Macedonia isn’t on most people’s radar, likely because most people don’t know the country exists. Technically called North Macedonia (or more specifically the Republic of North Macedonia) because we can’t offend the Greeks. In short, the country was called Macedonia until recently, but its name alone meant that Greece wouldn’t recognise it as a country because petty Greece also has a region of the same name, so Macedonia had to change theirs. (Thanks, Greece, that’s very mature. Moldova and Romania seem to get along alright.) Greece might get all the tourism attention, but the secretive nature of Macedonia, its forgotten ruins and fascinating bazaars add an extra exotic flair lost in the crowds of Santorini. The government has put a lot of funds and effort into renovating downtown Skopje, Macedonia’s capitol. Today, the downtown area of Skopje is very modern, and very western, while the domes, minarets and narrow alleys of another era are relegated further down in Skopje’s old town, in the shadow of the fortress. While the bazaar is the soul of Skopje, Macedonia Square is at the heart of the city. The largest square in the whole country, it was here that Kiro Gligorov, Macedonia’s first president, declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. The city’s summer festivities, political demonstrations and even Christmas markets all take place in the massive Macedonia Square. In the centre of the plaza is the massive statue that commemorates the most famous Macedonian ever to exist, the legendary conquerer Alexander the Great. If you haven’t figured it out yet – he’s the massive dude riding the rearing horse on the enormous pedestal in the centre.
Pro tip: As stated above, a visit to Skopje in winter means Christmas markets and other festivities – though we do admit that the best Christmas markets are found in central Europe (Prague and Vienna are standouts). Though modern Skopje is worth seeing, head into the Old Town bazaar for food, coffee and beer – delicious, cheap and atmospheric! Head up to the fortress (entry free) for great views over the city.
London is one of Europe’s most beautiful and fascinating cities. At the centre of its buzzing arteries is the scenic Trafalgar Square. Named for the Battle of Trafalgar, an significant English naval victory in 1805, Trafalgar Square has been an important landmark of London since the 1300s when it was home to the Royal Mews (the alleyway where first hawks then royal steeds and their stablehands were lodged until the 19th century). Around the time that the Royal Mews were relocated, Nelson’s Column and its accompanying lion sculptures was installed. Once again commemorating the British Navy (Nelson was an important Navy admiral), Nelson’s Column was added as a centrepiece to the newly redesigned Trafalgar Square, evoking a sense of magnitude. The fountains were added both for effect beauty as well as in an attempt to counteract the heat and glare that was reflected off the asphalt of the square. Site of countless demonstrations, it’s also one London’s busiest squares, not just for tourists but also for commuters, bikes and buses. Today, Trafalgar houses the entrance of London’s National Gallery, one of the best art museums in the word. As such, Trafalgar plays host to many art installations, Christmas trees – even a clock that counted down to the London Olympics.
Pro tip: Whether you’re an art lover or not, it’s worth a visit to the National Gallery of Art in Trafalgar Square. With an entry free of charge and a massive collection that spans hundreds (if not over a thousand) of years, it’s definitely one of London’s must see museums. Visit during the Golden Hour for the best lighting – the sunlight really plays off the stonework of Trafalgar Square. Though there are many buses that pass through Trafalgar, the easiest way is via the tube – alight at Charing Cross from either the Northern or Bakerloo lines.
Gargoyles of the Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
After the April 14th 2019 fire, it’s not even certain if these iconic gargoyles still even adorn the amazing Notre Dame Cathedral. Even if they do, it won’t be possible to visit them until the cathedral is rebuilt… which will take years, possibly as long as two decades despite the overwhelming donations pledged (if only these sort of donations were pledged for all important monuments damaged and destroyed! Like the ancient temples of Iraq and Syria destroyed thanks to ISIS…). Notre Dame Cathedral is a special place, and the devastating fire is one of Europe’s terrible tragedies of recent times (though luckily avoiding loss of life). Built in the Middle Ages in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame is a stone building topped with a wooden roof made of strong oak from the 1200s (much of which was burned to ciders on April 14/15th). It is in this cathedral where Victor Hugo’s le bossu (or the hunchback) lived out his life in the famous book, and up until the fire, it was Paris‘s most visited monument (12-14 million each year!). Notre Dame is a symbol of Paris and France, but also one of architectural beauty, history and cultural heritage. Following the fire, this beautiful building is also a symbol of hope and resilience sitting in the centre of one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Let’s hope they rebuild it quickly, keeping in the same style as its original architects designed it… (no Pompidous, please!)
