One of the many murals of Belfast, Northern Ireland
Belfast is known for a lot of things. It’s known for struggles, religious and political unrest, even for terror. But a lot has changed in recent years. Belfast has become a cosmopolitan hub, with an up-and-coming foodie scene that surpasses Dublin and rivals other European capitals. It’s a quirky place where art meets urban life in the best possible ways. For one, there are the Peace Walls. Massive walls that divides the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods, Peace Walls were constructed to protect each side from the other but at the end of the day, it is a barrier through the middle of the city dividing the two sides (not unlike the Berlin Wallonce did). Today the wall is still there and the sides are still divided but the wall is now a Peace Wall, full of thousands of messages of hope and courage written by residents and visitors alike, and the two sides have come together much more. But that’s not the only wall in Belfast. The city of Belfast is full of murals. Some are well known, others aren’t. Some are religious or political, some are artistic. Some are massive, others small. The above mural is one of the many one finds in the city centre, ‘neutral’ territory where both Protestants (aka unionists) and Catholics (aka republicans) rub shoulders. Belfast is still a divided city, and though on the island of Ireland, it resembles England far more than Ireland (in regards to architecture, way of life, fashions, shop brands…). Yet despite this – or perhaps because of this – it is a fascinating place to visit. Particularly the murals!
Other Fascinating Sites to Visit in Ireland (North & South)
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!
Other Fascinating & Little-Visited Regions of Europe
Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon in Ohrid, Macedonia
The Jewel of the Balkins, Ohrid lays on the edge of Lake Ohrid. From Romans to Ottomans, from Byzantines to Yugoslavs, Ohrid is a place comprised of historic layers, each foundation mixed with that of the one that came before. This Orthodox basilica, the Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon, was reconstructed in Byzantine style in 2002, on an ancient site where the original students learned the Glagolitic alphabet, which was created by Saint Clement (used to translate the Bible into Old Slavonic, the predecessor to the Cyrillic alphabet). The original church was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire before eventually being torn down. Later, thanks to the Macedonian government’s newfound interest in historical monuments and tourism, they used what they knew of the original church to rebuild the basilica in all its former glory. At last.
Visit Other Lesser-Known Churches & Cathedrals in Europe
Macedonia is a place few Europe-travellers venture. Steeped in history flowing from its most famous inhabitant, Alexander the Great, Macedonia has been at a crossroads for many great civilisations – Greek, Roman, Byzantium, Ottoman. Each empire wrote its own history into the seams of Macedonia, apparent from its ample mosques, Byzantine basilicas, Roman amphitheatres, and winding alleys leading to the shores of Lake Ohrid. The lake is one of the deepest and oldest lakes in Europe, giving shelter to a unique underwater ecosystem, and the town that sits on its shores is even more unique. Taste the thick, Turkish coffee, quench your thirst with a glass of cold spritz or savour a shish kabab, skewers of mouth-watering meat and vegetables grilled to perfection. The narrow, ancient streets curve through the town and up the hill, and it seems like the further up you go, the further back in time you travel. Enjoy the Mediterranean climate as you explore this town lost in time.
The origin of the name la Petite France, has a less-than-lovely origin – it comes from the Hospice des Vérolés (House for the syphilitic) which during the German occupation was called Franzosenkrankheit (French disease). While the name’s origins may not be charming, the alleyways, canals and houses most certainly are charming! Alsace, the region of France where Strasbourg is located, has a complicated history, flashing back and forth between France and Germany for much of it’s past. In the Middle Ages, la Petite France was the economic centre of the city, and Strasbourg as the region’s most important city. La Petite France once comprised of many merchants, millers, tanners, fishermen and other tradesmen and artisans. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, la Petite France (‘little France’) seduces history, culture and architecture buffs with its quintessential streets, half-timbered architecture, colourful houses, quiet riverbank, and charming shops. At Christmastime, the Strasbourg Christmas Market is one of the most famous in Europe and is generally agreed upon to be the best Christmas market in France. Hot wine, sausages, and sauerkraut are local favourites – especially when the weather turns cold! The impressive Strasbourg Cathedral was the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874 (so, for 227 years!), and today, it remains the 6th-tallest church in the world. It is the sandstone from nearby Vosges that gives the cathedral its unique pinkish hue.
