Knocknarea Mountain, Ireland

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Happy Pup near Knocknarea Mountain, Ireland

Nothing beats the look of joy on a happy pup’s face, and this real-life teddy bear dog’s expression is pretty good. Ireland – being an island! – has plenty of coastline and therefore, plenty of sand dunes; perfect places for happy skipping and running if you’re man’s best friend! Pooches aside, Strandhill sand dunes are a wonderful place for a quiet, coastal walk, but for a little more of a challenge – and for stunning views of Strandhill village, the Atlantic Ocean, and the vast, windswept landscapes of Co. Sligo made famous by Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, climb to the top of Knocknarea. The views are worth it! Along the way, you’ll pass a ruined famine village (i.e., a village abandoned during the famine years due to harsh climes). Surrounding tombs date to Megalithic times (2,000-5,000 BC) – and no one knows exactly how the ancient people got the rocks all the way up there! At the summit, you’ll be confronted with legendary Irish warrior Queen Maeve’s massive tomb (called a cairn, it’s essentially a huge pile of rocks). Bring a rock to add to the pile for good luck, but beware – removing any stones brings on the (very) bad luck!

Mt Schiehallion, Scottish Highlands

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Mt Schiehallion & Loch Rannoch in the Scottish Highlands

Rugged, rural, isolated, windswept, adventurous. Welcome to the colourful quietness of the Scottish Highlands. Scotland may have some great urban destinations – Edinburgh, Aberdeen, St Andrews to name a few – but this little nation is best personified and identified by its natural facade. The least-dense part of the British Isles (it has a population density of 68 people/km2), Scotland is positively bursting with places to explore wearing a solid pair of boots and a sturdy walking stick – the Hebrides, Orkney Island, the Isle of Skye, Cairgorms National Park, the NW Highlands, to name but a few vast regions. Many places are only accessible on foot (case in point: the rugged Knoydart Peninsula…). Mt Schiehallion, rising above the shores of Loch Rannoch, makes for a spectacular climb with sweeping views over the surrounding countryside. Driving may be a more comfortable way to get around, but by using your own two feet, you’ll discover amazing places you would have missed when whizzing by in a car; you’ll meet local people and perhaps learn a thing or two about the Highlands’ history or culture; you’ll slow down your speed to appreciate being in the moment. But most importantly, by hiking through the Highlands, you’ll experience them the way you were meant to – creating  profound connection between you and the land itself.

Innsbruck, Austria

Elegant street in Innsbruck, Austria

Innsbruck, Austria

Stately elegance, the central streets of the Austrian Capital of the Alps beckons both cultural and nature travellers. Despite the city’s terrifyingly clever name – ‘Innsbruck’ translates to the self-explanatory ‘Inn Bridge’ (referring to the Inn River) – today’s city is an internationally renowned winter sports centre, attracting hikers, cyclists, skiers and other athletically-motivated travellers from all over the world. Case in point, Innsbruck hosted the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics, not to mention the 1984 and 1988 Winter Paralympics, making one of only three destinations to host the Winter Olympics more than once. Innsbruck owes much of its cultural significance to the fact that in 1429, it began the capital of Tyrol and thereby assigning a political and cultural importance to the alpine city for centuries to come. We have Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria and his successors to thank for the beautiful Renaissance buildings gracing today’s city centre, making a stroll feel both elegant and nostalgic. Today, Innsbruck remains a European pillar – a beautiful central European city (interestingly enough, one that resembles the not-t00-far-away Croatian capital Zagreb just a little) that just so happens to be on the doorsteps of the Alps and Italian Dolomites making it a perfect starting point for anyone looking for adventure.

