Dubrovnik is one of those places that somehow just doesn’t seem quite real. Is it a fairy tale? A place in Game of Thrones (which used it as a filming location) or Lord of the Rings? But no, Dubrovnik is the thriving southmost city of Croatia, an orange-tiled marbled marvel clinging to the shores of the very turquoise Mediterranean Sea. Vibrant, busy and loud, the narrow streets of this small but beloved city vibrate with life. But from here, beyond the ancient streets, beyond the beaches, up above the peninsula of dusty hills framed with of lush greenery, we have the very best view of this beautiful place. Croatia is a place of rapid change, a place where time most certainly does not stand still. As the EU’s most recent member, it is a place where past meets future.
Pro Tip: Unless you’re looking for a typical beach holiday, visit Croatia in the off season to avoid the busiest of tourists.
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.
Macedonia isn’t on most people’s radar, likely because most people don’t know the country exists. Technically called North Macedonia (or more specifically the Republic of North Macedonia) because we can’t offend the Greeks. In short, the country was called Macedonia until recently, but its name alone meant that Greece wouldn’t recognise it as a country because petty Greece also has a region of the same name, so Macedonia had to change theirs. (Thanks, Greece, that’s very mature. Moldova and Romania seem to get along alright.) Greece might get all the tourism attention, but the secretive nature of Macedonia, its forgotten ruins and fascinating bazaars add an extra exotic flair lost in the crowds of Santorini. The government has put a lot of funds and effort into renovating downtown Skopje, Macedonia’s capitol. Today, the downtown area of Skopje is very modern, and very western, while the domes, minarets and narrow alleys of another era are relegated further down in Skopje’s old town, in the shadow of the fortress. While the bazaar is the soul of Skopje, Macedonia Square is at the heart of the city. The largest square in the whole country, it was here that Kiro Gligorov, Macedonia’s first president, declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. The city’s summer festivities, political demonstrations and even Christmas markets all take place in the massive Macedonia Square. In the centre of the plaza is the massive statue that commemorates the most famous Macedonian ever to exist, the legendary conquerer Alexander the Great. If you haven’t figured it out yet – he’s the massive dude riding the rearing horse on the enormous pedestal in the centre.
Pro tip: As stated above, a visit to Skopje in winter means Christmas markets and other festivities – though we do admit that the best Christmas markets are found in central Europe (Prague and Vienna are standouts). Though modern Skopje is worth seeing, head into the Old Town bazaar for food, coffee and beer – delicious, cheap and atmospheric! Head up to the fortress (entry free) for great views over the city.
Tucked into the Beaujolais, the wee French village of Arnas is found just outside of Villefranche-sur-Saône, the “capital” of the Beaujolais wine region. On the lovely city of Lyon’s doorstep are two impressive wine regions – to the south is the Côtes du Rhône, and to the north is the Beaujolais. Though smaller than the Côtes du Rhône, the Beaujolais is the superior wine-making region as its rolling hills and tiny cobbled villages follow an ancient tradition ever-present to the region and imprinted into the landscape. Arnas is one such village where wine is all-important, an art passed from father to son, mother to daughter. Every September is the harvest season, a time of year in which the whole family gets together to harvest the grapes. Not long after the harvest (or “vendanges“) is the festival of the Beaujolais Nouveau in November – the presentation and drinking of the new wine. This year, it was this past weekend – the 21st of November – but the festival of the Beaujolais Nouveau is held around the same time every year – see more info here. Arnas itself is a small place though bustling with life, from dancing sunflowers on the edge of the village to a busy village square where church, school, bar, restaurant and bakery all jostle for place. Cobbled streets, historic houses and narrow alleys make this place the perfect stereotypical Beaujolais village. Make sure you don’t leave without a bit of wine!
Pro tip: Come in November for the Fete de Beaujolais Nouveau! But even if you visit at another time of the year, there will be plenty of wine – and probably the odd festival too. There are many signposted hiking paths (“sentiers”) that weave through the region, lovely for short hikes and countryside rambles. Don’t miss the lovely domaine, Château de Fléchères on the other side of the river – visitor info here.
