You may not cover much ground when you tour Europe by foot, but there's no better way to get a wonderfully intimate look at the countryside. When you have laboriously climbed the twisting path of a long hill, its image is burned into memory: every rock you stumbled over, every flower you stopped to sniff.

Six years ago, my wife and I signed up with a tour company for what turned out to be an exceptional adventure in Italy. For nine days, we hiked the gorgeous hills and valleys of southern Tuscany, arriving at the end of each day's journey at a comfortable inn in a small and historic hilltop village. We had so much fun, we took another walking tour the following year, a 15-day ramble through the famed Loire Valley of France.

As recently as six years ago, such escorted walking tours of Europe -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- were something of a novelty, and only a relatively few tour organizers offered them. Since then, however, exploring Europe by foot seems to have captured the imagination of athletic-minded Americans. Dozens of tour companies have put together walking excursions throughout

Europe, including Eastern Europe. Some of them are bicycling companies that have added walking tours for clients who want to linger along the way.

A traveler with a good pair of walking shoes has many options. There are easy hikes on country roads as well as strenuous ones ascending mountain trails. You can spend the night in your own tent or enjoy the comforts of small inns or some of Europe's finest five-star hotels. On some trips, you tote your belongings in a backpack; on others, a van shuttles your luggage to the next destination, so that it is waiting in your room when you arrive. You can choose to hike from point to point or stay in one village and make a series of day trips, returning to the same inn each night. The possibilities this summer and fall include:

An easygoing hike through Italy's northern lake country, staying only in luxurious four- or five-star hotels.

A rugged trek through the Transylvanian Alps of Romania, sharing rustic mountain lodges with mostly East European hikers. (Mountain treks also are available in Poland and Czechoslovakia.)

A moderately priced ramble through the heart of Ireland making use of the country's many hostels, each separated by a day's walk.

Several comfortably paced walks through the scenic wine country of Italy, where you can sample the local product in charming country inns.

Leisurely ambles through the literary countryside of England, Scotland and Wales described by such authors as Thomas Hardy, James Herriot and Sir Walter Scott.

A week's sojourn in an ancient village in southern France taking daily hikes into the spectacular gorge of the Verdon River.

A hearty trek along remote trails in the Pindus Mountains of northern Greece.

A moderate-to-strenuous hike into the high Alps of France, Italy and Switzerland, staying in mountain lodges.

A meandering walk through the ripening vineyards of Alsace on the French-West German border, an area reputed to have the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world.

The surge of interest in walking tours prompted one Boulder, Colo., travel agency, All Adventure Travel, to begin specializing this year in nothing but escorted bicycling and walking tours. The owners, Pat and Julio Halty, are bicyclists themselves, but they discovered a lot of their customers preferred to travel afoot. The firm currently serves as a clearinghouse or reservation service for about 25 walking tour companies, and the number is growing.

Most of the tour companies are small operations, according to Pat Halty, who with her husband previously owned a travel agency in Falls Church. The companies generally are run by outdoor enthusiasts -- "one-man {or -woman} bands," she says -- who have turned a pastime into a profession.

For example, the two founders of Distant Journeys of Camden, Maine, one of the hiking groups represented by the Haltys, are regular instructors at Outward Bound, the outdoor school. On their own time, they lead summer walking tours in the Alps.

Some of the walking tour companies are American-owned; others are European-owned. Those with American owners tend to fill with Americans and Canadians. European operators usually attract a mix of Europeans as well as hikers from other English-speaking nations. On both of our trips, we hiked with the Alternative Travel Group of Oxford, England. In Tuscany, we were the only Americans in our group; the rest were from Great Britain. I felt I learned more from the British than I might have walking with Americans only.

Pat Halty attributes the growing popularity of walking tours to the aging of the baby boom generation. A few years back, the boomers generated a substantial business for sometimes risky adventure travel. Now that they have matured and acquired families, some are looking for softer adventures. Walking tours attract participants young and old. The age range extends from about 30 to 70 and even 80 and older.

Age really isn't what counts on a walking trip. More important, says Halty, is how fit you are. "My 50-plus clients are in good shape. They are better off than the yuppies who sit in an office all day. The yuppies think they are jocks, but they get out there and they are in trouble, especially at high altitudes."

