Monthly Archives: April 2013

Highlights of the Hermitage

Wow, where to start with this vast and amazing museum. The Hermitage is housed across three floors and three buildings in the heart of St Petersburg. You enter from Dvortsovaya Ploschad (Palace Square) into the Winter Palace. This beautiful building, painted green and white, was built for the tsars in the mid 18th century. The museum collections were begun shortly afterwards, in 1764, by Empress Catherine the Great. To give you some idea of the scale of the place, we visited for two longish days (6-7 hours each and we weren’t dawdling) and we could easily have spent another day or two there without covering the same ground twice. The corridors of the museum reputedly add up to something like 20km (about 12.5 miles).

20130427-183814.jpgPalace Square and an unexplained military parade on the day of our first visit

20130427-183837.jpgUs outside the Winter Palace

The art collections are impressive, but for me the real highlight were the rooms that they were housed in, with carved cornices, chandeliers, ceiling paintings and lots of gilding. There are also a number of state rooms open to the public. These are mostly on the first floor and also include rooms furnished in styles from different periods, e.g. Art Nouveau or Roccoco.

20130427-193311.jpgThe Jordan staircase – what an entrance!

20130427-193336.jpgCeilings of the Hermitage

20130427-193417.jpgThe gilded drawing room

20130427-195726.jpgInterior details

20130427-195741.jpgLots of gilt and crimson in The Boudoir

20130427-212228.jpgSculptures in the Gallery of the History of Ancient Painting

20130427-220721.jpgItalian art in impressive surroundings

A particular highlight for me was the Raphael loggia copied from the gallery in the Vatican which was painted by Raphael and his students between 1517-1519.

20130427-222133.jpgThe Raphael Loggia

The first floor of the museum is where most people seem to concentrate their visit. As well as the majority of the state rooms, it contains all the ‘Old Masters’ kind of art. Pretty much all European, they have a staggering number of pieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, etc. There is a small collection of British Art, including some pieces from Wedgwood’s Green Frog Service which was commissioned by Catherine the Great in 1773. There’s also a collection of European medieval art, and a room devoted to armoury.

20130427-220745.jpgTriangular Wedgwood dish with a view of Alnwick Castle

20130427-220801.jpgHuge Flemish paintings

20130427-220812.jpgRembrandt’s Descent from the Cross

20130427-221553.jpgArmour for horses

The ground floor of the museum is devoted to antiquities, art from ancient civilisations. Neither of us was particularly interested in seeing these (there are only so many Roman emperors I can look at before I get bored…) but we did have a quick look through some of the rooms which was worthwhile to see the variety of exhibits as well as the different styling of the rooms on this floor.

20130427-214241.jpgRoom of the Culture and Art of the Hellenistic Era

20130427-214257.jpgAncient artefacts

The top floor of the museum contains 19th and 20th century European art (Renoir, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso…) and collections from Asia. We especially liked the collection of Japanese netsuke.

20130427-221518.jpgArt student sketching on the top floor

20130427-221534.jpgPieces from the Japanese collection

On our second day at the Hermitage, we opted to take a tour of one of the museum’s treasure rooms. The collection of gold artefacts can only be viewed in a tour group and no photos are allowed. We weren’t very impressed with the tour (especially as it cost us an extra £6 each on top of the museum entry price). Although the group size was not too large (about 15 people), the guide spoke very quickly about each exhibit and moved on to the next almost without drawing breath, not allowing us to either take in what he had said or properly see what he’d just spoken about. It was especially galling as a Russian tour group had gone into the collection 15 minutes before us and were still only halfway round when we were shunted out, so maybe we were just unlucky with our guide. Nevertheless, some of the ancient items were very beautiful and incredibly intricately made and it was worth seeing, if a bit overpriced.

About halfway through our first day, just as we were contemplating a pit stop for a coffee, we spotted a guy winding a grandfather clock and stopped to watch. An older woman who looked like one of the museum stewards approached us (just about every room has an elderly lady standing by to shout at visitors if they get too close to the art, try to take pictures when they’re not supposed to or generally do anything else naughty). She spoke a little English but not a lot and with a certain amount of charades and pointing at our map she made us understand that we should visit room 204 at 7pm at which point she did a strange little dance with flapping arms. What on earth could that possibly mean? Was she going to demonstrate unaided flight? Intrigued, and not having passed through room 204 previously in the day, we made our way there just before the appointed time and were met with a huge crowd:


One of the Hermitage’s more famous artefacts is this magnificent gilded Peacock Clock made by English clockmaker, James Cox, around 1770. The clock part is not very obvious at first glance, but two dials situated on a ‘mushroom’ at the base count the hours and minutes and a rotating dragonfly, sitting on the mushroom, checks off the seconds. Bells signal the hours and quarter hours.

