Rising above the city of Belfast is the beautiful landscape of Cavehill Country Park. Once part of Belfast Castle’s extensive estate, the hill is covered in lush woodland criss-crossed with narrow muddy tracks. After meandering on an upwardly-sloping path under a canopy of leaves, you suddenly break out into a beautiful panorama – behind you to one side is an aerial view of all Belfast, the little streets and buildings looking small at the bottom of the hills. And on the other side the landscape of Cavehill seems as if it comes straight out of a fairytale land, dramatic emerald and golden hills punctured with mysterious caves. It seems perhaps a scene you’d find in The Chronicles of Narnia – you almost expect to see fauns and centaurs and talking animals wandering about the hills. Even though you haven’t quite crossed over into a magical land, you’re as close as you can get – CS Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia grew up in Belfast (and was educated at Oxford) and spent his boyhood exploring these hills – the Mourne Mountains to the south up to the Causeway Coast to the north (Dunluce Castle is said to have been the inspiration of the ruined Cair Paravel in Prince Caspian). It’s reasonable to expect that CS Lewis would have climbed the slopes of Cavehill just behind his hometown, and it’s again reasonable to expect that the places he encountered in Ireland as a boy would have formed as inspiration for Narnia. Interesting again that the “real world” places of TheChronicles of Narnia resemble Oxford and its environs, but the mystical, magical places of Narnia and other magical lands find their inspirations in the landscapes of Ireland…perhaps Ireland is just a magical place.
Pro tip: There is a family-friendly car park to go straight to the top of the hill to McArt’s Fort, but you’ll miss the hike, forest, and actual cave hills in the panorama above. It’s worth it to start at Belfast Castle and do the full loop – at 6.5-7km, it should take you about 2 hours. It can be muddy, so bring your boots and waterproof jacket. As of this post, the route from Belfast Zoo is closed (but not the castle). Check here for hiking info.
Germany may have a reputation for being a bit dark, a bit gloomy, even a bit grim – but there’s one thing that Germany does just as well if not better than some of the loveliest parts of Europe: fairytale castles. One such castle is the lovely if little-known Hohenzollern Castle. Though not completely off the beaten track, beautiful Burg Hohenzollern doesn’t share the same overwhelming popularity or footfalls as its cousins Neuschwanstein Castle, or perhaps Eltz Castle or Schloss Lichtenstein, widely shared on social media. Crowning the top of Mount Hohenzollern, the towers of Hohenzollern rise majestically above the treetops. The ancestral seat of the once-powerful House of Hohenzollern, this castle only dates back to the mid-1800s although a castle has stood here since the 11th century. When the clouds encircle Mount Hohenzollern, it gives the effect the Burg Hohenzollern is floating in the air – an actual castle amongst the clouds! Though it’s possible to climb the hill by bus, we recommend that you take to the trails which weave in and out of the woods before depositing you on the doorstep of this amazing castle, where you’ll be greeted with a courtyard surrounded by thick, imposing walls and high towers. It’s not just the outside of Hohenzollern that is amazing – inside, admire the spectacular courtyard and towers, ivy-curtained walls, rich carvings and imposing stairways – not to mention the beautiful rooms indoors. A quiet blend of Loire Valley chateau and Gothic Revival, if you weren’t paying close attention, you might accidentally think you wandered into a Disney film!
Pro tip: Closest large city is Stuttgart. From there, take the train to Hechingen station (1 hour). Either take the shuttle bus or you walk through the town and up the wooded path – around 5km one way. Entrance is €7 for exterior castle visit or €12 to visit the rooms. More info here.
Bruges is a truly fairytale place (thanks, In Bruges). Quaint canals are lined romantic facades, graceful weeping willows, cosy cafés and lovely quays. Canals are crossed with romantic bridges – of which each one is different from the same as the next. Like Venice, they function as streets, a unique way to get around the city. In fact, Bruges is sometimes nicknamed the “Venice of the North” (though it is not the only city to hold the name – see below). The historic centre of Bruges (a UNESCO world heritage site) is a small, quaint, romantic place. Compact enough to comfortably walk the whole city, Bruges still has a lot going on, not to mention, it is eye candy for art and architecture lovers! From the Belfort (belfry and its famous bells) to the Provincial Palace, Ghent Port and City Hall – not to mention all of the churches, gates, bridges, administrative buildings and even ordinary houses – there is no shortage of historic and beautiful sites upon which to feast your eyes on this spectacular medieval city.
