The water laps at the edges of this seemingly remote medieval castle as the Swiss mountains fan out behind its towers in a picture of pure fairytale. One of Switzerland’s more famous places, Chateau de Chillon is not overrun with tourists, at least not during winter. Instead, the imposing chateau sits quietly – the ideal, romantic castle. Located in the French-speaking Vaud region of Switzerland, Chillon enters written record in 1005. It was part of the ancient Kingdom of Savoy, today a melange of the French, Italian and Swiss Alps (such places like Chamonix, Chambery, Torino and Lausanne were once part of this kingdom). What started as a gatehouse to the ancient mountain pass morphed into a summer home for the dukes, then into a prison, then artillery fortress. Home first to the dukes of Savoy, then . to the Germanic Bernese and finally the Francophone Vaudois, Chillon changed hands following the rise and fall of eras. Chateau de Chillon is certainly one of the most romantic of the ancient fortresses, but it is far from the only one. The Alps are thickly peppered with such castles, each guarding strategic sites like roads, mountain passes, lakes. Today, Chateau de Chillon is like visiting a place lost in time, one that has fallen from the pages of a fairy tale.
Frauenkirche & Cathedral of Munich – Munich, Germany
One of Germany’s most beautiful cities is Munich, capital of the famed region of Bavaria. Munich is a city filled with stunning architecture. Its skyline is pierced with spires of churches and cathedrals and towers and its ground is laid with cobblestones. The city centre is filled with architectural wonders – palaces, halls, great houses, beer halls, churches, towers. In the above photo, the spire to the right is from the Cathedral of Munich, while the twin spires to the left are from the Frauenkirche. It is in the Frauenkirche where you’ll find a footprint indented in the floor. Legend has it that this is the Devil’s footprint – the builders needed help finishing the church and the devil offered his aid to finish it. From the front door, the columns form an illusion to block all of the windows so the Devil thought that it would be a dark, damp church and no one would want to go there. When he realised that the builders tricked him, he was so angry he stomped his foot down in anger – hence the imprint of a foot on a stone by the door. (A less exciting explanation could be a the footprint of the master builder himself). Whatever you believe, it makes a good story! Tip: Take the free walking tour of Munich as you’ll learn about this legend and more – a perfect introduction to Munich!
The city that feels a bit like its at the end of the world, Inverness is a small cosmopolitan outpost in northern Scotland. Crowned with Inverness Castle, the city – and castle – cling to the banks of the River Ness. This relatively new castle was only built in 1836, but it sits on the roots of what was originally an 11th century castle. Today’s castle is built in the neo-gothic style, though the former castle was a proper medieval lump of stone. It’s not open to the public today for good reason: it is currently home to the Inverness Sherif Court (Scotland’s civil and criminal court). That said, you can visit the Castle Viewpoint for a bird’s eye view of Inverness from the top of the building (admission £5). Though the interior of the castle is closed, the exterior is an emblem of Inverness. It’s also certainly a worth to climb to the top of the castle hill to enjoy the view over Inverness and beyond! Fun fact: find Inverness Castle on one side of certain £50 RBS banknotes.
The Palais des Papes is a massive heap of fortified and sacred medieval stone built for the king-like popes during the schism with the Catholic Church in the heart of ancient Avignon. Six rebellious popes ruled Western Christianity from this impressive – and costly – building. (In fact, the Palais des Papes was so expensive that it nearly burst the papal purse). Built during the 14th century, the old palais (of Benedict XII) and the new palais (of extravagant Clement VI) form the largest Gothic building constructed during the Middle Ages! And during the 14th century, the Palais des Papes once held about 2,000 volumes – considered to be the largest library of its time. This impressive library attracted bibliophiles and scholars from afar, and the Palais des Papes became a place of great study. It was also within the walls of this immense palace that the Church was able to centralise and create a standardisation of services and operations – mostly to meet the needs of the popes and the Church with less regard to its common flock. The church administration workers (known as the Curia) grew from a modest 200 to 500 people plus 1,000 laymen at the Palais des Papes in less than 100 years. Today, the Palais des Papes is a UNESCO site, and is well worth the visit from a historical and architectural perspective, as the Palais des Papes is both a great historical turning point and one of the best exemplars of Europe’s great Gothic constructions.
