The Etruscans were an ancient civilisation in central Italy from the 7th century BC until the Romans conquered the powerful civilisation, assimilating it into their ever-growing Roman Empire at the end the 4th century BC. Even today, the Etruscan influence cannot be denied; Eturia’s ancient heartland even lent it’s name to the modern region of Tuscany. In its heyday, Etruria reached as far north as the Po River valley, past Rome along the coast to modern-day Naples (in the Campania region). A merchant community, the Etruscans grew rich and powerful on trade with the northern Celtic communities as well as the ancient Greeks, who influenced much of their culture. Etruscans had a vivid pantheon of gods and used their wealth to fill their tombs – which is where much of our understanding of their culture, history, art and architecture comes from. The village of Fiesole, some 10km from Florence, is both a tranquil escape from the bustle of Florence as well as a time capsule to the ancient Etruscans and Romans. Here, find crumbling Etruscan walls, what remains of the Roman baths built later on, and a Roman amphitheater still used today for summer events. Nearby, there’s even the green hilltop where Leonardo da Vinci once experimented with flight! Once a powerful rival to Florence, Fiesole was founded as an Etruscan town in the 8th century BC until the Romans finally conquered and destroyed it, building their own Roman town on Fiesole’s roots. In the 1500s during the magnificent Italian renaissance, Florentine nobles moved out of Florence and built their splendid villas much like movie stars do today in glamorous SoCal towns. Fiesole’s beauty also inspired writers and artists such as Oscar Wilde and EM Forster, making cameos in their work. Practical tip: take bus #7 from San Marco Piazza to Fiesole. Or, splurge on the hop-on-hop-off bus to see even more of Florence and its region.
Ah Brasov – one of Romania’s most beloved cities. Tucked away into a corner of magical Transylvania, Brasov is a medieval city proud of its history. Caught between ancient tradition and a modernising Romania, Brasov is a shining symbol of the past, showcasing an era when Transylvania and Wallachia, two of Romania’s ancient regions, were in their heyday (though it wasn’t always so; that famous Vlad Dracula the Impaler? Yes, he got his nickname by impaling Turks during his never-ending fights with the land-crazed Ottoman Empire). Returning to Brasov. The best way to start your foray into the city’s ancient beauty is by climbing Mt Tampa (elevation 960m – roughly 400 m above Brasov). There’s a funicular but to truly dig into the dark forests of the Carpathians, to imagine what it was like during Brasov’s Middle Ages, you have to climb it on foot. From the top, behind the Hollywood-esque Brasov sign, you’ll be rewarded with amazing aerial views of orange-topped medieval Brasov, fringed by the lush forests that carpet the wandering Carpathian peaks. We have the Germans to thank for the fairytale orange tiles and princely avenues, which give way to the wandering alleys of the Romanian Schei district. After you drink in the stunning views, drink a well-earned beer from the tiny outdoor pub and then head back to town on the funicular. Practical info: The funicular costs 10 lei (16 return), and runs from 9.30-17.00 (from noon-18h Mondays); buy your tickets from the operator or even at the bottom of the cable car. The hike is well-marked and takes about 1.5 hours.
Just south of the great French city of Lyon is the orange-topped suburb of Givors, huddled on the banks of the thundering Rhone River. It would be an unremarkable, cheerful little place with all the usual amenities found in French towns – cheerful boulangeries, leaf-strewn squares, poorly-parked cars, schools emitting the playful laughter, terraces serving the local plats du jour and vin de table. Givors could easily be overlooked as ordinary – if not for its strange and evocative Cité des Etoiles – the City of Stars. 270 interlocked apartments and businesses climb the hillside – each visibly in the unusual shape of a star. Part of the “Achieved Utopias” movement that swept through Lyon (largely thanks to famed urban architect Tony Garnier of the 1920s and 30s), the City of Stars was a project born in the 1970s at the behest of Givors’ mayor, Camille Vallin, who dreamed of quality but attractively-priced lodgings in downtown Givors permitting each resident to have their own garden. This great architectural undertaking evokes the socialist, urbanist and Utopic ideas and movements that swept through France – and beyond to Europe in general – throughout the 20th century. Made of cement – a favourite French building material even today – the City of Stars hangs from the steep slopes under the watchful eye of the old, crumbling Château Saint-Gérald. Though little remains of the once-magnificent castle, the ancient place and the amazing panorama it affords, is ample reward for the short climb. Practical info: the City of Stars is located very close to the Gare de Givors, about 30 minutes south of Lyon, and there are also several Lyon city buses to Givors that leave from Gare d’Oullins. Wander amongst the stars yourself or better yet, get a guided tour offered by the local tourism office. Keep in mind that people still live here! The castle is located above the City of Stars and can be accessed by a narrow path behind the City of Stars.
