Rhône riverside in Lyon, France

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View of the Rhône River in Lyon, France

It’s only fitting to choose a photo of Lyon today, as the next six weeks will be spent taking a short break from France to work in rural Spain. Lyon is a beautiful city – but it is one that rarely gets put on the map. It’s also been called one of France’s “most liveable cities”–which is mostly because of the Lyonnais themselves. With roots that go all the way back to the Romans (then called “Lugdunum”), Lyon has been an important city since its founding in 43 BC largely because of its location at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône Rivers. Today, it’s regarded as France’s “gastronomic capital” – and since many consider France to rank #1 when it comes to cuisine…perhaps this means that Lyon is the #1 place to eat in the world? While that may not be true for everyone, it is true that the city has a lot to offer: local bouchons (restaurants with Lyonnais cuisine) coupled with the extravagant restaurants created by the famous chef Paul Bocuse (on the other end of the spectrum), a beautiful old town (the Vieux Lyon), the hill of Fourvière with the Roman ruins (once a great amphitheater) plus the beautiful Basilica, as well as not one but two rivers lined with quays–perfect for strolling, picnicking, biking, enjoying a beer, reading in the sun, people-watching, photographing, or simply taking in the views of Lyon by day and night. Take a step back and enjoy the views–because Lyon is one of the most underrated yet most beautiful cities in Europe!

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St Sephen’s Green, Dublin, Ireland

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St Sephen’s Green, Dublin, Ireland

Ireland is green, we all know that. It’s green not because of the leprechauns (sadly), but because of the rain; we know that too. So it only makes sense that Dublin’s biggest city centre park would have the word ‘green’ in the title. Anyone fancy a stroll through Fusiliers’ Arch, past the duck-ponds, through the flowers, among all the statues of famous Irish writers (like James Joyce, WB Yeats, James Clarence Mangan, etc)? It may seem peaceful – but it wasn’t always so. Dublin has – how to put it? – a troubled history. (In fact, for such a small country, Ireland has a bit of troubled history…). There was the the Dublin Lock-out made famous by Yeats’ “September 1913” poem. There was the infamous Bloody Sunday (in 1972; chillingly recent). And of course there was the Easter Rising of 1916. The Rising was an armed conflict between the “Irish Republicans” wanting to set up an independent Irish Republic, and the British nationalists who wanted to continue the Queen’s rule over the island. You may ask how that involves the park. Well, for some reason, the Irish insurgents set up camp in St Stephan’s Green. They barricaded the frontiers, they blocked the exits, and they dug trenches (trenches! In central Dublin! Try to imagine…). They turned the poor park into a war-zone. It wasn’t until they realised the Brits had set up shop in high up the nearby Shelbourne Hotel (guns pointed downwards straight at them), that they abandoned the war-park – and 100 years later, it’s beautiful again. Though interestingly enough, while they were still occupying the park, a cease-fire was briefly called so that the park’s guardian could…wait for it…feed the park’s colony of ducks! (FYI, the ducks are still there, and doing just fine!)

Złote Tarasy, Mall, Warsaw, Poland

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Złote Tarasy Mall (as seen from outside & inside), Warsaw, Poland

While a mall might not be the first thing you think of when the words “beautiful places” and “Europe” are combined in the same sentence, that doesn’t mean they don’t qualify! While most malls are rather mundane and follow the same generic formula, some break the mould; some make you look around and notice the building itself, not just the stores and shops and stands indoors. This particular mall in downtown Warsaw, located a stone’s throw away from Dworzec Centralny (the central train station), and the Palace of Science & Culture (a sturdy specimen of Stalinistic architecture, erected in many cities he “conquered”), is modelled after a waterfall – a cascade of water breaking a damn and spilling over into central Warsaw. Somehow, it seems fitting – the waves crash over the barrier, threatening to drown Stalin’s tower (which so many see as a vestige of Communist oppression, a period in history they’d like to put behind them). While at the end of the day, Złote Tarasy is a mall like any other when it comes to shopping and fast food-dining, it’s still quite an artistic place to buy a new pair of shoes, eat pierogies, or see a film!

