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Free your mind

Slide 1

07 Nov 2018 "All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking," concluded Friedrich Nietzsche. And who am I to argue with the great 19th-century German philosopher?

Prime Minister Theresa May famously decided to call last year’s ‘snap’ General Election while on a walking break in Snowdonia with her husband, and although it’s highly debatable whether this turned out to be a ‘great thought’ in the end, her counterpart in Germany, Angela Merkel, is equally fond of taking to the hills – in her case an annual walking trip in the Italian Alps – to carve out space in a hectic schedule and to find some space to think.

Walking is, after all, not only a terrific (and free) form of exercise, it’s also a great way to oil those cogs in the brain: a natural aid to contemplation that requires little more than a sturdy pair of walking boots (or shoes) and a modicum of healthy determination. So, if you’re dithering over a dilemma, confused by a conundrum, or spooked by a sticky situation (even if the future of the country is not at stake), then why not treat yourself to a self-guided walking holiday and see where your mind takes you?

Why self-guided? Well, although some walking destinations might arguably be better tackled as part of a small group (particularly the more remote and challenging ones), at Inntravel we firmly believe that the self-guided approach, whereby you set out with detailed and carefully compiled route notes and a map, is the very best way to slow right down and appreciate the world around you. This is particularly true of Europe’s most alluring regions, where the paths are invariably good and there are often welcoming villages, cafés and smiling locals to greet you along the way. With no groups to hold – or hurry! – you up, and no luggage to weigh you down (your bags are transferred from one hotel to the next), you really are free to go at your own pace, to quite literally stop and smell the roses (or admire whatever other flora or fauna crosses your path), and to pause for as long or as often as you like. 

The joys of walking are nothing new, of course. “Walking is man’s best medicine,” proclaimed the Greek philosopher Hippocrates, way back in the 4th century BC. And Charles Dickens, whose regular 20-mile hikes would help to crystallise the plots of many a great Victorian novel, said simply: “Walk and be happy, walk and be healthy”. In this respect, little has changed, and it’s wonderful that something so simple can be so restorative and invigorating. Indeed, while treading the footpaths and byways of Europe, I’ve frequently been overcome by a sense of enormous wellbeing, and have come to realise that this relatively straightforward act – of putting one foot in front of the other – can give rise to the most unexpected of thoughts. It seems to relax our bodies, settle our brains, and provide a little food for the soul.;

How can this be? Well, a good walk (more than a run or even a swim, perhaps) allows us to fall into step with our body’s natural rhythms. We begin to tune into the environment around us – and also to ourselves. Day-to-day worries seem to disappear, as we relax into a relatively uninhibited state of mind where our thoughts can roam free. So as well as providing various, well-documented physical benefits – regular walking can help to reduce the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease and stroke, to name but a few conditions – it can also have an equally profound effect on our mental and spiritual wellbeing.

I would also argue that the uplifting effects of walking are in direct proportion to the time spent in nature, and the beauty all around us; so if you can spin this out over several days at a time, in somewhere particularly attractive, then so much the better. You don’t have to hike to Everest Base Camp or tackle England’s Coast to Coast route to feel the benefits, but you will certainly find that a few consecutive days spent on foot amid lovely countryside will give you a treat to be thankful for. Time appears to decelerate as you start to pay attention to the little things – the finer details – of what’s around you, and your day-to-day routine becomes both comforting and absorbing (not to mention rather addictive!): get out of bed; throw open the curtains to check the latest weather conditions; then enjoy a tasty breakfast before striking out on well-made paths with little to concern you but the way ahead. Then stop at a wayside café or unwrap a picnic lunch alongside a stream, before continuing onward, your thoughts eventually turning to the evening’s reward: a dinner of delicious local cuisine, a glass or two of wine perhaps, and a sound night’s sleep. Then there’s the joy of anticipation, knowing you get to do it all again tomorrow!        

So if your mind could do with a little uncluttering, and you fancy some worthwhile exercise, why not give this kind of holiday a try? As you walk, simply tune into your surroundings, giving each of your senses full rein, and see what comes up. Your attention will naturally wander from the here and now to some quite improbable places, and you might catch a creative idea or two – or even a flashing stroke of insight – along the way. You might not be able to change the course of a nation, but you will surely come to appreciate the insight of Henry David Thoreau, an ambling philosopher par excellence: “The moment my legs begin to move”, he said, “my thoughts begin to flow.”

Steve Jack is Communications Manager for Inntravel – The Slow Holiday people – who offer over 100 self-guided walking routes throughout Europe and beyond.

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