Some might prefer a third class train ride to a first class walk but for me walking is simply the only way to really explore a country, to get under its skin and really get the most out of it in return. Some people love the glamour and excitement of flying, others the romance of a great road trip in a classic car or the refinement of rail but for me, it’s all about using my own two feet.
Clearly each method of travel has its own advantages and even I (with my comfy boots, lightweight rucksack and top of the range weatherproof gaiters) would probably, just maybe, concede that walking from the UK to Australia might not be a realistic proposition. However, pick off specific regions within countries and nothing gets you closer to the people or as assimilated into the culture than just walking around and soaking up whatever you happen across.
Walking from village to village in rural France is one of my favourite ways to spend a holiday, as the people, contrary to popular (British) opinion, are so welcoming – although admittedly it helps that my language skills are just about passable… I knew that GCSE would come in useful one day.
Greeting strangers in the streets with a passing bonjour feels convivial and is a joy for the soul, whilst discussing the merits – or otherwise – of English food in a food market full of the sort of French people you thought were just a stereotype is equally rewarding. One such exchange in Auxerre led to a personal invite to eat with the owners of one of the local vineyards and the consumption of far too much high-quality Chablis. Would we have had that experience if we’d been passing through on a coach? I think it highly unlikely.
We had a similar experience whilst on a walking holiday in Spain along one of the world’s most famous trails, the Camino de Santiago. Pilgrims have walked this route through Northern Spain for over 1,000 years and we met an elderly Spaniard en route who was completing the full 800km of one of the traditional trails for the third time (once for each wife, he – we think – joked). He was a keen fisherman and so it was that a week later I was on a small boat with three generations of Galicians catching the dinner that we would later eat in their garden while quaffing Rioja and putting the world to rights.
This type of experience highlights one of the wonderful features of walking the Camino and that is the camaraderie you will share, the feeling that you are in it together. The walking world is a fraternity, and one prepared to help and share with others, be it food supplies or simply advice about the prevailing weather conditions or a great hotel up ahead. Even a smile and a hello, bonjour or hola is enough to lift the spirits and add another level of enjoyment to your experience. Do plane travellers bond in such a fashion? I can’t remember the last time I sat round an open fire learning Spanish folk songs with a group of locals while admiring a ruby-red sunset at Stansted Airport.
Walking holidays are a great way to reconnect with the people around you and to make contact with local people in a way that is impossible when using other means of transport. It may be slow, but that is part of its attraction, and no other holiday gets you closer to the things that matter to so many. You can hear the people, smell the air, see the flowers and animals and feel the sun, and maybe even the rain, on your skin. Walking holidays: try them, you might just like them!