Strasbourg, France

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Petite France, Strasbourg, France

The origin of the name la Petite France, has a less-than-lovely origin – it comes from the Hospice des Vérolés (House for the syphilitic) which during the German occupation was called Franzosenkrankheit (French disease). While the name’s origins may not be charming, the alleyways, canals and houses most certainly are charming! Alsace, the region of France where Strasbourg is located, has a complicated history, flashing back and forth between France and Germany for much of it’s past. In the Middle Ages, la Petite France was the economic centre of the city, and Strasbourg as the region’s most important city. La Petite France once comprised of many merchants, millers, tanners, fishermen and other tradesmen and artisans. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, la Petite France (‘little France’) seduces history, culture and architecture buffs with its quintessential streets, half-timbered architecture, colourful houses, quiet riverbank, and charming shops. At Christmastime, the Strasbourg Christmas Market is one of the most famous in Europe and is generally agreed upon to be the best Christmas market in France. Hot wine, sausages, and sauerkraut are local favourites – especially when the weather turns cold! The impressive Strasbourg Cathedral was the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874 (so, for 227 years!), and today, it remains the 6th-tallest church in the world. It is the sandstone from nearby Vosges that gives the cathedral its unique pinkish hue.

Gutenberg Castle, Balzers, Liechtenstein

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Gutenberg Castle, Balzers, Liechtenstein

Bigger is not always better. In fact, some of the littlest places hold the most charm. Sometimes, these ‘tiny places’ can even be countries! Many of these dwarf nations, like Luxembourg, Monaco, Andorra, San Marino, the Vatican and Liechtenstein are located in Europe, and are vestiges of a time when the continent was far more divided, each bit of earth ruled by a local lord who was in turn ruled by a king – who was often connected to local and faraway kingdoms through royal marriages and court appointments. Liechtenstein is one of these tiny nations. Nestled deep in the Alps between Switzerland and Austria, the nation’s total population is a mere 37,000 with an area of 160km² – far smaller than the surface of other well-known ‘tiny’ places such as Corsica [8,680km²], Rhode Island [3,140km²], and Ibiza [571 km²]. Yet despite its small size, Liechtenstein has some amazing characteristics, including Gutenberg Castle in Balzers. Starting its life as a 12th century medieval church, it was slowly fortified throughout the Middle Ages, with the addition of a wall, keep, towers, gate and merlons by the lords of Frauenberg, a noble house hailing from the Swiss canton, Graubünden – only to fall into the greedy hands of the house of Hapsburg in 1314. Surviving wars, sieges, fires, and the like, the castle was inhabited until 1750 before falling into disrepair, and saved in the 20th century by the Principality of Liechtenstein as a monument of local history, culture, tradition, and architecture. Sitting pretty on a backdrop of rolling green hills and overlooking a meadow filled with jolly little houses and patches of wildflowers, the dramatic and fierce Gutenberg Castle is a prominent symbol of this proud but often overlooked tiny European country.

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Barcelona, Spain

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Barrio Gótico, Barcelona, Spain

Spicy, salty, vibrant. Oranges and yellows light up this striking Spanish square in the heart of Barcelona’s Barrio Gótico as the afternoon draws to a close. Though it may be a winter’s day far from beach season, this period is actually the ideal time to explore the famed city with your lover, and no place is more magical or romantic than Barrio Gótico (though Gaudi’s works such as Casa Batlló, Casa Mila, and the Sagrada Famillia give it a run for its money!) While parts of the Gothic Quarter date back to the Middle Ages, a controversial paper released in 2011 purports the idea that many of the ‘old’ buildings were elaborated or rebuilt at the turn of the century or in the early 1900s with the ambition of augmenting tourism dollars and making the city more exciting for the 1929 International Exhibition. This may or may not be true, but in any case, let’s leave the theorising to the scientists and simply enjoy this beautiful neighbourhood hand-in-hand with your spouse or lover, because authentic or not, the winding labyrinth that is the Barrio Gótico is one of Barcelona’s most alluring neighbourhoods! (One caveat: along with Las Ramblas, it is one of the top hot-spots for crime. Be very aware of your surroundings, leave unneeded personal belongings at the hotel, and do not talk to anyone on the street no matter how lost they claim to be. This is one of the biggest pickpocket hotspots in Europe. That said, don’t let that ruin your chance for an amble in this wonderfully beautiful place!)

Dijon, France

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Dijon, France

X marks the spot – or maybe it just marks a row of charming houses in Dijon, built in the infamous wattle-and-daub style. But what really is wattle-and-daub anyway? In use as a construction method for some 6,000 years (and still popular today due to it being low-impact technique), such buildings are created by weaving a braid of wooden strips called wattle, then daubing them with a sort of caulk made of soil, clay, sand, straw, and other ingredients. Thick wooden beams are then factored in as supports to the structure, and together, they form sturdy, isolated walls. Sustainable and relatively easy to do, houses erected in this style are also just so charming. DijonStrasbourg, Stratford-upon-Avon, many Germanic villages and more exude such charm because of the high predominance of wattle-and-daub structures. Charming and beautiful, it would seem that fairy tales are alive and well in Dijon – one can just imagine one of those windows popping open and Belle or Rapunzel smiling out!

