six of the wildest adventure holidays in Europe

Finland: Observe bears, owls and wolves in the lake area

A six and a half hour train ride from Helsinki is the town of Kajaani, the unofficial capital of the Finnish Lake District. The number of perfectly calm waters here, suitable for paddling, kayaking and myriad water sports, far outnumbers the settlements scattered in between.

But it’s not the waters that offer the wildest experience. In the forests to the east, European brown bears roam in droves. 2019 surveys put the population of these relatives of the North American grizzly at around 2,000. A number of bear skins are available for hire to watch them feed, court and play.

The Bear Center is located in a wilderness area called Vartius, just over a mile from the Russian border (where many of the bears come from). Guests can safely hike the marked trails during the day – bird watching opportunities abound, with several species of owls, eagles, woodpeckers and curious blue jays being sighted regularly.

Related: Railway Route of the Month: Passing Finland’s pristine forests and lakes

Then, at night, everyone follows a guide to set out for their personal hideout and watch the bears emerge from the trees (stay for one or more nights only). June and July bring many hours of daylight for photo ops; August and September offer the best opportunity to see mothers with their young; and October brings early snow. Wolverines and wolves also make frequent appearances.

The huts range from very basic with a mattress on a bunk bed (although these are the best for photography as they have special openings for unobstructed shots) to luxurious, with huge picture windows, central heating, a kitchenette and shower, and an audio system with it You can hear the sounds of the forest. From €99 per person.

Estonia: Bog hiking, swimming and wild camping

Just 40 miles, or an hour’s drive, east of Tallinn — the capital city famous for its Christmas markets and bachelorette parties — is a landscape filled with (literally) buckets of wild water. Part of the Kõrvemaa Nature Reserve, Kõnnu Suursoo is one of Estonia’s ‘swamplands’, wild stretches of land fringed by mineral-rich lakes, lined with forests of native white elm, ash and maple, and covered with a carpet of peat moss.

Boardwalks and trails allow for safe passage through the swamp, but a guide can be hired (try Prangli Travel) who will supply special “bog shoes” (basically snowshoes) and lead hikers off trails into miniature forests containing more than Hardy trees that are 20 years old are still only the height of a ruler.

It’s worth taking a local with you for the stories alone – these landscapes are said to be home to a plethora of spirits – like Hiid, hero of the forest, who watches over visitors from the treetops, and Allikaravitseja, elf of springs, who lives in the Water reflections appear to bless only the kindest of people.

Related: Estonia in winter: With a canoe and bog shoes into the wilderness

Swimming in these natural pools is also possible all year round (although they can be frozen over in winter). The geology is said to do wonders for the skin and the cool temperatures invigorate the soul. Foraging is easy, with blueberries, cranberries, and chanterelles found throughout spring, summer, and fall.

A few minutes’ walk from Kõnnu Suursoo bog is Järvi Päarnjarvi Camping, which is free to use and has benches and fire pits so you can warm up after days of swimming, hiking and storytelling.

For a multi-day adventure, soomaa.com offers bog shoe tours and canoe trips in all five seasons (the fifth being the high tide season).

Spain: Cycling on the tracks of the Iberian lynx in Andalusia

A lynx in Coto Doñana National Park. Photo: EyeEm/Alamy

Less than an hour’s drive from Seville (or a four-hour drive) lies the Coto Doñana National Park in Andalusia. Consisting of about 20 miles of white sandy beaches, rolling dunes, wooded areas and a few salt marshes, it is an untamed mosaic of landscapes.

Amidst its diverse habitats are woodlarks, warblers, shrike and bee-eaters, fallow and red deer, wild boar, Egyptian mongoose and one of the world’s most endangered cat species – the Iberian lynx. With what appears to be a white beard and elongated black tufts on the tips of their ears, it was estimated a few years ago that there were only 100 of these cats left in the wild. Conservation projects have made some progress; Even so, today there are only about 400 left – and this national park is one of the best places to see them. They’re elusive, so a guided game-viewing tour is recommended (Discovering Doñana offers small-group day trips from €50 per person) to at least get your bearings and get acquainted with the lynx’s habitat.

The best way to explore it is on two wheels (Bike Tour Doñana, a few miles outside the park, offers a range of bikes) and there are several trails to choose from, including the 10-mile Asperillo Trail, which runs through reforested areas Umbrellas guides pine trees and countless opportunities to stop and look out for birds; the 40-mile Guadalquivir Marshes Trail, which offers dirt trails amidst the swamps with an overnight stop at El Rocío; and the 24 km Vereda del Loro, which takes you to the campsite in the park (a good starting point).

For those who prefer to hike, there are many hiking routes ranging from short one-kilometer hikes to all-day 10-mile hikes through various areas of the park (information is available at one of the many visitor centers). and there’s even a boat from Sanlúcar de Barrameda to Poblado de la Plancha for a water exploration.