The Etruscans were an ancient civilisation in central Italy from the 7th century BC until the Romans conquered the powerful civilisation, assimilating it into their ever-growing Roman Empire at the end the 4th century BC. Even today, the Etruscan influence cannot be denied; Eturia’s ancient heartland even lent it’s name to the modern region of Tuscany. In its heyday, Etruria reached as far north as the Po River valley, past Rome along the coast to modern-day Naples (in the Campania region). A merchant community, the Etruscans grew rich and powerful on trade with the northern Celtic communities as well as the ancient Greeks, who influenced much of their culture. Etruscans had a vivid pantheon of gods and used their wealth to fill their tombs – which is where much of our understanding of their culture, history, art and architecture comes from. The village of Fiesole, some 10km from Florence, is both a tranquil escape from the bustle of Florence as well as a time capsule to the ancient Etruscans and Romans. Here, find crumbling Etruscan walls, what remains of the Roman baths built later on, and a Roman amphitheater still used today for summer events. Nearby, there’s even the green hilltop where Leonardo da Vinci once experimented with flight! Once a powerful rival to Florence, Fiesole was founded as an Etruscan town in the 8th century BC until the Romans finally conquered and destroyed it, building their own Roman town on Fiesole’s roots. In the 1500s during the magnificent Italian renaissance, Florentine nobles moved out of Florence and built their splendid villas much like movie stars do today in glamorous SoCal towns. Fiesole’s beauty also inspired writers and artists such as Oscar Wilde and EM Forster, making cameos in their work. Practical tip: take bus #7 from San Marco Piazza to Fiesole. Or, splurge on the hop-on-hop-off bus to see even more of Florence and its region.
“Pray look better, Sir… those things yonder are no giants, but windmills.” – Don Miguel de Cervantes
In this case, ‘those things yonder’ happen to be ornately decorated towers in Mudejar (Moorish) style. Said pinnacles adorn the town of Alcalá de Henares, birthplace of famous Spanish writer, Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote) and today a place of pilgrimage by literary, history, cultural and architecture nerds alike. A UNESCO heritage site, it was the only Roman town in the Madrid region, even attaining “Municipium” status. Conquered and rebuilt and reconquered and rebuilt again means that Alcalá’s (literally ‘citadel in Arabic) architecture is a hodgepodge of various styles, cultures and epoques; even the site of the city moved back and forth a few times. Most notably was the Moorish conquest, as they left the most visible footprint on the city, the impressive Mudejar architectural style seen here. Cervantes was born here, and although his family moved away during his childhood, the city still reveres him, hosting the Cervantes Festival every October. Even more impressively, each April 23rd, the King of Spain awards the prestigious Cervantes Award for literature at Alcalá’s esteemed University of Alcalá. Get to Alcalá de Heneres by commuter train (40 min) from Madrid station Atocha or Chamartin, if you buy tickets from the machine.
Though designed just before WWII, Bristol’s crescent-shaped City Hall wasn’t built until after the war’s end. Situated in a prominent place in Bristol, the secular City Hall faces the massive and gorgeous Bristol Cathedral, Bristol Central Library and the College Green, the building is a classic example of the Neo-Georgian style except for one glaring oddity: both of the turreted ends to the building are topped with an unusual statue – a unicorn! (Not so very different than the Dragons of London!) If you look carefully, Bristol functions like an “I Spy” book (“I spy 12 unicorns…”) – they are everywhere! On St. John the Baptist Church, the SS Great Britain ship, on the Royal West of England Academy, at the entrance of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, on the North Bristol Rugby Club tie and blazer, and until 2004 they were on the logo of the renowned University of Bristol. They are even part of the city’s coat of arms! Why, you may ask? To solve the mystery, we need to delve back in time to 16th century Bristol, when the city’s leaders chose to include two unicorns on the official seal which was then stamped on important city documents scattered across Bristol – therefore imprinting the unicorn forevermore into Bristol history. As for the mystery of the City Hall Unicorns, architect Vincent Harris actually secretly commissioned the two three-foot-high bronze unicorns without informing the council, put them up and hoped for the best! They’re still there, so we can assume that the council accepted their city hall’s impromptu mascot!
