UK & European Holiday News
The latest travel news, interviews, traveller reviews, inspiration & advice on cycling and walking holidays in the UK and Europe..
Return to Blog Home >>
At last, after many years of prevaricating, I’m off to do the TMB in France, Italy and Switzerland. I don’t know why I hadn’t been before, maybe because I perceived it to be too famous, but an opportunity arose to do one of Sherpa Expeditions bestselling trips and one of Europe’s most beloved long distance walks: Le Tour du Mont Blanc starting in Les Houches.
Mont Blanc is a huge adventure playground, a mountain theme park. You realise this when you witness the full range of people active on the massif: TMB walkers in groups coming one way, other groups the other, individual backpackers carrying huge loads staying in the huts and others intent on climbing the multifarious mountains and walls in the massif. There are mountain bikers, marathon runners with poles, paragliders, Scouts, multi-stage dog walkers whose pets carry tins of food in panniers and groups travelling the route with ponies carrying all their gear. Groups sleeping high and groups sleeping low.
Having said this, there are also long sections where you might not see anyone at all. People tend to concentrate around or just beyond passes catching their breath. Doing the route I realised that there are several TMBs. The maps show various Variants
from the ‘established’ route, which can make the route longer, shorter or more or less adventurous. But basically the TMB is around 170km with 10,000m of positive altitude change.
Those with too little time to walk the whole tour around western Europe’s highest mountain in two weeks can take part in the annual TMB sky race, that starts in Chamonix - about 8km distance from Les Houches. Winners can expect to do it in 21 hours, more mortal runners will be expected to make it in 45.
Now, let's move on to my 14 days of walking the Tour du Mont Blanc organised by Sherpa Expeditions.
Day 1: Geneva to Les Houches
Early morning I take a flight from the UK to Geneva in Switzerland where I meet my friend at a tea shop. At the Geneva Airport we very conveniently check into the Chamexpress
desk for the near-hourly transfer to Les Houches in France. This is the village at the start of the walking holiday and where we meet our ground support representative. The transfer to Les Houches is very convenient, only taking an hour and a half. I was kind of expecting the minibus to be there outside at Arrivals, but we walk with our baggage out of the airport, into a lift and into a car park. The hardest work of day 1 of my trip.
When we arrive at Les Houches, we are welcomed to a charming main street with a few shops and restaurants. At the hotel, which is in typical mountain chalet style and conveniently located, we try to have a bit of a siesta before walking around the village. There are great views to rocky spires and walls below Aiguille du Gouter, Mont Corbeau and Aiguille du Midi. You will notice a lot of ‘Aiguilles’ on the walking map provided and once you see one in the flesh, or rather the rock, you will realise that ‘needle’ is quite a good description.
On the way back to the hotel from dinner there is some beautiful choral singing in Les Houches church, delightful and a bit of a send off for bed.
Tomorrow will have a steady climb for us on offer!
>> Keep an eye on this page for further posts on the 14 day Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) with Sherpa Expeditions!
The Fjordland in Norway is a fantastic area to visit in the summer months of July-September. The area is dotted with traditional villages, glaciers, some fantastic peaks up to 1900m, and of course the fjords with dramatic views that Norway is so well-known for. But summer in this Scandinavian country can also look very different...! Here's some stunning images of some of the sights you'll pass on our walking trip in Norway.
>> Handsome town houses of the prosperous Norwegian old village of Aurland. Lovely and quiet to wonder through on a summer’s afternoon. The town honours
deer by a statue in the town's centre, there is a small museum and of course cafes with freshly brewed coffee to start your day's walk.
>> At the end of the cruise from Flam to Gudvangen you spill out the boat to an area where local Vikings are doing carvings in wood.
>> Approaching Aurland by the ferry, the Sognefjord stretches out in glassy beauty to a bend where it meets a back wall of huge mountains. We normally stay in a nice and friendly hotel just a street back from the waterfront.
>> The Sognefjord has lots of boat sheds from where the locals can go out fishing.
>> Nesbo is a tiny hamlet on the Aurland gorge walk between Østerbø and Vassbygdi. Crossing a tiny bridge, one walks into the farm which is suspended from the side of the gorge. It is the ideal time for sandwiches.
>> Geilojordet is a street of traditional and old housing from around the area. Most of these old Norwegian houses that were saved, were moved and reassembled piece by piece in this street - usually because new developments threatened them. Some date from the 1600s. The villagers sometimes hold cultural events on the grass in front of the houses.
