The Alpine city of Chamonix is famous the world over as the premier luxury ski capital. But beyond the glamorous Alpine resort, there are many smaller towns, villages and hamlet, including the wee hamlet of Montvauthier, on the edge of the Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron. And though Mont Blanc is the famous Alpine mountain, there are many other lesser-known places for hiking in the Alps. The beautiful reserve of the Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron, created in 1991, is part of the Arve Valley, and is distinguished by high peaks, lush woodlands, and rich flora and fauna. The peaks of Carlaveyron were almost given over to more than a dozen lifts but luckily instead, Carlaveyron was designated as a nature reserve, protecting the rich Alpine flora and fauna of the Haute-Savoie. At heights ranging from 1,000-2,300 metres (3,200-7,500ft), the hiking is rough but the fantastic panoramas are worth it. Carlaveyron is also home to the impressive Gorges de la Diosaz, an impressive river gorge at the foot of the mountain. The mountainous reserve is also home to everything from owls to deer, lynx (reintroduced 1970 – there are now about 300!), chamois, eagles, and many species of bird. Hiking in the park can range from short (though steep) hikes to much more difficult Alpine hiking for more experienced hikers used to rough footing, steep ascents and high altitudes. If you’re only looking to do a couple of kilometres, try starting your hike from the Servoz train station, or even the car park of Diosaz. The magical panoramas will carry you up the mountain…
Pro trip: While in the Alps, you’ll have to try some local delicacies like tartiflette, raclette, fondu or even pizza! There are many regional Alpine cheeses to taste as well.
Greeting you as you traverse forgotten paths through dark forests, red-brick turrets of a fairytale castle rise through the waves of golden trees on a crisp autumn day. This is the beautiful Turaida Castle. To though there is a bus, a far more enjoyable way to find Turaida Castle is to be mistaken for a German tourist at the Sigulda train station, be handed a map in German and told to follow it through the town of Sigulda, past the first, then second set of castle ruins, over the impressive Gauja River Gorge in a little yellow cable car, through the magnificently eerie woods, past the magical Gutmanis Cave, and finally, to the turrets of Turaida Castle itself. Built in 1214, demolished in 1776 by fire, then partially restored in the last decade, “Thor’s Garden,” as it translates to in Livonian, is a medieval castle on the Gauja River built by Albert, archbishop of Riga. Today there is a small folk park area and sculpture garden outside, as well as the castle of towers, walls and outbuildings. Though of course Turaida Castle is still an impressive place when arriving by bus or car, hiking through the quiet trails of the Gauja River Valley from Sigulda Train Station, and exploring the region on foot is what truly makes visiting this castle a magical experience fit for a modern explorer time-travelling to the Middle Ages.
Pro tip: Pick up a map from the Sigulda Train Station and hike to the castle! The Gauja River Valley is magical to explore on foot. You’ll have to take the cable car to Krimulda, which operates daily from 10-18h30 (or 17h in winter), and currently costs €12 (the views are worth it!). The whole hike is about 5km with deviations to Sigulda Castle or Gutmanis Cave adding a wee bit more on. Once you visit the castle, you can then take the bus back to Sigulda. There is a tiny (and very simple) restaurant near the castle, but you may want to bring a picnic. Cable car info here.
The coast of southern France is a fascinating place. Not far from the city of Marseilles, the coast erupts in series of jagged finger-like formations. This is the Massif des Calanques, a collection of impressive narrow inlets with steep walls rising on either side that comprise the Calanques National Park. As these walls are made of soft rocks like limestone, erosion carves out stunning jagged landscapes filled with turquoise waters – the picture of tranquillity. The Calanque de Morigou is one of the largest of the whole Massif des Calanques park. At its base are beaches and a narrow harbour where those so inclined can explore this exotic landscape by boat. Above, the landscape of the Calanque de Morgiou is no less impressive as the panoramas over these rugged headlands under the brilliant French sunshine is magnificent. Many hiking trails criss-cross this landscape, perfect for hikers of all abilities. Once a fishing port because of its strategic and protective location, the harbour at the Calanque of Morgiou is famed for giant tuna fishing hosted by the Marseillais when King Louis XIII visited the region in 1622. It is here too that we find the submerged entrance to the astounding Cosquer Cave, some 37 metres (121 feet) below sea level. After divers swim through a 175-metre (574 ft) tunnel, the narrow entrance opens into the Cosquer Cave – a cavern full of prehistoric art, including 65 stencils of human hands made 27,000 years ago! Though rising water levels have destroyed most of the art, there are still about 150 paintings visible. Even if you can’t see this amazing cave, the Calanques – and the Calanque de Morgiou in particular – are such a spectacular place to visit.
Pro tip: Hike to the Cap Sutigan overlooking the Calanque de Morgiou from the University (even accessible via bus from Marseille). Or drive down to the harbour itself on a road from Marseille suburb, Les Baumettes.
