Just over the river from Lisbon is the Setubal Peninsula. Take a full day there, and head to the Arrabida Natural Park area. It has one of the most beautiful beaches in the region, Portinho da Arrabida, where green hillsides drop dramatically down to white sandy beaches. As it is protected by the curve of the Sado estuary, the water is warmer and much calmer than the Atlantic coast, perfect for sunbathing and swimming. There are also plenty of activities - diving, sea-kayaking, walking - all in the middle of the natural beauty of the Park. Have some of the best seafood in Portugal by detouring for lunch in Setubal, where there are dozens of low key restaurants dotted around local squares, and finally visit the quaint village of Azeitao for a wine-tasting at the Jose Maria de Fonseca quinta, including the regional sweet wine, Muscatel.
Portinho da Arrabida - www.getportugal.com/en/poi-praia-do-portinho-da-arrabida-14032
Outdoor activities - www.vertentenatural.com/index_lang.php
Winetasting - www.jmf.pt
Portinho is a tiny village hugging a white sandy beach. There is a calm sheltered bay with turquoise waters- great for snorkelling. Behind Portinho rise steep limestone mountains, all part of the Arrábida nature reserve. Unspoilt, undeveloped and natural, the park is a wonderful area to explore- by car or on foot. Reminiscent of the scenery in Monaco, there are curving mountain roads, Mediterranean forest and views from on high over the bay. There are monasteries to visit as well as the village of Azeitão, with its vineyards and renowned wineries: José Maria da Fonseca and Bacalhôa. Great as a day trip from Lisbon, it takes about 45 minutes to get here, by car over the iconic 25 de Abril bridge. Otherwise, you could easily spend a week's holiday in Arrábida.
A couple of charming little B&Bs on the seafront in Portinho, great as a base for the area, and very reasonable, can be found here: www.hideawayportugal.com/modules/property/city-200.htm
Google map: bit.ly/ZURuD4
Flee the tourist hurly-burly, coach party crush and cultural overload and head for the hills. Not the well-known wine rich Chianti Hills to the south, but to the altogether wilder, more rugged deeply forested Apennines to the east. The Parco Nazionale delle Foreste Casentinesi, Monte Falterona e Campigna straddling the Tuscany / Emilia-Romagna border is just 40km from central Florence and easily reached by bus although a car would provide more flexibility for a day trip.
These majestic ancient forests in one of Europe’s oldest continuously wooded areas create a place of great natural beauty and profound meditative stillness. Chestnut woods on the lower slopes where old and dead trees have been kept seem magical and enchanted. Statuesque stands of dark fir are carefully managed while the higher ground is clothed in cathedral-like beech, sometimes serried ranks leaning at improbable angles, pushed over by a winter avalanche sometime in their past. Timber from here was used in the construction of the magnificent dome of Florence’s Duomo and was especially prized for shipbuilding.
The main ridge is traversed by the Grande Excursione Appenninica (GEA), a 375 km hiking trail extending from the Umbria / Marche border near Sansepolcro to Montelungo in Liguria. Marked and unmarked paths are plentiful in the national park though a good map is essential if your day communing with nature isn’t to become something much more unsettling or potentially life-threatening. Out of peak season and avoiding weekends the chances are you and your companion(s) won’t see another soul.
The mood of contemplation and reflection is sustained by an overnight stay at the Foresteria attached to the Monastero di Camaldoli (advance booking is advised to guarantee a bed for the night). Delicious fresh food, comfortable uncluttered rooms and an atmosphere of quiet dedication to work and prayer deep in the forest nourish body and spirit, perhaps almost ready for the return to the fray in Florence.
From the Castle of Mendoza to the stunning scenery of La Pedriza, Manzanares El Real has a lot to offer. Film set to the romances of Castillian Spain, Spaghetti Westerns and Spartacus, it combines magnificent sixteenth century architecture with breathtaking mountain and lake scenery, and a village to boot with all the traditions and festivals of a people proud of their heritage.
Farndale, in the heart of the North York Moors National Park, is famed for its wonderful daffodils, believed to have been first planted there by medieval monks from Rievaulx. The carpet of spring flowers attracts some 40,000 visitors annually, but this year they are late to bloom, and won’t be at their peak until the middle of April. The Daffodil Walk runs alongside the River Dove for around 2 1/2 kms, and refreshments can be found the Daffy Caffy, or at the Feversham Arms at Church Houses, which does a marvellous Sunday lunch.
