Chiesa di San Giorgio, Verona, Italy

Verona cathedral

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!). 


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Dubrovnik Old Town, Croatia

dubrovnik

Dubrovnik Old Town, Croatia

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, the EU’s latest member. Vibrant, busy and loud, the streets of this small but beloved city thrumb with life. But from here, beyond the ancient streets, beyond the beaches, up above the peninsula full of

Mussenden Temple, Northern Ireland

Mussenden Temple

Mussenden Temple, Northern Ireland

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.


Other Game of Thrones Filming Sites


 

Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard, France

Annecy hills Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard

Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard near Annecy, France

Perched atop the lush foothills of the French Alps and overlooking the beautiful azure waters of the Lac d’Annecy, the Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard (more commonly known as the Château de Menthon), is a spectacular medieval castle that can trace its foundations back to the 10th century! Originally built to maintain control of the lake and the old Roman road through the mountains, Château de Menthon is named after St Bernard of Menthon, the patron saint of skiers (as well as founder of hospitals and other saintly deeds). Unlike most castles who have changed hands many times, the Chateau de Menthon has actually been in the Menthon family since about 1180 – an impressive feat! Though little changed throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the castle was renovated several times in the 18th and 19th centuries. Fun fact – the father of the present owner was present during the Nuremburg Trials (representing France) and was one of the early forces behind a “united Europe” (later to become the European Union). With over a 100 rooms (though not all on display of course!), the castle is an incredible architectural undertaking. The Château de Menthon’s fairytale-like setting overlooking village, lake and mountains, tucked deep into the woodland, adds to the castle’s charm, wonder and intrigue.

Pro tip: Also visit the Chateau d’Annecy, who shares a similar architecture (and is currently home to a modern art museum). Make the most of the lake and explore the Lac d’Annecy by boat.


Visit More of Annecy


 

Palace of Culture & Science, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw tower

Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw, Poland

The Palace of Culture and Science ((Pałac Kultury i Nauki in Polish) was originally built by and named for its creator, Joseph Stalin. Much hated by the Varsovians, during the “destalinization” of Poland, Stalin’s named was effaced from the palace. It has many nicknames – Pekin (its abbreviation, PKiN, sounds similar); pajac (meaning clown), Stalin’s Needle, or my favourite, Chuj Stalina, which means (you guessed it) Stalin’s Dick. It is a hated monument. Varsovians joke that the Palace of Culture and Science offers the best view of Warsaw because it’s the only place in the city where the Palace itself doesn’t ruin the view! Erected in 1955 and meant as a “gift” from Stalin to the Polish people (thanks Stalin, much appreciated…), it was built in the Communist totalitarianism style common in USSR-controlled territories (the most famous being the Seven Sisters of Moscow). After WWII, Poland was under Russian rule. The war destroyed some 85% of Warsaw, leaving massive piles of rubble, en masse homelessness and thousands of displaced families. It was the Communist Russians who rebuilt the city (the Old Town is really only half a century old, though based on what the city looked like with smuggled blueprints, paintings and memories). But outside the old town, much of Warsaw has the typical “communist look” – concrete functionalist totalitarianism style favoured by the USSR – with the Palace of Culture and Science the biggest and baddest of all the Stalinist architecture. Today, the palace hosts exhibits, office space, an omniplex, museums of technology and evolution, a pool, a university, shops and of course the observation tower. Though some say that the Palace of Culture and Science is a symbol of Warsaw’s rebirth, persistence and strength in face of adversary, if you want to see this controversial tower, we suggest that go now as many have called for its demolition.


Pro tip: Want to know more about Warsaw in WWII? Visit the fantastic Warsaw Uprising museum. Then take a walk through what used to be the Jewish ghetto (marked with brass lines on the street) to get a wider sense of everyday Soviet-era architecture. There is also a memorial to a Gestapo prison in this neighbourhood (Muzeum Więzienia Pawiak). And of course as mentioned above, take the chance to get the lift to the 30th floor for the panoramic view of the city.


Visit More of Warsaw


 

Rainbows above Luskentyre Beach, Scotland

Luskentyre

Rainbows above Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris, Scotland

Exotic, desolate, wild, wonderful, timeless, unspoilt, empty – these are just a few adjectives that might buzz around your mind while travelling around Scotland’s Outer Hebrides islands. The Isle of Harris in particular is rugged and wild. Luskentyre Beach is perhaps one of Scotland’s most spectacular beaches – but getting here is no easy feat. Even once you’ve arrived in the Outer Hebrides (most likely by ferry from Ullapool, though there are flights to Stornaway too), you’ll have to traverse the sweeping bogs of the Isle of Lewis and the desolate mountains of the Isle of Harris before following a bumpy, narrow road to embark at Luskentyre Beach. Is it worth it? Hands down, the answer is yes! Voted Britain’s best beach, the white sands, azure waters and crescent shape look almost like a Mediterranean beach (just without the bathers!). It’s only the mild temperature and the rugged, craggy mountains rising up behind the beach that reminds us we aren’t on the Côte d’Azur! Add a full rainbow and a stunning sky – the calm before the storm – and you get utter perfection.


