The region of Auvergne is surely one of the most under-rated in all of France. Barely a blimp on most tourist’s radars, Auvergne, located in the heart of the country, is home to an incredible mountain range, the Massif Central. Incredibly ancient, beautiful and rugged though accessible, the Puys of the Massif Central are a hiker’s paradise. While the Puy de Dôme is the icon of Auvergne and its mountain range, there are many other lesser-known mountains, like the Puy de Clierzou (or Cliersou), rising some 1,199 metres and home to a network of caves. Though the mountains were remote until opened up by recent roads, the Caves of Clierzou have been used since Antiquity, when they were found and inhabited by the Gallo-Roman peoples. Atop the Puy de Dôme there is the Roman-era Temple of Mercure, but in smaller places like the Caves of Clierzou, there is also evidence of human use through the centuries. From the Caves of Clierzou, one has a good view of the Puy de Dôme, a sacred place for those who built their temple here. Oh and did we mention these mountains are extinct volcanoes? On your hike through the Puy de Clierzou and the Puy de Sansy past the caves, you’ll get the chance to stand inside an ancient volcanic crater…
Pro tip: Clermont-Ferrand is the regional capitol and main point of entry. Near the Caves of Clierzou, Orcines is the closet town, and home to a splendid cathedral (one of five of the same design, like this one at nearby St Saturnin). There are many hikes in the Massif Central and the Puys – the hike up Puy de Sansy (with the added bonus of Puy de Clierzou) is one of the more popular and well-marked. There is some info here and a circuit of Puy de Sansy here. No wild camping or fires allowed.
Eilean Donan Castle currently holds the honour of being the most photographed (and Instagrammed) location in Scotland! But aside from its popularity on the screen, Eilean Donan Castle is a pretty incredible – and formidable – place. This medieval fortress is located on a small tidal island (most photos show it at high tide for maximum photogenic prowess but here it is at low tide). In fact, “Eilean” means “island” in Scots Gallic, and Donan refers to a martyred Celtic saint – the name might mean that there was a small monastic settlement in the spot in early Christian times, but that is unproven. Strategically located at a place where three sea lochs meet (Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh), Eilean Donan was erected in the 13th century by Clan Mackenzie, one of the major players in the constant power struggle amongst the Highland clans. The castle stood intact until the early 1700s when the Mackenzie’s got involved in the infamous Jacobite Rebellions (a series of uprisings between 1688 and 1746 to return Catholic King James to the throne) and the castle was attacked and partially destroyed before being reconstructed in the 20th century. The castle started with just an enciente or fortified wall surrounding the island, perfect for guarding against Norse attacks. It later became property of the Mackenzie clan, even supposedly sheltering Robert the Bruce. The exterior wall was reduced in order to make more defensive structures, and a triangular courtyard or “horn” was added to increase the island’s defensiveness. Today the castle is rebuilt on the same groundwork as the medieval castle, though the details vary from the original. That said, it is one of Scotland’s most amazing and iconic locations!
Pro tip: From the castle, wander across the road to the wee village of Dornie. The castle makes for a good stop between Inverness and the Isle of Skye.
While most of Poland is flat, Poland’s southern border with Czechia, Slovakia and Ukraine to the south has some sizeable mountains. Poland’s mountains come in two groups, the Carpathian’s (most famously associated with Romania, bit stretching through a good bit of the Balkans and Eastern Europe) on the eastern half of Poland’s southern realms, and the Sudetes, on its western side. The most well known of these are the Tatras Mountains and the Beskid Mountains, both part of the Carpathian range. While the Tatras are Poland’s most significant mountains, none of Poland’s mountainous terrain is enough to prevent habitation, and the Tatras are especially popular as idyllic mountain getaways. The most famed mountain resort is of course Zakopane, well known for its winter skiing and summer hiking. Rising up behind the town is Gubałówka Mountain. At 1,126m elevation, it provides commanding views over the surrounding Tatras and out to the Slovakian peaks, whose border is just a dozen or so kilometres away. Gubałówka Mountain is serviced by a funicular, opened in 1938 to allow non-hikers to enjoy the view at this new and fashionable ski resort, though to fully appreciate the Tatras mountains and Polish countryside, it’s recommended to hike to the top of this hill too. The top is a cacophony of shops (many selling the same cheap souvenirs), festivities, bars and restaurants as well as stunning views and adorable chalets. Even if resort towns aren’t your cup of tea, Zakopane is a great jumping off point to arrive in the region, get your bearings and prepare for you hiking adventure. Because Poland’s beautiful and quiet only mountainous region is one of the loveliest places to walk in all of Europe !
Pro tip: The queue for the funicular can be quite long – if you want to take it, arrive early. It costs 14 zl, and takes 4 minutes. Walking up Gubałówka takes about an hour, and from there, you have access to a network of other trails. There are many trails in the area, as well as further into the Tatras and into the Beskids too – here are some near Zakopane. If you are hiking in this region, don’t miss the spectacular wooden churches, many of which are UNESCO protected.
