Sights in Europe

This rambling聽features a bunch of ‘favorite’ European sights聽that is entirely based on today’s mood (and then basically pulling a name out of a hat if we couldn’t decide) and our current state of melting in ~85+ degree heat and 90% humidity. Anything that reminds us of a cold day probably got moved up subconsciously. And of course, our experiences were colored because some places were under renovation while others were too crowded to make our experience feel worth the admission cost.

Best Art Museum:聽National Art Museum of Catalunya (MNAC) in Barcelona. This was the only museum we visited multiple times because Saturday afternoons are free. 馃檪 The palatial building聽has art-filled wings and frescoed domes. It dominates a hillside above Venetian-styled towers, waterfalls and fountains. MNAC’s collection is incredible – 13th century altarpieces (with聽mayhem-causing demons or saints boiling away in pots), Art Deco stained glass and advertising posters, sketches of the Spanish Civil War’s destruction, works by El Greco, Rubens, Goya…

Favorite Mode of Transit: Seaplane from Split to Dubrovnik. Head to Split’s picturesque harbor, sip on drinks聽waterside, board聽to find there are only 3 passengers, enjoy gorgeous mountain and island views all the way down the coast. A 45-minute jaunt and the chance the shoreline slip by is much preferable to a 4+ hour bus ride featuring two bonus border crossings.

MNAC, Croatian peninsula, view from Dubrovnik’s walls.

Best City for Drinking Outside: Budapest. This city takes summer drinking to a new level. Mix聽cheap beer, lots of public space, great transit and voila! Some parks have stands selling alcohol, but it is more common to bring your own. Time of day doesn’t particularly matter, though nights are better, especially聽if you come across聽live music or a soccer match screening. Fisherman’s Bastion and the pedestrian-only Liberty Bridge provide some great views and enough drinking space for everyone.

Most Impressive City Walls: Dubrovnik. Game of Thrones is filmed there for a reason. Several cities we visited had walls in the past, but Dubrovnik’s are complete and you can walk all the way around them, exploring towers and the intimidating Lovrijeniac Fortress across a small bay. The blue Adriatic and the tightly packed Old Town fill the views.

Happiest Palace: Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal. Move over, Neuschwanstein. Not only is the Pena Palace more brightly colored, it was actually lived in. The interior聽is just as cheerful as the outside with fountains and tiles. The grounds are pretty as well, with rambling trails, live black swans, and carefully planned views.

Favorite Old Town: Tallinn. Small, surrounded by towers, full of church spires, pastel colored buildings, and a pretty hill to climb. Yes, restaurants and souvenir poods dominate. We ignored those and focused on the cuteness, small parks, and quieter streets. Note: we avoided the high season, weekends, and cruise tour groups.

Pena Palace, library at Mafra, Trinity College Library.

Library Nearest My Vision of Heaven: Trinity College Library, Dublin. One of about three places that looked like their Instagram images, no photoshopping required. Thousands of books, richly colored wood, gorgeous bindings. Large crowds detracted a bit. It isn’t a very wide room since the sides are cordoned off, but at least we could stay as long as we wanted to try to soak it in.聽The library at Portugal’s Palace of Mafra gets an honorable mention because it is equally beautiful, with far fewer visitors. The downside there is not being able to walk as far into it to get a sense of the scale. But the huge cross-shaped hall is gorgeous marblework聽worthy of a such an impressive royal residence.

Most Interesting Non-Art Museum: Village Museum, Bucharest. Outside in a city park, the Village Museum let us tour the Romanian countryside without leaving Bucharest. Dozens of old buildings – homes, churches, barns, windmills have been preserved, and turned into a living history museum. Lots of love has gone into furnishing the homes and keeping the carved gates and painted details. It was fun even in a storm (we sheltered in a wine press). The wide variety of structures showcased the different traditional styles from around Romania.

Sports Team with the Most Rabid Fans: Hadjuk Soccer Club from Split. Our hosts warned us that if we were ever harassed in a bar or on the street to just say “Volimo Hajduk” (“We love Hajduk!” – we never had to, everyone was really kind). Graffiti with the name Hajduk and their red-and-white checker colors was EVERYWHERE – sidewalks, buses, underpasses, huge murals on buildings. They have their own branded chocolate, liquor, snacks. Every kid must own at least one jersey. Even in Dubrovnik, Hajduk reigned.

Coincidental Event We Didn’t Plan to See But Enjoyed the Most: Red Bull Air Race, Budapest. Ok, so the weather was terrible, practices were cancelled, events cut short, and we didn’t get to see them fly under the bridge (a thing they convince the planes to do!). And it was still an incredible display of reflexes and flying planes stupidly close to water and between buildings in the center of a city with thousands of people cheering on either side of the river.

