Though happily hard to tell in the photo, the Aviemore Stone Circle is today actually in the middle of a modern housing estate, built up around this ancient site. Prehistoric stone circles are fairly common in Scotland and Ireland but despite how many of them remain, experts still don’t really know why ancient cultures built them or much about these people. Built by ancient peoples during the Neolithic era, the oldest stone circles are as much as 5,000 years old. The Aviemore Stone Circle, comprised of stones far smaller than the stones of more famous exemplars like the Ring of Brodgar or Callanish Stones (or Stonehenge down in England), can be dated as far back as 2,400 BC. The ancient people did not have a system of writing (at least, not that we know of), and other than their megalithic monuments, many of their artefacts were made of easily decomposable materials, so much of their culture is lost to us. But we do know that these Neolithic cultures, found in what are considered in modern times as the Celtic regions, built hundreds – thousands – of great ancient monuments of stone. We also know that they had complicated rituals, and that astrology was important to them. Today, the best Neolithic-era sites are found in Celtic places like Ireland, Scotland, England and Brittany.
Pro tip: Aviemore Stone Circle is in a housing estate a short walk from Aviemore Train Station. For the best Neolithic ruins in Scotland, head to the Orkney Isles (home of Skara Brae) or over to the Isle of Harris. Outside of Scotland, Ireland holds a treasure trove – head out for a walk in the fields of the woods and you’ll practically be stumbling over them.
The Porta Palatina / Palatine Gate in Torino, Italy
A Roman-age city gate in the Northern Italian city of Torino (or Turin), the magnificent Porta Palatina makes for a grand entryway into Torino’s city centre. We’re lucky to have the gate – it very nearly got torn down in the 18th century for an “Urban renewal” project during an era when people weren’t as concerned with protecting heritage and artefacts as they are now. Today surrounded by modern building complexes (many of which are adorned with graffiti and other non-art), the Porta Palatina is no less stunning for its less-than-grand locale. In fact, the Porta Palatina is one of the best-preserved Roman gates in Europe (certainly of its time), and represents the most important archeological site of Torino, along with the nearby Roman theatre. A large city in northwestern Italy, Torino is a place made up of broad avenues, great palaces, and grand architecture common to other near-Alpine cities (Lyon, Lausanne and Grenoble spring to mind). Built in the 1st century during the Augustan Age, this immense brick gate would have once been incorporated into the city defensive wall and probably attached to a palace (where the name likely comes from), and would have been just as impressive then as now. Gates in Roman times served to protect cities from invasion or simply keep records of who (and what) is coming to and from a city. Later, it was incorporated into a medieval fortification before falling into ruin for several centuries. Italy is full of Roman ruins of various types and scales – when visiting northern Italy, don’t miss the lovely city of Torino (Julia Augusta Taurinorum in Roman times) with its ancient and modern wonders, and impressive view of the Alps!
Pro tip: Find the Porta Palatina in the modern-day Piazza Cesare Augusto. Torino is most famed for its “Shroud of Turin” which supposedly shows the visage of Jesus. Though the age disproves this, the Shroud is still a fascinating find. Visit the Museo della Sindone to find out more. Italy is also known for its cheeses – in particular, try local cheeses such as Fontina d’Aosta (cow), Asiago (cow) and Robiola (goat, cow or sheep). Pair with local red wine!
