Sword fighting, scaremongering and sensational surroundings: Lottie Gross finds out why Warwick Castle isn’t just fun for the kids.

As expected, upon arrival we discovered we were one of only two couples without children in the entire campsite. Fortunately, our medieval Warwick tent – complete with double bed, two singles, plush duvets and mattresses fit for kings – was set back from the others, overlooking the river, giving me hope that there may be some peace to be had that evening after all the kids had been put to bed.

We were about to embark on what Warwick Castle call their “medieval glamping experience”, in which we’re shacked up in luxury tents, given two full days to explore the castle and get to feast at a medieval banquet in the evening. I had wondered what on Earth we’d do for two whole days here, but after seeing the extensive programme of events I worried that we wouldn’t fit it all in. Just the walk from the glampsite to the castle grounds took us 45 minutes as we stopped to take in the view of the rather elegant conservatory and peacock garden, meet a bizarre bird of prey with head feathers that resembled Rod Stewart, and examine a huge wooden trebuchet which stood poised threateningly at 18 metres tall.

Kings Tent exterior 1

We first opted for a picnic on the lawn outside the castle; a safe and relaxed introduction to the grounds, I thought. That was before an enormous sea eagle swooped down from behind me, a few feet above my head, landing in the fenced off area to my right. Instinctively I cowered to protect my not-so-medieval ham sandwich from its sharp, bright yellow talons.

We’d sat down just as the twice-daily falconry display had begun and it turned out to be a pretty exciting half an hour once I’d got over the fear of having my lunch pecked from my hands. We saw three types of eagle and a white-backed vulture gracing the skies above our heads, flying unimaginably high (sometimes up to thousands of feet) then gliding down to get food from the falconer who was leading the show. There was something mesmerizing about watching an animal so enormous and heavy float like a feather through a glorious blue sky.

The Castle is celebrating 1100 years this summer, although of course the walls we see today aren’t quite that old – an earthen rampart was built here in 914 and since then has been the site of various defensive structures. The stone castle was constructed 1260 and has grown to the deceptive size it is now over the years.

We found ourselves lost in a myriad of opulent rooms in the main enclave of the castle, where suits of armour lined the corridors and hundreds of swords adorned the walls. During guided tours of the Great Hall we were able to handle the some of the hefty metal weapons – scores of men were queuing up to hold these lethal blades, none of whom I’m sure would have the strength to swing it with just one arm.

Warwick Castle Ceasars Tower

Upstairs in the living quarters mannequins dressed as Earls and Ladies were poised mid-action – the busty women gossiping in a boudoir, the men smoking in the library – and recordings played out their conversations as if it were just another day at Warwick. Similarly, below ground in an exhibition called the Kingmaker, we found ourselves in the midst of battle preparations for the 1471 battle lead by Richard Neville in the War of the Roses. The sights, sounds and even smells (from the mock-up horses stables to the fake fires) told the story of behind-the-scenes Warwick.

Even further below ground, however, is where we found the real adult entertainment (not like that, get your mind out of the gutter). During a terrifying half an hour, I cautiously tip-toed through a labyrinth of dark rooms, trying to stifle the compulsion to clutch strangers’ hands and hide behind those taller than me. The Dungeon of Warwick Castle is not a place for the weak, the faint-hearted or – as it seemed during our visit – children: some were so terrified they were reduced to tears.

We were ferried through a torture room and a doctor’s lab before we were put on trial for all manner of atrocities then let loose in a misty maze of mirrors. It’s usually only after a heavy night that I’m afraid of my own reflection, but in that room I almost unable to look up from the floor for fear of what might look back. The climax of the tour of terror ended in a room full of screaming adults as the seats came alive and tickled our backsides while a crazed witch cackled in our ears. Fortunately, by this time the bar was open and a stiff drink was placed firmly in my hand upon arrival at back at the camp.

The promised “medieval feast” left a little to be desired; the whole hog with an apple in its mouth I’d imagined turned out to be a roast dinner buffet. But the subsequent entertainment delivered more then enough amusement for the kids – that was until the parents commandeered the fun. While the Warwick jester was distracting the children, we lined up to try our hands at archery, sword-fighting and jousting. Suddenly, a mixture of gin and tonic and plastic swords culminated in wives slaughtering husbands in clumsy battles, and fathers jeering at their sons when they couldn’t hit closer to the archery target.

We finally fell into our tent at 2am after sitting by the river with a bottle of wine, putting the medieval world to rights. Thankfully, a full English was laid out the following morning to soak up our hangovers, and a stroll through the peacock garden made for a romantic recovery.

We witnessed the raising of the portcullis, where an animated archer told gory tales of failed enemy attacks, then took a stroll along the castle’s defences to admire the beautiful grounds from above. The breeze from the top was refreshing and as I looked down on the estate I remembered my first trip to Warwick Castle; I was 13-years-old on a school trip, and I couldn’t have been less interested in its dramatic history or personal stories. I considered how this weekend had been a testament to the castle’s appeal as an attraction that’s not just for children.

Warwick Castle’s medieval glamping runs throughout summer until 31st August. For more information see warwick-castle.com/glamping and to book call the Glamping Hotline on 0871 663 1676 (lines open Monday – Friday 9am-5pm). Chiltern Railways provides train travel to Warwick from London Marylebone and Birmingham stations thirty times a day. The castle is a ten minute walk from the station.