Castillo Xàtiva, La Costera region, Spain

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Castillo Xàtiva and the La Costera region, Spain

Spicy yellows and greens flood the rugged slopes of Monte Vernissa in  warm, afternoon sunlight, just outside the town of Xàtiva (Játiva in Spanish). During the Al-Andalus, the Arab conquerers turned the city into a paper manufacturing centre. The introduction of this technology brought prosperity, leading to the creation of high-quality schools and educational institutes with the castle arriving in the 11th century. Due to a terrible siege orchestrated by Philip V of Spain (punishment for Xàtiva’s resistance to his claim to power) that led to the town’s destruction, to this day Philip’s portrait hangs upside-down in the local museum. History aside, the La Costera region envelops the scraggy, weather-beat valley steppes of Montesa and Xàtiva, bordered by the Enguera and Grossa Mountains in the south. Xàtiva and its fortified castle remain the heart of the region. La Costera is a region beautiful for both its cultural and natural riches, and well worth the trek into its dry valleys. Though perhaps past its golden age in terms of affluence, Xàtiva remains a place of intense beauty and intrigue, and gold is still the best way to describe the city’s surrounding sea of sunburnt landscapes gently reminiscent of the American Wild West.

Happy New Year, folks!

 

Sacra di San Michele, Sant’Ambrogio, Italy

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Monastery of Sacra di San Michele above Sant’Ambrogio, Italy

Imagine foreboding, nebulous labyrinths forming the veins of an ancient stone bibliotheca in the heart of a mountaintop monastery perched deep in the Italian Alps. While the labyrinth itself may exist not in stone but simply on the pages of a famed Italian text, the monastery seemingly holds dark secrets and a forgotten past. The inspiration for the epic tale of ancient mystery, The Name of the Rose, written by none other then the famed Umberto Eco (RIP), the Sacra di San Michele is a silent beauty lost in the snowy woods of the Val de Susa. Looming over the hushed, 11th-century alpine village of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino, the Sacra is best reached on foot, ascending Mount Pirchiriano via the ancient mule track worn smooth by centuries of millions of pilgrims who have come this way to pay homage to this sacred site of mystery and religion. Benedictine for most of its history, Sacra di San Michele is now managed by the Rosminians, though its mountaintop perch has been home to humans since Roman times when the site lay upon the road from Rome to Gaul. Difficult to pinpoint the monastery’s exact origins, a monk called William (not the one in The Name of the Rose!) claims the Sacra was founded in 966 (though he also claims it to be founding during the time of the pontificate Sylvester II who ruled some 50 years later). On the other hand, tradition states that it was built by St. Giovanni Vincenzo the hermit, who was simply following the commands of the archangel Michael (and consequently, the stones used somehow miracle-d themselves to the top of Mount Pirchiriano). No matter who laid the first stone, the Sacra is a long-lost stone beauty, which gave backdrop to Umberto Eco’s magnificent, foreboding tale of intrigue.

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Loch Rannoch & Mt. Schiehallion (Scottish Highlands), Scotland

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Loch Rannoch and Mount Schiehallion (Scottish Highlands), Scotland 

There are some places that make you sigh happily with their perfection, tranquility, magnificence – and the Scottish Highlands certainly qualify. Narrow lakes like Loch Rannoch dot the rugged, picturesque landscape – and while overshadowed by their famous sister Loch Ness, these lochs are no less impressive (and with the added bonus of no monster lurking under their waves!). In fact, it is Rannoch’s isolation that makes it so special and authentic. Framed by the spectacular (though perhaps unpronounceable) Mount Schiehallion, this amazing corner of the Highlands definitely qualifies as paradise. Roughly translating to the “Fairy Hill of the Caledonians” (Iron Age and Roman era peoples from Scotland), Mount Schiehallion is as mysterious as it is beautiful. Sometimes described as the ‘centre of Scotland,’ there’s no doubt that Mt Schiehallion holds a magical pull to it. As eccentricities go, Schiehallion was the setting of a strange experiment to ‘estimate the mass of the Earth’ in 1774 by the interestingly-named Charles Mason (not what you’re thinking of…). The base of thinking went something like, ‘if we could measure the density and volume of Schiehallion, then we could also ascertain the density of the Earth,’ all of which led to the Cavendish Experiment two decades later, which was even more accurate. Setting aside physics and mathematics, the naturally symmetrical mountain, its peaceful lake, its quaint surrounding villages and lovely green pastures of sleepily grazing sheep all make for a beautiful landscape and unforgettable foray into Scotland’s wilder side.

