no recipe · on USSR / Russia · St Petersburg

Experimenting with Black and White: Smena Film Camera

Smena Black and White

Experimenting with the Soviet black and white Smena 8M camera that was given to my Mother as a present when she was still at school, in 1973 – her first photo camera. That was a popular and inexpensive model for beginners manufactured at the famous LOMO factory in Leningrad – well now you would rather call it a mind-boggling challenge! First and foremost, finding a black and white film was not that very easy, I managed to find only one type and it was quite pricey for an experiment. So I knew the price of every shot 🙂 Although that was not my first encounter with film cameras (I started with Zenith back in the early 2000s), Smena really is a Soviet austerity thing. The trick with this camera is that it is so basic that you can’t focus. Nope. No zooming, nothing, just your reckoning of how far the object is from you (which I’m pretty bad at!). And you can’t even fully get an idea of what will be in your picture once it’s developed either. I mean the thing you see in the finder when making the photo is not all what you get as a result. There are also those icons for the weather conditions that you need to choose from – I think I’ve made a mess with them every time, not mentioning the shutter speed that you have to determine yourself too. Add to this absence of a cap for the lens and a very stiff cover… Also when I had my film developed (which you don’t normally do these days, do you?) it turned out that most of the 36 shots were gone… I mean most of the film was just blank. I dunno if that’s due to the camera or to some error during the developing process but the thing is, I lost all the earlier photos that I did in January, February and March… So I’m left with the shots from early April till mid May 2018. By the way, I’ve deliberately kept the borders on the scanned photos (thanks to my Dad!) so that they have a more authentic feel (read: too lazy!).

Smena Black and White

The first shot that was more or less full (see a black stripe above) and the next one were taken in Tsarskoye Selo on a morning in early April, during the Easter week. That’s the church (below) and the wooden dormitories that I’ve already described in one of my previous posts. I was drawn by the interplay of the shadows and the bright sun on the walls but had no idea how it would look like in a black and white version.

Smena Black and White

A week later in April we took an evening walk in the Aleksandrovsky Park of Tsarskoye Selo. Again I was attracted by the shadows and the perspective of the tree alley. I had to consult my Mother as to what numbers / icons to choose. Absolutely no idea how people’s minds worked back then when everything was not automatically set! 🙂

Smena Black and White

Next day at our dacha, trying to capture the warm evening sun of spring:

Smena Black and White

Late April – some shots taken while walking along Moyka river from – roughly – the Palace Square to Tavrichesky Garden in St Petersburg. The beginning of the active tourist season… I was not sure whether the camera would focus on the river or the lamp post…

Smena Black and White

Trying to get that graphic repetition of the (shadow) pattern:

Smena Black and White

Here I was not sure wether the lamp would fit or not but I was more interested in the swirl:

Smena Black and White

Early May on the Palace Square, before getting my price for a Russian language competition 🙂

Smena Black and White

The sky was so dramatic, the wind was tough, I couldn’t hold myself from making another shot:

Smena Black and White

And this is mid May when the weather suddenly turned to very autumn-like rather than spring-time. We took a very fast walk in Pavlovsk, near the Mariental Castle (aka BIP), see the very first photo of the post for yet another take on it:

Smena Black and White

Obviously tried to get more of the reflection rather than of the castle itself:

Smena Black and White

And I think this is by far the best shot – a tiny bit of decadence:

Smena Black and White

After all, I liked the challenge. Some of the photos did remind me of those I took years ago when I borrowed Zenith camera from my parents – but that was a colour film camera and much more user-friendly. With Smena I think for a moment I did get that feeling back when with every shot you make you realize that that was probably it – or nothing. You can’t take a hundred and then choose the best one with this camera, you can’t have a preview, you can’t see the result immediately, you just – well, you just ‘fire’ that thing and wait to see! Perfectly old-fashioned.

G.

no recipe · on USSR / Russia · St Petersburg

Spring Memories 2018

Spring at Dacha

I’ve spent quite a lot of time at our dacha this spring – and later summer. And I guess I have to be pay my dues to the job I’ve been doing for almost a year now which allows me to work from any location and almost any point during the day. Thanks to that I’ve also travelled to new places since I don’t necessarily have to stay at home.

