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.

A night in the Snow Hotel

When you go on holiday to a place like Lapland in December, where temperatures can fall below -30°C, you’d think that your reward for a day out in the Arctic conditions would be a nice warm hotel room to sleep in. But some choose to then spend the night surrounded by ice and snow too. Of the five nights we spent in the area we slept for three of them in an airbnb apartment in the town of Rovaniemi, but then for the last two nights we headed 30km north west to the site of the Arctic Snow Hotel.

This small resort offers two types of accommodation: the snow hotel and glass igloos, and we spent one night in each. There are also a few ancillary buildings: a large reception/restaurant in a normal, heated building, another restaurant in a large yurt-type structure, and some sauna facilities. The snow hotel from the outside is nothing much to look at: a one-storey white oblong with no windows and only two doors. They build it every year, starting in November, and it takes about six weeks to complete. The entrance is fairly unassuming, although I did like the furry doors.

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Inside most of the corridors look like this, but the layout is fairly simple so getting lost isn’t a problem.

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There are individual rooms, family rooms, and suites. Here’s our family room, with two double beds and one single. The beds are blocks of ice but inside them are proper mattresses covered with reindeer hide. The LEDs in the base are the only lighting in the room.

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Adjoined to the snow structure are a couple of temporary wooden structures housing toilets/showers and a locker room/changing room. As the snow rooms are pretty small and dark, the idea is that you put all your stuff in a locker, get changed into a couple of thin layers you’ll wear in bed (for most people this means pyjamas with thermals underneath), and then take a pillow and sleeping bag back to your room. The bunks you see here are then available to sleep on if you decide during the night that you really can’t stand sleeping surrounded by snow.

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You are free to wander around the rest of the structure and even visit other people’s rooms, which is safe since no one leaves anything valuable in there anyway. There are no doors as such on the rooms, but you can draw a curtain and hang a “do not disturb” sign outside. There are a lot of LEDs to add some colour to the surroundings.

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The suites are a lot more elaborately decorated, and probably have a price tag to match. You don’t get any extra facilities or services, but a bit more space and light, and something to look at.

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You can also just visit the hotel and look around the rooms even if you’re not staying there.

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If the cold gets too much you can always warm yourself by the fire. The ICE FIRE, ha ha.

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There’s a small chapel where you can get married. Or pray, or whatever.

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There’s a restaurant where we ate dinner one night, and a bar where you can, er, chill out.

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My shot of cloudberry liqueur in an ice glass was very pleasant, and we bought a bottle in the airport on the way home.

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But of course what you want to know is, what was it like to sleep in? Well that depends who you ask. The rest of my party slept just fine. I barely slept a wink. Maybe it was because I found the sleeping bag uncomfortable and restrictive (I haven’t used one since scout camp over 30 years ago). The hood part of the bag came right up over and covered everything except a small area of my face. At a minimum my eyes were exposed, and I tried a couple of times just covering my head completely but that got too stuffy and claustrophobic, so I had to put up with my eyes and/or nose feeling chilly. Either way I just couldn’t get comfortable enough to drop off, although I think I eventually managed to get about an hour of sleep towards the morning. Staff members come and wake you up at 7:30am, but I was already up and dressed and keen to get out for breakfast by then, much to my family’s sleepy-eyed bemusement.

On the second night we slept in a “glass igloo”, which was much more to my liking. Essentially they’re individual cabins with domed glass roofs to allow you to see the Northern Lights if and when they appear (there’s also an alarm in the igloo which rings to let you know when the lights could be seen).

We’d been to Lapland once before in 2001 and seen nothing due to overcast skies, and by the last night of this trip I was resigned to having missed them again, in spite of having paid for an aurora notification app during our nights in Rovaniemi. And then, on our way back to the igloo from the restaurant on our final evening, just before 8pm, something started to happen in the sky. Nothing like as bright or spectacular as the images we saw every day on postcards in the gift shops, but it was there nonetheless. For about 20 minutes we saw several wavering bands and shimmering blobs of green. The photos don’t do them justice; I should have had a tripod for starters, but they should give you some idea.

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The next morning we woke at our leisure after a good night’s sleep, and saw our igloos in the daylight for the first time.

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Prompted by seeing the Japanese tourists from the next igloo doing it, we boiled a kettle of water and threw it into the air outside to see how it reacted to the chill morning air which was getting below -30°C (-25° Fahrenheit).

And finally, the aurora borealis wasn’t the only unusual atmospheric phenomenon we saw in Lapland. One morning while on a husky safari we saw these strangely coloured blobs on the horizon. They’re nacreous clouds, whose mother of pearl colours are caused by the light being diffracted by ice crystals. They’re also bad for the ozone layer.

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Mellow fruitfulness

We spent Sunday morning picking fresh vegetables on a farm just east of the edge of Brussels. La Finca runs a farm specialising in local organic vegetables. They have a shop and a small restaurant and run activity weeks for kids. Once a year they open to the public and let you pick your own produce and watch demonstrations of apple-pressing and the manufacture of woollen goods.

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Even though summer is lingering, Indian-style, the gourds were already out on display:

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We brought home a basketful of tasty veggie goodies, but I was more interested in the visual aspect of many of the plants. The swirl and bulge and violet hue of these leaves.

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These alien purple tubers.

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Basically anything with a hint of purple in it caught my eye.

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Later in the day we visited a see-through church in Flanders, and on the way passed by fields of corn…

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…and orchards bursting with ripening apples.

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The hedgerows nearby were also full of less familiar seeds, berries and blooms.

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These seed pods were probably my favourite:

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Although these were a close second:

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Reading Between The Lines

“Reading Between The Lines” is the name of a sculpture located in a field just outside the small town of Borgloon in the Belgian province of Limburg. The satnav brought us to a small residential street where we saw a sign pointing along a path leading up the hill to the “Doorkijkkerkje” (literally the “little see-through church”).

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The path runs through apple and pear orchards, and after about ten minutes walking we came to another sign explaining that the church/sculpture is made of 100 layers of steel weighing 30 tonnes.

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And there it is.

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Because it’s constructed of horizontal layers of metal, its transparency varies with the angle at which you view it.

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As you get closer to it and look up at it the layers start to overlap, giving an impression of solidity.

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Inside, looking up at the ceiling, the layers overlap completely. Apparently the type of steel used “is a group of steel alloys which were developed to eliminate the need for painting, and form a stable rust-like appearance if exposed to the weather for several years.”

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Looking up inside the steeple.

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And of course even semi-transparent structures can cast solid shadows if the light is coming from a certain angle.

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Here’s a timelapse video of its construction in 2011.