Trains whistle as they slowly puff to a halt inside the light and airy station. People hurry to and fro, a newspaper or novel tucked under one arm, a cup of coffee or sandwich in the other. Like any major train station, everybody is either hurrying to board a train or waiting listlessly for their train to arrive. There is an air of travel about the air, as everyone in the station is either coming or going. You, the intrepid traveler, can’t help but feel nostalgic in this slightly old-fashioned station, reminiscent of bygone times when steam engines were chic and classy. What makes Antwerp’s station special is its sheer beauty. The Belgians regard it as the highest quality of railway-related architecture in their country. If you don’t think that that’s impressive enough given the small size of Belgium, how about this? The world-renowned American magazine Newsweek named Antwerpen-Centraal “the world’s fourth greatest train station” in 2009, and just this year, the Anglophone magazine Mashable ranked it the number one most beautiful railway station in the world! With not only its gorgeous facade but also this massively beautiful clock presiding overhead, I think we call agree that it’s one heck of a place to catch a train!
Light blue skies hang over the waterfront buildings of this Polish city. Located in northern Poland, Gdansk is one of the “trojmiescie” cities. Together with Gdynia and Sopot, these three cities make up the “Tricity” region thanks to their close proximity to each other. In fact, they are so close that the same tram/bus network services all three, and it is quite normal to live/stay in Gdansk and party in Gdynia then shop in Sopot the next day. Once part of Germany (‘Gdansk’ was called ‘Danzig’ and still is called so by German tourists), this region on the Baltic Sea is today known for its beaches (in Poland, that is), and its amber production (worldwide!). It also happens to be beautiful. While the city isn’t exactly on the Baltic, (the water here is the Motlawa River), it’s only a hop, skip and a jump away from the infamous sea. A visit to Gdansk during the summer months will be pleasantly spent, no matter whether you’re sitting along the river, digging your toes in the sand of one of the surrounding beaches, eating at one of the many pleasant cafes and restaurants on the main street or dancing your heart out in one of the Tricity’s many nightclubs!
Hopefully, you’re not afraid of heights. Oh you are? Hmm, well, perhaps it’s best to avoid driving in rural areas in Scandinavia, especially on the western coast of Norway in the direction of the fjords. This is the kind of place where you’ll find zigzagging roads that curl back and forth, criss-crossing each other time and again. These are the kinds of roads that cut through cliffs, chipped away by Norwegian laborers using rough tools and dynamite. These are the kinds of roads that plummet suddenly downwards, seemingly trying to follow the path of the countless waterfalls you’ve already passed along on your drive. Curving around cliff sides, these are these kinds of roads that leave you hanging over steep drops, with the sound of thousands of tons of water pounding onto the rocks below. These are the kinds of roads where you can imagine literally falling off the face of the earth, disappearing into the cavern far below. And yet—these are the kinds of roads that leave you excited and exhilarated by the end, dumbfounded at the wonders you’ve encountered along the road and breathless with the magnitude and sheer danger of driving on them—because at the end of the day, it’s the journey not the destination that matters. And this, you must admit, looks like a pretty unforgettable (if slightly terrifying!) journey.
Jeff Koons’ puppy outside the Guggenheim, Bilbao, Spain
After a few weeks of absence (no internet while working out on the French vineyards!), I return with a photo of Bilbao, one of Spain’s best-kept secrets (no worries ; French vineyards are soon to come). Outside the infamous, space-age museum sits a…well, a special sort of art. Made completely of flowers, Jeff Koons’ amazing sculpture, ‘Puppy’ stands guard outside Bilbao’s famous museum. Koons is known for his stainless steel balloon animals as well as other slightly eccentric types of art. Puppy is a 43 ft/13m tall sculpture of a West Highland White Terrier puppy created from petunias, begonias, marigolds and other such flowers. He currently sits quietly outside Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum–itself a work of art!–where he has been since 1997. Today, an intricate and permanent part of the museum, Puppy almost became the victim of attack by an Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque) gang who planted explosives in flowerpots around his feet–though of course, our favorite terrier was saved by a Basque policeman who later died from gunshot wouds (and no, I am not making this up, as crazy as it may sound…). Ever since I studied Koons’ artwork in university, I’d always wanted to go, so finally getting the chance to visit Bilbao was an opportunity of a lifetime!
