The most populated region of Spain, as well as one of the biggest regions, this is Andalucía, home to places such as Ronda, Sevilla, Cádiz, Córdoba, Granada. This is the Spain you think of when you envision that sunny Spanish paradise. You’ve got it all: beaches, mountains, lakes, olives, wine, never-ending fields, rolling hills, and best of all, the famed Pueblos Blancos, or White Villages. Most villages began as rural fortresses, evolved into farms, and eventually, became a place of paradise, attracting tourists while at the same time, preserving their ancient roots. No matter where you choose (excepting perhaps Málaga), you can’t really go wrong. Don’t believe me? Just take a look. It’s magical.
Resting on the shores of Lake Galvė, a mere 300 km from the Baltic Sea, is Trakai Island Castle. Dating back to the 14th century, it was built to withstand attacks from the Teutonic Knights, who played a large role in the region. At the time, Trakai was one of the main centres of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania before it fell into obscurity after merging with the Kingdom of Poland. Today, the town of Trakai is a collection of colourful, wooden houses with a population of only 5,000. Until recently, the castle had been little more than ruins on an island, inspiration for writers and artists. Finally rebuilt in all its glory, Trakai Castle is an impressive monument standing in the middle of a careworn village, reminding us of bygone times when castles and knights and kings still ruled the lands.
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Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral, located in the main Rynek (town square) in Kraków, and home of the infamous trumpet player. Built in the 14th century, the cathedral is full of beautiful designs on its walls and ceilings, such as this one. Even more famous is the trumpeter, who, legend has it, played a tune called the Hejnał Mariacki, in 1241 to warn the city of the Mongol Invasion. Supposedly, he was shot in the throat before finishing the song – hence why, when the trumpet’s tune is played every hour (which it still is to this day), it cuts off mid-song (simulating the brave but unfortunate trumpeter’s demise). Unfortunately, there’s a small fee to take photos inside the cathedral, which seemed odd to me. At any rate, I didn’t have any change with me. So, I took a furtive photo, hence the weird angle. I actually like it even more like this!
Grenoble may not rival Paris for architectural beauty, but its proximity to the Alps makes for a different kind of beauty. Grenoble is one of the best jumping-off points for hiking through the French Alps. It even has a special office specifically for tourists who want to hike (la Maison de la Montagne). And even though the old town of Grenoble isn’t as breathtaking as other French towns (and there are no shortage of beautiful French towns), it still sports the beautiful red roofs, the dramatic Haussmann architecture, and riverside facades. For a perfect afternoon, hike up into the ruined bastille and beyond into the mountains for an amazing view. Watch the red roofs as they slowly blend into the modern, less-attractive buildings, and finally into the mountains themselves. The French Alps are some of the best elements of Europe no matter the season!
So maybe the Beskids don’t have much on the Himalayas, the Alps, the Andes or the Rockies, but don’t underestimate the beauty of these mountains that divide Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. While the range is 600km long, the highest point is only 6,762 ft high, less than half the height of Mont Blanc (15,782ft). But that’s okay because in a way, the fact that they are smaller and more unknown makes these mountains more beautiful, more unexpected, and more wonderful to explore from both a natural and a cultural standpoint. Along their paths you might find flowers, small animals, game, mountain concerts, hikers from all over Europe, villages, farms, historical monuments, wild mushrooms, collections of tents in the meadows, rolling fields, strange plants, a lack of border patrols…and many other wonders. Go hiking out in Poland’s Great Outdoors and see for yourself!
This is Lublin Castle’s chapel, one of the few buildings to survive the destruction of Lublin’s castle. The church was built in the 14th century; however, in the 15th century, King Władysław II (pronounced “vwah-dhee-swav”) ordered the entire chapel to be covered in wall paintings. This style is very much influenced by the Byzantines, therefore, exudes an Eastern influence. It is an extremely unique melange of Eastern and Western styles, and highly reminiscent of Orthodox churches, which cover every interior surface of their immense buildings with paintings, gilded decorations, and icons. Every painting here pertains to a biblical story and is carefully documented for visitors. It is breathtaking; one can very easily spend the allotted 30 minutes (and more if they would allow!) staring at the paintings in this wondrous place. It’s a good thing that of all the buildings to be spared from destruction, it was this one that fate chose.
Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse, Béziers, France.
