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
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
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
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
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
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) :
Walking and trekking
Poland is a dramatically surprising walking destination. While France, Austria and Switzerland get all the buzz when it comes to splendour, Poland is often sidelined as a grim alternative if you can’t afford the more illustrious resorts of Western Europe. This perception could not be further from the truth, in the best possible way: Poland is outstanding, and affordable. Almost circular in shape, Poland’s vast borders enclose the cold beauty of the Baltic coast, thick forests and glacial lakes in the north-east and thrusting mountains in the south, where the country’s borders are walled by the Karkonosze, Bieszczady and Carpathian mountains, and dominated by the country’s highest range: the Tatras.
Climbing in the Tatras is all you need to explain Poles’ reputation as mountaineers of considerable note: Jerzy Kukuzcka, Ryszard Pawlowski and Leszek Cichy are all Polish climbers of whom few in the UK have heard but really deserve recognition for their towering achievements in the world’s great ranges: and it all started in the Tatras. The most impressive of the mountains lie within the Tatra National Park, which operates a network of trails and huts called schroniska gorskie, where despite simple conditions, you can find great atmosphere and usually a number of fellow walkers to share a vodka. Information on both can be found at the National Park offices in Zakopane. The Tatras themselves are high, Alpine peaks of moderate heights (2,000 – 2,500m) but great impact, rising from the forests and harbouring many challenges to serious climbers and day-walkers alike. It is a very important conservation area, positively teeming with wildlife such as bears, wild boar, wildcats and white and golden eagles, so there is a high emphasis on conservation and a small charge to enter the park. Assuming you want to go for the highest point, Rysy, you’ll want to base yourself at the hostel of Morskie Oko hostel, which is conveniently situated at the mountain’s base. The mountain is shared between Poland and Slovakia, but Poland gets the lion’s share of the good routes, and has the steeper, north-facing side of the mountain. This is a very steep ascent, but it isn’t technical. There are many other fine climbing routes on the mountain if your grade goes a little harder, and the summit offers great views into the Slovakian Tatras.
Other good walking routes in the Tatras include a traverse between the summits of Kasprowy Wierch (1985m) and Giewont (1894m), often assisted by cable car from the village of Kuznice, near Zakopane. Harder is the path from the summit of Swinica (2,300m) along the Orla Perc (Eagle’s Path), an exposed ridge which leads to a hostel at the end called the Piec Stawow (+48 18 2077607), where you can spend the night in a truly spectacular location.
The mountains of the Bieszczady, Beskid Sadecki, Karkonosze and Pieniny are the beskidy (lower ranges) and are much quieter mountains than the Tatras, giving you fine solitude amongst still impressive mountains with views of their higher neighbour. Base yourself in Szczawnica for explorations of the Pieniny, which include the Dunajec Gorge. These mountains are good, robust mountains for hillwalking which lack the oblique technicality of the Tatras and make good, rounded hiking for those who want to lower their challenge level and just enjoy the scenery.
Of the non-mountainous areas of Poland, special mention must be given to Slowinski National Park, close to the town of Leba in the far northwest of Poland at the coastal lake of Leba. Here, bewitching sand dunes lure walkers seeking enchanting views of the Baltic and walking of a very different nature. Also in the northwest is Weilkopolska National Park, (another of the 23 tiny national parks Poland has to its name) where glacial lakes and forests lead to the Baltic Coast through one of the most culturally rich areas of the entire country. In the northwest, you may want to have a wander in Bialowieza National Park, Europe’s largest area of primeval forest, which garners fame from its healthy population of bison.
Other parts of the country are accessible most year, and includes the extraordinary volcanic terrain of the Tongariro Crossing, which has been auspiciously described as the world’s best day walk. It’s certainly one of the most unique, and includes the summits of active volcanoes Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. The northern circuit of this walk is listed as one of the Nine Great Walks (nothing to do with the Nine Rings of Power) which traverse the country in convenient, varied and challenging manner, and include the iconic views of New Zealand, including Milford Sounds and Routeburn. These walks aren’t a secret, though, and numbers are controlled. You can book a place between October and late April each year. The Great thing about New Zealand is its variety – it’s an odd shape, and covers lots of latitudes at an extreme position, and its position on the Pacific Ring of Fire guarantees an entertaining topography of burping sulphur cones, fertile green dales reminiscent of Yorkshire, sprawling wildernesses and snow-plastered mountains twisting for the sky that would rival (almost) anything in Switzerland.
Watersports are big in Poland: the country is second only to Finland in the numbers of glacial lakes within its borders, and this hasn’t gone unnoticed. Yachting is popular in the lakes of the north-east, especially in the areas of Mikolajki and Gizycko. Here you can also hire canoes and kayaks and go for an explore. If you are basing yourself in Zakopane there is some great rafting on the Dunajec river, or if you prefer wheels, as well as a number of mountain trails, much of central and northern Poland offer great (though slightly uninspiring in the middle) cross-country cycle routes.
Also, Poland’s rich and occasionally horrifying cultural history is well worth a pilgrimage. Auschwitz is a deeply affecting place to visit for travellers of any culture, and a place everyone should visit at least once if only to catch a glimmer of what happened in Poland so terrifyingly recently. Less recently, Poland spawned Chopin and Copernicus, born in the towns of Zelazowa Wola and Torun respectively.
The Polish invented lager. FALSE. It was the Czechs, though Polish beer is excellent, especially the dark, malty varieties.
Must see and do
- Climb Rysy in the Tatra Mountains Visit www.summitpost.org for routes and info.
- Walk a sand dune in Slowinski National Park Check out the national parks page at www.mos.gov.pl/bip/index.php?idkat=195
- Dig for bargains in Krakow’s markets.
