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Ten of the best...European national parks

Ruth Styles

29th July, 2011

From the volcanic caldera of Mount Teide to the craggy tors of Dartmoor, Europe’s national parks combine stunning scenery with wonderful flora and fauna. Ruth Styles rounds up ten of the best

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature [IUCN], there are a staggering 113,000 national parks worldwide, which cover approximately six per cent of the Earth’s surface – an area larger than all the cultivated land in the world put together. In Europe, there are 359 national parks, including 10 in England, three in Scotland and three in Wales. Although the UK has maintained national parks since the 1950s, the USA was the first to start a national park scheme with the opening of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. The first British park was the Peak District in 1951 and followed the same year by the Lake District, Snowdonia and Dartmoor. In all national parks, whether Uganda’s mountainous Bwindi National Park or the UK’s Lake District, conservation and the environment are the top priority. As Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General says: ‘protected areas are not a luxury and their value lies outside the economy.’ From providing wildlife with a safe haven to preserving ancient landscapes, national parks play a key role in preserving our natural heritage. Whether you’re looking for a spot of wildlife watching or just a chance to kick back and soak up the view in some of the planet’s most beautiful spots, Europe’s national parks are the ultimate green destination.

Dartmoor National Park, UK
One of the UK’s smaller national parks, Dartmoor’s asperous heathland has been protected since 1951 and is home to around 3,000 free-roaming ponies. A rare patch of true English wilderness, the moor’s acidic soil supports beautiful patches of mauve heather, fruit-bearing bilberry bushes and clumps of gorse whose sun-coloured flowers bring a splash of brightness to the park in summer. The 23 conservation sites on Dartmoor include blanket bogs, ancient woodland and patches of heathland, and support rare fauna including the dormouse plus birds such as the golden plover. Away from the wild areas, the moor is also home to a number of picturesque villages including Widecombe in the Moor whose pretty Rugglestone Inn serves up hearty fare based on locally sourced ingredients.

Where to stay: Located just outside of the Dartmoor village of Liverton, the prettily-named Gorse Flower Farm is home to the Yurt Camp – an eco-friendly collection of fully-furnished tents. Yurts sleep between two and six people each. www.yurtcamp.co.uk

Get there: Southwest Trains run an hourly service to Newton Abbot on the edge of the moor from London Waterloo. Once there, the Transmoor Link bus plies a semi-regular route from Exeter to Plymouth that takes in part of the moor.

For more information, go to www.visitdevon.co.uk

Saxony Switzerland National Park, Germany
Despite the name, the Saxony Switzerland National Park is located in the heart of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains on the German border with the Czech Republic. Only 40 kilometres from Dresden, the craggy gorges and fissured heights of the park are almost completely covered with forests and provide a habitat for rare wildlife including a number of species left over from the Ice Age. Lynx, otters and kingfishers can also be spotted in the woodlands and along the banks of the Elbe River or on the outskirts of the pretty town of Bad Schandau. Elsewhere, the park has over 700 summits, including the majestic Lilienstein (415m) and the Königstein, which is home to a mediaeval town and a striking mountaintop fortress.

Where to stay: Located in the centre of Bad Schandau and overlooking the river Elbe, Hotel Helvetia is the first ‘bio-hotel’ in Saxony Switzerland and runs on eco-friendly lines including a 100 per cent organic guarantee for food and the use of renewable energy sources. The light, bright rooms are furnished with eco-friendly textiles and bathrooms are stocked with a selection of gorgeous, green beauty products. www.hotelhelvetia.de

Get there: Take the Eurostar to Paris, then head to the Gare de l’Est for the overnight sleeper to Berlin. From Berlin, catch the EuroCity train to Bad Schandau. Once there, the 40 per cent solar powered Kirnitzschtalbahn – the only tram in the world that serves a national park – runs along an eight-kilometre stretch from Bad Schandau to the stunning Lichtenhainer Waterfall.

For more information, go to www.saechsische-schweiz.de

Vysoke Tatry National Park, Slovakia
Vysoke Tatry or High Tatras National Park is one of the last places in the world where you can, if you’re lucky, spot the mountain chamois – a critically endangered species of antelope. Along with the chamois, the park is home to a colony of marmots along with European brown bears and a wealth of bird life. High Tatras is also home to Slovakia’s highest mountain, Gerlachovský štít, whose gaunt, snow-capped peak towers 2,655 metres above the pretty Velická Dolina valley, where you’ll find the 15-metre high Velický Vodopád waterfall. Štrbské Pleso with its large glacial mountain lake is the starting point for many the walking routes leading up to the glorious Kriváň peak; one of the symbols of Slovakia.