Though the city itself may need a little tender loving care, this cathedral certainly does not! Dating back to the 13th century, the sacred site itself is even older. The cathedral replaced a building that was destroyed during the Massacre of Béziers, a terrible slaughter in 1209 at the start of the Albigensian Crusade – even those who sought refuge in what they presumed to be the sanctuary of the cathedral were killed. Today, the cathedral quietly overlooks the River Orb and rather resembles a castle on a hilltop more than a cathedral. It remains a symbol of the town and can be seen from quite far away!
Welcome to Valencia’s odd opera house, standing in the midst of the modernist complex of La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (the City of Arts and Sciences) – the exact opposite of Vienna’s very traditional opera house. Opening in 2006 and rising 75 meters off the ground, it is the tallest opera house in the world, and certainly one of the strangest. Resembling a strange-looking space helmet, or perhaps a scurrying beetle, it is indeed a unique and unforgettable place to see a ballet, opera, dance, theatre or concert! Even if the opera doesn’t interest you, a mere walk through the whole complex will yield breath-taking results.
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Honestly, name aside, this is one of my favourite places that I’ve ever been. Locally known as “The City in the Sea,” this fortified sea port has changed hands too many times to recount. The castle itself (the vantage point for this photograph) was built by the Knights Templar 1294-1307. In the early 1400s, the castle also was home to Papa Luna, (or Benedict XIII), the Avignon pope that resulted from the famous schism that rocked the Catholic world in the Middle Ages. Even outside the history, this town is simply drop-dead gorgeous with the brilliantly contrasting orange-on-white-on-turquoise cityscapes. So perfectly Mediterranean! Don’t forget to have some paella or maybe pizza, and of course the Spain’s favourite drink, sangria!
Battle of Somme war memorial near Stonehaven, Scotland
Standing on the top of Black Hill and dominating the cloud-streamed skyline, this is an impressive (and unexpected) war memorial erected in the middle of a relatively empty, cow-dotted field. Dedicated to the British Army’s worst day in history where over 60,000 Brits died at the Battle of Somme in a single day, this little stone memorial was placed here by citizens on the nearby town to commemorate those who were killed in battle as well as their fellow countrymen who also lost their lives. It makes for a somber moment of reflection on an otherwise joyful hike through the rugged Scottish countryside.
Bratislava occasionally manages to makes the Danube travel itinerary, as it’s comfortably in between Vienna and Budapest. However, it’s still rather undiscovered in a way that Vienna is not. Smaller than Prague, Budapest or Vienna, Bratislava still has plenty of gems. Walking through the middle of Bratislava’s Old Town, one suddenly comes across this unusual statue peeping out of a manhole. Only dating back to 1995, “Cumil” (as called by the locals) remains a mystery as to why there is a man in a raincoat popping out of a manhole. Regardless of his intentions, he’s amusing for both locals and tourists alike–and always a fun photo-op for all ages!
An impressive, kilometre-long castle presides over this hill along the ancient roadway, Via Augusta (leading from Rome to Cádiz) as it has for over a 1,000 years. Over the centuries, the castle has passed through the hands of the Iberians who constructed it, the Romans who expanded it, both the Almoravid and Almohad Dynasties of Morocco who gave it a pronounced Mudajar atmosphere, and King James of Aragon, who eventually turned it into a prison. Damages from the War of Succession (1701-14) left the castle to fall into ruin, giving it the rugged, rough appearance we love about it today!
Somehow, little old ladies in France can elegantly pull off wearing a bright orange suit – which is actually a pretty fantastic feat! Even outside of this lady, Lyon’s fine arts museum is full of elegance. Once a convent, this magnificent 17th century building now houses one of the most impressive and important art collections in Europe. Ranging from ancient Egypt antiquities to the Modern art period, Lyon’s fine arts museum has a little of everything. And I’m proud to say that the city that houses this beautiful museum will soon be my city! I can’t wait to move to Lyon. As of this fall, Lyon will be my new home!
Valencian oranges are world-famous – and they should be! Nicknamed summer-oranges because they are the only variety peaking in mid-summer, these fruits are sweet and delicious, perfect for making homemade, freshly-squeezed, pure orange juice. So delicious are these fruits, and so readily available are they in Spain, that it is difficult to consume other orange products (especially orange juice!) after leaving the country. Groves of trees such as this line the roadsides in between villages all over Spain, but especially in la Comunidad Valenciana. Nothing could be lovelier or more Spanish than breakfasting on your balcony watching the sun come up, eating a croissant and sipping freshly-squeezed Valencian orange juice.
