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!
Poland’s pride and joy when it comes to castles is certainly this sprawling red-brick fortress. Built in Prussia by the Teutonic Knights in 1406, it was christened Marienburg (after Mary). Much of Poland had the misfortune of being destroyed in the world wars, so Poland doesn’t have much in the way of ancient castles, not the way that Spain or France or Italy does. But it does have Malbork–which, when measured in surface area, is the reigning king of castles–it is the largest castle in the world! Recognised by UNESCO, this brick masterpiece (brick castles being common in this part of Europe, see Trakai,Torun, and Turaida for further examples) is the largest brick structure in Europe. Now that’s certainly something to be proud of!
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 French lake, 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.
Hidden somewhere in this beautiful city is my heart, left behind after spending nearly 6 months living and studying there. To me, nothing is more monumental than Bath, England. Bath’s beautiful centre consists of Georgian (neoclassical) architecture, ancient baths, a magnificent abbey, wonderful limestone houses, not to mention the classy Royal Crescent (pictured here). Together, they form a UNESCO world heritage site, meaning that I’m not the only one who finds the city monumental! Bath is an ancient Roman city, founded in 60-70 A.D. to take advantage of the natural springs bubbling underneath the city’s feet. Bath’s Royal Crescent is a row of 30 interconnected houses that form the shape of a crescent moon. Overlooking Bath, the Royal Crescent has long been inhabited by the upper echelon of Bath’s high society (made ever more posh by the marketing of Bath’s spa as a haute couture resort, particularly in the 18-19th centuries). Ironically, the chief architect only constructed the facade – each of the 30 owners had to hire their own architect to construct their house – meaning that in the back, each house is different in size, height, style, etc. Regardless, this building is – like the rest of this breathtaking town – monumental.
“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” (Mark Twain). Well, it takes both your eyes and imagination to process the ceiling of the enormous portico attached to the Blenheim Palace. Famous as being the birthplace of Winston Churchill, it is the only non-royal house in England to hold the title of “palace.” And palace it is! Built in 1705-22, it was intended to be a gift to the 1st Duke of Marlborough for his prowess on the battlefield at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 (hence the name). But the eyes? They were painted there by the second wife of the 9th Duke. An American socialite who squirmed her way into the title of Duchess by becoming friends with his first wife then taking advantage of his loveless marriage to eventually become his second wife and start her own loveless marriage, Gladys was a bit eccentric. A self-proclaimed mystic, the new Duchess came from a broken home (her father was imprisoned for killing her mother’s lover when she was a child, she lived in a convent for awhile and grew up in Paris with her divorced mother). This certainly seems to have affected her; images of eyes appear all over the massive house (though none as striking as those pictured above), and she slowly went crazy over the years before dying a recluse. The house is still owned and lived in by the Duke of Marlborough (the 11th), though parts of the house are open to visitors, which has been recognised by UNESCO.
The historic centre of Warsaw, while having a lot of history, is not actually all that old. In fact, it only dates back 50-60 years. After the second world war, in which roughly 85% of Warsaw was destroyed and most of its inhabitants either fled, hid, died, or were arrested, the proud Polish citizens decided to rebuild their city from the rubble – using photographs, drawings, paintings, and even people’s memory, as most of the original blueprints were long lost. As the symbolic and historic (though not modern) centre of town, this square has been the sight of many important events, including patriotic manifestations before the January Uprising, usually entered around Sigismund’s Column in the middle. Due to its meticulous reconstruction, Plac Zamkowy, like the rest of the Stary Miasto (Old Town), is recognised by UNESCO. And this is Poland – so almost half the year, it’s covered in snow. And, it’s also my favourite place in Warsaw!
Dubrovnik is an up and coming tourist destination. Sporting beautiful streets, delicious foods, amazing views, orange-tiled roofs, ancient ruins and the lovely Mediterranean, it’s like Italy–without the Italians. And with locals who natively-speak a slavic language but who also speak rather amazing English. And with better prices. And maybe slightly less tourists. In 1979, it was declared a UNESCO site, and in 1991, it broke away from Yugoslavia. Because of the political turmoil, people just didn’t go to Dubrovnik for a long time. But, then something changed. Politics settled down, and this “new” country began to grow. Somebody “discovered” it and told their friends who then in turn told their friends. Now hoards of people visit Dubrovnik. But don’t let that deter you! Dubrovnik is a Mediterranean masterpiece!
Founded in 1070, Bergen was largely settled by merchants that made their living from the sea – and Bryggen remains the oldest part of the rainy city. In 1360, the Hanseatic League established a trading post in Bryggen (called a “kontor“), the only surviving kontor today. Over the years as Bergen thrived, the town developed around Bryggen, improving the wharfs as well as the city itself. Bryggen became the claim of the Hanseatic merchants, who used the warehouses to store goods such as fish from northern Norway as well as grains from Europe. Today, Bryggen consists of roughly 30 buildings, though more are currently under renovation. It is a UNESCO site and Bergen’s trademark. The rows of colourful wooden buildings with narrow covered passageways always smelling a little bit like fish just seem so utterly…Scandinavian.
