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An Insider’s Guide to The Most Fascinating Festivals in Italy

Tourists come from all over the world to celebrate Carnavale in Venice and to watch Siena’s famous horse race, the Palio. Italy’s lesser-known festivals offer unique experiences of the essence of Italy. They range from the unconventional to the sublime. Here are some Italian festivals you will never forget.

Opera Extraordinaire

The Puccini Festival is a festival in Italy that takes place in July and August attracts 40,000 music lovers to the open air theater in Torre del Lago. The theater is on the lake that inspired much of the maestro’s music and near the Villa Mausoleum where Giacomo Puccini lived and worked. Each year, several of Puccini’s operas are performed by world-renowned opera singers and conductors. An extraordinary experience is arriving at the theater by boat across the lake, imagining the composer’s ears tuned to the lap of water, the birdsong, and the rushing wind.
Torre del Lago is less than three miles from the magnificent beaches of Viareggio on the Tuscan Riviera and 11 miles from Lucca, Puccini’s boyhood home. Lucca is a walkable city surrounded by medieval walls that celebrates its famous native son with daily concerts in an ancient, deconsecrated church. His home, now a museum, houses a piano Puccini played when he was a boy. On display is Turandot’s elaborate, original costume. Manuscripts, letters, opera scores, and other memorabilia are stored in archival drawers, and walls are covered with paintings of ancestors and photographs. On one wall, the Puccini family tree shows they were a musical family back to the 1700s.

Happy Birthday to Rome

Rome’s Birthday (Natale di Roma), April 21, is a city-wide party and exhibition celebrating the founding of Rome by Romulus in 753 B.C. Fireworks explode over the Tiber River, the city twinkles with torches and colorful lights, museums are free, and restaurants outdo themselves with Roman feasts. This Italian festival also includes a costumed procession, involving more than 2,000 gladiators, legislators, vestal virgins, and priestesses, starts and finishes at the Circus Maximus. Historical reenactments, including gladiator, fights can be seen in every ancient piazza.
Reserve a table at Spirito Di Vino for ancient Roman dishes made with fresh ingredients and served in an ancient Roman building. A favorite is pork shoulder prepared according to the recipe of Gaius Matius who was a friend and cook of Julius Caesar. To walk on a Roman street, ask to visit their wine cellar.

An Epic Food Fight

Ivrea in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy is known for what may be Italy’s largest food fight, The Battle of the Oranges. In the three days leading up to Fat Tuesday, townsfolk dressed in medieval battle attire reenact the 12th-Century rebellion with citrus fruit instead of weapons. Participants of nine squads run through the streets hurling oranges or tossing fruit from “battle busses.” Each year, 500,000 pounds of oranges are splattered all over town. After the three days of carnage, one of the generals ends the war. A massive funeral for the slain is held on Fat Tuesday.
Spectators can wear a red hat to mark themselves as a bystander and noncombatant or stay safe from flying pulp by sheltering behind the nets that protect Ivrea’s buildings. Dessert lovers do not leave town without sampling the famed Cake 900, a chocolate cream sponge cake.
Surprisingly, Ivrea is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but not for its ancient history. The city was developed in the 20th-Century as a testing ground for Olivetti, the manufacturer of typewriters, mechanical calculators and office computers. UNESCO describes the city as “a model social project” expressing “a modern vision of the relationship between industrial production and architecture.”
Industrial advances have not erased Ivrea’s ancient piazzas and its skyline of stone towers and red-tiled roofs. The castle dates back to 1395 and has four stone towers and a large courtyard. It was used as a defensive post, a royal residence, and finally a prison until it was renovated in 1970 to host exhibitions and performances. The cathedral that dates back to the 4th Century A.D. is built on ruins of a Roman temple. Parts of the original structure survive, including the crypt. The church maintains most of its 12th Century Romanesque appearance.

Snake Handlers’ Parade

The small medieval town of Cocullo in the Abruzzo Mountains has an annual centuries-old festival celebrating St. Dominic whom locals believe protect them from wild animals and physical ailments. This Italian festival held in May is not for the faint of heart. It involves snake handlers competing from March to be named for catching the most serpents. Some snakes measure more than six feet long. They are kept alive and their fangs removed.
On May 1, following an early morning Mass in the town’s small church, locals ring a small bell using their own teeth to protect them against toothaches for the following year. Soil is blessed to be spread over fields as a supernatural pesticide and fertilizer. The wooden statue of Saint Domenico is taken out of the small church, and the snake hunters drape their snakes over the statue and his jewel-encrusted gold frame. The statue is paraded through the streets with the snakes writhing all over it in a procession that includes a brass band, clergy, and laypeople in traditional dress.
The few restaurants in Cocullo are booked by locals far in advance of the festival, but food vendors abound to feed the hoards of visitors. There are no reports of death by snakebite.

Venice’s Marriage to the Sea

On the last weekend in May, Venice celebrates its nautical prowess and closeness to the sea with processions of boats from St. Mark’s Square to the Port of St. Nicolo. The “wedding” ceremony dates back to the 1100s when a splendidly attired doge would ride an elaborately decorated boat and throw a wedding ring into the sea. The tradition continues with the mayor of Venice tossing the ring with these Latin words: Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique domini (We wed thee, sea, as a sign of true and everlasting domination).
In this Festa della Sensa teams of boats compete in river races, and thousands line the waterways jousting for a good view of the regattas and processions of boats and characters in historical costumes. The Festa culminates at the church of St. Nicolò, and a market of traditional foods and crafts is held in the nearby square.
Italy is known for its exuberant festivals, and one of the lesser-known Italian festivals could be the highlight of your European adventure.
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Why Castle Lovers Must Visit North Wales

Do you love castles? If so, you should consider North Wales as a destination. Why is that? Because of the Iron Ring, perhaps the most ambitious castle building project in history. Built to subdue the Welsh, the second phase of the Iron Ring was built right before cannons were invented essentially rendering Medieval castles obsolete.
As such, the four castles of the second batch, all built by the same architect (James of St. George d’Esperanche) represent the castle builder’s art at its best, culminating in the sadly unfinished Beaumaris.
On top of that, the four castles–and a bunch of lesser forts –are close enough together that you can devote a week to castle-spotting. Also part of the project was the town walls of Caernarfon and Conwy. Here are the four castles of the Iron Ring that you cannot miss!

Conwy

Conwy (or Conway) is both the castle and the medieval town built next to it. Conwy was a planned, colonial settlement, designed to bring English people and culture into the heart of wild North Wales. Conwy was the most expensive of the four late phase castles and sits on a narrow rocky outcrop. The castle is in excellent condition, with most of the stonework intact, though, the wooden parts have long since gone. The limitations of the outcrop cause the castle to be long and thin, and it lacks concentric walls. The rock made for enough extra defense. The castle’s purpose was to protect a natural harbor, hence it’s location at the shore, tucked into a valley.
While in Conwy you can walk the town walls, contemporary with the castle. Check out the suspension bridge by the castle, of much more recent vintage but built with crenelated towers so it would blend in. Hikers can climb up to the older Deganwy Castle, which Edward I allegedly took one look at and decided not to use. Although Deganwy is in ruins, it gives visitors a great view of the area.
The nearby Victorian-era resort of Llandudno is also worth a visit—and makes a great base of operations, with boutique hotels and quirky bed and breakfasts as well as classic hotels.
Pro tip: Avoid driving into Conwy itself. There is very little parking, and the roads are extremely narrow.

