Moscow on my mind.

Moscow, Russia. 29th June 2014.

St Petersburg behind me, Moscow ahead, one road running more or less due south and 750kms to ride. Should be straightforward. And it pretty much was.
I found my way out of the city easily enough and settled into the ride. There was no way of knowing how long it might take as I knew the roads would be mostly single carriageway with an unknown number of towns and ditto the amount of traffic. So far so routine.
What did surprise me during the early part of the journey was the paucity of towns, industry and activity. The traffic wasn’t heavy and I rode through wooded terrain with occasional villages. Doris was singing along, happy with the road, the weather and the pace. So was I. Luckily no-one could hear the singing.
Another thing that surprised me as I passed through the villages was that most of the houses were made of wood .Some of them looked very nice but many of them were in very poor condition, lacking in paint and in some cases foundations, judging by their angle of lean. They varied in size from well off suburban to little more than shack. In fact some of the smaller ones reminded me of the Chattel Houses I’d seen on Barbados. Several times I saw small but very ornate churches in the middle of villages that were little better than shanty towns. Priorities? I saw people sitting by the roadside selling fruit and vegetables, home grown I’d guess, and most of these looked to be Central Asian or Eastern European. I’m guessing that these were migrants from the south looking to make a better life in a rich country, a common enough story.
After a while I spotted a café on the other side of the road with some bikes parked outside. I was in need of a coffee and a leg stretch so I turned in, parked up and went inside. There were four bikers inside so I said Hallo and got a couple of nods back. While I was drinking my coffee they got up and left. Once finished I went outside and suddenly they were all chatty. I think they looked at Doris in her travelling clothes and British number plates and suddenly they were interested. We chatted a bit and I discovered they were en route to Finland for a tour round. I told them of my planned route and one of them had been previously been to Kazakhstan. He summed it up as ‘Shit roads, shit fuel and not much of it.’He saw the off road style spare tyres I was carrying and suggested I fit them before I enter Kazakhstan as he reckoned I’ll need them. Hmmm.

Russian bikers heading north to Norway.

Russian bikers heading north to Norway.

Further down the road I came to one of those endless series of roadworks I was discovering Russia seemed to love. I was sitting in a queue of traffic when another biker came down the outside, stopped alongside me and indicated I should follow him. I’ve mentioned before about having to be cautious about the unwritten rules for bikers in different countries. Additionally I hadn’t yet obtained any Russian bike insurance so I was being doubly cautious. But I was happy to do his bidding and off we went, mostly down the outside of the traffic until we were clear of it all. I needed fuel so we pulled into a garage and he introduced himself. Andrey spoke a little bit of English and he asked me where I was going. I told him Moscow and showed him the address of the hostel I’d booked for that night. He immediately said ‘Don’t go there, stay with me.’ Straight away he rang his wife, got the all clear and wrote down his address for me.’See you in about four hours’ he said and rode off. What a result! I was feeling a bit low after my experiences in St Petersburg but things were starting to turn around a bit. Further down the road I came to another jam but this time I put my just London head on and got on with getting through it all. I was joined by another biker and we ducked and weaved our way through, using all the road available including the dirt shoulder, as were many cars. Other traffic was happy to move out of the way where it could and we made good progress until we were clear. My companion turned off with a cheery wave and I was definitely feeling much better about the world and life in general.
Traffic was busy now as I negotiated the urban sprawl of Moscow but eventually my GPS delivered me safely to Andrey’s apartment block out in the Moscow suburbs. I was just trying to ring him when he arrived back from the shops with his wife Nadiya and lovely little daughter Maria. There flat is on the 11th floor of a fairly modern apartment block and although it’s small they were happy to squeeze me in to a spare corner. I was invited to stay until Wednesday, when I would then go to the hostel I had booked (now cancelled). Nadiya spoke good English, including understanding much idiomatic English as well, so I was able to find out all about them, and them me. They came to Moscow from one of the southern cities and have made a life in the Capital which they really enjoy. Andrey sells exterior wall finishing products and Nadiya is currently on state sponsored maternity leave for eighteen months. Their eighteen month old daughter, Maria, is as clever as anything and is an absolute delight. Andrey led me down to his lock up where I stored the bike until I would need it again.
So I got fed and watered and we sat up quite late chatting away. It was a terrific end to a very long day. Twelve hours on the road. Some of the pain from St Pete had been alleviated by the kindness of complete strangers. Did I say this before? I just love the biker family!

Nicely presented Metro station.

Nicely presented Metro station.

Moscow is a big city and has many sights to see. The best way to get around is the Metro, one of the most extensive in the world. It’s very easy to use and fares work on the simple principle of paying by the journey. Nadiya had kindly given me an unfinished multi journey ticket with five journeys left on it so I was off to a good start. They sell tickets for one to sixty journeys and the system works by docking a journey off the total every time you pass through a barrier from the street. That means you can go from one line to another as many times as you like all for the same fare. The price is RU30 for one journey and it gets cheaper when you buy eleven or more. You don’t even need to know any Russian to get them as all you need to do is go to the ticket office, hold up your fingers to represent the number of journeys you want and pay the money. Simplicity itself. The Moscow Metro is renowned for having lines that run very deep under the city and the escalators seem to go down for ever. One of the great features of the system is that many of the stations have there platforms decorated with artwork. They are world famous and the idea has been copied in many places elsewhere. I’m sure most Muscovites don’t really care that much once they’ve seen them but there will often be visitors taking photos of them, me included. One thing the metro system does need is a huge amount of investment in trains. Some of the lines do have modern trains, with fully joined carriages and electronic signage but many of them suffer from carriages that look as if they were first used forty or fifty years ago. And they are so noisy! Unbelievably so. Sometimes it was so loud as to be uncomfortable.

Another example of Metro Art.

Another example of Metro Art.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My first task was to go to the Mongolian Embassy to organise a visa. Nadiya dropped me off nearby and I found it easily enough but the visa department was elsewhere. The security guard gave me directions, exercising my Russian in the process, and I managed to find my way there. They told me I could use the express service for $100 and it would take one day. I could pay less and wait longer but I decided to get it ASAP. So I took the form away with me to complete and return next day. Unlike the Kazakh visa, the Mongoilian one will give me a ninety day window to get there and then I will be allowed to stay in the country for up to thirty days. Much more flexible and sensible than the Kazakh system.
That job done I went for a walk around. The visa office was just off Arbat Street, one of Moscow’s main tourist areas. This street has plenty of old buildings, theatres, street performers, souvenir shops, cafés and so on. It wasn’t all that busy on a Monday afternoon but there were still people around enjoying the atmosphere, having their photos taken and so on. I carried on walking through and kept going until I came to Revolution Square. I wanted tourist info so I wandered around, admiring the buildings, statues and fountains until I found it in the foyer of the Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812, clearly a place I was going to visit. Tourist maps and brochures are a great way of not only orientating yourself but also helping you know what there is to see and to decide what to visit. I’ve always found that there are things I’m not bothered too much about seeing and wouldn’t want to risk ‘art and artifact overload’ by visiting places just because they happen to be there. Apart from anything else there’s so much to see in a place like Moscow that I’d have needed at least a month to see it all.

To be found in Revolution Square. I'm not exactly sure what it is.

To be found in Revolution Square. I’m not exactly sure what it is.

It was too late in the day to visit anywhere as places start to close from 5pm so I walked back to Arbat Street, found the Starbucks I’d spotted earlier and enjoyed a sit down. Afterwards I found the nearest Metro station and ventured forth for my first experience underneath the city. One of the odd things about the Metro is that different lines will have different stations and although they may be close to each other they won’t necessarily be connected. Also the entrances aren’t always easy to spot and their signage is annoyingly discreet at times. I had a choice of two lines to take and I found one and made the journey back to Andrey and Nadiya’s in one piece.

One of the statues in Arbat Street.

One of the statues in Arbat Street.

Nadiya is a good cook and had prepared a meal of soup and a vegetarian dish based on buckwheat, something I’d never had before but seems to be quite common in Russia. About 75% of their food is vegetarian and is very nice. I had black bread for the first time and it went down well with the soup. They also buy home made honey which was as nice as you might expect.
After a while Andrey suggested we go out to have a look around some of the city. This was about 22.30 and yet it was only just getting dark. So we all piled into their Suzuki 4×4 and drove around to some places that I would never have found on my own. They showed me Moscow’s new financial district, called Moscow City. This area has Canary Wharf type skyscrapers in it, some of them very stylish in appearance. We drove up to a park called Vorobyovy Hills which opens out onto a plateau where bikers meet at night and where there is an amazing view out over the city, all lit up below. This park is in front of the Moscow State University, a huge building of which the city is justly proud and which looked very nice in its night time illumination. We drove down to Red Square and walked around admiring the beautifully illuminated buildings – The Kremlin Walls, St Basil’s Cathedral and GUM, the famous Moscow department store. We also drove round to the building that used to house the Moscow State Circus which has some amusing statues outside it.
We got back about 01.30 and I was knackered! One thing had become very clear and that is that Muskovites love their city and enjoy being out and about in it. The streets were still busy. Although not native to Moscow, Andrey and Nadiya clearly love their adopted home.

St Basil's Cathedral at night.

St Basil’s Cathedral at night.

One of the Seven Sisters, lit up for the night.

One of the Seven Sisters, lit up for the night.

First job today was to go to the Mongolia visa office and get the wheels of bureaucracy turning. I didn’t get up very early but then neither did anyone else apart from Andrey who had to go to work. So by the time I got down there I only had fifteen minutes to sort it out before they shut down for their two hour lunch. In the end it was all straightforward and quick. The only potential problem was that some of the dollar bills I took with me weren’t crisp enough for them and they wouldn’t accept them. Fortuitously I’d taken some spares with me so all was well. I’d read about this bizarre situation before. It seems these places don’t like folding money if it’s been folded too often. ‘It’s still legal tender’ I wanted to say to the cashier ‘and it’s not even your currency.’but I said nothing. I could have come back that afternoon to collect the visa but I had other plans.

The Trinity Tower, Moscow Kremlin.

The Trinity Tower, Moscow Kremlin.

A stroll down to the Kremlin on this warm afternoon took me to the ticket office and I joined the queue. I bought one that would let me into the Kremlin, cathedrals and churches. There are museums in there too but I wasn’t particularly interested in their contents, mostly jewellery and similar, so I passed on them. When I got inside I was surprised to see how small the visiting area was. The complex is huge but visitors can only go to a small area where the cathedrals and museums are. I suppose it’s no surprise as the Kremlin does contains the parliamentary buildings and the presidential palace. The other thing I swiftly learned is that if you step off the approved walkways a guard will very quickly blow his whistle and wave his stick at you in a very meaningful way. Stray at your peril! There are three cathedrals to visit, The Assumption, The Annunciation and the Archangels. There are two churches also, the Twelve Apostles Church and the Church of Laying Our Lady’s Holy Robe. They aren’t all accessible and I went into two of the cathedrals for a look around. Typical Orthodox decoration and iconography, very decorative and some of it dating back tio the 17th century. Unfortunately photography wasn’t allowed. Outside lie two Tsarist relics, the Tsar Canon and the Tsar Bell. The cannon is huge and very nicely decorated. It was cast in 1586 and weighs in at forty tons. The bell was definitely overambitious. Six metres in diameter and the same in height, it weighs in at two hundred tons and that may be the reason why it broke before it ever rang. Because of casting problems a large chunk dropped out of it before it was even lifted so there it sits, the worlds largest bronze door stop.

The Tsar's bell - 200 tons.

The Tsar’s bell – 200 tons.

The Tsar's cannon - 40 tons.

The Tsar’s cannon – 40 tons.

There is no doubt that the Kremlin (the word means fortress within a city) is an amazing complex. It covers 250 hectares, has twenty towers, contains five major religious buildings and two state museums as well as presidential accommodation and both houses of parliament. All of the towers have names, even if they’re merely descriptive, and the walls and towers have stood since the 15th century. Some of them were destroyed by Napoleon when he was forced to retreat from Moscow but they were quickly rebuilt. It fell in and out of favour with the Tsars but has always remained a vitally important building for the city, especially since Moscow became the nation’s capital after the 1917 revolution.

The Assumption Cathedral and the Ivan the Great bell tower.

The Assumption Cathedral and the Ivan the Great bell tower.

The Archangel's Cathedral.

The Archangel’s Cathedral.

Opposite the exit stands that exemplar of the ‘point and ask’ method of buying food in a foreign language, McDonalds. A chicken/bacon/coke/fries combo beat my hunger into submission and I felt ready for round two. Round to Red Square and St Basil’s cathedral. The name ‘Red Square’ doesn’t come from the colour of the brickwork on the walls and buildings nor does it represent communism. The Russian word for ‘red’ also means ‘beautiful’ or ‘best’. So the Red Door would be the front door and the Red Girl would be the prettiest. Talking of the brickwork, at times that had been painted white anyway. And while we’re discussing names I learnt that ‘Basil’ is a derivative of the name ‘Vassilly’. St. Vassilly was a peasant who came from the Russian tradition of ‘Fools for Christ’. These people, whatever their original background, became poor and lived as beggars. They had the gift of being able to deliberately lose their minds, would have visions, speak in tongues – all the usual superstitious goings on. But they were revered to such an extent that they could freely take on the rich and powerful, even Emperors and Tsars. St Vassilly was one such peasant and had such an effect that a cathedral was named after him. So perhaps the best way to beat the rich and powerful banks into submission is to become poor and be a fool. Oh, hang on, we’re there already aren’t we. Oh well.

St Basil's Cathedral.

St Basil’s Cathedral.

This building is a strange one as it actually consist of nine separate cathedrals melded into one. It therefore has passageways that twist and wind all over the place as you move from one part to another. It/they were built in the 15th century to commemorate victory over the Khanate of Kazan, an area south of Moscow ruled by the descendants of Genghis Khan. There are some really nice artworks inside, particularly items such as altar screens, iconography and wall paintings. I liked its inherent craziness very much.

St Basil's from a different side

St Basil’s from a different side

St Basil's in B&W.

St Basil’s in B&W.

I eventually made it back to Andrey and Nadiya’s. Today was Wednesday and I had been due to leave them and go to the hostel but they had invited me to stay longer, as long as I needed to be in Moscow in fact. They had originally only invited me for a few days because they were worried about how Maria would react to my presence but as she wasn’t in the least bit bothered by it they’d decided to extend the invitation. I was delighted by this mostly for emotional reasons but also for practical ones too. I felt great gratitude towards them. They are a lovely family and are so kind and generous.

My lovely hosts.

My lovely hosts.

After we’d eaten I was taken out for a tour round once more. ‘Good heavens’ I thought, ‘Don’t Russians ever sleep?’ Then I remembered that they have a short summer and a long winter. Plenty of time to catch up. This time we went to one of Moscow’s ninety six parks, Victory Park. Dedicated to the victims of the Great Patriotic War – WW2 to you and me – the park has a huge obelisk, a sculpture of St George slaying the dragon, a memorial mosque and synagogue and a colonnaded building housing the memorial museum in front of which sits the eternal flame. The whole area sits on top of a hill and running down from the memorial structures is a walkway with a series of fountains and gardens, the fountains being lit up at night. Being there led the conversation round to remembrance celebrations and I explained to Andrey and Nadiya about the Cenotaph and the significance of the Poppy. I told them of my visit to Ypres and the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate. When we got back home I showed them some pictures of these things on the internet. Being there got me thinking about something I’d read in Berlin. After WW2 The Soviets would have liked to have taken over the whole of Germany. They firmly believed that West Germany was full of Nazis, and there may have been some small justification in this. We can all agree that, had they had the opportunity, the Soviet’s way of dealing with this situation would have led to the death of thousands of innocent people and perhaps suggest that it was all based on paranoia. But when you see a memorial to over twenty million war dead it gets much easier to understand that paranoia.

The Eternal Flame in front of the memorial Museum.

The Eternal Flame in front of the memorial Museum.

Gardens and fountains looking down towards the city.

Gardens and fountains looking down towards the city.

One thing I hadn’t been able to sort out was Russian insurance for my bike. Andrey had made enquiries for me and I was due to meet him at his insurance companies office at 3pm next day. Before going there I needed to get a spare battery for my camera to replace the one that disappeared when my camera got stolen. Nadiya new of a place where she thought I might get one, a big Techno Mall that had loads of small stalls in it selling various technical bits and pieces. The only problem was that I had to drive their car down there as she needed to look after Masha (the pet name for Maria). So off I set into the maelstrom of Moscow’s traffic, fighting my way through throngs of trucks and 4×4’s like Ben Hur winning a chariot race. In actual fact it’s only like that in bad films and scare stories. We just took a gentle drive from their suburb to another one, parked around the corner from the mall and went inside to get what I needed. The only battery available was a ‘made in China’ one and I’ve always been suspicious of those. But when I looked at the original that had been made in China too! So i figured I’d got nothing to lose and paid the very reasonable price for it. I was beginning to like Russia.
I met Andrey at the insurance company and we sat down in front of a very pretty young woman with one of the nicest smiles I’ve ever seen. Really! And she rides a bike too. I haven’t got room for a pillion but if she’d said ‘Take me with you’ I’d have found some! Anyway, some paperwork completed, signed and cash handed over and I left with insurance for four months, plenty of time to cover the ground I wanted to. Luckily Andrey made me check all the details before I left and it turned out her colleague had entered the registration number incorrectly. Perhaps she was dazzled by the smile too.

