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

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.

Sofia – a Study in Architecture

For atheists, we go to a surprisingly large number of churches. This, admittedly, is in search of art and décor rather than any form of spiritual comfort, and Orthodox churches tend to have more bling than a successful hip-hop star could accumulate in a lifetime.

When it comes to showpiece churches, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral takes some beating. Built in the 19th century, it is a tribute to Byzantine style and can apparently accommodate 10,000 people. The multitude of domes is topped by a vast golden one and approaching the church from the small park behind the cathedral produces even more of a ‘wow factor’ than seeing the place from the front because the whole thing rises into view as you climb the steps, rather than approaching on the flat.

Nevsky Cathedral

Nevsky Cathedral

At the opposite end of the scale is the 4th century, Roman built, St George Rotunda, Eastern Europe’s oldest Orthodox church. This much smaller church is not without its fine art, however, boasting ancient frescos from the 10th century. The 6th century St Sofia church, near the Nevsky, seems positively modern by comparison. The outside appearance may be more basic, but the interior contains a floor with stunning flora and fauna themed mosaics.

Behind Nevsky Cathedral is a splendid neoclassical building that houses the National Gallery for Foreign Art. It holds a wonderfully diverse collection; there is a vast range of European art from the 15th to 20th century, but also – and unusually – a substantial display of Asian and African art. There is a small admission charge (around three euros at the last count), making the gallery outstandingly good value.

Also well worth a visit is the National Archaeological Museum, housed in a former Ottoman mosque. The collection is impressively large and impressively laid out, with helpful displays and information in English. The museum contains the extraordinary Valchitran gold treasure, a collection of Thracian jugs and plates believed to date from the 12th century BC. There was also a very good collection of Byzantine culture and art, though this appeared to be a temporary exhibition. Entry was a little more expensive than the art gallery, but the amount on offer was well worth five euros or so.

Architecture in the city comes in an array of styles, though the emphasis is on the neo-classical. One of the more unusual subsets of this genre is Socialist Classicism, epitomised by the former Communist Party headquarters. This rather overblown, though far from awful, building is now used as Government offices.

The old Communiist Party HQ

The old Communiist Party HQ

Much more pleasing to the eye is the Central Market Hall, a fantastic mix of neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque, with a touch of neo-Byzantine lobbed in for extra flavour. It’s a gloriously ornate affair and well worth a look inside as well as out. The ground floor sells pretty much any kind of food you can think of, and is cheaper – and a good deal more enjoyable – than shopping in a soulless supermarket.

Market Hall

Market Hall

Across the road, you cannot miss the equally splendid Mineral Baths, neo-Byzantine in style and built at a similar time to the Market Hall, National Theatre, Military Club and several other public buildings. The first decade of the 20th century truly marked a golden age for architecture and design in Sofia.

Next to the baths is Sofia’s only functioning mosque, Banya Bashi, a typically Ottoman affair from the 16th century. It’s possible to visit, outside prayer times, and the interior is certainly worth viewing, notably for the beautifully restored domed ceiling. Around the bath and mosque, there is a honey market, and it’s quite surprising to a non-expert just how many different types of honey you can find.

Wandering around Sofia, there’s every chance you’ll encounter someone playing bagpipes. There are a lot more varieties of this instrument than most people realise and the Balkans remains a stronghold. The version you’re likely to see in Bulgaria is the gaida, or its larger cousin, kaba gaida, a low-pitched instrument played by mouth rather than elbow.

Sofia isn’t the cheapest place in the Balkans, but by Western standards, it’s far from expensive. Even at the Grand Café, part of the five-star Grand Hotel, it’s possible to have a meal and a couple of drinks without looking anxiously into the wallet. It’s also a nice place to linger for a while, especially in the garden on a pleasant day, with a view of the delightful National Theatre across the small City Park.

City Park and National Theatre

City Park and National Theatre

While Sofia may not be the most scenic of Eastern Europe’s capitals, there is plenty to see. There is an intriguing mix of architectural styles – often in a single building – and there is much of interest to the historian. The centre is relatively small and packs in quite a selection of sights for the visitor. It’s not especially expensive and there is a decent public transport system, though it’s worth noting that while there is an airport bus, it does not, bizarrely, serve the central bus station. Even so, taxis are not expensive and a trip from the city centre to the airport shouldn’t cost much more than five or six euros. The city has a good range of bars and restaurants and there isn’t really a bad time to visit, as even in the winter, a snow-covered Nevsky Cathedral makes for a lovely photo.