Ireland is one of the richest destinations when it comes to Neolithic heritage, in particular, Neolithic era tombs. Here in Ireland, we still have thousands of them. Capping most hills and mountains is some kind of cairn, usually small and inconspicuous. Two regions are particularly concentrated: Sligo and Meath (though interestingly, Celtic Neolithic societies stretched all the way to Scotland, Wales,Bretagne, and Galicia). The biggest of the Neolithic tombs is found in Meath. UNESCO site Newgrange is one of Ireland’s wonders. Built around 3,200BC according to archeologists, the Newgrange monument is an enormous mound/ cairn that encloses a single, 19-metre-long passage tomb ending in 3 burial chambers where cremated remains were once placed. Inside, the passage is narrow but visitors are still able to walk (unlike the tombs at Carrowkeel where you have to crawl…). Walls are adorned with spirals and other basic forms of megalithic rock art, and the tomb’s roof uses corbelling, an ancient drystone technique that makes the tomb waterproof without even requiring mortar! Even with the thousands of tombs they’ve left behind, we know very little about the ancient Celtic Neolithic people of Ireland. One thing that is evident is that astronomy was very important to them. In fact, Neolithic people had a good understanding of sun, moon, and stars including solstices and equinoxes. Newgrange is aligned with the Winter Solstice, therefore for 6 days in mid December, the sun shines through the “roofbox” (that narrow slit above the door of the tomb) to the lighten the chamber with sunlight. Amazing!
Pro tip: If you want to visit for the Winter Solstice, you can enter the lottery (with about 30,000 other applicants for 100 available places!) Or head to one of the other Neolithic sites for similar alignments. For Newgrange, I recommend booking in advance, and going early in the day. However, Newgrange Visitor Centre will be closed for most of 2019 so you can’t book in advance. Tickets are free and first-come basis. Best to visit in the off season or early, around 9 am. Nearby site of Dowth is also amazing – you can’t get inside anymore, but you’ll have it all to yourself. Or head to the Hill of Tara.
Romantic redbrick turrets and towers rise from a small island on Lithuania‘s Lake Galvé, home to the 14th-15th century Trakai Island Castle. Today accessible by a small wooden bridge, Trakai Island Castle actually claims to be Eastern Europe‘s only island castle still standing. While still in its infancy, the castle was attacked and severely damaged by the Teutonic Knights in 1377, and further damaged during a power struggle for title of Grand Duke of Lithuania. Once peace again reigned, it was the very same Teutonic Order that organised the rebuilding of the castle. Over time, other ameliorations were added – a massive donjon, wooden galleries along the inner courtyard, new palatial wings containing the impressive Ducal Hall, thicker defensive walls, three new towers and 16th century galleries complete with canons, designed to defend against new advances in technology (notably, gunpowder). Despite this, since the Battle of Grunwald, Trakai left its military importance behind and was used predominantly as a residence and a way to impress visitors, but by the 1700s and 1800s, it was in ruins, serving as little more than a romantic ruin for artistic and poetic inspiration. Reconstruction started in the late 1800s and continued through the first half of the 20th century. Today, Trakai Island Castle is a quiet monument to Lithuanian history and cultural strength, and part of the Trakai Historical National Park. Visit the castle by crossing the new bridge from the town of Trakai, only about 30 minutes from the capital city, Vilnius.
Pro tip: As the Baltic states open up to increasing tourism, places like Trakai Island Castle will get busier. It’s best to visit Trakai in the off-season or earlier in the morning in order to get the castle and island largely to yourself. Better yet, stay over in Trakai town and use as a jumping-off point to explore the region. Home to a proud Karaim community, a Turkish-speaking ethnic group descended from Crimean immigrants, try the delicious local Karaim dish, kybyn, a sort of dumpling or pasty stuffed with meat and vegetables while in Trakai.
