Built in 2011 to house the 2012 UEFA Europe Cup, Stadion Narodowy or the National Stadium is Poland’s biggest – with seating room for around 58,000 spectators! (Other UEFA stadiums included Poznan, Wrocław, Gdańsk and Kiev). Red and white like the Polish flag, is has a retractable roof (Poland can get chilly and snowy at times as seen in the image!), and stands proud on the Wisła River, one of Poland’s (and Warsaw’s!) main arteries. Located in the Praga district, this once-seedy area of the city has seen fantastic urban revival in the past decade, and is now one of Warsaw’s hippest new neighbourhoods with the modern architecture of Stadion Narodowy the crown jewel. The Polish people are enormous football fans, and very proud of both their national teams as well as their own local teams (friendly rivalry between regions is common!). On a games night, the National Stadium, and indeed much of the Praga district, explode and rock with noise, support and red and white flags! One of the best ways to connect with the Polish and immerse yourself in the culture no matter how brief your visit, is to catch a match with the locals! Stadion Narodowy is the best place to watch as nothing beats its ambience, but if you can’t get there, don’t worry – head downtown to one of the many sporty bars to see the match and root for the national team! Pro tip: Even if you don’t manage to get a Polish football jersey, be sure to get yourself a Polska football scarf before your match! Not only are you showing your support, it makes for a great souvenir!
Kremlin & St Basil’s Cathedral from the Moskva River at Sunset, Russia
If you had to chose one place to represent Russia, what would it be? High on most lists would probably be St Basil’s Cathedral (actually called Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed) and the Kremlin, just next door. Though both are worth exploring up close, for a unique way to visit both of these fantastic icons, consider a cruise of the Moskva River for a beautiful and unique view of Moscow – even better if its a sunset cruise! St Basil’s is as eye-popping now as it was when it was new – built in its own unique, trail-blazing style in 1561, no one quite knows where architects Barma and Postnik found their inspiration, though many say it is a combination of Greek, Byzantine, Islamic and Asian styles. Even the Italian Renaissance played a role (its surprising how influential Italian architects were in places like Russia, France and Eastern Europe). St Basil’s uniqueness is really what makes it so fascinating and its silhouette is unmistakable. The Kremlin, on the other hand, is more complex. A government building, a fort, the heart of Russia – the Kremlin is often also used metonymically to refer to Russia’s government. It is composed of five palaces and four cathedrals, enclosed by an imposing wall. Unfortunately, several heritage buildings in the Kremlin were destroyed to make space for ugly concrete Soviet-era buildings (before thankfully a law came into place preserving heritage sites). Once again, though its important to visit the site, a riverside visit to the Kremlin is a whole different – and much quieter and calmer! – experience. Get ready for some amazing waterscapes and skylines! Pro tip: best time to go is certainly sunset on a clear day – especially in the off-season if possible.
One of the many murals of Belfast, Northern Ireland
Belfast is known for a lot of things. It’s known for struggles, religious and political unrest, even for terror. But a lot has changed in recent years. Belfast has become a cosmopolitan hub, with an up-and-coming foodie scene that surpasses Dublin and rivals other European capitals. It’s a quirky place where art meets urban life in the best possible ways. For one, there are the Peace Walls. Massive walls that divides the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods, Peace Walls were constructed to protect each side from the other but at the end of the day, it is a barrier through the middle of the city dividing the two sides (not unlike the Berlin Wallonce did). Today the wall is still there and the sides are still divided but the wall is now a Peace Wall, full of thousands of messages of hope and courage written by residents and visitors alike, and the two sides have come together much more. But that’s not the only wall in Belfast. The city of Belfast is full of murals. Some are well known, others aren’t. Some are religious or political, some are artistic. Some are massive, others small. The above mural is one of the many one finds in the city centre, ‘neutral’ territory where both Protestants (aka unionists) and Catholics (aka republicans) rub shoulders. Belfast is still a divided city, and though on the island of Ireland, it resembles England far more than Ireland (in regards to architecture, way of life, fashions, shop brands…). Yet despite this – or perhaps because of this – it is a fascinating place to visit. Particularly the murals!
