Saturday, 28 August 2010

Last Post - The Pause

It turns out that the Russian habit of pausing to reflect before the start of a journey is not mirrored by a similar pause at the end.  One has arrived and one gets on with doing whatever made one come.  But not rounding things off seems somehow wrong.  Back in Oxford, the past month seems slightly unbelievable.  Did we really see the wonders of Red Square?  Did we really inhale Moscow's worst ever smog?  Did we really rip over the Gulf of Finland in a hydrofoil to a magical, fountain-filled palace?  Did we really walk in the blustery wind on the shores of the Baltic?  Did we really eat dumplings with two delightful Lithuanians?  Did we really go bowling in Minsk?

We have a great treasure-box of memories and we've also learned a huge amount.  How you can't understand the Second World War without also seeing it from the east - and what a truly world war it was, blighting lives from Liverpool to Minsk to Kaunas to Washington (the impact goes on).  What an incredibly rarity the last twenty years have been, in terms of relative peace in Europe.  The consequent potential - despite its many defects - of the EU.  The awful misery of the totalitarian soviet system and the ever-present danger of freedom being eroded again, this time through the corruption of capitalism.  All this we're only just beginning to understand - and we'll journey on.

Thanks to...

... all the people who made this trip and the experiences it included possible and so incredible: Darya; Marina and Hartmut; Andrei; Katya; Sasha and Elena; Tatiana; Douglas and Ruth; Max, Elena and Yuri; Minvydas and Tautvydas; Dejan.

Some Stats

5 countries
9 cities
5 art galleries
4 museums
26 cathedrals
3 synagogues
1 mosque (from a distance)
1,000,000 pancakes
ditto pierogi
3 former homes of writers (1 closed)
3 boat trips
1 spit
8 palaces
1 Kremlin
2 monasteries
5 currencies
1 sea

Friday, 27 August 2010


Oxford and 'normality' ('humped zebra crossing' said a sign at Paddington - what would we have made of that in Russian?!).  We stopped over in Berlin with our wonderful friends Marina and Hartmut - it was so good to see Gotzkowskystrasse again and catch up with them.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Goodbye Gdansk!

Off to Berlin!

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Back in Gdansk

We got stuck in a long traffic queue on our way back into Gdansk, but made it due to some nifty navigating.  The full moon hung over us, pale as dried honesty.  Very nice dinner at an Italian restaurant in ul. Długa.  And tomorrow we head back to Berlin.


From Karwia we drove through the area known as Kashubia, to its capital Kartuzy (named after the Carthusians who founded a monastery there?).  The Kashubians are a western Slav people, devoutly catholic, and their language is close to the original Pomeranian.  The countryside is beautiful - rolling hills, pine forests, lakes.

Wild Baltic

The Baltic is the colour of unpolished silver.  We went north from Hel and had more coffee at Karwia, on the north Polish coast.  Brave souls were actually in the sea.  Lovely walk up to the beach through pine woods.

To Hel and Back

Today we hired a car and set off to explore the Polish countryside.  We drove around the Gdansk suburbs for about an hour, as there were NO signs.  Eventually we got going north.  Coffee at Władysławowo.  Then along the Hel Peninsula to Hel itself - a seaside town right at the end of the spit of land that stretches out into the Baltic opposite Gdansk.  VERY windy.

Full Moon

Last night we strollled down to the waterfront and had dinner in ul. Długa, rounded off with digestifs at the Café Literacka in ul. Mariacka.  Gdansk v. atmospheric - magical.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Proustian Waffles

Fourteen years ago, when I arrived for my secondment in Brussels and was looking for a place to live, I remember wondering why I was making life so difficult for myself - not just doing law, but doing law in French!  I wondered how I could make things even more difficult and imagined this would be doing chemical engineering in Polish in Gdansk.  Brussels was summed up by the smell of waffles in the snow.  Here in Gdansk today I saw a waffles ('gofry') stall.  The waffle connection brought the Brussels thought back and fourteen years slipped away.

As a footnote, I was wrong.  Gdansk is a delight.  Though the chemical engineering in Polish might have been a bit of a challenge.

Palaces of Post

We've been visiting post offices in Warsaw, Minsk, Moscow (Nick), St. Petersburg, Vilnius and now here in Gdansk.  We've seen some incredible ex-soviet Palaces of Post - huge covered amphitheatres of unattended counters, unfathomable ticketing systems, unsmiling officials and marble columns.  Buying a stamp is a major production.  But they're part of real life and we wouldn't have missed them.



