Romantic redbrick turrets and towers rise from a small island on Lithuania‘s Lake Galvé, home to the 14th-15th century Trakai Island Castle. Today accessible by a small wooden bridge, Trakai Island Castle actually claims to be Eastern Europe‘s only island castle still standing. While still in its infancy, the castle was attacked and severely damaged by the Teutonic Knights in 1377, and further damaged during a power struggle for title of Grand Duke of Lithuania. Once peace again reigned, it was the very same Teutonic Order that organised the rebuilding of the castle. Over time, other ameliorations were added – a massive donjon, wooden galleries along the inner courtyard, new palatial wings containing the impressive Ducal Hall, thicker defensive walls, three new towers and 16th century galleries complete with canons, designed to defend against new advances in technology (notably, gunpowder). Despite this, since the Battle of Grunwald, Trakai left its military importance behind and was used predominantly as a residence and a way to impress visitors, but by the 1700s and 1800s, it was in ruins, serving as little more than a romantic ruin for artistic and poetic inspiration. Reconstruction started in the late 1800s and continued through the first half of the 20th century. Today, Trakai Island Castle is a quiet monument to Lithuanian history and cultural strength, and part of the Trakai Historical National Park. Visit the castle by crossing the new bridge from the town of Trakai, only about 30 minutes from the capital city, Vilnius.
Pro tip: As the Baltic states open up to increasing tourism, places like Trakai Island Castle will get busier. It’s best to visit Trakai in the off-season or earlier in the morning in order to get the castle and island largely to yourself. Better yet, stay over in Trakai town and use as a jumping-off point to explore the region. Home to proud Karaim community, Turkish-speaking ethnic group descended from Crimean immigrants, try the delicious local dish, kybyn, a sort of dumpling or pasty stuffed with meat and vegetables while in Trakai.
One of Robin Hood’s many graves in Yorkshire Dales, England
Northern England is an overlooked, but wonderful place for hiking. The beautiful Yorkshire Dales are an ancient place full of myth and legend – not to mention great beauty. A dale is a British word to describe a valley. Dales pepper the quiet, little-visited regions of northern England where accents are thick, roads are narrow and villages are quaint. It is little wonder that legend and folklore is prevalent in this region. Robin Hood is certainly the best-known tale. No one’s sure of Robin Hood was a real person or not, but he sure does have a lot of graves, with dozens of sites across northern England claiming the honour. This little cairn tucked into a desolate valley in the Yorkshire Dales is just one of many to hold the name. Though Nottingham is the most famous place in Robin Hood ballads, it is generally acknowledged that he was in fact from Yorkshire. The ballads paint him and his merry band of followers like Little John and Friar Tuck as romantic thieves, roaming the countryside in order to steal to steal from the rich to give to the poor. He is said to have died while being bled (a common medieval medical practice) at the Priory of Kirklees. Even though there is still a debate on whether the man really existed, he exists through various place names scattered throughout England, each one claiming something to do with the great legend. Real or not, the story of Robin Hood isn’t going anywhere – and it makes for a great point of interest while hiking the backcountry of Northern England!
Pro tip: When you’re in the area, head to the village of Penrith to stop by Kennedys Fine Chocolates for artesian boxes of chocolates or even just a delicious cup of hot cocoa!
Another in the series of rebuilt structures sparked by the Fire of Notre Dame. What comes to everybody’s mind when you hear the word “Dresden”? The Dresden bombing of WWII of course. Sadly, this controversial bombing in February 1945 killed 25,000 people, levelling the city centre to piles of rumble, much like Warsaw after the Warsaw Uprising. And then after the war, it was hidden behind the Iron Curtain, left to be rebuilt during the East German Communist era (also like Warsaw!). Luckily, much of Dresden’s old town has been restored to its former glory, showing the resilience of the people much like the citizens of Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe obliterated by the war. The Dresdner Frauenkirche was one of the main buildings to be reconstructed after the terrible bombing. Not formally a cathedral, this building only dates back to the 18th century. Dresden was flattened February 13-15th 1945 when the RAF and the USAAF dropped more than 3,900 tons of bombs on the German city, leaving it as nothing more than a heap of rubble with thousands dead. The church managed to survive two days of attack, but it could not withstand the intense heat from the blasts, and eventually collapsed. It would remain in ruins for the following 45 years. Happily, by 2005, the Frauenkirche‘s reconstruction was completed and the church was more beautiful than ever!
Pro tip: Dresden is also reputed for its Christmas markets… perhaps consider December for your next visit!