The Trinity Column in the Hautplatz of Linz, Austria
A city that has been trying to free itself from its Nazi past (it is where Hitler spent his childhood) has elected in the Alt-Right party again in 2017. And yet – it was the first Austrian city to account and make up for its own Nazi past. From renaming streets to erecting monuments to victims and resistance heroes, Linz is still attempting to crawl out from that dismal past. The Trinity Column, a plague column in Linz’s main square, represents thanksgiving for the ending of the violent plagues that swept through Austria. Though Linz has had a turbulent past, the city founded by the Romans in 799 is now a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network and was the 2009 European Capital of Culture. Enjoy strolling its charming (and surprisingly colourful) streets, lounging along the Blue Danube (on a sunny day!) and exploring the birthplace of Mozart. Taste one the of city’s famous Linzer tortes or even take the fin de siecle Pöstlingbergbahn, the steepest mountain rail in the world!
Visit Other Cool Off the Beaten Path European Cities
One of France’s Most Beautiful Villages and one of the most charming towns one can expect to stumble onto in Europe, the tiny, spiral-shaped village lost in the middle of France is reminiscent of another era. The fortified town was built in the Middle Ages, and though Pérouges has no castle, it does feature a fortified church (with extra-thick walls), as well as an enticing maze of weaving streets, all eventually ending at the Place de Tilleul. Today the quiet centre of this tiny village and site of a delicious local restaurant, Place de Tilleul was one the thriving marketplace of bustling Pérouges during medieval times. Crumbling into dust until recent years, the village has seen a seen an upturn in tourism, saving the cobblestoned marvel from becoming a ghost town like so many other quaint but behind-the-times places across Europe. Here in Pérouges and its romantic Place de Tilleul, one can briefly capture a glimpse into another world, a peek into another era, before slipping out through the village gates and back towards the main road that leads to nearby town Meximieux and the 21st century. Pérouges is most quickly approached on foot via the road Route de Pérouges from Meximieux but a far more picturesque way to approach the village is via the forest track along Aubepin Pond.
Welcome to Ostrów Tumski, or Cathedral Island, hugging the Odra River in the centre of Wrocław. The oldest region of the city, Ostrów Tumski is no longer an island, though this ancient place is still home to some of Wrocław’s most impressive religious sites, as well as adorable cobblestoned streets. The orange-roofed Church of the Holy Cross is a brick, Gothic-style church that was once used by ethnic Germans while the city was still behind German lines before WWII (Wrocław has at times been a part of Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, Habsburg Monarchy, Prussia, German Empire, Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany). For both a bird’s eye view and a dive into the religious and civil history of the city, a visit to Wrocław Cathedral is in order – culminating with a not-for-the-faint-hearted climb up one of its massive towers. The origins of the present structure date to the 1150s after the Polish conquest of the region of Silesia and the founding of Wrocław as its capital, though the cathedral was rebuilt following various trending styles through the ages. Today a thriving student town as well as one of Poland‘s (and Eastern Europe‘s) most important financial, cultural and commercial hubs, Wrocław is place of beauty, intrigue, and good-natured charm.
The tiny French village of Balazuc snuggled deep within the timeless county of Ardèche is a place you go to lose yourself in another era, another way of life. Sun kissed hills are woven with ancient villages, a patchwork of medieval architecture fused seamlessly with the brown earth and golden fields of southern France. Balazuc is one of such places. A veritable labyrinth built of golden stone, the village’s narrow alleys wind up and down, dipping half-underground, through other buildings, around and through the hills in a completely random and at times mysterious manner. Hole-in-the-wall cafes dot the facades, and a hilltop castle and church duo seem to be trying to outdo one another. To access the steep hilltop village, one must first cross a surprisingly high bridge over the Ardèche River – not a bad place for a quick dip! And just a stone’s throw away is the equally-beautiful and heart-throbbingly medieval village of Largentière as well as the ever-impressive Gorges d’Ardeche. Get ready for a coup de foudre – French for love at first sight!
