Uzès, France

Uzes copy

Uzès, France

Ah, the magic of southern France. Uzès is a small, typical town huddled in the sunny southern region of Languedoc-Roussillon. A short drive away from the bustling market towns of Nimes and Avignon, Uzès started life as a Roman settlement, and it was in fact from the source here that the Roman aqueduct that includes the famous section now known as the Pont-du-Gard was built. Uzès has a varied cultural history. It was once home to a thriving Jewish community thanks to a tolerant local population, until the more narrow-minder northerners forced Uzès to expel the non-converted Jews. Later, it was the northernmost reach of the Moorish Spain, staying in Andalusian control until the 750s – though this 30-year period didn’t result in any of the splendid Moorish Mudejar architecture so resounding in Spain. And then in the medieval era, Uzès played host to a group of Cathars, a minority religious group that was both prevalent and persecuted in the south of France. Today, Uzès is a small, lovely town. Its main sights include a Capuchin chapel (primly built on a former Roman temple, thanks Christianity), the beautiful twice rebuilt Uzès Cathedral (the current building dates from the 17th century), several towers, and the medieval château du Duché. The town also hosts a splendid local market on Saturdays. It is a typical regional town and offers a lovely small town vibe compared to the larger Nimes or Montpellier.


Pro tips: Languedoc-Roussillon is a fantastic wine region – we recommend a wine tasting or at the very least trying a few local wines. One lovely wine region not too far from Uzès is Mount Ventoux – the “windy mountain.” Nearby Provence is known for lovely rosés – the perfect summertime drink. Head to cosmopolitan Nimes for Roman architecture, Avignon for religious structures, and into the Cevennes Mountains for great hiking. 


More of Cute France Towns


 

Donegal Castle, Ireland

Donegal castle

Donegal Castle, Ireland

Wild and rugged, Donegal is a half-forgotten county in northwestern Ireland, cut of geopolitically from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Its capital is Donegal town, which is home to Donegal Castle. The castle was built by the infamous Red Hugh O’Donnell in 1454, possibly on the site of an old fort, though no evidence remains. At this time, Ireland was divided into fluid regions, each ruled by a clan and led by a local chieftain. Because of the region’s remoteness as well as its poor agricultural terrain, Donegal and the the rest of the surrounding region of Ulster were the last to be conquered by the English. Red Hugh’s impressive fortress, stronghold of the O’Donnell clan, started life as a tower house, the most common Irish medieval fortification. In an attempt to get the chieftain’s under English control, the clan leaders where given the title of Earl. Not content and craving freedom, the Earls rebelled. The uprising was a failure, leading to the Flight of the Earls in 1607 and the total control of Ireland by the English crown. As was the custom, the English seized the castle from Irish ownership, and passed it on to a loyal Englishman as a reward for service – in this case, a fellow called Brookes, who later sold it to the wealthy Sligo-based family, the Gores. Brooke added the Jacobean manor-house to the left of the towerhouse, transforming it from military might to countryside estate. Sadly under the Gore family, Donegal Castle fell into ruin (likely to avoid paying taxes on it), and there it sat in quiet abandon until the 1990s, when the Irish government restored it. Today, it is one of Donegal’s most important parts of cultural heritage.


Pro tip: Donegal is well-known for tweed. Check out any number of tweed shops in town, or head over to Magees of Donegal for bespoke tweed garments. If you’re looking for a cosy tearoom and lovely pastries or light meals, try the Blueberry Tearooms in the town centre.


Nearby in Donegal & Northwest Ireland


*Please note that all photos posted since the start of the Pandemic travel restrictions are from the archives, or taken locally within a short distance of our home. 

St Catherine’s Passage, Tallinn, Estonia

Tallin Katherines walk

St Catherine’s Passage, Tallinn, Estonia

The walled and gated medieval city of Tallinn, capital of Estonia, seems to be brimming with towering stone walls, medieval turrets, ancient houses, soaring church spires, and other the wonders within. One such secret gem is St Catherine’s Passage (or Alley or Walk), a narrow, buttressed alley blanketed with smooth cobblestones, tucked away in the city centre. Connecting Vene Street to Müürivahe Street, a place home to an ancient Dominican monastery (which today only remains in fragments of its original sprawling complex), this narrow passage then winds past the titular St Catherine’s Church. This 14th century church is reputed to be the largest medieval church in the Baltics, and is known for its remarkable acoustics. St Catherine’s Passage is also home to a number of grand Renaissance and 18th century homes, as well as artesianael workshops and beautiful medieval and gothic architectural works and quirks. Though at the end of the day St Catherine’s Passage is just an alleyway, it is surely one of the most beautiful alleys in all of Europe, and certainly worth a wander.


Pro tip: If you’re looking to do some photography of the old town centre, a morning visit might be best. Also, Estonia has some of the best food of all the Baltics – you’ll eat and drink well here! The Kompressor, home to massive pancakes, is just 5 minutes away. But the city if fulls of wonderful places to eat and drink. 


