Dusty, quiet, out of the way, the tiny Trakai village would be completely overlooked if not for its spectacular local monument – Trakai Island Castle, a splendid brick teutonic castle constructed on a island in the medieval era. Made up of colourful wooden clapboard houses, quiet tree-lined streets and embraced in a welcomingly fresh air, walking through Trakai village feels like you are exploring the Baltics of Europe behind the scenes, getting a glimpse of where the real people live. But in many ways, Trakai is not a normal place as it is a village that has been constructed and even preserved by an array of different nationality, ethnic groups and cultures. Tatars, Russians, Jews, Karaims (from Turkey), Lithuanians and Jews have – and do – all live here peacefully, rubbing shoulders as their lives quietly overlap. Trakai was once a booming town under Polish then later Lithuanian rule but saw significant decline as Vilnius and Krakow rose in importance. Though a small place today, Trakai has managed to stay significant due to King Gedimas’ lovely castle on the beautiful lake.
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. Practical 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.
Soft, white snow slowly falls on the red clay rooftops of the sleepy village of Sant’Ambogio di Torino. This simple but picturesque village is snuggled soundly at the foot of Mount Pirchiriano. Crowned with the stone ruins of the legendary Sacra di San Michele monastery, Mt Pirchiriano and its monastery have been made famous by inspiring Umberto Eco’s classic novel, The Name of the Rose. Below the mountain, Sant’Ambrogio di Torino contains its own history and beauty: medieval wonders such as Middle Ages towers, fortified walls, a ruined abbey, a 12th century Romanesque-style bell tower (the tower in the above photo, now integrated to the current church), and the remains of an 11th century church, located above the town in the tiny commune of San Pietro. Sant’Ambrogio di Torino still plays the role it has for centuries: the starting place for the ancient pilgrimage path leading to the mountaintop Sacra di San Michele, as well as housing the relics of St John Vincent, the monastery’s founder. To mark the beginning of the pilgrim’s path weaving through the mystical Val de Susa, is the lovely 18th-century Chiesa Parrocchiale di San Giovanni Vincenzo – today covered in a powdery blanket of snow. Though it may be faster to drive directly from Torino to the top of the mountain – bypassing Sant’Ambrogio village, the Pilgrim’s Path, and the Val de Susa altogether – the effect will be far less impressive or special; you will miss out on a homage to quiet village life, beautiful architecture, ancient tradition and stunning landscapes. Instead, take the train to Sant’Ambrogio from Torino central station, walk the quiet streets to the Chiesa di San Giovanni, and then follow the narrow cobblestone path to the sacred monastery above (roughly 2 hours hike). Exploring the region in the snow provides an added layer of beauty!
One of France’s Most Beautiful Villages and one of the most charming towns one can expect to stumble onto in Europe, the tiny, spiral-shaped village lost in the middle of France is reminiscent of another era. The fortified town was built in the Middle Ages, and though Pérouges has no castle, it does feature a fortified church (with extra-thick walls), as well as an enticing maze of weaving streets, all eventually ending at the Place de Tilleul. Today the quiet centre of this tiny village and site of a delicious local restaurant, Place de Tilleul was one the thriving marketplace of bustling Pérouges during medieval times. Crumbling into dust until recent years, the village has seen a seen an upturn in tourism, saving the cobblestoned marvel from becoming a ghost town like so many other quaint but behind-the-times places across Europe. Here in Pérouges and its romantic Place de Tilleul, one can briefly capture a glimpse into another world, a peek into another era, before slipping out through the village gates and back towards the main road that leads to nearby town Meximieux and the 21st century. Pérouges is most quickly approached on foot via the road Route de Pérouges from Meximieux but a far more picturesque way to approach the village is via the forest track along Aubepin Pond.
The tiny French village of Balazuc snuggled deep within the timeless county of Ardèche is a place you go to lose yourself in another era, another way of life. Sun kissed hills are woven with ancient villages, a patchwork of medieval architecture fused seamlessly with the brown earth and golden fields of southern France. Balazuc is one of such places. A veritable labyrinth built of golden stone, the village’s narrow alleys wind up and down, dipping half-underground, through other buildings, around and through the hills in a completely random and at times mysterious manner. Hole-in-the-wall cafes dot the facades, and a hilltop castle and church duo seem to be trying to outdo one another. To access the steep hilltop village, one must first cross a surprisingly high bridge over the Ardèche River – not a bad place for a quick dip! And just a stone’s throw away is the equally-beautiful and heart-throbbingly medieval village of Largentière as well as the ever-impressive Gorges d’Ardeche. Get ready for a coup de foudre – French for love at first sight!
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.
