Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau is a relatively recent concept, originating in the late 19th century as a rebellion against classical and formal designs in art and architecture. Its proponents believed that beauty lay in nature and flowers, and plants feature prominently in its designs, which are also marked by asymmetrical shapes, curves and mosaics. Like many new art forms it had its origins in France, but the enthusiasm for Art Nouveau soon gripped much of the rest of Europe.

Everyone has their favourite buildings a the brief sample below is not intended to represent any kind of ‘best’ list. It just happens to contain some buildings we like…

Prague

Next to Prague’s Powder Tower stands the Municipal House. The contrast between the Gothic tower and the Art Nouveau building is stunning. The latter stands on the site of the former Royal Palace, the residence of the king between 1383 and 1485. The palace remained derelict for centuries and the Municipal House was built in the early years of the 20th century.

Municipal House

Municipal House

The building’s main function is that of Prague’s main concert venue, Smetana Hall. There are many other smaller halls and other rooms, plus a delightful café that is open to the public. Here, one can sit with a coffee and take in the superb decoration of the building’s interior. The outside is impressive, too. Above the main entrance is a vast, semi-circular mosaic entitled Homage to Prague.

Municipal House mosaic

Municipal House mosaic

If this is not enough to satisfy your thirst for Art Nouveau, take a trip to Prague’s main railway station, Hlavni Nadrazi. The large departures hall is a 1970s addition and none too aesthetically pleasing, but there is still plenty of the original left and the station’s façade and interior décor remain stunning.

Hlavni Nadrazi

Hlavni Nadrazi

Belgrade

Belgrade is not exactly teeming with Art Nouveau, but there is one building that it’s well worth seeking out. The Moskva Hotel is a glorious peppermint gateau of a building, another early 20th century creation that deserves its accolade as one of the city’s most famous structures. This is another place where you can stop off for a cup of coffee and take in the splendours of the artwork and imagine you’re sitting in the seat that Einstein, Hitchcock or any of the hotel’s other famous guests once occupied…

Hotel Moskva

Hotel Moskva

Vienna

1897 was a big year for Austrian art. Gustav Klimt found the Secessionist Movement, a group of Austrian artists that wanted to move away from tradition. One of its main characteristics was the use of bright colours, so it is rather ironic that the movement’s flagship building is not especially colourful, its façade being simple white and gold.

Secession Building

Secession Building

The Secession Building was designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich in 1897, the exhibition hall opening in the following year. Some of the building’s features were works that were displayed at exhibitions, notably Klimt’s own Beethoven Frieze and the extraordinary Mark Antony statue, created by Arthur Strasser, that stands outside the building.

It is, however, the ornamentation that stands out and gives the building its Art Nouveau character. The whole structure is decorated with gilt laurel garlands and floral patterns, while the most striking feature is the dome, made up of 3,000 gilt laurel leaves. It is this that has led to the building’s (affectionate) nickname of The Golden Cabbage.

Riga

Riga is one of Europe’s most delightful capitals, with its many green spaces and beautifully preserved medieval centre. It also harbours a fine array of Art Nouveau buildings, with around one third of the buildings in the central area being built in this style.

Art Nouveau is everywhere, even in older buildings. The House of Blackheads was set up as a meeting and party venue and has its origins in the 14th century. Its reconstruction, after the Second World War, encompassed the Art Nouveau style and ensures that the building fits in perfectly with its neighbours.

House of the Blackheads

House of the Blackheads

Most of the Art Nouveau buildings are in the New Town, many in the main shopping area. There is, though, no shortage of such buildings and they pop up almost everywhere. There are shops, offices and private houses in Art Nouveau style and there was even an Art Nouveau fire station, built in 1912. The building still exists and today operates as the Museum of Firefighting. There is also a Museum of Art Nouveau for those that cannot get enough.

Firefighting Museum

Firefighting Museum

Ljubljana

Few European capitals can match Riga for charm, but Ljubljana is one of them. With three rivers to call its own, the city is full of bridges and waterfront buildings. There is no better place to see wonderful examples than Prešernov Trg, the city’s main square named after Slovenia’s most famous poet, France Prešeren. Art Nouveau buildings pop up all through the city, from offices, banks, private residences and municipal buildings.

Art Nouveau offices

Art Nouveau offices

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.

Ljubljana – Rivers and Dragons

Down by the riverside

Down by the riverside

A city that has no river always seems to be lacking something. There are, of course, some perfectly fine cities without a natural waterway, but there is a lot to be said for strolling through a capital city by the banks of a river. Ljubljana makes sure nobody misses this pleasure by having three.