Gargoyles of the Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
After the April 14th 2019 fire, it’s not even certain if these iconic gargoyles still even adorn the amazing Notre Dame Cathedral. Even if they do, it won’t be possible to visit them until the cathedral is rebuilt… which will take years, possibly as long as two decades despite the overwhelming donations pledged (if only these sort of donations were pledged for all important monuments damaged and destroyed! Like the ancient temples of Iraq and Syria destroyed thanks to ISIS…). Notre Dame Cathedral is a special place, and the devastating fire is one of Europe’s terrible tragedies of recent times (though luckily avoiding loss of life). Built in the Middle Ages in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame is a stone building topped with a wooden roof made of strong oak from the 1200s (much of which was burned to ciders on April 14/15th). It is in this cathedral where Victor Hugo’s le bossu (or the hunchback) lived out his life in the famous book, and up until the fire, it was Paris‘s most visited monument (12-14 million each year!). Notre Dame is a symbol of Paris and France, but also one of architectural beauty, history and cultural heritage. Following the fire, this beautiful building is also a symbol of hope and resilience sitting in the centre of one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Let’s hope they rebuild it quickly, keeping in the same style as its original architects designed it… (no Pompidous, please!)
Pro tip: You can’t visit Notre Dame following the fire, but there are many other beautiful medieval structures in Paris well worth your visit, and many other great cathedrals in throughout France. Looking for gargoyles? Try Dijon Cathedral. Medieval grandeur? Lyon’s St Jean Cathedral. Simple elegance? Blois’s Church of Saint-Nicolas in the Loire Valley.
The destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral on April 14th 2019 has sparked a series on rebuilt structures. Of all the rebuilt places in Europe, Warsaw remains the crown jewel. During WWII, the city was decimated by the Germans, helped along by the Soviets (through inaction). 85%-90% of the city was flattened into shapeless rubble (largely a punishment/result of the Warsaw Uprising against the Germans). Most of the people of Warsaw were gone or dead – those who remained hid underground in the rubble. When the city was being rebuilt by teams of everyday Warsaw residents (with the “help” of the Soviets), debates ranged – how should we rebuild it? Should it look like it once did, or do we rebuild it using modern styles, or something in between? But the Polish and the Varsovians in particular are proud, and they wanted their city back – the same city they’d had for generations. The decision was made then to rebuild Warsaw as it was before. But how to do that? Luckily, though much was lost and the city itself was a pile of broken rubble, some of the blueprints had been saved by architecture students. Paintings that had been hidden away too were used, as were memories in some cases. Can you imagine? That door painted blue simply because someone remembered it being like that. In any case, Warsaw’s old town and new town were rebuilt in all their former glory – resembling the 18th and 19th century paintings used as a model more than anyone ever imagined possible! Today, the city centre of Warsaw (the whole city in fact) is less than a century old though you’d never know it. Authentic in its spirit, beauty, history and resilience, it is a testament of what can be accomplished through the pride, sweat and gumption of the residents who call this wonderful city home.
Pro tip: Interested in learning more about this period? Visit the Uprising Museum. Walk the streets of the Wola district and keep your eyes out for the markers in the sidewalk showing where the Warsaw Ghetto once was. In town, try eating at one of the traditional Milk Bars– the kind of eatery where workers of 20th century Poland would have eaten.
Being an island, Ireland is naturally full of beaches… It’s just that no one thinks about Ireland as a “beach destination” (or even a “destination with beaches”) because of its lack of palm trees and piña coladas! Ventry Beach is probably one of the Dingle Peninsula’s most well-known beaches (after Inch Beach & Slea Head), most likely because of its proximity to the much-loved artist’s haven of Dingle town. The Dingle Peninsula in general is one of the most beloved tourist spots because it’s in Kerry. That said, it still has quieter spots! The Dingle Way is a way-marked trail that circles the peninsula. While parts of it are on roads, other sections are on farmer’s tracks and even beaches – such as Ventry Beach. Ventry Beach also happens to be the start to the Saints’ Road, a pilgrimage trail that travels to Mt Brandon, one of Ireland’s holy mountains. (It is said that Mt Brandon is where St Brendon fasted and saw a vision of the Promised Land, inspiring his 7 year Voyage of St Brandon the Navigator). Whatever the reason – Dingle Way hike, pilgrimage walk or a simple stroll on the beach and a splash in the waves when it’s warm enough – Ventry Beach is a lovely place to simply relax and enjoy being outdoors.
Pro tip: Hike this section of the Dingle Way (from Ventry to Slea Head) where you’ll pass dozens of ancient clohans or beehive huts. Not far away, visit Louis Mulcahy’s pottery studio to try your hand at pottery or just browse. Even try a seaweed bath – said to be great for the skin!