In the depths of southern Poland Helen Ochyra goes underground to try out the claustrophobic work of miners in the Wieliczka salt mine.

“Room for one more” I am told as I am gently nudged into an already packed out lift. The doors are pulled across behind me with much scraping of metal and we move up by about five metres. This will happen twice more before we can finally change direction and descend the 57 metres into Wieliczka salt mine so that we can load more people into the lift’s other levels, packing us – quite literally – on top of each other.

It is hot, cramped and uncomfortable – an authentic mine experience I imagine. I’m here to get an insight into the lives of the miners who worked here from the thirteenth century right up until 2007. Although it’s just a few minutes into the three-hour tour, I can already feel that I wouldn’t have lasted very long.

I am following the new Miner’s Route, which starts with this descent by lift down the oldest mine shaft at Wieliczka, the Regis shaft, which was built by the order of Casimir the Great in the 1200s. The lift is not completely enclosed and so I watch the walls rushing past through gaps as we descend at a speed of four metres a second. By the time we reach the bottom, just 15 seconds later, I am somewhat disorientated and very glad of our guide Dariusz – a former miner who provides some reassuring company so far below ground.

Kopalnia_Gornicza_2012_240812__26

He leads us through a dizzying network of tunnels that are held in place by thick wooden beams, only just tall enough for us to avoid bashing our hard hats on the ceiling above. At various points on the walls and particularly in the joints of the wood we see cauliflower-like deposits of salt. It feels like the stuff is seeping out of every pore here and it is surprisingly beautiful, a brilliant white bloom growing out of the darkness.

But the most remarkable thing about Wieliczka is the size of its tunnel network. Just one per cent of the mine is open to visitors and yet we walk for hours, clambering up ladders and marching down endless flights of stairs. There is chamber after chamber to explore. We see the remnants of the so-called “Hungarian dog” transport system, a simple wooden cart pulled along runners in the ground, and are taught everything from how to measure the methane levels in the air – after the classic canary method they used chemical-infused paper which would turn brown in the presence of methane – to how to use a pickaxe to dislodge salt from the walls.

This turns out to be my favourite part of the tour. There is little that is delicate about swinging a metal axe and I make meaningful contact with the mine’s wall with my first swing, shattering the salt and sending it flying through the air. It is immensely satisfying and I really start to feel like the novice miner I have been cast as.

We continue along the tunnels, trudging along in our grey boiler suits and clambering up wooden ladders to reach new levels. I start to enjoy the feeling of being underground in this vast underworld and it seems I must be doing something right because I am picked out to navigate our way back to the lift.

Kopalnia_Gornicza_2012_240812__75

Dariusz hands me a map of the mine and that feeling of disorientation from the start of the tour immediately returns. There are tunnels in every direction, looping off and circling back on several different levels. I turn the map this way and that and just before the panic sets in, eventually identify a couple of landmarks. I strike off in what I believe is the right direction and sure enough a few minutes later we arrive at our final destination – a modern lift installed specifically for visitors that will take us back up and out into the sunlight.

We had reached a depth of 101 metres but there were still hundreds of metres below us, not to mention another 240-odd-kilometres of tunnels we hadn’t even set foot in. This is a truly vast mine and it would take a lifetime to truly navigate it. I may have successfully hacked off a chunk of it with a pickaxe today, but I have barely scratched the surface.

Wieliczka Salt Mine is located just outside Krakow, in the south of Poland. The Miner’s Route tour costs 76 zloty (about £15). For more information on Poland visit www.poland.travel. Explore more of Poland with the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

The Landmark Trust have been restoring buildings for almost fifty years and now have nearly 200 buildings in England, Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands, France and Italy. Here are some of our favourite unusual places to stay by the Landmark Trust:

Clavell Tower, Wareham, England

Clavell Tower

Rescued from the edge of a crumbling cliff along the Dorset coast, Clavell Tower has stood here since the summer of 1830. It was built by a 70-year-old Reverend John Richards Clavell and was sometimes inhabited by a young Thomas Hardy who used it as a frontispiece for his Wessex Poems and courted a local coastguard’s daughter here.
Clavell Tower: Sleeps two; four nights from £415

The Appleton Water Tower, Norfolk, England

Appleton-Water-Tower2

This functional but beautiful building sits on the edge of the Sandringham Estate and was the result of a number of illnesses and a death in the royal family during Queen Victoria’s reign. After Edward the Prince of Wales fell ill with typhoid in 1871, it was discovered that a number of cesspools were contaminating the estate’s drainage system and infecting those drinking the water. This water tower was then erected in 1877 to supply the estate, and now provides a wonderful place to sleep and excellent views of the Norfolk countryside.
The Appleton Water Tower: Sleeps four; four nights from £217

Alton Station, Staffordshire, England

Alton Station

Here you can sleep in the ticket office or cook in the waiting room of an old abandoned railway station. In its heyday, Alton Station took 12-coach excursion trains from the Potteries (Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Fenton and Longton), but now you can stroll along the tracks, explore the countryside and rest up in the Stationmaster’s house at the end of a peaceful day.
Alton Station: Sleeps eight; four nights from £522

Swiss Cottage, Devon, England

Swiss Cottage

Set along a stunning stretch of the River Tamar, the Swiss Cottage acts as an eccentric retreat, designed with a “nineteenth century passion for the Alps” as it’s described by the Landmark Trust. Complete with an Alpine garden and Swiss furniture and crockery, this place has breathtaking views from the verandah across the Devon countryside.
Swiss Cottage: Sleeps four; four nights from £522

The Pineapple, Dunmore, Scotland

The Pineapple copy

This rather grand structure is an “elaborate summer house with a fruity top” according to the Landmark Trust’s website. It was built as a one-storey pavilion in 1761 and sprouted its pineapple in 1777 when Lord Dunmore arrived home from serving as Governer of Virginia where sailors used to put a pineapple on the gatehouse of their homes to announce their return from sea.
The Pineapple: Sleeps four; four nights from £217

Robin Hood’s Hut, Somerset, England

Robin Hood's Hut

A rustic cottage from the outside, but an elegant home on the inside, Robin Hood’s Hut is a perfectly romantic getaway. Dine al fresco beneath the umbrello on the front porch, where views stretch over the Bristol Channel and into the mountains of South Wales.
Robin Hood’s Hut: Sleeps two; four nights from £522

The Banqueting House, Newcastle upon Tyne, England

Banqueting House

Sitting on the highest part of the National Trust’s Gibside Estate, the eighteenth century Banqueting House commands a fantastic view overlooking an octagonal pool, the Derwent Valley and beyond. The building was almost entirely roofless and collapsed when the Landmark Trust first found it, but walk now a walk to explore the gardens of Gibside is the perfect place from which to admire the castellated roof of this expertly renovated home.
The Banqueting House: Sleeps four; four nights from £522

Kingswear Castle, Devon, England

Kingswear Castle

As if sprouting out of the rocks, Kingswear Castle stands right on the water’s edge near Dartmouth, Devon, and was built in 1502 to help defend Dartmouth Harbour. Thick walls give it a sense of fortification and the flagpole, with which you can lower and raise your own union flag, gives guests the regal feeling of royalty. From the battlements on the roof you can watch ships coming and going as the sun goes down behind the waters.
Kingswear Castle: Sleeps four; four nights from £522. The castle was recently damaged in bad storms – you can donate to help repairs here.

Astley Castle, Warwickshire, England

Astley Castle

Once upon a time just the ruin of an ancient castle, Astley is now a groundbreaking modern accommodation sitting inside a cocoon of history. Dating back to the thirteenth century, the estate had been owned by three Queens of England and its past inhabitants witnessed, or sometimes played part in, significant events in British history. Destroyed by a fire in 1978, the castle is now the wonderful blend of timeworn bricks and new modern materials.
Astley Castle: Sleeps eight; four nights from £769. Note that the accommodation here is now booked up until further notice. Visit www.landmarktrust.org.uk for more information on when the property will become available again. 

Find over 250 of the best places to stay in England, Scotland and Wales with Rough Guides’ Best Places to Stay in Britain on a Budget.
Explore all corners of Britain with the Rough Guide to Britainbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Venice, Antonio Canaletto

Canaletto is probably most known for his Venetian landscapes, or “vendutes”, showing grand scenes in strong contrasts of light and shade. In the eighteenth century, aristocrats on the Grand Tour wanted to take back with them a memento and Canaletto excelled at capturing the cityscape – although not always faithfully.

Venice, Antonio Canaletto

Manchester, L.S. Lowry

Between 1909 and 1948 Lowry’s home was in Pendlebury, just north of Manchester and it was this smoky and industrial place that sparked his lifelong interest in mills, collieries and canals. Famed for his seemingly simple depiction of Northern England’s industrial landscapes, Lowry is Manchester’s best loved artist. His cityscapes and street scenes were often an interpretation of what he saw as he paced the busy streets of his home, and his stylised figures bring alive the stark architecture.

Manchester, L.S. Lowry

Yorkshire, David Hockney

Born in Yorkshire in 1937, Hockney studied at the Bradford School of Art and the Royal College of Art, London. He has travelled all over the world, but his beloved Yorkshire and the Wolds has inspired some of his most celebrated multi-canvas paintings. In Hockney’s words: “Look at the incredible variety of grasses, look at the marvellous leaves; look at the colour. Isn’t it beautiful… pure joy.”

Yorkshire, David Hockney

Arles, Vincent Van Gogh

In 1888 Van Gogh had an incredibly productive stay in Arles, in the south of France, creating bold, evocative paintings of the Rhone at night. As an Impressionist, he used a certain amount of artistic license, but if you stand on the same east bank quay (near the site of the now demolished “Yellow House” he was lodging at), the wonderful view is easily recognisable.

Arles, Vincent Van Gogh

Grand Canyon, David Hockney

One of the world’s greatest living artists, Hockney developed a technique creating huge landscapes by fitting together smaller canvases. In the case of A Bigger Grand Canyon, it was 60 canvases inspired by earlier photographs that he had taken in 1982 and a road trip on the west coast of the US in the summer of 1997. Hockney somehow captures the immense feeling of vastness as you peer over the rim and his painting is as powerful and beautiful as the canyon itself.

