The crisp, cool air flows through the ancient alleyways of Vilnius on this winter’s day in this little Baltic nation. Little streets criss-cross Lithuania’s capital city, creating a maze of quiet streets largely ignored by the jet-setting tourists partying in the centre. This elderly gentleman walks his dog along the outside of the ancient stone wall that once surrounded and protected Vilnius from the outside world, the narrow track between the wall and the row of houses serving as a quiet pedestrian route. Despite being Lithuania’s largest city – and the Baltic State’s second-largest city – once you leave the bustling centre to weave the winding network of streets, alleys, and rivers (the broad Neris and the easy-going Vilnia both flow through the capital), Vilnius adopts a surprisingly small-town feel. Charming facades, orthodox churches painted in pastels, quiet riverside promenades and echoing cobblestone alleys are frequented largely by locals, creating a calm but cheerful atmosphere that mixes small-town ease with the vivacity of a European capital – a mix that is hard to find in most of Europe’s capitals and major cities.
The most magical part of the day is sunrise. Some will argue that it is actually sunset, and while a sunset is beautiful in itself, sunrises often exude more beauty simply because, like a leprechaun, they are so rarely seen. If you can rouse yourself from bed at least once while travelling – or if you are required to due to an early bus/train/plane departure – take a few minutes to appreciate the soft, glowing light at the start of another day. The best way to do that is to find a place where you can sit down and enjoy the rising sun – a hilltop, your balcony, a local lake or river, a charming cafe, or in this case the market square. Settle down with a steaming cup o’ joe and a tasty local breakfast as you watch the world come to life. In Wrocław, enjoy the stunning colours, silent air, soft light and intricate facades of the spacious rynek (main square) before the day’s crowds begin to fill the plaza. One of Poland’s most spectacular cities, Wroclaw does not lack for attractions – aside from the rynek, visit pretty Ostrow Tumski or Cathedral Island, the adorable gnome statues scattered around the city, the stunning circular Racławice Panorama (a 19th century panoramic depiction of the Kościuszko Uprising, miraculously hidden and saved during WWII), the massive pile of stone that is Centennial Hall (a UNESCO site), and any one of the number of snazzy restaurants and bars in the city centre, many of them inspired by the dense student population. As an added bonus, as the year draws to a close, it’s your last chance to visit Wrocław while it is an official 2016 European Capital of Culture (which is not to say that a 2017 visit won’t be just as amazing…). While seeing Wrocław at sunrise is enchanting, the city will continue to enchant you all day long!
Is that…a UFO? Little green men? Is the alien invasion hinted at in the X-Files coming true? No…no…and still no. Though bearing an interesting semblance to a flying saucer, this strange structure is the man-made UFO Taste Restaurant, hovering 85m above Bratislava and the beautiful Danube River, where you can gouge on unique Mediterrasian food and sip colorful cocktails while appreciating how tiny the snow-covered buildings, cars and people look far below your table. The restaurant’s immense windows let you appreciate how beautiful the city looks bathed in fog on the chilly winter’s day. Little-known and little-visited Slovakia with its capital Bratislava may have their setbacks (it’s a small city and a small country, and not always as elegantly magical as nearby Budapest, Prague or Vienna), but there is no doubt that this a proud nation working to recover after so many challenges facing this part of Europe in the last few decades. Unique quirks such as this UFO restaurant, city centre statues like Cumil, arresting graffiti and restaurants that mix tradition with newness are slowly turning this hidden European capital into a shining gem.
A flash of movement, a shimmer of gold, a glimpse of green. Welcome to the land of the leprechauns – a spit of land near the westernmost point of mainland Ireland. Bearded little men with a penchant for mischief-making, leprechauns have become a prominent part of Irish folklore, and though today’s prankster wears green, the original creature actually wore red. The Dingle Peninsula, where the Slea Head Drive is located, is a magical place with or without the leprechauns. Though cars scoot by along narrow Irish roads following the infamous Wild Atlantic Way, those who venture into the rolling green hills with only sheep for company will be immensely rewarded. While visitors may not find a leprechaun or even his pot of gold, what you will find is much more valuable. As you walk barefoot through the soft blanket of thick Irish grass on the rugged peninsula that overlooks the waves of green hills of the unpronounceable Coumeenoole, you will bask in the solace of tranquillity and total immersion, living wholly in this magical moment lost in the Irish countryside – all the while knowing that once you begin to craving vivacity, you will surely find raucous fun in the next village’s pub. It’s an amazing and intricate balance that only Ireland seems capable of creating and maintaining!