More of Medieval Europe:


*Please note that all photos posted since the start of the Pandemic travel restrictions are from the archives, or taken locally within a short distance of our home. 

Château de Ravel, France

chateau de Ravel Auvernge France

Château de Ravel, Auvergne, France

Our virtual travel today takes us to the centre of France, to the not-so-famous region of Auvergne. Despite it not being well-known outside of France, Auvergne has a lot to recommend it. Volcanic mountains, hearty dishes, amazing cheese, distinct churches, great hiking, and of course, plenty of castles, to name a few. One such castle is the Château de Ravel, whose foundations go back to at least 1171, commenced by Bernard de avel. In the 1280s, Ravel was actually owned and lived in by the King of France (Philippe the III), though his son gave away the castle to his the man who would be named chancellor of France. Like most castles, Ravel has gone through a series of alterations and face lifts, each changing with the styles of the times. Most of what we see here today is 13th century, along with a 17th century terrace and courtyard, which has an incredible view of Auvergne’s volcanic peaks, the Puys of the Massif Central. Inside, the rooms have been decorated in 17th and 18th century styles – and all without damaging the original Gothic structures and design elements.


Pro tip: The castle is privately owned but opened some days in the summer. The grounds are open to visitors year round. While here, you’ll definitely have to go for a hike up one of the peaks, such as the Puy de Dôme, Puy de Sancy or Puy de Côme! 


French Castles


 

Ballindoon Abbey, Sligo, Ireland

Ballindoon Abbey, Sligo, Ireland

Ireland is spilling over with ancient ruins, from the Neolithic through the Middle Ages to Georgian mansion and 20th century cottages. There are a lot of abbeys and friaries and priories in Ireland, and the majority of them are a lot like this one – in ruins. This we can blame on the terrible Englishman Oliver Cromwell whose horrid armies swept through Ireland in 1649 in order to “put those troublesome Irish back in their place” (I mean, how dare they ask for the right to rule themselves, speak their own language, or practice their own cultural traditions). He stomped through Ireland, burning and pillaging as he went. Even upon returning home, he left his son-in-law to continue his awful work. Ballindoon Abbey (also called Ballindoon Priory) is just one of many Irish abbeys to suffer at the fate of the disillusion of the abbeys. This gorgeous place rests quietly on the shores of Lough Arrow in Co Sligo. Built in the 14th century in the Gothic style, Ballindoon Abbey is small compared to some, but it is well preserved. It is has still been used in recent times as a gravesite. The tower overlooks the rest of the church, though there are stairs on the exterior, they are no longer usable. Ruined as it is, Ballindoon is a quiet place. Sitting on the pensive shores of a little-visited lake in a remote corner of Ireland, Ballindoon is picturersque, lonely and hauntingly beautiful. It is a testament to a long standing tradition and Ireland’s complicated relationship with both religion and England. Bring a camera, book and thermos of tea, and curl up here to escape from the world (likely met by the farmer’s cheerful black labrador pup!)


Pro tip: You’ll need a car, but Ballindoon Abbey is part of a supurb day trip from Sligo. Head over to Carrokeel tombs (5,000 years old!) for a 5km return hike to the tombs, then over to Lough Arrow to visit Ballindoon Abbey and up the hill behind Cromleach Lodge to visit Labby Rock. Hungry? On weekends, bounce over to Ballinafad Café (right next to the castle!) for a cosy community cafe for a cuppa and homemade treats, run 100% by volunteers in the community. 

Visit Near Ballindoon Abbey


 

Assisi Cathedral, Italy

Assisi

Assisi Cathedral of San Rufino, Assisi, Italy

The world is a crazy place and not only is no one able to travel right now, but we’re all confined to our houses and small radiuses near our homes. So, join us on a virtual tour of Europe! Here, we start at the top of the hill overlooking Assisi, one of Italy‘s most famous towns, and the stunning facade, tower and dome of the marvellous Assisi Cathedral of San Rufino. Birthplace of famous Saint Francis, patron saint of Italy, animals and – wait for it – stowaways (pray to St Francis next time you’ve not validated your train ticket!), Assisi has had people living here since 450BC – the Etruscans – though there were possibly people in the general area since 100BC! The town as we see it today was largely developed in the Middle Ages, and further developed during the Renaissance. The Cathedral of San Rufino is old – dating to the 13th century. It’s fame comes as being the place where the famous St Francis of Assisi was baptised, as well as some of his disciples such as St Clare (Santa Chiara of Assisi). Built in the Umbrian Romanesque style, you’ll see many similarities with other contemporary Italian churches, as well as some churches in parts of Spain and the Adriatic Balkans such as Croatia (a country that has a long history with Italy). Churches have stood here since the 3rd century (when Rome converted to Christianity), but this San Rufino dates to 1140 to contain the relics of 3rd century martyr, Bishop Rufinus. St Francis actually preached at this church, and it was here that Santa Chiara (Clare) first heard his message. It was here in Assisi that St Francis founded the famous Franciscan religious order in 1208, and St. Clare founded the Poor Sisters, later known as the Order of Poor Clares.


