Vilnius, Lithuania

20160117-vinius_outside_aurorahdr_hdr-edit

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.

Rynek of Wrocław, Poland

wroclaw2

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!

wroclaw-map

Liberty Bridge, Budapest, Hungary

20100430-Budapest2_AuroraHDR_HDR.jpg

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.

 

Budapest, Hungary

20100430-Budapest1-Edit.jpg

Budapest, Hungary

Old world charm, the steam age and the orient express, the turn of century (or more elegantly put, fin du siècle), lavishness, decadence.…yes, you’ve been painted into a canvas of the elegant, sometimes dream-like Hungarian capital. Budapest, in its own way, is an art form. It is a piece of a painting of a forgotten place, a poem putting colour to a lost era, a melody composed on an antique instrument. Budapest could be a place created by the most talented artists of the last few centuries, an enormous canvas on which to create their evolving masterpiece. Surely one of Europe’s greatest cities – then and now – Budapest seems to offer so much: spicy gastronomy, magnificent architecture, friendly locals, the Blue Danube, its own flavour. Much like the unique language spoken by inhabitants – related only to faraway Finnish and Estonian – Budapest seems to protrude from the rest of Eastern Europe. The culture, the food, the people, the city – everything feels somehow different; perhaps a creation by a steampunk fan or an old Polaroid photo. Budapest feels like a fin du siècle painting  breathed into being by Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey, a place where anything could happen, a place where you could become anyone or do anything.

Riga, Latvia

L20100523-20100523-Riga art nouveau1_-2.jpg

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.

 

Skopje, Macedonia

20130605-Skopje chruch 2__AuroraHDR_HDR-Edit.jpg

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.

Budapest, Hungary

20160413-Buda gargoyle-Edit

Gargoyle in Budapest, Hungary

Are lampposts tasty? This Hungarian gargoyle seems to think so! Gargoyles have always held a sort of fascination. In simple terms, they are a way of evacuating water from roofs to keep the water from running down the walls and weakening the mortar – but a gargoyle is so much more than a drain. No, gargoyles are indicative of the story, of the culture, of the hidden fears of a the people who carved them. Early gargoyles from Egyptian, Roman or Greek ruins show little variation but by the middle ages, gargoyles had become an art. Largely elongated, grotesque, mythical creatures, some take the shape of monks or existing animals, and are often comical. The most famous gargoyles are of course that of Notre Dame de Paris but most cathedrals and many churches, fortifications, castles and manors have them. Legend has it that St Romanus saved Rouen (France) from a terrible dragon-like creature he called the “gargouille” or gargoyle (etymology “gar” = “throat”). The local people burned the body but the head would not burn (since it was made to resist its own fire), so they mounted the head on the cathedral to ward off evil spirits – a practice that was repeated over and over again in stone. Whether true or not, gargoyles have been warding off gutter water for centuries, and will continue to do so as times go on, because the rain won’t stop falling!

 

 

Kazimierez Dolny, Poland

Kazdolny wedding

Kazimierez Dolny, Poland

A Polish wedding is one experience not to miss in Europe. In fact, one of the best things about a Polish marriage is that anyone can participate, in a way. Obviously, being a very Catholic country (arguably the most Catholic country in Europe…), there is a traditional church service, and like all Western weddings, there is a reception afterwards in another venue where the guests eat, drink and be merry. But what’s fun is that in between these two events, the bride and groom walk around town with their entourage, in order to take photos but also in order to let the whole town see them in their wedding finery and offer their congratulations. This particular wedding was in Kazimierez Dolny, a beautifully preserved Medieval town about 2.5 hours east from Warsaw. Untouched by the wars that plagued most of Poland, Kazimierez still has cobbled streets, Polish Mannerist facades, Gothic churches, a colourful rynek (main square), vibrant parks, a tree-lined riverbank, and a crumbling castle up on the hill. For these reasons, it has attracted all manner of artists and artisans. The main square is full of paintings, drawings, sculptures, baskets, food products, jewelry and other handmade crafts for sale. The artists and artisans themselves chat and joke with each other, the tourists wander by with their cameras, children play with a football in a corner of the square, and the terraces are full of people drinking coffees or beers. But as the starry-eyed newlyweds walk by, everyone stops what they are doing to take a minute to cheer them by.

