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!
Wooden chalets with steep rooftops and lovely balconies, ornamented with flower boxes and carved silhouettes of fleur des lis, this tiny hamlet tucked deep in the lush forests of the French Alps is fit for a fairy tale. Located just above the picturesque Gorges de Diosaz inside the lovely Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron, this little hamlet offers brilliant views overlooking the magnificent Chamonix Mont-Blanc Valley. The perfect jumping off point for hiking in Alpine forests, the snug hamlet of Montvauthier seems to have fallen of the pages of a Disney tale. This is the Alps at their best, the backstage pass. Mont Blanc and Chamonix are stunningly unforgettable and are clearly the stars of the show. But the French Alps have so much more to offer the curious visitor than just that. In fact, the French Alps contain some of the world’s best hiking trails. The Alps have gorgeous snow towns world renowned for skiing. And they have countless tiny villages and hamlets as equally gorgeous as they are unknown. Montvauthier is one such place. The best part about the Alps is that you don’t have to go here – not specifically here anyway. You just have to get off the beaten track because the massive Alps are full of amazing places waiting for you to discover.
Pro tip: Be sure to try hearty Savoy dishes like raclette (melted cheese over potatoes and charcuterie), tartiflette (oven baked cheese, bacon and potato dish), or the classic fondue (a pot of melted cheese thickened with flour and spread over bread). There are many local red wines from Savoy as well. Proximity to Italy means the pizza is quite good too.
The French region of Ardèche, with its stunning Gorges d’Ardèche, Pont d’Arc over the Ardèche River, the Monts de Forez and Les Cevennes, is a veritable nature’s paradise. The western half of the central region is rocky, mountainous and forlorn. Industries such as viticulture and sheep-farming did not leave the inhabitants as nearly as prosperous as those on the eastern half of the region that benefited from being on the banks of the all-important Rhone River, a highway of maritime trade. As a result, this little corner of France is lost in time. Quaint medieval villages are tucked away into the folds of the ruggedly dazzling mountains. The miniature beaches of the Ardèche River welcome swimmers and paddlers looking to escape the sticky summer season. Cobblestone village centres bustle with markets sporting local produce, industry and crafts. Trails and paths and country roads abound making Ardèche the place to go to lose oneself in France’s wild side. Cliffs sweep in sunburnt valleys. Though none of Ardèche’s peaks can rival the Alps or even the Pyrenees, the region offers a far quieter and less touristic alternative – perfect for those who want to visit France lost in time.
Pro tip: Avoid Vallon-Pont-d’Arc as it is very busy with domestic tourism and instead base yourself in one of Ardèche’s medieval villages like Baluzuc, Montréal or Largèntiere.
Lough Key is the centrepiece of Lough Key Forest Park, located at the heart of rural Co Roscommon, part of a region known as Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands. Woven and crossed with trails, Lough Key Forest Park is the perfect way to visit Ireland’s countryside if you don’t have the time or ability to undertake a wilderness hike, or if you’re looking for family-friendly hiking paths. In the centre of Lough Key – named for an ancient druid called Cé in Irish folklore (folklore attributes the lake as his grave site) – there is a tiny island roughly half an acre. In the centre of Castle Island is… you guessed it, a castle. What we see today is McDermott’s Castle, which is a folly (or ‘fake’ castle) built as a gothic castle in the early 1800s to improve the view, but there’s been one castle or another on Castle Island since the the 12th century. The castle of the island has since been struck by lightning, attacked by fire ships, sieged by raft-mounted catapults, cursed by the Hag of Lough Key and burnt during WWII.
Pro tip: Lough Key is located 2h from Dublin on the Sligo road. Though you can’t really visit the castle (it was sold recently via auction!), there are exquisite grounds for a hike or picnic, as well as the famed puzzle rooms (a bit like an escape room) and a cafe. Keep in mind the car park isn’t free.
