architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Moscow Winter Holidays and Cat Therapy

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

I took two (snowy) winter breaks in Moscow this year. My yet another attempt at taming Moscow couldn’t have happened in a more welcoming period – the temperature outside was around -20 ‘C. Well, with all the wind it might as well have been some degrees lower. I know! And still… It was quite a cozy stay in the Russian capital, which was obviously made even cozier with the presence of two cats who willingly and most generously provided their free (cat) therapy.

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

Probably even thanks to such harsh weather conditions I was more active on the sight-seeing part, as I did manage to go to a couple of museums and visited some parks. This is just a square representing a typical picture of what you could see all over the place in February and March:

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

After all there were loads of sun! Moreover, I had some translation & editing jobs to do so was only happy to drag myself out of the world of the computer and words (one of the reasons why I seem to be neglecting blogging these days). These are some shots from the Timiryazev park (I would rather call it a forest) just after the sunset:

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

Urban Moscow is just a stone throw away:

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

You just need to get through this ‘portal’:

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

Looking back to kind of check whether there’s still way back:

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

Tracks:

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

On one of the days I went to the Russian Realistic Art Museum, located in one of the facilities of a former cotton-printing factory. It’s a private museum which traces the history of the Realistic Art in Russia from the early 20th century till today. As always, I liked the first part of the 20th century much more.

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

I really liked these nostalgic etchings from one of the Vladimir school artists:

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

Outside the museum – typical Moscow (and Russia):

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

After which I went to a super-tiny museum of the Moscow Rail Road which was a disappointment. There was that very train that carried the body of Lenin to Moscow in 1924 and I guess that was and still remains the main exhibit for already many years. On my way there:

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

Yet another day – a trip to the Aptekarsky Garden, all covered in snow and quiet, right in the middle of the bustle and hustle of Moscow. Founded in early 18th century it used to be a real garden with medicinal herbs and stuff. It now belongs to the MGU (Moscow State University) and is open to public. The Aptekarsky Island in St Petersburg is also connected to the efforts of the ever-present Peter the Great. Well, he created the first botanical garden in Russia – among many other ‘first’ things!

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

Made some photos with a black and white Smena camera that day, hope it still works 🙂

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

It was cold but lots of people were queuing to get into one of the glasshouses to get a refreshing glimpse of spring. Most of them were more involved into making selfies than actually looking at the flowers though… Anyway, it was amazing and definitely worth freezing my feet for some half an hour standing in the line!

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

In the tropical greenhouse:

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

Pressed layers of snow outside:

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy
That day there was sun only at the very end of the day:

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

Look who was helping me work:

Moscow Winter Holidays plus Cat Therapy

More Moscow stories coming along…

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Moscow Mosaics: The Stalinist Era

Rechnoy Vokzal, Moscow

From my trips to Moscow in late April, June and October 2017 I’ve selected the places that have impressed me most into this first Moscow Mosaics post, united under the same era that they belong to – the Stalinist era. We’ll start from the North River Terminal, built in 1933-37, when the creation of the canal that connected Moscow with the waters of Volga was also under way. So when the construction started, this river terminal was actually standing nowhere near water – the artificial Khimki water reserve was not yet filled with water 🙂 And yes, it looks like that very Doge’s Palace in Venice – and at the same time as a ferry when seen from above. Gosh, I’d love to travel back in time to see how it looked like with all the exclusive stuff inside including a posh restaurant and the artificial marble and the statues and the hairdresser’s, a shoe repair shops, an agitpunkt and a post office. The ideal life of the ideal citizens of the ideal state – as seen by the ideal ruler himself, of course.

Rechnoy Vokzal, Moscow

When I saw it I immediately thought about the Krasnoyarsk River Terminal on Yenisey which was built some 10-15 years later but following the same design. Well, it looks that they both are not in their prime state at the moment. They say the Moscow River Terminal which is in disuse for more than 10 years, will be renovated by 2020. The 1.5 meter in diameter (!) majolica medallions depicting the highlights of the Five-year plan (see the first photo of the post) were hand-painted (!) by a single woman artist (!). To me, the ‘Moscow – Volga 1937’ letters above the entrance just breathe the 1930s…

Moscow

Next stop – the Central Moscow Hippodrome which got rebuilt in 1951-55 incorporating the original late 19th century one into this Stalin empire style building with a tower. The tower looks pretty much alike with all those Stalinist era towers scattered all over the central Moscow. Though none of them has horses instead of the usual workers or happy peasants as statues.

Moscow

The Hippodrome is still functioning (we saw some horses in action) although I doubt it will ever regain its glory. One day I’ll walk inside but not for the races – to see the interior which seems to be quite nice as well as the public which seems to be mostly dedushki, grandpas.

