Glittering, colourful, elegant. Poland has been getting more and more tourism attention recently. Cities such as Warsaw, Krakow, and Gdansk have made several “Where to go in 2014” lists. Krakow’s main square was recently voted “Most beautiful market square” by Lonely Planet–a huge honour! And Wrocław was ranked third on the list, “ Top 10 beautiful places you’ve never heard of” by Places Must Seen. Perhaps Poland’s best-kept secret, Wrocław (pronounced “Vrah-tswav”) is slowly coming out of its shell. The city is a university town, and like many such towns, the vast numbers of students keep the city young and vibrant. It has a mixed history, as it was once part of Germany (called ‘Breslau’). After the war, when Poland’s borders shifted west and they lost the eastern frontier to Ukraine, the citizens of the now-Ukrainian town of L’vov were displaced all the over to the recently-vacated-by-the-Germans town of Wrocław–bringing with them tradition, cuisine, and culture from the Ukraine. It is normal to spot several “Ukrainian cuisine” restaurants here. The Rynek itself is–as the other website rated it–one of the Europe’s most beautiful cities, like a canvas splashed in ink. Bathed in early morning sunlight, the vivid colours and clear plazas become more spectacular.
Sliding evenly through the tumbling waves, the ship makes its way through some of the most beautiful waters in all of Europe. Silently, you watch the boat-full of tourists just like you turn their necks up to look at the immense fjords. You follow their example, marveling at the innate beauty of something so naturally incredible. Untouched by humans, the Sognefjord has been left alone for centuries to grow and develop into the masterpiece we see today. Little wooden villages dot the inlets in between sheer cliffs, green hills, and cascading waterfalls. As you float by one of these such villages, you marvel at humanity’s ability to live in harmony among some of mother nature’s finest creations, and even though the moment passes when the other boat goes by, the feeling of utter relation, awe, and harmony does not.
Seaside towns and medieval villages. Northern Spain is not much like the (southern) Spain we all know and love. For one, it actually rains here…so expect a lot more green than you’d see in Andalusia or Madrid. Expect small stone towns with orange roofs…most towns even have their own little beach! Expect palm trees and cobblestones and cheerful people at seaside bars. Even the “big cities” aren’t that big! This particular little town, Santillana del Mar, is one of the most famous towns in Cantabria. Santillana del Mar is sometimes called The Town of Three Lies…as it’s neither named after a Saint (Santo), nor is it flat (llana), nor is it by the sea (Mar). Regardless, this popular tourist stop in Cantabria is a charming fairy tale village!
Torino, like much of Northern Italy, often gets ignored. When potential tourists hear the word, “Italy,” they think of rural Tuscany, the bustling centre of Rome, or the artsy Florence. Italy equals Mediterranean ocean views, Roman temples and gelato by the beach, right? Not necessarily. And Northern Italy…well, it’s spectacular. Nothing at all like the south, Northern Italy is a bit of a combination of Italy, France, and Switzerland. Torino (which you may know as “Turin”) is certainly one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. The eclectic architecture, genuinely happy (and multilingual!) people, elegant streets, delicious cheeses as well as amazing pizzas and wines make Torino a city full of surprises. But if you really want a treat, take the time to hike up the hill, Monte dei Cappuccini, to see the whole of Torino spill out below you. On a magnificent backdrop of the towering Alps, the glittering Po River and the beautiful red roofs with white walls, the enormous spire if the Mole Antonelliana rises up to the sky, as if reaching for the heavens. Originally built as a synagogue in the late 1800’s, the building (which now houses a cinema museum) sports the highest work of masonry in all of Europe. Take your time–this view is worth it!