Another in the series of rebuilt structures sparked by the Fire of Notre Dame. What comes to everybody’s mind when you hear the word “Dresden”? The Dresden bombing of WWII of course. Sadly, this controversial bombing in February 1945 killed 25,000 people, levelling the city centre to piles of rumble, much like Warsaw after the Warsaw Uprising. And then after the war, it was hidden behind the Iron Curtain, left to be rebuilt during the East German Communist era (also like Warsaw!). Luckily, much of Dresden’s old town has been restored to its former glory, showing the resilience of the people much like the citizens of Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe obliterated by the war. The Dresdner Frauenkirche was one of the main buildings to be reconstructed after the terrible bombing. Not formally a cathedral, this building only dates back to the 18th century. Dresden was flattened February 13-15th 1945 when the RAF and the USAAF dropped more than 3,900 tons of bombs on the German city, leaving it as nothing more than a heap of rubble with thousands dead. The church managed to survive two days of attack, but it could not withstand the intense heat from the blasts, and eventually collapsed. It would remain in ruins for the following 45 years. Happily, by 2005, the Frauenkirche‘s reconstruction was completed and the church was more beautiful than ever!
Pro tip: Dresden is also reputed for its Christmas markets… perhaps consider December for your next visit!
Vienne is most famous for its Roman ruins – the Temple of Auguste and Livie, amphitheatre and obelisk – though there is far more to this ancient place than that. A bit eerie and yet hauntingly beautiful, Vienne’s Pipet Cemetery is a fascinating place to visit. Vast alleyways and avenues are lined with massive tombs and headstones making a sort of French city of the dead. Climb to the top of the hill for a view of the fantastic ruins of the medieval castle, Chateau de la Batie, which still cling to the rugged hilltop, crowning Vienne’s dramatic skyline. The view of Chateau de la Batie seems straight out of Victorian-era painting, of a folly perhaps—dramatic cliffs, dark forests, a ruined castle, a grey cemetery, a hanging sky—and yet, the view is entirely authentic. Perched at the top of Mont Salomon, the castle Chateau de la Batie was built on the foundations of Roman ruins in 1225 by the archbishop of Vienne in order to protect the city from would-be medieval attackers. While the castle is not open to the public, it turns a rather ordinary landscape into something dramatic, romantic and even extraordinary to behold, and both the cemetery and Vienne’s hilltop are well worth the visit.
Pro tips: In the summer months of June and July, the city comes alive with the annual festival, Jazz a Vienne. Just across the Rhone Riveris Saint-Romain-en-Gal (only a separate town because it crosses county lines), find the ruins of a Roman city and an excellent museum of Roman archeology. Sometimes the site even hosts living history festivals. Vienne is an easy day trip from Lyon.
One of the most striking ruins in the centre of England, Kenilworth Castle is one of the finest examples of a royal palace in the Middle Ages. Subject of the six-month long Siege of Kenilworth in 1266, believed to be the longest siege in English history, Kenilworth is perhaps most famous for its Elizabethan connection. Construction on the castle began in the 1100s, but it was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I that Kenilworth came into its stride. Owner Robert, Earl of Leicester, was deeply in love with Queen Elizabeth (or perhaps just her money and power) and spent thousands of pounds renovating and luxuriating the estate. He built a new garden simply because Elizabeth complained about the lack of a view. He entertained 31 barons and 400 staff from her court during her final (and longest ever) visit. He put on pageants, fireworks, bear-baiting, mystery plays, hunting and lavish banquets at the grand Kenilworth Castle. But sadly, she never married him, and he died in debt (did you expect a different ending to the story?). The story of Kenilworth Castle ended about as happily ever after as the romance of Robert and Elizabeth. Colonel Joseph Hawkesworth “slighted” or deliberately destroyed Kenilworth in the 17th century based on political affiliations. It was stripped, turned into a farm, and largely forgotten about until famous author and poet Sir Walter Scott wrote Kenilworth, immortalising the estate in Victorian literature. Today, the mostly-ruined castle is a popular tourist destination, having acquired a little of its former grandeur.