Anyone contemplating a walking tour should find out how easy or strenuous it is. Many tour operators offering easier walks shy away from using the word "hike," which they think creates an image of arduous backpacking. A "hike," however, is usually not as difficult as a "trek" or a "climb," two other words you may read in the brochures. Whatever the degree of difficulty, you should undertake a training regimen of long walks before you leave home. This is a good time to break in new boots.

The price for a European walking holiday can run from $60 or $75 a day per person to as much as $300. The price varies for several reasons, says Halty, and you can pick a tour to suit your budget and your style of traveling. However, when opting for a lower price, be sure to find out what you are getting.

The type of accommodations is usually the primary factor in price variation. Some tour companies put you up in inexpensive hostels or public mountain lodges while others favor Europe's grand hotels. Some tours are all inclusive -- you pay one price, and it covers all meals, wine and museum entrance fees. Other companies provide breakfast only, and you dine wherever you choose -- at an additional cost.

The country in which you are walking also is a consideration in the price. Greece, Portugal and Spain are inexpensive. In France's Loire Valley and the wine country of Italy, you can expect to pay much more.

A more subtle distinction is the ratio between guides and participants. "We like an eight-to-one ratio," says Halty. "I get concerned when it's 15 to one. It becomes a mob scene." The fewer people per guide, of course, the higher the tour price. Some firms offer such extras as wine tastings, quick cooking lessons, fancy trail maps and passes on Europe's Alpine cable car networks.

On a walking trip, you probably will cover no more than six to eight miles a day, which is not a great distance if the terrain has no steep ascents. On our trip to Tuscany, we maintained a leisurely pace. We arrived at each village in the afternoon, giving us time to explore and to enjoy a beer or a glass of wine in the town square before dinner.

We saw only a little of Tuscany, but we saw it in depth. I felt our itinerary offered a nice blend of outdoor recreation, historic sightseeing, sociable company, fine dining and comfortable -- even romantic -- lodgings. That's why we went back for a second helping in France the very next year.

Among the many travel companies offering escorted walks in Europe this summer:

Alternative Travel Group: One of the oldest of the walking tour companies, Alternative Travel Group began by specializing in Italian jaunts and then expanded to include tours in France, Portugal, Spain, the Alps and Turkey. Its colorful 30-page catalogue lists about 20 itineraries, lasting from nine to 11 days, and dozens of departures from spring into winter.

The firm's prices tend to be on the high side, compared to other companies, but almost everything is included in the cost except air fare. The local wine flows as freely as you might wish at lunch and dinner.

Perhaps the firm's most popular hikes are the "Tuscan Trail" and the "Southern Tuscan Trail." Guides escort you over country lanes and hilltop trails away from highway traffic. A vehicle shuttles your luggage on to the next hilltop village. One night in southern Tuscany is spent at a historic hot springs spa, Bagno Vignoni, where you soak your muscles and drink in a splendid view.

The nine-day Tuscan Trail tour is $1,745; the 11-day Southern Tuscan Trail tour is $1,975. Air fare to Pisa is additional. There are frequent departures through October.

For information: Alternative Travel Group Ltd., 1-3 George St., Oxford, OX1 2AZ, England, 1-800-527-5997.

Butterfield & Robinson: This Canadian firm began offering bicycle tours 24 years ago and since has added a small selection of walking tours. They are, however, among the fanciest -- and most expensive -- walking tours on the market. Accommodations are in chateaux, villas and small-town auberges and country inns. The company offers five- to nine-day walks in the Alsace, Bordeaux and Dordogne Valley regions of France; the Swiss Alps; and the Lake Country, Chianti and Tuscany regions of Italy.

With Alternative Travel, you walk with one or more guides. Butterfield & Robinson offers a variation. You can choose to accompany a guide, but the firm also distributes maps of each tour segment so you can find your own way to the next destination. "You're definitely self-sufficient," says spokesperson Sue Avis. A van carries the luggage. The firm generally plans two-night stops in each destination; many companies stay in a different town each evening.

The eight-day Alsace itinerary links what the firm describes as "the tiny half-timbered, flower-bedecked villages for which Alsace is famous." The price is $2,295 per person, excluding air fare to Strasbourg. Departures are June 9, July 14, Aug. 18, Sept. 1 and 29.

