Monthly Archives: September 2013

Russia and Poland: Day 14



Somewhere in my house is a copy of the UTS Class of 1995 graduation video, a tape (and DVD copy, provided by Michelle Chan) of high school student highlights meant as some sort of future time capsule.  While some of the things promised never came true, the editors of this tape thought it would be prescient to record some of the major news events of our time in secondary school. During that time, the fall of the Berlin Wall and eventually the Iron Curtain, communism and the former Soviet Union came about.  I watched a lot of that, and didn’t understand really what was going on back then.  If you had to draw a soundtrack to it, 90’s one hit wonder Jesus Jones’ Right Here, Right Now probably is a fitting accompaniment. Like my self involved classmates, who loved to introspectively deduce meaning from song lyrics–we were really watching history unfold.

The young tour guide in St. Petersburg, probably no more than 23 years old, asked me why I wanted to visit Russia.  Part of it is I only know the stereotypes:  The Boris and Natasha style spy movies and Yakov Smirnov jokes.  Reading Wikipedia entries on old Soviet airplanes.  But the other part was to see some of that period of history:  In our two week tour of Russia and Poland, we’ve seen almost no trace of the former Soviet and socialist state:  Almost every hammer, sickle and red star has been removed.  Even the cold war bunker museum has closed.  And probably just as good.  I think the Russians have moved on:  They’d rather show their history before the war.  The Poland we see today is resolute in it’s forward view and growth to the future.  I don’t think they want to remember communism, and I guess I don’t blame them.

Russia and Poland: Day 13




Today we went to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, about half an hour out of Krakow.  Over seven hundred years old, the mine is no longer in major operation, though a few hundred miners continue up keep and mine out a small amount of salt.  Polish salt these days comes from the Baltic Sea, but previously, it was mechanically mined from the ground, hundreds of feet below.


The mine today is a UNESCO World Heritage site, apparently one of the first set approved.  As the tour guide joked, there are now more guides than miners, but the facility is still very much a real mine:  We walked down 54 flights of stairs, then thousands of steps between caverns which had been cut out over the last few centuries.  In some of them were works of art–some by sculptors, but most of them created by miners themselves in off hours.

The walls, ceilings, and some floors are made of salt– about 95 percent salt, to which I confirmed by scratching some off and tasting it.  Today this salt is hydraulically extracted, pumped out in a slurry and separated on the surface for specialty purposes.  Some people come to the mine for therapeutic purposes with an on site spa, others come for a mass in an underground chapel cut out of salt, complete with statues and altar.  A sculpture of Pope John Paul II stands on one end, with sweeping stairways coming towards on either side, cut out of pure salt.



After the mine, we gathered our bags and walked back across the Stare Miasto to the train station.  In a bit of panic, due to construction at the station, Krakow Glowny, had us running across the station to find the way to the correct platform.  We made it to the train with seconds to spare, getting on just as the train began to move out of the station.  A three hour train ride across the middle of Poland took us into Warsaw, the largest city and the end of our travels.


Warsaw, feels like Berlin in its size and nature:  Unlike the very livable and comprehensible Wroclaw, or even the larger tourist-oriented Krakow, Warsaw is a major metropolis, it’s huge Communist Palace of Culture and Science building lit in the background of it’s major train station hall.  Walking alongside major streets, lanes of busy traffic cut through neon sign topped buildings.

Tonight, our last evening of this trip, we walked through to the old town, which in fact was rebuilt after destruction in the war.  We went to a fun Polish restaurant, mistakenly ordering the meat platter to which Siobhan and I could not finish–a delight of black sausage, fried liver, pork sausage, pig jowls and other delicacies.  We got through a good chunk of it, but alas, could not finish.  I felt ashamed in the end.

To finish off these journal entries, let me add in some observations:

  • Pickles are salty here.  I’ve noticed that pickles contain a lot o sodium here and have some form of garlic.  This gives them a very distinct flavour compared to dill pickles.
  • Coke products grow in variety proportionally to the size of the city you’re in.  In smaller places in Russia and Poland, only Coke Classic and Diet Coke, aka Coke and Coke Light, are offered.  As we have made our way to the largest city in Poland, we now have Coke Zero and Cherry Coke to boot, complete with the old logo I remember from university.
  • People are friendlier in Russia than you might think.  Many ex-pat Russians forewarned me that people would give you a cold reception.  But we have found the opposite:  People are very friendly in both countries.

Russia and Poland: Day 12

Today, we took a trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.  I took a few photos, but to be honest, I thought it would be better just to experience the visit on its own.

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On our return, we visited Wawel Castle, on a hill near our hotel at one end of the Stare Miasto central core.  Inside the castle walls, a group of students were queued, waiting around a statue of Pope John Paul II, or Jan Pawel as he’s referred to here, to go into the main Cathedral for a service.  The Castle is an unusual mix of styles and textures, which makes for a curious outline of different peaks, towers and outcroppings.