Other Fascinating Sites to Visit in Ireland (North & South)
Boyle Abbey in the Irish midlands, was Connacht’s (one of four traditional regions of Ireland) first Cistercian monastery. Founded in 1142 (though not consecrated until 1218), Boyle Abbey was built alongside the skeletal shell of an abandoned Celtic monastery. Cistercians, also called Bernardines or sometimes White Monks (for their garments), are a Catholic order of monks and nuns from Cîteaux, France (near Dijon) that were a highly influential religious sect under the renowned influenced of famed Bernard de Clairvaux. Widespread across Europe, the Cistercians founded hundreds of monasteries, abbeys and daughter houses. Though the Cistercians seemingly found it difficult to settle down in Ireland, they finally found their home in Boyle, growing quite successful at founding many daughter abbeys and monasteries throughout the region. Unfortunately, much of the beautiful cloisters and other fine architectural details are lost today. In 1645, Boyle Abbey was besieged by the evil Oliver Cromwell and his English army of hooligans, who spent the better part of four years (from 1649–53) murdering, destroying and causing terror and mayhem across Ireland for the sole purpose of conquering Ireland in order to steal their land and force them under English and Protestant rule. Of course, Ireland was predominantly Catholic (and thanks to the misogynistic tyrant Henry VIII, the English were very strongly Protestants) – all of which lead to the Penal Laws that effectively outlawed Catholicism in Ireland. Poor Boyle Abbey was once again ravaged in 1592, this time when it was transformed into Elizabethan barracks – soldiers’ quarters and a base for the English army – because what better way to assert dominance over your colony than use a monastery as a war engine (the British don’t fare well in Irish history…). Archeologists, historians and conservationists have attempted to recover and conserve the abbey as much as possible, carrying out both repairs and archeological surveys – leading to both a new wall and some interesting finds – with the abbey presented as it would have been under the Cistercian command. Tip: Today, Boyle Abbey is under the care of the OPW (Ireland’s public works office) so check opening hours before you go, and be prepared for poor weather conditions.
One of Romania‘s most beautiful and fascinating cities is certainly the colourful and vibrant Sighisoara. Snuggled into the heart of the hauntingly beautiful region of Transylvania, the dazzling and historic medieval town centre is one of the best preserved in the country, a fact that has not escaped UNESCO. Perhaps most famous for as the birthplace of Count Dracula (otherwise known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler), Sighisoara is colourful and historic town. Cobblestone streets, soaring towers, ancient walls, vibrant shop fronts, this town embodies everything you’d want in a medieval town – a photographers paradise. Settled in the 12th century (officially entering the registrars in 1191), Sighisoara was a frontier town settled (and defended) by German saxons at a vulnerable time in Transylvanian history when the region was ruled by the King of Hungary. A town built into the ruins of a Roman fort proceeded it, followed in 1337 by an urban settlement considered a regal city. For centuries, Sighisoara was an important and influential city in Central and Eastern Europe. With a strong and successful economy dominated by Saxon Germans (what’s new…), Sighisoara was a recognised haven for craftsmen, artisans, merchants and guilds. Not all of Sighisoara’s history was positive though. After a fairly successful medieval age, 17th and 18th century Sighisoara saw terrible fires, plagues, occupation, sieges and other horrors. Pro tip: though beautiful during the the day, don’t miss the city at night! In one of the towers, there is an impressive array of leather-working. For some of the best food in the city, head to the wine cellars of Gasthaus restaurant, just outside the walls. Great views from the Church on the Hill – climb it via the covered staircase.
Rivendell? Gondor? Narnia? Hogwarts? Sadly, no to all. However magical it looks, this is no fantasy world but instead the Spanish town of Ronda is a magical city set deep in the sunburnt deserted landscapes of Andalucia, optimistically built onto a cliff split by a colossal gorge. The two sides of Ronda are tethered together by this stunning bridge known as Ronda’s Puente Nuevo. The newest of the three bridges that crosses the breathtaking El Tajo Gorge carved by the mighty Guadalevin River, Puente Nuevo was finished in 1793 after a long 34 years of construction. It is a master of engineering and an impressive work of architecture, calling in at a shocking 66 meters long and 98 meters high, built straight into the solid rock of the El Tajo Gorge. The small window just visible in the side of the bridge was once used as a prison – with condemned prisoners simply thrown from their cells to meet their doom on the rocks at the bottom of gorge a la Vlad Tepes Dracula. Today, it is both tourist attraction as well as a fully functional bridge, connecting forevermore both halves of the city of Ronda, capital of the famous Pueblos Blancos. Tip: the Puente Nuevo bridge is best seen from below. Descend along a narrow path that leads down the side of the gorge, but beware, the path is eroded and in poor condition so be sure to wear proper hiking gear.
