Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Last Train to Tver

I see stars... The walking tour of St Petersberg was on Sunday and from 10:30 to 3:30 we wandered the streets of the former capital and saw the sights. From the Nevisky Prospect (Main Street), across canals and bridges to the Hermitage we saw historic spots like the place where water was drawn during the seige of Leningrad, the place where people gather to Walrus* and the Peter and Paul Fortress. We also saw the Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood which is a mass of onion-shaped domes in bright Teris like coloured mosaics.

We learned the origin of the Russian 'drinky-drinky' sign which is to flick your neck with your index finger. Apparently the weather vane of the Peter and Paul Church was damaged in a storm and was needed to be fixed quickly for the visit of some dignitary or other. It was going to take too long to get the scaffolding sorted but luckily a passing Siberian peasant stepped in. He shinned up the 120+ metre spire using a length of rope and skills honed on the massive trees of his home region and, tools in hand, worked away for a day and a half to fix it. When he got down the Tsar was so impressed he gave him the coat off his back, 5,000 Rubles and got him a tattoo of the double headed eagle on his neck. All barmen were then ordered to give the man bearing this tattoo all the free drinks he wanted, which actually turned out to be quite a lot. And the legend lives on...

Today's sightseeing trip was to Tsarkoye Selo (AKA Tsar's Village) which is the former out of town retreat of the Tsars. It's about 15km out of town and was built by Catherine The Great who was of the opinion that, when it comes to buildings, more is more. The palace is a mass of blue facade and gold statues and is the sort of place you'd need a scooter to get around. The snowy grounds contain various smaller palaces, a pyramid where Catherine buried her pet dogs and The Chessman Column which was built to commemmorate a naval battle over the Turks. The temperature was between -5 and -10 with a couple of degrees of windchill so we kept moving where possible and kept the gloves even when operating the camera.

Tonight at 11pm we head off to the countryside between here and Moscow to a little place called Staritsa for a few days horse riding and making snowmen, possibly out of ourselves.

*Walrussing is the noble pastime of cutting a hole in the ice, diving in and having a quick swim. We would have had a go but none of us had our trunks on. Maybe next time...

Friday, February 18, 2005

White Nights in St Pete

Well for those of you keeping track Boro managed a 0-0 draw with Bolton. The game wasn't as dull as the scoreline suggests and it gave us an excuse to stay at the Dickens pub for extra deep-fried Latvian garlic bread.

Football could hold us no longer in Riga (even though the Dickens was showing Boro's game last night - 2-2 with AK Graz for those taking notes - played at the Arnold Schwarzanegger Stadium, seriously - check here...). Our appointment with HiG was duly approaching so we hopped a bus for six hours to our last EU outpost of Estonia. HiG arrived on time to the tiny Tallinn airport. We welcomed him and a supply of Marks and Spencer Teacakes and headed back into the city. The bus journey took only about 10 minutes as the airport is only about 3kms from the edge of the city. After dumping off our gear we all headed out into the evening to find some food and drink. After quite a bit of fruitless searching (a lot of places in Tallinn shut at 10pm, so had their doors locked for 9:30) we managed to refuel at a Tex-Mex eatery.

Next morning found Banz with a bad headache and achey joints. After ensuring that it was a bit of a cold and not a hangover, HiG and I left him to recuperate whilst we explored the Old Town. The area itself is quite compact and so after a couple of hours wandering about and checking out a couple of churches we had seen most of the Old Town sites. We then went in search of the Central Bus Station for our tickets for St Petersburg for the next day. We checked before boarding the tram that it was heading to the bus station - though of course we didn't specify which one and ended up at a suburban, rather than inter-city station. After jumping on the tram back the other way (and giving the locals some amusement at our pitiful attempts to validate our tickets) we were on our way. 10 minutes later and we had our tickets and were ready to leave the next morning at 11:00.

The bus journey to St Petersburg was rather uneventful. So uneventful that the bus pretty much didn't even stop for longer than one five minute period to stretch our legs between Tallinn and the border, and then again when we had to go through Russian customs.

Russian customs was surprisingly quick and efficient. Where's the whole queueing experience we've been expecting? One amusing "highlight" was the fact that Banz and HiG had to have their bags x-rayed whilst when I mimed to the operator putting my bag through, he just waved me through the beeping metal detector.

Upon arrival, we were able to distinguish where the Metro was (in cyrillic, Metpo) and after being pointed in the right direction by a local arrived at our stop and soon after our hostel for the next five nights.

All three of us were starving by this stage and found a local eatery with buffet style meals. We broke their system though when we had our hot meats and cold salads on one plate and then realised that the hot veg options were next door. The food isn't kept hot and so has to be microwaved once you have all your food on the plate. Queue our three plates having side orders of salad scraped onto secondary plates before being microwaved and returned complete with a stern Russian look.

