Hamlet near Valnontey, Italy

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Hamlet near Valnontey in the Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy

This nameless place is barely a place at all. A collection of less than 10 buildings, this hamlet is snuggled deep within the majestic Valley of Valnontey on the French-Italian border. From October to March, the hamlet is buried under heaps of snow, and closed in on either side by the steep valley walls. There is no running water here, nor is there electricity. In winter, the only access is by cross country skiing (the area is beloved for the sport) or snow shoe. The village of Valmontey is the closest civilisation, and it’s still a couple of kilometres away – at least 30 minutes by snowshoe. And Valmontey is by no means large: it has a couple of restaurants, a hotel or two, a old church, and a shop – all very weather-dependant. Aosta, for which the greater Aosta Valley is named, is further 60 minutes by car down the narrow mountain track, if the weather is good. If the weather isn’t good, get comfortable, because you aren’y going anywhere. The villages and hamlets of Gran Paradiso are the kind of place people go to get off the beaten track. Hard to access, remote, rustic, and removed from civilisation, the people of this valley live side by side with mother nature. Deep in the Gran Paradiso National Park, the Valley of Valmontey is alive with wildlife – birds, foxes and most famously, the ibex – a deer-like animal topped with corkscrew antlers. The air is clean and pure. The modern world feels very far away. But amongst the charming wooden chalets – many built by hand – it doesn’t take long to feel right at home.

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.

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)

Coumeenoole, Ireland

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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!

Curraghchase Manor, Ireland

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Curraghchase Manor House (near Limerick), Ireland 

Shuttered, dark, and eerie, this once-elegant manor strikes an odd contrast with the surrounding cheery, green estate-turned-park. Curraghchase Manor (the centrepiece of Curraghchase Forest Park), once the reigning jewel of the land, was exterminated by fire in 1941, and its grounds were turned into a happy-go-lucky park for locals of Limerick’s surroundings to take a stroll, go for a jog, have a picnic, or play fetch with the dog. The manor, though, is haunting. A rounded stone building once elegant and home to the de Vere family who could trace their lineage to a tenant-in-chief of William the Conquerer, today it is completely encased, with no way in or out except the open roof. Gutted by the flames of the mid 20th century, the interior now makes a home for the birds and the bees, the only critters who can fly over its high walls. As proof of its former splendour, it was once the inspiration for Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, Lady Clara Vere de Vere. Today however, the manor exudes a certain eerie quality, not unlike that of the abandoned Krimulda Manor deep in the Latvian forests, or  Lake Annecy’s remote, ivy-covered chateau. While today the Curraghchase grounds are full of a variety of tree types, twisting forest paths, trickling streams, silent ponds, and even a miniature (and sad) pet cemetery where beloved pets were once laid to rest, it is still Curraghchase Manor that arrests the eye, thoughts and senses of the visitor. Oh yes, did I mention that according to local legend, it was the Lady of the Lake, first seen by Tennyson, that supposedly caused the tree to come crashing through the window and knocked over the candelabra that started the fire? Once cannot help but shiver when thinking about the long-neglected interior, left for nature slowly to take its course, the mythic ghost, or about the scared inhabitants who abandoned their splendid home one cold night in December of 1941, never to return again. Despite the shining sun and beautiful grounds, as one passes in front of Curraghchase Manor one cannot help a little shiver, and a feeling of desolation that passes as quickly as it came before you meander off to discover the rest of the grounds.

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.

Muckross Abbey, Ireland

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Muckross Abbey in Killarney National Park, Ireland

The silent headstones reach out of the earth like fingernails. A soft layer of grass covers the ground; ivy climbs the walls. Wildflowers, left to their own devices, plant their roots in their chosen bits of earth. Muckross Abbey, a squat, ancient building within the beautiful Killarney National Park in western Ireland, rings of silence. As one approaches the roofless, hollow structure, the quantity of graves thickens, as in Catholicism, being buried on Holy Ground was a believer’s final life objective. Graves are everywhere, even inside the building. The ground by the abbey seems to be higher than the ground further away, but that’s no trick of the light or any natural phenomenon – no, that’s a result of as many people being buried on Holy Ground by the church as possible. The silence inside is deafening. Your footsteps echo in the cloisters as you circle the inner courtyard. Climbing to the second floor, you come face-to-face with the ancient, scared yew tree planted by the monks of yesteryears, a symbol of their eternal faith. Finally at the top of the tower, you get a sweeping view of the rest of the churchyard, and beyond it, the lush greens of Killarney National Park, a good bit of which was once the property of the Muckross Estate before becoming Ireland’s first national park in 1932. The spell is finally broken when a group of boisterous tourists lumber through the abbey’s gates, and you take your cue, quietly slipping out onto one of the many forested paths winding in and around Killarney’s famous park.

