Probably most famous for its role on HBO hit Game of Thrones(part of Dragonstone), the craggy islet of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe – meaning the Rock Castle from the Basque language – is perhaps one of Europe’s most fascinating and fantastical monuments. With its picture-perfect monastery perched perilously at the top of a formidable rock pinnacle, its not hard to see why San Juan de Gaztelugatxe was chosen as a location in the fantasy land of Westeros. Narrowly perched on the Bay of Biscay deep in Basque Country, the sea crashes endlessly at the islet, eroding away at the rocks. After a long walk to the island, across the causeway and up the rough-worn stairs, you arrive at the monastery or hermitage. This little building, dangling 80 metres above the sea, is dedicated to John the Baptist, and dates back to the 9th and 10th centuries and is the final resting place of medieval monks. Its location was long considered strategic and played a role in several battles – the place where the Lord of Biscay confronted the King of Castille in the mid 14th century, the site of a sacking from Huguenots (Protestants persecuted in France) from La Rochelle, an 18th century English raid and even a naval battle during the horrific Spanish Civil War. Despite its tragic history, today San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a place of great mystique and wonder – not to mention an amazing place for budding photographers!
Pro tip: This place was busy pre-Game of Thrones and the fantasy series will only continue making it more popular. Avoid the crowds (and the heat!) as best as possible by visiting in the off season, or early in the day. Get the most out of your visit by hiking from Bakkio town along the coast.
Everyone knows of Belfast, and most have heard of Derry, but the border town of Enniskillen slips under most people’s radar. Smaller than the other two, and further south on the border with the Republic of Ireland, Enniskillen is a fascinating little place. As with most cities in Northern Ireland, it was bombed during the Troubles – in Enniskillen’s case, it happened on Remembrance Day (November 8th, 1987), and several civilians died. But that’s all in the past now. Today, Enniskillen is a thriving town, a bustling cosmopolitan centre in an otherwise rural region of Ireland, and a perfect stop for road trips from Belfast to the west coast of Sligo or Connemara and Galway. In Irish, Enniskillen means island of Cethlenn, a mythological Irish goddess, and in fact it is still known as “The Island Town.” At the centre of Enniskillen, its oldest structure is Enniskillen Castle, built in the 16th century on the foundations of a much older fortification (dating back to 1428), which came under siege several times during the Irish rebellions against British rule (including falling to Irish rule from 1595-1602). Later, Enniskillen Castle was built up with barracks for soldiers, giving the castle the look more of a military fort. Today, the castle site hold a collection of museums on the history of Enniskillen and County Fermanagh in general, as well as the military history of the castle. Though not the most medieval castle, the border town of Enniskillen and its castle is a fascinating look at the history of the Irish border from the 1500s through the Irish Rebellion, the Revolution, the Troubles, all the way through to today and whatever Brexit holds for the future.
Pro tip: There’s a great pizzeria in Enniskillen called Little Wing Pizza – close to the castle with reasonable prices and a varied menu. Learn more about the castle visit (hours & tarifs) here. If you arrive 1 hour before closing, you’ll get a reduced price ticket. Nearby, visit a number of other castles. Explore the islands of Lough Erne – take a boat to Devenish Island, just north of Enniskillen, or White Island, further north. Both contain the ancient ruins well worth visiting.
The Isle of Harris feels like the end of the world. And that’s saying something, because Scotland is already a remote place. To get from Edinburgh to this forgotten corner of Harris, it’ll take you at least 3 hours to Inverness, another hour and a half to the ferry at Ullapool, at least 2 hours on the boat, and another hour or more to reach Luskentyre. Lonely, windswept and overlooked, Luskentyre feels very much like land’s end, despite its beautiful beach. It’s hard to imagine humans living here, and yet they did, and they do. You’ll still see evidence of olden day crofts – narrow strips of land provided to poor farmers for subsistence farming. Evidence too of middens (ancient piles of discarded seashells) and lazy beds (beds of kelp used to make vaguely fertile earth which, despite their name, was backbreaking work). Further north on the Isle of Lewis, find an ancient stone circle made of giant monoliths impressive enough to rival Stonehenge, Iron Age brochs (defensive structures), long-forgotten lighthouses, and the remains of blackhouses, named so from the staining they sustained from peat smoke. From the gentle rolling bogs of Lewis to the rugged mountains of Harris, this place feels inhospitable yet hauntingly beautiful. Today, there are small villages scattered about Lewis and Harris, and about 21,000 people still call these remote, connected islands home.