Pro tip: Talbert is a good base to explore Harris and Lewis. Visit the Harris Gin distillery while there, and do pick up some of the locally-woven Harris Tweed. The ferry from Ullapool – Stornaway takes 2.5 hours – see the summer timetable here – or explore their site for other options. 


More of Scotland


 

Ballina, Ireland

Ballina.jpg

Ballina, Ireland

The wee town of Ballina, first established in the Middle Ages, is not the sort of place that makes it on most Ireland tourists maps, largely due to its little-visited location in northwestern Ireland. Lively and colourful, Ballina portrays everything you’d expect out of a traditional Irish town: bustling downtown, cheery pubs, colourful facades and plenty of churches. Located in Co Mayo,  a rural region north of Galway, few people have heard of this region and even fewer visit. And it’s true that eastern Mayo isn’t terribly exciting – but the western and coastal parts of Mayo are some of Ireland’s most beautiful landscapes! From the ancient abbeys of Rosserk Friary and Rathfran Abbey to the wild cliffs and sea stack at Downpatrick Head, the ancient archeology of the Ciede Fields or the utter wilderness of Ballycroy, the Nephin Beg mountains and Banger Erris, this forgotten corner of Mayo packs a bundle. And the market town of Ballina makes for a perfect jumping-off point!


Pro tip: Though its location isn’t as dramatic as some other sites, check out the Neolithic monument (4,000 years old!), the Dolman of the Four Maols, just down from the train station. You can get to Ballina either by rail or bus, but to visit the wilds of Mayo, you’ll really need a car. 


Visit More on the Wild Atlantic Way


 

Bridge in Prior Park, Bath, England

prior park

The Palladian Bridge in Prior Park, Bath, England

England is a lovely place; Bath is even lovelier. Ancient Roman baths, Gothic abbeys, picturesque canals, charming cobblestones, Georgian architecture, amazing bridges and green parks come together to make one of England’s loveliest cities. It helps too that Bath was home to one of England’s most influential writers, Jane Austen, and it featured in many of her stories (notably Persuasion and Northanger Abbey). On the other side of Bath’s canal, meandering forest trails wind through the grounds of Prior Park and its Palladian house built in the mid-1700s as a way of displaying the use of Bath limestone as a potential building material. The house, as well as this bridge nestled deep into the park’s hillsides, was built following the style imbued by 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, whose rigid classical style briefly became popular in the UK during the mid 17th- and 18th-centuries before being cut short by the Civil War. Palladio valued lines, symmetry and perspective – the ultimate version of Neoclassical architecture. Inspired by the Greeks and Romans, Palladio derived a style that adapted the symmetry of Roman temples and palaces to a more modern manor house. Today owned by the Prior Park College and the National Trust, Prior Park is one of Bath’s hidden gems and well worth the countryside stroll!


Pro tip: No car? Save your walking for when you get to the park. The No. 2 bus runs every 30 mins (from BK on Dorchester Street), though you can indeed walk – its about 20-30 mins from the city centre. Check their website for up-to-date opening info as well as events and festivities happening in the park during your visit. Looking for more walking? The lovely canal you crossed to get to Prior Park is a beautiful place to walk or jog. 


More of Bath and its Environs


This article was originally posted in 2015. It has since been updated.  

 

Macedonia Square, Skopje

Skopje centre

Macedonia Square in central Skopje, Macedonia

Macedonia isn’t on most people’s radar, likely because most people don’t know the country exists. Technically called North Macedonia (or more specifically the Republic of North Macedonia) because we can’t offend the Greeks. In short, the country was called Macedonia until recently, but its name alone meant that Greece wouldn’t recognise it as a country because petty Greece also has a region of the same name, so Macedonia had to change theirs. (Thanks, Greece, that’s very mature. Moldova and Romania seem to get along alright.) Greece might get all the tourism attention, but the secretive nature of Macedonia, its forgotten ruins and fascinating bazaars add an extra exotic flair lost in the crowds of Santorini. The government has put a lot of funds and effort into renovating downtown Skopje, Macedonia’s capitol. Today, the downtown area of Skopje is very modern, and very western, while the domes, minarets and narrow alleys of another era are relegated further down in Skopje’s old town, in the shadow of the fortress. While the bazaar is the soul of Skopje, Macedonia Square is at the heart of the city. The largest square in the whole country, it was here that Kiro Gligorov, Macedonia’s first president, declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. The city’s summer festivities, political demonstrations and even Christmas markets all take place in the massive Macedonia Square. In the centre of the plaza is the massive statue that commemorates the most famous Macedonian ever to exist, the legendary conquerer Alexander the Great. If you haven’t figured it out yet – he’s the massive dude riding the rearing horse on the enormous pedestal in the centre.


