Saturday, December 31, 2011

Day Two in Moscow: Serendipity

Our second day in Russia was all about serendipity. After dismally failing to see ice sculptures the night before, I had googled my little heart out and learned about the annual Vyugovey Ice Sculpture Festival, which had apparently opened only two days earlier.

Again, we didn't get ice sculptures. It turns out that not only is the All-Russian Exhibition Center absolutely enormous (not so much an exhibition center as a suburb), but it is most definitely not hosting a Vyugovey ice sculpture festival (thanks to this website for putting me wrong!) So, instead of just getting a long walk and some muddy boots to show for it, I got a long walk through a bizarre communist version of a business park! Which was actually pretty cool.

The first thing we discovered was the Monument to the Conquerors of Space, which is was made out of titanium in 1964 to celebrate Soviet achievements in space exploration.

As we walk into the park we're surrounded by buildings like this one. It's creatively named "central pavillion". Inside are some tacky market stalls and an aquarium with sharks. I kid you not. Stalin would turn in his grave!

The Central Pavillion.

The Space Pavillion.

The 'Friendship of Nations' fountain; glorifying the workers.

Though bummed we'd missed ice sculptures for a second time, we felt lucky that we'd had the chance to explore such an unusual, empty, space that could only exist in a Soviet country.

One thing that takes a bit of getting used to in Moscow is the metro system.

Not only do they have escalators so long you could finish a novel...

...and bronze statues and chandeliers everywhere...

...but the metro map is in Russian. Now this is logical of course, except there's nowhere to pick up a copy except the hotel. And the hotel gives you a copy in English.

So, on our map, our stop is called Izmailovsky Park.

On the actual map, it's called Измайловский парк.

Every other station's name is similarly warped between our map and the actual system.

Again, this would be doable, except there's nowhere down inside the metro with a complete map, just a list of stations.

We ended up getting on in the wrong direction, walking in massive loops, or standing in confusion while trains whizzed past just about every time we disappeared down there!

Our last stop of the day was the Tretyakov State Gallery.

It was closed.

I'm getting used to that!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Life Lesson #38 - Ice, Ice Baby

Ice sculptures. That's how I ended up in this park in the middle of nowhere in Moscow. Ice sculptures. 

My best friend came here ten years ago and raved. There were photos. Good photos. I was jealous. Now I'm here to see them for myself, and there's nothing.

Or at least, it doesn't look like there's anything.

We've been walking for an hour since we got off the metro, and finally reached Krasnaya Presnya Park, home of the Gallery of Russian Ice Sculpture, aka an ice amusement park!

Except all we can see is two temporary looking buildings. One is a massive deserted building, fenced all round with an ominous looking warning sign. It looks like a great setting for a nuclear horror movie. The second building is on the other side of the park and looks like a bouncy castle dome. Neither of them looks much like a gallery of Russian Ice Sculpture.

So we walk into the park.

Whoever designed this park has sliced it into long strips by placing a hairpin shaped body of water running the entire length, with a tiny island at the other end from us.

We walk all the way along and get hopeful: there's a truck unloading fridge-sized blocks of ice.

Then we spot this on the tiny island:

Success! Sort of. This photo was taken with a very zoomed in lens. We can't actually tell what the tiny sculpture is. The ice block carrying truck men won't let us on to the island.

So I become convinced that this isn't actually the Gallery of Russian Ice Sculpture. "This is just the foyer of sorts", I say. I'm convinced of this because the website says they're open year round.

I decide we should walk right back along the other side, certain that we'll locate the ice sculptures.

We walk all the way along the river's edge and then discover that we've locked ourselves in. The only way to get to where we want to be is to either cross the river, or walk back.

The river looks sort of frozen. ish.

There's a spot where we can cross without having to put our whole weight on the ice. Just one foot on the ice, the other on mud and rocks. There's a hurricane fence to hold on to on the way down, and weedy looking roots as we cross the water.

About halfway across, I go through the ice. And shriek like Fay Wray.

Thankfully, the sludge beneath the ice is only ankle deep, so though my leather boot looks like it's been up close and personal with elephant poo, I don't tumble in completely.

But somehow my weedy looking root has snapped. Paul's on the other side already and laughing at me.

I make it across.

That's when we realise that we've miscalculated, and rather than being on the other side of the river, we're just on another island-y bit in the middle. We have three choices: go all the way back; cross another, much deeper looking river; or scale a large hurricane fence with barbed wire at the top and walk around.

We scale the fence.

