Europe is full of wonders. They beckon to visitors almost everywhere on the continent — Paris’ Eiffel Tower, Rome’s Colosseum, Athens’ Parthenon, St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace and dozens of other glorious man-made icons.
Then there is Old World charm — the joy of exploring Europe’s great cities and picturesque villages, delving into history, partaking in its vast cultural offerings, feasting on foods and food preparations unlike those at home.
Most of any visit to Europe will be consumed with enjoying its cities and experiencing the customs, cultures and lifestyles that have endured for centuries. But beyond those pursuits await other wonders, those created not by man but by nature. Be they cliffs or gorges, unusual formations or spectacular waterways, they are as awesome and inspiring as Europe’s man-made attractions.
Over many trips, I have balanced visits to Europe’s cities with journeys to its unique natural features. Below are seven natural wonders of Europe I found particularly fascinating. All are easily accessible, and most are World Heritage sites.
• Cliffs of Moher, Ireland: You’ve seen them in movies, if not in person — a five-mile-long series of sheer cliffs, some of them more than 700 feet high, plunging into the Atlantic.
Standing atop the cliffs, buffeted by strong, cold sea winds, is not for anyone with vertigo or acrophobia. But it’s a fascinating position — standing on the last bit of land looking westward at the thousand-plus miles of ocean that lie between Ireland and the Americas. I have seen the wind blow so strongly here that a tiny waterfall flowing down over the cliff was actually blown upward.
A good vantage point to view this parade of promontories is from around O’Brien’s Tower, built on the clifftop by a County Clare landlord of the 19th century. Just don’t venture too close to the edge. The path along the clifftop stays a few yards back from the precipice, but some visitors ignore the “Do Not Cross” signs to get a better photo, at least one with fatal results.
Thousands of sea birds nest in the cliffs until August, among them kittiwakes, guillemots and puffins. Below, Atlantic swells crashing against the rocks create an unceasing thunder in an unforgettable seascape.
• Plitvice lakes, Croatia: Little known to most Americans, this network of lakes, waterfalls, cascades and rushing water is unequaled anywhere in the world. It’s as if a large section of land has sprung a leak, with water gushing seemingly everywhere.
Situated in karst country with abrupt changes in elevation, Plitvice’s 16 lakes cascade down from one to another. Here, water has eaten away the limestone and chalk, and deposited sediment that created dams. In several places, you may see a dozen or more waterfalls cascading a few feet from each other into a common pool. Some lakes are known for taking on different colors depending on how much and what kind of minerals and organic material enter their flow, or even when one’s point of view changes.
Best way to see this national park is by hiking along its paths and boardwalks, although one can also take a bus or boat ride. There are three hotels within the preserve.
• Aletsch Glacier, Switzerland: Unless you are airborne or undertake an arduous up-mountain hike, you rarely get a good view of a glacier. But a stunning panorama of Switzerland’s Aletsch Glacier, often described as the largest glacier in Europe (though at least two others make the same claim), is easily accessible and viewed yearly by many thousands.
One popular route is to take a train trip from Interlaken up to the Jungfraujoch in the Bernese Alps. Known as the “Top of Europe,” this rail station at the shoulder between two great mountains is continent’s highest at 11,332 feet. From there, one has a striking view of the Aletsch Glacier as it flows between the Munch and Jungfrau mountains. You can even go inside the glacier — the Swiss have carved several rooms in the ice — or venture outside to trek on its surface. For an even more encompassing view, visitors can go up to an observation platform known as the Sphinx.
New since last year at the well-developed visitor complex at the Jungfraujoch is a 2,400-foot-long tunnel called Alpine Sensation that connects Sphinx Hall with the Ice Palace cave. Both have changing exhibitions. The complex also has five restaurants.
• Sognefjord, Norway: More than 100 miles long, the Sognefjord is the largest and deepest fjord in Europe. Opening onto Norway’s Atlantic coast, the fjord is easily explored by ships that sail from several bases. Charming little villages dot its shores, waterfalls spout from the fjord walls, and snow covers the tops of the 4,000-foot-high sides of the waterway.
Easiest way to experience the fjord is on packaged tours. The most popular, called Norway in a Nutshell, is a round trip that begins either from Oslo or Bergen. It combines train trips — including one on the spectacular Flam Railway, which winds down a very steep incline with hairpin turns — with a fjord cruise on the Aurlandsfjord, an arm of the Sognefjord. This tour operates all year.
Another tour, called Sognefjord in a Nutshell, sails into the Sognefjord from the coast and also includes a trip on the Flam Railway. It operates only from May 1 to Sept. 30.
Cruises are also offered on a number of other Norwegian fjords.
• Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland: This unusual geological formation is found on the coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland. Acres of large hexagonal rocks stream from the coast into the sea, creating the semblance of giant stepping stones. And indeed, legend has it that an Irish giant built a stone causeway from this coast to nearby Scotland, and that only a portion of it survives.
The neat columns — 40,000 of them — were actually created six million years ago by a flow of basaltic lava. As the lava cooled, it solidified into the hexagonal shapes one sees today. You can clamber on the stones, which start on the coast and gradually disappear into the sea.
The Giant’s Causeway is owned by the National Trust, a United Kingdom charity. The visitors center was destroyed by fire in 2000; a new one opened at the site in 2012.
• White Cliffs of Dover, Great Britain: Rising as high as 350 feet, these chalk cliffs face continental Europe across the narrowest point of the English Channel. Their stark white color stands in sharp contrast to the sea below. On a clear day, you can see the coast of France from the clifftops, and vice versa.
Military tunnels were first excavated in the cliffs in 1797 and 1802. These were converted and extended during World War II to house a naval operations center, coastal artillery, anti-aircraft operations and hospital. During that war, its facilities played a critical role in the Battle of Britain, as German and British aircraft fought above the cliffs. The cliffs become famous in America with the wartime song The White Cliffs of Dover.
Tours of the tunnels can be booked in Dover or in London, which is only two hours away.
• Rock of Gibraltar, United Kingdom: This rock is perhaps the most recognizable natural wonder in Europe.
For many Americans, it is the symbol of an insurance company. But for most observers, the Rock symbolizes steadfast toughness and might.
True to that role, Gibraltar has been a fortified bastion for centuries. Strategically located close to the entrance of the Mediterranean, the Rock is honeycombed with more than 30 miles of military tunnels. Some tunnels have cannons aiming out from windows in sheer cliffs, some lead to interior storerooms. Though it is connected to the Spanish coast by a tiny isthmus, Gibraltar has been a British Crown Colony since 1704 and remains so despite Spain’s efforts to annex it.
From land or from a passing cruise ship, the Rock is an impressive sight, its distinctive profile sticking out into the Mediterranean. Tour vans take visitors to explore some of the tunnels; on the way up they always make a stop so passengers can see Gibraltar’s tailless apes, Barbary macaques. At Europa Point, the Rock’s southernmost point, visitors brave strong winds to gaze at the mountains of Africa across the Straits.
Gibraltar has another attraction that has nothing to do with its status as a natural wonder: It is a duty-free oasis, one of only two in Europe, so, sadly, some visitors never explore further than the many shops that line Main Street.