Castillo Xàtiva, La Costera region, Spain

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Castillo Xàtiva and the La Costera region, Spain

Spicy yellows and greens flood the rugged slopes of Monte Vernissa in  warm, afternoon sunlight, just outside the town of Xàtiva (Játiva in Spanish). During the Al-Andalus, the Arab conquerers turned the city into a paper manufacturing centre. The introduction of this technology brought prosperity, leading to the creation of high-quality schools and educational institutes with the castle arriving in the 11th century. Due to a terrible siege orchestrated by Philip V of Spain (punishment for Xàtiva’s resistance to his claim to power) that led to the town’s destruction, to this day Philip’s portrait hangs upside-down in the local museum. History aside, the La Costera region envelops the scraggy, weather-beat valley steppes of Montesa and Xàtiva, bordered by the Enguera and Grossa Mountains in the south. Xàtiva and its fortified castle remain the heart of the region. La Costera is a region beautiful for both its cultural and natural riches, and well worth the trek into its dry valleys. Though perhaps past its golden age in terms of affluence, Xàtiva remains a place of intense beauty and intrigue, and gold is still the best way to describe the city’s surrounding sea of sunburnt landscapes gently reminiscent of the American Wild West.

Happy New Year, folks!

 

Loch Rannoch & Mt. Schiehallion (Scottish Highlands), Scotland

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Loch Rannoch and Mount Schiehallion (Scottish Highlands), Scotland 

There are some places that make you sigh happily with their perfection, tranquility, magnificence – and the Scottish Highlands certainly qualify. Narrow lakes like Loch Rannoch dot the rugged, picturesque landscape – and while overshadowed by their famous sister Loch Ness, these lochs are no less impressive (and with the added bonus of no monster lurking under their waves!). In fact, it is Rannoch’s isolation that makes it so special and authentic. Framed by the spectacular (though perhaps unpronounceable) Mount Schiehallion, this amazing corner of the Highlands definitely qualifies as paradise. Roughly translating to the “Fairy Hill of the Caledonians” (Iron Age and Roman era peoples from Scotland), Mount Schiehallion is as mysterious as it is beautiful. Sometimes described as the ‘centre of Scotland,’ there’s no doubt that Mt Schiehallion holds a magical pull to it. As eccentricities go, Schiehallion was the setting of a strange experiment to ‘estimate the mass of the Earth’ in 1774 by the interestingly-named Charles Mason (not what you’re thinking of…). The base of thinking went something like, ‘if we could measure the density and volume of Schiehallion, then we could also ascertain the density of the Earth,’ all of which led to the Cavendish Experiment two decades later, which was even more accurate. Setting aside physics and mathematics, the naturally symmetrical mountain, its peaceful lake, its quaint surrounding villages and lovely green pastures of sleepily grazing sheep all make for a beautiful landscape and unforgettable foray into Scotland’s wilder side.

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Mt Schiehallion located at the centre (unlabelled Loch Rannoch is just beside it)

Grazelama, Andalucía, Spain

Andalucia, Andalusia, Grazalama, Spain, Pueblos Blancos, White Villages, Southern Spain

Grazalama, AndalucíaSpain

The golden sun touches down on the sunburnt region of Andalucía. Adorable pueblos blancos – or white villages due to their white-washed appearance – dot the landscape among scattered scrub bushes clinging to the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains. Grazalama, like the previously mentioned Zahara de la Sierra, is one of these such ‘white villages.’ Quaint yet lively, Grazalama – like the majority of the pueblos blancos – emits the true spirit of the region: local tradition seeped with food, drink, dance and merriment. Here, take a step back in time to forgotten generation. Take a step away from the glitz and glam of modern, fast-paced European cities like Madrid and London, Paris and Oslo. Instead, take a moment to relax under the warm Spanish sun with a cold cerveza in hand, plates of tapas – fresh seafood, various types of pork, local veggies, to-die-for olives, you name it – in front of you, while the sounds of upbeat Spanish music make your feet try to dance. Your chosen restaurant is located in a building older than your great-grandmother. Miniature shops selling local wares line the square. People chat happily away in rapid-fire Spanish in animated conversations necessitating many hand-gestures. Glasses clink, bells toll, and smells of something savoury waft from the kitchens. As the setting sun warms your back, you realise you found a miniature paradise deep in the heart of Andalucía.