- Visit Auschwitz-Birkenau Read up on the horrifying history of this placeat www.auschwitz.org.pl
Good For (World) :
Walking and trekking
Norway is justifiably famous as an outdoor destination: here you find limitless expanses of pine and fir, long, straight roads which close to a vanishing point, depthless blue skies and glacier-scooped, snow-plastered mountains crashing into a fjord-ripped coastline. It is a not-so-microcosmic amalgam of all that's good about arctic countries across the world, from Alaska and Yukon Canada via Greenland and Siberia - with a dash of the Cairngorms for good measure. Walkers are spoilt: here there are mountains to suit all levels of ability, strung somewhat haphazardly under the country's sizeable sway. The natural draw for people looking to climb is, of course the highest mountain. Galdhoppigen forms the chunky centrepiece of 1,145km² Jotunheimen National Park. The park is a six hour drive from Oslo; in Britain it would be three hours but Norway's conservative speed limits (and prickly speed cameras) necessitate a leisurely journey. Fortunately once you’re out of Oslo, this road takes you through the very heartland of Norway and is one of the greatest drives in the world, so it would be sacrilege not to savour it. The mountain itself is weighed down by a glacier, and has several approaches. One is via a slope directly from the refuge at the mountain’s base, but a more more adventurous approach is from Spiterstulen, over the glacier from the east. A guide is a must on this crevasse-riddled route, but - amazingly - one can be hired to lead your ascent for as little as £15 (yes, fifteen pounds). Via the normal route it is a long day best started early, but within the reach of most fit hill-walkers.
Immediately opposite Galdhoppigen is a mountain many feel is finer: Glittertind (2,465m). Norway's second-highest peak (when iced up) is barely a starjump shorter than Galdhoppigen and much more technically satisfying: its summit is an angled icecap which doesn’t have the obligatory summit shelter its taller neighbour flaunts. The two peaks are such near neighbours both can be climbed in a weekend, or even a day if you're feeling adventurous. Also within Jotunheimen’s sway is the monstrous Hurrangane, a wilderness of ice and mountains forged for adventurers who want to stay high and cold. Here also is the famous Bessegen Ridge - Norway’s Sharp Edge. Forming part of a fabulous day-walk from Gjendesheim, this is a frightening ridge in terms of exposure, but is technically not too bad at all so long as you keep your nerves in check. There are many other trails ranging in length and commitment in the park, so buy a good map and think big. Norway is one of the more enlightened countries of the world and allows wild camping practically anywhere, so if multi-day backpacks are your thing, you’ll do well do put this place on your list.
If climbing is your thing, there is something up north you might like to have a go at. On the gobsmackingly spectacular Lafoten islands, just outside the port of Svolvær is a pinnacle of rock calledSvolværgeita. This is a very steep mountain topped by a horned pinnacle which involves 40m of technical climbing (about a hard VS) to gain its summit, which is where you find the real challenge: Norway’s Adam and Eve, a 1.5m jump between pinnacles which ranks as a right of passage for many Norwegian climbers, who are famously hardy individuals. Pack titanium nerves.
If you want something (slightly) more prosaic, Norway has some world-class coastline. Geirangerfjord is perhaps the finest example of a Norwegian fjord, despite it being one of the smallest. It was recently granted UNESCO world heritage status, and there are many walks of varying difficulty snaking up to vantage points where you can enjoy this remarkable place. This being Scandinavia, there is naturally a very well-organised tourist information service with maps and details of walks in the village of Geiranger.
Norway also has the ‘Pilgrim Way’, a 360km network of walks which lead from Oslo to the ancient town of Nidaros (these days known as Trondheim) which link places of significance to St Olav, Norway’s patron saint. It’s a spectacular and fascinating walk which links two coastlines via a big chunk of central Norway, and the beauty of it is you can walk as little or as much as you want depending on your desires, age or fitness. One thing to take the edge off this country is the truly astronomical price of everything: but if ever there was truth to the saying you get what you pay for, you’ll find it here.
Our thanks to Stina Smemo (SKS1) for valuable updates to this page. Talk to Stina in the Discuss This section below.
Norwegians are big skiers: the Norwegians invented it, and as soon as you see the clutches of permanently snowed plateaux inhabiting the top two-thirds of the countries vertical length it doesn’t take much imagination to see why: Norway has over 30,000km of marked cross-country ski trails. Naturally then, if you want to ski, this is the place to start. Head for Voss – to the east of Bergen – to get a start, then make for the ski area of Peer Gynt, near Lillehammer, where ski trails let nothing stand in their way and you can gleefully recieve many transcendent reasons why Norwegians love skis so very much.
Kayaking is also very popular in Norway, especially along the Telemark canal, the River Glomma and the Lake Femunden, and in the arctic inlets of the far north.
Taking a cruise up the northern coast is also an experience worth pushing for, quite apart from the fact that it is really the only practical way to get to some of the more isolated areas of Norway. The Hurtigrute boat service isn’t what you’d call a cruise, but the scenery and adventure more than makes up for its lack of romance as it makes its 35 stops up the northen extreme of Norway, deep into the Arctic circle. It’s also a good way to access the Lafoten islands mentioned in Walking and Trekking. It takes six days to sail from Bergen, passing amongst other delights, the town of Tromso, the Barents sea, and the perceptively named Nordkapp - the northernmost town in Europe – before terminating at Kirkenes. Finally, if you are in Norway during the winter – and there is something innately magical about doing that alone – try and get to Hammerfest. It’s a bustling, ember-lit revelation far up Norway’s coastline, and it is a hotbed for those who want to see the aurora borealis.
Norway is expensive: TRUE. A Mars bar costs about £1, small hotdog costs about £3, a 330ml bottle of beer £4, etc.
Everything in Norway is expensive: FALSE. You can hire a guide to climb its highest peak for £15 (see Walking and Trekking).
Must see and do
- Try and see the Northern Lights at Hammerfestwww.hammerfest-turist.no/index.php?page_id=33
- Try cross-country skiing at Lillehammerwww.lillehammerturist.no/english/winter/index.htm
- Climb the Bessegen ridge in Jotunheimen National Park.http://www.norway.com/directories/d_company.asp?id=5843
- Try Reindeer meat; (it’s a bit like beef, but richer and chewier)
Good For (World) :
Walking and trekking
Known as both ‘the jewel of Europe’ and the ‘Pearl of the Mediterranean,’ tiny Montenegro – which finally achieved independence from Serbia in 2006 – is a steep little country in the Balkans which has a geography which makes it extremely promising as an outdoor destination. Indeed, the travel press has been singing it’s praises as a fallow destination for the past couple of years, applauding its rough charm and dripping beauty, if not its infrastructure, which many will view as the best of both worlds.
