Get this. The windiest place in the UK…is called The Butt (cue endless jokes about the Butt being very windy…)! The Butt of Lewis (confusingly located at the northernmost point of the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides) is a lonely andwindswept headland home to a solitary lighthouse. Constructed in the 1860s, this unusual red-brick lighthouse was inhabited by a lighthouse keeper until 1998 when it was automated. Lighthouse keeping was a lonely existence. Being stationed on the comparatively large and civilised Isle of Lewis wouldn’t have been too bad – nearby villages such as Ness, Borve and Barvas kept keepers provided with fresh supplies and news. However, lighthouse keepers on small, uninhabited islands lived a desolate and difficult existence. The most famous case was that of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse, located on a rock pinnacle off the coast of Lewis. In December of 1900, 3 lighthouse keepers were prevented from returning to land after their long shift. When a boat finally arrived, incomers found a desolate and deserted island, wreaked by a violent storm. One coat still hung on its peg, iron railings and railroad tracks were mangled and uprooted, and a crate of equipment ruined… with no one to be seen. The logbooks – not updated for a week – note that the men had been acting strange (hardworn mariners noted as struck silent dumb, crying, and praying) during a terrible storm that supposedly raged for 3 days. The strangest part? The island could be seen from Lewis and ships had sailed the Hebrides waters…but no storm had been recorded. (Goosebumps, anyone?) Even after years of searching for them and the truth of what happened Dec. 15th, 1900, nothing has been uncovered. Conspiracy theorists will say anything from madness to pirates to aliens, though a rogue wave is probably the most likely answer (two men swept off when securing the equipment, the third as he attempted to help or warn the others). But we’ll probably never know – and now that the forlorn lighthouses such as the Butt of Lewis and Flannan Isle are automated, the saga of lonely lighthouse keepers is at an end, keeping their secrets with them.
Pro tip: Take great care when visiting the Butt of Lewis – it is VERY windy. Secure anything at risk of being blown away (hats, scarves, glasses) before approaching. For those who wish, there is a 3-4km coastal walk from Eoropie Beach to the Butt of Lewis. Flannan Isle is hard to get to – if it’s a must-see for you, try with Seatrek.
Vienne is most famous for its Roman ruins – the Temple of Auguste and Livie, amphitheatre and obelisk – though there is far more to this ancient place than that. A bit eerie and yet hauntingly beautiful, Vienne’s Pipet Cemetery is a fascinating place to visit. Vast alleyways and avenues are lined with massive tombs and headstones making a sort of French city of the dead. Climb to the top of the hill for a view of the fantastic ruins of the medieval castle, Chateau de la Batie, which still cling to the rugged hilltop, crowning Vienne’s dramatic skyline. The view of Chateau de la Batie seems straight out of Victorian-era painting, of a folly perhaps—dramatic cliffs, dark forests, a ruined castle, a grey cemetery, a hanging sky—and yet, the view is entirely authentic. Perched at the top of Mont Salomon, the castle Chateau de la Batie was built on the foundations of Roman ruins in 1225 by the archbishop of Vienne in order to protect the city from would-be medieval attackers. While the castle is not open to the public, it turns a rather ordinary landscape into something dramatic, romantic and even extraordinary to behold, and both the cemetery and Vienne’s hilltop are well worth the visit.
Pro tips: In the summer months of June and July, the city comes alive with the annual festival, Jazz a Vienne. Just across the Rhone Riveris Saint-Romain-en-Gal (only a separate town because it crosses county lines), find the ruins of a Roman city and an excellent museum of Roman archeology. Sometimes the site even hosts living history festivals. Vienne is an easy day trip from Lyon.
Welcome to the ends of Earth – or at least, that’s a bit what Donegal feels like. The Republic of Ireland’s northernmost county also contains the island’s northernmost tip, Malin Head – used as a Star Wars filming location (a stand in for the backdrop of Luke Skywalker’s hideout). Donegal is nicknamed the Forgotten County – and for good reason. It is one of Ireland’s most remote regions, as well as one of its most sparsely populated. It’s cut off culturally and geographically as it is blocked by ocean on one side and the UK (via Northern Ireland) on the other. It was the last region of Ireland to fall to British rule, who then tried to establish and maintain their power in this volatile region by naming the local chieftains “Earls” – a title against which they rebelled and subsequently were defeated and driven away, henceforth known as the Flight of the Earls. Perhaps because of this, Donegal has a high proportion of Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) communities. On Donegal’s rugged northern coastline stands the devilishly named Horn’s Head Peninsula – so named for twin rock formations that resemble horns. Today, it retains its wild side. It is also the Wild Atlantic Way’s northernmost section. Alongside Mayo, Donegal is about as close to true wilderness as Ireland gets! Desolate boglands, sheer cliffs, jagged headlands and vast heathland dotted with hardy mountain sheep, Horn Head is a place that works as a time capsule, transporting the weary wanderer to another place, another era, another world.
