Castillo de Zahara de la Sierra in Andalucia, Spain
Andalucia is a dry, sunburnt land in the south of Spain. The region is among Spain’s largest and most populous regions, with small communities spread out over a blanket of brown hills, jagged mountains and rolling fields. Many such communities are part of the Pueblos blancos or ‘white villages’ of Andalucia, picture-perfect villages beloved by tourists. This particular pueblo blanco, Zahara de la Sierra, is tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountains and overlooked by the Castillo de Zahara de la Sierra. The castle dates back to the Moorish era of Spain. During the early Middle Ages, Spain was inhabited by the Moors, broadly defined as muslims originally from the Maghreb living in southern Europe, who greatly influenced Spanish art and architecture and even language (Andalucia, for example, comes from Al-Andalus) until finally being driven out completely by the 1490s. Very little remains of this once-impressive fortification in the village of Zahara. Today, all that’s left are the vestiges of a few walls and a signal tower, which, once climbed, will provide stunning views of the cheery white-washed walls and orange roofs of Zahara, the azure waters of the local reservoir, the sun-kissed chocolate-coloured fields hugging the village, all the way out to other nearby villages. Though beautiful, it is evident to see why this may not always have been an easy place to live. The castle, and the village below it, is carved into a rugged, rocky outcrop, with heights ranging from 300m to 1100m, and the village’s name “zahara” comes from “sahra” meaning desert. The seemingly-romantic sun-kissed fields, rocky outcrops and windswept panoramas may be seem idyllic today, but life in such a dry and remote place (it’s 100 km from the sea after all) wouldn’t always have been so perfect!
Pro tip: There’s a lovely wee restaurant with a comfortable terrace perfect for people-watching called El Rincon De La Ermita.
One of Robin Hood’s many graves in Yorkshire Dales, England
Northern England is an overlooked, but wonderful place for hiking. The beautiful Yorkshire Dales are an ancient place full of myth and legend – not to mention great beauty. A dale is a British word to describe a valley. Dales pepper the quiet, little-visited regions of northern England where accents are thick, roads are narrow and villages are quaint. It is little wonder that legend and folklore is prevalent in this region. Robin Hood is certainly the best-known tale. No one’s sure of Robin Hood was a real person or not, but he sure does have a lot of graves, with dozens of sites across northern England claiming the honour. This little cairn tucked into a desolate valley in the Yorkshire Dales is just one of many to hold the name. Though Nottingham is the most famous place in Robin Hood ballads, it is generally acknowledged that he was in fact from Yorkshire. The ballads paint him and his merry band of followers like Little John and Friar Tuck as romantic thieves, roaming the countryside in order to steal to steal from the rich to give to the poor. He is said to have died while being bled (a common medieval medical practice) at the Priory of Kirklees. Even though there is still a debate on whether the man really existed, he exists through various place names scattered throughout England, each one claiming something to do with the great legend. Real or not, the story of Robin Hood isn’t going anywhere – and it makes for a great point of interest while hiking the backcountry of Northern England!
Pro tip: When you’re in the area, head to the village of Penrith to stop by Kennedys Fine Chocolates for artesian boxes of chocolates or even just a delicious cup of hot cocoa!
Exploding out of the northeastern corner of Italy, the Dolomites are an offshoot of the Alps Mountains, Europe’s most prominent and iconic mountain range. The Dolomites are named for their substance, known as carbonate rock dolomite, which was so named for the pioneering French mineralogist Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu. Much like the Alps, the Dolomites have long been recognised as a winter destination – particularly for skiing, though also like the Alps, recent times (and global warming) have changed this, turning the mountain range into a dual-season destination. Chair lifts bring snowboarders and skiers up mountains in winter, whereas in summer, the continue functioning, carrying up hikers, mountain bikers and paragliders. In fact, the Dolomites are one of the best places to hike in all of Europe! And then there’s the Sud Tyrol region itself. Strictly speaking, the Dolomites spans across three regions: Trentino, Belluno, and Sud Tyrol. Historically speaking, Sud Tyrol was part of Austria. Then WWI happened, borders were moved, new passports were issued… and now the region is like miniature Austria but in Italy. The residents are bilingual but prefer German, more often choosing to study in Vienna rather than Rome, have names more in Germanic than Italian in origin – even the architecture of the villages themselves look more like Austria than Italy (probably because the Austrians built them…). It is a strange, culturally-diverse corner of Europe perfect for hiking and skiing but also as a cultural experience. Often overlooked, most people don’t even know German-speaking Sud Tyrol exists let alone visit. So, visit the Dolomites for the mountains and also the culture, in summer or winter… just make sure you bring along not one but two dictionaries!