Lyon is surely one of Europe’s most beautiful and yet under-rated cities. Overlooked in favour of its more popular big sister Paris, in many ways, Lyon is actually far cooler. Known as France‘s Gastronomic Capitol, it is the place to come to eat. The city is renowned for its restaurants – from Michelin-starred Paul Bocuse’s fine dining to delicious family-run bouchons de Lyon. Pair you Lyonnais dinner with local wine from the vineyards of the Côtes de Rhône or Beaujolais. Lyon is an ancient place. Once the capital of Roman Gaul, Lyon’s rivers – the mighty Rhône and the graceful Saône – have long made Lyon a maritime power. The city progressed eastwards. The Romans inhabited the hill of Fourvière (the remains of the amphitheater are still there); between the bottom of the hill and the Saône riverbanks is the medieval and Renaissance Vieux Lyon with its traboules and cobblestones; northwards is the hill of Croix Rousse, once home to Renaissance silk merchants; between the two rivers is the Presqu’île, home to elegant 18th and 19th century masterpieces. On the far side of the river, 20th century Lyon has exploded in massive concrete blocks, and at the southernmost point of the rivers’ meeting is the Confluences, where the ultra-modernity of the 21st century shocks visitors. But the best way to explore Lyon through the ages is by following its rivers. The Rhone is the more popular – its banks popular for jogging, picnics, and even clubbing (on the boats), while the Saône is quieter, calmer, somehow more French, more Lyonnais – follow the river north for a lovely introduction to this very amazing city before wandering its varied districts.
Pro tip: Looking for a good bar? Les Fleurs du Malt in the Vieux Lyon has incredible array of beers. Food? The bouchons of the old town are all great, but for true authenticity, head into the modern 7ème district to either the Bistrot des Fauvres or L’Autre Côté du Pont (nearby Italian restaurant San Marco is also delicious). Be sure to visit the traboules, tunnel/passages, in the Vieux Lyon – head to #52 Rue Saint John and go through the door.
Torun, Poland does not want for churches. In fact, they seem to be everywhere. The Holy Trinity Church, erected in 1824, is viewed here from the gate of medieval St James’s Church, while other spires and steeples rise not far away – including the squat red-brick towers of Toruń Cathedral. Ironically, the 13th century medieval city is the birthplace of noted scientist Nicolaus Copernicus, who lends his name to Toruń’s university (you’ll find a large statue of him on Warsaw‘s Krakowskie Przedmieście Street). Noted for his contributions to our understanding of the solar system by placing the Sun at the centre, the “forward-thinking” Church issued a prohibition against his Copernican theory, leading to the condemnation of a “heretic” we know today as renowned scientist Galileo Galilei (Thanks Christianity…!). On a happier (and tastier) note, Toruń’s other claim to fame is that its famous for its gingerbread (or “pierniki” in Polish), which bakers began to produce in the 1300s. You haven’t tasted gingerbread until you’ve been to Toruń – and whether you think you like the it or not, you will love it after tasting this soft and delicious pastry in this magical city! Due to a vague agreement to swap recipes in return for new ones, Toruń instigated a competition with the German city, Nuremberg. As each city rose to individual fame, the secrets of their recipes became more guarded. Knockoffs were created and sold all over Europe. However, to this day, one needs only try Toruń’s gingerbread to recognise its authenticity (modern day Toruń gingerbread follows traditional 16th century recipes…). Perhaps tasting Toruń’s magical gingerbread will inspire you to try your hand at making your own plate of gingerbread biscuits!
Pro tip: You can buy pierniki toruńskie throughout Poland, and while quite good compared to non-Polish gingerbread, you can’t leave Toruń without visiting one of the local shops for the freshest gingerbread. One such place is Torun Żeglarska 25, though up and down Żeglarska Street, Piekary Street, and the Old City Market Square (Stare Miasto) you’ll find gingerbread specialty shops.
Talk about the fairytale castles! Schloss Hohenzollern seems to floats atop the golden and amber trees that crown Mount Hohenzollern. On the edge of the Swabian Jura region of central Baden-Württemberg, Hohenzollern Castle seems lost in a remote backwoods, overlooking the quiet town of Hechingen. There has been a fortification here since the 11th century, though such fortifications were rebuilt many times. This castle, Schloss Hohenzollern, was constructed between 1846-67 by King Frederick William IV of Prussia in the dramatic neo-Gothic revival style so popular throughout Europe at the time. (There is also the possibility that the design was inspired by the Loire Valley Chateaux in central France – not hard to see why!). Though smaller than it looks, the castle is an a fairytale – and the largest castle in the Baden-Württemberg region. Unlike Neuschwanstein or Eltz, Hohenzollern enjoys relative anonymity – at least in the off-season! Also unlike the others, the city closest it to it – Stuttgart – is disregarded by most as a place to visit. All of this means that Hollehzollern in fall (or winter) is a quiet, romantically desolate place full of history, legend and ancient beauty.
