Category Archives: European Culture

Enjoying European culture to help get the most from your trip to Europe.

Ten Less Well Known London Art Galleries

London has some fantastic art galleries. While the National Gallery and the Tates (Britain and Modern) generally take the plaudits, as well as the Saatchi Collection and White Cube for the modern art fancier, there are plenty of less well-known art galleries in London.

UCL Art Museum different take on what a gallery is all about; it’s an archive of art education, as well as art. Since the Slade was the first art school to admit women, it has a good collection of work by women artists, such as Gwen John, Paula Rego, and Dora Carrington, and also has the neoclassical artist Flaxman’s copy of plaster casts, spectacularly displayed under the dome of the library.

UCL Art Museum

Portrait of Frederick the Wise at UCL Art Museum by Jisc

The Estorick Collection specialises in modern Italian art – Futurists, Surrealists, even the occasional figurative artist. It’s housed in a Georgian mansion, though the white-walled, bare gallery inside feels quite contemporary.

The Wallace Collection is another not-quite-secret gallery, with an offbeat selection of works including fine French art (Watteau in particular) as well as arms and armour and porcelain, all displayed in a fine mansion that retains much of its original furnishings and atmosphere.

wallace collection

Large drawing room at the Wallace Collection by megoizzy

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An Archaeology Guide to Europe

Archaeologist and former member of the Europe a la Carte blogging team,  Thomas Dowson, has launched the Archaeology Travel website to make it easier to find out about all things archaeological in Europe. Each country has its iconic archaeological sites: England for example has Stonehenge, France has Lascaux, and Italy has Pompeii. There are also the well established and much visited Museums, such as the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris. There is, however, so much more to the archaeology of Europe than just these well known and much loved sites and museums – from the Stone Age cave paintings to the many monuments and memorials of more recent events.  But what’s been missing, until now, is an authoritative travel guide to the archaeology of Europe.

Roman Art at the Musée de Picardie, Amiens, France

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Best places to slow down and experience Vienna’s café culture

Vienna is surely one of the best European destinations. To truly enjoy the city, a visitor shouldn’t rush, but should instead slow down and enjoy age-old Viennese traditions. Few of these traditions are as enjoyable as taking time to relax, warm up,  people watch, and read in the venerable institution of the Viennese café.

Outside these lovely cafés, the hectic and distracting pace of 21st century life may go on as usual, but inside, be sure to pack away your laptops and hide your iphones in order to fully enjoy the splendours of turn of the 20th century Vienna. The cafés are all well stocked with international newspapers. The coffee is served Viennese-style, on a  platter, accompanied by a glass of water with an overturned spoon. Desserts are, of course, sinfully rich. Be sure to incorporate one (or many) visits to some of these cafés into your next visit to Vienna.

Demel

The grande dame of Viennese café culture, Demel was established in 1786. The “K.u.K” proudly displayed on its portal and on its confectionary boxes, indicate that it was the official imperial bakery (Kaiser und Kaiserin). Emperess Sissi was said to have been extremely fond of the sweets produced by Demel.

Firmly wedded to tradition, Demel refused to remove the “K.u.K” even after the collapse of the Empire rendered it irrelevant and unpopular. Almost one hundred years after the Empire’s collapse, it still remains proudly on the door – as you can see in this photo – and a visitor to this lovely café may indeed feel he’s been transported back to 19th century Vienna.

The beautiful window displays change frequently. Even if you don’t manage to go inside to sit down, be sure to see what’s on display in this most famous of Viennese cafés. Demel is located on Kohlmarkt, just a few steps away from the Hofburg.

Café Schwarzenberg

Café Schwarzenberg is on the Ringstrasse, midway between the Opera house and the Stadtpark. It was established in 1861 when the Ringstrasse was first built by tearing down Vienna’s defensive walls.

Café Schwarzenberg  is famous for having been occupied by the Russian army after liberating the city in 1945. Today, the café upholds Viennese traditions and is a pleasant place to stop on your walk around the Ringstrasse. On warm days, there is outdoor seating on the adjoining sidewalk.

