Italy is full of churches. To no one’s surprise, it’s one of the most church-dense countries in Europe. The Chiesa di Santa Maria is surprisingly old – it was built in the 1300’s. It’s charm, however, comes largely from its location in the quaint, Germanic village of Brunico (Bruneck in German), nestled in the heart of the Dolomite Mountains of Northern Italy. Brunico is the perfect base for exploring the rugged backcountry of Sud Tyrol (Trentino-Alto Adige in Italian), a relatively new region of Italy (only becoming part of Italy after WWII). With an interesting melange of Italian and Austrian cultures, even the smallest of villages of Sud Tyrol feel wildly diverse. In the winter, this northeastern corner of Italy is well-known for fantastic skiing. The summer season draws adventurous travellers in with the promise of narrow mountain paths weaving through sunny forests and emerald meadows, full of chirping birds and rustling undergrowth. In the village of Brunico, visit the idyllic castle perched atop the hill for panoramic views of the village and beyond. The castle, now a museum of mountain climbing and the Himalayas, is situated on a lush forest backdrop, complete with meandering mountain paths and a rustic WWWII cemetery. Coming down from the castle’s hilltop path, enjoy this perfect view of Brunico and the lovely Chiesa di Santa Maria, the turquoise mountains forming a magnificent backdrop. Back in town, settle down to a pizza in the family-run restaurants in the historic old town as the sunsets over this adorable mountain village.
The natural border between the nations of Poland and Slovakia, there are ample opportunities to literally walk across the border while hiking the mountain trails (thanks to the EU, this is all okay). The Tatras are a little-known mountain range in southern Poland, but offer some of the best hiking in Europe. Compared to the Alps, the Tatras may seem small – but they are also a road not taken by many. Zakopane, Poland’s capital of the Tatras, is the busiest town in the region (also known for skiing), but most of this mountain range is woven with rustic trails that meander through quiet forests and quaint villages. The Tatra Mountains eke a sort of majestic silence – hiking through their quiet backcountry transports you to another world where villagers still organise outings to go mushroom-picking, celebrate local traditions, song and dance, and bake traditional dishes with little influence from outside the region. Here, timeless landscapes nearly untouched by modern times abound. The bustling Zakopane is an easy starting from, as it’s the most well-known city in the Tatras, but it’s also the most crowded and least authentic. Consider instead starting from one of the a smaller towns far off the beaten track – one example is the Rajcza, a little south of Bielsko-Biala. Of note, the town of Zywiec (home of Zywiec Brewery) isn’t far. Near Zakopane is the amazing mountain fortress Niedzica Zamek. Small towns like Poronin or Nowy Targ are also lovely! No matter where you head into the Tatra Mountains, you won’t be disappointed; every inch of the Polish and Slovakian Tatras is magical.
Barreling through parts of Switzerland, France, Austria, Italy, Germany, Liechtenstein and Slovenia, the Alps are Europe’s premier mountain range. Though Mont Blanc is the tallest, there’s far more to this rich mountain range than the graceful, snowy peak of Mont Blanc. The snow-capped mountains and rugged landscapes of the Alps have always played an important role in the cultures that are contained within them. Mountain passes doubling for trade routes through these Alpine peaks have encouraged the castles, settlements, villages, towns and roads that sit within their harried shadows. In the past century or so, the majestic slopes of the Alps have given life to some of the top ski resorts and destinations, such as Chamonix, Megeve, Aosta, Cogne, Innsbruck, Zermatt, Interlaken, and so many more. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the pristine air and utter remoteness of the Alps were appreciated by wealthy Europeans looking for long holidays abroad to ‘improve their health’ who often chose resorts and villages in the Alps, usually preferring Switzerland. The Alps contain some of the original European ski resorts, and it has only been in recent years, however, that the Alps have been widely appreciated by both travellers and the tourism industry as a summer destination, building up summer infrastructure for hiking and mountain biking paths, zip-lines, horse-riding, swimming in Alpine lakes, Alpine summer cuisine, local artisans and crafts, and more. Switzerland has some of the most well-known peaks, top resorts and most adorable Alpine villages and valleys and is therefore recognised as the all-around Capital of the Alps.
Cities by night are highly underrated. The same could be said for cities in the small hours of the morning. Night – and by extension early morning – somehow seem ‘bad’ – the immoral dark hours where indecency and ugliness show their teeth. Nights are cold, dark, empty. At night, ‘good’ people are snuggly asleep in their warm beds because everyone knows that bad things happen at night – mostly because ‘bad’ people come out at night. Or so we’re taught. And in some ways, this is true (crime rates, for example, go infinitely up at night). But the rewards for staying up late or getting out of bed early are worth it. Whether we want to be reminded at how big the galaxies are, we are astronomy geeks, or we simply want to see the world in a new perspective, travelling destinations by night is a unique way to get to know a place. Torino, for example, is an entirely different city by night. The cool, Alpine air whistles through the empty streets, each monument, church or palace strategically lit up. The streets are clear and quiet – quite the change from the Italian hustle and bustle typically filling Torino’s city centre. First, enjoy the quietness of an empty city, then enjoy the stars as they spread across the sky, and finally, the best part: enjoy the dawn painting across the canvas of a new day breaking.
Deep in the French Alps, the ancient town of Annecy sits along the picturesque shores of Lac d’Annecy. At the heart of Annecy, at the intersection of the River Thiou and the city’s scenic, all-important canals, is the Palais de l’Ile, an impressive 12th-century building. Shaped like the prow of a ship setting sail, the Palais started out as a prison, became a coin mint, was transformed into a courthouse, housed the Presidial Council of the Province Genevois, and became military barracks. Today, it is a museum, though it is certainly more intriguing and alluring from the exterior. In a way, the Palais de l’Ile is the keystone of Annecy – the stone that holds the rest of the city’s splendour together. And what a beautiful city it is! Annecy is full of colourful facades, glittering canals, glowing lamps, bright plazas, cheerful terrace cafes, and arching bridges. It is often called the Pearl of the Alps, and any visitor to its streets, canals or lake will know that it certainly deserves its title.
‘By the wee birchen corries lie patches of green Where gardens and bare-headed bairnies have been, But the huts now are rickles of stone, nettle-grown, And the once human homes, e’en their names are unknown.’
-Anonymous Victorian poet upon looking over nearby Loch Rannoch
Multiple reasons could account for any of the dozens of abandoned settlements in Scotland’s Highlands. Forced evictions, changing economies, harsh living conditions, changes in animal behaviour or soil richness, new weather patterns, or the industrial revolution are but a few. Reasons for this particular settlement’s abandonment are unknown. The trail to Mt Schiehallion (the ‘Fairy Hill of the Caledonians’) which overlooks Loch Rannoch snakes its way up and past this little village – today little more than a picturesque ruin. Though most people amble by it with little more than a quick photo, it serves one to stop and give it a little respect – those little ruins were once someone’s house, and one day, your house may be little more than a pile of rocks. Though sad, such is the way of things. Even buildings have a circle of life.
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 & 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.
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 1964and 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-too-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.
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.
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.
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.
Mt Schiehallion located at the centre (unlabelled Loch Rannoch is just beside it)
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.
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!
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!
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.
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…
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.
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!’
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!