Monthly Archive: November 2015

Most Beautiful Fortified Cities of Europe


Ávila, Spain

Avila Walled City - Spain

Avila Walled City – Spain / Pelayo

Known in pre-Roman times as Obila (“High Mountain”), this provincial capital in north-central Spain has been the site of numerous fortified settlements throughout history. Occupants have included the Vettones, Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, and ultimately the Spanish. The city is most famous for its imposing medieval city wall that is fully intact and includes 88 towers, and 9 gates spread around a parameter of 1 1/2 miles. While visitors can’t make a complete circuit of the wall, much of it is accessible.

The interior of the walled city is occupied by numerous palaces, monasteries and mansions dating from primarily the 15th and 16th centuries. Some of the most notable landmarks include the Plaza Mercado Chico, the Cathedral of Avila, and the Royal Palace of St. Tomas

Avila, is 1-2 hours from Madrid, depending on whether you are traveling by car or train.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour
Avila Tourism: Official Website



Carcassonne, France

Carcasssonne, France

Carcasssonne, France / Jplavoie

Like Avila, Carcassonne has a long history of settlement. The Romans saw early on, both its strategic and economic value. Perched on a hill, the location of the city offers a natural defense against approaching invaders, and given its location  at the base of the Pyrenees in southeast France, Carcassonne stood for centuries at the center of natural overland trade routes between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean, and the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe. Its current double-walled fortification with 52 towers, reflects the gradual buildup that took place over a millennia, as the Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, and Crusaders each repaired and added onto what came before.

Carcassone’s long and proud history is one well understood by its residents, who in 1849 strongly protested the French government’s plans to demolish its historic fortifications. The protest not only stopped the destruction, but also set in motion a series of repairs to the city’s historical architecture by the architects – Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, Paul Boeswillwald, and Nodet.

Notable buildings within Carcassone’s medieval walls include the Château Comta and Basilique Saint-Nazaire, a 12th century castle and Basilica built by Raimond-Bernard Trencavel, viscount of Albi and Nîmes, The castle has a notable history as a stronghold of the Occitan Cathars, and a focal point of the Albigensian Crusade called by Pope Innocent III to crush their religious movement.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour 

San Gimignano, Italy

Piazza Cisterna San Gimignano

Piazza Cisterna San Gimignano / Chris Wee

The tower house architecture that San Gimignano is famous for, offers a unique glimpse into a specific period of Italy’s past that has been lost in much of the rest of the country. During the 12th to 14th centuries, two rival factions the Guelphs and Ghibellines jockeyed for power, one group supporting the Holy Roman Emperor, the other the Pope.  While direct conflict between the Emperor and Pope ceased early on, the rivalry between the two groups continued for centuries. This is in part because they really represented two different power centers of Italian society, the Ghibellines were tied to the nobility that owned large tracts of agricultural land, while the Guelphs were wealthy merchants that dominated the larger cities.

The tower house represented both the paranoia and fear that existed during the era, as well as the prestige the population assigned to them. The larger the tower you constructed, the more prestige you were assigned. And so over the centuries the towers increased in height in a perpetual game of one-upmanship. In San Gimignano the highest known tower was more than 230 feet tall. Of the 70 towers that once graced San Gimignano’s skyline, 14 now remain. The tallest is 177 ft.

By the time the 15th century arrives, the political and social environment of Italy changed so radically that the lines of distinct between the two groups disappear, and their rivalry fades into history.

San Gimignano is situated between Milan and Rome in the province of Siena. Florence is a couple of hours by train to the north east.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour

Mont Saint Michel, France

Mont St Michel Brittany France

Mont St Michel, France / Diliff

While initially occupied by remnants of Romanized Gauls in the 6th century, Mont Saint Michel has been known for much of its history as a Roman Catholic commune. The first monastic community came to the island in the 8th century, with much of what visitors see today, in particular the Mont Saint Michel Abbey, constructed in the 11th and 12th centuries by William de Volpiano, and Robert de Thorigny.

