Reading Kiersten White’s The Guinevere Deception has put legends – particularly that of King Arthur – at the front of the mind, bringing back memories of Glastonbury. The town of Glastonbury is one place with deep roots in the Arthurian legend. Some sources (okay yes, monks with a financial stake in the matter) say that the graves of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere were here, at Glastonbury Abbey, before they were spirited off or destroyed (conveniently happening at a time when the abbey was in desperate need of fundraising). Some even try to associate this Somerset English town with the legendary Avalon. Whatever the truth, the Arthur legend is laden with Christian overtones, and Glastonbury’s King Arthur tendrils reach further than the Abbey and Glastonbury Tor. And then there’s the Chalice Well. Chalice, you say? Sounds Arthurian. Archeology says the Chalice Well has been in constant use for at least 2,000 years, possibly longer. Fed by a deep aquifer, the well, also known as the Red Spring, produces 110,000 litres of water tinted with a reddish hue per day (never failing, even in drought). Now surrounded by a well-manicured Sacred Garden, the Chalice Well lid has concentric designs bisected by a sword, likely Excalibur. Other myths say that this is where biblical Joseph of Arimathea hid the chalice containing Jesus’ blood – hence the water’s red colour. King Arthur of course is also linked to the Holy Grail, said to have searched for this holy relic with his famed knights. What myth came first? Is this place called the Chalice Well because King Arthur is supposedly buried nearby? Or was it this well’s holy connection that inspired the claim that Glastonbury is Arthur and Guinevere’s final resting place? Likely, we’ll never know. Regardless, this is a beautiful spot, and worth a visit on any tour (tor?) of Glastonbury.
England is a lovely place; Bath is even lovelier. Ancient Roman baths, Gothic abbeys, picturesque canals, charming cobblestones, Georgian architecture, amazing bridges and green parks come together to make one of England’s loveliest cities. It helps too that Bath was home to one of England’s most influential writers, Jane Austen, and it featured in many of her stories (notably Persuasion and Northanger Abbey). On the other side of Bath’s canal, meandering forest trails wind through the grounds of Prior Park and its Palladian house built in the mid-1700s as a way of displaying the use of Bath limestone as a potential building material. The house, as well as this bridge nestled deep into the park’s hillsides, was built following the style imbued by 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, whose rigid classical style briefly became popular in the UK during the mid 17th- and 18th-centuries before being cut short by the Civil War. Palladio valued lines, symmetry and perspective – the ultimate version of Neoclassical architecture. Inspired by the Greeks and Romans, Palladio derived a style that adapted the symmetry of Roman temples and palaces to a more modern manor house. Today owned by the Prior Park College and the National Trust, Prior Park is one of Bath’s hidden gems and well worth the countryside stroll!
Pro tip: No car? Save your walking for when you get to the park. The No. 2 bus runs every 30 mins (from BK on Dorchester Street), though you can indeed walk – its about 20-30 mins from the city centre. Check their website for up-to-date opening info as well as events and festivities happening in the park during your visit. Looking for more walking? The lovely canal you crossed to get to Prior Park is a beautiful place to walk or jog.
Temperate Glasshouse in Kew Gardens, London, England
The Kew Royal Botanic Gardens are some of the finest botanical gardens in the world. Spread over 121 hectares (300 acres), wander amongst some 50,000 plants found across this UNESCO World Heritage site outside London. The jewel of Kew Gardens is the beautiful Temperate House. This Victorian-era glasshouse – opened 1862 – was built to be the stunning entrance to the royal gardens when the rail line was complete. Things didn’t go to plan, and the railway station was moved to the other end of the park. The building itself is quite marvellous, containing thousands of panes of glasses (replaced after more than 100 WWII-era bombs rocked Kew), while the thousands of plants within this iron and glass dome are even more so. The Victorians had an intense curiosity. Those who could afford to went on adventures to all corners of the Earth in search of the new and exotic to bring back to mother England – or more likely, sponsored an explorer to go off in their name. Those who couldn’t afford the adventures themselves would instead satisfy their curiosity by going to palm houses, world fairs, circuses, museums, curiosity cabinets, exhibits, wax halls, and other such places. Housing 1,500 plants from 5 continents and 16 islands, the Temperate House covers plants within the temperate zone (where most of the world population lives, the temperate zone is sandwiched between the polar and tropics – including North America, Europe, China, Australia, southern Africa, and parts of South America). While at the Temperate House, wander the narrow alleys between plants before climbing up to the viewing platform for an aerial panorama of the ecosystems below and the wrought and cast iron structure above. Whether or not you have an interest in biology and ecosystems, Kew Gardens and its glasshouses are a fascinating place – both pulling you into the past with its Victorian glasshouses as well as looking towards the future at the effects humans have on the planet, and working to conserve and protect the Earth’s flora.
