Craving for Old Europe? Here are Top 7 Cities to Visit !!!

It’s not just the European food or people or cultures that attracts millions of people to visit the continent each year. Yes, those are appealing, but for the most part, it’s the unique medieval charms of Europe that people can’t get enough of when they are getting lost in the narrow alleys of small towns in Europe, looking at centuries old cathedrals or  ruins of ancient fortresses,  or walking on cobbled stoned squares from the middle ages.

Every time I’ve visited the big or tiny towns in Europe, I was taken back in time. I could feel and see the life that existed hundreds of years ago. It was like an open museum that has surprises in every corner of it. From big cities like Rome to one of the smallest ones, like Cyprus have medieval elements scattered though the cities.

After visiting more than 130 cities in Europe (it’s not enough for any continent, let alone for Europe), I had hard time hand-picking cities that will give the tourists most medieval experience of Europe. Oh yes, there are plenty of these towns where you can go and feel like you traveled to the past thru a time machine in this continent. But here are 7 not-so-common places that you should visit to experience some enticing old European charms. They are not in any particular order…enjoy

  1. Toledo (Spain): Once the capital of Spain, Toledo, is a must-see city when you are in Madrid. The history of this town dates back to 192 B.C. which became a UNESCO World Heritage site for its rich cultural and historical monuments. Some spots to hit in Toledo are Cathedral of Toledo, Monuments of Greco, Old city wall, the synagogue, San Martin Bridge, and finally the magnificent Alcazar.
An overview of Toledo with River Tagus and Puente de St. Martin

An overview of Toledo with River Tagus and Puente de St. Martin

2. Volterra (Italy): This is a perfect day-trip if you are in Florence or Sienna in Italy. Volterra is one of many walled cities of Toscana and it attracts thousands of tourists every month. Other than its sweeping beauty of its countryside and other small hill-towns, it has those cozy piazzas, like Piazza dei Priori, a roman theater, couple good museums like Alabaster Museum and Pinacoteca Museum, and finally an old baptistery…Santa Maria Assunta Church. To finish off the day, have some gelato from a local store.

Old Town of Volterra, Italy

Old Town of Volterra, Italy

3. Plovdiv (Bulgaria): Dating back to more than 4000 B.C, Plovdiv is one of the oldest towns in whole Europe. The town is very well-preserved and many old buildings, paved streets, fortifications, walls, water-supply, and sewerage survived from its early period. Visit the Virgin Mary Church, St. Dimitar Church, Roman Theater, ancient Stadium of Philippopolis, and Djoumaya Mosque from the 14th century. Plovdiv would make a perfect trip if you are in Sophia and have an extra day to taste the old Bulgaria.

Roman amphitheater from the 1st century in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Roman amphitheater from the 1st century in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

4. San Marino (San Marino): This is one of the littlest countries in Europe yet it claims to be the world’s oldest republic. San Marino not only  offers impressive views of the surrounding hills, countryside, Adriatic Sea, and Italy, but it also has spectacular historic landmarks for its visitors. If you are in the Tuscany region in Italy, San Marino would be a perfect day-trip from there. Visit the Old Town, 1st Tower – Guaita, Basilica di San Marino, Piazza Publica, and enjoy its great Italian cuisine in any restaurants.

Walking thru the old cobble-stoned alleys of San Marino

Walking thru the old cobble-stoned alleys of San Marino

5. Luxembourg City (Luxembourg): This is probably one of my most favorite capitals to visit in Europe. The history and the beauty of Luxembourg City will truly make your trip a memorable one. Here are some places to see here: Gella Fra Monument, Notre Dame Cathedral, Grand Ducal Palace, Bock Casamates, and finally the whole town. This should be on your top list if you are visiting Belgium…too good to miss.

Walking around the old ruins of Luxemburg (Casamates)

Walking around the old ruins of Luxemburg (Casamates)

6. Valletta (Malta): This is a unique place where rich history, good Mediterranean food, scenic beauty, and colorful atmosphere come together in harmony. Malta’s capital, Valletta, was one of the earliest sites that got listed in UNESCO World Heritage Site for its old world splendor and magnificent Baroque architectures. While in Valletta, make sure to take a boat ride to the unforgettable Islands of Gozo and Comino. But in the city, roam around its old part and enjoy places like, St. John’s Cathedral (and many other old churches), Upper Barracca Garden, National Library of Malta, St. Fort Elmo, and Great Siege Square.

