Kiev’s first UNESCO site, the 13 spires of the 11th century Byzantine St Sophia Cathedral contrast wildly with the more modern concrete blocks courtesy of communism. Named for the famous church-turned-mosque the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul/Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia is one of the best architectural relics of the Kievan Rus. With ground broken in 1011, St Sophia’s Cathedral celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2011! Like many religious buildings, its history has been far from peaceful. St Sophia was pillaged in 1169 and again in 1240, leading to abandonment and disrepair, including the loss of irreplaceable wall paintings. It was later damaged again in the 1500s when Poland and Ukraine joined forces in a misguided (and doomed to fail) attempt to unite the Catholic and Orthodox churches. It was claimed by several Orthodox communities – notably, the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church and the Moldavian Orthodox Church, who made repairs to St Sophia in the Ukrainian Baroque style. The Soviets wanted to destroy the cathedral and turn it into park, and indeed they managed to do so with St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery at the other end of the boulevard. But its popularity and reputation caused many to speak for the cathedral and St Sophia was saved, instead being turned into a history museum. And today, due to arguments over which branch of Orthodoxy should hold the rights to this ancient place, St Sophia remains a museum, frequented more by tourists than by members of the Orthodox community.
Pro tip: Things in the Ukraine follow their own rules and opening hours. Be sure to arrive early and be ready to wait if they say its not open. Special rates for students. Be sure to visit St Michael’s afterwards!
The echo of footsteps ring in the quiet cloisters of the ancient Béziers Cathedral. Officially known as Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse de Béziers, Béziers Cathedral is a 13th century Catholic church perched above the southern town of Béziers. Not far from Toulouse and Carcassonne, medieval Béziers was a stronghold of Christian sect called the Cathars, horribly persecuted by militant factions of the Catholic Church during the Albigensian Crusades of the 1200s. Béziers, the first town to be attacked by the crusaders, was hard hit. The courageous local Catholics of Béziers chose not to betray their Cathar compatriots and resisted the crusaders, resulting in a terrible sacking and massacre in the town and up to Béziers Cathedral. No one survived. Every man, woman and child – even priests and the elderly – were killed. According to legend, the crusaders asked how to tell Catholic from Cathar (let’s face it, they’re more or less the same thing…), evil Papal Legate Arnaud Amaury said, “Kill them all – the Lord will know them that are his.” Béziers was one of the worst hit during this bizarre crusade against a little-known Christian sect in the south of France, but it was far from the only town – Toulouse and Carcassonne as well as others also saw battle. The marauding crusaders invaded Béziers Cathedral of Sainte Nazaire and burned it thoroughly, killing all those who had taken sacred refuge inside. Though this tragedy happened 800 years ago, Béziers has never forgotten, ensuring that we continue to remember this tragedy. In modern times, Béziers is a great base to visit places like Les Cévennes and other Languedoc parks, Montpéllier, the Camargue, and both seaside and mountain villages. Not overly touristy, Béziers is a lovely part of Southern France to visit that will both take you away from the crowds of places like Carcassonne, Nice, St Tropez, and Aix-en-Provence. Today, Béziers is a quiet town, but the town and its magnificent cathedral serve as a history lesson as to what happens when religion is allowed power, have access to a military or meddle in politics.
