While travel isn’t possible right now, we’re continuing with our virtual explorations, this time a visit to northern France. Ireland probably contains the Neolithic era’s highest density of Neolithic monuments, but it’s not the only country with great prehistoric sites. Scotland and England are also home to quite a few Neolithic – and Prehistoric in general -era sites. The region of Brittany / Bretagne is another place of Celtic influence (as well as parts of Spain and Portugal), and Bretagne also home to quite a few of these ancient sites. What the region lacks in quantity, it makes up in quality. The Roche aux Fées – translating as the Rock of the Fairies – is one of the best-preserved ancient sites of this era. Comprising of 48 stones (9 of which are roof slabs) – the heaviest of which weighs 40-45 tonnes – the site is very complex. Like many sites we still see in Ireland (notably, mountaintop cairns), the original structure of the Roche aux Fées would have been covered with a mound of stones and earth. Stones used to build this 20 metre long gallery tomb would have been dragged here on a series of ropes, wheels and pulleys from the quarry site. Though its gallery form is not unique – there is a similar tomb at Lough Gur in Co Limerick, and others in rural Ireland such as in Co Mayo – the Roche aux Fées is certainly one of the best specimens of its type, and one of the largest. It is thought that it dates to 3,000-2,500BC, making it about 5,000 years old (and therefore older than the Pyramids of Giza)! Unlike in Ireland where such sites were built atop mountains or near bodies of water, the Roche aux Fées is located down a country lane in a quiet woodland. It is possible to go inside the tomb – the highest point is 4 metres, so you can stand up inside. As its name suggests, local legend claims that the Roche aux Fées was built by fairies (also common in Irish folklore) as a house or temple.
Pro tip: Generally, April and May are ideal months to travel in France – the weather is mild (generally just a light jacket needed), you’ll avoid peak season prices and there are few others travelling at this time. Watch out for May 1st (Labour Day) when most museums, castles etc are closed. The Roche aux Fées has free entry. Visitor centre open from June to August.
Ireland is one of the richest destinations when it comes to Neolithic heritage, in particular, Neolithic era tombs. Here in Ireland, we still have thousands of them. Capping most hills and mountains is some kind of cairn, usually small and inconspicuous. Two regions are particularly concentrated: Sligo and Meath (though interestingly, Celtic Neolithic societies stretched all the way to Scotland, Wales,Bretagne, and Galicia). The biggest of the Neolithic tombs is found in Meath. UNESCO site Newgrange is one of Ireland’s wonders. Built around 3,200BC according to archeologists, the Newgrange monument is an enormous mound/ cairn that encloses a single, 19-metre-long passage tomb ending in 3 burial chambers where cremated remains were once placed. Inside, the passage is narrow but visitors are still able to walk (unlike the tombs at Carrowkeel where you have to crawl…). Walls are adorned with spirals and other basic forms of megalithic rock art, and the tomb’s roof uses corbelling, an ancient drystone technique that makes the tomb waterproof without even requiring mortar! Even with the thousands of tombs they’ve left behind, we know very little about the ancient Celtic Neolithic people of Ireland. One thing that is evident is that astronomy was very important to them. In fact, Neolithic people had a good understanding of sun, moon, and stars including solstices and equinoxes. Newgrange is aligned with the Winter Solstice, therefore for 6 days in mid December, the sun shines through the “roofbox” (that narrow slit above the door of the tomb) to the lighten the chamber with sunlight. Amazing!
Pro tip: If you want to visit for the Winter Solstice, you can enter the lottery (with about 30,000 other applicants for 100 available places!) Or head to one of the other Neolithic sites for similar alignments. For Newgrange, in general we recommend booking in advance, and going early in the day. However, Newgrange Visitor Centre will be closed for most of 2019 so while works are going on, you can’t book in advance, but to compensate, tickets are free and first-come basis during the works. Best to visit in the off season or early, around 9 am. Nearby site of Dowth is also amazing – you can’t get inside anymore, but you’ll have it all to yourself. Or head to the Hill of Tara.
The Etruscans were an ancient civilisation in central Italy from the 7th century BC until the Romans conquered the powerful civilisation, assimilating it into their ever-growing Roman Empire at the end the 4th century BC. Even today, the Etruscan influence cannot be denied; Eturia’s ancient heartland even lent it’s name to the modern region of Tuscany. In its heyday, Etruria reached as far north as the Po River valley, past Rome along the coast to modern-day Naples (in the Campania region). A merchant community, the Etruscans grew rich and powerful on trade with the northern Celtic communities as well as the ancient Greeks, who influenced much of their culture. Etruscans had a vivid pantheon of gods and used their wealth to fill their tombs – which is where much of our understanding of their culture, history, art and architecture comes from. The village of Fiesole, some 10km from Florence, is both a tranquil escape from the bustle of Florence as well as a time capsule to the ancient Etruscans and Romans. Here, find crumbling Etruscan walls, what remains of the Roman baths built later on, and a Roman amphitheater still used today for summer events. Nearby, there’s even the green hilltop where Leonardo da Vinci once experimented with flight! Once a powerful rival to Florence, Fiesole was founded as an Etruscan town in the 8th century BC until the Romans finally conquered and destroyed it, building their own Roman town on Fiesole’s roots. In the 1500s during the magnificent Italian renaissance, Florentine nobles moved out of Florence and built their splendid villas much like movie stars do today in glamorous SoCal towns. Fiesole’s beauty also inspired writers and artists such as Oscar Wilde and EM Forster, making cameos in their work.
Pro tip: Take bus #7 from San Marco Piazza to Fiesole. Or, splurge on the hop-on-hop-off bus to see even more of Florence and its region.
Welcome to the tiny village of Fiesole. Occasionally visited by writers and artists, there isn’t much here beyond your typical Italian village buildings. Well, except for the Etruscan tomb, that it. The Etruscans are an ancient Italian civilization in central/northern Italy (still used today as the modern name, “Tuscany”). They existed until the 4th century but the Romans conquered this city in 90BC, meaning that this small tomb is over 2000 years old! This tomb is one of the six Via Bargellino tombs in the city. Made of square slabs, it also included urns, bronze artifacts, and terracotta unguent containers.