The sky is dark and cloudy, but what else would you expect it to be on a chilly winter’s day at a rural German castle? Could you honestly picture it any other way? German castles are known for their fairy-tale turrets paired with dark forests and remote hilltops, and it’s not hard to imagine yourself as a would-be prince or princess in a Grimm’s brothers tale. Hohenzollern Castle is no different. Silhouetted against a cloud-streaked sky not far from Stuttgart, the castle rises above the trees, beckoning travelers to climb its hillside and enter its thick walls. First constructed in the 11th century, Hohenzollern Castle barely survived a 10-month siege in the 1400’s, later serving as a refuge during the Thirty Year’s War. In the 18th century, like so many other castles of this era, Hohenzollern fell into ruins, becoming little more than vague inspiration for little-known artists and poets. In the mid-1800s, William IV of Prussia reconstructed the castle in the Gothic Revival style, basing his designs on the magnificent chateaus of the Loire Valley in France; today, only the chapel is originally medieval. And yet, as you climb the mountain, modern society slips through your fingers. By the time you arrive at the top of the castle towers to enjoy the view of the countryside, you realise that you’ve gone back in time by a few hundred years to a time when castles were a defense system, kings and queens wrote the law of the land, and armies still invaded on horseback.
Tumbling hazel hills rise and fall along this Spanish road in Spain’s southern-most, most populous, and second-largest region, Andalusia. Blazing hot during the day, chillingly cold during the evening, Andalusia is as bizarre as it is beautiful. While tints of green fleck the landscape (as seen here), there is an overwhelming difference between these rolling hills, and similar such hills just on the other side of the Pyrenees. Andalusia has a rugged sort of beauty that is sometimes difficult to understand at first….but the more time spent in this warm, dry part of southern Spain, the more delicious dishes you try, the more fun, happy Spaniards you meet, the more adorable villages you discover, the more realise there’s no place like Andalusia!
Voici la ville de Grenoble, the Gateway to the Alps. And here we are, looking through an actual gateway! Grenoble, while generally acknowledged to be a “modern” city – and far from the top of the (very long) list of Beautiful French Cities – it is still well-known for its easy access to the Alps and all that comes with these spectacular mountains. Busy with hikers in the summer and skiers in the winter, inactivity is a malady quite unknown to the city. That said, stop for a coffee, pastry or ice cream in many of the cafes downtown, and you won’t be disappointed! For fantastic views, weave your way up the steep, narrow paths up through the stone buildings in various states of ruin until you finally reach the Bastille – where you can expect a magnificently beautiful panorama !
Castles abound in this Italian region bordering both France and Switzerland. The borders and rulers of this region have changed too many times to recount, giving the region a severe case of identity crisis. Even today, though a part of Italy for a long time, the region still seems relatively bilingual in both Italian and French. The city of Aosta is often the destination—but the train ride to the Roman city is one of those times when Emerson’s expression “life is a journey, not a destination” comes to light. Keep your eyes glued to the train windows because all those times the valley changed hands have created a need for limitless castles and fortresses—therefore, it is rather like playing “Where’s Waldo?” (if Waldo was a castle!) every five minutes! Mostly built in the typical Italian style (see Milan), the castles not only add a romantic flair to the valley, but also serve to remind us of our brutal feudal history—and the reason why we built castles in the first place.
I spy with my little eye…a gnome in the sunrise? That’s right, that there is a gnome. And over there, there’s another—and another! As you spy more and more gnomes, you may be tempted to start a gnome scavenger hunt – and this beautiful city in western Poland is full of little gnome statues. However, reader beware – at last count, there were over 250 of them! But why are they here? The first gnome was installed on Świdnicka Street, commemorating the “Orange Alternative” movement, based in Wroclaw, whose main goal was to oppose the authoritarian communist regime through peaceful protest. The gnome was their symbol (vying to represent the little man?), and in 2001, the Orange Alternative group became one of the few instances in which a rebellion group has been honoured by the local government. Now, the gnomes are a city tradition, art installation, and tourist attraction, and their numbers continue to rise. So, good luck and happy gnome hunting!
