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.

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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Han Ting in The Hague

We only went to The Hague to eat dinner, but almost as soon as we arrived we wished we’d booked a longer stay. Our hotel was located right on the main shopping street, a wide, pedestrianised area full of interesting architecture and wacky sculpture. This is our hotel:
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This is the department store just opposite. Note the large bird head at right. The next building along had a line of them all around the first floor.

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This gauzy wrapping reminded me a little of the famous Dancing House I saw in Prague.

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Bikes, because Netherlands.

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The aforementioned sculptures on the main street. This is one of the more normal-looking ones (it’s the one on the right).

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We only had a couple of hours spare before dinner, which would have been a bit tight to try and squeeze in one of the admittedly tempting arts and culture highlights such as the Escher museum (by the way it was only on this trip that I realised that Escher was Dutch, and so his name should be pronounced closer to ‘Esker’ than ‘Esher’, as I had always done). So we just spent the early evening wandering the back streets, mentally noting other promising lunch options for future visits.

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Han Ting is a Chinese-French fusion restaurant which this year received its first Michelin star.

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The decor leans heavily on the Chinese aspect, although the food was actually more Frenchified than I expected.

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We went for the “Tea menu”. I chose wine pairings and my wife went for tea pairings, for the sake of novelty (and sobriety).

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We were given chopsticks, but ended up using western cutlery for most dishes, as a lot of them involved creams and foams and other types of slippery liquid.

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Amuse-bouches, from the top: celery foam, “duck stomach”, tofu roll, cold mackerel soup.

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Veal with cauliflower cream and shaved macadamia nut.

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Bread. Steamed, with pieces of shallot (the dark brown spot in the middle).

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Our drinks. Can you tell which is the wine and which is the tea? The sommelier introduced each tea with some spiel about how each one interacted with the hot or cold “energy” of the dish, according to Chinese dietary theory. Whatever. They were nice, if all a bit samey.

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This one was definitely the highlight of the evening. The purple swirl is eel marinated in beetroot, and there’s salmon underneath the white layer, which is rice paper. The orange lumps are pumpkin. Bursting with flavour.

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We were then given a small bowl of sticky rice and crème fraîche as a palate cleanser. It works in terms of refreshing your mouth after the bold flavours of the previous dish, but for me was a little too filling, compared to a sorbet.

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Sea bream, razor clam. Beautiful and with a welcome spicy kick.

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Sole marinated in ketchup (the red piece at the top).  And another sole fillet with goji berries and celery. Slightly overpowered by the mango sauce.

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On the side was a small dish of bone marrow and panko. Not a big fan of bone marrow, and the abiding impression was of a mouthful of crunchy panko and not much else.

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Back on track with the main meat course: beautifully cooked beef with shiitake mushrooms and Jack Daniels.

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Dessert. A bit of everything: fruit, ice cream, panna cotta, macaroon, popcorn.

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All very nice and pretty reasonably priced at €65 for the full menu (without drinks).

The following morning we just had time for a walk along the sea front before heading home. Note the handy signs, a different one every twenty metres or so, for lost children to help them find their parents again.

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More wacky sculpture.

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And some persistent bathers. What do they think this is, summer?

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Fortunately The Hague is only a little over two hours by car from Brussels, so it’ll be easy to come back again some day soon.

Treasures of Aachen

The German town of Aachen sits on the border with Belgium and the Netherlands. It’s a medium-sized town which is pleasant to wander and we’d visited a couple of times before, notably for the Christmas market. This time we were there to meet a friend who was passing through on her way to Switzerland on business. We felt the need to do something cultural and worthwhile, and so we headed straight for the cathedral, which dominates the town centre.

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It was originally built in 796 AD on the orders of local boy made good Charlemagne, although it was added to and amended several times over the intervening centuries. Charlemagne is everywhere in Aachen, which is understandable considering his historical significance.

“He united a large part of Europe during the early Middle Ages and laid the foundations for modern France, Germany and the Low Countries. He took the Frankish throne in 768 and became King of Italy in 774. From 800, he became the first Holy Roman Emperor — the first recognized emperor in Western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier. Charlemagne has been called the “Father of Europe” (Pater Europae),[3] as he united most of Western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire. His rule spurred the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of energetic cultural and intellectual activity within the Western Church. All Holy Roman Emperors up to the last Emperor Francis II, as well as both the French and German monarchies, considered their kingdoms to be descendants of Charlemagne’s empire.” (wikipedia)

This is his statue outside the cathedral which also houses his tomb. This photo is from a previous visit; we couldn’t find it on this trip and suspect that it’s hidden under scaffolding as part of the church is undergoing renovations.

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Inside you enter almost directly under the main dome and the first thing you notice is the rich and sparkly mosaic work covering most of the ceiling.

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Alcoves on the first floor (inaccessible to the public when we were there).

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Looking directly up into the dome.

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As you head towards the altar the stained glass windows draw the eye. I’m a big fan of these more abstract designs as opposed to the classically illustrative ones. These ones were installed in the 1950s after the originals were destroyed during WW2.

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First time I’ve seen a mention of corporate sponsors on a church’s windows.

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The gift shop outside had the usual array of postcards and books, and also a selection of religious DVDs. This German dub of the Irish film Calvary stood out, as it’s actually a fairly depressing film about murder and the decline of priests’ social standing. The German title translates as “On Sunday You’re Dead”.