Glówne Miasto

Afternoon spent sight-seeing in the Glówne Miasto: Żurow Gdański (Gdansk crane), Brama Chebnicka (Gate of Bread-Sellers), Brama Zielona (Green Gate), ul. Długa and Długi Targ, Dwór Artusa (Arthur's Court), the Fontanna Neptuna, the Złota Kamienica, the Town Hall, Dom Uphagena, Brama Złota (Golden Gate), Dwór św. Jerzego (St. George's Court) and Brama Wyźynna (Upland Gate).  We went into two Basilicas - Kósciól Mariacki and Kósciól św. Mikołaja.  The former is beautiful and features brilliant statues and an extraordinary astronomical clock.  It's a fabulous, energising city.

Dwór Artusa -
Renaissance stove showing Lutheran sympathies

Fine Moustaches

Gingerbread and Amber

Lovely lunch on the waterfront - I bought some gingerbread from the shop on ul. Mariacka where Copernicus's 'house-keeper', Anna Schilling, used to live, to go with our coffee.  Later, we bought some amber - turns out the German word for this is 'Bernstein'.


In another etymological news item, it emerges that 'spruce' comes from the Polish 'z Prus' ('from Prussia') - the good merchants of Hanseatic Gdansk used to export tons of the stuff.

Lenin Shipyards and Solidarność

Before lunch, we went out to the former Lenin Shipyards, so famously on tv at the beginning of the 1980s as the scene of the Solidarność strikes.  On the way, we happened upon a 'Roads to Freedom' underground exhibition - an excellent, moving account of that historical moment.  Watching Wałęsca, Jaruzelski, John Paul II etc brought it all back.  It's hard to credit absolutely the exhibition's claim that the Solidarity strikes 'led directly' to the fall of the Berlin Wall, but undoubtedly they showed (a) that something could be done and (b) that communist totalitarianism did not go completely unchallenged.  Very poignant to see the 'dominos' of the former iron curtain states that fell - and we appreciated again the exceptionality of Gorbachev.  There's a monument down at the shipyards themselves - incongruously we found ourselves there at the same time as three nuns.

Fabulous Gdansk

Wow!  I was imagining a grim, industrial city but Gdansk is an exquisite array of Renaissance / Hanseatic houses, the sunshine made crisp by the Baltic breeze.  We spent most of the morning on admin things - our last Palace of Post, hiring a car and visiting bookshops (English Unlimited and Empik).  In the course of it, I learned my Russian GCSE grade - A* - yay!

Monday, 23 August 2010

Białystok → Gdansk

We trained.  9 hours in a slightly malodorous train through wonderful Polish countryside - too bad I slept through the Mazurian Lakes.  Chopin was from Mazuria and presumably that's where the word 'mazurka' comes from.  Now in the splendid Dom Aktora in Gdansk.

Nick On Piano

Nick's been trying out the pianos in various hotel lobbies.  He sounds really great and the barmaid here loves him.

Ho Hum

Waiting to see if we are driving or training to Gdansk.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

7 Pokus

Great dinner in the garden!

Hotel Gołębiewski

Fab afternoon in the Tropicana Water Park, inc. going down the shutes and sitting in the different-flavoured saunas.  Followed by bowls (in the avatars of Angelina, Mlody, Rodion and Nikita) and billiards (I am probably the worst billiard-player in the world).

Curious Mixture

Odd morning, in which we set off to the market at Kalviejska ul. in search of antiques and caviar and found sunglasses and underwear.  We came back by bus and took a brief look at the orthodox cathedral, św. Mikołaja, where a service was in progress.  Nice lunch in the Rynek and we then vainly tried to find the plaque marking destruction of the former ghetto.  We strolled back to the hotel through the grounds of the Branicki Palace.

Św. Mikołaja

Having seen fireworks yesterday, today we caught sight of a procession led by a marching band.  There were Solidarity flags everywhere.  It seems that this is an anniversary of a strike in the Białystok region 30 years ago.


Last night was rounded off by an amazing fireworks display over  Kościoł św. Roku - we had a perfect view from our hotel window.  Yay!  Białystok rocks!

