5 top World Heritage Sites in France? Where do we begin? Even UNESCO’s shown signs of fatigue over the country’s pretty much endless parade of historic, significant, ancient, important, unique and just plain stunning. How else would you explain a site listed as just ’56 Belfries’? Or ‘The Loire Valley’ – all of it, the whole lot? Or what about ‘The Banks of the Seine’? Yes indeed, it seems that France has more than its fair share of nice stuff to classify. Such a lot in fact, it’s apparently not always possible to separate it, and you just get great big chunks of lumped together loveliness in between the charming, breathtaking and astonishing places that didn’t quite make the cut.
Banks of the Seine - © vonderauvisuals
So, in the spirit of égalité, we’re going North to South for our top five. It’s not a definitive guide but it contains a few all-time favourites, gives you some coast and mountains, covers France from pre-history to round about the time the revolutionaries got a bit tetchy over the lack of food and abundance of gold leaf, mirrors and relentless topiary. There were one or two candidates on UNESCO’s ‘Tentative List’ we’d like to have thrown in, but couldn’t: the Camargue? Tentative? Really? Nothing tentative about flamingoes as far as we’re concerned! And we’ve steered clear of cathedrals because, when you’ve seen one soaring buttress etc.
Winter approaches and since we’ve a fondness for North West France in the colder months of the year, let’s start with Mont Saint Michel.
Mont Saint-Michel © susanna giaccai
To be clear, Mont Saint Michel is definitely an island. It’s reached by a causeway (oh, the romance), surrounded by sea, sand and salt meadows (oh, even more romance) and it’s in Normandy, but just on the border of Brittany. The island’s Abbey is 11th century in origin and has the crypts to prove it, later modifications and additions are responsible for the iconic fairy-tale appearance and it’s all as beautifully preserved as you would expect. Mont Saint Michel is effectively a spiritual hierarchy with God on top (The Abbey) and the cottages of farmers and fisherfolk at the base (outside the walls). In between, the grand halls and stores descend, clinging to the island’s shape so organically that from a distance it’s hard to tell what’s natural and what’s not. The bay surrounding Mont Saint Michel is also a World Heritage Site but please don’t be tempted to walk across the sands to the island, pilgrims didn’t call it ‘St. Michael in peril from the sea’ for nothing. With only 44 permanent residents, Mont Saint Michel today has more sheep than people and the area’s famous for unique and delicious agneau de pré salé (salt meadow lamb). To protect the island and its fragile surroundings from the impact of over 3 million visitors a year, Mont Saint Michel is traffic free and the nearest parking is 2 km away on the mainland – you can walk across the causeway or catch a shuttle. And if you like your drama heightened, vivid late afternoon sunsets and mist-tinged frosty mornings, winter is the most peaceful and (in our opinion) loveliest time to see Mont Saint Michel.
Pious restraint and austere northern beauty not your thing? Then allow us to lead you 55km to the south of Paris and the riotous romp through eight centuries of French Royal excess that is Le Château de Fontainebleau.
Le Château de Fontainebleau © FredArt
The oldest and one of the largest French Royal Palaces, Fontainebleau has 1500 rooms, 130 hectares of parkland and so much gold and tapestry and draping and allegory and ornament that it’s quite probably a verb in Dubai: To Fontainebleau – overwhelm every inch of available space with eye watering vulgarity. But Le Château de Fontainebleau’s interior is the original and you have to look at it without pre-conception – hard to do when faced with 25 acres of frolicking nymphs, but worth it, we promise. And if all that open-minded appreciation of such richness brings out The Very Hungry Caterpillar in you, Fontainebleau’s legendary parkland is hectare after hectare of very nice green leaves and lots of other delightful natural antidotes to cherubs and Chinoserie. Surprisingly the parkland isn’t a World Heritage Site, but it is possibly some of the most magnificent in France and this is not a country short on great landscaping.
Skipping over the 300 or more châteaux that collectively earn The Loire Valley its World Heritage status, we’re instead irresistibly drawn to the Lascaux Caves in South West France.
