Though perhaps younger than some of the cities of the Mediterranean, Riga, the capital of Latvia, has over 800 years of history – with most of that history turbulent. Latvia’s location along the Baltic Sea has long made it an important strategical spot for centuries. In the Viking era, the fearsome Scandinavian warriors often came to the Baltics during their annual raids, though the Baltic raids weren’t considered as good as those of England or France. In medieval times, German and Teutonic knights and Swedish kings stamped in and out of Riga and Latvia – really the Baltics in general – taking control of it or simply raiding it in times of need. In more recent times, the Soviets laid claim to this little Baltic nation, in its quest for control over trade and military might in the Baltic Sea. From above, we see a forest of Gothic spires rising above Riga, and below down at street level, we see a beautiful rainbow of bright colours and Art Nouveau façades adorning each street, square and alleyway. Riga is an easy place to wander and explore – Art Nouveau architecture rears up randomly throughout the city, narrow alleys wrap themselves around unique buildings, small streets open up into large squares home to impressive churches, guildhalls, markets, mansions and other magnificent edifices. It is perhaps for this splendid blend of styles, creativity, history and beauty that Riga Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Huddled on the banks of River Daugava, Riga is a town recognised for its architectural beauty and rich culture. As the capital of Latvia, and one of the three main cultural centres in the Baltics region of northeast Europe (the others being Tallinn and Vilnius), Riga is a blend of old world charm and cosmopolitan busyness. Architecturally, it is composed of a medieval city Old Town, unique art nouveau facades and gothic and baroque spires, such as this one here. Perched atop St Peter’s Church at the heart of Riga, the 130-metre-high baroque steeple is the city’s tallest spire. This steeple dates back to WWII when the church was rebuilt after the city was torn apart during the war. This new structure was based on a former tower erected in the 1720s, replacing a previous structure that was struck by lighting in 1721 which in turn replaced one that collapsed in 1666. In fact, at one point in the late 1690s, St Peter’s Church was the highest wood building in the world! The oldest version of this spire dates all the way back to the end of the 15th century, while St Peter’s Church itself was consecrated in 1209 (though little remains of that original construction). The basilica we see today is from the 15th century in all of its baroque and gothic fashion. In 1997, Riga’s Old Town was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites – among the sites called out for their particular beauty, heritage and culture was of course St Peter’s Church.
Pro tips: A stone’s throw away is the famed House of Blackheads, a unique baroque guildhall. Pick up one of the Like A Local maps which shows streets and iconic sights but also less-known sights recommended by local citizens as well as food recommendations. One such recommendation is a lovely teacup-sized family-run restaurant, Varzoba, located very close to both St Peter’s Church and the House of Blackheads. Not sure what to get? Let them choose! You won’t regret it.
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!
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.
Pro tip: There is a small entrance fee of 250 rubles (about €3) but it goes towards the renovation and upkeep of the church. The church is closed Wednesdays.
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.
Ghent again, I know. But it’s hard to resist such a wonderfully tempting city! Ghent is one of those places that few people have heard of and no one really thinks about – and turns out to be a hidden treasure trove for those who do somehow wind up here. The Flemish city of Ghent (or ‘Ganda,’ as it was once known, meaning ‘Confluence’) did indeed start as a settlement at the confluence of two local rivers, the Scheldt, and the Leie, though Ghent’s glory days were really in the Middle Ages, when mercantile trade and agriculture from the rich green fields outside the city caused Ghent to become one of Europe’s richest and most populous cities of the time (50-60,000 citizens), leading to the explosion of building projects. In particular, the wool industry was an important generator of wealth for the city-state, even going so far as to create one of Europe’s first successful industrialised zones. But history aside, Ghent’s lucrative Middle Ages left an important mark on the city, particularly in architecture. In more recent times, perhaps owing to the fact that Bruges and Brussels are more influenced by tourism and international politics than the overlooked Ghent, Ghent was left to its own devices to find its individual core – which turns out to be pure hipster! The Art Nouveau style took off in Ghent, as did many unique-concept ideas such as the ‘Wasbar,’ a local dish called ‘Balls & Glory,’ and an art project that constructed a hotel room at the top of the train station’s clock tower (read this post for more info). The student atmosphere is strong here, cafes are popular and numerous, bookshops and antique stores dot the city, trees line the canals and the possibiltles for enjoyment are really endless.
Hipster Ghent. Quirky Ghent. Fun Ghent. Ghent is a place to forget who you are, kick back, and live in the moment. Whether you like studying Art Nouveau architecture (see more regarding Art Nouveau here), finding funky graffiti, hanging out in hipster bars, following quaint canals lined with weeping willows, curling up in snug coffeehouses and bookshops, rooting through the hodgepodge of antique shops, visiting ancient castles like the Gravensteen or exploring the cobbled alleys in search of hidden treasure, there’s a good chance that Ghent is for you. Ghent is a city like no other – it is something of a mix of Brugges‘ charm and heritage, Berlin’s nightlife, Prague’s quirky attitude, Riga’s unique architecture, and Montpellier’s youth. Though little-known, Ghent will surprise and amaze you on any trip to Belgium! (oh and yes, there are Belgian fries, beer, waffles and chocolate…this is Belgium after all).