Caernarfon

Caernarfon castle with its grandiose exterior seems to have been built to impress and intimidate the locals. The harbor side of the castle has two lines of colored stone which serve no purpose other than decoration. The towers? Polygonal, rather than round. Many consider Caernarfon to be the most spectacular of the castles.
Unlike at Conwy, Edward I did not move the site of the castle —there had been a fortress on the site since Roman times.
Caernarfon is also the castle where Edward famously gave the Welsh a “prince who spoke no English” –his infant son. This is the origin of the title of Prince of Wales and Caernarfon is still, technically, the “seat” of the prince. The castle is occasionally used for ceremonial purposes, including the Queen’s Balcony (where Prince William was presented, although the tradition was not followed for his oldest son), and is still used for the investiture of a new Prince of Wales.

While in Caernarfon:

Caernarfon is close to Snowdonia, where it is possible to go hiking and horseback riding and “pony trekking” which is a grand tradition in this part of the world. Steam trains occasionally run along the main line through North Wales, and the station is a great place to observe. You can also take a boat tour. Or, if you are not done with fortresses, go to Segontium Roman Fort to check out the ruins there.

Beaumaris

Even in its unfinished state Beaumaris, the last of the Iron Ring to be built is quite something to see. Built on a completely flat site, the architect was able to demonstrate just how you build a castle when there’s nothing in the way (or to help you). In fact, Beaumaris is pretty much in the dictionary next to “Late Medieval castle.” It’s considered technically perfect.
It was never finished because Edward I ran out of money…and by the time there was more money available, the age of the great Medieval castles was over. The walls should have been quite a bit taller, giving the castle a bit of a squat look. But it’s still spectacular in its own way.

While near Beaumaris:

The Isle of Anglesey is quite different, geographically, from North Wales. It is flatter and is known for its beautiful beaches – if you want a day on the beach, pick any of them and you will do great. You can also check out a number of stone age tombs (don’t worry, none of them are known to be haunted). The last refuge of the druids, Anglesey shows signs of hundreds of years of continuous human occupation.

Harlech

On the southern side of Snowdonia, Harlech Castle is a bit further away from the others. It has concentric walls and was put together faster, and cheaper, than any other castle. If you’ve heard the rugby song “Men of Harlech”– this is that Harlech and the siege during the War of the Roses proves that it was built to take a beating. The castle used to be right on the sea, but the sea has receded, leaving it and its supply routes high and dry. A new visitor center and bridge have greatly improved accessibility.

While in Harlech:

Royal St. David’s golf club is close to Harlech if you want to work on your handicap. Other than that, this part of North Wales is a place for trains. The Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways are well worth a visit, but there are others, including some of the famous “Little Trains” of Wales– former mining trains that run scaled-down trains on narrow gauge tracks. The Ffestiniog itself is the oldest rail country still operating and is also narrow gauge.

General Tips

Bring rain gear. The weather in North Wales is unpredictable and can be quite wet even in July and August. July and August are peak times, but early September (right after the kids go back to school) can be a great time to visit. Still, you can expect to be rained on, and the castle ruins are open to the elements.
The castles are somewhat disabled accessible, but obviously climbing the towers requires that your knees be in decent condition. Access is via steep spiral staircases. However, even those in wheelchairs can access the courtyard areas. Be aware that Caernarfon has no disabled restrooms. (Also, foreign travelers to the UK should know that many disabled toilets require a special key to access, which has to be requested in advance).
Only Harlech Castle has a cafe, but picnicking is allowed at the other sites.
It is recommended to devote a full day to each of the four castles, as there is a lot to explore. If you get done, check out the other visitor tips provided.
If you want to see the work of one of the best castle architects and appreciate welsh strongholds at their finest, you should tour the Iron Ring.

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Top Romantic Getaways in Germany

Romantic Germany Getaways

Whether you’re visiting for Valentine’s Day, your honeymoon, or just looking to get away with that special someone, here are some locations worth checking out.

Lindau

To begin your romantic getaway you must travel to Lindau. Situated at the foot of Alps, Lindau possesses a charming small town atmosphere and a sensational natural setting. It sits on Lake Constance, the third largest lake in Europe, and is connected to the mainland by a bridge. The region actually consists of several islands, offering visitors access to medieval villages, wineries, butterfly sanctuaries, and beautiful beaches, among other things perfect for a romantic vacation. Restaurants in the area serve traditional German cuisine, and many specialize in preparing the fish that’s caught right there at Lake Constance. Tourists can go skating and skiing in the winter, and biking and swimming in the summer.
One of the mainstays of Lindau is its famous harbor. Guarded by a 19th-century lighthouse and a Bavarian lion sandstone statue, visitors can hop on any of the ferries that travel between the cities bordering the lake. If you prefer tours over sight seeing, the town also offers themed cruises with live entertainment. Don’t forget your camera!

Rügen Island

The islands along the Baltic Sea are a popular destination for romantic getaways. Germany’s Rügan Island is a particular favorite. Regarded by many as a naturally beautiful place, it boasts almost forty miles of sandy beach dotted with spa hotels and resort towns. The island also contains plenty of architectural and historical wonders to explore, as well as natural parks and a UNESCO rated biosphere.
Besides the romantic aspect, Rügan also provides plenty of biking trails, sailing tours, fishing villages, and even a century-old railway to carry patrons between seaside resorts. Perhaps the island’s most famous structures are the white chalk cliffs, made popular in a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. From late June through early September, Rügan also hosts the Störtebeker Theatre Festival, which pulls in more than 100,000 spectators annually.

Island of Sylt

Sitting at Germany’s northernmost tip, Sylt is famous worldwide for its pristine beaches, a striking dune landscape, and thatched-roof houses. The nude beaches, first officially opened in 1920, are also popular here. The North Sea borders Sylt to the west, while the Wadden Sea sits along its east side. Visitors can see Denmark from here on a clear day.
One of the most recognizable landmarks on the island can be found near the town of Keitum. An old brick lighthouse sits hidden among the dunes, having long since been retired. A newer one was built in 1855 between Wenningstedt and Kampen.
The island is also fascinating for its history. One of just many stories involves the village of Eidum, which was destroyed by storm surge in November of 1436. The survivors founded the town of Westerland nearby, and it eventually grew into the health resort that it has become today.

