How had he missed those dark storm clouds looming on the horizon?
The ship rocked through enormous waves in the heaviest storm he had seen in years.
Wet ropes bit into his hands. He had lashed himself to the ship’s wheel so he wouldn’t fall into the raging ocean.
Turning the ship’s wheel, desperately seeking a respite from the crazy ocean as it seemed determined to chew up his ship into huge splinters.
Hours ago, he had lost feeling in his feet thanks to frigid seawater slopping on the deck. But he refused to give up.
Meet Captain Hendrick van der Decken of the Flying Dutchman. The year was 1641. They had just rounded the Cape of Good Hope, headed home towards Holland with the ship’s hold packed from a successful Far East trip.
The ship lurched violently. Over thunder and crashing waves, Captain heard a sickening crunch.
He felt the hole ripped in the Flying Dutchman’s side like a giant had bitten into his own stomach. Water rushed into the ship. They were going down. He was going to die.
Captain van der Decken screamed, “I will round this Cape even if I have to keep sailing until Doomsday!”
Flash forward to 1641, in a dark bar steps from the dock, a sailor finished his tale. With a meaningful look around the table, he said, “That ship is still sailing the open seas.”
We Love Myths
Nearly five centuries later, Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer repackaged this myth into the lucrative movie, Pirates of the Caribbean.
Myths have enormous lasting power. In the 18th century, Americans were warned of staying out too late in Europe’s dark nights for fear these history-rich cities would be too much for their delicate sensibilities unused to such mythical power.
Laugh if you must, but myths still cast an allure over Europe and draw travelers.
The stories provide a romantic backdrop for Europe’s destinations and a sense of time travel. Every year these myths inspire trips and pilgrimages to the very real destinations where their roots are planted.
If you’re headed to Europe this summer, these 7 familiar myths with actual, physical locations might inspire your visit.
Packing for Adventures in European Myths
Any of the following mythological adventures will include a day trip within your larger adventure. Stonehenge, for instance, is an easy day trip from London. Make Nottingham your base and take several day around Sherwood forest and Robin Hood’s haunts. Or, maybe a boat trip monster hunting on Loch Ness will be more your style.
Pack a daypack and be prepared for adventure of mythic proportion. The Outbreaker daypack is perfect for European day trips because of its classy, low key appearance (you’ll blend in with the locals better) and the waterproof sail cloth it’s made from. Anyone been to London? What about Wales or the Scottish highlands? If you have, you know what to expect: Rain. You’ll want to include:
- Water bottle (you can refill it anywhere, Europe’s drinking water is safe)
- Sarong (as an impromptu picnic blanket or wrap)
- Snacks (some of the adventures below will take you out of easy reach of a corner store)
- Light jacket (rain, wind, cool evenings, this is Europe, weather changes)
- Book (a copy of the myth you’re visiting, sit under the mighty oaks and read Robin Hood)
Nottingham, England & the Roots of Robin Hood
We’re all familiar with the story of outlaw hiding in the forest with his band of merry men, stealing from the rich and giving back to the poor. Meet Robin Hood.
Maybe you think of Robin Hood as a fox. That’s okay; I do too, thanks to the Disney movie.
This dashing hero first appeared in myth around the 14th and 15th centuries from a ballad about a bold outlaw living in Sherwood Forest and clashing with the Sheriff of Nottingham.
But what you might not know is you can visit many of the areas that Robin Hood frequented.
Nottinghamshire is the base of Robin’s arch enemy, the evil Sheriff of Nottingham.
According to legend, this is the town that Robin would sneak into and participate in archery tournaments or daringly rescue his men from the sheriff’s jail.
Perhaps, on his way out of town, he’d stop in The Trip to Jerusalem, the oldest pub in England. Legend says this pub was serving alcohol back in Robin’s day. Stop in for a pint and sit in the oldest part of the pub that’s carved into the castle rock.
Like any good outlaw, Robin had his faith to guide him. According to myth, Robin snuck into St. Mary’s Church to pray, in the old Saxon part of town.
Ah, Robin’s home turf.
Located inside Nottinghamshire, wander among its 900 ancient oak trees which are close to 1,000 years old. These are some of the oldest trees in England, twisted into bizarre shapes by time and weather.
In the Sherwood area, many of the wells, graves, hills, caves, barns, and meadows are named after Robin Hood. However, Sherwood Forest isn’t like the Disney movie with miles of unblemished virgin forest.
