The tiny French village of Balazuc snuggled deep within the timeless county of Ardèche is a place you go to lose yourself in another era, another way of life. Sun kissed hills are woven with ancient villages, a patchwork of medieval architecture fused seamlessly with the brown earth and golden fields of southern France. Balazuc is one of such places. A veritable labyrinth built of golden stone, the village’s narrow alleys wind up and down, dipping half-underground, through other buildings, around and through the hills in a completely random and at times mysterious manner. Hole-in-the-wall cafes dot the facades, and a hilltop castle and church duo seem to be trying to outdo one another. To access the steep hilltop village, one must first cross a surprisingly high bridge over the Ardèche River – not a bad place for a quick dip! And just a stone’s throw away is the equally-beautiful and heart-throbbingly medieval village of Largentière as well as the ever-impressive Gorges d’Ardeche. Get ready for a coup de foudre – French for love at first sight!
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.
Copenhagen is not a city that is afraid to be colourful. The Danes regularly rate themselves as one of the happiest populations across the globe, and though you’d have a hard time believing that from a window into Danish daily life or accidentally falling upon a Nordic Noir TV series or film (like The Bridge, The Killing or Borgen), a walk through the bright, clean and colourful streets of Copenhagen should change your mind. Copenhagen is one of Europe’s cleanest cities (an actual fact), and though the Danish capital’s inhabitants may seem somewhat dispassionate at times, their city shows their true colours – literally. Street upon street of vibrant facades traverse the capital, from the imperial King’s Garden to the hippie Christiana to the chic Nyhavn; the city ekes colour and vivacity. The secret to life in Denmark is simplicity – without making a ruckus, the Danes quietly make the most of everything in life. YOLO stands for ‘you only live once’ – but is that true? To quote a line from the novel, the Secret Diary of Hendrick Groen, 83 Years Old: “You only die once but you live everyday.” Instead of going about life with the too-vivid enthusiasm of the Spanish, the fast-paced lifestyle of the Italians or the pompous culinary pride of the French, the Danish prefer to enjoy life’s simple pleasures and daily joys with a subtle but unwavering and unquestioning contentedness – a feat that they do remarkably well. And a feat we could all learn from.
Chateau de Chambord, France as Seen From Across the Moat
As the most expansive and over-the-top chateau in the Loire Valley and among the most excessive of Europe, Chateau de Chambord is certainly the crowning jewel of the already castle-laden Loire Valley. Known for its rich (and royal or at least very noble) castles, the Loire Valley is full of lavish summer residences – the Chateau de Chambord is no exception. Built in 1547 in the extravagant French Renaissance style (a style which was, by definition, extremely extravagant), it was constructed for King Francis I of France as a hunting lodge, it was though never finished. Among the many distinguished guests who stayed there, the most important was Leonardo da Vinci, and it is to him that we attribute (though without proof) the chateau’s unique and fascinating double-helix staircase – i.e. two intertwined, parallel staircases that twist upwards around each other but never touch. 16th-century chateaux are in many ways faux chateaux. Architects used basic designs of castles – like moats, towers, turrets, crinolines, keeps, drawbridges, etc. – but they were never meant to be defensive, and indeed weaponry and war in this era had changed so dramatically that castles were of less use in combat (to be fair, most of Europe had settled down a bit to form some degree of stability, at least from one region to another, though there were exceptions like the French Revolution). If boiled down, Chambord is really composed of a central keep and four massive bastion towers, connected by high walls; the rest is elaborate design. Chambord is best visited in conjunction with other Loire Valley Chateaux like the Chateau de Chenanceau for example – try driving from one to the next, or if you’re feeling adventurous, consider biking from chateaux – the castles are close enough together to make this a relatively a feasible task!