Pro tip: Bruges is a busy, busy place. Therefore, try to visit in the off season. To make the most of your visit, be sure to stay over at least one night – many of the tourists are day trippers from Brussels. After the day crowds thin out, go for a wee nighttime stroll – with the city all glittering and reflecting, it adds a new layer of magic to this place! Also, Belgian fries and Belgian waffles are more than just stereotypes – they are perfection and delicious. Best place to get both are often the wee food trucks and hole-in-the-wall chippers!
Talk about the fairytale castles! Schloss Hohenzollern seems to floats atop the golden and amber trees that crown Mount Hohenzollern. On the edge of the Swabian Jura region of central Baden-Württemberg, Hohenzollern Castle seems lost in a remote backwoods, overlooking the quiet town of Hechingen. There has been a fortification here since the 11th century, though such fortifications were rebuilt many times. This castle, Schloss Hohenzollern, was constructed between 1846-67 by King Frederick William IV of Prussia in the dramatic neo-Gothic revival style so popular throughout Europe at the time. (There is also the possibility that the design was inspired by the Loire Valley Chateaux in central France – not hard to see why!). Though smaller than it looks, the castle is an a fairytale – and the largest castle in the Baden-Württemberg region. Unlike Neuschwanstein or Eltz, Hohenzollern enjoys relative anonymity – at least in the off-season! Also unlike the others, the city closest it to it – Stuttgart – is disregarded by most as a place to visit. All of this means that Hollehzollern in fall (or winter) is a quiet, romantically desolate place full of history, legend and ancient beauty.
Pro tip: From Stuttgart, there are frequent trains to the local Hechingen station (journey takes 1 hour). From Hechingen, take a shuttle bus up the mountain, or you could walk through the town and on a wooded path up the mountain, but it’s between 5-6k one way. Entrance is €7 for exterior castle visit or €12 to visit the rooms. New in 2018, royal rooms can be visited on guided tours on certain days!
The quiet and ancient region of Auvergne, located in central France, is a bastion of tradition, history and culture. Far from most tourists radar, those who do visit the region generally head to the iconic mountain Puy-de-Dome or perhaps the capitol city, Clermont-Ferrand (especially for rugby fans). Few head deeper into the countryside towards the ultra rural Cantal region. Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise (or Besse, as it’s known locally) is just one of the many spectacular gems that reward those who venture into Auvergne’s hidden corner. A fairytale village of wandering cobblestone streets and, intricate buildings topped with steep roofs and lined with overflowing flower-boxes, the best way to enjoy Besse is to simply lose yourself in the beautiful medieval streets of the photogenic village. Admire the half-Romanesque, half-Gothic Eglise de Saint-André, the Maison de la Reine Margot, the town hall, and the guard tower at the entrance to this ancient place. Try various flavours of nougat, a local delicacy, or in summer, be sure to stop for deliciously creamy ice cream at one of the local vendors in the shadows of the ancient stone buildings. In the evenings, relax at one of the village’s lovely terrases for a cold beer as you people-watch the bustling village centre. Besse is a perfect example of medieval charm surrounded by verdant and unexplored landscapes perfect for hiking, biking and paddling – ideal for those looking to relax in a rural environment while visiting a corner of France that has changed little through the years.
Pro tip: If you can, time your visit to correspond with one of the brocantes or outdoor flea markets (very popular in rural France) to find unique souvenirs. The nearby, nearly-round Lac Pavin is a very pretty place for a walk. Visiting in summer? Try the famed Tyrollean. Visiting in winter? You’re in luck – Besse is known for its skiing!
