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.
Castillo de Zahara de la Sierra in Andalucia, Spain
Andalucia is a dry, sunburnt land in the south of Spain. The region is among Spain’s largest and most populous regions, with small communities spread out over a blanket of brown hills, jagged mountains and rolling fields. Many such communities are part of the Pueblos blancos or ‘white villages’ of Andalucia, picture-perfect villages beloved by tourists. This particular pueblo blanco, Zahara de la Sierra, is tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountains and overlooked by the Castillo de Zahara de la Sierra. The castle dates back to the Moorish era of Spain. During the early Middle Ages, Spain was inhabited by the Moors, broadly defined as muslims originally from the Maghreb living in southern Europe, who greatly influenced Spanish art and architecture and even language (Andalucia, for example, comes from Al-Andalus) until finally being driven out completely by the 1490s. Very little remains of this once-impressive fortification in the village of Zahara. Today, all that’s left are the vestiges of a few walls and a signal tower, which, once climbed, will provide stunning views of the cheery white-washed walls and orange roofs of Zahara, the azure waters of the local reservoir, the sun-kissed chocolate-coloured fields hugging the village, all the way out to other nearby villages. Though beautiful, it is evident to see why this may not always have been an easy place to live. The castle, and the village below it, is carved into a rugged, rocky outcrop, with heights ranging from 300m to 1100m, and the village’s name “zahara” comes from “sahra” meaning desert. The seemingly-romantic sun-kissed fields, rocky outcrops and windswept panoramas may be seem idyllic today, but life in such a dry and remote place (it’s 100 km from the sea after all) wouldn’t always have been so perfect!
Pro tip: There’s a lovely wee restaurant with a comfortable terrace perfect for people-watching called El Rincon De La Ermita.
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.
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.
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!
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).
Chateau de Val is certainly one of the luckiest castles in all of France. Built from the 13th to 15th centuries, Chateau de Val is a little-known castle located in the centre of France in a remote and little-visited region known as Le Cantal. Le Cantal itself is within the underrated region of Auvergne, known for its extinct volcanoes, rugby team, and Michelin (and locally, its cheeses!). In fact, poor Cantal is one of France’s least-populated (and least-visited) regions – though this is not for lack of beautiful sites! Tucked into this quiet region is one of the most dramatically romantic castles of France: the Chateau de Val. Once upon a time, the castle of Chateau de Val overlooked a massive and fertile valley in the Cantal Mountains, ancient volcanoes that have been ground down with time. Then, in 1942, the dam of Bort-des-Orges was proposed – and a decade later, water from the dammed river filled the valley – lapping softly and perfectly at the feet of the castle as if it was meant to be so. And yet. When the Bort-des-Orges dam was proposed and the valley’s villages were evacuated, the castle was purchased from the ancient family – with the full intention of the castle being left to drown under the new lake. But – an error occurred, a miscalculation, a change in water levels or equations or perhads funds. In any case, instead of water pouring through the medieval halls of a once-proud castle, hiding it forever from the eyes of the 21st century, fortune intervened, and the water level was lowered. The lake arrived just below Chateau de Val, giving it a dramatic position on a newly-formed peninsula. The electric company that built the dam tried to sell it back to the previous owners (who rejected it on the grounds that it had lost all of its ground) so instead, the electric company sold Chateau de Val to the town hall for €1 symbolic. And that’s why one could say that the Chateau de Val is the luckiest castle in France!
Pro Tip: Cantal is remote and not very touristy so don’t expect big visitor centres or roadside tourist signs, menus in English or many local English speakers. Other local sites to visit are: the medieval sites of Besse & Chateau de Murol, as well as the village of St Nectaire (where the cheese of the same name comes from!). Cantal is also the name of a regional cheese – both are delicious and should be tasted while you’re there! The whole region is an outdoor lover’s paradise with plenty of trails and panoramic views.
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!
Unique, isn’t it? This squat, sunburnt little Romanesque tower and 12-sided polygon of a church on the outskirts of Segovia is impressive – and not the least because it dates back to the Middle Ages – the 13th century in fact. And who founded it? Why, none other than the infamous Knights Templar! More simply called “The Templars,” were a Catholic military organisation founded in 1139 by the pope. Most people know that they are closely tied to the Crusades to the Holy Land but what is less known is that they became very wealthy and therefore very powerful due to their role involved in the Christian bourse. Though the Templars are among some of the most skilled fighters of the Middle Ages (a fact that modern day video game Assassin’s Creed has exploited), roughly 90% of their order weren’t fighters. While the combatants where wrestling for the Holy Land, the non-combatants were slowly making a power play. It was they who put in place the economic infrastructure such as banking, loans, investments and the creation of landed estates (essentially paving the way for feudalism, and one might argue, capitalism) – all of only made them more rich. Part of their money went to building shrines to their movement – churches dedicated to the Holy Land they held so dear. One such place was the Church of Vera Cruz – a fantastic example of the kind sanctuary they perfected and how it differs from later churches. In fact, scripture from the Holy Land is inscribed at the alter of this little Spanish church. However, the Templars’ reign was short-lived. Such wealth gave them power, and power made them detested. Once they lost the Crusades, it was quite easy to demonise them – especially it you owed them money. One of those in their debt was none other than King Philip of France who took advantage of their fall from grace to blame, torture, and murder them to avoid repayment on his debt, forcing Pope Clement the V to disband them in 1312. The Templars disappeared in the early 1300s but they left behind a mysterious legacy – one that continues to inspire goosebumps to this day….
