‘We drifted downriver and camped where we liked’: readers’ favourite lake and river breaks in Europe

A sublime dip in northern Italy

In the hills above Riva del Garda in Trentino is Lago di Tenno, a beautiful blue-green mountain lake. It’s small enough to walk around in under an hour, enclosed on all sides with lovely mountain views, but it’s the swimming that will bring you back again and again. The clear waters may be a tad chilly at first toe-dangle, but goosebumps are soon forgotten as you swim across the small gap to the grassy island. Relaxing, mountain air, beautiful views. The village of Tenno, with its medieval hilltop castle, has a few hotels and there’s a fine campsite close to the lake.

We’re on a Spree, Germany

Photograph: Diane Miller/Getty Images

The meandering rivers and 200 canals of the Spreewald, a richly forested Unesco biosphere reserve south-east of Berlin, offer hundreds of miles of navigable waterways. Basing ourselves at Lübbenau, we hired kayaks and glided past wildlife-rich riverbanks spotting coypu and kingfishers. We often saw owners of riverside homes slipping into their own vessels to commute or go shopping. Handcrafted signs on tree trunks guide paddlers: our favourite stop being the Gasthaus Wotschofska – a wonderful beer hall that cannot be reached by car. Tie up your watercraft and step on shore for a stein of beer and a dish featuring the famous Spreewald gherkin pickle. We hired our kayaks from Bootsverleih Franke in Lübbenau from €30 a day or €12 for one hour.
Lauren Jones


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A Slovenian hiking and paddleboarding haven

Photograph: Matjaz Corel/Alamy

We stayed in the Julian Alps at Camp Bohinj (adults from €16 a night) in a tent directly on the shores of Lake Bohinj, the largest permanent lake in Slovenia. The place has marvellous views, great swimming, hammocks and a nice little bar. There’s lots to do on the lake with kayaking and paddleboarding, but you can also easily hike up into the mountains for incredible views. It’s also close to Lake Bled and the Austrian/Italian borders, so a perfect stop-off if touring around.
Dave Gregory

Lakeside camping and sunsets, France

Photograph: Tommy Larey/Alamy

Lac d’Aiguebelette in France’s Savoie Mont Blanc region (a few miles west of Chambéry) has deservedly entered our family folklore. Smaller and less developed than neighbour Annecy, and being a nature reserve, motorised vessels are forbidden – making it perfect for swimming, kayaking and paddleboarding. One of France’s warmest natural lakes, its still, emerald waters are surrounded by stunning mountains. Most days were spent playing on the campsite’s private beach, or exploring the waters by paddleboard, jumping off regularly to swim. Once the kids were tucked up, the adults took turns to take to the water to enjoy the sunset. We stayed at Camping le Curtelet where pitches start at about €22 in August.
Jenny McConkey

Another tack, eastern France

Photograph: Gael Fontaine/Alamy

Lac des Sapins, north-west of Lyon, in the Rhône-Alps region of France, has long been a family favourite. With a homemade picnic and organic red Beaujolais and Viognier white wine from Oedoria cooperative in Létra, we spend the day there, picnicking, swimming, chatting. My English goddaughter’s a keen sailor so she, my French goddaughter and I hired a dinghy. We’d reached the middle of the lake when the wind dropped. I thought we’d need a tow, but she tacked to and fro, catching every little breeze to get us back. The owners applauded our arrival and we toasted her with Beaujolais.

Adrift in southern Sweden

Photograph: Arctic Images/Alamy

In Värmland, south-west Sweden, a wonderful adventure can be had by booking a rafting trip on the Klarälven River starting at Gunnerud. We went with Vildmark (one night to one-week options from £175-£420, group bookings available): you build a raft (advice is provided, but you do the building), then you set off on your drift down the river, through rolling hills and forest. The current guides you south and the week-long option will take you up to 70 miles. You sleep in your tent, making use of the Swedish right to camp anywhere as long as you leave no trace. You cook your own food (which can be pre-ordered) and will see few signs of civilisation apart from other people on rafts.

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Europe’s largest volcanic lake, Italy

Photograph: Westend61 GmbH/Alamy

Lake Bolsena in central Italy, between Rome and Siena, is the largest volcanic lake in Europe. We love staying with Anna at Agriturismo Castell’Araldo with apartments for about €100 a night. The food in the area is terrific and the lake is beautiful with its black sand beaches and islands, such as Bisentina, which make for a good day trip. A foodie heaven and a great alternative to the tourist traps in the north of Lake Garda and Lake Como.

Healing waters, Romania

Photograph: Gabriela Insuratelu/Alamy

One of Europe’s largest heliothermic lakes is Ursu (Bear) Lake in Sovata, Romania. Here you can float like a cork in blissfully warm saltwater regardless of how many papanasi cheese doughnuts you’ve scoffed from the village’s cafes. The lake formed in 1875 from a combination of natural events. The freshwater top layer flows in from nearby streams and acts as a thermal insulator, but the deeper you go, the warmer it feels: at 1.5 metres, temperatures can top 45C. Besides the warmth, the salinity increases buoyancy, making it impossible to sink. Fringed with woods and wooden sunbathing terraces (and changing cabins), the spacious four-hectare lake is renowned for its healing properties. And if you fancy trying another similar lake, there are four others within the nature reserve: Alunis, Rosu, Verde and Mierlei.

Weir and wonderful: kayaking in Belgium

Photograph: Buiten-Beeld/Alamy

The Lesse River is lovely. You can hire your kayak in Dinant then paddle up to eight miles and catch the train back, or do the train bit first. Brilliant spots for a picnic and a break are around the chateau at Walzin. There are some weirs to navigate: as newbies it took 20 minutes to build up the courage to go down the first small weir. The second one was whitewater-esque, but we barrelled through like we were on our way to Olympic gold. Chips with mayo were well earned. Back in Dinant there are little electric boats to rent out (€60 but hold six) and the chance to enjoy the mightier Meuse River.

Winning tip: a cycling the shores of Garda, Italy

Photograph: Alexandre Rotenberg/Alamy

A trip to Peschiera del Garda at the southern end of Lake Garda provided an opportunity to try the 30-mile River Mincio cycle path. Cheap bike hire is available in Peschiera and the route is flat all the way to the architectural gem of Mantua. Stop off along the way at the lovely medieval village of Borghetto or the nearby town of Valeggio sul Mincio where you can try its own take on a pasta classic: tortellini di valeggio.

This article was corrected on 14 June 2024. Due to an editorial error the wrong entry was labelled as the winning tip


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