Moscow

Some more of the Stalinist Moscow here, now at VDNKh, or the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy. It’s been undergoing a massive renovation (reconstruction) process recently and it looks so much better now. Hopefully these pavilions too will be soon renovated.

VDNKh, Moscow

Built in 1952 as Glavkonserv pavilion with the best of the canned food there was in the USSR (see the decoration in the windows below), it has been a Gastronom (a sort of a Delicatessen) for quite a few decades since.

VDNKh, Moscow

The trick of the store is that they’ve preserved all the original stuff inside – well, except for the food obviously! Which is a shame, though…

VDNKh, Moscow

How’s that for a shop? Not your usual produkty (grocery store) for sure!

VDNKh, Moscow

This 1954 pavilion was originally destined to showcase the achievements in the construction materials industry, hence the use of the super-tough stalinit, a sort of tempered glass which nevertheless is transparent so – they say – from the inside you feel as if the roof is just floating in the air because the entire glass wall becomes almost invisible. The pavilion was later used to showcase other stuff – nuclear energy, consumer goods and then health care. Haha.

VDNKh, Moscow

And this is a 1952-53 pavilion first built for the Tsentrosoyuz, an authority coordinating all the consumer cooperatives. It too has undergone several mutations, serving as a pavilion for the nuclear energy, mechanization of agriculture, and consumer goods. The style of the building is a Stalinist take on the art-deco.

VDNKh, Moscow

And here’s a small one I liked a lot – Uzbekvino, showcasing wine from Uzbekistan.

VDNKh, Moscow

Built in 1954 as a part of the entire Uzbekistan section (the main pavilion later mutated into the Culture one), it later became Sadko restaurant which did not survive till our days. They say that yet another restaurant is to open here soon.

VDNKh, Moscow

And for the dessert, here’s a Kremlin petrol station, they say one of the oldest in Moscow. It’s situated close to the Pushkin Museum pretty close to the heart of Moscow, the Kremlin. The say also that it is still functioning – though only for the governmental cars. Built after the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour got blown up in 1931, it is – they say again – is the only relic remaining from the gigantic plan to erect a monstrous Palace of the Soviets right on the spot where the cathedral used to be. There was a series of architectural competitions but the Palace itself was never built. In the end (since 1960) they used the foundation for a huge open-air pool right in the center of Moscow which later (late 1990s) got rebuilt as… Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

Pertsova House, Moscow

Adding this post to the Russian section of the Travel collection.

G.

architecture · no recipe · St Petersburg · travel

Bogoslovka, Osinovets Lighthouse and the Road of Life

Ladoga

There are some summer memories leftover from 2017. On a surprisingly sunny day in August we travelled out of St Petersburg into the (Leningrad) region to see Bogoslovka on the Neva river, and Osinovets and the Road of Life Museum on the Ladoga Lake.

Ladoga

First stop on our way was Bogoslovka, a sort of an open-air ethno-park where they reconstruct traditional wooden buildings of the Russian North-West region. These buildings are copies and had to be painstakingly recreated as none of them was lucky enough to survive till our days.

Ladoga

The central piece of Bogoslovka, the Church of Intercession of the Holy Virgin which – they say – was once designed by Peter the Great himself in 1708. After some 250 years it was lost in a fire but never recreated on the spot. So the enthusiasts of Bogoslovka did it here, on the south-east outskirts of the city.

Ladoga

The church is open not only as a museum but also as a functioning church. When we were there, they were baptizing a child or something. The church is immense! You can’t really take it in in one go – so many onion domes and kokoshniks (these wooden arches recalling the traditional Russian headdress), rising up to the sky, a real wooden skyscraper of a church!

Ladoga

There was so much sun that day (of otherwise pretty moody summer) that my photos seem to be overexposed. Here is another building, as far as I remember of a wealthy peasant. I guess they use it as a guesthouse.

Ladoga

I had to find points in the shade from where I could at least observe the buildings without constantly straining my eyes. Can’t believe St Petersburg summer can be that sunny sometimes! Well, once a year 🙂 Here’s a tiny church from the Arkhangelsk region and that huge peasant’s house in the background:

Ladoga

And a free-standing bell-tower:

Ladoga

There was also a sort of a Russian crafts village but it was closed. There seems to be some more (re)construction going on there (as well as on their website) so some time soon there might be more copies of the wooden architecture from the region there. I like such open-air museums where they either move the original wooden buildings to or recreate them, like the one in Novgorod the Great or Suzdal. Have not been to the Kizhi open air museum yet, they say it’s the best.

Ladoga

To get to the two other places we visited that same day we continued our way along the right side of the Neva river away from the city towards the Ladoga Lake. Both places are connected with the Siege of Leningrad during the Second World War.

Ladoga

This monument belongs to a whole ‘belt’ of them, commemorating important places which played their part in the lifting of the Siege of Leningrad in January 1944. This used to be the front line of the defense of the city and you can imagine how fierce the battles were here.