Part of the Massif Centrale mountain range that thrusts upwards in the centre of France (notably part of rural Auvergne), the Cévennes ramble across southern France, including through Herault, Gard, Ardèche and Lozère. Lush forests and sweeping valleys hide glittering turquoise lakes and sunburnt meadows. Alive with diverse flora and fauna, the Cevennes Mountains cover some of France’s remotest communities – and have the best sunny weather! Though not always easy to access (especially the mountains in the region of Lozère, which rejects the notion of commercial tourism), the Cévennes Mountains and the Cévennes National Park are rich in natural beauty. The term Cévennes comes from an old Celtic (Gaul) name, Cebenna, later Latinised by Caesar upon conquering the region as Cevenna – and more than 2,000 years later, the name still sticks. Even today, the Cévennes are rife with protestants who identify as descendants of the ancient Huguenots who escaped to the rough mountain terrain which provided shelter and protection to refugees of centuries past. Today, the beautiful mountains are perfect for cycling, hiking, and other outdoor adventure activities.
Pro tip: On the southern side, the closest true cities are Nîmes and Montpellier. To visit the Cévennes rural beauty, you should rent a car. St Guilheim-le-Desert (see below) is just one of the Cévennes’ lovely villages to stay in.
Ah Brasov – one of Romania’s most beloved cities. Tucked away into a corner of magical Transylvania, Brasov is a medieval city proud of its history. Caught between ancient tradition and a modernising Romania, Brasov is a shining symbol of the past, showcasing an era when Transylvania and Wallachia, two of Romania’s ancient regions, were in their heyday (though it wasn’t always so; that famous Vlad Dracula the Impaler? Yes, he got his nickname by impaling Turks during his never-ending fights with the land-crazed Ottoman Empire). Returning to Brasov. The best way to start your foray into the city’s ancient beauty is by climbing Mt Tampa (elevation 960m – roughly 400 m above Brasov). There’s a funicular but to truly dig into the dark forests of the Carpathians, to imagine what it was like during Brasov’s Middle Ages, you have to climb it on foot. From the top, behind the Hollywood-esque Brasov sign, you’ll be rewarded with amazing aerial views of orange-topped medieval Brasov, fringed by the lush forests that carpet the wandering Carpathian peaks. We have the Germans to thank for the fairytale orange tiles and princely avenues, which give way to the wandering alleys of the Romanian Schei district. After you drink in the stunning views, drink a well-earned beer from the tiny outdoor pub and then head back to town on the funicular.
Pro tip: The funicular costs 10 lei (16 return), and runs from 9.30-17.00 (from noon-18h Mondays); buy your tickets from the operator or even at the bottom of the cable car. The hike is well-marked and takes about 1.5 hours. Expect the summit to be busy.
Views of Beinn Eighe aross Loch Clair, Torridon Hills, Scotland
The Scottish Highlands are a romantic yet desolate place. Hiking in these remote hills feels a bit like being at the edge of the world. Beautiful, amazing, alone. Snuggled deep within the forgotten Northwest Highlands, the village of Torridon clings to the shores of Loch Torridon. The region is full of places to muddy your boots and whet your imagination – one of which is the little Loch Clair, where an off-the-beaten-path trail circumnavigates the lake, giving views over Beinn Eighe and other peaks of the Torridon Hills. Other peaks in the Torridon Hills include Liathach and Beinn Alligin, all of which are known to climbers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. This is the kind of place to get lost. Not lost in the sense of “send the mountain rescue helicopters!” but lost as in a place you can get lost in your thoughts, daydreams and nature. This is a place where the romantic poets and landscape painters of the world would feel at home, a place where the 21st century has yet to find, where mud-plastered boots, Nordic walking poles and Gore-Tex hiking gear is the style.
Pro tip: To hike Loch Clair, head west on the A896 from Torridon for 15 minutes until you hit the Loch Clair car park on the left; the trailhead is across the road. Follow the rugged Loch Clair shores for magnificent lake and mountain views and stunning silence – best viewed during the famous Golden Hour!