Knocknarea is a very special place. Tucked away in a quiet corner of northwest Ireland on a little peninsula in County Sligo, Knocknarea is renowned for its history and legends. Though only 300 metres high, climbing to the top of this hill is a sacred act. Crowning this hill is a huge cairn from Neolithic times – over 5,000 years old! Sligo is riddled with ruins from the Neolithic era – at Knocknarea’s foot are the Carrowmore tombs (home to some 50 monuments!), and further inland, find the even more impressive Carrowkeel tombs – 20 monuments of which three are opened. There are other sites of course – Deerpark, Creevykeel, Knockvranny, Knocknashee, and so many more – and these are all in wee County Sligo! You could spend a lifetime trying to visit all of Ireland’s Neolithic sites… But yes, back to Knocknarea. Other than the huge cairn, there are a few satellite tombs, and the ruins of an ancient village (as well as a famine age abandoned village – both just a few houses). After Ireland was Christianised, many early Christians hung on to their beliefs, and the religious leaders had to find a way to compromise – such as Yule becoming Christmas, the Pagan goddess Brigid becoming a saint, and the fertility goddess Sheela na Gig giving Mary a higher status than in most contemporary – and patriarchal – Christian societies. And then there was the problem of understanding those societies who came before these early Christians (who were they, and why did they build these things!? Questions still unanswered today…). Knocknarea was therefore explained away using folklore. The cairn was attributed to the legendary (and semi-mythical) saviour and warrior queen of Connaght, buried upright in her great tomb under the cairn, facing her enemies from the North. Though this story is unlikely to be true, it’s clear that someone (well, many someones) are buried here, making this an ancient graveyard of sorts. It is one of Sligo’s iconic spots and can be seen from almost anywhere around Sligo town. Knocknarea is seen here from the far side reflected in the low tide sands of Cullenamore strand, a quieter alternative to busy Strandhill Beach – and also better for a long walk on the beach!
Pro tip: Don’t forget to bring a stone from the bottom of the hill up to the cairn for Queen Maeve! If you have a car, climb from the Queen Maeve Car Park. No car? Take the Strandhill bus and stop at the Centra – there is a path up this side starting here. A new path connects both sides with the Strandhill beach, famed for its surf. We recommend lunch/brunch at Shells, ice cream at Mammie Johnson’s and/or pizza and a pint at The Strand pub.
Alongside the amazing Puente Nuevo on the cliffs of Ronda, the Arab Baths are among Ronda‘s most impressive and fascinating sights. At first glance, they seem a look a lot like Roman baths – and indeed the builders were inspired by the design long perfected by the ingenious Roman architects. The main difference here is that instead of hot water heated from below, the baths the Moors built used steam sweat out pollutants from the body. The Arab Baths of Ronda were built by the Moors, a conquering culture on the Iberian Peninsula that originated in North Africa, changing the architectural and cultural landscape of modern-day Spain and Portugal. For the Moors, the baths were built for sanitary reasons but also as for religious ‘purification’ purposes. At one time, Ronda used to be full of Moorish (or Mudejar) architecture, from mosques to Medinas to fortified walls and bridges, though little remains now. Today, Ronda is a wonderful town right in the heart of Andalucia, a perfect base for exploring all of those picturesque pueblos blancos.
Pro tip: Visiting the Baths at night adds as extra atmospheric element and sets the scene for some lovely photos. Also – it will be cooler and there are far less tourists about! These days, the Arab Baths are open until 19h00 on weekdays (closing at 15h on weekends) and cost €3 to enter. Sometimes they are open later.
Ireland is one of the richest destinations when it comes to Neolithic heritage, in particular, Neolithic era tombs. Here in Ireland, we still have thousands of them. Capping most hills and mountains is some kind of cairn, usually small and inconspicuous. Two regions are particularly concentrated: Sligo and Meath (though interestingly, Celtic Neolithic societies stretched all the way to Scotland, Wales,Bretagne, and Galicia). The biggest of the Neolithic tombs is found in Meath. UNESCO site Newgrange is one of Ireland’s wonders. Built around 3,200BC according to archeologists, the Newgrange monument is an enormous mound/ cairn that encloses a single, 19-metre-long passage tomb ending in 3 burial chambers where cremated remains were once placed. Inside, the passage is narrow but visitors are still able to walk (unlike the tombs at Carrowkeel where you have to crawl…). Walls are adorned with spirals and other basic forms of megalithic rock art, and the tomb’s roof uses corbelling, an ancient drystone technique that makes the tomb waterproof without even requiring mortar! Even with the thousands of tombs they’ve left behind, we know very little about the ancient Celtic Neolithic people of Ireland. One thing that is evident is that astronomy was very important to them. In fact, Neolithic people had a good understanding of sun, moon, and stars including solstices and equinoxes. Newgrange is aligned with the Winter Solstice, therefore for 6 days in mid December, the sun shines through the “roofbox” (that narrow slit above the door of the tomb) to the lighten the chamber with sunlight. Amazing!