Lascaux Caves © Adibu456
One of several pre-historic World Heritage Sites in the Dordogne’s Vallée Vézère, Lascaux is famous for its cave paintings which are considered to be the world’s finest and most extensive examples of Paleolithic art. The Lascaux Caves were discovered in 1940, opened to the public in 1948 and finally closed in 1963 because in just 15 years the 17,000 year old art had been almost irreparably damaged by visitors. Today, Lascaux II is an almost exact replica of the caves recreated close to the original. The paintings have been faithfully reproduced and the entire experience is captivating, intelligent and very moving.
When it comes to ‘world’s finest examples’, even the shortest list of French World Heritage Sites has to include the Cité de Carcassonne at the Mediterranean end of the Canal du Midi (another World Heritage Site) in South West France.
The Cité de Carcassonne dominates Carcassonne’s entire skyline with fairy-tale turrets, ramparts and imposing towers, managing to look both mighty and ethereal and well up to holding down a siege or keeping back a Medieval invader or two. The restored Medieval Cité itself is a fairly austere experience going for atmosphere over ornament, but it has a ‘Torture Tower’ if you’re interested in – unexpected – instruments of inquisition. And the commercialised ‘old town’ is more than happy to make up for its fortified counterpart’s minimalism with almost endless opportunities to buy Medieval souvenirs from surly shopkeepers charging exorbitant prices. Trust us, you’ll never regret saying ‘no’ to some curly-toed velvet slippers or a slash-sleeved ankle length robe.
To end on a heritage high note, we had to go for Scandola Nature Reserve on Corsica.
Scandola Nature Reserve © Rox More
Not an island lacking in dramatic landscape, Corsica does rugged and strange as a matter of course and specialises in towns that teeter off cliffs, terrifyingly twisty mountain roads and a fair number of rocky outcrops, sea stacks and grottos. So when we tell you that Scandola beats just about everywhere else on the island for sheer scale and almost unearthly beauty, you know this is one to definitely tick on the World Heritage list. Lying to the west of Corsica, Scandola is primarily a nature reserve and its vast rock pillars, caves and cliffs are home to an astonishing variety of sea birds. The reserve is only accessible by boat so it’s a site less visited which is worth a mention in itself.
Depending on where you stand with Belfries and Cĥateaux, France has 37 or over 300 World Heritage Sites and that’s before you touch the ‘Tentative List’. So even if you aren’t inspired to head out and get yourself some Medieval garb in Carcassonne, cross the causeway to Mont Saint Michel or brave the opulence of Fontainebleau, there are still quite a few alternatives to choose from.
English speaking visitors to France, cherchez-ing a perfectly grilled steak haché or a nicely browned frite, could do worse than head for French restaurant chain Courtepaille. If your grasp of the language is limited to an embarrassed ‘merci’, it’s probably Bon Appetit all round and none the wiser. But for those with a slightly wider vocabulary, confusion reigns. Because Courtepaille directly translates as ‘Short Straw’, not the first name choice for a successful restaurant you’d think, right? Wrong. In France, if you draw the short straw you’re the lucky winner.
Black cats are another source of confusion when it comes to good luck/bad luck. Apparently The Pilgrim Fathers (who really should have had more to worry them) believed black cats were agents of Satan. But, for centuries, canny Scots have thought the melanin rich felines brought prosperity. Gamblers fear black cats and pirates love them – handy to know if you’re in Vegas or sailing the high seas.
Some superstitions are widely held: smash the bottom of an empty boiled egg shell so a witch can’t make a boat out of it: bird droppings are good luck: a single magpie is a bad omen: don’t put new shoes on a table: spilled salt isn’t good (counteract with a pinch over your left shoulder and into the devil’s eye): and a tall, dark stranger as your first visitor of the New Year heralds excellent fortune (yes, we used the word ‘herald’).
