The best national parks of Europe
Wistmans Wood near Two Bridges in Dartmoor National Park, England. (Feargus Cooney/LPI)
From glacial falls to untamed highlands, Europe’s great outdoors is exactly that.
Dartmoor National Park, Britain
Dartmoor is the British landscape at its most primal – the heart of darkness beneath the surface of the ‘green and pleasant land’. Tales of headless horsemen stalking ancient burial sites, gruesome hairy hands forcing vehicles off the road and a visit from the devil himself have given Dartmoor a doomladen reputation, making it a favourite setting for writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. This is a land of swirling mists and rain, desolate moor, granite hills and mysterious stone circles that can’t fail to bring out your inner pagan. Its numerous prehistoric monuments include the 3.5 metre-high Beardown Man near Devil’s Tor and 5,000 stone huts. The walking trails rank as some of Britain’s finest, all interspersed with the occasional rustic pub – ideal for chasing away thoughts of phantom canines by the fire.
Make it happen:
By car, take the M5 from Bristol or the M3 and A303 from London to Exeter. To reach the park by bus from Exeter, take the 359 or 82 (Transmoor Link) between Exeter and Plymouth. Dartmoor Sunday Rover tickets allow for unlimited travel on most buses and the train from Plymouth to Gunnislake, located on the edge of Dartmoor (£6.50; June to September).
Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
There is a hallucinogenic, other-worldy quality to Plitvice. This staggered network of 16 deep lakes, perched high in the forests of the Dinaric Alps, was created by dams of limestone and dolomite rock. The richness of the minerals in the water, which comes from the Bijela and Crna rivers and underground springs, lend the lakes an ever-shifting palette: sometimes they appear a rich turquoise, on other days mint green, grey or blue. It’s a surreal sight, enhanced by the torrential waterfalls linking each lake and the prolific vegetation wrapped around the rocks and waterways. Plitvice was also the starting point for the Croatian War of Independence of the 1990s, when Serb rebels took control of the park headquarters. It’s worth a visit in winter too – the falls are frozen in motion and the icy lakes take on the hue of the skies.
Make it happen:
Some, but not all buses running between Zagreb and Zadar stop at Plitvice; check with a driver or online. The journey takes 3 hours from Zadar or 21/2 hours from Zagreb, with 10 services daily (from £7; akz.hr).
Abruzzo National Park, Italy
Barely two hours from Rome, these Apennine peaks and beechwood forests rarely make it onto most people’s Italy must-see lists. But they should: this is northern Italy at its most medieval, a mountain wilderness that is the last remaining home of the endangered Marsican brown bear as well as wild lynx, Appenine wolves and royal eagles. More than 150 tratturi (sheep tracks) wind through valleys and meadows filled with forget-me-nots, the untamed natural beauty broken up by a scattering of hilltop villages. This is unparalleled hiking country, with even short walks offering stupendous views. The main town is Pescasseroli, an attractive jumble of pink stone houses nestled in a valley and flanked by white-tipped peaks.
Make it happen:
Ryanair flies to Rome Ciampino (ryanair.com). EasyJet flies to Naples (easyjet.com). Pescasseroli and other park villages are linked by six daily buses to Avezzano, where you can change for Rome, and Castel di Sangro, for Naples (pescasserolionline.it).