Ireland is simply bursting with old ruins – from Neolithic cairns and Iron Age promontory forts, to Norman castles, medieval tower-houses, Georgian mansions, Famine-era villages, recently-abandoned cottages and course lots of churches and monasteries. When the evil Oliver Cromwell and his troops invaded, destroyed and looted Ireland at the behest of the Crown, he also burned all of the Catholic monasteries and churches, and with the Dissolution of the Monasteries (thanks to the mad King Henry VIII) plus the later 18th century Penal Laws (which outlawed everything Irish), most Irish Catholic churches were doomed. Even today, most Catholic churches are 19th or 20th centuries. Anything older, like the tiny church on the Racecourse Road outside Loughrea, is likely in ruins. Some of these structures benefit from the care of a community group, local church groups, an interested landowner, the OPW (Office of Public Works) if they’re lucky, or simply local do-gooders, but some many of these small, half-hidden structures are overgrown, wild and forgotten. Trying to preserve them all simply isn’t always possible. This little church seems even to have forgotten its name, though at least the site is still cared for. Spot it after leaving the small Galway town of Loughrea headed south on the way to Lough Derg.
Pro tip: Ruins such as old churches, as well as Neolithic cairns, megalithic tombs, holy wells, standing stones, public ways, and more are marked in red on OS maps (as well as contour lines). If you’re thinking of hiking in Ireland, or looking for smaller sites like this, you should get yourself an OS map of the part of the country you’re looking to visit. You can order them online, purchase them in most bookshops and outdoor shops, or download the Viewranger app as an electronic version.
Irish history isn’t always sunshine and roses. Much of it is fairly dark, oppressed for years under British rule. Remember arrogant (sexist) Henry VIII who couldn’t produce an heir due to his own inbred nature but kept blaming his wives? He decided to start his own divorce-friendly religion, which gradually took over and then punished Catholicism. across all English territories. In the 1500s, the Dissolution of the Monasteriesswept across the nation, forcing the abandonment of Catholic monasteries. The crumbling Lavagh Court Abbey in southwest Sligo was no exception. Built in 1454 as a Franciscan Friary, Lavagh sits at the base of Knocknashee Hill (‘hill of the fairies’), which for centuries was held sacred by the pagans (Christians are like Hollywood directors – to get a wider audience and easier job, they ‘borrow’ stories, concepts and sacred people and places from other religions they were hoping to wipe out, something they did successfully in Ireland). Once home to both brothers and sisters of the order, Lavagh is a simple rectangular church topped with a squat stone tower and joined with a chancel. Containing extensive burial sites, it has now been taken over with ivy, plants and flowers. As you wander the burials outside, keep an eye over the walls of the far side – you’ll see an earth-topped stone cashel (ringfort), at least half a century older than Lavagh itself. (What more? Check out well-preserved cashel like Cashelore or Clougher Fort). Follow the path through the half-forgotten wind-beaten graveyard through the small ivy-clad door into another world. Greeted with an earthy, natural smell, Lavagh’s sacred stone walls are wallpapered in crisscrossing ivy and blanketed in soft earth and rustling leaves. Lush and emerald, the massive greenery-wrapped arch feels like a scene out of Narnia. Wandering this ancient, abandoned site, drink in the eerie, moody atmosphere and feel the weight of Mother Nature, a far older god than the one Lavagh was originally built for. This place is surely enchanted with ancient fairytale magic – and chances are, you’ll have it all to yourself.
Pro trip: When visiting this corner of Sligo, you have to climb Knocknashee Hill. Most people climb it via the far side, parking at Gilligan’s World, and passing through the farm gates to climb the very steep slopes to the top. But there is a new path from the Lavagh side being constructed, though process has temporarily halted due to CV-19. At the top, find ancient cairns, forts, and village foundations. Interested in the changing site of Lavagh? Take a look at Sligo artist Wakeman, and his famous 19th century drawings of Sligo monuments.