Ladoga

This one is very much in the 1960s war-memorial style, and I think it’s rather powerful. The pyramid is placed on the top of an artificial hill (hence the name, Hill of Glory, or Nameless Height), right at a spot on the Neva river aka Ivanovo rapids where its flow is the most challenging: too shallow, too straight with the maximum speed. Nowadays it’s not that dangerous as they’ve performed a number of tricks which made it deeper, wider and less fast.

Ladoga

Further we moved along the Neva river and came to the spot where the ring stifling the city was kept from becoming complete. This spot on the western coast of the Ladoga Lake connected the besieged city with the rest of the world. The lake played the crucial role in the survival of Leningrad during the Siege: it was the city’s Road of Life, providing it with food, transporting people to the mainland.

Ladoga

Next we moved on to the Osinovets lighthouse on the Ladoga Lake, a contemporary of some of my most favourite buildings in St Petersburg. Built in 1905-1910, this 70 meter lighthouse is there to pinpoint the entrance to the Shlisselburg bay, where the river Neva takes its source from Ladoga.

Ladoga

It also played its role in the Siege, being an important landmark for those navigating along the Road of Life, under the heavy bombardments of the Nazis.

Ladoga

We walked along the artificial bar into the Ladoga. Looking back at the Lighthouse where the St Petersburg people come to have some (noisy) rest, it all seemed so peaceful and quiet. With only the waves and the wind and an occasional boat disturbing the silence.

Ladoga

I think I liked this spot most of all.

Ladoga

A few hundred meters away from Osinovets is a recently renovated museum of the Road of Life. I am not a fan of war museums although I do understand their importance. This one surprised me as being very much un-dusty compared to most of the war museums I’ve visited so far.

Ladoga

But you feel really really small, uneasy and scared of course while walking along the Ladoga Lake with all those guns and boats and aircrafts behind you. They also play some sort of bird sounds (very loud and disturbing) to keep the real birds away from their exhibits (and the glass walls as far as I can understand). Well, a war museum is a war museum, no fluffy staff there.

Ladoga

In one of the hangars they have some of those vehicles which helped transport so many goods and people to and from the mainland during the winter months of the Siege. The dark one is the famous polutorka which was one of the workhorses of the Road of Life, many of them unfortunately never made it to the land. The museum was about to close down for the day so we had to leave.

Ladoga

Then we had our lunch in a small cafe kept by Armenians where we could admire Ladoga from if not for the loud music outside which kept us inside 🙂 Oh yes, I also had my first swim in the Ladoga Lake that day – shallow and cold, but very refreshing. Such a fine day!

Ladoga

This post goes to the St Petersburg collection.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · St Petersburg · travel

Spring and (More) Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

Tsarksoye Selo to the south of St Petersburg is a treasure trove of yet undiscovered Art Nouveau architecture. Here, a bit out of the eye of the St Petersburg experts and activists in architectural conservation, some of the beauties have disappeared without a trace over the years. But luckily some of them are left as is and some are even gradually renovated. In continuation to my last year’s spring-time and autumnal walks in the Art Nouveau realm of Tsarksoye Selo, here we go.

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

I think spring and autumn with their rusty colours of the nature, with their true warm light (as opposed to the ‘through’ hot light of summer) just bring out the best in Art Nouveau, they are the best seasons for spotting architecture in general – not much leaves on the trees to obstruct the buildings and no (or little) snow to cover the details. We did this walk back in the surprisingly warm early April (after which there was such a setback – raining and all that). Our first stop was at the now State Museum Tsarskoye Selo Collection (apparently – of the 1930s Leningrad art). But it used to be one of those mansions for just one family built right in the center of the city by the architect from the capital (i.e. St Petersburg then) von Goli in 1909.

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

Regardless of its pink painted walls, this mansion bears the signs of the so called Northern Modern style, the one which evolved in St Petersburg but was inspired by the Finnish Romantic style as well as the Scandinavian spirit in general.

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

Hence all the fortress-like reminiscence, such as the windows, portals and stone.

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

But the mansions’ signature details is this tower rather menacingly hanging over passers-by. To my mind they even left the entrance right underneath is in disuse because of that.

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

Curious ‘lid’ above the balcony:

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

There is not much known about the previous history of this cute little mansion. I will one day go inside since there’s also a workshop at the ground level. I wonder whether it sunk down quite a bit over the century or was meant to be that low.

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

The wall on the other side which were in the shadow that morning are less… feminine, more laconic as there are no such doors or balconies, just a wall pierced by the windows.

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)
Our next stop was not actually planned as I used to consider these buildings long gone and didn’t bother to check (I read about them in the book on the Art Nouveau architecture in St Pete). But since they were just some meters away from the pink mansion we bumped into them by chance, so to say.