The clipp-clopping of hoofs ringing on rounded cobblestones, coupled with the wistful creaks of wagon wheels and the high-pitched laughs of a merry group of people fill the ancient square, enough to work time-machine magic on anyone. Diving out of the way of the impending carriage, your thoughts wander back to another time, another era. Once upon a time, this vehicle was both a means of transportation and of merriment to those rich enough to afford it, and a means to an end for those in charge of driving it or tending its horses. Modern times may have left the horse-and-buggy an antiquated element of a romantic past, but there are still some places in the world – many of which that are in Europe – that refuse to accept this, and continue, without trepidation, to insist on the important use of horse-drawn carriages in the transportation of tired guests across a city centre. Aside from Flemish cities, Warsaw, Vienna, fairytale towns in the French Alps, and paths in rural Ireland come to mind as a few. Bruges is another place that is lost in time, a city that tries so hard to cling to a past long gone – though where other places have failed, Bruges has succeeded. Bruges is, to use Harry’s words from In Bruges, “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s f*****g thing, eh?”
Ahh…The Great Outdoors. It says it all in the name – ‘great!’ No matter whether you’re hiking in Ireland or Denmark, Poland or (as in this case), France, hiking in Europe is bound to be ‘great.’ Being based a city may be ideal for working, for nightlife, for cultural outings, for restaurant variety, and for transportation connections, but breathe in the city air too long, and you’ll go crazy. We all need a good dose of the outdoors in our systems: fresh air, cool wind, natural landscapes, lack of noise, isolation, tranquility. And there are no excuses, for a hiking trip doesn’t always have to be a grand Alpine expedition – if you’ve only got a weekend, head out to the surrounding countryside (every town and city has one!) and hit the trails. Explore the unknown, and who knows what you may find? On this particular day the photo was taken, not only did we find this extensive root system, but we also stumbled across hidden ponds, forgotten manor houses, placid villages, sun-dipped fields, cheery locals and fellow hikers. Exploring the world on foot (no matter how close to or far from home) always seems to add another dimension to the final destination, somehow making that place seem more meaningful to you simply by approaching it via your own two feet. Whether that be in Slea Head Peninsula in Ireland, the Gauja River Valley in Latvia, the Val de Susa in northern Italy, Mt Esja in Iceland or the Beskids and Tatras in Poland, discovering the world on foot is all the more magical.
No tourism information about Denmark would be complete without at least one mention of the infamous Nyhavn, one of Denmark’s most iconic sights. Translated to mean ‘New Harbour,’ the canal was dug by Swedish prisoners of war in the late 1600s, and most of the elegant, coloured houses lining the canal date to the 17th and early 18th century. With canals that remind one of Venice or Bruges, colourful squares that bring to mind the vibrant ryneks(or main squares) of Poland, a mentality similar to that of the Norwegians and the Swedes, and an architectural style that has a northern, Baltic feel (styles ranging from the Netherlands all the way to Riga), Copenhagen has an inspiring mix of it all. On one side, a bustling capital, and on the other, a calm, clean city, Copenhagen is also a young, hip and fun town. Nyhavn is a splendid example of how Copenhagen can mix beauty and charm with vivacity and liveliness. Tourists and locals intermingle along the famed quays of Nyhavn; the cafes and restaurants bubble with activity, the air vibrates with multiple languages. The cool, brisk air under sunny skies is a welcome respite. The water laps against the anchored boats, and forks chink from the nearby diners. An afternoon in Nyhavn is an afternoon well-spent.
Old world charm, the steam age and the orient express, the turn of century (or more elegantly put, fin du siècle), lavishness, decadence.…yes, you’ve been painted into a canvas of the elegant, sometimes dream-like Hungarian capital. Budapest, in its own way, is an art form. It is a piece of a painting of a forgotten place, a poem putting colour to a lost era, a melody composed on an antique instrument. Budapest could be a place created by the most talented artists of the last few centuries, an enormous canvas on which to create their evolving masterpiece. Surely one of Europe’s greatest cities – then and now – Budapest seems to offer so much: spicy gastronomy, magnificent architecture, friendly locals, the Blue Danube, its own flavour. Much like the unique language spoken by inhabitants – related only to faraway Finnish and Estonian – Budapest seems to protrude from the rest of Eastern Europe. The culture, the food, the people, the city – everything feels somehow different; perhaps a creation by a steampunk fan or an old Polaroid photo. Budapest feels like a fin du siècle painting breathed into being by Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey, a place where anything could happen, a place where you could become anyone or do anything.
