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
It seems odd to think of Japan as a walking destination, given the amount of cultural lures the country offers the traveller. But in fact hiking is enormously popular here, and the country has produced some outstanding mountaineers (just take a look in the Everest log for Japanese names). It’s unsurprising given that some three quarters of the country is covered in mountains, either the forested gentle kind or the jagged, Andean kind. The relative lack of tourist interest in the walking trails of Japan (with one conular exception) make it one of the world’s most underrated destinations for the walker.
The best walking is to be had in the Central Alps, which stretch between northern Honshu and run down the middle of Hokkaido. The mountains of Japan are vastly less populated than much of the rest of the country, and as well as offering a glimpse into the seductive mountain culture of Japan, you’re unlikely to encounter a fraction of the tourists who make their way to here every year. The alps are split roughly into the ranges of the Hida Mountains the Kiso Mountains and the Akaishi Mountains, which include several peaks exceeding 3,000 m in height - the tallest in Japan after Mount Fuji. The highest are Hotakadake at 3,190 m (10,466 ft) in the Northern Alps and Kita-dake at 3,193 m in the Southern Alps (10,473 ft). Both are included in mountaineer Kyūya Fukada’s book 100 Famous Mountains in Japan, a work which has become essential reading for any aspirant mountaineer at large in Japan. Both can be climbed by competent mountaineers, Hotakadake from the base of Kurasawa, Kitadake from Hirogawara, which is a popular base for mountaineering and has a network of mountain huts nearby.
Without question the most famous mountain in Japan (and one of the most famous in the world) is the stunningly symmetrical Fuji, which is also the country’s highest. It is a very popular mountain to climb, of which 200,000 do every year. Sadly it isn’t what could be called a mountaineers mountain as it is somewhat developed, with eight routes to the top, many of them bus assisted for part of the way.
Nevertheless, the views are extraordinary, and the satisfaction of climbing such a weighty international icon (of significant height – 3,776m is considerably more than a pimple) makes a trip to its summit essential.
Elsewhere in Japan, there are walking areas considerably close to the apocalyptic urbanisations of Tokyo, which makes their tranquility all the more disarming. Nikko National Park is unspeakably gorgeous, located within mountainous landscapes coursed with lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, wild monkeys and walking trails. It is also home to Toshogu, Japan’s most famous shrine. Chichibu-Tama National Park is more overtly mountainous, located in the Chichibu range and home to Mt.
Mitsumine(1,103m), Okutama Gorge and Shosen-Kyo Gorge. The park is riddled with with forested peaks, ragged, sandstone mountains and lakes teeming with fish, and is readily accesible from Tokyo. Other areas of Japan which are ripe for exploration are the quiet, mountainous Gunma-Ken prefecture (region) and the prefectures of Kyoto, Shiga and Nara. As with much of Japan, the lower more verdant regions come alive with autumn colour – so for cooing walks through burning scenery, stay low at this time of year and enjoy Japan at it’s most vibrant.
As mentioned, most tourists don’t come to Japan for its walking, so when it comes to other diversions, you’re spoilt – something made all the more intoxicating by the relative peculiarities of Japanese culture. Cycling is very popular in Japan, and it is even possible to bike down Mount Fuji (though not recommended for amateurs as the mountain is superficially a pile of unstable ash). Walk in some of the more remote regions and you could end a walk with an onsen in one of the many hot springs in Japan (this is a ridiculously volcanic country, which means three things are a certainty: brilliant mountains, violent earthquakes and hot springs). For a list of onsen in Japan see links (below). Sticking with the watery theme, one of the most astonishing sights of Japan are the bathing snow monkeys – the macaques who don’t like the cold steaming in one of the onsen. This is one of the most iconic images of wildlife photography, and many people assume it is from somewhere arctic; but it isn’t, it’s from Japan. You can see them all over Japan, but your best bet is in Jigokudani, which worryingly means ‘Hell’s Valley’.
The Japanese culture is intoxicating to say the least, and essential experiences must be undertaken while you’re there. Temples, sumo tournaments, karaoke and sushi must all be experienced – as you never know when you might be coming this way again.