Pro tip: Kenilworth Castle is an easy day trip from Stratford-upon-Avon. Also, for literature nerds, Sir Walter Scott is not the only author inspired by the castle – check out British-Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie’s short story, ‘Foreboding,’ part of the collection, Eight Ghosts.
Boyle Abbey in the Irish midlands, was Connacht’s (one of four traditional regions of Ireland) first Cistercian monastery. Founded in 1142 (though not consecrated until 1218), Boyle Abbey was built alongside the skeletal shell of an abandoned Celtic monastery. Cistercians, also called Bernardines or sometimes White Monks (for their garments), are a Catholic order of monks and nuns from Cîteaux, France (near Dijon) that were a highly influential religious sect under the renowned influenced of famed Bernard de Clairvaux. Widespread across Europe, the Cistercians founded hundreds of monasteries, abbeys and daughter houses. Though the Cistercians seemingly found it difficult to settle down in Ireland, they finally found their home in Boyle, growing quite successful at founding many daughter abbeys and monasteries throughout the region. Unfortunately, much of the beautiful cloisters and other fine architectural details are lost today. In 1645, Boyle Abbey was besieged by the evil Oliver Cromwell and his English army of hooligans, who spent the better part of four years (from 1649–53) murdering, destroying and causing terror and mayhem across Ireland for the sole purpose of conquering Ireland in order to steal their land and force them under English and Protestant rule. Of course, Ireland was predominantly Catholic (and thanks to the misogynistic tyrant Henry VIII, the English were very strongly Protestants) – all of which lead to the Penal Laws that effectively outlawed Catholicism in Ireland. Poor Boyle Abbey was once again ravaged in 1592, this time when it was transformed into Elizabethan barracks – soldiers’ quarters and a base for the English army – because what better way to assert dominance over your colony than use a monastery as a war engine (the British don’t fare well in Irish history…). Archeologists, historians and conservationists have attempted to recover and conserve the abbey as much as possible, carrying out both repairs and archeological surveys – leading to both a new wall and some interesting finds – with the abbey presented as it would have been under the Cistercian command.
Tip: Today, Boyle Abbey is under the care of the OPW (Ireland’s public works office) so check opening hours before you go, and be prepared for poor weather conditions as most of the tour is outside. Afterwards, eat at the deliciously organic Drumanilra Farm Kitchen, or head to the Book Lady for a bit of reading material, Ireland’s self-proclaimed smallest bookshop.
St Michael’s along the Philosophen Weg, Heidelberg, Germany
It’s the journey, not the destination that makes a place special, which is certainly true of St Michael’s Monastery near Heidelberg. Start on the far side of the river by meandering your way up a path called Philosophen Weg. Steep and narrow, this cobblestoned alley quickly sweeps you out of the city and up into the deep, dark woods overhanging the gothic spires of Heidelberg. Then, the path promptly splits in two, and your only signpost signalling the way is a boulder engraved with obscure German words. So what do you do? Choose a path, and hope it’s right, though you soon start second-guessing yourself as you come to another fork, and another. At each path, there is a new boulder, with new words. Scratching your head with frustration, you cast your eyes around you in hopes of discovering a clue. Suddenly, you feel very much like you stepped off the pages of a Grimm’s brother tale. Rounding a bend, the trees suddenly open up over a magnificent panorama of the city. The next opening takes you to an amphitheater with exceptional acoustics (once unfortunately used for hate speeches by the Nazi party). After a small eternity in the dark fairytales of the Brothers Grimm’s world, you emerge, completely surprised at your luck, into a clearing comprised of the ruins of St Michael’s Monastery. While some of its ruins are even older, the majority of the monastery dates to 1023. But by 1503, the complex’s last monks died, and the rural, isolated monastery was abandoned, and like so many once-great places, forgotten. While open to the public today, these little-visited and remote ruins hold the air of a lost masterpiece.
Pro tip: The best way to arrive at the monastery is on foot but its best to ask for a map or use a GPS to find your way in the woods. Once you pass the old amphitheatre you’re almost there.
Other Ruined European Monasteries, Abbeys and Friaries
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.