Not far from Madrid, Toledo is an easy and beautiful day trip from Spain’s capital city. Holy Roman emperor Charles V established his court here in Toledo in the 16th century, giving the city its nickname, the “Imperial City.” Toledo is a city that has given birth to kings and queens, nobles and commoners alike – even the famed artist El Greco comes from this desert gem. Toledo is a place with a long heritage, vastly effected by its mix of the three dominating cultures of the Iberian Peninsula: Christianity, Islam and Judaism – not to mention functioning as the Visigoth Capital from 542 – 725 AD. In existence since before Roman times, it is little wonder that this desert city was recognised by UNESCO. Wander the lovely streets, casting your eye at the diverse architecture inspired by its various cultures before heading to the very top of the city for a terrific panoramic view of Toledo and its surroundings. Neither small nor large, Toledo is easy enough to explore on foot (if you don’t mind hills and steep roads!), but nor is it too small to get bored.
Pro tip: Perhaps you might want to try some tapas or paella while you’re here! Toledo has many small family-run restaurants in which to do so. Wear sturdy shoes – the streets are cobbled, uneven and sometimes steep. Trains run hourly from Puerta de Atocha station in Madrid, with a 30 minute duration. Check Renfe’s website for more info.
The region of Auvergne is surely one of the most under-rated in all of France. Barely a blimp on most tourist’s radars, Auvergne, located in the heart of the country, is home to an incredible mountain range, the Massif Central. Incredibly ancient, beautiful and rugged though accessible, the Puys of the Massif Central are a hiker’s paradise. While the Puy de Dôme is the icon of Auvergne and its mountain range, there are many other lesser-known mountains, like the Puy de Clierzou (or Cliersou), rising some 1,199 metres and home to a network of caves. Though the mountains were remote until opened up by recent roads, the Caves of Clierzou have been used since Antiquity, when they were found and inhabited by the Gallo-Roman peoples. Atop the Puy de Dôme there is the Roman-era Temple of Mercure, but in smaller places like the Caves of Clierzou, there is also evidence of human use through the centuries. From the Caves of Clierzou, one has a good view of the Puy de Dôme, a sacred place for those who built their temple here. Oh and did we mention these mountains are extinct volcanoes? On your hike through the Puy de Clierzou and the Puy de Sansy past the caves, you’ll get the chance to stand inside an ancient volcanic crater…
Pro tip: Clermont-Ferrand is the regional capitol and main point of entry. Near the Caves of Clierzou, Orcines is the closet town, and home to a splendid cathedral (one of five of the same design, like this one at nearby St Saturnin). There are many hikes in the Massif Central and the Puys – the hike up Puy de Sansy (with the added bonus of Puy de Clierzou) is one of the more popular and well-marked. There is some info here and a circuit of Puy de Sansy here. No wild camping or fires allowed.
While most of Poland is flat, Poland’s southern border with Czechia, Slovakia and Ukraine to the south has some sizeable mountains. Poland’s mountains come in two groups, the Carpathian’s (most famously associated with Romania, bit stretching through a good bit of the Balkans and Eastern Europe) on the eastern half of Poland’s southern realms, and the Sudetes, on its western side. The most well known of these are the Tatras Mountains and the Beskid Mountains, both part of the Carpathian range. While the Tatras are Poland’s most significant mountains, none of Poland’s mountainous terrain is enough to prevent habitation, and the Tatras are especially popular as idyllic mountain getaways. The most famed mountain resort is of course Zakopane, well known for its winter skiing and summer hiking. Rising up behind the town is Gubałówka Mountain. At 1,126m elevation, it provides commanding views over the surrounding Tatras and out to the Slovakian peaks, whose border is just a dozen or so kilometres away. Gubałówka Mountain is serviced by a funicular, opened in 1938 to allow non-hikers to enjoy the view at this new and fashionable ski resort, though to fully appreciate the Tatras mountains and Polish countryside, it’s recommended to hike to the top of this hill too. The top is a cacophony of shops (many selling the same cheap souvenirs), festivities, bars and restaurants as well as stunning views and adorable chalets. Even if resort towns aren’t your cup of tea, Zakopane is a great jumping off point to arrive in the region, get your bearings and prepare for you hiking adventure. Because Poland’s beautiful and quiet only mountainous region is one of the loveliest places to walk in all of Europe !
