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.
The Principality of Liechtenstein is a micro-country snuggled deep within the massive mountains of the Alps. With 38,000 citizens spread over several ‘cities’ (each with a couple thousand people, they are more like villages), Liechtenstein feels more like a single vast town than a proper country. But a real country it is – and for a long time, this real country was known as a millionaire and billionaire tax haven. Headquarters to many international companies and banks, Liechtenstein has one of (if not the highest) GDPs per person in the world and one of the lowest unemployment rates – 1.5%! The small capital of Vaduz has a distinctly Germanic Alpine feel – the above town hall and cathedral fit the style perfectly. Yet the quirky modern art displays and the glossy windows of the fancy banks remind us that Liechtenstein rests firmly in the 21st century. Sitting on a backdrop of mountains and castles, some of which are still owned by the royal family, Vaduz fells fallen out of a German fairy tale – the Brothers Grimm and the Black Forest do not seem so far away. Though you can drive from one end of the country to the other in 30 minutes, this micro-country packs a bundle: admire formidable fortresses like Vaduz Castle and visit the museum in Gutenberg Castle, hike through the dark Alpine forests in the summer and ski the dark snow-capped mountains in the winter, wander the streets of Vaduz, Schaan and Balzers, or enjoy a glass of the locally-grown red wine.
Ivan the Great Bell Tower in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia
The Kremlin: probably one of the most infamous places across the Globe, it seems that few people choose to venture inside this massive and widely important complex. In essence, the Moscow Kremlin is a fortified complex snuggled between Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral, and encompasses five palaces, four cathedrals, and the Kremlin Wall interspersed with the famed red towers of the Kremlin. It is the Russian version of the White House, serving as personal residence of Russia’s president (today meaning the controversial Vladimir Putin). In the past, versions of the site have served as the seat of the Grand Dukes of Russia, the famous Russian Tsars, Catherine the Great and her extravagant Neoclassical palace and Soviet rulers. The above building is the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, which contains 22 bells and is now the tallest Kremlin structure. It is not the first bell tower to appear here; indeed, Moscow’s first bell tower was erected here in 1329, called St Ivan of the Ladder Under the Bell. One of Russia’s Grand Dukes, Ivan Kalita, built this massive whitewashed brick version in 1508 – the name is supposedly a nod towards the original tower, but one can imagine that Grand Duke Ivan wasn’t too opposed to name his construction the ‘Ivan the Great Bell Tower’ either! To visit this tower and the rest of the ever-impressive and awe-inspiring complex, one must buy tickets at the entrance, taking care stay with the carefully-allotted paths and buildings unless you’d like to see what the inside of a Russian prison looks like! Visit the exterior of the complex by exploring Red Square and alternatively, take a boat tour of the Moskva River at sunset to see Moscow in a new light!
The Church of Saint Clement of Ohrid, Skopje, Macedonia
Modern and sleek – in quite a contrast to the ancient orthodox that traditionally come to mind in this region – the Church of St Clement of Ohrid was begun in 1972 and consecrated on 12 August 1990 – which just so happens to be the 1150th anniversary of the birth of the church’s patron, St Clement. Impressive numbers aside, the modernity mixed with traditional design so clearly marks with the rest of the Macedonian capital. Wandering the ancient narrow streets of the bazaars, lined with tiny shops, covered archways, local merchants, and ancient mosques, it is easy to imagine oneself transported in time to the Ottoman Empire. Cross the Stone Bridge – a national icon in itself – to Macedonia Square (shadowed by the massive statue of none other than Alexander the Great), and you cross into the modern era, rebuilt after a 1963 earthquake. Neoclassical buildings, shiny high-rises, and fancy rotundas all recently constructed greet the wayward traveller. It is this interesting juxtaposition between old and new, past and progress, tradition and innovation, expressed here in the form of Skopje’s modern Church of St Clement’s, that is the most striking and remarkable thing about this capital city snuggled into the beautifully diverse Balkan Peninsula.
It’s early in the morning, and Moscow hasn’t quite woken up. The sky is still yawning; you are still clutching your cup of coffee. Alighting at a seemingly nondescript metro stop, you start your way up a hill, to see what kinds of Russian treasures you can discover. Amid small spires of gold and silver, you hear a Russian business man bark his order to the barista and old Russian cars grumbling by; though there is little sound on the streets at this early hour. Rounding the corner, you suddenly find yourself face-to-face with what looks a lot like a magnificent cake from one of those gourmet bakeries. You gasp, suddenly feeling lightheaded as you realise that this strange yet highly impressive building is the iconic St Basil’s in the infamous Red Square (or Krasnaya Ploshad). St Basil’s is the Russian Orthodox cathedral all others are compared to–and with good reason! Despite no longer being a working church, the building is what comes to everyone’s mind when one hears the word “Moscow,” “Red Square,” or “Russian cathedrals” because of its unique–and bizarre!–form. Commissioned by Ivan the terrible in 1555-61, it was built as a commemoration of the capture of Kazan and was meant to resemble a bonfire’s flames reaching for the sky. To this day, it is one of the most iconic, beautiful, and well-known buildings throughout the world.
