Friday, October 21, 2011

Lithuania & Latvia

Both of these countries are quite petite, so I'll be putting them together. Both of them have somewhat similar histories, especially in modern times. Both suffered under the whims of both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

Latvia, once part of the medieval Teutonic state, is now seemingly in collapse. As my cab-driver turned off his meter and drove around, completely lost, I talked to him about how Riga was today. The population is dwindling, the economy ground to a standstill, and unemployment at a new time high. But the cab-driver had started work only the day before, and was a cheery man, in complete contradiction with what Riga seemed like. The city mainly reflects a lot of Soviet-style thinking, concrete apartments and uniformity down the way.

It was only in the Old Quarter of Riga that I was able to enjoy myself, looking at the remnants of what was supposedly the trading capital of the Baltics. Several of their medieval rulers boasted 'he who ruled Riga ruled the Baltics', and while this isn't true of modern day Riga, the spirit of old Riga was quite touching, even though it seemed to have been sold to the small hordes of tourists and the million kebab shops (Which by the way seem to dominate all of Europe by now.)

Lithunia and Vilnius, while smaller than Riga, actually felt livlier to me. This might have been the location, but they struck a strange balance of the new high rise glass facades, and, across the river, the older sights such as the Gediminas castle and the crosses upon the hill. (Though due to a misplaced sign I hiked up a small mountain to find not large crosses, but instead a large sports arena occupied only by a lone man running along the track. This would have been funny if it wasn't such a huge hill.)

Lithuania I quite enjoyed, if only for the oddities it presented. I visited just as Eurobasket 2011 was finishing, being held in the very same country. Lithuanians it seems are almost as fanatical to basketball as the Spanish are to football, going as far as to put a basketball on their coin, not to mention the many advertisements for it. It also contains what is so far the strangest food item- a pizza shop celebrating Eurobasket by having a pizza for every country in it. The English pizza contained eggs, bacon and the like, the German one sausages, but I found most curious the Israeli pizza, containing horseradish, chicken and pear!

Food aside, the Baltics were much easier on my nerves than Russia, aside from the small hiccup of one coach company refusing theirs was the only bus to Vilnius, going as far as to deny the existance of other companies  in  order to sell me a ticket. Other than that, and the church visits becoming nearly identical (They're all starting to look the same to my stained-glass memory.), the Baltics were pleasant enough.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Saint Petersberg

I've only just now recovered from the shock of having more than five people read my previous post.

Russia as a whole seems uninviting to tourists, though you'll never go wanting for lack of interesting things to see, particuarly churches. Especially churches. The church of the Spilt Blood, in St Petersberg, is worth a special note here. Built exactly over the site of a Tsar's assassination, this Church takes inspiration from St Basil's in Moscow, and in some respects improves on it, using building materials from all over the world, in combination with those eye-catching domes seen on all the tourist guides.

Moscow might be the physical and economic capital of Russia, but St Petersberg would be the cultural one. Even the railway stations are designed as works of art, and the Hermitage, once the winter palace of Peter the Great, now houses a monumentally huge art gallery within the arched rooms. I guess my only problem is that my interest in the more recent history is hard to satiate. Russia, it seems, prefers to gloss over most of the USSR regime, with the exception of the few souvenir shops willing to sell anything with a hammer and sickle on it. (Or Babushka dolls featuring the faces of American politicians.)

It's a shame though that a lot of the material I saw could never be satisfactorily explained. Beyond the lax Siberian trio of women minding my hostel, and the American teacher and her dog, there wasn't much interaction at all. What is this strange sport with throwing a pole at wooden columns? Why is my meal hot water with leaves floating in it? Why was I asked to give my opinion on some obscure ruler to a street wandering journalist? I have no idea.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sorry, but I Moscow now.

As seems common with perhaps the entirety of Europe, Russians are quite poor drivers. My initial taxi trip to my small hostel was a foreboding sign of Russia. I'd describe the chaos of Moscow by saying that they drive like Canberrans would if there were no speed limits posted anywhere, every lane was single lined, and pedestrian crossings were merely a suggestion. So with the rain beating down heavily and my driver doing 110 along the highway into the city, I got my first glimpses of Russia.

The architecture seems divided into two classes. The first is the Gothic/Baroque classical architecture, and the modern buildings imitating them. The second is the poured-from a mould concrete Soviet style buildings. These trap the eyes with the colour of dirty concrete, which gives most of the city a grey oppressive feel. The most notable examples of these are the seven Stalin skyscrapers (Named the Seven Sisters) across the huge city. Giant dirty brown pillars spread across the city, really. Russia as a whole is trying to leave behind the USSR and their dark history, but all around their legacy is too plain to see.

Sure, the musuems tend to skimp over the purges and crimes, and focus on the glory of the Red Army. There's a suprising amount of Royalist material in various places, and even some pride in the wonder of the Tsarist reigns. That's old Russia, though. Old Russia is being rapidly devoured by the New Russia, what it wants to be. Mcdonalds and Dior and Apple are some parts of New Russia. Sushi, the noveau delicacy of the noveau riche, is part of New Russia. It's the most expensive city to live in nowadays, and it also houses the most billionaires-  a far cry from the Soviet days. The people don't smile frivolously or laugh in the streets- keeping instead a grim taciturn face for most occasions.

Yet the city isn't all misery and consumerism. I was lucky enough to walk the streets during the 864th anniversary of the city. There were performers in the streets (A cover ABBA band and lady Gaga rip-off being the standouts there), and thousands of people walking along the closed streets, soaking up the rich atmosphere as the city came alive. There were parades in Red Square, and celebrations for new Russia in front of the tomb of Lenin. The contrast between the old and the new and the older is what makes Moscow such an interesting place. It isn't the most catering place for tourists, and the cost of food is enough to make one say very bad words, but it's a huge city with centuries of experience.

The best things I ate were street stall food (Hot dogs in crossant bread.), and the best museum was the Red Army museum, though the Pushkin art museum deserves a mention for blocking my attempts to get in on four occasions- once by presidential motorcade, even. Most mysterious coffee was a Romano- an expresso shot served with two slices of lemon, and worst meal was water with chicken stock. Yum.

Ah, and one of the Churches is named after Saint Basil the Fool. That has to be worth something.