Typical modern architecture.

Typical modern architecture.

When I was in the tourist office I’d got a brochure detailing Moscow’s tourist attractions and in it was a small motor museum that looked worth a visit. My feet were a bit sore after the efforts of the last couple of days so I felt happy to have an easy afternoon. Leaving Andrey I got the Metro down there and whiled away a couple of hours looking at some very nicely restored classic cars and being amused by seeing the familiar names written in Cyrillic script. None of the signs were in English so I set myself the challenge of converting the technical info into something I could understand. I got there with most of them.

Remember these?

Remember these?

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Back at base Nadiya’s brother and his wife came over. Irana is Nadiya’s best friend and she and Dimitri started seeing each other and eventually got hitched. Irana also speaks excellent English and she asked me a question that Nadiya had already asked, namely ‘Is it true that everyone in England drinks tea at five o’clock?’ I find this a highly amusing notion and after discussing it we worked out that their English teachers must have been brought up on classic novels, Austen and Bronte most likely, in which everybody probably does drink tea at five o’clock. So the concept was clearly passed down to the pupils. They thought it was a very funny thing to do anyway and clearly didn’t think it was really true. But they just couldn’t resist asking.

Another great evening and it is good to be meeting and chatting to so many ordinary Russian people. A useful day too in that I tied up a couple of loose ends.
Another day dawned bright and sunny. I’d had very good weather since arriving in Russia for which I was grateful. Cities always look better in the sunshine and people look happier too, which makes the visitor feel more welcome. I had plans to visit two museums today, the Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812 and the Historical Museum, which traces Russia’s history from Neolithic times.
The 1812 museum was first and it showed a fascinating insight into the minds and ambitions of two of Europe’s greatest Emperors. As we know, Napoleon was ultimately defeated but not before he’d reached Moscow, causing the city authorities to set fire to the buildings rather than let them fall into French hands. In turn Napoleon attempted to completely destroy the Kremlin and all the buildings inside it by blowing them up before he left. Fortunately the wet weather rendered most of the fuses inoperable so the damage, although significant, was limited. In turn Alexander 1 attempted to cross Europe to attack France but didn’t manage to achieve that.
The museum disappointed me in some ways. The displays were good and I loved the paintings but although the display labels were in English as well as Russian all the multi media information was in Russian only. I had hoped to learn more about this period of history and Napoleon’s defeat but came away frustrated.

Napoleon not enjoying his day.

Napoleon not enjoying his day.

The Russian History Museum was next and fortunately for my still sore feet, was close by. There was an audio guide available here, thankfully. It was very necessary because very few of the display signs were in English although there were multi language information leaflets available in each of the rooms. The problem was that these only gave general information about the period of time each room covered and unless a particular display item was mentioned in the audio guide, you could look but not necessarily learn. Even so, there was much to discover about the history of the area that Russia now covers going back many thousands of years. Over the last couple of hundred years there have been several important archaeological finds in Russia such as the dugout canoe that was preserved in peat for thousands of years and the graves from 20,000 years ago, showing just how sophisticated burial rites were even then. There’s over forty rooms and you progress through them in time order, getting a nicely linear look at Russia’s progress from nomad to warring tribe to sophisticated European. I learned a lot and thought the time was very well spent.
A few years previously Andrey had ridden his bike down into Central Asia on a 12,000km month long holiday. So we had a good chat that evening about road conditions, fuel quality and availability. He completely disagreed with the biker I met coming down to Moscow about the need for off road tyres. He did his trip on standard road tyres and had no problems at all. I had brought with me a 7 litre fuel bladder to give me a longer range and he said that would be plenty extra. So that was very useful information to get especially as entry to Kazakhstan was getting closer, probably only a week or so away.
I needed a haircut! My last one had been two and a half months ago, just before I left home, and I was looking messy. Nadya knew of a place just down the road in a nearby block of flats, en route to the Metro station. So we put Masha in her pushchair and took a stroll down there in the sunshine. Fifteen minutes after going in I was all trimmed and tidy and feeling much better for it. The woman at the till was highly amused when the hairdresser told her to charge for ’Haircut and eyebrows’ and I was delighted by the RU200 price. Nadya and Masha headed for the play park, I carried on to the Metro station. Today’s destination was the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre, a place my friend OJ had recommended I go to see. On my journey I’d visited several places where the Jewish story was one of pain and suffering but this museum was all about telling the story of Russian Jews in a positive way and about healing the wounds of the past. When OJ told me about it I commented that perhaps Putin should visit there, it being a time when his apparent demonising of certain minorities was in the news. OJ’s reply? ‘He paid for it.’ So that shut me up! But all the more reason for wanting to see it.
Unfortunately it just didn’t happen that day. I took the metro to the nearest station , came out and wandered around for over an hour trying to find it. Even with the help of a map wielding, English speaking young Russian woman I couldn’t find it. All I had was a very small map in the tourist book and it just wasn’t clear enough to pin down where it was. Eventually I worked out that I’d come out of the wrong exit of the metro so I backtracked and got onto the right street. The problem was that the museum shut at 3pm and I didn’t get there until 2pm. The woman on the front desk reckoned I needed at least two hours so I left, planning to come back another day. I had in mind to visit another nearby place, the site of some street art but we were all going out that evening and there wasn’t time.
Nadiya had booked us into an Italian restaurant they liked and I wanted to treat them as a thank you for looking after me so well. Andrey was meeting us there from work so once again I drove their care down there. We pulled up opposite the restaurant and I waited until there was no traffic before throwing a U turn across the six lane road. Nadiya was horrified, Andrey was highly amused. She reckoned a Russian driver might get a six month ban for doing that because of the double white line in the middle of the road. We enjoyed a very nice meal there, discussing food and all sorts of cultural things. More quality time with great people.

Next morning Andrey and Nadiya had some friends coming round, transiting through Moscow on their way to a holiday up on the north coast. Andrey went to the airport to pick them up and Luba and her two kids Max and Lova eventually arrived. She also spoke good English so I was enjoying both the conversation and Nadiya’s delicious home made chocolate cake. And did Luba ask me THAT question? Of course she did! And I gave her what had become my stock answer, that as far as I was concerned every hour was five o’clock. She was surprised to find Max happily playing with me as it seems that he’s normally very wary of strangers normally. After a while I left them to it and headed off for my day out.

Another one of the Seven Sisters.

Another one of the Seven Sisters.

On today’s agenda was a city bus tour. I’d discovered during my holiday with Jan in Cape Town that this can be a great way to see and learn about a city. They have multi lingual commentary which switches on as you reach given points along the route. I took the metro to where I thought the route started only to find I’d been misled by an out of date tourist map. I got to the right place eventually and while I waited for the bus I was watching a number of wedding parties posing for photos on a nearby pedestrian bridge over the Moskva River. I discovered that it is common in Russia for wedding parties to go somewhere special to pose for the photos, such as a park or a significant landmark of some kind. There were several parties there with the nicely decorated cars parked nearby. It seemed a great way of going about it especially on such a lovely sunny Saturday.

A great location for your wedding photos.

A great location for your wedding photos.

As much as anything else, the two hour bus tour taught me about Moscow’s buildings and their history. The city has very varied architecture with many different styles. Almost all buildings are post 1812 because of the burning of the city by the retreating citizens as napoleon advanced on it. Many of them are from the Soviet era and are quite fascinating. Many old buildings, especially religious ones, were demolished in the Stalin era but he did leave an excellent legacy in the shape of the Seven Sisters. These are seven skyscrapers, modelled on 1930’s New York buildings such as the Manhattan Municipal Building. They are dotted around the centre of the city and look very attractive. One of them now houses the Foreign Ministry, others are hotels and I’m not sure what the rest are used for now. Building work continues all around the city. One that we passed is referred to as The Russian White House. It stands on the embankment and now houses the Russian government. When Boris Yeltsin ended communism there was an attempted coup and this building was shelled. I remember seeing him on TV at the time, in standing front of it surrounded by tanks.

The Russian White House.

The Russian White House.

That was a couple of hours well spent and I continued my exploration with a walk along the embankment. I wanted to look at a statue I’d spotted earlier, of a ship with a man as the figurehead. It was erected quite recently and is to celebrate Peter the Great’s formation of the Russian Navy after he gained the port at St Petersburg. Apparently Muskovites are divided in their opinions about it. I thought is was ostentatious but typically Russian in that respect. I mean just look at St Basil’s Cathedral for goodness sake!

Maggie: For goodness sake Dennis don't tell the proles how badly off they are. Dennis: Don't worry Margaret, Mum's the word!

Maggie: For goodness sake Dennis don’t tell the proles how badly off they are.
Dennis: Don’t worry Margaret, Mum’s the word!

Soviet era 'Realist' art.

Soviet era ‘Realist’ art.

I walked on into the Sculpture Garden.This is where all those unwanted Communist era statues have been deposited, often lined up in rows. They look pretty good generally and I had a laugh at one or two of them. Next was the famous Gorky Park. It is very big and very nice, with a large boating lake. I liked some of the people friendly touches such as huge beanbags laid out for groups of people to lounge on and double sun loungers for couples to get friendly on. Unfortunately some of the park was closed for refurbishment and some had been closed off to accommodate a rock concert – don’t ask me who, it was a name I didn’t recognize. At the other end of the park I found myself walking along the embankment, busy with pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders and roller bladers. They kept me on my tired toes a bit! There followed a much longer walk than I intended as I searched for a metro station, which I only found thanks to a kind young couple who showed me where it was. I was happy to pay their fares as a thank you. It had been a long, hot day and I was glad to get back.
That evening I had a nice long chat with Andrey about Kazakhstan. Routes, tyres, fuel etc. He’s got a friend who lives in Astana and he linked us up on Facebook. That was good as contacts can be very useful in strange countries.

Outside the former Moscow State Circus.

Outside the former Moscow State Circus.

My last day in Moscow was as bright and warm as the previous six had been. It was great to be able to enjoy the sunshine, even though it sometimes left me hotter than I’d normally like. I was planning to finally visit the Jewish Museum and this time I knew where it was! I got there with plenty of time to spare and that was just as well as there was quite a bit to see. The museum all about telling thestory of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe but it begins with what I think is called a 5D presentation about the Creation story. We sat in a small theatre while the story was told and were shaken and rained on while they told the story of the Flood and the Ark. To me it’s all old guff but the important point about the Jewish religion is that the stories will always be told and then discussed, assessed and re-assessed constantly across the ages to try to understand the deeper meaning. To me that’s a much better approach than the religious fundamentalist who will say ‘As it was written, so it shall be’, with no arguments allowed. Into the display proper which charted the life and times of Jews in Russia. The displays are numbered, so easy to follow, but once more I was frustrated by the lack of English explanations. I’d have thought that this museum, above all others, would have considered that many of their visitors might come from outside Russia. Not the case. Fortunately most of the interactive displays were dual language or had subtitles. I was able to learn about the Jewish diaspora, how so many Jews came to be in Eastern Europe and how they lived their lives. They were mostly isolated, living in small villages called Shetells, very poor but able to live according to their religion. Post the 1917 revolution Jews actually had a better time of it in many ways. They weren’t discriminated against any more than any other religion and as time went by were able to take advantage of whatever opportunities presented themselves instead of suffering enforced separation as was the case under the Tsars. Many of them became more Russian than Jewish and entered into intellectual life fully. Even so, huge numbers emigrated to America to escape poverty. Post war many also went to Israel if they could.
During the war Jews fought alongside other Russians against the Nazis. There was a film showing interviews with people who fought, not all of them Jewish, and some of the personal testaments moved me to tears. There was also a film about the war from Russia’s point of view which was very interesting. There was a display about the ‘Refuseniks’, Jews who worked for the state but refused to co-operate because they, or their friends, weren’t allowed to emigrate to Israel. That’s something I remember from the Seventies.
I was very pleased to have gone there and to learn about people that I had mostly seen as Nazi victims. Jews have always been picked on throughout history and it puzzles me somewhat as to why. What is it about them, their religion, their lifestyle that makes them constant victims? Maybe it’s their reluctance to integrate or because their usury was dislikes, although obviously widely used. There were the medieval Blood Libels but that was borne out of hatred as well as being the cause of it. It’s a mystery to me but perhaps I’ll keep it in my back pocket to try and study another time.

The Russia Museum.

The Russia Museum.

So what did I think of Moscow?
A great city and I really enjoyed my week there although it was nowhere near long enough. Muscovites clearly like their city too and love getting out and about in it. There’s always plenty of people around. The city is full of parks and leisure areas and that includes the areas around the apartment blocks that many people live in. I get the impression most of them were built in Soviet times, as were the wide streets and boulevards. Some of the city centre apartment blocks were stunning although now the preserve of the rich man. The metro is a great system, reckoned to be the world’s busiest. But it desperately needs an upgrade, but at least the trains are fast, frequent and cheap. And I love the station architecture. I liked it more than St Pete, which takes some doing. There’s more to see and do and a greater mix of ancient and modern.
My last evening with Andrey, Nadiya and Masha was very pleasant, another nice meal to enjoy. I made sure that they all understood how much I appreciated what they’d done for me. I was happy to tell them, from the heart, that meeting Andrey was easily the best thing that had happened to me on the whole journey. I was in a low place after the robbery in St Pete and they took me into their home and hearts and healed me. It’s as simple as that. Their response? To tell me how much they’d enjoyed having me there and to thank me for being their guest. What lovely people.
I hope to return to Moscow some day. There’s still much to see but mostly I’ll want to see my friends again.

Tsars, Cars and Coffee Bars. Spending Time in St Petersburg.

Saint Petersburg, Russia. 22nd June 2014.

Travelling had been straightforward up to now. Apart from the occasional difference in speed limits or currency, the Schengen Convention has shrunk Europe by making it smooth and simple to move from one country to another with no border controls for its residents. Only the UK and Ireland sit outside of it now and having to show your passport to leave your own country feels archaic these days. But Russia is a different matter and I’d read enough travellers’ tales to know that entering that country could be anywhere between simplicity itself and a nightmare of immigration and customs bureaucracy. I had loads of luggage on the bike, including two spare tyres, and I wasn’t sure whether Russian customs would declare an interest in them or not.
So on a cool but dry Sunday morning I left the campsite in Lappeenranta, Finland, and headed to the border. On my way through the town I got stopped by the police. ‘Hassle already?’I thought. No need to worry, just a routine breath test, aimed at all passing motorists.As a non-drinker it was a test I’d struggle to fail.
Soon enough I came to the border post. Finnish passport control examined my passport very closely for a couple of minutes. I asked if all was OK and they said everything was fine. I wondered how Russia would be about letting me in if Finland seemed so unsure about letting me out. In the end everything went as smoothly as it possibly could. A rather sour faced young woman gave me a migration form to complete, in duplicate, which had Russian and English on it. Name, nationality, passport and visa number, date of entry and signature. One copy retained, the other handed back to me to be given up on exit. ‘Go to customs’ she said. Right, passport control done, what about customs? Just as easy in the end. Another cheerless woman took the bike registration document and gave me a another form to complete, all in Russian this time. When she saw me struggling she came round the counter, all smiles, to help me complete it. I had to go back outside to move the  bike out of the way and when I came back in a pretty young Russian woman, with good English, helped me to finish it. All stamped up and good to go.Both borders took about 40 minutes all told. Welcome to Russia!

Finland has the most expensive fuel of my journey so far and I’d tried to avoid filling up there. Even so, I had to buy 5 litres despite hoping to get from Estonia to Russia without doing so, where the fuel was well under half the price. About 10kms down from the border I came across a petrol station that would also change my Euros into Roubles and sold coffee to boot. I even ordered it in Russian. Three needs met in one go, perfect.
I soon discovered that Russian roads are not as bad as people led me to expect although sometimes potholes appear unexpectedly, but no worse than Poland for example. That other much maligned cause for foreign fear, the Russian driver, also wasn’t as bad as expected. Once I’d left Germany for Poland I’d found a marked difference in driving habits anyway and as I progressed eastwards I’d found drivers taking markedly more chances with overtaking in particular. This can be unnerving for a biker as you’d be tootling along when suddenly a car coming the other way would pull out to overtake, assuming you would move over to the right to give him room. I first came across this in Poland and the simple reason is that most of the roads are single carriageway, have a shoulder at the side that is at least half a vehicle in width and that slower vehicles will keep over onto it to allow traffic to overtake. Therefore drivers coming the other way also expect vehicles to move over to give them room for their overtake. I soon learned to adapt to this and Russian drivers were no different. So I adjusted the ‘alert’ to ‘relaxed’ ratio once more and got on with the ride.
It was only a bit over 200kms to St Petersburg and it soon passed with a pleasant ride through forested countryside and few towns. Once I reached the outskirts of the city I let the GPS guide me into the centre where my hostel is located. Once in the built up area I began to understand how the Russian driver’s reputation was won. They do like to ‘make good progress’ as much as they can, which means sudden lane changes and every effort made to get ahead. I quickly reached the conclusion that they drive their cars as if they were riding a motorbike in London! Once I’d understood that I had no issues with anything they did. I became used to cars squeezing by me and undertaking in close proximity and I stopped worrying about it once I understood it. But Russian drivers are very disciplined at traffic lights and pedestrian crossings and will almost never misbehave under those circumstances. I understand that penalties can be quite harsh, with driving bans not uncommon.

A couple of the wonderfully decorative buildings on Nevsky Prospekt.

