Four seductive mediaeval European towns
The Middle Ages are misunderstood. This 1,000-year-long period is invariably described as dark, coarse and foul smelling. Yet this image will melt away with a visit to what remains of the mediaeval era in light-filled cities such as Prague and in towns of enduring beauty such as Gruyères, Carcassonne and Oviedo.
Gruyères, the Switzerland of your imagination
In a town that stands out for its painstaking preservation, Gruyères’ main street seems to have emerged straight out of mediaeval times. The 300m-long cobblestone street with stone fountains – where cars are banned – leads to a 13th-century castle. The fortress holds frescoes and stained-glass windows from eight centuries, more or less the time it was inhabited by the relatively powerful Counts of Gruyères, who eventually issued their own currency. The town’s houses – which date from the 15th to the 17th centuries – feature wooden balconies with geraniums, exposed beams and cast-iron grilles and show a level of care that the Swiss have been famous for since the Middle Ages. Of course, Gruyères is also the home of a famous hole-filled cheese, the earliest references to which date back to the 12th century.
The town’s restaurants – decorated with wooden beams, tables and benches – have to be the best place in the world to enjoy some fondue as you take in the winding streets with their flower-filled balconies, or the views of the mountains, simultaneously green and snow-capped. For afters, the Cailler chocolate factory (established in 1825) is located just 2km from the town.
In a strange twist, one of the town’s biggest attractions is the house-museum of HR Giger, the creator of the dreamlike sets and dark beings of the Alien films. Right across the street is an alien and space café where you can choose between enjoying a beer in the lap of an alien or in the break room of the Nostromos spaceship. The best way to get there is not mediaeval, it’s 19th-century: a train you can take in Zurich – to which you can fly from 7,500 Avios each way – through a scenic setting, with the valley and the town of Gruyères in the distance.
Carcassonne, a mediaeval fairy tale
If you ignore the naysayers who complain that Carcassonne’s walls and battlements were rebuilt in the 19th century based on a rather fanciful pastiche of history, you can enjoy a delightful stroll through a fairy-tale Middle Ages that are said to have inspired the castle of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. The city, just over an hour from Toulouse – to which you can fly from just 4,500 Avios each way – is surrounded by 52 towers and has two concentric walls that give it a maze-like feeling when you’re inside.
The Château Comtal, the only way to enter the inner ring of the wall, and the Romanesque and Gothic basilica of St Nazaire are the two main milestones of the tour, but the most memorable part is the stroll round the battlements, with views overlooking a landscape of sunflowers and lavender that extends to the Pyrenees. From there, you can also reach Le Pont Vieux, the bridge over the River Aude that links the mediaeval La Cité with La Ville Basse, from the 14th century.
Prague, the Middle Ages of lights
Prague – the city of 100 towers – overlooked by a castle that conveys its solidly majestic character to the entire city, is an extensive replica filled with examples that are as solid as its masonry that the European Middle Ages were not just the dark and backward times they have been described as. The entire brilliant design of the 13th-century Malá neighbourhood, the heart of Old City, is a tangible example of how people lived then.
Its Gothic buildings – such as the St Vitus Cathedral, with its tall pointed window made of stone and decorated with stained glass and its ornamented chapels – have been exceptionally preserved, such as the stylised towers of Our Church of Lady before Týn and the Old Town Hall buildings with their astronomical clock, the first in Europe.
The good thing about Prague is that its splendour did not stop during that period, so travellers have a fascinating capital that combines Renaissance palaces, tasteful Neo-Classicism, functionalism and European avant-gardes.
Oviedo, the precursor of the Romanesque
The historic city of Oviedo, a World Heritage Site, basically corresponds to 13th-century Oviedo, the city enclosed by a wall. Its key points were the former Church of San Salvador (currently the Gothic Cathedral, which contains the Holy Chamber of the original pre-Romanesque building), the San Vicente Monastery (now the Archaeological Museum), the royal palaces, the baths, the fountains (the Foncalada fountain is the only one remaining) and a cemetery. Strolling these narrow streets among pre-Romanesque remains and cider bars that still serve some of the tapas that were popular in the Middle Ages is a unique anachronistic luxury in Europe. To learn more, his is from the standpoint of the visit the Asturias Archaeological Museum and its excavated pre-Romanesque fragments to bring context to mediaeval Oviedo.
And one last recommendation: San Julián de los Prados – the Church of Santullano – is even older than the two mentioned above and boasts surprisingly well-preserved frescoes inside. The mystery of its non-figurative decoration – based on geometric patterns – appears to be rooted in Islamic ornamentation.