Krimulda Castle, Latvia

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Ruins in Krimulda, Latvia

Ruins always hold a certain charm–reminders to us that even the best eventually crumble and nothing lasts forever. And yet–they are romantic too, inspirations for artists and poets, writers and songwriters. And the more remote and less well-known they are, the more charm they seem to percolate. To reach the ruins of Krimulda Castle from the train station in Sigulda, one must first cross the desolate yet beautifully scenic Gauja Valley–in a cable car! Step into this adorable little yellow car, and spend the next twenty minutes dangling over the gorge, eyes glued to the window as the turrets of Turaida Castle rise above the treetops. As you land on the right bank, delve back into the solitary Latvian woods via a quiet hiking trail at the edge of the ruins. The odd way of reaching this remote place you never even knew was there–such as the Krimulda ruins–only makes it that much more…amazing. Built in the 14th century by Prince Liven, the castle of Krimulda was constructed on the right bank of the Gauja River Gorge. At the time, the gorge marked the frontier between the lands controlled by the Archbishop of Riga (including Krimulda and Turaida), and the Order of the Brethren Sword (what a name!), where Sigulda is currently located. The first year of the 17th century, during the Polish-Swedish war, the Swedes took control of the castle…so, rather than lose control of it, the Poles burned the castle to the ground, leaving it to become the ruins we see today. What a life people lived back then.

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Bruges, Belgium

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Classic view of Bruges, Belgium

For reasons unknown to me, Belgium gets a bad rep, mostly from the Brits. There seems to be a running joke that Belgium is boring and useless, which is difficult to understand for any tourists who visit this small European treasure!  The Fairytale Town of Bruges is most certainly the nation’s crown jewel. It has everything a traveller would want: Belgian waffles and fries sold every 10 steps (though not together!), oh-so-much chocolate, beautiful buildings, old Gothic-style halls and belfries, canals, cobblestones, fantastic beer, not-s0-terrible prices (in comparison to its neighbours, the UK and France!), and cheap, easy connections to other Belgian cities such as Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels. If you’ve seen In Bruges, you’ll see the foreigners’ “dislike” of Belgium in general and Bruges in particular, but at the same time, the boss (minus the swearing) hits the nail on the head while bewilderingly responding to his employee’s response that “Bruges isn’t his ‘thing’: “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How can a fairytale town not be somebody’s thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s thing, eh? How can swans not be somebody’s thing, eh? How can that be??!” How indeed?

Millennium Bridge, London, England

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Millennium Bridge, London, England

Seemingly like all bridges in this city (ahem London Bridge ahem), Millennium Bridge is made famous by falling down—though to be fair to the bridge, it only fell down in the fantastical world of Harry Potter. (In case you need a refresher, the Death Eaters led by the werewolf Fenir Greyback, wanting to wreak havoc as they are wont to do, collapsed the bridge in the beginning of the 6th film). In the real world, the bridge was constructed in 1998-9 to mark (you guessed it!) the millennium. Snuggled between the Globe Theatre, the Tate Modern and St Paul’s Cathedral, Millennium Bridge is a funky steel suspension pedestrian bridge twisting and turning its way over the Thames. Its prime location means it is highly trafficked—just watch out for those Death Eaters!

Budapest, Hungary

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Budapest, Hungary

As is so often the case, the castle offers a fantastic vantage point of the city below. From the castle terrace, one can see all of Budapest: the famous Hungarian Parliament Building, the Chain Bridge, the tower of St. Stephen’s Basilica, and of course, the Blue Danube. And on this clear, sunny Easter day, the Danube is actually blue! Budapest is one of Europe’s best-kept gems. A city with so much to offer, it is often overlooked by mass tourism travellers, though those more adventurous who wander eastward into Budapest are greatly reward for their trouble! Not only is everything a bargain in Budapest, but the city is downright gorgeous and ripe with culture, spice and tradition – especially during spring festivities!

