“Pray look better, Sir… those things yonder are no giants, but windmills.” – Don Miguel de Cervantes
In this case, ‘those things yonder’ happen to be ornately decorated towers in Mudejar (Moorish) style. Said pinnacles adorn the town of Alcalá de Henares, birthplace of famous Spanish writer, Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote) and today a place of pilgrimage by literary, history, cultural and architecture nerds alike. A UNESCO heritage site, it was the only Roman town in the Madrid region, even attaining “Municipium” status. Conquered and rebuilt and reconquered and rebuilt again means that Alcalá’s (literally ‘citadel in Arabic) architecture is a hodgepodge of various styles, cultures and epoques; even the site of the city moved back and forth a few times. Most notably was the Moorish conquest, as they left the most visible footprint on the city, the impressive Mudejar architectural style seen here. Cervantes was born here, and although his family moved away during his childhood, the city still reveres him, hosting the Cervantes Festival every October. Even more impressively, each April 23rd, the King of Spain awards the prestigious Cervantes Award for literature at Alcalá’s esteemed University of Alcalá. Get to Alcalá de Heneres by commuter train (40 min) from Madrid station Atocha or Chamartin, if you buy tickets from the machine.
The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of independence from Russia for the Baltic States (think Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) – even if in the middle of that century of independence they lost it and were forced to regain it again, thanks to WWII. And yet, the Old Town of Vilnius is one of the largest medieval towns still in existence today (and therefore is protected by UNESCO). By day, it is a popular place with locals and tourists alike, relaxing in the cafes, strolling the narrow alleys and broad avenues, chilling in the parks and squares, mingling with the locals in restaurants and hole-in-the-wall bars. For great views, you might climb the ancient Gediminas Hill to the remains of the crumbled castle – or to the top of the opposite Hill of the Three Crosses, a more modern viewpoint. It is a place full of great (and budget-friendly) restaurants and bars frequented by lively locals and tourists alike, making it an ideal place for a friends weekend, a fun solo getaway, or a hen/stag party! For countryside and castle lovers, get out to the nearby Trakai Island Castle!
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.
The Trinity Column in the Hautplatz of Linz, Austria
A city that has been trying to free itself from its Nazi past (it is where Hitler spent his childhood) has elected in the Alt-Right party again in 2017. And yet – it was the first Austrian city to account and make up for its own Nazi past. From renaming streets to erecting monuments to victims and resistance heroes, Linz is still attempting to crawl out from that dismal past. The Trinity Column, a plague column in Linz’s main square, represents thanksgiving for the ending of the violent plagues that swept through Austria. Though Linz has had a turbulent past, the city founded by the Romans in 799 is now a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network and was the 2009 European Capital of Culture. Enjoy strolling its charming (and surprisingly colourful) streets, lounging along the Blue Danube (on a sunny day!) and exploring the birthplace of Mozart. Taste one the of city’s famous Linzer tortes or even take the fin de siecle Pöstlingbergbahn, the steepest mountain rail in the world!
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Wooden houses on the edge of Aurlandsvangen, Norway
Wooden clapboard houses, dipped liberally in sombre yet sharp colours, hug the cold shores of one of the most beautiful fjords in all of Norway, the massive Sogneford. The village of Aurlandsvangen is located on one of the fjord’s thinnest and most stunning branches: the narrow arm of Aurlandsfjorden. Its sister arm, Nærøyfjord, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Home to a mere 770 people, the little houses of the village cling happily along the edge of the fjord. In this place, where the river weaves through the . mountains to cascade into the fjord, life is simple. Due to the influx of tourists, however, it has gotten more complex lately. When people travel sustainably, there is little impact on the destination. However, tiny fjord villages like Aurlandsvangen or nearby Flam have been overwhelmed with visitors, receiving double or triple their population daily in season. While visiting small communities such as these is great in that tourism spending strengthens the villages’ local economies, too large an influx who simply ‘pass through’ on the way to somewhere else (without spending locally) only succeed in leaving a negative footprint. Be mindful of local cultures and communities when you travel and make sure your euros stay in the local destination and don’t go to faraway international corporations.
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?)
