scenic highlights, two of which stand proud: the Galty Mountains and the Wicklow Hills. The mountains in these ranges are decidedly less dramatic than those of Kerry, but make fine, achievable viewpoints if you’re in the area and fancy some great hillwalking. Similar to the Cairngorms in nature, their respective highlights are Galytmore Mountain (919m) which has towering cliffs and a real sense of being ‘out there’, and Lugnaquillia Mountain (925m) – ‘The lug’ – which is the highest summit in the Wicklows. Hereabouts you can also find the Wicklow Way, the 132km path (part of European Path E6) which begins in Dublin and travels south west across the Wicklow uplands, through rolling hill country in the southwest of the county to finish in the smallvillage of Clonegal. Its varied landscapes make it a great catch for country walkers who like a bit of hill and town in their walks.
To the north east and to Mayo, Galway and Connemara, this is another packed area of hills for any level of walker. Here lie the Mweelrea mountains (Galway) The Nephin Beg Mountains (Mayo) and Sheefry Mountains (Galway), but the pick of the bunch sound like they should be in Scotland. For the serious hillwalker, the Twelve Bens of Connemara make for meaty challenge: despite being of moderate height, they are steep, remote and awkwardly organised but can be broken up into more do-able horseshoes. Here lies the Glencoaghan Horseshoe, and the peak of Bencorr (711m): a bare, strikingly grey mountain of sharp ridges and a marvellous position above Loch Inagh which is a sure contender for Ireland’s best mountain walk.
Elsewhere in Ireland there is plenty to occupy: the mountain of Mourne in Northern Ireland are famously atmospheric and despite being very busy in high season, make for spellbinding walking, intermittently assisted by the Mourne Wall, an ancient drystone wall which follows the main ridge. The highest peak is the impressive Slieve Donard (850m) which has views to Scotland, England and Wales on clear days, with the possibility of seeing both Scafell Pike and Snowdon from its top. Croagh Patrick (767m) in Mayo is the most climbed mountain in Ireland, and is a place of pilgrimage, with many making the journey to the chapel summit in bare feet. The Burren is an ancient, bleak landscape of limestone in County Clare which makes for fascinating geological walking (or just walking if you prefer!) and there are many beautiful lake areas in Ireland (loughs) which are justifiably popular with trout fishermen, and many have holiday cottages which can be hired for short breaks. Particularly picturesque are Loch Conn and Lough Mask in Connemara, and the beguiling Lough Derg near Limerick.
Killary Fjord in Connemara, County Galway is the only true fjord in Ireland. You can take tours into the Fjord and the nearby base of Leenane is developing itself as the outdoor capital of Ireland, with bungee jumping, kayaking, windsurfing, diving and rafting. It is also a good base if you’re spending a while and want to discover the west coast, so you’d do well to investigate it if lots of outdoor options are your goal. The cliffs of Moher – the famous Atlantic Edge – are one of Ireland’s most visited attractions, and are accessible from Shannon or Galway. They are ceaselessly impressive – a long line of eroded cliffs dropping sheer into the ocean which batters them. Frequently swathed in mist, they are an atmospheric addition to any itinerary.
Trout fishing is also big in Ireland, as is biking, with magnificent cycle routes on Dingle and Kerry. Any beer lover must make at least one pilgrimage to Dublin, and the Temple Bar district, and further up the coast there is a huge Celtic tomb at Newgrange which demands a visit.
Then of course there is Ireland’s second most famous attraction (after the Guinness brewery) – the Giant’s Casueway. Legend has it the Basaltic columns of the causeway were cast into the water by giant Finn McCool, who built the causeway to fight fellow giant Benandonner in Scotland, but fell asleep before he got there. Panicking when Benandonner got impatient and came over himself, McCool asked his wife to throw a blanket over him and pretend he was her son. Benandonner then arrived, baulked at the size of the ‘baby’, imagined how big the father must be and fled back to Scotland, ripping up the causeway as he went. A slightly more prosaic version involves columns of cooling lava, but whichever you believe the site is impressive and of huge historic interest: a Spanish Armada galleon Girona was shipwrecked here in 1558 with the loss of 1300 men, and the treasure recovered from her was the biggest ever recovered from such a ship. The causeway is one of those sites you must visit at least once in your life.
The longest river and biggest lake in Great Britain are in Ireland: TRUE. The River Shannon at 240 miles, and Lough Neagh, with an area of 292 square km.
The famous phrase from purile cartoon South Park – “they killed Kenny” – was a reference to Kilkenny Castle in Ireland’s south east, where King Kenny III was assassinated in 1550. FALSE: none of the above is true, and the name is merely a much seized-upon coincidence.
Irish Whiskey is spelt with an ‘e’. TRUE. Scottish Whisky has no ‘e’, and is typically distilled twice, whereas Irish Whiskey is distilled three times.