Saturday, 21 August 2010


We arrived in Białystok on a lovely sunny evening and checked in to the Hotel Gołębiewski.  Pretty famished by now, we walked down Ulitsa Lipowa to Rynek Kościuszki, taking in Branicki Palace and the Basilica of St. Roch (Kościoł św. Roku).  In the Rynek, a stage was set up, Solidarity flags were everywhere, there was a bouncy castle, a sizeable crowd and evidence of a forthcoming fireworks display.  Poland's National Day?  A party of some kind?  We couldn't find out, but we enjoyed dinner at the Café Esperanto (Esperanto's inventor, Ludwik Zamenhof, was from Białystok).

People speak Russian here so I can communicate a bit.

Kościoł św. Roku

Vilnius → Białystok

A train journey through south-west Lithuania and north-east Poland, travelling 1st, 2nd and 3rd class.  We went through lovely farmland and pine, fir and birch forest, past small lakes and rolling fields.  We changed in Šeštokai (LT) and stopped in Augustow and Šuwałki (PL).  Tragically, those pancakes were the last thing to eat all day....


Sitting in the breakfast room, enjoying a cup of tea after yummy pancakes with honey.  Mmm...


It seems like our trip is running out, and it only just started :(

Friday, 20 August 2010

Nocturnal Sight-Seeing

After a lazy afternoon drinking coffee and writing poetry, we suddenly felt guilty and got a taxi to the Old Town.  By night, the buildings down Aušros Vartų gatve to the Gates of Dawn were pretty spectacular: the Basilian Gate and Church of the Holy Trinity, the Church of the Holy Spirit (complete with a priest walking by the wall in the darkness) and St. Theresa's.  We found a great place for dinner - Restoranas Felicie, featuring a jazz pianist (Nick was jealous).  After dinner, we strolled down to the Town Hall Square.

The Basilian Gate

Frank Zappa Statue

Why???  Why not???

Friday in Vilnius

Today we visited the Museum of Genocide, which incorporates the basement where the KGB tortured and shot dissidents.  There's really nothing I can say.  We also tried to visit the Catastrophe Museum (Nazis) but it, the synagogue and the other branches of the Jewish Museum were closed.

Lithuanian Reflections

It was a stunning day and we owe so much to the Ragulskis' generosity.  Talking to real Lithuanians about Lithuania and seeing something other than the main tourist sights makes a big difference in getting a feel for the country.  The Lithuanian empire used to stretch from the Baltic to the Black Sea; in later periods, the country was menaced by the Nazis and the Soviets.  Now, membership of the EU seems a really positive thing - as Minvydas said, 'what can happen to us now?'

Kaunas Old Town

Back with Nick and Minvydas, we visited the Town Hall Square and the Cathedral, St. George's Church and Vytautas Church and - out of town - the Ninth Fort where a memorial commemorates the 'victims of fascism' taken there (some from Munich) and shot.  Nick pointed out that the dead represented by this memorial amount to half-a-percent of the Holocaust.


While Nick gave his paper at KUT, I visited the Synagogue (Jewish population in Kaunas = 180) and the M. K. Čiurlionis Museum with Tautvydas Ragulskis.  I was expecting Lithuanian pastoral - forget it.  The art of Čiurlionis (1875-1911) is mystical, thoughtful, detailed, symbolist, wondrously coloured in, firstly, blues and turquoises, and, later, pinks and golds.  His motifs are the crowned king, the angel, flowing rays of light, crowds on roads, tiny flowers and butterflies.  Čiurlionis believed that music and art complimented each other and, after viewing the pictures, Tautvydas and I sat in the Music Hall and listened to his composition 'Forests', in which I seemed to hear the lime-greens, dark-greens and yellows of leaves and trees.  My favourites among his pictures were Rex (1909), Forest and the cycle The Creation of the World.

From The Creation of the World

Check out:Čiurlionis


And on to Kaunas.  We stopped at the Church of the Resurrection, a modern building with a stunning altar-piece of the Hill of Crosses.  Quick lunch in the Akropolis Shopping Mall (one of the largest in the Baltics), which features a skating-rink and bowling alley.


The island castle at Trakai is probably Lithuania's best-known monument.  We loved the lake location, the old steam boat, the castle museum.  Fascinatingly, the Lithuanian ruler Vytautas brought people from the Crimea, the Karaim, to guard the castle.  The Karaim, who are still in Trakai today, follow a Judic religion based on the Old Testament and speak a Turkic language.  We saw their low, colourful wooden houses.  Another group in Trakai were the Tatars.  Minvydas suggested we try kibinai - a Tatar delicacy - which we did in a restaurant by the lake.  The kibinai turned out to be not unlike Cornish pasties.
There are lots of amber shops around Trakai.  Minvydas told us the legend is that a maiden who lived in an amber palace under the sea one day rose to the surface and met the god of thunder, Perkunas.  When they kissed, the amber palace broke into fragments, providing the Baltic's rich source of amber.

