Berlin

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Are you cool enough for Berlin? I wasn’t, but I went anyway! After three years of lockdown I jumped on a plane to visit my twin and her partner.

Travelling

With direct flights resuming from Glasgow International Airport to Berlin Brandenburg Airport, my partner and I touched down after travelling two hours.

Honouring on-going COVID precautions, we picked up masks in an airport shop, before jumping on the S9 train to Treptower Park.

As well as masks, we were surprised by the presence of plain-clothed police on trains. From a tourist point of view these guys look like conmen, but they were legit. To avoid being fined by them, we learned you must validate your ticket (at the box next to the vendor) before travel.

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Paying

Off the train, we stopped at a mini mart to get a wegbier (journey beer) for the walk to my twin’s. There I discovered that cash is king in Berlin. Although a tech capital, most vendors, restaurants and bars in the city use cash.

Staying

After securing the beer, my twin and a tour of her home, we wrapped up against the cold and headed back to the S-Bahn. Exiting at Ostbahnhof Station, we walked 10 minutes to The Hampden by Hilton, to drop off our cases.

The Hampden was our choice because of its reasonable price, onsite gym and ideal location. As well as being near Ostbahnhof Station (with supermarkets and takeaways) the hotel is across the road from the stunning East Side Gallery.

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Photographing

Once a section of the Berlin Wall, The East Side Gallery is now a 1316-metre art exhibition by the waterfront. With 118 artists from 21 countries, the Gallery has been given protected memorial status. It is also the perfect selfie spot. While many snapped shots next to Vrubel’s iconic Fraternal Kiss, I preferred Morlay and Paulun’s Paix, Amour-Sagesse piece, for its colours and characters.

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Cruising

That night we headed back to the banks of the Spree, for a hot tub boat trip. This was living at its best! Following the river from Treptower park, we walked under the Abteibrücke bridge and along to the Berlin Bootsverleih mooring. There we were escorted into a heated changing room, complete with a minibar and dry bags (to safeguard phones and speakers while cruising).

Bag, bottles and ice bucket ready, we boarded our boat, which was 90% hot tub, 1% rudder and 9% bow. With sleet horizontally hitting our faces, but our shoulders submerged in warm water, we motored out of the mooring and down the Spree.

Sailing and sipping wine, we navigated through the legs of the Molecule Men statue, back under the bridge and past the Universal building. The bright lights, bubbly and banging beats made for an unforgettable trip.

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Time Travelling

The bubbly also made for a banging headache the next day! However, after a morning run and breakfast, I felt recovered.

Back to the train station, we boarded the S-Bahn to Hackescher Markt. There we met my twin and walked to Museum Island. As the name suggests, this area holds some of Berlin’s best artefacts and art collections.

Our first stop was The Pergamon Museum, a gallery that features pieces from ancient civilisations including those of Iraq, Rome, and Germany. The museum’s most striking piece was the reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate (eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon). It stretched from floor to ceiling, with navy glazed brick, featuring sand coloured dragons, lions and bulls.

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Walking through the museum we reached another liminal zone, the Market Gate of Miletus. The 17-metre-high marble structure featured white columns and ornate designs. Reading the signs we discovered it was built during Emperor Hadrian’s reign, in an area now known as Western Turkey.

After a short stop for lunch, we headed next door to The Neues Museum. Highlights of this visit included the beautiful bust of Queen Nefertiti and the Berlin Gold Hat. Looking like a wizard’s accessory, the conical hat dates back to the Bronze Age. It was made of 490g of gold, and stamped with symbols of the lunisolar calendar.

Finally, finishing our trip to Museum Island, we entered the Pergamon Museum Panorama. Walking in to a dim lit, circular room, we ascended a steel stair structure, to gaze at a 360 degrees print of the ancient Roman city of Pergamon. As the lighting and soundscapes shifted (to reflect day and night) different characters were highlighted in the Yadegar Asisi masterpiece.

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Clubbing

After a busy day site seeing, we headed back to our hotel for a nap, to prepare for the night ahead. This was needed, as Berlin clubs don’t fill till 1/2am. With -6 lows forecast, we decided against fruitless queuing at Berghain, and instead headed to Paloma Bar.

Walking to Skalitzer Strasse, we climbed a stairwell next to Kaiser’s supermarket, and (after a 20 minute wait) got in. With low ceilings, and a DJ booth on the dance floor, it had a great vibe. After a few hours sweaty dancing, we caught our breath on its veranda. Paloma bar – like all Berlin clubs – allows smoking indoors, so it was great to get some fresh air! While smoking is allowed indoors, selfies are not, so we took some mental pictures before hitting the road.

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Dying

Around 5am we headed back to the hotel, to catch some sleep. Waking up at 10am I felt like I was dying. But, ever the busy tourists, we got up and got on with the day. I dragged myself on my morning run, and having missed breakfast, we headed to McDonalds, to revive ourselves before the train.

Stopping at Treptow Park, my twin and her partner led us to the Soviet Memorial. It was an eye opener. While I had been aware of the atrocities of Nazi Germany, I hadn’t known the magnitude of the Russian resistance during WWII.

Walking the park’s grounds, we observed the granite statues that paid tribute to the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died while fighting to capture Berlin. As we climbed the mausoleum steps snow began to fall.

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The snow came thick and fast that night, which was perfect for our next activity: a trip to the Medieval Christmas markets. Set in the RAW Compound, the markets featured food and drink stalls, child amusements, donkeys, archery and fire jugglers. Despite my hellish hangover, I enjoyed a bowl of goulash in the wintry weather.