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg, Russia
To some, the stunning Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood resembles a giant cupcake; to others a Disney World attraction; to locals, a mere copy of the more-famous St Basil‘s on Moscow‘s Red Square. And yet. This stunning church has a life and attitude all of its own. Inside and out, it is a work of art, an example of high romantic nationalism and Art Nouveauthat stands out from the rest of Baroque and Neoclassical St Petersburg. Conceived and completed in fin de siecle Russia, it was meant to be a way of immortalising Tsar Alexander II by his son, Alexander III, who was assassinated here by a group of anarchists. Inside, every inch of the high walls are covered with biblical art, containing over 7,500 square meters of mosaics, which by some estimates, is more than any other church in the world! Sadly, during the war, it was used as a temporary morgue during the WWII Siege of Leningrad, and afterwards as the city was still recovering, it was used as a storehouse for produce and other foodstuffs – lending it the derogatory nickname, Saviour on Potatoes. Today, it is a museum and a tribute to another Russia, another era. It was never reconsecrated, and therefore is not a proper place of worship, but does attract visitors from all over the world to admire its expert craftsmanship. There is a small entrance fee but it goes towards the renovation and upkeep of the church!
“Pray look better, Sir… those things yonder are no giants, but windmills.” – Don Miguel de Cervantes
In this case, ‘those things yonder’ happen to be ornately decorated towers in Mudejar (Moorish) style. Said pinnacles adorn the town of Alcalá de Henares, birthplace of famous Spanish writer, Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote) and today a place of pilgrimage by literary, history, cultural and architecture nerds alike. A UNESCO heritage site, it was the only Roman town in the Madrid region, even attaining “Municipium” status. Conquered and rebuilt and reconquered and rebuilt again means that Alcalá’s (literally ‘citadel in Arabic) architecture is a hodgepodge of various styles, cultures and epoques; even the site of the city moved back and forth a few times. Most notably was the Moorish conquest, as they left the most visible footprint on the city, the impressive Mudejar architectural style seen here. Cervantes was born here, and although his family moved away during his childhood, the city still reveres him, hosting the Cervantes Festival every October. Even more impressively, each April 23rd, the King of Spain awards the prestigious Cervantes Award for literature at Alcalá’s esteemed University of Alcalá. Get to Alcalá de Heneres by commuter train (40 min) from Madrid station Atocha or Chamartin, if you buy tickets from the machine.
The impressive baroque facade houses is Stockholm‘s Gamla Stan (old town) contains the official residence of the Swedish royal family, although the family actually resides in Drottningholm Palace, a countryside palace on the island Lovön in Lake Mälaren on the outskirts of Stockholm. The Swedish Royal Palace has been in the same place on the Gamla Stan since the 13th century, where medieval monarchs built the Tre Kronor Castle, which housed the royal family until May 7th, 1697, when the castle was gutted by fire. War prevented re-construction, and the present castle wasn’t finished until 1754. The exterior of the massive palace has an impressive total of 28 statues, 717 balusters/columns, 242 Ionic volutes topping columns, 972 windows, 31,600 windowpanes and about 7,500 windows, doors and gates. The facade is covered with circa 9,500 m2 of stone and 11,000 m2 of plaster containing an incomprehensible 1,430 rooms – some impressive figures! A castle is bound to have a few skeletons in the closet – two in particular! There is the kindly oracle Grå Gubben (the Old Grey Man) who inhabits the cellars and guards the spirit of the palace. The other is the infamous Vita frun (translating to the imagination-lacking White Lady), who appears just before death. Said to be the Hohehzollern German Duchess Agnes of Merán who killed her family to marry another (predictably, this tactic did not warm the heart of her would-be suitor), and she now haunts the castles connected to the Hohenzollern family. It is open to the public, with five museums inside its massive interior (price 160SEK).
