The View from Down Under

By G. Willmott, Australia
The following has been written by one of Inntravel’s regular Australian customers, but provides many useful insights for people of other nationalities considering an Inntravel tour for the first time.
  • In our experience very few Australians know about self-guided European walking holidays. And this is a pity because walking holidays are a very different European holiday experience.

    And they are very different from what most Australians would imagine when talking about walking or ‘hiking’ type holidays in Australia. For most Australians the idea of a walking holiday conjures up images of visits to a national park, perhaps tied in with camping, roughing it with a large back-pack, wilderness trails and back-to-nature experiences.

    The first and perhaps most important thing to be said about a European walking holiday is that it takes us out of the world of the big European cities. And for most Australians this is a new experience in itself as we tend to head for London, Rome, Paris, or if a little more adventurous, the cities of Eastern Europe or Scandinavia. We know all the great museums and art galleries, the parks, even the markets of Paris and have done many of the London shows.

    But have you experienced a village market in rural Provence? Or sat in the quiet of a beautiful local church in rural Spain or Italy? Or talked – often in gestures but unmistakable conversation nonetheless – to an old man in a local café? Or walked through a village in Italy at 2pm when everything is closed and then later seen the village square at 10pm when everyone, including the kids, is having dinner? Or walked through a silent forest without meeting a soul? This is the world of Europe outside the cities, this is what European walking holidays are about.
  • Most Inntravel walking holidays are about a week in duration and graded by difficulty from 1 (not more than about 12-15 klms per day, sometimes with a gastronomic bent – walking between restaurants!) to 3 (usually with considerable climbing and rough walking across often mountainous terrain).

    (We do not consider ourselves ‘super-fit’ and my wife had bilateral knee replacements done in 2011. She completed two walks less than 2 years later, grade 1-2 and 2-3, at age 68. She decided to avoid the toughest day of the grade 2-3 walk – no problem, she was taxied to the next location on that day (with the luggage) while the rest of us tackled the route, later meeting up again at our destination.)
  • Another aspect of walking in Europe which is unfamiliar to Australians are the walking paths themselves. In Australia most paths and routes designed for recreational walking are in parks or traverse ‘Crown Land’. Few enter private property, indeed from a walking perspective rural Australia can sometimes appear less than welcoming with frequent ‘no trespassing’ signs and more often than not stern words from any landowners who find hikers traversing their properties.

    Not so in Europe and the UK. There is a long tradition of walking paths traversing private property where the ‘right of way’ for walkers is respected and generally taken for granted. Europe is in fact criss-crossed with “GR” pathways – known as Grand Randonnées in France and Gran Recorridos in Spain. They occur in almost all European countries and are very extensive – France for example has over 60,000 klms of GR paths. They are marked on trees, fence posts and other pointers with a white stripe above a red stripe and regularly maintained. Inntravel walks frequently follow GR routes and sometimes the walks will intersect and follow other familiar European marked routes, for example the Camino pathways in France and Spain.

    When walking across farms, vineyards and even through farmyards expect to be greeted by welcoming local people who are comfortable with walkers and happy to provide advice and clarification of the path if requested.

    What about the paths themselves, are they well formed and clear? Beside busy roads? How much ‘bushbashing’ is involved?  Mostly the paths which are followed are clear, well formed walking paths. Occasionally the walk takes you along farm tracks, across farmers’ fields or through vineyards and sometimes along narrow minor (single lane) roads. Very seldom do the walks follow beside busy (sealed) roads; mainly this happens when walking into and out of towns and villages. Occasionally on tougher walks the path may be quite unformed, traversing hillsides for example, with reliance on written directions and the GR markers. Having experienced a number of Inntravel walks my sense is every effort is made to follow defined walking paths, keep off roads and engage with the local countryside as you walk between minor hamlets and villages.
  • For Australians, Inntravel’s European walking holidays are not remotely like what we would associate with an outdoors-type hiking holiday. Accommodation is arranged each evening in a comfortable country hotel/inn with own bathroom. Your luggage is transferred each day from hotel to hotel and you will only carry a light backpack with packed lunch, water, wind jacket/waterproof etc. The walking notes include detailed instructions (“…turn left from hotel gate and walk down road A43 for 2km till you reach the church on the left, take the path beside the church marked with sign to Seillan and continue uphill…” etc) and are supported by large-scale maps, and frequently also by red and white GR route markers. Depending on the grade of walk, you can set off after breakfast and arrive into the evening’s accommodation around 4pm (ie about 5-6 hours walking per day with up to two additional hours for stops, lunch etc). On arrival at each venue you will find rooms allocated and your bags in the room awaiting you. Time for a shower, relaxation and a drink before dinner.

