Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Ten Best Things about Russia

Posted by Lisa Hill on November 4, 2013

Back home again, and still scrapbooking our trip to Russia … I’ve had time to reflect and share my thoughts about it all.  While Aussie tourists have been ubiquitous on all our previous travels, in Russia we found ourselves exotic.  ‘From Avstralia’, they would say in delighted astonishment, ‘a long way!

Well, yes, of course it is, but Australia is a long way away from everywhere and the long-haul flight to Moscow isn’t much different to a long-haul flight to London or Paris or Rome.  The tyranny of distance doesn’t explain why so few of us venture to Russia.  So, here are my Ten Best Things about Russia to entice you!

1.  Visiting Russia will clear your head of all those obsolete grey Cold War preconceptions that you have from the movies.  Moscow is a dynamic, exciting city full of interesting things to see; St Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

2.  Russia is a booklovers’ paradise.  They are justifiably proud of their literary heritage and visiting the homes of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky is a wonderful experience.  Allow more time than we did so that you can go to the Pushkin Museum too.

3. Russian churches are breath-taking.  Somehow the best ones survived Stalin’s aggressive atheism and German vindictiveness in defeat, and the Russians are brilliant at restorations.  Because these churches are Orthodox they are quite different to anything you can see elsewhere, and if you are lucky you will also hear spine-tingling a cappella male voice choirs.  (There are no musical instruments used in Russian Orthodox Churches).

4. Russian palaces and the museums now within them are spectacular.  The Hermitage is only one of a number of amazing palaces.  The tsars were the billionaires of their day and they, their friends and relations had so much money they didn’t know what to do with it all.   They built astonishing palaces all over the place and filled with them with marvellous treasures.  The Soviets flogged some of it off and the Germans trashed a lot of it, but there is still so much left that you could spend weeks just admiring it all. (See some here).

5.  The Moscow Metro is brilliant.  Do what we did, spend a couple of hours doing a circuit of it so that you can see the best of this architectural extravaganza.  Marble walls, monstrous chandeliers, propaganda sculptures and carvings showcase all kinds of aspects of Soviet life, each station with a different theme.  You’ll probably need a guide so you don’t miss the best ones, Krushchev put a stop to Stalin’s grandiose ‘gift’ to the Soviet people and the stations built in his time are positively Spartan.

5.  Russia’s history is more than fascinating and visiting the actual sites of great moments in history is an experience that is more than mere tourism.  In the palaces and churches are stories of Tsars ignoble and poignant,  elsewhere you will hear about their tumultuous 20th century when they were a social laboratory under the Soviets, transformed from the extreme social inequity of Tsarist autocracy to experimental Communism, and then catapulted into modern capitalism and democracy.  There will be references to what they demurely call ‘Soviet Times’ when they were traumatised by Stalinism and repressed by a string of Soviet dictators.  And in so many places restored from the scorched earth barbarism of World War 2, you will come to understand their catastrophic losses in World War 2, with 9 million military deaths, more than 11 million civilians, and two million Soviet Jews sent to their deaths in the Holocaust.  Because most of my generation grew up under Cold War hostility, I think that most tourists would gain a different perspective from learning about all this.  I know that I did.

6.  Russian people are friendly, helpful, delighted by pitiful attempts to speak their language and tolerant of tourists who won’t even try.  Younger people have learned English at school, and though some of them may not be very good at it, they are clever about guessing what you are asking.  You will find it easier if you try to learn their alphabet, or at least carry a phrase book that has an alphabet that you can use to read the names of streets and train stations.  But in restaurants where no one speaks English you will find that they are more nervous about getting it wrong than you are.

7. The tourist areas of Moscow and St Petersburg feel safe.  Not once in a fortnight did we feel uneasy, even when we were on our own without a tour guide.  I suspect that you are more likely to be pick-pocketed in Rome.

8. St Petersburg is only an hour from Berlin, and much more fun. Getting the visa is the only tedious part.

9. It is possible to spend a great holiday in Russia without eating any cabbage.

10. It is not possible to spend a holiday in Russia without trying some neat vodka. Good quality, expensive vodka is much better than the stuff you use in mixed drinks.