Though designed just before WWII, Bristol’s crescent-shaped City Hall wasn’t built until after the war’s end. Situated in a prominent place in Bristol, the secular City Hall faces the massive and gorgeous Bristol Cathedral, Bristol Central Library and the College Green, the building is a classic example of the Neo-Georgian style except for one glaring oddity: both of the turreted ends to the building are topped with an unusual statue – a unicorn! (Not so very different than the Dragons of London!) If you look carefully, Bristol functions like an “I Spy” book (“I spy 12 unicorns…”) – they are everywhere! On St. John the Baptist Church, the SS Great Britain ship, on the Royal West of England Academy, at the entrance of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, on the North Bristol Rugby Club tie and blazer, and until 2004 they were on the logo of the renowned University of Bristol. They are even part of the city’s coat of arms! Why, you may ask? To solve the mystery, we need to delve back in time to 16th century Bristol, when the city’s leaders chose to include two unicorns on the official seal which was then stamped on important city documents scattered across Bristol – therefore imprinting the unicorn forevermore into Bristol history. As for the mystery of the City Hall Unicorns, architect Vincent Harris actually secretly commissioned the two three-foot-high bronze unicorns without informing the council, put them up and hoped for the best! They’re still there, so we can assume that the council accepted their city hall’s impromptu mascot!
A sort of Spanish Versailles, Aranjuez Palace is a massive royal complex roughly an hour from Madrid, though it is lesser-known than its French counterpart. A former royal residence established during the era of Philip II in the early 1500s, the Palace of Aranjuez once functioned as a seasonal residence, inhabited by the royals and their entourage each springtime. Encapsulating the utter extravagance and overabundance of the wealth, power and influence the royal family once held, the palatial space allowed them to host enormously opulent and excessive Great Gatsby style parties. Though today the Spanish royal family is little more than a symbol, it is still a powerful symbol of conservatism, religion, and traditional values, not always keeping up with the modern world. Today however, the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, a UNESCO protected site, is open to the public as a museum, displaying art, furniture, royal artefacts and more, offering a cheeky peak behind the royal curtain of what being part of the Spanish royal family and its court actually meant. To get there, take the local commuter train from Madrid’s central stations to Aranjuez and walk 15 minutes to the palace at the centre of town; last entry is one hour before closing.
City of Arts & Sciences (Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias), Valencia, Spain
Some of Europe’s strangest architecture can be found in Spain – from Bilbao’s famous Guggenheim Museum to Gaudi’s everything (Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, Parc Guell and of course Sagrada Familia Cathedral). As one of the 12 Treasures of Spain and Valencia’s most visited site, the bizarre architecture of Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences deserves to be on the same list. Covering roughly two kilometres of the former riverbed of the River Turia, this bizarre complex is a homage to modern arts and architecture, yes, but also to science, culture and technology. An opera house, a science museum, an IMAX cinema, a vastly diverse park with walking paths along an open-air arts gallery, an aquarium and a concert venue make up this colourfully bizarre futurist complex. Contrasting strangely with Valencia’s old town, both halves of the city are worth the visit!
The Trinity Column in the Hautplatz of Linz, Austria
A city that has been trying to free itself from its Nazi past (it is where Hitler spent his childhood) has elected in the Alt-Right party again in 2017. And yet – it was the first Austrian city to account and make up for its own Nazi past. From renaming streets to erecting monuments to victims and resistance heroes, Linz is still attempting to crawl out from that dismal past. The Trinity Column, a plague column in Linz’s main square, represents thanksgiving for the ending of the violent plagues that swept through Austria. Though Linz has had a turbulent past, the city founded by the Romans in 799 is now a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network and was the 2009 European Capital of Culture. Enjoy strolling its charming (and surprisingly colourful) streets, lounging along the Blue Danube (on a sunny day!) and exploring the birthplace of Mozart. Taste one the of city’s famous Linzer tortes or even take the fin de siecle Pöstlingbergbahn, the steepest mountain rail in the world!
