Even on our crowded continent there are remote regions where you can still spot bears, bison, lynx, wolves and more.
For big open skies and untrammelled snow forest (taiga), set your compass to Kainuu, in eastern Finland. Brushing the Russian border, this sparsely populated region promises Christmas cake-topping landscapes of snow-dusted pines, spruce, fir and larch interspersed by glistening lakes and berry-spiked birch groves.
Why go? Kainuu’s forests and wetlands may be well off most humans’ radar, but they’re a honeypot for brown bears, wolves, wolverines, lynx and elks. Birdwatchers have plenty to appreciate, too: golden eagles, black grouse, woodpeckers, Ural owls and red-flanked bluetails are all there for the spotting. Peak season for wildlife watching is between spring and autumn, when the daylight hours stretch further and wildlife is richer, but winter trips are popular among nature photographers, lured by the Narnia-like landscapes.
Once upon a time (10,000 years ago) a vast swathe of north-eastern Europe was covered by dense forest. Since then, many of those tree-lined tracts have been felled but, in what is now the far east of Poland and the far west of Belarus, on the watershed of the Baltic and Black Seas, the last significant tract of this primary woodland remains: the almost 142,000-hectare Białowieża forest.
Why go? A Unesco world heritage site, Białowieża is irreplaceably biodiverse. The latest, modern-day twist in the forest’s tale has seen it come under threat from logging but, for now, it is resilient enough to support 59 mammal species (among them elk, wolf and lynx) and more than 250 feathered species (including white-tailed eagles and rare black, white-backed and three-toed woodpeckers). Its most famous inhabitants, however, are European bison; around 900 of the creatures roam here – almost 25% of the total world population.
The Pindus Mountains
The Pindus (sometimes spelt Pindos) Mountains are dubbed the backbone of Greece – head to the top of the spine for the best wildlife encounters. In the country’s rugged north-western corner, nudging the border with Albania, two national parks (Northern Pindos and Vikos-Aoös) attract a trickle of tourists to sites such as the Vikos gorge and the Zagori villages, but in far smaller numbers than those congregating along Greece’s busy coastlines.
Why go? Between the mountains’ toothy peaks, deep ravines and alpine lakes are valleys of beech, chestnut and pine forest (parts of the latter belong to the Natura 2000 network of protected natural sites across Europe). In the Northern Pindos national park alone there are 11 wildlife sanctuaries, helping to protect 4,000-odd plant species and fauna ranging from wolves, jackals, otters, red deer and brown bears to herons, egrets and spoonbills.
Vampires may be Transylvania’s most infamous predatory carnivores but the region’s population of wolves comes close. This southern corner of the Carpathians – an arc of wooded mountains, meadows and canyons that rises from central Romania – offers some of the most accessible wildlife watching in Europe; and though it comprises wild swathes of rugged, old-growth forest, it is easily reached from Transylvania’s centuries-old villages. Those who want to explore Saxon citadels, perfectly pickled medieval towns, bucolic rural villages, fortified churches or Dracula’s Bran Castle alongside vultures (bearded, Egyptian, griffon and cinereous species have been spotted in the region, too), can easily fit these in on their way to wilder territory.
Why go? The Southern Carpathians are home to some of the largest populations of wolves, lynx and bears in Europe, as well as chamois, wild cats, red and roe deer and wild boar. Over a million hectares of protected biodiverse land is linked through wilderness corridors here, one of eight key areas run by Dutch non-profit organisation Rewilding Europe, and a small number of European bison have been reintroduced.
The cobbled streets and riverside wine bars of Porto may be heaving with tourists these days, but three hours’ drive east, along Portugal’s north-east border with Spain, the Côa Valley is unfathomably quiet. Hikers and cyclists tackling the Grande Rota do Vale do Côa long-distance trail and archaeology buffs exploring the Côa Valley world heritage site (with up to 12,000 prehistoric depictions of horses, oxen, deer and hunters) – are drawn to the region in small numbers, but its river gorges, oak forests and scrubby heaths remain largely undisturbed.
Why go? Sitting within the cross-border Meseta Ibérica Unesco biosphere and Western Iberia (another of Rewilding Europe’s key areas), the Côa Valley is known especially for cliff-breeding birds (among them black storks, eagle owls, alpine swifts, red-rumped swallows and numerous species of vultures and eagles). It is also home to the Reserva da Faia Brava, an 850-hectare independent nature reserve that counts wild Garrano horses and Maronesa cattle, Iberian wolves, ibex and red deer and roe deer among its inhabitants.