Adam Clark – Scotland’s Hungarian engineer

It is interesting, for those of us living in Scotland, to note the number of Scots that have contributed to the arts and sciences around the world. Many are, indeed, household names. Others, like the artist Christina Robertson, are little-known in their own country. The engineer Adam Clark belongs to the latter category.

Budapest’s first permanent bridge across the Danube was designed by an Englishman, William Tierney Clark, but built by his Scottish namesake. The construction of the Chain Bridge began in 1839 and took some ten years to complete.

Chain Bridge from street level

Chain Bridge from street level

Adam Clark was born in Edinburgh in 1823. Little is recorded of his early life in Scotland, but he appears to have been something of a prodigy, as he came to the attention of the Hungarian nobleman, István Szérchnyi, and was only 23 when he accompanied Szérchnyi to Budapest.

Chain Bridge (note Clark's tunnel beyond the far end)

Chain Bridge (note Clark’s tunnel beyond the far end)

István Szérchnyi, unlike many of his kind, was a forward-thinking man of liberal views, who believed that the relatively backward state of his country was caused by the feudal system. He championed railways, was prominent in the foundation of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and was the man behind the construction of the Chain Bridge. It was Szérchnyi that was responsible for Adam Clark’s presence in Budapest.

Chain Bridge seen from the castle

Chain Bridge seen from the castle

Clark settled in Hungary and was responsible for another magnificent feat of engineering in the shape of the tunnel that runs all the way through Castle Hill, almost beneath the Royal Palace. The 350-metre tunnel was completed between 1853 and 1857. The entrance on the Danube side is on Clark Ádám tér (Adam Clark Square: the Hungarian style is to put the surname first) and is a most imposing structure. Two Doric columns stand either side of a fluted arch. The square itself is the city’s official centre, from which all distances from Budapest are calculated.

The tunnel

The tunnel

Adam Clark devoted himself to István Szérchnyi’s visionary infrastructure works and was appointed as a technical advisor to the newly-formed Ministry of Public Works in 1848. He continued to live and work in Budapest until his death in 1866.

A mention of the name Adam Clark to the vast majority of Scots or, indeed, anyone else in Britain, will likely bring only a blank look. He is, though, quite properly known and celebrated in the city he made his home.

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Neo-Classical

As its name suggests, Neo-Classical architecture derives heavily from the Classical style familiar from Greek and Roman temples of antiquity. It began in the middle of the 18th century, partially as a reaction against the florid style of Rococo and Baroque. Perhaps because of our endless fascination with the ancient world, its modern day manifestation can be seen almost everywhere and the central and eastern parts of Europe are no exception.

Bucharest

As we have noted before, Bucharest was stripped of many buildings during the Ceaușescu regime and in one of those ironies that pervade life, the gross ego-trip that now serves as the Palace of the Parliament is built in a latter-day version of the Neo-Classical.

That palace

That palace

Few, however, would claim this monstrosity to be of great aesthetic value. For something more pleasing to the eye, the Ateneul Român (Romanian Athaeneum) is a much better bet. The building, designed by a French architect named Albert Galleron, was opened in 1888 and serves as the city’s main concert hall. It is home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra, named after Romania’s most famous composer.

Ateneu Român

Ateneu Român

Budapest

For a full-on Neo-Classical experience, a wander up to the top of Andrássy (or a trip on one of the dinky little trains on the M1 metro line) will bring you to Heroes’ Park. A vast monument stands at its centre, depicting Hungarian leaders and politicians. On the northern and southern sides, two grand Neo-Classical buildings face one another. To the north is the Museum of Fine Arts, bearing eight Corinthian columns topped by a portico depicting the legendary punch-up between Lapiths and Centaurs. Looking across at the museum is the Palace of Art, though it is not a mirror image of its neighbour. It has a mere six columns, but is no less imposing for that.

Heroes' Park

Heroes’ Park

Corinthian enough?

Corinthian enough?