Valletta, Malta -the whole city is A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Valletta, Malta -the whole city is A UNESCO World Heritage Site

7. Dinant (Belgium): Situated by River Meuse, Dinant is a French-speaking (Wallonia) part of Belgium. This is the hometown of Adolphe Sax…the inventor of saxophone that dates back to 800 B.C. Visit the Dinant Citadel (and enjoy stunning view from there), Collegiate Cathedral of Dinant, Saxophone Bridge and River Meuse, and get lost in the old alleys that are packed with local goods and cafes. Another sweet trip if you are ever in Brussels.

Breathtaking view of the city and river from Dinant Citadel in Belgium

Breathtaking view of the city and river from Dinant Citadel in Belgium

 

 

A small Bulgarian town – Plovdiv

PLOVDIV, BULGARIA: Plovdiv is one of the oldest towns in Europe, dating back to more than 4000 years BC. Old town of Plovdiv lies on a natural elevation…mostly few hills. Visitors can walk through different historical ages, see ancient buildings, and feel the spirit of this lovely town. Many well-preserved remains survived from this flourished town, liked old buildings, paved streets, fortifications, walls, water-supply, and sewerage.

Old town of Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Old town of Plovdiv, Bulgaria
  

There weren’t many tourists during our visit. But this is one of the popular destinations near Sofia and makes a great day-trip if you are up to get some charming ancient taste.

TIME of TRAVEL: We chose a bad day to visit Plovdiv. We visited Sofia during the Easter Break of 2013. The weather forecast said it would rain little bit…but darn it. It was drizzling almost all and was raining heavily in the late afternoon. We were all wet and cold, especially when we had to wait for our amateur guide to bring the car (he lost the way and couldn’t find us…ugh) to pick us up. We weren’t prepared for that weather at all.

EATING and SHOPPING: There are few nice restaurants in old town of Plodiv. We had lunch in a restaurant, called “Phillippopolis” which is itself a historic building of the town with an art museum on the upper floor. The restaurant serves traditional Bulgarian dishes along with some infusions. Every dish we ordered was fan-tabulous.

One of our dishes in Restaurant Philippopolis in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
One of our dishes in Restaurant Philippopolis in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
   

For shopping, although we couldn’t look around much for the silly rain, lines of stores are located near Djoumaya Mosque in the old town. They looked very appealing but didn’t want to go to all the stores with my wet boots and umbrella and disturb their lazy times…blah.

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We spent about 4/5 hours in Plovdiv. We could have seen more if the weather was not as bad. But I think we did ok even in the rain. We mainly stayed in the old town of Plovdiv, therefore, all these locations were done on foot.

Old buildings of Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Old buildings of Plovdiv, Bulgaria
  

1) VIRGIN MARY CHURCH: The original church at this spot was built in the 9th century. But the current edifice is from the mid-19th century. It’s free to enter but taking photo is prohibited.

Steeple of Virgin Mary Church in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Steeple of Virgin Mary Church in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
   

2) ST. DIMITAR CHURCH: The present day church from 19th century was built on the site of a much older Christian basilica. This is also located in old town very close to Virgin Mary Cathedral. It’s free to enter but we weren’t allowed to take any photos.

3) ROMAN AMPHITHEATER:  Theater was built somewhere around 1st millennium. The open area for the audience had 28 concentric rows with marble seats.  Performances, forums, People’s Assembly, gladiator fights, and other major events used to take place in this stadium since Phillippopolis didn’t have an amphitheater, the typical Roman venues for such games. It ceased functioning in the 5th century when the structure was demolished and the building materials plundered.

Roman amphitheater from the 1st century in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Roman amphitheater from the 1st century in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
  

The theater is open from 9 – 6 pm (Mon-Sun) during the summer time and 9 – 5:30 (Mon-Sun) during winter time.  Ticket is 5 LV for adults (kids under 7 is free). There are some guided tours available which tourists can take from the ticket office.

