Originally built to divide, these mighty barriers now enable excellent access on foot. This article is an excerpt from Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2013.
Berlin Wall, Germany
Not so very long ago, this walk was strictly verboten. The Berlin Wall – its barbed-wired length manned by armed guards – only fell in 1989. Today, most of the 160km-long barricade that once encircled West Berlin is gone. But it’s not forgotten: a marked walk and cycle trail follows its former route, from Potsdamer Platz and Niederkirchnerstrasse (where 200m of wall has been preserved), via Checkpoint Charlie and the Sonnenallee border crossing, out into Berlin’s bucolic surrounds. The contrast is stark: pretty lakes and churches – the picture of innocence – are blemished by eerie flecks of crumbling concrete.
The Wall Trail is divided into 14 sections (between 7km and 21km long); each section is accessible by public transport.
Strolling atop the 16th-century fortifications that cloister old Cartagena is the best way to get a feel for this Unesco-listed city. It’s certainly a place that deserves protection – initially for its strategic importance to the Spanish, now for its comely cobbles and pastel prettiness. It’s not a long walk along the thick murallas – the whole not-quite-continuous loop takes about 90 minutes – but it is a beauty. Start from Balaurte de San Francisco Javier at sunset, to watch the warm light glitter on the Caribbean and set Cartagena’s yellow-pink mansions, palm-fringed plazas and profusion of churches aglow.
The wall stands in four sections; the Balaurte de San Francisco Javier–La India Catalina section is longest.
Walls of Jerusalem National Park, Tasmania
Australia’s a long way from the Holy Land. But explorers with a Biblical bent let rip when they assigned names to this wild patch of Tasmanian countryside: here, the Walls of Jerusalem stand by Herods Gate, the Pool of Bethesda and Solomon’s Jewels. The ‘walls’ themselves are dolerite hills, topping out at 1509m King David’s Peak and cradling a people-free landscape of conifer forest and bolster heath. There are no roads – bushwalking is the only way to worship here. Follow the track from Lake Rowallan to Dixons Kingdom and up Mt Jerusalem for views over this antipodean Eden.
Walls of Jerusalem is not accessible by road; visitors must walk in from the car park off Mersey Forest Rd, near Lake Rowallan.
Approach by train from nearby Madrid and it seems that a colossal sandcastle has been made on the high plains of Castilla y Léon. The almost-too-perfectly walled city of Ávila looms large and castellated, its old centre enclosed within 2.5km of 12m-high, 3m-thick stone; 88 towers and nine gates ensure it looks properly fairytale. These are the best-preserved medieval walls in the world, and much of them can be strolled along. That said, arguably the best views are extra-muros – leave the city confines to walk around the outside, to see the defences in all their intimidating, impenetrable glory.
Ávila is 1130m above sea-level; it can get cold, even in summer, so pack warm clothes.
Hadrian’s Wall, England
Roman Emperor Hadrian was a philhellenic soul – a lover of Greek culture. It seems, however, he wasn’t so fond of the Scots. From AD 122, he commenced building a barrier of stone, turf, forts and ditches from Wallsend (on the River Tyne) to the shores of the Solway Firth, to demarcate the northernmost reach of his empire. What lay beyond was just too wild to be tamed. And it’s still pretty wild – Roman remnants sit out amid Cumbrian hills, rough uplands and salt flats. A 140km National Trail navigates the route, and you can imagine the sandal-slap of centurions still audible on the breeze.
Hadrian’s Wall Trail takes seven days. Segedenum Roman Fort (eastern start/end point) is a 10-minute Metro ride from Newcastle.
Offa’s Dyke, England–Wales
You’ve heard of Hadrian. But who on earth was Offa? King of Mercia, that’s who; he ruled most of England in AD 757, but Wales was another matter. Unable to best these feisty dragons, he built a wall to keep them out. Well, not a wall – more a ditch, backed by a mound of mud (more interesting than it sounds…). Offa’s Dyke National Trail now traces this ancient impediment’s remains, wending for 285km from Sedbury Cliffs to Prestatyn, via the Black Mountains, book-town Hay on Wye and the heather-clad Clwydian Range, traversing a land that still feels like a wild frontier.
Offa’s Dyke National Trail takes around 12 days to complete. Chepstow train station is 1.6km from Sedbury Cliffs.
The ramparts ringing Atlantic-slapped Essaouira aren’t the world’s longest or biggest. But they do have a certain superstar status. In 1949 Orson Welles came to town, and filmed the Moroccan city’s walls for the opening sequence of his movie, Othello. There’s certainly drama here: built in the 18th century by Sultan Mohammed III, who was keen to own a coastal stronghold, these Vauban-style defences perch on sea cliffs. Walk along their parapet to look down on the rambling medina within – a huddle of slipper-sellers, tagine-makers and labyrinthine alleys – and to look out over the harbour and golden beach beyond.
Essaouira is a 2½-hour bus ride from Marrakesh and a six-hour journey from Casablanca.
Québec City, Canada
Architecture often isn’t that old in North America. Which makes the 17th-century walls surrounding Québec City all the more notable. The capital of Canada’s Gallic province is a bit ‘France-lite’: there’s European flair in the higgledy streets, frites served in the cafes and history sunk deep into these great grey military fortifications. The whole wall is 4.6km long, incised by gates and bulged by towers. At times you can stand atop it, to look across to the St Lawrence River and down on the huddled alleys of Vieux Québec; at others, stroll alongside to feel just how impervious a barrier it still is.
Parks Canada runs guided, 90-minute wall tours, departing from the Frontenac kiosk on Dufferin Terrace.
Great Wall, China
It’s hard to walk the whole Great Wall of China. And not just because it’s vast (though the fact that it measures around 5000km long presents a significant impediment). No, it’s just so very disparate, with many different bits, from many different dynasties, making a conclusive route hard to pinpoint. A classic through-walk is from wild-west Jiayuguan to eastern Shanhaiguan, on the Bohai Sea – a 4000km-plus epic across mountains, steppe and desert. More manageable perhaps is a day-trip from Beijing: the 11km Jinshanling–Simatai hike has fine far-reaching views; the little-known 12km stretch at Huanghuacheng is really wild wall walking.
Visit from September to October or April to May for best weather; avoid busy Chinese national holidays (first weeks of May and October).
Aurelian Walls, Rome, Italy
In AD 270, Emperor Aurelius got a bit twitchy. With barbarians threatening from the north, he decided to encircle Rome with a big brick barricade. And he did it fast: this 19km-long, 6.5m-high obstacle – boasting 381 towers and 18 gates – was constructed in just five years. Today it’s tatty in places; in 2001 a 12m section collapsed; 2007 saw another stretch fall. But considering its venerable age, it remains impressive. One of the best-preserved bits is by Porta San Sebastiano, where the parapet is strollable, and offers fine views; the keen history-hiker could get a map and trace the entire route.
The Museo delle Mura, on Via di Porta San Sebastiano, is inside the walls’ Sebastiano Gate; entrance costs €4.