Though perhaps younger than some of the cities of the Mediterranean, Riga, the capital of Latvia, has over 800 years of history – with most of that history turbulent. Latvia’s location along the Baltic Sea has long made it an important strategical spot for centuries. In the Viking era, the fearsome Scandinavian warriors often came to the Baltics during their annual raids, though the Baltic raids weren’t considered as good as those of England or France. In medieval times, German and Teutonic knights and Swedish kings stamped in and out of Riga and Latvia – really the Baltics in general – taking control of it or simply raiding it in times of need. In more recent times, the Soviets laid claim to this little Baltic nation, in its quest for control over trade and military might in the Baltic Sea. From above, we see a forest of Gothic spires rising above Riga, and below down at street level, we see a beautiful rainbow of bright colours and Art Nouveau façades adorning each street, square and alleyway. Riga is an easy place to wander and explore – Art Nouveau architecture rears up randomly throughout the city, narrow alleys wrap themselves around unique buildings, small streets open up into large squares home to impressive churches, guildhalls, markets, mansions and other magnificent edifices. It is perhaps for this splendid blend of styles, creativity, history and beauty that Riga Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
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!
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.
Irish author George Bernard Shaw once said “If you want to see heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik,” – and yes it is that pretty. The white-stone marvel overlooking the dazzlingly blue Adriatic Sea is a true architectural beauty. By day, Dubrovnik, also known as Ragusa, is a tangled canvas of azure, orange and pearl-grey, and by night, it is a cheery glow of yellows and gold brushstrokes. Dubrovnik is made up of an array of wide boulevards and narrow alleys, a jungle of styles – Baroque, medieval, gothic. It wasn’t always so. In 1991, after the not-so-peaceful breakup of Yugoslavia, poor Dubrovnik was besieged for more than 7 months by the Yugoslav People’s Army in the scarily-recent year of 1991. The Old Town in particular suffered greatly at the hands of this pointless shelling, and it took more than a decade to painstakingly return Dubrovnik to its former glory (a fate that mirrors that Warsaw and Dresden after WWII, and most likely Notre Dame de Paris after the 2019 fire). Today, Dubrovnik is under a different kind of siege. While Game of Thrones, Instagram and cruise ships have succeeded in putting Dubrovnik on the map, it has gone too far. The explosion in popularity has pushed poor Dubrovnik to the brink of unsustainable overtourism, an affliction that unfortunately also affects other well-known destinations like southwest Ireland, Barcelona, Iceland and Prague. They are now staggering cruise ship arrivals to spread out the numbers, but until big cruise ships are forbidden to dock in small and medium-sized cities (Dubrovnik has just 45,000 inhabitants!), the problem will persist. For the sake of historic and heritage preservation, do not travel on big cruise ships (nothing over 250 people…) or coach tours as these forms of mass tourism are ruining national monuments.
Pro tip: As stated, do not travel on the big cruise ships. Instead, visit Dubrovnik in the off season (Oct-early April). If you’re dead set on arriving by sea, take the ferry from Bari, Italy across the beautiful turquoise Adriatic Sea – not only is it a lovely way to travel, it is cost effective and saves you a night of accommodation. Food here is similar to Italy – expect a lot of pizza and fish!
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.
This structure needs no introduction. Perhaps the most famous landmark in the world, did you know that in the beginning of its existence, the Eiffel Tower was nearly unanimously hated by artists and citizens alike? French writer Guy de Maupassant disliked it so much that he’s said to have routinely dined in the tower’s restaurant as it was the one place in Paris where the tower was not visible. Indeed. The Eiffel Tower was built over a two-year period to welcome people to 1889’s World’s Fair, the 100-year anniversary of the storming of the Bastille (fairgrounds included a reconstruction of the Bastille!). At the time, the World’s Fair was a big deal, and much like today’s Olympics, huge constructions were built to impress Fair visitors; each year’s host trying to out-do the previous host (the now-nonexistent London Crystal Palace was another famed World Fair creation as was Seattle’s Space Needle). The Eiffel Tower was France’s response. Originally meant to be demolished at the end of the Fair, it quickly became not only the symbol of the 1889 World Fair, but also the symbol of Paris, the most visited (paid) monument worldwide, and for 41 years, the world’s tallest building. Designed by Gustav Eiffel (the man who designed the interior support system of New York’s Statue of Liberty), the Eiffel Tower is still a unique, iconic and wildly-beloved monument of France and the City of Lights. France is a country resistant to fast change, but if they eventually came to love the Eiffel Tower as a symbol of fin de siècle France, hopefully the Louvre Pyramids, Centre Pompidou, and other modernist or postmodernist designs will eventually be welcomed as symbols of a modern Paris. (Or not?)
