Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg, Russia
To some, the stunning Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood resembles a giant cupcake; to others a Disney World attraction; to locals, a mere copy of the more-famous St Basil‘s on Moscow‘s Red Square. And yet. This stunning church has a life and attitude all of its own. Inside and out, it is a work of art, an example of high romantic nationalism and Art Nouveauthat stands out from the rest of Baroque and Neoclassical St Petersburg. Conceived and completed in fin de siecle Russia, it was meant to be a way of immortalising Tsar Alexander II by his son, Alexander III, who was assassinated here by a group of anarchists. Inside, every inch of the high walls are covered with biblical art, containing over 7,500 square meters of mosaics, which by some estimates, is more than any other church in the world! Sadly, during the war, it was used as a temporary morgue during the WWII Siege of Leningrad, and afterwards as the city was still recovering, it was used as a storehouse for produce and other foodstuffs – lending it the derogatory nickname, Saviour on Potatoes. Today, it is a museum and a tribute to another Russia, another era. It was never reconsecrated, and therefore is not a proper place of worship, but does attract visitors from all over the world to admire its expert craftsmanship. There is a small entrance fee but it goes towards the renovation and upkeep of the church!
Though designed just before WWII, Bristol’s crescent-shaped City Hall wasn’t built until after the war’s end. Situated in a prominent place in Bristol, the secular City Hall faces the massive and gorgeous Bristol Cathedral, Bristol Central Library and the College Green, the building is a classic example of the Neo-Georgian style except for one glaring oddity: both of the turreted ends to the building are topped with an unusual statue – a unicorn! (Not so very different than the Dragons of London!) If you look carefully, Bristol functions like an “I Spy” book (“I spy 12 unicorns…”) – they are everywhere! On St. John the Baptist Church, the SS Great Britain ship, on the Royal West of England Academy, at the entrance of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, on the North Bristol Rugby Club tie and blazer, and until 2004 they were on the logo of the renowned University of Bristol. They are even part of the city’s coat of arms! Why, you may ask? To solve the mystery, we need to delve back in time to 16th century Bristol, when the city’s leaders chose to include two unicorns on the official seal which was then stamped on important city documents scattered across Bristol – therefore imprinting the unicorn forevermore into Bristol history. As for the mystery of the City Hall Unicorns, architect Vincent Harris actually secretly commissioned the two three-foot-high bronze unicorns without informing the council, put them up and hoped for the best! They’re still there, so we can assume that the council accepted their city hall’s impromptu mascot!
Crash! One of the largest canvases in the world, West Berliners began painting on the 14-foot wall in the 1980’s while the corresponding East Berlin Wall remained immaculate – guards would not let East Berliners approach the Wall on pain of death (fearing escape attempts). First constructed in 1961 to separate the two countries, the Berlin Wall (especially the western side) later became what Facebook is today: a relatively uncontrolled blank slate on which people can express opinions, feelings, and dreams. In one mural, a car – a white Trabant – is depicted crashing through the Berlin Wall. Trabants were a popular East German car brand, and despite being cute and bug-eyed, the reinforced plastic cars were poorly made and notoriously hard to drive – though East Germans were desperate to get one, so desperate that they had to sign up on a list just to be considered for ownership. Trabants then became a symbol of the communist East Germany, and ceased to be manufactured after the fall of wall. It’s not hard to understand what the artist was trying to depict here: an East German in his or her iconic East German car crashing through the oppressive and separatist Berlin Wall after it fell in 1989.
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.