Houses in Reykjavik, Iceland, looking across the Tjörnin.
Welcome to Reykjavik, the teeny tiny capital of Iceland, and also the northernmost capital in the world. Human habitation of the site dates back to 870, though the city wasn’t established until 1786. Because it was under Danish rule and settled by many Scandinavians, the city has a distinctly Scandinavian feel. It is capital of an island full of impressive scenery, angry volcanoes, and a stark coastline.
Howth is a little fishing village somewhere outside of Dublin. As a literature student, the only thing I knew about Howth was that this is the town where James Joyce and his lover, Nora Barnacle supposedly met for their less-than-chaste weekend getaways outside the hubbub and craziness of Dublin. Its castle is also one of the oldest occupied buildings in Ireland. Located on Howth Head peninsula in Dublin Bay, it has a very dramatic and breath-taking coastline. Stroll through the charming seaside town, relax done by the coast, shop in the bustling local market, have a picnic on the steep hillsides overlooking the bay, or look for the Joyce’s and Nora’s secret romantic getaway spot(s?)…Howth is a lovely place to go if you need a break from Dublin’s whirlwind Temple Bar and back-to-back pints o’ porter!
Welcome to the beautiful, rustic ruins of Cardiff Castle (or in Welsh Gaelic, Caerdydd Castell). This 11th Norman century fortification most likely commissioned by William the Conqueror, the castle was built on top of a 3rd century Roman fort, as the site provides a good vantage point to defend the city. Composed of a central Norman keep and squat lookout tower, circled by a thick defensive wall and a deep moat, perched on an artificial hilltop and topped with crinolines, the castle is the picture of fortified defence. It was repeatedly involved in conflicts between the Normans and the Welsh before finally becoming little more than a decoration after a rich Marquess built a Victorian mansion and demolished all other medieval buildings minus the Norman keep, thinking that it looked Romantic. In fact, during the Victorian era, owning a castle or ruin – a real one or an artificial ruin (called a folly) – was all the rage among the wealthy landowners at the time. Those who didn’t have a ruin on their property often either bought one, or constructed one (learn more about follies such as Sham Castle, Kreuzenstein Castle or the Chateau de Montmelas, or even the more modern Albigny-sur-Soane). Still, it makes a pretty awesome ruin! One of the most significant sites in Cardiff, be sure there to get there early (or visit off season!) to get the site to yourself.
This church is a beautiful example of a marble alter, no? No. It’s actually 100% paint., believe it or not! Marblizing, as it’s called, is a technique used to paint a surface to create the appearance of real marble when the cost or weight of actual marble would be too much. Instead, we have this wonderfully impressive yet frugally decorated church tucked away in a corner of Krakow, one of Poland’s most magnificent cities. Krakow is such a culturally-rich treasure trove that gems like this are not uncommon in the beautiful Polish city!
The Kazimierz Górski National Stadium was home of the Euro 2012 football championship, the 14th Euro championship so far, (soccer for you Americans). Co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine, it was the first time that either country ever hosted the Euro Cup. Being chosen was a big deal for these two nations which have both worked so hard to attain their freedom, recreate, rebrand, market and promote their cities and nations from the rubble left behind by the Germans and the Russians, and find their unique national identity after WWII flattened them. Co-hosting Euro 2012 and building the now-iconic, retractable-roof, red-and-white National Stadium (and various satellite stadiums) is certainly proof of just how far Poland has come.
The green waters filling this beautifully constructed bath date back to 60 AD when the Romans first “discovered” the natural hot spring, then constructed a temple and public baths over top of it. One million liters of mineral-rich water pour out of the spring every day! You can imagine the gold-mine this was to the Romans. Over the hundreds of years of usage that followed, the baths were altered and embellished. By the 1800’s, Bath had developed a reputation as a curative spring, and visitors even drank the water – Jane Austen was a frequent visitor to the city of Bath, though it seems that she disliked the city (her novel, Northanger Abbey was set in Bath and didn’t treat its setting nicely). Today, over a million people visit the baths every year, though to bathe in the water, there is a modern complex next door.
[This is also where I studied as an undergrad, and living here made me fall madly in love with England (a love still in full bloom today!) and hope one day to live here again!]