Knocknarea Mountain, Ireland

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Happy Pup near Knocknarea Mountain, Ireland

Nothing beats the look of joy on a happy pup’s face, and this real-life teddy bear dog’s expression is pretty good. Ireland – being an island! – has plenty of coastline and therefore, plenty of sand dunes; perfect places for happy skipping and running if you’re man’s best friend! Pooches aside, Strandhill sand dunes are a wonderful place for a quiet, coastal walk, but for a little more of a challenge – and for stunning views of Strandhill village, the Atlantic Ocean, and the vast, windswept landscapes of Co. Sligo made famous by Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, climb to the top of Knocknarea. The views are worth it! Along the way, you’ll pass a ruined famine village (i.e., a village abandoned during the famine years due to harsh climes). Surrounding tombs date to Megalithic times (2,000-5,000 BC) – and no one knows exactly how the ancient people got the rocks all the way up there! At the summit, you’ll be confronted with legendary Irish warrior Queen Maeve’s massive tomb (called a cairn, it’s essentially a huge pile of rocks). Bring a rock to add to the pile for good luck, but beware – removing any stones brings on the (very) bad luck!

Mt Schiehallion, Scottish Highlands

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Mt Schiehallion & Loch Rannoch in the Scottish Highlands

Rugged, rural, isolated, windswept, adventurous. Welcome to the colourful quietness of the Scottish Highlands. Scotland may have some great urban destinations – Edinburgh, Aberdeen, St Andrews to name a few – but this little nation is best personified and identified by its natural facade. The least-dense part of the British Isles (it has a population density of 68 people/km2), Scotland is positively bursting with places to explore wearing a solid pair of boots and a sturdy walking stick – the Hebrides, Orkney Island, the Isle of Skye, Cairgorms National Park, the NW Highlands, to name but a few vast regions. Many places are only accessible on foot (case in point: the rugged Knoydart Peninsula…). Mt Schiehallion, rising above the shores of Loch Rannoch, makes for a spectacular climb with sweeping views over the surrounding countryside. Driving may be a more comfortable way to get around, but by using your own two feet, you’ll discover amazing places you would have missed when whizzing by in a car; you’ll meet local people and perhaps learn a thing or two about the Highlands’ history or culture; you’ll slow down your speed to appreciate being in the moment. But most importantly, by hiking through the Highlands, you’ll experience them the way you were meant to – creating  profound connection between you and the land itself.

Castillo Xàtiva, La Costera region, Spain

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Castillo Xàtiva and the La Costera region, Spain

Spicy yellows and greens flood the rugged slopes of Monte Vernissa in  warm, afternoon sunlight, just outside the town of Xàtiva (Játiva in Spanish). During the Al-Andalus, the Arab conquerers turned the city into a paper manufacturing centre. The introduction of this technology brought prosperity, leading to the creation of high-quality schools and educational institutes with the castle arriving in the 11th century. Due to a terrible siege orchestrated by Philip V of Spain (punishment for Xàtiva’s resistance to his claim to power) that led to the town’s destruction, to this day Philip’s portrait hangs upside-down in the local museum. History aside, the La Costera region envelops the scraggy, weather-beat valley steppes of Montesa and Xàtiva, bordered by the Enguera and Grossa Mountains in the south. Xàtiva and its fortified castle remain the heart of the region. La Costera is a region beautiful for both its cultural and natural riches, and well worth the trek into its dry valleys. Though perhaps past its golden age in terms of affluence, Xàtiva remains a place of intense beauty and intrigue, and gold is still the best way to describe the city’s surrounding sea of sunburnt landscapes gently reminiscent of the American Wild West.

Happy New Year, folks!

