Prague, Czech Republic

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Prague, Czech Republic

Bathed in early-morning light is the only way to visit Prague’s Staré Město, or Old Town. If you only see one Eastern European city, it will probably be Prague. Why? Prague is without doubt one of the most beautiful cities you will ever behold–possibly the most beautiful European city (in my opinion anyway, alongside St Petersburg, Tallinn, Dubrovnik and Ronda). It is also one of the most international–in the space of minutes, no matter the season, one will hear not only English and Czech, but also Polish, Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, German, Swedish, Portuguese, Danish, Slovakian (should I continue? You’ll hear them all!), as well as plenty of non-European languages. It seems that everyone has discovered the Czech capital–but don’t let that stop you! Prague’s magnificent old town, its massive castle, its picturesque views from Castle Hill, its delicious beer, its unbelievably low prices, and its generally quaint yet elegant appearance is to die for! Its central location makes it easy to visit, as a 5-hour drive in any direction will get you to : Berlin, Bratislava, Budapest, Częstochowa, Dresden, Graz, Krakow, Munich, Nuremburg, Vienna, or Wroclaw !  While in town, be sure to go shopping–they have some of the cheapest prices you’ll ever see–but most importantly, be sure to rise and shine early at least once, because Prague during the sunrise is, well, utterly beautiful!

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Tallinn, Estonia

tallinn tower

City walls of Tallinn, Estonia

Here, one of Tallinn’s many terracotta-topped towers pokes through the mysterious mist. Unlike many other towns and cities across Europe, Tallinn has been able to keep true to its roots. In fact, Tallinn prides itself on the fact that many of the city’s buildings, churches, houses, warehouses, walls, and towers maintain their original forms. Some even date all the way back to the 11th century–impressive! Especially for such a small country under the constant shadow of nearby giants vying for control over its’ strategic position (namely, Russia, Germany, and Sweden). In fact, Estonia wasn’t even a country for much of its recent history, only gaining its independence in 1991 (and briefly just after WWI). Perhaps because of this loss, the Estonians want to make up for lost time and preserve as much of their history as possible. Tallinn has not been “improved” or “modernised” like so many other European capitals; (think anything from London to Berlin to Warsaw to Madrid). Not that there is anything wrong with this, but sometimes, we need that misty, magical, timeless place with tiny, winding cobblestone roads, local taverns and ancient churches that make us feel as if we’ve travelled back to the middle ages.

Tallinn, Estonia

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Tallinn, Estonia

A Baltic gem. The Baltic Gem. Any interest in seeing what a beautifully preserved medieval city with Hanseatic buildings, all hardly touched by modern times, while still full of life and culture looks like? Go to Tallinn. Capital of a little country hidden away in the north-eastern corner of Europe, Tallinn is a city that doesn’t make many travel itineraries. Its popularity is growing, but at the moment, it is still a quiet city full of beautiful architecture recognised by UNESCO by day—and crazy street parties by night. While living under various foreign influences for large chunks of its’ history, the Estonians have persisted, and eventually received their independence in 1918-20 (which was lost to the Nazis and the Soviets but regained in 1991). Tallinn is a symbol of strength and resistance, a symbol of the Estonians’ reverence to their own history, art, language, and traditions, and a symbol of freedom, of independence, of culture.

Cathedral of St. Panteleimon, Kiev, Ukraine

kievCathedral of St. Panteleimon, Kiev, Ukraine

After having seen the orthodox cathedrals in Kiev – wildly colourful, crazily textured, beautifully gilded, onion-dome topped, with every inch carefully painted, I will never look at a cathedral the same way. Western cathedrals, while impressive and beautiful, rarely stand out from each other. But Eastern Orthodox cathedrals – each one is a separate work of art, each one is different, unique.  This is St. Panteleimon’s, built in Russian Revival design between 1905 and 1912, so it is not terribly old in comparison with other religious structures in Europe.  Some say it resembles the Nevski Cathedral in Tallinn – and there is some resemblance! St. Pan’s was intended to serve as a branch of St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, but was closed and looted in WWII. Today, it is only a hollow shell which has been restored as the main church of a nunnery. It rests in the quiet, suburban park of Feofaniya (getting there is tricky because the Ukrainians don’t post bus signs or if they do, they are in Cyrillic. From M. Libidska take bus 11 or 156 to the last stop) on 1.5 km2 acres of land. It makes a lovely backdrop for an afternoon stroll!

Tallinn, Estonia

talllinn birds

Tallinn, Estonia

Why don’t people come here? As much as I love places like London and Paris and Madrid, there is more than just these few places in Europe that are breathtaking and spectacular…and Tallinn is certainly wonderful. Europe is a popular honeymoon destination (Paris, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Roma), but places like Tallinn or Prague or Budapest need to be on that list. Tallinn is old – and beautiful, maybe more beautiful than Europe’s ‘traditional’ Aphrodite’s. Several kilometres of city wall remain, grey stone topped with red, turreted roofs. The cobble-stoned streets that overlook the blue Baltic sea makes the city charming, lovable. This is a place one can fall in love.  Like these doe-eyed pigeons, this is the kind of place I’d rather spend my honeymoon – quiet, relaxing, beautiful, historic, friendly. The old town is a UNESCO world heritage site. The town square is positively medieval. There is a darkened tavern in the city centre that serves authentic elf soup that patrons drink out of clay pots (no spoons allowed). Estonia has a pulse that you rarely find, and it is easily one of Europe’s best kept secrets.

Nevski Cathedral, Tallinn, Estonia

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Aleksander Nevski Katedraal, Tallinn, Estonia

I have fallen in love with a new European nook–Tallinn, Estonia, a place that most people don’t even know exists. This fog-laden Nevski Cathedral isn’t exactly old, only dating back to about 1894. Built during the Russian occupation of Estonia, it is of course built in the Russian Revival style, giving the city a fairy-tale look (it has been said that it resembles St. Panteleimon’s Cathedral in Kiev. Also as a side-note, I just learned that there used to be an impressive Alexander Nevski Cathedral in my former city of Warsaw, demolished 1920. I lived there 1 year, and this was the first I’ve heard if it! A shame too–it looked beautiful). Not that Tallinn needs too much help at looking beautiful or charming; much of the city walls, towers, and gates have survived the wars, and as a result, the remarkably extensive old town becomes a sea of 800 year-old stone and red-clay roofs lost in the clouds!  Tallinn is truly straight out of a book of fairy tales!