The Palace of Culture and Science ((Pałac Kultury i Nauki in Polish) was originally built by and named for its creator, Joseph Stalin. Much hated by the Varsovians, during the “destalinization” of Poland, Stalin’s named was effaced from the palace. It has many nicknames – Pekin (its abbreviation, PKiN, sounds similar); pajac (meaning clown), Stalin’s Needle, or my favourite, Chuj Stalina, which means (you guessed it) Stalin’s Dick. It is a hated monument. Varsovians joke that the Palace of Culture and Science offers the best view of Warsaw because it’s the only place in the city where the Palace itself doesn’t ruin the view! Erected in 1955 and meant as a “gift” from Stalin to the Polish people (thanks Stalin, much appreciated…), it was built in the Communist totalitarianism style common in USSR-controlled territories (the most famous being the Seven Sisters of Moscow). After WWII, Poland was under Russian rule. The war destroyed some 85% of Warsaw, leaving massive piles of rubble, en masse homelessness and thousands of displaced families. It was the Communist Russians who rebuilt the city (the Old Town is really only half a century old, though based on what the city looked like with smuggled blueprints, paintings and memories). But outside the old town, much of Warsaw has the typical “communist look” – concrete functionalist totalitarianism style favoured by the USSR – with the Palace of Culture and Science the biggest and baddest of all the Stalinist architecture. Today, the palace hosts exhibits, office space, an omniplex, museums of technology and evolution, a pool, a university, shops and of course the observation tower. Though some say that the Palace of Culture and Science is a symbol of Warsaw’s rebirth, persistence and strength in face of adversary, if you want to see this controversial tower, we suggest that go now as many have called for its demolition.
Pro tip: Want to know more about Warsaw in WWII? Visit the fantastic Warsaw Uprising museum. Then take a walk through what used to be the Jewish ghetto (marked with brass lines on the street) to get a wider sense of everyday Soviet-era architecture. There is also a memorial to a Gestapo prison in this neighbourhood (Muzeum Więzienia Pawiak). And of course as mentioned above, take the chance to get the lift to the 30th floor for the panoramic view of the city.
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain conjures up images of a strange and futuristic community, a space-age society perhaps found in the cartoonish Meet the Jetsons or the comedic Fifth Element. Certainly among of Europe’s strangest architectural icons, the Guggenheim was designed by futuristic Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry who was encouraged to “design something daring,” and adorned with artwork such as Puppy (a giant dog made of flowers), and large metallic balloon animals created by American artist Jeff Koons. Erected in 1997, the Guggenheim Museum houses a collection of modern and contemporary art as part of both permanent and revolving exhibitions across various medias. Bilbao may seem like an odd place for such a museum. Built in the seedy, dilapidated docks district of Bilbao, the Guggenheim Museum was commissioned by the Basque government as a way to bring tourism into this little-visited region, rejuvenating not only the now-abandoned docks but also the under-appreciated Basque country. Today, it routinely makes lists of most important and admired contemporary buildings not just in Spain or Europe, but worldwide.
Amidst Brexit shenanigans, London remains both irrevocably changed as well as the same wonderful place it has always been. One thing that London does so well – and so much better than any other city in Europe – is perfectly blend the old and the new. No where else can the Globe, the Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral sit together in perfect harmony on two sides of the mighty Thames River and seem to complement each other so perfectly. Here London is up to its old tricks again. Stroll through the ultra modern architecture of City Hall and the London Riverside to admire the light and airy glass and steel manipulated into curvy and wavy lines – which contrasts steadily with the Victorian-era and icon of English historical landmarks, London’s Tower Bridge. Built in the 1890s, this dual-functioning bridge allows pedestrians and vehicle to cross while also working as a drawbridge for passing ships and barges on the Thames. London may be a massive city but the best way to explore its nooks and crannies is by picking a direction and starting to walk – no matter how many times you visit, you never know what gem you may happen to find!
Pro tip: The Tower Bridge (not to be confused with London Bridge) is free to walk across but there is a fee of £9.80 to enter the towers (open 9.30 – 17.30) – once engine rooms and now exhibitions.
