My happy place: where European locals immerse themselves in nature

Swimming, Aurlandsfjord, Norway

Jannet Aksnes, 46, from Flåm

When I walk down the rocky beach and into the freezing Aurlandsfjord, I’m almost in a trance. I have to be. To concentrate fully, to lock everything else out and to force myself not to feel the cold is the only way I can cope with the temperature. Friends ask me how this can be anything but torture, but my swim routine feels almost ceremonial. The fjord is tranquil, beautiful and reflects the majesty of the surrounding 1,500-metre mountains. I’ve tried swimming in the ocean, but the waves ruin it for me. They are meant for summer; winter waves are loud, unpleasant and cold.

I go swimming every Saturday, year-round, but the most memorable experiences always occur in the crisp months. Mastering the salty water at zero degrees gives me an overwhelming sense of happiness. Occasionally friends come along, and I have invited – or forced – my two daughters to join, too. They enjoy it in July and August, but refuse to swim the rest of the year. Kids these days …

A friend of mine makes sure I feel safe. She lives on the other side of the fjord, and tells me that she keeps an eye on me to make sure I’m OK. Once she took a photo of me with a zoom lens to prove her guardian angel capabilities.

Leaving my clothes on the beach in a particular order is important. After leaving the water, I need to get out of my bathing suit, dry myself with a big fluffy towel and get dressed as fast as humanly possible, which means I have ended up in some really strange non-matching outfits. But I don’t care, as long as I’m warm.
Stay Flåmsbrygga Hotel (doubles from £115 B&B) or rent a cabin at Flåm Camping & Hostel (two to four people from £70).
Interview by Gunnar Garfors

Rural life in the Apennines, Italy

Francesca Iarusso, 30, from Naples

About 40 miles north-east of Naples is the lesser-known region of Taburno Camposauro, dramatic countryside on the edge of Apennines mountains, where I go to escape the chaos of life in Naples.

My partner Domenico and I are architects, so we are glued to the city in the week, but every weekend we love to drive out here to breathe the clean air and enjoy simple country living.

During the winter these mountains are capped with snow and the villages are largely deserted, but in summer, when all the university students return home to visit their families, they are brimming with life. Friends converge on the slopes for picnics, or to go swimming in the natural Telese thermal pools to the north, or spend a day on the high ropes and climbing walls of the woodland adventure park.

Every so often one of the villages has a harvest festival or celebrates their local saint. These are popular events that mix pagan and Christian traditions. My favourite is the Sagra della Castagna – the chestnut festival in Vitulano in November. Religious processions flow through the streets, folk musicians play the pipes and farmers bring their produce to town to be enjoyed in a huge collective feast.

Food plays an important role in daily life here. The soil is particularly fertile, which means that vegetables can be grown without fertilisers and cattle are left to graze freely on the hillside. Olives, potatoes and beans grow especially well but the valley is most famous for its wine. This is where the ancient Romans grew their vines.

Several years ago, Domenico decided to do up a place in the quiet village of Cautano, where we grew up, which has allowed us to lead a healthier lifestyle. If once the weekends were for partying, they are now for relaxing, eating good food and feeling the benefits of being outdoors. The cottage backs on to a rugged hill, which is lined with vines and planted with fruit trees. As soon as we arrive from Naples, Domenico heads out onto to the hillside to tend to his produce and enjoy the peace. Underneath the house is a small cantina where we store the vats of olive oil, wine and tomato passata, which we make yearly, carrying on the tradition of our parents and grandparents.

It’s the desire for a more wholesome way of life that keeps drawing us back. However, we have noticed we are not the only ones enjoying the countryside: the villages are slowly repopulating as city dwellers are rediscovering the joys and health benefits of country living.
Stay Family-run Poggio Antico Agriturismo (doubles from €70).
Interview by Sophia Seymour

Running, Serra da Freita, Portugal

Hugo Brito, 45, from Porto

When I need a break from the city, I get in my car (or, if I’m feeling energetic, get on my bike) and head out to the Serra da Freita, a range of low hills about 40 miles south-east of Porto. Although it’s close to the city, it’s always empty. I don’t know why, because it has some amazing bike trails and climbing routes. But my main thing is running: that’s mostly what I go there to do.

