The Old Continent houses many mysteries for a traveller to discover.
This summer, I spent three weeks travelling through Europe. Kind of accidentally, actually: I was trying to get from Spain to Liechtenstein and from Liechtenstein to Prague, and everything else just happened along the way.
And I realised that apart from Liechtenstein (because I really fucking like Liechtenstein), I never really wrote anything about my European adventures. So here is a little listicle of weird things I found in Europe this summer.
Okay – so this isn’t something you can see per se but it is a fascinating story nevertheless -something that a fantasy buff like me would just suck right up.
In 1603, a couple of children were found in the outskirts of a village, dead and partly eaten. A 14-year old girl was assaulted by what she called a werewolf, and she was able to identify this beast as a young boy called Jean Grenier. He was arrested and put on trial. He claimed that he’d been taken in a nearby forest, where a back figure on a black horse had offered him a skin that made him a wolf, and he bragged about the children he had kidnapped and killed.
These days we’d definitely say Jean was suffering from some sort of a mental illness, and maybe the court at that time came to a similar conclusion since instead of death or prison, they decided to send him to a monastery in Bordeaux for the rest of his life.
The monastery where Jean allegedly spent his life was apparently called St Michael the Archangel but I couldn’t find it. Nevertheless, you can just wander the streets of Bordeaux soaking in the atmosphere and imagining horrors – it is easy to picture the photogenic old town as a setting of a Gothic horror story.
The coolest area in Bordeaux is located a little ways from the centre, near-ish to the rather unimpressive Botanical Gardens. Bordeaux Tourism calls it the Darwin Ecosysteme. The former military barracks have now been converted into an alternative hang-out space. It is a graffiti-art filled hipster hangout, a skate park, an urban farm, a co-working space and the site for the biggest organic restaurant in France.
When I went there in the evening, it was pretty quiet – great if you want to take pictures of yourself without embarrassing yourself in front of a crowd, not so good if you’re looking for a lively atmosphere. Everything there closes between 2.30 p.m. and 7 p.m., so either go in the morning or in the evening.
(When you’re walking to Darwin from the old town, don’t forget to say hi to the large blue lion on the other side of the bridge.)
3. The most haunted pub in the world
In 1609, (they had a lot going on back then, it seems), some allegations of witchcraft came out in a nearby rural province. Two representatives from the Bordeaux parliament were appointed to investigate these said witches – one of them, Pierre de Lancre, had sent over 80 people to burn at the stake.
Witches were allegedly kept waiting for their fate in the women’s prison where they were tortured into confession.
Now this gruesome site is the location of a chain brewery, an English-style pub called The Frog and Rosbif. But people say they hear strange things in the building…
…or maybe it’s just the sound of delicious burgers being grilled.
4. The biggest reflective pool in the world
Miroir d’eau was one of my favourite things I saw in Bordeaux. The pool is located in front of the Place de la Bourse square, and while most of the time it just looks like any other water feature, it transforms in cycles. Every fifteen minutes, most of the water is drained from the pool and it creates a fog effect before settling into the “mirror mode”.
At 3,450 square metres, it is the biggest reflective pool in the world, and even though it was only built in 2006, it has already become Bordeaux’ number one attraction and scored a place on UNESCO’s contemporary heritage site list.
5. Bonus: how much I actually enjoyed Bordeaux
Out of all the weird and wonderful things I experienced in Bordeaux, the weirdest might have been the fact that I really enjoyed the city. I generally don’t have any grand feelings towards France – every trip I’ve taken there has been great but I’m just kinda meh about the whole country. Like I’d go there but it wouldn’t be my first choice.
Bordeaux surprised me. I loved the colourful cafés dabbled between old, stone-built city streets, towers and churches, quaint little shops that sold cute, useless knick-knacks for outrageous prices. It felt like a city for love and wonder – and for a moment I pictured myself learning French with a beret in my head sitting in one of those delicate steel-legged tables on the sidewalk with a handsome Bordeauxian, making a home somewhere with a balcony and a street view – until the check for my brunch came and I, begrudgingly, paid 16 euros for an avocado toast.
6. World’s shortest and steepest subway
I arrived in Lausanne as the sun was setting, after a rather unsuccessful hitchhiking trip from Lyon, France. My Couchsurfing host texted me to meet him at a metro station up the hill – so I hopped into the local sub and, internally crying, paid a whole 3 and half francs (3 e) for a single ticket.
(I mean. It is the most expensive country in Europe. I shouldn’t complain.)
Only the next morning at breakfast, as I was doing hopelessly-late research into points of interest in Lausanne, did I find how groundbreaking that short trip on the tube had been: the M2 line is the shortest fully-automatic metro line in the world, and with a 12% gradient, it is also one of the steepest – if not THE steepest – metros in the world.
To top it off, Lausanne is also the smallest city in the world to have a metro system.
7. Great vintage postcards
This particular point will only be interesting to me: but if you’re looking for beautiful postcards with a vintage twist, Switzerland has tons to choose from – including a few options from Lausanne! I collect vintage/retro styled postcards from the countries that I travel to. The collection started from a postcard a friend sent me in high school probably eight, nine years ago – and as I was browsing the postcards in Lausanne, I came across that same postcard she sent me all those years ago.