Temperate Glasshouse in Kew Gardens, London, England
The Kew Royal Botanic Gardens are some of the finest botanical gardens in the world. Spread over 121 hectares (300 acres), wander amongst some 50,000 plants found across this UNESCO World Heritage site outside London. The jewel of Kew Gardens is the beautiful Temperate House. This Victorian-era glasshouse – opened 1862 – was built to be the stunning entrance to the royal gardens when the rail line was complete. Things didn’t go to plan, and the railway station was moved to the other end of the park. The building itself is quite marvellous, containing thousands of panes of glasses (replaced after more than 100 WWII-era bombs rocked Kew), while the thousands of plants within this iron and glass dome are even more so. The Victorians had an intense curiosity. Those who could afford to went on adventures to all corners of the Earth in search of the new and exotic to bring back to mother England – or more likely, sponsored an explorer to go off in their name. Those who couldn’t afford the adventures themselves would instead satisfy their curiosity by going to palm houses, world fairs, circuses, museums, curiosity cabinets, exhibits, wax halls, and other such places. Housing 1,500 plants from 5 continents and 16 islands, the Temperate House covers plants within the temperate zone (where most of the world population lives, the temperate zone is sandwiched between the polar and tropics – including North America, Europe, China, Australia, southern Africa, and parts of South America). While at the Temperate House, wander the narrow alleys between plants before climbing up to the viewing platform for an aerial panorama of the ecosystems below and the wrought and cast iron structure above. Whether or not you have an interest in biology and ecosystems, Kew Gardens and its glasshouses are a fascinating place – both pulling you into the past with its Victorian glasshouses as well as looking towards the future at the effects humans have on the planet, and working to conserve and protect the Earth’s flora.
Pro tip: Visit the Palm House while you’re at Kew Gardens. When you’re in Belfast, be sure to visit the Palm House in Belfast’s Botanical Gardens and in Dublin visit the National Botanic Gardens – all four glasshouses are designed by Victorian-era architect Richard Turner. Also while in Kew, be sure to check out the beautiful glass art by artist
Knocknarea is a very special place. Tucked away in a quiet corner of northwest Ireland on a little peninsula in County Sligo, Knocknarea is renowned for its history and legends. Though only 300 metres high, climbing to the top of this hill is a sacred act. Crowning this hill is a huge cairn from Neolithic times – over 5,000 years old! Sligo is riddled with ruins from the Neolithic era – at Knocknarea’s foot are the Carrowmore tombs (home to some 50 monuments!), and further inland, find the even more impressive Carrowkeel tombs – 20 monuments of which three are opened. There are other sites of course – Deerpark, Creevykeel, Knockvranny, Knocknashee, and so many more – and these are all in wee County Sligo! You could spend a lifetime trying to visit all of Ireland’s Neolithic sites… But yes, back to Knocknarea. Other than the huge cairn, there are a few satellite tombs, and the ruins of an ancient village (as well as a famine age abandoned village – both just a few houses). After Ireland was Christianised, many early Christians hung on to their beliefs, and the religious leaders had to find a way to compromise – such as Yule becoming Christmas, the Pagan goddess Brigid becoming a saint, and the fertility goddess Sheela na Gig giving Mary a higher status than in most contemporary – and patriarchal – Christian societies. And then there was the problem of understanding those societies who came before these early Christians (who were they, and why did they build these things!? Questions still unanswered today…). Knocknarea was therefore explained away using folklore. The cairn was attributed to the legendary (and semi-mythical) saviour and warrior queen of Connaght, buried upright in her great tomb under the cairn, facing her enemies from the North. Though this story is unlikely to be true, it’s clear that someone (well, many someones) are buried here, making this an ancient graveyard of sorts. It is one of Sligo’s iconic spots and can be seen from almost anywhere around Sligo town. Knocknarea is seen here from the far side reflected in the low tide sands of Cullenamore strand, a quieter alternative to busy Strandhill Beach – and also better for a long walk on the beach!
Pro tip: Don’t forget to bring a stone from the bottom of the hill up to the cairn for Queen Maeve! If you have a car, climb from the Queen Maeve Car Park. No car? Take the Strandhill bus and stop at the Centra – there is a path up this side starting here. A new path connects both sides with the Strandhill beach, famed for its surf. We recommend lunch/brunch at Shells, ice cream at Mammie Johnson’s and/or pizza and a pint at The Strand pub.
Autumn Foliage in Parc de la Tete d’Or, Lyon, France
Though far from its only park, le Parc de al Tete d’Or is certainly Lyon‘s premier public park. Though lovely all year round, Parc de la Tete d’Or holds a particular charm during the transitional seasons. Spring is full of blooming flowers while autumn bursts into fall flame of foliage. During autumn, the whole park erupts into a patchwork quilt of golds, oranges, reds and yellows, making it a lovely place for a romantic stroll, a quiet picnic, a lovely jog or even a nice place to walk the dog. Translating as “the Park of the Golden Head,” it is supposedly named for a legend claiming that a golden Christ’s head is buried here. Founded in 1845 after much call for an urban park, the Parc de la Tete d’Or encompasses 117 hectares (almost 300 acres). Within these acres, find an outdoor zoo, botanical gardens and a great glasshouse, a rose garden, a lake with several island, sports facilities, children’s playgrounds, and kilometres of trails lined with trees, gardens, sculptures and cafes (bonus – everything in the park is free!). There are paddleboats on the lake (better to look at then to actually use), and even a little train (also best avoided). Running groups use this as a place to swap urban scenes with beautiful landscapes – if you’re looking for a longer run, follow the Rhone river north of Tete d’Or to connect with the Parc de la Feyssine. No matter when you visit, the Parc Tete d’Or is sure to impress!