Palace of Art

Palace of Art

Museum of Fine Arts

Museum of Fine Arts

Back towards the centre, on the very same street, is the splendid Opera House. Completed in 1884, it was built to rival that of Vienna. The façade is elegant and symmetrical, with sculptures portraying Hungary’s two finest composers, Erkel and Liszt.

Opera House

Opera House

The interior is, if anything, even more glorious, with its murals, chandeliers, vaulted ceilings and magnificent sweeping staircase, perfectly designed to let ladies of 19th-century Hungarian society to show off their (doubtless equally magnificent gowns.

The Hungarian National Museum deserves a visit for the impressive collections, but it also worth spending a while looking at the building itself. Located in the central part of the Pest side of the city, it was built in 1802 and the whole museum complex is a striking Neo-Classical vision of style.

Hungarian National Museum

Hungarian National Museum

One building that demonstrates that a mixture of style can work, if properly conceived, is the Vigadó concert hall, situated on the square of the same name, close to the Pest bank of the Danube. The present building is, in fact, a rebuilding, as the original was burned down. The new building, dating from 1864, is essentially Neo-Classical, but with a few added twists. Outside, look out for the Little Princess, a sculpture of a girl with a dog. Street sculptures are a Budapest speciality.

Vigadó concert hall

Vigadó concert hall

Berlin

Berlin is absolutely teeming with Neo-Classical buildings. Museum Island is not only a great place to enjoy the art and artefacts displayed within the museums, but to admire the buildings themselves. The Altes Museum was built in the 1820s to house the royal art collection. Its younger sibling, the Alte Nationalgalerie, was completed some 50 years later, also in Neo-Classical style.

Alte Nationalgalerie

Alte Nationalgalerie

Altes Museum

Altes Museum

Not far away is the beautiful Bode Museum, built in 1904. Today, it houses a fine collection of Byzantine art and visitors familiar with the city of Oxford may notice the similarities between the Bode and Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera.

The Bode Museum

The Bode Museum

The Neue Kirche (New Church) has been through several reconstructions. It was original built at the beginning of the 18th century, underwent considerable rebuilding in the 1880s and was almost completely destroyed in the Second World War, though subsequent reconstruction did not begin until 1977. For all its many travails, the church is another of Berlin’s great Neo-Classical buildings.

Neue Kirche

Neue Kirche

St Petersburg

For all St Petersburg’s love of the Baroque, one of its stand-out buildings is the huge Kazan Cathedral, midway along the city’s most famous street, Nevksy Prospekt. The cathedral was built between 1801 and 1811, a relatively quick affair by cathedral standards.

Kazan Cathedral

Kazan Cathedral

The cathedral is built on the lines of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Shortly after its completion, Napoleon invaded Russia and it became essentially a shrine to the Russian victory. The leader of the Russian army, Mikhail Kutuzov, was buried in the cathedral after his death in 1813 and a large statue of the general stands outside, along with one of Barclay de Tolly, the War Minister during the conflict.

de Tolly statue at Kazan

de Tolly statue at Kazan

Not far away is St Isaac’s Cathedral, completed in 1858 and based on the great Byzantine churches. It is, though, essentially a Neo-Classical take on the style. The huge main dome is, in typically understated Orthodox fashion, plated with gold. So conspicuous is the dome that it was painted black during the Second World War in an attempt to conceal it from enemy bombers. St Isaac’s is the world’s third-largest domed cathedral and took some 40 years to build.

St Isaac's Cathedral

St Isaac’s Cathedral

Built in a considerably shorter period of time (1819 to 1825, but no less majestic, is the State Museum of Russian Art, otherwise known as the Mikhailovsky Palace. To prove that nothing falls easily into a pigeon-hole, the palace has a touch of the Baroque to it and is enclosed by railings that are distinctly Art Nouveau. The palace became an art museum in 1898, when Nicholas II decided that St Petersburg should have an art gallery to match Moscow’s famous Tretyakov. The St Petersburg gallery grew to such an extent that its collection is around four times that of its Moscow counterpart.

