A Travellerspoint blog

September 2012

Wedding Day in Moscow

semi-overcast 12 °C

Time was when the sinister rumble of Soviet tanks and missile carriers parading across the cobblestones of Moscow's Red Square reverberated around the Globe. But it's a quarter of a century since the Iron Curtain was opened and the words 'Glasnost' and 'Perestroika' were added to our lexicon. Young Muscovites know only democracy and rampant consumerism and, while many oldies are still nostalgic for the days of guaranteed equality, few can resist the temptations of capitalism. Today, French champagne flows freely among the many wedding groups that have replaced the threatening columns of Soviet troops that once goose-stepped across this pavement...
The iconic buildings in Red Square, previously symbols of Soviet might, now serve as proverbial backdrops for wedding albums. This pretty bride chose the Kremlin State Palace...
While this young couple preferred the Kazan cathedral...
Perhaps the most preposterously ornamented iconic building is the onion-domed St. Basil's cathedral, built by Ivan the Terrible in 1552. Legend suggests that the aptly named Ivan ordered the builders to be blinded on completion of the work so that they could never build a more elaborate one. Less charitable observers suggest that they should have been blinded to stop them doing it again. However, for enthusiastic wedding photographers, nothing could be more memorable...
And here's another happy couple being photographed in front of the Kremlin wall where Stalin and Khrushchev once stood to threaten world peace...
With the pictures in the can everyone heads to the eternal flame at the cenotaph to leave the bride's bouquet in memory of the millions who died defeating the Czarist fat-cats in 1917, or were murdered for opposing communism during Stalin's reign of terror...
And this is Stalin's infamous Lubyanka Prison, notorious headquarters of the dreaded KGB, from where, Russians joked, prisoners in the basement torture rooms could see Siberia...
Once final respects have been shown to those who fought and died in defence of communism, bride and groom dash off to GUM to spend their wedding haul...
During the Soviet era GUM was a dowdy department store strictly for foreigners and Politburo insiders. As Orwell wrote in Animal Farm: "All pigs are equal - but some pigs are more equal than others." But the days of Party-owned Zil limousines and Dachas are over. Moscow is one of the most capitalistic and expensive cities in the World - only the Metro is cheap at a dollar a ride - so every big name has set up shop here. West Edmonton may boast the biggest mall in the World, but GUM is a whole lot classier...
To cap off our wedding day in Moscow we're off to the Bolshoi - see you soon.

Posted by Hawkson 21:28 Archived in Russia Comments (10)

