Torun, Poland does not want for churches. In fact, they seem to be everywhere. The Holy Trinity Church, erected in 1824, is viewed here from the gate of medieval St James’s Church, while other spires and steeples rise not far away – including the squat red-brick towers of Toruń Cathedral. Ironically, the 13th century medieval city is the birthplace of noted scientist Nicolaus Copernicus, who lends his name to Toruń’s university (you’ll find a large statue of him on Warsaw‘s Krakowskie Przedmieście Street). Noted for his contributions to our understanding of the solar system by placing the Sun at the centre, the “forward-thinking” Church issued a prohibition against his Copernican theory, leading to the condemnation of a “heretic” we know today as renowned scientist Galileo Galilei (Thanks Christianity…!). On a happier (and tastier) note, Toruń’s other claim to fame is that its famous for its gingerbread (or “pierniki” in Polish), which bakers began to produce in the 1300s. You haven’t tasted gingerbread until you’ve been to Toruń – and whether you think you like the it or not, you will love it after tasting this soft and delicious pastry in this magical city! Due to a vague agreement to swap recipes in return for new ones, Toruń instigated a competition with the German city, Nuremberg. As each city rose to individual fame, the secrets of their recipes became more guarded. Knockoffs were created and sold all over Europe. However, to this day, one needs only try Toruń’s gingerbread to recognise its authenticity (modern day Toruń gingerbread follows traditional 16th century recipes…). Perhaps tasting Toruń’s magical gingerbread will inspire you to try your hand at making your own plate of gingerbread biscuits!
Pro tip: You can buy pierniki toruńskie throughout Poland, and while quite good compared to non-Polish gingerbread, you can’t leave Toruń without visiting one of the local shops for the freshest gingerbread. One such place is Torun Żeglarska 25, though up and down Żeglarska Street, Piekary Street, and the Old City Market Square (Stare Miasto) you’ll find gingerbread specialty shops.
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.
If you like cheese, you may have a stronger grasp on rural French geography than you realised. This is because in France, cheeses are often named for the villages where they originate, and remain very region-specific for centuries, shaping both local culture and local pride. Roquefort, for example, comes from…wait for it…Roquefort, France! And the cheese Saint-Nectaire comes from the village of the same name–also the same name as the village church, pictured above. Located in central France, in the rural department of Auvergne (where Michelin comes from!), the village itself doesn’t seem that special at first glance. But no one can pass through without stopping to buy Saint-Nectaire cheese from the source! However, it wasn’t always so tranquil here. This quiet village was once a thriving spa town in the 19th and early 20th century, and as a result, there are still several once-grand hotels from the 19th century at the base of the beautiful church. Today, thermal spa towns–including Saint-Nectaire–have lost some of their popularity (except in Scandinavia and places such as Budapest). Yet, there’s something enthralling about glancing into the past at these once top-of-the-line resorts that makes one long for the old days of steam engine travel: 2-month-long trips, grand hotels, dressing for dinner, days spent visiting thermal baths or preparing for balls. Just make sure you try the cheese.
A stone’s throw away from Aberdeen, the quaint seaside village of Stonehaven clings to the North Sea coastline. Aside from the usual charming nature of being in an adorable village along the rugged, Scottish coastline with waves lapping at your feet, Stonehaven is also home to some of the best fish and chips in the UK. Indeed, The Bay won awards in 2012 & 2013 for best takeaway fish and chips, and it is worth the short wait and the slightly high prices for the delicious battered fresh fish. Stonehaven is also the home of the “deep fried Mars Bar,” developed in 1995 by the Haven Chip Bar (now called The Carron). And despite immediately feeling the need to run a marathon afterwards in order to counterbalance the unhealthiness of the snack, the taste is pretty darn delicious! Not only is Stonehaven a good place to come to eat, it is also relaxing and beautiful, especially so after hiking up to the ridge just above the town, watching the light play off the golden-tinted stones and rooftops. While most come here in order to access the equally-beautiful Dunnottar Castle down the road, don’t miss out on the hidden gem that is Stonehaven itself.
Do you like to eat? Do you like paella? How do you feel about Spain? Or sangria? How about beautiful Spanish architecture both ancient and modern? You’d like to visit a Spanish city…but the plenitude of tourists in Barcelona are getting to you, and Madrid is too far from the sea for your liking…so how about Valencia? Search the centre of town amongst the beautiful buildings and ancient plazas. Find yourself a nice little place to eat on a terrace with gigantic paella pans the size of monster truck wheels, and plop yourself down at a table overlooking a view like this one. Now, choose your type of paella. The main types include: Valenciano (traditional, made with chicken, pork, and rabbit), marisco (seafood; below, first image), mixta (both traditional and seafood), vegetariana (self-explanatory), or paella with arroz negro (black rice made with squid ink of all things; below, second image). It’s all marvelous and mouth-watering, and while of course, you can eat paella outside of Valencia, it is 100% obligatory to eat paella while in the city…because this is of course where you will find the highest quality of this traditional Spanish dish! Order a sangria to accompany it, kick back, and relax. Amongst all the eating, drinking, people-watching and chatting, you’ll be there awhile!
