01 Abraham Path, Middle East
“I started walking these hills when I was seven, collecting wild honey with my father,” says Habib, my guide. We’re in the northern West Bank. From east to west, he points out the outcrops of Jordan, the banks of the Dead Sea, an Israeli settlement, two Palestinian villages, pale hills, Ramallah city and, in the distant haze, Jerusalem. It’s a lot to take in. “I still love to walk. It’s in my head, in my heart. If I have a problem, a big thing to think about, I come here and walk,” Habib adds.
In the Middle East there are a lot of big things to think about. It’s one of the reasons the Abraham Path — a long-distance hiking trail that, once complete, will stitch a route across almost the entire region; through Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel — is such a singular project. It currently comprises over 280 miles of trails, with more added each year.
The route is based on the ‘cultural memory’ of Abraham — a key figure in Islam, Judaism and Christianity — and loosely traces the on-foot journey he made some 4,000 years ago. The overarching idea is for the path to build a connection between Middle East communities and visitors from across the world.
In the village of Al Mughayir, there’s a disturbance going on. My group is walking a three-day, 32-mile section of the path through the West Bank, winding along stony hillside tracks from the northern city of Nablus down to the outskirts of Jericho. It’s our second day, and after a morning spent passing through wheat fields and olive groves we reach the village as the day’s heat takes hold. But we haven’t banked on coinciding with school break time. Spying the walkers, children begin charging at the playground fence: 10, 20 — suddenly more than 100. Their faces are urgent, their voices a frenzy. Through it all, it’s possible to pick out individual shouts. “How are you? Hello!” “Welcome to Palestine!” “What’s your name?”
The landscape has a hardiness that conceals gifts: mistletoe, wagtails, dragonflies and pink cyclamen. And the walking is often dramatic, particularly in the canyons of Wadi Auja, where the only sounds are birdsong and footfall on loose rock.
We sleep in welcoming homestays. I learn that lamb-filled flatbreads and pomegranate juice make good hiking fuel, and the valleys glow gold at first light. There are surprises too, not least in the Christian town of Taybeh — pre-trip, I hadn’t envisaged myself ordering locally brewed beer from a nun.
It’s a spirit-lifting hike — and Habib provides an all-seeing eye throughout. Here the smoke from a Bedouin camp, there an Israeli military base. Here a porcupine print, there a sacred mountain. And this sense of immersion is what makes the Abraham Path project so extraordinary — it gives travellers the chance to shape their own perspective. abrahampath.org
Best for: Those looking for more than a scenic trek.
Difficulty rating: 6/10.
How to do it: In the West Bank, the Siraj Center runs tours along the Abraham Path from $650 (£398) for four days, including transfers from Jerusalem. EasyJet flies to Tel Aviv from Luton and Manchester; British Airways from Heathrow; El Al from Heathrow and Luton; Jet2 from Manchester. The airport is 27 miles from Jerusalem, with regular public transport. sirajcenter.org easyjet.com ba.com elal.co.il jet2.com
If you can do this, you’ll want to do… The Jesus Trail, a 40-mile pilgrimage and hiking route through Israel. jesustrail.com
02 GR2013 Marseille-Provence, South of France
One of the lasting legacies of Marseille’s stint as European Capital of Culture in 2013 is this long-distance trail around southern Provence. Created specifically to mark the occasion, it’s 228 miles long (or 365km — one for every day of Marseille’s tenure) and spends part of its length weaving through the restful countryside for which this part of France is famed.
If you’re expecting an unbroken dawdle through lavender fields, however, don’t strap up your boots just yet — the trail is described by its makers as ‘the first metropolitan and artistic hiking trail’. What does this mean in reality? Essentially, the route sets out to represent the nuts and bolts of everyday Provence, leading past shopping malls, disused railway lines, nature reserves, country manors, industrial estates and other landmarks ‘that you pass everyday without necessarily looking at them’.