But we think it’s probably fair to say that the best superstitions/omens/etc are based on indigenous lore and legend. They’re certainly some of the strangest (only in Iceland would they give citizens’ rights to elves), most eccentric and, occasionally, plain creepy – Mexico you know who you are! So before we douse ourselves in bird droppings and catch us a couple of magpies in preparation for another Friday the 13th, here’s our good guide to some superstitions of the world – wise travellers, heed our words!
credit: Sergio Rozas
Friday 13th in Spain is just a day like any other. Because, although the Spanish are uncommonly superstitious, it’s Tuesday 13th that’s the unluckiest day in their calendar. And we’re not just talking, watch out for ladders and spilled salt: Tuesday 13th in Spain is a day of mortal dread. As they say – Martes 13, ni te cases, ni te embarques (Tuesday 13th, don’t get married or set sail).
Visiting Russia and tempted to make Blinis? Before you start slathering on the sour cream and caviare, beware. Don’t ever eat the first pancake out of the pan, it belongs to a witch and if she doesn’t get it she’ll get you. Most seasoned pancake makers don’t care, the first pancake’s never that great anyway.
It’s probably not surprising that the birthplace of the magnificent Brothers Grimm should have a healthy stock of very unhealthy superstitions – mostly about death and dying. Our particular gory favourite is the belief that the wounds of a murdered corpse will start to bleed afresh if the body is touched again by the murderer.
credit: Janek Kloss
Forget the poetry, stout and fantastic oysters, if you visit Ireland it’s the fairies you have to watch out for. This may not be of interest to the average traveller, but if you’re renting a holiday house you might want to make sure it wasn’t built on a Fairy Path. According to Irish legend, fairies travel all over the country and if you build a house on one of their routes you’ll never know peace as long as you live. To make sure you don’t fall foul of a fairy: choose your site, stick a post in each of the four corners and if they’re still there in the morning it’s a fairy-free-zone.
The highly intelligent Magpie recognises its mirror image, hence its liking for shiny stuff and glass reflections. But if you’re Scottish you don’t believe any of that old scientific nonsense: a single Magpie on your window sill means death is coming to your home.
Want to ward off evil in Italy? Well, if you’re an Italian man, just grab the front of your trousers (think Michael Jackson Thriller). Yes, that gesture which has most of womankind rolling their eyes in disgust, is actually designed to ensure the bad thing you’re talking about doesn’t happen to you.
If you’re wandering around Yorkshire and you chance to come upon a hairy caterpillar, pick it up and hurl it over your shoulder for good luck – it’s one of those ‘not such good luck for the hairy caterpillar’ things, we know!
credit: K. G. Hawes
Lighting a votive candle in a Catholic church is something almost everyone does, whatever their beliefs. But in France, never light a candle from another candle because only the prayer of the original will be answered.
Wear a turquoise bead when you’re visiting Greece to ward off the evil eye. But watch it closely, if the colour starts to fade, danger is coming your way.
Come any Friday in Brazil (13th or otherwise) wear white clothes and you’ll have good luck. And, to make sure you always have plenty of cash, get yourself an elephant statue for the house and place it with its back to the door – Brazilian Feng Shui.
Finnish folk love a sauna and with every sauna comes a ‘Tonttu’. The Tonttu is a Sauna Elf, and if you forget to throw water on the stove for the Tonttu, he’ll curse your next sauna visit.
When visitors come knocking at the door in Holland the superstitious Dutch rush to answer because it’s said that if the door blows open on its own you’ve invited the Devil into your home.
Famous foragers that they are, no outdoorsy Swede with any sense ever picks heather and brings it home as ancient lore dictates they won’t live to tell the tale.
And finally, for this Friday and any other Friday – watch out for flying swans: if you see them overhead in the morning it’s good luck, but in the evening they’re a very bad sign.
credit: Ben Brewer
While beach breaks have their place, lake holidays can offer pretty much the same idyllic experience, without the sand in your sandwiches and the moisture sucking of saltwater in your hair. And yet, our default setting for a late summer’s holiday is to the coast. Well, let us tempt you away from the shores of Europe and on a journey inland to one of these dreamy lakeside holiday destinations.
Lake Orta, Italy
Arguably the Godfather of lakes in Europe, Italy’s lakes have something for everyone depending on budget and celebrity spotting requirements. While dangerously close to the throngs of tourists that descend upon Garda, Maggiore and Como, Lago d’Orta is still staying under the radar for the most part and it certainly boasts all the scenic and culinary delights of its bigger brothers. Just an hour’s drive from Milan, it’s too convenient a weekend break to ignore.