20130427-211452.jpgUs with the clock after the crowds had cleared

The clock is in good working order and is kept running all the time, but the mechanism which runs the automated figures (what we were about to witness) is only wound once or twice a month. Enter the man who we had earlier spotted looking after the grandfather clock. He got inside the glass case with clock, wound it up and the show began – the owl’s head turned and its foot lifted, the peacock began to rotate, opening its tail, and finally the cockerel crowed three or four times. We later marvelled at the chain of events that meant we saw the clock in action – our choice of day to visit the museum, spotting the clock man earlier, the kindly and persistent woman who tried really hard to communicate the place and time to us. Do you have any stories of equal serendipity?

If you’d like to see it for yourself, check out this video:

Tartu and Tallinn, Estonia

I know we’ve posted a round-up of our time in Estonia without posting details of what we’ve been up to, but that’s because we were busy getting up to stuff!


Estonia’s “second” capital, where their independence was signed in 1920, is also its biggest University town. Think Cambridge or Oxford, crossed with the cobbled streets of York. Lovely..

Tartu town hall, our hostel is half-way up the main square (Raekoja plats) on the right – a perfect location


After checking in to our 4-bed dorm room, we headed out for pizza as it was getting dark, and well, our journey getting here hadn’t gone quite according to plan.

Next morning we woke up to a miserable sleety-snowy kind of a day, so we decided to spend as much of it indoors as we could. First up, time for a wander to the market for some provisions..

20130421-154141.jpgTartu indoor market. The pig outside sets the tone – most stalls sold pork, with 2 beef stands (that we saw), fruit, veg and sweet stuff on the periphery, and a small hall for fish – the most popular were small fish by the scoopfull!

After dropping our food back at the hostel, we headed to the University, as we’d read about the old “lock up” – a solitary confinement in the attic for badly behaved students of yesteryear. How badly behaved you ask? Failing to return library books on time netted you two days; insulting a lady, four days; insulting a (more sensitive?) cloakroom attendant, five days; duelling, up to three weeks!


Time for some lunch, and where better than the sandwich shop that hardly ever closes. After walking straight past it and on for another 2 blocks before we almost gave up and went to the supermarket next door, we were justly rewarded for our perseverance.. behold20130415-220233.jpgWhat you can’t see is the place is packed with locals, and there’s a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie playing on the TV.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in the Aura swimming pool and water park – two flumes, a lazy river and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. After sitting in the jacuzzi watching the sleet coming in sideways outside, we headed to the separate his and hers saunas to ensure we were cooked all the through before meeting up and venturing back to the hostel.

The next day we had better weather and decided to see a few of the sights.. Estonian writer Eduard Vilde, Andrew and Oscar Wilde sharing a bench

Tartu Cathedral on the top of Töomemägi (literally “Cathedral hill”). The other half of it has been rebuilt and used to be the University Library, but is now the Museum of University History.

After a wander through the park that surrounds the Cathedral and over the Angel’s bridge (yes, there’s a Devils bridge too!) we headed to the Botanical gardens and greenhouses. On the way was the Jaani Kirik or St. John’s Church, which is a unique Lutheran church in that it has hundreds of terracotta sculptures in its walls:
20130421-155238.jpgCan you see the snow falling from the roof?

20130421-155626.jpgSadly, the tower was closed as we like aerial views

As the free Botanical gardens were still covered in snow, we paid the small entrance fee to look through the lovely and warm greenhouses. We took so many photographs that its been hard not to post them all!


20130421-161835.jpgOrchid collection especially for Moi :o)

All warmed up, we headed back across town to a non-descript gray soviet building, know as the “gray house”. In the 1940’s the house was nationalised, and used by the KGB who had offices on the top floor. Shortly after the Russians left in 1997, the house was returned to the previous owner’s children, who found the basement had been converted into a prison complete with solitary confinement rooms. The new owners turned it over to the Tartu City Museum, and it’s now the KGB Cells Museum.


And chilling it is too.. wander too far down the corridor and you trip a recording of an inmate being tortured just as you walk past a restraining chair left by the KGB. The recording ends with a gunshot, and then you find out that as the Nazis forced the Red Army retreat from Tartu in 1941, the KGB executed all of the inmates – 6 bodies were found in the well behind the building. The museum itself details the deportation plans from occupied Estonia, the resistance movement, as well as the dark history of the gray house itself.
20130421-164448.jpgTorture chair left by the exiting KGB, and 2 solitary confinement rooms.