Find other places nearby to make the perfect Auvergne holiday
Overlooking St John’s Church on Bath’s River Avon, England
Surely one of the quaintest and most quintessentially English towns in all of England is Bath. The tranquil waters of the River Avon winds through the city, a labyrinth of limestone facades constructed with a local stone called Bath Limestone, with the canal on the other side of Bath. Houseboats lap quietly against their moorings, ducks splash on the lush green backs. Church steeples – like St John’s Church steeple – rise dramatically against a cloudy sky. Forming the southern entrance to the Cotswolds region, Bath is recognised as one of England’s most picturesque places. Lined with rows of proud Georgian houses centred around the impressive Bath Abbey and the ancient Roman baths that lend themselves to the city’s name, Bath seems like a time capsule that has captured the Roman era, medieval times and Georgian England. It feels almost as if we were stepping out of a Jane Austen novel – which in a way is true. Jane Austen lived here from 1801 – 1806, and set some of her novels here (though it is known that she disliked the high society of 19th century Bath). Jane Austen may have found fault with Bath, but to the modern day visitor, Bath is the perfect picture of England! (It also makes for a good jumping off point to explore the Cotswolds region…).
Pro tip: The recently-renovated Holburn Museum of Art is a lovely little art museum showcasing local painting. Runners (or walkers) might enjoy a walk along the Kennet & Avon canal – start from Bath and walk the 10 miles along the lovely and tranquil canal path to the lovely Cotswolds town of Bradford-on-Avon (well worth a visit!) and return to Bath via the local train. Another great walk will take you up the hill to Sham Castle. Also nearby is Bristol (also the local airport), a quirky artsy town.
Amongst Brexit talks and EU deals, sometimes you just want to find a little corner of Britain overlooked by the world, a place one can relax to a simpler tune. Northern England – specifically the Yorkshire Dales and Cambria – is just that place. Swaledale is a beautiful dale or valley (one of the northernmost within Yorkshire Dales National Park) in the Pennines Hills, containing some of Northern England’s most quaint villages. One such place is Muker Village which, despite its name, comes straight out of a fairytale! The quintessential stone town is the picture of 18th and 19th century rural charm. Built alongside a bustling little brook crossed by a perfect stone bridge, Muker has a quaint English parish church, an old world tea shop, a traditional pub, an old village hall, crafts and arts galleries and meandering cobbled streets closely lined with old stone houses. For all intents and purposes, it is the perfect example of an English country village. And its location in Swaledale, surrounded by the world-famous barns, drystone walls and sheep-dotted pastures, complete the painting. Mining and agriculture were once the only industries here, leaving Muker, Swaledale and Yorkshire in general in much isolation – a fate which helped keep local traditions alive. Today, Muker has finally found itself on the map now that the famous long distance hiking path, England’s Coast to Coast Trail (a 192 mile/309 km path) traverses Swaledale and Muker village (as well as three national parks: Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North Moors). And even more excitingly, in 2014 the first stage of the Tour de France from Leeds to Harrogate passed through Muker!
Pro tip: If you’re planning to hike the Coast to Coast (in entirety or even only just a section of it), you’ll get the most out of it with a local guide. Muker village to Keld Village along the River Swale is a lovely 5km (3 mile) gentle walk through one of the most beautiful dales of the region! Best to hike on the western bank of the river.
It’s hard to talk about the beautiful places of Europe and ignore Venice. Venice is the city beauty – and of canals. When you constantly compare other beautiful cities with Venice – Anncey is “the Venice of France” or “the Venice of Belgium” etc. – you know that the original city (Venice) must be amazing! Venice is also thedefinition of a fairytale place – this is the kind of place one would expect to find in a storybook! Venice has famous sights – St Mark’s Cathedral, the glass blowing on Murano, the Grand Canal. Other major canals include the Giudecca, Canneregio and Scomenzera canals. But the best way to explore this city? By getting lost in its massive labyrinth of tiny streets and scenic canals criss-crossed with magical bridges of all shapes and sizes of course! There are over 150 canals interwoven around some hundred islands – and connected by even more bridges! Once upon a time, these canals were the city’s only ‘streets’ and all transport was done via gondola boats. While the canals remain a main artery for movement about the picturesque city, the gondolas are used only by tourists today. Overpriced and overcrowded, it’s best to skip the gondola and meander the tiny alleys and bridges, hopping on the water-buses when you need to get farther away. Keep in mind that this is one of the most popular cities in Europe as well as one of the most delicate. Venice is actually sinking, and has problems with flooding, water damage and erosion – none of which is helped by overtourism. There has been talk of establishing a quota of visitors to this special place. So instead of getting annoyed, remember that this is in order to protect this amazing city for future generations! Though Venice may be both stunningly amazing and breath-takingly unique, there are many other cities with canals to visit in Europe. See below for a few!
