Inside the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia
Entering the Hermitage Museum in the heart of the majestic St Petersburg, prepare to be overcome with opulence, elegance, and riches that would put a golden-hoarding dragon to shame. Though there are six buildings comprising the Hermitage, it is the Winter Palace that gets the glory. Founded in 1764 by none other than Empress Catherine the Great, the Hermitage is the world’s 2nd-largest art museum (after the Louvre). Some 3 million artefacts form part of the Hermitage’s collection, though most of these aren’t on permanent display. But the real museum here for architect and history geeks like myself is the building itself. Once home to a string of opulent Russian rulers, the rooms of the Winter Palace are a wonder to behold. If the above photo is just the entrance hall, what other magnificence might the other rooms hold? The Hermitage (and St Petersburg itself) is one of those places that should be on any list of amazing places to go, particularly for anyone who loves art, museums, history, architecture, grandeur, or photography.
Pro tip: Leave yourself plenty of time. This is a massive museum and given how difficult it is to get to Russia (particularly navigating getting visas), this might be your one chance to visit it. Don’t rush it – leave yourself the whole day to explore the Hermitage. If you finish earlier than that, then find yourself a nice place for a wee pivo (beer).
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!
Pro tip: To truly appreciate Belfast, its history and its murals, take one of the famous Black Cab tours – Paddy Campbell’sis the original and the best!
Other Fascinating Sites to Visit in Ireland (North & South)
The Austrian capital is beautiful under a dappled sunrise, on a canvas of blue sky, even misted in soft rain. But perhaps Vienna’s loveliest time of day is by night, when the city comes alive with lights of all shapes and sizes. The ancient palaces and churches of Vienna are illuminated in multi-coloured brilliance. Cafes and restaurants spill brightness onto the pavement, streetlights bathe ancient cobblestones in soft yellow lamplight, and pop-up markets exude a soft glow. Vienna comes alive in the evening – people pour out of the Opera, they frequent the crowded markets, stroll down romantic alleys, enjoy evening meals on cafe terraces, sit in the lamplight on the Danube, or share drinks and cigarettes in the floodlight of the city’s many bars. This is not a place where one should have a healthy fear of the dark; rather, Vienna is place where night is the time to socialise. The Austrian capital is a place to embrace the night as you enjoy its many wonders. Seen here is Karlskirche, an 18th-century Baroque wonder, found just outside the famous Ringstrausse of central Vienna.
Pro tip: Visit Vienna in December for its amazing decorations and Christmas markets located all over the city centre!
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.
Crash! One of the largest canvases in the world, West Berliners began painting on the 14-foot wall in the 1980’s while the corresponding East Berlin Wall remained immaculate – guards would not let East Berliners approach the Wall on pain of death (fearing escape attempts). First constructed in 1961 to separate the two countries, the Berlin Wall (especially the western side) later became what Facebook is today: a relatively uncontrolled blank slate on which people can express opinions, feelings, and dreams. In one mural, a car – a white Trabant – is depicted crashing through the Berlin Wall. Trabants were a popular East German car brand, and despite being cute and bug-eyed, the reinforced plastic cars were poorly made and notoriously hard to drive – though East Germans were desperate to get one, so desperate that they had to sign up on a list just to be considered for ownership. Trabants then became a symbol of the communist East Germany, and ceased to be manufactured after the fall of wall. It’s not hard to understand what the artist was trying to depict here: an East German in his or her iconic East German car crashing through the oppressive and separatist Berlin Wall after it fell in 1989.
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.
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?)
Interior Statues of the Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), Austria
Pure decadence, exorbitant elegance, genteel allure, stunning beauty. Welcome to the Staatsoper, Vienna’s State Opera House. The first of the extravagant buildings on Vienna‘s most famed street, the Ringstrasse (now a designated UNESCO site), the Staatsoper was opened to the genteel Austrian public in 1869. Built in the Neo-Renaissance style, the building was surprisingly unpopular with said genteel Viennese. (It somehow was not considered grand enough. You have to wonder about that genteel 19th century high society…). Then on the fateful night of March 12th, 1945, inferno rained down upon Vienna’s opera house, dropped by US bombers. Fire poured from the sky, bombs exploded in the streets, and flames ate their way through the Ringstrasse. Though the angry flames could not get into the walled-off foyer and fresco-filled stairways, the auditorium and 150,000 costumes for 120+ operas went up in smoke. When WWII was finally over, it was debated: shall we rebuild the originally unpopular building as per original design, or do we redesign it to modern tastes? Thank goodness the former option was chosen, and the Wiener Staatsoper was rebuilt in all its former glory (and happily, it is now beloved by Viennese and foreigners alike). Today, you can’t visit musical Vienna, home (at one point or another) to such musicians as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Chopin and Mahler, without visiting the opera. Loiter inside the foyer for a bit and if you have time, buy yourself a ticket to the opera or ballet. If you’re a budget traveller, queue in the ‘standing’ line in the afternoon to buy a €3 or €4 ‘standing’ ticket (arrive 3hrs prior to the show’s start; once you’ve got your ticket, tie a scarf to mark your spot and head out for a bite to eat). Be sure to dedicate plenty of time to explore the palatial building – frescos, statues, paintings, vast staircases and awe-inspiring architecture await!