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Rebounding

After a very early night, we faced our last day in Berlin with renewed vigour, jumping in an uber to The Stasi Museum. Located on the grounds of the former Ministry for State Security HQ, we Googled our way to the 60s tower block. Once inside, we paid and climbed to the office exhibitions.

Walking through the rooms, we marvelled at artifacts including spy equipment, weapons, letters and images. The signage explained that after World War II, Germany was divided into Soviet, American, British and French zones of occupation. Berlin was largely Soviet, with the East becoming a soviet ‘satellite’.

Correspondence and photos gave us an insight into the lives of some of the 189,000 people who worked as ‘informers’ for the regime, spying on their neighbours. After hours of pouring through their lives, we headed out into the cold.

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Leaving

Following a final farewell meal, we thanked my sister and her partner and jumped on the S-Bahn to the airport. Next time we visited we vowed to bring more cash, speak more German and see more of West Berlin!

Ayia Napa

Side-lining stereotypes of Ayia Napa, the Cypriot spot synonymous with 18-30s, my tricenarian pals and I booked up.

After three years of lockdown, we were psyched to escape Scotland.

Traveling

Choosing the trip was easy enough, but there were some things we learned about traveling to Ayia Napa. Firstly, flights are often at anti-social hours, so it’s best to pre-book your travel and accommodation. Secondly, there are no public buses, trains (or cheap taxis) from Larnaca Airport, so pre-booked transfers are key!

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Staying

Touching down at 1am local time, we thanked God for our transfer! After bumbling with baggage, we boarded our bus to the hotel.

Ayia Napa accommodation can suit any budget, but after much searching, my partner and I opted for the Vassos Nissi Plage Hotel, famed for its amenities and warm welcome.

Meeting us with smiles and information, the reception team and night porter got us settled.

 

The Rose factory

Exploring

After a few stolen hours sleep, we were up early for the Flavours of Cyprus Tour, a trip that promised eating, drinking and historical insights from a local guide.

Heading out of Ayia Napa, we took the A3 North West to collect our chaperone, Maria. While our driver Mikael navigated narrow mountain rounds, Maria told us of the island’s hard history.

Passing dry land dotted with Cypresses, Fig trees and shrubs, Maria explained that Cyprus used to be famed for its forests, before war and shifting environmental practices saw it reduced and replanted.

After a short coffee break in mountain village, we headed down the E903 to Argos, for The Rose Factory. Hiding on the hillside, this botanical business offered breathtaking views and produce. Its floral arches led to an information center, where powerful perfume prevailed. Inside we were given rose cordial to sip, as we heard how the blooms were grown, harvested and processed on-site, to be turned into drinks, cosmetics and perfume.

Senses awoken, we continued our trip to a local confectionary, Nikki Sweets. Here we discovered the many ways Carob Syrup was used to make Cypriot candies. In a cushioned canopy, we sampled preserved walnut, pineapple and olive, all soaked in syrup.

Sugar-buzzing, we snapped selfies, before returning to the bus to embrace our next eatery.

After a short drive South West, we reached the town of Pelendri and our restaurant, Symposio Tavern. With an earthern oven and a kitchen garden, the owner’s organic produce wowed us! We devoured Greek salads, omelettes, pittas, dips, and roasted meat, all washed down with watermelon slices.

Tsiakkas Winery

Full but happy, we returned to the bus for the grand finale, a trip to Tsiakkas Winery. Upon arrival, we went to the terrace, to view the vineyard below. Bright green vines climbed the walls of the valley, in gorgeous contrast to the sandy soil and azure sky.

After a few photos, we continued to the wine cellar, where we heard about the imported and reused oak barrels. These casks were filled with local vintages like Vamvakada, and Xynisteri; as well as European names such as Merlot.

Finally, it came time to taste the wine! Back upstairs we tried white, rose and red, while basking in the vineyard view. Although drier than my usual tipple, the wines were a nice contrast to our earlier sweets.

Bidding goodbye to the winery, we went back to the bus to head home.

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Clubbing

Home for us was Nissi Beach, a hot spot for swimming, but a 40- minute trek from nightlife. To find this, we met our pals and walked to Ayia Napa Square.

Hitting the square, the streets were busier than the clubs, as people promenaded with drinks and sparklers. However, after a couple of happy hours, the bars were buzzing.

Over many, many drinks, we voted Senior Frog’s the best bar for frozen cocktails and cheesy pop. However, the real rave was to be found in Encore. With a huge open-air dance floor, an elevated DJ booth, and a laser show, Encore offered classic clubbing.

After a great night, we headed back to the hotel for some R&R.

Glass House

Dining

The following day brought a hellish hangover and I regretted booking the fancy place for dinner.

But, after hours chilling by the pool, I came around to the plan! Drinks drank, and makeup on, my partner and I headed to The Glass House restaurant.

Situated atop Adam’s Beach Hotel, The Glass House is a four-star eatery, serving Nouvelle cuisine, with an uninterrupted view of Nissi Beach. Sitting outside, we watched the sun set over a Sauvignon Blanc from Tsiakkas Winery.

While we relaxed, we were given complimentary nibbles of bread and dips with a tangy taste. Then I enjoyed the Tuna Tataki, followed by Seafood Tagliatelle. Everything we ate had fine-tuned flavours and was served with smiles, so although pricey, it was worth every penny!

Later in the holiday, as the euros dwindled, we found a cheap treat in Mangas Restaurant. Its white-washed walls, mosaics and mood lighting made it an instant roadside romance! Undeterred by the passing traffic, we grabbed a seat and ordered the meat mezze.

We were stunned at the spread that came. Salads, pittas, dips, stews, chunky chips, sausages and kebabs were just some of the ‘small’ plates served. After eating all we could, we walked it off, heading to Parko Paliatso Luna Park.

