Thursday, 3 May 2018

Northern European traverse

On May 5th I will embark on my next big hiking trip: 3,000 km from Gothenburg in Sweden to the Northernmost point in Europe, the North Cape in Norway. This is the last part of my European North-South traverse.

Part one of this hike from Germany to Spain has taken place in the winter of 2013/14 and is part of my latest book. I hiked part two through Germany and Denmark mostly in summer of 2016 when an unexpected hospital stay forced me to abandon more adventurous plans. I hope to finish this last part in early September this year.

I will mostly be following the European long-distance trail E1 but will probably deviate from it to hike the famous Kungsleden instead.

During my hike I will post daily in German on my FB page. An update in English on this blog will follow after returning to home.


Saturday, 30 December 2017

Shorter hikes: German pilgrimage trails

The following hikes are relatively short and I would not mention them normally but they are such a great choice for winter hiking that I could not resist including them. To start with I want to state that I am not a great fan of pilgrimage trails in general because they follow "easy" routes that have now been transformed into highways and trainlines. No wonder: in mediaveal times people wanted to get to the pilgrimage sites as quickly and as easy as possible. Natural beauty was not their concern! And I downright disliked Spanish caminos and their commercialization, not to mention the overcrowded albergues.

Marienstern monastery
But in winter time when there is less than 10 hours of daylight and freezing temperatures even I am not too enthusiastic about camping - and then pilgrimage trails with their great logistic are a fantastic option. And as I was to discover soon some of the rather unconventional pilgrim accommodations are a great way of getting in contact with people you would otherwise never meet. I heard some very interesting stories this way! In winter 2015/16 I hiked on three different pilgrimage trails that were easily accessible from Berlin.

Berlin - Wilsnack

 

In the Middle Ages Wilsnack was a popular pilgrimage destination that fell into oblivion with reformation. Just some 10 years ago German historians re-discovered and waymarked the 120 km long trail from the outskirts of Berlin to Wilsnack. There is a German guidebook and website - but nothing like a "boom" on this trail. I was totally alone when I hiked it in October 2015 which might have been due to the season and the rather "boring" flat landscape. But I really liked the "monotony" because it gave the hike a contemplative character.

But the best apect of this trail is not the landscape but the accommodation and the people. I stayed with an old Protestant "nun" in a parsonage, slept in the belltower of a fortified church and another parsonage whose keeper was also running a local small museum that displayed information of every single house in the village. She gave me a short course in local history and I ended up talking three hours with her!

Churches along the trail are usually locked but from your guidebook or an display at the building you learn where to get the keys. It feels like a blind date when you go to a house and ask a stranger for the keys. Because not much is going on in these villages the key keepers were usually very talkative and accompanied me to their church to give me a little tour. And although these village churches are no architectural wonders I was always delighted to hear the stories and learn about locals history.

To sum it up: If you speak German and are interested in getting to know about local history and people this little trail is a gem! There are several interesting accommodations (including two in belltowers!) along the trail and nice little villages and towns. People are not very outgoing but when you ask them they are usually more than willing to talk to you. The landscape is not spectacular at all but if you like the great wide open you will find it delightful. For me this trail was pilgrimaging at its best without the commercialisation of the Spanish caminos!

Pilgrimage Trail Loccum - Volkenroda

 

Bursfelde monastery
Because I had liked the Wilsnack Trail so much I decided to try another pilgrimage trail in November 2015: the Protestant trail Loccum - Volkenroda. Both places are old monasteries founded way back in the Middle Ages. The entire trail is around 300 kilometres and I hiked 130 kilometres from Uslar to Mühlhausen. Again I passed many fascinating churches that had mostly been transformed from once Catholic to Prostestant - and that were usually open! Unfortunately not all pilgrimage accommodation was availabe in winter and I had to camp out one night.

Accommodation in Camp Friedland
But on the other two nights I slept under interesting roofs: First in the refugee camp at Friedland which had been founded after WW II for displaced persons but was now overflowing with refugees from the Middle East. The next night I had made reservations to stay in a parsonage. Because it was raining so heavily the pastor's wife came even searching for me in the rain and invited me to share dinner with them! Another "attraction" of this trail is a short walk on the former border strip between East and West Germany.