Pro tip: The queue for the funicular can be quite long – if you want to take it, arrive early. It costs 14 zl, and takes 4 minutes. Walking up Gubałówka takes about an hour, and from there, you have access to a network of other trails. There are many trails in the area, as well as further into the Tatras and into the Beskids too – here are some near Zakopane. If you are hiking in this region, don’t miss the spectacular wooden churches, many of which are UNESCO protected.
Temperate Glasshouse in Kew Gardens, London, England
The Kew Royal Botanic Gardens are some of the finest botanical gardens in the world. Spread over 121 hectares (300 acres), wander amongst some 50,000 plants found across this UNESCO World Heritage site outside London. The jewel of Kew Gardens is the beautiful Temperate House. This Victorian-era glasshouse – opened 1862 – was built to be the stunning entrance to the royal gardens when the rail line was complete. Things didn’t go to plan, and the railway station was moved to the other end of the park. The building itself is quite marvellous, containing thousands of panes of glasses (replaced after more than 100 WWII-era bombs rocked Kew), while the thousands of plants within this iron and glass dome are even more so. The Victorians had an intense curiosity. Those who could afford to went on adventures to all corners of the Earth in search of the new and exotic to bring back to mother England – or more likely, sponsored an explorer to go off in their name. Those who couldn’t afford the adventures themselves would instead satisfy their curiosity by going to palm houses, world fairs, circuses, museums, curiosity cabinets, exhibits, wax halls, and other such places. Housing 1,500 plants from 5 continents and 16 islands, the Temperate House covers plants within the temperate zone (where most of the world population lives, the temperate zone is sandwiched between the polar and tropics – including North America, Europe, China, Australia, southern Africa, and parts of South America). While at the Temperate House, wander the narrow alleys between plants before climbing up to the viewing platform for an aerial panorama of the ecosystems below and the wrought and cast iron structure above. Whether or not you have an interest in biology and ecosystems, Kew Gardens and its glasshouses are a fascinating place – both pulling you into the past with its Victorian glasshouses as well as looking towards the future at the effects humans have on the planet, and working to conserve and protect the Earth’s flora.
Pro tip: Visit the Palm House while you’re at Kew Gardens. When you’re in Belfast, be sure to visit the Palm House in Belfast’s Botanical Gardens and in Dublin visit the National Botanic Gardens – all four glasshouses are designed by Victorian-era architect Richard Turner. Also while in Kew, be sure to check out the beautiful glass art by artist Dale Chihuly.
Knocknarea is a very special place. Tucked away in a quiet corner of northwest Ireland on a little peninsula in County Sligo, Knocknarea is renowned for its history and legends. Though only 300 metres high, climbing to the top of this hill is a sacred act. Crowning this hill is a huge cairn from Neolithic times – over 5,000 years old! Sligo is riddled with ruins from the Neolithic era – at Knocknarea’s foot are the Carrowmore tombs (home to some 50 monuments!), and further inland, find the even more impressive Carrowkeel tombs – 20 monuments of which three are opened. There are other sites of course – Deerpark, Creevykeel, Knockvranny, Knocknashee, and so many more – and these are all in wee County Sligo! You could spend a lifetime trying to visit all of Ireland’s Neolithic sites… But yes, back to Knocknarea. Other than the huge cairn, there are a few satellite tombs, and the ruins of an ancient village (as well as a famine age abandoned village – both just a few houses). After Ireland was Christianised, many early Christians hung on to their beliefs, and the religious leaders had to find a way to compromise – such as Yule becoming Christmas, the Pagan goddess Brigid becoming a saint, and the fertility goddess Sheela na Gig giving Mary a higher status than in most contemporary – and patriarchal – Christian societies. And then there was the problem of understanding those societies who came before these early Christians (who were they, and why did they build these things!? Questions still unanswered today…). Knocknarea was therefore explained away using folklore. The cairn was attributed to the legendary (and semi-mythical) saviour and warrior queen of Connaght, buried upright in her great tomb under the cairn, facing her enemies from the North. Though this story is unlikely to be true, it’s clear that someone (well, many someones) are buried here, making this an ancient graveyard of sorts. It is one of Sligo’s iconic spots and can be seen from almost anywhere around Sligo town. Knocknarea is seen here from the far side reflected in the low tide sands of Cullenamore strand, a quieter alternative to busy Strandhill Beach – and also better for a long walk on the beach!
