Strange Days

There will, inevitably, be the odd day where nothing goes to plan. Sometimes, days like these are annoying. Sometimes, they are just funny. Despite the fact that your correspondents have been fortunate enough to travel to many different countries in Central and Eastern Europe, nothing too serious has happened. There has been the odd brush with authority – for example, the young German policemen who delivered a stern lecture on the dangers of crossing a completely empty road early on a Sunday morning – but nothing to cause the blood pressure to rise unduly.

Things can go wrong. Take the example of an acquaintance who boarded a train in Hamburg with the intent of making a local, ten-minute journey, but instead found himself on the non-stop express to Berlin. This, of course, is down to stupidity and nothing else. One of his excuses was that all the signs were in German. How terribly unreasonable of the Germans to display signage in their own language. Besides which, ‘Berlin’ in German is, er, ‘Berlin’. One might even add the improbability of a large, twelve-carriage train providing a local stopping service, but there is no need to labour the point.

Thankfully the Duck Holiday team has never encountered a problem as big as this (nor, indeed, an idiot as big). There have, though, been moments of surrealism and a selection is presented below.

Tirana – Photographers Beware

Some years ago, the Duck Holiday team (though not on holiday) were ambling along the sea-front in Accra. Ahead was a rather pretty little lighthouse that demanded a photo. The photo was duly taken. It was only some minutes later that we were able to see the sign that informed us of grievous penalties for anyone taking a photograph of the lighthouse.

Thus it was with the railway station in Tirana. As might be imagined, Tirana’s railway station is not large. There are no international services and what services there are tend to be something of of trial of patience for travellers. Even the most eager train buff would find it hard going.

Illicit photo of Tirana station

Illicit photo of Tirana station

The station was there, though, and there seemed no reason not to take a photo of it, if only for the sake of novelty. Little seemed to be happening, with no imminent departures or arrivals and not a passenger in sight. A couple of men lounged around, chatting over a cup of coffee and a cigarette.

It soon became apparent, however, that there was, indeed, a very good reason not to take photographs. One of the men, who may or may not have been the station-master, leapt to his feet and began to shout and wave his arms around. Not being conversant with the Albanian language, we shall never know what he was shouting, but it seemed unlikely that he was saying, “Welcome, take as many pictures as you like.”

Beware of Men in Blue Shirts

Beware of Men in Blue Shirts

Later that day, and considerably wiser, we strolled around the area known as Blloku (‘the Block’), the part of town that was sealed off to ordinary Albanians during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Even now, it seemed, the area of the former president’s house was something of a no-go area. Men in black suits and dark glasses wandered menacingly. Even light inspection suggested that this was not a remake of The Blues Brothers. The Duck Holiday team kept their cameras firmly hidden away.

Lake Balaton – Dog Days

The hotel on the shores of Lake Balaton provided some of the finest views one could wish for. The hotel itself was perfectly pleasant and comfortable. Unfortunately, it also catered for dogs as well as humans.

The room next door to that occupied by the Duck Holiday team contained an Austrian family, who seemed to be perfectly affable people. It also contained a large Alsatian, who did not appear to be quite so amiable, especially when left to its own devices.

Nice view (shame about the dog)

Nice view (shame about the dog)

The Austrians (human, that is) were evidently early risers and would depart for breakfast at the earliest possible opportunity. The Duck Holiday team, while happy to start quite early in the day, prefer to linger in bed just a little longer than such enthusiasts. The problem was that the dog took considerable umbrage at being deserted and proceeded to bark its head off while its owners were absent.

Even nicer with the sun out

Even nicer with the sun out

Such behaviour does not help those that wish to have an extra half hour’s sleep. There was little that one could do except copy the regime of our neighbours and rise somewhat earlier than was truly desirable.

One morning, during the by-now familiar barking session, one of the Duck Holiday team lost all patience. Standing directly outside the door behind which the monster lurked, she yelled, “SCHWEINHUND!”. There was silence. The dog, possibly surprised at being addressed in its own language, shut up. Naturally, the silence did not last long, but the momentary quiet was most welcome.

Vilnius – Mystery Restaurant

The guide book was very in-depth and contained an extensive list of eating establishments in the Lithuanian capital. One of these was an Indian restaurant that appeared to be of good quality. While one always seeks out something local by way of food, Duck Holiday is very partial to Indian food (one of our few boasts is that we have dined at the world’s most northerly Indian restaurant, in Reykjavik). It seemed worth a visit.

While the book did not give the precise address, it informed us that the restaurant in question was in a street named Jogailos. This street, centrally located, was not by any means long, so it appeared to be fairly straightforward. We walked up the street and failed to spot the target. We walked back down the street with much the same result. We tried up on the opposite side, then down again on that side. Nothing doing.

Spot the restaurant (no, we couldn't)

Spot the restaurant (no, we couldn’t)

A café was open and while we took a cup of coffee, we enquired of the waitress whether she knew where the restaurant was. She spoke excellent English, so there were no communication problems, but she had never heard of it. This was not encouraging. She asked a few people in the café, but it seemed that this particular restaurant was completely unknown.