Must see and do
- Visit the Giant’s Causewaywww.giantscausewayofficialguide.com
- Climb Brandon Mountain and marvel at the viewswww.discoverireland.ie/southwest
- Visit the Guinness Brewery at St James’ Gatewww.guinness.com
Walking and trekking
If you want to see why Slovakia is considered a fine walking destination, you need only consider its geography. Slovakia is a landlocked country with mountains in the north and flat terrain in the south: namely, the Carpathian Mountains and the Pannonian Basin. So far, so upside-down Switzerland, were it not for the dearth of tourists and lack of stratospheric prices. Approximately two-thirds of the country is in the Carpathians, which include the mountain ranges of the Lesser Fatra, Greater Fatra, the High Tatras, and Low Tatras. South of this area are the Slovak Ore Mountains and Slovenské stredohorie (Slovak Medium Mountains), all of which offer supreme hiking opportunities for varying levels of technical competence. The High Tatras will lure mountaineers, with 11 peaks over 2500m and a truly wild, Alpine-degree spectacle, as demonstrated by the country’s highest peak, Gerlachovský štít (2,655m), accessible from the villages of Starý Smokovec or Tatranská Poliankawhich. The mountain is a big undertaking, and requires some careful scrambling (on lower-grade paths, this is protected; on the quiter faces of the mountain, it is not) to reach its top. The mountains here pack a visceral punch which more than equals their visual spectacle and isn’t to be underestimated – some climbers suggest they be treated as ‘short 4000m peaks, rather than tall 2000m peaks.’ Bear. Lynx and wolf roam these mountains, which include Krivan (2,495m), a granite pyramid which is considered the country’s most beautiful mountain and adorns a Slovakian one-Euro coin. It’s also worth noting that you can climb Rysy, which is claimed to be the highest ‘walk-up’ summit in Slovakia and is also the highest peak in Poland, making it a tick of one-and-a-half for baggers!
Elsewhere in Slovakia, the long-distance trans-European walking routes E3 and E8 pass through the country at various points, and there are many sections which can be enjoyed for a day walk – the E8 in particular traverses the middle of the country through the Low Tatras, and makes for stupendous walking.
In the extreme west, the area around the pretty town of Devín, near Bratislava and positioned where the rivers Danube and Morava meet is a charming destination for the gentler walker. The dominating prescence hereabouts is the castle rock, which has been permanently settled from the times of old Celts. Here you can look into Austria or take a wander through the river forests of Moravia, making it an ideal excursion from the hubbub of the city.
There are also several UNESCO world Heritage sites, which include the Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and the Caves of Slovak Karst, a cave and surface system scoured by geological forces, which makes for thrilling exploration. One of them – the Baradla-Domica cave system – is 21 km long and connects Slovakia with Hungary. It has a cavern capable of holding 1,000 people, a 13m long stalactite and the underground river Styx. Some of Slovakia’s caves are said to have healing air for respiratory problems, and you can find most of them in the south, near the border with Hungary.
Slovakia is – somewhat surprisingly, given its subdued reputation as a tourist magnet – a fully operational vendor for adrenaline junkies. The numerous rivers which descend from the northern mountain ranges make for excellent rafting, making it an eager watersports destination for anyone who prefers a paddle to walking boots. The aforementioned caves are a must, as Slovakia has over 4000 of them, many of which offer thermal spas said to allieve a variety of ailments.
There are also manifold opportunities for mountain biking in the uplands of the north, cycling through the forests of the west, fishing, photography, golf, white water rafting, bird watching, horse riding, and paragliding. From a cultural point of view, Bratislava is an alluring city – kind of a smaller, cheaper Vienna – straddling the huge River Danube with a fine castle as its centrepiece. The hilly old town is beguiling, and a superb place to base yourself on any trip to the city.
The city of Bratislava is actually half in Austria – the Danube is the border. FALSE. The city does border Austria – and also Hungary, making it the only National capital to border two countries – but the Danube crosses the border into Asutria north of the city.
Andy Warhol was Slovakian: FALSE. He was born in New York to Slovakian parents.
Must see and do
- Visit Spis Castle One of the largest castle sites in Central Europe, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s located in the Kosice region of Eastern Slovakia. http://www.mountainparadise.co.uk/summer/2_activities/day_trips/spis_castle.php
- Ascend Lomnicky Peak the lazy way (2634m) Fine peak in the High Tatras – the second highest in the country. It has a cable car which goes to its summit, making it a peak to visit if your luck fails and the weather’s bad! http://vysoketatry.com/ciele/lstit/en.html
- Visit Slovak Paradise National Park A magnificent array of caves and waterfalls in central Slovakia. More here.
- Walk Rysy (2503m) in the footsteps of Lenin Legend has it the Communust leader climbed Rysy in 1913 from the Slovakian side.