Chambéry, France

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Place Saint Leger, Chambéry, France

From farmer’s markets to flea markets, ice cream stands to creperies, from sunshine to rainy days, Place Saint Leger has seen it all. Chambéry is a small yet beautiful French town not far from the Italian border and comfortably close to the French Alps. On a clear day, the Alps are clearly visible; on a rainy day, you can just make them out in the fog. The air is cooler and crisper than in larger nearby cities like Lyon or Torino. It’s surprisingly colourful here, as if Poland’s vibrant market squares have been transported to Western Europe and imposed upon a French city. Despite its small size and vaguely-remote location, Chambéry is a bustling mini-metropolis. Street after street exudes colours from their painted facades. Neighbours stop to chat, tourists wander the streets in small groups, cafes fill with patrons. Everywhere, there is an air of tranquility. This is a place where one eats heartily, walks slowly, breathes clearly, and relaxes entirely.

Dalmatian Coast in Bosnia & Herzegovina

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Neum and the Dalmatian Coast in Bosnia & Herzegovina

What do you know about Bosnia? Probably the war, probably a vague knowledge of its geographic position as “somewhere in Eastern Europe,” probably that it once was part of Yugoslavia, probably not much else. But did you know that this little-landlocked country isn’t landlocked? The town of Neum actually splits Croatia in two (anyone driving from Dubrovnik to Split must pass through it). It’s certainly true that, even just passing through, one can see the socioeconomic difference between these two Balkan countries; Croatia has a certain shine to it that Bosnia does not–but that doesn’t stop the view from being gorgeous! While Mostar is probably Bosnia’s crown jewel, it’s still exciting to pass through this small town and take a moment to remember all this little country has been through in recent years. While one day, I’d love to visit the beautiful Mostar and its famous bridge, for now, I can make due with Bosnia’s little slice of the Dalmatian Coast!

Ruins in Aosta, Italy

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Ruins of the Roman theatre in Aosta, Italy

We all know that Romans were some of the most advanced builders of all time. Things they constructed not only still exist today, but are often still in use. Here in Aosta, a “bilingual” city in northern Italy (not far from the French border), one sees many Roman vestiges. Why? Well, around 25 BC, Marcus Terentius Varro conquered the local people and “founded” the Roman colony, Augusta Praetoria Salassorum, and a few years later, it became the capital of the ‘Alpes Graies’ (“Grey Alps” if you couldn’t guess!) region of the Roman Empire because of its strategic location on the crossroads from Rome to modern-day France and Germany. Of course, everything is aligned on a grid, all is divided equally, centered around the main road–these are the Romans we’re talking about! As for the theatre itself, it dates back to the reign of Claudius, and held up to 4000 people. It’s no longer in use today…but just next door is the marketplace, which is still regularly used! The city itself sits on a impressive backdrop of the Alps. Along with the rest of the castle-filled Aosta Valley, the city is also well-known for wine. With the Roman ruins, the magnificent Alps, the surrounding landscape of flowers and villages, the happy Italians, the lovely blend of French and Italian, and the delicious wine (and pizza…this is Italy after all!), Aosta is the place to be!

Château de Vimy, Neuville-sur-Saône, France

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The château de Vimy in Neuville-Sur-Saône, France

Of course, the list of reasons why you should fall in love with France is longer than China’s Great Wall, but one of things from the list that particularly stands out is the sheer number and beauty of French villages. While places like Poland, Croatia or Latvia have their own form of beauty (Polish old towns are especially beautiful, Croatia has an magnificent coastline and Latvia has some magnificent “unexplored” wilds), 9 times out of 1o, the villages you encounter in their countryside are just okay. Of course, Spanish and British and German villages are cute too…but nothing beats France. One of the best ways to see France is to get a bike, head out to the countryside – biking along the Saône River, the Rhône River, the Loire River or the Gard River are just a few examples of river-based itineraries – and visit the villages. This particular village, renamed Neuville in 1665 by the archbishop of Lyon, Camille de Neufville, features this castle or une maison forte, as the French say (literally, a “strong house” i.e. a fortified dwelling), that rises up from the town’s centre. Sadly, the castle is in disrepair and closed to the public, but this has little affect on the loveliness of the surrounding village. The Monts d’Or region north of Lyon (literally, “Mountains of Gold”) along the Saône River, is full of adorable, take-your-breath-away villages (and not just because you’re huffing and puffing after putting a few kilometers on that French bicycle!) – so don’t forget your camera. Or a bit of cash – Les Monts d’Or borders the Beaujolais wine region, so be sure to taste local wines, perhaps buy fresh, local produce, or even stop for a quick beer by the river!