Where to stay: Dedicated eco-hotels are few and far between in Slovakia, so international hotel chains with a decent record of dealing with green issues are your best bet. The Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras is located in a pretty, old-fashioned chalet and has comfortable rooms with views over the lake. www.kempinski.com/hightatras

Get there: Taking the train to Bratislava is a bit of a palaver but takes in some of central Europe’s prettiest views. From Paris, take the sleeper train to Munich from the Gare de l’Est. From Munich, catch the RailJet train to Vienna, then transfer to Südbahnhof station for the intercontinental train to Bratislava. Once there, catch the train to Poprad and switch to the Tatra Express which takes you direct to Štrbské Pleso.

For more information, go to www.slovakia.travel

Teide National Park, Tenerife
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2007, Teide National Park is dominated by the Teide-Pico Viejo stratovolcano, which at 3718 metres tall, is the highest peak in Spain, and measured from its base, the third largest volcano in the world. Teide’s 30-mile wide crater and the unique lunar landscape that surrounds it have made it one of the world’s most visited national parks, second only to Japan’s Mount Fuji. The blasted landscape and lack of water make life hard for wildlife, with only 30 vertebrate species in residence, although there are insects galore, including plenty of spiders. Among Teide’s 10 bird species are the Blue Chaffinch, the Berthelot's Pipit and the wild canary.
 
Where to stay: Hotel Tigaiga in Puerto de la Cruz is a 14-time winner of the TUI Environmental Champion Award and is set in a pretty terracotta hued hacienda-style building surrounded by lush tropical gardens. www.tigaiga.com

Get there: If you aren’t prepared to fly, factor in at least three days of travel if you plan to go overland from the UK to Tenerife. Take the Eurostar to Paris where you can catch a sleeper train to Madrid. From Madrid, the train will take you to Cadiz where regular ferries ply the waters between Spain and the Canary Islands. One big advantage of taking the ferry is the huge variety of marine life in the waters off Spain’s south coast. Short-finned pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins can both be seen from the deck once you reach the waters off Tenerife.

For more information, go to www.webtenerife.com

Olympus National Park, Greece
One of the world’s most famous mountain ranges, the 52 peaks of Mount Olympus were thought to be the home of the gods by the inhabitants of classical Greece, and are still awe-inspiringly beautiful. Located in northern Greece on the Thessaly border with Macedonia, Mount Olympus’ abundant plant life – it's home to over 1,700 species and represents 25 per cent of the Greek total - has seen it designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. Animal species include wolves, jackals, lynx and wild boar, and there are more than 108 bird species plus a vast number of butterflies. While the fauna and scenery are the main attractions, the peaks of Mount Olympus range have long been a magnet for religious ascetics and the Agios Dionysios Monastery, three kilometres from Litochoro village, has one of the prettiest churches in the area.

Where to stay: As most of Greece’s hotels are geared up for the demands of mass tourism, finding an eco-hotel is like hunting for a needle in a haystack. If you make your visit to Mount Olympus part of a longer holiday, Costa Navarino in Messinia Peloponnese is an eco-friendly resort that makes a great base for exploring the Hellenic peninsula. Closer to Mount Olympus, your best bet is to try a holiday cottage where you can control exactly where your food comes from and how much power you’ve used. Top pick is the Old Stone House in Vysitza, which is set in a pretty orchard and is close to the rail links at Volos. www.homeaway.co.uk

Get there: The quickest and cheapest way to make it to Greece overland is by going via Italy and taking the ferry from the southern port of Bari to Patras. From Patras, take the train north via Athens to Salonika and Larissa – the gateway to Mount Olympus.

For more information, go to www.visitgreece.gr

Sarek National Park, Sweden
One of Europe’s last true wilderness areas, the ruggedly beautiful Sarek National Park in northwest Sweden is home to 100 glaciers and six peaks, including Sweden’s second-highest mountain, Sarektjåkkå. Stunning though the 750 square mile park is, it’s not for the faint hearted with few trails, just two bridges and no accommodation whatsoever. It does, however, have the Kungsleden or King’s Trail skirting its eastern boundary and running from Kvikkjokk in the south along the Terra Valley to Saltoluokta – a tiny mountain station with an excellent restaurant serving fresh, local food. Moose, lynx, brown bears and golden eagles all survive in the park, although you’ll need sharp eyes to spot them.

Where to stay: Nature Travels offers a nine-day guided hiking expedition to Sarek National Park staying in mountain tents but if you prefer to do things under your own steam, the Northern Comfort Lodge on the shores of Lake Revsund in Jämtland is close enough to the park to make day trips possible. A traditional timber house, it's comfortable with a picture-perfect setting and is a member of the Swedish Ecotourism Society. www.naturetravels.co.uk

Get there: The easiest overland route is to take the ferry from Harwich to the Danish port of Esbjerg (www.dfdsseaways.co.uk) where you’ll find onward train connections to Bräcke.