In the village of El Rocío, which borders the swamp, there is plenty of accommodation with cheap campsites, guesthouses and hotels starting from around €25 per night. For other options, head to the more urban beach resort of Matalascañas.

Portugal: Rewilding in the Greater Côa Valley

Crossed by deep river valleys, interspersed with oak forests and rocky heathlands, the Great Côa Valley in northeastern Portugal is slowly changing. Since 2019, this region – between the mighty Douro River and the tree-clad Malcata Mountains – has been under the care of the non-profit organization Rewilding Portugal, with the goal of creating a transboundary wildlife corridor with neighboring Spain.

Since the beginning there have been many successes, including the discovery of a colony of black and griffon vultures; the release of 10 semi-feral Sorraia horses into the area to increase natural grazing and thereby reduce the risk of wildfires; and training locals to become naturalist guides to ensure both visitors and the community living around the valley benefit from the rewilding initiative.

Related: To and from Spain and Portugal: a road trip up the Guadiana River

A great way to explore the valley is to walk the Grande Rota do Côa, a 138-mile hiking trail that follows the length of the Côa River from its headwaters near Spain (southwest of the small town of Soito) to the Côa -Museum follows – where this river meets the Douro. The trek is divided into 11 stages and there are numerous villages to stay in along the way. Wildlife viewing opportunities include wild boar, red and roe deer, birds such as raptors and vultures, and a small pack of Iberian wolves.

Rewilding Europe Travel – a specialist in rewilding project travel – is offering a five day trip (from €645) with local nature experts to showcase the subtle changes and bold plans taking place in the valley.

France: Donkey hikes on old mule tracks in the Ardèche

Donkey trekking, Ardèche, France

“Walking a donkey is not a fast-paced escapade.” Photo: Rob Cousins/Alamy

In southern France, equidistant from Montpellier and Marseille on the Mediterranean coast, lie the limestone cliffs, tree-lined slopes and water-carved gorges of a nature-carved region – the Gorges de l’Ardèche.

Between the amphitheater of this gorge of rocky caves and its eponymous long, winding river runs the GR4 – one of the most famous hiking trails in the country. Many will walk the 71-mile section here in four days, staying in bed and breakfasts or campsites along the way as it winds across the Massif Central towards the pre-Alpine Vercors.

Enjoy the wildflowers or one of the 2,000 caves that have been inhabited by humans for thousands of years

But in addition to the hiking route, the region is criss-crossed by hundreds of old mule tracks. Donkeys used to be the elixir of life in this region. With time and the invention of roads and mechanized vehicles, their use steadily declined. Rather than lose a piece of their heritage, many owners in this region have kept their trusty steeds and have now lent them to hikers who fancy walking the ancient network of trails at a much slower pace – and have someone, or rather something, carry their bags.

Walking a donkey isn’t a high-speed excursion, and it leaves plenty of time to stop and take in the surroundings, making it a great adventure for families. Enjoy the wildflowers, bridges of weathered stone, or one of the 2,000 caves that have been inhabited by humans for thousands of years.

Accommodation options en route include a cheap and cheerful farm campsite, cozy chambre d’hôte (B&B) or hotel, all with a paddock where a mule can be left behind. Available as both a group and private self-guided experience, the adventure can last a week or a day, offered by locally-guided Trekane from €65.

Switzerland: A high altitude ‘farm safari’ on foot

Cable cars are a familiar sight in the Swiss mountains, but apart from sleek modern versions (not to mention crowds), many ski resorts have a whole network of much more rustic models – once vital to the farmers who work amidst this dizzying landscape.

Known as Buiräbähnli in the local dialect, they were, and occasionally still are, used to haul supplies up steep climbs. Now they have a different purpose – they form a convenient connection in a circular hiking trail called Buiräbähnli-Safari, a company that aims to bring business to these small, high-altitude farms.

Related: Six wild rail adventures just 48 hours from the UK by train

The concept is simple. After catching the train to Engelberg, hikers begin a 28-mile route through rugged mountain landscapes, with eight of these cable cars connecting mountain huts (for overnight stays) and farms (for feasting on local produce and hearty meals en route). There are no queues for a ride in this area of ​​the mountains – the Buiräbähnli operate on a “request only” basis, and to catch one you need to pick up a phone in the cabin/cable car, twist a handle and ask for it to be switched on and lit become. From there it’s high-level riding around lakes and through fields of wildflowers, over mountain passes and descents into small villages.

Farms along the way range from meat and dairy to organic and even a family run business where alpacas and llamas help children living in difficult circumstances. The Engelberg Tourist Office has a map and a guide to accommodation and mountain railways.

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