Neuschwanstein

Another place you can go for a romantic getaway is Neuschwanstein castle, nestled above the city of Füssen in the Bavarian Alps. It is perhaps most famous as the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty castle. Compared to most other structures in Germany, it is not very old and was never built for defense. It was constructed in 1869 by King Ludwig II to serve as a summer retreat. He never got to enjoy it, though, because he drowned in a nearby lake before it was finished.
An interesting aspect of this castle is its design. It appears medieval, yet it was constructed using then-modern technologies that even included a central heating system, running water (both hot and cold), and flushing toilets. The interior clearly shows Ludwig’s admiration for the German composer Richard Wagner, with many of his scenes depicted on the castle walls.
But what truly sparks the imagination is the building’s elegant spires that jut out against Germany’s spectacular mountainous and forested background. Thanks in large part to Walt Disney, the location has come to represent the classic model for the romantic castle.

Castle Hotels

On that note, visitors can experience royal accommodation at any of the country’s many castle hotels. With more than 20,000 medieval palaces and castles, some lie in ruins, but several have been converted for the tourism industry. The best part? It doesn’t cost a fortune to stay at one. Depending on what strikes your fancy, there’s a castle hotel to cater to everyone.
One of the oldest castles in Germany is the Castle Colmberg, a 13th-century structure that borders both the Castle Road and the Romantic Road. Patrons can experience ancient stone towers, large royal stables, fortified walls, an elegant on-site restaurant, and even a deer reserve. The location also offers booking for weddings and other special events.
If you’re looking for a romantic getaway on a budget, Stahleck Castle is a youth hostel with a high satisfaction rating and a friendly atmosphere. Towering over the Rhine Valley and the romantic town of Bacharach, this 12th-century castle has been modernized to cater to all types of travelers young and old alike. While it lacks some of its original medieval charm, it still offers breathtaking views of the nearby river and vineyards.

Romantic Road

Rather than being a single location, Germany’s Romantic Road is a scenic drive that treks through Bavaria and leads from the wine country of Franconia to the lower hills of the German Alps. All along this 261-mile thoroughfare, drivers will find unspoiled scenes of nature, half-timbered houses, romantic hotels, medieval castles, and picturesque towns.
During the middle ages, the Romantic Road was a major Roman trading route. After World War II, Germany was desperate to rebuild their tourism industry and so marketed the route in 1950 as a way of encouraging tourists to explore the countryside. The first visitors were American soldiers and their families stationed at the military bases in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria. Despite its modern roots, the road has become popular for its preservation of the country’s history.
Germany has no shortage of locations for the perfect romantic getaway, with several hidden gems to discover. So talk to the locals and explore the country a bit. You might be surprised at what you find!

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The Overlooked Gem of England: The Midlands

When people from overseas consider a trip to Great Britain they are most likely to consider London or Scotland, possibly Wales. Many visitors only pass through the English Midlands, possibly stopping at Nottingham in the vain hope of bumping into Robin Hood.
However, the Midlands has a surprising amount to offer. The official area of the Midlands is split between the East Midlands (Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, and Rutland) and West Midlands (Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire, and Shropshire). However, many people expand the Midlands slightly north and south to include Peterborough, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, and Gloucestershire. For the purposes of this article I’m going to stay within the official East and West Midlands. Here are some of the hidden or less hidden gems.

Nottingham

Nottingham is the one place in the Midlands that most foreigners have heard of, and most often in the context of its folk hero, the aforementioned Robin Hood. In fact, Nottingham somewhat embraces the legend and still, to this day has a sheriff–an almost entirely ceremonial role designed to attract tourists. A statue of Robin Hood is located under Castle Rock in the center of the city (It has no arrow because of the number of times the arrow has been stolen). Nottingham is a small, fairly modern city, but does have a number of attractions.
Castle Rock no longer sports much of a castle (the inner and outer gates are the only parts still standing), but has an art gallery and museum, although the site is closed for major redevelopment until 2020. The castle played a key role in the English Civil War. It is also possible to tour the caves under the castle, which have seen numerous uses and are still used by a couple of pubs…as beer cellars. Visitors should get a drink in what is generally considered England’s oldest pub, Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem. A bit outside Nottingham is the iconic Wollaton Hall, which was used as Wayne Manor in The Dark Knight Rises.

The Peak District

Most of the Midlands are low lying. The Peak District is the exception. It’s a National Park, although that doesn’t mean quite the same thing in the United Kingdom. The area is great for hiking, camping, cycling, and pony trekking. Oh, and this being England, you can take the bus or train to pretty much every trailhead, although a car is nice for flexibility. The truly ambitious can attempt the Trans Pennine Trail, which runs the full width of the country. You can enjoy the wildlife and wildflowers, particularly at the designated meadow sites at Hard Rake and Stanage-North Lees. Be aware that the weather can be unpleasant even in the summer. Proper hiking boots and a good rain jacket are recommended.

Matlock Bath

Most of the Victorian “spa” resorts were on the coasts, taking advantage of the sea water and salt air. The town of Matlock Bath is a rare exception. It has everything a traditional British seaside resort has, with the exception of the sea. Matlock Bath is home of the Peak District Lead Mining Museum but is best known for The Heights of Abraham and the cable car that crosses above the town’s “high street” on its way up to a Victorian-era view point. Nearby is Gulliver’s Kingdom theme park, the original of a small chain of child-oriented theme parks. The park has been open since 1976.

Crich

Crich is a pretty village in Derbyshire, but it is also the home of the Crich Tramway Village, also called the National Tramway Museum. A day ticket gives you unlimited tram rides on the mile long track, using restored historic trams. They also have an exhibit on the history of trams and a period village which includes buildings moved from elsewhere and a police box (or a TARDIS, if you prefer). The Cromford Canal runs close to the museum, and the Friends of Cromford Canal offer scheduled rides on Birdswood, their horse-drawn narrowboat.

Birmingham

Affectionately known as “Brum,” and its inhabitants as “Brummies,” Birmingham is England’s second biggest city. It has almost as much to offer as London (although the transport network is notoriously “bad” for England, it’s still better than anything you’ll find in America). Birmingham offers canal boat rides, theater at the Birmingham Hippodrome, shopping at the famous Bullring and fine dining. You can even visit the BBC’s Birmingham studios and get a tour.

Rutland Water

Rutland Water is a large reservoir that is a playground for locals and tourists alike. You can walk, bike or bird watch along the shore or engage in a variety of watersports. The lake is home to the Rutland Osprey Project, although the reserve has many other feathered stars. You can hire everything from canoes to paddle boats to windsurfers. There are no power boats on the lake, so it’s a great place to practice your paddling and sailing skills. There are watersports and fishing lessons regularly.