Bratislava, Slovakia

20100427-Bratislava view-Edit.jpg

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.

Łódźkie Voivodeship, Poland

20090807-rural poland-Edit

Rural Poland in the Łódźkie Voivodeship

One of Poland’s 16 voivodeships (or provinces), Łódźkie is one of the most rural. The capital is Łódź, and unless you really like cinema schools or urban decay, it’s not the best way to see Poland. However, exploring the surrounding countryside feels like a step back in time. Relatively little has changed in rural Poland. And in a way, this is a comfort; globalization has not overtaken every inch of the earth! Here, people going on living simple, quiet lives. Despite the fact that you will need either basic Polish or a firm grasp on sign language to communicate, these countryside folk are some of the nicest people you will meet. The roads twist and turn through flourishing fields between unchanged villages. Thick woods hide rugged paths and sacred springs. Animals graze lazily alongside puttering tractors, chickens cluck in the garden, and dusty cars meander through the countryside, passing ancient wooden barns and old stone farmhouses. No one is in a hurry; in fact, villagers stop to greet or chat with one another. Life is always being appreciated and little seems to have changed  in a long time.

Vilnius, Lithuania

20160117-vilnius_church-Edit

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!

Warsaw, Poland

nov15-2015-Edit copy

Plac Zamkowy, Warsaw, Poland

Ignore everything you know about Poland. Grey, miserable, poor, cold. Throw these ideas out the window because they aren’t true. Some of the most colorful city centres in Europe are found in Warsaw. Some of the most vibrant nightlife is found in Poland. The Polish capital is a lively place, day or night, hot or cold. Whether there is sun or snow, the Polish are always out and about in their city. Do you like beer? How about vodka? Ever tried pierogis? What about kasza or pickles or borscht? Food in Poland, while maybe lacking in the spice department, is hearty, filling, and best of all, cheap. Both Polish beer and vodka are awesome. There’s many beers, but the main ones are Tyskie, Lech, Okocim or my favourite, Zywiec. Warsaw’s bars are largely concentrated in the old town (above), Krakowskie Przedmieście or Nowy Swiat (the streets leading off the old town). The ‘grungy’ place to go out for a beer is Pawlowy, a ‘beer street’ hidden just behind the main avenue.  But no matter where you go in Warsaw, you’ll always find good Polish drinks! The advantage of going out in the old town is that the architecture and the scenery are pretty nice too!

Łódź Voivodeship, Poland

cabinzalecze-Edit

Łódź Voivodeship, Poland

Ah rural Poland. A remote cabin in the woods, sun seeping through the breaks in the trees, leafy green branches clinging to sturdy trunks. A stream trickles along its path, hugging the corner of the wooden cabin. It’s homey, romantic and even desolate all at the same time. The Polish countryside, like much of Central/Eastern Europe, was destroyed and left to be reclaimed by nature after the war. The countryside in Europe varies greatly between regions, but in rural Poland, snug cabins, little wooden farms, grazing livestock and dusty towns are quite common. Typical countryside roads whip ancient, faded cars around farms and over hills, taking drivers on the “scenic route.” Despite limited resources and roundabout roads, rural Europe holds a certain charm. It is here you will find the cheeriest, kindest people. It is here you will bathe in soft sunlight to the chorus of birds while relaxing in mountains, forests and streams. It is here you will feel connected to both nature and the local population at the same time. Wherever you choose to go, don’t hesitate to leave Europe’s great cities behind for a petit sejour in the countryside! Whether searching for solitude, inspiration, relaxation, or a remote romantic getaway, rural Poland will not leave you disappointed.