A moment later I see a familiar looking sign and realise where we are.

We're inside the nuclear horror movie. Although on closer inspection, the red warning sign could also say something about live landmines.

Paul want to sneak in further and check out the abandoned building. I'm not sure what'll happen if we do, but I know it will either involve death or the KGB, and probably both.

So I scale one more fence, this one at least 2.5m high, and get groundshock as my feet thud to the ground on the correct side.

We're standing exactly where we were about an hour and a half earlier. We could have walked the long way back around the river and back about four times by now.

You live and you learn, eh?

Oh and we checked out the bouncy castle dome thing before we left, just in case.

It was an indoor tennis court.

Day One in Moscow

The guy who picked us up at the airport looked like a James Bond villian. This was my first thought after laying eyes on the optimistic looking elephant holding a sign with my name on it. He looked like he could tip over a forklift. The second thought was "I wonder if he has KGB connections?" The third was "I wish I'd paid the extra 15% for a guy who speaks English!". Before the fourth, I'd fallen asleep in the passenger seat of his tiny Lada. He obviously understood where to take us, because I drifted awake in time to see some Cyrillic symbols that vaguely resembled Izmailovo Gamma Delta, our hotel in the 1980 Moscow Olympic Village.

The next morning, we took the metro directly into Red Square.

Before laying eyes on anything we recognised, we could tell we were in Russia. The architecture was so intricate, and every building looked like it should be in the guidebook.

Paul in Red Square in front of the Kremlin.

Without a word to each other, we walked all the way towards St Basil's Cathedral, until there was nothing left to do but go inside!

As we walked in the first thing I noticed was that there was no communal space. No big worship area like I'm used to seeing in ordinary cathedrals. Instead there were several small altars. The largest one had a group of four men singing some sort of mournful Russian song in perfect harmony. I wasn't sure if they were busking or just singing for the heck of it, but I listened through the iron gate for ages.

Back in Red Square we popped into Gum - an enormous department store. During the Soviet era, Stalin turned Gum into offices, but now it's like an enormous shopping mall. I can't decide whether I prefer it that way.

Naturally, the next step was the Kremlin, including the biggest bell in the world (202 tons). Which has never actually been rung, because it broke while it was still in the cast. Stink!

The next goal of the day was to see ice sculptures. It failed miserably (see the Life Lesson), but on the bright side we did get to walk along the river bank (for miles and miles!) while it was getting darker.

Why are there so many smoke stacks in Moscow?

We sort of got to see ice sculptures. Or at least, we got within zoom photo distance. It's funny. I didn't realise what the sculpture was of until I processed the photos and saw these two one after the other!

Cold and tired, we wandered for what felt miles, until accidentally stumbling across the largest shopping mall I think I've ever seen. This monument to capitalism feels at odds with former communist Russia, so it was kinda surreal.

We slept very, very deeply back in the Olympic village.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review: Jerusalem

When Mark Rylance won the Tony Award for Best Actor earlier this year, I was kicking myself for not seeing him in Jerusalem on Broadway when I had the chance. Luckily, the show transferred back to the West End in October for a limited run.

We queued for ages to buy tickets before the show even opened. "what are the best seats you've got across the whole season" I asked. Turns out, the best they could do was the back row of the stalls the week between Christmas and New Year.

I knew this would mean seeing a three and a half hour play on our only night in London between trips... but quickly decided it was worth the sacrifice!

The show is difficult to describe. An unemployed bludger with a penchant for telling tall stories is squatting in a trailer on council land and has caused no end of havoc for residents in over a decade. He's banned from every pub in the town. The council are trying one last time to evict him.

Mark Rylance's hilarious drunken dramatic monologues about everything from his rare blood type to meeting a giant near Stonehenge are the glue that holds the play together. His deadbeat friends are played excellently by a relatively large troupe for a one-set show. The most memorable is Ginger, an aspiring DJ, played by Mackenzie Crook of the Pirates of the Carribean trilogy.

I don't want to spoil the show by saying anything further, except that it wasn't much like I expected at all, and that I can now understand the hype.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Life Lesson #37 - Globetrotting Roast

On our last night in London before Christmas, we had our friends Rose and Rowley over for a massive turkey roast.

As always, there was loads of food left over. But I had a plan.

I'd been warned in advance that Austrians celebrate on Christmas Eve even more than Christmas Day itself.

"Everything will be closed", warned a friend. "You'll go hungry if you don't take food to Salzburg with you", advised the blogosphere.

