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.
Welcome to Ostrów Tumski, or Cathedral Island, hugging the Odra River in the centre of Wrocław. The oldest region of the city, Ostrów Tumski is no longer an island, though this ancient place is still home to some of Wrocław’s most impressive religious sites, as well as adorable cobblestoned streets. The orange-roofed Church of the Holy Cross is a brick, Gothic-style church that was once used by ethnic Germans while the city was still behind German lines before WWII (Wrocław has at times been a part of Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, Habsburg Monarchy, Prussia, German Empire, Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany). For both a bird’s eye view and a dive into the religious and civil history of the city, a visit to Wrocław Cathedral is in order – culminating with a not-for-the-faint-hearted climb up one of its massive towers. The origins of the present structure date to the 1150s after the Polish conquest of the region of Silesia and the founding of Wrocław as its capital, though the cathedral was rebuilt following various trending styles through the ages. Today a thriving student town as well as one of Poland‘s (and Eastern Europe‘s) most important financial, cultural and commercial hubs, Wrocław is place of beauty, intrigue, and good-natured charm.
On the shores of Lake Ohrid sits the ancient town of the same name. Historic, storied, beautiful – Ohrid is a place that stirs up emotion from within. It is indeed ancient – churches like the one here may date as far back as the 800s…! Built in the Byzantine style, it was not unusual for such churches to be converted to mosques during the Ottoman rule. Despite the fact that the Ottomans were supposedly open-minded when it came to religion, this apparently did not affect the church-to-mosque conversion. The best way to get a feel for old Ohrid is simply to stroll around this ancient place littered with Byzantine churches, beautiful quirky houses, cobblestone alleys, and an ancient Roman theatre. Find a cafe and relax outside on a terrace. Duck inside an ancient church to admire the ancient motifs painted on the walls and ceilings. Explore the ruins of the old fortress tucked inside the old city. Climb to the top of the hill and find a place to settle down and enjoy the magnificent panoramas of Ohrid town and lake – Ohrid the Beautiful awaits.
Italy is full of churches. To no one’s surprise, it’s one of the most church-dense countries in Europe. The Chiesa di Santa Maria is surprisingly old – it was built in the 1300’s. It’s charm, however, comes largely from its location in the quaint, Germanic village of Brunico (Bruneck in German), nestled in the heart of the Dolomite Mountains of Northern Italy. Brunico is the perfect base for exploring the rugged backcountry of Sud Tyrol (Trentino-Alto Adige in Italian), a relatively new region of Italy (only becoming part of Italy after WWII). With an interesting melange of Italian and Austrian cultures, even the smallest of villages of Sud Tyrol feel wildly diverse. In the winter, this northeastern corner of Italy is well-known for fantastic skiing. The summer season draws adventurous travellers in with the promise of narrow mountain paths weaving through sunny forests and emerald meadows, full of chirping birds and rustling undergrowth. In the village of Brunico, visit the idyllic castle perched atop the hill for panoramic views of the village and beyond. The castle, now a museum of mountain climbing and the Himalayas, is situated on a lush forest backdrop, complete with meandering mountain paths and a rustic WWWII cemetery. Coming down from the castle’s hilltop path, enjoy this perfect view of Brunico and the lovely Chiesa di Santa Maria, the turquoise mountains forming a magnificent backdrop. Back in town, settle down to a pizza in the family-run restaurants in the historic old town as the sunsets over this adorable mountain village.
Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon in Ohrid, Macedonia
The Jewel of the Balkins, Ohrid lays on the edge of Lake Ohrid. From Romans to Ottomans, from Byzantines to Yugoslavs, Ohrid is a place comprised of historic layers, each foundation mixed with that of the one that came before. This Orthodox basilica, the Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon, was reconstructed in Byzantine style in 2002, on an ancient site where the original students learned the Glagolitic alphabet, which was created by Saint Clement (used to translate the Bible into Old Slavonic, the predecessor to the Cyrillic alphabet). The original church was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire before eventually being torn down. Later, thanks to the Macedonian government’s newfound interest in historical monuments and tourism, they used what they knew of the original church to rebuild the basilica in all its former glory. At last.
