Villa Lorraine

We’ve tried to go to Villa Lorraine three times (by the way, you may notice from their website that they also own Villa in the Sky). The first time we had to cancel because my wife was feeling unwell. The second time we had to cancel at the last minute because our car broke down on the way there. This time we both felt fit and well and so did our car, so we made it safe and sound.

Villa Lorraine has been around for a while, and somewhat like Comme Chez Soi its reputation stagnated a little in recent years, only to make a comeback following the appointment of a young new head chef. We arrived and were greeted by a rather elderly valet who insisted on parking our car for us even though we met him in the tiny car park behind the restaurant and he only had to move it a few metres for us into a parking space.

Once inside we chose the longest tasting menu, with wine, and sat back to enjoy the amuse-bouches. All were delicious. Squid ink cracker, foie gras

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Little fried dumplings of cauliflower and aioli.

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Sardine, avocat, vodka tonic.

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Gazpacho with cherries, a burrata sorbet and drops of oregano.

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Lobster, beetroot, crunchy little coffee-flavoured puffs.

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Frogs legs with pecorino and a cress cream.

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Sole with umeboshi (small Japanese pickled fruits) and apricot butter.

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Rabbit three ways, one of which was a slightly greasy, crunchy samosa.

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CHEESE! It’s been a while since I had a decent cheese selection from a trolley, and this one didn’t disappoint. The waiter explained what every single cheese was and then we chose five each. He laid them out on the plate in a specific order and told us to eat them clockwise. The sommelier said that we could have a glass of red wine with it, or if we were feeling daring we could go with his suggestion: saké. Of course I felt daring, and I was rewarded with a surprisingly flavourful and strong glass of saké.

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Sorbet with cardamom and orange.

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Strawberries with gold on them. And little floppy tubes full of cream.

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Nibbles to go with the coffee.

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Pretty good. Glad we finally made it. Although I think Villa in the Sky is probably a little better.

Laulupidu: Estonian Song Festival

Laulupidu is an event which takes place every five years in the Estonian capital Tallinn. There’s an overview of the history of the event here, and it’s deeply rooted in Estonian culture and their sense of national identity. It’s part of a weekend-long festival which incorporates dancing and choirs both adult and junior. We were there to watch our daughter, whose school choir had been accepted as participants.

The day started at 09:30 as all the choirs gathered in Freedom Square in the city centre. The bears arrived early.

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It was a grey day so many people came wearing transparent plastic ponchos, but the rain held off.

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The parade made its way through the centre of the city and down a wide road towards the festival grounds, about 5 kilometres away.

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Apart from the impromptu singing from some groups (other saved themselves for the actual concert) the main attraction for me were the traditional costumes.

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I wasn’t the only one taking photos.

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I’m not really sure what the large yellow ball signifies, but many people at the head of their group had them. There were choirs from all across Estonia present, plus some from Canada and the US.

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Several people had these large circular metallic brooches.

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That’s the Estonian flag. The colours represent sky, earth and snow.

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At the grounds themselves the crowds gathered. We had seats quite close to the front. Those on the slope in the background were standing or sitting on blankets.

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And there are the singers. Thousands of them.

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There was a brief ceremony at the start with an Olympic-style torch.

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And then the singing started. For the first few songs everyone sang together, which made quite an impression.

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Then some left the stage and a certain number of children’s choirs (including my daughter) sang five or six songs, all in Estonian. here are extracts from my favourite two.

 

 

 

Although this kind of event can never have the same significance or emotional charge for someone not raised in that culture, it’s still powerful and moving to see and hear that many people singing in harmony. If that whet your appetite, you can see full coverage of the parade and the concert on the website of the national TV broadcaster.

Tallinn stories

The title is a lie. I don’t have any stories about Tallinn, just photos. But you know me: I like bad puns.

Anyway, Tallinn is a lovely place to spend a weekend. The exceptionally well-preserved historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here’s the town hall in the main square.

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And here are some crazy, thrill-seeking Estonians sitting on a sloping roof in the main square.

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That’s Olde Hansa on the left, a medieval-themed restaurant which is actually less tacky than it sounds. Decent food, too.

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Dragon-gargoyles on the town hall.

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There are lots of guild halls and merchant houses in the lower town, many dating from the 13th-14th century when Tallinn (known as Reval in those days) was part of the Hanseatic League.

