Inside the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia
Entering the Hermitage Museum in the heart of the majestic St Petersburg, prepare to be overcome with opulence, elegance, and riches that would put a golden-hoarding dragon to shame. Though there are six buildings comprising the Hermitage, it is the Winter Palace that gets the glory. Founded in 1764 by none other than Empress Catherine the Great, the Hermitage is the world’s 2nd-largest art museum (after the Louvre). Some 3 million artefacts form part of the Hermitage’s collection, though most of these aren’t on permanent display. But the real museum here for architect and history geeks like myself is the building itself. Once home to a string of opulent Russian rulers, the rooms of the Winter Palace are a wonder to behold. If the above photo is just the entrance hall, what other magnificence might the other rooms hold? The Hermitage (and St Petersburg itself) is one of those places that should be on any list of amazing places to go, particularly for anyone who loves art, museums, history, architecture, grandeur, or photography.
Pro tip: Leave yourself plenty of time. This is a massive museum and given how difficult it is to get to Russia (particularly navigating getting visas), this might be your one chance to visit it. Don’t rush it – leave yourself the whole day to explore the Hermitage. If you finish earlier than that, then find yourself a nice place for a wee pivo (beer).
Carrowkeel is one of Ireland’s four great Neolithic-era complexes (the others being Newgrange and the Boyne Valley; Loughcrew, and Carrowmore, also in Co Sligo). It is also arguably the best. This little-known site is off the beaten path for most people, and even locals sometimes forget it’s there. Carrowkeel comprises of 14 tombs, with another 12 in the surrounding half-dozen kilometres. The tombs, or cairns as they are called, date back to the Neolithic era, and are about 5,000 years old. For reference’s sake…. that’s older than Machu Picchu, the Roman Colosseum, Stonehenge, and the Pyramids of Giza. Far older, in most cases. From the small car park, it’s a 5km roundtrip hike to Cairns G, H, and K, which are the most popular tombs (each tomb has a letter). The cairn you see high up on the hilltop to your right? That’s Cairn B – one of the least-visited and most amazing (and visible) tombs of all Carrowkeel. Like the others, it was opened when early 20th-century English archeologist Macallister “excavated” it. This was the height or barbaric English archeology, and his team was… less than gentle with this ancient, sacred place. More than one tomb suffered dynamite and tunnelling, most had cremated remains removed for “testing” (never to return to Ireland), and even other artefacts such as pottery removed and taken from Ireland. Cairn B is a simple passage tomb, with a short 1-2 metre long narrow passage (ungracefully on your hands and knees) to get inside the main chamber. In use for hundreds of years, these cairns would’ve housed the cremated remains of the local Neolithic people’s ancestors, visited regularly for mysterious rituals that we still don’t understand today. It is an amazing place.
Pro tip: Aligned with the Summer Solstice, come here to watch the sun set on the longest day of the year. Cairn B is little visited – most watch the light enter Cairn G’s chamber through the narrow “roofbox” opening. To get here, instead of turning left onto the small road to Carrowkeel from Castlebaldwin, keep straight. After the first large house, park and follow the farmer’s fence to the top. No trail and rough terrain, but the grade isn’t steep.
With hundreds of island, Scotland‘s fringes are both rugged and full of history. The Outer Hebrides contains some of the largest islands, including the isles of Lewis and Harris. It is on the Isle of Lewis in which you find one of Scotland’s most impressive stone circles, the Callanish Stones, which are famous the world over. Comprising of nearly 50 standing stones each weighing dozens of tonnes each, the stones were erected thousands years ago at the height of the Neolithic era, likely between 2,900 and 2,600 BC. The reasons the islanders went through such effort to quarry, lug and arrange so many stones is still a mystery today, though likely it was for ritualistic purposes – with their importance continuing onwards into the Bronze Age. The inner stones form a circle while the outer stones are in a cruciform shape, and at some point after its construction, a chambered tomb was added to the centre. It is not alone; there are nearby cairns and even other stone circles (for example, Callanish II is less complete but clearly larger in size). Perhaps it is the preserved nature of the stones that rank it high among Scottish Neolithic monuments, but regardless it is one of the most interesting places of all the Scottish isles. For those interested in learning more, there is also an interpretive centre on site, and the stones are a short walk from the centre. It is also popular with the so-called new pagans and druids, spotted here.
Pro tip: Nearby, jump slightly forward in Scotland’s ancient history to the Iron Age at the amazing Dun Carloway Broch.