Pro tip: Don’t miss Boulevard des Belges, a grand avenue running parallel to the park’s southern side. Lined with grand and beautiful hotels or mansions dating from the last two centuries, Boulevard des Belges has long held a reputation as the most expensive street to live on in Lyon – rent upwards of €2,500/month! Crane your head upwards to view all of the architecural detail. On the northern side is Interpol HQ. Housed in a modern complex near the Musée d’art Contemporain, it may not be much to look at, but it’s a pretty cool place behind the scenes…
Despite its unfortunate name, Cockburn Street is a lovely wee street that leads from Waverley Train Station in the New Town up into Edinburgh‘s spectacular Old Town. Much of the Old Town still follows its medieval street plan, comprised of a network of cobbled streets, narrow closes and wide avenues. Edinburgh’s Old Town is full of grander, glitz and history. Wander up to Royal Mile (High Street), marvel at the cathedrals, churches and museums, walk along grand buildings, watch street performers, duck into lively pubs and cosy cafes, before finally arriving at Edinburgh Castle, an idyllic fortification that perches on a huge crag formed by a now-extinct volcano. Alongside Edinburgh’s New Town (built in the 18th-19th century), Edinburgh’s city centre is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the most significant cultural hub of Scotland. Because of limited space and advantage of living within the defensive wall (now gone), the Old Town became home to some of the world’s earliest “high rise” buildings as early as the 16th century. Though boasting certain advantages, the tightly-packed atmosphere was vulnerable to flames, and the Old Town is marked by the Great Fire of Edinburgh of 1824, which obliterated huge portions of buildings on the south side, and their rebuilding in Victorian times led to the accidental creation of numerous passages and vaults under the Old Town. Another blight on Edinburgh was the 20th century slum clearances, when the rundown, overpopulated slums of Canongate were cleared out in the 1950s to make room for grander buildings. Despite these darker elements of Edinburgh’s past, the Edinburgh of today is a busy, lively and fun place to be.
Pro tip: Looking for a wool or tweed souvenir? Avoid the shops on High Street as unfortunately a lot of that is made in China these days. You can’t go wrong with traditional Harris Tweed, made solely on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides and with each weaver certified to the brand’s high standards.
The Alpine city of Chamonix is famous the world over as the premier luxury ski capital. But beyond the glamorous Alpine resort, there are many smaller towns, villages and hamlet, including the wee hamlet of Montvauthier, on the edge of the Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron. And though Mont Blanc is the famous Alpine mountain, there are many other lesser-known places for hiking in the Alps. The beautiful reserve of the Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron, created in 1991, is part of the Arve Valley, and is distinguished by high peaks, lush woodlands, and rich flora and fauna. The peaks of Carlaveyron were almost given over to more than a dozen lifts but luckily instead, Carlaveyron was designated as a nature reserve, protecting the rich Alpine flora and fauna of the Haute-Savoie. At heights ranging from 1,000-2,300 metres (3,200-7,500ft), the hiking is rough but the fantastic panoramas are worth it. Carlaveyron is also home to the impressive Gorges de la Diosaz, an impressive river gorge at the foot of the mountain. The mountainous reserve is also home to everything from owls to deer, lynx (reintroduced 1970 – there are now about 300!), chamois, eagles, and many species of bird. Hiking in the park can range from short (though steep) hikes to much more difficult Alpine hiking for more experienced hikers used to rough footing, steep ascents and high altitudes. If you’re only looking to do a couple of kilometres, try starting your hike from the Servoz train station, or even the car park of Diosaz. The magical panoramas will carry you up the mountain…
Pro trip: While in the Alps, you’ll have to try some local delicacies like tartiflette, raclette, fondu or even pizza! There are many regional Alpine cheeses to taste as well.
Greeting you as you traverse forgotten paths through dark forests, red-brick turrets of a fairytale castle rise through the waves of golden trees on a crisp autumn day. This is the beautiful Turaida Castle. To though there is a bus, a far more enjoyable way to find Turaida Castle is to be mistaken for a German tourist at the Sigulda train station, be handed a map in German and told to follow it through the town of Sigulda, past the first, then second set of castle ruins, over the impressive Gauja River Gorge in a little yellow cable car, through the magnificently eerie woods, past the magical Gutmanis Cave, and finally, to the turrets of Turaida Castle itself. Built in 1214, demolished in 1776 by fire, then partially restored in the last decade, “Thor’s Garden,” as it translates to in Livonian, is a medieval castle on the Gauja River built by Albert, archbishop of Riga. Today there is a small folk park area and sculpture garden outside, as well as the castle of towers, walls and outbuildings. Though of course Turaida Castle is still an impressive place when arriving by bus or car, hiking through the quiet trails of the Gauja River Valley from Sigulda Train Station, and exploring the region on foot is what truly makes visiting this castle a magical experience fit for a modern explorer time-travelling to the Middle Ages.
Pro tip: Pick up a map from the Sigulda Train Station and hike to the castle! The Gauja River Valley is magical to explore on foot. You’ll have to take the cable car to Krimulda, which operates daily from 10-18h30 (or 17h in winter), and currently costs €12 (the views are worth it!). The whole hike is about 5km with deviations to Sigulda Castle or Gutmanis Cave adding a wee bit more on. Once you visit the castle, you can then take the bus back to Sigulda. There is a tiny (and very simple) restaurant near the castle, but you may want to bring a picnic. Cable car info here.
