Ah, the Theatre of Pompey. Central Rome – the Eternal City, Italy. Founder of perhaps the greatest empire to ever span the earth. Much remains of Rome’s 2,000+ year old origins. It’s nearly impossible to walk more than a few minutes in any direction through Rome’s old town without stumbling over (yes, in some cases, actually stumbling; its ancient vestiges are everywhere) some sort of ancient Roman ruin, be it temple or column, road or wall, aqueduct or gate, bathhouse, or ordinary house. Or – the theatre. Like us today, the Romans loved the good life, and they liked to relax. They did this in a variety of ways – the circus (actually more akin to attending a football or rugby match) – the bathhouse (actually more akin to the way we socialise in coffee shop or online via facebook) – the infamous (and bloody) games that Rome is unfortunately so famous for (despite their actual rarity, compared to modern depictions) – or the theatre. The theatre was actually a lot like our theatre (and cinema), and was a social event, though this was before electrical lighting, obviously, so most performances actually took place during daylight hours. This particular Theatre of Pompey has very little that remains. It is located a little way from the centre, and on the surface, all that remains is the slightly curved street design built over the theatre. But underneath is another story. In the basement of a restaurant and nearby hotel, significant vestiges of this infamous theatre remain. Infamous, you say? It was here, in 44 BC, on the Ides of March, that Brutus et al killed Julius Caesar. Et tu, Brute?
Pro tip: Want to see the remnants of the Theatre of Pompey? Head into Pancrazio restaurant, where you can head downstairs and see original parts of the theatre, vestiges of the tunnels that would have snaked around behind the amphitheatre. Pancrazio restaurant, far from being over touristy, is actually pretty good, and has some delicious wine. We recommend the seafood linguine. Underground sections can also be spotted in the walls of the hotel Albergo Sole al Biscione.
Ah Lyon, France’s second city. Most tourists flock to Paris or the French Riviera, but more people are starting to find their way to Lyon. Not really south, not really north, but not really the east either, Lyon sits on the banks of not one but two major rivers, the Saone and the Rhone, about 2/3 of the way to the Alps. Once the capital of Gaul during Roman times, Lyon has always played significance roles in French history. The city itself is a beautiful melange of Roman, medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, 20th century utilitarianism, and of course, the bizarreness of modern architecture. At its heart is the Presqu’ile, the place between the two rivers, home to many of the city’s most important buildings, including the Hotel de Ville, the French name for the City Hall. Where once the church was the centre of any French village, town or city, in secular France, this is now the town hall. Built alongside the nearby magnificent Place des Terraux (location of the Musée des Beaux Arts), the Hotel de Ville was constructed between 1645 and 1651 in full Baroque style. Sadly, a fire in 1674 led to further restorations after the Great Hall, chapel, belfry, attic and roof were engulfed. There was once a statue of King Louis XIV but during the chaos of the French Revolution, this was torn down. Some 50 or so years later, the missing statue was replaced with one of Henry IV. Inside, as outside, is in full a decadent and extravagant style – great chandeliers, marble floors, gilded walls, beautiful crown moulding, Lyonnaise silk, vaulted ceilings, huge stairwells, and great halls abound in this amazing building.
Pro tip: Though not always open to the public, there are certain events during the year in which you can attend. You can also take guided tours of some of the rooms; more info here – note the visits are in French only.
Ireland is simply bursting with old ruins – from Neolithic cairns and Iron Age promontory forts, to Norman castles, medieval tower-houses, Georgian mansions, Famine-era villages, recently-abandoned cottages and course lots of churches and monasteries. When the evil Oliver Cromwell and his troops invaded, destroyed and looted Ireland at the behest of the Crown, he also burned all of the Catholic monasteries and churches, and with the Dissolution of the Monasteries (thanks to the mad King Henry VIII) plus the later 18th century Penal Laws (which outlawed everything Irish), most Irish Catholic churches were doomed. Even today, most Catholic churches are 19th or 20th centuries. Anything older, like the tiny church on the Racecourse Road outside Loughrea, is likely in ruins. Some of these structures benefit from the care of a community group, local church groups, an interested landowner, the OPW (Office of Public Works) if they’re lucky, or simply local do-gooders, but some many of these small, half-hidden structures are overgrown, wild and forgotten. Trying to preserve them all simply isn’t always possible. This little church seems even to have forgotten its name, though at least the site is still cared for. Spot it after leaving the small Galway town of Loughrea headed south on the way to Lough Derg.
Pro tip: Ruins such as old churches, as well as Neolithic cairns, megalithic tombs, holy wells, standing stones, public ways, and more are marked in red on OS maps (as well as contour lines). If you’re thinking of hiking in Ireland, or looking for smaller sites like this, you should get yourself an OS map of the part of the country you’re looking to visit. You can order them online, purchase them in most bookshops and outdoor shops, or download the Viewranger app as an electronic version.