Pro tip: Don’t forget to bring a stone from the bottom of the hill up to the cairn for Queen Maeve! If you have a car, climb from the Queen Maeve Car Park. No car? Take the Strandhill bus and stop at the Centra – there is a path up this side starting here. A new path connects both sides with the Strandhill beach, famed for its surf. We recommend lunch/brunch at Shells, ice cream at Mammie Johnson’s and/or pizza and a pint at The Strand pub.
The Alpine city of Chamonix is famous the world over as the premier luxury ski capital. But beyond the glamorous Alpine resort, there are many smaller towns, villages and hamlet, including the wee hamlet of Montvauthier, on the edge of the Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron. And though Mont Blanc is the famous Alpine mountain, there are many other lesser-known places for hiking in the Alps. The beautiful reserve of the Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron, created in 1991, is part of the Arve Valley, and is distinguished by high peaks, lush woodlands, and rich flora and fauna. The peaks of Carlaveyron were almost given over to more than a dozen lifts but luckily instead, Carlaveyron was designated as a nature reserve, protecting the rich Alpine flora and fauna of the Haute-Savoie. At heights ranging from 1,000-2,300 metres (3,200-7,500ft), the hiking is rough but the fantastic panoramas are worth it. Carlaveyron is also home to the impressive Gorges de la Diosaz, an impressive river gorge at the foot of the mountain. The mountainous reserve is also home to everything from owls to deer, lynx (reintroduced 1970 – there are now about 300!), chamois, eagles, and many species of bird. Hiking in the park can range from short (though steep) hikes to much more difficult Alpine hiking for more experienced hikers used to rough footing, steep ascents and high altitudes. If you’re only looking to do a couple of kilometres, try starting your hike from the Servoz train station, or even the car park of Diosaz. The magical panoramas will carry you up the mountain…
Pro trip: While in the Alps, you’ll have to try some local delicacies like tartiflette, raclette, fondu or even pizza! There are many regional Alpine cheeses to taste as well.
Greeting you as you traverse forgotten paths through dark forests, red-brick turrets of a fairytale castle rise through the waves of golden trees on a crisp autumn day. This is the beautiful Turaida Castle. To though there is a bus, a far more enjoyable way to find Turaida Castle is to be mistaken for a German tourist at the Sigulda train station, be handed a map in German and told to follow it through the town of Sigulda, past the first, then second set of castle ruins, over the impressive Gauja River Gorge in a little yellow cable car, through the magnificently eerie woods, past the magical Gutmanis Cave, and finally, to the turrets of Turaida Castle itself. Built in 1214, demolished in 1776 by fire, then partially restored in the last decade, “Thor’s Garden,” as it translates to in Livonian, is a medieval castle on the Gauja River built by Albert, archbishop of Riga. Today there is a small folk park area and sculpture garden outside, as well as the castle of towers, walls and outbuildings. Though of course Turaida Castle is still an impressive place when arriving by bus or car, hiking through the quiet trails of the Gauja River Valley from Sigulda Train Station, and exploring the region on foot is what truly makes visiting this castle a magical experience fit for a modern explorer time-travelling to the Middle Ages.
Pro tip: Pick up a map from the Sigulda Train Station and hike to the castle! The Gauja River Valley is magical to explore on foot. You’ll have to take the cable car to Krimulda, which operates daily from 10-18h30 (or 17h in winter), and currently costs €12 (the views are worth it!). The whole hike is about 5km with deviations to Sigulda Castle or Gutmanis Cave adding a wee bit more on. Once you visit the castle, you can then take the bus back to Sigulda. There is a tiny (and very simple) restaurant near the castle, but you may want to bring a picnic. Cable car info here.
