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!
Bucharest is very much a continental capital, very different than, say, Split or Rome. Some have nicknamed it “Little Paris” or “Paris of the East” because is is full of stately architecture – grand boulevards, baroque domes, high windows, even somewhat Hausmannian style buildings. Though less pretty than many Transylvanian cites, Bucharest is full of fascinating history – perhaps the most bizarre is that of “the churches that moved” (more here) – a handful of churches that were uprooted and carefully transported by rail to outside the city centre so that the Communist leaders wouldn’t be able to see their spires from their new (ugly!) Stalinist architecture (the only real exception being the massive Palace of Parliament). Speaking of beauty, you only have to step foot inside the Cărturești Carusel Bookstore to fall in love. This beautiful storied building regularly tops list of Europe’s most beautiful bookshops! Built in 1903 by Greek bankers, such a thing of beauty (and money) could not evade the communists, and the building was confiscated during the 50s, and later, like much of Communist leftovers, was abandoned to decay on its own. So how was it saved? Well, a very determined grandson of the original owners spent two dozen years – yes that’s 24 years! – arguing that he is the rightful owner before it was returned to him in 2007, and the bookshop was born. Several stories with layered and undulating balconies, spiral stairs, grand staircases, huge windows, and beautiful white bookshelves, it’s not hard to see why it’s so lovely. It rather makes sense that the bookshop’s name means Carousel of Light.
Pro tip: Their English-language section is not massive, but it’s better than most. Prices though are very high, and sadly there aren’t too many Romanian authors translated to English. For bookworms, it’s better for browsing than buying!
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.
England is a lovely place; Bath is even lovelier. Ancient Roman baths, Gothic abbeys, picturesque canals, charming cobblestones, Georgian architecture, amazing bridges and green parks come together to make one of England’s loveliest cities. It helps too that Bath was home to one of England’s most influential writers, Jane Austen, and it featured in many of her stories (notably Persuasion and Northanger Abbey). On the other side of Bath’s canal, meandering forest trails wind through the grounds of Prior Park and its Palladian house built in the mid-1700s as a way of displaying the use of Bath limestone as a potential building material. The house, as well as this bridge nestled deep into the park’s hillsides, was built following the style imbued by 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, whose rigid classical style briefly became popular in the UK during the mid 17th- and 18th-centuries before being cut short by the Civil War. Palladio valued lines, symmetry and perspective – the ultimate version of Neoclassical architecture. Inspired by the Greeks and Romans, Palladio derived a style that adapted the symmetry of Roman temples and palaces to a more modern manor house. Today owned by the Prior Park College and the National Trust, Prior Park is one of Bath’s hidden gems and well worth the countryside stroll!
Pro tip: No car? Save your walking for when you get to the park. The No. 2 bus runs every 30 mins (from BK on Dorchester Street), though you can indeed walk – its about 20-30 mins from the city centre. Check their website for up-to-date opening info as well as events and festivities happening in the park during your visit. Looking for more walking? The lovely canal you crossed to get to Prior Park is a beautiful place to walk or jog.
Not far from Madrid, Toledo is an easy and beautiful day trip from Spain’s capital city. Holy Roman emperor Charles V established his court here in Toledo in the 16th century, giving the city its nickname, the “Imperial City.” Toledo is a city that has given birth to kings and queens, nobles and commoners alike – even the famed artist El Greco comes from this desert gem. Toledo is a place with a long heritage, vastly effected by its mix of the three dominating cultures of the Iberian Peninsula: Christianity, Islam and Judaism – not to mention functioning as the Visigoth Capital from 542 – 725 AD. In existence since before Roman times, it is little wonder that this desert city was recognised by UNESCO. Wander the lovely streets, casting your eye at the diverse architecture inspired by its various cultures before heading to the very top of the city for a terrific panoramic view of Toledo and its surroundings. Neither small nor large, Toledo is easy enough to explore on foot (if you don’t mind hills and steep roads!), but nor is it too small to get bored.
Pro tip: Perhaps you might want to try some tapas or paella while you’re here! Toledo has many small family-run restaurants in which to do so. Wear sturdy shoes – the streets are cobbled, uneven and sometimes steep. Trains run hourly from Puerta de Atocha station in Madrid, with a 30 minute duration. Check Renfe’s website for more info.