Lunar Park

Playing

For big kids, Parko Paliatso is a ‘Napa must-see. The fairground has rides of all sizes, as well as pop-up bars and a Ferris Wheel. From the top of the wheel, we soaked up the stunning cityscape, before immortalising it in photos!

Emboldened by the experience, my friend and I queued for the ‘spinny ride’. This one sat you in a cart that moved up and down, side to side and then backward. A great idea after a massive meat mezze! Narrowly avoiding vomiting, we screamed and laughed, before rejoining my partner, who had wisely sat it out.

Days later, learning from this near miss, I had a light breakfast before our trip to Waterworld. Meeting our pals, we sweated in the 30-degree heat, before catching the 102 bus to the waterpark.

After dumping our stuff, we hot-footed it to the flumes. Soon I decided the half-pipe and steep-drop ones were my favourite. The ‘chariot race’ flume – not so much!

As I lay at the top of the ‘chariot race’, my yoga mat stuck, and I flopped like a walrus, trying to get it to launch. Needless to say, I did not win the race! Eventually, I made it down the slide and was treated to a drink by my friends.

Chariot race flume

Reading

After much hilarity, our trip to Ayia Napa came to an end. But I took Cyprus home with me, as I read The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak. The novel, which jumps back and forth from the 70s to the 00s, tells the tale of two teens, from opposite sides of the border.

After falling in love, war breaks out and the pair have to make tough choices about if and how they will stay connected. Action-packed, with history and humour, the book was great, just like our trip!

Oslo

Going out with a bang, we vowed to relish the final stop on our Capital Cities of the Baltic Cruise, as we docked in Oslo, Norway.

To see the city through local eyes, we followed resident student Lars on a walking tour.

The Tiger Statue

The Tiger

Meeting at Central Station, Lars introduced us to Elena Engelsen’s Tiger Statue.

We took turns petting the 4.5-metre bronze beast as Lars explained its inspiration. Commissioned by the estate management company Eiendomsspar, to mark the region’s 1000-year anniversary, the statue’s feline form was chosen to reflect Oslo’s nickname, Tiger City.

Some claim the alias is inspired by a Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson poem, which refers to Oslo being a fierce like a tiger. However, others say the statue makes reference to the area’s poor past, when it was referred to as Tiggerstaden or City of Beggars.

Far from poverty, the city is now punctuated with designer shops and multi-storey offices. We admired the mix of old and new architecture as we wandered up the road.

The Glove

Chritian IV’s Glove

Stopping at Christiania Torv Square, we contemplated a circular fountain, topped with a downward pointing hand sculpture.

Lars explained the statue was called Chritian IV’s Glove, but has also been known as Hanske, since being built in 1997, by local artist Wenche Gulbransen.

Gulbransen rooted the work here to mark the spot that King Christian IV decided to rebuild, after the city’s fire in 1624. Legend has it the king pointed to the ground there and said, ‘the new town will lie here!’

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Akershus Fortress

Journeying further back in time, Lars took us 15 minutes’ walk to The Fortress of Akershus. Built in 1299 under King Haakon V, the fortress started life as a medieval castle, which withstood a number of sieges, before being renovated into a Renaissance royal residence.

With winding walls, spires and dry moats, it is easy to believe Lars when he says Akershus Fortress is haunted. The castle served as a prison in the 18 and 19 Centuries, before being occupied by Nazis during WWII.

Now a testimony to modern law enforcement, the fortress hosts the Norway Ministry of Defence headquarters, a temporary office for the Prime Minister and a cultural centre.

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The National Theatre

Heading back toward the city centre, Lars brought us to see the National Theatre building. With Neoclassical columns, domed ceilings and four stages the theatre was designed by architect Henrik Bull in 1864, however it can trace roots back to the original Christiania Theatre of 1829.

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Rådhuset

Hopping just across the road, Lars led us to the jewel of our tour, Rådhuset or the City Hall. Designed by Arnstein Arneberg and Magnus Poulson, the Hall’s brick façade only reveals its beauty as you reach the entrance and see its giant zodiac clock.

TownHall

Entering the hall where Nobel Peace Prizes are awarded, the walls were rich with frescos by artists such as Henrik Sørensen, Per Krohg, and Edvard Munch. Their brightly coloured scenes showed the history of Norway and its neighbours, from industrial challenges to political milestones.

After aweing us with art, Lars concluded the tour outside. Thanking our guide, we set off ourselves for one final stop.

Opera House

Oslo Opera House

For our last look at the city, we climbed the Oslo Opera House. Designed by architects Snøhetta and completed in 2007, the building’s Italian marble and white granite slopes up to an alpine peak, perfect for people watching.

The largest cultural building constructed in Norway since the Nidaros Cathedral, the Opera House hosts both indoor and outdoor events throughout the year.

From its roof we scanned the city’s port, parks and streets, before snapping a selfie to remember our trip.

Visby

Travelling 200 nautical miles from Stockholm, we reached Visby, Sweden. Although near its country’s capital, this UNESCO heritage site couldn’t have felt further away. Located on Gotland, Sweden’s largest island, Visby is a scenic seaside city famed for its 12C walls.

Hopping off the shuttle bus, we strolled the promenade before basking in the breeze on some nearby hammocks.

Visby Botanical Garden

DBW’s Botanical Gardens

Resuming our walk, we traced the walls 3 minutes North, to explore DBW’s Botanical Gardens. Featuring pools, pretty plants, century-old trees and a Japanese gazebo, the gardens made the perfect selfie spot.

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City Walls

Delighted, we headed back into the city to wander around its famed fortifications. Made with limestone and terracotta tiles, the walls include 27 large and nine small towers, testimony to Visby’s days as a trading tour de force.