Pro tip: The Dolomites are one of Europe’s most renowned hiking destinations. Be sure you come prepared with sturdy hiking boots and consider either finding a mountain guide, or visiting the local tourism office for best hiking routes.
Other Fascinating & Little-Visited Regions of Europe
Remote, desolate, hauntingly beautiful. The Yorkshire Dales, a protected area and national park in northern England, is a rural place overlooked by modern times. Rambling hills, winding lanes and picturesque villages, the Yorkshire Dales are picture of what England once was before the industrial revolution, mining, suburban sprawl, and Brexit. The Yorkshire Dales are an upland region part of the lovely Pennines – a set of rugged hills and mountains crawling down the centre of England, nicknamed England’s Backbone. The best way to explore the Yorkshire Dales National Park is on foot (or by bike) as to really understand the land, you have to connect with it – walk through the boggy, wet, snowy landscapes, cross paths with woolly sheep, stumble across ancient sites and tuck in at a cosy village pub at the end of your walk. There a plenty of places to hike in the Penines. Check out a few of them here, or strike off the beaten path to discover the wonders of the Yorkshire Dales. The region’s wandering hills, trickling streams, ancient sites, limestone caves, forlorn moors, sweeping vistas and quaint villages will make you fall in love with this desolate but romantic place in a heartbeat.
Pro Tip: The UK’s ‘rights of way’ law allows all hikers and hillwalkers to traverse any private land anywhere in the country, providing you leave no trace and respect the livestock and property. So get your hiking boots on and get walking!
Dusty, quiet, out of the way, the tiny Trakai village would be completely overlooked if not for its spectacular local monument – Trakai Island Castle, a splendid brick teutonic castle constructed on a island in the medieval era. Made up of colourful wooden clapboard houses, quiet tree-lined streets and embraced in a welcomingly fresh air, walking through Trakai village feels like you are exploring the Baltics of Europe behind the scenes, getting a glimpse of where the real people live. But in many ways, Trakai is not a normal place as it is a village that has been constructed and even preserved by an array of different nationality, ethnic groups and cultures. Tatars, Russians, Jews, Karaims (from Turkey), Lithuanians and Jews have – and do – all live here peacefully, rubbing shoulders as their lives quietly overlap. Trakai was once a booming town under Polish then later Lithuanian rule but saw significant decline as Vilnius and Krakow rose in importance. Though a small place today, Trakai has managed to stay significant due to King Gedimas’ lovely castle on the beautiful lake.
Pro tip: While in Trakai, be sure to try kibinai, a savoury pastry brought to the region by the Karaims community. Delicious and filing! Also, Trakai – and the Baltics in general – are a great place to purchase amber jewelry.
Lough Key is the centrepiece of Lough Key Forest Park, located at the heart of rural Co Roscommon, part of a region known as Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands. Woven and crossed with trails, Lough Key Forest Park is the perfect way to visit Ireland’s countryside if you don’t have the time or ability to undertake a wilderness hike, or if you’re looking for family-friendly hiking paths. In the centre of Lough Key – named for an ancient druid called Cé in Irish folklore (folklore attributes the lake as his grave site) – there is a tiny island roughly half an acre. In the centre of Castle Island is… you guessed it, a castle. What we see today is McDermott’s Castle, which is a folly (or ‘fake’ castle) built as a gothic castle in the early 1800s to improve the view, but there’s been one castle or another on Castle Island since the the 12th century. The castle of the island has since been struck by lightning, attacked by fire ships, sieged by raft-mounted catapults, cursed by the Hag of Lough Key and burnt during WWII.