Grand Canyon, David Hockney

Yosemite National Park, Ansel Adams

Adams once said: “Sometimes I think I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter”. Yosemite Valley is a landscape that cries out to be photographed, just seven miles long and less than one mile across, it’s walled by almost 1000-metre-tall near-vertical cliffs, streaked by tumbling waterfalls and topped by domes and pinnacles that form a jagged silhouette against the sky.

Yosemite National Park, Ansel Adams

St Ives, Cornwall, Dame Barbara Hepworth

The renowned vibrant local arts scene has paved the way for dozens of galleries, the Tate St Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden. Hepworth is one of the foremost non-figurative sculptors of her time and her outdoor sculptures in bronze, stone and wood represent her interpretation of the beautiful coastal landscape and the movement of the sea in her cherished St Ives.

St Ives, Cornwall, Dame Barbara Hepworth

Australian outback, Sir Sidney Nolan

Although Nolan travelled the world during his lifetime, he was born in Melbourne and had a strong sense of Australian identity. Although his Ned Kelly paintings are iconic, a later body of work inspired by a trip through Central Australia, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia truly represent his country’s majestic, other worldly landscape.

Australian outback, Sir Sidney Nolan

Machrihanish Bay, William McTaggart

This lovely three-mile stretch of sandy beach in Argyll, on Scotland’s west coast, is popular with surfers and beachcombers. Famous today for the eponymous golf course, in the late nineteenth century McTaggart was lured here by the exceptional translucency of the water; his paintings capture the beauty and the fluidity of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Machrihanish Bay, William McTaggart

Bristol, Banksy

Hidden around the vibrant city of Bristol is subversive and anti-establishment street art by anonymous (but world famous) graffiti artist Banksy. In the 1990s, the streets of his home city in the west of England were a breeding ground for urban culture; it was here that the artist developed his particular style of stencil art which, sometimes controversially, can now be seen in London, LA and New York.

Bristol, Banksy

North Wales, Innes, John, and Lees

Deep in the stunning Snowdonia National Park, Arenig Fawr is an imposing mountain much loved and painted by a group of three artists – James Innes, Derwent Lees and Augustus John – who formed the “Arenig School of painters”. Wandering the damp hills and dales of north Wales, searching for the perfect vantage point and the perfect light, proved to be too much for Innes who died of Tuberculosis at 27. Lees ended up in a lunatic asylum.

North Wales, Innes, John, and Lees

Margate, Kent, J.M.W. Turner

Turner once claimed that “…the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe” and his landscapes and seascapes of the east Kent coast immortalised them in brilliant colour. He first went to Margate as a schoolboy and then regularly returned to sketch and paint throughout the 1830s and early 1840s. Today the elegant Turner Contemporary gallery exhibits art related to his work and legacy; the building designed by David Chipperfield has huge windows which flood light into the gallery and frame the famous seascapes.

Margate, Kent, J.M.W. Turner

Giverny, Claude Monet

At his home in Giverny, Monet created for himself an elaborate Japanese-style water garden, and it was here in the latter part of his life that he obsessively painted the water lily pond. This prolific artist is said to have created his art twice, because he meticulously designed the setting and inspiration for the paintings before laying down a single brushstroke on canvas. The house and garden and Giverny has been restored to its full glory and 500,000 people visit each year.

Giverny, Claude Monet

Dublin, Jack Butler Yeats

He and his brother William, who was to become Ireland’s most famous poet, spent a lot of their childhood with their maternal grandparents in Sligo. Jack and his wife moved from London to Dublin in 1910 and he began to paint urban and rural scenes influenced by French Impressionism and the Irish Nationalist cause. The Liffey is the lifeblood of the Irish city and some of his more famous paintings depict figures on the O’Connell Bridge and the Liffey Swim, an annual race still going today.

Dublin, Jack Butler Yeats

Auvers-sur-Oise, Vincent Van Gogh

After his release from an asylum in Saint-Remy, Van Gogh moved here to be closer to his brother, a short train-ride away in Paris. In the last few months of his troubled life, before he died of a gunshot wound to the chest, he painted around 70 canvases in and around the charming village of Auvers-sur-Oise. One of his most admired and debated works is the intense and haunting Wheatfield with Crows, said to foreshadow his tragic suicide.

Auvers-sur-Oise, Vincent Van Gogh

Rio de Janeiro, Roberto Burle Marx

One of the greatest landscape architects of the twentieth century, Brazilian Burle Marx had a huge creative output, including paintings, sculpture, set design and landscape design. His influence can be seen throughout the parks and museum grounds of Rio de Janeiro, and tourists are unlikely to miss his famous stylized wave mosaic running for two and a half miles alongside Copacabana beach.

Rio de Janeiro, Roberto Burle Marx

London, Antonio Canaletto

Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, was born in Venice but lived and worked in London in the mid eighteenth century. He was drawn to the River Thames and the grand buildings and palaces along its banks, including St Paul’s Cathedral, which once dominated the skyline for miles around. Canaletto witnessed some huge changes to the great city of London, including the construction of Westminster Bridge.

