Europe outdoor holidays: Europe's 10 greatest wilderness adventures

Most of us love Europe precisely because it is such a civilised place. Picturesque medieval city centres, museums packed with priceless paintings, cathedrals that are works of art in their own right: no matter which country you visit, rich troves of culture and history can be found around every corner. When you need a break, there is always an elegant cafe, a rustic trattoria, or a chic wine bar where you can take a breather.

There is, however, another side to the continent: its wild places. The menacing woods that loom large in our favourite fairy tales, filled with hungry predators, covered much of this continent just a few centuries ago. What may surprise some people is that you can still find remnants of wilderness right across the continent, including pockets where bears and wolves still roam. From France's high-altitude plains to Corsica's dramatic gorges, Transylvania's pristine forests to Slovenia's glacially-fed rivers, there is a continent's worth of epic landscapes to explore. Try out some of these memorable escapes to discover a very different side of Europe.

THE WILD PLACE: Picos de Europa, Spain

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Mention Spain and what comes to mind are images of buzzing cities such as Barcelona and Seville, sandy beaches and ancient pilgrim trails. Wild mountain landscapes, not so much. However, the Picos de Europa, a series of limestone massifs overlooking northern Spain's Atlantic coast, offers some wonderful high-altitude hiking opportunities. You can follow trails to the pretty lakes of Covadonga, walk paths carved out of the cliff along the Garganta de Cares, a 1000-metre-deep gorge that stretches for 12 kilometres, or hike along ancient shepherd paths that meander through verdant meadows and beech forests. Along the way, you can visit traditional hamlets such as Sotres and Bulnes, which to this day is inaccessible by road. Whichever path you take, you are guaranteed to soak up some of Spain's most dramatic scenery along the way. 

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Explore's seven-night tour, On Foot in the Picos de Europa, uses the highest village in the area as a base, and offers a series of inspiring days walks. From £745 ($1260). See explore.co.uk

See also: 20 things that will shock first-time visitors to Spain

THE WILD PLACE: Central Sweden

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Central Sweden is in many ways the heartland of the country. A sense of nostalgia surrounds its red-painted cottages and traditional handicrafts – for many, this is the Sweden of their childhoods. No wonder that some of Sweden's most celebrated artists, including Anders Zorn and Carl Larsson, drew their inspiration from the area. The region's greatest treasure, however, is its vast pine forests, where you can follow animal paths and perhaps even spot some of the creatures themselves, including moose, bear, lynx, and wolverine. The area's many pristine lakes offer a wonderful way to cool off after a long hike. When you are planning your days, remember that the sun stays high in the sky until late during the summer months, giving you more time to explore the great outdoors. 

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Wandering the World offers a 10-night tour called Walking in the Wilderness of Sweden. As well as walks, the itinerary includes a sauna experience and a night safari. From $4225. See wanderingtheworld.com.au

See also: Seeking the world's no.1 bucket-list item in Sweden

THE WILD PLACE: Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

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One of Europe's smallest countries, Scotland is also among its wildest, with just 2 per cent of the country classed as urban. The landscape is studded with ancient forests, cascading waterfalls and tranquil lochs; you will find all of these in Cairngorms National Park in the Highlands, along with five of the UK's six highest mountains. The park, which is twice the size of England's Lake District, has many pretty villages and – this being Scotland – plenty of boutique distilleries. It also has many different moods. For wildlife spotting, head for the harshly beautiful Cairngorm Plateau, where you may see mountain hares, golden eagles, ptarmigan, capercaillie and wildcats. If you prefer a more bucolic outdoors experience, take a picnic to the lovely Loch an Eilein, which comes complete with its own island crowned with a 13th-century castle.

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Wilderness Scotland offers a six-night hiking trip through the Cairngorms including some of the park's most famous trails exploring the Abernethy Forest and Glen Feshie, as well as following ancient whisky smugglers' routes. From £1295. See wildernessscotland.com; visitcairngorms.com

See also: Scotland: A beginner's guide

THE WILD PLACE: Transylvania, Romania

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There's more to Transylvania than vampires. Although this area is best-known as the home of the mythical Count Dracula, its location in the eastern Carpathian Mountains makes it part of what many consider to be Europe's last great wilderness. Transylvania's dense forests are known for their biodiversity: they are home to Europe's largest populations of bears, wolves and lynx, along with one third of Europe's plant species. The beauty of these woodlands draws visitors from around the world, as do the area's castles, fortified churches and medieval towns. Picturesque settlements such as Sighisoara, Brasov and Sibiu, founded by 12th-century immigrants from Saxony, are a lovely place to relax after a wilderness adventure. 