Walking and trekking
The United States is the size of a continent: it is therefore pointless trying to make any sort of dent into the amount of possibilities on offer to the walker in this guide as you can - quite literally - find anything here. In terms of a tour of terrain, beginning in the south west you have the arid canyons and desert mountains of New Mexico, Southern California and Nevada. Moving to the south east you have the swampy, vegetated states of Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. Across America's northern longitudes, you begin in the west with the coastal volcanic ranges of Oregon and Washington, working your way high into the Rockies of Colorado, Montana and Utah, dropping into the largely flat central plains (dusty in the south, wet and green in the north) before discovering the country-spanning eastern ranges of the Appalachians towards the east. Then of course there are the peripheries: Hawaii, with its splendid, jungly volcanic terrain, and a gentle little place up in the far northwest called Alaska. The American walking culture has a huge following, be it simply for 'car hikes' (park the car and walk from it in a loop) or extended backpacking trips. The National Parks here have got their heads screwed on when it comes to preserving their natural splendour, and while some have slightly stiff rules and regs when it comes to what you can and can't do in the backcountry, the crowd control evident in some places (such as Alaska's Denali, which issues permits for backcountry wanderers) is quite often geared to give the walker even more of a pristine experience there. Which can't be bad.
What you do in America really depends on how much time you have. Starting big, three immediate enticements spring out which serve as handy threads which tie together much of America's grandeur - and will do their damnedest to show you as much variation as possible: the Continental Divide Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Appalachian Trail. The latter two are long-established stomping paths which bisect the USA in hugely entertaining fashion, whereas the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is a slightly more intermittent, much more ambitious trail which is growing in popularity year-on-year. Make no mistakes, these are big trails in every sense: The Appalachian Trail is the most popular, requiring 2,186 miles of walking over mountains and through forests from Springer Mountains in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine - more or less the entire eastern extent of the USA, vividly described in Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods - to become a 'thru-hiker', as completers are known. Those who don't have several months to do the whole thing choose to pick off selected chunks in one of the Appalachian's many standalone attractions, such as the awe-inspiring Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the remote Blue Ridge Mountains, the comely Shenandoah hills, the heavy forests of the Adirondacks or the Hundred Mile Wilderness of Maine, which is every bit as easy and accommodating as it sounds. Whatever level of challenge you're after, you'll find it on this trail. For those who want even more of a challenging day out, the Pacific Crest Trail is perhaps more your thing, oscillating jarringly over some of the Rockies' most demanding terrain as it winds its way north 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada via California, Oregon and Washington. Both of these trails are well-waymarked, and come with a series of rudimentary shelters of ropy repute, and usually frequently (though often not) peppered with blips of civilisation which allow restocking, refuelling and rehydrating. The CDT stretches through 3,100 miles of the mid-west, from New Mexico, through Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, touching on the greatest outdoor features of America en route to user-defined levels of severity. All are fine ways to spend upwards of six months, and unbeatable ways to experience America's enviable outdoor variety.
In terms of individual areas, as mentioned, choosing is difficult given the sheer variety of outstanding, unique attractions on offer. To give a microcosm of the most outstanding is probably the following. If you're in the North West, Glacier National Park in Montana and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming are fairly convenient to link, combining a park rammed with some of the Rockies' most astonishing scenery with the beautifully veneered, simmering volcanic menace of one of the world's most famous attractions in one trip. Further west, the Cascade range is a rainy wilderness of forested volcanoes and mighty rivers, including Mount Rainier - the highest peak outside of Alaska - and the ill-fated Mount St Helens. If you're in the south west, a trip to the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Bryce Canyon in Utah, or walk some desert trails in New Mexico. Then there is California, home to the Sierra Nevada (home to the 30-day John Muir Trail), Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley and Yosemite, where you can walk to the top of Half Dome and look over the edge of one of the world's most famous vertical drops (yes, it is that sheer up close) or check out the climber's on El Capitan. In the East, the Great Smokies, the pristine wilderness to the east of Lake Superior and the endless, surprisingly mountainous forests of Maine each offer enough to keep you entertained. The South East is famous for its rivers, amongst other things (seen Deliverance?) and for those who like their danger, the Anhinga Trail in Florida's Everglades National Park offers the chance to get up close and scared with alligators. And if you want it wild and cold, trek a glacier in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National park, take the ferry across Prince William Sound then head north to Denali National Park, book a backcountry permit, walk in and and stare at Mt Mckinley - one of the Seven Summits and a monster to behold - before turning round in all likelihood to find a Grizzly Bear looking curiously at you. England may have the Lake District. But there's no denying it: America's got the lot.
In terms of the outdoors, you can do anything in America, from bear-watching to bare-back horse-riding. In terms of cultural experiences, eating a 15-ounce steak in a restaurant named after its proprietor, drinking Bud Lite at a bar playing country music and visiting a ghost town have to be up there - but other than that, you think of it, and you'll find it.
London is closer to New York than New York is to Los Angeles: FALSE. This oft-quoted description of the USA’s immensity is way out. New York is 2,443 miles from Los Angeles, but 3,470 miles from London.