Berries slowly overtake the ruinous Polish castle as nature takes its course. Following the devastating effect WWII had on Poland (which had the unfortunate luck of being located directly between Russia and Germany), precious few castles remain in Poland. However, Toruń’sTeutonic castle, built by Knights of the Teutonic Order between the 13th and 14th centuries, miraculously still exists. Today, the castle is mere ruins, though the local Poles meticulously care for their fallen monument. The castle was one of the first of the Teutonic Order to be built, and its existence grew the surrounding village into a thriving town – the town that later produced Nicolas Copernicus and some of the world’s best gingerbread. Today, Toruńand its castle comprise a UNESCO site and one of Poland’s few medieval castles still proudly standing. Bristly berry bushes may cling to the castle walls today, but just ask any of the thousands of visitors to Toruń: its castle is still something wonderful – and the gingerbread that is Toruń’s gastronomic specialty is to die for!
Pictures cannot convey the essence and beauty of Bath. Bath, to me, is one of the top 5 prettiest cities in Europe. Bath also happens to be my home, having studied there 3 years ago (I have a lot of homes). It is my dream to one day move back, or really, just move back to anywhere in the UK, my favourite country. This is the cathedral square, which also happens to be the entrance to the famous Roman Baths. Bath was established by the Romans in 60 AD, not long after they arrived in Britain. Upon finding the hot springs here, they built the spa town, Aquae Solis, and much later, Edgar was crowned king here in 973, at Bath Abbey, upon which we are currently standing. Founded in the 7th century, Bath Abbey was rebuilt 12th-16th, today, standing standing as proud as it ever did. Bath is a city built of limestone (from the nearby quarry). In the 19th century, it was as black as coal (because of the coal) but today, it has been restored to its original, lovely state. As a UNESCO site, it is more beautiful than you can ever imagine.
What would Barcelona be without Antonia, Gaudi? Barcelona is unimaginable without the genius Spanish architect. Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, Parc Guell…the list goes on and on. Most of the city’s beloved symbols are the result of Gaudi. The building of Gaudi’s Art Nouveau cathedral, Sagrada Familia, commenced in 1882, and still continues today (hence the cranes), for Gaudi died without finishing his masterpiece. The cathedral is spectacular–on on side, large statues tower over the visitor, inside, columns shaped like trees create an immense, petrified forest, and the other side sports an impressive Gothic facade, carvings covering every inch of stone. Brave visitors can take an elevator to the top, affording both spectacular views of the beautiful city and an up-close look at Gaudi’s architecture, much of which was inspired by the natural world (be prepared to come face-to-face with towers clearly inspired by fruit, among others). Not surprisingly, this amazing beauty is a UNESCO monument, and is a must-see when visiting the famous Spanish city.
Welcome to the border between France and Germany–and it’s straight out of a fairy tale. At first glance, it looks like Germany–probably because it was built by the Germans–but then, in one of the many border-changes that has plagued Europe ever since kingdoms and countries have existed on the continent, it became French. Walk into a seemingly Germanic bakery, and you will be greeted by a Frenchman speaking French in a French cafe. If you began your journey in Germany, this can be a tad disorienting. But all is forgotten when wandering around the Grande Île,Strasbourg’s beautiful city centre, and a UNESCO site. Strasbourg Cathedral, today the 6th tallest in the world, was once the world’s tallest building, surpassing even the Great Pyramid of Giza. Outside of mere architectural beauty, Strasbourg has solidified its fame and importance for another reason, supplying the world with something that, in a way, we still use today. It was here that, around 1440, Johannes Gutenberg created one of the most important inventions of all time: the first European movable printing press.
Why don’t people come here? As much as I love places like London and Paris and Madrid, there is more than just these few places in Europe that are breathtaking and spectacular…and Tallinn is certainly wonderful. Europe is a popular honeymoon destination (Paris, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Roma), but places like Tallinn or Prague or Budapest need to be on that list. Tallinn is old – and beautiful, maybe more beautiful than Europe’s ‘traditional’ Aphrodite’s. Several kilometres of city wall remain, grey stone topped with red, turreted roofs. The cobble-stoned streets that overlook the blue Baltic sea makes the city charming, lovable. This is a place one can fall in love. Like these doe-eyed pigeons, this is the kind of place I’d rather spend my honeymoon – quiet, relaxing, beautiful, historic, friendly. The old town is a UNESCO world heritage site. The town square is positively medieval. There is a darkened tavern in the city centre that serves authentic elf soup that patrons drink out of clay pots (no spoons allowed). Estonia has a pulse that you rarely find, and it is easily one of Europe’s best kept secrets.