Pro tip: From Stuttgart, there are frequent trains to the local Hechingen station (journey takes 1 hour). From Hechingen, take a shuttle bus up the mountain, or you could walk through the town and on a wooded path up the mountain, but it’s between 5-6k one way. Entrance is €7 for exterior castle visit or €12 to visit the rooms. New in 2018, royal rooms can be visited on guided tours on certain days!
Get this. The windiest place in the UK…is called The Butt (cue endless jokes about the Butt being very windy…)! The Butt of Lewis (confusingly located at the northernmost point of the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides) is a lonely andwindswept headland home to a solitary lighthouse. Constructed in the 1860s, this unusual red-brick lighthouse was inhabited by a lighthouse keeper until 1998 when it was automated. Lighthouse keeping was a lonely existence. Being stationed on the comparatively large and civilised Isle of Lewis wouldn’t have been too bad – nearby villages such as Ness, Borve and Barvas kept keepers provided with fresh supplies and news. However, lighthouse keepers on small, uninhabited islands lived a desolate and difficult existence. The most famous case was that of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse, located on a rock pinnacle off the coast of Lewis. In December of 1900, 3 lighthouse keepers were prevented from returning to land after their long shift. When a boat finally arrived, incomers found a desolate and deserted island, wreaked by a violent storm. One coat still hung on its peg, iron railings and railroad tracks were mangled and uprooted, and a crate of equipment ruined… with no one to be seen. The logbooks – not updated for a week – note that the men had been acting strange (hardworn mariners noted as struck silent dumb, crying, and praying) during a terrible storm that supposedly raged for 3 days. The strangest part? The island could be seen from Lewis and ships had sailed the Hebrides waters…but no storm had been recorded. (Goosebumps, anyone?) Even after years of searching for them and the truth of what happened Dec. 15th, 1900, nothing has been uncovered. Conspiracy theorists will say anything from madness to pirates to aliens, though a rogue wave is probably the most likely answer (two men swept off when securing the equipment, the third as he attempted to help or warn the others). But we’ll probably never know – and now that the forlorn lighthouses such as the Butt of Lewis and Flannan Isle are automated, the saga of lonely lighthouse keepers is at an end, keeping their secrets with them.
Pro tip: Take great care when visiting the Butt of Lewis – it is VERY windy. Secure anything at risk of being blown away (hats, scarves, glasses) before approaching. For those who wish, there is a 3-4km coastal walk from Eoropie Beach to the Butt of Lewis. Flannan Isle is hard to get to – if it’s a must-see for you, try with Seatrek.
The quiet and ancient region of Auvergne, located in central France, is a bastion of tradition, history and culture. Far from most tourists radar, those who do visit the region generally head to the iconic mountain Puy-de-Dome or perhaps the capitol city, Clermont-Ferrand (especially for rugby fans). Few head deeper into the countryside towards the ultra rural Cantal region. Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise (or Besse, as it’s known locally) is just one of the many spectacular gems that reward those who venture into Auvergne’s hidden corner. A fairytale village of wandering cobblestone streets and, intricate buildings topped with steep roofs and lined with overflowing flower-boxes, the best way to enjoy Besse is to simply lose yourself in the beautiful medieval streets of the photogenic village. Admire the half-Romanesque, half-Gothic Eglise de Saint-André, the Maison de la Reine Margot, the town hall, and the guard tower at the entrance to this ancient place. Try various flavours of nougat, a local delicacy, or in summer, be sure to stop for deliciously creamy ice cream at one of the local vendors in the shadows of the ancient stone buildings. In the evenings, relax at one of the village’s lovely terrases for a cold beer as you people-watch the bustling village centre. Besse is a perfect example of medieval charm surrounded by verdant and unexplored landscapes perfect for hiking, biking and paddling – ideal for those looking to relax in a rural environment while visiting a corner of France that has changed little through the years.
Pro tip: If you can, time your visit to correspond with one of the brocantes or outdoor flea markets (very popular in rural France) to find unique souvenirs. The nearby, nearly-round Lac Pavin is a very pretty place for a walk. Visiting in summer? Try the famed Tyrollean. Visiting in winter? You’re in luck – Besse is known for its skiing!
Find other places nearby to make the perfect Auvergne holiday
As the capitol of Apulia (a region commonly known as the “heel” of Italy’s boot), Bari is a bustling and chaotic labyrinthine city in southern Italy. The city’s fortress is the Castello Svevo, protecting Apulia’s capitol since 1132. Destroyed and rebuilt several times, the Normans, Holy Romans, Angevins, Spanish and even Polish all had their hand in Castello Svevo’s existence. Polish, you say? Indeed, due to a coup d’etat, the 16th century Sforza family of Milan was ousted from power and instead granted Bari and Apulia in the far south (where they were far from the economic powerhouses of Northern Italy and yet could still be kept an eye on). Daughter Bona Sforza was later wed to Polish King Sigismund I the Old (though after her death, the castle was returned to the King of Naples). Castello Svevo’s imposing exterior is perhaps due to its use as a medieval prison. Today, the castle is a museum as well as the centrepiece of the Bari and its narrow, winding streets, perfectly Italian streets.
