Travel Great escapes in Europe's last empty places

Great escapes in Europe's last empty places

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Nearly nine-tenths of the tiny population of Greenland – the planet’s most sparsely populated country – huddles in settlements on the more-hospitable west coast. But though its landscapes may seem harsh, in summer gentians, harebells, saxifrages and other kaleidoscopic blooms festoon valleys and tundra expanses in the south, populated only by Arctic hares and peregrine falcons.

Discover the World’s hiking expedition dodges icebergs and delves into fractal fjords to explore crevasse-riven glaciers and ice caves, following the Flower Valley trail above Narsarsuaq to a viewpoint across the Kiattut Glacier to the vast Greenland ice sheet. You’ll also visit the church remains and reconstructed longhouse at Brattahlid, Erik’s original estate founded around 985.

Book it: Discover the World’s (01737 428307; discover-the-world) nine-night Hiking in South Greenland trip costs from £4,019pp including return Reykjavík-Narsarsuaq flights, activities, accommodation and some meals. Departures June-September.

2. Find wilderness in the Scottish Highlands

Population density: 24 people per square mile (similar to the Central African Republic).

Scottish Highlands

To traverse a true road to nowhere, head for Inverie. This hamlet on the southwest coast of Knoydart, home to some 120 inhabitants, boasts the only stretch of tarmac on the peninsula – not that it’s connected to any other highway in Britain. Arriving at this remote settlement in this most isolated spot involves a boat or boots – and that’s what makes Knoydart, renowned as Scotland’s last wilderness, so special. Appropriately enough, Wilderness Scotland’s sailing and walking tour visits Knoydart aboard classic yachtEda Frandsen, watching for whales, dolphins, otters and sea eagles en route to the equally sparsely inhabited Small Isles and marginally more populated Skye.

Book it: Wilderness Scotland’s (01479 420020; wildernessscotland.com) seven-day guided Knoydart, Skye and the Small Isles trip costs from £2,495pp, including meals and accommodation on the Eda Frandsen, excluding transport to the joining point at Mallaig. Departures in May and August.

3. Lunar landscapes in Iceland

Population density: 9 people per square mile (slightly more than Australia).

Iceland

Before making his giant leap for mankind onto the Moon, Neil Armstrong – along with 31 other Nasa astronauts – was put through his paces among the craters and crags of Iceland’s lonelier reaches. No wonder: few terrestrial scenes are as lunar as the remote volcanic central highlands, much of which is not just uninhabited but surely uninhabitable. G Adventures’ trekking holiday strikes out from Egilsstaðir to hike in the not-so-small steps of those cosmonauts alongside the geothermal waters of Lake Mývatn, to the thundering falls of Dettifoss, along the aptly named Dimmidalur (Dark Valley), across mountain passes and over black-sand beaches to the 20,000-strong summer puffin colony at Borgarfjörður.

Book it: G Adventures’ (020 7313 6953; gadventures.com) six-day Trekking Eastern Iceland trip costs from £1,199pp including accommodation, meals and guided activities, but excluding flights.

4. Pedal Spain’s empty interior

Population density: 65 people per square mile (slightly more than Papua New Guinea).

Spain's empty interior

The dry plains and wooded meadows know as dehesaseem to roll on forever in the landlocked region of Extremadura, interrupted only occasionally – but memorably – by historic marvels: the Moorish-medieval castle of Trujillo, Cáceres’s magnificent cathedral, the medieval walls of Plasencia. Stretches of ancient ways include the Roman Ruta de la Plata (Silver Route) and one of the pilgrim trails to Santiago de Compostela, best traced on Macs Adventure’s cycling holiday. Pedal between luxury Paradores housed in converted palaces and convents, spotting cinereous vultures and imperial eagles in Monfragüe National Park en route.

Book it: Macs Adventure’s (0141 530 5452; macsadventure.com) eight-day Cycling the Paradors of Extremadura self-guided holiday costs from £1,265pp including B&B and luggage transfers, excluding flights.

5. Mush your team through Finland

Population density: 4.9 people per square mile (less than Mongolia).

Lapland, Finlad

In Lappi, the least-populated region of one of the planet’s most sparsely populated countries, winter only magnifies the sense of isolation. Snow blankets taiga, fells, frozen lakes and forests, and every exhalation creates clouds of tiny, sparkling ice crystals in the world’s purest air. Escape from modern life is just a sled-ride away, powered by your own team of huskies on Mountain Kingdoms’s adventure, swooshing along the edge of Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park between rustic log cabins. Experience the wonder of long Arctic nights lit only by candles, stars and, if you’re lucky, the shimmering celestial ballet of the northern lights.

Book it: Mountain Kingdoms’s (01453 844400; mountainkingdoms.com) seven-day Husky Sledding Arctic Adventure costs from £2,720pp including flights, accommodation, meals and guide. Departures December–March.