Such was its success as centre of commerce that in the 12C all the merchant routes of the Baltic were channelled through Visby, which led to it becoming a 13C metropolis, with warehouses, churches and town halls.

War and piracy saw Visby fall as an international trade hub; however the city continued to develop with housing and warehouses added in the 18C, as well as schools, a hospital, and a prison added in the 19C.

Stopping to read the historical signs dotted around the walls, we found the route to St Mary’s Cathedral and followed the path over the hill, until we saw its spires.

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St Mary’s Cathedral

With white towers, red tiles, and a Romanesque church style, St Mary’s Cathedral is an imposing sight. Winding our way down to its doors, we were met with the sweet soprano of mass as we entered its nave.

Our eyes followed the sound down the aisle to see chandeliers, a grand gothic alterpiece and pulpit complete with a female priest (a common sight in Sweden’s Lutheran churches). Pausing for a moment, we savoured the sound, before heading back outside.

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Sankta Karin Church of the Ruin 

Dazzled by daylight, we got our bearings and headed toward another sacred site, Sankta Karin Church of the Ruin.

With whalebone arches and skeletal columns, the ruins suggest the former glory of the church, which now stands in stark contrast to the rest of the town centre.

Built in 1233, the church was modified in the 13, 14 and 15 Centuries, but never truly completed. Instead it partially collapsed and fell into disuse in the 16C. Now its ruins literally support local businesses, such as a neighbouring café, with which it shares a wall.

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Stortorget, Main Square

Inspired, we sought refreshment in a nearby pub, with a pint of Gotlands Bryggeri local beer. Enjoying its tangy taste, we plotted our previous steps on the map, and people-watched shoppers in the market square.

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Gotland Museum

Before heading back to the bus, there was one final stop I wanted to make, The Gotland Museum. Intrigued by the promise of local art, I headed to the museum’s gallery section.

Upon entering I was greeted with scintillating ceramics, in both abstract art and functional fun pieces, like the petal-shaped plates of Charlotte Karisson’s work.

Visby Art Gallery 3

Moving up to the next floor, I was delighted with a double exposed photography collection, as well as a giant textile intestine installation. The medical themed work continued in the next room with glass-textile test-tube trinkets.

Taking stock of all I’d seen, I rejoined the group, to share my sight-seeing stories.

Stockholm

 

Moaritisk Absorbent 2

Reeling from Russia’s awesome attractions, we cruised into our next stop, Stockholm, Sweden.  Since we’d delved heavily into history in our Russian tours, we decided to start our Swedish sojourn with some modern art.

Swedish Subway Station Tour

Buried beneath Stockholm’s streets are stunning subway stations, cavernous and colourful.  Desperate to see them for ourselves, we followed the tour. Our guide Marie got round trip tickets to show us some of the most sensational stops. With 100 stations to choose from, it was no mean feat.

Kungsträdgården

Kungsträdgården

Among the most memorable was Kungsträdgården station, underneath Stockholm’s public park. The station’s rough walls are forest green, with water trickling down them into pools, complete with marooned- marble statues, looking like sunken Greek gods.

While obviously engineered, the water features have allowed nature to flourish, as the station hosts a fungus with a unique DNA structure, the first of its kind discovered there in 2016.

T-Centralen

T-Centralen

Travelling back in time, to the first of Stockholm’s art subways, we visited the T-Centralen. Decorated in blue and white motifs of wheat and industrial scenes; it is a surprisingly static station design created by Scandinavia’s prima kinetic artist, Per Olof Ultvedt.

Citybanan

Citybanan

From the old to the new, we moved to the recently completed Citybanan railway tunnel, complete with celestial cloud ceiling and dazzling domes. Designed by Ahlqvist and Almqvist Architects, with illumination from WSP Sweden, the station is intended to shift its visitors from warm to cool light as they ascend the escalator.

Also on the city line was the Moaritisk Absorbent disco light feature wall and ceiling, by artist Mikael Paulin. With gorgeous glows, it makes the perfect selfie stop!

Solna Centrum

Solna Centrum

Next we saw Solna Centrum subway station, designed by Karl-Olov Björk and Anders Åberg to be a sunset of red huges, with political murals marking poignant points of Swedish sociology, such as rural flight, deforestation and environmentalism.

Stadion subway

Stadion subway

Ideology continued in the Stadion subway, which welcomes visitors with its rainbow colours and blue sky walls. Although perfect for Pride – which is celebrated in the nearby Östermalms IP grounds  –  the colours were chosen by Enno Hallek and Åke Pallarp to represent the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.

Changing Guard

Changing of the Guard

Heading back to the city centre, we finished our subway station tour in time to witness the daily Changing of the Guard. Around noon, we followed crowds through the streets, up to the palace Outer Courtyard to see The Royal Guard and Music Corps complete their procession. Although it was busy, we squeezed to the front capture photos of the gold and blue bonanza.

Bee Shop

Breaking off from the crowds, we walked down the pretty street of 111 29 Stockholm, catching a break at a Texas grill. Sampling the local lager – and not so local food– we speculated about souvenir shops nearby.

It was then I spotted the bee produce shop, Sverkstan (door number 10 on the street). Venturing in, I was delighted with its beeswax candles, soaps and Manuka honey. With friendly staff and a wide range of goods, I would have spent more time and Kronor there, but with cruise departure impending we made a beeline for the port.

Pushkin and Beyond

Raring to go, we jumped on bus for the second day of our St Petersburg tour. This time we left the city, driving 40 minutes south, to Tsarskoye Selo or Pushkin.

The Imperial Lyceum

Our guide, Yevgenia, explained Tsarskoye Selo was renamed after the Russian poet, who was educated in its Imperial Lyceum.