The coast of southern France is a fascinating place. Not far from the city of Marseilles, the coast erupts in series of jagged finger-like formations. This is the Massif des Calanques, a collection of impressive narrow inlets with steep walls rising on either side that comprise the Calanques National Park. As these walls are made of soft rocks like limestone, erosion carves out stunning jagged landscapes filled with turquoise waters – the picture of tranquillity. The Calanque de Morigou is one of the largest of the whole Massif des Calanques park. At its base are beaches and a narrow harbour where those so inclined can explore this exotic landscape by boat. Above, the landscape of the Calanque de Morgiou is no less impressive as the panoramas over these rugged headlands under the brilliant French sunshine is magnificent. Many hiking trails criss-cross this landscape, perfect for hikers of all abilities. Once a fishing port because of its strategic and protective location, the harbour at the Calanque of Morgiou is famed for giant tuna fishing hosted by the Marseillais when King Louis XIII visited the region in 1622. It is here too that we find the submerged entrance to the astounding Cosquer Cave, some 37 metres (121 feet) below sea level. After divers swim through a 175-metre (574 ft) tunnel, the narrow entrance opens into the Cosquer Cave – a cavern full of prehistoric art, including 65 stencils of human hands made 27,000 years ago! Though rising water levels have destroyed most of the art, there are still about 150 paintings visible. Even if you can’t see this amazing cave, the Calanques – and the Calanque de Morgiou in particular – are such a spectacular place to visit.
Pro tip: Hike to the Cap Sutigan overlooking the Calanque de Morgiou from the University (even accessible via bus from Marseille). Or drive down to the harbour itself on a road from Marseille suburb, Les Baumettes.
In a city bursting with impressively gorgeous architecture, possibly the most stunning example of Baroque architecture in Vienna is the Karlskirche, just off the famous Ringstrasse. The Karlskirche came to be on the bequest of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. Commissioned in 1713 to mark the end of the recent plague, the Karlskirche is dedicated to Charles VI’s namesake saint, St Charles Borromeo, who is said to alleviate the suffering of plague victims. Built over a span of 21 years (1716-37), the famous Baroque church was situated quite close to Hofsburg Palace, and was used as the imperial house of worship. With a wide array of architectural inspirations – largely from ancient times, Architect Fischer von Erlach was inspired by Hellenistic temples as well as as Roman columns – Trajan’s Column in Rome, with a copy in Bucharest, was one such source. All of this has been combined to create the Karlskirche – surely one of Vienna’s most spectacular pieces of art, which is saying something as the entire city seems full to the brim with impressive designs (see a Christmas night at the Karlskirche here). A final remark is that just next to Karlskirche is the Spitaler Gottesacker, site of music composer (another art form widely associated with Vienna) Antonio Vivaldi’s tomb – though the exact location is lost today. Vienna is a truly amazing city and a must-visit for architecture nerds, history buffs and budding photographers!
Pro tip: Be sure to try some of the delicious foods and drinks while here – like the Mozartkugeln chocolates, the Wiener schnitzel and the delicious Germanic wheat beer popular in the region. Vienna is also known for its cafés – stop in for a coffee and a Sachertorte or any of the other delicious hand-baked tortes or cakes!
France is a country of many wonders, be they natural, cultural or a bit of both. One of the most underrated regions of France is the Ardèche, a small sun-kissed, hilly place in the south-central region of France. Though the Ardèche has its fair share of tourists, they are mostly French, mostly local, and mostly converged around a couple of over-visited spots such as Vallon du Pont d’Arc. Places like Largentière and Baluzac are breath-taking medieval splendours well worth a visit when you’re in the region. But the most spectacular part of Ardèche is probably the Réserve Naturelle des Gorges d’Ardeche. Actually made up of a series of gorges carved out over thousands of years by the Ardèche River, the Gorges d’Ardèche is known locally as the “European Grand Canyon.” (Other impressive French canyons are the Gorges de Verdon and the Gorges de Tarn). Not only are the landscapes beautiful, but the Gorges are a well-known haven for wildlife. Admire the dramatic geology from above the Gorges as well as from within them, from the river that created the rock formations. The most famous example is the Pont d’Arc, a natural arch 60 metres wide. In summer, the Gorges d’Ardèche become a popular swimming place, and the riverbanks are brimming with swimmers, sunbathers and divers – though nearly all visitors to the river are local. Another popular activity is kayaking or canoeing but this is such as popular activity that you may want to avoid it. The area is riddled with caves and caverns, many of which contain paintings and other signs of human habitation. To put things into perspective, humans have called the Gorges d’Ardèche home for over 300,000 years!
