Hamlet near Valnontey, Italy

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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.

Balazuc, Ardeche, France

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Sunset over Balazuc in the Ardèche region, France

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!

Largentière, Ardèche, France

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Largentière, Ardèche, France

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.

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St Guilheim-le-Désert, France

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Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, France

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!

Saint-Nectaire, France

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Saint-Nectaire, France

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.

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Stonehaven, Scotland

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Stonehaven, Scotland

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.

 

Aosta, Italy

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Aosta, Italy

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!

Santillana del Mar, Spain

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Santillana del Mar, Spain

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!

Sacred spring near Kluski, Poland

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Zrodełko objawienia (“Spring of Revelations”) near Kluski, Poland

Apparently, this site has been of religious interest for over a 1,000 years, and Christians have been coming here for healing ever since. However, it was only recently that the pope decided it was indeed holy and allowed the building of the stone spring and Mary’s statue (because apparently, we need his permission for that? A Holy Building Permit or something?). Next to the small spring there is a cup, used for dipping into the water in order to drink the magical spring water – which is supposedly capable of healing all wounds. Those healed, or ‘touched by angels,’ leave small angel statues by the spring’s edges, as a way of thanking Mary for her help. People used to gather here once a year, in May, to celebrate the anniversary of the spring’s discovery, but ever since the pope (or his local representative) blessed it and recognised it as holy, they now have much more frequent masses. During the communist rule, they used to take away the angels and the other offerings, since of course, the communists wanted to suppress religion – but the resilient Poles continued to make the pilgrimage to the spring and leave behind the angels anyway, preserving the tradition.