Pro tip: As stated above, a visit to Skopje in winter means Christmas markets and other festivities – though we do admit that the best Christmas markets are found in central Europe (Prague and Vienna are standouts). Though modern Skopje is worth seeing, head into the Old Town bazaar for food, coffee and beer – delicious, cheap and atmospheric! Head up to the fortress (entry free) for great views over the city. 


Other Cool Places in the Balkans


 

Snagov Monastery, Romania

Snagov church Romania

Snagov Monastery, Romania

These seemingly-quiet church spires rise up through the lush gardens of the tiny Snagov Island, in the centre of a small lake of the same name. It is purported that this silent little place is actually the final resting place of Vlad Ţepeş, more commonly known by his legendary nickname, Vlad the Impaler, or even more infamous, Dracula. A personage made famous by Irish writer Bram Stoker, a scholar and writer who never stepped foot on Transylvanian soil, the vampire Dracula is based on the story of the brutal and bloodthirsty Wallachian prince, Vlad Ţepeş, who spent most of his life doing two things – one, fighting against the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire, and two, impaling people. A lot of people – hence the nickname. There has been a church on Snagov Island since the 11th century, with the monastery founded in the 14th century during the reign of King Dan I ( which was from 1383–86), and finally the construction of a stone edifice in 1453, which was later improved into the present-day structure. Supposedly the monks at Snagov were particularly partial to Vlad Dracul – in keeping with “Christian” values, Vlad helped fund the monastery in return for absolving his sins, or so the old story goes. When Dracula finally died, beheaded in 1476 while fighting his long-time enemy the Ottoman Turks, Vlad Ţepeş was interred here (well, most of him was, excepting his head which was carried on a spike back to Istanbul). Though no one knows if this is actually true or that the body here is indeed Vlad, it is true that there’s a monument to Vlad Ţepeş here at Snagov, and people come from miles around to visit the final resting place of the most famous almost-vampire in Europe.


Pro tip: Snagov is on the way from Transylvania to Bucharest. Follow the signs to the monastery through a neighbourhood where there is a car park (expect a small fee), then cross to the island via the footbridge. There are also boats across the lake if you prefer the traditional method, costing you perhaps 100 lei. At certain times of year, there are roadside vendors selling fresh produce such as strawberries – much more delicious than anything you’ll find in the supermarket!


More of Romania


 

Corfe Castle, England

Corfe castle, England

Corfe Castle Courtyard, England

Built by the infamous William the Conquerer, this 11th century castle occupies a commanding position over the Dorset hills and coastlines in southern England (though archeological evidence suggests that the area has been occupied for as much as 6,000 years). Corfe Castle holds the distinction of being one of England‘s first stone (or at least partially stone) castles and though ruined, Corfe Castle is still partially intact. The medieval era saw further defensive structural changes in the 12th-13th centuries (in keeping constant with updates in warfare), staying more or less the same until 1572 when Queen Elizabeth sold Corfe Castle to a member of the English nobility. Besieged twice during the English Civil War, the second siege led to the castle’s downfall, and in 1645 it was deliberately destroyed (in technical terms, it was “slighted”) to eliminate Corfe Castle as a military power. Slowly falling into ruin since then, Corfe Castle is now one of southern England’s most impressive castle ruins, located in the Isle of Purbeck Peninsula (which is not actually an island). The Neolithic, Celtic, Roman, Viking, Saxon, Norman, Medieval and Elizabethan periods all show their faces on this beautiful part of English heritage.


Pro tip: You can take the train to Corfe Castle, alighting at Corfe Station. There are many lovely walks in the area – in particular, the hike along the Jurassic Coast of Devon and Dorset is particularly lovely. The closest city of consequence is Bournemouth, though Salisbury is decidedly more beautiful. 


Visit Southern England


 

Arnas Village, Beaujolais, France

Arnas flowers.jpg

Arnas Village, France

Tucked into the Beaujolais, the wee French village of Arnas is found just outside of Villefranche-sur-Saône, the “capital” of the Beaujolais wine region. On the lovely city of Lyon’s doorstep are two impressive wine regions – to the south is the Côtes du Rhône, and to the north is the Beaujolais. Though smaller than the Côtes du Rhône, the Beaujolais is the superior wine-making region as its rolling hills and tiny cobbled villages follow an ancient tradition ever-present to the region and imprinted into the landscape. Arnas is one such village where wine is all-important, an art passed from father to son, mother to daughter. Every September is the harvest season, a time of year in which the whole family gets together to harvest the grapes. Not long after the harvest (or “vendanges“) is the festival of the Beaujolais Nouveau in November – the presentation and drinking of the new wine. This year, it was this past weekend – the 21st of November – but the festival of the Beaujolais Nouveau is held around the same time every year – see more info here. Arnas itself is a small place though bustling with life, from dancing sunflowers on the edge of the village to a busy village square where church, school, bar, restaurant and bakery all jostle for place. Cobbled streets, historic houses and narrow alleys make this place the perfect stereotypical Beaujolais village. Make sure you don’t leave without a bit of wine!


