The Anxious Bench’s Favorite Historic Sites in Europe

For many of us, summer is a time to leave home and explore other places. Last year we shared several of our favorite historic travel destinations in the United States. Today, we’re teaming up to suggest a few must-see sites in Europe. (See also David’s recent post about Iceland and Tal’s essay inspired by a trip to Italy and Istanbul.)

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Some of the absolute best places to see in the United Kingdom are in Wales, the main problem being that the choice is very wide indeed, not least of spectacular castles. Raglan Castle is magnificent. Even so, the must-see is Cardiff Castle, which stands right in the heart of a thriving city. The walls basically follow the pattern of a late Roman fortress, and a Norman keep castle built within those walls. Everything is beautifully preserved.

But then you have the story you just can’t make up. In the mid-nineteenth century, the property was owned by the Marquess of Bute, who developed Cardiff as the world’s largest coal port, and that made him one of the richest men on the planet. He was also a Catholic, fascinated by romantic dreams of the Middle Ages. He made contact with a wildly romantic architect named William Burgess, who was likewise obsessed with the beauties of the Middle Ages, and Bute gave him a blank check to turn Cardiff Castle into an aesthete’s paradise. Bute’s ships wandered the world bringing home the finest materials and woods, the best marble, and the most skilled craftsmen. Imagine a room where the walls are gold not because of paint, but because of the unimaginably rich gold leaf. Imagine a room decorated with birds and insects, and every one represents a different species, carved individually. And imagine Bute and his friends relishing the whole multi-sensory experience over some pleasant opium. There is nothing like this anywhere – except maybe for the other pseudo-medieval castle Bute told Burgess to build a few miles away in the countryside, at Castell Coch.

A hidden treasure. And if you ever get tired of the Bute world, be aware that all the Dr. Who episodes of the past decade or so were filmed near Cardiff, and you can visit most of the relevant sites. (Philip)

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I have picnicked at the base of the Eiffel Tower, walked through the glass pyramid at the Louvre, and watched the fountains play in the gardens of Versailles. But only Napoleon’s tomb took my breath away. It was our second trip to Paris and both my husband and son wanted to see the military museum, which I now know is one of the world’s largest military history collections. I confess I wasn’t all that interested, as it seemed to me that it was mostly early modern and modern military history. But I dutifully walked along to Les Invalides with my family. Yes, originally it was built (in the 17th century) as a hospital for soldiers (hence the name). Today it serves as a significant military site filled with monuments, displays, and multiple tombs.  Tucked away inside the domed chapel (officially the Dome des Invalides) lies the most famous burial of all — that of Napoleon Bonaparte.

I seriously think it is the most impressive tomb I have ever seen. I was standing behind my son, walking into the church, when he paused and bent over the stone railing. “Mom!”, he called. “Come see!” Technically the tomb is a reburial, as Napoleon’s remains were moved to the red quartzite sarcophagus in 1861. I really did gasp the first time I saw the sarcophagus. I honestly thought the size was an optical illusion until we got down on the floor and stood under its looming presence.

If you are ever in Paris, I guarantee you it is worth the $15 entrance fee (free for kids). Not only did my son immediately ask for history books about Napoleon so he could learn more, his medieval historian mom who usually cares little about military history also began to read up on 19th-century France. Of course, what I really want to know is why (if) did they bury Napoleon in more than one coffin inside the monster sarcophagus (maybe as many as 4 or 6 coffins)? If you find out on your visit, please let me know! (Beth)

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If you only have a couple of days to spend in my favorite city, you won’t go wrong by focusing on Paris’ main tourist sites. But if you finish your time at Notre Dame and are willing to spend an hour or two digging deeper into French history, then keep walking… to the eastern end of the Île de la Cité, home of the haunting, hidden Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation. Inaugurated by Charles de Gaulle in 1962, the stone structure commemorates 200,000 French citizens who died in German concentration camps during World War II. Only a few visitors are allowed in at time (and no photography is permitted), and even then you’ll feel the intended effect of claustrophobia, as you descend into a crypt whose corridors are filled with evocative words and images — including 200,000 glass crystals lit to evoke the living memory of the martyrs.

But the memorial also exemplifies some of problems with how the French remembered the war. For while it quotes resisters like the poet Robert Desnos (who died of typhoid fever shortly after being liberated from Theresienstadt), it doesn’t clearly address the suffering of French Jews — to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who were eventually rounded up by the Germans, with the complicity of the French government and police. So keep walking about 500 meters north: across one bridge to the Île Saint-Louis, then another into the Marais district, where you’ll find Paris’ Shoah Memorial tucked away on rue Geoffroy l’Asnier. As elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe, Jews recognized what was happening to them and began collecting evidence even as the Final Solution transpired. The research center that stemmed from that initial archival effort eventually grew into a museum in 2004-2005. (It’s situated next to a memorial “to the unknown Jew,” dedicated in 1956.) If you’ve seen the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum or Yad Vashem, the Paris museum may seem relatively small. But it’s retelling of the Shoah is still powerful… never more so than at the very end of the tour, when you suddenly find yourself looking at the photographs of 3,000 Jewish children who were deported to the camps.