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The other main draw here is the Aachen Treasury, which holds a bewildering array of religious knick-knacks and arts and crafts. Many of these are elaborate and shiny reliquaries, containing fragments of bone, hair and wood of dubious provenance and authenticity. But the containers are very pretty. Especially this enormous hand.

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Nice veins on the back.

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That’s Charlemagne, slightly larger than life-sized.

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The top of his head handily flips open to reveal…

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Well you can’t really see without the aid of a mirror. There you go: Charlemagne’s real, actual skull bone inside.

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A bit of femur.

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There are also some amazingly well-preserved books. This one’s over one thousand years old.

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I forget the technical name for this thing, but it’s basically a little bucket for containing holy water, which you then sprinkle on whatever it is you want to bless.

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This box supposedly contains Jesus’ belt. There was another one for Mary’s belt, and one for the very whip which was used to scourge Jesus’ flesh. Hmm. Still, it would make a good curse, I feel: “Christ’s belt!”.

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Jesus With The Disproportionately Small Head.

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More old books. I was more interested in the form that the content.

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A fantastic triptych (artist unknown) full of fascinatingly weird detail.

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Like this dog bothered by a wasp in its ear.

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There were more paintings upstairs, and I was amazed at how easy it was to go right up to them to photograph details. These things are centuries old and presumably priceless, but I could have just reached out and touched them if I’d wanted to.

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Angel with peacock wings.

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Literally everyone in this picture has the same face. Including the baby.

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Finally out in the fresh air we noticed basketball hoops in the courtyard. Reminds me of the scene in Nanni Moretti’s film Habemus Papam when he gets a bunch of priests to play volleyball in the Vatican grounds.

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In a square nearby we saw a classic “Where did that chicken come from?” statue.

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All this culture and history had made us thirsty, so we stopped at a wine bar whose menu gave handy visual hints as to the flavours of their various offerings.

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Bubbly

Call it poor planning, but it wasn’t until we arrived for our weekend in the Champagne region that it occurred to me that I wasn’t really all that interested in champagne. I can happily drink a glass or two on special occasions, but I can think of things I’d rather do than spend a day tasting glass after glass of acidic fizz and listening to someone explain the difference between ‘disgorgement’ and ‘dosage’. In the town where we were staying, Épernay, there’s a street called Avenue de Champagne, and many tourists go on a sort of posh pub crawl, working their way down the avenue, stopping at every champagne producer located there for a sample or two.

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Having said that, it was interesting to visit one of the largest producers (we ended up choosing Moët & Chandon). After watching a brief video we were taken downstairs to have a look at a very small section of the largest cellars in the whole champagne region. These chilly, chalk-lined caves extend for 28 kilometres under the town and surrounding region. They contain, in total, millions of bottles; the tour guide was unable to tell me exactly how many, as bottles are constantly being added and removed, but one of these alcoves (of which you can only see the front row in these photos) contains 30-40,000 bottles. Which is pretty mind-bottling.

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The bottles in the picture above are being stored in A-frames as part of a process whereby sediment gradually collects in the neck of the bottle. The neck (only) is then frozen to -28°C so that the small amount of wine containing the sediment freezes solid and can be easily removed. But during the time the bottles are in these frames they need to be regularly turned a little and slightly shaken, to encourage the sediment to fall towards the neck. These days this is done by machine, but in order to preserve the traditional methods some of them are still shaken and turned by hand, and this process is called ‘riddling‘. This means that the job title of the person performing this function is…The Riddler. We never saw one so I don’t know if they get to wear the costume.
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We exited through the gift shop, politely declining the opportunity to spend €50 on a Dom Perignon-branded USB key (and disappointed that they had no Riddler accessories).

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It’s definitely worth going to have a look around one of these places if you’re in the area, even if you’re not that partial to the bubbly, and there are some great restaurants nearby too (that’ll be my next post).

The Twisted Beech

Below is a favourite tree of mine from Hyde Park in London. The wide, knobbly, twisted trunk reaches a certain height and then the branches all droop down towards the ground, forming a canopy. It’s great for hiding underneath.

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Last weekend we were driving through the Champagne region of France and I noticed in a tourism brochure that there was a forest of “dwarf beech” trees called “Les Faux de Verzy” just outside the town of Reims. We made a short detour on our way to Reims and spent half an hour wandering there, glad of the leafy shade on this hot, sunny day. It was possibly not the best time of year to really appreciate the structure of these trees, as illustrated by this sign:

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Barriers prevent you from getting too close, as the forest management understandably don’t want people climbing on them. But as they’re covered with foliage it’s often difficult to see much more than a leafy mound in the clearings between other, taller species.

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Fortunately some of them are close enough to the barriers and have some gaps in their branches where you can slide a small camera through to take a closer look under the canopy at the elaborate twistednesses.

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I’ve been unable to find any explanations online as to why the branches form in this way.

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Afterwards we stopped briefly in Reims cathedral. The famous rose window was covered for renovations, and the Marc Chagall window at the other end didn’t do much for me, but I was rather taken by these two pieces located over the baptismal fonts by local artist Brigitte Simon. According to the official cathedral website “Entitled L’Eau Vive, The Water of Life, the window’s blue-grey tones evoke light reflecting on a river”.

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