Peñíscola, Spain

View of Peniscola, Spain

Peñíscola, Spain

Spring is just around the corner -and also happens to be the perfect season in Spain! The sun isn’t too overbearing; the air isn’t too hot and sticky. The crowds are less thick than in summer. Cafe terraces are still peaceful, waitresses still patient, beaches still quiet. Peñíscola is the perfect place to spend a spring day. The narrow, winding streets of the old town are full of hole-in-the-wall cafes, restaurants and shops. The oceanside breeze is refreshing – perfect for taking a stroll. The white-washed walls of the city are delicate and calming. The locals happily chat in the street and overhead across the balconies. As you climb, terraces criss-cross, affording great views of the town and the nearby beach. Stop for an afternoon spritzer or glass of wine before continuing on to the castle, where the views across Peñíscola are the best! Orange clay roofs, white walls and blue waves pepper the quilted landscape below the castle walls. In the city below your feet, there is the hum of life but up here, there’s nothing but fresh air and the cries of seagulls. As the afternoon sun bathes you in warm life, you lean against the ancient stone wall of Peñíscola’s fortress and let your mind wander. There’s nothing like spending a spring day atop a castle in a small Spanish town!

Strasbourg, France

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Petite France, Strasbourg, France

The origin of the name la Petite France, has a less-than-lovely origin – it comes from the Hospice des Vérolés (House for the syphilitic) which during the German occupation was called Franzosenkrankheit (French disease). While the name’s origins may not be charming, the alleyways, canals and houses most certainly are charming! Alsace, the region of France where Strasbourg is located, has a complicated history, flashing back and forth between France and Germany for much of it’s past. In the Middle Ages, la Petite France was the economic centre of the city, and Strasbourg as the region’s most important city. La Petite France once comprised of many merchants, millers, tanners, fishermen and other tradesmen and artisans. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, la Petite France (‘little France’) seduces history, culture and architecture buffs with its quintessential streets, half-timbered architecture, colourful houses, quiet riverbank, and charming shops. At Christmastime, the Strasbourg Christmas Market is one of the most famous in Europe and is generally agreed upon to be the best Christmas market in France. Hot wine, sausages, and sauerkraut are local favourites – especially when the weather turns cold! The impressive Strasbourg Cathedral was the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874 (so, for 227 years!), and today, it remains the 6th-tallest church in the world. It is the sandstone from nearby Vosges that gives the cathedral its unique pinkish hue.

Balazuc, Ardeche, France

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Sunset over Balazuc in the Ardèche region, France

Sunset cascades over the little medieval village tucked into the heart of the Gorges de l’Ardèche, nicknamed by the locals the ‘European Grand Canyon.’ The 30-km long canyon runs from the tourist hotspot Vallon-Pont-d’Arc to the less-well-known Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche. The village of Balazuc is listed on the ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France‘ (along with Pérouges and St Guilhiem-le-Désert) – as it should be. The village hugs the edge of the steep hill as narrow medieval alleyways weave and climb the hill’s slope from the shores of Ardèche River up to Balazuc’s castle. Cobblestone alleys meander through ancient dwellings, passing through echoing tunnels, climbing up uneven staircases. Well-worn steps lead up to the top of some of Balazuc’s buildings, affording breathtaking views over the clay roofs, the Ardèche River, and the Gorges themselves. In Balazuc, it’s easy to peel away the centuries to another era – all the while enjoying the creature comforts of our own!

Mt Schiehallion, Scottish Highlands

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Mt Schiehallion & Loch Rannoch in the Scottish Highlands

