Romantic redbrick turrets and towers rise from a small island on Lithuania‘s Lake Galvé, home to the 14th-15th century Trakai Island Castle. Today accessible by a small wooden bridge, Trakai Island Castle actually claims to be Eastern Europe‘s only island castle still standing. While still in its infancy, the castle was attacked and severely damaged by the Teutonic Knights in 1377, and further damaged during a power struggle for title of Grand Duke of Lithuania. Once peace again reigned, it was the very same Teutonic Order that organised the rebuilding of the castle. Over time, other ameliorations were added – a massive donjon, wooden galleries along the inner courtyard, new palatial wings containing the impressive Ducal Hall, thicker defensive walls, three new towers and 16th century galleries complete with canons, designed to defend against new advances in technology (notably, gunpowder). Despite this, since the Battle of Grunwald, Trakai left its military importance behind and was used predominantly as a residence and a way to impress visitors, but by the 1700s and 1800s, it was in ruins, serving as little more than a romantic ruin for artistic and poetic inspiration. Reconstruction started in the late 1800s and continued through the first half of the 20th century. Today, Trakai Island Castle is a quiet monument to Lithuanian history and cultural strength, and part of the Trakai Historical National Park. Visit the castle by crossing the new bridge from the town of Trakai, only about 30 minutes from the capital city, Vilnius.
Pro tip: As the Baltic states open up to increasing tourism, places like Trakai Island Castle will get busier. It’s best to visit Trakai in the off-season or earlier in the morning in order to get the castle and island largely to yourself. Better yet, stay over in Trakai town and use as a jumping-off point to explore the region. Home to proud Karaim community, Turkish-speaking ethnic group descended from Crimean immigrants, try the delicious local dish, kybyn, a sort of dumpling or pasty stuffed with meat and vegetables while in Trakai.
Torun, Poland does not want for churches. In fact, they seem to be everywhere. The Holy Trinity Church, erected in 1824, is viewed here from the gate of medieval St James’s Church, while other spires and steeples rise not far away – including the squat red-brick towers of Toruń Cathedral. Ironically, the 13th century medieval city is the birthplace of noted scientist Nicolaus Copernicus, who lends his name to Toruń’s university (you’ll find a large statue of him on Warsaw‘s Krakowskie Przedmieście Street). Noted for his contributions to our understanding of the solar system by placing the Sun at the centre, the “forward-thinking” Church issued a prohibition against his Copernican theory, leading to the condemnation of a “heretic” we know today as renowned scientist Galileo Galilei (Thanks Christianity…!). On a happier (and tastier) note, Toruń’s other claim to fame is that its famous for its gingerbread (or “pierniki” in Polish), which bakers began to produce in the 1300s. You haven’t tasted gingerbread until you’ve been to Toruń – and whether you think you like the it or not, you will love it after tasting this soft and delicious pastry in this magical city! Due to a vague agreement to swap recipes in return for new ones, Toruń instigated a competition with the German city, Nuremberg. As each city rose to individual fame, the secrets of their recipes became more guarded. Knockoffs were created and sold all over Europe. However, to this day, one needs only try Toruń’s gingerbread to recognise its authenticity (modern day Toruń gingerbread follows traditional 16th century recipes…). Perhaps tasting Toruń’s magical gingerbread will inspire you to try your hand at making your own plate of gingerbread biscuits!
Pro tip: You can buy pierniki toruńskie throughout Poland, and while quite good compared to non-Polish gingerbread, you can’t leave Toruń without visiting one of the local shops for the freshest gingerbread. One such place is Torun Żeglarska 25, though up and down Żeglarska Street, Piekary Street, and the Old City Market Square (Stare Miasto) you’ll find gingerbread specialty shops.
Neither Slovakia nor its capital city of Bratislava are places that often make travel wish-lists of grand tours of Europe. At the heart of Eastern Europe, Bratislava and Slovakia in general has always been a place swept under the rug of larger powers. Though Bratislava may not have the charm of some other Central and Eastern European cities (such as Prague, Vienna or Krakow), its cobbled streets, ancient churches, quirky statues and mosaic roofs are well worth the wander. And then of course there is the castle, rebuilt “recently” after a fire gutted the estate. Today, its shimmering white towers float in the fog on a hilltop above the city. Though Slovakia is on the Euro, the country is still good value for money, and the fact that it isn’t as famous as its neighbours means that you won’t be fighting tourism crowds while still enjoying a fairly authentic experience. Start by wandering the old narrow streets in the morning – you’ll probably have them all to yourself at this hour. Visit the castle and the Blue Church, say hello to Cumil then have some lunch – be sure to try some Slovakian crepes (called palacinky) as well as a glass of local beer such as Bazant Radler. If you stay for the evening, you’re in for a treat – Bratislava is meant to have a great nightlife scene and is quite popular with hen and stag parties!
