Lough Key is the centrepiece of Lough Key Forest Park, located at the heart of rural Co Roscommon, part of a region known as Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands. Woven and crossed with trails, Lough Key Forest Park is the perfect way to visit Ireland’s countryside if you don’t have the time or ability to undertake a wilderness hike, or if you’re looking for family-friendly hiking paths. In the centre of Lough Key – named for an ancient druid called Cé in Irish folklore (folklore attributes the lake as his grave site) – there is a tiny island roughly half an acre. In the centre of Castle Island is… you guessed it, a castle. What we see today is McDermott’s Castle, which is a folly (or ‘fake’ castle) built as a gothic castle in the early 1800s to improve the view, but there’s been one castle or another on Castle Island since the the 12th century. The castle of the island has since been struck by lightning, attacked by fire ships, sieged by raft-mounted catapults, cursed by the Hag of Lough Key and burnt during WWII. Practical tip: located 2h from Dublin on the Sligo road. Though you can’t really visit the castle, there are exquisite grounds for a hike or picnic, as well as the famed puzzle rooms (a bit like an escape room) and a cafe.
A sort of Spanish Versailles, Aranjuez Palace is a massive royal complex roughly an hour from Madrid, though it is lesser-known than its French counterpart. A former royal residence established during the era of Philip II in the early 1500s, the Palace of Aranjuez once functioned as a seasonal residence, inhabited by the royals and their entourage each springtime. Encapsulating the utter extravagance and overabundance of the wealth, power and influence the royal family once held, the palatial space allowed them to host enormously opulent and excessive Great Gatsby style parties. Though today the Spanish royal family is little more than a symbol, it is still a powerful symbol of conservatism, religion, and traditional values, not always keeping up with the modern world. Today however, the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, a UNESCO protected site, is open to the public as a museum, displaying art, furniture, royal artefacts and more, offering a cheeky peak behind the royal curtain of what being part of the Spanish royal family and its court actually meant. To get there, take the local commuter train from Madrid’s central stations to Aranjuez and walk 15 minutes to the palace at the centre of town; last entry is one hour before closing.
Northern County Mayo is perhaps the closest you’ll get to true wilderness in Ireland. At the very least, Mayo is remote (and travel to and around), rural, quiet, and under-rated. There is little tourism infrastructure in the northern nether regions of Mayo (the southern part of the county fares better: parts of Connemara, the town of Westport and the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick all draw visitors). The problem does not lie in the lack of beauty – more in the lack of roads leading to said beautiful places. Lough Conn, a large lake outside of the not-overwhelming town of Ballina, is a diamond in the rough. Not far off the famous Wild Atlantic Way driving route, the glittering shores, fantastic sunsets, and little-visited beaches make Lough Conn an ideal place for off-the-beaten-track nature enthusiasts. It is a lovely place for wild camping (otherwise known as ‘real camping’ – no showers or wifi here!) or even just a beachside barbecue on a sunlit evening at the end of summer. Lough Conn itself is quite large – it measures 14,000 acres (57 km²). There are two accounts for the name (and very existence) of the lake. In Irish mythology, Lough Conn was created by famous giant Finn McCool (also credited with creating the Giant’s Causeway – a story for another day!). Hunting with his hounds Conn and Cullin, they chased a wild boar for days until water began to pour from the boar’s feet. It swam across the newly-created lakes one after the other but Conn the Hound drowned in the first lake (Lough Conn) and Cullin drowned in the second lake (becoming Lough Cullin). A version of the story was later attributed to an Irish chieftain, Chief Modh, though in this account, the pigs, not the hounds, was drowned. Drowning aside, both lakes are lovely, quiet places – a true glimpse into unspoilt Ireland. For a bit of local culture, stop by Foxford Woollen Mills on the way back to civilisation – a respected local weaving and crafting designer!
Vltava River in Prague, Czech Republic from Charles Bridge
Charles Bridge is surely one of the world’s most famous bridges. Built in 1357 and the only means of crossing the thundering Vltava River until 1841, both Charles Bridge and the Vltava River have played a strategic and economic role throughout the city’s history. Prague’s location on the Vltava River has long been important for trade and shipping between eastern and western Europe, and that economical power, along with Prague’s famous bridge that connects its timeless old town with the majestic Prague Castle, have all helped to bounce Prague to international acclaim. Though always beautiful, there are two moments where Prague becomes nearly divine in beauty. The first is Prague covered in soft, brilliant snow, the pure white of the fallen snowflakes contrasting beautifully on the dark, ancient stones that make up the Gothic architectureof Charles Bridge, the Castle and most of the Old Town. Alone under the evening blizzard with snow underfoot, the smells of chimney smoke, hot wine and roasted chestnuts intermingle in the air, as the air itself rings with the jubilant sounds of the famed Christmas market – the perfect picture of Christmas bliss. The second time when Prague becomes almost unbearable with beauty is when bathed in the brilliance of the Golden Hour, both at sunrise and sunset, when the incandescent light glitters off the richly-coloured stones and the ancient architecture to make you feel as if you are part of a fairytale, or a painting. Sunrise is preferable – this way, you will avoid the crowds. Sunset, as seen above, will not disappoint either.