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U-Tracks' five-night Transylvania Castles & Mountains self-guided walk takes in some of the area's most dramatic landscapes, including the Bucegi Mountains. Luggage is transferred each day while you are walking. From $850, see worldexpeditions.com

See also: Romania - the land that time forgot

THE WILD PLACE: Gorenjska, Slovenia

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Slovenia has a reputation as one of Europe's most photogenic countries, but what you may not realise is that pretty much every Instagram-worthy image of Slovenia that you have ever seen will have been shot in the Gorenjska region. Pristine lakes, soaring peaks, forests, waterfalls – this area has a kaleidoscopic range of terrains, each more beautiful than the next. You can take to the water for rafting, kayaking or riverboarding, or try rock climbing, cycling, horse riding or even caving. Must-visits include the lovely Lake Bohinj, the gorgeous Mostnica Gorge and the forests of the Pokljuka plateau. In winter, there is plenty of skiing and showshoeing, while spring is the time to come if you want to see the Alpine meadows filled with wildflowers. 

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Naturetrek's seven-night Slovenia: Alpine Flowers of the Julian Alps trip captures all the beauty of an Alpine spring. Expect superb birdwatching – including woodpeckers and Bonelli's warbler – as well as swathes of wildflowers. From £1395. See naturetrek.co.uk 

See also: A Slovenian cycling adventure

THE WILD PLACE: Western Norway

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Western Norway's spectacular landscapes, carved out by glaciers across several ice ages, are among Europe's most celebrated outdoor destinations. Spectacular fiords are slashed into the coastline, their tranquil waters protected by sheer cliff faces. The area's small settlements are dwarfed by the majestic surroundings, and sightings of eagles and seals add the sense of being adrift in the wild. The lively town of Bergen makes a good base for exploring the area. There are all sorts of ways to soak up the beauty: you might try cruising down Lysefjord, trekking the glacier walks of Hardangerfiord, and admiring the waterfalls of Sognefiorden. Cyclists will love the 80-kilometre Rallarvegen, the cycle track built along the old service road used during the construction of the Bergen rail line.

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G Adventures has a six-night Norwegian Fiord Trekking itinerary featuring daily walks. Highlights include a walk across the Buer Glacier and a full-day hike up the challenging Trolltunga, or Troll's Tongue. From $2549. See gadventures.com.au

See also: Sailing through the land of the vikings

THE WILD PLACE: Southern Corsica, France

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Seen one Mediterranean island, seen 'em all? Not by a long shot. Head inland, away from the glitzy coastal resorts, and you will find that Corsica is still wild at heart. Expect epic landscapes, including saw-toothed mountains, dramatic rock formations and foaming rivers, along with indigenous flora such as the towering lariccio pine and the aromatic macchia bush. Adventurers know Corsica as the home of one of Europe's toughest long-distance trails, the 180-kilometre-long GR 20, which bisects the island diagonally. There are also less hardcore options, with Southern Corsica's best hikes including walks through the forest of Aitone, with its series of pretty waterholes, and Spelunca Gorge, where the river rushes along between the canyon's orange granite walls. 

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Walks Worldwide offers a seven-night self-guided itinerary, From Mountains to Coast, which starts in Corte and takes in highlights such as the Scala Santa Regina Gorge before finishing in Piana. From £989, see walksworldwide.com

See also: Europe's 10 most underrated islands

THE WILD PLACE: Sutjeska National Park, Bosnia Herzegovina

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Visitors to Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo, find that the conflicts that swept through this region in the 1990s have left their mark. Out in the countryside, however, you can escape the dark history and enjoy an untouched wilderness. In Sutjeska National Park, you can wander through one of the last primeval forests in Europe, beneath ancient beech trees that tower more than 60 metres high, hike through deep canyons and across mountain slopes, and perhaps encounter some of the endangered animals that are occasionally seen here, including bear, chamois, wolves, martens and wild cats. On a summer's day, hikers can cool off in the glacial waters of Trnovačko Lake, set in an astounding natural amphitheatre surrounded by rocky peaks. 