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

It was Sunday and Easter Sunday, so people were already gathering outside the church waiting for the priest to sprinkle that holy whatever on their traditional (and not so much) kulich and died eggs and whatnot.

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

I was drawn by the pseudo-Russian style of the church which was also lit by the warm sun to its advantage. There’s something to its volumes and features that makes you think of the very old Russian churches (which was obviously meant) but there’s also something from the Art Nouveau aesthetics which is so appealing.

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

This a ‘home’ church meaning that it was built into a building, actually into a charity organization for the Russian Red Cross nurses who lived here and worked in the hospitals of the city, the whole thing being backed by the emperor’s wife herself, Alexandra (i.e. the last Russian emperor Nicholas II’s wife). And it was designed by the emperor’s own architect with a charming Italian name of Silvio Danini. I’ve already investigated into some of his creations scattered all over Tsarskoye Selo but no to this one.

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

As with the prototype – the first Russian churches – the rounded volumes are clearly the best:

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

The history of this church during the Soviet era is pretty much similar to those churches which survived and were not taken down (this could happen not just in the 1920-30s but well into the 60s as well – sadly). They were mostly deprived of their distinguishing features (i.e. bell towers, cupolas, of course all the interior etc) and transformed into everything from cinema halls to driving schools to bread baking plants.

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

This one was used – again – to the benefit of the society, as a part of the sanatorium for the TB kids. All the icons got painted over, regardless of them being designed by the famous Viktor Vasnetsov. The 1912-1914 church then got transformed into a show room in the 1990s and was handed over to the church officials back only in 2006. And the renovation started finally which can only rejoice me. What a unique show room (they say of… doors!):

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

The rest of the building has not been renovated and looks pretty sad. Though again I loved the volumes:

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

Right next to the brick church is this big wooden house pretty much in the style of the very first pre-Art Nouveau English-cottage-style creations by the prolific Danini (1896-1897). It is in a poorer state than the adjacent church:

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

This was originally built as the Nurses’ dormitory and clinic, but later became a Soviet kids’ TB sanatorium (the ‘new’ 1980 Brutalist style facilities are right next door). It is older than the church (1907-08) and is right next to another charity organization (which I failed to see this time) again built by the same Danini some years earlier.

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

Now it’s some sort of something, no sign there but they say it will be handed over to the adjacent church some time soon.

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

I hope it will be renovated. This could be a nice Sunday school or something, with its large windows. Although I doubt it will be restored as such. Real estate in Tsarskoye Selo is ridiculously overpriced…

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

It does look like a wooden dacha (summer cottage). I can imagine drinking tea from samovar sitting on the verandah:

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

I tried to capture these interplay of shadows that day with my mother’s first LOMO Smena photo camera, loaded with a black and white film. Still have some 10 shots to go before I can develop the film and find out whether it is actually still working. I adore black & white photos, its aesthetics, its graphic lines and atmosphere but still have to master it.

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

The snow is already gone now but I’d love this early spring period to linger…

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

Our last stop was actually in the neaby Pavlovsk, yet another royal-park-residence environ which is just a railway station away from Tsarskoye Selo. But this dacha is stuck somewhere in between wooden houses and posh ‘villas’, not where you would normally go to in brief.

Art Nouveau in Tsarskoye Selo (spring)

This used to be a private dacha of the architect who built among others the Faberge store in St Petersburg, Karl Shmidt. Built in 1902-1903, they say it used to be painted white with green, blue and red details, but I like its current earthy colours as well. Not sure about what’s inside, they say it’s occupied by the Pavlovsk park administration.

For the autumnal part of my Art Nouveau walks see this post. For my last year’s Art Nouveau walk, see this post.

Adding this post to the St Petersburg collection.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Back to 19th Century in Vitebsk, Chagall’s Birthplace

Vitebsk

I arrived in Vitebsk from Polotsk on board of a ‘business-class’ high-speed train in just 1.5 hours. Together with 3 babushkas who quite confidently enjoyed their ride. Vitebsk is Belarus’ second oldest city, founded by Princess of Kiev in 974 as the legend goes. Vitebsk is now more known as a birthplace of Marc Chagall whose figure haunts the city.

Vitebsk

Marc Chagall’s house is very close to the railway station so I headed there straight away. It was Monday and the museum was closed, so I just wandered a bit in the neighbourhood. It was all about small buildings, industrial sites and very few people.

Vitebsk

Not only the street with Chagall’s home is decorated with murals and his quotes – I spotted many of them all over the city. I’m not a fan and I really know little about him and his art but I think it somehow fits this city to have an artist who had such a connection to it. Chagall would go on painting his native Vitebsk up until his death.