Nope, still can't see it

Nope, still can’t see it

A quick check of the map revealed that there was a tourist information office not far away. The results there were similar to what we had experienced in the café. Vilnius, it, appeared, had a ghost restaurant. Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that there must, once, have been an Indian restaurant on Jogailos, but that it had closed down.

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.

Vilnius – Amber Alert

The bar in the Old Town was surprisingly quiet. We sat outside with bottles of Utenos Porteris, a very dark Lithuanian beer. The barmaid asked what we thought of the stuff and we agreed that it was a very pleasant drop of porter, but rather strong. She picked up the bottle and looked for the strength, then shook her head. “No, this is not so strong for Lithuania” she announced. The beer was 6.8% ABV.

Like their neighbours in Poland, Lithuanians like their beer strong. A bit of hunting around and you’ll be able to find something a little less vigorous, though a 4.4% beer will probably be advertised as ‘low alcohol’. In UK terms, this is the strength of a fairly robust best bitter. Another factor is the cheapness of beer in the country. Bars are cheap and bottles from shops cost mere pennies. Care needs to be taken.

If you do get a bit wobbly of an evening, it shouldn’t mean getting lost, at least in the Old Town. The centre is not vast and orientation does not take long. It is also a glorious mishmash of architectural styles that shouldn’t fit together, but do.

The place for a great view of the city is the top of the Castle complex. There are two castles and it is the upper one, on Gediminas Hill, that is the city’s highest point. An observation platform at the top of the Gediminas Tower provides a splendid panorama. The whole complex is crammed with museums and is well worth a full morning or afternoon to explore. Below Gediminas Tower is the cathedral, a gloriously neo-classical affair.

View from Gediminas Tower

View from Gediminas Tower

 It’s difficult to go very far in Vilnius without bumping into Gediminas in some form. He was a 14th Grand Duke of Lithuania who is regarded as both the founder of the Lithuanian state and the city of Vilnius. Gediminas Square is at the heart of the Old Town.

Churches in particular provide an example of the architectural contrasts of the city, with the resolutely Gothic St Anne’s church, the neo-classical cathedral and the beautiful Baroque St Peter and St Paul’s vying for attention. St. Michael and St. Constantine is a wonderful example of the Orthodox Church, with its bright green onion domes quite unmistakable. The modestly-named Church of the Apparition of the Holy Mother of God is another Orthodox building, an even more lavish neo-Byzantine affair that stands majestically across the River Neris from the Old Town.

Church of the Holy Spook (okay, Apparition)

Church of the Holy Spook (okay, Apparition)

Like many former Soviet areas, Vilnius has its share of ghastly buildings and one particularly choice example is Seimas Palace, home to the Lithuanian Parliament. Built in the 1970s, it has all of the stunningly good taste associated with that decade. The style, if such a term can be applied, is an abysmal attempt at modern classical and surely takes the award for the most hideous public building in Vilnius. It’s worth seeing just for that reason.

There is plenty to do in Vilnius, but if you’re staying for a few days, a trip outside of the capital is easy enough. Trains are not expensive and the second city of Kaunas is only a couple of hours away. We took the shorter trip to Trakai, which takes around 40 minutes and costs almost nothing. It’s also fun to experience the journey on a train that may lack comforts, but is incredibly cheap. Climbing up into a carriage from the almost non-existent platforms is also a pleasure that feels like it should be photographed in black and white. Another thing that pleases those of us beset with health and safety obsessives is the way one can nonchalantly saunter across the railway lines.

We walked into the station in the rain...

We walked into the station in the rain…

Trakai National Park comprises the area of several lakes and the town of Trakai, Lithuania’s medieval capital. Trakai houses two castles and various museums and is all a bit touristy, but the area is beautiful and there are plenty of places for a peaceful walk and quiet contemplation, not to mention some birdwatching.

Castles that are fairytales...

Castles that are fairytales…

Vilnius makes for an excellent city break of three or fours days. Mid-summer can get a bit hot and winters can be a bit cold, but can make for a very picturesque scene with snow on the ground. It’s not an expensive place to eat and drink, and it should be simple enough to find inexpensive accommodation. The City Gate is a splendid little hotel across from the Gate of Dawn, the only remaining gate to the city of Vilnius. The hotel has only about 10 rooms, but it’s a friendly and welcoming place with a pleasant restaurant. There is a decent pub next door and a brief stroll takes you right into the Old Town.

On the other side of the Gate of Dawn, you’ll find amber. You’ll find lots of amber. In fact, you’ll hardly be able to move for amber. Amber, many may be surprised to know, is not always the colour of, erm, amber. Lithuania seems to specialise in white amber. There is, inevitable, something of an overload towards souvenirs, but it’s not all tat and the Amber Museum-Gallery is a good place to see what amber is all about. Just make sure to go to the pub afterwards and not beforehand.