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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .
Mrs S and I are just back from a walking holiday: we started in France and finished in Spain, with our luggage being driven from hotel to hotel for us. You could say we crossed the Pyrenees, though in fact we were on the Mediterranean coast, where the mountains are mere hills (we also spent a day and night in the lovely little Spanish city of Girona). We booked the trip with Inntravel, and are regular customers of theirs. Every page of their brochure seems irresistible – until you realize that some routes are planned for walkers younger and fitter than we are!
Inntravel send maps and full directions which you follow on your own (unless you happen to meet up with others on the same schedule). Another company that we’ve used is Headwater: on some of their holidays you’re in a guided group, and on some you are based in one hotel throughout. Otherwise, the best pattern is to have two nights in each hotel if possible, giving you alternate days when you can stay unpacked and look around. I can’t recommend such holidays enough, if you like walking at all. Anyway, as we stepped out I began to think of parallels and differences between touring on foot and by car...
There’s an official network of main footpaths across Europe, just as there is of motorways. In France they are called Grandes Randonnées, and in Spain Grandes Recorridos. Their total length in France is five times that of the autoroutes. The walks devised by the holiday companies often use sections of GR tracks – a bit like route directions from Google Maps taking you along motorways if it’s going to mean a faster journey, except that GR paths are no quicker to walk along than any other sort, obviously. They are ‘blazed’ with white and red marks on countless trees and rocks along the way to keep you on course, though unlike road signs the marks are the same on all the paths, so you need to keep an eye on the map too.
(By the way, can you believe that not many years ago you could write off to the AA for a route from A to B by car, which would be posted back to you within days? Now, Google responds in milliseconds. Other websites offering route directions are also available, I suppose I ought to say.)
Starting off cold in the morning is rather the same on foot as by car: the getaway can be sluggish, especially if it’s uphill, and even more so if you had a long hike the day before. But the stiffness soon eases off as the temperature rises and you get into your stride. Or perhaps rhythm is a better word: I like to breathe in time with a constant leg-rate, so when we arrive at an upward slope I shorten my step rather than striding out more slowly. I guess what I’m doing is changing to a lower gear to make more efficient use of the ‘engine’.
At the top of the hill, you hope to find good views and a level path. Or else a gentle gradient to walk down, which gives pleasure at least equal to coasting in a car without having to touch either the accelerator or the brake. The worst sort of slope is downward and steep – it’s actually more arduous, usually, to be climbing down one of those, than up (I can’t decide if it’s the same way round or not, when you’re driving down or up steep roads).
But going back to the views: as well as the overall achievement of the journey, the joy of walking is being able to observe all around you all the time. And sometimes you can look forward or backward a day or more too! By which I mean that from a high point you might be able to see where you will be the day after tomorrow, or where you were the day before yesterday, on your exhilarating walking route. This won’t often happen on a motoring tour (nor are you likely to get to see the best views). Another curious difference is that it’s much easier to recall all the details of a walk later, than of a drive.
OK, there are drawbacks to spending the day knowing that you have no choice (well, almost) but to cover the remaining miles to your hotel on foot. I’m thinking firstly of the weather, of course. If rain comes, you just cover up and press on. (This is another good reason for spending two nights in each hotel: your things have a day to dry out.)
Then there’s fuel. A car won’t complain about carrying all that’s needed – plus the luggage – but on a walk your food and water is on your back from the start, along with other items that you may need or want to have with you. And even after you’ve consumed lunch you still have to bear its weight! But a great compensation is that while eating it you will be wished bon appétit, or buen provecho, by anyone who happens to pass. This is a nice custom that hardly seems to exist in our country, sadly.
Changing the subject (though still on fuel), in March I showed my ignorance by suggesting that our petrol in the south all comes from a refinery (Fawley) near Southampton. A reader who is a tanker driver kindly corrected me: in fact, petrol and diesel crosses the country in all directions, by pipeline and by rail, from several refineries around the coast to a large number of terminals. Here the branded road-tankers are filled and (in the case of most brands) the additives are mixed in: the secret ones that are said to reduce consumption and engine contamination, and the bio-ethanol that must now be added, in 5% proportion, by EU decree.
But the ethanol brings problems. Another reader pointed out that it can separate from the petrol or diesel and collect at the bottom of your tank (unless you drive around every day to keep it mixed, presumably?). It also has less energy content than the main fuel and so increases your consumption. And the percentage that has to be put in may rise further in the future...
Well, at least you can forget about all such motoring worries on a walking holiday!
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