Pro tip: Bari is a port city – often used for catching ferries to Croatia (Dubrovnik), Montenegro (Bar), Albania (Durres), and even the Greek island of Corfu. Keep in mind that there are two ports and they are not right next to one another, so know where your ferry departs from!
Overlooking St John’s Church on Bath’s River Avon, England
Surely one of the quaintest and most quintessentially English towns in all of England is Bath. The tranquil waters of the River Avon winds through the city, a labyrinth of limestone facades constructed with a local stone called Bath Limestone, with the canal on the other side of Bath. Houseboats lap quietly against their moorings, ducks splash on the lush green backs. Church steeples – like St John’s Church steeple – rise dramatically against a cloudy sky. Forming the southern entrance to the Cotswolds region, Bath is recognised as one of England’s most picturesque places. Lined with rows of proud Georgian houses centred around the impressive Bath Abbey and the ancient Roman baths that lend themselves to the city’s name, Bath seems like a time capsule that has captured the Roman era, medieval times and Georgian England. It feels almost as if we were stepping out of a Jane Austen novel – which in a way is true. Jane Austen lived here from 1801 – 1806, and set some of her novels here (though it is known that she disliked the high society of 19th century Bath). Jane Austenmay have found fault with Bath, but to the modern day visitor, Bath is the perfect picture of England! (It also makes for a good jumping off point to explore the Cotswolds region…).
Pro tip: The recently-renovated Holburn Museum of Art is a lovely little art museum showcasing local painting. Runners (or walkers) might enjoy a walk along the Kennet & Avon canal – start from Bath and walk the 10 miles along the lovely and tranquil canal path to the lovely Cotswolds town of Bradford-on-Avon (well worth a visit!) and return to Bath via the local train. Another great walk will take you up the hill to Sham Castle. Also nearby is Bristol (also the local airport), a quirky artsy town.
Hidden away in the little-known County Fermangh along the Ireland–Northern Ireland border is the Marble Arch geopark and the Boho Caves. Buried within the hollowed hills is a collection of limestone caves. Some caves can be visited – such as those in the Marble Arch geopark – while others are harder to find. Pollenagollum Cave is one of those subterranean worlds that few discover – and those who do are not disappointed. Located in Belmore Mountain Park, Pollenagollum Cave (meaning “hole of the doves”) bores into the face of a small 12-metre-high cliff, its mouth at the bottom of a graceful waterfall. The cave itself goes back about 2 km, where there is another entrance in the hollowed-out hills of Marble Arch, though an underground stream makes the cave impassible (only the first kilometre or so is unblocked). Pollenagollumm Cave’s claim to fame is quite recent – it was here that, in the much-loved Game of Thrones TV Series, the scene in which Beric Dondarrian had Arya and her companions where brought to his underground hideout was filmed! The limestone cave is impressive, and the surrounding Belmore Forest and quarry is tranquil and beautiful.
Pro tip: The whole loop in Belmore Forest is about 7km, though the cave is only about 1km along the trail. There is also a stone marked with neolithic-era Curvilinear art not far off the path, but isn’t well marked. Please note that access to the cave is by permission only – some speleology associations may be able to bring curious visitors. Otherwise, there is a viewpoint just about the cave and waterfall for those who simply want to enjoy the panorama.
Neither Slovakia nor its capital city of Bratislava are places that often make travel wish-lists of grand tours of Europe. At the heart of Eastern Europe, Bratislava and Slovakia in general has always been a place swept under the rug of larger powers. Though Bratislava may not have the charm of some other Central and Eastern European cities (such as Prague, Vienna or Krakow), its cobbled streets, ancient churches, quirky statues and mosaic roofs are well worth the wander. And then of course there is the castle, rebuilt “recently” after a fire gutted the estate. Today, its shimmering white towers float in the fog on a hilltop above the city. Though Slovakia is on the Euro, the country is still good value for money, and the fact that it isn’t as famous as its neighbours means that you won’t be fighting tourism crowds while still enjoying a fairly authentic experience. Start by wandering the old narrow streets in the morning – you’ll probably have them all to yourself at this hour. Visit the castle and the Blue Church, say hello to Cumil then have some lunch – be sure to try some Slovakian crepes (called palacinky) as well as a glass of local beer such as Bazant Radler. If you stay for the evening, you’re in for a treat – Bratislava is meant to have a great nightlife scene and is quite popular with hen and stag parties!
Pro tip: Bratislava is only about an hour away from Vienna, and the cities make a good combination (Vienna is bigger but Bratislava is far more cost effective). Bratislava Airport is a good alternative access point to the region to Vienna’s airport.