Pro tip: Lough Key is located 2h from Dublin on the Sligo road. Though you can’t really visit the castle (it was sold recently via auction!), there are exquisite grounds for a hike or picnic, as well as the famed puzzle rooms (a bit like an escape room) and a cafe. Keep in mind the car park isn’t free.
Hamlet of Fougères in the Livradois-Forez Regional Park, France
Unlike US national and state parks, French parks are home to more than just animals. Tucked away into the Livradois-Forez Regional Park in the rural yet beautiful region of Auvergne is the tiny hamlet (in French, a ‘lieu-dit’ or a ‘spoken place’) of Fougères, home to less than two dozen people. One of dozens of other such hamlets throughout Livradois-Forez Regional Park and beyond, what makes Fougères special is not so much the place itself as it is the collective co-habitation of people and wilderness in Livradois-Forez. In the USA, national/regional parks and people’s homes are regarded as two separate, un-mixable entities – but in Europe, the story is different. Parks in France, while protected from certain types of development or land-harming actions (like mining, logging, hunting, etc.) can be home to farms, homes, hamlets, villages, as well as forests, rivers, lakes and wildlife. This is seen across Europe in countries such as Italy, Poland, Latvia and beyond. Local people can live in the parks while people from cities or faraway places can visit in order to hike, bike, kayak, canoe, ride horses or camp in the fresh air of the countryside. End result? Perfect harmony. Quick tip – use the medieval village of Olliergues or the quaint town of Ambert (famed for its delicious local cheese of the same name) as a base if you don’t plan to sleep under the stars.
It’s washing day in this quintessential English thatched cottage lost in the English woodland. The air is steeped with the smell of soap and fresh laundry, hung outside to dry outside this cottage on this sunny English day, making you feel as though you’ve fallen into a fairy tale. This magnificent thatched cottage stands in a quiet meadow in the English countryside not far from the quaint but bustling town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Best known for being the birthplace of the great writer William Shakespeare (who did wonders for the English language, by the way; we still use words and phrases coined by him), Stratford-upon-Avon is crossed with medieval streets lined with Tudor houses and never-ending shops, spires of ancient churches and tolling church bells. Avoid the crowds by instead meandering through the brilliant English countryside where you’ll stumble across quiet pastures and thatched cottages. Thatch, once a common roofing material, is rare today, owing to the amount of maintenance required (you must replace it every few years), the overabundance of other roofing materials and the fact that it’s a significant fire hazard. Here though, you’ve stepped straight into a fairy tale. There is something very magical about this cottage in this place – as if fairies or forest nymphs or singing maidens may tumble off the pages of a storybook and come to life here. In this place, wandering these quiet countryside lanes outside of Stratford-upon-Avon, you can see where Shakespeare took his inspiration. Alone on the path by the cottage, you may even expect to meet one of Shakespeare’s colourful characters along the way.
The natural border between the nations of Poland and Slovakia, there are ample opportunities to literally walk across the border while hiking the mountain trails (thanks to the EU, this is all okay). The Tatras are a little-known mountain range in southern Poland, but offer some of the best hiking in Europe. Compared to the Alps, the Tatras may seem small – but they are also a road not taken by many. Zakopane, Poland’s capital of the Tatras, is the busiest town in the region (also known for skiing), but most of this mountain range is woven with rustic trails that meander through quiet forests and quaint villages. The Tatra Mountains eke a sort of majestic silence – hiking through their quiet backcountry transports you to another world where villagers still organise outings to go mushroom-picking, celebrate local traditions, song and dance, and bake traditional dishes with little influence from outside the region. Here, timeless landscapes nearly untouched by modern times abound. The bustling Zakopane is an easy starting from, as it’s the most well-known city in the Tatras, but it’s also the most crowded and least authentic. Consider instead starting from one of the a smaller towns far off the beaten track – one example is the Rajcza, a little south of Bielsko-Biala. Of note, the town of Zywiec (home of Zywiec Brewery) isn’t far. Near Zakopane is the amazing mountain fortress Niedzica Zamek. Small towns like Poronin or Nowy Targ are also lovely! No matter where you head into the Tatra Mountains, you won’t be disappointed; every inch of the Polish and Slovakian Tatras is magical.
