Hiking has always played a big role in my adult life. The passion started in the mountains of Mexico and the South American Andes and has carried me across continents and through a colorful mix of different terrains. I now spend almost half my year in the state of Victoria, Australia, hiking close to the sea, up into the Victorian Alps and through some of the beautiful gold rush towns around Beechworth. But it is the varied landscapes of Europe and particularly Italy and its neighbors that completely captivate me both as a professional guide and as an independent hiker.
What exactly is the appeal of hiking in Europe? Are you unable to travel further by car, bus or train? The simple fact is that when you hike, you see things that you would never see from behind the windows of a vehicle. When you feel the ground under your feet, you really experience a region. Your senses will be enlivened with the scent of plants and wildflowers, the murmur of gurgling streams and birdsong and of course an array of magnificent vistas. Hiking over hills and through valleys and remote villages allows you to learn about a region through its culture and history, all the while working up an appetite for delicious local gastronomy.
1. Europe’s varied landscape
Let’s put Europe’s gastronomic offerings aside for a moment and think about its geography. If you are looking for a change, there is no better place than in Europe. In Italy alone, landscapes range from rugged mountains, alpine lakes and glacier-carved valleys to vast coastal plains. Somewhere in between you’ll find volcanoes, the rolling hills and valleys of Tuscany and Abruzzo’s something of a wilderness area, home to wild boar, wolves and bears.
Meanwhile, venture beyond Italy’s borders into its neighbors – France, Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia – and the landscape continues to change. In these countries you can enjoy lavender fields in Provence, rugged mountain peaks in Switzerland and crystal-clear turquoise lakes in the Slovenian Julian Alps.
Plus, you’ll find all this variety in a relatively small space. Take the French island of Corsica, which is just over 100 miles from tip to tip. This stunning island is blessed with verdant forests, mountain ranges plunging into the sea, and torrents and waterfalls that have carved gorges and valleys, while its coastline boasts crystal clear waters and spectacular natural marine parks.
2. Cultural differences at Europe’s borders
I love the changes in landscape that you encounter when you cross European borders. Of course, nothing stops you from driving, but I still find it exciting to walk from one country to another! And not only the landscape is changing. These border regions, shaped by history and tradition, fascinate for many reasons, with elements of both countries manifesting themselves in the cuisine, the language and the character of the people.
One of the highlights of my tour in Austria and the Dolomites, in addition to the breathtaking alpine hikes and views, is the opportunity to experience the fascinating Tyrolean culture. In this part of Europe, stretching between Italy and Austria, wooden chalets, scarlet window boxes full of geraniums and unique cuisine – think tortelloni followed by apple strudel – are integral parts of the attraction. The region also has its own language, Ladino, although Italian and German are spoken in most towns.
The region is a major wine region, but head to Bolzano, the capital of South Tyrol, and you’ll find beer gardens alongside wine bars in the cobbled streets.
3. Taste local products
Food is an increasingly important part of a holiday for most of us. While in the past people were reluctant to try “foreign” dishes, today experiencing a different cuisine is part of the pleasure. However, eating out in a big city can fall quite short of the mark. Head into the countryside where food is locally sourced and seasonal, and you’ll have the chance to sample recipes passed down through generations, made with the freshest local ingredients.
Unsurprisingly, stepping out into the countryside and wandering through vineyards and olive groves also immediately connects you with the gastronomic landscape. What could be happier than a picnic full of simple, fresh ingredients that do more than just taste?
So what are the top hiking regions that deliver the best flavor? For a truly exceptional gastronomic experience, a good place to start is hiking in the foodie-friendly Piedmont region of Italy, the birthplace of the Slow Food movement. Be sure to take time to admire the rugged peaks and waterfalls, but don’t miss the opportunity to picnic in the summer with artisan cheeses and succulent bowls of cherries and peaches.
Autumn is also a wonderful time for walking in Piedmont, a time to enjoy views across hills adorned with lustrous golden and amber leaves and hearty dinners of chestnut and truffle-inspired dishes.
4. Wine tasting experiences while hiking
Wine tasting and hiking might sound like a strange combination, but it’s an excellent option for wine-interested couples enjoying an active holiday. Join a hiking tour or plan an itinerary that includes wine tasting and you’ll get even more out of your hike.
Visiting a winery is also a great option for first-time hikers looking for a more relaxed experience. While I love challenging hikes in alpine environments, I’m just as comfortable taking it slowly across the terrain. So I can enjoy the view on the way and stay in villages. In Tuscany, for example, where I live part of the year, chatting with local winemakers about their wines and olive oils is an absolute highlight.
5. Europe’s art treasures
Personally, the best way to appreciate some of Europe’s incredible art treasures is to experience them just a little at a time. Yes, a weekend of Parisian art galleries or Florentine Renaissance masterpieces is on most of our wish-lists, but I find that art-seeking on a European walking holiday can be just as satisfying, if not more satisfying.
First, sometimes we just need time to absorb the true splendor of what we’re seeing, and after half a day of artistic wonders, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. For me a one day visit to the UNESCO World Historical Mosaics and Monuments in Ravenna is the perfect end to a week long trek in northern Italy; but adding a second day of art viewing would be more like eating two desserts! Sometimes we just need time to process what we’ve seen before embarking on another round of masterpieces.
Second, while Europe’s great art and architecture – say, Florence’s Duomo or the Louvre in Paris – is quite simply gorgeous, there’s also something magical about discovering lesser-known sights. Explore the area on foot, passing pretty rural chapels and frescoed 15th-century churches in beautifully preserved hidden villages that you probably wouldn’t come across if traveling by car or train.
I also love hiking routes that offer glimpses of a city or village. In Tuscany, for example, one of my favorite walks is through the woods with a view of the famous towers of San Gimignano.
6. Go through the story
Last but not least, a walking holiday in Europe is a great way to walk through history. Europe has the most incredible wealth of churches, museums and monuments that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also provide a wonderful overview of history. They fill in the gaps and help us figure out what goes where and when. Still, visiting these treasures is a very different learning experience than walking through a countryside or a village.
So what kind of things can you expect when you hike? Well, I’ve walked past ancient tombs on sunken Etruscan roads and hiked part of the Via Francigena pilgrimage route through beech and chestnut forests in central Italy. Further west, in the Alpine region between France and Italy, you can follow the ancient route of the Roman armies, hike through valleys carved by glaciers millions of years ago and hike the route used by Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of Italy, in the 19th century.
In Slovenia, on the other hand, a hike through the narrow gorge leading to the Franja Partisan Hospital is greatly enriched by its history. Buried deep in the Pasice Gorge, the hospital treated partisan soldiers from the former Yugoslavia and other countries during World War II, and even today it is a true testament to the heroism and humanity of the Slovenian people.
Similarly, in the nearby hills behind Kobarid, the route allows you to travel back in time, past the remains of an ancient fortress and past trenches that witnessed World War I battles on the Isonzo front.
If you’re planning a trip to Europe or just want to hike one day in this unparalleled part of the world, these are great resources: