There’s a lot of things to do in Barcelona, Spain’s second city: the dark, twisting streets of the Barri Gòtic; the cool and sophisticated La Ribera district filled with designer shops and fashionable bars; the enticing beaches and über-modern seafront area – all topped off by some seriously unusual architecture, an integral part of Catalan’s Modernisme movement. It’s this mix, along with its tempting tapas and bar scene that makes the city such an exciting stop, and inevitably the prices to visit its museums, churches and the like are high. Here are a few suggestions for free things to do in Barcelona:

Walk down Las Ramblas

The sight that launches most guidebooks, Las Ramblas is Barcelona’s main – and most famous – thoroughfare. Lined with cafés, bars and souvenir shops, it’s a heaving throng of tourists, locals, buskers and those notorious street performance artists. A stroll down here is an absolute must.

Ditch the diet at La Boqueria

Barcelona’s biggest and brightest market, La Boqueria, situated just off Las Ramblas, has enticing and overflowing displays of fresh fruit and vegetables, glistening seafood and meat – including some rather alarming sheep head cuts – pongy cheeses and tempting cakes and breads. If you’ve eaten breakfast already, head to Els Enchants Vells (metro Encants/Glòries), Barcelona’s bustling open-air flea market.

Go to hospital

Designed in 1902 by Catalan architect, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, in an exuberant modernist style complete with swirling turrets and towers, vibrant mosaics and a beautiful brick facade, the enormous complex of Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Paul  rivals the Sagrada Família in size and wow-factor.  General admission is free, though you’ll have to pay for a guided tour.

Sit on a bench in Parc Güell

Antoni Gaudì – figurehead of Catalan modernisme – really let his imagination go wild in the Parc Güell. Sitting on the outskirts of the Gràcia district and opened to the public in 1922, the urban parkland is peppered with brightly coloured pavilions, swirling sculptures, giant lizards and its most famous feature, a long ceramic bench – a glittering, undulating mass of multi-coloured mosaics.

Sunbathe on the beach

Take your pick from a number of Barcelona’s sandy beaches: Barceloneta is the closest to the city centre (metro stop Barceloneta, or a 20 min walk from town) and attracts the most crowds, while further along, quieter Icària (metro stop Ciutadella-Vila Olimpica) has some top-quality restaurants worth trying. Mar Bella beach, generally known as a nudist beach – and good for windsurfing – is a 20 min walk from Poble Nou metro stop. The perfect spots for when those city streets get that bit too hot.

Goggle at La Seu

Barcelona’s greatest Gothic cathedral, La Seu, dates from 1298, and was built over an old Christian basilica. With its imposing facade topped with spiked steeples and huge flying buttresses, it’s home to the remains of Santa Eulalia, a young girl martyred for her Christian beliefs. The interior and cloister (complete with white geese, meant to represent the virginal Eulalia) are free to visit during general admission times, but there are charges to sections outside these hours.

Hop from house to house

Most of the modernist houses in Barcelona have an admission charge, but there’s nothing stopping you doing your own house-hop for free. Casa Amatller, La Pedrera, Casa Battlò, Casa Lleó Morera – to name but a few – all have magnificent facades displaying trademark features of swirling walls and mind-boggling motifs. For the ultimate in modernist marvel, the Sagrada Família – worth a (free) visit for its exterior alone – cannot be beaten.

Skate at night

Pull on some elbow pads, knee protectors and a pair of gnarly freeline skates, and join the Association of Skaters for a night-time exploration of Barcelona. The group leaves from C/Salvador Esprinu, 61 at 10.30pm every Friday, depending on the weather.

Marvel at Frederic Mares’ curios collection

On the first Sunday of every month, this fantastic little museum dedicated to the life and work of the twentieth-century sculptor Frederic Mares, has free admission. The museum shows off his prolific collection of religious sculptures and secular knick-knacks, all of which give a fascinating insight into the life of an infatuated hoarder.

Witness an explosion of lights

By day, the perfectly ordinary-looking Font Màgica sits among the lush gardens and impressive buildings in Montjuïc pleasure park. On certain nights, however, its bubbling water is lit up in vibrant rainbow colours, dancing and splashing to a musical soundtrack (either classical or cheese, or both). It’s free to see the pretty – and popular – spectacle, so join the crowd with plenty of “oohs” and “aaahs”.

If you fancy indulging your inner artist on your next British break, try one of these excellent galleries and art spaces across Britain.

The Baltic, Newcastle

Towering over the Tyne is Baltic, Gateshead’s striking contemporary art centre. Still emblazoned with the words Baltic Flour Mills, this uncompromisingly modernist building has just as much presence as London’s Tate Modern – and even more volume – it claims to be the biggest gallery of its kind in the world. Best suited to large-scale installations, its four galleries host an exciting and ever-changing programme of shows including headline-grabbers such as works by Yoko Ono, “musical paintings” by Malcolm McLaren and a fresh dose of Damien Hirst’s 1990s classic, Pharmacy.

Whatever the current crop of exhibitions, it’s worth visiting for the views. Look down from the glass-fronted lifts, the viewing terraces or the rooftop restaurant and you can admire the elegant geometry of the Tyne Bridge. Modelled on the design for the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the 1920s, it’s still a potent symbol of the city. Like its Australian counterpart, it now has a slinky performing arts centre for a neighbour: the miracle of computer-assisted architecture that is The Sage, nestling like a glossy-skinned pupa on the riverbank. Spanning the river in a graceful curve is the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, better known as the Blinking Eye – surely the wittiest modern bridge in Britain. The whole scene is so inspiring that avant-garde photographer Spencer Tunick has used it as a location; the resulting series of studies, created with the help of 1700 naked volunteers, is one of his best to date.

For local visitor information, see www.newcastlegateshead.com.

Essential art at the Sainsbury Centre

You approach the pared-down hangar-like Sainsbury Centre on the UEA campus across a lush lawn, and step into a modernist temple of art. The building, an early work by Norman Foster, has simplicity and functionality at its core; it was designed to showcase the superb collection of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury. High glass walls give space and light to the works, which are displayed not with an attempt to categorize or contextualize but to showcase each piece in its own right. This aesthetic approach sees an elongated Modigliani juxtaposed with an ancient marble figure from Cycladic Crete, with its long nose and neatly folded arms. There are moments of connection, and also of dislocation: your path through the gallery might take you from a silver Inca effigy of a llama to a carved wooden Polynesian icon or a masterful Roman portrait head. The eclectic layout is also particularly effective at highlighting the well-documented influence of ethnographic art on modern masters such as Henry Moore, represented by a rounded non-realist Mother & Child, and Picasso, whose early gouache nude shows a mask-like female figure.

Elsewhere, temporary exhibitions explore contemporary photography, painting and ceramics, and there’s usually space given to two other outstanding collections held by UEA. To round things off there’s the excellent light-filled Gallery Café and a gallery shop selling genuinely covetable crafts and gifts.

