When most people envision European travel itineraries, not many include Romania – a country that gets a bad rep. Though it has one of Europe’s lowest salary averages, it also has one of Europe’s highest economical increases in recent years. It’s taken awhile for Romania to get on its feet, but it was worth the wait! Deep in the Transylvanian woodlands is the beautiful and not-so-famous city of Sibiu. Climb the stairs into the lovely old town of Sibiu, a true masterpiece of medieval marvels with towers, walls and historic houses. Like cities in Poland, Croatia,Lithuania and most other Eastern European countries, Sibiu (and other Romanian cities) is a colourful labyrinth of brightly-painted streets. Like other Transylvanian cities – such as Sighisoara and Brasov – Sibiu packs a bundle. From vast public squares to tiny, hidden-away bookshops, from beautiful church spires to streets lined with nothing but restaurants, Sibiu has something for everyone. Despite being a European Capital of Culture in 2007, Sibiu is still a relatively undiscovered this eastern charm. Originally a Daco-Roman settlement (Dacia was the name of the region before the Romans conquered), Sibiu exploded in size and economy when it as re-founded by the 12th century settlers from Saxony (modern-day Germany), concreting it as one of the most important medieval trade centres in this part of Europe. Later joining the state of Transylvania thanks to the Ottoman Empire, and after WWI, Sibiu once again changed hands – this time to finally become part of modern-day Romania.
Pro tip: La Taifas restaurant on the main Piata Mare has a nice terrace, great view and they do good food – including nice veggie dishes and delicious spritz, though there are many other restaurants on the smaller streets around the main plaza.
Faro de Caballo (Horse Lighthouse), Cantabria, Spain
Cantabria is a little-visited region on Spain’s north coast. Though on one side of the region is Basque Country and Bilbao, and the other, the famous Santiago del Compostela, few people know of the region’s existence much less add Cantabria to their Spanish itinerary. It is an out-of-the-way place categorised by mild temperatures, regular rainfall, quiet harbours and green hills. The ocean is the region’s constant companion, supporting a bustling fishing industry – notably, the anchovies of Santoña, which are world-renowned. Not far from Santoña is the rugged Monte Buciero on a spit of land that juts out into the Cantabrian Sea. At the end of the point, at the bottom of hundreds of steps carved into rugged rocky pinnacles is the squat little Faro de Caballo (Horse Lighthouse). Erected in 1863 on this forlorn outcrop of the Spanish coastline, the steps and foundations of the Faro de Caballo were placed there by prisoners of Santoña’s jail. From the 1800s to 1993, the light of Faro de Caballo shone through the waters, warning ships of the Cantabrian Coast. Today, the Faro de Caballo is part of the Las Marisma de Santoña, Victoria and Joyel Nature Park. To get there, start your hike in Santoña and walk along the coast, passing the forts of San Martin and San Carlos and following the rough path through the woods until you arrive at the steep staircase (the route is said to have some 600-700 steps, so wear good shoes!). Be sure you bring your swimming gear as well, as there are several diving ledges of varying heights as well as a swinging rope for the less-adventurous!
Pro tip: The whole hike from Santoña is about 7km, though there is another way (from the other side of the peninsula, by Berria Beach – though I feel that it is more accessible from Santoña. Don’t try to kayak there from Santoña unless there are low winds and you’re an experienced kayaker, as the winds past the headland on the way back can be rough; better to access the lighthouse on foot, bringing all necessary swimming or snorkelling gear with you!
