Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Rudolf's last stand

The Finnish capital is only 80km from Tallinn, so we decided to head over there for the day on Sunday. We were accompanied on the ferry by all the Finns returning home with their trolley loads of duty free grog from Estonia, and got to Helsinki in time for some lunch and a bit of touring in the afternoon.

Sights from the 3B tram... Spring flowers, and the 'White Church'

We took the 3B tram (which is the 3T tram in reverse, an important distinction) which showed us the spectacular sights of Helsinki (the brochure listed amongst other things the Social Insurance building as a notable sight) followed by dinner and drinks with a group of friends where I ordered a dinner named 'Pimp my Reindeer', which consisted of reindeer (sorry Rudolf) and lingonberries. Following that, we made it back to the ferry terminal, just in time for our ferry back to Tallinn.

Rudolf's last stand - my dinner!

4 stamps in the passport for one day, not a bad effort!

It was cold in Helsinki... but that's really no excuse for the dodgy headwear

Leaving Helsinki on the ferry, the sun still high at 9:30pm

Led astray in Tallinn

Having a beer at the top of the Radisson, with its fabulous view over Tallinn

I've now come to Tallinn, to visit my cousin Mark, who lives here, conveniently at the same time as his brother Robert, also visiting. Tallinn is the capital of the former Soviet country, Estonia. Following the nation finally receiving its independence in 1991, the country has developed as a thoroughly modern and pleasant place, with Tallinn being a fantastic place to visit. The old town of Tallinn is World Heritage listed, and very deservingly. We had a great time wandering the streets of the old town, visiting art shops filled with original and stylish pieces, rather than the standard touristy tack, beautifully maintained buildings, and medieval hilltop towers and walls. Tallinn is certainly a beautiful city.

Contrast between Estonian traditions and the Russian influence, even in religion
View over Tallinn from the top of the hill

But... as usual when meeting up with these particular cousins, I've been led astray... In the first 24 hours of my visit, we managed to complete a Tallinn pub crawl where one of my cousins was propositioned by a drunken Finn (also male), with the evening finishing at the same time as the sun was coming up (admittedly that's fairly early here in Tallinn at the moment), followed by a political protest in the morning where we were wedged between the Estonians and the Russians.

Left: Robert (left) and Mark at the start of the damage, and the Estonian flag flies at a political demonstration
And here I am with my newest cousin, Paddy (Mark's pet rabbit)

St Petersburg

Storm clouds coming in over Dvortskaya Pl, and The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, curiously like St Basil's in Moscow

After a couple of days in Moscow, I headed north to St Petersburg, an extremely important city in the history of Russia. St Petersburg is largely known as the town of Peter the Great, one of Russia's most famous Tsars, and from the minute you arrive, almost everything is devoted to this guy - probably one of the more stylish Tsars (Catherine the Great tended more toward the gaudy and tacky).

St Petersburg is 500km north of Moscow, and on the Neva River, flowing out into the Gulf of Finland. It's the most European of the Russian cities, and is probably a little more tourist friendly than Moscow. The biggest tourist attraction here is the Hermitage, one of the world's great art museums, mostly set in the Winter Palace, and therefore is a fantastic place to visit, both for the great art collection (there is a great collection of Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, as well as a ton of Dutch, Italian and French art) and the interiors of the palace. I arrived to St Petersburg as it started raining, and therefore I had no problems whatsoever spending the entire day indoors, taking in the Hermitage.

Interiors of the Hermitage, left, the one of the Roman rooms, and right, the 1812 Hall, dedicated to Russia's war with Napoleon

Other highlights from St Petersburg were the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (the Spilled Blood refers to the fact that Alexander II was assasinated [blown-up] on this site), the Neva River and surrounding areas, including Vasilevsky Island, the Peter and Paul Fortress and Pedrovorets, Peter the Great's palace about25km from St Petersburg. Despite the less than pleasant weather, I loved my time here, as St Petersburg is one of those cities that truly represents much of the history of this country for a tourist - this is the city of the 1917 revolution, a former capital, city of both Tsars and Bolsheviks, and then also of modern Russian drivers (look before you cross the road or footpath...)

Here I am by the Gulf of Finland at Peterhof, and the famous statue of Peter the Great, immortalised by Pushkin in his writing about 'The Bronze Horseman'

Peter the Great's palace, Peterhof at Petrovorets

And of course, the metro was another highlight! See my post below about the fantastic metro systems in Russia...

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Rendevous in Red Square

Onion domes of the Kremlin, and Lena at Kolomenskoe, by the Moskva river

So, after all the hassle of organising visa, flight, and almost every other administrative matter associated with travelling to Russia, I finally made it to Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow.

