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

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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.

Riga – City of Parks

It’s difficult to know where to start when considering the delights of Riga, but one of the first things that strikes a visitor is the sheer amount of green space in the city. Most capitals have their parks – London has plenty, for example – but perhaps the effect is intensified by the fact that Riga is not a huge place.

There is green space everywhere and at the heart of it is Bastejkalns (Bastion Hill), with its lovely park and winding Pilsetas Canal. Like most of Riga, the park is beautifully kept and free of rubbish and it’s delightful to stroll around or take a rest. The park also houses the unmistakable and defiant Freedom Monument, known locally as ‘Milda’. In front of the monument is the equally distinctive Laima Clock, erected in 1924 so that people wouldn’t be late for work.

Bastejkalns

Bastejkalns

For fans of Art Nouveau, Riga is a must. Most of these buildings were built for private rather than public use and the majority are in the Old Town. The is even an Art Nouveau Museum, appropriately situated in the former house of the architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns, who was responsible for many of the hundreds of Art Nouveau buildings in the city. It is largely because of the quantity and quality of the architecture that the centre of Riga was designated as a UN World Heritage site.

You can't have enough Art Nouveau

You can’t have enough Art Nouveau

There is an intense irony in that Riga’s ugliest building is the site of the Museum of the Occupation. This truly horrible building appears to have been designed by a Soviet architect who needed to dispose of a job lot of large grey Lego bricks. The museum itself is a moving and disturbing memorial to a people who were occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War and the Soviet Union thereafter. There seems to be a constant debate about the use of the building, but somehow it seems an apposite location.

Museum of the Occupation

Museum of the Occupation

A far more pleasing building comes in the shape of the neo-Byzantine Orthodox Cathedral. It’s a distinctive sight, with its typically Orthodox onion domes standing out across the city. It has been substantially restored after being turned into a planetarium during the Soviet era. There are also Lutheran and Catholic cathedrals in Riga. The Lutheran version is especially with its tall tower and the building features on postcards and many a pretty little biscuit or sweet tin. It’s also the largest church in the Baltic region.

We love onion domes

We love onion domes

By the bank of the Daugara River sits the much renovated and rebuilt Riga Castle. Sadly, it is having to undergo yet more restoration work as a result of a recent fire. This means that the excellent National History Museum is presently closed. It’s also worth noting that the National Art Museum is undergoing rebuilding as well. Thankfully, Riga is not short of museums and galleries, so there should be enough to keep even the most enthusiastic culture fiend happy.

At the quirkier end of the museum spectrum, the Latvian Railway History Museum is not just for the trainspotters. It’s a nicely put together collection of all things railway and is a treasure trove for the social historian. The museum is on the left bank of the river across the Stone Bridge. Near to the museum is the new National Library, a curious white pyramid of a building.

A visit to the Baltic would not be complete without garlic and Riga has the wonderful Ķiploku Krogs restaurant. Every dish contains garlic and that includes the desserts. It’s also a great place to have a drink and a nice option is to have a garlic tapas washed down with some dark Latvian beer. One drawback, admittedly, is that the experience means your breath is likely to be able to fell an elephant at 100 metres, but luckily elephants are extremely scarce in Latvia.

Happily, breweries are not scarce and Latvia retains a decent number of independent and micro-breweries. There is also a reasonable variety of beers, from lightweight lagers to dark lagers, bocks and Baltic porters. Some breweries are owned by groups, though this doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. The Lacplesis brewery, for example, is owned by a large Danish group, but the beers are unpasteurised and of a good quality. Piebalgas, an independent brewery, is also worth looking out for. They produce a very tasty dark lager.

There’s no shortage of places to stop for a drink. It’s a little more expensive to sit in a bar in the main square, but it’s fun to linger for an hour or two and watch the array of performers, chancers, locals and visitors that pass before you. A beer in one of the many park bars will be cheaper and it always feels very civilised to be able to sit around with a glass of beer at half past ten in the evening in a public park. It seems almost inconceivable that you can indulge in this way in the UK. No doubt, after a few minutes, drunken imbeciles would start brawling and causing mayhem.

On that rather depressing note, Riga has become something of a magnet for the retards who feel the need to drink themselves into near oblivion and make live miserable for everybody within about a mile’s radius. These are, of course, the stag weekenders. Cheap flights and cheap beer are not only appealing to the more civilised end of humanity, so if you’re looking for three or four days in Riga, avoiding a weekend might be a decent idea. That said, normal people have no desire to rush into the nearest faux-English pub or McDonald’s and your average retard is unlikely to disturb your museum visit, but it’s harder to avoid idiots in a small city.

Despite the occasional influx from the brain dead, Riga remains one of Europe’s more charming cities and is worth visiting at any time of year. For the sheer magnificence of its buildings and the peaceful beauty of its parks, Riga is, perhaps, Europe’s most attractive capital.