England's oldest road, the Ridgeway track descends from the Chilterns to the Thames Valley, skirting Salisbury Plain and following downlands towards Avebury. It is easily walked in day sections, my favourite starting just past Wendover,where I can shoulder my pack and stride up into the beech woods at Coombe Hill, following the undulating hills and valleys to Princess Risborough, before striking out across fields and then following the downland marked by their distinctive chalk carvings, the Whiteleaf and Bledlow Crosses and the white triangle south of Watlington cut at the orders of the vicar to cover the ignomy of the lack of spire on his church.
This is my favourite day on the Ridgeway, as I feast on my packed lunch overlooking Chequers, and end the day walking down into the evening welcome of the lights of Watlington.
A very English spring walk in which a flock of lapwings can wheel above the downland and the sound of woodpeckers drumming can echo through the woodland. Pure joy that could be the same as that experienced by the young Rupert Brooke, striding out in search of laughter and inn fires 'as a free man may do.'
Walk on ancient pilgrim paths in the high Apennines, swim in mountain gorges, see behind closed doors of castles, churches and palazzi … just some of the things we’ve done over the last six summers with the help of Farfalle in Cammino, a responsible tourism group in Lunigiana. This area is ‘undiscovered Tuscany’, the land of a million stars and a hundred castles, of small towns and villages in valleys which lead from the mountains to the sea. Life stays close to the rhythm of the year - what's on, what's available to eat, depends on the weather and the season. The Farfalle Guides are local, knowledgeable, young and enthusiastic, keen to share the delights of the area with English speakers. Stay in local ‘agritourismi’ or rent a villa. On Easter Saturday we’ll be on the first-ever Three Castles Electric Bike Tour – 25 kilometres power-assisted pedalling, with of course with a stop for lunch to sample local specialities. The Farfalle’s 2013 programme also includes a new one-week self-guided e-bike gastro-tour over the mountains from Parma to Lucca.
More about Lunigiana and the Apennines:
Farfalle in Cammino:
Simona Polli: +39 338 5238983
Parcobike and the Parma-Lucca tour:
Pierangelo Caponi +39 333 6502210
Google map: bit.ly/14nxjkl
Docharn Lodge B&B is a jewel in the Cairngorm National Park. It is the only B&B in the Highlands to have accommodation better than some five-star hotels we have stayed in throughout the UK (they even have Molton Brown products, fluffy robes and slippers, a wee nip of whisky and wine in the rooms!) Newly opened - get there quick before they have no room. Such wonderful hosts, it's a haven in some of the most beautiful countryside in the world.
A seven mile circuit with amazing views over the rolling hills of Le Marche out to the Adriatic, northwards to the Gran Sasso and also of the surrounding Sibillini Mountains.
Drive up the zigzag track up to the Refugio Sibilla and then it is a short walk up to access the fine ridge up to the summit.
The area is full of legends. The eponymous sibyl, or prophetess, reputedly lived in a cave near the summit with a group of beautiful enchantresses who could turn into snakes if the need arose and nearby the Lago di Pilato marks the spot that Pontius Pilate's body supposedly found its final resting place. We had the mountain to ourselves in April, when fresh snow added to the beauty.
Along the Ligurian coast east of the French border, the alps sweep down to the sea. The steep hills are punctuated with deep ravines and fast flowing rivers, and the mountains paths are deserted. Near the coast, small villages offer a simple bar meal bar, otherwise you carry food and water sufficient for the day. Views of the coast are stupendous.
Stay in Bordighera or San Remo, leave the car behind and use a local bus to one of the inland villages. Even better, a train from Ventimiglia to Cuneo, offers stopping places and opportunities to reach the Mercantour National Park:
23 Rue d'Italie 06000 Nice
+33(0)4 93 16 78 88
Google map: bit.ly/X6QI75
The Monti Sibillini National Park in Umbria, naturally conceals some of the most exhilarating and glorious walks you could ever wish to experience. Take the trail above Infernaccio through exquisite valleys and higher and half way up meet the hermit who, for forty years, has been building a church single handed and has yet to finish.
Or, walk to the Lago Di Pilatos. This dream like lake has its own population of crayfish not to be found anywhere else in the world. Witness the stunning views of the surrounding snow capped mountains.
If you are imagining vast semi deserted beaches of white sand and turquoise sea, you don't need to go to the Caribbean. You can still find them in the Cabo de Gata National Park in the Spanish Mediterranean. There are no crowds, no buildings and few people. Walk from the pretty resort of San José or hire a car and sunbathe, skinny dip, windsurf and sail. It is beautiful.