Trotsky Wuz Here

Visiting St. Petersburg

semi-overcast 15 °C

While the wide streets of St. Petersburg are chock-a-block with workaday Fords, Toyotas and VWs, there are plenty of BMWs, Audis and Mercs. However, most surprisingly, are the large numbers of Range Rovers, Cadillacs and stretch limos. Stretch white Hummers are commonplace, but this rosy monster really stood out….
Globalization has brought the world here. Burger King, MacDo and Subways are everywhere, and the confectionery stand in our nearest 7/11 is loaded with a familiar assortment of KitKats, Bountys, and dozens of other bourgoise candies. But we didn’t come here to feel at home. We came to experience Russia. Not for us the burgers and fries, or the pricey Stroganof de Boef in the fancy French Bistro, we wanted local food at local prices. So we took to the backstreets where the menus and waitresses are mono-lingual and we successfully ordered chicken dinners from Vladina....
Our Russian is coming along – we now have two words between us.
Three days barely let us skim St. Petersburg's historic hits and we reluctantly skipped the Peterhof Palace and the breathtaking 'Amber Chamber' in Tsarskoye. We are incorrigible earlybirds and can easily knock off a couple of Egyptian temples or a maharajah's palace before lunch, but not here. Despite the short days the locals are late risers. Nothing gets going much before eleven and one morning when our breakfast hadn't arrived by 8.30 we found the maid asleep at the toaster - we bet she doesn't hanker for the old days when she might have been given a one-way ticket to Siberia.
Two museums a day can cause memory overload leading to permanent brain damage, but we did our best.
For instance: this is the Cathedral of the Spilled Blood where someone famous was assassinated a long time ago....
The Bolsheviks may have turned the place into a public urinal, but now it's being restored and is classed as a museum. Like many of the cathedrals and palatial piles of St. Petersburg the 'Spilled Blood' has more bling than Paris Hilton's handbag...
However, just like Ms. Hilton, the glitz is barely skin deep, and most of St. Petersburg's iconic edifices are red-brick blockhouses tarted up with a stucco stone facade. The 120 massive pillars of St.Isaacs Cathedral are, in contrast, each milled from a single chunk of rhodenite...
The interior of St. Isaac's - another museum resurrected from decades of Soviet neglect - might actually be too over-the-top even for Paris...
And the cathedral museum in the fortress of St. Peter and Paul is an opulent mausoleum dedicated to dozens of Russian royals. Much of the palace is covered in scaffolding, but the refurbished spire is inspiring...
The next stop on our lightning tour took us inside the feared Trubetskoy prison which was used to house dissidents and Bolsheviks before the 1917 revolution. Trotsky and Gorky were both held in this cell...
With a couple of hours to spare, and purely for your entertainment dear reader, we decided to squeeze in a quick peek at Rasputin's private parts. Sorry to disappoint you, but the museum housing his allegedly enormous thingamajig was closed permanently a couple of months ago.
That's all for Saint Pete - the fast train to Moscow awaits. So much to see and so little time.

Posted by Hawkson 08:14 Archived in Russia Comments (6)

The Hermitage

semi-overcast 10 °C

If anyone needs a reason to brave the weather in one of the world's most northerly cities it is to visit Empress Elizabeth's (d. 1761) Winter Palace in St. Petersburg - home to the Hermitage Museum. Since 1852 the museum has showcased a major collection of art amassed by Catherine the Great and her heirs. Today the museum houses nearly 2 million artifacts, including a large number of European old masters, and draws visitors from around the Globe - but where on earth were they? Here's Sheila climbing the fabulously ornate Jordan staircase alone...
We could have walked off with this massive Malachite vase unnoticed...
We strolled through the Golden Dining Room un-accosted...
There was no one in the brilliantly gilded Crimson Study...
And the capacious foyer of Catherine's Theatre was deserted...
Perhaps, most surprisingly, not even Catherine's ghost could be found in her Italianate Gallery...
Had we accidentally slipped in when the place was closed? Where were the throngs we were warned about? In the end we found Ludmilla, a retired art teacher turned docent who told us with a crack in her voice and a tear in her eye that she missed the 'good old days' of Communism and the USSR before pointing us in the direction of the mob.
And here they are, cameras at the ready, waiting to witness the magical event of the famous golden peacock lifting his tail as the clock strikes one...
As the hour approached the crowd rose on tiptoe and hovered motionless in total silence. Then the clock struck. A cheer went up as the flash of a hundred cameras lit the scene ... and absolutely nothing happened. The crowd slowly deflated and began wandering aimlessly away, like hockey fans after a major defeat. But then, just as we turned to go, an horologist cum ornithologist jumped into the cage and gave the bird a swift kick. He lifted his tail and sweetly sang...
And a good time was had by all.

Posted by Hawkson 10:40 Archived in Russia Comments (6)

Welcome to Russia!