Pro tip: If you want to visit for the Winter Solstice, you can enter the lottery (with about 30,000 other applicants for 100 available places!) Or head to one of the other Neolithic sites for similar alignments. For Newgrange, in general we recommend booking in advance, and going early in the day. However, Newgrange Visitor Centre will be closed for most of 2019 so while works are going on, you can’t book in advance, but to compensate, tickets are free and first-come basis during the works. Best to visit in the off season or early, around 9 am. Nearby site of Dowth is also amazing – you can’t get inside anymore, but you’ll have it all to yourself. Or head to the Hill of Tara.
Boyle Abbey in the Irish midlands, was Connacht’s (one of four traditional regions of Ireland) first Cistercian monastery. Founded in 1142 (though not consecrated until 1218), Boyle Abbey was built alongside the skeletal shell of an abandoned Celtic monastery. Cistercians, also called Bernardines or sometimes White Monks (for their garments), are a Catholic order of monks and nuns from Cîteaux, France (near Dijon) that were a highly influential religious sect under the renowned influenced of famed Bernard de Clairvaux. Widespread across Europe, the Cistercians founded hundreds of monasteries, abbeys and daughter houses. Though the Cistercians seemingly found it difficult to settle down in Ireland, they finally found their home in Boyle, growing quite successful at founding many daughter abbeys and monasteries throughout the region. Unfortunately, much of the beautiful cloisters and other fine architectural details are lost today. In 1645, Boyle Abbey was besieged by the evil Oliver Cromwell and his English army of hooligans, who spent the better part of four years (from 1649–53) murdering, destroying and causing terror and mayhem across Ireland for the sole purpose of conquering Ireland in order to steal their land and force them under English and Protestant rule. Of course, Ireland was predominantly Catholic (and thanks to the misogynistic tyrant Henry VIII, the English were very strongly Protestants) – all of which lead to the Penal Laws that effectively outlawed Catholicism in Ireland. Poor Boyle Abbey was once again ravaged in 1592, this time when it was transformed into Elizabethan barracks – soldiers’ quarters and a base for the English army – because what better way to assert dominance over your colony than use a monastery as a war engine (the British don’t fare well in Irish history…). Archeologists, historians and conservationists have attempted to recover and conserve the abbey as much as possible, carrying out both repairs and archeological surveys – leading to both a new wall and some interesting finds – with the abbey presented as it would have been under the Cistercian command.
Tip: Today, Boyle Abbey is under the care of the OPW (Ireland’s public works office) so check opening hours before you go, and be prepared for poor weather conditions as most of the tour is outside. Afterwards, eat at the deliciously organic Drumanilra Farm Kitchen, or head to the Book Lady for a bit of reading material, Ireland’s self-proclaimed smallest bookshop.
St Michael’s along the Philosophen Weg, Heidelberg, Germany
It’s the journey, not the destination that makes a place special, which is certainly true of St Michael’s Monastery near Heidelberg. Start on the far side of the river by meandering your way up a path called Philosophen Weg. Steep and narrow, this cobblestoned alley quickly sweeps you out of the city and up into the deep, dark woods overhanging the gothic spires of Heidelberg. Then, the path promptly splits in two, and your only signpost signalling the way is a boulder engraved with obscure German words. So what do you do? Choose a path, and hope it’s right, though you soon start second-guessing yourself as you come to another fork, and another. At each path, there is a new boulder, with new words. Scratching your head with frustration, you cast your eyes around you in hopes of discovering a clue. Suddenly, you feel very much like you stepped off the pages of a Grimm’s brother tale. Rounding a bend, the trees suddenly open up over a magnificent panorama of the city. The next opening takes you to an amphitheater with exceptional acoustics (once unfortunately used for hate speeches by the Nazi party). After a small eternity in the dark fairytales of the Brothers Grimm’s world, you emerge, completely surprised at your luck, into a clearing comprised of the ruins of St Michael’s Monastery. While some of its ruins are even older, the majority of the monastery dates to 1023. But by 1503, the complex’s last monks died, and the rural, isolated monastery was abandoned, and like so many once-great places, forgotten. While open to the public today, these little-visited and remote ruins hold the air of a lost masterpiece.
