A sort of Spanish Versailles, Aranjuez Palace is a massive royal complex roughly an hour from Madrid, though it is lesser-known than its French counterpart. A former royal residence established during the era of Philip II in the early 1500s, the Palace of Aranjuez once functioned as a seasonal residence, inhabited by the royals and their entourage each springtime. Encapsulating the utter extravagance and overabundance of the wealth, power and influence the royal family once held, the palatial space allowed them to host enormously opulent and excessive Great Gatsby style parties. Though today the Spanish royal family is little more than a symbol, it is still a powerful symbol of conservatism, religion, and traditional values, not always keeping up with the modern world. Today however, the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, a UNESCO protected site, is open to the public as a museum, displaying art, furniture, royal artefacts and more, offering a cheeky peak behind the royal curtain of what being part of the Spanish royal family and its court actually meant. To get there, take the local commuter train from Madrid’s central stations to Aranjuez and walk 15 minutes to the palace at the centre of town; last entry is one hour before closing.
Interior Statues of the Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), Austria
Pure decadence, exorbitant elegance, genteel allure, stunning beauty. Welcome to the Staatsoper, Vienna’s State Opera House. The first of the extravagant buildings on Vienna‘s most famed street, the Ringstrasse (now a designated UNESCO site), the Staatsoper was opened to the genteel Austrian public in 1869. Built in the Neo-Renaissance style, the building was surprisingly unpopular with said genteel Viennese. (It somehow was not considered grand enough. You have to wonder about that genteel 19th century high society…). Then on the fateful night of March 12th, 1945, inferno rained down upon Vienna’s opera house, dropped by US bombers. Fire poured from the sky, bombs exploded in the streets, and flames ate their way through the Ringstrasse. Though the angry flames could not get into the walled-off foyer and fresco-filled stairways, the auditorium and 150,000 costumes for 120+ operas went up in smoke. When WWII was finally over, it was debated: shall we rebuild the originally unpopular building as per original design, or do we redesign it to modern tastes? Thank goodness the former option was chosen, and the Wiener Staatsoper was rebuilt in all its former glory (and happily, it is now beloved by Viennese and foreigners alike). Today, you can’t visit musical Vienna, home (at one point or another) to such musicians as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Chopin and Mahler, without visiting the opera. Loiter inside the foyer for a bit and if you have time, buy yourself a ticket to the opera or ballet. If you’re a budget traveller, queue in the ‘standing’ line in the afternoon to buy a €3 or €4 ‘standing’ ticket (arrive 3hrs prior to the show’s start; once you’ve got your ticket, tie a scarf to mark your spot and head out for a bite to eat). Be sure to dedicate plenty of time to explore the palatial building – frescos, statues, paintings, vast staircases and awe-inspiring architecture await!
Neuschwanstein Castle Cloaked in Forest and Mist, Germany
Rising romantically out of the mist is the majestic white turrets of Neuschwanstein Castle. Somewhat reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm, of all of Germany‘s fairy tale castles, Neuschwanstein Castles wins gold for fairytale extravagance. In fact, the castle, built 1869-86 (though never completed) is generally credited with inspiring Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland, California! Commissioned by King Ludwig II of Bavaria and dedicated to composer Richard Wagner, the magical Neuschwanstein Castle is located a stone’s throw from the far more demure Hohenschwangau Castle, ancestral home to the royal family (though not good enough for ambitious Ludwig’s refined and ostentatious tastes). Instead, Ludwig required a more flamboyant residence in which to flex his power (not unlike the popes of the Avignon Papacy and their enormous palace). The completed rooms in Neuschwanstein are all elaborately carved, lavishly furnished and thoroughly gilded – and the swan motif giving the castle its name is everywhere. There are long, bejewelled corridors, dizzyingly vast courtyards and high flying turrets. Best of all, there’s even a mysterious grotto based on a German myth… inside the castle (not a joke…)! The grotto even once had a waterfall and rainbow-maker. The white turrets of this German fairytale castle are cloaked in thick mist and dark, silent forests crossed with forlorn paths (reminiscent of the Black Forest), making it easy to imagine a Disney princess or two locked in a tower, tasting a poisoned apple, losing a magical slipper or pricking her dainty finger on a spinning wheel here at Neuschwanstein. Though most German castles seem straight out of a fairytale (see Hohenzollern for another example), Neuschwanstein is certainly queen of all. Tip: due to the castle’s enormous popularity, visit off-season and go for a morning visit. Be sure to visit the nearby Hohenschwangau Castle, the royal grounds as well as the path that leads to the Marion Bridge for the famous view of the castle across the gorge! Keep in mind that sadly, there’s a strictly enforced no photography rule inside the castle…a shame, for the castle’s interior seems something that could only exist in Beauty and the Beast’s castle.
