The tranquility and silence feels overwhelming while walking along Ireland‘s shortest river on a sunny autumn afternoon. The small town (and region) of Sligo, hidden away in Ireland’s northwestern corner, is happily left off the bus-tourism itineraries. It is a small place, lacking the diverse and cultured festivals, events and museums of Dublin or Galway or Limerick. But what Sligo lacks in this respect, it makes up for it in the Great Outdoors. Sligo is town literally built between land and sea: on its right-hand edge is the colossal Lough Gill; on the left is Sligo Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. And flowing right down the middle – Sligo’s main artery – is the Garavogue River. To the east is the iconic table mountain, Ben Bulben, and to the south is the small but sacred Knocknarea Mountain. And in the middle is Sligo town. This place is the quiet adventurer’s paradise: stand up paddling, kayaking, hiking, cycling, paragliding, mountain-biking, trail running and horse-riding are normal weekend activities here. Emerald hills, rugged coasts, romantic castles, crashing waves, wandering sheep – this is the picture of quintessential Ireland, and of Sligo itself. County Sligo is an unassuming, down-to-earth sort of place where people go about their lives much like these boats: in a slow but buoyant fashion, floating and glowing along the river – something that us city-dwellers, suburbanites and fast-walkers could learn a lesson from.
Vltava River in Prague, Czech Republic from Charles Bridge
Charles Bridge is surely one of the world’s most famous bridges. Built in 1357 and the only means of crossing the thundering Vltava River until 1841, both Charles Bridge and the Vltava River have played a strategic and economic role throughout the city’s history. Prague’s location on the Vltava River has long been important for trade and shipping between eastern and western Europe, and that economical power, along with Prague’s famous bridge that connects its timeless old town with the majestic Prague Castle, have all helped to bounce Prague to international acclaim. Though always beautiful, there are two moments where Prague becomes nearly divine in beauty. The first is Prague covered in soft, brilliant snow, the pure white of the fallen snowflakes contrasting beautifully on the dark, ancient stones that make up the Gothic architectureof Charles Bridge, the Castle and most of the Old Town. Alone under the evening blizzard with snow underfoot, the smells of chimney smoke, hot wine and roasted chestnuts intermingle in the air, as the air itself rings with the jubilant sounds of the famed Christmas market – the perfect picture of Christmas bliss. The second time when Prague becomes almost unbearable with beauty is when bathed in the brilliance of the Golden Hour, both at sunrise and sunset, when the incandescent light glitters off the richly-coloured stones and the ancient architecture to make you feel as if you are part of a fairytale, or a painting. Sunrise is preferable – this way, you will avoid the crowds. Sunset, as seen above, will not disappoint either.
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Autumn colours light up the palate of Kazimierz Dolny’s castle gardens. Kazimierz Dolny is a small, quirky village in eastern Poland within easy day trip striking distance of Warsaw, Poland’s capital. Though a short-lived season, Poland is vivid in autumn – September being a spectacular month for a visit, as the entire month seems to follow the rules of the Golden Hour usually attributed only to brief moments at sunrise or sunset. After weaving Kazimierz’s bustling medieval streets, head up the hill where you will pass the zamek – the lower castle – before climbing the path to the 19-meter tower, or the upper zamek. The view from here over the castle gardens, town and Wisla River (Vistula River in English) is simply splendid. Before the castle was built, the hilltop housed a beacon to warn surrounding settlements of impending attacks. Once upon a time, there was even a drawbridge, a moat, and five floors. Though you can’t climb more than one storey up now, the castle, gardens and tower are all a mystical and magical place made even better when doused in the golden autumn sunlight.
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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.
Hans Christian Andersen remains one of the Danish capital’s most famed residents. And, as we all know, Andersen is the author of the famous tale, the Little Mermaid (in Danish: Den Lille Havfrue). The Disney version softens it up a bit, but in the much darker original fairy tale, the poor mermaid feels like she is walking on nails every time she takes a step, looses her tongue rather than an incarnation of her voice, the prince never knows it was her who rescued him and marries someone else, nearly kills the prince and princess on their honeymoon in order to become a mermaid once more, and at the end she dies of a broken heart and is transformed to sea foam. Ouch. Little in common with the Disney tale. Yet, people still make the quasi-mandatory pilgrimage upriver to pay homage to the lost little mermaid. Created in 1913, the small, unassuming statue was commissioned by the son of the founder of beer empire, Carlsberg, after becoming obsessed with a ballet of the Little Mermaid – even going so far as to use the lead ballerina (Ellen Price) as the model for the sculpture! Though the story is sad, in a way, the Little Mermaid lives on in her role of iconising her city of Copenhagen. While visiting Copenhagen, visit the ritzy Nyhavn for restaurants, the regal Rosenberg Palace in the central park, and the Svenska Gustafskyrkan Church, not far from the Mermaid herself.