Are you looking for off-the-beaten-path France? You just found it. The St Cyr Hermitage, perched on the hilltop Mont Cindre above the little village of St Cyr-au-Mont-d’Or about 30 minutes from Lyon, is hard to locate, or even learn about in English. Founded by a monk from the nearby once-powerful monastery, L’Ile Barbe (on the northern outskirts of Lyon) some 650 years ago, St Cyr is composed of les pierres dorées or ‘golden stones’ found in this region of the Beaujolais. It is a place of rest, tranquility and repose, on the outskirts of the world. Because of the altitude, the monk of the hermitage can overlook the rivers Rhone and Saone, the city of Lyon, mountains of the Alps and even the summits of Mont Blanc on a clear day. With little to no architectural training, the hermit’s chapel, garden and dormitory is a creative and innovative mess of stones of all shapes, sizes and textures. Hand-carved statues, arches and other decorations abound, making the heritage feel like a surreal art project from another century. There are two ways to get there. One is via the village St Cyr: simply go upwards towards the tower, and follow the signs. The other, more adventurous way is walk up the trail: from St Cyr, head up Rue Fouilloux and pick up the trail head on your right: Sentier de Puits des Vignes, leading to a right on Montee du Grimpillon, and a left on Chemin Vial until the crosses of the hermitage rise above your head. The hermitage is only open for limited hours during the summer.
Normally, the clock strikes noon with a chime or a tock. But in Poznan’s town hall, the clock strikes noon with a bugle call and a fanciful display of head-butting goats (hence the playful colours chosen for the photo). Ok, what’s going on? To understand this display, we must first take a step back. Poznan is a mid-size Polish town half-way between the capital (Warsaw) and the German frontier. The town hall was originally constructed around 1300, and suffered fires, lighting strikes, major reconstructions, and more. The goats and bugle came into being in the 1550s, each supported by their own legend. Legend has it that the lord of the voivde’s cook (a county or province) burnt the venison and tried to rectify (or hide!) this mistake by replacing it with a stolen pair of goats. The goats being, well, goats, escaped and climbed the layered facade of the town hall, where they provided comic relief for the whole town (including the banquet guests). The spectacle was so well received that the lord pardoned the cook and commissioned the clock. As for the bugle element, legend has it that a boy found an injured crow in the tower and nursed it back to health. It transformed into a gnome (welcome to Polish folklore…!), gave him a magical trumpet and told him to play it in times of need. Many years later, the boy was now the town trumpeter, and witnessed an invading army, so he blew his magic trumpet, and an army of crows swooped in and got rid of the army. So they added a bugle to the goats’ display (not unlike the story of Krakow’s trumpeter). The legends may only be stories but the clock itself is quite real, and the stories themselves are well embedded into local culture – well worth the trip to this quietly vibrant Polish city.
Deep in the French Alps, the ancient town of Annecy sits along the picturesque shores of Lac d’Annecy. At the heart of Annecy, at the intersection of the River Thiou and the city’s scenic, all-important canals, is the Palais de l’Ile, an impressive 12th-century building. Shaped like the prow of a ship setting sail, the Palais started out as a prison, became a coin mint, was transformed into a courthouse, housed the Presidial Council of the Province Genevois, and became military barracks. Today, it is a museum, though it is certainly more intriguing and alluring from the exterior. In a way, the Palais de l’Ile is the keystone of Annecy – the stone that holds the rest of the city’s splendour together. And what a beautiful city it is! Annecy is full of colourful facades, glittering canals, glowing lamps, bright plazas, cheerful terrace cafes, and arching bridges. It is often called the Pearl of the Alps, and any visitor to its streets, canals or lake will know that it certainly deserves its title.
