Romantic redbrick turrets and towers rise from a small island on Lithuania‘s Lake Galvé, home to the 14th-15th century Trakai Island Castle. Today accessible by a small wooden bridge, Trakai Island Castle actually claims to be Eastern Europe‘s only island castle still standing. While still in its infancy, the castle was attacked and severely damaged by the Teutonic Knights in 1377, and further damaged during a power struggle for title of Grand Duke of Lithuania. Once peace again reigned, it was the very same Teutonic Order that organised the rebuilding of the castle. Over time, other ameliorations were added – a massive donjon, wooden galleries along the inner courtyard, new palatial wings containing the impressive Ducal Hall, thicker defensive walls, three new towers and 16th century galleries complete with canons, designed to defend against new advances in technology (notably, gunpowder). Despite this, since the Battle of Grunwald, Trakai left its military importance behind and was used predominantly as a residence and a way to impress visitors, but by the 1700s and 1800s, it was in ruins, serving as little more than a romantic ruin for artistic and poetic inspiration. Reconstruction started in the late 1800s and continued through the first half of the 20th century. Today, Trakai Island Castle is a quiet monument to Lithuanian history and cultural strength, and part of the Trakai Historical National Park. Visit the castle by crossing the new bridge from the town of Trakai, only about 30 minutes from the capital city, Vilnius.
Pro tip: As the Baltic states open up to increasing tourism, places like Trakai Island Castle will get busier. It’s best to visit Trakai in the off-season or earlier in the morning in order to get the castle and island largely to yourself. Better yet, stay over in Trakai town and use as a jumping-off point to explore the region. Home to a proud Karaim community, a Turkish-speaking ethnic group descended from Crimean immigrants, try the delicious local Karaim dish, kybyn, a sort of dumpling or pasty stuffed with meat and vegetables while in Trakai.
Torun, Poland does not want for churches. In fact, they seem to be everywhere. The Holy Trinity Church, erected in 1824, is viewed here from the gate of medieval St James’s Church, while other spires and steeples rise not far away – including the squat red-brick towers of Toruń Cathedral. Ironically, the 13th century medieval city is the birthplace of noted scientist Nicolaus Copernicus, who lends his name to Toruń’s university (you’ll find a large statue of him on Warsaw‘s Krakowskie Przedmieście Street). Noted for his contributions to our understanding of the solar system by placing the Sun at the centre, the “forward-thinking” Church issued a prohibition against his Copernican theory, leading to the condemnation of a “heretic” we know today as renowned scientist Galileo Galilei (Thanks Christianity…!). On a happier (and tastier) note, Toruń’s other claim to fame is that its famous for its gingerbread (or “pierniki” in Polish), which bakers began to produce in the 1300s. You haven’t tasted gingerbread until you’ve been to Toruń – and whether you think you like the it or not, you will love it after tasting this soft and delicious pastry in this magical city! Due to a vague agreement to swap recipes in return for new ones, Toruń instigated a competition with the German city, Nuremberg. As each city rose to individual fame, the secrets of their recipes became more guarded. Knockoffs were created and sold all over Europe. However, to this day, one needs only try Toruń’s gingerbread to recognise its authenticity (modern day Toruń gingerbread follows traditional 16th century recipes…). Perhaps tasting Toruń’s magical gingerbread will inspire you to try your hand at making your own plate of gingerbread biscuits!
Pro tip: You can buy pierniki toruńskie throughout Poland, and while quite good compared to non-Polish gingerbread, you can’t leave Toruń without visiting one of the local shops for the freshest gingerbread. One such place is Torun Żeglarska 25, though up and down Żeglarska Street, Piekary Street, and the Old City Market Square (Stare Miasto) you’ll find gingerbread specialty shops.
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!
Pro Tip: Făgăraș Citadel is a great stop for anyone driving between Brasov and Sibiu! Whether you visit the interior of the castle or just stretch your legs along the walls, it’s worth the stop!
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!
Nope, not quite a castle. This fortified structure is the Barbican, originally built in 1540 in between the Old and New cities by Jan Baptist the Venetian, an Italian expat living in Poland. Of course, no sooner had the workers finished their project than this type of fortified barbican became archaic in light of the recent invention and explosion of artillery weapon usage. (Only once was it used to defend the city; in 1656 against the formidable Swedish Army). Almost entirely destroyed during WWII (like roughly 85% of Warsaw), it was later rebuilt by the Polish government based on 17th century etchings under the theory that it would bring in tourism dollars. Today, it still serves little purpose other than making a dramatic way of walking down ul. Nowomiejska in the middle of the old (although it’s rebuilt, so actually quite new) centre of Warsaw.