 

Antwerp, Belgium

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Tram in Antwerp, Belgium

Of all forms of transportation, trains and trams are certainly the most romantic. Visit any city that still uses its old-fashioned trams, and you can’t help but smile at them, reminded of black-and-white films and all that they come with. In the evening light, old-fashioned trams are even more picturesque and romantic – and downtown Antwerp is no different. While the central square of Antwerp is both beautiful and well-populated with tourists, most of the old town is quiet and empty, the kind of streets where one can hear the rustle of leaves and tap, tap of shutters against walls. You walk along the tram tracks, lost in a zig-zag of backstreets lined with brick houses, searching for a restaurant or perhaps just going for an evening stroll, when suddenly in the dim haze, you see a small light in the distance. No more is all quiet; you can hear the clacking of the tram’s wheels against the iron, you can see the swaying motion of the carriages as the tram takes the bend. Flattening yourself against one of the buildings, you watch as the round headlight grows bigger and bigger until finally, the tram chugs by you, disappearing around the next corner–leaving you alone on the street once more with nothing more than the rustle of the wind to keep you company.

Sagunto, Spain

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Sagunto, Spain

It’s hard to imagine that in 12 days (twelve!), I will be back in Spain – and for the whole summer! Spain is certainly one of those countries that is so…flavourful, so memorable. Memories of Spain do not get jumbled into a pile of “vaguely-European memories;” instead, they stand out, just like this bright orange house in the adorable village of Sagunto, not far from Valencia. Spanish cities are great for the nightlife, but Spanish villages are where you go if you like to eat, drink, take beautiful photos, see ancient buildings, and watch the magnificent sunsets. Sagunto, an ancient Roman city, may not be huge and sprawling, but it creates its own miniature “bustling” world. The people are nice, the weather is great, the beach is close (6km), the beer is cheap, and the views are fantastic – what more could you want?

Budapest, Hungary

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Street-performing violin-guitar duo in Budapest, Hungary

We don’t give enough attention into the sounds of a place; it may be the most underrated of the five senses. For most of us–tourists and locals alike–it’s all about the magnificent views, pretty buildings, smells of the food cooking, the taste of the perfect pizza or verre du vin, perhaps even the feel of the cobblestones underfoot. Out in the countryside, sounds get a little more attention–namely, birds chirping, cicadas buzzing, wind blowing. Not only do sounds add flavour to a city, but they change our perspective of the view–without us even noticing! And one of the most positive influences on a city–when it comes to sounds–are those of street performers. Street artists don’t get enough credit. They hold the power to add character and completely change the way we think about a place. Could you imagine Las Ramblas in Barcelona without people in costume, artists painting your caricature, people singing and dancing to Spanish music? Could you imagine the streets of Paris or Lyon without someone playing French ballads on an accordion? Or Vienna without it’s constant stream of Oscar-worthy musicians and singers? Budapest without these lovely musicians in the Castle District? They exist in every city–and yet, we hardly pay them any attention. We enjoy their music as we walk by, perhaps smile for a moment before continuing on without even a thought to reach for our wallets. Yet, normal city sounds (car motors, airplanes over head, people shouting, machines humming, etc) aren’t very ‘beautiful;’ and all those barely-noticed artists, musicians and performers who do make beautiful or–at least interesting–music and performances are left to become obscure starving artists….now how is that fair? So the next time you’re downtown and someone’s performance makes you stop and watch or listen, be nice and toss in a few coins.

Sacred spring near Kluski, Poland

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Zrodełko objawienia (“Spring of Revelations”) near Kluski, Poland

Apparently, this site has been of religious interest for over a 1,000 years, and Christians have been coming here for healing ever since. However, it was only recently that the pope decided it was indeed holy and allowed the building of the stone spring and Mary’s statue (because apparently, we need his permission for that? A Holy Building Permit or something?). Next to the small spring there is a cup, used for dipping into the water in order to drink the magical spring water – which is supposedly capable of healing all wounds. Those healed, or ‘touched by angels,’ leave small angel statues by the spring’s edges, as a way of thanking Mary for her help. People used to gather here once a year, in May, to celebrate the anniversary of the spring’s discovery, but ever since the pope (or his local representative) blessed it and recognised it as holy, they now have much more frequent masses. During the communist rule, they used to take away the angels and the other offerings, since of course, the communists wanted to suppress religion – but the resilient Poles continued to make the pilgrimage to the spring and leave behind the angels anyway, preserving the tradition.