Probably the most famous of Ireland’s six national parks is Connemara, hugging the central section of the Wild Atlantic Way (a 2,500km route following Ireland‘s western coast). More of a cultural region than anything else, Connemara is a region in northern Galway, although its purple-and-gold bogs and savage mountains seem fall from the colourful bustle of Galway City. Diamond Hill is the jewel in the crown of the Twelve Bens Mountain Range, and is easily the most accessible part of the surrounding region. On a backdrop of the Twelve Bens, from the summit, gaze out over the lakes of Connemara (made famous in France by singer Michel Sardou’s 1981 Lacs de Connemara), the late Victorian Kylemore Abbey (that is most certainly not a castle, despite common perception), as well as narrow inlets leading to the Atlantic Ocean. The hike itself is not hard if you are reasonable fit, though there are shorter versions for those who are not. Diamond Hill is a great introductory hike in the region, but once summited, the best way to get to the heart of Connemara is to get away from its visitor centres and instead head off to its villages and rougher hills – places like Roundstone Harbour, Clifden town, Errisbeg Hill and the bogs of the Marconi Monument spring to mind. Curl up by a turf (peat) fire in a cheery pub with a hand wrapped around a pint while chatting with the locals (or listen to them speaking Irish Gaelic!) to really get under the skin of this romantically remote and forlorn part of Ireland.
Soft, white snow slowly falls on the red clay rooftops of the sleepy village of Sant’Ambogio di Torino. This simple but picturesque village is snuggled soundly at the foot of Mount Pirchiriano. Crowned with the stone ruins of the legendary Sacra di San Michele monastery, Mt Pirchiriano and its monastery have been made famous by inspiring Umberto Eco’s classic novel, The Name of the Rose. Below the mountain, Sant’Ambrogio di Torino contains its own history and beauty: medieval wonders such as Middle Ages towers, fortified walls, a ruined abbey, a 12th century Romanesque-style bell tower (the tower in the above photo, now integrated to the current church), and the remains of an 11th century church, located above the town in the tiny commune of San Pietro. Sant’Ambrogio di Torino still plays the role it has for centuries: the starting place for the ancient pilgrimage path leading to the mountaintop Sacra di San Michele, as well as housing the relics of St John Vincent, the monastery’s founder. To mark the beginning of the pilgrim’s path weaving through the mystical Val de Susa, is the lovely 18th-century Chiesa Parrocchiale di San Giovanni Vincenzo – today covered in a powdery blanket of snow. Though it may be faster to drive directly from Torino to the top of the mountain – bypassing Sant’Ambrogio village, the Pilgrim’s Path, and the Val de Susa altogether – the effect will be far less impressive or special; you will miss out on a homage to quiet village life, beautiful architecture, ancient tradition and stunning landscapes. Instead, take the train to Sant’Ambrogio from Torino central station, walk the quiet streets to the Chiesa di San Giovanni, and then follow the narrow cobblestone path to the sacred monastery above (roughly 2 hours hike). Exploring the region in the snow provides an added layer of beauty!
Opposing the roughness of Marseille is the pristine beauty of the Calanques National Park. Though not far from the city, a short hike into the Calanques park feels like a foray into another world! Offering a 20km stretch of coastline in the south of France, the Calanques are a series of rocky headlands, rough landscapes, hidden coves, and secret beaches. The azure shades of the Mediterranean will dazzle you as far as the horizon stretches. Here in the national park, there are over 900 protected places as well as certain eagles, reptiles such as Europe’s largest lizard and longest snake, as well as countless others. Of the many calanques, some are easier to reach than others – popular calanques are the Calanque de Sormiou or the Calanque de Morgiou. Seen here is the Calanque de Sugiton, easily accessible from the Luminy University City (under 30 minutes ride on public transport from Marseille’s city centre) for those willing to hike. Before arriving at the amazing coastline, you’ll first experience breathtaking minimalist landscapes reminiscent of the American southwest on your initial hike through the path! Adventurous souls may prefer to approach by sea – either by boat or even better – kayak! NB: Before visiting, check if trails are closed due to fire risk.