Lublin, Poland

Lublin crop

Lublin, Poland

Snow falls softly on this silent, barren town. The chilly air has driven most of the locals inside and kept most the tourists away. What’s special about this place is that this little town straddles both Eastern and Western Europe. Warsaw is the political and economic centre, Krakow, the cultural capital, and Gdansk, the gateway to the Baltics. While many imagine these places as the dark and somber Eastern Europe, little by little they are becoming more and more modern, upscale, and integrated with the western half of the continent. Lublin, however, feels exactly what you’d imagine from an Eastern European town, right down to the little houses, market squares, and light snowfall. Walk its small streets, feel the snow land on your head, and duck into a local establishment for pierogies and beer!

Wrocław, Poland

wroclaw1.1

Wrocław, Poland

Wrocław (Vrat-swav) is truly one of Europe’s hidden gems. A small city that was once a part of Germany before finally being restored to its rightful home within Poland’s borders, Wrocław today is a vibrant student town practically throbbing with life. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and it is extraordinarily colourful. The town centre in particular looks like an artist’s palette, swirls of every colour imaginable decorating the facades. And of course the hidden gnomes spread throughout give it spunk and personality (a gnome treasure hunt is nearly impossible to resist!). Wrocław sports one of the prettiest market squares in Eastern Europe, and the chance to drink a coffee or beer on any one of its many terraces guarantees a moment of magic!

 

Beskid Mountains, Poland

beskids

Beskid Mountains, Poland

Snuggled along Poland’s southern border (and spilling over into Slovakia) is an impressive range of mountains called the Beskids. Though no competition for the Alps, the Beskids, which are approximately 600 km in length and 50–70 km in width, comprise part of the massive Carpathian Mountain range (stretching across a large portion of Central and Eastern Europe). Dotted with villages, small farms and wooden houses, they are also crisscrossed with narrow, never-ending trails dipping in and out of the deeply-wooded region. The mountains are big enough that a few minutes after heading into them, you lose track of the 21st century. In fact, borders don’t seem to mean anything, as a glance at the map will tell the surprised hiker that they crossed the border to Slovakia 45 minutes ago (good thing they didn’t ask for our passports!) It is all very rustic. And when you  stumble into the brightly-lit clearing overlooking a pretty, wooden chalet–your destination, of course–you drop your heavy backpack and settle down for some roasted kielbasa (Polish sausage) over a fire and cold piwo (Polish for beer, though watch out–consumed at higher elevations, that single beer will have a much greater effect on you than you’d expect!). Dinner finished, you head inside to discover the reason you hiked for a solid 8 hours that day and 8 more the day before–a traditional Polish folk music concert in the mountains! Inside the simple, barely-lit room, there are two men sporting impressive beards and dressed in threadbare (possibly handmade) outfits, sitting on tree stumps and thrumming fiddles. It can’t get any more adventurous as this!

Bratislava, Slovakia

 bratislavaredo1

Hlavné námestie (Main Square), Bratislava, Slovakia

Did you know that Bratislava and Vienna and the closest (geographically-speaking) capital cities in Europe? Just one hour by train, and only 55 miles as the crow flies! Bratislava is also directly between Vienna and Budapest. There are Americans commute that same distance every day! Therefore, there is no excuse not to add Bratislava to your Austrian/Hungarian itinerary. Not only that, but Bratislava is still relatively “undiscovered.” While Vienna and Budapest may be grander and more inherently beautiful, they are also unavoidably touristic. In many ways, this is a good thing (i.e., foreign languages such as English, French, Spanish, Russian, etc, are prevalent), but this does take a way a little from the experience. To really get into the heart of central/Eastern Europe, Bratislava provides an excellent gateway. A smaller, and easily walkable city, Bratislava affords a quaint Old Town, a magnificent and glowing castle on the hilltop, many fine restaurants for very affordable prices, a lovely promenade along the Danube, funky statues and street art (including Cumil), and an overall fun and relaxed scene. During winter, everything is covered in a light layer of snow, pure and white. At Christmastime, Christmas markets abound, full of handmade gifts and trinkets. Meanwhile in the summer, sunny days blanket the city, glistening off the Danube–reminding us that it is, indeed, the Blue Danube.