Mirrors – are they the windows into our souls? Are they a reflection of us, what makes us tick? Or are they merely a useful tool when putting on make-up, combing our hair or trying on a new pair of jeans? Bilbao is one city that expertly fuses the old and the new, the past and the present, heritage and modernity – this mirrored building is just one example. Bilbao (not Bilbo!) is secretly an artistic city it would seem, both in regards to creative architects as well as artists themselves such as Jeff Koons (see this post regarding his flower statue, ‘Puppy’). Not only is Bilbao one of Spain’s cleanest cities, it is quite different than the rest of Spain in that they have their own language – Basque. Unrelated to any other languages, you will see signs covered with complicated words and littered with X’s and Z’s posted all over the city next to their translations in Spanish. Home also to the famed Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao is certainly a unique city like no other. So my question remains, the mirrors – are they indeed the funky and fun reflection into Bilbao’s soul? I think yes.
There are some places you keep going back to, if only in your mind’s eye, and Kreuzenstein Castle is one of them for me. If you have ever read a fairy tale or a fantasy novel, or if you’ve ever seen a fantastical film, then you know – there’s something magical about turrets and towers and crinolines, something supernatural, something that makes one think about fairies and elves and dwarves and impossible beasts, something that effects you so deeply that you can’t shake it. This castle – it seems as if it popped up from the pages of a fairy tale or a Games of Thrones-esque novel. Being there, or even just imagining being there by gazing at the photo carries one to another time, another world, another dimension. Not far from Vienna, Kreuzenstein Castle may be a hodgepodge of several European castles, manors and religious buildings (composed somewhat randomly to re-build a ruin quickly), but the very essence of it feels so real. Even years later, I cannot shake the spell cast on me by this place – the same spell that seems to exude from Tallinn, Estonia, from the Gauja Valley in Latvia, from Andalucia in Spain, from St. Petersburg, Russia, Largentiere or Auvergne in France or Slea Head in Ireland, as well as a few other select spots. Needless to say, I don’t think that Kreuzenstein is finished with me yet…
Art Nouveau (‘new art’) was a style of architecture, art, sculpture, and design popular from roughly 1890 – 1920. Though it swept across Europe, it was particularly popular in Riga, Latvia, with some 40% of the buildings built with Art Nouveau in mind. Inspired by flowers, trees, leaves, water, and other natural elements, Art Nouveau buildings twist and turn; they flow, they spiral, they cascade – they are alive. Riga’s Art Nouveau was less extravagant than that of France’s or Spain’s. But nonetheless, Riga overflows its borders with the simplistic, Romantic version of Art Nouveau. Much of it has survived to this day despite the turbulence of the 20th century, and the city centre is now a designated UNESCO site. By simply meandering and keeping one’s eyes turned upwards, the observant traveller will come across this forgotten cache of treasures hidden away in the Baltic gem that is Riga.
Magical blue seas, waves lapping against rocky cliffs with hardy trees clutching to the sides and disused lighthouses perched on their edges. Northern Spain is often overlooked, and even when it is visited, places like Bilbao get all the attention. But hey, head out of the city to the countryside, to the forest, to the sea! And what better way is there to see a rugged coast such as that of Cantabria than by water? Rent a kayak and follow the coastline while searching for hidden coves or silent lighthouses. Maybe if you get lucky, you’ll find trails leading into the forest, old forts from bygone eras of sea invasion, or even a diving platform from which you can jump into the sea!
“In fair Verona where we lay our scene…” says the famous Prologue of Romeo and Juliet. Even though William Shakespeare never set foot in the Italian city, it is still Verona’s main claim to fame, and thousands of tourists–mostly fans or lovers–flock to Casa Guilietta, or Juliet’s House, from Shakespeare’s ultimate love story. Whether it’s to tour the house, call down from her balcony, take a photo with her (lucky?) statue, or write a love message on one of the blank walls, Juliet and her love are still alive and well in Verona. But don’t let that be the only reason to visit–Verona is a truly charming, beautiful city that dates back long before Romeo and Juliet fell in love–all the way to the Romans. Tiny pizzerias and cafes serving Italian coffee are on every corner. The piazzas are buzzing with life, the sun shines gently on the cobblestones, vibrant markets sell anything from vegetables to furniture to cheese, and everyone–students, tourists, locals–all stop to chat in the street while sipping an elegant espresso. Even if Will never saw the city, he got one thing right… Verona is certainly ‘fair!’