Cobblestones underfoot reverberate with the echoes of footsteps, the clink of silverware at a local cafe and the laughter of children playing in the narrow alleyways. The perfectly preserved medieval streets and facades of ancient Tallinn directly contrast with the advanced techosphere hidden just beneath the surface of the city nicknamed the ‘Silicon Valley of Europe.’ It has one of the highest ratio of start-ups per population throughout Europe – Skype being the most famous of them all. The capital of Estonia has slowly become recognised as one of the main IT centre of Europe – Tallinn currently provides NATO’s cybersecurity (home to the NATO Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence), it is set to house the headquarters of the European Union’s IT agency, and has been ranked as the most competitive financial hub of Northern Europe. Quite the achievement for this beautifully small and oft forgotten capital tucked into a remote corner of Europe! Tallinn is perhaps the perfect blend of old and new: the medieval streets and architecture of Tallinn, including the Viru Gates in the photo, have merited the city a spot on UNESCO‘s list – and yet, it also catches the eye of many the enterprising digital start-up. The Viru Gate, a barbican within the ancient city walls, was part of Tallinn’s medieval defensive walls that still encircle much of the city. Though partially destroyed to accommodate horse-drawn carriages and trams, the Viru Gate still dispenses Tallinn’s unique flavour in the brisk Baltic air.
The Tower of London as seen across the Thames River, England
The infamous Tower of London. It has a reputation for horror – death – torture. While not 100% wrong, this was the view propagated in the 16th century (did you know that only seven people were executed at the Tower of London up until the 20th century?) In fact, most executions instead took place on Tower Hill, and even then, just 112 people were executed over 400 years, a number far lower than we’d expect considering the harsh laws during the time. The dark threat of being ‘sent to the tower’ doesn’t come from Medieval times at all, but rather the 16th/17th centuries where darkness had to be hidden under the surface of polite society – so the Tower became a popular place to send unwanted royals or nobles. At one time a royal residence, a palace, a prison, a menagerie, a royal mint, a treasury and a fortified vault for the Crown Jewels, today’s Tower of London is one of London‘s top tourism destinations, and the most visited castle (not including palaces, which are quite different) in Europe – nearly 3 million visitors cross its threshold every year. The Tower’s oldest section, the White Tower, dates back 1078; other expansions date largely to the early Middle Ages, including exertions by Richard the Lionheart, Henry III, and Edward I. All of this combined makes the Tower of London one of the UK‘s most impressive cultural heritage sites, and for this, it has been recognised by UNESCO. Due to the vast amount of visitors, it is hard to properly visit the Tower of London – best advice is to avoid school holidays and visit in the low season (late September just after school starts but before holidays begin or in the dark days of winter in January or February). Though it can never entirely escape its dark past, it may not be as dark as you thought.
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
Escalinata Staircase in Teruel, the Aragon region of Spain
Though the Escalinata Staircase technically a purpose-built construction – meant to connect the centro de la ciudad to the railway station – the Escalinata Staircase has become so much more. The town of Teruel, an easy day trip from the modernist city of Valencia, is often called the “town of mudéjar architecture” (meaning Moorish-influenced architecture), notably Teruel Cathedral. The region of Aragon’s densely-concentrated Mudejar architecture (construction corresponding with the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance) is now under the domaine of UNESCO. Mudejar architecture developed after the Reconquista and subsequent expulsion of the Moors from Spain in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. This style was created by those who stayed behind, called moriscos, or Muslims that converted to Christianity. While the stairs were constructed in the early 1900s, the style chosen is neo-Mudejar. It also pays homage to the infamous Lovers of Teruel, a rather ridiculous story. Unable to marry his sweetheart due to his financial status, the hero leaves to make his fortune in 5 years, but miscounts the number of days and returns just after she marries. The overly devout and prude heroine refuses to kiss her dying hero for she is now married (by less than 12 hours, mind you), and he dies. The following day at his funeral, she finally kisses him and dies herself (of what, who knows. Guilt? Loneliness? Grief?) Moral of the story? Perhaps it is simply to chose your spouse wisely, marry out of love… and learn how to keep track of things!