Pro tip: Come in November for the Fete de Beaujolais Nouveau! But even if you visit at another time of the year, there will be plenty of wine – and probably the odd festival too. There are many signposted hiking paths (“sentiers”) that weave through the region, lovely for short hikes and countryside rambles. Don’t miss the lovely domaine, Château de Fléchères on the other side of the river – visitor info here


Other Places in the Beaujolais & Nearby


 

Porta Palatina in Torino, Italy

Torino gate

The Porta Palatina / Palatine Gate in Torino, Italy

A Roman-age city gate in the Northern Italian city of Torino (or Turin), the magnificent Porta Palatina makes for a grand entryway into Torino’s city centre. We’re lucky to have the gate – it very nearly got torn down in the 18th century for an “Urban renewal” project during an era when people weren’t as concerned with protecting heritage and artefacts as they are now. Today surrounded by modern building complexes (many of which are adorned with graffiti and other non-art), the Porta Palatina is no less stunning for its less-than-grand locale. In fact, the Porta Palatina is one of the best-preserved Roman gates in Europe (certainly of its time), and represents the most important archeological site of Torino, along with the nearby Roman theatre. A large city in northwestern Italy, Torino is a place made up of broad avenues, great palaces, and grand architecture common to other near-Alpine cities (Lyon, Lausanne and Grenoble spring to mind). Built in the 1st century during the Augustan Age, this immense brick gate would have once been incorporated into the city defensive wall and probably attached to a palace (where the name likely comes from), and would have been just as impressive then as now. Gates in Roman times served to protect cities from invasion or simply keep records of who (and what) is coming to and from a city. Later, it was incorporated into a medieval fortification before falling into ruin for several centuries. Italy is full of Roman ruins of various types and scales – when visiting northern Italy, don’t miss the lovely city of Torino (Julia Augusta Taurinorum in Roman times) with its ancient and modern wonders, and impressive view of the Alps!


Pro tip: Find the Porta Palatina in the modern-day Piazza Cesare Augusto. Torino is most famed for its “Shroud of Turin” which supposedly shows the visage of Jesus. Though the age disproves this, the Shroud is still a fascinating find. Visit the Museo della Sindone to find out more. Italy is also known for its cheeses – in particular, try local cheeses such as Fontina d’Aosta (cow), Asiago (cow) and Robiola (goat, cow or sheep). Pair with local red wine!


 More of Torino & Nearby


 

Tunnel de la Croix Rousse, Lyon, France

CroixRousse Tunnel.jpgTunnel de la Croix Rousse – Modes Doux, Lyon, France

One of Lyon’s many little-known secrets is the Tunnel de la Croix Rousse. Tunnels and passageways have a long history in Lyon, with the most famous being the traboules of Vieux Lyon and Croix Rousse (sort of interior passages used to transport silk and other textiles without going outside). The Tunnel de Croix Rousse – passing underneath the historic neighbourhood – was originally opened to motor vehicles in 1952. It wasn’t until much later, in 2013, that the pedestrianised tunnel was opened – just in time for the renowned Fête des Lumières, an amazing lights festival held over several days in December every year. But even when it’s not the Fête des Lumières, the whole length of the Tunnel de la Croix Rousse plays host to animations, colours, and short films projected on the walls and ceiling of this long pedestrian tunnel. For a city that prides itself on films, cameras, tunnels (or passages) and imagination, the Tunnel de la Croix Rousse is the perfect combination. Traversing this tunnel is far more than for getting from point A to point B – it is a veritable work of art, bringing the viewer into the heart of the city.


Pro tip: At 1.8 kilometres long (roughly 1 mile), biking through the tunnel is perhaps the easiest way to enjoy the show – walking will take about 25 mins. You can rent a city bike from any of the hundreds of stations of the Velo’V all around the city at a very reasonable daily rate. Learn more about the tunnel hereAnimations from 16h to 20h on weekdays and from 14h to 20h on weekends. 


Toledo Panorama, Spain

Toledo

Toledo Panorama, Spain

Not far from Madrid, Toledo is an easy and beautiful day trip from Spain’s capital city. Holy Roman emperor Charles V established his court here in Toledo in the 16th century, giving the city its nickname, the “Imperial City.” Toledo is a city that has given birth to kings and queens, nobles and commoners alike – even the famed artist El Greco comes from this desert gem. Toledo is a place with a long heritage, vastly effected by its mix of the three dominating cultures of the Iberian Peninsula: Christianity, Islam and Judaism – not to mention functioning as the Visigoth Capital from 542 – 725 AD. In existence since before Roman times, it is little wonder that this desert city was recognised by UNESCO. Wander the lovely streets, casting your eye at the diverse architecture inspired by its various cultures before heading to the very top of the city for a terrific panoramic view of Toledo and its surroundings. Neither small nor large, Toledo is easy enough to explore on foot (if you don’t mind hills and steep roads!), but nor is it too small to get bored.


