“Em Abril, águas mil.”
There’s a reason for these old proverbs. This is from Portugal, Spain has one almost identical. Incidentally, so has Chile. Even Disney alludes to a feature that April can be known for – “Drip, drip, drop little April shower… ”
We returned from some warm April walking in the Canary Islands to a Portugal which was cool, damp and breezy. That was three weeks ago. Over the last two weeks there’s hardly been a cloud in the sky (back to the default setting) and the temps have been in the upper 20sC.
Yesterday we sweltered our way along a 10km walk, shade-seeking whenever we could as it was 27C and the sun, as well as being a bonce-burner, was blindingly bright.
April/May can be like that.
Some rain, lots of sun – a recipe for the countryside to explode into vibrant life. The grass is greener, the swathes of wild flowers displaying more exuberant shades.
Spring is is our favourite time of year for walking in Europe. Even before we took up walking regularly we preferred to take our ‘summer’ holiday in spring. Places were quieter and landscapes more beautiful. Since becoming bewitched by the lure of discovering destinations on foot, we’ve notched up walking routes in quite a few European countries during spring.
Beetles and butterflies in Croatia
Apart from a soggy blip in Krk, walking in various parts of Croatia involved blue skies, turquoise seas, honey-coloured villages, and empty trails. The trails were empty partly because the infrastructure for walking wasn’t as advanced as many other European countries. There are pros and cons in situations like that. One of the pros being the lack of other walkers. One of the cons being the lack of signposts and waymarks. Highlights were walking to a makeshift konoba on Hvar; clouds of butterflies and passion flowers populated by metallic green rose chafers on Mljet; and crowd-free walkways through the lakes of Plitvice National Park.
The Italian Lakes
Apart from one spectacular storm on Lake Garda when the world turned black, a petulant wind turfed umbrellas into the lake, and clouds machine-gunned those who’d been slow to read the signs of impending doom with rapid-fire, clothes-drenching bullets, a road trip taking in five Italian Lakes was blessed with perfect walking weather; sunny but not too hot. Routes around and above the lakes were subtly waymarked, so you could spot them but they didn’t jar with their surroundings – the Italians even do route marking with style. Our least favourite lake was Ledro, but a route to Cima d’Oro above it was packed with glorious scenery and had a fascinating history – a picturesque battlefield where the Italian Army stood against an Austro-Hungarian one during WWI. At its highest points we walked through deep snow, still wearing tee-shirts. Most enjoyable walk was a circumnavigation of Monte Isola, one of the largest lake islands in Europe.
In the Spanish Pyrenees
The mountains play by different rules when it comes to weather. On my first foray into the Spanish Pyrenees I made a real rookie error. In spring, the lower slopes were covered in scarlet carpets of perky poppies. One day we stood on a hillside in warm clothing watching an army of griffon vultures devour rotting carcasses. On the next, in Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park, we walked beside a lake whose water was still frozen. Unfortunately I was still in warm weather clothing and shivered my way along a stunner of a trail. Our next visit to the Pyrenees was during summer, but I’d learnt my lesson by then and was ready for weather which, even in July, could have multiple personalities; none of which deflected from a world where the scenery is rarely less than jaw-dropping.
Austria in June offered almost perfect walking weather; plenty of sunshine and tee-shirt wearing temperatures. But not so hot that tee-shirts ended the day as sweaty, soggy messes. Meadows and spring go together like bangers and mash (soup and knödel in Austria’s case) and there are meadows in flower-carpeted droves. Like Germany, walking routes are signposted to within an inch of their lives; too much for me, but extremely helpful for walkers who like a reassuring, regular pat on the back which tells them they’re going the right way. The scenery is all over the place, in a positive way – mountain lakes, forests, neat pastures, cool gorges and so on. We’ve enjoyed exceptional walking routes in Austria; from Leutasch’s Spirit Gorge and enchanting Ewige Wand in Bad Goisern to granite peaks reflected in the glassy waters of Gosausee.