I was lucky enough to stay with my friend Lena in Moscow, who kindly showed me around, helped me decipher the transport systems (the stations in the Metro are only shown in Cyrillic) and took me around the best sites.

Vladimir, whose family made my Matrioshka doll, at his stall on Arbat

During my time in Moscow, I visited the Kremlin to say hi to Mr Putin, saw the sights of the famous Red Square (surprisingly the name does not originate from Soviet times, the Russian word Krasnae actually meant beautiful, and has also come to mean red in relatively recent times) and St Basil's, the brightly coloured cathedral. We also saw the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, the Tretyakov gallery (both containing some brilliant artworks), Kolomenskoe park, a fabulous green area on the banks of the Moskva River and the Novodevichy Convent, all very worthwhile.

I even managed to learn a bit of Russian! Niet (No) is a word you learn pretty quickly... 'Adin pozhalsta' was my next word - this means 'one please'. The only complication was when I needed to use a different number. Lastly of course, being my ever polite self - 'Spasibo' meaning thankyou.

Moscow is a city of contrast. A city of rich imperial and religious importance (many of the Russian Orthodox Church's most important locations are in Moscow), is constantly contrasted with the Soviet history, which for most Russians is a time they can remember well. Much of the residential accomodation was built in Soviet times, slowly being demolished and replaced with modern apartment buildings, and statues of Lenin, and monuments to the 'Great Patriotic War' stand beside monoments to Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Pushkin and other Russian cultural greats.

Novodevichy Convent

Left, the brightly coloured St Basil's cathedral in Red Square, and contrast of the Soviet and Orthodox Russia - The Soviet 'Russia' Hotel from a time where religion was outlawed, and the domes of a Russian Orthodox church. Contrasts are everywhere in Russia...

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Subway in Style - Soviet Style!

Avtovo and Ploshtad Vosstaniya in St Petersburg
If there's one thing that the Soviets did well, it was building Metro stations!! During the Soviet era (1950's), the Soviet Union built extensive Metro systems in both St Petersburg and Moscow. They say that up to 9 million people use the Moscow metro system daily, more that New York and London put together. (And yes, I do believe that at some point all 9 mill did try to get onto my train, as the good people at Lonely Planet suggested they might.) However not only did they make what is today a really quick and efficient mode of transport (I don't think I ever waited more than 2 minutes for a train, usually around 1 minute) they also decided to 'make it pretty'. Line 1 in St Petersburg (the Red line) and the Central line in Moscow are the best lines to go to check out these beautiful metro station. It became one of my favourite things to do in Russia - to visit stations and photograph them. One evening in St Petersburg, I spent all of 12 rubles (about 60 Australian cents) and an hour travelling along line 1 taking photos...
Move over London Underground!
Kievskaya in Moscow (Central line interchange)

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Tea in Istanbul

The Blue Mosque of Istanbul and Whirling Dervishes

The Aya Sofya, originally a Christian cathedral, converted to a mosque on the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and Ortakoy, on the European side of the Bosphorus

So first stop on my travel extravaganza was Istanbul, Turkey. It's a city where sometimes, you feel like you are in Europe, then step off the main tourist thoroughfare, and you feel as if you could be anywhere! I spent hours wandering the streets and looking at all the markets, from pure 'junk' to silk carpets costing thousands of dollars! You get the impression that anything is possible in Istanbul. I ended up spending about a week there, so got to see many of the major sights, the Blue Mosque, Suleymaniye Mosque, Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace, the list goes on... But some of the best parts of my time in Istanbul, was sitting up on the terrace of the hotel, looking out over the Bosphorus with a good book.

Tea is the drink of choice in Turkey - a range of herbal teas (including the ever popular apple tea) to regular black tea is on offer, and I partook on many occasions. In most places, on offer is Nescafe, or ordinary filter coffee, but where the proper Turkish coffee was available, it was fantastic! The food was also great in Turkey, especially the baklava, which every day was just too irresistable...

The only issue I had with Turkey was being awoken every morning by the call to prayer. The first morning is was exotic and exciting... After that? Well I could have done without the early morning wake-up call.

I took two short trips from Istanbul, one to do the Australian pilgrimage to Gallipoli, on the Dardanelles. It's certainly great to see it first hand, and also get an appreciation for the Turkish side of it. Predictably, my tour group was filled with Aussies and Kiwis. The second trip, was a couple of days in Cappadocia, a 12 hour night bus ride south east of Istanbul - my first ever time in Asia. I had a great couple of days wandering the 'fairy chimneys' and markets of the area - it's quite a beautiful spot.

Cappadocia scenery, and the view over the Bosphorus from my terrace in Istanbul