Rough and rugged, clinging to a pointed cliff, perchaed atop a low peninsula jutting out into the ocean, Dunnattor Castle is certainly one of the most eye-catching castles of northern Europe. Located on the Scottish Coast near Stonehaven village and south of the sprawling silver metropolis that is Aberdeen, Dunnattor Castle is best approached on foot. Hiking from Stonehaven, take the back alleyways and countryside path that rises behind the village, eventually depositing you in the emerald grass of Scotland’s countryside. Walk between the rolling country hills and sheer coastal drops with fluffy sheep for company, past the Somme War Memorial before turning a bend after about 3 km to see the distant peninsula crowned with its castellated turrets. Dunnattor Castle dates back to the 15th century, and once even hid the Scottish crown jewels from the invading Cromwell army during the 17th century. Take your time exploring the castle as well as its hidden coves and beaches as you listen to the crash of the waves on the foot of the cliff. Whether gazing at this medieval fortress from above or below, it’s clear that it is an extraordinary feat of architectural imagination and engineering!
‘By the wee birchen corries lie patches of green Where gardens and bare-headed bairnies have been, But the huts now are rickles of stone, nettle-grown, And the once human homes, e’en their names are unknown.’
-Anonymous Victorian poet upon looking over nearby Loch Rannoch
Multiple reasons could account for any of the dozens of abandoned settlements in Scotland’s Highlands. Forced evictions, changing economies, harsh living conditions, changes in animal behaviour or soil richness, new weather patterns, or the industrial revolution are but a few. Reasons for this particular settlement’s abandonment are unknown. The trail to Mt Schiehallion (the ‘Fairy Hill of the Caledonians’) which overlooks Loch Rannoch snakes its way up and past this little village – today little more than a picturesque ruin. Though most people amble by it with little more than a quick photo, it serves one to stop and give it a little respect – those little ruins were once someone’s house, and one day, your house may be little more than a pile of rocks. Though sad, such is the way of things. Even buildings have a circle of life.
Mt Schiehallion & Loch Rannoch in the Scottish Highlands
Rugged, rural, isolated, windswept, adventurous. Welcome to the colourful quietness of the Scottish Highlands. Scotland may have some great urban destinations – Edinburgh, Aberdeen, St Andrews to name a few – but this little nation is best personified and identified by its natural facade. The least-dense part of the British Isles (it has a population density of 68 people/km2), Scotland is positively bursting with places to explore wearing a solid pair of boots and a sturdy walking stick – the Hebrides, Orkney Island, the Isle of Skye, Cairgorms National Park, the NW Highlands, to name but a few vast regions. Many places are only accessible on foot (case in point: the rugged Knoydart Peninsula…). Mt Schiehallion, rising above the shores of Loch Rannoch, makes for a spectacular climb with sweeping views over the surrounding countryside. Driving may be a more comfortable way to get around, but by using your own two feet, you’ll discover amazing places you would have missed when whizzing by in a car; you’ll meet local people and perhaps learn a thing or two about the Highlands’ history or culture; you’ll slow down your speed to appreciate being in the moment. But most importantly, by hiking through the Highlands, you’ll experience them the way you were meant to – creating profound connection between you and the land itself.