After the 12th century, which many see as the height of the communes’ power and prosperity, there was a steady decline, particularly during the Reformation, to the point the very few monks remained on the island. By the time of the French Revolution (1789-1799), the island had been relegated to a prison. It wasn’t for nearly a hundred years after this, that the historical significance of the island was recognized and the prison closed. And the return of religious practices too the abbey has been slow. The first occurrences were in 1920’s, with some monks returning, starting in the 1960’s. Today monks in residence at the site remain sporadic at best.

With perhaps 40 full time residents, Mont Saint Michel is one of France’s most popular tourist destinations, with over 3 million visitors per year.

Situated off the shores of Normandy, travel time to Mont St. Michel from Paris is about 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 hours depending on your mode of transport.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Minceta Tower -Dubrovnik-Croatia

Minceta Tower – Dubrovnik-Croatia / Diego Delso

If there is a city that symbolizes the triumphant of the human spirit over adversity, Dubrovnik would be it. From its very founding, which many believe occurred as result of refugees fleeing the attack of Slavic barbarians on the nearby city of Epidaurus during the Roman era, Dubrovnik has had to deal with changing rulers and warfare, as well as natural and man-made calamities that leveled the city on more than one occasion. First came the Ostrogoths, then the Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Venetians, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Ottomans, Napolean, and the Hapsburgs. Then to cap it all off, came the upheaval that defined the Balkins before and after WWII, which only served to aggravate long standing ethnic conflicts that would boil over at the end of the 20th century.

The fortified wall that encircles Dubrovink’s historic center, and the varying ages of the buildings within it, give one a glimpse of its past fortunes and turmoil. Even today if one reaches a point high enough to overlook the city, one can see color variations in the city’s tiled rooftops that hint at the shelling the city underwent during the Bosnian War (1992-1995), and the repairs that have been made since.

Despite its tumultuous history, Dubrovink has managed to preserve its historic beauty, and is now a favorite stop of cruise ships in the Mediterranean.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour

Cittadella, Italy


Cittadella-Italy / Kromatika

Cittadella is a medieval walled city, in the Italian province of Padua that dates back to 1220. Its creation was largely the result of increasing conflicts with neighboring cities like Treviso and Vicenza. Ultimately, the city state of Venice grew to dominate and control much of the region during most of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This was followed briefly occupations by Napoleon, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the city became part of what is now modern Italy.

Today, much of Cittadella’s nearly one mile long defensive wall is intact. Only a portion destroyed in the 16th century Cambrai war remains to be restored. The standing wall includes 4 gates and 32 towers.

Significant buildings within the walls include the Casa del Capitano (Captain’s House), the Tower of Malta, Praetorian Palace and the Cittadella Cathedral.

Citadella is approximately one hour away from Venice, and 2 1/2 hours from Milan.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour

Neuf Brisach, France

Neuf-Brisach, France / Luftfahrer

Neuf-Brisach, France

Neuf-Brisach is an example of a new style of fortified town that grew in popularity in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries. Known as star forts, or bastion forts, the new defensive fortifications they exhibit were developed to help defend against the emergence of the canon as a dominate feature of warfare. Instead of the high vertical walls and rounded towers of their predecessor, the medieval castle, star forts incorporated shortened, thicker sloping walls that could deflect canon fire. The star-shaped form the forts incorporated, along with the trench works that typically surrounded the outer wall, made it difficult for approaching armies to find shelter from defensive fire, or use the forts own walls as protective cover.

The first use of these defensive techniques in battle was at Pisa, Italy in 1500. As the defensive advantage of star forts proved themselves in subsequent battles, the concept spread throughout Western Europe, with their designs growing more elaborate over the centuries. Eventually star forts would appear in other parts of the world, including as far away as Goryōkaku, Japan.