Pro tip: Talbert is a great base to explore the Isle of Harris. Get yourself some Harris Tweed, head over to Harris Distillery, and then hop off to hike the Hebrides. Up for a challenge? Try summiting An Clishan, the highest in the Outer Hebrides. Or something easier? Hike from Dalmore Beach to Garenin Village. Or walk along stunning Luskentyre Beach!
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.
When one envisions the Irish countryside, often quaint stone cottages with thatched roofs, with a garden of dancing flowers on backdrop of rolling emerald hills comes to mind. A lot has changed since this type of Ireland was the norm. Ireland (which was a 3rd world country until about a generation and a half ago) has modernised, become part of the EU and joined the 21st century. And yet, when you are wandering in the countryside – particularly in the rural parts of the west coast, in places like Sligo, Donegal, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon and other similarly rural and agricultural counties, you will still find pockets of this old world Ireland, such as this wee little cottage outside the village of Dromahair that maintains traditional thatched roofs and stone structure (though it’s a vivid shade of blue!). The best way to uncover the real Ireland is by pulling on a pair of hiking boots and set of traipsing through the woods, as Ireland’s outdoors has so much more to offer than Ireland’s towns or cities. This particular cottage is along the final stage of the little-known Sligo Way, a nature and cultural track that winds its way through some of Northwest Ireland’s most scenic destinations. Not only is hiking in Ireland – especially in the remote and undiscovered northwest – a good way to explore the island, but it’s also a great escape from our busy, fast-paced, screen-driven lives of modern society. Instead, kick back, relax and enjoy a slower – albeit muckier – way of life in the remote corners of Ireland!
Pro tip: The Sligo Way is 78 km long, but the final 10km are by far the best. Nearly all off-road, the landscape and backdrop varies from lush woodland, tranquil lake shore, to mountain path, farm track and boggy ground. It passes the famed Isle of Inisfree, the ruins of Creevylea Abbey, a donkey farm and lovely cottages like this one, before ending in the charming village of Dromahair.
North of the city of Lyon, hovering in the centre of the elegant Saône River, is a small island, home to the Abbey of Île Barbe. One of the last places to be conquered (the name Barbe suggests origins in the word ‘barbarians‘), the 5th century saw the construction of a small but powerful abbey on the island. Though little more than a squat and forgotten Romanesque church tower – the Église Romane de Notre Dame – remains today, the Abbey of Île Barbe is one of the oldest in Roman Gaul (the Roman name for what is roughly equivalent to modern-day France) – and the first in greater Lyon. The Abbey once possessed dozens upon dozens of churches, villages and fiefs in the Middle Ages – and even contained a great library thanks to Charlemagne – and it rose to great importance in the region (one such connection was with the church at Montelliemar). With wealth comes danger however, and the abbey was attacked and pillaged on more than one occasion. Though it changed hands and functionalities multiple times, it wasn’t until the French Revolution that the Abbey of Île Barbe was abandoned. Today, the abbey is slowly falling into ruin, giving way to the tangled forests of the small island. Half of the island is actually closed to the public – it contains a private residence for some of Lyon’s wealthiest. The island is connected to both banks by a narrow metal suspension bridge erected in 1827 – which so happens to be the oldest such bridge in Lyon that is still in use today!