The Sainsbury Centre is on the campus of the University of East Anglia, Norwich www.scva.org.uk.

The De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill

Built in 1935 as a cultural house for the people – the vision of the ninth Earl De la Warr, the aristocratic, socialist Mayor of Bexhill – the De la Warr Pavilion is an architectural masterpiece by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, and one of the first Modernist buildings in Britain. Curving, majestic but intimate and informal, it’s worth the trip to the coast for the building alone. It stands in a marvellous setting right on Bexhill’s beach, with an elegant spiral staircase protruding out towards the sea, huge glass windows, sleek terraces and a quirky, wavy bandstand.

It hosts a packed and eclectic programme of events. The light, airy gallery shows contemporary art exhibitions, the auditorium attracts an impressive line-up of international artists and entertainers, and the pavilion offers courses and talks, summer Sunday gigs on the bandstand, and a host of imaginative events – what better use is there for a flat white Modernist exterior wall than to project films onto it on summer evenings (just bring a blanket)?

De la Warr Pavilion, on the seafront, Bexhill, East Sussex 01424/229111, www.dlwp.com.

Tate Modern, London

From oversized upstart to national treasure in just ten years, Tate Modern has been adopted by the British public in a way that no one imagined possible for a gallery of modern art. Though its collection is an impressive survey of the big names of twentieth-century international art – including Monet, Matisse and Rothko – the real stars are the building itself, huge, grand and proudly displaying its industrial past as a power station, and Tate’s ambitious and playful curating.

At the outset Tate Modern did away with stuffy, chronological displays, instead hanging its collection thematically in a thought-provoking and irreverent approach. Architecture and art as adventure come together most strikingly in the Turbine Hall, and its headline-grabbing commissions of the Unilever series.

And Tate Modern continues to grow – literally. Three vast oil drums behind the main building are currently being excavated and will be turned into performance spaces and more galleries, while a Herzog & de Meuron-designed extension is planned above them.

Tate Modern, London SE1 020/7887 8888, www.tate.org.uk. Sun-Thurs 10am-6pm, Fri & Sat 10am-10pm. Main galleries free, special exhibitions around £10.

The National Gallery, London

Quietly presiding over the lions and pigeons of Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery is Britain’s second most popular visitor attraction, pipped only by the British Museum. Perhaps what really sets the National apart, though, is that despite walls heaving with the work of da Vinci, Raphael, Monet and Van Gogh, no single picture dominates in the manner of a Mona Lisa with all the iPhone-clicking crush that ensures. Instead, the collection’s strength in depth encourages more relaxed contemplation. Yet with over two thousand paintings to choose from, deciding precisely what to contemplate can be a daunting prospect. The secret is to plan your visit and stick to one era or even one painting at a time.

If you can attend a free talk given by the gallery’s team of experts so much the better. Sprinkled with anecdotes (for example, did you know Gainsborough was often too hungover to paint, leaving his portrait subjects out on the street?), they provide that modern term “infotainment” in spades. As you exit back into the tourist hubbub of the square you’ll be left if not ennobled then certainly enlightened.

National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2 020/7747 2885, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

Banksy’s Bristol

The street artist known as Banksy has spray-painted walls in London, Detroit, Melbourne and, perhaps most controversially, the separation wall built by Israel in the West Bank. It was in the graffiti-hotbed of Bristol, though, that he fostered his talent and developed the stencil style that defines his work.

Much of Banksy’s early paintings around the city have been lost, but several key murals remain. Perhaps the most iconic is The Mild Mild West (1999), a striking image sprayed across a wall on Stokes Croft and showing a wobbly white teddy bear pitching a Molotov cocktail at advancing riot police. There’s great affection for Banksy’s image of Death (2003) on the waterline of The Thekla, a nightclub boat moored in Bristol Harbour. His original tag was removed by the city’s harbourmaster, prompting Banksy to return and paint a Grim Reaper figure rowing in the same spot.

The Banksy that most symbolizes his evolution from scourge of the council to Bristol’s favourite son, however, lies off the bottom of Park Street. Secretly created beneath sheet-covered scaffolding, The Naked Man (2006), an adulterous lover hanging from a window, was recently saved thanks to a petition from a Liberal Democrat councillor.

See www.bristol-street-art.co.uk/category/banksy-street-art for the exact locations of The Mild Mild West, the image of Death and The Naked Man.

The Lowry, Greater Manchester

The Lowry in Salford Quays opened in 2000, a strikingly designed arts centre housing theatres and gallery space. It owns 55 paintings and 278 drawings by the artist – the world’s largest collection of his work, many featuring those gritty, industrial scenes of Manchester and Salford. Yet as Lowry aged his fascination with people on the streets focused increasingly on the more bizarre characters. Take The Funeral Party (1953), a motley line-up of nine odd-looking individuals, most staring disconcertingly at the viewer in what looks like a British version of The Addams Family.

Lowry’s oil paintings often reflected this interest, through unflattering and brutally stark portraits. His “horrible head” series includes the haunting Head of a Man (1938), whose haggard face and bloodshot eyes seem to stare straight through you. When you finally tear yourself away, there’s almost a feeling of embarrassment, as if you’ve turned your back on a starving man. Indeed, the key to understanding the Lowry collection is his fascination with people, not industrial decay – Lowry was interested in everyday folk, not just outside mills, but at fairgrounds, football grounds and busy markets. As he said, “You don’t need brains to be a painter, just feelings.”

Lowry, Pier 8, Salford Quays, Greater Manchester, www.thelowry.com.

The Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

By far the nicest way to reach Edinburgh’s Gallery of Modern Art is by walking from the New Town along the Water of Leith. The imminent presence of the gallery is signalled by a rusting naked male statue by Antony Gormley, standing ankle-deep in the water. Steep steps take you up the riverbank to a hulking green Reclining Figure by Henry Moore, and the elegant symmetrical gallery itself.

The theme of art in the landscape is continued with Charles Jenck’s monumental earthwork Landform in front of the gallery, comprising spiralling paths and crescent-shaped pools and usually overrun with kids.

Inside, there’s a substantial collection by those glamorizers of the Scottish landscape, the Colourists: J.D. Fergusson, Peploe and Cadell, whose Fauvist palette and Post-Impressionist sensibility were a fervent rejection of the Victorian genre painting. Elsewhere, thematic rather than chronological displays juxtapose an early Francis Bacon with a late Stanley Spencer nude depicting his second wife.

Upstairs there are displays on Constructivism, plus a witty Matisse depicting himself painting a young model. And there’s a room simply devoted to “White”, with Ben Nicholson’s card reliefs, a white metal piece by local boy Paolozzi, and Mondrian monochrome squares enlivened by a dash of citrus yellow. Back outside, the sculpture- and flower-filled café garden makes the perfect end to a visit.

