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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Chapoutier – see 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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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!
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 tip: La 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.
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.
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.
St Malo, the gem of the Bretagne coast (known also as Brittany in English), is a famous walled city surrounded on three sides by ocean waves, rugged rocks and set of thick stone ramparts. Though perhaps not as well-known or as iconic at the nearby tidal city, Mont Saint Michel Normandy’s coast, St Malo is an amazing place in its own right. A walled city built onto a peninsula that juts out from the jagged Breton coast, the tall, grand houses of St Malo exude a sense of long-held wealth. And in fact this walled port town clinging to the northern French coast has a long and complicated history of piracy and extortion – something that is reflected in the city’s high ramparts, castalled towers, bastion strongholds – such as the Bastion Fort La Reine (from where this photo was taken) – and the forts atop the tidal island surrounding the ramparts. St Malo has always been a rebel. Like much of Bretagne, St Malo has long championed for autonomy – and from 1590 to 1593, St Malo was even an independent Republic! Going one step further than the rest of Bretagne, the walled city’s motto was: “Not French, not Breton, but Malouin” (the demonym for citizens of St Malo). Sadly, none of this stopped the city from being occupied in WWII, nor its destruction when it was bombed by the Allies in 1944, thinking it was a Nazi military base. Rebuilt in all of its former glory, the beautiful St Malo is today a popular summer holiday spot by French from Paris and other large cities as well as Brits arriving by ferry from Portsmouth, Poole, Weymouth and beyond.
Pro tip: Be sure to try the Moules Frites while in St Malo (and Bretagne in general!), especially drizzled in a delicious bleu d’Auvergne cheese sauce! For background info, especially to learn more about St Malo, read Anthony Doer’s All the Light We Cannot See, a beautiful book set partially in St Malo during WWII.
Romantic redbrick turrets and towers rise from a small island on Lithuania‘s Lake Galvé, home to the 14th-15th century Trakai Island Castle. Today accessible by a small wooden bridge, Trakai Island Castle actually claims to be Eastern Europe‘s only island castle still standing. While still in its infancy, the castle was attacked and severely damaged by the Teutonic Knights in 1377, and further damaged during a power struggle for title of Grand Duke of Lithuania. Once peace again reigned, it was the very same Teutonic Order that organised the rebuilding of the castle. Over time, other ameliorations were added – a massive donjon, wooden galleries along the inner courtyard, new palatial wings containing the impressive Ducal Hall, thicker defensive walls, three new towers and 16th century galleries complete with canons, designed to defend against new advances in technology (notably, gunpowder). Despite this, since the Battle of Grunwald, Trakai left its military importance behind and was used predominantly as a residence and a way to impress visitors, but by the 1700s and 1800s, it was in ruins, serving as little more than a romantic ruin for artistic and poetic inspiration. Reconstruction started in the late 1800s and continued through the first half of the 20th century. Today, Trakai Island Castle is a quiet monument to Lithuanian history and cultural strength, and part of the Trakai Historical National Park. Visit the castle by crossing the new bridge from the town of Trakai, only about 30 minutes from the capital city, Vilnius.
Pro tip: As the Baltic states open up to increasing tourism, places like Trakai Island Castle will get busier. It’s best to visit Trakai in the off-season or earlier in the morning in order to get the castle and island largely to yourself. Better yet, stay over in Trakai town and use as a jumping-off point to explore the region. Home to a proud Karaim community, a Turkish-speaking ethnic group descended from Crimean immigrants, try the delicious local Karaim dish, kybyn, a sort of dumpling or pasty stuffed with meat and vegetables while in Trakai.
One of Robin Hood’s many graves in Yorkshire Dales, England
Northern England is an overlooked, but wonderful place for hiking. The beautiful Yorkshire Dales are an ancient place full of myth and legend – not to mention great beauty. A dale is a British word to describe a valley. Dales pepper the quiet, little-visited regions of northern England where accents are thick, roads are narrow and villages are quaint. It is little wonder that legend and folklore is prevalent in this region. Robin Hood is certainly the best-known tale. No one’s sure of Robin Hood was a real person or not, but he sure does have a lot of graves, with dozens of sites across northern England claiming the honour. This little cairn tucked into a desolate valley in the Yorkshire Dales is just one of many to hold the name. Though Nottingham is the most famous place in Robin Hood ballads, it is generally acknowledged that he was in fact from Yorkshire. The ballads paint him and his merry band of followers like Little John and Friar Tuck as romantic thieves, roaming the countryside in order to steal to steal from the rich to give to the poor. He is said to have died while being bled (a common medieval medical practice) at the Priory of Kirklees. Even though there is still a debate on whether the man really existed, he exists through various place names scattered throughout England, each one claiming something to do with the great legend. Real or not, the story of Robin Hood isn’t going anywhere – and it makes for a great point of interest while hiking the backcountry of Northern England!