Perhaps one of the saddest monuments on Earth commemorating events that even 70 or so years later are hard to digest as reality, these were very difficult photos to post. And yet, even the saddest places can still hold a certain beauty; even the places that have evoked massive amounts of human suffering can be worth visiting for what the evoke inside us (two examples are this war memorial in Scotland or this Polish resistance sculpture in Wroclaw. See here another interpretation of this Memorial). In central Berlin – once the most divided city in the world – there is a square filled with large, grey granite boxes of varying heights built into the uneven ground. Walking amongst the oppressive grey ‘hallways’ along a path that rises and falls beneath your feet is a powerful though somber experience. Your chest may tighten, your eyes may water, your heart may flutter – but as difficult as it may be, visiting this memorial is important to do. In order to avoid repeating history’s worst mistakes, we must take care to remember the past, and to learn from our past mistakes. We must open our hearts to other cultures and ways of life. We must choose peace and integration over violence and exclusion. The message shared with us via Berlin’s tragic memorial resonates today as the world becomes more divided, nations become more nationalistic, fear has become a true malady, and exclusion is the name of the game. Instead of further division, we should instead work to understand each other, incorporating the best characteristics from each culture to better our current world and make the world a more colourful place, one person at a time.
Sometimes, a landmark or monument becomes so iconic, so heavily associated with a city that any reminder of one automatically reminds you of the other: Paris – Eiffel Tower; Rome – Colosseum; London – Big Ben; Moscow – the Kremlin. Berlin and its Wall belong on such a list. The Berlin Wall, erected by East Germany’s German Democratic Republic in 1961, divided the city in half, cutting off one from the other…until 1989 when it famously fell (though entire demolition did not occur until 1990). Imagine, for a moment, that your city–wherever it may be–was suddenly cut in half by a gigantic wall. Families are separated. Friendships are partitioned. Jobs are lost. Travel is stunted. Freedom is killed. 3.5 million manage to escape to the West before the Wall goes up, but the rest are left behind. Yet, despite all the horrors of WWII, the crash of the Iron Curtain, and the hardships that continued to befall the residents of the Eastern Bloc during the following decades, the East Berliners persisted. And when the Wall finally fell, instead of showing anger and pain, they celebrated life and freedom. They used the largest stretch (1.3 km) as a giant canvas, with 105 different paintings and graffiti depicted on the east side (i.e. the East Side Gallery). Despite the fact that the art changes the original appearance of the Wall, it is a magical display of freedom, democracy, movement and choice celebrated by millions every year from all corners of the globe.
Some cities are beautiful, some aren’t…right? This seems like a clear-cut (black and white!) concept, but it’s not necessarily true. Some cities are simply beautiful (like Venice or Prague or Tallinn). Some are outwardly beautiful but have negative qualities that become transparent when you dig a little deeper, taking away from their beauty (like Barcelona as a result of the pickpockets). Some, though, just don’t seem beautiful on the surface. Instead, one must put in a little work to search for the city’s beauty. But when you do find it, why, eureka! You are heavily rewarded. This is true for many rebuilt Central and Eastern European cities (like Warsaw, Kiev or Berlin). It’s also true for this little-known German city, Stuttgart. If you’re a Porsche fan, you may know it as Porsche’s hometown (still hosting a museum). Or if you’re a castle buff (like me), you may know it as the closest city to the fantasty-esque castle, Hohenzollern. While both of these places have their merits, Stuttgart has more to offer. It’s not overly touristy. It’s small, easy to discover on foot. And while much was destroyed by war (and not always beautifully rebuilt), Stuttgart offers a look into the real Germany, far away from the crowded, touristy streets of Berlin or Munich. This is where you’ll find out how the Germans live, eat, breathe. This is where you can shop without fear of getting the tourist treatment. Then of course, there’s all the beautiful architecture that managed to survive (or at least, managed to get rebuilt following the original). The lacework on this gazebo overlooking the Neue Schloss (New Palace) is particularly eye-catching. As it was almost completely destroyed and later rebuilt in the original Baroque style, the palace is certainly an amazing feat; it makes one appreciate humanity and its dedication to history! You may have to put a little more effort into falling in love with this place…but hopefully, it’ll be worth it!
