The Warsaw Mermaid Statue in Warsaw’s Old Town, Poland
There are multiple mermaid statues flopping their way through Europe. Completely unrelated to the mythical selkies of western Ireland and only loosely related to Copenhagen’s The Little Mermaid, the Syrenka, or Mermaid of Warsaw, is the official symbol of Poland‘s capital. Popular legend has it that while swimming by Warsaw, the Mermaid decided she liked it so much that she would stay. Local fishermen were frustrated with competing with her for fish, so they attempted to catch her, but like most mermaid stories, the men fell in love with the mermaid’s song and let her free. She was then captured by a wealthy merchant, but upon hearing her cries, the fishermen rushed to her rescue, and ever since, she’s been a warrior mermaid armed with sword and shield ready to protect Warsaw. A lesser-known version claims that the mermaid came to the rescue of a lost prince and he founded Warsaw in her honour. A final version and tie-in with Copenhagen is that the Danish Little Mermaid and the Warsaw Mermaid are sisters from the Baltic Sea, separated by their respective capitals. No matter which legend you favour, the Mermaid remains Warsaw’s symbol and protector, and there is a small but lovely statue in her honour in the centre of the Stary Miasto (Old Town square) for visitors to pay homage to the city’s protector.
The natural border between the nations of Poland and Slovakia, there are ample opportunities to literally walk across the border while hiking the mountain trails (thanks to the EU, this is all okay). The Tatras are a little-known mountain range in southern Poland, but offer some of the best hiking in Europe. Compared to the Alps, the Tatras may seem small – but they are also a road not taken by many. Zakopane, Poland’s capital of the Tatras, is the busiest town in the region (also known for skiing), but most of this mountain range is woven with rustic trails that meander through quiet forests and quaint villages. The Tatra Mountains eke a sort of majestic silence – hiking through their quiet backcountry transports you to another world where villagers still organise outings to go mushroom-picking, celebrate local traditions, song and dance, and bake traditional dishes with little influence from outside the region. Here, timeless landscapes nearly untouched by modern times abound. The bustling Zakopane is an easy starting from, as it’s the most well-known city in the Tatras, but it’s also the most crowded and least authentic. Consider instead starting from one of the a smaller towns far off the beaten track – one example is the Rajcza, a little south of Bielsko-Biala. Of note, the town of Zywiec (home of Zywiec Brewery) isn’t far. Near Zakopane is the amazing mountain fortress Niedzica Zamek. Small towns like Poronin or Nowy Targ are also lovely! No matter where you head into the Tatra Mountains, you won’t be disappointed; every inch of the Polish and Slovakian Tatras is magical.
Vltava River in Prague, Czech Republic from Charles Bridge
Charles Bridge is surely one of the world’s most famous bridges. Built in 1357 and the only means of crossing the thundering Vltava River until 1841, both Charles Bridge and the Vltava River have played a strategic and economic role throughout the city’s history. Prague’s location on the Vltava River has long been important for trade and shipping between eastern and western Europe, and that economical power, along with Prague’s famous bridge that connects its timeless old town with the majestic Prague Castle, have all helped to bounce Prague to international acclaim. Though always beautiful, there are two moments where Prague becomes nearly divine in beauty. The first is Prague covered in soft, brilliant snow, the pure white of the fallen snowflakes contrasting beautifully on the dark, ancient stones that make up the Gothic architectureof Charles Bridge, the Castle and most of the Old Town. Alone under the evening blizzard with snow underfoot, the smells of chimney smoke, hot wine and roasted chestnuts intermingle in the air, as the air itself rings with the jubilant sounds of the famed Christmas market – the perfect picture of Christmas bliss. The second time when Prague becomes almost unbearable with beauty is when bathed in the brilliance of the Golden Hour, both at sunrise and sunset, when the incandescent light glitters off the richly-coloured stones and the ancient architecture to make you feel as if you are part of a fairytale, or a painting. Sunrise is preferable – this way, you will avoid the crowds. Sunset, as seen above, will not disappoint either.