Must see and do
- The John Muir Trail, Sierra Nevada, Californiawww.hikejmt.com
- The Wonderland Trail, Washington State www.nps.gov/mora/trail/wonder.htm
- Buckskin Gulch Canyon, Utah http://www.utahoutdoors.com/pages/buckskin_gulch.htm
- Denali National Park, Alaska www.nps.gov/dena
- The Grand Canyon, Arizona www.nps.gov/grca
- Yosemite National Park, California www.nps.gov/yose
- Glacier National Park, Montana www.nps.gov/glac
- Great Smoky National Park, Tennessee www.nps.gov/grsm
- White Mountains, New Hampshire www.visitwhitemountains.com
Walking and trekking
Switzerland is a country of quirks: some say it is one of the most conservative countries of Europe, some say that beneath the veneer of sensibility it is the opposite, but there is one thing at which this country is quite literally the peak of its game.
Currently, Switzerland is about the size of Wales. But if the country was pulled flat, it’s land area would equal six times that of Great Britain, which means this little country has a hell of a lot of bumps in it. Geographically it is divided into three major areas which are of interest to the walker: the Swiss Jura, the Swiss Mittelland and the Swiss Alps. The Jura are in the north-west of the country and cover about a tenth of Switzerland, and are like conservative versions of the Dolomites: low, limestone mountains that seldom exceed the far beyond the height of Ben Nevis. The highest is Le Crêt de la Neige at 1,720m, with other highpoints such as Mont Tendre (1679m) Le Chasseron (1606m) and Le Chasseral (1607m). Interestingly, the area is central to the production of Swiss watches, so you will find surprisingly large towns high in the mountains. Walking in this region offers a slice of what might be considered classic Switzerland: this mountain range is set in fine surroundings of pastured meadow and thick forest, which extends across the border into France. The scenery is sumptuous, peppered with lakes such as the Lac de Bienne, bergeries (simple mountain houses) where you can sleep on straw if that takes your fancy, plenty of places to sample the cheese for which areas of the Jura are famous for before kicking back with a glass of wine wherever you end up. But what this range is most outstanding for is as a pleasantly achieved lookout for some of the world’s most famous mountains. For this reason, the most popular walk hereabouts is the Weissenstein. This range of marble mountains form the southern wall of the Jura from which you can gaze out at the Swiss Alps across the basin of the Swiss Mitelland, which divides the two ranges. Get to the 1397m summit of the Röti, and you have spellbinding views across to the Bernese Oberland – home to the Jungfrau, the Schreckhorn and the Eiger.
But we’ll get to them. Firstly, the bit in the middle. The Swiss Mitelland doesn’t have an awful lot to offer the walker in a country with such an abundance of the spectacular, but the area in the South-west has some gems that are worth exploring.
The Fribourg Pre-Alps and Vaud Pre Alps offers exciting limestone peaks weathered into extraordinary, jagged shapes by Alpine precipitation, with great views to Lake Geneva and the Oberland. Montreaux acts as a great base for both of these areas, with great walks such as the Col de Chaude, Tour de Famelon and the Les Mortays taking in 2000m peaks and offering awesome aspects on deep valleys and the higher peaks nearby, including Mont Blanc. Further Alpward in the Vaud area, the mountains begin to get huge in the Muverans and Les Diablerets massifs, both of which hold 3000m+ peaks which then merge into the snowline as the Alps heave skyward.
The Swiss Alps need no introduction: they are a synonym for mountain perfection all over the world, and don’t disappoint up close. The ‘Swiss Alps’ make up over half of Switzerland beneatha roughly South-west-North-east track, and comprise of many different ranges, including the Bernese Alps, the Glarner Alps, the Bundner Alps and the Pennine Alps. The most accessible are the Bernese Alps (or Bernese Oberland), either from Brig in the south or – more impressively – Grindelwald in the north. At the centre is the Jungfrau region, home to the giants of the range: the notorious Eiger (3,970m), the Monch (3,887m) and the Jungfrau (4158m). This is a heavily glaciated landscape, and many routes amongst these massive peaks require the skills to negotiate glaciers or a guide to do it for you, but there are thousands of well-marked trails which take the walker past thundering rivers of meltwater, rocky spurs and ridges and through the heavily wooded valleys if the high peaks aren’t your thing. And if you’d rather gawp constantly, the famously chasmic north walls of the Schreckhorn, the Wetterhorn and the Eiger can be viewed from the Faulhornweg walk, which is one of the regions most encompassing walks. It’s the diversity of the walking on offer here which gives the area the reputation of giving a full-spectrum Alpine experience: it just doesn’t get any better. The highest peak in Switzerland is Dufourspitze (4,634m), in the Monte Rosa massif on the border with Italy. An island of jumbled peaks amidst swirling glaciers, unsurprisingly there is no easy way up, but determined mountaineers with experience climbing moderate grade rock and ice can achieve its summit, in a long day from the Monte Rosa hut and look down the Macugnaga wall into Italy – the largest rock wall in Europe with a drop of 2,600m. There is something else you can look down on from here, too – but if you start the Monte Rosa trek from Zermatt, you’ve already seen it from its best side.