Pro tip: Visit the Palm House while you’re at Kew Gardens. When you’re in Belfast, be sure to visit the Palm House in Belfast’s Botanical Gardens and in Dublin visit the National Botanic Gardens – all four glasshouses are designed by Victorian-era architect Richard Turner. Also while in Kew, be sure to check out the beautiful glass art by artist Dale Chihuly.
Hall’s Croft House in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England
Stratford-upon-Avon is one of England’s most historic cities. Perhaps most famous for its connection to English playwright William Shakespeare, many of the 16th and 17th century historic houses have some sort of connection to the most famous playwright of the English language. Hall’s Croft House is part of the “next generation” – the Jacobean house once inhabited by William Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna, and her husband, his son-in-law John Hall, who was a successful doctor in Stratford-Upon-Avon. A beautiful example of a timbered house inspired by styles of medieval timbered buildings, Hall’s Croft was built in 1613 in a fashionable part of Stratford. John Hall himself, though attaining nothing like the fame of William Shakespeare, was a respected doctor in his day, even writing a popular medical textbook. Not only was he good at his job (focussing on herbs and plants as opposed to blood-letting or other archaic and crude practices), he was compassionate as well, treating both Catholic and Protestant patients, as well as those of differing economic statuses. Hall’s Croft may just be one structure in a city crowded with rich history and incredible architecture, but it is certainly one of the most fascinating mirrors into the past during the time of William Shakespeare. Don’t miss the simple and rustic yet beautiful interiors or the stunning walled gardens to the back of Hall’s Croft.
Pro tip: Though it’s possible to visit Stratford-Upon-Avon as a day trip from Birmingham or Oxford, staying overnight here or in a neighbouring village in the Cotswolds is a far more enjoyable way to discover this historic place. Hall’s Croft is one of 5 properties part of the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust. Though you can buy a ticket to visit just Hall’s Croft (which is the cheapest of the 5) or any of the places, if you want to visit more than one site, it’s more cost effective to buy the full ticket – it’s even valid for 12 months if you’re ever back in Stratford during that time! Learn more here.
Le Jardin Anglais (the English Garden), Geneva, Switzerland
Geneva’s lovely Jardin Anglais overlooks the mouth of the famously beautiful Lac Leman at its convergence with the Rhone River. Constructed in 1855, this lovely urban garden hosts the famed horloge fleurie, or ‘flower clock’, which was built at the park’s centennial as a way to pay homage to the Switzerland and its affinity for clocks. Originally a wooded patch of embankment, the city of Geneva decided to buy it and turn the area into a lakeside park, part of an initiative to develop a new luxury neighbourhood. Even to this day, the neighbourhood surrounding the Jardin Anglais (as with most of central Geneva) is luxurious and beautiful. It is a place where Porches and Ferraris are parked, where shops like Cartier, Chanel, Gucci and Burberry are the norm, where the flats are glorious and expansive, with flower-clad balconies overlooking Lac Leman. Despite its name, this manicured and meticulous garden with its flower clock, perfect organisation, and profound cleanliness, is so undeniably and unmistakably Swiss.
