Way back in my student travel days, I discovered a handful of completely offbeat sights that remain among my favorite places in Europe. From sculptures of salt to sculptures of marzipan, from a wall dedicated to love and freedom to chapels decorated with bones, a carefully balanced tour of Europe mixes famous must-see sights with quirky, less familiar places like these.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Just outside Kraków, Poland, there are sculptures of salt that look good enough to lick. A tour of the mine complex — which spreads over nine levels and 100 miles of tunnels — shows how generations of Wieliczka miners spent their days underground, rarely seeing the sun.
Some of these miners carved statues from the salt: legendary figures from the days of King Kazimierz, the famous astronomer Copernicus, and even the region’s favorite son, St. John Paul II. My jaw dropped when I entered its enormous underground chapel. Carved in the early 20th century, everything — from the altar to the grand chandelier to a remarkable relief carving of the Last Supper — was chiseled from the rock salt.
Sculptures of an entirely different kind make up the collection at the saccharine-sweet Marzipan Museum in Szentendre, Hungary, near Budapest. Attached to a popular candy and ice-cream store, the museum features two floors of sculptures made of marzipan (an almond, sugar, and egg-white confection). Feast your eyes on Muppets, cartoon characters, Russian nesting dolls, an over-the- top wedding cake, a life-size Michael Jackson, and Hungarian patriotic symbols (the Parliament, the Turul bird, and so on). It’s most fun for kids, and kids at heart.
Museum of Naive Art
Europe is chockfull of museums highlighting the world’s most famous artists and artistic movements. But the delightfully offbeat Museum of Naive Art, in Croatia’s capital of Zagreb, showcases a uniquely Croatian art form: paintings by untrained peasant artists. In the early 20th century, art-world highbrows embraced this sort of unschooled art as evidence that artistic ability is inborn rather than taught. The movement’s founder, Ivan Generalić, typically painted wintry scenes on panes of glass. (He painted in the winter, when he wasn’t busy working the fields, and glass was the cheapest material available.).
One of the most inspiring sights in the Czech Republic is neither a museum nor a monument, but instead a graffiti-covered wall in Prague. The “Lennon Wall” began as a spontaneous homage to John Lennon after his death in 1980. This was back in Cold War times, when Lennon’s visionary ideas inspired locals to paint the wall with phrases like “All You Need Is Love,” “Imagine,” and other quotes borrowed from the musician-artist-activist. Night after night, the police painted over the graffiti. And day after day, it reappeared. Soon, the wall became a gathering place for travelers, freedom lovers, and hippies. In 1989 the Czech people finally overthrew communism, and today this wall is remembered as a place that gave hope to locals craving freedom.
Read more: https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/eccentric-europe-offbeat-but-on-target-sights