Don’t be put off by the long name! Hohenschwangau (meaning ‘High Swan Palace’) is an impressive castle in southern Germany, near the Austrian border. Though you may not recognise its name, you will most certainly have heard of (or seen a photo of) its magnificent next-door-neighbour, Neuschwanstein Castle (famous for inspiring Disney’s creation of Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Disney World, FL). In many ways, Hohenschwangau, while less jaw-dropping than its excessive neighbour, is much more authentic. Built in the 19th century by the Bavarian kings, it served as the childhood residence of the famous Ludwig II (the very same king who built the fairy-tale Neuschwanstein), and it is much more reserved in decor, riches, and style. There has been a fortress on the spot since the 12th century, which underwent many changes during its several hundred years of existence. Because of invasions from Austria, it was plundered in 1743, and due to hard times, the land was eventually sold in 1820, only to be bought back by the the next generation of Bavarian kings, Prince Maximilian II, who discovered some ruins while on a tour of his land. So inspired was he by the beauty and family history of the crumbling ruins that he spent the next 20 years bringing splendour and life back to Hohenschwangau. Of course, it was only inhabited for about a generation, as Ludwig built his own castle nearby, the celebrated Neuschwanstein, though that castle was never finished. Today, the two castles preside together over the valley and land that was so important to the old Bavarian kings.
This pink church is the first and oldest Baroque church in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Built 1604 to 1635, it was dedicated to the patron saint of Vilnius, Prince Casimir Jagiellon from the lat 15th century. For its relatively small size, Vilnius seems to have an awful lot of churches. Baroque towers with intricate facades and gilded tips, orthodox churches with fancy Cyrillic writing, Gothic churches covered in spires. Red brick facades or painted in pastel colors, Vilnius’s churches are beautiful, tranquil, non-imposing. They seem nature, as if they are exactly where they are supposed to be. For an often-overlooked city, Vilnius has plenty of charms up its sleeves. It will never beat Tallinn (one of Europe’s most beautiful cities), or Riga, an Art Nouveau masterpiece. Yet, there is still something very special about this beautiful Baltic gem!
If you like cheese, you may have a stronger grasp on rural French geography than you realised. This is because in France, cheeses are often named for the villages where they originate, and remain very region-specific for centuries, shaping both local culture and local pride. Roquefort, for example, comes from…wait for it…Roquefort, France! And the cheese Saint-Nectaire comes from the village of the same name–also the same name as the village church, pictured above. Located in central France, in the rural department of Auvergne (where Michelin comes from!), the village itself doesn’t seem that special at first glance. But no one can pass through without stopping to buy Saint-Nectaire cheese from the source! However, it wasn’t always so tranquil here. This quiet village was once a thriving spa town in the 19th and early 20th century, and as a result, there are still several once-grand hotels from the 19th century at the base of the beautiful church. Today, thermal spa towns–including Saint-Nectaire–have lost some of their popularity (except in Scandinavia and places such as Budapest). Yet, there’s something enthralling about glancing into the past at these once top-of-the-line resorts that makes one long for the old days of steam engine travel: 2-month-long trips, grand hotels, dressing for dinner, days spent visiting thermal baths or preparing for balls. Just make sure you try the cheese.
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Italy is the beautiful Aosta Valley, known for its snug villages, magnificent castles and rich red wine. Aosta the town (above) is an ancient Roman stronghold, built as a station on the way to Roman Gaul (modern-day France), and the vestiges of the site’s original inhabitants crop up all over the town from the theatre to the forum to the victory arch. The Medieval era left its mark on the town by way of several magnificent churches, and the more recent times (ie the 17-18oos) have seen the village grow into a burgeoning town. Aosta is both a town and a region seeped in history and lost in time. The 30-31 January they practice the “Sant‘Orsa Fair” festival–with origins so old that no one remembers the actual starting point! Experts age it to about 1000 years old, and today it is an arts and crafts festival, attracting artists, tradesmen and artisans from near and far. And of course, there is the annual Christmas market in December and January, a place to buy all sorts of traditional and handmade gifts, including delicious wine from the region! Aosta makes a great starting point to discover the valley–and for any history/castle buffs out there, it is a valley that needs to be discovered! Dozens upon dozens of castle reign over high heights in one of the most castle-rich part of Italy. For nature buffs, it’s a lovely place to hike, canoe, or kayak. Summer or winter, for leisure or active travel, Roman history or medieval times, little-known Aosta is a your gem.
