Inside the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia
Entering the Hermitage Museum in the heart of the majestic St Petersburg, prepare to be overcome with opulence, elegance, and riches that would put a golden-hoarding dragon to shame. Though there are six buildings comprising the Hermitage, it is the Winter Palace that gets the glory. Founded in 1764 by none other than Empress Catherine the Great, the Hermitage is the world’s 2nd-largest art museum (after the Louvre). Some 3 million artefacts form part of the Hermitage’s collection, though most of these aren’t on permanent display. But the real museum here for architect and history geeks like myself is the building itself. Once home to a string of opulent Russian rulers, the rooms of the Winter Palace are a wonder to behold. If the above photo is just the entrance hall, what other magnificence might the other rooms hold? The Hermitage (and St Petersburg itself) is one of those places that should be on any list of amazing places to go, particularly for anyone who loves art, museums, history, architecture, grandeur, or photography.
Pro tip: Leave yourself plenty of time. This is a massive museum and given how difficult it is to get to Russia (particularly navigating getting visas), this might be your one chance to visit it. Don’t rush it – leave yourself the whole day to explore the Hermitage. If you finish earlier than that, then find yourself a nice place for a wee pivo (beer).
Small and quaint, Bagnols is a firm member of the so-called ‘Golden Villages’ of the Beaujolais region in central France, just north of Lyon. While not an official member of the “Most Beautiful Villages in France” list, Bagnols is widely considered to be one of the Beaujolais’ loveliest little secret spots. Tucked well into the southern slopes of the Beaujolais, the village of Bagnols has ties to the middle ages and the Renaissance. The château (now a hotel) is 13th century, while the village church is 15th century. There’s even a Napoleonic statue from 1804. As with most villages and towns in the Beaujolais, wine-making and viticulture has been the prominent industry, and Bagnols is no exception. The golden-green hills surrounding the village are lined with vineyards and vines, and good (cheap) wine is easy to come by here, and throughout the Beaujolais and wider Rhône region. Though quarrying is no longer occurring here, once upon a time, there was a local quarry where the gorgeous golden stones you see in Bagnols came from, as well as other golden villages throughout this beautiful and over-looked region.
Protip: There are many good “sentiers” (ie waymarked trails) weaving throughout the Beaujolais for those who like hiking. There are many different Beaujolais wines – you may want to start your journey with a wine tasting – there are many vineyards that offer this, or find one in Villefranche the regional capital.
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Oingt – Officially, a member of the “Most Beautiful Villages in France”
Kiev’s first UNESCO site, the 13 spires of the 11th century Byzantine St Sophia Cathedral contrast wildly with the more modern concrete blocks courtesy of communism. Named for the famous church-turned-mosque the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul/Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia is one of the best architectural relics of the Kievan Rus. With ground broken in 1011, St Sophia’s Cathedral celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2011! Like many religious buildings, its history has been far from peaceful. St Sophia was pillaged in 1169 and again in 1240, leading to abandonment and disrepair, including the loss of irreplaceable wall paintings. It was later damaged again in the 1500s when Poland and Ukraine joined forces in a misguided (and doomed to fail) attempt to unite the Catholic and Orthodox churches. It was claimed by several Orthodox communities – notably, the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church and the Moldavian Orthodox Church, who made repairs to St Sophia in the Ukrainian Baroque style. The Soviets wanted to destroy the cathedral and turn it into park, and indeed they managed to do so with St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery at the other end of the boulevard. But its popularity and reputation caused many to speak for the cathedral and St Sophia was saved, instead being turned into a history museum. And today, due to arguments over which branch of Orthodoxy should hold the rights to this ancient place, St Sophia remains a museum, frequented more by tourists than by members of the Orthodox community.
Pro tip: Things in the Ukraine follow their own rules and opening hours. Be sure to arrive early and be ready to wait if they say its not open. Special rates for students. Be sure to visit St Michael’s afterwards!
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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