London, Antonio Canaletto

Gateshead, Antony Gormley

The Angel of the North stands tall and proud, bearing witness to the end of the coal mining era, so integral to the history of this part of northern England. Gormley said of the piece (which is the same size as a jumbo jet): “The scale of the sculpture was essential given its site in a valley that is a mile and a half a mile wide, and with an audience that was travelling past on the motorway at an average of 60 miles an hour.”

Gateshead, Antony Gormley

The Catskills, Thomas Cole

The founding member of the Hudson River School of Landscape Painters, Cole was born in England but emigrated to the US in 1818. His love for the great outdoors drew him to the wilderness of the Catskill Mountains in New York State; his studio and home here was declared a National Historic Site in 1999 and can be visited by guided tour.

The Catskills, Thomas Cole

Rural Suffolk, John Constable

Local tours in “Constable Country” do a roaring trade in the countryside of Suffolk which inspired so many famous paintings. The River Stour meanders through the rural idyll of Dedham Vale, flowing past the hedges, churches and bridges of the quintessentially English childhood home of Constable. He once wrote to a friend “I should paint my own places best … painting is but another word for feeling” and this green and pleasant land is what meant most to him.

Rural Suffolk, John Constable

The whereabouts of Dracula’s grave is a contentious issue; two monasteries in Romania are fighting for the title of the resting place of Vlad the Impaler – but which one has the strongest argument? John Malathronas goes to Snagov monastery to find out.

“You need four people for an impalement,” says my guide, Gabriel, in taciturn tones, for he’s answered the same question many times. “The victims’ hands were tied behind their back while they lay on the ground. Two men spread their legs apart. A third strong man pushes the pole up, while a fourth person, the professional executioner, kneels and directs the pole between the ribs so that it misses the vital organs, especially the liver and the heart. This way, the person lives longer and suffers more.” I process this impaling course mentally and swallow hard. I’m glad I had a light breakfast.

We are in Gabriel’s car crossing the thick Snagov forest about half an hour north of Bucharest. We are heading for Snagov monastery which, according to tradition, is the burial place of Vlad III Dracula, dubbed The Impaler. The country road is so full of holes it probably hasn’t been maintained since Vlad’s times, and he died in 1476.

Snagov monastery and old gate

When we reach Snagov we have to cross a footbridge, because the monastery is built on a small island in a lake. There used to be a pontoon bridge connecting the island with the mainland during the nineteenth century, when the monastery was used as a prison. Not long after it was built, it collapsed when a parade of enchained convicts was crossing. They all drowned. I stare at the murky waters below me, green with algae. “Sometimes you can see the wooden slats of the old bridge in the shallows”, says Gabriel.

Snagov monastery itself is minute. There is only one monk and one small church, last rebuilt in 1512 by Prince Neagoe Basarab, whose portrait adorns the wall facing the iconostasis. In front of the altar, there is a clean, unmarked tombstone on the floor with fresh flowers and a portrait of Vlad the Impaler. Typically, when the tomb was excavated in 1933, no body was found inside.

Small the monastery may be, but so strong is the Dracula myth that it’s become the most popular sight to visit outside of Bucharest. Entry into the church is just 15lei (£3) – but it costs 20 Euros to take photos; monks in newly capitalist Romania are beginning to comprehend rather well the law of supply and demand. This could be why a monastery south of Bucharest wants to buy in too.

The grave of Vlad Dracula in front of the altar according to tradition

“Contemporary historians have concluded that Comana monastery is the real resting place of Vlad Dracula,” Gabriel tells me, and perhaps they have good reason: Vlad actually built this monastery and the battle in which he died, killed by his own troops, is now thought to be nearer Comana rather than Snagov.

Whether Vlad the Impaler would have been so notorious had Bram Stoker not associated his name with the Dracula of fiction is anyone’s guess. Still, Vlad’s life exudes mystery. He was a Prince of Wallachia who spent his childhood as a hostage in the Ottoman court together with the future Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople. When the two childhood friends eventually came to confront each other, Vlad beat a Turkish regiment in a famous night attack on 17 June 1462 and captured 20,000 troops. Five days later an angry Mehmed II crossed the Danube heading for Vlad’s capital at Târgoviște. Sixty miles out he was confronted by a forest of Turkish carcasses on stakes in a semi-circle one mile deep. Rattled, the Sultan turned back, and the legend of “The Impaler” began.

A Candle for Vlad II Dracula on his supposed grave

Because of this Turkish defeat, contemporary Romanians have claimed Vlad the Impaler as a “cruel-but-just” patriotic hero. The 500 years of his death were lavishly celebrated in Communist Romania back in 1976. And as Gabriel tells me: “It was the Germans who first punished people by impalement. Vlad learned the technique from the German merchants of Transylvania. Then he just… perfected it.”

Perfection, indeed. The Germans impaled people from the back through the navel and death was quick. Vlad’s impalement through the rectum involves a sadistic humiliation as well as lingering death.

My attention is drawn to the graves on the south side of the church. “One of those is supposed to be the grave of Count Dracula”, I say and startle Gabriel.

