Irish history isn’t always sunshine and roses. Much of it is fairly dark, oppressed for years under British rule. Remember arrogant (sexist) Henry VIII who couldn’t produce an heir due to his own inbred nature but kept blaming his wives? He decided to start his own divorce-friendly religion, which gradually took over and then punished Catholicism. across all English territories. In the 1500s, the Dissolution of the Monasteriesswept across the nation, forcing the abandonment of Catholic monasteries. The crumbling Lavagh Court Abbey in southwest Sligo was no exception. Built in 1454 as a Franciscan Friary, Lavagh sits at the base of Knocknashee Hill (‘hill of the fairies’), which for centuries was held sacred by the pagans (Christians are like Hollywood directors – to get a wider audience and easier job, they ‘borrow’ stories, concepts and sacred people and places from other religions they were hoping to wipe out, something they did successfully in Ireland). Once home to both brothers and sisters of the order, Lavagh is a simple rectangular church topped with a squat stone tower and joined with a chancel. Containing extensive burial sites, it has now been taken over with ivy, plants and flowers. As you wander the burials outside, keep an eye over the walls of the far side – you’ll see an earth-topped stone cashel (ringfort), at least half a century older than Lavagh itself. (What more? Check out well-preserved cashel like Cashelore or Clougher Fort). Follow the path through the half-forgotten wind-beaten graveyard through the small ivy-clad door into another world. Greeted with an earthy, natural smell, Lavagh’s sacred stone walls are wallpapered in crisscrossing ivy and blanketed in soft earth and rustling leaves. Lush and emerald, the massive greenery-wrapped arch feels like a scene out of Narnia. Wandering this ancient, abandoned site, drink in the eerie, moody atmosphere and feel the weight of Mother Nature, a far older god than the one Lavagh was originally built for. This place is surely enchanted with ancient fairytale magic – and chances are, you’ll have it all to yourself.
Pro trip: When visiting this corner of Sligo, you have to climb Knocknashee Hill. Most people climb it via the far side, parking at Gilligan’s World, and passing through the farm gates to climb the very steep slopes to the top. But there is a new path from the Lavagh side being constructed, though process has temporarily halted due to CV-19. At the top, find ancient cairns, forts, and village foundations. Interested in the changing site of Lavagh? Take a look at Sligo artist Wakeman, and his famous 19th century drawings of Sligo monuments.
Rising above the city of Belfast is the beautiful landscape of Cavehill Country Park. Once part of Belfast Castle’s extensive estate, the hill is covered in lush woodland criss-crossed with narrow muddy tracks. After meandering on an upwardly-sloping path under a canopy of leaves, you suddenly break out into a beautiful panorama – behind you to one side is an aerial view of all Belfast, the little streets and buildings looking small at the bottom of the hills. And on the other side the landscape of Cavehill seems as if it comes straight out of a fairytale land, dramatic emerald and golden hills punctured with mysterious caves. It seems perhaps a scene you’d find in The Chronicles of Narnia – you almost expect to see fauns and centaurs and talking animals wandering about the hills. Even though you haven’t quite crossed over into a magical land, you’re as close as you can get – CS Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia grew up in Belfast (and was educated at Oxford) and spent his boyhood exploring these hills – the Mourne Mountains to the south up to the Causeway Coast to the north (Dunluce Castle is said to have been the inspiration of the ruined Cair Paravel in Prince Caspian). It’s reasonable to expect that CS Lewis would have climbed the slopes of Cavehill just behind his hometown, and it’s again reasonable to expect that the places he encountered in Ireland as a boy would have formed as inspiration for Narnia. Interesting again that the “real world” places of TheChronicles of Narnia resemble Oxford and its environs, but the mystical, magical places of Narnia and other magical lands find their inspirations in the landscapes of Ireland…perhaps Ireland is just a magical place.
Pro tip: There is a family-friendly car park to go straight to the top of the hill to McArt’s Fort, but you’ll miss the hike, forest, and actual cave hills in the panorama above. It’s worth it to start at Belfast Castle and do the full loop – at 6.5-7km, it should take you about 2 hours. It can be muddy, so bring your boots and waterproof jacket. As of this post, the route from Belfast Zoo is closed (but not the castle). Check here for hiking info.
Though the most famous gargoyles are on Notre Dame de Paris (thanks, Victor Hugo and Disney), one finds gargoyles on most French cathedrals, and Dijon’sNotre Dame Church is no different. This unusual, square-faced cathedral, commenced in 1230, is a medieval masterpiece. In fact, it contains no less than 51 gargoyles (nearly all mere decorations). Though Notre Dame de Dijon dates back to the Middle Ages, the gargoyles were only carved in the 1880s (around Hugo’s time…). The original facade had many such gargoyles of monsters and men, but local legend states they were all (but one) removed by the friends of a usurer (money lender), who was killed by a falling stone gargoyle on his wedding day. Gargoyles have long held both the fascination and horror of their audiences. While the original purpose was simply to drain water away from a wall, they quickly evolved into displaying grotesque and fantastical designs. The term itself comes from an French word “gargouille,” meaning “throat” (think “gullet”). The idea of the gargoyle is said to have came from an ancient French legend from Rouen, in which St Romanus conquered a terrible winged dragon called La Gargouille who was both long-necked and fire-breathing. Upon slaying it, the city burned La Gargouille’s body but its fireproof head and neck would not burn, so they mounted it on the church walls to ward off the evil spirits (though you’d think that’d ward off good spirits too!). Thus, the idea and name were adapted for fanciful drains sprouting from France’s soaring cathedrals, and Dijon’s gargoyles don’t disappoint: all 51 are fascinatingly fantastic, bizarre, eye-catching and grotesque.
Pro tip: The church also contains a small statue of an owl, now the symbol of the city, and said to have magical powers. Find it on the left side of the cathedral and touch it with your left hand to make a wish come true! Also, follow the owl symbols on the ground to discover Dijon’s historical heritage sites.
It’s washing day in this quintessential English thatched cottage lost in the English woodland. The air is steeped with the smell of soap and fresh laundry, hung outside to dry outside this cottage on this sunny English day, making you feel as though you’ve fallen into a fairy tale. This magnificent thatched cottage stands in a quiet meadow in the English countryside not far from the quaint but bustling town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Best known for being the birthplace of the great writer William Shakespeare (who did wonders for the English language, by the way; we still use words and phrases coined by him), Stratford-upon-Avon is crossed with medieval streets lined with Tudor houses and never-ending shops, spires of ancient churches and tolling church bells. Avoid the crowds by instead meandering through the brilliant English countryside where you’ll stumble across quiet pastures and thatched cottages. Thatch, once a common roofing material, is rare today, owing to the amount of maintenance required (you must replace it every few years), the overabundance of other roofing materials and the fact that it’s a significant fire hazard. Here though, you’ve stepped straight into a fairy tale. There is something very magical about this cottage in this place – as if fairies or forest nymphs or singing maidens may tumble off the pages of a storybook and come to life here. In this place, wandering these quiet countryside lanes outside of Stratford-upon-Avon, you can see where Shakespeare took his inspiration. Alone on the path by the cottage, you may even expect to meet one of Shakespeare’s colourful characters along the way.