Pro tip: Visit a winery for a wee wine tasting while you’re there! There are many to choose from, one of which is the little Domaine des Deux Rousseu, in the direction of the village of Sauvin. Serviced by a bus though cab might be the best bet. Just be careful – cell service there is spotty, so arrange in advance. Don’t miss the photo op at the Pont Vieux looking across the River Orb at the Cathedral Sainte Nazaire. If you’re interested in learning more about what it may have been like to live there, author Kate Mosse has written several novels set in and around Béziers, some of which are about the crusade against the Cathars.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Another in the series of rebuilt structures sparked by the Fire of Notre Dame. What comes to everybody’s mind when you hear the word “Dresden”? The Dresden bombing of WWII of course. Sadly, this controversial bombing in February 1945 killed 25,000 people, levelling the city centre to piles of rumble, much like Warsaw after the Warsaw Uprising. And then after the war, it was hidden behind the Iron Curtain, left to be rebuilt during the East German Communist era (also like Warsaw!). Luckily, much of Dresden’s old town has been restored to its former glory, showing the resilience of the people much like the citizens of Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe obliterated by the war. The Dresdner Frauenkirche was one of the main buildings to be reconstructed after the terrible bombing. Not formally a cathedral, this building only dates back to the 18th century. Dresden was flattened February 13-15th 1945 when the RAF and the USAAF dropped more than 3,900 tons of bombs on the German city, leaving it as nothing more than a heap of rubble with thousands dead. The church managed to survive two days of attack, but it could not withstand the intense heat from the blasts, and eventually collapsed. It would remain in ruins for the following 45 years. Happily, by 2005, the Frauenkirche‘s reconstruction was completed and the church was more beautiful than ever!
Pro tip: Dresden is also reputed for its Christmas markets… perhaps consider December for your next visit!
Gargoyles of the Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
After the April 14th 2019 fire, it’s not even certain if these iconic gargoyles still even adorn the amazing Notre Dame Cathedral. Even if they do, it won’t be possible to visit them until the cathedral is rebuilt… which will take years, possibly as long as two decades despite the overwhelming donations pledged (if only these sort of donations were pledged for all important monuments damaged and destroyed! Like the ancient temples of Iraq and Syria destroyed thanks to ISIS…). Notre Dame Cathedral is a special place, and the devastating fire is one of Europe’s terrible tragedies of recent times (though luckily avoiding loss of life). Built in the Middle Ages in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame is a stone building topped with a wooden roof made of strong oak from the 1200s (much of which was burned to ciders on April 14/15th). It is in this cathedral where Victor Hugo’s le bossu (or the hunchback) lived out his life in the famous book, and up until the fire, it was Paris‘s most visited monument (12-14 million each year!). Notre Dame is a symbol of Paris and France, but also one of architectural beauty, history and cultural heritage. Following the fire, this beautiful building is also a symbol of hope and resilience sitting in the centre of one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Let’s hope they rebuild it quickly, keeping in the same style as its original architects designed it… (no Pompidous, please!)
Pro tip: You can’t visit Notre Dame following the fire, but there are many other beautiful medieval structures in Paris well worth your visit, and many other great cathedrals in throughout France. Looking for gargoyles? Try Dijon Cathedral. Medieval grandeur? Lyon’s St Jean Cathedral. Simple elegance? Blois’s Church of Saint-Nicolas in the Loire Valley.
Torun, Poland does not want for churches. In fact, they seem to be everywhere. The Holy Trinity Church, erected in 1824, is viewed here from the gate of medieval St James’s Church, while other spires and steeples rise not far away – including the squat red-brick towers of Toruń Cathedral. Ironically, the 13th century medieval city is the birthplace of noted scientist Nicolaus Copernicus, who lends his name to Toruń’s university (you’ll find a large statue of him on Warsaw‘s Krakowskie Przedmieście Street). Noted for his contributions to our understanding of the solar system by placing the Sun at the centre, the “forward-thinking” Church issued a prohibition against his Copernican theory, leading to the condemnation of a “heretic” we know today as renowned scientist Galileo Galilei (Thanks Christianity…!). On a happier (and tastier) note, Toruń’s other claim to fame is that its famous for its gingerbread (or “pierniki” in Polish), which bakers began to produce in the 1300s. You haven’t tasted gingerbread until you’ve been to Toruń – and whether you think you like the it or not, you will love it after tasting this soft and delicious pastry in this magical city! Due to a vague agreement to swap recipes in return for new ones, Toruń instigated a competition with the German city, Nuremberg. As each city rose to individual fame, the secrets of their recipes became more guarded. Knockoffs were created and sold all over Europe. However, to this day, one needs only try Toruń’s gingerbread to recognise its authenticity (modern day Toruń gingerbread follows traditional 16th century recipes…). Perhaps tasting Toruń’s magical gingerbread will inspire you to try your hand at making your own plate of gingerbread biscuits!
