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 proud Karaim community, Turkish-speaking ethnic group descended from Crimean immigrants, try the delicious local dish, kybyn, a sort of dumpling or pasty stuffed with meat and vegetables while in Trakai.
Lyon is surely one of Europe’s most beautiful and yet under-rated cities. Overlooked in favour of its more popular big sister Paris, in many ways, Lyon is actually far cooler. Known as France‘s Gastronomic Capitol, it is the place to come to eat. The city is renowned for its restaurants – from Michelin-starred Paul Bocuse’s fine dining to delicious family-run bouchons de Lyon. Pair you Lyonnais dinner with local wine from the vineyards of the Côtes de Rhône or Beaujolais. Lyon is an ancient place. Once the capital of Roman Gaul, Lyon’s rivers – the mighty Rhône and the graceful Saône – have long made Lyon a maritime power. The city progressed eastwards. The Romans inhabited the hill of Fourvière (the remains of the amphitheater are still there); between the bottom of the hill and the Saône riverbanks is the medieval and Renaissance Vieux Lyon with its traboules and cobblestones; northwards is the hill of Croix Rousse, once home to Renaissance silk merchants; between the two rivers is the Presqu’île, home to elegant 18th and 19th century masterpieces. On the far side of the river, 20th century Lyon has exploded in massive concrete blocks, and at the southernmost point of the rivers’ meeting is the Confluences, where the ultra-modernity of the 21st century shocks visitors. But the best way to explore Lyon through the ages is by following its rivers. The Rhone is the more popular – its banks popular for jogging, picnics, and even clubbing (on the boats), while the Saône is quieter, calmer, somehow more French, more Lyonnais – follow the river north for a lovely introduction to this very amazing city before wandering its varied districts.
Pro tip: Looking for a good bar? Les Fleurs du Malt in the Vieux Lyon has incredible array of beers. Food? The bouchons of the old town are all great, but for true authenticity, head into the modern 7ème district to either the Bistrot des Fauvres or L’Autre Côté du Pont (nearby Italian restaurant San Marco is also delicious). Be sure to visit the traboules, tunnel/passages, in the Vieux Lyon – head to #52 Rue Saint John and go through the door.
In most cities, the harbour, or “the docks” district is one of the least favourable parts of town – rough, rundown, dirty, overgrown, a bit forgotten. In Split however, this is not the case. One of Croatia’s loveliest cities (home to the amazing Diocletian’s Palace, the dramatic Marjan Hill, the stunning Trg Republike square, and a labyrinth of beautiful, winding streets), Split’s harbour and waterfront, called the Riva, is a charming promenade and one of Split’s loveliest places. The Riva was born some 200 years ago the French of Napoleon’s time lived there, though it has changed face and form several times over. Today home to an inundation of cafes, restaurants and bars, it is the throbbing heart of modern Split. And yet the Riva does not forget its maritime past, with piers, boat slips, customs houses and Port Authority buildings new and old framing the waterfront. The Riva is snuggled up behind the famous Diocletian Palace, ancient churches and an important monastery overseeing modern and traditional waterfront activities.
Pro tip: The Riva can be quite a busy place at all hours of the day, though it is at its liveliest in the evenings. Climb the nearby Marjan Hill for spectacular views over the harbour and watch the boats as the come and go.
Amongst Brexit talks and EU deals, sometimes you just want to find a little corner of Britain overlooked by the world, a place one can relax to a simpler tune. Northern England – specifically the Yorkshire Dales and Cambria – is just that place. Swaledale is a beautiful dale or valley (one of the northernmost within Yorkshire Dales National Park) in the Pennines Hills, containing some of Northern England’s most quaint villages. One such place is Muker Village which, despite its name, comes straight out of a fairytale! The quintessential stone town is the picture of 18th and 19th century rural charm. Built alongside a bustling little brook crossed by a perfect stone bridge, Muker has a quaint English parish church, an old world tea shop, a traditional pub, an old village hall, crafts and arts galleries and meandering cobbled streets closely lined with old stone houses. For all intents and purposes, it is the perfect example of an English country village. And its location in Swaledale, surrounded by the world-famous barns, drystone walls and sheep-dotted pastures, complete the painting. Mining and agriculture were once the only industries here, leaving Muker, Swaledale and Yorkshire in general in much isolation – a fate which helped keep local traditions alive. Today, Muker has finally found itself on the map now that the famous long distance hiking path, England’s Coast to Coast Trail (a 192 mile/309 km path) traverses Swaledale and Muker village (as well as three national parks: Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North Moors). And even more excitingly, in 2014 the first stage of the Tour de France from Leeds to Harrogate passed through Muker!