(I know — Disney mislead you. I’m sorry and I feel your pain, but we can commiserate in another post.)
Sherwood Forest was never like that. Instead, this royal hunting forest is a patchwork of open woodland and sandy heathland, with small villages scattered throughout.
Almost every town in Sherwood Forest is tied to Robin’s myth.
Legend has it that Friar Tuck was from Fountain Dale near Blidworth. Will Scarlet’s grave is rumored to be in Blidworth. The townspeople of Mansfield — in Sherwood Forest’s center — say Will Scarlet was born there. Even though the ballad says Will is from Maxfield, possibly in Yorkshire.
Yorkshire brims with Robin Hood folklore.
For starters, Loxley, located in Yorkshire, near Sheffield, was Robin’s legendary home village. According to the stories, before Robin became an outlaw he was a fisherman in Scarborough in North Yorkshire. In fact, the bay in Scarborough is known as Robin Hood’s Bay. But he was a lousy fisherman, so he switched career paths and became a famous robber instead.
The abbey in Yorkshire may be where Friar Tuck came from.
The Rhine River Valley, Germany & the Siren-Song of Rhine
In Germany, a 433-foot high slate cliff over the winding Rhine River, near the town of St. Goarshausen, is shrouded with legend.
Welcome to Lorelei Rock.
The myth tells of a jaw-dropping beauty with copper hair who lived atop the craggy heights. Woe to the boatman on the Rhine who passed her rock. This vixen liked to sing men to their deaths on the stones and cliffs below.
She picked a good spot. Below this cliff, the Rhine is up to 82 feet deep and only 371 feet wide. This stretch of river is a death trap.
The first mention of this story appeared in 1801, when Clemens Brentano wrote a romantic ballad about Lorelei (Loreley). In the original version of the ballad Lorelei was featured as a beauty from Bacharach.
On her way to the convent after discovering her true love was unfaithful, she stopped at this slate cliff to look back on her lover’s palace. She spies him riding away and throws herself off the cliff into the Rhine.
Apparently Brentano wasn’t happy with this version. In 1810, he rewrote the theme to the myth’s current version, featuring Lorelei as a cold-hearted beauty luring men to their death. Sitting on the rock, distraught and vengeful against all men, she sings ships to their destructions.
The modern version goes like this:
A brave young warrior, Ronald, heard of this enchanting creature and wanted to see her. He got an old sailor to row him to the rock.
From the darkness, a mist crowned the black rock high overhead. The mist burned away at the rock’s top, revealing a divine woman who sang softly. Ronald dove into the turbulent water and drowned.
Ronald’s dad was overcome with grief and wanted to see this enchantress punished. He sent his warriors after her. As they crested the steep rock, they spied her.
She arched an eyebrow at them. “What are the weak sons of earth seeking up here on the heights?”
The warrior leader yelled, “We’ll get you, you crazy woman!”
Lorelei ripped the jewels from her forehead and threw them into the Rhine, whispering, “Come, father dear, send your steeds to rescue me.”
The warriors heard a rushing thunder. The Rhine rose up in two massive white-billows like stallions and carried Lorelei down into the current.
According to legend, on dark nights, you can still hear a lovely voice singing from the rock, and if you do, head for the hills.
London, UK & Sherlock Holmes
Slink around the corner and you might catch a glimpse of a deer hunter cap disappearing into 221b Baker Street in London.
Hello, Sherlock, you devil. You require no introduction, having enjoyed a renaissance through the recent BBC series that’s developed a cult following. This genius consulting detective with a penchant for heroin has grown to mythological proportions from his humble beginnings as the main character in a magazine serial in The Strand Magazine. Inspired by Auguste Dupin, the sleuth who had solved Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s logical and complex detective started out as a story character but has grown into so much more.
So were birthed the legends of Sherlock Holmes.
Today, his apartment — at 221b Baker Street — is the Sherlock Holmes Museum.
Retrace his footsteps on the highly-rated Sherlock Holmes Walking Tour. A private 4-hour walking tour where you visit 221b Baker Street and many of the BBC’s filming locations for their TV series Sherlock Holmes starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
Paris, France & the Hunchback of Notre Dame
A deaf hunchback who rings Notre Dame’s enormous bells, madly in love with the gypsy girl, Esmeralda forms the plot of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, one of the great pieces of European fiction.
