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.
One of Lyon’s best-kept secrets is the stunning Parc Lacroix Laval. Based around the former estate of the Domaine de Lacroix Laval, the park expands on all sides for 115 hectares. The present Domaine de Lacroix Laval dates from the 16th century, with some later additions, but it was built on the ruins of a 12th century castle. A wealthy estate, the mansion is as beautiful as it is expansive. Today, the Domaine de Lacroix Laval serves as a wedding venue (imagine getting married here!) as well as exhibition space in the summer months. The surrounding park is popular with joggers, picnickers, dog-walkers and families. With both open spaces, playgrounds, farm animals and wooded paths, the Parc Lacroix Laval is a welcome escape from the hubbub of downtown Lyon.
Pro tip: The park is best reached by car, though you can take bus 98 or local train TER from the Gare de Lyon-Saint-Paul. It’s also a great place for a morning jog!
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.
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.