Rugged, rural, isolated, windswept, adventurous. Welcome to the colourful quietness of the Scottish Highlands. Scotland may have some great urban destinations – Edinburgh, Aberdeen, St Andrews to name a few – but this little nation is best personified and identified by its natural facade. The least-dense part of the British Isles (it has a population density of 68 people/km2), Scotland is positively bursting with places to explore wearing a solid pair of boots and a sturdy walking stick – the Hebrides, Orkney Island, the Isle of Skye, Cairgorms National Park, the NW Highlands, to name but a few vast regions. Many places are only accessible on foot (case in point: the rugged Knoydart Peninsula…). Mt Schiehallion, rising above the shores of Loch Rannoch, makes for a spectacular climb with sweeping views over the surrounding countryside. Driving may be a more comfortable way to get around, but by using your own two feet, you’ll discover amazing places you would have missed when whizzing by in a car; you’ll meet local people and perhaps learn a thing or two about the Highlands’ history or culture; you’ll slow down your speed to appreciate being in the moment. But most importantly, by hiking through the Highlands, you’ll experience them the way you were meant to – creating  profound connection between you and the land itself.

Innsbruck, Austria

Elegant street in Innsbruck, Austria

Innsbruck, Austria

Stately elegance, the central streets of the Austrian Capital of the Alps beckons both cultural and nature travellers. Despite the city’s terrifyingly clever name – ‘Innsbruck’ translates to the self-explanatory ‘Inn Bridge’ (referring to the Inn River) – today’s city is an internationally renowned winter sports centre, attracting hikers, cyclists, skiers and other athletically-motivated travellers from all over the world. Case in point, Innsbruck hosted the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics, not to mention the 1984 and 1988 Winter Paralympics, making one of only three destinations to host the Winter Olympics more than once. Innsbruck owes much of its cultural significance to the fact that in 1429, it began the capital of Tyrol and thereby assigning a political and cultural importance to the alpine city for centuries to come. We have Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria and his successors to thank for the beautiful Renaissance buildings gracing today’s city centre, making a stroll feel both elegant and nostalgic. Today, Innsbruck remains a European pillar – a beautiful central European city (interestingly enough, one that resembles the not-t00-far-away Croatian capital Zagreb just a little) that just so happens to be on the doorsteps of the Alps and Italian Dolomites making it a perfect starting point for anyone looking for adventure.

Vineyard of Robert Sauzay, Beaujolais, France

Vineyard in Beaujolais, France

Vineyard of Robert Sauzay, Salles-Arbuissonas-en-Beaujolais, France

Wine has always been an important part of French culture, and French wine has always been an important part of the wine industry. Dating back to 6th century with the colonisation of southern Gaul (notably, Marseille), viticulture took hold in France, who made the act of wine production an art, integrating it deeply into their culture. Many grapes you’ve heard of (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Sauvignon blanc, Syrah, etc.) have their roots (literally!) in France – because the ancient Gauls practised a new technique allowing them to increase production: they pruned their vines. Since then, various groups preserved the art of wine-making: the Romans, medieval monks, the French nobility. Today, France is still a top wine producer.Here, wines are identified by the vineyard, chateau, manor, village, monastery, etc. where the alcohol is produced (not by the grape itself). This is known as the ‘terroir’ (linking wines to production location – exe. see Tain l’Hermitage). The AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) system controls which grapes and wine-making practices can be attached to which geographical locations. Wine still plays an important role in today’s France – it’s consumed during special occasions but is also a household object. It is a gift to be offered to a new colleague or to one retiring, it is a housewarming present, a Christmas gift, a drink to be consumed with friends. Wine bars are popular, and wine in France is considerably cheaper than elsewhere (a decent bottle costs from €3-10; mid-range wine ranges from €10-25; anything over €25 is considered an expensive bottle). The Beaujolais is a popular wine region near Lyon, with hundreds of vineyards covering the area – whether you decide to hike through the vines, cycle by on two wheels, organise a wine-tasting tour (most vineyards offer this via rendez-vous, like the Sauzay Vineyard above), or even become a grape picker during the famous September harvest, experiencing both the wine and the vineyard is a great way to connect to French culture.