Under a Sud Tyrol sun, the narrow trail quietly weaves to and fro through leafy forests and thick undergrowth as it climbs the steep slopes of Mt Kronplatz. Germanic though the name may sound, the mountain is most assuredly in Italy, not far from the cute village of Brunico. Though admittedly, this region of northern Italy was actually Austrian before the wars of the 20th century. The cool thing about Mt Kronplatz is how fluently it masters the double seasons when so many other mountainous places don’t. Ever since the rise of popularity in the luxury ski resort in the French Alps, Alpine destinations have forgotten to tell the world how fantastic exploring the Alps is during the summer. At Kronplatz, it too has a fancy ski resort, attracting wealthy skiers from all over the world during colder months. But during the summer, the mountain bursts into lush forests and rich meadows blanketed in a brilliant quilt of wildflowers. For those adventurous souls who love to hike, there are (steep) trails that wild their way up the mountain, as well as mountain bike trails that head back down it. For those who want the view but not the strenuous effort, or for hikers that prefer a one-way trip, simply take the gondolas! Repurposed during the summer, the network of skiing gondolas are perfect for getting up and down Mt Kronplatz while still providing epic views of the Alpine slopes. At the top, enjoy rich views, including this one of a mountaintop cross-like shrine on a sublime backdrop of the majestic Alps, before heading into the cafe for a deliciously well-deserved lunch and cold beer at the repurposed ski resort!
The tranquility and silence feels overwhelming while walking along Ireland‘s shortest river on a sunny autumn afternoon. The small town (and region) of Sligo, hidden away in Ireland’s northwestern corner, is happily left off the bus-tourism itineraries. It is a small place, lacking the diverse and cultured festivals, events and museums of Dublin or Galway or Limerick. But what Sligo lacks in this respect, it makes up for it in the Great Outdoors. Sligo is town literally built between land and sea: on its right-hand edge is the colossal Lough Gill; on the left is Sligo Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. And flowing right down the middle – Sligo’s main artery – is the Garavogue River. To the east is the iconic table mountain, Ben Bulben, and to the south is the small but sacred Knocknarea Mountain. And in the middle is Sligo town. This place is the quiet adventurer’s paradise: stand up paddling, kayaking, hiking, cycling, paragliding, mountain-biking, trail running and horse-riding are normal weekend activities here. Emerald hills, rugged coasts, romantic castles, crashing waves, wandering sheep – this is the picture of quintessential Ireland, and of Sligo itself. County Sligo is an unassuming, down-to-earth sort of place where people go about their lives much like these boats: in a slow but buoyant fashion, floating and glowing along the river – something that us city-dwellers, suburbanites and fast-walkers could learn a lesson from.
Hamlet of Fougères in the Livradois-Forez Regional Park, France
Unlike US national and state parks, French parks are home to more than just animals. Tucked away into the Livradois-Forez Regional Park in the rural yet beautiful region of Auvergne is the tiny hamlet (in French, a ‘lieu-dit’ or a ‘spoken place’) of Fougères, home to less than two dozen people. One of dozens of other such hamlets throughout Livradois-Forez Regional Park and beyond, what makes Fougères special is not so much the place itself as it is the collective co-habitation of people and wilderness in Livradois-Forez. In the USA, national/regional parks and people’s homes are regarded as two separate, un-mixable entities – but in Europe, the story is different. Parks in France, while protected from certain types of development or land-harming actions (like mining, logging, hunting, etc.) can be home to farms, homes, hamlets, villages, as well as forests, rivers, lakes and wildlife. This is seen across Europe in countries such as Italy, Poland, Latvia and beyond. Local people can live in the parks while people from cities or faraway places can visit in order to hike, bike, kayak, canoe, ride horses or camp in the fresh air of the countryside. End result? Perfect harmony. Quick tip – use the medieval village of Olliergues or the quaint town of Ambert (famed for its delicious local cheese of the same name) as a base if you don’t plan to sleep under the stars.
