Overcrowded Europe may be culturally dense, brimming with
historic cities and manicured landscapes, but it also has some genuine wilderness
areas – albeit in the recesses of the continent.
These truly wild areas where nature reigns are not the scenic
national parks found across the continent. Many are not true wilderness areas and
even fewer meet the strict criteria set by Pan
Parks, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Europe’s natural
habitats and fragile ecosystems. To be certified for this conservation
organisation, a park has to have at least 100 sqkm of untouched nature at its core,
where flora and fauna still thrive without man’s interference. The wilderness areas
also have to be managed in a sustainable manner when it comes to conservation, tourism
and human developments.
There are only 12 parks in the selective Pan Parks network, which
stretches across 10 countries, from Finland to Georgia. In the core areas in
these parks, no human exploitation is allowed, no roads or construction, no
hunting, fishing, mining, logging, grazing or even grass cutting.
Pan Parks is a Europe-wide non-governmental organisation that
was founded in 1997 by the World Wildlife Fund with the goal to protect one
million hectares by 2015. So far, nearly 330,000 hectares are under its
“Most people don’t know about Europe’s true wildernesses,”
explained Zoltan Kun, director of Pan Parks. “They do not love them and do not
support them. Tourism can help change this. Most people are surprised about the
beauty of these places, which should become as iconic for Europe as Yellowstone
is for North America or the Serengeti is for Africa.”
All of the parks are open to the public, but four
tour operators in the Netherlands, UK and Germany offer sustainable tourism
breaks in five of the parks. Local partners also work in ten of the Pan Parks, offering
special interest tours. By using these companies, part of the money you
spend on your holiday will go to conservation in these parks you will also be
supporting sustainable tourism in these wilderness areas.
“These areas are in established national parks, but this
higher level of protection -- where there is no human interference -- protects
the biodiversity of key habitats,” said Dr Steve Banner, director of Wildlife & Wilderness, one of
the Pan Park tour operators.
All tourism operations in the parks are low-key, sustainable and in many cases,
family run, with local guides that work alongside the authorities to promote conservation.
“They represent a place to escape to, to have adventures in
and to help protect a variety of habitats for some of Europe’s most iconic
species,” Banner said.
Bulgaria’s Rila and Central Balkan
Rila is one
of Europe’s most resilient sanctuaries for high-altitude flora and fauna, and
you can trek between lodges among small hill communities. Deep gorges, verdant
mountains and a mild climate make the Central Balkan park an
easy-to-explore biodiversity hotspot.
Estonia’s Sooma National Park
Sooma is full of bog fields, flood plains
and picturesque forests. You can go snowshoeing on bogs in any season and hit
the rivers in traditional dugout canoes.
Finland’s Oulanka and Archipelago National Park
Oulanka has fast flowing Arctic rivers
that wash through vast stands of pine and threatened plants. The 4,000 rugged
rocky and forested islands of the Archipelago National Park sit between
mainland Finland and the islands of Åland.
The Borjumi-Kharagauli has
some of the best preserved woodlands in the Caucasus Mountains. It is a good
spot for horse riding when the summer wild flowers are in bloom.
Italy’s Majella National Park
Only two hours east of Rome, Majella
is the highest and wildest section of the Abruzzi mountains, where you can
visit rocky hermitages and follow wolf tracks.
Lithuania’s Cepkeliai-Dzukija National Park
Explore dunes, rivers, rolling plains and vast marshes in Cepkeliai-Dzukija.
Canoeing, hiking and traditional village architecture are the main draws.
Portugal’s only national park is at
the junction of two mountain ranges that create one of the last refuges of the
wolf and the royal eagle. Waterfalls are common as you hike along mountain
Romania’s first national park has rare
plants and animals and some of the most extensive mountain forest areas in
Europe. It is also a prime butterfly-watching area and bird sanctuary.
Home to some of the world’s finest Taiga forests, Paanajarvi is a
pristine watery landscape of 120 lakes, some of which are good for canoeing. There
are undomesticated reindeer, capercaillie (a bird also known as the wood grouse),
and lakes full of crayfish.
When you are not gawping at Sweden’s tallest waterfall in Fulujallet, you can
follow brown bear tracks, go horse trekking and go dog sledding.