For information: Butterfield & Robinson, 70 Bond St., Suite 300, Toronto, M5B 1X3, Canada, 1-800-387-1147 and (416) 864-1354.

The Wayfarers: This English walking company devotes its energies to the homeland, offering a series of six-night tours along country lanes and ancient right-of-ways. Several of the tours have a literary flavor, among them "Sir Walter Scott's Borders," "Thomas Hardy's Dorset" and "James Herriot's Yorkshire." Also very popular are walks in England's Cotswolds, which tend to sell out quickly.

On these trips, a guide leads the way, a van carries the luggage and you stay in small inns and country hotels. On the "Thomas Hardy" tour, you pass through picturesque villages and the gently rolling hills of Wessex in southwestern England. The price for this and all other tours is 675 British pounds, or about $1,100. Departures for the "Thomas Hardy" are Aug. 5 and Sept. 30.

For information: Contact the U.S. office of The Wayfarers at 166 Thames St., Newport, R.I. 02840, (401) 849-5087.

American Youth Hostels: In this year's tour catalogue, American Youth Hostels offers three all-inclusive hikes -- to Ireland, the Swiss Alps and the French and Italian Alps. Each lasts 16 days. You stay in inexpensive dorm accommodations in hostels, which keeps the price down.

The organization's "Shamrock Shuffle," a circle tour out of Dublin, costs $2,350 per person, including round-trip air fare from New York City. A guide leads the way. You must take a backpack and carry your belongings. There is one departure for adults age 18 or over on Aug. 17; a second departure open to younger hikers is scheduled for July 27.

For information: American Youth Hostels, 1017 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001, 783-4943.

Worldwide Walking: Long a specialist in winter cross-country skiing tours, this New Jersey firm recently has introduced a series of walking tours to such unusual destinations as the Tatra Mountain region on the Polish-Czechoslovak border, several mountain regions in Norway and to Lapland in northern Finland.

The Tatra Mountain trips are aimed at more adventurous travelers since several nights are spent in bunk rooms in mountain lodges. While in the mountains, you carry your gear in a backpack. However, distances are not great, and any reasonably fit adult should be able to make it, says Jay Nemaroff, who heads the firm. In Finland, you stay in Lapp houses or in tents. In Norway, accommodations are in comfortable inns.

The 13-day, two-country Tatra Mountain tour begins in Krakow in Poland and ends in Prague. In both cities, accommodations are in first-class hotels. The price is $1,090 per person, including lodging and meals but not air fare. Departures are July 15, Aug. 12 and Sept. 2.

For information: Worldwide Walking, P.O. Box 1129, Maplewood, N.J. 07040, (201) 378-9170.

The French Experience: France is the specialty of the French Experience, a New York travel agency that this year is introducing an unusual walking holiday in Provence. Participants stay for a week in a small hotel in the ancient village of Moustiers Sainte Marie in Provence, about 60 miles north of Nice. Each day you can join an escorted hike, either in the spectacularly scenic Gorge du Verdon -- a deep river canyon -- or to mountain villages or through the Provence countryside.

A different hike is scheduled every day of the week, and they are available from June through October. You can begin the week's cycle any day of the week. Picnic lunches are provided along the way. Swimming and windsurfing are available in nearby lakes. The price is $918 per person (based on double occupancy). This includes lodging for six nights, all meals, six hikes and transfers from Nice.

For information: The French Experience, 370 Lexington Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017, 1-800-283-72623 and (212) 986-1115.

Distant Journeys: The two Outward Bound instructors who head this firm, Andrea Ellison and Julie Head, concentrate on alpine excursions. Their basic trip is the classic "Tour du Mont Blanc," a 13-day circle route that begins in Chamonix in France, crosses into the Italian and Swiss Alps and returns to its starting point.

The scenery is gorgeous, says Ellison, but you can expect moderate-to-strenuous hiking at higher altitudes (though under 9,000 feet). Accommodations are in modest hotels or in mountain lodges or refuges. You will have to carry a backpack with clothing changes and rain gear. The price is $1,250 per person, which includes lodging and most meals; air fare to Geneva is extra. Departures are June 25, Aug. 27 and Sept. 10. There are seven-day versions of the trip at $925 per person.

For information: Distant Journeys, Box 1211, Camden, Maine 04843, (207) 781-5339.

