The coast of southern France is a fascinating place. Not far from the city of Marseilles, the coast erupts in series of jagged finger-like formations. This is the Massif des Calanques, a collection of impressive narrow inlets with steep walls rising on either side that comprise the Calanques National Park. As these walls are made of soft rocks like limestone, erosion carves out stunning jagged landscapes filled with turquoise waters – the picture of tranquillity. The Calanque de Morigou is one of the largest of the whole Massif des Calanques park. At its base are beaches and a narrow harbour where those so inclined can explore this exotic landscape by boat. Above, the landscape of the Calanque de Morgiou is no less impressive as the panoramas over these rugged headlands under the brilliant French sunshine is magnificent. Many hiking trails criss-cross this landscape, perfect for hikers of all abilities. Once a fishing port because of its strategic and protective location, the harbour at the Calanque of Morgiou is famed for giant tuna fishing hosted by the Marseillais when King Louis XIII visited the region in 1622. It is here too that we find the submerged entrance to the astounding Cosquer Cave, some 37 metres (121 feet) below sea level. After divers swim through a 175-metre (574 ft) tunnel, the narrow entrance opens into the Cosquer Cave – a cavern full of prehistoric art, including 65 stencils of human hands made 27,000 years ago! Though rising water levels have destroyed most of the art, there are still about 150 paintings visible. Even if you can’t see this amazing cave, the Calanques – and the Calanque de Morgiou in particular – are such a spectacular place to visit.
Pro tip: Hike to the Cap Sutigan overlooking the Calanque de Morgiou from the University (even accessible via bus from Marseille). Or drive down to the harbour itself on a road from Marseille suburb, Les Baumettes.
Rising above the city of Belfast is the beautiful landscape of Cavehill Country Park. Once part of Belfast Castle’s extensive estate, the hill is covered in lush woodland criss-crossed with narrow muddy tracks. After meandering on an upwardly-sloping path under a canopy of leaves, you suddenly break out into a beautiful panorama – behind you to one side is an aerial view of all Belfast, the little streets and buildings looking small at the bottom of the hills. And on the other side the landscape of Cavehill seems as if it comes straight out of a fairytale land, dramatic emerald and golden hills punctured with mysterious caves. It seems perhaps a scene you’d find in The Chronicles of Narnia – you almost expect to see fauns and centaurs and talking animals wandering about the hills. Even though you haven’t quite crossed over into a magical land, you’re as close as you can get – CS Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia grew up in Belfast (and was educated at Oxford) and spent his boyhood exploring these hills – the Mourne Mountains to the south up to the Causeway Coast to the north (Dunluce Castle is said to have been the inspiration of the ruined Cair Paravel in Prince Caspian). It’s reasonable to expect that CS Lewis would have climbed the slopes of Cavehill just behind his hometown, and it’s again reasonable to expect that the places he encountered in Ireland as a boy would have formed as inspiration for Narnia. Interesting again that the “real world” places of TheChronicles of Narnia resemble Oxford and its environs, but the mystical, magical places of Narnia and other magical lands find their inspirations in the landscapes of Ireland…perhaps Ireland is just a magical place.
Pro tip: There is a family-friendly car park to go straight to the top of the hill to McArt’s Fort, but you’ll miss the hike, forest, and actual cave hills in the panorama above. It’s worth it to start at Belfast Castle and do the full loop – at 6.5-7km, it should take you about 2 hours. It can be muddy, so bring your boots and waterproof jacket. As of this post, the route from Belfast Zoo is closed (but not the castle). Check here for hiking info.
Hidden away in the little-known County Fermangh along the Ireland–Northern Ireland border is the Marble Arch geopark and the Boho Caves. Buried within the hollowed hills is a collection of limestone caves. Some caves can be visited – such as those in the Marble Arch geopark – while others are harder to find. Pollenagollum Cave is one of those subterranean worlds that few discover – and those who do are not disappointed. Located in Belmore Mountain Park, Pollenagollum Cave (meaning “hole of the doves”) bores into the face of a small 12-metre-high cliff, its mouth at the bottom of a graceful waterfall. The cave itself goes back about 2 km, where there is another entrance in the hollowed-out hills of Marble Arch, though an underground stream makes the cave impassible (only the first kilometre or so is unblocked). Pollenagollumm Cave’s claim to fame is quite recent – it was here that, in the much-loved Game of Thrones TV Series, the scene in which Beric Dondarrian had Arya and her companions where brought to his underground hideout was filmed! The limestone cave is impressive, and the surrounding Belmore Forest and quarry is tranquil and beautiful.
Pro tip: The whole loop in Belmore Forest is about 7km, though the cave is only about 1km along the trail. There is also a stone marked with neolithic-era Curvilinear art not far off the path, but isn’t well marked. Please note that access to the cave is by permission only – some speleology associations may be able to bring curious visitors. Otherwise, there is a viewpoint just about the cave and waterfall for those who simply want to enjoy the panorama.