St Michael’s along the Philosophen Weg, Heidelberg, Germany
It’s the journey, not the destination that makes a place special, which is certainly true of St Michael’s Monastery near Heidelberg. Start on the far side of the river by meandering your way up a path called Philosophen Weg. Steep and narrow, this cobblestoned alley quickly sweeps you out of the city and up into the deep, dark woods overhanging the gothic spires of Heidelberg. Then, the path promptly splits in two, and your only signpost signalling the way is a boulder engraved with obscure German words. So what do you do? Choose a path, and hope it’s right, though you soon start second-guessing yourself as you come to another fork, and another. At each path, there is a new boulder, with new words. Scratching your head with frustration, you cast your eyes around you in hopes of discovering a clue. Suddenly, you feel very much like you stepped off the pages of a Grimm’s brother tale. Rounding a bend, the trees suddenly open up over a magnificent panorama of the city. The next opening takes you to an amphitheater with exceptional acoustics (once unfortunately used for hate speeches by the Nazi party). After a small eternity in the dark fairytales of the Brothers Grimm’s world, you emerge, completely surprised at your luck, into a clearing comprised of the ruins of St Michael’s Monastery. While some of its ruins are even older, the majority of the monastery dates to 1023. But by 1503, the complex’s last monks died, and the rural, isolated monastery was abandoned, and like so many once-great places, forgotten. While open to the public today, these little-visited and remote ruins hold the air of a lost masterpiece. Pro tip: The best way to arrive at the monastery is on foot but its best to ask for a map or use a GPS to find your way in the woods.
Other Ruined European Monasteries, Abbeys and Friaries
The Loire Valley is one of the most spectacular castle regions in Europe. Full of what can only be described as French chateaux, the Loire Valley houses some 300 extravagant palatial buildings!! Among the most famous are the immense Chateau de Chambord and the spectacular Chateau de Chenonceau. Spanning the River Cher in a unique castellated bridge, the river literally runs through the castle. Though it has had many owners, Chateau de Chenanceau is really a tale of two women and their rivalry for King Henri: Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici. Diane de Poitiers was a noblewoman – beautiful, talented, intelligent and elegant – who fall in love with young King Henri II. In order to take control of Italian states, Henri was married to the much younger Catherine de Medici. Despite his marriage, Henri spent his entire life dedicated to the beguiling Diane de Poitiers and their children, culminating in gifting her Chateau de Chenanceau. Though it took many years of delicate legal manoeuvres to make Diane the true owner of Chateau de Chenanceau, she loved the castle and was responsible for the phenomenal bridge across the Cher, as well as the flower and vegetable gardens. When Henri died in a jousting accident, his jealous widow Catherine de Medici illegally forced Diane to yield her the castle – though she was then forced to offer Diane Chateau de Chaumont in exchange. Catherine further renovated the gardens and the castle interior, as well as adding new rooms and a service wing (of course she did, she’s Catherine de Medici…). Unlike her more enlightened rival Diane, Catherine was a girlish socialite whose favourite activity was hosting lavish parties at Chenanceau, including France’s first ever fireworks show. Chenanceau’s third notable woman was the enlightened Louise Dupin, who hosted countless literary salons in the chateau – Louise saved the castle during the French Revolution by claiming that it was essential to commerce as it was the only bridge for miles. Though Catherine may have stolen the chateau from Diane and Louise saved it from demolition by angry hordes, Chateau de Chenanceau remains synonymous with Diane de Poitiers and her love for King Henri. Tip: Chateau de Chenanceau is far more lovely when visited in the off season – despite the lack of flowering gardens, the lack of tourist crowds allows you to feel the romance of the castle.
