Macedonia isn’t on most people’s radar, likely because most people don’t know the country exists. Technically called North Macedonia (or more specifically the Republic of North Macedonia) because we can’t offend the Greeks. In short, the country was called Macedonia until recently, but its name alone meant that Greece wouldn’t recognise it as a country because petty Greece also has a region of the same name, so Macedonia had to change theirs. (Thanks, Greece, that’s very mature. Moldova and Romania seem to get along alright.) Greece might get all the tourism attention, but the secretive nature of Macedonia, its forgotten ruins and fascinating bazaars add an extra exotic flair lost in the crowds of Santorini. The government has put a lot of funds and effort into renovating downtown Skopje, Macedonia’s capitol. Today, the downtown area of Skopje is very modern, and very western, while the domes, minarets and narrow alleys of another era are relegated further down in Skopje’s old town, in the shadow of the fortress. While the bazaar is the soul of Skopje, Macedonia Square is at the heart of the city. The largest square in the whole country, it was here that Kiro Gligorov, Macedonia’s first president, declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. The city’s summer festivities, political demonstrations and even Christmas markets all take place in the massive Macedonia Square. In the centre of the plaza is the massive statue that commemorates the most famous Macedonian ever to exist, the legendary conquerer Alexander the Great. If you haven’t figured it out yet – he’s the massive dude riding the rearing horse on the enormous pedestal in the centre.
Pro tip: As stated above, a visit to Skopje in winter means Christmas markets and other festivities – though we do admit that the best Christmas markets are found in central Europe (Prague and Vienna are standouts). Though modern Skopje is worth seeing, head into the Old Town bazaar for food, coffee and beer – delicious, cheap and atmospheric! Head up to the fortress (entry free) for great views over the city.
Quaint, medieval and beautiful, Crémieu is a small town with medieval roots tucked into the southeastern French department of Isère. In fact, each September Crémieu hosts a fascinating celebration called “Les Médiévales,” reenacting what life was like in France during the Middle Ages on a backdrop of Crémieu’s medieval streets. Interestingly, Crémieu’s seal, dating back to the Middle Ages, is in shape of a dolphin (or dauphin) which is where the famous (and delicious) dish called le gratin dauphinois comes from! In the town centre is the ancient 15th century medieval hall where merchants once traded their goods, surrounded by the stunning facades of the medieval houses once built and maintained by the very same merchants. Travel to Crémieu on a Wednesday for Market Day to continue a 500 year old tradition! While you’re here, visit the ruins of various abbeys and convents: Benedictine, Visitandines, Augustin… as well as the castle ruins.
Pro Tip: Climb the hill up to the castle for breathtaking views of beautiful rooftop panoramas such as this one, as well as the surrounding Isère countryside. Explore the castle ruins (free), then descend to the village via a narrow moss-covered trail, located down the road and off to the right, once a stream bed and now a hallway of vibrant emeralds. A perfect day trip from Lyon!
You’ll find few urban city centres prettier than Poznan’s market square. Even during a snowstorm, Poznan’s vibrant colours are impossible to deter. A far cry from the grey, bleak country one generally attributes to Poland, Polish cities are vibrant, each building brightly painted, often embellished with patterns, designs, and images. Poznan’s public square is perhaps the best and brightest example of this. Heavily influenced by the Baroque movement, Poland’s outer borders were once regarded as the extent of Western influence in Europe, particularly regarding architecture. Polish architecture is a blatant mix of, well, most architectural styles that Europe has to offer, making places like Poznan some of the most beautiful towns to visit! These houses seem as if they stepped out of a Dr Seuss book or off a candyland board and adorn one of the prettiest market squares in all of Europe!
Certainly one of Europe’s prettiest squares is Antwerp’s central Grote Markt—even though outside of this small “island” forming the Old Town, Antwerp is less beautiful, having been swept up by kebab stands and littered streets. But the old town centre is still…perfection. Standing amongst these amazing Flemish guild houses is enough to take one’s breath away! Not only that, but Antwerp’s market square rivals with those of Eastern Europe—which is where you find some of the prettiest squares in Europe! (Note: Poland, Prague, Budapest, Tallinn etc. If you don’t believe me, check out some of the archives). Regardless of the unfortunate Invasion of the Kebab Stands (a very contagious and ugly virus spreading throughout the continent), Antwerp’s Grote Markt is as pretty as it gets!
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
This is the Stare Miasto (old town) of Poznan, a small Polish city in north-west Poland established in the 8th century. It was captured by the Germans (of course), ruined a bit (like most of Poland), and then recaptured by the Russians who ruined it a bit more (by putting up ugly buildings), and finally gained its freedom when Communism fell in 1990, when it was renovated by the proud Poles. In 2012, it was one of the host cities for UEFA Euro 2012 Cup, when Poland jointly hosted the Euro Cup with Ukraine. Success stories from cities like Poznan show just how far Poland has come since the early 90s! And like most main squares in Poland, Poznan’s gorgeous rynek (market square) pairs cobblestones with vibrantly coloured buildings, creating a beautiful town centre (even during a snowstorm such as this one).