Snagov lake

As another set of historians point out, in the 1933 excavation archaeologists found a headless body on the south side, dressed in purple. We know that the head of Vlad Dracula was cut off and sent to the Sultan, and we know that purple cloth was the garb of royals. There are other hints too: a ring and a buckle that can be traced to Vlad’s father. The case that Vlad’s body was reburied there from before the altar – maybe during the rebuilding of the church forty years later – is strong.

It’s somehow comforting to know that Vlad Dracula still exerts a mystery from beyond his grave. Wherever that might be.

Explore more of Romania with the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

If there is one European city that seems particularly focused on the World War I centenary then it is the Austrian capital Vienna, where a host of war-themed exhibitions will be opening over the course of the year. Such attention may come as something as a surprise when one considers that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was one of the powers brought crashing to its knees by the conflict. Few other European nations would find their own decline and fall quite so engrossing.

Austria was at the centre of a huge multi-national empire in 1914, and the Viennese archives are full of photographs and documents recalling the wartime service and home front lives of the Habsburg Monarchy’s many subjects. Implicitly recognized by this year’s events is the feeling that Vienna still bears a burden of responsibility towards all those who fought under an Austrian flag. And it’s by no means just the war that the Viennese are commemorating.

This year’s events also draw attention to the twenty-year period of cultural efflorescence that occurred in the lead-up to the conflict, a period when writers, artists and thinkers as diverse as Gustav Klimt, Arnold Schönberg and Sigmund Freud turned Vienna into the unofficial capital of European modernism. The restless cultural energies of fin-de-siecle Vienna have long been an important part of the Austrian capital’s tourist appeal – and it’s no wonder that this year’s centenary provides yet another opportunity to bring this to the fore. Here are six ways to remember the Great War in Vienna.

Heeresgeschichtliches museum Vienna

The Car, the Pistol and the Ostrich-Feather Hat

As every schoolchild ought to know, the outbreak of World War I was provoked by the assassination of Austrian heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. The car in which he was travelling, together with his uniform, hat, and one of the pistols used by his assailants, now occupy a completely renovated hall at the Austrian Military Museum. The display will be reopened to the public on June 28, exactly one hundred years after the event itself. As the heir to the military traditions of a multi-national empire, the museum provides a focus of commemoration for all the peoples of Central Europe. Czechs, Hungarians, Slovenes and Croats all served on Austria-Hungary’s Italian and Russian fronts, a point well made by the redesigned permanent exhibition currently being made ready for summer 2014.
From June 28 onwards

The Glory and the Gloom

The biggest and most wide-ranging of the World War I exhibitions, Glory and Gloom: Living With the Great War is the historical blockbuster that most Austrian coach parties will be queueing up to see. Hosted by Schallaburg Castle near Melk, west of Vienna, the exhibition will focus on personal stories of the people – both soldiers and civilians – who were marked by the consequences of the conflict. The exhibition has an international focus, and also shows how truly global the war became for the Austrians themselves: Austro-Hungarian units served in German East Africa, while Austrian sailors caught in the Far East in 1914 spent the war as POWs in Japan.
March 28 – Nov 9

Schallaburg Castle, Danube River, Austria

And Yet There was Art!

The artist Egon Schiele had a relatively easy war, guarding Russian POWs in a small-town internment camp, and drawing their portraits in his spare time. His experiences were very different to those of Tyrolean painter Albin Egger-Lienz, who served on the Italian front and produced some of the most haunting, tortured and disturbing images of Austria’s war. Both artists feature prominently in And Yet There Was Art! Austria 1914-1918 at the Leopold Museum, a revealing look at the many ways in which Austria’s visual artists responded to the conflict. Schiele’s good fortune didn’t last – he died of influenza on October 31 1918, the very day on which the Austria-Hungarian empire ceased to exist.
May 9 – Sept 15

Armageddon: Jewish Life and Death in World War I

This exhibition at Vienna’s Jewish Museum makes pointed reference to the fact that Austria’s Jews supported the war effort just as much as any of the Empire’s many communities – as many as 300,000 Jews served in Austria-Hungary’s armed forces. The exhibition reveals just how central the Jews were to Viennese life, with Jewish journalists, businessmen and public intellectuals all playing prominent roles on the home front.
April 2 –Sept 14

Austria, Vienna, Flamoyant, wood-panelled Prunksaal or Hall of Honour, the showpiece of the Austrian National Library.

To My People: The First World War 1914-1918

Named after “An Meine Völker!”, the famous proclamation issued by Emperor Franz Josef on the outbreak of war, the Austrian National Library’s exhibition of posters, postcards, photographs, and private drawings documents the war’s visual impact on the Viennese urban scene.
March 13 to November 2

World War I in Vienna: City Life in Photography and Graphic Art

The copious archives of Vienna City Museum will be opened to reveal this rich and rather moving collection of images chronicling civilian life during the war, contrasting the routines of daily life with the distress of poverty and hunger, and brief moments of leisure.
Sept 18 – Jan 11 2015

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Most of us know that World War I started with the assassination of an Austrian Archduke in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. For the English-speaking world, however, the subsequent history of the conflict largely focuses on the Western Front, Gallipoli and other theatres where British, Commonwealth and American forces saw action. It is often forgotten that the war also raged across huge swathes of central and eastern Europe, involving almost all the nationalities that still live there today. Here are ten places in central and eastern Europe where memories of the Great War still loom large, especially as 2014 marks the WWI centenary. 

