Brunico – or Bruneck in German – is a lovely little town in a strange region. Like all of Sud Tyrol, the region was once part of the Astro-Hungarian Empire until World War I happened, and Italy, who sided with the winners, was granted the mountainous little region of Sud Tyrol from Austria, who sided with the wrong side. Even today the Germanic/Austrian culture is visible, from the bilingual populace (and menus and road signs) to the cuisine to the architecture. Rising above cheerful Brunico is the beautiful medieval Brunico Castle dating back to about the 13th century. But hidden away in the lush green wooded hills on the other side of a narrow footbridge is something unexpected – a simple World War I era cemetery filled with the graves of soldiers from all sides, backgrounds and religions. In fact, soldiers from each religion – Christian, Jewish and Muslim – are each buried according to their religious rites. Though war is always terrible for those involved in it, the war would have been especially difficult for those soldiers fighting WWI in the high, inhospitable Dolomites Mountains, a region prone to high winds, deep snows, cold temperatures, steep slopes and rough terrain. Brunico’s wooded WWI cemetery was built by Russian POWs from local pine trees, each one carefully inscribed with the dead soldier’s names and dates of death. Tucked under a quiet canopy of emerald leaves, these simple markers serve as a stark reminder of the shortness of life and the madness of war – as well as humankind’s harmony with nature.
Pro tip: Brunico’s War Cemetery is located a stone’s throw away from Brunico Castle (in reality just across the footbridge). Visiting in summer? There are some pretty lowland walks in the area. If you want to climb something a bit higher, head over to nearby stunning landscapes Mt Kronplatz or the lushness of Vedrette di Ries-Aurina Natural Park. Visiting in winter? This region also has some good skiing.
Antica Mulattiera (Mule Track) in the Val de Susa, Italy
The antica mulattiera or ancient mule path carves its way up the mountain deep with the Val de Susa, carrying pilgrims to the Sacra di San Michele as it has done for at least a thousand years. Hidden amongst the curves one will find 15 “stations of the cross,” stone crosses each representing a different “station” – a stark reminder to the route’s pilgrims of why they are here. Cobblestones smoothed by the centuries, sharp edges worn away by thousands if not millions of pilgrim’s boots make up the rugged path that hugs Monte Pirchiriano in northern Italy. Leave behind the 21st century to follow the antica mulattiera through the Val de Susa, travelling back in time to the Middle Ages when pilgrimages were a normal part of life for every believer. In your modern homage to ancient pilgrimages, follow this quiet forest path and enter into nature as you make your own pilgrimage to the monastery at the top. Not only will you be able to approach the monastery in the traditional way and understand what life would have been like for a medieval pilgrim, but along the way you’ll be privy to amazing views, hillside villages and centuries of tradition. As you make your soul-searching pilgrimage, you’ll have time to reflect on life and destiny. By the time you reach the top, you may very well be a changed person.
Pro tip: Start your walk from behind the church of Saint-Ambrogio of Torino, a short train ride from the city of Torino. From the train station, it’s about a 3km walk each way. Visit in the winter to avoid other tourists and marvel at the snow-dusted woodlands and mountaintops. Due to slippery stones and leaves underfoot as well as some muddy patches, we recommend sturdy shoes for this walk.
France is a country of many wonders, be they natural, cultural or a bit of both. One of the most underrated regions of France is the Ardèche, a small sun-kissed, hilly place in the south-central region of France. Though the Ardèche has its fair share of tourists, they are mostly French, mostly local, and mostly converged around a couple of over-visited spots such as Vallon du Pont d’Arc. Places like Largentière and Baluzac are breath-taking medieval splendours well worth a visit when you’re in the region. But the most spectacular part of Ardèche is probably the Réserve Naturelle des Gorges d’Ardeche. Actually made up of a series of gorges carved out over thousands of years by the Ardèche River, the Gorges d’Ardèche is known locally as the “European Grand Canyon.” (Other impressive French canyons are the Gorges de Verdon and the Gorges de Tarn). Not only are the landscapes beautiful, but the Gorges are a well-known haven for wildlife. Admire the dramatic geology from above the Gorges as well as from within them, from the river that created the rock formations. The most famous example is the Pont d’Arc, a natural arch 60 metres wide. In summer, the Gorges d’Ardèche become a popular swimming place, and the riverbanks are brimming with swimmers, sunbathers and divers – though nearly all visitors to the river are local. Another popular activity is kayaking or canoeing but this is such as popular activity that you may want to avoid it. The area is riddled with caves and caverns, many of which contain paintings and other signs of human habitation. To put things into perspective, humans have called the Gorges d’Ardèche home for over 300,000 years!
Pro tip: There are several swimming holes along the river, one of which is just under the Pont d’Arc. Stay overnight in one of the local picturesque medieval villages like Largentière or Balazuc.
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!