The origin of the name la Petite France, has a less-than-lovely origin – it comes from the Hospice des Vérolés (House for the syphilitic) which during the German occupation was called Franzosenkrankheit (French disease). While the name’s origins may not be charming, the alleyways, canals and houses most certainly are charming! Alsace, the region of France where Strasbourg is located, has a complicated history, flashing back and forth between France and Germany for much of it’s past. In the Middle Ages, la Petite France was the economic centre of the city, and Strasbourg as the region’s most important city. La Petite France once comprised of many merchants, millers, tanners, fishermen and other tradesmen and artisans. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, la Petite France (‘little France’) seduces history, culture and architecture buffs with its quintessential streets, half-timbered architecture, colourful houses, quiet riverbank, and charming shops. At Christmastime, the Strasbourg Christmas Market is one of the most famous in Europe and is generally agreed upon to be the best Christmas market in France. Hot wine, sausages, and sauerkraut are local favourites – especially when the weather turns cold! The impressive Strasbourg Cathedral was the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874 (so, for 227 years!), and today, it remains the 6th-tallest church in the world. It is the sandstone from nearby Vosges that gives the cathedral its unique pinkish hue.
Gran Madre di Dio Church, Torino, Italy from the Po River, Torino, Italy
Even if you haven’t yet been to Torino (if this is the case, you really should go…), you may have already beheld the Gran Madre di Dio Church if you’ve seen the 1969 classic film, The Italian Job, which tells the story of a high-stakes theft in Torino. Commissioned and built to celebrate King Vittorio Emanuele I’s return to power in 1814 following the defeat of Napoleon, the Gran Madre is a breathtaking purveyor of the briefly-popular Neoclassic style. Though perhaps exaggerated in the film, Torino is sometimes noted as the ‘cradle of Italian liberty’: it was capital of the wealthy House of Savoy (eastern France and Northwestern Italy) since 1563 as well as becoming the finally-unified Italy’s first capital in 1861. Though much of its wealth and importance (both political and economic) dissipated after WWII, Torino rests Italy’s third city – with a GDP of $58 billion, it is ranked the world’s 78th richest city (based on purchasing power)… not too shabby, eh? Not to be forgotten, the impressive neoclassic Gran Madre perched on the banks of the River Po is hardly the only piece of beautiful architecture or style in town – Torino is also home to splendid examples of Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, and Art nouveau exemplars. It sports elegant and extraordinary parks, castles, palaces/palazzi, public squares, boulevards, and apartments, many of which were erected in the Golden Age of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.Torino is a city drunk on elegance and beauty, a city that is both down-to-earth yet financially capable (that is to say, the city is indeed a wealthy one, in both looks and in vaults), and it is a city that holds true to her long heritage as a place of prestige.
In English: the Swedish Church. In Denmark. Located on the moat banks of the Kastellet, a 17th century star fortress adjoined to the city walls tasked with the protection of Copenhagen. What’s a Swedish church doing there? To understand, we must first look to the church’s history. Denmark and Sweden share many things, including a similarly harsh climate, the Øresund and the Baltic Sea, and even almost a common language (they are close enough for speakers of each language to understand the other). They also seem to share a similar attitude on life: live and let live. Despite a troubled past, the two nations, along with the rest of their Scandinavian sisters, all seem to get along and just live – a marvellous notion that we could all take a page from. Well enough preaching – and back to Svenska Gustaf. The story starts with a Swedish pastor called Nils Widner who went to Copenhagen to educate Swedish sailors living there, but was soon swept into the world of Swedish expats. As his circle grew, Nils realised they would need a church to provide for the growing congregation. In an action of solidarity, his loyal followers agreed to donate 10 øre a week (mere pennies, but dedication counts!) until the church was completed, which ended up being in 1911. The Danish, bless them, provided Pastor Nils with a lovely site along the northern side of the Kastellet, a beautiful island fortress (a stone’s throw away from the St Alban’s, a 19th-century English church, erected for similar reasons 25 years before). A Swedish architect designed Svenska Gustaf, and a Danish architect supervised the construction. Danish and Swedish royalty alike attended the opening ceremony. Everyone got along, everyone worked together, everyone was happy. But then again, what more do you expect from Danes and Swedes, eh?
