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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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).
Hamlet near Valnontey in the Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy
This nameless place is barely a place at all. A collection of less than 10 buildings, this hamlet is snuggled deep within the majestic Valley of Valnontey on the French-Italian border. From October to March, the hamlet is buried under heaps of snow, and closed in on either side by the steep valley walls. There is no running water here, nor is there electricity. In winter, the only access is by cross country skiing (the area is beloved for the sport) or snow shoe. The village of Valmontey is the closest civilisation, and it’s still a couple of kilometres away – at least 30 minutes by snowshoe. And Valmontey is by no means large: it has a couple of restaurants, a hotel or two, a old church, and a shop – all very weather-dependant. Aosta, for which the greater Aosta Valley is named, is further 60 minutes by car down the narrow mountain track, if the weather is good. If the weather isn’t good, get comfortable, because you aren’y going anywhere. The villages and hamlets of Gran Paradiso are the kind of place people go to get off the beaten track. Hard to access, remote, rustic, and removed from civilisation, the people of this valley live side by side with mother nature. Deep in the Gran Paradiso National Park, the Valley of Valmontey is alive with wildlife – birds, foxes and most famously, the ibex – a deer-like animal topped with corkscrew antlers. The air is clean and pure. The modern world feels very far away. But amongst the charming wooden chalets – many built by hand – it doesn’t take long to feel right at home.
Muckross Abbey in Killarney National Park, Ireland
The silent headstones reach out of the earth like fingernails. A soft layer of grass covers the ground; ivy climbs the walls. Wildflowers, left to their own devices, plant their roots in their chosen bits of earth. Muckross Abbey, a squat, ancient building within the beautiful Killarney National Park in western Ireland, rings of silence. As one approaches the roofless, hollow structure, the quantity of graves thickens, as in Catholicism, being buried on Holy Ground was a believer’s final life objective. Graves are everywhere, even inside the building. The ground by the abbey seems to be higher than the ground further away, but that’s no trick of the light or any natural phenomenon – no, that’s a result of as many people being buried on Holy Ground by the church as possible. The silence inside is deafening. Your footsteps echo in the cloisters as you circle the inner courtyard. Climbing to the second floor, you come face-to-face with the ancient, scared yew tree planted by the monks of yesteryears, a symbol of their eternal faith. Finally at the top of the tower, you get a sweeping view of the rest of the churchyard, and beyond it, the lush greens of Killarney National Park, a good bit of which was once the property of the Muckross Estate before becoming Ireland’s first national park in 1932. The spell is finally broken when a group of boisterous tourists lumber through the abbey’s gates, and you take your cue, quietly slipping out onto one of the many forested paths winding in and around Killarney’s famous park.