European Peace Walk: What to Know Before You Commit
Posted on Monday, October 19, 2015
The following post is based on my experience partially walking the European Peace Walk in 2015. I write this in service to those who are considering the walk. I loosely stayed with my group until the end and sought feedback — some of which is incorporated in this post.
Not all PeaceWalkers will agree with my assessment as those who like the PeaceWalk, really love the PeaceWalk, and will defend all aspects of it with passion. Good for them. This post is not meant to be negative, but informative.
There is nobody more interested in supporting, participating in, and promoting a new long-distance walk than I. With sincerity, I commend and respect the organizer for having a wild, beautiful vision and acting upon it. The logistics involved are mind-boggling and immense. I expect the walk will improve every year. That being said, at this time this is not a walk I could recommend without lots of caveats. So here we go…
1) The European Peace Walk is still being developed. In no way is it a smooth journey.
Poor instructions and lack of reliability in distances were a daily and frustrating battle. The EPW Guide often does not prepare you for the terrain. Challenges like having to scale a canyon wall, where a simple slip could leave you hospitalized or dead, should be mentioned in the guide so that one can prepare. Accuracy in distances is essential for preparation and also for safety. Unfortunately, I lost trust in the organizers (the EPW Guide book) after a few days.
Before you commit: Will a guide that is not entirely reliable frustrate you or are you able to accept the guide book as a loose guide? Are you adaptable and easy-going? How do you respond to surprises?
2) At least in Hungary (11 days), there is little cultural exchange.
There was nearly nothing of visual interest on the walk through Hungary. With the exception of traversing through the lovely city of Kozseg, and an idyllic village on the next day, expect long walks beside corn fields, sunflower fields, and wind turbines. I often felt that I could be having the same experience walking through my home country’s state of Iowa.
Hungary is a poor country and most people are working hard, often in Austria, to get by. Therefore, you do not find the outdoor cafes, people relaxing and socializing, and opportunities for socializing that you might find in Spain or Greece for example. The EPW walks through small rural villages where there are often no open stores or cafes. In fact, our instructions sometimes specifically diverted us away from towns. Our instructions also diverted us away from educational opportunities like the Iron Curtain Museum. I would have gone solo to see those things, but I lacked trust in the day’s distances and route and therefore could not gauge if it was safe for me to veer off the path for an interesting excursion.
We met few people who could speak English. Generally, if Hungarians know a second language, it’s German or Russian. A 2009 Eurostat survey showed that nearly 75% of Hungarians aged 25 to 64, speak no foreign language. Of course, as a visitor in the country I do not expect anyone to speak English, but the inability to communicate makes any kind of meaningful interaction or cultural exchange difficult to impossible. There were beautiful exceptions but they were few and far between. The language barrier coupled with a general suspicion of outsiders made interaction limited.
Before you commit: Are you able to create your own experience? Are you comfortable veering off the trail and finding your way to the hosting town via walking, local buses and/or taxis? Does the landscape matter to you? Does local interaction matter to you?
3) You will very likely get lost.
If you’re up for adventure, great! You’ll find it on the European Peace Walk. You may also find it after you’ve walked 30 kilometers in a heat wave and dearly want to stop. But you can’t. Because you’re lost. Very, very lost.
Before you commit: Are you comfortable being lost in a foreign country where English may not be understood? Are you capable of navigating your way to the destination?
4) You may be walking in extreme heat with little shade. You must carry all your water.
Some days, there was virtually no shade the entire day. You are often walking in open fields. During my walk, a heat wave was just ending. Temperatures were sometimes over 35º celsius (over 95º Fahrenheit). Does that sound fun? Unless you’re a reptile, it really isn’t.
Before you commit: Ask yourself: Am I a reptile? Seriously though, some people do fine in heat, other don’t. Do you?
5) You will be walking with a group and your group will shape your individual experience.
I initially started solo, in error, and then joined my group which was made of four Americans: one married couple and two girlfriends. None of them intended to walk the whole way; the married couple intended to walk for two weeks and the girlfriends were leaving after one week. So no matter what, I was going to lose my whole group and have to rejoin another.
My whole experience changed when I joined my new group of eight (although one quit after Day 4 and did not return). Now I was with five Australians, one Canadian, and one Englishman. The group was generally jolly but also often frustrated and busing it became common. As a note, Hungarian public buses are free if you’re over 65.
Even if you’re not walking side by side with group members, you will be joining these people in the afternoon, dining with them and sleeping in shared accommodations. If there is trouble in the group or poorly-matched personalities, your PeaceWalk will be affected. Unlike the Camino, there is no losing people. These are your people.
Before you commit: Are you easy-going? Are you comfortable spending 24 days with a group that may or may not be to your liking?
6) The necessity to stay with your group can be stressful.
You must stay with your group or wait for another group because accommodations are generally only available when they are expecting PeaceWalkers. This adds a stress that is not found on the Camino de Santiago.
When I walked, there was a space of three days between my first group and the second which meant I had to wait in Hungary three days for my next group. I was happy to do that because I was tired, but had I been on a more strict schedule this would have completely ruined my plans. I could also have jumped ahead a few days and joined another group but I was trying to walk faithfully and did not want to skip any parts. That devotion went out the window shortly thereafter.
Before you commit: Are you flexible? Is your schedule flexible? Would you feel ok about skipping ahead by bus? Do you like the idea of being on a strict walking schedule?
7) It’s not a walk that you do solo.
