Five of Europe’s best national parks – with all the beauty but none of the crowds

Five of Europe’s best national parks – with all the beauty but none of the crowds

Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici, Spain

There is a wild and wonderful water world in the north-eastern corner of Spain. The Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici national park, in the central Pyrenees north of Lleida, is characterised by more than 200 lakes fed by melting snow and ice, plus rivers and streams, gorges, waterfalls and marshes. (Aigüestortes means “winding waters” in Catalan, and Sant Maurici is the biggest lake.)

Visitors can explore by bike – there are 13 routes, from flat family paths to challenging mountain biking. There are also 27 hiking trails with spectacular viewpoints over the lakes, which reflect the surrounding forests and mountains. These include Los Encantados, a pair of near-identical peaks. Wildlife includes bearded vultures and grouse, one of the emblems of the Pyrenees.

In the Vall de Boi, eight Romanesque churches and a hermitage, all built in the 11th and 12th centuries, are characterised by tall narrow bell towers. It is possible to visit them all in a day, walking between the villages. After that, walkers can relax in Caldes de Boi thermal spa, which is set in large gardens and has 37 natural springs.

June and July are among the best times to visit, to experience the Fallas festivals. In these centuries-old midsummer rituals enormous torches are carried down the mountains into the villages, where a great bonfire is lit and the party begins. This year, the dates are 14 June in Durro, 23 June in Boí, 6 July in Barruera, 13 July in Erill la Vall, 19 July in Taüll and 26 July in el Pla de l’Ermita.

Accommodation includes the Aigüestortes Camping Resort (from €25 for a pitch for two) and a network of mountain refuges, including Amitges (€40 B&B). Wild camping is not allowed. There are daily coach services from Barcelona, Lleida and Tremp to most of the villages around the park, and from June to September a park bus connects the two main entrances, Boi and Espot.

Mercantour, France

Lac de Trécolpas, Mercantour national park. Photograph: Westend61 GmbH/Alamy

In the far south-east corner of France, between the southernmost Alps and the Mediterranean Sea, lies the Mercantour national park. Half a dozen uninhabited valleys stretch for 100 miles, from Barcelonnette to Sospel, with scattered villages around the periphery. This diverse landscape, from almost alpine to coastal, provides a habitat for a huge range of wildlife. Of more than 2,000 species of flowers and plants, 200 are rare and 30 endemic; there are 200 kinds of bird, including golden eagles and ptarmigans, and 78 mammals, including wolves, marmots and all six French ungulates (stag, deer, wild boar, ibex, chamois and mouflon).

One unmissable spot is the Valley of Wonders, a huge archaeological site of about 40,000 rock carvings, with the oldest dating to around 3,000BC. They depict daily life and beliefs, with engravings of cattle, weapons and geometric figures. Other highlights include the glacial lakes of Vens, which feed a series of waterfalls, and Lake Allos, the biggest high-altitude natural lake in Europe.

A rock carving in the Valley of Wonders. Photograph: Hemis/Alamy

For hikers there are more than 1,000 miles of trails (about 350 miles in the heart of the park), from gentle walks in meadows and woodland to strenuous mountain treks – the highest peak, Gélas, is 3,143 metres.

A website for hikers details more than 100 day walks, about 20 itineraries of between two and seven days, and the 17-day, 140-mile Grande Traversée du Mercantour. It also lists accommodation from hotels to campsites. Mountain refuges offer dormitory beds and shared meals: they include La Cantonnière, Refuge des Lacs de Vens, Refuge de la Cougourde and Chalet de la Madone de Fenestre (from €20pp). Wild camping in tents is banned, but bivouacs are allowed between 7pm and 9am.

Lots of visitors choose to stay in one of the towns along the main road that passes to the south of the park, such as St-Martin-de-Entraunes, St-Sauveur-sur-Tinée, St-Etienne-de-Tinée and St-Martin-Vésubie.

Car-free travel is encouraged: there are daily buses from Nice, Monaco and Menton to each valley, and intra-valley shuttles, plus a tourist train line from Nice that calls at several villages. In the summer, there are dedicated buses for hikers, also from Nice.

