The Woman Who Trekked Through Pandemic-Hit Europe - Outdoors Magic

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The Woman Who Trekked Through Pandemic-Hit Europe

Ursula Martin has spent the last two years walking alone from Ukraine to the most westerly point of Spain. And her journey's not over yet...

Ursula Martin defines herself as an ‘extreme rambler’. And that she certainly is. Between 2014 and 2015, she walked 3,700 miles in and around her homeland of Wales, all whilst undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer. Along the way she raised over £12,000 for cancer charities and helped to draw attention to the symptoms of ovarian cancer to thousands of people. 

A few years later, Ursula embarked on another trek, hitchhiking from Wales to Eastern Europe to begin a solo walk across the bulk of the continent. Starting in Ukraine, she travelled through the Balkans and into Southern Europe, steadily making her way towards the Atlantic Ocean. All was going well enough until the beginning of 2020, when a roadblock arrived in the form of a global pandemic. 

Ursula was in northern Italy when the region was plunged into crisis at the start of 2020, and has since been caught under full lockdown three times. Endeavouring to stay safe and travel responsibly, she has only walked for seven months since March, her progress being dictated by the easing and tightening of restrictions from country to countryand even region to region. 

Despite that huge challenge, however, in March this year, Ursula managed to reach Finisterre in Spain, otherwise known as ‘the end of the earth’. At the time that we interviewed her, she was about to turn around to begin the long walk home… 

Photo: Ursula Martin

For our readers who aren’t yet familiar with your story, could you tell them a bit about what you’ve been up to over the last few years?

[Laughs] Yeah, I’ve been walking across Europe basically. I started in September 2018, hitchhiked from the UK to Kiev in Ukraine, and I’ve been walking back ever since. It’s so long now; I can’t believe it’s been this long. 

And you’re currently in Spain, right? How is the Galician way of life treating you?

Yep, that’s right, Finisterre in Galicia. Oh my god I love Finisterre, I really love it. Galicia’s my favourite part of Spain, and Finisterre; it’s a special place right now. I’ve literally walked to the Atlantic Ocean so I can’t get any further west. It’s been this huge arrival point for me. And it’s also an arrival point for the Camino de Santiago and the more ancient pre-Christian pilgrimage routes as well. It’s a place that has a lot of meaning. It’s a really big deal for me.

And from here, is it France next and then back home? Are you excited for your return and ready for a bit of rest?

That’s the idea, yeah. Oh my god I’m so ready. I’m so ready to stop now. I was worried this was gonna happen because Finisterre is such a huge arrival point. So basically, from here, I’m doing a U-turn and then going back on myself through Spain, and then up through France. I thought, oh gosh, how’s my energy gonna be? Because you have the arrival and then you’ve still gotta go another 1000 miles. It’s the worst part isn’t it, when you’re almost home, but not quite, and then your energy goes down. So, what I’m hoping is that I’ll start walking again, and I’ll get into that zone of the last thousand miles.

But yeah, I am tired now. I’m really tired. I do want to be home. It’s been a lot of effort to get here [laughs].  



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A post shared by Ursula Martin (@onewomanwalks)

Every journey a person takes is unique, but you’re probably amongst very few people who will have seen the influence of coronavirus from country to country. Has the general feeling differed from country to country?

I saw a little bit of its arrival in Italy, but that was in the very first stages of the pandemic in February and March. So, what I was experiencing then was a whole lot of fear. And this unknown sense of it. And then France over last summer mainly. And then Spain since Christmas. The major differences between Spain and France are the cultural differences in mask wearing and social distancing, and I expect to find differences when I go to the UK as well.  

And because every country is inventing the wheel, as to how to balance the health needs of the population, versus the economic needs of the population. And probably the third priority is the mental health and happiness needs of the population. I think every country has done their own thing basically. There’s no rule book on how to do this is there?  

Rapid changes in the weather along the Camino de Santiago. Photo: Ursula Martin
Photo: Ursula Martin

In a way, it would be cool if you did your journey again post-pandemic to see how your experiences differ.

 Oh yeah, God… I really miss the Balkans because people were so friendly and welcoming. This would have been Summer 2019; I was walking through Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia. And people would just call over to you. You’d be walking through a village; a few people would be sitting around outside their house having a coffee, and they’d just say ‘Hey! What you doing? Come over!’. And you just go over and they’re like ‘Hey, have a seat. Have a coffee. What do you want? Do you want some cigarettes? Do you want some biscuits? What do you need?’ And you just sit around with people, have a bit of a chat, and then move on. But obviously that’s just all gone now, you know.

There’s social distancing and I think there’s more of a reticence in western Europe anyway, because people have busier, more capitalist-oriented lives. They also have more riches to protect so they’re less likely to invite strangers into their house. So, I do wonder, what’s it like in the Balkans? Is anyone wearing masks I wonder? Would they still invite me to sit down outside their houses? What’s going on? I used to spend the night in people’s places and that hasn’t happened in a really long time.