The Roman city of Nîmes has been a splendid city in the south of France for thousands of years. Known for its chic boutiques, terrific Roman ruins (including the amazing Roman Arena), and mild Mediterranean climate, Nîmes has long been regarded as one of France’s most beautiful cities – and best-kept secrets of France’s Languedoc-Roussillon/Midi-Pyrenees region. But not all of Nîmes is ancient. The Romans built a spring (the Spring of Nemo) and decorated it with a temple (now gone). But in the 1700s, the growing city needed a better source of safe drinking water, and therefore opted to construct a network of canals. Ulterior motives included powering Nîmes’ mills to sustain its’ top-ranking position in the textile industry as well as the indigo dying industry for a new product, serge de Nîmes, better known today as denim (from the French, ‘de’ or ‘from’ Nîmes; indeed, thank Nîmes for your jeans!). The project became a grand affair, and included a beautiful park laced with ornate statues, exotic gardens, and of course, the wide, boulevardesque canals. They were the first gardens in France created for the benefit of the public, not royalty. Today’s visitors to Nîmes who wander the park and the canals will still feel the glamour and elegance that exudes off these complex and orate 18th century creations, so important to the Nîmois.
Few places can supersede Vienna for splendour or elegance, and one of reasons for this comes in the shape of the splendid Belvedere Palace. Baroque to the core, the massive estate comprises of the Upper and Lower buildings, the Orangery, the Old Stables, the beautiful jardins francais modelled on Versailles and many intertwining paths amongst the flower beds, marble sculptures, tree-lined paths. In a way, we can thank the Ottoman Empire for this marble monument: the Belvedere was built during a period of renewed construction by the Hapsburg family after the successful end to the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire into Central Europe. Much like the Belevedere, the city of Vienna itself isa work of marble and art: from the soaring grey towers of St Stephen’s Cathedral to the massive Staatsoper opera house, from the seat of power at the Hofburg Palace to the many marble and bronze statues scattered around the broad avenues and finally to the many cafes that have made this city famous. Walking Vienna’s avenues and boulevards and gardens is like visiting a living museum, one dedicated to Baroque and Art Nouveau and Gothic styles. From the historic extravagance of the cafes to the vast grandeur of the palaces, Vienna will make you feel like royalty in another era.
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 1964and 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-too-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 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.
Splendor. Grandeur. Elegance. Beauty. Magnifigance. Luxury. Marble. Sophisticated. Refined. These are just a few words we associate with the splendid Austrian capital that is Vienna. Old world charm, the age of the steam engine, the golden days, the Victorian era. Vienna, for one reason or another, seems trapped in a snow globe from the turn of the century. It is a city full of grand palaces, of tree-lined avenues, of magnificent churches, of stately gardens, of bustling cafes. Exquisite sculptures like the one above seem to stroll through the city, and fountains trickle in marble basins. This is city that gave us the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, the Empress Maria Theresa, the doomed Marie Antoinette, the scientist Schrödinger and his famed cat. It is the Capital of Classical Music, a hub that entices some of the best classical musicians to call Vienna home: Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and of course the infamous Mozart. The Pole Fryderyk Chopin (better known as “Frédéric”) made his debut here. Franz Liszt, the composer Gustav Mahler (buried in Vienna), Max Steiner, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Antonio Vivaldi,Anton Bruckner, Johann Strauss senior and junior – they were all here. This is a city that exudes music. This is a city where you can see an opera for €3. This is a city were there is classical music playing even in the public toilets. Music, marble and cafes – the three things make Vienna the elegant exemplar that it is today.
No, the metro doesn’t sound like a prime tourist destination, and no, this doesn’t much look like a metro station–especially in Russia! But in both cases, you’d be wrong. Ignoring a trip to the Moscow metro, particularly the brown line, would be a mistake since it’s one of Moscow’s many beautiful sights! The Кольцевая (pronounced ‘koltseviya’) line is the oldest one (built in the 1950s)–and the prettiest. As it’s commonly drawn as a perfect circle on metro maps, the old joke is that when originally constructing the metro, Stalin put his coffee mug down on the plans, leaving a perfect, brown circle–but the workers were too scared of him to ask if he meant to put the circle on the map or not, so they built it anyway! This of course is just a funny anecdote, but there is no doubt that the Koltseviya Line stations are beautiful, nostalgically reminiscent of bygone times of marble banks, elegant halls, or grand operas. Pictured here is the Komsomolskaya Station, one of Moscow’s busiest stations as it is located under the train station. It’s also a contender for the most beautiful on the circle line! Though the idea may seem a little bizarre to you, it’s worth it to take an hour or so and tour the Moscow metro! There’s even a free tour you can take if you have time. Either way, Russian metro is worth visiting–there is a museum of a bygone golden era hidden below your feet!