Cavehill Country Park, Northern Ireland

Cave hill stitch

Cavehill Country Park, Northern Ireland

Rising above the city of Belfast is the beautiful landscape of Cavehill Country Park. Once part of Belfast Castle’s extensive estate, the hill is covered in lush woodland criss-crossed with narrow muddy tracks. After meandering on an upwardly-sloping path under a canopy of leaves, you suddenly break out into a beautiful panorama – behind you to one side is an aerial view of all Belfast, the little streets and buildings looking small at the bottom of the hills. And on the other side the landscape of Cavehill seems as if it comes straight out of a fairytale land, dramatic emerald and golden hills punctured with mysterious caves. It seems perhaps a scene you’d find in The Chronicles of Narnia – you almost expect to see fauns and centaurs and talking animals wandering about the hills. Even though you haven’t quite crossed over into a magical land, you’re as close as you can get – CS Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia grew up in Belfast (and was educated at Oxford) and spent his boyhood exploring these hills – the Mourne Mountains to the south up to the Causeway Coast to the north (Dunluce Castle is said to have been the inspiration of the ruined Cair Paravel in Prince Caspian). It’s reasonable to expect that CS Lewis would have climbed the slopes of Cavehill just behind his hometown, and it’s again reasonable to expect that the places he encountered in Ireland as a boy would have formed as inspiration for Narnia. Interesting again that the “real world” places of The Chronicles of Narnia resemble Oxford and its environs, but the mystical, magical places of Narnia and other magical lands find their inspirations in the landscapes of Ireland…perhaps Ireland is just a magical place.


Pro tip: There is a family-friendly car park to go straight to the top of the hill to McArt’s Fort, but you’ll miss the hike, forest, and actual cave hills in the panorama above. It’s worth it to start at Belfast Castle and do the full loop – at 6.5-7km, it should take you about 2 hours. It can be muddy, so bring your boots and waterproof jacket. As of this post, the route from Belfast Zoo is closed (but not the castle). Check here for hiking info.


Further Travels in Ireland


 

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Les Gorges d’Ardèche, France

Gorges Ardeches (1)

Les Gorges d’Ardèche, France

France is a country of many wonders, be they natural, cultural or a bit of both. One of the most underrated regions of France is the Ardèche, a small sun-kissed, hilly place in the south-central region of France. Though the Ardèche has its fair share of tourists, they are mostly French, mostly local, and mostly converged around a couple of over-visited spots such as Vallon du Pont d’Arc. Places like Largentière and Baluzac are breath-taking medieval splendours well worth a visit when you’re in the region. But the most spectacular part of Ardèche is probably the Réserve Naturelle  des Gorges d’Ardeche. Actually made up of a series of gorges carved out over thousands of years by the Ardèche River, the Gorges d’Ardèche is known locally as the “European Grand Canyon.” (Other impressive French canyons are the Gorges de Verdon and the Gorges de Tarn). Not only are the landscapes beautiful, but the Gorges are a well-known haven for wildlife. Admire the dramatic geology from above the Gorges as well as from within them, from the river that created the rock formations. The most famous example is the Pont d’Arc, a natural arch 60 metres wide. In summer, the Gorges d’Ardèche become a popular swimming place, and the riverbanks are brimming with swimmers, sunbathers and divers – though nearly all visitors to the river are local. Another popular activity is kayaking or canoeing but this is such as popular activity that you may want to avoid it. The area is riddled with caves and caverns, many of which contain paintings and other signs of human habitation. To put things into perspective, humans have called the Gorges d’Ardèche home for over 300,000 years!


Pro tip: There are several swimming holes along the river, one of which is just under the Pont d’Arc. Stay overnight in one of the local picturesque medieval villages like Largentière or Balazuc.