The Matterhorn ( is more perfect, much bigger and a hell of a lot harder looking that you imagine – one of last of the major Alps to fall through incospr-sharp intimidation rather than difficulty. At 4,478m it’s one of the highest mountains in Switzerland, and is usually climbed via the Hörnli route from Zermatt. Don’t even think about doing this one without a guide.
Skiing, skiing and more skiing. Switzerland is justly famous for its resorts, and the opulence of St Moritz or Verbier is bolstered by the fact that nearby lie some of the best slopes in the world. Other, smaller areas such as Zermatt or Grindelwald are also popular with the winter sports crowd, but offer equal pull for climbers and hikers and the tantalising prospect of cross-country skiing on some of the illustrious alpine routes that spiral out from them. Switzerland is a famously conservative, but there is plenty to occupy all but the most hedonistic. The Montreaux Jazz Festival is a world-famous event which showcases groove from a variety of music styles, and usually takes place in July. Extreme sports are also taking off in Switzerland, such as bungee jumping: a fine place to try this is off the Verzasca Dam, the highest ground-based bungee jump in the world, as done by James Bond at the beginning of Goldeneye. Kayaking is popular on Lake Constance, where you can canoe between three countries (Switzerland, Germany and Austra) on the lake. You could also try sledging; at Cresta, a suicidal-looking activity is to sledge down an ice-trough on a sheet of metal in the manner of a bobsledder, but without the bobsleigh. Not for the sane.
And of the big cities, the pick is probably Zurich, which is the most populous and culturally diverse of the Swiss cities. If it’s nightlife you’re after, this is about as un-conservative as Switzerland gets.
Switzerland doesn’t have an army: FALSE. Switzerland in fact has one of the largest armies per capita of any country in Europe, despite having not been to war in 500 years.
The ‘ch’ abbreviation is rooted in latin. TRUE. It is an abbreviation of Confoederatio Helvetica, Switzerland’s hitorical title.
Must see and do
- Take the train into the Eiger It’s the closest most of us will ever get to climbing the North Face. www.jungfraubahn.ch
- Eyeball the Matterhorn You’ll want to go to Zermatt for this.
- Get the best mountain view in the world Get to Grindelwald and climb to the top of the Schilthorn yo look across at the Eiger and the Jungfrau.
Good For (World) :
Walking and trekking
Spain is often overlooked as a walking capital due to its overflogged reputation as a tourist pull: this is a terrible brush with which to tar the country, as it has some of Europe’s most unexpectedly awesome walking, from high-grade rock-climbing to 3000m+ trekking peaks. Spain’s immensity and position on both the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts also give it a spectrum of climatic conditions, so whatever time of year you find yourself here, chances are you’ll be able to find something to climb that will suit you mood. Inland from but running parellel with Mediterranean coast is the 2,600km GR-7, a long distance walking route – the Spanish contingent of the E4, the European route which links Spain and Greece – which kicks off in Cadiz and runs into Andorra in the north-east. Beginning here with the most spectacular terrain in the Mediterranean French borderland, the Parque Nacional d’Aiguestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici occupies the region of Catalunya, and is home to some of the Pyrenees’ most ragged mountain scenery, with an elevation ranging between 1,600m and the highpoint of Besiberri Sud (3,017m) and a smattering of refuges. This corner of Spain also includes theParque Nacional de Ordesa Monte Perdido, which kicks the excitement level up even more. This UNESCO approved site has been sculpted into terrifyingly vertical canyons and gorges by meltwater crashing from the high mountains, luring climbers here to tackle it and walkers to gawp. Here lies a canyon called the Anilsco, where a hermitage once home to holy people is carved into the rock deep in the canyon. Centrepiece of the park is 3355m Monte Perdido, a gnurled, tough looking peak which is the third highest mountain in the Pyrenees. This is an absolutely brilliant mountain: weird, high, dangerous, technical by some routes and utterly beautiful by all, the mountain offers views into the odd karstic landscape of the Ordesa Gorge, the feature with which Monte Perdido co-occupies the park’s title, and rightly so.
Moving south, the Spanish Costas offer a great mix of terrain for everyone, from the casual walker to the rock psycho. Costa Blanca is perhaps the most arresting, with the jagged horns of the Serra de Bernia invoking both Patagonia and the Black Cuillin with a immense and difficult ridge traverse from which the Mediterreanean and the lights of tourist hive Benidorm can be seen. From Benidorm itself, the dominating feature is the Puig de Campana, a colossal 1,500m pyramid with a cubic cut out of its western face which makes for an arresting silhouette. Beyond this to the north, the Sierra de Aitana are high, wild and arid mountains riddled with tough climbs and traverses of varying difficulties and commitment. Winter in these mountains can be harsh.