Carrickfergus Castle is possibly Ireland’s best-preserved Norman castle. The Battle of Hastings (Norman conquest of England) was fought and won in 1066, but the Norman conquest of Ireland didn’t take place for another 100 years, in 1169, when Strongbow made an alliance with the McMurrough-Kavanagh family (eventually marrying daughter Aiofe) and the Normans invaded Counties Wexford and Waterford in Ireland’s southeast. It didn’t take long for eastern Ireland to fall under Normal rule, deposing the Irish king. Built in 1177, Carrickfergus Castle was designed to be Norman noble John de Courcy’s headquarters from which to rule this corner of Ulster. In fact, Carrickfergus predates Belfast as Ulster’s capital and main city. De Courcy was top Norman at Carrickfergus until 1204 when he was ousted by compatriot Hugh de Lacy, another well-known name in Ireland. See, Carrickfergus is a proper fortress. Built on a narrow rocky outcrop over the local harbour, the castle has massive walls, a strong keep and its own well, meaning as long as it was stocked with food, it could hold out on a siege for a very long time. But, nothing is impossible, and in 1210 King John laid siege and waited them out, taking control of the castle when those few still alive could stand it no longer. Over the years, the castle grew in size and comfort. A beautiful vaulted chapel was built in Romanesque style – still one of the best parts of the castle. As gunpowder came into being, the castle acquired gun loops and cannons. Carrickfergus was generally seen to be a sign of English dominance over the local Irish, and it was from here that the Crown launched its forces. Carrickfergus changed hands many times in the 17th and 18th centuries, and was used as a prison during the Napoleonic wars – remnants of cells remain to this day. While the regional capital of Northern Ireland was eventually moved to Belfast and Carrickfergus lost some of its importance, it remains a bustling and colourful market town, lovely and beautiful in this lesser-visited corner of the famous County Antrim.
Pro tip: Do the guided tour – it is worth it! And it doesn’t cost any extra. The tour guides are really passionate about the castle, and you’ll learn plenty. Afterwards, if it’s a warm day, go to the local shop – almost any will do, look for the plastic cones – and ask for a “99” – soft serve ice cream with a chocolate flake. A favourite of the Irish no matter the weather! (Too cold for you? Go for a pint instead – you have plenty of options. We recommend a Guinness.).
Most people have heard the name Assisi, though likely without knowing where exactly it is. The small Umbrian town is made famous for its association with the famous St Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order, and patron saint of Italy, animals and stowaways (one can just see some sort of Italian ibex stowed away on a ship praying to all three facets of St Francis!). People have been living in Assisi for a long. First settled by around 1000 BC by the Umbrian tribes, later colonised by the Romans who built the layout of Assissium (later shortened to Assisi), through the Ostrogoth raids and Lombardy control, it was the medieval era which made the largest mark on the present city. Expanding outwards from the 13th century, the city spilled beyond the ancient Roman walls (no longer standing), forming a network of tiny wee alleys zigzagging through courtyards, plazas and avenues. The Black Death had a profound effect on the city of Assisi, and it wasn’t until the Renaissance that Assisi rebounded in all its former glory. Today, it is a site of pilgrimage both for religious practicants (coming to pay homage to old St Francis) and modern-day tourists, who venture into Umbria for this little town they’ve heard of. Assisi – well okay, Umbria – is a hilly place. And most people don’t like to venture too far upwards, at least, not on the backstreets. So for anyone looking to find the true ancient beauty of this historic town, now a UNESCO site, wander the winding wee alleys and staircases – the smaller the alley, the more charm it seems to exude. And likely, you’ll leave nearly all the tourists behind on the main square.
Pro tip: Christmastime in Assisi is a magical period to visit and highly recommended (keep an eye out for the mangers, a competitive event in Umbria at Christmas)! Note that the train station is not in the old town, and is quite a walk uphill – we recommend a quick taxi. Want a lovely view? Head up to the top of the town to the old castle via the tiny backroads and trails (you can drive up the main road too, but it’s not as nice).
Sighisoara is surely Romania‘s brightest jewel. This snug medieval city is tucked into the north of the Transylvania region. Colourful facades jostle for place on ancient streets paved with smooth cobblestones, made shiny by the footfall of thousands. Cafes and beer terraces stumble out into the main streets and squares, and a happy hubbub of chatter sounds in the air. Quieter alleys with own windows and miniature gardens ring with the sounds of cooking. A region that has seen many rulers, travellers from Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy and other nearby countries mingle together in this historic city. Sighisoara has a darker past, too. It was here that the infamous maybe-vampire Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler) was born. In fact, you can eat in a restaurant that occupies his former home. Though probably not a vampire, he was certainly unbelievably cruel. Vlad had a seemingly incurable bloodlust and a deep-seated hatred for the Ottomans – though in his defence, the Ottomans spent an inordinate amount of time trying conquer Vlad’s regions of Wallachia and Transylvania (modern day visitors prefer Transylvania due to its mountains and castles, but at the time Wallachia was worth more as its flat and featureless landscape was far better for profitable farming). Vlad’s nickname ‘the Impaler’ was unfortunately based on his obsession with impaling his enemies on spikes. (He is also one of the first to use biowarfare, sending fatally sick man dressed as Turks into their camps to infect as many people as possible). Despite this dark stain on Sighisoara’s history, there’s no doubt that this amazing walled city is a place of true beauty, lovely people and seriously good food.