To sum it up: It was a nice and interesting walk despite the bad weather I encountered in November. Still I would not get out of my way to do this pilgrimage trail: The landscape is nothing special and because most churches are open you do not meet as many people as on other trails where you have to ask for the key. I have not met any other pilgrim on this trail in November and I don't think that is is crowded in any other season either ...

Via Regia or Oecomenical Pilgrimage Trail

 

Marienstern monastery
The Via Regia has been a trade route and pilgrimage trail for centuries and has now been waymarked between Görlitz and Vacha on 470 kilometres. In December 2015 I hiked around 100 kilometres on it between Görlitz and Königsbrück. As was to be expected weather in December was nothing to write home about and I was very happy about the cheap pilgrimage accommodation like here in the monastery Marienstern where I could even attend mass in the rare Sorbian language (not that I understood a word of it ...)

Stasi prison in Bautzen
Because the Via Regia is an old trade route it passes through a lot of  towns which is tedious because I generally do not like to walk on concrete through endless suburbs. But on the Via Regia you are rewarded with wonderful old cities and fascinating sights like the old and beautifully restored Görlitz or Bautzen where I visited the gruesome former prison of the East German Stasi! Unfortunately many pilgrimage accommodations were not available in winter but I could resort to other cheap places listed in the trail guide.

To sum it up: Landscape wise this trail is nothing special and there is a lot of walking on pavement - but this is not unusual on pilgrimage trails. Still I think it is a better idea to cycle the Via Regia than to hike it - and both ways you will rewarded with wonderful old cities and interesting accommodation. I would not mind finishing the entire trail although I would rather cycle the rest.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Shorter hikes: France and Benelux

GR 4 and GTPA

One of my favourites in France is the GR 4. This trail traverses whole France but I like the Southernmost section in the Provence best. It starts in Grasse which you can easily reach by bus from Nice - and it is very easy to get to Nice with low-cost airlines! I therefore hiked three different times (2006, 2007 and 2016) on the GR 4  and some sections even twice!

The GR is ideal for shoulder season because it does not go up very high - but when I returned in 2016 for a third time I had bad luck. I came during Eastern holiday and in higher altitude there was still complete snow cover. But with a blue sky this is quite enjoyable ... My favourite part of the GR 4 stretches from the beginning in Grasse to Pont St. Esprit, a total of 575 kilometres.

This being the Provence you hike a lot along lavender fields but also on high mountain plateaus - or to sum it up: There is a lot of variety and beautiful views. The trail is very well marked and the first two times I even hiked without a GPS and never got lost once. There is an excellent French topoguide that covers both the GR 4 and GTPA and this book is really all you need.

On the GR 4 there are two impressive highlights: the gorges of Verdon in the Eastern part and Mount Ventoux at 1,900 metres in the Western part. The gorges alone make a trip worthwhile! They are already impressive viewed from the road above but even more so when you hike directly in the gorge on rather adventurous trail. Several long steel ladders help you along the way. These two sections of the GR 4 are the most popular and you will encounter plenty of day hikers and trail runners, but other than that you will mostly be hiking on your own.
 
The GTPA is even more spectacular and less touristy than the GR 4. It is called Grand Traverse des Prealpes because this is where its 150 kilometres will take you. Still it is not an alpine trail and technically as easy as the GR 4 but it takes you up to 1,700 metres of altitude. It branches off the GR 4 in Castellane and can therefore easily connected by train with it.

What I really enjoyed about both trails are the many dry stone terraces and the abandoned villages in the middle of nowhere. Most of them would be the perfect setting for a movie! But not only are they pittoresque but they make free camping extremely easy because where there is a terrace there is flat ground! I still want to mention that wild camping is mostly illegal in France but practically I never had a problem - and there is no one else around anyways ...

From me both GR 4 and GTPA get a very high recommendation for a carefree trail that can be hiked in shoulder season. I like it because it has the perfect mixture between fantastic landscape, pittoresque villages and easy hiking. If you do not have time for the whole stretch I would choose the GTPA and/or the Eastern part of the GR 4 from Grasse to Manosque.

GR 70 or Stevenson Trail

A much more famous trail in France is the GR 70 in the Cevennes. It is also called Stevenson Trail because it follows the route Robert Louis Stevenson took in 1878. He later wrote a book about this trip: "Travels with a donkey" which made the trail very popular with foreigners ... Due to its fame there are several guidebooks (even English ones) and excellent waymarking. I hiked its 225 kilometres in spring of 2005 from Alès to Le-Puy-en-Velay.