Pro tip: You can’t visit Notre Dame following the fire, but there are many other beautiful medieval structures in Paris well worth your visit, and many other great cathedrals in throughout France. Looking for gargoyles? Try Dijon Cathedral. Medieval grandeur? Lyon’s St Jean Cathedral. Simple elegance? Blois’s Church of Saint-Nicolas in the Loire Valley.
Lyon is surely one of Europe’s most beautiful and yet under-rated cities. Overlooked in favour of its more popular big sister Paris, in many ways, Lyon is actually far cooler. Known as France‘s Gastronomic Capitol, it is the place to come to eat. The city is renowned for its restaurants – from Michelin-starred Paul Bocuse’s fine dining to delicious family-run bouchons de Lyon. Pair you Lyonnais dinner with local wine from the vineyards of the Côtes de Rhône or Beaujolais. Lyon is an ancient place. Once the capital of Roman Gaul, Lyon’s rivers – the mighty Rhône and the graceful Saône – have long made Lyon a maritime power. The city progressed eastwards. The Romans inhabited the hill of Fourvière (the remains of the amphitheater are still there); between the bottom of the hill and the Saône riverbanks is the medieval and Renaissance Vieux Lyon with its traboules and cobblestones; northwards is the hill of Croix Rousse, once home to Renaissance silk merchants; between the two rivers is the Presqu’île, home to elegant 18th and 19th century masterpieces. On the far side of the river, 20th century Lyon has exploded in massive concrete blocks, and at the southernmost point of the rivers’ meeting is the Confluences, where the ultra-modernity of the 21st century shocks visitors. But the best way to explore Lyon through the ages is by following its rivers. The Rhone is the more popular – its banks popular for jogging, picnics, and even clubbing (on the boats), while the Saône is quieter, calmer, somehow more French, more Lyonnais – follow the river north for a lovely introduction to this very amazing city before wandering its varied districts.
Pro tip: Looking for a good bar? Les Fleurs du Malt in the Vieux Lyon has incredible array of beers. Food? The bouchons of the old town are all great, but for true authenticity, head into the modern 7ème district to either the Bistrot des Fauvres or L’Autre Côté du Pont (nearby Italian restaurant San Marco is also delicious). Be sure to visit the traboules, tunnel/passages, in the Vieux Lyon – head to #52 Rue Saint John and go through the door.
Though the most famous gargoyles are on Notre Dame de Paris (thanks, Victor Hugo and Disney), one finds gargoyles on most French cathedrals, and Dijon’sNotre Dame Church is no different. This unusual, square-faced cathedral, commenced in 1230, is a medieval masterpiece. In fact, it contains no less than 51 gargoyles (nearly all mere decorations). Though Notre Dame de Dijon dates back to the Middle Ages, the gargoyles were only carved in the 1880s (around Hugo’s time…). The original facade had many such gargoyles of monsters and men, but local legend states they were all (but one) removed by the friends of a usurer (money lender), who was killed by a falling stone gargoyle on his wedding day. Gargoyles have long held both the fascination and horror of their audiences. While the original purpose was simply to drain water away from a wall, they quickly evolved into displaying grotesque and fantastical designs. The term itself comes from an French word “gargouille,” meaning “throat” (think “gullet”). The idea of the gargoyle is said to have came from an ancient French legend from Rouen, in which St Romanus conquered a terrible winged dragon called La Gargouille who was both long-necked and fire-breathing. Upon slaying it, the city burned La Gargouille’s body but its fireproof head and neck would not burn, so they mounted it on the church walls to ward off the evil spirits (though you’d think that’d ward off good spirits too!). Thus, the idea and name were adapted for fanciful drains sprouting from France’s soaring cathedrals, and Dijon’s gargoyles don’t disappoint: all 51 are fascinatingly fantastic, bizarre, eye-catching and grotesque.
Pro tip: The church also contains a small statue of an owl, now the symbol of the city, and said to have magical powers. Find it on the left side of the cathedral and touch it with your left hand to make a wish come true! Also, follow the owl symbols on the ground to discover Dijon’s historical heritage sites.
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!