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Croatia joined the EU and the Euro this year and thus long-term fans of this rich, diverse and beautiful country began to twitch about the price of their Croatian beer going up. However, thanks to National Park rules, the stunning Plitvice Lakes will remain carefully protected from a stampede of tourists, eager to glance upon its aqua waters and impressive series of waterfalls; a truly unique sight.
Loch Awe, Scotland
credit: Dmitry Shakin
Before we get lost in continental Europe – a dangerously easy thing to do – let’s pop over to the British Isles to see what they have on offer. Loch Awe in Scotland is certainly competition for most on this list, with rolling hills in the background and crystal clear waters alongside which stand a collection of centuries-old castles and ruins.
Lake of Sainte-Croix, France
Man-made it may be, thanks to a purpose built dam back in the 1970s, but Sainte Croix makes up for its lack of natural origins with ridiculously pleasing views and bright blue waters in which you can swim, kayak and pedalo. While other French lakes like Annecy are forced to cope with high numbers of visitors all year round, you’ll find Sainte-Croix an almost secret sanctuary in September.
Lake Hévíz, Hungary
If you’re not convinced that European lake waters are warm enough to swim in, then Lake Hévíz is the lake for you. This is the largest thermal lake in Europe and is considered a “geological curiosity”, thanks to its waters which stay warm at 38.5 degrees celsius all year round. While still relatively small in size at just 12 acres, Lake Hévíz is only a short distance from the much bigger, slightly cooler but equally beautiful Lake Balaton.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
Slovenia is home to many of Europe’s hidden gems and Lake Bled has to be one of them, though it’s true that the secret of its beauty has long been out. With a fairytale-like church peaking through the trees on Bled Island, surrounded by the lake’s topaz blue water, you shouldn’t be put off visiting Lake Bled at any time of the year as it looks almost magical under a layer of winter snow. As it’s just twenty-two miles from Ljubljana airport, there’s very little stopping you from visiting Lake Bled and soon.
Lake Ohrid, Macedonia & Albania
credit: Hannes E.
Considered to be one of Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes and an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, Lake Ohrid has long been one of the go-to locations for lazy lakeside holidays for residents of Macedonia and Albania, the two countries it touches. While visitors now come from across the Balkans and further afield, there is still charm, beauty and most importantly peace and quiet to be found along the banks of these turquoise waters. Furthermore, on the Macedonian side you’re only a few miles away from Lake Prespa, which is rumoured to have its own lake monster… and it’s not the Loch Ness Monster on her summer holidays.
Lake Constance, Switzerland, Austria & Germany
credit: Genji A
It seems a little harsh to compile a list of the best lakes in Europe without a nod to Switzerland and Austria, two landlocked nations who make great strides to maximise the stunning potential of their freshwater lakes. Lake Constance happens to stretch across both country’s borders as well as into southern Germany. With the Alps watching over from most sides, it’s hard to sit on the banks of Lake Constance and not be impressed by the view.
Lake Saimaa, Finland
credit: Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho
The largest lake in Finland, Lake Saimaa is considered somewhat of a national treasure and when you see photos of perfectly still waters promising endless calm it’s easy to see why. Scattered with islands, the whole region offers all types of outdoor activities and there’s even a chance of seeing the sadly endangered Saimaa ringed seal.
But more importantly, what do you think? Have you ever found yourself floating in a different body of European water, thinking to yourself, “this has got to be the best lake in Europe and I won’t hear anyone say otherwise.” Please tell us which European lakes you think we’ve missed.
Featured image by grand Yann.
With summer rapidly approaching, many will be flocking to Europe’s most popular spiaggias, playas and plages. But if you’re looking to avoid the bucket and spade brigade, all you need is a bit of local knowledge – something HouseTrip considers a bit of a specialty.
Being hosted by a local while on holiday allows you a much richer experience – so don’t forget to pick your Host’s brains for great ideas for day trips, nightly jaunts and the best place to find that fish dish you love.