Pro tip: If you’re planning to hike the Coast to Coast (in entirety or even only just a section of it), you’ll get the most out of it with a local guide. Muker village to Keld Village along the River Swale is a lovely 5km (3 mile) gentle walk through one of the most beautiful dales of the region! Best to hike on the western bank of the river.
Unique, isn’t it? This squat, sunburnt little Romanesque tower and 12-sided polygon of a church on the outskirts of Segovia is impressive – and not the least because it dates back to the Middle Ages – the 13th century in fact. And who founded it? Why, none other than the infamous Knights Templar! More simply called “The Templars,” were a Catholic military organisation founded in 1139 by the pope. Most people know that they are closely tied to the Crusades to the Holy Land but what is less known is that they became very wealthy and therefore very powerful due to their role involved in the Christian bourse. Though the Templars are among some of the most skilled fighters of the Middle Ages (a fact that modern day video game Assassin’s Creed has exploited), roughly 90% of their order weren’t fighters. While the combatants where wrestling for the Holy Land, the non-combatants were slowly making a power play. It was they who put in place the economic infrastructure such as banking, loans, investments and the creation of landed estates (essentially paving the way for feudalism, and one might argue, capitalism) – all of only made them more rich. Part of their money went to building shrines to their movement – churches dedicated to the Holy Land they held so dear. One such place was the Church of Vera Cruz – a fantastic example of the kind sanctuary they perfected and how it differs from later churches. In fact, scripture from the Holy Land is inscribed at the alter of this little Spanish church. However, the Templars’ reign was short-lived. Such wealth gave them power, and power made them detested. Once they lost the Crusades, it was quite easy to demonise them – especially it you owed them money. One of those in their debt was none other than King Philip of France who took advantage of their fall from grace to blame, torture, and murder them to avoid repayment on his debt, forcing Pope Clement the V to disband them in 1312. The Templars disappeared in the early 1300s but they left behind a mysterious legacy – one that continues to inspire goosebumps to this day….
Pro tip: The Church of Vera Cruz lies just outside of the cluster of buildings in the historic centre. It’s open Tuesdays 16 – 19h and Wed – Sun from 10h30 – 19h (closed midday from 13h30 – 16h). Admission is a modest €2.
Pragser Wildsee / Lago di Braies, Italian Dolomites
Reflections shimmer in the quiet pools of Lago di Braies’ furthest shores. This little turquoise and emerald lake is snuggled deep within the peaks and valleys of the Dolomites Mountains in the Sud Tyrol region of northern Italy. The Lago di Braies is the crown jewel of the Parco Naturale di Fanes-Sennes-Braies, a stunning nature park that covers some 63,000 acres of ruggedly beautiful mountainous landscapes deep in the Dolomites. Because of a rejigging of borders after WWI, the once Austrian region of Sud Tyrol is now Italian – though culturally and linguistically the locals have remained close to their Germanic roots. Lago di Braies, or its germanic name, the Pragser Wildsee, is one of the many pearls of this underrated region (most of the visitors to the lake and the greater region are domestic tourists). Offshoots of the Alps, the Dolomites are one of Europe’s significant mountain ranges – though the highest peak in the Dolomites (Marmolada) doesn’t even crack the top 200 hundred tallest peaks in the Alps. But it’s not all about height – Europe is full of beautiful, wild sites like the Pragser Wildsee that escape the tourist trail – you just have to know how to find them!
Pro tip: Like France’s network of GR (Grande Randonnées), the Dolomites have their own network of paths, numbered 1 – 8 and called alte vies or high paths.
Find other beautiful places in the Dolomites of Sud Tyrol:
It’s hard to talk about the beautiful places of Europe and ignore Venice. Venice is the city beauty – and of canals. When you constantly compare other beautiful cities with Venice – Anncey is “the Venice of France” or “the Venice of Belgium” etc. – you know that the original city (Venice) must be amazing! Venice is also thedefinition of a fairytale place – this is the kind of place one would expect to find in a storybook! Venice has famous sights – St Mark’s Cathedral, the glass blowing on Murano, the Grand Canal. Other major canals include the Giudecca, Canneregio and Scomenzera canals. But the best way to explore this city? By getting lost in its massive labyrinth of tiny streets and scenic canals criss-crossed with magical bridges of all shapes and sizes of course! There are over 150 canals interwoven around some hundred islands – and connected by even more bridges! Once upon a time, these canals were the city’s only ‘streets’ and all transport was done via gondola boats. While the canals remain a main artery for movement about the picturesque city, the gondolas are used only by tourists today. Overpriced and overcrowded, it’s best to skip the gondola and meander the tiny alleys and bridges, hopping on the water-buses when you need to get farther away. Keep in mind that this is one of the most popular cities in Europe as well as one of the most delicate. Venice is actually sinking, and has problems with flooding, water damage and erosion – none of which is helped by overtourism. There has been talk of establishing a quota of visitors to this special place. So instead of getting annoyed, remember that this is in order to protect this amazing city for future generations! Though Venice may be both stunningly amazing and breath-takingly unique, there are many other cities with canals to visit in Europe. See below for a few!