Coumeenoole, Ireland

Coumeelee Ireland on Slea Head Peninsula along Wild Atlantic Way

Coumeenoole along the Slea Head Drive, Ireland

A flash of movement, a shimmer of gold, a glimpse of green. Welcome to the land of the leprechauns – a spit of land near the westernmost point of mainland Ireland. Bearded little men with a penchant for mischief-making, leprechauns have become a prominent part of Irish folklore, and though today’s prankster wears green, the original creature actually wore red. The Dingle Peninsula, where the Slea Head Drive is located, is a magical place with or without the leprechauns. Though cars scoot by along narrow Irish roads following the infamous Wild Atlantic Way, those who venture into the rolling green hills with only sheep for company will be immensely rewarded. While visitors may not find a leprechaun or even his pot of gold, what you will find is much more valuable. As you walk barefoot through the soft blanket of thick Irish grass on the rugged peninsula that overlooks the waves of green hills of the unpronounceable Coumeenoole, you will bask in the solace of tranquillity and total immersion, living wholly in this magical moment lost in the Irish countryside – all the while knowing that once you begin to craving vivacity, you will surely find raucous fun in the next village’s pub. It’s an amazing and intricate balance that only Ireland seems capable of creating and maintaining!

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Massif Central Mountains, Auvergne, France

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Puy de Sancy in the Massif Central, Auvergne, France

Typically evoking ideas of fire and brimstone, volcanoes are not generally the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions ‘France.’ And yet, volcanoes – or at least extinct ones – are the dominating natural feature of the French province of Auvergne, located in central France. Rated the 6th top destination to visit in 2015 by Lonely Planet, the unique volcanoes of Auvergne are at least in part responsible for Auvergne’s intrigue. As part of the Massif Central, a mountain range that covers most of Auvergne and plays a significant role in the region’s natural and cultural landscape, some of the volcanoes are as old as 65 million years, while others are as young as 7,000 years (mere toddlers in mountain live spans). Being elevated and surrounded by mountains makes Auvergne’s climate chillier (and foggier) than the rest of central France, perhaps attributing to the region’s hearty mountain dishes such as aligot and truffade (both made with potatoes, types of pork, and hearty cheeses). The locals also seem to have a higher appreciation of nature than people from other regions, and can be found enjoying the outdoors during weekends – whether that be a backyard picnic, a leisurely stroll in the park, or climbing the rugged volcanic landscape. When it comes to hiking, climbing, kayaking, paragliding and other outdoor activities, Auvergne’s mountains are certainly the place to go. Exhilarating, rugged, beautiful, lush, scenic, challenging  – the mountains and volcanoes of the Massif Central become whatever you make them out to be. So get your coat and boots on and go out for a walk in the wild!

Curraghchase Manor, Ireland

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Curraghchase Manor House (near Limerick), Ireland 

Shuttered, dark, and eerie, this once-elegant manor strikes an odd contrast with the surrounding cheery, green estate-turned-park. Curraghchase Manor (the centrepiece of Curraghchase Forest Park), once the reigning jewel of the land, was exterminated by fire in 1941, and its grounds were turned into a happy-go-lucky park for locals of Limerick’s surroundings to take a stroll, go for a jog, have a picnic, or play fetch with the dog. The manor, though, is haunting. A rounded stone building once elegant and home to the de Vere family who could trace their lineage to a tenant-in-chief of William the Conquerer, today it is completely encased, with no way in or out except the open roof. Gutted by the flames of the mid 20th century, the interior now makes a home for the birds and the bees, the only critters who can fly over its high walls. As proof of its former splendour, it was once the inspiration for Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, Lady Clara Vere de Vere. Today however, the manor exudes a certain eerie quality, not unlike that of the abandoned Krimulda Manor deep in the Latvian forests, or  Lake Annecy’s remote, ivy-covered chateau. While today the Curraghchase grounds are full of a variety of tree types, twisting forest paths, trickling streams, silent ponds, and even a miniature (and sad) pet cemetery where beloved pets were once laid to rest, it is still Curraghchase Manor that arrests the eye, thoughts and senses of the visitor. Oh yes, did I mention that according to local legend, it was the Lady of the Lake, first seen by Tennyson, that supposedly caused the tree to come crashing through the window and knocked over the candelabra that started the fire? Once cannot help but shiver when thinking about the long-neglected interior, left for nature slowly to take its course, the mythic ghost, or about the scared inhabitants who abandoned their splendid home one cold night in December of 1941, never to return again. Despite the shining sun and beautiful grounds, as one passes in front of Curraghchase Manor one cannot help a little shiver, and a feeling of desolation that passes as quickly as it came before you meander off to discover the rest of the grounds.