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My hostel was on Nevsky Prospekt, the main road through the tourist part of St Petersburg and considered to be the city’s main street. The city sits on the River Niva and it takes a huge bend round this part of the city. Nevsky Prospekt runs from river to river, with a bridge at each end. I found the hostel easily once I’d worked out how Russian building numbers work. There’s a logic to the system but it’s unfamiliar to the British experience. When you get a street number it relates to the whole building, which could be a block long, not the individual doors into it. So for an apartment block you’ll get a building number and an apartment number on the address. It’s strange when you’re trying to find a business because they often won’t have any identifier other than their name. Sometimes the building will be subdivided, such as 45/1, but it was still very confusing at times.

I spotted the building number, right by a bus stop on the eight lane wide road. Unable to park in the kerb I put the bike on the pavement next to a handy lamp post and went looking. I soon realised the way things worked and eventually found a name plate for the hostel, rang the buzzer and was let inside. Three storeys up I was welcomed into the premises by Veronica, the able assistant to the owner. I was invited into the lounge and met a guy who looked the worse for wear and proclaimed he’d been drinking home made brandy the previous night and it had brought him out in a rash. ‘Serve you right’ I said with a smile as I shook his hand. When I got chatting to him later I discovered he was the owner and had been partying the night before.
This hostel was unlike any other I’d been in so far and by the time I left I decided was unlikely to see again. Isaac, the owner, is a Kiwi and he and his Father started to invest in property in St Petersburg thirteen years ago and bought the apartment that contains the hostel. He lives there too and has a couple of rooms to himself. His living room is filled with recording and mixing equipment. The rest of the apartment is divided into dormitories and large rooms which he lets out to tenants. There is a lounge area and a kitchen for everyone to use with a small dining area next to it. Its location couldn’t be better for visiting the tourist sights. Its a twenty minute walk down to Palace Square, where the Winter Palace can be found, and there is plenty to see en route. The only problem with the hostel is that it desperately needs a refurbishment, mainly to to the dilapidated state of the kitchen which, to be fair to him, Isaac is fully aware of. I don’t normally write much about places I stay in but the hostel figures large in my St Petersburg story. Whatever criticisms I may have of the hostel its location couldn’t be better, halfway along St Pete’s main street.
Once I’d unloaded my gear I was able to put the bike in a courtyard around the back and cover it up. Heading back upstairs I  selected a bed in the male dorm and settled in. Before long a girl came in and it turned out that she was sleeping in here too. She spoke English and told me that there was a another girl in the female dorm who she didn’t get on with so chose to sleep in the male one. She was from Moscow but was working in St Pete. My other companion was an Asian guy who cooked lots of Japanese style soup dishes and slurped them very loudly. I learned later that he had been here with his wife but that she had gone home and left him behind. I discovered much later that he snored too. Slurping and snoring – enough to drive any wife away!

I met a young American in the lounge who teaches English. We had a chat about how to go about teaching a language to people when you don’t speak theirs. Pantomime appears to be the answer. Laugh while you learn I suppose. He told me that Nevsky Prospekt is the longest road in the city and that at night time there’s plenty goes on out there. The balcony outside the lounge window is a good place to observe it from too.
Time to go out for a walk. Apart from anything else I wanted some tourist information as there’s plenty to see in St Pete and I needed to know what and where. The first thing I realised is that the streets are busy. Very busy. Not so much with cars but with pedestrians and I was surprised by it. It was like the West End of London. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised but it wasn’t about throngs of tourists, it was lots of people seeming to be going about their ordinary business. Being my first visit to a Russian city, one thing I did notice was the Russian women. They are often tall and slim but they all seemed to dress very elegantly. I felt very scruffy by comparison.
Nevsky Prospekt certainly has some fancy buildings on it. Most of the ordinary buildings, the ones where the shops are and which people live above, are from the 18th century and have the classic look from that era. Five or six stories high, with balconies, big windows and decorative detailing around the roof. Most have been kept looking very smart. Virtually all of them have shops at ground level, of all different types, and often have passageways that go through to courtyards where there are usually more small businesses. Often there are steps going down to a sub ground floor level where there will be more shops or businesses. I very quickly came to understand that these buildings are put to maximum use and that there is a real mix of large and small, local and global trade going on. This gives the street a very lively and busy atmosphere and also provides support for people who live there.

Former Head Office of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.

Former Head Office of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.

As I walked down towards Palace Square the nature of the buildings changed. I was clearly heading to the upmarket end of the street as some very fancy buildings started to present themselves such as the Russia Museum; Singer House, headquarters of the Singer Sewing machine Co; Gostiny Dvor – a huge arcaded shopping centre; Kazan Cathedral, a vast colonnaded edifice which used to be the main Orthodox cathedral in the city. I soon came to a bridge over a canal where it was clear I could have enjoyed a boat ride along it. There were people touting for business, wearing a captain’s cap and calling their routes and fares over a mini megaphone, pushing leaflets into the hands of passers-by. I discovered as I walked around the city that this was a common way of advertising pretty much everything. I was intrigued by the existence of the canals and a subsequent study of the city map showed that the main tourist part of St Pete was actually on islands formed by these canals. No gondoliers to be seen but plenty of motor launches taking tourists on a water-borne tour of the city sights. There were three of these bridges to cross and as I progressed towards Palace Square the street became busier and more crowded. Crossing some of the busy intersections looked challenging but this is where I discovered that Russian drivers will practice discipline. Any driver turning into the street you are crossing will always stop to let you cross if you have the green light so I felt very safe. But woe betide you if you didn’t get across before the lights went red! Then you were likely to be facing a sea of cars which seem to roar and snarl their way towards you. Slow pedestrians have to learn to scamper!

The famous Winter Palace.

The famous Winter Palace.

The Admiralty Building with Peter the Great watching over it.

The Admiralty Building with Peter the Great watching over it.

I eventually found my self in Palace Square and was gobsmacked by the sheer size of it. It is huge. The Winter Palace sits on one side and the Admiralty building sits opposite. In the middle is a column with a statue of Peter the Great sitting on top. That’s all there is and it’s this lack of surrounding buildings that makes the area look so big. It was far too late to visit any of the attractions but I took a walk around the square and worked out a plan for when I did come to visit. I located the Tourist Information office and got some useful maps and leaflets too. One thing I really liked about Palace Square was the numbers of local teenagers enjoying the space on skateboards, roller blades, bicycles, even mopeds. They seemed to claim the space as their own once the tourists had drifted away as if to say ‘You may come and then go but we’re always here and this is ours.’ A fine sentiment in my opinion.
Walking back to the hostel I called into a café and cake shop and had the most expensive cup of lukewarm coffee I’d never enjoyed. A place to be avoided was my considered opinion. Fortunately I discovered a Starbucks just up the street from the hostel so I was saved from a repetition. I Went into one of the little basement supermarkets that Veronica had recommended and bought myself something to eat. So far, a successful day, now only needing to register with the authorities and try to buy some motorcycle insurance.

A Bit of Background.
The history of St Petersburg is tied in with the Tsar Peter the Great. He was looking for a better maritime port for Northern Russia and gained what was a small Finnish port during the Great Northern War in 1703. He immediately set about building it into his capital city and replaced Moscow in that role in 1712. Apart from a four year period when Moscow was capital again, St Petersburg held that title through to the Communist Revolution in 1917. It’s name was changed to Petrograd in 1914 to de-Germanise its name and subsequently to Leningrad in 1924. Post Communism it regained its original name.
Peter The Great set about building a capital city suitable to match the status of the Tsars and such buildings as the Winter Palace, the Summer Palace, The Peter Hof, the Admiralty, the Cathedrals and many others were the result. Built in the Baroque style, following a fire in 1737 many new buildings were erected, most of those in the Neo-Classic style. The other great builder in the city was Catherine the Great who, amongst other works, had the banks of the River Niva lined with granite to create the embankment that can be seen today. Surprisingly, the first permanent bridge wasn’t built until 1850, pontoon bridges being used up until then. A city ordinance from those times decreed that no building could rise higher than the Winter Palace, accounting for the pleasant cityscape that the area presents to the visitor. The city suffered badly from Nazi shelling during the siege of Leningrad, which lasted from September 1941 to January 1944, a total of 872 days. The city became largely depopulated during this time as many of the occupants either starved or escaped.

When I got up next day I couldn’t find my camera. I know I’d brought it back into the hostel with me but it wasn’t amongst my belongings. This was a disaster. There’s no point in being in one of the world’s major tourist cities and not having any way of photographing it. After much searching I reached the conclusion it had disappeared. I remembered having it with me in the lounge the previous night and I think I left it there. Someone had clearly picked it up and I hoped would hand it in. Isaac said he’d make enquiries with the residential guests for me. I spent a bit of time with Isaac and met his American friend Doug, who’s lived in St Pete for twenty years. He and Isaac were finishing off an album based on poetry Doug had written and put to music. I listened to a couple of tracks and was suitably complimentary and although I thought the poems were only average I did like the musical arrangements. The tone of the poems was anti-establishment so that helped too. Also there was Isaac’s girlfriend Kassenya, a very pretty young woman who is some kind of performance artist. She’s well know in Russia apparently and performs abroad too. It seems that Doug and Isaac are also well known, around St Petersburg at least, for their recording work. It seems there was to this hostel than met the eye.
Today’s main task was to get registered with immigration. When you visit Russia it is necessary to do this if you are going to be in the country for more than seven days. Had I been a hotel based tourist this would be done for me by theml but it wasn’t something the hostel could do. Veronica had written a note for me to take to the nearby post office where the forms could be obtained and subsequently handed in for processing. I went down there and presented Veronica’s nicely written note to the clerk and she rattled off a load of Russian at me but didn’t hand me any forms. Fail! So I left there and went down to Starbucks for a nice Americano and to nurse my wounds. It was clear that registering wasn’t going to be easy.
Having nothing better to do with the afternoon I took a walk up to the Museum of Erotica and spent an interesting and amusing couple of hours looking at paintings, drawings and self propelled sex machines. I never knew there were so many ways of having fun without a partner, and extra fun with one, and the application of engineering ingenuity was fascinating!

The Kazan Cathedral at night.

The Kazan Cathedral at night.

I called in to an Asian style restaurant for a nice Chinese meal and went back to the hostel to sit in the lounge and write for a while. A little later Isaac came in with Kassenya and another girl, Bebe. They were enjoying a drink and after a while the makings came out and a joint was rolled. Well dear reader, I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t resist the temptation and enjoyed a puff or two.This was the first time anything tobacco related has crossed my lips in over twenty four years but I enjoyed it none the less. Later another girl arrived, Nastasiya, who Isaac clearly fancied like mad. So we all had a very pleasant evening chatting, enjoying another joint and I was highly amused by the interplay between Isaac and these three girls. He was trying to win favour with Nastasiya, was rejecting Kassenya in the process and poor Bebe, who clearly wanted him to herself, didn’t get a look in. Great fun to sit back and watch until I decided to call it a night at about 1am. It had certainly been a different day.

By the next day it had become clear that my camera had gone. I suspected that one of the permanent residents had found it and kept it but had no real way of knowing. Isaac had asked everyone about it but with no result. So today’s task was to replace it. I liked the camera very much and had bought it because it was dust proof, waterproof and robust, as well as being a good camera in every other sense. So I wanted the same one again and Veronica helped me by getting onto the internet and eventually finding one at an electronics store in the city, and not too far away from the hostel. It was a click and collect type system so I ordered it, along with a replacement SD card, and set off to collect it. About a forty minute walk up Nevsky Prospekt and across the bridge got me there. and then I had to pay and wait for it to be brought out. On the way back I bought a new case but couldn’t get the spare battery that had also gone. So an expensive but successful trip out. I’m very annoyed at my own stupidity in leaving it lying around but also very angry at the dishonest bastard who kept it.
Later on I met Isaac’s Father, David. He has his own apartment attached to the main one as he spends about six months of the year in St Pete. He’s about my age and is retired. He enjoys the cultural life here. Great life if you can do it. He took the trouble to give some advice on how to pick up Russian women too. How kind of him.

Next day was to be a busy one with The Hermitage firmly in my sights. I already knew that this was a big place with plenty to see so I made sure I was up and about at a sensible time.
When I got there next morning I went into the entrance courtyard and saw a long queue for the pay kiosk. Fortunately there were also machines that sold standard tickets and the tickets to permit camera use. There wasn’t any queue to speak of for these so I’m guessing the kiosk queues were for concessions and groups. Russians get a 25% discount, but that also meant queueing up. I think that had I been Russian I’d pay the extra and avoid the wait. The ticket only cost RU400, about £8, which I thought was a bargain. I was more put out by the fee for camera usage at RU200, especially considering that nobody ever asked to see it.
Once inside I had to leave my bag in the cloakroom, free, and then I got the essential audio guide and made my way to the first floor to start the tour. The building is huge and has three floors stuffed full of fabulous works of art. The décor is incredible and to me counts as art as much as the rooms’ contents. Built in 1732 it was home to the Tsars until their demise. It was Catherine the Great who named a part of the palace The Hermitage and started to collect works of art to put in it. It suffered a disastrous fire in 1837 but was rebuilt almost to match the original with some alterations. Successive rulers extended and altered it up until the time it ceased to be their home.
The Hermitage has justly earned a reputation as one of the world’s greatest art collections. It is stuffed to the rafters with classic works by classic artists and I spent a total of seven hours walking around, trying to do so in a logical way so that I wouldn’t miss anything. For this an audio guide was essential as it led me through the different rooms and I was able to listen to the stories behind the exhibits and, as I have done in several other places, learn more about them than merely starng at them and reading the cards would ever have taught me. The museum has paintings and sculptures by all the greats of course but also displays work from antiquity and from Russia too. I won’t attempt to list what I saw, there’s just far too much. But put it on your bucket list, you won’t ever regret it.

A taster of what’s in the Hermitage.

This is just the stairs!

This is just the stairs!

Picasso.

Picasso.

 

The kind of colourful scene that I enjoy.

The kind of colourful scene that I enjoy.

Tragedy in colour.

Tragedy in colour.

On the way back to the hostel I spotted a fast food place selling Bliny. This is a well known Russian dish and consists of a thin pancake filled with meat or sweet filling, depending on which course you’re having them for. So I chose a set menu and it wasn’t bad but nothing much to write home about. So I’ll stop.

Veronica had managed to get hold of the forms for registering so next morning we filled them out and went back to the post office. No dice once again. It seems that the post office has only just started doing this work and the staff hadn’t been trained. So we went to a business that would do the paperwork for me and RU1,000 later it was all done. I was relieved that this issue was now sorted out but annoyed that I’d been forced to pay £20 for something that should have been free. The problem is that there’s no way of knowing whether not being registered would lead to trouble with the police or border control staff. My understanding is that the rules are not enforced very much but there’s no way of knowing what the attitude of an individual official would be.

Today’s cultural target was the Museum of Russian Art. I was beginning to surprise myself with how keen I was to see all this art as it’s not something that had bothered me much in the past. I suppose it was location and circumstance that had maybe awoken a latent appetite. On the way there I couldn’t resist visiting the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ our Saviour on the Spilled Blood. This place sounded quite savage if nothing else so I felt the need to find out all about it. Apparently the spilled blood was that of Emperor Alexander II who was fatally wounded during an assassination attempt and the church was built on the site of the evil deed. It’s a very decorative and fancy Russian Orthodox building but I didn’t go in as there was a queue.

Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ Our Saviour, on the Spilled Blood.

Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ Our Saviour, on the Spilled Blood.

At the museum I got the essential audio guide and spent a happy few hours wandering around admiring the iconography, paintings and sculpture. One thing I couldn’t understand was why, at 8pm they were ushering me out when the museum didn’t close until 9pm. Later on the penny dropped – I was an hour behind as the clocks had gone forward when I crossed into Russia. So I’d spent the last few days running an hour late!

One of the lesser known features of St Pete is that the river bridges, not being high enough to allow larger ships to pass underneath, are raised every night to allow these ships upriver to load and unload. They start to lift at around 01.30 and are lowered at around 04.30. Veronica told me it was quite a spectacular sight and worth going to see. I set off down there about 1am and was pleasantly surprised by how good the city looked at night with all the buildings brightly illuminated. The new camera was working overtime. I got to the embankment and waited until the bridges started to lift, which happened in sequence, starting with the lower ones and working up river. The ships that came through were very work-a-day but watching the bridges come up was good to see but not exactly spectacular. But it was worth the walk and I didn’t regret the late night. In fact it was nice to be in the dark. During the summer St Pete enjoys what are referred to as ‘white nights’ where twilight starts about 11pm and the sun comes up again within a few hours. A northerly latitude of sixty degrees is the reason for it.
Back at the hostel Isaac had a party on the go but I was to tired to join it and went to bed. I did get involved inadvertently when two of the guys attending it came crashing into the dorm later to go to bed.

Not quite Tower Bridge, but not a bad try.

Not quite Tower Bridge, but not a bad try.

Superbly illuminated building on Nevsky Prospekt.

Superbly illuminated building on Nevsky Prospekt.

