Having visited numerous archaeology and history sites and museums in nine European countries during 2018, Thomas chooses the best as his recommendations for anyone visiting Europe in 2019. This is not intended as an exhaustive survey of the best places to visit in Europe, rather a few suggestions for unforgettable experiences based on personal impressions.
A few days ago I received an email from Google with a map (below) showing me all the places I had been to in 2018. Well, all the places I used apps such Google maps. Initially I was surprised how accurate the map is. There are one or two places missing (my crossing the Alps from Switzerland to Italy) and a few ‘motorway pit stops’ appear to have equal billing with places I stayed at for a few days. Many of the places I visited were new for me, some not. By and large though, it is an accurate reflection of where I visited in 2018, and a reminder of the many wonderful archaeological and historical sites and museums I saw.
London (England) is where I saw in 2018, and Brandenburg an der Havel (Brandenburg Germany) is where I saw it out. London, of course, is the capital city of the United Kingdom, while Brandenburg an der Havel was the Margraviate of Brandenburg in the Holy Roman Empire, a political focal point in the Kingdom of Prussia, and a hub for Soviet activities in East Germany during the Cold War. Although they are very different places, both have fascinating histories and have played pivotal roles in shaping not only their respective nations but also Europe. I have no hesitation in recommending both places to anyone who is interested in European history, particularly the history of Europe following the fall of the Roman Empire to more recent times.
In nine European countries I saw some amazing sites and museums during 2018. It would be dishonest to say there were not some disappointments, but even these did not detract from the many varied experiences I had. These are all written about on the relevant pages of this website. Here draw particular attention to specific highlights of my year exploring the archaeology and history of Europe. In effect then these are my recommendations for 2019.
Before I begin and in the spirit of transparency and full disclosure, I should point out that some of the trips I made in 2018 were sponsored by local organisations which promote tourism to that destination. Many more of my trips last year, however, were paid for by the income raised through this website. All opinions expressed in my reviews are entirely my own; I am not told what to write.
Interestingly, when praising a place I am often told that I get special treatment – especially when it is was a trip paid for by a tourism board or other such organisation.
Yes, this is happens on occasions. But rarely. Waiting two hours in the baking sun (there was no shade anywhere!) for someone to meet me at the ferry port is very definitely not my idea of special treatment. Paying guests arriving at the same ferry port as I did, had their transfers waiting for them before the ferry docked. One hotel I stayed at that was secured by the destination’s tourist office was decidedly uninterested in the fact that the air conditioning wasn’t working, telling me it was a four star hotel and that the hotel was full. These rare negative experiences aside, I do not let special treatment influence how I write about a destination. And neither does it impact on what I write. If I get taken to a site that is closed to the public – I don’t write about it. Our policy on Archaeology Travel is to only write about what everyone can participate in when visiting a place.
What follows then are my opinions about sites and museums I greatly enjoyed visiting in 2018.
Costa Daurada, Spain
On the outskirts of Tarragona is ‘El Pont del Diable’ (the devil’s bridge), the Roman aqueduct that brought water to Tarraco from the Francolí river some 15 kilometers to the north. The aqueduct is 249 metres in length, 27 metres high and has 25 spans.
I visited a number of places for the first time in 2018, but the one that stands out is Costa Daurada. That stretch of Mediterranean coastline in the southern part of Spain’s Catalonia region, southwest of Barcelona. Although known, and named, for its golden beaches, this area has everything from the Mediterranean sea to the Prades mountains.
On the coast there is the ancient town of Tarraco, present-day Tarragona, one of the oldest and most important Roman towns on the Iberian Peninsular. Although there are other towns in Europe with more surviving Roman features, the layout of the historic town of Tarragona is so obviously defined by the Roman city. The city has set up an excellent series of information boards that guide visitors around the city, highlighting the Roman features; whether obviously sited as in the seaside amphitheatre or the more hidden circus.
Heading inland to the mountains one finds small towns and villages and a few UNESCO listed Cistercian monasteries in surrounded vast vineyards. This is an area that has seen many people come and go, each leaving their mark at sites we can visit today. From the art of Stone Age hunters and gatherers, to forts made by the Moors and castles by the Templars. But if all this is too old for you, head to Reus, second only to Barcelona for its Modernist art and architecture. And the Vermouth Museum. For more about visiting this extraordinary part of Spain and Catalunya, see the Official Costadaura Tourism Website.
The entrance to the Royal Abbey of Santa Maria de Poblet, one of three Cistercian monasteries founded in the 12th century that are the focus of a ‘Cistercian Route’ through inland Costa Daurada.
European Hansemuseum – Lübeck, Germany
A close-up of the shrine for the martyrs, depicting two Roman soldiers leading Crispus, Srispianus, and Benedicta to their death.
Choosing one museum from the many I visited in 2018 has not been difficult. The Europäisches Hansemuseum was by far the most engaging experience I have had in museum in a long time. For some a topic such as the Hanseatic League might seem a bit heavy going for an entire museum. The manner and techniques in which the curators have chosen to draw the visitor into the displays is in my opinion exemplary.