Despite its unfortunate name, Cockburn Street is a lovely wee street that leads from Waverley Train Station in the New Town up into Edinburgh‘s spectacular Old Town. Much of the Old Town still follows its medieval street plan, comprised of a network of cobbled streets, narrow closes and wide avenues. Edinburgh’s Old Town is full of grander, glitz and history. Wander up to Royal Mile (High Street), marvel at the cathedrals, churches and museums, walk along grand buildings, watch street performers, duck into lively pubs and cosy cafes, before finally arriving at Edinburgh Castle, an idyllic fortification that perches on a huge crag formed by a now-extinct volcano. Alongside Edinburgh’s New Town (built in the 18th-19th century), Edinburgh’s city centre is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the most significant cultural hub of Scotland. Because of limited space and advantage of living within the defensive wall (now gone), the Old Town became home to some of the world’s earliest “high rise” buildings as early as the 16th century. Though boasting certain advantages, the tightly-packed atmosphere was vulnerable to flames, and the Old Town is marked by the Great Fire of Edinburgh of 1824, which obliterated huge portions of buildings on the south side, and their rebuilding in Victorian times led to the accidental creation of numerous passages and vaults under the Old Town. Another blight on Edinburgh was the 20th century slum clearances, when the rundown, overpopulated slums of Canongate were cleared out in the 1950s to make room for grander buildings. Despite these darker elements of Edinburgh’s past, the Edinburgh of today is a busy, lively and fun place to be.
Pro tip: Looking for a wool or tweed souvenir? Avoid the shops on High Street as unfortunately a lot of that is made in China these days. You can’t go wrong with traditional Harris Tweed, made solely on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides and with each weaver certified to the brand’s high standards.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
Though not actually located on the sea despite its name, Santillana del Mar is one of northern Spain’s loveliest hidden spots. In fact, it is nicknamed the ‘Town of Three Lies’ as it is not on the sea (mar), nor is it flat (llana) or a saint (santo). More accurately, the name is a slightly-mangled derivation or Santa Juliana, whose final resting place is tucked away here in an ancient monastery. The cultural hub of Cantabria, don’t expect to have this medieval masterpiece to yourself – not that that diminishes from the sheer beauty or culinary pleasures! A medieval marvel, Santillana del Mar is a charming stone village in the north of Spain that exudes beauty on every street. Known for its cider, Santillana del Mar, like most of Spain, is a place to slow down, relax, and enjoy the finer things in life such as food, drink, fresh air, sunshine and conversation. Whether you’re people watching, spending time with friends or loved ones, or simply admiring the architecture, Santillana is a place to lose yourself, leaving the busy real world behind.
Pro tip: Just outside of the town is the famed Altamira Cave Painting site, rich with prehistoric art. And as stated above, be sure to try some of Santillana del Mar’s local cider while in town!
Bruges is a truly fairytale place (thanks, In Bruges). Quaint canals are lined romantic facades, graceful weeping willows, cosy cafés and lovely quays. Canals are crossed with romantic bridges – of which each one is different from the same as the next. Like Venice, they function as streets, a unique way to get around the city. In fact, Bruges is sometimes nicknamed the “Venice of the North” (though it is not the only city to hold the name – see below). The historic centre of Bruges (a UNESCO world heritage site) is a small, quaint, romantic place. Compact enough to comfortably walk the whole city, Bruges still has a lot going on, not to mention, it is eye candy for art and architecture lovers! From the Belfort (belfry and its famous bells) to the Provincial Palace, Ghent Port and City Hall – not to mention all of the churches, gates, bridges, administrative buildings and even ordinary houses – there is no shortage of historic and beautiful sites upon which to feast your eyes on this spectacular medieval city.
Pro tip: Bruges is a busy, busy place. Therefore, try to visit in the off season. To make the most of your visit, be sure to stay over at least one night – many of the tourists are day trippers from Brussels. After the day crowds thin out, go for a wee nighttime stroll – with the city all glittering and reflecting, it adds a new layer of magic to this place! Also, Belgian fries and Belgian waffles are more than just stereotypes – they are perfection and delicious. Best place to get both are often the wee food trucks and hole-in-the-wall chippers!