This tiny fishing village in the northeastern corner of Brittany is easy to miss and not on most tourist routes. Not too far south from the well-loved St Malo, St Suliac is another village listed under the official list of “Most Beautiful Villages in France.” Sitting along the shores of the Rance estuary, St Suliac is a quaint village with a long history of fishing – something that is still evidenced in the design and decor of the village. Fishing nets are everywhere, and seafood dishes are common. You’ll also likely spot statues in niches all over town – usually that of the Virgin Mary, erected in a bid to ask her to keep watch over its seafaring populace. This typically Breton commune is part of the “Emerald Coast” – so named for its deep colour brought on by the wet climate. Brittany is one of France’s most fascinating regions. The climate isn’t the region’s only thing in common with the Celtic countries. It has its own Celtic language (though like all Celtic regions such as Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Galicia, the Isle of Mann, Cornwall, etc), the occupants all speak the main language (ie French in this case). Brittany or Bretagne also shares its mysterious Neolithic history and monuments with its Celtic neighbours, most notably Ireland. It is an amazingly rich region with many places to explore – with St Suliac as just one of Brittany’s many treasures to be found!
Pro tip: The promenade of St Suliac makes a lovely spot for a walk, a picnic or just a coffee with a view!
Wild and rugged, Donegal is a half-forgotten county in northwestern Ireland, cut of geopolitically from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Its capital is Donegal town, which is home to Donegal Castle. The castle was built by the infamous Red Hugh O’Donnell in 1454, possibly on the site of an old fort, though no evidence remains. At this time, Ireland was divided into fluid regions, each ruled by a clan and led by a local chieftain. Because of the region’s remoteness as well as its poor agricultural terrain, Donegal and the the rest of the surrounding region of Ulster were the last to be conquered by the English. Red Hugh’s impressive fortress, stronghold of the O’Donnell clan, started life as a tower house, the most common Irish medieval fortification. In an attempt to get the chieftain’s under English control, the clan leaders where given the title of Earl. Not content and craving freedom, the Earls rebelled. The uprising was a failure, leading to the Flight of the Earls in 1607 and the total control of Ireland by the English crown. As was the custom, the English seized the castle from Irish ownership, and passed it on to a loyal Englishman as a reward for service – in this case, a fellow called Brookes, who later sold it to the wealthy Sligo-based family, the Gores. Brooke added the Jacobean manor-house to the left of the towerhouse, transforming it from military might to countryside estate. Sadly under the Gore family, Donegal Castle fell into ruin (likely to avoid paying taxes on it), and there it sat in quiet abandon until the 1990s, when the Irish government restored it. Today, it is one of Donegal’s most important parts of cultural heritage.
Pro tip: Donegal is well-known for tweed. Check out any number of tweed shops in town, or head over to Magees of Donegal for bespoke tweed garments. If you’re looking for a cosy tearoom and lovely pastries or light meals, try the Blueberry Tearooms in the town centre.
The walled and gated medieval city of Tallinn, capital of Estonia, seems to be brimming with towering stone walls, medieval turrets, ancient houses, soaring church spires, and other the wonders within. One such secret gem is St Catherine’s Passage (or Alley or Walk), a narrow, buttressed alley blanketed with smooth cobblestones, tucked away in the city centre. Connecting Vene Street to Müürivahe Street, a place home to an ancient Dominican monastery (which today only remains in fragments of its original sprawling complex), this narrow passage then winds past the titular St Catherine’s Church. This 14th century church is reputed to be the largest medievalchurch in the Baltics, and is known for its remarkable acoustics. St Catherine’s Passage is also home to a number of grand Renaissance and 18th century homes, as well as artesianael workshops and beautiful medieval and gothic architectural works and quirks. Though at the end of the day St Catherine’s Passage is just an alleyway, it is surely one of the most beautiful alleys in all of Europe, and certainly worth a wander.
Pro tip: If you’re looking to do some photography of the old town centre, a morning visit might be best. Also, Estonia has some of the best food of all the Baltics – you’ll eat and drink well here! The Kompressor, home to massive pancakes, is just 5 minutes away. But the city if fulls of wonderful places to eat and drink.