Pro tip: Unlike Scotland and Scandinavia, Ireland does not have the same Rights to Roam. When hiking on private land (most of land in Ireland), be sure that the landowner has given permission for hikers to access their land. Usually this is the case if there aren’t any signs put up. Use stiles when available, but if you do need to open any gates, make sure you close them after you (even if you found them open).
Starting life in 1766 as a corn and then snuff mill, the Clifton Observatory clings to the edges of the steep ribboned slopes of the Avon Gorge. Sliding into the muddy River Avon (itself quickly emptying into the massive Bristol Canal separating England and Wales, the Avon Gorge streaks through a limestone ridge about 3 miles from the mouth of the river at Avonmouth. The Observatory is not alone in its defence of the Avon Gorge; alongside it, there are the ancient remains of no less than three Iron Age forts. Clifton Observatory was nearly gutted by fire in the 1770s; later left to fall into ruin. The building was only saved in 1828 when artist William West rented the picturesque site as a studio. It was West who installed the famed camera obscura as well as a set of telescopes, together used to detail the Avon Gorge and the lush Leigh Woods that adorn the opposite bank. Even more fascinatingly, West also spent two years carving out a 200 foot long tunnel from the Observatory to St Vincent’s Cave (also known as the Giants’ Cave due to a myth claiming it was once home to giants called Goram and Ghyston), suspending visitors some 250ft above the valley floor and offering fantastic panoramas of the gorge. Although once associated with the ancient chapel of St. Vincent, before the tunnel was built, the only access was from below – the route Lake Poet Robert Southey took in his whimsical descriptions of the place in the 18th century. Whether you visit the camera obscura and the cave or just take a turn about Clifton Down and admire the views from above, it is certainly one of Bristol’s best kept secret gems.
Pro tip: £4 gets you into the Observatory. Get some air in the beautiful Leigh Woods Reserve (maintained by the National Trust) on the opposite side of the Gorge. On the way back, wander through the quaint streets of quirky Clifton, perhaps stopping for delicious Italian at Bosco’s pizzeria.
More Beautiful Places to Visit in England outside of London
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe Stairway, Basque Country, Spain
It’s not hard to see why even just the pathway and staircase to the monastery of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe has captured the inspiration of thousands – or why fantasy film/series producers (like the unfortunate Game of Thrones where the stairs and islet stood in for Dragonstone) have chosen this place to be part of a fantastical world. Carved into a rugged, rocky outcrop on Spain’s north Basque coast, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is an ancient 10th century monastery perched precariously at the top of a rocky outcrop of an island. Reachable by a rugged causeway, the iconic steps and pathway were carved directly into the causeway itself. Dedicated to St John the Baptist, the unpronounceable Basque name actually loosely translates to “St John’s craggy fort.” At the top stands a medieval hermitage with burials spanning the 9th – 12th centuries. As with most medieval hermitages, the location was chosen precisely because of its rough and remote location – all the better for monks and hermits to isolate themselves from the evils of the world and focus on prayer and god. That said, the rough and remote location later became important as a stronghold and was attacked several times (including by the nasty though strangely revered Sir Francis Drake). Today, the island’s amazing geography combined with the added architecture is a popular site to visit.
Pro tip: It’s best to visit San Juan de Gaztelugatxe in the off-peak season or early on in the day. To truly appreciate the views, take the bus from Bilbao to Bakio and hike the rest of the way, about 6km. The steps are steep and rugged, so wear sturdy shoes and only attempt if fit. It’s a popular place so expect fellow pilgrims!