It’s early in the morning, and Moscow hasn’t quite woken up. The sky is still yawning; you are still clutching your cup of coffee. Alighting at a seemingly nondescript metro stop, you start your way up a hill, to see what kinds of Russian treasures you can discover. Amid small spires of gold and silver, you hear a Russian business man bark his order to the barista and old Russian cars grumbling by; though there is little sound on the streets at this early hour. Rounding the corner, you suddenly find yourself face-to-face with what looks a lot like a magnificent cake from one of those gourmet bakeries. You gasp, suddenly feeling lightheaded as you realise that this strange yet highly impressive building is the iconic St Basil’s in the infamous Red Square (or Krasnaya Ploshad). St Basil’s is the Russian Orthodox cathedral all others are compared to–and with good reason! Despite no longer being a working church, the building is what comes to everyone’s mind when one hears the word “Moscow,” “Red Square,” or “Russian cathedrals” because of its unique–and bizarre!–form. Commissioned by Ivan the terrible in 1555-61, it was built as a commemoration of the capture of Kazan and was meant to resemble a bonfire’s flames reaching for the sky. To this day, it is one of the most iconic, beautiful, and well-known buildings throughout the world.
How many more icons can you get into the same little photo? Here, we’ve got a red telephone booth, the London Eye, the Thames, and the Golden Jubilee pedestrian suspension bridge (in the reflection). Just around the corner, you find the centre of London: Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street. Follow the river in the other direction and you’ll find Millennium Bridge, the Globe, the Tate, Borough Market, and eventually, the Tower and Tower Bridge as well as so many other places. The River Thames really is the main artery of this great city! London is one of those places that has so many icons attached to it – leading some to say that London is “overrated” or even “boring” – but they would be terribly, horribly wrong. There is a Right Way and a Wrong Way to visit London: ie, if you stick to the “uber-tourist” itinerary, maybe you do find it “boring” and overly crowded; branch out and you’ll be surprised what gems you’ll find! You can visit London time and time again – and every time, find something new. Don’t deny it; this city really is one of the greatest cities on Earth!
Stockholm, capital of Sweden. What do you really know about Sweden? A place where you find beautiful blonde women and extremely high prices, right? The Swedes are a unique brand of people–resilient, fun, brilliant, hard-working, multilingual, as well as a little bit crazy and even a tad dangerous. Nordic noir films and TV series paint a bleak picture of Sweden while Pippi Longstocking (or Langstrumpf) paints Sweden as an ideal world. And then there are many people who think of Sweden as a frozen tundra, and still others who think it’s more expensive than life itself. But how about visiting this little country to make your assumptions? Stockholm–Sweden’s metropolis–is as cosmopolitan as other ‘major’ European cities–perhaps more so! The Gamla Stan (or old town) on one of the many islands making up the massive archipelago, is populated by a vast array of tourists from every part of the world–starkly contrasted with the countries on the other side of the Baltics. You will hear a dozen languages in a matter of minutes. Restaurants from every country are easy to find–as well as unique raw ingredients often difficult to find in other European cities. Even the shopping feels international! And besides, as Stockholm is made up of many islands, no matter where you go, you will always have a view of the water!
Latvia—like its neighbours Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, etc—was once a part of the Russian Empire, and the Russians, as you know, are orthodox. Therefore, in the years 1867-83, the Russians got to work constructing an orthodox house of worship in the centre of Riga, Latvia’s capital. Built in the Neo-Byzantine style, Riga’s cathedral still stands proudly in the in downtown Riga. While other ex-Russian satellite nations have torn down their cathedrals (*cough Poland cough*), Riga still has one right in the centre. Despite the mostly-negative impact of Russian occupation of the Baltic States, it is important to remember and recognise all aspects of history—and to appreciate culture and beauty. Because the Nativity of Christ Cathedral is beautiful! Russian Orthodox cathedrals usually are. The biggest Orthodox cathedral in the Baltics, it was commissioned by Tsar Alexander II. The church was briefly a Lutheran cathedral—and later a planetarium in the early days of independent Latvia—but since 1991, it has been restored to its original design. And now today, it resembles a delicious gateau enough to make my mouth water…!
Featuring the best Christmas markets in France, some of the prettiest wattle-and-daub architecture in the country, and long-time home to the famous Gutenberg, Strasbourg is not a city to be ignored. In the centre of town, there is the famous Strasbourg Cathedral. And next to its famous cathedral, there is a little wooden house. And this little wooden house is pretty special. See, it’s the one of the oldest–and most ornately decorated–medieval buildings featuring Gothic architecture still alive and well today. As it was built in 1427, this little wooden house is pretty old–and still functioning today! Because of Strasbourg’s proximity to Germany and Rhineland (in fact, throughout the city’s history, it frequently changed back and forth between France and Germany). Now French (though historically, German Renaissance), this little wooden draws queues of visitors every year!