Small and quaint, Bagnols is a firm member of the so-called ‘Golden Villages’ of the Beaujolais region in central France, just north of Lyon. While not an official member of the “Most Beautiful Villages in France” list, Bagnols is widely considered to be one of the Beaujolais’ loveliest little secret spots. Tucked well into the southern slopes of the Beaujolais, the village of Bagnols has ties to the middle ages and the Renaissance. The château (now a hotel) is 13th century, while the village church is 15th century. There’s even a Napoleonic statue from 1804. As with most villages and towns in the Beaujolais, wine-making and viticulture has been the prominent industry, and Bagnols is no exception. The golden-green hills surrounding the village are lined with vineyards and vines, and good (cheap) wine is easy to come by here, and throughout the Beaujolais and wider Rhône region. Though quarrying is no longer occurring here, once upon a time, there was a local quarry where the gorgeous golden stones you see in Bagnols came from, as well as other golden villages throughout this beautiful and over-looked region.
Protip: There are many good “sentiers” (ie waymarked trails) weaving throughout the Beaujolais for those who like hiking. There are many different Beaujolais wines – you may want to start your journey with a wine tasting – there are many vineyards that offer this, or find one in Villefranche the regional capital.
Find More Beaujolais
Oingt – Officially, a member of the “Most Beautiful Villages in France”
Remote barely begins to describe a place that can only be reached by a boat or a 5-hour hike over rough terrain (and don’t you be thinking there’s a trail either!). Lough Corrusk is a remote lake on the Isle of Skye. Wait, isn’t the Isle of Skye really famous? Yes, but most people only go to the same few places, and even within Scotland‘s most popular island there are plenty of hidden corners. Encircled by a looming ring of the jagged Black Cuillin Mountains (not to be confused with the rounder Red Cuillins), this quiet lake is the picture of Scotland’s rugged beauty. Spot deer lounging in the grass, and seals down on the rocks by the sea as birds flit and flutter above your head. Get your feet a bit mucky as you squish through the boggy terrain that clutches at the shores of the lake. If you plan your trip well and you’re prepared for hiking, you should be able to circuit the lake. If you’re less confident, just a hike along the shores and back is just as stunning!
Pro tip: Take the boat the Bella Jane to the lake. Or, if you want to hike there, you have the option of sleeping in bothies (a typically Scottish experience!). Keep your cameras out for seals – they are usually on the rocks just before the island – and deer, who sometimes hang around the dock area.
Our virtual travel today takes us to the centre of France, to the not-so-famous region of Auvergne. Despite it not being well-known outside of France, Auvergne has a lot to recommend it. Volcanic mountains, hearty dishes, amazing cheese, distinct churches, great hiking, and of course, plenty of castles, to name a few. One such castle is the Château de Ravel, whose foundations go back to at least 1171, commenced by Bernard de avel. In the 1280s, Ravel was actually owned and lived in by the King of France (Philippe the III), though his son gave away the castle to his the man who would be named chancellor of France. Like most castles, Ravel has gone through a series of alterations and face lifts, each changing with the styles of the times. Most of what we see here today is 13th century, along with a 17th century terrace and courtyard, which has an incredible view of Auvergne’s volcanic peaks, the Puys of the Massif Central. Inside, the rooms have been decorated in 17th and 18th century styles – and all without damaging the original Gothic structures and design elements.
Pro tip: The castle is privately owned but opened some days in the summer. The grounds are open to visitors year round. While here, you’ll definitely have to go for a hike up one of the peaks, such as the Puy de Dôme, Puy de Sancy or Puy de Côme!
Ireland is spilling over with ancient ruins, from the Neolithic through the Middle Ages to Georgian mansion and 20th century cottages. There are a lot of abbeys and friaries and priories in Ireland, and the majority of them are a lot like this one – in ruins. This we can blame on the terrible Englishman Oliver Cromwell whose horrid armies swept through Ireland in 1649 in order to “put those troublesome Irish back in their place” (I mean, how dare they ask for the right to rule themselves, speak their own language, or practice their own cultural traditions). He stomped through Ireland, burning and pillaging as he went. Even upon returning home, he left his son-in-law to continue his awful work. Ballindoon Abbey (also called Ballindoon Priory) is just one of many Irish abbeys to suffer at the fate of the disillusion of the abbeys. This gorgeous place rests quietly on the shores of Lough Arrow in Co Sligo. Built in the 14th century in the Gothic style, Ballindoon Abbey is small compared to some, but it is well preserved. It is has still been used in recent times as a gravesite. The tower overlooks the rest of the church, though there are stairs on the exterior, they are no longer usable. Ruined as it is, Ballindoon is a quiet place. Sitting on the pensive shores of a little-visited lake in a remote corner of Ireland, Ballindoon is picturersque, lonely and hauntingly beautiful. It is a testament to a long standing tradition and Ireland’s complicated relationship with both religion and England. Bring a camera, book and thermos of tea, and curl up here to escape from the world (likely met by the farmer’s cheerful black labrador pup!)