Skegness

Skegness, in Lincolnshire, epitomizes the classic British seaside resort at its most wonderful (and occasionally tacky). It has a golden beach, ideal for building sandcastles, or for the little ones to take a traditional donkey ride. The beach is now a Blue Flag beach, after some problems in the past. It also has the original Butlins, opened in 1963 as the first of the famous holiday camps, and now a modern family resort where you can stay or just get a day ticket to enjoy rides and the water park. Skegness also offers a seal sanctuary and rehabilitation center, a small theme park and the world’s first ‘official cloudspotting area.’
The Midlands is not a place to drive or ride the train through on your way to somewhere more interesting, but a destination in their own right with numerous attractions, some of which can be quite surprising. There are particularly good destinations for families in the “Heart of England,” but you can find something for everyone’s taste here. Look for various events and festivals through the year, or just find yourself a good pub and settle down for a pint.
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A Traveler’s Guide to the Most Amazing Castles and Palaces in Portugal

A country regularly touted as one of the very best in Europe for castle-hunting is Portugal, as the southwestern European nation has no shortage of awe-inspiring structures that have earned their fame. From dreamlike Romantic-era palaces to an impressive collection of medieval fortresses scattered around the country, Portugal has enough fascinating sites to more than justify an extended stay of castle-hopping. Here are some of the most unforgettable castles and palaces worth the trip if you’re circling a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in Portugal.

Belém Tower

When famed King John II decided he needed a staunch defender of the all-important Tagus River, the eventual result was Belém Tower. Finished in the early 16th century by John’s successor, Manuel I, the mysterious Belém Tower appears to rise right out of the river along with its beige-white limestone and ring of domed turrets, creating an undeniable mystique that would cement its status as a national landmark. Appearing like a ship eternally pulling into the harbor, the four-story tower makes up for its smaller size with the perfection of its design. It is an iconic example of the Manueline architecture that dominated Portugal’s past.
Although the Belém Tower didn’t have the most illustrious military history in the early going, years of upgrades and additions helped maintain its status as an important stronghold throughout a tumultuous few centuries of Portuguese history. Once occupied in the short-term by both the Spanish and French, the tower added a level of macabre to its reputation by being used as a military prison for many years. Today, visitors come for the rich history and astonishing architecture along with the panoramic views, which you can glimpse from the wide rooftop overlooking the Tagus River and Lisbon countryside.
For those who fall in love with the Manueline style of architecture, Jerónimos Monastery is another stunning and classic example, and it sits only a brisk walk down the river.

Almourol Castle and Convent of Christ (Tomar Castle)

Only a half-hour away from each other, both Almourol Castle and the Convent of Christ (Tomar Castle) are beautiful windows into Portugal’s medieval past. The more famous of the two, Almourol stoically looms over an islet overlooking the typically calm Tagus River, with its semi-circle battlements and tall square keep looking down over its granite outcropping and neighboring hillsides. Built on a site that dates back to antiquity, Almourol Castle was a Knights Templar stronghold in the 12th century and remains an intimidating force that dominates the surrounding landscape, ensuring its status as a timeless feature of the region.
Its picturesque qualities are also a collaboration of different eras, drawing predominately on its Romanesque, Moorish, and Gothic influences to create one of Portugal’s most renowned castles. Scaling the centuries-old stone staircases on the interior leads to stunning views of the Tagus River and the lower battlements, turning quickly snapped photos into images worthy of a postcard without a great deal of effort.
Not to be outdone, the Convent of Christ and Tomar Castle Complex represent another critical part of Portugal’s medieval history, complete with its own dazzlingly ornate displays of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance traditions. Tomar Castle was also a critical defense point in the 12th century and was steadily expanded in the centuries after the Order of Christ uprooted the Knights Templar. The expansion included an array of Christian artwork and features, including the colorful Gothic nave within the convent that has been a fixture since the 1500s.
In addition to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the area is most known for, the town of Tomar is an old-world masterpiece filled with beautiful courtyards, a variety of unique religious sites, and a collection of red-roofed buildings hovering over the Nabão River. The wondrous Pegoes Aqueduct is also a must-see for anyone interested in the historical roots of the area.

National Palace of Pena and Castle of the Moors

Colorful Pena Palace is arguably the most famous structure in Portugal, with a rich history, perfected 19th-century Romantic design, and its majestic perch atop a hill overlooking the town of Sintra. It all started with a simple chapel back in the 12th century, marking it as a holy site that drew monarchs to worship during its earliest era. Eventually, it was constructed into a full monastery in the early 1500s and remained a place of peace and solitude for centuries. That is until the devastating Earthquake of 1755 nearly leveled everything. Luckily enough, the original chapel survived along with some of its most important interior artworks, though the rest remained in ruins into the 1800s.
Realizing the potential, however, King Ferdinand II dramatically resurrected the site, building a sprawling complex that soon became the Romantic-era emblem it is today. Gothic, Renaissance, Manueline, and Islamic styles all combined to create a bold statement that outlines Portugal’s unique heritage. Repainted later on to restore the original colors, Pena Palace’s red, yellow, and blue stand out boldly along the approach, dazzling visitors along winding outdoor staircases that seem plucked from a dream.
As a perfect companion to a Pena Palace excursion, the Castle of the Moors is another reason that visitors tend to make their way to Sintra. Built in stages through the 8th and 9th centuries, the Castle of the Moors isn’t quite as breathtaking as Pena Palace but has plenty of charm of its own, with ancient stone walls curling around the hillsides toward the two stone towers at its center. Formerly a symbol of Muslim Iberia, ultimately it was Portuguese Christian forces that would take up the fort, leading to the Chapel of São Pedro becoming one of the complex’s main features. Like Pena Palace, the Castle of the Moors was eventually rehabbed by King Ferdinand II in the 19th century, restoring much of what can be seen today.
Travel tip: Incorporating both Pena Palace and the Castle of the Moors, the enormous Sintra-Cascais Natural Park leads all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and offers all kinds of daytrip possibilities. From extremely scenic walking trails and endless picnic spots to an iconic beach (Guincho Beach), taking some time to explore Sintra-Cascais Natural Park is a must if you’re headed to Sintra’s most famous landmarks.

Other castles in Portugal to consider

Another outstanding early-medieval castle, the Castle of Marvão is remarkably well-preserved for being originally built in the 9th century. Complete with twirling stone walls that lead up the hillside and a lush green maze outside the central keep, Marvão Castle is an easy add-on to Pena Palace thanks to being just a 15 to 20-minute drive down the road. Also worth considering is the Guimarães Castle, a 10th-century fort built initially to ward off the Norsemen as they came down from central and northern Europe. With its Romanesque towers and shades of Gothic styles as well, Guimarães Castle is another of Portugal’s masterful architectural blends of different eras.
Thanks to Portugal’s excellent variety of castles that shows off a range of different styles, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a country that has more to offer those searching for remarkable castles and palaces. Though you’ll likely have a hard time narrowing it down to a manageable number of excursions, Portugal’s greatest architectural icons are guaranteed to inspire.
 
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What to Eat, See and Do in Bulgaria

The country of Bulgaria is one of the largest in the Balkan region and a popular tourist destination. It sometimes gets a bad rep because of protests and pickpockets, but don’t let that put you off, it’s a popular stop for a reason. The delicious food, welcoming locals, and cheap travel are just some of the perks visitors can experience during their time here. History buffs will especially enjoy Bulgaria, as there are countless ancient sites open for tourism.
No matter your reason for wanting to travel, Bulgaria offers a wide selection of activities to keep you busy. If you’re not sure where to start, here are some ideas to get you going.

