22.05.2007 - 03.06.2007
So after a successful tour of the USA, whirlwind as it was, it was time to move on to its Cold War rival, Russia. One would think that the USA would’ve let bygones be bygones but apparantly not. Time after time when US immigration saw the proper noun Russia in our itinerery it cost us a good ten minutes of our lives explaining that "Russia is just another country on our trip and we have no plans other than sight seeing… Except resurrecting COMMUNISM AND LAUNCHING A NUCLEAR WAR ON AMERICA!" Paranoid place.
Anyway the first stop was Moscow- a place I knew little about but I was determined to try and rectify that. I knew they spoke Russian; this seemed to surprise Lib though because after using sign language the first fifteen times she complained for the fifteenth time that “I just think they should know A LITTLE ENGLISH!” I finally managed to convince her that English isn’t global and its okay that people don’t understand it. Communication was difficult though and this is magnified due to the lack of proper supermarket style stores. Most of the stores are small and the stock is behind the counter. We promptly learned the word for bread and made good use of Lib’s vegemite for a couple of nights before we found some better stores.
Moscow is a city of ten million people, I had no idea it was so big. It seems to run pretty smoothly (except for lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality rates etc) but there is defintely a lot of bitterness towards the powers that be, in particular President Putin and his kronies. I was also surpirsed to learn that Yeltzin wasn’t as highly regarded as most outsiders believe. It is very interesting speaking to locals about their politics and history- it certainly gives you a different perspective but you have to remember its only one person’s opinion. The first day's sightseeing was the Kremlin. I was surprised to learn (lots of surprises in Russia) that there were many cathedrals in the Kremlin. I had also falsely believed that the Kremlin was purely the political centre of Moscow. Apparantly Kremlin is just a Russian word for fortress or citadel in any Russian city. Within Moscow’s Kremlin are five cathedrals, the armoury museum and their parliament (I think). The cathedrals were okay but the armoury was something else. It was actually the Russian armoury before the revolution and has become a museum sometime between then and now. It houses the Faberge Eggs (please excuse my spelling with some of the Russian proper nouns), enough gold to sink a small ship, weapons, armour, horse carriages, everything royal, gifts to the royal family and more. The highlight was definitely the eggs though. They are absolutely beautiful and even have a surprise inside, sort of like a kinder surprise only a couple of million dollars more expensive and without the chocoalte… imagine it had chocolate too... The mind boggles. The best purchase that day was the audioguide because it provided a lot of interesting information on the Russian tsars and I took in a lot and began my quest for knowledge on Russian history. After that it was the cathedrals. Our five cathedral tickets seemed like good value until we learned that 3 were closed. The two we saw were a bit ho-hum. I mean they were impressive but the highlight for me was playing hide the video camera. At every cathedral in Russia they charge you extra for cameras and video cameras and I don’t like paying for the priviledge. Thus I get to run away from little old ladies yelling at me as I film the inside. It always cracks me up when they say that cameras spoil the sanctity of the place but they don’t consider the gift stores dotted around the cathedral to be a problem. Other highlights in the Kremlin are the beautiful gardens, the world’s biggest cannon and the world’s biggest bell!
The next morning we slept in and then mosied on down to the red square. We had a leisurely breakfast and decided it was time to see the Lenin Mausoleum. Only problem was we had failed to notice that old Lenin only takes guests between 10am and 1pm and it was 12:50. The Russian guards told us it wasn’t going to happen and I wasn’t drunk so unlike in previous nightclub experiences I conceded that their guns were bigger than mine and moved on. We were pretty pissed off but over the next few days we spoke to a lot of people who said they were either unimpressed or disgusted with it so the disappointment waned. We made the most of a bad thing and spent quite a while in St Basil’s Cathedral. St Basil’s is the one you see on all the post cards and on the internation correspondent’s reports from Moscow. It looks a little bit like Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory but it’s really cool and not as tacky as you might think. The story with the cathedrals in Russia is that they are designed to resemble candles burning towards heaven (this is because Orthodoxy believes that the soul is like a candle burning towards heaven). St Basil’s does not resemble this at all. Forgive my bad memory but I believe it was Ivan the Terrible who commissioned its construction to commerorate his victory over the Tatars at Kazan. Apparently this is a fact: he blinded his architects so that they could not design anything of comparable beauty after its completion. It is actually a beautiful cathedral both inside and out and Lib did some illegal filming inside and we were even able to get a quartet singing in there. They saw Lib filming and covered their faces and pointed to the no camera sign!
The next day we did a bus tour (we don’t make a habit of doing organised tours) and that was a really nice way to see Moscow. It’s too big to walk and the bus tour enabled us to see some interesting sites and the seven sisters, seven architectural monuments including corporate buildings and a university.