Pro tip: You’ll need a car, but Ballindoon Abbey is part of a supurb day trip from Sligo. Head over to Carrokeel tombs (5,000 years old!) for a 5km return hike to the tombs, then over to Lough Arrow to visit Ballindoon Abbey and up the hill behind Cromleach Lodge to visit Labby Rock. Hungry? On weekends, bounce over to Ballinafad Café (right next to the castle!) for a cosy community cafe for a cuppa and homemade treats, run 100% by volunteers in the community.
The Natural History Museum is one of London‘s preeminent and established museums. Founded using the collections of 17th/18th century collector Sir Hans Sloane, the Natural History Museum was originally part of the British Museum (though formally separated in 1963). It is home to five main sections or types of scientific collections: botany, minerals, zoology, entomology (ie bugs), and finally palaeontology over an impressive 80 million artefacts! The building itself was built later in the Victoriangothic and Romanesque styles in South Kensington, and was finished in 1880. With reminisces of European cathedrals, abbeys and palaces, the amazing Natural History Museum building is as much a wonder as its collections both inside and out (in fact, the architect freely admitted that his designs were inspired by his long travels throughout the European continent). As an interesting design quirk, the building uses architectural terracotta tiles (to resist the dirt and soot of Victorian London), many of with contain imprints of fossils, flora and fauna, reflecting the building’s use. It is an amazing place to visit and learn while in central London.
Pro tip: The museum is free, and normally open daily from 10-17h30. It’s usually busy, but the lack of entrance fee means no lines. We recommend starting at the top to come face to face with the gigantic blue whale, and making your way down from there. It’s also near the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Science Museum. Alight at Gloucester Road or South Kensington.
While travel isn’t possible right now, we’re continuing with our virtual explorations, this time a visit to northern France. Ireland probably contains the Neolithic era’s highest density of Neolithic monuments, but it’s not the only country with great prehistoric sites. Scotland and England are also home to quite a few Neolithic – and Prehistoric in general -era sites. The region of Brittany / Bretagne is another place of Celtic influence (as well as parts of Spain and Portugal), and Bretagne also home to quite a few of these ancient sites. What the region lacks in quantity, it makes up in quality. The Roche aux Fées – translating as the Rock of the Fairies – is one of the best-preserved ancient sites of this era. Comprising of 48 stones (9 of which are roof slabs) – the heaviest of which weighs 40-45 tonnes – the site is very complex. Like many sites we still see in Ireland (notably, mountaintop cairns), the original structure of the Roche aux Fées would have been covered with a mound of stones and earth. Stones used to build this 20 metre long gallery tomb would have been dragged here on a series of ropes, wheels and pulleys from the quarry site. Though its gallery form is not unique – there is a similar tomb at Lough Gur in Co Limerick, and others in rural Ireland such as in Co Mayo – the Roche aux Fées is certainly one of the best specimens of its type, and one of the largest. It is thought that it dates to 3,000-2,500BC, making it about 5,000 years old (and therefore older than the Pyramids of Giza)! Unlike in Ireland where such sites were built atop mountains or near bodies of water, the Roche aux Fées is located down a country lane in a quiet woodland. It is possible to go inside the tomb – the highest point is 4 metres, so you can stand up inside. As its name suggests, local legend claims that the Roche aux Fées was built by fairies (also common in Irish folklore) as a house or temple.
Pro tip: Generally, April and May are ideal months to travel in France – the weather is mild (generally just a light jacket needed), you’ll avoid peak season prices and there are few others travelling at this time. Watch out for May 1st (Labour Day) when most museums, castles etc are closed. The Roche aux Fées has free entry. Visitor centre open from June to August.