Mighty mountain ranges dominate the area which runs south-east parallel with the border of Serbia and Albania. These drop to a cave-riddled, karstic landscape in the middle before dropping to a thin but lengthy coastal strip on the Adriatic – the Boka Kotorska with world-class beaches.
Montenegro’s mountains were hammered during the last ice age, resulting in incredibly rugged terrain and dramatic canyons, one of which – the Tara River Canyon – which, at 1,300m, is the second deepest in the world after the Grand Canyon. It is 82km long and is absolutely spellbinding, and as it sits within Durmitor National Park, there are many walking trails which take you to the canyon’s most impressive viewpoints. Piva canyon is also ripe for exploration, and also lies within Durmitor, readily accessible from Zabljak.
Durmitor also has a mountain range running through it – the Durmitor Alps, part of the more encompassing Dinaric Alps range. These are very dramatic mountains, and include a number of fine ascents for lovers of scrambly ground, steep faces and snaggly Dolomite-alike terrain. There are some astonishing geological formations, particularly at the mountain of Stit, which displays huge scale fractured folding of rock to mind-bending effect. The dominating feature – apart from the Park’s many canyons – is the Jezerska Povrs plateau which sits at 1500 meters above sea level intersected. Over this, 48 mountains over 2000m leer down, the highest being Bobotov Kuk (2523 m), which is in fact the highest peak in Montenegro. You can climb the mountain all year via its classic route on well-marked walking trails (from Zabljak) but in winter snow, ice and a tourism infrastructure which is still finding its feet make it a cold, lonely and committing affair. Indeed, that may be your thing, in which case you’ll probably love it. Despite the multitude of fantastic mountains to climb in Durmitor, don’t be put off if you’re a low-level lover, as there are many parts of the park which make for magnificent walking of a less serious nature, and it’s well worth a visit. Other things to do here include the Ice Cave of Ledena Pecina (see Other Activities).
Kotor is a resort town which earned its status for being cited at the head of southern Europe's deepest fjord, Boka. Kotor is a walled medieval city with UNESCO World Heritage status, but the real wonder here is the fjord, which is considered by many as one of the world’s most beautiful bays. The town and the bay both nestle beneath Lovcen, the country’s holiest mountain, which has at its top a tomb which is a site of pilgrimage and a fine place to view the splendour of this area.
Biogradska Gora is a national park which lies between the tara and Lim, which is unique for its expanses of virgin forest and massive glacial lakes, which makes for sublime, leafy walking when you have had your fill of the mountains and sea. In addition to this, there is Lake Skadar, the largest lake in the Balkans and a major bird sanctuary.
Most of these areas have UNESCO status, which is remarkable for such a little place. With the number of tour operators increasing in the wake of Montenegro’s independence, try and get to this little gem before the rest of the crowds do: it’s not all that easy, but there are a couple of operators who will get you there (see links.)
Water activities are very popular here. As well as rafting down the Tara River – a sublime experience in such a steep canyon – you can kite surfing, wind surf, dive and canoe either on the sea or in one of the fjords which cut into the rugged coast.
Budva, built by the Venetians, is Montenegro's leading beach resort. Its old walled town, destroyed by two earthquakes in 1979, has since been reconstructed and now pulls in funky sun-lovers who engage in the vibrant nightlife and magnificent coastal scenery.
It’s a walk, but the Ice Cave of Ledena Pecina near Zabljak (without doubt the place to base yourself) takes trekkers from the Black Lake to the cave which sits beneath the peak of Obla Glava, which earns its name as it is packed with ice stalactites and stalagmites which remain peculiarly frozen all year which have led to some scientific headscratching. It’s a proper mountain cave and requires negotiating some dodgy terrain to reach it, but astonishing and unique once inside.
The local name for Montenegro, Crna Gora, means ‘large hole.’ FALSE. It comes from the medieval Slavic term for ‘excessively mountainous’.
Less people live in the country of Montenegro than live in Birmingham. TRUE. Considerably less. Montenegro has around 684,000 residents, whereas Birmingham just over a million, despite being around 13 times smaller in area.
Must see and do
- Visit the Ice Cave in Durmitor National Parkhttp://www.discover-montenegro.com/durmitor.htm
- Try the Montenegro dish of kacamak in Budva: flour, potato and melted cheese, washed down with Vranac, the local red wine.
- Peer into the Tara River Canyon – or better still, raft along it. Check out tour operators in Zabljak.
Good For (World) :
Walking and trekking
Belgium may seem like an unlikely walking destination, sitting as it does between some much more illustrious destinations. But if you want some fascinating, picturesque walking rich in history and cultural diversions such as breweries and museums, Belgium is a fine place to find yourself. Politically, the country is divided into two regions, Wallonia and Flanders. Geographically, the country is split in three: the coastal plain in the northwest consisting largely of dunes which stretch to the north sea coast; the central plateau, which consists of waterways, thickly wooded valleys, gorges and caves; and the Ardennes, an ancient mountain range of rugged rock plateau and occasional hilltops, the largest not exceeding 700m. The southern region is best for walking: an area of plunging river valleys, thick forest and woodland which shelters most of Belgium’s wildlife. Here there are many forest trails along which you can wander, as well as a National Park at Hautes Fagnes. The words mean ‘high fens’, and while it’s hardly Yosemite, this area is a very pleasant environment of upland meadow, forest and rivers which makes for fine, gentle walking. Think the woodier areas of Norfolk, but higher.