Carrowkeel is one of Ireland’s four great Neolithic-era complexes (the others being Newgrange and the Boyne Valley; Loughcrew, and Carrowmore, also in Co Sligo). It is also arguably the best. This little-known site is off the beaten path for most people, and even locals sometimes forget it’s there. Carrowkeel comprises of 14 tombs, with another 12 in the surrounding half-dozen kilometres. The tombs, or cairns as they are called, date back to the Neolithic era, and are about 5,000 years old. For reference’s sake…. that’s older than Machu Picchu, the Roman Colosseum, Stonehenge, and the Pyramids of Giza. Far older, in most cases. From the small car park, it’s a 5km roundtrip hike to Cairns G, H, and K, which are the most popular tombs (each tomb has a letter). The cairn you see high up on the hilltop to your right? That’s Cairn B – one of the least-visited and most amazing (and visible) tombs of all Carrowkeel. Like the others, it was opened when early 20th-century English archeologist Macallister “excavated” it. This was the height or barbaric English archeology, and his team was… less than gentle with this ancient, sacred place. More than one tomb suffered dynamite and tunnelling, most had cremated remains removed for “testing” (never to return to Ireland), and even other artefacts such as pottery removed and taken from Ireland. Cairn B is a simple passage tomb, with a short 1-2 metre long narrow passage (ungracefully on your hands and knees) to get inside the main chamber. In use for hundreds of years, these cairns would’ve housed the cremated remains of the local Neolithic people’s ancestors, visited regularly for mysterious rituals that we still don’t understand today. It is an amazing place.
Pro tip: Aligned with the Summer Solstice, come here to watch the sun set on the longest day of the year. Cairn B is little visited – most watch the light enter Cairn G’s chamber through the narrow “roofbox” opening. To get here, instead of turning left onto the small road to Carrowkeel from Castlebaldwin, keep straight. After the first large house, park and follow the farmer’s fence to the top. No trail and rough terrain, but the grade isn’t steep.
Ireland is spilling over with ancient ruins, from the Neolithic through the Middle Ages to Georgian mansion and 20th century cottages. There are a lot of abbeys and friaries and priories in Ireland, and the majority of them are a lot like this one – in ruins. This we can blame on the terrible Englishman Oliver Cromwell whose horrid armies swept through Ireland in 1649 in order to “put those troublesome Irish back in their place” (I mean, how dare they ask for the right to rule themselves, speak their own language, or practice their own cultural traditions). He stomped through Ireland, burning and pillaging as he went. Even upon returning home, he left his son-in-law to continue his awful work. Ballindoon Abbey (also called Ballindoon Priory) is just one of many Irish abbeys to suffer at the fate of the disillusion of the abbeys. This gorgeous place rests quietly on the shores of Lough Arrow in Co Sligo. Built in the 14th century in the Gothic style, Ballindoon Abbey is small compared to some, but it is well preserved. It is has still been used in recent times as a gravesite. The tower overlooks the rest of the church, though there are stairs on the exterior, they are no longer usable. Ruined as it is, Ballindoon is a quiet place. Sitting on the pensive shores of a little-visited lake in a remote corner of Ireland, Ballindoon is picturersque, lonely and hauntingly beautiful. It is a testament to a long standing tradition and Ireland’s complicated relationship with both religion and England. Bring a camera, book and thermos of tea, and curl up here to escape from the world (likely met by the farmer’s cheerful black labrador pup!)
Pro tip: You’ll need a car, but Ballindoon Abbey is part of a supurb day trip from Sligo. Head over to Carrokeel tombs (5,000 years old!) for a 5km return hike to the tombs, then over to Lough Arrow to visit Ballindoon Abbey and up the hill behind Cromleach Lodge to visit Labby Rock. Hungry? On weekends, bounce over to Ballinafad Café (right next to the castle!) for a cosy community cafe for a cuppa and homemade treats, run 100% by volunteers in the community.
While travel isn’t possible right now, we’re continuing with our virtual explorations, this time a visit to northern France. Ireland probably contains the Neolithic era’s highest density of Neolithic monuments, but it’s not the only country with great prehistoric sites. Scotland and England are also home to quite a few Neolithic – and Prehistoric in general -era sites. The region of Brittany / Bretagne is another place of Celtic influence (as well as parts of Spain and Portugal), and Bretagne also home to quite a few of these ancient sites. What the region lacks in quantity, it makes up in quality. The Roche aux Fées – translating as the Rock of the Fairies – is one of the best-preserved ancient sites of this era. Comprising of 48 stones (9 of which are roof slabs) – the heaviest of which weighs 40-45 tonnes – the site is very complex. Like many sites we still see in Ireland (notably, mountaintop cairns), the original structure of the Roche aux Fées would have been covered with a mound of stones and earth. Stones used to build this 20 metre long gallery tomb would have been dragged here on a series of ropes, wheels and pulleys from the quarry site. Though its gallery form is not unique – there is a similar tomb at Lough Gur in Co Limerick, and others in rural Ireland such as in Co Mayo – the Roche aux Fées is certainly one of the best specimens of its type, and one of the largest. It is thought that it dates to 3,000-2,500BC, making it about 5,000 years old (and therefore older than the Pyramids of Giza)! Unlike in Ireland where such sites were built atop mountains or near bodies of water, the Roche aux Fées is located down a country lane in a quiet woodland. It is possible to go inside the tomb – the highest point is 4 metres, so you can stand up inside. As its name suggests, local legend claims that the Roche aux Fées was built by fairies (also common in Irish folklore) as a house or temple.