The Museum of Sarajevo

Occupying a corner-house right beside the spot where the heir to the Austrian throne was gunned down, the Museum of Sarajevo displays pictures of the fateful events of June 28 1914, together with dummies of Franz-Ferdinand and his wife Sophie clad in representative (but not original) clothes. In a nod to present-day Bosnian-Herzegovinian politics, the ill-starred archducal pair are treated with sympathy here, and their assassin – the Bosnian-Serb revolutionary Gavrilo Princip – is portrayed as terrorist rather than freedom fighter.

The Military History Museum, Vienna

It’s in Vienna’s Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (Military History Museum) that you can admire the Gräf & Stift automobile in which Franz Ferdinand and spouse were shot; a lovely old motor that still preserves the scratches and holes left by grenades and bullets. The Archduke’s blue uniform is also on display, while his shirt – a much more macabre relic boasting bright red blood stains – will be put on show for a few weeks following the assassination centenary on June 28 2014.

Przemysl Fort, Poland

Przemysl Fortress, Poland

Not so much a single fortress as a huge string of fortifications surrounding the southeastern Polish town of Przemyśl, Przemyśl Fortress was built by the Austrians in order to protect their domains against the neighbouring Russian Empire. It fell to the Russians following a long siege in 1915, but was recaptured by an Austrian-German offensive soon afterwards. It is now an emerging tourist attraction, with half-derelict former forts such as Salis Soglio, Borek and San Rideau providing an evocative look back at Austro-Hungarian military life.

The Historical and Maritime Museum, Pula

The Croatian city of Pula was Austria-Hungary’s largest naval base. Bottled up by Allied blockades for much of the war, the Austro-Hungarian dreadnoughts didn’t see much action. Pride-of-the-fleet battleship SMS Szent István didn’t sail in anger until June 1918, and was promptly sunk by a ten-man Italian torpedo boat. Pula’s Historical and Maritime Museum is a modest affair, but its evocative location in one of the city’s many Austrian sea forts is reason enough to visit.

Kobarid, Slovenia

Many of Austria-Hungary’s subject peoples were sent to defend the Empire against the Italians on the Isonzo Front, a mountainous borderland where troops had to carve defensive positions into icy peaks and inhospitable slopes. The soldiers of the Isonzo are commemorated in the Kobarid Museum in the Slovene town of Kobarid – a place immortalized under its Italian name of Caporetto in Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms. One of the best war museums anywhere in Europe, the display covers the conflict with balance and empathy – the battles of the Isonzo were every bit as horrifying and wasteful as those of the Western Front.

Czech Republic, Prague, Karluv most (Charles Bridge) at sunrise

Good Soldier Švejk in Prague

One of several characters who passed through Przemyśl Fortress was Good Soldier Švejk, the fictional creation of Czech novelist Jaroslav Hašek. Czech soldiers fought on all fronts during the 1914-18 war, and Czech capital Prague is planning several commemorative exhibitions in 2014. “In the Trenches of the Great War” at the Czech Army Museum will follow the fate of Czech conscripts in the Habsburg armies; while “Our Sea” at the Technical Museum will focus on the exploits (or rather lack thereof) of the Austro-Hungarian navy.

Military Museum, Sofia

Oh What a Lovely War? Not if you were Bulgarian. The Balkan nation entered the conflict in the hope of reversing the territorial losses incurred during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, only to end up on the losing side yet again. Sofia’s Military Museum is notable for recording with great pathos Bulgaria’s many defeats.

The Seaplane Harbour, Tallinn

Site of Tallinn’s spectacular new naval museum, the Seaplane Harbour is a cavernous and altogether rather beautiful concrete hangar built house a fleet of seaplanes by the Russians in World War I. A masterpiece of early twentieth century construction techniques, its multi-domed extent gives it the appearance of several cathedrals stitched together. There’s a lot of World War I-era materiel scattered around the display area, although the building itself remains the star.

The Victor, Belgrade

Monument to the Victor, Belgrade

Serbia was blamed by Austria-Hungary for orchestrating the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and went on to endure four years of war, occupation, disease and starvation. Something of a riposte to these enormous losses is the Monument to the Victor in Belgrade’s Kalemegdan Park, the work of Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović. Erected in 1928, the tenth anniversary of Serbia’s liberation from Austrian and Bulgarian troops, it continues to peer out across the Danube as if on the lookout for future challenges.

War Museum, Riga

Then part of the Russian Empire, Riga was a front-line city for much of World War I. The Tsarist authorities tried to harness Latvian patriotism by forming locally-recruited units known as the Latvian Riflemen in 1915. Sent to the front lines just outside the city, they incurred heavy losses. Eventually the Riflemen turned the tables on their masters, joining the Russian Revolution in 1917 and overthrowing the regime that had called them into being. The Latvian War Museum is the best place to catch up on their story.

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The first few months of 2014 brought gale-force winds and record amounts of rain to Ireland and much of the UK. Homes were flooded and many lived without electricity for months. These recent storms reached the southwestern Atlantic coast of Ireland and have shifted sands, moved boulders and changed the face of the coastline. It is thanks to this freak weather that many never-before-seen features have been uncovered in the area, including the remains of this petrified prehistoric forest at Reenroe, Ballinskelligs.