Café Central

This is my favourite Vienna café. Opened in 1861, the Café Central is housed in the Palais Ferstel on Herrengasse. Over its long history, the Café Central has seen many famous – and infamous – patrons sipping coffee within its lovely vaulted spaces.

Adolf Loos, Tito, Sigmund Freud, Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler and Leon Trotsky have all spent time here. At a time when many Viennese flats were unheated, many young intellectuals and revolutionaries spent hours nursing their coffees – and staying warm – at the Café Central.

This was the case with Leon Trotsky, who became such a fixture at the Viennese coffee house that when the Russian Revolution began, the Viennese laughed it off, assured that “Herr Trotsky of the Café Central” could never succeed in such an endeavour.

Join the ranks of history and culture with a visit to these beautiful Viennese cafés on your next visit to the Austrian capital. For something more informal Andy recommends Cafe Aida.

Best of Vienna Tips

Our “Best of Vienna Travel Tips” collation will give you plenty of ideas for you trip to Vienna. We’ve also researched some of the best places to stay in Vienna for all budgets. You can also read about ten must-see Vienna museums.

Click here for the lowest prices on Vienna hotels

Dolmabahce, Istanbul: A Palace of Superlatives

Known as one of the world’s most glamorous and opulent palaces, Dolmabahce on the European side of the Bosporus in Istanbul, attracts thousands of visitors each year. You should experience the overwhelming architecture and decorations of this Istanbul attraction for yourself.

Dolmabahce Palace

Photo from wikipedia, author: SBarnes

Dolmabahce is Turkey’s largest palace, built by Sultan Adbülmecid I between 1843 and 1856. The mono block building covers 45.000 square meters and features 285 rooms and 68 toilets. The cost was the equivalent of 35 tons (!) of gold and 14 tons in the form of gold leaf were uses to gild the ceilings. In addition, the palace entrance hall is illuminated by  the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier, which was a gift from Queen Victoria and a sweeping staircase with banisters made from Baccarat crystal.

Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical styles are combined with Turkish ottoman features to create a unique building. Surrounded by gardens, the palace overlooks the Bosporus on a site which originally served as public gardens, a fact from which the name Dolmabahce (full garden in Turkish) is derived.

Clock Tower adjacent to Dolmabahce Palace

The palace was the administrative center of the last Ottoman sultans and became the presidential summer residence of Atatürk, who died here on 10th November 1938 at 9.05 am. All clocks in the palace remain stopped at the time of Ataürk’s passing.

Whereas you can stroll around other museums and monuments at your leisure in Istanbul Dolmabahce palace can only be viewed with a guided tour.  And you are not allowed to take photographs of the interior.

Sultan's Gate

The tour leads around the most important sections of the palace and you can admire works of art as well as marvelous palace carpets. You can walk around freely in the gardens and to the separate clock tower.

I like to visit by taking the tramway from Sultanahmed to the last stop, Kabatas and then walk along Ciraghan Caddesi , gazing at  the waterfront and admiring  many old mansions which line the street. The walk takes about 30 minutes. Calculate 1 to 2 hours for  the visit to Dolmabahce with the guided tours starting every 20 to 30 minutes.

More Istanbul Tips

You’ll find lot of ideas for things to do in Istanbul in our Best of Istanbul Tips.

Where to Stay in Istanbul

To help you find a hotel for your stay in the city, you can check out our round-up of the Best Places to Stay in Istanbul, which includes a range of hotels from budget through to luxury.

Click here for the lowest prices on Istanbul hotels

When in Rome: SS Giovanni e Paolo and the Ancient Roman houses

Rome is my favourite European city. I love walking around and seeing all the layers of its long history. Although most visitors concentrate on Rome’s Ancient, Renaissance and Baroque splendours, medieval Rome is also fascinating to explore.

One of my favourite corners of Rome starts at the tiny, cobblestoned street of Via San Paolo della Croce, which leads over the Celian hill. If you come here in the silence of early morning, you would be forgiven for thinking you’ve been transported back in time to medieval Rome, particularly as you near the lovely Basilica of SS Giovanni e Paolo (Saints John and Paul).

This church was built in 410 AD and restructured in the 11th century by Pope Pascal II, who also erected the lovely bell tower typical of medieval Italian churches. Major renovations to the interior were carried out in the 18th century, but the pretty exterior remained untouched.