Gallery of Modern Art, Belford Rd, Edinburgh www.nationalgalleries.org.

The Wallace Collection, London

The result of five generations of connoisseurship and collecting, the Wallace Collection is housed in the private home of the Hertford family, which was bequeathed to the nation in 1897, and is now a free, public museum jam-packed with art, porcelain, furniture and sculpture in ornate silk-lined and chandeliered rooms, which have been immaculately and lovingly restored.

The Great Gallery, with works by Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, and the iconic Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals, is the artistic star, but if you go on one of the excellent (free) guided tours, the enthusiastic expert will point out all sorts of other gems, such as pieces of Marie Antoinette’s personal furniture, portraits of Madame de Pompadour, glitzy Sèvres porcelain, the ornate staircase from Louis XV’s bank, and an impressive armoury. The furnishings might not be to everyone’s taste, but when coupled with the fascinating stories and titbits of gossip about the family peppered throughout the tour, the result is to draw you into the rarefied world of this eccentric family and their unique collections.

Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1 020/7563 9500, www.wallacecollection.org.

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park

West Yorkshire might not seem like the most obvious location for a centre of modern art, but step into the glorious grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and it all suddenly makes a lot of sense. Situated on the Bretton Estate in the village of West Bretton, the 500-acre park encompasses hills, fields, lakes, woodland and formal gardens, which provide the perfect backdrop for the sculptures it shows, a juxtaposition of the natural and the man-made.

Most fitting of the sculptures are those by Henry Moore, who was born in nearby Castleford; the surrounding countryside inspired his work, so it feels a real privilege to be able to experience it within this context. Alongside Moore, the permanent, revolving, collection also includes work by Antony Gormley, Eduardo Paolozzi and Barbara Hepworth.

In addition to the outdoor exhibitions, there are four indoor galleries, which are worth exploring in their own right. The Project Space is a particular highlight, housing changing exhibitions from the Arts Council Collection, which could include film and photography in addition to sculpture.

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, West Yorkshire www.ysp.co.uk.

Jupiter Artland, West Lothian

Sitting in a tangle of busy roads in an unattractive semi-rural stretch west of Edinburgh, Jupiter Artland doesn’t appear to promise much. But its swirling metal gates are a portal to another world, one of parkland and woodland set around a seventeenth-century mansion, and a series of sight-specific artworks wonderfully woven into the natural environment.

Commissioned by the owners of the house, the works comprise a deeply personal collection, and one that is still evolving. The drive winds past sizeable rocks wedged in the branches of coppiced trees by Andy Goldsworthy, and then opens out to Life Mounds, monumental stepped earthworks created by Charles Jencks to evoke and celebrate the cell. The walk begins at Shane Waltener’s A World Wide Web, a scruffy shed in the trees with peepholes of varying heights which reveal a tangle of intricately constructed cobwebs within. Beyond, Anish Kapoor’s Suck is a disconcerting rusty iron sinkhole in the earth; then a break in the trees reveals Antony Gormley’s Firmament, a huge crouching figure composed of steel hexagons that frames the view of another iconic metal structure: the rust-red Forth Rail Bridge. The place is packed full of more artwork, see www.jupiterartland.org for more.

Tate St Ives, Cornwall

This magnificent building on the site of a former gasworks is more than just an art gallery: Tate St Ives is an experience of modern and contemporary art which reflects and highlights the natural environment that inspired much of the artwork on display.

While artists have been drawn to St Ives and its famous quality of light since the early nineteenth century, the gallery’s main collection celebrates a succession of painters and sculptors whose work is firmly rooted in modernist traditions, a tribute to the seaside town’s unique connection with many renowned twentieth-century artists. The gallery’s permanent collection includes some of Cornwall’s big names, with displays changed around frequently to showcase the works, while the gallery also features temporary exhibitions of current international stars and a programme of artists in residence to encourage the creation of new work relating to St Ives and its surrounds. Inside, the architecture and art beautifully fuses with the scenery and light, and the seaside location works a treat in the top-floor café from where you can feast your eyes on the vista as you tuck into delectable Cornish produce.

Tate St Ives, Porthmeor Beach, www.tate.org.uk/stives.

 

For hundreds more unique travel experiences, grab a copy of Make The Most Of Your Time In Britain.

Dublin is no longer the budget-sapping city it once was. These days, it’s possible to while away a weekend in its leafy parks, crumbling churches and relic-packed museums without spending much beyond food and accommodation – and, of course, the occasional pint of Guinness.

Watch hurling

An ancient sport resembling a pumped-up mishmash of hockey, baseball and lacrosse, Hurling is Ireland’s national obsession. Tickets for the biggest games, held at Dublin’s vast Croke Park stadium, occasionally change hands for upwards of €100, but you can get a free taster by checking out Hill 16, which lists amateur matches taking place around the city.

Study Trinity College’s architecture

Established in the 16th Century, Trinity College is Ireland’s most prestigious university. It costs nothing to wander through the current campus grounds, set around neatly trimmed lawns, but if you want to see the Book of Kell – an ancient illustrated manuscript housed in the university’s Old Library, you’ll need to pay.

Explore Celtic history

The National Museum of Ireland on Kildare Street houses more than two million archaeological treasures, including Bronze Age jewellery and the superbly preserved hand of a Celtic man who met his maker sometime between 400 and 200 BC.

Go to church

Dublin’s two big cathedrals charge an admission fee to visitors, but it’s free to look around many of the city’s small churches. Try St Ann’s Church on Dawson Street, where Dracula author Bram Stoker was married, or the Whitefriar Street Church, which is said to house the bones of St Valentine.

Enjoy Dublin’s park life

With more green spaces per square mile than any other European city, Dublin is the perfect place to picnic. St Anne’s, one of 30 public parks around the city, hosts a fragrant rose festival each July – showing off more than 10 acres of display borders.

Listen to some open air opera

Each August, arias fill the amphitheatre at Dublin City Council’s Civic Offices. The free Opera in the Open shows are scheduled to last an hour each, appealing to a mixed crowd of relaxed mums and office-weary business people.

Watch free concerts

On Sundays from September to June, the Hugh Lane hosts free, sit-down concerts in its sculpture gallery. The acts (a mixture of Irish and international music) start at noon, and you can then browse the venue’s art galleries until 5pm.

Walk around Howth

Although it’s grown from a quiet fishing community to a seaside suburb of Dublin, Howth is still best explored on foot. The local tourist board has mapped a trail linking the area with nearby Sutton, passing a lighthouse, a castle, and cliffs that have been chewed up by the pounding waves.

Browse the Loft Market

Free (as long as you can resist the temptation to buy something), the indoor Loft Market is a popular hangout for designers and vintage enthusiasts. Founded by the fashion editor of local style mag Thread, it stocks art, jewellery and clothing.