Places to Visit

Sofia

If you’re traveling to Bulgaria by air, you’ll most likely fly into the city of Sofia. As the country’s capital, it boasts a rich history and idyllic location. Resting between the Black and Adriatic Seas, it sits at the base of Vitosha Mountain and holds lots of hidden gems. It’s an ancient location, first inhabited over 30,000 years ago, making it the second oldest city in Europe. The Celts, Thracians, and Romans have all resided here. With such a lengthy and mixed background, history buffs will find plenty of places to visit.

St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Some of the country’s most interesting locations include its churches and monasteries. The St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, built in the early 20th century is a memorial to the soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 and 1878. It’s a popular spot for tourists because of its ornate paintings of saints and religious scenes. The building is easy to pick out of the city skyline thanks to its gold-plated dome.

Devil’s Throat Cave

The Devil’s Throat Cave is said to have inspired the Greek myth of Orpheus who searches for his lover Eurydice in Hades. Whether that’s true or not, it’s a popular tourist attraction in western Bulgaria that can stimulate the imagination. The cave seems to lead straight into the depths of hell and features a winding underground river. The interesting part is that nothing that enters the cave by water ever comes through to the other side. Curiosity has led many tourists to test this.

Things to Do

Apollonia Film Festival

If you visit Bulgaria in early September, consider taking a day trip to Sozopol, a seaside town bordering the Black Sea. The Apollonia Art and Film Festival was first held here in 1984 and runs for ten days. During that time, visitors can attend jazz concerts, film showings, open-air concerts, plays, and many other events. The festival also offers master classes for improvisation, singing, acting, and various instruments. There are several activities designed for children as well.

The Rose Museum

The Rose Museum in Kazanlak originally began as a temporary exhibition. It became so popular that it eventually turned into a mini-museum. What makes it unique is that it’s the only museum in the world dedicated to the rose. Its location in Bulgaria is fitting because of the country’s centuries-long export of rose oil. The museum demonstrates various extraction methods and also offers a reproduction of a 1912 rose warehouse. Visitors can look at documents and photos outlining the history of the industry, and the gift shop offers almost anything that can be produced using rose oil.

National Palace of Culture

The Palace was the brainchild of the daughter of a former Communist Bulgarian leader. Construction was finished in 1981, coinciding with the country’s 1300th anniversary. It contains thousands of square meters of conference halls, cinemas, and gallery space. The location even occasionally hosts various concerts. The main event of the year is the New Year’s concert, which features numerous well-known individuals such as Darina Takova and Andrea Bocelli. The Palace is also famous for its cafés, street musicians, and family-friendly atmosphere.

Seven Rila Lakes

For the adventurers out there, hiking the Seven Rila Lakes is a popular activity. It can be a little tricky to get there via public transportation, especially in the winter months, but it’s only an hour and a half drive from Sofia. What makes this hiking trail unique is that visitors start at the first lake and can pass by all seven before the end of the day. These glacial lakes were all given names that reflect their individual characteristics and shapes. Probably the most amusing is the Kidney, which is exactly what it looks like from a bird’s eye view. Hikers can stop at any time to rest alongside the lakes, providing the perfect opportunity for a picnic.

Food and Drink

Maryan Winery

If you love to attend wine tastings, consider stopping at the Maryan Winery. It’s a family-owned business that sits in the foothills of the Stara Planina Mountain in the town of the same name. The winery carries a vast selection of red, white, orange, and of course, rose wines. You can also attend a tour that follows the process of winemaking and details the history of the business. Most days, the winemaker and the winery owners are around to speak to visitors.

Banitza

Regardless of where you may stop to eat during your visit to Bulgaria, you’re sure to find this highly addictive traditional pastry. Banitza is prepared by layering whisked eggs and cheese between layers of filo dough and then baking it in the oven. Served hot or cold, it looks a bit like a cinnamon roll or cheese danish and goes great with coffee.

Khan’s Tent

Located north of Sunny Beach, Khan’s Tent offers more than just traditional Bulgarian cuisine. It sits high above sea level, offering patrons an incredible view of the surrounding area. The restaurant is open every day and well into the late hours of the night, and it caters to most dietary requirements, including vegan and gluten-free. The menu is family-friendly, offering options to children as well as a full bar for the adults. It can be a bit pricey, but the tickets include plenty of food, drink, and even live entertainment in the form of music or dinner theater.

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Best Romantic Getaways in Austria

Romantic Austria Getaways

While the scenery is outstanding in all the top romantic spots of Austria, there are also plenty of unique activities and world-renowned restaurants to anchor a journey to one of the marvels of Central Europe. If you’re looking for a romantic backdrop in Austria, consider these possibilities.

Unparalleled views of Hallstatt

This stunning and remote oasis in upper Austria is much more than just a postcard. Complete with a unique history that dates to prehistoric times, Hallstatt is a picturesque village at the base of the Alps. A pristine blue lake surrounds the village, creating a magically timeless feel that attracts visitors from all over the world. It’s also easily one of the most romantic vacation spots in Austria, a place of pure tranquility that offers endless opportunities for cozying up with a loved one and enjoying the alpine wonder.
The most popular feature of Hallstatt, the age-old salt mine, may not sound particularly romantic but that changes quickly once actually experiencing it. While the 7,000-year history of the mine will pique the interest of some, the views obtained on a funicular ride up the mountain to the mine are sensational and the World Heritage Skywalk gives you a brilliant panoramic view of Lake Hallstatt from high above. But one of the very best ways to absorb the sights of Hallstatt is to simply head off on your own to one of the trails that surround the village. The Soleweg, in particular, is a great way to get lost for an afternoon of mountain/lake views, and a simple picnic can quickly turn into an unforgettable experience for anyone looking to stir up a little romance.
The same goes for hopping on a boat tour of the lake, although renting your own small rowboat can be an easy way to elevate the romantic ambiance to the next level. As for restaurants, lakefront options like the Gasthaus Seeraunzn let you soak up the scenery from a fresh angle while enjoying some of the best traditional German/Austrian food you’ll find in Hallstatt. Though you definitely won’t have trouble finding a terrific hotel that lets you tap the beauty of the region, the Seehotel Grüner Baum has been a refuge since at least 1700 and offers rooms and dining areas with picture-perfect views of the lake and village.
Hallstatt is gorgeous all year long and can be a great experience in the winter, but less adventurous visitors might want to stick to the warmer weather months of March through October.