Time for a drink!
In the side of Töomemägi is an old cavernous gunpowder cellar that serves beer in the style of the German Oktoberfest.. perfect!
20130421-165042.jpgFor €100 you can have your own tankard put on a peg behind the bar too.. I was very tempted..

For our last day in Tartu we decided to go for a walk along the river Emajõgi
20130421-222657.jpgThe bottom-left photo is of the beach. Yep, there’s sand under that snow..


The bus journey to Tallinn was uneventful, which made a nice change!

Tallinn is lovely. It’s easy to forget there’s a lot of city outside the walls, especially as there’s so much to do and look at inside them. As soon as we’d dropped our bags off, we headed out to get our bearings in the old town and its cobbled streets.

20130421-224034.jpgPikk, towards the Raekoja plats (main square)

20130421-224205.jpgRaekoja plats. Town hall is on the right

The second day we did a lot of walking. First, we did the Kultuurikilomeeter (Culture Kilometre) heading west past the old Patarei fortress prison which was closed – they have tours during the summer season, and the brand new sea-plane museum. Although the latter was open, we thought it seemed very expensive, as neither of us have a great interest in sea planes, except to have a go in one! We did walk around the building and take some photos of the outside exhibits though..
20130421-232227.jpgBottom-right is the Patarei prison fortress. Any idea what the yellow thing is? – no visible hatch (so we don’t think its a submarine) nor pin on the nose or hole at the rear for propulsion that we could see (so maybe not a torpedo either?)

From the end of the Kultuurikilomeeter, we wandered through the old wooden house district, deciding which one we’d most like to live in. Some were quite dilapidated, and we later found out that some owners keep them that way deliberately, while some are only partly ‘neglected’ looking because they’re owned by two different people – one either has the money or the inclination to restore their half, and the other doesn’t!

On the way back we passed through the old Russian expat area, and braved the Russian market for some provisions. As well as the little indoor food halls, there are loads of stalls outside selling clothes, and quite a few bric-a-brac stalls selling old Soviet and Nazi memorabilia..


In the afternoon we went east past Hotel Viru – the only hotel visitors and foreigners were allowed to stay in during the Soviet era because the whole place was bugged by the KGB who had offices on the top floor – to Kadriorg Park, where the President’s Palace is to be found,

20130423-191808.jpgThe Estonian President’s Palace

next door is the Kadriorg Art Museum, which, despite a chilly wind and about a foot of snow in places, it seems their gardens were still a good place to sunbathe..

20130423-192239.jpgWait, isn’t that Dr. Emmet Brown? “Marty! Marty!”

After a quick look at the outside of the very swanky Kumu (literally a shortened version of “art museum”) modern art museum building as they were closing, we headed towards the coastal path back towards the old town. On the way home we passed a large open stadium, and although it looked like it was full of seats, the seats were facing a gently sloping bank.. we wondered what kind of sport they played there because it wasn’t steep enough to get any decent speed, and it was surrounded by ticket offices, so it was obviously popular. We later found out it’s the Lauluväljak – the song festival grounds, where every 5 years they hold a massive singing festival. Mark 2014 in your calendars people!

The next day we took Julie’s jeans to a small shop to be mended, then joined the free city walking tour.
20130423-212638.jpgAnnie, our guide explaining the history of Tallinn

We were quite pleased to have found all of Annie’s favourite old town spots by ourselves in the days before, but it was still worth it for the commentary and a couple of places she pointed out on the way round that we decided to visit later, such as the oldest running pharmacy in Europe.

To warm ourselves up, we went to a little cafe that is known locally for its freshly made doughnuts – they were so good we had a second round (and an extra doughnut sneaked in!) ;o)

For our last full day in Tallinn, we decided to visit a few of the sights and check out the City Museum, as the latter had been closed when we tried it earlier in the week. First up, the excitingly named Mechanical Toy Museum.


As we climbed the steps up to one of the old town wall towers, we imagined we’d find a treasure trove of wooden mechanical toys, curated by a wide-eyed, round-bellied, slightly disheveled but overly-enthusiastic grandad type, a sort of cross between the original Captain Birdseye and Oliver Hardy. He’d be delighted that you’d found the place and, like a small child trapped in an old man’s body, he’d proudly glow as he showed us through the Aladdins cave of moving toys, no sooner playing with one than moving to the next demonstrating what each one did and watching your face light up with the same childish enjoyment he gets from them, his youthfulness rejuvenated by our enjoyment of simple moving toys.