Visit Other Cool Off the Beaten Path European Cities
Bathed in soft, chilly rays of sunshine, the ancient cobblestones, facades and walls of ancient Prague add a warm glow of luminescence on a chill winter day. Though the cold can be biting, winter is the perfect season to pay this amazing city a visit. Not only are crowds thinner, but the city is alive with Christmas – from some of the best Christmas markets in Europe to live seasonal concerts to streets dancing with trees, wreaths, lights and more. Roasted chestnuts, hot wine and local sweet rolls are made and sold on every corner. It is impossible to escape the festive attitude – especially when the snow sweeps in, dusting and blanketing every surface with a layer of soft, white snow! Follow this steep, narrow street up the top of Prague where you’ll come face-to-face with a castle of epic proportions, layered with stones and stories, overlooking not just Prague but a good chunk of Czech Republic (or Czechia) as well. Prague is a perfect Christmas destination in the making!
Welcome to the Palais Ideal, or Ideal Place of the Postman Cheval. Built by a wildly-imaginative postman in the early 20th century in Hautrives, France, this structure is an extraordinary example of naïve art architecture, with definite influences of the Art Nouveau movement of fin de siecle Europe. True to it’s name, this supposedly naive art is made by someone, like Postman Cheval, who has no architectural training. In fact, the Postman simply picked up interesting-looking rocks on his 30-some mile daily postal delivery and brought them home. He went back to the same spot the next day, and found another, and another. Remembering a dream he had when built a palace, castle and cave, he started to construct a bizarre palace inspired by myth, history, nature, religion, and the world all around. In his own words, he said to himself: “since Nature is willing to do the sculpture, I will do the masonry and the architecture.” He kept going for the next thirty-three years until he had built his castle or palace or cave (even he himself admitted, “I cannot express it well.”) until he finally had his ideal palace.
In the heart of Slovakia’s capital Bratislava, under the shadow of the imposing white walls of 17th century Bratislava Castle, is the aptly-named Blue Church. Initially painted in light pastels to lighten up the oval-shaped interior, this church dedicated to Elisabeth of Hungary was later repainted in dozens of shades of blue: the walls (both interior and exterior), alter, mosaics, the tower, the roof tiles. All varying degrees of blue, azure, cobalt, sapphire, cerulean, periwinkle, indigo. Built at the start of the 20th century, the evocative church utilises Hungarian Art Nouveau style. Art Nouveau is a short-lived but wildly-popular style that took Europe by storm at the turn of the century, and is characterised by its use of natural shapes and structures, curvy and fluid lines, as well as incorporation of graceful plants and flowers. Though this movement was started in the UK, it was France where it really took off, influencing architectural styles, art, sculpture and design across the main urban areas of Europe. This wildly unique style’s life was cut short by the sharp simplicity of Art Deco and even worse, the drab boxiness of Modernism – but not before the elegance of the Art Nouveau movement had spread its wings throughout Europe. From Riga to France, this Art Nouveau’s fingers left behind some of the strangest and most intriguing architectural wonders in modern Europe.
The tiny French village of Balazuc snuggled deep within the timeless county of Ardèche is a place you go to lose yourself in another era, another way of life. Sun kissed hills are woven with ancient villages, a patchwork of medieval architecture fused seamlessly with the brown earth and golden fields of southern France. Balazuc is one of such places. A veritable labyrinth built of golden stone, the village’s narrow alleys wind up and down, dipping half-underground, through other buildings, around and through the hills in a completely random and at times mysterious manner. Hole-in-the-wall cafes dot the facades, and a hilltop castle and church duo seem to be trying to outdo one another. To access the steep hilltop village, one must first cross a surprisingly high bridge over the Ardèche River – not a bad place for a quick dip! And just a stone’s throw away is the equally-beautiful and heart-throbbingly medieval village of Largentière as well as the ever-impressive Gorges d’Ardeche. Get ready for a coup de foudre – French for love at first sight!