Pro tip: The Church of Vera Cruz lies just outside of the cluster of buildings in the historic centre. It’s open Tuesdays 16 – 19h and Wed – Sun from 10h30 – 19h (closed midday from 13h30 – 16h). Admission is a modest €2.
North of the city of Lyon, hovering in the centre of the elegant Saône River, is a small island, home to the Abbey of Île Barbe. One of the last places to be conquered (the name Barbe suggests origins in the word ‘barbarians‘), the 5th century saw the construction of a small but powerful abbey on the island. Though little more than a squat and forgotten Romanesque church tower – the Église Romane de Notre Dame – remains today, the Abbey of Île Barbe is one of the oldest in Roman Gaul (the Roman name for what is roughly equivalent to modern-day France) – and the first in greater Lyon. The Abbey once possessed dozens upon dozens of churches, villages and fiefs in the Middle Ages – and even contained a great library thanks to Charlemagne – and it rose to great importance in the region (one such connection was with the church at Montelliemar). With wealth comes danger however, and the abbey was attacked and pillaged on more than one occasion. Though it changed hands and functionalities multiple times, it wasn’t until the French Revolution that the Abbey of Île Barbe was abandoned. Today, the abbey is slowly falling into ruin, giving way to the tangled forests of the small island. Half of the island is actually closed to the public – it contains a private residence for some of Lyon’s wealthiest. The island is connected to both banks by a narrow metal suspension bridge erected in 1827 – which so happens to be the oldest such bridge in Lyon that is still in use today!
Pro tip: The island is also home to a gastronomic Relais & Chateaux eatery, the Auberge de l’Île. For more budget-minded travellers, on the opposite bank (Quai Raoul Carrié), there is a lovely boulangerie – perfect for picking up a picnic to enjoy on the island’s park. Get to the Île Barbe on public transport from Place Bellecour on TCL bus 40, direction Caluire.
France has a lot of amazing places – including so many places you’ve never even heard of! The Ardèche region is certainly one of them. Snuggled into the mountains in the southeast of France, the Ardèche is a hilly, rugged region full of narrow and winding lanes, deep canyons and timeless villages. Most international tourists completely miss out on this magical region due to its relative anonymity and to a degree, its inaccessibility. An extension of the Cévannes mountains further south, the Ardèche is perhaps best known for the Gorges d’Ardèche and the Pont d’Arc (a popular swimming area with locals). One of the Ardèche’s most magical secrets is the perfectly medieval village of Largentière. Tiny alleys twist and turn, ducking in and out of the bright French sun, meandering through ancient buildings, winding through covered alleyways and tunnels, and broadening suddenly into sunlit squares. Small cafes and tiny shops dot the streets and squares, medieval houses rise above, and a river trickles by. Overhead, Largentière Castle stands sentinel as it has since the 12th century. Wander the quiet cobbled streets, enjoy your French café on a terrasse in the sun, and take in the ancient wonders of this forgotten world.
Pro tip: Though the castle cannot normally be visited, if you visit Largentière during July or August, you can visit the medieval festival held there, Au Dela du Temps. Back in the village, there is a great hipster bar, quirky thrift shop, a delicious crêpes place, and a dusty but lovely used bookshop, all worth ducking into at one time or another.
Visit Other Amazing Small Towns and Villages in France
One of the most striking ruins in the centre of England, Kenilworth Castle is one of the finest examples of a royal palace in the Middle Ages. Subject of the six-month long Siege of Kenilworth in 1266, believed to be the longest siege in English history, Kenilworth is perhaps most famous for its Elizabethan connection. Construction on the castle began in the 1100s, but it was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I that Kenilworth came into its stride. Owner Robert, Earl of Leicester, was deeply in love with Queen Elizabeth (or perhaps just her money and power) and spent thousands of pounds renovating and luxuriating the estate. He built a new garden simply because Elizabeth complained about the lack of a view. He entertained 31 barons and 400 staff from her court during her final (and longest ever) visit. He put on pageants, fireworks, bear-baiting, mystery plays, hunting and lavish banquets at the grand Kenilworth Castle. But sadly, she never married him, and he died in debt (did you expect a different ending to the story?). The story of Kenilworth Castle ended about as happily ever after as the romance of Robert and Elizabeth. Colonel Joseph Hawkesworth “slighted” or deliberately destroyed Kenilworth in the 17th century based on political affiliations. It was stripped, turned into a farm, and largely forgotten about until famous author and poet Sir Walter Scott wrote Kenilworth, immortalising the estate in Victorian literature. Today, the mostly-ruined castle is a popular tourist destination, having acquired a little of its former grandeur.