The Ljubljanica, Gruberjev and Gadaščica all run through the central areas of the city. The centre is based around the Ljubljanica and there are cafes, bars and restaurants alongside it, perfect places to stop for coffee, beer or home made iced tea on a hot summer day.

There are many things to like about Ljubljana. It’s a small capital city in a small country, but both country and city manage to pack a lot in. Ljubljana is neat, tidy, stylish, has plenty of green space and just looks nice. It’s a mere two hours from Gatwick and while prices may be a little higher than countries further east, it is cheaper than neighbouring Italy.

Ljubljana is, not surprising, Italianate in parts, though it has a wonderful mixture of styles and influences, most of which are good ones. Baroque and Art Nouveau dominate and the hand of the remarkable Jože Plečnik is everywhere. Plečnik was a Slovene architect who had grand plans for his city and not only dreamed them, but implemented them as well. It is almost impossible to walk anywhere in the central part of the city without seeing a Plečnik building or walking across a Plečnik bridge.

One of Plečnik’s masterpieces is the Central Market, a magnificent colonnaded affair beside the Ljubljanica. There are permanent shops in the covered area and also open-air stalls. It’s fascinating to simply stroll around, but difficult not to buy something, as there’s too much tempting fruit on offer, most of it from local allotments and as fresh as it’s possible to get.

The castle dominates the city and can be seen from everywhere. There is a choice of walking or taking a funicular to the top of the hill. Walking is probably a better option outside of the summer months. In summer, you’ll probably find yourself sweating enough without climbing hills, though there is a café at the castle where you can cool off under bursts of dry ice, though mercifully without having to listen to prog-rock as you do. There is also a delightful park that offers both shaded, tree-lined walks and wonderful views across the city.

The castle

The castle

For a small city, Ljubljana has an impressive number of bookshops, which always seems reassuringly civilised. There is no shortage of museums and galleries; the Museum of Modern History and the National Gallery are particularly impressive. For something a bit different, try the Railway Museum, a charmingly ramshackle affair that nonetheless holds a fine array of mighty engines from the Austro-Hungarian era. Even non-rail buffs should find something interesting and there is a little amusement to be had in the challenge of finding the entrance to the museum.

One oddity to look out for is Trg Francoske Revolucije (French Revolution Square), where you’ll find the only statue of Napoleon outside France. This, almost inevitably, is another work of the ubiquitous Plečnik. Ljubljana was the capital of Napoleon’s Illyrian Provinces, briefly under French control in the early 19th century, before returning to the Austrian Empire.

Like other aspects of Slovenia, food shows a mixture of influences. There is a distinct Italian and Mediterranean feel to many restaurants, while cafés betray a sense of the Viennese with tempting strudels and rich cakes. While Slovenes might like to distance themselves from the other former Yugoslav states, the omnipresence of the quintessentially Slavic burek suggests otherwise.

On the short stroll to the railway station from our hotel, we encountered Kratochwill, a combined restaurant, bar and brewery. This kind of thing demands immediate attention and several hours later, the verdict was one of conclusive satisfaction. The svetlo (light) and temno (dark) beers are both 4.2%, which is low enough to give them a good test. You can also have a mešano (mixed), half light and half dark, which produces a more pleasing result than you’d imagine. The bar caters for all options. If you just want a drink, that’s no problem. At the other end of the scale, you can have a full meal. If you fancy a snack, a suggestion is garlic bread, which is Italian-style thin pizza bread covered in garlic and is guaranteed to help the beer go down very well.

The wonderful Kratochwill

The wonderful Kratochwill

Where do the dragons come in? Pretty much everywhere, actually. A dragon features on the city’s coat of arms and the oldest bridge on the Ljubljanica is Zmaski Most (Dragon Bridge), guarded by four large green dragons. There are various stories of equally variable believability associated with the dragon. However, as the patron saint of the chapel at the castle is St George, this rather prosaic link appears the most likely.

A dragon watches

A dragon watches

 One thing that can be said with absolute certainty is that Ljubljana is a delightful place to visit at any time of year. In the summer, strolling by the river – any of them – and stopping for an iced tea or ice cream is pure pleasure. Slightly later in the year, the days are still warm without the heat or humidity of mid-summer. Even in winter, though it might be cold, there are bright, sunny days when the snow gleams in the sunshine and a glass of mulled wine will help to dispel the chill. Ljubljana may be one of Europe’s smaller capital cities, but it is assuredly one of the most attractive.