The origin of the name la Petite France, has a less-than-lovely origin – it comes from the Hospice des Vérolés (House for the syphilitic) which during the German occupation was called Franzosenkrankheit (French disease). While the name’s origins may not be charming, the alleyways, canals and houses most certainly are charming! Alsace, the region of France where Strasbourg is located, has a complicated history, flashing back and forth between France and Germany for much of it’s past. In the Middle Ages, la Petite France was the economic centre of the city, and Strasbourg as the region’s most important city. La Petite France once comprised of many merchants, millers, tanners, fishermen and other tradesmen and artisans. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, la Petite France (‘little France’) seduces history, culture and architecture buffs with its quintessential streets, half-timbered architecture, colourful houses, quiet riverbank, and charming shops. At Christmastime, the Strasbourg Christmas Market is one of the most famous in Europe and is generally agreed upon to be the best Christmas market in France. Hot wine, sausages, and sauerkraut are local favourites – especially when the weather turns cold! The impressive Strasbourg Cathedral was the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874 (so, for 227 years!), and today, it remains the 6th-tallest church in the world. It is the sandstone from nearby Vosges that gives the cathedral its unique pinkish hue.
6/6/1993 – darkness falls as the flames begin to lick the walls, the floors, the tower as the dark wood turns to ash. Built in 1150 in the magnificent Sognefjord, the Fantoft Stave Church was carried piece by piece to its current site near Bergen by a kind soul named Fredrik Georg Gade 1883 to save it from demolition. 100 years later, it was burned to the ground. What happened? In short, Norwegian Black Metal happened. A genre unfortunately synonymous with church burnings, this beautiful piece of history was lit afire by Varg Vikernes from the one-man-band, Burzum, who, in poor taste, later used a photo of the church’s burnt shell for his ‘Aske’ (Ashes) album. Convicted of 4 acts of arson (and other crimes), Varg is locked safely behind bars, though he apparently has ‘fans’ who applaud his crimes. Destroyed or not however, the Norwegians, much like the Poles after WWII, refused to give in, and instead painstakingly reconstructed the building to its original state. Today, the beautiful Fantoft Stave Church sails into its forest landing in all its original glory, one of the last remaining stave churches (many of which are UNESCO sites), or medieval wooden churches whose name comes from the pinewood support posts (stav in Norwegian). Fantoft has been through a lot, but for now, it rests in tranquility in the whispering woods below Bergen.
The most magical part of the day is sunrise. Some will argue that it is actually sunset, and while a sunset is beautiful in itself, sunrises often exude more beauty simply because, like a leprechaun, they are so rarely seen. If you can rouse yourself from bed at least once while travelling – or if you are required to due to an early bus/train/plane departure – take a few minutes to appreciate the soft, glowing light at the start of another day. The best way to do that is to find a place where you can sit down and enjoy the rising sun – a hilltop, your balcony, a local lake or river, a charming cafe, or in this case the market square. Settle down with a steaming cup o’ joe and a tasty local breakfast as you watch the world come to life. In Wrocław, enjoy the stunning colours, silent air, soft light and intricate facades of the spacious rynek (main square) before the day’s crowds begin to fill the plaza. One of Poland’s most spectacular cities, Wroclaw does not lack for attractions – aside from the rynek, visit pretty Ostrow Tumski or Cathedral Island, the adorable gnome statues scattered around the city, the stunning circular Racławice Panorama (a 19th century panoramic depiction of the Kościuszko Uprising, miraculously hidden and saved during WWII), the massive pile of stone that is Centennial Hall (a UNESCO site), and any one of the number of snazzy restaurants and bars in the city centre, many of them inspired by the dense student population. As an added bonus, as the year draws to a close, it’s your last chance to visit Wrocław while it is an official 2016 European Capital of Culture (which is not to say that a 2017 visit won’t be just as amazing…). While seeing Wrocław at sunrise is enchanting, the city will continue to enchant you all day long!
Not many architects can say that their construction will lest centuries, let alone millennia, though many Romans can. Not many tourists can say that they have beheld constructions that are more than a millennia old, though those who have visited the magnificent Pont du Gard can. This ‘pont’ (‘bridge’ in French) over the Gard (also called the Gardon) River in the south of the Hexagon is one of the the most country’s most spectacular ancient sites, left over from the days when the Roman-dominated territory was called Gaul, and Lyon (or ‘Lugdnumum‘) was still the capital. Built around 40-60 AD spanning 275m at its longest point, the aqueduct in entirety descends only 17 m over the course of it’s length, while the Pont du Gard has a mere 2.5 centimetres slant, which makes you marvel at the ingenuity and intelligence of the Romans without computers, machinery, calculators or any other aspects of modern technology. The Pont is impressive enough when viewed from land, but the best way to truly experience such a structure is the way it was meant to be seen – by water. So, jump in a canoe or kayak, grab your paddle, splash through the Gard River and don’t be afraid to get wet!