Sunset cascades over the little medieval village tucked into the heart of the Gorges de l’Ardèche, nicknamed by the locals the ‘European Grand Canyon.’ The 30-km long canyon runs from the tourist hotspot Vallon-Pont-d’Arc to the less-well-known Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche. The village of Balazuc is listed on the ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France‘ (along with Pérouges and St Guilhiem-le-Désert) – as it should be. The village hugs the edge of the steep hill as narrow medieval alleyways weave and climb the hill’s slope from the shores of Ardèche River up to Balazuc’s castle. Cobblestone alleys meander through ancient dwellings, passing through echoing tunnels, climbing up uneven staircases. Well-worn steps lead up to the top of some of Balazuc’s buildings, affording breathtaking views over the clay roofs, the Ardèche River, and the Gorges themselves. In Balazuc, it’s easy to peel away the centuries to another era – all the while enjoying the creature comforts of our own!
In solidarity with the Germans after last night’s attack, I present you with a piece of the Berlin Wall, an item that, while in the beginning represented intolerance, fear and division, today represents love, hope, and tolerance. The East Side Gallery, as mentioned before, is the largest open-air art gallery in the world, and the pieces that remain are there to make sure that we never forget or make the same mistakes again. While this world is unfortunately becoming smaller, more exclusive and more prejudiced, there is still hope that the vision that inspired the East Side Gallery and other similar works of art in Germany and throughout the world, will continue to spread their message. Tourism only works if people are willing to understand and learn about other cultures and traditions. In an ideal world, this would mean letting the best traits from cultures influence each other, and eliminating the worst, least-tolerant traits. As the Wall suggests, dividing each other – whether by a physical barrier or by a cultural one – is an answer doomed to fail. Instead, the Berlin Wall suggests that understanding, hope and acceptance is the way to move forward in this modern era, for both tourism and all other manners of international interactions.
The golden sun touches down on the sunburnt region of Andalucía. Adorable pueblos blancos – or white villages due to their white-washed appearance – dot the landscape among scattered scrub bushes clinging to the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains. Grazalama, like the previously mentioned Zahara de la Sierra, is one of these such ‘white villages.’ Quaint yet lively, Grazalama – like the majority of the pueblos blancos – emits the true spirit of the region: local tradition seeped with food, drink, dance and merriment. Here, take a step back in time to forgotten generation. Take a step away from the glitz and glam of modern, fast-paced European cities like Madrid and London, Paris and Oslo. Instead, take a moment to relax under the warm Spanish sun with a cold cerveza in hand, plates of tapas – fresh seafood, various types of pork, local veggies, to-die-for olives, you name it – in front of you, while the sounds of upbeat Spanish music make your feet try to dance. Your chosen restaurant is located in a building older than your great-grandmother. Miniature shops selling local wares line the square. People chat happily away in rapid-fire Spanish in animated conversations necessitating many hand-gestures. Glasses clink, bells toll, and smells of something savoury waft from the kitchens. As the setting sun warms your back, you realise you found a miniature paradise deep in the heart of Andalucía.
A Polish wedding is one experience not to miss in Europe. In fact, one of the best things about a Polish marriage is that anyone can participate, in a way. Obviously, being a very Catholic country (arguably the most Catholic country in Europe…), there is a traditional church service, and like all Western weddings, there is a reception afterwards in another venue where the guests eat, drink and be merry. But what’s fun is that in between these two events, the bride and groom walk around town with their entourage, in order to take photos but also in order to let the whole town see them in their wedding finery and offer their congratulations. This particular wedding was in Kazimierez Dolny, a beautifully preserved Medieval town about 2.5 hours east from Warsaw. Untouched by the wars that plagued most of Poland, Kazimierez still has cobbled streets, Polish Mannerist facades, Gothic churches, a colourful rynek (main square), vibrant parks, a tree-lined riverbank, and a crumbling castle up on the hill. For these reasons, it has attracted all manner of artists and artisans. The main square is full of paintings, drawings, sculptures, baskets, food products, jewelry and other handmade crafts for sale. The artists and artisans themselves chat and joke with each other, the tourists wander by with their cameras, children play with a football in a corner of the square, and the terraces are full of people drinking coffees or beers. But as the starry-eyed newlyweds walk by, everyone stops what they are doing to take a minute to cheer them by.
