Where the wild things still are
On our small, crowded continent there are few remaining wildernesses big enough to sustain large mammals – but in these untouched beauty spots it is still possible to see bears, bison, lynx, wolves and more, says Rhiannon Batten
The Pindus Mountains
The Pindus (sometimes spelt Pindos) Mountains are dubbed the backbone of Greece – head to the top of the spine for the best wildlife encounters. In the country’s rugged north-western corner, nudging the border with Albania, two national parks (Northern Pindos and Vikos-Aoös) attract a trickle of tourists to sites such as the Vikos gorge and the Zagori villages, but in far smaller numbers than those congregating along Greece’s busy coastlines.
Why go? Between the mountains’ toothy peaks, deep ravines and alpine lakes are valleys of beech, chestnut and pine forest (parts of the latter belong to the Natura 2000 network of protected natural sites across Europe). In the Northern Pindos national park alone there are 11 wildlife sanctuaries, helping to protect 4,000-odd plant species and fauna ranging from wolves, jackals, otters, red deer and brown bears to herons, egrets and spoonbills.
How to do it Join Natural Greece’s fiveday Wild Bears in Northern Pindos trip (natural-greece.gr) and spend time tracking animals with the help of researchers from Callisto, an aptly named local bear conservation charity. Starting and finishing in Thessaloniki, these run in summer and autumn and cost from €550pp, including transfers, guiding, accommodation and some meals.
Alternatively, make a comfortable base camp in one of the region’s familyrun village hotels and venture out on day trips. Doubles at Primoula Country Hotel, in Ano Pedina, cost from £70 B&B (primoula.gr). Photography tours, birdwatching trips and trekking can be arranged in partnership with local organisations such as Zen, the Zagori Excellence Network (z-e-n.gr).
Poland Białowieża Forest
Once upon a time (10,000 years ago) a vast swathe of north-eastern Europe was covered by dense forest. Since then, many of those tree-lined tracts have been felled but, in what is now the far east of Poland and the far west of Belarus, on the watershed of the Baltic and Black Seas, the last significant tract of this primary woodland remains: the almost 142,000-hectare Białowieża forest.
Why go? A Unesco world heritage site, Białowieża is irreplaceably biodiverse. The latest, modern-day twist in the forest’s tale has seen it come under threat from logging but, for now, it is resilient enough to support 59 mammal species (among them elk, wolf and lynx) and more than 250 feathered species (including white-tailed eagles and rare black, white-backed and threetoed woodpeckers). Its most famous inhabitants, however, are European bison; around 900 of the creatures roam here – almost 25% of the total world population.
How to do it Unlike with many European wildlife trips, there is no need to wait until next summer to visit the Białowieża forest; Wild Poland’s eight-day Winter Wildlife Festival (wildpoland.com) runs from 19-26 January 2019. Starting and finishing in Warsaw, the tour costs from £552pp, and includes transfers, half-board in a cosy wooden forest guesthouse, evening lectures by visiting scientists and self-guided nature walks. In addition, guests can dip into a daily programme of guided activities – including the chance to visit the Biebrza Marshes – on a pay-asyou-go basis.
Romania Carpathian Mountains
Vampires may be Transylvania’s most infamous predatory carnivores but the region’s population of wolves comes close. This southern corner of the Carpathians – an arc of wooded mountains, meadows and canyons that rises from central Romania – offers some of the most accessible wildlife watching in Europe; and though it comprises wild swathes of rugged, old-growth forest, it is easily reached from Transylvania’s centuriesold villages. Those who want to explore Saxon citadels, perfectly pickled medieval towns, bucolic rural villages, fortified churches or Dracula’s Bran Castle alongside vultures (bearded, Egyptian,
Côa Valley world heritage site (with up to 12,000 prehistoric depictions of horses, oxen, deer and hunters) – are drawn to the region in small numbers, but its river gorges, oak forests and scrubby heaths remain largely undisturbed.
Why go? Sitting within the cross-border Meseta Ibérica Unesco biosphere and Western Iberia (another of Rewilding Europe’s key areas), the Côa Valley is known especially for cliff-breeding birds (among them black storks, eagle owls, alpine swifts, red-rumped swallows and numerous species of vultures and eagles). It is also home to the Reserva da Faia Brava, an 850-hectare independent nature reserve that counts wild Garrano horses and Maronesa cattle, Iberian wolves, ibex and red deer and roe deer among its inhabitants.
The large island of Funen and the smaller islands of the South Funen archipelago in central Denmark are dotted with 50 minimalist, architectdesigned shelters, built in 2015 to attract walkers, cyclists and kayakers to the area. All have a firepit, and the larger ones have a viewing platform on top. It’s free to stay in the smaller shelters, such as two cosy dens in the Vester Stigtehave forest on Langeland island, while larger structures, including three by the beach on the island of Drejø, cost only about £3 a night. Keen hikers can tackle the 220km Archipelago Trail, spending each night at a different shelter.
It takes about 16 days to complete, depending on fitness and the weather, and there are 20 refuges to stay in on the way, all managed, from May to October, by a gardien who runs a small shop and cooks hot dinners. The highest is the Refuge de Ciottulu at an altitude of 1,991 metres – its terrace has great views over the Golu valley, and north towards the Col des Maures, where mouflon (wild sheep) roam over the pink granite rocks. Hikers can self-cater or, between June and September, order a threecourse meal and a Pietra beer, brewed from chestnut flour.
Ferðafélag Íslands (the Iceland Touring Association) runs 40 mountain huts around Iceland. Some are on popular hiking routes, such as the Laugavegur trail, while others are more off the beaten track. For example, the tiny Þjófadalir hut at the foot of Mount Rauðkollur (below) was built in 1939 and is on the ancient trail across the Kjölur highlands, between
There are three major longdistance hiking trails in Poland, encompassing all three of the country’s main mountain ranges: Główny Szlak Świętokrzyski (100km), Główny Szlak Sudecki (350km) and Główny Szlak Beskidzki (500km). Each trail has a chain of “green hostels”, lodges and bacówkas (traditional shepherd’s cottages) for hikers to stay in, many owned by the Polish Tourist and Sightseeing Society. The highest and most remote is Piec Stawow (left) in the Valley of Five Polish Lakes in the High Tatras, which can only be reached on foot – or skis. This 67-room hostel has a restaurant and ski-rental shop.