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe Stairway, Basque Country, Spain
It’s not hard to see why even just the pathway and staircase to the monastery of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe has captured the inspiration of thousands – or why fantasy film/series producers (like the unfortunate Game of Thrones where the stairs and islet stood in for Dragonstone) have chosen this place to be part of a fantastical world. Carved into a rugged, rocky outcrop on Spain’s north Basque coast, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is an ancient 10th century monastery perched precariously at the top of a rocky outcrop of an island. Reachable by a rugged causeway, the iconic steps and pathway were carved directly into the causeway itself. Dedicated to St John the Baptist, the unpronounceable Basque name actually loosely translates to “St John’s craggy fort.” At the top stands a medieval hermitage with burials spanning the 9th – 12th centuries. As with most medieval hermitages, the location was chosen precisely because of its rough and remote location – all the better for monks and hermits to isolate themselves from the evils of the world and focus on prayer and god. That said, the rough and remote location later became important as a stronghold and was attacked several times (including by the nasty though strangely revered Sir Francis Drake). Today, the island’s amazing geography combined with the added architecture is a popular site to visit.
Pro tip: It’s best to visit San Juan de Gaztelugatxe in the off-peak season or early on in the day. To truly appreciate the views, take the bus from Bilbao to Bakio and hike the rest of the way, about 6km. The steps are steep and rugged, so wear sturdy shoes and only attempt if fit. It’s a popular place so expect fellow pilgrims!
Chateau de Chambord, France as Seen From Across the Moat
As the most expansive and over-the-top chateau in the Loire Valley and among the most excessive of Europe, Chateau de Chambord is certainly the crowning jewel of the already castle-laden Loire Valley. Known for its rich (and royal or at least very noble) castles, the Loire Valley is full of lavish summer residences – the Chateau de Chambord is no exception. Built in 1547 in the extravagant French Renaissance style (a style which was, by definition, extremely extravagant), it was constructed for King Francis I of France as a hunting lodge, it was though never finished. Among the many distinguished guests who stayed there, the most important was Leonardo da Vinci, and it is to him that we attribute (though without proof) the chateau’s unique and fascinating double-helix staircase – i.e. two intertwined, parallel staircases that twist upwards around each other but never touch. 16th-century chateaux are in many ways faux chateaux. Architects used basic designs of castles – like moats, towers, turrets, crinolines, keeps, drawbridges, etc. – but they were never meant to be defensive, and indeed weaponry and war in this era had changed so dramatically that castles were of less use in combat (to be fair, most of Europe had settled down a bit to form some degree of stability, at least from one region to another, though there were exceptions like the French Revolution). If boiled down, Chambord is really composed of a central keep and four massive bastion towers, connected by high walls; the rest is elaborate design. Chambord is best visited in conjunction with other Loire Valley Chateaux like the Chateau de Chenanceau for example – try driving from one to the next, or if you’re feeling adventurous, consider biking from chateaux – the castles are close enough together to make this a relatively a feasible task!
Escalinata Staircase in Teruel, the Aragon region of Spain
Though the Escalinata Staircase technically a purpose-built construction – meant to connect the centro de la ciudad to the railway station – the Escalinata Staircase has become so much more. The town of Teruel, an easy day trip from the modernist city of Valencia, is often called the “town of mudéjar architecture” (meaning Moorish-influenced architecture), notably Teruel Cathedral. The region of Aragon’s densely-concentrated Mudejar architecture (construction corresponding with the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance) is now under the domaine of UNESCO. Mudejar architecture developed after the Reconquista and subsequent expulsion of the Moors from Spain in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. This style was created by those who stayed behind, called moriscos, or Muslims that converted to Christianity. While the stairs were constructed in the early 1900s, the style chosen is neo-Mudejar. It also pays homage to the infamous Lovers of Teruel, a rather ridiculous story. Unable to marry his sweetheart due to his financial status, the hero leaves to make his fortune in 5 years, but miscounts the number of days and returns just after she marries. The overly devout and prude heroine refuses to kiss her dying hero for she is now married (by less than 12 hours, mind you), and he dies. The following day at his funeral, she finally kisses him and dies herself (of what, who knows. Guilt? Loneliness? Grief?) Moral of the story? Perhaps it is simply to chose your spouse wisely, marry out of love… and learn how to keep track of things!