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.
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.
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.
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Find out more about Karen the guest blog author here