Rusted rims, broken headlights, faded paint, cracked leather. The sun bathes the ancient automobile (for no other word can describe this masterpiece) in warm, southern light. The backdrop of ancient stone buildings hundreds of years old provides an appropriate setting for such a magnificent historical treasure trove such as this vintage auto. Largentière, a medieval town in the heart of the French region of Ardèche, seems as if it was meant for this car. A stone labyrinth since the 13th century, Largentière was once a thriving industrial towns thanks to mining of silver and lead (hence its name, ‘l’argent’ means ‘silver’ in French) and its prime location along the rails, but the mining has since died down, leading to the closure of its train station. Largentière is a veritable labyrinth of narrow stone streets, overhanging arches, and cobbled alleyways. Artsy and hipster, the village boasts an organic crêpes restaurant, La Rue Crêpanous; a quirky thrift shop called Recycl’arts; Le Goupil, an artisanal hipster beer bar; and a bookshop piled floor to ceiling, Le Voyageur d’Écriture, or ‘the traveller of writing,’ among others. It is a window to another time, or to several other times. Lost in the Ligne Valley in the sunburnt southern landscapes of the south of France, buried in the magnificent Gorges d’Ardèche, this paradisal little village reminds us that what has past is not necessarily lost.
Quiet and rural, this quintessential part of central France’s countryside has changed little over the years. To some, this may seem backwards, but to many, it is reassuring, a quiet escape from the bustle of cities and towns. One of the most rural parts of France (actually in the top 3 most rural French departments), Cantal is known for nature and the cheese it produces (of the same name). Cows outnumber people here. Villages dot the countryside, narrow roads wind themselves through the countryside, circumventing obstacles such as the occasional farmhouse, field, or gnarled tree. Lakes, ponds, and streams provide a cool retreat from the summer heat. In the winter, temperatures drop far below than those of ‘nearby’ cities (a relative term) such as Clermont-Ferrand, Lyon or Dijon. Residents lead a simple life here, and few tourists venture into this rural paradise. Yet those who do come are rewarded with the elegance of relaxation, respite from the high-tech, high-speed urban world. Take a dip in a local lake, go on a hike through silent forests, make furry forest friends, chat with the local farmers, or take a drive through tree-covered roads and take a break from life.
If you’re a wine-lover, you may already know about the Beaujolais – it is a well known wine-producing location in central France. Houses (or manors) like this one are a common occurrence throughout rural France. Unfortunately, due to an interesting combination of high (and complicated) inheritance and habitation taxes, overall elevated French taxes, costly repair bills, enormous amounts of energy needed to heat such buildings, and isolation from cities and towns, manors like the one above are all too often left to live out their long days alone. In the case of this manor, as you can see, there is a perfectly functioning farmhouse less than 100 meters away – and yet the manor remains so empty that even at a distance, one can see through it from one side to the other. To avoid other beautiful buildings suffering the same fate, local economies need to be further stimulated – of which one way is tourism, which brings in people, awareness and money to rural destinations. In any case, the Beaujolais has great wine, beautiful villages, and charming country roads and trails built to hike – and beautiful rural architecture !
One of the most rural regions in France is Cantal, located in the heart of Auvergne, central France. In fact, there are roughly as many people spread out over the Cantal region (147,000) than there are who love in the capital city of Auvergne, Clermont Ferrand (141,500)! Located in a region known for its ‘dead volcanoes’ as the French love to say (so, dormant or extinct), much of what infrastructure that does exist is largely made from a coloured volcanic stone. Roads twist and turn, winding through cheery farms and past pleasant fields. It is a quiet place. This is the place one should come in order to seek solace, to escape from the hustle and bustle of the 21st century. Life is simply slower out here. It is the perfect escape – especially in the summer months, when temperatures are mild, and the water from local lakes and streams is perfect for swimming. Don’t miss out tasting the delicious local Cantal cheese, named after the Cantal Mountains (which give the region its name!). Made with cow milk and aged for 1-6 months, it is one of the oldest cheeses in France – dating all the back to the times of the Gauls. You won’t regret it!