Visit Other Lesser-Known Churches & Cathedrals in Europe
Gran Madre di Dio Church, Torino, Italy from the Po River, Torino, Italy
Even if you haven’t yet been to Torino (if this is the case, you really should go…), you may have already beheld the Gran Madre di Dio Church if you’ve seen the 1969 classic film, The Italian Job, which tells the story of a high-stakes theft in Torino. Commissioned and built to celebrate King Vittorio Emanuele I’s return to power in 1814 following the defeat of Napoleon, the Gran Madre is a breathtaking purveyor of the briefly-popular Neoclassic style. Though perhaps exaggerated in the film, Torino is sometimes noted as the ‘cradle of Italian liberty’: it was capital of the wealthy House of Savoy (eastern France and Northwestern Italy) since 1563 as well as becoming the finally-unified Italy’s first capital in 1861. Though much of its wealth and importance (both political and economic) dissipated after WWII, Torino rests Italy’s third city – with a GDP of $58 billion, it is ranked the world’s 78th richest city (based on purchasing power)… not too shabby, eh? Not to be forgotten, the impressive neoclassic Gran Madre perched on the banks of the River Po is hardly the only piece of beautiful architecture or style in town – Torino is also home to splendid examples of Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, and Art nouveau exemplars. It sports elegant and extraordinary parks, castles, palaces/palazzi, public squares, boulevards, and apartments, many of which were erected in the Golden Age of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.Torino is a city drunk on elegance and beauty, a city that is both down-to-earth yet financially capable (that is to say, the city is indeed a wealthy one, in both looks and in vaults), and it is a city that holds true to her long heritage as a place of prestige.
6/6/1993 – darkness falls as the flames begin to lick the walls, the floors, the tower as the dark wood turns to ash. Built in 1150 in the magnificent Sognefjord, the Fantoft Stave Church was carried piece by piece to its current site near Bergen by a kind soul named Fredrik Georg Gade 1883 to save it from demolition. 100 years later, it was burned to the ground. What happened? In short, Norwegian Black Metal happened. A genre unfortunately synonymous with church burnings, this beautiful piece of history was lit afire by Varg Vikernes from the one-man-band, Burzum, who, in poor taste, later used a photo of the church’s burnt shell for his ‘Aske’ (Ashes) album. Convicted of 4 acts of arson (and other crimes), Varg is locked safely behind bars, though he apparently has ‘fans’ who applaud his crimes. Destroyed or not however, the Norwegians, much like the Poles after WWII, refused to give in, and instead painstakingly reconstructed the building to its original state. Today, the beautiful Fantoft Stave Church sails into its forest landing in all its original glory, one of the last remaining stave churches (many of which are UNESCO sites), or medieval wooden churches whose name comes from the pinewood support posts (stav in Norwegian). Fantoft has been through a lot, but for now, it rests in tranquility in the whispering woods below Bergen.
The sun shines brightly on the ornate Teruel Cathedral in the city of the same name, located in eastern Spain. An exceptional example of Mudejar architecture, the cathedral dates back to 1171 when Teruel itself was founded by Alfonso II of Aragon. Originally constructed in Romanesque style, it was later much renovated at the end of the 1200s to fit the Mudajar style, with further modifications in the 1300s, by Jozaff the Morisco (a term used to describe Muslims who were forcibly converted to Christianity but who often still secretly practiced Islam). As this cathedral is one of the best examples of Mudajar architecture in Spain, it is of great interest to historians, architects and scholars – but also those who are searching for great beauty. The inside of the cathedral is just as beautiful as the outside; the ceiling is of particular beauty. For clarification, Mudajar is the term used to describe the Moors or individual Muslims who remained on the Iberian Peninsula after the famed Reconquista by the Christians. As they did not convert, they developed their own culture and style, of which many buildings remain to this day.
The Orthodox faith has always been very important in Holy Russia – though to me, Russian Orthodox churches look like pastries, and Chesme is no exception (I’m licking my lips right now!). Peter the Great founded the city of St Petersburg in what was once a marsh, largely because he felt like it. He wanted to show off his might and skill to the Russian Empire, Europe, and the rest of the world. He wanted to be close to the Baltic Sea (Russia fought for centuries for access to those frosty Baltic Sea ports…). After many embarrassing failures to control the Baltic Sea trade, finally, he gained minor success in the northern Baltic region. So, he decided to use the bit of land he gained to build his own city. But the ironic thing? Peter didn’t even like religion. He didn’t trust it – and this distrust shook up the entire state of Holy Russia to its core. Yet to this day, St Petersburg hosts some of the most magnificent religious buildings in the entire Christian faith from awesome cathedrals all the way to little churches in the outskirts like this one here – largely because of Russia’s great art patron, Catherine the Great. Built in 1780 by Catherine, Chesme Church commemorates Russia’s 1770 victory against the Turks in Chesme Bay.