Moscow has one of the most beautiful and historic metro systems of the world – certainly Europe in any case – and the looped, Soviet-era Koltsevaya Line right in the centre is the jewel. Novoslobodskaya Station is one of 12 stations, each known for their elaborate decor (the best generally considered to be Komsomolskya Station). These luxurious underground art exhibits, built as “palaces for the people” were designed to awe and inspire Stalin’s subjects, constantly keeping them looking upwards in admiration of the Soviet Union. Interestingly enough, the Novoslobodskaya Station, composed of 32 glass panels supposedly symbolising peace, were created by a group of artists from Latvia, not Russia at all. At the height of Stalinist Architecture, top architects were designing an intricate network of criss-crossing metro lines – with no circle Koltsevaya Line intended. Urban legend has it that the Koltsevaya Line was built when Stalin set down his coffee cup on the plans leaving a circular stain, and the builders were too nervous to ask if he meant to put the ring there, so they built the line. That same legend claims this is the reason the line’s colour is brown. Story or no, the Koltsevaya Line circulates central Moscow and hides some of the most beautiful architecture in Moscow below the millions of feet that walk above these underground museums every day.
Other Beautiful Places in Russia – St Petersburg & Moscow
Red brick towers peek out of the forest to climb their way towards the heavens. Turaida Castle, a little-known medieval fortress erected in the early 12th century, is a Latvian national treasure, to the degree that when the castle was left to be reclaimed by Mother Nature, the Latvians pumped finances into saving it. A Teutonic castle made of red brick much like Poland’s immense Zamek Malbork, the crumbling Teutonic Turon Castle in central Poland or even Lithuania’s island fortress Trakai, Turaida Castle itself seems as if it was pulled out of a magical storybook and nestled into the forgotten woods of the Gauja River Valley deep within Latvia. Reached either by winding backroads or by a combination of foot and cable car through the quiet Latvian forest, the castle is set in one of Lativa’s most incredible backdrops. Turaida Castle was the home of the lovely Rose of Turaida, a love story with a not-so-happy ending. While the castle itself evokes thoughts of knights and princesses and dragons, a hike through the surrounding valley with the enchanted castle looming in the distance is one memory you will never forget.
More Amazing and Beautiful Castles in Eastern Europe
The Roman city of Nîmes has been a splendid city in the south of France for thousands of years. Known for its chic boutiques, terrific Roman ruins (including the amazing Roman Arena), and mild Mediterranean climate, Nîmes has long been regarded as one of France’s most beautiful cities – and best-kept secrets of France’s Languedoc-Roussillon/Midi-Pyrenees region. But not all of Nîmes is ancient. The Romans built a spring (the Spring of Nemo) and decorated it with a temple (now gone). But in the 1700s, the growing city needed a better source of safe drinking water, and therefore opted to construct a network of canals. Ulterior motives included powering Nîmes’ mills to sustain its’ top-ranking position in the textile industry as well as the indigo dying industry for a new product, serge de Nîmes, better known today as denim (from the French, ‘de’ or ‘from’ Nîmes; indeed, thank Nîmes for your jeans!). The project became a grand affair, and included a beautiful park laced with ornate statues, exotic gardens, and of course, the wide, boulevardesque canals. They were the first gardens in France created for the benefit of the public, not royalty. Today’s visitors to Nîmes who wander the park and the canals will still feel the glamour and elegance that exudes off these complex and orate 18th century creations, so important to the Nîmois.
Few places can supersede Vienna for splendour or elegance, and one of reasons for this comes in the shape of the splendid Belvedere Palace. Baroque to the core, the massive estate comprises of the Upper and Lower buildings, the Orangery, the Old Stables, the beautiful jardins francais modelled on Versailles and many intertwining paths amongst the flower beds, marble sculptures, tree-lined paths. In a way, we can thank the Ottoman Empire for this marble monument: the Belvedere was built during a period of renewed construction by the Hapsburg family after the successful end to the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire into Central Europe. Much like the Belevedere, the city of Vienna itself isa work of marble and art: from the soaring grey towers of St Stephen’s Cathedral to the massive Staatsoper opera house, from the seat of power at the Hofburg Palace to the many marble and bronze statues scattered around the broad avenues and finally to the many cafes that have made this city famous. Walking Vienna’s avenues and boulevards and gardens is like visiting a living museum, one dedicated to Baroque and Art Nouveau and Gothic styles. From the historic extravagance of the cafes to the vast grandeur of the palaces, Vienna will make you feel like royalty in another era.