Neoclassicism. What an invention. Back in the mid-18th century, a resurgence of Greek and Roman architecture became a la mode. The opposite of the naturalistic Rococo style, Neoclassicism strove to return to the “purity” of Greek and Roman styles, mirroring their symmetry, geometric design and perspective. The famous Italian architect Andrea Palladio played an instrumental role with the construction of his famous albeit peculiar Villa Capra “La Rotonda,” which he based on Roman temples and other similar designs. One of the most striking creations to come out of this architectural period is the Vilnius Cathedral, circa 1783, located in central Vilnius. One doesn’t normally imagine a Catholic cathedral in the capital city of an Eastern European country to resemble an ancient Roman temple—but there you have it, and there it is – see for yourself. Lithuania is full of surprises!
Aside from its ancient dinosaur fossils and its famous story, Los Amantes de Teruel, the city of Teruel is most known for its Mudéjar architecture. Along with a few other structures in the Teruel province, its Mudéjar buildings comprise a UNESCO world heritage site. The term “Mudéjar” refers to the Moors or Muslims of Al-Aandalus that remained on the Iberian peninsula after the Reconquista by the Christians. Unlike other groups, these were Muslims who had not converted to Christianity, and continued to influence buildings, decorations and architectural style in Iberia throughout the 12th-16th centuries. Above is Teruel’s beautiful Cathedral of St. Mary de Mediavilla and bell-tower. Commissioned in the 1200’s by Alfonso II in typical Romanesque style, a Muslim architect called Juzaff completely restructured it in 1257, embellishing it in Mudéjar style. Two centuries later, it was further restructured in Gothic-Mudéjar style. The ceiling is especially spectacular, a mix of the two cultures and covered in beautiful, hand-painted designs; though to see it, you must pay for a tour and sadly, photography is strictly prohibited. Today, Teruel’s cathedral and bell-tower remain some of the best-preserved and most representative relics of Mudéjar architecture still visible on the Iberian Peninsula.
St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, Kiev, Ukraine,
or, Михайлівський золотоверхий монастир
It’s like fairyland, no? Overlooking the Dnieper River in central Kiev and facing down its beautiful sister, St Sophia, this magnificent piece of architecture is actually a functioning monastery. Though built in 1108-1113, it was demolished in 1934-1936 (three guesses who destroyed it…), and not rebuilt until 1999. So really, it’s only the site that’s old, not the cathedral itself. If you’ve never been to an orthodox cathedral, prepare for jaw-dropping beauty, both inside and out. Hershey-kissed shaped golden domes top its exterior towers, and inside, well, prepare for walls covered floor-to-ceiling in intricately-painted pictures and paintings. Golden walls and impressive idols line the alter. The whole interior is seems massively never-ending, and its acoustics are amazing; it’s like you’ve stepped into another world! Buildings like this make you appreciate the artistic capabilities of humanity all over again.
Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral, located in the main Rynek (town square) in Kraków, and home of the infamous trumpet player. Built in the 14th century, the cathedral is full of beautiful designs on its walls and ceilings, such as this one. Even more famous is the trumpeter, who, legend has it, played a tune called the Hejnał Mariacki, in 1241 to warn the city of the Mongol Invasion. Supposedly, he was shot in the throat before finishing the song – hence why, when the trumpet’s tune is played every hour (which it still is to this day), it cuts off mid-song (simulating the brave but unfortunate trumpeter’s demise). Unfortunately, there’s a small fee to take photos inside the cathedral, which seemed odd to me. At any rate, I didn’t have any change with me. So, I took a furtive photo, hence the weird angle. I actually like it even more like this!
Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse, Béziers, France.
Though the city itself may need a little tender loving care, this cathedral certainly does not! Dating back to the 13th century, the sacred site itself is even older. The cathedral replaced a building that was destroyed during the Massacre of Béziers, a terrible slaughter in 1209 at the start of the Albigensian Crusade – even those who sought refuge in what they presumed to be the sanctuary of the cathedral were killed. Today, the cathedral quietly overlooks the River Orb and rather resembles a castle on a hilltop more than a cathedral. It remains a symbol of the town and can be seen from quite far away!
This church is a beautiful example of a marble alter, no? No. It’s actually 100% paint., believe it or not! Marblizing, as it’s called, is a technique used to paint a surface to create the appearance of real marble when the cost or weight of actual marble would be too much. Instead, we have this wonderfully impressive yet frugally decorated church tucked away in a corner of Krakow, one of Poland’s most magnificent cities. Krakow is such a culturally-rich treasure trove that gems like this are not uncommon in the beautiful Polish city!