Brandenburg Gate (or Brandenburg Tor) in Berlin, Germany
Berlin is a place with a challenging history. Located in Germany‘s eastern side, the city of Berlin was part of the state of East Germany for decades before the Berlin Wall fell. Berlin itself was a divided city: half in the East and half in the West. Families divided right down the middle. Lives, jobs, families, loyalties – it didn’t matter. East stayed in the East, and the West in the West. (In the end of course, it was better luck to be living in West Berlin.) But that all changed November 9th, 1989 (still scarily recent…) – the day the Berlin Wall fell. Citizens on both sides reportedly climbed atop the Wall in celebration. The Brandenburg Tor is possibly the most iconic monument in Berlin. Built in the 18th century by Prussian King Frederick William II, the Neoclassical style, topped with bronze statue of noble horses, was chosen for this ‘victory’ gate. The Brandenburg Tor stands on Pariser Platz – the same place as the old city gate that once marked the entrance to Brandenburg an der Havel town, ancient capital of the pre-Germany state of Brandenburg. Used by the Prussians, the Nazis and the East Germans as a symbol of the city’s power, the Brandenburg Gate was partially destroyed in WWII. On August 13th, 1961, the structure became part of the Berlin Wall, and its original use as a gate was re-instated (one of eight points for crossing the Wall). Nearly impossible to traverse by East Germans, the gate remained a symbol of power – but in a negative sense, sparking protests, demonstrations and eventually celebrations the day the wall fell. Today, it reminds Berliners and visitors alike of the power of standing together.
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.
Hans Christian Andersen remains one of the Danish capital’s most famed residents. And, as we all know, Andersen is the author of the famous tale, the Little Mermaid (in Danish: Den Lille Havfrue). The Disney version softens it up a bit, but in the much darker original fairy tale, the poor mermaid feels like she is walking on nails every time she takes a step, looses her tongue rather than an incarnation of her voice, the prince never knows it was her who rescued him and marries someone else, nearly kills the prince and princess on their honeymoon in order to become a mermaid once more, and at the end she dies of a broken heart and is transformed to sea foam. Ouch. Little in common with the Disney tale. Yet, people still make the quasi-mandatory pilgrimage upriver to pay homage to the lost little mermaid. Created in 1913, the small, unassuming statue was commissioned by the son of the founder of beer empire, Carlsberg, after becoming obsessed with a ballet of the Little Mermaid – even going so far as to use the lead ballerina (Ellen Price) as the model for the sculpture! Though the story is sad, in a way, the Little Mermaid lives on in her role of iconising her city of Copenhagen. While visiting Copenhagen, visit the ritzy Nyhavn for restaurants, the regal Rosenberg Palace in the central park, and the Svenska Gustafskyrkan Church, not far from the Mermaid herself.
Fourteen haunting figures both slowly sink and emerge out of a sidewalk corner in the Polish city of Wrocław. Constructed by artist Jerzy Kalina in 2005, the figures are a memorial to the two-year period of harsh martial law inflicted by the People’s Republic of Poland. Martial law is normally established when civilian government fails to function properly, or during times of widespread disregard for the law. Military rule is then imposed temporarily upon citizens after traditional government fails until the problem is resolved. This happened in Poland between December 13, 1981 to July 22, 1983 under Communist rule in an attempt to crush opposition. Activists and dissenters were interned without charges or trials by the thousands; people were literally disappearing off the streets – some 100 people were even killed. Kalina demonstrates this period of terror with his statues of people who are literally being swallowed by the earth while going about their daily lives, reminding us of how much freedom we truly possess today. The fear during a time like this must have been rampant – which is only extenuated by how recent it was. Meandering the streets of today’s Poland, it is hard to imagine that this freedom-less period took place barely 30 years ago – and makes you appreciate just how far Poland has come.
Bratislava occasionally manages to makes the Danube travel itinerary, as its comfortably in between Vienna and Budapest. However, it’s still rather undiscovered in a way that Vienna is not. Smaller than Prague, Budapest or Vienna, Bratislava still has plenty of gems. Walking through the middle of Bratislava’s Old Town, one suddenly comes across this unusual statue peeping out of a manhole. Only dating back to 1995, “Cumil” (as called by the locals) remains a mystery as to why there is a man in a raincoat popping out of a manhole. Regardless of his intentions, he’s amusing for both locals and tourists alike–and always a fun photo-op for all ages!