For more information, go to www.visitsweden.com

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland
One of the UK’s biggest and most beautiful national parks, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park is 720 square miles of pristine countryside, dotted with Munros [mountains above 3,000 feet], the highest of which is Ben More at 1,174 metres high. Along with stunning mountain scenery, the national park includes 22 large lochs, the most famous being Loch Lomond whose crystalline waters and accessible beaches make it ideal for wild swimming. The red-faced black grouse, endangered red squirrel and magnificent red deer are among the inhabitants of the park’s extensive woodland habitats.
 
Where to stay: Loaninghead Farm, near Drymen, offers a choice of self-catering accommodation in 'The Bothy' or bed and breakfast. Surrounded by pretty countryside, wildlife and ancient history, it’s the holder of a Silver Green Tourism Award and the owners are committed to working in a more sustainable way, including recycling as much as possible, growing their own fruit and vegetables and using water left over from washing in the garden. www.loaninghead.co.uk

Get there: GNER and Virgin Rail both have routes taking you from London to Glasgow where you can hop on a First Scotrail service to Balloch – 11 miles from Drymen and in the heart of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park.

For more information, go to www.visitscotland.com/surprise

Cévennes National Park, France
Rising above the plains of Languedoc Roussillon are the Cévennes – a labyrinth of twisting valleys and soaring peaks speckled with wild mulberry trees. The huge granite massif of Mount Lozère is the highest point in the park with the summit standing 1,699 metres above sea level. The home of the legendary ‘Bete du Gevaudan’ - a wolf-like creature that prowled the area between 1764-1767, killing 100 people – still plays host to a whopping 2,410 species of birds, mammals, insects and reptiles including the beaver and the black vulture. A low mountain region, the Cévennes are also dotted with medieval villages and towns, including the achingly pretty settlement at Florac with its grand chateau and Soup Festival, which takes place at the end of October.

Where to stay: L’Oustaou de Joséphine is a pretty B&B run by Elisabeth Martz and Philippe Julien located in the pretty village of Saint Frézal de Ventalon. While most of the accommodation is in the house, the B&B also has a treehouse in the grounds, which comes with 360-degree views of Mount Lozère. Much of the food on offer is grown in the garden and L’Oustaou is also a member of the Cévennes Ecotourism Association. www.oustaou.net

Get there: The Cévennes National Park is easily reachable by train from London, although you do have to change in Paris. Once off the Eurostar, head to Paris Bercy, changing at Clermont Ferrand before disembarking at Marvejols or Mende, both of which are on the edge of the Cévennes.

For more information, go to uk.franceguide.com

Góry Stołowe National Park, Poland
Home to Europe’s very own Table Mountain, Góry Stołowe is a 24 square mile stretch of striking forest-topped gorges, ravines and escarpments including the spectacular Szczeliniec Wielki – at 919 metres, the highest peak in the Stolowe mountain range. Although trees cover more than 90 per cent of the park, it accommodates 16 different habitats and is one of the last places where the Rose of Kłodzko (Trollius europaeus) can still be seen. The intriguing rock formations and deep gorges are also home to a host of animal and bird species including the ultra-cute fat dormouse, the wild boar, roe deer and pine marten. The park’s mammal life also includes the mouflon – a Corsican mountain sheep with spectacularly large, spiral-shaped horns that was introduced to Poland at the beginning of the 20th century.
 
Where to stay: Located in the tiny spa town of Kudowa Zdrój, close to the Góry Stołowe National Park, Villa Antica is an pretty family-run hotel situated in a 19th century house surrounded by extensive gardens. It’s not a certified eco-hotel but its restaurant does serve locally sourced produce. www.villaantica.pl

Get there: A surprisingly simple destination to reach by train; take the Eurostar to Brussels where you can catch the ICE high-speed train to Cologne. From Cologne, take the EuroNight sleeper to Poznan where connections to Kudowa Zdrój are available.

For more information, go to www.poland.travel

Swiss National Park, Switzerland
Founded in 1914, the Swiss National Park located in the eastern canton of Graubünden is one of Europe’s oldest national parks and easily one of the most beautiful. A mixture of precipitous mountains, verdant forests and deep valleys, the park is home to a huge variety of birdlife including the bearded vulture and golden eagle, as well as plenty of mammal species such as the guinea pig-like marmot and the rare Alpine ibex. Although no bikes, camping, fires or stoves are allowed within the park’s boundaries, its 172.3 square kilometres are crisscrossed with 80 kilometres of hiking trails, including a route that takes you up Alp Grimmels – one of the prettiest peaks in the park.

Where to stay: Chamanna Cluozza is the park’s own wooden guesthouse and is located in the ravishing Cluozza Valley – the first in the park for those entering from the Zernaz side. Don’t expect a car transfer though – you’ll have to hike to your hotel (three hours from Zernaz), so pack light. www.nationalpark.ch

Get there: Taking the Eurostar to Paris, then head over to the Gare de l’Est for a connecting train to Zurich. From Zurich, it’s a short 2.5-hour trip to Zernez on the edge of the park.

For more information, go to www.myswitzerland.com

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