 

Danish Sugar Factory, Copenhagen, Denmark

Danish Sugar Factory, Copenhagen, Denmark

Danske Sukkerfabrikker Factory, Copenhagen, Denmark

Red clay brick walls line the Port of Copenhagen and the Inner Harbour in Denmark’s infamous Christianshavn district. Now abandoned, this industrial revolution-aged building was once part of De Danske Sukkerfabrikker, later Danisco Sugar and now Nordic Sugar, founded in 1989. Originally nothing more than an extension of Copenhagen’s fortifications, it quickly gained a nautical and working class reputation. Christiania, a neighbourhood within the greater borough of Christianshavn, is perhaps the most well-known part of Christianshavn. Known since the 1970’s the place to get cannabis, Christiania garnered a fantastic Bohemian reputation that it still holds today. It is considered probably the liveliest, most fashionable and interesting part of town to live in, and the residents often identify themselves first as from Christiania, then from Copenhagen, instead of the other way around. As Christianshavn was once part of the port, the neighbourhood is still heavily influenced by this purpose, and buildings such as this sugar factory are not uncommon, though as Copenhagen’s housing demands increase, and the Danish capital slowly gains more international interest and economic significance, the city has reached into its folds for additional housing, and places like Christianshavn are being developed. Christiania, occupying the site of former military barracks and a self-proclaimed ‘autonomous neighbourhood,’ has always been a site of unrest, even skirmishes. Yet, this only seems to make it one of Copenhagen’s most intriguing and exciting places to be!

Gran Madre di Dio Church, Torino, Italy

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Gran Madre di Dio Church, Torino, Italy from the Po River, Torino, Italy

Even if you haven’t yet been to Torino (if this is the case, you really should go…), you may have already beheld the Gran Madre di Dio Church if you’ve seen the 1969 classic film, The Italian Job, which tells the story of a high-stakes theft in Torino. Commissioned and built to celebrate King Vittorio Emanuele I’s return to power in 1814 following the defeat of Napoleon, the Gran Madre is a breathtaking purveyor of the briefly-popular Neoclassic style. Though perhaps exaggerated in the film, Torino is sometimes noted as the ‘cradle of Italian liberty’: it was capital of the wealthy House of Savoy (eastern France and Northwestern Italy) since 1563 as well as becoming the finally-unified Italy’s first capital in 1861. Though much of its wealth and importance (both political and economic) dissipated after WWII, Torino rests Italy’s third city – with a GDP of $58 billion, it is ranked the world’s 78th richest city (based on purchasing power)… not too shabby, eh? Not to be forgotten, the impressive neoclassic Gran Madre perched on the banks of the River Po is hardly the only piece of beautiful architecture or style in town –  Torino is also home to splendid examples of Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, and Art nouveau exemplars. It sports elegant and extraordinary parks, castles, palaces/palazzi, public squares, boulevards, and apartments, many of which were erected in the Golden Age of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.Torino is a city drunk on elegance and beauty, a city that is both down-to-earth yet financially capable (that is to say, the city is indeed a wealthy one, in both looks and in vaults), and it is a city that holds true to her long heritage as a place of prestige.

 

Vilnius, Lithuania

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Vilnius, Lithuania

The crisp, cool air flows through the ancient alleyways of Vilnius on this winter’s day in this little Baltic nation. Little streets criss-cross Lithuania’s capital city, creating a maze of quiet streets largely ignored by the jet-setting tourists partying in the centre. This elderly gentleman walks his dog along the outside of the ancient stone wall that once surrounded and protected Vilnius from the outside world, the narrow track between the wall and the row of houses serving as a quiet pedestrian route. Despite being Lithuania’s largest city – and the Baltic State’s second-largest city – once you leave the bustling centre to weave the winding network of streets, alleys, and rivers (the broad Neris and the easy-going Vilnia both flow through the capital), Vilnius adopts a surprisingly small-town feel. Charming facades, orthodox churches painted in pastels, quiet riverside promenades and echoing cobblestone alleys are frequented largely by locals, creating a calm but cheerful atmosphere that mixes small-town ease with the vivacity of a European capital – a mix that is hard to find in most of Europe’s capitals and major cities.