Gorging on Germany
Most of our walking in Germany (Bavaria and the Black Forest) has taken place in early autumn. Spring walking has tended to be on the border with Austria (Mösern, Mittenwald, Grainau), some routes meandering their ways in and out of both countries. Subsequently, the features are similar to above. The spring weather we’ve experienced has been mixed, with more rainfall on the German side of the border. But it’s easier to stay warm and dry when the weather is cool and wet than it is to try to cool down when the weather is scorchio, so occasional poor weather hasn’t been an issue. At Partnachklamm we manoeuvred ourselves through the most atmospheric and dramatic gorge walk we’ve encountered to date.
As the Greek Islands had been a favourite sun and sea escape for us each May/June, we knew just how hot the weather can be at that time of year. And so it has proved with walking trips to Andros and Crete. The temps were borderline too hot for strenuous walking, but the rewards walking on Greek Islands in spring bring made sweaty ascents worthwhile. The air is perfumed with orange blossom, honeysuckle and overripe figs, whilst cerulean bays regularly offer the chance to cool down. Crete’s routes are hit and miss as far as being ‘marked’, whereas Andros boasts the most immaculately maintained paths we’ve seen anywhere.
The scent of Corsica
Another hot southern European island, Corsica’s gruff charm completely won us over. The island is scented by an array of wild plants and herbs known collectively as the maquis, which they say once experienced is never forgotten. I think of Corsica and I think of an uncompromising landscape – this is where the French Foreign Legion train – which reveals a softer side when you make the effort to get to know it; maybe a bit like the Corsicans themselves. Coastal routes in the north rank among the best we’ve walked. You get the same littoral loveliness as in the likes of Crete and Portugal’s Algarve, but there are far fewer other people to share them with.
There are parts of Britain which rival anywhere in the World when it comes to sheer beauty. But, as everyone who lives there knows, the weather lets it down. Although we’ve walked uninhabited glens and picnicked on remote beaches in the Highlands of Scotland on sunny April days, we’ve also had to bail out our tent in the middle of the night in Welsh valleys in May and almost suffered frostbite in June on an English peak. Having weekend plans ruined time and time again because of the unpredictability of the weather was one of the motivators for moving abroad.
Apart from destinations which are popular with foreign tourists (i.e. the Algarve) walking in Portugal is another hit and miss affair. Some of the most beautiful areas haven’t woken up to the benefits that sustainable tourism (e.g. walking) brings. In some locations, parts of Alentejo near the border with Spain, we’ve found the waymarking to have been decent. In others, even where council websites talk about their municipalities as being ideal for walkers, there are virtually no official routes. In Arrabida Natural Park, there is a bewildering maze of unmarked trails, criss-crossing cork and stone pine forests where the undergrowth and hedgerows are thick with wild flowers; poppies, perfumed gum cistus, lavender, Crimean iris, cicerone, orchids and many more I haven’t identified yet. In spring, the mountains are lush and lovely and the coast as sparkling and idyllic as anywhere in Europe, boasting beaches which wouldn’t look out of place in the Caribbean.
Eternal spring in the Canary Islands
Finally, the islands where spring is said to be eternal, for good reason. Touted as a winter sun destination, the main walking season in the Canary Islands runs from October to May. And yet in June the walking is far more comfortable than in many southern European destinations where temperatures are heading into the sizzling zone. Flower-rich La Palma in springtime is especially deserving of its moniker la Isla Bonita, whilst the incredible volcanic terrain of Tenerife’s Teide National Park enjoys startling bursts of intense colour courtesy of the bizarre spikes of the tajinaste rojo plant. Even Fuerteventura, one of the more arid eastern islands, sees its tangerine hills decorated with low-lying flowers. The weather is friendly, the scenery unique and diverse, you can walk just about anywhere, and routes are well signposted. All in all, a perfect walking package.