The Warsaw Mermaid Statue in Warsaw’s Old Town, Poland
There are multiple mermaid statues flopping their way through Europe. Completely unrelated to the mythical selkies of western Ireland and only loosely related to Copenhagen’s The Little Mermaid, the Syrenka, or Mermaid of Warsaw, is the official symbol of Poland‘s capital. Popular legend has it that while swimming by Warsaw, the Mermaid decided she liked it so much that she would stay. Local fishermen were frustrated with competing with her for fish, so they attempted to catch her, but like most mermaid stories, the men fell in love with the mermaid’s song and let her free. She was then captured by a wealthy merchant, but upon hearing her cries, the fishermen rushed to her rescue, and ever since, she’s been a warrior mermaid armed with sword and shield ready to protect Warsaw. A lesser-known version claims that the mermaid came to the rescue of a lost prince and he founded Warsaw in her honour. A final version and tie-in with Copenhagen is that the Danish Little Mermaid and the Warsaw Mermaid are sisters from the Baltic Sea, separated by their respective capitals. No matter which legend you favour, the Mermaid remains Warsaw’s symbol and protector, and there is a small but lovely statue in her honour in the centre of the Stary Miasto (Old Town square) for visitors to pay homage to the city’s protector.
Chateau de Chambord, France as Seen From Across the Moat
As the most expansive and over-the-top chateau in the Loire Valley and among the most excessive of Europe, Chateau de Chambord is certainly the crowning jewel of the already castle-laden Loire Valley. Known for its rich (and royal or at least very noble) castles, the Loire Valley is full of lavish summer residences – the Chateau de Chambord is no exception. Built in 1547 in the extravagant French Renaissance style (a style which was, by definition, extremely extravagant), it was constructed for King Francis I of France as a hunting lodge, it was though never finished. Among the many distinguished guests who stayed there, the most important was Leonardo da Vinci, and it is to him that we attribute (though without proof) the chateau’s unique and fascinating double-helix staircase – i.e. two intertwined, parallel staircases that twist upwards around each other but never touch. 16th-century chateaux are in many ways faux chateaux. Architects used basic designs of castles – like moats, towers, turrets, crinolines, keeps, drawbridges, etc. – but they were never meant to be defensive, and indeed weaponry and war in this era had changed so dramatically that castles were of less use in combat (to be fair, most of Europe had settled down a bit to form some degree of stability, at least from one region to another, though there were exceptions like the French Revolution). If boiled down, Chambord is really composed of a central keep and four massive bastion towers, connected by high walls; the rest is elaborate design. Chambord is best visited in conjunction with other Loire Valley Chateaux like the Chateau de Chenanceau for example – try driving from one to the next, or if you’re feeling adventurous, consider biking from chateaux – the castles are close enough together to make this a relatively a feasible task!
Escalinata Staircase in Teruel, the Aragon region of Spain
Though the Escalinata Staircase technically a purpose-built construction – meant to connect the centro de la ciudad to the railway station – the Escalinata Staircase has become so much more. The town of Teruel, an easy day trip from the modernist city of Valencia, is often called the “town of mudéjar architecture” (meaning Moorish-influenced architecture), notably Teruel Cathedral. The region of Aragon’s densely-concentrated Mudejar architecture (construction corresponding with the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance) is now under the domaine of UNESCO. Mudejar architecture developed after the Reconquista and subsequent expulsion of the Moors from Spain in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. This style was created by those who stayed behind, called moriscos, or Muslims that converted to Christianity. While the stairs were constructed in the early 1900s, the style chosen is neo-Mudejar. It also pays homage to the infamous Lovers of Teruel, a rather ridiculous story. Unable to marry his sweetheart due to his financial status, the hero leaves to make his fortune in 5 years, but miscounts the number of days and returns just after she marries. The overly devout and prude heroine refuses to kiss her dying hero for she is now married (by less than 12 hours, mind you), and he dies. The following day at his funeral, she finally kisses him and dies herself (of what, who knows. Guilt? Loneliness? Grief?) Moral of the story? Perhaps it is simply to chose your spouse wisely, marry out of love… and learn how to keep track of things!