Pro tip: If you can, stay on one of the lesser-known and quieter islands and take the water bus into the main part of the city. However, if you really want to stay on the “fish,” don’t go to the centre of town. Instead, check out the far quieter region of Canneregio (in the northern part of the main archipelago). The same goes for food; avoid the big restaurants with the English menus in the centre, and instead find the mom & pop shops in the back alleyways! Definitely have an afternoon spritz after a fun day of exploring!
Other cities with canals to visit – Alternatives to Venice:
Overlooking Puy de Dôme from Puy de Sancy in Auvergne, France
Everyone knows about the Alps and the Pyrénées, but the greatest French mountains you’ve never heard of are the Massif Central mountains. Located in the centre of France, the Massif Central occupies several départements (including the Ardèche and Rhône-Alps) but most notably, the beautiful lush central region of Auvergne. These mountains are old. Formed over 500 million years ago, the Massif Central mountains are of volcanic origin – only becoming dormant some 10,000 years ago. The largest puy or volcanic peak is the Puy de Sancy (1,885m – from which this photo was taken) but by far the most famous is the Puy de Dôme (1,465m), featured in the photo. Auvergne is famous for its volcanoes – forming the base pride for the local residents. A good bit of Auvergne is taken up by the Parc naturel régional des Volcans d’Auvergne (Auvergne Volcano regional nature park) – and oh do the locals love to explore the many trails that snake across these ancient lands. Of course some of the most famous are Puy de Dôme, Puy de Sancy, and Puy de Côme, but there are many gorgeous mountains and hills in Auvergne worth exploring! Riddled with caves and draped in legends, Auvergne is a magical place that sees few international tourists and has managed to remain relatively unspoilt. The rich dark soil (enriched with minerals brought by volcanic ash) makes the region one of the best in France for agriculture – in season, spot alternating fields of beets, corn, wheat and best of all, sunflowers, sprawling across the sun-kissed hills of Auvergne’s lowlands, while thick forests and vibrant wildflowers take advantage of the rich soil to grow on the mountain slopes. Further down the hills, untouched medieval villages lounge in the lush valleys and ancient castles and towers cling to the inclines. It is a wild and magical place – perfect for both hiking the wild outdoors as well as discovering the France of past eras.
Pro tip: Clermont-Ferrand is the regional hub (though its airport is tiny! Use it for flights to London, Paris and occasionally Portugal) and though it’s worth poking around its black cathedral and modest old town, its better to use a village like Montpeyroux, Billom, Pont-du-Chateau or Ambert as a base to explore this beautiful region. Try local potato and cheese dish l’aligot while there!
Macedonia – and Skopje in particular – is at a crossroads between old and new, east and west, Christianity and Islam. It is a place that perfectly blends cultures, traditions and architecture. The historic centre of Skopje is made up of an old Bazaar, as well as some 30 mosques and the ruins of several caravanserais (once popular along trade routes like the Silk Road, these were inns for travellers) – all of which are ever-present reminders of the city’s Ottoman past. But the Macedonians have also made the city their own, erecting churches and cafes and basilicas, infusing the conquering culture with that of the conquered. For it must be said that the Ottoman Empire occupied present day Macedonia for a few hundred years, from the 17th to the early 19th century. The Old Bazaar of Skopje contrasts strikingly with the shiny new sections of Macedonia’ capital city – the soaring skyscrapers and glittering statues and perfect grids. But the very best way to experience Skopje is outdoors. Find yourself a cosy cafe in the old bazaar lined by ancient facades and leafy trees and make yourself comfortable. Order platefuls of shish kababs and grilled veggies and Mediterranean salads and sticky baklava, and wash it down with a rich and heavy cup of Turkish coffee. Sit back in the sun with a good book and a local beer and listen to the clamour of bustling Skopje under a midday sun.
Pro tip: Head up to the ruins of Skopje Fortress. No entrance fee and you’ll get a great view of the city and all of its minarets and domes.