The Algarve has many good beaches. You will find the picture postcard type, with grottos, cliffs and golden sand at low tide, around Lagos. However, when you want something different, head 30 miles north-west to the small town of Aljezur, close to the wild Portuguese Atlantic coast, which is designated as the Vincentina Coast Natural Park. Aljezur is a good looking and interesting historic town with a Moorish castle set in a productive green valley. It has a nice hostel, a market (to buy picnics) and good places to eat, but the real treat is at the end of an attractive five mile drive along the winding road west following the valley of the Ribeira de Aljezur. This takes you to Praia da Amoreira, which has all the components of the perfect beach, but with no crowds and commerce, other than a nice looking shack which, by reputation, has excellent fresh fish in season. You will be able to enjoy the fantastic, weirdly contorted, rock formations in the cliffs and on the foreshore, explore hundreds of rock pools, watch the ever optimistic local fishermen perched in precarious positions rods in hand, ride the surf, run free on the wide expanses of sand, picnic amongst the dunes or splash around in the quieter waters of the estuary.
If you are driving, 1/2 mile north of Aljezur, on the N120, turn left (by the swimming pool) and follow the narrow winding road along the river valley. Praia de Amoreira is at the end of the road. Alternatively up to eight buses a day run from Lagos to Aljezur.
Google map: bit.ly/12OE8vz
The boat trip on Upper Waterton Lake to US territory at Goat Haunt at the southern end is well worth it. Superb views of the Rockies right alongside the lake with the chance to see eagles and bears make for great photographs. Waterton Town Site is a pleasant place and much quieter than other better known parts of the Rockies. Try the Prince of Wales Hotel for a memorable, if expensive, afternoon tea.
Sit on the terrace at sunset above the Metate restaurant at the Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde National Park, and you could be forgiven for thinking you have died and gone to heaven. The view is as far as the eye can see, and as the sun goes down the day-trippers leave the park to the wildlife and those few lucky enough to be staying the night at the lodge or nearby campsite. The rooftop bar serves unusual cocktails, including a delicious Prickly Pear Margherita. Liberally apply mosquito repellant and sit outside to watch the elk walking by almost close enough to touch. Sheer bliss.
This is a great trip with a brief stop in US territory at Goat Haunt. Magnificent views and photo opportunities on a day with good weather. Waterton Town site is also a very pleasant place and a lot less busy than some of the more well known Rocky Mountains parks in Canada.
An area of 17 sq miles, in north eastern Bohemia, approx 100 miles northeast of Prague.
This national park is made up of sandstone that has been eroded over the years into fantastic shaped rock formations.
A marked pathway, taking about three hours to walk, takes you past, and through, the formations, with names such as the Caterpillar, Butchers Axe, the Dog and Boar, the Sphinx and the Golem. You should also not miss the exciting climb up a set of ladders to the ruins of Strmen Castle, now a viewing platform.
Google map: bit.ly/VDHfUb
Experience a real sand desert on the shores of the Baltic, with high peaks to scale and sloppes to roll down on the other side. These oceans of sand have been shifting for millenia, and also provide an oasis of peace and tranquility from the often-crowded seaside resorts in Poland. Now an UNESCO heritage site, it's an easy 5 mile cycle from Leba (take the slow train from Gdansk for even more of a feel of 'other-worldliness'.)
Bierbza is one of the last remaining ancient woodlands and wetlands in Europe. It is home to European bison and elk, beavers and birds like aquatic warbler and great snipe. A great place for wildlife lovers, walkers, canoeists and horse riders. A lovely place to stay is Zagroda Kuwasy on the edge of Woznawies and alongside the forest. The evening `frog chorus', numerous bats and a wonderful view of the Milky Way was complemented by good food and a welcoming staff. The pancakes are particularly good!
For a great break away from everything, I would recommend the Kennels cottage in Invertrossachs. It is situated beside beautiful Loch Venacher and is well appointed inside. The log burner was particularly welcome after a long day's cycling. Right at the front door are several cycling or walking routes, which you can explore and many of them are off road. To make things easier, there is also an excellent cycle hire shop, which among other things, sells guides of the cycling routes which mark facilities on the cycle route, such as toilets and pubs, making planning each day much easier. The scenery on the cycle routes is stunning, as most of it is alongside the lochs, past waterfalls, or through forests, in the boundary of the Trossachs National Park. There is also a good mixture of terrain. If in the evenings you have any energy left to go out, there are several cosy pubs close by serving food.
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