Vienne is most famous for its Roman ruins – the Temple of Auguste and Livie, amphitheatre and obelisk – though there is far more to this ancient place than that. A bit eerie and yet hauntingly beautiful, Vienne’s Pipet Cemetery is a fascinating place to visit. Vast alleyways and avenues are lined with massive tombs and headstones making a sort of French city of the dead. Climb to the top of the hill for a view of the fantastic ruins of the medieval castle, Chateau de la Batie, which still cling to the rugged hilltop, crowning Vienne’s dramatic skyline. The view of Chateau de la Batie seems straight out of Victorian-era painting, of a folly perhaps—dramatic cliffs, dark forests, a ruined castle, a grey cemetery, a hanging sky—and yet, the view is entirely authentic. Perched at the top of Mont Salomon, the castle Chateau de la Batie was built on the foundations of Roman ruins in 1225 by the archbishop of Vienne in order to protect the city from would-be medieval attackers. While the castle is not open to the public, it turns a rather ordinary landscape into something dramatic, romantic and even extraordinary to behold, and both the cemetery and Vienne’s hilltop are well worth the visit.
Pro tips: In the summer months of June and July, the city comes alive with the annual festival, Jazz a Vienne. Just across the Rhone Riveris Saint-Romain-en-Gal (only a separate town because it crosses county lines), find the ruins of a Roman city and an excellent museum of Roman archeology. Sometimes the site even hosts living history festivals. Vienne is an easy day trip from Lyon.
Though part of the much-loved Loire Valley region of central France, Blois has a reputation to be grim, grey and foggy. And though Blois does not have the same fairy-tale charm as the magnificent Chateau du Chenonceau, nor the impressive grandeur of Chateau de Chambord, it has its own gems. One such gem is the Church of Saint-Nicolas (not to be confused with the Cathedral of Blois), an impressive remnant of the Middle Ages in Northern France. Founded as an abbey in 1138 by Benedictine monks fleeing from the Normans, the Romanesque–Gothic church took nearly a century to complete. The abbey section of the complex was destroyed by the Protestant Huguenots during the bloody and long-suffering Wars of Religion. In fact, Saint-Nicolas was built relatively quickly for the time, though a hiatus of about 20 years means Saint-Nicolas has two different marked architectural styles. Blois itself is a town that often gets overlooked from Loire Valley visitors, who come to the region to admire the fine Renaissance chateaus. Blois does indeed have a castle (though not on par with the other Loire Chateaux) but it is its northern streets and ancient architecture such as this church that make Blois stand out. Well that – and the fact that in 1429, French hero Joan of Arc made Blois the base of her operations – riding out from the city 35 miles on Wednesday 29 April to relieve Orléans, what is today known as the Siege of Orléans during the 100 Years War (France’s first major victory since Agincourt in 1415).
Pro tip: Blois can be a good base for people visiting Loire Chateaux. The closest one to Blois is the massive and magnificent Chateau de Chambord, only 15km from Blois. See more about getting to the castle by car or public transport here.
In the centre of the wildly beautiful city of Krakow is the eclectic structure known as Wawel Castle. Commissioned by King Casimir III in the 13th century, Wawel Castle is a strange mix of nearly all the popular architectural styles of the 13th – 18th centuries – including medieval, gothic, Renaissance (particularly Italian), Baroque, Romanesque and more (neo-classical seems the only important style of the time missing from the list). The Wawel we see today is much altered from the original structure – parts were destroyed by fire, leading to other parts added on or rebuilt entirely. When it was occupied by the Prussian Army, it was changed to meet new needs and new standards – Wawel’s was modernised and its interior re-styled. Defensive structures were changed, and some buildings were removed. Long the residence of Polish kings during Poland‘s Golden Years and beyond, Wawel overlooks one of Poland’s most spectacular cities. In fact, Krakow is one of the few urban centres not razed during the devastating WWII (due to Hitler using it as a base camp). Today, as one of the largest castles in Poland, Wawel Castle is a member of UNESCO world heritage sites (alongside Krakow’s historic downtown). Inside, find museums and exhibition on art, architecture, history, ceramics, weaponry, gold, and even articles from the Orient. To visit is also the cathedral, the ‘lost’ basements where the foundations show what once was there, and cave leading to the banks of the river nicknamed “the Dragon’s Den,” home to the legendary Dragon of Wawel lived.
Pro tip: Wawel can be quite busy – try to visit in the off-peak season (or at least earlier in the day) if you can. Admission costs vary, see more here. Free admission is on Mondays from 9:30am – 1pm in April – October, and Sundays 10am – 4pm in November – March. Don’t miss the nearby fire-breathing dragon, a monument to the Wawel Dragon legend (it breathes fire in 5 minute intervals and can be activated by SMS).
