Torino & the Alps, Italy

Torino mountains

Panorama of Torino & the Italian Alps, Italy

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 Turin explores 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.


This post was originally published in July 2014. It has since been revised and updated. 

 

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Rooftops over Montélimar, France

Montelliemar tower

Rooftops of Montélimar, France

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. Chapoutiersee 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. 


Visit more Southern French Towns:


 

Notre Dame Gargoyles, Paris

Paris Notre Dame Cathedral gargoyles

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. 


Other extraordinary places to visit in France:

 

Church of Saint-Nicolas, Blois, France

Blois Cathedral

Church of Saint-Nicolas, Blois, France

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 RomanesqueGothic 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.


Other Religious Buildings in France:


 

Terracotta Rooftops of Peñíscola, Spain

rooftops of Peniscola, Spain

Terracotta Rooftops of Peñíscola, Spain

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 Valencian paella, and delicious tapas when 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). 


Other Beautiful Places in Spain:

 

McArt’s Fort atop Cave Hill, Northern Ireland

Cave-Hill

McArt’s Fort atop Cave Hill, Northern Ireland

From most cities, one must drive a long distance to find wild landscapes, but just 15 minutes from Belfast, there lies the magnificent Cave Hill. It is easy to see why fantasy writer CS Lewis – born and raised near Belfast despite spending his adult life in Oxford – gained his inspiration for the fantastic landscapes of his imaginary land of Narnia from Northern Ireland (just look at the bizarre Causeway Coast!). Cave Hill – part of Cave Hill Country Park – overlooks Belfast and yet transport the hiker into another world. With woodland paths starting from Belfast Castle, weave through the moss-covered forests until suddenly you emerge into a clearing facing the magnificent caves that lent the name to hill. Rolling hills, emerald greens, brilliant yellows, rugged rock faces – one almost expects to see a satyr or dwarf making its home in the cave! But it’s not over just yet – follow the path around the hill to the top for this epic view of the hill itself and Belfast sprawled below. On the narrow outcrop in the distance are the remains of an iron are fort – McArt’s Fort. Little is left today (just a few rocks, really), and its exposed position suggests that this rath (ringfort) was only ever used for defensive purposes. Thousands of years later, McArt’s Fort became the secret meeting place of United Irishmen to plot their famed – and doomed – attack in the rebellion of 1798 (when the Irish rose against the oppressive forces of the British nobility and military. The rebellion failed, and caused a large loss of life on the Irish side).  Because Cave Hill is near Belfast, it can get busy but even with other hikers enjoying the views alongside you, this place emits a magic that cannot be rivalled.


Pro tip: Start your hike at Belfast Castle, and follow the signs for the Cave path. The first part is muddy in places, and there are a few steep bits so wear a proper pair of hiking boots. The whole walk is about 7km. There is also a “family friendly” trail starting from another car park on the backside of the hill, but this means you’ll miss most of the good stuff, and it’s not a looped path. 


Other Places in Ireland (the whole island):

 

Brasov from Mt Tampa, Romania

aerial view of Brasov from Mt Tampa, Romania

Aerial View of Brasov, Mt Tampa, Romania

Ah Brasov – one of Romania’s most beloved cities. Tucked away into a corner of magical Transylvania, Brasov is a medieval city proud of its history. Caught between ancient tradition and a modernising Romania, Brasov is a shining symbol of the past, showcasing an era when Transylvania and Wallachia, two of Romania’s ancient regions, were in their heyday (though it wasn’t always so; that famous Vlad Dracula the Impaler? Yes, he got his nickname by impaling Turks during his never-ending fights with the land-crazed Ottoman Empire). Returning to Brasov. The best way to start your foray into the city’s ancient beauty is by climbing Mt Tampa (elevation 960m – roughly 400 m above Brasov). There’s a funicular but to truly dig into the dark forests of the Carpathians, to imagine what it was like during Brasov’s Middle Ages, you have to climb it on foot. From the top, behind the Hollywood-esque Brasov sign, you’ll be rewarded with amazing aerial views of orange-topped medieval Brasov, fringed by the lush forests that carpet the wandering Carpathian peaks. We have the Germans to thank for the fairytale orange tiles and princely avenues, which give way to the wandering alleys of the Romanian Schei district. After you drink in the stunning views, drink a well-earned beer from the tiny outdoor pub and then head back to town on the funicular.


Pro tip: The funicular costs 10 lei (16 return), and runs from 9.30-17.00 (from noon-18h Mondays); buy your tickets from the operator or even at the bottom of the cable car. The hike is well-marked and takes about 1.5 hours. Expect the summit to be busy. 


Other Medieval Cities in Europe

 

