Anyone who’s ever read a Terry Pratchett, JRR Tolkien, or JK Rowling (before she went all bleeding-heart-pinko and grown up on us) has fantasized about traipsing through misty snowcapped mountains and enchanted forests, encountering endearing local folk and mythical creatures and being held captive in imposing, multi-towered castles (or if it floats your boat – a boarding school).
The good news is, all this can be easily found in Europe if you know where to look (except for the mythical creatures). Here are my top 5 Fairytale destinations, Europe style…
5. Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany
Nestled in the Bavarian Alps and built by Mad King Ludwig, Neuschwannstein is the epitome of camp Fairytale kitsch. It was inspired by the castles of the Loire Valley and in turn became the inspiration for Disney’s ‘when you wish upon an star’ castle.
If you can stand the hoards of Japanese tourists and eye-watering parking fees, it makes a nice day trip from Munich. While you’re here, you can stop by at Hitler’s secret mountain lair at Berchtesgaden for a spot of ghoulish Boy’s Own-style sight-seeing.
The castle is currently undergoing renovation and its fairytale factor is therefore slightly diminished by it being entirely covered in scaffolding. Hence its position at number 5.
4. Bialowieza Forest, Poland/Belarus
Welcome to the dark heart of Eastern Europe. If those magical creatures were discovered to exist after all, it’d almost certainly be here. Bialowieza is the largest primeval forest in Europe and home to bison, bears and wolves. Travel advice: if you see a house made of gingerbread, probably best to avoid.
3. Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland
More like something out of Discworld than Northern Ireland, the Giant’s Causeway is a… erm… giant causeway in Northern Ireland. The crashing waves of the tempestuous Irish sea are vaguely reminiscent of the lighthouse scene in Harry Potter 1.
Likelihood of actually seeing a giant is slim, but after a few Jameson’s, who knows. If all the Caspar David Friedrich-esque Romanticism gets a bit much, for a light-hearted add-on, you can do the open top bus tour of the Falls and Shankill Roads in Belfast and wave at the chavs sitting outside Rangers and Celtic Supporters’ pubs.
2. Tintagel, Cornwall, England
Did King Arthur and Merlin and Gwynevere really live here? Is this where Arthur pulled the sword from the stone? Did he rule his Kingdom wisely with a proto-democratic round table on this rocky outcrop in Cornwall? Probably not, but it makes a nice excuse for the locals to open crystal shops and sell homeopathic remedies in ‘Merlin’s Tea Rooms’ and ‘King Arthur’s convenience store’, so who cares?
1. Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
Anyone who feels himself to be imbued with the Elfish gene… Anyone who ever applied to go on Knightmare… Anyone who has ever lost his girlfriend, job and flat due to their addiction to World of Warcraft (it happened to my friend’s brother)… Anyone who knows what The Gathering is… will like it here. And just about anyone else, to be honest. It’s a lovely little town in Southern Czech Republic that just screams “Hobbit!”. It’s great. Good beer, too.
Bavaria – Austrian Lakes – Slovenian Alps – Ljubjana – Zagreb – Istrian Peninsular (Croatia) – Venice – Verona – French Alps – Aix En Provence – Avignon – Languedoc – Pyrenees – Bilbao – San Sebastian – Dordogne – Rhone Valley – Brittany – Normandy – UK.
Here are some of the best snaps I took en route with my phone.
The Konigsee, Bavarian Alps, Germany
Hitler’s mountain lair, the ‘Eagles Nest’ at Bertchesgaden, Germany
Dragon Bridge, Ljubjana, Slovenia
Gondola Drivers, Venice, Italy
The Cathedral Cloisters, Verona, Italy
Pope’s Castle at Avignon, France
Carcassonne, France by night
The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
The destroyed village of Oradour, France
Mont St Michel, Normandy, France
If you’re looking for day trip ideas from London, the Suffolk coast provides a little bit of olde England, just an hour or so by car or train. The charming resorts of Southwold and Aldeburgh transport you back in time to bucket and spade holidays of the 1950s, with their easy-going atmosphere, locally-sourced food and superlative fish and chip cafes. The Suffolk coast makes an up-market and far more peaceful alternative to the likes of Brighton and allows you to really feel like you’ve got away from it all.
