Monday, February 10, 2014

A hike through Southern Europe: Conclusion

There were two ideas behind this hike: Firstly I wanted to hike all across Europe from the Southernmost point Tarifa to the Northernmost point North Cape and this was the the first half. Secondly I wanted to find out whether you can comfortably hike through fall and winter in Europe. The emphasis was on „comfortably“. I had done several winter hiking trips in Germany and Scandinvia but when you have to deal with a lot of snow, very little daylight and constant subfreezing temperatures you won't be comfortable over a period of several months, especially when you are camping most of the time.

French-Spanish border on Nov 4
Let's start with some data: The total distance was about 3,800 km and it took me 5 months. 760 km per month is not much for a thruhiker. Why has it taken me so long? The most important limiting factor was the lack of daylight. I was hiking through the shortest days of the year with only 10 to 11 hours of daylight from November to January. I had planned on doing more night hiking but due to the terrain, the badly maintained trails and lack of waymarking this was not pra ctical. I ended up averaging 30 km per day only. Had I hiked the same route in spring or summer I would have been much faster. I had also learned from my hike through Western Europe in 2012 where time constraints tainted my trail experience. One of the biggest lessons learnt from 2012 was that European trail town offer a lot of sightseeing opportunities and you'll usually need two rest days: one for resting and one for sightseeing. I had now planned accordingly: This time I had no fixed end date and had planned for additional town days in my time and financial budget. Hiking in winter also meant that your body needs more down time to recover from cold temperatures and bad weather. In Germany and France (September and October) I stuck to my usual schedule of having a rest after 7 to 8 days of hiking whereas in Spain (November to January) I had a town stop every 4 to 6 days.

I spent an average of 580 EUR per month (excluding shoes which I had bought in advance and shipped to me on the trail and the flight back) but I definitely spent most of my overall budget in Spain. In Germany and France I had less town stays and spent them usually in cheap campgrounds whereas in Spain I stayed in cheap hotels, ate out much more and did a lot of sightseeing.

Reservoir in Catalunya
The fall and winter aspect had been the most important factor in choosing the route for this hike. I tried to get South as quickly as possible and to avoid high altitude whenever possible. As on every long-distance hike there were spectacular and boring stretches. The first bit in Germany along the river Rhine and Saar were surprisingly spectacular wheras the first half of France along the river Mosel all the way to Le Puy was pretty, but overall nothing special and sometimes a bit boring. Things improved after Le Puy and became really great between Carcassonne and the Pyrenees. Then the biggest surprise: The route in Catalunya and Valencia was downright breathtaking and I cannot understand why this region is not more popular with international long-distance hikers. The rest of the hike through Murcia and Andalucia varied from a bit dull to very pretty with the occasional highlight, but there were definitely too many olive trees. Overall this has not been the most spectacular hike I have ever done but for me personally this is not a very decisive factor.

An unexpected highlight of this route were the trail towns in both France and Spain. I have never done so much sightseeing on any other hiking trip. In France the highlights were Metz, Dijon, Le Puy and Carcassonne and in Spain almost every little town along the route was a great photo opportunity and had at least one little cultural highlight.

Frozen water source
The most interesting question for me has been how I would fare in fall and winter conditions. It was unusually warm until mid October and I was almost suffering in my winter quilt. The Massif Central was the first „weather trap“ with cold temperatures and lots of rain. But after Carcassonne summer was back and even the low Pyrenean crossing in early November, my biggest weather fear turned out to be very easy. In mid November an unusual rain front passed through Spain. Three days of consistent heavy rain led to land slides and snow at high altitudes. The coldest stretch of this hike was Valencia where I had sub freezing temperatures on most nights. Frozen water sources became a big problem for me. Still hiking was pretty comfortable because it was usually sunny during the day and temperatures generally rose up to 10 - 15 C. There were only a few overcast and windy days when day time temps did not get up to 10 C and made hiking a bit chilly. Wind became a bigger fear for me than temperatures. I had to deal with gusts up to 100 km/h! Andalucia was the last weather obstacle for me. I had chosen the lower Northern variant but still had to go up to 1,700 meters in early January. This year snow line was around 1,500 metres in Andalucia and even at 1,700 metres the amount of snow did not pose a problem for hiking. Unfortunately I cannot tell if the Southern variant that goes up to 2,200 metres would have been passable at this time of the year. It rained surprisingly much in January but other than turning the trails into mudslides this was not a huge problem: Even at night temps did not fall under 0 C once I was out of the mountains.

Snow in Andalucia in January
Overall I did not „suffer“more from the weather than on any other summer hike. I was never really cold at night in my winter quilt. The biggest restriction was that due to low night temps I was pretty much confined to my quilt once I had stopped hiking. Reading or playing with my smartphone would invariably lead to frozen fingers. I slept a lot in December and January! There were only a few days were I felt miserable the whole day due bad weather – not more than on any other hike. I think that Spain is the ideal winter hiking destination for Europeans and I will definitely come back for that reason. A big advantage of hiking off season was that there were absolutely no ticks and mosquitoes.

Once out of Germany I hardly met any other hikers on the trail. The only exception was the GR 65, the pilgrimage trail in France. This was a lonely hike! I hardly met any single hikers, only some hiking clubs that were out for the day in France in Spain. 

So: Did I like this hike? Yes, absolutely! It was perfect for a fall and winter hike and for me personally it was one of the most enjoyable and relaxed hikes I have ever done. Would I recommend it to a friend? That depends. If you are looking for a winter hike or a cultural route this hike is ideal. But if you are hiking in the summer months and/or looking for an alpine route there are better routes. Actually the Southern part of this hike is almost impossible to hike in summer because of heat. I enjoyed this hike so much that I am already looking forward to part 2 from Germany to the North Cape which I will probably hike in 2015.

5 comments:

Tom said...

Thanks for a great blog! It has been a great help inspiring me and guiding my planning for my own trip.

German Tourist said...

Great, I am glad I could help. Please let me know if you have further questions.

Robin Knaeble said...

Hello Christine from cold and snowy Minneapolis. Just read your latest blog and loved it. Hope to see you again soon. Robin and I are leaving for a trip to Europe in April. A bike and barge tour in Amsterdam, then we will be in southern Portugal and southern Spain. I had hoped to get to the southernmost tip of Europe in Portugal were your trip ended, but it sounds like the lighthouse is closed.
Yours.
Peter and Robin
peterknaeble@gmail.com

Mark said...

Very interesting and entertaining!

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