Feel like writing a limerick? Or perhaps just visit the city of the same name! The name of the 5-line poetry form is generally accepted to come from this city in western Ireland. Tracing its routes back to Viking times – in fact, cities didn’t exist in Ireland until the Vikings founded them – Limerick doesn’t feel like a city with ancient roots. Once a prominent port city and industrial hub, Limerick sports a lot of brick and concrete. Walking the streets of Limerick actually feels similar to wandering around Boston or any other New England city; it’s not hard to see where the new US immigrants found their architectural inspiration! Don’t let the brick facade fool you though – quirky, bright-coloured doors spice up townhouse facades, charming restaurants line the city centre, shaded parks dot the city squares, and a wide promenade hugs the river, ideal for strolling, relaxing and enjoying the sun (when it’s out!). The ruins of King John’s Castle cling to the river banks, and vivid flowers peak out from every corner. Despite the large size of the city, the people are pleasant and cheerful, always making time to stop for a quick chat – acting much like you’d expect small-town residents to act! Ireland’s 3rd-largest city buzzes with life in a way that is ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. When in the region, take time to visit the nearby Curraghchase Manor Ruins & Forest Park, a great way to get out of the city.
Hans Christian Andersen remains one of the Danish capital’s most famed residents. And, as we all know, Andersen is the author of the famous tale, the Little Mermaid (in Danish: Den Lille Havfrue). The Disney version softens it up a bit, but in the much darker original fairy tale, the poor mermaid feels like she is walking on nails every time she takes a step, looses her tongue rather than an incarnation of her voice, the prince never knows it was her who rescued him and marries someone else, nearly kills the prince and princess on their honeymoon in order to become a mermaid once more, and at the end she dies of a broken heart and is transformed to sea foam. Ouch. Little in common with the Disney tale. Yet, people still make the quasi-mandatory pilgrimage upriver to pay homage to the lost little mermaid. Created in 1913, the small, unassuming statue was commissioned by the son of the founder of beer empire, Carlsberg, after becoming obsessed with a ballet of the Little Mermaid – even going so far as to use the lead ballerina (Ellen Price) as the model for the sculpture! Though the story is sad, in a way, the Little Mermaid lives on in her role of iconising her city of Copenhagen. While visiting Copenhagen, visit the ritzy Nyhavn for restaurants, the regal Rosenberg Palace in the central park, and the Svenska Gustafskyrkan Church, not far from the Mermaid herself.
The Middle Ages left their architectural mark well and good on France. One of the many examples is the charming village of Olliergues, located in the rural and forgotten region of Auvergne, in the very centre of France. Surrounded by a crown of volcanoes, Olliergues is snuggled into the rolling green countryside, far from the ritz and glam of the modern world. Here, lives are lived much as they’ve always been. Villagers get their bread from the local boulangerie every morning, they drink their coffees in the cafes, they work in the fields or the little commerces. Children are walked to school. A dog barks, a cat streaks by. Here, tucked away in one of the most rural counties in France – and one of the most rural parts of that county – life is quieter, calmer. It is a good place to go to lose yourself. In the heart of the Livradois Forez Regional Natural Park, a huge chunk of protected woodland, farmland, and tiny communes (roughly 150), Olliergues is a good base for hiking, biking and other outdoors sports. Though the village has few eateries, there are plenty of places in the nearby (but far less beautiful!) town of Courpière – one of the best for tasty, local mountain cuisine is a little family-owned place, La Cave a Juliette. While in Auvergne, check out the beautiful Chateau de la Batisse, the more rugged Chateau de Murol, or the village known for its famous cheese, St Nectaire.
‘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.