“Bouchon.” What a funny word. In French, it could mean either “cork” or “traffic jam,” “stopper” or “plug”…or even, strangely enough, “typical Lyonnaise restaurant.” Lyon tops the list for highest concentration of restaurants as there are over 1,000 places to eat in Lyon. This, of course makes sense–Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France! But how did this come about? One important factor dates back to the sixteenth century. Catherine de Medici imported cooks from Florence, and combining their skills with local products and recipes, they created a revolutionary idea: regional specialties that were consumed by nobles and royalty. This tradition carried up through the centuries, shaping Lyonnaise cuisine into what it is today. In addition to the Medicis, the “Mères lyonnaises” gave birth to Lyon’s gastronomic success. These women, 19th century middle-class cooks, rose up and decided to put their extraordinary culinary skills to use. The rise of tourism connected with the automobile (the newly-formed Michelin Guide helped a bit), brought more and more hungry mouths to their tables. Today, France is well-known for its fine cuisine, but it is Lyon that wins the first-place ribbon. A “bouchon” refers to a traditional Lyonnaise restaurant, where you can find such items as andouillette (type of sausage), duck breast, the salad “chèvre chaud” (a salad with baked goat cheese wrapped in puff pastry), foie gras, “saucisson chaud” (literally ‘hot sausage’; it’s delicious!) or Lyon’s specialty, the quenelle, (a mixture of creamed fish and chicken, with an egg binding and covered in cream. It’s mouth-watering!). Of course, you can visit a high-end Paul Bocuse restaurants where the food will be of the highest quality–but nothing beats the snug feeling of the quaint restaurant terrace with checkered tablecloths and cobblestones underfoot. Not only is the atmosphere fantastic, but the food is so delicious you’ll never want to leave–and it never seems to stop coming!
It’s more than just mustard, folks! Yup, Dijon is a town in central France, and okay yes, it is known for its mustard. But why? Well, back in the 1850’s, a certain Jean Naigeon muddled around with the traditional mustard recipe and created this wonderful new product, which became a hit. Today, Dijon mustard is world-renowned (though the mustard does not necessarily have to be produced in Dijon). But aside from the mustard, Dijon is still something special. The town itself, set in the heart of the wine-growing region of Burgundy, is adorable. Tudor houses, Gothic churches, sweeping palaces, and bustling markets line the streets. Cafe tables dot the sidewalks, sunbathers dot the gardens. All in all, Dijon is a peaceful, beautiful place…where there just so happens to be a lot of mustard!
France is, of course, a beautiful place – but one of the prettiest places in the country wasn’t officially France for a large part of the last two centuries. Alsace – as well as its sister, Lorraine – played monkey-in-the-middle since the fall of the Roman Empire, bouncing between what constitutes as present-day France and Germany, depending on who had more power at that moment. Because of this, Alsace has both a distinctly German AND French feel to it, making it a unique place. Long before there was a “France” or a “Germany,” these two European giants have shared thousands of years of history, culture, and people. Even today, one finds many Frenchmen with German heritage and vice versa. The famed Gutenberg spent over 15 years of his life in Strasbourg, developing a new idea of his – what we call movable type, otherwise known as the printing press. Aside from shared history, Strasbourg’s beautiful wattle-and-daub architecture along the river is to die for. Known for its exceptional Christmas markets, it’s also a great place to sample vin chaud (hot wine), crepes, as well as regional Germanic specialties such as choucroute garnie (sauerkraut), pork sausages or foie gras. Visit Place Guttenberg and Petite France to become a part of this region’s colourful history.
It’s been a long time (holidays have a way of making one lazy) but I’m back! Here we have the view from the Bonaparte Bridge crossing the Saône River in Lyon. From the bridge, you can see most of the old town and major landmarks of this amazing city. From the Saint-Jean quarter–an important political and religious centre in the Middle Ages–to the Saint-George district, home to the famous silk merchants of the 1500’s (and responsible for over 100 traboules or covered passageways/courtyards in between buildings used for transporting the silk)–to the Saint-Paul quarter, inhabited by the wealthy Italian banker-merchants, the Vieux Lyon neighbourhood is a beautiful mix of eras, nationalities, cultures, and architecture. Oh, and did I mention the food? Vieux Lyon is the city’s food district; eat at a bouchon or local Lyonnaise restaurant for a taste of the Gastronomic Capital of France!
As you climb up the well-worn stone steps to Pérouges, you quite suddenly leave behind the 21st century. Step out onto cobblestones smoothed and rounded by centuries of inhabitants and find yourself lost in the middle ages. Inns, restaurants and small shops intertwine with centuries of history. Ivy grows on ancient walls, creaking signs hang from stone archways. This beautiful landmark town was likely founded by a Gallic colony returning from Perugia, Italy, before the 11th century – and it wasn’t until 1601 that this little gem was even French! Hungry? Try one of their famous galettes, a delicious little cake available in multiple establishments throughout the walled town. Today, it is literally (and officially), ‘One of the Most Beautiful Cities in France,’ so it’s hard to believe that 100 years ago, it was ever threatened with demolition! It is a truly magical place.