Are you an outdoorsy and active person? Do you love visiting heritage sites while walking and enjoying the landscape around you? If your answer is yes, you’re in the right place! In this article I’ll be presenting you a special sport that combines physical activity with wanderlust. Let me introduce you to… Nordic Walking!
The first time I personally approached Nordic Walking was in 2019. Back then I had no clue what it was like nor was I aware of the benefits and the incredible experiences that would come from it after a few months of intense practice. Many of you are probably wondering why it is so special – judging by the name, it may seem just a normal walk you have in the mountains or a discipline you practice somewhere up in the north. Well, it’s actually more than that and I’m going to tell you why…
What is Nordic Walking and how is it better than just walking?
Born in Finland around 1966, Nordic Walking was initially a part of cross-country skiing training during the off-season ski-training activity. Throughout the years it has become increasingly popular across Europe with millions of people joining it regardless of age, gender and physical condition.
It’s a non-competitive sport in which regular walking is enhanced by the addition of the active use of two specially designed poles to work both the upper and lower body when moving. This complete fat-burning workout is suitable for all and engages all muscles while boosting the intensity of exercise from the arm activity. Poles are key as they become an extension of the arms and help to propel the walker forward – this means the exercise is harder yet the support given by the poles makes it feel easier!
Bear in mind, though, that Nordic Walking is a specific fitness technique that differs from trekking, hiking, hill walking, or trail running. Poles are not planted in front of the walker/runner for better balance or to take pressure off of joints but they remain behind in a specific way that increases the use of the upper body. Once you know how to use the poles correctly (trust me, it requires a lot of practice!), you’ll improve your stability and get a better posture.
Plus, many other benefits will follow – from increasing blood circulation and metabolism to enhancing your balance, flexibility and endurance. But what makes this sport even more unique is that you can do it everywhere, you don’t require expensive equipment or clothing. The best part is, you’ll have the chance to go on exciting, outdoor adventures every time you want!
Not just a sport…
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I took my first steps into Nordic Walking three years ago when I took part in a demonstrative lesson in Catania, my hometown in Sicily. Brief disclosure: though popular this sport may be in Europe as well as in other parts of the world, it’s still relatively new in Italy and only in the last decade it has taken centre stage. Back then, just one Nordic Walking association was officially recognised in Sicily by SINW (Italian School of Nordic Walking), which is the “Nordic Walking Etna” Association located in my city.
When I started this sport, I instantly enjoyed the beauty of practicing it in an “open-air gym” observing some amazing landscapes, able to relax the mind and have an invigorating effect on the body. I loved the fact that weekly lessons happened on different locations, such as the beach, public parks, the city centre with its beautiful monuments all around or the mountains. It was beyond doubt exciting to rediscover all this from a different and new perspective!
But most of all I was thrilled about the opportunity to go on monthly trips out of town to improve the technique while exploring places of high historical and cultural value. Therefore, I soon became a member of the association and started my journey through the unexpected marvels of my island.
“Nordic Walking adventures” around Sicily
Mongibello, or Mount Etna
Throughout the years I’ve visited incredible sites that otherwise I would never have seen without this sport. This had me realising how little we know about our own cultural heritage – too often we take it for granted on the misconception that things are way more appealing outside our region or state.
Step by step, walk by walk I relished the discovery of some of the most marvellous natural and archaeological treasures of Sicily. One of these is undoubtedly Mt Etna (locally known as “Mongibello”), the active volcano situated on the east coast of the island between the cities of Catania and Messina. With a current height of roughly 3,329 m, it’s the highest active volcano in Europe and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not only does it have the longest recorded history of eruptions, dating back to 1500 BC, but it has also erupted over 200 times since then!
Despite its unrelenting activity, the volcano offers numerous hiking routes and nature trails up to the highest altitudes with awe-inspiring sights of lunar landscapes (typical of the volcanic activity), ancient lava flows and caves, revealing the rare charm of this extraordinary natural oasis.
Another remarkable location that I explored on my Nordic Walking trips was the Natural Park of the Alcantara Gorges, in eastern Sicily. The gorges are real canyons made of black lava walls up to 50 m high, in the typical shape of a prism that the rocks have taken during the cooling process.
I was completely awestruck by the beauty of the landscape with those mighty rocks filled with lush vegetation and the Alcantara river flowing along the canyons. Originating on the Nebrodi mountains and having its mouth in the Ionian Sea, the river is famous for its really cold waters (my frozen hands could confirm!) which only the bravest dare dive in. There’s an interesting explanation for that though – according to a legend, which I learnt about during my trip, the transformation of the Alcantara river from hot to cold was due to an act of revenge. In fact, after Venus rejected his love, the god Vulcan decided to freeze the waters the goddess loved bathing in. How fascinating is that!?
Calascibetta, a Byzantine Village
I’d like to end our “journey” with the Byzantine Village of Calascibetta, at the heart of Sicily. Here is one of the most important settlements of the island – an outstanding place where archeology, history and nature intertwine harmoniously.
The village has tunnels and large spaces dug in sandstone from different periods from prehistory to the Middle Ages, passing through the Greek and Roman Ages as well as Late Antiquity. The stratified complexes changed in the medieval period between the end of the Byzantine rule, which lasted from 535 AD to 827 AD, and the subsequent Arab presence on the island. However, the entire area has pretty much maintained its original structure. I loved exploring the sacred site where religious and funerary rituals took place (the presence of an intact Byzantine church surrounded by some tombs of the same period is remarkable!), along with a vast housing complex with numerous caves functioning as dwellings or strongholds, as it appeared after the Arab conquest.
I’ll always marvel at the thought that diverse populations had followed each other across the centuries, leaving traces of an existence that is still here, through the rests of such an astonishing archaeological site.
Lucky to be a Nordic Walker
These are just a few examples of what this sport has to offer. But one thing is certain – you’ll never get bored and more than likely you’ll have some of the best experiences of your life thanks to it!
Personally, I consider myself lucky to be a Nordic Walker. It gives me the joy of actively moving and staying healthy while learning something new about the local cultural heritage. I’m grateful for all the beautiful moments that have come with it because Nordic Walking is much more than a sport. In fact, it’s a lifestyle. It is a state of mind and an opportunity to partake in a great community of people in love with their land and its innumerable gems.
Continue reading on Fun Museums: Stories of the Sea, from fear to the Vitamin Sea