Alongside the amazing Puente Nuevo on the cliffs of Ronda, the Arab Baths are among Ronda‘s most impressive and fascinating sights. At first glance, they seem a look a lot like Roman baths – and indeed the builders were inspired by the design long perfected by the ingenious Roman architects. The main difference here is that instead of hot water heated from below, the baths the Moors built used steam sweat out pollutants from the body. The Arab Baths of Ronda were built by the Moors, a conquering culture on the Iberian Peninsula that originated in North Africa, changing the architectural and cultural landscape of modern-day Spain and Portugal. For the Moors, the baths were built for sanitary reasons but also as for religious ‘purification’ purposes. At one time, Ronda used to be full of Moorish (or Mudejar) architecture, from mosques to Medinas to fortified walls and bridges, though little remains now. Today, Ronda is a wonderful town right in the heart of Andalucia, a perfect base for exploring all of those picturesque pueblos blancos.
Pro tip: Visiting the Baths at night adds as extra atmospheric element and sets the scene for some lovely photos. Also – it will be cooler and there are far less tourists about! These days, the Arab Baths are open until 19h00 on weekdays (closing at 15h on weekends) and cost €3 to enter. Sometimes they are open later.
The echo of footsteps ring in the quiet cloisters of the ancient Béziers Cathedral. Officially known as Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse de Béziers, Béziers Cathedral is a 13th century Catholic church perched above the southern town of Béziers. Not far from Toulouse and Carcassonne, medieval Béziers was a stronghold of Christian sect called the Cathars, horribly persecuted by militant factions of the Catholic Church during the Albigensian Crusades of the 1200s. Béziers, the first town to be attacked by the crusaders, was hard hit. The courageous local Catholics of Béziers chose not to betray their Cathar compatriots and resisted the crusaders, resulting in a terrible sacking and massacre in the town and up to Béziers Cathedral. No one survived. Every man, woman and child – even priests and the elderly – were killed. According to legend, the crusaders asked how to tell Catholic from Cathar (let’s face it, they’re more or less the same thing…), evil Papal Legate Arnaud Amaury said, “Kill them all – the Lord will know them that are his.” Béziers was one of the worst hit during this bizarre crusade against a little-known Christian sect in the south of France, but it was far from the only town – Toulouse and Carcassonne as well as others also saw battle. The marauding crusaders invaded Béziers Cathedral of Sainte Nazaire and burned it thoroughly, killing all those who had taken sacred refuge inside. Though this tragedy happened 800 years ago, Béziers has never forgotten, ensuring that we continue to remember this tragedy. In modern times, Béziers is a great base to visit places like Les Cévennes and other Languedoc parks, Montpéllier, the Camargue, and both seaside and mountain villages. Not overly touristy, Béziers is a lovely part of Southern France to visit that will both take you away from the crowds of places like Carcassonne, Nice, St Tropez, and Aix-en-Provence. Today, Béziers is a quiet town, but the town and its magnificent cathedral serve as a history lesson as to what happens when religion is allowed power, have access to a military or meddle in politics.
Pro tip: Visit a winery for a wee wine tasting while you’re there! There are many to choose from, one of which is the little Domaine des Deux Rousseu, in the direction of the village of Sauvin. Serviced by a bus though cab might be the best bet. Just be careful – cell service there is spotty, so arrange in advance. Don’t miss the photo op at the Pont Vieux looking across the River Orb at the Cathedral Sainte Nazaire. If you’re interested in learning more about what it may have been like to live there, author Kate Mosse has written several novels set in and around Béziers, some of which are about the crusade against the Cathars.
Though perhaps younger than some of the cities of the Mediterranean, Riga, the capital of Latvia, has over 800 years of history – with most of that history turbulent. Latvia’s location along the Baltic Sea has long made it an important strategical spot for centuries. In the Viking era, the fearsome Scandinavian warriors often came to the Baltics during their annual raids, though the Baltic raids weren’t considered as good as those of England or France. In medieval times, German and Teutonic knights and Swedish kings stamped in and out of Riga and Latvia – really the Baltics in general – taking control of it or simply raiding it in times of need. In more recent times, the Soviets laid claim to this little Baltic nation, in its quest for control over trade and military might in the Baltic Sea. From above, we see a forest of Gothic spires rising above Riga, and below down at street level, we see a beautiful rainbow of bright colours and Art Nouveau façades adorning each street, square and alleyway. Riga is an easy place to wander and explore – Art Nouveau architecture rears up randomly throughout the city, narrow alleys wrap themselves around unique buildings, small streets open up into large squares home to impressive churches, guildhalls, markets, mansions and other magnificent edifices. It is perhaps for this splendid blend of styles, creativity, history and beauty that Riga Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The coast of southern France is a fascinating place. Not far from the city of Marseilles, the coast erupts in series of jagged finger-like formations. This is the Massif des Calanques, a collection of impressive narrow inlets with steep walls rising on either side that comprise the Calanques National Park. As these walls are made of soft rocks like limestone, erosion carves out stunning jagged landscapes filled with turquoise waters – the picture of tranquillity. The Calanque de Morigou is one of the largest of the whole Massif des Calanques park. At its base are beaches and a narrow harbour where those so inclined can explore this exotic landscape by boat. Above, the landscape of the Calanque de Morgiou is no less impressive as the panoramas over these rugged headlands under the brilliant French sunshine is magnificent. Many hiking trails criss-cross this landscape, perfect for hikers of all abilities. Once a fishing port because of its strategic and protective location, the harbour at the Calanque of Morgiou is famed for giant tuna fishing hosted by the Marseillais when King Louis XIII visited the region in 1622. It is here too that we find the submerged entrance to the astounding Cosquer Cave, some 37 metres (121 feet) below sea level. After divers swim through a 175-metre (574 ft) tunnel, the narrow entrance opens into the Cosquer Cave – a cavern full of prehistoric art, including 65 stencils of human hands made 27,000 years ago! Though rising water levels have destroyed most of the art, there are still about 150 paintings visible. Even if you can’t see this amazing cave, the Calanques – and the Calanque de Morgiou in particular – are such a spectacular place to visit.