During the Medieval period the northern German city of Lübeck was the capital of the Hanseatic League. This was a powerful trading confederation that stretched across northern Europe from Russia to the United Kingdom, with influence further south into mainland Europe. So it is quite apt a museum that focuses in detail on the League should be established in Lübeck. And the detail is comprehensive; it took me three hours to go through the entire sequence of exhibits. But not in the least bit boring.
What they do to pull visitors in is to get each person to register their interests at the beginning. You slip your ticket into a scanner and a screen takes you through a series of questions to determine your preferences (such as language and age) and interests (regions and socio-politics such as religion, economy, etc.). These are then recorded on your ticket. At various points throughout a very creative and innovative exhibition, you touch your ticket to a pad and the screens there give you more information based on the responses you gave at the start. For example, I chose London as a region of interest, so at each point where I touched my ticket the basic information of the displays was supplemented with information about London at that time – in English.
Perhaps this technique has been used elsewhere, but it is the first time I have encountered it. And I felt much more engaged; it is not a matter of following a set path through the museum reading from a standard set of information panels.
Besides the European Hansemuseum, Lübeck is a impressive city with stunning Brick Gothic architecture.
A guardian spirit surrounded by wild birds and floral wreaths.
Best Special Effects
London Mithraeum, Bloomberg SPACE – London, England
A special effect created with light and liquid spray to recreate the walls of the mithraeum at Bloomberg SPACE in London.
Staying on London for a few months gave me the opportunity to visit a number of places, including the recently opened Bloomberg SPACE with the reconstructed Roman mithraeum. I was so tantalised after my first visit that later the same day I booked to return the next day. The second visit was as sublime as the first, and getting behind the whole experience only enhanced my admiration for what has been achieved here.
From beneath the rubble of postwar London archaeologists uncovered the remains of a Roman temple where the cult of Mithras was practised. The temple was removed and reconstructed nearby so that building could continue. In 2010 Bloomberg started construction on its new European headquarters, and relocating and re-reconstructing the Mithraeum to its original location was a significant part of this award winning building project.
As with many Roman structures built upon in early Medieval times, there is not much left of the temple. With the second reconstruction visitors see the mithraeum as it was uncovered by archaeologists in 1954. The position is slightly altered from exact original position, to protect recently discovered features of the temple not seen during the 1954 excavations that are too fragile to put on display. A rather simple but ingenious special effect has been used to re-create some of the walls of the temple, without detracting from the archaeological remains themselves.
This use of a special effect is just one part of a creative multimedia experience at the Bloomberg SPACE. From the presentation at ground level of artefacts excavated from the site, to the descent down to the Roman levels, the attention throughout to detail is exemplary. I have always thought that the presentation of the meagre remains of Londinium’s amphitheatre was a stroke of genius. Now the presentation of Londinium’s mithraeum keeps that ‘genius’ in the city, but takes it to a whole new level.
Need more reasons to visit? First, it is free – but it is advisable to book advance online as they only allow a few people in at a time. And it gets busy. Second, everyone I have recommended this attraction to has been as taken by the whole experience as I was.
Tablet devices are given to visitors who want to learn more about the artefacts recovered from the mithraeum.
Best Walking Tour
Info-Points for Ginosa, Laterza, Mottola and Massafra, Regional Tourist offices in Puglia
Inside the 11th century rock-cut church of Saint Nicholas. Courtesy of the Info-Point at Mottola, Puglia.
Since I joined a walking tour of the historical sites of Berlin in 2014, I have been hooked on walking tours. Taking an introductory tour is a great way of getting your bearings as well as an informed overview of a place at the beginning of your stay before heading out to explore further on your own. The best walking tours I took in 2018 were those offered by the tourist offices in Terre delle Gravine, an area in Puglia, Italy.
Each of the bigger towns in Puglia has what they have named an ‘Info-Point’ – a tourist office. The place you go to for advice on where to stay and eat, and what to see and do. The staff in these centres are very proactive. In Puglia these ‘Info-Points’ organise their own walking tours. For a few euros and a couple of hours you will get an interesting tour lead by a trained, professional guide who is local to the area. The tours are offered in different languages, with the guides speaking their designated language fluently.
In January 2018 I spent a week in Terre delle Gravine, including the historic towns of Ginosa, Laterza, Mottola and Massafra. I went on a walking tour in each. Our group was taken to some amazing sites – the rock cut churches of Mottola and Massafra with their Medieval frescoes are still fresh in my mind – and heard some fascinating anecdotes from guides who knew the towns and their histories well. Follow the link for my account of the walking tour of Laterza by night.
Although I have not travelled extensively in Italy, I am captivated by Puglia – its history, its culture, its gastronomy. And if you are looking for something different to begin with here, Terre delle Gravine is about as off the beaten track as you can get. Read my Nine Historic Towns, Nine Reasons to Visit Puglia >>
A contemporary pottery workshop in Laterza, known historically for its maiolica ceramic traditions. Courtesy of Info-Point Laterza, Puglia.