So I did. I packed up a dozen potatoes, a quarter of a turkey and a few Yorkshire puds into a massive Tupperware and took it with me to Salzburg.

The problem was, they were all wrong. Everything was open. And what's more, it never occurred to me that we'd need to eat long before we could check not our hotel and use a microwave at 2pm. So, of course, we bought some German pastries from a bakery and ignored the roast.

But I didn't want to throw it away.

We could't eat it the next day because we were on the Sound of Music tour. So, it accompanied us on the overnight train across the Italian border to Venice.

We didn't eat it in Venice either.

We arrived home with a dozen unrefrigerated potatoes, a quarter of an unrefrigerated turkey, and a couple of unrefrigerated Yorkshire puds.

I was home alone the next day (frantically processing photos so I could blog about Salzburg before we flew out again, as it happens).

When I unpacked my suitcase, the five day old roast looked mighty appealing.

So I ate it. Almost all of it. Even the turkey.

And I didn't get sick!

So the moral of the story is, if you want to take your Christmas dinner to three countries before eating it, you'd better be in the Northern Hemisphere!

The same roast on the same table, five days and three countries later!


Jammed into a tiny cabin with six people, I woke at 5am on Boxing Day en route to Venice. The sun was rising somewhere over the Italian countryside.

Venice welcomed us with a crisp winter sky. As we walked to our hostel, we barely saw a soul.

Crossing the Grand Canal at about 7:30am after the train arrived.
After dropping our bags off, we headed straight to Piazza San Marco. Last time I was here there was a festival on and it was buzzing with life. This time, it was comparatively deserted. It felt like a whole other, sleepier, side to Venice. It's probably because Christmas is a time traditionally spent at home, and Venice normally has more tourists than residents.

Piazza San Marco and St Mark's Campanile

We appreciated the lack of crowds when we were able to go up St Mark's Campanile without the normal snaking queue.

The Basilica di San Marco and Venice as seen from the top of St Mark's Campanile.

Doge's Palace, with Venice behind it and the shadow of St Mark's Campanile.

Inside the Basilica di San Marco
From there, we walked through the old town, navigating the canals to the Rialto Bridge.

The Grand Canal as seen from the Rialto Bridge.

One of the smaller canals.
The next day, we purchased a day pass for the Waterbus system, and started by going almost all the way around Venice to the island of Murano and its famed glasswork. We saw a free demonstration of glass blowing and glass moulding. I'd guess that sculpting a rearing horse from molten glass is probably harder than this guy made it look!

A glass sculpture in Murano.
We also checked out the glass museum before heading back to Venice. It wasn't as exciting as I was hoping - more an exhibition of things made from glass rather than the scientific/engineering side of how they actually do it, which I'd have been more interested in.

From a bridge in Murano.

We got off the waterbus at the Bridge of Sighs. It connects the old prisons to the interrogation chambers, and is so named because of the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice as they crossed to be executed.

We got lost on our way to the next Waterbus stop, and stumbled across a secondhand bookshop that stored books in a whole gondola in the centre of the shop!

The sun was starting to go down by the time we headed to the Guggenheim art museum.

The Rialto bridge just before sunset.

The Guggenheim collection was fascinating, because it's in the house that Peggy Guggenheim actually used to live in. Before coming here I didn't even know that there was more than one Guggenheim Museum! By the time we left, it was dark and time to say goodbye to Venice on our way to the airport.

The Rialto Bridge a few hours later, as we travelled up the Grand Canal one last time before heading home.

Venice isn't traditionally seen as a winter destination. But the crisp blue sky, the lack of tourists, and the Grand Canal not emitting odd odours make it a great option that I'd definitely consider again!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Snowflakes in Salzburg

Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes. That's what I wanted for my first winter Christmas. The London weather reports indicated a mild winter with no snow until the new year. Determined to see snow on Christmas day, we booked a Christmas trip to Salzburg, followed by a few days in Venice.

After a very early rise, we arrive in Salzburg at about 9am on Christmas Eve and head straight to Mirabell Gardens for our first Sound of Music moment.

This is where Do-Re-Mi was filmed... albeit in Summer!

The old town of Salzburg is mainly made up of quaint six storey pastel coloured buildings, some of them burrowing into the hard rock. Our first stop, the Museum of Modern Art, had its entrance at ground level and then elevators that shoot you up the inside of the mountain to the gallery on the top.

The entrance to the Museum of Modern Art.

View from the top! (with the fortress on the hill).