Pro tip: Generally, April and May are ideal months to travel in France – the weather is mild (generally just a light jacket needed), you’ll avoid peak season prices and there are few others travelling at this time. Watch out for May 1st (Labour Day) when most museums, castles etc are closed. The Roche aux Fées has free entry. Visitor centre open from June to August.
Dun Carloway is a broch. A broch, you might ask? A broch is a Scottish style Iron Age fort, structures that and found unanimously in Scotland. These are double-walled forts with narrow stairs following the contour of the fort in between the two layers of walls. The entranceway is low and narrow – in order to go force the invading enemy to get down and crawl into the fort, while the defenders pick them off one by one. Brochs date from roughly 100 BC to 100 AD, with Dun Carloway dating to about 1st century AD. Compared to other brochs, Dun Carloway is actually well-preserved. Located on the west coast of the windswept Isle of Lewis, Dun Carolway’s near-inhospitable setting is hauntingly beautiful and beautifully lonely. Amazingly, this Iron Age structure was in use through the 1600s – it wasn’t until the late 1800s that we know the building had become a ruin. That means Dun Carloway had 1,600 years of use! Not many buildings can claim a century, let alone more than a millennium! By 1882, Dun Carloway had become one of the first protected Scottish monuments. Today, it is a very cool site to visit while on the Isle of Lewis.
Pro tip: Nearby, you can also visit the amazing Callanish Standing Stones. If you’re into hiking, we recommend the lovely walk from Dalmore to Garenin (home to an interesting Blackhouse village reconstruction) – roughly 5km but over uneven ground, hiking boots recommended.
Would you believe this “temple” actually dates to only the 18th century and is located in Northern Ireland? Strangely enough, that’s the truth. One would call it a folly (i.e. a fake building built to look like something much older). Mussenden Temple was built by Lord Bristol in 1785. The estate was originally that of Frederick, the 4th Earl of Bristol (yes, Bristol, England…he’s far from home! Sadly this happened often – English “heroes” were given stolen Irish land), who was the Church of Ireland (e.g. Protestant) Bishop of Derry for 35 years in the late 1700s. Lord Bristol modelled his temple on the Roman Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum, though despite appearances, Mussenden Temple’s original purpose was a library. Located on the estate of Downhill Demense (now a sprawling ruin), the temple is precariously perched atop a cliff overlooking the lovely Downhill Strand. Though the temple itself did not appear in the infamous TV show Game of Thrones, the site was used as a backdrop for some scenes – in particular, Downhill Strand’s beach was one such site used. Nothing is left of the house but a shell, and though the temple fares slightly better, it is no longer a library. Coastal erosion is bringing the temple ever closer to the edge and though solutions are being looked at to keep the temple from tumbling down to the sea, you may want to visit sooner rather than later…
Pro tip: You can actually get married at this temple…imagine that! Also note that dog lovers can bring their pups with them when visiting Downhill Demense and Mussendun Temple. There are also lovely gardens on far side of the estate. Nearby, don’t miss the world-famous Giant’s Causeway or Bushmill’s Distillery, Ireland’s oldest.
Built by the infamous William the Conquerer, this 11th century castle occupies a commanding position over the Dorset hills and coastlines in southern England (though archeological evidence suggests that the area has been occupied for as much as 6,000 years). Corfe Castle holds the distinction of being one of England‘s first stone (or at least partially stone) castles and though ruined, Corfe Castle is still partially intact. The medieval era saw further defensive structural changes in the 12th-13th centuries (in keeping constant with updates in warfare), staying more or less the same until 1572 when Queen Elizabeth sold Corfe Castle to a member of the English nobility. Besieged twice during the English Civil War, the second siege led to the castle’s downfall, and in 1645 it was deliberately destroyed (in technical terms, it was “slighted”) to eliminate Corfe Castle as a military power. Slowly falling into ruin since then, Corfe Castle is now one of southern England’s most impressive castle ruins, located in the Isle of Purbeck Peninsula (which is not actually an island). The Neolithic, Celtic, Roman, Viking, Saxon, Norman, Medieval and Elizabethan periods all show their faces on this beautiful part of English heritage.