Here are some iphone snaps I took on a recent Redpig road trip. A long weekend was ample time to recharge the batteries, sample the local cuisine and seek out a few ‘secret’ beaches.
In March this year, my husband and I drove down to Italy in our camper van (the van is affectionately known as The Red Pig). We saw bits of France and Belgium on the way there and back. As you can see, the weather was pleasant most of the time, and lots of places were completely deserted.
Going out of season was great, as it cut out queues at nearly all the museums. It also allowed us to pull up and snooze in the van more or less wherever we liked. Below are some iPhone snaps I took en route.
September and May have always been my favourite time to visit the Mediterranean, as scrambling over Roman ruins, drinking red wine, sunbathing – all the good stuff – are clearly best done without fear of heatstroke. It’s also well-known that August is the worst time to visit Europe, as many cities such as Paris and Madrid effectively close down. On top of that, you have the school summer holidays calendar which means just about everywhere with a patch of grass from St Petersburg to Dublin will be mobbed by screaming kids. Don’t even think about visiting an open-air swimming pool in late July.
Of course, the ski season lasts from mid-December to Late March, but the winter is otherwise a pretty miserable time to visit Europe, where winter means either -40 in the North or grey skies and inadequate central heating in the South.
I’ve just got back from an epic three-week trip down to southern Italy and back in the camper van and I have to say that mid-March is in some ways an ideal time to ‘do Europe’ if you are interested in culture rather than beaches. There were no queues for museums, no reservations necessary at restaurants, easy parking and sleeping wherever we liked in the van. The coast roads were traffic-free, which is also a huge bonus in places like the French Riviera and the Italy’s Amalfi coast, where there is enough local traffic to cause headaches at the best of times.
The weather was extremely varied, ranging from bright sunshine in Lyon to freezing hail in Naples, to snow in the Alps and April Showers in Belgium. It really felt like we got a unique insight into a side of Europe we hadn’t seen before.
Most importantly, of course, there were none of those insufferable other tourists ruining our tourism by doing touristy things and being all touristy. Which was great!
It’s a truism that Belgium is the dullest country in the world. The weather would give the UK a run for its money; skies of the slate grey variety and endless drizzle compete for room with bracing wind and fog which comes in off the north sea much as in, say Glasgow or Morecombe.
The people, so we are led to believe, are a dull bunch of quasi-French bureaucrats who love nothing more than creating rules about the bendiness of bananas and tending to their ironically waxed moustaches.
Of course, there is a grain of truth in all these stereotypes, but if you are willing to go the extra mile – most notably away from the tourist traps of Brussels and Bruges – you will discover an open-minded and dare-I-say, hip country that warrants a week of anyone’s life. The fact that (just about) everyone speaks English and it’s only two hours from St Pancras also adds to the feeling that a trip to Belgium is a trip to ‘another Britain’, but a bit more continental.
Ever been to Amsterdam and thought, “well, this could be a nice place if it wasn’t for all the narcotourists and sex shops?”… Welcome to Ghent. Ghent manages to be both a picture-postcard medieval town with canals and cobbled streets and also a lively student city with a nightlife famous for its outrageous music scene (the infamous clubnight Breakcore Gives Me Wood was founded here) and its all-night pub crawl marathons.
Competing for the prize of ‘capital of Flanders’ is Antwerp, a slightly more modern, sophisticated city with some of the finest art nouveau architecture in the world and a pavement cafe and restaurant culture which is some of the finest in Europe. On top of this, Antwerp’s fashion scene is still very much at the cutting edge, with students travelling from places like Japan and New York to study with the greats of Belgian design.