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Mt Schiehallion located at the centre (unlabelled Loch Rannoch is just beside it)

Grazelama, Andalucía, Spain

Andalucia, Andalusia, Grazalama, Spain, Pueblos Blancos, White Villages, Southern Spain

Grazalama, AndalucíaSpain

The golden sun touches down on the sunburnt region of Andalucía. Adorable pueblos blancos – or white villages due to their white-washed appearance – dot the landscape among scattered scrub bushes clinging to the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains. Grazalama, like the previously mentioned Zahara de la Sierra, is one of these such ‘white villages.’ Quaint yet lively, Grazalama – like the majority of the pueblos blancos – emits the true spirit of the region: local tradition seeped with food, drink, dance and merriment. Here, take a step back in time to forgotten generation. Take a step away from the glitz and glam of modern, fast-paced European cities like Madrid and London, Paris and Oslo. Instead, take a moment to relax under the warm Spanish sun with a cold cerveza in hand, plates of tapas – fresh seafood, various types of pork, local veggies, to-die-for olives, you name it – in front of you, while the sounds of upbeat Spanish music make your feet try to dance. Your chosen restaurant is located in a building older than your great-grandmother. Miniature shops selling local wares line the square. People chat happily away in rapid-fire Spanish in animated conversations necessitating many hand-gestures. Glasses clink, bells toll, and smells of something savoury waft from the kitchens. As the setting sun warms your back, you realise you found a miniature paradise deep in the heart of Andalucía.

Coumeenoole, Ireland

Coumeelee Ireland on Slea Head Peninsula along Wild Atlantic Way

Coumeenoole along the Slea Head Drive, Ireland

A flash of movement, a shimmer of gold, a glimpse of green. Welcome to the land of the leprechauns – a spit of land near the westernmost point of mainland Ireland. Bearded little men with a penchant for mischief-making, leprechauns have become a prominent part of Irish folklore, and though today’s prankster wears green, the original creature actually wore red. The Dingle Peninsula, where the Slea Head Drive is located, is a magical place with or without the leprechauns. Though cars scoot by along narrow Irish roads following the infamous Wild Atlantic Way, those who venture into the rolling green hills with only sheep for company will be immensely rewarded. While visitors may not find a leprechaun or even his pot of gold, what you will find is much more valuable. As you walk barefoot through the soft blanket of thick Irish grass on the rugged peninsula that overlooks the waves of green hills of the unpronounceable Coumeenoole, you will bask in the solace of tranquillity and total immersion, living wholly in this magical moment lost in the Irish countryside – all the while knowing that once you begin to craving vivacity, you will surely find raucous fun in the next village’s pub. It’s an amazing and intricate balance that only Ireland seems capable of creating and maintaining!

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Massif Central Mountains, Auvergne, France

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Puy de Sancy in the Massif Central, Auvergne, France

Typically evoking ideas of fire and brimstone, volcanoes are not generally the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions ‘France.’ And yet, volcanoes – or at least extinct ones – are the dominating natural feature of the French province of Auvergne, located in central France. Rated the 6th top destination to visit in 2015 by Lonely Planet, the unique volcanoes of Auvergne are at least in part responsible for Auvergne’s intrigue. As part of the Massif Central, a mountain range that covers most of Auvergne and plays a significant role in the region’s natural and cultural landscape, some of the volcanoes are as old as 65 million years, while others are as young as 7,000 years (mere toddlers in mountain live spans). Being elevated and surrounded by mountains makes Auvergne’s climate chillier (and foggier) than the rest of central France, perhaps attributing to the region’s hearty mountain dishes such as aligot and truffade (both made with potatoes, types of pork, and hearty cheeses). The locals also seem to have a higher appreciation of nature than people from other regions, and can be found enjoying the outdoors during weekends – whether that be a backyard picnic, a leisurely stroll in the park, or climbing the rugged volcanic landscape. When it comes to hiking, climbing, kayaking, paragliding and other outdoor activities, Auvergne’s mountains are certainly the place to go. Exhilarating, rugged, beautiful, lush, scenic, challenging  – the mountains and volcanoes of the Massif Central become whatever you make them out to be. So get your coat and boots on and go out for a walk in the wild!