Pro tip: Hike to the Cap Sutigan overlooking the Calanque de Morgiou from the University (even accessible via bus from Marseille). Or drive down to the harbour itself on a road from Marseille suburb, Les Baumettes.
Hall’s Croft House in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England
Stratford-upon-Avon is one of England’s most historic cities. Perhaps most famous for its connection to English playwright William Shakespeare, many of the 16th and 17th century historic houses have some sort of connection to the most famous playwright of the English language. Hall’s Croft House is part of the “next generation” – the Jacobean house once inhabited by William Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna, and her husband, his son-in-law John Hall, who was a successful doctor in Stratford-Upon-Avon. A beautiful example of a timbered house inspired by styles of medieval timbered buildings, Hall’s Croft was built in 1613 in a fashionable part of Stratford. John Hall himself, though attaining nothing like the fame of William Shakespeare, was a respected doctor in his day, even writing a popular medical textbook. Not only was he good at his job (focussing on herbs and plants as opposed to blood-letting or other archaic and crude practices), he was compassionate as well, treating both Catholic and Protestant patients, as well as those of differing economic statuses. Hall’s Croft may just be one structure in a city crowded with rich history and incredible architecture, but it is certainly one of the most fascinating mirrors into the past during the time of William Shakespeare. Don’t miss the simple and rustic yet beautiful interiors or the stunning walled gardens to the back of Hall’s Croft.
Pro tip: Though it’s possible to visit Stratford-Upon-Avon as a day trip from Birmingham or Oxford, staying overnight here or in a neighbouring village in the Cotswolds is a far more enjoyable way to discover this historic place. Hall’s Croft is one of 5 properties part of the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust. Though you can buy a ticket to visit just Hall’s Croft (which is the cheapest of the 5) or any of the places, if you want to visit more than one site, it’s more cost effective to buy the full ticket – it’s even valid for 12 months if you’re ever back in Stratford during that time! Learn more here.
Rising above the city of Belfast is the beautiful landscape of Cavehill Country Park. Once part of Belfast Castle’s extensive estate, the hill is covered in lush woodland criss-crossed with narrow muddy tracks. After meandering on an upwardly-sloping path under a canopy of leaves, you suddenly break out into a beautiful panorama – behind you to one side is an aerial view of all Belfast, the little streets and buildings looking small at the bottom of the hills. And on the other side the landscape of Cavehill seems as if it comes straight out of a fairytale land, dramatic emerald and golden hills punctured with mysterious caves. It seems perhaps a scene you’d find in The Chronicles of Narnia – you almost expect to see fauns and centaurs and talking animals wandering about the hills. Even though you haven’t quite crossed over into a magical land, you’re as close as you can get – CS Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia grew up in Belfast (and was educated at Oxford) and spent his boyhood exploring these hills – the Mourne Mountains to the south up to the Causeway Coast to the north (Dunluce Castle is said to have been the inspiration of the ruined Cair Paravel in Prince Caspian). It’s reasonable to expect that CS Lewis would have climbed the slopes of Cavehill just behind his hometown, and it’s again reasonable to expect that the places he encountered in Ireland as a boy would have formed as inspiration for Narnia. Interesting again that the “real world” places of TheChronicles of Narnia resemble Oxford and its environs, but the mystical, magical places of Narnia and other magical lands find their inspirations in the landscapes of Ireland…perhaps Ireland is just a magical place.
Pro tip: There is a family-friendly car park to go straight to the top of the hill to McArt’s Fort, but you’ll miss the hike, forest, and actual cave hills in the panorama above. It’s worth it to start at Belfast Castle and do the full loop – at 6.5-7km, it should take you about 2 hours. It can be muddy, so bring your boots and waterproof jacket. As of this post, the route from Belfast Zoo is closed (but not the castle). Check here for hiking info.
Brunico – or Bruneck in German – is a lovely little town in a strange region. Like all of Sud Tyrol, the region was once part of the Astro-Hungarian Empire until World War I happened, and Italy, who sided with the winners, was granted the mountainous little region of Sud Tyrol from Austria, who sided with the wrong side. Even today the Germanic/Austrian culture is visible, from the bilingual populace (and menus and road signs) to the cuisine to the architecture. Rising above cheerful Brunico is the beautiful medieval Brunico Castle dating back to about the 13th century. But hidden away in the lush green wooded hills on the other side of a narrow footbridge is something unexpected – a simple World War I era cemetery filled with the graves of soldiers from all sides, backgrounds and religions. In fact, soldiers from each religion – Christian, Jewish and Muslim – are each buried according to their religious rites. Though war is always terrible for those involved in it, the war would have been especially difficult for those soldiers fighting WWI in the high, inhospitable Dolomites Mountains, a region prone to high winds, deep snows, cold temperatures, steep slopes and rough terrain. Brunico’s wooded WWI cemetery was built by Russian POWs from local pine trees, each one carefully inscribed with the dead soldier’s names and dates of death. Tucked under a quiet canopy of emerald leaves, these simple markers serve as a stark reminder of the shortness of life and the madness of war – as well as humankind’s harmony with nature.