Pro tip: If you can, stay on one of the lesser-known and quieter islands and take the water bus into the main part of the city. However, if you really want to stay on the “fish,” don’t go to the centre of town. Instead, check out the far quieter region of Canneregio (in the northern part of the main archipelago). The same goes for food; avoid the big restaurants with the English menus in the centre, and instead find the mom & pop shops in the back alleyways! Definitely have an afternoon spritz after a fun day of exploring!
Other cities with canals to visit – Alternatives to Venice:
One of Europe’s most fascinating Renaissance castles can be found tucked away under the Carpathian Mountains that march across the mysterious and beautiful country of Romania. Amongst Romania’s most famed sites, Peles Castle is actually a neo-Renaissance fortress. Built on what was once an important trade route linking Wallachia and Transylvania – Romania’s two principal trade regions – Peles Castle was inaugurated in 1883, making it one of Europe’s younger castles. Inside and out, expect grandeur, over-the-top luxury, and a clear exertion of King Carol I’s power. Peles Castle and the Alpine-esque resort town of Sinaia came about in the late 1800s when King Carol of Romania fell in love with the dramatic mountain scenery. It was under King Carol that Romania gained its independence (1877). The king wanted a regal yet original mountain resort, rejecting anything that wasn’t grand and unique. In the end, he went for German architect Johannes Schultz’s proposal, a grand palatial Alpine castle that combines the most distinctive and appealing features of classic European castles, including styles born of the Italian and later German Renaissance. In a way, this approach to locating the very best of European castles makes Peles Castle all the more fairytale!
Pro tip: Peles Castle and nearby resort town of Sinaia can be quite touristy – best to visit in the off season if possible. Take a stroll around the grounds of Peles Castle at sunset – the views will be stunning, and as the castle is closed at that hour, you’ll have the estate to yourself.
Other Neo Renaissance Fairytale Castles of Europe Built to Impress
Neuschwanstein Castle – similar to Peles, this castle was built in the 1800s by a king looking for a regal and quintessential fairytale castle
Kreuzenstein Castle – This castle is actually a hodgepodge of different castles, imported and re-constituted together after the original building was destroyed
Chateau de Chenonceau – One of the many chateaux of the Loire Valley, Chenonceau stretching over the river is the picture of elegance.
Chateau de Chambord– Another Loire Valley chateau, this massive castle takes the concept of royal hunting lodge to the extreme.
Possibly one of the most spectacular and amazing places in all of Italy is the medieval pile of stones that is the Sacra of San Michele monastery. Crowning the Mount Pirchiriano in Northern Italy, the Sacra di San Michele seemingly floats in the clouds, fanned by the incredible landscapes of the Val di Susa. Officially named as the Symbolic monument of the Piedmont region, this jaw-dropping abbey was probably consecrated in 966, but little is known about the early years of this amazing building. Tradition says that the Sacra di San Michele was erected by a pious hermit known as St Giovanni Vincenzo on the orders of archangel Michael – supposedly the angel then miraculously transported all of the stones and other materials to the summit of Mt Pirchiriano (though the miracles stopped there – St Giovanni still had to build the abbey!) Apparently the site was chosen for its isolation and difficulty to reach as this was typical of the Cult of St Michael (think France’s Mont Saint Michel!). The Sacra, part of the Benedictine Order, became part of the famous Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route from France to Rome, even extending beyond to Canterbury. In fact, the route is still in use today, and has seen a recent revival and resurgence of pilgrims (though today’s pilgrims are more interested in the history and culture and food found on the trail, and less in the religious aspect of it). The Sacra di San Michele is also famous for inspiring the abbey at the central of Italian novel, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.