I didn’t have too much on the agenda next day so I got up late, went to get my registration and generally loafed around. I’d promised I’d take Veronica out for a meal to thank her for all the help she’d given me and we went up Nevsky Prospekt to a rather swanky shopping centre and into a rather swanky Asian/Italian restaurant called Moskva. We sat out on the roof terrace and we really needed the blankets they supplied as a chilly evening breeze had picked up. There was a great view along the street and the food was excellent. She chatted about her life and her plans – she’s at university in St Pete and her job at the hostel is just for the summer. A pleasant evening in nice company to round off a lazy day.
David, the English teacher, had said to me that Nevsky Prospekt can get exciting at times and I was beginning to realise what he meant. When the traffic quietened down in the evening the street became a racetrack with fast cars and loud bikes enjoying traffic light GP’s until gone midnight. One afternoon I even saw a car produce a 360 degree handbrake turn! The road was clear at the time but even I thought it was a bit outrageous.

My last day in St Pete was to include a visit to the Peterhof, a complex of grand palaces and gardens out on one of the islands. This is another of Peter the Great’s projects, built partly because he was rich enough to do it and partly to celebrate his maritime achievements in gaining a new seaport for Russia. The biggest building is the Grand Palace and the most notable feature of that is the Grand Cascade. This is a series of water cascades and fountains with very decorative statues and motifs and the water falls down to the Sea Canal which links the palace to the nearby sea. Getting there involved taking a fast motor launch from the embankment opposite the Winter Palace for a forty minute ride across the harbour area to the palace.

But before I got anywhere near doing that a major incident occurred which had the potential to completely ruin my trip.
I left the hostel to walk down Nevsky Prospekt and as I neared Palace Square a couple of young guys came alongside me, one each side, and started hassling me about going to their restaurant and shoving menus at me. Now this behaviour is not uncommon in foreign cities and these touts are usually genuine. Not these two. After half a minute or so one of them went away and I realised something wasn’t right. Checking my bum bag I found it had been unzipped and my wallet and passport had gone. The other guy was still there so I grabbed him and started shouting at him, demanding to know where his mate was with my property. I immediately realised this wasn’t the best thing to do. Firstly he was younger, taller and fitter than me so force wasn’t going to get me anywhere and secondly I decided it would be better to try to see where his mate had gone with my property. Of course he’d melted away into the crowd by then and I was left standing there cursing my luck and my stupidity for falling for a typical thieves trick. The problem was that these two guys were very friendly and pleasant but insistent, enough to distract me long enough to achieve their aims.
I had just started walking back towards the hostel to I could report the theft and cancel my cards when a young Russian guy grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back to where the theft had just happened. He pointed to a window sill next to the street and there was my passport sitting there, obviously having been discarded by the thieves. I was stunned, amazed and grateful, all at the same time and I thanked him profusely. The thought of having to replace my passport, and the Russian and Kazakh visas inside it, filled me with dread. But I still had no wallet so I started my walk back to the hostel again. I’d gone about five hundred metres up the street when another young Russian guy stopped me and handed me back my wallet, muttering something about ‘Two Gypsies’. I was even more amazed this time, thanked him profusely and gave him RU1,000 (about £20) as a reward. When I checked the wallet everything was still in it, including all my cash, although it was obvious everything had been taken out and put back in. When I checked again later I realised that the paper section of my driving licence was missing, which puzzled me. But at that moment I thought I was now the luckiest man alive. No need to go to the police. No hassle about replacing lost cards or driving licence and no loss of cash. So I turned back and carried on down to the river to get the boat to the Peterhof.

As the day wore on I started to get more and more uneasy about the whole experience. The return of the wallet all seemed a bit too easy somehow and I started to think it was probably deliberate and done to allay my suspicions. That part of their plan certainly worked and I was thinking now that they may have cloned my cards ready to sell them around the world. So when I got back to the hostel I rang up both credit card companies and found that worrying about cloning was pointless as they’d hammered my cards within moments of taking them then returned them to me. Even if I had rung up the card companies straight away it would have been too late. How did they do it? Well some outlets in Russia use a ‘chip and sign’ system. I’d already experienced this when I filled up with fuel after I crossed the border. It by works by placing the card in a chip and PIN reader but a slip is then printed for you to sign. It seems to be used by smaller businesses as some kind of, I assume, cheaper half way house to the full PIN system. I learned later that a local business had completed a total of seven transactions on the three cards before the automatic system kicked in to decline further attempts. Total of about £12,000. I’ll get it all back but it’s cost me dear in international phone calls and having to stay in one place while the new cards were sent to me. There’s no doubt that once you get outside the EU all these simple things aren’t simple any more. I was fortunate in that I had a second cash card which I didn’t keep in my wallet, thus enabling me to still draw cash and function normally.

So in amongst all of that I also visited a major tourist attraction. How was it? It was another magnificent afternoon of Russian Tsarist opulence. Peter the Great built it in the early 1700’s and it was extended by Catherine the Great in the middle of the century. It suffered severe damage in the siege of Leningrad during WW2 but rebuilding started straight after the war and is still going on today.
The notable parts of the complex are the formal gardens and the Grand Palace. I took a tour round the house and was very impressed by the décor and furniture There are wonderful wooden panels with gold inlay.  I learned they could beat the gold to within a few microns thick – very impressive. There was plenty of silk wallpaper and each room was colour matched and furnished in a particular style. The rooms were, as with other palaces I’d been to, arranged so that the public rooms were entered first and by all visitors and then became more restricted and private, and often smaller, as you went deeper into the palace. The grand ballroom is over 300 meters square and is fabulously decorated. It was all well worth the RU550 entrance fee but I thought RU500 for the essential audio guide was a bit steep.

The Peterhof and the Grand Cascade.

The Peterhof and the Grand Cascade.

 

One of the many fountains. You really have to like the colour gold to be rich, it seems.

One of the many fountains. You really have to like the colour gold to be rich, it seems.

The tree lined Sea Canal.

The tree lined Sea Canal.

A walk around the grounds was equally impressive with very nice formal gardens which had ponds, statues and fountains in various places. But the biggest draw was the Grand Cascade which sits just below the Grand Palace which itself is built on a 16 metre high bluff. The cascade is formed of a series of steps down which the water flows into the sea canal. There are statues and fountains along each side of it and also one large one, the Samson Fountain, in the middle of the pool at the bottom. This fountain and statue is to celebrate victory over the Swedes in the Great Northern War in which won Russia the port in the first place. None of the fountains use pumps. There are reservoirs in the upper gardens, fed by natural springs, and the height difference is enough to provide the pressure. A remarkable technological achievement, especially for its time. I liked the fact that some of the fountains were designed to tempt visitors into their range by various means and would then switch on automatically, soaking everyone. It was a hot day and people were having plenty of fun with this. I just sat and watched.
Another fast boat ride back to the city followed. On the way I saw a new stadium being built next to the river, no doubt for Russia’s hosting of the world cup. Good to see it all under way in plenty of time.

Ex navy motor cruisers mean a fast ride across the harbour.

Ex navy motor cruisers mean a fast ride across the harbour.

New stadium already nearing completion.

New stadium already nearing completion.

Back at the hostel I got stuck in to sorting out the mess the theft had left me with. Next day I was due to leave St Pete, Moscow bound, so I was hoping for an early night. A couple of French guys had arrived in the room too so peace and quiet wasn’t on the agenda.
In fact these two guys woke me up early, which I didn’t mind, and that’s when I discovered they were running in the St Pete marathon. All the way from Paris – that’s what I call keen!
I was packed and turning wheels before 9am which was just as well because Nevsky Prospekt was clearly part of the marathon route and may have been closed had I left much later. As it was I had my own marathon to complete – a 750 kilometre ride to Moscow.

B&W photo of the Opera House, just to experiment.

B&W photo of the Opera House, just to experiment.

First Impressions.
If Russia is St Petersburg then I’m in for a good although expensive time. However I strongly suspect it isn’t. St Pete is a big tourist city with plenty of touristy things to do and to spend money on. I believe it will be typical in at least one respect though, that being the quality, standard and presentational care with which their national treasures are displayed. Russia is renowned for its culture, literature and art and this has been the case since the Romanov Tsars took the reigns. St Pete presents some of the finest examples of this history and is perhaps the most westernised of Russia’s cities. That should come as no surprise as the Romanovs were well known for their liking of French, Italian and British art and artifacts. It would be impossible to recommend St Pete highly enough. Just make sure you have a fat wallet. Oh, and hang on to it very tightly!!

But what about the Russians themselves? As I’ve travelled further east across Europe there has been a definite change in the way people behave towards each other. I’ve found that nice, polite way of responding to each other that we’re familiar with in Britain and nearby had gradually diminished. If you smile at someone they don’t smile back. If you hold a door open for someone they just walk right past without a word. I’m not sure if this is a hangover from communist days when maybe it was necessary to not trust people in public or whether it’s just something in the Eastern European make up. I really don’t know. But once you engage directly with a Russian then all is fine and you will receive warmth, help and kindness. Being a busy tourist city St Pete isn’t the best place to judge these things anyway.The other impression from St Pete is that Russian cities are busy. All day long. The pavements always had plenty of people on them and the roads were always full of cars – except late in the evening of course. And they’re clean too. There was always someone with a dustpan keeping the pavements clean and there were litter bins everywhere. People look smart, especially the women, and buildings are mostly well maintained. Shame about the roads though. As mentioned earlier, Russia seems to thrive on small businesses selling all the bits and pieces that people need. I like that as it ties everybody together and must surely help maintain a good sense of community. It meant that Nevsky Prospekt, surely one of the greatest tourist thoroughfares anywhere, retained something of the feel of a local high street, but without the boarded up shops. All in all my experiences have been positive, apart from the obvious, and I’m looking forward to visiting more places, meeting more people and learning more about this fascinating country as I travel round it.

The Baltic States 2

Riga, Latvia. 14th June 2014.

Latvia.
The history of Latvia has much in common with Lithuania and Estonia but there are some key differences. The common themes relate to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries when all three Baltic states were affected by religious wars, Russian invasions and finally independence, achieved after WW1. But its earlier history has many differences, especially to that of Lithuania. Missionaries arrived in the 12the century but didn’t have much success, leading to a German Crusader invasion (Teutonic Knights). Large parts of the country then came under German influence and, along with some parts of Estonia, formed the crusader state of Livonia. They were involved in forcing Christianity onto other parts of the region, particularly Lithuania.
Riga, on the Baltic coast, became an important trading city and was able to join, along with other Latvian cities, the Hanseatic League. Trade grew and Western European influences came to Livonia along with the trade. But by the time of the reformation Livonia was weakening and fell under the rule of the Polish/Lithuanian Commonwealth after the Livonian war. Tables turned! Sweden eventually became the regional power The Swedish and German influence grew and Lutherism became the predominant religion in most of the country.
During the 18th century most of what is now Latvia became part of Russia although it retained a high degree of autonomy up to WW1. Latvia enjoyed an economic and construction boom and felt able, post WW1, to define its borders and declare independence. This lasted until the Soviet takeover in late 1939. Like all the countries in Eastern Europe, it suffered first Nazi, then Soviet occupation. It finally gained independence again in 1991.
One thing that was very noticeable as I crossed the border was how rural and forested the countryside had become. Latvia has huge areas of undeveloped forest, intermixed with smallish farms. The roads were quite good though and I made decent time to the main road direct to Riga. I’d booked myself into a place called Two Wheels Hostel/Hotel. It is owned by a keen overland motorcycle traveller and is themed accordingly with a Touratech catalogue in the toilet, a Harley Davidson in the hallway and a sidecar outfit in the yard. Sadly the owner was away adventuring so no chance for a chat. Even though the hostel wasn’t in the town centre it was close enough and I was obviously drawn by the name. I also realised later that none of the town centre hostels wouldn’t have had parking.
The drawback with a hostel that’s really a hotel is that it doesn’t have a kitchen for guests to use so I had to ask the girl at reception if I could cook the pizza I’d bought in their oven. She was quite happy about it though.
The advantage of such a place is that breakfast was included so I took enjoyed that next morning before heading off on the twenty minute walk across the river into the Old Town area.

A motorcycle themed travellers' hostel.

A motorcycle themed travellers’ hostel.

Riga lies just inland from the coast and its success depended on trade. The River Daugava has been a trade route into Byzantium for many centuries so there was plenty of trade to be had and the city thrived. This is reflected in some of its buildings and institutions such as the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation and the House of the Blackheads. (Yes, really!) The old town area is quite self contained and has a number of interesting buildings to see although not as many as some other cities I’ve been to. There is a cathedral and a couple of other large churches and plenty of Art Nouveau buildings. Many of the buildings near to the old town are wooden fronted and carry a certain charm, the ones that haven’t become too dilapidated that is. The area is delightful to walk around with two nice large squares and lots of small streets that suddenly appear in front of you, usually with decorative 18th century buildings to examine. There was an entertaining Trad Jazz Combo busking in one of them so I stopped to listen and filmed them too. The video can be seen here. http://youtu.be/J0Iafh3FFGk  I gave the churches and tower a miss this time as I’d left the hostel later than intended. I wanted to visit two of the museums – the History of Riga and Navigation and the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia were on my list.

A nicely decorated house in Riga.

A nicely decorated house in Riga.

The first one is in a building that forms part of the cathedral complex. I enjoyed wandering around the exhibits and learning something of the city’s history but I actually thought that the building was the best exhibit of all. The main part of it included a central atrium with balconies on two levels. The ceiling had a nice painting on it and the balconies are supported on very slender columns. A very nice setting for an interesting display.
The second museum is just outside the old town area and has a much sadder tale to tell.It’s displays document the suffering and resistance of Latvia while occupied by the Nazis and the Soviets, both of whom brought immeasurable cruelty and hardship to Latvia’s population. The story is told in a timeline format, with plenty of pictures, documents and information boards. I always believe in seeing these displays, not only out of historical interest but also as a reminder. The museum is run by a benevolent NGO and admission was free. I was more than happy to drop some money in the collection box on the way out.

The Freedom Memorial.

The Freedom Memorial.

Walking back to the old town I stopped to admire the Freedom Monument, erected once independence had been gained, and to take a walk past the Swedish Gate, the only remaining gate from the original fortifications. It gets its name from the defence of the city against the Russians in 1710 when the Tsar was so impressed by the Swedish defenders’ bravery that he let them leave the city unharmed. Nothing was said about what happened to those who weren’t allowed to go!
So who are the Blackheads? Their proper title is The Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for unmarried German merchants from Riga. Their building in the town was destroyed by the Nazis but has since been rebuilt to its 18th century design.

The rebuilt House of the Blackheads.

The rebuilt House of the Blackheads.

Making my way back to the main square I sat outside in the rather chilly breeze for a Latvian style meal. The first course was a very nice soup, with meat and vegetables but served in a ‘soup bowl’ made from very hard bread. Of course, the bread softened from the soup so became edible as well. The second course was a kind of pork based stew. Both dishes were very tasty. A final walk to the Castle of Riga and quick look around the outside of it followed by a stroll back to the hostel. That was my day in Riga done and although I know I’d missed out on seeing some things, I felt I’d a good flavour of the city.
It was nice to get a breakfast supplied next morning and when I left the girl on reception wanted to take a photo of me and Doris for the owner’s collection. So I took one of her and Doris too.

Two pretty girls outside the hostel.

Two pretty girls outside the hostel.

Riga to Tallin, Estonia, is almost a straight line. But I diverted slightly to go and see Cesis Castle. This was the headquarters of the Livonian Order and the Masters lived here from 1237 to 1561. It was in use, with some upgrades, until 1703 when it was partially destroyed by the Russian army in the Great Northern War. It was left as a ruin which makes it more honest somehow. Most castles in Eastern Europe seem to have been rebuilt as show pieces. Nothing wrong with that but there’s also nothing wrong with a good ruin either. And this was a good one, with plenty of access to the remains. The first thing that happened after I paid my entrance fee was that I was given a lantern, with a lit candle inside it. ‘That’s for going up the Tower’ I was told. Ooer! And it was certainly needed as there was no other lighting. The stairs up were very steep and narrow but, as always, it was worth the climb to get the view. And in this castle I was also able to climb down a ladder into the dungeon.
There are other buildings in the complex, including a museum, but I didn’t have time to explore them. I had better things to do, namely going across the road to a café for a coffee and a portion of cheesecake. Well, it was raining and I needed the motivation.

Simple illumination for a walk around a ruin.

Simple illumination for a walk around a ruin.

This is the ruin.

This is the ruin.

The route I took to the border was on little used roads, winding through the pleasant countryside. I didn’t see a single truck and very few cars. Almost as soon as I crossed the border the rain stopped and the sun came out. ‘Welcome to Estonia Geoff’ I thought.

The Hanseatic League.
I’ve mentioned this organisation a couple of times now so I thought some background would be useful.
Formed in the 13th and lasting through to the 17th century, it was a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and trading cities which dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe, from the Baltic to the North Sea. Its purpose was to protect the economic interests and diplomatic privileges of the countries, cities and trade routes used by the merchants. The name comes from the German word ‘Hansa’, meaning ‘Guilds’. They were answerable to the Holy Roman Emporer, thus reinforcing the German influence. The cities negotiated their own laws and customs duties and often raised armies to protect their privileges. Up to 170 cities were eventually involved, including some on the East coast of Britain. The league started to decline in the 15th century as merchants who weren’t members persuaded their rulers to abandon the treaties they’d made. This was especially the case in England.