Art Nouveau (‘new art’) was a style of architecture, art, sculpture, and design popular from roughly 1890 – 1920. Though it swept across Europe, it was particularly popular in Riga, Latvia, with some 40% of the buildings built with Art Nouveau in mind. Inspired by flowers, trees, leaves, water, and other natural elements, Art Nouveau buildings twist and turn; they flow, they spiral, they cascade – they are alive. Riga’s Art Nouveau was less extravagant than that of France’s or Spain’s. But nonetheless, Riga overflows its borders with the simplistic, Romantic version of Art Nouveau. Much of it has survived to this day despite the turbulence of the 20th century, and the city centre is now a designated UNESCO site. By simply meandering and keeping one’s eyes turned upwards, the observant traveller will come across this forgotten cache of treasures hidden away in the Baltic gem that is Riga.
Ghent, part of the Flemish part of the county, is often overlooked in favour of its more famous cousin, Bruges. Yet, both cities are incredibly beautiful and deserve a visit! In Ghent, you will find canals draped in weeping willows, Gothic and Neo-Gothic architecture, art nouveau designs, cheerful students sipping coffees in colourful cafes, food trucks and tiny restaurants selling fries and gaufres (waffles) in the streets, couples strolling down the cobbled streets. It is a hipster city, and those tourists who decide to visit this beautiful city relish in striking off the beaten path. Visit Gravensteen Castle, take a boat tour of the Ghent Canals, and admire the intriguing Art Nouveau architecture. Here, it is easy to mingle with the locals. Simply stroll along one of Ghent’s many canals until you find a cozy cafe, cheerful restaurant or lively bar – and strike up a chat with the locals. You won’t regret it!
Known as Belgium’s ‘hipster city’ (though of course the Ghentians? Ghentiles? will never admit to this label), Ghent is a very cool place. Nowhere near as famous as its neighbour, Bruges, it’s just as ancient, beautiful, untouched and medieval–but the best part is that it’s relatively undiscovered. Perhaps this is what draws the hipsters the city is so known for? Not only is the city peppered with funky art nouveau buildings, local cafes, chic galleries, vintage shops, and hole-in-the-wall bars, there are also gems such as the ‘Wasbar’ (laundromat meets bar), a cafe known for its bizarre meatballs with the amazing name “Balls & Glory.” In 2012, as part of a city-wide public display of art in which 41 artists took part all over Ghent, artist Tazu Rous constructed a “hotel room” around the the clock tower of the train station, so that “guests” would in fact be sleeping next to the enormous clock-face…how’s that for an alarm clock!? Ghent is, undeniably, a ‘weird’ city–but in some ways, that’s the best kind of city. Perhaps there is some truth to Lonely Planet’s statement that this bohemian, nonconformist city “might just be the best European city you’ve never thought of visiting.” So maybe you should start thinking about it!
Orange umbrellas by orange roofs in Barcelona’s famous central plaza, stylised in the short-lived but spectacular Art Nouveau design. Orange is surely the national colour of Spain! Spain, after all, is a vibrant, lively country despite any economic mishaps. Everything is fun in Spain – from eating to drinking to taking naps to commuting (try out one of those mopeds!). Everybody is always outside, in the streets, on the balconies, in the plazas. Thanks to the largely sunny climate, life is nearly always spent outside – except during mealtime of course (14h-16h), which is traditionally taken inside with all the family, particularly if you live in a village or small town. And despite economic troubles, you’ll see nothing but smiles!
Josep Batlló wanted a house like no other, one located in the ritzy section of central Barcelona that would turn heads, blow minds and be the talk of the neighbourhood—and that’s exactly what he got. Casa Batlló, designed by the infamous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi who was also responsible for Casa Mila and Parc Guell, all in Barcelona, seems to throw away the notion of straight lines as the entire building permeates fluidity, movement, and curves. In fact, straight lines seem not to exist here. This particular section is part of the roof—and if you think it looks a bit like a dragon, you’re not alone. A popular story states that the statue just visible to the right-hand side of the photo represents a lance stabbing the back of the scaly, orange object, symbolising the “dragon.” Evidently, St George was the patron saint of Gaudi’s hometown. As evidenced by this and the rest of the “Block of Discord” region of Barcelona, bizarre architecture seems all the rage in the infamous Spanish city. Loosely inspired by the Art Nouveau/modernista movements, Gaudi seems to go above and beyond to make his art numbingly, blindly and unforgettably unique… which it surely is!
What would Barcelona be without Antonia, Gaudi? Barcelona is unimaginable without the genius Spanish architect. Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, Parc Guell…the list goes on and on. Most of the city’s beloved symbols are the result of Gaudi. The building of Gaudi’s Art Nouveau cathedral, Sagrada Familia, commenced in 1882, and still continues today (hence the cranes), for Gaudi died without finishing his masterpiece. The cathedral is spectacular–on on side, large statues tower over the visitor, inside, columns shaped like trees create an immense, petrified forest, and the other side sports an impressive Gothic facade, carvings covering every inch of stone. Brave visitors can take an elevator to the top, affording both spectacular views of the beautiful city and an up-close look at Gaudi’s architecture, much of which was inspired by the natural world (be prepared to come face-to-face with towers clearly inspired by fruit, among others). Not surprisingly, this amazing beauty is a UNESCO monument, and is a must-see when visiting the famous Spanish city.