Pilgrim Interview: European Peace Walk

Below is an interview with Marie Louise Muscat Azzopardi, a pilgrim who walked the European Peace Walk (EWP) in 2017, and friend of guest blogger James Portelli.

Pilgrim Interview: European Peace Walk

By James Portelli

Meeting Marie Louise

Marie Louise

Have you ever crossed paths with someone who strikes you as a breath of fresh air, a person brimming with positive energy? My wife Tucc and I have known such a person—Marie Louise—for a few years now and we always look forward to meeting her on treks we join. I recently met with Marie Louise to discuss her most recent trek, the European Peace Walk.

A mother of three and a grandmother of two, Marie Louise is a Camino aficionado and a member of the Ramblers’ Association of Malta, a walking group she joined in 2005. She is often the go-to person for scouting a local trek. But since her retirement from teaching English and French three years ago, Marie Louise has taken a more active role in the Ramblers’ Association not only in Malta but also throughout Europe. She is now responsible for the association’s annual walking calendar, which includes over seventy different walks per year—some of which she leads—and she helps organize walking trips abroad, the latest starting from Sweden (Eurorando Trekking Week) and from Spain (Catalonia Trek Festival).

I ask Marie Louise what draws her to long-distance walking. She explains, “A knee injury more than a decade ago made me give up triathlons. Long-distance walking provided me with the freedom to experience new places and people and establish a rhythm of walking in constantly changing landscapes that helped me to de-stress and to unclutter my mind. Meeting people—young and old—from all walks of life is so invigorating.”

In 2008 Marie Louise completed her first Camino (Camino Francés), walking over thirty-two days from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago. This Camino for her was a solo experience and, in many respects, a character building and personal development process from which she emerged enriched. Marie Louise reflects.

“The overall experience also strengthened my faith in divine Providence. My personal experience is this: God provides what you need when you need it and sometimes when you least expect it.”

Various episodes and numerous people on the Camino Francés helped strengthen this conviction. After Marie Louise’s first Camino, there was no turning back. She asked herself, “Now, what next?” What followed was a series of Caminos.

In 2009 Marie Louise walked over 750 km from Le Puy, across the Massif Central, to Roncesvalles in Spain. She followed this trek with the Camino Primitivo. Next she embarked on a three-week trek covering part of the Arles route in France, starting in Toulouse and then linking up with the Camino Piemontese, stopping at the monastery at Tarasteix, and then on to Lourdes before crossing the Pyrenees on the Somport Pass. From there she joined the Camino Aragonés, finishing at Puente la Reina. Marie Louise’s last Camino route experience was the Norte, starting from Irun/San Sebastián and finishing in Oviedo.

The European Peace Walk

Marie Louise first heard of the European Peace Walk (EPW) through Facebook. Although similar to the Camino in many respects, the walk’s newness drew her to it initially.

The EPW is still in its infancy. “The 2017 European Peace Walk,” explains Marie Louise, “was the fourth since it was first launched, so I feel like I am one of the pioneers trailblazing this route.”

The EPW is around 570 km long starting in Sopron, Hungary, (an hour’s train ride from Vienna) passing through Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia, and finishing in Trieste, Italy. The walk follows more or less the front line of the First World War and borders segments of the Iron Curtain.

Iron Curtain Trail

Iron Curtain Trail

“It is a very sobering experience walking beneath the now abandoned but still standing sentry towers,” explains Marie Louise.

What distinguishes EPW from the Camino Francés or other Caminos?

I ask Marie Louise what distinguishes the EPW from the Caminos and, as a veteran Camino walker, how she adapted to the differences.

Similar to the average Camino, the EPW takes approximately three weeks to cover, and just like on the Caminos, the walk fosters camaraderie and new friendships. What’s very different is the EPW  registration requirement.

Registration is required and necessary because accommodations on the EPW are still relatively limited. A daily limit of ten walkers starting the EPW ensures that there are enough beds at every stage. To a great extent, this limit also regulates the daily tempo because walkers have to cover a fixed amount of kilometers per day to reach the next accommodations. Distances vary roughly between 25 km and 35 km per day.

Not surprising, a registration process necessitates a registration fee. Although nominal at € 50 ($60 approx.), the registration fee is more than a Camino credential. But there are benefits to being registered that one does not enjoy on the traditional Caminos. For example, it is easier to monitor the number of walkers per stage and—in case of emergency or distress—it is beneficial that one is already known to EPW organizers.

Another notable difference from most Camino routes (and one walkers must especially plan for) is cafés and restaurants are few and far between on most stages of the EPW.

Also, unlike the Camino routes, the EPW is not open all year round. For example, in 2017 the trail is open from May to September. In early May two organizers walk the trail refreshing the red paint on the arrows and fixing the red stickers that act as waymarks. And although the route is very well marked, because the terrain and landscape constantly change, walkers must be very careful to not miss a turn. Unlike the Camino, EPW is not a beaten trek, so one wrong turn can cost additional hours of walking.