Interior Statues of the Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), Austria
Pure decadence, exorbitant elegance, genteel allure, stunning beauty. Welcome to the Staatsoper, Vienna’s State Opera House. The first of the extravagant buildings on Vienna‘s most famed street, the Ringstrasse (now a designated UNESCO site), the Staatsoper was opened to the genteel Austrian public in 1869. Built in the Neo-Renaissance style, the building was surprisingly unpopular with said genteel Viennese. (It somehow was not considered grand enough. You have to wonder about that genteel 19th century high society…). Then on the fateful night of March 12th, 1945, inferno rained down upon Vienna’s opera house, dropped by US bombers. Fire poured from the sky, bombs exploded in the streets, and flames ate their way through the Ringstrasse. Though the angry flames could not get into the walled-off foyer and fresco-filled stairways, the auditorium and 150,000 costumes for 120+ operas went up in smoke. When WWII was finally over, it was debated: shall we rebuild the originally unpopular building as per original design, or do we redesign it to modern tastes? Thank goodness the former option was chosen, and the Wiener Staatsoper was rebuilt in all its former glory (and happily, it is now beloved by Viennese and foreigners alike). Today, you can’t visit musical Vienna, home (at one point or another) to such musicians as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Chopin and Mahler, without visiting the opera. Loiter inside the foyer for a bit and if you have time, buy yourself a ticket to the opera or ballet. If you’re a budget traveller, queue in the ‘standing’ line in the afternoon to buy a €3 or €4 ‘standing’ ticket (arrive 3hrs prior to the show’s start; once you’ve got your ticket, tie a scarf to mark your spot and head out for a bite to eat). Be sure to dedicate plenty of time to explore the palatial building – frescos, statues, paintings, vast staircases and awe-inspiring architecture await!
Most people think that the iconic hexagons of the Giant’s Causeway are contained in that single bridge-like ’causeway’ – but this is not true. In fact, the dramatic hexagonal spires one sees at the Giant’s Causeway continue for over a kilometre from the UNESCO site! Hugging the Northern Irish coast of County Antrim is a several-hundred-kilometre path called the Causeway Coastal Route. Easy to break up into walkable chunks, hiking the Causeway Coastal Route is the best way to truly experience the Giant’s Causeway and Northern Ireland’s phenomenal countryside and clifftops. Start at the ruined castle of Dunseverick and follow the coast for 8km (5 miles) – the hiking is easy, the views are breath-taking and the path is quiet. Little by little, you’ll slowly build up to the iconic Giant’s Causeway. In the meantime, you’ll enjoy dramatic cliffs, impressive sea stacks, and hexagonal columns. Walking on a soft carpet of rolling emerald fields dotted with grazing livestock and laughing horses, you’ll navigate stiles, listen to the distant sound of crashing waves, hunt for Spanish Armada gold (supposedly long discovered but you never know!) and learn about the legendary Irish giant, Finn McCool, credited with creating the Giant’s Causeway. But that’s a story for another day…
Sur le Pont d’Avignon, France (On the Avignon Bridge, France)
Another day, another bridge. In contrast to the super-sleek, ultra-design Zubri Zuri Bridge in Bilbao, the Pont d’Avignon is one of the world’s most famous traditional, historic bridges – not unlike Prague’s Charles Bridge. The Pont d’Avignon is famous largely because of the classic French nursery song about it (Sur le Pont d’Avignon/On y danse, On y danse/Sur le Pont d’Avignon/On y danse tous en rond) – even though the song is wrong. It’s unlikely people ever danced ‘sur’ (on) the bridge; lacking for space, it’s far more likely that they danced underneath…Today the bridge only crosses half the Rhone River, the rest having been washed away (learn more about the Pont d’Avignon’s history here). Rising majestically behind the broken bridge is the Palais des Papes – the Papel Palace – which was the seat of 6 ‘rebel’ popes in the 14th century. During the Avignon Papacy, in 1305 the Palais became the papal residence when French Pope Clement V elected to move the papal centre of authority to Avignon in an effort to avoid facing the chaos in Rome (in all fairness, I’d be inclined to think the same thing…the Eternal City is eternally chaotic). Though succeeding in centralising power and church regulations, the Avignon Papacy also succeeded in consuming most the papacy’s purse by constructing this overwhelmingly extravagant Palais des Papes. Today, this magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the largest and most important constructions in the Gothic style in Europe – with its massive halls, extensive dining rooms, glamorous bedrooms and beautiful chapels, it’s easy to why. You can buy a combined ticket in order to visit both sites. For a nice aerial view, climb up the hill Rocher des Domes afterwards.