Is it a spaceship? A torpedo? Or just a really unusual church? One of Reykjavik’s – and Iceland’s – most iconic landmarks, the ultra modern Hallsgrimkirkja Church in downtown Reykjavik is somehow also reminiscent of the dramatic and bizarre worlds found inside of the Icelandic Sagas. The Hallsgrimkirkja also sports an observation deck for aerial city views and a statue of Leif Eriksson, the man often credited as the first European to arrive in the Americas hundreds of years before Columbus. Only finished in 1986 and standing atop one of Reykjavik’s highest points, the Hallsgrimkirkja is some 74 metres high, making it the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest structures on the island. Iceland is a strange place. Remote, isolated, cold, inhospitable, Iceland is also home to some of the most enduring tradition, mythology and storytelling in Europe. For such a small, remote place, this Nordic country is one of Europe’s most progressive. Home to about 340,000 people (of which nearly half [122,000] live in the capital), it actually has one of the lowest (if not the lowest) unemployment rates, one of the highest standards of living, and some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes – including some spectacular volcanoes – in the whole world. In the winter, it might still be light out at midnight or later, meaning that in the winter, some days only see a few hours of daylight (though on the up side, that means higher chances of spotting the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights!). It is a country of myth and legend, of fire and snow, of ancient and modern. This small place packs a bundle!
Pro tip: Though only available to those ready to brave the cold (even in summer), it is actually possible to SCUBA dive between two tectonic plates – it doesn’t get cooler than that! For those who prefer to stay a bit warmer (or to warm up afterwards), Reykjavik and Iceland in general is full of hot springs heated naturally by the piping hot water from the volcanoes. Whether you prefer a dramatic outdoor pool or a modern pool in the city, there are plenty of options (though as this is popular with tourists and locals alike, don’t expect it to yourself. Iceland is sadly victim to overtourism from the mass cruise industry).
Church of Our Saviour, or the Spiral Church in Copenhagen, Denmark
Denmark‘s capital is a fascinating place. There are a few things that make it so – including fancy food, the sleek and elegant Nyhavn neighbourhood, the famous Christianshavn neighbourhood, the remodelled brick factories and the fact that there’s a statue based on a fairytale in town. Another thing that makes Copenhagen cool is this bizarre and beautiful place, the Church of our Saviour. Not the most exciting (or memorable) name, but when you say that “spiral church,” everyone knows exactly what you mean. In fact, that spiral is also a staircase, which people can follow to the top for aerial views of Copenhagen (provided they don’t have vertigo, that is!). This Baroque beauty was built in 1695 (though the spire not fully completed until 1752) and is home to an interesting urban legend. Supposedly, the architect committed suicide by jumping from the spire’s summit when he realised the spirals twist upwards in an anticlockwise manner (something you’d think he’d realise during the years it took to build the spire!). While this isn’t true of course (the architect died of natural causes nearly a decade later), it doesn’t stop the urban legend from being latching hold – helped along by the notorious part of Copenhagen where the spiral church is found. Tucked into the infamous Christianshavn, a series of artificial islands, the locale started life as a 17th century fortified and purpose-built merchant town but was quickly consumed by the much larger Copenhagen. In the late 20th century, Christianshavn gained a reputation as a working-class and bohemian town à la Charles Aznavour’s Parisian Montmatre of the late 1940s and 50s. Today it has become one of Copenhagen’s hippest quartiers – where a blend of businessmen, students, young families and hippies happily reside together – though that does not stop the reminiscing of those nostalgic for the romantic bohemian atmosphere of Christianshavn’s past life.
Pro tip: The Church of the Saviour is also noted for its carillon (a musical instrument consisting of a collection of 20+ bells), which is northern Europe’s largest. If you’re curious to hear what it sounds like, it plays melodies every hour from 8 am to midnight.
On the shores of Lough Neagh (Ireland’s largest lake, though far from its most interesting one…), Shane’s Castle is one of the most fascinating castle ruins on the Emerald Isle. Built in 1345 by the O’Neill dynasty (one of the major family clans in Ulster, the northern half of Ireland), the original name was actually Eden-duff-carrick – only becoming the far more catchier “Shane’s Castle” in 1722 when Shane MacBrien O’Neill changed its name to suit him. Today, the castle is famous for its many uses in HBO’s Game of Thrones TV series. Though largely ruins, most visitors to Shane’s Castle will miss the most fascinating part (only accessible through certain tours and events): the huge network of tunnels, caves and catacombs twisting underneath the castle’s foundations! Dark and windy, these tunnels featured in several GoT scenes. Not far way, the infamous Battle of Antrim was fought on on 7 June 1798 as an unsuccessful rebellion of Irish peasants against the British Rule (the Republic of Ireland only managed to get independence from Great Britain in 1922 after years of fighting, and obviously Northern Ireland is still a region within the UK). Though this can still be a contentious subject in Ireland (both north & south), a lot has changed in recent years making the whole island a fun and safe destination.