Pro tip: The best way to arrive at the monastery is on foot but its best to ask for a map or use a GPS to find your way in the woods. Once you pass the old amphitheatre you’re almost there.
Other Ruined European Monasteries, Abbeys and Friaries
The Etruscans were an ancient civilisation in central Italy from the 7th century BC until the Romans conquered the powerful civilisation, assimilating it into their ever-growing Roman Empire at the end the 4th century BC. Even today, the Etruscan influence cannot be denied; Eturia’s ancient heartland even lent it’s name to the modern region of Tuscany. In its heyday, Etruria reached as far north as the Po River valley, past Rome along the coast to modern-day Naples (in the Campania region). A merchant community, the Etruscans grew rich and powerful on trade with the northern Celtic communities as well as the ancient Greeks, who influenced much of their culture. Etruscans had a vivid pantheon of gods and used their wealth to fill their tombs – which is where much of our understanding of their culture, history, art and architecture comes from. The village of Fiesole, some 10km from Florence, is both a tranquil escape from the bustle of Florence as well as a time capsule to the ancient Etruscans and Romans. Here, find crumbling Etruscan walls, what remains of the Roman baths built later on, and a Roman amphitheater still used today for summer events. Nearby, there’s even the green hilltop where Leonardo da Vinci once experimented with flight! Once a powerful rival to Florence, Fiesole was founded as an Etruscan town in the 8th century BC until the Romans finally conquered and destroyed it, building their own Roman town on Fiesole’s roots. In the 1500s during the magnificent Italian renaissance, Florentine nobles moved out of Florence and built their splendid villas much like movie stars do today in glamorous SoCal towns. Fiesole’s beauty also inspired writers and artists such as Oscar Wilde and EM Forster, making cameos in their work.
Pro tip: Take bus #7 from San Marco Piazza to Fiesole. Or, splurge on the hop-on-hop-off bus to see even more of Florence and its region.
On the shores of Lake Ohrid sits the ancient town of the same name. Historic, storied, beautiful – Ohrid is a place that stirs up emotion from within. It is indeed ancient – churches like the one here may date as far back as the 800s…! Built in the Byzantine style, it was not unusual for such churches to be converted to mosques during the Ottoman rule. Despite the fact that the Ottomans were supposedly open-minded when it came to religion, this apparently did not affect the church-to-mosque conversion. The best way to get a feel for old Ohrid is simply to stroll around this ancient place littered with Byzantine churches, beautiful quirky houses, cobblestone alleys, and an ancient Roman theatre. Find a cafe and relax outside on a terrace. Duck inside an ancient church to admire the ancient motifs painted on the walls and ceilings. Explore the ruins of the old fortress tucked inside the old city. Climb to the top of the hill and find a place to settle down and enjoy the magnificent panoramas of Ohrid town and lake – Ohrid the Beautiful awaits.
The 12th century Chateau des Adhémar remains one of the last true examples of Romanesque architecture, a style defined by rounded arches, thick walls, squat towers and sturdy pillars. This study, box-like castle was built atop a sunburnt hill which overlooks the orange-tiled, sunny town of Montélimar (located in the Drôme department in the south of France). Appropriated by the papacy in the 14th century until 1447 when it re-entered the Kingdom of France, the castle has been used as papal residence, an armament for several conflicts and wars, a citadel, a prison, a country residence, and now a contemporary art museum. In fact, Chateau des Adhémar was largely saved in the last few centuries as it was put to use as a prison. The famed loggia, or loge, with the striped design and rounded windows attached to the main keep was added during the Renaissance to ‘beautify’ what was considered a ‘plain’ Romanesque design. The beautiful Renaissance loggia was also built to add light to formerly gloomy rooms as well as show off the expansive countryside on Chateau des Adhémar’s toes. Located in the inner courtyard is the ancient 11th century St Pierre Chapel. Once a part of the wide-reaching monastic network centred at the Monastery of Ile Barbe in Lyon, the simple Romanesque chapel was later incorporated into the castle complex by the powerful Adhémar family. Today, the castle is a fine example of Romanesque and Renaissance architecture, as well as the modern art movement. It offers splendid aerial views of Montélimar and is a perfect stop on a road trip heading from Lyon to Nimes, Avignon, Montpellier or any other destinations in Southern France!