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The nobles used to live in the upper town, which has a nicer view.

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Apart from anything else it was handy for seeing when another ferry-load of Finnish tourists had arrived.

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Just outside the old city walls, across the road and behind the train station (only a ten minute walk) is the achingly hip area of Telliskivi. An old abandoned industrial zone, this is now home to ‘creative’ types and their media start-up offices, coffee bars, eateries and live music venues. There are lots of nice murals.

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And the inevitable trash rodents.

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A little farther north is another area being prettied up with murals and new apartments and restaurants. The neighbourhood of Kalamaja used to be home to fishermen and their families. There’s still a small harbour with a regular fish market, and some of the old wooden houses still survive, although there’s a lot of new construction going on.

Murals abound here too.

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The chimney on the right is part of an old chemical factory where Tarkovsky shot scenes for his film Stalker back in the early ’70s. Now it’s being converted into a cultural centre.

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That’s Tallinn. It’s the kind of town where ancient and modern co-exist.

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More photos here.

Cococo

Although we were only in St. Petersburg for a few nights we managed to squeeze in Russian, Azeri and Armenian dining experiences. Probably the fanciest and most memorable was Cococo. Located in a hotel and owned by Sergey Shnurov, aka “Shnur” of the famed ska-punk band Leningrad, this is reputedly the best restaurant in town.

Here’s the view from our table back towards the bar.

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And looking in the other direction we could see the kitchen, behind this richly decorated sliding door.

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Our dining companion went à la carte, while my wife and I took the “classics” tasting menu.

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First up, salmon ice cream. Very smooth and creamy, and very salmony. I could have eaten a much larger one (the scoop was barely a mouthful).

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A little tart filled with cottage cheese, mackerel and baked beetroot. Russians really seem to like beetroot and use it a lot (as you will soon see). The cream on top is made from peas, if I recall correctly. Behind it is a cream-filled “buckwheat nut”.

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As at White Rabbit, the bread and butter was served as its own separate course.

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Here’s the butter. Can you guess what the red dust on top is? Beetroot, of course.

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Roast beetroot salad with Circassia cheese. Our friend had this as her starter on her shorter menu, and we were a little surprised to be given the same size portion as her. It was lovely, but perhaps half this size would have been enough considering that it’s part of lengthy tasting menu.

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Mushroom consommé, wild boar dumplings, smoked sour cream. Dumplings are another Russian staple and the sour cream set off the gamey flavour nicely.

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Fun presentation of the next dish. Of the two choices we snubbed the cod and went for the more rustic-sounding buckwheat porridge with porcini mushrooms and stewed beef cheeks. The axe at right is actually a piece of moulded and dyed butter on a stick, which you use to stir the porridge until the butter melts.

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Pre-dessert: sugared cranberries.

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Not our dessert; our friend saw a photo of this on the website and booked the table almost on that basis alone (plus a colleague’s recommendation). Yes, it’s supposed to be broken, and it’s made of chocolate and the whole thing is edible (except the wooden board underneath, I think).

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With our menu we got “cococorn”, which is a pot of small scoops of popcorn-flavoured ice cream.

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Followed by a tea-flavoured jelly shaped like a rooster.

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Pretty impressive overall, and at around €40 for the whole menu, amazing value.

Museum, metro, church

There’s a lot of art in Russia, and it isn’t always in galleries. A lot of it is in churches, for obvious historical reasons. Here’s St. Basil’s cathedral, probably the most famous church in Russia, in Moscow’s Red Square.

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The interior is as baroque as any Russian church, with a richly decorated iconostasis behind the altar.

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The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood (so called because Alexander II was wounded there in an assassination attempt) in St. Petersburg has a very similar exterior design.

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The big shiny door in the iconostasis. The craftsmanship involved is amazing, but after a while my eyes get tired looking at this kind of thing.

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But what interested me more about this particular church was the art on the walls. The entire interior is covered with mosaics.

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Lots of them. And very colourful ones.

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Apart from the skill involved in creating something like this out of tiny pieces of coloured stone, I love the colours and graphic style.

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If you’re in St. Petersburg and you like art there’s only really one place to go: the Hermitage. It houses mostly foreign (i.e. non-Russian) art, and it’s huge. It’s also as richly decorated as the churches.

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Which is fine if all you want to look at is the building, but it can sometimes feel as if the rooms are fighting for your attention, distracting you from the art they were built to house.