All in all Moscow was very interesting but we both suffered a bit of culture shock and I think the four days there prepared us better for St Petersburg. To ST Petersburg it was then. Simple right? Get on a plane? Express train? Well… think the next step up from a steam train with 60 people per carriage and Lib and I the only non-Russians on a 2am, 11 hour train ride from Moscow to St P. The train station has not one word of English in it and I am grumpy, Lib needs to rise to the occasion. She does and we finally get to the right carriage and to our beds… wait, they’re seats. Ohhhh, they fold up into comfortable 1.5m long and 30cm wide beds. That doesn’t worry me though because I am only about 1.5m long and 30cm wide and am so exhausted I could sleep on broken glass. I tell Lib I’m the man so will watch our many valuables and tie them to my bed and leg in an intricate knot that would take Houdini a week to get out of. I awake 10 hours later and some bloody Houdini has undone my knot. Panic stations. Wait, where did these sheets, blanket and pillow come from? I look down and Lib looks up at me with eyes that immediately tell me not to speak. She explains that I passed out and she tried to wake me up and could not. Worried that someone could steal our stuff she nobely undid my granny knot and protected our stuff all night. Not only did she do that but she had tucked me in as well! All without me opening my eyes! What a man I am! What a girlfriend!
So we arrive in St P eventually; me well slept and Lib exhausted. Thankfully we find out its St Petersburg’s birthday celebrations and this lift Lib’s mood considerably- she loves parades.
St Petersburg is arguably (I argue with myself a lot) the best city I have been to (except New York, that belongs in another category all together [new note after original writing: Paris is in NY's league]). It is beautiful with its canals running through the city and its many beautiful cathedrals and theaters lining the streets. Having come from a city as gray as Moscow, the colour of St Petersburg was a welcome relief. The first stop was the Church of Spilled Blood, so named because it was where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. It actually had another less gruesome name (Church of Resurrection of Christ) but Spilled Blood is far more catchy and memorable. Its exterior is not unlike St Basils but the interior was far simpler (but not less enchanting). Apparently the soviets used it as a potato warehouse and wrecked it a little, we were grateful it had been restored because its right up there on my church list. Its location on the canal and next to a large and beautiful park made for a memorable experience. Further down the road we trekked to the Winter Palace, AKA the Hermitage Museum. The Winter Palace was commissioned by Empress Elizabeth and it now houses a massive collection of pre-revolution antiques. Focusing on spoils of war, European art, artifacts, relics (I like that word), military and tsar items, it was as big as the Metropolitan Museum in New York and even more interesting and beautiful to boot. The museum is full of (bloody) tourists and so makes moving around quite difficult. Tour groups full of (generally) older people are led by a tour leader who believes that they are Moses and the crowd around them are the Red Sea. The tour leaders can be identified by the distinctive walking pose of one arm raised carrying a unique item such as a flower, pen or umbrella to allow the tour group to follow them through the hordes. Realising the power the leaders wield, I hatched a plan to copy them. Using a sheet of paper I found on a window sill, I raised my arm above my head and held the piece of paper aloft. And like Moses many years before me, I indeed parted the Red (get it?) Sea.
High on our list of things to do, thanks to rave reviews from Penny McEniry, was to see some ballet at the Marinsky Theatre. So after walking to the theatre along the canal, by some cathedrals and via some lush parks, we finally made it to the theatre to buy our tickets for the ballet. Regretfully, they only had tickets to the opera but that would have to suffice. The Marinsky Theatre is absolutely brilliant. Besides from being really old, its interior reminds one of times gone by when royalty was important enough to command such beautiful things with tax-payers dough. Although regal by sight, the chairs were wooden and dreadfully uncomfortable. For me, the show started badly. Suffering an itchy throat, I coughed and spluttered embarrassingly through the first thirty odd minutes before it calmed down. The performers did a much better job than the rest of the crowd in pretending not to notice. After my throat settled though, it was captivating viewing. Not understanding a single word, I listened intently and enjoyed every moment. After the interval though, at about 11:00PM I became bored as the opera moved into its third hour. So with a sore bum and back from the seats Lib and I quietly left the theatre pleased we had seen such a cultured event. Happily, leaving early didn't present the usual problem of missing the ending because we wouldn't have understood it anyway. At 11:00PM it was still easily light enough to walk home.