Pro tip: You can take the train to Corfe Castle, alighting at Corfe Station. There are many lovely walks in the area – in particular, the hike along the Jurassic Coast of Devon and Dorset is particularly lovely. The closest city of consequence is Bournemouth, though Salisbury is decidedly more beautiful.
The Porta Palatina / Palatine Gate in Torino, Italy
A Roman-age city gate in the Northern Italian city of Torino (or Turin), the magnificent Porta Palatina makes for a grand entryway into Torino’s city centre. We’re lucky to have the gate – it very nearly got torn down in the 18th century for an “Urban renewal” project during an era when people weren’t as concerned with protecting heritage and artefacts as they are now. Today surrounded by modern building complexes (many of which are adorned with graffiti and other non-art), the Porta Palatina is no less stunning for its less-than-grand locale. In fact, the Porta Palatina is one of the best-preserved Roman gates in Europe (certainly of its time), and represents the most important archeological site of Torino, along with the nearby Roman theatre. A large city in northwestern Italy, Torino is a place made up of broad avenues, great palaces, and grand architecture common to other near-Alpine cities (Lyon, Lausanne and Grenoble spring to mind). Built in the 1st century during the Augustan Age, this immense brick gate would have once been incorporated into the city defensive wall and probably attached to a palace (where the name likely comes from), and would have been just as impressive then as now. Gates in Roman times served to protect cities from invasion or simply keep records of who (and what) is coming to and from a city. Later, it was incorporated into a medieval fortification before falling into ruin for several centuries. Italy is full of Roman ruins of various types and scales – when visiting northern Italy, don’t miss the lovely city of Torino (Julia Augusta Taurinorum in Roman times) with its ancient and modern wonders, and impressive view of the Alps!
Pro tip: Find the Porta Palatina in the modern-day Piazza Cesare Augusto. Torino is most famed for its “Shroud of Turin” which supposedly shows the visage of Jesus. Though the age disproves this, the Shroud is still a fascinating find. Visit the Museo della Sindone to find out more. Italy is also known for its cheeses – in particular, try local cheeses such as Fontina d’Aosta (cow), Asiago (cow) and Robiola (goat, cow or sheep). Pair with local red wine!
Eilean Donan Castle currently holds the honour of being the most photographed (and Instagrammed) location in Scotland! But aside from its popularity on the screen, Eilean Donan Castle is a pretty incredible – and formidable – place. This medieval fortress is located on a small tidal island (most photos show it at high tide for maximum photogenic prowess but here it is at low tide). In fact, “Eilean” means “island” in Scots Gallic, and Donan refers to a martyred Celtic saint – the name might mean that there was a small monastic settlement in the spot in early Christian times, but that is unproven. Strategically located at a place where three sea lochs meet (Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh), Eilean Donan was erected in the 13th century by Clan Mackenzie, one of the major players in the constant power struggle amongst the Highland clans. The castle stood intact until the early 1700s when the Mackenzie’s got involved in the infamous Jacobite Rebellions (a series of uprisings between 1688 and 1746 to return Catholic King James to the throne) and the castle was attacked and partially destroyed before being reconstructed in the 20th century. The castle started with just an enciente or fortified wall surrounding the island, perfect for guarding against Norse attacks. It later became property of the Mackenzie clan, even supposedly sheltering Robert the Bruce. The exterior wall was reduced in order to make more defensive structures, and a triangular courtyard or “horn” was added to increase the island’s defensiveness. Today the castle is rebuilt on the same groundwork as the medieval castle, though the details vary from the original. That said, it is one of Scotland’s most amazing and iconic locations!
Pro tip: From the castle, wander across the road to the wee village of Dornie. The castle makes for a good stop between Inverness and the Isle of Skye.
Cliff Baths ruins of Enniscrone in Co Sligo, Ireland
The west coast of Ireland is a magical place. Timeless and unspoilt, the west coast has managed to keep an aura of otherworldliness. Full of historical and natural wonders, County Sligo is a little-travelled place of fantastic hiking, breathtaking coasts, ancient Neolithic monuments and crumbling abbeys. Enniscrone is a little seaside village where waves crash against rocky headlands and wind sweeps over sand dunes, paired with 5km of beach strand perfect for bathing – if you’re willing to risk Atlantic temperatures! Rising out of the edge of the sea on the foot of Enniscrone are the ruins of the Victorian era Enniscrone Cliff Baths, a strange sort of castellated little building. The Cliff Baths were built in 1850 by a wealthy local family, the Ormes, who owned large tracts of land in Sligo and Mayo. The Ormes, wanting to turn Enniscrone into a fashionable beach resort town, built the lodge and the baths to attract the fashionable crowd. They even built a man-made tidal pool in front of the Cliff Baths in order to ensure that all baths would be supplied with fresh seawater no matter the tides (today its a popular spot with local kids). Little remains of this once-luxurious resort bath, and it has been allowed to fall into disrepair, helped along by the the crash of the tide, the gusts over the Atlantic, and the salty seawater in the air. Today it is simply an idyllic place to take dramatic photography!