Also in the Ardennes, the areas around La Roche make for good walking also. Houfallize, Ortho, Erezee-Manhay are all areas outside of La Roche of interest to lovers of leafy forest walks, and there are a few more ambitious options too. La Transardennaise is, as its name suggests, a 140km footpath across the Ardennes between La Roche and Bouillon. It can be walked in about a week, or broken into smaller parts of walks lasting 1 to 4 days depending on your time constraints.
The RAVeL routes are an 800km network of old canal embankments and abandoned railway tracks resurfaced for walkers, cyclists and horse riders. Currently, there are 800km of pathways open with 1200km more planned which, depending on which you choose, can take you from Namur to Visé on the Dutch border (RAVeL 1) from the town ofMariembourg (which is of great interest to fans of steam railways) to Hoegaarden, which wil be instantly familiar to fans of white beer, passing through the varied landscapes of Dinant and Namur (RAVeL 2). Another official network of routes is the TARPAN, which is a similar idea to the RAVeL paths, though are more suitable to mountain bikes and serious walkers due to unsurfaced paths. There are maps at all jumping off points detailing the various paths, and good infrastructure en route. The four main routings traverse the forest of Anlier in the southern Ardennes, in the area surrounding the Ourthe and Amblève rivers (also in the Ardennes), the areas around Fagnes through forests thick in legend and folklore, and the in the Hesbaye and Condroz districts through farming country. Full details can be found on the TARPAN website (see links.) In addition, several major trans-European routes dip through Belgium: the GR5 (E2), E3 and E9.
The main outdoor pasttimes in Belgium besides walking are cycling and kayaking. The country’s generally rolling topography make it popular with road cyclists, though mountain bikers are invited to try the Tarpan routes, as they are unsurfaced and make for diverting days out. Plenty of places to go kayaking and rafting can be found on the rivers of Ourthe, Ambleve (especially) and Lesse.
Belgium’s position has unfortunately made it the scene of many of recent history’s most distasteful engagements, and there are few more poignant places to appreciate this than the Flanders’ Fields, the scene of the battle of Ypres in WW1, where more than 300,000 allied soldiers died.
Of the towns, Dinant is a fine base for adventure sports such as rafting, forest walking and climbing, and Bruges is rightly regarded as one of Europe’s most beguiling cities, with medieval architecture and a quirky nightlife. Antwerp is similarly ornate, and is the centre of the European diamond trade and the birthplace of artist Rubens. There are spectacular caves which rank among the most important in the world outside the town of Han, and there is a famous museum in Brussels – The Institute of Natural Sciences - which has the largest collection of Iguanodon (the first dinosaur to be discovered) in the world.
The most translated books in the world are those of Belgium-born author and creator of detective Maigret, George Simenon. FALSE. They are the second most translated, after the Bible.
Belgians invented the saxophone, the big bang theory, the bloodhound, the bank of England, Tintin and the roller-skate. TRUE.
Must see and do
- Wander through Bruges and visit the Bruges Beertje, where you can sample 300 types of beer. www.brugsbeertje.be
- Take a walk through Flanders’ Fields at Ypres and visit the museumwww.inflandersfields.be
- Visit the masters of the universe: see the NATO headquarters and the EU in Brussels.
- Renew your appreciation of chocolate at the Museum van Cacao en Chocolade in Brussels – endearingly abbreviated to MUCC www.mucc.be
- Visit Leuven – the home of Stella Artois – and tour the brewery. www.stellaartois.be
Good For (World) :
Walking and trekking
Due to its tiny size and relative obscurity, Liechtenstein will inevitably fall several places down your list of Alpine destinations, superseded in fame as it is by the countries which hem it in: Austria and Switzerland. Occupying part of the Rhine Valley in central Europe, it’s an odd little place of 160 km2. But given that it has within that area 400km of marked walking trails, has the Via Alpine trans-Europe walking route bisecting it and is absolutely rammed to the gills with mountains, its quirkiness and physical attributes make it worthy of a stamp in anyone’s passport. Kick off your trip with a trip to the unpleasantly-named Steg, which is an ideal base for the long-distance Ratikon tour trail, which takes in the dramatic mountains of the same name, lying along the borders of Liechtenstein, Austria and Switzerland.
Following that, you can head for Gaflei, and the Drei-Schwestern-Weg (Three Sisters’ track) and the Fürstensteig, a beautiful 12km route which is considered to be Lichtenstein’s most classically spectacular mountain route. Of moderate challenge and nudging over the 2000m mark, this route offers a varied experience of Liechtenstein’s mountains and superb views into the neighbouring countries.
Essential is a walk from capital Vaduz to get a look at the castle, where the prince of Lichtenstein still (occasionally) lives, best taken in on a walk to Triesenberg which will also wow you with views of the Rhine valley and the Swiss Alps.
For those who want a gentler but no less pretty walk should try the country’s most popular walk, the Sassweg, from Malbun, a slice of Alpine idyll featuring a quaint Peace Chapel and topping out at 1,725m. The Samina valley offers flowering meadows and views of the Ratikon mountains for those who don’t wish to climb them. Mountain cabins and refugios are conveniently located in the mountains
And so to the Grauspitz, which is where things get really interesting: it’s hard, and there are no official trails which lead to its top. It’s refreshing for such a little country to have such a tricky mountain as its highpoint, and as a result of this and the country’s relative obscurity, it sees very little foot traffic. Aesthetically, the mountain is spellbinding: a razor’s edge wedge of rock in the Ratikon mountains with a sheer east ridge forming its only realistic approach, via the subsidiary peak of the Schwarzhorn (2,574m). Achieving the Schwartzhorn is the toughest part of the route, but even then you still have the precipitous east ridge of the Grauspitz to deal with. It’s an unexpectedly ambitious mountaineering challenge around the VDiff grade, but once up there, it is one of the few places where the summit panorama literally spans the entire country – and way beyond. If Grauspitz is a bit extreme, consider just climbing the Schwarzhorn - or the Naafkopf (2,570m) is nearby, isn’t far off height-wise and has some well-maintained trails to its top.