St Petersburg, Russia

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View from St Isaac’s Cathedral, St Petersburg, Russia

Despite the scary stories you may remember from your childhood, Russia is not the terrifying place you were brought up to believe. (Or perhaps it is, but it’s hiding behind the world’s most beautiful facade!?) St Petersburg is in the running for Europe’s most beautiful city–and many wouldn’t even consider SPB in Europe at all! They would be wrong; one look at the city, and it is quite apparent that SPB is genuinely European. The city is the jewel in Russia’s crown (if it had a crown). In fact, St Petersburg is a work of art! The river Neva and the street Nevsky Prospekt are the city’s main arteries, coming together just around the corner of St Isaac’s, and, flowing along these two arteries are the city’s most important and most beautiful buildings. Climb to the top of St Isaac’s for a bird’s-eye view of this amazing city, and try to count the spires and domes of all the cathedrals dotting the horizon!

London, England

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London, England

Ah, London, the capital of the world—the UK. It’s hard to think of a more – well, wonderful – place on this continent (even if its not actually on the continent, something the Brits constantly remind everyone else of!). Yes, often grey, often a bit rainy—but doesn’t that just make it all the more—London? London wouldn’t be London without its fog and rain! (That said, a sunny day in London is like a dream come true). In central London, we find the iconic London Eye (in the top right corner), not far from the infamous Houses of Parliament, usually the first stop on any London itinerary. This city, while expensive enough to make you cry, has so much to offer—life, culture, a little bit of everything. Looking for quaint, crumbling buildings on cobblestone streets? We’ve got it. You want crazy fun nightlife? Find it here. Looking for artsy, funky, hole-in-the-wall bars and cafes? Got that too. High culture? It’s everywhere. Fancy tea-houses? But of course. Grungy, dodgy bars? Uh huh. Some of the best museums you’ll ever see? Take your pick! The chance to see a real-life royal family? Come to London! Great shopping (if you’re into high-end shopping…)? Always. Literature, theatre, opera, ballet…? It’s here. Picnics in the lovely Hyde Park? Unbeatable! A chance to taste cuisine from literally any corner of the world? Come to London! …Plus, who doesn’t love the Union Jack?!

Gravensteen Castle in Ghent, Belgium

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Gravensteen Castle in Ghent, Belgium

Often, the most splendid castles are usually found in rural areas far from city centres. Nestled amongst the centre of the lovely town of Ghent, the spires of the Gravensteen reach for the sky and its walls crumble into the moat—all perfectly medieval. This fortress was built around 1180 by Philip of Alsace, which he modeled after castles he encountered while fighting in the 2nd crusade. Threatened with destruction in the 19th century, the owner of the Gravensteen decided to make the originally medieval castle “even more medieval,” thereby commencing a lengthy restoration project—which caused people to question its authenticity. As it is located in the middle of the city, power lines, asphalt roads, and cars criss-cross the castle grounds. Yet the real-fake medieval castle sits in the Place Sint-Veerleplein, unaffected, steadfast and silent, watching as the modern world whizzes by.

Oh, and happy 200 posts, i.e. 200 beautiful places for you to visit!

Pérouges, France

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Pérouges, France

Why are medieval villages so beautiful? For that matter—why is France so beautiful? Old—and ancient—things hold a charm that seems impossible to resist. Their nostalgia reminds us of a time that we perceive as “simpler” (despite the fact that disease was rampant, bathing was non-existent, food was plain, violence was everywhere and lifespans were short), we can’t help but see the vestiges left behind in the form of medieval towns as that “better, simpler” life. While that probably isn’t true, it is true that people in the Middle Ages spent a lot more time on the construction of things. As everything had to be done by hand and took years to accomplish, stone buildings were built with a care that we rarely see today. Whereas now when we may put up a building in 3 months, we often know that it’ll only be there 10-15 years before we pull it down and build something ‘more modern.’ It’s worth taking the time to appreciate the buildings that took so much blood, sweat, time and care to plan, build and maintain in villages such as Pérouges—a genuine member of “The Most Beautiful Towns in France”—before modern architecture has consumed them all.

 

Glastonbury, England

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Fields near Glastonbury, England

If there’s one thing that is certain, it’s that England is green. In fact, it is very green. Clearly, it must rain A LOT to make it this green! Right? And yet, if you look at annual rainfall in Glastonbury (southern England), it varies between 45-90 mm. If you look at a rainfall in a place, like, say, Washington DC (which isn’t a desert, but also not known for its torrential downpour), it varies between 50-100mm/month! How can this be? How can this English city and Washington have roughly the same average annual rainfall? England is the rainiest place on Earth! But no, not according to the numbers. Basically, English weather is grey, overcast, with a daily spritz of rain. And in DC, when it rains, it pours – and then it’s finished. So while English weather means lots and lots of beautiful green fields – it also means consistent greyness (note: see sky in above photo). That said, England is still one of the loveliest places on Earth!