 

Sacra di San Michele, Sant’Ambrogio, Italy

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Monastery of Sacra di San Michele above Sant’Ambrogio, Italy

Imagine foreboding, nebulous labyrinths forming the veins of an ancient stone bibliotheca in the heart of a mountaintop monastery perched deep in the Italian Alps. While the labyrinth itself may exist not in stone but simply on the pages of a famed Italian text, the monastery seemingly holds dark secrets and a forgotten past. The inspiration for the epic tale of ancient mystery, The Name of the Rose, written by none other then the famed Umberto Eco (RIP), the Sacra di San Michele is a silent beauty lost in the snowy woods of the Val de Susa. Looming over the hushed, 11th-century alpine village of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino, the Sacra is best reached on foot, ascending Mount Pirchiriano via the ancient mule track worn smooth by centuries of millions of pilgrims who have come this way to pay homage to this sacred site of mystery and religion. Benedictine for most of its history, Sacra di San Michele is now managed by the Rosminians, though its mountaintop perch has been home to humans since Roman times when the site lay upon the road from Rome to Gaul. Difficult to pinpoint the monastery’s exact origins, a monk called William (not the one in The Name of the Rose!) claims the Sacra was founded in 966 (though he also claims it to be founding during the time of the pontificate Sylvester II who ruled some 50 years later). On the other hand, tradition states that it was built by St. Giovanni Vincenzo the hermit, who was simply following the commands of the archangel Michael (and consequently, the stones used somehow miracle-d themselves to the top of Mount Pirchiriano). No matter who laid the first stone, the Sacra is a long-lost stone beauty, which gave backdrop to Umberto Eco’s magnificent, foreboding tale of intrigue.

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Coumeenoole, Ireland

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Coumeenoole along the Slea Head Drive, Ireland

A flash of movement, a shimmer of gold, a glimpse of green. Welcome to the land of the leprechauns – a spit of land near the westernmost point of mainland Ireland. Bearded little men with a penchant for mischief-making, leprechauns have become a prominent part of Irish folklore, and though today’s prankster wears green, the original creature actually wore red. The Dingle Peninsula, where the Slea Head Drive is located, is a magical place with or without the leprechauns. Though cars scoot by along narrow Irish roads following the infamous Wild Atlantic Way, those who venture into the rolling green hills with only sheep for company will be immensely rewarded. While visitors may not find a leprechaun or even his pot of gold, what you will find is much more valuable. As you walk barefoot through the soft blanket of thick Irish grass on the rugged peninsula that overlooks the waves of green hills of the unpronounceable Coumeenoole, you will bask in the solace of tranquillity and total immersion, living wholly in this magical moment lost in the Irish countryside – all the while knowing that once you begin to craving vivacity, you will surely find raucous fun in the next village’s pub. It’s an amazing and intricate balance that only Ireland seems capable of creating and maintaining!

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Massif Central Mountains, Auvergne, France

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Puy de Sancy in the Massif Central, Auvergne, France

Typically evoking ideas of fire and brimstone, volcanoes are not generally the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions ‘France.’ And yet, volcanoes – or at least extinct ones – are the dominating natural feature of the French province of Auvergne, located in central France. Rated the 6th top destination to visit in 2015 by Lonely Planet, the unique volcanoes of Auvergne are at least in part responsible for Auvergne’s intrigue. As part of the Massif Central, a mountain range that covers most of Auvergne and plays a significant role in the region’s natural and cultural landscape, some of the volcanoes are as old as 65 million years, while others are as young as 7,000 years (mere toddlers in mountain live spans). Being elevated and surrounded by mountains makes Auvergne’s climate chillier (and foggier) than the rest of central France, perhaps attributing to the region’s hearty mountain dishes such as aligot and truffade (both made with potatoes, types of pork, and hearty cheeses). The locals also seem to have a higher appreciation of nature than people from other regions, and can be found enjoying the outdoors during weekends – whether that be a backyard picnic, a leisurely stroll in the park, or climbing the rugged volcanic landscape. When it comes to hiking, climbing, kayaking, paragliding and other outdoor activities, Auvergne’s mountains are certainly the place to go. Exhilarating, rugged, beautiful, lush, scenic, challenging  – the mountains and volcanoes of the Massif Central become whatever you make them out to be. So get your coat and boots on and go out for a walk in the wild!