Rivendell? Gondor? Narnia? Hogwarts? Sadly, no to all. However magical it looks, this is no fantasy world but instead the Spanish town of Ronda is a magical city set deep in the sunburnt deserted landscapes of Andalucia, optimistically built onto a cliff split by a colossal gorge. The two sides of Ronda are tethered together by this stunning bridge known as Ronda’s Puente Nuevo. The newest of the three bridges that crosses the breathtaking El Tajo Gorge carved by the mighty Guadalevin River, Puente Nuevo was finished in 1793 after a long 34 years of construction. It is a master of engineering and an impressive work of architecture, calling in at a shocking 66 meters long and 98 meters high, built straight into the solid rock of the El Tajo Gorge. The small window just visible in the side of the bridge was once used as a prison – with condemned prisoners simply thrown from their cells to meet their doom on the rocks at the bottom of gorge a la Vlad Tepes Dracula. Today, it is both tourist attraction as well as a fully functional bridge, connecting forevermore both halves of the city of Ronda, capital of the famous Pueblos Blancos.
Pro Tip: The Puente Nuevo bridge is best seen from below. Descend along a narrow path that leads down the side of the gorge, but beware, the path is eroded and in poor condition so be sure to wear proper hiking gear.
The French region of Ardèche, with its stunning Gorges d’Ardèche, Pont d’Arc over the Ardèche River, the Monts de Forez and Les Cevennes, is a veritable nature’s paradise. The western half of the central region is rocky, mountainous and forlorn. Industries such as viticulture and sheep-farming did not leave the inhabitants as nearly as prosperous as those on the eastern half of the region that benefited from being on the banks of the all-important Rhone River, a highway of maritime trade. As a result, this little corner of France is lost in time. Quaint medieval villages are tucked away into the folds of the ruggedly dazzling mountains. The miniature beaches of the Ardèche River welcome swimmers and paddlers looking to escape the sticky summer season. Cobblestone village centres bustle with markets sporting local produce, industry and crafts. Trails and paths and country roads abound making Ardèche the place to go to lose oneself in France’s wild side. Cliffs sweep in sunburnt valleys. Though none of Ardèche’s peaks can rival the Alps or even the Pyrenees, the region offers a far quieter and less touristic alternative – perfect for those who want to visit France lost in time.
Pro tip: Avoid Vallon-Pont-d’Arc as it is very busy with domestic tourism and instead base yourself in one of Ardèche’s medieval villages like Baluzuc, Montréal or Largèntiere.
Most people think that the iconic hexagons of the Giant’s Causeway are contained in that single bridge-like ’causeway’ – but this is not true. In fact, the dramatic hexagonal spires one sees at the Giant’s Causeway continue for over a kilometre from the UNESCO site! Hugging the Northern Irish coast of County Antrim is a several-hundred-kilometre path called the Causeway Coastal Route. Easy to break up into walkable chunks, hiking the Causeway Coastal Route is the best way to truly experience the Giant’s Causeway and Northern Ireland’s phenomenal countryside and clifftops. Start at the ruined castle of Dunseverick and follow the coast for 8km (5 miles) – the hiking is easy, the views are breath-taking and the path is quiet. Little by little, you’ll slowly build up to the iconic Giant’s Causeway. In the meantime, you’ll enjoy dramatic cliffs, impressive sea stacks, and hexagonal columns. Walking on a soft carpet of rolling emerald fields dotted with grazing livestock and laughing horses, you’ll navigate stiles, listen to the distant sound of crashing waves, hunt for Spanish Armada gold (supposedly long discovered but you never know!) and learn about the legendary Irish giant, Finn McCool, credited with creating the Giant’s Causeway. But that’s a story for another day…
Slea Head Peninsula along the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland
One of the most interesting examples of a tourism product produced by a destination(s) is the infamous Wild Atlantic Way, a route that conducts travellers through nine counties for roughly 2,500 km (1,550 miles) along the western coastline of Ireland. Developed to showcase the best of Western Ireland, the Wild Atlantic Way does a pretty fantastic job of connecting otherwise isolated regions, counties, villages, cliffs, beaches and attractions into something much greater. One place along the Wild Atlantic Way that is particularly awe-inspiring is Slea Head, the tip of the oft-overlooked Dingle Peninsula. Sitting here in the soft, green grass at the tip of the point, overlooking a few rugged, rocky islands, it sends a shiver down your spine to realise that the next thing out there after the miles and miles of waves is North America. While most tourists do not stray far from the well-worn tracks of the Ring of Kerry, Dingle is much more rugged and authentic, peopled by cheery Irishmen and women who hold an innate love of their country. Slea Head is as green as it is peaceful. In fact, at Slea Head, the only other beings you’re likely to meet is the local farmer’s fleecy sheep and lumbering cattle, making this amazing natural landscape a great place for internal reflection.