Castillo Xàtiva, La Costera region, Spain

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Castillo Xàtiva and the La Costera region, Spain

Spicy yellows and greens flood the rugged slopes of Monte Vernissa in  warm, afternoon sunlight, just outside the town of Xàtiva (Játiva in Spanish). During the Al-Andalus, the Arab conquerers turned the city into a paper manufacturing centre. The introduction of this technology brought prosperity, leading to the creation of high-quality schools and educational institutes with the castle arriving in the 11th century. Due to a terrible siege orchestrated by Philip V of Spain (punishment for Xàtiva’s resistance to his claim to power) that led to the town’s destruction, to this day Philip’s portrait hangs upside-down in the local museum. History aside, the La Costera region envelops the scraggy, weather-beat valley steppes of Montesa and Xàtiva, bordered by the Enguera and Grossa Mountains in the south. Xàtiva and its fortified castle remain the heart of the region. La Costera is a region beautiful for both its cultural and natural riches, and well worth the trek into its dry valleys. Though perhaps past its golden age in terms of affluence, Xàtiva remains a place of intense beauty and intrigue, and gold is still the best way to describe the city’s surrounding sea of sunburnt landscapes gently reminiscent of the American Wild West.

Happy New Year, folks!

 

Fantoft Stave Church, Norway

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Fantoft Stave Church near Bergen, Norway

6/6/1993 – darkness falls as the flames begin to lick the walls, the floors, the tower as the dark wood turns to ash. Built in 1150 in the magnificent Sognefjord, the Fantoft Stave Church was carried piece by piece to its current site near Bergen by a kind soul named Fredrik Georg Gade 1883 to save it from demolition. 100 years later, it was burned to the ground. What happened? In short, Norwegian Black Metal happened. A genre unfortunately synonymous with church burnings, this beautiful piece of history was lit afire by Varg Vikernes from the one-man-band, Burzum, who, in poor taste, later used a photo of the church’s burnt shell for his ‘Aske’ (Ashes) album. Convicted of 4 acts of arson (and other crimes), Varg is locked safely behind bars, though he apparently has ‘fans’ who applaud his crimes. Destroyed or not however, the Norwegians, much like the Poles after WWII, refused to give in, and instead painstakingly reconstructed the building to its original state. Today, the beautiful Fantoft Stave Church sails into its forest landing in all its original glory, one of the last remaining stave churches (many of which are UNESCO sites), or medieval wooden churches whose name comes from the pinewood support posts (stav in Norwegian). Fantoft has been through a lot, but for now, it rests in tranquility in the whispering woods below Bergen.

 

Svenska Gustafskyrkan Church, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Svenska Gustafskyrkan Church, Copenhagen, Denmark

In English: the Swedish Church. In Denmark. Located on the moat banks of the Kastellet, a 17th century star fortress adjoined to the city walls tasked with the protection of Copenhagen. What’s a Swedish church doing there? To understand, we must first look to the church’s history. Denmark and Sweden share many things, including a similarly harsh climate, the Øresund and the Baltic Sea, and even almost a common language (they are close enough for speakers of each language to understand the other). They also seem to share a similar attitude on life: live and let live. Despite a troubled past, the two nations, along with the rest of their Scandinavian sisters, all seem to get along and just live – a marvellous notion that we could all take a page from. Well enough preaching – and back to Svenska Gustaf. The story starts with a Swedish pastor called Nils Widner who went to Copenhagen to educate Swedish sailors living there, but was soon swept into the world of Swedish expats. As his circle grew, Nils realised they would need a church to provide for the growing congregation. In an action of solidarity, his loyal followers agreed to donate 10 øre a week (mere pennies, but dedication counts!) until the church was completed, which ended up being in 1911. The Danish, bless them, provided Pastor Nils with a lovely site along the northern side of the Kastellet, a beautiful island fortress (a stone’s throw away from the St Alban’s, a 19th-century English church, erected for similar reasons 25 years before). A Swedish architect designed Svenska Gustaf, and a Danish architect supervised the construction. Danish and Swedish royalty alike attended the opening ceremony. Everyone got along, everyone worked together, everyone was happy. But then again, what more do you expect from Danes and Swedes, eh?