Village Museum, Red Bull Air Race, tombs at Cemiterio dos Prazeres, La Sagrada Familia.

Creepiest Cemetery: Cemiterio dos Prazeres, Lisbon.聽Ghosts clearly come out at night. Above ground tomb, with doors of broken glass, let the lace curtains covering the coffins flutter in the wind. Few people, but cats in surprising places watching you.

Church Putting All Others to Shame: La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona.聽La Sagrada Familia is otherwordly. It stands alone, strikingly different from any other church we saw. 聽Inside, the white stone canvas swirls with rainbows of colored light streaming through the stained glass. Statuary covers the exterior, the side portraying the Crucifixion is in violent relief, the opposite showing Creation is decadent with natural scenery. It is expensive, the priciest building we entered, but worth it – even with the thousand other people. While waiting to enter you can even watch the ongoing construction, and dream about what it will look like when finished.

Favorite Museum Artwork: Discovering the Body聽of King Louis II by Bertalan Szekely.聽It’s a weird choice, but in person it is impressive and some parts are so realistic that it took me a while to convince myself the canvas was flat.

Most Heartwrenching聽Memorial: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. The preserved concentration, forced labor, and death camp complex is a sobering memorial to human suffering and powerful warning about the evils humans will commit. Crowds detract a bit initially, but聽it was easy to begin to ignore them and turn inward to try to understand the horrors that happened there. Auschwitz I was on a too-human scale, its brick buildings reminded me of college dorms. But of course, inside are the exhibits of human hair, items confiscated from the victims. It’s awful. My stomach churned for hours remembering that people tortured, murdered, starved so many. Auschwitz-Birkenau’s vastness magnifies the horrors of Auschwitz I. Everyone should visit to confront the world’s failure to stop the Holocaust and the ongoing need to keep it from recurring.

Historical Artifact We Should Have Learned about In School but Didn’t: Romania’s Steel Crown.聽King Carol I asked for a crown of steel made from cannons captured by soldiers fighting for Romania’s independence. He wanted to remember their sacrifice.

Fortress at Omis, Romania’s royal crown, book fountain, gas canisters at Auschwitz.

Cheapest Deal: Castles during Croatia’s off season.聽 They often charge at least a small admission fee. But in April, some days no one will be at the ticket booth and the castles will still be open (can’t blame them for wanting to hike up if no tourists seem to be in town). 馃檪 Happened at Omis and on Hvar.

Cutest Public Artwork: Book Fountain in Budapest.聽Water makes it look like the book’s pages are turning. It’s cute. The end.

Prettiest Hiking: Plitvice Lakes, Croatia.聽We visited during the off-season and avoided the worst crowds, and it was peaceful and pretty. Boardwalks weave around the waterfalls and under the trees; it’s a perfect way to spend at least an afternoon.

Where to See Books & Manuscripts Up Close: Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.聽The large libraries are beautiful in their own right, but only display a handful of books – they are all still on shelves. This museum focuses on individual books and has hundreds on display, all the way back to papyrus from ancient Egypt and fragments from the earliest copies of several books of the Bible.

Plitvice Lakes, Chester Beatty Library, Suomenlinna Island.

Favorite Fortress for Exploring: Suomenlinna, Helsinki.聽A small series of islands in the Gulf of Finland have the preserved remains of a massive fort that guarded Helsinki’s harbor. The tunnels running through many ramparts and rocky waterfronts are open for exploring.

Stress-inducing Thing that was Fun Afterward: Driving in Romania.聽Driving laws in Romania appear to be suggestions. Roads are shared with speeding semis, horse-drawn carts, bicycles, cars pulling over for no reason. Everyone honks for everything. But the countryside is pretty, especially in the Transylvanian mountains.

City Walking that Doesn’t Suck: Barcelona’s Wide Boulevards.聽Outside the Gothic Quarter’s 聽tangled mess, sidewalks are huge, open, flat. The city is easy to navigate because just about every street is at a right angle.

Here are some other things grouped by city that I didn’t want to come up with individual paragraphs for:

Lisbon has a castle downtown! The ruined聽Carmo Monastery! The less ruined Jeronimos Monastery. Next door to the Pena Palace is the clamberable ruins of the聽Moorish Castle.

Carving at Jeronimos Monastery, Carmo Monastery, Solin’s ruined amphitheater.

Barcelona’sMontjuic Castle聽has dark and checkered history, but beautiful views. Nearby, the聽Olympic Grounds聽are a great picnic/frisbee spot.

