Saturday, 26 September 2009

РОССИЯ (Part 2)

Sorry . . . got distracted. Queen Mary's term has started, so I've been kind of busy getting the administration end of the course I teach sorted.

The cruising bit of the trip was fine. I'm not much of a cruiser. I'm more of a hiker/swimmer/doer, if you know what I mean. However, I've been fighting this horrible sinus infection since June, so just sleeping most of the day was kind of nice. The touring bits of the day were, except for the first day, pretty much the same. Get off, go see a church. Go see another church. Go see another church. Go back to the boat. Yep. Loads of churches. And I have to admit, by the end of it, I was pretty churched out. I liked seeing all the spires all over the country side, but every single church had the same story: This church was built 800 (900, 600 pick a year) years ago. The frescos were damaged in a fire 200 years ago, but were restored. The Soviets wanted to knock it down, but turned it into a museum (storage space, office . . . pick the new use) instead. It's been returned to the Russian Orthodox church (or will be within the next 2 years). There's only so many times I want to hear the story, if you know what I mean. But, like I said, I really enjoyed seeing all the onion domes all over the country side. The whole country is peppered with them! And I can only imagine what it would have looked like before the Soviets. They tore down hundreds of churches! It's really quite amazing to think about! (Actually, there is a colour photographic record of Pre-Revolution Russia! See this link to the Library of Congress.)

Moscow was very different from what I imagined. When I think of Soviet architecture, I think of square, cement, austere, grey . . . very much what we saw in St Petersburg. Moscow, though, was nothing like that! And not because the Russian Federation has done anything about it. In fact, most of the coolest buildings were done in Stalin's time! He even had an architectural style named after him: Stalin Gothic. Yep. Crazy, eh? There are these 7 tower buildings (called the 7 sisters) -- originally meant to be 8, and an 8th has been built recently, but is not considered one of the sisters -- with spires and turrets and all sorts. They're gorgeous. They'd fit right in next to the Chrysler building in New York. Stalin commissioned them for the 800th Anniversary of something or other. And even the normal apartment buildings built during that time are pillared and statued and carved. Not at all what I had expected.

Obviously Moscow's St Basil's Cathedral was the most important thing for Grandma and me to see. We'd only been talking about it for 18 years, after all! So, when we (finally! You've never seen traffic like in Moscow!!) got to Red Square ('red', by the way, is a slang term for 'pretty' or 'beautiful'. So the Soviets being 'Red' wasn't because of the colour, but because of the idea that it's a beautiful or cool idea.) we walked across the car park, behind the cathedral, and were crushed to discover that we couldn't get into the Square! Our guide took us around the side, up to the GUM (think Harrods in London or Watertower Place in Chicago. Major, expensive shopping centre.) where there was another entrance to the Square. And it was closed too! So Grandma and I sat down in the shopping centre and enjoyed a piece of cheese cake and a Diet Coke (well, a Coke Light). Eventually our guide took us back out of the GUM, and somehow managed to sweet talk one of the guards on the Square into letting us into the Square. See, this was the confusing thing: the Square itself wasn't closed. Just the 3 entrances we'd tried. However, there was one on the far side of the Square that was open. So, there were loads of people inside. So this guard let us cross the closed bit into the open bit. This meant, Grandma and I got our photo in front of St Basil's Cathedral! Hooray! We found out later that the President of the Russian Federation, Dmitriy Medvedev, had decided he needed to do a bit of shopping in the GUM, so he walked across Red Square from the Kremlin to the GUM. Umm . . . why, then, were we allowed into the GUM, but not Red Square? I'm so confused!

Well, that's most of it. Except . . . if you make it to Russia, I highly recommend seeing the National Russian Folk Dance Show at the Kosmos Hotel. It's about 2 hours of some of the worlds best dancers ever. It was gorgeous, well choreographed, exquisite costumes and some of the most amazingly executed dancing you've ever seen. Anywhere. Brilliant.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

РОССИЯ (Part 1)

I just got home from a fabulous trip to Russia with my grandmother. This was the fulfillment of 18 years of dreaming. When I was 12, Grandma and I went on a tour of the Eastern United States. We started off in New York City, and in our very first hotel (the one right outside the Twin Towers . . . ) there was a convention of some sort for cooks. They'd had a gorgeous display of spun sugar confection buildings. But, we're not talking tiny little things. They were enormous! (Yes, that's me at 12.) So, we've been talking about seeing the real thing for a long time.

Our trip was a Uniworld Cruise from St Petersburg to Moscow on the ship ΛИТВИНОВ (Litvinov). When we got on board, we found our cabin. And Grandma took one look at it and said, 'um . . . no.' It was really tiny, but that wasn't the biggest problem. The beds were foam, but not very good or thick. And because of the lack of space (we couldn't even get our suitcases and ourselves into the room at the same time!) there was no room for a chair. Grandma's arthritis means she needs both a good mattress, and a good chair. So we upgraded to a larger room. She was much happier there, as there was ample room to sit and read, and the chairs were 'adequate' (her word). Now, we'd been warned that the accommodations would not be up to the European standards of luxury. However, we've not been terribly impressed with the standards even taking that into account, considering they were charging European prices! The consensus (between us and several other passengers) was, if you're looking to do a cruise in Russia, don't use Uniworld.

We started off with a tour of St Petersburg, hitting all the major sites. We saw the Church on the Blood, Peter and Paul Cathedral, the Hermitage/Imperial Winter Palace, Peterholf Gardens, St Isaak's Cathedral and all the canals and bridges of the city. However, it was a very fast tour. Just a jump off take a photo and drive on to the next site. we didn't actually go into any of the buildings. Later days we went into the Hermitage Museum (contained in the Winter Palace) and the gardens (didn't go, it was raining pretty hard!) and the cathedrals. I went to see the Church on the Spilt Blood (named for the site where one of the Czars was murdered. Alexander I, I think.) It's completely covered from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, in mosaics. Pretty impressive.

The Hermitage was amazing. It is unmatched in my experience in its opulence and over-the-top decor and everything guilded-ness, and really, it felt obscene and vulgar. I mean, it was beautiful, but the enormous split in quality of living between the Imperial Family/Court and the average person was disturbing. After wandering the halls of both it and the Catherine Palace (also called the Summer Palace), you could really see how Communism got started in Russia. And in fact, that is the reason these palaces have survived. The Soviets used them as propaganda museums. 'Come see how the Imperials trod on your fathers' sort of thing. And when you consider things like the Amber room in Catherine palace, you realise the amount of money and resources that went into this lifestyle. When it was recreated after WWII, they sorted through 6 tons of amber, and used 800 kg (a little less than 1 ton). That's an amazing amount of amber, when you think about how light it is! But possibly my favourite parts of both palaces were the floors. They were gorgeous! And all I could think of was how amazing they'd be to dance on . . . yeah, I'm a geek. A dance geek.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Seizing the Firebird

You may have noticed that I've changed my banner. The new one is a photo of the Black Lacquer Box I bought in Russia. The painting is of the Firebird Myth. The Russians use the Firebird much the same as we use Carpe Diem. So, I thought that it was a fitting banner for my blog. As you'll notice, the prince in the box has already got hold of the bird. He's Seized the Firebird!

P.S. -- I'm home. Or, had you noticed? ;-)

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Got My Travelling Shoes On

Right.... I'm packed and we're off to Russia. No internet (wow! How am I going to survive 14 days without access?!?)