Russia does not have the best reputation in the world–and Vladimir Putin is not helping. The current conflict, mingled with the administrative difficulties in visiting Russia is a crying shame because St Pete was once one of Europe’s–and the world’s–top cultural centers. And it still could be, if only they’d let it shine they way it is meant to! The Trinity Cathedral with its beautiful blue domes is only one of many, many beautiful buildings found in Russia’s centre of culture. You can wander the streets all day and STILL find beautiful buildings and elegant boulevards and magical cathedrals, even far from the centre. Aside from Paris and a few other large (and lucky!) European cities, most of the continent’s finest cities lose some of their splendor a short walk from the centre. Here, the beauty lives on. Not only that, but the city is alive with bustling streets interspersed with peaceful parks, busy churches with weddings spilling out on their lawns, cafes and restaurants bubbling over with charm and vivacity. The Russians are stereotyped as cold and hard and rude, and while that may be true of the lady selling metro tickets (but let’s admit, anyone forced to spend uninterrupted hours in a tiny box underground making repeated sales would be a bit charmless), once you get past that hard exterior, the Russians can be quite fun, certainly hilarious, and even adventurous (or is that recklessness?). No matter; a sojourn to discover Europe’s finest art, cultural and religious centers cannot be complete without a visit to St Pete. It is hands-down one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. And as a teensy tip–one can avoid the tedious visa process by visiting on a designated tour (usually by cruise) for up to 72 hours without a visa.
Often, the most arresting part of a small village is the church spire–which holds an even more special charm when it rises against the backdrop of a dramatic mountain range. Italy in particular is linked with a supposed record-high church attendance–though in actuality, only 31% of the country (in 2004) attends mass on a regular basis; Poland nails first place, with a winning 54% in the same year. According to this article, the head of the Catholic Church so often associated with reverence and faith actually has a lot less churchgoers than the 50% they’ve traditionally claimed, with regular attendee percentages even less than the stated 31%. But regardless of all this, Italy (like most of the continent), has no shortage of churches. Every village has one, and the rest of the town center and little houses spiral outward around it. In large towns, there are more than one; there are big ones and small ones, stone ones and wood ones, plain ones and pretty ones, famous ones and unknown ones. Churches–no matter your faith–are places of devotion, of tranquility, of architectural splendour. Even if you aren’t interested in the religious part, they are magical, beautiful and graceful buildings full of history and culture and faith, and one can’t ignore the allure and sheer power these steeple-ed buildings hold over us travelers!
Neue Burg section of the Hofburg Palace, Vienna, Austria
Vienna is certainly one of Europe’s grandest cities. Tracing centuries of history along Vienna’s Ringstraße makes one feel awe-inspired and breathless amongst all of the elegant buildings, grand churches, beautiful opera houses and theatres, and never-ending palaces. In fact, it seems as if the city is nothing but palaces! The Hofburg Palace, along with the Belvedere and Schönbrunn makes up the three most famous palaces of Vienna. The Hofburg has housed some of the most powerful people in Europe and it has been in governmental use since 1279. The Palace was the centre of the Habsburg dynasty, (the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and from 1438 to 1583 and from 1612 to 1806, it housed the Holy Roman Empire. It continued to be the home of the Emperor of Austria until 1918 and currently serves as the official residence of the Austrian President, Heinz Fischer. Over the years, it has been expanded and re-worked and rebuilt. Bits have been added; other additions have been planned but never came to light. Vienna, lovely and beautiful Vienna, is in so many ways the heart of Europe. It is in almost exactly in the geographical centre of the continent, it has housed many important governments, it has produced, hosted or inspired many of Europe’s important peoples, it is–and has been for some time–one of Europe’s biggest cultural hubs especially when it comes to classical music, and it serves as the gateway between Western and Eastern Europe. With this beautiful, moonlit Hofburg at its governmental centre, Vienna truly holds Europe’s vibrant, beating heart.