Let a local take you for a pint

Sponsored by local businesses, the City of a Thousand Welcomes campaign aims to connect first-time visitors with knowledgeable locals. Choose a time that suits you, fill in a few details on the website and a friendly ‘ambassador’ will take you out for a beer.

Share your own tips for enjoying Dublin for free below…

From India to England, epic castles and forts have been built to withstand wars across the world. Here’s a look at some of the most impressive.

1. Rumeli, Turkey

Once a cannon-studded defensive battlement that showed little mercy to ships failing to halt their course along the Bosphorus, then a customs point and prison, Rumeli Fortress fell victim to a vicious earthquake in 1509 and an even more vicious fire in 1746. Its final role, before ending up as a open-air museum and cultural centre, was to accommodate a residential neighbourhood.

2. Alcázar of Toledo, Spain

Toledo’s Alcázar has a long heritage, having once been used as a Roman palace in the third century and more recently been a focal point during the Spanish Civil War. Dramatic events during this war led to the building being regarded as a potent symbol for Spanish Nationalism. Following meticulous restoration, the fortress is now a museum and library.

3. Janjira, India

This is the only fort on the west coast of India that has remained undefeated, in the face of many attacks from countries including the Netherlands, Portugal and England. A huge marine fortress on an island near Murud, it has 19 still-complete bastions, punctured by rusting cannons.

4. The Tower of London, England

The words “sent to the Tower” would have been enough to strike fear into the heart of any medieval Englishman, for this place was not only a palace and royal residence, it was also a grisly prison. A handful of people have been executed here – possibly the most famous was Anne Boleyn. The centre point is The White Tower, commissioned by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century.

5. Mehrangarh Fort, India

Bearing down on the city of Jodphur is Mehrangarh Fort, a giant of a building that encloses a handful of large and intricate palaces. The castle preserves memories of a long and violent past: cannonball marks on one gate, a shrine to a solider who fell in battle, and another gate with palm prints of the creators on it. You may recognize the fortress from the final Batman film, the Dark Knight Rises.

6. Fort de Douaumant, France

This fort was one of 19 such buildings constructed around the town of Verdun in northern France. Because the forts dated from the 1890s, the modern warfare and weapons of World War I completely overwhelmed them: Fort du Douaumont was occupied without struggle by a small German troop in February 1916. The 9-month Battle of Verdun ensued, tragically costing the lives of countless young men.

7. Bamburgh, England

Dominating the little fishing village of Bamburgh on the Northumberland coastline, Bamburgh Castle still has its Norman core. Primarily the seat of the English monarch over the years, it was an occasional target for Scottish raids and has belonged to the Armstrong family since 1894. It’s open to the public, and is a very popular wedding venue.

8. Citadel of Aleppo, Syria

Considered the oldest and largest fortress in existence, Aleppo’s citadel sits on a mound that has been inhabited since – incredibly – the middle of the third millennium BC. The citadel is surrounded by a deep moat, and inside there’s a remarkable amphitheatre, palace, hammam and underground passages.

9. Baba Vida, Bulgaria

Baba Vida Fortress is named after Vida, the eldest daughter of a nobleman who left his lands and powers to his three girls. Kula and Gamza married badly, while Vida refused all proposals, instead concentrating her efforts on constructing this fortress. Simply designed but oh-so-effective, with four towers and two thick grey walls, the fortress is now a fascinating museum.

10. Kumbhalgarh, India

India has plenty of remarkable fortresses, but what makes Kumbhalgarh Fort in Rajasthan so special is its beautiful evening light show, when its bulbous gates and curving ramparts are bathed in an orangey glow. Built in the fifteenth century and the birthplace of the great warrior Maharana Pratap, the fortress protects hundreds of shrines and the highlight, the painted Badal Mahal (Palace of Cloud).

11. Spiš Castle, Slovakia

Due to its rocky ruins, rambling ramparts and glorious views from its hilltop location, Spiš Castle in Slovakia has starred in a selection of medieval-era films such as Dragonheart and the Last Legion. Built over an original settlement in the twelfth century, the castle has had a long and tumultuous past, but burnt down to its current clapped-out state in 1780.

12. Prague Castle, Czech Republic

Prague Castle is the jewel in the crown for the Czech Republic, and in fact houses the Czech Crown Jewels themselves. The fortress is an attractive collection of palaces and ecclesiastical buildings, all displaying different architectural styles – like the Gothic St Vitus Cathedral and Romanesque Basilica of St George.

13. Bourtange, Netherlands

A haven of green fields and trickling canals, and shaped like a star, Bourtange Fort looks far from martial. William of Orange commissioned the fort during the Eighty Years War (1568–1648) but by 1851 it had been transformed into a peaceful village. The fort now looks as it did during the eighteenth century, but is now a diverting open-air museum.

14. Himeji Castle, Japan

One of the prettiest buildings you’ll ever see, Japan’s Himeji Castle is often referred to as the “White Heron Castle” for its resemblance to a flying bird. It has 6 stories, 83 rooms and a serene inner moat, and has the auspicious claim of being Japan’s premier and most popular castle. It’s currently undergoing extensive renovation, due to finish in spring 2015.

15. Potala Palace, Tibet

Thirteen stories, white walls measuring over 3 metres wide, more than 1000 rooms and countless shrines and statues combine to produce the massive, unconquerable Potala Palace in eastern Tibet. The Dalai Lama lived here until the 1959 Tibetan uprising, and it’s now a well-visited museum.

16. Kotor, Montenegro

The coastal town of Kotor is encircled by a extensive walled fortification system that has had to contend with Ottoman sieges, Venetian and Habsburg rule, Russian occupation and vicious British attack – not to mention a handful of destructive earthquakes, which put it on the World Heritage List of Danger until 2003.

17. Malbork Castle, Poland

An unfathomable number of red bricks went into the making of Poland’s Malbork Castle. A classic medieval fortress founded by the Teutonic Knights, complete with moats, towers and ramparts, the castle was pulverised during World War II. Today, visitors can see the result of admirable and ongoing restoration.

18. Buda Castle, Hungary

Commanding the River Danube and the higgledy-piggledy Castle District around it, Budapest’s fortress was the glitzy, golden home of the Hungarian kings, dubbed, unsurprisingly, the Royal Palace. It’s a rather plain beast today compared to what it once was and instead of regal folk, now houses museums and galleries.

19. Krak de Chevaliers, Syria

Built strategically on top of a hill east of Taurus, eastern Syria, the magnificent Krak de Chevaliers was originally a Crusader castle, constructed in the twelfth century (though the site was inhabited before that). T. E Lawrence once described it as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world” and today it still has remnants of medieval frescoes within.

