The best thing about living in Europe is that you can literally drive for a few hours and already find yourself in a completely different country with its own unique culture and history. Every country has its mythology that can still be traced back to several natural and cultural heritage sites today. When I travel somewhere and hear all these stories that have been passed down to generations and generations, it becomes so much easier to form a connection with a new place and its people. That’s why I want to share the most enchanting places that I was lucky enough to explore in recent years. Here are five mythical places in Europe that you can actually visit and appreciate in the 21st century.
1. The Sintra Mountains in Portugal
The Sintra region in Portugal, near Lissabon, possesses an enchanting allure. Unsurprisingly so, since you’ll see historic castles, gothic mansions, and extravagant palaces, like Pena Palace and Monserrate Palace everywhere. Today, Monserrate is considered to be one of the most beautiful heritage sites from the romantic era, inspiring travellers, writers, and poets all around Europe.
The Mountains of the Moon
In 1540, a chapel was built on top of a hill to honour Our Lady of Monserrate. The late-medieval chapel used to stand on the same spot where the palace is today, looking out over the Sintra Mountains. Even over 2000 years ago, these mountains already played an important role as the Lunae Mons (Mountains of the Moon) in the ancient world: the area symbolised the mythological hiding place of Diana the Huntress. In Roman times, the goddess of the hunt, nature, and the moon carried the name Cynthia, a name that transformed into present-day “Sintra.”
2. Rock of Cashel in Ireland
Have you ever wondered where you can find the most beautiful ruin in Ireland? Well, the old castle ruin atop Rock of Cashel may just be the one you’re looking for. Rock of Cashel was, without a doubt, the most impressive historic site I encountered during my round trip in Ireland’s ancient East. Its startling beauty, however, is only one of its fascinating assets. This centuries-old ruin stands on the land of the old kings of Munster.
The Rock that Broke the Devil’s Tooth
According to an old legend, the Rock of Cashel was originally part of the Devil’s Bit, a nearby mountain. The story goes like this: when Saint Patrick managed to banish the devil from a cave, the devil rushed to the mountain and took a large bite out of it. This bite created a hole in the mountain and the devil managed to escape through the hole. But before he disappeared, the devil broke one of his teeth and spat out the rocks and stones that had gotten into his mouth, creating the Rock of Cashel. To this day, it is one of the most impressive mythical places in Northern Europe.
Later, the Rock of Cashel also became the site where Saint Patrick converted the King of Munster in the 5th century. Between the 4th and 12th century, Rock of Cashel was the seat of the kings, where they fiercely ruled one of the five original regions in Ireland. The eroded structure is now one of the most prized examples of Celtic medieval architecture in Europe.
3. The Plitvice Lakes in Croatia
Founded in 1949, Plitvice Lakes is one of the oldest national parks in Southeast Europe. But, of course, Plitvice’s history goes back much further. The area’s overwhelming beauty, thanks to its 90 waterfalls and 16 lakes, has inspired many mysterious stories, including the legends of the Black Queen, the Gavanovo Treasure and the wise monk.
The Legend of the Wise Monk
In the Lower Lakes canyon, you will find the limestone Supljara Cave. The humid cave has a constant temperature of about 10.5°C. This has created unique conditions that are only suitable for specially adapted cave fauna. Examples of these cave species are pseudoscorpions, crickets, and millipedes.
But the Šupljara Cave is also the subject of a legend about a wise monk (kaluđer). According to the legend, the monk either lived in the Šupljara or Golubnjača Cave. Historic reports say that people used to come to the Plitvice lakes and visit the monk to ask for advice.
4. The Dolomites in Italy
The mighty Dolomites are an unrivaled mountain range in Europe. Really, it is no wonder that so many fascinating myths and legends were born in this monumental region. In-between the summits, the people that lived in the Ladin valleys tried to make sense of their enigmatic surroundings. How else should they understand the origins of these otherworldly landscapes?
The Nightingale of Sassolungo Castle
One of those myths tells the story of a castle that has long disappeared, at the foot of the Sassolungo mountain in Val Gardena. In the castle lived a powerful king and his kind-hearted daughter. One day, when the princess was outside, she witnessed a hawk preying on a nightingale. The ferocious hawk quickly caught the little bird in its clutches. The princess couldn’t just stand and watch and she decided to save the nightingale.
In all his gratitude, the mysterious nightingale promised the princess that he would gift her a magical power: any time she wanted, she could now transform into a nightingale. This metamorphosis would allow her to fly around like a free spirit. The only thing that could break this spell, however, was the death of a human.
The princess felt awful and left him alone again. When she finally mustered up the courage to transform into a nightingale again and reunite with the knight, she found his lifeless body in the courtyard. The death of the knight broke the metamorphosis spell, but the princess had just transformed into a bird. For eternity, the princess had no choice but to continue her life as a nightingale in the forest.
5. The Erechteion Temple in Greece
The infamous Acropolis in Athens is one of the most well-known mythical places in Europe. The Acropolis started its story as sacred grounds for the Goddess Athena, the primary deity for the city. Multiple temples graced the hilltop, forming the Acropolis. The Erechteion Temple is part of the infamous monument in Athens, which still exists today. It wasn’t just a random temple that became the residence for the Turkish Commander’s harem in the 15th century. Interestingly, it played a central role in the mythology surrounding Athena.
Goddess Athena’s Sacred Snake
Back in ancient times, there were several Caryatids or Korai (maiden) statues that supported the roof of the Erechteion temple. According to the myth, these maiden statues represent the servants of Goddess Athena. The eastern part of the temple supposedly belonged to Athena’s sacred snake. The maidens and priestesses would feed the snakes that lived near the temple to see if they ate their gifts. And if the snake didn’t eat the priestresses’ offerings, it was interpreted as a very bad omen for the city.