Crash! One of the largest canvases in the world, West Berliners began painting on the 14-foot wall in the 1980’s while the corresponding East Berlin Wall remained immaculate – guards would not let East Berliners approach the Wall on pain of death (fearing escape attempts). First constructed in 1961 to separate the two countries, the Berlin Wall (especially the western side) later became what Facebook is today: a relatively uncontrolled blank slate on which people can express opinions, feelings, and dreams. In one mural, a car – a white Trabant – is depicted crashing through the Berlin Wall. Trabants were a popular East German car brand, and despite being cute and bug-eyed, the reinforced plastic cars were poorly made and notoriously hard to drive – though East Germans were desperate to get one, so desperate that they had to sign up on a list just to be considered for ownership. Trabants then became a symbol of the communist East Germany, and ceased to be manufactured after the fall of wall. It’s not hard to understand what the artist was trying to depict here: an East German in his or her iconic East German car crashing through the oppressive and separatist Berlin Wall after it fell in 1989.
On the shores of Lake Ohrid sits the ancient town of the same name. Historic, storied, beautiful – Ohrid is a place that stirs up emotion from within. It is indeed ancient – churches like the one here may date as far back as the 800s…! Built in the Byzantine style, it was not unusual for such churches to be converted to mosques during the Ottoman rule. Despite the fact that the Ottomans were supposedly open-minded when it came to religion, this apparently did not affect the church-to-mosque conversion. The best way to get a feel for old Ohrid is simply to stroll around this ancient place littered with Byzantine churches, beautiful quirky houses, cobblestone alleys, and an ancient Roman theatre. Find a cafe and relax outside on a terrace. Duck inside an ancient church to admire the ancient motifs painted on the walls and ceilings. Explore the ruins of the old fortress tucked inside the old city. Climb to the top of the hill and find a place to settle down and enjoy the magnificent panoramas of Ohrid town and lake – Ohrid the Beautiful awaits.
Moscow is filled with wonders: golden domes, brick-red towers, huge parks, Stalinistic skyscrapers, broad avenues, elegant theatres, brightly-coloured Orthodox churches. It is a city of considerable fortune (reflected in its extremely high rent prices) that draws people in from all walks of life, either to live there or simply visit this place. Perhaps this vast array of cultures accounts for the vast array of noteworthy architecture. One such example is the so-called House of Friendship, as known as the Arseny Morozov House, located on the far side of the Kremlin. Built at the turn of the century, this fin de siecle folly (fake castle) was modelled after the exotic and eclectic Monserrate Palace in Sintra, Portugal. The design of the House of Friendship includes twisted columns, encrusted shells, and lace-like stonework. Built for party-loving Arseny Morozov, it later became the Proletcult Theatre in the 1920s. This was the branch of Soviet theatre branch tasked with ideology and propaganda, evoking industrial, factory, farming, and other such motifs without much regard towards plot. Sadly, the only way to visit the luxurious and bizarre interior is to attend a concert or lecture held at the house. Instead, gouge yourself on the eclectic exterior while roaming the streets of Moscow in search of the city’s most extraordinary architectural designs – of which it has no shortage!
The Tower of London as seen across the Thames River, England
The infamous Tower of London. It has a reputation for horror – death – torture. While not 100% wrong, this was the view propagated in the 16th century (did you know that only seven people were executed at the Tower of London up until the 20th century?) In fact, most executions instead took place on Tower Hill, and even then, just 112 people were executed over 400 years, a number far lower than we’d expect considering the harsh laws during the time. The dark threat of being ‘sent to the tower’ doesn’t come from Medieval times at all, but rather the 16th/17th centuries where darkness had to be hidden under the surface of polite society – so the Tower became a popular place to send unwanted royals or nobles. At one time a royal residence, a palace, a prison, a menagerie, a royal mint, a treasury and a fortified vault for the Crown Jewels, today’s Tower of London is one of London‘s top tourism destinations, and the most visited castle (not including palaces, which are quite different) in Europe – nearly 3 million visitors cross its threshold every year. The Tower’s oldest section, the White Tower, dates back 1078; other expansions date largely to the early Middle Ages, including exertions by Richard the Lionheart, Henry III, and Edward I. All of this combined makes the Tower of London one of the UK‘s most impressive cultural heritage sites, and for this, it has been recognised by UNESCO. Due to the vast amount of visitors, it is hard to properly visit the Tower of London – best advice is to avoid school holidays and visit in the low season (late September just after school starts but before holidays begin or in the dark days of winter in January or February). Though it can never entirely escape its dark past, it may not be as dark as you thought.