On the shores of Lake Ohrid sits the ancient town of the same name. Historic, storied, beautiful – Ohrid is a place that stirs up emotion from within. It is indeed ancient – churches like the one here may date as far back as the 800s…! Built in the Byzantine style, it was not unusual for such churches to be converted to mosques during the Ottoman rule. Despite the fact that the Ottomans were supposedly open-minded when it came to religion, this apparently did not affect the church-to-mosque conversion. The best way to get a feel for old Ohrid is simply to stroll around this ancient place littered with Byzantine churches, beautiful quirky houses, cobblestone alleys, and an ancient Roman theatre. Find a cafe and relax outside on a terrace. Duck inside an ancient church to admire the ancient motifs painted on the walls and ceilings. Explore the ruins of the old fortress tucked inside the old city. Climb to the top of the hill and find a place to settle down and enjoy the magnificent panoramas of Ohrid town and lake – Ohrid the Beautiful awaits.
As the world evolves, so does our sense of architectural beauty. Being subjective, the cliche rings true: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This dictum certainly holds water in the modernist/futurist architecture that peppers cities like Valencia, London, Bilbao, Warsaw, Vienna, Lyon and others. Originally built atop Fourviere Hill, Lyon is an ancient Roman city that slowly expanded eastwards, across the Saone River, then across the Rhone River. Where the two rivers meet – the confluence – there was once unusable swampland. Drained, it first was an industrial hub (it’s across from the former dockyards, now an up-and-coming almost-hipster neighbourhood), and the remains of old warehouses, factories, shipyards, and railways is still seen. Rather than destroy them, the city repurposed them – the old sugar factory is now an art gallery, for example, and the old custom house is now offices and a restaurant. The rest of the ultramodern Confluence neighbourhood has been inspired by and modelled on its former industrial history. Apartment blocks resemble shipping containers, 20th century factories, goods warehouses and more. Even the mall bears resemblance to this architecture. The above building is the Musee des Confluences, a futuristic steel-and-glass throwback (and throw-forward) to the Confluences past and future. Commanding the tip of the rivers’ confluence, the museum houses exhibits on evolution and science. It is this glittering, reflective, glassy structure vaguely resembling a ship and ever-popular with skateboarders that is the first thing visitors arriving from the south will see – so it is only fitting then that it is here the city chose to place their sign bearing Lyon’s catch-phrase: ONLYLYON. As a former resident of this city, I quite agree.
Moscow is filled with wonders: golden domes, brick-red towers, huge parks, Stalinistic skyscrapers, broad avenues, elegant theatres, brightly-coloured Orthodox churches. It is a city of considerable fortune (reflected in its extremely high rent prices) that draws people in from all walks of life, either to live there or simply visit this place. Perhaps this vast array of cultures accounts for the vast array of noteworthy architecture. One such example is the so-called House of Friendship, as known as the Arseny Morozov House, located on the far side of the Kremlin. Built at the turn of the century, this fin de siecle folly (fake castle) was modelled after the exotic and eclectic Monserrate Palace in Sintra, Portugal. The design of the House of Friendship includes twisted columns, encrusted shells, and lace-like stonework. Built for party-loving Arseny Morozov, it later became the Proletcult Theatre in the 1920s. This was the branch of Soviet theatre branch tasked with ideology and propaganda, evoking industrial, factory, farming, and other such motifs without much regard towards plot. Sadly, the only way to visit the luxurious and bizarre interior is to attend a concert or lecture held at the house. Instead, gouge yourself on the eclectic exterior while roaming the streets of Moscow in search of the city’s most extraordinary architectural designs – of which it has no shortage!