Twisted Tombs in Highgate Cemetery, London, England
One of the creepiest places in London, Highgate Cemetery is old and dark, overflowing with cracked, crooked tombstones grinning like jagged teeth and fanned with thick overgrown grass. Scattered amongst the stones are statues and stone caskets marking out the wealthier dead – even in death, social classes are made apparent. West Highgate is older, full of cracked tombstones hidden under heavy trees and dark bushes, while East Highgate (across the road) is newer, orderly, and home to the famous Karl Marx tomb (an enormous stone bust). In the overgrown Victorian West Cemetery, vicious vines grasp forgotten tombs, determined to pull their sepulchres underground, their owners’ names sanded away by centuries’ worth of wind. Highgate Cemetery was born in 1839 alongside seven other cemeteries, built to release the pressure of overcrowded intercity (and sometimes illegal) cemeteries. The dark Victorian path twists through overgrown rows of grey stones and wailing angels, leading to the obelisks of Egyptian Avenue (Victorian interest in Egypt had been piqued by Napoleon). Following that is the Circle of Lebanon, crowned with a massive ancient cedar tree older than the cemetery itself, circled by tombs seemingly revering it. Finally, the brave visitor will pass through dark, vaulted catacombs where warmth and light seem devoid. It is said that this creepy endroit inspired Bram Stoker while writing Dracula (particularly the scene at the graveyard with the undead new vampire Lucy Westenra). While this is not proven (experts suggest the mythical graveyard might’ve been St Mary’s Churchyard), there is certainly no denying the eeriness of this fiercely Victorian Gothic graveyard in north London. Get ready for goosebumps while wandering this dark and wild place where the din of London and the 21st century seem leagues away.
Pro tip: The more modern east section can be visited by all, but the most overgrown and Victorian west side is by guided tour only. It’s well worth it!
The 12th century Chateau des Adhémar remains one of the last true examples of Romanesque architecture, a style defined by rounded arches, thick walls, squat towers and sturdy pillars. This study, box-like castle was built atop a sunburnt hill which overlooks the orange-tiled, sunny town of Montélimar (located in the Drôme department in the south of France). Appropriated by the papacy in the 14th century until 1447 when it re-entered the Kingdom of France, the castle has been used as papal residence, an armament for several conflicts and wars, a citadel, a prison, a country residence, and now a contemporary art museum. In fact, Chateau des Adhémar was largely saved in the last few centuries as it was put to use as a prison. The famed loggia, or loge, with the striped design and rounded windows attached to the main keep was added during the Renaissance to ‘beautify’ what was considered a ‘plain’ Romanesque design. The beautiful Renaissance loggia was also built to add light to formerly gloomy rooms as well as show off the expansive countryside on Chateau des Adhémar’s toes. Located in the inner courtyard is the ancient 11th century St Pierre Chapel. Once a part of the wide-reaching monastic network centred at the Monastery of Ile Barbe in Lyon, the simple Romanesque chapel was later incorporated into the castle complex by the powerful Adhémar family. Today, the castle is a fine example of Romanesque and Renaissance architecture, as well as the modern art movement. It offers splendid aerial views of Montélimar and is a perfect stop on a road trip heading from Lyon to Nimes, Avignon, Montpellier or any other destinations in Southern France!
See Other Fascinating Places in the South of France
‘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.
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
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 CNN attributed it to being among the top 10 best preserved walled medieval cities in the world!
Abandoned warehouse (Former Albo Cannery) in Santoña, Spain
Arrested decay, elegant crumbling, slow fall into ruin. This little port-side town is generally off the tourist maps – and the economic charts as well. Little Santoña is known for one main export: anchovies. Its port is lined with little warehouses and canneries dedicated to anchovies such as this one – yet somehow, the warehouse district of Santoña doesn’t seem like a place to avoid. In fact, the warehouse district is actually snuggled into the ‘hip’ part of town, across from the marina and a sort of ship monument with a restaurant and look-out point on top. Though Santoña may be off the beaten path, hidden in a corner of northern Spain (which is ALSO off the beaten path!), a quick stopover on a northern Spain trek is a must. Not only does it have some of the best anchovies and affordable tapas, but it also has some of the best beaches (such as Playa Berria), ancient forts (San Carlos and San Martin), and wondrous nature (El Fraile Peak, the point with the El Caballo Lighthouse).