An Amazing Day

I'm just going to quote our itinerary for yesterday, arranged by Prof. Minvydas Ragulskis of the Kaunas University of Technology:
9 Pick-up.  Meet with Vice-Rector of KUT at Ratonda Hotel, Vilnius
10 Arrival Trakai.  Visit to castle.
11.30 Leave Trakai.
12.30 Arrive Kaunas - lunch.
13.30 Sight-seeing in Kaunas centre.
14 Nick gives talk at KUT.  With Tautvydas Ragulskis, Kate visits synagogue and M.K. Čiurlionis Museum.
16.16 All together again.  Sight-seeing in Old Town.
17 Visit to the Ninth Fort and Holocaust memorial.
18 Dinner just outside Kaunas.
19 Leave Kaunas.
20.30 Arrive back at Hotel.

But that doesn't do justice to a totally memorable day...

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


We loved the Vitebskiy Station - it was like going back in time two centuries.  A very comfy train took us out of Russia, through Latvia and into Lithuania - miles of birch forest.  And here we are, back in the EU.

Vilnius is quiet, green and western in comparison with St. Petersburg.  The shopping malls are less congested, the pace of life seems calmer.  We visited the cathedral, St. Anne's Church and the university (including the Grand Court and St. John's Church).  Much amber is on sale.  I had my first potato pancakes.  The hotel has up-graded us to a suite - yippee!!

St. Anne's Church

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Farewell to Petersburg

Good-bye blue, white and golden city!  I dream of coming back in the snow.

[Final note: I managed to call and order a taxi - Russian on the phone!]

Hermitage Encore

A beautiful, blue, breezy morning - real St. Petersburg weather, Elena said.  After some time spent constructing a diptych (yes), we went back to the Hermitage for another look.  We spent more time in the amazing state rooms, visited the 3 x rooms of British art (dreary Gainsboroughs), the Siberian section (very horsy), the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists again, the Spanish, the German, Dutch, Flemish and Netherlandish (inc. Peter Breughel the Younger) and the 'Russian Culture' (two fantastic sleighs).  This time, the paintings that stood out were Maurice Denis's Martha and Mary, Matisse's Arab Café, Cezanne's Blue Landscape and Murrillo's Liberation of Peter and Rest on the Flight to Egypt.

Matisse, Arab Café

Murillo, Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Monday, 16 August 2010

Tsarskoe Selo

And this afternoon, we went by coach - 'Eclectica Tours' - to Tsarskoe Selo.  The Catherine Palace is magnificent - a vision in ice-blue, white and gold - and the Golden Corridor, culminating in the wondrous Amber Room, truly breath-taking.  The grounds - the English and French parks, the Cameron Gallery, the Turkish Bath - were resplendent and it was stunning just to watch the play of sunlight on and through the leaves.


Nice, leisurely morning wandering about near the Griboedov Canal and its souvenir market.  Fun to haggle with the seasoned pros.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Gostiniy Dvor

And, rounding off the afternoon, a spot of shopping.  Having walked round both floors of this massive store (pausing to admire a torrential thunderstorm), we both began to wonder if we'd known any other existence.

St. Samson's Cathedral

Or possibly St. Sampson's.  Not the Old Testament strong man, in any event, but a saint known for his hospitality.  His cathedral bore him out - we got the warmest welcome we've had in an Orthodox church.  The blue-and-white exterior and golden domes and beautiful and, inside, the iconostasis is magnificent.  We also enjoyed a two-piece illustrated 'calendar' of saints' days.

To the Finland Station

We set off by foot, over Liteyniy Most and arrived at Lenin Square to the strains of piped orchestral music - Shostakovich?  Soviet anthems?  The fountains are most impressive and the Lenin statue joke - "Where did you get that waistcoat?" "Over there" - still works.  We bought platform tickets to view the place where he got off the train and the locomotive which brought him back from Finland the second time.  We also reflected on how he twisted and corroded the Revolution.  Lunch in Кофе Хауз.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Anna Akhmatova

Westward the sun is dropping,

And the roofs of towns are shining in its light. 

Already death is chalking the doors with crosses 

And calling the ravens and the ravens are in flight. 

From ''Why is our century worse than any other?' (1919)