Other Great Rivers in Europe


 

McArt’s Fort atop Cave Hill, Northern Ireland

Cave-Hill

McArt’s Fort atop Cave Hill, Northern Ireland

From most cities, one must drive a long distance to find wild landscapes, but just 15 minutes from Belfast, there lies the magnificent Cave Hill. It is easy to see why fantasy writer CS Lewis – born and raised near Belfast despite spending his adult life in Oxford – gained his inspiration for the fantastic landscapes of his imaginary land of Narnia from Northern Ireland (just look at the bizarre Causeway Coast!). Cave Hill – part of Cave Hill Country Park – overlooks Belfast and yet transport the hiker into another world. With woodland paths starting from Belfast Castle, weave through the moss-covered forests until suddenly you emerge into a clearing facing the magnificent caves that lent the name to hill. Rolling hills, emerald greens, brilliant yellows, rugged rock faces – one almost expects to see a satyr or dwarf making its home in the cave! But it’s not over just yet – follow the path around the hill to the top for this epic view of the hill itself and Belfast sprawled below. On the narrow outcrop in the distance are the remains of an iron are fort – McArt’s Fort. Little is left today (just a few rocks, really), and its exposed position suggests that this rath (ringfort) was only ever used for defensive purposes. Thousands of years later, McArt’s Fort became the secret meeting place of United Irishmen to plot their famed – and doomed – attack in the rebellion of 1798 (when the Irish rose against the oppressive forces of the British nobility and military. The rebellion failed, and caused a large loss of life on the Irish side).  Because Cave Hill is near Belfast, it can get busy but even with other hikers enjoying the views alongside you, this place emits a magic that cannot be rivalled.


Pro tip: Start your hike at Belfast Castle, and follow the signs for the Cave path. The first part is muddy in places, and there are a few steep bits so wear a proper pair of hiking boots. The whole walk is about 7km. There is also a “family friendly” trail starting from another car park on the backside of the hill, but this means you’ll miss most of the good stuff, and it’s not a looped path. 


Other Places in Ireland (the whole island):

 

Parc Lacroix Laval, France

Parc Domaine Lacroix Laval, Lyon, France

Parc Lacroix Laval, Lyon, France

One of Lyon’s best-kept secrets is the stunning Parc Lacroix Laval. Based around the former estate of the Domaine de Lacroix Laval, the park expands on all sides for 115 hectares. The present Domaine de Lacroix Laval dates from the 16th century, with some later additions, but it was built on the ruins of a 12th century castle. A wealthy estate, the mansion is as beautiful as it is expansive. Today, the Domaine de Lacroix Laval serves as a wedding venue (imagine getting married here!) as well as exhibition space in the summer months. The surrounding park is popular with joggers, picnickers, dog-walkers and families. With both open spaces, playgrounds, farm animals and wooded paths, the Parc Lacroix Laval is a welcome escape from the hubbub of downtown Lyon.


Pro tip: The park is best reached by car, though you can take bus 98 or local train TER from the Gare de Lyon-Saint-Paul. It’s also a great place for a morning jog! 


Visit Other Lovely Places Nearby

 

Castle Island, Lough Key, Ireland

hiking - castle folly, sunset at Lough Key, Castle Island, Roscommon, Ireland

Castle Island in Lough Key, Ireland

Lough Key is the centrepiece of Lough Key Forest Park, located at the heart of rural Co Roscommon, part of a region known as Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands. Woven and crossed with trails, Lough Key Forest Park is the perfect way to visit Ireland’s countryside if you don’t have the time or ability to undertake a wilderness hike, or if you’re looking for family-friendly hiking paths. In the centre of Lough Key – named for an ancient druid called Cé in Irish folklore (folklore attributes the lake as his grave site) – there is a tiny island roughly half an acre. In the centre of Castle Island is… you guessed it, a castle. What we see today is McDermott’s Castle, which is a folly (or ‘fake’ castle) built as a gothic castle in the early 1800s to improve the view, but there’s been one castle or another on Castle Island since the the 12th century. The castle of the island has since been struck by lightning, attacked by fire ships, sieged by raft-mounted catapults, cursed by the Hag of Lough Key and burnt during WWII.