>> Hardangervidda Plateau. It is summer, but the plateau is still covered with snow and of course glaciers. This is close to the town of Finse and the big boulders have been brought down by glaciers from somewhere else. Notice the little green tent in between the boulders? When researching our self-guided walking trip the hotel was closed, so we had to overnight in this tent. Although somewhat cold at the time, it was beautiful waking up to peaceful Norway in the morning!
>> A footpath sign directing you up through the ‘Priest hole.’ This walk is perhaps the best walk you can do in the Geilo area on a clear day and gives you the opportunity to climb the Prestholskarvet (1863m). A climb of some six hundred metres on at times steep and loose terrain, up to the great Hallingskarvet plateau with some truly fantastic views.
>> I am not sure of the origin of these boulders on a farm at Skjerdal. Are they prehistoric siting stones? It is likely they were placed there by man in antiquity, but it is not so many thousand years ago that the Ice Age bit deep into the landscape of Norway.
>> Early summer landscape from the peak of Sankt Paul (1694m), although located in the heart of Norway, it's mischievously named after the London cathedral. In all honesty we think it doesn’t look anything like it, but the views with the clouds bellowing over the snow are dramatic.
>> Seagull eye view of Aurland from the ferry that goes from Flam in the Sognefjord. One of the World’s most dramatic locations?
If you like to experience the summer in Norway as well and want to see the spectacular landscapes, glaciers and charming Norwegian towns for yourself, our 8-day self-guided walking holiday to the Fjordland departs daily from mid-July until the end of September. For more information you can download the trip notes or get in touch with our team of experts.
Few places in Europe welcome spring in such a colourful way as Madeira…
Taking place in spring every year (2017 from 4-21 May), the island’s dazzling annual Flower Festival features beautiful displays of tropical flowers. Over the years it has become known for its Sunday parade, when hundreds of dancers accompanied by huge floral floats march through the main streets of capital Funchal.
Madeira enjoys an impressive year-round flowering season thanks to its subtropical climate and rich volcanic soil – you can even find a dedicated Orchid Garden with more than 7,500 species! But this is not the only reason why we are such a big fan of Portugal's Madeira island. The mild year-round climate and a 1,350-mile network of levadas together with the impressive scenery form the base for an 8-day self guided walking trip that will immerse you in the island's lush nature.
Flowers in Bloom
© Allie Caulfield
Spring is the perfect time to visit the Portuguese island when a myriad of colourful flowers and trees are in bloom – jasmine, begonias, freesias, magnolia and camellias form just a part of the spectacular flora.
Volcanic in origin, Madeira’s rugged interior rises abruptly to over 1,800 metres (approx. 6,000 feet) with forests of pine and laurel flanking its jagged peaks.
16th Century Aqueducts
© D Stanley
Follow levadas through a peaceful pastoral countryside or traverse terraced hillsides; dating back to the 16th century, these irrigation channels or aqueducts are specific to Madeira, originally built to carry water to the agricultural regions.
Climb up to Pico Ruivo, the island’s highest peak; many of the levadas can be followed on foot, which together with a network of local trails make even the most remote parts of the island, such as this peak, accessible.
© Artur Malinowski
Spend time in the bustling little capital of Funchal – visit a Madeira wine lodge, explore colourful food and flower markets and enjoy superb fish restaurants.
On our self-guided walking tour of Madeira island, you will walk 4-7 hours per day. The trip departs year round. For more information you can download the trip notes or get in touch with our team of experts in London.
Every month our resident guide, John Millen, brings you an anecdote, update, or tip on the gear you are likely to use on a walking or cycling holiday. Always from his personal point of view. In this first post, he looks at walking poles and how to use this equipment - or not!
Gear Matters: Poles apart
There was a time when the Brits would joke about German groups of walkers “Look here come the 6 Germans with the 12 Poles!” we would chuckle. That was the 1980's and early 1990's, now most people seem to use poles. The advent of the collapsible walking pole in all its manifest forms has been a great coup for gear manufacturers. Research has shown that they help with propulsion, save knees from shock and can help the upper body to get stronger if used in a certain way. Other research has shown that you may loose some of your sense of natural balance if you rely on them too much.
For group walking there are some pointers that need to be addressed, especially for beginners. So many people come on a guided walk and use poles for the first time, quite often resulting in tripping themselves up, or doing the classic pole plant into someone else’s boot. It can be worse of course; some people do the classic ‘follow through’ where the pole is propelled too enthusiastically behind them resulting in someone being impaled. Then there is the case of dangerous dangling poles when people are scrambling over rocky sections. Walking with groups I try to get them to attach their poles to their bags when it is rocky and try to point out that they are not in a fencing competition when they do the follow through swing. This usually makes them think. For first timers: it's a good idea to practice using your poles before your group trip, and while on your walking holiday, remember to be aware of other people’s space compared to walking on your own.
