Baroque

These days, we tend to think of ‘Baroque’ as symbolising stylishness. In fact, the word was used as a term of derision by those that felt it was excessive and quite simply too loud. Whereas the Renaissance drew its inspiration from the Classical, with its rational straight lines, Baroque was colourful, curvy and just a bit too loud for some tastes.

Baroque survived, however, and not only did it survive, it thrived. Germany, Austria and Russia proved to be centres for the style and it is not too difficult to find Baroque architecture in most European cities. Even sober Englishmen like Wren and Hawksmoor could not resist a touch of Baroque in their designs.

With so many examples to choose from, it is not an easy task to reduce the list to a mere handful, but the buildings described below are, in our opinion, among the finest.

Kyiv

Baroque caught on in Eastern Europe and is quite often found in Ukraine, Russia and neighbouring countries. Churches, in particular, are a popular building for the style and there are many wonderful examples in Kyiv.

St Andrew is not only Scotland’s patron saint, but that of Ukraine as well, and the church dedicated to him is one of Kyiv’s best. It was designed by the great Baroque architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli and nowadays is the patriarchal cathedral of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. The building was completed in 1767. As with many Orthodox churches, the interior artwork is stunning and features a lavish, three-tier iconostasis, also designed by Rastrelli.

St Andrew's

St Andrew’s

Also worth a look, though sadly one cannot go inside, is the Mariinsky Palace, designed by the same architect. This lovely blue and cream building is an excellent example of the Russian Baroque style. It was built in 1755 as a residence for royalty visiting Kyiv.

Mariinsky Palace

Mariinsky Palace

St Petersburg

The fingerprints of the ubiquitous Rastrelli can be seen all over St Petersburg, never more evidently than in the Winter Palace and at first sight, the visitor might assume that St Nicholas Cathedral was another Rastrelli classic. In an indirect sense, it is, having been designed by one of the Italian’s pupils, one Savva Chevakinsky, who was also the architect responsible for the rebuilding of St Petersburg’s first museum, the equally lavish Kunstkamera.

Kunstkamera

Kunstkamera

The cathedral is quite unmissable, a giant turquoise and white wedding cake set amidst trees and gardens. The interior is just as decorative as the external appearance. It has a long association with the Russian Navy and is sometimes referred to as the Naval Cathedral.

St Nicholas

St Nicholas

St Nicholas - tower

St Nicholas – tower

Across the Neva River stands the Peter and Paul Cathedral, designed by Domenico Trezzini (who also designed the Twelve Collegia, the main building of St Petersburg University) and completed in 1733. The bell tower is the tallest of any Orthodox church and the lavishly decorated interioor houses the tombs of most of Russia’s emperors and empresses.

St Peter and Paul

St Peter and Paul

Istanbul

Istanbul’s varied and turbulent history means that there are buildings of varying styles and, in some cases, a mixture of styles. The city does not lack for beautiful buildings and one of the very best is the Dolmabahce Palace.

Designed by Armenian architects at the behest of the Europhile Sultan Abdul Mecit, the palace was completed in 1856. It is not a modest affair; the waterfront façade is 284 metres long and the building contains 46 reception rooms and galleries. Everything is magnificent, from the highly ornamental gates to the Paul Garnier-designed clock tower, added 30 or so years after the construction of the palace.

Dolmabahce Palace

Dolmabahce Palace

It was, though, the sheer extravagance of the palace that helped bring about the downfall of the Ottoman Empire and it was from the Dolmabahce that the last emperor fled into exile in 1922.

Zagreb

Visitors in search of fine buildings make a good start if they arrive at Zagreb’s main railway station. Like many of the stations on the route of the Orient Express, it is a stylish affair. Outside the station, the view across King Tomislav Square is of lawns, flowers and a large fountain, behind which stands the elegant Art Pavilion.

St Catherine's Church

St Catherine’s Church

It is, though, up the hill in the Old Town, that the visitor needs to be to enjoy Zagreb’s magnificent Baroque St Catherine’s Church, a 17th-century construction in shimmering white and featuring gloriously outrageous pink stucco on its walls. It is located close to St Mark’s Cathedral, with its famous chequer-board roof tiles.