Vitebsk

This quote about ‘homeland in his soul’ is right next to his house, and here it is:

Vitebsk

Same street:

Vitebsk

A nearby street:

Vitebsk

There were quite a few red brick houses in that district, only one of them completely ruined and graffiti-ed – but the rest faithfully serving their inhabitants.

Vitebsk

A local Beatles club where they throw dance parties and watch old movies. Was thinking of going there at first but that night they were having a party for ‘those above…’ which usually means a certain age which I don’t belong to yet.

Vitebsk

Can you spot a lamp in the left-hand window?

Vitebsk

Crossing the Western Dvina river towards the city center:

Vitebsk

In Vitebsk I could feel the winter is coming. After such a springtime day in Polotsk this came as an unpleasant surprise particularly because I was expecting a much finer day judging by the forecast. But the mist was so heavy in the first part of the day that when the sun finally did come out for a brief moment, I had to hurry up to retake most of the photos before it disappeared again.

Vitebsk

From the hill with the Assumption Cathedral one can enjoy the view over the city. The city which in its historical center one feels as if being suddenly transported to the Alexander Pushkin times, to the early 19th century!

Vitebsk

And those 1-2 storey buildings seem to be preserved in a pretty authentic state, not like in St Petersburg where quite a few of these were either upgraded with an extra floor or two, or ‘sank’ into the ground up to the balcony because the ‘cultural level’ grew fast.

Vitebsk

Judging by the plate, this house is here since late 18th century:

Vitebsk

I had my breakfast in the mid of the misty Vitebsk, accompanied by the pigeons:

Vitebsk

Can’t make out if this pigeon here is real or painted? 🙂

Vitebsk

I didn’t expect any museum to be open but turns out the other ‘museum’ of Chagall (or rather gallery – they call themselves Chagall’s Art Center) was working that Monday. They only had one floor of his drawings while at the second floor there were curious posters by Polish artist Ryszard Kaja.

Vitebsk

Then I came up to the Victory Square with this impressive 1970s monument.

Vitebsk

Just a few meters away is a street named after Chagall, with yet another of his quotes:

Vitebsk

And in the inner yard there’s this mural with the iconic ‘eternal student’ of the Soviet cinema – Alexander Demyanenko.

Vitebsk

Ah yes, I forgot to mention that I couldn’t resist the temptation to enter into a real relic from the past that you can hardly find in Russia now – Univermag (“universal store”), the central department store of Vitebsk with – literally – rows of clocks, kitchen utensils and crystalware, and flocks of very serious-looking customers. I was enjoying it immensely but just couldn’t take photos as nobody else would understand – they were enjoying it in a slightly different way 🙂

Vitebsk

Later, in my attempt to find nice postcards, sweet buns (for some reason I was sure I would find them) and some gostintsy (souvenirs) I also wandered way into the faceless districts with all kinds of Soviet houses from various epochs.Ah yes, I also saw this picturesque heap right in front of the local police station in the center:

Vitebsk

And then suddenly there was sun! So I hurried back.

Vitebsk

Oh those balconies!

Vitebsk

The center of Vitebsk is lovely although really small.

Vitebsk

As in many small European cities, if you have ‘too much’ time you end up making circles round the same place:

Vitebsk

Above – ex-town hall, now a local history museum which was unfortunately closed. Below – yet another baroque cathedral, looking pretty much like the St Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk – though less elegant.

Vitebsk
All of a sudden there was this nice evening:

Vitebsk

It’s a pity the sun was about to set.

Vitebsk

The pail and the kettle are there for a reason – they attract people to a local art gallery.

Vitebsk

A glance back at the Assumption Cathedral and the Vitba river which gave its name to the city.

Vitebsk

Trying to get rid of the remaining Belorussian rubles, I visited quite a few of shops in the railway station district. As a result, I brought back gostintsy – some of the goods that Belarus is famous for (at least, in Russia): potato chips (made with salt and sunflower oil, no preservatives), cheese, sausages, sweets and beauty products. Belarus is also providing us with textile, bed linen and… tractors :). By the way I did find some postcards in the end, three of them were particularly interesting, depicting the best known trademarks of Belarus – tractor, condensed milk and a huge truck.

Gostintsy

Belarus products for us I suppose mean something like ‘traditional quality for less money’. And theirs is quite an established brand in Russia, we have many outlets selling their dairy and meat products all over the country. Pictured above – bitter chocolate (which was a little bit too much with 90% cocoa) and that panforte or gingerbread they seem to be particularly fond of and that I sampled already in Smolensk. Pictured below: potato chips and condensed milk in a traditional blue can.