We're taking it easy today and are going to have a more indepth tour tomorrow when we join a walking tour from the Hostel.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Warsaw Pact off to Lithuania and Latvia

bit cold outOur time in Lithuania and Latvia is short due to our deadline of meeting HiG in Tallinn on Tuesday (though according to a Japanese woman I met in reception at our hostel in Riga, 10 days is way too short for Japan and way too long for Riga - she's been here for 3 years teaching, so perhaps she needs a break).

Our original two days in Vilnius was extended to three due to a night spent imbibing Vana Tallinn (or Estonian Gutrot as we've since christened it). Our two other days were spent wandering about the Vilnius Old Town (vainly searching for the Frank Zappa statue) and on a day trip to Trakai to see the castle.

The trip took about 20 minutes from Vilnius by bus to arrive at the touristy village. After leaving the bus stop it wasn't at first evident which way to go, but we followed our noses and soon worked out that we were on the right trail. A bit of cross country walking through the snow and next thing we knew we were walking across the frozen lake to the castle itself. Banz later remarked that it was a great idea to build this castle on an island in the middle of the lake - for six months of the year it would be damn hard to get to.... the other six you would have to be careful that you didn't slip over as you rolled your cannons, trebuchets and other heavy armaments from Age of Empires over the ice.

Yesterday was our time for our first bus trip of The Big Trip Part II. I really don't like buses but unfortunately in the Baltics you don't have much choice. When you weigh up a fifteen hour/several change train journey against a four and a bit hour direct bus there isn't really a question. We haven't exactly been blown away by Riga (despite a fantastic curry last night - not exactly a selling point for Riga itself). I guess we're not going to be able to judge tonight when in true Aussie/English abroad style we're going to an Irish Pub to watch an injury-ravaged Boro side play Bolton. A good result might just put a nice shine on our time in Riga, a bad one may lead to an early departure for Tallinn.

Some New Gallery Updates Below
Gdansk and Malbork

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The Lingua Franca

Just a quick note to say that the number of countries that Banz's french has paid off in has risen yet again. From hotel rooms in (of course) France, Italy, Bulgaria and Hungary, last night we were able to add ordering a kebab in Poland. That's five and counting.
On the road again

There's never any paperAfter 7 weeks or so of lounging about in the UK (thanks to Wardy, Hig, Easto, The Brooksies, Trish and Sandra & Pino for putting us up) we are back on the road again.

Our first stop was Warsaw where we stayed with Sandra's sister Beata and her husband Jerzy in their new place outside town. It was a nice way to ease ourselves back into the travelling with a lift from the airport and more home cooked food (all delicious apart from the Stomach Soup...) than you could shake a stick at. On Wednesday Sandra's Mum and Dad showed us round a snowy Warsaw from the Palace of Culture and Science (Stalin Building) to the Royal Castle. The Stalin Bulding is a gift from the Soviet era and towers above the centre of the city. It is now a multiplex cinema among other things so it seems as if it has been afforded the proper degree of respect. The Royal Castle has been completely rebuilt since the war when it, like 90% of central Warsaw, was destroyed.

From Warsaw we headed north to Gdansk, a very pretty and historic seaside town, the birthplace of the Solidarity movement in 1980. The 'Roads To Freedom' exhibition at the site of the shipyard where Solidarity started is a very moving and brilliantly informative depiction of the events which started the collapse of Communism in Poland, and wider Europe for that matter.

From Gdansk we headed to Malbork to see the famous castle. We had visited it a couple of years earlier but illness had prevented us from doing more than photographing the outside and buying a postcard. This time we were not to be denied and left our backpacks at the station and tramped the mile or so to the huge redbrick build. The interior of the castle was fantastically empty - there was only one other person there on a chilly Monday in February - so we had the place to ourselves. Heaven knows how long you'd have to queue to get your photo taken on the olde-worlde latrine in summer but we were straight in and out although, to be honest, it was hardly the weather for retiring in there with the Guardian crossword. As castle lovers we were in our element as we explored the walkways, courtyards, cloisters and stairwells until the cold finally drove us into a nearby restaurant.

Malbork was just a daytime stopover on our way back to Warsaw and then Vilnius in Lithuania. Once again the railway schedulers arranged things so the border guards come and visit at 4am and an unexpected 1 hour time difference had us scrambling off the train with coats flapping. If Poland was coolish then Lithuania is positively chilly (I am saving the big hitters of the low temperature descriptive world for Siberia) but our multiple layers of clothes are holding up well despite our Polish hosts' derision of our shoes.

We have a couple of days in Lithuania before heading off to Latvia at the end of the week. Tomorrow is a big day for the Bansey barnet as a barber has been located next to the hostel and all that remains is to learn how to say 'short back and sides' in Lithuanian.