Northern County Mayo is perhaps the closest you’ll get to true wilderness in Ireland. At the very least, Mayo is remote (and travel to and around), rural, quiet, and under-rated. There is little tourism infrastructure in the northern nether regions of Mayo (the southern part of the county fares better: parts of Connemara, the town of Westport and the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick all draw visitors). The problem does not lie in the lack of beauty – more in the lack of roads leading to said beautiful places. Lough Conn, a large lake outside of the not-overwhelming town of Ballina, is a diamond in the rough. Not far off the famous Wild Atlantic Way driving route, the glittering shores, fantastic sunsets, and little-visited beaches make Lough Conn an ideal place for off-the-beaten-track nature enthusiasts. It is a lovely place for wild camping (otherwise known as ‘real camping’ – no showers or wifi here!) or even just a beachside barbecue on a sunlit evening at the end of summer. Lough Conn itself is quite large – it measures 14,000 acres (57 km²). There are two accounts for the name (and very existence) of the lake. In Irish mythology, Lough Conn was created by famous giant Finn McCool (also credited with creating the Giant’s Causeway – a story for another day!). Hunting with his hounds Conn and Cullin, they chased a wild boar for days until water began to pour from the boar’s feet. It swam across the newly-created lakes one after the other but Conn the Hound drowned in the first lake (Lough Conn) and Cullin drowned in the second lake (becoming Lough Cullin). A version of the story was later attributed to an Irish chieftain, Chief Modh, though in this account, the pigs, not the hounds, was drowned. Drowning aside, both lakes are lovely, quiet places – a true glimpse into unspoilt Ireland. For a bit of local culture, stop by Foxford Woollen Mills on the way back to civilisation – a respected local weaving and crafting designer!
Vedrette di Ries-Aurina Natural Park in Sud Tyrol, Italy
The Dolomites is a loosely defined mountainous area in northern Italy comprising of peaks, villages, waterfalls, parks and a strong Germanic identity leftover from post-war. border changes with Austria. The Vedrette di Ries-Aurina Natural Park (Naturpark Rieserferner-Ahrnin German). Crowned with high, rugged peaks and low, lush valleys, the park is a paradise for golden eagles, peregrine falcones, wild deer, and diverse Alpine flora. Cold, clear mountain lakes shimmer like lost marbles amongst the jagged peaks of the Dolomites carved out of the rough mountains by ancient glaciers. Waterfalls like the nearby Cascate di Riva continue to chisel away at the Vedrette di Ries-Aurina’s Alpine canvas. Best of all, ancient forests spread their leafy branches in a canopy over the chocolate-coloured earth, their leaves whispering in the wind. This is a place overlooked by the rush and buzz of the high-sprung 21st century routine. From creaking pine bridges and wooden stairs to soft, springy earth underfoot, the Vedrette di Ries-Aurina park is a place best explored and appreciated while travelling on foot. (One recommended start is at the Cascate di Riva, as there is a small car park just off the main road).
Most people think that the iconic hexagons of the Giant’s Causeway are contained in that single bridge-like ’causeway’ – but this is not true. In fact, the dramatic hexagonal spires one sees at the Giant’s Causeway continue for over a kilometre from the UNESCO site! Hugging the Northern Irish coast of County Antrim is a several-hundred-kilometre path called the Causeway Coastal Route. Easy to break up into walkable chunks, hiking the Causeway Coastal Route is the best way to truly experience the Giant’s Causeway and Northern Ireland’s phenomenal countryside and clifftops. Start at the ruined castle of Dunseverick and follow the coast for 8km (5 miles) – the hiking is easy, the views are breath-taking and the path is quiet. Little by little, you’ll slowly build up to the iconic Giant’s Causeway. In the meantime, you’ll enjoy dramatic cliffs, impressive sea stacks, and hexagonal columns. Walking on a soft carpet of rolling emerald fields dotted with grazing livestock and laughing horses, you’ll navigate stiles, listen to the distant sound of crashing waves, hunt for Spanish Armada gold (supposedly long discovered but you never know!) and learn about the legendary Irish giant, Finn McCool, credited with creating the Giant’s Causeway. But that’s a story for another day…