Pro tip: You can buy pierniki toruńskie throughout Poland, and while quite good compared to non-Polish gingerbread, you can’t leave Toruń without visiting one of the local shops for the freshest gingerbread. One such place is Torun Żeglarska 25, though up and down Żeglarska Street, Piekary Street, and the Old City Market Square (Stare Miasto) you’ll find gingerbread specialty shops.
Overlooking St John’s Church on Bath’s River Avon, England
Surely one of the quaintest and most quintessentially English towns in all of England is Bath. The tranquil waters of the River Avon winds through the city, a labyrinth of limestone facades constructed with a local stone called Bath Limestone, with the canal on the other side of Bath. Houseboats lap quietly against their moorings, ducks splash on the lush green backs. Church steeples – like St John’s Church steeple – rise dramatically against a cloudy sky. Forming the southern entrance to the Cotswolds region, Bath is recognised as one of England’s most picturesque places. Lined with rows of proud Georgian houses centred around the impressive Bath Abbey and the ancient Roman baths that lend themselves to the city’s name, Bath seems like a time capsule that has captured the Roman era, medieval times and Georgian England. It feels almost as if we were stepping out of a Jane Austen novel – which in a way is true. Jane Austen lived here from 1801 – 1806, and set some of her novels here (though it is known that she disliked the high society of 19th century Bath). Jane Austen may have found fault with Bath, but to the modern day visitor, Bath is the perfect picture of England! (It also makes for a good jumping off point to explore the Cotswolds region…).
Pro tip: The recently-renovated Holburn Museum of Art is a lovely little art museum showcasing local painting. Runners (or walkers) might enjoy a walk along the Kennet & Avon canal – start from Bath and walk the 10 miles along the lovely and tranquil canal path to the lovely Cotswolds town of Bradford-on-Avon (well worth a visit!) and return to Bath via the local train. Another great walk will take you up the hill to Sham Castle. Also nearby is Bristol (also the local airport), a quirky artsy town.
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.
Unique, isn’t it? This squat, sunburnt little Romanesque tower and 12-sided polygon of a church on the outskirts of Segovia is impressive – and not the least because it dates back to the Middle Ages – the 13th century in fact. And who founded it? Why, none other than the infamous Knights Templar! More simply called “The Templars,” were a Catholic military organisation founded in 1139 by the pope. Most people know that they are closely tied to the Crusades to the Holy Land but what is less known is that they became very wealthy and therefore very powerful due to their role involved in the Christian bourse. Though the Templars are among some of the most skilled fighters of the Middle Ages (a fact that modern day video game Assassin’s Creed has exploited), roughly 90% of their order weren’t fighters. While the combatants where wrestling for the Holy Land, the non-combatants were slowly making a power play. It was they who put in place the economic infrastructure such as banking, loans, investments and the creation of landed estates (essentially paving the way for feudalism, and one might argue, capitalism) – all of only made them more rich. Part of their money went to building shrines to their movement – churches dedicated to the Holy Land they held so dear. One such place was the Church of Vera Cruz – a fantastic example of the kind sanctuary they perfected and how it differs from later churches. In fact, scripture from the Holy Land is inscribed at the alter of this little Spanish church. However, the Templars’ reign was short-lived. Such wealth gave them power, and power made them detested. Once they lost the Crusades, it was quite easy to demonise them – especially it you owed them money. One of those in their debt was none other than King Philip of France who took advantage of their fall from grace to blame, torture, and murder them to avoid repayment on his debt, forcing Pope Clement the V to disband them in 1312. The Templars disappeared in the early 1300s but they left behind a mysterious legacy – one that continues to inspire goosebumps to this day….