Ruins always hold a certain charm–reminders to us that even the best eventually crumble and nothing lasts forever. And yet–they are romantic too, inspirations for artists and poets, writers and songwriters. And the more remote and less well-known they are, the more charm they seem to percolate. To reach the ruins of Krimulda Castle from the train station in Sigulda, one must first cross the desolate yet beautifully scenic Gauja Valley–in a cable car! Step into this adorable little yellow car, and spend the next twenty minutes dangling over the gorge, eyes glued to the window as the turrets of Turaida Castle rise above the treetops. As you land on the right bank, delve back into the solitary Latvian woods via a quiet hiking trail at the edge of the ruins. The odd way of reaching this remote place you never even knew was there–such as the Krimulda ruins–only makes it that much more…amazing. Built in the 14th century by Prince Liven, the castle of Krimulda was constructed on the right bank of the Gauja River Gorge. At the time, the gorge marked the frontier between the lands controlled by the Archbishop of Riga (including Krimulda and Turaida), and the Order of the Brethren Sword (what a name!), where Sigulda is currently located. The first year of the 17th century, during the Polish-Swedish war, the Swedes took control of the castle…so, rather than lose control of it, the Poles burned the castle to the ground, leaving it to become the ruins we see today. What a life people lived back then.
What little girl doesn’t dream of becoming a princess? What little boy doesn’t, at one point or another, dream of becoming a knight? Even as we grow up, castles – especially the unexplored, wild, and overgrown castles – retain something romantic, as if the castle holds some sort of magical power. But as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts. And the journey to reach Turaida Castle is nothing short of adventurous! Starting in the town of Sigulda (where one obtains the highly-detailed map), you continue through the other ruinous castle to Gauja River Gorge, which you cross via cable car to arrive in the ghost town of Krimulda. There, you find a small path leading through more ruins, and continuing on past the Gutmanis Cave, through the woods before breaking out into a small clearing to view your prize—this beautiful brick castle circa 1214, brought to life by the Archbishop of Riga. Today, Turaida Castle remains one of the most important ruins in Latvia – but also one of the most interesting to visit. So if you’re feeling brave next time you visit Riga, forsake the car, forsake the bus, and take to the trails. This age-old journey leading through these ancient sites is well worth it.
Antica Mulattiera in the Val de Susa (near St Ambroiso), Italy
Hidden among the curves of this ancient mule path (antica mulattiera) that carves its way up the mountain carrying pilgrims to the Sacra di San Michele as it has done for at least a thousand years, one will find 15 “stations of the cross,” a reminder to the route’s many pilgrims of why they are here. Cobblestones smoothed by millions of pilgrim’s boots line the rugged path that hugs the mountainside. For those who want to leave behind the 21st century–travelling back in time to the middle ages when pilgrimages were a normal part of life for every believer, take this quiet forest path and enter into nature as you make your own pilgrimage to the monastery at the top. Not only will you be able to approach the monastery in the traditional way and understand what life would have been like for a medieval pilgrim, but along the way you’ll be privy to amazing views and hillside villages. As you make your soul-searching pilgrimage, you’ll have time to reflect on life and destiny. By the time you reach the top, you may very well be a changed person.
Europe is known for its castles. In fact, it has so many castles that countless sit neglected and forlorn, hidden in the woods, crumbling off cliffs, overlooking dusty train tracks, forever closed for non-funded restoration projects. Many are in disrepair. Some have become hotels, private residences or galleries of modern art. Carcassonne—well, it didn’t quite follow that path. One of the most famous castles in France, and certainly one of the most well-preserved medieval castles du monde, Carcassonne is a beautiful example of what happens to a walled city and chateau that is repaired, preserved, and promoted as a tourist destination. In summer, numbers of tourists soar, so perhaps try to avoid peak season. Settlement on the hill dates back to 3500 BC, though the castle itself is from the 10th-12th centuries. It is fortified by 3m of thick stone walls, and guarded with 52 impressive towers—including one called the “Inquisition Tower,” as it once housed the 13th century Catholic Inquisition. Crowds or not, Carcassonne is one of the best examples of a castle and fortified town that this magnificent continent has to offer, and merits a visit to southern France!