Crouching on a bend of the infamous (and not) blue Danube, the city of Slovakia glints of gilded spires, orange roofs and steel buildings. In early spring, snow still clings to the edges of the rooftops, trees are still bare, the sky still soft grey. Bratislava is a solemn capital – quite different from sophisticated Vienna, international Prague, colorful Krakow, or vibrant Budapest. The castle at the top of the hill soberly surveys its city. White and sparkling, Bratislava’s castle was re-built less than 10 years ago due to a devastating fire. For a bit of warmth, duck into one of Bratislava’s many cafes and restaurants for tasty local fare – heavy on meats and veggies, cheap golden beers, and sweet Slovak pancakes. This is not Europe’s party capital. It is not a culinary king, nor is it especially known for its vivacity, architecture, or art. No, Bratislava holds a different sort of power. It is somber, quiet, off the beaten path. It is a city of history, of tradition, of sobriety, or churches. It is a city lost in time, a city that remembers, a gem of Eastern Europe.
This pink church is the first and oldest Baroque church in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Built 1604 to 1635, it was dedicated to the patron saint of Vilnius, Prince Casimir Jagiellon from the lat 15th century. For its relatively small size, Vilnius seems to have an awful lot of churches. Baroque towers with intricate facades and gilded tips, orthodox churches with fancy Cyrillic writing, Gothic churches covered in spires. Red brick facades or painted in pastel colors, Vilnius’s churches are beautiful, tranquil, non-imposing. They seem nature, as if they are exactly where they are supposed to be. For an often-overlooked city, Vilnius has plenty of charms up its sleeves. It will never beat Tallinn (one of Europe’s most beautiful cities), or Riga, an Art Nouveau masterpiece. Yet, there is still something very special about this beautiful Baltic gem!
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Italy is the beautiful Aosta Valley, known for its snug villages, magnificent castles and rich red wine. Aosta the town (above) is an ancient Roman stronghold, built as a station on the way to Roman Gaul (modern-day France), and the vestiges of the site’s original inhabitants crop up all over the town from the theatre to the forum to the victory arch. The Medieval era left its mark on the town by way of several magnificent churches, and the more recent times (ie the 17-18oos) have seen the village grow into a burgeoning town. Aosta is both a town and a region seeped in history and lost in time. The 30-31 January they practice the “Sant‘Orsa Fair” festival–with origins so old that no one remembers the actual starting point! Experts age it to about 1000 years old, and today it is an arts and crafts festival, attracting artists, tradesmen and artisans from near and far. And of course, there is the annual Christmas market in December and January, a place to buy all sorts of traditional and handmade gifts, including delicious wine from the region! Aosta makes a great starting point to discover the valley–and for any history/castle buffs out there, it is a valley that needs to be discovered! Dozens upon dozens of castle reign over high heights in one of the most castle-rich part of Italy. For nature buffs, it’s a lovely place to hike, canoe, or kayak. Summer or winter, for leisure or active travel, Roman history or medieval times, little-known Aosta is a your gem.
Often, the most arresting part of a small village is the church spire–which holds an even more special charm when it rises against the backdrop of a dramatic mountain range. Italy in particular is linked with a supposed record-high church attendance–though in actuality, only 31% of the country (in 2004) attends mass on a regular basis; Poland nails first place, with a winning 54% in the same year. According to this article, the head of the Catholic Church so often associated with reverence and faith actually has a lot less churchgoers than the 50% they’ve traditionally claimed, with regular attendee percentages even less than the stated 31%. But regardless of all this, Italy (like most of the continent), has no shortage of churches. Every village has one, and the rest of the town center and little houses spiral outward around it. In large towns, there are more than one; there are big ones and small ones, stone ones and wood ones, plain ones and pretty ones, famous ones and unknown ones. Churches–no matter your faith–are places of devotion, of tranquility, of architectural splendour. Even if you aren’t interested in the religious part, they are magical, beautiful and graceful buildings full of history and culture and faith, and one can’t ignore the allure and sheer power these steeple-ed buildings hold over us travelers!