Interior Statues of the Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), Austria
Pure decadence, exorbitant elegance, genteel allure, stunning beauty. Welcome to the Staatsoper, Vienna’s State Opera House. The first of the extravagant buildings on Vienna‘s most famed street, the Ringstrasse (now a designated UNESCO site), the Staatsoper was opened to the genteel Austrian public in 1869. Built in the Neo-Renaissance style, the building was surprisingly unpopular with said genteel Viennese. (It somehow was not considered grand enough. You have to wonder about that genteel 19th century high society…). Then on the fateful night of March 12th, 1945, inferno rained down upon Vienna’s opera house, dropped by US bombers. Fire poured from the sky, bombs exploded in the streets, and flames ate their way through the Ringstrasse. Though the angry flames could not get into the walled-off foyer and fresco-filled stairways, the auditorium and 150,000 costumes for 120+ operas went up in smoke. When WWII was finally over, it was debated: shall we rebuild the originally unpopular building as per original design, or do we redesign it to modern tastes? Thank goodness the former option was chosen, and the Wiener Staatsoper was rebuilt in all its former glory (and happily, it is now beloved by Viennese and foreigners alike). Today, you can’t visit musical Vienna, home (at one point or another) to such musicians as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Chopin and Mahler, without visiting the opera. Loiter inside the foyer for a bit and if you have time, buy yourself a ticket to the opera or ballet. If you’re a budget traveller, queue in the ‘standing’ line in the afternoon to buy a €3 or €4 ‘standing’ ticket (arrive 3hrs prior to the show’s start; once you’ve got your ticket, tie a scarf to mark your spot and head out for a bite to eat). Be sure to dedicate plenty of time to explore the palatial building – frescos, statues, paintings, vast staircases and awe-inspiring architecture await!
Brandenburg Gate (or Brandenburg Tor) in Berlin, Germany
Berlin is a place with a challenging history. Located in Germany‘s eastern side, the city of Berlin was part of the state of East Germany for decades before the Berlin Wall fell. Berlin itself was a divided city: half in the East and half in the West. Families divided right down the middle. Lives, jobs, families, loyalties – it didn’t matter. East stayed in the East, and the West in the West. (In the end of course, it was better luck to be living in West Berlin.) But that all changed November 9th, 1989 (still scarily recent…) – the day the Berlin Wall fell. Citizens on both sides reportedly climbed atop the Wall in celebration. The Brandenburg Tor is possibly the most iconic monument in Berlin. Built in the 18th century by Prussian King Frederick William II, the Neoclassical style, topped with bronze statue of noble horses, was chosen for this ‘victory’ gate. The Brandenburg Tor stands on Pariser Platz – the same place as the old city gate that once marked the entrance to Brandenburg an der Havel town, ancient capital of the pre-Germany state of Brandenburg. Used by the Prussians, the Nazis and the East Germans as a symbol of the city’s power, the Brandenburg Gate was partially destroyed in WWII. On August 13th, 1961, the structure became part of the Berlin Wall, and its original use as a gate was re-instated (one of eight points for crossing the Wall). Nearly impossible to traverse by East Germans, the gate remained a symbol of power – but in a negative sense, sparking protests, demonstrations and eventually celebrations the day the wall fell. Today, it reminds Berliners and visitors alike of the power of standing together.