Pro tip: We recommend climbing the covered awning to the church and graveyard at the top. For some of the best food in the city, head to the wine cellars of Gasthaus restaurant, just outside the walls. We recommend the stew Ciulama de pui for mains and a papanasi as dessert. Or eat in Dracula’s birthplace – a tourist-popular place, but less of a ‘trap’ than in other major European hotspots.
Irish history isn’t always sunshine and roses. Much of it is fairly dark, oppressed for years under British rule. Remember arrogant (sexist) Henry VIII who couldn’t produce an heir due to his own inbred nature but kept blaming his wives? He decided to start his own divorce-friendly religion, which gradually took over and then punished Catholicism. across all English territories. In the 1500s, the Dissolution of the Monasteriesswept across the nation, forcing the abandonment of Catholic monasteries. The crumbling Lavagh Court Abbey in southwest Sligo was no exception. Built in 1454 as a Franciscan Friary, Lavagh sits at the base of Knocknashee Hill (‘hill of the fairies’), which for centuries was held sacred by the pagans (Christians are like Hollywood directors – to get a wider audience and easier job, they ‘borrow’ stories, concepts and sacred people and places from other religions they were hoping to wipe out, something they did successfully in Ireland). Once home to both brothers and sisters of the order, Lavagh is a simple rectangular church topped with a squat stone tower and joined with a chancel. Containing extensive burial sites, it has now been taken over with ivy, plants and flowers. As you wander the burials outside, keep an eye over the walls of the far side – you’ll see an earth-topped stone cashel (ringfort), at least half a century older than Lavagh itself. (What more? Check out well-preserved cashel like Cashelore or Clougher Fort). Follow the path through the half-forgotten wind-beaten graveyard through the small ivy-clad door into another world. Greeted with an earthy, natural smell, Lavagh’s sacred stone walls are wallpapered in crisscrossing ivy and blanketed in soft earth and rustling leaves. Lush and emerald, the massive greenery-wrapped arch feels like a scene out of Narnia. Wandering this ancient, abandoned site, drink in the eerie, moody atmosphere and feel the weight of Mother Nature, a far older god than the one Lavagh was originally built for. This place is surely enchanted with ancient fairytale magic – and chances are, you’ll have it all to yourself.
Pro trip: When visiting this corner of Sligo, you have to climb Knocknashee Hill. Most people climb it via the far side, parking at Gilligan’s World, and passing through the farm gates to climb the very steep slopes to the top. But there is a new path from the Lavagh side being constructed, though process has temporarily halted due to CV-19. At the top, find ancient cairns, forts, and village foundations. Interested in the changing site of Lavagh? Take a look at Sligo artist Wakeman, and his famous 19th century drawings of Sligo monuments.
Ah, the magic of southern France. Uzès is a small, typical town huddled in the sunny southern region of Languedoc-Roussillon. A short drive away from the bustling market towns of Nimes and Avignon, Uzès started life as a Roman settlement, and it was in fact from the source here that the Roman aqueduct that includes the famous section now known as the Pont-du-Gard was built. Uzès has a varied cultural history. It was once home to a thriving Jewish community thanks to a tolerant local population, until the more narrow-minder northerners forced Uzès to expel the non-converted Jews. Later, it was the northernmost reach of the Moorish Spain, staying in Andalusian control until the 750s – though this 30-year period didn’t result in any of the splendid Moorish Mudejar architecture so resounding in Spain. And then in the medieval era, Uzès played host to a group of Cathars, a minority religious group that was both prevalent and persecuted in the south of France. Today, Uzès is a small, lovely town. Its main sights include a Capuchin chapel (primly built on a former Roman temple, thanks Christianity), the beautiful twice rebuilt Uzès Cathedral (the current building dates from the 17th century), several towers, and the medieval château du Duché. The town also hosts a splendid local market on Saturdays. It is a typical regional town and offers a lovely small town vibe compared to the larger Nimes or Montpellier.
Pro tips: Languedoc-Roussillon is a fantastic wine region – we recommend a wine tasting or at the very least trying a few local wines. One lovely wine region not too far from Uzès is Mount Ventoux – the “windy mountain.” Nearby Provence is known for lovely rosés – the perfect summertime drink. Head to cosmopolitan Nimes for Roman architecture, Avignon for religious structures, and into the Cevennes Mountains for great hiking.
With hundreds of island, Scotland‘s fringes are both rugged and full of history. The Outer Hebrides contains some of the largest islands, including the isles of Lewis and Harris. It is on the Isle of Lewis in which you find one of Scotland’s most impressive stone circles, the Callanish Stones, which are famous the world over. Comprising of nearly 50 standing stones each weighing dozens of tonnes each, the stones were erected thousands years ago at the height of the Neolithic era, likely between 2,900 and 2,600 BC. The reasons the islanders went through such effort to quarry, lug and arrange so many stones is still a mystery today, though likely it was for ritualistic purposes – with their importance continuing onwards into the Bronze Age. The inner stones form a circle while the outer stones are in a cruciform shape, and at some point after its construction, a chambered tomb was added to the centre. It is not alone; there are nearby cairns and even other stone circles (for example, Callanish II is less complete but clearly larger in size). Perhaps it is the preserved nature of the stones that rank it high among Scottish Neolithic monuments, but regardless it is one of the most interesting places of all the Scottish isles. For those interested in learning more, there is also an interpretive centre on site, and the stones are a short walk from the centre. It is also popular with the so-called new pagans and druids, spotted here.