20. Conwy Castle, Wales

Eight massive towers and a vast, thick curtain wall protect Conwy’s castle with extraordinary medieval might. The fortress dates from the reign of Edward I and his Conquest of Wales, and it has been centre stage during many consecutive bloody battles, before enjoying a decidedly more peaceful role as the subject of Victorian paintings and tourist rambles.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of Britain’s most beautiful buildings are places of worship. Head to one of these five architectural wonders and prepare to drop to your knees in awe, if not necessarily in supplication.

Ely Cathedral, Ely

Ely Cathedral (pictured above) was created to invoke a sense of awe. Constructed over two hundred years, it’s an architectural tour de force, all the more impressive for standing apparently in the middle of nowhere – Ely isn’t exactly a big city. Perched atop the “island” of Ely, the cathedral looms over the dykes, drains and rich, black fields of the Fens. Pancake-flat and desolate in winter, this is perhaps the most melancholic landscape in England. Thanks to the Fens, Ely’s enormous West Tower can be seen for miles, a castle guarding the shore of a dried-up sea. God-like indeed to the monks that came across the watery marshes to serve here in the Middle Ages – for the folk that lived in wattle-and-daub huts, it must have seemed miraculous.

Not that it seems any less so today. The West Tower rises 215ft, most of it (incredibly) constructed in the twelfth century. Under the tower the great west door is the main entrance to the cathedral, a fine early English Gothic porch built of Barnock stone and Purbeck marble. Aficionados of English architecture are in for a real treat inside, beginning with the nave, surely one of the most inspiring interiors in England. It’s the fourth longest of the English cathedrals, but its Norman architecture, with distinctive round arches, is exceptional. Its crowning glory is the Octagon Lantern tower in the centre, which replaced the original tower that collapsed in 1322. Take your time studying this masterpiece of medieval engineering – critics often describe it as one of the most spectacular spaces ever built in an English church.

Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire, www.elycathedral.org.

Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin

Even if you don’t believe the fanciful stories that Rosslyn Chapel conceals Masonic or Templar secrets in its sculpture, or perches on top of secret underground vaults, or is a resting place for the Holy Grail, it’s still a very odd place indeed. This weirdness has something to do with the chapel’s incongruous location, almost within touching distance of Edinburgh’s suburbs, and also the chapel’s bizarre appearance – it looks as if someone began building a miniature cathedral and downed tools halfway (and indeed this is probably precisely what happened: construction work seems to have halted when the chapel’s donor, Sir William Sinclair, died in 1484).

The chapel’s strangeness, however, is mostly due to its rare and wonderful profusion of stone sculpture. Across arches and architraves, voussoirs and vaults, hardly a stony surface lacks decoration, and the symbolism of some of it is intriguing. There’s a bound, upside-down Lucifer, a bagpipe-playing angel, a Dance of Death scene and over a hundred representations of the fertility figure known as the Green Man, some of them stunningly realized. Behind the altar stand the Prentice Pillar (or apprentice pillar), Master Pillar and Journeyman Pillar, all of which have attached legends.

Since 1997, the chapel has been half-buried under a protective canopy but in 2010 this was finally removed, revealing the chapel’s flying buttresses in all their glory.

Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin, Midlothian, is seven miles from Edinburgh – (www.rosslynchapel.org.uk).

 

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Neasden

One of London’s greatest architectural feats is in a place where you would never expect to find it. Just off the North Circular road, through the unremarkable suburb of Neasden, lies the largest active Hindu temple outside India. Its full name – BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir – will win no awards for catchiness, but its majestic design, both inside and out, is a showstopper. It’s almost how Angkor Wat might appear if made of limestone: its seven tiered pinnacles bear similarity with that other great Hindu complex, as do its staircases and elaborate carvings of dancers and deities.

The miraculous nature of the temple is further enhanced by the manner of its construction. Built in only 27 months, it is made primarily of 2000 tonnes of Indian marble and 3000 tonnes of Bulgarian limestone; uniquely for a modern British building, it contains no iron or steel for support. All that material was shipped to India, where an army of sculptors carved it into 26,300 separate sculpted stones. Those pieces were then transported to Neasden, where the temple was assembled much like an IKEA kit.

On the ground floor inside is an assembly hall, a shrine to the eighteenth-century saint Bhagwan Swaminarayan, to whom the temple is dedicated, a small museum and a shop. But the real reason to come in is to visit the mandir upstairs, the central shrine. In this magnificent marble space, filled with intricate carved pillars, are seven murtis, or icons of divinities – one underneath each of the seven exterior pinnacles. The air is cool, a near silence prevails, worshippers prostrate themselves. It’s here you’re reminded that this is a living, breathing temple, and not just a mind-blowing piece of architecture.

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, 105–119 Brentfield Rd, London, www.mandir.org.

St Paul’s Cathedral, London

In a secular city St Paul’s Cathedral continues to reign supreme as the greatest building inherited from a more generous past. Standing high at the top of Ludgate Hill, and with the view of the building from many directions still protected by planning laws, it dominates a large part of the city, and for many Londoners it remains a source of tranquillity and wonder long after the city’s other notable sights have become over-familiar.

What makes the building so great? There are many answers to this question. One of its triumphs is the marriage of a strong and immediately intelligible form – the dome, the barrel, the great walls turning and folding – with a wealth of beautiful detail. It’s also a wonderfully balanced composition: one of Wren’s greatest achievements was to give a structure with a dome, rather than a spire or a tower, a truly vertical emphasis. Climb up to the dome’s galleries inside and you’ll discover its secrets and find out how he managed to raise the dome so high. The dome itself is not a hemisphere: it is taller, egg-shaped – another brilliant touch that adds unmistakeably to the building’s impact.

St Paul’s Cathedral, London EC4. www.stpauls.co.uk

The stained-glass wonders of York Minster

It’s hard not be overwhelmed by York Minster. It took around 250 years to complete, is the second largest Gothic cathedral in Europe and one of the most visited sites in northern England, a gorgeous pile of carved limestone with three towers rising to nearly 200ft high. Yet the real genius of York lies in that most underrated of art forms: stained glass.

It should be called “Gothic glass art” instead. For many, “stained glass” conjures up images of cold, dull Sundays in church, or boring museums. York isn’t like that at all; the Minster has one of the finest collections of stained glass in England, with 128 windows containing around two million individual pieces of glass. You’d have to be a real aficionado to work your way through every one, but there are some obvious highlights.

The 76ft-high Great East Window is truly monumental, a massive construction dating from 1408 and comprising an ornate tracery and 117 panels of carefully crafted biblical scenes, everything from the Creation to startling images of the Last Judgement. The Great West Window, completed even earlier in 1338, is known as the “Heart of Yorkshire” thanks to the heart-shape pattern in the tracery. Finally, the strangely modern Rose Window, which glows like a mighty star, its 73 panels of glass emblazoned with white and red roses, symbolic of the union between the houses of York and Lancaster. Completed around 1500, the window commemorates the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, effectively ending the Wars of the Roses.