Rising above the city of Belfast is the beautiful landscape of Cavehill Country Park. Once part of Belfast Castle’s extensive estate, the hill is covered in lush woodland criss-crossed with narrow muddy tracks. After meandering on an upwardly-sloping path under a canopy of leaves, you suddenly break out into a beautiful panorama – behind you to one side is an aerial view of all Belfast, the little streets and buildings looking small at the bottom of the hills. And on the other side the landscape of Cavehill seems as if it comes straight out of a fairytale land, dramatic emerald and golden hills punctured with mysterious caves. It seems perhaps a scene you’d find in The Chronicles of Narnia – you almost expect to see fauns and centaurs and talking animals wandering about the hills. Even though you haven’t quite crossed over into a magical land, you’re as close as you can get – CS Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia grew up in Belfast (and was educated at Oxford) and spent his boyhood exploring these hills – the Mourne Mountains to the south up to the Causeway Coast to the north (Dunluce Castle is said to have been the inspiration of the ruined Cair Paravel in Prince Caspian). It’s reasonable to expect that CS Lewis would have climbed the slopes of Cavehill just behind his hometown, and it’s again reasonable to expect that the places he encountered in Ireland as a boy would have formed as inspiration for Narnia. Interesting again that the “real world” places of TheChronicles of Narnia resemble Oxford and its environs, but the mystical, magical places of Narnia and other magical lands find their inspirations in the landscapes of Ireland…perhaps Ireland is just a magical place.
Pro tip: There is a family-friendly car park to go straight to the top of the hill to McArt’s Fort, but you’ll miss the hike, forest, and actual cave hills in the panorama above. It’s worth it to start at Belfast Castle and do the full loop – at 6.5-7km, it should take you about 2 hours. It can be muddy, so bring your boots and waterproof jacket. As of this post, the route from Belfast Zoo is closed (but not the castle). Check here for hiking info.
Coumshingaun Lake of Comeragh Mountains, Co Waterford, Ireland
Ireland is a wealth of natural wonders – and the beautiful Comeragh Mountains located in southeast Ireland are one such wonder! Generally visited only by other Irish, and then again, largely by those already living in the southeast (such as residents of Kilkenny, Cork, Waterford or Wexford), the Comeragh Mountains aren’t on most Irish tourism itineraries, even for hiking enthusiasts who make a beeline for the west coast. Within the already-magnificent Comeragh Mountains, Coumshingaun Lough (or lake) is of particular note. Though small enough, Coumshingaun is a corrie lake – a small, round lake carved deep into the mountainside, left behind by the massive glaciers that once covered Ireland during the Ice Age. Surrounded by 400 meter (1,300ft) cliffs that drop dramatically down into the glistening corrie lake far below, the whole setting is utterly stunning. Even more so when you consider your hike – a narrow, rocky trail that encircles the cliff edge all around the horseshoe-shaped canyon. Not for the faint hearted, expect to use both hands and feet as you hike up steep and mucky terrain, scrambling over rocks and boulders and trekking through wet boggy ground. Though not an easy hike, you’ll be rewarded with jaw-dropping views over Coumshingaun Lake, the Comeragh Mountains and emerald hills stretching out to the horizon.
Pro tip: Not a great walk for children (unless quite fit and agile) or those who suffer from vertigo. Dogs are allowed on the land, but unless your dog is good at climbing, we recommend leaving them at home (though dogs who are used to scrambling up rocks and boulders will do just fine). No toilets, and only limited parking/picnicking space. Combine with a visit to the nearby Lismore Castle Gardens. Start point is at the Kilclooney Wood Car Park(parking is free). The hike is about 7.5km, longer (about 8.5 km) if you also walk to the lake’s edge.
Antica Mulattiera (Mule Track) in the Val de Susa, Italy
The antica mulattiera or ancient mule path carves its way up the mountain deep with the Val de Susa, carrying pilgrims to the Sacra di San Michele as it has done for at least a thousand years. Hidden amongst the curves one will find 15 “stations of the cross,” stone crosses each representing a different “station” – a stark reminder to the route’s pilgrims of why they are here. Cobblestones smoothed by the centuries, sharp edges worn away by thousands if not millions of pilgrim’s boots make up the rugged path that hugs Monte Pirchiriano in northern Italy. Leave behind the 21st century to follow the antica mulattiera through the Val de Susa, travelling back in time to the Middle Ages when pilgrimages were a normal part of life for every believer. In your modern homage to ancient pilgrimages, follow this quiet forest path and enter into nature as you make your own pilgrimage to the monastery at the top. Not only will you be able to approach the monastery in the traditional way and understand what life would have been like for a medieval pilgrim, but along the way you’ll be privy to amazing views, hillside villages and centuries of tradition. As you make your soul-searching pilgrimage, you’ll have time to reflect on life and destiny. By the time you reach the top, you may very well be a changed person.
Pro tip: Start your walk from behind the church of Saint-Ambrogio of Torino, a short train ride from the city of Torino. From the train station, it’s about a 3km walk each way. Visit in the winter to avoid other tourists and marvel at the snow-dusted woodlands and mountaintops. Due to slippery stones and leaves underfoot as well as some muddy patches, we recommend sturdy shoes for this walk.