Kazimierez Dolny, Poland

kazdolnyview

Kazimierez Dolny, Poland

Sweeping views of the Vistula River, piqued steeples of orange tiles on a church’s roof and slightly browning leaves as fall descends on the little medieval town of Kazimierez Dolny. Located in eastern Poland, Kaz. is well-known for being one of the few Polish towns to survive demolition during the war and the years that followed. Small, quaint, picturesque, it as historic as it is beautiful. Once an important merchant town in the 16th and 17th centuries,  the die-down of the grain trade along its river coupled with invasions from the formidable Swedish army caused the town to be preserved in a Renaissance-shaped bubble. While this wasn’t particularly good for the Renaissance-era and post-Renaissance-era residents, this is great news for the modern tourist looking to catch a glimpse of the culture and history of Poland. As most of small-town Poland was destroyed and rebuilt in the styles of the 20th century, and most historic city centres of Poland were also destroyed and rebuilt following the guidelines of memories and paintings, the pockets of historically-authentic (and mightily beautiful!) towns such as Kaz. Dolny are a rarity. Kazimierez Dolny is a rare opportunity to glimpse the life of medieval and Renaissance Poland as they once existed in their golden heyday.

 

Moscow, Russia

moscowsunset

Moscow, Russia

The golden sun sets on Moscow, sliding over the top of the cathedral’s gilded domes as it sweeps into the river, leaving a glistening reflection of the boats passing alongside. There is no doubt that Moscow is a beautiful place. Why then, are there so few people who feel compelled to visit this city? Part of it is that the image of Moscow during the 20th century continues to persist. One thinks of the KGB, Russian mobs and the evils of communism. It is not only Behind-the-Iron-Curtain, it created the Iron Curtain. Hammer and scythe building nuclear weapons, placing sleeper cells throughout America and Europe, and plotting to take over the world. I’d like to say that that’s the old Russia, an attitude long gone—but recent activities in Crimea, Georgia, and eastern Ukraine have forced us to consider otherwise. Regardless, this is all on a governmental level. Moscow—on a human level—is nothing like its portrayal in the news, in spy novels, by Hollywood. It is a shrine, beautiful yet reminiscent of an old life, nostalgic. It is also filled with communist-era buildings, marshutkas (small, ancient bus-vans that service the outskirts and are run word-of-mouth), and power lines that criss-cross endlessly. This is a city at the tipping-point of modernization—one still not 100% sure it wants to be modernized. Regardless, Moscow emits an indescribable and fascinating beauty. It is full of history and memory and grandeur. It is the eastern gate, the last holdout laying at the feet of the East, and it is beautiful one–especially during the sunset.

Gdansk, Poland

gdanskwater

Gdansk, Poland

Light blue skies hang over the waterfront buildings of this Polish city. Located in northern Poland, Gdansk is one of the “trojmiescie” cities. Together with Gdynia and Sopot, these three cities make up the “Tricity” region thanks to their close proximity to each other. In fact, they are so close that the same tram/bus network services all three, and it is quite normal to live/stay in Gdansk and party in Gdynia then shop in Sopot the next day. Once part of Germany (‘Gdansk’ was called ‘Danzig’ and still is called so by German tourists), this region on the Baltic Sea is today known for its beaches (in Poland, that is), and its amber production (worldwide!). It also happens to be beautiful. While the city isn’t exactly on the Baltic, (the water here is the Motlawa River), it’s only a hop, skip and a jump away from the infamous sea. A visit to Gdansk during the summer months will be pleasantly spent, no matter whether you’re sitting along the river, digging your toes in the sand of one of the surrounding beaches, eating at one of the many pleasant cafes and restaurants on the main street or dancing your heart out in one of the Tricity’s many nightclubs!