Pro tip: The island is also home to a gastronomic Relais & Chateaux eatery, the Auberge de l’Île. For more budget-minded travellers, on the opposite bank (Quai Raoul Carrié), there is a lovely boulangerie – perfect for picking up a picnic to enjoy on the island’s park. Get to the Île Barbe on public transport from Place Bellecour on TCL bus 40, direction Caluire.
It’s hard to talk about the beautiful places of Europe and ignore Venice. Venice is the city beauty – and of canals. When you constantly compare other beautiful cities with Venice – Anncey is “the Venice of France” or “the Venice of Belgium” etc. – you know that the original city (Venice) must be amazing! Venice is also thedefinition of a fairytale place – this is the kind of place one would expect to find in a storybook! Venice has famous sights – St Mark’s Cathedral, the glass blowing on Murano, the Grand Canal. Other major canals include the Giudecca, Canneregio and Scomenzera canals. But the best way to explore this city? By getting lost in its massive labyrinth of tiny streets and scenic canals criss-crossed with magical bridges of all shapes and sizes of course! There are over 150 canals interwoven around some hundred islands – and connected by even more bridges! Once upon a time, these canals were the city’s only ‘streets’ and all transport was done via gondola boats. While the canals remain a main artery for movement about the picturesque city, the gondolas are used only by tourists today. Overpriced and overcrowded, it’s best to skip the gondola and meander the tiny alleys and bridges, hopping on the water-buses when you need to get farther away. Keep in mind that this is one of the most popular cities in Europe as well as one of the most delicate. Venice is actually sinking, and has problems with flooding, water damage and erosion – none of which is helped by overtourism. There has been talk of establishing a quota of visitors to this special place. So instead of getting annoyed, remember that this is in order to protect this amazing city for future generations! Though Venice may be both stunningly amazing and breath-takingly unique, there are many other cities with canals to visit in Europe. See below for a few!
Pro tip: If you can, stay on one of the lesser-known and quieter islands and take the water bus into the main part of the city. However, if you really want to stay on the “fish,” don’t go to the centre of town. Instead, check out the far quieter region of Canneregio (in the northern part of the main archipelago). The same goes for food; avoid the big restaurants with the English menus in the centre, and instead find the mom & pop shops in the back alleyways! Definitely have an afternoon spritz after a fun day of exploring!
Other cities with canals to visit – Alternatives to Venice:
Is it a spaceship? A torpedo? Or just a really unusual church? One of Reykjavik’s – and Iceland’s – most iconic landmarks, the ultra modern Hallsgrimkirkja Church in downtown Reykjavik is somehow also reminiscent of the dramatic and bizarre worlds found inside of the Icelandic Sagas. The Hallsgrimkirkja also sports an observation deck for aerial city views and a statue of Leif Eriksson, the man often credited as the first European to arrive in the Americas hundreds of years before Columbus. Only finished in 1986 and standing atop one of Reykjavik’s highest points, the Hallsgrimkirkja is some 74 metres high, making it the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest structures on the island. Iceland is a strange place. Remote, isolated, cold, inhospitable, Iceland is also home to some of the most enduring tradition, mythology and storytelling in Europe. For such a small, remote place, this Nordic country is one of Europe’s most progressive. Home to about 340,000 people (of which nearly half [122,000] live in the capital), it actually has one of the lowest (if not the lowest) unemployment rates, one of the highest standards of living, and some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes – including some spectacular volcanoes – in the whole world. In the winter, it might still be light out at midnight or later, meaning that in the winter, some days only see a few hours of daylight (though on the up side, that means higher chances of spotting the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights!). It is a country of myth and legend, of fire and snow, of ancient and modern. This small place packs a bundle!