4) ANCIENT STADIUM of PHILIPPOPOLIS: In the center of old town near Djoumaya Mosque, known as Djoumaya Square, the ancient stadium of Phillippopolis can be seen in a preserved underground area. The stadium was built in the 2nd century AD with seating capacity for 30000 spectators. This is one of the most notable facilities from Ancient Phillippopolis. In this uncovered area you can see a unique combination of some remains from an ancient street, a fortification wall, and an aqueduct.

Underground ancient stadium of Philippopolis and Djoumaya Mosque in the back in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Underground ancient stadium of Philippopolis and Djoumaya Mosque in the back in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
  

5) DJOUMAYA MOSQUE: This mosque was built in the second half of the 14th century but later it was burnt down to erect a church. But in 1435 the mosque was rebuilt. The building kept its appearance to from its 1784 reconstruction. This is the main place where Muslims of Plovdiv still pray. As an architectural and art monument of national significance, Djoumaya Mosque is under the protection of the Bulgarian State.

Opposite the main entrance is the lavishly decorated altar niche, the mihrab. The vaulted roof spaces are beautifully decorated with colorful ornaments interwoven with medallions with texts from the Koran. The minaret, adorned with ornaments of decorative bricks, rises high above the roof. The call for prayer is given from the top of the minaret.

Djoumaya Mosque from the 14th century in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Djoumaya Mosque from the 14th century in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
  

The mosque is located in the old town of Plovdiv. There is no entry fee but I don’t think they allow visitors during prayer, since it is still an active mosque. Don’t forget to take your shoes off before entering the place.

Easter Break 2013 – Trip to Sofia, Bulgaria

SOFIA, BULGARIA: Sofia is a city with heights and contrast, lot of ancient history surrounded by contemporary look. It is the capital and the biggest city of Bulgaria. You can see a unique combination of European and Communist style architecture in the city center. The motto of the city “It grows, but never ages” really matches the culture of it. Surrounded by Vitosha Mountains, Sofia is one of the most scenic cities of Balkan region and in Eastern Europe.

City center of Sofia, Bulgaria...Statue of St. Sofia on the left
City center of Sofia, Bulgaria…Statue of St. Sofia on the left
                

Most of Sofia’s main sights are centrally situated and can easily be visited on foot. City offers free walking-tour for its guests. Just be cautious when crossing the roads since I hardly saw any zebra crossing here, most of the time you have to use underground tunnels or subway stations to go to the other side of the streets. To make it easy on the travelers, all of the major attractions are very well marked and is provided with information boards written in both Bulgarian language and in English. For those who like updating their Facebook statuses every now and then, it’s great to know that most of Sofia’s shops and restaurants have free Wi-Fi.

Guards standing in front of a gov't office in Sofia, Bulgaria
Guards standing in front of a gov’t office in Sofia, Bulgaria
               

TIME of TRAVEL: Sofia was our 2nd destination on our Easter Break trip of 2013, after visiting Kiev in Ukraine. It was during the first week of April when we came to Sofia. It was absolutely fantastic weather here…not as cold as Kiev and not too hot either. We got a little bit of drizzle once in a while but no major rain.

OUR HOTEL: Our hotel in Sofia, Hotel Maria Luisa, was a beautiful 4-star hotel situated within walking distance from the city center and Metro station “Serdika”.  It’s a very cozy hotel with luxurious living style and extremely helpful staff. We had free breakfast every morning with many options and free Wi-Fi to stay connected with everyone.

EATING and SHOPPING: Bulgarian cuisine is a mixture of Slavonic, Greek, and Turkish. There are many trendy cafes and restaurants in the city center with outdoor seating when the weather is nice and warm. There are also McDonald’s, KFC, Subway, and other local fast food restaurants for quick meals.

Bulgaria is known for its roses. They have valleys of roses few hundreds km away from Sofia. Therefore, rose products are popular souvenirs. You can find rose flavored soaps, lotions, body spray, bath salts, and etc. in any shops.