Ghent, Belgium

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Ghent, Belgium

Ghent again, I know. But it’s hard to resist such a wonderfully tempting city! Ghent is one of those places that few people have heard of and no one really thinks about – and turns out to be a hidden treasure trove for those who do somehow wind up here. The Flemish city of Ghent (or ‘Ganda,’ as it was once known, meaning ‘Confluence’) did indeed start as a settlement at the confluence of two local rivers, the Scheldt, and the Leie, though Ghent’s glory days were really in the Middle Ages, when mercantile trade and agriculture from the rich green fields outside the city caused Ghent to become one of Europe’s richest and most populous cities of the time (50-60,000 citizens), leading to the explosion of building projects. In particular, the wool industry was an important generator of wealth for the city-state, even going so far as to create one of Europe’s first successful  industrialised zones. But history aside, Ghent’s lucrative Middle Ages left an important mark on the city, particularly in architecture. In more recent times, perhaps owing to the fact that Bruges and Brussels are more influenced by tourism and international politics than the overlooked Ghent, Ghent was left to its own devices to find its individual core – which turns out to be pure hipster! The Art Nouveau style took off in Ghent, as did many unique-concept ideas such as the ‘Wasbar,’ a local dish called ‘Balls & Glory,’ and an art project that constructed a hotel room at the top of the train station’s clock tower (read this post for more info). The student atmosphere is strong here, cafes are popular and numerous, bookshops and antique stores dot the city, trees line the canals and the possibiltles for enjoyment are really endless.

 

Winchester, England

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Winchester Cathedral, England

Before London was London, England (well, technically Wessex, an ancient kingdom in southern England) was ruled from Winchester. It’s hard to imagine that this cheery, quaint town in southern England was once a major seat of power – but then again, history loves to throw us curve balls (like the fact that Brits were once ruled by Vikings, Russia was still a feudal state until well in the 18th century, Italy wasn’t Italy until the 19th century, and there are still parts of Spain where Spanish is not the most widely spoken language, etc). Originally the Roman city of Venta Belgarum, it became known in 648 as Wintan-ceastre (‘Fort Venta’ in Old English). And by the way – about the Vikings, we owe them the present layout of Winchester; good ol’ Alfred the Great rebuilt Winchester during the 9th century in order to create a better defense against the Viking invaders. Today, Winchester is a quaint city full of lively pubs and historic streets, and makes a great point of entry to visit the even older and more mysterious New Forest

Chateau de Murol, France

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Falconer at the Chateau de Murol, France

One of Auvergne’s most popular chateaus, Murol is a round hunk of stone dominating its mountaintop. While in and of itself it’s a very neat castle to visit, another thing that makes it special is the workshops that Murol puts on during holidays and  warmer months. These short demonstrations, activities and workshops show various aspects of what life was like in the Middle Ages for the people of the castle, from nobles to servants. Falconry (or hawking) is one such example. Falconry was quite popular during Medieval times, though only accessible to the wealthy, such as kings, royals, nobles and rich landowners or merchants, as they were the only ones with enough time and resources required to train the birds. Though it began as a means to hunt small game, hawking soon became more for sport than for necessity, as the falconers prided over his own birds and their accomplishments. Birds were trained to return to their trainers’ arms for bits of food and to bring prey back untouched, and hooded when not training. During certain periods at Chateau de Murol, visitors can still experience this ancient sport, watching hawks, falcons, owls and other birds of prey zoom around the castle, only to return each time to the falconers’ gloved arm.

Tallinn, Estonia

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City walls of Tallinn, Estonia

Here, one of Tallinn’s many terracotta-topped towers pokes through the mysterious mist. Unlike many other towns and cities across Europe, Tallinn has been able to keep true to its roots. In fact, Tallinn prides itself on the fact that many of the city’s buildings, churches, houses, warehouses, walls, and towers maintain their original forms. Some even date all the way back to the 11th century–impressive! Especially for such a small country under the constant shadow of nearby giants vying for control over its’ strategic position (namely, Russia, Germany, and Sweden). In fact, Estonia wasn’t even a country for much of its recent history, only gaining its independence in 1991 (and briefly just after WWI). Perhaps because of this loss, the Estonians want to make up for lost time and preserve as much of their history as possible. Tallinn has not been “improved” or “modernised” like so many other European capitals; (think anything from London to Berlin to Warsaw to Madrid). Not that there is anything wrong with this, but sometimes, we need that misty, magical, timeless place with tiny, winding cobblestone roads, local taverns and ancient churches that make us feel as if we’ve travelled back to the middle ages.

Barbican, Warsaw, Poland

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Barbican in Warsaw, Poland

Nope, not quite a castle. This fortified structure is the Barbican, originally built in 1540 in between the Old and New cities by Jan Baptist the Venetian, an Italian expat living in Poland. Of course, no sooner had the workers finished their project than this type of fortified barbican became archaic in light of the recent invention and explosion of artillery weapon usage. (Only once was it used to defend the city; in 1656 against the formidable Swedish Army). Almost entirely destroyed during WWII (like roughly 85% of Warsaw), it was later rebuilt by the Polish government based on 17th century etchings under the theory that it would bring in tourism dollars. Today, it still serves little purpose other than making a dramatic way of walking down ul. Nowomiejska in the middle of the old (although it’s rebuilt, so actually quite new) centre of Warsaw.

View of Saône River, Vieux Lyon, France

Lyon view from Bonaparte Bridge

View of Saône River, Vieux Lyon, France

It’s been a long time (holidays have a way of making one lazy) but I’m back! Here we have the view from the Bonaparte Bridge crossing the Saône River in Lyon. From the bridge, you can see most of the old town and major landmarks of this amazing city. From the Saint-Jean quarter–an important political and religious centre in the Middle Ages–to the Saint-George district, home to the famous silk merchants of the 1500’s (and responsible for over 1oo traboules or covered passageways/courtyards in between buildings used for transporting the silk)–to the Saint-Paul quarter, inhabited by the wealthy Italian banker-merchants, the Vieux Lyon neighbourhood is a beautiful mix of eras, nationalities, cultures, and architecture. Oh, and did I mention the food? Vieux Lyon is the city’s food district; eat at a bouchon or local Lyonnaise restaurant for a taste of the Gastronomic Capital of France!

Come hungry!