We walked through the Jewish Quarter, south of the castle, an area now filled with hip bars and cafes.  In one window, I found a workshop of a violin maker:



We had dinner in a “milk bar”, or Bar mleczny tonight.  They are inexpensive, cafeteria style restaurants, serving home made food and very low prices.  With a historical precedent, similar to the stolovayas in Russia, it was a very interesting experience.  The decor is plain tile, with plastic lawn chairs set around cheap tables.   The cutlery, apparently in Communist times, was often chained to the tables, but in this case, disposable.  The dinnerware, mismatched.  But the food was really decent–hand made pierogies with meat, dusted with pork crackling; and a side of soft beets (buraczki).  The woman behind the counter was remarkably nice about us ordering in confused Polish and even seemed pleased we were trying to pronounce each item with a combination of Google Translate and the old plastic wall menu.

Russia and Poland: Day 11

Leaving Wroclaw, we see the wide lush fields of corn growing outside then city, covered in a dense layer of morning fog.  It is hard to say goodbye to our first Polish city visit, but today we are going by bus to Krakow, a larger city, further south and east.  The ride on the new and clean Link-Bus is efficient and reasonably priced and a few hours later, we are coming into Krakow with billboards and large big box stores in view.  I’ve long suspected European cities in fact have an outer layer which tourists never see, which is filled with Ikeas and Carrefours, and this confirms it.


From the bus station, neatly integrated with a modern shopping mall and train station, our goal is to find our hotel, diagonal across the old town center, Stare Miasto.  However tempting it would be to go right to the central area, we instead walk around the more clearly marked Planty, a green belt park that surrounds the middle of the core.


Out in the shopping mall, I found a group of young men, all wearing Burger King cardboard crowns.  I don’t usually pose people for my travel photos, but I couldn’t help myself:  I remember back in university how much I loved those–I guess some things transcend language and culture.


The Rynek Glowny, or central square, was alive with commotion.  A troupe of Polish b-boys were dancing for a gathered crowd, James Brown’s Get Up, taking turns breaking, popping and freezing.  In front of various restaurants and cafes, barkers canvassed the crowd with menus and coupons.  Pedalcabs and horse carriage rides are politely offered.


The town square is very different in comparison to Wroclaw:  First, it’s much larger in size.  While Wroclaw has a block of buildlings in the center, Krakow has a tower, a leftover fragment from a medieval encampment, plus a small set of souvenir shops in the middle.  The square is much more commercial and less colourful.   You could describe Krakow in this manner:  It seems very commercial, comfortable in it’s tourist destination status.

We happened upon a wonderful restaurant tonight, where I had duck with apple and Siobhan had veal goulash.  The Polish seem to grate their beets very fine and make them with delightful flavour from stock.

Russia and Poland: Day 9 and 10


We depart Wroclaw, Poland, today having spent three days with our friends John and Magda and his parents.  The past three days we have enjoyed visiting the city of Wroclaw, first flying from St. Petersburg to Warsaw.  St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo-2 airport is very small, with the unusual configuration of having security, check in, passport control set up almost backwards.  However small and unusual, you could really tell the people working there were trying their hardest to make airport visitors have a good trip.  We departed Pulkovo with no issues and landed into Warsaw, where unfortunately a long passport control and security line kept us from getting to our gate on time.  After running fourty gates and appearing five minutes after departure time, the gate agent actually called out and got us a separate van to drive us out to the plane waiting on the tarmac.

We were treated to a detailed tour of Wroclaw by Magda and John, first by visiting the Hala Stulecia, or Centennial Hall.  Built a hundred years ago, it features a reinforced concrete structure that arcs over a completely open trade floor for displays, concerts and oratory.  The visitor’s center video showed the immense history the building has seen–from Nazi party speeches, visits from the Pope, to the flag of Polish Solidarity flying out front.


We then drove into town, visiting the Hala Targowa, a market of food vendors similar to our own St. Lawrence Market in Toronto.  John treated us to smoked Polish white cheese as we walked through the stalls of produce and baked goods on sale.


Nearby is the Rac≈Çawice Panorama, a depiction of a battle of Polish independence on a cyclorama painting, that wraps around the viewer from floor to ceiling.  At different points around the painting, you can see key elements from the battle.  It is difficult, speaking as an amateur painter, to paint with such controlled perspective across such a wide canvas.  The integration of foreground elements into the overall view was really well done.


The Rynek, or town square, is delightfully charming and many of the buildings have been refurbished, with colourful fronts facing into the centre.  Wroclaw’s old town center is amazingly almost completely lacking tourist trappings like souvenir shops with trinkets, horse drawn carriages and rickshaws, or harassing canvassers.  Instead, the town square seems to remain for it’s citizens, instead of propositioning itself for visitors.