Is it a spaceship? A torpedo? Or just a really unusual church? One of Reykjavik’s – and Iceland’s – most iconic landmarks, the ultra modern Hallsgrimkirkja Church in downtown Reykjavik is somehow also reminiscent of the dramatic and bizarre worlds found inside of the Icelandic Sagas. The Hallsgrimkirkja also sports an observation deck for aerial city views and a statue of Leif Eriksson, the man often credited as the first European to arrive in the Americas hundreds of years before Columbus. Only finished in 1986 and standing atop one of Reykjavik’s highest points, the Hallsgrimkirkja is some 74 metres high, making it the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest structures on the island. Iceland is a strange place. Remote, isolated, cold, inhospitable, Iceland is also home to some of the most enduring tradition, mythology and storytelling in Europe. For such a small, remote place, this Nordic country is one of Europe’s most progressive. Home to about 340,000 people (of which nearly half [122,000] live in the capital), it actually has one of the lowest (if not the lowest) unemployment rates, one of the highest standards of living, and some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes – including some spectacular volcanoes – in the whole world. In the winter, it might still be light out at midnight or later, meaning that in the winter, some days only see a few hours of daylight (though on the up side, that means higher chances of spotting the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights!). It is a country of myth and legend, of fire and snow, of ancient and modern. This small place packs a bundle!
Pro tip: Though only available to those ready to brave the cold (even in summer), it is actually possible to SCUBA dive between two tectonic plates – it doesn’t get cooler than that! For those who prefer to stay a bit warmer (or to warm up afterwards), Reykjavik and Iceland in general is full of hot springs heated naturally by the piping hot water from the volcanoes. Whether you prefer a dramatic outdoor pool or a modern pool in the city, there are plenty of options (though as this is popular with tourists and locals alike, don’t expect it to yourself. Iceland is sadly victim to overtourism from the mass cruise industry).
Gaudi is possibly the greatest thing to come from Barcelona! Born 1852, Antoni Gaudi is the most famous architect from Catalonia (and Spain), as well as a trendsetter in modern architecture, particularly Catalan modernism, or modernista. Organic and flowing, Gaudi’s buildings were inspired by the harmony of man, nature and religion. A mix of modern architecture, art nouveau, neo-gothic with a bit of his own bizarre or absurd additions sprinkled in, Gaudi has become one of the most recognisable architects of the 20th century. In fact, his most famous work the Sagrada Familia cathedral, is still being completed. Other famous works found on the Block of Discord (a city block of unusual architecture), including Casa Mila, as well as Casa Batllo, as seen here. Remodelled at the turn of the century by Gaudi, this fin de siecle Casa Batllo uses almost no straight lines. Its facade is a quilt of broken mosaics and on the roof, the back of a dragon rises up, coupled with a cross thought to represent Catalonia’s patron saint, St George (who once slayed a dragon). Wavy, rounded stain glass windows look out onto the street, turning ordinary Barcelona into something magical and out of this world. The building is collection of apartments centred around an extravagant stairwell. Today, you can visit some of the rooms, where you can see a collection of art nouveau furniture as well as modern art exhibits. In the attic, explore the attic vaulting reminiscent of a giant animal’s ribcage, similar to the apartment mentioned in Dan Brown’s 2017 book, Origin (though his character actually inhabits Casa Mila).
Pro tip: Barcelona is a hotspot for pickpockets – be careful with your affairs, don’t carry more than you need, and be wary of any distraction schemes!