Masters of art, of culture, of language, of theatre, of architecture, of engineering – we can all agree that the Romans were impressive people. While much of their constructions dies with the fall of the Roman Empire, we can still catch a glimpse of Roman ingenuity from time to time. The Roman Colosseum, the Pont du Gard, the Pantheon, the Spa of Bath, the ruins of Aosta, the Fourvière Amphitheatre in Lyon…Roman ruins exist all over Europe, Northern Africa, and the M.E. However, one of the most impressive and most accessible exemplars is found in Segovia, Spain. Though the exact date of construction is a mystery, it is thought to date from the reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96), and runs for roughly 32 km on a 1% grade to the city centre. While most of it is still authentic, there is a hefty part (36 arches to be exact) that date from only the 15th century, rebuilt after it was destroyed by the Moors. However, this doesn’t affect the beauty or impressiveness of the ruins. The arches of the aqueduct march right through the town centre, traversing plazas and streets, cafes and buildings. The people milling about the ancient structure seem small in comparison to the enormous arches. When you finally approach the giant feet of the structure, and slowly make your way up the stairs to take you to the top, you feel the goosebumps on your arms as you realise just however impressive is that they constructed this magnificent engineering feat long before the age of machines.
Not to be confused with “Vienna, Austria” (despite both having the same name in French), is this little town in central France, lost somewhere along the route from Lyon to Marseille. Vienne would be a typical, mildly-attractive French town if not for a few distinct features…namely, the gigantic Roman temple located in the main town square, not to mention the Roman amphitheater and a “pyramid” (though not at all what you are currently picturing). It’s a strange sensation, wandering through a maze of streets, streets one finds in most French towns and cities, and then rounding a corner and–suddenly–coming upon this ancient, free-standing temple that seems as if it tumbled off a page in book on the Roman Empire. The Temple d’Auguste et de Livie was designed in the Corinthian style and was erected by the emperor Claudius around 20 BC. The main reason why it survived when so many of its sisters were destroyed was its conversion to a church and renaming to match the rise in Christianity, “Notre Dame de Vie.” Additionally, it was briefly converted during the Reign of Terror to celebrate the new god, the “Supreme Being,” and the new “order of Reason” created by the infamous Robespierre during the dechristianisation of France. Today, it resides in this sleepy French town, unconcerned about change or modernity or the passage of time, content merely to exist.
The amphitheater here in Lyon is not perhaps quite as famous as the one in Rome, nor is it as complete as, say, the theaters of Nimes or Arles or any of the others. Regardless, one must admit that it’s pretty fascinating that remnants from more than 2000 years ago not only still exist in Europe today–but are still in use! Lyon’s half-ruined amphitheater located at the top of the hill of Fourvière is still used to host ‘Les Nuits a Fourvière‘ (Nights in Fourvière) every summer, where concerts and other events take place nearly every night. Though partially reconstructed, one can still walk through this ancient structure which in part, dates back to 15 BC (the second stage having been completed during the 2nd century). Ruins or not, sitting down in a 2000-year-old amphitheater is enough to send shivers down anyone’s spine!
Ah, Kenilworth. This is one of England’s most dramatic ruins. In fact, historian Anthony Emery describes it as “the finest surviving example of a semi-royal palace of the later middle ages.” which one must admit is pretty impressive. It is also impressive for its resistance and survival during what is possibly the longest siege in English history : a six month siege during the English Civil War in 1266. Oh, and don’t forget the Earl of Leicester, who was so in love with Elizabeth I that he organised a massive, lavish and bank-busting hosting of the queen in order to impress her, going so far as spend thousands of pounds and renovating the castle and grounds, nearly bankrupting himself in the process. Good ol’ Queen Lizzie brought with her no less than thirty-one barons and four hundred staff for her royal visit to Kenilworth, lasting a grand total of nineteen days, one of the longest visits she ever made. The sad thing is…she was just using him for his castle and his parties. She never did marry the poor guy. Today, the ruins are open to the public, just try not to climb on the walls however tempting that may be! (There are signs everywhere, though to be fair, no one really enforcing them…!)