There are some small villages around the edge of the range, hamlets really – places like Aldeia da Pena, Felgueiras and Mizarela. To eat, Felgueiras has a small restaurant that’s popular with locals. A speciality is beef from these hills, which tastes completely different because the cows are reared naturally on pastures rather than in feedlots.

Serra da Freita isn’t a formal park as such. It’s more like this strange area of forgotten wilderness, full of granite boulders and coarse vegetation and biting wind. Once you’re on the top of it, there’s a vast plateau and you can see for miles. It’s beautiful but really quite barren, only the odd tree here and there. The fog often comes down, which adds to the magical atmosphere of the place.

There are some signposted hikes, such as the 8.5 km long Passadiços do Paiva, on a wooden walkway, but I like to follow my nose when I run there. I just head off and see where the trails take me. The further you get into the range, the emptier and more barren it becomes.

There are abandoned hamlets dotted about the place, which I love – a reminder that the area was once more inhabited than it is now.

I’m quite a sociable person usually, but when I run I really enjoy being by myself. I even spent my birthday there once, running through the night in the dark. Being alone helps me connect with the surroundings and clear my head. But when I go climbing, I always go with a friend. It’s safer that way. The best climbing is around the Cascata da Frecha da Mizarela. Outside the Alps, it’s one of the highest waterfalls in Europe, at 75 metres. There are different routes up to the top, some easy and some for more advanced climbers.
Stay Hotel Rural da Freita (doubles from €55 B&B) in Mizarela, just above the waterfalls.
Interview by Oliver Balch

Outdoor meditation, Dobogókő, Hungary

Zsófia Fischer, 42, from Budapest

I first started going to Dobogókő mountain when I was a child. About an hour’s drive from Budapest, it is easy to get there, but back then we would take the HÉV, the city’s suburban railway, and then get on to one of the bright orange and yellow buses.

I didn’t return until a few years ago, and when I saw that it was as beautiful as it ever was, high up in the Visegrád mountains and overlooking the Danube, I wondered why it had taken me so long to come back. Dobogókő translates as “the stone of the beating heart”, perhaps a reference to the fact that the 700-metre peak at the heart of the area – called Dobogó-kő – has been considered the “heart chakra” of the Earth since ancient times by followers of the shamanistic Táltos faith.

Dobogókő, near the village of Pilisszentkereszt, has a spiritual feel. The moment you arrive you sense great calm. Past the ornate entry gate there’s an easy trail through the forest. There is so much positive energy here – it is perfect for an outdoor meditation session.

Some people come in the summer but for me it is magical in the winter, especially if there is snow clinging to the trees. The air is crisp and sobering and there is a cosy ambience in the restaurants, like Zsindelyes Vendégház in Pilisszentkereszt. It serves traditional Hungarian food such as bean gulyás (paprika-spiced soup), but its real draw is the setting, an old wooden hut in the hilltop village where you can take off your wet winter boots and warm up by the fireplace with a tea.

Another atmospheric place in the village is the restaurant Baro Eotvos Lorand Menedekhaz. Try bogrács, the Hungarian beef stew cooked over open flames in a cast-iron kettle.

The last time I was in Dobogókő, I brought my three-year-old daughter and we took her through the snow on a sled. From the smile on her face I could tell that she loved the experience as much as I had all those years ago.
Stay In Pilisszentkereszt, Dobogókőjurta is a collection of yurts (from £15 for two people). There’s also the apartment-style Erdei Villa (doubles from £50).
Interview by Alia Akkam

Swimming, Gyllebosjön lake, Sweden

Hanna Scott, 42, from Malmö

Winter bathing is one of the main ways in which I manage stress. If I feel like there is too much going on at work, at home, or just generally, I escape to the sauna by Gyllebosjön. It’s a small, wooden sauna on wheels, by this beautiful picturesque lake, very close to our summer house in Österlen.

Österlen is in the south-east corner of Sweden, attracts artists, writers, hippies and hipsters from Stockholm, and people with summer houses.

The great thing about this sauna is that it only opens when the summer season comes to a close. So when the sauna reopens its gates, it’s a bit like “OK, now we’re back on”. It’s so small that everyone sits very close together and you end up having these great conversations.

The social aspect is one thing, but the reason why people go there is to swim. You sit in the sauna until you feel like you can’t take it any more. And then it’s just a short skip and a jump to the jetty, and into the lake.

