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.
Chateau de Val is certainly one of the luckiest castles in all of France. Built from the 13th to 15th centuries, Chateau de Val is a little-known castle located in the centre of France in a remote and little-visited region known as Le Cantal. Le Cantal itself is within the underrated region of Auvergne, known for its extinct volcanoes, rugby team, and Michelin (and locally, its cheeses!). In fact, poor Cantal is one of France’s least-populated (and least-visited) regions – though this is not for lack of beautiful sites! Tucked into this quiet region is one of the most dramatically romantic castles of France: the Chateau de Val. Once upon a time, the castle of Chateau de Val overlooked a massive and fertile valley in the Cantal Mountains, ancient volcanoes that have been ground down with time. Then, in 1942, the dam of Bort-des-Orges was proposed – and a decade later, water from the dammed river filled the valley – lapping softly and perfectly at the feet of the castle as if it was meant to be so. And yet. When the Bort-des-Orges dam was proposed and the valley’s villages were evacuated, the castle was purchased from the ancient family – with the full intention of the castle being left to drown under the new lake. But – an error occurred, a miscalculation, a change in water levels or equations or perhads funds. In any case, instead of water pouring through the medieval halls of a once-proud castle, hiding it forever from the eyes of the 21st century, fortune intervened, and the water level was lowered. The lake arrived just below Chateau de Val, giving it a dramatic position on a newly-formed peninsula. The electric company that built the dam tried to sell it back to the previous owners (who rejected it on the grounds that it had lost all of its ground) so instead, the electric company sold Chateau de Val to the town hall for €1 symbolic. And that’s why one could say that the Chateau de Val is the luckiest castle in France!
Pro Tip: Cantal is remote and not very touristy so don’t expect big visitor centres or roadside tourist signs, menus in English or many local English speakers. Other local sites to visit are: the medieval sites of Besse & Chateau de Murol, as well as the village of St Nectaire (where the cheese of the same name comes from!). Cantal is also the name of a regional cheese – both are delicious and should be tasted while you’re there! The whole region is an outdoor lover’s paradise with plenty of trails and panoramic views.
Tucked away in the French Alps are the shimmering silver-green shores of the Lac d’Annecy, or Lake Annecy in English. A small but characterful town, Annecy is an Alpine gem – close enough to the mountains to facilitate outdoor adventures, but still quick and easy enough to get to and around, even without a car. In the middle of the far side of the lake is the small Island of Roselet. Lake Annecy‘s story starts long ago in the Bronze Age, when Roselet went from peninsula to island. Its isolation as an island made it a safe place to live – where apparently, people did. Much later, in the Middle Ages, a castle was built. Though now lost, it has since been replaced with another structure, the current Château de Duingt and church were built in the then-popular neo-gothic style. Perhaps a result of too much Scooby-Doo, the Château de Duingt seems sure to be haunted – or owned by an eccentric old man – or simply eerily deserted. We’ll never know though, as today the island and its castle privately owned and are closed to the public. The closest you can get to the northeastern side is via a boat touring the lake. The island and causeway themselves are closed to guests so curious onlookers will have to view the castle from the village of Duingt where you can see the castle from the small pier that functions as a port landing, or from the park on the opposite side. No matter though – the lake and castle are best appreciated from the deck of a boat floating in the gentle lapping waters of the scenic Lake Annecy.
Pro tip: There are several boat companies operating out of Annecy. While in town, visit the old prison (Palais de l’Île) if you like history and the Château d’Annecy if you like (contemporary) art. There are many great restaurants and the local pizzas and ice cream are to die for!
Pragser Wildsee / Lago di Braies, Italian Dolomites
Reflections shimmer in the quiet pools of Lago di Braies’ furthest shores. This little turquoise and emerald lake is snuggled deep within the peaks and valleys of the Dolomites Mountains in the Sud Tyrol region of northern Italy. The Lago di Braies is the crown jewel of the Parco Naturale di Fanes-Sennes-Braies, a stunning nature park that covers some 63,000 acres of ruggedly beautiful mountainous landscapes deep in the Dolomites. Because of a rejigging of borders after WWI, the once Austrian region of Sud Tyrol is now Italian – though culturally and linguistically the locals have remained close to their Germanic roots. Lago di Braies, or its germanic name, the Pragser Wildsee, is one of the many pearls of this underrated region (most of the visitors to the lake and the greater region are domestic tourists). Offshoots of the Alps, the Dolomites are one of Europe’s significant mountain ranges – though the highest peak in the Dolomites (Marmolada) doesn’t even crack the top 200 hundred tallest peaks in the Alps. But it’s not all about height – Europe is full of beautiful, wild sites like the Pragser Wildsee that escape the tourist trail – you just have to know how to find them!