This was my first longer trail in France but even back then I was not overly impressed with it. Don't get me wrong: The GR 70 is a nice and pleasant trail but I have done much better hiking in France (see above). The Cevennes themselves are very beautiful and when I came back in 2012 for my Western European Traverse I chose a different route other than the GR 70.
To sum it up: You cannot go totally wrong on the GR 70 - it is a pleasant and easy hike. But there are nicer hiking trails in France ....

GR 14 and GR 16 in Belgium: Ardennes

Belgium does not have a great reputation as a hiking destination - and in May 2016 I wanted to find out if this is justified or not. The plan was to hike in the Ardennes, woody mountains in the border region of Belgium, France, Germany and Luxemburg. As this is the area where the Battle of Bulge, the last German offensive in WW II has taken place I wanted to combine hiking with a history trip.

I therefore chose the Belgium GR 14 (Sentier de l'Ardennes) which more or less follows the frontline in WW II and the GR 16 (Sentier de la Semois) which follows the windy river Semois. The GR 14 really turned out to be a history trip and I visited several WW II museums and memorials. This type of "war tourism" is actually widespread in this area and I could see from the cars' license plates that these places draw visitors from all over Europe.

But the Baugnez Historical Centre and the Musee Decembre 1944 which are both close to the trail are not your typical boring museum but had incredibly interesting displays and information. Thus informed it was even more interesting to hike along the original front line. But there was more than the historical aspect to this hike: The landscape was incredibly pretty. Nothing spectacular I admit, but plenty of forest and pittoresque rivers. Consequently wild camping was easy!

On the GR 16 it was the river Semois that fascinated me. It meanders through a lonely wooden landscape where there were no other hikers. I hiked only parts of both GR's on this trip, altogether 250 kilometres and for me this was one of the most fascinating and pleasant trips I have done in Europe. If you are interested in the history of WW II this is a fantastic hike for you! But I would even recommend the Ardennes to "normal" hikers because this is such an overlooked hiking area in Europe that is definitely worth exploring!

Shorter hikes: Iberian Peninsula

Over the years I have not only been doing long tours but in between shorter hiking trips as well. All of these can be done with a normal working person's holiday - and therefore I hope to give you some inspiration for trips of your own:

One of my favourite destinations for shorter - and off-season - trips is the Iberian peninsula. Because Spain and Portugal are such popular holiday destinations you can get cheap flights and the touristic infrastructure is great. Plus Spain has invested a lot of EU money in the development of new trails like my first favourite:

Gran Senda de Malaga or GR 249

When I first came across the trail during my Southern European Traverse I was immediately fascinated. Back then in 2014 the trail was just being finished. Therefore everything was brand new, waymarking excellent and the multilingual website fanastic. There you can find everything you need for a "thruhike" - no need to buy maps or guidebooks. You can even download the whole English topoguide including maps for this trail from the website!

This loop trail basically circles around Malaga with several easy entry or exit points. So in winter 2015/16 I booked a flight for me and a friend to Malaga and off we set on a week-long trip along the trail. Another great advantage of the Gran Senda is its diversity: You traverse so many different landscapes from the coastal region through the mountains and the vast "sea of olives" that is so typical for Andalucia. I chose the sections from Nerja to Fuente de Piedra for our hike because they were easily accesible and would bring us through all three landscape types.

I was not disappointed! The weather in December was still great and during the day I was still hiking in a T-shirt and shorts. Wild camping was easily doable and the trail as diverse and interesting as I had expected. But best of all was that we were basically alone! Despite its fabulous website and lots of marketing activities from the tourist board of Malaga this trail is still relatively unknown. Maybe because Malaga has the reputation of a cheap holiday package destination?

Anyways, from myself this trail gets a very high recommendation for an easily accesible and very diverse off-season destination. I have hiked around 200 kilometres of the total 660 kilometres on this occasion.

Rota Vicentina Historical Trail

In February 2016 I embarked on my first Portuguese hiking trip along the Rota Vicentina. Again I was lured onto the trail through a fantastic website - and the trail's "fame" in the hiking community. Flights were very cheap to Lisbon in off-season, too. The Rota Vicentina has two alternatives: the Historical Way that is completely inland and the Fisherman's Way which follows the coastline.