Pro tip: The Church of Vera Cruz lies just outside of the cluster of buildings in the historic centre. It’s open Tuesdays 16 – 19h and Wed – Sun from 10h30 – 19h (closed midday from 13h30 – 16h). Admission is a modest €2.
Is it a spaceship? A torpedo? Or just a really unusual church? One of Reykjavik’s – and Iceland’s – most iconic landmarks, the ultra modern Hallsgrimkirkja Church in downtown Reykjavik is somehow also reminiscent of the dramatic and bizarre worlds found inside of the Icelandic Sagas. The Hallsgrimkirkja also sports an observation deck for aerial city views and a statue of Leif Eriksson, the man often credited as the first European to arrive in the Americas hundreds of years before Columbus. Only finished in 1986 and standing atop one of Reykjavik’s highest points, the Hallsgrimkirkja is some 74 metres high, making it the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest structures on the island. Iceland is a strange place. Remote, isolated, cold, inhospitable, Iceland is also home to some of the most enduring tradition, mythology and storytelling in Europe. For such a small, remote place, this Nordic country is one of Europe’s most progressive. Home to about 340,000 people (of which nearly half [122,000] live in the capital), it actually has one of the lowest (if not the lowest) unemployment rates, one of the highest standards of living, and some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes – including some spectacular volcanoes – in the whole world. In the winter, it might still be light out at midnight or later, meaning that in the winter, some days only see a few hours of daylight (though on the up side, that means higher chances of spotting the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights!). It is a country of myth and legend, of fire and snow, of ancient and modern. This small place packs a bundle!
Pro tip: Though only available to those ready to brave the cold (even in summer), it is actually possible to SCUBA dive between two tectonic plates – it doesn’t get cooler than that! For those who prefer to stay a bit warmer (or to warm up afterwards), Reykjavik and Iceland in general is full of hot springs heated naturally by the piping hot water from the volcanoes. Whether you prefer a dramatic outdoor pool or a modern pool in the city, there are plenty of options (though as this is popular with tourists and locals alike, don’t expect it to yourself. Iceland is sadly victim to overtourism from the mass cruise industry).
Church of Our Saviour, or the Spiral Church in Copenhagen, Denmark
Denmark‘s capital is a fascinating place. There are a few things that make it so – including fancy food, the sleek and elegant Nyhavn neighbourhood, the famous Christianshavn neighbourhood, the remodelled brick factories and the fact that there’s a statue based on a fairytale in town. Another thing that makes Copenhagen cool is this bizarre and beautiful place, the Church of our Saviour. Not the most exciting (or memorable) name, but when you say that “spiral church,” everyone knows exactly what you mean. In fact, that spiral is also a staircase, which people can follow to the top for aerial views of Copenhagen (provided they don’t have vertigo, that is!). This Baroque beauty was built in 1695 (though the spire not fully completed until 1752) and is home to an interesting urban legend. Supposedly, the architect committed suicide by jumping from the spire’s summit when he realised the spirals twist upwards in an anticlockwise manner (something you’d think he’d realise during the years it took to build the spire!). While this isn’t true of course (the architect died of natural causes nearly a decade later), it doesn’t stop the urban legend from being latching hold – helped along by the notorious part of Copenhagen where the spiral church is found. Tucked into the infamous Christianshavn, a series of artificial islands, the locale started life as a 17th century fortified and purpose-built merchant town but was quickly consumed by the much larger Copenhagen. In the late 20th century, Christianshavn gained a reputation as a working-class and bohemian town à la Charles Aznavour’s Parisian Montmatre of the late 1940s and 50s. Today it has become one of Copenhagen’s hippest quartiers – where a blend of businessmen, students, young families and hippies happily reside together – though that does not stop the reminiscing of those nostalgic for the romantic bohemian atmosphere of Christianshavn’s past life.
Pro tip: The Church of the Saviour is also noted for its carillon (a musical instrument consisting of a collection of 20+ bells), which is northern Europe’s largest. If you’re curious to hear what it sounds like, it plays melodies every hour from 8 am to midnight.