    As Inntravel is a UK company and most of its clients are Brits the walks assume departure from the UK but if you advise Inntravel you will ‘start’ from say, Milan, it will organize train tickets, local taxis to the venue for the first evening’s accommodation and travel to the departure point at the end of the holiday.
  • From our experience there are a few things to remember which will help make your walking holiday a great experience:

    1) Researching the best walk for you
    A key consideration is the grade. The grade meanings are described on the website. Err on the side of easier (< 2) rather than harder for your first walk. Check also the distances each day and the height of ascents and descents (also shown on the website); you may prefer flatter rather than hilly walking. Don’t be overly concerned if the daily walking distances exceed 12 to 15 klms – this is not Australia where that could mean a hot and boring walk on a long country road. A 15 klm walk in Europe will be variable, usually include a few villages or hamlets and different scenery. The time goes quickly. If you select a walk in southern Europe – Spain, France, Italy – avoid high summer. If a mountain walk in Switzerland and northern Europe, avoid early spring and later autumn!

    In our experience the walks researched and planned by Inntravel are off the tourist trail, where you will meet local people, see small villages and out-of-the-way but fascinating historical and cultural sites, terrific little cafes and bars, and great views! They are regularly updated as paths and local signposts can change over time. On our most recent walk we identified a few places where road signs or paths had changed since the walking notes were prepared and advised Inntravel about these.

    2) Your walking party
    This is up to you. We walked with groups of friends and relatives. The size of the group can be as small as one person, more often a couple, or up to 10-12, even larger if accommodation can be arranged for a large group. Our walking parties have included people of all ages, from late 20s to 70s. On some walks the smaller inns used by Inntravel may only be able to accommodate a maximum of 6 or 8 people. Inntravel can advise on this. Though it is a good idea to put together a group with similar fitness and walking capability, most of our walks have included people of different ages with the prime reference point being all can manage the grade of walk selected and have a shared interest in the walk agreed upon.

    3) Start planning early
    Most Australians, when travelling on holiday to Europe, plan to spend a month or more there – of which a walking holiday may involve only a week of that time. The walking needs to be coordinated with other holiday activities and travel and so it is important to start planning the whole package of arrangements early. Our advice is to select your target dates for the walk first and clear these with Inntravel then build the rest of the holiday around this. It normally takes a few weeks to get the walk settled. You will need to arrange your travel to Europe separately and you need to discuss with Inntravel where the forward travel arrangements for the walking holiday kick in. This can be variable depending on what works best for you.

    We recommend allowing at least three weeks for materials (the notes, maps, any tickets and other holiday documentation) to be received. You need to advise Inntravel when you are departing Australia as the three-week lead time means three weeks prior to departure from Australia.

    4) What to take
    Essential equipment includes a good pair of walking boots from a reliable outdoors provider, a small back-pack to carry lunch, water etc each day (we favour those which have a frame and screening which sits the body of the pack off the back – cooler on a hot day), a good variable-length walking stick, and of course a hat. Weather can be variable, so lightweight (easy dry) outdoor walking gear is good to have, but also a warm sweater/windjacket and wet weather gear – something that can be rolled up and compacted works well. Casual clothes for dinner and relaxation can be transported each day as part of the luggage transfer. We have found that a see-through plastic folder to keep the maps and notes dry if it rains is handy, as is an old-fashioned compass. (My own view is that, with all the other navigation aids, having GPS positioning capability using your mobile phone is not really necessary, especially as it relies on you having data roaming capability.)
  • We have found walking holidays relaxing and stress-free. From time to time you may find yourself a bit lost – not really though, as when this happens it usually means too much talking and not enough navigation! A quick back-track will usually set things right. We have found rural Europe to be safe, populated by lovely people always willing to help you, and in comparison to Australia there are few creatures to be worried about. At the start of the walk when you are on a country train heading to a little village you have never heard of you may wonder what will happen next. Don’t worry. There will be a taxi at the station ready to meet you and drive the party to the first night’s hotel. The proprietor will expect you, you will have a nice room and you will have a great meal.

    Of course, accidents, falls, injuries and unforeseen illness can occasionally happen but again, it needs to be said, Europe is not outback Australia. Even in the more isolated stretches you are probably not far from a town and emergency services (what seems like a long way on foot may be only 10 minutes in a car!). Also a call to Inntravel can swing things into action in an emergency.

    Generally, everywhere in Europe is accessible to a mobile phone signal. It is good common sense to have mobile phone communication on the walk, either a local phone card or have your Australian mobile phone set for International Roaming. This allows you to use your Australian phone number to send and receive texts and make short phone calls at moderate cost.

    Also Inntravel monitors the walks in cases of road blockages and other problems with the route due to weather. In Spain on one occasion we received a call from Inntravel to one of our hotels to tell us a bridge up ahead on the next day’s walk had been washed away and that a transfer had been arranged for the next morning to drive us around it by a different route.

    So far we have undertaken six Inntravel self-guided walks, and you can read some of the most notable memories from our experiences.

    G. Willmott, Australia


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