State Museum of Russian Art

State Museum of Russian Art

Sofia

Though not an imposing building in terms of size, the National Theatre is one of Sofia’s most charming. A relatively recent structure completed in the early 20th century, it has great style and is perfectly located. Standing in the City Park at the heart of the Bulgarian capital, it provides a lovely backdrop to the surroundings and provides a pleasing view for those relaxing in the many cafés and bars in the gardens.

City Park and National Theatre

City Park and National Theatre

Of a more recent vintage is the National Library. Building began in 1939, but war intervened and the library was not completed until 1953. The official name is the St Cyril and St Methodius National Library, named after the brothers who introduced the Cyrillic alphabet. A statue of the brothers stands in the grounds.

National Library

National Library

Even more recent is the building that was the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Built in the 1950s, it is constructed in the style known as Socialist Classicism. Many of the edifices constructed in this style are, quite frankly, ugly, but Party House has a certain elegance to it. There are, in fact, three linked buildings at the site, now occupied by government offices, the vast TZUM department store and an upmarket hotel.

The old Communiist Party HQ

The old Communiist Party HQ

The large Sofia Court House is of a similar style, though built a little earlier. It is another building that could defy categorisation, but with its 12 huge columns, comes closer to the Neo-Classical than anything else.

Court House

Court House

Of a more traditional style is the main building, or Rectorate, of Sofia University, though the university itself dates back to the late 19th century. The two statues outside the main entrance depict the Georgiev brothers, Hristo and Evlogi, who financed the building.

Sofia University

Sofia University

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.

Budapest – Two Cities in One

Budapest is really two cities that face each other across the Danube. For those familiar with the north east of England, this is rather like creating a single place called Newcastlegateshead. It may seem absurd, but Buda and Pest were separate entities until late in the 19th century.

In very simplistic terms, Pest, on the eastern shore of the river, is the flat part and Buda, to the west, is the hilly bit. Naturally enough, the castle is on the Buda side, overlooking the river and it is a fine place from which to view the Pest embankment and the Parliament building with its unrepentantly Gothic style.

Attempted arty shot from castle

Attempted arty shot from castle

 

The Parliament, built just after the merging of the cities, bears more than a passing resemblance to Britain’s Houses of Parliament. This is not a coincidence – the London building provided the inspiration for its Hungarian equivalent.

 

Parliament

Parliament

Back on the Buda side, the castle was initially constructed in the 13th century, but, as with almost any medieval castle, has been rebuilt and reconstructed on many occasions. A stylish little funicular can get you to the top of the hill to save the legs, if not the wallet. There are two particularly fine museums at the castle complex, the Budapest History Museum and the National Gallery, which is primarily devoted to Hungarian art. A Budapest Card will allow free entry to both.

National Gallery

National Gallery

There are cards that cover 24, 48 and 72 hour periods. If you’re on a city break or something similar, the three-day version is pretty good value. It costs about £25, which sounds a bit pricy, but you can travel on any public transport (including the airport bus) and it allows free entry to seven museums. The Museum of Fine Arts and National Gallery are also among the participating museums and most other museums offer some form of discount, so if you’re planning to enjoy a bit of culture, the card is very worthwhile. You can even have a free walking tour with a guide if you fancy it.

Walking in Budapest is, largely, a pleasant experience, with the caveat that there is always a lot of building work going on, so you won’t necessarily always be able to follow the map. Occasionally, something that looks like a straightforward walk might involve a bit of a detour.

Something that’s impossible to miss is the vast St Stephen’s Basilica. This huge Neo-Classical edifice took over fifty years to build, not helped by the collapse of the dome and the subsequent total rebuilding. It’s possible to ascend to the modern, rather safer, dome and enjoy a full view of the city.