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I overheard a private tour guide telling a couple that she recommended limiting their visit to two hours, and I had to agree as by that time I was feeling a little:

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It also has a quite confusing layout and it took me half an hour to find the exit, which had me feeling quite:

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Next door is another section of the Heritage collection (it’s actually spread over several buildings) called the General Staff Building. This may sound like an odd name for an art museum, but then again the name of the Uffizi in Florence translates as “the offices”. In here the decor was plain enough to let you concentrate on the paintings, which were mostly more modern than in the main building, which suited me as it meant fewer religious scenes and aristocratic portraits.

The school group seemed to appreciate it too.

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Art of a different kind is on display in the Kremlin armoury in Moscow. Initially I was skeptical about the prospect of looking at weaponry in glass cases, but some of the ceremonial and specially created diplomatic gift versions of firearms were fascinating, like these very steampunk pistols.

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Or these moustachioed masks.

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There are a lot of gilded regligious knick-knacks which I found quite boring, but also some more wacky and original stuff like these goblets made out of nautilus shells.

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But art is also for the proletariat, which explains the opulence of Moscow metro stations. Other metro systems are decorated with art (Brussels, for example) but not quite in this style or on this scale. We only saw a few stations during our stay but they made an impression.

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You can see some more stations here.

One thing I did rather miss on this trip was seeing some of the old Communist graphics and art, as a lot of that was junked post-Glasnost. Which is a shame as it’s very pretty. You still see bits of it here and there in the streets.

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And in museums, of course. This display was in St. Petersburg’s museum of political history.

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And of course there’s one Hero of the Soviet Union whose place in history will never be erased. This stunning statue of Yuri Gagarin can be found looking over a rather large and otherwise featureless intersection just off the south side of Gorky Park.

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More photos in the flickr album.

White Rabbit

When researching dining options for our trip to Moscow I came across a reference to a place which had been mentioned in Restaurant magazine’s annual “The World’s 50 Best” survey (it’s currently at number 23). Once I’d checked with our friend that it was the kind of place she’d like, she booked a table and off we went to White Rabbit. The name suggests an “Alice In Wonderland” theme, but I was relieved to find that, apart from the odd painting on the wall and a repeated rabbit motif on stationery this wasn’t the case.

It’s located at the top of a skyscraper just outside the centre of Moscow. You enter the ground floor through a shopping mall and take the elevator up to the 16th floor where a spectacular view awaits. We were asked if we’d like a table next to the window to which we replied “DUH”, and after a quick stroll around to take photos of the skyline we took our seats.

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We’d arrived slightly early but this was just as well as it allowed us more sunset-ogling time before darkness fell.

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The tasting menu. One of our party was unsure about some of the items on this list but we talked her into it, and the restaurant kindly removed any crustacean element from certain dishes at her request.

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The fag page at the end of the menu. Seems strange to order cigarettes when they won’t let you actually smoke them inside the restaurant (and you’d have to go down 16 floors in order to step outside).

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We started with a cocktail. Chili Margarita (Tequila, thai chili pepper, avocado, agave syrup):

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Drunk Bumblebee (Vodka, propolis, Limoncello, basil, pineapple, lemon, fructose):

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White Rabbit (Red currants, apple whipped with sake, apple liqueur, carrot):

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First amuse-bouche: pear, mead, caviar.

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Duck liver, chestnut honey and truffle.

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Wafer thin bread and a cream of Gouda with flakes of dried salmon.

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Carrot and rapberry water.

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Ryazhenka (which is basically a kind of yoghurt known as “baked milk”). Foie gras underneath, and topped with a block of pastila, which is a kind of Russian fruity marshmallow, made using the dried apple flesh left over after they’ve been pressed for juice.

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And then along came the nice lady with the blowtorch.

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Birch bread with herring milt and hare forschmack (a kind of salted, minced meat). I like the idea of bread and butter served as an actual course rather than sitting on the side throughout the meal.

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On to the “proper” courses, although many of them were the same size as the amuse-bouches. Shchi (cabbage broth) with smoked herring. Pre-broth:

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Post-broth:

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Onion, white chocolate, sea urchin. Weird. Yummy.

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One of the highlights: crab, carrot, pike caviar, and salted egg yolk which was strangely chewy but very nice indeed.

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Kundyum (a kind of baked dumpling) containing moose lips and nettle.