We were greeted by a young bored student girl surrounded by baby cots and two imposing weaving looms. Goodness knows how they got those looms up the stairs.
She promptly went up to the top floor and left us to admire the, er, looms. Never mind, there was still hope for our dreams of mechanical toys if there was an upstairs, of course they’d save the best stuff to the end!

Up the narrow spiral staircase and.. there are toys! Great, that’s more like it! Ahh but wait.. where’s Captain Hardy? Its a bit sparse too – where’s the cramped Aladdins cave we’d dreamt up? On closer inspection the toys are 4 showpieces from a carnival of some sort that look like they could still move, but all their strings are tied away and their wheels have had the cranks taken out. What a shame. The room was devoid of movement, and the toys weren’t really toys. It had so much potential. We left a couple of euros in the pot for the handmade postcards by way of sympathy to the reading student for having to sit in a cold mausoleum for dead ‘toys’.

Before we headed to the City Museum, we decided to get our ferry tickets to our next destination – Helsinki – and that also meant we could check out the bizarre Linnahall, a massive Soviet concrete structure that given its location, you’d be forgiven for thinking is a giant ferry terminal. On closer inspection, it’s dilapidated state tells you it hasn’t been in use for years.

20130424-211727.jpgBottom-right photo is of the concert hall inside, taken from the Linnahall website

Ferry tickets in hand, we called into the Town Hall pharmacy, where we found a room of ye-olden-day remedies, check these out..

20130424-213642.jpgYep, a dried toad. Other ingredients on the shelf included insects, a hedgehog, worms in oil, a stallion’s penis and dried dog feces

Next up, the excellent Tallinn City museum. Excellent for a few reasons: it’s in an old merchants trading house in the old town; not only does it cover the history of Tallinn, but dedicates a floor to the merchants guilds and the requirements to enter each of them (for example, to become a master of the carpentry guild you had to make 5 prescribed items in one day which were then assessed by the existing masters).
20130424-214409.jpgThe excellent Tallinn City Museum

After a delicious meal out that was notable for the excellent food, superb service, and the first time we’ve seen a waiter reduced to fits of laughter by our neighbouring table – so much so that he was unable to return to them, twice! – we ventured out in the dark to get a picture of Estonia’s War of Independence Victory Column in Freedom Square, which lights up at night. I knew there was a reason for lugging a tripod around the world..

20130424-214844.jpgThank you, Estonia

Essential Russian Culture

Today we decided to fully immerse ourselves in Russian culture and went to a vodka museum and tasting session.

20130423-213210.jpgSmiles before trying any vodka

The Russian Vodka Museum has various displays explaining the history of vodka in Russia, how it is made, and lots of different glasses, bottles and labels from through the years. Unfortunately, none of the explanatory signs are in English so we paid the additional price to have a short tour (from the barmaid as it turned out). This was definitely worthwhile and she told us how grains used to be fermented in a big pot before Russians learnt to use proper distillation equipment from travelling in Italy, how Russians got round the two periods of enforced Prohibition in the 20th century (vodka on medical prescription, and home distillation if you were wondering), and why Russians toast any major event with vodka.

20130423-212748.jpgRussian Vodka Museum displays

20130423-214102.jpgLarge glass and picture of sparkling water vending machine from Soviet times

Emperor Peter the Great loved vodka and used to play tricks on his guests. If anyone arrived late for dinner he would make them drink a litre of vodka from a huge glass – like a very extreme version of ‘catch up’. He also liked to wait until his guests were quite drunk and then serve them with plates of red crayfish which would start to move! Instead of cooking them which makes the crayfish turn red (and kills them), they were prepared by steeping in vodka which makes them red and sleepy so that they only began to move after they were served.

After the tour, we had a vodka tasting with 3 different types of vodka (Russian Standard, Gold and Platinum) which were served with 3 different Russian canapés (zakuski) – pickled herring with onion and boiled egg on rye bread, pork fat with horseradish on rye bread, and a pickled cucumber. Our tour guide advised us that vodka should be downed in one gulp, as you get more drunk if you sip it, but I found that was easier said than done and it took me several swigs to empty each glass!

