We’ve all heard about the national parks of the USA, but what about those closer to home? I’ve heard Europe has plenty of parks – which are the best ones to visit?
Though Britons maybe aware of the 16 national parks in their home nation, and also the more famous ones in America (the likes of Yellowstone et al), little is known about European national parks. And as you rightly point out, Europe has some vast, protected areas of land that are ripe for an outdoorsy holiday.
The joy of national parks is that the landscape feels untamed, the wildlife is genuinely wild and you will always be able to find peace and space if that is what you crave. The degree of development is specific to the park – some allow construction of lodging and dining, while others require you to bring your own tent, which means there will just be canvas (or the modern day equivalent) between you and the great outdoors.
I’ll start with a couple that I’ve been to. Firstly, France and the Vanoise National Park in the Tarentaise valley, part of the Savoie region in the French Alps. It is a park that many skiers will have driven through en route from Geneva to resorts such as Meribel and Val d’Isere, but many won’t realise the extent of the area.
It was the first national park of France, covering 200 square miles across the central protected zone, and is home to a vast array of wildlife. I’ve seen chamois, a rather deft but sturdy mountain goat, and of course a huge array of wildflowers in the alpine meadows in spring. The keen-of-eye might also spot ibex, mountain hare, alpine marmots, and even golden eagles. The alpine setting makes it great, if challenging walking country, but exertions are rewarded with picture-postcard views of the alpine landscape.
If you’re up for a real challenge, two long distance walking routes, or Grande Randonnie, go through the park. There’s the popular Bergen op Zoom to Nice walk, GR5, and the Vanoise walk, GR55. You can get more details from the French Federation of Hiking website, although it is in French only.
Accommodation inside the park is limited to mountain huts and camping is not allowed. There is a broader zone around the strictly-protected central zone where you can find accommodation, as well as further huts. You can get meals in the huts but you should carry food and water, and huts should be booked ahead. You can do this through the local tourist board or its offices, and further details are on the Vanoise website.
The High Tatras National Park, or Vysoke Tatry is in northern Slovakia, close to the Polish border – another first national park. In fact, one of the easiest ways to access the region is via flights to Krakow.
The Regional capital Poprad is not an attractive city, but its Aquacity resort is music to the ears of weary hikers; a complex of pools, saunas, steam and treatment rooms that will soothe aching muscles before the flight home. Another sybaritic hotel is the Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras, which opened in 2009 and offers extensive spa treatments alongside activities including cycling and hiking.
There are plenty of do-able day climbs, or you can tackle longer multiple day hikes and stay at one of the High Tatras mountain lodges. There are also routes that take you between the lodges, including the one on top of Zelene Pleso, which overlooks a lake at 1,500 metres, with stunning views across the water. The hike to the top takes you through a changing ecosystem of alpine meadow to deciduous woodland, then thick evergreen forest, and finally a wild high alpine environment of fierce, steep streams and coarse scrub and bushes.
There are many websites dedicated to the region, but I found Vysoketatry.org one of the more helpful, with links to other websites and accommodation details. Slovakia.travel is the national tourist office website and has some inspiring imagery and contact details. Find flights on Skyscanner to get the best deal, then go with a local specialist such as Mountainparadise.co.uk, which offers golf, cycling, photography and walking breaks.
Spain is a country we associate with beach holidays or lively city breaks, but large tracts of the country are unsung beauties that have much to offer. In the south-west, close to the Portuguese border is Coto de Doñana National Park, part of Andalucia. It is a wetland area of marshes and narrow rovers, and is hugely important for its migratory birds. Winter avian visitors come from northern Europe and summer ones to escape the heat of Africa.
The one that the twitchers come to spot is the Spanish Imperial Eagle, although other striking species include grey herons, cattle egret and storks.
Wildlife fans will love seeing fauna as diverse as fallow deer, wild boar and flamingo, although the prize trophy to spot is an endangered big cat, the Iberian lynx.
Visitor access is strictly controlled, but like Vanoise, there is a central zone where regulations are more restrictive than the wider buffer zone. You can get information about what is and isn’t allowed from the visitor centres. There’s one at El Acebuche where you can get information on walking routes of all lengths, from an hour to a full day, plus maps, and a chance to stock up on refreshments.
You can also book a four-wheel drive trip in advance with the Cooperativa Marsimas del Rocío (959 43 04 32), so you can tour the area with an expert. Andalucia.com has all of this information and more about other visitor centres under its ‘Flora and fauna’, then ‘National Parks’ links. It also offers advice on where to stay, including campsites, close to the visitor centres, and advises to book well ahead if you’re going in the peak summer months.