Sunday, 31 October 2010

Saint Petersburg - The Hermitage

While in Saint Petersburg we spent 2 afternoons in The Hermitage; Saint Petersburg's first public museum housed in three separate buildings: the Winter Palace, the Old Hermitage and the New Hermitage.
On our first day there we spent hours wandering around the 2nd floor visiting the state rooms, including the room where the October revolution came to an end, with the stopped clock recording the time.
The state rooms were amazing in scale and grandure. Also amazing was the Hidden Treasures display of French artwork, taken from Germany after WWII and now quite discretely displayed within the museum (I gather Germany is quite interested in getting them back).
We also did a guided tour of the vaulted "diamond room" where some of the most valuable pieces are kept (but no pictures were allowed).
On the second day we focused on the 3rd floor containing modern art, and also a very interesting Oriental and Middle Eastern display.
Then we made sure to spend some time on the 1st floor looking at the prehistoric artifacts from finds around Russia.
All in all it was quite exhausting but really interesting. I'm sure it's true that you could spend many days wandering around the museum, not least because it is quite confusingly configured! Also interesting were the countless "babushkas" who guard each of the rooms both in the Hermitage but also in the Ethnography museum - I don't think there was any doubt about who is in charge of the museums!

Saint Petersburg

Last weekend Linda took me on a surprise trip to Saint Petersburg for my birthday. What Linda didn't expect was the complexity of getting a visa for Russia and it was quite a tense time leading up to the trip as we weren't sure until the last minute if we'd have to cancel. Fortunately the visas came through okay!
We headed off relatively early on Thursday morning and arrived in the early afternoon at our hotel, which was located right in the centre of the old part of town. We were literately only one block from the main square where the Hermitage museum is located.
We spent the afternoon wandering around the old town, heading slowly towards the Mariinsky area (past the Admiralty and Saint Isaac's Cathedral) because we had tickets to see the ballet that night (also known as the Kirov ballet). I don't think either of us would normally classify ourselves as ballet lovers, but when in Rome and all that...
While waiting for the show to start we visited the nearby Nikolsky Cathedral, where we watched a orthodox service with chanting that was very interesting to watch.
Actually the ballet was very interesting, with three different performances of varying quality and themes, but I think we both enjoyed the last performance the most as it seemed the most traditionally Russian and also happened to have some of the best dancers of the night.
Afterwards we went to the Mariinsky Back Stage restaurant nearby where we had some fantastic food [goat's cheese and walnuts with roast beetroot, beef strogonov, and some delicious white salmon] and there was even a live classical duet playing.

We walked home past the Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin was poisoned, shot, and finally drowned in the canal outside.
The next day was unexpectedly good weather (clear sunny skies, and relatively warm) so we decided to spend the day mostly exploring outside around the town. We took more photos of the Hermitage and then headed up to Nevsky Prospect, which is the main street that runs through Saint Petersburg. We walked past Stroganov Palace (where Beef Stroganov was invented).
We then headed down one of the canals (Saint Petersburg is somewhat modelled after Amsterdam) towards the Church of the Saviour on Blood, which is a classic Russian style church with Onion-shaped steeples. Despite being neglected for a long time, particularly over the soviet era, the church is in excellent condition and is fascinating to visit.
We did an audio guide tour of the church but mainly just took photos of the amazing mosaics.
Afterwards we spent some time wandering through the nearby Mikhailovsky Gardens where there was several wedding photos being conducted - it seems to be very much the wedding tradition in Saint Petersburg to have photos taken in the parks.
After this it started to get really cold, and we went into the Museum of Ethnography where we spent a very interesting time looking at the different cultures that are or were part of Russia, the Russian Federation, or the Soviet Union. We were quite happily wandering around the museum when, 15 minutes before closing time, lights were being turned off and brusque Russian women bustled us towards the exit.
On leaving the museum we found it was snowing! This was actually quite a nice surprise, since it's really how you imagine Saint Petersburg - under a layer of snow. We went and looked at a statue of Catherine the Great in the swirling snow.
Then we sheltered from the snow in the Gostiny Dvor shopping centre, one of the world's first indoor shopping malls, where there was plenty of designer labels but also some high quality Russian souvenirs.
In the evenings we had more delicious food from Georgia (at Kavkas - "Caucasus") and Azerbaijani (at Baku). We did have one particularly ordinary meal at Kalinka Malinka where we hoped to find Russian music and dancing but instead had 90s dance music and stodgy food.
For breakfast and street snacks we had Bliny (a lot like crepes) with a variety of sweet or savoury fillings, and we had lots of yummy pastries in caf├ęs, and particularly at "Stolle" near our hotel.
The next 2 days we visited the Hermitage museum but I'll leave that for a second post.
We also visited some craft markets near the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood where we bought lots of nice souvenirs and presents.
We visited the bronze horseman (a heroic image of Peter the Great) and took night-time photos across the river towards the Peter and Paul fortress.
On our last day we only had a few hours before we had to head back to the airport for the flight home. We caught a taxi to the Finland railway station where we took photos of Lenin (it's where he came back into Saint Petersburg and made his famous speech).
From there we walked towards the Peter and Paul fortress, taking photos of the Aurora navy ship (that fired shots during the October revolution) along the way.
We took photos of the cathedral where most of the Romanovs are burried, and other parts of the fortress, before taking a rapid walk back to the hotel in order to meet our car for the drive to the airport.
After navigating the many layers of security, and Linda managing to re-enter Switzerland despite having forgotten her residency permit (a matter of some anxiety), we arrived safe and sound back in Nyon where we were ironically greeted by La Bise (the cold northern wind hits Switzerland around this time of year).