St Stephen's

St Stephen’s

Down at ground level, the Central Market is well worth a visit. It does, in fact, extend to three floors and the myriad stalls sell just about any kind of food you can think of. There are frequent ‘National days’ featuring foods from particular countries. The market is undoubtedly a tourist magnet, but locals shop here, which is as good a recommendation as any. There is more than food, with shops selling various craft products. Even vehement non-shoppers might grudgingly accept that this market is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two.

The market

The market

Bizarrely, one figure that you’ll encounter, thankfully only in statue form, is Ronald Reagan. The late American president never actually visited Budapest, but someone has seen fit to raise a statue of him. In a splendid piece of irony, Ronnie is left to gaze at a Soviet war memorial.

Ronnie wonders what the Soviets are up to now

Ronnie wonders what the Soviets are up to now

There is certainly no shortage of things to see and do. Budapest has more than 200 museums and 40 theatres, along with several other concert halls. There is a large and varied collection of churches and Europe’s largest synagogue. Look out, too, for the glorious piece of Art Nouveau that is the Gresham Palace, once a residence for wealthy Britons associated with the Gresham Life Assurance Company, but now a hotel.

The Budapest Metro is not huge and most of it is on the Pest side of the river. It is, though, the second oldest underground railway in Europe, after the London Underground. There are currently three lines, with a fourth under construction. Oddly, the trains are all of different types on each line.

It’s worth taking a trip on Line 1 (yellow line), a relatively short diagonal that runs from the centre of Pest under the stylish Andrássy Avenue, terminating at the City Park. The little yellow trains and the rather quaint stations look as though they belong to a completely different era. The experience is rather like travelling on a small subterranean tram.

Once you’ve reached City Park, expect to spend some time there. Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square) contains a plethora of statues and monuments to figures throughout Hungary’s history, with the Millennium Memorial as its centrepiece. To either side of the square are two Neo-Classical art galleries, The Palace of Art (Műcsarnok), which holds temporary exhibitions of contemporary art, and The Museum of Fine Arts (Szépművészeti Múzeum).

The latter has an extensive collection of Egyptian antiquities (one of the largest in Europe), as well as an impressive Classical section. The highlight, however, is the Old Master collection, a veritable lesson in European art history from the 13th to 18th centuries. The Spanish collection is notable, with works by El Greco, Vélazquez and Goya. In all, there are some 3,000 paintings in this part of the museum.

Also to be found in City Park is the lavishly Neo-Baroque Széchenyi thermal bath complex, Europe’s largest medicinal bath. Thermal baths are something of a Hungarian speciality and the Széchenyi is a substantial affair with indoor and outdoor facilities.

If you’ve taken the yellow line metro, one option is to retrace the journey on foot, because Andrássy Avenue provides an interesting walk. The street is full of Neo-Renaissance buildings, cafés, restaurants and shops. The delightful Opera House is situated here and even if you’re not going to a performance, it’s worth simply popping in for a look at the richly decorated foyer. This is, indeed, the grand opera.

Another notable building on Andrássy is the House of Terror. This museum concentrates on the period of the 20th century when Hungary was under Soviet and Nazi control. It is certainly an interesting and thought-provoking museum, but a personal view is that the presentation is rather over-the-top, with its penchant for flashing lights and throbbing music.

House of Terror

House of Terror

Budapest can be a little expensive in terms of food and drink, but it doesn’t have to be. As ever, the more tourist-orientated areas will cost a bit more, but even in the central part of Pest, there are plenty of places where you can find good value. Hungarian food tends towards the meaty, but most places have a vegetarian option and there are some very good Indian restaurants (the Indigo is especially impressive) where a filling meal and a couple of beers will give you change from a ten pound note.

There is a host of restaurants around Liszt Square, across from the imposing Academy of Music. Lovers of dark beer (Duck Holiday owns up) should consider the Bohemia Restaurant, which serves a few different beers including the tasty Prágai tavasz (‘Prague Spring’), a Czech-style dark beer that is friendly for session drinking. It’s a bit thin on the veggie options, but a cheese tapas selection and a few glasses of Prágai tavasz make for a very pleasant evening.