More than 100 kilometres (60+ miles!) snake their way in, around, and through the historic city of Amsterdam. Known throughout the world for hookers and weed, there is far more to this city than just that. Amsterdam is one of Europe’s great capitals and it isn’t afraid to show it. It is made up of 100+ kilometres of canals, 90+ islands, 1,500+ bridges and countless of the famed Hanseatic facades. Its geography means that it is a compact city – growing up rather than out. When people move into the upper floors of apartments, it’s usually easier to carry large furniture up through the window via a crane rather than up the winding, narrow staircases. Yes, many people come here for the Red Lights and the weed cafes, but if you can pull yourself away, go for an evening stroll through the backstreets and back canals – there, you will see the ‘real’ Amsterdam, the behind-the-curtain Amsterdam. Catch a glimpse of what the city really is – a work of art created and constructed around miles of glittering and glimmering canals.
Sometimes you just need a place to cheer you up – something that the city of Wrocław (pronounced Vraat-swauve), snuggled in the southwestern corner of Poland, does quite easily. From the circular, room-sized painting of the Battle of Racławicka to the colourful city squares to the funny little gnome statues hidden around town to the cheery student dive bars, Wrocław is one of Poland’s most enjoyable cities where fun and beauty are the currency. One of Poland’s biggest student cities, Wrocław is a city where anything goes. Enjoy the view of Ostrow Trumski, the cathedral complex on the other side of the Odra River before joining the innumerable number of students in the city’s parks and terraces for a cold beer and an afternoon picnic.
The Arena in the centre of Nîmes (formally Nemausus) is one of those places that is both beautiful and terrifying. Built in 70 AD, the Arena is one of the first things you come face to face with when arriving in Nîmes. Despite being destroyed in 737 by angry Franks, the completely round building with windows and doors all intact, is beautiful today thanks to a refurbishment in 1863. Once upon a time, the amphitheatre was fortified by the Visgoths, then the viscounts of Nîmes actually built a fortified castle inside its walls, and then a small neighbourhood was built inside the half-ruined building (complete with two chapels and 100 inhabitants!) – talk about reuse and recycle! But since the mid 1800’s when the ‘neighbourhood’ was removed and the amphitheatre restored, the beautiful Arena has sadly been used for bullfighting, with two fights held every year. Despite this unfortunate choice in repurposing (bull fighting, though a closely-held cultural tradition in southwestern France and throughout Spain, is a cruel game that is unjust to the animals forced to participate), the Arena is still one of the most beautiful examples of the Roman reach in what was once the region of Gaul, of the Roman Empire, more 2,000 years ago. While in the region, don’t miss out on the nearby Pont du Gard, an aqueduct bridge part of the Nîmes aqueduct, a 50-kilometre (31 mile) structure to carry water from Uzes to Nîmes (built 1st century AD).
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.
Hamlet near Valnontey in the Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy
This nameless place is barely a place at all. A collection of less than 10 buildings, this hamlet is snuggled deep within the majestic Valley of Valnontey on the French-Italian border. From October to March, the hamlet is buried under heaps of snow, and closed in on either side by the steep valley walls. There is no running water here, nor is there electricity. In winter, the only access is by cross country skiing (the area is beloved for the sport) or snow shoe. The village of Valmontey is the closest civilisation, and it’s still a couple of kilometres away – at least 30 minutes by snowshoe. And Valmontey is by no means large: it has a couple of restaurants, a hotel or two, a old church, and a shop – all very weather-dependant. Aosta, for which the greater Aosta Valley is named, is further 60 minutes by car down the narrow mountain track, if the weather is good. If the weather isn’t good, get comfortable, because you aren’y going anywhere. The villages and hamlets of Gran Paradiso are the kind of place people go to get off the beaten track. Hard to access, remote, rustic, and removed from civilisation, the people of this valley live side by side with mother nature. Deep in the Gran Paradiso National Park, the Valley of Valmontey is alive with wildlife – birds, foxes and most famously, the ibex – a deer-like animal topped with corkscrew antlers. The air is clean and pure. The modern world feels very far away. But amongst the charming wooden chalets – many built by hand – it doesn’t take long to feel right at home.