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Carnavalet Museum, Paris

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 7, 2012

We had a lovely lunch at the Royal Turenne Bistro (where the food was scrumptious and the waiters were friendly and helpful (and kind to me about my awful French) and then made our way to a most enjoyable afternoon at the Carnavalet Museum, Paris.

This museum traces the history of the city from its beginnings to the present day and it is full of fascinating exhibits.  If you watch the slideshow you can see

  • fragments of a massive statue of Louis XIV which was pulled down during the revolution, locks of hair from the murdered royal family, the dauphin’s toys and a model of the guillotine
  • Voltaire’s chair, and a bust of him too
  • Proust’s bedroom where he did much of his writing,
  • gorgeous miniatures and lovely porcelain used to advertise wares in the days when people were illiterate (and a modern one of Lanvin’s boutique)
  • Fouquet’s glorious art nouveau cafe, and
  • memorabilia from the French Revolution.

All of this is in two lovely buildings with more than 100 rooms decorated in style from the 17th to the 20th century.  There are also two formal gardens and a kitchen garden, a pleasant place to sit and rest weary feet.

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Victor Hugo’s House, Paris

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 7, 2012

On our way home now, and with just one full day day in Paris, we decided to dawdle around in the Marais, a district we have not explored before.

We marked an historic moment at the site of the Bastille, and then went to Victor Hugo’s house.   Like Dostoyevsky Hugo had many addresses, but I was content to enjoy this one which (though the street address is authentic) is more of a reconstruction of a ‘typical house of that era’ than the way it really was in his day.   The Chinese Room is very startling – not a restful room by any means, but there was interesting memorabilia including a photo commemorating the visit of Aung Sun Suu Chi.  (By coincidence, I ‘watched’ the recent film of her life, ‘The Lady’, on the plane).

You can read my thoughts about Les Misérables on my ANZ LitLovers blog.

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Alte Nationalgalerie and Neues Museum, Berlin

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 5, 2012

After a cafe lunch we’d best forget, we plodded on to the Alte Nationalgalerie which is a collection of Neoclassical, Romantic, and Impressionist artworks.  I’m not sure whether it was we were becoming a bit footsore or if perhaps it was indigestion, but the artworks here did not take my fancy the way they did in the other museums and I took hardly any pictures.

The bust of Goethe will interest my bookish friends, (and I’m pleased to say that I have finally read something by this author: you can read my review of The Sorrows of Young Werther over on my ANZ LitLovers blog). There were some lovely sculptures of the sort that people had in their formal gardens, but they seemed similar to ones I’ve seen elsewhere so I didn’t photograph them.  And the Impressionists were quite disappointing.  There weren’t very many of them, and the ones they had weren’t especially fine.  I thought that some of them might be in need of restoration because the colours seemed a bit dull, or maybe they’ve overdone it with the special lighting to protect the artworks, at the expense of being able to see them properly?

But the painting that intrigued me was this one: for some reason, some of the figures have been blanked out.  Who were they, and why was this done?  Did some nut-case do it, or was it some sort of vandalistic political correctness?  A couple of French women in the gallery were very indignant about it, so I wondered if the figures were French heroes?  Anyway, I photographed the information caption in the hope that someone who reads this will recognise the painting and be able to enlighten me.  It seems such a strange thing to do, to display a painting that has been mutilated like this! (Update, after a Google search: it’s not a defaced painting at all, it’s just not finished! See here and scroll down to the paragraph about Frederick the Great’s Address to His Generals Before the Battle of Leuthen (1859-61). )

Our last stop was the  Neues Museum, which specialises in Egyptian antiquities.  Once again Tim was in seventh heaven, especially when we finally got to see Nefertiti in all her glory.  For some bizarre reason, although you’re allowed to photograph everything else (as long as you don’t use flash), photos of Nefertiti are forbidden – which is daft, because there’s a gazillion images of her on the web anyway.  She’s displayed in a gallery all by herself, and it’s quite uncanny the way she seems to look out at people like us who are gawking at her.

But what I liked best was the early examples of writing – it never ceases to amaze me that these were somehow translated so that we can understand what these early scribes were recording. The funerary objects were very interesting too, and some of the sculptures of children were very moving – their expressions are very sad, showing that human emotion, especially grief, hasn’t changed at all over the millenia.