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A post shared by Ursula Martin (@onewomanwalks)

When I think of making the journey that you’ve done alone, as a woman, part of me is a bit terrified. I was wondering if you’ve encountered this feeling at all, and if so, how do you cope with it?

I mean I’ve been travelling alone for well over 10 years now, mostly in Europe, but hitchhiking in Europe alone; wild camping alone. I don’t think being a woman is a reason not to do anythingBut I also think that I’ve probably developed a certain set of ways to protect myself. As in, I’m probably a bit more careful about where I sleep than a man might be. I really make sure I go where nobody can see me. But the more you do it, the more relaxed you get, to be honest. I think the fears are quite often of the idea of what wild camping might be. Or what might happen. And then the more you do it, the more you realise, oh right, actually nothing happened, and people were really nice to me, and this was great. A lot of that fear is the anticipation of problems. 

“I don’t think being a woman is a reason not to do anything.” 

Obviously, there’s this really big story with the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard in London. And I do think about that. I think I am just lucky as well – that nothing bad has happened. It’s two separate but similar points really. One: it’s that the chance of something happening is actually much more miniscule than we think, and that shouldn’t stop us, as women, from doing what we want to do, if we want to go wild camping. But at the same time, it’s a miniscule danger, but it does exist. So, we should take precautions.

On the other hand, a different side of you has to be brave in the sense of encountering bears and wolves and whatnot.

[Laughs] Yeah, I mean I’ve encountered more bears and wolves than dangerous men to be honest.  

I’ve had three experiences: one with wolves, and two with bears. And the thing that unites the three of them is that each time, the animals saw me, and then disappeared as quickly as possible. It’s not like I had to have face-offs with them. Luckily none of those experiences were very dangerous. I wasn’t an immediate threat. So, they could run rather than confront me. I was lucky in that sense. 

But yeah, I saw wolves in a forest in the Ukraine. I think it was wolves because it was such a split second of seeing them. At first, I thought they were hunting dogs. I looked up at the path, and saw a load of what I thought were, dogs coming towards me. I looked down, and then I looked back up again, and they were gone. I stopped and I looked around in the forest, and I couldn’t see them. I didn’t know where they were.  

They all looked the same; they were Alsatian-type faces. And because I was still in human-mode, I thoughtoh they were a pack of hunting dogs. So I carried on walking, and I was waiting for the human to come, the owner of the dogs. And then the human didn’t appear, and I thought, well, that was weird: a pack of dogs on their own that looked like German shepherds... Oh right! Maybe they were wolves!

“I’ve had three experiences. One with wolves, and two with bears.”

The other two times, I just saw bears. Both times it was a female bear with two cubs. Once I was up on this mountain in Bosnia, and I was literally on the verge of getting into my tent to go to sleep. Then I looked around and there was this bear up on a rock, looking away from me. I thought, right okay, what do you do when you see a bear? You let them know you’re there, calmly. So, I waved, and I said hello. I said: ‘Hi bear. Hello. A human is over here’. Really light voice. Be calm. Be chill. Be chill with the bear, you know. Relax. And it just looked at me, standing up on its hind legs, and then dropped and turned and went away. Its two babies then mirrored its movements. It was really nice, just really beautiful  

Shelter has come in many forms along the way for Ursula. Photo: @onewomanwalks
Photo @onewomanwalks
Photo: @onewomanwalks

I guess part of the joys of camping is a trade-off between being really engrossed in nature, whilst also being vulnerable to it. What made you choose this way of living whilst you’re travelling?

I think that’s the excitement of it. I think the way that I live is more of a function of the journey that I want to doThe primary thing that I want to do is walk across Europe. And you can’t go from hostel to hostel if you want to go to certain places. 

But I also love the freedom of wild camping. That sense of travelling all day. I get to an hour before sunset, and I think, where am I gonna put up my tent? That’s when I start looking. It’s thcomplete spontaneity of it. It’s something that I’m always searching for. That’s the way that I like to live. Not controlling it too much, you know. Because when we try to control something in advance, that’s a way of being scared of it. If you go for a week’s holiday, and you book something every night, it’s like; why do you need to be in control of that? Why can’t you just let stuff happen? That’s been real process for me of just allowing stuff to happen, and not trying to control it in advance through this fear of needing to know what’s gonna happen. Wild camping is the ultimate opposite of that really; really like it. 


Photo: Ursula Martin

Do you have a favourite place, or places, that you’ve camped in so far? I imagine some are more suited to camping than others.  

Yeah, you end up in some real shitty spots. But that’s fine. Just some scrubby little woodland, or round the back of some empty building sometimes.  