But it’s also a Parisian myth with all the ingredients of the best myths: A literary story founded in truth. Henry Sibson was employed at Notre Dame around the time Hugo began writing the book in 1828. Sibson says a stonemason with a hunched back worked there.
He writes, “Mon Le Bossu (the Hunchback) a nickname given to him and I scarcely ever heard any other … the Chief of the gang for there were a number of us, M. Le Bossu was pleased to tell Mon Trajan that he must be sure to take the little Englishman.”
No visit to Paris is complete without a visit to the cathedral of Notre Dame. Yes, the lines are long, but the kaleidoscope of color streaming through the stained glass windows is worth it. Listen hard, perhaps you’ll hear the scrape of metal on stone, or the songs from the Disney movie of your childhood echoing in your ears.
England, Wales, & King Arthur’s Camelot
Kneel before the most venerable of European myths: King Arthur of Camelot and his Round Table knights.
If you’re a lover of mythology and history, the boy who pulled a sword from stone is a familiar one.
King Arthur was a fierce warrior who was conceived from a summer’s night tryst. He became king and led England to many victories with the magician, Merlin, at his side. His is a tale spun with the very threads of magic and myth.
The earliest reference to Arthur is in a Welsh poem dating from around AD 594. The poem is a series of separate elegies to the men of the Gododdin who died at the Battle of Catraeth, fighting against the Angles of Deira and Bernicia. In one of those elegies, a reference is made to Arthur.
That suggests he was already a big deal when the poem was composed.
Next, Arthur appears in the History of the Britons written by Nennius in AD 830.This time, he is depicted as a heroic general and Christian warrior. Then, he appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae (“History of the Kings of Britain”) in the early 12th century.
Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory — a 15th century compilation of tales — is the most famous book about King Arthur.
Note to Readers: Mary Stewart’s King Arthur trilogy is the best King Arthur tales I’ve ever read. Start with The Crystal Cave — you won’t be disappointed. For a twist on the old tales focused on the stories of the women in the Arthurian legends, The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, is fantastic.
According to Arthurian myth, Stonehenge was erected by the wizard, Merlin.
In his Histories of the Kings of Brition, Geoffrey of Monmouth tells the story of Stonehenge. Ambrosius Arelianus, Arthur’s uncle, was king. He came to Salisbury where many earls and princes were slaughtered in an epic betrayal by Hengist. He wanted to make the place memorable.
Merlin suggested using stones from the Dance of the Giants in Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland, to build a stone structure. These stones were used as a site for performing rituals and healing.
“For the stones be big, nor is there stone anywhere of more virtue, and, so they be set up round this plot in a circle, even as they be now there set up, here shall they stand for ever.”
According to Geoffrey, the stones of the Giant’s Ring were originally brought from Africa to Ireland by giants. And the Irish weren’t about to part with them.
After a fierce debate — that probably involved swords and bloodshed — King Ambrosius got his way.
Only problem was the stones were too large for the Britons to move. King Ambrosius enlisted Merlin’s help. He used his magic and erected the stones in a great circle around the mass grave of the murdered noblemen.
After that tale, the theory that druids built this mysterious stone circle pales in comparison.
Stonehenge is a day trip from London, or, you can travel down by train and stay the night in the town nearby.
Camelot is Arthur’s chief fortress. Shrouded in myth, its location is unconfirmed but Arthurian experts have four possible locations of Camelot.
Caerleon, South Wales
Caerleon is one of three Roman legionary forts in Britain, as referenced by both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes.
Cadbury Castle, an Iron Age hill fort near Yeovil in Somerset
The antiquarian, John Leland, in his Itinerary of 1542 referred to this location as a Camelot location. Leland fervently believed that King Arthur was a real person and existed in historical fact, not just myth.
Archaeological excavations at Cadbury have revealed a substantial building which could have been a Great Hall. More evidence that this hill fortress was a castle of a Dark Ages king were shards of pottery from the eastern Mediterranean, showing wealth and trade.
Local names and traditions underline the links between Arthur’s Camelot and Cadbury Castle. Since the 16th century, the well on the hill has been known locally as Arthur’s Well and the highest part of the hill is known as Arthur’s Palace.
Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that Arthur was born at this castle in Cornwall.
In the late 1980s, a 1,500 year old piece of slate with two Latin inscriptions was found at Tintagel, linking Arthur with Tintagel. The second inscription on the slate reads “Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has had [this] made.”