Spring at Dacha

But at the same time too much is done on the computer which leaves me with no desire to use it any more after I’m done with the task for the day. So even if I have a desire to write to my blog, it’s not enough to actually do it. Which also made me ponder on the whole idea itself – whether I really need this blog etc etc. Ok, no more of this, let’s just leave some spring 2018 memories here.

Spring at Dacha

The first photos are from April when there’s such an awakening around you, such a joy inside you that cannot compare with any other season I guess. I love the interplay of the seemingly dead / sleeping nature and the subtle but obviously very sturdy and vigorous new life.

Spring at Dacha

It’s so fast this in-between season – I mean, between the winter and the full-on summer that you’d better open your eyes before it’s all gone.

Spring at Dacha

This spring gave us a marvelous May which was in a way warmer and nicer than most of the previous summers. And it was also made pretty clear to us that we were to face yet another apple year, a very prolific one though the apples I’m afraid were record sour which made them almost inedible for those with a weak stomach.

Apple Trees in Blossom

We’re still dealing with the apple harvest and I can only occasionally make something non-apple in terms of desserts since we have so many of them and everyone around seem to be having the same problem so there’s just no way of getting rid of them by giving away.

Apple Trees in Blossom

During winter I had some thoughts of going back to Crimea to get some proper spring experience just like I did in 2016 but then I realized I’d be better off at our dacha just enjoying life and nature in a sort of a seclusion that a 0.6 ha plot can give you. While making my strolls along and across the multiple dacha cooperatives that stretch for kilometers along the New Ladoga Canal (which in its turn runs along the Ladoga Lake shore), I met quite a few people who were also enjoying their dacha life in many ways though not all of their lifestyles were so to speak healthy. I guess that the relative remoteness from the city (about 50 km) and a more relaxed and village-like atmosphere means vodka will never lose its popularity in these places.

Apple Trees in Blossom

I’m definitely not a village person, I mean if I were to choose, I would definitely love to live in the country but then I’m absolutely hopeless with all the hard work it entails. And I can only drink my milk already pasteurized and devoid of all the (too) natural aromas, if you know what I mean. But I’m not a city person either which makes dacha a nice sort of compromise in between. Russians love their dacha for a variety of reasons, mine is very personal cause I’ve been spending there most of my summers since my very first one. I’m grateful for those Soviets who had the idea of granting plots to their people. And I’m really thankful for my grandparents who courageously undertook such a hard task to develop a plot from virtually nothing (ex-forest) to such a cozy place. Even a 9’C day somewhere in the middle of July can’t spoil it.

Apple Trees in Blossom

I can brag on for ages, you know. Need to save my enthusiasm for the rest of the backlog of various posts that I keep postponing for ages.

P.S. Pictured above is the famous Cobalt Net tea pot from a porcelain set very popular in the 1960s. The pattern itself was created even before the end of the war by an artist working at the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory during the Siege of Leningrad.  I’m no fan of porcelain but this one is such an iconic pattern that it’s somehow ‘by default’ included in our inner cultural canon.

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.

bread · vegetarian

Cuban Bread or Pan Cubano de Manteca

Cuban Bread or Pan Cubano de Manteca

This is my first Cuban recipe here on this blog – though not the first one that I’ve ever tried. There is not much I can tell you about the Cuban culinary culture but I was quite surprised that they make such whity-white bread there. I was imagining something more yellow, I mean, with corn. But Wikipedia claims this is the traditional Cuban bread made into long loaves for perfect Cuban sandwiches.

Cuban Bread or Pan Cubano de Manteca

And ooops, seems like I accidentally left out that very ingredient which distinguishes Cuban bread from its French or Italian counterparts – some tablespoons of lard! Can’t say it drastically affected these loaves – though the crumb would definitely have been different.

Cuban Bread or Pan Cubano de Manteca

Looks like my vegetarian soul just shuts all the unwanted ingredients out of my attention –  I realized I left it out only when I started writing this post. So my version is thus both for vegetarians and those who try to cut on fat in their cooking.

Cuban Bread or Pan Cubano de Manteca

And although you won’t be able to make the real Cuban sandwiches with these rolls rather than baguettes, I promise whatever shape they are, you will no doubt enjoy them. We didn’t mind at all.