Pro tip: Nearby, jump slightly forward in Scotland’s ancient history to the Iron Age at the amazing Dun Carloway Broch.
Historic, quaint and yet still lively, the wee village of Carrbridge is tucked into the Cairngorms, a massive mountain range and national park that encompasses much of the central Highlands. Though beautiful on its own, what really makes Carrbridge special is its bridge. Spanning the rushing currents of the River Dulnain, its name is a bit of a misnomer – it wasn’t built for cars, but instead for packhorses and foot traffic. The beautiful bridge of Carrbridge dates back to the early 18th century. Before the bridge was constructed, the villagers had no way to cross the river when it was flooded, meaning that the villagers could not get to the nearby Church of Duithil to bury their dead – and death waits for nothing, not even a flooded river. To solve this problem, the bridge was commissioned by Grant Clan chief Alexander Grant in 1717, and local mason John Niccelsone was dispatched to erect the bridge. The Old Packhouse Bridge of Carrbridge held for about a century, though flooding in throughout the late 1700s had a detrimental effect on it. The famous flood of 1829 left the bridge in its present state. Today, Carrbridge is an ideal spot for hikers, cyclists and adventurers to be based, as it is in the heart of the Cairngorms, it is connected to Inverness by train (less than 40 min journey) and it is a lovely wee spot, quieter than the more famed Aviemore, just one stop further down the rails!
Pro tip: Visit in October during the odd but intriguing Golden Spurtle Competition, an annual porridge making contest (yes, this is a real thing! And it’s the world championships…), or in September for the Carve Carrbridge chainsaw wood-carving event. Best access point is via Inverness. The Edinburgh train usually stops in Carrbridge, and there are a few simple but lovely B&Bs there, including the Craigellachie Guest House or the Cairn Hotel.
Though happily hard to tell in the photo, the Aviemore Stone Circle is today actually in the middle of a modern housing estate, built up around this ancient site. Prehistoric stone circles are fairly common in Scotland and Ireland but despite how many of them remain, experts still don’t really know why ancient cultures built them or much about these people. Built by ancient peoples during the Neolithic era, the oldest stone circles are as much as 5,000 years old. The Aviemore Stone Circle, comprised of stones far smaller than the stones of more famous exemplars like the Ring of Brodgar or Callanish Stones (or Stonehenge down in England), can be dated as far back as 2,400 BC. The ancient people did not have a system of writing (at least, not that we know of), and other than their megalithic monuments, many of their artefacts were made of easily decomposable materials, so much of their culture is lost to us. But we do know that these Neolithic cultures, found in what are considered in modern times as the Celtic regions, built hundreds – thousands – of great ancient monuments of stone. We also know that they had complicated rituals, and that astrology was important to them. Today, the best Neolithic-era sites are found in Celtic places like Ireland, Scotland, England and Brittany.
Pro tip: Aviemore Stone Circle is in a housing estate a short walk from Aviemore Train Station. For the best Neolithic ruins in Scotland, head to the Orkney Isles (home of Skara Brae) or over to the Isle of Harris. Outside of Scotland, Ireland holds a treasure trove – head out for a walk in the fields of the woods and you’ll practically be stumbling over them.
Despite its unfortunate name, Cockburn Street is a lovely wee street that leads from Waverley Train Station in the New Town up into Edinburgh‘s spectacular Old Town. Much of the Old Town still follows its medieval street plan, comprised of a network of cobbled streets, narrow closes and wide avenues. Edinburgh’s Old Town is full of grander, glitz and history. Wander up to Royal Mile (High Street), marvel at the cathedrals, churches and museums, walk along grand buildings, watch street performers, duck into lively pubs and cosy cafes, before finally arriving at Edinburgh Castle, an idyllic fortification that perches on a huge crag formed by a now-extinct volcano. Alongside Edinburgh’s New Town (built in the 18th-19th century), Edinburgh’s city centre is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the most significant cultural hub of Scotland. Because of limited space and advantage of living within the defensive wall (now gone), the Old Town became home to some of the world’s earliest “high rise” buildings as early as the 16th century. Though boasting certain advantages, the tightly-packed atmosphere was vulnerable to flames, and the Old Town is marked by the Great Fire of Edinburgh of 1824, which obliterated huge portions of buildings on the south side, and their rebuilding in Victorian times led to the accidental creation of numerous passages and vaults under the Old Town. Another blight on Edinburgh was the 20th century slum clearances, when the rundown, overpopulated slums of Canongate were cleared out in the 1950s to make room for grander buildings. Despite these darker elements of Edinburgh’s past, the Edinburgh of today is a busy, lively and fun place to be.