Amidst Brexit shenanigans, London remains both irrevocably changed as well as the same wonderful place it has always been. One thing that London does so well – and so much better than any other city in Europe – is perfectly blend the old and the new. No where else can the Globe, the Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral sit together in perfect harmony on two sides of the mighty Thames River and seem to complement each other so perfectly. Here London is up to its old tricks again. Stroll through the ultra modern architecture of City Hall and the London Riverside to admire the light and airy glass and steel manipulated into curvy and wavy lines – which contrasts steadily with the Victorian-era and icon of English historical landmarks, London’s Tower Bridge. Built in the 1890s, this dual-functioning bridge allows pedestrians and vehicle to cross while also working as a drawbridge for passing ships and barges on the Thames. London may be a massive city but the best way to explore its nooks and crannies is by picking a direction and starting to walk – no matter how many times you visit, you never know what gem you may happen to find!
Pro tip: The Tower Bridge (not to be confused with London Bridge) is free to walk across but there is a fee of £9.80 to enter the towers (open 9.30 – 17.30) – once engine rooms and now exhibitions.
Chateau de Val is certainly one of the luckiest castles in all of France. Built from the 13th to 15th centuries, Chateau de Val is a little-known castle located in the centre of France in a remote and little-visited region known as Le Cantal. Le Cantal itself is within the underrated region of Auvergne, known for its extinct volcanoes, rugby team, and Michelin (and locally, its cheeses!). In fact, poor Cantal is one of France’s least-populated (and least-visited) regions – though this is not for lack of beautiful sites! Tucked into this quiet region is one of the most dramatically romantic castles of France: the Chateau de Val. Once upon a time, the castle of Chateau de Val overlooked a massive and fertile valley in the Cantal Mountains, ancient volcanoes that have been ground down with time. Then, in 1942, the dam of Bort-des-Orges was proposed – and a decade later, water from the dammed river filled the valley – lapping softly and perfectly at the feet of the castle as if it was meant to be so. And yet. When the Bort-des-Orges dam was proposed and the valley’s villages were evacuated, the castle was purchased from the ancient family – with the full intention of the castle being left to drown under the new lake. But – an error occurred, a miscalculation, a change in water levels or equations or perhads funds. In any case, instead of water pouring through the medieval halls of a once-proud castle, hiding it forever from the eyes of the 21st century, fortune intervened, and the water level was lowered. The lake arrived just below Chateau de Val, giving it a dramatic position on a newly-formed peninsula. The electric company that built the dam tried to sell it back to the previous owners (who rejected it on the grounds that it had lost all of its ground) so instead, the electric company sold Chateau de Val to the town hall for €1 symbolic. And that’s why one could say that the Chateau de Val is the luckiest castle in France!
Pro Tip: Cantal is remote and not very touristy so don’t expect big visitor centres or roadside tourist signs, menus in English or many local English speakers. Other local sites to visit are: the medieval sites of Besse & Chateau de Murol, as well as the village of St Nectaire (where the cheese of the same name comes from!). Cantal is also the name of a regional cheese – both are delicious and should be tasted while you’re there! The whole region is an outdoor lover’s paradise with plenty of trails and panoramic views.
In most cities, the harbour, or “the docks” district is one of the least favourable parts of town – rough, rundown, dirty, overgrown, a bit forgotten. In Split however, this is not the case. One of Croatia’s loveliest cities (home to the amazing Diocletian’s Palace, the dramatic Marjan Hill, the stunning Trg Republike square, and a labyrinth of beautiful, winding streets), Split’s harbour and waterfront, called the Riva, is a charming promenade and one of Split’s loveliest places. The Riva was born some 200 years ago the French of Napoleon’s time lived there, though it has changed face and form several times over. Today home to an inundation of cafes, restaurants and bars, it is the throbbing heart of modern Split. And yet the Riva does not forget its maritime past, with piers, boat slips, customs houses and Port Authority buildings new and old framing the waterfront. The Riva is snuggled up behind the famous Diocletian Palace, ancient churches and an important monastery overseeing modern and traditional waterfront activities.
Pro tip: The Riva can be quite a busy place at all hours of the day, though it is at its liveliest in the evenings. Climb the nearby Marjan Hill for spectacular views over the harbour and watch the boats as the come and go.