Known for its mustard, we often forget that this name also signifies a charming French town. Dijon is a maze of cobbled streets, wallpapered with wattle-and-daub striped facades. Dijon does not have the splendour of Paris, the bouchons of Lyon, or the coziness of a Provincial village. What it does have instead is the gentle calm of the countryside mixed with the elegance found in French cities; small town quaintness found with French splendour. Another bonus, it is at the entrance of the Beaujolais (known for its splendid red wines), on the route that carries traffic north-south, with gastronomy capital Lyon not too far away. One of the symbols of the town is an owl (inspired by a sculpture of an owl found on the cathedral; touching it supposedly brings luck); but now, it is your guide to the city. Follow the little owls all over town to discover Dijon’s charms!
The film set for Ken Follet’s World Without End is probably one of the most interesting castles in Europe.Why, you ask? Well, in some ways it’s not a castle at all. Some consider it authentic, but for others, it’s nearly akin to a hoax. You see, Kreuzenstien Castle is a bought castle, a ‘Frankenstein’ castle. It has been created from a hodgepodge of other castles from Austria, France, Romania, Germany…you get the picture. A ‘Frankenstein castle.’ The owner, Count Johann Wilczek, made rich from coal mining, decided that the ruinous medieval castle that predated the current structure was not a fitting for the Counts of Wilczek, so he built his own, using the original foundations as well as bits of any other medieval structures that his coal-mine money could buy. In this way, it is considered both a ‘neo’ and ‘original’ medieval building! Regardless whether you view it as ‘authentic’ or not, the castle remains a beautiful building with an interesting history, and well worth the day trip from Vienna. Add bonus? If you’re into history, try to spot the different styles, eras, and buildings!
Vivid colours are one thing that Split does not lack. Turquoises and azures, cerulean and sapphire – blues of every shade – are the principle colours associated with this ancient Croatian city, as the Mediterranean laps gently against the city’s feet – but there are other colours too. Pinks sprout from Trg Republike (or Republic Square), both from its beautiful stone walls as well as the bright flowers that encircle the cafes. Oranges – in the way of clay tiles – dress the roofs of the ancient city (much like in Dubrovnik). And greens decorate the walls, here in the way of brightly-painted shutters, elsewhere via luxurious palm trees and other exotic vegetation that fans Split’s streets, contrasting against the somber stone. In any case, Split is a city of vibrant life and colours!
Happy New Year everyone! Yes, this little guy is a wild pony, well-fed by the New Forest’s robust undergrowth. The New Forest, located in southern England near Winchester, the ancient capital of England, is what remains today of a once-majestic great wood. It was once the King’s Wood (or Kingswood), a forest set aside for the king’s enormous hunting parties, started sometime after 1066 by our old friend, William the Conqueror. The Forest continued to be inhabited by simple folk who could–and can–trace their lineage centuries back. Many of them kept ponies (for work), though they let them roam free, which is how the Forest came to be inhabited by these furry, hardy creatures. Despite world events, the New Forest has changed very little in the last 1000 years. Ancient trees still loom together, looking over muddy fields, quiet lakes and thatched roofs. One still sees the same names on doors, such as Furzey, an old local name. One still sees remnants of its Norman beginnings, such as the village of Beaulieu (though today pronounced “Byoow-lee” by locals). Old, dark spires rise up along modern roads built on top of ancient paths. But for the full effect of the New Forest, one must leave the car behind and trek into nature. One cannot fully appreciate the New Forest until one has mud on one’s shoes, rain in one’s coat, leaves in one’s hair, a pony in one’s sight. It is an old, magical place, this misnomer, the very old New Forest.
*If interested in the New Forest, check out Edward Rutherford’s intriguing and epic tale of the place, simply called “The Forest,” spanning nearly 1000 years of history of the Forest, told through tales about the inhabitants over the centuries.