Let’s go for a little walk

In this week’s Travel SOS, Kay O’Sullivan examines the pros and cons of walking holidays for Trudie who wants to get amongst nature in Spain or Italy. 

Q. Trudie
My girlfriend and I are keen to take a walking tour through Spain or perhaps Italy, and although we consider ourselves to be fit 60-somethings, we wonder how fit you really need to be. We’re hoping to immerse ourselves in the countryside rather than cities. Is it easy to do? Any recommended tour operators? 

A. It must be something to do with our age. I consider myself a fit 60-year-old and walking holidays are exactly what I want to do now. (Although I’d be off to the bright lights of New York City in a heartbeat if the opportunity came my way.)

I had one of the trips of my life on Peregrine Adventures’ eight-day Italian Lakes Discovery tour last September. Some days it was more of a stroll from village to village but one fabulous day, we hiked from the tiny hamlet of Breglia to just below the summit of Mount Grona, which, at 1700 metres, gave us a wide-angled view of Lake Como. Unforgettable.

That hike took about six hours up and down and, yes, it was challenging at times, but the group, a terrific bunch consisting mainly of Aussies, encouraged each other all the way. (I will be forever in debt to a gallant Queensland gentleman who offered to carry my bag for me when I was struggling because dopey me hadn’t packed my hiking boots.) Not surprisingly, I thoroughly recommend Peregrine.

If Spain is your preferred destination, consider El Camino de Santiago, the pilgrims’ walk that ends in the beautiful city of Santiago de Compostela. Life changing is the phrase most often used to describe it. Wandering the World (WTW) specialises in trekking and walking holidays globally and does escorted and privately arranged Camino walks. Co-founder Glenyce Johnson left a big job in the Australian travel industry to live in Spain for six months and did the whole Camino, 800kms of it, so she knows what she is doing. You don’t have to walk the whole way; WTW has seven-, 10- and 15-day itineraries, and will tailor to suit your needs. The big advantage of a walking ‘tour’, as opposed to going it alone on the Camino, is that the hard stuff is already sorted – accommodation is secured, so no getting to the end of the day and finding there’s no room at any inn; your luggage is transported from one destination to the next and the guide is on hand to reveal those crucial details that turn travel into a holiday to remember, such as where to get a decent glass of wine at the end of the day, says Glenyce.

Hedonistic Hiking is another Aussie company that gets a big thumbs-up from friends and travel colleagues of mine. The company is operated by Jackie and Mick Parsons who lead hikes through Victoria’s northeast high country during our summer and then decamp to Europe, mainly Italy, for the northern summer. (Not a bad gig, eh?) Both have loads of experience in tourism, the finer things in life, such as food and wine, and hiking, so Jackie was my go-to person to answer your query about fitness.

“We highly recommend doing regular exercise to build fitness and stamina prior to the tour,” she says. “Being fitter does maximise your enjoyment. Also, it is a good idea to do some hiking both in the bush and up and down hills.

“Well worn-in boots are a great idea, as they support ankles on rocky stretches, and walking sticks, while not absolutely necessary, do make hiking easier and a bit safer.

“Once people have used sticks they tend to swear by them, as they are great for balance and also put less pressure on the joints, which means one can go on a Hedonistic hike for many more years to come!”

Hedonistic Hiking is offering 16 itineraries through Europe next year, and Jackie says the majority of their clientele comes from our age group, with a few 40-somethings and the occasional intrepid 80-year-old.  

World Expeditions is another very professional Aussie company that offers lots of walking and hiking tours, both guided and self-guided. I have travelled with them and feel confident you would be in safe hands. 

As to whether guided or non-guided is better, that is a matter of personal preference. I prefer guided tours. I enjoy company and my experience with Peregrine was that you could seek out people with whom to walk but also no one would get in a huff if you wanted time on your own. But if I’m being really honest, it’s because I have no sense of direction, none whatsoever, so I wouldn’t trust myself not to get lost if I was doing a self-guided hike.

On the other hand, a sensational 70-year-old friend of mine has just returned from doing two unguided walking tours in Italy and France with a friend. Each tour was around 100kms and involved day hikes of up to 23kms but Jen had the time of her life.

Yes, she is in terrific nick but she is also by my reckoning brave to boot. When her travelling companion, who didn’t have hiking boots, said she was going to rest her blisters and spend the day by the pool, Jen headed off on her own to do a 20km hike. “I wasn’t going to sit around. I’d come all that way and wanted to see everything. And it was spectacular through fields of corn and wheat, forests and oak plantations, with occasional views of chateaux.”

Jen is the role model for my future … but I think I’ll have to go with her because there is no way I’m ever going to master reading maps.

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Do you have a travel question for Kay? If so, email your Travel SOS to [email protected]

Kay O’Sullivan is no accidental tourist. More than a decade ago, she decided to combine two of her favourite things – journalism and travel – and become a travel writer. Since then, she has worked for numerous papers, magazines, both here and internationally, and on the internet.

Written by SJ