France is a country of many wonders, be they natural, cultural or a bit of both. One of the most underrated regions of France is the Ardèche, a small sun-kissed, hilly place in the south-central region of France. Though the Ardèche has its fair share of tourists, they are mostly French, mostly local, and mostly converged around a couple of over-visited spots such as Vallon du Pont d’Arc. Places like Largentière and Baluzac are breath-taking medieval splendours well worth a visit when you’re in the region. But the most spectacular part of Ardèche is probably the Réserve Naturelle des Gorges d’Ardeche. Actually made up of a series of gorges carved out over thousands of years by the Ardèche River, the Gorges d’Ardèche is known locally as the “European Grand Canyon.” (Other impressive French canyons are the Gorges de Verdon and the Gorges de Tarn). Not only are the landscapes beautiful, but the Gorges are a well-known haven for wildlife. Admire the dramatic geology from above the Gorges as well as from within them, from the river that created the rock formations. The most famous example is the Pont d’Arc, a natural arch 60 metres wide. In summer, the Gorges d’Ardèche become a popular swimming place, and the riverbanks are brimming with swimmers, sunbathers and divers – though nearly all visitors to the river are local. Another popular activity is kayaking or canoeing but this is such as popular activity that you may want to avoid it. The area is riddled with caves and caverns, many of which contain paintings and other signs of human habitation. To put things into perspective, humans have called the Gorges d’Ardèche home for over 300,000 years!
Pro tip: There are several swimming holes along the river, one of which is just under the Pont d’Arc. Stay overnight in one of the local picturesque medieval villages like Largentière or Balazuc.
The Isle of Harris feels like the end of the world. And that’s saying something, because Scotland is already a remote place. To get from Edinburgh to this forgotten corner of Harris, it’ll take you at least 3 hours to Inverness, another hour and a half to the ferry at Ullapool, at least 2 hours on the boat, and another hour or more to reach Luskentyre. Lonely, windswept and overlooked, Luskentyre feels very much like land’s end, despite its beautiful beach. It’s hard to imagine humans living here, and yet they did, and they do. You’ll still see evidence of olden day crofts – narrow strips of land provided to poor farmers for subsistence farming. Evidence too of middens (ancient piles of discarded seashells) and lazy beds (beds of kelp used to make vaguely fertile earth which, despite their name, was backbreaking work). Further north on the Isle of Lewis, find an ancient stone circle made of giant monoliths impressive enough to rival Stonehenge, Iron Age brochs (defensive structures), long-forgotten lighthouses, and the remains of blackhouses, named so from the staining they sustained from peat smoke. From the gentle rolling bogs of Lewis to the rugged mountains of Harris, this place feels inhospitable yet hauntingly beautiful. Today, there are small villages scattered about Lewis and Harris, and about 21,000 people still call these remote, connected islands home.
Pro tip: Talbert is a great base to explore the Isle of Harris. Get yourself some Harris Tweed, head over to Harris Distillery, and then hop off to hike the Hebrides. Up for a challenge? Try summiting An Clishan, the highest in the Outer Hebrides. Or something easier? Hike from Dalmore Beach to Garenin Village. Or walk along stunning Luskentyre Beach!
Moygara Castle is a brilliant ruined castle tucked deep away in exactly the middle of nowhere. Northwest Ireland‘s rural and overlooked County Sligo is already a little-visited region – and Moygara Castle is in perhaps Sligo’s least-known corner. Named for the once-powerful O’Gara family – who ruled Lough Gara and nearby relands since the 1200s – they needed a castle to show off their status, and act as defence during troubled times. Three castles were erected, though Moygara Castle is by far the best example and the only properly surviving structure. Starting out as a typical Irish tower house (a large, rectangular structure built by landowning chieftains found throughout Ireland), Moygara Castle later expanded to include 4 towers connected by high stone walls, a gatehouse (now in ruins) and a massive courtyard. The side gate is still intact, but its precarious keystone has caused this entrance to be closed off. Instead, visitors should walk all the way around the castle, where a hole chuck of the wall is missing, which acts as the castle’s main entrance now. Attacked in 1538 by the famous chieftain O’Donnell and later by some mercenary Scots in 1581, the castle has fallen into ruin. Much overgrown by trees and vines, Moygara Castle is slowly being reclaimed by the hills surrounding Lough Gara, a place that has been inhabited for thousands of years (it has one of the highest concentrations of crannogs – manmade islands built for defensive purposes but also lived on). Today, Moygara Castle sits in a field inhabited by cows and sheep, on a tiny country lane, far from a main road or village. Few people know it’s there, and still fewer visit it. Chances are, you’ll have this magical piece of history to yourself!