Pro tip: Every year in July, the grounds of Shane’s Castle holds Ireland’s largest Country & Game Fair, including living history and reenactments – well worth the visit! The event includes is a historical component showcasing ways of living in the past, from the Viking age through to modern times, with a reenactment of the Battle of Antrim.
One of Romania‘s most beautiful and fascinating cities is certainly the colourful and vibrant Sighisoara. Snuggled into the heart of the hauntingly beautiful region of Transylvania, the dazzling and historic medieval town centre is one of the best preserved in the country, a fact that has not escaped UNESCO. Perhaps most famous for as the birthplace of Count Dracula (otherwise known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler), Sighisoara is colourful and historic town. Cobblestone streets, soaring towers, ancient walls, vibrant shop fronts, this town embodies everything you’d want in a medieval town – a photographers paradise. Settled in the 12th century (officially entering the registrars in 1191), Sighisoara was a frontier town settled (and defended) by German saxons at a vulnerable time in Transylvanian history when the region was ruled by the King of Hungary. A town built into the ruins of a Roman fort proceeded it, followed in 1337 by an urban settlement considered a regal city. For centuries, Sighisoara was an important and influential city in Central and Eastern Europe. With a strong and successful economy dominated by Saxon Germans (what’s new…), Sighisoara was a recognised haven for craftsmen, artisans, merchants and guilds. Not all of Sighisoara’s history was positive though. After a fairly successful medieval age, 17th and 18th century Sighisoara saw terrible fires, plagues, occupation, sieges and other horrors.
Pro tip: Though beautiful during the the day, don’t miss the city at night! In one of the towers, there is an impressive array of leather-working. For some of the best food in the city, head to the wine cellars of Gasthaus restaurant, just outside the walls. Great views from the Church on the Hill – climb it via the covered staircase and descend via the graveyard.
Rivendell? Gondor? Narnia? Hogwarts? Sadly, no to all. However magical it looks, this is no fantasy world but instead the Spanish town of Ronda is a magical city set deep in the sunburnt deserted landscapes of Andalucia, optimistically built onto a cliff split by a colossal gorge. The two sides of Ronda are tethered together by this stunning bridge known as Ronda’s Puente Nuevo. The newest of the three bridges that crosses the breathtaking El Tajo Gorge carved by the mighty Guadalevin River, Puente Nuevo was finished in 1793 after a long 34 years of construction. It is a master of engineering and an impressive work of architecture, calling in at a shocking 66 meters long and 98 meters high, built straight into the solid rock of the El Tajo Gorge. The small window just visible in the side of the bridge was once used as a prison – with condemned prisoners simply thrown from their cells to meet their doom on the rocks at the bottom of gorge a la Vlad Tepes Dracula. Today, it is both tourist attraction as well as a fully functional bridge, connecting forevermore both halves of the city of Ronda, capital of the famous Pueblos Blancos.
Pro Tip: The Puente Nuevo bridge is best seen from below. Descend along a narrow path that leads down the side of the gorge, but beware, the path is eroded and in poor condition so be sure to wear proper hiking gear.
The Loire Valley is one of the most spectacular castle regions in Europe. Full of what can only be described as French chateaux, the Loire Valley houses some 300 extravagant palatial buildings!! Among the most famous are the immense Chateau de Chambord and the spectacular Chateau de Chenonceau. Spanning the River Cher in a unique castellated bridge, the river literally runs through the castle. Though it has had many owners, Chateau de Chenanceau is really a tale of two women and their rivalry for King Henri: Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici. Diane de Poitiers was a noblewoman – beautiful, talented, intelligent and elegant – who fall in love with young King Henri II. In order to take control of Italian states, Henri was married to the much younger Catherine de Medici. Despite his marriage, Henri spent his entire life dedicated to the beguiling Diane de Poitiers and their children, culminating in gifting her Chateau de Chenanceau. Though it took many years of delicate legal manoeuvres to make Diane the true owner of Chateau de Chenanceau, she loved the castle and was responsible for the phenomenal bridge across the Cher, as well as the flower and vegetable gardens. When Henri died in a jousting accident, his jealous widow Catherine de Medici illegally forced Diane to yield her the castle – though she was then forced to offer Diane Chateau de Chaumont in exchange. Catherine further renovated the gardens and the castle interior, as well as adding new rooms and a service wing (of course she did, she’s Catherine de Medici…). Unlike her more enlightened rival Diane, Catherine was a girlish socialite whose favourite activity was hosting lavish parties at Chenanceau, including France’s first ever fireworks show. Chenanceau’s third notable woman was the enlightened Louise Dupin, who hosted countless literary salons in the chateau – Louise saved the castle during the French Revolution by claiming that it was essential to commerce as it was the only bridge for miles. Though Catherine may have stolen the chateau from Diane and Louise saved it from demolition by angry hordes, Chateau de Chenanceau remains synonymous with Diane de Poitiers and her love for King Henri.