20130423-213414.jpgThe vodkas used in the tasting

20130423-213155.jpgTrying the down-in-one manoeuvre before eating the zakuski

The bar in the museum stocks 220 different kinds of vodka which can be tried if you find that you’ve got a taste for it after the first three. We decided to try a couple of the pricier ones (around £5 for 50ml so still not breaking the bank) to see if we could tell the difference between those and the ones that we’d just tasted. Andrew got the Beluga and I decided to try the Mamont. And the difference? They were both pretty smooth, but we couldn’t really tell them apart and I don’t think they were any better than the Russian Standard Platinum… Underdeveloped tastes at least allow for cheaper drinking!

20130423-212805.jpgOur higher end vodkas

The Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg

So we’re finally in Russia. We arrived in St. Petersburg on Monday by high speed train from Helsinki (top speed about 210 km/hr, or 130 miles/hr). It took just 3.5 hours including a relatively brief stop at the border for the passport control people to check that everyone’s documents were in order. I’ve decided that I might join the Russian border control agency after our trip as I would quite like a job where part of the uniform is a fur hat :)

20130418-182800.jpgUs on the train before departure from Helsinki station

We’re loving St. Petersburg so far. It’s a bit like a cross between London (big, noisy, lots of traffic, heaps of museums) and Venice (shabby grandeur, canals, extremely stylish wealthy locals). I think it helps that the weather has become spring like as well and we’ve had some sunshine every day!


Yesterday we visited the Hermitage, but more of that later as we intend to have a second day there – it’s absolutely vast, I think you could spend a full week there and not see everything! Today we went to the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood which is just a 5 minute walk from our excellently situated and very friendly hostel. Because it’s so close we’ve walked past it every day and each time I’ve taken a photo as I just can’t get over how amazingly ornate and colourful it is.


20130418-222021.jpgExternal details

Christ mosaic under the porch next to the canal

And yet the outside was just a taster for the inside. Mosaics cover the whole of the interior and the amount of gold in them seems to make the church glow.




We spent a lot of our visit just gazing upwards.


The church was built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was mortally wounded by revolutionaries in March 1881, and this is where the ‘Spilled Blood’ part of the name comes from. Inside there is a canopy carved from polished stone over the spot.



Some of the mosaics are breathtaking, especially the ones in the roof.




The altar screen is covered in gold and gemstones.


20130418-223618.jpgAltar screen details

20130418-223714.jpgInternal details

Helsinki, Finland

We’ve just spent a very enjoyable weekend in the capital of Finland. Arriving on Friday by ferry from Tallinn, we spent our first afternoon wandering around the city centre, getting our bearings and trying to find the tourist information office to pick up a map (there was one in our Lonely Planet guidebook but it didn’t have all of the street names and we find it useful to have a folding one that will fit into a coat pocket). During our walk, we saw two of the most prominent landmarks in the city, its two cathedrals.

Tuomiokirkko – the Lutheran one

And Uspenski Cathedral – the orthodox one

Saturday was grey and drizzly so we decided to wander to a couple of the further flung things that we wanted to see and then spend the afternoon in the modern art museum. The first place we headed was the Temppeliaukio, or Rock Church. This doesn’t look like very much from the outside, but the inside is lovely. The church is hewn directly into rock and the ceiling is made from copper.


Next stop was a monument to Finnish composer Sibelius. We arrived at the same time as two coach loads of tour groups, but within 5 minutes of taking silly pictures we had the place to ourselves.


The rest of the day we spent in the excellent Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art where our favourite artwork was ‘Babel’ by Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles. It’s a tower of hundreds of radios all tuned to stations from different countries.


On Sunday we took the short ferry ride to Suomenlinna, a maritime fortress built across six islands. It was a crucial defensive post first for the Swedes and later for the Russians, and is the main reason that Helsinki grew to be such a major city. Despite the grey weather, we had lots of fun exploring the tunnels and clifftop defences.



Here’s our Helsinki round up:

What photo takes you right back to Helsinki?
This photo of us at the Sibelius monument sums up quite a bit of the trip – funky art work, grey weather…


Summarise Helsinki in three words.

  • Islands – the city is made up of lots of islands including Suomenlinna, the island fortress that we visited
  • Funky – the city is very cool with lots of interesting looking boutique shops and some gorgeous architecture
  • Expensive – shockingly so after the Baltics, they don’t even use the 1 and 2 cent Euro coins here, everything gets rounded up to the next 5 cents

You really know you’re in Helsinki when….
…you’ve just spent a third of your daily budget on two rounds of beer. Seriously, €7.90 for a 0.5 litre (not even a full pint!). Admittedly, it was very good Weissebeer, but still…

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Helsinki?
A second mortgage!