Riga, Latvia

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Art Nouveau in Riga, Latvia

Art Nouveau (‘new art’) was a style of architecture, art, sculpture, and design popular from roughly 1890 – 1920. Though it swept across Europe, it was particularly popular in Riga, Latvia, with some 40% of the buildings built with Art Nouveau in mind. Inspired by flowers, trees, leaves, water, and other natural elements, Art Nouveau buildings twist and turn; they flow, they spiral, they cascade – they are alive. Riga’s Art Nouveau was less extravagant than that of France’s or Spain’s. But nonetheless, Riga overflows its borders with the simplistic, Romantic version of Art Nouveau. Much of it has survived to this day despite the turbulence of the 20th century, and the city centre is now a designated UNESCO site. By simply meandering and keeping one’s eyes turned upwards, the observant traveller will come across this forgotten cache of treasures hidden away in the Baltic gem that is Riga.

 

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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Cantal, France

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Cantal Department, France

Quiet and rural, this quintessential part of central France’s countryside has changed little over the years. To some, this may seem backwards, but to many, it is reassuring, a quiet escape from the bustle of cities and towns. One of the most rural parts of France (actually in the top 3 most rural French departments), Cantal is known for nature and the cheese it produces (of the same name). Cows outnumber people here. Villages dot the countryside, narrow roads wind themselves through the countryside, circumventing obstacles such as the occasional farmhouse, field, or gnarled tree. Lakes, ponds, and streams provide a cool retreat from the summer heat. In the winter, temperatures drop far below than those of ‘nearby’ cities (a relative term) such as Clermont-Ferrand, Lyon or Dijon. Residents lead a simple life here, and few tourists venture into this rural paradise. Yet those who do come are rewarded with the elegance of relaxation, respite from the high-tech, high-speed urban world. Take a dip in a local lake, go on a hike through silent forests, make furry forest friends, chat with the local farmers, or take a drive through tree-covered roads and take a break from life.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

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Dubrovnik Harbour, Croatia

During summer, Croatian beaches become a hot-spot for beach tourists – meaning that it’s best to avoid the country from June-August. However in spring or fall, Croatia is absolutely wonderful. Soft waves lap against Dubrovnik’s rocky shores, ancient forts and lighthouses peer over rocky outcrops, restaurants and cafes line the city walls, smooth stone avenues skirt through the town centre while tiny alleys whip and wind their way around the main plaza. Here, orange clay roofs contrast with the turquoise blue of the famous Mediterranean. Founded in the 7th century on a rocky island named Laus to have provided shelter for refugees from the nearby Roman city of Epidaurum, Dubrovnik still has one of the rockiest shorelines on the Med. Most of what you see in this magnificent city today is due to its maritime power gained under the Republic of Ragusa in the 15th-16th centuries. Not only has Dubrovnik been recognised by UNESCO, but CNNgo attributed it to being among the top 10 best preserved walled medieval cities in the world!

Cantal, France

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Cantal, France

One of the most rural regions in France is Cantal, located in the heart of Auvergne, central France. In fact, there are roughly as many people spread out over the Cantal region (147,000) than there are who love in the capital city of Auvergne, Clermont Ferrand (141,500)!  Located in a region known for its ‘dead volcanoes’ as the French love to say (so, dormant or extinct), much of what infrastructure that does exist is largely made from a coloured volcanic stone. Roads twist and turn, winding through cheery farms and past pleasant fields. It is a quiet place. This is the place one should come in order to seek solace, to escape from the hustle and bustle of the 21st century. Life is simply slower out here. It is the perfect escape – especially in the summer months, when temperatures are mild, and the water from local lakes and streams is perfect for swimming. Don’t miss out tasting the delicious local Cantal cheese, named after the Cantal Mountains (which give the region its name!). Made with cow milk and aged for 1-6 months, it is one of the oldest cheeses in France – dating all the back to the times of the Gauls. You won’t regret it!