Despite its size, there’s plenty to do in Liechtenstein. Good thermals in this part of the Alps make it an especially good place to paraglide, so there’s plenty of that going on. It’s also a fine location for winter sports such as tobogganning and downhill skiing as it gets a decent dump of snow most winters. There’s also a lot of climbing on offer, with a facility on the Ellhorn near Balzers offering 20 pitched routes. A nearby indoor facility has a further 50 routes on offer if the weather closes in. There are tennis courts in most towns, and Liechtenstein also has something of a preoccupation with golf, and there are several installations where you can sample variants of the sport. Liechtenstein also has famously good wine, and you can experience it by taking a wine- tasting excursion in Vaduz, where the ruler of Liechtenstein – Prince Hans-Adam II – owns some of the finest vineyards in the Rhine valley. The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are especially recommended.
There are just 140km of land boundaries in Liechtenstein; FALSE. There is actually only 76 km: 35km with Austria, 41km with Switzerland.
Liechtenstein is a tax haven: TRUE.
Must see and do
- Eat kasknopfle (a cheese-laden dumpling concoction).
- Sample the wines of Vaduz
- Climb the Schwarzhorn to get a look at the Grauspitz Check out pictures at www.summitpost.org
Walking and trekking
Italy garners more distinction as a destination for culture than for mountains, as it has an abundance of the former and there are plenty of nearby countries with more blatant displays of the latter. Don’t let that fool you: Italy ranks amongst the very best in Europe for mountaineering, via ferrata and coastal walking, and an explosive increase in the affordability of flights there make it a multi-faceted destination of the highest grade.
Italy’s high ground is distributed mostly in the north, where the Italian Lakes nestle in the Dolomite mountains, butting up against the border with Austria and Switzerland. The Dolomites descend into the rolling lands of Tuscany, home to countryside of legendary beauty. Heading down the country are the Apennines, which run straight down the middle of the country, while on the west coast, the volcano of Vesuvius dominates the Bay of Naples on the west coast, south of which the mountainous Amalfi coast stretches south. Southern Italy is comprised of islands with exemplary outdoor attractions: Sicily, with the massive volcano of Etna; and Corsica, which is basically a stack of mountains emerging from the sea. Each area offers unique aesthetic appeal, and a variety of outdoor activities.
Starting big, then, the highest peak in the country is Gran Paradiso (4061m), a colossal, complex massif in the Grain Alps in the northwest, which holds the only mountaintop over 4,000m in Italy. It’s namesake national park is one of the oldest in Europe. To climb Gran Paradiso, you need to be experienced at moderate altitude and have experience using ropes, ice axe and crampons: even the normal routes (via the refugio Vittorio Emmanuele, and the Refugio Chabod) requires some climbing and takes you out along an exposed ridge to the summit Madonna. If this is your thing, Gran Paradiso is a great destination for summer mountaineering. If it isn’t, don’t despair: there is plenty more in the 14 massifs of the Italian Dolomites to give you a thrill whatever your tolerance level. These mountains are amongst the most vertical in the world: towers of limestone clawing skyward, comprising 18 peaks over 10,000ft .
Those who want to tackle the scarier looking mountains of the Dolomites but don’t have the technical nous to do so can try some of the many, many via ferrata routes that scrawl across these mountains. Via ferrata are series of iron stemples and cables which climbers clip safely into before tackling the rock, kind of like climbing stabilisers. The routes surrounding the towns of Riva del Garda, Canazei, Cortina, and Dobbiaco offer a true range of history-rich and truly thrilling via ferrata that will give a new dimension to your outdoor activity, and there are routes to suit all levels of difficulty. Then there is the South Tyrol, a region secreted in the far northeast of the country shared by Italy and Austria. This area of the Dolomites spawned mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who went on to enjoy moderate success in climbing just about everything that stands proud of the horizontal. It is distinctly Germanic in flavour, and harbors some 1,700km of walking trails, including the Waalwege, a series of pathways which follow the course of old irrigation channels along some of the Tyrol’s prettiest scenery. There are also many places where Nordic walking (pole assisted power-walking) is enthusiastically encouraged, an abundance of mountaineering paths and climbing routes, both secured and unsecured. A fine and popular peak in this area of Italy is Marmolada (3,343m), the highest peak in the Dolomites and a challenging mountaineer’s mountain.
Further south in the Apennines, mountains rise to 2,912m at the summit of Corno Grande, an impressive pyramid of rock which holds Europe’s southernmost glacier. The Apennines are fine mountains for lower-level walking, though there is a fine long-distance route here which criss-crosses the range through Emilio-Romagna and Tuscany: the Grande Escursione de Apenninica, or the Great Apennine Trek.This route is some 400km long, ranging in height between 400m and 2000m and offers a fine slice of the Italian peninsula. In this range is also the Abruzzo National Park, a mere two hours from Rome though a hard contrast: here you find the ridge-veined grandeur of the Apennines mixed with pastures, lakes and deep forest. These forests shroud western Europe’s last remaining Marsican brown bears (like a grizzly, only a bit slimmer) as well as lynx, wild boar and chamois. It’s a deeply lush part of Italy, and if you base yourself at the village of Pescasseroli, you can enjoy fine local cuisine and flavourful air after a day walking in the park.
Forgetting the high mountains for a moment, consider the Amalfi coast. Here you can walk along a dramatic coastline amongst the swank of Italy’s most decadent denizens, on an awesome, wave-cut cliff edges through places with names like the Path of the Gods, Agerola Plain and the Valle delle Ferriere. This is a UNESCO World heritage site, and it is perhaps the best part of Italy to visit if you want a range of walks (from demanding mountain treks to bimbling seaside tracks) while still being able to smell the cooking from a series of beautiful coastal towns. If none of this lights your fire, try climbing some volcanoes. Sicily has Europe’s largest, Etna, which is demanding walk, geologically moody and very high (3,326m) but worth it for the weird landscapes you’ll wander through en route. Stromboli is an island volcano which spits out bombs of flaming lava every few minutes – hence you need a guide, as climbing it alone is illegal, and rightly so. Vesuvius is perhaps the world’s most famous volcano and is somewhat quieter, located in the Bay of Naples, which can be climbed in a day.
