Strasbourg, France

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Petite France, Strasbourg, France

The origin of the name la Petite France, has a less-than-lovely origin – it comes from the Hospice des Vérolés (House for the syphilitic) which during the German occupation was called Franzosenkrankheit (French disease). While the name’s origins may not be charming, the alleyways, canals and houses most certainly are charming! Alsace, the region of France where Strasbourg is located, has a complicated history, flashing back and forth between France and Germany for much of it’s past. In the Middle Ages, la Petite France was the economic centre of the city, and Strasbourg as the region’s most important city. La Petite France once comprised of many merchants, millers, tanners, fishermen and other tradesmen and artisans. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, la Petite France (‘little France’) seduces history, culture and architecture buffs with its quintessential streets, half-timbered architecture, colourful houses, quiet riverbank, and charming shops. At Christmastime, the Strasbourg Christmas Market is one of the most famous in Europe and is generally agreed upon to be the best Christmas market in France. Hot wine, sausages, and sauerkraut are local favourites – especially when the weather turns cold! The impressive Strasbourg Cathedral was the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874 (so, for 227 years!), and today, it remains the 6th-tallest church in the world. It is the sandstone from nearby Vosges that gives the cathedral its unique pinkish hue.

Innsbruck, Austria

Elegant street in Innsbruck, Austria

Innsbruck, Austria

Stately elegance, the central streets of the Austrian Capital of the Alps beckons both cultural and nature travellers. Despite the city’s terrifyingly clever name – ‘Innsbruck’ translates to the self-explanatory ‘Inn Bridge’ (referring to the Inn River) – today’s city is an internationally renowned winter sports centre, attracting hikers, cyclists, skiers and other athletically-motivated travellers from all over the world. Case in point, Innsbruck hosted the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics, not to mention the 1984 and 1988 Winter Paralympics, making one of only three destinations to host the Winter Olympics more than once. Innsbruck owes much of its cultural significance to the fact that in 1429, it began the capital of Tyrol and thereby assigning a political and cultural importance to the alpine city for centuries to come. We have Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria and his successors to thank for the beautiful Renaissance buildings gracing today’s city centre, making a stroll feel both elegant and nostalgic. Today, Innsbruck remains a European pillar – a beautiful central European city (interestingly enough, one that resembles the not-t00-far-away Croatian capital Zagreb just a little) that just so happens to be on the doorsteps of the Alps and Italian Dolomites making it a perfect starting point for anyone looking for adventure.

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.

 

Vilnius, Lithuania

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Vilnius, Lithuania

The crisp, cool air flows through the ancient alleyways of Vilnius on this winter’s day in this little Baltic nation. Little streets criss-cross Lithuania’s capital city, creating a maze of quiet streets largely ignored by the jet-setting tourists partying in the centre. This elderly gentleman walks his dog along the outside of the ancient stone wall that once surrounded and protected Vilnius from the outside world, the narrow track between the wall and the row of houses serving as a quiet pedestrian route. Despite being Lithuania’s largest city – and the Baltic State’s second-largest city – once you leave the bustling centre to weave the winding network of streets, alleys, and rivers (the broad Neris and the easy-going Vilnia both flow through the capital), Vilnius adopts a surprisingly small-town feel. Charming facades, orthodox churches painted in pastels, quiet riverside promenades and echoing cobblestone alleys are frequented largely by locals, creating a calm but cheerful atmosphere that mixes small-town ease with the vivacity of a European capital – a mix that is hard to find in most of Europe’s capitals and major cities.

Christmas market in Prague, Czech Republic

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Market Square, Prague, Czech Republic

Christmas markets have been under attack lately, unfortunately quite literally. Besides the obvious sadness surrounding this, the changing dynamics of Christmas markets (i.e., the need to secure them as if they are war zones), is a sad notion. These markets are an old – in fact, very old – tradition through much of Europe. Beginning their tale in medieval times in the Germanic regions of central Europe, the first markets were held in the 14th and 15th centuries in order to officially ‘initiate’ the Christmas season (or the ‘Advent’). They are meant to be places of merriment – food, drink, music and dancing are common elements – as well as places of economy – merchants and artisans peddle their goods to Christmas shoppers – and, in a historical sense, a place of religion with Nativity scenes and theatrical productions from the Bible, though this element has fallen from popularity in modern Europe. The most famous Christmas markets are still often found in the Germanic part of Europe, such as Dresden, Vienna, Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Dortmund, Cologne and of course Prague, though this tradition has spread to nearly every major and many minor cities in Europe. From Lincoln, England to Sibhiu, Romania, from Lyon, France to Tallinn, Estonia, Europe’s main squares have been dotted, lined and filled with stalls of all shapes and sizes, peddling artisanal goods such as jewellery, clothing, soaps, food, chocolate, wood carvings, paintings, perfumes, knives, dolls, toys, puzzles, figurines, sausages, blankets, tea leaves, scarves, Christmas ornaments, and pretty much anything else one can think of to Christmas shoppers of all kinds. They are a place associated with joy, the gift of giving, and the Christmas spirit, and are a long-lasting tradition throughout Europe. Let’s hope they stay that way…