Budapest is unquestionably one of Europe’s great capitals, boasting many World Heritage sites and, of course, the magnificent Danube. There is never a bad time of year to visit a city this impressive.

Street Sculpture

On Edinburgh’s Dalry Road, there is a sculpture of two draymen rolling a beer barrel. It is set slightly back from the pavement and is probably not even noticed by the shoppers and office workers who hurry past it each day. The sculpture is a tribute to Edinburgh’s brewing industry, prominent in that part of the city.

The sculpture is notable because it is a rare example of this type of art in Britain. Of course, there are many statues, but street sculpture, with its underlying sense of humour, is not easily found in the UK. In Eastern Europe, though, it is much more prevalent.

It's that man(hole) again

It’s that man(hole) again

Perhaps the best-known location for the genre is Bratislava. The Slovakian capital has some fine and famous examples of the art. How many tourists have stopped to take pictures of the figure appearing from a manhole or snapped their friends sitting by the Napoleonic soldier leaning on a bench? It is certain that the rather seedy-looking paparazzo, sneaking a photo outside a restaurant, has in turn been photographed on thousands of occasions.

Empire building is hard work

Empire building is hard work

Take a stroll through Riga and you will encounter a rather Bohemian-looking character lolling against a park fence. The figure is that of Kārlis Padegs, one of Latvia’s most famous artists, who died from tuberculosis at the absurdly young age of 28. The statue stands outside the Vērmanes Garden in central Riga.

Kārlis Padegs dresses down

Kārlis Padegs dresses down

Skopje houses a riot of statues and monuments. Some of them, like the Alexander the Great statue in Macedonia Square, are magnificently over the top. Others, dotted randomly about the city, are just plain crackers.

Alexander (the Great's) Ragtime Band

Alexander (the Great’s) Ragtime Band

By the river, a woman is about to dive into the river. A friend has already taken the plunge, as we can see the feet of the previous diver. There are musicians, giant fish and all sorts of surreal lunacy.

Where's that weird fish?

Where’s that weird fish?

Fish loses bicycle

Fish loses bicycle

Skopje has a seemingly insatiable desire for statues of great historical figures, but in contrast to all this stands a sculpture of a trendy young woman in dark glasses, mobile phone pressed to her right ear.

Hi, I'm out shopping

Hi, I’m out shopping

The Balkan region is a good source of strange artwork popping up in unexpected places. In Ljubljana, take a stroll through Tivoli Park and you’ll spot an elderly gentleman sitting on a bench. Nothing too strange so far, but glance to his left and a miniature version of the figure is perched on the arm of the seat.

You've shrunk since I saw you last...

You’ve shrunk since I saw you last…

The new Butchers’ Bridge, across from the Central Market in Ljubljana, is even more zany. Adam and Eve, Prometheus and a startled Satyr vie for attention with a host of grotesque frogs, shellfish and other oddballs. The bridge has become a spot for lovers to attach padlocks, optimistically proclaiming their eternal love.

Beyond Satyr

Beyond Satyr

Sofia, by comparison, is relatively sober in its art. Even so, a walk through the City Garden might cause a little surprise as you encounter a muddy-looking car with a large head on its roof. Closer inspection reveals that the work is, in fact, a tribute to the Trabant, the legendary, if horribly inefficient, East German car.

A Trabant breaks down

A Trabant breaks down

Finally, a couple of favourites from Budapest. A fat and rather pompous-looking soldier stands guard amidst the shoppers in the city centre, looking slightly like a Magyar version of Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring.

Don't tell him, Pike

Don’t tell him, Pike

Another well-photographed figure in the city is the ‘Little Princess’, the girl reaching out to a dog to retrieve the ball in its mouth. The statue is in Vigadó Square, the small garden outside one of Budapest’s famous concert halls.

Token cute photo

Token cute photo

These works add something to their surroundings. There is, in the best of them, an undercurrent of humour. This is art that doesn’t take itself too seriously and that cannot be a bad thing.