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.

Dubrovnik – where the Balkans meet the Mediterranean

Dubrovnik is overloaded in the summer months. It is not a large city and the beautiful little Old Town gets seriously busy. So here’s an idea – take a trip there in the winter. As long as you’re not desperate for a sun tan, there’s a lot to recommend it.

For one thing, the place is quiet and it’s very easy to stroll around, see what you want to see and take photos without feeling hemmed in. For another, the hotels are virtually empty at this time of year and often offer discounts. Lastly, the temperatures are usually pretty mild and even in December, it’s common enough to have double figures. You’re not going to get baked, but you’re highly unlikely to freeze, either.

Strolling around is the perfect pastime for Dubrovnik. Staying out of town in one of the many hotels on the Lapad Peninsula west of the city is a good option. If you’re not out on the far reaches, it doesn’t take to long to wander into town, but either way, there are frequent and very cheap buses that will take you to the very edge of the Old Town.

Duck cam view of Stradun, the main street

Duck cam view of Stradun, the main street

One thing you’ll want to do is take a walk around the walls of the city, something else that is a much more civilised experience when things are quiet. It provides some splendid views and provides you with some useful historical information on the way. One uncomfortable piece of modern history can be gleaned by looking at Dubrovnik’s roof tops: they are look remarkably similar. That’s because they were all repaired at the same time following the nine-month siege of the city between 1991 and 1992.

View from the city walls

View from the city walls

Dubrovnik doesn’t have any ‘wow’ museums, but there’s still plenty of interest to be found. The Maritime Museum reflects the history of the Republic of Ragusa, as Dubrovnik was known, and the feuds and battles with Venice across the Adriatic. One thing that British visitors might note as they look around the museum is the sheer number of the featured ships that were build in Britain; the museum almost serves as a monument to the British shipbuilding industry. A ticket to the Maritime Museum also allows access to other, smaller museums nearby. One is the pleasant little Ethnographic Museum on the site of the city’s former granary. The other is the Rector’s Palace, the residence of the Rector of Ragusa in medieval times. It doesn’t quite attain the grandeur of the Doges’ Palace in Venice, but the building is an interesting mix of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance and has a Venetian look to it. It also houses a small and slightly ramshackle museum.

Rector's Palace

Rector’s Palace

While the Lapad Peninsula is well stocked with hotels, there are still plenty of open spaces and places to walk. It’s possible to walk around the peninsula, though you have to circumnavigate the odd hotel. Another good walk is up to Velika Petka, a hill thick with pine trees. The climb to the top is not too strenuous and offers a splendid view of the whole peninsula. Either of these walks offers decent opportunities for spotting birds. What you might spot is rather dependent on the season, but there is always something to see. During this particular visit, the number of human tourists may have been few, but the grey wagtail visitors were present in large numbers.

View from the top of Velika Petka

View from the top of Velika Petka

It’s easy to forget that you’re in eastern Europe sometimes. Walking around in the middle of December with orange trees in full fruit makes you wonder for a moment if you’ve strayed into Morocco. The buildings, too, tell of a varied past, with a synagogue, a mosque and a Serbian Orthodox church all within a short distance of each other in the central area. There is also a plethora of churches, led by the lovely Baroque cathedral.

When it comes to food, not surprisingly fish restaurants abound. There’s something for everyone, though. Dubrovnik gets masses of visitors and there are restaurants to cater for all tastes. Prices vary considerably and it’s understandable that it’s a bit pricey in the Old Town. Away from the centre, food and drink can be very cheap indeed.

Croatian wine doesn’t get exported much, but there’s plenty of it and much of it is very good, as well as inexpensive. The same applies to beer and you’ll find a variety of brews and styles. Drinking local beer is always guaranteed to be cheaper, wherever you go, and it also seems a great deal more civilised. It always seems somewhat impolite to visit a country and drink stuff from other places.

It’s pretty hard to avoid rakija (or variants thereof) anywhere in the Balkans and the Adriatic Coast is no exception. In fact, the area seems to have even more types of the stuff than just about anywhere else, with all of the Dalmatian islands having their own particular concoction.

One drawback of visiting in the winter is that visiting the islands isn’t quite as easy as during the rest of the year. Croatia has more than a thousand on its Adriatic coast, so there’s no shortage of possibilities. The advantage in winter is, of course, that if you can arrange a boat trip, you won’t have to battle with the crowds of summer.

Travellers to Dubrovnik should note that the city is not accessible by train. There is, though, an airport and the bus ride from there to the city is probably one of the most scenic you’re likely to find when it comes to travelling to or from an airport. Airport buses usually make their way past dismal industrial estates and retail parks. This one gives you the splendour of the Adriatic coast.

Our preference would be to avoid Dubrovnik in the summer, but – as with everything else – it comes down to personal choice. The winter offers a look at the city at its quietest, but not everyone wants peace and quiet. It is, though, quite a delight to take a photo of a completely empty square at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon when you know for certain that it would have been jam-packed a few months earlier.