Unfortunately I chose the inland alternative because I thought that wild camping would be easier here in the forests. But although I sometimes hiked through old oak forest that is harvested for cork most of the time the trail led me through endless eucalyptus plantations. Not only was free camping difficult in this dense forest but it was an eye sore, too. Ugly clear cuts and totally destroyed trails made hiking not so nice ...

I was so disappointed that I changed onto the coastal alternative where things got a lot better. Weather was good in February and despite the wind hiking was a pleasure here. And whereas I had not met anyone on the Historical Way I met several hikers on the Fisherman's Way. I also want to mention that the trail leads you through several pretty villages which makes resupply easy.

But to sum it up: I hiked the entire 230 kilometres of the Historical Way and a short stretch of the Fisherman's Trail - and was not much impressed with the earlier. If you want to hike the Rota Vicentina definitely choose the coastal option which is much shorter with 120 kilometres. The Rota Vicentina has become a "Leading Trail of Europe", but honestly I cannot see why. Although quite nice for the most part I find that there is much better hiking elsewhere in Europe. So if you want to specifically hike in Portugal, the Rota Vicentina is an option but don't expect too much ...

GR 221 or Dry Stone Route on Mallorca

I am not a big fan of Christmas and therefore I decided in December 2017 to spend the holidays hiking - preferably in a warmer climate. Because flights were cheap and the trail incredible popular I decided to try the famous GR 221 on Mallorca. It is also called Dry Stone Route because ist uses the old historical trails through the Serra de Tramuntana on the island. These dry stone walls are a Cultural UNESCO World Heritage - rightly so because even I was more than impressed!

Not only the trails were made with the dry stone technique but also
endless terraces that were once used for agriculture - and now they are perfect for wild camping (although I want to mention that wild camping is legally forbidden on Mallorca ...) The trail takes you through pittoresque villages, passes old characoal and lime kilns and offers breathtaking views over the Serra Tramuntana!

I only have to mention two negative things: Spain in general is a very cheap country for hiking but unfortunately this does not apply to Mallorca! Everything is expensive here: hotels, restaurants and even supermarkets. Luckily you can stay in several refugios along the way if you do not want to illegally free camp - although most refuges were closed in December ...

Secondly the waymarking is really bad considering that this is such a popular trail! I would definitely bring a GPS to avoid frustration especially in fog or rain! But these are all my complaints - and do not worry about mass tourism: In winter not much is going on here and in six days I only met two other "thruhikers" but many day hikers. The masses of tourists are in summer on the beach - and not in the mountains!

From me this trail gets a very high recommendation! Mallorca is easy to reach, public transport is great, the trail is walkable year round. But what is best is that within only 145 kilometres you see one spectacular view after the other. Both landscape and culture are great - this is hiking at its best and ideal for a short week-long break-away!

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

E3 through Eastern Europe: Conclusion

I have hiked 3,000 kilometres through Eastern Europe - mostly on the E3 route. Mostly, because there is no continuous E3 trail yet! Just one year ago a big gap was closed when Romania's "Siebenbürgischer Karpatenverein" created a route through Romania which I have been "testing". There still is a gap in Serbia between the Danube and the start of the Kom Emine Trail in Bulgaria - and Serbia's hiking association has not been responsive at all in this respect. I ended up roadwalking that section.

Did I like this hike? Yes, definitely - but this hike has not been pure bliss either. Every hike has different aspects - and the E3 could score in many but was problematic in others. In the cultural and historical aspect this has been one of the most interesting hikes I have ever undertaken. On this route you are constantly confronted with different cultures, religions and languages - and you will learn so  much about European history! Francis Tapon called Eastern Europe the "Hidden Europe" - and it is true. As Western Europeans or Americans we do not know much about these countries which is a shame.

Landscape was sometimes really breathtaking especially in the Giant Mountains in Czech Republic or the Stara Planina in Bulgaria but generally speaking there are more spectacular trails in Europe. But on the other hand there were no really ugly or boring sections on the E3 either. Technically the E3 is easy - except for one or two "hairy" sections in Romania. You don't have to be a mountaineer - any halfway fit person can hike the E3!

The fun factor on the E3 extremely high due to various reasons. First of all all Eastern European countries are still much cheaper than the West. That meant for me that I could stay in hotels and eat out much more often than usual. And in all these countries hotel and restaurant quality was high! The route also takes you through very interesting places where I did a lot of sightseeing - again relatively cheaply. Not to mention the fantastic thermal baths in Slovakia and Hungary! This is a trail where you can really pamper yourself if needed and wanted - and I thoroughly enjoyed a little bit of luxury once in a while.