Hiking in Chazay d’Azergues, France

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Hiking in Chazay d’Azergues, France

Ahh…The Great Outdoors. It says it all in the name – ‘great!’ No matter whether you’re hiking in Ireland or Denmark, Poland or (as in this case), France, hiking in Europe is bound to be ‘great.’ Being based a city may be ideal for working, for nightlife, for cultural outings, for restaurant variety, and for transportation connections, but breathe in the city air too long, and you’ll go crazy. We all need a good dose of the outdoors in our systems: fresh air, cool wind, natural landscapes, lack of noise, isolation, tranquility. And there are no excuses, for a hiking trip doesn’t always have to be a grand Alpine expedition – if you’ve only got a weekend, head out to the surrounding countryside (every town and city has one!) and hit the trails. Explore the unknown, and who knows what you may find? On this particular day the photo was taken, not only did we find this extensive root system, but we also stumbled across hidden ponds, forgotten manor houses, placid villages, sun-dipped fields, cheery locals and fellow hikers. Exploring the world on foot (no matter how close to or far from home) always seems to add another dimension to the final destination, somehow making that place seem more meaningful to you simply by approaching it via your own two feet. Whether that be in Slea Head Peninsula in Ireland, the Gauja River Valley in Latvia, the Val de Susa in northern Italy, Mt Esja in Iceland or the Beskids and Tatras in Poland, discovering the world on foot is all the more magical.

Muckross Abbey, Ireland

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Muckross Abbey in Killarney National Park, Ireland

The silent headstones reach out of the earth like fingernails. A soft layer of grass covers the ground; ivy climbs the walls. Wildflowers, left to their own devices, plant their roots in their chosen bits of earth. Muckross Abbey, a squat, ancient building within the beautiful Killarney National Park in western Ireland, rings of silence. As one approaches the roofless, hollow structure, the quantity of graves thickens, as in Catholicism, being buried on Holy Ground was a believer’s final life objective. Graves are everywhere, even inside the building. The ground by the abbey seems to be higher than the ground further away, but that’s no trick of the light or any natural phenomenon – no, that’s a result of as many people being buried on Holy Ground by the church as possible. The silence inside is deafening. Your footsteps echo in the cloisters as you circle the inner courtyard. Climbing to the second floor, you come face-to-face with the ancient, scared yew tree planted by the monks of yesteryears, a symbol of their eternal faith. Finally at the top of the tower, you get a sweeping view of the rest of the churchyard, and beyond it, the lush greens of Killarney National Park, a good bit of which was once the property of the Muckross Estate before becoming Ireland’s first national park in 1932. The spell is finally broken when a group of boisterous tourists lumber through the abbey’s gates, and you take your cue, quietly slipping out onto one of the many forested paths winding in and around Killarney’s famous park.

Slea Head Peninsula, Ireland

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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.

Annecy, France

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Annecy, France

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.

 

Lago di Braies, Italy

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Lago di Braies, or the Pragser Wildsee, Italy

Soft waves lapping on this Italian lake’s shore. In the heat of summer, lakes such as this one become an oasis for locals and tourists alike. The turquoise blue of this lake with the dramatic mountains raising up behind make Lago di Braies particularly popular. Located deep in the Dolomite Mountain range in South Tyrol, this region was originally part of Austria, hence the Germanic version of its name. Local legend has it that the south end of the lake holds a ‘gate to the underworld,’ though this hasn’t stopped the steady flow of tourists looking for an escape into nature! The lake makes a good starting point for hiking in the Dolomites. For those only there for the day, there is a pleasant walk around the lake, or you visit the lake by water, renting a rowboat to explore the lake’s edges. It;s not hard why it is sometimes nicknamed, ‘The Pearl of the Dolomites!’