The world is a crazy place and not only is no one able to travel right now, but we’re all confined to our houses and small radiuses near our homes. So, join us on a virtual tour of Europe! Here, we start at the top of the hill overlooking Assisi, one of Italy‘s most famous towns, and the stunning facade, tower and dome of the marvellous Assisi Cathedral of San Rufino. Birthplace of famous Saint Francis, patron saint of Italy, animals and – wait for it – stowaways (pray to St Francis next time you’ve not validated your train ticket!), Assisi has had people living here since 450BC – the Etruscans – though there were possibly people in the general area since 100BC! The town as we see it today was largely developed in the Middle Ages, and further developed during the Renaissance. The Cathedral of San Rufino is old – dating to the 13th century. It’s fame comes as being the place where the famous St Francis of Assisi was baptised, as well as some of his disciples such as St Clare (Santa Chiara of Assisi). Built in the Umbrian Romanesque style, you’ll see many similarities with other contemporary Italian churches, as well as some churches in parts of Spain and the Adriatic Balkans such as Croatia (a country that has a long history with Italy). Churches have stood here since the 3rd century (when Rome converted to Christianity), but this San Rufino dates to 1140 to contain the relics of 3rd century martyr, Bishop Rufinus. St Francis actually preached at this church, and it was here that Santa Chiara (Clare) first heard his message. It was here in Assisi that St Francis founded the famous Franciscan religious order in 1208, and St. Clare founded the Poor Sisters, later known as the Order of Poor Clares.
Pro tip: Follow the narrow walking route through the zigzag of tiny back alleys up to the Rocca Maggiore for this amazing view. Though the quarantine and travel bans are currently in place, we hope you’ll be travelling to Europe as soon as it’s lifted!
Northern Spain is more than just Basque Country and the Santiago del Compostella. The small region of Cantabria isn’t the place most tourists want to go – or have even heard of. Compared to the rest of Spain, Cantabria’s weather is far more mild and its climate is temperate. The rains come more often, and the scenery is a lot more green (in fact, it is part of a region nicknamed “Green Spain”)! Cantabria is home to a beautiful coastline along the Bay of Biscay. It has a mountains – offshoots of the Pyrenees – cliffs, lakes, valleys and of course beaches, and therefore perfect for travellers who want to get outdoors. Besides its greenery and serenity, the small region of Cantabria is known for its ancient archeological sites from the Upper Palaeolithic era, including almost a dozen caves full of paintings, with the most famous is the Cave of Altamira known for their ancient cave paintings near the beautiful cobbled village of Santillana del Mar. In fact, these caves are actually protected by UNESCO! Cantabria may be small and off most people’s radar, but there is so much to do here. Rent kayaks to explore the hidden coves, head to places like the Faro de Caballo for some cliff diving, try ancient cider recipes in Santillana del Mar, get bikes and discover the winding country lanes, taste the world-famous anchovies of Santoña, summit mountains like the Pico Del Monte Buciero near Santoña – or any of the other of dozens of peaks!
Pro tip: This is the kind of place you want to be outdoors – make sure you bring lots of outdoor clothes and hiking boots! Do visit some of the wee villages like Santoña, Santillana del Mar, Isla and more.
Dun Carloway is a broch. A broch, you might ask? A broch is a Scottish style Iron Age fort, structures that and found unanimously in Scotland. These are double-walled forts with narrow stairs following the contour of the fort in between the two layers of walls. The entranceway is low and narrow – in order to go force the invading enemy to get down and crawl into the fort, while the defenders pick them off one by one. Brochs date from roughly 100 BC to 100 AD, with Dun Carloway dating to about 1st century AD. Compared to other brochs, Dun Carloway is actually well-preserved. Located on the west coast of the windswept Isle of Lewis, Dun Carolway’s near-inhospitable setting is hauntingly beautiful and beautifully lonely. Amazingly, this Iron Age structure was in use through the 1600s – it wasn’t until the late 1800s that we know the building had become a ruin. That means Dun Carloway had 1,600 years of use! Not many buildings can claim a century, let alone more than a millennium! By 1882, Dun Carloway had become one of the first protected Scottish monuments. Today, it is a very cool site to visit while on the Isle of Lewis.
Pro tip: Nearby, you can also visit the amazing Callanish Standing Stones. If you’re into hiking, we recommend the lovely walk from Dalmore to Garenin (home to an interesting Blackhouse village reconstruction) – roughly 5km but over uneven ground, hiking boots recommended.
“6,000 years of human life.” Stop and think about that for a second, and try to imagine that. 6,000 years. That’s older than the Pyramids of Giza. That’s long before the Romans – the Romans are practically modern compared to that! Same goes for the Greeks. The Middle Ages were practically last week compared to that! The Renaissance? The Reformation? Victorian times? The world wars. Yesterday. 6,000 years ago, Lough Gur was a-bustle with human life. Evidence of everything from the Neolithic era through the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Early Christian, Medieval, Early Modern and Modern eras has been found around Lough Gur. It is an area awash in mythology, and dotted with archeology – from ancient Neolithic times through to much more recent eras. For instance, the fortified towerhouse Bourchier’s Castle (closed to visits), is decidedly medieval, built by the now-extinct Earls of Bath. There are ringforts in the area, Neolithic tombs and even Ireland’s largest stone circle. Amazingly, Lough Gur is also home to one of the most amazing finds – a complete Bronze Age Yetholm-type shield. The county and city of Limerick, neither of which are likely on most people’s ‘must-visit’ list, has been making great strides to reinvigorate its streets and slightly-unsavoury reputation, and the county has plenty to offer – including the wonders of Lough Gur.
