Our Favourite Countries in Europe

From mountain hiking to art gallery hopping

Before we were jubilados (Spanish for retirees) we holidayed in France, Greece, Italy and Great Britain so now we’re visiting other countries

One of the most spectacular festivals in Sicily, the Archi di Pasqua (Easter Arches, also known as Bread Arches) draws thousands of people to the remote town of San Biagio Platani. When we were planning our trip to Sicily, a townswoman Magellan was exchanging emails with wasn’t certain the annual festival would proceed—the EU had cut funding. Days before we left Canada, she reported the townspeople were going ahead on their own.

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The stave church of Borgund is a paradox. Tarred all-black, dark as a smokehouse, roof tiles overlapping like scales on a mythological dragon, its aura foreboding. At the same time, it appears whimsical, like a fairy-tale castle, a bewitching place, but for a good sorceress. A paradox I’m attributing to when it was built, 1180, an in-between time when a backlash against the newly introduced Christianity created a small revival of Viking paganism. Did we like it, or not? Would you?

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Imagine receiving this invitation. An extravagance of otium (unbelievable self-indulgent luxury), Philosophiana manifested the voracious appetite of a hedonist enthralled with the world of his time. Among the villa’s sixty-three rooms were elaborate baths, winter and summer dining halls for sumptuous feasts, decadent cubiculums (bedrooms)… But most splendid were the 3535 sq metres of exceptional multicoloured floors of mosaics, renowned for their artistic quality and creativity in depicting nature’s seasons, Greek mythology, Homer’s literature, lustful lovers, agricultural wealth and the lavish life of their benefactor, Maximianus, co-emperor of the late Imperial Age. Superlative, right?

Magellan and I didn’t need an invite to see the finest mosaics in situ in the Roman world.

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For thousands of years the serrated peaks of Montserrat have been a sacred destination for pilgrims exploring their interior mountains and climbers scaling jagged peaks. Being neither pilgrims nor climbers, we simply wanted to see the Benedictine Abbey and hike in the national park. We didn’t know that Montserrat is the home of Sister Teresa Forcades, Spain’s most famous nun, her name usually preceded by the word “radical.”

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“Did you see any mafia?” people asked when we returned from Sicily.

“You’ll see signs they’re still around, like villages with piles of garbage at their entrances,” said those who had travelled there recently.

“You don’t see the Cosa Nostra in Sicily,” others said. “The power’s shifted to new mobs in Calabria and Naples.”

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Once upon a time long ago when the land was owned by the king, the church and the aristocracy and the Danes ruled Norway, a poor man had an idea. “Why do we not farm on Skagadalen ledge where the grass grows long for shepherding goats, Trolls bother not with snow avalanches and the rush of Seven Sisters Waterfall can be heard across the Geirangerfjord?”

“Outlandish,” exclaimed his wife. “The cliff rises straight as a mast. How will we scale down such precipices to sell our goat butter? The Trolls—especially Bøyg with his evil potions—will hurl rocks and lure us to mountain edges and to our death in the fjord we will fall.”

“Worry not thee,” said her husband. “We will build tree-trunk bridges and attach rope ladders in the most dangerous spots. It is said Bøyg hinders travellers—he will not bother we farmers.”

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