Pro tip: Moygara Castle is located on a working farm, so be careful and respectful. Don’t bring your dogs, and be sure to close any gates you open. It is also quite mucky, so wear good boots! Hungry? In nearby Boyle, check out its many cafes. For meals made of farm fresh produce, meat and dairy, head to Drumanilra Restaurant.
Other Places in Northwest Ireland’s counties Sligo & Roscommon
In the far-flung province of Transylvania, there’s an even more far-flung corner, a little-visited region called Hunedoara. Far off the tourism radar, Hunedoara is remote, agricultural, and lost in time. Towering over the plains and village of Hunedoara are the Retezat Mountains National Park, part of the famed Carpathian Mountains. With about 20 peaks pushing over 2300m (7500 feet), the Retezat Mountains, like the rest of their cousins in the Carpathians, are a force to be reckoned with. However, quiet Hunedoara, tucked into the foothills of the Retezats, is a place caught in a time capsule. It is a place of dusty villages and traditional dress, of ancient plows and horse and carts and even Roma gypsy palaces. Here, you’ll find another side to Romania, one quite far from that of the cosmopolitan centres of Bucharest and Brasov. At one moment in history part of Dacia, the Roman Empire, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Transylvania, the Soviet Union, and modern-day Romania, Hunedaora is a region accustomed to change and turbulent times. Today, though, no place could be quieter and off-the-beaten-track.
Pro tip: Hiking in the Rezetat Mountains is no joke, and should only be done by experienced and well-prepared hikers – even better with a local guide. Otherwise, there are plenty of villages and lower-level foothills to explore. Hateg is a good base. The town of Hunedora may not be beautiful – but its Corvinus Castle sure is!
One of Robin Hood’s many graves in Yorkshire Dales, England
Northern England is an overlooked, but wonderful place for hiking. The beautiful Yorkshire Dales are an ancient place full of myth and legend – not to mention great beauty. A dale is a British word to describe a valley. Dales pepper the quiet, little-visited regions of northern England where accents are thick, roads are narrow and villages are quaint. It is little wonder that legend and folklore is prevalent in this region. Robin Hood is certainly the best-known tale. No one’s sure of Robin Hood was a real person or not, but he sure does have a lot of graves, with dozens of sites across northern England claiming the honour. This little cairn tucked into a desolate valley in the Yorkshire Dales is just one of many to hold the name. Though Nottingham is the most famous place in Robin Hood ballads, it is generally acknowledged that he was in fact from Yorkshire. The ballads paint him and his merry band of followers like Little John and Friar Tuck as romantic thieves, roaming the countryside in order to steal to steal from the rich to give to the poor. He is said to have died while being bled (a common medieval medical practice) at the Priory of Kirklees. Even though there is still a debate on whether the man really existed, he exists through various place names scattered throughout England, each one claiming something to do with the great legend. Real or not, the story of Robin Hood isn’t going anywhere – and it makes for a great point of interest while hiking the backcountry of Northern England!
Pro tip: When you’re in the area, head to the village of Penrith to stop by Kennedys Fine Chocolates for artesian boxes of chocolates or even just a delicious cup of hot cocoa!
Being an island, Ireland is naturally full of beaches… It’s just that no one thinks about Ireland as a “beach destination” (or even a “destination with beaches”) because of its lack of palm trees and piña coladas! Ventry Beach is probably one of the Dingle Peninsula’s most well-known beaches (after Inch Beach & Slea Head), most likely because of its proximity to the much-loved artist’s haven of Dingle town. The Dingle Peninsula in general is one of the most beloved tourist spots because it’s in Kerry. That said, it still has quieter spots! The Dingle Way is a way-marked trail that circles the peninsula. While parts of it are on roads, other sections are on farmer’s tracks and even beaches – such as Ventry Beach. Ventry Beach also happens to be the start to the Saints’ Road, a pilgrimage trail that travels to Mt Brandon, one of Ireland’s holy mountains. (It is said that Mt Brandon is where St Brendon fasted and saw a vision of the Promised Land, inspiring his 7 year Voyage of St Brandon the Navigator). Whatever the reason – Dingle Way hike, pilgrimage walk or a simple stroll on the beach and a splash in the waves when it’s warm enough – Ventry Beach is a lovely place to simply relax and enjoy being outdoors.
Pro tip: Hike this section of the Dingle Way (from Ventry to Slea Head) where you’ll pass dozens of ancient clohans or beehive huts. Not far away, visit Louis Mulcahy’s pottery studio to try your hand at pottery or just browse. Even try a seaweed bath – said to be great for the skin!