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Rynek of Wrocław, Poland

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Rynek of Wrocław, Poland

The most magical part of the day is sunrise. Some will argue that it is actually sunset, and while a sunset is beautiful in itself, sunrises often exude more beauty simply because, like a leprechaun, they are so rarely seen. If you can rouse yourself from bed at least once while travelling – or if you are required to due to an early bus/train/plane departure – take a few minutes to appreciate the soft, glowing light at the start of another day. The best way to do that is to find a place where you can sit down and enjoy the rising sun – a hilltop, your balcony, a local lake or river, a charming cafe, or in this case the market square. Settle down with a steaming cup o’ joe and a tasty local breakfast as you watch the world come to life. In Wrocław, enjoy the stunning colours, silent air, soft light and intricate facades of the spacious rynek (main square) before the day’s crowds begin to fill the plaza. One of Poland’s most spectacular cities, Wroclaw does not lack for attractions – aside from the rynek, visit pretty Ostrow Tumski or Cathedral Island, the adorable gnome statues scattered around the city, the stunning circular Racławice Panorama (a 19th century panoramic depiction of the Kościuszko Uprising, miraculously hidden and saved during WWII), the massive pile of stone that is Centennial Hall (a UNESCO site), and any one of the number of snazzy restaurants and bars in the city centre, many of them inspired by the dense student population. As an added bonus, as the year draws to a close, it’s your last chance to visit Wrocław while it is an official 2016 European Capital of Culture (which is not to say that a 2017 visit won’t be just as amazing…). While seeing Wrocław at sunrise is enchanting, the city will continue to enchant you all day long!

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UFO Taste Restaurant, Bratislava, Slovakia

UFO Taste Restaurant over Danuage River in old town of Bratislava, Slovakia

UFO Taste Restaurant, Bratislava, Slovakia 

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.

Barcelona, Spain

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Barrio Gótico, Barcelona, Spain

Spicy, salty, vibrant. Oranges and yellows light up this striking Spanish square in the heart of Barcelona’s Barrio Gótico as the afternoon draws to a close. Though it may be a winter’s day far from beach season, this period is actually the ideal time to explore the famed city with your lover, and no place is more magical or romantic than Barrio Gótico (though Gaudi’s works such as Casa Batlló, Casa Mila, and the Sagrada Famillia give it a run for its money!) While parts of the Gothic Quarter date back to the Middle Ages, a controversial paper released in 2011 purports the idea that many of the ‘old’ buildings were elaborated or rebuilt at the turn of the century or in the early 1900s with the ambition of augmenting tourism dollars and making the city more exciting for the 1929 International Exhibition. This may or may not be true, but in any case, let’s leave the theorising to the scientists and simply enjoy this beautiful neighbourhood hand-in-hand with your spouse or lover, because authentic or not, the winding labyrinth that is the Barrio Gótico is one of Barcelona’s most alluring neighbourhoods! (One caveat: along with Las Ramblas, it is one of the top hot-spots for crime. Be very aware of your surroundings, leave unneeded personal belongings at the hotel, and do not talk to anyone on the street no matter how lost they claim to be. This is one of the biggest pickpocket hotspots in Europe. That said, don’t let that ruin your chance for an amble in this wonderfully beautiful place!)