Owning a ruin in the 19th century was a big thing. If you didn’t manage to own your own ruin, well, that’s no problem because you could always build one! History and authenticity was obviously not nearly as important then as it is today. What mattered more was its aesthetic value. More than that, the 19th century saw owning a ruin (real or not) aligned with owning a piece of history, being in control of the past. So if you couldn’t afford to build your own ruin, but still wanted to jump on the ruin-owning, history-controlling bandwagon, you could turn an existing building into a ruin. We saw it with Sham Castle in Bath (a folly; 100% modern), again with the Gravensteen in Ghent (modified ruin), then later with Kreuzenstein Castle in Austria (a new castle was constructed from old bits of other castles). There are countless other examples (one more: Hungary’s Vajahunyad Castle, based on older ruin). Now, we see it again here, with Chateau Montmelas. Montmelas began its life as “chateau fort”; that is, a fortified manor house, in the 13-14th centuries. Then, some 500+ years later, crumbling and forlorn, the previous residence of Louis XV’s mistress, it was restored in the Neo-Gothic style. Turrets, crinolines, a keep, courtyards–all very medieval. And in fact, it still retains many qualities and original stonework from the Middle Ages, despite the modifications! Not only that, but it’s appearance is breathtaking. And its current purpose? A winery in the Beaujolais, as one can tell from the surrounding vineyards. While privately-owned, the castle can be visited at certain times of the year. I guess owning a ruin in the modern day–a real ruin, mind you–is still a pretty big thing!
We all know that Romans were some of the most advanced builders of all time. Things they constructed not only still exist today, but are often still in use. Here in Aosta, a “bilingual” city in northern Italy (not far from the French border), one sees many Roman vestiges. Why? Well, around 25 BC, Marcus Terentius Varro conquered the local people and “founded” the Roman colony, Augusta Praetoria Salassorum, and a few years later, it became the capital of the ‘Alpes Graies’ (“Grey Alps” if you couldn’t guess!) region of the Roman Empire because of its strategic location on the crossroads from Rome to modern-day France and Germany. Of course, everything is aligned on a grid, all is divided equally, centered around the main road–these are the Romans we’re talking about! As for the theatre itself, it dates back to the reign of Claudius, and held up to 4000 people. It’s no longer in use today…but just next door is the marketplace, which is still regularly used! The city itself sits on a impressive backdrop of the Alps. Along with the rest of the castle-filled Aosta Valley, the city is also well-known for wine. With the Roman ruins, the magnificent Alps, the surrounding landscape of flowers and villages, the happy Italians, the lovely blend of French and Italian, and the delicious wine (and pizza…this is Italy after all!), Aosta is the place to be!
Castles abound in this Italian region bordering both France and Switzerland. The borders and rulers of this region have changed too many times to recount, giving the region a severe case of identity crisis. Even today, though a part of Italy for a long time, the region still seems relatively bilingual in both Italian and French. The city of Aosta is often the destination—but the train ride to the Roman city is one of those times when Emerson’s expression “life is a journey, not a destination” comes to light. Keep your eyes glued to the train windows because all those times the valley changed hands have created a need for limitless castles and fortresses—therefore, it is rather like playing “Where’s Waldo?” (if Waldo was a castle!) every five minutes! Mostly built in the typical Italian style (see Milan), the castles not only add a romantic flair to the valley, but also serve to remind us of our brutal feudal history—and the reason why we built castles in the first place.