Kremlin & St Basil’s Cathedral from the Moskva River at Sunset, Russia
If you had to chose one place to represent Russia, what would it be? High on most lists would probably be St Basil’s Cathedral (actually called Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed) and the Kremlin, just next door. Though both are worth exploring up close, for a unique way to visit both of these fantastic icons, consider a cruise of the Moskva River for a beautiful and unique view of Moscow – even better if its a sunset cruise! St Basil’s is as eye-popping now as it was when it was new – built in its own unique, trail-blazing style in 1561, no one quite knows where architects Barma and Postnik found their inspiration, though many say it is a combination of Greek, Byzantine, Islamic and Asian styles. Even the Italian Renaissance played a role (its surprising how influential Italian architects were in places like Russia, France and Eastern Europe). St Basil’s uniqueness is really what makes it so fascinating and its silhouette is unmistakable. The Kremlin, on the other hand, is more complex. A government building, a fort, the heart of Russia – the Kremlin is often also used metonymically to refer to Russia’s government. It is composed of five palaces and four cathedrals, enclosed by an imposing wall. Unfortunately, several heritage buildings in the Kremlin were destroyed to make space for ugly concrete Soviet-era buildings (before thankfully a law came into place preserving heritage sites). Once again, though it’s important to visit the site, a riverside visit to the Kremlin is a whole different – and much quieter and calmer! – experience. Get ready for some amazing waterscapes and skylines!
Pro tip: best time to go is certainly sunset on a clear day – especially in the off-season if possible. For amazing views of the Kremlin, St Basils and more, take a sunset cruise on the Moskva River.
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
Frauenkirche & Cathedral of Munich – Munich, Germany
One of Germany’s most beautiful cities is Munich, capital of the famed region of Bavaria. Munich is a city filled with stunning architecture. Its skyline is pierced with spires of churches and cathedrals and towers and its ground is laid with cobblestones. The city centre is filled with architectural wonders – palaces, halls, great houses, beer halls, churches, towers. In the above photo, the spire to the right is from the Cathedral of Munich, while the twin spires to the left are from the Frauenkirche. It is in the Frauenkirche where you’ll find a footprint indented in the floor. Legend has it that this is the Devil’s footprint – the builders needed help finishing the church and the devil offered his aid to finish it. From the front door, the columns form an illusion to block all of the windows so the Devil thought that it would be a dark, damp church and no one would want to go there. When he realised that the builders tricked him, he was so angry he stomped his foot down in anger – hence the imprint of a foot on a stone by the door. (A less exciting explanation could be a the footprint of the master builder himself). Whatever you believe, it makes a good story!
Pro Tip: Take the free walking tour of Munich as you’ll learn about this legend and more – a perfect introduction to Munich!
The Palais des Papes is a massive heap of fortified and sacred medieval stone built for the king-like popes during the schism with the Catholic Church in the heart of ancient Avignon. Six rebellious popes ruled Western Christianity from this impressive – and costly – building. (In fact, the Palais des Papes was so expensive that it nearly burst the papal purse). Built during the 14th century, the old palais (of Benedict XII) and the new palais (of extravagant Clement VI) form the largest Gothic building constructed during the Middle Ages! And during the 14th century, the Palais des Papes once held about 2,000 volumes – considered to be the largest library of its time. This impressive library attracted bibliophiles and scholars from afar, and the Palais des Papes became a place of great study. It was also within the walls of this immense palace that the Church was able to centralise and create a standardisation of services and operations – mostly to meet the needs of the popes and the Church with less regard to its common flock. The church administration workers (known as the Curia) grew from a modest 200 to 500 people plus 1,000 laymen at the Palais des Papes in less than 100 years. Today, the Palais des Papes is a UNESCO site, and is well worth the visit from a historical and architectural perspective, as the Palais des Papes is both a great historical turning point and one of the best exemplars of Europe’s great Gothic constructions.