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Autumn colours light up the palate of Kazimierz Dolny’s castle gardens. Kazimierz Dolny is a small, quirky village in eastern Poland within easy day trip striking distance of Warsaw, Poland’s capital. Though a short-lived season, Poland is vivid in autumn – September being a spectacular month for a visit, as the entire month seems to follow the rules of the Golden Hour usually attributed only to brief moments at sunrise or sunset. After weaving Kazimierz’s bustling medieval streets, head up the hill where you will pass the zamek – the lower castle – before climbing the path to the 19-meter tower, or the upper zamek. The view from here over the castle gardens, town and Wisla River (Vistula River in English) is simply splendid. Before the castle was built, the hilltop housed a beacon to warn surrounding settlements of impending attacks. Once upon a time, there was even a drawbridge, a moat, and five floors. Though you can’t climb more than one storey up now, the castle, gardens and tower are all a mystical and magical place made even better when doused in the golden autumn sunlight.
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Rynek Starego Miasta (Old Town Square), Warsaw, Poland
Caught up in Cold War era stereotypes of a cold, grey Poland, most people don’t realise that Warsaw has surprisingly hot and sunny summers. To get out of the heat but still enjoy the sunshine, Warsaw’s city centre becomes alive with outdoor cafes, markets, beer gardens, and terraces during summer months, such as these ones in the Rynek Starego Miasta, or Old Town Square, in the centre of Warsaw’s old town. (The same is true for the party boats on the Wisla River). Banners on the terraces promote a Polish beer called Zywiec, distilled in a town of the same name in southern Poland near the Polish Tatra Mountains. Nationalised after the war and today part of the Heineken group (one of the Big Five breweries), the Zywiec Brewery was once owned by the famous Hapsburgs, who sued for copyright infringement after the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism. Zywiec is still a point of national pride for the Polish, and is one of Poland’s most delicious beers. A pint is best enjoyed outdoors in Warsaw’s city centre, as Warsaw slowly becomes known across Europe for its restaurants, cafes, festivals and nightlife. For outdoor terraces, grab a drink in any of the bars or terraces in the old town. For cheap drinks hit up the so-called 4 zloty (1€) bars on Nowy Swiat Street. For fancy elegance, try the Hotel Bristol on Krakowskie Przedmieście Street, and for gritty student nightlife head over to Pawilony Street hidden behind Nowy Swiat. The hipster bar/club Plan B in Plac Zbiawciela or nearby Czech bar U Szwejka for enormous and cheap beers are also two favourites. There are also plenty of good bars in the up-and-coming Saska Kepa district or the still-seedy Praga district. So many choices, eh? Warsaw is not a city to lack for watering holes, that’s for sure!
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This glittering white walls and towers of this massive fortress are both ancient and modern at the same time. Built and rebuilt and rebuilt, this castle has seen more re-constructions than any castle should. Figuring into the 10th century Annals of Salzburg, the first reference of both castle and city, Bratislava Castle stands on an ancient site once home to a small fort built by the Celts. Later the Romans occupied the site, and then the Moravian Slavs who built a new fortress. When it became part of the Hungarian Empire, the Hungarians built a stone palace to replace the old Moravian fortress. That stone castle and chapel was later replaced by a 15th century Gothic-style fortress. One century later, it was rebuilt again, this time in Renaissance design. In the 17th century, it was – wait for it – rebuilt (again!), this time in Baroque style. Elaborate artistic redecorations were redone during the rule of Maria Theresa, including new castle gates and rococo interior decor. A terrible fire in 1811 and subsequent ruinous state of the struture meant that the castle, today considered a national treasure, had to be renovated and rebuilt by the Hungarian government (though it almost was decided to destroy it completely). Today, Bratislava Castle is both national museum and testament to the changing forces, rulers and styles that overshadowed this little capital city of the central European country of Slovakia.