Pro tip: Looking for a wool or tweed souvenir? Avoid the shops on High Street as unfortunately a lot of that is made in China these days. You can’t go wrong with traditional Harris Tweed, made solely on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides and with each weaver certified to the brand’s high standards.
The echo of footsteps ring in the quiet cloisters of the ancient Béziers Cathedral. Officially known as Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse de Béziers, Béziers Cathedral is a 13th century Catholic church perched above the southern town of Béziers. Not far from Toulouse and Carcassonne, medieval Béziers was a stronghold of Christian sect called the Cathars, horribly persecuted by militant factions of the Catholic Church during the Albigensian Crusades of the 1200s. Béziers, the first town to be attacked by the crusaders, was hard hit. The courageous local Catholics of Béziers chose not to betray their Cathar compatriots and resisted the crusaders, resulting in a terrible sacking and massacre in the town and up to Béziers Cathedral. No one survived. Every man, woman and child – even priests and the elderly – were killed. According to legend, the crusaders asked how to tell Catholic from Cathar (let’s face it, they’re more or less the same thing…), evil Papal Legate Arnaud Amaury said, “Kill them all – the Lord will know them that are his.” Béziers was one of the worst hit during this bizarre crusade against a little-known Christian sect in the south of France, but it was far from the only town – Toulouse and Carcassonne as well as others also saw battle. The marauding crusaders invaded Béziers Cathedral of Sainte Nazaire and burned it thoroughly, killing all those who had taken sacred refuge inside. Though this tragedy happened 800 years ago, Béziers has never forgotten, ensuring that we continue to remember this tragedy. In modern times, Béziers is a great base to visit places like Les Cévennes and other Languedoc parks, Montpéllier, the Camargue, and both seaside and mountain villages. Not overly touristy, Béziers is a lovely part of Southern France to visit that will both take you away from the crowds of places like Carcassonne, Nice, St Tropez, and Aix-en-Provence. Today, Béziers is a quiet town, but the town and its magnificent cathedral serve as a history lesson as to what happens when religion is allowed power, have access to a military or meddle in politics.
Pro tip: Visit a winery for a wee wine tasting while you’re there! There are many to choose from, one of which is the little Domaine des Deux Rousseu, in the direction of the village of Sauvin. Serviced by a bus though cab might be the best bet. Just be careful – cell service there is spotty, so arrange in advance. Don’t miss the photo op at the Pont Vieux looking across the River Orb at the Cathedral Sainte Nazaire. If you’re interested in learning more about what it may have been like to live there, author Kate Mosse has written several novels set in and around Béziers, some of which are about the crusade against the Cathars.
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.
Perhaps one of the strangest museums you’ll ever visit but certainly a hidden gem found in an otherwise genteel and academic Oxford, the Pitt Rivers Museum is like a peek behind the curtain at the chaotic underbelly of Victorian England. Though today we may look back at the Victorians and their self-important and slightly condescending world views with disdain, it was a time when people were simply curious about the world, when they wanted to be awed and amazed, a Europe full of people fascinated to learn everything – and the stranger the better. The Victorian era was a time of intense curiosity, knowledge and discovery of the outside world. Bizarre but wondrous technological inventions, exotic flora and fauna, items and traditions from far-flung cultures – it was all new and fascinating. This is the era of the Crystal Palace of London, the Palm Houses of Kew Gardens, Belfast and more, the Eiffel Tower of Paris, the time of the World Fairs and world expositions, of steam engines and curiosity museums. Amidst all this was born the Pitt Rivers Museum. Founded in 1884 by Augustus Pitt Rivers, a former soldier, anthropologist, ethnologist, and archaeologist, the Pitt Rivers Museum is today part of the renowned University of Oxford. With a collection arranged by use instead of by age or location found, the Pitt Rivers Museum is home to over 500,000 objects (though Augustus’s original collection started off with 22,000), with the largest being a 11-metre-high Haida totem pole. The museum was set up this way in order to show the Victorian (and now modern) viewer of humanity’s upwards progression in design, technology and skill, as well as the fascinating evolution of culture and tradition of exotic communities, starting with the most simple societies all the way up to the complex. The museum is a place full of wonders and a perfect viewpoint not only of the cultures on display, but also of the culture that set it up.
Pro tip: Find the Pitt Rivers Museum to the east of Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where you’ll locate the only accessed point. Afterwards, head down the narrow cobbled alley to Turf Tavern, a 13th century tavern, fabled to be the most difficult pub in Oxford and long popular as a place for students to exchange ideas.
Schloss Vaduz or Vaduz Castle is the royal residence of the Prince of Liechtenstein, the very real ruler of the very real and very tiny principality buried in the heart of Europe. Vaduz Castle overlooks the town of Vaduz, capital of the minuscule country (or micro country) of Liechtenstein. In fact, to give a bit of perspective here, there are about 5,400 people living in Vaduz and just 40,000 in all of Liechtenstein – that’s roughly the size of UCLA (University of California – LA). Built by the Werdenberg-Sargans starting in the 12th century and expanded from thereon, Vaduz Castle was bought by the Liechtensteins (yes the country is named after a family, what modesty they have!) in 1712. This was quickly followed by the formation of the Principality of Liechtenstein in 1719 via the acquisitions of lands and lordships hidden away deep in the dark, rugged Alps – today one of Europe’s smallest countries. Restored a few times in the early 1900s and the 1920s, by 1938 Vaduz Castle had become the official royal residence of the Princely Family of Liechtenstein. Unsurprisingly for a country named after its current ruling family, Vaduz Castle is still the Liechtenstein family’s royal residence today.