Moscow has one of the most beautiful and historic metro systems of the world – certainly Europe in any case – and the looped, Soviet-era Koltsevaya Line right in the centre is the jewel. Novoslobodskaya Station is one of 12 stations, each known for their elaborate decor (the best generally considered to be Komsomolskya Station). These luxurious underground art exhibits, built as “palaces for the people” were designed to awe and inspire Stalin’s subjects, constantly keeping them looking upwards in admiration of the Soviet Union. Interestingly enough, the Novoslobodskaya Station, composed of 32 glass panels supposedly symbolising peace, were created by a group of artists from Latvia, not Russia at all. At the height of Stalinist Architecture, top architects were designing an intricate network of criss-crossing metro lines – with no circle Koltsevaya Line intended. Urban legend has it that the Koltsevaya Line was built when Stalin set down his coffee cup on the plans leaving a circular stain, and the builders were too nervous to ask if he meant to put the ring there, so they built the line. That same legend claims this is the reason the line’s colour is brown. Story or no, the Koltsevaya Line circulates central Moscow and hides some of the most beautiful architecture in Moscow below the millions of feet that walk above these underground museums every day.
Other Beautiful Places in Russia – St Petersburg & Moscow
Hans Christian Andersen remains one of the Danish capital’s most famed residents. And, as we all know, Andersen is the author of the famous tale, the Little Mermaid (in Danish: Den Lille Havfrue). The Disney version softens it up a bit, but in the much darker original fairy tale, the poor mermaid feels like she is walking on nails every time she takes a step, looses her tongue rather than an incarnation of her voice, the prince never knows it was her who rescued him and marries someone else, nearly kills the prince and princess on their honeymoon in order to become a mermaid once more, and at the end she dies of a broken heart and is transformed to sea foam. Ouch. Little in common with the Disney tale. Yet, people still make the quasi-mandatory pilgrimage upriver to pay homage to the lost little mermaid. Created in 1913, the small, unassuming statue was commissioned by the son of the founder of beer empire, Carlsberg, after becoming obsessed with a ballet of the Little Mermaid – even going so far as to use the lead ballerina (Ellen Price) as the model for the sculpture! Though the story is sad, in a way, the Little Mermaid lives on in her role of iconising her city of Copenhagen. While visiting Copenhagen, visit the ritzy Nyhavn for restaurants, the regal Rosenberg Palace in the central park, and the Svenska Gustafskyrkan Church, not far from the Mermaid herself.
In solidarity with the Germans after last night’s attack, I present you with a piece of the Berlin Wall, an item that, while in the beginning represented intolerance, fear and division, today represents love, hope, and tolerance. The East Side Gallery, as mentioned before, is the largest open-air art gallery in the world, and the pieces that remain are there to make sure that we never forget or make the same mistakes again. While this world is unfortunately becoming smaller, more exclusive and more prejudiced, there is still hope that the vision that inspired the East Side Gallery and other similar works of art in Germany and throughout the world, will continue to spread their message. Tourism only works if people are willing to understand and learn about other cultures and traditions. In an ideal world, this would mean letting the best traits from cultures influence each other, and eliminating the worst, least-tolerant traits. As the Wall suggests, dividing each other – whether by a physical barrier or by a cultural one – is an answer doomed to fail. Instead, the Berlin Wall suggests that understanding, hope and acceptance is the way to move forward in this modern era, for both tourism and all other manners of international interactions.
Is that…a UFO? Little green men? Is the alien invasion hinted at in the X-Files coming true? No…no…and still no. Though bearing an interesting semblance to a flying saucer, this strange structure is the man-made UFO Taste Restaurant, hovering 85m above Bratislava and the beautiful Danube River, where you can gouge on unique Mediterrasian food and sip colorful cocktails while appreciating how tiny the snow-covered buildings, cars and people look far below your table. The restaurant’s immense windows let you appreciate how beautiful the city looks bathed in fog on the chilly winter’s day. Little-known and little-visited Slovakia with its capital Bratislava may have their setbacks (it’s a small city and a small country, and not always as elegantly magical as nearby Budapest, Prague or Vienna), but there is no doubt that this a proud nation working to recover after so many challenges facing this part of Europe in the last few decades. Unique quirks such as this UFO restaurant, city centre statues like Cumil, arresting graffiti and restaurants that mix tradition with newness are slowly turning this hidden European capital into a shining gem.
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.
Old world charm, the steam age and the orient express, the turn of century (or more elegantly put, fin du siècle), lavishness, decadence.…yes, you’ve been painted into a canvas of the elegant, sometimes dream-like Hungarian capital. Budapest, in its own way, is an art form. It is a piece of a painting of a forgotten place, a poem putting colour to a lost era, a melody composed on an antique instrument. Budapest could be a place created by the most talented artists of the last few centuries, an enormous canvas on which to create their evolving masterpiece. Surely one of Europe’s greatest cities – then and now – Budapest seems to offer so much: spicy gastronomy, magnificent architecture, friendly locals, the Blue Danube, its own flavour. Much like the unique language spoken by inhabitants – related only to faraway Finnish and Estonian – Budapest seems to protrude from the rest of Eastern Europe. The culture, the food, the people, the city – everything feels somehow different; perhaps a creation by a steampunk fan or an old Polaroid photo. Budapest feels like a fin du siècle painting breathed into being by Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey, a place where anything could happen, a place where you could become anyone or do anything.
