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 Romanesque–Gothic 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.
Quaint, medieval and beautiful, Crémieu is a small town with medieval roots tucked into the southeastern French department of Isère. In fact, each September Crémieu hosts a fascinating celebration called “Les Médiévales,” reenacting what life was like in France during the Middle Ages on a backdrop of Crémieu’s medieval streets. Interestingly, Crémieu’s seal, dating back to the Middle Ages, is in shape of a dolphin (or dauphin) which is where the famous (and delicious) dish called le gratin dauphinois comes from! In the town centre is the ancient 15th century medieval hall where merchants once traded their goods, surrounded by the stunning facades of the medieval houses once built and maintained by the very same merchants. Travel to Crémieu on a Wednesday for Market Day to continue a 500 year old tradition! While you’re here, visit the ruins of various abbeys and convents: Benedictine, Visitandines, Augustin… as well as the castle ruins.
Pro Tip: Climb the hill up to the castle for breathtaking views of beautiful rooftop panoramas such as this one, as well as the surrounding Isère countryside. Explore the castle ruins (free), then descend to the village via a narrow moss-covered trail, located down the road and off to the right, once a stream bed and now a hallway of vibrant emeralds. A perfect day trip from Lyon!
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.
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.
The tiny French village of Balazuc snuggled deep within the timeless county of Ardèche is a place you go to lose yourself in another era, another way of life. Sun kissed hills are woven with ancient villages, a patchwork of medieval architecture fused seamlessly with the brown earth and golden fields of southern France. Balazuc is one of such places. A veritable labyrinth built of golden stone, the village’s narrow alleys wind up and down, dipping half-underground, through other buildings, around and through the hills in a completely random and at times mysterious manner. Hole-in-the-wall cafes dot the facades, and a hilltop castle and church duo seem to be trying to outdo one another. To access the steep hilltop village, one must first cross a surprisingly high bridge over the Ardèche River – not a bad place for a quick dip! And just a stone’s throw away is the equally-beautiful and heart-throbbingly medieval village of Largentière as well as the ever-impressive Gorges d’Ardeche. Get ready for a coup de foudre – French for love at first sight!
Autumn colours light up the palate of Kazimierz Dolny’s castle gardens. Kazimierz Dolny is a small, quirky village in eastern Poland within easy day trip striking distance of Warsaw, Poland’s capital. Though a short-lived season, Poland is vivid in autumn – September being a spectacular month for a visit, as the entire month seems to follow the rules of the Golden Hour usually attributed only to brief moments at sunrise or sunset. After weaving Kazimierz’s bustling medieval streets, head up the hill where you will pass the zamek – the lower castle – before climbing the path to the 19-meter tower, or the upper zamek. The view from here over the castle gardens, town and Wisla River (Vistula River in English) is simply splendid. Before the castle was built, the hilltop housed a beacon to warn surrounding settlements of impending attacks. Once upon a time, there was even a drawbridge, a moat, and five floors. Though you can’t climb more than one storey up now, the castle, gardens and tower are all a mystical and magical place made even better when doused in the golden autumn sunlight.
More Off-the-Beaten-Path Destinations in Eastern Europe
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.
Spring is just around the corner -and also happens to be the perfect season in Spain! The sun isn’t too overbearing; the air isn’t too hot and sticky. The crowds are less thick than in summer. Cafe terraces are still peaceful, waitresses still patient, beaches still quiet. Peñíscola is the perfect place to spend a spring day. The narrow, winding streets of the old town are full of hole-in-the-wall cafes, restaurants and shops. The oceanside breeze is refreshing – perfect for taking a stroll. The white-washed walls of the city are delicate and calming. The locals happily chat in the street and overhead across the balconies. As you climb, terraces criss-cross, affording great views of the town and the nearby beach. Stop for an afternoon spritzer or glass of wine before continuing on to the castle, where the views across Peñíscola are the best! Orange clay roofs, white walls and blue waves pepper the quilted landscape below the castle walls. In the city below your feet, there is the hum of life but up here, there’s nothing but fresh air and the cries of seagulls. As the afternoon sun bathes you in warm life, you lean against the ancient stone wall of Peñíscola’s fortress and let your mind wander. There’s nothing like spending a spring day atop a castle in a small Spanish town!
Crouching on a bend of the infamous (and not) blue Danube, the city of Slovakia glints of gilded spires, orange roofs and steel buildings. In early spring, snow still clings to the edges of the rooftops, trees are still bare, the sky still soft grey. Bratislava is a solemn capital – quite different from sophisticated Vienna, international Prague, colorful Krakow, or vibrant Budapest. The castle at the top of the hill soberly surveys its city. White and sparkling, Bratislava’s castle was re-built less than 10 years ago due to a devastating fire. For a bit of warmth, duck into one of Bratislava’s many cafes and restaurants for tasty local fare – heavy on meats and veggies, cheap golden beers, and sweet Slovak pancakes. This is not Europe’s party capital. It is not a culinary king, nor is it especially known for its vivacity, architecture, or art. No, Bratislava holds a different sort of power. It is somber, quiet, off the beaten path. It is a city of history, of tradition, of sobriety, or churches. It is a city lost in time, a city that remembers, a gem of Eastern Europe.