The Tube. At once iconic, eye-catching and mind-boggling, stations of the London Tube have both featured in and inspired numerous films, series and books, from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter to BBC’s Sherlock to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. English railways and trains, too, have long held an allure of bygone times of the golden age of railways. Though there are many stations at the heart of London’s public transit, King’s Cross is high on the list. It’s funny how something so ordinary and boring – public transportation – has now become such a powerful symbol of one of the greatest cities in Europe, but there you have it. Opened in Victorian London (1852 to be precise), Kings Cross grew quickly as London’s newfound suburbs expanded at an unprecedented rate, becoming a symbol of the neighbourhood’s prosperity at the time. By the the end of the 20th century, however, King’s Cross station had fallen into decline, and the surrounding streets known for their seedy and unsavoury character. Then in 1997 an unknown author published her debut fantasy novel about a boy wizard called Harry Potter living in a parallel magical England – accessible through Platform 9¾ from… you guessed it…King’s Cross Station. By the early 2000s, the station and area surrounding it saw a serious refurbishment – as well as a bit of marketing: a fake Platform 9¾ was constructed, complete with a half-disappeared trolley! Too bad it doesn’t actually lead to Hogwarts… Pro tip: Platform 9¾ is popular with tourists so try to avoid peak times if you want a photo! Also, the British National Library is just around the corner if you’re feeling bookish. It’s no Hogwarts, but still beautiful!
Though the most famous gargoyles are on Notre Dame de Paris (thanks, Victor Hugo and Disney), one finds gargoyles on most French cathedrals, and Dijon’sNotre Dame Church is no different. This unusual, square-faced cathedral, commenced in 1230, is a medieval masterpiece. In fact, it contains no less than 51 gargoyles (nearly all mere decorations). Though Notre Dame de Dijon dates back to the Middle Ages, the gargoyles were only carved in the 1880s (around Hugo’s time…). The original facade had many such gargoyles of monsters and men, but local legend states they were all (but one) removed by the friends of a usurer (money lender), who was killed by a falling stone gargoyle on his wedding day. Gargoyles have long held both the fascination and horror of their audiences. While the original purpose was simply to drain water away from a wall, they quickly evolved into displaying grotesque and fantastical designs. The term itself comes from an French word “gargouille,” meaning “throat” (think “gullet”). The idea of the gargoyle is said to have came from an ancient French legend from Rouen, in which St Romanus conquered a terrible winged dragon called La Gargouille who was both long-necked and fire-breathing. Upon slaying it, the city burned La Gargouille’s body but its fireproof head and neck would not burn, so they mounted it on the church walls to ward off the evil spirits (though you’d think that’d ward off good spirits too!). Thus, the idea and name were adapted for fanciful drains sprouting from France’s soaring cathedrals, and Dijon’s gargoyles don’t disappoint: all 51 are fascinatingly fantastic, bizarre, eye-catching and grotesque. Pro tip: The church also contains a small statue of an owl, now the symbol of the city, and said to have magical powers. Find it on the left side of the cathedral and touch it with your left hand to make a wish come true! Also, follow the owl symbols on the ground to discover Dijon’s historical heritage sites.
Gaudi is possibly the greatest thing to come from Barcelona! Born 1852, Antoni Gaudi is the most famous architect from Catalonia (and Spain), as well as a trendsetter in modern architecture, particularly Catalan modernism, or modernista. Organic and flowing, Gaudi’s buildings were inspired by the harmony of man, nature and religion. A mix of modern architecture, art nouveau, neo-gothic with a bit of his own bizarre or absurd additions sprinkled in, Gaudi has become one of the most recognisable architects of the 20th century. In fact, his most famous work the Sagrada Familia cathedral, is still being completed. Other famous works found on the Block of Discord (a city block of unusual architecture), including Casa Mila, as well as Casa Batllo, as seen here. Remodelled at the turn of the century by Gaudi, this fin de siecle Casa Batllo uses almost no straight lines. Its facade is a quilt of broken mosaics and on the roof, the back of a dragon rises up, coupled with a cross thought to represent Catalonia’s patron saint, St George (who once slayed a dragon). Wavy, rounded stain glass windows look out onto the street, turning ordinary Barcelona into something magical and out of this world. The building is collection of apartments centred around an extravagant stairwell. Today, you can visit some of the rooms, where you can see a collection of art nouveau furniture as well as modern art exhibits. In the attic, explore the attic vaulting reminiscent of a giant animal’s ribcage, similar to the apartment mentioned in Dan Brown’s 2017 book, Origin (though his character actually inhabits Casa Mila). Pro tip: Barcelona is a hotspot for pickpockets – be careful with your affairs, don’t carry more than you need, and be wary of any distraction schemes!