The 12th century Chateau des Adhémar remains one of the last true examples of Romanesque architecture, a style defined by rounded arches, thick walls, squat towers and sturdy pillars. This study, box-like castle was built atop a sunburnt hill which overlooks the orange-tiled, sunny town of Montélimar (located in the Drôme department in the south of France). Appropriated by the papacy in the 14th century until 1447 when it re-entered the Kingdom of France, the castle has been used as papal residence, an armament for several conflicts and wars, a citadel, a prison, a country residence, and now a contemporary art museum. In fact, Chateau des Adhémar was largely saved in the last few centuries as it was put to use as a prison. The famed loggia, or loge, with the striped design and rounded windows attached to the main keep was added during the Renaissance to ‘beautify’ what was considered a ‘plain’ Romanesque design. The beautiful Renaissance loggia was also built to add light to formerly gloomy rooms as well as show off the expansive countryside on Chateau des Adhémar’s toes. Located in the inner courtyard is the ancient 11th century St Pierre Chapel. Once a part of the wide-reaching monastic network centred at the Monastery of Ile Barbe in Lyon, the simple Romanesque chapel was later incorporated into the castle complex by the powerful Adhémar family. Today, the castle is a fine example of Romanesque and Renaissance architecture, as well as the modern art movement. It offers splendid aerial views of Montélimar and is a perfect stop on a road trip heading from Lyon to Nimes, Avignon, Montpellier or any other destinations in Southern France!
See Other Fascinating Places in the South of France
Italy is full of churches. To no one’s surprise, it’s one of the most church-dense countries in Europe. The Chiesa di Santa Maria is surprisingly old – it was built in the 1300’s. It’s charm, however, comes largely from its location in the quaint, Germanic village of Brunico (Bruneck in German), nestled in the heart of the Dolomite Mountains of Northern Italy. Brunico is the perfect base for exploring the rugged backcountry of Sud Tyrol (Trentino-Alto Adige in Italian), a relatively new region of Italy (only becoming part of Italy after WWII). With an interesting melange of Italian and Austrian cultures, even the smallest of villages of Sud Tyrol feel wildly diverse. In the winter, this northeastern corner of Italy is well-known for fantastic skiing. The summer season draws adventurous travellers in with the promise of narrow mountain paths weaving through sunny forests and emerald meadows, full of chirping birds and rustling undergrowth. In the village of Brunico, visit the idyllic castle perched atop the hill for panoramic views of the village and beyond. The castle, now a museum of mountain climbing and the Himalayas, is situated on a lush forest backdrop, complete with meandering mountain paths and a rustic WWWII cemetery. Coming down from the castle’s hilltop path, enjoy this perfect view of Brunico and the lovely Chiesa di Santa Maria, the turquoise mountains forming a magnificent backdrop. Back in town, settle down to a pizza in the family-run restaurants in the historic old town as the sunsets over this adorable mountain village.
The Warsaw Mermaid Statue in Warsaw’s Old Town, Poland
There are multiple mermaid statues flopping their way through Europe. Completely unrelated to the mythical selkies of western Ireland and only loosely related to Copenhagen’s The Little Mermaid, the Syrenka, or Mermaid of Warsaw, is the official symbol of Poland‘s capital. Popular legend has it that while swimming by Warsaw, the Mermaid decided she liked it so much that she would stay. Local fishermen were frustrated with competing with her for fish, so they attempted to catch her, but like most mermaid stories, the men fell in love with the mermaid’s song and let her free. She was then captured by a wealthy merchant, but upon hearing her cries, the fishermen rushed to her rescue, and ever since, she’s been a warrior mermaid armed with sword and shield ready to protect Warsaw. A lesser-known version claims that the mermaid came to the rescue of a lost prince and he founded Warsaw in her honour. A final version and tie-in with Copenhagen is that the Danish Little Mermaid and the Warsaw Mermaid are sisters from the Baltic Sea, separated by their respective capitals. No matter which legend you favour, the Mermaid remains Warsaw’s symbol and protector, and there is a small but lovely statue in her honour in the centre of the Stary Miasto (Old Town square) for visitors to pay homage to the city’s protector.