Pragser Wildsee / Lago di Braies, Italian Dolomites
Reflections shimmer in the quiet pools of Lago di Braies’ furthest shores. This little turquoise and emerald lake is snuggled deep within the peaks and valleys of the Dolomites Mountains in the Sud Tyrol region of northern Italy. The Lago di Braies is the crown jewel of the Parco Naturale di Fanes-Sennes-Braies, a stunning nature park that covers some 63,000 acres of ruggedly beautiful mountainous landscapes deep in the Dolomites. Because of a rejigging of borders after WWI, the once Austrian region of Sud Tyrol is now Italian – though culturally and linguistically the locals have remained close to their Germanic roots. Lago di Braies, or its germanic name, the Pragser Wildsee, is one of the many pearls of this underrated region (most of the visitors to the lake and the greater region are domestic tourists). Offshoots of the Alps, the Dolomites are one of Europe’s significant mountain ranges – though the highest peak in the Dolomites (Marmolada) doesn’t even crack the top 200 hundred tallest peaks in the Alps. But it’s not all about height – Europe is full of beautiful, wild sites like the Pragser Wildsee that escape the tourist trail – you just have to know how to find them!
Pro tip: Like France’s network of GR (Grande Randonnées), the Dolomites have their own network of paths, numbered 1 – 8 and called alte vies or high paths.
Find other beautiful places in the Dolomites of Sud Tyrol:
St Michael’s along the Philosophen Weg, Heidelberg, Germany
It’s the journey, not the destination that makes a place special, which is certainly true of St Michael’s Monastery near Heidelberg. Start on the far side of the river by meandering your way up a path called Philosophen Weg. Steep and narrow, this cobblestoned alley quickly sweeps you out of the city and up into the deep, dark woods overhanging the gothic spires of Heidelberg. Then, the path promptly splits in two, and your only signpost signalling the way is a boulder engraved with obscure German words. So what do you do? Choose a path, and hope it’s right, though you soon start second-guessing yourself as you come to another fork, and another. At each path, there is a new boulder, with new words. Scratching your head with frustration, you cast your eyes around you in hopes of discovering a clue. Suddenly, you feel very much like you stepped off the pages of a Grimm’s brother tale. Rounding a bend, the trees suddenly open up over a magnificent panorama of the city. The next opening takes you to an amphitheater with exceptional acoustics (once unfortunately used for hate speeches by the Nazi party). After a small eternity in the dark fairytales of the Brothers Grimm’s world, you emerge, completely surprised at your luck, into a clearing comprised of the ruins of St Michael’s Monastery. While some of its ruins are even older, the majority of the monastery dates to 1023. But by 1503, the complex’s last monks died, and the rural, isolated monastery was abandoned, and like so many once-great places, forgotten. While open to the public today, these little-visited and remote ruins hold the air of a lost masterpiece.
Pro tip: The best way to arrive at the monastery is on foot but its best to ask for a map or use a GPS to find your way in the woods. Once you pass the old amphitheatre you’re almost there.
Other Ruined European Monasteries, Abbeys and Friaries
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.
Views of Beinn Eighe aross Loch Clair, Torridon Hills, Scotland
The Scottish Highlands are a romantic yet desolate place. Hiking in these remote hills feels a bit like being at the edge of the world. Beautiful, amazing, alone. Snuggled deep within the forgotten Northwest Highlands, the village of Torridon clings to the shores of Loch Torridon. The region is full of places to muddy your boots and whet your imagination – one of which is the little Loch Clair, where an off-the-beaten-path trail circumnavigates the lake, giving views over Beinn Eighe and other peaks of the Torridon Hills. Other peaks in the Torridon Hills include Liathach and Beinn Alligin, all of which are known to climbers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. This is the kind of place to get lost. Not lost in the sense of “send the mountain rescue helicopters!” but lost as in a place you can get lost in your thoughts, daydreams and nature. This is a place where the romantic poets and landscape painters of the world would feel at home, a place where the 21st century has yet to find, where mud-plastered boots, Nordic walking poles and Gore-Tex hiking gear is the style.
Pro tip: To hike Loch Clair, head west on the A896 from Torridon for 15 minutes until you hit the Loch Clair car park on the left; the trailhead is across the road. Follow the rugged Loch Clair shores for magnificent lake and mountain views and stunning silence – best viewed during the famous Golden Hour!
Vedrette di Ries-Aurina Natural Park in Sud Tyrol, Italy
The Dolomites is a loosely defined mountainous area in northern Italy comprising of peaks, villages, waterfalls, parks and a strong Germanic identity leftover from post-war. border changes with Austria. The Vedrette di Ries-Aurina Natural Park (Naturpark Rieserferner-Ahrnin German). Crowned with high, rugged peaks and low, lush valleys, the park is a paradise for golden eagles, peregrine falcones, wild deer, and diverse Alpine flora. Cold, clear mountain lakes shimmer like lost marbles amongst the jagged peaks of the Dolomites carved out of the rough mountains by ancient glaciers. Waterfalls like the nearby Cascate di Riva continue to chisel away at the Vedrette di Ries-Aurina’s Alpine canvas. Best of all, ancient forests spread their leafy branches in a canopy over the chocolate-coloured earth, their leaves whispering in the wind. This is a place overlooked by the rush and buzz of the high-sprung 21st century routine. From creaking pine bridges and wooden stairs to soft, springy earth underfoot, the Vedrette di Ries-Aurina park is a place best explored and appreciated while travelling on foot. (One recommended start is at the Cascate di Riva, as there is a small car park just off the main road).