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Normally, the clock strikes noon with a chime or a tock. But in Poznan’s town hall, the clock strikes noon with a bugle call and a fanciful display of head-butting goats (hence the playful colours chosen for the photo). Ok, what’s going on? To understand this display, we must first take a step back. Poznan is a mid-size Polish town half-way between the capital (Warsaw) and the German frontier. The town hall was originally constructed around 1300, and suffered fires, lighting strikes, major reconstructions, and more. The goats and bugle came into being in the 1550s, each supported by their own legend. Legend has it that the lord of the voivde’s cook (a county or province) burnt the venison and tried to rectify (or hide!) this mistake by replacing it with a stolen pair of goats. The goats being, well, goats, escaped and climbed the layered facade of the town hall, where they provided comic relief for the whole town (including the banquet guests). The spectacle was so well received that the lord pardoned the cook and commissioned the clock. As for the bugle element, legend has it that a boy found an injured crow in the tower and nursed it back to health. It transformed into a gnome (welcome to Polish folklore…!), gave him a magical trumpet and told him to play it in times of need. Many years later, the boy was now the town trumpeter, and witnessed an invading army, so he blew his magic trumpet, and an army of crows swooped in and got rid of the army. So they added a bugle to the goats’ display (not unlike the story of Krakow’s trumpeter). The legends may only be stories but the clock itself is quite real, and the stories themselves are well embedded into local culture – well worth the trip to this quietly vibrant Polish city.
Red brick towers peek out of the forest to climb their way towards the heavens. Turaida Castle, a little-known medieval fortress erected in the early 12th century, is a Latvian national treasure, to the degree that when the castle was left to be reclaimed by Mother Nature, the Latvians pumped finances into saving it. A Teutonic castle made of red brick much like Poland’s immense Zamek Malbork, the crumbling Teutonic Turon Castle in central Poland or even Lithuania’s island fortress Trakai, Turaida Castle itself seems as if it was pulled out of a magical storybook and nestled into the forgotten woods of the Gauja River Valley deep within Latvia. Reached either by winding backroads or by a combination of foot and cable car through the quiet Latvian forest, the castle is set in one of Lativa’s most incredible backdrops. Turaida Castle was the home of the lovely Rose of Turaida, a love story with a not-so-happy ending. While the castle itself evokes thoughts of knights and princesses and dragons, a hike through the surrounding valley with the enchanted castle looming in the distance is one memory you will never forget.
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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.
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Sometimes you just need a place to cheer you up – something that the city of Wrocław (pronounced Vraat-swauve), snuggled in the southwestern corner of Poland, does quite easily. From the circular, room-sized painting of the Battle of Racławicka to the colourful city squares to the funny little gnome statues hidden around town to the cheery student dive bars, Wrocław is one of Poland’s most enjoyable cities where fun and beauty are the currency. One of Poland’s biggest student cities, Wrocław is a city where anything goes. Enjoy the view of Ostrow Trumski, the cathedral complex on the other side of the Odra River before joining the innumerable number of students in the city’s parks and terraces for a cold beer and an afternoon picnic.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Until very recently, controlling a port meant power. In fact, this is still the case in many ways considering that about 90% of world’s trade is still carried by the international shipping industry. Long before the invention of the airplane – and before that, the train and the truck – shipping was the method of transport. European powers have been obsessed with finding trade routes to Asia for hundreds of years (inspiring the famed Columbus voyage in 1492… as well as others), going so far as to construct the Panama and Suez canals. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Russians (who occupied central Russia at the time) had control only of a few northern (and frozen!) ports. Baltic ports were controlled largely by the Lithuanian Empire, or by powers centralized in Riga and Tallinn. The Hanseatic League as well controlled much of the trade in North, Eastern and Central Europe. Russians had staggering amounts of natural resources – but few ports, thereby instigating the struggle for control of the Baltic Sea. Though Gdansk, located in northern Poland on the Baltic Sea, was not controlled by the Russians, other powers (German, Lithuanian, Teutonic Knights…) have their histories mingled with that of Gdansk. Indeed, the Baltic city has been an influential port for nearly a 1,000 years! Today, the Polish city is still an important port, not to mention a hub for Poles on holiday in search of the sea. It is also one of the best places in the world to purchase amber!
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