Eastern Europe: Ten Must See Cities Off the Beaten Path
1. Krakow, Poland. Krakow survived the destruction of World War II precisely because it was off the beaten path of the advancing Soviet Army and retreating Nazis. Located south of the main front, which flattened the Polish capital of Warsaw, Krakow remains Poland’s historic showpiece and the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Poland. By anyone’s imagination Krakow is old, founded in 966 (at least). Prehistoric evidence suggests settlement dates to the Stone Age. By the end of the 10th century the city became an important commercial center and a holding of the Piast dynasty. Wawel Castle was constructed at this time although the city was devastated by the successive Mongol invasions of 1241, 1259, and 1287. Wawel, which eventually grew into a royal palace-cathedral-fortress is the not-to-miss premier historic attraction in the city. For more of Krakow’s oldest roots there is St. Adalbert’s, one of the oldest churches in the country dating to the 11th century. Its square, stout structure is still visible although it contains some latter modifications such as the baroque dome you see today. St. Adalbert’s is located in the center of the city’s Main Market Square. Besides wandering the beautiful streets, many of them encapsulating different time periods such as baroque and Art Nouveau, there is the arcaded Jagiellonian University, founded in 1364 by Casimir III. Finally the city’s Main Market Square, is perhaps the finest example in central/eastern Europe, if not the largest. It dates to the 13th century and is surrounded by beautiful buildings namely the brick Gothic St. Mary’s Basilica (13-14th century) with its eclectic mix of towers; the Town Hall Tower, another brick Gothic structure which stands 70 meters tall and dates to the 13th century. It has an observation deck at the top and it the only remaining structure remaining of the old Town Hall, or Ratusz, which was demolished in 1820. The Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) is easily recognized on the Main Market Square and is one of the city’s favorite landmarks. Finally there is the Adam Mickiewicz Monument, dedicated in 1898 and which no major city in Poland comes without. This monument honors Poland’s national poet, Adam Mickiewicz (1798 – 1855), who is interred in Wawel Cathedral.
2. Zamosc, Poland. If Zamosc doesn’t leave you inspired, few places in Europe will. This city’s only fault is that it is hard to get to by public transportation, which makes it perfectly off the beaten path. Once you arrive you will be blown away at this historical time capsule which puts you back into the age of Renaissance and high Baroque. Zamosc is not a very large city. Today’s population numbers under 70,000. The city has never really been considered a large metropolis but it is an architecturally wonder that has defied destructive wars and the hideous long hand of state planning that dominated Poland for 45 years after World War II. Located in southern Poland about 60 kilometers from Ukraine, Zamosc was a late-comer, founded from scratch in 1580 by Jan Zamoyski. It sat along an important trade route between the Baltic and BlackSeas that saw many towns on this route prosper through the overland trade. Built from a pre-planned scheme that mimicked the Italian trading cities, Zamosc was mostly the work of the Italian architect Bernardo Morando. The city is a virtual time capsule of the 16th and 17th centuries and has beautifully ornate buildings, especially around the town square. The original walls still stand from the fortress and Zamosc is, not surprisingly, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
3. Przemysl, Poland. Przemysl might not wow you but there is a rich history along its hilly streets fronted by various churches. Similar to Zamosc, Przemysl has a small population of under 70,000. However, this should be no measure of its past glory or rich history. Occupying a niche in extreme southeastern Poland just across the river from Ukraine, Przemysl developed as a gateway between mountains and plains (The Przemysl Gate) and because it sat along a navigable river, the San. As a result trade routes followed the past of least resistance and funneled through this area. After Krakow, it is southern Poland’s second oldest city. It was probably founded in the 8th century as part of the Great Moravian State. The city traded hands a number of times between Poland and Kievan Rus between the years 981 and 1340. Casimir III of Poland finally brought it back under Polish hegemony in 1340. By 1389 the city was given Magdeburg rights and trade began to prosper. During the Renaissance period the city was multi-ethnic, typical of cities that had Magdeburg rights and became rich trading hubs. The Old Synagogue (1559 – 1941) and the JesuitCollege (1617) were among the finest buildings in the city. The city’s decline began in mid 17th century and by 1772 with the First Polish Partition, Przemysl passed into Austrian hands. If some of the Baroque churches in the city don’t give you enough sense of the city’s past, there are more poignant reminders, such as the Przemysl Fortress, which was Europe’s third largest after its modernization in the late 19th century. Still standing, but mostly in ruins, the battle for this fortress was one of the largest on the Eastern Front during World War I. Captured by the Russians in 1914, it was retaken by the Austrians in 1915 but not without a loss of 115,000 on both sides. Later in 1918 the Ukrainians and Poles battled for control of the city in the Battle of Przemysl. The Polish army eventually won control by overrunning the army of the Western Ukrainian National Republic. During World War II the city saw a huge influx of Jews attempting to escape from the chaos. A sealed Jewish ghetto was established in the city by the Nazis and most of the area’s Jews were sent to extermination camps in Belzec and Auschwitz.
