Winning tip: The Pelion peninsula, Greece
This peninsula on the Aegean is crisscrossed with a network of ancient kalderimi (stone donkey paths) and monopati (unpaved footpaths). These link the hilltop villages and the picturesque fishing harbours, sandy beaches and secluded coves. Walks take you through plane trees in the valleys and olive and pine trees on the hills. You’ll find small springs of cool, pure water, glimpses of the sapphire Aegean and splendid sunsets over the Pagasitikos gulf. Enjoy a tsipouro brandy and a meal of delicious regional cuisine at journey’s end.
No trail to follow, no signposts marking your way and once you’ve set off there is no way back. Join a guided mud walk from the mainland to one of the islands off the coast. Challenged by the incoming tide, you wade through the mud and cross hip-deep watercourses. When you’re surrounded only by the sound of the wind and the sea birds it is not hard to see why the Wadden Sea is a Unesco world heritage site.
Ste-Agnes, the highest mountain village on the Mediterranean. Photograph: Alamy
Hiking above the Côte d’Azur, Menton
The GR51 hiking trail is known as the balcony of the Côte d’Azur, and passes through some of the highest coastal villages in France. It is possible to do the leg from Sainte-Agnès to Gorbio on a day trip from Nice by taking a train to Menton then a bus to Sainte-Agnès. The trek via the highest peak in between the two villages takes up to six hours, with breathtaking views of coast, sea and mountains.
Lac Blanc, Pralognan-la-Vanoise
The Lac Blanc, at 2,500m, is at the heart of the Vanoise national park. Leave your car at Pont de la Pêche near Pralognan. The climb to the lake takes three hours, allow a further two-and-a-half for the return journey. Amid the beautiful mountains and colourful flora, you might see marmots, ibexes and chamois. The Lac Blanc is quite a sight – mineral deposits give it a strange milky colour – and its shores are an ideal picnic spot.
La Balagne, Corsica. Photograph: Alamy
La Balagne, Corsica
The region of La Balagne, northern Corsica, is crisscrossed with walking paths, ranging from the sedate to those requiring crampons.The mountains and valleys are wild, unspoilt and crowd-free, scattered with fig, olive and chestnut trees and fragrant maquis. From timeless mountain villages such as Ville-di-Paraso and Speloncato there are stunning views across the Regino valley towards the distant coast, and as the light changes in the afternoon, the jutting ridges of granite glow pink. Late spring and early summer are the best times for walking; July and August are usually too hot.
Grand Balcon Nord, Chamonix
Get up close to Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, on the spectacular yet easy 6.5km Grand Balcon Nord walk (about three hours). From Chamonix take the Aiguille cable car to the halfway point at Plan de l’Aiguille. The well-signposted rocky trail meanders through miniature rhododendrons, gentian and azaleas. At the Montenvers railway turn right and zigzag easily up the extra 150m to grab great views of the pinnacles of the Aiguille Verte at 4,122m, Les Drus and the Mer de Glace (sea of ice). Catch the picturesque little train from Montenvers back to Chamonix – checking the time of the last train and cable car, as it’s a long walk down! This walk can be done in reverse: start early and see the sun come up from behind Les Aiguilles.
The Cinque Terre, Liguria
This walk links five hilltop villages. The paths are a combination of rugged steps and narrow soil pathways that hug the steep and jagged coastline as they meander through fragrant olive and lemon groves. Buy a pass for the train connecting the five villages – this is handy if a path is closed, and lets you walk the paths in any order depending on fitness and time.
Three Peaks, Dolomites, South Tirol
The awe-inspiring 3,000m-high Three Peaks are in the beautiful South Tirol. The view of the steep north wall is considered a landmark of the Dolomites. Off the beaten track there are opportunities to watch hawks and gazelles. We set off from the town of Sesto and arrived at the top in four hours. Halfway up there is a place to rest and buy food and refreshment, and before you reach the top there is another Alpine Inn. Magical!
Schynige Platte to First, Bernese Oberland
This is a classic Alpine hike, which is easily undertaken in a day by the reasonably fit and has the added benefit of a low carbon footprint as access to the start and finish is by rail. You take a train from Interlaken to Wilderswil and then the cog railway to Schynige Platte at 2,000m for breakfast with spectacular views of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. You then follow a well-signed path to First, enjoying magnificent views of Interlaken, Thunersee and Brienzersee. You pass the Faulhorn, at 2,600m, topped by its hotel, built in 1830, then descend via Grindelwald for a train to Interlaken.