Hiking in Chazay d’Azergues, France

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Hiking in Chazay d’Azergues, France

Ahh…The Great Outdoors. It says it all in the name – ‘great!’ No matter whether you’re hiking in Ireland or Denmark, Poland or (as in this case), France, hiking in Europe is bound to be ‘great.’ Being based a city may be ideal for working, for nightlife, for cultural outings, for restaurant variety, and for transportation connections, but breathe in the city air too long, and you’ll go crazy. We all need a good dose of the outdoors in our systems: fresh air, cool wind, natural landscapes, lack of noise, isolation, tranquility. And there are no excuses, for a hiking trip doesn’t always have to be a grand Alpine expedition – if you’ve only got a weekend, head out to the surrounding countryside (every town and city has one!) and hit the trails. Explore the unknown, and who knows what you may find? On this particular day the photo was taken, not only did we find this extensive root system, but we also stumbled across hidden ponds, forgotten manor houses, placid villages, sun-dipped fields, cheery locals and fellow hikers. Exploring the world on foot (no matter how close to or far from home) always seems to add another dimension to the final destination, somehow making that place seem more meaningful to you simply by approaching it via your own two feet. Whether that be in Slea Head Peninsula in Ireland, the Gauja River Valley in Latvia, the Val de Susa in northern Italy, Mt Esja in Iceland or the Beskids and Tatras in Poland, discovering the world on foot is all the more magical.

Kreuzenstein Castle, Austria

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Kreuzenstein Castle

There are some places you keep going back to, if only in your mind’s eye, and Kreuzenstein Castle is one of them for me. If you have ever read a fairy tale or a fantasy novel, or if you’ve ever seen a fantastical film, then you know – there’s something magical about turrets and towers and crinolines, something supernatural, something that makes one think about fairies and elves and dwarves and impossible beasts, something that effects you so deeply that you can’t shake it. This castle – it seems as if it popped up from the pages of a fairy tale or a Games of Thrones-esque novel. Being there, or even just imagining being there by gazing at the photo carries one to another time, another world, another dimension. Not far from Vienna, Kreuzenstein Castle may be a hodgepodge of several European castles, manors and religious buildings (composed somewhat randomly to re-build a ruin quickly), but the very essence of it feels so real. Even years later, I cannot shake the spell cast on me by this place – the same spell that seems to exude from Tallinn, Estonia, from the Gauja Valley in Latvia, from Andalucia in Spain, from St. Petersburg, Russia, Largentiere or Auvergne in France or Slea Head in Ireland, as well as a few other select spots. Needless to say, I don’t think that Kreuzenstein is finished with me yet…

Annecy, France

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Annecy, France

Quiet canals meander the cobbled streets of Annecy. Colors slip down the facades, floating into the canals’ ripples, drifting out into the lake. One of the cleanest in Europe, it must certainly also be one of the prettiest. The stout, stone fortress glares over the orange rooftops of its town, a citadel lost in time. Artists sell their wares – paintings, photographs, jewellery, pottery. Vendors sell ice creams and chocolates to tourists while diners chat on sunny terraces, sipping beers and lemonades. The swans swim by, searching for the forgotten crumbs that tumble in the canals. The streets ring with people taking advantage of summer in the mountains. Like a scene from a painting, Annecy’s streets merrily portray summer bliss.

 

Lago di Braies, Italy

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Lago di Braies, or the Pragser Wildsee, Italy

Soft waves lapping on this Italian lake’s shore. In the heat of summer, lakes such as this one become an oasis for locals and tourists alike. The turquoise blue of this lake with the dramatic mountains raising up behind make Lago di Braies particularly popular. Located deep in the Dolomite Mountain range in South Tyrol, this region was originally part of Austria, hence the Germanic version of its name. Local legend has it that the south end of the lake holds a ‘gate to the underworld,’ though this hasn’t stopped the steady flow of tourists looking for an escape into nature! The lake makes a good starting point for hiking in the Dolomites. For those only there for the day, there is a pleasant walk around the lake, or you visit the lake by water, renting a rowboat to explore the lake’s edges. It;s not hard why it is sometimes nicknamed, ‘The Pearl of the Dolomites!’

