Gran Madre di Dio Church, Torino, Italy

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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.

 

Fantoft Stave Church, Norway

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Fantoft Stave Church near Bergen, Norway

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.

 

Teruel Cathedral, Spain

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Teruel  Cathedral, Spain

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.

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St Petersburg, Russia

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Chesme Church, St Petersburg, Russia

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.

Bratislava, Slovakia

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Bratislava, Slovakia

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.

Vilnius, Lithuania

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St Casimir’s Church, Vilnius, Lithuania

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!

Aosta, Italy

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Aosta, Italy

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!

Riga, Latvia

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Nativity of Christ Cathedral, Riga, Latvia

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…!

Chamonix, France

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Chamonix, France

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!

Vilnius Cathedral, Lithuania

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Vilnius Cathedral, Lithuania

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!

St Andrew’s Church, Kiev, Ukraine

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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 bejeweled 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 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.

Wells, England

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Wells Cathedral in Wells, England

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!

Cathedral of St. Mary de Mediavilla, Teruel, Spain

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Teruel, Spain

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.

Bournemouth, England

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St Peter’s Church, Bournemouth, England

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.

Lyon, France

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Lyon, France

Who doesn’t love a birds-eye view of pretty red roofs? I chose this photo of Lyon because as of about 5 hours, this will be my home for the next 11 months! Visible here is the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, constructed over the somewhat excessively long period between 1180 to 1480, and founded by Saint Pothinus and Saint Irenaeus, the first two bishops of Lyon. St Jean, along with all these other roofs, comprise the Old Town of France’s 2nd-largest city.  Lyon is rarely considered a tourist generation, as it is largely eclipsed by Paris and the Riviera. But it’s location is great–2 hours or less from the Alps, the Riviera, Paris, Geneva, and bits of northern Italy, and only a few more hours to Spain or Milan. Located at the convergence of two rivers, it’s cosmopolitan, historic and beautiful.

Linz, Austria

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Hauptplatz and Pestsäule (Plague Column) in Linz, Austria

Grey and dismal, this is Austria before a storm, and pretty much how the world views Austria. Yet, storms or not, Linz is far from dismal. In fact, the 3rd-largest city in Austria is teeming with life. For a time, it was the most important city in the Holy Roman Empire, as it was here that Habsburg Emperor Friedrich III spent his final years (though it lost its status to Prague and Vienna when he died in 1493).  Its New Cathedral also sports the largest cathedral in the nation (though not the tallest; during construction, the tower had to be limited to 135m to keep it—by only two meters—shorter than St Stephen’s in Vienna). Cafés and shops line the boulevards; joggers and bikers span the river. The Baroque Plague Column rising from the cobblestones designs to protect Linz from plagues, fires and wars. Linz is a gem on the Blue (grey…) Danube.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

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Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

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.

Cathedral of St. Panteleimon, Kiev, Ukraine

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After having seen the orthodox cathedrals in Kiev – wildly colourful, crazily textured, beautifully gilded, onion-dome topped, with every inch carefully painted, I will never look at a cathedral the same way. Western cathedrals, while impressive and beautiful, rarely stand out from each other. But Eastern Orthodox cathedrals – each one is a separate work of art, each one is different, unique.  This is St. Panteleimon’s, built in Russian Revival design between 1905 and 1912, so it is not terribly old in comparison with other religious structures in Europe.  Some say it resembles the Nevski Cathedral in Tallinn – and there is some resemblance! St. Pan’s was intended to serve as a branch of St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, but was closed and looted in WWII. Today, it is only a hollow shell which has been restored as the main church of a nunnery. It rests in the quiet, suburban park of Feofaniya (getting there is tricky because the Ukrainians don’t post bus signs or if they do, they are in Cyrillic. From M. Libidska take bus 11 or 156 to the last stop) on 1.5 km2 acres of land. It makes a lovely backdrop for an afternoon stroll!

Neum, Bosnia & Herzegovina

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Church in Neum, Bosnia & Herzegovina

This is the “new” church of Neum, Bosnia’s only coastal town. Nuem splits Croatia right in two along the famously beautiful Dalmatian Coast. Bosnia, which was formally part of Yugoslavia alongside other nearby countries such as Croatia and Serbia, managed to hold on to roughly 25 km of coastline.  While it has the same orange roofs as Croatia, it is sadly obvious that Croatia has more money and more tourists–and the bloody war from 1 March 1992 to 14 December 1995 in Bosnia didn’t exactly help. Because Croatians (and Croatian tourists) must go through Bosnia to get from Dubrovnik to Split, a bridge was proposed to bypass security checks (and cut down on the possibility of stowaways); however, the Pelješac Bridge could potentially violate Bosnia-Herzegovinian rights under the International Law of the Sea, so all plans have been suspended. Neum is a small town of 4,600 people, cheap prices, i.e. lots of Croatian shoppers–and one great view (even in this rainstorm!).

Lublin, Poland

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Holy Trinity Chapel in Lublin, Poland.

This is Lublin Castle’s chapel, one of the few buildings to survive the destruction of Lublin’s castle. The church was built in the 14th century; however, in the 15th century, King Władysław II (pronounced “vwah-dhee-swav”) ordered the entire chapel to be covered in wall paintings. This style is very much influenced by the Byzantines, therefore, exudes an Eastern influence.  It is an extremely unique melange of Eastern and Western styles, and highly reminiscent of Orthodox churches, which cover every interior surface of their immense buildings with paintings, gilded decorations, and icons. Every painting here pertains to a biblical story and is carefully documented for visitors. It is breathtaking; one can very easily spend the allotted 30 minutes  (and more if they would allow!) staring at the paintings in this wondrous place. It’s a good thing that of all the buildings to be spared from destruction, it was this one that fate chose.