Cliffs in Ronda, Spain

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Cliffs in Ronda, Spain

Literally split in two by a massive cliff, Ronda is considered the capital of the Pueblos Blancos region of Andalucia (southern Spain). And Ronda is drop-dead beautiful! The white cliff dwellings are picture-perfect, the atmosphere is chill, the sun is shinning, the sangria is pouring. Ronda has the heart of a village – and the size of a town! Obviously, the canyon, El Tajo, is what truly makes this town stand out. A famous scene in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls relates how Fascist sympathisers were tossed off a cliff in a fictional Spanish town during the Civil War (1936-9) – and many claim that Hemingway used Ronda as a model for his fictional story. Nearby, there are also fascinating and well-preserved ruins of the Arab baths. As the whole town is built precariously into this cliff and mountainous region, you’ll have to navigate winding roads, hairpin turns and narrow bridges crossing deep gorges to approach the baths. But despite any falling Fascists or narrow gorges, Ronda is one of the prettiest Spanish town – and that’s saying a lot!


More Beautiful Small Towns and Villages in Sunny Spain
  1. GrazelamaAndalucia
  2. Zahara de la Sierra, Andalucia
  3. Segovia (near Madrid)
  4. Toledo (near Madrid)
  5. Santillana del Mar, Cantabria

 

Prague, Czech Republic

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Prague, Czech Republic

Bathed in early-morning light is the only way to visit Prague’s Staré Město, or Old Town. If you only see one Eastern European city, it will probably be Prague. Why? Prague is without doubt one of the most beautiful cities you will ever behold–possibly the most beautiful European city (in my opinion anyway, alongside St Petersburg, Tallinn, Dubrovnik and Ronda). It is also one of the most international–in the space of minutes, no matter the season, one will hear not only English and Czech, but also Polish, Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, German, Swedish, Portuguese, Danish, Slovakian (should I continue? You’ll hear them all!), as well as plenty of non-European languages. It seems that everyone has discovered the Czech capital–but don’t let that stop you! Prague’s magnificent old town, its massive castle, its picturesque views from Castle Hill, its delicious beer, its unbelievably low prices, and its generally quaint yet elegant appearance is to die for! Its central location makes it easy to visit, as a 5-hour drive in any direction will get you to : Berlin, Bratislava, Budapest, Częstochowa, Dresden, Graz, Krakow, Munich, Nuremburg, Vienna, or Wroclaw !  While in town, be sure to go shopping–they have some of the cheapest prices you’ll ever see–but most importantly, be sure to rise and shine early at least once, because Prague during the sunrise is, well, utterly beautiful!

Grenoble, France

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Grenoble, France

Voici la ville de Grenoble, the Gateway to the Alps. And here we are, looking through an actual gateway! Grenoble, while generally acknowledged to be a “modern” city – and far from the top of the (very long) list of Beautiful French Cities – it is still well-known for its easy access to the Alps and all that comes with these spectacular mountains. Busy with hikers in the summer and skiers in the winter, inactivity is a malady quite unknown to the city. That said, stop for a coffee, pastry or ice cream in many of the cafes downtown, and you won’t be disappointed! For fantastic views, weave your way up the steep, narrow paths up through the stone buildings in various states of ruin until you finally reach the Bastille – where you can expect a magnificently beautiful panorama !

Val d’Aosta, Italy

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Val d’Aosta // Vallée d’Aoste, Italy

Castles abound in this Italian region bordering both France and Switzerland. The borders and rulers of this region have changed too many times to recount, giving the region a severe case of identity crisis. Even today, though a part of Italy for a long time, the region still seems relatively bilingual in both Italian and French. The city of Aosta is often the destination—but the train ride to the Roman city is one of those times when Emerson’s expression “life is a journey, not a destination” comes to light. Keep your eyes glued to the train windows because all those times the valley changed hands have created a need for limitless castles and fortresses—therefore, it is rather like playing “Where’s Waldo?” (if Waldo was a castle!) every five minutes! Mostly built in the typical Italian style (see Milan), the castles not only add a romantic flair to the valley, but also serve to remind us of our brutal feudal history—and the reason why we built castles in the first place.