Pro tip: Kenilworth Castle is an easy day trip from Stratford-upon-Avon. Also, for literature nerds, Sir Walter Scott is not the only author inspired by the castle – check out British-Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie’s short story, ‘Foreboding,’ part of the collection, Eight Ghosts.
Possibly one of the most spectacular and amazing places in all of Italy is the medieval pile of stones that is the Sacra of San Michele monastery. Crowning the Mount Pirchiriano in Northern Italy, the Sacra di San Michele seemingly floats in the clouds, fanned by the incredible landscapes of the Val di Susa. Officially named as the Symbolic monument of the Piedmont region, this jaw-dropping abbey was probably consecrated in 966, but little is known about the early years of this amazing building. Tradition says that the Sacra di San Michele was erected by a pious hermit known as St Giovanni Vincenzo on the orders of archangel Michael – supposedly the angel then miraculously transported all of the stones and other materials to the summit of Mt Pirchiriano (though the miracles stopped there – St Giovanni still had to build the abbey!) Apparently the site was chosen for its isolation and difficulty to reach as this was typical of the Cult of St Michael (think France’s Mont Saint Michel!). The Sacra, part of the Benedictine Order, became part of the famous Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route from France to Rome, even extending beyond to Canterbury. In fact, the route is still in use today, and has seen a recent revival and resurgence of pilgrims (though today’s pilgrims are more interested in the history and culture and food found on the trail, and less in the religious aspect of it). The Sacra di San Michele is also famous for inspiring the abbey at the central of Italian novel, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.
Pro tip: Instead of driving, start your adventure at the village of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino, where you can follow an ancient mule track up the mountain. Following the Signs of the Cross, the trail winds around the mountain, in and out of the forest, past tiny hamlets and ancient sites before arriving at the mountain’s summit. The path, about 3.5 km each way, starts behind the old church and continues upwards from there.
Other Beautiful Medieval Religious Sites in Europe
One of Romania‘s most beautiful and fascinating cities is certainly the colourful and vibrant Sighisoara. Snuggled into the heart of the hauntingly beautiful region of Transylvania, the dazzling and historic medieval town centre is one of the best preserved in the country, a fact that has not escaped UNESCO. Perhaps most famous for as the birthplace of Count Dracula (otherwise known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler), Sighisoara is colourful and historic town. Cobblestone streets, soaring towers, ancient walls, vibrant shop fronts, this town embodies everything you’d want in a medieval town – a photographers paradise. Settled in the 12th century (officially entering the registrars in 1191), Sighisoara was a frontier town settled (and defended) by German saxons at a vulnerable time in Transylvanian history when the region was ruled by the King of Hungary. A town built into the ruins of a Roman fort proceeded it, followed in 1337 by an urban settlement considered a regal city. For centuries, Sighisoara was an important and influential city in Central and Eastern Europe. With a strong and successful economy dominated by Saxon Germans (what’s new…), Sighisoara was a recognised haven for craftsmen, artisans, merchants and guilds. Not all of Sighisoara’s history was positive though. After a fairly successful medieval age, 17th and 18th century Sighisoara saw terrible fires, plagues, occupation, sieges and other horrors.
Pro tip: Though beautiful during the the day, don’t miss the city at night! In one of the towers, there is an impressive array of leather-working. For some of the best food in the city, head to the wine cellars of Gasthaus restaurant, just outside the walls. Great views from the Church on the Hill – climb it via the covered staircase and descend via the graveyard.
St Michael’s along the Philosophen Weg, Heidelberg, Germany
It’s the journey, not the destination that makes a place special, which is certainly true of St Michael’s Monastery near Heidelberg. Start on the far side of the river by meandering your way up a path called Philosophen Weg. Steep and narrow, this cobblestoned alley quickly sweeps you out of the city and up into the deep, dark woods overhanging the gothic spires of Heidelberg. Then, the path promptly splits in two, and your only signpost signalling the way is a boulder engraved with obscure German words. So what do you do? Choose a path, and hope it’s right, though you soon start second-guessing yourself as you come to another fork, and another. At each path, there is a new boulder, with new words. Scratching your head with frustration, you cast your eyes around you in hopes of discovering a clue. Suddenly, you feel very much like you stepped off the pages of a Grimm’s brother tale. Rounding a bend, the trees suddenly open up over a magnificent panorama of the city. The next opening takes you to an amphitheater with exceptional acoustics (once unfortunately used for hate speeches by the Nazi party). After a small eternity in the dark fairytales of the Brothers Grimm’s world, you emerge, completely surprised at your luck, into a clearing comprised of the ruins of St Michael’s Monastery. While some of its ruins are even older, the majority of the monastery dates to 1023. But by 1503, the complex’s last monks died, and the rural, isolated monastery was abandoned, and like so many once-great places, forgotten. While open to the public today, these little-visited and remote ruins hold the air of a lost masterpiece.