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Sunset cascades over the little medieval village tucked into the heart of the Gorges de l’Ardèche, nicknamed by the locals the ‘European Grand Canyon.’ The 30-km long canyon runs from the tourist hotspot Vallon-Pont-d’Arc to the less-well-known Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche. The village of Balazuc is listed on the ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France‘ (along with Pérouges and St Guilhiem-le-Désert) – as it should be. The village hugs the edge of the steep hill as narrow medieval alleyways weave and climb the hill’s slope from the shores of Ardèche River up to Balazuc’s castle. Cobblestone alleys meander through ancient dwellings, passing through echoing tunnels, climbing up uneven staircases. Well-worn steps lead up to the top of some of Balazuc’s buildings, affording breathtaking views over the clay roofs, the Ardèche River, and the Gorges themselves. In Balazuc, it’s easy to peel away the centuries to another era – all the while enjoying the creature comforts of our own!
Spicy yellows and greens flood the rugged slopes of Monte Vernissa in warm, afternoon sunlight, just outside the town of Xàtiva (Játiva in Spanish). During the Al-Andalus, the Arab conquerers turned the city into a paper manufacturing centre. The introduction of this technology brought prosperity, leading to the creation of high-quality schools and educational institutes with the castle arriving in the 11th century. Due to a terrible siege orchestrated by Philip V of Spain (punishment for Xàtiva’s resistance to his claim to power) that led to the town’s destruction, to this day Philip’s portrait hangs upside-down in the local museum. History aside, the La Costera region envelops the scraggy, weather-beat valley steppes of Montesa and Xàtiva, bordered by the Enguera and Grossa Mountains in the south. Xàtiva and its fortified castle remain the heart of the region. La Costera is a region beautiful for both its cultural and natural riches, and well worth the trek into its dry valleys. Though perhaps past its golden age in terms of affluence, Xàtiva remains a place of intense beauty and intrigue, and gold is still the best way to describe the city’s surrounding sea of sunburnt landscapes gently reminiscent of the American Wild West.
The golden sun touches down on the sunburnt region of Andalucía. Adorable pueblos blancos – or white villages due to their white-washed appearance – dot the landscape among scattered scrub bushes clinging to the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains. Grazalama, like the previously mentioned Zahara de la Sierra, is one of these such ‘white villages.’ Quaint yet lively, Grazalama – like the majority of the pueblos blancos – emits the true spirit of the region: local tradition seeped with food, drink, dance and merriment. Here, take a step back in time to forgotten generation. Take a step away from the glitz and glam of modern, fast-paced European cities like Madrid and London, Paris and Oslo. Instead, take a moment to relax under the warm Spanish sun with a cold cerveza in hand, plates of tapas – fresh seafood, various types of pork, local veggies, to-die-for olives, you name it – in front of you, while the sounds of upbeat Spanish music make your feet try to dance. Your chosen restaurant is located in a building older than your great-grandmother. Miniature shops selling local wares line the square. People chat happily away in rapid-fire Spanish in animated conversations necessitating many hand-gestures. Glasses clink, bells toll, and smells of something savoury waft from the kitchens. As the setting sun warms your back, you realise you found a miniature paradise deep in the heart of Andalucía.
The setting sun over the Swedish capital shines off the facades of the buildings on this neighboring island in Stockholm’s massive archipelago. As the largest city in Sweden, it is also the most populous city in the Nordic region with nearly 1.5 million inhabitants in the metropolitan area. As Stockholm also happens to be one of the most expensive European cities, the best way to spend a quiet evening is to sit out on the quay with a beer in hand and watch the sun set over the Swedish skyline before ambling back into the center of the old town (Gamla Stan) in search of a cozy cafe. If, like so many others, you’ve been watching the recent outburst of Nordic noir series and films (such as The Bridge, The Killing, Borgen, or any one of the many films), explore the city after dark to get a new perspective on Stockholm. But don’t worry; despite the dark nature of these series and films, Scandinavia is a relatively safe place. Just don’t forget to bring a jacket and scarf; the combination of its northern location as well as its proximity to the water makes for chilly air !