But this "cheap" living standards also has a downside: Romania and Bulgaria are the poorest countries in the EU. It was shocking for me to see in what conditions especially old people are still living in the countryside: no running water in the house, low pensions combined with high prices for food, rural depopulation etc. Not being able to communicate with people due to language problems was an extra mental challenge for me. I was confronted with lots of situations I could not "read": How do I deal with aggressive sheepdog? What do I say to the toothless ragged farmer whose first question is "are you alone?" Every potentially dangerous encounter turned out to be harmless - but I was unsettled. But I have to emphasize that this is only a problem in Romania and Bulgaria. In the Western half of this hike there were no such problems!

So would I recommend this hike to a friend? I can absolutely recommend the Western half to anyone, even to beginners in long-distance hiking. The Eastern half is truly fascinating and I am very glad that I have hiked it - but you need some determination and dedication to enjoy. If you don't have a special liking for Eastern Europe or want to explore something new then you are probably better off in Western Europe. But I myself, I will be back!


Monday, 18 December 2017

Kom Emine Trail: Conclusion and tips

Did I like this trail? Yes, a lot! It is very for a mountain trail in Europe to stay up on the crest for such a long time - with hardly any road walks! Views were spectacular although I missed a lot due to bad weather. Would I recommend it to a friend? Yes, of course - I think this truly is a hidden gem! Still you will need a sense of adventure - very few people speak English and everythings is in Kyrillic. Plus this is the poorest country in the EU ...

But logistics are a lot easier than you would expect! First of all there is an excellent brandnew English guidebook. Although regular OSM maps for Bulgaria are ok, you can download fantastic hiker specific maps for free here. Low cost airlines fly all year round to Sofia from where you can easily reach Berkovitsa and the start of the trail. In summer season you can fly back from Varna or Burgas - or take a bus or train back to Sofia. Just try to figure out what your destination looks like in Kyrillic or you might end up in the wrong bus ...

Trail marking is quite good in the Western part. In the Easter half you should have a GPS with you to avoid getting lost. It helps to walk from West to East - other hikers have complained that the trail marking is worse the other direction. Technically the trail is very easy - only one bit in the middle part requires steel cables and climbing but there is an alternative route around it.
Water is not a big issue on Kom Emine. There are plenty of springs along the trail which are also marked in the guidebook or on the OSM maps - you just have to plan ahead a bit. I never carried more than three litres and never treated my water.

I liked the restaurant food in Bulgaria - especially this sort of raised pastry for breakfast!
Bulgaria is also heaven for coffee drinkers - there are coffee machines in every big. Biggest national specialty is soft feta cheese which you will get for breakfast, grated over your French Fries and of cours in Shopska Salad. Expect to be offered Raki schnapps a lot ... At the end of my trip I had some of the best sea food ever at the Black Sea Coast! In all but very cheap restaurants there is a bilingual or English menu. The translation is usually very creative but at least you get a vague idea of what you are ordering.

When it comes to hiker food though your choices are usually dire! Along the trail you will only find very small shops but at least they usually stock Milka chocolate and cheap but rather good biscuits. Granola is hard to find and normally not very good. You will get cheese and/or sausage with crackers as a could meal. It is almost impossible to find the typical dehydrated pasta meal mixes. I therefore ate spaghetti with tomato sauce out of a packet for several weeks. You will survive, but don't expect any luxury. And I hope you like spaghetti ...

On Kom-Emine you can walk from mountain hut to mountain hut which makes even a winter hike easy - plus there is a waymarked winter route. Most huts also offer some sort of food. I stayed in only two huts and both were basic, but adequate and cheap. But cleanliness and friendliness vary a lot and you never know what you will get. I therefore camped most of the time which is very easy. When in a town or village I stayed in a hotel - and all them were excellent! For around 25 - 30 EUR you will get top notch Western quality including free Wifi. Cell phone reception was surprisingly good even on the crest far away from bigger cities!

There are some Bulgarian "specialties" you will have to get used to: Showers have no curtain - so after taking a shower bathroom floor and toilet seat will be wet - plus your toilet paper ...
There are obituaries plastered everywhere because Bulgarians do this not only for their recently deceased but also to commemorate anniversaries. And one last good news: Other than Romania there are hardly any aggressive dogs!