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.
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 Latvia’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
Happy New Year everyone! Yes, this little guy is a wild pony, well-fed by the New Forest’s robust undergrowth. The New Forest, located in southern England near Winchester, the ancient capital of England, is what remains today of a once-majestic great wood. It was once the King’s Wood (or Kingswood), a forest set aside for the king’s enormous hunting parties, started sometime after 1066 by our old friend, William the Conqueror. The Forest continued to be inhabited by simple folk who could–and can–trace their lineage centuries back. Many of them kept ponies (for work), though they let them roam free, which is how the Forest came to be inhabited by these furry, hardy creatures. Despite world events, the New Forest has changed very little in the last 1000 years. Ancient trees still loom together, looking over muddy fields, quiet lakes and thatched roofs. One still sees the same names on doors, such as Furzey, an old local name. One still sees remnants of its Norman beginnings, such as the village of Beaulieu (though today pronounced “Byoow-lee” by locals). Old, dark spires rise up along modern roads built on top of ancient paths. But for the full effect of the New Forest, one must leave the car behind and trek into nature. One cannot fully appreciate the New Forest until one has mud on one’s shoes, rain in one’s coat, leaves in one’s hair, a pony in one’s sight. It is an old, magical place, this misnomer, the very old New Forest.
*If interested in the New Forest, check out Edward Rutherford’s intriguing and epic tale of the place, simply called “The Forest,” spanning nearly 1000 years of history of the Forest, told through tales about the inhabitants over the centuries.
Supposedly one of the Baltic’s early form of tourism was pilgrimages to this cave. It all started with a legend, a story, dating to the age of castles and knights and villains. Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in a castle called Turaida. There was another castle, not so far away, where a handsome young man lived, and in the middle, there was a cave–pleasant kind of cave–where the lovers would meet to plan their marriage. But there was also a villain, and he wanted the princess for him. So, one day, he went to the cave to convince her to marry him. When she refused, he threatened to force her to marry him. She told him she would trade his hand for a magic scarf that was impossible to pierce by blade. Of course, he didn’t believe her, so she let him test it…on her. Of course, it didn’t work, and of course she knew that. But I guess suicide was considered a better option than a forced marriage… but the story doesn’t end there. Even though the princess died, our prince from the other castle tracked down the villain and avenged her death, and spent the rest of his days caring for their castles and protecting her cave. People started coming there, leaving their marks (coat of arms) in the stone. You can still make a pilgrimage there, hiking from Sigulda all the way to her castle’s ruins in Turaida. In the woods along the way, you can make a detour in order to pay homage to the Rose of Turaida and her infamous cave…
Norway is green. No really–it is green. Of its 385,252 square kilometres, most of it is dominated by nature: mountains, glaciers, fjords, forests, and other natural features. The rugged coastlines are jagged with fjords, the largest of which is the Sognefjord not far from Bergen. At 2o4 km, it is the second-longest in the world, and according to the world-renowned magazine, National Geographic, Norway’s fjords are the ‘world’s top tourist destination.’ The part of the country facing the Atlantic Ocean is even greener than the rest of the country as it sees more precipitation and milder winters than the inland bits and the lands far up north. Bergen is Europe’s Seattle in terms of high rainfall percentages. As a result, hiking up any of the mountains that rise behind the city of Bergen–such as Mt. Fløyen–leads you immediately into a green, moss-covered forest. Instead of oozing with fear or unease, the solitude of the forest is quiet and echoing, hugging the solitary traveler as they explore the magic of the winding paths. Not only is this relaxing and curative, it is made easier by Norway’s traditional allemannsretten, or “all mans right of access,” a law that permits everyone the right to the countryside no matter who owns it. Pretty cool, huh?
If you need a reason to escape Bergen, just behind the city rises Mt Fløyen. Bergen is known as the city between seven mountains, of which includes Ulriken (the highest), Fløyen, Løvstakken and Damsgårdsfjellet, as well as three of Lyderhorn, Sandviksfjellet, Blåmanen, Rundemanen, and Askøyfjellet (depending on how you’re feeling at the time…). There is a cable car carrying tourists to the top of Fløyen, but to experience the mountain as the Norwegians do, grab a map and start climbing! Besides being rewarded with amazing views of the city from a birds-eye point of view, you may also stumble across this beautiful mountain lake. Carved into a lakeside tree, it says, “Dagen i dag er morgendagen du drømte om i går,” translating to something like the whimsical phrase, “Today is the tomorrow you dreamt about yesterday.” Well, sign, I hope that’s what I’m doing!