Today a number of star fort remain in countries like Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. Some like Neuf-Brisach and Naarden (Netherlands) enclosed small towns, while others like Nossa Senhora da Graça Fort outside of Elvas, Portugal were purely military forts.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour

Montagnana, Italy

Montagnana shares a common history with the neighboring city of Cittadella noted above. Its well-preserved fortified walls reflect the turbulence that was common in the Po Valley during the Middle Ages. Its two kilometer long wall, with 24 towers is considered the best preserved in the region. For much of its early history, it fell under the control of the lords of Padua.  By the 14th century the Republic of Venice grew to dominate the region, and controlled it through the rest of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. This was followed briefly by Napoleon and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, before the emergence of the modern state of Italy.

Buildings of interest within the walled city include the Castle of San Zeno, and Montagnana’s historic Cathedral

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour

Noerdlingen, Germany

Noerdlingen, Germany

Noerdlingen, Germany / Daniel

Archaeological evidence suggests that Noerdlingen was first inhabited in the late Paleolithic. Much of what visitors see today, including the city’s intact medieval fortifications, originated after the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II decreed the city imperial property under his exclusive control.  This protected status, along with Noerdlingen’s location at the center of major German trade routes allowed the city to prosper for a time. However in the late Middle Ages, Noerdlingen found itself at the center of one of the major battles of the Thirty Years’ War. The Battle of Noerdlingen (1634) as it was known, led to the defeat of the Swedish Protestants holding the city, and victory for the Imperial Hapsburg army. The battle and siege that proceeded it, not only led the French to enter the conflict, but also caused the death of nearly half the city’s population – primarily from disease and starvation.  It wouldn’t be until the 19th century that the city would again reach a population equal to what it had in the 16th century.

One of the other affects of the Thirty Years’ War was the shift of trade away from this part of Germany, and closer to the coast. This fall into obscurity and irrelevance, has been credited as a major reason Noerdlingen’s medieval infrastructure survived into the modern era.

Important buildings within the walled city include: St. George’s Church, the Lion and Powder Towers, Loepsinger Gate, and the Old Bastion

Another interesting characteristic of Noerdlingen, unknown to its early inhabitants, was its location at the bottom of a 15 million year old meteorite impact crater.

Today Noerdlingen lies almost equidistant from three major German cities (Stuttgart, Nuremberg, and Munich) in the province of Bavaria. A train ride from any of the three takes a little over 1 1/2 hours.

Google Maps: Find It
Youtube: Walking Tour


Further Reading Suggestions:

10 Amazing “Cold” Winter Vacation Destinations

Tromso, Norway Aurora Borealis

Forget the swimsuit, and flip flops. To enjoy these winter destinations, you’ll need to grab a parka, and embrace your inner polar bear. While I think it’s a natural tendency to let the mind wander south when temperatures drop and the snow begins to fall, there is a lot of beauty that winter offers those who runs toward it, instead of away. The following are just a few of the possibilities out there waiting.

Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival - China

Harbin Ice Festival / Wikipedia

Every year, during the months of January and February, the Chinese put on the biggest ice and snow sculpture festival in the world. It’s a festival that’s taken place for more than 50 years, and features ice art multiple stories high, and covering acres in a virtual city of ice.

The best time to view and photograph the ice sculptures is at night, when lights embedded in and around the ice illuminate the sculptures in every imaginable color.  The snow sculptures are at their best on a clear, sunny day.

Harbin, located in China’s Heilongjiang Province, is located a fair distance from Beijing, where most international travelers enter China. A separate flight to the city takes about 2 hours, while the train takes more than 11 hours.

If getting to Harbin is a bit of a stretch this winter, here are a few others that may be closer to home.

Sapporo Snow Festival – Japan
Québec Winter Carnival – Canada
World Ice Art Championships – Fairbanks, Alaska



Churchill Polar Bear Watching – Manitoba, Canada

Dubbed by some as the polar bear capital of the world, Churchill offers unique access for wildlife photographers to a sizable polar bear population that converges along this section of Hudson Bay in October and November, waiting for the ice to thicken up on their feeding grounds in the Arctic Ocean.