Pro Tip: Chateau de Chenanceau is far more lovely when visited in the off season – despite the lack of flowering gardens, the lack of tourist crowds allows you to feel the romance of the castle. No car? It’s a short and easy train ride from the town of Blois.
Autumn falls on Italy, alighting this already magical place with more colour than seemingly possible. Sloshing through the beautiful city of Torino (or Turin to you North Americans) in northern Italy, the Po River flows some 682 km (424 miles), starting from a tiny spring in the stony hillside at Pian del Re on the border of France and Italy. When it comes to photography, autumn is one of the most beautiful times to break out the camera, but the area around the Alps and northern Italy in particular is especially stunning. It is also a brilliant time to travel to Europe’s hotspots as the number of tourists (particularly casual tourists) is down, accommodations and flights cost less, and attractions aren’t yet closed for winter – not to mention the dramatic panoramas such as this one! The Po River winds its way through northeastern Italy, a region known for red wine, Roman ruins, ancient castles, dramatic valleys, and delicious cheese. The banks of the Po River in Torino provide scenic sights as well as lovely walk paths – a way to experience nature and the outdoors even when you’re in the city. Here, you’ll feel the wind in your face, smell the leaves in the air, hear the current rushing past fluttering trees, and feel at peace in the alpine Italian city of Torino.
Wooden chalets with steep rooftops and lovely balconies, ornamented with flower boxes and carved silhouettes of fleur des lis, this tiny hamlet tucked deep in the lush forests of the French Alps is fit for a fairy tale. Located just above the picturesque Gorges de Diosaz inside the lovely Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron, this little hamlet offers brilliant views overlooking the magnificent Chamonix Mont-Blanc Valley. The perfect jumping off point for hiking in Alpine forests, the snug hamlet of Montvauthier seems to have fallen of the pages of a Disney tale. This is the Alps at their best, the backstage pass. Mont Blanc and Chamonix are stunningly unforgettable and are clearly the stars of the show. But the French Alps have so much more to offer the curious visitor than just that. In fact, the French Alps contain some of the world’s best hiking trails. The Alps have gorgeous snow towns world renowned for skiing. And they have countless tiny villages and hamlets as equally gorgeous as they are unknown. Montvauthier is one such place. The best part about the Alps is that you don’t have to go here – not specifically here anyway. You just have to get off the beaten track because the massive Alps are full of amazing places waiting for you to discover.
Pro tip: Be sure to try hearty Savoy dishes like raclette (melted cheese over potatoes and charcuterie), tartiflette (oven baked cheese, bacon and potato dish), or the classic fondue (a pot of melted cheese thickened with flour and spread over bread). There are many local red wines from Savoy as well. Proximity to Italy means the pizza is quite good too.
Transylvania, like Wallachia, is an ancient region of Romania – mountainous, disputed, oft-changing boundaries. Fortresses and castles had to be built for protection, defending land and people. Făgăraș Citadel is one of those places. Făgăraș was built in 1310 on the foundations of a 12th century wooden fortress that had been burned by Tartars in 1241. Then it was enlarged in the Renaissance style with the sole purpose of impressing visitors (in fact, Italian architects were brought in to add said Renaissance grandeur). Then – sadly – Făgăraș became a military garrison, meaning that the once-luxurious interior was ruined, trampled, lost. Encircled by a moat and a tree-lined garden, Făgăraș remains a beautiful and impressive place. However, do keep in mind that today’s Făgăraș Citadel is plopped in the middle of Făgăraș town, with cars and cyclists whizzing by, the din of city noise as its soundtrack. Făgăraș Citadel is now a history museum – entry 15 lei, open year round – and a fantastic example of a Transylvanian castle!
Pro Tip: Făgăraș Citadel is a great stop for anyone driving between Brasov and Sibiu! Whether you visit the interior of the castle or just stretch your legs along the walls, it’s worth the stop!