No shortage of romantic options in Vienna

A sunset dinner at Villa Aurora is likely all it takes to fall in love with the city of Vienna, marking it a terrific place to have an Austrian date night. Although Vienna has your inevitable touristy location, Villa Aurora has genuine local favorites (like schnitzels) and happens to have a terrace perched directly over the Viennese cityscape. Villa Aurora joins an impressive list of different cafes and restaurants that offer authentic Austrian cuisine along with an atmosphere worthy of being the backdrop for your romantic excursion. Others like the Buxbaum or the famous ef16 Restaurant Weinbar are known for striking a romantic mood alongside some of the best Austrian dishes in the city, although Vienna is also known for having a variety of other romantic restaurants featuring cuisine from all over Europe (and beyond).
If you’re visiting in spring or early summer, Schönbrunn Palace is worth mingling in the crowds to see the flower-filled grounds in front of the 16th-century landmark. A short drive away, the Hofburg Palace is just as impressive and is another romantic place to spend an afternoon, and some couples will enjoy the terrific museums within shouting distance of the palace. Even if you’ve never been to an opera in your life, dressing up for a romantic meal and night at the very famous Vienna State Opera is a classic Viennese experience that anyone can enjoy. In a similar vein, ball season in Vienna is a very big deal and can offer a night out worthy of royalty.
If the opera and ball season aren’t what you’re looking for in a getaway, however, Vienna has plenty of other routes geared toward romanticism. A river cruise along the Danube will show off some of the best views of the city and many of the options include traditional music, food, and beverages along with a smooth ride down the famous river. Couples also routinely make their way to the Palais Hansen Kempinski for honeymoons and urban escapes, where guests enjoy luxurious accommodations pulled back from the tourist-heavy parts of the city. Not only is there a world-class day spa but the restaurant on-site, Edvard, is one of the highest rated in Vienna. Although it’s away from the hustle and bustle, Palais Hansen Kempinski offers very easy access to the main features of the city thanks to neighboring tram and bus stops, in addition to a nearby U-Bahm station.

Step into a storybook at Schloss Fuschl

Originally built as a castle and hunting lodge for Austrian royalty in the mid-15th century, this masterpiece on Lake Fuschl guarantees privacy and luxury while visitors feast their eyes on the treasures of western Austria. Though swimming in the lake and hiking are typical activities during the summer, it’s also spectacular in the winter months thanks to the renowned Nordic walks accessible from the hotel.
The accommodations are also first-rate, as guests get to choose from suites with different décor styles like Baroque or Renaissance along with lakeside cottages that offer couples privacy. Couples can also enjoy a mesmerizing experience at the two-floor spa along with a host of terrific dining options that change with the season.
For any couple looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience highlighted by elegant accommodations, seclusion, and staggering scenery, Schloss Fuschl is as good of an option as you’ll find anywhere in Austria. It’s also a fantastic add-on to a trip to Salzburg, which is only a 20-minute drive away and has plenty of its own charm.
Also worth considering is Schloss Mönchstein, another outstanding resort easily accessible from Salzburg, offering a similar level of luxury and another opportunity to stay in an Austrian castle known for being an ideal romantic escape.

Innsbruck

The gorgeous, old-world style of Innsbruck makes it an ageless classic, and there are more than a few options for the romantically inclined. The tightly packed rows of colorful buildings overlooking the famous market square create a vintage European village look at the heart of the city, which is bustling with open-air cafes and restaurants sitting beneath the often snow-tipped Karwendel Alps. If eating strudel and gaping at medieval architectural masterpieces isn’t for you, an evening hike up the mountain to a traditional Austrian tavern overlooking the city lights (the Laternenwanderung hike) tends to leave couples with the proverbial unforgettable experience.

Alpbach

Just a short drive from Innsbruck in western Austria, the cozy village of Alpbach is your quintessential ski town that keeps moving with or without the snow. Skiers and snowboarders can line up an outstanding winter getaway in Alpbach, although taking a gondola through the mountains for a scenic hike in the summer can also be the perfect launch for a romantic excursion.
Austria is country with scenic views and landscapes sure to take your breath away. With several amazing resorts, cities, and landmarks, there is no place like Austria for the perfect romantic getaway. It offers an environment where anything seems possible, and where you will make unforgettable memories with your significant other.
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Top Outdoor Adventures in Finland

By the time you’re ripping around a frozen lake on an ice-kart, it will be easy to see why Finland is one of the best places to combine thrill-seeking and the stunning natural beauty the Nordic region is known for. More than just a winter wonderland, however, Finland is an adventurer’s paradise all year due to its exhaustive list of exciting activities that tend to create moments that go straight to your long-term memory. So what are some of the country’s highlights you should look for when planning a trip to Finland? Don’t miss these opportunities to take your Finnish adventure to the next level.

From ice-karting and world-class skiing to midnight hikes at year-round wonder Levi.

Finland is well-known for its winter sports, and no place in the country better embodies this than the world-famous Levi resort. Located in the Lapland region of northern Finland, Levi is your proverbial skier’s utopia, offering spectacular downhill skiing and snowboarding to go with a range of great accommodations. If you’re not much of a downhill skier, it’s also the perfect place to learn how to cross-country ski while feasting your eyes on the immaculate hillsides that surround the resort. With miles of skiing trails that showcase the brilliance of Finnish Lapland, it’s a great fit for any active sightseer.
The winter also brings other thrilling options as well, including the increasingly popular ice-karting course. Similar to go-karting, ice-karting puts guests in control of a kart that fits one or two people and takes you around a frozen lake surrounded by towering, snow-covered trees. Ice-karting has taken off as an adrenaline-pumping experience for thrill-seekers of all ages, making it a great option for both couples and families on the adventurous side. If you’re really into winter sports, Levi also hosts the Alpine Ski World Cup, which brings in some of the most talented skiers and snowboarders from around the world every November.
Levi isn’t only for winter-sports enthusiasts, however, as there is no shortage of things to do in the summer either. As the snow gives way to a lush green landscape, visitors canoe, row, and bike for miles and miles around the resort and enjoy the long hours of daylight. Other popular options include horseback riding through the forest and hiking nearby Pallas National Park, which has a host of great features all on its own.
Many also travel to Levi (or Lapland at large) to see the midnight sun, which can provide some truly unforgettable opportunities. Canoeing around lakes Sirkkajärvi and Levijärvi deep in the night can stir the poetry in anyone’s soul, as can a midnight photography session that takes you to the most beautiful spots of Levi and Pallas.

Biking along Route 62 in Saimaa

Tucked into southeastern Finland a few hours from either Helsinki or St. Petersburg, Russia, the Saimaa region is an exquisite piece of land that highlights many of Finland’s greatest natural advantages. This area also has a whole spectrum of great roads for either a slow drive or biking, taking you through winding lakeside pathways and pristine forests that serve as the perfect backdrop for an adventurous escape. On the famous Route 62 between Ruokolahti and Mikkeli, bikers get an unparalleled view of the countryside and small-town Finland, making it an outstanding place to chew on the scenery as you work off a few morsels of Tippaleipä (Finnish funnel cake).
While you could just spend an afternoon or two perusing the landscape, it’s a great spot to bring a tent and camp right out under the stars for a few nights at one of the many campsites in the area. Lake Saimaa also has more than a few great activities as well, from rowing and paddleboarding to an excellent set of hiking trails that ring the minimally developed lakefront. Easy to get to and loaded with outdoors activities, Saimaa is a great place to find a few thrills while letting your eyes wander the tranquil beauty that draws visitors from all over the world.
Also consider: Right along the bike route, in Anttola, the Ollinmäki winery lets you taste traditional Finnish wines made right from the berries and fruits in Saimaa. Although you could definitely still have a great time in the winter in Saimaa, the region is a must-see in the warmer months.