Pro tip: Perhaps you might want to try some tapas or paella while you’re here! Toledo has many small family-run restaurants in which to do so. Wear sturdy shoes – the streets are cobbled, uneven and sometimes steep. Trains run hourly from Puerta de Atocha station in Madrid, with a 30 minute duration. Check Renfe’s website for more info.


More Madrid Day Trips


 

 

Autumn in Loughrea, Galway, Ireland

Loughrea cabin copy

Autumn in Loughrea, Galway, Ireland

Though perhaps less world-famous than America’s New England, Ireland in autumn is a spectacular place. The region of Galway is usually known for two places: the lively Galway City and the desolate mountains of Connemara in northwest Co Galway. Inland however, Galway holds other wonders, such as rural hills, crumbling ruins, tiny villages, and beautiful forests such as here at Loughrea. Loughrea in Co Galway is not an area well-known to tourists as it is inland and away from the ocean. Instead, it sits on the shores of a lake, with vestiges of its medieval history nearby (town walls, priories, and a gate). Founded by Richard de Burgo, an Anglo-Norman knight in 1236, the town grew based on its important location along the Shannon River. Despite its Norman origins, the family later adopted Gaelic names and traditions, and Loughrea, along with much of Connemara, was part of the Gaelic Revival in the late 1800s (which included the Irish language as well as Gaelic sports, architecture, music and other traditions), though its garrison status meant that it did not take part in the 1916 rebellion. This cabin near the small town of Loughrea is particularly idyllic, nestled into the brilliant golden leaves. In autumn these forests glow in a shimmering quilt of yellow, orange and red, making for some beautiful panoramas and lovely photos. Autumn in Ireland is a great time of year to get outdoors as there are few tourists and oftentimes a fair amount of clear days as long as you don’t mind a bit of chilly weather! At the end of the day, curl up by a turf fire in a traditional pub with a pint of Guinness while listening to trad music  and you have the perfect day.


Pro tip: Check out Irishtrails.ie for more info on hiking trails in Ireland and where to find the trailheads.


More Places in Ireland


 

Spires of St Sophia, Kiev, Ukraine

St Soph Kiev

Spires of St Sophia Cathedral, Kiev, Ukraine

Kiev’s first UNESCO site, the 13 spires of the 11th century Byzantine St Sophia Cathedral contrast wildly with the more modern concrete blocks courtesy of communism. Named for the famous church-turned-mosque the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul/Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia is one of the best architectural relics of the Kievan Rus. With ground broken in 1011, St Sophia’s Cathedral celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2011! Like many religious buildings, its history has been far from peaceful. St Sophia was pillaged in 1169 and again in 1240, leading to abandonment and disrepair, including the loss of irreplaceable wall paintings. It was later damaged again in the 1500s when Poland and Ukraine joined forces in a misguided (and doomed to fail) attempt to unite the Catholic and Orthodox churches. It was claimed by several Orthodox communities – notably, the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church and the Moldavian Orthodox Church, who made repairs to St Sophia in the Ukrainian Baroque style. The Soviets wanted to destroy the cathedral and turn it into park, and indeed they managed to do so with St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery at the other end of the boulevard. But its popularity and reputation caused many to speak for the cathedral and St Sophia was saved, instead being turned into a history museum. And today, due to arguments over which branch of Orthodoxy should hold the rights to this ancient place, St Sophia remains a museum, frequented more by tourists than by members of the Orthodox community.


Pro tip: Things in the Ukraine follow their own rules and opening hours. Be sure to arrive early and be ready to wait if they say its not open. Special rates for students. Be sure to visit St Michael’s afterwards! 


Other Churches of Kiev


 

Caves of Clierzou, Auvergne, France

Auvergne caves

Caves of Clierzou, Auvergne, France

The region of Auvergne is surely one of the most under-rated in all of France. Barely a blimp on most tourist’s radars, Auvergne, located in the heart of the country, is home to an incredible mountain range, the Massif Central. Incredibly ancient, beautiful and rugged though accessible, the Puys of the Massif Central are a hiker’s paradise. While the Puy de Dôme is the icon of Auvergne and its mountain range, there are many other lesser-known mountains, like the Puy de Clierzou (or Cliersou), rising some 1,199 metres and home to a network of caves. Though the mountains were remote until opened up by recent roads, the Caves of Clierzou have been used since Antiquity, when they were found and inhabited by the Gallo-Roman peoples. Atop the Puy de Dôme there is the Roman-era Temple of Mercure, but in smaller places like the Caves of Clierzou, there is also evidence of human use through the centuries. From the Caves of Clierzou, one has a good view of the Puy de Dôme, a sacred place for those who built their temple here. Oh and did we mention these mountains are extinct volcanoes? On your hike through the Puy de Clierzou and the Puy de Sansy past the caves, you’ll get the chance to stand inside an ancient volcanic crater…