The pufferfish – or fugu, a famous Japanese delicacy – isn’t in fact poisonous. It was just a marketing ploy dreamed up by an over-zealous chef in Tokyo. FALSE. The pufferfish Takifugu rubripes is frightfully poisonous, containing lethal quantities of the poison tetrodotoxin, which paralyses the muscles and leads to conscious suffocation. Fugu can only be prepared by licenced chefs, and still people die every year. Probably not worth the risk.
Must see and do
- Visit the seafood markets of Tsukiji, in Chuo-ku, at dawn and eyeball a pufferfish. www.chuo-kanko.or.jp
- Check out a sumo wrestling match in Tokyo
- Climb mount Fuji. See a webcam of it here, though you will need a Japanese language pack installed via google. http://www.pref.shizuoka.jp/~live/
- Escape the madness of Tokyo with a trip to Chichibu-Tama National Park. http://www.jref.com/practical/chichibu_tama_kai_national_park.shtml
- See a snow monkey taking a bath in Jigokudani.
Good For (World) :
Walking and trekking
Chile’s bewildering spectrum of latitudes, excellent and brilliantly affordable public transport system and good infrastructure makes travelling through the country a dream - and as it is so narrow (on average only 130 miles wide) you can literally tick places off as you trickle down its length. Arrive into Santiago as most do, and immediately you have the Andes forming a massive wall to the east, the highest point being Aconcagua, which despite being over the border in Argentina, is readily accessible from Santiago. This mountain is one of the Seven Summits (the highest peaks on each continent), and is arguably the most accessible of all of them. The mountain itself is massive, dwarfing many Himalayan peaks and earning itself the distinguished title of highest peak in the western hemisphere at 6,962m. As any mountain of its height climbing it is very serious, but it is an eminently trekkable peak, and serves as a warm-up for many who are heading for 8000ers as an altitude notch. The mountain is worth experiencing for itself alone, however as it is an excellent trek, its summit ridge offering views to the greater peaks of the Andes’ continent-spanning belt of volcanic peaks - truly a contender with the Himalayas for the world’s most staggering mountain range. North of Santiago lie border peaks and volcanoes such as Chile’s highest, the Ojos Del Salado (6,891m), a volcanic eminence recently though to be higher than Aconcagua. There are fabulous mountaineering opportunities here; permission needs to be obtained if you want to climb Ojos del Salado (see contacts, below.) The northern extremes of Chile is a high-level plain of spectacular desert canyons such as the Valley of the Moon, and beige, bleak mountains which harbour many walking opportunities, notably some interesting walks around Parque Nacional Lauca and San Pedro de Atacama. The national parks in Chile are co-ordinated by Conaf, and there are offices throughout Chile which can help you when planning a trip.
The Chilean Lake District occupies a region to the south of Santiago, and is home to many towns nestled beneath active volcanoes. The area is wet in summer and cold in winter, but offers a true range of walking experiences, from rainforest trekking to volcano climbing around the town of Vallarica. Here you can see the sort of volcano a child would draw: elegant, snow-capped cones of rock with – occasionally – fire coming out the top. It’s an exciting place to love the outdoors. The Andes wall most of Chile, as scowling black towers through the borderlands of Bariloche, and as a pristine backdrop to the rainforested wilderness of Aisen. This ferocious part of Chile is a draw for many brave adventure travellers, and is home to both the Carretera Austral - Chile’s notorious 1,000km southern ‘highway,’ driven only by the adventurous or the crazy – and the Cochamos valley, where trails penetrate what is often referred to as the ‘Yosemite of South America.’ The Andes getting wilder and more unpredictable as they scream their last towards Tierra del Fuego and the Southern Ocean, and it is here that Chile’s most legendary peaks lie, in the wind-whipped scrub of Patagonia: a vague region which inhabits the lower snip of South America across both Chile and Argentina. Argentina got the rougher deal; a few border peaks aside (including the unquestionably astounding Fitz Roy), their Patagonia is a spirit-level flat prairie land of dustbowl towns in the south and a hilly, forested area in the north. Chilean Patagonia is wild, wind-ripped and home to some of the most iconic mountains on the planet. The place to go for these is the Torres del Paine National Park, a couple of hours bump on a