4. Lviv, Ukraine. As a crossroads between Eastern and Western Europe, Lviv has got to be one of Europe’s most underrated cities. Most of this onus belongs to its present location in Ukraine, still somewhat inaccessible and on the other side of the “concrete curtain”, a term the author gives to those locations in Europe, all formerly communist states, where old habits have a way of resisting the present reality. Lviv’s history began as a fortified town of Halych in 1256, a princely state connected to Kievan Rus. It was taken by Casimir of Poland in the 14th century and remained Polish until the First Partition in 1772 where administrative control was transferred to Austria. Under Casimir III the city was granted Magdeburg rights which allowed a degree of autonomy. By 1414 the city became a Catholic archdiocese and by 1572 Ivan Fedorovych established a printing press in the city. Despite the passing of the torch it remained overwhelmingly Polish in culture although it was a well known multi-ethnic hub with Jews, Ukrainians (Ruthenes), Armenians, Germans, and Italians. The Austrians elevated the city as the administrative capital of the province of Eastern Galicia. By the turn of the twentieth century Lviv had become the de facto center of the Ukrainian national revival and tension between the Poles and Ukrainians mounted. Today the city reflects its diverse past with scores of church steeples that housed various religious orders, rites, and traditions. Its planning and architecture also reflects Italian influence as many of the artisans were commissioned from Italy. The city also has some notable secular buildings and monuments such as the Opera House, Potocki Palace, Ratusha (city hall) and surrounding square known as Ploshcha Rynok. The historic ensemble of the city’s center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
5. Ivano-Frankivisk, Ukraine. Formerly known as Stanislawow (Polish) this city, now in western Ukraine, has a beautiful town square and a number of interesting churches. It is the second largest city in western Ukraine after Lviv with about 240,000 inhabitants. Founded as late as 1650 as a fort by the Potocki family it received Magdeburg rights in 1662 from Jan Casimir. It remained a redoubt mostly against Turkish incursions in the area until the eighteenth century when a number of significant churches and buildings were constructed. The most recognizable today include the Armenian Church, or the Blue Church, because of its color, the Cathedral of the Holy Resurrection, a Latin-rite church, the Parish Church of the Virgin Mary, now the city’s art museum, and the City Hall, or Ratusha, an interesting Art Nouveau building dating to 1932. The city’s synagogue was also a beautifully elaborate building with four domed towers on each corner. Completed in 1899, it contained Moorish and oriental attributes. It has since been rebuilt with a much altered appearance.
6. Kamianets-Podilskyi, Ukraine. The city has just under 100,000 so don’t come here if you seek a cosmopolitan experience. The city’s walled quarters and castle are outstanding examples of period architecture of the 14th and 15th century. It is listed as one of Ukraine’s Seven Wonders. For the same reason it has become one of Ukraine’s top tourist attractions. The history of the city is sketchy although it is first mentioned in 1062 as a Kievan Rus town, destroyed by the Tartars in 1241, and seized by Casimir III of Poland in 1352. The Poles refortified the existing castle which today envelopes the town with fortifications atop a peninsula along the Smotrych River. In one form of another this configuration survived and it is what you see today – one of the best examples of a walled, Medieval fortified city in Eastern Europe.
7. Sighisoara, Romania. Sighisoara is a small city of about 35,000 and perhaps one the best preserved small Medieval cities in Europe. Situated in Romania’s dead-center, the city was founded in 1191 by German artisans invited by the King of Hungary. It quickly became a very important commercial center. It was settled by the same Transylvania Saxons who populated Brasov. The city’s center is a gem, easily recognized by its famous clock tower, but it is far from any major population center in the country and a trip to Sighisoara is best coupled with a visit to Brasov located about 100 kilometers to the southeast. Today the city’s fortified walls are well recognized and it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are few, if any, walled cities remaining in Eastern Europe.