If anyone ever tells you that Warsaw—or for that matter, any of Poland’s major cities aside from Lodz—is grey, dark, depressing, or ugly—tell them to try visiting it first, because they obviously haven’t. Warsaw was mostly destroyed by the Second World War (something like 85% of the city was razed and the population hovered around 1,000)—but it has made a full recovery, at least aesthetically. Rubble became carefully constructed buildings. Plans were carefully executed, mimicking the way it looked before the war. Sadly, this was only done for the Old and New Towns, which became a UNESCO site. “Warszawa 1935,” a wonderful film released in 2012, uses the powers of modern technology to generate a 3D film of what Warsaw once looked like (evidently, something like Paris, Vienna and St Petersburg combined). The Soviet Era was not kind to Warsaw, and the city still suffers those scars. But in the centre, these bright, beautiful buildings here—these are its legacy. Due to a combination of colours, patterns, design, and simple Polish resilience, this square has—and will always be—the most beautiful part of Poland’s often-overlooked capital.
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.
What comes to everybody’s mind when you encounter the word “Dresden”? It’s bombing, of course. Sadly, this controversial bombing killed 25,000 people, levelling the city centre to piles of rumble. And then after the war, it was hidden behind the Iron Curtain, left to be rebuilt during the East German Communist era…which wasn’t exactly known for its beautiful architecture. However, much of the old town has been restored, showing the resilience of the people, much like their neighbours over in Warsaw (who suffered similar fates, except their town was rebuilt by the Soviets, which is a far worse fate), and other parts of Poland and Eastern Europe obliterated by the war. The Dresdner Frauenkirche was one of the main buildings to be reconstructed. Not formally a cathedral, this building only dates back to the 18th century. Dresden was flattened in mid-February 1945 when the RAF and the USAAF dropped more than 3,900 tons of bombs on the German city, leaving it as nothing more than a heap of rubble with thousands dead. The church managed to survive two days of attack, but it could not withstand the intense heat from the blasts, and eventually collapsed. It would remain in ruins for the following 45 years. Happily, by 2005, the Frauenkirche‘s reconstruction was completed and the church was more beautiful than ever! If I remember correctly, then the black bricks represent the original stones used.
The historic centre of Warsaw, while having a lot of history, is not actually all that old. In fact, it only dates back 50-60 years. After the second world war, in which roughly 85% of Warsaw was destroyed and most of its inhabitants either fled, hid, died, or were arrested, the proud Polish citizens decided to rebuild their city from the rubble – using photographs, drawings, paintings, and even people’s memory, as most of the original blueprints were long lost. As the symbolic and historic (though not modern) centre of town, this square has been the sight of many important events, including patriotic manifestations before the January Uprising, usually entered around Sigismund’s Column in the middle. Due to its meticulous reconstruction, Plac Zamkowy, like the rest of the Stary Miasto (Old Town), is recognised by UNESCO. And this is Poland – so almost half the year, it’s covered in snow. And, it’s also my favourite place in Warsaw!
The Kazimierz Górski National Stadium was home of the Euro 2012 football championship, the 14th Euro championship so far, (soccer for you Americans). Co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine, it was the first time that either country ever hosted the Euro Cup. Being chosen was a big deal for these two nations which have both worked so hard to attain their freedom, recreate, rebrand, market and promote their cities and nations from the rubble left behind by the Germans and the Russians, and find their unique national identity after WWII flattened them. Co-hosting Euro 2012 and building the now-iconic, retractable-roof, red-and-white National Stadium (and various satellite stadiums) is certainly proof of just how far Poland has come.
Sadly, 85% of Warsaw was destroyed in WWII, including these colorful buildings. All of the buildings of the Stare Miasto (or Old Town) had to be rebuilt from the rubble that remained. As few blueprints survived, the buildings, which were rebuilt out of the original stones, had to be re-created by the proud Poles using paintings, photos and even people’s memories. This shows how determined the Polish people were that they could not bear their capital be rebuilt as anything but what it had been before the war – and history thanks them for this resilience!