semi-overcast 12 °C

When the Estonian-Air website refused our booking from Amsterdam to St.Petersburg in English, James got crafty and booked it in Estonian. We wondered if this had backfired when we had a quick change in Tallin and found the stewardess of the 34 seat pond-hopper in a tizzy. She already had 30 Chinese tourists and a couple of drunken Russians aboard. But only sober English speakers could be trusted to sit in the Business Class seats next to the emergency exit. Her face lit in relief as we climbed the gangway and she relegated the Ruskies to the rear and gave us the front seats. "This is the way to fly," we agreed as she served us the full meal and perks paid for by the two bulky Russians, now squashed behind us in seats engineered for anorexic elves.
The Chinese tourists felt quite at home in their cramped quarters, however, while most Chinese weigh less than a scrawny chicken, their bags do not. So, to get the plane airborne without the wings snapping off, the safety-conscious Estonians decided that the 2 Russians, 16 of the Chinese and us could manage without our luggage for a day or so.
We were blissfully unaware as we arrived at immigration with all documents in hand - passports, visas, hotel bookings, train reservations etc. The immigration officer, a middle-aged single woman whose face suggested that someone had stolen the battery charger for her vibrator, wanted none of it. She just fiercely stamped our passports with her mind fixated on the loss of her best friend.
Our relief at getting in so easily faded when the smiley woman in "Lost Luggage" said, "Welcome to Russia" and handed us a sheaf of papers the size of a KGB's dissident's file together with an example sheet. "This ought to be easy," said James, scanning the list of personal items and clothes given in the example, and thinking he only had to fill the top form. Wrong! He had to fill all the forms. All 12 forms.
Bored? So were we. But not as bored as the numerous docents like this one guarding exhibits in the Hermitage museum....
Much more about the Hermitage later. Now back to the airport and James approaches the custom’s officer with numerous forms precisely listing our bag’s contents. “No good. I no understand,” snarls the Rosa Klebb look-alike with barely a glance, “Come back tomorrow.”
“Is there a problem Madam,” says James in his finest English, but it might as well be Dutch as she shouts, “You copy example exactly or must come back.”
Back to the “Lost Luggage” desk for another dozen forms while our hotel’s chauffeur wanders the arrival hall counting up his triple overtime. James copies the example precisely this time … 2 Armani suits, 12 shirts, 3 prs. Gucci shoes and a posing pouch, etc. etc. An hour later he triumphantly heads back to customs with the contents list of a well dressed male stripper. Rosa almost smiles. “Zhat is good – now I understand exactly what you have – you go now.”
Twenty four hours later we are relieved when our luggage arrives at our hotel, (minus Armani suits, Gucci shoes, and posing pouch) and we wonder if the 16 Chinese are still at the airport trying to fill out the forms. The drunken Russians were luckier. A policeman summonsed by the smiley “Lost Luggage” girl filled out the forms for them.

Posted by Hawkson 05:54 Archived in Russia Comments (8)

A Day in Delft

overcast 16 °C

It may be September, and the spring tulips a long way off, but the Netherlands are still in bloom. Fields of fall flowers make a colourful patchwork amid the dairy pastures as we ride the double-decker train to Delft. The unmistakably Dutch landscape is criss-crossed by dykes and dotted with picturesque windmills like this....
But this is an environmentally conscious nation, so it's not surprising that dozens of modern wind turbines march across the marshland and spin the breeze into electricity. Sixteen and half million people live in a space smaller than Vancouver Island, with a fifth of it below sea level, so the Dutch have good reasons to take care of the environment and stop the warming climate from raising the oceans. Houses, roads and cars are tiny by North American standards - no one in their right mind drives an SUV or a pick-up - and with fuel pushing $3.00 Cdn a litre most people are happy to walk or take a bike. So when we arrived in Delft we rented bikes. Here we are with our Gabriolan friends, Gary and Jane, cycling alongside the canals of Delft...
Then we stopped for a traditional Dutch meal of thinly sliced roast beef and fried eggs on toast - delicious. After lunch we listened to some hot jazz in a traditional bar, then wandered the historic downtown where almost all the Dutch royalty are buried.
This is the medieval hall in the city centre....
Delft is a delightful small city which is world famous for its blue chinaware...
...but there's plenty of cheese here as well. In fact there is plenty of cheese everywhere in the Netherlands.
Almost every meal contains cheese and mouthwateringly excellent cheeses of every kind fill the stores and market stalls. But the cheese is not just great it is also incredibly inexpensive compared to Canadian cheese ...
Looks good enough to eat doesn't it! Go on... treat yourself - Take a bite!

Posted by Hawkson 00:53 Archived in Netherlands Comments (6)

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