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France

5 Historic Sites We Love, and the Stories They Tell

Posted on Monday, November 8th, 2021

Story by: Ken Lovering | Travel Writer


We dug deeper into five of our favorite historic show-stoppers. Each holds a place in history and legend. And each has an epic story to tell. All you have to do is listen.

5 Historic Sites We Love, and the Stories They Tell

There is no better way to explore the world’s intimate byways and connect with the people who call them home than by bicycle. Locals welcome you with wider smiles when you coast into their old-world villages on two wheels. Scents and sights are more potent when you’re pedaling in the open air—whether amid the pine fragrance of a Swiss alpine forest or past dazzling sunlight dancing on Adriatic waters. Biking anchors you in the present in the most invigorating ways, demanding that you pause and take in the sensory pleasures of “now.”

Cycling can also lead you into the past—to the world’s grandest historic sites—particularly on a VBT Bicycling Vacation. These monumental places trigger a sixth sense—the sense that echoes of the past are very present indeed. You envision artisans of long ago carving intricate filigree in stone. Or you conjure kings and emperors wandering vast halls.

We dug deeper into five of our favorite historic show-stoppers. Each holds a place in history and legend. And each has an epic story to tell. All you have to do is listen.

The Alhambra: A Muslim-Christian Gem

Travel writer Michael Jacobs called it a “great ship moored between the mountains and the plains [and] a monument poised uneasily between myth and reality.” Step inside its grand halls and you’re surrounded by ornate interiors, symmetrical arches, marble columns, ceramic tiles, and delicate natural elements like still and flowing water, narrow canals, and the finely wrought fountain in the Court of the Lions. The vivid, flowing Islamic patterns of blues, reds, and golds might make you think you’ve magically crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into Morocco.

The story: Until the Spanish Reconquest of 1492, the palace and fortress were the apex of Muslim high art and culture. After Ferdinand and Isabella moved in, they famously endorsed the journeys of Christopher Columbus in the Hall of Ambassadors. They and other monarchs after them defaced some Islamic elements and added Christian touches, but much of the Moorish-era fortress has been remarkably preserved. Today, UNESCO calls it an “exceptional testimony to Muslim Spain,” and you can visit it during our Spain: Andalusia, Cordoba & Granada trip.

Château Chambord: Folly of a King

Imagine a sprawling French Renaissance castle rising from a clearing in a dense forest. It boasts 440 rooms, a fireplace for every day of the year, a rooftop that feels like a fantasy city of spires and chimneys, and property boundaries marked by a 20-mile-long wall. Forty-six steps separate each of its four floors, resulting in soaring ceilings and cavernous rooms. It’s not make-believe. This fantastic Château Chambord exists, and you must see it to believe it.

The story: This was the weekend retreat of King François I. Some 1,800 workers toiled on it for 15 years. The king invited diplomats and other royalty here to hunt deer and boar in the surrounding woodland – and of course to show off his power and wealth. The château’s most impressive feature, aside from its sheer size, is the double-helix staircase that many hold up as proof that Leonardo da Vinci was the architect. “The staircase’s design – never before seen in France,” reports the BBC, “seems to suggest more than a coincidental link with the famous Italian polymath, whose notebooks were filled with similar architectural sketches. …” It’s all yours to explore during our France: Wine & Châteaux of the Loire Valley Bicycling Vacation.

San Gimignano: Medieval Manhattan

Striking a dramatic hilltop pose in the Tuscan landscape, the medieval town of San Gimignano is sometimes called a “Medieval Manhattan” for the soaring towers that scrape the sky. But there’s more to this charmer’s significance than its towers. UNESCO celebrates its “exceptional testimony” to the Italian Middle Ages in that all the structures and buildings you would expect to see in medieval urban life are concentrated into quite a small area. Squares, streets, houses, palaces, fountains, and wells stand shoulder to shoulder, making it easy to imagine what life was like in centuries past.

The story: Back in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Guelph and Ghibelline families sparred over control of the town. To show their strength, they built tower after tower, each taller than their enemy’s last one. Eventually, 72 towers graced San Gimignano’s cityscape. Today, 14 remain, which is somewhat of a miracle. Other Tuscan cities, like Florence, have lost their towers to war, natural disaster, or urban renewal. You can stroll among these glorious cobbled streets and towers all you’d like during our Italy: Tuscany, Lucca to Sienna Self-Guided Tour.

Kronborg Castle: Shakespeare’s Most Famous Setting

The Danish Kronborg Castle oversees the narrowest point of the Øresund, the sound that separates Denmark and Sweden. Encircled by moats, it lords over the waters much as it has since the 16th century, when King Frederick II transformed the former stronghold into a splendid Renaissance castle. Exploring it today reveals secret passages, a gloomy dungeon, and battlements scattered with cannons. The Knights Hall is one of Europe’s largest and oldest, adorned with stunningly preserved tapestries.

The story: Kronborg holds an iconic place in Danish history, to be sure. It played a central role in defending Denmark and served as a tollbooth to ships passing through the sound. UNESCO lauds its significance in human history and its “immense symbolic value to the Danish people.” But it is perhaps better known for its role in William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet. Elsinore Castle – adapted from the town’s name, Helsingør – was the home of the tormented Danish prince. As you tour its cavernous corridors and echoing chambers during our Scandinavia: Denmark & Sweden Bicycling Vacation, it’s easy to imagine the Dane brooding in the shadows.

Hué: Vietnam’s Imperial Treasures

Spanning some 1,300 acres along the banks of the Perfume River, the Imperial City of Hué proudly stands as a shadow of a once-great empire. This was the domain of the Nguyen dynasty, whose emperors oversaw a unified Vietnam from 1802 to 1945. Dozens of royal buildings and temples dominate the area, comprising hundreds of rooms adorned with Chinese-inspired touches. Within the fortress, the Forbidden Purple City is even more impressive, boasting the elaborate chambers of the royal residences. A visit here is key to understanding Vietnam’s rich past.

The story: Surrounded by a moat that’s 65 feet wide and a wall that’s six feet thick, this was a vibrant political, cultural, and religious capital for an empire that stretched into Cambodia and Laos. City planners brought in geomancers to bring their vision to life. These divine interpreters of the earth conceived of the city based on the relationship between the five cardinal points (center, north, south, east, west), the five natural elements (earth, metal, wood, fire, water), and the five basic colors of the period (yellow, white, blue, black, red). You can explore its eerily silent warrens, courtyards, and restored structures during our Vietnam: Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An & Saigon trip.

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