Is that…a UFO? Little green men? Is the alien invasion hinted at in the X-Files coming true? No…no…and still no. Though bearing an interesting semblance to a flying saucer, this strange structure is the man-made UFO Taste Restaurant, hovering 85m above Bratislava and the beautiful Danube River, where you can gouge on unique Mediterrasian food and sip colorful cocktails while appreciating how tiny the snow-covered buildings, cars and people look far below your table. The restaurant’s immense windows let you appreciate how beautiful the city looks bathed in fog on the chilly winter’s day. Little-known and little-visited Slovakia with its capital Bratislava may have their setbacks (it’s a small city and a small country, and not always as elegantly magical as nearby Budapest, Prague or Vienna), but there is no doubt that this a proud nation working to recover after so many challenges facing this part of Europe in the last few decades. Unique quirks such as this UFO restaurant, city centre statues like Cumil, arresting graffiti and restaurants that mix tradition with newness are slowly turning this hidden European capital into a shining gem.
Thundering waves churn past the narrow shores of the little Italian city of Brunico. Just a blimp on the map of quaint, charming Italian cities, Brunico holds its own in the northeastern corner of the Boot. Deep in the Italian Dolomites with the towering silhouette of its squat castle gazing down from the mountaintops, Brunico is only a short drive from both Austria and Slovenia. While this all helps to spotlight this town, none of this is what adds the extra something special to Brunico’s recipe. Brunico – or Bruneck in German – is a town without a country, a town of many languages and cultures, a town plastered onto a multi-cultural lining. For nearly all of its history, Brunico was Germanic. Founded by a baron called – wait for it – Bruno (von Kirchberg) in the early 1200s, the town remained Germanic until the end of WWI, when shifting barriers pushed the region of South Tyrol (including Bruneck) down into Italian territory, where it was re-baptised under an Italian name, Brunico. It is, therefore, an Italian town that is, in effect, Germanic in all but name. The interesting result is a multi-cultural colouring that leaves the city with a dual nationality, which manifests in language, names, gastronomy, architecture and personality.
Not many architects can say that their construction will lest centuries, let alone millennia, though many Romans can. Not many tourists can say that they have beheld constructions that are more than a millennia old, though those who have visited the magnificent Pont du Gard can. This ‘pont’ (‘bridge’ in French) over the Gard (also called the Gardon) River in the south of the Hexagon is one of the the most country’s most spectacular ancient sites, left over from the days when the Roman-dominated territory was called Gaul, and Lyon (or ‘Lugdnumum‘) was still the capital. Built around 40-60 AD spanning 275m at its longest point, the aqueduct in entirety descends only 17 m over the course of it’s length, while the Pont du Gard has a mere 2.5 centimetres slant, which makes you marvel at the ingenuity and intelligence of the Romans without computers, machinery, calculators or any other aspects of modern technology. The Pont is impressive enough when viewed from land, but the best way to truly experience such a structure is the way it was meant to be seen – by water. So, jump in a canoe or kayak, grab your paddle, splash through the Gard River and don’t be afraid to get wet!
Thick iron beams and sturdy iron bars may seem like an unusual site to behold in a city so well known for its elegance, old world charm, and beautiful architecture. In order to cross the famed Danube, you have a couple of options if you’re looking for famed landmarks: the magnificent Chain Bridge, or, as pictured here, the industrial-age Liberty Bridge. Connecting the beautiful Gellert Hill (location of Gellert Spa and Hotel), and the bustling Fővám Tér, or Great Market Hall, Liberty Bridge is as important as it is famous. As a cantilever truss bridge with a suspended middle span, it is quite different in structure than anything already spanning Budapest’s waters, but was constructed in a (successful) effort to augment the economy by better connecting Buda and Pest. And yes, Budapest is actually a combination of several communes, including Buda and Pest, whose names and boundaries were combined to create a compound city in 1873. We’ll wrap this up with a fun fact: the final piece of the puzzle (or in this case, the bridge) was symbolically added by Emperor Franz Joseph himself.