This perfect Roman spot has been admired by countless generations of Romans and tourists alike. The following observations about the church and its idyllic position were recorded by Henry James in his Italian Hours:

No spot in Rome can show a cluster of more charming accidents. The ancient brick apse of the church peeps down into the trees of the little wooded walk before the neighbouring church of San Gregorio… and a series of heavy brick buttresses, flying across to an opposite wall, overarches the short, steep, paved passage which leads into the small square. This is flanked on one side by the long mediaeval portico of the church of the two saints, sustained by eight time-blackened columns of granite and marble. … The place always seem to me the perfection of an out-of-the-way corner – a place you would think twice before telling people about, lest you should find them there the next time you were to go.

I love James’ description of  this “out-of-the-way-corner”. That’s exactly how I feel when I have this little slice of Rome to myself, before the crowds and the cars. Here are the heavy brick buttresses he describes.

If Henry James’ description can’t coax you to SS Giovanni e Paolo, then perhaps what lies beneath might do the trick. Underneath these dramatic buttresses are the Case romane , the Ancient Roman houses, which opened to the public in 2002, following extensive excavations.

These are the homes where John and Paul, officers under Emperor Constantine, were said to have lived. They were martyred in 361 and the basilica that takes their names was built over their former dwelling place.

Excavations began in 1887, uncovering a site of more than 20 rooms, some with vivid, well-preserved frescoes.

Photo courtesy of the Case romane web site

These homes are a wonderful glimpse into Roman life between the 2nd and 4th century. A small but interesting museum displays objects excavated from the homes. Check the museum’s web site for opening hours and ticket information

Enjoy your visit to medieval and Ancient Rome at the Basilica of SS Giovanni e Paolo. For more of medieval Rome, see the Shrine to Pope Joan and the beautiful mosaics of Santa Prassede.

Find Great Deals on Hotels in Rome

Click here to find the cheapest prices for Rome hotels on the HotelsCombined price comparison site.

Kadiköy on Istanbul’s Asian side

Where in the world can you travel from one continent to another for less than a simple London bus fare? Exactly, only in Istanbul.

For a very enjoyable day trip take the ferry from either Eminönü or Karakoy and embark on a 40 minute ‘cruise’ to Kadiköy. Arriving at the ferry terminal you feel the much more sedate, typically Turkish middle class atmosphere of the ‘other’  Istanbul. There is no sign which says Welcome to Asia, people don’t look different or speak another language, but the first thing you notice is the absence of camera toting tourists.

Typical shop window in Kadiköy

Instead you are greeted by a sea of flowers, as right opposite the ferry terminal, in a vast square is one of the most beautiful flower markets I have seen in Istanbul. Right next to it you find another historical train station: Haydarpasa station, very much in the style of Sirkeci Gare but less spectacular. Once the terminal for the famous Bagdad-Istanbul line, it now serves trains to Asia.

Flower market near ferry terminal

The beauty of Kadiköy is not as eye catching as the overwhelming array of world famous buildings and monuments which you find at every twist and turn in Sultanahmed and beyond. Hence the absence of tourist groups. You have to look a bit closer to find the charm of Kadiköy. A lot of the attraction is about food and drink and many cafes and restaurants which  excellent Turkish dishes, at much lower prices than on the other side. I loved this patisserie which specializes in sweets and decorations for new babies.

Sweets and gifts for babies

The main street, Bagdat Caddesi is a commercial place with department stores and other outlets ,much frequented by locals from both sides of Istanbul. A streetcar runs along, blue and white in color but, sadly, plastered from top to bottom with adverts.

You will find art as well in Kadaköy, like this bronze hand, but, again, rather subdued as opposed to ostentatious. Stroll along, shop or window shop, sit in one of the restaurants and then make your way to the bank of the Bosporus to admire some very fine, old, wooden mansions.

Bronze hand in Bagdat Caddesi

Return to the European side either again by ferry or over one of the bridges where, indeed, you will see a sign saying: Welcome to Europe.

More Istanbul Tips

You’ll find lot of ideas for things to do in Istanbul in our Best of Istanbul Tips.