We finished up our time in Berlin at the tapas bar of the Melia Hotel.  This is an excellent hotel, and if you are keen to see the museums it is ideal because it’s within easy walking distance and it’s very central to everything else as well.  The service was great, the people friendly and the dinner we had in the restaurant was the meal of the trip.

That may change now that we’re in Paris of course!  Tim has booked us into a very nice restaurant for tomorrow night!

Posted in Art Galleries, Berlin 2012, Museums | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Altes Museum, Berlin

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 5, 2012

After the Bode, (and a restorative coffee in the cafe) we visited the Altes Museum.  It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s full of splendid classical antiquities.

I was pleased to see a bunch of primary school children sketching the vases and statuary, and only too happy to submit to being ‘interviewed’ by some of them.  The two little girls that you can see in the slideshow were ecstatic to have found two such exotic subjects as a couple of Australians, and they were pleased to find a use for the English they’ve been learning at school.  They were lovely kids!

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Bode Museum, Berlin

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 5, 2012

I’m writing this from Paris after a long day and a late dinner, so it’s just slide shows from me tonight – sorry!

We spent our day in Berlin ‘doing’ the Museums, starting with the Bode Museum.  It’s a sculpture collection showcasing mainly Christian Art from Coptic Egypt, Byzantium and Ravenna;  sculptures from the Middle Ages, and the early Renaissance.   It was my favourite of the day.

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Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 4, 2012

The Pergamon Museum in Berlin is splendid – but take my advice and do not waste your money on the Welcome to Berlin Museum Card.  It is a pain to buy, a pain to activate, and it doesn’t save you either money or time in getting into the museum.  (And the people whose job it is to explain it to you or facilitate its use, aren’t interested in doing that).

What’s special about this museum is the displays of the Pergamon Altar, (Ancient Greece) the Market Gate of Miletus (Ancient Rome) and the glorious Ishtar Gate from Ancient Babylon.  (See Wikipedia).

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Historic Moments: Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 4, 2012

After the Jewish Museum, we visited the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie, as most tourists do.  It’s very, very late now because the restaurant we went to for dinner was, um, ‘having trouble in the kitchen’, so I’m too tired to do anything other than share just a few photos.

But don’t be misled by the jovial photo, this was a place that made us feel very thoughtful indeed.

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Jewish Museum, Berlin

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 4, 2012

We began our day in Berlin with a rather forgettable city sightseeing bus tour.  To put it charitably, perhaps because Berlin is designed to be pedestrian and bike-friendly the roads don’t go past very interesting places?  The route mostly took us past dull apartment buildings and shops rather than places of historic or artistic interest.  I think it’s a shame that in a city where they had/have the opportunity for post-reunification rebuilding, their architecture is so unimaginative.

Anyway, we got off the bus at the Jewish Museum.  It is a very moving experience to visit this place, which consists of two buildings.  You enter through the old Berlin Museum and go downstairs to enter the new building which is a twisted zig-zag reminiscent of a misshapen Star of David.  But we didn’t enter straight away: there was a cafe where they were selling real Jewish cheesecake, the kind my neighbour Mrs Kuperholz used to make, which for me is the gold standard cheesecake that is so very hard to find.  But it wasn’t just the cheesecake of course, it’s also that I found it very hard to visit the Holocaust Museum in Elsternwick at home, and here in Berlin where the Holocaust was conceived and executed, I felt an even greater need to brace myself a bit before entering the museum.

(Actually, I don’t think I would ever have visited the Holocaust Museum at home if I had not met Elfie Rosenberg at the Melbourne Writers Festival, long ago when it was still at the Malthouse Theatre.  There, one had coffee between sessions at convivial tables, and because I was by myself I got chatting to the elderly lady at the same table.  She turned out to be the author of Serry and me, Kindertransport and Beyond and in the course of talking about her book, I confessed that I had never had the courage to go to the Holocaust Museum.  I feared that I couldn’t cope with it emotionally, and was ashamed of that, because after all, how can just visiting a memorial site compare with the lived experience of its victims?  They had to live through it, and I was afraid just to learn about it?  Elfie understood, and she offered to take me there herself.