Pro tip: Brunico’s War Cemetery is located a stone’s throw away from Brunico Castle (in reality just across the footbridge). Visiting in summer? There are some pretty lowland walks in the area. If you want to climb something a bit higher, head over to nearby stunning landscapes Mt Kronplatz or the lushness of Vedrette di Ries-Aurina Natural Park. Visiting in winter? This region also has some good skiing.
In a city bursting with impressively gorgeous architecture, possibly the most stunning example of Baroque architecture in Vienna is the Karlskirche, just off the famous Ringstrasse. The Karlskirche came to be on the bequest of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. Commissioned in 1713 to mark the end of the recent plague, the Karlskirche is dedicated to Charles VI’s namesake saint, St Charles Borromeo, who is said to alleviate the suffering of plague victims. Built over a span of 21 years (1716-37), the famous Baroque church was situated quite close to Hofsburg Palace, and was used as the imperial house of worship. With a wide array of architectural inspirations – largely from ancient times, Architect Fischer von Erlach was inspired by Hellenistic temples as well as as Roman columns – Trajan’s Column in Rome, with a copy in Bucharest, was one such source. All of this has been combined to create the Karlskirche – surely one of Vienna’s most spectacular pieces of art, which is saying something as the entire city seems full to the brim with impressive designs (see a Christmas night at the Karlskirche here). A final remark is that just next to Karlskirche is the Spitaler Gottesacker, site of music composer (another art form widely associated with Vienna) Antonio Vivaldi’s tomb – though the exact location is lost today. Vienna is a truly amazing city and a must-visit for architecture nerds, history buffs and budding photographers!
Pro tip: Be sure to try some of the delicious foods and drinks while here – like the Mozartkugeln chocolates, the Wiener schnitzel and the delicious Germanic wheat beer popular in the region. Vienna is also known for its cafés – stop in for a coffee and a Sachertorte or any of the other delicious hand-baked tortes or cakes!
Coumshingaun Lake of Comeragh Mountains, Co Waterford, Ireland
Ireland is a wealth of natural wonders – and the beautiful Comeragh Mountains located in southeast Ireland are one such wonder! Generally visited only by other Irish, and then again, largely by those already living in the southeast (such as residents of Kilkenny, Cork, Waterford or Wexford), the Comeragh Mountains aren’t on most Irish tourism itineraries, even for hiking enthusiasts who make a beeline for the west coast. Within the already-magnificent Comeragh Mountains, Coumshingaun Lough (or lake) is of particular note. Though small enough, Coumshingaun is a corrie lake – a small, round lake carved deep into the mountainside, left behind by the massive glaciers that once covered Ireland during the Ice Age. Surrounded by 400 meter (1,300ft) cliffs that drop dramatically down into the glistening corrie lake far below, the whole setting is utterly stunning. Even more so when you consider your hike – a narrow, rocky trail that encircles the cliff edge all around the horseshoe-shaped canyon. Not for the faint hearted, expect to use both hands and feet as you hike up steep and mucky terrain, scrambling over rocks and boulders and trekking through wet boggy ground. Though not an easy hike, you’ll be rewarded with jaw-dropping views over Coumshingaun Lake, the Comeragh Mountains and emerald hills stretching out to the horizon.
Pro tip: Not a great walk for children (unless quite fit and agile) or those who suffer from vertigo. Dogs are allowed on the land, but unless your dog is good at climbing, we recommend leaving them at home (though dogs who are used to scrambling up rocks and boulders will do just fine). No toilets, and only limited parking/picnicking space. Combine with a visit to the nearby Lismore Castle Gardens. Start point is at the Kilclooney Wood Car Park(parking is free). The hike is about 7.5km, longer (about 8.5 km) if you also walk to the lake’s edge.
Probably most famous for its role on HBO hit Game of Thrones(part of Dragonstone), the craggy islet of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe – meaning the Rock Castle from the Basque language – is perhaps one of Europe’s most fascinating and fantastical monuments. With its picture-perfect monastery perched perilously at the top of a formidable rock pinnacle, its not hard to see why San Juan de Gaztelugatxe was chosen as a location in the fantasy land of Westeros. Narrowly perched on the Bay of Biscay deep in Basque Country, the sea crashes endlessly at the islet, eroding away at the rocks. After a long walk to the island, across the causeway and up the rough-worn stairs, you arrive at the monastery or hermitage. This little building, dangling 80 metres above the sea, is dedicated to John the Baptist, and dates back to the 9th and 10th centuries and is the final resting place of medieval monks. Its location was long considered strategic and played a role in several battles – the place where the Lord of Biscay confronted the King of Castille in the mid 14th century, the site of a sacking from Huguenots (Protestants persecuted in France) from La Rochelle, an 18th century English raid and even a naval battle during the horrific Spanish Civil War. Despite its tragic history, today San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a place of great mystique and wonder – not to mention an amazing place for budding photographers!
