Traveling to Europe is an adventure in itself – exciting, highly anticipated and filled with myths.
Stop for a moment to think though and decide: to go off the beaten path or not.
Rent a car and explore the continent on your own, besides, distances are not what they are in the States. As old as Europe is, you’ll always find less popular but worth seeing places, and happily escape the tourist stampede.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) keeps an extensive list with unique cultural and natural sites, which are especially valuable for the common heritage of humanity. As of 2013, the list contains 981 sites of which 759 cultural, 193 natural, and 29 mixed properties in a total of 160 countries.
So when you travel to Europe keep in mind that you are going to see only a small fraction of the rich European heritage. However, you have to start from somewhere, and here are some suggestions out of UNESCO’s list.
Old city of Salamanca, Spain
Spain, actually, ranks third on the list with the countries housing the greatest number of cultural sites, with a total of 44 points of interest, following Italy (49) and China (45).
Salamanca is an ancient university town near Madrid that has seen many invaders, ever since the 3rd century B.C. when the Carthaginians came. Then the Romans arrived, but couldn’t keep the territory and lost it to the Moors who ruled there until the 11th century. So you can imagine that the city displays monuments from different times and styles such as Romanesque, Moorish, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. Those styles are recognizable in the remarkable group of buildings comprising the city university. Along with Oxford and Cambridge, it is one of the oldest in Europe. It was established in the early 13th century and proclaimed itself “Mother of Virtues, of Sciences and the Arts.”
The Garrison town of Elvas and its fortress, Portugal
This spectacular site dates back to 10th century and represents the largest bulwarked dry-ditch system in the world. Its main purpose was to guard a key crossing between Portugal’s capital Lisbon and Madrid, Spain. Inside the walls, you can see town’s barracks and various military buildings, churches and even a monastery. The fortifications began in 17th century when Portugal became independent. Their designer was Dutch Jesuit padre Cosmander, and it’s accepted that this is the best surviving example of the Dutch school of fortifications. A point of interest is the Amoreira aqueduct, built to withstand heavy sieges.
Maulbronn Monastery Complex, Germany
Thought to be the best-preserved medieval monastic complex north of the Alps, the Maulbronn Monastery was founded in 1147 by the Cistercian Order. The main buildings inside the walls were erected sometime between the 12th and 16th centuries. An interesting fact remains that the monastery’s church is in the Transitional Gothic style which set the tone of Gothic architecture in Northern and Central Europe at that time. Another exceptional element of the complex is the sophisticated water-management system with a great network of drains, reservoirs and irrigation canals.
Tokaj Wine Region, Hungary
If you travel to Europe, you should definitely try Tokaj wine. The whole region is an example of traditional land use. It has vineyards and settlements that have existed for over 1,000 years and are well-preserved today. Tokaj has wine cellars with very specific structures, as those of King Kalman in Tarcal date back to 1110. The cellars are either vaulted – typically an open space under a house, dug before the house was built; and excavated cellars, which were separate from the house. Usually the wine is stored and matures in casks of sessile oak. One of the most famous cellar network is in the Ungvari district and connects 27 cellars at different levels.
Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak, Bulgaria
Located on the Balkan Peninsula in Southeast Europe, Bulgaria usually stays under the radar of American tourists, but the country has rich cultural heritage. Take the Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak that archaeologists say dates back to the end of the 4th century BC. The Thracians were an ancient tribe that was first mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. The Tomb was discovered in 1944, in the small central town of Kazanlak. Nearby, the archaeological digs revealed the capital city of king Seutes III, Seutopolis, also a part of a large Thracian necropolis. Inside the tomb, there are beautiful frescoes representing traditional burial rituals and the Thracian way of life. Specialists agree that the murals are exceptional examples of Thracian art.