Hiking in Chazay d’Azergues, France

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Hiking in Chazay d’Azergues, France

Ahh…The Great Outdoors. It says it all in the name – ‘great!’ No matter whether you’re hiking in Ireland or Denmark, Poland or (as in this case), France, hiking in Europe is bound to be ‘great.’ Being based a city may be ideal for working, for nightlife, for cultural outings, for restaurant variety, and for transportation connections, but breathe in the city air too long, and you’ll go crazy. We all need a good dose of the outdoors in our systems: fresh air, cool wind, natural landscapes, lack of noise, isolation, tranquility. And there are no excuses, for a hiking trip doesn’t always have to be a grand Alpine expedition – if you’ve only got a weekend, head out to the surrounding countryside (every town and city has one!) and hit the trails. Explore the unknown, and who knows what you may find? On this particular day the photo was taken, not only did we find this extensive root system, but we also stumbled across hidden ponds, forgotten manor houses, placid villages, sun-dipped fields, cheery locals and fellow hikers. Exploring the world on foot (no matter how close to or far from home) always seems to add another dimension to the final destination, somehow making that place seem more meaningful to you simply by approaching it via your own two feet. Whether that be in Slea Head Peninsula in Ireland, the Gauja River Valley in Latvia, the Val de Susa in northern Italy, Mt Esja in Iceland or the Beskids and Tatras in Poland, discovering the world on foot is all the more magical.

Gutmanis Cave, Latvia

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Gutmanis Cave, Latvia

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…

 

French Alps

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French Alps

You know that massive outcropping of stone, forest, and rock that divides France from Switzerland and Italy? Yes, well, that is the infamous French Alps. Mont Blanc, as you are probably aware, is the tallest mountain in Europe, calling in at 4,810 m (or 15,780 ft), first summited in 1786 by Jacques Balmat and Dr Michel Paccard, in effect marking the commencement of modern mountaineering. But enough about that. Contrary to popular belief, the Alps are not just snowy, desolate places where only skiers and the most advanced mountaineers can be found; in fact, much of the alps (in the warmer seasons) looks a lot more like these photos. Fields covered in wildflowers, animals grazing on gentle slopes, footpaths tracing mountainsides with the odd cheerful hiker passing by, here is a different perspective of the Alps. Of course, getting to the summits, even the ones visible in these photos, is still a challenge, involving a scramble, deep concentration, and coordination between all four limbs, but the view is worth it. Whether you prefer to climb the big mountains or the smaller ones (often referred to as the ‘Pre-Alps’), their graceful beauty, intense peacefulness, and stunning views will instill the power of Mother Nature in you, and there is a good chance that you will walk away a changed–and happier–person.

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Bergen, Norway

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Moss-covered trees in Bergen, Norway

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?

Gaztelugatxe, Spain

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Gaztelugatxe, Spain

This rough coast barely brings to mind images of Spain. Waves crash against the rocky beaches, cliffs fall dramatically to the sea. Located in Basque Country, Spanish isn’t the only language you’ll hear – their “native” language, Basque, is a very old, very distinct language, and has little roots in any other European language. Reaching the coastal inlet of Gaztelugatxe involves a bit of a hike (though taking a car part of the way is possible). Regardless, you’ll want to take to the trails as you hike to the monastery of San Juan in order to benefit from the beautiful views, thrilling landscape, exhilarating climbs and descents while listening to the relaxing sound of crashing waves.