Pro tip: Lough Key is located 2h from Dublin on the Sligo road. Though you can’t really visit the castle (it was sold recently via auction!), there are exquisite grounds for a hike or picnic, as well as the famed puzzle rooms (a bit like an escape room) and a cafe. Keep in mind the car park isn’t free. 


Other Folly Castles in Europe

 

Jabłonna Palace, Poland

Jalalonna Palace, Poland

The Ballroom of Jabłonna Palace, Poland

The fantastic Jabłonna Palace (pronounced yah-bwoana) inhabits a lush, green estate-turned-park on the outskirts of Poland’s capital of Warsaw. Built in a joint neoclassical and baroque style in the 1770s by the Polish King Stanislaw’s brother, it was meant from the start as a stunning royal palace and park complex to stun and awe Poland’s elite. Like most of Warsaw – and Poland – the building is newer than it looks. Jabłonna Palace was burnt by angry Germans in 1944 and the resilient Polish of Warsaw reconstructed it as accurately as possible in the years following the war. Today, Jabłonna Palace’s beautifully Baroque ballroom, elegant dinning areas and classy guest rooms regularly hold concerts, art exhibitions, scientific shows, conferences and – you guessed it – weddings, as well as being open to the public. Even if you aren’t attending a wedding or concert, the grounds of Jabłonna Palace make for a great escape to the outdoors. Offering a much-needed breath of fresh air from the hustle and bustle of Warsaw, Jabłonna Park is a perfect place to spend a spring or fall day to jog, stroll, picnic or simply relax.


More Baroque Palaces and Churches in Europe
  1. Baroque Church in Krakow, Poland
  2. Smolny Cathedral, St Petersburg, Russia
  3. Belvedere Palace, Vienna, Austria
  4. St Cashmir’s Church, Vilnius, Lithuania 
  5. St Andrew’s Church, Kiev, Ukraine

 

Łazienki Park at Autumn, Poland

Lazienki Park, Warsaw, Poland

Łazienki Park, Warsaw, Poland

Poland’s Central Park, Łazienki Park (pronouced “wa-djane-key”), or the Park of the Royal Paths, meanders serenely through the urban jungle of central Warsaw. Designed in the 17th century by a local nobleman, one century later it was reconfigured to fit a king – King Stanislaw August, to be exact. Palaces, follies, monuments, statues, lakes, bridges, and forest paths were installed in all the royal might Warsaw could muster. Though royalty in Poland has long since ceased to be (in fact, Poland itself ceased to be for a whole 123 years!), Łazienki Park is still there, a little less royal and open to all us common folk, but an amazing park nonetheless. Populated by semi-wild peacocks (yes you read that correctly!) who wander through the park’s 76 hectres, the park is a special place. In the summer, it hosts open air Chopin concerts (because yes, Chopin was Polish!). And in the autumn, it erupts in vivid splendour – flames of yellow and orange, gold and red. Łazienki Park is a lovely place for a stroll, a picnic, a day at the park, a concert or a bit of sports and exercises – but it is loveliest in autumn amongst the golden canvas.


Other Places to Visit in Warsaw
  1. The Mermaid of Warsaw statue
  2. Stare Miasto or Old Town Square
  3. The Royal Palace
  4. The Wisla River
  5. Zlote Teresy Mall

 