The damp of Diocletian’s palace basement聽in Split聽still shows how good Romans were at construction. Ruins at Solin聽add to that argument.聽Klis Fortress is also pretty but they clearly know people are coming due to GoT filming – the price keeps going up.

The shore path on the Babin Kuk side of Dubrovnik聽was more relaxing than ones nearer the Old Town. Ferrying聽out to聽Lokrum Island聽also avoided about 95% of the crowd and was a nice place聽to spend an afternoon being stalked by peacocks.

Lokrum Island, Palace of the Parliament, Peles Castle.

Bucharest聽has a beautiful Orthodox church every few blocks. Towering over everything, the Palace of the Parliament is a primer in government waste. Two hours away in the mountains, Peles Castle proves that a country doesn’t have to have a royal family for very long before all the trappings show up.

In Dublin, the National Archaeology Museum聽and St. Patrick’s Cathedral聽聽were my other favorites. And the whole city recalls lots of great literature 馃檪 . Across the country, really just a few hours drive, are the Cliffs of Moher.聽Brave the wind and don’t get too close to the edge.

Cliffs of Moher, inside St. Patrick’s, Dohany Street Synagogue.

Budapest is impressive all around. The quirky Pinball Museum聽is great for 5 hours until your wrists give out but the massive Szechenyi Thermal Baths聽can relieve all those arm cramps. A more sombre visit, the聽Dohany Street Synagogue聽is a reminder of how the Holocaust changed Hungary.

In addition to the Uprising Museum, the entire city of聽Warsaw聽is a WWII memorial. Walking聽anywhere you come upon plaques and statues commemorating events or people, letting you map out the destruction in your own neighborhood. In聽the suburbs, the Wilanow Palace serves as a reminder of the pre-WWII era.

Krakow聽crams a lot into a small space, which explains why it’s packed with tourists. The Franciscan Basilica聽is incredible. The park encircling the Old Town, the riverfront walk, or Kazimierz (the traditionally Jewish area) gets away from some聽of the horde. Further out, the now-parklike Plaszow Concentration Camp is Auschwitz’s lesser-known cousin that makes a thoughtful accompaniment to Oskar Schindler’s Factory.

Wilanow, Krakow’s Franciscan Church, Lennusadam, Kadriorg Palace.

Tallinn’s聽St. Olaf church tower is a great way to view the Old Town and reveal a fear of heights. Tucked away in Kadriorg park is the impressive KUMU National Art Museum and the cute聽Kadriorg Palace (also housing art). The Lennusadam Seaplane Harbor has full sized boats and a submarine to explore

Again, these are the places that stuck out the most. Just about everything we saw was worth our time in some way or another. For every place we saw, there are more we heard about but didn’t get to. I suppose yet another reason to head back at some future point….

Palace of the Parliament

We first spotted Romania’s Palace of the Parliament聽as we walked along the聽D芒mbovi葲a River. The building is ridiculously massive. It makes everything around it聽look toylike.聽 We absolutely wanted to visit while we were in Bucharest.

Even though this is the narrow side, it took a panorama pic to get it all in (hence the fish-eye look).

We bought our tickets in one of the basement levels. Right away it was evident maintenance must be a big problem. Other visitors were pointed out water damage and ceiling cracks. I suppose a Palace of this size would have all the issues of a large office building, stadium, and convention center smushed together.

The main theatre illuminated by a 5-ton(!) chandelier.

There is so much room that quite a bit of it is vacant much of the time. Both houses of Parliament meet in the building, and it also houses聽three museums, theatre spaces, offices (not in giant rooms, apparently, but still with lots of marble and wood trim), a conference center, and giant halls to rent if you have some extra money. Despite all these uses, it’s still not full…

Rentable ballrooms!

We walked up hundreds of stairs and a couple of kilometers, but still only managed to see about 5% of the Palace.聽It is also supposed to be the heaviest structure in the world; given all the marble and concrete, I can聽readily believe it.

Just one of many slinky-worthy staircases and the view from a lower balcony.

Our guide noted聽that basically all the materials making up the building are Romanian. The different color marbles were mined in the nearby Carpathian mountains and the wood is from local forests. This fact was almost as impressive as the structure itself. Entire industries must have given over huge portions of their production to finish it. Carpets were even made on site, in several pieces, and were sewn together inside because they were too large to move otherwise.

Another outside view and so many chandeliers!

I did end up finding聽the Palace to be garish, even though many interior rooms are beautifully decorated. It would be a great place to host a party, but it is a also a reminder of how Ceau葯escu’s regime misspent money and destroyed a neighborhood in order to built a monument to itself.