Hamlet of Fougères in the Livradois-Forez Regional Park, France
Unlike US national and state parks, French parks are home to more than just animals. Tucked away into the Livradois-Forez Regional Park in the rural yet beautiful region of Auvergne is the tiny hamlet (in French, a ‘lieu-dit’ or a ‘spoken place’) of Fougères, home to less than two dozen people. One of dozens of other such hamlets throughout Livradois-Forez Regional Park and beyond, what makes Fougères special is not so much the place itself as it is the collective co-habitation of people and wilderness in Livradois-Forez. In the USA, national/regional parks and people’s homes are regarded as two separate, un-mixable entities – but in Europe, the story is different. Parks in France, while protected from certain types of development or land-harming actions (like mining, logging, hunting, etc.) can be home to farms, homes, hamlets, villages, as well as forests, rivers, lakes and wildlife. This is seen across Europe in countries such as Italy, Poland, Latvia and beyond. Local people can live in the parks while people from cities or faraway places can visit in order to hike, bike, kayak, canoe, ride horses or camp in the fresh air of the countryside. End result? Perfect harmony. Quick tip – use the medieval village of Olliergues or the quaint town of Ambert (famed for its delicious local cheese of the same name) as a base if you don’t plan to sleep under the stars.
It’s washing day in this quintessential English thatched cottage lost in the English woodland. The air is steeped with the smell of soap and fresh laundry, hung outside to dry outside this cottage on this sunny English day, making you feel as though you’ve fallen into a fairy tale. This magnificent thatched cottage stands in a quiet meadow in the English countryside not far from the quaint but bustling town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Best known for being the birthplace of the great writer William Shakespeare (who did wonders for the English language, by the way; we still use words and phrases coined by him), Stratford-upon-Avon is crossed with medieval streets lined with Tudor houses and never-ending shops, spires of ancient churches and tolling church bells. Avoid the crowds by instead meandering through the brilliant English countryside where you’ll stumble across quiet pastures and thatched cottages. Thatch, once a common roofing material, is rare today, owing to the amount of maintenance required (you must replace it every few years), the overabundance of other roofing materials and the fact that it’s a significant fire hazard. Here though, you’ve stepped straight into a fairy tale. There is something very magical about this cottage in this place – as if fairies or forest nymphs or singing maidens may tumble off the pages of a storybook and come to life here. In this place, wandering these quiet countryside lanes outside of Stratford-upon-Avon, you can see where Shakespeare took his inspiration. Alone on the path by the cottage, you may even expect to meet one of Shakespeare’s colourful characters along the way.
Italy is full of churches. To no one’s surprise, it’s one of the most church-dense countries in Europe. The Chiesa di Santa Maria is surprisingly old – it was built in the 1300’s. It’s charm, however, comes largely from its location in the quaint, Germanic village of Brunico (Bruneck in German), nestled in the heart of the Dolomite Mountains of Northern Italy. Brunico is the perfect base for exploring the rugged backcountry of Sud Tyrol (Trentino-Alto Adige in Italian), a relatively new region of Italy (only becoming part of Italy after WWII). With an interesting melange of Italian and Austrian cultures, even the smallest of villages of Sud Tyrol feel wildly diverse. In the winter, this northeastern corner of Italy is well-known for fantastic skiing. The summer season draws adventurous travellers in with the promise of narrow mountain paths weaving through sunny forests and emerald meadows, full of chirping birds and rustling undergrowth. In the village of Brunico, visit the idyllic castle perched atop the hill for panoramic views of the village and beyond. The castle, now a museum of mountain climbing and the Himalayas, is situated on a lush forest backdrop, complete with meandering mountain paths and a rustic WWWII cemetery. Coming down from the castle’s hilltop path, enjoy this perfect view of Brunico and the lovely Chiesa di Santa Maria, the turquoise mountains forming a magnificent backdrop. Back in town, settle down to a pizza in the family-run restaurants in the historic old town as the sunsets over this adorable mountain village.
Autumn colours light up the palate of Kazimierz Dolny’s castle gardens. Kazimierz Dolny is a small, quirky village in eastern Poland within easy day trip striking distance of Warsaw, Poland’s capital. Though a short-lived season, Poland is vivid in autumn – September being a spectacular month for a visit, as the entire month seems to follow the rules of the Golden Hour usually attributed only to brief moments at sunrise or sunset. After weaving Kazimierz’s bustling medieval streets, head up the hill where you will pass the zamek – the lower castle – before climbing the path to the 19-meter tower, or the upper zamek. The view from here over the castle gardens, town and Wisla River (Vistula River in English) is simply splendid. Before the castle was built, the hilltop housed a beacon to warn surrounding settlements of impending attacks. Once upon a time, there was even a drawbridge, a moat, and five floors. Though you can’t climb more than one storey up now, the castle, gardens and tower are all a mystical and magical place made even better when doused in the golden autumn sunlight.