Hopefully, you’re not afraid of heights. Oh you are? Hmm, well, perhaps it’s best to avoid driving in rural areas in Scandinavia, especially on the western coast of Norway in the direction of the fjords. This is the kind of place where you’ll find zigzagging roads that curl back and forth, criss-crossing each other time and again. These are the kinds of roads that cut through cliffs, chipped away by Norwegian laborers using rough tools and dynamite. These are the kinds of roads that plummet suddenly downwards, seemingly trying to follow the path of the countless waterfalls you’ve already passed along on your drive. Curving around cliff sides, these are these kinds of roads that leave you hanging over steep drops, with the sound of thousands of tons of water pounding onto the rocks below. These are the kinds of roads where you can imagine literally falling off the face of the earth, disappearing into the cavern far below. And yet—these are the kinds of roads that leave you excited and exhilarated by the end, dumbfounded at the wonders you’ve encountered along the road and breathless with the magnitude and sheer danger of driving on them—because at the end of the day, it’s the journey not the destination that matters. And this, you must admit, looks like a pretty unforgettable (if slightly terrifying!) journey.
Literally split in two by a massive cliff, Ronda is considered the capital of the Pueblos Blancos region of Andalucia (southern Spain). And Ronda is drop-dead beautiful! The white cliff dwellings are picture-perfect, the atmosphere is chill, the sun is shinning, the sangria is pouring. Ronda has the heart of a village – and the size of a town! Obviously, the canyon, El Tajo, is what truly makes this town stand out. A famous scene in Hemingway’s ForWhom the Bell Tolls relates how Fascist sympathisers were tossed off a cliff in a fictional Spanish town during the Civil War (1936-9) – and many claim that Hemingway used Ronda as a model for his fictional story. Nearby, there are also fascinating and well-preserved ruins of the Arab baths. As the whole town is built precariously into this cliff and mountainous region, you’ll have to navigate winding roads, hairpin turns and narrow bridges crossing deep gorges to approach the baths. But despite any falling Fascists or narrow gorges, Ronda is one of the prettiest Spanish town – and that’s saying a lot!
More Beautiful Small Towns and Villages in Sunny Spain
Dunnottar is an easy place to fall in love. Perhaps due to the rugged nature of the peninsula, perhaps due to the fact that it is a castle on a cliff, perhaps due to brilliant surrounding countryside, Dunnottar Castle will make your heart flutter. The stone fortress is perched on a peninsula which is perched on a cliff, which creates an imposing image as you traipse through the Scottish countryside to get here. Dating back to 1400, this castle is probably the most famous of the roughly 55 castles in Aberdeenshire alone – one of the most castle-dense counties in all of the UK. Dunnottar Castle is well worth the traipse, even if you don’t go inside. The countryside hike to the castle is gorgeous. The castle itself is dramatic and picaresque, which exactly what you’d expect from a Scottish castle. Hidden beaches and steep cliffs line the castle’s edges, sporting a ruggedness that truly defines Scotland’s coast. Dunnottar Castle is full of untold treasures, and not just the sort of treasure that glitters!
Somewhere in the south of Spain, in the heart of Andalusia, in the midst of the White Village region lies the lovely town of Ronda. As one can tell from the photo, Ronda is famously split into two sections by a dramatic gorge with dangerously steep cliff-sides. Pretty white houses cling to the edges, the Guadelevin River cuts through it, and cacti slowly crawl their way up the steep faces of the cliffs. The site itself dates back to the Neolithic age, was once home to the Celts, the Phoneticians and later conquered and rebuilt by the Romans. As with most Spanish cities, its history is impressive! As for its most distinctive feature…these famous cliffs were actually the model for the cliffs from which the fascists were thrown off in Hemingway’s novel, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls.’
The ruins of Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven, Scotland.
Built in the 15th/16th centuries, this majestic fortress is best known for hiding the Honours of Scotland (Scottish crown jewels) from Oliver Cromwell and his armies. Today, the ruins cling to this small rugged peninsula jutting out along Scotland’s coast. To reach it, one must hike through rolling green fields along crumbling cliffs, watching the ruins slowly grow closer and closer. Up close, the castle is no less rugged or spectacular!