Horse-drawn Carriages in Bruges, Belgium

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Horse-drawn Carriages in Bruges, Belgium

The clipp-clopping of hoofs ringing on rounded cobblestones, coupled with the wistful creaks of wagon wheels and the high-pitched laughs of a merry group of people fill the ancient square, enough to work time-machine magic on anyone. Diving out of the way of the impending carriage, your thoughts wander back to another time, another era. Once upon a time, this vehicle was both a means of transportation and of merriment to those rich enough to afford it, and a means to an end for those in charge of driving it or tending its horses. Modern times may have left the horse-and-buggy an antiquated element of a romantic past, but there are still some places in the world – many of which that are in Europe – that refuse to accept this, and continue, without trepidation, to insist on the important use of horse-drawn carriages in the transportation of tired guests across a city centre. Aside from Flemish cities, Warsaw, Vienna, fairytale towns in the French Alps, and paths in rural Ireland come to mind as a few. Bruges is another place that is lost in time, a city that tries so hard to cling to a past long gone – though where other places have failed, Bruges has succeeded. Bruges is, to use Harry’s words from In Bruges, “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s f*****g thing, eh?”

Tower Bridge, London, England

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Tower Bridge, London, England

A cold, dark evening in December in 1952, an old-fashioned double-decker bus #78 was following its route across the Tower Bridge towards Dulwich when the gateman in charge of raising and lowering the bridge failed to perceive the iconic red vehicle. He gave the all clear started to raise the bridge. The bus’ driver, one Albert Gunter, was forced to make one of those split-second, life-or-death decisions we all hope never to make – and hit the gas pedal. His bus shot forward, and the propulsion carried his double-decker bus Knightbus-style over the dark, empty expanse of the Thames far below his wheels, jumping a gap of 3 feet, onto the safety of the other side 6 feet below him, which had not yet began to rise. No one was seriously hurt, and the bus landed upright. His reward for his bravery? 10 quid from London Transport (and £35 from the City of London). Even converted to 2016 standards, that seems a little low, don’t you think!? An added bonus to the story was that one of the passengers was so scared to get back into a bus that she would only ride in Gunter’s bus, who she later asked to be her best man at her wedding! In any case, despite this incident and a few others (including an RAF man who flew a plane through below the upper walkway, and a man dressed as Spiderman who scaled a tower to dangle 100 feet in the air), the bridge remains one of London’s most beloved places, a erstwhile icon of London. Millions visit every year to photograph and traverse the famed overpass, and while there’s not much chance you’ll fly through the air like the 20 passengers on the night of Dec. 30th, the memory of your visit to the Tower Bridge will stay with you long afterwards.

Brunico, Italy

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Brunico (0r Bruneck), Italy

Thundering waves churn past the narrow shores of the little Italian city of Brunico. Just a blimp on the map of quaint, charming Italian cities, Brunico holds its own in the northeastern corner of the Boot. Deep in the Italian Dolomites with the towering silhouette of its squat castle gazing down from the mountaintops, Brunico is only a short drive from both Austria and Slovenia. While this all helps to spotlight this town, none of this is what adds the extra something special to Brunico’s recipe. Brunico – or Bruneck in German – is a town without a country, a town of many languages and cultures, a town plastered onto a multi-cultural lining. For nearly all of its history, Brunico was Germanic. Founded by a baron called – wait for it – Bruno (von Kirchberg) in the early 1200s, the town remained Germanic until the end of WWI, when shifting barriers pushed the region of South Tyrol (including Bruneck) down into Italian territory, where it was re-baptised under an Italian name, Brunico. It is, therefore, an Italian town that is, in effect, Germanic in all but name. The interesting result is a multi-cultural colouring that leaves the city with a dual nationality, which manifests in language, names, gastronomy, architecture and personality.

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*Map from Wikipedia

Dijon, France

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Dijon, France

X marks the spot – or maybe it just marks a row of charming houses in Dijon, built in the infamous wattle-and-daub style. But what really is wattle-and-daub anyway? In use as a construction method for some 6,000 years (and still popular today due to it being low-impact technique), such buildings are created by weaving a braid of wooden strips called wattle, then daubing them with a sort of caulk made of soil, clay, sand, straw, and other ingredients. Thick wooden beams are then factored in as supports to the structure, and together, they form sturdy, isolated walls. Sustainable and relatively easy to do, houses erected in this style are also just so charming. DijonStrasbourg, Stratford-upon-Avon, many Germanic villages and more exude such charm because of the high predominance of wattle-and-daub structures. Charming and beautiful, it would seem that fairy tales are alive and well in Dijon – one can just imagine one of those windows popping open and Belle or Rapunzel smiling out!

Ghent, Belgium

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Ghent, Belgium

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.