There is an antidote to the ubiquitous Leki Pole: Check out the wonderful British-built Pacerpole. Their form and function are based on applying anatomical and biomechanical research analysis to the transmission of effective upper body power to improve overall walking performance - which is why I believe the left and right contoured handle shape puts these walking poles into a category of their own.
If you like to know more about the walking gear we recommend for your holiday please get in touch with our enthusiastic team in London, or read on if you are interested in our walking holidays.
To mark the centenary of the beloved James Herriot’s birth, in 2016 we launch a new trip in the Yorkshire Dales: a six-day version of the James Herriot Way. This walking route is considered by many as ‘the best short long-distance walk in the UK’.
The 50-mile circular walk is designed to take in some of the countryside that James Alfred Wight, the vet who wrote about his experiences in the Yorkshire Dales under pseudonym James Herriot, was so fond of. Born in Sunderland in 1916, his books featured stories about animals and their owners and became extremely popular in the 1970s-80s. Even spawning a film adaptation and a long-running television series, ‘All Creatures Great and Small’*.
James Herriot Way NEW FOR 2016
6 days, daily self-guided departures from April to October
This active holiday is an introduction to long-distance walking in Britain. You walk through the Yorkshire Dales, which have often been coined as ‘God’s Own Country’. Here are some reasons why we believe this trail makes for such a special walking holiday:
- A beautiful 50-mile circular walk threading its way around the emerald valleys of Wensleydale, Swaledale and Apedale and over the mountains and moorlands in between
- A bountiful landscape, encompassing sleepy rivers punctuated by jolly cascades and limestone escarpments, fields stocked with sheep and cows
- Take in classic English countryside, with high moors that bristle with heather, sedge, bracken and bilberry
- Discover attractive local villages (small but not sleepy!), bustling with farm and estate workers, tradesmen and walkers
- Stop at the green edged village of Reeth, whose tea shops and pubs reflect the times when lead mining was the key economic drive to the area
- Easily followed paths, often along parts of the longer ‘Pennine Way’ and ‘Coast to Coast’ trails
- Cosy accommodation throughout, including B&Bs, traditional inns, rural guesthouses and small hotels
View the new James Herriot Way trip here for more information and the exact travel period.
*The TV series All Creatures Great and Small is said to be getting a remake by HBO.
Photo of James Herriot, copyright by his son Jim Wight via The Telegraph.
The Iberian Peninsula remains a firm favourite for many holidaymakers and not just during the summer months. Actually the coming months of December to February are an exceptionally good time to travel to Spanish and Portuguese destinations like Madeira, La Gomera, Andalucia, and the Sierra de Aracena. With pleasant temperatures around 20 degrees C, sunny days, and a landscape that ranges from subtropical greenery, to pine forests, and barren flatlands you have all the ingredients for a welcoming winter holiday. Ah, and the flights to Tenerife, Santa Cruz, and Seville have competitive rates for the winter months as well. So if you want to beat the tourists and enjoy a crowd-free break here are some tips for things to do in Spain and Portugal.
Canary Islands: Southern Trails of La Gomera
Despite being easily accessible from Tenerife (the boat trip takes just an hour), La Gomera remains largely untouched by mass tourism. The southern part of the island is also the sunnier part. The landscape is surprisingly lush green, with deep gorges densely wooded at the top, covered by mountain rainforest. Columbus’ last port of call before crossing the Atlantic in 1492, La Gomera is home to many friendly and small resorts. What you can do on the island is taking coastal walks, enjoy a view of Tenerife from Mt Garajonay, visit waterfalls, or take a historical walk of San Sebastian town.
Madeira Island Walking
Rising steeply from the Atlantic Ocean off the coasts of Europe and Africa, Madeira offers both a mild climate and a 1,350-mile network of levadas through which you can discover the island on foot. Madeira island enjoys an impressive year-round flowering season thanks to its subtropical climate and rich volcanic soil – you can even find a dedicated Orchid Garden with more than 7,500 species here! Another thing to do is take a guided tour of a Madeira wine lodge - and try some local libations...
Hiking in Hidden Andalucia
There's a part of Andalucia that is a bit more off the beaten path: the unspoilt sector of the Alpujarras east of Trevelez. A visit in the winter months of December, January or February is great for walks on sunny days. There can also be snowfall and it can get a bit chilly, but the landscape is rewarding these months. Walking the southern fringes of the Sierra Nevada, following the Camino Real (Royal Trail), and staying at charming villages of Berchules, Yegen an Mairena make for a fantastic winter break, even when the sun doesn't show its face.