Pro tip: Clermont-Ferrand is the regional capitol and main point of entry. Near the Caves of Clierzou, Orcines is the closet town, and home to a splendid cathedral (one of five of the same design, like this one at nearby St Saturnin). There are many hikes in the Massif Central and the Puys – the hike up Puy de Sansy (with the added bonus of Puy de Clierzou) is one of the more popular and well-marked. There is some info here and a circuit of Puy de Sansy here. No wild camping or fires allowed. 


More of Auvergne


 

Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

Eliean Donan

Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

Eilean Donan Castle currently holds the honour of being the most photographed (and Instagrammed) location in Scotland! But aside from its popularity on the screen, Eilean Donan Castle is a pretty incredible – and formidable – place. This medieval fortress is located on a small tidal island (most photos show it at high tide for maximum photogenic prowess but here it is at low tide). In fact, “Eilean” means “island” in Scots Gallic, and Donan refers to a martyred Celtic saint – the name might mean that there was a small monastic settlement in the spot in early Christian times, but that is unproven. Strategically located at a place where three sea lochs meet (Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh), Eilean Donan was erected in the 13th century by Clan Mackenzie, one of the major players in the constant power struggle amongst the Highland clans. The castle stood intact until the early 1700s when the Mackenzie’s got involved in the infamous Jacobite Rebellions (a series of uprisings between 1688 and 1746 to return Catholic King James to the throne) and the castle was attacked and partially destroyed before being reconstructed in the 20th century. The castle started with just an enciente or fortified wall surrounding the island, perfect for guarding against Norse attacks. It later became property of the Mackenzie clan, even supposedly sheltering Robert the Bruce. The exterior wall was reduced in order to make more defensive structures, and a triangular courtyard or “horn” was added to increase the island’s defensiveness. Today the castle is rebuilt on the same groundwork as the medieval castle, though the details vary from the original. That said, it is one of Scotland’s most amazing and iconic locations!


Pro tip: From the castle, wander across the road to the wee village of Dornie. The castle makes for a good stop between Inverness and the Isle of Skye. 


Other Scottish Locations


 

Gubałówka Hill, Zakopane, Poland

Zakopane

Gubałówka Mountain, Zakopane, Poland

While most of Poland is flat, Poland’s southern border with Czechia, Slovakia and Ukraine to the south has some sizeable mountains. Poland’s mountains come in two groups, the Carpathian’s (most famously associated with Romania, bit stretching through a good bit of the Balkans and Eastern Europe) on the eastern half of Poland’s southern realms, and the Sudetes, on its western side. The most well known of these are the Tatras Mountains and the Beskid Mountains, both part of the Carpathian range. While the Tatras are Poland’s most significant mountains, none of Poland’s mountainous terrain is enough to prevent habitation, and the Tatras are especially popular as idyllic mountain getaways. The most famed mountain resort is of course Zakopane, well known for its winter skiing and summer hiking. Rising up behind the town is Gubałówka Mountain. At 1,126m elevation, it provides commanding views over the surrounding Tatras and out to the Slovakian peaks, whose border is just a dozen or so kilometres away. Gubałówka Mountain is serviced by a funicular, opened in 1938 to allow non-hikers to enjoy the view at this new and fashionable ski resort, though to fully appreciate the Tatras mountains and Polish countryside, it’s recommended to hike to the top of this hill too. The top is a cacophony of shops (many selling the same cheap souvenirs), festivities, bars and restaurants as well as stunning views and adorable chalets. Even if resort towns aren’t your cup of tea, Zakopane is a great jumping off point to arrive in the region, get your bearings and prepare for you hiking adventure. Because Poland’s beautiful and quiet only mountainous region is one of the loveliest places to walk in all of Europe !


Pro tip: The queue for the funicular can be quite long – if you want to take it, arrive early. It costs 14 zl, and takes 4 minutes. Walking up Gubałówka takes about an hour, and from there, you have access to a network of other trails. There are many trails in the area, as well as further into the Tatras and into the Beskids too – here are some near Zakopane. If you are hiking in this region, don’t miss the spectacular wooden churches, many of which are UNESCO protected. 