Finally, although there is a possibility of shortening the walk by either taking a bus or taxi, one cannot just stop halfway through a day’s walk and decide to spend the night in a different albergue (hostel) as one does on the Camino. Accommodations are pre-planned and, therefore, the number of walkers starting per day is pre-planned. For better or for worse, one tends to walk with the ten persons with whom one started the EPW. However, this does not preclude walkers from adopting their own pace.

Marie Louise recalls from her earlier Caminos, “I was accustomed to and preferred waking up early, setting off at or before sunrise and walking briskly during the cooler morning hours.” She tells me she continued this practice on the EPW, then explains, “Others left later and then either our paths would cross in the afternoon or we would meet at the next accommodation in the evening where we would not only share dinner but also the day’s experience—not unlike what one would do on the Camino.”

Lake en-route

Lake en-route

So with all its differences from the Caminos, how did Marie Louise feel about starting the EPW and walking with the same group of people?

“I invariably find the first couple of days of any long-distance walk relatively awkward. Have I packed too much? Have I packed too little? Can I manage the backpack for 25 to 30 km on a very warm day? Will I have to endure blisters? Will I be allowed to walk solo or will I have to walk at someone else’s pace making polite conversation?” But she admits, “The process grows on you and after a few days it is surprising how we bonded despite the various nationalities, backgrounds, or characters. Albert Einstein’s adage ‘Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding’ would perhaps be a befitting motto for the Peace Walk. In this respect, EPW is not dissimilar to the Camino in the spirit of camaraderie that it fosters.”

Marie Louise started the EPW on June 3, arriving in Trieste on June 21. In early June walkers endured a heat wave that hit Europe, and Marie Louise’s group was impacted. The heat wave incentivized her to start walking earlier each day. “I used to wake up at 4:30 a.m. and start walking by 5:15 a.m. in order to avoid prolonged walks in intense heat and sunshine. This meant that I savored a sunrise en route every day. Later on in the day, as the sun started beating down on us it became more a matter of mind over body. With six to eight hours of walking per day, I generally reached the next destination by early afternoon.”

But, of course, one major plus of long-distance walking, even for those who, like Marie Louise, prefer to walk solo, is the new friendships one strikes while trekking. Marie wasn’t the only one waking up early to avoid the heat. “I hit it off with a lovely Canadian couple who, like me, were early risers. We used to slip out of the house at sunrise, walk a short way together, then separate and walk at our own pace, meeting again as the day wore on. There were segments of the trek that were relatively deserted. Consequently, having some company or knowing that I am not far behind or ahead of a familiar face proved comforting then.”

What were the longest and shortest walking days on the EPW?

I ask Marie Louise to recall her longest and shortest walking days on the EPW.

“The longest day was from Bistra to Postojna. Although the guide book said 33 km, I walked for around 36 km because of a wrong turn that I took earlier on during the day. I walked for nine hours that day.

“The shortest walking day was just 18 km from Ocizla in Slovenia to Trieste in Italy. This being our last segment, all seven from the original ten (three had stopped earlier for various reasons) walked together. The pace was also more relaxed on this last day as we enjoyed every remaining moment knowing that we would soon be reaching our destination.”

Which EPW experiences stayed with Marie Louise?

On any walk some experiences are more memorable than others. Marie Louise tells me which ones stayed with her.

“The group consisted of a recently retired Canadian couple, an Australian couple, two Irish friends, and three ladies from Isle of Man, United Kingdom and USA, respectively. I catch myself remembering topics we discussed along the way or during evening dinners, jokes and laughter that we shared en route or over a beer. Overall,” Marie Louise reflects, “it was a personally heartening experience.

Strawberries en-route

Strawberries en-route

“Then, there were all the people we met along the way who weren’t trekkers. For example, an old white-haired woman who came out to meet us and offered us cherries and strawberries just picked from her garden. She refused any payment. There was a man whom we approached to ask for the way to a café, and he invited us to his house for coffee or a homemade lemon drink.” Marie smiles. “Then there were all the warm, friendly hosts who opened their houses to lodge us and feed us. We spent hours chatting with them and getting to know each other in an environment that was more like a home.

“I also shouldn’t forget Marlis who welcomed us with basins of cold water and salt for our poor battered feet on our arrival, and then woke up at 5:00 a.m. the next morning to prepare mushroom omelets for us to have with her freshly brewed coffee. Heaven forbid that we start the day on an empty stomach!

“It doesn’t stop there! There was Branco, a schnapps connoisseur, who demonstrated to us how he makes his own schnapps and also gave us a bottle for the road to be able to have a celebratory drink in Trieste.”

Are accommodations pre-paid on the EPW?

Marie Louise explains that, although the accommodations are booked automatically at the time of registration, one pays for accommodations at every stop. (Conveniently, most accept credit cards.) She discusses the accommodations and sleeping arrangements walkers can expect.