Snowflakes fall softly on the colourful facades of Poznan’s Stary Rynek (main square). Vibrant and beautiful, Poznan is one of Poland’s most lively towns rain or shine or snow. Centred on the Stary Rynek, Poznan’s old town was once a walled city though the walls were sadly taken down to expand this growing city in the 1800s. In the centre of this magnificent square is the Ratusz, or the Town Hall, the pride and glory of the city of Poznan. On the clock tower there are two goats, referring to a legend involving burnt dinner, an angry lord, a desperate cook, a couple of escapist goats (read more here), which chimes every day. Besides the to-die-for architecture, Poznan offers many museums, monuments, churches and cathedrals. There are dozens and dozens of eateries, restaurants, cafes and bars. Poznan also has a significant student population which goes hand-in-hand with a thriving nightlife. Visit the many bars to taste the local beers and liqueurs as well as the local cuisine! Tip: For an easy way to try a few of the local beers, head to Brovaria just off the main square – a guesthouse, restaurant and brewery all in one! Order their “taster menu” to sample a few of their different wares. Poznan is only about 4 hours from Warsaw via public transport (see Polish FlixBus or PKP trains), but merits an overnight stay!
Frauenkirche & Cathedral of Munich – Munich, Germany
One of Germany’s most beautiful cities is Munich, capital of the famed region of Bavaria. Munich is a city filled with stunning architecture. Its skyline is pierced with spires of churches and cathedrals and towers and its ground is laid with cobblestones. The city centre is filled with architectural wonders – palaces, halls, great houses, beer halls, churches, towers. In the above photo, the spire to the right is from the Cathedral of Munich, while the twin spires to the left are from the Frauenkirche. It is in the Frauenkirche where you’ll find a footprint indented in the floor. Legend has it that this is the Devil’s footprint – the builders needed help finishing the church and the devil offered his aid to finish it. From the front door, the columns form an illusion to block all of the windows so the Devil thought that it would be a dark, damp church and no one would want to go there. When he realised that the builders tricked him, he was so angry he stomped his foot down in anger – hence the imprint of a foot on a stone by the door. (A less exciting explanation could be a the footprint of the master builder himself). Whatever you believe, it makes a good story! Tip: Take the free walking tour of Munich as you’ll learn about this legend and more – a perfect introduction to Munich!
Transylvania, like Wallachia, is an ancient region of Romania – mountainous, disputed, oft-changing boundaries. Fortresses and castles had to be built for protection, defending land and people. Făgăraș Citadel is one of those places. Făgăraș was built in 1310 on the foundations of a 12th century wooden fortress that had been burned by Tartars in 1241. Then it was enlarged in the Renaissance style with the sole purpose of impressing visitors (in fact, Italian architects were brought in to add said Renaissance grandeur). Then – sadly – Făgăraș became a military garrison, meaning that the once-luxurious interior was ruined, trampled, lost. Encircled by a moat and a tree-lined garden, Făgăraș remains a beautiful and impressive place. However, do keep in mind that today’s Făgăraș Citadel is plopped in the middle of Făgăraș town, with cars and cyclists whizzing by, the din of city noise as its soundtrack. Făgăraș Citadel is now a history museum – entry 15 lei, open year round – and a fantastic example of a Transylvanian castle! Tip: Făgăraș is a great stop between Brasov and Sibiu!