St Mark's Cathedral

St Mark’s Cathedral

Prague

Prague may have an extensive collection of Gothic buildings and at least one renowned Art Nouveau structure, but there is a lot of Baroque around. Indeed, the Czech Republic is something of a feast for lovers of Baroque and most churches in the countryside are built in this style.

Prague Castle, like many medieval strongholds, has been rebuilt and reconstructed many times down the years, resulting in a mixture of styles. While its cathedral is unmistakeably Gothic, there are Renaissance and Baroque structures throughout the whole complex. The Matthias Gate is believed to be the very first Baroque construction in Prague.

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Another Prague landmark, the Charles Bridge, is noted for its Gothic towers, but one should not overlook the collection of Baroque statues – some 30 of them – on the bridge itself. The statues, by various sculptors, were added in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

St Luitgarda (Charles Bridge)

St Luitgarda (Charles Bridge)

Prague has many Baroque churches, the most famous being the Church of St Nicholas, built in the 18th century on the site of an old Gothic Church. Its architect was Christoph Dientzenhofer, who was also responsible for the rebuilding of the imposing (and Baroque) Břevnov Monastery. The monastery is known as the oldest brewer in the Czech Republic and Benedictine beer is still brewed today.

St Nicholas

St Nicholas

Eastern Europe is a happy hunting ground for lovers of Baroque and one of the pleasure is to see the variances in style from place to place.

Kyiv: Europe’s Wackiest Capital

Onion domes

Onion domes

People often ask me why I like travelling to Eastern Europe. Thus far, I have managed to avoid the answer ‘Because it’s there’ in favour of a more considered response that involves three parts.

Firstly, if one considers Europe to the west of Russia, there are many places that can be reached in about three hours or less from the UK. Secondly, few parts of Eastern Europe are particularly expensive for the westerner. Thirdly, while many cities are becoming increasingly westernised, there is a distinctly different culture. All of these factors make this part of the continent appealing.

One such place is Kyiv. It could, even, be described as a bit odd, certainly to western eyes. This is intended as a compliment rather than an insult. It assuredly fits all three of the criteria invoked above, being a three-hour flight from Gatwick, inexpensive and with a style of its own.

The fact that Ukraine uses the Cyrillic alphabet helps the western visitor to feel that they are somewhere different. It’s useful to learn the letters, as street signs and directions are all shown in Cyrillic. In fact, it’s better to use a Cyrillic map rather than one printed in Latin script as the latter will often show a translated version and it’s all too easy to be fooled. The Cyrillic alphabet is similar to the Greek and might look a little intimidating at first, but really, it’s quite easy.

If the Cyrillic alphabet is easy enough to comprehend, the same cannot be said for Soviet-style architecture. Perhaps architects were only allowed to design buildings after they had imbibed a certain quota of vodka. In the case of the Hotel Turist, the quota seems to have been almost as high as the hotel itself, which climbs to twenty-seven storeys. One should not be deterred by appearances, as the interior is far more attractive, the rooms are comfortable enough and the staff are helpful. One pleasing quirk – Kyiv has many – is that there are four lifts, two of which carry you to odd-numbered floors while the other two deal with the even numbers. Convention is also defied by having staff on each floor to hold room keys, rather than the main reception. The guest is left hoping that the person responsible for keys on their floor has not wandered away for a chat or an extensive toilet break.

A slight drawback is that the hotel is situated on the other side of the Dnepr river from the city centre. Another Kyiv oddity; there are no footbridges. This is not a problem, however, as the hotel is next to Livoberezhna metro station and metro journeys cost a few pence. Having a splendid view of both the city and the metro station from a twenty-third floor room, it was quickly possible to discern that metro trains run approximately every ninety seconds. Even with such incredibly frequent services, finding a seat on a metro train is a rare luxury, a testament to its popularity.

A journey from Livoberezhna to the city centre only takes a few minutes, though one should be prepared to double the journey time because the stations in the centre are so far underground. Reaching the top of the first escalator for the first time, you feel a sense of relief at having made it to what you assume is the summit, only to realise that there is now a second escalator of exactly the same proportion to negotiate.