Estonia.
The third of the Baltic States is markedly different to the other two in its early history. The people share heritage and language with the Finns and their early history is more concerned with countries across the Baltic Sea than their landward neighbours. During the 12th century there were frequent attacks by Estonian Vikings on Denmark and Sweden. As Denmark’s power grew it took action to stop these attacks and eventually laid claim to the whole country. A century later Tallinn was the established capital of the country and joined the Hanseatic League.
There was a rebellion during the 14th century when native Estonians tried to rid themselves of German/Danish rule and their foreign religion of Christianity but they failed and the country came under the rule of the Livonian Order. Following the reformation of the 17th century Estonia was ruled by Sweden until, at the end of the 18th century the rise of Russia meant that it became part of their empire. From there onwards Estonia’s path was similar to Latvia’s and Lithuania’s. It declared independence after WW1 then suffered Soviet/Nazi/Soviet occupation until the early 1990’s.

When I crossed the border all I could see was trees – and plenty of them! Luckily in amongst them was a petrol station but they asked me for money first. Was this a sign of things to come? Further on I stopped at a shop/café and had a cheeseburger which was nice despite being heated in a microwave, normally a sure sign of soggy disaster.
When I got to Tallinn I sought out the home of Kalle and Janc. This couple had volunteered to help me by providing a place where I could service my bike. How did I know them? Let me explain.
Horizons Unlimited (www.horizonsunlimited.com) is a website which is probably the worlds biggest and most useful resource for overland travellers by road. It was set up by a Canadian couple 1n 1998 after they had spent eleven years on their own round the world motorcycle journey.They decided to help other people by providing a space on the internet for advice on all aspects of motorcycle travel and inviting others to contribute via a forum. Fifteen years later it is the go to website for all motorised travellers although it’s true to say that the majority are still motorcyclists. One of the very useful features, and the one that led me to the home of Kalle and Janc, is the groups that are set up in different countries or regions where help and advice are likely to be obtained simply by posting a message detailing what you need , when and where.
My needs were quite simple. A place to work on Doris and a way of disposing of the old oil. Kalle had a garage I could work in and because he and Janc owned several bikes he had all the necessary equipment.
They are a very nice couple, with two lovely young children. They did plenty of travelling around Europe and Russia on their bikes after they first met but the kids have put that on hold for a while. Kalle rides a Honda ST1100, imported from the USA and already ten years old. Ten years further on it has over 200,000kms on the clock. Janc rides a TDM and there are several other bikes in their stable including a specially built Honda ST1100 outfit, made up from six different bikes. They are used to travellers passing through and have helped many people over the years. I think I was in good hands here!
Having made arrangements to come back the next evening I headed into the centre of Tallinn where I had a hostel booked for two nights. After that I’d been invited to stay with Kalle and Janc for a few days. Excellent!
This was a nice hostel with plenty of youngsters working there, many of whom seem to use this kind of work as a way of funding their travel. One of them was an English girl who told me she came from London. Whereabouts? Well, Basildon actually but she always says London because no-one’s heard of it. How cute. A courtyard to park Doris in completed the picture and it was five minutes walk from the Old Town and had a supermarket opposite. Bed, parking and a ready supply of Pizzas – who could ask for more? Well me in fact. How about some night time peace and quiet? The courtyard outside my window seemed to be the late night home for a crowd of noisy teenagers who kept going until 3 am! Next day I insisted on a room change and found some peace.

The main entrance into the town.

The main entrance into the town.

Next morning I set off to have a look around the town and swiftly changed my mind when I found out how cold it was. The wind was biting and it was clearly about to rain. I retreated indoors and caught up with writing and other things. Later I walked across the road to a large mall where I bought a new SD card reader as my old one no longer worked. It cost me EU20 but when I got back to the hostel it didn’t work. ‘Right’ I said, ‘that’s going back tomorrow’. And thereby hangs a tale!
About 5pm I headed off to meet Kalle and he took me to his garage. He’d bought me some oil too so I was ready to roll. As well as changing the oil, and giving Doris a general checkover, there was another job I needed to do. The engine sounded generally noisy to me. I’d had reason to take the clutch out before I left so I’d decided to take it out again to check that all was well – no loose bolts inside or anything. So having drained the oil I took the engine cover off and removed the clutch. All was well, that was until this heavy handed idiot overtightened a bolt while reassembling it. It was only a small one but even though there were six all told, I couldn’t manage without it. My heart sank and I could see my trip ending with a duff bike even before I’d got out of the EU. I envisaged needing a replacement clutch basket, probably unobtainable these days. Kalle, who’d been out shopping while I worked, came to the rescue. I took the clutch basket off again and the remains of the bolt came out with no problem. Phew! That was half the battle won, no need for rare-as hens’-teeth spare parts. Kalle set to, rooting through his box of spare bolts, something that every good mechanic will have. And Bingo! After a short while he came up with a perfect replacement. And this one looked to be made of metal rather than cheese.
So everything went back together, oil was put it and all was well. With a deep sense of relief I followed Kalle back to his house where we chatted for a while before I headed back to the hostel – and actually got a good night’s sleep too.
This far north and this time of year it doesn’t stay dark for long. At 23.00 it was only just getting dark and the sun is up again by 04.00. Very strange to experience. When I was planning the trip I had thought about going far enough north to cross the Arctic Circle but as it would have involved an extra 1600 kilometres I gave up on the idea. But experiencing only four hours or so of darkness did make me wonder what continual daylight would have been like to experience.
After breakfast I sorted all my gear out and the hostel let me leave it in their luggage room while I went out to see the town. First job was to return the SD card reader I’d bought yesterday so I went back to the shop and asked for a refund. The guy who served me was there but told me he couldn’t give me a refund. He could replace it or give me credit against something else. Well, you can imagine my reaction! After some verbal to-ing and fro-ing, with me insisting on a refund and him telling me he couldn’t, he finally made a phone call to accounts and they said all they could do was to refund the money into my bank account once I’d supplied them with the international version of my bank account details. It seems that their accounting system didn’t allow them to issue cash refunds once the tills had been closed for the day. Had I gone back the day I bought it there wouldn’t have been a problem. So we exchanged email addresses and, in fairness to them, the refund duly arrived albeit about four weeks later. It goes to show how different customer expectations can be in different countries, although at the same time I’m very surprised there was so much hassle relating to faulty goods.

Old Town Hall and Market Square.

Old Town Hall and Market Square.

Time to hit the town and the first thing I noticed was the hordes of tourists walking around the streets in large, almost threatening groups. They were sometimes wearing something that identified them as group members and were often following a similarly ‘badged’ guide. I realised later, when I could see the harbour, that Tallinn is a busy cruise ship destination, accounting for the phenomenom. The old town is quite small and compact, with the usual crop of churches and a nice range of old buildings. The Town Hall is fairly unassuming, with a nice clock tower and an arcaded front. The square has plenty of stalls around it and there are many nice cafés and restaurants to take a break at. And, to do Tallinn any justice, you’d need to walk far enough to need that break. On one side of the town is a steep hill where the cathedral sits, along with another large church and the presidential palace. Reaching this area from where I was involved climbing up several flights of steep steps. But first I visited the Guildhall which houses the Estonian History Museum. I went in for a look around and was slightly annoyed to find that, having paid for an audio guide, all it did was repeat what was on the signs anyway. These all had Estonian, Russian and English on them. Luckily it wasn’t very costly in the first place. But I learned alot about the early history of the country and how complex it is. Also how pulled about the country was over the centuries with regard to what other country had control over which parts of it. I felt quite sorry for Estonia by the time I’d finished. Post communism though, Estonia quickly developed its economic strength, in part thanks to its Finnish connections. Tallinn had always been one of the busiest Baltic ports and this helped the city to flourish.

view over the rooftops to the harbour, with its cruise liners.

View over the rooftops to the harbour, with its cruise liners.

We love you, Boris.

We love you, Boris.

Time to go up that hill and as I approached the steps I was amazed to see a memorial plaque to Boris Yeltsin, commemorating his role in restoring Estonia’s independence.. It’s the first such memorial I’d seen anywhere and wondered what it meant in terms of Russian/Estonian relations. I’m sure the other Baltic states must have had similar support but they didn’t appear to display such gratitude. At the top of the hill were a couple of viewpoints, one of which gave a good view out to the harbour and the cruise ships moored there, explaining the tourist hordes.

The Lutheran cathedral.

The Lutheran cathedral.

Some Japanese ladies drawing. What, no cameras?

Some Japanese ladies drawing. What, no cameras?

This area included the cathedral and another large church. The cathedral is Lutheran, the biggest religion in Estonia, and the other is Russian Orthodox. The cathedral wanted money for going in, so I didn’t, and the Russian Orthodox one allowed me to look inside but not to take any photos. One good thing to say about the Catholic buildings is that they don’t mind you looking around, taking photos and usually all for free. Also on the hill is Toompea Castle, now home of the Estonian Parliament. A baroque building from the 18th century, it was built on the site of an earlier castle.
Back down at the lower level I walked along Laboratorium Street, which runs alongside the ancient city walls. Most of these walls and its towers are still standing and it’s here that some of the more architecturally interesting buildings can be found. In particular there was a small Ukrainian Catholic church. It’s tucked away in amongst the bigger buildings and is dedicated to Mary of the Three Hands which is a reference to her role in looking after natural things which can’t look after themselves -disadvantaged  people, plants, animals etc. There is some interesting iconography and a display of Ukrainian crafts. It was the first time I’d ever heard of this concept.

Ukranian Catholic church, tucked away near the walls.

Ukranian Catholic church, tucked away near the walls.

Mary of the Three Hands and some Ukranian folk art.

Mary of the Three Hands and some Ukranian folk art.

Enough touristing for one day. I went back to the hostel, picked up my gear and headed out to Kalle and Janc’s place about 8km away from the centre of the city. They’d very kindly moved their two kids out of their room and into their own so I could sleep there. It seems the kids quite enjoy it so I didn’t need to feel guilty about it.
We spent the evening chatting and I learned some of their history, detailed above. They are both heavily involved in running a motorcycle club in the city, one which has a large involvement in training new riders. It seems there are few, or no, professional companies that do this so clubs fill the gap. It does mean a heavy workload for the people involved as they have a semi official status. Motorcyclists doing it for themselves it seems. Always the best way, in my opinion and Kalle and Janc were clearly dedicated to what they do.
I spent the next day doing some maintenance, finishing off what I’d started. Valve clearance adjustments made Doris a little quieter and a good clean up made her sparkle. I took the opportunity to sort through my panniers and luggage and rearrange some things. Useful timing ahead of my imminent entry into the vast territory of Russia.
I also made some decisions about my next moves. I’d decided to cross over to Helsinki and take a day long tour round the lakes in the southern part of the country. As mentioned earlier, I had considered heading north to cross the Arctic Circle and would then have entered Russia near Murmansk. I had no real need to go to Finland as Tallinn to St Petersburg is an easy journey but I wanted to have a look while I was so near. It was less than EU40 to cross over and less than two hours. The only trouble was that it meant a 7am ferry and I had to be at the terminal an hour beforehand. So I bit the bullet, booked the ferry and also booked a hostel at a campsite near the Finnish border with Russia. Then I got really organised and booked a hostel in St Petersburg as well. I was exhausted after all that decision making!

If you're going to busk, don't hide your light under a bushel.

If you’re going to busk, don’t hide your light under a bushel.

I still had some sights to see in Tallinn so I headed back there after breakfast next day. I visited Memorial Square, which has a huge cross dedicated to those who fell in the War of Independence against Russia after WW1. It’s a 23 metre high column made from glass plates and topped with the Cross of Liberty, Estonia’s highest award. I took a walk along some of the back lanes of the town and saw some interesting architecture and some very nicely decorated old buildings as well as a couple more churches. I had learned that Estonia has the lowest number of religious people of any country in Europe, with only 16% of the population professing to have any kind of religious attachment, so I did wonder who uses all these churches. Perhaps they’ve got a hit squad? It would be kept very busy. While I was in Freedom Square I called into an art gallery I’d read about, which was well known for presenting provocative exhibitions. The one I saw was by an artist who felt the move from communism to a market economy hadn’t always been good. He felt the hegemony of global companies and of consumerism had served people badly. He represented this opinion by taking the flag of each former communist country and placing in the middle of it the face of the most famous female porn star from each of them. I thought this was a good way of presenting his case but my problem with it was that he didn’t then suggest what alternative he would prefer. Interesting and provocative, as promised, but frustrating too.

Provocative? Perhaps

Provocative? Perhaps

My last historical site to visit was the Klein in de Kok.This is a museum dedicated to the city’s military history and is housed in two of the towers that are part of the city wall. The towers have walls over four metres thick and some of them still have cannon balls embedded in them. The first thing to find out was what the name means. It is German for ‘Peek in the Kitchen’ and the name came about because the towers allowed soldiers to see into the kitchens of nearby houses.Tallinn has certainly had some battles to fight, judging by the exhibits. There was plenty to see and the signboards were in English as well. The exhibits were spread over three floors, each round chamber being connected by narrow spiral staircases. I learned plenty about the city’s and the country’s struggles over the centuries, rounding out knowledge that I’d picked up elsewhere. Well worth the time and money spent.

View of the Russian Orthodox Church from the Kiek in de Kok.

View of the Russian Orthodox Church from the Kiek in de Kok.

But now it was time to change ancient for modern and I got back on the bike and headed out to the edge of town to the Sea Plane Harbour. This is a historical display with a difference. There are two significant displays that make it worth the visit and neither of them are fly. The name comes from the place where the exhibits are housed, a former sea plane hangar, decommissioned by the Soviets and reopened under its new guise in 2010. The display covers the maritime history of the city and has many interesting exhibits depicting various water borne activities, both work-a-day and sporting. Included is the remains of a 16th century sailing ship. One of the displays is a replica of a WW1 era Short Type 184 Seaplane, so the museum’s name is justified to some extent. Other displays include navy guns and land based weaponry too. But the pièce de résistance is, without any doubt,the 1936 submarine, Lembit. Not a replica but the real thing, and visitors can go down into it and explore it from end to end. Guaranteed to bring out the small boy in anybody and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I can safely say I did not envy those sailors one little bit with their cramped living quarters, shared bunks and hours below the surface re-breathing the same air. There were two subs made and the story behind them is interesting and, I thought, quite touching.

Up periscope!

Up periscope!

Torpedo tubes and their controls.

Torpedo tubes and their controls.

They were ordered by the Estonian Navy from the British company Vickers Armstrong mostly as defence against the Soviet threat.The government were short of money so they asked the Estonian people to help find it. As well as all the usual fundraising activities there was a huge campaign mounted to collect as much scrap metal as possible from around the country, to be sold to help the funds. The display has some great photos of people delivering bundles of metal into depots to as part of the national effort. In the end most of the money came from the sale of two surplus warships to Peru, which was having a bit of a spat with Ecuador at the time. Commissioned in 1936, the two subs spent most of their time in the Soviet navy once they had annexed Estonia. They were able to claim some German kills though.
In some ways there’s nothing new to be seen on  board as we’ve all seen subs like this in war films. But there’s nothing quite like being there and exploring the ship from end to end. Seeing all the controls, periscope, torpedo tubes etc was still great fun and very interesting. It was odd to see the gauges and switches with their English writing overlaid with Russian. The only disappointment was that the lighting in the sub, and in the hangar, was quite dim making photography difficult.
The exhibits continued outside, down at the dockside. Moored there was an Icebreaker ship, Suur Toll. Originally from Finland but arriving in Estonia as part of a post WW1 settlement, this ship’s main purpose was to maintain access to Tallinn’s harbour in all weathers. It freezes up for an average of seventy days per year so it provided a very necessary function. Skip the next paragraph if you’re not interested in the technical details.

Icebreaker Surr Toll.

Icebreaker Surr Toll.

The German built ship has two pairs of steam driven engines, fore and aft. These were originally coal powered and each of the twelve stokers would work two four hour shifts per day during which they’d shovel 3-4 tonnes of coal. Eventually liquid fuel replaced coal, usefully reducing the number of crew required. Of the two pairs of engines, the aft engines drive the propellers, the fore engines are used to rock the boat from side to side. The method is to drive the ship forward as hard as possible into the ice until it’s stuck. Then it is rocked from side to side by the fore engines until it is freed. Then repeat as many times as necessary. During and after wars, the biggest risk to the ship was that of mines as the icebreaker was always the first ship to go out into the harbour. Suur Toll survived all conflicts and was decommissioned in 1985.
As with the submarines, I was able to go all over the ship including the engine rooms and crew quarters. It was great to be able to see the huge boilers and all the workings and was, once again, reminiscent of all those old films. These days the ship is used for entertaining, concerts etc. I am very pleased to report that the ticket price for everything was very reasonable, so well done to them.
On the dockside were a couple of smaller naval boats although there was no access inside them, only onto the decks.
This site provided a welcome contrast to the castles and cathedrals that are the staple diet of the visitor and was a useful reminder that history never stops. It’s just one thing after another isn’t it?
Back at Kalle and Janc’s we had a pleasant evening chatting followed by an early-ish night as I had an early ferry to catch. I’d really enjoyed my visit to Tallinn and the biggest reason was the hospitality and help received from my hosts. There are always ways of overcoming problems such as servicing, accommodation and so on. But it’s so much more uplifting to a traveller to receive the kind of welcome and kindness that I did from Kalle and Janc. I hope to get back to see them one day.
Thanks Kalle and Janc for all your help and kindness.

