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

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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.

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