The city that feels a bit like its at the end of the world, Inverness is a small cosmopolitan outpost in northern Scotland. Crowned with Inverness Castle, the city – and castle – cling to the banks of the River Ness. This relatively new castle was only built in 1836, but it sits on the roots of what was originally an 11th century castle. Today’s castle is built in the neo-gothic style, though the former castle was a proper medieval lump of stone. It’s not open to the public today for good reason: it is currently home to the Inverness Sherif Court (Scotland’s civil and criminal court). That said, you can visit the Castle Viewpoint for a bird’s eye view of Inverness from the top of the building (admission £5). Though the interior of the castle is closed, the exterior is an emblem of Inverness. It’s also certainly a worth to climb to the top of the castle hill to enjoy the view over Inverness and beyond! Fun fact: find Inverness Castle on one side of certain £50 RBS banknotes.
Pro Tip: Keep going past the castle along the river to follow forest trails through the Ness Islands. Hungry? You’ll definitely have to check out the delicious menu at The Kitchen Brasserie, less than 5 minutes walk from the Castle. Book lovers will love the magnificent Leakey’s Bookshop located in an old church! Looking for music? Try Hootananny for a pint and traditional music!
The French region of Ardèche, with its stunning Gorges d’Ardèche, Pont d’Arc over the Ardèche River, the Monts de Forez and Les Cevennes, is a veritable nature’s paradise. The western half of the central region is rocky, mountainous and forlorn. Industries such as viticulture and sheep-farming did not leave the inhabitants as nearly as prosperous as those on the eastern half of the region that benefited from being on the banks of the all-important Rhone River, a highway of maritime trade. As a result, this little corner of France is lost in time. Quaint medieval villages are tucked away into the folds of the ruggedly dazzling mountains. The miniature beaches of the Ardèche River welcome swimmers and paddlers looking to escape the sticky summer season. Cobblestone village centres bustle with markets sporting local produce, industry and crafts. Trails and paths and country roads abound making Ardèche the place to go to lose oneself in France’s wild side. Cliffs sweep in sunburnt valleys. Though none of Ardèche’s peaks can rival the Alps or even the Pyrenees, the region offers a far quieter and less touristic alternative – perfect for those who want to visit France lost in time.
Pro tip: Avoid Vallon-Pont-d’Arc as it is very busy with domestic tourism and instead base yourself in one of Ardèche’s medieval villages like Baluzuc, Montréal or Largèntiere.
Le Jardin Anglais (the English Garden), Geneva, Switzerland
Geneva’s lovely Jardin Anglais overlooks the mouth of the famously beautiful Lac Leman at its convergence with the Rhone River. Constructed in 1855, this lovely urban garden hosts the famed horloge fleurie, or ‘flower clock’, which was built at the park’s centennial as a way to pay homage to the Switzerland and its affinity for clocks. Originally a wooded patch of embankment, the city of Geneva decided to buy it and turn the area into a lakeside park, part of an initiative to develop a new luxury neighbourhood. Even to this day, the neighbourhood surrounding the Jardin Anglais (as with most of central Geneva) is luxurious and beautiful. It is a place where Porches and Ferraris are parked, where shops like Cartier, Chanel, Gucci and Burberry are the norm, where the flats are glorious and expansive, with flower-clad balconies overlooking Lac Leman. Despite its name, this manicured and meticulous garden with its flower clock, perfect organisation, and profound cleanliness, is so undeniably and unmistakably Swiss.
Part of the Massif Centrale mountain range that thrusts upwards in the centre of France (notably part of rural Auvergne), the Cévennes ramble across southern France, including through Herault, Gard, Ardèche and Lozère. Lush forests and sweeping valleys hide glittering turquoise lakes and sunburnt meadows. Alive with diverse flora and fauna, the Cevennes Mountains cover some of France’s remotest communities – and have the best sunny weather! Though not always easy to access (especially the mountains in the region of Lozère, which rejects the notion of commercial tourism), the Cévennes Mountains and the Cévennes National Park are rich in natural beauty. The term Cévennes comes from an old Celtic (Gaul) name, Cebenna, later Latinised by Caesar upon conquering the region as Cevenna – and more than 2,000 years later, the name still sticks. Even today, the Cévennes are rife with protestants who identify as descendants of the ancient Huguenots who escaped to the rough mountain terrain which provided shelter and protection to refugees of centuries past. Today, the beautiful mountains are perfect for cycling, hiking, and other outdoor adventure activities.