Gostintsy

It’s not my first time in Belarus, as my father’s mother was born and lived there. I was in Minsk, Baranovichi and Orsha. But this time the journey was a solitary one and I had more time (and more occasions) to think of this country from a traveller’s point of view. So, my overall impression of Belarus and its people:

From what I’ve seen, Belorussians are open and uncomplicated. Family is very important to them, relatives seem to be closer to each other – at least in terms of sharing thoughts, problems, i.e. living a more communal life. As a whole, it looks as if the nation has been (or is being?) calmed down and reassured by the state and habituated to a good steady moderately-consumerist life. Although they are not wealthy, they are not demanding either. Yes, I saw quite a few drunk people, some of them were openly drinking vodka in the morning enjoying the view over the river right in the center of the city. It is obvious that the level of income is pretty low but these guys are not used to luxury – and their notion of it might be quite ridiculous from a European point of view. By the way, November 7th, commemorating the October revolution, is still a national holiday in Belarus while in Russia it has been replaced with the amorphous ‘Unity Day’ on November 4th.

I came back home in a formerly trendy but now rather run down Zvyazda (or Zvezda, Star) Minsk – St Petersburg train, through the Art Nouveau gates of my city – Vitebsky Railway Station. Now its name makes more geographical sense to me than it did before!

This post goes to the Belarus section of my Travel series.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Relaxed in Polotsk, the Oldest City of Belarus

Polotsk

After a somewhat grayish walk in Smolensk, a sudden journey into spring in Polotsk, Belarus, was like transporting myself to a whole new world. I arrived in Polotsk very early taking a night train called Dvina that looked very old-fashioned with its branded blue curtains and thick linen. The hostel where I stayed was one of the best in terms of quality and price, very close to the railway station and at the same time in a walking distance from the center. Well, Polotsk is no metropolis but it’s Belarus’ oldest city.

Polotsk

My first photos in Polotsk were that of a red-brick house which might have been painted over once. I found it in a backyard of a street full of low-rise buildings on my way to the center. While descending to the Western Dvina river, a heard a church service (it was Sunday) in this early 20th century church. There was such a crowd of people there I couldn’t get in and so took a photo of the sky instead:

Polotsk

Then, following the Francysk Skaryna avenue (the nation’s first printer who printed the Bible in Old Belorussian in early 16th century) I came across this Soviet era relic, indicating that this very residential house is officially a House of Exemplary Sanitary Order and High Household Culture (rough translation).  See, they didn’t paint it over, so I guess it is still true!

Polotsk

And then I left the avenue and started walking along the river. It was such a fine morning, looking more like spring than anything else! I saw a lady carrying twigs probably for some handicraft and a couple of dog people.

Polotsk

Warm sun:

Polotsk

An angler:

Polotsk

Village:

Polotsk

I could hear cock crowing somewhere on the other side of Dvina. And there was this cat enjoying the sun together with me.

Polotsk

Moving closer to the center:

Polotsk

Polotsk is celebrating its 1155 years this year. Wow. And it’s not that it was founded in 862, it’s just that it was mentioned in the chronicles under this year. Some archaeological findings say it was there already in the 8th century.

Polotsk

Now Polotsk is a mixture of a village and a low-rise town, with specimens of many eras, which I really liked. Don’t expect much from it though, it’s small though sprawling quite extensively (no wonder here as most of its buildings are one or two-story).

Polotsk

A huge abandoned ‘palace’:

Polotsk

I was a bit mislead by the name of the street running behind this building, called Castle Street. The only thing left from the Castle times is this mound that they used to built a stadium in the 60s.

Polotsk
The Polotsk University is also an example of recycling – it now occupies an ex Jesuit College.

Polotsk

And here’s one of the most beautiful sights of Polotsk – the hill with the St Sophia Cathedral:

Polotsk

The cathedral was first built in the 11th century, then demolished and rebuilt in baroque style in the 18th century. It’s elegant, carefully measured in every detail and architecturally interesting from any angle, it seems.

Polotsk

It also reflects the sun and serves as a sort of a lighthouse or a mirror with its facade turned to the river.

Polotsk

Of course the original 11th century cathedral looked nowhere close to this one, instead it resembled the St Sophia Cathedrals of Kiev and Novgorod the Great – round and Byzantine-like. The stones that remain from the early church are now on display at the base of the walls:

Polotsk
A very touristy point:

Polotsk

And here’s a part I liked a lot – a bridge hanging over the Polota river – which actually gave the city its name.

Polotsk

Here’s what you find across the river:

Polotsk
A true village:

Polotsk

With the signs of civilization:

Polotsk
Looking from the hill over the city lying below:

Polotsk

As I realized I had seen almost everything in the city center by that moment, I decided to walk to the convent founded by Euphrosyne of Polotsk, one of the most loved saints of Belarus and one of  the country’s patron saints too. She was a daughter of a noble family but ran away from it all and became a nun, copying books and helping the poor.

Polotsk

The convent is located outside of the city but you can reach it on foot taking a rather dusty road.

