A Travellerspoint blog

August 2018

St Petersburg - Art and History

July 27th-29th

sunny 30 °C

The final leg of the trans-siberian, a bullet train from Moscow to St Petersburg. The famous city built by Peter the Great at the beginning of the 1700's from a reclaimed swamp. He sort to engage Russia in what he saw as the fashionable European manner so St Peters-burg was modelled on cities like Amsterdam with its wide canals and on the cities like Paris with its very distinct style and decoration. In establishing St Petersburg he moved the capital from Moscow and tried to distance himself from the more parochial elements of Russian culture. Every where you look St Petersburg is a confident, expansive city with generous parks and gardens and wide streets and malls, all overflowing with amazing 18th century architecture and design, much of it very flamboyant.

We hit St Petersburg in the midst of this heatwave that Northern Europe is experiencing and struggled to cope with it especially in the unair-conditioned hotel unit we had booked, so much so that after two of our 5 nights there John went off in pursuit of a hotel with air-con. I don't know of too many travellers who can claim to have two different address simultaneously while in St Petersburg!!! BUT he was happy!
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1. The Hermitage
Not that spectacular from the outside but this is the winter palace where, first Peter the Great and particularly Catherine the Great (bit of a theme!) displayed their highly-refined sensibilities. The palace itself is beyond belief, you stand in awe, torn between the amazing excesses of the opulent extravagances, and craftsmanship of the designers and artisans leaving literally no expense spared and the tragedy of the brutally harsh lives of the peasants . The Hermitage is also famously home to one of the most amazing collections of art held collectively anywhere in the world. At any one time only a small percentage can be on display and there is more than enough to easily take three days of hard slog to absorb. Much of the art work we managed to see was truly breathtaking. There were so many other treasures mixed in amongst a confusing arrangement of rooms that everywhere you went there were tourists wandering through this iconic gallery with their attention held closely to their map, as it was so easy to become disorientated.
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2 Defence of Leningrad
The last Sunday of July is a special celebration in St Petersburg, it is called Navy Day and it celebrates the liberation of the then Leningrad from the almost 900 days of block-aid by the German Army. The Peter and Paul fort, one of Peter the Great's first building projects in 1700 was closed to the public for all the dignitaries to attend, there was heavy air presence and an impressive fly past of Russian aircraft. It was an amazing sunny day and crowds of people were out celebrating, many wearing symbolic recognition of the day; sailor hats, collars, horizontally stripped shirts and carrying the Russian flag or, strangely the St Andrew's flag ( there was historically a Robert the Bruce, grandson maybe, who fought with great distinction alongside the Russian navy in the 1700's) there was a real festive air out on the streets.
We hunted out a little museum which housed memorabilia from the period of the block aid and information about the naval struggle. Everything was in Russian but a young guy was very happy to translate the reminiscences of an older gentleman who wanted to explain every detail that was on display, he also shared a little of the experience of his parents and grandparents during the siege. He was a beautiful old gentleman and his young friend was equally passionate to share the history.
That evening we ate out at an Irish Pub, food not so good but we met a young couple, Natalia and Mischa, who were so keen to talk with us and tell us all about St Petersburg and to find out about what we thought about their hometown and what things were like in Australia. People in Russia are very interested to meet Australians, I don't think they come across too many in their daily lives. We talked on for ages and had a lovely time.
That evening we watched the fireworks from our hotel window.
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Posted by Seniorcitizens 10:53 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

St Petersburg The Fort and the demise of Rasputin

July 30th -31st

sunny 32 °C

After having experienced the celebrations of Sunday including fireworks we headed off to Peter the Great's Fort, St Peter and St Paul, built in the early 1700's. It was really where St Petersburg began. It was built in anticipation of attack from Sweden who were at their strongest historically. Viewed from above is is very strategic, as the outer wall has many sections that point out, increasing the effectiveness and versatility of the defenders. The Fort has many interesting parts which have had many uses over its lifetime. Right in the centre is the massive Peter and Paul Orthodox Cathedral which is the burial place for all Russian Tars from Peter the first up until Tsar Nicholas II and his family who were re-interred in a moving ceremony after the discovery of their remains.
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One of the highlights was the old prison which had over the years been the site of detention prior to execution or deportation to Siberia of insurgents and rebels (referred to as terrorists-those opposing the rule of the Tsars) from the early 1800's until 1917, where upon it's use was modified to imprison those considered 'enemies of the people'. The stories of the imprisoned and the accounts of their inhumane treatment were detailed as you went along. Cells were also marked as having been the site where prominent leaders had been held, such as Anton Chekov. Rebels, knowing that they had a high risk of being imprisoned learned a code that would allow them to communicate with other prisoners via tapping once they had been captured.

There is a "beach" at the fort and being such a hot day many Russians were out sunning themselves on the bank.
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We wandered back through the Summer Gardens being able to fully appreciate their effectiveness in the heat.