Las Ramblas, Barcelona, Spain

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Las Ramblas, Barcelona, Spain

Didn’t immediately recognise this to be Spain? Look closely at the paintings themselves; there, you’ll see the artist’s rendition of the famed Sagrada Familia, the  magnificent and unmatched final creation of Antoni Gaudi – itself, a work of art! Barcelona is full of art. On La Ramblas – Barcelona’s main street – you’ll find not only painter’s stands like this one, but street performers wearing intricate costumes, performing mini theatrics, dancing to original routines, singing known and unknown songs – and more. But it’s more than that: Barcelona as a city is a Work Of Art. The Block of Discord is a great example – an entire city block dedicated to “bizarre” buildings, snuggled right into the city centre. Let’s not forget the famous artist Pablo Picasso, who spent much of his life in this city, and considered the Catalan capital his “true home.” And of course, we have Gaudi’s masterpieces, all of which clearly escaped from the Candyland board game: Parc Guell, Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, not to mention the Sagrada Familia (a work of art STILL under construction). Let’s face it, the Spanish city is more than an urban centre – it is a dramatic nod to the arts, and an artistic creation in itself! In the words of Picasso himself: “Every child is born an artist, the problem is how to remain one.” The world would do well to remember that!

Malbork Castle, Poland

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Malbork Castle, Poland

Poland’s pride and joy when it comes to castles is certainly this sprawling red-brick fortress. Built in Prussia by the Teutonic Knights in 1406, it was christened Marienburg (after Mary). Much of Poland had the misfortune of being destroyed in the world wars, so Poland doesn’t have much in the way of ancient castles, not the way that Spain or France or Italy does. But it does have Malbork–which, when measured in surface area, is the reigning king of castles–it is the largest castle in the world! Recognised by UNESCO, this brick masterpiece (brick castles being common in this part of Europe, see Trakai, Torun, and Turaida for further examples) is the largest brick structure in Europe. Now that’s certainly something to be proud of!

 

Chamonix, France

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Chamonix, France

Home to the famous Mont Blanc – at 4,810 m (or 15,781 ft) it is Europe’s tallest mountain – Chamonix is lovely “snow town” nestled into the mountains. One of the most picturesque sights is surely the lonesome church among the mountains – which is exactly what we have here. St Michel’s Church, a small parish just outside the town square, welcomes visitors from all over the world who want the chance to walk among Europe’s beautiful Alps. Whether one finds it in a church or high in the mountains, everyone needs a little peace and quiet for solitary reflection, making this the perfect retreat from a charged French vacation!

Lopud Island, Croatia

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Harbour on Lopud Island, Croatia

Located not far from Dubrovnik, Lopud Island–1 of 3 main isles of the Elafiti Island archipelago–is known for sun, sand, and orange clay roofs. Croatia itself has become immensely popular of late as a prime summer vacation spot. Dubrovnik and Split are bustling and active cities–though of course beautiful and unforgettable! But why not escape the city centre? For a country with so much coastline, a country known for its beaches and waters, why not get out on that famous water? Why not see the beautiful Dalmatian Coast from a boat? You will surely be rewarded. These isles are but a taste of what is out there. Lopud itself is small, less than 5km2 with a population of 22o. On it, you’ll find a Franciscan monastery–you can just see the church spire in the distance (could you imagine monks being here? Did they chill on the beach then like we do now? Probably not…). Along the sandy shores of Lopud, there are also a few other small ruins, many adorable houses, a lot of palm trees, and some amazing views!

Barcelona, Spain

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Plaza Catalunia, Barcelona, Spain

Orange umbrellas by orange roofs in Barcelona’s famous central plaza, stylised in the short-lived but spectacular Art Nouveau design. Orange is surely the national colour of Spain! Spain, after all, is a vibrant, lively country despite any economic mishaps. Everything is fun in Spain – from eating to drinking to taking naps to commuting (try out one of those mopeds!). Everybody is always outside, in the streets, on the balconies, in the plazas. Thanks to the largely sunny climate, life is nearly always spent outside – except during mealtime of course (14h-16h), which is traditionally taken inside with all the family, particularly if you live in a village or small town. And despite economic troubles, you’ll see nothing but smiles!

Nærøyfjord, Norway

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The Nærøyfjord branch of the Sognefjord, Norway

One of the most naturally beautiful places in Europe – and in the world – is surely the Norwegian fjords, of which they seem to have no shortage! The Sognefjord is one of the most famous; not only has if been recognised by UNESCO, but it is also located not far from Norway’s fjord capital, Bergen. It also happens to be the largest fjord in Norway, and the third-largest in the world (covering 205 km)! What better way to see these beautiful fjords than by boat? Boat as a method of travel has certainly diminished in recent years with the invention and perfection of both the car and the airplane. Boats have been rendered old-fashioned – which, actually, makes them more picturesque and romantic. Travelling by boat – whether it be a row boat on a rural Italian lake, an evening dinner-boat on the Amsterdam Canals, a cruise-liner down the Rhine River, an overnight ferry to Dubrovnik or a Norwegian cruise deep within these magical fjords, being on that boat, feeling the wind in your face, the hull rocking beneath you, the lap of the waves against its sides, the ability to actually see and enjoy and appreciate the scenery as they glide by – is an experience worth having.