16th century house

16th Century House

“Another attraction for me was that accommodations vary significantly from one stop to the next. We slept in yurts (tent-like dwellings), on a horse-farm, a few hostels, a massive sixteenth-century house perched on a hill, an old but well-restored cottage (complete with the Flintstones’ car in the backyard). Understandably, there was a degree of anticipation among the walkers as to what to expect at our next abode for the night. All possessed their own distinctive charm.”

Flintstone car

An average day’s accommodations and subsistence costs on the EPW are comparable to the Camino. Most of the EPW accommodations cost € 24 to € 30 (approx. $28 to $35) per night, including breakfast and dinner. And what are sleeping arrangements like?

“In some cases, we were sleeping two to a room. There were nights where I had the room to myself. Then again we also made use of small dormitories, sleeping on bunks beds. For example, once in a little village in Hungary, the local youth center transformed their town hall (which also doubled up as a small theater) into a dormitory with two lines of single beds replacing the audience seats. But even when accommodations were relatively Spartan, the level of service, in terms of cleanliness, housekeeping, and so on, was generally outstanding. I only needed to use my sleeping liner twice as on all the other nights clean sheets and pillows were provided.”

A Yurt

But when I ask Marie Louise for any advice she offers this regarding the yurts: “Ask for a duvet before you settle in for the night. The general rule is that the hotter the day has been, the colder the night would get.”

Cottage Accommodation

Are there sightseeing opportunities on the EPW? Is there an equivalent of the statue hugging ritual or the Botafumeiro (censer) once one reaches Trieste?

Marie and I wrap up our discussion, talking about the sights, the historical contexts of the Caminos and the EPW, and probably the most distinguishing difference between the two walks.

One can plan to spend an extra day in, for example, Ljubljana, or visiting Lake Bled or Zagreb while on the EPW. However, this very much depends on whether one wishes to “break” the tranquility of mainly countryside walks, since cities always bring with them some crowds and chaos, particularly during the summer months—bearing in mind that central Europe is a popular summer tourist destination. Notwithstanding this, an extra day in Trieste at the end of the walk is highly recommended. In fact, upon reaching Trieste, it has become something of a tradition to take a photo in Piazza Unità d’Italia with the backdrop of the Palazzo del Municipio or the Adriatic Sea.

One would not expect to find a cathedral or religious ceremony at the end of the EPW because its  rationale differs from the Camino: the EPW does not have a legacy of Christian and medieval history. (Perhaps this best explains the absence of the hugging of the statue, a religious service or the Botafumeira.) Instead, the EPW emanates from a relatively more recent and more turbulent history: the wars that ravaged Europe in the twentieth century.

The open borders enjoyed in Europe today are the result of the freedom of movement fostered by the European Union (EU). The precursor of the European Union was the European Economic Community (EEC) established by the 1957 Treaty of Rome, just a few years after the death of Stalin and at the height of the Cold War. Not only has the European Union succeeded in ending wars between major powers in Europe but it has also prevailed over the Cold War and unified more countries into one region. The Camino de Santiago de Compostela benefitted greatly from EU initiatives (particularly those from the 1980s to the present) because it was also seen as a unifying force for good within Europe with Caminos from as far afield as Poland.

The EPW is symptomatic of this unifying ethos and Trieste (once part of the Habsburg monarchy and and, at one time, an influential Austro-Hungarian city and seaport) strongly resonates (even now) three different cultures: Italian, Austrian, and Slovenian. In addition to its rich heritage, Trieste had also its dark moments. A testament to one of these moments is the Risiero (old rice mill), which was converted to a concentration camp during World War II. All of these influences, plus the Cathedral of San Giusto, the Jewish Quarter, the Miramare Castle, the Canale Grande, the James Joyce and Svevo Museums, the Trebiciano Abyss, and the Grotta Gigante, add to the magnificent chiaroscuro masterpiece that is Trieste.

Piazza Unita Trieste

Piazza Unita Trieste

“Reaching Trieste is not like reaching Santiago!” confirms Marie Louise, “but the significance of the European Peace Walk—not unlike life—is not in the destination but in the journey.

“Upon reaching the main square in Trieste, we hugged, took some photos, and—of course—shared the schnapps supplied earlier by Branco. After that, the Adriatic Sea beckoned and we followed. It was a refreshing end to a spectacular three-week experience.

“The EPW lacks the credential concept because the hosts at every accommodation are already expecting you. But this also means that there is no “Welcome Desk” at the end of the EPW similar to the Pilgrims’ Office where all the peregrinos (pilgrims) congregate to collect their Compostela. This will perhaps come as the EPW grows. Admittedly, the stamped credential and the Compostela are mementos that one tends to treasure following a Camino experience. A similar concept, if introduced on the EPW, would also serve the same purpose.”

Marie Louise highly recommends the EPW to peregrinos because of its authenticity. It is not yet commercialized, and locals still stop walkers to ask where they are walking and why. “It is as if,” Marie Louise thinks, “both hosts and travelers are still discovering and enriching the whole experience.”


JamesPortelli

James Portelli

James Portelli is an occasional guest author on this blog who wrote route reports about his experience on the Camino Inglés in 2016.  Read more of James’s posts:

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