Situated in the Skellig Kerry region and part of the Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve, this newly-found forest is estimated to be around 4000 years old. Dotted along the sands of Rinroe beach, the fossilised pine and oak trees are testament to a coastline that extended far into the sea in a period when sea levels were much lower. During this time much of Ireland’s woodlands were being cleared for farming but in marginal areas around its coast, forests still stood. “Seeing these broken, weathered and well preserved stumps is a humbling experience”, explains Vincent Hyland, local photographer and artist, whose pictures are presented below. “Nature will determine just how long we will be able to see them for.”

As summer approaches, and the sea return to normal, the sand will once again start to cover the trees and perhaps bury them for another 4000 years. If you can’t make it to Ballinskelligs to see these fascinating fragments of the time before man, enjoy these photographs of this beautiful and potentially short-lived phenomenon.

Copyright Vincent Hyland Copyright Vincent Hyland Copyright Vincent Hyland Copyright Vincent Hyland Copyright Vincent Hyland Copyright Vincent Hyland

All photographs by Vincent Hyland © www.vincenthylandartist.com
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Sophisticated, globally minded and perfect for late-night parties – Madrid can be an expensive place to enjoy. So if you want to see the sights on a budget, timing is crucial. Many of the city’s best museums, galleries and historic buildings are free to visit but only for a few hours at a time, so it always pays to check before turning up. Here are ten things to do in Madrid for free.

Take a stroll through Parque del Buen Retiro

For centuries it was a royal retreat, but Parque del Buen Retiro is now open to everyone – with museums, galleries and monuments dotted across 350-or-so acres of green space. If you visit in May, it’s worth seeking out the Rosaleda (rose garden), where fragrant blooms explode in shades of peach and cherry.

Make the most of the free admission to galleries

Some of Madrid’s best galleries offer free admission at certain times of the week. For example, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which houses works by Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso, is free at weekends and after 7pm on weekday evenings.

Browse the El Rastro flea market

Every Sunday morning, El Rastro takes over the rambling streets south of Plaza de Cascorro, with thousands of shoppers coming to try on clothes, flick through old books or rummage for antique jewellery. The sheer size of the market makes it worth having a look, even if you don’t want to buy anything.

See a piece of ancient Egypt

Madrid has plenty of old buildings, but in terms of sheer antiquity there’s nothing quite like the Temple of Debod – an ancient Egyptian complex built near Aswan more than 2,000 years ago. The enormous stone blocks were dismantled and sent to Madrid in the 1960s (as a thank you for Spain’s help in protecting other Egyptian temples from flooding) then reassembled in the city’s Parque del Oeste.

Temple of Debod in Parque de la Montana

Look skywards at the Planetario de Madrid

It’s always free to look around Madrid’s planetarium, which has audio-visual exhibitions looking at all aspects of space and its exploration. There’s a hands-on area for kids, and a domed projection room (which costs extra) that guides visitors through the night sky.

Get lost in Madrid’s barrios

Take a short walk away from Puerta del Sol and you’ll discover some of Madrid’s most colourful barrios (wards). Try multicultural Lavapiés, where shisha bars and Indian restaurants line the graffiti-daubed streets, or hipster-packed Malasaña, known for its nightclubs and vintage clothing shops.

Party on the streets

Street parties and festivals are an important part of Madrid’s social calendar. One of the wildest events is February’s Carnaval, a six-day festival of music, theatre and dance that opens with a fantastical procession of floats and costume-clad performers.

 Visit the Royal Palace

Time it right and you can visit the Spanish king’s official residence for free. Unlike his predecessors, Juan Carlos I doesn’t actually live at the Royal Palace, a treasure trove of art and antiquities inspired by the Louvre in Paris, but it is still used for state events. Admission is free for EU residents on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.

See flamenco for free

Okay, so you’ll need to buy a drink, but the late-night restaurant Clan gives you the chance to see authentic flamenco performances for free. The music starts sometime after midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and dancing carries on until 3am.

Flamenco Dancers in Madrid

Take a free walking tour of Madrid

You might need to tip your guide, but the three and half hour walking tours offered by Sandeman’s New Europe are officially free. Tours start outside the tourist office on Plaza Mayor everyday (at 11am and 1pm), taking in popular sights like the Royal Palace and Plaza de la Villa.

 

The broad, peaceful outer courtyard sweeps you past an honorary guard of immaculate stone mandarins towards the first of a series of elegantly roofed gateways, through whose triple doorways you get a perfectly framed view of Emperor Minh Mang’s mausoleum complex. Archways look wistful in peeling ochre paint; slatted lacquer-red shutters offer tantalizing angles on lotus ponds, pavilions and artfully placed bonsai trees; and ceramic rooftop dragons add a touch of kitsch in pastel pinks, greens and yellows. Look carefully and you’ll see the Chinese character for “longevity” picked out in blue, red and gold – Minh Mang, who designed his own mausoleum, left nothing to chance.

The Minh Mang mausoleums are part of Hué’s imperial city, which is open daily 7am–5pm.

 

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