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.
Antica Mulattiera (Mule Track) in the Val de Susa, Italy
The antica mulattiera or ancient mule path carves its way up the mountain deep with the Val de Susa, carrying pilgrims to the Sacra di San Michele as it has done for at least a thousand years. Hidden amongst the curves one will find 15 “stations of the cross,” stone crosses each representing a different “station” – a stark reminder to the route’s pilgrims of why they are here. Cobblestones smoothed by the centuries, sharp edges worn away by thousands if not millions of pilgrim’s boots make up the rugged path that hugs Monte Pirchiriano in northern Italy. Leave behind the 21st century to follow the antica mulattiera through the Val de Susa, travelling back in time to the Middle Ages when pilgrimages were a normal part of life for every believer. In your modern homage to ancient pilgrimages, follow this quiet forest path and enter into nature as you make your own pilgrimage to the monastery at the top. Not only will you be able to approach the monastery in the traditional way and understand what life would have been like for a medieval pilgrim, but along the way you’ll be privy to amazing views, hillside villages and centuries of tradition. As you make your soul-searching pilgrimage, you’ll have time to reflect on life and destiny. By the time you reach the top, you may very well be a changed person.
Pro tip: Start your walk from behind the church of Saint-Ambrogio of Torino, a short train ride from the city of Torino. From the train station, it’s about a 3km walk each way. Visit in the winter to avoid other tourists and marvel at the snow-dusted woodlands and mountaintops. Due to slippery stones and leaves underfoot as well as some muddy patches, we recommend sturdy shoes for this walk.
The original canal city (though far from the only city criss-crossed with canals), Venice is often recognised as one of the most romantic cities in the world. Sometimes nicknamed the “Fish” (for its shape as seen from above), Venice’s main island is also its most busy, though it is far from the only island in the Venetian Lagoon – in fact, there are 118 islands as part of the Lagoon! Certainly one of Europe’s most beautiful creations, the entire island is like a museum where some of the most splendid examples of architecture are on permanent display. Take to the canals, the grand squares and the beautiful bridges to admire facades displaying Rococo, Baroque, Renaissance and Gothic styles – in fact, Venice has its own version of the Gothic called Venetian Gothic, characterised by its lancet windows adorned with carved ogee arches. Both the Byzantines and the Ottomans had a serious effect on the development of Venice’s unique architectural styles, and in turn, Venice had a serious effect on the rest of Europe. Then as today, Venice has been wowing visitors who travel to this marvel of a city and bring back its artistic and architectural secrets to be used in the building of other impressive places. Though Venice is one of the most visited cities on Earth, it suffers from overtourism – there are simply too many people visiting these small islands. The best way to avoid adding to this problem is to visit in the off season, exploring the lesser-visited islands, as well as visiting other lesser-visited places in the region like Brunico, Lago di Braies,Verona, the Dolomites Mountains and more to spread the tourism more evenly!
Pro tip: There’s really no getting around the crowdedness of Venice – the best we can say is visit in the off season, and try to stay on one of the less-famed islands. Carnevale di Venezia (the Carnival of Venice) is in January/February and is an exciting though popular time of year to visit. While here, get off the main squares to wander the back alleys, keeping your eyes out for little hole-in-the-wall cafes with Italian-only menus to mingle with locals who love to meet, chat and drink afternoon glasses of espresso and spritz.
Most visitors zip by this historical town in southern France. To the majority of strangers, the town of Montélimar is just a blip on the map in the little-known region of Drôme to be passed by on the way to greener (or sunnier!) pastures such as Provence and the Cote d’Azure (better known as the French Riviera). Towering over the clay-roofed town is the impressive Romanesque stone pile that is the Chateau des Adhémar. Full of architectural beauty, the town of Montélimar itself is a lovely place. Stroll the town centre exploring the streets lined with facades representing the tastes of different centuries – grand mansions and townhouses such as the former home of courtier of kings Diane de Poitiers, an impressive Renaissance building dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. Other buildings are from the 17th and 18th centuries, sporting a variety of styles, each topped with beautiful clay tiles. Montélimar is the place to be when the sun is shining – wandering the walls of the ancient castle, strolling the streets of the historic centre, sipping rosé at a pocket-sized cafe or soaking up the sun in the gardens or the riverbanks of the Rhône River and its offshoots the Roubion and the Jabron.
