Our virtual travel today takes us to the centre of France, to the not-so-famous region of Auvergne. Despite it not being well-known outside of France, Auvergne has a lot to recommend it. Volcanic mountains, hearty dishes, amazing cheese, distinct churches, great hiking, and of course, plenty of castles, to name a few. One such castle is the Château de Ravel, whose foundations go back to at least 1171, commenced by Bernard de avel. In the 1280s, Ravel was actually owned and lived in by the King of France (Philippe the III), though his son gave away the castle to his the man who would be named chancellor of France. Like most castles, Ravel has gone through a series of alterations and face lifts, each changing with the styles of the times. Most of what we see here today is 13th century, along with a 17th century terrace and courtyard, which has an incredible view of Auvergne’s volcanic peaks, the Puys of the Massif Central. Inside, the rooms have been decorated in 17th and 18th century styles – and all without damaging the original Gothic structures and design elements.
Pro tip: The castle is privately owned but opened some days in the summer. The grounds are open to visitors year round. While here, you’ll definitely have to go for a hike up one of the peaks, such as the Puy de Dôme, Puy de Sancy or Puy de Côme!
Historic, quaint and yet still lively, the wee village of Carrbridge is tucked into the Cairngorms, a massive mountain range and national park that encompasses much of the central Highlands. Though beautiful on its own, what really makes Carrbridge special is its bridge. Spanning the rushing currents of the River Dulnain, its name is a bit of a misnomer – it wasn’t built for cars, but instead for packhorses and foot traffic. The beautiful bridge of Carrbridge dates back to the early 18th century. Before the bridge was constructed, the villagers had no way to cross the river when it was flooded, meaning that the villagers could not get to the nearby Church of Duithil to bury their dead – and death waits for nothing, not even a flooded river. To solve this problem, the bridge was commissioned by Grant Clan chief Alexander Grant in 1717, and local mason John Niccelsone was dispatched to erect the bridge. The Old Packhouse Bridge of Carrbridge held for about a century, though flooding in throughout the late 1700s had a detrimental effect on it. The famous flood of 1829 left the bridge in its present state. Today, Carrbridge is an ideal spot for hikers, cyclists and adventurers to be based, as it is in the heart of the Cairngorms, it is connected to Inverness by train (less than 40 min journey) and it is a lovely wee spot, quieter than the more famed Aviemore, just one stop further down the rails!
Pro tip: Visit in October during the odd but intriguing Golden Spurtle Competition, an annual porridge making contest (yes, this is a real thing! And it’s the world championships…), or in September for the Carve Carrbridge chainsaw wood-carving event. Best access point is via Inverness. The Edinburgh train usually stops in Carrbridge, and there are a few simple but lovely B&Bs there, including the Craigellachie Guest House or the Cairn Hotel.
Would you believe this “temple” actually dates to only the 18th century and is located in Northern Ireland? Strangely enough, that’s the truth. One would call it a folly (i.e. a fake building built to look like something much older). Mussenden Temple was built by Lord Bristol in 1785. The estate was originally that of Frederick, the 4th Earl of Bristol (yes, Bristol, England…he’s far from home! Sadly this happened often – English “heroes” were given stolen Irish land), who was the Church of Ireland (e.g. Protestant) Bishop of Derry for 35 years in the late 1700s. Lord Bristol modelled his temple on the Roman Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum, though despite appearances, Mussenden Temple’s original purpose was a library. Located on the estate of Downhill Demense (now a sprawling ruin), the temple is precariously perched atop a cliff overlooking the lovely Downhill Strand. Though the temple itself did not appear in the infamous TV show Game of Thrones, the site was used as a backdrop for some scenes – in particular, Downhill Strand’s beach was one such site used. Nothing is left of the house but a shell, and though the temple fares slightly better, it is no longer a library. Coastal erosion is bringing the temple ever closer to the edge and though solutions are being looked at to keep the temple from tumbling down to the sea, you may want to visit sooner rather than later…
Pro tip: You can actually get married at this temple…imagine that! Also note that dog lovers can bring their pups with them when visiting Downhill Demense and Mussendun Temple. There are also lovely gardens on far side of the estate. Nearby, don’t miss the world-famous Giant’s Causeway or Bushmill’s Distillery, Ireland’s oldest.
Tucked into a shady backroad a stone’s throw from St Patrick’s Cathedral in downtown Dublin is the exquisite Marsh’s Library. This isn’t just any library. In fact, Marsh’s Library looks exactly the same as it did when infamous horror author Bram Stoker (writer of Dracula) was a scholar there, checking out books about history and Transylvania! Founded in the early 1700s by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh, Marsh’s Library has been a renowned place of study since opening day. A gentle odour of ageing leather and ancient oak meets you as you walk through the neoclassical doorway and up the stairs of this beautiful, hidden library. Magnificent oak-panelled shelves rise up, larger leather-bound tomes on the bottom, smaller volumes up top. At the back of the library, there are still reading cages liming the walls – and 18th century solution to avoid books going missing (because of course you weren’t permitted to check a book off the premises in those days!). Today, only scholars can look through the books (though in a modern reading room, not the cages!), but there’s always an exhibition in Marsh’s Library, changed every few months. At the time of writing this, the exhibition is on Bram Stoker and the books he consulted while studying at Trinity University, though past exhibitions have been on stolen books, rare books or other scholars and writers who’ve consulted or featured in the thousands of books on the shelves of this library.
Pro tip: Check their website to see what exhibition is on at the time of your visit. While in Dublin, enjoy a stroll in Stephen’s Green or Merrion Park, visit any of the free national museums or have a walk through the infamous Temple Bar district.
Turning a corner and spotting a pair of turrets, even in a small village, is a pretty normal thing in Europe. There was a moment in history where everyone in Europe with a lofty bank account wanted a castle (during the 18-19th century), and there just weren’t enough to go around. So, they started building – and they got creative. Sometimes these ‘new’ castles were habitable, like this one here in Albigny. Sometimes, they were ‘follies’ (more common in England), where people constructed facades of (usually ruined) castles on their property for aesthetic purposes, like Sham Castle near Bath, UK. Their constructors always pretended they were old and ruined but in fact they were carefully constructed to look that way. Or sometimes they renovated their old mansions to look medieval or Gothic, adding turrets, gargoyles, crinolines, moats, towers, or other objects of the same effect (like the gargoyles at the House of Chimeras in Kiev). Sometimes they modelled their new castles on other famous castles, like Vajahunyad Castle‘s Transylvanian inspiration. Other times, in order to maintain some ‘authenticity,’ they bought up bits of old castles and put them together in a Frankenstein-type creation, like at Kreuzenstein Castle. In any case, with all these creations, it begs the question…what is a ‘real’ castle? Is there such a thing? Or are they all ‘real’ castles…?