Andalucia in the far south offers a plethora of dusty options for the walker. The GR7 cuts through Andalucia through charasmatic Moorish terrain, ploughing south into the province of Granada, home to the mainland’s highest mountain of Mulhacen (3,482m), in the world-renowned Sierra Nevada, a range which - as it means snowy mountains – has had its name nicked by just about every Spanish-influenced country in the world. These unexpectedly visually impressive mountains are wonderful for mountaineers (and skiers in winter) and have large expanses which are over 3,000m in height, including Alcazaba - at 3,371m home to an immense north wall - and Veleta (3,394m). All of these mountains have non-technical ascents, though ice axe, crampons and ice axe, a helmet and avalanche awareness is needed. From the tops of these three highest mountains on a clear winter day you can see Africa.
Much of central Spain is mountainous and geologically interesting, and in the north there are some exceotional areas, specifically the Picos de Europa, on the Atlantic side of the Pyrenees in the Cantabrian Mountains. This area of Spain is green, sharp and wild – home to the last vestiges of bears, wolves and lynx in western Europe. This 40km range of mountains is at its best in the Western Massif, the most varied and visually impressive part of the range peaking with the Peña Santa de Castilla summit at 2,596m. The highest point in the range is Torre de Cerredo at 2,648m in the Central Massif, but the pick of this massif is the infamous Naranjo del Bulnes, an El Cap-esque knob of rock which at 2,519m takes its name from the orange-tinted limestone of its walls, and has claimed the lives of many climbers. These are just some of the highlights of Spain for walkers – all in all, this is an immense and enormously varied country for the outdoor lover, which by happy co-incidence is also one of the most accessible. Worthy of many trips.
Spanish culture is of course legendary for its fiestas, endless bottles of red wine and thick, smoky culture which largely revolves around eating late and staying out later.
There are the tourist attractions of the Costas which range from waterparks to medieval nostalgia parks, but there are also a lot of outdoor diversions to be found.
Caves are a big lure in the limestone mountains of the north, with some of Spain’s deepest to be found in the Picos de Europa – notably Torca del Cerro with a depth of 1,589m (!). There are also Via Ferrata in Spain, primarily in the north-east in the mountains of Catalunya. Kayaking in the wild north is also popular, particularly on the River Sella, where the annual race down the river takes place in August (www.descensodelsella.com). Then of course there is the Camin del Santiago – the Way of St James – which is a 500km pilgrimage across northern, Basque Spain to the city of Santiago del Compostela, where the remains of St James are buried. This route has become very popular with cyclists as well as foot-borne pilgrims.
The south of Spain is cowboy land: the areas around Andalucia are so reminiscent of other more arid places that they have doubled as both Jordan and the American West in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly respectively. Consequently there is plenty to do if your into horse trekking or old film sets, notably the locationally-schizophrenic Texas Hollywood near Almeria.
The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. FALSE. The rain in Spain falls mostly in the north, which is distinctly non-planar.
Bullfighting is Spain’s national sport: FALSE. Bullfighting isn’t a sport; the closest Spain has to a national sport is Association Football.
Must see and do
- Go on a restauraunt crawl around San Sebastian, Northern Spain.
- Walk the Camino del Santiago, Northern Spain.
- Climb Naranjo de Bulnes in the Picos de Europa
Good For (World) :
Walking and trekking
Morocco is a revelation for walkers. There are few places so nearby which offer quite such as ‘elsewhere’ experience, and with the explosion in accessibility to Marrakesh, the exoticism offered by this North African country has never been more achievable. Chief amongst the attractions for walkers are the High Atlas, which run along the southern border of Morocco and make for outstanding trekking and a full-on cultural experience. In these mountains you can trek on ancient mule tracks between Berber mountain villages (some of which have only just been electrified), stay at family homes converted for use by trekkers (gites), drink many cups of mint tea and sit in thrall of a mountain range which in winter is comparable to the Alps in every way except in price and tourist throngs. It’s a humbling experience, and comes with a number of satisfying bonuses: least of all the ability to climb some 4,000m peaks. Most popular of these is Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in Morocco and in North Africa. It is typically climbed from the Neltner refuge (Refuge du Toubkal), which lies at 3,000m at the mountain’s base. To get here involves a two day trek from the roadhead at Imlil, usually via the atmospheric village of Aroumd, where several gites serve the needs of trekkers. It’s a spellbinding walk from verdant upland into glacier-scoured mountain, and can be done at any time of year. Winter is an especially magical time, provided you have winter skills and are happy trudging through snow, as the temperatures are very pleasant and crowds fewer. While you are here, you can also climb the neighbouring peak of Ouanoukrim (4,083m) which, with a scrambly east ridge, is a more technically satisfying peak and offers fine perspectives on Toubkal. Those who are more ambitious can take an extended trek around some of the Atlas Mountains’ less frequented high passes, such as Tizi n’ Ourai, Tizi n’Likemt and Tizi n’Eddi, which can turn an ascent of Toubkal into an extended circuit of the range’s highest peaks.