Pro tip: When you’re in the area, head to the village of Penrith to stop by Kennedys Fine Chocolates for artesian boxes of chocolates or even just a delicious cup of hot cocoa!
Gargoyles of the Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
After the April 14th 2019 fire, it’s not even certain if these iconic gargoyles still even adorn the amazing Notre Dame Cathedral. Even if they do, it won’t be possible to visit them until the cathedral is rebuilt… which will take years, possibly as long as two decades despite the overwhelming donations pledged (if only these sort of donations were pledged for all important monuments damaged and destroyed! Like the ancient temples of Iraq and Syria destroyed thanks to ISIS…). Notre Dame Cathedral is a special place, and the devastating fire is one of Europe’s terrible tragedies of recent times (though luckily avoiding loss of life). Built in the Middle Ages in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame is a stone building topped with a wooden roof made of strong oak from the 1200s (much of which was burned to ciders on April 14/15th). It is in this cathedral where Victor Hugo’s le bossu (or the hunchback) lived out his life in the famous book, and up until the fire, it was Paris‘s most visited monument (12-14 million each year!). Notre Dame is a symbol of Paris and France, but also one of architectural beauty, history and cultural heritage. Following the fire, this beautiful building is also a symbol of hope and resilience sitting in the centre of one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Let’s hope they rebuild it quickly, keeping in the same style as its original architects designed it… (no Pompidous, please!)
Pro tip: You can’t visit Notre Dame following the fire, but there are many other beautiful medieval structures in Paris well worth your visit, and many other great cathedrals in throughout France. Looking for gargoyles? Try Dijon Cathedral. Medieval grandeur? Lyon’s St Jean Cathedral. Simple elegance? Blois’s Church of Saint-Nicolas in the Loire Valley.
The quiet and ancient region of Auvergne, located in central France, is a bastion of tradition, history and culture. Far from most tourists radar, those who do visit the region generally head to the iconic mountain Puy-de-Dome or perhaps the capitol city, Clermont-Ferrand (especially for rugby fans). Few head deeper into the countryside towards the ultra rural Cantal region. Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise (or Besse, as it’s known locally) is just one of the many spectacular gems that reward those who venture into Auvergne’s hidden corner. A fairytale village of wandering cobblestone streets and, intricate buildings topped with steep roofs and lined with overflowing flower-boxes, the best way to enjoy Besse is to simply lose yourself in the beautiful medieval streets of the photogenic village. Admire the half-Romanesque, half-Gothic Eglise de Saint-André, the Maison de la Reine Margot, the town hall, and the guard tower at the entrance to this ancient place. Try various flavours of nougat, a local delicacy, or in summer, be sure to stop for deliciously creamy ice cream at one of the local vendors in the shadows of the ancient stone buildings. In the evenings, relax at one of the village’s lovely terrases for a cold beer as you people-watch the bustling village centre. Besse is a perfect example of medieval charm surrounded by verdant and unexplored landscapes perfect for hiking, biking and paddling – ideal for those looking to relax in a rural environment while visiting a corner of France that has changed little through the years.
Pro tip: If you can, time your visit to correspond with one of the brocantes or outdoor flea markets (very popular in rural France) to find unique souvenirs. The nearby, nearly-round Lac Pavin is a very pretty place for a walk. Visiting in summer? Try the famed Tyrollean. Visiting in winter? You’re in luck – Besse is known for its skiing!
Find other places nearby to make the perfect Auvergne holiday
As the capitol of Apulia (a region commonly known as the “heel” of Italy’s boot), Bari is a bustling and chaotic labyrinthine city in southern Italy. The city’s fortress is the Castello Svevo, protecting Apulia’s capitol since 1132. Destroyed and rebuilt several times, the Normans, Holy Romans, Angevins, Spanish and even Polish all had their hand in Castello Svevo’s existence. Polish, you say? Indeed, due to a coup d’etat, the 16th century Sforza family of Milan was ousted from power and instead granted Bari and Apulia in the far south (where they were far from the economic powerhouses of Northern Italy and yet could still be kept an eye on). Daughter Bona Sforza was later wed to Polish King Sigismund I the Old (though after her death, the castle was returned to the King of Naples). Castello Svevo’s imposing exterior is perhaps due to its use as a medieval prison. Today, the castle is a museum as well as the centrepiece of the Bari and its narrow, winding streets, perfectly Italian streets.