When one envisions the Irish countryside, often quaint stone cottages with thatched roofs, with a garden of dancing flowers on backdrop of rolling emerald hills comes to mind. A lot has changed since this type of Ireland was the norm. Ireland (which was a 3rd world country until about a generation and a half ago) has modernised, become part of the EU and joined the 21st century. And yet, when you are wandering in the countryside – particularly in the rural parts of the west coast, in places like Sligo, Donegal, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon and other similarly rural and agricultural counties, you will still find pockets of this old world Ireland, such as this wee little cottage outside the village of Dromahair that maintains traditional thatched roofs and stone structure (though it’s a vivid shade of blue!). The best way to uncover the real Ireland is by pulling on a pair of hiking boots and set of traipsing through the woods, as Ireland’s outdoors has so much more to offer than Ireland’s towns or cities. This particular cottage is along the final stage of the little-known Sligo Way, a nature and cultural track that winds its way through some of Northwest Ireland’s most scenic destinations. Not only is hiking in Ireland – especially in the remote and undiscovered northwest – a good way to explore the island, but it’s also a great escape from our busy, fast-paced, screen-driven lives of modern society. Instead, kick back, relax and enjoy a slower – albeit muckier – way of life in the remote corners of Ireland!
Pro tip: The Sligo Way is 78 km long, but the final 10km are by far the best. Nearly all off-road, the landscape and backdrop varies from lush woodland, tranquil lake shore, to mountain path, farm track and boggy ground. It passes the famed Isle of Inisfree, the ruins of Creevylea Abbey, a donkey farm and lovely cottages like this one, before ending in the charming village of Dromahair.
The small town of Sigulda and its environs seem to collect castles and manors. For starters, the most famous is Turaida Castle, its golden-red towers jutting out of the woodland following the stunning Gauja River Valley – a perfect place to hike. On the far side of the cable car opposite Sigulda, there’s the crumbling ancient ruins of Krimulda Castle paired with the crumbling not-so-ancient ruins of Krimulda Manor. And then of course, in Sigulda town proper, find the Old Castle of Sigulda – now in ruins – just across from the New Castle of Sigulda. The first New Castle of Sigulda was constructed in 1878 by the wealthy Kropotkin family in the popular Neo-Gothic revival style that swept the continent throughout the 19th century. The castle/manor lasted only until WWI when it was partially destroyed. As was wont, restoration started after the war was over, though Sigulda’s New Castle got a complete makeover – it had now become the Writer’s Castle, inspiration for authors, writers and poets of all kinds (romantic ideal, eh!?). Such an idyllic nature didn’t last. In WWII, it was taken over by the Germans, used as a military headquarters, only then to be tossed over to the USSR after the war’s end. It wasn’t until the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) finally got their hard-won freedom that Sigulda’s New Castle finally housed part of the Latvian government – home to Sigulda City and District Councils. Though closed to tourists, it’s worth a stroll through the beautiful grounds to enjoy the castle and the views. Plus, the old castle of Sigulda is not far off!
Pro tip: The cable car across the valley goes once an hour. Buy your ticket and then use the rest of the hour to walk around Sigulda’s castles and perhaps even pop in to the church to see their collection of button art. If you’re planning to walk from Krimulda to Turaida once you cross the gorge, be sure to wear good footwear.
Faro de Caballo (Horse Lighthouse), Cantabria, Spain
Cantabria is a little-visited region on Spain’s north coast. Though on one side of the region is Basque Country and Bilbao, and the other, the famous Santiago del Compostela, few people know of the region’s existence much less add Cantabria to their Spanish itinerary. It is an out-of-the-way place categorised by mild temperatures, regular rainfall, quiet harbours and green hills. The ocean is the region’s constant companion, supporting a bustling fishing industry – notably, the anchovies of Santoña, which are world-renowned. Not far from Santoña is the rugged Monte Buciero on a spit of land that juts out into the Cantabrian Sea. At the end of the point, at the bottom of hundreds of steps carved into rugged rocky pinnacles is the squat little Faro de Caballo (Horse Lighthouse). Erected in 1863 on this forlorn outcrop of the Spanish coastline, the steps and foundations of the Faro de Caballo were placed there by prisoners of Santoña’s jail. From the 1800s to 1993, the light of Faro de Caballo shone through the waters, warning ships of the Cantabrian Coast. Today, the Faro de Caballo is part of the Las Marisma de Santoña, Victoria and Joyel Nature Park. To get there, start your hike in Santoña and walk along the coast, passing the forts of San Martin and San Carlos and following the rough path through the woods until you arrive at the steep staircase (the route is said to have some 600-700 steps, so wear good shoes!). Be sure you bring your swimming gear as well, as there are several diving ledges of varying heights as well as a swinging rope for the less-adventurous!
Pro tip: The whole hike from Santoña is about 7km, though there is another way (from the other side of the peninsula, by Berria Beach – though I feel that it is more accessible from Santoña. Don’t try to kayak there from Santoña unless there are low winds and you’re an experienced kayaker, as the winds past the headland on the way back can be rough; better to access the lighthouse on foot, bringing all necessary swimming or snorkelling gear with you!