Snowshoe by day and inspect the Northern Lights by night in Finnish Lapland

One of the greatest places in the world to see the Northern Lights is in Finnish Lapland, a sprawling land of enchanting visual splendor as well as the harsh realities of upper Finland. It’s also an ideal place to tap into the oldest Finnish traditions, particularly in the winter months when the Aurora Borealis is really popping. Between September and March, you can catch the famous dancing green flashes of light in Finnish Lapland, where the lack of city lights makes for a stunning, unforgettable experience.
But if you think sitting and staring at the sky is all there is to do in Lapland, those with an adventurous spirit have an assortment of activities to occupy their time during the day. A classic Finnish experience is to strap on snowshoes for a lengthy hike through the wilderness, where you’ll marvel at the breathtaking, snow-coated landscape as you walk atop an endless canvas of the white powdery snow. In the summertime, fellwalking (hill walking) is another age-old Sámi custom that will keep you active while giving you a terrific vantage point.
Another fun and thrilling way to enjoy the local culture is to hop on a dogsled, an ancient tradition that yields a unique and beautiful experience for visitors. Some dogsledding excursions can last only an hour or two while the more ambitious thrill-seekers can book a route that will last closer to a week. The huskies that pull the sled are also beloved members of the Lapland community thanks to generations of co-dependence in the region, and dog lovers will want to book only with companies that are a part of the Mush with P.R.I.D.E. organization that ensures a happy and safe environment for the beloved canines.
Where to consider staying: Huddling in an igloo hut with a glass ceiling is an outstanding way to see the Northern Lights after a long day of snowshoeing or dogsledding. Although there are now a variety of different great accommodations in the region, the renowned Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort is a trailblazer that combines a modern touch with a peerless view of the aurorae.

Explore Högberet Cave (if you can find it)

You’ll need an adventurous spirit to experience Högberet Cave, a hidden gem in Kirkonummi about a half-hour drive due west from Helsinki. The adventure starts with a wonderful hike around the countryside and ends at the side of a granite cliff, which hosts the secretive entrance to the cave nicknamed the “Womb of Mother Earth.” Although not for the overly claustrophobic, squeezing through the moss-covered granite cliff will take you back to the Ice Age, when ancient settlers were believed to use it as a shelter from the elements (and possibly for fertility rituals). Finding the cave is also part of the fun, as it’s unmarked and might require a little bit of patience from trekkers hiking around Kirkonummi.
But even if you are a bit on the claustrophobic side and don’t feel like going in, the area itself is still well worth the trip due to the collection of great hikes in the area. It’s also an ideal day trip from Helsinki by car and very doable by bike as well, as it’s about 19 miles away from the heart of the Finnish capital. Although you probably don’t want to check out Högberet Cave during the peak of the winter, it’s a fantastic spring, summer or early fall outing steeped in mystery and wonder.

Final thoughts to consider before booking

Finland, particularly in Lapland, offers one of the most stunning seasonal reversals in the world. For this reason, you absolutely need to heed the weather and understand the differences in climate/sunset times. Near the first of January in Finnish Lapland, for example, you can expect nearly day-long darkness, as the sun emerges afternoon and barely begins to rise before falling again with about a half-hour of daylight. By the end of January, however, you’ll have close to six hours of total daylight and a sun that sets around 3:30. You can also expect average lows of about 10 degrees Fahrenheit during January or February, which is actually ideal for all the wintery adventures of Lapland,
In the summer, you’ll have an abundance of daylight, but the temperatures still remain cool for much of the day. In Levi, the average high is typically about 55 degrees Fahrenheit in June and 66 for much of July, with dips to the mid or low-40s at night. The average low can also be dramatically different from July (the warmest month) to either June or August, which is why you’ll likely want to bring some warm clothes even if you’re planning an excursion in the summertime. The same principle holds true in Helsinki, where it’s typically at least a few degrees warmer than Lapland at any point of the year. July also typically gets by far the most rain of the year, although that should only add to the excitement for anyone ready for a true Finnish adventure.
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Don’t Leave Croatia Without Seeing These Spectacular Places

Croatia provides travelers with some of the best values in Europe. If you’re longing to visit sunny Mediterranean beaches, Croatia is a less crowded and cheaper alternative to Southern France, Italy, and other famous European beach destinations. Croatia, of course, has a lot more than just beaches. It also offers a rich culture with unique architecture, museums, food, and history. If you do plan a trip to Croatia, make sure you don’t leave before visiting the following places.

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik encapsulates many of the most impressive features of Croatia. Set on the scenic Dalmatian Coast, it offers spectacular views of the Mediterranean, a beautiful Old Town, and well-preserved churches, buildings, and city walls.

City Gate and Walls

The old city gate and walls are among the highlights of any trip to Croatia. The Pile Gate is the main entrance to the Old City. To reach the gate, you walk over a stone bridge (that was once a drawbridge). Today, the Pile Gate is famous as one of the filming locations for the popular TV series Game of Thrones. If you’re a fan of the show, you can look for many filming locations in Dubrovnik.
Once you enter the gate, you have a good view of the city walls. Dating back to the 10th century, these defensive walls successfully kept invaders out of the city. The walls were strengthened and extended until the 17th century, and many are still in good condition today. The walls, as well as several intact towers, provide some amazing views of the city as well as the Adriatic.

Stradun

Stradun, officially called Placa, is a long (about 1,000 feet) and busy street in Dubrovnik where you’ll find lots of shops, cafes, and restaurants. Many of the street’s limestones date back to the 15th century. Stradun is a strictly pedestrian street, so you don’t have to worry about traffic. Aside from shopping and dining, you can take in some of the city’s historic sights such as the bell tower (actually reconstructed after a devastating earthquake in 1667) and the famous Loggia Square, where you’ll also find one of Dubrovnik’s best-known monuments, Orlando’s Column.
Fort Lovrijenac
Another reoccurring Game of Thrones filming location, Fort Lovrijenac is sometimes called the Gibraltar of Dubrovnik. Once an important point for defending the city, the fortress had multiple cannons surrounding it. Today, it’s frequently used as a venue for performances during Dubrovnik’s annual Summer Festival.

Assumption Cathedral

One of Croatia’s most beautiful churches, The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is a baroque style building full of precious artwork. The church is also known for its relics, including part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The church dates back to the 6th century, but much of it was rebuilt after earthquakes destroyed much of the original structure.

Zadar

While not as large or well known as Dubrovnik, Zadar has unique charms of its own and should definitely be on your must-see list for Croatia. On the northern Dalmatian coast, this city has beaches, Roman ruins, old churches, and many pedestrian-friendly streets.

Waterfront Promenade

Zadar’s waterfront attracts crowds that gather nightly to watch the incredible sunsets. The central attraction is a solar-powered disc and art installation called Monument to the Sun, created by an artist named Nikola Basic in 2008. This is the perfect place to spend a romantic evening as people often dance on the disc as they watch the sunset. Plans are in the works to make this popular piece interactive so it responds to people’s movements. Close by is another innovative art project, the Sea Organ, which makes sounds that are set off by sea waves.

