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Take a glimpse at Europe’s best national parks

Parco Nazionale delle Dolomiti Bellunesi, Italy

A grass-carpeted valley, birds chirping in the bottle-green trees, a twinkling brook: this bucolic scene is sheltered by a castellated line of mountains, formed of an almost luminescent pale rock. The drama is heightened by the contrast between the soft, gentle curves of the pastures and the sudden eruption of vast, sculptural mountains, each prong like a cathedral tower.

Parco Nazionale delle Dolomiti Bellunesi is geology as theatre. The scenic drama has been formed through the different consistency and brittleness of the rock, which has allowed erosion to sculpt it into jagged shapes, and hollow out deep, wide valleys and corridor-narrow gorges.

Durmitor National Park, Montenegro

No matter from which side you approach Durmitor National Park, you will be in awe – the glorious mountain peaks are rugged, smooth, sloping and jagged, all at the same time. The ancient pine trees dot the mountainsides with perfect cones, some reaching 50m high. And amid all this are the 18 glacial lakes that range in colour from frosty blues to deep navy and turquoise, like precious beads scattered on the massif.

Durmitor has 48 peaks above 2000m in altitude, with the highest, Bobotov Kuk, measuring 2523m, making the park the perfect place for hiking, especially in the warmer months. There are spectacular karst or forest trails, and stunning views that stretch hundreds of kilometres.

Peneda-Gerês National Park, Portugal

About 300 million years ago, a continental collision pushed together the Iberian Peninsula and Europe, resulting in the amphitheatre of the Serra da Peneda, Serra do Soajo, Serra Amarela and Serra do Gerês mountain ranges, dominated by immense granite cliffs and slabs.

The glacial fields that covered these mountains during the ice age of the Pleistocene era are nowhere to be seen. Still, the moraines, glacial deposits and deep, U-shaped valleys hint at the violent climatic events that shaped this land.

Hortobágy National Park, Hungary

These vast prairies carry more than a whisper of the wild, wild West. But the puszta – the flat grasslands and marshes of Hortobágy National Park – stir the Hungarian soul. They are the bedrock of this country’s agrarian history.

The national park is part of the Great Hungarian Plain, which rolls across the eastern half of the country. This was once the homeland ofcsikósok, skilled herdsmen who thundered across the prairies. Pastoral lifestyles of lapsed centuries are frozen in time in Hortobágy: traditional sweep-pole wells dot its meadows, while herdsmen’s inns retain their original character. And while the csikós’ lifestyle has faded away, his descendants remain, many of them still learning horse-riding arts.

Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland

Europe’s largest protected area, Vatnajökull National Park is a stunning sample platter of pretty much every dramatic natural landscape Iceland has to offer. As you roam this vast reserve, you’ll find calving glaciers, geothermal springs, rocky canyons, snow-capped mountains, featureless ice sheets, silent lagoons, buried volcanoes, eerie ice caverns, surreal basalt formations and even wandering herds of reindeer.

Sprawling over 13,600 sq km, the park takes up a good-sized chunk of eastern Iceland, so most people take small bites from the edges – from Ásbyrgi in the north, or from Rte 1 as it sneaks between the ice sheet and the eastern seaboard.

Jostedalsbreen National Park, Norway

One moment you’re following a sinuous, fjord-hugging road that snakes across Norway’s west, the next you round a corner and find yourself face to face with one of the most extraordinary sights anywhere in Europe.

Mighty Jostedalsbreen is the glacier you always dreamed of – vast in scale, magical in its ice-blue beauty, and seemingly alive as it groans and inches its way like a scythe through high mountain valleys and down to the water.