Pro tip: Book a seaweed bath at the more modern bathhouse, Killcullen Seaweed Baths, or head north along the coasts to Voya Baths in Strandhill.
Castillo de Zahara de la Sierra in Andalucia, Spain
Andalucia is a dry, sunburnt land in the south of Spain. The region is among Spain’s largest and most populous regions, with small communities spread out over a blanket of brown hills, jagged mountains and rolling fields. Many such communities are part of the Pueblos blancos or ‘white villages’ of Andalucia, picture-perfect villages beloved by tourists. This particular pueblo blanco, Zahara de la Sierra, is tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountains and overlooked by the Castillo de Zahara de la Sierra. The castle dates back to the Moorish era of Spain. During the early Middle Ages, Spain was inhabited by the Moors, broadly defined as muslims originally from the Maghreb living in southern Europe, who greatly influenced Spanish art and architecture and even language (Andalucia, for example, comes from Al-Andalus) until finally being driven out completely by the 1490s. Very little remains of this once-impressive fortification in the village of Zahara. Today, all that’s left are the vestiges of a few walls and a signal tower, which, once climbed, will provide stunning views of the cheery white-washed walls and orange roofs of Zahara, the azure waters of the local reservoir, the sun-kissed chocolate-coloured fields hugging the village, all the way out to other nearby villages. Though beautiful, it is evident to see why this may not always have been an easy place to live. The castle, and the village below it, is carved into a rugged, rocky outcrop, with heights ranging from 300m to 1100m, and the village’s name “zahara” comes from “sahra” meaning desert. The seemingly-romantic sun-kissed fields, rocky outcrops and windswept panoramas may be seem idyllic today, but life in such a dry and remote place (it’s 100 km from the sea after all) wouldn’t always have been so perfect!
Pro tip: There’s a lovely wee restaurant with a comfortable terrace perfect for people-watching called El Rincon De La Ermita.
Moygara Castle is a brilliant ruined castle tucked deep away in exactly the middle of nowhere. Northwest Ireland‘s rural and overlooked County Sligo is already a little-visited region – and Moygara Castle is in perhaps Sligo’s least-known corner. Named for the once-powerful O’Gara family – who ruled Lough Gara and nearby relands since the 1200s – they needed a castle to show off their status, and act as defence during troubled times. Three castles were erected, though Moygara Castle is by far the best example and the only properly surviving structure. Starting out as a typical Irish tower house (a large, rectangular structure built by landowning chieftains found throughout Ireland), Moygara Castle later expanded to include 4 towers connected by high stone walls, a gatehouse (now in ruins) and a massive courtyard. The side gate is still intact, but its precarious keystone has caused this entrance to be closed off. Instead, visitors should walk all the way around the castle, where a hole chuck of the wall is missing, which acts as the castle’s main entrance now. Attacked in 1538 by the famous chieftain O’Donnell and later by some mercenary Scots in 1581, the castle has fallen into ruin. Much overgrown by trees and vines, Moygara Castle is slowly being reclaimed by the hills surrounding Lough Gara, a place that has been inhabited for thousands of years (it has one of the highest concentrations of crannogs – manmade islands built for defensive purposes but also lived on). Today, Moygara Castle sits in a field inhabited by cows and sheep, on a tiny country lane, far from a main road or village. Few people know it’s there, and still fewer visit it. Chances are, you’ll have this magical piece of history to yourself!
Pro tip: Moygara Castle is located on a working farm, so be careful and respectful. Don’t bring your dogs, and be sure to close any gates you open. It is also quite mucky, so wear good boots! Hungry? In nearby Boyle, check out its many cafes. For meals made of farm fresh produce, meat and dairy, head to Drumanilra Restaurant.
Other Places in Northwest Ireland’s counties Sligo & Roscommon
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, in general we recommend booking in advance, and going early in the day. However, Newgrange Visitor Centre will be closed for most of 2019 so while works are going on, you can’t book in advance, but to compensate, tickets are free and first-come basis during the works. 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.
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