Pragser Wildsee / Lago di Braies, Italian Dolomites
Reflections shimmer in the quiet pools of Lago di Braies’ furthest shores. This little turquoise and emerald lake is snuggled deep within the peaks and valleys of the Dolomites Mountains in the Sud Tyrol region of northern Italy. The Lago di Braies is the crown jewel of the Parco Naturale di Fanes-Sennes-Braies, a stunning nature park that covers some 63,000 acres of ruggedly beautiful mountainous landscapes deep in the Dolomites. Because of a rejigging of borders after WWI, the once Austrian region of Sud Tyrol is now Italian – though culturally and linguistically the locals have remained close to their Germanic roots. Lago di Braies, or its germanic name, the Pragser Wildsee, is one of the many pearls of this underrated region (most of the visitors to the lake and the greater region are domestic tourists). Offshoots of the Alps, the Dolomites are one of Europe’s significant mountain ranges – though the highest peak in the Dolomites (Marmolada) doesn’t even crack the top 200 hundred tallest peaks in the Alps. But it’s not all about height – Europe is full of beautiful, wild sites like the Pragser Wildsee that escape the tourist trail – you just have to know how to find them!
Pro tip: Like France’s network of GR (Grande Randonnées), the Dolomites have their own network of paths, numbered 1 – 8 and called alte vies or high paths.
Find other beautiful places in the Dolomites of Sud Tyrol:
From most cities, one must drive a long distance to find wild landscapes, but just 15 minutes from Belfast, there lies the magnificent Cave Hill. It is easy to see why fantasy writer CS Lewis – born and raised near Belfast despite spending his adult life in Oxford – gained his inspiration for the fantastic landscapes of his imaginary land of Narnia from Northern Ireland (just look at the bizarre Causeway Coast!). Cave Hill – part of Cave Hill Country Park – overlooks Belfast and yet transport the hiker into another world. With woodland paths starting from Belfast Castle, weave through the moss-covered forests until suddenly you emerge into a clearing facing the magnificent caves that lent the name to hill. Rolling hills, emerald greens, brilliant yellows, rugged rock faces – one almost expects to see a satyr or dwarf making its home in the cave! But it’s not over just yet – follow the path around the hill to the top for this epic view of the hill itself and Belfast sprawled below. On the narrow outcrop in the distance are the remains of an iron are fort – McArt’s Fort. Little is left today (just a few rocks, really), and its exposed position suggests that this rath (ringfort) was only ever used for defensive purposes. Thousands of years later, McArt’s Fort became the secret meeting place of United Irishmen to plot their famed – and doomed – attack in the rebellion of 1798 (when the Irish rose against the oppressive forces of the British nobility and military. The rebellion failed, and caused a large loss of life on the Irish side). Because Cave Hill is near Belfast, it can get busy but even with other hikers enjoying the views alongside you, this place emits a magic that cannot be rivalled.
Pro tip: Start your hike at Belfast Castle, and follow the signs for the Cave path. The first part is muddy in places, and there are a few steep bits so wear a proper pair of hiking boots. The whole walk is about 7km. There is also a “family friendly” trail starting from another car park on the backside of the hill, but this means you’ll miss most of the good stuff, and it’s not a looped path.
Overlooking Puy de Dôme from Puy de Sancy in Auvergne, France
Everyone knows about the Alps and the Pyrénées, but the greatest French mountains you’ve never heard of are the Massif Central mountains. Located in the centre of France, the Massif Central occupies several départements (including the Ardèche and Rhône-Alps) but most notably, the beautiful lush central region of Auvergne. These mountains are old. Formed over 500 million years ago, the Massif Central mountains are of volcanic origin – only becoming dormant some 10,000 years ago. The largest puy or volcanic peak is the Puy de Sancy (1,885m – from which this photo was taken) but by far the most famous is the Puy de Dôme (1,465m), featured in the photo. Auvergne is famous for its volcanoes – forming the base pride for the local residents. A good bit of Auvergne is taken up by the Parc naturel régional des Volcans d’Auvergne (Auvergne Volcano regional nature park) – and oh do the locals love to explore the many trails that snake across these ancient lands. Of course some of the most famous are Puy de Dôme, Puy de Sancy, and Puy de Côme, but there are many gorgeous mountains and hills in Auvergne worth exploring! Riddled with caves and draped in legends, Auvergne is a magical place that sees few international tourists and has managed to remain relatively unspoilt. The rich dark soil (enriched with minerals brought by volcanic ash) makes the region one of the best in France for agriculture – in season, spot alternating fields of beets, corn, wheat and best of all, sunflowers, sprawling across the sun-kissed hills of Auvergne’s lowlands, while thick forests and vibrant wildflowers take advantage of the rich soil to grow on the mountain slopes. Further down the hills, untouched medieval villages lounge in the lush valleys and ancient castles and towers cling to the inclines. It is a wild and magical place – perfect for both hiking the wild outdoors as well as discovering the France of past eras.
Pro tip: Clermont-Ferrand is the regional hub (though its airport is tiny! Use it for flights to London, Paris and occasionally Portugal) and though it’s worth poking around its black cathedral and modest old town, its better to use a village like Montpeyroux, Billom, Pont-du-Chateau or Ambert as a base to explore this beautiful region. Try local potato and cheese dish l’aligot while there!