Something else that can be seen from the hotel room, and indeed from most places in the city, is the Motherland Monument, a very large stainless steel woman wielding a sword and a shield. At over a hundred metres tall, the monument is not subtle. The statue is located in the modestly-named Park of Eternal Glory, amid a museum complex and as one approaches, there are strains of Soviet military music, interspersed with typical Ukrainian folk music, which has its own stirring qualities, dipping into a slow, mournful pace and suddenly bursting into vibrant life. As you progress through this area, you pass tanks, other military hardware and sculptures in Soviet-realist style. It’s all just another example of the sometimes surreal experience of Kyiv.

Motherland statue

Motherland statue

Kyiv, like many cities in Eastern Europe, has myriad green spaces and a stroll to the Motherland Monument can be incorporated into a full day of interesting exploration in and around the park. The park is the setting for Pechersk Lavra, Kyiv’s famous Monastery of the Caves, first settled in the eleventh century. A typical Orthodox church, with its golden onion-domes, stands above the site. The Botanic Garden is also nearby and a simple walk in the park is pleasant enough, with abundant birdlife to be seen. Woodpeckers and jays can be seen in the wooded parts, seemingly determined to live up to a Kyiv-style zaniness by chattering and screeching loudly in the case of the jays and battering manically on tree trunks in the case of the woodpeckers.

"Arsenal"

“Arsenal”

Football aficionados should pay a visit to the Dynamo Stadium, home of Dynamo Kyiv. Even if there is no match on during your visit, it’s worth seeing for the museum and the statue of the legendary Valeriy Lobanovskiy, native of Kyiv, coach of Dynamo and three-times coach of the Soviet Union team. If there is a game, prices will vary depending upon the opposition, but even the more expensive tickets will appear astonishingly cheap, certainly for those used to English Premier League prices. Any Arsenal supporters are also advised to take the metro to Arsenalna station, which is a ten-minute walk from the ground. A small cannon sculpture outside the station is a perfect replica of the London club’s crest. Visitors to Arsenalna can also claim that they have been to Europe’s deepest underground station.

Lobanovskiy

Lobanovskiy

Overall, Kyiv’s quirks, oddities and strangeness are endearing qualities. The city, for westerners, is very cheap and a good meal with a few drinks should be easily obtainable for ten pounds or less. You also stand a good chance of being presented with a free glass of vodka at the end of a meal and it is most impolite to refuse the offering. Beer drinkers will find a good range of beer styles, but should remember that beer tends to be quite strong in many countries in Eastern Europe. A ‘low-strength’ beer means that the beer is less than around 5% ABV, so a ‘light’ beer can, in fact, be something considerably stronger than a British best bitter.

There are certain foods in any country that everybody should try once. For example, it feels almost obligatory to taste burek in Balkan countries and in Ukraine, the dish to sample is borsch. Many people – mistakenly – think of this as merely beetroot soup. Borsch is soup that contains beetroot, an important difference. The beetroot is added towards the end of the cooking process to enhance flavour and colouring, but is not the basis for the soup. The ingredients can vary considerably and it is perfectly possible for vegetarians to enjoy a meat-free version. A small test to see if your borsch is of the right thickness is to place a spoon on top of the soup. If the spoon remains resting on top, then you have the good stuff.

Kyiv has some excellent museums and galleries to suit all kinds of cultural interest, but naturally comes up with something unusual. There are museums dedicated to water, bread, toilets and trolleybus tickets, although the last-named is actually a pub with a collection of trolley-related photos, tickets and posters around the walls. Disappointingly, however, the Museum of Bee Breeding appears to have closed down.

Finally, a question: Kyiv or Kiev? I have used the former throughout this article for the simple reason that it is the preferred Ukrainian version. This is the spelling that you see throughout the city, or at least the way it translates from Cyrillic. Kiev is the Russian version and it seems much more respectful to use the Ukrainian spelling. Ensuring that you emphasise the –iv in the second syllable should bring the reward of a smile and even, perhaps, another glass of vodka.