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We spend about a day and half in Sofia dedicated just to explore the city. Other than the following major attractions, we have also visited these places from outside or just passed by them: Levski Square Monument, National Library, Sofia University, Bulgarian Parliament, Tsar Monument, war memorial, Orlov Most, and Court of Justice. They are definitely worth visiting if you can spare time and good thing is that they are all close to each other.

A War Memorial while roaming the city in Sofia, Bulgaria
A War Memorial while roaming the city in Sofia, Bulgaria
              

1) ALEXANDER NEVSKY MEMORIAL CATHEDRAL: This massive cathedral with big gilded dome is number one attraction of Sofia. Construction of this remarkable piece of architecture was completed in 1912 in memory of the thousands of Russian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Moldavian, Finnish, and Romanian soldiers who, from 1877 to 1878, laid their lives for the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. Inside the cathedral is decorated with 300 dramatic murals featuring many Biblical scenes and important saints of that time. Vaulted ceilings, high copula, Venetian mosaics, and huge chandeliers are superb. Main focus of this cathedral is the richly decorated façade. Interiors of the cathedral recalls the shapes of the decoration of the Hagia Sophia church in Istanbul and Roman traditions. Marbles, Brazilian onyx, and alabaster made its interior a marvelous place to visit. As one may expect, this is not a typical cathedral with rows of seats, main nave, and big altar. There are some benches on the sides but the floor in front of altar is just a big open space.

Area around the cathedral is the largest square in the city for welcoming foreign dignitaries, such as Pope, presidents, and etc.). Visitors can buy souvenirs, antiques, arts, and many unique things in the open air market here.

Exterior and shinning domes of Alexander Nevsky Memorial Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria
Exterior and shinning domes of Alexander Nevsky Memorial Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria
                

The cathedral is located opposite of St. Sofia Cathedral and in front of International Art Gallery. Although there are signs that taking picture is not allowed inside, but I saw everyone was doing it and no one really says anything. The crypt is located on one side of the main entrance and is open from 10 – 5:30.

Inside Alexander Nevsky Memorial Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria
Inside Alexander Nevsky Memorial Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria
           

2) ST. SOFIA or HAGIA SOFIA CHURCH and MONUMENT to the UNKNOWN SOLDIER: St. Sofia’s Church is the most notable church and a valued cultural monument in whose honor the city was named after in the 14th century. It was built in 565 AD under Byzantine Emperor and was used as a mosque during the Ottoman rule. Interior, mainly built with stones, is small but nice.

One side of St. Sofia Church where Monument to an Unknown Soldier is located in Sofia, Bulgaria
One side of St. Sofia Church where Monument to an Unknown Soldier is located in Sofia, Bulgaria
           

Just outside the church is the lion sculpture and an eternal flame of the Unknown Soldier which was unveiled in 1981. Both of the monument and the church is located across from Alexander Nevsky Memorial Cathedral and in front of City Hall of Sofia. There is no fee to enter the church.

3) SOFIA SYNAGOGUE: This is one of the largest synagogues and the largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe.  This beautiful architectural monument is known as Bulgarian National Romanticism.  It’s really gorgeous inside with Venetian polychrome mosaic floor, ornamented walls, big circular dome, and decorative furniture. Remarkable is the main chandelier, weighing two tons, the largest one in Bulgaria. There is a small museum representing the history and the culture of the Jewish community in Sofia and Bulgaria, but nothing was written in English.

The synagogue is located behind Municipal Hall and very close to Banya Bashi Mosque. It can be easily recognized by its big golden dome with David’s stars on top. It is 2 LV to enter the synagogue, kids are free. The synagogue is open for visitors from Monday to Friday: 9 – 4 pm and Sunday from 10 – 2 pm.

Inside Sofia Synagogue in Bulgaria
Inside Sofia Synagogue in Bulgaria
   

4) BANYA BASHI MOSQUE: Located very close to Sofia Synagogue, this Turkish mosque was built in 1576. The dome and its minaret can be seen from far. You can actually hear “Adhan”, calling for prayer from its minaret right before prayer time if you are walking by it. Inside the mosque is embellished with artistically inscribed citations from the Koran. Banya-Bashi Mosque is one of the few buildings, monuments of Ottoman architecture, preserved in Sofia, which is still being used by the worshippers.