The temperature of the water can be anything between 4C and 9C in the winter. The sauna only opens in the evenings, so often it’s very dark, with candles lining the path to the water. It’s very beautiful here, surrounded by beechwood forest, with a starry sky above.

Because the water is very cold, it’s just a quick dip, then back into the sauna. After doing this a couple of times, you can feel your mind and body start to relax.

Stay There are several cottages at the Gyllebo holiday village to rent from about £25 per night on Airbnb, all of which are within 10 minutes’ walk of the lake.

There’s an excellent hostel run by the Swedish Tourist Association in the nearby village of Baskemölla, eight miles away (doubles from £52).
Interview by Richard Orange

Hiking, Picos de Europa national park, Spain

Juan José Cacho, 40, from Madrid

I live in Madrid, but I grew up in Cantabria in the north of Spain, and I love to visit whenever I can. The Picos de Europa national park sits across the borders of three of Spain’s autonomous regions: Cantabria, Asturias and Castile-León. I have fond memories of visiting with my parents when I was a child, and I still love the cool, clear air of the mountains.

The stunning landscape was created by glacial erosion of the huge limestone massifs in the Cantabrian mountains, resulting in rocky peaks towering over steep valleys with forests of beech and oak. Some peaks are over 2,600 metres, but you’re still relatively close to the sea and rainfall is high so there is a lot of different vegetation: you can go from green pastures to craggy rock formations in just a few hours. While you’re walking you often see rebecos (the small mountain goat native to the area, also called Cantabrian chamois) bounding over the rocks near the trails, and vultures overhead. There are also brown bears and even a few wolves, but sightings are rare.

I started hiking there with a group of friends when I was in my early twenties on the network of hiking trails called El Anillo. We used to spend days in the mountains, staying at tiny, isolated mountain refuges. Perhaps my favourite hike is the ascent from Fuente Dé to the top of Pico Tesorero, but there are many to choose from. Apart from hiking, there is a lot to explore in the surrounding area: pretty villages like Potes with stone buildings in the distinctive Cantabrian style, and even some prehistoric caves. The local dish is a beef, pork and chickpea stew called cocido lebaniego, which is perfect after a long hike.

Stay The isolated refuge Collado Jermoso (€15pp, meals available) is high in the mountains and can only be reached on foot. Sit on the little terrace and watch the sun set with a beer and all your problems fade to insignificance. For those who prefer a little more comfort, the Parador Nacional in Fuente Dé (doubles from €75) is next to the cable car that takes you up to 1,843 metres in a breathtaking four minutes.
Interview by Annette Pacey

Climbing, Mercantour national park, France

Stéphane Bertone, 50, from Nice

My maternal grandparents are from Saint-Martin-Vésubie, a small village 40 miles north of Nice, where my grandfather was the baker. Every summer holiday I would stay there, filling my days with hiking trips, mountaineering and rock climbing. The village is the gateway to one of the most beautiful national parks in France, the Mercantour, home to some of the highest summits of the southern Alps. Its highest point is the Cime du Gélas at 3,143 metres, which has been my favourite place since I first climbed it at the age of 13, having told my parents I was spending the day at the pool because they wouldn’t have allowed me to go on my own. Instead, I hitchhiked to the sanctuary of La Madone de Fenestre, eight miles away, where the mountain hikes begin. You can get the bus to it from Saint-Martin-Vésubie.

It takes about four hours to climb but the 360​​-degree views are magical; on the way up there are spruces, larches and pines, with chamois, ibex and marmots. Then after the treeline you’ll get a better view of any eagles and bearded vultures overhead. It is a mountain I have climbed many times, both alone and with friends.

There’s a tough ascent for experienced climbers (with ropes) and an easier route for hikers. A few years ago a group of us walked to the summit from the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, 75 miles away. It took three days but it was an amazing experience, and despite a few aches and pains we all reached the top.

In the mountains and especially at the top of Gélas, I feel a sense of completeness. When I return to “civilisation”, the benefits of being in nature and at altitude stay with me for a while. Whenever mental or physical fatigue reappears, I simply head for the mountains again!

Escapade – Les Guides du Mercantour, in Saint-Martin-Vésubie, offers accompanied walking tours as well as canyoning, trekking, climbing and via ferrata trips.