Pro tip: Follow the narrow walking route through the zigzag of tiny back alleys up to the Rocca Maggiore for this amazing view. Though the quarantine and travel bans are currently in place, we hope you’ll be travelling to Europe as soon as it’s lifted!


Great Places to Visit in Italy

Bradford-on-Avon, England

Bradford on Avon

Bradford-on-Avon, England

Nestled in the heart of the Cotswolds is the little Wiltshire town called Bradford-on-Avon. Though tracing its origins back to the Roman era like its nearby sibling Bath, Bradford really exploded in the late middle ages due to the woollen textile industry. This legacy has left several of its original buildings such as the marvellously quaint pub, The Bridge, founded in 1502. In Bradford-on-Avon, you’ll also find thatched roofs, picture-perfect churches, historic tithe barns, and grand Georgian streets (much like in Bath). This fairy-town town happily overlooks the Avon River and the Kennet and Avon Canal. Once used to transport goods across the country, the canal lost its significance with the growth of  railways, but Bradford was genius enough to restore to the lock and canal to working order by the ’80s, providing a link to Bath (via the Avon) in the west, and the Thames at Reading in the east. Home to a pretty little path running alongside the canal, this is a wonderful place for a walk, bike or run on those few but appreciated sunny mornings.


Pro tip: If you’re a runner, Bradford’s canal is surely one of the best places in the world to go for a run! Try running along the canal from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon (or vice versa); it’s about 10 miles and the views of the canal, houseboats, swans, countryside and wee houses are stunning. Then, take the train back to your starting point.  


More Beautiful Small Towns in England
  1. Bath, England
  2. Winchester, England
  3. Oxford, England
  4. Mucker, England
  5. Stratford-upon-Avon, England

This post originally appeared in 2013. It has since been revised and updated. 

Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard, France

Annecy hills Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard

Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard near Annecy, France

Perched atop the lush foothills of the French Alps and overlooking the beautiful azure waters of the Lac d’Annecy, the Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard (more commonly known as the Château de Menthon), is a spectacular medieval castle that can trace its foundations back to the 10th century! Originally built to maintain control of the lake and the old Roman road through the mountains, Château de Menthon is named after St Bernard of Menthon, the patron saint of skiers (as well as founder of hospitals and other saintly deeds). Unlike most castles who have changed hands many times, the Chateau de Menthon has actually been in the Menthon family since about 1180 – an impressive feat! Though little changed throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the castle was renovated several times in the 18th and 19th centuries. Fun fact – the father of the present owner was present during the Nuremburg Trials (representing France) and was one of the early forces behind a “united Europe” (later to become the European Union). With over a 100 rooms (though not all on display of course!), the castle is an incredible architectural undertaking. The Château de Menthon’s fairytale-like setting overlooking village, lake and mountains, tucked deep into the woodland, adds to the castle’s charm, wonder and intrigue.

Pro tip: Also visit the Chateau d’Annecy, who shares a similar architecture (and is currently home to a modern art museum). Make the most of the lake and explore the Lac d’Annecy by boat.


Visit More of Annecy


 

Corfe Castle, England

Corfe castle, England

Corfe Castle Courtyard, England

Built by the infamous William the Conquerer, this 11th century castle occupies a commanding position over the Dorset hills and coastlines in southern England (though archeological evidence suggests that the area has been occupied for as much as 6,000 years). Corfe Castle holds the distinction of being one of England‘s first stone (or at least partially stone) castles and though ruined, Corfe Castle is still partially intact. The medieval era saw further defensive structural changes in the 12th-13th centuries (in keeping constant with updates in warfare), staying more or less the same until 1572 when Queen Elizabeth sold Corfe Castle to a member of the English nobility. Besieged twice during the English Civil War, the second siege led to the castle’s downfall, and in 1645 it was deliberately destroyed (in technical terms, it was “slighted”) to eliminate Corfe Castle as a military power. Slowly falling into ruin since then, Corfe Castle is now one of southern England’s most impressive castle ruins, located in the Isle of Purbeck Peninsula (which is not actually an island). The Neolithic, Celtic, Roman, Viking, Saxon, Norman, Medieval and Elizabethan periods all show their faces on this beautiful part of English heritage.


Pro tip: You can take the train to Corfe Castle, alighting at Corfe Station. There are many lovely walks in the area – in particular, the hike along the Jurassic Coast of Devon and Dorset is particularly lovely. The closest city of consequence is Bournemouth, though Salisbury is decidedly more beautiful. 