Pro tip: Make sure you try some of the local wines while there. This is the Côtes de Rhône wine region (famed for their reds) of which there are many varieties (though one we quite like is M. Chapoutier – see more about this region here. In the other direction, you’ll find another delicious wine, the Ventoux, from a grape variety that grows on Mt Ventoux, the windy mountain. This region is also just north of Provence, heralded for its rosé wines, perfect for a summer’s day.
Germany may have a reputation for being a bit dark, a bit gloomy, even a bit grim – but there’s one thing that Germany does just as well if not better than some of the loveliest parts of Europe: fairytale castles. One such castle is the lovely if little-known Hohenzollern Castle. Though not completely off the beaten track, beautiful Burg Hohenzollern doesn’t share the same overwhelming popularity or footfalls as its cousins Neuschwanstein Castle, or perhaps Eltz Castle or Schloss Lichtenstein, widely shared on social media. Crowning the top of Mount Hohenzollern, the towers of Hohenzollern rise majestically above the treetops. The ancestral seat of the once-powerful House of Hohenzollern, this castle only dates back to the mid-1800s although a castle has stood here since the 11th century. When the clouds encircle Mount Hohenzollern, it gives the effect the Burg Hohenzollern is floating in the air – an actual castle amongst the clouds! Though it’s possible to climb the hill by bus, we recommend that you take to the trails which weave in and out of the woods before depositing you on the doorstep of this amazing castle, where you’ll be greeted with a courtyard surrounded by thick, imposing walls and high towers. It’s not just the outside of Hohenzollern that is amazing – inside, admire the spectacular courtyard and towers, ivy-curtained walls, rich carvings and imposing stairways – not to mention the beautiful rooms indoors. A quiet blend of Loire Valley chateau and Gothic Revival, if you weren’t paying close attention, you might accidentally think you wandered into a Disney film!
Pro tip: Closest large city is Stuttgart. From there, take the train to Hechingen station (1 hour). Either take the shuttle bus or you walk through the town and up the wooded path – around 5km one way. Entrance is €7 for exterior castle visit or €12 to visit the rooms. More info here.
Church of Notre Dame de St Saturnin, Auvergne, France
Like a wedding cake made of overlapping layers of towering stone, the church of St Saturnin rises up dramatically into the sky. The centrepiece of the little Auvergnat village of St Saturnin, the church Notre Dame de St Saturnin is impressive in its representation of the local architectural style, “Auvergne Romanesque.” A variation of the Romanesque style, Auvergne Romanesque was developed in the rural, volcanic region of Auvergne in the 11th, 12th and into the 13th centuries. This quaint, rural church is the smallest (and least ornate) of what is locally considered Auvergne’s 5 great Romanesque churches (among the other four, there is also the Basilique Notre Dame de Clermont-Ferrand – Auvergne’s regional capital, the Basilique Notre-Dame of Orcival and the Church of Saint-Nectaire). Of all five, St Saturnin has the simplest apse, as it is the only one without an array of chapels. This particular church at St Saturnin was the last of the Big 5, built late in the 12th century, though the bell tower was destroyed during the French Revolution, not to be rebuilt until 1850, a fate that was unfortunately quite common the during the bloody, anti-religious rebellion of the late 1700s (many religious buildings were destroyed or damaged – those that escaped harm often had to change or mask their purpose to fit that of the Reign of Terror, like the Temple of Vienne just south of Lyon). Inside, Notre Dame is dark, sombre, and cold but somehow this makes the Church of St Saturnin exude a certain sort of eerie beauty. Somehow, the church’s tranquil simplicity and the quaintness of the small village that encircles the little church work together to make the church even more picturesque.
Pro tip: There is a chateau in St Saturnin but it isn’t wildly impressive. For turrets, towers and layered gardens, head to the nearby Chateau de la Batisse – learn more about opening times here.
Have you ever wondered where the world’s heaviest building might be? If so, you probably didn’t imagine you’d find it in Romania… and yet, there it is. The Palace of the Parliament in downtown Bucharest, capital of Romania, claims the crown, weighing in at an incredible 4,098,500,000 kilograms (9.0356×109 lb)! Immense, colossal, intimidating and jaded, this massive relic of Romania’s not-so-distant Soviet past and their affinity for everything concrete, it took a team of 700 architects 13 years (from 1884 – 1997) to bring the Palace of the Parliament into existence. The building is everything you’d expect from the Soviet Era. A gem of Totalitarian architecture, it is a massive undertaking, involving an impressive amount of human labour, complicated architectural skill and huge amounts of building materials, showing off to the rest of the world the Soviet might, skill and technology on the edge of the USSR’s communist reaches. Despite its austere exterior, inside it is ornate and decadent, meant to dazzle the visitor with a different sort of might, in line with many other Communist-era constructions (the Moscow Metro springs to mind! And yes it’s true – if you ever visit Moscow, you have to visit its underground, it is indeed a tourist attraction). Today the Palace of Parliament houses the Parliament of Romania as well as some museums, and is worth visiting inside or out to appreciate its sheer size and the power it still exudes even decades after the clouds of Communism have settled and blown away.