Hamlet of Fougères, France

Hiking Livrados Forez Park, Auverge France

Hamlet of Fougères in the Livradois-Forez Regional Park, France

Unlike US national and state parks, French parks are home to more than just animals. Tucked away into the Livradois-Forez Regional Park in the rural yet beautiful region of Auvergne is the tiny hamlet (in French, a ‘lieu-dit’ or a ‘spoken place’) of Fougères, home to less than two dozen people. One of dozens of other such hamlets throughout Livradois-Forez Regional Park and beyond, what makes Fougères special is not so much the place itself as it is the collective co-habitation of people and wilderness in Livradois-Forez. In the USA, national/regional parks and people’s homes are regarded as two separate, un-mixable entities – but in Europe, the story is different. Parks in France, while protected from certain types of development or land-harming actions (like mining, logging, hunting, etc.) can be home to farms, homes, hamlets, villages, as well as forests, rivers, lakes and wildlife. This is seen across Europe in countries such as Italy, Poland, Latvia and beyond. Local people can live in the parks while people from cities or faraway places can visit in order to hike, bike, kayak, canoe, ride horses or camp in the fresh air of the countryside. End result? Perfect harmony. Quick tip – use the medieval village of Olliergues or the quaint town of Ambert (famed for its delicious local cheese of the same name) as a base if you don’t plan to sleep under the stars.


More Beautiful Wild Places in Europe
  1. Southwestern Poland – Lodzkie Voivoidership
  2. Aosta Valley, northern Italy
  3. Scottish Highlands
  4. French Alps
  5. Gauja River Valley, Latvia
  6. Val de Susa, northern Italy
  7. Tatras Mountains of Poland & Slovakia
  8. The Songefjord, Norway
  9. Lough Conn, Ireland
  10. Causeway Coastal Route, Northern Ireland

 

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. On a more intriguing note, according to local legend, it was the ghostly figure of 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.


More Unbelievable Stories Myths & Legends of Europe
  1. The Little Mermaid: Copenhagen, Denmark
  2. Rose of Turaida: Gutmanis Cave, Latvia
  3. Queen Maeve: Sligo, Ireland
  4. Dracula: Highgate Cemetery in London
  5. King Arthur & Avalon: Glastonbury, England
  6. The Devil’s Footprint: Munich, Germany
  7. The Head-Butting Goat Clock of Poznan, Poland

 

Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Lions protecting Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen, Denmark

No, this is not the infamous Elsinore, whose claim to fame originates from none other than Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This fortress is actually the great Rosenborg Castle, built in the early 15th century (1606 to be exact). Commissioned by Christian IV as an extravagant summer residence, it was only used as an official royal residence during a few emergency situations. Today, this wonderful example of Dutch Renaissance architecture commands its awe-some presence in central Copenhagen, and its grounds create a cheery central park perfect for sunbathing (in the summer!), strolling hand-in-hand with your lover, picnicking with a group of friends, or a weekend afternoon out with the family. It is visited by an estimated 2.5 million people every year – clearly, a well-loved part of Copenhagen! One of the greatest things about European castles and fortresses is their sheer diversity – Danish castles differ greatly from much of what one finds in Germany, France, Italy, AustriaPoland, or any other European county, and each castle, no matter where it is, how big or small it is, or how famous (or not…) it is, holds a great value contained in its thick walls. In an era before computers, modern machinery, or the advanced science of today, castles were designed, built, and maintained purely by the power and ingenuity of men, providing today’s visitor with a window into the culture, history, architecture, and stylistic tastes of bygone eras.

Parc Guell, Bacelona, Spain

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Parc Guell, Barcelona, Spain

What’s more saturated than Gaudi?? Honestly, not much. His reputation is built on both his inability to follow a straight line and his exorbitant use of vibrant, headache-inducing colour. These are the famous benches in the famous Parc Guell in the famous Barcelona. Constructed 1900 to 1914, it was originally part of a rather unsuccessful housing community – that just happened to be a century ahead of its time (Gaudi basically envisioned our modern-day suburbs and “gated” communities, an idea that didn’t sit well with the turn-of-the-century Spaniards). He liked the fresh air and the beautiful views that the site afforded, but sadly, no one liked the distance from La Ramblas or the beach. So, now it’s a colourful public garden and UNESCO site that makes for some pretty vividly saturated photos! (This one does it no justice, as I took it with a camera phone…)