At this time of year, a tranquil, sunny respite from frazzled nerves and frenzied shopping malls seems a distant dream. But hold that thought. Summer is coming! And, with it, a whole new world of possibilities.
We’ve hunted down seven calm, bright, and beautiful escape routes to keep you warm through these final, frantic days of the year. Stop the world awhile, and dream of warmth, peace and good tidings. And may we take this opportunity to wish all our magazine readers a relaxed, and blissful Christmas and a year filled with new horizons…
The soothing spas of the Pyrenees
The hidden valleys of the French Pyrenees offer a landscape of remarkable beauty and drama. In winter, this is ski-central, but free from the marauding hordes of snow-chasing adrenalin junkies, the landscape – and the pretty villages – are allowed to breathe. The charming little spa town of Cauderets is a joy to the senses. Once a thriving therapeutic centre (hence the grandiosity of the buildings) it’s now a sleepy place wrapped in thickly-forested mountains. Visit Les Bains du Rocher’s spas, dedicated to relaxation in thermal water after a hike, climb or kayak in the Pyrenees National Park, near Lake Gaube, or the cascades of the Gave de Jéret and the Gave de Lutour.
Nearest parc: Airotel
France’s undiscovered lake district
Silent trails criss-cross forested mountains and sub-Alpine meadows in the Parc naturel régional du Haut-Jura, to the eastern fringes of France. This is the Jura – and if France was to have a truly undiscovered region, our money is on this patchwork of vineyard-clad hillsides, limestone outcrops and sleepy villages. Head to the Pays des Lacs, the Jura’s own lake district, with its beach-fringed lakes and tranquil, sunny waters. Bonlieu and Narlay are the best, but save time to visit the 60-metre-high Hérisson waterfalls for a touch of white-water drama before heading back to your very own lake – Lac de Chalain.
Nearest parc: Domaine de Chalain
The hidden village in the hills
Halfway up a mountain, at a dizzying elevation of 1360 metres (4500 feet) Gimmelwald is a small car-free village with, in our opinion, the most spectacular terrain of the Swiss Alps right on its doorstep. It clings on to the contours between Stechelberg and Mürren, at the foot of the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Lauterbrunnen valley. Don’t go here for souvenir shops, or mountain inns, or anything much – except peace, and that terrific panorama (there is a lovely little hotel here, for those wanting a lunch stop). Catch the Schiltorn cable car, which you can access from a bus to Lauterbrunnen. Want to really inhale the fresh Alpine air? Gimmelwald is the Alps you thought had been lost to mass tourism. (Thanks to www.gimmelwald.ch for main image)
Nearest parc: Jungfrau
The Italian islands you’ve never heard of
Heard of the Egadi Islands? Thought not. This cluster of sun-baked islands is sprinkled just off the west coast of Sicily – itself kicked from the boot of italy’s mainland. The largest, Favignana, measures a scant 9km from tip to toe. It’s an island visited by those in the know. They come for the the island’s crystalline, cobalt blue waters, its hush-hush coves, delicious food and great beaches. The most popular form of transport here is the bicycle. That should give you some idea of its pace of life. Follow the dusty coastal tracks to discover the remoter parts of the island and reach secluded coves. In all probability you’ll have the place to yourself all day.
Nearest parc: El Bahira
Away from the Costa crowds
Head inland from the Costa Dorada to find Miravet, a pretty village located in the middle of the Terres de l’Ebre, locked in an embrace between wild mountains and ancient forest. You can enjoy the view by crossing the river on a tiny, pully-operated car ferry – the last one of its type in the region. There’s a great Romanesque-styled Knight’s Templar castle perched on an impregnable crag, a lovely old village and, at the Sanaqueta Balcony, a terrific view over the river, glinting in the sunlight below. The last Moorish stronghold in Catalonia, Siurana is a land of legends. The precariously perched village saw the area’s last Moorish queen jump off the cliff edge overlooking the river, with her horse, rather than being captured by the advancing Christian armies in 1153. It’s hard to take in this turbulent history when you visit the magnificently situated village deep within the Serra de Monsanto.
Nearest parc: Playa Montroig
The Eastern Mountain in the far north
The lushly forested foothills of Cantabria’s richly forested Montana Oriental are worth any detour from the coast. A few kilometres up hair-raising hairpin bend-strewn roads takes you to the wild heart of northern Spain. It’s really akin to a journey back in time, where carts are pushed by horse, stone watermills whirr and chimneys smoke over silent, peaceful farmsteads. The limestone peaks of the Montana Oriental (the Eastern Mountain) offer great hiking routes between deep, towering gorges, and over lofty passes where vultures and eagles fly. The bustling cities of Santander and Bilbao seem an awfully long way away.
Nearest parc: Playa Joyel
Croatia’s offshore investment
Croatia’s Dalmatian coastline isn’t short of beautiful islands. The Zadar Archipelago and the Kornati Islands National Park combine to form a lattice of slim, cigar-shaped islands that make this coastline such a draw for the yachting set. But the islands themselves harbour many treats on land too. Try the outlying island of Dugi Otok, where ancient Croatian villages bask in the Mediterranean sun. Where they still press olive oil by hand, harvest figs and make cheese and wine to serve alongside the excellent seafood. A real step back in time, the island reaches its sublime peak at Saharun beach, one of Croatia’s loveliest but least-known spots. There’s a beach bar in summer, so if you want real peace, keep going over the headland and it won’t be long before you find it.
Nearest parc: Zaton Holiday Resort