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.
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!
Is that…a UFO? Little green men? Is the alien invasion hinted at in the X-Files coming true? No…no…and still no. Though bearing an interesting semblance to a flying saucer, this strange structure is the man-made UFO Taste Restaurant, hovering 85m above Bratislava and the beautiful Danube River, where you can gouge on unique Mediterrasian food and sip colorful cocktails while appreciating how tiny the snow-covered buildings, cars and people look far below your table. The restaurant’s immense windows let you appreciate how beautiful the city looks bathed in fog on the chilly winter’s day. Little-known and little-visited Slovakia with its capital Bratislava may have their setbacks (it’s a small city and a small country, and not always as elegantly magical as nearby Budapest, Prague or Vienna), but there is no doubt that this a proud nation working to recover after so many challenges facing this part of Europe in the last few decades. Unique quirks such as this UFO restaurant, city centre statues like Cumil, arresting graffiti and restaurants that mix tradition with newness are slowly turning this hidden European capital into a shining gem.
Imagine walking through a city such as Kiev. It is months before war is thought of, and there is an element of peace still wafting through the air. Despite this–despite its magnificent cathedrals and fine buildings on its main street, there is still an air of desperation, a slight tugging at one’s side. Square, concrete buildings remind one of the war, which like many other cities in Eastern Europe–destroyed large chunks of the city and had to be rebuilt quickly and cheaply. Imagine grey skies overhead, as you hurry through the rain. Imagine you turn a corner and stumble upon the President of Ukraine’s office. Imagine turning around just as the rain relents–and coming face to face with this. This dramatic house, which for the past ten years has been used for diplomatic ceremonies, looks as if it popped up from a (rather dark) storybook. It is the House with Chimaeras. The name does not relate to the mythical animal, but rather the architectural style in which a building is adorned with animal sculptures. Look closely–and you will see nothing but animals! Whales, frogs, elephants, rhinos, deer, eagles, fish, serpents–you name it, it’s probably there. Italian architect Emilio Sala redesigned the house after original architect Vladislav Gorodetsky, who was an avid hunter, was forced to sell it. I suppose this is one way to pay homage to one’s hobbies–albeit an excessive one! Despite–or perhaps a result of–its prestigious address, important guests and strange decor, the house remains one of the strangest, creepiest, most bizarre yet most important buildings in all of Kiev and beyond.
It’s early in the morning, and Moscow hasn’t quite woken up. The sky is still yawning; you are still clutching your cup of coffee. Alighting at a seemingly nondescript metro stop, you start your way up a hill, to see what kinds of Russian treasures you can discover. Amid small spires of gold and silver, you hear a Russian business man bark his order to the barista and old Russian cars grumbling by; though there is little sound on the streets at this early hour. Rounding the corner, you suddenly find yourself face-to-face with what looks a lot like a magnificent cake from one of those gourmet bakeries. You gasp, suddenly feeling lightheaded as you realise that this strange yet highly impressive building is the iconic St Basil’s in the infamous Red Square (or Krasnaya Ploshad). St Basil’s is the Russian Orthodox cathedral all others are compared to–and with good reason! Despite no longer being a working church, the building is what comes to everyone’s mind when one hears the word “Moscow,” “Red Square,” or “Russian cathedrals” because of its unique–and bizarre!–form. Commissioned by Ivan the terrible in 1555-61, it was built as a commemoration of the capture of Kazan and was meant to resemble a bonfire’s flames reaching for the sky. To this day, it is one of the most iconic, beautiful, and well-known buildings throughout the world.
Josep Batlló wanted a house like no other, one located in the ritzy section of central Barcelona that would turn heads, blow minds and be the talk of the neighbourhood—and that’s exactly what he got. Casa Batlló, designed by the infamous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi who was also responsible for Casa Mila and Parc Guell, all in Barcelona, seems to throw away the notion of straight lines as the entire building permeates fluidity, movement, and curves. In fact, straight lines seem not to exist here. This particular section is part of the roof—and if you think it looks a bit like a dragon, you’re not alone. A popular story states that the statue just visible to the right-hand side of the photo represents a lance stabbing the back of the scaly, orange object, symbolising the “dragon.” Evidently, St George was the patron saint of Gaudi’s hometown. As evidenced by this and the rest of the “Block of Discord” region of Barcelona, bizarre architecture seems all the rage in the infamous Spanish city. Loosely inspired by the Art Nouveau/modernista movements, Gaudi seems to go above and beyond to make his art numbingly, blindly and unforgettably unique… which it surely is!
The Fisherman’s Bastion, or Halászbástya, is a terrace overlooking the Danube in Budapest. Built in neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque style at the turn of the century, to me, it resembles a giant sandcastle. For those not afraid of heights, a climb to the top offers a panoramic view of Budapest, including the House of Parliament, Margaret Island, Gellert Hill, and the Chain Bridge. Its name comes from the fisherman’s guild that was in charge of defending this section of the city walls in the Middle Ages and includes a statue of the infamous Stephen I. Beware though, during tourist season, they will try to make you pay. To get the view for free, slip up through the café in the far left-hand quarter!
Pro tip: Do you like cake? Of course – who doesn’t!? Visit the Ruazwurm Confectionery just around the corner for delicious treats!
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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