Founded in 1811, by Alexander I (Grandson to Catherine the Great) the Lyceum primed aristocratic youths for roles within Imperial service.

This is reflected both in the school’s location, minutes from Catherine’s Palace, and its neoclassical design – by Vasily Stasov – which echoes the facades of the imperial estate.

From the street we admired the school, which used to host accommodation, kitchens, a hospital and admin staff residence.

Yevgenia explained the school even had anniversary fetes, in which its star student, Pushkin, would read verses he had composed for the occasions.

In adult life Pushkin had a rockier relationship with royalty, as his left-wing poems, such as Ode to Liberty, led to his exile by Tsar Alexander I of Russia.

Eventually reconciled, the poet was recognised for his innovative iambic tetrameter, as well as his colloquial language, favoured by the masses.

Now Pushkin is immortalised by his statue, sitting on a bench, which we passed as we headed to Catherine’s Palace.

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Catherine’s Palace

Greeted by gold-gilded gates, we entered Catherine’s Palace grounds, where our eyes travelled up the marble staircase and across its baby blue façade.

As we waited in the entrance queue, we heard a tale of two Catherines. Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great, was gifted the palace in 1710. Following Peter’s death, Catherine ruled for two further years. Later their daughter, Elizabeth, became Empress and used the palace as her summer residence. In 1751 Elizabeth employed Bartolomeo Rastrelli to demolish the original building and build a Baroque styled estate.

Five tsars later, in 1762, Catherine The Great led a coup with her lover Grigory Orlov, to overthrow her husband, Peter III. They forced him to abdicate and Catherine became Empress of Russia until 1796.

In the 1770s, Catherine hired Yuri Velten to convert the Palace’s south facade from one-storey into four-storey Zubov and Chapel Annexes. Velten’s designs were later complemented by Scots/German architect Charles Cameron, who brought further Neo Classical influence to the Palace.

Starting in the Baroque era, we climbed the State Staircase, complete with red carpet, marble cupids and gold embellishments.

Following the decedent design, we entered the beautiful ballroom of the Great Hall. Built to resonate light, the Hall’s feature windows, mirrors and crystal chandeliers highlighted its fabulous fresco, entitled The Triumph of Russia.

Moving from dancing to dinner, we entered the White Dining Room, with golden accents and sumptuous stuccos. The room features a surprisingly traditional blue-and-white tiled stove in the corner, which Yevgenia explained was for heating.

Then our palates were refreshed with the Amber Room, featuring fiery precious stones, gilded carving and mirrors. Originally comprising of 450kg of amber, our guide said the room was dismantled for safe-keeping during WWII, before being recreated in 1982, taking 20 years over $12 million to complete.

Colour themes continued as we visited the private apartments of the Green Dining Room, and Blue Drawing Room, both designed by Charles Cameron, Catherine the Great’s favourite architect.

Cameron’s Gallery

Once outside, the Scot’s work reappeared in the form of Cameron’s Gallery and Cold Bathhouse.

Obsessed with Neoclassical design, and discovering Cameron’s Roman research, in 1779 Catherine invited Cameron to build a bathhouse adjacent to the Palace.

The Cold Bathhouse was based on the ruins of Rome’s Constantine Baths, and today its remains can be seen in the Park, with temporary exhibits still showing in its Agate Rooms.

In better repair is Cameron’s Gallery, which sits to the east wing of the Catherine Palace, with 44 classical columns and bronze busts.

Designed for ‘strolling and philosophical discussion’, the building offers unrivalled views of the Great Pond and park. Nowadays the Gallery is used to house temporary art exhibitions.

Art can also be found at the exit’s gift stalls, where Matryoshka nestling dolls join eastern shawls and tourist trinkets. I managed to secure a scarf before we hustled back to the bus.

Peterhof Palace

Travelling 50 minutes North West of Pushkin, we passed motorways, high-rise flats and dachas– before arriving at Peter the Great’s summer retreat, Peterhof Palace.

The Palace was first built modestly, with two storeys, until Peter was inspired by a trip to Versailles Palace and decided to emulate its grandeur.

Between 1714 and 1725 he employed architects J.F. Braunstein, as well as garden landscapers J. B. Le Blond, and N. Michetti to transform the estate.

Years later, Empress Elizabeth continued the expansion, from 1747 to 1756, again using Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the architect who had renovated Catherine’s Palace.

Now Peterhof Palace stretches almost 300 meters and its grounds are recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, famed for its fantastic fountains.

Keen to see it ourselves, we skirted the palace to reach the Grand Cascade, a stairway of 64 fountains, complete with golden statues, which border the Morskoy Kanal out to the Gulf of Finland.

Seafarers were intended to spy the Kanal and follow its source to the magnificent fountain of Peterhof Palace, making their first impression of Russia a lasting one.

Closer inspection of the fountain again reinforced the power of Peter’s Russia, with The Samson feature showing the biblical hero tearing apart the jaws of a lion. Here Samsung represents Peter the Great, the Lion symbolises Sweden’s sovereign Charles XII, and their struggle represents the Great Northern War.

Our guide, Yevgenia, explained that Russia’s wars and rulers were heavily linked those of Europe; so Russian children learn European history from primary school.

Many Russians children are also bilingual, Yevgenia said, due to family connections in ex-USSR countries. She explained that she could speak Ukrainian, as well as being fluent in English and Russian.

Back on the bus we quizzed Yevgenia about Russian life, discovering that high-rise flats were the most common accommodation, accompanied by a dacha – if you were wealthy enough.

Other surprising revelations were that Russians passionately oppose pension reform, and have only recently accepted beer as alcohol, before 2011 it was deemed foodstuff. 

