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.