Pro tip: Visit the website for opening times. There is a copy of the sheild at the Lough Gur Heritage Centre (which is small, and includes a small fee); the original is on display at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin (free entry). This museum is well worth visiting even beyond the shield!
Though we haven’t actually been down there, we thought that this aerial display of some of the most dramatic glaciers on Earth deserved a shout. Greenland is the world’s largest island, and is located between Canada’s arctic archipelago and Northern Europe. It is physiographically part of North America, but politically and culturally part of Europe due to its longtime connection to Denmark (and before that, to Norway, thanks Vikings). Sparsely inhabited, the whole island is home to about 56,000 people (there are more people living in the rural Irish county of Sligo!) making it the least densely-populated territory in the world. Most inhabitants are ethnic Greenlandic Inuit and are scattered across 60 some settlements, all coastal, mostly on the southwest coast, with fishing as the predominant industry. The rather enormous ice sheet that covers the large island means that glaciers are fairly common – but common or not, they are very dramatic. Like Greenland itself, most fjords and glaciers of Greenland are very hard to get to, and very few actually occur close to a town or village (according to Visit Greenland, most visitors either drive to Kangerlussuaq, helicopter to Nuuk or Illulissat or hike down to Narsarsuaq, though it is apparently a strenuous hike). That is what makes flying over these fjords and glaciers so magical – Greenland’s glaciers are so remote that they are visible only to a few. Glaciers, one must remember, are rivers of ice, and though they look stable, they are constantly moving (just very slowly!), and they play an important role in the planet’s ecosystem.
Pro tip: Netflix documentary One Strange Rock explores the importance of glaciers and their planetary interconnected role with the salt fields and deserts of Africa, the Amazon forest of Brazil, the mountains of South America and microorganisms of the world’s oceans. Visiting Greenland and want to get out to see the glaciers? A guide is definitely necessary – the harsh conditions, lack of waymarked paths, delicate ecosystems and danger of treacherous crevasses and unstable pinnacles all mean that an experienced mountain guide is mandatory.
Historic, quaint and yet still lively, the wee village of Carrbridge is tucked into the Cairngorms, a massive mountain range and national park that encompasses much of the central Highlands. Though beautiful on its own, what really makes Carrbridge special is its bridge. Spanning the rushing currents of the River Dulnain, its name is a bit of a misnomer – it wasn’t built for cars, but instead for packhorses and foot traffic. The beautiful bridge of Carrbridge dates back to the early 18th century. Before the bridge was constructed, the villagers had no way to cross the river when it was flooded, meaning that the villagers could not get to the nearby Church of Duithil to bury their dead – and death waits for nothing, not even a flooded river. To solve this problem, the bridge was commissioned by Grant Clan chief Alexander Grant in 1717, and local mason John Niccelsone was dispatched to erect the bridge. The Old Packhouse Bridge of Carrbridge held for about a century, though flooding in throughout the late 1700s had a detrimental effect on it. The famous flood of 1829 left the bridge in its present state. Today, Carrbridge is an ideal spot for hikers, cyclists and adventurers to be based, as it is in the heart of the Cairngorms, it is connected to Inverness by train (less than 40 min journey) and it is a lovely wee spot, quieter than the more famed Aviemore, just one stop further down the rails!
Pro tip: Visit in October during the odd but intriguing Golden Spurtle Competition, an annual porridge making contest (yes, this is a real thing! And it’s the world championships…), or in September for the Carve Carrbridge chainsaw wood-carving event. Best access point is via Inverness. The Edinburgh train usually stops in Carrbridge, and there are a few simple but lovely B&Bs there, including the Craigellachie Guest House or the Cairn Hotel.
