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 original canal city (though far from the only city criss-crossed with canals), Venice is often recognised as one of the most romantic cities in the world. Sometimes nicknamed the “Fish” (for its shape as seen from above), Venice’s main island is also its most busy, though it is far from the only island in the Venetian Lagoon – in fact, there are 118 islands as part of the Lagoon! Certainly one of Europe’s most beautiful creations, the entire island is like a museum where some of the most splendid examples of architecture are on permanent display. Take to the canals, the grand squares and the beautiful bridges to admire facades displaying Rococo, Baroque, Renaissance and Gothic styles – in fact, Venice has its own version of the Gothic called Venetian Gothic, characterised by its lancet windows adorned with carved ogee arches. Both the Byzantines and the Ottomans had a serious effect on the development of Venice’s unique architectural styles, and in turn, Venice had a serious effect on the rest of Europe. Then as today, Venice has been wowing visitors who travel to this marvel of a city and bring back its artistic and architectural secrets to be used in the building of other impressive places. Though Venice is one of the most visited cities on Earth, it suffers from overtourism – there are simply too many people visiting these small islands. The best way to avoid adding to this problem is to visit in the off season, exploring the lesser-visited islands, as well as visiting other lesser-visited places in the region like Brunico, Lago di Braies,Verona, the Dolomites Mountains and more to spread the tourism more evenly!
Pro tip: There’s really no getting around the crowdedness of Venice – the best we can say is visit in the off season, and try to stay on one of the less-famed islands. Carnevale di Venezia (the Carnival of Venice) is in January/February and is an exciting though popular time of year to visit. While here, get off the main squares to wander the back alleys, keeping your eyes out for little hole-in-the-wall cafes with Italian-only menus to mingle with locals who love to meet, chat and drink afternoon glasses of espresso and spritz.
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!
Holy Mary of Spilice Church on Lopud Island, Croatia
Built in 1483, the beautiful Church of Marija od Špilice or Mary of Spilice was constructed as part of Lopud Island’s Franciscan Monastery. Lopud Island is one of the three Elafiti Islands in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of southern Croatia. Lopud was first inhabited by the Greeks and then the Romans, though no architectural ruins remain. Once part of the powerful and ancient kingdom of Ragusa, the island hosts some spectacular medieval ruins – such as this Franciscan monastery, as well as a second monastery, several hermitages, aristocratic villas, a couple of forts and far too many churches to count. Though Lopud’s main Franciscan monastery is literally crumbling around itself, the complex still contains a working church. It’s a miracle that Lopud’s monastery is still here – it has survived earthquake, fires, annexation, dereliction, war, and other disasters, and yet here it is today, overlooking Lopud’s lovely harbour, marvelling visitors to this tiny, bucolic island every day in the 21st century.
Pro tip: Most people only visit the island (along with the other Elafiti Islands) as day trip from Dubrovnik – unsustainable tourism. However, the best way to visit the island – or any of Croatia’s islands – is to spend more time than an hour or two – or even the night.
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).
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.
Slea Head Peninsula along the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland
One of the most interesting examples of a tourism product produced by a destination(s) is the infamous Wild Atlantic Way, a route that conducts travellers through nine counties for roughly 2,500 km (1,550 miles) along the western coastline of Ireland. Developed to showcase the best of Western Ireland, the Wild Atlantic Way does a pretty fantastic job of connecting otherwise isolated regions, counties, villages, cliffs, beaches and attractions into something much greater. One place along the Wild Atlantic Way that is particularly awe-inspiring is Slea Head, the tip of the oft-overlooked Dingle Peninsula. Sitting here in the soft, green grass at the tip of the point, overlooking a few rugged, rocky islands, it sends a shiver down your spine to realise that the next thing out there after the miles and miles of waves is North America. While most tourists do not stray far from the well-worn tracks of the Ring of Kerry, Dingle is much more rugged and authentic, peopled by cheery Irishmen and women who hold an innate love of their country. Slea Head is as green as it is peaceful. In fact, at Slea Head, the only other beings you’re likely to meet is the local farmer’s fleecy sheep and lumbering cattle, making this amazing natural landscape a great place for internal reflection.
Houses in Reykjavik, Iceland, looking across the Tjörnin.
Welcome to Reykjavik, the teeny tiny capital of Iceland, and also the northernmost capital in the world. Human habitation of the site dates back to 870, though the city wasn’t established until 1786. Because it was under Danish rule and settled by many Scandinavians, the city has a distinctly Scandinavian feel. It is capital of an island full of impressive scenery, angry volcanoes, and a stark coastline.