More Off-the-Beaten-Path Destinations in Eastern Europe
The Middle Ages left their architectural mark well and good on France. One of the many examples is the charming village of Olliergues, located in the rural and forgotten region of Auvergne, in the very centre of France. Surrounded by a crown of volcanoes, Olliergues is snuggled into the rolling green countryside, far from the ritz and glam of the modern world. Here, lives are lived much as they’ve always been. Villagers get their bread from the local boulangerie every morning, they drink their coffees in the cafes, they work in the fields or the little commerces. Children are walked to school. A dog barks, a cat streaks by. Here, tucked away in one of the most rural counties in France – and one of the most rural parts of that county – life is quieter, calmer. It is a good place to go to lose yourself. In the heart of the Livradois Forez Regional Natural Park, a huge chunk of protected woodland, farmland, and tiny communes (roughly 150), Olliergues is a good base for hiking, biking and other outdoors sports. Though the village has few eateries, there are plenty of places in the nearby (but far less beautiful!) town of Courpière – one of the best for tasty, local mountain cuisine is a little family-owned place, La Cave a Juliette. While in Auvergne, check out the beautiful Chateau de la Batisse, the more rugged Chateau de Murol, or the village known for its famous cheese, St Nectaire.
‘By the wee birchen corries lie patches of green Where gardens and bare-headed bairnies have been, But the huts now are rickles of stone, nettle-grown, And the once human homes, e’en their names are unknown.’
-Anonymous Victorian poet upon looking over nearby Loch Rannoch
Multiple reasons could account for any of the dozens of abandoned settlements in Scotland’s Highlands. Forced evictions, changing economies, harsh living conditions, changes in animal behaviour or soil richness, new weather patterns, or the industrial revolution are but a few. Reasons for this particular settlement’s abandonment are unknown. The trail to Mt Schiehallion (the ‘Fairy Hill of the Caledonians’) which overlooks Loch Rannoch snakes its way up and past this little village – today little more than a picturesque ruin. Though most people amble by it with little more than a quick photo, it serves one to stop and give it a little respect – those little ruins were once someone’s house, and one day, your house may be little more than a pile of rocks. Though sad, such is the way of things. Even buildings have a circle of life.
Hamlet near Valnontey in the Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy
This nameless place is barely a place at all. A collection of less than 10 buildings, this hamlet is snuggled deep within the majestic Valley of Valnontey on the French-Italian border. From October to March, the hamlet is buried under heaps of snow, and closed in on either side by the steep valley walls. There is no running water here, nor is there electricity. In winter, the only access is by cross country skiing (the area is beloved for the sport) or snow shoe. The village of Valmontey is the closest civilisation, and it’s still a couple of kilometres away – at least 30 minutes by snowshoe. And Valmontey is by no means large: it has a couple of restaurants, a hotel or two, a old church, and a shop – all very weather-dependant. Aosta, for which the greater Aosta Valley is named, is further 60 minutes by car down the narrow mountain track, if the weather is good. If the weather isn’t good, get comfortable, because you aren’y going anywhere. The villages and hamlets of Gran Paradiso are the kind of place people go to get off the beaten track. Hard to access, remote, rustic, and removed from civilisation, the people of this valley live side by side with mother nature. Deep in the Gran Paradiso National Park, the Valley of Valmontey is alive with wildlife – birds, foxes and most famously, the ibex – a deer-like animal topped with corkscrew antlers. The air is clean and pure. The modern world feels very far away. But amongst the charming wooden chalets – many built by hand – it doesn’t take long to feel right at home.
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!
Rusted rims, broken headlights, faded paint, cracked leather. The sun bathes the ancient automobile (for no other word can describe this masterpiece) in warm, southern light. The backdrop of ancient stone buildings hundreds of years old provides an appropriate setting for such a magnificent historical treasure trove such as this vintage auto. Largentière, a medieval town in the heart of the French region of Ardèche, seems as if it was meant for this car. A stone labyrinth since the 13th century, Largentière was once a thriving industrial towns thanks to mining of silver and lead (hence its name, ‘l’argent’ means ‘silver’ in French) and its prime location along the rails, but the mining has since died down, leading to the closure of its train station. Largentière is a veritable labyrinth of narrow stone streets, overhanging arches, and cobbled alleyways. Artsy and hipster, the village boasts an organic crêpes restaurant, La Rue Crêpanous; a quirky thrift shop called Recycl’arts; Le Goupil, an artisanal hipster beer bar; and a bookshop piled floor to ceiling, Le Voyageur d’Écriture, or ‘the traveller of writing,’ among others. It is a window to another time, or to several other times. Lost in the Ligne Valley in the sunburnt southern landscapes of the south of France, buried in the magnificent Gorges d’Ardèche, this paradisal little village reminds us that what has past is not necessarily lost.