I like being able to see the sunrise. That always makes me happy when wake up. I had this funny night in Provence. There was a slanted forest on one side, and on the other side there was a corn field that had been harvested. I could see there was something funny about the sky, and I thought, oh I think it’s gonna rain. And I couldn’t camp in the woods because it was slanted, so I went into the field. But the ground was rock hard. I couldn’t get my tent pegs in. So, I thought, oh that’s okay; I can put up the tent with minimal pegs because that’s the design of my tent. So, the tent pegs are literally in about a centimetre. Just enough to be able to be able to get the poles in.

“I was sitting inside the tent holding it up with one hand and eating my dinner with the other.”

Then it started raining. And it wasn’t just rain, it was a fucking summer thunderstorm. An incredibly intense thunderstorm. It rained and rained and rained. And for a while I was sitting inside the tent holding it up with one hand and eating my dinner with the other. Just thinking, oh my god this is horrendous. And the wind started blowing really badly and I couldn’t fix the tent because I couldn’t get the tent pegs in. All I could think was: oh fucking shit.  

So, I just collapsed the whole tent. I lay there and had a modicum of cover because the flat tarp was on top of meI was just lying in a fucking flat tent basically. So, I thought, fine; this is just one of those nights.  

Related: How To Stay Safe In A Storm | Advice For Walkers And Campers

I slept. And then woke up in the morning. And as I woke up, there was this family of wild boar crossing the field. I could poke my head out of the tent and see them a little bit. That was really nice. 

Even though it rained, and it was ridiculous, and I had to sleep in a wet tent, and what have you… It’s still a good experience in its way. There are always redeeming factors in all the suffering.  

Do you have any tips for preparing for a big trek?

Everything I’ve done has been a step up from where I’ve previously been. I have a lot more skills than I had on my walks in Wales. But then in Wales, I learned skills that I didn’t have before. It’s a progression of skillsets really. 

I always just imagine, what if? It’s like, right, I’m gonna walk across Europe… so what the hell does that mean? You’ve just gotta break it down. Okay, what if I was gonna walk across Europe? What would I need? So, I’d need a tentNow I think about what kind of tent I’d need and research it. Think about the terrain and the season that you’re going to experience. Think about availability of maps. Just break it down, break it down, break it down. 

What am I going to eat? How am I gonna eat it? Where am I gonna sleep? How am I gonna sleep? What clothes am I gonna wear? What would I wear if it was raining? What would I wear if it was snowing? What would I wear in the sunshine? All these things. And then you just end up with lists. And loads of money to spend on equipment...

Related: How To Pack A Rucksack For Hiking | Advice For Backpackers

I was reading your kit list actually and I love that you have a knitting kit with you, and physical books as well.

It’s my little hobby. Knitting has been brilliant actually, because the needles themselves weigh almost nothing. You just carry 100g of wool with you at any time, and that will give you hours of entertainment [laughs]. Hours of a little thing to do with your hands.

I get to a hotel on a day-off, and I’ll just watch some TV and knit. I knit all these blanket squares and I send them home. So, when I get home, I’ll have a blanket from the whole trip made out of these hundreds of squares I’ve been knitting.  

As for the books, I haven’t really read any fiction. So, they’re all quite dry [laughs]. But I need to learn and think about countries.  

The books that I had in Bosnia were the most important, I think. To help me understand Bosnia, and Bosnian history, and the way that the country is structured at the moment, and how that relates to the war. What’s happened to them is so intense and unusual. I don’t think I could or should walk through that country without educating myself.  

You can’t write a travel book if you’re just gonna be like, ‘oh they have tortillas, it was really nice!’ You have to know stuff.  


Photo: Ursula Martin

Do you have any exciting plans for the rest of the day or the week?

I’ve actually been really exhausted since I’ve arrived here at Finisterre. So, I’m just trying to rest. My body’s hurting quite a lot. Which is a shame. Like I said, it’s understandable with this big arrival point. I think I’ve had a bit of a physical drop. 

So, I’m feeling a little bit broken. I’m not doing much but the tip of Finisterre is somewhere really nice to go and watch the sunset. I’m just trying to recuperate really. There’s been a hell of a lot of pressure over this last year. Walking in a pandemic is awful, really. There’s a lot of worry on top of the physical effort of walking hundreds of miles, and wild camping, and carrying everything on your back. It’s a lot anyway, but at least usually you can just enjoy it. The actual emotional effort of walking during this pandemic has been major. It’s been really major 

On this journey, you have to learn to rest properly as well as exert yourself properly. You have to learn when you need to stop, and when you need to rest. And how to rest. That’s something this journey’s taught me.  

You can read more about Ursula’s journey at:

Main Photo: Ursula Martin, Pyrenees Mountain Range



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