No matter when you visit Madrid, you are guaranteed sun and heat–even during a sunset such as this. While this makes a nice change from places where it rains or snows often, or others where it is cold most of the year, it can sometimes be too hot. However, the Spanish lifestyle is adapted to work around the heat. Most businesses are closed at midday and this time is instead set aside for eating. In Spain, mealtime is a sacred time of day. Mealtime is for eating, socializing, enjoying life, and you can in no way force a Spaniard to curtail this sacred ‘moment’ (which can sometimes last 3 hours!). Another way to escape the heat is to move everything back a few hours so that dinner is now later, around 10 pm. ‘Afternoon’ activities–like a stroll through the park, a beer at a bar, a quick shopping trip to the mall, dinner on a terrace, etc…this is all done during twilight or even after night falls. While still hot, this at least eliminates too much direct sunlight. Some would even say that twilight is the loveliest time of day!
The golden sun sets on Moscow, sliding over the top of the cathedral’s gilded domes as it sweeps into the river, leaving a glistening reflection of the boats passing alongside. There is no doubt that Moscow is a beautiful place. Why then, are there so few people who feel compelled to visit this city? Part of it is that the image of Moscow during the 20th century continues to persist. One thinks of the KGB, Russian mobs and the evils of communism. It is not only Behind-the-Iron-Curtain, it created the Iron Curtain. Hammer and scythe building nuclear weapons, placing sleeper cells throughout America and Europe, and plotting to take over the world. I’d like to say that that’s the old Russia, an attitude long gone—but recent activities in Crimea, Georgia, and eastern Ukraine have forced us to consider otherwise. Regardless, this is all on a governmental level. Moscow—on a human level—is nothing like its portrayal in the news, in spy novels, by Hollywood. It is a shrine, beautiful yet reminiscent of an old life, nostalgic. It is also filled with communist-era buildings, marshutkas (small, ancient bus-vans that service the outskirts and are run word-of-mouth), and power lines that criss-cross endlessly. This is a city at the tipping-point of modernization—one still not 100% sure it wants to be modernized. Regardless, Moscow emits an indescribable and fascinating beauty. It is full of history and memory and grandeur. It is the eastern gate, the last holdout laying at the feet of the East, and it is beautiful one–especially during the sunset.
Bari is a popular spot to take a cruise; people rarely visit the city for any other reason. Yet, one should also keep in mind that Bari is a place full of charm, and unlike more popular Italian cities, it’s not overrun by obnoxious American tourists. Bari is more typical of Italian life. Its streets are quiet yet lively, and for the most part, free from the reaches of annoying vendors and souvenir stands. The streets are nervously narrow and form a dangerous maze, filled with people and gelato stands and tricycles and motorbikes – and no wider than a SmartCar. It’s so anti-touristy that it’s hard to find a place to eat! (Although there is a fantastic hole-in-the-wall pizza place by the church that will make your mouth water months or perhaps even years later!). If you do come to Bari for a cruise, this is the view that will greet you. Whether you’re heading to Albania, Croatia or Montenegro, many of the cruises leave at night (to allow passengers to arrive in the morning). Therefore, as you stand on the sombre deck, this is that last thing you will see: Bari, lit up like a candle as the sun slowly sets along its picturesque shores. And then the boat slowly starts to move, and it’s time to say a silent goodbye that pretty little Italian city.
Sometimes the simplest things are the prettiest things. Sometimes, the simplest things become some of the most memorable moments of our lives, the most meaningful. No matter who you are, no matter where you live, the sun sets everyday – and everyday you have the ability to witness this most basic natural phenomenon. There is something incredibly special about cycling through rural Poland. An evening ride turns into a repose amongst the reeds to watch the the sky be painted with the most brilliant blues, golden flecks warming a distant horizon, a breeze softly blowing through fields of forgotten reeds. Sadly, we often see nature as something that exists to be in out way; we see the countryside as the barren land one must traverse to get from one city to another. Yet, give nature another chance. The countryside deserves more than a passing glance – because if you don’t, look at how much you’re missing.
Załęcze Wielkie lies in the Łódź Voivodeship (Polish province) in central Poland. It is a small village of about 20-25 buildings, and is 18km from the county’s capital of Wielun surrounded by beautiful rural countryside, rolling fields of flower and hills, ancient and sacred sites, and tiny villages. It also happens to boast Nadwarciański Gród, a small woodland campus for hosting summer camps. Every July, the village sees an influx of Americans for the The Kosciuszko Foundation, in which Polish teens can learn English at a summer Arts camp. Running through the village and park is the Warka, a river (also a beer) that is both the 3rd largest in Poland (though still small and calm enough to lazily float down), and mentioned in the national anthem. Sunsets like this are made to be enjoyed – take a step back, relax, and chill out in small chalets, roasting marshmallows and kielbasa on an open fire, and strumming guitars by as the sun dips below the horizon, leaving a stream of colour in the sky’s canvas. Sometimes, you have to go back to the basics, and watch a beautiful sun set over a river to put everything into perspective.