Dubrovnik is one of those places that somehow just doesn’t seem quite real. Is it a fairy tale? A place in Game of Thrones (which used it as a filming location) or Lord of the Rings? But no, Dubrovnik is the thriving southmost city of Croatia, an orange-tiled marbled marvel clinging to the shores of the very turquoise Mediterranean Sea. Vibrant, busy and loud, the narrow streets of this small but beloved city vibrate with life. But from here, beyond the ancient streets, beyond the beaches, up above the peninsula of dusty hills framed with of lush greenery, we have the very best view of this beautiful place. Croatia is a place of rapid change, a place where time most certainly does not stand still. As the EU’s most recent member, it is a place where past meets future.
Pro Tip: Unless you’re looking for a typical beach holiday, visit Croatia in the off season to avoid the busiest of tourists.
Probably most famous for its role on HBO hit Game of Thrones(part of Dragonstone), the craggy islet of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe – meaning the Rock Castle from the Basque language – is perhaps one of Europe’s most fascinating and fantastical monuments. With its picture-perfect monastery perched perilously at the top of a formidable rock pinnacle, its not hard to see why San Juan de Gaztelugatxe was chosen as a location in the fantasy land of Westeros. Narrowly perched on the Bay of Biscay deep in Basque Country, the sea crashes endlessly at the islet, eroding away at the rocks. After a long walk to the island, across the causeway and up the rough-worn stairs, you arrive at the monastery or hermitage. This little building, dangling 80 metres above the sea, is dedicated to John the Baptist, and dates back to the 9th and 10th centuries and is the final resting place of medieval monks. Its location was long considered strategic and played a role in several battles – the place where the Lord of Biscay confronted the King of Castille in the mid 14th century, the site of a sacking from Huguenots (Protestants persecuted in France) from La Rochelle, an 18th century English raid and even a naval battle during the horrific Spanish Civil War. Despite its tragic history, today San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a place of great mystique and wonder – not to mention an amazing place for budding photographers!
Pro tip: This place was busy pre-Game of Thrones and the fantasy series will only continue making it more popular. Avoid the crowds (and the heat!) as best as possible by visiting in the off season, or early in the day. Get the most out of your visit by hiking from Bakkio town along the coast.
Irish author George Bernard Shaw once said “If you want to see heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik,” – and yes it is that pretty. The white-stone marvel overlooking the dazzlingly blue Adriatic Sea is a true architectural beauty. By day, Dubrovnik, also known as Ragusa, is a tangled canvas of azure, orange and pearl-grey, and by night, it is a cheery glow of yellows and gold brushstrokes. Dubrovnik is made up of an array of wide boulevards and narrow alleys, a jungle of styles – Baroque, medieval, gothic. It wasn’t always so. In 1991, after the not-so-peaceful breakup of Yugoslavia, poor Dubrovnik was besieged for more than 7 months by the Yugoslav People’s Army in the scarily-recent year of 1991. The Old Town in particular suffered greatly at the hands of this pointless shelling, and it took more than a decade to painstakingly return Dubrovnik to its former glory (a fate that mirrors that Warsaw and Dresden after WWII, and most likely Notre Dame de Paris after the 2019 fire). Today, Dubrovnik is under a different kind of siege. While Game of Thrones, Instagram and cruise ships have succeeded in putting Dubrovnik on the map, it has gone too far. The explosion in popularity has pushed poor Dubrovnik to the brink of unsustainable overtourism, an affliction that unfortunately also affects other well-known destinations like southwest Ireland, Barcelona, Iceland and Prague. They are now staggering cruise ship arrivals to spread out the numbers, but until big cruise ships are forbidden to dock in small and medium-sized cities (Dubrovnik has just 45,000 inhabitants!), the problem will persist. For the sake of historic and heritage preservation, do not travel on big cruise ships (nothing over 250 people…) or coach tours as these forms of mass tourism are ruining national monuments.