Above the Clouds Trekking: Among the few Americans who find their way to Romania's Transylvania Alps are the small groups that have been led there by this Worcester, Mass., firm since 1984. These 16-day trips are not for everyone, since Romania's mountain lodges are very basic, according to the firm's Steve Conlon. However, the scenery is beautiful, and you have the opportunity to meet and talk with hikers from other Eastern European countries.

The hiking is "surprisingly rugged," says Conlon, so you should be in good shape. Daily distances covered are longer, and you will have to carry a good-sized backpack. Four nights are spent in Bucharest, the Romanian capital. The price is $1,400 per person, which includes lodging and food; air fare is extra. Departures are Aug. 2 and Aug. 16.

For information: Above the Clouds Trekking, P.O. Box 398, Worcester, Mass. 01602, 1-800-233-4499 and (508) 799-4499.

Classic Bicycle Tours and Treks: The craggy Pindus Mountains of northern Greece are not lofty, says manager Dale Hart of Classic Bicycle Tours and Treks of Clarkson, N.Y. "Their unique beauty stems from a preservation of old village life alongside a fast disappearing monastic and shepherd culture."

His firm has put together a 13-day itinerary on marked but remote mountain trails. Accommodations are in small hotels, village houses and mountain hostels. Anyone in good physical condition should be able to complete the hike. Mules carry the luggage. The price is $1,089, which includes lodging, breakfasts and two dinners; air fare is extra. Departures are June 29 and Aug. 31. In 1991, the firm is adding a Crete itinerary.

For information: Classic Bicycle Tours and Treks, P.O. Box 668, Clarkson, N.Y. 14430, 1-800-777-8090 and (716) 637-5970.

Peregrine Adventures: Each spring, Peregrine Adventures of Park City, Utah, puts together several 15-day walking tours of the little-visited islands of Greece. You spend two or three days on each island taking day hikes and then travel on to the next island by ferry. This year's program has been completed, but similar trips are planned for 1991. The price this year was $2,195 per person, which included lodging, meals and air fare from New York.

In late summer and fall, Peregrine has scheduled a 15-day combination walking and sailing tour of Turkey called the "Ottoman Odyssey." First stop is Istanbul for sightseeing; you continue on to the culturally interesting area of Cappadocia in central Turkey and complete the journey with a week-long cruise along the Aegean Coast. The price is $2,995 per person, including air fare from New York. Departures are Aug. 23 and Sept. 6, 16 and 29.

For information: Peregrine Adventures, Box 3838, Park City, Utah 84060, (801) 649-0460.

Tre Laghi Travel: Tre Laghi Travel's nine-day "Grand Hotel Tour" of northern Italy's Lake Country is aimed at the hiker with a love of comfort and good food. All accommodations are in four- and five-star hotels. Among them is the majestic 18th-century Grand Hotel Villa d'Este on Lake Como, where the group spends two nights.

On this tour, Tre Laghi offers a choice of a leisurely hike to the next destination or a longer one, if you are so inclined. Luggage is carried by a van. The price is $2,560 per person, which includes lodging, breakfasts and dinners. Air fare is extra. Departures are July 24 and Aug. 31. A less expensive version with accommodations in more modest hotels is $1,570.

For information: Tre Laghi Travel, 301 Southwest Lincoln, Suite 802, Portland, Ore. 97201, (503) 274-2827.

For Information All Adventure Travel, a travel agency specializing in bicycling and walking tours, publishes a 28-page catalogue of trips throughout the world, including a substantial number in Europe. The firm can book a tour and handle the necessary air connections and other travel arrangements. For a copy: P.O. Box 4307, Boulder, Colo. 80306, 1-800-537-4025 and (303) 939-8885.

Outside, an excellent outdoor sports magazine, runs a multi-page advertising section each month called "The Active Traveler." In it, tour companies list upcoming adventure trips, including all kinds of European hikes. Copies are available at most newsstands.

"Downhill Walking in Switzerland," by Richard and Linda Williams, is a new, self-published paperback describing day hikes in the Swiss Alps. As the title suggests, their 94-page book urges you to take advantage of the country's cable cars to get to the top of the mountain, and then you walk back down. For a copy: Send a check for $14.95 to Old World Travel Books, P.O. Box 700863, Tulsa, Okla. 74170, (918) 493-2642.