Visit Southern England


 

Arnas Village, Beaujolais, France

Arnas flowers.jpg

Arnas Village, France

Tucked into the Beaujolais, the wee French village of Arnas is found just outside of Villefranche-sur-Saône, the “capital” of the Beaujolais wine region. On the lovely city of Lyon’s doorstep are two impressive wine regions – to the south is the Côtes du Rhône, and to the north is the Beaujolais. Though smaller than the Côtes du Rhône, the Beaujolais is the superior wine-making region as its rolling hills and tiny cobbled villages follow an ancient tradition ever-present to the region and imprinted into the landscape. Arnas is one such village where wine is all-important, an art passed from father to son, mother to daughter. Every September is the harvest season, a time of year in which the whole family gets together to harvest the grapes. Not long after the harvest (or “vendanges“) is the festival of the Beaujolais Nouveau in November – the presentation and drinking of the new wine. This year, it was this past weekend – the 21st of November – but the festival of the Beaujolais Nouveau is held around the same time every year – see more info here. Arnas itself is a small place though bustling with life, from dancing sunflowers on the edge of the village to a busy village square where church, school, bar, restaurant and bakery all jostle for place. Cobbled streets, historic houses and narrow alleys make this place the perfect stereotypical Beaujolais village. Make sure you don’t leave without a bit of wine!


Pro tip: Come in November for the Fete de Beaujolais Nouveau! But even if you visit at another time of the year, there will be plenty of wine – and probably the odd festival too. There are many signposted hiking paths (“sentiers”) that weave through the region, lovely for short hikes and countryside rambles. Don’t miss the lovely domaine, Château de Fléchères on the other side of the river – visitor info here


Other Places in the Beaujolais & Nearby


 

Spires of St Sophia, Kiev, Ukraine

St Soph Kiev

Spires of St Sophia Cathedral, Kiev, Ukraine

Kiev’s first UNESCO site, the 13 spires of the 11th century Byzantine St Sophia Cathedral contrast wildly with the more modern concrete blocks courtesy of communism. Named for the famous church-turned-mosque the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul/Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia is one of the best architectural relics of the Kievan Rus. With ground broken in 1011, St Sophia’s Cathedral celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2011! Like many religious buildings, its history has been far from peaceful. St Sophia was pillaged in 1169 and again in 1240, leading to abandonment and disrepair, including the loss of irreplaceable wall paintings. It was later damaged again in the 1500s when Poland and Ukraine joined forces in a misguided (and doomed to fail) attempt to unite the Catholic and Orthodox churches. It was claimed by several Orthodox communities – notably, the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church and the Moldavian Orthodox Church, who made repairs to St Sophia in the Ukrainian Baroque style. The Soviets wanted to destroy the cathedral and turn it into park, and indeed they managed to do so with St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery at the other end of the boulevard. But its popularity and reputation caused many to speak for the cathedral and St Sophia was saved, instead being turned into a history museum. And today, due to arguments over which branch of Orthodoxy should hold the rights to this ancient place, St Sophia remains a museum, frequented more by tourists than by members of the Orthodox community.


Pro tip: Things in the Ukraine follow their own rules and opening hours. Be sure to arrive early and be ready to wait if they say its not open. Special rates for students. Be sure to visit St Michael’s afterwards! 


Other Churches of Kiev


 

Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

Eliean Donan

Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland

Eilean Donan Castle currently holds the honour of being the most photographed (and Instagrammed) location in Scotland! But aside from its popularity on the screen, Eilean Donan Castle is a pretty incredible – and formidable – place. This medieval fortress is located on a small tidal island (most photos show it at high tide for maximum photogenic prowess but here it is at low tide). In fact, “Eilean” means “island” in Scots Gallic, and Donan refers to a martyred Celtic saint – the name might mean that there was a small monastic settlement in the spot in early Christian times, but that is unproven. Strategically located at a place where three sea lochs meet (Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh), Eilean Donan was erected in the 13th century by Clan Mackenzie, one of the major players in the constant power struggle amongst the Highland clans. The castle stood intact until the early 1700s when the Mackenzie’s got involved in the infamous Jacobite Rebellions (a series of uprisings between 1688 and 1746 to return Catholic King James to the throne) and the castle was attacked and partially destroyed before being reconstructed in the 20th century. The castle started with just an enciente or fortified wall surrounding the island, perfect for guarding against Norse attacks. It later became property of the Mackenzie clan, even supposedly sheltering Robert the Bruce. The exterior wall was reduced in order to make more defensive structures, and a triangular courtyard or “horn” was added to increase the island’s defensiveness. Today the castle is rebuilt on the same groundwork as the medieval castle, though the details vary from the original. That said, it is one of Scotland’s most amazing and iconic locations!


Pro tip: From the castle, wander across the road to the wee village of Dornie. The castle makes for a good stop between Inverness and the Isle of Skye. 


