Though not actually located on the sea despite its name, Santillana del Mar is one of northern Spain’s loveliest hidden spots. In fact, it is nicknamed the ‘Town of Three Lies’ as it is not on the sea (mar), nor is it flat (llana) or a saint (santo). More accurately, the name is a slightly-mangled derivation or Santa Juliana, whose final resting place is tucked away here in an ancient monastery. The cultural hub of Cantabria, don’t expect to have this medieval masterpiece to yourself – not that that diminishes from the sheer beauty or culinary pleasures! A medieval marvel, Santillana del Mar is a charming stone village in the north of Spain that exudes beauty on every street. Known for its cider, Santillana del Mar, like most of Spain, is a place to slow down, relax, and enjoy the finer things in life such as food, drink, fresh air, sunshine and conversation. Whether you’re people watching, spending time with friends or loved ones, or simply admiring the architecture, Santillana is a place to lose yourself, leaving the busy real world behind.
Pro tip: Just outside of the town is the famed Altamira Cave Painting site, rich with prehistoric art. And as stated above, be sure to try some of Santillana del Mar’s local cider while in town!
Autumn Sunset over Les Monts des Beaulojais, France
France’s Beaujolais in autumn is a lovely, vibrant place – rich oranges, reds, yellows and golds contrast with the brilliant azure skies and the remaining emerald greens. It is magical place, reminiscent of a fairytale storybook. Contained within the Beaujolais, a breath-taking region just north of beautiful Lyon, are the enchanted Monts des Beaujolais, a colloquial name given to this corner of the Massif Centrale mountain range parading across the historical region. Though long integrated into the larger Rhône-Alps (really Auvergne-Rhône-Alps; French départements keep growing), the Beaujolais maintains its own identity. The hills, soil and climate make it ideal for wine-growing – in fact, some of France’s most respected wines come from this region, alongside sister vineyards of the nearby Côtes de Rhône. Want to try some Beaujolais wine? Next time you’re in France, try a Mâcon, Brouilly, Morgon, Fleurie, Chénas or even a simple Beaujolais Villages! Every fall, once grapes have been harvested, pressed and fermented, the Beaujolais villages celebrate the 3rd Thursday of November with a festival to taste the Beaujolais Nouveau – the season’s new wine. With 12 AOCs (Protected Destination of Origins), the Beaujolais produces on average 1 million hecto-litres each season, of which 97% from Gamay grapes (almost exclusively red wine). And it’s not just wine that makes the Beaujolais special. What makes the Beaujolais ideal for growing grapes has made a prime region to control over the centuries – hence the remnants of ramparts and fortifications. It is a beautiful region full of colourful hills each topped with ancient medieval villages, crumbling and imposing castle ruins.
Pro tip: For the most adventurous, sign up for les vendanges, the grape harvest in August/September. Hard work but worth it! For those with less time, simply visit an authentic vineyard for a tasting fresh from the barrel. Visit the tourism office in Lyon or Villefranche-sur-Saône for an updated list in vineyards.
One of Romania‘s most beautiful and fascinating cities is certainly the colourful and vibrant Sighisoara. Snuggled into the heart of the hauntingly beautiful region of Transylvania, the dazzling and historic medieval town centre is one of the best preserved in the country, a fact that has not escaped UNESCO. Perhaps most famous for as the birthplace of Count Dracula (otherwise known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler), Sighisoara is colourful and historic town. Cobblestone streets, soaring towers, ancient walls, vibrant shop fronts, this town embodies everything you’d want in a medieval town – a photographers paradise. Settled in the 12th century (officially entering the registrars in 1191), Sighisoara was a frontier town settled (and defended) by German saxons at a vulnerable time in Transylvanian history when the region was ruled by the King of Hungary. A town built into the ruins of a Roman fort proceeded it, followed in 1337 by an urban settlement considered a regal city. For centuries, Sighisoara was an important and influential city in Central and Eastern Europe. With a strong and successful economy dominated by Saxon Germans (what’s new…), Sighisoara was a recognised haven for craftsmen, artisans, merchants and guilds. Not all of Sighisoara’s history was positive though. After a fairly successful medieval age, 17th and 18th century Sighisoara saw terrible fires, plagues, occupation, sieges and other horrors.
Pro tip: Though beautiful during the the day, don’t miss the city at night! In one of the towers, there is an impressive array of leather-working. For some of the best food in the city, head to the wine cellars of Gasthaus restaurant, just outside the walls. Great views from the Church on the Hill – climb it via the covered staircase and descend via the graveyard.
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!
One of France’s Most Beautiful Villages and one of the most charming towns one can expect to stumble onto in Europe, the tiny, spiral-shaped village lost in the middle of France is reminiscent of another era. The fortified town was built in the Middle Ages, and though Pérouges has no castle, it does feature a fortified church (with extra-thick walls), as well as an enticing maze of weaving streets, all eventually ending at the Place de Tilleul. Today the quiet centre of this tiny village and site of a delicious local restaurant, Place de Tilleul was one the thriving marketplace of bustling Pérouges during medieval times. Crumbling into dust until recent years, the village has seen a seen an upturn in tourism, saving the cobblestoned marvel from becoming a ghost town like so many other quaint but behind-the-times places across Europe. Here in Pérouges and its romantic Place de Tilleul, one can briefly capture a glimpse into another world, a peek into another era, before slipping out through the village gates and back towards the main road that leads to nearby town Meximieux and the 21st century. Pérouges is most quickly approached on foot via the road Route de Pérouges from Meximieux but a far more picturesque way to approach the village is via the forest track along Aubepin Pond.