Pro tip: Instead of driving, start your adventure at the village of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino, where you can follow an ancient mule track up the mountain. Following the Signs of the Cross, the trail winds around the mountain, in and out of the forest, past tiny hamlets and ancient sites before arriving at the mountain’s summit. The path, about 3.5 km each way, starts behind the old church and continues upwards from there.
Other Beautiful Medieval Religious Sites in Europe
On the shores of Lough Neagh (Ireland’s largest lake, though far from its most interesting one…), Shane’s Castle is one of the most fascinating castle ruins on the Emerald Isle. Built in 1345 by the O’Neill dynasty (one of the major family clans in Ulster, the northern half of Ireland), the original name was actually Eden-duff-carrick – only becoming the far more catchier “Shane’s Castle” in 1722 when Shane MacBrien O’Neill changed its name to suit him. Today, the castle is famous for its many uses in HBO’s Game of Thrones TV series. Though largely ruins, most visitors to Shane’s Castle will miss the most fascinating part (only accessible through certain tours and events): the huge network of tunnels, caves and catacombs twisting underneath the castle’s foundations! Dark and windy, these tunnels featured in several GoT scenes. Not far way, the infamous Battle of Antrim was fought on on 7 June 1798 as an unsuccessful rebellion of Irish peasants against the British Rule (the Republic of Ireland only managed to get independence from Great Britain in 1922 after years of fighting, and obviously Northern Ireland is still a region within the UK). Though this can still be a contentious subject in Ireland (both north & south), a lot has changed in recent years making the whole island a fun and safe destination.
Pro tip: Every year in July, the grounds of Shane’s Castle holds Ireland’s largest Country & Game Fair, including living history and reenactments – well worth the visit! The event includes is a historical component showcasing ways of living in the past, from the Viking age through to modern times, with a reenactment of the Battle of Antrim.
Possibly containing Europe’s highest density of picturesque villages, Italy is practically a fairytale land. Deep within Northern Italy’s charming and beautiful Aosta Valley is the little-known fairytale village of Cogne, perched within a now-forgotten mountain pass crossroads through the Alps. Often home to Italy’s professional cross country skiing team who come here to practice on its renowned 70 km (43 miles) of trails, Cogne village is snuggled into the Italian Alps making it an outdoor lover’s paradise. During winter, enjoy cross country skiing or perhaps downhill skiing and snowboarding. Explore the nearby valleys on snowshoes or even try your hand at ice climbing! On your way there, be sure to visit the Savoyard town of Aosta, founded by the Romans. During the summer, hike the impressive mountain trails of Gran Paradiso National Park. Inhabiting these mountains are herds of ibex, wild goats, marmots and eagles – all easy to spot while out hiking or snowshoeing. Back in town, wander the adorable streets of Cogne to admire the quaint old-world Alpine architecture. Be sure to taste the region’s delicious red wines and cheeses such as the Fontina and the Fromadzo where you’re here!
Pro tip: If you’re looking for a relaxing Alpine escape, plan a stay at the rustic wellness hotel & spa, La Madonnina del Gran Paradiso. Please keep in mind that though the road to Aosta is quite good, you’ll need to take narrow, winding mountain roads the rest of the way to reach Cogne. Not for the faint hearted!