The next day we decided to go on the self-proclaimed best walking tour in St Petersburg, if not the world. Peter's Walking Tour was meant to be an 'off the tourist trail' walk through the city. Part of that statement was true, it was indeed a walk through the city. We made our way through a market and on to many other sites very much on the tourist trail. If it wasn't for a French lady (born in Senegal and currently residing in Oslo) it would've made for a pretty tripe experience. We met Nabou when she asked whether we minded her smoking at our lunch table. I hopped off for a pit stop and when I returned Lib had pretty much arranged to stay with Nabou when we went to Oslo, conveniently in two days time (didn't give her much time to change her mind). After lunch we walked with Nabou and spent much of the time learning about her. She had lived in Norway since the start of the year as a result of her work. Based at the University of Oslo, she is a lawyer who specialises in human rights. For those less geographically and culturally inclined, Norway is a long way from Senegal when you consider that Norway is dark most of the day in winter (not a feature of Senegal) and has many fewer black people (like, a lot less...). The end of the tour was probably the highlight, not just because it ended, but also because it took us to Peter and Paul's Fortress. Originally built to guard the new city in the 18th century, its more famous as the political prison that housed Peter's own son after he coaxed him out of hiding promising him he wouldn't put him in prison (great dad...). All of the Russian Tsars since Pete are buried here but Lib and I didn't tour that much because we're not big on dead people, well, at least viewing them as such.
At the risk of boring everyone in the restaurant to death, I digress.
Off to Norway it was- first stop Oslo. As promised, Nabou housed us for the night we were in Oslo. Not content to just let us stay the night, she made us sleep in her comfortable double bed whilst she slept on the couch. Still not content with that arrangement, she cooked us a three course meal that was a delight. Oslo was a short stop for us, one night, and will remembered for the rain and a $10 latte. I still say the latte was worth it; it was absolutely amazing and complemented by brownies still warm from the oven. Their latte blew mine AND the Pickle Barrel's out of the water. Oslo can also be remembered as the day 'well, we did stay with Nabou' became Lib and my favourite statement. Pressed with any concerns over whether we REALLY need to get a taxi instead of a train or whether we REALLY need an ice-cream, we pulled out the Nabou line. We've even used it retrospectively on the laptop we bought in NY. It lasted all through Sweden until we finally decided that we can no longer use it as justification for unnecessary purchases. From Oslo we caught a train to a lovely little place called Flåm. The train ride was absolutely spectacular. The greenest of greens punctuated with bright snow and ice reflecting the Spring sun. Waterfalls much bigger than those witnessed in Grenade dazzled the eye and were frequent along the track. After some six or so hours on the train to Flåm, we caught a ferry through the Western Fjords of Norway to our hotel in Belestrand. The fjords are where the giant glaciers have carved through the earth over many centuries. What's left is sparkling blue water that the ferry takes you along with beautiful landscapes on either side. We saw many more beautiful waterfalls and some quaint little towns that line the fjords. We pulled into Belestrand and made our way to our lovely hotel. It turned out that the McEniry's had stayed at the very same hotel some 12 years earlier.
Belestrand is a very little town that throbs with tourists in the summer time, about a month after we departed. Not loaded with things to do besides hiking, Lib and I decided to go for a hike. It was a reasonably simple yet rewarding hike through the gentle mountains that overlook Belestrand. The hike provided some wonderful views and an array of natural wonders. Believe it or not, there was another waterfall. After the hike our stay in Belestrand had finished and we were off to Bergen, Norway's second largest city and the home of the Osland clan, the clan of my friend Bård. Bård had been good enough to arrange for his cousin Preben to meet with us down by the markets and we had a quick (and expensive) coffee with him before Lib and I climbed a nearby mountain. The top of the mountain had fabulous views over Bergen and lucky for us there was a viking fare there as well. I played with a wooden sword for a bit and then we caught the cable car back down to the local market. Quite hungry but not prepared (read too tight) to fork out Norwegian Kroner for food, I sampled all the offerings from the fish market stalls. Perhaps fish is too narrow a definition, fish and mammal stalls. See, now let me explain this before you judge me, I was offered and unknowingly accepted a sample of whale meet. It is true that I found out before I had actually eaten the meat, but I had already accepted it and I believe it would've been rude to not eat it once I had accepted it. Regular readers would also know that I have the traveling motto of "when in Rome, do as the Romans do". Being in Norway, whale is a meat that is regularly eaten and so I can say I have no regrets. Having said that, despite its delicious and salty taste, I would not eat it again because it goes against my beliefs and all that. Aside from that Bergen was a nice town but outrageously expensive. We didn't venture too far and wide but we had a nice Norwegian experience.
And I'm going to leave it there. We are currently loving Paris after having a good week in London that was preceded by two weeks in Sweden. I know I've said this before mum but I really think I won't take so long to write my next blog and so it hopefully won't be as long.
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