The gallery was one of my favourites all year. The exhibition that really fascinated me was an artist named Evan Penny, who sculpts realistic humans and then distorts them. Some of them look perfect when you find the right spot to look from. Others you can only see with the help of a computer afterwards. (photography wasn't allowed... but I really wanted to see how this face looked when it wasn't stretched to the height of a doorway!

Walking from the gallery through the old town, we passed Mozart's birthplace entirely by accident. Salzburg is the kind of city where that's very easy to do.

The Christmas markets were still open for most of the day, and the famous Salzburg egg shop was too. I was very tempted to get some... but have terrible memories of the demise of my brother's precious one several years after he got it all the way back from Salzburg to Auckland in one piece. When you're born clumsy, like I was, you have to know your limitations!

We took a bus half an hour out of Salzburg for Christmas Eve dinner, after reading rave reviews of a cute little restaurant attached to Hotel Friesacher in Anif. 

We had five hours to kill before heading back into the city for midnight mass, so decided to take our meal slow. Good plan. The food was incredible, the staff were friendly, and we were able to soak in the atmosphere with an orangenpunsch drink by the open fire before and after our meal.

Paul's perfect roast beef. I had wiener schnitzel (of course!)

At Midnight, we stepped into an enormous cathedral packed to the point of overflowing with thousands of good Austrian Catholics. Though we were nearly 20 minutes early, there was no chance of a seat. The feeling inside was electric because it was so late at night, and the choir were already singing. I felt like we were all in on a secret. 

The service was entirely in German (except for the bits in Latin). Oh, and it was two hours long. Did I mention this was at midnight? 

Relatively unfamiliar with Catholicism, my main motivation for sitting through it was because Salzburg is where Silent Night was written. Thankfully, it was sung at the close of the service so I got my wish. (meanwhile, who knew there were so many more verses in the original German version?!)

Knowing that Salzburg would be mainly closed down on Christmas day, we pre-planned our day full of trips and tours. And I was still determined to find snowflakes to stay on my nose and eyelashes.

First stop: the salt mines. Because it's Christmas, we had the whole place to ourselves - an unintentional private tour! Our driver had the thickest Boston accent I've ever heard, but was confused when I asked how long he'd lived in Salzburg. Turns out he's a native, but his relatives escaped to Boston after the war and he learned English from them. Very bizarre when someone with a perfect American accent suddenly pauses and says "I don't know the english word for that".

He spent over half an hour explaining how Hitler actually saved the rest of the world from the Russians, how the Third Reich was misunderstood, and how there were many fewer Jews murdered than commonly believed... we were relieved when we were alone again!

Our first White Christmas moment - just near the salt mines.

We dressed up like miners and spend about 90 minutes in the mines. The best part by far is the slides that they used to use to reach the lower mines. Strangely, most of the tour takes place in Germany, as you cross the border underground near the beginning of the trip.

One reason to be grateful for our holocaust denying driver was that he was willing to switch things around in order to let us go up Mt Untersberg. It hadn't been possible the day before because of the fog, and I'd been really disappointed.

We weren't quite prepared for what confronted us... it was way below zero and the wind chill was unreal! Snow was falling, but it was less "snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes" and more like getting pelted with frozen peas. Still... I can hardly complain after getting my Christmas wish!

Ice on the door to the gondola.
 We warmed up with a hot chocolate at the top before heading back down.

We caught the bus back to the centre of town for our next trip... the Sound of Music tour. The company billed it as the 'most unique' Sound of Music tour. I realised how much I'm turning into my father when this impossible phrase made me cringe.

The guy next to us was very quiet except to tell his wife that she owed him four hours. He was dumbfounded that we would choose to torture ourselves with an afternoon of the Sound of Music!

The '16 going on 17' gazebo.

The Von Trapp house. and the 'I have confidence' tree-lined street.

Maria's Abbey (both in real life and the movie) on the right, and the Salzburg Fortress.

The lake the kids fall into, all frozen over and with Mt Untersberg in the background.

The church in Mondsee where the wedding scene was filmed.

Sunset in Mondsee.

Could Austria be any more beautiful?

We topped off our Christmas with a meal and a Mozart concert at the Salzburg Fortress.

My kind of dessert.

Salzburg by night, from the fortress.

Back at our hotel to pick up our bags for the overnight train to Venice, we had an hour to kill. Paul's ears pricked up, and we realised that not only were they watching the Sound of Music, but they were up to the exact point that we'd gotten to the night before! 

We sat down for as long as we could, watching it and feeling a little homesick, while still buzzing about how lucky we were to spend Christmas in Salzburg.