Loch Morlich in the Cairngorm National Park, Scotland.
Most of us love Europe precisely because it is such a civilised place. Picturesque medieval city centres, museums packed with priceless paintings, cathedrals that are works of art in their own right: no matter which country you visit, rich troves of culture and history can be found around every corner. When you need a break, there is always an elegant cafe, a rustic trattoria, or a chic wine bar where you can take a breather.
There is, however, another side to the continent: its wild places. The menacing woods that loom large in our favourite fairy tales, filled with hungry predators, covered much of this continent just a few centuries ago. What may surprise some people is that you can still find remnants of wilderness right across the continent, including pockets where bears and wolves still roam.
From France’s high-altitude plains to Corsica’s dramatic gorges, Transylvania’s pristine forests to Slovenia’s glacially-fed rivers, there is a continent’s worth of epic landscapes to explore. Try out some of these memorable escapes to discover a very different side of Europe.
Stunning summer alpine landscape with green fields and high snowy mountains, Bran, Transylvania, Romania, Europe.
Picos de Europa, Spain
Mention Spain and what comes to mind are images of buzzing cities such as Barcelona and Seville, sandy beaches and ancient pilgrim trails. Wild mountain landscapes, not so much. However, the Picos de Europa, a series of limestone massifs overlooking northern Spain’s Atlantic coast, offers some wonderful high-altitude hiking opportunities. You can follow trails to the pretty lakes of Covadonga, walk paths carved out of the cliff along the Garganta de Cares, a 1000-metre-deep gorge that stretches for 12 kilometres, or hike along ancient shepherd paths that meander through verdant meadows and beech forests. Along the way, you can visit traditional hamlets such as Sotres and Bulnes, which to this day is inaccessible by road. Whichever path you take, you are guaranteed to soak up some of Spain’s most dramatic scenery along the way.
Woman hiking with the Alps and Alpine lake in the background.
Explore’s seven-night tour, On Foot in the Picos de Europa, uses the highest village in the area as a base, and offers a series of inspiring day walks. From £745 ($1394). See explore.co.uk
Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
One of Europe’s smallest countries, Scotland is also among its wildest, with just 2 per cent of the country classed as urban. The landscape is studded with ancient forests, cascading waterfalls and tranquil lochs; you will find all of these in Cairngorms National Park in the Highlands, along with five of the United Kingdom’s six highest mountains. The park, which is twice the size of England’s Lake District, has many pretty villages and – this being Scotland – plenty of boutique distilleries. It also has many different moods. For wildlife spotting, head for the harshly beautiful Cairngorm Plateau, where you may see mountain hares, golden eagles, ptarmigan, capercaillie and wildcats. If you prefer a more bucolic outdoors experience, take a picnic to the lovely Loch an Eilein, which comes complete with its own island crowned with a 13th-century castle.
Norwegian landscape: village, mountain and sea.
Wilderness Scotland offers a six-night hiking trip through the Cairngorms including some of the park’s most famous trails exploring the Abernethy Forest and Glen Feshie, as well as following ancient whisky smugglers’ routes. From £1295. See wildernessscotland.com; visitcairngorms.com
There’s more to Transylvania than vampires. Although this area is best-known as the home of the mythical Count Dracula, its location in the eastern Carpathian Mountains makes it part of what many consider to be Europe’s last great wilderness. Transylvania’s dense forests are known for their biodiversity: they are home to Europe’s largest populations of bears, wolves and lynx, along with one third of Europe’s plant species. The beauty of these woodlands draws visitors from around the world, as do the area’s castles, fortified churches and medieval towns. Picturesque settlements such as Sighisoara, Brasov and Sibiu, founded by 12th-century immigrants from Saxony, are a lovely place to relax after a wilderness adventure.
Gorges de Spelunca is high part of Porto Valley between Evisa and Ota Villages, The sea coast of Porto Bay is at background, Aitone forest covers the Canyon and the valley.
U-Tracks’ five-night Transylvania Castles Mountains self-guided walk takes in some of the area’s most dramatic landscapes, including the Bucegi Mountains. Luggage is transferred each day while you are walking. From $900, see worldexpeditions.com
Slovenia has a reputation as one of Europe’s most photogenic countries, but what you may not realise is that pretty much every Instagram-worthy image of Slovenia that you have ever seen will have been shot in the Gorenjska region. Pristine lakes, soaring peaks, forests, waterfalls – this area has a kaleidoscopic range of terrains, each more beautiful than the next. You can take to the water for rafting, kayaking or riverboarding, or try rock climbing, cycling, horse riding or even caving. Must-visits include the lovely Lake Bohinj, the gorgeous Mostnica Gorge and the forests of the Pokljuka plateau. In winter, there is plenty of skiing and snowshoeing, while spring is the time to come if you want to see the Alpine meadows filled with wildflowers.
Fishing on beautiful mountain lake, National Park Sutjeska.