I walked a lot of the Camino de Santiago solo and never felt unsafe or so far away from other people and civilization that I could not get help if needed. But in the first couple days of the EPW as a woman, when I walked solo (mistakenly having left a day early), I sometimes did not feel safe. Granted, Hungary is not as crime-ridden as the United States, but even so, random crime can occur anywhere. Same with accidents. Had I hurt myself, nobody was going to be coming down these trails for a long time. I was on my own.
After joining my first group, I walked alone a couple days because I wanted to walk at my own pace. I can count on one hand how many times I saw a local on the remote paths. When I did pass migrant workers or a jogger on a path, I nearly leaped out of my skin. Had the same paths been in the United States I would not have walked them alone due to their isolation.
I have traveled all over the world solo and am generally not particularly fearful. But with such sparse population on the EPW, I knew I was at the mercy of the universe not to run across someone with bad intentions. If I had, I would have been in trouble. That’s me. Maybe you’re different.
Also, should you find yourself in the high heat that is not uncommon in August you risk heat stroke and nobody to discover you for a long while. And I doubt my group would have notified authorities until sundown. There was no protocol provided by the EPW for how the group should handle a missing member. Nor did the EPW Guide contain any safety information such as numbers for police or medical services.
Before you commit: How comfortable are you walking alone? Do you feel capable of defending yourself if needed? Are you comfortable alone in remote locations?
8) Organization needs improvement.
A few walkers reported that accommodations were not expecting them when they arrived. Hosts reported frustration with the actual numbers of walkers they expected and the numbers that actually showed up/never showed up. One hostel basically gave up saving spots for walkers after losing business saving beds for PeaceWalkers who never arrived.
Communication was also confused. It wasn’t until several days into my walk that I discovered, by way of another walker, that most real-time communications and warnings about the walk were being delivered on a closed Facebook group that I was previously unaware of: the EPWalkers private group on Facebook. I find this group odd; positive comments are in abundance because very often anyone who dares make a constructive critical comment is shamed with comments such as “if you can’t walk the walk or talk the Peacetalk, then think before you commit yourself” and “all this negativity…is surprising & disappointing to see from anyone with a true pilgrim spirit.” Go figure. It seems any feedback from PeaceWalkers who do not have a good experience is considered “negative”.
Before you commit: Can you “go with the flow”? Would you mind if you walked all day and the accommodation had no beds? Do you easily adapt to changing conditions?
9) You need to be prepared to wing it.
If you’re the type of person that likes every “t” to be crossed and every “i” to be dotted, this is not the walk for you. Not one PeaceWalker of the twelve I interacted with, walked the EPW as the guide instructed. Every one of the twelve, including the most hearty, took transport at least a few times and several did as I did and diverted off the path entirely to try and improve the experience.
Comments on the EPWalkers Facebook page suggest that one is responsible for enhancing their own experience and enriching themselves on the walk. That’s a fine idea but then let’s not call it an organized walk. Call it a European Peace, Endurance and Mystery Walk where your challenge everyday is to seek out an enriching educational or cultural experience AND walk 25-40 kilometers through corn fields AND not get lost AND be sure you arrive safely before sundown AND figure out how you are contributing to peace. And like it.
Before you commit: Are you able to enjoy the challenge of things not going according to plan? Are you able to be spontaneous? Are you comfortable figuring out alternative plans?
10) Be prepared for all kinds of surfaces.
In Hungary, the terrain was mostly flat but the surface was often uneven. There are simply not a great number of PeaceWalkers yet to trample the way and therefore “paths” are often overgrown with grass, brambles and waist-high weeds. Many places, you couldn’t actually see the surface of the path which could certainly lead to injuries such as falls or twisted ankles. And it did for some.
This makes walking slower, more difficult and strenuous and one needs to be aware of that challenge.
Before you commit: Are you able to walk long distances on occasionally challenging surfaces? Will you enjoy being surprised about the challenges you encounter?
11) The mission of a PeaceWalker seems unclear.
It seems that activism is not part of the PeaceWalkers role. Some PeaceWalkers have expressed that the role of the PeaceWalker is to celebrate the peace of these previously war-torn countries. Some are more contemplative suggesting that the PeaceWalkers role is to have peace in the heart while walking and in all interactions with locals. I don’t know the answer.
My battle with this question was particularly pained as we were glibly crossing the borders of Austria and Hungary each day while thousands of refugees were scrambling and dying to enter Hungary. Having peace in my heart felt woefully inadequate.
Before you commit: What would be your mission as a PeaceWalker? What would it mean to you?
12) Finally, this is not a “Camino-style Adventure”.
On the European Peace Walk website, the EPW is described as a “Camino-style adventure. For all the reasons stated above, I find this misleading and a set-up for disappointment. For me, the Camino had a strong healing energy. I felt no such thing on the EPW and wasn’t expecting to — it is only two years old, compared to the centuries-old Camino.
The Camino has an infrastructure that supports the needs of pilgrims (except for that early morning coffee!). There is no such structure on the EPW. The structure and necessity to stay with a group did not allow for the magical meetings and partings that were so common on the Camino or the opportunity to go at one’s own pace and break when needed.
Before you commit: Not to say that it’s better or worse, but understand and accept that this is a very different experience than the Camino de Santiago. Are you looking for a Camino experience?
It’s my hope that the organizers of the European Peace Walk have taken the feedback gleaned from the past two years and 2016 will be an improved experience. Hopefully, this post gives you a better idea of what you might expect. Having realistic expectations is key to preventing disappointment and deciding if this walk is for you.
If you do choose to walk the European Peace Walk, travel safe and may the wind be at your back!