‘All you have to do is keep your eyes open’
Brown bears padding. Sperm whales fluking. Wolverines marauding. Long-tailed mayflies rushing. Dolphins bowriding. Musk ox hulking… All these spectacles – and more – can be witnessed in the wild without leaving Europe. And as our selection on these pages shows, a wealth of wildlife sightings can be compressed into a single weekend break, in destinations as mainstream as Vienna, the Loire and Madeira – and even from the upper deck of a ferry as it plies the Bay of Biscay.
Once a byword for Attenboroughstyle adventures in far-flung places, wildlife holidays have become entirely compatible with low-cost, high-frequency international travel. Below are blueprints for 13 wildlife mini breaks – one for every week throughout June, July and August. So whenever you have a summer weekend free to immerse yourself in all things European and natural, there is a suggestion for you. mountaineering goats, the former stocky, thick-necked and bigbottomed; the latter slighter, with short horns and a raccoon-like mask. The marmot is somewhere between a chipmunk and a beaver – with a squirrel’s bushy tail. Also look out for butterflies: glanville fritillary, green hairstreak, small blue and possibly even swallowtail and Apollo.
The nearest airport is Turin, it’s then a 1 hr 50 min drive to Valsavarenche. Accommodation: tinyurl.com/gp-accommodation they do provide plentiful food for waders: snipe, common redshank, whimbrel and golden plover. The shorebird star, however, is the red-necked phalarope – tiny and tame. Many of north Iceland’s small pools and roadside ditches harbour phalaropes – but nowhere more so than in the Lake Myvatn wetlands.
Fly to Keflavik, then take a 45 min taxi to Reykjavik domestic airport. From there take a 45 min flight with Eagle Air (eagleair.is) to Husavik. For whale-watching operators, see icewhale.is. Accommodation: hostel.is only sound is the whistling of millions of wings as they fertilise the eggs of every female they can. By 6.30pm, the first of the spent males are dying, their bodies littering the water. The females lay their eggs upstream before they too expire.
It’s what locals call Tiszaviragzas (“the blooming of the Tisza”), for you the culmination of a weekend spent 92 miles (150km) upstream in Hortobagy National Park. Key species there include fire-bellied toads, dragonflies, terrapins and tree frogs.
Fly to Budapest and hire a car for the 1 hr 15min drive south-east to Tiszakurt, then drive a further 45 min to Hortobagy (hnp.hu/en/ szervezeti-egyseg/tourism). Accommodation: Hortobagy village has several options (search booking. com), while the town of Szolnok is closest to the mayfly sites.
La Brenne Regional Nature Park, Centre-Val de Loire, France
Dragonflies (lilypad whiteface, yellow-spotted emerald), Brenne marsh-orchid, whiskered tern From the air, this region – a two-hour drive south from Paris – resembles a shattered mirror, the glistening fragments aggregating into one of Europe’s most vital wetlands. However, every etang (pond) is man made, the result of a huge drainage programme in the Middle Ages. The ponds now serve as commercial fisheries, restricting wildlife to the most sensitively managed examples.
At Etang de Bellebouche you can view nesting purple and night herons from either of two hides – as well as yellow-spotted emerald dragonflies, with green eyes and golden dots the length of their abdomens. Etang Vieux is the place to head for butterflies, while along the road at Saulny you might see Brenne marsh-orchid, a pink endemic flower. Look out for lilypad whiteface dragonflies along the boardwalk to the hide at Etang Cistude (within La Cherine National Nature Reserve), and for whiskered terns nesting among the floating vegetation at Etang de la Sous.
Fly to Poitiers from Stansted or Edinburgh, then drive. Accommodation: parc-naturelbrenne.fr/en/home/organizingyour-stay/accomodation/favorites
Kainuu and North Karelia, Finland
Wolverine, grey wolf, brown bear The procession of wildlife watchers to privately run properties in eastern Finland is lengthening year-on-year, not least because wolverines are now regularly spotted from hides (all equipped with bunks, dry lavatories and snacks to see you through the night) that were originally designed for viewing brown bears. There’s a fair chance of seeing grey wolves, too – the triple crown.
Era-Eero, near Lieksa, is the world’s best site for wolverines. The odd bear is often seen in the forest, while wolves are occasional visitors. If you have the stamina, drive two-and-a-half hours north to the Kuhmo area, where the Wild Brown Bear Centre and Kuikka Base Camp are among the best places for both ursines and wolf sightings. You may even see the carnivores interacting.
From Kajaani airport (finavia. fi/en/kajaani) it is a 2hr 15 min drive to Kuikka Base Camp (wildfinland. org), 1 hr 30 min to Wild Brown Bear Centre (wildbrownbear.fi) and a 2hr 30min drive to Era-Eero (eraeero. com). Accommodation: available at all three bases. It is hard to avoid feeling insignificant in the Pyrenees. Yomping along a glaciated valley that unfolds for 12 miles (20km), you look up at the vertical cliffs encasing you. Their limestone top steeples akin to stacking London’s Stock Exchange Tower above The Shard, the capital’s loftiest building. Atop a rocky platter above a whiffling river, a Pyrenean rock lizard satisfies its solar addiction. Under a stone sheltering the bed of a sparkling sidestream lurks a Pyrenean brook newt. At your flank, a cornucopia of montane flowers kaleidoscopes your vision. An Alpine marmot slouches in the sun, wantonly. Overhead, a lammergeier follows a singleminded path through the air, sniffing for another bone to break. The Pyrenees chain offers a surfeit of great wildlife walks, but none compares to Ordesa.
Fly to Zaragoza with Air Europa or Ryanair, from there it is a 2 hr drive to Torla, gateway to the park. Accommodation: Torla (ordesa.net/alojamiento-yservicios) before the walk, then Refugio de Góriz (goriz.es).
Clockwise from main: the brown bear can be spotted in Finland; a waterfall in Ordesa National Park; mayflies can be found in Tiszakurt; humpback whales are frequently seen in Iceland