Autumn Sunset over Les Monts des Beaulojais, France
France’s Beaujolais in autumn is a lovely, vibrant place – rich oranges, reds, yellows and golds contrast with the brilliant azure skies and the remaining emerald greens. It is magical place, reminiscent of a fairytale storybook. Contained within the Beaujolais, a breath-taking region just north of beautiful Lyon, are the enchanted Monts des Beaujolais, a colloquial name given to this corner of the Massif Centrale mountain range parading across the historical region. Though long integrated into the larger Rhône-Alps (really Auvergne-Rhône-Alps; French départements keep growing), the Beaujolais maintains its own identity. The hills, soil and climate make it ideal for wine-growing – in fact, some of France’s most respected wines come from this region, alongside sister vineyards of the nearby Côtes de Rhône. Want to try some Beaujolais wine? Next time you’re in France, try a Mâcon, Brouilly, Morgon, Fleurie, Chénas or even a simple Beaujolais Villages! Every fall, once grapes have been harvested, pressed and fermented, the Beaujolais villages celebrate the 3rd Thursday of November with a festival to taste the Beaujolais Nouveau – the season’s new wine. With 12 AOCs (Protected Destination of Origins), the Beaujolais produces on average 1 million hecto-litres each season, of which 97% from Gamay grapes (almost exclusively red wine). And it’s not just wine that makes the Beaujolais special. What makes the Beaujolais ideal for growing grapes has made a prime region to control over the centuries – hence the remnants of ramparts and fortifications. It is a beautiful region full of colourful hills each topped with ancient medieval villages, crumbling and imposing castle ruins.
Pro tip: For the most adventurous, sign up for les vendanges, the grape harvest in August/September. Hard work but worth it! For those with less time, simply visit an authentic vineyard for a tasting fresh from the barrel. Visit the tourism office in Lyon or Villefranche-sur-Saône for an updated list in vineyards.
Sligo’s Hidden Glen on the Coolera Peninsula, Ireland
Sligo in itself is a little-known corner of Ireland. Located on the northwest section of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, it is known as the Surf Coast for good reason. But for those who venture inland, Sligo is full of gems – fascinating mountains, ancient neolithic monuments, vibrant towns, quiet beaches, delicious seafood, rich mythology. One gem you won’t find on the traditional tourist track is the Hidden Glen, on Sligo’s Coolera Peninsula, a region once home to ancient Neolithic peoples. The Hidden Glen (or The Glen) as it’s known locally, is tucked under Knocknarea Hill. The entrance is as unremarkable as it is hidden – simply a rusty gate and trail off the ocean side of Woodville Road. Pass through this narrow, natural doorway and you’ll find yourself in a another world straight from the pages of a fairytale book. This narrow ‘micro-valley’ is a magical glen where handmade swings hang from soaring trees. Spellbinding stone walls rise up some 60 feet on either side of this narrow chasm deep in a magical woodland. Forget rose-coloured glasses – the verdant ferns and thick green leaves of the Hidden Glen make it feel like you’re seeing the world through emerald shades. If fairies were to exist, then surely this must be their home. Enchanted and magical, this ancient wooded world contained inside the glacially-hewn walls of the Hidden Glen under the watchful eye of mythical Queen Maeve’s tomb atop Knocknarea Hill is the pinnacle of any fairytale experience and is a place you simply have to see with your own eyes. Pro tip: The Hidden Glen is almost always extremely muddy underfoot so only attempt with study, waterproof hiking boots.
The water laps at the edges of this seemingly remote medieval castle as the Swiss mountains fan out behind its towers in a picture of pure fairytale. One of Switzerland’s more famous places, Chateau de Chillon is not overrun with tourists, at least not during winter. Instead, the imposing chateau sits quietly – the ideal, romantic castle. Located in the French-speaking Vaud region of Switzerland, Chillon enters written record in 1005. It was part of the ancient Kingdom of Savoy, today a melange of the French, Italian and Swiss Alps (such places like Chamonix, Chambery, Torino and Lausanne were once part of this kingdom). What started as a gatehouse to the ancient mountain pass morphed into a summer home for the dukes, then into a prison, then artillery fortress. Home first to the dukes of Savoy, then . to the Germanic Bernese and finally the Francophone Vaudois, Chillon changed hands following the rise and fall of eras. Chateau de Chillon is certainly one of the most romantic of the ancient fortresses, but it is far from the only one. The Alps are thickly peppered with such castles, each guarding strategic sites like roads, mountain passes, lakes. Today, Chateau de Chillon is like visiting a place lost in time, one that has fallen from the pages of a fairy tale.
