Ghent, Belgium

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Ghent, Belgium

Known as Belgium’s ‘hipster city’ (though of course the Ghentians? Ghentiles? will never admit to this label), Ghent is a very cool place. Nowhere near as famous as its neighbour, Bruges, it’s just as ancient, beautiful, untouched and medieval–but the best part is that it’s relatively undiscovered. Perhaps this is what draws the hipsters the city is so known for? Not only is the city peppered with funky art nouveau buildings, local cafes, chic galleries, vintage shops, and hole-in-the-wall bars, there are also gems such as  the ‘Wasbar’ (laundromat meets bar), a cafe known for its bizarre meatballs with the amazing name “Balls & Glory.” In 2012, as part of a city-wide public display of art in which 41 artists took part all over Ghent, artist Tazu Rous constructed a “hotel room” around the the clock tower of the train station, so that “guests” would in fact be sleeping next to the enormous clock-face…how’s that for an alarm clock!? Ghent is, undeniably, a ‘weird’ city–but in some ways, that’s the best kind of city. Perhaps there is some truth to Lonely Planet’s statement that this bohemian, nonconformist city “might just be the best European city you’ve never thought of visiting.” So maybe you should start thinking about it!

 

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Aosta, Italy

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Aosta, Italy

Dramatic mountains rise up behind this small Italian town. Far from the hills of Tuscany, the bustle of Rome or the art of Florence, Aosta offers something else entirely. Aosta, or Aoste in French, is a border town, lying close enough to the French border to render the inhabitants bilingual. Towns like Aosta in northern Italy are a far cry from the hillside farms one imagines of rural Italy. The people of the Aosta Valley are a study bunch, known for their great wines, easy temperaments, and simple lives. Aosta itself is a charming albeit small town, peppered with Roman ruins, narrow streets and pastel-colored houses. The Italian Alps paint a beautiful backdrop to this already-beautiful place. This town, snuggled into the valley of the same name, is beautiful in a rugged sort of way, as if the mountains and the townspeople are somehow connected to each other. And after just a moment, the visitor too feels as if they are part of this ancient, dramatic landscape!

Anse, France

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Anse, France

Finally back in France after a summer abroad, it’s time to start re-posting in order to fall in love with Europe again, one photo at a time. This here is Anse, a lovely French town plopped in the middle of the famous region, the Beaujolais, well-known both in and outside of France for its superb red wines. Small enough to be quaint but large enough to feel alive, Anse and the surrounding countryside is a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of Lyon, France’s 2nd-biggest city. No need to worry about traffic on the highways or paying 5-6 euros for a drink at a pub–life is far simpler in Anse. Whether you prefer to tramp through the breath-taking countryside (all the while taking in views of French vineyards!), wander the ancient streets imagining bygone times, eat at local family-owned eateries, or do a little wine-tasting yourself, Anse is the place to be! And at a mere 30-kilometer trek from Lyon, there’s really no excuse not to go!

 

Santoña, Spain

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Santoña, Spain

As today is my final day working in this small city in northern Spain, it seemed only appropriate to share an image of this charming seaside Spanish town. Santoña, located in the Spanish province of Cantabria, is a quiet town where one comes to hike to the top of the nearby mountain, enjoy relaxing days on the beach, drink a proper coffee on a Spanish terrace and discover the ruins of forts hanging off local cliffs. The weather more closely resembles the UK or northern France than the south of Spain, as it tends to rain a lot more than one would expect. As a result, there is life ; everything is green. Palm trees line the beach, blue skies rise over terracotta roofs. Fortresses crumble into the sea and next door, steep rugged cliffs rise out of the sea. Magic lingers on these rocky shores, and even though I’ll be gone tomorrow, the memories that follow me are magic enough.