Finland
My visit to Finland was brief so my story will be too.
I got up in plenty of time and Kalle got up to see me off. I made the ferry with time to spare and waited with some other bikers to board. They were on their way to Nordkapp, a rally held inside the Arctic circle. They were then heading south to Germany for a total of three weeks. Their shiny Harley’s and BMW GS1200 made poor little Doris look decidedly inadequate and scruffy. But we didn’t care and after less than two hours, and a nice breakfast, we wound our way through Helsinki, heading north to the lakes.

When will my ship come in?

When will my ship come in?

Finland is a beautiful country but was cold and showery as I rode through it on Midsummer’s Day. The sun came out sometimes but not for long enough. Even so I enjoyed my tour along the back roads through some of the southern lakes and eventually made it to the campsite, and my warm dormitory, at Lappeenranta, a town near the border.. A nice meal in the campsite café rounded off the day. I was nervous about my imminent border crossing into Russia, dealing with infamous bureaucracy in a foreign language with a strange alphabet. Need I have been? You’ll find out soon.

The Baltic States. 1.

Kaurun, Lithuania. 11th June 2014.

The Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are all small countries which lie between Poland and Russia. They have had a turbulent history, most recently as Soviet Socialist Republics. They gained independence in the early nineties and are all now in the EU. It is therefore tempting to lump them all together but this would be wrong. They are very different to each other in many respects.
So, as usual, a run down of what they’re about and how they got there follows, along with my experiences there.

Lithuania.
Looking at its borders now you’d struggle to believe Lithuania was once one of the largest countries in Europe. It incorporated present-day Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Russia.
The country was founded in 1253 under its first king and gradually grew in size despite having to fight off the Christianising crusades of the Teutonic Knights and the Livonian Order. By the end of this period it had become a Christian nation although its leaders always practiced religious tolerance. But it was during the early 15th century, when it was known as The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, that it had its heyday and was at its largest. It eventually joined Poland to form a voluntary two state union, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with a Polish king, which lasted over two centuries During this period Polish influence won out and affected all areas of Lithuanian life. The country was severely affected by the religious wars that raged across Central Europe in the 17th century and was eventually controlled by Sweden.As with much of Central Europe, the Russian, Prussian and Austrian empires gained control of the Commonwealth at the end of the 18th century.
Post WW1 Lithuania declared independence from Russia although it lost its capital, Vilnius to Poland. It wasn’t until the end of WW2 that Lithuania gained its current borders. It was the first former Soviet Republic to declare independence and joined the EU in 2004. About 85% of the population are native Lithuanians with the rest being made of of Poles, Russians and some others.

I crossed the border in the usual EU manner – a quick check of the notice board where the speed limits are shown. Barely any need to slow down. The border area looked no different to the one I’d just left. No surprise there really. Very rural, with the same wooden houses although the roads were a bit rougher and some of the drivers definitely had a relaxed attitude.

A typical rural wooden house.

A typical rural wooden house.

Not just for humans.

Not just for humans.

I was heading for the town of Kaurun just as an overnight stop, final destination being Vilnius, the capital. I hadn’t had any way of booking a place to stay but the Points Of Interest facility on my GPS found me a nice hotel with room and breakfast at EU39. Far more than I normally pay but I’d camped the previous two nights so felt like a bit of luxury. It was nice to have a good clean up, a nice big bed and, of course, Wi-Fi. It’s incredible how much we rely on it these days and it makes travelling so much easier and probably cheaper because of the ability to book ahead into suitable accommodation. Going to hotels on the off chance isn’t the cheapest way of doing it, as tonight’s room rate demonstrated.

I wasn’t in any rush next morning so a lie in and leisurely breakfast were in order before heading off on the 100km ride to the capital. That was just as well because when I checked the time I found I’d lost an hour. My journey eastwards was becoming measurable in something other than kilometres. In some respects it was also getting riskier, with a couple of drivers seemingly determined to halt my progress by driving me off the road. I’d noticed driving standards dropping and arrogance levels rising the further east I went. The relaxed to alert ratio needed to be reconfigured!

It was raining hard by the time I got to Vilnius but I found the hostel, with the help of a young pedestrian. It was just inside the Old Town, right by one of the City Gates. There was a courtyard round the back, just right for secure parking. Like most hostels, the young backpacker is their main market and they usually reflect that in their decor and style. In this one there were a couple of young guys creating some artwork on the walls of the stairwell. There were also a couple of blackboards in the dining area where people could write pithy comments on whatever took their fancy. One of the guys doing the artwork came up to me and asked if I could think of a short poem – 8 or 9 words – to put on the walls as a motto. So I suggested he try to work something around the phrase ‘Carpe Diem’, ‘Seize the Day’. I explained to him what it meant and he quite liked the idea. Whether or not he used it I’ll never know.

Out and about for a walk around, the first place to visit was the Dawn Gate, right by the hostel. It’s the only gate left from the original nine and dates from the early 16th century. It’s key feature is the shrine in the building above the gate. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it is a place of pilgrimage for many. Inside is a very decorative icon of Mary surrounded by decorative silver and gold panelling. What grabbed my attention was that there were people actually kneeling down and praying in front of it. I’ve visited a few such places now and this was the first time I’d seen that. I took a few photos and left them to it. I hope they got whatever they were after.

The Dawn Gate.

The Dawn Gate.

The heavily decorated shrine inside the gate.

The heavily decorated shrine inside the gate.

A sign told me that the city has 28 churches of all different creeds, reflecting the religious liberalism encouraged by Lithuania’s rulers. I popped into a few of them on my walk around the city, including the Catholic cathedral. This has a separate bell tower which can be climbed for a nice view over the Old Town area. Its current neo-classic appearance dates from the late 18th century and it is a very fine looking building.

Vilnius' main cathedral.

Vilnius’ main cathedral.

Russian Orthodox church of St Nicholas.

Russian Orthodox church of St Nicholas.

Colour Orthodox interior design.

Colour Orthodox interior design.

There are some great buildings in the Old Town including the Town Hall, the University and the various churches, and there are some of the old fortifications still left up on the hill above, now a museum. I walked round to where the President’s Palace was and, although it’s a fine looking building, what was happening outside it proved to be far more interesting than what went on inside. There were some people drawing the letters TIE-SOS on the edge of the square in front of the building. Puzzled by this I asked one of them what it was all about. The letters stand for ‘Save Us From Them’ or something similar and behind it lies a very dark tale. They are protesting about the lack of action in a pedophilia case that involves some important figures in the Lithuanian establishment, one a judge and one a politician. The protesters initially came every day to redraw the letters because they used to be removed by the police but they get left alone now so they only need to come once a week.

Presidential palace, with protesters.

Presidential palace, with protesters.

Briefly this story is about a young girl who was sold by her divorced Mother for sexual services,  as was the daughter of her Mother’s sister. The girl eventually went to live with her Father and told him what had been happening to her. He went to the police but when they realised who was involved they quietly dropped the case. The Father continued to push for action and was eventually found murdered, as were two other people involved in the case. Now, according to the protester I spoke to, there have been a total of 19 murders related to the case and still some of those accused have managed to escape prosecution. He said it was typical of some of the ‘old communist ways’ that still exist in the country and that the face presented by Lithuania to the world, and especially the EU, is something of a sham. That’s just one group’s opinion and I’m sure Lithuania isn’t the only country in Europe where such things take place. But a fascinating and worrying story nonetheless.

View from the cathedral bell tower.

View from the cathedral bell tower.

Feeling hungry, I found a place to eat and ordered Sauerkraut soup and Pig’s Ears. The soup was excellent, the ears were awful. All gristly fat with no meat to speak of. It’s supposed to be a national dish and I’m convinced it won’t ever become an international one!

I found Vilnius to be a friendly place with people happy to help when asked. I only spent an afternoon and evening there but I could easily have spent another day. But the clock was ticking and I needed to move on. Why the rush? Well, it’s all to do with my visa for Kazakhstan.I applied for it while I was in Berlin and the problem  is that you have to state your date of entry from which you then have 30 days to visit and get out. Fine if you have a scheduled flight or a planned holiday but absolutely no use to the road traveller, especially one who doesn’t have a schedule. The effect of this was to keep me worried about how long I could spend in any given place, constantly feeling I had a deadline to meet – which I did!

Next morning I set off to visit the Trakia National Park, en route to Klaipeda on the Baltic coast. This area used to be the capital of Lithuania and was full of historically significant buildings and, in particular, the castle that used to house the Dukes. It is an area of 200 lakes and islands and the castle is approached across two causeways, making me immediately think how good its defenses must have been. Parking areas were plentiful and many of them were in the gardens of local residents enjoying the prosperity that visitors can bring. So I parked in one.

The castle at Traika Lakes.

The castle at Traika Lakes.

Compact courtyard.

Compact courtyard.

The castle itself is quite small and neat with three storey buildings surrounding a courtyard. Most of it is original, although refurbishment has taken place, and there was plenty of information to read, especially about the history of the country. One surprising fact I gleaned was that Lithuania only ever had one king, all the other rulers were Dukes. It’s now  used for cultural events such as operas and concerts and is clearly an important place for Lithuanians.
Attempting to leave, I found the road blocked by a car and a coach which appeared to have had a ‘moment’ I waited until the pavement was clear of people and just rode round them while all the other vehicles had to turn round. Handy way to get around, these bikes.

My next destination was a very strange place known as the Hill of Crosses. My route there took me down some interesting back roads and proved to be my first foray off tarmac. I didn’t plan it that way, it’s just what happens when you follow a GPS. Hard packed mud and stones with a slightly damp surface make for interesting riding but I found my way through OK and with no mishaps.

the 'Hill' of Crosses.

the ‘Hill’ of Crosses.

The Hill of Crosses? More of a mound really. Located on the site of an ancient hill fort it is a place of pilgrimage for Catholics and is currently reckoned to have over 100,000 crosses, crucifixes and statues on it. It is thought it was first used as a place for the families of those who died in rebellions against Russian occupation, 1831 and 1863, to leave memorials to their loved ones as they usually didn’t have a body to bury. As time went by, and various occupations affected the country, it became a place to express nationalism through religion, especially during Soviet times. The occupiers removed the hill more than once but it was reinstated each time by a population determined to express its national identity through this rather bizarre place. The number of crosses there has varied over time but today is estimated to be over 100,000, ranging from 3 metres high to those small enough to fit in the hand. Nobody has responsibility for the site but local laws limit the height of any new cross to 3 metres. As well as crosses and crucifixes there are thousands of rosary beads draped over them. Pope John Paul II visited and since the year 2000 there has been a Franciscan hermitage nearby.
I walked up the path to it from the visitor centre and was surprised at how small the ‘hill’ is and amazed at how many crosses and other religious paraphernalia there is there. Mostly though I just thought the whole place was as bizarre as religion gets although I did like the fact it was ‘of the people, by the people’ with no organisation behind it and that it represented, particularly during Soviet rule, a shout for freedom.

Crosses.

Crosses.

And more crosses.

And more crosses.

Leaving there I carried on to my hostel in Klaipeda, up on the coast. A friendly girl on reception, a place round the back to park my bike and a supermarket across the road to feed me. Just what I needed after a long day. There was the Spain v Holland game on the TV, one of the other guys in the hostel was Spanish and the rest of us commiserated with him. My room was a little bit cramped but I was sharing it with a couple of young ladies and we all got along well.

Next day I had one more place to visit in Lithuania before crossing the border into Latvia, my second Baltic state. While I was breakfasting a couple of Kiwi women came in. We got chatting and when I told them I would be visiting New Zealand I immediately got an invitation to stay from Maureen. She lives in Dunedin, in the south island so I’ll look forward to calling in on them both later in the year. It’s great to meet people and make contacts like this, one of the great benefits of hostels.

The last place on my visit list for Lithuania had never housed a King or Bishop, wasn’t a shrine to any God or Saint and didn’t display ancient artifacts or icons. It housed the remnants of a far more modern version of the warrior’s craft. It was a former Soviet missile base. Located in a national park near the Latvian border, this collection of bunkers, silos and engineering plant used to be home to four Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles, one of which would have been aimed at my former South East London home. Fortunately the button was never pressed although Woolwich did, at times, look as if a bomb had hit it!

Entrance to the missile complex.

Entrance to the missile complex.

The site was chosen for its remoteness. The small number of farmers there were bought out and moved elsewhere. The bunkers and silos were dug out by hand, by Estonian soldiers, taking 6-8 months.The work was started in September 1960 and was completed in December 1961. The range of the missiles was 2300kms, meaning that cities as far away as Istanbul could be targetted. Each missile was 23 metres high and was fuelled by a mixture of kerosene and nitric acid. This fuelling method had been developed to avoid the need for liquid oxygen which was very difficult and expensive to produce and store. The base was involved in the Cuban missile crisis, with some of its missiles being sent there. The base closed in June 1978. The majority of the Lithuanian population didn’t know of its existence.

Cold war propaganda.

Cold war propaganda.

The tour was guided and although not in English was still interesting as all the information panels were dual languaged. All the infrastructure is still there although most of the removable equipment has gone, such as generators etc. The tour took us through the control rooms, equipment rooms and into a missile silo. Out of all the sections we went to, that was the spookiest of all. Looking down into the depths of it and thinking what used to be there, and the destruction in could wreak made me shiver a bit. There was a section showing some of the propaganda posters that the Soviets used to use – quite amusing – and also mock ups of the control rooms, using dummies. All that can be seen above ground are the entrance ways and four steel covers, one over each launch silo. I had already decided this was a unique place to visit and was very glad I saw this strange but evocative place.

ICBM launch silo. Coming right at you!

ICBM launch silo. Coming right at you!

All that's visible at ground level.

All that’s visible at ground level.

Back at ground level after the tour with more dirt roads to tackle before hitting the main road, Riga on my mind.

Towers and Trees.

Wroclaw, Poland. 6th June 2014.

The ride from Krakow to Wroclaw was an easy run up the motorway and I was grateful for it. Sleep had been noticeable by its absence last night. A noisy street and an early rising room mate saw to that. Oh the joys of hostel life!
A little bit of bike maintenance before I left, adjusting the chain. It’s a brand new one and has bedded in a bit after nearly 6,000kms. Doris sounds a bit quieter now.
At the hostel in Wraclow I found I was sharing the room with a young German named Mareus who was having his own adventure by riding a 125cc scooter to Azerbaijan via Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Turkey. Good for him and we had plenty in common to chat about. Oh the joys of hostel life!
I’d also received an email from Tim, who’d bought my car. For those of you who don’t know the story Tim is British but lives in Sweden. He needed to tow a Mirror Dinghy from the North West back to Sweden but his own car had failed its Swedish MOT. So he decided to look for a tow car in the UK. When he saw my Citroen C5 Diesel on Ebay he rang me up to check it was in good order, we agreed a price and he flew over to London, came to my place and drove it away. He contacted me to let me know the car had been great. It had returned over 50mpg on the journey back to Sweden and was still going strong. So I was pleased to hear that too.
While I’d been in Berlin I’d suffered from blisters on my feet and I’d reached the conclusion that the trainers and sandals I’d brought with me just weren’t up to the job. So I asked the receptionist at the hostel for the location of a shopping centre and she marked three on the map. I went to find one of them, didn’t get any new shoes but found a nice cheap meal at a ‘quick serve’ type restaurant.These are handy places for a foreigner in a new city as they usually have a ‘point and ask’ type of picture menu. I went to one of the other centres and found the type of trainers I needed, with a nicely cushioned sole to deal with all the walking. Shopping centres can definitely be handy! I even found a nice pair of flip-flops to replace my sandals so I’d increased my comfort level while reducing weight and space. Couldn’t get the girl but managed to get some shoes. You take your wins where you can!
So now we’re all up to date with my domestic affairs, what about the city I was staying in?
Next day, on a lovely sunny morning I set out to explore Wraclow. It’s a big city and its attractions are spread out somewhat but it does have an Old Town area with some important cathedrals nearby. The first port of call though was the Botanical Gardens, which I hadn’t expected to be much of an attraction. There was an entrance fee to pay, which put me off a bit but I soon discovered I was wrong to be so negative. Initially the gardens didn’t seem up to much but as I progressed through them I found myself completely charmed. They are very nicely laid out and there is a lake, with fountains, in the middle. It is quite large and is surrounded by a walkway which has benches at intervals. These were clearly put there for a dual purpose. To sit on and rest of course, but each bench had a table in front of it which was designed to be used by artists who wanted to sketch or paint the lake and plants. What a great idea and plenty of people were using them for just that pleasure. I was now really enjoying my walk there and found many more areas laid out with different themes and plants to match. There were bridges, ponds, waterfalls, special areas dedicated to particular parts of the world and their plant life, special rose gardens – just about everything to please the gardening eye. Well worth the fee I paid in the end.

Sit and sketch the lake.

Sit and sketch the lake.

Very picturesque.

Very picturesque.

Walking from the gardens down towards the town I found a nice looking Gothic church. St Elizabeth’s, dating from the 14th century, is on the edge of the Old Town and was very nice inside, with an interesting altar piece. Why so interesting? Because, unlike all other religious artwork I’d seen up until then, this one showed Mary and Jesus with dark skin. Now I don’t know about you but I think that someone born of parents who lived in an area peopled by Arabs was pretty likely to look Arabic, i.e. have dark skin and similar features. My anthropological knowledge of Jewish tribes isn’t great but logic says that a few thousand years spent in the hot sun would mean dark skin. So why does all Western religious artwork portray everybody involved as white European? There must be a word or phrase to describe this phenomenon but I can’t think of it just now. These icons, for me, look like they represent the real people.

Altarpiece in St Elisabeth's.

