These days, Mountain Biking has become my main sport, and indeed my job, but it hasn’t always been so. I’ve been rock climbing, mountaineering, skiing, ski-touring, wild swimming and running in the mountains for as long as I have been riding. Basically, anything that allows me to have my own little adventures in beautiful mountainous places. When I have the time I still love to do all of these sports, and when I come across places where it’s possible to do all of these, and more, in one area, then even better!
I’ve been fortunate to visit many amazing places in Europe over the years and there are some that stand out as real adventure destinations. It’s hard to imagine anyone visiting these places and not having a great time Of course there are far more places that I haven’t visited than those which I have…the beauty of adventure and travel is that we will never run out of places to discover in our lifetimes! This is simply a list of my 5 favourite European adventure destinations I’ve so far been lucky to spend time in, and somehow find myself drawn back to time and again!
When I think of Northern Scotland, the images that are conjured up are of wild, remote, unspoilt areas of wilderness, bleak and savage looking mountains, stunning coastlines and craggy islands with beautiful white sand beaches. Of wild and inhospitable weather, roaming herds of wild deer, friendly folk, cosy fires, and toasting great adventures with good whiskey. Of all the millions of people who populate this crowded little island of ours, I imagine many have never, and will never, make a trip to the far northern Highlands because they think there’s nothing there….They are absolutely right, and completely wrong at the same time. Because for many people, there is nothing there. No shopping malls, no McDonalds or Starbucks on every street, no cinemas or other entertainment venues….But for outdoor sports enthusiasts with a sense of adventure, there is sooo much there! It’s a stunning place whatever the weather and the season, and a place that always feels like you have it to yourself. There are great rocky, technical singletrack mountain biking trails in Glen Torridon, giant slabs of rolling granite bedrock, and scenery that can be somewhat distracting! Fantastic hiking, scrambling and climbing opportunities on the lofty peaks rising from the valley floor, and great sea-kayaking around the secluded inlets and bays of the loch. I’ve spent winter days here ski touring and mountaineering too. From here it’s relatively easy to get to Skye, and more fantastic riding, climbing, running, and kayaking amongst staggering scenery. One of the best things about the area is the possibility to plan an adventure using the remote mountain bothies that are dotted around to stay in. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but for me, there are fewer better ways to have a micro-adventure with friends.
Briancon is one of my favourite places in Europe, and possibly one of the few places I could see myself living in at some point in the future. It is a true adventure destination for so many outdoor sports. The Walled old town, perched high on a hillside, looks like something straight out of a fairytale, offering commanding views of the forts surrounding the town and the nearby snowcapped peaks of The Ecrin mountains, and a slightly Italian feeling vibe, (Italy is only 20km from here!). With the 300 + days of sunshine a year, easy access to some of the best skiing, climbing and mountain-biking in the World (in my opinion!), and numerous other sporting options (via ferrata, rafting, kayaking, hiking), it’s a place I know I’ll return to year after year.
Within a short drive is the Serre Chevalier ski area, great for both skiing and mountain biking, on and off the lift system. La Grave, an off-piste skiers’ paradise, lies close by too, as does the Val de Claree, an area full of fantastic ski touring, and mountain biking. A short hop over the Col d’Izoard and you find yourself in the Queyras regional park. Think fun, flowing singletrack meandering down through flower-filled alpine meadows, with a backdrop of huge glaciers, marmots whistling, quiet, quaint little villages and few, if any, other people around, and you’ll come close to what it’s like there!
Love it or hate it, Chamonix is an iconic adventure sports destination. Lying in the shadow of Mont Blanc and the Chamonix Aiguilles on one side, and the Aiguilles Rouges on the other, the town has one of the most impressive mountain backdrops of anywhere, and no matter how many times you’ve been before, the view that opens up in front of you as you enter the valley is always jaw-dropping. A huge playground for skiers, climbers, mountaineers, runners, hikers, and mountain bikers. It’s expensive, busy, full of rich and pretentious tourists, yet there’s a reason why everyone flocks here….the terrain for adventures, and ease of access to them, is hard to beat. The mountain biking in the valley itself is fairly limited during the summer months of July and August when there’s a ban on many of the busiest trails to avoid conflict between walkers and riders. But heading off in all directions are some great natural trails which can be reached with a bit of effort from the lifts.
If alpine mountaineering is your thing, then the lift system provides access to a whole load of classic routes, and summit ticks, and for the rock climbers, there is everything from valley cragging, to all-day multi-pitch epics, at almost every grade.
There are endless off-piste skiing, and ski touring opportunities in and around the valley in the Winter, as well as Ice climbing too.
There are cafes and restaurants galore, mountain lakes to swim in, and pretty much every available outdoor sport going. And whilst it can seem like the World and his wife are in Chamonix centre on a sunny summer weekend, if you walk, run, climb, or ride a little bit away from the tourist hotspots, it’ll feel like you have the whole place to yourself!
Finale Ligure, Italy
Finale Ligure is an Italian coastal resort which has become popular with Mountain Bikers as for the last 4 years, it has hosted the final round of the Enduro World Series. But long before this, it was on the radar of climbers as a holiday destination. The lure of fantastic trails, great climbing, year round great weather, the beach, cheap and tasty pizza and gelato, and a cute old town with an outdoor café culture make you see it’s no wonder it’s become such a popular destination to head for.
Gradual climbs (or cheap and easily available shuttle uplifts), long flowing descents through loamy forests, as well as steep, gnarly rocky terrain as you get closer to the coast mean there’s something to please most mountain bikers. It’s not a great destination for beginners, but anyone of an intermediate level or above will not be disappointed.
As for the rock climbs, a range of well-bolted routes across the full spectrum of grades, on limestone crags with easy walk-ins and great views. The hiking in the area is also spectacular and there are opportunities for caving too if you’re into that!
Lofoten Islands, Norway
The view, whether from the air or the sea, as you first approach the Lofoten Islands, is something that will be imprinted on your memory forever. A truly spectacular scene, of tall, craggy, inhospitable looking mountainous islands rising from the sea, incredible arctic light, and tiny fishing villages perched between the edge of the sea and the base of the mountains.
It’s one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited, spending 3 weeks there to ski tour with a couple of friends. It’s been somewhere I’ve wanted to return to since then. The landscape made for perfect ski touring territory, but it would be equally amazing for surfing and kayaking, with it’s beautiful deep fjords and wild windswept beaches, for climbing, with the enormous granite sea-cliff slabs that rise above the little village of Kabelvag, and for mountain-biking too. Hmmm….time to plan a trip back I think!
If you enjoyed reading this blog and are thinking of taking on your own adventure why not check out How to plan an adventure by top adventurer Jenny Tough.