Possibly containing Europe’s highest density of picturesque villages, Italy is practically a fairytale land. Deep within Northern Italy’s charming and beautiful Aosta Valley is the little-known fairytale village of Cogne, perched within a now-forgotten mountain pass crossroads through the Alps. Often home to Italy’s professional cross country skiing team who come here to practice on its renowned 70 km (43 miles) of trails, Cogne village is snuggled into the Italian Alps making it an outdoor lover’s paradise. During winter, enjoy cross country skiing or perhaps downhill skiing and snowboarding. Explore the nearby valleys on snowshoes or even try your hand at ice climbing! On your way there, be sure to visit the Savoyard town of Aosta, founded by the Romans. During the summer, hike the impressive mountain trails of Gran Paradiso National Park. Inhabiting these mountains are herds of ibex, wild goats, marmots and eagles – all easy to spot while out hiking or snowshoeing. Back in town, wander the adorable streets of Cogne to admire the quaint old-world Alpine architecture. Be sure to taste the region’s delicious red wines and cheeses such as the Fontina and the Fromadzo where you’re here!
Pro tip: If you’re looking for a relaxing Alpine escape, plan a stay at the rustic wellness hotel & spa, La Madonnina del Gran Paradiso. Please keep in mind that though the road to Aosta is quite good, you’ll need to take narrow, winding mountain roads the rest of the way to reach Cogne. Not for the faint hearted!
One of only two national parks in Scotland, the Cairngorms National Park – part of the famous Scottish Highlands – is also the UK’slargest at 4,528 km2 (1,748 sq m). Interestingly, despite Scotland’s vast and wild landscapes, the Cairngorms, along with Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, are Scotland’s only official national parks (the Isle of Skye is just scratching the surface – think more so the Isles of Staffa, Lewis or Harris, Assynt, Knoydart or Torridon for true Scottish wilderness). A dual tourism season destination, the Cairngorms Mountains are equally renowned for hiking and mountain biking in the summer as they are for skiing and snowboarding in the winter. The Cairngorms also contain Scotland’s second-highest peak, Ben MacDui ; as it clocks in at 1,344m, Ben Macdui is considered a munro (meaning over 1,000m high). Located in the central Highlands, the best jumping-off point would be the quaint and sporty town of Aviemore, about 40 minutes south of Inverness.
Pro tip: get up early to explore the mountains bathed in early morning sunlight and avoid other visitors to the region. An easy way to explore the backcountry of the northern Cairngorms is on the Speyside Way.
Rivendell? Gondor? Narnia? Hogwarts? Sadly, no to all. However magical it looks, this is no fantasy world but instead the Spanish town of Ronda is a magical city set deep in the sunburnt deserted landscapes of Andalucia, optimistically built onto a cliff split by a colossal gorge. The two sides of Ronda are tethered together by this stunning bridge known as Ronda’s Puente Nuevo. The newest of the three bridges that crosses the breathtaking El Tajo Gorge carved by the mighty Guadalevin River, Puente Nuevo was finished in 1793 after a long 34 years of construction. It is a master of engineering and an impressive work of architecture, calling in at a shocking 66 meters long and 98 meters high, built straight into the solid rock of the El Tajo Gorge. The small window just visible in the side of the bridge was once used as a prison – with condemned prisoners simply thrown from their cells to meet their doom on the rocks at the bottom of gorge a la Vlad Tepes Dracula. Today, it is both tourist attraction as well as a fully functional bridge, connecting forevermore both halves of the city of Ronda, capital of the famous Pueblos Blancos.
Pro Tip: The Puente Nuevo bridge is best seen from below. Descend along a narrow path that leads down the side of the gorge, but beware, the path is eroded and in poor condition so be sure to wear proper hiking gear.
St Michael’s along the Philosophen Weg, Heidelberg, Germany
It’s the journey, not the destination that makes a place special, which is certainly true of St Michael’s Monastery near Heidelberg. Start on the far side of the river by meandering your way up a path called Philosophen Weg. Steep and narrow, this cobblestoned alley quickly sweeps you out of the city and up into the deep, dark woods overhanging the gothic spires of Heidelberg. Then, the path promptly splits in two, and your only signpost signalling the way is a boulder engraved with obscure German words. So what do you do? Choose a path, and hope it’s right, though you soon start second-guessing yourself as you come to another fork, and another. At each path, there is a new boulder, with new words. Scratching your head with frustration, you cast your eyes around you in hopes of discovering a clue. Suddenly, you feel very much like you stepped off the pages of a Grimm’s brother tale. Rounding a bend, the trees suddenly open up over a magnificent panorama of the city. The next opening takes you to an amphitheater with exceptional acoustics (once unfortunately used for hate speeches by the Nazi party). After a small eternity in the dark fairytales of the Brothers Grimm’s world, you emerge, completely surprised at your luck, into a clearing comprised of the ruins of St Michael’s Monastery. While some of its ruins are even older, the majority of the monastery dates to 1023. But by 1503, the complex’s last monks died, and the rural, isolated monastery was abandoned, and like so many once-great places, forgotten. While open to the public today, these little-visited and remote ruins hold the air of a lost masterpiece.