John has always held a deep interest in the story of Rasputin, the 'mad monk' and confidant of the last royal family. Many Russians resented him, his rustic, unrefined manners and the power he had being so close to the Romanov's, so they decided that it was time to 'get rid of him' . Our Russian friends from a couple of nights ago had told us that Rasputin had been murdered about 100 metres from where we were sitting ( John went into apoplexy). We were able to locate Yusupov Palace to which he had been lured whilst a group of nobles plotted his demise. Legend goes that he was almost impossible to kill, this was a part of the mystery that had built up around him. He was fed a sumptuous meal (poisoned) to end his life, this apparently had little effect, but he may have realised that there was another agenda to this invite. Next they tried to shoot him, and he was hit several times, again this too was unsuccessful so they threw him in the Moika River that ran outside the palace, leaving him to drown . We were able to locate the Palace and go and explore it, it was truly a magnificent example of 19th century design but more appealing to me than something like the Winter Palace as I could imagine people living in these spaces. We also identified spaces where we believed Rasputin may have been entertained in his final hours. Unfortunately we missed the exhibition they have on Rasputin's sorry end as it was not on at that time.
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Check out the most amazing theatre room they had in the palace too!!

We popped in to St Issac's, a powerfully significant Orthodox Cathedral, and climbed the 200+ steps to the bell tower to get an amazing view all over the city, the height of its spire made it one of the tallest structures in Leningrad during the siege and many precious artworks and historical items were stored here during that time as the Russians discovered that the German artillery used the tower to sight their big guns on so they were not going to destroy it.
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Posted by Seniorcitizens 09:38 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Estonia - The Free World!!

sunny 30 °C

No more train but on to a bus and a very elegant bus it was too as we leave Russia and continue west to Tallinn the capital of Estonia. We travelled with a lovely young Uni student who was studying linguistics and journalism in Moscow, he was also keen to talk about Russia and to hear about Australia and like most Russians we speak with he saw that life in Australia was much easier with the benefits that we have access to, hard to hear for some who feel that it is tough at the moment at home, but I think when I listen to them that they are right.

Crossing the boarder was again an ordeal having to get on and off the bus and take our luggage on and off repeatedly with all the instructions issued in Russian, in the midst of one of these a part of my suitcase broke, yes that new one, especially designed for international travel and with a 10 year warranty (and only 5 weeks into 13 weeks) !!! Trying to email Samsonite, will keep you posted
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We have left Rubles behind and are now working with Euros and despite changing 1,000 Rubles for about 8 Euros, things in the free world are a lot more expensive. Our air B&B is a lovely little flat just perfect, although John did draw my attention to the absence of air-conIMG_20180801_174405.jpgIMG_20180801_174345.jpg

Tallinn is famous for its world heritage listed 'old town', the most complete intact Medieval town in all of Europe and it is definitely a well deserved listing. It is a port city on the Baltic and has been a very important link in trade routes since the 1300;s whilst in the mean time being ruled by many other national powers with a few attempts at independence along the way. Denmark, Sweden and Russia have been the chief conquerors with also a significant input from the German principalities ( even though Germany was a long way off becoming a nation in its own right at the time).
The Old Town covers a considerable area inside imposing city walls and operates as a regular city with homes, shops, eateries and other attractions whilst at the same time managing a large tourist population, boosted daily by large cruise ships unloading their passengers who have been enjoying their Baltic Sea cruise.e694bbe0-9a6d-11e8-9f9f-f320d5f00e13.jpgIMG_20180801_195752.jpgIMG_20180805_113248.jpgIMG_20180805_113326.jpgP1020329.JPG

After exploring some of the Old town and sampling some yummy food, we headed off on a three hour bike tour, a highlight for John! Exploring the wider area of Tallinn, learning interesting history; so much about their ongoing struggle for independence from so many imposing powers. Estonians are also famous for their love of singing and singing played a powerful role in their struggle for independence from Russia in the late 80's. They have a long history of choral events and while we were in Tallinn there were many people from all over the world wearing lanyards showing that they were all in Tallinn for a singing festival
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Estonia has a museum for just about everything and I mean everything, so we launched into a concerted program of immersing ourselves in the history of Estonia and Tallinn. Estonians have a very dry, self deprecating sense of humour which comes through so clearly in the little explanatory notes beside the exhibits. We also picked up a Tallinn Card which gave us access to many of the exhibitions and tram trips.

Peter the Great (remember him from St Petersburg) also loved Tallinn he built a palace as you do in Tallinn, his "holiday house" . We popped in to check it out, grand but on a smaller scale . Back in the old town we climbed up on the old city wall, fantastic views and, guess what, another museum. Great timeIMG_20180805_114347.jpgP1020074.JPGIMG_20180802_120927.jpgP1020139.JPG

Posted by Seniorcitizens 11:11 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

Tallinn - Museums, Drama more museums

sunny 32 °C

More museums; town hall, bastions under the city wall, towers, KGB interrogation cells!! So much information which all worked together to paint a very comprehensive picture of the Estonian people as independent, resourceful, resilient, creative, tolerant and humorous who value justice, education and the arts and acknowledge the rights of the individual .
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In the tunnels under the city we explored the many ways the Estonian people found safety and protection over the last 500 years when the outside world impacted their safety. They have had a difficult journey since independence in 1990 and are still struggling, salaries are low but they have become one of the leading communities in e-technology.

