Five Breathtaking European Adventures
Icy peaks, oceanside trails, and perfect waves: Europe’s best adventures are just a plane ticket away.
As the Brexit decision roils markets around the world, adventurers may find a silver lining in the uncertain financial situation. For now, the U.S. dollar is stronger against the British pound and the euro than it has been in months, making a trip to Europe’s top hiking, climbing, riding, and surfing hot spots potentially more affordable.
From Corsica’s challenging hikes to the Tour de France’s legendary climbs, Europe serves up adventure in spades. Find out how to dive into the best the continent has to offer.
The Matterhorn, Switzerland: Climb Europe’s Most Famous Peak
With its clean lines, sheer faces, and dramatic rise out of the Mattertal Valley in southwest Switzerland, the 14,692-foot (4,478-meter) Matterhorn lords over the ski resort town of Zermatt and is one of the most iconic mountains on the planet. More than 3,000 people a year summit the peak, primarily in the months of July, August, and September, making this one of the most popular big Alpine climbs in Europe.
Aside from the Matterhorn’s unparalleled beauty, part of the peak’s appeal is its accessibility—it’s an overnight jaunt that starts and ends in Zermatt. From the village, climbers take the Matterhorn Express chairlift to Schwarzsee. From there, it’s a two-hour hike to the Hörnli hut, which sits at the base of the Hörnligrat Ridge at 10,695 feet (3,260 meters) and is the traditional jumping-off point for summit-hungry climbers.
After an overnight at the Hörnli hut, climbers rise before dawn to tackle the 4,000-foot (1,219-meter) climb to the top. Along the way, they’ll scramble up steep and exposed fourth- and fifth-class terrain, ascend a series of fixed ropes, and pass over spots where the ridge drops away thousands of feet to the valley floor. While experienced climbers will find the climbing fairly straightforward, the mountain demands a high level of fitness, a stomach for heights, and expert route-finding skills for those without a guide. Those lucky enough to make it to the top, which takes between four and five hours on average, will be rewarded with stunning views and the knowledge that they’ve bagged one of the most coveted mountains in the world.
Stay: The Hörnli hut is the Matterhorn’s de facto base camp, and its beds sell out well in advance, so book early. Don’t be mistaken: The Hörnli hut is no bare-bones mountain refuge. Instead, it offers clean dorm rooms, hot showers, Wi-Fi, and a full-service café.
Eat: After summiting the peak, treat yourself to a fondue at the Hotel Monte Rosa on Zermatt’s main drag. Edward Whymper, the first person to summit the Matterhorn, launched his summit bid from the hotel, which is home to interesting photographs and artifacts from the inaugural climb.
Tip: Book a guide through the Alpin Center Zermatt, the resort’s hub for mountain activities, and book early—the best guides are often reserved a year in advance. Another perk? Zermatt guides get dibs on leaving first in the morning, giving you a leg up on the mountain’s occasional bottleneck.
La Grave, France: Ride Classic Tour de France Climbs
The 12th-century village of La Grave sits within striking distance of some of the Tour de France’s most imposing climbs—Alpe d’Huez, Col du Galibier, and the Col d’Izoard—making it the perfect base camp to explore the Alps’ best road rides.
Start off with a coffee on the terrace of the Castillan Hotel, then head next door to rent a bike at Ski Extreme, which stables a fleet of tuned-up Scotts. Pedal east down La Grave’s main drag toward the Col du Galibier via the Col du Lautaret, an 18-mile (29-kilometer) one-way ride with 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) of climbing at an average gradient of about 7 percent. The ride loops through the soaring peaks of the Dauphiné Alps, past sleepy French villages largely unchanged by time, and up roads splashed with inspirational graffiti—“Vamos Contador”—for Tour de France riders of years past.
Once atop the Galibier, you’ll straddle the border of the northern and southern Alps and have sweeping views of the Écrins National Park, one of the largest in France. Cruise back down the south side of the pass and grab a burger Montagnard (a steak patty sandwiched between toasted bread and topped with an egg and cheese) at the Hotel des Glaciers, before gliding all the way back down to La Grave.