Pro tip: Bari is a port city – often used for catching ferries to Croatia (Dubrovnik), Montenegro (Bar), Albania (Durres), and even the Greek island of Corfu. Keep in mind that there are two ports and they are not right next to one another, so know where your ferry departs from!
Vienne is most famous for its Roman ruins – the Temple of Auguste and Livie, amphitheatre and obelisk – though there is far more to this ancient place than that. A bit eerie and yet hauntingly beautiful, Vienne’s Pipet Cemetery is a fascinating place to visit. Vast alleyways and avenues are lined with massive tombs and headstones making a sort of French city of the dead. Climb to the top of the hill for a view of the fantastic ruins of the medieval castle, Chateau de la Batie, which still cling to the rugged hilltop, crowning Vienne’s dramatic skyline. The view of Chateau de la Batie seems straight out of Victorian-era painting, of a folly perhaps—dramatic cliffs, dark forests, a ruined castle, a grey cemetery, a hanging sky—and yet, the view is entirely authentic. Perched at the top of Mont Salomon, the castle Chateau de la Batie was built on the foundations of Roman ruins in 1225 by the archbishop of Vienne in order to protect the city from would-be medieval attackers. While the castle is not open to the public, it turns a rather ordinary landscape into something dramatic, romantic and even extraordinary to behold, and both the cemetery and Vienne’s hilltop are well worth the visit.
Pro tips: In the summer months of June and July, the city comes alive with the annual festival, Jazz a Vienne. Just across the Rhone Riveris Saint-Romain-en-Gal (only a separate town because it crosses county lines), find the ruins of a Roman city and an excellent museum of Roman archeology. Sometimes the site even hosts living history festivals. Vienne is an easy day trip from Lyon.
Though part of the much-loved Loire Valley region of central France, Blois has a reputation to be grim, grey and foggy. And though Blois does not have the same fairy-tale charm as the magnificent Chateau du Chenonceau, nor the impressive grandeur of Chateau de Chambord, it has its own gems. One such gem is the Church of Saint-Nicolas (not to be confused with the Cathedral of Blois), an impressive remnant of the Middle Ages in Northern France. Founded as an abbey in 1138 by Benedictine monks fleeing from the Normans, the Romanesque–Gothic church took nearly a century to complete. The abbey section of the complex was destroyed by the Protestant Huguenots during the bloody and long-suffering Wars of Religion. In fact, Saint-Nicolas was built relatively quickly for the time, though a hiatus of about 20 years means Saint-Nicolas has two different marked architectural styles. Blois itself is a town that often gets overlooked from Loire Valley visitors, who come to the region to admire the fine Renaissance chateaus. Blois does indeed have a castle (though not on par with the other Loire Chateaux) but it is its northern streets and ancient architecture such as this church that make Blois stand out. Well that – and the fact that in 1429, French hero Joan of Arc made Blois the base of her operations – riding out from the city 35 miles on Wednesday 29 April to relieve Orléans, what is today known as the Siege of Orléans during the 100 Years War (France’s first major victory since Agincourt in 1415).
Pro tip: Blois can be a good base for people visiting Loire Chateaux. The closest one to Blois is the massive and magnificent Chateau de Chambord, only 15km from Blois. See more about getting to the castle by car or public transport here.
In the centre of the wildly beautiful city of Krakow is the eclectic structure known as Wawel Castle. Commissioned by King Casimir III in the 13th century, Wawel Castle is a strange mix of nearly all the popular architectural styles of the 13th – 18th centuries – including medieval, gothic, Renaissance (particularly Italian), Baroque, Romanesque and more (neo-classical seems the only important style of the time missing from the list). The Wawel we see today is much altered from the original structure – parts were destroyed by fire, leading to other parts added on or rebuilt entirely. When it was occupied by the Prussian Army, it was changed to meet new needs and new standards – Wawel’s was modernised and its interior re-styled. Defensive structures were changed, and some buildings were removed. Long the residence of Polish kings during Poland‘s Golden Years and beyond, Wawel overlooks one of Poland’s most spectacular cities. In fact, Krakow is one of the few urban centres not razed during the devastating WWII (due to Hitler using it as a base camp). Today, as one of the largest castles in Poland, Wawel Castle is a member of UNESCO world heritage sites (alongside Krakow’s historic downtown). Inside, find museums and exhibition on art, architecture, history, ceramics, weaponry, gold, and even articles from the Orient. To visit is also the cathedral, the ‘lost’ basements where the foundations show what once was there, and cave leading to the banks of the river nicknamed “the Dragon’s Den,” home to the legendary Dragon of Wawel lived.