Pro tip: Though only available to those ready to brave the cold (even in summer), it is actually possible to SCUBA dive between two tectonic plates – it doesn’t get cooler than that! For those who prefer to stay a bit warmer (or to warm up afterwards), Reykjavik and Iceland in general is full of hot springs heated naturally by the piping hot water from the volcanoes. Whether you prefer a dramatic outdoor pool or a modern pool in the city, there are plenty of options (though as this is popular with tourists and locals alike, don’t expect it to yourself. Iceland is sadly victim to overtourism from the mass cruise industry).
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe Stairway, Basque Country, Spain
It’s not hard to see why even just the pathway and staircase to the monastery of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe has captured the inspiration of thousands – or why fantasy film/series producers (like the unfortunate Game of Thrones where the stairs and islet stood in for Dragonstone) have chosen this place to be part of a fantastical world. Carved into a rugged, rocky outcrop on Spain’s north Basque coast, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is an ancient 10th century monastery perched precariously at the top of a rocky outcrop of an island. Reachable by a rugged causeway, the iconic steps and pathway were carved directly into the causeway itself. Dedicated to St John the Baptist, the unpronounceable Basque name actually loosely translates to “St John’s craggy fort.” At the top stands a medieval hermitage with burials spanning the 9th – 12th centuries. As with most medieval hermitages, the location was chosen precisely because of its rough and remote location – all the better for monks and hermits to isolate themselves from the evils of the world and focus on prayer and god. That said, the rough and remote location later became important as a stronghold and was attacked several times (including by the nasty though strangely revered Sir Francis Drake). Today, the island’s amazing geography combined with the added architecture is a popular site to visit.
Pro tip: It’s best to visit San Juan de Gaztelugatxe in the off-peak season or early on in the day. To truly appreciate the views, take the bus from Bilbao to Bakio and hike the rest of the way, about 6km. The steps are steep and rugged, so wear sturdy shoes and only attempt if fit. It’s a popular place so expect fellow pilgrims!
One of the many murals of Belfast, Northern Ireland
Belfast is known for a lot of things. It’s known for struggles, religious and political unrest, even for terror. But a lot has changed in recent years. Belfast has become a cosmopolitan hub, with an up-and-coming foodie scene that surpasses Dublin and rivals other European capitals. It’s a quirky place where art meets urban life in the best possible ways. For one, there are the Peace Walls. Massive walls that divides the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods, Peace Walls were constructed to protect each side from the other but at the end of the day, it is a barrier through the middle of the city dividing the two sides (not unlike the Berlin Wallonce did). Today the wall is still there and the sides are still divided but the wall is now a Peace Wall, full of thousands of messages of hope and courage written by residents and visitors alike, and the two sides have come together much more. But that’s not the only wall in Belfast. The city of Belfast is full of murals. Some are well known, others aren’t. Some are religious or political, some are artistic. Some are massive, others small. The above mural is one of the many one finds in the city centre, ‘neutral’ territory where both Protestants (aka unionists) and Catholics (aka republicans) rub shoulders. Belfast is still a divided city, and though on the island of Ireland, it resembles England far more than Ireland (in regards to architecture, way of life, fashions, shop brands…). Yet despite this – or perhaps because of this – it is a fascinating place to visit. Particularly the murals!
Pro tip: To truly appreciate Belfast, its history and its murals, take one of the famous Black Cab tours – Paddy Campbell’sis the original and the best!
Other Fascinating Sites to Visit in Ireland (North & South)
Lough Key is the centrepiece of Lough Key Forest Park, located at the heart of rural Co Roscommon, part of a region known as Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands. Woven and crossed with trails, Lough Key Forest Park is the perfect way to visit Ireland’s countryside if you don’t have the time or ability to undertake a wilderness hike, or if you’re looking for family-friendly hiking paths. In the centre of Lough Key – named for an ancient druid called Cé in Irish folklore (folklore attributes the lake as his grave site) – there is a tiny island roughly half an acre. In the centre of Castle Island is… you guessed it, a castle. What we see today is McDermott’s Castle, which is a folly (or ‘fake’ castle) built as a gothic castle in the early 1800s to improve the view, but there’s been one castle or another on Castle Island since the the 12th century. The castle of the island has since been struck by lightning, attacked by fire ships, sieged by raft-mounted catapults, cursed by the Hag of Lough Key and burnt during WWII.
