A real privilege

Beth Hancock, 23 March, 2022
Inntravel’s Beth Hancock takes a look at some of Europe’s protected spaces which, whether they are home to rare flora and fauna or ancient history, are a real privilege to visit.
Swiss National Park, Engadine, Switzerland

Having grown up midway between two of Britain’s national parks – the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors – and regularly holidayed on the fringes of three more, it’s always struck me as odd that Switzerland, a country with scenery of such epic proportions, should have only one national park.

It’s not where you might expect, either. Given that Britain’s loftiest peaks are all within national parks, by that logic you’d expect the Swiss National Park to encompass mountains such as the Eiger or Matterhorn, but no. Instead, it is in the east of the country, around the Ofen Pass in the Engadine.

No permit is needed to visit, but you do need to adhere to a long list of rules. Besides the obvious ones such as no littering or lighting fires, the many don’ts include not paddling or bathing in the lakes and streams, not deviating from the paths (if you want to stop, wait until you reach a rest area, rather than sitting at the side of the trail), and not picking or removing any natural object, not even a fallen stick.  

The rationale behind this? To let nature run its course. The park’s founders were concerned about the progression of development in the mountains, so minimal human intervention has always been key concept since the park’s inception in 1914. While it’s true that bearded vultures were deliberately re-introduced, the appearance of the odd brown bear, wolf and lynx is because the animals migrated to the park of their own accord.

All this, and the fact that the forest has returned to a primeval state, has meant that, 65 years after it was established, part of the park was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1979.

Which Inntravel holiday? Villages of the Engadine (hotel-to-hotel walking)

Trivia: The emblem of the Swiss National Park is the nutcracker, a rather apt symbol of natural cycles and regeneration. This small, speckled bird feeds on the seeds of the cembra pine and squirrels plenty away each autumn, in readiness for winter. Those seeds it doesn’t manage to find later grow into new trees.

Zingaro Nature Reserve, Sicily, Italy
The story behind the establishment of the Zingaro Nature Reserve is one of people power, a heart-warming tale of a David-and-Goliath-style struggle between the authorities and local inhabitants. 

Appalled at proposals to construct a coastal road linking Scopello and San Vito lo Capo, environmentalists organised a protest march in 1980. Some 6,000 people turned up, prompting the local authorities to perform a dramatic volte-face: this seven-kilometre stretch of pristine coastline was declared a nature reserve – the first in Sicily – the following year.

When you see the scenery that would have been carved up, you can understand why locals were so up in arms at the prospect of a road being built. Idyllic white-shingle coves sit at the foot of precipitous cliffs (some over 900 metres tall), behind which are mountain slopes coated in subtropical vegetation.

Besides a towel and swimsuit, pack a pair of binoculars when you visit the reserve. You might spot yellowhammers, goldfinches, nightingales, kites, kestrels, peregrine falcons, and even, if you are lucky, a Bonelli’s eagle (of which there are about 15 pairs) or a golden eagle – a pair of the latter has recently started nesting in the reserve, delighting the conservationists who look after it.

Which Inntravel holiday? Wonders of Western Sicily (hotel-to-hotel walking)

Trivia: There’s a great variety – over 700 species – of plants in the reserve. One tree you are likely to come across is the carob, distinguishable by its long, leathery pods containing seeds surrounded by a sweet, edible pulp. The seeds themselves are inedible, but were used by jewellers in bygone times to weigh gemstones (the word ‘carat’ derives from the Greek for ‘carob seed’).
Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, Malta
In use between 4000 BC and 1500 BC, this prehistoric underground burial site consists of interconnecting chambers hewn out of the rock. If its structure is impressive – the chambers are spread across three levels – then the beautiful carvings and red ochre wall paintings adorning the second level are humbling. 

Unfortunately, the volume of visitors who came to marvel at all this in the 20th century took its toll on the paintings, and now, so that they can be preserved for future generations, a maximum of 80 people a day are allowed to visit the Hypogeum. Advance booking is essential.

If you don’t manage to obtain a ticket, the good news is that there are several other Neolithic sites open to the public. Not far from the Hypogeum, for example, are the atmospheric temple complexes of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, which overlook the sea.

On the neighbouring island of Gozo, you can visit the two temples of Ggantija, the oldest of which dates from around 3600 BC, making it 500 years older than Stonehenge. The temples’ walls contain some of the largest megaliths in the Maltese archipelago, including one that is estimated to weigh 50 tons. Considering that the islanders had neither metal tools nor wheels at the time, the temples’ construction was a major feat. No wonder local legend has it that they were built by a giantess.

Which Inntravel holiday? Glorious Gozo with Malta add-on (centre-based walking)

Trivia: No more temples were built on the archipelago after 2500BC, and the existing ones fell into disrepair, leading archaeologists to wonder what happened. Famine, disease or conquest are all plausible, but we’ll never know for certain, just as archaeologists can only hypothesise about how such huge stones were put into position.
Seiseralm Natural Park, South Tyrol, Italy
In the Seiseralm Natural Park in northern Italy, the number of vehicles is strictly limited, but not the number of people – there’s actually plenty of space, as this is the largest high-mountain plateau in Europe.

As a result, visitors can’t just hop in their cars and drive there – the only means of access are by cable car, bus or on foot. Pack your Kendal Mint Cake, as it’s uphill all the way. 

It’s worth the effort, though, for the excellent walking opportunities and, above all, for the views of the jagged Dolomite peaks which surround the plateau. Early summer is particularly impressive, when the meadows are a riot of colour.

And it’s these archetypal Alpine meadows that the limit on vehicles is there to protect, to ensure that the pastures are there for future generations and their sheep, horses and cows, full of the same wide variety of flora. At the right time of year, you can spot crocuses, alpine snowbells, anemones, purple monk’s hood, gentians, alpine poppies, red lilies, columbines and more, vying with the spectacular mountain views for your attention.

Which Inntravel holiday? The High Dolomites (hotel-to-hotel walking)

Trivia: Although the Dolomites are a walker’s paradise, on the Seiseralm farmers still outnumber hoteliers by 2 to 1. Local businesses are given vehicle permits, so your luggage is transferred between hotels as normal on our walking holiday.
Runde Island, western fjords, Norway
3,333:1. This somewhat mind-boggling ratio represents how much the 150 non-flying (human) inhabitants of Runde are outnumbered by winged residents during the summer months.

While this island bird sanctuary is not a place for anyone who comes out in a cold sweat at the thought of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, it’s a paradise for birdwatchers – but you don’t have to be Bill Oddie to be impressed by the sight of thousands of birds nesting feathered cheek by feathered jowl on the narrowest of ledges on the most precipitous of cliffs.

Eighty species are known to nest on the island, but a further 150 have been spotted here, making it the place in Norway with the greatest variety of bird species. Puffins are understandably the biggest draw – and are the most numerous, with 100,000 pairs which nest in small burrows – but you can also expect to see cormorants, kittiwakes, fulmars, gannets, razorbills, guillemots and skuas.

Which Inntravel holiday? Islands & Fjords of Ålesund (centre-based walking)

Trivia: A flock of puffins on the sea is called a raft, which, if you’ve ever seen a group of them bobbing about on top of the waves together, makes perfect sense.
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