Five of Europe’s best wildernesses for spotting big beasts
For big open skies and untrammelled snow forest (taiga), set your compass to Kainuu, in eastern Finland. Brushing the Russian border, this sparsely populated region promises Christmas cake-topping landscapes of snow-dusted pines, spruce, fir and larch interspersed by glistening lakes and berry-spiked birch groves.
Why go? Kainuu’s forests and wetlands may be well off most humans’ radar, but they’re a honeypot for brown bears, wolves, wolverines, lynx and elks. Birdwatchers have plenty to appreciate, too: golden eagles, black grouse, woodpeckers, Ural owls and red-flanked bluetails are all there for the spotting. Peak season for wildlife watching is between spring and autumn, when the daylight hours stretch further and wildlife is richer, but winter trips are popular among nature photographers, lured by the Narnia-like landscapes.
How to do it Nature Travels offers remote but family-friendly canoe adventures through the Lentua lake system in Kainuu. Paddling along the Tar Route, once used to transport tar from the forest’s eastern fringes to the Baltic Sea, the six-day, self-guided trips cost from £645 for a family of four, including transfers and equipment (for canoeing, cooking and camping) but not flights or food.
If you’d rather go in winter, Wildlife Safaris Finland takes guests out on foot, ski or snowshoe from its “base camp”, a traditional log house complete with sauna, to see wolverine, wolf and otter tracks and, if they’re lucky, spot golden eagles, Siberian jays, waxwings or even the northern lights. Prices start from €890pp for three nights, including transfers, accommodation, food and two guided activities a day but not flights.
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 three-toed 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 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-as-you-go basis.
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 five-day Wild Bears in Northern Pindos trip 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 family-run village hotels and venture out on day trips. Doubles at Primoula Country Hotel, in Ano Pedina, cost from £70 B&B. Photography tours, birdwatching trips and trekking can be arranged in partnership with local organisations such as Zen, the Zagori Excellence Network.
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 centuries-old 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, griffon and cinereous species have been spotted in the region, too), can easily fit these in on their way to wilder territory.
Why go? The Southern Carpathians are home to some of the largest populations of wolves, lynx and bears in Europe, as well as chamois, wild cats, red and roe deer and wild boar. Over a million hectares of protected biodiverse land is linked through wilderness corridors here, one of eight key areas run by Dutch non-profit organisation Rewilding Europe, and a small number of European bison have been reintroduced.
How to do it If you’re keen to go on a Carpathian bear hunt, you’ll get long wavy grass, deep cold rivers and wildlife-spotting galore on Exodus Travels’ Carpathian Walking and Bears trips. Starting and finishing in Bucharest, and running from May to October, these seven-night trips are based in a guesthouse in Măgura, at the foot of the Carpathians. Daily guided hikes blend cultural excursions with nature activities, including forester-led visits to bear hides. Prices start at £1,199pp including flights, transfers, full-board accommodation and activities. Or sign up for Discover Adventure’s new Transylvanian Winter Wilderness Trek, a five-day group trip running next February which takes in chamois-spotting and snow-shoeing in the region as well as an overnight stay at Lake Balea’s Ice Hotel. Prices start at £900pp, including flights, transfers, accommodation and most meals.
The cobbled streets and riverside wine bars of Porto may be heaving with tourists these days, but three hours’ drive east, along Portugal’s north-east border with Spain, the Côa Valley is unfathomably quiet. Hikers and cyclists tackling the Grande Rota do Vale do Côa long-distance trail and archaeology buffs exploring the 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.
How to do it Nature-based tourism is one of Rewilding Europe’s key strategies. In the Côa Valley it has supported small accommodation providers, one of the most noteworthy being Star Camp, a trio of safari-style tents within the Faia Brava reserve. Here, guests pay from €104 a night for two (dinner is €30pp), and can add on guided bird-watching. For longer trips, local tour operator Miles Away or the Netherlands-based European Safari Company can put together tailormade packages.
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