A sizable tourist industry has developed around the annual event since the 1980’s, so numerous tour options are available to those interested in catching a view of one of the largest predators in the animal kingdom.

Given there are no roads into Churchill, the only options for reaching this outpost in the Subarctic, are by air and rail from Winnipeg.  A flight takes about 2 hours, a train ride, nearly 2 days.

Jigokudani Monkey Park – Japan

Snow Monkeys Nagano, Japan

Snow Monkeys, Japan / Wikipedia

If you’ve ever seen pictures of monkeys relaxing in a hot spring, heads covered in winter snow flakes, this is the place. This particular primate is known as the Japanese Macaque (ie snow monkeys), and resides in the park year-around. During the summer months they climb into the surrounding mountains to forging for fund, but during the 4 months when snow is common they return to the valley floor where the hot springs are located. Not surprisingly, Jigokudani (Hell valley) derives its name from the multitude of volcanic hot springs that fill the air throughout the area with steam. The park is located in Nagano Prefecture northwest of Tokyo. The prefecture is largely occupied by various mountain ranges, sometimes referred as the Japanese Alps. The Nagano area is also famous for the Winter Olypmics that was held there in 1998.

The nearest city to Jigokudani is Yamanouchi, which is approximately a 3 1/2 hour train ride from Tokyo. Once in Yamanouchi, visitors must hike into Jigokundani, to reach the springs where the macaque’s congregate.

And although your hike into the mountains is a relatively short one by most hiker’s standards, if you are absolutely exhausted when the day is done, Yamanouchi offers a number hot springs to soak your aching muscles in…with the occasional macaque coming by to see how the other half lives.

Official Website:

Antarctic Cruise

Antarctica Glacier and Sea Ice

Antarctica Glacier and Sea Ice

The irony of this cold winter vacation idea is that you are actually venturing to Antarctic during its summer season (November – February), the only time of year when conditions are warm enough that ships can safely reach our southern most continent.

The best time to go depends entirely on what you want to see. If pristine sea ice and icebergs floating by are what you are looking for, the earlier in the season you go, the better.  Otherwise the ice melts, breaks up and disperses into the southern ocean. The one downside of an early cruise is that certain destinations you wanted to see may still be iced up, and wildlife sightings are at a minimum. As you head into December the amount of sunlight peaks, increasing the chances of capturing beautiful winter landscapes against bright, deep blue skies. And toward the end of the Antarctic cruise season, wildlife sightings reach their maximum, particularly of whales.

Who you go with depends on your goals. If comfort and luxury are your priorities the big cruise ships are the best bet. If you want to experience Antarctica up close and personal, and capture that one in a million photograph, smaller cruises are you better choice.

Either direction you go, the cost to get there and back is pretty steep. Expect to pay $10k at a minimum, and if you want to do something completely wild, like trek to the South pole, you are looking at tens of thousands of dollars.

Glacier Express – Switzerland

The Glacier Express is a special train service that travels through the Swiss Alps between the mountain resorts Zermatt and St. Moritz. Operating year around it travels through some of this tiny country’s most spectacular scenery. The trip takes a little over 7.5 hours to completely, passing over hundreds of bridges (including the famous Landwasser Viaduct), and reaching elevations as high as 6,670 ft during the course of the journey.

Apostle Island Sea Caves – US

Apostle Island Ice Caves

Apostle Island Ice Caves / Sweet Alize

Part of the Apostle Island National Seashore in northwest Wisconsin, the sea caves are famous for the ice formations that build up over the winter, in and around the caves.  Carved from centuries of wave action and the seasonal freeze and thaw cycle, each cave chamber offers a unique ice display that can change from day to day.