Pro Tip: Take the train to the lovely village of Montreux and from there, walk along the lovely lakeside path for beautiful views! About 3.5 km (40 mins) from the train station. There are also cable cars and hiking trails in the mountains behind the castle, but keep in mind that accessibility is seasonal and weather permitting.
Wooden chalets with steep rooftops and lovely balconies, ornamented with flower boxes and carved silhouettes of fleur des lis, this tiny hamlet tucked deep in the lush forests of the French Alps is fit for a fairy tale. Located just above the picturesque Gorges de Diosaz inside the lovely Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron, this little hamlet offers brilliant views overlooking the magnificent Chamonix Mont-Blanc Valley. The perfect jumping off point for hiking in Alpine forests, the snug hamlet of Montvauthier seems to have fallen of the pages of a Disney tale. This is the Alps at their best, the backstage pass. Mont Blanc and Chamonix are stunningly unforgettable and are clearly the stars of the show. But the French Alps have so much more to offer the curious visitor than just that. In fact, the French Alps contain some of the world’s best hiking trails. The Alps have gorgeous snow towns world renowned for skiing. And they have countless tiny villages and hamlets as equally gorgeous as they are unknown. Montvauthier is one such place. The best part about the Alps is that you don’t have to go here – not specifically here anyway. You just have to get off the beaten track because the massive Alps are full of amazing places waiting for you to discover.
Pro tip: Be sure to try hearty Savoy dishes like raclette (melted cheese over potatoes and charcuterie), tartiflette (oven baked cheese, bacon and potato dish), or the classic fondue (a pot of melted cheese thickened with flour and spread over bread). There are many local red wines from Savoy as well. Proximity to Italy means the pizza is quite good too.
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.
Neuschwanstein Castle Cloaked in Forest and Mist, Germany
Rising romantically out of the mist is the majestic white turrets of Neuschwanstein Castle. Somewhat reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm, of all of Germany‘s fairy tale castles, Neuschwanstein Castles wins gold for fairytale extravagance. In fact, the castle, built 1869-86 (though never completed) is generally credited with inspiring Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland, California! Commissioned by King Ludwig II of Bavaria and dedicated to composer Richard Wagner, the magical Neuschwanstein Castle is located a stone’s throw from the far more demure Hohenschwangau Castle, ancestral home to the royal family (though not good enough for ambitious Ludwig’s refined and ostentatious tastes). Instead, Ludwig required a more flamboyant residence in which to flex his power (not unlike the popes of the Avignon Papacy and their enormous palace). The completed rooms in Neuschwanstein are all elaborately carved, lavishly furnished and thoroughly gilded – and the swan motif giving the castle its name is everywhere. There are long, bejewelled corridors, dizzyingly vast courtyards and high flying turrets. Best of all, there’s even a mysterious grotto based on a German myth… inside the castle (not a joke…)! The grotto even once had a waterfall and rainbow-maker. The white turrets of this German fairytale castle are cloaked in thick mist and dark, silent forests crossed with forlorn paths (reminiscent of the Black Forest), making it easy to imagine a Disney princess or two locked in a tower, tasting a poisoned apple, losing a magical slipper or pricking her dainty finger on a spinning wheel here at Neuschwanstein. Though most German castles seem straight out of a fairytale (see Hohenzollern for another example), Neuschwanstein is certainly queen of all. Tip: due to the castle’s enormous popularity, visit off-season and go for a morning visit. Be sure to visit the nearby Hohenschwangau Castle, the royal grounds as well as the path that leads to the Marion Bridge for the famous view of the castle across the gorge! Keep in mind that sadly, there’s a strictly enforced no photography rule inside the castle…a shame, for the castle’s interior seems something that could only exist in Beauty and the Beast’s castle.
