Take a hike: Europe’s long-distance trails span nations
M. Michael Brady
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 in Europe, such as the Jakobsweg in German-speaking countries, have been trekked for more than a thousand years. The more recent 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 more than 500 trailside cabins, including 225 staffed lodges that serve meals. These numbers reflect the popularity of hiking and related outdoor life activities in Norway. With more than a quarter million members (out of the current population of 5.16 million), Den Norske Turistforening (The Norwegian Trekking Association) is Norway’s largest activity organization.
Hiking in Europe is as convenient as it is popular, yet until recently 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 in Germany 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. By 1971, the ERA consisted of 14 rambler organizations from six countries. Today it comprises 61 rambler organizations from 34 European countries plus observer members from Morocco and from the U.S. and Canada. Its full name is trilingual in English, German, and French: European Ramblers Association—Europäische Wandervereinigung—Federation Européenne de la Randonnée Pédestre (ERA—EWV—FERP).
The ERA’s 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 12, numbered E1 to E12. The E Route network stretches across more than 20 countries, and the lengths of its trails add up to nearly 38,000 miles. Many 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. The longest E Route is the E4 that stretches west-to-east from Tarifa in Spain to Lanaca on Cyprus. The most varied in terms of the scenery it spans is the north-to-south E1 from the North Cape, the northernmost point of the European continent as well as of Norway, southward through continental Europe to Salerno in Italy, a total distance of 4,375 miles, about twice as long as the famed Maine-to-Georgia Appalachian Trail in the USA. The E1 offers sea to sea hiking, from the Arctic to the Mediterranean, through the range of topographies in which it can be done.
The trails of the existing 12 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 in it 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.
• The European Ramblers’ Association: www.era-ewv-ferp.com (selectable in English, French, or German)
• World Trails Network online magazine: worldtrailsnetwork.org/network-news (selectable in English, French, or German)
• The Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT): www.dnt.no (selectable in Norwegian, English, French, or German)
This article originally appeared in the July 10, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.