Stay: For a taste of life in an authentic French village, stay at Aux Grandes Cours, a renovated farmhouse turned cozy bed-and-breakfast in the farming hamlet of Les Cours, about a five-minute drive from La Grave. The farmhouse has been lovingly restored, and meals—think regional specialties crafted from local ingredients—are the highlight of any stay.
Eat: Refuel weary bodies with a meal at the Auberge Edelweiss, which serves some of the best food and wine in town. The Edelweiss also doubles as a ski and cycling hotel, delivering a well-equipped bicycle workshop, detailed cycling itineraries, and bike-washing facilities, not to mention very reasonable half-board packages.
Tip: Further afield, hit up the Col d’Izoard, one of the most stunning rides on the planet. Leaving from the ancient Roman outpost of Briançon, this leg-burning, 50-mile (80-kilometer) ride features 8,500 feet (2,591 meters) of climbing and loops up the north side of the pass, through wooded mountains and into the lunarlike high country atop the col. Descend the south side of the pass, follow the river to Guillestre, and then ride back to Briançon.
Corsica, France: Hike the Isle of Beauty
There’s a reason—several, actually—that Corsica is called the Isle of Beauty. Fertile lowlands rise from the sea and give way to snow-covered peaks. Desolate beaches and limestone cliffs form the coastline. Olive groves, vineyards, and medieval villages dot the island. All of that is packed into a landmass smaller than the state of Connecticut, making Corsica a hiker’s Shangri-la.
Crisscrossing the island is a network of hiking trails, the most famous of which is the GR 20, considered one of Europe’s finest, and most difficult, footpaths. The 112-mile (180-kilometer) trail starts in the northwest at the mountainside village of Calenzana and follows the spine of peaks that stretches southward toward Conca, or vice versa. Along the way, hikers traverse windswept plateaus, verdant gorges, and high mountain passes, including the treacherous Cirque de la Solitude. Mountain refuges are spaced out along the trail in convenient intervals and might be anything from a basic shepherd’s hut to a hostel with dormitory beds, hot showers, and warm food.
While the GR 20 is Corsica’s crown jewel, there are other trails that are just as beautiful but less frequented, including the Mare e Monti Nord, which starts in Calenzana and descends to the seaside village of Cargèse, offering up sublime ocean views and gorgeous mountain-scapes. A highlight is the eight-mile stretch from Galleria to Girolata, a 15th-century fishing village adjacent to the Scandola Nature Reserve, accessible only by foot.
Whichever route you choose, Corsica won’t disappoint. The only thing? Make sure your hiking boots are well worn-in before you hit the trail. With so much walking to do, you can’t afford to lose any time to a blister.
Stay: Overlooking the ocean in the sleepy fishing village of Girolata, the Cormoran Voyageur serves up quaint accommodations and affordable half-board packages in a breathtaking location.
Eat: Wild boar roam Corsica, feeding largely on the fallen chestnuts that blanket the countryside. It’s no surprise, then, that boar—lean and lightly chestnut-flavored—is a Corsican staple. In fact, the island’s charcuterie is some of the world’s finest. A link of figatelli makes a great hiking snack.
Tip: In high summer, the huts can be crowded, stuffy, and noisy. Bring a tent to pitch on the periphery of any hut, hostel, or refuge. If staying in huts during the busy season, make a reservation well in advance.
Aosta Valley, Italy: Mountain Bike in the Shadow of Mont Blanc
There are some things that Italians just do better—think fashion, food, and sports cars. Now add mountain biking to that list. That’s because Italians like their mountain sports with a side of food and wine and won’t compromise the quality of either—whether you’re at a secluded mountain refuge or atop a wicked downhill track.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Aosta Valley, which delivers hundreds of miles of the best downhill, cross-country, and free-ride mountain biking trails in Europe, right alongside some of the finest food and wine in the Alps. Take the resort Pila, for example. Before hammering down its World Cup downhill track, full of jumps, banked turns, and drops, bikers gather at La Baraka, a quaint slopeside restaurant atop the Chamolé lift, and swap beta over bowls of carbonada, a savory meat stew typical of the region; glasses of Torette, a medium-bodied red made from local grapes; and caffè alla valdostanas, coffees mixed with grappa, sugar, and orange and lemon peels.