Pro tip: On the southern side, the closest true cities are Nîmes and Montpellier. To visit the Cévennes rural beauty, you should rent a car. St Guilheim-le-Desert (see below) is just one of the Cévennes’ lovely villages to stay in.
The jewel of the north, Inverness is known as the city that crowns the shores of Loch Ness, famed home to the mythically elusive monster Nessie. Despite this claim to fame, few visit the compact Scottish city, and even fewer appreciate it. The official gateway to the Scottish Highlands, the northern-ness of Inverness gives you the feeling of being at the ends of Earth’s civilisation (it’s the UK’s northernmost city). Small enough to visit in a day, Inverness is one of Europe’s fastest growing cities. It is ranked 5th out of nearly 200 British cities for best quality of life as well as Scotland’s 1st (and the UK’s 2nd) happiest city; being collectively happy seems to be a northern thing as Denmark, Sweden and Norway also often rank at the top of world lists. As you wander the streets of Inverness, there’s certain familiar British-ness (e.g. Boots, Cafe Nero, WH Smiths and Tesco’s…) but at the same time, something resoundly Scottish. Start at the majestic Leakey’s Bookshop and follow the River Ness past the ancient churches and over bouncing bridges, past the modern castle on the hill as the rivers weaves and twines its way towards the long and narrow Loch Ness. Long before you arrive, you’ll stumble across a series of long and narrow islands – the Ness Isles – a 3 mile (5k) forested loop fringed by the quiet river – a place just perfect for a stroll or a jog in the fresh air of any season! Oh and by the way, Macbeth is from here! Or rather, his real life 11th century counterpart was.
Pro tip: Inverness Train/Bus Station is in the city centre. The airport is an easy 25 minute bus ride – get bus 11A from Marks & Spenser’s. There are Loch Ness half day boat tours for those wishing to see the lake and ruins of Urquhart Castle. Looking for quick, yummy food? Try the Filling Station by the train station for hearty comfort food.
Ah Brasov – one of Romania’s most beloved cities. Tucked away into a corner of magical Transylvania, Brasov is a medieval city proud of its history. Caught between ancient tradition and a modernising Romania, Brasov is a shining symbol of the past, showcasing an era when Transylvania and Wallachia, two of Romania’s ancient regions, were in their heyday (though it wasn’t always so; that famous Vlad Dracula the Impaler? Yes, he got his nickname by impaling Turks during his never-ending fights with the land-crazed Ottoman Empire). Returning to Brasov. The best way to start your foray into the city’s ancient beauty is by climbing Mt Tampa (elevation 960m – roughly 400 m above Brasov). There’s a funicular but to truly dig into the dark forests of the Carpathians, to imagine what it was like during Brasov’s Middle Ages, you have to climb it on foot. From the top, behind the Hollywood-esque Brasov sign, you’ll be rewarded with amazing aerial views of orange-topped medieval Brasov, fringed by the lush forests that carpet the wandering Carpathian peaks. We have the Germans to thank for the fairytale orange tiles and princely avenues, which give way to the wandering alleys of the Romanian Schei district. After you drink in the stunning views, drink a well-earned beer from the tiny outdoor pub and then head back to town on the funicular.
Pro tip: The funicular costs 10 lei (16 return), and runs from 9.30-17.00 (from noon-18h Mondays); buy your tickets from the operator or even at the bottom of the cable car. The hike is well-marked and takes about 1.5 hours. Expect the summit to be busy.
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg, Russia
To some, the stunning Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood resembles a giant cupcake; to others a Disney World attraction; to locals, a mere copy of the more-famous St Basil‘s on Moscow‘s Red Square. And yet. This stunning church has a life and attitude all of its own. Inside and out, it is a work of art, an example of high romantic nationalism and Art Nouveauthat stands out from the rest of Baroque and Neoclassical St Petersburg. Conceived and completed in fin de siecle Russia, it was meant to be a way of immortalising Tsar Alexander II by his son, Alexander III, who was assassinated here by a group of anarchists. Inside, every inch of the high walls are covered with biblical art, containing over 7,500 square meters of mosaics, which by some estimates, is more than any other church in the world! Sadly, during the war, it was used as a temporary morgue during the WWII Siege of Leningrad, and afterwards as the city was still recovering, it was used as a storehouse for produce and other foodstuffs – lending it the derogatory nickname, Saviour on Potatoes. Today, it is a museum and a tribute to another Russia, another era. It was never reconsecrated, and therefore is not a proper place of worship, but does attract visitors from all over the world to admire its expert craftsmanship.
Pro tip: There is a small entrance fee of 250 rubles (about €3) but it goes towards the renovation and upkeep of the church. The church is closed Wednesdays.