Bucharest is very much a continental capital, very different than, say, Split or Rome. Some have nicknamed it “Little Paris” or “Paris of the East” because is is full of stately architecture – grand boulevards, baroque domes, high windows, even somewhat Hausmannian style buildings. Though less pretty than many Transylvanian cites, Bucharest is full of fascinating history – perhaps the most bizarre is that of “the churches that moved” (more here) – a handful of churches that were uprooted and carefully transported by rail to outside the city centre so that the Communist leaders wouldn’t be able to see their spires from their new (ugly!) Stalinist architecture (the only real exception being the massive Palace of Parliament). Speaking of beauty, you only have to step foot inside the Cărturești Carusel Bookstore to fall in love. This beautiful storied building regularly tops list of Europe’s most beautiful bookshops! Built in 1903 by Greek bankers, such a thing of beauty (and money) could not evade the communists, and the building was confiscated during the 50s, and later, like much of Communist leftovers, was abandoned to decay on its own. So how was it saved? Well, a very determined grandson of the original owners spent two dozen years – yes that’s 24 years! – arguing that he is the rightful owner before it was returned to him in 2007, and the bookshop was born. Several stories with layered and undulating balconies, spiral stairs, grand staircases, huge windows, and beautiful white bookshelves, it’s not hard to see why it’s so lovely. It rather makes sense that the bookshop’s name means Carousel of Light.
Pro tip: Their English-language section is not massive, but it’s better than most. Prices though are very high, and sadly there aren’t too many Romanian authors translated to English. For bookworms, it’s better for browsing than buying!
Saint-Gervais-les-Bains is the posh cousin of the even more posh ski resort of Chamonix. In winter, both Saint Gervais and Chamonix – and countless other Alpine towns – turn into a winter wonderland, welcoming skiers from all over the world (but usually the poshest parts of the world in the case of Chamonix and Saint Gervais. Less posh visitors might go instead to Grenoble or Annecy). The summer season, on the other hand, is quite different. During summer, the Alps become less… well, posh. People arrive with muddy hiking boots, trekking poles, and well-worn backpacks, ready to get out into the wild. Places like Saint-Gervais-les-Bains become fantastic jumping off points for hiking in the Alps, the perfect combination between comfort and rustic mountain rustic charm. The trails are limitless, and there’s plenty for every level. Whether you prefer challenging mountain hikes, gentle countryside ambles, or something in between, it’s certain you’ll find it in the Alps. We recommend hiring a local guide for a day to show off the best trails best suited to your level – or at the very least, consulting the local tourism office. And by evening, settle in to the cosy warmth of the town with a well-earned cold beer and steaming pizza!
Pro tip: Be sure to try some of the local Savoyard pizzas – the proximity to Italy makes them utterly delicious. Also, be sure to try other dishes like tartiflette, raclette or fondu – all dishes made with local cheese.
Nestled in the heart of the Cotswolds is the little Wiltshire town called Bradford-on-Avon. Though tracing its origins back to the Roman era like its nearby sibling Bath, Bradford really exploded in the late middle ages due to the woollen textile industry. This legacy has left several of its original buildings such as the marvellously quaint pub, The Bridge, founded in 1502. In Bradford-on-Avon, you’ll also find thatched roofs, picture-perfect churches, historic tithe barns, and grand Georgian streets (much like in Bath). This fairy-town town happily overlooks the Avon River and the Kennet and Avon Canal. Once used to transport goods across the country, the canal lost its significance with the growth of railways, but Bradford was genius enough to restore to the lock and canal to working order by the ’80s, providing a link to Bath (via the Avon) in the west, and the Thames at Reading in the east. Home to a pretty little path running alongside the canal, this is a wonderful place for a walk, bike or run on those few but appreciated sunny mornings.
Pro tip: If you’re a runner, Bradford’s canal is surely one of the best places in the world to go for a run! Try running along the canal from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon (or vice versa); it’s about 10 miles and the views of the canal, houseboats, swans, countryside and wee houses are stunning. Then, take the train back to your starting point.
Though happily hard to tell in the photo, the Aviemore Stone Circle is today actually in the middle of a modern housing estate, built up around this ancient site. Prehistoric stone circles are fairly common in Scotland and Ireland but despite how many of them remain, experts still don’t really know why ancient cultures built them or much about these people. Built by ancient peoples during the Neolithic era, the oldest stone circles are as much as 5,000 years old. The Aviemore Stone Circle, comprised of stones far smaller than the stones of more famous exemplars like the Ring of Brodgar or Callanish Stones (or Stonehenge down in England), can be dated as far back as 2,400 BC. The ancient people did not have a system of writing (at least, not that we know of), and other than their megalithic monuments, many of their artefacts were made of easily decomposable materials, so much of their culture is lost to us. But we do know that these Neolithic cultures, found in what are considered in modern times as the Celtic regions, built hundreds – thousands – of great ancient monuments of stone. We also know that they had complicated rituals, and that astrology was important to them. Today, the best Neolithic-era sites are found in Celtic places like Ireland, Scotland, England and Brittany.