York Minster, York, www.yorkminster.org.

 

For more great buildings and interesting days out in Britain, get Make The Most Of Your Time In Britain.

Step back in time and enjoy some spectacular British castles and palaces in our pick of the bunch from Make The Most Of Your Time In Britain

Warwick Castle, Warwick

On the surface, Warwick Castle looks like an ideal place to spend a genteel, quintessentially English day out. The wonderfully restored medieval castle, built in 1068 by William the Conquerer on the site of an older earthen rampart near the River Avon, houses an opulent hall lined with suits of armour, state rooms packed with period furniture, lavish royal chambers and a tower that could have been plucked straight out of a fairy tale. Surrounding the castle, meanwhile, are 690 acres of immaculate gardens, landscaped in the eighteenth century by Lancelot “Capability” Brown.

However, the castle is also home to what one British newspaper has dubbed the scariest tourist attraction in the country. The castle dungeon, where senior Royalists were detained during the English Civil War, now has a Black Death theme, complete with strikingly realistic decaying bodies, torture chamber and medieval medical equipment, not to mention crowds of leeches, creepy chanting monks and gallons of (fake) blood. It is all brought to life by a devilish cast of actors, who take obvious delight in creating a gloomy and ghoulish atmosphere.

Warwick Castle, Warwick www.warwick-castle.co.uk.

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex

Ask any five-year-old to draw you a castle and you’ll probably end up with a version of Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. With its fairy-tale battlements, arrow slits, portcullis and moat, it is the very image of a forbidding medieval fortress and undoubtedly one of England’s most evocative, especially in the early morning mist with the caws of crows rasping in the air. Yet while it certainly looks the part, Bodiam may be, whisper it, something of a fraud.

Historians, you see, can be a tad sniffy about Bodiam, claiming it’s little more than a beefed-up manor house rather than a “proper” castle. For starters the moat, seemingly a tricky barrier for the assumed French invaders, could have been drained in a few hours by a man with a shovel. Then there are the thin walls, the vulnerable large windows and the lack of a proper drawbridge. Yet gripes like these rather miss the point. Its owner, local bigwig Sir Edward Dallingridge, had little intention of holing up inside and pouring boiling oil through the murder holes when the castle was completed in 1385. For him Bodiam was about impressing the neighbours and displaying the new-found wealth he had obtained by plundering French villages.

What really sets Bodiam apart, though, is its unspoilt exterior and the sweeping views from its battlements. It’s a location manager’s dream (it played a key role in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and just a few hours here will set your imagination into overdrive – you half expect toothless peasants to be tilling the fields or to see a dragon swoop overhead. For the kids, there are plenty of ye olde activities to take part in, from dressing up in medieval garb to archery and falconry displays.

Bodiam Castle, near Robertsbridge, East Sussex, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bodiamcastle.

Stokesay Castle, Shropshire

Sitting in lush Shropshire countryside, all dense hedgerows and patchwork arable land, Stokesay is comprised of a harmonious cluster of buildings: the original honey-coloured and crenellated fortifications, topped with a weathered slate roof; an Elizabethan half-timbered gatehouse decorated with carvings of Adam and Eve; and a little country church with canopied pews. Edward I granted the licence to fortify, but it’s likely the steep castle walls were designed with aesthetics in mind, rather than to keep marauding Welshmen at bay; the castle was built during a lull in the border battles.

And it is the domestic rather than military nature of Stokesay that gives it its particular charm, and enables it to sit so very prettily in this verdant landscape. The great hall, which dates from Lawrence’s time, is spanned by a massive timber-framed roof, and still has its original interior staircase. Instead of a fireplace, there’s an octagonal hearth in the centre of the room. Elsewhere, the north tower has its original tiled floor, and the gatehouse features seventeenth-century wall paintings; until the time of Charles I, Lawrence’s descendants were responsible for the attractive development of the castle.

After this point, Stokesay was used as base for the king during the Civil War, and was then handed to the parliamentarians without any significant fighting taking place. Having survived its long history conflict-free, this overwhelmingly attractive and eccentric collection of buildings was thus preserved for future visitors.

Stokesay is 7 miles northwest of Ludlow, Shropshire www.english-heritage.org.uk.

Stirling Castle, Stirling

Perched on a jagged outcrop of granite, and framed by heather-smothered hills, Stirling Castle looks like the classical impregnable fortress, its bleak, stolid walls witness to a long history of murder and mayhem. Thanks to Braveheart, almost everyone in the world knows about William Wallace and the Battle of Stirling Bridge where he trounced the English in that memorable (and bloody) battle scene. Disappointingly for Wallace fans, little remains of the castle he took in 1297; after another hero, Robert Bruce, decisively beat the English again at Bannockburn in 1314, the castle was effectively destroyed and then rebuilt. The oldest surviving part of the castle today is the stern North Gate, built in 1381 during the reign of Robert II.

Yet the castle’s later history is wonderfully preserved, offering an alternative to that blood-and-guts image. Mary, Queen of Scots was crowned in the Chapel Royal in 1543, and the Great Hall where she held lavish feasts is still there. It remains a majestic space, with enormous walls, high oriel windows, and a fine oak hammer-beam roof, encrusted with vivid stone carvings. The castle is also painstakingly reproducing the set of 33 gorgeous hand-carved oak medallions that once adorned the ceilings of the Palace. The replicas will eventually return to the ceiling of the King’s Presence Hall, while a special gallery is being created for the originals.

Then there are the famous Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, medieval gems being recreated for the castle by weavers at West Dean College. It remains to be seen if Gibson, or the ghost of William Wallace, will make an appearance at the unveiling in 2014.

Stirling Castle, Castle Wynd, Stirling 01786/450000, www.stirlingcastle.gov.uk.

Hampton Court, Surrey

Ghosts stalk the corridors of Hampton Court Palace: Catherine Howard, dragged back to her rooms after being accused of adultery, not long before her execution at the Tower of London, is apparently seen screaming in the appropriately named Haunted Gallery; while Henry VIII’s favourite wife, Jane Seymour, has been spotted walking through Clock Court, carrying a lighted taper. Whether or not you believe in ghosts – or are fortunate enough to see one – there’s no denying that the palace is so rich in history that there seems to be more to it than just the many visitors that wander through its rooms.

It was Thomas Wolsey, during the reign of Henry VIII, who transformed what was a large private house – built as a grange for the Knights Hostpitallers in the thirteenth century – into the impressive complex that we see today. The palace was a striking, modern centrepiece for the king’s rule, used to impress and entertain foreign dignitaries and, of course, house his various wives in lavish rooms.