Pro tip: This place was busy pre-Game of Thrones and the fantasy series will only continue making it more popular. Avoid the crowds (and the heat!) as best as possible by visiting in the off season, or early in the day. Get the most out of your visit by hiking from Bakkio town along the coast.
Tallinn is one of Europe’s most impressive medieval walled towns, with over a dozen watch towers, the beautiful Viiru Gate, and over a kilometre of walls still surrounding the exquisitely-preserved medieval houses and cobbled streets. In its height during the 16th century, Tallinn’s wall network was 2.4 km long, up to 16 metres high, and was protected by no less than 43 towers – an impressive and impregnable site to behold! Tallinn’s oldest wall structure is the Margaret Wall, commenced in 1265 on the orders of Margaret Sambiria, Queen of Denmark and reigning fief-holder of Danish Estonia. Her commissioned wall was far smaller than what we see today – just 5 metres tall and 1.5 metres thick (at its thickest part). Over the centuries, the walls of Tallinn have grown upwards and outwards, particularly in the 14th century as the Dark Ages were a time of turbulence. In fact, this medieval wall was actually guarded by a revolving roster of “voluntary” citizens of Tallinn, who were firmly invited to take turns parading the walls. Today, despite past demolitions, there are over 20 defensive towers and about 10 gates comprising of the Walls of Tallinn, nearly all of which are still in great shape, and able to be visited. All of this together is why Tallinn’s walls are a part – in fact, a significant part – of the UNESCO world heritage site that encompasses Medieval Tallinn. Even if you never stepped foot in to the city (which would be a mistake!), Tallinn’s impressive medieval walls would be reason enough to visit this incredible Baltic gem.
Pro tip: There is a small fee to visit the walls. Many of the towers are actually museums dedicated to Tallinn’s history. According to Visit Tallinn, the best places to see Tallinn’s walls from the outside are the Patkuli viewing platform on Toompea and Tornide väljak (Towers’ Square) near the train station.
Cliff Baths ruins of Enniscrone in Co Sligo, Ireland
The west coast of Ireland is a magical place. Timeless and unspoilt, the west coast has managed to keep an aura of otherworldliness. Full of historical and natural wonders, County Sligo is a little-travelled place of fantastic hiking, breathtaking coasts, ancient Neolithic monuments and crumbling abbeys. Enniscrone is a little seaside village where waves crash against rocky headlands and wind sweeps over sand dunes, paired with 5km of beach strand perfect for bathing – if you’re willing to risk Atlantic temperatures! Rising out of the edge of the sea on the foot of Enniscrone are the ruins of the Victorian era Enniscrone Cliff Baths, a strange sort of castellated little building. The Cliff Baths were built in 1850 by a wealthy local family, the Ormes, who owned large tracts of land in Sligo and Mayo. The Ormes, wanting to turn Enniscrone into a fashionable beach resort town, built the lodge and the baths to attract the fashionable crowd. They even built a man-made tidal pool in front of the Cliff Baths in order to ensure that all baths would be supplied with fresh seawater no matter the tides (today its a popular spot with local kids). Little remains of this once-luxurious resort bath, and it has been allowed to fall into disrepair, helped along by the the crash of the tide, the gusts over the Atlantic, and the salty seawater in the air. Today it is simply an idyllic place to take dramatic photography!
Pro tip: Book a seaweed bath at the more modern bathhouse, Killcullen Seaweed Baths, or head north along the coasts to Voya Baths in Strandhill.
Castillo de Zahara de la Sierra in Andalucia, Spain
Andalucia is a dry, sunburnt land in the south of Spain. The region is among Spain’s largest and most populous regions, with small communities spread out over a blanket of brown hills, jagged mountains and rolling fields. Many such communities are part of the Pueblos blancos or ‘white villages’ of Andalucia, picture-perfect villages beloved by tourists. This particular pueblo blanco, Zahara de la Sierra, is tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountains and overlooked by the Castillo de Zahara de la Sierra. The castle dates back to the Moorish era of Spain. During the early Middle Ages, Spain was inhabited by the Moors, broadly defined as muslims originally from the Maghreb living in southern Europe, who greatly influenced Spanish art and architecture and even language (Andalucia, for example, comes from Al-Andalus) until finally being driven out completely by the 1490s. Very little remains of this once-impressive fortification in the village of Zahara. Today, all that’s left are the vestiges of a few walls and a signal tower, which, once climbed, will provide stunning views of the cheery white-washed walls and orange roofs of Zahara, the azure waters of the local reservoir, the sun-kissed chocolate-coloured fields hugging the village, all the way out to other nearby villages. Though beautiful, it is evident to see why this may not always have been an easy place to live. The castle, and the village below it, is carved into a rugged, rocky outcrop, with heights ranging from 300m to 1100m, and the village’s name “zahara” comes from “sahra” meaning desert. The seemingly-romantic sun-kissed fields, rocky outcrops and windswept panoramas may be seem idyllic today, but life in such a dry and remote place (it’s 100 km from the sea after all) wouldn’t always have been so perfect!
Pro tip: There’s a lovely wee restaurant with a comfortable terrace perfect for people-watching called El Rincon De La Ermita.