Polotsk

The monastery was full of people and the smell of freshly baked buns was coming from a local bakery.

Polotsk

This small church above is actually the one that is still preserved from the Euphrosyne times, i.e. the 12th century. It was later restyled (which is a bit misleading) but the frescoes ones sees inside give away the long history of the place. Here is the church’s shadow on the late 19th century neo-Byzantine cathedral.

Polotsk

Outside of the monastery, one of the most photographed spots 🙂

Polotsk
Yes, this is Polotsk too, where else would you find Vegas and Pharaoh in one place:

Polotsk

Coming back to the hostel, I passed by the 1952 railway station:

Polotsk

And then peeped in the local market which is a stone’s throw away from my hostel:

Polotsk

An array of handmade stockings:

Polotsk

A boy’s corner:

Polotsk

And an apple corner:

Polotsk

After a short rest for lunch at the hostel I continued my walk in the city.

Polotsk

The central hotel called Dvina in the pompous Stalinist style:

Polotsk

Did you know that the geographical center of Europe is in Polotsk? It’s of course contested by other places but why not Polotsk.

Polotsk

(Spot the traditional kerchiefs in the background)

Polotsk

Midpoint of Europe or nit, Polotsk is wonderfully provincial and decadent.

Polotsk

Zoom in: they put new plastic windows in this tattered house:

Polotsk

A mural on the same street telling the story of Polotsk, located on the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks.

Polotsk

My next stop (I was already making yet another circle around the city) was at the local history museum. And a very dusty local history museum it is, housed in a recycled late 19th century Lutheran church. By the way, one of city’s museums (that of natural history) is located in a former water tower.

Polotsk

Miraculously I was not the only visitor of this museum that day. There was one exhibition I particularly liked – although it seems it was even dustier than the rest – representing a traditional wooden house interior. I also paid to see a room they opened for me dedicated to the 100 years of the revolution only to find some (dusty) Soviet exhibits once removed from the museum’s permanent exhibition and now nonchalantly restored.

Polotsk

And yes, although they speak Russian there – never heard anyone speaking Belorussian throughout my journey – it turns out they use their official language in social ads, on state billboards and… on tags in museums 🙂 No English either. Had to ‘secretly’ overhear the excursion (obviously in Russian) and did my best to understand the Belorussian. Having inhaled quite a mass of dust, I continued my walk towards the cathedral when I realized they were having an organ concert that day. Too late, all the tickets were sold and so I just relaxed in the rays of the setting sun.

Polotsk

Such a fine day!

Polotsk

Western Dvina:

Polotsk

Creamy facade of the St Sophia Cathedral:

Polotsk

So, Polotsk did pass my test: it’s small, there are old buildings all over it, a river (even two) and hilly places, a local history museum, a market, postcards (which I failed to buy as I didn’t have Belorussian rubles yet – and by the way after the denomination they do look very much like euro, both coins and notes, see here), there’s a nice hostel to stay overnight and also a natural reserve nearby which I wish I could visit. Like Smolensk, Polotsk had its fine moments, used to belong to various nations, was occupied during the Second World War and is now a tourist attraction. But unlike Smolensk it has a much more humane face, so to speak (at least they don’t fine you for crossing the street in the wrong place). Or was it – again – just the weather? 🙂

This post goes to my Travel series.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Delinquent in Smolensk, A City on the Border

Smolensk

A super slow train took me to Smolensk overnight and well into the next day. The day was not a particularly fine one in terms of weather. But that of course was not the reason why I was delinquent in Smolensk. Let me keep the suspense for a little bit more till we get to that point while travelling across the city. For some time now I have been meaning to visit this city on the border with Belarus, one of the oldest in Russia and constantly popping up here and there in the tormented Russian history. First mentioned in the chronicles in the year of 863, it did not preserve much since that time, as you can imagine.

Smolensk

However, Smolensk does have a certain frontier atmosphere, testifying of all the various influences it has experienced throughout the years (Lithuania, Poland…). Its position on the Dnieper river, an important waterway of the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks, has brought wealth and fame but also attracted too much attention from those who craved to get hold of both.

Smolensk

The first sight you catch when you arrive (not counting the railway station itself) are the two oldest churches of the city, Peter and Paul (12th century! on the left in the photo above and below) and St Barbara (16th; to the right), standing almost side by side and pretty far off the center and the walls of the fortress surrounding it. Just like Novgorod the Great, the Tatar-Mongol yoke did not destroy Smolensk (although Napoleon and Hitler were more successful) and so it boasts some of those pre-Mongol churches hardly to be found anywhere else in Russia.