6. Bask in Norway’s Midnight Sun

Population density: 15 people per square mile (about the same as Canada).

Norway landscape

What is there to do in the middle of nowhere? Plenty, it turns out, during the endless days of high summer when the sun never sets on the wooded banks of the Alta River amid the tundra, valleys and glacier-scoured crags of northern Norway, high above the Arctic Circle. Based in the stylish Sorrisniva Arctic Wilderness Lodge, Best Served Scandinavia’s short break packs in the activities – fishing for king crabs, pine forest hikes, alfresco saunas and a riverboat foray between the soaring cliffs of northern Europe’s largest canyon, Sautso.

Book it: Best Served Scandinavia’s (0207 664 2241; best-served.co.uk) tailormade five-day Under the Midnight Sun at Arctic Wilderness Lodge holiday costs from £2,660pp including flights, half-board accommodation and excursions.

7. Hike the villages of Zagori

Population density: 10.3 people per square mile (similar to Australia).

villages of Zagori

Just a couple of centuries ago, the 46 Zagorohória – stone-built villages – in the Pindus Mountains of northwestern Greece were flourishing, graced by grand, semi-fortified mansions and broad squares ranged around plane trees. By the 1980s, they were all but abandoned; today, though still sparsely inhabited, their Unesco-listed traditional houses, painted monasteries and round-arched packhorse bridges are being nurtured once more. They provide ideal bases for exploring the gleaming peaks and valleys on foot, roaming a spectacular network of waymarked trails. Walkers’ Britain’s hiking holiday meanders between the most enchanting settlements via the 2,950ft-deep Vikos Gorge and the haul up to Drakolimni (Dragon Lake).

Book it: Walkers’ Britain’s (020 8875 5070; walkersbritain.co.uk) eight-day Zagori Villages & Vikos Gorge self-guided hiking holiday costs from £1,090pp including B&B and luggage transfers, excluding flights.

8. Follow the herd in Sweden

Population density: 6.7 people per square mile (slightly more than Mongolia).

Interesting fact: Sweden’s northernmost and largest county, Norrbotten, hosts pretty much the same number of reindeer as people. But whereas its human inhabitants are concentrated in urban settlements, those hefty-antlered ungulates roam widely, grazing wildflower-strewn valleys and birchwoods, beneath peaks striped with waterfalls. Sightings are near guaranteed to walkers on the Kungsleden (King’s Trail) snaking south from Abisko, some 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle, along which you might also spot the tracks of wolves, bears and wolverine among the orchids and bilberries. KE Adventure’s guided hike tackles the first 40-odd miles of the trail before veering off to Sweden’s loftiest peak, 2,104m Kebnekaise, sleeping in convivial mountain huts en route.

Book it: KE Adventure’s (017687 73966; keadventure.com) nine-day guided Kungsleden Trek costs from £2,485pp including flights, accommodation and most meals. Departures June and July.

9. Explore Portugal’s ancient Alentejo

Population density: 62 people per square mile (about the same as Sudan).

Portugal's ancient Alentejo

Abundant historic remains provide potent reminders of Alentejo’s importance in centuries past: the megalithic Almendres Cromlech, begun at least 5,000 years ago; Roman, Visigothic and medieval marvels in Évora and Beja; and romantic walled hilltop towns such as Marvão and Estremoz perched high in the Serra de São Mamede mountains. Today, though, Portugal’s largest region is also its most thinly peopled – and a dream road-tripping destination. On Sunvil’s self-drive holiday you’ll dawdle between these towns through rolling wheat and sunflower fields, cork-oak forests and vineyards, bedding down in beguiling Pousadas housed in medieval monasteries and palaces.

Book it: Sunvil’s (020 8758 4722; sunvil.co.uk) eight-day Discover the Alentejo Fly-Drive holiday costs from £1,197pp including flights, car hire and seven nights’ B&B.

10. Reflect on solitude in Estonia

Population density: 26.7 people per square mile (a little less than Bolivia).

Estonia migratory birds

Estonia’s big-ticket attractions lie largely within the capital’s medieval city walls – the well-preserved Hanseatic Old Town, Toompea Castle, St Mary’s Cathedral and so on. But the population peters out sharply as you head south and west into Lääne County, home to pristine white-sand beaches and dunes, soaring limestone cliffs, berry-speckled bogs and dizzying throngs of migratory birds in Matsalu National Park. Regent Holidays’s self-drive short break combines a delve into Tallinn’s historic heart with glorious solitude in a mirror cabin in Rooslepa’s dense forest, allowing easy access to nearby Roosta Beach and Nõva Nature Reserve.

Book it: Regent Holidays’s (0117 453 3001; regent-holidays.co.uk) five-day self-drive Tallinn City Break and Nature Escape costs from £1,075pp including flights, car hire, two nights’ B&B in Tallinn and two nights in a self-catering ÖÖD mirror cabin.

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