My walk of life with Grattan Lynch

Give peace a chance: Grattan Lynch is on a one-man mission to promote peace across Europe through the power of walking.

Interview by Sheridan Morgan

Give peace a chance

My childhood was spent in a small village just outside Dublin. Every Sunday, we’d go for a walk in the Wicklow mountains to ‘blow the cobwebs’ away. It was just something everyone did – I certainly didn’t consider myself a ‘walker’.

When I started working for the UN Development Programme, I found I couldn’t walk around freely. Visiting war-torn countries such as Libya and Afghanistan, security was so tight that you could only move between your hotel, car and workplace. It was only when I couldn’t walk that I really missed it. I craved the opportunity to ‘blow the cobwebs away’ once again.

In 2007, I took part in the Camino De Santiago, a pilgrimage trail across northern Spain, which covers 780km over 32 days. I simply packed my bag and made my way to the foothills of the Pyrenees. I didn’t do any training and just thought it would be a peaceful, solitary walk. But 100,000 other people from all over the world were taking part. The route was punishing and I was so thankful for the support and camaraderie of the other walkers.

That helped me to realise that walking is very sociable. When you walk with someone, you share a common goal – to reach your destination. In that situation, people open up, swap stories and the usual social boundaries melt away.

One evening, after a long day on the Camino, I was sitting at a table having dinner. I looked around at the German, Hungarian, French, British and Irish walkers happily chatting away, and thought, “My God, less than a hundred years ago they would have been killing each other and now they’re flirting.” It made me realise that walking can promote social interaction between different cultures and countries.

I knew then that I wanted to recreate the same experience in other parts of the world. And so the seeds of the European Peace Walk (EPW) were planted. Whereas the Camino route crosses a single country, I wanted to found a trail in Europe that crossed a number of borders and gave walkers the chance to experience many different cultures.

Along with some friends and volunteers, I spent hours poring over maps of Europe before finally deciding on a route. The European Peace Walk covers 550km, starts in Vienna, Austria and finishes in Trieste, Italy, taking in six different countries along the way. In just one day, walkers can cross five national borders. They’ll have breakfast in Hungary, lunch in Slovenia and dinner in Italy. They get to experience different cultures and foods in the space of 24 hours. 

An important element of the walk is its accessibility – financially as well as geographically. This meant finding places for walkers to stay for no more than €12 a night, which proved a real challenge. I had to walk up and down the planned route, asking around at hostels, breweries, schools, community centres and even fish farms to see if they’d put up the ‘peace walkers’. If one place said no then we’d have to go back to the drawing board and change the route.

Authenticity was also important to me. Since I did the Camino, it’s become a tourist attraction. There are even cola machines along the route. I wanted to avoid that with the EPW. So there are no supermarkets or fast food outlets on the walk, just local food and drink grown on the land, as it has been for hundreds of years.

After months of preparation, 20 walkers lined up in Italy on 29th July 2014, to blaze the trail as the first ever ‘Peace Walkers’. The route can only handle a maximum of 20 walkers each day, so a new group set out every morning for two weeks. We had around 150 walkers from 22 different countries, including the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as places all over Europe. They set out as strangers but, after walking together for 23 days, they finished as friends. 

Last October, I wondered if I could put myself through the stress of organising another EPW for 2015. Then I saw a photo of three peace walkers, one from Norway, one from Honduras and one from California, who had met up for dinner. It felt fantastic knowing that I had brought together these three people who would never otherwise have met.

We’ve already got more people lined up for the walk this year. I can see it’s going to grow in numbers as time goes on. This year it’ll be running for most of August but, in the future, I hope to have it running for six or seven months of the year. 

When I first came up with the idea of the EPW, people told me it was impossible, but I’ve shown them what an Irishman on a mission can achieve – and I won’t stop until I’ve got 100,000 peace walkers.

The 2015 European Peace Walk takes place from 27 July to 25 August. Register at www.peacewalk.eu