Aberdeen, Scotland

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Aberdeen, Scotland

They don’t call Scotland’s northern metropolis “The Granite City” for nothing—Aberdeen is remarkably grey. But somehow, its greyness is what makes it special. In fact, another of it’s nicknames is “The Silver City;” so-called because the locally-quarried granite tends to sparkle due to a mineral called mica which is infused within the blocks. Aberdeen has been the site of human habitation for something like 8,000 years, and Aberdeen University is the 3rd oldest university in Britain! Unfortunately, it’s also known as Europe’s oil capital—which has undoubtedly brought wealth to the city, but hasn’t exactly helped its reputation. Regardless, its ‘Ancient University’ (yes—that’s an official term in Britain!) has many of foreign students studying within its ancient walls, giving the city an international, worldly feel despite its high altitude.

Turaida Castle, Latvia

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Turaida Castle, Latvia

What little girl doesn’t dream of becoming a princess? What little boy doesn’t, at one point or another, dream of becoming a knight? Even as we grow up, castles – especially the unexplored, wild, and overgrown castles – retain something romantic, as if the castle holds some sort of magical power. But as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts. And the journey to reach Turaida Castle is nothing short of adventurous! Starting in the town of Sigulda (where one obtains the highly-detailed map), you continue through the other ruinous castle to Gauja River Gorge, which you cross via cable car to arrive in the ghost town of Krimulda. There, you find a small path leading through more ruins, and continuing on past the Gutmanis Cave, through the woods before breaking out into a small clearing to view your prize—this beautiful brick castle circa 1214, brought to life by the Archbishop of Riga. Today, Turaida Castle remains one of the most important ruins in Latvia – but also one of the most interesting to visit. So if you’re feeling brave next time you visit Riga, forsake the car, forsake the bus, and take to the trails. This age-old journey leading through these ancient sites is well worth it.

 

Plac Zamkowy, Warsaw, Poland

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Plac Zamkowy, Warsaw, Poland

If anyone ever tells you that Warsaw—or for that matter, any of Poland’s major cities aside from Lodz—is grey, dark, depressing, or ugly—tell them to try visiting it first, because they obviously haven’t. Warsaw was mostly destroyed by the Second World War (something like 85% of the city was razed and the population hovered around 1,000)—but it has made a full recovery, at least aesthetically. Rubble became carefully constructed buildings. Plans were carefully executed, mimicking the way it looked before the war. Sadly, this was only done for the Old and New Towns, which became a UNESCO site. “Warszawa 1935,” a wonderful film released in 2012, uses the powers of modern technology to generate a 3D film of what Warsaw once looked like (evidently, something like Paris, Vienna and St Petersburg combined). The Soviet Era was not kind to Warsaw, and the city still suffers those scars. But in the centre, these bright, beautiful buildings here—these are its legacy. Due to a combination of colours, patterns, design, and simple Polish resilience, this square has—and will always be—the most beautiful part of Poland’s often-overlooked capital.

Château de Chenonceau, France

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Château de Chenonceau, France 

The beautiful Château de Chenonceau, dating back to 1513, owes its life, beauty, and survival to its beloved mistresses. Katherine Briconnet brought it to life, Henry II’s mistress Diane de Poitiers made it beautiful, Catherine de Medici made it extraordinary, and Madame Dupin protected it during the time of the French Revolution. The Château owes its existence and splendour to these women and others who created and cared for this beautiful French château, located in the infamous Loire Valley—a region famous for its regal residences. Chenonceau owes it all to these women who made it into the magnificent, iconic and historic gem that stretches elegantly across the River Cher today. Though all Loire Valley Châteaux are something special, a visit to the Château de Chenonceau will takes one’s breath away by its sheer extraordinary beauty! 