Village Museum

Bucharest’s聽Village Museum聽is perhaps the most entertaining museum聽in the city. Dozens of cottages, farmsteads, and churches have been moved from the Romanian countryside to a park in Bucharest and reassembled. It’s a lot like Old World Wisconsin minus the cultivated fields.

The structures are arranged to give the feel of walking through an old town. Each home has a yard, now full of blooming spring flowers, and some are connected with uneven stone paths.

Adorably painted cabin and one built partially underground.

Shortly after we arrived, the day clouded over and it started to storm. While the heaviest rain was falling, we hid out under the roof of a wine press (wine sadly not included) with a group of German tourists. Due to our bad timing, some of the buildings were closed. However, the open cottages were displaying the typical vestiges of everyday life – looms, wood-burning stoves, textiles, and handmade furniture. The fabrics were richly聽patterned聽and were used as clothing as well as decor.

Grindstone and press, farmhouse, and barns.

Many of the farmyards were enclosed by fences or even walls. Some looked like small fortified towns – high wooden walls sheltered聽a house and collection of outbuildings meant for animals, firewood, and wagons.

Timiseni Church, a braided fence, and a carved entryway.

Bucharest has also fed several of my other nerdy hobbies this week. We arrived in time for Bookfest, the largest book-related event in Romania. Naturally, most of the focus is on Romanian-language book and authors; at least one new book was being launched every hour. Fortunately there was聽enough English-language literature that I was able to聽find聽a few things to read this month.

Bucharest’s Bookfest and Museum of Old Maps and Books.

Among its grandly-buildinged national museums, Bucharest also hides a National Museum of Old Maps and Books. Located in a mansion on a residential street, it has three floors of maps showing the changing聽borders of Romania and Europe and how聽world exploration advanced. It was interesting to see the borders of Romania shift through the centuries (at one point the positions of Bulgaria and Romania basically reversed). A different map purporting to show the United States post-Louisiana Purchase had an overenthusiastic cartographer who gave the U.S. not only the area of the Purchase, but much of the West Coast and a large piece of Canada as well.


A couple of shorts flights moved us from Dubrovnik to Bucharest, Romania. We arrived at night but easily found our new apartment. We’ve spent the last couple of months in suburbs, but here we are right in the city center and close to all sorts of landmarks.

Bucharest is a stark聽contrast to Split and Dubrovnik. The city is much newer – the Old Town is mostly from the 1800s rather than the 1300s. The buildings are on a much grander scale, both because it is a city of two million and partly because it was rebuilt to be a royal capital modeled after Paris and then a capital to showcase Communist power.

Palace of the Parliament and the Cercul Militar National.

Bucharest is more spread out, but without many hills, so it is easier to spend hours walking, our preferred way of exploring new places. Croatia was still experiencing the middle of spring, but here we’ve fast-forwarded to summer. We gained ten degrees and lots of leafy trees.

Memorial of Rebirth, CEC bank building, boulevard to the Parliament.

The National History Museum seemed like the best place to start since we don’t know as much as we’d like about Romania’s past. Unfortunately it is undergoing (apparently indefinite) remodeling. Only a few rooms were open, but there were some pretty impressive things on display.

A life-sized replica of Trajan’s Column聽took up a main gallery. Its panels show the conquering of the Dacians, who lived in聽the region聽2000 years ago. Since the column is in sections at eye-level, we could see the carved details. It was interesting to me that many scenes focus on building bridges and forts and meeting emissaries rather than on fighting (though there is plenty of that as well). Trajan clearly wanted Romans to think he was capable in all situations.

Royal jewels were also on display. The King’s crown was my favorite piece; it’s made of steel rather than precious metal. Forged from a cannon captured by Romanian troops fighting the Ottomans for independence, the King wanted it to be a reminder of the soldiers’ bravery聽and the price of creating a sovereign nation.

Roman funerary tablets and inscriptions and miscellaneous jewelry from the last 2000 years rounded out the collection.

The Steel Crown, literal gold leaf, an ornate coffin.

Romanian Orthodox Churches seem to be on almost every block in the city center, sometimes quietly sandwiched between massive apartment blocks. They remind me of churches we saw in the Catalunyan Art Museum in Barcelona. The interiors are dim, but covered in paintings and murals. No space is left plain, and it would be easy to spend hours studying the scenes in each church.

Romanian Orthodox Church and dome, some glitzier royal jewels with the more typical precious stones.

Finally, an聽item that caught my eye at the History Museum was a photograph of the street outside our apartment building. Since the December 1989 Revolution, the trees have grown and blocked the view聽and the tanks have gone. It really drove home how recently the repressive regime was thrown off.

Our street less than 30 years ago during the Revolution.