Be it tales about big bad wolves or gallant knights, fantasy stories have the uncanny ability to cast a magical hold on us simply by stoking our imaginations and serving as an escape from reality.
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When met with places that look out-of-this-world but yet seem oddly familiar, there’s a glimmer of hope that perhaps those fairy tales we’ve read as a child or seen on screen aren’t merely the stuff of fantasies. Quotient gives a run-down of five magical places in Europe that will make you wonder if you’ve stepped into a portal to another realm.
With its colourful half-timbered buildings lining cobblestone streets, Colmar is reminiscent of a life-sized village straight from a children’s storybook. This picturesque quarter aptly named “Petite Venise” (Little Venice) can be admired from the canal with a gondola ride. Adding on to the fantasy-like charm of the place are unique historic buildings such as the 17th-century House of Heads, which has 106 grotesque heads adorning the exterior, and the iconic Pfister House, which features a wooden gallery and octagonal turret built by a hatter.
Colmar is just one of many towns and villages in the Alsace wine region near the German border, of which several such as Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé have been listed as “Plus Beaux Villages de France” (Most Beautiful Villages of France) or “Village Fleuris” (Flowering Village) for their beautiful architecture and flowers respectively. Numerous castle ruins along the Alsace Castle Route also promise more magic to keep you spellbound.
Black Forest, Germany
With a canopy so thick that it blocks out most of the sunlight, the Black Forest in southwest Germany exudes an aura of mystery. Streams trickle over rocks as red squirrels scurry past vividly-coloured mushrooms that sprout up from the forest floor. The Black Forest presents a magical setting that inspired the Brothers Grimm, who went on to pen famous fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel.
Besides being famous for Black Forest cake, a local specialty, the forest is also renowned for its cuckoo clocks that were first built here in the 18th century. Take a scenic drive or train ride to the town Triberg deep in the heart of the Black Forest, which is home to charming half-timbered houses, one of Germany’s highest waterfalls and the largest cuckoo clock in the world. During the Christmas season, the town is illuminated by millions of dazzling lights.
Cotswolds, United Kingdom
Stroll through any of the quiet medieval villages of the Cotswolds and you are likely to be met with honey-coloured stone cottages, antique shops, quaint inns and teahouses, and historic churches funded by wealthy wool merchants. Some of the more notable villages in the Cotswolds include Bourton-on-the-water, nicknamed “Little Venice” for its multiple stone bridges across the River Windrush, and Bibury, with its widely photographed row of former weavers’ cottages from the 17th century.
Dotting the landscape of beech forests and grasslands are imposing manor houses belonging to the upper classes, each with beautiful gardens housing an amazing array of plant species. Climb up the Broadway Tower, Cotswold’s highest castle, for panoramic views of this designated Area of Outstanding Beauty. The charm of the Middle Ages is certainly not lost in the Cotswolds, which has served as the setting for famous movies and TV series such as “Harry Potter” and “Downton Abbey”.
Dining in Dracula’s home is totally possible in Sighisoara, the birthplace of the blood-sucking count whose home has been converted into a museum and a restaurant. Besides its association with the world’s most famous vampire, Sighisoara has an old-world charm as one of the best-preserved fortified medieval towns in Europe.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the town is dominated by a walled citadel with nine ancient towers, a central square where witch trials used to be held, historic churches, and pastel-coloured buildings that are still inhabited today. Visit Sighisoara in July and you will find yourself whisked back to medieval times as the townspeople take to the streets dressed as knights, wizards and monks during the Sighisoara Medieval Festival. You can also engage in knight battle tournaments, participate in craft workshops and enjoy medieval dance performances as part of the festivities.
If a land of giants did exist, Meteora could very well have been where they lived. Seemingly defying gravity, monasteries are perched precariously atop giant monoliths that rise up as high as 400 metres above the Plain of Thessaly — a dramatic sight bound to instil awe and wonder. One might half expect to see a giant beanstalk, but the monasteries — now down to six from the original 24 — are accessible by roads, stairs and pathways cut into the rock.
Built by Orthodox hermit monks from the 14th to 16th centuries with rudimentary tools such as ropes, ladders and baskets, the monasteries are still inhabited by monks and nuns and house elaborate frescos, religious art and manuscripts. Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Meteora has been featured in numerous video games and movies, most notably as the sky kingdom Eyrie in the first season of “Game of Thrones”.