 

 

Field near Załęcze Wielkie, Poland

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Field near Załęcze Wielkie, Poland

April showers bring May showers—that’s what they say, right? Sometimes a dark grey sky can be just as beautiful as a bright blue one. Sometimes a rainstorm is as pretty as a clear day. How else will the flowers grow? How else will the world fill with life—not just flowers, but expanses of green grass, rows leafy trees, fresh air, skipping squirrels and twittering birds? So welcome in the cloudy days as well as the sunny ones because spring is here! Its in every corner of Europe, even rural Poland. Take a moment to appreciate the beauty of those showers. Go outside, take a hike, have a picnic, go for a bike ride – because the beauty of spring is all around!

Munich, Germany

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Altes Rathaus, Munich, Germany

Many think that this building is a church. Many also think that the New Town Hall is actually the old one due to its Gothic (revival) style – but in both cases, the onlooker would be wrong. This is, in fact, Munich’s Old Town Hall, located on Marienplatz. And old it is! First records show it existed in the 1390’s (while the New Town Hall was only constructed in the 1800’s, though most believe it is from the Middle Ages due to its Gothic design).  See those arches at the bottom (mostly hidden by the crowd)? They are actually tunnels, cut into the original building to make way for pedestrian and vehicle passageways, which unfortunately have altered the original floor-plan. Most people think of Munich only in conjunction with Oktoberfest, which is a shame – Munich is an amazing city with far more to see than just the Hofbrauhaus! Though of course, a pint here or there only adds to the city’s character…

 

Florence, Italy

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Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy

Ah, Florence, city of art and fine dining. City of Dante and his Divine Comedy, of Michelangelo and his David, Leonardo, Botticelli, Donatello, and Brunelleschi. How has one place produced so many great artists? And don’t forget the architecture–museums, palaces, churches, the Duomo. Bridge after bridge cross the Arno River—though of course the most famous is Ponte Vecchio, the beautiful covered bridge in the centre of Florence. The bridge dates back to medieval times. It was once common for bridges to be enclosed and lined with shops and stands, but few such bridges like this remain. Once the site of a Roman bridge, the Ponte Vecchio connects the two banks of the Arno at its narrowest point. Over the course of time, it has been weakened or swept away by floods and other disasters but has always been rebuilt. A common legend proposes that the Ponte Vecchio created both the term and phenomenon of bankruptcy, as any merchant on the bridge who could not pay his bills had his table or “banco” broken (“rotto”) by the authorities to render any further sales impossible (hence, “bancorotto.”) Oh, did I mention that, along with Pulteney Bridge in Bath and the Rialto Bridge in Venice, the Ponte Vecchio is the only other remaining bridge with shops on it in  Europe (all of which I’ve visited…)? Pretty cool!

 

Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

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Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain

This regal plaza is one of the Spanish capital’s two main squares (the other being Plaza del Sol, literally the epicentre of Spain, as it is located in the very centre of the city/country). Plaza Mayor, however, is even more beautiful than its sister. Dating back to the 1500’s and the reigns of both Phillip II and Phillip III, the plaza was designed to augment the beauty of Madrid after the king decided to make Madrid the new capital. Over the years, Plaza Mayor has seen everything from public markets, street fairs, bullfights, demonstrations, public executions, football matches (not sure how that one worked out), and trials of the Spanish Inquisition. In the beginning, it was called Plaza del Arrabal, and was once the meeting point for tradesmen pouring in from the then-larger city of Toledo. Today, these four beautiful, 5-story walls of this amazing Spanish square marks the very heart of Madrid, and Spain itself.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Letters (St Petersburg)

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St Petersburg, Russia

Drinking coffee in a beautiful Russian cafe, I picked up a newspaper and began to slowly decipher the words I knew. In light of my recent travels to Russia, I couldn’t resist putting a photo of the Cyrillic alphabet in response to this prompt, as I find Cyrillic even more beautiful than the Latin alphabet. Cyrillic was named after the saint brothers Cyril and Methodius who are generally given credit as the creators of the Glagolithic alphabet, which eventually developed into the Cyrillic (by way of the Greek alphabet), bringing literacy to the Russian people. Today, over 250 million people use the script as their official alphabet, primarily in Russia and other nearby countries. Despite what it might seem, learning to read Cyrillic is not terribly difficult…the 3 genders, 6 cases, and difficult pronunciation is what makes learning Russian hard–although that’s no reason not to try!