Mirrors – are they the windows into our souls? Are they a reflection of us, what makes us tick? Or are they merely a useful tool when putting on make-up, combing our hair or trying on a new pair of jeans? Bilbao is one city that expertly fuses the old and the new, the past and the present, heritage and modernity – this mirrored building which today houses Basque Country’s Department of Health is just one example. Bilbao (not Bilbo!) is secretly an artistic city it would seem, both in regards to creative architects as well as artists themselves such as Jeff Koons (see this post regarding his flower statue, ‘Puppy’). Not only is Bilbao one of Spain’s cleanest cities, it is quite different than the rest of Spain in that they have their own language – Basque. Unrelated to any other languages, you will see signs covered with complicated words and littered with X’s and Z’s posted all over the city next to their translations in Spanish. Home also to the famed Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao is certainly a unique city like no other. So my question remains, the mirrors – are they indeed the funky and fun reflection into Bilbao’s soul? I think yes.
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.
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!
Sometimes, a landmark or monument becomes so iconic, so heavily associated with a city that any reminder of one automatically reminds you of the other: Paris – Eiffel Tower; Rome – Colosseum; London – Big Ben; Moscow – the Kremlin. Berlin and its Wall belong on such a list. The Berlin Wall, erected by East Germany’s German Democratic Republic in 1961, divided the city in half, cutting off one from the other…until 1989 when it famously fell (though entire demolition did not occur until 1990). Imagine, for a moment, that your city–wherever it may be–was suddenly cut in half by a gigantic wall. Families are separated. Friendships are partitioned. Jobs are lost. Travel is stunted. Freedom is killed. 3.5 million manage to escape to the West before the Wall goes up, but the rest are left behind. Yet, despite all the horrors of WWII, the crash of the Iron Curtain, and the hardships that continued to befall the residents of the Eastern Bloc during the following decades, the East Berliners persisted. And when the Wall finally fell, instead of showing anger and pain, they celebrated life and freedom. They used the largest stretch (1.3 km) as a giant canvas, with 105 different paintings and graffiti depicted on the east side (i.e. the East Side Gallery). Despite the fact that the art changes the original appearance of the Wall, it is a magical display of freedom, democracy, movement and choice celebrated by millions every year from all corners of the globe.
Russia does not have the best reputation in the world–and Vladimir Putin is not helping. The current conflict, mingled with the administrative difficulties in visiting Russia is a crying shame because St Pete was once one of Europe’s–and the world’s–top cultural centers. And it still could be, if only they’d let it shine they way it is meant to! The Trinity Cathedral with its beautiful blue domes is only one of many, many beautiful buildings found in Russia’s centre of culture. You can wander the streets all day and STILL find beautiful buildings and elegant boulevards and magical cathedrals, even far from the centre. Aside from Paris and a few other large (and lucky!) European cities, most of the continent’s finest cities lose some of their splendor a short walk from the centre. Here, the beauty lives on. Not only that, but the city is alive with bustling streets interspersed with peaceful parks, busy churches with weddings spilling out on their lawns, cafes and restaurants bubbling over with charm and vivacity. The Russians are stereotyped as cold and hard and rude, and while that may be true of the lady selling metro tickets (but let’s admit, anyone forced to spend uninterrupted hours in a tiny box underground making repeated sales would be a bit charmless), once you get past that hard exterior, the Russians can be quite fun, certainly hilarious, and even adventurous (or is that recklessness?). No matter; a sojourn to discover Europe’s finest art, cultural and religious centers cannot be complete without a visit to St Pete. It is hands-down one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. And as a teensy tip–one can avoid the tedious visa process by visiting on a designated tour (usually by cruise) for up to 72 hours without a visa.
Rarely celebrated for its modernity or eccentricity, Europe is known for old, historic and elegant buildings. However, there are a few odd pockets here and there, treasure troves of modern oddities that are worth seeing for yourself. Places like the Guggenheim Museum, anything by Gaudi, the Singing House in Dresden, Valencia’s City of Art and Science, Sopot’s Crooked House…and the Hundretwasser House here in Vienna are a few such examples. Created by Friedensreich Hundertwasser in 1983 to 1985, the house represents the expressionist style. Inside, there are 52 apartments, four offices, 16 private terraces and three communal terraces, with about 250 plants growing on them. Today, it remains one of Vienna’s most celebrated (and visited) landmarks–which is certainly saying something as Vienna is a large and beautiful city. It’s beautiful, funky, enticing and dizzying all at the same time!