Altarpiece in St Elisabeth’s.

St John's Cathedral from the Botanical Gardens.

St John’s Cathedral from the Botanical Gardens.

St. Elisabeth Tower.

St. Elisabeth Tower.

While I was there I climbed the tower – no surprise eh? Three hundred and two steps, and many of them with 8-10” risers, left me pretty knackered by the time I’d got to the top at over 90 metres.. Needless to say there was a great view over the town but it was rather spoiled by the unnecessary railings that prevented me from looking over down onto the streets immediately below. The wall was high enough anyway and the railings spoiled the experience for me.
The Old Town Square and surrounding buildings are mostly 16th century Renaissance and have been well preserved. They look great. One of the really good buildings is the Town Hall, which houses the Town Museum. It dates from Medieval times and is a lovely looking building. But it was closed as it was a Saturday. How daft not to open such a facility when the crowds are at their greatest. I’d have loved to have been able to see inside.

Gothic Old Town Hall.

Gothic Old Town Hall.

There was a real holiday atmosphere in the square with plenty going on and plenty of people to watch it. I don’t know if it was just the sunny Saturday or if there was something special happening but the stallholders were certainly kept busy.
There’s a Starbucks in the Old Town and I couldn’t resist the temptation to get a bucket of coffee instead of the small cups that most places sell. It was a really hot sunny day and sitting outside watching the world go by with her mini skirt and long legs has to be one of life’s great pleasures.
The main square was full of stalls selling food and souvenirs so it seemed the right thing to do to buy a Shashlik and sit up at one of the tables to eat it. It was the first one I’d ever had and was rather nice! Shalick is cooked on a skewer, like a Kebab and can be Lamb, Chicken, Duck or whatever.
The city guide mentions an area that still has some original Soviet style blocks of flats and I walked down to see them before going back to the hostel.They were, indeed, quite ugly but people live in them and I imagine they’re more concerned about lifts and heating bills than who designed and built them.

The Soviet style apartment block mentioned in the guide. Could easily be any part of London.

The Soviet style apartment block mentioned in the guide. Could easily be any part of London.

These are also Soviet era and were considered very avante guarde when they were built. I quite like them.

These are also Soviet era and were considered very avante guarde when they were built. I quite like them.

Back at the hostel I had an interesting conversation with the girl on reception. She is studying National Security, which is all about dealing with emergency situations in cities. When she’s finished she plans to go to Holland to work and eventually to Australia. I said that was a shame as Poland had plenty of work that needed doing and its young people ought to be there doing it. She said that there’s still too much of the old communist ways and it’s very difficult to get things done. That frustrates people like her so they go elsewhere. What a shame to hear that as there really is much to be put right in Poland, as I’ve noticed during my travels. More on that later.
Sunday dawned hot and sunny again and this time I headed out to a different part of the city to have a look at Szczynicki Park with its Japanese Gardens, Centennial Hall and the four domed Exhibition Centre. There is also a lake surrounded by a Pergola. In the middle of the lake is the Wroclaw Fountain, a multi media display of water, light and music, similar to the one in Torun. The Japanese Gardnes had fallen into disrepair but were refurbished in 1997 with the help of Japanese experts.This complex was designed and built to celebrate the centenary of the German king’s Frederick Willhelm III’s proclamation of the German Nation and the winning of the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. There is also a zoo nearby, Poland’s oldest and biggest but they don’t appeal to me very much.

Nicely laid out Japanese Gardens. Small, but beautifully formed.

Nicely laid out Japanese Gardens. Small, but beautifully formed.

Fountains in front of the Centennial Exhibition Centre.

Fountains in front of the Centennial Exhibition Centre.

After unexpectedly enjoying the Botanical Gardens yesterday I wasn’t sure what the Japanese Garden was going to do for me but I wasn’t disappointed. It’s nothing like as big but has the kind of layout and design I was used to seeing from Japanese artwork. Pretty little lakes and bridges and plenty of greenery.
The lake area is clearly designed for people to enjoy themselves in rather than to look at. Around the edge was plenty of room for families to sit and relax on the grassy banks or under the pergola and for kids to play. It looked to be a popular and well used facility.
Leaving there I took a long walk back towards the older part of the city and made my way to Ostrow Tumski by the Odra River. In the same way that Berlin has its Museum Island, this area, in amongst the canals of the river, is Wroclaw’s Cathedral Island. It has walkways and bridges providing access to the several churches and cathedrals that are sited there. St Martins is the oldest, and smallest, dating from the 12the century. The main city Cathedral is St Johns and you could probably fit three St Martins inside. I didn’t go in as there were services etc going on but it certainly looked impressive from the outside. There are a number of other churches close by, some of them also dating back to the 13th century.

The towers of St John's Cathedral.

The towers of St John’s Cathedral.

Much of Wraclow’s history is reflected in its churches. It had been, like Krakow, a Bohemian city until the Polish king took it over. However in the 14th century it became pert of Bohemia again and adopted the German version of its name, Breslau. Its Germanic population grew and it joined the Hanseatic League and used German Town Laws. It became increasingly independent of the rest of Silesia, of which it was capital. During the reformation and counter reformation the religious identity of the city changed and eventually it became, along with the rest of Silesia, part of the Hapsburg Empire. The city remained German until the end of WWII. In fact the German population outnumbered the Polish by more than ten times at that time. But at the Potsdam Conference it was agreed that most of Lower Silesia, including Breslau, would become part of the new Poland. Germans fled or were moved to Germany and Poles moved in to replace them. They had also been forced to move out of cities, such as Lviv in Ukraine, which became part of another country were they weren’t welcome. At the same time the city regained its old name. Over the centuries the churches and cathedrals also changed hands, from Catholic to Protestant and back to Catholic, around the same time as the city did. The city used to have a castle and fortifications but these were removed during the Napoleonic wars when the city became the centre for Prussian resistance. This act allowed the city space to grow and all that’s left of the castle is St Martin’s church.
A walk back down to the Town Square brought me back in close contact with stalls selling food and Starbucks selling coffee. I didn’t resist and sat reflecting on a pleasurable visit to Wroclaw and thinking about where to go next. I needed to head generally Eastwards and I concluded that Bialowieska National Park was the perfect answer.

Sculpture in the park

Sculpture in the park

Sculpture in the street.

Sculpture in the street.

Art on a wall.

Art on a wall.

Art with a purpose. Anti domestic violence message.

Art with a purpose. Anti domestic violence message.

Poland is very proud of Bialowieska National Park and rightly so. It was established in 1921 and is one of the last remaining sections of natural primeval forest in Europe. It managed to escape the ravages of development mostly because it was used by Polish kings for hunting. On pain of death, no-one was allowed to use it for anything. It spans the Polish/Belarus border, with the larger part lying in Belarus. Tourists are only allowed in with a guide and only in small groups. The authorities are clearly determined to protect this important area, home to many important species of flora and fauna, particularly fungi and birds.
One of the forests great success stories is the European Bison Breeding Centre and that was firmly on my list of places to visit. This is a great story of success as there are now over 600 bison living in the forest.
The ride there was going to be a longish one of around 650kms. So I was up early, packed and loaded by 07.30. And then, just as I was pulling away, one of those ‘Oh Bugger’ moments occurred. Because I’d had to leave the bike out on the street, albeit covered up, I’d wrapped a Pac-Safe cable and padlock around the rear wheel. So needless to say, partly because there was someone waiting to take my space, I pulled away forgetting it was there. SNAP! I looked down to see the padlock bent to hell, the cable broken and some of it wrapped around the rear hub. So I collected what bits I could, the length of cable that was wrapped around the hub wasn’t doing anything harmful so I carried on to the filling station just around the corner to fill up and sort it out. One cup of coffee and a snickers later, all was well and I set off for real.
I had a great ride, through increasingly nice countryside. The roads were a bit rough, as were the Layby Lovlies I saw en route. This road by passes Warsaw and is a busy lorry route although fortunately most of them were going the other way. The countryside became ever more rural with wooden houses becoming the norm and not many towns. It became common to see old folk sitting in the shade passing the time of day and I even saw a horse and cart loaded with some crops. A complete contrast to the western side of the country.
After nine hours riding, with a couple of short breaks, I reached the campsite I’d seen on the internet, about 3kms from the visitor centre. It was run by an old woman who spoke to me in German, but we got everything sorted out and she showed me a map which pinpointed the places I wanted to see. I’d booked in for two nights, giving me enough time to go to the visitor centre for the forest and the bison breeding centre too. There were a number of Germans on the site which explains the owner’s communication choice.
Next morning I walked down to the visitor centre and booked in to go round the exhibition. While I waited I went up the viewing tower which enabled me to see for some distance across the forest. I didn’t see much by way of animals but there’s certainly alot of trees out there!
The exhibition, with its audio guide, told the story of the forest, how it was used and managed and the animals to be found in there over the centuries. They used displays of model animals to show how they lived and how they interacted with each other and their surroundings. It included insects and birds as well as the expected deer, boars, wolves etc. There were light displays to match the audio too. Writing about it, it seems a bit naff, but it all worked very well and it was very educational.

Models of birds, displayed to great effect.

Models of birds, displayed to great effect.

Not the real thing, yet.

Not the real thing, yet.

Back to the campsite for lunch and then a short ride down to the Bison Centre. Here there were various enclosures containing not only Bison but also a Bison/Cow cross; Boars; Deer; Lynx. The aim is to ensure these species survive and to enable this ancient forest to be populated by the many of animals it always had been.

Some Bisonic information.

Some Bisonic information.

Here's the real thing. And I've decided you can't wash your hands in one.

Here’s the real thing. And I’ve decided you can’t wash your hands in one.

Peek-a-boo!

Peek-a-boo!

So that was Poland pretty much done and dusted. What were my impressions of the country and its people?
Pretty good on the whole. The country is quite big and has several major centres of both trade and history. The East and South are prettier than the North and West but that is because one is more rural and the other is more industrial. Generally the country is quite flat although there are mountains closer to Slovakia and Ukraine. Some parts of Poland look like they need a long session of repairing and making good. I’ve already mentioned how run down some of the smaller towns look around their periphery and some of their roads need plenty of repair work. The country is changing economically with the older industries, such as mining, declining while others are growing to take their place. Similar to Britain 20-30 years ago. Add in the recent recession and it’s easy to see why some areas struggle. But improvements are clearly under way with roads being upgraded and urban areas undergoing a building boom.
Poland has plenty to entertain and fascinate the visitor. I’ve probably been to less than half of what I could due to time restraints. The country has plenty of history to get your teeth into and several cities that enable you to dig into it. Torun and Krakow were my favourites in that respect. Its story is really quite a tragic one, especially the last two hundred years or so. Poland has only lived in peace within its own borders for a total of forty five years if you add up the post WW1 period and the post communist one. Prior to that it was split up between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Now the country, with its natural resources and varied industry has plenty to look forward to.
What of its people? Generally very likable and helpful. I found car park attendants always willing to find me a safe corner for my bike and happy to take charge of my crash helmet so I didn’t need to carry it around. The young people were always helpful and cheerful and I think it’s a tragedy if the opinion of the young receptionist is widespread. A country like Poland needs its clever youngsters.
But there is an exception to my good opinion of Poles and that is many of the older generation. Car park attendants excepted, far too many older people, who work in customer facing jobs, were either very abrupt or downright rude. I came across several who made it clear they just didn’t want to be there doing that. So I have a message for Poland’s youngsters – please teach your elders some manners! And please stick around long enough to do it.

Down And Out in Krakow

Krakow, Poland. 3rd June 2014.

The Medieval city of Krakow is definitely one of the jewels in Poland’s crown. Most of the original buildings from these times still stand, ready to welcome visitors. However, before delving into the town’s historical delights I had plans to delve even deeper with a visit to the Wieliiczka Salt Mines. Located about 15km from the town, the mines have been a major source of income for the area since the first shaft was dug in the second half of the 13th century. Seven hundred years later the mine is no longer economical and is, instead, a major tourist attraction. Although there are still 300 miners employed there on safety work they are outnumbered by the 500 guides.

One of the rock cutting machines, in use until the mine stopped production.

One of the rock cutting machines, in use until the mine stopped production.

Neolithic man used to get salt from the area too but only by boiling water from briny pools to extract it. The only digging they did was to find more water. These mines were a far more series enterprise and the salt brought up was 70-90% pure. The mine has over 280kms of tunnels and over 2,000 chambers that have been dug out. They are often huge in size, being 30, 40m or even 50 metres high. Some of these contain displays showing how the miners worked and the equipment they used. Others have been given over to very clever and artistic rock salt carvings. Many of these have a religious theme, others a classic one. Poles are, or were, a very religious people, the miners perhaps more than most. I suppose when you’re working under those conditions you probably reckon that help from any quarter can only be good. For this reason there a several chapels among the chambers. Pope John Paul II visited at least twice before he became pope. Other chambers have carvings of important Poles – rulers, company directors, famous people including, of course, John Paul II.
Over the centuries the mine has been a constant attraction for tourists. Copernicus visited several times and it has been very popular since the 18th century.

The stairs seem to go down forever.

The stairs seem to go down forever.

Part of the old winching gear.

Part of the old winching gear.

One of the toughest jobs was that of burning off the methane gas released during the digging. The miners only had candles to work with and the fear of explosions was as great here as in any other mine. Men were specially employed for this task. They wore very heavy clothing, soaked in water, and would crawl through the mine, protected by wet blankets, deliberately setting off the gas.
The guide was very good and there was a music and light show in one of the highest chambers where there is also a lake.
Another chamber had a nice, cheap restaurant for visitors which I had no problems with taking advantage of.
There is a chapel and function room that can be hired out to the public. Beats a stately home in my book!

Rock salt carving.

Rock salt carving.

And another. fantastic detail.

And another..Fantastic detail.

Having climbed down 378 wooden stairs to get 64 metres down into the mine and walked the 3km tour route, I was pleased to see there was a lift to take us back up.
It was a very interesting place to visit and it’s strange but also comforting to think of the same activity going on in the same place for so long – over 700 years.
Back on the bike for a wet ride to Krakow and, as it was on the way and I had time, a visit to the Schindler Museum. I imagine most people have heard of, if not seen, the film Schindler’s List. It tells the story of German factory owner Oskar Schindler who, very much against type, decided to help over 1100 Jews escape the gas chambers by using them in his factories and protecting them from the SS as much as was possible. The museum tells how he was not a Nazi but had been a member of a political party that was absorbed into theirs. He was a bit of a rake, liked the ladies and knew all the right people in the local party. Not the type to be rescuing Jews you’d have though,t but when the time came he stood up to be counted and the result is history, as well as a damn good film. I’ve quoted the Wikipedia entry below as I think it tells the story succinctly.
The Schindlerjuden, literally translated as “Schindler Jews”, were roughly 1,100 Jews who were saved by Oskar Schindler during The Holocaust. They survived the years of Nazi regime primarily through the intervention of Schindler who found them protected status as industrial workers, and after 1944, in an armaments factory in occupied Czechoslovakia. They avoided being sent to death camps and survived the war. Schindler expended his personal fortune as an industrialist to save the Schindlerjuden.

In 2006, there were estimated to be over 7,000 descendants of Schindler’s Jews living in the United States,  Europe, and Israel.
I think the last sentence is the telling one, showing the ongoing benefits of one man’s actions. The museum also points out a couple of inaccuracies in the film but who cares? It’s a great story. I’ve seen the film and would recommend it.

One of the Schindler factories.

One of the Schindler factories.

Memorial plaque.

Memorial plaque.

Schindler's office.

Schindler’s office.

His secretary's office, with a display of some of the enamel cookware made in the factory.

His secretary’s office, with a display of some of the enamel cookware made in the factory.

Although the museum is in one of Schindler’s former factories, his story does not occupy the greatest amount of its space. His old offices are where I saw his story but the rest of the building is given over to a display telling what happened in Krakow during the German occupation. And it doesn’t make pleasant viewing.
Krakow suffered almost no damage during the war. Essentially if you were a building you were OK but if you were a Pole then life was very tough indeed. The Polish people were, in effect, a slave labour force. Many were sent out of the country. Poles seemed to have suffered a much harsher rule than some other countries but I suppose that’s relative. Many ‘crimes’ were punishable by death, such as black marketeering or hiding Jews. Other misdemeanours led to prison sentences. There was a tough rationing regime and food was scarce. There was never enough to eat especially for those who had to do manual labour.
Krakow was the HQ of the Polish German Government so security was tight. But the Polish Government had never surrendered and set up its operations in London from where it made the resistance movement as much of a thorn in the Germans’ side as possible.
The Jews were forced out of their homes into ghettos from where they were sent to the death camps in August 1943.
The displays include photos, mock ups of homes and hiding places, Nazi proclamations, always bringing bad news and stories of resistance to the regime including those of people brave enough to hide Jews. Some of it was very moving but it seemed to me to reflect the story of many Polish and other eastern European cities during those awful times.
It was well worth seeing and gave me much to reflect on.

Part of the display.

Part of the display.