Pro tip: Want to visit inside? Make sure you book over the phone 24h in advance; be sure to have your passport ready for inspection. Looking for some refreshments afterwards? Just a 10 minute walk away, head to Abel’s Wine Bar, a chic, hipster sort of place with delicious local Romanian wines and beers. There are plenty of reds and whites – be sure to try a local wine! Prefer beer? We recommend you taste the local microbrewery Ground Zero. You might not find these beers outside of Bucharest – which is a shame because it’s delicious!
France is a country of many wonders, be they natural, cultural or a bit of both. One of the most underrated regions of France is the Ardèche, a small sun-kissed, hilly place in the south-central region of France. Though the Ardèche has its fair share of tourists, they are mostly French, mostly local, and mostly converged around a couple of over-visited spots such as Vallon du Pont d’Arc. Places like Largentière and Baluzac are breath-taking medieval splendours well worth a visit when you’re in the region. But the most spectacular part of Ardèche is probably the Réserve Naturelle des Gorges d’Ardeche. Actually made up of a series of gorges carved out over thousands of years by the Ardèche River, the Gorges d’Ardèche is known locally as the “European Grand Canyon.” (Other impressive French canyons are the Gorges de Verdon and the Gorges de Tarn). Not only are the landscapes beautiful, but the Gorges are a well-known haven for wildlife. Admire the dramatic geology from above the Gorges as well as from within them, from the river that created the rock formations. The most famous example is the Pont d’Arc, a natural arch 60 metres wide. In summer, the Gorges d’Ardèche become a popular swimming place, and the riverbanks are brimming with swimmers, sunbathers and divers – though nearly all visitors to the river are local. Another popular activity is kayaking or canoeing but this is such as popular activity that you may want to avoid it. The area is riddled with caves and caverns, many of which contain paintings and other signs of human habitation. To put things into perspective, humans have called the Gorges d’Ardèche home for over 300,000 years!
Pro tip: There are several swimming holes along the river, one of which is just under the Pont d’Arc. Stay overnight in one of the local picturesque medieval villages like Largentière or Balazuc.
Schloss Vaduz or Vaduz Castle is the royal residence of the Prince of Liechtenstein, the very real ruler of the very real and very tiny principality buried in the heart of Europe. Vaduz Castle overlooks the town of Vaduz, capital of the minuscule country (or micro country) of Liechtenstein. In fact, to give a bit of perspective here, there are about 5,400 people living in Vaduz and just 40,000 in all of Liechtenstein – that’s roughly the size of UCLA (University of California – LA). Built by the Werdenberg-Sargans starting in the 12th century and expanded from thereon, Vaduz Castle was bought by the Liechtensteins (yes the country is named after a family, what modesty they have!) in 1712. This was quickly followed by the formation of the Principality of Liechtenstein in 1719 via the acquisitions of lands and lordships hidden away deep in the dark, rugged Alps – today one of Europe’s smallest countries. Restored a few times in the early 1900s and the 1920s, by 1938 Vaduz Castle had become the official royal residence of the Princely Family of Liechtenstein. Unsurprisingly for a country named after its current ruling family, Vaduz Castle is still the Liechtenstein family’s royal residence today.
Pro tip: The castle is not open to the public (guess the prince doesn’t want us ordinary plebs walking over his fancy carpets!) but you can see the castle from nearly everywhere in Vaduz, and you can get a bit closer if you head up the hill. Want to get inside a Liechtenstein-ian castle? Head over to nearby Gutenberg Castle, which today functions as a museum.