Christmas market in Prague, Czech Republic

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Market Square, Prague, Czech Republic

Christmas markets have been under attack lately, unfortunately quite literally. Besides the obvious sadness surrounding this, the changing dynamics of Christmas markets (i.e., the need to secure them as if they are war zones), is a sad notion. These markets are an old – in fact, very old – tradition through much of Europe. Beginning their tale in medieval times in the Germanic regions of central Europe, the first markets were held in the 14th and 15th centuries in order to officially ‘initiate’ the Christmas season (or the ‘Advent’). They are meant to be places of merriment – food, drink, music and dancing are common elements – as well as places of economy – merchants and artisans peddle their goods to Christmas shoppers – and, in a historical sense, a place of religion with Nativity scenes and theatrical productions from the Bible, though this element has fallen from popularity in modern Europe. The most famous Christmas markets are still often found in the Germanic part of Europe, such as Dresden, Vienna, Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Dortmund, Cologne and of course Prague, though this tradition has spread to nearly every major and many minor cities in Europe. From Lincoln, England to Sibhiu, Romania, from Lyon, France to Tallinn, Estonia, Europe’s main squares have been dotted, lined and filled with stalls of all shapes and sizes, peddling artisanal goods such as jewellery, clothing, soaps, food, chocolate, wood carvings, paintings, perfumes, knives, dolls, toys, puzzles, figurines, sausages, blankets, tea leaves, scarves, Christmas ornaments, and pretty much anything else one can think of to Christmas shoppers of all kinds. They are a place associated with joy, the gift of giving, and the Christmas spirit, and are a long-lasting tradition throughout Europe. Let’s hope they stay that way…

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Berlin Wall, Germany

Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany, East Side Gallery

Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

In solidarity with the Germans after last night’s attack, I present you with a piece of the Berlin Wall, an item that, while in the beginning represented intolerance, fear and division, today represents love, hope, and tolerance. The East Side Gallery, as mentioned before, is the largest open-air art gallery in the world, and the pieces that remain are there to make sure that we never forget or make the same mistakes again. While this world is unfortunately becoming smaller, more exclusive and more prejudiced, there is still hope that the vision that inspired the East Side Gallery and other similar works of art in Germany and throughout the world, will continue to spread their message. Tourism only works if people are willing to understand and learn about other cultures and traditions. In an ideal world, this would mean letting the best traits from cultures influence each other, and eliminating the worst, least-tolerant traits. As the Wall suggests, dividing each other – whether by a physical barrier or by a cultural one – is an answer doomed to fail. Instead, the Berlin Wall suggests that understanding, hope and acceptance is the way to move forward in this modern era, for both tourism and all other manners of international interactions.

Sacra di San Michele, Sant’Ambrogio, Italy

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Monastery of Sacra di San Michele above Sant’Ambrogio, Italy

Imagine foreboding, nebulous labyrinths forming the veins of an ancient stone bibliotheca in the heart of a mountaintop monastery perched deep in the Italian Alps. While the labyrinth itself may exist not in stone but simply on the pages of a famed Italian text, the monastery seemingly holds dark secrets and a forgotten past. The inspiration for the epic tale of ancient mystery, The Name of the Rose, written by none other then the famed Umberto Eco (RIP), the Sacra di San Michele is a silent beauty lost in the snowy woods of the Val de Susa. Looming over the hushed, 11th-century alpine village of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino, the Sacra is best reached on foot, ascending Mount Pirchiriano via the ancient mule track worn smooth by centuries of millions of pilgrims who have come this way to pay homage to this sacred site of mystery and religion. Benedictine for most of its history, Sacra di San Michele is now managed by the Rosminians, though its mountaintop perch has been home to humans since Roman times when the site lay upon the road from Rome to Gaul. Difficult to pinpoint the monastery’s exact origins, a monk called William (not the one in The Name of the Rose!) claims the Sacra was founded in 966 (though he also claims it to be founding during the time of the pontificate Sylvester II who ruled some 50 years later). On the other hand, tradition states that it was built by St. Giovanni Vincenzo the hermit, who was simply following the commands of the archangel Michael (and consequently, the stones used somehow miracle-d themselves to the top of Mount Pirchiriano). No matter who laid the first stone, the Sacra is a long-lost stone beauty, which gave backdrop to Umberto Eco’s magnificent, foreboding tale of intrigue.