We have read and heard so many stories of the oppression experienced under a range of totalitarian regimes but there was one account in the KGB cells of Tallinn I found really moving. It was recounted by a grandson to whom the story had be told him by his mother. A family living in Tallinn in 1950 with two sons and a daughter, father was a lecturer at the Tallinn university, a student who was the son of a Soviet official denounced him because he was failed by him. The lecturer was taken off in the night as an 'enemy of the people' taken to a gulag in Siberia with a long sentence. His wife wrote constantly to him (they found out later that he never received any of the mail). She tried to get work to support her family but was denied consistently as she was married to an 'enemy of the people'. She was told that the only way she could get work was to divorce her husband so left with a choice of her family starving she had little option. she wrote a long letter to her husband explaining that she still loved him but that she had no other choice, this letter of course never reached him but the divorce papers did with a biting comment from the powers that be that 'even his wife no longer wanted him' As time went on he married a woman from the local area and was ultimately repatriated to Tallinn where the tangled mess was revealed, but by then too much had occurred for life to return to the way it was before.
There are countless stories just like this and the weight of hearing them and reading them sits heavily.

Dramas
We decided to purchase a GPS in anticipation of hiring a car, THEN John lost his phone!!!!!!!!!EEEEK!!!! AND we got the day wrong for collecting our car so we had to take another one (more expensive of course!!) Tallinn was holding its annual Iron Man contest so all the roads were blocked off.
John picked up the car and guess what it had its own GPS!!!! It took an hour to travel a distance that should have been 10 minutes because of all the road closures and we couldn't gain access to our accommodation (we were told it would continue til midnight) BUT we did receive a message from our Air B&B host who had been contacted by the people who had found John's phone YEAH!!!
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Tallinn has been a real highlight of our trip.

Posted by Seniorcitizens 07:17 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

Tartu and driving on the right!!!

August 5th -7th

semi-overcast 26 °C

Tartu is the second largest city in Estonia which sill makes it pretty small! Drove through the Estonian countryside which is fairly flat, very green and a mixture of farm land where all we could see was hay bailed and wooded areas mostly birch. We were led by the "impeccable" guidance of our sat. nav. christianed Patience although I do suspect she may be a little bit blond! .....and I think that Patience buried her head in her proverbial hands as we negotiated some less than appropriate left hand turns. Oops!

Along the way we stopped at a medieval castle (approx 1500's), Rakvere, which has been partially restored and has a full compliment of enthusiastic young actors. Great fun if not exactly 'kosher' but it has been designed to engage young people and has lots of great ideas for that. IMG_20180805_150822.jpgIMG_20180805_153237.jpgP1020378.JPGP1020439.JPGP1020422.JPG
From there to Tartu a lovely town with an Old town area although no where near as sizable as Tallinn. Consistent with Estonia it also has an amazing range of museums, where to go? We are beginning to find similar stories retold from different perspectives in a number of different places, so are attempting to become more discerning. As it was Monday many of the places we had hoped to visit were closed but we did manage to see the Ice Age museum which dealt with climate shifts through out our long history, one fairly controversial comment suggested that man has as much impact on changes in the climate as would an ant in a forest!!! Of course there were the obligatory taxidermy mammoths and other prehistoric animals.IMG_20180806_134231.jpgP1020461.JPGIMG_20180806_143457.jpgIMG_20180806_133511.jpg

We explored the town and found some really quaint elements, an old bridge, kissing hill, a soaring cathedral which looks like either it was never completed or was damaged during the war.
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Off to another couple of museums!
First one, the the Estonian History Museum, a very new structure built on a site which was a Soviet Defence Base and which led to a ban on all visitors to the whole Tartu region. It continued to tell the inspiring story of their fight for independence whilst setting it in the context of broader history. One interesting feature was that we were given cards when we bought our tickets and by holding them over the text of an item we were looking at it would convert the text into English, an example of their cutting edge e-technology.

From there to the KGB cells, a recurring theme in liberated eastern block countries, this again repeated the same tragic stories and recounted the injustices that an occupied country had to bear.
There was a passionate but ultimately doomed group of partisans who lived rough, called the Forest Brothers who attempted to undermine the Soviet dictatorship but most were captured and either sent on to the gulags or executed. We found there a significant connection to Alexsandre Solzhenitsyn the Russian author of "One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" fame. this novel set in the Soviet Gulags where Solzhenitsyn had spent time as a political prisoner told every man's story there as Denisovich negotiates the tricky job of managing day to day. While we in the west were reaping the benefits of a comfortable consumer fed lifestyle those behind the 'Iron Curtain' experienced quite a different reality. Whilst they have had independence for almost 30 years it will take a lot longer to ameliorate the physical, material, emotional and spiritual costs in their history.
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Posted by Seniorcitizens 09:59 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

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