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Hiking to La Dole - Autumn Snow!

Last weekend Linda was out of town at a conference. I normally try to do some crazy hike or other adventure while she's away but this time the weather was really bad so I could only really do something small on Sunday - so when I saw the sky clear above the Jura I jumped into a train up the hill to St Cergue to do a hike from there.
I've hiked up La Dole a couple of times before, simply because it's the highest point in the Jura range and there's a few different ways to approach it. There's other hikes in the Jura that I hope to explore more in future.
Also this time it was Autumn and it had been quite a cold few days so I got lightly snowed on in the early stage of my walk and there was a significant amount of snow on the ground by the time I reached the top.
On the way back down I stopped at the Cuvaloup restaurant where I felt compelled to have a Croque au Fromage avec Oeuf et Jambon, after which I felt quite ill. So it was probably just as well that I missed the train at La Givrine and had to walk down the hill to St Cergue - I needed the time to digest all that cheese!
I took a couple of videos during my climb as well, which you'll find here and here. As you can see it was cold and windy!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Weekend in Ticino

The other weekend we decided it would be a good idea to check out the Italian part of Switzerland, where the weather, language, and people, are supposedly much more Mediterranean than in other parts of the country. We drove up the Valais and over the Simplon pass, briefly into Italy and then passed into Ticino, which was quite a challenging drive in the end, being along some quite narrow mountain roads.
We arrived in Bellinzona quite late on Saturday, leaving us only some time to 'freshen up' before heading out to dinner. Around Bellinzona there is several castles, and a couple of them have restaurants inside. We took the none-too-clear advice of our guidebook to try the Castello di Sasso Corbaro, which is the highest of the three castles. Once inside however it was quickly apparent that the "Osteria-style" restaurant has gone significantly upmarket since the guidebook was printed. In the end it was really delicious and actually quite reasonably priced dinner! This, at least, was what we'd hoped from Italian-Switzerland!
The next day we caught the train to Lugano, where we were lucky to find an Autumn festival in progress. One of the local specialties of Ticino is Polenta, which we dutifully tried even though it was about as stodgy as we remembered it being. It was welcome anyway, since it was a cold and grey day.
We also had some of the local cake which was actually really good. Linda would remember the name of it but I'm afraid I've forgotten already.
Otherwise we just wandered around the town and along the waterfront which was a relaxing way to spend the day. I imagine it's a lovely place to be in Summer.

That night, back in Bellinzona, we went to the other castle restaurant (at Castelgrande) for dinner. This was a bit weird because the whole castle was really quiet, and the restaurant door was resolutely shut against the cold night air, but we managed to push our way inside and had another very nice dinner, albeit as the only customers of the restaurant that night.
The next day we went to Ascona, which is a really nice little town even in the rain, where we wandered around the streets and bought nik-naks in the shops.

We also dropped through nearby Locarno, but we weren't inspired even to stay for lunch and continued on to Bellinzona where we had a really nice lunch in the main square of the town.
We finished off our stay in Bellinzona by visiting the museum at Castelgrande, where we learned a bit about the local history and took lots of photos of the cloud-covered castles across the valley.
On the way home we went via the Gotthard pass, but decided the tunnel would be boring and instead went over the top of the mountains. This was quite frightening at first because there was a thick fog on the Ticino side, but once we passed into Uri it cleared up (although still raining quite hard).

This all would have been fine but for the fact we were unaware there was still one more pass to be negotiated on our trip, and this was probably the most difficult we'd been on. It took us over the Susten pass into Bern and was high enough that we were passing significant amounts of snow by the road.