Image credit: Eddie Granlund/Folio/imagebank.sweden.se
Getting to know the world up-close and, as some would say, with your heart and soul, is many a wanderer’s dream and lifelong goal. To many seasoned travellers, it’s all about sampling the extravaganza of biodiversity and experiencing first-hand encounters with magnificent wild animals in their natural habitat.
The pursuit of these mesmerising ‘details’ of nature – from a rare species of butterfly to an impressive bison to an intelligent and friendly wild dolphin – is intrinsically pleasurable, but it also bestows a feeling a greatness that comes with having blended into the landscape and becoming part of the ecosystem. These are adventures that have the power to truly change perspectives, especially how we view the world and the environment.
Europe might not be top of mind when it comes to awesome animal encounters, but these experiences might just convince you to make sauntering into nature a must, during your next holiday!
No dissent over wisent
Straddling the border between northeast Poland and Belarus, the Białowieża forest is considered Europe’s last remaining expanse of primeval woodland that once cloaked the entire continent. As the forest is home to the only wild herd of European bison, also called wisent or the European wild bison, travellers to this part of the world will have the possibility to spend some quality time in the great wilderness, and, accompanied by professional guides, explore every nook and cranny of this fairytale-like forest tracking these huge beasts. The bison is the main ticket attraction, but the forest is also home to elk, red and roe deer, wild boar, wolves, beavers and lynx.
Adore the Azores dolphins
Portugal’s Azores Islands comprise nine volcanic islands surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean – a visually breathtaking place where infinite verdant fields are edged by swelling seas. With more than a fair share of natural assets including giant crater lakes featuring nature trails that number more than fingers, the magical Azores promises to constantly excite outdoor enthusiasts and keep keen walkers busy for days. The islands are also a perfect antidote for anyone wishing to reconnect with nature and encounter wildlife; bird watchers will, in particular, be awed by the brightly-coloured array of fluttering creatures. But what’s truly unique on the islands, is experiencing the warmth of the ocean side by side with its friendly inhabitants.
Here, there are about 23 species of whales as well as several wild dolphins inhabiting the Atlantic. As the islands are bathed in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, the Azores are considered one of the best places in Europe to swim with wild dolphins. However, do note that local laws ensure this activity is undertaken in harmony with marine life – by limiting the number of swimmers in the water to just two, as well as restricting vessel numbers. A dolphin guide will provide a briefing before the experience and teach swimmers the best practice for a non-intrusive interaction with these amazing mammals.
King of the Swedish forest
In the enigmatic forests of central Sweden, particularly at Bergslagen, or in the mind-boggling northern regions, wildlife-loving travellers will be treated to majestic sightings of the elk (or moose). Shy and relishing its privacy, the elk spends its time exploring dense forests, often showing up in a small clearing or by one the region’s beautiful lakes. The best way to catch a sighting of this impressive animal is to join an elk safari, where intrepid nature lovers will be accompanied by experts and experienced elk-trackers, who will share insight on the animal’s behaviour. The safari will guide you away from the well-trodden paths and lead you to where the forest thickens, and where you will be able to silently admire the sublime animal.
Bergslagen, where boreal meets temperate, also offers wildlife suitors cool and unusual experiences such as beaver and wolf safaris.
Sealed with a dive
The Farne Islands lie off the Northumberland in Scotland and can be accessed from the coastal town of Seahouses. Although known as an early Christian settlement and home of St. Aiden and St. Cuthbert, the archipelago is also reputed as a consummate haven for sea life. Many experts have proclaimed that diving is the best way to see the true agility of grey seals. With their inquiring faces and acrobatic movements, a dive with these friendly mammals can easily make for one of the most stimulating encounter in the marine world. Benefitting from the lack of predators and rich waters for food, these playful animals have been thriving here for decades. For a memorable diving trip, visit in late summer when the waters are warmer and pups are more active – having gotten used to travellers’ inquisitive attention by then, they will often peel away from their group to spin and roll around divers!
Bear with me in Romania
The Carpathian Mountains are a 1,500-kilometre-long arc through Central and Eastern Europe, from the Czech Republic to the Iron Gates on the River Danube in Romania, making them Europe’s second-longest mountain chain. In Romania, these mountains are carpeted by dense virgin forests, which provide the perfect habitat for a vast variety of wildlife such as brown bears, wolves, lynx and chamois.
Even though every animal sighting is a wonder in itself, getting to see a bear lumbering out from its daytime retreat is indeed a breathtaking privilege. The Piatra Craiului National Park abounds with “ursus arctos”, the northern or brown bear, and with an organised tour, you could be spotting one yourself, while tracking them through the deep green pastureland that slopes up from the river Bârsa. Accompanied by experienced trackers who work closely with conservation organisations, you can peer curiously through these idyllic forests and you won’t depart without spotting at least a few bears on their own turf.
In search of Andalusia’s big cat
With less than 250 Iberian lynx surviving in the wild – most in the Mediterranean forests of the Sierra Morena, in Spain’s Andalusia region, and in the grasslands and pine woods of the Coto Doñana, close to the mouth of the River Guadalquivir – it may seem almost impossible to spot this elusive cat. Expect to spend at least a week in the Sierra de Andujar Natural Park or the Doñana National Park to maximise your chances of seeing Europe’s only big cat.
Hopping from quaint villages that overlook lagoons, rivers and marshland to hilly national parks, where you will be spending time scanning the environs quietly from scenic viewpoints, you will explore the last refuges of the critically endangered Iberian lynx with expert local guides. Even if lynx fail to show up, you will admire mouflon, red and fallow deer, wild boar and spectacular birds, including griffon and black vultures, imperial eagle and – in the coastal wetlands of the Coto Doñana – colourful colonies of flamingos.
Huffing and puffing in Iceland
All travellers know that when it comes to wildlife, Iceland easily beats the records of enormous colonies of seabirds. As you make your way to the beautiful Snaefellsnes Peninsula, a few hours’ drive from the capital, you will come upon many surprises: golden and pink beaches, stretches of lava fields, roaring waterfalls, imposing gorges, glaciers and quaint villages, and perhaps more seabirds per square metre than inhabitants.
From the harbour of Stykkisholmur, you will hop on the ferry to get to the remote Flatey Island, which is renowned for its birdlife. In winter, the island is uninhabited by birds, but during the summer months it comes to life with the puffins that flock there till September. As so many puffins have made Flatey their home and breeding place, today the highest part of the island is called Lundahryggur (Puffinsridge). Besides watching the comedic puffins, visitors can also admire over 30 different types of birds, including the famed Arctic tern.
Hearts aflutter in Croatia
There is one particular reason why Croatia is dubbed the naturalists’ latest darling. Home to 190 butterfly species, among which are rarities such as bright-eyed and Dalmatian ringlets as well as beautiful southern festoon, the great sooty satyr, Hungarian skippers, little tiger blue or Cleopatra, there’s no doubt why this charming country attracts more and more visitors each day.
As children, many of us dreamed of running on fields or forests leaping up as we caught glimpse of a colourful butterfly. Today, whether you head to the renowned turquoise lakes and waterfalls of Plitvice Lakes National Park, the limestone gorges of Paklenica National Park or the seldom-visited Velebit Mountains, you will surely be able to spot these tiny deep-coloured creatures, while taking trails, enjoying beautiful scenery and learning about the curious folklore of the environs. And while chasing butterflies is said to transport us back into time, one thing is for sure: the names will surely flutter off our tongue!