Pro tip: Bratislava is only about an hour away from Vienna, and the cities make a good combination (Vienna is bigger but Bratislava is far more cost effective). Bratislava Airport is a good alternative access point to the region to Vienna’s airport.
In the centre of the wildly beautiful city of Krakow is the eclectic structure known as Wawel Castle. Commissioned by King Casimir III in the 13th century, Wawel Castle is a strange mix of nearly all the popular architectural styles of the 13th – 18th centuries – including medieval, gothic, Renaissance (particularly Italian), Baroque, Romanesque and more (neo-classical seems the only important style of the time missing from the list). The Wawel we see today is much altered from the original structure – parts were destroyed by fire, leading to other parts added on or rebuilt entirely. When it was occupied by the Prussian Army, it was changed to meet new needs and new standards – Wawel’s was modernised and its interior re-styled. Defensive structures were changed, and some buildings were removed. Long the residence of Polish kings during Poland‘s Golden Years and beyond, Wawel overlooks one of Poland’s most spectacular cities. In fact, Krakow is one of the few urban centres not razed during the devastating WWII (due to Hitler using it as a base camp). Today, as one of the largest castles in Poland, Wawel Castle is a member of UNESCO world heritage sites (alongside Krakow’s historic downtown). Inside, find museums and exhibition on art, architecture, history, ceramics, weaponry, gold, and even articles from the Orient. To visit is also the cathedral, the ‘lost’ basements where the foundations show what once was there, and cave leading to the banks of the river nicknamed “the Dragon’s Den,” home to the legendary Dragon of Wawel lived.
Pro tip: Wawel can be quite busy – try to visit in the off-peak season (or at least earlier in the day) if you can. Admission costs vary, see more here. Free admission is on Mondays from 9:30am – 1pm in April – October, and Sundays 10am – 4pm in November – March. Don’t miss the nearby fire-breathing dragon, a monument to the Wawel Dragon legend (it breathes fire in 5 minute intervals and can be activated by SMS).
In most cities, the harbour, or “the docks” district is one of the least favourable parts of town – rough, rundown, dirty, overgrown, a bit forgotten. In Split however, this is not the case. One of Croatia’s loveliest cities (home to the amazing Diocletian’s Palace, the dramatic Marjan Hill, the stunning Trg Republike square, and a labyrinth of beautiful, winding streets), Split’s harbour and waterfront, called the Riva, is a charming promenade and one of Split’s loveliest places. The Riva was born some 200 years ago the French of Napoleon’s time lived there, though it has changed face and form several times over. Today home to an inundation of cafes, restaurants and bars, it is the throbbing heart of modern Split. And yet the Riva does not forget its maritime past, with piers, boat slips, customs houses and Port Authority buildings new and old framing the waterfront. The Riva is snuggled up behind the famous Diocletian Palace, ancient churches and an important monastery overseeing modern and traditional waterfront activities.
Pro tip: The Riva can be quite a busy place at all hours of the day, though it is at its liveliest in the evenings. Climb the nearby Marjan Hill for spectacular views over the harbour and watch the boats as the come and go.
The small town of Sigulda and its environs seem to collect castles and manors. For starters, the most famous is Turaida Castle, its golden-red towers jutting out of the woodland following the stunning Gauja River Valley – a perfect place to hike. On the far side of the cable car opposite Sigulda, there’s the crumbling ancient ruins of Krimulda Castle paired with the crumbling not-so-ancient ruins of Krimulda Manor. And then of course, in Sigulda town proper, find the Old Castle of Sigulda – now in ruins – just across from the New Castle of Sigulda. The first New Castle of Sigulda was constructed in 1878 by the wealthy Kropotkin family in the popular Neo-Gothic revival style that swept the continent throughout the 19th century. The castle/manor lasted only until WWI when it was partially destroyed. As was wont, restoration started after the war was over, though Sigulda’s New Castle got a complete makeover – it had now become the Writer’s Castle, inspiration for authors, writers and poets of all kinds (romantic ideal, eh!?). Such an idyllic nature didn’t last. In WWII, it was taken over by the Germans, used as a military headquarters, only then to be tossed over to the USSR after the war’s end. It wasn’t until the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) finally got their hard-won freedom that Sigulda’s New Castle finally housed part of the Latvian government – home to Sigulda City and District Councils. Though closed to tourists, it’s worth a stroll through the beautiful grounds to enjoy the castle and the views. Plus, the old castle of Sigulda is not far off!
