Away from the Beaches - Al Fresco Holidays

From the mountains of South America to the sprawling cities of the Far East, tourists will travel all over the world to find otherworldly marvels. But it’s easy to forget what a rich culture there is on the doorstep over on mainland Europe. It has a unique and long heritage, from prehistory to the Greek and Roman Empires, through the Renaissance and onto the global powerhouse it became up until its empires were dismantled in the middle of the Twentieth Century.

It’s inevitable that such a varied history will have left behind its wonders. But it’s also true that Europe is still producing new spectacular and creative enterprises, despite its more modest place in the world.

To give a little flavour, here are a few of the places that have taken our breath away on our travels. We might set off to Europe for the sun, the sea and the cuisine, but travelling a few miles inland or heading into the cities will throw up some unexpected joys.

Santuario Madonna della Corona, near Lake Garda

This site, which roughly translates as Sanctuary of Madonna of the Crown, is home to a stunning church carved into the side of a mountain, 700 metres above the valley base. The “crown” of the name actually refers to the ring of mountains that surround and engulf the site.

One of the walls of the church is the rock face itself. It started its life as a simple shrine visited by the faithful, and seems to have had its pathway and rudimentary structure started in the 1500s. Since then it has undergone extensions and modifications, but it remains a splendid, gravity-defying spectacle to all who see it.

Inside the sanctuary, visitors can view the chapel and marble sculptures, and the access road has some wonderful bronze casts and plates.

The Santuario Madonna della Corona is situated off the E45 that runs north–south parallel with the east side of Lake Garda. It’s a short drive (or an energetic ride) from Camping Cisano Spa and Camping del Garda.

Santuario Madonna Della Corona, near Lake Garda

Source: Flickr

The Catacombs, Paris

“Stop! Here is the Empire of the Dead” (Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort). That’s how you’re greeted when you are about to set foot in Paris’s most macabre attraction, the Catacombs, about twenty metres below the city streets.

If you choose to ignore the sign you’ll be taken down a gloomy corridor and soon you’ll reach the beginning of the main attraction – the bones of six million people. But these are not randomly dumped bones – they are arranged in regimented patterns, usually with the skulls forming features and shapes. Where there are natural pillars, the bones surround them. If you can see over the tops of the piles, you’ll notice they stretch several metres back both ways. And after a spine-tingling hour or so you spill out onto the city streets 500 metres away …

The Catacombs started life as Roman-era quarries – the Limestone was what much of Lutetia (the Roman name for the young Paris) was built from. As Paris grew in the second millennium, so did its population, and by the 18th century the graveyards were literally overflowing. The decision was taken to remove all the human remains and reinter them in these mines, and it wasn’t long before it became the dark attraction it remains today.

Pont Saint-Bénézet – the Bridge to Nowhere

The Town of Avignon has been inhabited for millennia, and in the Middle Ages was the residence for several successive popes. The town straddles the River Rhone at the end of a natural split in the flow that forms a long island. Naturally, it needed to be bridged, and in this happened over an eight-year period between 1177 and 1185.

However, nature and war took their toll on the bridge. It was destroyed by Louis VIII in the early 1200s, and when it was rebuilt it was subject to numerous collapses caused by the movement of the river. An ongoing series of repairs continued right up to the mid-1600s, when one final storm rendered it damaged beyond repair … and the project was finally abandoned. All that remains now is a bridge stretching about halfway across the river.

A visit to the bridge and the beautiful village is highly recommended. If you’re staying at Les Rives du Lubéron or Val de Durance it’s short drive inland.


Milau Viaduct – the Bridge to Somewhere

If you’re driving through France from one of the Northern ports to one of the Languedoc resorts, you may well find yourself travelling 270 metres up above the valley below – about the same height as the top floor of the Eiffel Tower – as you cross the Milau Viaduct over the valley of the River Tarn.

The viaduct was completed in December 2004 to great fanfare. It’s instantly recognizable by its sweeping curved deck, suspended by the dramatic masts sunk into the valley floor. Perhaps even more remarkably, the whole 2.4km structure was built in just four years.

Whether you’re admiring the structure from its deck or from afar, you’re guaranteed visual treat. Because of the nature of the valley the ground below the bridge sometime becomes shrouded in fog; if you catch such a phenomenon when you’re near the Milau Viaduct, you’ll have a memory you’ll treasure for the rest of your life – and probably a few photographs.

Ai Pioppi Playground – Strictly for the Kids (In Us)

In 1969, a young Italian called Bruno decided to open what would nowadays be called a pop-up restaurant in the middle of a wood just to the north of Treviso, Northern Italy. Before long, a couple of passers-by popped in to see what was going on – and became Ai Pioppi’s first customers. The restaurant grew in popularity, and Bruno decided to start adding rides. He has never stopped.

Now over 40 years old, Ai Pioppi is one of those places that are truly unique – in amongst the trees are dozens of slides, swings, rides, seesaws, gyroscopes and even a roller coaster, all of which have been lovingly designed and constructed by Bruno himself. And best of all, these rides aren’t just for the kids – adults are welcome to let their hair down and enjoy this enchanting, quirky, unique destination.

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