Gothic

Gothic architecture, with its pointed arches and ribbed vaulting, can be found across Europe. It is probably fair to say that the further east you travel, the less Gothic you are likely to find. Gothic was a style developed in France and it is natural that there are more examples closer to its home base, but many fine examples can be found in central and Eastern Europe.

Like most things, Gothic has been in and out of fashion. The style had a renaissance in the 19th century and this is described as either Gothic Revival or Neo-Gothic. The following buildings have been selected as good examples of Gothic and while the choice is not exactly random, it is based on the tastes of the Duck Holiday explorers.

Prague

Prague is an excellent place for many things and architecture is one of them. Perhaps the outstanding example of Prague Gothic is St Vitus’s Cathedral. The present building, set within the grounds of Prague Castle, represents something of a trip through history, as there are elements from different periods. The original rotunda was built in the 10th century and the basilica during the following century. The main – and very Gothic – cathedral dates from the 14th century and there are 19th and 20th century additions at the western end, Neo-Gothic, but faithful to the original plan.

St Vitus's Cathedral

St Vitus’s Cathedral

The chancel is especially beautiful, with immensely high vaulting and intricate artwork. In the St Wenceslas Chapel, there are Gothic frescoes and biblical scenes. The chapel is almost an art gallery in its own right. The Royal Oratory provides a later example of medieval Gothic, with branches rather than ribbing.

There are always little quirks in buildings that span several centuries and one of cathedral’s oddities is to be found in the bell tower, or rather at the top of the tower. While the tower itself is a Gothic structure, the cap is decidedly Baroque.

More Cathedral

More Cathedral

Prague is a city of many architectural styles, but there is plenty of Gothic. Check out the splendid little castle that is the Powder Tower at the castle or wander across Charles Bridge to the magnificent Old Town Bridge Tower. The latter was designed by Peter Parler, the same architect responsible for St Vitus’s Cathedral.

Powder Tower

Powder Tower

Charles Bridge tower

Charles Bridge tower

Charles Bridge

Charles Bridge

Churches are rife throughout the city and many are of Gothic style. Two of the finest examples are the Church of Our Lady before Týn, which dominates the Old Town Square and the huge Church of Our Lady of the Snows, just off Wenceslas Square. Also worth noting is Prague’s oldest synagogue, the curiously-titled Old-New Synagogue, with its Gothic main portal depicting a vine with twelve bunches of grapes symbolising the tribes of Israel.

Church of Our Lady before Týn

Church of Our Lady before Týn

Our Lady of the Snows

Our Lady of the Snows

Budapest

If the building of the Hungarian Parliament looks suspiciously familiar to British visitors, this is no coincidence. It was designed by Imre Steindl, who based his plan on the Houses of Parliament in London. The result was the Neo-Gothic masterpiece that stands beside the Danube on the Pest side of the city.

The façade is a riot of gables, arches, pinnacles and sculptures. If the exterior is impressive – and it is – the interior is stunning. The extravagant central staircase is overlooked by typically Gothic arches, along with ceiling frescoes and sculptures. The dome, 96 metres tall, is laced with intricate gilding and its huge pillars are topped with figures of Hungarian rulers. Stained-glass windows throughout the building give it the look and feel of an enormous cathedral.

Parliament

Parliament

In the castle district, the original Gothic Royal Palace no longer exists, though a few tantalising hints can be found in the Parish Church of Our Lady Mary, otherwise known as the Mátyás Church, originally built around the time of the building of the palace. It was converted into a Mosque by the Turks in 1541 and then almost completely destroyed in the liberation of Buda. It was then rebuilt in Baroque style, but this too was seriously damaged and another major restoration work, undertaken in the late 19th century, brought back many of its Gothic features. The beautiful rose window above the main portal is a faithful reproduction of the original medieval design.

Mátyás Church

Mátyás Church

The sometimes turbulent history of Hungary has meant that a number of buildings have, like the Mátyás Church, been rebuilt, repaired and restored, often several times over. The result is that styles have become intermingled, so you can never be quite sure where you might find a little outburst of Gothic amid the Baroque, and vice versa.

Tallinn

For Gothic aficionados, there is not an awful lot to get get excited about in Estonia. However, a trip to Tallinn’s Town Hall Square produces a notable gem. The Town Hall building itself is not only the sole surviving late Gothic building in Estonia, but is the only remaining Gothic town hall in Northern Europe.

If the square bears a distinct resemblance to many in the north of Germany, this is no coincidence. The square was the centre of trade for Baltic-Germans and a goodly proportion of the population of Tallinn was made up of Germans in medieval times.