Zadar Archaeological Museum

This museum, which opened in 1832, is an excellent place to learn about the rich history of Zadar, Dalmatia, and Croatia in general. You can see jewelry, weapons, and pottery dating back to the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras. As you browse collections from the Roman, Byzantine and Medieval periods, you can appreciate the various influences that molded this fascinating region.

Kornati National Park

Nature lovers will want to visit Kornati National Park, which is actually an archipelago off the coast of Zadar. Composed of 147 islands, this protected area is ideal for observing wildlife and exploring ancient Roman settlements. It’s also a prime spot for scuba diving.

Churches in Zadar

This city has several remarkable churches. The Church of St. Donatus, a Byzantine church built in the 12th century, was built on top of a Roman forum. The Church of St. Simeon stores the remains of one of the city’s patron saints in a sarcophagus. The Church of St. Chrysogonus is a Benedictine church known for its well-preserved frescoes from the 13th century.

Plitvice Lakes National Park

While Dubrovnik gives you a glimpse at some of Croatia’s fascinating history, Plitvice Lakes National Park reveals some of the exotic natural beauty of the country’s inland. This beautiful park has forests, waterfalls, lakes, and abundant wildlife. It’s called Plitvice Lakes National Park because of its 16 lakes, renowned for their clear, turquoise waters. The park is also known for its hiking trails, dozens of waterfalls, and spots for white water rafting. One thing you can’t do is swim in the lakes. As tempting as it may be, people aren’t allowed in the water for health and sanitary reasons.

Take a Tour

If you want to see as much as possible, take a guided tour which includes ferry rides and a railroad that operates within the park. Animal lovers will appreciate the park, whose inhabitants include bears, deer, wolves, and many rare species of birds. You could easily spend weeks exploring this region but you should at least resolve to spend a day here. Numerous tours can take you through the park. You can arrange day trips by bus from Zadar. If you prefer to explore it on your own, make sure you make a plan and give yourself enough time. To take a hike around the lakes takes at least four hours.
There are numerous places to stay in and around the park. There’s also a campsite in a town about 10 miles away called Korana. To get to Plitvice Lakes National Park, you’ll have to rent a car or take a bus as trains don’t travel here. The closest stations are Zadar and Zagreb, which are several hours away.
Croatia is an incredibly diverse and beautiful nation. Its cultural influences include the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Byzantine and Austro-Hungarian empires, and even the Mongols. With views of both the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas, and its many old cities and picturesque islands, Croatia is the perfect destination for anyone who appreciates nature, beaches, history, and lots of sun.
 
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The Haunting History Behind Trick or Treating

Every year, millions of American kids go out on the night of October 31st and demand, politely, treats from random strangers. Seems a strange custom, when you think of it that way. But Halloween is deeply ingrained in American culture and on that one night, there’s nothing strange at all about taking candy from a stranger. How did Halloween make its way to America? What were its predecessors? Was candy always given out, and if not what other treats might early celebrants of the holiday receive? And just where did this whole “trick or treat” business come about anyhow? Did anyone outside of the movies ever really trick someone for not giving them candy? Here’s the history behind one of our most mysterious holidays.

Samhain

Samhain was a holiday celebrated on October 31st by the Celtic people around 2000 years ago. The Celts believed that the dead returned to roam the earth on Samhain. On that night, they’d gather outside around large bonfires and pay their respects to the visiting dead. It was a time of remembrance and reconnection to loved ones lost.
Some the Celts were wary that not all of the spirits roaming around that day had the best of intentions. Those people dressed in costumes made of animal skins to scare the less savory spirits away. They often also left food out in the hopes that those spirits would be satisfied and leave them alone. So, they offered treats to avoid the tricks of evil spirits. Is that where “trick or treat” comes from? Perhaps. We’ll explore that further later on.
In later centuries, a game came out of this. Some people would dress up in costumes to look like evil entities, such as demons and ghosts. They would then go around the town and collect the edibles that were put out for the spirits. It’s unlikely that these getups genuinely fooled anyone, so, much like our own Halloween celebrations, it’s likely that both parties were in on the gag. This ritual became known as guising. And so we are already beginning to see the roots of what Halloween would become.

All Souls’ Day

By 1000 AD, Christianity had made its way to Celtic lands. In those days, Christians tried hard to convert the native pagans. Pagan holidays were co-opted by the Church to make the transition easier for converts. For example, Easter was originally a celebration of the pagan fertility goddess Eostre. Hence the fertility symbols of the rabbit and the egg that we still use to decorate for the holiday today. In the case of Easter, Passover was an existing holiday that could be repurposed.
In the case of Samhain, an all-new Holiday formed called All Souls’ Day. Like Samhain, it was a time for honoring the dead. There were still bonfires and costumes, only now poor people would offer to pray for the souls of a wealthier household’s deceased loved ones in exchange for pastries. This practice was called souling.
In some areas, a more secular version appeared. Instead of offering to pray for souls, people would perform dances or sing in exchange for their food items. Put another way, they would perform a trick for their treat. Perhaps this serves as any clue to where “trick or treat” came? It’s doubtful, especially since the modern use of the word trick in the phrase refers more to doing something to the homeowner than for them. If that were the origin, it would make more sense to say “trick for a treat.” Still, it’s fun to think about.

Halloween Arrives in the U.S.

The potato famine of 1846 led many Irish people to flee from their homeland to the United States. They brought Halloween with them. And so the custom of dressing up and asking strangers for food had arrived on American shores. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the holiday became popular outside of the small Irish communities and found its way into mainstream culture. By the 1920s mischievous pranks had become the main Halloween pastime.

Trick or Treating Comes to Life

Trick or treating itself would not become a popular activity until around the 1930s. The first use of the term “trick or treat” comes from 1934. It appeared in an article titled, “Halloween Pranks Keep Police on Hop.” The article states, “young goblins and ghosts, employing modern shakedown methods, successfully worked the ‘trick or treat’ system in all parts of the city.” The pranks of the 1920s became a way of forcing people to give candy. So yes, some people did pull some tricks if they did not receive a treat. That usage of the phrase in the Oregon Journal might well have been the start of the chant from children to their candy distributing neighbors.
We’ve made a few guesses, some more plausible than others, but ultimately, we don’t know the exact origins of “trick or treat.” We can surmise, however, that as the edible treats went from being offered to spirits, to being offered to poor people, then to little children playing dress up. Once Halloween became a holiday game instead of the spiritual observance it once was, the switch to candy was inevitable. Candy is not only cheaper in the quantities required for a modern night of visiting trick or treaters, but it is by far the favored food of children everywhere.
When you take your kids out for their night of goodies this year, think back on the people over a thousand years ago that dressed up like evil entities to get food that was intended for those spirits. In whatever form it takes, humans have been performing this ritual for a very long time. Although some pranksters may have gotten out of hand in the early days of the holiday’s arrival in America, it quickly became the family-friendly holiday that it is today.