Taking Europe One Step at a Time
By Rick Steves
Many areas of Europe, from city neighborhoods to mountains to the beaches, are best explored on foot.
Walking or hiking affords intimate exposures and reveals details that are otherwise easy to miss. A walker complements the place she walks through by her interest and will be received warmly.
The experience is, of course, different depending on whether you're in the city or in the country. Walking in busy cities can be hazardous. Annually, more than 300 pedestrians are run down on the streets of Paris. The drivers are crazy, and politeness has no place on the roads of Europe. Cross carefully, but if you wait for a break in the traffic, you may never get to the other side. Look for a pedestrian underpass or, when all else fails, find a heavy-set local person and just follow him like a shadow — one busy lane at a time — across that seemingly impassable street. And remember in Britain and Ireland, where they drive on the left, look right, not left, before you step off the curb.
If you enjoy jogging, you can get in your workout and enjoy an early morning look at the city waking up. Hotel receptionists usually know good routes. Remember to carry identification and your hotel card.
Hiking in Europe is a joy. Travelers explore entire regions on foot. Switzerland's Jungfrau is an exciting sight from a hotel's terrace café, but those who hike the region enjoy nature's very own striptease as the mountain reveals herself in an endless string of powerful poses. Romantics commune with nature from Norway's fjords to the English lakes to the Alps to the Dalmatian Coast. Trails are generally well-kept and carefully marked. Very precise maps (scale 1:25,000) are readily available.
Imagine hiking along a ridge high in the Swiss Alps. On one side, lakes stretch all the way to Germany. On the other sprawls the greatest mountain panorama in Europe — the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau. And then you hear the long, legato tones of an alp horn, announcing that a helicopter-stocked mountain hut is just ahead, and the coffee schnapps is on.
You could walk through the Alps for weeks — sleeping in mountain huts — without ever coming out of the mountains. You're never more than a day's hike from a mountain village, where you can replenish your food supply or enjoy a hotel bed and a restaurant meal. Most alpine trails are free of snow by July, and cable-car lifts take less rugged visitors to the top in a sweat-free flash.
Throughout the Alps, trail markings are both handy and humiliating. Handy, because they show hours to hike rather than miles to walk to various destinations. Humiliating, because these times are clocked by local senior citizens. You'll know what I mean after your first hike.
If you prefer organized walks, look for Volksmarches. These 10-kilometer-or-longer treks, particularly popular in Germanic countries, involve lots of locals, and end with refreshments and socializing.
Do some research before you leave. Buy the most appropriate hiking guidebook. Travelers who make walking a focus of their trip will find series of books just for them, published by Lonely Planet (on Britain, France, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, Scotland, Spain, and the Alps), Sunflower Books (detailed guides for destinations throughout Europe), Interlink Publishing (Independent Walker's guides to France, Italy, Britain, Ireland, and more), Cicerone Press (trekking guides for many European countries), and Pili Pala Press (Walking in Portugal and Walking the Camino de Santiago).
You can also ask for maps and advice from the National Tourist offices. Be sure to break in your walking shoes before you go, and arrive ready to ramble.
Walking tours are my favorite introduction to a city. Since they focus on just a small part of a city, generally the old town center, they are thorough. The tours are usually conducted in English by well-trained local people who are sharing their town for the noble purpose of giving you an appreciation of the city's history, people, and culture — not to make a lot of money. Walking tours are personal, inexpensive, and informative. I can't recall a bad one. Many local tourist offices organize the tours; rent audioguides you can take for a walk; or provide do-it-yourself walking tour leaflets.