Self guided walking vacations in Europe

There’s a silver thistle pinned to the front door of the house. It’s an eguzkilore (“sunflower”) – a charm to ward off witches. Another house is crowned with laurel leaves to protect against lightning strikes. You check your map and route notes, but nope, you haven’t stepped into a worm hole and dropped back 2,000 years. You’re in Navarre, a northern region of Spain and part of the Basque Country.

Georgina Howard from Pyrenean Experience runs and hosts some of our self guided walking vacations in the Basque. She explains the feeling of having stepped into another world: “During Franco’s rein from 1939-1975… he aimed to dilute and disperse the Basque culture and language. But in the remote mountain villages and farmsteads of Northern Navarra this was impossible and the Basques continued to live in Basque.”
Like attracts like, so it’s no surprise that independent hikers find themselves exploring independently minded places.
“It is excruciatingly beautiful,” she adds. “Full of tiny cluster-nut villages that have pagan festivals that predate Christianity, such as the joaldun ceremonies of Ituren and Zubieta. The local festivals are not performed for tourists; they are enacted by the people for the people.”

These are the sorts of places that our self guided walking vacations in Europe explore. After all, like attracts like, so it’s really no surprise that independent hikers find themselves exploring independently minded places. These are regions populated by self-sufficient, pragmatic people who enjoy life and their home – and who love to share that passion with you. You’ll find plenty of like minds along the way.

Follow the Pyrenees south-east, and you’ll find yourself in Catalonia – a region that’s been increasingly vocal about independence in recent years. A self guided walking vacation here will reveal what the news reports miss, offering a more rounded view of a place.

Steve Clifford co-founded Catalan Adventures, running some of our most popular self guided walking vacations in Catalonia. “Some of our accommodations are pro-independence,” he says. “You stay at this farmhouse by a river – it’s really beautiful. The owners, Miguel and Anna, are very pro-independence… But then you’ll go to a lovely hotel in Cadaques and the manager there is very anti-independence. And any of these people, if you bring the subject up, they’re very happy to discuss it with you. So our customers do learn bits and pieces.”

Steve first fell in love with Catalonia 14 years ago. “It was Cadaques,” he says. “It’s a really beautiful, whitewashed seaside town. It has a bit of a bohemian feel to it – it had a few aging hippie types there as well… The light all along the coast there is absolutely incredible. One of the things Dali loved about this area was the light; it seems to lift people’s spirits.”

Routes written by experts

Creating a self guided walking route can be a military operation. In the case of Catalan Adventures, you’re in excellent hands: Steve spent eight years in the forces. He and his team use a combination of knowledge from Catalan friends, their own experience from living for almost 15 years in the region, and tips shared by the local hiking community.

It’s a meticulous process. The tour operators walk the route to make sure it’s up to scratch. Then they go back and make route notes, walking with a Dictaphone, GPS and camera. Next, they’ll write it all up, before getting someone unfamiliar with the route to test it. “It can take four full days just to create one day of route notes,” says Steve.

But it’s like that old adage of a swan gliding downstream while paddling underneath – thanks to their hard work, you’ll have smooth travels. You’ll usually follow routes that are well-waymarked and well-kept. You might follow the GR footpaths through France, Belgium, the Netherlands or Spain, marked by red and white stripes. Or there are the E-paths: European long-distance routes connecting national paths from Greece right up to Lapland. Pilgrimage trails are also popular in Europe: you could walk the Pilgrim’s Way in England or part of the Camino de Santiago.
In some cases, local rural footpaths are used mainly by our guests. This encourages the local communes to maintain and keep open the trails.
Peter Roche hosts walkers at Le Moulin du Chemin – a base for walkers exploring the Poitou-Charentes region of France. He says: “Few tourists have discovered this region of France as a walking venue and the local population is sparse. In some cases, local rural footpaths are used mainly by our guests. This encourages the local communes to maintain and keep open the trails.”

But just because you’ve got written notes, doesn’t mean that you can’t stray from them. Most self guided walking vacations are tailor made, so you can hike at your own pace – whether that’s a stroll through vineyards or a march up a mountain.

Adventures appear organically – perhaps you’ll be invited into someone’s home for a strong Italian coffee or get pulled along in a come-one-come-all village wedding procession. You’ll have restaurant recommendations in the route notes, but can ultimately choose to eat where you want, always knowing that there’s a bed and breakfast waiting for you at the end of the day. If you’re hiking point-to-point, your luggage will be transported to your next accommodation ahead of you.

Even getting a little lost can be a highlight – as one of our travelers Ma. Josefina Paguirigan-Kayaban found on her trip: “The most memorable part of the vacation was accidentally following a wrong trail which led to a more perilous, more insightful and spiritually uplifting hike/climb… Very exhilarating.”

Philip Jeffrey, who travelled on our Croatian coast self guided walking tour, had a similar experience: “Our day trip to the island of Lopud was both memorable and exciting. The ferry ride over was rough. The winds picked up in the afternoon and the ferry was cancelled, ‘stranding’ us on the island. The tour company (the best one ever) to the rescue! They arranged for a thrilling small boat taxi ride back to an unscheduled port drop off where we were picked up by one of their many terrific drivers.” And the best part? “We even arrived back in Dubrovnik in time for cocktail hour.”