Then there is Sardinia, an island off the west coast, which has long been a draw for climbers due to the superb quality of the rock, but offers much for the casual walker too. In short, Italy is a masterpiece of the outdoors, whatever your level – and perhaps one of the most agreeable mixes of the fragrant and the gritty you’ll find anywhere.
An absolute must for any mountain lover is to go and visit one of Reinhold Messner’s mountain museums. Messner isn’t struggling for a few quid, and has spent the last decade creating a network of extraordinary monuments to mountaineering in places which at times seem you have to be a mountaineer to get to. The pick of the crop is at Firmian – housed in a castle – in an enviable position above Bolzano in the South Tyrol. The Italian Alps in the north west offer a brimming winter sports itinerary come the snows. Alternatively, the Dolomites offer a plethora of other activities, from mountain biking (very popular) to BASE jumping (less so), and paragliding and hang-gliding in the warmer months. Lakes Como and Garda are very popular with water skiers and windsurfers. In Tuscany it goes without saying that food and wine take a high priority, and so they should when they are this good. And while you are in Italy you may want to take the opportunity to absorb a few thousand years of history: Venice is a couple of hours from the Dolomites, Florence at the northern end of Tuscany, and Rome close to the Apennines. Italy is a brilliant country for long distance cycling due to the diverse shift you’ll experience between north and south: spring and autumn are fine times for this as there are less cars on the road and the weather should suit.
Italy borders six countries: TRUE. Due to the small principalities nearby, Italy shares its borders with France, Austria, Switzerland, San Marino, Slovenia, and the Vatican.
Christopher Columbus was Italian: TRUE.
Must see and do
- Try your hands (and feet) at Via Ferrata in the Italian Dolomites Visit www.gardatrentino.it for info on a great place to start.
- Order a traditional stone-baked pizza and drink it with a vina Swot up on your wine facts at www.thewinedoctor.com
- Watch Stromboli erupt If you’re in southern Italy, this is a must.
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Walking and trekking
Big things are afoot in Iceland. The country has steadily grown in recent years into one of the most charismatic outdoor destinations in Europe. The biggest outdoor attraction here is Skaftafell National Park, which is Europe’s largest. That record is set to get even more pronounced when it joins with neighbouring, stressfully-accented JökulsárgljúfurNational Park to form one 15,000 square-kilometre megapark, which in its entireity will cover 40% of Iceland. Within the current borders of Skaftafell National Park lies a wilderness of wild rivers, scooped mountains and something called the Vatnajökull glacier, which is the world’s biggest icecap outside the poles at 3000 Billion tonnes and is therefore difficult to miss. Geographically, Iceland covers a little less than half the land area of the UK and is a juxtaposition of the very hot and the frigid, located as it is on the mid-Atlantic ridge, causing one of the world’s most spectacular volcanic lightshows. The Vatnajokull Icecap occupies almost the entire south-east of the island, with the country’s highest point – Hvannadalshnukur, at 2,110m – at its southern extremity. Pronounced ‘kwanna-dalsh-nyooker,’ the mountain is the highest point on the rim of a volcano, Oræfajökull, which erupts fairly frequently and very spectacularly, given the amount of water hearabouts to incinerate. The climb isn’t particularly taxing technically, but as you have to climb up a glacier there are many crevasse problems to overcome. Both normal routes start from the west, with the more technical Hryggjaleið route closed off from about mid-July, and the Sandfellsleið route open for much of the year. Starting from the Skaftafell National Park visitor centre off Highway 1, the walk up takes you through a high, weird wilderness of snow-encrusted, twisted horns of volcanic rock. As expected, the views from the top are dominated by ice and ocean, and utterly unique. There’s a great campsite at the bottom and facilites to hire a guide.
Elsewhere in the park, the volcanic Laki area offers many walking trails around (and through) one of Iceland’s most famous and dangerous features: the Laki fissure. The last significant eruption here was in 1783, which had Europe-wide consequences and killed about a quarter of Iceland, though fissures, vents and spatter cones throw out incendiary sheets of lava in local eruptions now and again. Walking in this area is tough, sharp and dusty, but well worth it as it is a very unique landscape of great natural interest: seeing the glaciers and the fissures in action hereabouts is a rare chance to see the Earth being re-worked before your very eyes. There are many other walks to volcanoes all over Iceland, but if you prefer something a little different, you could stick to the east of the island, which is home to some truly outstanding areas to walk, quite despite the . The Heradsfloi valley is a great wilderness of moorland which is one of Europe’s great blanks. Here you can trek to Door Mountain (1136m), which earns its name from the 200m gap that splits the crags of Dyfjoll towers. Also in the east is the area Icelandics call the ‘trails of the coastal inlets’ - a massive walking region between the fjords of Seydisfjordur and Borgarfjordur Viknaslodir, and there are many marked hiking trails and good infrastructure for walkers here. Another peak worth climbing is the Table Mountain-alike Herdubreid, which at 1677m high dominates the surrounding area, and is commonly referred to as the ‘queen of the Icelandic mountains’. Probably one of the most spectacular and interesting places on the eastern part of Iceland is the area around Borgarfjordu Eystri, a small village surrounded by bleak, mountainous landscapes and thickly-crafted myths, usually involving trolls and elves. You can also find an area in the east called The Woodlands, which offers great walking through pristine birch forests.
Elsewhere in Iceland, you can visit any of the three other national parks in the country. Jökulsárgljúfur National Park in the north, is worth a look because of its odd canyons and volcanic mountains, relics of a volcanic eruption directly underneath a river here. This mix of lava, gas and water caused powerful explosions, destroying the mountains around the river to leave only husks today. Snæfellsjökull National Park in west Iceland has as its centrepiece a huge 1,446m volcano made famous by Jules Verne in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and has a glacier bunging its vent. Climbing the mountain is spellbinding. The park is easily accessible from Rekyavik. Þingvellir National Park, in South Iceland, which aside from some interesting walking over volcanic erratics, has the cache of being an important historical area: weirdly, one of the oldest parliamentary institutions in the world was formed here in AD 930. Gullfoss is another fine area to walk, which is accessible by bus from Reykjavik. The centrepiece is a 32m waterfall which plunges into a canyon.