Sargans to Lake Geneva via Grindelwald
The Alpine Pass route is a 14-day walk from one side of Switzerland to the other. It starts on the eastern border and finishes at Lake Geneva, going through some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe. As the name suggests you walk an alpine pass each day (occasionally two) but each evening you end up at a town, village or hamlet so you don’t need to use mountain huts. We did it in September and only booked one night’s accommodation in advance; the rest of the time you could just turn up and find somewhere with no problem.
For a detailed guide see cicerone.co.uk
Monastery St Nicolaos Anapafsas, Meteora. Photograph: Alamy
The monasteries of Meteora
Greece offers no stranger walking than between the sandstone needles of Meteora. Monasteries perched on the outcrops were once accessed by rope ladders. Now there are steps, and larger sites such as Holy Monastery Of Great Meteoron are busy. The hawks hunting in the thermals below, and the black-frocked priests hugging their knees in the simple cable car back down to the staff car park, make it worth the climb.
The Soca valley, Kobarid
From the small town of Kobarid you can follow the amazingly aquamarine Soca river upstream to the Kozjak waterfall. Climb through the forest and discover some small churches and a brilliant Indiana Jones-esque swing bridge. If you take the circular route back, you walk through alpine fields with brightly coloured beehives. You are surrounded by the Julian Alps soaring to 2,864m.
There’s great hillside scenery here – but also peculiar natural features, such as minerals that pop out of rocks when heated in the sun and boulders sculpted into weird shapes. There are 16 signed walks (percursos pedestres), from six to 19 km. Walk 15 is 17km long and of medium difficulty, rising to more than 1,000m at Monte Calvo.
Pico Pierzo, Asturias
Park by the signpost on the road between San Juan de Beleño and Viego for this spectacular 10km walk in the Ponga national park. In September we walked through a carpet of purple crocuses and exuberant thistles. We saw no one apart from some old men in a hut who offered us water, unless vultures, choughs and the odd goat count. If you make the summit, you’ll see the sea – we didn’t as the final ascent is vertiginous – but the views of endless rolling green hills as we gradually ascended the ridge made this the most memorable afternoon’s walk I’ve ever done.
Maps from posadadelvalle.com
Camino Portugés, Santiago de Compostela
You don’t have to be religious to walk the old pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela. With hostels that charge about €5 a night at every 20km or so, following this more than 1000-year-long tradition won’t break the bank. The Camino Portugués is a less crowded alternative to the main route from France. It follows old Roman roads through vineyards and ancient oak forests, past beautiful rias (coastal inlets) and historic towns such as Barcelos and Pontevedra. The 295km from Porto can be covered in about a fortnight.
Mulhácen from Trevélez, Sierra Nevada
This is a challenging, beautiful walk up Spain’s highest mountain. Trevélez is one of the highest settlements in Spain, and almost at the head of the valley there are several restaurants with roof terraces where you can dine surrounded by mountains. The climb should take six or seven hours but rather than do it all in one go, it’s great to camp at Siete Lagunas, about 150m below the summit. You are high, almost 3,500m, so it is worth having a good sleeping bag. The walk takes you through ancient fields where the Moors built irrigation channels that still contain fast-flowing water. Next day, rise early, climb to the summit, then double back along the ridge to a small village called Capileira. This will take a day but you should in time for a beer and supper back in civilisation.
From Malaga, take a bus to Orgiva, then another for Trevélez (alpujarras.eu)
Walking among rock formations in the Bucegi mountains. Photograph: Alamy
The Bucegi mountains are fantastic, not least because there’s a cable car to the top. Then it’s an undulating plateau culminating in the huge Caraiman cross at 2,260m, overlooking the valley directly and vertiginously below. It’s airy and easy and fairly quiet until the cross is close.
Sulovske Skaly nature reserve
Climb, hike and cycle among the rock towers, gorges and ravines of this beautiful but unknown part of Slovakia – but hurry before everyone else discovers Sulovske Skaly too. Lower in altitude than the better-known Tatras to the north-east, it has rock towers, needles, windows and gates separated by deep waterless gorges and ravines. Its forested and round-topped limestone ridges are also much more typical of Slovakia than the Tatras, but you’ll find little tourist infrastructure and few English speakers.
For more details see bootandbike.co.uk