Hohenzollern Castle, Germany

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Hohenzollern Castle, Germany

The sky is dark and cloudy, but what else would you expect it to be on a chilly winter’s day at a rural German castle? Could you honestly picture it any other way? German castles are known for their fairy-tale turrets paired with dark forests and remote hilltops, and it’s not hard to imagine yourself as a would-be prince or princess in a Grimm’s brothers tale. Hohenzollern Castle is no different. Silhouetted against a cloud-streaked sky not far from Stuttgart, the castle rises above the trees, beckoning travelers to climb its hillside and enter its thick walls. First constructed in the 11th century, Hohenzollern Castle barely survived a 10-month siege in the 1400’s, later serving as a refuge during the Thirty Year’s War. In the 18th century, like so many other castles of this era, Hohenzollern fell into ruins, becoming little more than vague inspiration for little-known artists and poets. In the mid-1800s, William IV of Prussia reconstructed the castle in the Gothic Revival style, basing his designs on the magnificent chateaus of the Loire Valley in France; today, only the chapel is originally medieval. And yet, as you climb the mountain, modern society slips through your fingers. By the time you arrive at the top of the castle towers to enjoy the view of the countryside, you realise that you’ve gone back in time by a few hundred years to a time when castles were a defense system, kings and queens wrote the law of the land, and armies still invaded on horseback.

 

Munich, Germany

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Munich, Germany

It’s hard to put the words “Munich” and “quiet” in the same sentence. Usually, the name “Munich” brings to mind Oktoberfest, beer, drinking, and drunkards. It’s hard to imagine one visiting Munich any other time of year–or for any other purpose. Yet, those who do venture into the capital of Bavaria outside the Oktoberfest period will be pleasantly surprised. The city is beautiful, charming, and historic. In fact, the city is teeming with history, both good and bad. Take any one of the free walking tours available, and it seems as if every corner has a story behind it. From the monks that founded Munich, to the king who fled in the face of the formidable Swedish army (who later returned after the army was defeated, bearing the gift of the golden Mary now in the main plaza as way poor way of saying ‘sorry’), to the Crystal Night (the night when window after window of Jewish homes and stores were smashed), to the Holocaust and the Gestapo and the horrors that followed. In the central cathedral, you’ll find a footprint on the ground which common legend says is the Devil’s footprint after he was tricked by the church-builders; on the other side of the old town, you’ll find a church that was rebuilt halfway authentic, and halfway in concrete, with clocks painted on every side of the bell-tower (why one would need eight clocks, no one really knows anymore). Sure, the beer in Munich is fantastic, and be sure to visit a beer-hall while in town. But…just remember, there’s more to Munich than the Hofbrauhaus and the Augustiner breweries!

Weekly photo challenge: Zigzag (Valencia)

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Valencia, Spain

Zigzag, criss-cross, cross-hatch, stripes, circles, arches–Valencia’s modern City of Arts and Sciences has it all. Each unique building brings to mind a different image–the hump of a sea dragon, a giant golf ball, a space-helmet, a gigantic crocodile’s eye, and, in this case, the skeletal remains of some enormous reptile rising out of the river (in my opinion ; perhaps you see something different?). Pillars zigzag above your head as you walk along the promenade, imagining that you are walking amongst the bones of a dead giant. Despite the crowds, one feels small and almost insignificant, walking through what would have been the “animal’s” stomach, neck constantly bent backwards as your eyes follow the complex systems of pillars and “bones”. Built in the old riverbed, the City of Arts and Sciences is a modern complex dedicated to the enrichment of knowledge (as its name suggests). One building houses an opera, another houses the aquarium, another hosts the impressive IMAX Cinema (on the ceiling!), still another is a concert hall. This one here is the Science Museum, an interactive and overall fun museum experience for all ages. Modern architecture isn’t always beautiful (and unfortunately, can often be an eyesore), but Valencia’s ‘Ciudad’ is the perfect example of how to make your city both modern and beautiful!

Dijon, France

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Dijon, France

It’s more than just mustard, folks! Yup, Dijon is a town in central France, and okay yes, it is known for its mustard. But why? Well, back in the 1850’s, a certain Jean Naigeon muddled around with the traditional mustard recipe and created this wonderful new product, which became a hit. Today, Dijon mustard is world-renowned (though the mustard does not necessarily have to be produced in Dijon). But aside from the mustard, Dijon is still something special. The town itself, set in the heart of the wine-growing region of Burgundy, is adorable. Tudor houses, Gothic churches, sweeping palaces, and bustling markets line the streets. Cafe tables dot the sidewalks, sunbathers dot the gardens. All in all, Dijon is a peaceful, beautiful place…where there just so happens to be a lot of mustard!