Haven’t heard of Damrak? Guarantee you’ve seen it! Damrak is probably the most photographed part of Amsterdam, and it’s easily found as it’s the first thing you see after alighting Amsterdam’s central station. Damrak is a grand avenue and partial canal at the centre of the old city. It has been the centre of the Netherlands financial hub since the early 1900s, when several financial buildings – including the stock exchange – moved in. In fact, the Damrak (so named as it used to be part of a dam that was later filled in), is Amsterdam’s version of Wall Street – though let’s admit, it’s far more picturesque. Amsterdam is renowned for its uber modern and contemporary architecture – contrasted with its beautiful and iconic 16th and 17th century canal-front row houses. Damrak’s canal and street are lined with grand Dutch buildings, products of the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century paid for mostly by the famed Dutch merchants who grew rich off thriving trade markets to faraway places. Tall, narrow and ornamented, these houses were built to stand out and impress – as well as take as little space as possible. These Dutch canal houses are loosely classified as Italian Renaissance style – but let’s face it, there’s something so impossibly dutch about them that makes this view easily and undeniably Amsterdam! Tip: If you’re ever choosing flights and see one with a 4+ hour layover in Amsterdam, go for it! Amsterdam is possibly the best connected airport-to-city in Europe and can be be standing where is photo is taken less than 30 mins after you get off your plane (follow signs for the train station and buy a ticket to central station, about a 15min journey and trains every few mins).
The city that feels a bit like its at the end of the world, Inverness is a small cosmopolitan outpost in northern Scotland. Crowned with Inverness Castle, the city – and castle – cling to the banks of the River Ness. This relatively new castle was only built in 1836, but it sits on the roots of what was originally an 11th century castle. Today’s castle is built in the neo-gothic style, though the former castle was a proper medieval lump of stone. It’s not open to the public today for good reason: it is currently home to the Inverness Sherif Court (Scotland’s civil and criminal court). That said, you can visit the Castle Viewpoint for a bird’s eye view of Inverness from the top of the building (admission £5). Though the interior of the castle is closed, the exterior is an emblem of Inverness. It’s also certainly a worth to climb to the top of the castle hill to enjoy the view over Inverness and beyond! Fun fact: find Inverness Castle on one side of certain £50 RBS banknotes. Tip: Keep going past the castle along the river to follow forest trails through the Ness Islands.
Tucked into an extraordinary mountain landscape in Sud Tyrol, northeastern Italy, Castel Tures or Taufers Castle is first mentioned in documents in 1225, when the newly noble family started construction on a lavish house fit for a lord. For a hundred years the castle flourished but sadly by the mid 1300’s, it was already in decline. It wasn’t until the Dukes of Austria took an interest that Tures Castle was renovated and reconstructed. New towers, draw bridges, walls, gardens, and castle residence return in all their glory. Today this 64 room castle is open to the public, showcasing beautifully panelled rooms, a magnificent library, and a precious chapel. But the greatest jewel of this castle in northern Italy is truly in its location – the mountains of the Dolomites, themselves part of the Alps tower over Tures Castle’s turrets and towers, with the town and fields spreading out at its feet. This forgotten corner of Ireland, Sud Tyrol contains one of the highest castle-to-land ratios in Europe, as well as countless natural beauty – parks, mountains, forests, waterfalls, preserves. Overlooked by tourists, Sud Tyrol is a magnificent and quiet region in the Italian Alps.
More Places Located in Sud Tyrol & Northeast Italy
The Palais des Papes is a massive heap of fortified and sacred medieval stone built for the king-like popes during the schism with the Catholic Church in the heart of ancient Avignon. Six rebellious popes ruled Western Christianity from this impressive – and costly – building. (In fact, the Palais des Papes was so expensive that it nearly burst the papal purse). Built during the 14th century, the old palais (of Benedict XII) and the new palais (of extravagant Clement VI) form the largest Gothic building constructed during the Middle Ages! And during the 14th century, the Palais des Papes once held about 2,000 volumes – considered to be the largest library of its time. This impressive library attracted bibliophiles and scholars from afar, and the Palais des Papes became a place of great study. It was also within the walls of this immense palace that the Church was able to centralise and create a standardisation of services and operations – mostly to meet the needs of the popes and the Church with less regard to its common flock. The church administration workers (known as the Curia) grew from a modest 200 to 500 people plus 1,000 laymen at the Palais des Papes in less than 100 years. Today, the Palais des Papes is a UNESCO site, and is well worth the visit from a historical and architectural perspective, as the Palais des Papes is both a great historical turning point and one of the best exemplars of Europe’s great Gothic constructions. Tip: You can buy a ticket for both the Palais des Papes as well as the Pont d’Avignon, so be sure to pocket your ticket when you visit the palace! Great views from the Parc Rocher des Doms!
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!