minibus from the rustic, rusting town of Puerto Natales. Here lie mountains that everyone should see at least once in their life: the Cuernos (horns) and the Torres (towers) del Paine. The Cuernos are most peculiar, scooped and chiselled from a massif into a visage that is more weird art than mountain. The Torres are the more famous amongst climbers, and occupy a different, more remote part of the massif. Cerro Torre (the Central Tower) has occupied the dreams of any mountaineer who has seen it and the nightmares of any who have attempted it, amongst them Chris Bonington and Don Whillans, whose lives were almost claimed by the tower twice in a single climb. The area surrounding the Paine Massif is invigoratingly vicious landscape of gnarled, wind-slanted trees, scrubland, caves, glacial-blue lakes and high mountain passes and - although its weather patterns distinctly resemble the Lake District's rougher days in a vile temper - is utterly unique as a landscape and destination. Further south across the penguin-flecked Strait of Magellan lies Tierra Del Fuego (Land of Fire) which is split between Argentina and Patagonia, though border crossings are merely a nuisance than a chore. Here lie frozen mountains and many unclimbed peaks which lure mountaineers from all over the world. On the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego, the more-trodden Dientes de Navarino is a five-day circuit which is hugely challenging, but unmissable if you can get here. The Argentine port and outdoor mecca Ushuaia is a leaping off point for many who want to tackle the Vinson massif in Antarctica – another one of the Seven Summits. This is a fearsome place, but its position as the most southern city (town, really) in the world and an intoxicatingly remote, international flavour make it an experiencial must for anyone who finds themselves this far south.
Chile is home to almost every possible outdoor activity: here you can raft back-country rivers hundreds of miles from the nearest town in Aisen, surf off Valparaiso, dune-surf near Copiapo, kite-surf in the Atacama, penguin-watch on the Straight of Magellan, et cetera, ad nauseum. There are a many experiences which Chile has a particular knack for delivering: these include a bus ride onto the Altiplano, a Tibet-alike high-level plateau studded with geysers, snowy mountains, goethermal anomalies and archaeological curiosities. Though Bolivia has a similar area, Chile’s is the most impressive in scale, covering a large area of Northern Chile and rising to 4,100m in altitude. North of Santiago lies pleasant, hilly country home to Vicuna, a pretty little town home to some of the clearest skies in the world. Hence, there is a brimming stargazing culture, and you can visit one of the many observatories in the Elqui Valley by night and peer into the heavens through a telescope the size of a lorry. Isla de Chiloe is a charmingly battered island with a brimming local folklore which is well worth spending a few days amongst, and if you want to grab a truly unique experience, head for Chile’s furthest-flung outpost, Rapa Nui - better known as Easter Island. It is one of the loneliest places on earth, and round-trip flights from Santiago can be bought from about £400. It’s worth every penny.
There is an isolated group of Welsh-speaking villages in Patagonia: TRUE. The first group of 150 settlers formed the ‘Wladfa’ village in 1865, and the descendents have recently revived an interest in their culture. Visit the excellent Glanaid website for pictures and stories of these early settlers: www.glanaid.com
Portuguese is the language which is mainly spoken. FALSE. Chileans typically speak Spanish, though it differs from the pure language due to heavily accented ‘s’s.
Chile owns Antarctica: FALSE. It does own 482,628 sq miles of it, though, which interestingly includes Mount Vinson, which technically means that this one of the Seven Summits belongs to Chile.
Must see and do
Walking and trekking
Canada is a land of legendary beauty, especially in the west, where the Rocky Mountains heave themselves into their most spectacular configurations.
Geographically Canada begins in the west with verdant, forested hills and islands, easing into an arid upland, shooting skywards to the Rockies, dropping suddenly into the desert badlands north and east of Calgary, then getting awfully forested, remote and wet for a thousand miles or so before the cities of Montreal and Toronto appear out of the plains. Canada has some very remote reaches, either of the mountainous kind in the Yukon of the North West, or the wind-stripped bleakness around Hudson Bay the eastern plains. All said, the best walking is in the west.