Pro tip: The best way to arrive at the monastery is on foot but its best to ask for a map or use a GPS to find your way in the woods. Once you pass the old amphitheatre you’re almost there.
Other Ruined European Monasteries, Abbeys and Friaries
Though the most famous gargoyles are on Notre Dame de Paris (thanks, Victor Hugo and Disney), one finds gargoyles on most French cathedrals, and Dijon’sNotre Dame Church is no different. This unusual, square-faced cathedral, commenced in 1230, is a medieval masterpiece. In fact, it contains no less than 51 gargoyles (nearly all mere decorations). Though Notre Dame de Dijon dates back to the Middle Ages, the gargoyles were only carved in the 1880s (around Hugo’s time…). The original facade had many such gargoyles of monsters and men, but local legend states they were all (but one) removed by the friends of a usurer (money lender), who was killed by a falling stone gargoyle on his wedding day. Gargoyles have long held both the fascination and horror of their audiences. While the original purpose was simply to drain water away from a wall, they quickly evolved into displaying grotesque and fantastical designs. The term itself comes from an French word “gargouille,” meaning “throat” (think “gullet”). The idea of the gargoyle is said to have came from an ancient French legend from Rouen, in which St Romanus conquered a terrible winged dragon called La Gargouille who was both long-necked and fire-breathing. Upon slaying it, the city burned La Gargouille’s body but its fireproof head and neck would not burn, so they mounted it on the church walls to ward off the evil spirits (though you’d think that’d ward off good spirits too!). Thus, the idea and name were adapted for fanciful drains sprouting from France’s soaring cathedrals, and Dijon’s gargoyles don’t disappoint: all 51 are fascinatingly fantastic, bizarre, eye-catching and grotesque.
Pro tip: The church also contains a small statue of an owl, now the symbol of the city, and said to have magical powers. Find it on the left side of the cathedral and touch it with your left hand to make a wish come true! Also, follow the owl symbols on the ground to discover Dijon’s historical heritage sites.
Quaint, medieval and beautiful, Crémieu is a small town with medieval roots tucked into the southeastern French department of Isère. In fact, each September Crémieu hosts a fascinating celebration called “Les Médiévales,” reenacting what life was like in France during the Middle Ages on a backdrop of Crémieu’s medieval streets. Interestingly, Crémieu’s seal, dating back to the Middle Ages, is in shape of a dolphin (or dauphin) which is where the famous (and delicious) dish called le gratin dauphinois comes from! In the town centre is the ancient 15th century medieval hall where merchants once traded their goods, surrounded by the stunning facades of the medieval houses once built and maintained by the very same merchants. Travel to Crémieu on a Wednesday for Market Day to continue a 500 year old tradition! While you’re here, visit the ruins of various abbeys and convents: Benedictine, Visitandines, Augustin… as well as the castle ruins.
Pro Tip: Climb the hill up to the castle for breathtaking views of beautiful rooftop panoramas such as this one, as well as the surrounding Isère countryside. Explore the castle ruins (free), then descend to the village via a narrow moss-covered trail, located down the road and off to the right, once a stream bed and now a hallway of vibrant emeralds. A perfect day trip from Lyon!
Transylvania, like Wallachia, is an ancient region of Romania – mountainous, disputed, oft-changing boundaries. Fortresses and castles had to be built for protection, defending land and people. Făgăraș Citadel is one of those places. Făgăraș was built in 1310 on the foundations of a 12th century wooden fortress that had been burned by Tartars in 1241. Then it was enlarged in the Renaissance style with the sole purpose of impressing visitors (in fact, Italian architects were brought in to add said Renaissance grandeur). Then – sadly – Făgăraș became a military garrison, meaning that the once-luxurious interior was ruined, trampled, lost. Encircled by a moat and a tree-lined garden, Făgăraș remains a beautiful and impressive place. However, do keep in mind that today’s Făgăraș Citadel is plopped in the middle of Făgăraș town, with cars and cyclists whizzing by, the din of city noise as its soundtrack. Făgăraș Citadel is now a history museum – entry 15 lei, open year round – and a fantastic example of a Transylvanian castle!
Pro Tip: Făgăraș Citadel is a great stop for anyone driving between Brasov and Sibiu! Whether you visit the interior of the castle or just stretch your legs along the walls, it’s worth the stop!