Belgium’s history of weaving, architecture and art goes right back to medieval times, when the low countries were the richest seafaring nations in the world. The modern artists and fashion designers are continuing a legacy which stretches back from the bande dessinee of Tin Tin through to the Northern Renaissance and the guild houses of the high Middle Ages. Not only were Magritte, Rubens, Van Dyck and Bruegel all Belgian born, but the rich merchants of Antwerp and Bruges were also the main collectors of fine art from Holland, too. Some of the the innovations which Belgians contributed to fine art include the artist’s self portrait, the use of oil paint and even the idea of secular art itself.
No guide to Belgium is complete without the mention of the cuisine. While the seafood delicatessens of Antwerp and the haute cuisine restaurants of Brussels take some beating, I’m quite content with some (double fried) Belgian chips washed down with a strong (trappist) beer.
Just as the art, textiles and beer industries in Belgium have a long and illustrious history, so too, it turns out, does the European Union. Charlemagne was born in Liege in the 8th Century and went on to unite Europe as the leader of the Holy Roman Empire he created. The rest, as they say, is history.
What is it with Europeans and castles? Why did they have to build so many? Why are they so big? And why, as I once overheard an American tourist say in Edinburgh, did they have to ‘build them so goddam far from the train station?’
You build castles for lots of reasons, but mostly:
1. To show off, of course.
2. To protect your family from invaders intent on the whole rapin’ ‘n’ pillagin’ thing.
3. To Live out your powdered-wig-wearing-fantasy of being Louis XIV, even though it’s, like, 1895 and you’re German.
4. Because you’ve just decided ‘I am the REAL pope and that charlatan in the Vatican will have to come and get me if he wants to argue the toss’.
5. Because you’re mad (see 3. and 4.)
So, dear armchair traveller, here is a not very exhaustive and extremely biased (but awesome!) list of the best European castles.
5. Conwy, Wales
Welsh castles were mostly used as places to avoid the Welsh. Marauding hordes intent on pillaging your women and raping your livestock are best avoided, let’s face it.
4. Carcassonne, France
Even the throngs of shouty middle class Anglais on Range Rover powered booze-and-fromage-athon holidays cannot ruin this one. Strictly speaking, Carcassonne is a fortified town, but whatevs.
3. Versailles, France
Built by this mad guy who wore powdered wigs and thought he was Louis XIV or something… oh, hang on…
2. The Alhambra, Spain
In spite of being strict Muslims, they chose to name their castle after a pork product and a piece of underwear. Go figure.
1. Kalemegdan Fortress, Serbia
Anyone foolish enough to attempt to mess with the Serbs had better have a game plan for this bad boy. It’s been fought over by everyone from the Romans to the Nazis. They even have a US stealth fighter plane they shot down, in the castle museum. Rad!
European travellers are increasingly flocking to the Balkans as a cheap, sunny, relaxing holiday destination. While I rave about Lake Ohrid in Macedonia and the cultural scene in Belgrade, my friends have been returning from Croatia with stories of wild beach parties and 3-day Techno festivals. I’ve always been particularly fascinated by Albania. I always imagine it as a land of impassable misty mountains where marauding bandits roam around on horses with AK-47s, capturing women for a lifetime of servitude either in the sex industry or – worse – the Albanian homestead.
So I asked my good friend, ace short story author and former inhabitant of Tirana, Karen Murdarasi to shed some light on this enigmatic Balkan state and perhaps explode some of these deeply entrenched prejudices. A quick look at the pictures below tells an all-together more positive story of Albania. It kind of looks like an inexpensive version of Greece: Clear blue waters, tasty food and sunshine by the bucketload. So, without further ado, here are Karen Murdarasi’s top five awesome things to do in Albania.