So we met for coffee one day not soon after that, and she guided me through the museum, and amongst the heart-rending memories I have of seeing a model of Treblinka made by one of the survivors, and of a matchbox filled with soil from the camp at which a survivor’s mother was murdered,  I also have memories of Elfie chatting and laughing with one of the survivor-guides there, an inspiring reminder that life goes on, and that to let yourself be bowed down by grief, is to deny your oppressors triumph.)

The architecture of the Jewish Museum in Berlin is designed to disorientate.  There is a Garden of Exile, designed to represent the experience of not belonging for those who fled Germany or emigrated afterwards, and both Tim and I could not stay in there.  There are vertical columns set not quite in place, so that your brain is out of synch with your body and you feel nauseous.  Literally.  There is also a ‘Void’ – an entirely empty four-sided space about 20 metres tall, barren and grey and lit only by a scrap of a window up above. When the door shut behind us, I felt panicky, and again we had to leave.  We could, of course.  The victims of the Holocaust could not.

There was also a sickening fragment of the yellow Star of David cloth they used to stigmatize Jews.  I had never thought about anybody designing, manufacturing and distributing this material before.  This new (to me) example of perfidy really upset me, for reasons I can’t quite explain.

But once you leave behind these awful sensory experiences, the exhibition shows you the cultural and intellectual life of pre-war German Jews.  There is memorabilia which belonged to people now lost – dolls, sewing machines, Bar Mitzvah ornaments, books and photos, but also lovely photos which show the contribution that Jewish people made in all kinds of endeavours, and also that they were interesting, lively, congenial people that anyone might be pleased to have as neighbours.  (As I did, when I lived in Caulfield as a teenager).

People deal with an experience like this in their own way, but I have to say that there were some American tourists there who were incredibly tactless.  When they moved on from the sections about pre-war Jewry and came to the Holocaust display, one of the women announced loudly that it was ‘too much’, to which one of the men replied casually that ‘this was all familiar, they’d seen it all before’.

Bored by the Holocaust…what kind of people react like that?

Posted in Berlin 2012, Museums | Tagged: | 5 Comments »

Oxygen City-Guides: Paris, Berlin and St Petersburg

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 2, 2012

Anyone who loves books and reading, and also loves to travel will love this City-Lit series from UK-based Oxygen Books. My interest was piqued when I saw a Tweet about the St Petersburg edition on Twitter – and dashed off an email to find out more. It turns out that there’s a whole series of these City Lit books about different cities…

St Petersburg isn’t actually due for release in Australia till 2013 but I broke my own resolution never to review advance copies to get my hands on a copy before my trip. Why? because each book is a collection of literary gems about the city it features, and there is, in my opinion, no better way to enjoy your travels than to learn about your destinations beforehand from the world’s great authors. These are travel guides for people who want more than just a source of advice about hotels, restaurants and attractions, these are guides for travellers who want to find out about the ‘soul’ of the cities they visit…

So, what’s in the St Petersburg City Guide? It’s divided into sections, covering the city in all its contrasting eras, its art works, its privations and the siege. I would have liked some excerpts to be a little longer, but on the other hand there’s enough there to sense the author’s style and to indicate whether it might be worth while following up the actual book. Given the city’s history as the Imperial Capital supplanted by Moscow under the Soviets, it’s particularly interesting to read excerpts that contrast life before, during and after the Revolution.

However, I think the whole book means much more to me now that I’ve been here than it did before we left. Back in Australia the excerpts whetted my appetite, sent me off to Wikipedia to find out more and explained things to me that have enhanced my stay. But now that I’ve been here and can visualise the streetscapes, the canals, the dachas, the monuments and the palaces – and even a retro Soviet era cafe! – these readings mean so much more. Unlike most of our travel guides which end up being chopped up for scrapbooking, this is one to keep to read, and read again.

We’re just off to Berlin today, so I’ll write up my thoughts about the Berlin City-Guide when we’ve been there.

St Petersburg
Pub: December 2012 Price: A$ 19.95 paperback; ISBN: 978 0 9567876

Review copy courtesy of Oxygen Books.

Visit Oxygen Books for more details.

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

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