Lunch on our minds, we stopped at a restaurant for soup, stew and side of vodka; before I purchased yet more vodka at a near-by gift-shop.

Swag in tow, we journeyed back to St Petersburg for our final stop.

Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood

Hopping off the bus at Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, we admired its ravishing Russian Med Evil domes. Spring green, sky blue and sunny yellow enamel led to the golden cross spires of the cool cathedral.

Contrasting with St Petersburg’s majority Baroque and Neoclassical churches, The Spilt Blood Cathedral was designed to reinforce traditional Russian values.

The Cathedral’s commissioner Alexander III revised some of the liberal reforms of his father Alexander II.  Ironically, Alexander II was assassinated by the left wing People’s Will group – who felt his democratic reform had not gone far enough.

In 1881, a member of the People’s Will group had thrown an explosive at the tsar, leading to his fatal injury on the spot in which the cathedral now stands.

Yevgenia explained that, despite opposition by the People’s Will group, Alexander II was a great reformer, having brought about one of the biggest changes in Russian history – the abolition of serfdom. This change came in 1861, four years before America’s abolition of slavery – demonstrating Alexander II’s pioneering nature.

Testimony to the great deeds of Alexander II can be been found inside the Cathedral, where 7500 square meters of mosaic relate the tsar’s murder to the crucifixion.

The interior also contains a shrine to the tsar with jasper columns, as well as brightly coloured icons, showcasing the cathedral’s 4.6 million Ruble renovation, complete in 1997.

Bedazzled, we headed back to the bus to share top tips on visiting Russia…Bring an umbrella and comfy footwear, pay extra for a thorough tour, and charge your camera and wallet, because you’ll want momentos of these milestone moments.

 

 

St Petersburg


The Hermitage 1

Rushing into our Russian adventure, my family and I grabbed a taxi to chase the tour bus. We were on a group visa, so it’s a miracle they let us through the port. But, after passport and ticket checks, they sped us to The Hermitage, to join our fellow cruisers.

The Hermitage

We found our group, just one of many, queued round the block to witness the world’s second largest museum. With pillars and a mint façade stretching 233, 345 square meters, The Hermitage stole the breath we’d just caught.

Once inside, our tour guide Yevgenia directed us past classical statues, up marble stairs and to Winter Palace Small Throne Room. Here we saw the stunning silver guild throne built for Tsar Nicholas I, in 1833.

Travelling back in time, we walked through The Military Gallery, marvelling at the 332 portraits of generals who thwarted the 1812 French invasion of Russia. These included a large depiction of the Duke of Wellington.

Then passing another throne, we reached the most magical room, the Pavilion Hall. Here architect Andrei Stakenschneider had combined pale marble, gilded mouldings and crystal chandeliers to awesome effect.

Centre stage in Pavilion Hall was the Peacock Clock, a feat of engineering art. Its shining silver and gilded bronze animated a peacock, cockerel and owl, which moved as it chimed. Created by James Cox in the 1770s; the clock was procured for Catherine the Great, by her lover and ally Grigory Potemkin.

Tearing ourselves away we moved out the Hall, past Italian masters and gazed up to the Raphael Loggias – replicated ceilings of those in Vatican City’s Papal Palace.

The Italian theme continued as then we met Michelangelo’s Crouching Boy, a marble statue, bent over as if with foot pain. Intended for the Medici family tomb, the statue was created when Medicis regained rule of Florence, following the failing of the Republic.

Next we basked in the Small Italian Skylight Room, with 16 and 17 Century artists such as Veronese, and Carracci.

Finally, we reached the Rembrandt Room, where we discovered the dramatic Danae painting, depicting the mother of Demi God (Perseus) as she awaited Zeus. Remarkable from the first, Danae was styled on Rembrandt’s wife, before being altered after her death, to reflect the features of his mistress.

In 1985 Soviet Lithuanian Bronius Maigys slashed and chemically burned the painting’s canvas, in an act of madness. Restoration started on the day of vandalism and now the painting is faithfully repaired.

The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul

Imaginations ignited, we headed back to the bus – to our next stop – The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.  Safeguarded in the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Cathedral contains the tombs of the tsars including Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and the Romanov family.

Each Russian ruler brings sensational stories, including Peter I, who built the capital from swamp; Catherine II– who overthrew her husband to gain the throne- and the Romanovs who were killed by Communist revolutionaries.

As we heard their history, we paid homage to the Cathedral’s characters, as well as its icons, wood- carvings and canopies.


Heading back outside, we heard one final fable of The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, that of its roofer. In 1829, the spire’s angel was damaged by lightening and could only be repaired by expert Petr Telushkin. Petr climbed the spire without any scaffolding to complete the job. As a reward, Peter the Great gave him a flagon for free alcohol in any Russian Empire tavern.  Rather than carry the tankard, Petr got it tattooed on his neck – so he just had to tap it to get free alcohol. In today’s Russia flicking your neck with your fingers still remarks upon drunkenness or desire to drink.

Thirst awakened – we headed for lunch. After driving over the Dvortsovyy Most and Birzhevoy bridges, we circled back round the Winter Palace – for vodka shots at a barn conversion. Being the youngest of the group – and a fan of liquid lunches – all unwanted nips were passed to me. Thankfully potato salad and stroganoff soon arrived to soak up the booze.

Yusupov Palace

Spirits high we headed to our next stop, Yusupov Palace. Named after its once residents the Yusupov family, the Palace includes over 40,000 works of art and its own ravishing Rococo theatre.

The Palace started life as a gift to Peter the Great’s niece, before being bought in the mid-18 Century, by Count Shuvalov – whose heir commissioned Vallin de la Mothe to renovate it – in a similar style to the Small Hermitage. Then, in 1830, Prince Yusupov bought the palace, and it remained in his family until seized by the Bolsheviks in 1917.