Not much has changed in this little medieval village. In this modern world where new technologies affect our lives every day, our urban landscapes can’t help but change alongside our changing technological needs. But sometimes—sometimes we manage to hold on to a little piece of the past. European civilisations (and therefore buildings) are of course very old, but France somehow seems to give the impression of being even older than other countries. Walking down a French street, it’s a relatively normal thing to come across an old well, a crumbling stone wall…or an old wooden door, paint chipped, vines grasping to the ancient stone façade, flowers spilling out of cracked windowpanes. Pérouges dates back to the Middle Ages and while now its streets are mostly walked by tourists, the town gives us a little glimpse into the past—showing us how we can learn something from the old edifices created by our ancestors.
The Welsh capital doesn’t have the glamor of London, the charm of Edinburgh or the ambiance of Belfast. In fact, despite the fact that it’s the UK’s 9th largest city, Wales is often skipped over when travelling through the UK. Yet, one should not ignore the Welsh capital. Wales has its own uniqueness; one has to look no further than its language to understand that. Welsh Gaelic is a very old and complicated language, and throughout much of the 20th century, it was in decline, though it never died out. However, the Welsh government, in an effort to promote Wales and a Welsh identity, has recently tried to bring back the language, posting bilingual signs and including it on school syllabi. In 2010, the Welsh Assembly voted to approve several measures developing and promoting the use of the Welsh in Wales. Visiting Wales, you’ll probably start your journey in ‘Caerdydd’ (Cardiff) where many signs will be in ‘Cymraeg’ (Welsh). You’ll be greeted with ‘croeso’ or ‘helô’ (welcome and hello). You might hear ‘bore da’ or ‘p’nawn da’ (good morning/good afternoon). You should probably learn how to say ‘diolch’ (thank you)…followed by ‘mae’n ddrwg…dw i ddim yn deall!’ (sorry, I don’t understand!) I know very little about Welsh (so excuse any errors)…but just from studying a Welsh text or two at uni, it seems to be a very interesting albeit very complicated language! Today, only about 562,000 Welsh residents reported the ability to speak Welsh.
If you’re not fascinated by castles and cathedrals, stop reading right now. Because to me, there are few things more amazing than the sheer force it took to quarry the stone, carry it away, carve it into all manner of shapes, execute a building plan that won’t fall down, lift the stones up to actually construct the building, create a building using little more than manpower and pulley systems, then adorn it with intricately carved statues and carvings. All before the age of machinery, calculators, computers, factories, electricity, or even indoor plumbing and heating. And the fact that so many of these structures still exist–and you can even go inside them!–is, well, mindblowing. Today, we rarely build things to last, and we also rarely think about the aesthetics of what we are building. In fact, buildings are often put up knowing that they will be pulled down in 10 years’ time. When I was travelling through Alsace via TGV–a lovely way to travel–castle after castle after church after church rose up from the French hillsides to scratch the sky. I don’t know their names and I doubt I ever will, but it’s reassuring that at one point, people cared so much about the things that they were building that they built them to last 800 years. Not only are they still usable today, but their designs are still inspirational and sensational and admired. It’s sad that some of them just sit by the roadside, but it does make for a pleasurable “I spy” game while chugging through the French countryside.
Down Ulica Długa to Długi Targ (Long Street to Long Market), Gdansk, Poland
This beautiful Polish city on the Baltic Sea hasn’t always been Polish…in fact, it hasn’t always been called by its’ Polish name, “Gdansk.” Because the city has historically laid upon the border between Slavic and Germanic controlled territories, it has switched hands at least 15 times since being founded in 997. Its position on the Baltic Sea made it a disputed city in WWII, with the Germans taking control of “Danzig.” And like so many other Polish cities, it was demolished in the war, and, once again like all the other cities, had to be painstakingly rebuilt and restored by dedicated citizens–though some German vestiges still exist and German tourists are still plenty. Along with Gdynia and Sopot, the three cities form the Tri-city (Trójmiasto) region, with 1.4 million inhabitants. The Long Street/Long Market is one of the most beautiful market squares in Poland and even in Europe (though it’s not really a square…more of a rectangle!), and even more lovely in warm weather as the Baltic Sea is a just a hop, skip and a jump away!
Travel to Other Beautiful Places near the Baltic Sea