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Cod, sour malt and spelt (I’m never sure how to spell that). Quite sour but not unpleasantly so.

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The final main course, and the only one I couldn’t really rave about: beef ribs cooked in kvass (a fermented beverage made from rye bread) with onion and mushroom. The emulsion was very sticky and sweet, and the “salad” a bit slimy and tepid.

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Tea and a medlar sorbet.

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Borodinsky bread flavoured ice cream with sour cream and sea water. So sour, sweet and salty all at once; I was the only one at our table who liked this.

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The inevitable nose course. Three porcelain proboscides, each impregnated with a different scent based on a dish from the tasting menu. We were asked which we preferred.

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Based on our answer we were then gifted a small bottle of the relevant scent.

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Service was very good, and our waitress explained the history and sources of each recipe. Many of the dishes involved rediscovering traditional Russian foods which had been forgotten in the rush to embrace exotic foreign foods in recent years such as sushi and Italian food. Chef Vladimir Mukhin was recently profiled on the Netflix series Chef’s Table and you see him making trips out to the countryside to visit farmers and old ladies cooking traditional dishes in their homes. He also notes, interestingly, that this type of food regained popularity in recent years not only through his efforts, but also out of necessity as certain foods couldn’t be imported any more due to the sanctions imposed following the annexation of Crimea.

As yet there is no Michelin guide to Russia, but White Rabbit deserves at least 2 stars.

Izmailovsky market

Shopping is, for many people, an integral part of the travel experience. Whether it’s the search for the perfect souvenir or gift, the chance to find authentic local produce and crafts, or just the desire to hang out in an everyday environment with local people going about their business, it’s often one of the most enjoyable parts of visiting another country.

Often when in a foreign land we’ll pop in to a local supermarket just to get an idea of what’s different and what’s the same as back home, and we did this a couple of times during our recent week in Moscow. But a few hundred metres down the road from one of these supermarkets was a slightly different kind of retail experience: Izmailovsky market. From the outside as you approach it from the metro station it looks fairly kitsch: a Disney vision of a Russian castle with a profusion of colourful decorated towers.

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Inside you are thrown immediately into a partly covered area housing a succession of stalls offering the most typical tourist tat and souvenirs. More matryoshka dolls than you can imagine, both the traditionally decorated kind and more modern iterations (political figures, Marvel superheroes and Disney characters…).

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Other popular offerings are small lacquered boxes painted with farytale scenes (we got one for each of our daughters), icons and books about Russian art. There are also many shops with a large selection of Putin t-shirts. He’s inevitably portrayed in a completely unironic fashion looking cool and masterful, wearing sunglasses, riding on a bear’s back. I’m trying to think of any other country where you could buy such worshipful merchandise based on a head of state. Certainly nowhere in Europe. And these aren’t just for tourists: I saw a guy on the Moscow metro wearing the one in the centre of the top row, with Putin karate kicking Obama.

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Once you push past the tourist section you can go to an upstairs area which is more of a traditional flea market. These places always fascinate me, not because I particularly want anything they have to sell, but because it’s amusing to see the completely random selections of objects the vendors put together, and you wonder how much of it they ever sell, and to whom.

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Back down on ground level and out towards the back end of the market there’s a different feel, as we enter the realm of the arms dealers. Men in camouflage jackets scowl over large collections of guns, grenades and uniforms, and there was even one display of a motorbike and sidecar ridden by dummies in uniform toting Kalashnikovs and AK-47s. I had been advised not to take any photos in this part of the market.

Once we’d had our fill and had stopped for a plate of grilled meat and pickles, we were about to head back when we realised that there was a large building to the side which we hadn’t yet visited. It turned out to be a more recent addition to the complex; a kind of cultural centre featuring a large wooden church, food court, and various artisan workshops and boutiques.

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We tried a glass of fruit punch, and also stopped in one of the cafes for a cup of tea and a selection of fruit sweets made from apple and egg whites called pastila.

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When we’d finally had our fill (and had bought a fridge magnet and a t-shirt) we made our way back to the metro station. But just outside the cultural centre we saw what looked like a wedding party, based on the billowing white dress and the white stretch Humvees.

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Further along the road I saw no fewer than seven more stretch Humvees, presumably part of the same party.

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All in all a pleasant way to spend an afternoon and a good way to sample various aspects of Russian culture all in one spot.