A year before, the palace was the sight of a dark drama, the murder of Rasputin. We relived the mad monk’s final night, as we we walked through the Arab living room and down to the Garrison, where wax figures recreated the scene.

In 1916, in a bid to save the Romanovs from ruin, Prince Yusupov and nobleman Purishkevich invited Rasputin (advisor to the tsars) to Moika Palace, before poisoning him, shooting him and drowning him in the river outside.

 

The Moika River Tour

Retracing the murders’ steps, we went from the Palace to The Moika River. Here we piled onto a tour boat, with blankets on knees, to experience the capital’s lighter delights.

From the Moika we sailed along the Kryukov Canal, with views of St Nicholas Cathedral, Mariinsky Theatre, the Stroganov and Mariinsky Palaces, St Isaac’s Cathedral and the General Staff Building on Palace Square.

While soaking in our surroundings, we noticed a teen wave from the blue bridge, so we waived back. Then, the next bridge we came to, he was there too. He was racing the boat to greet us from every crossing. Our mascot’s marathon stretched over an hour, so when the trip finished we rewarded him with rubles.

Charmed by our first day in St Petersburg, we headed back to the ship to prepare for tomorrow’s adventures…

Tallinn

Tallinn Town Hall Square

 

Sailing two days East from Copenhagen, our Capital Cities of the Baltic Cruise closed in on Estonia’s historical haven, Tallinn. 

 

Tallinn Freedom Square

Freedom Square

Gangway cleared, we hopped in a taxi to the World-Heritage Site of Tallinn’s Old Town.  Detouring, we passed the colossal concrete Freedom Square, featuring a 23.5m high glass Cross of Liberty (Victory Colum) honouring those lost during the Estonian War of Independence.

Running from 1918–1920, the War of Independence saw Estonia fight for freedom first from Russian, then German occupation, before the Tartu Peace Treaty recognised its sovereignty.

Now a selfie hotspot, the square is bordered to the East by St. John’s Church, to the South by an underground shopping center and to the West by the Victory Column.

Keen to see more, we headed North inside the walls of the Old Town.

St. Mary's Cathedral Tallinn

St. Mary’s Cathedral

Starting at the top, we entered St. Mary’s Cathedral, a sublime structure complete with many Med Evil coats of arms and a 69-metre Baroque bell tower.  After an awesome ascent we reached the best view in town, which showed Tallinn’s hidden gems shining in the sun; none more so than the golden tops of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. 

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral Tallinn

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Lured by its striking sight, our next stop was to the Eastern Orthodox build. Here stately steps lead to chequered floors, fabulous frescos, chandeliers, and inspiring iconostases. Such splendor made it difficult to focus on any one feature, but soon all heads rose to the sound of the Cathedral’s bells.  With 11 bells in its ensemble, Alexander Nevsky’s tower boasts Tallinn’s largest bell, which weighs an impressive 15 tonne.


Tallinn Town Walls

Tallinn Town Walls

Seeking a quieter spot we headed away from the Cathedral, to trace the Town Walls. Giving the UNESCO site its fairy-tale façade, the Town Walls feature terracotta turrets, arches and walkways sublime for snaps. 

As well as being beautiful, these features allow Tallinn to claim status as one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval fortifications, with its structure dating back to the 14th century and 1.9 km of original wall remaining.  To further examine the walls visitors can climb up Nunna tower, but we chose to admire them from afar at the Patkuli viewing platform.

The Raeapteek

The Raeapteek

Down the steps, 10 minute’s walk from the platform, is the Town Hall Square, where modern market stalls are edged by ancient architecture, such as the Raeapteek (Old Pharmacy).

The Raeapteek’s unassuming threshold leads visitors upstairs, before revealing two rooms, a working chemist and a museum of Apothecary. The latter room holds ornate wooden cabinets and glass displays of herbs and medicine books from the Middle -Ages.

Dating back to 1422, the building is the oldest continually operating pharmacy in Europe. Its early days saw it function not just a place of healing, but of socialising, where town folk would meet for a gossip and goblet of wine.

Restaurant Troika

Thirsty for our own refreshments, we headed to the nearby haunt Restaurant Troika.  With tables overlooking the plaza, this Eastern eatery was perfect for people watching.  Once set with tankards of beer, we pondered passers-by and the delectable dishes being served around us.

Then, as musicians struck up from the restaurant doorway, our attention was drawn to the décor within.  As we entered, a stuffed grizzly bear stood arms outstretched, ready to greet us. Then, next to it, a life-sized Matryoshka doll stood, begging to be cuddled. The old eastern décor was complete with the waiting staff’s sarafan costumes and hearty hospitality.

Mercado De Flores

Reinvigorated we headed back to the ship, making one last stop at Mercado De Flores.  Just three minutes walk from the plaza, the Flower Market was well worth the detour. Bright botanical bunches assaulted our senses, with posies for every price range. Tulips, carnations and wildflowers were just some of the delights on offer. In the end I opted for a bouquet of velvet red roses, accented with cornflowers – the symbol of Estonia.

Once back on the ship we swapped tips for Tallinn travellers: bring walking shoes, a tourist map and spending money for the beautiful boutiques. 

A Day in Copenhagen

Coasting into our Capital Cities of the Baltic cruise, my Mum, Aunt, Cousin and I docked at Copenhagen on 13 July 2019.

Unlucky for some!

No sooner had we joined the Red Sightseeing Bus than it inexplicably and prematurely stopped in the city centre, to offload all passengers. After some mapping and muttering, we decided to divide and conquer our six hours in the city. My Aunt and Cousin opted for historical site seeing and Mum and I made for the galleries.