Iceland is a land of legendary expense, so what you get up to will have to depend on what you’re willing to pay for it. An essential experience here is the goethermal pools of which there are many. At Lake Myvatn, the water of the springs which well up in crevasses around the northern shore is too hot to bear in summer, but in winter drops to a level that humans can just about bear. The most famous spring is the Blue Lagoon, between Rekyavik and the airport. Here, the blue water, clouds of steam and stainless steel towers of the nearby geothermal plant make for a surreal atmosphere and a revitalising physical experience. Ski-touring is popular in the north and west of the island, and if you like waterfalls, there is a great experience to be had at Seljalandsfoss near Rekyavik. Here you can have the arresting experience of standing behind a sixty-five metre waterfall as it plunges into its ravine. Then of course there is always drinking: Rekyavik has developed something of a reputation for being one of Europe’s most hedonistic cities, and due to near continuous sunlight in the summer and the reverse in the winter, alcohol is never far away, and many of the petite city’s nightclubs stay open until 4am. Oliver, Sirkus and Hverfisbarinn are popular choices in this area. There is also something of a culinary freakshow here, too: fish is a feature on virtually every menu, some of it buried for several months and allowed to rot before it arrives on your plate. Whale watching is also very popular here, though only in summer.
There are no trees in Iceland: FALSE. Eastern Iceland has some scattered birch forests, and though the volcanic soil is fragile and does not encourage growth, there are projects in place to plant trees in the island.
Must see and do
- Try Hakari This is a platter of rotting shark meat which is buried in sand for six months, and has been described as tasting like a combination of ‘dodgy fish and strong French cheese with a hint of ammonia.’ Don’t try it at home, you might end up killing yourself.
- Visit the Blue Lagoon geothermal pools See links, below.
- See the Vatnajökull ice cap
- Walk through the Laki fissure
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Walking and trekking
Andorra is a quirky little principality sandwiched between France and Spain and entirely within the Pyrenees. It has a very rugged backcountry, which in winter turns the mountains of the country white and dramatic, and in summer burns them brown, though nowhere near as arid as the mountains of southern Spain. This tiny country has a number of excellent destinations for walking, and is very aware of its status as a grand destination. In the northwest lies the Parroquia D’Ordino (Parroquia means parish, rather than park), which is perhaps the pick of outdoor Andorra, home to Sorteny Valley Nature Park. The diamond-shaped, 1080-hectare park is unusual in that it is a beacon demonstrating Andorra’s unique attitude towards sustainability and ecological preservation, and is of great botanical and geological interest. Both of these aspects can be enjoyed on one of the Parks’ many walking trails, which take you on impressively scenic walks to a series of mountain peaks, the highest of which reach impressive heights: L‘Estanyo (2,915m) and La Serrera (2,913m) both have heights within 50m of the highest peak in the country, and given a high starting point of 1,800m and Andorra’s national altitude (the lowest point in the country is 870m, where it crosses into Spain) the park offers a superb way to summit high peaks with moderate effort. There are three main treks in the park (detailed on a snazzy website, see links, below) which take in various highlights and highpoints in the park, the best of which being the Eastern Peaks route – an 8-hour circuit of both the highest mountains, and a number of smaller peaks and passes in an encompassing, park-spanning walk.
The country’s highest peak is Como Pedrosa (2,946m), at a height which is significant but doesn’t poke it’s head much above the rest of the country. To climb it is a walk, with little technicality beyond scree and steepeness in summer, with ice axe and crampons required in winter, as well as an awareness of avalanche danger – which should be followed deep into spring as snow tends to cling to this peak. It’s a big, grand mountain at the head of a forested valley, and is normally climbed from Arinsal. There is an excellent refuge on this route which provides accommodation, food and drink from June to October (tel. +376 327 955) and keeps a free room open outside of summer, though has no attendant during these months. The route lies close to the border with both France and Spain, and the summit offers great views into both, as well as across a good chunk of the rest of Andorra.
A number of the pan-Europe GR trails cross Andorra. Diagonally through the middle, the GR11 – one of the pan-Europe walking trails – passes through the country on its 840km traverse of the Pyrenees, which takes it from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. The Andorran sections of the trail are spellbinding, taking in every level of the country from the lakes of the south-east (‘Estanys’ in Catalan) to the highest mountain in the north-west before passing into Spain soon after. The GR7 trucks through the country in the south, whereas the GRP-1 stays largely within Andorra and almost circumnavigates it, taking in some very challenging and breathlessly spectacular terrain. Along all of the main trails are a smattering of refuges, most free and much like bothies, many dating from times before tourism to allow trashumancia (the seasonal migration of livestock across country) to be prevalent in Andorra’s farming communities.
From the capital of Andorra La Vella there are many walks which you can take straight out of the city, though despite being pretty, it has traffic congestion problems so you would be well-advised to get out of the city and explore the areas around the towns of Arinsal, Canillo, Llorts and El Serrat. The east of the country is the last developed, with a smattering of ski resorts and towns offering access to the remote lakes of the south-east and the mountains of the north-east. If you really want to experience Andorra and have time to spare, really consider doing sections of the long trails: they will give you focus and direction in a country with a lot to offer, and you won’t regret it.
Skiing is a big lure to Andorra, as it is cheaper than most other places in Europe. Pas de la Casta-Grau Roig and Soldeu-El Tarter are the places you’ll be wanting to go for this, though there are plenty of smaller, cheaper resorts too depending on what you’re looking for. There’s a great spa complex at Caldea, where a 600 square metre facility of pools, tubs and saunas take advantage of the natural thermal springs which keep the waters heated to a constant 32 deg C. Due to its status as something of a tax haven, Andorra has some great duty free shops, which make up most of the reason to spend any time at all in the distinctly uninspiring capital of Andorra La Vella.