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Gutenberg Castle, Balzers, Liechtenstein

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Gutenberg Castle, Balzers, Liechtenstein

Bigger is not always better. In fact, some of the littlest places hold the most charm. Sometimes, these ‘tiny places’ can even be countries! Many of these dwarf nations, like Luxembourg, Monaco, Andorra, San Marino, the Vatican and Liechtenstein are located in Europe, and are vestiges of a time when the continent was far more divided, each bit of earth ruled by a local lord who was in turn ruled by a king – who was often connected to local and faraway kingdoms through royal marriages and court appointments. Liechtenstein is one of these tiny nations. Nestled deep in the Alps between Switzerland and Austria, the nation’s total population is a mere 37,000 with an area of 160km² – far smaller than the surface of other well-known ‘tiny’ places such as Corsica [8,680km²], Rhode Island [3,140km²], and Ibiza [571 km²]. Yet despite its small size, Liechtenstein has some amazing characteristics, including Gutenberg Castle in Balzers. Starting its life as a 12th century medieval church, it was slowly fortified throughout the Middle Ages, with the addition of a wall, keep, towers, gate and merlons by the lords of Frauenberg, a noble house hailing from the Swiss canton, Graubünden – only to fall into the greedy hands of the house of Hapsburg in 1314. Surviving wars, sieges, fires, and the like, the castle was inhabited until 1750 before falling into disrepair, and saved in the 20th century by the Principality of Liechtenstein as a monument of local history, culture, tradition, and architecture. Sitting pretty on a backdrop of rolling green hills and overlooking a meadow filled with jolly little houses and patches of wildflowers, the dramatic and fierce Gutenberg Castle is a prominent symbol of this proud but often overlooked tiny European country.

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Château de la Batisse, Auvergne, France

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Château de la Batisse in the Vallée de l’Auzon, Auvergne, France

Once upon a time long ago in a kingdom far away, there lived a fierce lord called Gérard d’Aultier. He lived in a beautiful castle in the charming, sunlit valley known by those who lived there as the Vallée de l’Auzon, a place often passed through by pilgrims following the St James Way (part of Santiago del Compostela). Sadly, the lord had no sons to inherit his magical castle, and so it was passed on to another powerful local family, La Volpillière, who added turrets and towers and other adornments, until they, too, had no male heir. Due to legal quarrels, the chateau lay dormant, slowing becoming derelict, until being bought by a local enterprising man, repairing the castle to its former glory before reselling it. The new owner of Château de la Batisse was Jean Girard, the Secretary of the King, and his newfound seat of power allowed him the prestigious name-change, Girard de Chasteauneuf. A tangled family web handed the château from one heir to the next, finally arriving in the hands of its present owners, the respected family, Arnoux of Maison Rouge from Riom, who lovingly care for the aged yet enchanted building. Defended as much by its defensive walls, thick towers, arrow slits, and keep as by concerned parties such as Monuments Historiques, and La Demeure Historique, Château de la Batisse is also preserved via the prestige, respect and loyalty it inspires in the region’s inhabitants. Nestled into its enchanted woodland valley in the heart of Auvergne, on the cusp of the charming village Chanonat, and under the watchful eyes of the burg Saint-Amant-Tallende, it is safe to say that the fairytale Château de la Batisse is living its happily ever after.