Smolensk
After a short pause at a very Spartan motel (see below) I put my hat on together with the hood to make it across the Dnieper river. Dnieper has always been in my mind going side by side Ukraine and Kiev in particular. But then some Russians are not sure if Smolensk is in their city either… So, to cut this long story short, Dnieper takes its source in the Smolensk region and then flows across Belarus and Ukraine into the Black Sea. And here it is in its very beginning:

Smolensk

Just noticed the crazy bushes along the Dnieper river embankment that recklessly decide to blossom in snowy hazy November. And here’s a part of the renovated fortification wall that used to surround a really vast chunk of the city. I took this wall as a guideline for my itinerary throughout Smolensk and so followed it from the North clockwise.

Smolensk

The walls were constructed by the same architect who created those of the so called White Town in Moscow earlier in the 16th century. Only this time Fedor Kon’ thought bigger and taller, with much more towers, thus creating a real fortress around the town (which it really is compared to smaller Moscow Kremlin)

Smolensk

And here’s the weirdest part of the north wall – the classicist Dnieper Gates flanked by two bell towers on both sides, literally growing from the 16th century wall. The gates now house a church school.

Smolensk

It looks like this from the other side:

Smolensk

Following the northern wall clockwise I came to this hilly part of Smolensk looking pretty much like a village, with a typical rural shop where you can normally find almost everything you need.

Smolensk

Smolensk Village

Smolensk

View over the Sobornaya Gorka, a hill with the Assumption Cathedral. Right underneath me was a man lying apparently breathless and / or drunk beyond repair. On a deserted street below a couple was waiting for the emergency car to come. I didn’t see what happened next.

Smolensk

Out of 38 original towers only 17 have survived; this one is in the South-East part of the wall:

Smolensk

And here you can illegally climb the ruined stairs and get a view over both sides of the wall – illegally, too. But no one cares.

Smolensk

Avraamiev Monastery (founded in early 13th century, rebuilt in stone in the 18th)

Smolensk

Moving further – Nikolskaya tower

Smolensk

With a drive-through arch:

Smolensk

And a gorgeously Soviet store selling sports goods and clothes. By the time they realized it was time to renew the shop window design, it has suddenly come back into fashion again (the black & white posters are there for a very very long time):

Smolensk

Some Stalinist architecture, ship-shape:

Smolensk

A door leading into a 1930s Gosbank (State Bank) building – still used as a bank premises:

Smolensk

One of the most recognizable buildings in Smolensk – the 1930s constructivist ‘House with Lions’ as it is known here. What a combination! A lady waited patiently while I was taking this photo and then entered – too fast for me to follow in her steps and see what Smolensk avantgarde looks like.

Smolensk

Moving along a rather long Kommunisticheskaya (Communist) Street, which changed names at least 6 times across the centuries, including Bolshaya Dvoryanskaya (Nobleman) vs Bolshaya Proletarskaya (Proletarian), Sotsialisticheskaya (Socialist) and Stalina (Stalin). That street was not the lucky one for me – as we will see later. This is a local arts school in a neo-Russian style red brick building:

Smolensk

An early 17th century Gromovaya (Thunder) Tower and a monument to Fedor Kon’, the architect.

Smolensk

Moving further along the South-Western wall:

Smolensk

And looking back:

Smolensk

When I realized I’d seen most of the sights located in the center, I decided to move back and explore the old merchant mansions along Bolshaya Sovetskaya. Little did I know that after passing along this Fine Arts Museum on the same Kommunisticheskaya street I would get too distracted by a Stalinist building on the right and a neo-Russian on the left plus a 16th century wall lurking somewhere over there that I would nonchalantly cross the street where it was not supposed to and… bump into a policeman. So here we go, my first fine and about 20 minutes of the precious daylight wasted while another policeman was taking down my name etc and telling me stories about St Petersburg – veeeery slowly. No, they were not impressed that I was a tourist from another city and the fact that it was a state holiday did not make them drop the whole thing either. Delinquent!

Smolensk

Did you know that if you pay your fine within a short period in Russia (and you can make it online too) you only pay 50% of it? Well, I did 🙂

Smolensk

The 17-18th century Assumption Cathedral, all gold inside. My last shot in Smolensk after which I crossed Dnieper once again to the railway station district to wait for my late night train that would take me across the border to Belarus. I didn’t manage to sample anything particularly remarkable in Smolensk (only gobbled down something quite similar to panforte – but it was imported from Minsk), nor did I get any postcards. No local market either. Hm, seems like Smolensk did not pass my test! Or was it just the weather with wind and snow right into my face?

Not recommended in Smolensk: The city has a very scarce selection of accommodation options. So much so that you either end up in an overpriced ‘euro-standard’ hotel or in a very dilapidated motel-like place (which I did). Unless you have your train to catch the same night (and IN the night too), do not choose Mini-Hotel na Avtovokzale. It is very convenient for those travelling by train or bus but definitely to be avoided if you care about your own self.

This post goes to my Travel series.

G.