5 Awesome Things To Do In Albania by Karen Murdarasi
I’m not being sarcastic. There are (more than) five good things about Albania, and I’m not including an episode of Top Gear being filmed there. Albania gets a bad press. The menfolk are always the bad guys on TV dramas and films. (Never watch Taken. Never, never, never watch Taken 2.) The women, although beautiful, are assumed to be dim and usually involved in some way in the sex industry. And there’s a scurrilous rumour that Albanians as a whole are very fond of Norman Wisdom films. None of this is true. So, to set the record a little straighter, here are five things that are in fact good about “The Land of the Eagle”.
5) Eat Fast Food With A Twist
Albanian fast food is cheap and delicious. There’s byrek, which is flaky pastry filled with sharp-tasting cheese or meat, and sufllaqe, which is like a kebab, but if kebabs were gorgeous. The drinks available are also gorgeous – peach juice, apricot and orange, natural lemonade. And Coke, of course; Albania is still a place in the world.
It does not, however, have a McDonalds (yet). Instead it has Kolonat (The Collonade) in the capital, which serves burgers and stuff, along with pizza and chicken. The reason I mention it is that the big K above Kolonat is printed in a distinctive curvy way, so that it could easily be mistaken for some other letter…
4) Discover The Controversial History
I’m into history, having studied Ancient History at university, so I realised where Albania was for the first time when I found out it was ancient Illyria / Illyricum. In fact, despite various wars, migrations and occupations, the Albanians are still pretty much directly descended from the ancient Illyrians, and their language seems to come from Illyrian too.
The history of the Albanians hasn’t exactly been a barrel of laughs over the last three thousand years, but it’s certainly interesting. The people they’ve been defeated, occupied or invaded by make up a Who’s Who of history, from the Greeks and Romans through the Ottoman Empire, Napoleon, Mussolini and Hitler. Much of this history is also what’s known as ‘contested’. It could keep a history department in professorships for decades.
3) Enjoy The Fantastic Weather
This is less of a niche interest, I imagine. Albania is on the Mediterranean (as long as you’re not being too pedantic, and allow offshoots of the Med like the Ionian Sea). Therefore is has fabulous weather for most of the year. From March to October, it ranges from warm to very hot and from bright to glorious. Cafes have most of their tables outside and sandals are the only footgear required.
All that sunshine makes you want to go to the beach, of course, which brings me on to number two…
2) Experience The Varied Landscape
Long, sandy beaches. Rugged, picturesque mountains. Pellucid lakes, dark forests and magisterial gorges. Wide, shallow rivers meandering over pure white stones. And also the one large, flat bit where most people live and all the crops are grown. Albania has all the scenery you could want in really quite a small country (the size of Wales), and most of it is breathtaking.
Albania is part of the Balkan Peninsula, like Greece, so naturally it looks quite similar. It’s also blessed with lots of natural springs, like Greece, so you can buy very nice local mineral water very cheaply. My favourite is Tepelena Water which is superior to all the others on account of being, as it proclaims on the label, “suffled how it gush.” You can’t argue with that.
1) Lose Track Of Time
Of all the wonderful things about Albania, the overall winner for me has to be the pace of life. This is what I miss most when I come back to the UK. There is UK time and there is Albanian time, and the two are very different.
It’s not just about being late for everything (although that’s certainly part of it), it’s about valuing certain things above punctuality – things like having time for your friends, enjoying the journey, eating and dressing properly, and not overheating in the glorious sunshine. Once you manage to overcome your western obsession with timekeeping, this attitude is amazingly relaxing and liberating: Whatever it is, it can wait; enjoy now.
Looking for more Albania travel ideas? Click here
Looking for more offbeat European travel ideas? Click here
Find out more about Karen the guest blog author here
This is what happens when you follow Google Maps
The quickest route back from Munich to the UK by road is quite possibly one of the dullest, scariest and most excruciating drives you would ever have the misfortune to experience in your life. Google maps suggests a route roughly taking in Stuttgart – Dortmund – Belgium – Calais – UK. Anyone insane enough to take the search engine’s advice will surely be forgiven for believing they must have died and gone to one of the innermost circles of hell.