Geoffrey of Monmouth claims that King Coel is one of Arthur’s ancestors.
In Le Morte d’Arthur, Thomas Malory claims that Camelot is this castle.
Winchester Castle was built in the late 11th century. In the 9th century, the town of Winchester was the ancient court and capital of King Alfred the Great. He was a great warrior famous for defeating the Danish invaders and a great statesman, law maker and wise leader.
Interestingly, this sounds a lot like the legendary Arthur: A successful warrior leading his people against invaders and a wise and gracious leader.
For centuries, a round wooden tabletop has been displayed in the Winchester Castle’s Great Hall. This tabletop is painted with the names of King Arthur and 24 knights. More convincingly: It shows their places around the table.
In 1976, this round table was carbon-dated to around the turn of the 13th or 14th century. Since at least 1540, it has hung in Winchester’s Great Hall, and possibly since as far back as 1348.
Visit King Arthur’s grave in Glastonbury, the modern town that spreads over the site where mythic Avalon, once floated.
The king’s bones rest on the enchanted isle of Avalon, sleeping off his wounds from a lifetime of battles with knights, crusades, sorcerers, round tables and magical swords.
He lived a full life.
As Britain’s once and future king, myth says that King Arthur will return wielding Excalibur and the Holy Grail to unite his country when it needs him most.
Inverness, Scotland & the Loch Ness Monster
Does she exist or not?
This question has become almost as philosophical as Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy.
Is there a monster of enormous proportions living in the murky depths of Scotland’s Loch Ness?
She was first spotted in 565 AD when, she reportedly snatched up and ate a local farmer before St. Columba forced her back into her watery home.
Hundreds of years later, in 1933, construction began on the A82 which runs along the Loch’s north shore. And Nessie was not happy. All the drilling and blasting forced her from her dark depths in and into the open.
In 1934, London surgeon R.K. Wilson took the infamous photo: A slender head and neck above the water’s surface. That picture has since been proven a hoax.
Starting in the 1960s, the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau did a 10-year observational survey and recorded an average of 20 sightings per year. Near 1970, they used mini-submarines and sonar equipment to explore Loch Ness’ murky depths.
Despite all that, no one can say for sure if Nessie exists or not. In 1980, Swedish naturalist, Bengt Sjögren, wrote that the myth originated to keep children from straying into the loch.
No evidence has been found to support her existence. But lack of evidence isn’t evidence.
The best time to visit Inverness & Loch Ness is in summer, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that monster hunting is the only thing to do in the Scottish highlands.
Krakow, Poland & the Angry Dragon
On Poland’s southern border with Czech Republic is Krakow, once home to an angry dragon.
A small village grew up on the River Vistula. Near this village was Wawel Hill with a deep cave in its side. No man dared venture inside as legend claimed a fearsome dragon lived there.
Some life-drunk youths decided to banish this crazy talk of a dragon and explore this (really, not very scary) cave.
Only they woke the dragon. Running like hell back to their village with the dragon chasing them, roaring fire, if they had hairs on the back of their neck, they were singed.
Like any reptile, the dragon was upset at being awakened from its slumber. So, it terrorized the village people, eating sheep or young virgins.
One man in the village, deciding enough was enough, fought back.
Here the myth varies. In one version King Cracus waged war against the dragon. Another version, that came out in the 16th century, says a shoemaker named Krakus or Krac fought back.
Either way, the hero smeared sheep with a thick paste made from sulfur and waited until the dragon emerged for his nightly snack.
The dragon devoured the sheep. The sulfur gave him a horrible internal fire, making him thirsty. He sprinted for the River Vistula and drank deeply.
The dragon began to swell, but it still drank water, until suddenly the dragon exploded.
Cue the village people cheering and building a stronghold on Wawel Hill. A city sprung up around that stronghold — now called Wawel Royal Castle above Dragon’s Den— and welcome to Krakow.
Legends shine a fairytale light on many of Europe’s destinations. Meander back through eras when dragons breathed fire and monsters lurked in murky depths visit destinations drawn from European myths:
- Robin Hood in Nottinghamshire, Shrewood Forest, Yorkshire in England
- Lorelei of St. Goarshausen, Germany
- Sherlock Holmes of, “my dear Watson,” and London, England
- Hunchback of Notre Dame in Paris
- King Arthur of my dreams, Stonehenge, and Camelot
- Loch Ness’ famous montser of Scotland
- Krakow’s dragon and Wawel Hill