 

 

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Valle d’Aosta, Italy

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Hillside castle in Valle d’Aosta, Italy

Northern Italy and Southern Italy are as different as night and day. In fact, that’s not quite  specific enough, as Northwestern Italy and Northeastern Italy are quite different from each other while still different from the South. Northwestern Italy is more French/Swiss, while Northeastern Italy is so Austrian that if you spend a few days there, they’ll fool you into thinking you’re in Austria! The Valle d’Aosta is in the northwestern sector, not far from Torino, and in the heart of the Alps, and more French or Swiss (or rather, just ‘Alpine’) than anything else. Literally the “Valley of Augustus,” it goes back to Rome’s conquering of the region to secure the strategic mountain passes. It’s one of the most castle-rich regions in Italy–it had to be, as the region comprised of a vast array of warring kingdoms each with the need to protect themselves against his neighbour. Valle d’Aosta is also the least-populated region of Italy, making it the great-outdoors lover’s place to be. If you have the time, planning a few stops would be ideal. Get out and stretch your legs, breath the fresh mountain air, hike the hills to reach a few of the many castles such as this one! But if you don’t have the time, taking the train through the region is also extremely satisfying–there are so many castles along the railroad track that you can play “I Spy the Castle” simply by looking out the window!

Aosta, Italy

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Aosta, Italy

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Italy is the beautiful Aosta Valley, known for its snug villages, magnificent castles and rich red wine. Aosta the town (above) is an ancient Roman stronghold, built as a station on the way to Roman Gaul (modern-day France), and the vestiges of the site’s original inhabitants crop up all over the town from the theatre to the forum to the victory arch. The Medieval era left its mark on the town by way of several magnificent churches, and the more recent times (ie the 17-18oos) have seen the village grow into a burgeoning town. Aosta is both a town and a region seeped in history and lost in time. The 30-31 January they practice the “Sant‘Orsa Fair” festival–with origins so old that no one remembers the actual starting point! Experts age it to about 1000 years old, and today it is an arts and crafts festival, attracting artists, tradesmen and artisans from near and far. And of course, there is the annual Christmas market in December and January, a place to buy all sorts of traditional and handmade gifts, including delicious wine from the region! Aosta makes a great starting point to discover the valley–and for any history/castle buffs out there, it is a valley that needs to be discovered! Dozens upon dozens of castle reign over high heights in one of the most castle-rich part of Italy. For nature buffs, it’s a lovely place to hike, canoe, or kayak. Summer or winter, for leisure or active travel, Roman history or medieval times, little-known Aosta is a your gem.

Dolomite Moutains, Italy

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Castle in the Dolomite Mountains, Italy

If you want a unique, cross-cultural experience, try driving from Verona (Italy) to Innsbruck in Austria. It’s only at the very end–when crossing into Innsbruck–that you arrive in Austria. Yet, arriving in in South Tyol (also known as Alto Adige or Sudtirol) in northern Italy, it already feels Germanic–and Italian at the same time (and everyone is bilingual)! These mountains hold some of Europe’s most precious, unexplored gems: a trip through the Dolomite’s, especially outside of ski season, feels like a trip back in time to the age of exploration. And even better, the Dolomite region of Italy has the highest concentration of medieval castles in Italy, with 400 fortresses, castles and medieval structures rising up from its hills.  Whether you play “I spy a castle” from your window while traversing the region, or whether you find a snug mountain town or village to use as a home base to discover the region on foot, the Dolomite mountains, especially South Tyrol, is not a region to miss!