Town Hall Square

Town Hall Square

The town hall, completed in 1404, is an impressive building both externally and internally. The whole building has a distinctly Germanic feel, which is unsurprising given that it is largely the work of German architects, artists and craftsmen. Indeed, for a long time, all documents were written in German, even during periods of Swedish and Russian rule. The sole exception to the German theme are the tapestries, which are of Flemish origin.

Town Hall

Town Hall

Town Hall Square has some other claims to fame. The pharmacy, dating from 1422, is still used for that purpose, although the medicines are a little different to what one may have found in its early days. In 1441, a large Christmas tree was displayed in the square and this is believed to have been the first of its kind.

Vilnius

Baroque predominates in Lithuania’s capital, but there are Gothic treasures to be found, notably among some of the city’s churches. One of the best-known, and best-loved, of these is the Church of St Anne, on the eastern edge of the Old Town.

The church is part of the Bernardine Friary, though there is much uncertainty about the exact date of its construction and, indeed, who constructed it. It was believed to have been the work of 15th-century German craftsmen, but more recent evidence suggests that it was built during the following century by locals.

St Anne Church

St Anne Church

Whatever its origins, what is not in doubt is that it is a magnificent display of Gothic brashness, all sweeping arches, studded steeples, narrow windows and octagonal towers. This is as Gothic as Gothic gets and images of the church adorn souvenirs from Lithuania, from postcards and calendars to chocolate boxes and biscuit tins. Tradition has it that Napoleon was so charmed by the church that he wanted to carry it back to Paris in the palm of his hand.

The only disappointment is to be found on wandering inside the church. The interior is surprisingly spartan, but this is a minor quibble. The church deserves its place on any list of great Gothic buildings.

Dubrovnik

Further south, in the Balkans, Gothic can be hard to find, but there are outposts and oases to be discovered. Frequently, there are Gothic elements to buildings or Gothic buildings within a larger complex.

An example is to be found at the Franciscan Monastery. The cloisters were designed by an architect from Florence, Maso di Bartolomeo, with some additions made by local stonemasons. This result is a classic late-Gothic masterpiece, its pleasing aspect enhanced by the orange and lemon groves in the courtyard.

Franciscan Monastery courtyard

Franciscan Monastery courtyard

The Rector’s Palace, about 200 metres south of the monastery, is one of those buildings that rather defy classification. This is largely due to the fact that it has been rebuilt so many times, suffering the inevitable results of gunpowder accidents in the 15th century. The first rebuilding produced a Venetian-Gothic style, but after this one suffered damage, the restoration work left an eclectic style all of its own. The original rebuilding, incidentally, was undertaken by Onofrio della Cava, whose magnificent fountain stands behind the city gate as you enter the Old Town.

Rector's Palace

Rector’s Palace

The mix of style can be seen immediately by the visitor. The entrance is a loggia with marble pillars. The outer pairs are the original Gothic, while the three in the middle are in the Renaissance style.

Rector's Palace (with random people)

Rector’s Palace (with random people)

Located half way between the palace and the monastery is the Sponza Palace, which also has a mix of Venetian-Gothic and Renaissance. The entrance is via a Renaissance portico, but the first storey is in the Venetian-Gothic style, though this, too, has Renaissance elements in the form of the windows. The main purpose of the palace was as the customs house (it is next to the port) and today, it houses two museums.

Sponza Palace

Sponza Palace

Dubrovnik has suffered variously from the careless use of gunpowder, earthquakes and wars. All of these, of course, mean damage to buildings, so it is not surprising that many of its older buildings have such an intriguing mix of styles. Amongst it all, there is Gothic. Sometimes, you just need to look a little harder.

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Food

People say some very strange things to you when you’re a vegetarian. “What do you eat?” for one. Well, mainly, one tries to stick to food. A personal favourite was “You don’t look like a vegetarian.” Well, no, I thought I’d leave my fur coat and long floppy ears at home today, if that’s okay by you.

Something else that you hear on a frequent basis is that it is well-nigh impossible to remain vegetarian in other parts of the world, as though Great Britain were the only country on Earth that provides such fare. Clearly, such people have no concept of places such as Sri Lanka, or large swathes of India, where vegetarian food is the norm. The Duck Holiday team have also spent considerable time in sub-Saharan Africa and managed to avoid turning into carnivores, although it is possible that the occasional insect was swallowed inadvertently.

Eastern Europe does, it is true, generally lean towards meaty diets, but this has never presented a problem. Admittedly, spending time in capital cities and other large towns provides a wider choice than if one were to confine oneself to rural areas. This is especially true since the break up of the Soviet Union, with most cities offering food from all parts of the world. The Duck Holidayers had one of their best ever Indian meals in Budapest and one can find Chinese and Italian restaurants almost anywhere.