Other Scottish Locations


 

Cloisters of Beziers Cathedral, France

Beziers Cathedral cloisters southern France

Cloisters of Beziers Cathedral, France

The echo of footsteps ring in the quiet cloisters of the ancient Béziers Cathedral. Officially known as Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse de Béziers, Béziers Cathedral is a 13th century Catholic church perched above the southern town of Béziers. Not far from Toulouse and Carcassonne, medieval Béziers was a stronghold of Christian sect called the Cathars, horribly persecuted by militant factions of the Catholic Church during the Albigensian Crusades of the 1200s. Béziers, the first town to be attacked by the crusaders, was hard hit. The courageous local Catholics of Béziers chose not to betray their Cathar compatriots and resisted the crusaders, resulting in a terrible sacking and massacre in the town and up to Béziers Cathedral. No one survived. Every man, woman and child – even priests and the elderly – were killed. According to legend, the crusaders asked how to tell Catholic from Cathar (let’s face it, they’re more or less the same thing…), evil Papal Legate Arnaud Amaury said, “Kill them all – the Lord will know them that are his.” Béziers was one of the worst hit during this bizarre crusade against a little-known Christian sect in the south of France, but it was far from the only town – Toulouse and Carcassonne as well as others also saw battle. The marauding crusaders invaded Béziers Cathedral of Sainte Nazaire and burned it thoroughly, killing all those who had taken sacred refuge inside. Though this tragedy happened 800 years ago, Béziers has never forgotten, ensuring that we continue to remember this tragedy. In modern times, Béziers is a great base to visit places like Les Cévennes and other Languedoc parks, Montpéllier, the Camargue, and both seaside and mountain villages. Not overly touristy, Béziers is a lovely part of Southern France to visit that will both take you away from the crowds of places like Carcassonne, Nice, St Tropez, and Aix-en-Provence. Today, Béziers is a quiet town, but the town and its magnificent cathedral serve as a history lesson as to what happens when religion is allowed power, have access to a military or meddle in politics.


Pro tip: Visit a winery for a wee wine tasting while you’re there! There are many to choose from, one of which is the little Domaine des Deux Rousseu, in the direction of the village of Sauvin. Serviced by a bus though cab might be the best bet. Just be careful – cell service there is spotty, so arrange in advance. Don’t miss the photo op at the Pont Vieux looking across the River Orb at the Cathedral Sainte Nazaire. If you’re interested in learning more about what it may have been like to live there, author Kate Mosse has written several novels set in and around Béziers, some of which are about the crusade against the Cathars. 


Other Places in the South of France


 

Islet of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Spain

San Juan de Gax

Islet of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Spain

Probably most famous for its role on HBO hit Game of Thrones (part of Dragonstone), the craggy islet of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe – meaning the Rock Castle from the Basque language – is perhaps one of Europe’s most fascinating and fantastical monuments. With its picture-perfect monastery perched perilously at the top of a formidable rock pinnacle, its not hard to see why San Juan de Gaztelugatxe was chosen as a location in the fantasy land of Westeros. Narrowly perched on the Bay of Biscay deep in Basque Country, the sea crashes endlessly at the islet, eroding away at the rocks. After a long walk to the island, across the causeway and up the rough-worn stairs, you arrive at the monastery or hermitage. This little building, dangling 80 metres above the sea, is dedicated to John the Baptist, and dates back to the 9th and 10th centuries and is the final resting place of medieval monks. Its location was long considered strategic and played a role in several battles – the place where the Lord of Biscay confronted the King of Castille in the mid 14th century, the site of a sacking from Huguenots (Protestants persecuted in France) from La Rochelle, an 18th century English raid and even a naval battle during the horrific Spanish Civil War. Despite its tragic history, today San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a place of great mystique and wonder – not to mention an amazing place for budding photographers!


Pro tip: This place was busy pre-Game of Thrones and the fantasy series will only continue making it more popular. Avoid the crowds (and the heat!) as best as possible by visiting in the off season, or early in the day. Get the most out of your visit by hiking from Bakkio town along the coast. 


More from Northern Spain


 

Walls & Towers of Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn walls

Walls & Towers of Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn is one of Europe’s most impressive medieval walled towns, with over a dozen watch towers, the beautiful Viiru Gate, and over a kilometre of walls still surrounding the exquisitely-preserved medieval houses and cobbled streets. In its height during the 16th century, Tallinn’s wall network was 2.4 km long, up to 16 metres high, and was protected by no less than 43 towers – an impressive and impregnable site to behold! Tallinn’s oldest wall structure is the Margaret Wall, commenced in 1265 on the orders of Margaret Sambiria, Queen of Denmark and reigning fief-holder of Danish Estonia. Her commissioned wall was far smaller than what we see today – just 5 metres tall and 1.5 metres thick (at its thickest part). Over the centuries, the walls of Tallinn have grown upwards and outwards, particularly in the 14th century as the Dark Ages were a time of turbulence. In fact, this medieval wall was actually guarded by a revolving roster of “voluntary” citizens of Tallinn, who were firmly invited to take turns parading the walls. Today, despite past demolitions, there are over 20 defensive towers and about 10 gates comprising of the Walls of Tallinn, nearly all of which are still in great shape, and able to be visited. All of this together is why Tallinn’s walls are a part – in fact, a significant part – of the UNESCO world heritage site that encompasses Medieval Tallinn. Even if you never stepped foot in to the city (which would be a mistake!), Tallinn’s impressive medieval walls would be reason enough to visit this incredible Baltic gem.