Pro Tip: You can buy a ticket for both the Palais des Papes as well as the Pont d’Avignon, so be sure to pocket your ticket when you visit the palace! Great views from the Parc Rocher des Doms park of the whole of Avignon and beyond.
The jewel of the north, Inverness is known as the city that crowns the shores of Loch Ness, famed home to the mythically elusive monster Nessie. Despite this claim to fame, few visit the compact Scottish city, and even fewer appreciate it. The official gateway to the Scottish Highlands, the northern-ness of Inverness gives you the feeling of being at the ends of Earth’s civilisation (it’s the UK’s northernmost city). Small enough to visit in a day, Inverness is one of Europe’s fastest growing cities. It is ranked 5th out of nearly 200 British cities for best quality of life as well as Scotland’s 1st (and the UK’s 2nd) happiest city; being collectively happy seems to be a northern thing as Denmark, Sweden and Norway also often rank at the top of world lists. As you wander the streets of Inverness, there’s certain familiar British-ness (e.g. Boots, Cafe Nero, WH Smiths and Tesco’s…) but at the same time, something resoundly Scottish. Start at the majestic Leakey’s Bookshop and follow the River Ness past the ancient churches and over bouncing bridges, past the modern castle on the hill as the rivers weaves and twines its way towards the long and narrow Loch Ness. Long before you arrive, you’ll stumble across a series of long and narrow islands – the Ness Isles – a 3 mile (5k) forested loop fringed by the quiet river – a place just perfect for a stroll or a jog in the fresh air of any season! Oh and by the way, Macbeth is from here! Or rather, his real life 11th century counterpart was.
Pro tip: Inverness Train/Bus Station is in the city centre. The airport is an easy 25 minute bus ride – get bus 11A from Marks & Spenser’s. There are Loch Ness half day boat tours for those wishing to see the lake and ruins of Urquhart Castle. Looking for quick, yummy food? Try the Filling Station by the train station for hearty comfort food.
The Austrian capital is beautiful under a dappled sunrise, on a canvas of blue sky, even misted in soft rain. But perhaps Vienna’s loveliest time of day is by night, when the city comes alive with lights of all shapes and sizes. The ancient palaces and churches of Vienna are illuminated in multi-coloured brilliance. Cafes and restaurants spill brightness onto the pavement, streetlights bathe ancient cobblestones in soft yellow lamplight, and pop-up markets exude a soft glow. Vienna comes alive in the evening – people pour out of the Opera, they frequent the crowded markets, stroll down romantic alleys, enjoy evening meals on cafe terraces, sit in the lamplight on the Danube, or share drinks and cigarettes in the floodlight of the city’s many bars. This is not a place where one should have a healthy fear of the dark; rather, Vienna is place where night is the time to socialise. The Austrian capital is a place to embrace the night as you enjoy its many wonders. Seen here is Karlskirche, an 18th-century Baroque wonder, found just outside the famous Ringstrausse of central Vienna.
Pro tip: Visit Vienna in December for its amazing decorations and Christmas markets located all over the city centre!
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg, Russia
To some, the stunning Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood resembles a giant cupcake; to others a Disney World attraction; to locals, a mere copy of the more-famous St Basil‘s on Moscow‘s Red Square. And yet. This stunning church has a life and attitude all of its own. Inside and out, it is a work of art, an example of high romantic nationalism and Art Nouveauthat stands out from the rest of Baroque and Neoclassical St Petersburg. Conceived and completed in fin de siecle Russia, it was meant to be a way of immortalising Tsar Alexander II by his son, Alexander III, who was assassinated here by a group of anarchists. Inside, every inch of the high walls are covered with biblical art, containing over 7,500 square meters of mosaics, which by some estimates, is more than any other church in the world! Sadly, during the war, it was used as a temporary morgue during the WWII Siege of Leningrad, and afterwards as the city was still recovering, it was used as a storehouse for produce and other foodstuffs – lending it the derogatory nickname, Saviour on Potatoes. Today, it is a museum and a tribute to another Russia, another era. It was never reconsecrated, and therefore is not a proper place of worship, but does attract visitors from all over the world to admire its expert craftsmanship.
