Europe is a spectacular, fascinating and diverse place.
You can find architectural, historical or cultural treasures here that you won’t find anywhere else, but you may also find a few things you weren’t expecting.
In the latest saga of my undying love for Europe, I bring you a list of the most bizarre places in Europe I have had the good fortune to see first-hand.
1. Izmailovsky Kremlin, Moscow
(a.k.a. Russian Disneyland)
Izmailovsky is basically a fake Kremlin constructed between 1998 and 2007. Depressingly known as the ‘Russian Disneyland’, Izmailovsky is a garish, tacky ‘homage’ to traditional Russian architecture and heritage. It attracts bus-loads of tourists wielding cameras like weapons, but the only thing to really do there is mooch around the market. I really have no idea why it exists.
You can see photos of every inch of it here.
2. Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog, The Netherlands and Belgium
(a.k.a. two towns in one)
Surely one of the most bizarre places in the world is the town of Baarle-Hertog/Baarle-Nassau. Why? The place is two towns in one. Or, if you prefer: a town within a town.
Read more here.
3. Portmeirion, Wales
Portmeirion is probably most well-known for appearing in lists like this one. Designed and built by a wealthy (and I’m sure we can assume fairly eccentric) architect, the village is modelled on an archetypal Italian village on the Mediterranean. The only minor difference being that instead of the shores of the Med, the village is located in heart of North Wales. Finished in 1975, the ‘town’ has no residents, but is run like a hotel by a trust who charge a small fee for a day’s entry.
Portmeirion is also home to Festival No. 6 every September – a boutique festival of arts, culture and music that should definitely be on your bucket list.
Photo source: Visit Britain
4. Pripyat, Ukraine
(a.k.a. the Chernobyl ghost town)
Definitely couldn’t do a list on Europe’s oddest places without including this place. A city abandoned after just eight years due to the worst nuclear catastrophe in history.
Read more here.
5. Hill of Crosses, Lithuania
Definitely one of the strangest places I’ve been to, the Hill of Crosses seems a bit like something out of The Wicker Man. The site is a place of great national and religious importance: crosses were placed here as a form of demonstration against the Soviet regime after numerous attempts to bulldoze the site, and the Pope even visited in 1993, making the hill an important place of pilgrimage for Lithuanian Catholics. Despite this, the hill is still mightily creepy. The sheer number of crosses is staggering and coach loads of visiting show up daily to leave more.
You can see more of my photos here.
6. Elista, Russia
Elista is, without a doubt, the weirdest city I’ve ever been to.
Five hours drive from the nearest city, or train station, Elista is the capital of Kalmykia, or the Kalmyk Republic, in Southern-European Russia. Ethnic Kalmyks, who make up around 57% of the population, can trace their ancestry back to Mongolia – something that is reflected in their language and their religion.
In fact, Kalmykia is the only officially Buddhist region in Europe. There is a huge new Buddhist temple on the outskirts of the city, aptly named The Golden Temple, and a beautiful pagoda in the town square, dwarfing the compulsory Lenin. There are other Buddhist motifs throughout the city, which makes you feel like you’ve suddenly taken a wrong turn and ended up in Asia.
But it gets stranger still.
The city’s other claim to fame is chess. Yes, chess. The Kalmyk Republic’s president, Ilyumzhinov, is the head of the World Chess Federation. And handily, he’s also multi-millionaire. He brought the Chess Olympiad to Elista in 1998, making it an important centre for chess. There’s also a huge chess set in the main town square, which seemed pretty popular when we were there.
But wait – there’s more.
To host the 1998 competition, Ilyumzhinov ordered a huge compound to be built on the outskirts of the city to house visiting competitors and a state-of-the-art chess school. This area still has an immaculate suburban feel and is known as ‘Chess City’, or ‘New Vasyuki’.
And if that wasn’t enough… not far from the city is a statue of Ostap Bender and 12 chairs. This is a reference to the classic 1928 Soviet novel The Twelve Chairs, in which a con-man Ostap Bender finds himself in a city obsessed with chess and vows to build the population a state-of-the-art city solely for chess called New Vasyuki.
So, to sum up: Elista is the only Buddhist city in Europe in a Republic within Russia populated by Mongol descendants ruled by an eccentric chess-loving billionaire, who built a city devoted to chess echoing the actions of a fictional con-man. Cool.
What strange places in Europe would you add to the list?