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Rumour has it the aesthetic of Disney’s Pinocchio film was influenced by Rothenburg. And why wouldn’t you use it for scene-setting inspiration? The lopsided, brightly painted gabled homes that line twisting cobbled streets, shop windows that glow warmly on wintery nights and even the entrances to the city, such as the arched 13th-century Röder Gate, are straight out of a bedtime story.
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Flush against the banks of the Aude River stands Carcassone, a medieval walled city that’s one of most well-preserved fortifications on the continent. Even better, the homes within are still inhabited, protected by the 52 towers and two walls that loop three kilometres around the city. Inside these hardy stones stand the Saint Nazaire basilica, which dates back to 925 and the Count’s Castle (the Château Comtal), complete with (grass-covered) moat and barbican.
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For the real fairy tale experience, you need to visit this lakeside town in the middle of winter when snow coats the angled roofs of every building. Less than a thousand people live in this alpine village but it’s so popular among Chinese visitors that a replica was built in Guangdong Province in China.
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Given that the Walls of Ávila were originally completed between the 11th and 14th centuries to keep people out, it’s doubtful its Mudéjar builders would be happy that tourists can now amble along it. But it’s thanks to these walls the town within was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. Once you’ve strolled past the 87 turrets and nine gates along the 1700 metres of the perimeter that are accessible, head inside to appreciate the town’s Romanesque churches and monasteries.
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Built upon seven hills (yes, just like Rome), this tangle of tiny streets and canals has some of the best examples of medieval Bavarian buildings – and that’s according to the boffins at the World Heritage evaluation panel, too. The Altstadt (old town) is made up of three separate neighbourhoods – the episcopal town, the island town and the market gardener’s town – but like most medieval throwbacks, it’s dominated by the cathedral and former palace.
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On the River Conwy in the north of Wales you’ll find Conwy Castle, a round-turreted citadel surely similar to the grand castle King Arthur and his court called home. Surrounded by verdant countryside, this quaint spot is infused with mementos of its medieval past.
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The incredibly blue waters might make Hvar a key stop on an island-hopping holiday but don’t ignore the incredible fortified homes in favour of the beach every day of your stay. The town of Hvar is peppered with the remains of medieval wonders including fortresses, theatres and a white-walled cathedral.
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Red-and-white gabled homes, a crumbling castle on a hill and a bridge that joins two sides of the town together? This town on the Moselle River meets all the necessary requirements to call itself a fairy tale town. As if you needed more convincing, there’s an annual Wine Festival that brings together some of the region’s best vignerons and their drops.
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Bridge fanatics, this town is for you. In the shadow of Mount Pilatus lies Lucerne and within it is the Chapel Bridge, a gabled walkway over the Reuss River considered one of the oldest wooden bridges in Europe. Fixed up over the years, it was first constructed in the early 14th century and the intricate triangular paintings staggered across the ceiling were added in the 17th.
Morano Calabro, Italy
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Like a swirl of frosting on a cupcake, the medieval buildings of Moran Calabro wind around a peak in the Calabrian side of Pollino National Park. A mix of steep staircases, hidden alleyways and slightly sloping homes, the cherry on top are the remains of a ninth-century Norman castle.
Mont St Michel, France
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If the chance to poke around a 1000-year-old Benedictine abbey isn’t enough to entice you to Mont St Michel, then how about this: the entire town is built on a tiny island off the coast of Normandy, connected to the mainland by a narrow, kilometre-long bridge.
Prague, Czech Republic
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Not so much a quaint town but a sprawling capital, Prague is one of the best examples of a medieval metropolis in Europe, particularly within the Old Town and the Castle District. The foundations for the storied spires of Prague Castle were laid in 870 and in the following 700 years, a slew of Romanesque and Gothic structures were built, many of which still exist in various states of refurbishment today.
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You need to explore this sandstone old quarter on foot. The Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of the Holy Savior takes pride of place in Alfonso II Square, which is dotted with sculptures and statues and surrounded by hundred-years-old mansions. Time wasn’t kind to all the 9th-and 10th-century buildings across the region and as such, pieces of those that didn’t make it to the 21st are on display at the Archaeological Museum of Asturias, housed in a former monastery to really amp up the historical factor.
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Bled might have the most picturesque lake scene in all of Europe but don’t bypass nearby Radovljica during your Slovenia getaway. Its old town is incredibly preserved, with the only remaining town moat in the country and – even better –¬ a Gingerbread Museum where you can see the sweet treat being made. Just beware of crones trying to lure you inside.
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It claims to be the country’s oldest town and it certainly puts up a good argument. The Vikings made their mark on Ribe, on Denmark’s western-most coast but it was when the central cathedral was completed in the 12th century that the town became especially influential. A conservation society was set up in 1899 and thanks to its quick thinking, more than 100 medieval houses survive in at least some of their original form.
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An eerie, mystical feeling is sure to envelop you as you walk the loop around the ruins of this medieval village in County Roscommon. All that’s left of this once thriving trading post are the crumbling town wall, castle, church, mill and “hospital”. The fact some archways still stand is testament to the incredible masonry skills of the past. Image credit: Arno-nl (CC BY-SA 4.0)
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An ancient market town, an abbey, two castles and ochre-coloured buildings –this Dorset town is straight out of an English storybook. The impeccably manicured grounds of the 16th-century mansion are worth a visit alone: it’s easy to imagine a lively jousting tournament taking place on the 17 hectares of land.
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You’re spoilt with medieval marvels across the three hills of this Tuscan town. There’s the fresco-filled Piccolomini Library, the incredible art inside the Duomo of Sienna, the 400-step-high Torre del Mangia, not to mention the hodgepodge of historic buildings standing tall within the city walls.
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You’d hardly be surprised if Rapunzel flung her braid from the tiny window at the top of the tallest watchtower along the City Wall. Cobbled together from misshaped stones, with nature now creeping through some of the cracks, the three-kilometre wall once protected Gotland’s only town from invading Danes.
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In a country overflowing with gorgeous villages, this is the one crowned France’s favourite in 2012. Saint-Cirq-Lapopie stands 90 metres above the River Lot, so expertly fortified by the former feudal dynasties that lived there that Richard the Lionheart was unable to conquer it in 1199. Its 200 or so residents live in a collection of stone and wooden homes that wind their way up the hill, each with a steeply slanted, red-tiled roof.