The accessibility of the ice caves varies from one winter to the next. A warm winter can significantly affect the ice thickness on Lake Superior, preventing hikers from reaching the cliffs where the caves are located. So it is advised visitors check with the National Park Service before planning a trip.  The best time to visit the caves tends to run from January until mid-March.

The ice caves are located at the western end of the Mainland Unit of the park.  From the trailhead at the end of Meyers Beach, visitors descend a stairway to the beach and walk across the shore ice to the caves. Meyers Road is 18 miles west of Bayfield, WI.

Winter Fjord and Glacier Cruise – Norway

Tromso, Norway Aurora Borealis

Tromso, Norway – Aurora Borealis / Davide Gabino

During the winter several Norwegian cruise companies offer tours along Norway’s western coast. The largest and oldest of these, Hurtigruten, operates 11 ships that stop daily at 34 different cities from Bergen in the south, to Kirkenes near the northern border with Russia. One plus with Hurtigruten is that you can build your own itinerary and time table for moving along the coast. This allows you to plan extended excursions into Norway’s interior without worrying about the boat leaving you behind.

Norway’s rugged coast offers some of the greatest scenic beauty in Europe; from its glacially carved fjords, to the dramatic mountains and sheltered bays of the Lofoten Islands. Keep in mind that during the winter, cruise travel may be restricted in some of the fjords that might be on your list. However with proper planning alternative means to reach them maybe possible.

One of the pluses of visiting Norway in the winter is the strong possibility of seeing the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), particularly as you approach and pass north of the Arctic Circle, near Bodo.

Deciding what month of winter to visit Norway, depends a lot of your goals. The best time for landscape photography is in late October, and early March when the light is greatest. Coincidentally the aurora is more likely to occur in early and late winter. However, the long nights of December offer a greater chance of seeing the northern lights during normal waking hours.

Another dynamic one must keep in mind when planning trips around Arctic winter destinations is the dramatic difference in available light over relatively short distances. The amount of sunlight in Kirkenese may be as much as 4 hours different than in Bergen.

Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race – Alaska

Each year in February a thousand mile sled dog race, known as the Yukon Quest,  is held between the city of Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory of Canada. The race course follows the path of the mail and transportation routes used during the Klondike Gold Rush. The race was also meant to offer a tougher experience for mushers, than its rival the Iditarod, with surviving the event being just as important as winning. The start of the race alternates from year to year between Fairbanks, and Whitehorse.

Unlike the Iditarod, the Yukon Quest is fairly accessible to the average traveler willing to pack the miles, and put their vehicles and their bodies through the harsh winter conditions. All of the official race checkpoints are accessible by car, except Eagle, on the Yukon River, in Alaska.

Yukon Quest: Official Website

Bald Eagle Festival – Alaska

Bald Eagle - Alaska

Bald Eagle – Alaska / Yathin S Krishnappa

Drawn by a late run of spawning Coho and Chum salmon, more than 4,000 Bald Eagles have been known to congregate in the late fall (October-January) at Council Grounds, the confluence of three rivers ( the Chilkat, Tsirku and Klehini) north of Haines, Alaska. In 1982, the State of Alaska, understanding the important natural value of the site,  created the 48,000 acre Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Eagles are known to come from thousand of miles away, including from Washington State, the Northwest Territories of Canada, and the Alaska Peninsula.

To celebrate the annual congregation of eagles, a festival, is held each year in mid-November by the American Bald Eagle Foundation. Transportation and guided trips are offered to the preserve during the event, as well as photography workshops.

Bald Eagle Festival: Official Website

Switzerland’s Most Scenic Castles

Castle Chillon - Montreux, Switzerland

Aigle Castle Find on Google Maps

Chateau Aigle, Vaud Canton -Switzerland

Chateau Aigle / Uwe Brodrech-Flickr

Aigle Castle is located in western Switzerland, in the Canton of Vaud. Montreux, the largest city nearby, lies on the shores of Lake Geneva. The castle was originally built by the Barons of Aigle, who along with the succeeding Counts of Savoy and Lords of Compey, enlarged and improved the castle over the centuries.