 

Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark

No tourism information about Denmark would be complete without at least one mention of the infamous Nyhavn, one of Denmark’s most iconic sights. Translated to mean ‘New Harbour,’ the canal was dug by Swedish prisoners of war in the late 1600s, and most of the elegant, coloured houses lining the canal date to the 17th and early 18th century. With canals that remind one of Venice or Bruges, colourful squares that bring to mind the vibrant ryneks (or main squares) of Poland, a mentality similar to that of the Norwegians and the Swedes, and an architectural style that has a northern, Baltic feel (styles ranging from the Netherlands all the way to Riga), Copenhagen has an inspiring mix of it all. On one side, a bustling capital, and on the other, a calm, clean city, Copenhagen is also a young, hip  and fun town. Nyhavn is a splendid example of how Copenhagen can mix beauty and charm with vivacity and liveliness. Tourists and locals intermingle along the famed quays of Nyhavn; the cafes and restaurants bubble with activity, the air vibrates with multiple languages. The cool, brisk air under sunny skies is a welcome respite. The water laps against the anchored boats, and forks chink from the nearby diners. An afternoon in Nyhavn is an afternoon well-spent.

Liberty Bridge, Budapest, Hungary

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Liberty Bridge, Budapest, Hungary

Thick iron beams and sturdy iron bars may seem like an unusual site to behold in a city so well known for its elegance, old world charm, and beautiful architecture. In order to cross the famed Danube, you have a couple of options if you’re looking for famed landmarks: the magnificent Chain Bridge, or, as pictured here, the industrial-age Liberty Bridge. Connecting the beautiful Gellert Hill (location of Gellert Spa and Hotel), and the bustling Fővám Tér, or Great Market Hall, Liberty Bridge is as important as it is famous. As a cantilever truss bridge with a suspended middle span, it is quite different in structure than anything already spanning Budapest’s waters, but was constructed in a (successful) effort to augment the economy by better connecting Buda and Pest. And yes, Budapest is actually a combination of several communes, including Buda and Pest, whose names and boundaries were combined to create a compound city in 1873. We’ll wrap this up with a fun fact: the final piece of the puzzle (or in this case, the bridge) was symbolically added by Emperor Franz Joseph himself.

 

Bilbao, Spain

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Bilbao, Spain

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 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.

 

Ghent, Belgium

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Ghent, Belgium

Hipster Ghent. Quirky Ghent. Fun Ghent. Ghent is a place to forget who you are, kick back, and live in the moment. Whether you like studying Art Nouveau architecture (see more regarding Art Nouveau here), finding funky graffiti, hanging out in hipster bars, following quaint canals lined with weeping willows, curling up in snug coffeehouses and bookshops, rooting through the hodgepodge of antique shops, visiting ancient castles like the Gravensteen or exploring the cobbled alleys in search of hidden treasure, there’s a good chance that Ghent is for you. Ghent is a city like no other – it is something of a mix of Brugges‘ charm and heritage, Berlin’s nightlife, Prague’s quirky attitude, Riga’s unique architecture, and Montpellier’s youth. Though little-known, Ghent will surprise and amaze you on any trip to Belgium! (oh and yes, there are Belgian fries, beer, waffles and chocolate…this is Belgium after all).

Riga, Latvia

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Art Nouveau in Riga, Latvia

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.

 

Royal Palace, Warsaw, Poland

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Zamek Królewski, Warsaw, Poland

This beautiful pink palace in downtown Warsaw has been the seat of the Royal Court of Poland since the 16th century until what is known as the Partitions of Poland. For those of you not up to date on your Eastern European history, the Partition was a series of three divisions of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire at the end of the 1700s. Summed up, Poland-Lithuania’s neighbours basically chopped up the kingdom in sizable chunks, claiming the land for themselves. Between the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and Habsburg Austria, Poland as a state ceased to exist for 123 years, instead becoming integrated into these various nations, including Warsaw and it’s royal castle, which became part of Prussia. Despite all, the castle has stood the test of time. It has seen the ratification of one of Europe’s oldest constitutions, Constitution of 3 May 1791; it has been used as an administrative centre by the Russian Tsar; it housed German Governor-General during WWI; it has been burned and looted by Nazis; it has been damaged during the Warsaw Uprising; it was nearly destroyed during the War, only to be rebuilt in the 1950s. Warsaw and its beautiful castle have seen a lot things over time – and yet, here they still stand proud.

 

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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