From top tips for ultra-classics like the Tour du Mont Blanc, to insider secrets on lesser-known gems, five trekking leaders offer their favourite routes in Europe. If in any doubt of your ability, you know the score: hire a guide.
by Emma Jack
The GR20 is a fun and challenging trek that traverses the island of Corsica from north to south. Often billed as the hardest trek in Europe, it’s an accolade the route probably deserves. Dramatic scenery, rugged paths, airy ridges and steep drops make this one of the most spectacular and varied treks in the world. You’ll need to be fit and have a head for heights. There’s a lot of scrambling, along with a few chains and ladders.
Highlights – The coastal views, the rugged scrambling, and bathing in the natural rock pools.
Top Tips – If you’re daunted by the GR20 then book a guided trip. You’ll be looked after, you’ll have the best accommodation, and you’ll have luggage delivery. If you’re happy to take on a challenge and go independently, don’t stay in the national park refuges. They are cramped, uncomfortable and notorious for bed bugs! Instead, opt for gîtes and hotels, and carry a lightweight tent for the nights in between.
Variants – If the GR20 alone isn’t challenging enough for you, then consider adding on some extra peaks along the way. Monte Cinto (Corsica’s highest mountain) offers stunning views and is only a two-hour detour from the route. Paglia Orba and Monte Renoso are also fantastic options.
Emma Jack is an International Mountain Leader and runs a small trekking company, Cloud 9 Adventure, specialising in the GR20, the Tour du Mont Blanc and the Walker’s Haute Route: www.cloud9adventure.com.
The Tour of the Vanoise
By Mark Tennent
The Vanoise National Park is a protected and unspoilt mountain area, and the heart of it is a place I've come to appreciate more and more. Wildlife abounds: you should definitely see ibex, maybe chamois, and even the impressive Bearded Vulture; there's a breeding pair in the gorge below the Refuge de l'Arpont. Wild flowers accompany you along the way, too, including gentians and edelweiss.
Starting from Pralognan-la-Vanoise, you can tour around the Glacier de la Vanoise, spending five nights in mountain refuges. The route begins by following the ancient trading route, La Route du Sel et du Fromage, as it ascends over the Col de la Vanoise under the bulk of La Grande Casse, which, at 3,855m is the highest peak in the Vanoise.
The next two days contour around the southern flank of the range, with grandstand views over the Maurienne Valley to the mountains of the French-Italian border. Glaciers watch over you as you walk. For those with the energy to spare, go over the Col de la Masse and take in a 3,000m summit.
From L'Orgere, the route turns north, climbing to the Col de Chaviere, at 2,796m, one of the highest cols on a French GR (Grande Randonnee) trek. The walk now descends, passing the Refuge Peclet-Polset. The return to Pralogan takes you through alpine pastures, with tarine cows and marmots a-plenty.
If you are looking for an authentic experience, away from the crowds on more well-known trekking routes, come to the Vanoise. You won't be disappointed.
Mark Tennent has over 30 years professional experience in the mountains and holds the International Mountain Leader qualification and the Mountaineering Instructor Certificate: www.simplysavoie.com.
Tour du Mont Blanc
By Alison Culshaw
The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), is frequently rated as one of the world's top 10 treks, and is well-deserving of its place at the top. This classic trek passes through three countries: France, Italy and Switzerland, and takes in eight mountain passes, while circumnavigating Mont Blanc. The tour stays on well-marked walking paths, but the glaciers are so close that you feel like you can reach out and touch them.
The tour is approximately 160km, but of greater significance are the 9,000m of ascent (and descent!). On top of this, there are plenty of variants for those who don’t find all this enough!
People frequently ask how long the TMB takes. The record for the UTMB race, which follows this route, stands at just over 20 hours. However, it is more normal to take seven to 10 days.
One of the fantastic things about this tour is that there as so many different ways to complete the trek. You can stay in a tent, mountain refuges, small family-run gites, or even the more luxurious hotels that some of the bigger towns offer. For everyone, it’s well worth factoring in a night in the Bonatti Refuge. Although technically a refuge, it’s more akin to a hotel in the mountains. You can choose to carry all your belongings or arrange baggage transfer between your overnight stops.
If you’ve already completed the TMB it’s also highly recommended to give it a go in the other direction.
Alison regularly takes groups doing their Duke of Edinburgh’s Award on sections of the Tour du Mont Blanc through her company www.gold-expeditions.com, and leads adult groups with Mont Blanc Treks www.montblanctreks.com.
The Camino de Santiago
by Andy Duff
If what you're after is a long walk where you get to stay in amazing 13th century monestries (often for less than €10 a night), meet a diverse range of fellow 'pilgrims', and have the chance just to walk and think, then I'd recommend you take a month out and go and 'do the Camino'.
There are in fact more than one Camino, or pilgrim's roads, and they all end at Santiago de Compostella in north-west Spain. Perhaps the most famous and most travelled is the 750km-long Camino Francés. Starting just inside France near Biarritz, this route heads south over the Pyrenees then west across the rolling plains of northern Spain before climbing through the hills of Galicia.
What this walk may lack in spectacular alpine scenery, remoteness, and isolation, it more than makes up for in terms of culture and atmosphere. My memories of walking the Camino are a feeling of being immersed in a journey on a route that is rich in history and tradition.
Andy Duff is an outdoor educator and freelance IML based in Scotland. He can be contacted via: www.chilledoutdoors.com
Alta Via 2 in the Dolomites
by Tim Burton
For me, the best (and arguably the most beautiful) European trek is one that you’ve probably never heard of: the 150km Alta Via 2 of the Dolomites, also known as The High Route of the Legends. It rolls everything I want from a trek into one: spectacular scenery, interesting culture and history, it's not overcrowded, has a real high mountain feel, it's very reasonably priced, the refuges are friendly, and the region offers wonderful food.
It is not a beginner's trek: you will need a head for heights, to be comfortable using small ladders and cables on exposed sections, and there are occasional snow patches – but please don’t let this put you off. Being less well-known and a little more challenging means it’s quieter, feels more authentic, and you should not have to book huts weeks/months in advance as you do for some other classics. The rifugio are brilliant, although most don’t have English-speaking staff, so take a phrase book.
If you’re into Via Ferrata then this is the route for you! There are several optional detours from the hiking route, taking in some spectacular VFs that can really spice up the trek, including the Marmolada and Piz Boe.
If you love the sound of this but don’t fancy the exposure then the more popular Alta Via 1 also ticks all the boxes and is a wonderful trek (there are six Alta Via in total). Whichever Alta Via you pick I’m confident you’ll want to come back to the Dolomites again and again.
Tim Burton is an International Mountain Leader and photographer who has a not-so-secret love affair with the Dolomites: firstname.lastname@example.org
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