When one envisions the Irish countryside, often quaint stone cottages with thatched roofs, with a garden of dancing flowers on backdrop of rolling emerald hills comes to mind. A lot has changed since this type of Ireland was the norm. Ireland (which was a 3rd world country until about a generation and a half ago) has modernised, become part of the EU and joined the 21st century. And yet, when you are wandering in the countryside – particularly in the rural parts of the west coast, in places like Sligo, Donegal, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon and other similarly rural and agricultural counties, you will still find pockets of this old world Ireland, such as this wee little cottage outside the village of Dromahair that maintains traditional thatched roofs and stone structure (though it’s a vivid shade of blue!). The best way to uncover the real Ireland is by pulling on a pair of hiking boots and set of traipsing through the woods, as Ireland’s outdoors has so much more to offer than Ireland’s towns or cities. This particular cottage is along the final stage of the little-known Sligo Way, a nature and cultural track that winds its way through some of Northwest Ireland’s most scenic destinations. Not only is hiking in Ireland – especially in the remote and undiscovered northwest – a good way to explore the island, but it’s also a great escape from our busy, fast-paced, screen-driven lives of modern society. Instead, kick back, relax and enjoy a slower – albeit muckier – way of life in the remote corners of Ireland!
Pro tip: The Sligo Way is 78 km long, but the final 10km are by far the best. Nearly all off-road, the landscape and backdrop varies from lush woodland, tranquil lake shore, to mountain path, farm track and boggy ground. It passes the famed Isle of Inisfree, the ruins of Creevylea Abbey, a donkey farm and lovely cottages like this one, before ending in the charming village of Dromahair.
Orange roofs contrast against the deep azures of the Mediterranean and the whitewashed walls of the fairy-tale houses crowding the narrow streets of medieval Peñíscola. Beautiful, curved (oft handmade) terracotta roof tiles are perhaps one of the images most associated with Spain and its hard not to conjure up images glasses of tinto de verano and sangria, massive plates of Valencianpaella, and delicious tapaswhen you see roofs such as these! The little medieval town of Peñíscola clings desperately to the sea, encircled by walls and containing a labyrinth of weaving streets, tiny alleys and jumbled plazas – crowned by the squat castle in the centre. Sometimes called the Gibraltar of Valencia – or locally as “The City in the Sea” – Peñíscola is a fortified city built onto on an easily-defensible headland that juts into the sea. The 13th castle was erected by none other than the infamous Knights Templar (our friends who also built Segovia‘s Church Vera Cruz) – and it is from here that one enjoys the epic panorama of city and sea.
Pro tip: Aside from wandering the lovely streets, be sure to visit the castle, lighthouse, bateria, and House of Shells. There are several nice terrases for sangria or “tapas and caña” (tapas, or small plates of food, that accompany a glass of beer).
From farmer’s markets to flea markets, ice cream stands to crêperies, from sunshine to rainy days, Place Saint Léger, tucked within the bright, colourful streets of Chambéry, has seen it all. Chambéry is a small but beautiful French town not far from the Italian border and comfortably snuggled in the foothills of the French Alps. In fact, on a clear day, the Alps are clearly visible; on a rainy day, you may just make out their massive silhouettes in the fog. Chambéry’s air is much cooler and crisper than the air of 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.
Pro tip: Looking for something unique? Head to Place des Éléphants to see Chambery’s strange centrepiece: the Elephant Fountain! It is exactly what it sounds like, a fountain made of 4 elephant sculptures. For hikers and outdoor lovers, Chambéry is a good base to explore the western fringes of the Alps and still enjoy the charms of a sizeable city.
The small town of Sigulda and its environs seem to collect castles and manors. For starters, the most famous is Turaida Castle, its golden-red towers jutting out of the woodland following the stunning Gauja River Valley – a perfect place to hike. On the far side of the cable car opposite Sigulda, there’s the crumbling ancient ruins of Krimulda Castle paired with the crumbling not-so-ancient ruins of Krimulda Manor. And then of course, in Sigulda town proper, find the Old Castle of Sigulda – now in ruins – just across from the New Castle of Sigulda. The first New Castle of Sigulda was constructed in 1878 by the wealthy Kropotkin family in the popular Neo-Gothic revival style that swept the continent throughout the 19th century. The castle/manor lasted only until WWI when it was partially destroyed. As was wont, restoration started after the war was over, though Sigulda’s New Castle got a complete makeover – it had now become the Writer’s Castle, inspiration for authors, writers and poets of all kinds (romantic ideal, eh!?). Such an idyllic nature didn’t last. In WWII, it was taken over by the Germans, used as a military headquarters, only then to be tossed over to the USSR after the war’s end. It wasn’t until the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) finally got their hard-won freedom that Sigulda’s New Castle finally housed part of the Latvian government – home to Sigulda City and District Councils. Though closed to tourists, it’s worth a stroll through the beautiful grounds to enjoy the castle and the views. Plus, the old castle of Sigulda is not far off!
Pro tip: The cable car across the valley goes once an hour. Buy your ticket and then use the rest of the hour to walk around Sigulda’s castles and perhaps even pop in to the church to see their collection of button art. If you’re planning to walk from Krimulda to Turaida once you cross the gorge, be sure to wear good footwear.