Pro tip: The cable car across the valley goes once an hour. Buy your ticket and then use the rest of the hour to walk around Sigulda’s castles and perhaps even pop in to the church to see their collection of button art. If you’re planning to walk from Krimulda to Turaida once you cross the gorge, be sure to wear good footwear.
One of Europe’s most fascinating Renaissance castles can be found tucked away under the Carpathian Mountains that march across the mysterious and beautiful country of Romania. Amongst Romania’s most famed sites, Peles Castle is actually a neo-Renaissance fortress. Built on what was once an important trade route linking Wallachia and Transylvania – Romania’s two principal trade regions – Peles Castle was inaugurated in 1883, making it one of Europe’s younger castles. Inside and out, expect grandeur, over-the-top luxury, and a clear exertion of King Carol I’s power. Peles Castle and the Alpine-esque resort town of Sinaia came about in the late 1800s when King Carol of Romania fell in love with the dramatic mountain scenery. It was under King Carol that Romania gained its independence (1877). The king wanted a regal yet original mountain resort, rejecting anything that wasn’t grand and unique. In the end, he went for German architect Johannes Schultz’s proposal, a grand palatial Alpine castle that combines the most distinctive and appealing features of classic European castles, including styles born of the Italian and later German Renaissance. In a way, this approach to locating the very best of European castles makes Peles Castle all the more fairytale!
Pro tip: Peles Castle and nearby resort town of Sinaia can be quite touristy – best to visit in the off season if possible. Take a stroll around the grounds of Peles Castle at sunset – the views will be stunning, and as the castle is closed at that hour, you’ll have the estate to yourself.
Other Neo Renaissance Fairytale Castles of Europe Built to Impress
Neuschwanstein Castle – similar to Peles, this castle was built in the 1800s by a king looking for a regal and quintessential fairytale castle
Kreuzenstein Castle – This castle is actually a hodgepodge of different castles, imported and re-constituted together after the original building was destroyed
Chateau de Chenonceau – One of the many chateaux of the Loire Valley, Chenonceau stretching over the river is the picture of elegance.
Chateau de Chambord– Another Loire Valley chateau, this massive castle takes the concept of royal hunting lodge to the extreme.
Macedonia – and Skopje in particular – is at a crossroads between old and new, east and west, Christianity and Islam. It is a place that perfectly blends cultures, traditions and architecture. The historic centre of Skopje is made up of an old Bazaar, as well as some 30 mosques and the ruins of several caravanserais (once popular along trade routes like the Silk Road, these were inns for travellers) – all of which are ever-present reminders of the city’s Ottoman past. But the Macedonians have also made the city their own, erecting churches and cafes and basilicas, infusing the conquering culture with that of the conquered. For it must be said that the Ottoman Empire occupied present day Macedonia for a few hundred years, from the 17th to the early 19th century. The Old Bazaar of Skopje contrasts strikingly with the shiny new sections of Macedonia’ capital city – the soaring skyscrapers and glittering statues and perfect grids. But the very best way to experience Skopje is outdoors. Find yourself a cosy cafe in the old bazaar lined by ancient facades and leafy trees and make yourself comfortable. Order platefuls of shish kababs and grilled veggies and Mediterranean salads and sticky baklava, and wash it down with a rich and heavy cup of Turkish coffee. Sit back in the sun with a good book and a local beer and listen to the clamour of bustling Skopje under a midday sun.
Pro tip: Head up to the ruins of Skopje Fortress. No entrance fee and you’ll get a great view of the city and all of its minarets and domes.