Find More Amazing European Gothic Architecture Here
The famous song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” (On the Bridge of Avignon) immortalises the Saint Bénézet Bridge or more commonly known as le Pont d’Avignon, today a UNESCO site. In fact – this broken bridge. Because as famous as this bridge is, it can’t actually get you across the Rhone River. The bridge was built because the Ardèche shepherd, Bénézet had a vision that God wanted a bridge here, and when no one believed him, he threw a boulder to convince. Well, in 1185 they built the bridge alright – but apparently either the saint was wrong or God didn’t actually want the bridge because in 1226 it was destroyed by war, and then every century or so it was carried away by the Rhone River. By the 17th century, they gave it up to ruin. As for the 15th century song, it evokes images of townspeople dancing on the bridge – but as you can see, it’s not such a big place for a festival. It’s much more likely that in the original version, they would’ve danced sous or UNDER the bridge!
Sur le Pont d’Avignon L’on y danse, l’on y danse Sur le Pont d’Avignon L’on y danse tous en rond
On the bridge of Avignon
We all dance there, we all dance there
On the bridge of Avignon
We all dance there in a ring
One of the most naturally beautiful places in Europe – and in the world – is surely the Norwegian fjords, of which they seem to have no shortage! The Sognefjord is one of the most famous; not only has if been recognised by UNESCO, but it is also located not far from Norway’s fjord capital, Bergen. It also happens to be the largest fjord in Norway, and the third-largest in the world (covering 205 km)! What better way to see these beautiful fjords than by boat? Boat as a method of travel has certainly diminished in recent years with the invention and perfection of both the car and the airplane. Boats have been rendered old-fashioned – which, actually, makes them more picturesque and romantic. Travelling by boat – whether it be a row boat on a rural Italian lake, an eveningdinner-boat on the Amsterdam Canals, a cruise-liner down the Rhine River, an overnight ferry to Dubrovnik or a Norwegian cruise deep within these magical fjords, being on that boat, feeling the wind in your face, the hull rocking beneath you, the lap of the waves against its sides, the ability to actually see and enjoy and appreciate the scenery as they glide by – is an experience worth having.
Aside from its ancient dinosaur fossils and its famous story, Los Amantes de Teruel, the city of Teruel is most known for its Mudéjar architecture. Along with a few other structures in the Teruel province, its Mudéjar buildings comprise a UNESCO world heritage site. The term “Mudéjar” refers to the Moors or Muslims of Al-Aandalus that remained on the Iberian peninsula after the Reconquista by the Christians. Unlike other groups, these were Muslims who had not converted to Christianity, and continued to influence buildings, decorations and architectural style in Iberia throughout the 12th-16th centuries. Above is Teruel’s beautiful Cathedral of St. Mary de Mediavilla and bell-tower. Commissioned in the 1200’s by Alfonso II in typical Romanesque style, a Muslim architect called Juzaff completely restructured it in 1257, embellishing it in Mudéjar style. Two centuries later, it was further restructured in Gothic-Mudéjar style. The ceiling is especially spectacular, a mix of the two cultures and covered in beautiful, hand-painted designs; though to see it, you must pay for a tour and sadly, photography is strictly prohibited. Today, Teruel’s cathedral and bell-tower remain some of the best-preserved and most representative relics of Mudéjar architecture still visible on the Iberian Peninsula.