 

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

 

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Heading across the road, we reached the highly recommended Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. Showcasing the art collection of Carlsberg Breweries’ Carl Jacobsen, it was a refreshing mix of national and international taste.

Admiring its marble steps, high ceilings and gorgeous glass solarium, we explored the gallery’s Ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Etruscan, Danish and French art.

French art of the 19th Century was the highlight of the stop, with superstars such as Van Gogh, Monet and Degas, all within footsteps of each other.

An entire room was dedicated to the painting, sketches and sculpture of Edgar Degas, which focused on racehorses and ballet dancers. A bronze cast of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen took centre stage; with notes explaining the original was made of wax, textiles and human hair, causing then audiences to label it ‘repulsive’.

Less controversial was the Danish art, with pastoral scenes from scriptures, legends and fishing villages. Here bright colours brought life to the canvases of Danish Golden Age artists such as Abildgaard, Eckersberg and Købke.

 

The National Museum in Copenhagen

 

The National Museum in Copenhagen

Moving from Danish Golden Age to Danish gold, Mum and I were bedazzled by Viking jewellery and artifacts in The National Museum.  Featuring one of Denmark’s largest collections of antique gold and silver, its highlights included the Tissø ring and the Fæsted hoard.

The Meet the Vikings exhibition signs told how designer Jim Lyngvild worked with museum experts to depict lifelike Viking statues that epitomised the housewife, warrior, berserker, völva and peasant, complete with authentic tattoos and togs.

Switching from ancient to recent history, we entered The Children’s Museum part of The National. Here we found toys through time, including Lego, mechanical structures and a stunning collection of antique dolls’ houses. With dimmed back lighting and illuminated interiors, we admired a world of magic miniature mansions.
 

Tivoli, Copenhagen

 

Tivoli Gardens

Childish delights continued as we headed over to Tivoli Gardens, to discover the 19 Century legacy park that inspired Walt Disney.  With wooden roller coasters, modern rides, manicured gardens, water features, and an Youth Guard (of parading children) there was plenty to see.

Soaking up the ambience, we enjoyed a pint in one of its alfresco cafes, relaying our adventures to my Aunt and Cousin. Refreshed, but with ship curfew calling we choose to try just one ride, the Star Flyer.

Climbing 80 metres high, the Star Flyer swing-carousel provided a visceral view of Copenhagen, perfect for people watching! My Cousin who was scared of heights was not so thrilled, however even she enjoyed the view once coaxed.


Hans Christian Andersen, by Henry Luckow-Nielsen

 

Hot-footing it back to port, we stopped only twice to admire statues. The first was at Copenhagen City Hall Square, where we dodged tourists to pap the statue of author Hans Christian Andersen, by Henry Luckow-Nielsen.

The second stop featured similar jostling as we snapped The Little Mermaid bronze by Edvard Eriksen, at the Langelinie promenade.

Back on board we listed top tips for visiting Copenhagen again: arrive early to beat tourist congestion, be prepared to check bags into lockers at museums, also to pay at museums, to utilise concession discounts, and to never trust a Red Sightseeing Bus!

 

Day of the Dead

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Honouring lives lost and risked for Mexican freedom of Expression is the Mitchell Library Day of the Dead event.

Hosted by The Scottish Writers’ Centre in partnership with Scottish PEN, the event will take place on November 2 -from 5.30pm- in the Glasgow Room.

The free, un-ticketed event will see readings both about the country and from its writers.

Host and writer Jean Rafferty explained: “We’re celebrating the Day of the Dead to honour ‘Absent Friends’ and commemorate the courage of writers, poets, and journalists living and working in Mexico; one of the most dangerous countries in the world for freedom of expression.”

Rafferty has organised the event as part of her role within Scottish PEN.

She explained: “PEN is an international writer’s organisation whose Scottish branch has been gathering for nearly 90 years.

“Scottish PEN supports freedom of expression in every form. For instance, I am chairman at the Writers at Risk society, which supports people who have been threatened for speaking out against their government.”

While the society has paid tribute to Mexican writers before; Rafferty explained that this event has particular significance.

She said: “This year’s Day of the Dead event will be particularly poignant, as we have Mexican writer Lydia Cacho as an honorary Scottish PEN member.”

Rafferty added: “As well as being a great writer, Lydia runs rescue centres for women that have suffered sexual and physical abuse. Lydia’s work will be read at the event.”

The event will also feature readings from Anabel Hernandez, whose novel Narcoland exposes Mexican drug cartel, an exposure which has seen threats on her life.

Rafferty said: “As well as established writers, we will also hear from Mexican student, Bernardo Otaola Valdes, who has written a very moving piece about his plan to go back home and study journalism. Studying journalism in a country like Mexico is dangerous; and shows that Bernardo fits the night’s theme of Courageous Writers”.

She added: “As well as Bernardo’s reading there will be a reading from a Mexican poet, Javier Sicilia’s work. Javier lost his son to the violence, and wishes to share his own final verses.”

Following this there will be an ‘open mic’ section of the night. Here writers can take the stand and respond to the theme: ‘Mexico or Courage in Speaking Out.’

Writers wishing to participate in the open mic section can contact Rafferty via email.

The organiser explained: “The open mic section has seen applications from various people, including Portuguese film writer; Carla Novi, who has made a documentary Desaparecidos, about the disappeared Mexican students.”

Rafferty concluded: “Scottish PEN not only cares about the writers whose lives are endangered in Mexico, but the people all over the country, whose experiences are expressed in the writing.

“Freedom of expression is a basic human right. It is important to support writers because they represent everyone’s struggle.”