Ghent, part of the Flemish part of the county, is often overlooked in favour of its more famous cousin, Bruges. Yet, both cities are incredibly beautiful and deserve a visit! In Ghent, you will find canals draped in weeping willows, Gothic and Neo-Gothic architecture, art nouveau designs, cheerful students sipping coffees in colourful cafes, food trucks and tiny restaurants selling fries and gaufres (waffles) in the streets, couples strolling down the cobbled streets. It is a hipster city, and those tourists who decide to visit this beautiful city relish in striking off the beaten path. Visit Gravensteen Castle, take a boat tour of the Ghent Canals, and admire the intriguing Art Nouveau architecture. Here, it is easy to mingle with the locals. Simply stroll along one of Ghent’s many canals until you find a cozy cafe, cheerful restaurant or lively bar – and strike up a chat with the locals. You won’t regret it!
Ah rural Poland. A remote cabin in the woods, sun seeping through the breaks in the trees, leafy green branches clinging to sturdy trunks. A stream trickles along its path, hugging the corner of the wooden cabin. It’s homey, romantic and even desolate all at the same time. The Polish countryside, like much of Central/Eastern Europe, was destroyed and left to be reclaimed by nature after the war. The countryside in Europe varies greatly between regions, but in rural Poland, snug cabins, little wooden farms, grazing livestock and dusty towns are quite common. Typical countryside roads whip ancient, faded cars around farms and over hills, taking drivers on the “scenic route.” Despite limited resources and roundabout roads, rural Europe holds a certain charm. It is here you will find the cheeriest, kindest people. It is here you will bathe in soft sunlight to the chorus of birds while relaxing in mountains, forests and streams. It is here you will feel connected to both nature and the local population at the same time. Wherever you choose to go, don’t hesitate to leave Europe’s great cities behind for a petit sejour in the countryside! Whether searching for solitude, inspiration, relaxation, or a remote romantic getaway, rural Poland will not leave you disappointed.
The famous song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” (On the Bridge of Avignon) immortalises the Saint Bénézet Bridge or more commonly known as le Pont d’Avignon, today a UNESCO site. In fact – this broken bridge. Because as famous as this bridge is, it can’t actually get you across the Rhone River. The bridge was built because the Ardèche shepherd, Bénézet had a vision that God wanted a bridge here, and when no one believed him, he threw a boulder to convince. Well, in 1185 they built the bridge alright – but apparently either the saint was wrong or God didn’t actually want the bridge because in 1226 it was destroyed by war, and then every century or so it was carried away by the Rhone River. By the 17th century, they gave it up to ruin. As for the 15th century song, it evokes images of townspeople dancing on the bridge – but as you can see, it’s not such a big place for a festival. It’s much more likely that in the original version, they would’ve danced sous or UNDER the bridge!
Sur le Pont d’Avignon L’on y danse, l’on y danse Sur le Pont d’Avignon L’on y danse tous en rond
On the bridge of Avignon
We all dance there, we all dance there
On the bridge of Avignon
We all dance there in a ring
What trip to Oxford is complete without donning a straw hat, getting into a flat-bottomed boat and attempting to push yourself along by digging a long pole into the River Thames? It looks wonderfully picturesque and serene–but it is surprisingly harder than it looks. Oxford, as you probably know, is home to a collection of 30+ colleges forming Oxford University, one of the world’s most foremost institutions of higher learning. Amongst all that studying, those long nights in the library, hours spent in classes or listening to speeches by esteemed professors while wearing dress robes in a banquet hall (yes, this sounds a bit like Hogwarts but it’s all true!)–all of that takes extraordinary amounts of time and energy, so for a couple of centuries, students found that they could take the edge off by grabbing a few of their best friends, ditching their dress robes, and jumping into a punt. Sometimes when they were feeling especially daring, they held races and pushed each other into the water. While the ‘sport’ may pale in comparison to bungee jumping or windsurfing, you cannot deny that it is quintessentially English. And now, on your next trip to Oxford (or Cambridge for that matter) you can see what all the fuss is about too…just try not to fall in!
Known for once hosting the Olympics, and probably more importantly, for hosting the infamous Shroud of Turin, Torino is still often overlooked. Far from the hills of Tuscany, the ruins of Rome and the canals of Venice, Torino does not fit into the typical Italian mold. And yet—Torino can hold its own. It is a superbly beautiful and elegant city. The banks of the Po River (here) are charming. The streets are grand, everything is clean. Because of its location in northern Italy and on the doorstep of the Alps, even the air feels cleaner. The city has a pulse; it doesn’t take much to hear its beating heart. If you continue across the river, you reach the Chiesa della Gran Madre di Dio which rather looks like the Pantheon, and just past that, a hill that leads to a monastery. From there, you can see the whole of Torino, and, just beyond, the Alps. Torino may be a big city, but it is also a mountain city. The simplicity and tranquility often associated with Alpine towns can be found here, in one of Italy’s largest cities!