Eifel, Germany

The Eifel national park was certified as the first International Dark Sky Park in Germany. Photograph: Dneutral Han/Getty Images

Strictly speaking, the Eifel national park in North Rhine-Westphalia, in far-west Germany, is still classed as “in development” – it was founded 20 years ago, and it will take another 10 years for 75% of the land to return to nature. But more than half the area has already been rewilded. Beech and oak trees that would once have been felled are now left as undisturbed woodland, and animals such as wild cats, woodpeckers, red deer, and rare lizards and bats have returned. There is a red deer observation gallery near Dreiborn – September and October are the best times to visit, to observe the rutting season. The rivers attract black storks and kingfishers, and wild daffodils can be found on the Dreiborn Plateau. At the birdwatching station on Lake Urftsee, there are two telescopes to watch the black storks, red and black kites, herons and cormorants.

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One of the best ways to explore the park is on the four-day, 53-mile Wilderness Trail. Visitors can walk it independently or book a package, which includes three nights’ B&B and transfers by bus and train (from €269pp). There are also five shorter hiking circuits (from three to 11 miles each); 65 miles of cycle paths; and 40 miles of bridleways. Free ranger tours take place most days, and there are boat tours in the summer.

In 2014, Eifel became the first international dark sky park in Germany. The Vogelsang observatory organises regular astronomy workshops and dark sky walks. Historical sites include Monschau Castle, Steinfeld Monastery and Mariawald Abbey.

About 30 national park hosts offer environment-friendly stays, including two campsites and nine hostels. Overnight guests are entitled to the GästeCard, which provides free travel on buses and trains in the Eifel national park discovery region, stretching from the border with the Netherlands at Aachen to Cologne, Bonn and Leverkusen.

Risnjak, Croatia

Lokvarsko Lake in Croatia’s Risnjak national park. Photograph: iascic/Getty Images

The mountainous, forested Risnjak national park is named after one of its rarest residents, the lynx – ris in Croatian. It contains the Risnjak and Snježnik massifs in the northern part of the Dinaric Alps and is an important habitat for brown bears, wolves and chamois. Birds include capercaillie and pygmy owl; 89 species of butterfly have been recorded, and a variety of wild orchids grow there.

Visitors can walk to the source of the Kupa river, a bright turquoise pool, via Wonderful Butterfly Valley (35 minutes); follow the Leska educational path to learn about the park (three miles), or climb 11 peaks – Risnjak is the highest at 1,528 metres, with Snježnik just behind at 1,506 metres. Panoramic views stretch across Istria – the Adriatic is just 11 miles away – and as far as the Julian Alps in Slovenia. In the summer, there are guided chamois-spotting tours (from €65 for five hours). Cycle routes range from 2½ to 25 miles (mountain bike hire is from €4 for three hours/€12 for 24 hours). Fly fishing for brown trout and grayling is allowed from spring to autumn (€55 a day).

Only about 60 people still live in the park. Limited accommodation includes a guesthouse and a hostel in the mountain village of Crni Lug (beds from €13), a mile from the main entrance, and a refuge below the Risnjak summit, built by botanist Josip Schlosser in 1932. There are more options in Delnice, the nearest town (eight miles away), and even more in Rijeka, the nearest city, on the coast about 100 minutes’ drive away.

Buses run from Delnice and Rijeka to Crni Lug, or it is a 90-minute drive from Zagreb. The entrance fee is €6 adults/€3 children.

Peneda-Gerês, Portugal

Peneda-Gerês is known for its beautiful pools and rivers. Photograph: Pauline Cutler/Alamy

There is only one national park in Portugal: Peneda-Gerês, in the far north-west, near the border with Spain. Luckily, it has a bit of everything: mountains, oak forests, holly-bush woods, wildflower meadows, peatlands, rivers and waterfalls. It is home to endemic species such as the gold-striped salamander, endangered species including the Iberian wolf and Iberian wild goat, plus roe deer, wild garrano ponies, barrosã cattle and sheepdogs.

There are about 15 official day walking trails ranging from a couple of kilometres to a 16-mile circular trek taking in a megalithic necropolis and a birdwatching plateau. Other routes go via medieval castles, monasteries and sanctuaries. But the ultimate way to explore the park is on the GR50, a 120-mile, 19-stage route along Roman roads, pilgrims’ ways and smugglers’ trails. The GR50 crosses the hills of Castro Laboreiro, the mountains of Peneda, Soajo, Serras Amarela and Gerês, and the Mourela Plateau. Each stage ends at a village – about 9,000 people live in the park – with simple lodges and guesthouses to stay in.

On shorter trips, visitors could combine a stage or two with some canoeing or canyoning. The super-fit could run it: there is a trail-running event in May with races over five distances from 10 to 100 miles.

The easiest way to reach the park on public transport is by bus from Braga to the town of Gerês, a five-minute walk from one of the five park gates.

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