Pro tip: Lough Key is located 2h from Dublin on the Sligo road. Though you can’t really visit the castle (it was sold recently via auction!), there are exquisite grounds for a hike or picnic, as well as the famed puzzle rooms (a bit like an escape room) and a cafe. Keep in mind the car park isn’t free.
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 beginning of January is a cold time of year. It brings to mind snow and hot chocolate and fireplaces…interestingly enough, these are important things year-round in Iceland. But once you get past the cold, once you embrace it, you’ll start to fall in love with this little northern capital in this little rugged island country. Containing 120,000 people (therefore containing 1/3 of Iceland’s population), this is the most northern capital in the whole world! Here, you’ll find little wooden houses, snow-capped mountains and clean air. In fact, it is one of the cleanest, greenest and safest cities worldwide. Supposedly established in 870 AD, it wasn’t much of a city until it was founded in 1786 as a trading outpost. Despite its growth over recent centuries, Reykjavik is far from the hustle-and-bustle you find in most capital cities – instead, it is a relatively relaxed, chill and happy place. Even if it is a bit chilly and sometimes a little (okay very) dark. But Iceland wouldn’t be Iceland without a little of both !
Located not far from Dubrovnik, Lopud Island–1 of 3 main isles of the Elafiti Island archipelago–is known for sun, sand, and orange clay roofs. Croatia itself has become immensely popular of late as a prime summer vacation spot. Dubrovnik and Split are bustling and active cities–though of course beautiful and unforgettable! But why not escape the city centre? For a country with so much coastline, a country known for its beaches and waters, why not get out on that famous water? Why not see the beautiful Dalmatian Coast from a boat? You will surely be rewarded. These isles are but a taste of what is out there. Lopud itself is small, less than 5km2 with a population of 22o. On it, you’ll find a Franciscan monastery–you can just see the church spire in the distance (could you imagine monks being here? Did they chill on the beach then like we do now? Probably not…). Along the sandy shores of Lopud, there are also a few other small ruins, many adorable houses, a lot of palm trees, and some amazing views!
Dunnottar is an easy place to fall in love. Perhaps due to the rugged nature of the peninsula, perhaps due to the fact that it is a castle on a cliff, perhaps due to brilliant surrounding countryside, Dunnottar Castle will make your heart flutter. The stone fortress is perched on a peninsula which is perched on a cliff, which creates an imposing image as you traipse through the Scottish countryside to get here. Dating back to 1400, this castle is probably the most famous of the roughly 55 castles in Aberdeenshire alone – one of the most castle-dense counties in all of the UK. Dunnottar Castle is well worth the traipse, even if you don’t go inside. The countryside hike to the castle is gorgeous. The castle itself is dramatic and picaresque, which exactly what you’d expect from a Scottish castle. Hidden beaches and steep cliffs line the castle’s edges, sporting a ruggedness that truly defines Scotland’s coast. Dunnottar Castle is full of untold treasures, and not just the sort of treasure that glitters!
Resting on the shores of Lake Galvė, a mere 300 km from the Baltic Sea, is Trakai Island Castle. Dating back to the 14th century, it was built to withstand attacks from the Teutonic Knights, who played a large role in the region. At the time, Trakai was one of the main centres of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania before it fell into obscurity after merging with the Kingdom of Poland. Today, the town of Trakai is a collection of colourful, wooden houses with a population of only 5,000. Until recently, the castle had been little more than ruins on an island, inspiration for writers and artists. Finally rebuilt in all its glory, Trakai Castle is an impressive monument standing in the middle of a careworn village, reminding us of bygone times when castles and knights and kings still ruled the lands.
More About Travelling to Central & Eastern European Castles