Long-distance hiking, or walking as it’s called in Great Britain, has long been a European thing. Many long-distance trails, or paths (the British term), have Christian connections. El Camino de Santiago, the “Way of Saint James,” is a 500-mile-long pilgrimage route in northwestern Spain, to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, where legend holds that the remains of Saint James are buried. It and feeder pilgrimage routes to it across Europe, such as the Jakobsweg in German-speaking countries, have been trekked for more than a thousand years. The far newer Arnoweg, mostly in Austria, is a 750-mile loop around Salzburg that was opened in 1998 to commemorate the duodecentennial of the appointment in 798 of Salzburg bishop Arno to archbishop.
Historic routes such as these, as well as other trails, are embedded in national networks, some sizeable. In Germany, there are trails almost everywhere, in all totaling some 125,000 miles. The total trail length for Norway, Europe’s most thinly-populated country, is about a tenth that of Germany, but in the trail networks there are 463 trailside cabins, including 218 staffed lodges that serve meals. Hiking in Europe is as convenient as it is popular, yet it’s mostly been done within countries, not across the borders between them. There have been exceptions along borders, such as the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne (“High Pyrenees Hike”) that wiggles north and south across the border between Spain and France for 550 miles through the range, and Grensesømmen (“Border Seam”), that stretches for 1,520 miles, sometimes west of and sometimes east of the border between Norway and Sweden.
But in the wake of an increasingly borderless Europe, hiking is changing, as routes now cross borders with impunity — unthinkable 50 years ago. In 1969, the European Ramblers Association (ERA) was founded to coordinate the efforts of the national hiking organizations throughout
Europe. The word “rambler” in the name, the British term for walking in the countryside, was chosen to stress that the principal concern was travel on foot away from urban areas. The first and still principal task was to link the trails of member countries together to form long-distance routes that encourage cross-border hiking. Like the international E-road network of Europe, the routes are designated E Routes. Initially there were six E Routes; now there are 11, numbered E1 to E11.
At press time, the E Route network stretches across 20 countries, and the lengths of its trails add up to about 33,000 miles. Most of the trails have unfinished stretches, aside from the permanent gaps over water, where ferries link trailheads on land, as across the English Channel between Great Britain and the Continent. And new Routes are planned, such as the E12, envisioned as a ring around the Mediterranean Sea, with connecting trails on the Balearic Islands, Corsica, Crete, Cyprus, Malta and Sardinia. Proposals have been put forth and hopefully will be agreed upon at an E12 meeting to be held in mid-2011 in southern France.
The trails of the existing eleven E Routes are being extended in the traditional way, by joining national trails and by building new ones. Aside from their challenging lengths, the trails bring new aspects to the hiking experience. When all its unfinished stretches are completed, the E8, from Cork in Ireland through Western and Eastern Europe to Istanbul in Turkey, will offer hiking through an unmatched kaleidoscope of cultures.
Likewise, when its end stretches are completed, the E1, from the North Cape, the northernmost point of the European continent, southward through continental Europe to Cape Passero, the southernmost point of Sicily, will offer hiking from sea to sea, from the Arctic to the Mediterranean, through the range of topographies in which it can be done.
The northern-end stretch, from the tip of the existing E1 at Grövelsjön, a lake in Sweden at the Norwegian border, 1,020 miles to the North Cape, is expected to be finished and marked with cairns in the summer of 2011. It crosses Finnmarksvidda, the Finnmark Plateau, most of which is above timberline, subject to the harsh climate of the Arctic. Here winter temperatures have dropped as low as minus-60°F. But in midsummer, when the sun shines 24 hours a day, temperatures can soar to 90°F, giving a minimum to maximum range of 150°F, rare in Europe. Understandably, trail building is done only in summer. The southern stretch, from the southern tip of the existing E1 at Scapoli in the Molise Region of south-central Italy farther south to Cape Passero, is in the planning stage. When it’s finished, the total length of the E1 will be 4,530 miles, half again as much as the distance between the east and west coasts of the Continental USA.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo and takes his vacations in France. By education, he’s a natural scientist. His Dateline: Europe column appears monthly in the Gazette.
For further information on the European Ramblers’ Association (ERA), visit the website at www.era-ewv-ferp.com . For specific details on trails, visit the websites of the hiking associations of the member countries listed on the ERA website.