Pro tip: Like France’s network of GR (Grande Randonnées), the Dolomites have their own network of paths, numbered 1 – 8 and called alte vies or high paths.
Find other beautiful places in the Dolomites of Sud Tyrol:
Dusty, quiet, out of the way, the tiny Trakai village would be completely overlooked if not for its spectacular local monument – Trakai Island Castle, a splendid brick teutonic castle constructed on a island in the medieval era. Made up of colourful wooden clapboard houses, quiet tree-lined streets and embraced in a welcomingly fresh air, walking through Trakai village feels like you are exploring the Baltics of Europe behind the scenes, getting a glimpse of where the real people live. But in many ways, Trakai is not a normal place as it is a village that has been constructed and even preserved by an array of different nationality, ethnic groups and cultures. Tatars, Russians, Jews, Karaims (from Turkey), Lithuanians and Jews have – and do – all live here peacefully, rubbing shoulders as their lives quietly overlap. Trakai was once a booming town under Polish then later Lithuanian rule but saw significant decline as Vilnius and Krakow rose in importance. Though a small place today, Trakai has managed to stay significant due to King Gedimas’ lovely castle on the beautiful lake.
Pro tip: While in Trakai, be sure to try kibinai, a savoury pastry brought to the region by the Karaims community. Delicious and filing! Also, Trakai – and the Baltics in general – are a great place to purchase amber jewelry.
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.
Pro Tip: Take the train to the lovely village of Montreux and from there, walk along the lovely lakeside path for beautiful views! About 3.5 km (40 mins) from the train station. There are also cable cars and hiking trails in the mountains behind the castle, but keep in mind that accessibility is seasonal and weather permitting.
Le Jardin Anglais (the English Garden), Geneva, Switzerland
Geneva’s lovely Jardin Anglais overlooks the mouth of the famously beautiful Lac Leman at its convergence with the Rhone River. Constructed in 1855, this lovely urban garden hosts the famed horloge fleurie, or ‘flower clock’, which was built at the park’s centennial as a way to pay homage to the Switzerland and its affinity for clocks. Originally a wooded patch of embankment, the city of Geneva decided to buy it and turn the area into a lakeside park, part of an initiative to develop a new luxury neighbourhood. Even to this day, the neighbourhood surrounding the Jardin Anglais (as with most of central Geneva) is luxurious and beautiful. It is a place where Porches and Ferraris are parked, where shops like Cartier, Chanel, Gucci and Burberry are the norm, where the flats are glorious and expansive, with flower-clad balconies overlooking Lac Leman. Despite its name, this manicured and meticulous garden with its flower clock, perfect organisation, and profound cleanliness, is so undeniably and unmistakably Swiss.
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.
Views of Beinn Eighe aross Loch Clair, Torridon Hills, Scotland
The Scottish Highlands are a romantic yet desolate place. Hiking in these remote hills feels a bit like being at the edge of the world. Beautiful, amazing, alone. Snuggled deep within the forgotten Northwest Highlands, the village of Torridon clings to the shores of Loch Torridon. The region is full of places to muddy your boots and whet your imagination – one of which is the little Loch Clair, where an off-the-beaten-path trail circumnavigates the lake, giving views over Beinn Eighe and other peaks of the Torridon Hills. Other peaks in the Torridon Hills include Liathach and Beinn Alligin, all of which are known to climbers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. This is the kind of place to get lost. Not lost in the sense of “send the mountain rescue helicopters!” but lost as in a place you can get lost in your thoughts, daydreams and nature. This is a place where the romantic poets and landscape painters of the world would feel at home, a place where the 21st century has yet to find, where mud-plastered boots, Nordic walking poles and Gore-Tex hiking gear is the style.