Without doubt, one of the hidden gems of the Atlas is the area around Mgoun (4,060m) one of the highest and most sacred peaks in Morocco. Very different in nature to Toubkal, Mgoun is made of softened sandstone deep-cut by millions of years of weathering, and overlooks the high plateau of Tachedidd. Here you can trek through violently-cut gorges over the Tessaout river, barren slopes of scree and forested valleys and visit one of the most unspoilt and perfect Berber villages in the high Atlas: Magdaz. The region gives an extraordinary look at a hard, basic and unceasingly friendly way of life. Contact the bureau of mountain guides in Imlil and organise an expedition if you want to trek in either of these regions. (See links.)
Elsewhere in Morocco, you can trek on sand dunes in the south, where the Sahara creeps into the country. Ouarzazate, Zagora and Erfoud are ideal bases to explore this region, where the ochre dunes are as spectacular as any you’ll find in the sandier countries. The Anti Atlas are a range south of the High Atlas, and are gentler (if wilder) mountains which top out at 2,500m Jebel Aklim. The Ameln Valley is one of the most spectacular and rustic parts of Morocco, known as the valley of 26 villages, which cluster up the sides of the hills like pink lego. A standout hereabouts is Aguerd-Oudad. If you prefer sea air to mountain air, there are some fine places to walk along the Atlantic coast, such as the area around Essaouira. There are few places where you can hit so many bases in one trip: take advantage of it and you’ll be amazed how good a time you’ll have.
Morocco – while hardly an adrenaline junkies’ paradise – is most certainly finding its feet as an outdoor destination, recently waking up to the natural bounty it has to offer. A lot of the country is still largely unspoilt, so provided you respect the local customs, even in the most basic rural communities you will be treated with at best a very warm reception, at worst mere diffidence. Essaouira is gaining a reputation as being a bit of a surf city, and is the resort destination of choice for many younger visitors to Morocco.
Marrakesh is full of sultry souks and markets where you can rummage til content, though you will end up spending most of your time haggling if show more than a passing interest in anything. At night the city comes even more alive, with the main square turning into a fragrant open air restauraunt which is quite a sight. Stake out a seat on the veranda of a café overlooking the square early and wait for dark.
Skiing is very popular in the High Atlas in winter, and there are several companies in Marrakesh which ofer rafting excursions and hot air ballooning. Horse riding and sea fishing are also gaining in popularity to take further advantage of the bountiful Atlantic coastline and the inland trails. Somewhat surprisingly, golf is also a very keen pasttime in Morocco, especially around the capital Rabat, which has an international-level course. Also try if you can to experience a hammam (Moroccan sauna) which will clean you in a manner you never dreamt. Some hotels allow non-residents to use theirs, otherwise check if the hammam is open to tourists first.
Alcohol is illegal in Marrakesh: FALSE. It is available fairly freely outside of the medina (walled old city), though inside the medina it is harder to come by as it is a Muslim city and drinking is far from commonplace. Do some digging before you go for licensed bars within the medina.
Moroccan houses are painted orange as a defensive measure to blend in with the desert: FALSE. They are painted orange because white walls reflect the summer sun too strongly, blinding passers by.
Must see and do
- Take a hammam bath in Marrakesh
- Go for a haggle in the souks of Fez or Marrakesh (recommended purchase: a berber robe).
- Climb 2 4,000m peaks – Toubkal and Ouanoukrim - in two days from the Refuge du Toubkal.
- Stake out a seat to watch the evening feast in the main square at Marrakesh
- Chill out for a weekend at Essaouira.
Good For (World) :
Walking and trekking
Slovenia is verdant in the valleys and magnificently bald on its mountain tops, offering a genuine two-pronged walking experience, whether you want something comely or something scary. It’s a small country, given the title ‘Europe in miniature’ due to its postcard-perfect blend of high mountains, thick forests, fairytale architecture and muscled peaks constantly brooding over the lowland. Overall it is mountainous, with extensive limestone formations in the Karst region in the west (whose impressive size made it the namesake of all other similar regions around the world) the Dinaric mountain range which runs along Slovenia’s tiny south-western coastline into Croatia, and the northern barrier of the lengthy Karavanke mountain chain which forms the border with Austria comprising some highlights. But it is the far northwest of the country which will pull most walkers, given its ragged splendour and dominating height, and the fact that the area contains the country’s highest peak: the Julian Alps, and Triglav (2,864m).