Autumn colours light up the palate of Kazimierz Dolny’s castle gardens. Kazimierz Dolny is a small, quirky village in eastern Poland within easy day trip striking distance of Warsaw, Poland’s capital. Though a short-lived season, Poland is vivid in autumn – September being a spectacular month for a visit, as the entire month seems to follow the rules of the Golden Hour usually attributed only to brief moments at sunrise or sunset. After weaving Kazimierz’s bustling medieval streets, head up the hill where you will pass the zamek – the lower castle – before climbing the path to the 19-meter tower, or the upper zamek. The view from here over the castle gardens, town and Wisla River (Vistula River in English) is simply splendid. Before the castle was built, the hilltop housed a beacon to warn surrounding settlements of impending attacks. Once upon a time, there was even a drawbridge, a moat, and five floors. Though you can’t climb more than one storey up now, the castle, gardens and tower are all a mystical and magical place made even better when doused in the golden autumn sunlight.
More Off-the-Beaten-Path Destinations in Eastern Europe
Few places can supersede Vienna for splendour or elegance, and one of reasons for this comes in the shape of the splendid Belvedere Palace. Baroque to the core, the massive estate comprises of the Upper and Lower buildings, the Orangery, the Old Stables, the beautiful jardins francais modelled on Versailles and many intertwining paths amongst the flower beds, marble sculptures, tree-lined paths. In a way, we can thank the Ottoman Empire for this marble monument: the Belvedere was built during a period of renewed construction by the Hapsburg family after the successful end to the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire into Central Europe. Much like the Belevedere, the city of Vienna itself isa work of marble and art: from the soaring grey towers of St Stephen’s Cathedral to the massive Staatsoper opera house, from the seat of power at the Hofburg Palace to the many marble and bronze statues scattered around the broad avenues and finally to the many cafes that have made this city famous. Walking Vienna’s avenues and boulevards and gardens is like visiting a living museum, one dedicated to Baroque and Art Nouveau and Gothic styles. From the historic extravagance of the cafes to the vast grandeur of the palaces, Vienna will make you feel like royalty in another era.
Given the recent tragedies in the French capital this week as well as the solidarity marches happening at this very moment, it is only fitting to put the spotlight on Paris. The City of Love, the City of Lights–what can be said about Paris that hasn’t already been said? One of the most visited, photographed and expensive cities in the world, Paris makes the top of every list. From broad avenues to narrow alleys, from magnificent restaurants to cozy cafes, from style to revolution, from love to passion, from life to death, how can one describe a city that has felt and seen so much? Paris has seen the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, it has seen the expulsion of the Jews in the 14th century and later the massacre of the Protestants in 1572. It has seen the glory days of the Renaissance and the height of Impressionism. It has seen the rise and fall of Napoleon, the horrors of WWI, the blood of the French Revolution. Yet, in all that, long has it been the capital of art, culture and society. As such, the city has provided inspiration for creative souls such as Gertrude Stein, Claude Monet, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Oscar Wilde, Gustave Eiffel, Pablo Picasso, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, and so many others. Paris is at the very heart of French life and culture. In wake of the recent murders at Chalie Hebdo and beyond, let us remember that through good times and bad, we’ll always love Paris.
Ah, Belvedere. What would a trip to Vienna be without a promenade around these beautiful gardens? Comprised of two main complexes, the Upper and the Lower, the area also includes a few very lovely gardens. The area surrounding the palace is neatly manicured (in the French style) while the other is far more wild and natural. The oldest sections of the Baroque palace, which date back to 1717 (completed 1723), was built for Prince Eugene who, like all monarchs, wanted a nice, cozy place to relax outside of his taxing duties of being a prince. Various important people have entered these doors , including Franz Ferdinand, Marie Antoinette’s daughter Marie Thérèse Charlotte, and Maria Theresa, though she never lived here. Instead, she decided it would make a nice place to store the Imperial family’s art collection. After the first world war, the Palace officially became a museum, and was eventually opened to the public. Most people go here to visit a particular piece, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. Even though the piece is surely worth your attention, don’t miss the rest of the exhibits, or the architecture, and especially not the gardens–because it is the whole experience that will make your visit special!