Dublin, Ireland

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St Stephan’s Green in Dublin, Ireland

In honor of St Patrick’s Day, I present to you a very green Ireland. We all know that Ireland and the color green go together like two peas in a pod (which are also green…). But why? In fact…shocking…Ireland’s national colour was originally blue! I know, this seems strange. No one knows seems to why Ireland switched from blue to green (or where the colors came from either…) but blue seems to be associated with the island’s colonial history as well as with old Irish myths. As for the colour green – well it’s the Emerald Isle, and it’s not hard to guess why. Anyone who has been to Ireland can attest to both its rural nature and its green landscape. Ireland is green because it rains a lot and has fertile ground, without many cities crushing the green countryside (as is sometimes the case in places like England or France where the population is more dense). And St Stephan’s Green – well it’s right there in the name. Even in central Dublin, Ireland is in need of reminding its population that it is in fact very, very green. So happy St Patty’s Day to all of you out there! Get your green on, pinch someone who doesn’t, have a pint of Guinness or Kilkenny and make plans to visit the country that made March 17th an international drinking holiday!

Chateau de Murol, France

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Falconer at the Chateau de Murol, France

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

Łódźkie Voivodeship, Poland

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Rural Poland in the Łódźkie Voivodeship

One of Poland’s 16 voivodeships (or provinces), Łódźkie is one of the most rural. The capital is Łódź, and unless you really like cinema schools or urban decay, it’s not the best way to see Poland. However, exploring the surrounding countryside feels like a step back in time. Relatively little has changed in rural Poland. And in a way, this is a comfort; globalization has not overtaken every inch of the earth! Here, people going on living simple, quiet lives. Despite the fact that you will need either basic Polish or a firm grasp on sign language to communicate, these countryside folk are some of the nicest people you will meet. The roads twist and turn through flourishing fields between unchanged villages. Thick woods hide rugged paths and sacred springs. Animals graze lazily alongside puttering tractors, chickens cluck in the garden, and dusty cars meander through the countryside, passing ancient wooden barns and old stone farmhouses. No one is in a hurry; in fact, villagers stop to greet or chat with one another. Life is always being appreciated and little seems to have changed  in a long time.

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!

St Guilheim-le-Désert, France

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Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, France

Casually labeled as one of “The Most Beautiful Villages in France,” St. Guilheim is a snug village in the south of France, located within reasonable distance from Montpelier. Don’t be fooled by its name; this is no desert! The name is leftover from another time, when the land was desert-like. And “Guilhem” is the local patois way of saying the name “Guillaume” (“William” in English). With cobbled streets underfoot and the tiled roofs overhead, voices echo off the tiny squares, footsteps echo off the narrow streets. Rock walls are crumbling under the bald mountain tops looming just behind as you wander the alleys clutching a melting ice cream. Though not very large, St Guilhem certainly is one of the most beautiful places in an already beautiful county!

Gutmanis Cave, Latvia

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Gutmanis Cave, Latvia

Supposedly one of the Baltic’s early form of tourism was pilgrimages to this cave. It all started with a legend, a story, dating to the age of castles and knights and villains. Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in a castle called Turaida. There was another castle, not so far away, where a handsome young man lived, and in the middle, there was a cave–pleasant kind of cave–where the lovers would meet to plan their marriage. But there was also a villain, and he wanted the princess for him. So, one day, he went to the cave to convince her to marry him. When she refused, he threatened to force her to marry him. She told him she would trade his hand for a magic scarf that was impossible to pierce by blade. Of course, he didn’t believe her, so she let him test it…on her. Of course, it didn’t work, and of course she knew that. But I guess suicide was considered a better option than a forced marriage… but the story doesn’t end there. Even though the princess died, our prince from the other castle tracked down the villain and avenged her death, and spent the rest of his days caring for their castles and protecting her cave. People started coming there, leaving their marks (coat of arms) in the stone. You can still make a pilgrimage there, hiking from Sigulda all the way to her castle’s ruins in Turaida. In the woods along the way, you can make a detour in order to pay homage to the Rose of Turaida and her infamous cave…