Climbing Triglav is a satisfying expedition. Its name means ‘three heads,’ and when approaching its summit ridge broadside you can see why, made up as it is of three large limestone domes. Technicality-wise, the normal route is a scrambly walk, but the walk is a long one: you’re talking one very long day or two reasonable ones to get to the top, and to savour the experience there are several Doms (huts) on the walk in from Bohinj, the first being Vodnikov Dom (tel. +386 51 607 211; about four hours in) and the second the Dom Planika (tel. +386 51 614 773; below the main summit ridge, about two hours from there.) The walk in takes you through a spectacular biome shift from river valley, through forest, into Alpine meadow then onto the hard, snow smeared slopes of the mountain. The top stretches of Triglav are really quite thrilling: the nasty sections are pegged and cabled, and though the route is marked by red smears on rock it is quite easy to lose the way and embark upon a dead-end scramble, so be careful. The summit ridge is a narrow crest, which takes you to the final climb to Triglav’s top, and a peculiar little emergency shelter. The views are particularly good, with dizzying perspectives on the huts on both sides of the mountain.
Also in this region is the spellbinding Kranjska Gora, which takes the crown for being the most visually impressive and technically satisfying mountain range in Slovenia. Here, the mountains are very steep and pyramidal, but amazingly many offer ways to the top that a walker with stamina and nerves can manage, thanks to an array of cables and pitons which provide valuable handholds in times of querrel. One such is Prisank (2,547m) a magnificent ridge dropping to walls of plunging limestone of unexpectedly epic scale. Visoki Kanin (2,587m) and Manrt (2,678m) in the Italian border Bovec area are likewise challenging, but achievable given good conditions.
Elsewhere in the country there is much to occupy the lower-level walker, in surroundings so thickly eastern European it seems to perfect to be true. There is a marvellous walk through Alpine meadow along the Karavenke mountain chain, which meanders beneath and between the mountain chain it accompanies. Local cuisine can be sampled, farms and rural life observed, and many an Alpine pasture skipped through. The Logarska Dolina valley offers many fantastic walking opportunities to a variety of grades, from easy valley wanders to cable-assisted scrambling, all beneath the glare of some of Slovenia’s most impressive peaks. A fascinating walk over the Pohorje, a rounded mountain chain in the north of the country, follows a path called the Slovenska planiska pot (the Slovenian Mountain Path) and takes a high but easy geologically fascinating meander over 54km, with plenty in the way of Alpine accommodation en route. And there are European Long Distance Walking routes which make the best of the south and west: the E6, which takes a traverse through Slovenia from the north, then south-west through the middle, and the E7, which traverses the south of the country before ascending into the mountainous west.
In addition, there are two via Alpin routes which, on their eight-country traverse, pass through Slovenia and are spellbindingly beautiful, (see links, below) and a number of Slovenia’s own long-distance walking routes, such as the Idrija-Cerkno Mountain Path, which takes in a range of low-grade hills and gorgeous valleys, and the Slovenian Alpine Trail, which crosses all the major peaks and invites serious mountaineers to test their mettle. In short, you’ll be amazed how much there is here: book your ticket, then buy a book. If you can walk, you’ll love it.
Slovenia’s most popular activity is skiing, so if you fancy a winter break there is plenty to keep you amused. Vogel, Kranjska Gora, Kanin and Krvavec are the major places to ski, and there is good infrastructure and all the usual ameneties such a ski lifts and equipment rental. Best time to go for this is between December and March. Kayaking, rafting and conoeing is also widely practised, and occurs just about anywhere there is water. If it’s hairy white-water stuff, head for the river Soca, which has beautifully unspoiled sections in the upper river, and is accessible from Bovec.
The Vingtar gorge near Bled is a unique, deep canyon carved by its river, with high wooden walkways over the violent waters. Pack your waterproofs for this one, before returning to the town of Bled, where a steepled church sits in the middle of the town’s namesake lake, which – with the backdrop of the Julian Alps beyond – forms a view which is iconically Slovenian.
The Karst region offers spectacular caves, especially at Postojna, which is considered the largest and one of the most spectacular underground wonders of the world. Dazzlng caverns of pin-dense stalactites and stalagmites, and an odd denizen known as the proteus anguinius, or the ‘human fish’ (it’s indescribable: Google it) can both be viewed here.
The independence War between Yugoslavia and Slovenia lasted 10 years: FALSE. It lasted for 10 Days in 1991, and the Slovenians gained independence. Slovenia currently holds the EU presidency.
The oldest musical instrument in Europe was discovered in Slovenia, and was a rudimentary flute: TRUE. It was a cave bear bone with human-drilled holes.
Must see and do
- Spend a night in the Hostel Celica, Ljubljana It’s a former prison, and the rooms are cells. If you’ve got a night to kill in Slovenia’s capital, this makes for a lively stopover. www.hostelcelica.si
- Climb Triglav, Slovenia’s highest mountain Base yourself in one of the achingly quaint and very un-touristically geared villages around the mountain and launch a two-day assault. Buy the 1:50,000 Triglav National Park Map from Cordee www.cordee.co.uk
- Have a Lasko Pivo beer in a bar overlooking Lake Bled.
Good For (World) :