Beth Hancock, 12 April, 2022
It’s a wacky idea for a holiday, but if we were ever to put together a tour of Europe’s national parks, we know which ones would be on our list.
Samaria National Park, Crete, Greece
The Samaria National Park encompasses a spectacular gorge of the same name within Crete’s White Mountains. And not just any gorge, but the longest in Europe, and one of the few remaining homes of the endemic Cretan ibex. If there’s one downside, it’s that its scenery is so striking that the gorge has become something of a must-see. To avoid the crowds, either get an early start or access the gorge from the coast side.
With colours ranging from deep blue to emerald green, the park’s sixteen lakes feed into one another via a series of cascades and waterfalls. It’s a fairy-tale landscape, and one that is constantly evolving – mineral deposits build up over time, creating natural dams that might in some cases plug up an existing waterfall but then create a new one further along.
It’s hard to decide which season we like most here – spring is a wonderful time, a chance to spot some of the 55 species of orchid which grow here; summer’s highlight has to be the butterflies (there are a staggering 321 types found in the park); while the dense forest that surrounds the lakes means that autumn brings a breathtaking show of colours.
Slovenia’s tallest mountain, Triglav, not only gives its name to the country’s solitary national park, but also makes an appearance on the nation’s flag within the coat of arms. While its 2,864-metre peak is impressive, and makes for beautiful reflections in the mirror-like waters of Lake Bohinj, it’s not the mountains per se that we love about this area, but rather the sense of timelessness that pervades the park, embodied by traditional hayracks and ancient hamlets.
Unlike most national parks, Vesuvius’ main draw is its extraordinary historical insights. Anywhere else, a volcano of Vesuvius’ stature would take centre stage, but here, of course, it is the two cities which were buried during the eruption of 79 AD which attract most attention. So big is Pompeii that you’d probably need three days to see it all; if you’ve only got a few hours, you’ll need to limit yourself to the forum, amphitheatre, brothel and a few of the large villas. Herculaneum, however, is small enough to be visited in its entirety in a day. The fact that it is even better preserved than Pompeii – the 16 metres of ash and mud which buried it meant that a lot of the internal features of the buildings survived – is another vote winner.
Cinque Terre translates literally as ‘Five Lands’. They are actually five villages characterised by tall, brightly painted houses, but ‘lands’ suggests that they deserve a certain amount of respect, which is certainly true given their gravity-defying construction. As if building little fishing ports on the rocks surrounding natural harbours cut off for centuries from the outside world were not enough, the steep slopes behind the coast were also tamed to some extent, their terraces planted with vines from which crisp whites and sweet Sciacchetra wine are produced.
There’s no decision-making involved in nominating a Swiss national park that we’d visit on our tour, as there is only one. This, combined with the fact that nature is given free rein to run its course, makes it feel such a privilege to visit. The occasional wolf, lynx and brown bear have been known to shelter in the depths of the park. You may well see marmots and chamois as you walk, and even, if you’re lucky, a bearded vulture.
Not for nothing is the emblem of the Berchtesgaden National Park a golden eagle, as there are seven pairs of this regal raptor which breed within the confines of this protected area tucked within the fold of the Austrian border to the south-west of Salzburg. The landscapes are equally majestic: lofty granite peaks such as the Watzmann and, at their feet, dramatic gorges and hidden lakes. Do not miss a boat trip on the most idyllic of these, Königssee – the surrounding slopes are so vertiginous that the scenery resembles that of a fjord.
Just as the Swiss National Park is the only area granted that status in Switzerland, Peneda-Gerês is the one and only national park in Portugal. Another similarity is the presence of wolves – this mountainous zone is the last remaining refuge of the Iberian wolf. The vestiges of wolf traps peppered across the granite landscape are poignant reminders of how close it once came to extinction. Other man-made elements – Roman roads, ancient pilgrims’ paths and beautiful sanctuaries – combine with a varied landscape of high plateaus, hidden lakes, forests and yawning valleys to make an area that is well worth exploring.
Europe’s national parks aren’t confined to the mainland – there are a handful in the Canary Islands, too, including Timanfaya on Lanzarote. The scenery here possesses a stark, other-worldly beauty; only lichens can grow on the lava fields created by the eruptions of the 1730s and 1824. A combination of a fungus and an alga, lichens are leading the way in reclaiming the island – they gradually break down the lava into soil, eventually allowing plants to grow – but they are also very sensitive to changes in the environment and, for this reason, access to the national park is strictly controlled. If you can’t get a place on one of the guided walks, the best way to visit is to take a bus tour – you’ll get to look down into craters and pass through the steep walls of a collapsed lava tube. A very different experience with which to end our tour.