Pro tip: Aviemore Stone Circle is in a housing estate a short walk from Aviemore Train Station. For the best Neolithic ruins in Scotland, head to the Orkney Isles (home of Skara Brae) or over to the Isle of Harris. Outside of Scotland, Ireland holds a treasure trove – head out for a walk in the fields of the woods and you’ll practically be stumbling over them.
Church (Chiesa) di San Giorgio in Braida, Verona, Italy
As is typical of Italy, the Italian city of Verona is simply full of churches – the Chiesa di San Giorgio is just one such church. More than the others though, the Chiesa di San Giorgio’s location along the River X makes it all the more stunning, helped along by its beautiful Baroque dome. The San Giorgio in Braida Church was built in the 16th century in a medieval part of the city just along the riverbank, a stunning addition to the orange-tiled roofs and narrow alleys that make up the rest of Verona. On the opposite riverbank are the Roman ruins – there is the remains of an old amphitheatre here. Though large, it is far from the best preserved example, though still interesting to see. The city of Verona is probably best known for its Shakespearean connection – though ironically the play with the city name in the title – The Two Gentlemen of Verona – isn’t the one that will come to most minds. No, what Verona is most remembered for as home to Romeo and Juliet – and there is even a balcony that is supposedly the Juliet balcony in the Casa di Guillietta or Juliet’s house. All in all, Verona is a quiet and lovely place, a true Italian city. Not too far from Venice but with far fewer crowds, it is a welcome respite from the popularity and business of other Italian cities – without sacrificing the charm!
Pro tip: Apparently it’s good luck to touch the statue of Juliet at Casa di Guillietta, but it’s a bit of an odd tradition and no point waiting for a break in the crowds to do so. Though different, Verona can be a nice alternative to Venice (or at the very least, a nice breather after the crowds of the archipelago!).
Dubrovnik is one of those places that somehow just doesn’t seem quite real. Is it a fairy tale? A place in Game of Thrones (which used it as a filming location) or Lord of the Rings? But no, Dubrovnik is the thriving southmost city of Croatia, an orange-tiled marbled marvel clinging to the shores of the very turquoise Mediterranean Sea. Vibrant, busy and loud, the narrow streets of this small but beloved city vibrate with life. But from here, beyond the ancient streets, beyond the beaches, up above the peninsula of dusty hills framed with of lush greenery, we have the very best view of this beautiful place. Croatia is a place of rapid change, a place where time most certainly does not stand still. As the EU’s most recent member, it is a place where past meets future.
Pro Tip: Unless you’re looking for a typical beach holiday, visit Croatia in the off season to avoid the busiest of tourists.
Would you believe this “temple” actually dates to only the 18th century and is located in Northern Ireland? Strangely enough, that’s the truth. One would call it a folly (i.e. a fake building built to look like something much older). Mussenden Temple was built by Lord Bristol in 1785. The estate was originally that of Frederick, the 4th Earl of Bristol (yes, Bristol, England…he’s far from home! Sadly this happened often – English “heroes” were given stolen Irish land), who was the Church of Ireland (e.g. Protestant) Bishop of Derry for 35 years in the late 1700s. Lord Bristol modelled his temple on the Roman Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum, though despite appearances, Mussenden Temple’s original purpose was a library. Located on the estate of Downhill Demense (now a sprawling ruin), the temple is precariously perched atop a cliff overlooking the lovely Downhill Strand. Though the temple itself did not appear in the infamous TV show Game of Thrones, the site was used as a backdrop for some scenes – in particular, Downhill Strand’s beach was one such site used. Nothing is left of the house but a shell, and though the temple fares slightly better, it is no longer a library. Coastal erosion is bringing the temple ever closer to the edge and though solutions are being looked at to keep the temple from tumbling down to the sea, you may want to visit sooner rather than later…
Pro tip: You can actually get married at this temple…imagine that! Also note that dog lovers can bring their pups with them when visiting Downhill Demense and Mussendun Temple. There are also lovely gardens on far side of the estate. Nearby, don’t miss the world-famous Giant’s Causeway or Bushmill’s Distillery, Ireland’s oldest.