Pro tip: To hike Loch Clair, head west on the A896 from Torridon for 15 minutes until you hit the Loch Clair car park on the left; the trailhead is across the road. Follow the rugged Loch Clair shores for magnificent lake and mountain views and stunning silence – best viewed during the famous Golden Hour!
Northern County Mayo is perhaps the closest you’ll get to true wilderness in Ireland. At the very least, Mayo is remote (and travel to and around), rural, quiet, and under-rated. There is little tourism infrastructure in the northern nether regions of Mayo (the southern part of the county fares better: parts of Connemara, the town of Westport and the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick all draw visitors). The problem does not lie in the lack of beauty – more in the lack of roads leading to said beautiful places. Lough Conn, a large lake outside of the not-overwhelming town of Ballina, is a diamond in the rough. Not far off the famous Wild Atlantic Way driving route, the glittering shores, fantastic sunsets, and little-visited beaches make Lough Conn an ideal place for off-the-beaten-track nature enthusiasts. It is a lovely place for wild camping (otherwise known as ‘real camping’ – no showers or wifi here!) or even just a beachside barbecue on a sunlit evening at the end of summer. Lough Conn itself is quite large – it measures 14,000 acres (57 km²). There are two accounts for the name (and very existence) of the lake. In Irish mythology, Lough Conn was created by famous giant Finn McCool (also credited with creating the Giant’s Causeway – a story for another day!). Hunting with his hounds Conn and Cullin, they chased a wild boar for days until water began to pour from the boar’s feet. It swam across the newly-created lakes one after the other but Conn the Hound drowned in the first lake (Lough Conn) and Cullin drowned in the second lake (becoming Lough Cullin). A version of the story was later attributed to an Irish chieftain, Chief Modh, though in this account, the pigs, not the hounds, was drowned. Drowning aside, both lakes are lovely, quiet places – a true glimpse into unspoilt Ireland. For a bit of local culture, stop by Foxford Woollen Mills on the way back to civilisation – a respected local weaving and crafting designer!
Macedonia is a place few Europe-travellers venture. Steeped in history flowing from its most famous inhabitant, Alexander the Great, Macedonia has been at a crossroads for many great civilisations – Greek, Roman, Byzantium, Ottoman. Each empire wrote its own history into the seams of Macedonia, apparent from its ample mosques, Byzantine basilicas, Roman amphitheatres, and winding alleys leading to the shores of Lake Ohrid. The lake is one of the deepest and oldest lakes in Europe, giving shelter to a unique underwater ecosystem, and the town that sits on its shores is even more unique. Taste the thick, Turkish coffee, quench your thirst with a glass of cold spritz or savour a shish kabab, skewers of mouth-watering meat and vegetables grilled to perfection. The narrow, ancient streets curve through the town and up the hill, and it seems like the further up you go, the further back in time you travel. Enjoy the Mediterranean climate as you explore this town lost in time.
Quiet canals meander the cobbled streets of Annecy. Colors slip down the facades, floating into the canals’ ripples, drifting out into the lake. One of the cleanest in Europe, it must certainly also be one of the prettiest. The stout, stone fortress glares over the orange rooftops of its town, a citadel lost in time. Artists sell their wares – paintings, photographs, jewellery, pottery. Vendors sell ice creams and chocolates to tourists while diners chat on sunny terraces, sipping beers and lemonades. The swans swim by, searching for the forgotten crumbs that tumble in the canals. The streets ring with people taking advantage of summer in the mountains. Like a scene from a painting, Annecy’s streets merrily portray summer bliss.
If you need a reason to escape Bergen, just behind the city rises Mt Fløyen. Bergen is known as the city between seven mountains, of which includes Ulriken (the highest), Fløyen, Løvstakken and Damsgårdsfjellet, as well as three of Lyderhorn, Sandviksfjellet, Blåmanen, Rundemanen, and Askøyfjellet (depending on how you’re feeling at the time…). There is a cable car carrying tourists to the top of Fløyen, but to experience the mountain as the Norwegians do, grab a map and start climbing! Besides being rewarded with amazing views of the city from a birds-eye point of view, you may also stumble across this beautiful mountain lake. Carved into a lakeside tree, it says, “Dagen i dag er morgendagen du drømte om i går,” translating to something like the whimsical phrase, “Today is the tomorrow you dreamt about yesterday.” Well, sign, I hope that’s what I’m doing!