Stay Chalet de la Madone de Fenestre (adult €20.20 a night, child over 8, €16.15) has 62 dorm beds and provides hot showers and meals, including a fine blueberry tart. Online booking required.
Interview by Jon Bryant

Walking, Mount Oiti national park, Greece

Villy Rodopoulou, 52, from Athens

Whenever I need a break from my job as a plastic surgeon in Athens, I head straight for the mountains. I started going to Mount Oiti with my father when I was younger, and now make the pilgrimage with my husband and son. Although it’s one of Greece’s largest national parks, it remains fairly off the radar – even to many Greeks.

We usually stay in the village of Pavliani, about a 2½-hour drive north-west of Athens. The first thing I do when we arrive is go to a river and simply sit a while. There’s something about the sound of water trickling down a mountain that really brings me peace of mind. It’s a stark contrast to the chaotic beach scenes you get on the islands.

The activities we like to do are quite simple: hike the trails, go mushroom picking or explore the mountain villages by car. Often we are the only visitors here.

According to mythology, Oiti was where Heracles (Hercules to Romans) came to die. After being poisoned, the Greek hero trekked to the top of the mountain and built himself a funeral pyre, intending to die by self-immolation. The story enraptured the ancient Greeks, who built a temple to him on the same spot in the third century BC, and which remained in use until the late Roman period.

The ruins of the temple, which are reached by a challenging hike from Pavliani or an equally challenging drive up dirt roads, are breathtaking. Whenever I need to disconnect, I come here. It may sound a bit strange, but there’s something about sitting by an ancient temple on a mountain, contemplating all that has happened on these lands, that really relaxes me. I feel a deep connection to my country’s ancient history. It’s a kind of meditation that takes me away and makes me forget about the chaos of modern life.
Stay Vasilikia Mountain Farm offers comfortable mountain lodging in Pavliani, (doubles from £135).
Interview by Alex Sakalis

Slow living, Prangli, Estonia

Eveliis Kund Zujev, 38, from Tallinn

I fell in love with the island of Prangli the moment my husband and I first arrived at Kelnase harbour nine years ago and were welcomed by our host, who drove us to our weekend holiday home on the back of an all-terrain vehicle. Local transportation is limited to ATVs, a fleet of rusty Ladas and a couple of army-green Soviet Kamaz trucks, and most roads are sand, rock and smashed corrugated roofing sheets. One of my favourite activities is to take an excursion through the forest on the back of a Kamaz.

The island is home to just 63 people in the winter but is much busier in midsummer, when we build a huge bonfire and dance late into the night. It is traditional to make garlands for young girls out of wild flowers, which they then put under their pillows before bed. We also search the forest for glow-worms. It is said that if you find one you will be able to speak with birds and animals.

I worked as an export sales manager until recently, which involved a lot of communication and travelling. But on Prangli I can shut out life on the mainland, and relax in the saunas, or by taking a walk along the beach at night, admiring the lights of Tallinn over the shore.

From Tallinn, it is a 30-minute drive to Leppneeme harbour, where the Wrangö ferry departs two to three times a day on the hour-long trip to the island.

On our first visit we picked the Praaga holiday house at random, and found that Iivar, the captain of the old mail boat Helge, which until recently was the only connection to the mainland, was the owner. It seems wrong to call it a holiday house now, as for the past nine years my family have visited at least two to three times a year, even in winter, when there are almost no tourists.

When we discovered that my husband’s grandfather, who once worked as the island’s doctor, delivered Iivar, we felt a deep connection to the island.

Stay Praaga Farmstay (doubles from £34 B&B) is on the tip of the island and includes access to a traditional Estonian sauna. Iivar sometimes takes guests out into the Baltic Sea fishing and watching for seals.
Interview by Daryl Mersom

Cycling, Bohemian Switzerland national park, Czech Republic

Pavel Šimek, 35, from Prague

Being a civil engineer can be both busy and stressful, so I like to get outdoors at weekends. I cycle all over but my absolute favourite spot is the Bohemian Switzerland national park. The mountains here are very exotic, different from the rest of the Czech Republic on account of the spectacular sandstone towers. The scenery blows my mind every time – it was here that The Chronicles of Narnia was filmed. There are lots of cycle routes in the region, and it’s one I took recently that I’d recommend.

Start at Děčín (regular trains go there from Prague) and cycle north towards Hřensko – a rocky village with gorges offering impressive views over the River Labe (or Elbe in German). Nearby is Pravčická brána: the biggest sandstone arch in Europe. Although you can’t cycle to it, it’s definitely worth locking up your bike and walking the two miles to it on foot.