Pro tip: The castle is not open to the public (guess the prince doesn’t want us ordinary plebs walking over his fancy carpets!) but you can see the castle from nearly everywhere in Vaduz, and you can get a bit closer if you head up the hill. Want to get inside a Liechtenstein-ian castle? Head over to nearby Gutenberg Castle, which today functions as a museum.
Moygara Castle is a brilliant ruined castle tucked deep away in exactly the middle of nowhere. Northwest Ireland‘s rural and overlooked County Sligo is already a little-visited region – and Moygara Castle is in perhaps Sligo’s least-known corner. Named for the once-powerful O’Gara family – who ruled Lough Gara and nearby relands since the 1200s – they needed a castle to show off their status, and act as defence during troubled times. Three castles were erected, though Moygara Castle is by far the best example and the only properly surviving structure. Starting out as a typical Irish tower house (a large, rectangular structure built by landowning chieftains found throughout Ireland), Moygara Castle later expanded to include 4 towers connected by high stone walls, a gatehouse (now in ruins) and a massive courtyard. The side gate is still intact, but its precarious keystone has caused this entrance to be closed off. Instead, visitors should walk all the way around the castle, where a hole chuck of the wall is missing, which acts as the castle’s main entrance now. Attacked in 1538 by the famous chieftain O’Donnell and later by some mercenary Scots in 1581, the castle has fallen into ruin. Much overgrown by trees and vines, Moygara Castle is slowly being reclaimed by the hills surrounding Lough Gara, a place that has been inhabited for thousands of years (it has one of the highest concentrations of crannogs – manmade islands built for defensive purposes but also lived on). Today, Moygara Castle sits in a field inhabited by cows and sheep, on a tiny country lane, far from a main road or village. Few people know it’s there, and still fewer visit it. Chances are, you’ll have this magical piece of history to yourself!
Pro tip: Moygara Castle is located on a working farm, so be careful and respectful. Don’t bring your dogs, and be sure to close any gates you open. It is also quite mucky, so wear good boots! Hungry? In nearby Boyle, check out its many cafes. For meals made of farm fresh produce, meat and dairy, head to Drumanilra Restaurant.
Other Places in Northwest Ireland’s counties Sligo & Roscommon
Though not actually located on the sea despite its name, Santillana del Mar is one of northern Spain’s loveliest hidden spots. In fact, it is nicknamed the ‘Town of Three Lies’ as it is not on the sea (mar), nor is it flat (llana) or a saint (santo). More accurately, the name is a slightly-mangled derivation or Santa Juliana, whose final resting place is tucked away here in an ancient monastery. The cultural hub of Cantabria, don’t expect to have this medieval masterpiece to yourself – not that that diminishes from the sheer beauty or culinary pleasures! A medieval marvel, Santillana del Mar is a charming stone village in the north of Spain that exudes beauty on every street. Known for its cider, Santillana del Mar, like most of Spain, is a place to slow down, relax, and enjoy the finer things in life such as food, drink, fresh air, sunshine and conversation. Whether you’re people watching, spending time with friends or loved ones, or simply admiring the architecture, Santillana is a place to lose yourself, leaving the busy real world behind.
Pro tip: Just outside of the town is the famed Altamira Cave Painting site, rich with prehistoric art. And as stated above, be sure to try some of Santillana del Mar’s local cider while in town!
Bruges is a truly fairytale place (thanks, In Bruges). Quaint canals are lined romantic facades, graceful weeping willows, cosy cafés and lovely quays. Canals are crossed with romantic bridges – of which each one is different from the same as the next. Like Venice, they function as streets, a unique way to get around the city. In fact, Bruges is sometimes nicknamed the “Venice of the North” (though it is not the only city to hold the name – see below). The historic centre of Bruges (a UNESCO world heritage site) is a small, quaint, romantic place. Compact enough to comfortably walk the whole city, Bruges still has a lot going on, not to mention, it is eye candy for art and architecture lovers! From the Belfort (belfry and its famous bells) to the Provincial Palace, Ghent Port and City Hall – not to mention all of the churches, gates, bridges, administrative buildings and even ordinary houses – there is no shortage of historic and beautiful sites upon which to feast your eyes on this spectacular medieval city.
Pro tip: Bruges is a busy, busy place. Therefore, try to visit in the off season. To make the most of your visit, be sure to stay over at least one night – many of the tourists are day trippers from Brussels. After the day crowds thin out, go for a wee nighttime stroll – with the city all glittering and reflecting, it adds a new layer of magic to this place! Also, Belgian fries and Belgian waffles are more than just stereotypes – they are perfection and delicious. Best place to get both are often the wee food trucks and hole-in-the-wall chippers!