For the intrepid traveller, however, these kinds of establishment should feature only as occasional treats or last resorts. Part of the pleasure of visiting new places lies in discovering new things, and food is no exception to the rule.

Many countries have variations on a theme, with food that is of similar style, though the names may be different. Soup can be found just about anywhere, though vegetarians need to be a bit careful, as sometimes seemingly suitable concoctions can have lumps of meat thrown into them. In city restaurants, though, it’s usually pretty obvious what is vegetarian and what isn’t.

Garlic lovers (which include Duck Holiday) can have a fine time in Eastern Europe. Garlic features prominently in vampire myths of the east and while you’re unlikely to be savaged by vampires, you can still use it as an excuse for scoffing plenty of garlic. Garlic soup is a delightful brew, especially nice with crusty bread and perfect for thawing out on a chilly winter’s day. This is also, in general, a healthy option, though those with concerns over fat levels might want to take care in Slovakia, where fried cheese is rife and your apparently healthy bowl of garlic or onion soup may well contain large slabs of the stuff. Tasty yes, cholesterol-friendly, no.

Garlic soup

Garlic soup

The Baltic region also has a passion for garlic. Tallinn and Riga both have ‘garlic restaurants’, where every dish contains garlic, so if you want to experience the novelty of garlic ice cream, head for Estonia or Latvia. A nice option if you want a few beers is a garlic tapas, where you can pick your way around a large platter of garlic-based delicacies and wash them down with your ale. There is no need to be intimated by the prospect of chomping your way through an entire bulb of roasted garlic; as with onions, the result of cooking the bulb like this gives it a delicious sweetness.

Garlic bread is another good beer snack and this can often be found in varying formats. Slovenia, which has many Italian influences, specialises in thin, crispy pizzas and a simple pizza base loaded with garlic goes well with a few glasses of beer. Further east, pampushkas, small round pieces of bread flavoured with garlic, are a favourite accompaniment to that Ukrainian and Russian staple, borsch. This wonderful dish – beetroot-flavoured soup, not beetroot soup – is often meat-laden, but it isn’t usually too hard to find a vegetarian version. It is normally served with another old favourite of eastern cuisine, sour cream.

Borsch

Borsch

Something else that frequently features sour cream is the potato pancake. Most countries have a version, sometimes plain, sometimes flavoured. Like soup, this is a good option for lunchtime, especially if you’ve been doing a fair amount of walking. There are many local variations, for example Hungarian lángos, potato cakes typically served with sour cream.

Potato pancakes

Potato pancakes

Langos

Langos

In any Balkan country, it is impossible to avoid burek, which is ubiquitous throughout the region. This is a pastry that is somewhat akin to a large and slightly greasy croissant. Sometimes, it is filled with meat, but cheese burek are very easy to find and if you’re lucky, you might get a marginally healthier one that is stuffed with spinach. Quality can vary wildly, but one saving grace is that it is very cheap and can come in handy if you are pressed for time or money.

Burek

Burek

Even if none of this holds much appeal, there are markets to be found everywhere. From the superb Dolac market in Zagreb to the Trnica in Ljubljana, the magnificent Central Market Hall in Budapest to the crowded Markale in Sarajevo, there are fruit and vegetables piled high. Markets are also a great way to experience the feel of a city, even if you’re not buying. The Pazari i Ri in Tirana is a good example, offering a real-world contrast to the slightly bizarre architecture of the Albanian capital. The Piata Amzei in Bucharest offers a similar experience. In a city that has no real centre, this feels like a beating heart. And if it’s all too much, sit back with a cup of coffee and watch the madding crowds from a distance.

Tirana market

Tirana market

Much of the produce in these markets comes from smallholdings, so what you’re getting, in effect, is fresh organic food, usually at very low prices. The markets tend to sell all sorts of other stuff, so if you’re after crafts and souvenirs, you can pick them up along with your strawberries and peaches. Try a few of the local cheeses, as well (one recommendation is to treat yourself to some fresh cheese and olives in Tirana), along with honey. Even if you’re not a fan of honey, check out the honey market in Sofia (opposite the Market Hall) and be amazed at just how many different types you can get.

Honey in Sofia

Honey in Sofia

It is not always simple being a vegetarian, but rest assured that it is a great deal easier than it was 35 years ago. Sometimes, you need to be a bit resourceful, but there is always a way, even if if means the occasional curry or pizza to see you through. There is plenty more out there, though, it you look in the right places.