Here are pictures from some of Europe’s best lesser-known stretches of beach. Now, imagine the warm sand between your toes, enjoy the sensation, and get in the mood for the weekend.
1. Myrtos Beach, Greece – Antti Simonen
2. Saleccia Beach, Corsica – fabcom
3. Dhermi Beach, Albania – curious fish
4. Smuggler’s Cove, Greece – Eelke de Blouw
5. Noirmoutier, Loire, France – Spone
6. Mwnt Beach, Wales – stephendl
7. Marathonisi Island, Zakynthos – zolakoma
8. Skagen Beach, Denmark – Poul Werner
9. Es Migjorn, Menorca – MontanNito
10. Praia Ingrina, Algarve, Portugal – tintas
During the festive season, it’s not likely that any of us need much encouragement to start nibbling on Christmas treats, and it is a festive fact that we tend to eat more than we should with all the mince pies and roasted chestnuts coming to town. However you don’t need to stick to the same old thing. Why not spread your wings – and your waistband – by enjoying Christmas traditions from another country? Well, put down your turkey meat and gravy boat and come fly with us on a foodie’s tour of four festive countries in Europe at Christmas time!
Christmas table setting © Putneypics
Possibly fuelled by the chilly temperatures at this time of year, Danish families cook up a real feast for Christmas – or Jul – with roast pork or roast duck being the centrepiece dishes around which a variety of vegetables and potato dishes are served on Christmas Eve. Desert comes in the form of risalamande, a rice pudding with cherry sauce. Festivities begin at the start of advent in Denmark and as families gather at street markets popular sweet treats will include æbleskiver, doughnut style pancakes, and gløgg for those old enough to cope with this heady mix of mulled wine and spices. Denmark is also one of the places where those ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire…’ made famous in the song are also enjoyed at Christmas. Glædelig jul!
Risalamande © bosworth.dk
Christmas dinner in France is rather elegantly known as Le Reveillon de Noël and is eaten during the evening and into the night of Christmas Eve. The French being the culinary connoisseurs that they are, le Reveillon often consists of numerous different courses starting with Champagne and amuse-bouches followed by foie gras and smoked salmon with lamb or poultry as the main meal. This is then followed up with a refreshing green salad, and next come cheeses with the final course being une bûche de Noël; a Christmas log cake decorated with frosting and figurines. That’s if you’re still awake, of course. Should you be lucky enough to be heading to Provence for Christmas be warned that they take the number of courses to an entirely new level, with it being a local tradition to serve thirteen different desserts! Joyeux Noël!
Bûche de Noël © masatsu
Famous for the Lebkuchen that many now recognise as a traditional German Christmas treat, it’s comforting to know that the Germans are still as crazy for these gingerbread cookies as we’d like to think, and the tradition of building gingerbread houses is also strong in many parts of Germany. With the main gathering and meal being served on Christmas Eve, many families in southern Germany will sit down to eat Schäufele, a smoked joint of ham, served with potatoes and vegetables. Of course, Christmas is also a good an excuse as any for the Germans to eat lots of sausages with Weisswurst – a white sausage stew served with vegetables, veal and bacon being a popular dish in North Germany. Christstollen, a spiced fruit loaf, is a very common seasonal cake eaten at this time of year. Fröhliche Weihnachten!
Schäufele © Ctz NÃ¼rnberg
In the predominantly Catholic country of Portugal, Christmas is a widely celebrated occasion shared with extended family and friends, though gifts aren’t traditionally given to children until January 6th, the day which marks the Epiphany of the Wise Men. The main Portuguese meal takes place on Christmas Day starting with consado, a meal that is often centred around roast turkey – though roast lamb or goat isn’t unusual. With it being one of the most popular Portuguese dishes year round bacalhao, salted codfish with potato, is also often served. Bolo Rei, which translates as King Cake, is a wonderful white flour fruitcake decorated with glazed fruits, and most bakeries will serve a number of different variations during the festive period. Feliz Natal!
Bacalhao © zcamerino
There are so many delicious, edible ways to enjoy yuletide. We hope that however you spend yours, and whomever you spend it with, it is filled with good cheer, laughter and just… one… more… piece. Merry Christmas!