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Italy is the beautiful Aosta Valley, known for its snug villages, magnificent castles and rich red wine. Aosta the town (above) is an ancient Roman stronghold, built as a station on the way to Roman Gaul (modern-day France), and the vestiges of the site’s original inhabitants crop up all over the town from the theatre to the forum to the victory arch. The Medieval era left its mark on the town by way of several magnificent churches, and the more recent times (ie the 17-18oos) have seen the village grow into a burgeoning town. Aosta is both a town and a region seeped in history and lost in time. The 30-31 January they practice the “Sant‘Orsa Fair” festival–with origins so old that no one remembers the actual starting point! Experts age it to about 1000 years old, and today it is an arts and crafts festival, attracting artists, tradesmen and artisans from near and far. And of course, there is the annual Christmas market in December and January, a place to buy all sorts of traditional and handmade gifts, including delicious wine from the region! Aosta makes a great starting point to discover the valley–and for any history/castle buffs out there, it is a valley that needs to be discovered! Dozens upon dozens of castle reign over high heights in one of the most castle-rich part of Italy. For nature buffs, it’s a lovely place to hike, canoe, or kayak. Summer or winter, for leisure or active travel, Roman history or medieval times, little-known Aosta is a your gem.
You know that massive outcropping of stone, forest, and rock that divides France from Switzerland and Italy? Yes, well, that is the infamous French Alps. Mont Blanc, as you are probably aware, is the tallest mountain in Europe, calling in at 4,810 m (or 15,780 ft), first summited in 1786 by Jacques Balmat and Dr Michel Paccard, in effect marking the commencement of modern mountaineering. But enough about that. Contrary to popular belief, the Alps are not just snowy, desolate places where only skiers and the most advanced mountaineers can be found; in fact, much of the alps (in the warmer seasons) looks a lot more like these photos. Fields covered in wildflowers, animals grazing on gentle slopes, footpaths tracing mountainsides with the odd cheerful hiker passing by, here is a different perspective of the Alps. Of course, getting to the summits, even the ones visible in these photos, is still a challenge, involving a scramble, deep concentration, and coordination between all four limbs, but the view is worth it. Whether you prefer to climb the big mountains or the smaller ones (often referred to as the ‘Pre-Alps’), the graceful beauty, intense peacefulness, and stunning views of the French Alps will instil the power of Mother Nature in you. There’s a good chance that you will walk away a changed – and happier – person!
Ah rural Poland. A remote cabin in the woods, sun seeping through the breaks in the trees, leafy green branches clinging to sturdy trunks. A stream trickles along its path, hugging the corner of the wooden cabin. It’s homey, romantic and even desolate all at the same time. The Polish countryside, like much of Central/Eastern Europe, was destroyed and left to be reclaimed by nature after the war. The countryside in Europe varies greatly between regions, but in rural Poland, snug cabins, little wooden farms, grazing livestock and dusty towns are quite common. Typical countryside roads whip ancient, faded cars around farms and over hills, taking drivers on the “scenic route.” Despite limited resources and roundabout roads, rural Europe holds a certain charm. It is here you will find the cheeriest, kindest people. It is here you will bathe in soft sunlight to the chorus of birds while relaxing in mountains, forests and streams. It is here you will feel connected to both nature and the local population at the same time. Wherever you choose to go, don’t hesitate to leave Europe’s great cities behind for a petit sejour in the countryside! Whether searching for solitude, inspiration, relaxation, or a remote romantic getaway, rural Poland will not leave you disappointed.
Under blue skies and over brown earth, crooked trees rise up from a sandy hilltop somewhere deep within the Andalusian region. This southern part of Spain is wild and hilly, rough and desolate. Yet, it has its own type of rugged beauty. Small Pueblos Blancos (White Villages) dot the hills, ancient farms climb the steep hillsides, windy roads wrap themselves around the mountains, narrow streams wiggle through the sands, scraggly trees push up through the dry earth–and over all, the bright Spanish sun shines down over her beautiful realm. Once you arrive in a place like Andalusia, you never want to leave!
Tumbling hazel hills rise and fall along this Spanish road in Spain’s southern-most, most populous, and second-largest region, Andalusia. Blazing hot during the day, chillingly cold during the evening, Andalusia is as bizarre as it is beautiful. While tints of green fleck the landscape (as seen here), there is an overwhelming difference between these rolling hills, and similar such hills just on the other side of the Pyrenees. Andalusia has a rugged sort of beauty that is sometimes difficult to understand at first….but the more time spent in this warm, dry part of southern Spain, the more delicious dishes you try, the more fun, happy Spaniards you meet, the more adorable villages you discover, the more realise there’s no place like Andalusia!