Perhaps one of the strangest museums you’ll ever visit but certainly a hidden gem found in an otherwise genteel and academic Oxford, the Pitt Rivers Museum is like a peek behind the curtain at the chaotic underbelly of Victorian England. Though today we may look back at the Victorians and their self-important and slightly condescending world views with disdain, it was a time when people were simply curious about the world, when they wanted to be awed and amazed, a Europe full of people fascinated to learn everything – and the stranger the better. The Victorian era was a time of intense curiosity, knowledge and discovery of the outside world. Bizarre but wondrous technological inventions, exotic flora and fauna, items and traditions from far-flung cultures – it was all new and fascinating. This is the era of the Crystal Palace of London, the Palm Houses of Kew Gardens, Belfast and more, the Eiffel Tower of Paris, the time of the World Fairs and world expositions, of steam engines and curiosity museums. Amidst all this was born the Pitt Rivers Museum. Founded in 1884 by Augustus Pitt Rivers, a former soldier, anthropologist, ethnologist, and archaeologist, the Pitt Rivers Museum is today part of the renowned University of Oxford. With a collection arranged by use instead of by age or location found, the Pitt Rivers Museum is home to over 500,000 objects (though Augustus’s original collection started off with 22,000), with the largest being a 11-metre-high Haida totem pole. The museum was set up this way in order to show the Victorian (and now modern) viewer of humanity’s upwards progression in design, technology and skill, as well as the fascinating evolution of culture and tradition of exotic communities, starting with the most simple societies all the way up to the complex. The museum is a place full of wonders and a perfect viewpoint not only of the cultures on display, but also of the culture that set it up.
Pro tip: Find the Pitt Rivers Museum to the east of Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where you’ll locate the only accessed point. Afterwards, head down the narrow cobbled alley to Turf Tavern, a 13th century tavern, fabled to be the most difficult pub in Oxford and long popular as a place for students to exchange ideas.
Torino, like much of Northern Italy, falls far off the tourism map. When most of us hear the word, “Italy,” we think of rural Tuscany, fairy tale Venice, or the artsy Florence. Italy equals Mediterranean ocean views, Roman temples and gelato by the beach, right? Not necessarily. Northern Italy is like a country unto its own. Nothing at all like southern Italy, Northern Italy is Alpine and mountainous, fast-paced and serious, and in the winter it gets cold and snowy. Those who live here seem more Swiss than Italian (and those who live in the northwest Dolomites region are more Austrian than anything else!). The grand city of Torino (which you may know as “Turin”) is certainly one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. The eclectic architecture, genuinely happy (and multilingual!) people, elegant streets, mountainous backdrop, delicious cheeses as well as amazing pizzas and wines make Torino a city full of surprises. But if you really want a treat, take the time to hike up the hill, Monte dei Cappuccini on the other side of the Po River to see the whole of Torino spill out below you. On a magnificent backdrop of the towering Alps, the glittering Po River and the beautiful red roofs with white walls, the enormous spire if the Mole Antonelliana rises up to the sky, as if reaching for the heavens. Originally built as a synagogue in the late 1800’s, the building (which now houses a cinema museum) sports the highest work of masonry in all of Europe. After a day wandering the grand avenues, splendid squares and wee alleyways, take your time to drink in this aerial view of Torino – it is well worth it!
Pro tip: Whether you believe in its divinity or not, the museum about the Shroud of Turinexplores a fascinating piece of history and worth the visit. Visit here for practical info.
Where to visit next? More amazing places to discover in Northern Italy.
Everyone knows of Belfast, and most have heard of Derry, but the border town of Enniskillen slips under most people’s radar. Smaller than the other two, and further south on the border with the Republic of Ireland, Enniskillen is a fascinating little place. As with most cities in Northern Ireland, it was bombed during the Troubles – in Enniskillen’s case, it happened on Remembrance Day (November 8th, 1987), and several civilians died. But that’s all in the past now. Today, Enniskillen is a thriving town, a bustling cosmopolitan centre in an otherwise rural region of Ireland, and a perfect stop for road trips from Belfast to the west coast of Sligo or Connemara and Galway. In Irish, Enniskillen means island of Cethlenn, a mythological Irish goddess, and in fact it is still known as “The Island Town.” At the centre of Enniskillen, its oldest structure is Enniskillen Castle, built in the 16th century on the foundations of a much older fortification (dating back to 1428), which came under siege several times during the Irish rebellions against British rule (including falling to Irish rule from 1595-1602). Later, Enniskillen Castle was built up with barracks for soldiers, giving the castle the look more of a military fort. Today, the castle site hold a collection of museums on the history of Enniskillen and County Fermanagh in general, as well as the military history of the castle. Though not the most medieval castle, the border town of Enniskillen and its castle is a fascinating look at the history of the Irish border from the 1500s through the Irish Rebellion, the Revolution, the Troubles, all the way through to today and whatever Brexit holds for the future.
Pro tip: There’s a great pizzeria in Enniskillen called Little Wing Pizza – close to the castle with reasonable prices and a varied menu. Learn more about the castle visit (hours & tarifs) here. If you arrive 1 hour before closing, you’ll get a reduced price ticket. Nearby, visit a number of other castles. Explore the islands of Lough Erne – take a boat to Devenish Island, just north of Enniskillen, or White Island, further north. Both contain the ancient ruins well worth visiting.