Huddled on the banks of River Daugava, Riga is a town recognised for its architectural beauty and rich culture. As the capital of Latvia, and one of the three main cultural centres in the Baltics region of northeast Europe (the others being Tallinn and Vilnius), Riga is a blend of old world charm and cosmopolitan busyness. Architecturally, it is composed of a medieval city Old Town, unique art nouveau facades and gothic and baroque spires, such as this one here. Perched atop St Peter’s Church at the heart of Riga, the 130-metre-high baroque steeple is the city’s tallest spire. This steeple dates back to WWII when the church was rebuilt after the city was torn apart during the war. This new structure was based on a former tower erected in the 1720s, replacing a previous structure that was struck by lighting in 1721 which in turn replaced one that collapsed in 1666. In fact, at one point in the late 1690s, St Peter’s Church was the highest wood building in the world! The oldest version of this spire dates all the way back to the end of the 15th century, while St Peter’s Church itself was consecrated in 1209 (though little remains of that original construction). The basilica we see today is from the 15th century in all of its baroque and gothic fashion. In 1997, Riga’s Old Town was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites – among the sites called out for their particular beauty, heritage and culture was of course St Peter’s Church.
Pro tips: A stone’s throw away is the famed House of Blackheads, a unique baroque guildhall. Pick up one of the Like A Local maps which shows streets and iconic sights but also less-known sights recommended by local citizens as well as food recommendations. One such recommendation is a lovely teacup-sized family-run restaurant, Varzoba, located very close to both St Peter’s Church and the House of Blackheads. Not sure what to get? Let them choose! You won’t regret it.
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain conjures up images of a strange and futuristic community, a space-age society perhaps found in the cartoonish Meet the Jetsons or the comedic Fifth Element. Certainly among of Europe’s strangest architectural icons, the Guggenheim was designed by futuristic Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry who was encouraged to “design something daring,” and adorned with artwork such as Puppy (a giant dog made of flowers), and large metallic balloon animals created by American artist Jeff Koons. Erected in 1997, the Guggenheim Museum houses a collection of modern and contemporary art as part of both permanent and revolving exhibitions across various medias. Bilbao may seem like an odd place for such a museum. Built in the seedy, dilapidated docks district of Bilbao, the Guggenheim Museum was commissioned by the Basque government as a way to bring tourism into this little-visited region, rejuvenating not only the now-abandoned docks but also the under-appreciated Basque country. Today, it routinely makes lists of most important and admired contemporary buildings not just in Spain or Europe, but worldwide.
Holy Mary of Spilice Church on Lopud Island, Croatia
Built in 1483, the beautiful Church of Marija od Špilice or Mary of Spilice was constructed as part of Lopud Island’s Franciscan Monastery. Lopud Island is one of the three Elafiti Islands in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of southern Croatia. Lopud was first inhabited by the Greeks and then the Romans, though no architectural ruins remain. Once part of the powerful and ancient kingdom of Ragusa, the island hosts some spectacular medieval ruins – such as this Franciscan monastery, as well as a second monastery, several hermitages, aristocratic villas, a couple of forts and far too many churches to count. Though Lopud’s main Franciscan monastery is literally crumbling around itself, the complex still contains a working church. It’s a miracle that Lopud’s monastery is still here – it has survived earthquake, fires, annexation, dereliction, war, and other disasters, and yet here it is today, overlooking Lopud’s lovely harbour, marvelling visitors to this tiny, bucolic island every day in the 21st century.
Pro tip: Most people only visit the island (along with the other Elafiti Islands) as day trip from Dubrovnik – unsustainable tourism. However, the best way to visit the island – or any of Croatia’s islands – is to spend more time than an hour or two – or even the night.
One of the best-preserved examples of medieval life and architecture is the walled city of Carcassonne in the south of France. Though La Cité started out as a Roman hilltop fort, it was in the Middle Ages that Carcassonne hit its peak. In 1067, Carcassonne fell into the Trencavel family through marriage, allying it with other great cities of the south, such as Albi, Nîmes and Toulouse – even Barcelona. The already-medieval city was further gothic-ified by the Trencavels – including the Chateau Comtal in the centre of Carcassonne. What Carcassonne is perhaps most known for its role in the horrid Albigensian Crusades. Carcassonne was a sanctuary for the ostracised Cathars of the Pays d’Oc. A gnostic offshoot of Christianity, the Cathars were not accepted by the Catholic Church, who attacked Carcassonne in 1209, killed Viscount Trencaval, and ousted the city’s citizens, with Carcassonne eventually passing into the Kingdom of France. 300 years later, the Huguenots of Languedoc, including those of Carcassonne, didn’t fare much better. Despite its troubled history, today Carcassonne is a beautiful medieval masterpiece, a living replica of what life looking like hundreds of years ago.
Pro tip: Carcassonne is a very popular tourist destination. Visit only in the off season to avoid the worst of the crowds. There are accommodations in La Cite as well as the more modern side of Carcassonne. Another (more cost effective) solution is to stay in the less-popular Béziers, and train in to Carcassonne.