8. Brasov, Romania. Off the beaten path for now, Brasov’s fast-growing reputation is catching up but it shouldn’t change things too soon. Best known for its Black Church (1385 – 1476) and adjacent Medieval quarter the area has a long history of settlement. The Black Church is Romania’s best example of Gothic architecture and surprisingly the center of its Evangelical Lutheran community. It was originally constructed as a Roman Catholic Church. The town is first mentioned in 1141 and was mostly developed by Transylvania Saxons, or Germans, who settled in these regions at the invitation of King Geza II of Hungary. Known as Kronstadt, Brasov exploited what would become a well-located crossroads between Western Europe and the expanding Ottoman Empire. Not without good reason Romanians vied for a piece of the city’s wealth alongside the protective Germans and the former established an Orthodox cathedral, library, and printing press as early as 1558. While much of the city was destroyed in the Fire of 1689, the city was rebuilt over the next 100 years. Brasov would become one of the cultural cradles of Romanian nationalism. Nearby is Bran Castle, also known as Dracula’s Castle, rooted in local and national culture as Vlad the Impaler. His dubious exploits inspired Bram Stoker’s novel character Dracula.
9. Kosice, Slovakia. Kosice is not to be outshone by the country’s larger city and capital, Bratislava. Off the beaten path it is however located in the eastern part of Slovakia, Kosice has about half the population of Bratislava, but it is no less compelling a place to visit. The city’s written history dates to 1230 but shortly after it was invaded by the awesome sweep of the Mongol hordes in 1241. King Bela IV of Hungary imported German burghers to repopulate the city and with town privileges arriving in 1290, along with a favorable location for trade between Poland and Hungary, Kosice took off. It was known as Kossa at this time and it was part of the Kingdom of Hungary and remained part of Hungary in some form or another until the establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918. Its rich history has left it a beautiful architectural legacy that rivals Bratislava’s. Most of the historic buildings are along its Main Street anchored by the hallmark St. Elizabeth Cathedral, the easternmost Gothic cathedral of western Gothic architecture. The 14th century structure is the largest church in the country and is the cathedral for the Catholic Archdiocese of Kosice. There is also the 14th century St. Michaels Chapel, another Gothic structure which served a Slovak population. The main cathedral, in contrast, served the elite German and Hungarian residents of the city. There are a number of other sacral buildings which include the Calvinist Church, the Dominican Church, the Evangelical Church, Franciscan Church, Hospital Church of Holy Spirit, Plague Chapel of St. Rosalie, Premonstratensian Church, Synagogue, and Church of the Virgin Mary’s Bath, the seat for the Greek Catholic Eparchy of Kosice. Well known secular buildings include the Neo Baroque State Theater (1899) and Jakab’s Palace.
10. Bratislava, Slovakia. The location of Bratislava, between Vienna and Budapest, has left it in the shadow of those two great cities, but it’s really Europe’s phoenix. Passed off as just an industrial shell behind the Iron Curtain, Bratislava is completely revitalized and it has a beautiful historic core. However, Bratislava is a small (population 429,000) but beautiful city that is well worth the time. Perched on a steep bank above the Danube downriver from Vienna, it did not become a national capital until the Czechs and Slovaks decided to part ways in 1993. Prior to this its one brush as a capital city came when the Turks took Budapest in 1536 and it became the de facto capital of Hungary. Access to Bratislava is a day trip from Vienna and requires no more than an hour train ride. In fact the hills above Bratislava, which mark the beginning of the Carpathians, are visible from Vienna on clear days. Bratislava’s first reference as a settlement dates to 907 and it was chartered in 1291. Known as Pressburg in German, the city was often marginalized by its two sisters, Vienna and Budapest. The highlight of Bratislava is the OldTown, which has some impossibly narrow streets that are shaded by the eves of Gothic churches. Still, all eyes are drawn to the Bratislava Castle above the Old Town, which has great views of the city and countryside. Because of its strategic location between the Alps and Carpathians, a fortification of some kind has existed on the spot of the Bratislava Castle since prerecorded history, probably dating to the Celts in the 5th century BC. The Castle did not assume its current form until about the late Middle Ages although modifications have been completed through the following centuries. Bratislava was also the location of the signing of the Peace of Pressburg in 1805 following Austria’s defeat by Napoleon at Austerlitz.
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