Once you’re back on the bikes, pedal west towards the village of Jetřichovice, where there are several great viewpoints. It’s a good place to camp, or stay the night in the Bellevue Hotel (see below).

The next day, head through the tree-lined valley of Doubice, which boasts five different rock types, and finish your route in Krásná Lípa. It’s a tree-filled town in the north-west of Czech Switzerland – the name translates as “beautiful linden”, referring to the country’s national tree.

As any cyclist will tell you, one of the best things about cycling is the beer at the end of it! This route is perfect for that because in Krásná Lípa is one of the best small breweries in the country, Falkenštejn. They have loads of good beers on tap, but I especially like their bottled APA, Svižnej Emil (Speedy Emil). It’s named after the Czech long-distance runner Emil Zátopek, who won three gold medals at the 1952 Olympics. It’s lower in alcohol – which is definitely a plus when you have to get back on the bike!

I love cycling because you can see way more than on foot, and you can pedal away from other people to find your own quiet, peaceful spot. This region is perfect for that. The air is fresh, the views are incredible and I can clear my mind in preparation for another week at work.
Stay The Bellevue Hotel (doubles from €30) in Jetřichovice has a great swimming pool (open in summer), perfect for resting your body after all the cycling.
Interview by Mark Pickering

Outdoor activities, Engreux, Belgium

Jonathan Moskovic, 29, from Brussels

Every two to three months I visit my in-laws in Engreux, a small village 100 miles south-west of Brussels. This hidden village, near the confluence of the east and west Ourthe rivers, is a haven of peace and nature.

In winter, snowfall transforms the scenery into a postcard. There’s sledging and skiing at Baraque Fraiture, one of the highest points of Belgium (652 metres), where there are three alpine ski slopes and several cross-country ski trails.

In summer, I go kayaking on the river or swim in Lake Nisramont. Sometimes I walk in the forest and never meet anyone. I’ve seen deer several times but never wild boars – although I’m told they are there.

One of the reasons for Engreux’s secrecy is that it is difficult to access by public transport. From Brussels, you have to take a train for two hours to Libramont and then take two buses. I don’t have a car so I opt for carpooling. I like meeting new people and chatting on the way.
Stay My in-laws’ neighbours rent a farmhouse with sauna called Le Tunnel De Saule , sleeps nine, from around £400 for three nights.
Interview by Aubry Touriel

Cycling, Frisia, the Netherlands

Dick Noordhoek, 64, from The Hague

For me, the most relaxing thing to do is to go cycling in Frisia, a green and peaceful province in the north of the Netherlands. My favourite area is De Wouden, in the east of the province, which is totally untainted by tourism. There are quiet bicycle lanes everywhere and while I listen to the meadow birds and the spinning of my wheels, I feel all tension falling away.

De Wouden means “the woods”, but you actually come across a lot of moorland and meadows in this region. It’s a simple and charming landscape. It’s also very flat, which makes cycling easy and allows you to gaze far into the distance.

The Frisian people have their own traditions and language, of which they are extremely proud. They have a reputation for being stubborn, but they are very friendly and know all about slow living. Often, when you ask for directions, they start a lengthy conversation with you. It’s easy to forget the time in the Frisian countryside.

My favourite destination for a bicycle trip is an old mansion called Fogelsanghstate (Bird’s Song Estate). It is a tranquil place, with an air of mystery. On weekdays you have a good chance of finding yourself alone in the park, apart from a colony of red deer.

Cycling through Frisia you see animals everywhere. Frisian horses, for example, that look like mythical beasts with their shiny, jet black coats and long, wavy mane. Once I spotted two white deer – albino twins, which are very rare. She also said she didn’t put photos of the animals on her Facebook page for fear of attracting too many visitors. That’s what makes De Wouden such a relaxing place: people attach more value to living quietly than to doing business.

Although Frisian bakeries sell delicious sugar loaves, ginger bread and dumkes (biscuits with aniseed), this is not an area where you will spot many exciting places to eat.
Stay Het Volle Leven has rooms and serves excellent three-course vegetarian meals. In the summer you can eat in the garden, which borders a forest and has chickens mingling freely with the guests. The atmosphere is, of course, totally relaxed.
Interview by Renate van der Zee

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