Historically, the Marais was the Jewish quarter of Paris, so if you want to stretch your legs and your mind some more, go north to the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism (next to a small park dedicated to the memory of Anne Frank) and the 19th century Nazareth Synagogue, whose rabbi, Joseph Saks, died in Auschwitz in 1944. (Chris)

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I am a great fan of the Netherlands as a travel destination, with a special love for Amsterdam. The problem is that that city has so much to offer that we easily forget the wealth of attractions elsewhere in the country, whether you are looking for history, the fine arts, natural beauty, or general sightseeing (and often interesting American connections). I wrestle with myself how to choose one special place among that splendid group of secondary cities, and could easily praise Utrecht, Leiden, Haarlem, or…

But let my decision light on Delft, an easy train ride from Amsterdam. You can hardly move without finding a lovely view, and a magnificent photo opportunity – the city gates, the canals, the churches. Delft was a key center of the Dutch Golden Age, and ghosts of that era are everywhere, in monuments to science as well as art. You can see the grave memorial of Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, a key founder of microscopy, and thus of the scientific revolution. However, the main ghost is the legendary Johannes Vermeer, and you can still find plenty of the buildings and streetscapes that featured in his paintings. Further back in time, the city was the center of the Dutch Revolt, the war of independence against Spain, which was led by William of Orange. In 1584, William was assassinated here. You can do no better than to hang out in Delft and read one of the many fine books about that revolt, and understand the origins of modern Europe, not to mention a major part of Protestant history. Delft is gorgeous and evocative.

Or maybe I should have chosen Utrecht… (Philip)

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Civita di Bagnoregio is not a big-ticket destination like Rome, Florence, or Venice. This tiny city is not integrally important to Italian history. It is a little kitschy. But by offering, in extreme degree but manageable scale, what many of us go to Italy to see — gorgeous countryside, crumbling medieval art and architecture, lush farmed food — it charms, rewards, and forces us to confront assumptions about why we feel drawn to the Olde Worlde.

Civita, the antique part of Bagnoregio, used to resemble other impressive hilltop towns, like nearby Orvieto. But it met earlier the fate that threatens all such towns. Earthquakes, landslides, and erosion have reduced what is left upon the plateau to a central piazza plus a few winding streets, each cut off abruptly by a wall or a sharp drop.  For a place commonly described as “the dying city,” Civita attracts plenty of life. You can do here what you cannot do in many other charming old Italian hilltowns. You can let your children climb up flights of ancient steps that go nowhere, follow cats into ruins, take stagey pictures in arched stone doorways of somebody’s house—because most of these are no longer somebody’s house. Very few people actually live in Civita any more, but the city government knows the worth of this scenery and have made a virtue of circumstances by having visitors pay to troop around it and be charmed. It’s a rare hands-on-exhibit version of an Italian hilltown. The visitor passes from workaday 21st century Italy only by foot on a long, swaying walkway through the old city gate into rarified storybook scene, where the view is spectacular and flowers bloom out of stone, where one shop sells local herbs and preserves and in another, an elderly man beckons you to an ancient hearth where he toasts rough bread and pours over it green-gold oil for your sampling.

Bagnoregio has things to hold a visitor’s interest, historical merit beyond its unique circumstances. The old church of Saint Donato in Civita has been undergoing restoration. And outside of the dying city, Bagnoregio has plenty of ordinary life, people riding buses, going to school, going to market, mixing the modern and the medieval. Bagnoregio is noteworthy as birthplace of St. Bonaventure (1221-1274), canonized in1482 and named the “Seraphic Doctor.” Successor to St. Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure reformed and united the Franciscans. He brought together things sometimes hard to combine: contending factions, philosophy and theology, mystical enjoyment of God and practical leadership.

Bagnoregio is well worth a visit, kind of a reductio absurdum of Italian travel, in startling, high-cliff drama.

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The​​ Duomo in the Sicilian city of Siracusa — the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Nativity of the Holy Mary — is a wonderful introduction to more than two millennia of religious history. One of the more fascinating things about the building is that some of its columns are older than Mary. Rather than knocking down the Temple of Athena, the bishop of Siracusa simply built his cathedral over and around the existing temple. Presumably the Apostle Paul would have seen the temple when the men taking him to Rome “put in at Syracuse and stayed there for three days.” (Acts 28:12). Within the Temple of Athena, there would have been an altar before which worshippers would have prayed and sang, and would have left small sacrifices such as food and drinks. Perhaps the vessel that is now the baptismal font was once used to collect such offerings.

In the decades and centuries after Paul’s visit, Sicily gradually became Christian. Shortly before Germanic tribes known as the Vandals sacked Rome, they occupied Sicily. Then Byzantine armies conquered Sicily a century later. Eventually, the Bishop of Sicily began the construction of a magnificent temple over the old Temple of Athena, which had long since fallen into disuse. A cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary replaced one dedicate to a virginal Greek Goddess. Was it easier for Christianity to supplant the cult of Athena because of that point of connection?

The spread of Christianity is not the end of the story, however. In the year 878, Muslim armies conquered Siracusa and presumably converted the cathedral into a mosque. As the art historian Colum Hourihane notes, however, no traces of that time period remain. Two centuries later, Norman armies conquered Sicily. The cathedral was rededicated, though going forward it became “Roman” rather than “Byzantine” or “Orthodox.” Temple, Byzantine cathedral, mosque, Roman cathedral.

In addition to these twists and turns, the cathedral also bears witness to the importance of relics, saints, and processions within the history of Christianity and within Catholicism in particular. The martyr St. Lucia — killed during the Diocletian persecution in 304 — is the patroness of the city, and the cathedral houses a statue by Pietro Rizzo brought through the streets of the city each December 13. It’s a city-wide celebration as well as a religious ritual for the faithful. A Caravaggio painting of St. Lucia’s burial hangs on a cathedral wall. (John)

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