One of the most popular mountain resorts in Poland, Zakopane is well-known in Eastern Europe for its year-round phenomenal views. Hiking in the summer or skiing in the winter, this city is all-encompassing. If you don’t want to do much hiking, you can take the tram to the top of the mountain, but beware, the wait is long. For the more adventurous, there is a hiking path that leads to the mountaintop where a little “fair” of kitsch souvenirs, Polish beers and great views await. For those even more adventurous, strike out on one of the many less-traveled paths leading deep into the Tatra Mountain range (the mountains that divide Poland and Slovakia). The farther away you hike, the more magnificent and private the views get – until you suddenly realise it’s just you and the majestic mountains!
Wander along a quiet labyrinth of stony streets, up and down steep and uneven paths, through narrow passageways twisting alongside ancient houses. Tiny cafes dot the corners. Laundry and flower-boxes hang alternatively from second-story balconies. The sun is out, and no one is hurrying. Just outside the village, you can just make out the edges of the vineyards of the Beaujolais region. Children play on bikes in the main square, friends sip coffees or wine in the corner cafes. The smell of fresh bread emits from a local bakery. You can hear the birds chirping, friendly neighbours chatting in French, the wind whistling. While the much larger city of Lyon is a mere than a half-hour’s drive, you feel so far removed from the city that you forget the others’ existence. So you stop hurrying too. You stop thinking so much. You cast aside your list of things to do, you cast away your cares and worries. You let your shoulders relax. You sit down at one of those cafes, order yourself a a glass of fresh Beaujolais wine, and bask in the quiet French sunlight.
Contrast, at its base, is a comparison between two contrasting items in order to highlight their differences. Classic examples include the contrast between light and dark, black and white, hot and cold, up and down, big and small, tall and short, happy and sad, ancient and modern, science and religion. The simple perpendicular lines of the cross populate our world in so many ways. Here, we see two types of crosses found throughout in the world today: one representing the “old” way of thinking, ie religion and faith–and the other representing the “new” way of thought ie modern science and technology. Yet–do they have to be at contrast with each other, or can they complement each other? As Dan Brown says, “Faith is universal ; our specific methods for understanding it are arbitrary. Some of us pray to Jesus, some us go to Mecca, some of us study subatomic particles. In the end we are all just searching for truth that which is greater than ourselves.” And on this quiet mountain path in this quiet Italian village, everything seems to come together perfectly !
10 years ago–hell, 5 years ago–Croatia didn’t make the map. Today, a lot has changed; Croatia is now one of the most popular destinations for tourists from both Europe and abroad. Why? Well, with a view like this, what’s not to love? Cheery orange roofs, rugged rocky outcrops, sandy beaches, palm trees, pizzas, dramatic fortresses perched on cliffs, prices cheaper than Italy but with a view of the same Adriatic Sea. Out of all former states of Yugoslavia, the EU’s newest member has come the farthest. Dubrovnik, who shares the title “Croatia’s Crown Jewel” with Split, is one of Europe’s busiest “cities.” While this influx of travelers has been great for the Croatian economy, it also means that you should expect to see large numbers of tourists while visiting these two cities. However, in between, you will find smaller–but no less beautiful!–places such as Hvar, Brac, Bisevo, Sipan, Trogir. No matter what, Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is to die for!
Tumbling hazel hills rise and fall along this Spanish road in Spain’s southern-most, most populous, and second-largest region, Andalusia. Blazing hot during the day, chillingly cold during the evening, Andalusia is as bizarre as it is beautiful. While tints of green fleck the landscape (as seen here), there is an overwhelming difference between these rolling hills, and similar such hills just on the other side of the Pyrenees. Andalusia has a rugged sort of beauty that is sometimes difficult to understand at first….but the more time spent in this warm, dry part of southern Spain, the more delicious dishes you try, the more fun, happy Spaniards you meet, the more adorable villages you discover, the more realise there’s no place like Andalusia!