Latvia—like its neighbours Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, etc—was once a part of the Russian Empire, and the Russians, as you know, are orthodox. Therefore, in the years 1867-83, the Russians got to work constructing an orthodox house of worship in the centre of Riga, Latvia’s capital. Built in the Neo-Byzantine style, Riga’s cathedral still stands proudly in the in downtown Riga. While other ex-Russian satellite nations have torn down their cathedrals (*cough Poland cough*), Riga still has one right in the centre. Despite the mostly-negative impact of Russian occupation of the Baltic States, it is important to remember and recognise all aspects of history—and to appreciate culture and beauty. Because the Nativity of Christ Cathedral is beautiful! Russian Orthodox cathedrals usually are. The biggest Orthodox cathedral in the Baltics, it was commissioned by Tsar Alexander II. The church was briefly a Lutheran cathedral—and later a planetarium in the early days of independent Latvia—but since 1991, it has been restored to its original design. And now today, it resembles a delicious gateau enough to make my mouth water…!
Home to the famous Mont Blanc – at 4,810 m (or 15,781 ft) it is Europe’s tallest mountain – Chamonix is lovely “snow town” nestled into the mountains. One of the most picturesque sights is surely the lonesome church among the mountains – which is exactly what we have here. St Michel’s Church, a small parish just outside the town square, welcomes visitors from all over the world who want the chance to walk among Europe’s beautiful Alps. Whether one finds it in a church or high in the mountains, everyone needs a little peace and quiet for solitary reflection, making this the perfect retreat from a charged French vacation!
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!
Андріївська церква, or, St Andrew’s Church, Kiev, Ukraine
In light of Kiev‘s recent, rather negative ascent to the spotlight, I thought I’d turn tables and show the beautiful side of the Ukrainian capital. Here is St Andrew’s Church (which also happens to be my favourite church I’ve so far visited), reaching for the heavens with its beautiful bejewelled turquoise dome. According to legend, St Andrew had planted a cross on this exact site, proclaiming that one day, it would be the site of a ‘great Christian city.’ Not exactly a cathedral, St Andrew’s namesake is no ordinary church either. Commissioned by the famous Catherine the Great, built by the famed Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli who had a penchant for extravagance and opulence (architect of St Petersburg‘s Winter Palace and Smolny Cathedral), and named for St. Andrew, the patron saint of Kiev, St Andrew’s Church was constructed in the years 1747-54 in Baroque style. However, for some reason, Catherine wasn’t pleased, and poor Rastrelli was fired. Apparently, she had no taste for beauty because today, Андріївська церкваone is one of the most beautiful buildings not only in Kiev, but in the entire continent.
I wasn’t in Wells for long, but still long enough to recognise its beauty. The site of the well-known cathedral dates back to 705 though this particular structure dates from 1175 to 1490. It has been described by some as “the most poetic of the English Cathedrals,” though to be fair, I’m not sure why. Of course it’s pretty, of course it’s terribly impressive when you think about how hard it must have been to build such a creation before computers and cranes and work unions were constructed, but what separates this building from other English cathedrals? I’m afraid I wasn’t there long enough to find out. It is pretty though, and it makes you wonder why, if in 1175 we could make this beautiful creation of stone, and knowing that today our technological knowledge has exponentially increased, why do we make such ugly, ephemeral buildings today? I don’t have the answer. All I know is that…like most European cathedrals, this building has not only stood the test of time, but actually gained beauty and appreciation in the process! Still not sure if it’s the most poetic…but you could pay a visit and find out!
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.
Most visitors come to this resort town in the summer to take advantage of its beaches. Despite having a healthy 183,000 residents, Bournemouth is not a Cathedral Town (meaning, as you may have guessed, it has no cathedral), which is, in the complicated government/political/religious system in Britain, apparently important. It does, however, have St Peter’s Church. Most English churches and cathedrals, while well-built, are not terribly unique. However, St Peter’s Church is a slightly different story. There are one or two oddities in this town to call your attention away from its sandy shores such as the Bournemouth Eye (a hot air balloon rising 500 feet!) or the plaque marking the former location of Aubrey Beardsley’s house (the artist who added the famous illustrations to Oscar Wilde’s plays), or even the eccentric church that’s since been converted into a nightclub. But inside St Peter’s, you’ll find the heart of Bournemouth – literally. Tombs marking the graves of Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein), her mother Mary Wollenstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), William Godwin (Shelley’s father), and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley’s husband and a famous English Romantic poet. Bizarrely enough, the cremated remains of Percy’s heart were put in St Peter’s after his death. Sadly, I never got to see their graves…ah well. Next time.