Naturetrek’s seven-night Slovenia: Alpine Flowers of the Julian Alps trip captures all the beauty of an Alpine spring. Expect superb birdwatching – including woodpeckers and Bonelli’s warbler – as well as swathes of wildflowers. From £1395. See naturetrek.co.uk
Western Norway’s spectacular landscapes, carved out by glaciers across several ice ages, are among Europe’s most celebrated outdoor destinations. Spectacular fiords are slashed into the coastline, their tranquil waters protected by sheer cliff faces. The area’s small settlements are dwarfed by the majestic surroundings, and sightings of eagles and seals add the sense of being adrift in the wild. The lively town of Bergen makes a good base for exploring the area. There are all sorts of ways to soak up the beauty: you might try cruising down Lysefjord, trekking the glacier walks of Hardangerfiord, and admiring the waterfalls of Sognefiorden. Cyclists will love the 80-kilometre Rallarvegen, the cycle track built along the old service road used during the construction of the Bergen rail line.
A herd of hundreds of mountain goats being driven down a mountain road with sunlight streaming through their cloud of dust at sunset in the Tusheti National Park, northeastern Georgia.
G Adventures has a six-night Norwegian Fiord Trekking itinerary featuring daily walks. Highlights include a walk across the Buer Glacier and a full-day hike up the challenging Trolltunga, or Troll’s Tongue. From $2720. See gadventures.com
Southern Corsica, France
Seen one Mediterranean island, seen ’em all? Not by a long shot. Head inland, away from the glitzy coastal resorts, and you will find that Corsica is still wild at heart. Expect epic landscapes, including saw-toothed mountains, dramatic rock formations and foaming rivers, along with indigenous flora such as the towering lariccio pine and the aromatic macchia bush. Adventurers know Corsica as the home of one of Europe’s toughest long-distance trails, the 180-kilometre-long GR 20, which bisects the island diagonally. There are also less hardcore options, with Southern Corsica’s best hikes including walks through the forest of Aitone, with its series of pretty waterholes, and Spelunca Gorge, where the river rushes along between the canyon’s orange granite walls.
A hiker walks on the edge of lac Sainte Anne in Queyras, the Alps, France.
Walks Worldwide offers a seven-night self-guided itinerary, From Mountains to Coast, which starts in Corte and takes in highlights such as the Scala Santa Regina Gorge before finishing in Piana. From £989, see walksworldwide.com
Sutjeska National Park, Bosnia Herzegovina
Visitors to Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, find that the conflicts that swept through this region in the 1990s have left their mark. Out in the countryside, however, you can escape the dark history and enjoy an untouched wilderness. In Sutjeska National Park, you can wander through one of the last primeval forests in Europe, beneath ancient beech trees that tower more than 60 metres high, hike through deep canyons and across mountain slopes, and perhaps encounter some of the endangered animals that are occasionally seen here, including bear, chamois, wolves, martens and wild cats. On a summer’s day, hikers can cool off in the glacial waters of Trnovačko Lake, set in an astounding natural amphitheatre surrounded by rocky peaks.
Exodus Travel offers an eight-night Walking in Bosnia-Herzegovina itinerary that takes in Sarajevo and Mostar as well as Sutjeska National Park. From $2206. See exodustravels.com
Tusheti Mountains, Georgia
There’s some debate about whether Georgia sits in Europe or Asia, but most Georgians consider themselves to be European, which is good enough for us – particularly since it lets us include the magnificent Caucasus region in this list. In the Tusheti National Park, snow-covered peaks, soaring more than 4000 metres into the sky, frame a landscape of gorges and wildflower-filled meadows, pine and birch forests. This spectacular area spent many centuries cut off from the wider world; even today, there is just one road in, and it is only open a few months a year, from June to October. Its remoteness has made it a haven for endangered species, including chamois, lynx and Anatolian leopards, but it’s the warmth of the locals that will make the biggest impression. In ancient villages such as Omato, Dartlo and Gorgulta, keep an eye out for the centuries-old defensive towers that once provided protection from marauders.
Go Barefoot’s eight-night Vines of Adventure itinerary offers plenty of opportunities for hiking and cycling in the Caucasus. From £1795 a person. See gobarefoot.travel
The Queyras, France
Cheeses, churches and champagne: cultural and culinary attractions are what France has built its reputation on. Surprisingly, this oh-so-civilised country still has patches of wild terrain, particularly along its Alpine areas. Few are as untouched as the Queyras, which only opened itself up to tourism towards the end of the last century. The area is known for its varied landscapes – including rocky deserts, alpine meadows and high altitude lakes – its extraordinary range of flowers, and for an animal population that includes chamois, ibex, marmots, wolves and golden eagles. As many of the trails sit between 2000 and 3000 metres, some hikers may experience the effects of altitude, but it is worth it to discover such remarkable sites as the soaring peak of the Col Vieux and the Guill valley, with its remarkable 16th-century chateau.
Highpoint Holidays has an eight-night self-guided Tour of Queyras – an Alpine Secret. Your luggage is transferred between guest houses, so all you have to carry is your day pack. From £855. See highpointholidays.co.uk
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