 

 

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Tain l’Hermitage, France

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M. Chapoutier Vinyards, Tain l’Hermitage, France

M. Chapoutier, one of the most famous vineyards along France’s Rhone River is located in Tain l’Hermitage, about a half an hour south of Lyon, in what it called the Cotes de Rhone region. Cote Rotie, Crozes Hermitage, St Joseph, Ermitage, Cornas, Chateauneuf-de-Pape, Condrieu, Cotes de Rhones Villages are just a few of their wine types, and within these, many more brands and types. In France – one of the most important wine-producing regions in the world – wine is everywhere. And it it is cheap. A bottle of Crozes-Hermitage here costs anywhere between 7 – 15€ (depending on the type), but the same type/brand of wine in the US can cost upwards of $12 a glass! Therefore, it is easy to drink decent wine without going broke, and Chapoutier wines are, in fact, pretty decent. And because good wine is cheap and accessible, nearly everyone knows their way around wine. To be a wine connoisseur (a French word, you may notice…) in France, you have to be REALLY knowledgeable; an ordinary French person would seem like an expert in the US!  And another interesting fact is that in the US, the wine is named after the grape (chardonnay, syrah, pinot noir or gris, etc) but in France, wine is named after the town, region, village or castle where it is produced, meaning you have to be even MORE knowledgeable (and even have some notion of geography!) to pick your wines. Chapoutier-produced wines are the kinds of local wines, along with the wines of the Beaujolais, that you find in and around Lyon. And if you visit the vineyard, be sure to do a tour, and a tasting to increase your French wine knowledge!

Cantal, France

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Cantal Department, France

Quiet and rural, this quintessential part of central France’s countryside has changed little over the years. To some, this may seem backwards, but to many, it is reassuring, a quiet escape from the bustle of cities and towns. One of the most rural parts of France (actually in the top 3 most rural French departments), Cantal is known for nature and the cheese it produces (of the same name). Cows outnumber people here. Villages dot the countryside, narrow roads wind themselves through the countryside, circumventing obstacles such as the occasional farmhouse, field, or gnarled tree. Lakes, ponds, and streams provide a cool retreat from the summer heat. In the winter, temperatures drop far below than those of ‘nearby’ cities (a relative term) such as Clermont-Ferrand, Lyon or Dijon. Residents lead a simple life here, and few tourists venture into this rural paradise. Yet those who do come are rewarded with the elegance of relaxation, respite from the high-tech, high-speed urban world. Take a dip in a local lake, go on a hike through silent forests, make furry forest friends, chat with the local farmers, or take a drive through tree-covered roads and take a break from life.

Beaujolais, France

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Beaujolais, France

If you’re a wine-lover, you may already know about the Beaujolais – it is a well known wine-producing location in central France. Houses (or manors) like this one are a common occurrence throughout rural France. Unfortunately, due to an interesting combination of high (and complicated) inheritance and habitation taxes, overall elevated French taxes, costly repair bills, enormous amounts of energy needed to heat such buildings, and isolation from cities and towns, manors like the one above are all too often left to live out their long days alone. In the case of this manor, as you can see, there is a perfectly functioning farmhouse less than 100 meters away – and yet the manor remains so empty that even at a distance, one can see through it from one side to the other. To avoid other beautiful buildings suffering the same fate, local economies need to be further stimulated – of which one way is tourism, which brings in people, awareness and money to rural destinations. In any case, the Beaujolais has great wine, beautiful villages, and charming country roads and trails built to hike – and beautiful rural architecture !

Łódźkie Voivodeship, Poland

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Rural Poland in the Łódźkie Voivodeship

One of Poland’s 16 voivodeships (or provinces), Łódźkie is one of the most rural. The capital is Łódź, and unless you really like cinema schools or urban decay, it’s not the best way to see Poland. However, exploring the surrounding countryside feels like a step back in time. Relatively little has changed in rural Poland. And in a way, this is a comfort; globalization has not overtaken every inch of the earth! Here, people going on living simple, quiet lives. Despite the fact that you will need either basic Polish or a firm grasp on sign language to communicate, these countryside folk are some of the nicest people you will meet. The roads twist and turn through flourishing fields between unchanged villages. Thick woods hide rugged paths and sacred springs. Animals graze lazily alongside puttering tractors, chickens cluck in the garden, and dusty cars meander through the countryside, passing ancient wooden barns and old stone farmhouses. No one is in a hurry; in fact, villagers stop to greet or chat with one another. Life is always being appreciated and little seems to have changed  in a long time.

