Greeting you as you traverse forgotten paths through dark forests, red-brick turrets of a fairytale castle rise through the waves of golden trees on a crisp autumn day. This is the beautiful Turaida Castle. To though there is a bus, a far more enjoyable way to find Turaida Castle is to be mistaken for a German tourist at the Sigulda train station, be handed a map in German and told to follow it through the town of Sigulda, past the first, then second set of castle ruins, over the impressive Gauja River Gorge in a little yellow cable car, through the magnificently eerie woods, past the magical Gutmanis Cave, and finally, to the turrets of Turaida Castle itself. Built in 1214, demolished in 1776 by fire, then partially restored in the last decade, “Thor’s Garden,” as it translates to in Livonian, is a medieval castle on the Gauja River built by Albert, archbishop of Riga. Today there is a small folk park area and sculpture garden outside, as well as the castle of towers, walls and outbuildings. Though of course Turaida Castle is still an impressive place when arriving by bus or car, hiking through the quiet trails of the Gauja River Valley from Sigulda Train Station, and exploring the region on foot is what truly makes visiting this castle a magical experience fit for a modern explorer time-travelling to the Middle Ages.
Pro tip: Pick up a map from the Sigulda Train Station and hike to the castle! The Gauja River Valley is magical to explore on foot. You’ll have to take the cable car to Krimulda, which operates daily from 10-18h30 (or 17h in winter), and currently costs €12 (the views are worth it!). The whole hike is about 5km with deviations to Sigulda Castle or Gutmanis Cave adding a wee bit more on. Once you visit the castle, you can then take the bus back to Sigulda. There is a tiny (and very simple) restaurant near the castle, but you may want to bring a picnic. Cable car info here.
Brunico – or Bruneck in German – is a lovely little town in a strange region. Like all of Sud Tyrol, the region was once part of the Astro-Hungarian Empire until World War I happened, and Italy, who sided with the winners, was granted the mountainous little region of Sud Tyrol from Austria, who sided with the wrong side. Even today the Germanic/Austrian culture is visible, from the bilingual populace (and menus and road signs) to the cuisine to the architecture. Rising above cheerful Brunico is the beautiful medieval Brunico Castle dating back to about the 13th century. But hidden away in the lush green wooded hills on the other side of a narrow footbridge is something unexpected – a simple World War I era cemetery filled with the graves of soldiers from all sides, backgrounds and religions. In fact, soldiers from each religion – Christian, Jewish and Muslim – are each buried according to their religious rites. Though war is always terrible for those involved in it, the war would have been especially difficult for those soldiers fighting WWI in the high, inhospitable Dolomites Mountains, a region prone to high winds, deep snows, cold temperatures, steep slopes and rough terrain. Brunico’s wooded WWI cemetery was built by Russian POWs from local pine trees, each one carefully inscribed with the dead soldier’s names and dates of death. Tucked under a quiet canopy of emerald leaves, these simple markers serve as a stark reminder of the shortness of life and the madness of war – as well as humankind’s harmony with nature.
Pro tip: Brunico’s War Cemetery is located a stone’s throw away from Brunico Castle (in reality just across the footbridge). Visiting in summer? There are some pretty lowland walks in the area. If you want to climb something a bit higher, head over to nearby stunning landscapes Mt Kronplatz or the lushness of Vedrette di Ries-Aurina Natural Park. Visiting in winter? This region also has some good skiing.
St Michael’s along the Philosophen Weg, Heidelberg, Germany
It’s the journey, not the destination that makes a place special, which is certainly true of St Michael’s Monastery near Heidelberg. Start on the far side of the river by meandering your way up a path called Philosophen Weg. Steep and narrow, this cobblestoned alley quickly sweeps you out of the city and up into the deep, dark woods overhanging the gothic spires of Heidelberg. Then, the path promptly splits in two, and your only signpost signalling the way is a boulder engraved with obscure German words. So what do you do? Choose a path, and hope it’s right, though you soon start second-guessing yourself as you come to another fork, and another. At each path, there is a new boulder, with new words. Scratching your head with frustration, you cast your eyes around you in hopes of discovering a clue. Suddenly, you feel very much like you stepped off the pages of a Grimm’s brother tale. Rounding a bend, the trees suddenly open up over a magnificent panorama of the city. The next opening takes you to an amphitheater with exceptional acoustics (once unfortunately used for hate speeches by the Nazi party). After a small eternity in the dark fairytales of the Brothers Grimm’s world, you emerge, completely surprised at your luck, into a clearing comprised of the ruins of St Michael’s Monastery. While some of its ruins are even older, the majority of the monastery dates to 1023. But by 1503, the complex’s last monks died, and the rural, isolated monastery was abandoned, and like so many once-great places, forgotten. While open to the public today, these little-visited and remote ruins hold the air of a lost masterpiece.
Pro tip: The best way to arrive at the monastery is on foot but its best to ask for a map or use a GPS to find your way in the woods. Once you pass the old amphitheatre you’re almost there.
Other Ruined European Monasteries, Abbeys and Friaries
Sligo’s Hidden Glen on the Coolera Peninsula, Ireland
Sligo in itself is a little-known corner of Ireland. Located on the northwest section of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, it is known as the Surf Coast for good reason. But for those who venture inland, Sligo is full of gems – fascinating mountains, ancient neolithic monuments, vibrant towns, quiet beaches, delicious seafood, rich mythology. One gem you won’t find on the traditional tourist track is the Hidden Glen, on Sligo’s Coolera Peninsula, a region once home to ancient Neolithic peoples. The Hidden Glen (or The Glen) as it’s known locally, is tucked under Knocknarea Hill. The entrance is as unremarkable as it is hidden – simply a rusty gate and trail off the ocean side of Woodville Road. Pass through this narrow, natural doorway and you’ll find yourself in a another world straight from the pages of a fairytale book. This narrow ‘micro-valley’ is a magical glen where handmade swings hang from soaring trees. Spellbinding stone walls rise up some 60 feet on either side of this narrow chasm deep in a magical woodland. Forget rose-coloured glasses – the verdant ferns and thick green leaves of the Hidden Glen make it feel like you’re seeing the world through emerald shades. If fairies were to exist, then surely this must be their home. Enchanted and magical, this ancient wooded world contained inside the glacially-hewn walls of the Hidden Glen under the watchful eye of mythical Queen Maeve’s tomb atop Knocknarea Hill is the pinnacle of any fairytale experience and is a place you simply have to see with your own eyes. Pro tip: The Hidden Glen is almost always extremely muddy underfoot so only attempt with study, waterproof hiking boots.