Looking for a new challenge in 2018? My top eight pilgrimage trails. #hiking #travel

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.



  1. 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.

An emperor and a  Duce. Encounters on the #viafrancigena 

Last night I stayed in Sutri which I suspect is the last decent town before I hit Rome.

It’s fanous for a number of reasons ..not least the amphitheatre carved out  of solid volcanic  rock which  academics  – in their own inimitable way – think is definitely Etruscan.  Or Roman.
But it’s the encounter with two formidable characters from history I’ll always remember. 

The emperor Charlemagne whom  I encountered on the  Camino de Santiago passed through here and was rather taken with the local Sutri beans which cured his wind.  I have to say it rather did the opposite for me.

But sitting in a cafe at the evening’s end I had a more sinister encounter.

My waiter , who had the appearance of an ugly front row hooker who used to play for England,  had an unusual tattoo on his forearm.  looking more closely I noticed with some alarm it was a very detailed representation of Mussolini.

“WTF!” ! I exclaimed to a fellow pilgrim who spoke Italian.

She had a quick conversation with the waiter and explained all was OK

“OK?.How the hell is that OK?”

Was it some kind of ironic gesture accompanied by a  subtle anti fascist message ?

“no…his grandfather admired Mussolini and told him that he did some good things in Italy ” 

Not a view which I suspect would be echoed in what was Abysinnia or by those Italians who shot him and strung him upside down  from the roof of a petrol station. 

My grandad had certain right wing views but I never had the urge to have the masthead of the Daily Express carved into my arm.

And as a New Zealand pilgrim here said ..

“if he respected  his grandad so much why didn’t he have HIS face tattooed on his arm ?”

Which I think is a sensible point. 

What a silly Fugger. Over imbibing on the #viafrancigena

There are many reasons to regret leaving Montefiascone.

The stunning views of Lake Bolsena  and the sunsets from the Pilgrims Tower 

The hospitality of the nuns at the convent.

But mostly it’s the local wine.  Called Est! Est!! Est !!!

The legend says a 13th century German Bishop Johannes Fugger – on his way to the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor – preferred to lubricate the long stages of his journey.  Like me. 

He sent his servant ahead to identify which places served the best wine with instructions to write Vinum Est Bonum (wine is good ?) On the doors of worthy inns.

The servant – through laziness or a drunken inability to write, abbreviated it to Est.

When he reached Montefiascone the wine was so good he wrote Est!Est!! Est !!!

Not that it did Bishop Fugger any  good. He stayed in Montefiascone and drank himself to death.

For which I have a sneaking admiration. 

But to be honest. He was a bit of a stupid Fugger. 

Night in a convent. Third week on the #viafrancigena #Italy 

Last night I stayed in a convent.  Not something I do on a regular basis .

Only two nuns live here now. So tthe place is run for pilgrims by hospialeros Roberta and Maria. They  do a fantastic job welcoming us and cooking our evening meal.

There’s no set fee. It’s donativo which means you give as much or as little as you wish.

The meal was followed with some sort of alcoholic liquorice spirit concocted by one of Roberta’s mates.  

Didn’t Just William drink liquorice water ? If he’d drunk this stuff his band of outlaws would probably have been pissed enough to carry out an actual breach of the law. 

It was a great evening.  Ending with The Great Washing Up debate.

As,pilgrims we had a moral duty to help so I donned rubber gloves and ran the water at its hottest.  With plenty of washing up liquid.

I was passing  the pots to my Dutch friend to dry when one of our Italian pilgrims informed me I wasn’t doing it properly.

“Don’t tell me how to wash up…I KNOW how to wash up.  I spend half my life washing up…”,

But apparently,I know nothing cos I  had to rinse the pots under the cold tap before,passing them to the drier 

My protestations that putting them under the cold tap made it harder to dry were ignored with contempt.

“Faster faster .” She ordered until I  was virtually slinging plates and pots across the kitchen in an attempt to prove my domestic virility.

Next time I’ll do the cooking 

Fire down below. Walking the #viafrancigena through #Italy 

A fee days ago I witnessed the aftermath of a wildfire as I walked through a  charred and smoking wilderness 

Today, from an paralleled viewpoint , I watched this depressing spectacle unfold in front of my eyes.

From the castle tower at Radicofani we were enjoying what is,the most spectacular landscape I’ve ever seen..the rolling Tuscan hills stretching to the horizon.

Then we noticed a puff of smoke about two miles to the west.  It grew. The yellowed grass seem to turn black as we watched.  Then I saw flames…like an advancing army just ahead of the blackened fields.

A fire watchman was co-ordinating the emergency response via radio from the tower.