Valle d’Aosta, Italy

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Hillside castle in Valle d’Aosta, Italy

Northern Italy and Southern Italy are as different as night and day. In fact, that’s not quite  specific enough, as Northwestern Italy and Northeastern Italy are quite different from each other while still different from the South. Northwestern Italy is more French/Swiss, while Northeastern Italy is so Austrian that if you spend a few days there, they’ll fool you into thinking you’re in Austria! The Valle d’Aosta is in the northwestern sector, not far from Torino, and in the heart of the Alps, and more French or Swiss (or rather, just ‘Alpine’) than anything else. Literally the “Valley of Augustus,” it goes back to Rome’s conquering of the region to secure the strategic mountain passes. It’s one of the most castle-rich regions in Italy–it had to be, as the region comprised of a vast array of warring kingdoms each with the need to protect themselves against his neighbour. Valle d’Aosta is also the least-populated region of Italy, making it the great-outdoors lover’s place to be. If you have the time, planning a few stops would be ideal. Get out and stretch your legs, breath the fresh mountain air, hike the hills to reach a few of the many castles such as this one! But if you don’t have the time, taking the train through the region is also extremely satisfying–there are so many castles along the railroad track that you can play “I Spy the Castle” simply by looking out the window!

St Guilheim-le-Désert, France

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Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, France

Casually labeled as one of “The Most Beautiful Villages in France,” St. Guilheim is a snug village in the south of France, located within reasonable distance from Montpelier. Don’t be fooled by its name; this is no desert! The name is leftover from another time, when the land was desert-like. And “Guilhem” is the local patois way of saying the name “Guillaume” (“William” in English). With cobbled streets underfoot and the tiled roofs overhead, voices echo off the tiny squares, footsteps echo off the narrow streets. Rock walls are crumbling under the bald mountain tops looming just behind as you wander the alleys clutching a melting ice cream. Though not very large, St Guilhem certainly is one of the most beautiful places in an already beautiful county!

Hohenschwangau Castle, Germany

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Hohenschwangau Castle, Germany

Don’t be put off by the long name! Hohenschwangau (meaning ‘High Swan Palace’) is an impressive castle in southern Germany, near the Austrian border. Though you may not recognise its name, you will most certainly have heard of (or seen a photo of) its magnificent next-door-neighbour, Neuschwanstein Castle (famous for inspiring Disney’s creation of Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Disney World, FL). In many ways, Hohenschwangau, while less jaw-dropping than its excessive neighbour, is much more authentic. Built in the 19th century by the Bavarian kings, it served as the childhood residence of the famous Ludwig II (the very same king who built the fairy-tale Neuschwanstein), and it is much more reserved in decor, riches, and style. There has been a fortress on the spot since the 12th century, which underwent many changes during its several hundred years of existence. Because of invasions from Austria, it was plundered in 1743, and due to hard times, the land was eventually sold in 1820, only to be bought back by the the next generation of Bavarian kings, Prince Maximilian II, who discovered some ruins while on a tour of his land. So inspired was he by the beauty and family history of the crumbling ruins that he spent the next 20 years bringing splendour and life back to Hohenschwangau. Of course, it was only inhabited for about a generation, as Ludwig built his own castle nearby, the celebrated Neuschwanstein, though that castle was never finished. Today, the two castles preside together over the valley and land that was so important to the old Bavarian kings.

Cantabria, Spain

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Punto del Caballo, Cantabria, Spain

Magical blue seas, waves lapping against rocky cliffs with hardy trees clutching to the sides and disused lighthouses perched on their edges. Northern Spain is often overlooked, and even when it is visited, places like Bilbao get all the attention. But hey, head out of the city to the countryside, to the forest, to the sea! And what better way is there to see a rugged coast such as that of Cantabria than by water? Rent a kayak and follow the coastline while searching for hidden coves or silent lighthouses. Maybe if you get lucky, you’ll find trails leading into the forest, old forts from bygone eras of sea invasion, or even a diving platform from which you can jump into the sea!

Dolomite Moutains, Italy

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Castle in the Dolomite Mountains, Italy

If you want a unique, cross-cultural experience, try driving from Verona (Italy) to Innsbruck in Austria. It’s only at the very end–when crossing into Innsbruck–that you arrive in Austria. Yet, arriving in in South Tyol (also known as Alto Adige or Sudtirol) in northern Italy, it already feels Germanic–and Italian at the same time (and everyone is bilingual)! These mountains hold some of Europe’s most precious, unexplored gems: a trip through the Dolomite’s, especially outside of ski season, feels like a trip back in time to the age of exploration. And even better, the Dolomite region of Italy has the highest concentration of medieval castles in Italy, with 400 fortresses, castles and medieval structures rising up from its hills.  Whether you play “I spy a castle” from your window while traversing the region, or whether you find a snug mountain town or village to use as a home base to discover the region on foot, the Dolomite mountains, especially South Tyrol, is not a region to miss!