 

More of Poland


 

Temperate Glasshouse in Kew Gardens, London

kew glasshouse

Temperate Glasshouse in Kew Gardens, London, England

The Kew Royal Botanic Gardens are some of the finest botanical gardens in the world.  Spread over 121 hectares (300 acres), wander amongst some 50,000 plants found across this UNESCO World Heritage site outside London. The jewel of Kew Gardens is the beautiful Temperate House. This Victorian-era glasshouse – opened 1862 – was built to be the stunning entrance to the royal gardens when the rail line was complete. Things didn’t go to plan, and the railway station was moved to the other end of the park. The building itself is quite marvellous, containing thousands of panes of glasses (replaced after more than 100 WWII-era bombs rocked Kew), while the thousands of plants within this iron and glass dome are even more so. The Victorians had an intense curiosity. Those who could afford to went on adventures to all corners of the Earth in search of the new and exotic to bring back to mother England – or more likely, sponsored an explorer to go off in their name. Those who couldn’t afford the adventures themselves would instead satisfy their curiosity by going to palm houses, world fairs, circuses, museums, curiosity cabinets, exhibits, wax halls, and other such places. Housing 1,500 plants from 5 continents and 16 islands, the Temperate House covers plants within the temperate zone (where most of the world population lives, the temperate zone is sandwiched between the polar and tropics – including North America, Europe, China, Australia, southern Africa, and parts of South America). While at the Temperate House, wander the narrow alleys between plants before climbing up to the viewing platform for an aerial panorama of the ecosystems below and the wrought and cast iron structure above. Whether or not you have an interest in biology and ecosystems, Kew Gardens and its glasshouses are a fascinating place – both pulling you into the past with its Victorian glasshouses as well as looking towards the future at the effects humans have on the planet, and working to conserve and protect the Earth’s flora.


Pro tip: Visit the Palm House while you’re at Kew Gardens. When you’re in Belfast, be sure to visit the Palm House in Belfast’s Botanical Gardens and in Dublin visit the National Botanic Gardens – all four glasshouses are designed by Victorian-era architect Richard Turner. Also while in Kew, be sure to check out the beautiful glass art by artist Dale Chihuly.


What else is there to see in London?


 

Knocknarea & Cullenamore Strand, Ireland

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Knocknarea & Cullenamore Strand, Ireland

Knocknarea is a very special place. Tucked away in a quiet corner of northwest Ireland on a little peninsula in County Sligo, Knocknarea is renowned for its history and legends. Though only 300 metres high, climbing to the top of this hill is a sacred act. Crowning this hill is a huge cairn from Neolithic times – over 5,000 years old! Sligo is riddled with ruins from the Neolithic era – at Knocknarea’s foot are the Carrowmore tombs (home to some 50 monuments!), and further inland, find the even more impressive Carrowkeel tombs – 20 monuments of which three are opened. There are other sites of course – Deerpark, Creevykeel, Knockvranny, Knocknashee, and so many more – and these are all in wee County Sligo! You could spend a lifetime trying to visit all of Ireland’s Neolithic sites… But yes, back to Knocknarea. Other than the huge cairn, there are a few satellite tombs, and the ruins of an ancient village (as well as a famine age abandoned village – both just a few houses). After Ireland was Christianised, many early Christians hung on to their beliefs, and the religious leaders had to find a way to compromise – such as Yule becoming Christmas, the Pagan goddess Brigid becoming a saint, and the fertility goddess Sheela na Gig giving Mary a higher status than in most contemporary – and patriarchal – Christian societies. And then there was the problem of understanding those societies who came before these early Christians (who were they, and why did they build these things!? Questions still unanswered today…). Knocknarea was therefore explained away using folklore. The cairn was attributed to the legendary (and semi-mythical) saviour and warrior queen of Connaght, buried upright in her great tomb under the cairn, facing her enemies from the North. Though this story is unlikely to be true, it’s clear that someone (well, many someones) are buried here, making this an ancient graveyard of sorts. It is one of Sligo’s iconic spots and can be seen from almost anywhere around Sligo town. Knocknarea is seen here from the far side reflected in the low tide sands of Cullenamore strand, a quieter alternative to busy Strandhill Beach – and also better for a long walk on the beach!


Pro tip: Don’t forget to bring a stone from the bottom of the hill up to the cairn for Queen Maeve! If you have a car, climb from the Queen Maeve Car Park. No car? Take the Strandhill bus and stop at the Centra – there is a path up this side starting here. A new path connects both sides with the Strandhill beach, famed for its surf. We recommend lunch/brunch at Shells, ice cream at Mammie Johnson’s and/or pizza and a pint at The Strand pub.  


