City of Arts & Sciences (Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias), Valencia, Spain
Some of Europe’s strangest architecture can be found in Spain – from Bilbao’s famous Guggenheim Museum to Gaudi’s everything (Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, Parc Guell and of course Sagrada Familia Cathedral). As one of the 12 Treasures of Spain and Valencia’s most visited site, the bizarre architecture of Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences deserves to be on the same list. Covering roughly two kilometres of the former riverbed of the River Turia, this bizarre complex is a homage to modern arts and architecture, yes, but also to science, culture and technology. An opera house, a science museum, an IMAX cinema, a vastly diverse park with walking paths along an open-air arts gallery, an aquarium and a concert venue make up this colourfully bizarre futurist complex. Contrasting strangely with Valencia’s old town, both halves of the city are worth the visit!
This structure needs no introduction. Perhaps the most famous landmark in the world, did you know that in the beginning of its existence, the Eiffel Tower was nearly unanimously hated by artists and citizens alike? French writer Guy de Maupassant disliked it so much that he’s said to have routinely dined in the tower’s restaurant as it was the one place in Paris where the tower was not visible. Indeed. The Eiffel Tower was built over a two-year period to welcome people to 1889’s World’s Fair, the 100-year anniversary of the storming of the Bastille (fairgrounds included a reconstruction of the Bastille!). At the time, the World’s Fair was a big deal, and much like today’s Olympics, huge constructions were built to impress Fair visitors; each year’s host trying to out-do the previous host (the now-nonexistent London Crystal Palace was another famed World Fair creation as was Seattle’s Space Needle). The Eiffel Tower was France’s response. Originally meant to be demolished at the end of the Fair, it quickly became not only the symbol of the 1889 World Fair, but also the symbol of Paris, the most visited (paid) monument worldwide, and for 41 years, the world’s tallest building. Designed by Gustav Eiffel (the man who designed the interior support system of New York’s Statue of Liberty), the Eiffel Tower is still a unique, iconic and wildly-beloved monument of France and the City of Lights. France is a country resistant to fast change, but if they eventually came to love the Eiffel Tower as a symbol of fin de siècle France, hopefully the Louvre Pyramids, Centre Pompidou, and other modernist or postmodernist designs will eventually be welcomed as symbols of a modern Paris. (Or not?)
The 12th century Chateau des Adhémar remains one of the last true examples of Romanesque architecture, a style defined by rounded arches, thick walls, squat towers and sturdy pillars. This study, box-like castle was built atop a sunburnt hill which overlooks the orange-tiled, sunny town of Montélimar (located in the Drôme department in the south of France). Appropriated by the papacy in the 14th century until 1447 when it re-entered the Kingdom of France, the castle has been used as papal residence, an armament for several conflicts and wars, a citadel, a prison, a country residence, and now a contemporary art museum. In fact, Chateau des Adhémar was largely saved in the last few centuries as it was put to use as a prison. The famed loggia, or loge, with the striped design and rounded windows attached to the main keep was added during the Renaissance to ‘beautify’ what was considered a ‘plain’ Romanesque design. The beautiful Renaissance loggia was also built to add light to formerly gloomy rooms as well as show off the expansive countryside on Chateau des Adhémar’s toes. Located in the inner courtyard is the ancient 11th century St Pierre Chapel. Once a part of the wide-reaching monastic network centred at the Monastery of Ile Barbe in Lyon, the simple Romanesque chapel was later incorporated into the castle complex by the powerful Adhémar family. Today, the castle is a fine example of Romanesque and Renaissance architecture, as well as the modern art movement. It offers splendid aerial views of Montélimar and is a perfect stop on a road trip heading from Lyon to Nimes, Avignon, Montpellier or any other destinations in Southern France!
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The Principality of Liechtenstein is a micro-country snuggled deep within the massive mountains of the Alps. With 38,000 citizens spread over several ‘cities’ (each with a couple thousand people, they are more like villages), Liechtenstein feels more like a single vast town than a proper country. But a real country it is – and for a long time, this real country was known as a millionaire and billionaire tax haven. Headquarters to many international companies and banks, Liechtenstein has one of (if not the highest) GDPs per person in the world and one of the lowest unemployment rates – 1.5%! The small capital of Vaduz has a distinctly Germanic Alpine feel – the above town hall and cathedral fit the style perfectly. Yet the quirky modern art displays and the glossy windows of the fancy banks remind us that Liechtenstein rests firmly in the 21st century. Sitting on a backdrop of mountains and castles, some of which are still owned by the royal family, Vaduz fells fallen out of a German fairy tale – the Brothers Grimm and the Black Forest do not seem so far away. Though you can drive from one end of the country to the other in 30 minutes, this micro-country packs a bundle: admire formidable fortresses like Vaduz Castle and visit the museum in Gutenberg Castle, hike through the dark Alpine forests in the summer and ski the dark snow-capped mountains in the winter, wander the streets of Vaduz, Schaan and Balzers, or enjoy a glass of the locally-grown red wine.
The sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, palm trees loom in the city centre as people happily stroll down the streets, and everything covered in the lovely golden glow of the afternoon sun. Where am I? California? Florida? The Caribbean? The Mediterranean? Spain? Portugal? Italy? Thailand?! Nope, nope, nope. Believe it or not, this palm tree is in Warsaw. Poland. But isn’t Poland really cold? Isn’t it mostly landlocked? Isn’t it snowy and grey and miserable?! Well…not always. It can be warm and sunny and blue-skied, if you know when to go! That said, this palm tree isn’t real. It’s a plastic statue built by artist Joanna Rajkowska as part of the Centre for Contemporary Art. It was only supposed to be displayed for one year (Dec 2002-Dec 2003) but it was so popular that it stayed. While it’s fun to confuse the newcomers (“just head south through the old town, turn left at the palm tree and cross the bridge”…huh!?), it does get pretty bizarre and even a little depressing in winter when the tree’s fantastic palms become snow-laden and hidden in fog.
What you you think of when someone says “Milan,” “Italy” and “art” in the same sentence? For most of us, it’s marble statues of naked, beautiful but armless women, magnificent painted masterpieces the size of your bedroom, and artistic greats like Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Botticelli, Caravaggio and Donatello, right? Well, how about an enormous, white, volcano-shaped mound with what looks like giant toy horses popping out of it and tumbling down the sides, in the middle of a the cathedral square? Hmm. Well, it’s certainly unexpected! Milan is already a surprise because it is often overlooked or thrown onto an itinerary as a wildcard; yet, Milan is one of the nicest Italian cities. Cleaner, calmer, and more functional than Southern Italy (sorry, but true), it’s also quite a pretty place. The Piazza del Duomo square, probably the most elegant square in the city, is the cultural and social heart of Milan; it’s also where this statue is located. Though as for the statue…besides its central location, little information is available on it. The best I can find is, “A modern art exhibit in the Piazza,” which is, well, vague. It’s very interesting though, and as Milan is the site of Da Vinici’s well-known horse statue with its tragic history as follows – started in 1482 but never completed by the master artist, later destroyed by marauding French soldiers in 1499 and not to be completed for 5 centuries – perhaps this modern art piece is a nod to that? Or perhaps it is a comment on today’s society, comparing us to stiff, faceless toy horses struggling to climb out of an suffocating mountain of salt and sand. Perhaps it’s just something to turn heads and differentiate Milan from the rest of Italy’s “big” cities. Whatever it is, it’s definitely unexpected!
Walking in downtown Lyon, you’ll first find Place Bellecour, the largest open-air square in Europe (as in, the largest without obstructions in the middle of it). You’ll see Fourvière at the top on the hill—that impressive cathedral that sits next to the Roman amphitheater of the same name. If you wander a bit more, you might spot a strange plastic tree made out of colourful flowers the size of tires on Antonin Poncet Square that looks like it belongs to Dr. Seuss. Designed by the Korean Jeong-Hwa Choi, it was for the 7th biennial festival of Contemporary Art in Lyon called “It Happened Tomorrow” (2003—2004). “Flower Tree” became so popular that the city of Lyon decided to plant it permanently by the banks of the Rhône. Interestingly enough, it seems to have a twin in Shanghai on Gubei Road. People didn’t originally like it, but, as with most contemporary art, they grew to appreciate it over time.
Welcome to Valencia’s odd opera house, standing in the midst of the modernist complex of La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (the City of Arts and Sciences) – the exact opposite of Vienna’s very traditional opera house. Opening in 2006 and rising 75 meters off the ground, it is the tallest opera house in the world, and certainly one of the strangest. Resembling a strange-looking space helmet, or perhaps a scurrying beetle, it is indeed a unique and unforgettable place to see a ballet, opera, dance, theatre or concert! Even if the opera doesn’t interest you, a mere walk through the whole complex will yield breath-taking results.
Pro tip: Though the buildings are cool from the outside, they are also worth a visit to see what’s inside. The science museum is especially good – full of interesting interactive exhibits for adults and kids alike!
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