Built in 2011 to house the 2012 UEFA Europe Cup, Stadion Narodowy or the National Stadium is Poland’s biggest – with seating room for around 58,000 spectators! (Other UEFA stadiums included Poznan, Wrocław, Gdańsk and Kiev). Red and white like the Polish flag, is has a retractable roof (Poland can get chilly and snowy at times as seen in the image!), and stands proud on the Wisła River, one of Poland’s (and Warsaw’s!) main arteries. Located in the Praga district, this once-seedy area of the city has seen fantastic urban revival in the past decade, and is now one of Warsaw’s hippest new neighbourhoods with the modern architecture of Stadion Narodowy the crown jewel. The Polish people are enormous football fans, and very proud of both their national teams as well as their own local teams (friendly rivalry between regions is common!). On a games night, the National Stadium, and indeed much of the Praga district, explode and rock with noise, support and red and white flags! One of the best ways to connect with the Polish and immerse yourself in the culture no matter how brief your visit, is to catch a match with the locals! Stadion Narodowy is the best place to watch as nothing beats its ambience, but if you can’t get there, don’t worry – head downtown to one of the many sporty bars to see the match and root for the national team!
Pro tip: Even if you don’t manage to get a Polish football jersey, be sure to get yourself a Polska football scarf before your match! Not only are you showing your support, it makes for a great souvenir!
Kremlin & St Basil’s Cathedral from the Moskva River at Sunset, Russia
If you had to chose one place to represent Russia, what would it be? High on most lists would probably be St Basil’s Cathedral (actually called Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed) and the Kremlin, just next door. Though both are worth exploring up close, for a unique way to visit both of these fantastic icons, consider a cruise of the Moskva River for a beautiful and unique view of Moscow – even better if its a sunset cruise! St Basil’s is as eye-popping now as it was when it was new – built in its own unique, trail-blazing style in 1561, no one quite knows where architects Barma and Postnik found their inspiration, though many say it is a combination of Greek, Byzantine, Islamic and Asian styles. Even the Italian Renaissance played a role (its surprising how influential Italian architects were in places like Russia, France and Eastern Europe). St Basil’s uniqueness is really what makes it so fascinating and its silhouette is unmistakable. The Kremlin, on the other hand, is more complex. A government building, a fort, the heart of Russia – the Kremlin is often also used metonymically to refer to Russia’s government. It is composed of five palaces and four cathedrals, enclosed by an imposing wall. Unfortunately, several heritage buildings in the Kremlin were destroyed to make space for ugly concrete Soviet-era buildings (before thankfully a law came into place preserving heritage sites). Once again, though it’s important to visit the site, a riverside visit to the Kremlin is a whole different – and much quieter and calmer! – experience. Get ready for some amazing waterscapes and skylines!
Pro tip: best time to go is certainly sunset on a clear day – especially in the off-season if possible. For amazing views of the Kremlin, St Basils and more, take a sunset cruise on the Moskva River.
One of Romania‘s most beautiful and fascinating cities is certainly the colourful and vibrant Sighisoara. Snuggled into the heart of the hauntingly beautiful region of Transylvania, the dazzling and historic medieval town centre is one of the best preserved in the country, a fact that has not escaped UNESCO. Perhaps most famous for as the birthplace of Count Dracula (otherwise known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler), Sighisoara is colourful and historic town. Cobblestone streets, soaring towers, ancient walls, vibrant shop fronts, this town embodies everything you’d want in a medieval town – a photographers paradise. Settled in the 12th century (officially entering the registrars in 1191), Sighisoara was a frontier town settled (and defended) by German saxons at a vulnerable time in Transylvanian history when the region was ruled by the King of Hungary. A town built into the ruins of a Roman fort proceeded it, followed in 1337 by an urban settlement considered a regal city. For centuries, Sighisoara was an important and influential city in Central and Eastern Europe. With a strong and successful economy dominated by Saxon Germans (what’s new…), Sighisoara was a recognised haven for craftsmen, artisans, merchants and guilds. Not all of Sighisoara’s history was positive though. After a fairly successful medieval age, 17th and 18th century Sighisoara saw terrible fires, plagues, occupation, sieges and other horrors.
Pro tip: Though beautiful during the the day, don’t miss the city at night! In one of the towers, there is an impressive array of leather-working. For some of the best food in the city, head to the wine cellars of Gasthaus restaurant, just outside the walls. Great views from the Church on the Hill – climb it via the covered staircase and descend via the graveyard.