Ruins always hold a certain charm–reminders to us that even the best eventually crumble and nothing lasts forever. And yet–they are romantic too, inspirations for artists and poets, writers and songwriters. And the more remote and less well-known they are, the more charm they seem to percolate. To reach the ruins of Krimulda Castle from the train station in Sigulda, one must first cross the desolate yet beautifully scenic Gauja Valley–in a cable car! Step into this adorable little yellow car, and spend the next twenty minutes dangling over the gorge, eyes glued to the window as the turrets of Turaida Castle rise above the treetops. As you land on the right bank, delve back into the solitary Latvian woods via a quiet hiking trail at the edge of the ruins. The odd way of reaching this remote place you never even knew was there–such as the Krimulda ruins–only makes it that much more…amazing. Built in the 14th century by Prince Liven, the castle of Krimulda was constructed on the right bank of the Gauja River Gorge. At the time, the gorge marked the frontier between the lands controlled by the Archbishop of Riga (including Krimulda and Turaida), and the Order of the Brethren Sword (what a name!), where Sigulda is currently located. The first year of the 17th century, during the Polish-Swedish war, the Swedes took control of the castle…so, rather than lose control of it, the Poles burned the castle to the ground, leaving it to become the ruins we see today. What a life people lived back then.
What little girl doesn’t dream of becoming a princess? What little boy doesn’t, at one point or another, dream of becoming a knight? Even as we grow up, castles – especially the unexplored, wild, and overgrown castles – retain something romantic, as if the castle holds some sort of magical power. But as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts. And the journey to reach Turaida Castle is nothing short of adventurous! Starting in the town of Sigulda (where one obtains the highly-detailed map), you continue through the other ruinous castle to Gauja River Gorge, which you cross via cable car to arrive in the ghost town of Krimulda. There, you find a small path leading through more ruins, and continuing on past the Gutmanis Cave, through the woods before breaking out into a small clearing to view your prize—this beautiful brick castle circa 1214, brought to life by the Archbishop of Riga. Today, Turaida Castle remains one of the most important ruins in Latvia – but also one of the most interesting to visit. So if you’re feeling brave next time you visit Riga, forsake the car, forsake the bus, and take to the trails. This age-old journey leading through these ancient sites is well worth it.
Nothing beats a good set of ruins! In all seriousness, sometimes what has been left to crumble away is just as important as what has been redone and rebuilt. And when it comes to castles, often the most romantic castles, the most picturesque, the most spectacular are the ones quietly deteriorating – especially in Scotland. Case in point, imagine Dunnottor Castle on its cliff-side peninsula, Stirling Castle in the rugged hills, Eilean Donan Castle (the most photographed castle in Scotland) on its beautiful loch, and of course, St Andrews castle itself on the beach. Circa 1200, the St Andrew’s Castle was sacked, destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed, rebuilt, burned, sacked, rebuilt, etc., as the Scots and the English often clashed and continually took their disagreements to the battlefield. Today, the ruins border nearby St Andrews University (the oldest university in Scotland and also the institution that educated Prince William and Kate Middleton), while overlooking the shores of the North Sea, whose waves quietly lap the base of the castle’s cliffs. The ruins are quite beautiful in a crumbly, “everything falls apart,” romantic sort of way.
Nope, not Greece, not Italy, not even Cyprus. It’s actually France! Yes, it’s a little surprising to find such stereotypically Roman architecture so far from home, but there’s actually a decent amount of Roman remnants here in France. The temple was erected by emperor Claudius and survived the fall of the Romans as well as everything since then mostly because the citizens had the foresight to convert it to a church (“Notre Dame de Vie”). It dates back to 10-20 BC – needless to say, it’s very old. And very unexpected. While Vienne is an attractive town, it’s not terribly distinctive at first. One walks through small streets ducking old women with shopping carts and old men with berets and baguettes (I might be playing up the stereotypes a little). One turns the corner, and suddenly, wham. An open square lined with cafes and little shops, all facing this magnificent Roman temple dedicated to a long-dead-but-never-forgotten emperor. C’est magnifique, ne c’est pas?