Vltava River in Prague, Czech Republic from Charles Bridge
Charles Bridge is surely one of the world’s most famous bridges. Built in 1357 and the only means of crossing the thundering Vltava River until 1841, both Charles Bridge and the Vltava River have played a strategic and economic role throughout the city’s history. Prague’s location on the Vltava River has long been important for trade and shipping between eastern and western Europe, and that economical power, along with Prague’s famous bridge that connects its timeless old town with the majestic Prague Castle, have all helped to bounce Prague to international acclaim. Though always beautiful, there are two moments where Prague becomes nearly divine in beauty. The first is Prague covered in soft, brilliant snow, the pure white of the fallen snowflakes contrasting beautifully on the dark, ancient stones that make up the Gothic architectureof Charles Bridge, the Castle and most of the Old Town. Alone under the evening blizzard with snow underfoot, the smells of chimney smoke, hot wine and roasted chestnuts intermingle in the air, as the air itself rings with the jubilant sounds of the famed Christmas market – the perfect picture of Christmas bliss. The second time when Prague becomes almost unbearable with beauty is when bathed in the brilliance of the Golden Hour, both at sunrise and sunset, when the incandescent light glitters off the richly-coloured stones and the ancient architecture to make you feel as if you are part of a fairytale, or a painting. Sunrise is preferable – this way, you will avoid the crowds. Sunset, as seen above, will not disappoint either.
See More Reasons Why Eastern European Cities are so Magical
Escalinata Staircase in Teruel, the Aragon region of Spain
Though the Escalinata Staircase technically a purpose-built construction – meant to connect the centro de la ciudad to the railway station – the Escalinata Staircase has become so much more. The town of Teruel, an easy day trip from the modernist city of Valencia, is often called the “town of mudéjar architecture” (meaning Moorish-influenced architecture), notably Teruel Cathedral. The region of Aragon’s densely-concentrated Mudejar architecture (construction corresponding with the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance) is now under the domaine of UNESCO. Mudejar architecture developed after the Reconquista and subsequent expulsion of the Moors from Spain in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. This style was created by those who stayed behind, called moriscos, or Muslims that converted to Christianity. While the stairs were constructed in the early 1900s, the style chosen is neo-Mudejar. It also pays homage to the infamous Lovers of Teruel, a rather ridiculous story. Unable to marry his sweetheart due to his financial status, the hero leaves to make his fortune in 5 years, but miscounts the number of days and returns just after she marries. The overly devout and prude heroine refuses to kiss her dying hero for she is now married (by less than 12 hours, mind you), and he dies. The following day at his funeral, she finally kisses him and dies herself (of what, who knows. Guilt? Loneliness? Grief?) Moral of the story? Perhaps it is simply to chose your spouse wisely, marry out of love… and learn how to keep track of things!
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 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?”
X marks the spot – or maybe it just marks a row of charming houses in Dijon, built in the infamous wattle-and-daub style. But what really is wattle-and-daub anyway? In use as a construction method for some 6,000 years (and still popular today due to it being low-impact technique), such buildings are created by weaving a braid of wooden strips called wattle, then daubing them with a sort of caulk made of soil, clay, sand, straw, and other ingredients. Thick wooden beams are then factored in as supports to the structure, and together, they form sturdy, isolated walls. Sustainable and relatively easy to do, houses erected in this style are also just so charming. Dijon, Strasbourg, Stratford-upon-Avon, many Germanic villages and more exude such charm because of the high predominance of wattle-and-daub structures. Charming and beautiful, it would seem that fairy tales are alive and well in Dijon – one can just imagine one of those windows popping open and Belle or Rapunzel smiling out!
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…
There are still some secret places in Europe where fairy tales seem to come alive and the words “Once upon a time…” seem to be the town slogan. Megève, in the heart of the French Alps, is one of those places. Megève, along with many alpine villages, seems to have fallen off the pages of a fairy tale storybook. Wooden chalets with steeply pointed roofs cluster around an ancient church. Cobblestones ring with the sound of horse hoofs and the creak of wagon wheels. A towering pine tree stands in the centre of the town square – proudly occupying the place of honor. Snug little shops, cozy cafes and sturdy lodges weave along Megève’s narrow streets. Everywhere, skiers in puffy vestments and giant boots mingle with the locals, skis in one hand, a hot chocolate in the other. Gentle snowflakes are falling, adding to the thick, soft blanket of snow that covers everything. It is truly a magical place.