St Petersburg, Russia

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Chesme Church, St Petersburg, Russia

The Orthodox faith has always been very important in Holy Russia – though to me, Russian Orthodox churches look like pastries, and Chesme is no exception (I’m licking my lips right now!). Peter the Great founded the city of St Petersburg in what was once a marsh, largely because he felt like it. He wanted to show off his might and skill to the Russian Empire, Europe, and the rest of the world. He wanted to be close to the Baltic Sea (Russia fought for centuries for access to those frosty Baltic Sea ports…). After many embarrassing failures to control the Baltic Sea trade, finally, he gained minor success in the northern Baltic region. So, he decided to use the bit of land he gained to build his own city. But the ironic thing? Peter didn’t even like religion. He didn’t trust it – and this distrust shook up the entire state of Holy Russia to its core. Yet to this day, St Petersburg hosts some of the most magnificent religious buildings in the entire Christian faith from awesome cathedrals all the way to little churches in the outskirts like this one here – largely because of Russia’s great art patron, Catherine the Great. Built in 1780 by Catherine, Chesme Church commemorates Russia’s 1770 victory against the Turks in Chesme Bay.

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Linz, Austria

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Linz, Austria

Home of the Linzer Torte (a kind of pie or pastry), the Austrian city stays largely off the tourism radar – with the exception of this little yellow train. Yet, Linz is quietly bustling – it is city where the wayward traveler is guaranteed to meet the “behind-the-scenes” Austrians (as opposed to those working directly in the tourism industry). People come, and people go (talking of Michelangelo? You’ll get the joke if you’re a literature nerd!). They go to school, they go to work. They stroll in the park with their families, they have a beer on a terrace, they shop in stores in the town centre, they wander along the river banks, they play fetch with their dogs in the grass. This is not a tourist city. This is a real city where you will catch a look “backstage” look at what it means to be Austrian.

Cantal, France

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Cantal Department, France

Quiet and rural, this quintessential part of central France’s countryside has changed little over the years. To some, this may seem backwards, but to many, it is reassuring, a quiet escape from the bustle of cities and towns. One of the most rural parts of France (actually in the top 3 most rural French departments), Cantal is known for nature and the cheese it produces (of the same name). Cows outnumber people here. Villages dot the countryside, narrow roads wind themselves through the countryside, circumventing obstacles such as the occasional farmhouse, field, or gnarled tree. Lakes, ponds, and streams provide a cool retreat from the summer heat. In the winter, temperatures drop far below than those of ‘nearby’ cities (a relative term) such as Clermont-Ferrand, Lyon or Dijon. Residents lead a simple life here, and few tourists venture into this rural paradise. Yet those who do come are rewarded with the elegance of relaxation, respite from the high-tech, high-speed urban world. Take a dip in a local lake, go on a hike through silent forests, make furry forest friends, chat with the local farmers, or take a drive through tree-covered roads and take a break from life.

Warsaw National Stadium, Poland

Warsaw stadium

Warsaw National Stadium, Poland

Whether you are a football fan or not, you have to admit that this is a pretty cool stadium. For one, it’s quirky, it’s funky, it’s colorful. Stadion Narodowy is even a tourist architectural attraction in of itself. Comprised of a weave of the Polish national colors, the new stadium was a way to shake up a little national pride for the country.  Even better, it was built for when Poland co-hosted the 2012 UEFA Euro championships – which instigated a city-wide campaign to “clean up” (or ‘fix up’) the city. Everything from metro stations to public squares to the river bank was improved, and by the time I arrived in mid 2012, the city was glistening. To this day, the city is lively, vibrant and beautiful – and during match days, it becomes even more lively than usual, so much so that supporters must leave the stadium and cross the bridge on foot!

Toledo, Spain

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Toledo, Spain

Toledo: one of Spain’s great, ancient, international cities. Though not large, Toledo is a magnificent and historical place. The sand-swept, hilltop town sometimes seems like something out of Game of Thrones’ imaginary Kingdom of Dorne. Regal yet humble at the same time, Toledo provides sweeping views of the beautiful Spanish desert spilling away from its gates. Within its’ streets, cozy restaurants, cheery cafes and sunny terraces invite visitors to take a break from admiring the city’s varied architectural styles (influenced by the different civilizations that once called Toledo home)  for a cold cerveza, a sample of Spanish tapas or perhaps even Valencian paella. Sometimes known as the “Imperial City” for hosting the court of Charles I, it is also interestingly enough known as the “City of the Three Cultures” due to significant influence by historical co-existence of Christians, Muslims and Jews. Each of these cultures have left their mark on magical Toledo, including this church here which was built in Mudejar (Islamic) style, modeled on an ancient mosque in the same area. And if all that wasn’t enough, Toledo is also the adopted city of the Cretan artist, El Greco!

Budapest, Hungary

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Gargoyle in Budapest, Hungary

Are lampposts tasty? This Hungarian gargoyle seems to think so! Gargoyles have always held a sort of fascination. In simple terms, they are a way of evacuating water from roofs to keep the water from running down the walls and weakening the mortar – but a gargoyle is so much more than a drain. No, gargoyles are indicative of the story, of the culture, of the hidden fears of a the people who carved them. Early gargoyles from Egyptian, Roman or Greek ruins show little variation but by the middle ages, gargoyles had become an art. Largely elongated, grotesque, mythical creatures, some take the shape of monks or existing animals, and are often comical. The most famous gargoyles are of course that of Notre Dame de Paris but most cathedrals and many churches, fortifications, castles and manors have them. Legend has it that St Romanus saved Rouen (France) from a terrible dragon-like creature he called the “gargouille” or gargoyle (etymology “gar” = “throat”). The local people burned the body but the head would not burn (since it was made to resist its own fire), so they mounted the head on the cathedral to ward off evil spirits – a practice that was repeated over and over again in stone. Whether true or not, gargoyles have been warding off gutter water for centuries, and will continue to do so as times go on, because the rain won’t stop falling!