Snowflakes fall softly on the colourful facades of Poznan’s Stary Rynek (main square). Vibrant and beautiful, Poznan is one of Poland’s most lively towns rain or shine or snow. Centred on the Stary Rynek, Poznan’s old town was once a walled city though the walls were sadly taken down to expand this growing city in the 1800s. In the centre of this magnificent square is the Ratusz, or the Town Hall, the pride and glory of the city of Poznan. On the clock tower there are two goats, referring to a legend involving burnt dinner, an angry lord, a desperate cook, a couple of escapist goats (read more here), which chimes every day. Besides the to-die-for architecture, Poznan offers many museums, monuments, churches and cathedrals. There are dozens and dozens of eateries, restaurants, cafes and bars. Poznan also has a significant student population which goes hand-in-hand with a thriving nightlife. Visit the many bars to taste the local beers and liqueurs as well as the local cuisine!
Pro tip: For an easy way to try a few of the local beers, head to Brovaria just off the main square – a guesthouse, restaurant and brewery all in one! Order their “taster menu” to sample a few of their different wares. Poznan is only about 4 hours from Warsaw via public transport (see Polish FlixBus or PKP trains), but merits an overnight stay!
Dusty, quiet, out of the way, the tiny Trakai village would be completely overlooked if not for its spectacular local monument – Trakai Island Castle, a splendid brick teutonic castle constructed on a island in the medieval era. Made up of colourful wooden clapboard houses, quiet tree-lined streets and embraced in a welcomingly fresh air, walking through Trakai village feels like you are exploring the Baltics of Europe behind the scenes, getting a glimpse of where the real people live. But in many ways, Trakai is not a normal place as it is a village that has been constructed and even preserved by an array of different nationality, ethnic groups and cultures. Tatars, Russians, Jews, Karaims (from Turkey), Lithuanians and Jews have – and do – all live here peacefully, rubbing shoulders as their lives quietly overlap. Trakai was once a booming town under Polish then later Lithuanian rule but saw significant decline as Vilnius and Krakow rose in importance. Though a small place today, Trakai has managed to stay significant due to King Gedimas’ lovely castle on the beautiful lake.
Pro tip: While in Trakai, be sure to try kibinai, a savoury pastry brought to the region by the Karaims community. Delicious and filing! Also, Trakai – and the Baltics in general – are a great place to purchase amber jewelry.
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg, Russia
To some, the stunning Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood resembles a giant cupcake; to others a Disney World attraction; to locals, a mere copy of the more-famous St Basil‘s on Moscow‘s Red Square. And yet. This stunning church has a life and attitude all of its own. Inside and out, it is a work of art, an example of high romantic nationalism and Art Nouveauthat stands out from the rest of Baroque and Neoclassical St Petersburg. Conceived and completed in fin de siecle Russia, it was meant to be a way of immortalising Tsar Alexander II by his son, Alexander III, who was assassinated here by a group of anarchists. Inside, every inch of the high walls are covered with biblical art, containing over 7,500 square meters of mosaics, which by some estimates, is more than any other church in the world! Sadly, during the war, it was used as a temporary morgue during the WWII Siege of Leningrad, and afterwards as the city was still recovering, it was used as a storehouse for produce and other foodstuffs – lending it the derogatory nickname, Saviour on Potatoes. Today, it is a museum and a tribute to another Russia, another era. It was never reconsecrated, and therefore is not a proper place of worship, but does attract visitors from all over the world to admire its expert craftsmanship.
Pro tip: There is a small entrance fee of 250 rubles (about €3) but it goes towards the renovation and upkeep of the church. The church is closed Wednesdays.
The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of independence from Russia for the Baltic States (think Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) – even if in the middle of that century of independence they lost it and were forced to regain it again, thanks to WWII. And yet, the Old Town of Vilnius is one of the largest medieval towns still in existence today (and therefore is protected by UNESCO). By day, it is a popular place with locals and tourists alike, relaxing in the cafes, strolling the narrow alleys and broad avenues, chilling in the parks and squares, mingling with the locals in restaurants and hole-in-the-wall bars. For great views, you might climb the ancient Gediminas Hill to the remains of the crumbled castle – or to the top of the opposite Hill of the Three Crosses, a more modern viewpoint. It is a place full of great (and budget-friendly) restaurants and bars frequented by lively locals and tourists alike, making it an ideal place for a friends weekend, a fun solo getaway, or a hen/stag party!