Where to Stay in Istanbul

To help you find a hotel for your stay in the city, you can check out our round-up of the Best Places to Stay in Istanbul, which includes a range of hotels from budget through to luxury.

Click here for the lowest prices on Istanbul hotels

European Culture Capital 2011: Tallinn, Estonia

Last week I highlighted one of the two European Culture Capitals, Turku, who is throwing a blow-out bash next year.  Most years there are at least two culture capitals, and this year’s other  capital of culture is the charming little town of Tallinn.

Tallinn is the capital of Estonia, just 50 miles south of Helsinki on the banks of the Gulf of Finland, making it a great daytrip from Helsinki (or vice versa).  I loved Tallin, and this gorgeous medieval town is no stranger here at Europe a la Carte.   Sian points out that it a great place to get hot chocolate, Gloria’s wine bar is also recommended as is a meal at the tasty restaurant Old Hansa.

But those things are there anytime.  What can you expect for the European City of Culture festivities?  The official website suggest a few interesting things going on, including:

  • Stories of the Seashore: a forum where writers from all of Europe and globally can share stories
  • Rooftop Cinema:  sounds great – bet the stars are beautiful at night up thr!
  • 52 Surprises & Ideas: a weekly arts and cultural event
  • Maritime Days:  a festival in July celebrating harbour culture

A few other things sound interesting – such as the “60 seconds of Solitude in Year Zero,” but unfortunately much of the content isn’t available in English so I can’t tell you more.  But I can tell you that, European Capital of Culture or not, you’ll love it here.

More Tips on Things to Do in Tallinn

You’ll find more tips in our Tallinn guide.

Click here for the lowest prices on Tallinn hotels

When in Rome: Nativity scene tourism

Those of you visiting the Eternal City during the Christmas season will be certain to notice the Christmas trees that now grace the city. Christmas trees are a relatively recent import – a northern European tradition. To get a real flavour of Italian Christmas traditions, visitors in should visit the many Roman churches that host a traditional presepio – a nativity scene.

The nativity scene is said to have originated in Italy. It is Saint Francis of Assisi who is credited with having constructed the first  nativity scene in a cave in the town of Greccio, outside Assisi, way back in 1223.

Nativity scenes from Naples are the most famous and even today its craftsman are renowned for carrying on this ancient tradition.

My favourite among the many on offer in Rome’s churches during the holiday season is a Neapolitan nativity scene from 1700 on display is at the Basilica dei Santi Cosma e Damiano (Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian) in the Roman Forum, just off the Via dei Fori Imperiali.

The Basilica dei Santi Cosma e Damiano  was built in the early 6th century AD and it is the oldest church in the Imperial Forum.  The church features original early Christian mosaics in the apse.

Each year at during the Christmas season, tourists and Romans flock here to see the stunning details of Neapolitan craftsmen in this lovely nativity scene. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are surrounded by hundreds of figures and animals, all set amongst Roman ruins. The details are marvellous and, even after numerous viewings, I find myself admiring scenes I hadn’t noticed on earlier visits.

A visit to see this historic nativity scene in Basilica dei Santi Cosma e Damiano  is my European travel tip if your holiday travels take you through Rome. Be sure to also stop off at the Christmas market on Rome’s lovely Piazza Navona.

Find Great Deals on Hotels in Rome

Click here to find the cheapest prices for Rome hotels on the HotelsCombined price comparison site.

The Christmas Goat of Gävle, Sweden

About two hours north of Stockholm a goat stands in the town of Gävle.  It’s a large goat, a Christmas goat, a straw goat.  This goat is a tourist attraction, it is known, simply, as Gävlebocken.  The Gävle Goat.

A Swedish Christmas tradition accounts for a Christmas goat that also delivered presents.  As a small child, the Christmas goat scared me.  A lot.  It was loud, gruff, and just kind of ugly.  Luckily, the Gävle Goat is less scary and more impressive.

Each year, Gävlebocken is built, and each year, people try to burn it down.  Turns out that a goat made of straw is an inviting target.  This year though, there was a new twist as an attempt was made to steal the goat with a helicopter.  Someone thought it would be a good idea to steal a straw goat that weighs 3.6 tonnes, is 13 meters high and seven meters long.

