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.