The Capitals of Central Europe
- The State Capitols: photos, facts, and feats.
Alabama, Montgomery.The current structure, a domed Greek Revival building, was built in 1851 and overlooks the city from elevated ground known as Goat Hill. It is the second structure to stand on the site...
Berlin, Germany. The city’s exact date of origin is unknown but there is enough evidence to suggest that a settlement was in existence in 1192. Berlin is no stranger to change and to the forces of history that have shaped the city, especially in the post WWII era. Since 1990 it was reestablished as Germany’s capital and it is still the country’s largest city, and Europe’s second largest with 3.4 million. Devastated during the last World War the city was divided for close to 45 years between East and West ideologically and physically by a notorious wall that was a hated symbol of the West and the first thing to come down in the 1989 fall of the communist block. Before this, Berlin’s rise as the political capital of Germany started in about 1440 with the rise of the Prussian state. Today the city is mostly a modern, post-communist reinvention. Worth seeing are the Brandenburg Gate; the Reichstag, a perfect blend of old and new; the Berliner Dom, which managed to mostly survive the War; Museum Island, which has some of the world’s greatest collections of art and antiquities; and the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtniskirche.
Bratislava, Slovakia. The location of Bratislava, between Vienna and Budapest, has left it in the shadow of those two great capitals. 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 down river from Vienna, it did not become a national capital until the Czechs and Slovaks decided to part ways in 1993. Access to Bratislava is an easy side 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. While Bratislava is not as old as Vienna or Budapest, its first reference as a settlement dates to 907 and it was chartered in 1291. The highlight of Bratislava is the Old Town 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.
Budapest, Hungary. Hungary’s capital, Budapest, was established when the cities of Buda and Pest, on opposing sides of the Danube, merged in 1873. Buda, occupying the right bank, is well known for its hilly disposition and castle complex which overlooks Pest, on the left bank, with its vast urban sprawl. The two cities coexisted for millennia before that. Initial settlement was founded has both Celtic and Roman origins. Known as Aquincum to the Romans, it was the capital of the Roman province of Lower Pannonia. The Magyars came in the 9th century and it eventually became the capital of modern Hungary much reduced in territory over the last century. Anyone heading to Budapest, a city of 1.7 million, should head to Buda Castle. There are great views overlooking the city especially of the famous chain bridge, the parliament and St. Stephens Basilica. The Hungarian National Museum holds the Holy Crown of Hungary, the symbol of Hungary if there is one. The city's spas are world famous and a visit to Gellert, Rudas, and Kiraly Baths are a must. The thermal waters were first recognized by the Romans who built giant bath houses the ruins of which still exist.
Kyiv, Ukraine. While Kyiv (also spelled Kiev) is culturally part of Eastern Europe, many are unaware that the geographical center of Europe is in Ukraine. It is in all respects Ukraine’s center, geographically, politically, economically, and culturally. This beautiful city of 2.6 million, Ukraine’s largest, is situated on the steep banks above the Dnieper. Founded by Slavic tribesmen, its history dates to at least the 6th century and various tribes and nationalities have besieged and sacked the city. The city’s antecedents as Ukraine’s capital were anchored with Volodymyr the Great (980 – 1015), a Kievan-Rus prince, who adopted Christianity and forged strong ties with Byzantium. By the 11th century the city had 400 churches and was larger than London and Rus’ largest city with 50,000. In 1240 the Tatar-Mongol invasions followed feudal wars with other states in Rus’ and the city lost some of its prominence. Despite the repeated ransacking of Kiev it managed to live up to its nickname “The city of a thousand golden domes” because of the brilliant church domes that have populated the skyline of Kiev since the Middle Ages. That still holds true today and although Josef Stalin imploded many of its greatest churches, they have mostly been rebuilt since Ukraine’s independence in 1991. Some are still original, such as St. Sophia’s, in Kiev’s center, which dates to 1037, as well as St. Andrew’s in the city’s Podil section. The latter a brilliant rococo church designed by the Italian Rastrelli between 1747 and 1754. The Zoloti Vorota (Golden Gate) in central Kyiv is the reconstructed city gate, built atop the ruins of the original structure, and is centrally located and close to many of the sites in the city. The Pecherska Lavra Monastery, a huge complex of churches and related buildings should not be missed.
Prague, Czech Republic. Also known as “the city of one thousand golden spires”, Prague is overwhelming to the senses as it has merged as one of the world’s greatest treasures of art and architecture most of it in original form having survived the ravages of World War II. This comes at a price though as the city almost literally crawls with tourists. The capital of the Czech Republic numbering some 1.2 million however offers just about anything for those who come with a sense of history, art, or culture. Settlement of the city goes back to the Celts but the city of today began in the 10th century when it became a bishopric in 973. Later Prague became the capital of the kings of Bohemia and the rest is history. It flourished under Charles IV during the 14th century. Other historic figures associated with the city include King Wenceslas and Jan Hus, a dissident cleric in the early 15th century. The city is also famous for Charles University, one of the world’s oldest. A suggested walking tour that takes you from the parliament through the old town square across the Charles River Bridge and up to the Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral is a great way to get take in a good cross-section of Prague. The different types of architecture seen along this route from Gothic to Art Nouveau are unbelievable.
Vienna, Austria. Vienna is still the cultural, political, and economic heart of Austria. It was once the capital of a far flung Hapsburg empire and the vestiges of its imperial past are still evident in its grand architecture and its somewhat ironic pride of the former Hapsburg rulers. Today’s Vienna retains its international scope as it still is an international center: the third largest U.N. community is located here, after New York and Geneva, and it is the headquarters of OPEC as well. Its population is 1.7 million making it the tenth largest city in the EU. The foundations of Vienna, much like Budapest, were started by the Celts around 500 BC only to be succeeded by the Romans who founded Vindobona in 15 BC as a frontier outpost against Germanic tribes. Roman ruins still remain in and around the city although on a much smaller scale than in Rome. Other historical highlights include the Turkish siege in 1529 and 1683 and the Congress of Vienna in 1815 which redrew Europe’s map after the Napoleonic Wars. It’s clear from the history that Vienna is not lacking in what to offer the visitor. Start by touring the Ringstrasse to get a look at the architecture and the Old Quarter which is coterminous with the city’s First District. Of course, Vienna is also well known for its art of all periods, as well as its music.
Warsaw, Poland. Warsaw, much like Berlin, was left in ruins after WWII. The extent of the destruction of this city, near 90%, left the Poles pondering whether to completely re-plan and move their capital city elsewhere. They decided to rebuild from the ground up and today there is some semblance of what old Warsaw looked liked from the meticulously restored Stare Miasto (Old Town) to the royal castle and palace that graced the Polish capital. A few other post WWII structures went up as well that were not part of the city’s past, most noticeably the 778 foot Palace of Culture and Science, a Soviet-era skyscraper in the middle of the city that is hard to miss. Fortunately it has been eclipsed by the ever-growing and changing commercial skyline. Warsaw’s 1.7 million people were preceded by a fortified settlement that began in the 10th century. The town did not gain prominence until much later, as Krakow was Poland’s capital and royal city until 1596. Warsaw’s more central location arguably weighed in the decision to move the capital and it was is in 1529 that the Sejm (Polish parliament) first met in the city. The city’s is a fascinating lesson in urban redevelopment but to get a sense of its history head to the Stare Miasto (Old Town).
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