The fantastic Jabłonna Palace (pronounced yah-bwoana) inhabits a lush, green estate-turned-park on the outskirts of Poland’s capital of Warsaw. Built in a joint neoclassical and baroque style in the 1770s by the Polish King Stanislaw’s brother, it was meant from the start as a stunning royal palace and park complex to stun and awe Poland’s elite. Like most of Warsaw – and Poland – the building is newer than it looks. Jabłonna Palace was burnt by angry Germans in 1944 and the resilient Polish of Warsaw reconstructed it as accurately as possible in the years following the war. Today, Jabłonna Palace’s beautifully Baroque ballroom, elegant dinning areas and classy guest rooms regularly hold concerts, art exhibitions, scientific shows, conferences and – you guessed it – weddings, as well as being open to the public. Even if you aren’t attending a wedding or concert, the grounds of Jabłonna Palace make for a great escape to the outdoors. Offering a much-needed breath of fresh air from the hustle and bustle of Warsaw, Jabłonna Park is a perfect place to spend a spring or fall day to jog, stroll, picnic or simply relax.
Bathed in soft, chilly rays of sunshine, the ancient cobblestones, facades and walls of ancient Prague add a warm glow of luminescence on a chill winter day. Though the cold can be biting, winter is the perfect season to pay this amazing city a visit. Not only are crowds thinner, but the city is alive with Christmas – from some of the best Christmas markets in Europe to live seasonal concerts to streets dancing with trees, wreaths, lights and more. Roasted chestnuts, hot wine and local sweet rolls are made and sold on every corner. It is impossible to escape the festive attitude – especially when the snow sweeps in, dusting and blanketing every surface with a layer of soft, white snow! Follow this steep, narrow street up the top of Prague where you’ll come face-to-face with a castle of epic proportions, layered with stones and stories, overlooking not just Prague but a good chunk of Czech Republic (or Czechia) as well. Prague is a perfect Christmas destination in the making!
Poland’s Central Park, Łazienki Park (pronouced “wa-djane-key”), or the Park of the Royal Paths, meanders serenely through the urban jungle of central Warsaw. Designed in the 17th century by a local nobleman, one century later it was reconfigured to fit a king – King Stanislaw August, to be exact. Palaces, follies, monuments, statues, lakes, bridges, and forest paths were installed in all the royal might Warsaw could muster. Though royalty in Poland has long since ceased to be (in fact, Poland itself ceased to be for a whole 123 years!), Łazienki Park is still there, a little less royal and open to all us common folk, but an amazing park nonetheless. Populated by semi-wild peacocks (yes you read that correctly!) who wander through the park’s 76 hectres, the park is a special place. In the summer, it hosts open air Chopin concerts (because yes, Chopin was Polish!). And in the autumn, it erupts in vivid splendour – flames of yellow and orange, gold and red. Łazienki Park is a lovely place for a stroll, a picnic, a day at the park, a concert or a bit of sports and exercises – but it is loveliest in autumn amongst the golden canvas.
In the heart of Slovakia’s capital Bratislava, under the shadow of the imposing white walls of 17th century Bratislava Castle, is the aptly-named Blue Church. Initially painted in light pastels to lighten up the oval-shaped interior, this church dedicated to Elisabeth of Hungary was later repainted in dozens of shades of blue: the walls (both interior and exterior), alter, mosaics, the tower, the roof tiles. All varying degrees of blue, azure, cobalt, sapphire, cerulean, periwinkle, indigo. Built at the start of the 20th century, the evocative church utilises Hungarian Art Nouveau style. Art Nouveau is a short-lived but wildly-popular style that took Europe by storm at the turn of the century, and is characterised by its use of natural shapes and structures, curvy and fluid lines, as well as incorporation of graceful plants and flowers. Though this movement was started in the UK, it was France where it really took off, influencing architectural styles, art, sculpture and design across the main urban areas of Europe. This wildly unique style’s life was cut short by the sharp simplicity of Art Deco and even worse, the drab boxiness of Modernism – but not before the elegance of the Art Nouveau movement had spread its wings throughout Europe. From Riga to France, this Art Nouveau’s fingers left behind some of the strangest and most intriguing architectural wonders in modern Europe.