The biggest chateau in the Loire Valley, and one of the most distinctive chateaus in the world (thanks to its smooth blend of Medieval and Renaissance styles), the Chateau de Chambord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is as absolutely magnificent as it is immense. The chateau (for there is no other word to use; Chambord and its fellow Loire Valley neighbours define the usage of the word ‘chateau’ in English) was built by Francis I as a hunting lodge – a break from his royal residences at Blois and Amboise (each no more than a stone’s throw away by modern distance standards). The castle rooms themselves are relatively simple – large, rectangular, few in number but large in size. The roof, on the other hand, is an intricate network of sculptures, buttresses, statues, odd angles, elevated passageways, elegant windows and pointed towers, all arranged together like a miniature city. But that’s not the most remarkable part of this structure. No, that honour goes to the intricate and astoundingly unique double helix staircase, serving as the centrepiece and central element of the building. Elegantly carrying visitors up three floors, the two entangled staircases curl around each other but never meet, making it an architectural unicorn. There are rumours that a one Leonardo da Vinci (who stayed there for a time) was the creator of the DNA staircase, and this is quite possible, as the inventor was known for his unique and often outlandish projects, though his involvement has not been proven. In any event, the massive and iconic chateau certainly merits its place on Loire Valley itineraries!
Art Nouveau (‘new art’) was a style of architecture, art, sculpture, and design popular from roughly 1890 – 1920. Though it swept across Europe, it was particularly popular in Riga, Latvia, with some 40% of the buildings built with Art Nouveau in mind. Inspired by flowers, trees, leaves, water, and other natural elements, Art Nouveau buildings twist and turn; they flow, they spiral, they cascade – they are alive. Riga’s Art Nouveau was less extravagant than that of France’s or Spain’s. But nonetheless, Riga overflows its borders with the simplistic, Romantic version of Art Nouveau. Much of it has survived to this day despite the turbulence of the 20th century, and the city centre is now a designated UNESCO site. By simply meandering and keeping one’s eyes turned upwards, the observant traveller will come across this forgotten cache of treasures hidden away in the Baltic gem that is Riga.
When people talk about the ‘Great European Capitals,’ they tend to think of the Big Four: London, Paris, Rome, Vienna. Sometimes Madrid, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Brussels occasionally get tossed in. In Eastern Europe, Budapest and Prague come to mind. But what about the rest? What about the other capitals that apparently don’t make the cut? The EU currently has 28 members – meaning 28 capitals – and the European continent has 51 countries (if the Caucuses are counted, which it seems now they are) – meaning 51 total capitals. So, what about the other 39 capitals that get ignored, that aren’t considered a Great European Capital? Warsaw is one of those capitals, forgotten on too many itineraries, forgotten to be considered ‘great.’ I suppose this comes from the bad reputation spurred by the war, not to mention the communism that followed. But all that is past now, and Warsaw is – and deserves to be considered as – a Great European Capital. For one, it is beautiful. The Old City has been reconstructed the way it used to look, with as much historical accuracy as possible, now recognised by UNESCO. It is cosmopolitan, and home to Poland’s best universities. The people are absolutely great, welcoming towards foreigners and with a spectacular command of English. Beer is cheap, and the parties are all-nighters. Food is cheap too, not to mention hearty and filling. Warsaw also has a surprising art, music and hipster scene. And the Poles are very proud of their heritage. So, let’s not forget Warsaw, because it’s pretty great too. PS – did I mention there’s a mermaid in the bottom left-hand corner of that photo?!
During summer, Croatian beaches become a hot-spot for beach tourists – meaning that it’s best to avoid the country from June-August. However in spring or fall, Croatia is absolutely wonderful. Soft waves lap against Dubrovnik’s rocky shores, ancient forts and lighthouses peer over rocky outcrops, restaurants and cafes line the city walls, smooth stone avenues skirt through the town centre while tiny alleys whip and wind their way around the main plaza. Here, orange clay roofs contrast with the turquoise blue of the famous Mediterranean. Founded in the 7th century on a rocky island named Laus to have provided shelter for refugees from the nearby Roman city of Epidaurum, Dubrovnik still has one of the rockiest shorelines on the Med. Most of what you see in this magnificent city today is due to its maritime power gained under the Republic of Ragusa in the 15th-16th centuries. Not only has Dubrovnik been recognised by UNESCO, but CNNgo attributed it to being among the top 10 best preserved walled medieval cities in the world!