Oweynagat Cave, Roscommon, Ireland – The Gateway to Hell
Below the wet, emerald fields of Co Roscommon, an overlooked county in the Irish Midlands, is the narrow fissure that jets through the earth for some 37 meters… of which local lore calls this cave the Gateway to Hell (or the Gateway to the Otherworld). Oweynagat Cave is an ancient place. Though the cave itself is of natural occurrence, the entrance to it is what they call a souterrain (literally, ‘underground’) – a neolithic monument with an underground element. Oweynagat’s entrance is man-made, using boulders as well as lintels – basically structural horizontal blocks spanning the opening – inscribed with Ogham writing (the earliest form of writing found in Ireland). While this is rare enough in Ireland, in Co Roscommon, only 6 Ogham exemplars have been found. The cave’s small opening, mysterious inscriptions, dark interior, and narrow passages earned it the Gate to Hell. Not easy to find, Oweynagat Cave is located deep in the backcountry of the forgotten Midlands – but it wasn’t always this way. In ancient times, this region held a sacred and royal function. The surrounding area of Rathcroghan, like the Hill of Tara in Ireland’s Ancient East (near Dublin), is full of ancient, man-made mounds where kings were crowned and later buried, and important festivals and rituals were celebrated. Oweynagat Cave is associated with one of these Celtic pagan festivals – that of Samhain (pronounced ‘saw-when’), celebrated the 31st of October, when the borders of our world and that of the otherworld are said to be open. In fact, it is this festival that gave rise to the modern holiday we call Halloween! Like most pagan things, when Christianity came along, it repurposed pagan rites. So what was once the gateway to the otherworld of the fairies now becomes the terrifying Gateway to Christian Hell. Would you be brave enough to crawl inside the dark and narrow passage of Oweynagat Cave… on Halloween!?
Pro tip: The cave is extremely muddy. Be sure to wear good, waterproof boots, rain trousers and waterproof jacket so that you can shed them when you come out. Bring lights and a hard hat if you have one. Nearby, be sure to visit a few of the ancient mounds. Though little is left of them, it is interesting to learn about the ancient peoples who once worshipped there.
Supposedly one of the Baltic’s early form of tourism was pilgrimages to this cave. It all started with a legend, a story, dating to the age of castles and knights and villains. Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in a castle called Turaida. There was another castle, not so far away, where a handsome young man lived, and in the middle, there was a cave–pleasant kind of cave–where the lovers would meet to plan their marriage. But there was also a villain, and he wanted the princess for him. So, one day, he went to the cave to convince her to marry him. When she refused, he threatened to force her to marry him. She told him she would trade his hand for a magic scarf that was impossible to pierce by blade. Of course, he didn’t believe her, so she let him test it…on her. Of course, it didn’t work, and of course she knew that. But I guess suicide was considered a better option than a forced marriage… but the story doesn’t end there. Even though the princess died, our prince from the other castle tracked down the villain and avenged her death, and spent the rest of his days caring for their castles and protecting her cave. People started coming there, leaving their marks (coat of arms) in the stone. You can still make a pilgrimage there, hiking from Sigulda all the way to her castle’s ruins in Turaida. In the woods along the way, you can make a detour in order to pay homage to the Rose of Turaida and her infamous cave…
It’s been a long time ; I apologize. Between doing my masters degree in a foreign language, managing both an internship and a job, getting a French civil union with my boyfriend, adopting a puppy, travelling Europe, and generally enjoying life in France, I’ve been busy to say the least. But I’ve returned, and I’m going to attempt to keep up my photo-a-day concept whenever possible! I’d like to start off with place in my adopted country, France: the Grotte des Demoiselles. France actually has quite a lot of caves – over 200! Some are more famous than others (ahem Lascaux ahem), but all of them are beautiful. This cave is located in the south, in the region of Languedoc-Roussillon. Stalagmites and stalactites fall from the ceilings and rise from the floor, creating magnificent “rooms” that look like Gaudi made them (though the colours here are artificial). Like a lobster trap, getting in is easy, out more difficult – in one hidden corner there is the outline of a cave bear skeleton who spent his last days here. The main room, or the Cathedral, is 52 meters from floor to ceiling. With impressive acoustics resulting from the size of the room, at the bottom of the man-made staircase is a stalactite in the form of the Mother-and-Child beckoning to any adventurer who descends to the bottom, and a nature-made organ pipe plays its song. And keep an eye out for the fairies – legend has it that the “desmoiselles” (‘maidens’ in French) who gave the cave its name were in fact fairies residing inside, and even make it a habit to occasionally save wayward travellers!
It’s easy to imagine a nymph or mermaid or other such mythical creature residing here in this rocky grotto, a little waterfall cascading down through one of the many cracks into the mermaid’s fountain below. Located at the top of the Rocher des Doms, this is Avignon’s main park. Climbing to the top reveals an amazing view over the city of popes and the surrounding countryside (including a view of the Palace of the Popes as well as the Pont (Bridge) d’Avignon, which is famous despite stretching only halfway across the river!) The park was originally inhabited during the Neolithic age, later built up as a Roman settlement, only to be used by medieval shepherds for grazing, and finally converted into a park in the 18th/19th centuries. Today, it is one of Avignon’s nicest spots. At times lively, at times quiet, the park offers lovely paths and breathtaking panoramas–not to mention this semi-mythological grotto reminiscent of bygone times!