Vancouver is a hotspot for energetic people and the air is rich in outdoor enthusiasm, so anyone wanting to experience the best of Canada would do well to make either Vancouver or Calgary their base, given both cities’ proximity to the mountains. That said, there are a number of self contained towns within the Rockies themselves with more than enough ameneties to serve as a one-stop shop for the outdoor lover. Best of these is without doubt Banff, which is a bustling town on the Athabasca River. Despite being the primary tourist lure of the Canadian Rockies, Banff has an air of diligent prosperity when it comes to the outdoors, and is full of places to load up on kit, advice and gear before setting off out onto one of the many mountain trails near the town. Banff has many trails immediately adjacent to the town which make interesting diversions, particularly the walks up Tunnel Mountain, the Spray River Loop, the iconic Cascade Mountain and the tougher Cory Pass Loop. These walks give a great flavour for the immediate area around Banff which – being in the heart of the mountains – gives a pretty good flavour of the Canadian Rockies generally. To immerse yourself even more you could head north to the town of Jasper, which is kind of a non-commercialised Banff. Here the surrounding wilderness eats at the town, and it is even easier to wander off the main street onto a river trail that leads into the bush. Near to Jasper is a series of incredible, seriously challenging climbs on big mountains, such as the iconic, snow-striped Mount Edith Cavell (3,363m) which is a climb, and the more achievable Mount Columbia (3,747m), the second highest peak in the Canadian Rockies and a fairly straightforward glacier walk in summer up the east face. (The higest point in Canada is Mount Logan (5,959m) which is a frigid, remote and serious peak on the border with Alaska which is for experienced mountaineers only). Elsewhere in this part of Canada, the legendarily beautiful Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, the same lakes which adorn every Canadian Rockies calandar ever produced, lie in wait for explorers, and are surprisingly undeveloped once you break from the main tourist car parks. There are many routes and trails which lead off from these areas and they are well worth exploring, though do read up on what to do it you meet a bear: while not exactly common, grizzlies roam these areas and have been known to attack. The north of Canada – the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and the Nunavet Territory – is wilderness of the most pristine and remote nature. Areas around the major town aside, these are enormous stretches of forest, mountain and lakeland which are for lovers of total wilderness. If it’s non-expedition walking amongst other diversions you are after, these areas are possibly too serious and remote to consider.
Dropping from the rockies into the plains of eastern Alberta, the topography shifts from blue-white mountain terrain to sunburnt orange. These are Canada’s badlands, wind-gnurled deserts of peculiar rock and dramatic canyons. This is the Dinosaur capital of the world, and the canyons around the town of Drumheller make for fascinating walking that doesn’t fit at all with the public perception of Canada, and rather complies with that of Arizona or New Mexico. Horse Thief Canyon and Horseshoe Canyon are remarkable and unique walking areas to appreciate this weird landscape, with Drumheller a fascinating place to spend a couple of days. It’s not unusual to come across fossils as you walk, but don’t be tempted to nick them – the state claims all finds in the area.
Further east lies Saskatchewan, a prarie state with some good trails in beautifully forested, lake-studded scenery. Prime areas to walk in this giant state (all states in Canada dwarf the UK, therefore it is difficult to recommend specifics) are Prince Albert, Cypress Hills, the Canadian Shield and the Qu’Appelle Valley.
The state of Quebec is home to the majestic St Lawrence River, the Saguenay park, Parc des Hautes Gorges and the Grands Jardins, all areas of spellbinding beauty: rankled hills of moderate height, thick forest, virgin rivers and towns such as Jonquiere and Chicoutimi from which to discover these magical areas. Canada is huge, and the beauty limitless: so instead of trying to see it all, base yourself in strategic points such as this and dip in. However little you see, you’ll still feel like you’ve had a taste of the truly huge outdoors.
There’s tons to do in Canada, despite the somewhat sniffy approach Americans seem to have for their northern counterparts. If you’re basing yourself in Banff, one thing you must do is hire a canoe and take it down the Athabasca river; get it right and you can paddle out of town for a few hours up stream into gorgeous wilderness, then kick back and let the current carry you back. Also here are the famous Banff Springs, a geothermal spa complex where you can literally soak away your aches.
They are the reason the town was sited here in the first place, and the grand Banff Springs Hotel (www.fairmont.com/banffsprings) offer day spa admission. You can also raft hereabouts, and there are a number of excellent mountain bike trails.
Whale watching is a must if you are visiting Vancouver (you’ll regret it if you don’t, and some of these companies are so expert at the whale’s movements they’ll offer you your money back if you’re unlucky). There are some great dinosaur exhibits around Drumheller, and the cities of Montreal and Quebec are flavourful slices of Franco-Canadian which make wonderful city breaks if you’ve had your fill of the outdoors.