Just south of the great French city of Lyon is the orange-topped suburb of Givors, huddled on the banks of the thundering Rhone River. It would be an unremarkable, cheerful little place with all the usual amenities found in French towns – cheerful boulangeries, leaf-strewn squares, poorly-parked cars, schools emitting the playful laughter, terraces serving the local plats du jour and vin de table. Givors could easily be overlooked as ordinary – if not for its strange and evocative Cité des Etoiles – the City of Stars. 270 interlocked apartments and businesses climb the hillside – each visibly in the unusual shape of a star. Part of the “Achieved Utopias” movement that swept through Lyon (largely thanks to famed urban architect Tony Garnier of the 1920s and 30s), the City of Stars was a project born in the 1970s at the behest of Givors’ mayor, Camille Vallin, who dreamed of quality but attractively-priced lodgings in downtown Givors permitting each resident to have their own garden. This great architectural undertaking evokes the socialist, urbanist and Utopic ideas and movements that swept through France – and beyond to Europe in general – throughout the 20th century. Made of cement – a favourite French building material even today – the City of Stars hangs from the steep slopes under the watchful eye of the old, crumbling Château Saint-Gérald. Though little remains of the once-magnificent castle, the ancient place and the amazing panorama it affords, is ample reward for the short climb.
Pro tip: The City of Stars is located very close to the Gare de Givors, about 30 minutes south of Lyon, and there are also several Lyon city buses to Givors that leave from Gare d’Oullins. Wander amongst the stars yourself or better yet, get a guided tour offered by the local tourism office. Keep in mind that people still live here! The castle is located above the City of Stars and can be accessed by a narrow path behind the City of Stars.
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!
As the world evolves, so does our sense of architectural beauty. Being subjective, the cliche rings true: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This dictum certainly holds water in the modernist/futurist architecture that peppers cities like Valencia, London, Bilbao, Warsaw, Vienna, Lyon and others. Originally built atop Fourviere Hill, Lyon is an ancient Roman city that slowly expanded eastwards, across the Saone River, then across the Rhone River. Where the two rivers meet – the confluence – there was once unusable swampland. Drained, it first was an industrial hub (it’s across from the former dockyards, now an up-and-coming almost-hipster neighbourhood), and the remains of old warehouses, factories, shipyards, and railways is still seen. Rather than destroy them, the city repurposed them – the old sugar factory is now an art gallery, for example, and the old custom house is now offices and a restaurant. The rest of the ultramodern Confluence neighbourhood has been inspired by and modelled on its former industrial history. Apartment blocks resemble shipping containers, 20th century factories, goods warehouses and more. Even the mall bears resemblance to this architecture. The above building is the Musee des Confluences, a futuristic steel-and-glass throwback (and throw-forward) to the Confluences past and future. Commanding the tip of the rivers’ confluence, the museum houses exhibits on evolution and science. It is this glittering, reflective, glassy structure vaguely resembling a ship and ever-popular with skateboarders that is the first thing visitors arriving from the south will see – so it is only fitting then that it is here the city chose to place their sign bearing Lyon’s catch-phrase: ONLYLYON. As a former resident of this city, I quite agree.
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 exotic-sounding words Zubri Zuri simply means ‘white bridge’ in Basque, the local language of Bilbao and the surrounding Pais Vasco(Basque Country). Euskara, or Basque in English, is a fascinating language that, interestingly enough, has no ties to any other Indo-European languages! Bilbao and Basque Country are truly unique. Connecting the more modern side of Bilbao with the more historic side since 1997, the bizarre modern design of Zubri Zuri sports a curved walkway, overhanging arch, translucent glass bricks, and zigzaging ramps. Built as a pedestrian route to allow tourists to reach the even more bizarre Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao, Zubri Zuri Bridge has become a tourist attraction in its own right. Though a convenient way to get to the Guggenheim Museum and certainly worth the experience of crossing this unusual bridge, at some point be sure to walk along the River Nervion opposite of the Guggenheim for phenomenal views of the iconic museum’s strange futurist architecture! One of the things that Bilbao does best is the melding of old and new – Bilbao’s extensive Old Town’s meandering streets, beautiful churches, quiet alleys and quirky shops contrast well to the shining skyscrapers, quirky futuristic architecture and intriguing street art of the West Bilbao. Wander from Bilbao from west to east as you slowly go back in time in this strange but enticing Spanish city (is it really Spanish? Some would disagree…but that’s a discussion for another day) in northern Spain.