Beskid Mountains, Poland

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Beskid Mountains, Poland

Snuggled along Poland’s southern border (and spilling over into Slovakia) is an impressive range of mountains called the Beskids. Though no competition for the Alps, the Beskids, which are approximately 600 km in length and 50–70 km in width, comprise part of the massive Carpathian Mountain range (stretching across a large portion of Central and Eastern Europe). Dotted with villages, small farms and wooden houses, they are also crisscrossed with narrow, never-ending trails dipping in and out of the deeply-wooded region. The mountains are big enough that a few minutes after heading into them, you lose track of the 21st century. In fact, borders don’t seem to mean anything, as a glance at the map will tell the surprised hiker that they crossed the border to Slovakia 45 minutes ago (good thing they didn’t ask for our passports!) It is all very rustic. And when you  stumble into the brightly-lit clearing overlooking a pretty, wooden chalet–your destination, of course–you drop your heavy backpack and settle down for some roasted kielbasa (Polish sausage) over a fire and cold piwo (Polish for beer, though watch out–consumed at higher elevations, that single beer will have a much greater effect on you than you’d expect!). Dinner finished, you head inside to discover the reason you hiked for a solid 8 hours that day and 8 more the day before–a traditional Polish folk music concert in the mountains! Inside the simple, barely-lit room, there are two men sporting impressive beards and dressed in threadbare (possibly handmade) outfits, sitting on tree stumps and thrumming fiddles. It can’t get any more adventurous as this!

Zakopane, Poland

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Mountain path overlooking Zakopane, Poland

One of the most popular mountain resorts in Poland, Zakopane is well-known in Eastern Europe for its year-round phenomenal views. Hiking in the summer or skiing in the winter, this city is all-encompassing. If you don’t want to do much hiking, you can take the tram to the top of the mountain, but beware, the wait is long. For the more adventurous, there is a hiking path that leads to the mountaintop where a little “fair” of kitsch souvenirs, Polish beers and great views await. For those even more adventurous, strike out on one of the many less-traveled paths leading deep into the Tatra Mountain range (the mountains that divide Poland and Slovakia). The farther away you hike, the more magnificent and private the views get – until you suddenly realise it’s just you and the majestic mountains!

Grenoble, France

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Grenoble, France

Voici la ville de Grenoble, the Gateway to the Alps. And here we are, looking through an actual gateway! Grenoble, while generally acknowledged to be a “modern” city – and far from the top of the (very long) list of Beautiful French Cities – it is still well-known for its easy access to the Alps and all that comes with these spectacular mountains. Busy with hikers in the summer and skiers in the winter, inactivity is a malady quite unknown to the city. That said, stop for a coffee, pastry or ice cream in many of the cafes downtown, and you won’t be disappointed! For fantastic views, weave your way up the steep, narrow paths up through the stone buildings in various states of ruin until you finally reach the Bastille – where you can expect a magnificently beautiful panorama !

Krimulda Castle, Latvia

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Ruins in Krimulda, Latvia

Ruins always hold a certain charm–reminders to us that even the best eventually crumble and nothing lasts forever. And yet–they are romantic too, inspirations for artists and poets, writers and songwriters. And the more remote and less well-known they are, the more charm they seem to percolate. To reach the ruins of Krimulda Castle from the train station in Sigulda, one must first cross the desolate yet beautifully scenic Gauja Valley–in a cable car! Step into this adorable little yellow car, and spend the next twenty minutes dangling over the gorge, eyes glued to the window as the turrets of Turaida Castle rise above the treetops. As you land on the right bank, delve back into the solitary Latvian woods via a quiet hiking trail at the edge of the ruins. The odd way of reaching this remote place you never even knew was there–such as the Krimulda ruins–only makes it that much more…amazing. Built in the 14th century by Prince Liven, the castle of Krimulda was constructed on the right bank of the Gauja River Gorge. At the time, the gorge marked the frontier between the lands controlled by the Archbishop of Riga (including Krimulda and Turaida), and the Order of the Brethren Sword (what a name!), where Sigulda is currently located. The first year of the 17th century, during the Polish-Swedish war, the Swedes took control of the castle…so, rather than lose control of it, the Poles burned the castle to the ground, leaving it to become the ruins we see today. What a life people lived back then.