While the castle alone, in its pristine condition, deserves consideration on any history or architectural lovers itinerary, what sets this castle apart is the landscape around it. Vineyards surround the castle, and in the distance the snow capped Alps accent the scene beautifully.

Aigle is approximately one hour by train or car from Bern and Geneva.


Bellinzona Castles Google Map Link

Castelgrande - Bellinzona, Switzerland

Castelgrande – Bellinzona, Switzerland / Wikipedia

If castles are a top item on your European vacation list, but you only have one day to spend in Switzlerand, Bellinzona is the stop I would recommend. It boasts three castles in close proximity to each other.  The largest, known as Castelgrande, is located in the valley center on a hill. Its also the largest as its name suggests. Just above it, attached to the same city wall that greets visitors to Bellinzona, is Montebello. And finally up the hill from that is Sasso Corbaro

Castlegrande has been the site of man-made fortifications since Romans first occupied it in the 1st Century B.C. Much of the current castle was built between the 12th and 15th century while under the control of the House of Visconti  and the Dukes of Milan.

Montebello was built in the 13th century and expanded later by the House of Visconti, after taking control of this region of Switzerland.

Sasso Corbaro is the smallest and last of the castles to be built (1478). Its original purpose was to fill a hole in the city’s defensive parameter. The castle was expanded later on, but fell into disuse afterward.

Due to its nearly subtropical climate on the south-side of the Alps, the author found this to be a great place to escape the winter cold. Something to consider depending on your travel plans.

Zurich is the closest major Swiss city to Bellinzona, approximately 2 hours away. Bern will take you another hour.

Chillon Castle Google Map Link

Castle Chillon - Montreux, Switzerland

Castle Chillon / Wikipedia

Located on Lake Geneva outside Montreaux, Chillon (Château de Chillon) is one of the most visited castles in Switzerland and Europe. It’s an architectural gem, accented by its location along the shore, with the high mountain peaks of the Alps to the south. The castle, built by the dukes of Savoy, was made famous by Lord Byron’s poem The Prisoner Of Chillon, which chronicled their holding of François de Bonivard, a Genevois monk and politician for opposing their rule. Lord Byron left his named carved in a pillar of the castle’s dungeon following a visit to the castle.

Chillion is approximately one hour drive from either Bern or Geneva.

Valère Castle Google Map Link

Valere Castle - Sion -Valais - Switzerland

Valere Castle, Sion, Switzerland

Also known as Valère Basilica, this fortified church was built above the town of Sion beginning in the 11th century. The Basilica dominates one of two prominent hills above the city, the other occupied by the ruins of Château de Tourbillon, a castle built at the end of the 12th century. The Valere and Tourbillon Castles were constructed by the Prince-Bishops of Sion, who were given control over the Valais region by the last King of Upper Burgundy Rudolph III.

Sion is approximately an hour and half from Geneva by train or car. From Bern the train is faster and takes about the same amount of time as from Geneva.

Oberhofen Castle Google Map Link

Schloss Oberhofen - Switzerland

Schloss Oberhofen- Thunersee

Oberhofen Castle was built on the shores of Thun Lake (Thunersee), at the beginning of the 13th Century A.D. Over the years the castle has passed through many hands, from the Habsburgs who lost it after the Battle of Sempach, to a variety high ranking families within the Bern-controlled regions of the old Swiss Confederacy. In some ways the events that impacted Oberhofen over the centuries are a reflection of the most important events in Switzerland’s history. The Battle of Sempach for example, not only determined the future fate of this castle, but the expansion of the city/state of Bern, and eventual formation of the modern Swiss state.

The castle is just over a 30 minute drive south from Bern. If you are coming from Bern, a stop at Thun Castle which overlooks the town of Thun is worth a visit.