Susan Langley is the State Underwater Archaeologist for the Maryland Historical Trust. She received her B.A. in anthropology from the University of Toronto and her M.A. and Ph.D. in archaeology from the University of Calgary. Her long-standing interest is updating international and national heritage protection legislation, to which end she often consults and advises UNESCO. Below, Susan's favorite medieval sites.
Whether the Middle Ages conjures up visions of courtly love à la the Duc de Berry’s Très Riches Heures, Robin Hood, or armored knights tilting at one another, this fascinating period spanned a millennium, and left a rich heritage across Europe and western Asia. Much of this is reflected in the built environment—think fabulous Gothic architecture—and I can't wait to return later this year.
Considered one of the top ten best preserved medieval walled cities in the world, Dubrovnik was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Although it was demilitarized in the 1970s to protect it from wars, in 1991 Dubrovnik was severely damaged by shelling when it was besieged after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Today, however, it is a testimony to painstaking restoration and conservation and is as beautiful as ever. Walking the walls around the city provides a great overview—and permits a bit of snooping into the residents’ gardens! Even just half a circuit takes one to the old port, along with an excellent maritime museum. Exploring the squares, lanes, and alleys of the city proper can easily occupy a few days.
Sumela Monastery and Safranbolu, Turkey
Not terribly far apart on the Black Sea Coast, I can’t resist including both the Sumela Monastery and Safranbolu. Perched high on a mountainside, the monastery was founded in 386 AD; it reached its present form in the 13th century after gaining prominence under the Empire of Trebizond. According to legend, the young emperor Alexios III was saved from a storm by the Virgin Mary, and was bidden by her to restore the monastery. It was visited considerably by royal patronage, and was subsequently granted protection by the Ottoman Empire. The forested walk to the site is interspersed with terrific views down into the valley, followed by significantly vertiginous stairs up over the walls and down into the monastery complex; it is worth every step as the churches and chapels are decorated inside and out with amazing, brilliantly-colored frescoes. Hiking the switchback trail to the base of the mountain provides a different perspective, and at the bottom there is the chance to reward oneself with a well-earned local treat of fondue-like melted cheese and bread.
Not so very far to the west, the city of Safranbolu, an important 14th-century caravan stop on one of the key east-west routes, and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its core has three distinct historic districts and, while much of the architecture leans to the Ottoman period, it is well worth the side trip to visit the warren of shops, and enjoy tea and lokum (Turkish Delight) flavored with the saffron for which the city is named.
Santiago de Compostela, Spain
The Old Town of Santiago de Compostela is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site for its influential role on the development of architecture across Spain, boasting Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque styles. At its core, the eponymous Cathedral housing the tomb of St. James has been one of the world’s great pilgrimage sites since the 10th century. It is worth taking the time to travel some of the many European pilgrimage routes, whether it be small segments or complete treks. While many choose to walk, others bicycle, and there are even opportunities to travel by horseback. Don’t forget to pick up a scallop shell, either from the beach or as a charm from a shop, as this is the symbol of the site; all pilgrims would want one as proof of their success. Join us on Discoveries of Coastal Europe or Iberian Peninsula!
Mont Saint-Michel, France
Although the Benedictine Monastery was founded in 966, its unmistakable silhouette is created by the thoroughly medieval Gothic cathedral, Romanesque convent buildings, and town that grew up crowding its lower walls in what appears to be an effort not to fall off the small island to which they cling. Less than 3,000 feet in circumference, the rocky island is around 247 acres in size and sits a little over half a mile off the French coast. The popularity of the site belies the fact that the permanent population is only 44 souls! Until 2014, this UNESCO World Heritage Site could only be reached at low tide by walking across the exposed sand, or using a causeway that submerged at high water; a permanent bridge has now been constructed. Climbing to the cathedral provides great views and fresh sea breezes, as well as the opportunity to tour the Gothic structure. Mont Saint-Michel is best enjoyed by staying the night and having the place largely to oneself after the shops close and visitors depart. Try the agneau de pré-salé for dinner; the lamb used in this dish once grazed on salt grasses, and are considered pre-salted for cooking.
For added fun, if you find yourself in Cornwall, England, check out the eerily similar Saint Michael’s Mount. Since it was also founded as a Benedictine monastery and was intended as a counterpart to the French Mont, perhaps it’s not such a coincidence. The site is much, much smaller at just over 56 acres with a permanent population of 35. Join us on Discoveries of Coastal Europe!
Brugge, Belgium / Palermo, Sicily
With both cities UNESCO World Heritage Sites—Brugge for its historic medieval core, the fabric of which has survived to the present, and Palermo for its Arab-Norman structures that include two palaces, three churches, a cathedral, and a bridge—I had to declare a tie. As Brugge developed strong economic trade agreements and prospered, it developed its own style of brick Gothic known as travé brugeoise, exemplified in the buildings around its most important squares, the Burg and the Grand Place. In Palermo, the Palatine Chapel is a virtual jewel box of gold, with grounded luminescent mosaics covering almost every surface. While it is my personal favorite within Palermo, it is usually considered together with the larger and comparably decorated cathedrals of the cities of Monreale and Cefalù, both of which are also knock-outs! Join us on Circumnavigation of Sicily!
Go medieval! Literally, at the Chateau de Guédelon, the largest experimental archaeological project ever is in progress. Near Treigny in Burgundy, France, a medieval castle is being constructed exactly as it would have been in the 13th century; from the hand quarrying of stone to the recreation of the original mortar and paint recipes. It is open for visits but one can also sign on to work at the site. Started in 1997, it was originally projected to be completed in 25 years; however, the work is undertaken only six months of the year and not by the large numbers of workers available historically. Though fairly off the beaten path, it is simply too cool not to mention!