Cuban Bread or Pan Cubano de Manteca

I made my photos on two consecutive days so the cut version is in less bright colours as the day was pretty moody. The weather changes these days as it normally does in this very very early spring when you are not at all sure whether to call it winter or spring already.

Cuban Bread or Pan Cubano de Manteca

Year ago – Spelt Sourdough Baguettes

2 years ago – Spring in St Petersburg. The Beginning (no recipe)

3 years ago – Lappeenranta in (Spring) Details (no recipe)

4 years ago – 2,800 km of Russia Seen from Above (no recipe)

5 years ago – What a Peach! Sunny Cake and a Zesty Cranberry Cake

6 years ago – Double Citrusy Heaven

Cuban Bread or Pan Cubano de Manteca adapted from karenskitchenstories.com will make four cute loaves with crunchy crust and soft but chewy crumb. Here are my remarks and changes to the original recipe which can be found along with all the essential information on the Karen’s Kitchen Stories website.

My changes: I didn’t use bread flour, just regular all purpose flour (not the super refined one though). Yes, absolutely forgot the melted lard (which I wouldn’t use anyway, I would normally substitute it with melted butter or sunflower oil). Made shorter logs (2) and rolls (2) with pointed ends. Mixed this bread by hand – not exactly for 15 minutes, probably, but definitely quite long for my usual lazy baking.

More remarks: Compared to the cute sandwich loaves baked by Karen, mine were smaller and the crumb was less dense and less homogeneous. Mind that this recipe calls for an overnight poolish as well, so plan ahead.

Result: Perfect breakfast bread. Do I need to add anything to that? Ok, it’s crusty and soft at the same time – just as we all like it! Made some (read: many) thick Russian buterbrod  with cheese and some greens.

Cuban Bread or Pan Cubano de Manteca

Not these greens though – they still have some time to live yet. Its is one of the frail parsley I planted back in late autumn. They have been pretty slow to grow but now the sun is making its magic.

Cuban Bread or Pan Cubano de Manteca

You can actually feel how turbulently this bread spent its time in the oven:

Cuban Bread or Pan Cubano de Manteca

These two are the closest I could get to the baguettes, haha 🙂 Well, to tel you the truth I did write the recipe down in my ‘shorthand’ (which quite often means leaving out some crucial ingredients or steps) and then ‘forgot’ about it for several weeks. So by the time I was actually making the bread, I couldn’t really recall which shape they should be. And I was to lazy to check again.

Cuban Bread or Pan Cubano de Manteca

Did you notice these ‘holes’ in the top crust (bottom of this photo)? I find them lovely- whatever sign they might be of some particular technological gaff from my side 🙂

Cuban Bread or Pan Cubano de Manteca

I seem to be mesmerized by these cracks. I know some will say it’s not a good sign when your bread makes these instead of a perfectly straight crack exactly where you slashed the dough… But you know what? Who cares – everybody eats!

Cuban Bread or Pan Cubano de Manteca

And the last crack:

Cuban Bread or Pan Cubano de Manteca

This post goes to the Country-specific and Yeast Bread collections.

Looking for more Cuban bread experience? Try this Cuban sandwich bread which I baked several years ago, though I didn’t make any Cuban sandwiches with it :).

G.

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

Wintry Icy St Petersburg

Wintry St Pete

Here’s some severe beauty of the frosty St Petersburg – before it all melted away. No ‘winter wonderland’ for this New Year’s eve, I’m afraid.

Wintry St Pete

An icy hello from the Ladoga lake which it sends to the city via Neva river once in a while.

Wintry St Pete

The ‘rotundas’ on the Palace Bridge are there as festive decorations.

Wintry St Pete

And a view back:

Wintry St Pete

The entire city looked like this that day: as if someone sprayed it all with fake snow.

Wintry St Pete

Oh, look, there’s sun in St Petersburg, hurry up before it’s gone!

Wintry St Pete

Icy sky hues:

Wintry St Pete

And a photo from a bit earlier – the illuminated Peter and Paul Fortress:

Wintry St Pete

Adding this post to the St Petersburg series.

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.