One helicopter arrived making repeated runs to a pond to scoop up huge containers of water.  but the flames,spread.  Every so often a tree would explode as the fire swept down the valley.

I’ve walked through those woods,and can attest to the variety of wildlife…wild boar,..hawks and livestock as well.

Another helicopter arrived. I was Impressed by the way they constantly flew deep into the blinding smoke to drop their water bombs.

I know they,say fires can lead to regeneration. But after a most enjoyable day it was a little depressing. 

Landscape and Losers. Week 3 on the #viafrancigena #travel #Italy 

It feels like I’m moving through the real Tuscany.  Vineyards abound.  Along with olive grives , pencil -thin cypress trees, fields of  sunflowers and olive groves.

All very life enhancing but two days ago I wasn’t feeling quite as uplifted 

We’d stopped at a hostel run by Roberto and his wife.  Dedicated Christians and I guess spiritual descendants of the Knights Hospitalers who have protected pilgrims down the ages, they performed a rather eccentric foot washing ceremony.

Mrs Roberto solemnly moved down a line of pilgrims arranged in a half circle of chairs.  She poured water over our frankly putrid feet before kneeling to kiss our shins.   I was on the point of warning about my athlete’s foot but kept quiet on account of not knowing the Italian for horrible fungal infection.
But the real “fun” was drinking in The Worst Bar In The World 

It was just across a hot  dusty road and the bar doubled as a petrol.station 

All the local losers gravitated to this watering hole which seemed to be run by the senior petrol pump attendant.  A youngish Italian dude clearly frustrated by the roll of the dice that life has dealt him. 

His mate had one job to do.  Waiting for the odd car to arrive.  But he was drunk and when a driver made the horrible mistake of stopping and   expecting a re fuelling. -. he just sat at the table looking sullenly at the customer  before being bollocked by his boss.

And for some reason the boss   appeared to be wearing underpants on his head.

A few local drunks turned up. Had arguments. Pushed each other.

Then two cops arrived. They pulled over a hapless motorist.  Searched  his car  -.presumably, for drugs,and then let him continue on his way with a shrug of the shoulders and wave of the hands 

A drunk with a face of a bruised pomegranate accosted one of the cops and pointed him towards the guy with the Y fronts,on his head 

I have no idea what this local grievance was about but it resulted in Pomegranate face and Underpants Head having a massive row 

All the time, the shaven headed cop who had the physical and indeed facial characteristics of a gorilla just stared them before shrugging his,shoulders,again and walking away.

Just another typical day on the road 

Turtles, Snails and a Daughter of the Road.  Third week on the #Viafrancigena #Travel 

I’ve reached Siena and learned today that it was a city built around the Via Francigena pilgrimage trail I’m following to Rome.

So if you thought Siena was about the Palio and the Palio only, you can think again.

Or maybe not.  Because it’s impossible to come here and not be awed by the history of The Palio. Where riders race three times around the Piazza di Campo smashing each other with whips in a race that lasts all of 90 seconds.

“It is not a race, it is war,” a turtle told me.

The turtle being Nicholas, custodian of the Tartuca (turtle)  museum which he kindly opened up for a personalised tour and two hour history lesson on  Siena.

A teacher whose eyes burned with passion for this city,  Nicholas explained how Siena is divided into 17 districts known as Cantrade – each named after an animal and dating back to medieval times.

Ten of the 17 race against each other for the Palio…a strip of embroided cloth that brings much honour for the winning contrade.

Nicholas showed me Palio won by the Turtles going back to the 17th Century

Ancient rivalries abound.  The Turtles and the Snails hate each other. But everyone agrees that the Rhinos are good chaps who don’t annoy anyone.

You know you are in their contrade when the symbols on walls, houses and fountains change

He also showed the medieval costumes that they wear in the parades associated with the Palio. Right down to the wigs. In July. When it’s 35c +

I had reservations on grounds of animal welfare but was told the horses are specially bred for their sturdy legs and that they are retired with a city pension

“We love the horses more than the drivers” said Nicholas.

Each contrade has its own church and horses are brought inside to be blessed before the big event. Nicholas showed me their church tucked away in a back street

Last year one horse died in retirement at the age of 24.

But if you’re a jockey suspected of underhand behavior such as throwing a race then retribution is swift.  And often violent.

Tomorrow I’ll resume the trek. The Via Francigena brought wealth to Siena which is why it’s called a Daughter of the Road.

Pilgrims  would be given letters of credit, providing they left their money behind in the city. If they failed to return from Rome the city kept their cash.  It’s how the first banks were built.

Screwing the poor out of their cash.  I’m glad times have changed.