See Other Fascinating Places in the South of France
Are you looking for off-the-beaten-path France? You just found it. The St Cyr Hermitage, perched on the hilltop Mont Cindre above the little village of St Cyr-au-Mont-d’Or about 30 minutes from Lyon, is hard to locate, or even learn about in English. Founded by a monk from the nearby once-powerful monastery, L’Ile Barbe (on the northern outskirts of Lyon) some 650 years ago, St Cyr is composed of les pierres dorées or ‘golden stones’ found in this region of the Beaujolais. It is a place of rest, tranquility and repose, on the outskirts of the world. Because of the altitude, the monk of the hermitage can overlook the rivers Rhone and Saone, the city of Lyon, mountains of the Alps and even the summits of Mont Blanc on a clear day. With little to no architectural training, the hermit’s chapel, garden and dormitory is a creative and innovative mess of stones of all shapes, sizes and textures. Hand-carved statues, arches and other decorations abound, making the heritage feel like a surreal art project from another century. There are two ways to get there. One is via the village St Cyr: simply go upwards towards the tower, and follow the signs. The other, more adventurous way is walk up the trail: from St Cyr, head up Rue Fouilloux and pick up the trail head on your right: Sentier de Puits des Vignes, leading to a right on Montee du Grimpillon, and a left on Chemin Vial until the crosses of the hermitage rise above your head. The hermitage is only open for limited hours during the summer.
The amphitheater here in Lyon is not perhaps quite as famous as the one in Rome, nor is it as complete as, say, the theaters of Nimes or Arles or any of the others. Regardless, one must admit that it’s pretty fascinating that remnants from more than 2000 years ago not only still exist in Europe today–but are still in use! Lyon’s half-ruined amphitheater located at the top of the hill of Fourvière is still used to host ‘Les Nuits a Fourvière‘ (Nights in Fourvière) every summer, where concerts and other events take place nearly every night. Though partially reconstructed, one can still walk through this ancient structure which in part, dates back to 15 BC (the second stage having been completed during the 2nd century). Ruins or not, sitting down in a 2000-year-old amphitheater is enough to send shivers down anyone’s spine!
Nothing beats a good set of ruins! In all seriousness, sometimes what has been left to crumble away is just as important as what has been redone and rebuilt. And when it comes to castles, often the most romantic castles, the most picturesque, the most spectacular are the ones quietly deteriorating – especially in Scotland. Case in point, imagine Dunnottor Castle on its cliff-side peninsula, Stirling Castle in the rugged hills, Eilean Donan Castle (the most photographed castle in Scotland) on its beautiful loch, and of course, St Andrews castle itself on the beach. Circa 1200, the St Andrew’s Castle was sacked, destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed, rebuilt, burned, sacked, rebuilt, etc., as the Scots and the English often clashed and continually took their disagreements to the battlefield. Today, the ruins border nearby St Andrews University (the oldest university in Scotland and also the institution that educated Prince William and Kate Middleton), while overlooking the shores of the North Sea, whose waves quietly lap the base of the castle’s cliffs. The ruins are quite beautiful in a crumbly, “everything falls apart,” romantic sort of way.
Dubrovnik is an up and coming tourist destination. Sporting beautiful streets, delicious foods, amazing views, orange-tiled roofs, ancient ruins and the lovely Mediterranean, it’s like Italy–without the Italians. And with locals who natively-speak a slavic language but who also speak rather amazing English. And with better prices. And maybe slightly less tourists. In 1979, it was declared a UNESCO site, and in 1991, it broke away from Yugoslavia. Because of the political turmoil, people just didn’t go to Dubrovnik for a long time. But, then something changed. Politics settled down, and this “new” country began to grow. Somebody “discovered” it and told their friends who then in turn told their friends. Now hoards of people visit Dubrovnik. But don’t let that deter you! Dubrovnik is a Mediterranean masterpiece!