Pro tip: There is a small fee to visit the walls. Many of the towers are actually museums dedicated to Tallinn’s history. According to Visit Tallinn, the best places to see Tallinn’s walls from the outside are the Patkuli viewing platform on Toompea and Tornide väljak (Towers’ Square) near the train station.


Other Impressive Walls in Europe


 

 

 

Val de Susa, Italy

Val de susa

Antica Mulattiera (Mule Track) in the Val de Susa, Italy

The antica mulattiera or ancient mule path carves its way up the mountain deep with the Val de Susa, carrying pilgrims to the Sacra di San Michele as it has done for at least a thousand years. Hidden amongst the curves one will find 15 “stations of the cross,” stone crosses each representing a different “station” – a stark reminder to the route’s pilgrims of why they are here. Cobblestones smoothed by the centuries, sharp edges worn away by thousands if not millions of pilgrim’s boots make up the rugged path that hugs Monte Pirchiriano in northern Italy. Leave behind the 21st century to follow the antica mulattiera through the Val de Susa, travelling back in time to the Middle Ages when pilgrimages were a normal part of life for every believer. In your modern homage to ancient pilgrimages, follow this quiet forest path and enter into nature as you make your own pilgrimage to the monastery at the top. Not only will you be able to approach the monastery in the traditional way and understand what life would have been like for a medieval pilgrim, but along the way you’ll be privy to amazing views, hillside villages and centuries of tradition. As you make your soul-searching pilgrimage, you’ll have time to reflect on life and destiny. By the time you reach the top, you may very well be a changed person.


Pro tip: Start your walk from behind the church of Saint-Ambrogio of Torino, a short train ride from the city of Torino. From the train station, it’s about a 3km walk each way. Visit in the winter to avoid other tourists and marvel at the snow-dusted woodlands and mountaintops. Due to slippery stones and leaves underfoot as well as some muddy patches, we recommend sturdy shoes for this walk. 


Other Snowy Alpine Destinations


This post originally appeared in early 2014. It has since been updated and revised. 

Rooftops over Montélimar, France

Montelliemar tower

Rooftops of Montélimar, France

Most visitors zip by this historical town in southern France. To the majority of strangers, the town of Montélimar is just a blip on the map in the little-known region of Drôme to be passed by on the way to greener (or sunnier!) pastures such as Provence and the Cote d’Azure (better known as the French Riviera). Towering over the clay-roofed town is the impressive Romanesque stone pile that is the Chateau des Adhémar. Full of architectural beauty, the town of Montélimar itself is a lovely place. Stroll the town centre exploring the streets lined with facades representing the tastes of different centuries – grand mansions and townhouses such as the former home of courtier of kings Diane de Poitiers, an impressive Renaissance building dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. Other buildings are from the 17th and 18th centuries, sporting a variety of styles, each topped with beautiful clay tiles. Montélimar is the place to be when the sun is shining – wandering the walls of the ancient castle, strolling the streets of the historic centre, sipping rosé at a pocket-sized cafe or soaking up the sun in the gardens or the riverbanks of the Rhône River and its offshoots the Roubion and the Jabron.


Pro tip: Make sure you try some of the local wines while there. This is the Côtes de Rhône wine region (famed for their reds) of which there are many varieties (though one we quite like is M. Chapoutiersee more about this region here. In the other direction, you’ll find another delicious wine, the Ventoux, from a grape variety that grows on Mt Ventoux, the windy mountain. This region is also just north of Provence, heralded for its rosé wines, perfect for a summer’s day. 


Visit more Southern French Towns:


 

Church of Notre Dame de St Saturnin, Auvergne, France

St Saturnin.jpg

Church of Notre Dame de St Saturnin, Auvergne, France

Like a wedding cake made of overlapping layers of towering stone, the church of St Saturnin rises up dramatically into the sky. The centrepiece of the little Auvergnat village of St Saturnin, the church Notre Dame de St Saturnin is impressive in its representation of the local architectural style, “Auvergne Romanesque.” A variation of the Romanesque style, Auvergne Romanesque was developed in the rural, volcanic region of Auvergne in the 11th, 12th and into the 13th centuries.  This quaint, rural church is the smallest (and least ornate) of what is locally considered Auvergne’s 5 great Romanesque churches (among the other four, there is also the Basilique Notre Dame de Clermont-Ferrand – Auvergne’s regional capital, the Basilique Notre-Dame of Orcival and the Church of Saint-Nectaire). Of all five, St Saturnin has the simplest apse, as it is the only one without an array of chapels. This particular church at St Saturnin was the last of the Big 5, built late in the 12th century, though the bell tower was destroyed during the French Revolution, not to be rebuilt until 1850, a fate that was unfortunately quite common the during the bloody, anti-religious rebellion of the late 1700s (many religious buildings were destroyed or damaged – those that escaped harm often had to change or mask their purpose to fit that of the Reign of Terror, like the Temple of Vienne just south of Lyon). Inside, Notre Dame is dark, sombre, and cold but somehow this makes the Church of St Saturnin exude a certain sort of eerie beauty. Somehow, the church’s tranquil simplicity and the quaintness of the small village that encircles the little church work together to make the church even more picturesque.