Pro tip: As stated, do not travel on the big cruise ships. Instead, visit Dubrovnik in the off season (Oct-early April). If you’re dead set on arriving by sea, take the ferry from Bari, Italy across the beautiful turquoise Adriatic Sea – not only is it a lovely way to travel, it is cost effective and saves you a night of accommodation. Food here is similar to Italy – expect a lot of pizza and fish!
Hidden away in the little-known County Fermangh along the Ireland–Northern Ireland border is the Marble Arch geopark and the Boho Caves. Buried within the hollowed hills is a collection of limestone caves. Some caves can be visited – such as those in the Marble Arch geopark – while others are harder to find. Pollenagollum Cave is one of those subterranean worlds that few discover – and those who do are not disappointed. Located in Belmore Mountain Park, Pollenagollum Cave (meaning “hole of the doves”) bores into the face of a small 12-metre-high cliff, its mouth at the bottom of a graceful waterfall. The cave itself goes back about 2 km, where there is another entrance in the hollowed-out hills of Marble Arch, though an underground stream makes the cave impassible (only the first kilometre or so is unblocked). Pollenagollumm Cave’s claim to fame is quite recent – it was here that, in the much-loved Game of Thrones TV Series, the scene in which Beric Dondarrian had Arya and her companions where brought to his underground hideout was filmed! The limestone cave is impressive, and the surrounding Belmore Forest and quarry is tranquil and beautiful.
Pro tip: The whole loop in Belmore Forest is about 7km, though the cave is only about 1km along the trail. There is also a stone marked with neolithic-era Curvilinear art not far off the path, but isn’t well marked. Please note that access to the cave is by permission only – some speleology associations may be able to bring curious visitors. Otherwise, there is a viewpoint just about the cave and waterfall for those who simply want to enjoy the panorama.
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.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe Stairway, Basque Country, Spain
It’s not hard to see why even just the pathway and staircase to the monastery of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe has captured the inspiration of thousands – or why fantasy film/series producers (like the unfortunate Game of Thrones where the stairs and islet stood in for Dragonstone) have chosen this place to be part of a fantastical world. Carved into a rugged, rocky outcrop on Spain’s north Basque coast, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is an ancient 10th century monastery perched precariously at the top of a rocky outcrop of an island. Reachable by a rugged causeway, the iconic steps and pathway were carved directly into the causeway itself. Dedicated to St John the Baptist, the unpronounceable Basque name actually loosely translates to “St John’s craggy fort.” At the top stands a medieval hermitage with burials spanning the 9th – 12th centuries. As with most medieval hermitages, the location was chosen precisely because of its rough and remote location – all the better for monks and hermits to isolate themselves from the evils of the world and focus on prayer and god. That said, the rough and remote location later became important as a stronghold and was attacked several times (including by the nasty though strangely revered Sir Francis Drake). Today, the island’s amazing geography combined with the added architecture is a popular site to visit.
Pro tip: It’s best to visit San Juan de Gaztelugatxe in the off-peak season or early on in the day. To truly appreciate the views, take the bus from Bilbao to Bakio and hike the rest of the way, about 6km. The steps are steep and rugged, so wear sturdy shoes and only attempt if fit. It’s a popular place so expect fellow pilgrims!
During summer, Croatian beaches become a hot-spot for beach tourists – meaning that it’s best to avoid the country from June-August. However in spring or fall, Croatia is absolutely wonderful. Soft waves lap against Dubrovnik’s rocky shores, ancient forts and lighthouses peer over rocky outcrops, restaurants and cafes line the city walls, smooth stone avenues skirt through the town centre while tiny alleys whip and wind their way around the main plaza. Here, orange clay roofs contrast with the turquoise blue of the famous Mediterranean. Founded in the 7th century on a rocky island named Laus to have provided shelter for refugees from the nearby Roman city of Epidaurum, Dubrovnik still has one of the rockiest shorelines on the Med. Most of what you see in this magnificent city today is due to its maritime power gained under the Republic of Ragusa in the 15th-16th centuries. Not only has Dubrovnik been recognised by UNESCO, but CNN attributed it to being among the top 10 best preserved walled medieval cities in the world!