Look at that colour! These deep, cobalt blue waters belong to Croatia’s coast along the Adriatic Sea, the body of water dividing Italy from Croatia. This little Balkan country has been drawing attention over recent years as the place to be during summer! Perhaps a bit over-crowded, the country does not want for beauty. From ancient ruins (such as the Diocletian Palace in Split), to delicious food and wine to rival Italy’s cuisine, to an incredible coastline easy to experience by boat, to friendly locals who can’t wait to show tourists their culture, all the way to the unbelievably blue waters such as those above, Croatia seems to be blessed. And what better way to visit than by boat? Whether you take a small tourist “island-hopping” boat, a cruiser that travels up and down the coastline, an immense Mediterranean cruise ship or even a ferry from Italy or Albania, Croatia must be experienced via the water. And if you do visit Split, be sure to climb the little hill called Marjan just outside the city centre, as the view from the top is to die for!
View from St Isaac’s Cathedral, St Petersburg, Russia
Despite the scary stories you may remember from your childhood, Russia is not the terrifying place you were brought up to believe. (Or perhaps it is, but it’s hiding behind the world’s most beautiful facade!?) St Petersburg is in the running for Europe’s most beautiful city–and many wouldn’t even consider SPB in Europe at all! They would be wrong; one look at the city, and it is quite apparent that SPB is genuinely European. The city is the jewel in Russia’s crown (if it had a crown). In fact, St Petersburg is a work of art! The river Neva and the street Nevsky Prospekt are the city’s main arteries, coming together just around the corner of St Isaac’s, and, flowing along these two arteries are the city’s most important and most beautiful buildings. Climb to the top of St Isaac’s for a bird’s-eye view of this amazing city, and try to count the spires and domes of all the cathedrals dotting the horizon!
As is so often the case, the castle offers a fantastic vantage point of the city below. From the castle terrace, one can see all of Budapest: the famous Hungarian Parliament Building, the Chain Bridge, the tower of St. Stephen’s Basilica, and of course, the Blue Danube. And on this clear, sunny Easter day, the Danube is actually blue! Budapest is one of Europe’s best-kept gems. A city with so much to offer, it is often overlooked by mass tourism travellers, though those more adventurous who wander eastward into Budapest are greatly reward for their trouble! Not only is everything a bargain in Budapest, but the city is downright gorgeous and ripe with culture, spice and tradition – especially during spring festivities!
Getting a birds-eye view of any city, mountain or anything in-between is always a rewarding experience. There is something inherently special about climbing as high as a bird, getting an entirely new perspective on the world. London is no exception. While incredibly overpriced, the view from the London Eye is no less impressive—though half the fun is watching the next little bubble rise behind you and fall in front of you. Being on top of the Eye allows you see London fold out below you—Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament are of course easy to spot, but it’s just as rewarding to squint into the distance, searching out into the far reaches of London. London is one of the most beautiful, vibrant, cultured, interesting, busy and fun cities this planet has to offer—and it’s fairly amusing to watch how the city functions from above.
What comes to mind when you’re caught getting this birds-eye view of Spanish roofs? Lots of things: olives, fiestas, sangria, the tango, beaches, paella, terracotta, tapas, ancient architecture, the Spanish language, glasses of wine. Spain is a place that should be part of every person’s life. Take a leaf out of their cheerful, orange-y playbook and enjoy life. The Spanish comprehend the meaning of life better than most of us – perhaps not the reason we’re here, or anything that profound – but they do understand something very important that most of us routinely forget: we’ve only got one life on this earth, so why squander it doing things we don’t like? The Spanish may not understand the meaning of national debt or a strong economy, but they sure know how to eat, drink, sing, dance, travel, talk, cook and shop—at any given moment of our 24-hour day. Work comes second; life comes first. Maybe it’s not the richest country, but they sure are one of the happiest. Even though we’re not all cut out for life as a émigré Spanish person—we sure as hell are cut out for enjoying life like the Spanish.
What’s more saturated than Gaudi?? Honestly, not much. His reputation is built on both his inability to follow a straight line and his exorbitant use of vibrant, headache-inducing colour. These are the famous benches in the famous Parc Guell in the famous Barcelona. Constructed 1900 to 1914, it was originally part of a rather unsuccessful housing community – that just happened to be a century ahead of its time (Gaudi basically envisioned our modern-day suburbs and “gated” communities, an idea that didn’t sit well with the turn-of-the-century Spaniards). He liked the fresh air and the beautiful views that the site afforded, but sadly, no one liked the distance from La Ramblas or the beach. So, now it’s a colourful public garden and UNESCO site that makes for some pretty vividly saturated photos! (This one does it no justice, as I took it with a camera phone…)
Welcome to the Adriatic Sea, the little body of water to the right side of Italy. Being connected to the Mediterranean, it is, of course, gorgeously blue. The Adriatic contains over 1300 islands, with a max depth of 1233 meters (which is over 4000 feet)! It’s 800 km long, 200 km wide with an average depth of 252.5 m. Facts aside, the Adriatic is a beautiful part of this continent – and there’s no better way to get a feel for its beauty then from the window of a descending plane (even if it IS Ryanair). This is the sea that accommodates the terracotta roofs of Dubrovnik and the stunning Dalmatian islands, this is the sea that traders sailed up and down making Venice one of the richest cities for a good chunk of history, this the the sea that divides Italy from Greece. The Adriatic is wonderful in so many ways. Whether you want to swim at lovely beaches, relax in gorgeous coastal towns, eat fresh seafood prepared by some of the best cooks the world has to offer, take beautiful photographs of villages on the water, or sip wine with a view, the Adriatic has it all.