Tucked into a shady backroad a stone’s throw from St Patrick’s Cathedral in downtown Dublin is the exquisite Marsh’s Library. This isn’t just any library. In fact, Marsh’s Library looks exactly the same as it did when infamous horror author Bram Stoker (writer of Dracula) was a scholar there, checking out books about history and Transylvania! Founded in the early 1700s by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh, Marsh’s Library has been a renowned place of study since opening day. A gentle odour of ageing leather and ancient oak meets you as you walk through the neoclassical doorway and up the stairs of this beautiful, hidden library. Magnificent oak-panelled shelves rise up, larger leather-bound tomes on the bottom, smaller volumes up top. At the back of the library, there are still reading cages liming the walls – and 18th century solution to avoid books going missing (because of course you weren’t permitted to check a book off the premises in those days!). Today, only scholars can look through the books (though in a modern reading room, not the cages!), but there’s always an exhibition in Marsh’s Library, changed every few months. At the time of writing this, the exhibition is on Bram Stoker and the books he consulted while studying at Trinity University, though past exhibitions have been on stolen books, rare books or other scholars and writers who’ve consulted or featured in the thousands of books on the shelves of this library.
Pro tip: Check their website to see what exhibition is on at the time of your visit. While in Dublin, enjoy a stroll in Stephen’s Green or Merrion Park, visit any of the free national museums or have a walk through the infamous Temple Bar district.
When most people envision European travel itineraries, not many include Romania – a country that gets a bad rep. Though it has one of Europe’s lowest salary averages, it also has one of Europe’s highest economical increases in recent years. It’s taken awhile for Romania to get on its feet, but it was worth the wait! Deep in the Transylvanian woodlands is the beautiful and not-so-famous city of Sibiu. Climb the stairs into the lovely old town of Sibiu, a true masterpiece of medieval marvels with towers, walls and historic houses. Like cities in Poland, Croatia,Lithuania and most other Eastern European countries, Sibiu (and other Romanian cities) is a colourful labyrinth of brightly-painted streets. Like other Transylvanian cities – such as Sighisoara and Brasov – Sibiu packs a bundle. From vast public squares to tiny, hidden-away bookshops, from beautiful church spires to streets lined with nothing but restaurants, Sibiu has something for everyone. Despite being a European Capital of Culture in 2007, Sibiu is still a relatively undiscovered this eastern charm. Originally a Daco-Roman settlement (Dacia was the name of the region before the Romans conquered), Sibiu exploded in size and economy when it as re-founded by the 12th century settlers from Saxony (modern-day Germany), concreting it as one of the most important medieval trade centres in this part of Europe. Later joining the state of Transylvania thanks to the Ottoman Empire, and after WWI, Sibiu once again changed hands – this time to finally become part of modern-day Romania.
Pro tip: La Taifas restaurant on the main Piata Mare has a nice terrace, great view and they do good food – including nice veggie dishes and delicious spritz, though there are many other restaurants on the smaller streets around the main plaza.
France is a country full of quaint and historic towns and villages, many of which go unnoticed due to the sheer quantity of beautiful French villages. Billom is one such overlooked village. Located in the heart of Auvergne, tucked into the shadows of the mountains of the Massif Central, is the little medieval village of Billom. Its quiet centre is full of medieval houses, gothic churches and wandering alleyways, though the site itself dates back to ancient times. In fact, the name Billom comes from Biliomagus – of which bilio means “wood” and magnus means “market.” It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that Billom grew, becoming an important market and university town in an otherwise rural region. Due to its micro-climate, rolling hills and southern-European architecture, Billom is ‘capital’ of the region nick-named Toscane Auvergnate, or the Tuscany of Auvergne. Legend has it that it was Catherine di Medici who gave it that name while visiting Auvergne during the Renaissance – supposedly, Auvergne reminded her of the native Tuscany of her childhood. Today, Billom is a peaceful and beautiful town. It still has its markets – notably the annual the fete de l’Ail or the “Garlic Festival” – as well as food and antique markets galore.
Pro tip: Billom is a lovely day trip from Clermont if you have a car. Also in the area is the Chateau de Montmorin, a beautiful ruined castle. For something truly unique, visit for the Fete de l’ail, held each August.
Ireland is one of the richest destinations when it comes to Neolithic heritage, in particular, Neolithic era tombs. Here in Ireland, we still have thousands of them. Capping most hills and mountains is some kind of cairn, usually small and inconspicuous. Two regions are particularly concentrated: Sligo and Meath (though interestingly, Celtic Neolithic societies stretched all the way to Scotland, Wales,Bretagne, and Galicia). The biggest of the Neolithic tombs is found in Meath. UNESCO site Newgrange is one of Ireland’s wonders. Built around 3,200BC according to archeologists, the Newgrange monument is an enormous mound/ cairn that encloses a single, 19-metre-long passage tomb ending in 3 burial chambers where cremated remains were once placed. Inside, the passage is narrow but visitors are still able to walk (unlike the tombs at Carrowkeel where you have to crawl…). Walls are adorned with spirals and other basic forms of megalithic rock art, and the tomb’s roof uses corbelling, an ancient drystone technique that makes the tomb waterproof without even requiring mortar! Even with the thousands of tombs they’ve left behind, we know very little about the ancient Celtic Neolithic people of Ireland. One thing that is evident is that astronomy was very important to them. In fact, Neolithic people had a good understanding of sun, moon, and stars including solstices and equinoxes. Newgrange is aligned with the Winter Solstice, therefore for 6 days in mid December, the sun shines through the “roofbox” (that narrow slit above the door of the tomb) to the lighten the chamber with sunlight. Amazing!