Pro tip: The best way to arrive at the monastery is on foot but its best to ask for a map or use a GPS to find your way in the woods. Once you pass the old amphitheatre you’re almost there.
Other Ruined European Monasteries, Abbeys and Friaries
Sligo’s Hidden Glen on the Coolera Peninsula, Ireland
Sligo in itself is a little-known corner of Ireland. Located on the northwest section of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, it is known as the Surf Coast for good reason. But for those who venture inland, Sligo is full of gems – fascinating mountains, ancient neolithic monuments, vibrant towns, quiet beaches, delicious seafood, rich mythology. One gem you won’t find on the traditional tourist track is the Hidden Glen, on Sligo’s Coolera Peninsula, a region once home to ancient Neolithic peoples. The Hidden Glen (or The Glen) as it’s known locally, is tucked under Knocknarea Hill. The entrance is as unremarkable as it is hidden – simply a rusty gate and trail off the ocean side of Woodville Road. Pass through this narrow, natural doorway and you’ll find yourself in a another world straight from the pages of a fairytale book. This narrow ‘micro-valley’ is a magical glen where handmade swings hang from soaring trees. Spellbinding stone walls rise up some 60 feet on either side of this narrow chasm deep in a magical woodland. Forget rose-coloured glasses – the verdant ferns and thick green leaves of the Hidden Glen make it feel like you’re seeing the world through emerald shades. If fairies were to exist, then surely this must be their home. Enchanted and magical, this ancient wooded world contained inside the glacially-hewn walls of the Hidden Glen under the watchful eye of mythical Queen Maeve’s tomb atop Knocknarea Hill is the pinnacle of any fairytale experience and is a place you simply have to see with your own eyes. Pro tip: The Hidden Glen is almost always extremely muddy underfoot so only attempt with study, waterproof hiking boots.
Exploding out of the northeastern corner of Italy, the Dolomites are an offshoot of the Alps Mountains, Europe’s most prominent and iconic mountain range. The Dolomites are named for their substance, known as carbonate rock dolomite, which was so named for the pioneering French mineralogist Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu. Much like the Alps, the Dolomites have long been recognised as a winter destination – particularly for skiing, though also like the Alps, recent times (and global warming) have changed this, turning the mountain range into a dual-season destination. Chair lifts bring snowboarders and skiers up mountains in winter, whereas in summer, the continue functioning, carrying up hikers, mountain bikers and paragliders. In fact, the Dolomites are one of the best places to hike in all of Europe! And then there’s the Sud Tyrol region itself. Strictly speaking, the Dolomites spans across three regions: Trentino, Belluno, and Sud Tyrol. Historically speaking, Sud Tyrol was part of Austria. Then WWI happened, borders were moved, new passports were issued… and now the region is like miniature Austria but in Italy. The residents are bilingual but prefer German, more often choosing to study in Vienna rather than Rome, have names more in Germanic than Italian in origin – even the architecture of the villages themselves look more like Austria than Italy (probably because the Austrians built them…). It is a strange, culturally-diverse corner of Europe perfect for hiking and skiing but also as a cultural experience. Often overlooked, most people don’t even know German-speaking Sud Tyrol exists let alone visit. So, visit the Dolomites for the mountains and also the culture, in summer or winter… just make sure you bring along not one but two dictionaries!
Pro tip: The Dolomites are one of Europe’s most renowned hiking destinations. Be sure you come prepared with sturdy hiking boots and consider either finding a mountain guide, or visiting the local tourism office for best hiking routes.
Other Fascinating & Little-Visited Regions of Europe
Remote, desolate, hauntingly beautiful. The Yorkshire Dales, a protected area and national park in northern England, is a rural place overlooked by modern times. Rambling hills, winding lanes and picturesque villages, the Yorkshire Dales are picture of what England once was before the industrial revolution, mining, suburban sprawl, and Brexit. The Yorkshire Dales are an upland region part of the lovely Pennines – a set of rugged hills and mountains crawling down the centre of England, nicknamed England’s Backbone. The best way to explore the Yorkshire Dales National Park is on foot (or by bike) as to really understand the land, you have to connect with it – walk through the boggy, wet, snowy landscapes, cross paths with woolly sheep, stumble across ancient sites and tuck in at a cosy village pub at the end of your walk. There a plenty of places to hike in the Penines. Check out a few of them here, or strike off the beaten path to discover the wonders of the Yorkshire Dales. The region’s wandering hills, trickling streams, ancient sites, limestone caves, forlorn moors, sweeping vistas and quaint villages will make you fall in love with this desolate but romantic place in a heartbeat.
Pro Tip: The UK’s ‘rights of way’ law allows all hikers and hillwalkers to traverse any private land anywhere in the country, providing you leave no trace and respect the livestock and property. So get your hiking boots on and get walking!