It’s hard to imagine that in 12 days (twelve!), I will be back in Spain – and for the whole summer! Spain is certainly one of those countries that is so…flavourful, so memorable. Memories of Spain do not get jumbled into a pile of “vaguely-European memories;” instead, they stand out, just like this bright orange house in the adorable village of Sagunto, not far from Valencia. Spanish cities are great for the nightlife, but Spanish villages are where you go if you like to eat, drink, take beautiful photos, see ancient buildings, and watch the magnificent sunsets. Sagunto, an ancient Roman city, may not be huge and sprawling, but it creates its own miniature “bustling” world. The people are nice, the weather is great, the beach is close (6km), the beer is cheap, and the views are fantastic – what more could you want?
Zrodełko objawienia (“Spring of Revelations”) near Kluski, Poland
Apparently, this site has been of religious interest for over a 1,000 years, and Christians have been coming here for healing ever since. However, it was only recently that the pope decided it was indeed holy and allowed the building of the stone spring and Mary’s statue (because apparently, we need his permission for that? A Holy Building Permit or something?). Next to the small spring there is a cup, used for dipping into the water in order to drink the magical spring water – which is supposedly capable of healing all wounds. Those healed, or ‘touched by angels,’ leave small angel statues by the spring’s edges, as a way of thanking Mary for her help. People used to gather here once a year, in May, to celebrate the anniversary of the spring’s discovery, but ever since the pope (or his local representative) blessed it and recognised it as holy, they now have much more frequent masses. During the communist rule, they used to take away the angels and the other offerings, since of course, the communists wanted to suppress religion – but the resilient Poles continued to make the pilgrimage to the spring and leave behind the angels anyway, preserving the tradition.
Rather a Winter Wonderland, eh? It’s hard to believe that only two hours west of this snowy landscape, it was already spring–flowers were in full bloom, sunbathers were in the park in dresses and short sleeves, and street vendors were selling sunglasses at an exceptional rate. For a small country, France really does have a lot to offer: the sunny Mediterranean to the south, chic Parisian culture to the north, rolling fields in the centre, magnificent Alps—with magnificent skiing—to the west, not to mention picturesque villages, sprawling metropolis and everything in between. It’s easy to take a break from the city by heading east—you’ll soon find yourself in the mountains surrounded by snow, ice and little wooden chalets. For those of you who love to ski even when the weather is getting warmer, never fear—there’s always the Alps. And the pre-alps. And the countryside in general. France has an enormous skiing culture—you may even call it an obsession—that seems to be as integral to the country’s cultural identity as baguettes, public murals, turreted chateaus, sprawling vineyards and blocks of cheese.
If you’re not fascinated by castles and cathedrals, stop reading right now. Because to me, there are few things more amazing than the sheer force it took to quarry the stone, carry it away, carve it into all manner of shapes, execute a building plan that won’t fall down, lift the stones up to actually construct the building, create a building using little more than manpower and pulley systems, then adorn it with intricately carved statues and carvings. All before the age of machinery, calculators, computers, factories, electricity, or even indoor plumbing and heating. And the fact that so many of these structures still exist–and you can even go inside them!–is, well, mindblowing. Today, we rarely build things to last, and we also rarely think about the aesthetics of what we are building. In fact, buildings are often put up knowing that they will be pulled down in 10 years’ time. When I was travelling through Alsace via TGV–a lovely way to travel–castle after castle after church after church rose up from the French hillsides to scratch the sky. I don’t know their names and I doubt I ever will, but it’s reassuring that at one point, people cared so much about the things that they were building that they built them to last 800 years. Not only are they still usable today, but their designs are still inspirational and sensational and admired. It’s sad that some of them just sit by the roadside, but it does make for a pleasurable “I spy” game while chugging through the French countryside.