Even before my first trip to Europe over four years ago, I imagined whiling away time in charming medieval villages, people-watching in quaint little cafes and soaking up gorgeous landscapes on long summer days. I was lucky enough to live that dream again and again, from falling irrevocably in love with Gargnano on Lake Garda (Italy) to a surreal alpine encounter in Chamonix (France).
But it wasn’t until I was invited by iAmbassador and Visit Europe to experience Europe differently, that I started to see beyond the obvious charm of the continent, into its very heart.
Meet the “Cultural Routes” – 24 themed trails across Europe, where along with the lure of country life, you can travel through time and learn about the continent’s fascinating history in unconventional ways. I’ve traversed only one cultural route so far, and shortlisted the others for future trips:
Hiking: Camino de Santiago
I’ve heard of the adventures of three women who’ve walked the Camino – alone – and while part of me wants to do it, part of me is not sure I’d survive! This 800km pilgrim trail, through the French pyrenees and the length of Spain, started as a redemption-for-sin route in the Middle Ages, a tradition that still continues in Belgium; a prisoner is pardoned and released every year on the condition that (s)he will walk to Santiago (where the shrine of Apostle St James stands), wearing a heavy backpack, accompanied by a guide!
A friend I met in Germany confessed that she got off the trail after the first week, because carrying a backpack all day while walking alone got to her. For my friend Candace of The Great Affair, the Camino was all about slowing down. And for Flora the Explorer, it was about exploring the art of walking. Whatever your reasons, I reckon the trail is packed with great scenery and introspective moments.
Indulgence: The Chocolate Way
Last year, while living with the indigenous cacao farmers of Costa Rica, I learnt how chocolate (as we know it) was invented in Saragoza, Spain in the 1500s, when the colonists brought back cacao beans from Central / South America and mixed it with sugar and milk. Until then, chocolate was drunk as a beverage by the farmers, dark and bitter.
This chocolate-making tradition gradually travelled to Belgium, France, the UK and other parts of Europe – a route that is now interlinked as The Chocolate Way. You can trace the journey of chocolate through small villages and eminent ‘chocolate’ personalities, treat your taste buds in the chocolate capitals of the world, and even learn the fine art of chocolate-making yourself. My mouth waters at the idea!
Also read: The Secret Lives of Costa Rica’s Chocolate Farmers
Introspection: The European Cemeteries Route
In the Black Forest of Germany, I serendipitously met a poet who had run away from home as a teenager to become a street artist in Paris, then studied hard and became a diplomat in Central Asia and Afghanistan, finally returning to the forest to write. He gave me his book of poetry – ‘We walk through light and shadows’ – and I couldn’t think of a better place to read it and reflect on the chance encounter in a cemetery cast partly into darkness by the shadow of the sun.
Most people think of cemeteries as dark, gloomy places, but to me, they speak of life.
The European Cemeteries Route meanders along 67 cemeteries across Europe, offering a different perspective on the local history and culture, and a chance to introspect about death. Before you label me morbid, know that thinking about death is Bhutan’s secret to happiness!
Nostalgia: The Huguenot and Waldensian Trail
This is the trail I traversed, on foot and by train, through forests and sleepy country villages, tracing the journey of Europe’s forgotten refugees – the Huguenots and Waldensians. They were banished from their homes in France, and walked to Germany and Switzerland in search of religious freedom. They built half-timbered houses with hobbiton-style attics to store wine, planted dreamy vineyards all along the countryside, baked bread with the aroma of wine in communal bake houses, and wore hand-woven silk dresses and hats.
Although completely integrated into society now, their villages, homes, churches and traditions tell a story that can be extrapolated to the on-going refugee crisis in Europe. Times have changed, countries have changed, but the narrative of intolerance remains.
Pampering: The Route of Historic Spa Towns
My first tryst with a traditional bath was a Turkish Hammam in Istanbul, and I’ve become a spa-convert ever since. I’ve done a coffee body scrub in the mountains of Coorg, a wine spa in Germany and even a bush massage in South Africa!
The Route of Historic Thermal (Spa) Towns connects the traditional baths of Greece to the spa culture of Eastern Europe to thermal spring resorts in Western Europe to the fascinating sauna culture of Scandinavia; know a better way to rejuvenate your body and mind?
Also read: Losing My Turkish Hamam Virginity
Did any of these cultural routes make your wish list?
Featured image by Thomas Leuthard.