Even today, it’s impossible not to be enchanted by the architecture and design of the buildings and grounds. Rivalling the ghosts as the palace’s most famous attraction is the trapezoidal maze, planted at the end of the seventeenth century as a place for courtiers to lose themselves when needing to escape palace politics.

Hampton Court Palace, Hampton Court, Surrey, www.hrp.org.uk/hamptoncourtpalace.

 

For hundreds more unique experiences, get a copy of Make The Most Of Your Time In Britain

Surrounded by sea, peppered with sleek and striking architecture, and populated by an attractive, laid-back bunch of Danes, Copenhagen tops the table for being Europe’s most relaxed city. But this enviable lifestyle comes at a cost – it’s also one of the most expensive cities you’ll ever come across.  With food and drink at eye-wateringly high prices, you’ll need a wad of cash to sustain yourself, but follow these tips for free things to do in Copenhagen, and maybe you could afford that trip to Noma after all…

Visit the Little Mermaid

Copenhagen’s biggest – and smallest – icon, the Little Mermaid is a diminutive statue sitting at the end of the Langelinie promenade. Commissioned in 1909 by the founder of the Carlsberg brewery, J. C Jacobsen, and unveiled in 1913, the poor little soul has been subjected to vicious vandalism over the years, having had her head and limbs chopped off, had paint thrown over her and even been bombed in 2003. It’s free to go and pay her a somewhat more deferential visit.

Picnic in the Kongens Have

Laced by leafy avenues and spread with lush green grass, the Kongens Have is Copenhagen’s oldest and most popular public garden – and makes the perfect spot to hunker down in the shade with a tasty picnic. In the height of summer there are puppet shows and free music concerts to accompany your sandwich.

Jump on a bike

Launched in 1995, Copenhagen was the very first city to offer free bikes to the public. The scheme is still going strong today – and with most of the city centre given over to pedestrians and cyclists, it makes for a pleasant, stress-free ride. At one of the 110 bike racks available, pop a 20DKK or €2 coin in the machine, pootle around on your bike, and when you’re finished you’ll get your coin back.

Swim in the Islands Brugge

In the summer months (June–Aug), plunge into the clean, fresh waters of Islands Brugge, a fashionable harbour-front swimming pool, just near the city centre in Indre By.

Museum-hop for free

Free museums in Copenhagen include the National Museum, National Gallery and Danish Resistance Museum. Others, such as the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and the Hirschsprung Collection, are free for one day during the week – usually Fridays.  You’ll get plenty of culture for free here.

Hit the beach

With so much sea water around, it’s not surprising that Copenhagen has a clutch of fine-looking beaches: Amager Strand (5km from the centre; take the metro to Amager Strand or Femøren, or bus #12), Bellevue Beach (S-train to Klampenborg Station) and Charlottenlund (bus #14) are long swathes of powder-white sand lapped by invitingly clear, blue water.

Wander round Christiana

A former barracks colonized by hippies and controversially declared a “free city” in 1971, Christiana sits to the west of the city centre, in the borough of Christianshavn. Colourful, quirky buildings house small businesses, theatres and cafés. There are guided tours around the area, for which you have to pay, but it’s free to stroll round by yourself; just refrain from taking photographs.

Catch a film outdoors

Film-lovers will be in seventh heaven during the summer months, when there are screenings of classic and contemporary films – both Danish- and English-language – in a variety of the city’s parks most evenings. Bring a blanket, a bottle of wine and perhaps some popcorn.

Watch the Changing of the Guard

Home-sick Londoners might want to head to the Amalienborg Castle on the harbour front to watch the Changing of the Guard – or “Vagtparade” in Danish – which takes place at noon every day. Expect blue trouser-clad soldiers marching round to rousing music, bellowing orders.

Party with the locals

Copenhagen’s festival calendar is absolutely jam-packed during the summer. There are free jazz concerts, fashion shows, dance performances, art exhibitions, city walks, Copenhagen Gay Pride (mid-August), sports matches – the list goes on. Most atmospheric are the Midsummer Night’s Eve celebrations in June, when hundreds of bonfires are lit in various spots in and around the city, crowds feast on barbecued meat and everyone enjoys a great big sing-song.

Visiting London, it’s hard to imagine the UK is staggering its way out of a recession. Lamborghinis continue to roar down Bond Street, new restaurants pop up each week and the East End appears to be entirely populated by espresso-sipping hipsters, with not a jellied eel in sight. However long you spend in the capital, follow these tips for free things to do in London to emerge wallet intact.

Hit the museums

Thanks to those philanthropic Victorians London has the world’s finest collection of free museums, most of which double as architectural marvels. The South Ken trio of the Natural History, V&A and Science Museum is the best place to start. Though don’t miss the British Museum or the quirky Sir John Soane collection.

Marvel at world-class art

Most of London’s wonderful permanent art collections are free to all (stick that in your pipe Musée du Louvre!). As well as the National Gallery and the two Tates, try the Whitechapel Gallery or the newly revamped Photographers’ Gallery.

Witness the capital’s enviable live music

Apart from buskers murdering Coldplay on the tube, you’ll find free music across the capital. Camden pubs such as the Lock Tavern regularly host free gigs while Rough Trade record stores put on in-store performances by suprisingly big names.

Enjoy some free concerts

For some free Bach or Beethoven try a student performance at the Royal Academy of Music or an evening concert at St Martin’s in the Fields. If you’re under 26 you can also enjoy a huge range of free events at the Barbican arts centre.

Get your sides split for nothing

A smile costs nothing so they say, especially on Tuesdays at the Camden Head Pub or Wednesdays at the Comedy Café. Each venue hosts free nights where comics try out new material (be gentle!).

Pedal for free

For a couple of quid you can access the capital’s network of bulky-but-brilliant “Boris bikes” for 24hrs. Hiring the bikes is then free if you limit each ride to 30min (a range of apps help you find the docking points – try http://cyclehireapp.com/).

Seek out some real wildlife

With London Zoo costing a staggering £63 for a family of four, it’s worth knowing you can see wildlife for free in the capital. Richmond Park is famous for its herds of deer while the Lee Valley provides everything from butteflies to swooping peregrine falcons.

Behold London’s pomp and ceremony

Pageantry breaks out regularly across London from the Changing the Guard to the Lord Mayor’s Show, both free to view. For something less stuffy don’t miss the Notting Hill Carnival held each August bank holiday.

Forage for the city’s best free food

It’s a wee bit cheeky but you can sample plenty of free titbits at London’s wonderful food markets – try Borough for the widest range or its smaller, cooler, rival Maltby Street. Even Harrod’s food hall hands out the odd morsel to the great unwashed.

Exploit the numerous 2for1 ticket offers

Both Visit London and National Rail’s Day’s Out Guide offer a range of 2for1 deals for those travelling by tube or train. If you simply must go to Madame Tussauds this is probably the cheapest way to do it.

Mark Adams, author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu, uncovers the myths and mystery around the spellbinding Peruvian landmark.