Chamonix, France

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Chamonix, France

Home to the famous Mont Blanc – at 4,810 m (or 15,781 ft) it is Europe’s tallest mountain – Chamonix is lovely “snow town” nestled into the mountains. One of the most picturesque sights is surely the lonesome church among the mountains – which is exactly what we have here. St Michel’s Church, a small parish just outside the town square, welcomes visitors from all over the world who want the chance to walk among Europe’s beautiful Alps. Whether one finds it in a church or high in the mountains, everyone needs a little peace and quiet for solitary reflection, making this the perfect retreat from a charged French vacation!

Turaida Castle, Latvia

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Turaida Castle, Latvia

What little girl doesn’t dream of becoming a princess? What little boy doesn’t, at one point or another, dream of becoming a knight? Even as we grow up, castles – especially the unexplored, wild, and overgrown castles – retain something romantic, as if the castle holds some sort of magical power. But as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts. And the journey to reach Turaida Castle is nothing short of adventurous! Starting in the town of Sigulda (where one obtains the highly-detailed map), you continue through the other ruinous castle to Gauja River Gorge, which you cross via cable car to arrive in the ghost town of Krimulda. There, you find a small path leading through more ruins, and continuing on past the Gutmanis Cave, through the woods before breaking out into a small clearing to view your prize—this beautiful brick castle circa 1214, brought to life by the Archbishop of Riga. Today, Turaida Castle remains one of the most important ruins in Latvia – but also one of the most interesting to visit. So if you’re feeling brave next time you visit Riga, forsake the car, forsake the bus, and take to the trails. This age-old journey leading through these ancient sites is well worth it.

 

Val de Susa, Italy

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Antica Mulattiera in the Val de Susa (near St Ambroiso), Italy

Hidden among the curves of this ancient mule path (antica mulattiera) that carves its way up the mountain carrying pilgrims to the Sacra di San Michele as it has done for at least a thousand years, one will find 15 “stations of the cross,” a reminder to the route’s many pilgrims of why they are here. Cobblestones smoothed by millions of pilgrim’s boots line the rugged path that hugs the mountainside. For those who want to leave behind the 21st century–travelling back in time to the middle ages when pilgrimages were a normal part of life for every believer, take 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 and hillside villages. 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.

View from Mt Esja summit, Iceland

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View of Reykjavik and the Atlantic Ocean, as seen from Esja Mountain, Höfuðborgarsvæðið, Iceland

Upon hearing the name of the country called “Iceland,” one probably thinks of intense cold (its climate) or intense heat (its volcanoes). Both happen to be fairly true. Roughly half of the country’s surface area is covered by mountainous lava desert. At one point, scientists think 30-40% of its’ landmass was forested, though after European settlers rapidly and maladroitly cultivated the land, its forests were destroyed and arable land weakened. Today, only small patches of trees have survived, though the Icelandic people have undertaken a massive reforestation programme intended to return their island to a healthier state. Here at the summit of Mt Esja, where you can almost see the lava fields, one can see how barren Iceland can be—but also just how beautiful.

Col Vert, French Alps

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View from the top of Col Vert, French Alps

Hiking is generally a pleasant, self-inspiring, soul-searching kind of gruelling challenge. Summit-ting a mountain is even more rewarding, especially when this kind of view and this kind of lunch awaits you at the top. On a solo trip through France, I was determined to spend a day hiking, though being a woman travelling alone who didn’t happen to speak much French, doing anything too crazy seemed a bad idea. This is the summit of Col-Vert (1766m) in the Pre-Alps. I hiked a trail leaving from the small village, Villard-de-Lans recommended to me by the helpful guides at the mountaineering office in Grenoble because it is a safe, well-traversed area that also affords amazing views. It turned out to be one of the most amazing days full of great people, great views, great food, and great challenges. On the way, I bought local bread and cheese at the outdoor market, and the rest of my picnic I picked up at the grocery store for one delicious picnic with an unforgettable view! As a side note, to the left just outside the frame is the infamous Mount Blanc.