Pro tip: There is a small entrance fee of 250 rubles (about €3) but it goes towards the renovation and upkeep of the church. The church is closed Wednesdays.
The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of independence from Russia for the Baltic States (think Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) – even if in the middle of that century of independence they lost it and were forced to regain it again, thanks to WWII. And yet, the Old Town of Vilnius is one of the largest medieval towns still in existence today (and therefore is protected by UNESCO). By day, it is a popular place with locals and tourists alike, relaxing in the cafes, strolling the narrow alleys and broad avenues, chilling in the parks and squares, mingling with the locals in restaurants and hole-in-the-wall bars. For great views, you might climb the ancient Gediminas Hill to the remains of the crumbled castle – or to the top of the opposite Hill of the Three Crosses, a more modern viewpoint. It is a place full of great (and budget-friendly) restaurants and bars frequented by lively locals and tourists alike, making it an ideal place for a friends weekend, a fun solo getaway, or a hen/stag party!
Soft, white snow slowly falls on the red clay rooftops of the sleepy village of Sant’Ambogio di Torino. This simple but picturesque village is snuggled soundly at the foot of Mount Pirchiriano. Crowned with the stone ruins of the legendary Sacra di San Michele monastery, Mt Pirchiriano and its monastery have been made famous by inspiring Umberto Eco’s classic novel, The Name of the Rose. Below the mountain, Sant’Ambrogio di Torino contains its own history and beauty: medieval wonders such as Middle Ages towers, fortified walls, a ruined abbey, a 12th century Romanesque-style bell tower (the tower in the above photo, now integrated to the current church), and the remains of an 11th century church, located above the town in the tiny commune of San Pietro. Sant’Ambrogio di Torino still plays the role it has for centuries: the starting place for the ancient pilgrimage path leading to the mountaintop Sacra di San Michele, as well as housing the relics of St John Vincent, the monastery’s founder. To mark the beginning of the pilgrim’s path weaving through the mystical Val de Susa, is the lovely 18th-century Chiesa Parrocchiale di San Giovanni Vincenzo – today covered in a powdery blanket of snow. Though it may be faster to drive directly from Torino to the top of the mountain – bypassing Sant’Ambrogio village, the Pilgrim’s Path, and the Val de Susa altogether – the effect will be far less impressive or special; you will miss out on a homage to quiet village life, beautiful architecture, ancient tradition and stunning landscapes. Instead, take the train to Sant’Ambrogio from Torino central station, walk the quiet streets to the Chiesa di San Giovanni, and then follow the narrow cobblestone path to the sacred monastery above (roughly 2 hours hike). Exploring the region in the snow provides an added layer of beauty!
In the heart of Slovakia’s capital Bratislava, under the shadow of the imposing white walls of 17th century Bratislava Castle, is the aptly-named Blue Church. Initially painted in light pastels to lighten up the oval-shaped interior, this church dedicated to Elisabeth of Hungary was later repainted in dozens of shades of blue: the walls (both interior and exterior), alter, mosaics, the tower, the roof tiles. All varying degrees of blue, azure, cobalt, sapphire, cerulean, periwinkle, indigo. Built at the start of the 20th century, the evocative church utilises Hungarian Art Nouveau style. Art Nouveau is a short-lived but wildly-popular style that took Europe by storm at the turn of the century, and is characterised by its use of natural shapes and structures, curvy and fluid lines, as well as incorporation of graceful plants and flowers. Though this movement was started in the UK, it was France where it really took off, influencing architectural styles, art, sculpture and design across the main urban areas of Europe. This wildly unique style’s life was cut short by the sharp simplicity of Art Deco and even worse, the drab boxiness of Modernism – but not before the elegance of the Art Nouveau movement had spread its wings throughout Europe. From Riga to France, this Art Nouveau’s fingers left behind some of the strangest and most intriguing architectural wonders in modern Europe.