Pro tip: There are several swimming holes along the river, one of which is just under the Pont d’Arc. Stay overnight in one of the local picturesque medieval villages like Largentière or Balazuc.
In the far-flung province of Transylvania, there’s an even more far-flung corner, a little-visited region called Hunedoara. Far off the tourism radar, Hunedoara is remote, agricultural, and lost in time. Towering over the plains and village of Hunedoara are the Retezat Mountains National Park, part of the famed Carpathian Mountains. With about 20 peaks pushing over 2300m (7500 feet), the Retezat Mountains, like the rest of their cousins in the Carpathians, are a force to be reckoned with. However, quiet Hunedoara, tucked into the foothills of the Retezats, is a place caught in a time capsule. It is a place of dusty villages and traditional dress, of ancient plows and horse and carts and even Roma gypsy palaces. Here, you’ll find another side to Romania, one quite far from that of the cosmopolitan centres of Bucharest and Brasov. At one moment in history part of Dacia, the Roman Empire, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Transylvania, the Soviet Union, and modern-day Romania, Hunedaora is a region accustomed to change and turbulent times. Today, though, no place could be quieter and off-the-beaten-track.
Pro tip: Hiking in the Rezetat Mountains is no joke, and should only be done by experienced and well-prepared hikers – even better with a local guide. Otherwise, there are plenty of villages and lower-level foothills to explore. Hateg is a good base. The town of Hunedora may not be beautiful – but its Corvinus Castle sure is!
Bruges is a truly fairytale place (thanks, In Bruges). Quaint canals are lined romantic facades, graceful weeping willows, cosy cafés and lovely quays. Canals are crossed with romantic bridges – of which each one is different from the same as the next. Like Venice, they function as streets, a unique way to get around the city. In fact, Bruges is sometimes nicknamed the “Venice of the North” (though it is not the only city to hold the name – see below). The historic centre of Bruges (a UNESCO world heritage site) is a small, quaint, romantic place. Compact enough to comfortably walk the whole city, Bruges still has a lot going on, not to mention, it is eye candy for art and architecture lovers! From the Belfort (belfry and its famous bells) to the Provincial Palace, Ghent Port and City Hall – not to mention all of the churches, gates, bridges, administrative buildings and even ordinary houses – there is no shortage of historic and beautiful sites upon which to feast your eyes on this spectacular medieval city.
Pro tip: Bruges is a busy, busy place. Therefore, try to visit in the off season. To make the most of your visit, be sure to stay over at least one night – many of the tourists are day trippers from Brussels. After the day crowds thin out, go for a wee nighttime stroll – with the city all glittering and reflecting, it adds a new layer of magic to this place! Also, Belgian fries and Belgian waffles are more than just stereotypes – they are perfection and delicious. Best place to get both are often the wee food trucks and hole-in-the-wall chippers!
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain conjures up images of a strange and futuristic community, a space-age society perhaps found in the cartoonish Meet the Jetsons or the comedic Fifth Element. Certainly among of Europe’s strangest architectural icons, the Guggenheim was designed by futuristic Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry who was encouraged to “design something daring,” and adorned with artwork such as Puppy (a giant dog made of flowers), and large metallic balloon animals created by American artist Jeff Koons. Erected in 1997, the Guggenheim Museum houses a collection of modern and contemporary art as part of both permanent and revolving exhibitions across various medias. Bilbao may seem like an odd place for such a museum. Built in the seedy, dilapidated docks district of Bilbao, the Guggenheim Museum was commissioned by the Basque government as a way to bring tourism into this little-visited region, rejuvenating not only the now-abandoned docks but also the under-appreciated Basque country. Today, it routinely makes lists of most important and admired contemporary buildings not just in Spain or Europe, but worldwide.
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.
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!