 

Fenis Castle, Italy

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Fenis Castle, Italy

In northwestern Italy, there is a quiet, beautiful place called the Aosta Valley. Known for its castles, the valley is snuggled into the Italian Alps. Taking its name from the charming alpine town at the far end, the journey to the once-Roman town of Aosta takes the traveller past castle after castle. While Fenis Castle is certainly magnificent, it’s hardly the only option. With at least 10 castles hugging the valley’s slopes alone, the smallest region in Italy has no shortage of ancient strongholds. Fenis Castle dates back to the fourteenth century and exemplifies both military might on the outside and cultural riches on the inside. Less than 15km from the regional capital of Aosta and roughly 100km from the city of Torino, Fenis Castle is located in between the villages of Fenis and Nus on the dramatic backdrop of Dora Baltea River and the Italian Alps. Getting there with public transport can be tricky; check in with the tourism office in Aosta to plan your trip accordingly, and do not (under any circumstances!) attempt to visit on a Sunday afternoon – northernmost region or not, Aosta is still in Italy, and in Italy, Sundays are still the day of rest!

French Alps

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French Alps

You know that massive outcropping of stone, forest, and rock that divides France from Switzerland and Italy? Yes, well, that is the infamous French Alps. Mont Blanc, as you are probably aware, is the tallest mountain in Europe, calling in at 4,810 m (or 15,780 ft), first summited in 1786 by Jacques Balmat and Dr Michel Paccard, in effect marking the commencement of modern mountaineering. But enough about that. Contrary to popular belief, the Alps are not just snowy, desolate places where only skiers and the most advanced mountaineers can be found; in fact, much of the alps (in the warmer seasons) looks a lot more like these photos. Fields covered in wildflowers, animals grazing on gentle slopes, footpaths tracing mountainsides with the odd cheerful hiker passing by, here is a different perspective of the Alps. Of course, getting to the summits, even the ones visible in these photos, is still a challenge, involving a scramble, deep concentration, and coordination between all four limbs, but the view is worth it. Whether you prefer to climb the big mountains or the smaller ones (often referred to as the ‘Pre-Alps’), their graceful beauty, intense peacefulness, and stunning views will instill the power of Mother Nature in you, and there is a good chance that you will walk away a changed–and happier–person.

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Aosta, Italy

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Aosta, Italy

Often, the most arresting part of a small village is the church spire–which holds an even more special charm when it rises against the backdrop of a dramatic mountain range. Italy in particular is linked with a supposed record-high church attendance–though in actuality, only 31% of the country (in 2004) attends mass on a regular basis; Poland nails first place, with a winning 54% in the same year. According to this article, the head of the Catholic Church so often associated with reverence and faith actually has a lot less churchgoers than the 50% they’ve traditionally claimed, with regular attendee percentages even less than the stated 31%. But regardless of all this, Italy (like most of the continent), has no shortage of churches. Every village has one, and the rest of the town center and little houses spiral outward around it. In large towns, there are more than one; there are big ones and small ones, stone ones and wood ones, plain ones and pretty ones, famous ones and unknown ones. Churches–no matter your faith–are places of devotion, of tranquility, of architectural splendour. Even if you aren’t interested in the religious part, they are magical, beautiful and graceful buildings full of history and culture and faith, and one can’t ignore the allure and sheer power these steeple-ed buildings hold over us travelers!

Bergen, Norway

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Moss-covered trees in Bergen, Norway

Norway is green. No really–it is green. Of its 385,252 square kilometres, most of it is dominated by nature: mountains, glaciers, fjords, forests, and other natural features. The rugged coastlines are jagged with fjords, the largest of which is the Sognefjord not far from Bergen. At 2o4 km, it is the second-longest in the world, and according to the world-renowned magazine, National Geographic, Norway’s fjords are the ‘world’s top tourist destination.’ The part of the country facing the Atlantic Ocean is even greener than the rest of the country as it sees more precipitation and milder winters than the inland bits and the lands far up north. Bergen is Europe’s Seattle in terms of high rainfall percentages. As a result, hiking up any of the mountains that rise behind the city of Bergen–such as Mt. Fløyen–leads you immediately into a green, moss-covered forest. Instead of oozing with fear or unease, the solitude of the forest is quiet and echoing, hugging the solitary traveler as they explore the magic of the winding paths. Not only is this relaxing and curative, it is made easier by Norway’s traditional allemannsretten, or “all mans right of access,” a law that permits everyone the right to the countryside no matter who owns it. Pretty cool, huh?