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Exodus Travel offers an eight-night Walking in Bosnia-Herzegovina itinerary that takes in Sarajevo and Mostar as well as Sutjeska National Park. From $2065. See exodustravels.com

THE WILD PLACE: Tusheti Mountains, Georgia

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There's some debate about whether Georgia sits in Europe or Asia, but most Georgians consider themselves to be European, which is good enough for us – particularly since it lets us include the magnificent Caucasus region in this list. In the Tusheti National Park, snow-covered peaks, soaring more than 4000 metres into the sky, frame a landscape of gorges and wildflower-filled meadows, pine and birch forests. This spectacular area spent many centuries cut off from the wider world; even today, there is just one road in, and it is only open a few months a year, from June to October. Its remoteness has made it a haven for endangered species, including chamois, lynx and Anatolian leopards, but it's the warmth of the locals that will make the biggest impression. In ancient villages such as Omato, Dartlo and Gorgulta, keep an eye out for the centuries-old defensive towers that once provided protection from marauders. 

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Go Barefoot's eight-night Vines of Adventure itinerary offers plenty of opportunities for hiking and cycling in the Caucasus. From £1795 a person. See gobarefoot.travel

See: Georgia - a surprisingly great foodie destination

THE WILD PLACE: The Queyras, France

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Cheeses, churches and champagne: cultural and culinary attractions are what France has built its reputation on. Surprisingly, this oh-so-civilised country still has patches of wild terrain, particularly along its Alpine areas. Few are as untouched as the Queyras, which only opened itself up to tourism towards the end of the last century. The area is known for its varied landscapes – including rocky deserts, alpine meadows and high altitude lakes – its extraordinary range of flowers, and for an animal population that includes chamois, ibex, marmots, wolves and golden eagles. As many of the trails sit between 2000 and 3000 metres, some hikers may experience the effects of altitude, but it is worth it to discover such remarkable sites as the soaring peak of the Col Vieux and the Guill valley, with its remarkable 16th-century chateau. 

SEE IT FOR YOURSELF

Highpoint Holidays has an eight-night self-guided Tour of Queyras – an Alpine Secret. Your luggage is transferred between guest houses, so all you have to carry is your day pack. From £855. See highpointholidays.co.uk

See also: Ten things you should never do in France

FIVE WILD CREATURES OF THE CONTINENT

BEARS IN FINLAND 

Finland's forests are home not just to brown bears, but also elk, wolverines, wolves, caribou and beavers. Taiga Spirit's seven-night Taiga Mammals of Finland tour includes four nights spent in hides for top wildlife spotting. See taigaspirit.com

BISON IN POLAND 

The 800kg European bison is the continent's heaviest land animal, and Eastern Poland's Białowieza Forest is the place to see this endangered species. Try Wild Poland's three-night Bison Safari, which also includes wolf tracking. See wildpoland.com

PUFFINS IN ICELAND 

With an estimated population of 10 million puffins, Iceland has plenty of places where you can admire these adorable birds. The Westman Islands are home to the country's largest colony; visitors can sign up for a 90-minute Puffin and Volcano Tour. See visitwestmanislands.com

WOLVES IN BULGARIA

Bulgaria has one of Europe's largest wolf populations, with up to 2000 wolves believed to exist in the country's forests. Wild Echo has a seven-night tour focused exclusively on tracking wolves, called On the Track of the Wolf Pack. See wildechotours.com

BUTTERFLIES IN CROATIA

What is extraordinary about Croatia's butterflies is not just the variety – 190 different species – but also the sheer density of numbers. Naturetrek's seven-night Butterflies of Croatia tour takes in some of Croatia's loveliest landscapes along the way. See naturetrek.co.uk

FIVE MORE PLACES TO GO WILD IN EUROPE 

CRETE

Beyond Crete's beaches lies a wild interior, where you can hike the stunning Samaria Gorge, climb various peaks and stop in at ancient monasteries and mountain villages along the way. See incrediblecrete.gr

FAROE ISLANDS

If you love a landscape with a bit of drama, the remote Faroe Islands has it all, from colourful moors to brooding cliffs and black sand beaches. See visitfaroeislands.com

GEORGIA

Three hours' drive from Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, the valley town of Stepantsminda – also known as Kazbegi – boasts some wonderful day hikes.  See visitgeorgia.ge

GERMANY

Northern Germany's Wadden Sea is the largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats in the world. Base yourself on the resort island of Nordeney to enjoy spa action and gourmet meals in between outdoor excursions. See germany.travel

ROMANIA

For a memorable day hike from Brasov, visit the Piatra Craiului National Park and follow the ridge trail, which offers stunning views across the region. See romaniatourism.com

See also: Europe's 10 most spectacular coast roads

See also: 20 things that will surprise first-time visitors to Europe

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