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Dutch author finds love of walking in Palestine

March 19, 2012 6:18 P.M. (Updated: April 4, 2012 9:14 A.M.)
By: Charlotte Alfred
JERUSALEM (Ma'an) -- Three years ago, a Dutch economic adviser to the Middle East Quartet set off into the wilds of the northern Jordan Valley to find a mountain biking route.

His book 'Walking Palestine' is published this month, 125 West Bank walks later.

Stefan Szepesi, 32, never found a place to mountain bike. Instead, Palestine converted him to the art of walking.

"I always thought walking was for old people ... I found my love for walking here," Szepesi told Ma'an.

The book compiles 25 walking itineraries, with hiking maps, detailed directions, and local attractions on the way. "These are the first Palestinian-created hiking maps," Szepesi said, who worked with local mappers Applied Research Institute -- Jerusalem.

"Walking is more educational than sitting in Ramallah talking to diplomats, Israelis and the Palestinian Authority," he said.

"I spent two to three years on trips with (Quartet representative) Tony Blair which were always to cities. So we took him on a walking tour near Sebastia, which was the first moment we were really in the countryside," the economist recalled.

This was an important visit for the Quartet representative, as Nablus-district archeological site Sebastia lies in Area C, so is off limits to the Palestinian Authority, and ignored by Israeli authorities, Szepesi stresses, clearly shocked by the lack of protection for the ancient ruins.

Irritated by the portrayal of Palestinians as mired in victim-hood and conflict, the Dutchman built the walks around themes "people don't associate with Palestine," including archeology, botany and a beer brewery.

He also hopes that Palestinians "discover their own country," through walking, a hobby still in its infancy in Palestine.

Szepesi worked with Palestinian walking experts, who are extensively profiled in the book. Human rights advocate Raja Shehadeh's prizewinning work 'Palestinian Walks' was an inspiration for the guidebook, and Shehadah writes him a glowing foreword. The US publishers are still looking for an Arabic publisher to take on the guide, Szepesi notes.

But in an occupied territory fragmented by settlements and Israeli military control, he admits many have asked about safety concerns.

"Honestly, the most dangerous thing is the drive to and from the walk, many people get lost," he assures.

Szepesi encouraged bands of walkers -- diplomats, journalists, Palestinian hikers -- to test out his walks and give him feedback on any obstacles.

"There had never been any danger from the conflict" he said, adding "but there are some funny stories."

"Once we started out in a wadi and the path kept getting smaller and smaller until we were in one-meter-high rubbish in a dump site," he recounted.

"Another group found the bridge across a sewage stream near Mar Saba monastery had been removed, so they walked down the river bed and built another bridge with scrap iron."

The routes were amended accordingly, he notes with a grin.

'Walking Palestine' is published by Interlink Walking Guides in the US, and Signal Books in the UK. It can be purchased from the Educational Bookshop in Jerusalem and feedback on walks can be submitted at www.walkingpalestine.org.
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