Other places in Sligo


 

Autumn Foliage in Parc Tete d’Or, France

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Autumn Foliage in Parc de la Tete d’Or, Lyon, France

Though far from its only park, le Parc de al Tete d’Or is certainly Lyon‘s premier public park. Though lovely all year round, Parc de la Tete d’Or holds a particular charm during the transitional seasons. Spring is full of blooming flowers while autumn bursts into fall  flame of foliage. During autumn, the whole park erupts into a patchwork quilt of golds, oranges, reds and yellows, making it a lovely place for a romantic stroll, a quiet picnic, a lovely jog or even a nice place to walk the dog. Translating as “the Park of the Golden Head,” it is supposedly named for a legend claiming that a golden Christ’s head is buried here. Founded in 1845 after much call for an urban park, the Parc de la Tete d’Or encompasses 117 hectares (almost 300 acres). Within these acres, find an outdoor zoo, botanical gardens and a great glasshouse, a rose garden, a lake with several island, sports facilities, children’s playgrounds, and kilometres of trails lined with trees, gardens, sculptures and cafes (bonus – everything in the park is free!). There are paddleboats on the lake (better to look at then to actually use), and even a little train (also best avoided). Running groups use this as a place to swap urban scenes with beautiful landscapes – if you’re looking for a longer run, follow the Rhone river north of Tete d’Or to connect with the Parc de la Feyssine. No matter when you visit, the Parc Tete d’Or is sure to impress!


Pro tip: Don’t miss Boulevard des Belges, a grand avenue running parallel to the park’s southern side. Lined with grand and beautiful hotels or mansions dating from the last two centuries, Boulevard des Belges has long held a reputation as the most expensive street to live on in Lyon – rent upwards of €2,500/month! Crane your head upwards to view all of the architecural detail. On the northern side is Interpol HQ. Housed in a modern complex near the Musée d’art Contemporain, it may not be much to look at, but it’s a pretty cool place behind the scenes… 


Find other urban parks


 

Edinburgh Old Town, Scotland

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Cockburn Street in Edinburgh Old Town, Scotland

Despite its unfortunate name, Cockburn Street is a lovely wee street that leads from Waverley Train Station in the New Town up into Edinburgh‘s spectacular Old Town. Much of the Old Town still follows its medieval street plan, comprised of a network of cobbled streets, narrow closes and wide avenues. Edinburgh’s Old Town is full of grander, glitz and history. Wander up to Royal Mile (High Street), marvel at the cathedrals, churches and museums, walk along grand buildings, watch street performers, duck into lively pubs and cosy cafes, before finally arriving at Edinburgh Castle, an idyllic fortification that perches on a huge crag formed by a now-extinct volcano. Alongside Edinburgh’s New Town (built in the 18th-19th century), Edinburgh’s city centre is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the most significant cultural hub of Scotland. Because of limited space and advantage of living within the defensive wall (now gone), the Old Town became home to some of the world’s earliest “high rise” buildings as early as the 16th century. Though boasting certain advantages, the tightly-packed atmosphere was vulnerable to flames, and the Old Town is marked by the Great Fire of Edinburgh of 1824, which obliterated huge portions of buildings on the south side, and their rebuilding in Victorian times led to the accidental creation of numerous passages and vaults under the Old Town. Another blight on Edinburgh was the 20th century slum clearances, when the rundown, overpopulated slums of Canongate were cleared out in the 1950s to make room for grander buildings. Despite these darker elements of Edinburgh’s past, the Edinburgh of today is a busy, lively and fun place to be.


Pro tip: Looking for a wool or tweed souvenir? Avoid the shops on High Street as unfortunately a lot of that is made in China these days. You can’t go wrong with traditional Harris Tweed, made solely on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides and with each weaver certified to the brand’s high standards.


More of Scotland


 

Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron, Alps, France

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Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron, Alps, France

The Alpine city of Chamonix is famous the world over as the premier luxury ski capital. But beyond the glamorous Alpine resort, there are many smaller towns, villages and hamlet, including the wee hamlet of Montvauthier, on the edge of the Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron. And though Mont Blanc is the famous Alpine mountain, there are many other lesser-known places for hiking in the Alps. The beautiful reserve of the Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron, created in 1991, is part of the Arve Valley, and is distinguished by high peaks, lush woodlands, and rich flora and fauna. The peaks of Carlaveyron were almost given over to more than a dozen lifts but luckily instead, Carlaveyron was designated as a nature reserve, protecting the rich Alpine flora and fauna of the Haute-Savoie. At heights ranging from 1,000-2,300 metres (3,200-7,500ft), the hiking is rough but the fantastic panoramas are worth it. Carlaveyron is also home to the impressive Gorges de la Diosaz, an impressive river gorge at the foot of the mountain. The mountainous reserve is also home to everything from owls to deer, lynx (reintroduced 1970 – there are now about 300!), chamois, eagles, and many species of bird. Hiking in the park can range from short (though steep) hikes to much more difficult Alpine hiking for more experienced hikers used to rough footing, steep ascents and high altitudes. If you’re only looking to do a couple of kilometres, try starting your hike from the Servoz train station, or even the car park of Diosaz. The magical panoramas will carry you up the mountain…


Pro trip: While in the Alps, you’ll have to try some local delicacies like tartiflette, raclette, fondu or even pizza! There are many regional Alpine cheeses to taste as well. 


Where else in the French Alps?