There is no fee to enter but don’t forget to take your shoes off before entering the mosque. Also be mindful of the dress code.

Banya Banshi Mosque from the time of Ottoman Empire in Sofia, Bulgaria
Banya Banshi Mosque from the time of Ottoman Empire in Sofia, Bulgaria
   

5) ST. SOFIA STATUE and SVETA PETKA or ST. PETKA: At the main intersection of the city near Metro station “Serdika” stands a 24 meters tall Statue of Sofia which was unveiled in 2001. Under the metro station, there is a small 14th century church Sveta Petka or St. Petka. This is an ancient Christian monument which is still active. Inside is a bit dark but you can see its well-preserved frescoes from different periods. Climb the stairs to go to the 2nd floor to see a tiny chapel. There is no fee to enter the church.

6) ST. GEORGE ROTUNDA: This is a charming round red brick church dating back to 4th century (from the time of Emperor Constantine The Great), the oldest architectural monument in Sofia and the only building city preserved. The roof dates as far back as the Roman Empire. The frescos can still be seen inside the church which dates back to the 10th century. It’s a small church with small altar with really old walls and copula. This was also used as a mosque at one point of history. It’s located behind Sheraton Hotel near the Statue of St. Sofia. There is no fee to enter but no photos once inside the place.

7) IVAN VAZOV NATIONAL THEATRE: This is a beautiful maroon and white building surrounded by a big park in front for walking and strolling. The two towers are decorated with copper sculptures of Goddess Nike and the façade is decorated with a large triangular pediment with a mythological relief of “Apollo and the Muses”. Atmosphere near the theater is nice, you can hear live music when the weather is warm. The fountain in front of it wasn’t open when we visited but I can imagine its beauty when they reopen it in spring.

Ivan Vazov National Theater in Sofia, Bulgaria
Ivan Vazov National Theater in Sofia, Bulgaria
    

8) ST. NICOLAI RUSSIAN CHURCH: This church was built in 1914 at the site of the Saray Mosque which was destroyed in 1882. It has a typical Russian medieval style in the shape of a marquee. It’s a very small but beautifully ornate church with five golden onion domes. Church was under major renovation during our visit. There is no fee to enter and is open from 8 – 6:30.

St. Michael Russian Church in Sofia, Bulgaria
St. Nicolai Russian Church in Sofia, Bulgaria
  

9) SVETA NEDELJA or HAGIA NEDELJA CHURCH: This is another bold architecture of Sofia in the main city center surrounded by busy streets, many shops, and cafes. It has been standing there since the 10th century. Interior is very old with high dome and richly ornate. It’s free to enter and to look around but have to pay a fee and take permission to take photos inside.

Sveta Nedelja Church in Sofia, Bulgaria
Sveta Nedelja Church in Sofia, Bulgaria
  

10) TRIP to BOYANA CHURCH: This ancient church is located about 6 miles (10 km, took us about half an hour) from the city center at the foothills of Vitosha Mountains. This is considered to be one of the most valuable memorials of Bulgarian and European culture. This is an 11th century church that has undergone major restoration and is now open to the public. The remarkable realistic frescoes are acclaimed as “the best examples of Eastern medieval art” with the earliest murals dating back to 1259…these frescoes are considered as predecessors of European Renaissance. These paintings belong to the masterpieces of Bulgarian Medieval art. It was added to UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historic significance and cultural value. The park and the garden are very calm and serene with lots of trees and some scattered old ruins.

We took a private taxi (our hotel receptionist’s friend) to take this trip to Boyana Church. He charged us 60 LV (~30 euros) for this 1 1/2 hours trip. It’s 10 LV to enter the church (kids free). They only allow 8 people at a time and visitors can stay for 10 minutes inside the church, which was more than enough for us. The church is open every day from 9 – 5:30 pm from November 1 to March 31 and 9:30 – 6 pm from April 1 to October 31.

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