True to its name, Sham Castle is indeed a fake. It is what the English call a “folly” (yes, they have an official term for “fake castle” in Europe!). Follies are fake castles built relatively recently – usually 18th-19th century – to resemble a medieval castle. Folly castles were built simply because a rich gentleman and lady decided that they wanted an exciting, over-sized lawn ornament. In this case, the castle was designed and built by architect Richard James for an important local gentleman called Ralph Allen, overlooking the beautiful town of Bath. With a style clearly supposed to evoke reminisces of King Arthur‘s day, the castle was only built in 1762! In fact, Sham Castle is just a facade. No doors, no windows, no roof, no walls other than the front one. The reason why Allen dispensed large amounts of cash for a false structure that is nothing more than a facade and hidden away in the forest up a steep hill? To improve the view and “prospect” of his posh townhouse in central Bath. Of course. He wasn’t even the only one. Follies such as Broadway Tower, Fronthill Abbey, Hagley Hill, Castle Hill in Filleigh, Gwrych Castle, and many others exist all over the UK and to a lesser extent, all over Europe. It seems that 18th and 19th Europeans were just as obsessed with castles then as we are today; the difference being that then, instead of voyaging to the real ones, they merely hired someone to build a fake one in their own backyards!
Pro tip: You can run or hike up through the woods to Sham Castle on the Bath Skyline Walk (more info here) – do the whole looped walk (6 miles) or just an out and back up to the castle. Once at the castle, you’ll get some amazing views over bath! Back in Bath, there are many options for refreshments – there are a number of great pubs and cafes. Be sure to taste a pasty while here!
The Isle of Harris feels like the end of the world. And that’s saying something, because Scotland is already a remote place. To get from Edinburgh to this forgotten corner of Harris, it’ll take you at least 3 hours to Inverness, another hour and a half to the ferry at Ullapool, at least 2 hours on the boat, and another hour or more to reach Luskentyre. Lonely, windswept and overlooked, Luskentyre feels very much like land’s end, despite its beautiful beach. It’s hard to imagine humans living here, and yet they did, and they do. You’ll still see evidence of olden day crofts – narrow strips of land provided to poor farmers for subsistence farming. Evidence too of middens (ancient piles of discarded seashells) and lazy beds (beds of kelp used to make vaguely fertile earth which, despite their name, was backbreaking work). Further north on the Isle of Lewis, find an ancient stone circle made of giant monoliths impressive enough to rival Stonehenge, Iron Age brochs (defensive structures), long-forgotten lighthouses, and the remains of blackhouses, named so from the staining they sustained from peat smoke. From the gentle rolling bogs of Lewis to the rugged mountains of Harris, this place feels inhospitable yet hauntingly beautiful. Today, there are small villages scattered about Lewis and Harris, and about 21,000 people still call these remote, connected islands home.
Pro tip: Talbert is a great base to explore the Isle of Harris. Get yourself some Harris Tweed, head over to Harris Distillery, and then hop off to hike the Hebrides. Up for a challenge? Try summiting An Clishan, the highest in the Outer Hebrides. Or something easier? Hike from Dalmore Beach to Garenin Village. Or walk along stunning Luskentyre Beach!
Often nicknamed the ‘Gateway to the Alps’ and the ‘Capital of the Alps’ (though these are titles shared by other Alpine hubs like Chamonix and Innsbruck), Grenoble is a lovely town on the foothills of the French Alps. A university town as well as recognised hub of art, science and culture, Grenoble has a quaint old town populated with many historical buildings such as the pedestrianised and cafe-fringed Saint-André Square, the magnificent Dauphiné Parliament building tinged with Gothic and Renaissance styles, the Place de Notre Dame and its 13th century cathedral and a market square with a still-functioning daily market. In Grenoble, intrepid visitors will also find several “hôtels” or fancy houses and mansions, a fountain that has links to the French Revolution, several beautiful squares, and dozens of beautiful roads ranging from quaint alleys to grand boulevards. Overlooking the historic old town, on a backdrop of jagged Alpine silhouettes, is the impressive and impregnable Bastille of Grenoble, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1590, during the final Wars of Religion, the leaders of the Daupiné branch of the Huguenots took over the previously-Catholic Grenoble via a 3-week siege attack. It was they, the Lesdiguières, who ordered the construction of the hilltop fortifications that would become the Bastille. Today, Grenoble remains an important cultural centre in the Alps on the edge of France, and the Bastille makes for an impressive piece of history, great views and a good workout to climb to!
Pro tip: Ok, so there is a cable car that goes up to the Bastille. But that’s cheating! Instead for the best experience, follow one of the numerous signposted paths cut into the mountain to the Bastille. The effort will make the views even more amazing! Back in town, there are many museums for you to visit, including: the Museum of Grenoble, the Archaeological Museum, Dauphinois Museum, Old Bishop’s Palace, Stendhal Museum, Museum of Isère Resistance, and more!