The not-so-lone pilgrim

When you set off on a self guided walking vacation, your route notes are like having a guide in your pocket. But they’re not just good for leading the way. They’ll recommend the clearest coves for a cooling swim, or the invisible island vineyards, and might include photos of wildlife you should look out for on the trails. They also offer language tips and politics refreshers – especially useful in rural areas – and provide you with contact numbers that you can call 24/7 if you need advice.

Vitally, a self guided vacation will also set you up with accommodation run by people who often end up being the most memorable part of your vacation. Le Moulin du Chemin is a restored French mill house that offers warm welcomes and comfy rooms – and even better, social aperitifs at 7pm sharp – after a day’s hiking.
Our walkers are seen by members of the community as a part of the culture.
“We have been providing vacations from the same premises for more than 25 years,” says Peter Roche, who co-runs the property and their self guided walking vacation. “Our walkers are seen by members of the community as a part of the culture… The fact that we favour local products helps local producers to survive.”

You might stay in a yoga retreat in the Alps, where you can limber up for a day on the hills with a sunrise practise, or a converted 17th-century farmhouse in a six-house hamlet in the Spanish Pyrenees. When you stay in one place, all meals – including picnics of farm cheese and freshly made bread – are usually included.

Other vacations lead you from inn to inn along the peaceful forested pathways and gorges of the Picos de Europa or between family-friendly mountain refugi around the Italian Lakes. This is when your tour provider’s contacts become invaluable, setting you up in the most welcoming and characterful B&Bs they know.

You’ll travel down working mule tracks and pass through villages that live to the rhythm of the church bells. In Croatia, you’ll stay overnight in islands that usually only host day-trippers from Dubrovnik or Split, so you’ll have dinner on the waterfront with islanders relaxing with a glass of Plavac and lobster after a day’s work.

“When we design our trips,” says Tomi Coric, who founded our walking and cycling specialists Epic Croatia, “we take them to Dubrovnik for day two and then elsewhere to limit the crowding in town. We send them to some other places that they can enjoy and feel good: the islands, countryside and so on.”

Most trips are tailor made, with an itinerary designed for you, so you can include free days, when your tour operator will arrange a tour of a vineyard or set up a cooking class.

Our top Europe walking Vacation

Picos inn to inn walking vacation in Spain

Picos inn to inn walking vacation in Spain

Hike through beautiful mountains staying in rural inns

From £1295 8 days ex flights
Tailor made:
May to October departures
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Europe walking or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Tips from our travelers

“Although the directions were excellent, consider downloading a GPS app such as Cities To Go or cyclometer for reassurance and to see exactly where you are located… There are options to skip a really hard part.” – Susan Noble on our Catalonia self guided walking vacation

“Our highlight was walking the islands of Lopud and Mljet and the Valley of Konavle, far from all the tourist spots! Pack day packs and good walking shoes.” – Elspeth Ballantine on our Croatian coast self guided walking tour

“I really recommend having at least one walking stick, a map holder round the neck and a small cooler bag for the relevant parts of your lunch. Sometimes I wished we had a small flask for a hot drink. Take it slow and enjoy the views.” – Jenny Hoffman on our Catalonia self guided walking vacation
Learn a bit of Spanish! As with everywhere in the world, people are really pleased when you have a go.
– Mike Muir on our Picos inn to inn walking vacation
“Every day was a lovely little adventure… I had a number of days where I didn’t want the walk to end! Definitely worth bringing a hiking pole for the last three days. I went mid-March and the weather was ace, and there were still a number of restaurants open.” – Georgina Alsop on our Catalonia self guided walking vacation

“Sounds obvious but try to plan your walking to avoid the hottest part of the day. Even in September we had temperatures of over 30°C; really uncomfortable where there is no shade.” – Margaret Boulter on our Catalonia self guided walking vacation

Wear quick-dress clothes and pack a bathing suit for the incredible swimming options.
– Maryann Holloway on our Croatian coast self guided walking tour
“I’d never taken an agent-planned vacation before this, and not having to handle logistics increased the restful quality of the trip by several orders of magnitude; more than I realized it would. American? Add time to the waking estimates. Europeans walk more than we do... so their ‘easy’ could be your ‘moderate’.” – Kate Long on our Catalonia self guided walking vacation

“If you do this vacation late in season you will find some things closed but in return you enjoy the huge benefit of it being far quieter, and from what I understand it is overall a nicer walking climate.” – Alison Farnill on our Croatian coast self guided walking tour
Photo credits: [Page banner: Aneta Ivanova] [Top box: Matthias Ripp] [Routes: Igor Ferreira] [Not-so-lone pilgrim: Fresco Tours] [Review 1: Kamyyar Adl] [or: Jorge Franganillo] [Review 2: Kyle Taylor]
Convert currencies