8. Palais de Rumine
A Russian rich kid by the name of Rumine gave the city of Lausanne a million and a half francs to, and I abbreviate, “go buy yourself something pretty and name it after me”. When the palace was first opened in 1902, it housed a university library and an art collection.
These days, though, they’ve managed to cram in five different museums – and the best part, the entrance is free! The most interesting parts of the museum for me were the Geological museum (because they have a collection of shiny rocks and I am, in fact, a five-year-old girl) and the Zoology museum on the top floor. According to Atlas Obscura, this is also home to the biggest taxidermied white shark in the world.
(It wasn’t that impressive. Actually it looked like plastic. But you know how much of a sucker I am for superlatives.)
9. The museum of ugly art
Well, technically “Collection de l’Art Brut” translates as “raw art”, but I never learned French, so blame the 10-year-old me who chose German instead.
This is the first art gallery to only feature works by non-trained artists from the fringes of society: prisoners, schizophrenics, the criminally insane… Their collection is large and apparently is accompanied by the stories of many of the artists so of course I was itching to go check it out. Unfortunately, it was closed in June when I was around but in case you want to go culturally avenge me, here are the current opening times.
10. Dragons of Mount Pilatus
Luzern was one of my favourite cities I visited on this trip, not only because it’s pretty but also because it’s teeming with local legends.
The nearby mount Pilatus is said to have got its name from THE Pontius Pilatus, whose body is supposedly buried somewhere on the hill. Alas, Switzerland is expensive and I didn’t want to pay the 90 franc roundtrip fee to go investigate.
But that’s not all – the mountain is said to have been home to dragons. In Western lore, dragons are often described as vicious creatures (refer to: The Hobbit), although the dragons on Mt. Pilatus seem to have been quite chill. Apparently they had healing powers, and one local man even claimed to have spent the winter in a cavern with two of them. In the spring, they apparently had politely indicated for him to get out and get moving.
11. The saddest stone in the world
The Lion of Lucerne is a memorial for Swiss soldiers fallen during the French revolution. It is carved directly into the sandstone, with the list of names of the fallen scripted underneath. The lion is an impressive ten metres long and six metres tall.
Oh, and its nickname as the saddest stone in the world? It was first given by the iconic Mark Twain, who described the monument as “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.”
12. Dance of death
The Spreuer Bridge looks similar to its twin a little further up the river: the covered wooden walkway over the river Reuss seems cute and rustic, inviting Instagram photoshoots under its triangular rafters.
Well, if it wasn’t for the grim fact that all the while you’d be surrounded by death.
The bridge, also known as the Dance of the Death bridge – or Totentanz in German, since this is the German-speaking area if Switzerland -, was built in the 13th century but it didn’t get its macabre paintings until the mid-1600’s. The 67 artworks painted in the rafters depict scenes of people dying and being dragged into the afterlife, and they remind the people walking underneath of the only thing in life that is sure: that everyone dies.
Try to make that into an alluring Instagram caption, influencers.
13. Hitchhiking in Germany is HARD
When I finally arrived in Hamburg well after midnight, my very tall friend Sarah was luckily still patiently waiting for me. I’d just taken a four-transfer train connection from Cologne after getting stuck on the southern skirts of the city for three hours – mostly in the rain. Even Hitchwiki comforted me in the middle of my deepest desperation: “Hitching [North] seems to be legendarily difficult”.
From what I’d heard before, I imagined hitchhiking in Germany wouldn’t have been a huge problem. After all, it is the nation of all kinds of travellers, known especially well for its extensive network of autobahns!
Well, I guess the autobahns turned out to be my doom. Hitchhiking is always hardest where roads are big and fast, and since thumbing a ride on highways is illegal mostly everywhere, your only links to cars are suburbs and rest stations. And with the criss-crossing highways going all possible directions, it is not so easy to stop someone going your way.
(Do not dare blame Central European attitudes for my bad luck, though – hitchhiking through Switzerland was a breeze.)
Well, that whole Luxembourg hitchhiking fiasco should’ve taught me.
14. The most creative concert hall
Hamburg is best known for its wild parties at Reeperbahn. Just kidding – unless you’re an English lad on a stag do. Actually, or at least historically, Hamburg is known for its lively port area.
The old red-brick Hafencity is very nice – but I also enjoyed strolling along the St.Pauli side harbour. Full of overpriced restaurants and cool-looking escape rooms on big boats, it also opens up a great view over Elbphilharmonie, a concert hall built in 2016.
I didn’t get to go listen to classical music inside – I just stared at it in my ripped tights while eating an ice cream cone. But the inspiration for the shape of the building is cool: drawn from water, the most important element to Hamburg’s past (and present) prosperity, the building is made to resemble a fishing net, its windows reminding the viewer of scales on a fish.
15. You’re never too old to learn new things
On our way back from a bike ride to a nearby lake – which included us getting lost and biking an hour extra just to get to the lake just as it started raining -, we stopped by at a wetlands education centre. The place was entirely bizarre and definitely meant for children about twenty years younger than us and we never really fully understood what the purpose of that property was. And we spent ages trying to figure out what these towers on the edges of the water did. Apparently they have something to do with the old water sanitation system in the city of Hamburg – but that’s about as far as we got.
This blog post might seem like filler content and you’re right, it absolutely is, but I already made the Switzerland icon on the Destination page and I didn’t want it to go to waste so here we are.