Leaving there I headed back to the hostel. I’d changed hostels from the one I was in at first as I had only booked two nights there and they didn’t have room for me when I decided to extend my stay. I didn’t mind, partly because the new one had a courtyard out the back and a passage running to it from the street. It meant I could leave my bike in the passage, out of harms way unlike at the other one where I’d had to leave it in the street. Not very good for peace of mind.
Unlike in hotels, in hostels you do seem to see human life a bit. In my dorm was another man and a woman, probably in her forties. I had said Hello to her and just about got a reply but what struck me as weird was that she slept fully dressed. I saw her at breakfast one morning wearing exactly the same as she’d gone to bed in the previous night. I’d have loved to have asked her why but she wasn’t very communicative. I just dubbed her ‘weird woman’ and left it at that.
During the next couple of days I planned to tackle historical Krakow so before I take you there, a bit about its history.
The city dates back to the 7th century and became Polish in the 10th when the first Polish ruler, Mieszo 1, took it from Bohemia. In 1038 it became capital of Poland and remained so until 1569 when the capital moved to Warsaw under the Swedish King. It sits on the banks of the Vistula River and is on an important trade route to Hungary. In the 13th century the city was attacked three time by the Mongols although they were fought off on the third occasion. From then on the city prospered, based on trade, with the Polish rulers allowing tax breaks to encourage it.
The city rose to prominence in 1364 with the founding of Krakow University, the second oldest in Central Europe after Prague’s Charles University.
If the crown of Poland rested in Krakow then one of its jewels must surely be Wawel Castle. In the 11th century the city had many brick buildings constructed, along with fortifications and the castle. Sitting on a limestone outcrop above the river, the castle is as impressive as any you’re likely to see. It incorporates a cathedral and a basilica as well as a residential section of Italianate design.
One of Krakow’s suburbs, Kazimierz, was home to the city’s Jewish population and one of Europe’s oldest synagogues still standing is there, built in the 15th century.
My hostel was only a ten minute walk from the castle so that seemed to be the best place to start. There was a menu of entry fees to choose from ,depending on what I wanted to see. I settled for Lost Wawel – a look at the ruins and artefacts of the original 10th century castle that had been built over; the State Rooms – an exhibition of how it was in the 16th and 17th centuries; the Royal Private Apartments – the former apartments of the Royal family, suitably refurbished. The visit to the State Rooms was timed so as to prevent overcrowding and the Private Apartments included a guide, always worth having in my experience. One of the bugbears of some places is that you can’t take photos and the tours were like this. Even the ruined foundations were a photo free zone. Why? You tell me because I don’t know.

Wawel castle from across the River Vistula.

Wawel castle from across the River Vistula.

As hinted at, the original castle was built over when the town became a Bishopric and the cathedral was built too, around the year 1,000. Both buildings have been altered,improved and added to over the centuries particularly in the 16th century when a large Renaissance addition was built as a palace for the Polish kings. Even when the capital was moved to Warsaw the castle was still the site of all coronations and burials for the kings until the demise of the Polish crown in 1795. There is a Coronation Road running down through the old town to the castle. When Poland was invaded and partitioned the castle became a barracks for the Austrian army who caused much damage to the interior decorations. When Poland became a republic after WW1, the castle was refurbished and became the presidents’ residence.

Model of the castle complex.

Model of the castle complex.

The main castle buildings.

The main castle buildings.

I paid for an audio guide, always worth the money, and walked around the grounds and exterior parts of the castle until it was time for my visit to the Private Apartments. The decorations have been restored in these rooms and they are well worth seeing. No photos, as none were allowed, but they follow a not uncommon pattern of having very expensive wallpaper, furnishings to match and pictures hung as extra decorations. The rooms are often themed, either by colour or by topic. The topic will often be successful battles, with paintings to match and these have a historical value in them selves sometimes, providing a surprisingly accurate record of events. Of course, you only ever see the wins, never the losses.
A common feature of Renaissance castles seems to be the layout, in that there is usually a throne room and salon or ballroom for big occasions and then his and her apartments coming off them along separate wings. There will be formal rooms for public visits, less formal rooms for private visits and then private rooms, such as dressing rooms and bedrooms. These are often interlinked with passages behind them for servants etc. One major problem exists with the renaissance design of this palace. Having been designed by an Italian he forgot to consider the Polish winter and its minus 20 degree temperatures. So in some cases getting from one room to another involved walking along the freezing balcony. I had a small chuckle at this. Who’d be a royal?

The cathedral attached to the castle.

The cathedral attached to the castle.

The State Apartments biggest draw must be the tapestry collection commissioned from all over Europe by King Sigismund I, the Jagiellonian Tapestries. There were 300 of them of which 138 still survive, some having been sold off by a later king to pay Poland’s debts. But mainly they survive because of some smart moving just before the Nazis arrived in 1939 when the tapestries were shipped to Canada via Romania, France and Britain. They left the castle only two days before the Nazis arrived there and crossed into Romania along with fleeing refugees. Genuinely in the nick of time. Once in the UK they were sent across the Atlantic in a convoy of ships, many of which contained European treasures sent to North America for safe keeping. At that time nowhere in Europe was considered safe, including Britain.
Many of the tapestries were on display and the quality of them has to be seen to be believed. They have huge amounts of gold and silver thread in them , which can be seen clearly. They have survived the passage of time remarkably well and the colours, although faded a bit, are still very good. The artistry is really top notch with a spectacular range of expressions on the faces and a graceful quality to the movement of the animals. The subject matter ranges through religion, classic stories, hunting, battles – just about everything. There is a large art collection in the castle, including a Guttenburg Bible, and many other masterpieces.

The original entrance arch with coats of arms.

The original entrance arch with coats of arms.

One thing to remember about Polish kings is that they were elected by the nobility which meant that foreign candidates could apply. This is why a Polish king was also the Elector of Saxony – Sigismund 1 for example. Once appointed, the position was held for life but was not hereditary. Whether this was better or worse than other systems is not for me to say but I wonder how it would go down in Britain if such a system were suggested – former Prime Ministers excluded of course!
I’ve already described the Private apartments but it was very good to have the guide who was able to explain everything and also reveal some of the stories behind the throne, as I’ve just related.
I spent some time walking around the grounds, listening to the audio guide and just as I had finished the battery went flat on it. Good timing on somebody’s part.
I did have a look inside the cathedral but they wanted more money to go right in and I got an impression that it wasn’t any better than I’d already seen, so I passed.
My final visit was to the Dragon’s lair, which is a cave in the limestone rock that the original castle was built on. Legend has it that a Dragon used to live there and capture fair maidens until some bloke on a horse killed it with a lance. I wonder who that might have been?
There’s no question that this castle, as well as having a very interesting history, is also a spectacular site to spend time in. Fascinating and educational, it was definitely money and time well spent. The best view of it is from across the river from where it glows warmly in the afternoon sun although it must have looked pretty fearsome to an approaching enemy.
Walking up the Coronation Road in the reverse direction to that of the Kings, I headed for the old town. This part of Krakow is probably unique in that the Old Town is an area that is self contained and separate from the areas around it. To the north it is guarded by the old fortifications and down each side has been built a kind of green buffer zone of gardens which keeps it separate from the surrounding busy roads. This makes the Old Town area very peaceful and completely unspoilt my the usual modern intrusions. The architecture within dates from the 14th century and the Cloth Hall is Europe’s oldest and biggest. It is completely original and is still used for its original purpose of trade, although most of it is tourist ‘artefacts’ (tat). The nature of the old town is such that the oldest architecture sits in the middle and then radiates outwards as the years went by so the buildings there represent the growth of the city and the changes in architectural style.
There are a couple of churches in there too along with a Town hall. It was late in the afternoon by now so i didn’t delve too deep as I wanted to get back to my hostel and eat. All this sightseeing is hard work!

One of the many churches in the city.

One of the many churches in the city.

The spectacular Cloth Hall

The spectacular Cloth Hall

Some of the trades' guilds badges inside the hall.

Some of the trades’ guilds badges inside the hall.

A few photos of some things to do on a sunny afternoon in Krakow.

Get taken for a ride.

Get taken for a ride.

Close concentration.

Close concentration.

Only for the desperate.

Only for the desperate.

Next day I continued my exploration of Krakow but mostly with a more modern theme this time. I had already spotted the Technology Museum, set up in the former tram depot. It is a series of buildings with a variety of displays reflecting Krakow’s history as a centre of printing, science and technology. There are displays of printing presses – Krakow housed Poland’s first printing centre; a display of old trams and Krakow’s first motor bus, built on a wooden Chevrolet chassis; motorcycles, cars and trucks from Poland’s vehicle industry; a play and learn centre aimed at explaining mechanical principles to children. It didn’t take long to look around but was an interesting display and some exhibits brought back memories of breakdowns I had fixed. Polski FIAT anyone?

Chevrolet Motor Bus on wooden chassis. Lifespan of about three years.

Chevrolet Motor Bus on wooden chassis. Lifespan of about three years.

Early tramcar.

Early tramcar.

A selection of Polski Fiats. Enough to make me shudder.

A selection of Polski Fiats. Enough to make me shudder.

Rather strange motor scooter. All scooters are strange to me.

Rather strange motor scooter. All scooters are strange to me.

That museum was on the edge of the old Jewish quarter, which is well worth a walk around. There is the 15th century Synagogue and several other Jewish buildings. They are slowly being used again, post communism, which is a good thing given the awful history of Krakow’s, and Poland’s, Jewish population. The area also contains many 18th and 19th century buildings reflecting the growth of the city outwards from the Old Town area. Some of them are a bit dilapidated and have graffiti on them, giving the area something of an edgy look.

Old synagogue.

Old synagogue.

While I was on the more modern theme I went to visit the Manggha Museum dedicated to Japanese art, including photography. It was an interesting hour, with displays of costumes and masks used in the theatre and some excellent drawings. There was a display of masks as used in Japanese theatre and the captions taught me quite a bit about how Japanese theatre works.

Japanese art.

Japanese art.

Japanese costume.

Japanese costume.

It was a lovely day outside so I walked along the river bank a while then headed back into the Old Town again for a last look around as I was leaving the next day. In the square there was a display celebrating the 25th anniversary of Poland’s first free elections, showing many items used by Solidarnosc in its successful campaign. Very fitting as I’d not long been to Gdansk.
And there I had to leave it. Despite spending four days in and around Krakow I knew I hadn’t seen all it had to offer. There are, apparently, over 600 sites to visit and sights to see. The city has a long history to explore, having been not only Poland’s capital but also its main centre of education, learning, art, literature and technology. With loads of great architecture to boot.I could easily have spent a week there. I know there are a few people who like to use my travelling tales as a ‘recommendation’ of where to visit (you know who you are!) so my advice is to take at least a week, maybe ten days and do the place justice. You won’t regret it.

Hell Is Where You Make It.

Krakow, Poland. 1st June 2014.

Arriving in Krakow, I booked into the hostel. The guy on reception asked me where I’d come from and when I told him he said ‘What were you doing there, are you interested in mining history or something?’ It seems Silesia isn’t the most favoured part of the country. I told him I’d been to see the castle and he still didn’t seem all that impressed.
Next morning, after sleeping badly due to my noisy room mates, I set off to the town of Oswiecim, better known to the world as Auschwitz.
I don’t propose to tell the story of the death camps here. It’s been told often enough for everyone to know it and there’s no need to repeat it. So I’ll stick to talking about my visit, add some information that maybe isn’t so well known and a bit of an overview. I’ll also include photos, some of which may be upsetting.

The Nazis built a total of 20,000 concentration camps of all types of which 8 were death camps, where about 3 million Jews died.
There were no Death Camps until the Nazis developed what they called ‘The Final solution to the Jewish Question’ and the death camp system was put into effect from July 1942, although the decision to use them was taken in January of that year. Up until this time most Jews had been herded into Ghettos and used as forced labour. However, the extermination of Jews began before the death camp system. There was a plan to take the killers to the Jews which pre-dated taking the Jews to the killers. The occupied USSR was mostly where this method was used. The Nazi’s target was to exterminate all of Europe’s 11 million Jews, including those in the UK.

Auschwitz I started life as a standard Polish Military Barracks but when the Nazis took it over after the invasion they set about extending it and adding new buildings. The prisoners there were mostly Polish but also included Russian POW’s and others. After the invasion the Nazis rounded up any Poles who they thought capable of organising resistance, such as civic leaders,businessmen, boy scout leaders.They were used as forced labour to work on the buildings. They were treated appallingly, often left standing outside for roll calls for up to twelve hours. The food was very poor and people died from malnutrition as well as from beatings and executions.

The infamous slogan: Arbeit macht Frei -Work Makes You Free.

The infamous slogan: Arbeit macht Frei -Work Makes You Free.

Who died and from whence they came.

Who died and from whence they came.

A word about the camp.

A word about the camp.

There were two other camps – Auschwitz II Birkenow and Auschwitz III Monowitz. Monowitz was a labour camp associated with IG Farben, the chemicals company that manufactured Zyklon B. There were also 45 satellite camps. It’s quite appalling to think of Jews working in the factories that made the gas which killed other Jews.

The Nazis put in place a 40km exclusion zone and moved all Poles out of the villages within it. The houses were either given to officers to live in with their families or were pulled down. That left them room to build the other two camps.

I had just missed the 11.30 tour so had to wait until the next English speaking tour at 12.30. In the meantime I had a snack and chatted to some lovely lively ladies from Liverpool.
The tour cost is about £8, very reasonable for a tour that lasts up to four hours. I was given an audio headset so that I could hear our guide, David Kennedy as we walked round.
We started the tour in Auschwitz I and were told that it was the survivors who decided what the museum should contain, what should be shown and whether or not buildings should be altered. That is a comforting thing to know as it it makes the tour feel less of an intrusion into unknown people’s tragedy and more of an invitation to learn their story.

Our guide,, David Kennedy.

Our guide,, David Kennedy.

Building which housed the original Polish prisoners.

Building which housed the original Polish prisoners.

 

Place of execution.

Place of execution.

We toured around the various buildings and without any doubt the most distressing displays were those of the possessions of the murdered Jews piled up in the display cases, by far the worst being the hair shorn from their heads before being gassed. I was amazed to learn that many of these items were recycled back to the civilian population. Because German industry was on a total war footing it became harder and harder to get domestic items. So I suppose a clean and disinfected Jew’s cooking pot, pair of shoes or even toothbrush was better than none. I hope that the German population didn’t know where these items came from, but who knows? The SS guards would always keep boot polish for themselves.

Artificial limbs by the hundred.

Artificial limbs by the hundred.

Suitcases by the hundred.

Suitcases by the hundred.

Shoes by the thousand.

Shoes by the thousand.

Personal hygene items by the thousand.

Personal hygiene items by the thousand.

We went to look at a reconstructed gas chamber and crematorium which showed how the murders took place and how bodies were disposed of. We also saw the accommodation blocks and punishment cells, not so different from what I’d seen in Terezin.

Crematorium ovens.

Crematorium ovens.

Gas chamber and crematorium from the outside.

Gas chamber and crematorium from the outside.

Gas chamber from the inside.

Gas chamber from the inside.

There is a shuttle bus to Auschwitz II-Birkenau and on the way over I started chatting to our guide, David Kennedy who comes from Wisconsin. I was puzzled as to why an American, with no Jewish heritage, would be working here. He told me that his grandparents were Polish and because they had skills that the Nazis needed were forced to work in some of the workshops associated with the camp.

I also asked him how he dealt with telling people the dreadful history of this place without suffering constant depression. He gave me two answers, both of which I can relate to. Firstly, he feels good about educating people on the subject and secondly he enjoys messing about with cars which gives something completely different to concentrate on. He has a very neutral style of delivery, professional, measured and non-judgemental. Entirely suited to the situation. I mentioned to him my visit to Lidice, in Czechia. He said, terrible though that was, the Nazis did that kind of thing as a matter of routine in their advance across Poland and into Russia. It was their way of neutralising any resistance in the areas they occupied. How awful.

The rail lines that took Jews into the camp.

The rail lines that took Jews into the camp.

One of the wagons they were transported in, for thousands of miles, standing up and with very little water.

One of the wagons they were transported in, for thousands of miles, standing up and with very little water.

The thing that struck me most about Auschwitz II is the sheer size of it. It’s vast. There is a central road and the men’s and women’s accommodation buildings were on either side, stretching away into the distance. Almost none of the men’s buildings remain because, being made of wood and therefore easily transportable, they were sent to Warsaw and other cities to provide civilian housing. The war had destroyed almost all the housing. All that remains of the men’s blocks is the fireplace and chimney. Looking across the field all I could see was rows of these remains, standing there like sentinels guarding the memories of those who died there.

The camps were vast. Fireplaces and chimneys are all that's left of the wooden buildings.

The camps were vast. Fireplaces and chimneys are all that’s left of the wooden buildings.

The women’s block were brick built so most of those are still standing albeit mostly in very poor condition. The area is the flood plain of the Ustule River so the ground is quite wet. However, we could look into some of them.
There is a direct link between Terzin camp and Auschwitz in that when the Nazis invited the Red Cross to examine Terezin they sent many of the prisoners there to Auschwitz so that it didn’t look too overcrowded. Most didn’t return.
Finally, we went to look at the memorials that had been erected to those who died. These were just across from the place of their death. The gas chambers and crematoria, built on an almost industrial scale, had been blown up by the Nazis in an attempt to cover up what they had done. They had been left as they were found.

Photos of the gas chambers and crematoria taken by the Nazis.

Photos of the gas chambers and crematoria taken by the Nazis.

What was left behind.

What was left behind.

So my visit to Auschwitz was concluded with a bus ride back to the main camp. My ride back to Krakow was a sober one but slightly cheered by seeing so many people, especially youngsters, interested enough to learn what happened. We can only hope that such knowledge prevents anything like it ever happening again.