The tiny French village of Balazuc snuggled deep within the timeless county of Ardèche is a place you go to lose yourself in another era, another way of life. Sun kissed hills are woven with ancient villages, a patchwork of medieval architecture fused seamlessly with the brown earth and golden fields of southern France. Balazuc is one of such places. A veritable labyrinth built of golden stone, the village’s narrow alleys wind up and down, dipping half-underground, through other buildings, around and through the hills in a completely random and at times mysterious manner. Hole-in-the-wall cafes dot the facades, and a hilltop castle and church duo seem to be trying to outdo one another. To access the steep hilltop village, one must first cross a surprisingly high bridge over the Ardèche River – not a bad place for a quick dip! And just a stone’s throw away is the equally-beautiful and heart-throbbingly medieval village of Largentière as well as the ever-impressive Gorges d’Ardeche. Get ready for a coup de foudre – French for love at first sight!
The Middle Ages left their architectural mark well and good on France. One of the many examples is the charming village of Olliergues, located in the rural and forgotten region of Auvergne, in the very centre of France. Surrounded by a crown of volcanoes, Olliergues is snuggled into the rolling green countryside, far from the ritz and glam of the modern world. Here, lives are lived much as they’ve always been. Villagers get their bread from the local boulangerie every morning, they drink their coffees in the cafes, they work in the fields or the little commerces. Children are walked to school. A dog barks, a cat streaks by. Here, tucked away in one of the most rural counties in France – and one of the most rural parts of that county – life is quieter, calmer. It is a good place to go to lose yourself. In the heart of the Livradois Forez Regional Natural Park, a huge chunk of protected woodland, farmland, and tiny communes (roughly 150), Olliergues is a good base for hiking, biking and other outdoors sports. Though the village has few eateries, there are plenty of places in the nearby (but far less beautiful!) town of Courpière – one of the best for tasty, local mountain cuisine is a little family-owned place, La Cave a Juliette. While in Auvergne, check out the beautiful Chateau de la Batisse, the more rugged Chateau de Murol, or the village known for its famous cheese, St Nectaire.
Sunset cascades over the little medieval village tucked into the heart of the Gorges de l’Ardèche, nicknamed by the locals the ‘European Grand Canyon.’ The 30-km long canyon runs from the tourist hotspot Vallon-Pont-d’Arc to the less-well-known Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche. The village of Balazuc is listed on the ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France‘ (along with Pérouges and St Guilhiem-le-Désert) – as it should be. The village hugs the edge of the steep hill as narrow medieval alleyways weave and climb the hill’s slope from the shores of Ardèche River up to Balazuc’s castle. Cobblestone alleys meander through ancient dwellings, passing through echoing tunnels, climbing up uneven staircases. Well-worn steps lead up to the top of some of Balazuc’s buildings, affording breathtaking views over the clay roofs, the Ardèche River, and the Gorges themselves. In Balazuc, it’s easy to peel away the centuries to another era – all the while enjoying the creature comforts of our own!
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!
Seaside towns and medieval villages. Northern Spain is not much like the (southern) Spain we all know and love. For one, it actually rains here…so expect a lot more green than you’d see in Andalusia or Madrid. Expect small stone towns with orange roofs…most towns even have their own little beach! Expect palm trees and cobblestones and cheerful people at seaside bars. Even the “big cities” aren’t that big! This particular little town, Santillana del Mar, is one of the most famous towns in Cantabria. Santillana del Mar is sometimes called The Town of Three Lies…as it’s neither named after a Saint (Santo), nor is it flat (llana), nor is it by the sea (Mar). Regardless, this popular tourist stop in Cantabria is a charming fairy tale village!
Why are medieval villages so beautiful? For that matter—why is France so beautiful? Old—and ancient—things hold a charm that seems impossible to resist. Their nostalgia reminds us of a time that we perceive as “simpler” (despite the fact that disease was rampant, bathing was non-existent, food was plain, violence was everywhere and lifespans were short), we can’t help but see the vestiges left behind in the form of medieval towns as that “better, simpler” life. While that probably isn’t true, it is true that people in the Middle Ages spent a lot more time on the construction of things. As everything had to be done by hand and took years to accomplish, stone buildings were built with a care that we rarely see today. Whereas now when we may put up a building in 3 months, we often know that it’ll only be there 10-15 years before we pull it down and build something ‘more modern.’ It’s worth taking the time to appreciate the buildings that took so much blood, sweat, time and care to plan, build and maintain in villages such as Pérouges—a genuine member of “The Most Beautiful Towns in France”—before modern architecture has consumed them all.
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.
As you climb up the well-worn stone steps to Pérouges, you quite suddenly leave behind the 21st century. Step out onto cobblestones smoothed and rounded by centuries of inhabitants and find yourself lost in the middle ages. Inns, restaurants and small shops intertwine with centuries of history. Ivy grows on ancient walls, creaking signs hang from stone archways. This beautiful landmark town was likely founded by a Gallic colony returning from Perugia, Italy, before the 11th century – and it wasn’t until 1601 that this little gem was even French! Hungry? Try one of their famous galettes, a delicious little cake available in multiple establishments throughout the walled town. Today, it is literally (and officially), ‘One of the Most Beautiful Cities in France,’ so it’s hard to believe that 100 years ago, it was ever threatened with demolition! It is a truly magical place.