Inspiration Rafael de Rojas

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

Gruyères is the home of a mediaeval cheese famous for its holes: the first references to it date back to the 12th century, and you can see it being produced at the Moléson-sur-Gruyères factory.
Gruyères is a wonderful example of radical conservation / Image courtesy of Switzerland Tourism: Friborg Region

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.

Gruyères is the home of a mediaeval cheese famous for its holes: the first references to it date back to the 12th century, and you can see it being produced at the Moléson-sur-Gruyères factory.
There are two ways to learn about this cheese: La Maison du Gruyère – an interactive museum – and a factory that offers tours in the nearby village of Moléson-sur-Gruyères (pictured) / Picture by Nicola Fuerer:Switzerland Tourism

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.

ALT The Cailler chocolate factory is just 2km from Gruyères and was established in 1825.
The milk used for the chocolate comes from Alpine cows that feed on aromatic mountain flowers. The tour ends with a crazy sampling room where you can eat all the chocolate you want / Picture by Julie Masson:Nestlé

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

Carcassonne is one of Europe’s best-preserved and most spectacular mediaeval villages and the perfect place for a weekend getaway.
The first stones of Carcassonne were laid in the sixth century BCE. It gradually grew during the Roman occupation and, by the 13th century, it was France’s most impregnable city and was never conquered / Image by Olga:AdobeStock

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 Toulouseto 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 Narbonnaise door is the main entrance to one of Europe’s prettiest mediaeval villages: Carcassonne.
You can enter the town through the arched Narbonnaise door. Once inside, you can stroll about and enjoy the winding stone streets, stone walls, stone pavements and stone thresholds of the many modern restaurants and souvenir shops / Image by milosk50:AdobeStock

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.

Prague is one of the finest examples of a mediaeval city that has preserved its buildings and the splendour of that period.
The New City was the work of Charles IV, the king after whom the monumental Charles Bridge (pictured) was named and which was subsequently decorated with 30 Baroque sculptures – the city’s last modernising push during a time when Carolina University (the first in Central Europe) was also founded / Image by tichr:AdobeStock

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.

The historic city of Oviedo, a World Heritage Site, is one of the best-preserved samples of mediaeval times.
Santa María del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo (pictured) are two old gems of the primitive style called Asturian pre-Romanesque (three centuries ahead of the Romanesque style). Their rough lines are filled with charm and a bit of a defensive air, and speak of the times when they were built: the Reconquest / Image by J. Ossorio Castillo:AdobeStock

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.