The semi-urban trail takes the shape of a giant figure-of-eight — also intended to represent the symbol for infinity — and has been designed as a work of art in its own right. The group behind the path (all keen hikers, you’ll be pleased to hear) include a writer, an architect, a performance artist and a photographer, and their work has resulted in a walking trail that’s quite comfortable being seen as different. The ‘GR’ prefix in the name indicates its status as one of France’s official ‘Grande Randonnées’, and there’s even a 200-page illustrated guide produced by the national rambling association. The trail itself isn’t to everyone’s taste, but where would be the fun in that?
Best for: Rambling thinkers and thinking ramblers.
Difficulty rating: 6/10.
If you can do this, you’ll want to do… The Refuge d’Art, in the Haute-Provence region, is a 95-mile hiking trail featuring the world’s largest collection of works by British artist Andy Goldsworthy.
03 Rota Vicentina, Southwest Portugal
The Algarve’s charms have long turned this corner of the continent into Portugal’s premier fly-and-flop destination, but step beyond the brochure-shot beaches and family resorts and you’ll find a region well suited to ramblers. It makes the opening of the Rota Vicentina welcome news indeed. Stretching north from Europe’s most southwesterly point, the new trail is, rather confusingly, actually two near-parallel routes — one (the 75-mile Fisherman’s Trail) hugs the coast, while the other (the 143-mile Historical Way) veers inland.
Both routes begin in the Algarve and finish in the Alentejo region. The Fishermen’s Trail is the more popular of the two, largely because of its wild clifftop scenery and the prospect of some memorable camping spots. But the Historical Way, which can be cycled as well as walked, also has much to recommend it. It’s an easier hike, for a start, and follows trails used by pilgrims and travellers of centuries. Both can be enjoyed in shorter sections, and in either direction.
The project was conceived not only to promote economic activity in rural areas but to sustain the region’s cultural heritage, and the advantage of it being close to a holiday hotspot means there’s also an excellent chance of good walking weather. You’re best sticking to the poolside in the heat of high summer — ideally with a cold cerveza in hand — but temperatures at other times are almost invariably pleasant. rotavicentina.com
Best for: A new take on a holiday spot.
Difficulty rating: 6/10.
If you can do this, you’ll want to do... The classic South West Coast Path around Devon and Cornwall; full details of which are on new website nationaltrail.co.uk, along with 14 other trails in England and Wales.
04 Wales Coast Path, Wales
It was never going to be much of a revelation that the Welsh coastline made for an enjoyable yomp, but the fanfare accompanying the launch of a fully mapped Wales Coast Path in 2012 drew attention to just how much potential the country’s rugged seaboard holds for walkers. At 870 miles long, it’s intended as a trail to enjoy in short stages rather than in its entirety (although many end-to-end journeys have already been completed) and most sections have decent, often excellent, accommodation options.
The scale of the path means it passes through or along all manner of enticing spots: two national parks, three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, 11 National Nature Reserves, 14 stretches of culturally rich Heritage Coast, and so on. In practice this means that whether you’re in search of wind-buffeted headlands, wildlife-rich grasslands or historical settings, you’ll have near-endless options for tailoring a walk. Many stretches can also be covered on bike.
The most obvious stretches for first-timers tend to be the handsome coves and crags of the Gower Peninsula, the quiet beaches and estuaries of the Isle of Anglesey and the long, wild sweep of Cardigan Bay. And naturally, as well as serving up a generous helping of forts and castles, the path also leads walkers through the country’s seaside towns and villages, even passing along the waterfront of Cardiff. In short, the path can be what you make of it. walescoastpath.gov.uk
Best for: Tackling one piece at a time.
Difficulty rating: 6/10.
If you can do this, you’ll want to do… Turkey’s new Carian Trail, notable for the natural and cultural variety en route. Linking the Mediterranean and the Aegean, it’s 500 miles long and was opened last year.
Read more in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)