Pro tip: There is a chateau in St Saturnin but it isn’t wildly impressive. For turrets, towers and layered gardens, head to the nearby Chateau de la Batisse – learn more about opening times here.


Other Impressive French Churches


 

Vaduz Castle, Liechtenstein

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Vaduz Castle, Liechtenstein

Schloss Vaduz or Vaduz Castle is the royal residence of the Prince of Liechtenstein, the very real ruler of the very real and very tiny principality buried in the heart of Europe. Vaduz Castle overlooks the town of Vaduz, capital of the minuscule country (or micro country) of Liechtenstein. In fact, to give a bit of perspective here, there are about 5,400 people living in Vaduz and just 40,000 in all of Liechtenstein – that’s roughly the size of UCLA (University of California – LA). Built by the Werdenberg-Sargans starting in the 12th century and expanded from thereon, Vaduz Castle was bought by the Liechtensteins (yes the country is named after a family, what modesty they have!) in 1712. This was quickly followed by the formation of the Principality of Liechtenstein in 1719 via the acquisitions of lands and lordships hidden away deep in the dark, rugged Alps – today one of Europe’s smallest countries. Restored a few times in the early 1900s and the 1920s, by 1938 Vaduz Castle had become the official royal residence of the Princely Family of Liechtenstein. Unsurprisingly for a country named after its current ruling family, Vaduz Castle is still the Liechtenstein family’s royal residence today.


Pro tip: The castle is not open to the public (guess the prince doesn’t want us ordinary plebs walking over his fancy carpets!) but you can see the castle from nearly everywhere in Vaduz, and you can get a bit closer if you head up the hill. Want to get inside a Liechtenstein-ian castle? Head over to nearby Gutenberg Castle, which today functions as a museum.


Other Great Castles in and near the Alps


 

Moygara Castle, Ireland

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Moygara Castle, Co Sligo, Ireland

Moygara Castle is a brilliant ruined castle tucked deep away in exactly the middle of nowhere. Northwest Ireland‘s rural and overlooked County Sligo is already a little-visited region – and Moygara Castle is in perhaps Sligo’s least-known corner. Named for the once-powerful O’Gara family – who ruled Lough Gara and nearby relands since the 1200s – they needed a castle to show off their status, and act as defence during troubled times. Three castles were erected, though Moygara Castle is by far the best example and the only properly surviving structure. Starting out as a typical Irish tower house (a large, rectangular structure built by landowning chieftains found throughout Ireland),  Moygara Castle later expanded to include 4 towers connected by high stone walls, a gatehouse (now in ruins) and a massive courtyard. The side gate is still intact, but its precarious keystone has caused this entrance to be closed off. Instead, visitors should walk all the way around the castle, where a hole chuck of the wall is missing, which acts as the castle’s main entrance now. Attacked in 1538 by the famous chieftain O’Donnell and later by some mercenary Scots in 1581, the castle has fallen into ruin. Much overgrown by trees and vines, Moygara Castle is slowly being reclaimed by the hills surrounding Lough Gara, a place that has been inhabited for thousands of years (it has one of the highest concentrations of crannogs – manmade islands built for defensive purposes but also lived on). Today, Moygara Castle sits in a field inhabited by cows and sheep, on a tiny country lane, far from a main road or village. Few people know it’s there, and still fewer visit it. Chances are, you’ll have this magical piece of history to yourself!


Pro tip: Moygara Castle is located on a working farm, so be careful and respectful. Don’t bring your dogs, and be sure to close any gates you open. It is also quite mucky, so wear good boots! Hungry? In nearby Boyle, check out its many cafes. For meals made of farm fresh produce, meat and dairy, head to Drumanilra Restaurant


Other Places in Northwest Ireland’s counties Sligo & Roscommon


 

Santillana del Mar Archway, Spain

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Santillana del Mar Archway, Spain

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!


Other Great Places to Visit in Northern Spain


 

Bruges Canals, Belgium

Bruges canals

Bruges Canals, Belgium

Bruges is a truly fairytale place (thanks, In Bruges). Quaint canals are lined romantic facades, graceful weeping willows, cosy cafés and lovely quays. Canals are crossed with romantic bridges – of which each one is different from the same as the next. Like Venice, they function as streets, a unique way to get around the city. In fact, Bruges is sometimes nicknamed the “Venice of the North” (though it is not the only city to hold the name – see below). The historic centre of Bruges (a UNESCO world heritage site) is a small, quaint, romantic place. Compact enough to comfortably walk the whole city, Bruges still has a lot going on, not to mention, it is eye candy for art and architecture lovers! From the Belfort (belfry and its famous bells) to the Provincial Palace, Ghent Port and City Hall – not to mention all of the churches, gates, bridges, administrative buildings and even ordinary houses – there is no shortage of historic and beautiful sites upon which to feast your eyes on this spectacular medieval city.