Pro tip: If you want to visit for the Winter Solstice, you can enter the lottery (with about 30,000 other applicants for 100 available places!) Or head to one of the other Neolithic sites for similar alignments. For Newgrange, in general we recommend booking in advance, and going early in the day. However, Newgrange Visitor Centre will be closed for most of 2019 so while works are going on, you can’t book in advance, but to compensate, tickets are free and first-come basis during the works. Best to visit in the off season or early, around 9 am. Nearby site of Dowth is also amazing – you can’t get inside anymore, but you’ll have it all to yourself. Or head to the Hill of Tara.
Romantic redbrick turrets and towers rise from a small island on Lithuania‘s Lake Galvé, home to the 14th-15th century Trakai Island Castle. Today accessible by a small wooden bridge, Trakai Island Castle actually claims to be Eastern Europe‘s only island castle still standing. While still in its infancy, the castle was attacked and severely damaged by the Teutonic Knights in 1377, and further damaged during a power struggle for title of Grand Duke of Lithuania. Once peace again reigned, it was the very same Teutonic Order that organised the rebuilding of the castle. Over time, other ameliorations were added – a massive donjon, wooden galleries along the inner courtyard, new palatial wings containing the impressive Ducal Hall, thicker defensive walls, three new towers and 16th century galleries complete with canons, designed to defend against new advances in technology (notably, gunpowder). Despite this, since the Battle of Grunwald, Trakai left its military importance behind and was used predominantly as a residence and a way to impress visitors, but by the 1700s and 1800s, it was in ruins, serving as little more than a romantic ruin for artistic and poetic inspiration. Reconstruction started in the late 1800s and continued through the first half of the 20th century. Today, Trakai Island Castle is a quiet monument to Lithuanian history and cultural strength, and part of the Trakai Historical National Park. Visit the castle by crossing the new bridge from the town of Trakai, only about 30 minutes from the capital city, Vilnius.
Pro tip: As the Baltic states open up to increasing tourism, places like Trakai Island Castle will get busier. It’s best to visit Trakai in the off-season or earlier in the morning in order to get the castle and island largely to yourself. Better yet, stay over in Trakai town and use as a jumping-off point to explore the region. Home to a proud Karaim community, a Turkish-speaking ethnic group descended from Crimean immigrants, try the delicious local Karaim dish, kybyn, a sort of dumpling or pasty stuffed with meat and vegetables while in Trakai.
Get this. The windiest place in the UK…is called The Butt (cue endless jokes about the Butt being very windy…)! The Butt of Lewis (confusingly located at the northernmost point of the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides) is a lonely andwindswept headland home to a solitary lighthouse. Constructed in the 1860s, this unusual red-brick lighthouse was inhabited by a lighthouse keeper until 1998 when it was automated. Lighthouse keeping was a lonely existence. Being stationed on the comparatively large and civilised Isle of Lewis wouldn’t have been too bad – nearby villages such as Ness, Borve and Barvas kept keepers provided with fresh supplies and news. However, lighthouse keepers on small, uninhabited islands lived a desolate and difficult existence. The most famous case was that of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse, located on a rock pinnacle off the coast of Lewis. In December of 1900, 3 lighthouse keepers were prevented from returning to land after their long shift. When a boat finally arrived, incomers found a desolate and deserted island, wreaked by a violent storm. One coat still hung on its peg, iron railings and railroad tracks were mangled and uprooted, and a crate of equipment ruined… with no one to be seen. The logbooks – not updated for a week – note that the men had been acting strange (hardworn mariners noted as struck silent dumb, crying, and praying) during a terrible storm that supposedly raged for 3 days. The strangest part? The island could be seen from Lewis and ships had sailed the Hebrides waters…but no storm had been recorded. (Goosebumps, anyone?) Even after years of searching for them and the truth of what happened Dec. 15th, 1900, nothing has been uncovered. Conspiracy theorists will say anything from madness to pirates to aliens, though a rogue wave is probably the most likely answer (two men swept off when securing the equipment, the third as he attempted to help or warn the others). But we’ll probably never know – and now that the forlorn lighthouses such as the Butt of Lewis and Flannan Isle are automated, the saga of lonely lighthouse keepers is at an end, keeping their secrets with them.
Pro tip: Take great care when visiting the Butt of Lewis – it is VERY windy. Secure anything at risk of being blown away (hats, scarves, glasses) before approaching. For those who wish, there is a 3-4km coastal walk from Eoropie Beach to the Butt of Lewis. Flannan Isle is hard to get to – if it’s a must-see for you, try with Seatrek.