Over the last few months we've had quite a few of you asking for a guided version of what is widely considered as the most classic of all UK long distance trails: the iconic Coast to Coast. As a response we're very proud to now be able to offer you the longest ever guided version of this British walking trail.
The new 18-day option, which is four days longer than the established, two-week route, is ideal for those hikers among you who prefer shorter walking days with more time to take in the surroundings and enjoy overnight stays at the traditional English villages.
This longer version of the idyllic Coast to Coast trail allows for a more ‘relaxed’ pace, featuring six days of less walking compared to the ‘standard’ 14-day walking trip that we already had. In addition, you can enjoy a number of new overnight stays at traditional B&Bs and cosy inns at the villages of Bampton, Orton, Danby Wiske, Clay Bank Top and Chop Gate.
Described by Alfred Wainwright as “one of the world’s great walks”, the Coast to Coast starts on the Irish Sea coast of Cumbria and crosses three National Parks before reaching the rocky coastline of the North York Moors. Tradition has it that, before starting the walk, you should dip your boots in the Irish Sea and take a pebble to deposit in the North Sea at Robin Hood’s Bay, when you have completed the trail.
You can get more information on guided or self-guided walking and cycling holidays in the Lake District here. For more details on this new UK walking trip you can give us a call at 0800 008 7741 or read more on the 18-Day Coast to Coast Guided Walk.
Walking in Portugal: Douro Valley
Douro Valley is one of the most beautiful corners of Portugal and this month we are excited to be launching a brand new walking trip. Our resident guide Jon Millen explains why it should be on your radar.
The Douro area is a wonderful walking area of hillsides dissected by pretty river valleys draining into the Douro River. Generally too cold in winter and too hot in summer for comfortable walking; spring and autumn (fall) are the best times to visit the region, especially in the spring when everything is quiet and the vines are awakening. In contrast September / early October is when the pace of life whisks into a bustle harvesting. In late October and November the vines turn a gorgeous colour whilst the air is spiced by the fires from the on-going pruning operation.
The connection with Britain is almost as old as the hills. In 1678, a Liverpool wine merchant sent two new representatives to Oporto to learn the wine trade. While on a vacation in the Douro, the two gentlemen visited the Abbot of Lamego, who treated them to a "very agreeable, sweetish and extremely smooth "wine," which had been fortified with a distilled spirit’’. They were so pleased with the product that they purchased the Abbot's entire lot and shipped it home. This was the start of Britain's love affair with Port, named of course after Oporto; the city where it was stored and shipped from. These days the city is now known as Porto and is the second-largest city in Portugal.
Port became very popular in England after the Methuen Treaty of 1703, this enabled merchants to import for a low duty. During the century several wars occurred meaning that English wine drinkers were often deprived of French wine. British importers could be credited for recognizing that a smooth, already fortified wine that would appeal to English palates, would coincidentally survive the voyage to London. Almost in anticipation of this demand, The Douro Wine Region, created in 1756 by the government of the Marquis of Pombal, was the first (oldest) demarcated and regulated wine region in the world. In 2001, UNESCO classified 24 600 hectares of the Alto Douro Wine Region as a World Heritage site.
Our walk stays 3 nights in the village of Vilarinho de Sao Romão, high above the river in a restored manor house; each room carefully thought through in terms of décor and period furnishings. There is a beautiful Wisteria engulfed veranda where you could sit all day with a glass of wine, a book or some paints if you weren’t walking, it is so peaceful. There's also the opportunity to cool down in the small pool before enjoying filling dinners that are prepared using local ingredients and traditional recipes.
From here there are four walks threading through the wine estates and up and down the hills, through various villages and hamlets. The last of these drops down to Pinhão, a small port on the Douro where you have a night in a luxury hotel and can spend a couple of hours cruising the river passing the golden terraces of the various wine estates.
From here the tiny narrow gauge train takes you to the relative bustle of Porto and its sister town on the south bank, Villa Nova di Gaia. Hardly affected by the ravages of war during the last couple of centuries, the city is an architectural jewel, defined by the winding river and the Gustav Eiffel inspired Luis I bridge.
There is plenty of time to explore, for a few Euros each you can visit any number of the famed Port lodges and taste their wares. They are nearly all concentrated here including Taylors, Cockburns, Churchills, Sandeman, Croft etc. There is a kind of old fashioned decency and politeness of the locals in the area, however very few people know English so it would be a good idea to know a few Portuguese words such as ‘obrigado’ (thank you) and just as importantly ‘Saude’ (cheers).
For further information about our Douro Valley tour please visit our website for details on how to book. For a full list of our tours in Portugal visit our Self-Guided Walking Holidays in Portugal page for other recommendations.