Pro tip: Wawel can be quite busy – try to visit in the off-peak season (or at least earlier in the day) if you can. Admission costs vary, see more here. Free admission is on Mondays from 9:30am – 1pm in April – October, and Sundays 10am – 4pm in November – March. Don’t miss the nearby fire-breathing dragon, a monument to the Wawel Dragon legend (it breathes fire in 5 minute intervals and can be activated by SMS).
Orange roofs contrast against the deep azures of the Mediterranean and the whitewashed walls of the fairy-tale houses crowding the narrow streets of medieval Peñíscola. Beautiful, curved (oft handmade) terracotta roof tiles are perhaps one of the images most associated with Spain and its hard not to conjure up images glasses of tinto de verano and sangria, massive plates of Valencianpaella, and delicious tapaswhen you see roofs such as these! The little medieval town of Peñíscola clings desperately to the sea, encircled by walls and containing a labyrinth of weaving streets, tiny alleys and jumbled plazas – crowned by the squat castle in the centre. Sometimes called the Gibraltar of Valencia – or locally as “The City in the Sea” – Peñíscola is a fortified city built onto on an easily-defensible headland that juts into the sea. The 13th castle was erected by none other than the infamous Knights Templar (our friends who also built Segovia‘s Church Vera Cruz) – and it is from here that one enjoys the epic panorama of city and sea.
Pro tip: Aside from wandering the lovely streets, be sure to visit the castle, lighthouse, bateria, and House of Shells. There are several nice terrases for sangria or “tapas and caña” (tapas, or small plates of food, that accompany a glass of beer).
The Beaujolais is one of France’s most spectacular places. Beloved for its vineyards, Beaujolais is a household name for those who enjoy French red wine, though few people manage to visit. More than just hills of grape vines (though there’s plenty of that too!), the Beaujolais is full of tiny medieval villages, such as Ternand. The size of a teacup, Ternand is as picturesque as it is hard to find. Perched on the top of Mont Chatard, one of the Monts du Beaulojais, Ternand’s tiny village streets lined with ancient houses encircle the church (with frescos from the Carolingian era), the 12th medieval castle – or what’s left of it – and its donjon (the castle’s fortified tower). Only about 700 people call this quiet hilltop village home today, though its construction using the beautiful golden-coloured stones found in the Beaujolais means it is classed as part of the Pierres-Dorées region. Located within the Azèrgues Valley with views over nearby villages like that of Oingt, this rocky outcrop has long been inhabited – possibly dating back to Roman Gaul. Ternand village, constructed in the 12th century, was under the ownership of the archbishops of Lyon. The castle long stood solidly atop Mont Chatard – until 1562, when the Hugenots (as part of the Wars of Religion), stormed the castle and left it a smoking ruin. Today, Ternand does not appear on tourist maps nor is it along the path-well-travelled. It’s a bit of a climb to get to the hilltop, and seems far from civilisation or the 21st century. Instead, it is a quiet place where cats wander the cobblestones, children play in the gardens, and the sounds of clinking cutlery emits from modern kitchens tucked away inside ancient homes. In short, Ternand is the perfect getaway from our fast-paced, screen-loving, need-it-now world.
Pro tip: Instead of walking straight into the village from the small carpark, follow the path down around the back side of the village. Here, you’ll get an amazing view of the Azergues Valley. Take the stairs up into the village, where you can wander the tiny streets. If you’re interested in wine and grapes, consider taking part in the vendages or the grape harvest, which is end of August or September, in one of the many vineyards in region!
While oftentimes some of the most splendid castles are generally found in rural areas far from city centres, this cannot be said about the massive medieval pile that is the Gravensteen Castle in Ghent. Plopped on the canal bank in the centre of lovely Ghent – one of Belgium’s most fascinating and underrated cities – the spires of the Gravensteen reach for the sky and its walls crumble into the moat. This fortress was built around 1180 by Philip of Alsace, which he modelled after castles he encountered while fighting in the 2nd crusade. Threatened with destruction in the 19th century, the owner of the Gravensteen decided to make the originally medieval castle ‘even more medieval’ — thereby commencing a lengthy restoration project. In some ways, this caused experts to question its authenticity, but this is the nature of continually-inhabited buildings: they evolve. As the Gravensteen is located in the middle of the city, modern objects such as power lines, asphalt roads, and cars criss-cross the castle grounds with roads encircling its walls. Yet the real-fake medieval castle sits in the Place Sint-Veerleplein, unaffected, steadfast and silent, watching as the modern world whizzes by.
Pro tip: Full admission is €10, and your ticket also gets you a virtual guide at the Abbey St Peter. The castle is open daily from 10-6pm. While in Ghent, poke around the lovely second-hand and antique shops and walk along the gorgeous canals. For the other end of the history spectrum, hit up Graffiti Street – an alleyway constantly painted by local artists so that it looks different upon each visit!