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Rynek of Wrocław, Poland

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Rynek of Wrocław, Poland

The most magical part of the day is sunrise. Some will argue that it is actually sunset, and while a sunset is beautiful in itself, sunrises often exude more beauty simply because, like a leprechaun, they are so rarely seen. If you can rouse yourself from bed at least once while travelling – or if you are required to due to an early bus/train/plane departure – take a few minutes to appreciate the soft, glowing light at the start of another day. The best way to do that is to find a place where you can sit down and enjoy the rising sun – a hilltop, your balcony, a local lake or river, a charming cafe, or in this case the market square. Settle down with a steaming cup o’ joe and a tasty local breakfast as you watch the world come to life. In Wrocław, enjoy the stunning colours, silent air, soft light and intricate facades of the spacious rynek (main square) before the day’s crowds begin to fill the plaza. One of Poland’s most spectacular cities, Wroclaw does not lack for attractions – aside from the rynek, visit pretty Ostrow Tumski or Cathedral Island, the adorable gnome statues scattered around the city, the stunning circular Racławice Panorama (a 19th century panoramic depiction of the Kościuszko Uprising, miraculously hidden and saved during WWII), the massive pile of stone that is Centennial Hall (a UNESCO site), and any one of the number of snazzy restaurants and bars in the city centre, many of them inspired by the dense student population. As an added bonus, as the year draws to a close, it’s your last chance to visit Wrocław while it is an official 2016 European Capital of Culture (which is not to say that a 2017 visit won’t be just as amazing…). While seeing Wrocław at sunrise is enchanting, the city will continue to enchant you all day long!

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UFO Taste Restaurant, Bratislava, Slovakia

UFO Taste Restaurant over Danuage River in old town of Bratislava, Slovakia

UFO Taste Restaurant, Bratislava, Slovakia 

Is that…a UFO? Little green men? Is the alien invasion hinted at in the X-Files coming true? No…no…and still no. Though bearing an interesting semblance to a flying saucer, this strange structure is the man-made UFO Taste Restaurant, hovering 85m above Bratislava and the beautiful Danube River, where you can gouge on unique Mediterrasian food and sip colorful cocktails while appreciating how tiny the snow-covered buildings, cars and people look far below your table. The restaurant’s immense windows let you appreciate how beautiful the city looks bathed in fog on the chilly winter’s day. Little-known and little-visited Slovakia  with its capital Bratislava may have their setbacks (it’s a small city and a small country, and not always as elegantly magical as nearby Budapest, Prague or Vienna), but there is no doubt that this a proud nation working to recover after so many challenges facing this part of Europe in the last few decades. Unique quirks such as this UFO restaurant, city centre statues like Cumil, arresting graffiti and restaurants that mix tradition with newness are slowly turning this hidden European capital into a shining gem.

Loch Rannoch & Mt. Schiehallion (Scottish Highlands), Scotland

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Loch Rannoch and Mount Schiehallion (Scottish Highlands), Scotland 

There are some places that make you sigh happily with their perfection, tranquility, magnificence – and the Scottish Highlands certainly qualify. Narrow lakes like Loch Rannoch dot the rugged, picturesque landscape – and while overshadowed by their famous sister Loch Ness, these lochs are no less impressive (and with the added bonus of no monster lurking under their waves!). In fact, it is Rannoch’s isolation that makes it so special and authentic. Framed by the spectacular (though perhaps unpronounceable) Mount Schiehallion, this amazing corner of the Highlands definitely qualifies as paradise. Roughly translating to the “Fairy Hill of the Caledonians” (Iron Age and Roman era peoples from Scotland), Mount Schiehallion is as mysterious as it is beautiful. Sometimes described as the ‘centre of Scotland,’ there’s no doubt that Mt Schiehallion holds a magical pull to it. As eccentricities go, Schiehallion was the setting of a strange experiment to ‘estimate the mass of the Earth’ in 1774 by the interestingly-named Charles Mason (not what you’re thinking of…). The base of thinking went something like, ‘if we could measure the density and volume of Schiehallion, then we could also ascertain the density of the Earth,’ all of which led to the Cavendish Experiment two decades later, which was even more accurate. Setting aside physics and mathematics, the naturally symmetrical mountain, its peaceful lake, its quaint surrounding villages and lovely green pastures of sleepily grazing sheep all make for a beautiful landscape and unforgettable foray into Scotland’s wilder side.

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Mt Schiehallion located at the centre (unlabelled Loch Rannoch is just beside it)