Welcome to Ostrów Tumski, or Cathedral Island, hugging the Odra River in the centre of Wrocław. The oldest region of the city, Ostrów Tumski is no longer an island, though this ancient place is still home to some of Wrocław’s most impressive religious sites, as well as adorable cobblestoned streets. The orange-roofed Church of the Holy Cross is a brick, Gothic-style church that was once used by ethnic Germans while the city was still behind German lines before WWII (Wrocław has at times been a part of Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, Habsburg Monarchy, Prussia, German Empire, Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany). For both a bird’s eye view and a dive into the religious and civil history of the city, a visit to Wrocław Cathedral is in order – culminating with a not-for-the-faint-hearted climb up one of its massive towers. The origins of the present structure date to the 1150s after the Polish conquest of the region of Silesia and the founding of Wrocław as its capital, though the cathedral was rebuilt following various trending styles through the ages. Today a thriving student town as well as one of Poland‘s (and Eastern Europe‘s) most important financial, cultural and commercial hubs, Wrocław is place of beauty, intrigue, and good-natured charm.
Crash! One of the largest canvases in the world, West Berliners began painting on the 14-foot wall in the 1980’s while the corresponding East Berlin Wall remained immaculate – guards would not let East Berliners approach the Wall on pain of death (fearing escape attempts). First constructed in 1961 to separate the two countries, the Berlin Wall (especially the western side) later became what Facebook is today: a relatively uncontrolled blank slate on which people can express opinions, feelings, and dreams. In one mural, a car – a white Trabant – is depicted crashing through the Berlin Wall. Trabants were a popular East German car brand, and despite being cute and bug-eyed, the reinforced plastic cars were poorly made and notoriously hard to drive – though East Germans were desperate to get one, so desperate that they had to sign up on a list just to be considered for ownership. Trabants then became a symbol of the communist East Germany, and ceased to be manufactured after the fall of wall. It’s not hard to understand what the artist was trying to depict here: an East German in his or her iconic East German car crashing through the oppressive and separatist Berlin Wall after it fell in 1989.
On the shores of Lake Ohrid sits the ancient town of the same name. Historic, storied, beautiful – Ohrid is a place that stirs up emotion from within. It is indeed ancient – churches like the one here may date as far back as the 800s…! Built in the Byzantine style, it was not unusual for such churches to be converted to mosques during the Ottoman rule. Despite the fact that the Ottomans were supposedly open-minded when it came to religion, this apparently did not affect the church-to-mosque conversion. The best way to get a feel for old Ohrid is simply to stroll around this ancient place littered with Byzantine churches, beautiful quirky houses, cobblestone alleys, and an ancient Roman theatre. Find a cafe and relax outside on a terrace. Duck inside an ancient church to admire the ancient motifs painted on the walls and ceilings. Explore the ruins of the old fortress tucked inside the old city. Climb to the top of the hill and find a place to settle down and enjoy the magnificent panoramas of Ohrid town and lake – Ohrid the Beautiful awaits.
Cobblestones underfoot reverberate with the echoes of footsteps, the clink of silverware at a local cafe and the laughter of children playing in the narrow alleyways. The perfectly preserved medieval streets and facades of ancient Tallinn directly contrast with the advanced techosphere hidden just beneath the surface of the city nicknamed the ‘Silicon Valley of Europe.’ It has one of the highest ratio of start-ups per population throughout Europe – Skype being the most famous of them all. The capital of Estonia has slowly become recognised as one of the main IT centre of Europe – Tallinn currently provides NATO’s cybersecurity (home to the NATO Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence), it is set to house the headquarters of the European Union’s IT agency, and has been ranked as the most competitive financial hub of Northern Europe. Quite the achievement for this beautifully small and oft forgotten capital tucked into a remote corner of Europe! Tallinn is perhaps the perfect blend of old and new: the medieval streets and architecture of Tallinn, including the Viru Gates in the photo, have merited the city a spot on UNESCO‘s list – and yet, it also catches the eye of many the enterprising digital start-up. The Viru Gate, a barbican within the ancient city walls, was part of Tallinn’s medieval defensive walls that still encircle much of the city. Though partially destroyed to accommodate horse-drawn carriages and trams, the Viru Gate still dispenses Tallinn’s unique flavour in the brisk Baltic air.
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.