The country has two official languages: Spanish and French.
FALSE: the official language is actually Catalan, though you will hear both of the above, as well as Portuguese, being spoken on the streets of La Vella.
The name Andorra means ‘little big country’. TRUE.
Andorra has no airports: TRUE. You have to approach from Spain or France.
Must see and do
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Walking and trekking
Germany is a big country, and there is great variation within its borders. It’s difficult to pin down one thing that Germany provides uniquely for the walker that isn’t gazumped by something grander elsewhere, but the whole country just has a mervellous spread of quintessentially Middle European landscapes it is hard not to be drawn there.
Geographically, the country descends from the Bavarian Alps on the Austria border, down into the forested river valleys and uplands of central Germany, to the low-lying, lake spattered areas of the north (with a low point of 3 metres below sea level) to the North sea and Baltic coasts, where tiny, wind-beaten islands nestle against the mainland.
There are 15 National Parks in Germany, and an additional 14 biosphere reserves, scattered throughout the country covering most of the natural spectrum of Germany. The best walking is to be found in the south of the country. Beginning with the Bavarian Alps, arriving into Werdenfelserland and the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, you have a number of large mountains at your disposal. The Zugspitze is Germany’s highest peak, and is a stone’s throw from the Austrian border. It is shaped like a castle’s battlements, and a cable car runs to the top of the precipitous north face to the summit, which is somewhat developed, with a cafe and a viewing platform. A much more satisfying way is to tackle the Zugspitze from within its battlements, via the Reintal valley, staying at the excellent Reintalangerhutte (+49 (0) 88 21 / 88 11) then walking across the plateau and climbing the mountain’s sharp summit ridge, which is cable and piton assisted for most of the way. The mountain holds snow year-round, so pack winter equipment.
Also in this region is the more impressive Alpspitze (2629m) which can be climbed via its north face, then a cable-secured ferrata route to the top. It is also a popular mountain for ski mountaineering in winter. Both peaks can be accessed from Garmisch-Partenkirchen. A fine and very different place to walk in the south-west is the Schwarzwald 'The Black Forest' near Baden-Baden: here, thousands of miles of walking trails network 400 square miles of rich green hilly woodlands and rustic villages with excellent inns.
Dense trees, small communities and some of Germany’s finest beers and wines, the area has a mediaeval feel, and is thick with folklore. There is a stunning waterfall at Todtnau, and the Lake at Schluchsee has views of the Alpine foothills..
Gengenbach is a romantic mediaeval city which is well worth a visit and there are many quaint villages to enjoy throughout the area. In the south-east, the Bavarian Forest is – despite its name – a range of low mountains that extends along the border with the Czech Republic. The highest mountain is the Großer Arber (1456m), and the entire range offers many walking opportunities, being as it is connected to the Nationalpark Bayerischer Wald, established in 1970 as the first national park in Germany. This park is what is leftof the ancient Hercynian Forest that stretched across Germania in Roman times.The Bavarian uplands are famous for its lakes and picturesque castles, most famously King Ludwig's at Neuschwanstein, which ticks every box for a European hilltop, lakeside castle from the Baroque period (think a Germanic Hogwarts). Further north – close to the geographical centre of Germany – are the Harz mountains, one of Germany’s most popular walking areas, and a deeply beautiful area, streaked with gorges, gently rising mountains and thick forests. The Harz National Park is located in these mountains, and contains the region’s highest peak, the Brocken (1,141m). There are also a number of spa towns in the region where you can relax, such as Bad Harzburg.
Germany also has running through it two of the great rivers of Europe: the Rhine and the Danube. There is much to be said about walking sections of their banks, and the newly-launched, 320km Rheinsteig trail between Wiesbaden and Bonn makes the most of the beauty of the Rhine Valley, with views of the river meandering in its deep gorge below. It’s a magnifiecent walk past castles, forests, hills and through Germany’s finest winemaking region. The Danube has a famous cycle trail, the German section of which - between Donauschlingen and Passau (550 km) - while not the prettiest of the trail, is well worth a look.
Mountain biking is huge in southern Germany, and if you have based yourself around Garmisch-Partenkirchen, you’ll see why, with long networks of trails through the Bavarian Alps readily accessible nearby. Cycling is also popular in northern Germany, and the Danube Trail is one of the most famous cycle paths in Europe, though it reaches its best in the Austrian section. Skiing is a massive lure in winter to the south, and Germany has over 350 health and well-being spas where you can go and nurse your bruises afterwards. Castles and historic towns are excellent diversions, particularly in the Rhine Valley (for Castles) and the towns of Bamberg, Lubeck, Meissen and Quedlinburg are very beautiful towns that warrant a visit. If the weather is bad, you might want to consider one of Germany’s Theme Roads, scenic routes through the country following several thematic ideas: the Fairy-Tale Road from Hanau to Bremen, the German Wine Road in the Rhineland-Palatinate, the Vineyard Road in Saxony-Anhalt and the most popular Romantic Road between Wurzburg and Fussen in Bavaria.
And if you’d rather make for a noisy, dark room with thudding bass, or an elegant baroque cocktail bar, Berlin is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city that has long shaken off the grey shackles of Cold War austerity, and is finding its feet as one of the party capitals of Europe.
The Germans invented the Cuckoo Clock: TRUE. Contrary to the misconception that it was the Swiss, the Cuckoo Clock was invented in 1737 at Schoenwald in Germany’s Black Forest.
David Hasselhoff has had more number 1s in Germany than any other recording artist: FALSE. Hasselhoff has had only one number-one hit in the German pop charts in 1989 ("Looking for Freedom").
Must see and do
- Stand on Germany’s highest point You can take a cable car to the summit of the Zugspitze, so there’s really no excuse. www.zugspitze.de
- Take a wander through the Rhein valley One of Europe’s great rivers doesn’t disappoint, with stunning scenery, castles and villages en route. www.rheinsteig.de
- Visit the Bavarian Forest an ancient mountain range with the last remnants of a woodland which once streteched unbroken across central Europe during Roman times.
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