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 instill 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.
I wasn’t prepared for how green France was going to be. When one thinks of “green” and “Europe” in the same sentence, it’s usually followed by “Ireland” or “England.” France doesn’t often come to mind. When it comes to French nature, it’s white we think of…all those pretty alpine mountains. And of course, French cities, are, well, cities. So sitting at a café in Paris or at a bouchon (local restaurant) in Lyon, green isn’t something you’ll see much of. And yet, especially in the north and central départements, you step away from the cobblestones, restaurants, cafés and pretty buildings into the true countryside, and suddenly, the world goes green. Interestingly enough, Lyon (about 30 km from Tarare), has an annual average rainfall of 32.8 inches per month (according to this site), while England has an annual average rainfall of 33.7 inches per month (so say wikipedia). So–not such different numbers. France is prettily green…and proud of it!