This structure needs no introduction. Perhaps the most famous landmark in the world, did you know that in the beginning of its existence, the Eiffel Tower was nearly unanimously hated by artists and citizens alike? French writer Guy de Maupassant disliked it so much that he’s said to have routinely dined in the tower’s restaurant as it was the one place in Paris where the tower was not visible. Indeed. The Eiffel Tower was built over a two-year period to welcome people to 1889’s World’s Fair, the 100-year anniversary of the storming of the Bastille (fairgrounds included a reconstruction of the Bastille!). At the time, the World’s Fair was a big deal, and much like today’s Olympics, huge constructions were built to impress Fair visitors; each year’s host trying to out-do the previous host (the now-nonexistent London Crystal Palace was another famed World Fair creation as was Seattle’s Space Needle). The Eiffel Tower was France’s response. Originally meant to be demolished at the end of the Fair, it quickly became not only the symbol of the 1889 World Fair, but also the symbol of Paris, the most visited (paid) monument worldwide, and for 41 years, the world’s tallest building. Designed by Gustav Eiffel (the man who designed the interior support system of New York’s Statue of Liberty), the Eiffel Tower is still a unique, iconic and wildly-beloved monument of France and the City of Lights. France is a country resistant to fast change, but if they eventually came to love the Eiffel Tower as a symbol of fin de siècle France, hopefully the Louvre Pyramids, Centre Pompidou, and other modernist or postmodernist designs will eventually be welcomed as symbols of a modern Paris. (Or not?)
Cobblestones underfoot reverberate with the echoes of footsteps, the clink of silverware at a local cafe and the laughter of children playing in the narrow alleyways. The perfectly preserved medieval streets and facades of ancient Tallinn directly contrast with the advanced techosphere hidden just beneath the surface of the city nicknamed the ‘Silicon Valley of Europe.’ It has one of the highest ratio of start-ups per population throughout Europe – Skype being the most famous of them all. The capital of Estonia has slowly become recognised as one of the main IT centre of Europe – Tallinn currently provides NATO’s cybersecurity (home to the NATO Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence), it is set to house the headquarters of the European Union’s IT agency, and has been ranked as the most competitive financial hub of Northern Europe. Quite the achievement for this beautifully small and oft forgotten capital tucked into a remote corner of Europe! Tallinn is perhaps the perfect blend of old and new: the medieval streets and architecture of Tallinn, including the Viru Gates in the photo, have merited the city a spot on UNESCO‘s list – and yet, it also catches the eye of many the enterprising digital start-up. The Viru Gate, a barbican within the ancient city walls, was part of Tallinn’s medieval defensive walls that still encircle much of the city. Though partially destroyed to accommodate horse-drawn carriages and trams, the Viru Gate still dispenses Tallinn’s unique flavour in the brisk Baltic air.
The Tower of London as seen across the Thames River, England
The infamous Tower of London. It has a reputation for horror – death – torture. While not 100% wrong, this was the view propagated in the 16th century (did you know that only seven people were executed at the Tower of London up until the 20th century?) In fact, most executions instead took place on Tower Hill, and even then, just 112 people were executed over 400 years, a number far lower than we’d expect considering the harsh laws during the time. The dark threat of being ‘sent to the tower’ doesn’t come from Medieval times at all, but rather the 16th/17th centuries where darkness had to be hidden under the surface of polite society – so the Tower became a popular place to send unwanted royals or nobles. At one time a royal residence, a palace, a prison, a menagerie, a royal mint, a treasury and a fortified vault for the Crown Jewels, today’s Tower of London is one of London‘s top tourism destinations, and the most visited castle (not including palaces, which are quite different) in Europe – nearly 3 million visitors cross its threshold every year. The Tower’s oldest section, the White Tower, dates back 1078; other expansions date largely to the early Middle Ages, including exertions by Richard the Lionheart, Henry III, and Edward I. All of this combined makes the Tower of London one of the UK‘s most impressive cultural heritage sites, and for this, it has been recognised by UNESCO. Due to the vast amount of visitors, it is hard to properly visit the Tower of London – best advice is to avoid school holidays and visit in the low season (late September just after school starts but before holidays begin or in the dark days of winter in January or February). Though it can never entirely escape its dark past, it may not be as dark as you thought.