The Mounties are Canada’s National Police Force: TRUE. But they don’t always dress in red – the red uniform is typically for ceremonial or occasional use. They usually just dress like regular police.
French is Canada’s official language: TRUE – but so is English. The country’s national motto - A Mari Usque Ad Mare (from Sea to Sea) - is in Latin.
Must see and do
- Allow your jaw to drop at Lake Louisehttp://www.banfflakelouise.com/
- Spot an Orca off Vancouverhttp://www.vancouverwhalewatch.com/
- View the totems in Stanley Park, Vancouverhttp://www.city.vancouver.bc.ca/parks/parks/stanley/
- Got in touch with your inner dinosaur at the Tyrell Museum, Drumheller.http://www.tyrrellmuseum.com/
- Hired a Canadian Canoe in the Grand Jardins park near Quebec. http://www.sepaq.com/pq/grj/en/
- Walk all, or part, of the 500 mile Bruce Trail from Niagara Falls to Tobermory http://www.brucetrail.org
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.
Good For (World) :
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
Good For (World) :
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
Good For (World) :
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.
Good For (World) :
Walking and trekking
New Zealand has a completely bewildering array of options for the walker. The great thing about it is its variety: it’s an odd shape, and covers lots of latitudes at an extreme position, guaranteeing a spectrum of altitude dependant weather in much the same way as we in the UK – but higher. Plus, 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.
Most alluring is Mount Cook, the highest mountain of this part of the world and an utterly gorgeous sight to behold. It is located on the South Island in the Southern Alps, which is the part of the country which draws high mountain lovers. Mount Cook (also known by its Maori name Aoraki) takes 4-6 days, is technical and best undertaken between November and April.
Other parts of the country are accessible most year, and while the north island may be shorter changed on Alps, it is home to terrain of equal charisma and considerably more quirk. Here lies 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 varied and challenging manner, and include most of the truly must-see views of New Zealand. They include the South Island’s Milford Sound (it of the iconic triangular headland) and Routeburn (which passes through the exquisitely named landscapes of Fiordland and Mount Aspiring and is best described as a splice between the Canadian Rockies and Skye.) These walks aren’t a secret, though, and numbers are controlled. You can book a place between October and late April each year. Plus, as expected from a country with as much coastline as this, there are some walks which were made for ocean lovers – the Abel Tasman coast trek in particular.
New Zealand is spellbinding, a much-venerated walkers’ Graceland if ever there was one. Here walking – or ‘tramping’, the practice of throwing a ‘sack on and disappearing into the hills for the night – is considered part of the national culture. Their mountain names read like a tribute list to every great adventurer who ever lived, and those who are missing the UK can even have a bit of considerable novelty nostalgia: there’s a 7000ft Ben Nevis here! That, and the subtle absence of anything toothsome, particularly poisonous or hellishly extreme in the climatic department make you feel that Australia – a mere 1,400 miles away – should really be slightly annoyed.
New Zealand is the point on the planet that every adventure junkie gravitates naturally towards if placed in water. Here after all is where bungy jumping was born, and the adventure tradition of New Zealand shows no signs of wear.
Whale watching in Kaikoura, biking along the wild western coast, exploring the weird volcanic wastes of the northern island and the town of Rotorua – described as ‘hell on earth’ – and more canoeing than you can shake a paddle at are all on offer. In short, if you can do it outdoors, you’ll find it in New Zealand. So just go.
You are more likely to get sunburn in New Zealand as the hole in the ozone layer is directly above it: TRUE
The Haka is not in fact an ancient Maori dance: it was a marketing ploy invented expressly for the All-Blacks rugby team: FALSE
Must see and do
- Have a hangi
- traditional Maori meal cooked in the traditional way is an ideal way to touch base with the rich culture of the island. See the method at www.maorifood.com/hangi
- Visit hot water beach
- Dig a sand pit and when the tide is halfway out it will fill with warm spring water and create your own personal spa.
- Downhill bike Ben Cruachan
- Another Scottish transplant, this 2000m monster is home to some amazing singletrack for mountain bikers which – like Ben Nevis – isaccessible from Queenstown.
- Visit www.experiencequeenstown.co.nz.