The chess game between the potential vandals and the protectors of the goat has become a sort of holiday tradition.  Since the first goat was burned down in 1966, 24 subsequent goats have been burned.  So far, the 2010 goat still stands, and would make a perfect day trip from Stockholm for anyone doing some last minute European travel planning.

This goat, as you may imagine when people are trying to burn you and steal you with helicopters, has a story to tell.  That’s why Gävlebocken has a blog, a Twitter account, and even submits itself to a webcamera.  Learn more about the Gävle Goat here.

Picture by plastAnka.  More pictures by plastAnka can be found here.

More Tips for Things to Do in Sweden

We’ve lots more travel tips for what to do in Sweden.

Christmas traditions in Europe

As we celebrate the Christmas holiday, there are a number of unique celebrations and traditions around the world that originated in Europe.  Throughout Europe, countries like France, Germany, Norway, England, and others have their own unique ways of celebrating Christmas.

As we look ahead to Christmas, here are some well-known and unusual Christmas traditions throughout Europe.

1.  Mistletoe – This tradition originated from the Celtic Druids around 500 B.C. in England.  These pagan worshipers loved nature and believed that holly and mistletoe warded off evil spirits and helped ensure futility.  In the Christmas tradition, mistletoe was symbolized everlasting life through Christ and faith which would never die.

An English tradition, kissing under the mistletoe has been practiced for years though no one is certain how the tradition started.  It probably has something to do with with the fertility celebration by the Druids.

Mistletoe (Flickr: Dramatic)

2.  Christmas cards – The first Christmas card was issued in December 1843 by Sir Henry Cole.  During this time of the year, holiday messages were written on calling cards to friends and acquaintances.  Sir Henry Cole was too busy and hired London artist John Calcott Horsley to design a card with a Christmas message.  The first Christmas card greeting read “Merry Christmas and a happy New Year to you.”  With post offices in England and the United States, this Christmas tradition was spread.

Christmas Card (Flickr: mjurn)

3.  Fruitcake – For people who have tasted fruit cake, it is something that is either loved or hated.  However, the tradition of the fruitcake began in Italy.  Italians have a variety of fruitcakes – panettone (big bread), pandoro (golden bread), panforte (strong bread), and pandolce (sweet bread).

Fruitcake is a blend of break and fried fruits celebrated and eaten throughout various regions in Italy.  While each region enjoys its favorite, the history of fruitcake is debated.  Many believe it may have been created in the 12th century by Sienese monks.

However, the popular, romatic story of fruitcake is that of panettone,  A baker from Milan fell in love with a woman and wanted to capture her love with a delicious cake.  His mixture included eggs, candied fruit, and too much yeast.  The result was panettone version of fruitcake which is popular all over Italy.

Panettone (Flickr: ben hanbury)

4.  Silent Night – This famous Christmas carol was first performed in Austria in 1818.  Legend has it that a local priest was out on Christmas night to bless a baby.  On his way home, the experience of that night on a starlit evening inspired him to write a poem.  Franz Gruber, the church organist, set the poem to music and on Christmas Eve 1818, the song was performed for the first time.  In Obendorf, Austria, the Silent Night Chapel stands on the place where Gruber and priest Joseph Mohr stood as it was performed for the first time.

5.  Nutcrackers – Nutcrackers were believed to originate from the Nürnberg region of Germany.  Legend has it that a man was on his deathbed but schoolchildren sang to him and he recovered.  In appreciation, he gathered what he had – wire, prunes, figs, and walnuts – and made a little man.  These became very popular and were sold in the markets.

Over the years, the Nutcracker became a wooden figurine of policeman, soldiers, and more used to crack the toughest of nuts.  These wooden versions were designed in 15th century Saxony as miners became woodworkers and developed these popular figures.

Nutcracker (Flickr: mikejmartelli)

For many celebrating Christmas, many of the popular traditions originate from Europe.  From mistletoe to Silent Night, the origins of these traditions go back many years.  While the origin of some of these Christmas traditions aren’t certain, it is these Christmas traditions which make celebrating Christmas in Europe so memorable and fun.