The golden sun sets on Moscow, sliding over the top of the cathedral’s gilded domes as it sweeps into the river, leaving a glistening reflection of the boats passing alongside. There is no doubt that Moscow is a beautiful place. Why then, are there so few people who feel compelled to visit this city? Part of it is that the image of Moscow during the 20th century continues to persist. One thinks of the KGB, Russian mobs and the evils of communism. It is not only Behind-the-Iron-Curtain, it created the Iron Curtain. Hammer and scythe building nuclear weapons, placing sleeper cells throughout America and Europe, and plotting to take over the world. I’d like to say that that’s the old Russia, an attitude long gone—but recent activities in Crimea, Georgia, and eastern Ukraine have forced us to consider otherwise. Regardless, this is all on a governmental level. Moscow—on a human level—is nothing like its portrayal in the news, in spy novels, by Hollywood. It is a shrine, beautiful yet reminiscent of an old life, nostalgic. It is also filled with communist-era buildings, marshutkas (small, ancient bus-vans that service the outskirts and are run word-of-mouth), and power lines that criss-cross endlessly. This is a city at the tipping-point of modernization—one still not 100% sure it wants to be modernized. Regardless, Moscow emits an indescribable and fascinating beauty. It is full of history and memory and grandeur. It is the eastern gate, the last holdout laying at the feet of the East, and it is beautiful one–especially during the sunset.
It’s only fitting to choose a photo of Lyon today, as the next six weeks will be spent taking a short break from France to work in rural Spain. Lyon is a beautiful city – but it is one that rarely gets put on the map. It’s also been called one of France’s “most liveable cities”–which is mostly because of the Lyonnais themselves. With roots that go all the way back to the Romans (then called “Lugdunum”), Lyon has been an important city since its founding in 43 BC largely because of its location at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône Rivers. Today, it’s regarded as France’s “gastronomic capital” – and since many consider France to rank #1 when it comes to cuisine…perhaps this means that Lyon is the #1 place to eat in the world? While that may not be true for everyone, it is true that the city has a lot to offer: local bouchons (restaurants with Lyonnais cuisine) coupled with the extravagant restaurants created by the famous chef Paul Bocuse (on the other end of the spectrum), a beautiful old town (the Vieux Lyon), the hill of Fourvière with the Roman ruins(once a great amphitheater) plus the beautiful Basilica, as well as not one but two rivers lined with quays–perfect for strolling, picnicking, biking, enjoying a beer, reading in the sun, people-watching, photographing, or simply taking in the views of Lyon by day and night. Take a step back and enjoy the views–because Lyon is one of the most underrated yet most beautiful cities in Europe!
Of course, the list of reasons why you should fall in love with France is longer than China’s Great Wall, but one of things from the list that particularly stands out is the sheer number and beauty of French villages. While places like Poland, Croatia or Latvia have their own form of beauty (Polish old towns are especially beautiful, Croatia has an magnificent coastline and Latvia has some magnificent “unexplored” wilds), 9 times out of 1o, the villages you encounter in their countryside are just okay. Of course, Spanish and British and German villages are cute too…but nothing beats France. One of the best ways to see France is to get a bike, head out to the countryside – biking along the Saône River, the Rhône River, the Loire River or the Gard River are just a few examples of river-based itineraries – and visit the villages. This particular village, renamed Neuville in 1665 by the archbishop of Lyon, Camille de Neufville, features this castle or unemaison forte, as the French say (literally, a “strong house” i.e. a fortified dwelling), that rises up from the town’s centre. Sadly, the castle is in disrepair and closed to the public, but this has little affect on the loveliness of the surrounding village. The Monts d’Or region north of Lyon (literally, “Mountains of Gold”) along the Saône River, is full of adorable, take-your-breath-away villages (and not just because you’re huffing and puffing after putting a few kilometers on that French bicycle!) – so don’t forget your camera. Or a bit of cash – Les Monts d’Or borders the Beaujolais wine region, so be sure to taste local wines, perhaps buy fresh, local produce, or even stop for a quick beer by the river!