Sant’Ambrogio di Torino, Italy

Sant'Ambrogio di Torino, northern Italy, Italian Alps, Sacra di San Michele

Sant’Ambrogio in a snowstorm, Northern Italy

Soft, white snow slowly falls on the red clay rooftops of the sleepy village of Sant’Ambogio di Torino. This simple but picturesque village is snuggled soundly at the foot of Mount Pirchiriano. Crowned with the stone ruins of the legendary Sacra di San Michele monastery, Mt Pirchiriano and its monastery have been made famous by inspiring Umberto Eco’s classic novel, The Name of the Rose. Below the mountain, Sant’Ambrogio di Torino contains its own history and beauty: medieval wonders such as Middle Ages towers, fortified walls, a ruined abbey, a 12th century Romanesque-style bell tower (the tower in the above photo, now integrated to the current church), and the remains of an 11th century church, located above the town in the tiny commune of San Pietro. Sant’Ambrogio di Torino still plays the role it has for centuries: the starting place for the ancient pilgrimage path leading to the mountaintop Sacra di San Michele, as well as housing the relics of St John Vincent, the monastery’s founder. To mark the beginning of the pilgrim’s path weaving through the mystical Val de Susa, is the lovely 18th-century Chiesa Parrocchiale di San Giovanni Vincenzo – today covered in a powdery blanket of snow. Though it may be faster to drive directly from Torino to the top of the mountain – bypassing Sant’Ambrogio village, the Pilgrim’s Path, and the Val de Susa altogether – the effect will be far less impressive or special; you will miss out on a homage to quiet village life, beautiful architecture, ancient tradition and stunning landscapes. Instead, take the train to Sant’Ambrogio from Torino central station, walk the quiet streets to the Chiesa di San Giovanni, and then follow the narrow cobblestone path to the sacred monastery above (roughly 2 hours hike). Exploring the region in the snow provides an added layer of beauty!


Find Other Beautiful Places in Northwestern Italy
  1. Sacra di San Michele
  2. Pilgrim’s Path in the Val de Susa
  3. Gran Paradiso National Park
  4. Torino (Turin)
  5. Aosta Town
  6. Fenis Castle

 

Wrocław Churches, Poland

20100515-Wroclaw-Edit

Church of the Holy Cross, Wrocław, Poland

Welcome to Ostrów Tumski, or Cathedral Island, hugging the Odra River in the centre of Wrocław. The oldest region of the city, Ostrów Tumski is no longer an island, though this ancient place is still home to some of Wrocław’s most impressive religious sites, as well as adorable cobblestoned streets.  The orange-roofed Church of the Holy Cross is a brick, Gothic-style church that was once used by ethnic Germans while the city was still behind German lines before WWII (Wrocław has at times been a part of  Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, Habsburg Monarchy, Prussia, German Empire, Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany). For both a bird’s eye view and a dive into the religious and civil history of the city, a visit to Wrocław Cathedral is in order – culminating with a not-for-the-faint-hearted climb up one of its massive towers. The origins of the present structure date to the 1150s after the Polish conquest of the region of Silesia and the founding of Wrocław as its capital, though the cathedral was rebuilt following various trending styles through the ages. Today a thriving student town as well as one of Poland‘s (and Eastern Europe‘s) most important financial, cultural and commercial hubs, Wrocław is place of beauty, intrigue, and good-natured charm.


More Cathedrals and Churches in Eastern Europe
  1. Smolny Cathedral, St Petersburg, Russia
  2. Trinity Cathedral, St Petersburg, Russia
  3. Nevski Cathedral, Tallinn, Estonia
  4. Nativity of Christ Cathedral, Riga, Latvia
  5.  St Casimir’s Church, Vilnius, Lithuania 

 

Overlooking The Swiss Alps, Switzerland

Swiss Alps aerial view - mountains

The Swiss Alps

Barreling through parts of Switzerland, France, Austria, Italy, Germany, Liechtenstein and Slovenia, the Alps are Europe’s premier mountain range. Though Mont Blanc is the tallest, there’s far more to this rich mountain range than the graceful, snowy peak of Mont Blanc. The snow-capped mountains and rugged landscapes of the Alps have always played an important role in the cultures that are contained within them. Mountain passes doubling for trade routes through these Alpine peaks have encouraged the castles, settlements, villages, towns and roads that sit within their harried shadows. In the past century or so, the majestic slopes of the Alps have given life to some of the top ski resorts and destinations, such as Chamonix, Megeve, Aosta, Cogne, Innsbruck, Zermatt, Interlaken, and so many more. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the pristine air and utter remoteness of the Alps were appreciated by wealthy Europeans looking for long holidays abroad to ‘improve their health’ who often chose resorts and villages in the Alps, usually preferring Switzerland. The Alps contain some of the original European ski resorts, and it has only been in recent years, however, that the Alps have been widely appreciated by both travellers and the tourism industry as a summer destination, building up summer infrastructure for hiking and mountain biking paths, zip-lines, horse-riding, swimming in Alpine lakes, Alpine summer cuisine, local artisans and crafts, and more. Switzerland has some of the most well-known peaks, top resorts and most adorable Alpine villages  and valleys and is therefore recognised as the all-around Capital of the Alps.


Where Should I Visit in the Alps and Pre-Alps?
  1. Chamonix, France
  2. Megeve, France
  3. Innsbruck, Austria
  4. Aosta Valley, Italy
  5. Cogne and the Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy
  6. Col Vert, France

 

Grenoble, France

grenoble

Grenoble, France

Grenoble may not rival Paris for architectural beauty, but its proximity to the Alps makes for a different kind of beauty. Grenoble is one of the best jumping-off points for hiking through the French Alps. It even has a special office specifically for tourists who want to hike (la Maison de la Montagne). And even though the old town of Grenoble isn’t as breathtaking as other French towns (and there are no shortage of beautiful French towns), it still sports the beautiful red roofs, the dramatic Haussmann architecture, and riverside facades. For a perfect afternoon, hike up into the ruined bastille and beyond into the mountains for an amazing view. Watch the red roofs as they slowly blend into the modern, less-attractive buildings, and finally into the mountains themselves. The French Alps are some of the best elements of Europe no matter the season!


Explore More Amazing Towns in the French Alps
  1. Megeve
  2. Col Vert
  3. Chambery
  4. Annecy
  5. Chamonix