But Pila’s downhill track is just the start. The resort delivers 12 cross-country trails and the new Desarpa trail, which drops 7,000 feet (2,1934 meters) over nine miles (14.5 kilometers) from the top of the Couls lift to Aosta, an old Roman outpost on the valley floor, which is connected to Pila via a gondola that runs until 5:30 p.m. in the summer. Another highlight is the valley’s multiday cross-country routes, such as the Tour del Fallère, a two-day trip that loops through Great St. Bernard Valley, and Comba di Vertosa, some of the most gorgeous high country in the Alps. But whether you’re riding Pila’s single-track or sipping a glass of locally produced vino, mountain biking in the Aosta Valley gives la dolce vita new meaning.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Stay: The Aosta Valley boasts a network of bike hotels, which offer close proximity to key routes, bike storage rooms, repair kits, and detailed itineraries, among other cyclist-friendly amenities. With its easy access to Pila’s chairlifts, knowledgeable staff, and beautiful perch overlooking the valley, the Hotel La Chance in Pila is a standout.
Eat: La Baraka serves up affordable, delicious regional specialties in a cozy atmosphere.
Tip: Don’t waste any time trying to figure out Aosta’s maze of trails. Instead, book a trip with Aosta Valley Freeride, a guiding outfit that will dial you in to exactly what you’re looking for, whether that’s a technical ridge ride or multiday tour.
Comporta, Portugal: Surf Portugal’s Perfect Waves
Tucked into a sun-drenched corner of Portugal’s Alentejo region lies the village of Comporta, a surfer’s dream. Consistent waves lap 30 miles of empty beaches; a string of unspoiled villages dot the coastline; and a patchwork of vineyards, rice fields, and pine forests make up the interior—all of this stashed about an hour south of Lisbon in a quiet stretch of southwest Portugal that’s been mostly forgotten by time.
The surf here is year-round. During the summer, the weather is hot and dry, and the waves are small, creating the prefect conditions for beginners to catch their first wave. From October to April, the surf cranks up, delivering medium-size tubes that experienced surfers will enjoy. The Carvalhal Surf School offers lessons for all abilities on an empty beach about five miles from Comporta and makes for the perfect introduction to surfing. The school’s owners, Daniel Vilas and Ana Pinheiro do Mar, have been riding these waters since they were kids and will dial visitors in to the region’s best waves and secret spots.
Though Comporta isn’t bubbling with activity, which is part of its charm, just poke around and you’ll find plenty to do. Kick back in a hammock with a glass of sangria at one of the funky, thatch-roof bars that line the beach. Go on a bird-watching tour in the Sado Estuary Nature Reserve, home to more than 200 species of birds, including flamingos, herons, and storks. Check out the Roman ruins in Troia or hike the Arrábida Mountains. Whether you’re on land or in the sea, after some time spent exploring Comporta, you’ll quickly understand why many call this place paradise.
Stay: Opened in June 2015 by two local surfers, the new Maria Mar Surf & Guesthouse in the village of Melides delivers bunks, one private room, a shared kitchen, and great insider beta on the local surf scene. There’s also yoga, bikes, bird-watching tours, and free transportation to the beach. Maria Mar offers the Soul Surfer package, which includes seven nights of accommodation in a shared room, breakfast, five surfing lessons, free bikes, and transportation to the beach.
Eat: Located in a funky beach shack on Carvalhal Beach, the Dinis Fisherman’s Bar Restaurant is owned by a local fisherman and serves up fresh seafood dishes daily.
Tip: Surfboards and wet suits can be rented at the Carvalhal Surf School.