Pro tip: Bruges is a busy, busy place. Therefore, try to visit in the off season. To make the most of your visit, be sure to stay over at least one night – many of the tourists are day trippers from Brussels. After the day crowds thin out, go for a wee nighttime stroll – with the city all glittering and reflecting, it adds a new layer of magic to this place! Also, Belgian fries and Belgian waffles are more than just stereotypes – they are perfection and delicious. Best place to get both are often the wee food trucks and hole-in-the-wall chippers!


Other “Venices of the North”:


 

Sibiu, Romania

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Sibiu, Romania

When most people envision European travel itineraries, not many include Romania – a country that gets a bad rep. Though it has one of Europe’s lowest salary averages, it also has one of Europe’s highest economical increases in recent years. It’s taken awhile for Romania to get on its feet, but it was worth the wait! Deep in the Transylvanian woodlands is the beautiful and not-so-famous city of Sibiu. Climb the stairs into the lovely old town of Sibiu, a true masterpiece of medieval marvels with towers, walls and historic houses. Like cities in Poland, Croatia, Lithuania and most other Eastern European countries, Sibiu (and other Romanian cities) is a colourful labyrinth of brightly-painted streets. Like other Transylvanian cities – such as Sighisoara and Brasov – Sibiu packs a bundle. From vast public squares to tiny, hidden-away bookshops, from beautiful church spires to streets lined with nothing but restaurants, Sibiu has something for everyone. Despite being a European Capital of Culture in 2007, Sibiu is still a relatively undiscovered this eastern charm. Originally a Daco-Roman settlement (Dacia was the name of the region before the Romans conquered), Sibiu exploded in size and economy when it as re-founded by the 12th century settlers from Saxony (modern-day Germany), concreting it as one of the most important medieval trade centres in this part of Europe. Later joining the state of Transylvania thanks to the Ottoman Empire, and after WWI, Sibiu once again changed hands – this time to finally become part of modern-day Romania.


Pro tipLa Taifas restaurant on the main Piata Mare has a nice terrace, great view and they do good food – including nice veggie dishes and delicious spritz, though there are many other restaurants on the smaller streets around the main plaza. 


Where Else to Visit in the Balkans

 

Walls of Carcassonne, France

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The Walls of Carcassonne, France

One of the best-preserved examples of medieval life and architecture is the walled city of Carcassonne in the south of France. Though La Cité started out as a Roman hilltop fort, it was in the Middle Ages that Carcassonne hit its peak. In 1067, Carcassonne fell into the Trencavel family through marriage, allying it with other great cities of the south, such as Albi, Nîmes and Toulouse – even Barcelona. The already-medieval city was further gothic-ified by the Trencavels – including the Chateau Comtal in the centre of Carcassonne. What Carcassonne is perhaps most known for its role in the horrid Albigensian Crusades. Carcassonne was a sanctuary for the ostracised Cathars of the Pays d’Oc. A gnostic offshoot of Christianity, the Cathars were not accepted by the Catholic Church, who attacked Carcassonne in 1209, killed Viscount Trencaval, and ousted the city’s citizens, with Carcassonne eventually passing into the Kingdom of France. 300 years later, the Huguenots of Languedoc, including those of Carcassonne, didn’t fare much better. Despite its troubled history, today Carcassonne is a beautiful medieval masterpiece, a living replica of what life looking like hundreds of years ago.


Pro tip:  Carcassonne is a very popular tourist destination. Visit only in the off season to avoid the worst of the crowds. There are accommodations in La Cite as well as the more modern side of Carcassonne. Another (more cost effective) solution is to stay in the less-popular Béziers, and train in to Carcassonne. 


Find More Amazing French Destinations


 

Billom, France

Billom

Billom, Auvergne, France

France is a country full of quaint and historic towns and villages, many of which go unnoticed due to the sheer quantity of beautiful French villages. Billom is one such overlooked village. Located in the heart of Auvergne, tucked into the shadows of the mountains of the Massif Central, is the little medieval village of Billom. Its quiet centre is full of medieval houses, gothic churches and wandering alleyways, though the site itself dates back to ancient times. In fact, the name Billom comes from Biliomagus – of which bilio means “wood” and magnus means “market.” It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that Billom grew, becoming an important market and university town in an otherwise rural region. Due to its micro-climate, rolling hills and southern-European architecture, Billom is ‘capital’ of the region nick-named Toscane Auvergnate, or the Tuscany of Auvergne. Legend has it that it was Catherine di Medici who gave it that name while visiting Auvergne during the Renaissance – supposedly, Auvergne reminded her of the native Tuscany of her childhood. Today, Billom is a peaceful and beautiful town. It still has its markets – notably the annual the fete de l’Ail or the “Garlic Festival” – as well as food and antique markets galore.


Pro tip: Billom is a lovely day trip from Clermont if you have a car. Also in the area is the Chateau de Montmorin, a beautiful ruined castle. For something truly unique, visit for the Fete de l’ail, held each August.


Other sites to Visit in Auvergne