I wanted to discover Europe’s outdoors at opposite ends of the continent—I chose Sweden in the north and Italy in the south.
It was the sound of splashing that woke me up—that alongside the occasional snort or playful whinny. I thought to myself, what could that possibly be? Curious, I unzipped my tent, which I had pitched near the river the night before, and was shocked at what I saw before me: a heard of reindeer, perhaps two hundred of them, drinking from the cold, clear water, playfully neighing and nudging one another.
As a person who grew up in California, reindeer have always been the stuff of Christmas dreams. They were the beasts who pulled a red-cheeked, thick-bearded Santa through the winter sky as he tossed gifts down chimneys. Never did I expect to be woken up by a herd of them deep in the rural middle country of Sweden. To tell the story of this experience in full, I need to take a step back and explain what I was doing there.
The morning before, my two friends and I drove up to the village of Tännäs, which is in the province of Härjedalen (if you can envision a map of Sweden, the town is at about the halfway point of the country, on the western side). Packed in our car was camping equipment, fishing gear, and enough food for a four-day sojourn. We left the car at the side of the road, strapped thirty kilos of gear on our backs, and hiked about an hour until we reached a clearing and a river that snaked through it. The plan? To spend four days fishing, the amount of time we were allotted on our permits. We’d eat any fish we caught and brought back-up supplies if we got no strikes. Of course, we planned only to keep what we needed to eat. As responsible anglers, we release everything else. We also had a good supply of local beer from a nearby microbrewery (which we kept immersed in the stream water to keep it chilled) and snacks as well as several packets of sausages to grill.
Once we got everything set up, we set out on our fishing adventure. My friend Niles was the first of us to get a strike. His pole bent toward the water, his line zipped out. What he pulled out of the clear river water was a gorgeous grayling. Over the course of the day, Jack—my other friend—and I also got some action. Altogether, we had a nice catch of perch, pike, and grayling, three delicious varieties of fish. That night, we feasted on fresh sashimi.
Though I love to fish, I was primarily there to take in the marvelous nature of the Swedish countryside. Since it was summer, the light barely dimmed even as it reached eleven at night. Before a crackling fire, Niles, Jack and I looked out at the terrain before us. It was sublime, supremely peaceful. It was just us and nature, and it was marvelous. We barely spoke. We looked out at the river as it flowed into the distance. We watched the pink sky reflecting on its surface.
When I went to bed that night, I thought to myself: this trip could not get any more profound. The next morning, when I awoke to the sound of the reindeer, I was proved wrong. I spent a solid twenty minutes studying these marvelous creatures. I tried to move as little as possible, so as not to scare them as they lapped up stream water or munched on moss and ferns. And then, they bounded off. I watched the whole herd moving with speed until it disappeared into the birch forests that surrounded us.
This was one of my first experiences on my quest to discover Europe through its outdoors, and it’s one that will never leave me. But a few days later, we were ready to move on, to explore nature in a place in Europe as far south as Sweden is north. Our destination: the Stromboli volcano by way of an eco-lodge in Sicily.
Since I was a child, I’ve found volcanoes fascinating. Through the violence of an eruption, our planet receives new land. It’s one of the ways we as humans can witness the power and potency of nature. Yet before we could visit this island volcano, we had to find a home base. We chose Milazzo, Sicily for two reasons: it is just a ferry ride away from Stromboli and it is also home to some wonderful accommodations. After roughing it in Sweden, we decided we deserved a little pampering and thus, we picked a boutique eco-lodge. I was particularly excited about this choice because I read online that the lodge had a partnership with a local farm, which supplied all the delicious food.
Breakfast on our first day did not disappoint. Around 8 in the morning, we sat down at our table which had a stunning sea view. Then our hostess brought the meal: strong and fragrant coffee with milk and a generous serving of cornetti (croissants filled with cream). The best part: she told us that the milk, eggs, and cream all came from the local farm I mentioned earlier. Let me put it this way—never have I had such flavorful, rich dairy products in my life.
But enough about breakfast! We were there to a volcano. About forty-five minutes later, we boarded the ferry and began our journey to Stromboli. A while later, this magnificent volcano came into view, a massive mass of earth rising up from the water. Then we docked, and we stepped onto the “lighthouse of the Mediterranean,” as some call it. I was immediately struck by the black sand beaches on the island. I had never before seen sand of this color.
Only a short time after we landed on Stromboli, we set off toward the summit. We decided it would be best to hire a guide for this hike, the trail being somewhat difficult. We also didn’t want to risk losing the path and entering dangerous terrain. As we hiked, we kept our goal firmly in mind: to see lava. This was not wishful thinking. Stromboli has been active for centuries, and there have been frequent eruptions over the last two decades.
The hike up the mountain over the rough, volcanic soil got my heart beating fast. In part, it was the climb that got the blood pumping. But it was also the excitement of seeing the peak. The terrain was steep and we moved quickly. About three and a half hours later, we reached the summit. Then the moment came we were waiting for—in the distance, we saw the red glow, the small eruption of lava, and the undulating flow of the molten rock. Our guide made sure we kept our distance. But even from a ways away, the experience of seeing new land being made was one that will never leave me.
On the ferry ride back to Milazzo, I thought to myself: the nature I witnessed in Europe has left a lasting and profound impression on me. Never again will I think of reindeer and lava in the same way.
Eager to discover European nature? Join the Facebook group Nature & Adventure Lovers Europe to meet like-minded people, discuss travel plans, and much more.
Written by John Smyth, American, insurance analyst