Casually labeled as one of “The Most Beautiful Villages in France,” St. Guilheim is a snug village in the south of France, located within reasonable distance from Montpelier. Don’t be fooled by its name; this is no desert! The name is leftover from another time, when the land was desert-like. And “Guilhem” is the local patois way of saying the name “Guillaume” (“William” in English). With cobbled streets underfoot and the tiled roofs overhead, voices echo off the tiny squares, footsteps echo off the narrow streets. Rock walls are crumbling under the bald mountain tops looming just behind as you wander the alleys clutching a melting ice cream. Though not very large, St Guilhem certainly is one of the most beautiful places in an already beautiful county!
If you like cheese, you may have a stronger grasp on rural French geography than you realised. This is because in France, cheeses are often named for the villages where they originate, and remain very region-specific for centuries, shaping both local culture and local pride. Roquefort, for example, comes from…wait for it…Roquefort, France! And the cheese Saint-Nectaire comes from the village of the same name–also the same name as the village church, pictured above. Located in central France, in the rural department of Auvergne (where Michelin comes from!), the village itself doesn’t seem that special at first glance. But no one can pass through without stopping to buy Saint-Nectaire cheese from the source! However, it wasn’t always so tranquil here. This quiet village was once a thriving spa town in the 19th and early 20th century, and as a result, there are still several once-grand hotels from the 19th century at the base of the beautiful church. Today, thermal spa towns–including Saint-Nectaire–have lost some of their popularity (except in Scandinavia and places such as Budapest). Yet, there’s something enthralling about glancing into the past at these once top-of-the-line resorts that makes one long for the old days of steam engine travel: 2-month-long trips, grand hotels, dressing for dinner, days spent visiting thermal baths or preparing for balls. Just make sure you try the cheese.
A stone’s throw away from Aberdeen, the quaint seaside village of Stonehaven clings to the North Sea coastline. Aside from the usual charming nature of being in an adorable village along the rugged, Scottish coastline with waves lapping at your feet, Stonehaven is also home to some of the best fish and chips in the UK. Indeed, The Bay won awards in 2012 & 2013 for best takeaway fish and chips, and it is worth the short wait and the slightly high prices for the delicious battered fresh fish. Stonehaven is also the home of the “deep fried Mars Bar,” developed in 1995 by the Haven Chip Bar (now called The Carron). And despite immediately feeling the need to run a marathon afterwards in order to counterbalance the unhealthiness of the snack, the taste is pretty darn delicious! Not only is Stonehaven a good place to come to eat, it is also relaxing and beautiful, especially so after hiking up to the ridge just above the town, watching the light play off the golden-tinted stones and rooftops. While most come here in order to access the equally-beautiful Dunnottar Castle down the road, don’t miss out on the hidden gem that is Stonehaven itself.
Often, the most arresting part of a small village is the church spire–which holds an even more special charm when it rises against the backdrop of a dramatic mountain range. Italy in particular is linked with a supposed record-high church attendance–though in actuality, only 31% of the country (in 2004) attends mass on a regular basis; Poland nails first place, with a winning 54% in the same year. According to this article, the head of the Catholic Church so often associated with reverence and faith actually has a lot less churchgoers than the 50% they’ve traditionally claimed, with regular attendee percentages even less than the stated 31%. But regardless of all this, Italy (like most of the continent), has no shortage of churches. Every village has one, and the rest of the town center and little houses spiral outward around it. In large towns, there are more than one; there are big ones and small ones, stone ones and wood ones, plain ones and pretty ones, famous ones and unknown ones. Churches–no matter your faith–are places of devotion, of tranquility, of architectural splendour. Even if you aren’t interested in the religious part, they are magical, beautiful and graceful buildings full of history and culture and faith, and one can’t ignore the allure and sheer power these steeple-ed buildings hold over us travelers!
Seaside towns and medieval villages. Northern Spain is not much like the (southern) Spain we all know and love. For one, it actually rains here…so expect a lot more green than you’d see in Andalusia or Madrid. Expect small stone towns with orange roofs…most towns even have their own little beach! Expect palm trees and cobblestones and cheerful people at seaside bars. Even the “big cities” aren’t that big! This particular little town, Santillana del Mar, is one of the most famous towns in Cantabria. Santillana del Mar is sometimes called The Town of Three Lies…as it’s neither named after a Saint (Santo), nor is it flat (llana), nor is it by the sea (Mar). Regardless, this popular tourist stop in Cantabria is a charming fairy tale village!