My love affair with long distance trails began back in 2012 when I walked the Camino de Santiago as a non-religious pilgrim. That year more than 250,000 people walked the route. This year it was closer to 280,000. For whatever reasons, people are becoming attracted to these ancient paths in ever increasing numbers. Here, in reverse order, are the ones I’ve enjoyed the most.
8) – St Hilda’s Way. (North Yorkshire, England) Opened last summer. Forty three miles starting from the beautiful village church of Hinderwell in North Yorkshire where St Hilda herself brought forth water on her way to Whitby. The route crosses the moors and takes in a number of lovely country churches all associated with Hilda. It finishes among the ruins of Whitby Abbey perched high on the clifftop – also the setting for a memorable scene in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Walk here at night and you’re likely to come across a few Goths soaking up the atmosphere.
7) – The White Horse Trail. (Wiltshire, England) Not strictly a pilgrimage but this 90 mile path through Wiltshire takes in eight giant horses cut into the chalk downs . The spiritual element – if that’s what you’re after – comes from passing through Avebury Stone Circle – a truly impressive feat of Neolithic engineering that for my money outshines Stonehenge. The Druids may have practised here long after the great circle of Sarsen stones was constructed for some other long-forgotten purpose but that doesn’t stop their modern day descendants celebrating here – most celebrations seem to involve copious quantities of alcohol.
6) – St Paul’s Trail, (Turkey.)Not for the faint hearted but stick with it and you’ll have a tale to tell the grandkids. This 300 mile route heads due north from the ancient ruins of Perga just east of Antalya to the equally ancient ruins of Antioch in Pisidia near the modern town of Yalvac. . It was here that Christianity was born after Paul and Barnabas were chased out of the synagogue. They “shook the dust” from their feet and turned to the gentiles. In reality, The Bible says next to nothing about this journey but the route – drawn up by English ex pat Kate Clow – follows a direct line North and you’ll find yourself walking on stretches of ancient Roman Road that St Paul would probably have used. It cuts through forests and mountains and stunning canyons. When I walked it back in 2013 the waymarking was somewhat variable and accommodation was basic to say the least. But the locals were always pleased to see a tourist far from the beaten track and did their best to help with food and lodging. Two fish farms on the way provide beds and the best fish dinner you’ll ever eat. Beware the Anatolian herding dogs though. Not to be trifled with. A sturdy walking stick is essential.
5) – Mount Athos ( Greece.) If you’re a woman then skip this one. In fact, you have no choice The Orthodox monks who live in 20 monasteries stretched across the mountain have banned females for centuries. That includes female animals as well. Although it’s not an island it feels like one. The only way of getting on to this semi-autonomous enclave is by boat. Only ten non-Greeks are allowed on it per day and you have to apply for a special permit. You have four days in which to walk to whichever monasteries you have pre-booked, You eat in silence with the monks who are quite a dour lot if truth be told. But accommodation and food is free. And you are welcomed at the end of a day’s trekking with the traditional glass of Raki, Ice cold water and Turkish delight. You can also hike to the top of Mount Athos if you’re feeling particularly tough. Just don’t take any pictures of the monks – they don’t like it.
4) – Caminho da Fe ( Brazil.) Three hundred miles through the sugar cane plantations and mountains of stunningly beautiful Minas Gerais state in South East Brazil. This trail was designed by the lugubrious Almiro Grings, a retired businessman who twice walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain and decided to construct something in Brazil. Yellow arrows point the way and there is a network of cheap hotels and pousadas (hostels) You may want to give the plantations a miss after a day or so..the monotony can be wearing. But once you’re in the mountains – wow! You’ll see the most breathtaking night skies, awe inspiring sunrises and sunsets and drink free Cachaca with friendly locals (it’s a sugar based spirit that goes into Caiparinha cocktails) The Caminho finishes in Aparacida where the second biggest basilica in the world holds the tiny clay statue of the Madonna found in nearby river in 1717. It’s been linked with many miracles. Twelve million South American Catholics visit the basilica every year . But don’t worry – only a handful walk the Caminho.
3) – Camino de Santiago de Compostela. ( France and Spain.) The classic pilgrimage trail and my first magical experience of long distance hiking. Start from anywhere you like but the most popular route is the Camino Frances – 500 miles from the French town of St Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees. Again, yellow arrows point the way ever westwards – it’s almost impossible to get lost. You pass through numerous tiny towns and villages but also the three major cities of Pamplona, Burgos and Leon where the nightlife provides a welcome break from the rigours of the trail. Aubergues (hostels) provide cheap and basic accommodation and meals. Do it in summer – it’s hot but not murderously hot (this is the North of Spain) Finish at Santiago where the bones of the St James the apostle are said to rest..or carry on to the coast at Finisterre (end of the world) Some Peregrinos (pilgrims) burn their clothes there in a symbolic act of renewal. Along the way you’ll walk with pilgrims from across the world. Some for a few hours, some for a few days and maybe some for the estimated 4 weeks it takes the average hiker. It’s likely that lifelong friendships will be formed. Be warned though – many pilgrims find it difficult to return to the routine of normal life almost everyone gets the post Camino blues.
2) Via Francigena, (England, France, Switzerland and Italy) . Got a spare three months available? Why not walk 1,100 miles from Canterbury to Rome in the footsteps of the 10th century Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric the Serious ? . I’ve walked the last third through the Emilia Romagna and Tuscany regions and it’s the closest I’ve come to re-creating the Camino de Santiago experience. In fact, I’m rating it more highly than the Camino because you don’t have anywhere near the numbers which, by all accounts, are starting to ruin the Spanish experience. That said, there are still enough travellers on the route to make for convivial evenings in beautiful though little known Tuscan towns. . I remember one great night in Siena drinking red wine with new friends in the main square and another drinking several bottles of gorgeous white in a wine cellar in San Gimignano. If you’re doing the whole route timing is important . You can only cross the Great St Bernard Pass in Switzerland after it opens in June which means you hit Italy in the height of Summer. France can be a challenge ( or so I’ve heard.) And the rice fields of the Po Valley are torture in summer – no shade and swarms of mosquitoes. But I’m determined to do the whole route. One day.
- St Olaf’s Trail (Olavsleden), Sweden and Norway. A surprising choice for number one but I am desperate to go back and do this again. It’s a month long trail from Sundsvall in Sweden to Trondheim in Norway. Be aware there are other Olaf’s trails – the most popular being from Oslo to Trondheim. But this one is perfectly signposted all the way from Sundsvall and has benefited from a big investment by the Norwegian tourist board. And an enthusiastic Swedish tourist official called Putte Eby is determined to make this route the Scandinavian equivalent of the Camino. It is the world’s most northern pilgrimage route and was the fourth most popular destination in medieval times (behind Santiago, Jerusalem and Rome) It traces the final journey of Olaf the patron saint and “eternal king”of Norway. He landed in Sundsvall and marched his rag tag army westwards in a doomed attempt to re claim his throne. If truth be told he was an unpleasant adventurer not averse to maiming and murdering those who refused to convert to his version of Christianity. On this trail you can be sure you are in the footsteps of history. The Olavsleden traces an ancient trading route that goes back to well beyond the Viking . You walk through great forests and beside crystal clear lakes that spread to the horizon. The infrastructure isn’t quite there yet so you may find yourself staying with locals (as I did) or wild camping a couple of times. But there are cheap hotels and hostels plus a lovely isolated farmhouse with no running water or power . But sitting hunched over my own fire is one the best moments I’ve had on any trail. The Swedes are an incredibly friendly bunch and most of them speak better English than the English. Yes, really. I’m getting nostalgic even as I write this.