Part one: Bavaria
There are two main drawbacks to driving here. First is the tractors. They travel at 25 kilometers and hour and are driven by ruddy cheeked, lederhosen-wearing sausage munchers who will do anything to get that pile of precariously topplable logs from one place to another. If you thought leather shorts and green hats with feathers in were only a fancy dress costume worn at Oktoberfest, you were wrong. They are the look of choice for any self respecting German farmer.
The German farmer’s wife, however, is perhaps an even worse creature to encounter on your voyage through hell. She takes her sartorial advice from old newsreels of Russian peasants and spends all day wearing a headscarf and sweeping the pavement with a broom. Not a sweeping brush, mind, but a traditional straw broom like in Harry Potter, but without the quidditch. If you have the audacity to drive through her street, you can expect a piercing glare at best, or for her to keel over and die from the shock of seeing an Auslander in a right hand drive vehicle at worst.
Part Two: The Autobahn
The Germans are proud, staunch supporters of the lack of speed limit on their autobahns. In the closeted Catholic world of South Germany, it is one of life’s few freedoms.
There are two ways to drive on the autobahn. The first is to drive in the slow lane at 60mph, sandwiched between enormous lorries (usually laden with the aforementioned precarious piles of topplable logs). The second option is to drive in the fast lane, for there are only two lanes. This lane is populated by maniacal, arrogant Audi and BMW drivers who think that two inches is a reasonable stopping distance at 150mph. Drive for more than ten minutes on any autobahn and you will see burned-out Citroens littering the hard shoulder who have had to push their car way beyond its mechanical limit to avoid the hooting and flashing of an impatient Mercedes owner.
Part Three: The Ruhrgebiet
The Danube and the Rhine were the information superhighways of the middle ages, with people, goods and ideas travelling by boat across Europe. Along the Rhine sprang up mighty cities, which in time industrialised and became the powerhouses of German industry. The northernmost edge of this region is called the Ruhrgebiet. To drive through the Ruhrgebiet is to experience the very depths of humanity. Faceless concrete, billowing industrial smog and lashing horizontal rain await the intrepid motorist as she crawls through endless snarls of choked-up motorways.
Part Four: Belgium
Belgium is perhaps the most geographically unlucky place on the planet. Trapped between the channel ports and the rest of Europe, it is a thoroughfare for every conceivable type of truck, lorry, articulated freight vehicle, refrigerated lorry and delivery van ever. And we all know how awful these drivers are. Is there anything worse than the self satisfied, overweight, dirty fingernailed long-distance haulage driver whose only joys in life are king size Mars Bars and onanism?
If there is anything worse, it’s the Belgian road system itself. The potholed and cracked roads buckle under the strain of being the gateway to Europe. And for some inexplicable reason, the slow lane on the motorway turns into the slip road at EVERY exit, meaning you have to dart into the fast lane at every junction, lest ye be whisked off to Liege.
Part Five: Calais
Calais was owned by the English until 1558 and, dear God, it shows. Go to any town in France – and I mean any town – and you can expect a relatively pleasant town square, pavement cafes with dismissive waiters, a pretty church. Not in Calais. 500 years under the English yoke has had such a detrimental effect on the Calais-dwellers’ psyche that they seem to be modelling their town on either post-war Coventry or the slums of Glasgow circa 1935. Listless would-be-asylum-seekers pace around the town centre, awaiting the great voyage to the UK in the deluded belief it’s somehow better there than France. Gangs of sullen youths loiter in the train station, waiting for a train to anywhere except here.
Part Six: England
So you’ve made it back to Dover in one piece. Back in good old Blighty, with its considerate drivers, friendly policemen and polite pedestrians. After spending so long on the continent, your chances of a) Getting in the correct lane, b) Not undertaking on the motorway, or c) Remembering which way round a roundabout goes are about zilch. Good luck with that.