This year, around a million visitors will make the epic journey to Machu Picchu – an odyssey that for most people entails a long flight to Lima, a second flight to Cusco, and then a three-and-a-half hour train ride (or four-day hike) to the ruins themselves. Strangely, almost none of these travelers will have the slightest idea what is it they’re going to see. It’s as if the Incas built this stone masterpiece in the clouds solely to serve as an envy-inducing photo backdrop. Which is a shame, because in recent years we’ve learned quite a lot about the fascinating reasons behind Machu Picchu’s existence.

The most common misconception about Machu Picchu has been handed down by the American explorer Hiram Bingham III. He was the citadel’s sole visitor from the outside world in 1911, the year that he is credited with rediscovering the spectacular ruins. (Three Peruvian farm families were living there at the time.)

Bingham had been searching for someplace else, the legendary Lost City of the Incas. That ghostly metropolis—officially known as Vilcabamba—was the redoubt to which a group of Inca nobles and their women had supposedly escaped (with a large stash of gold, the story went) when Francisco Pizarro and his rapacious Spanish conquistadors arrived in Peru in 1532. Unfortunately, the hyper-ambitious Bingham was so eager to prove that he’d found the lost city that he ignored evidence that Vilcabamba was actually located not far west of Machu Picchu, in the Amazon jungle. Some local guides in Cusco still insist that Bingham departed Peru with a fortune in precious metals, but the truth is that he found mostly bits of broken pottery and human remains. Most of these have recently been returned to Peru after spending a century in the United States.

In the 1980s, the Yale University professors Richard Burger and Lucy Salazar proposed what is now the reigning academic theory about Machu Picchu, which is that it was built in the 15th century as a summer home for the greatest Inca emperor, Pachacutec. Burger compares the site to Camp David, the U.S. president’s weekend retreat where politics and recreation mix. While convincing – a rare real estate document dated 1568 even backs up the thesis – this explanation of Machu Picchu’s origins doesn’t fully account for the site’s spectacular natural setting, or for its enigmatic stone structures that draw spiritual seekers from around the globe.

The anthropologist Johan Reinhard argues that while Machu Picchu may have served as the Inca emperor’s getaway, its location was chosen for more than the nice views. Reinhard calls Machu Picchu a “sacred center,” and has demonstrated that holy peaks (or ‘apus’ in Quechua, the language of the Andes) lie directly to the north, south, east and west of the site. The Urubamba River, one of the chief symbols in Inca cosmology, practically wraps itself around the bluff on which Machu Picchu sits.

The Incas worshipped nature and the sun in particular, and the architecture at Machu Picchu is fully integrated with its environment. During the June solstice, the sun rises directly above a peak due east of the site and shoots a beam of light through a window of the spectacular semicircular Sun Temple, where it forms a perfect illuminated rectangle on a slab of granite. Some believe that the stone – whose surface appears to have been cracked – once held a gold statue of Pachacutec. A more recent twist on Reinhard’s theory posits that the famous Inca Trail, beloved by hikers, was designed as a pilgrimage for those who were preparing to enter Machu Picchu.

Because the Incas left behind so little hard information, we’ll probably never know for certain exactly why Machu Picchu was built. But mystery, along with the gorgeous stonework and mind-blowing scenery, will always be part of the site’s allure. For most people, walking into the ruins of Machu Picchu for the first time is a stirring moment, akin to entering a natural cathedral. For those who arrive understanding a little about its historic and spiritual importance, a trip that might otherwise be a very expensive photo-op can also be a life-changing experience.

Find out more about Machu Picchu and order the book at Mark’s website: markadamsbooks.com.

Bar those with a fair knowledge of Korean history, few have ever heard of the kingdom of Baekje. Though long swallowed up by the sands of time, this ancient dynasty was one of East Asia’s cultural high-water marks, and its influence can still be felt today: their rulers introduced Buddhism to both Korea and Japan, while Japan’s own emperors have Baekje lineage. In addition, Baekje artisans produced jewellery of incredible beauty, as well as pottery of a quality unmatchable to this day.

Together with Silla and Goguryeo, Baekje was one of Korea’s fabled Three Kingdoms. It came about in 18BC after some family in-fighting: the nascent kingdom of Goguryeo passed from founder to first son, ticking off the third son, Onjo, who chose to establish his own kingdom. Nothing remains of his first capital – Wiryeseong, in present-day Seoul – so to explore this forgotten piece of history we need to head further south to Gongju.

Just over an hour’s bus-ride from Seoul, it’s a small, initally unassuming city that functioned as the Baekje capital from 475-538 AD. It’s incredibly user-friendly – all notable sights are within easy walking distance. I choose to head straight for the royal tombs, a clutch of grassy hillocks inside which the kings of Baekje were interred. All tombs were looted over the centuries, bar that of King Muryeong (r. 501-523), which was found intact in 1971, yielding thousands of pieces of Baekje jewellery, as well as the skeletons of the king and his wife. The fruits of this astonishing discovery now fill a nearby museum, which is one of the best in the land. The highlight is, without doubt, an elaborate golden diadem once worn like rabbit ears atop the regal scalp.


A short walk back towards the city centre is Gongsanseong, a Baekje-era fortress. Dotted with fluttering, faux-imperial flags, its bulky walls provide a spectacular view of the city – and, if you choose to walk their occasionally steep circumference, a strenuous work-out. The tree-filled interior has its own delightful walking trails, connecting a series of sumptuously-painted pavilions. Standing next to one is a plaque commemorating a pair of trees which once gave a Baekje king shelter while his fortress was attacked. In an early demonstration of regal folly, he then made the trees State Ministers.

Now for my own personal highlight of a trip to Gongju: eating. Opposite the fortress entrance is Gomanaru, one of my favourite restaurants in the whole country. The food here is appropriately traditional, with most diners opting for the full banquet meals. These see the table covered with two dozen side dishes offering all manner of delights. After sampling some fern bracken, acorn jelly, soybean broth, shellfish, river fish, spicy tofu and at least six kinds of kimchi, it’s quite possible to get full without touching the main course (which is usually barbequed duck). For a few dollars more, it’s possible to have the whole thing covered with edible flowers.

And then to bed. On my visit I chose to sleep by the royal tombs in a traditional wooden house known as a hanok. With sliding doors, paper-covered walls, tiled roofs and a floor heated from beneath with tickling flames, this is present day Korea’s closest approximation to Baekje’s own domiciles. To further the spirit of tradition, I purchase a bottle of makgeolli, a creamy rice-wine enjoyed by Koreans for centuries – Gongju is famed for its chestnuts, and its own makgeolli is flavoured as such. After enjoying my drink under the stars, the warmth and smell of the wood fire means that I’m alseep in seconds, dreaming about Korea’s days of dynasty.

 

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month