Also situated in the centre of town are one of many universities in Wroclaw.  We toured the inside of the Baroque styled university church first, then went upstairs in a nearby building to see the Aula Leopoldina, a beautiful hall where commencements, speakers and musical performances are held.  It struck me that Canada is often so young as a country that our academic institutions lack such history.  Both spaces dated back hundreds of years.

We had a wonderful time walking through the city with Magda and John, popping into churches and having a bite to eat.  Wroclaw, it seems, is delightfully historic yet modern and growing where it needs to be.

Our next day in Wroclaw found us headed again to the Rynek on our own.  Taking a much slower pace in Poland than on tour in Russia, we took the time to visit places like the Feniks department store, which is really a collection of independent sellers.  Over time, it seems those sellers are more and more unusual:  One floor was dedicated to street art materials, Doc Marten shoes, and American rock shirts.



Siobhan and I eventually made it to Ostrow Tumski, the oldest part of the city in town at the suggestion of John’s parents.  The Cathedral Island is accessed through a few bridges, some festooned now with love locks that visitors and residents alike attach.  While we were there, a bride and groom were being photographed attaching a padlock in celebration.  As the sounds from a saxphone player drew us into the island towards the cathedral, we enjoyed the combination of narrow streets, river and trees.  The island also features a beautiful garden space with water features which we walked through.


The cathedral is a beautiful gothic design, very different than the Russian churches we’ve seen the previous week.


Our day ended with a river cruise.  It turns out Wroclaw is intersected by a number of rivers and canals.  As we headed out of the city centre, we saw the lush green foiliage of old neighbourhoods, flanked with trees and parks.   It was wonderful to get such an introduction to this wonderful town, but also to see good friends again.

Russia and Poland: Day 7

Today we went to Peterhof Palace, a summer palace complex outside of the city center.  Built by Peter the Great, it has a huge garden compound which features hundreds of water fountains.  To get there, we took the Metro then changed to a small minibus.  The front grounds have carefully pruned trees which form an rectangular shroud similar to the summer palace in Vienna.  Some were formed into covered walkways, their leaves turning in the early autumn.  In the lower gardens, an incredible hill side display of golden statues, marble, and fountains are built on terraced steps down to a channel to the ocean.

Weddings were abound today at Peterhof as we walked the grounds, with brides and grooms plus their associated wedding parties posing for photographs on a bright, if a bit overcast, Saturday afternoon.  A number of trick fountains were setup for kids and families–an attendant positioned off to the side triggers them to spray unsuspecting visitors.  Images from years past on display out front show they must be a historical favourite of St. Petersburg families.


We walked around St. Petersburg later in the day on a recommended path around the downtown area, crossing the river a few times and visiting the citadel island to see the Peter and Paul Cathedral.  For the second time in our trip, the sun came out, illuminating the streets and buildings with a warm glow.


Sometimes as you walk around a city on a vacation, you observe interesting vignettes you wouldn’t notice at home.  For example, we walked past a conservatory, and in a window saw a class of young ballet dancers under the tutelage of their instructor.  As we navigated our way along a recommended sight seeing path, a helicopter flew by, a Soviet-era Mi-8, the sound of its turbine engines whining and huge five bladed rotor. The helicopter then landed in a field where we stopped to look inside.


The final part of our time in St. Petersburg was on a tourist boat, where we got a chance to see the city along some of the waterways that cut across the inner city.  Buildings line the meandering canals, forming a valley of classical architecture on either side.  I was surprised the number of people coming out to share a drink on the sides, looking out at the water.  It must be the thing to do before going out for the night.


Russia and Poland: Day 6

Despite one overnight train in France where I slept like a baby, so far most of my sleeper experiences have turned out to be bad.  I love trains and railways, so the attraction of watching a six axled, Co-Co configuration Soviet era elecric locomotive pull a consist of sleeper cars into Yaroslavl’s main train station is very much a highlight.  Sometimes, it turns out for the better:  In Egypt, also with Russian motive power, the overnight sleeper from Cairo to Aswan kept me awake, allowing me to snap photos of station keepers and experience solitary midnight exchanges of newspapers and materiel.  But last night’s trip from Yaroslavl to St. Petersburg unfortunately was very rough for me.

The overnight train is very similar to other countries, save for a samovar, or hot water boiler, at one end.  This came in useful when I made a cup of instant noodles the next morning.  We shared with two obliging locals, who probably were kept awake by my coughing and wheezing and confused by our lack of understanding of social conventions.  I didn’t want to keep them up so I offered to shut of the main cabin light, but immediately after backlights on their tablets went on, so I guess it was too early.


By the time we pulled into St. Petersburg the next morning I was in bad shape–my back ached and I had a cold, spurred on likely by the smoke filtering in from the end vestibules on the train car.  That said, after a local guided tour of the city, we did spent an afternoon enjoying the Hermitage museum, taking on one room at a time.  The museum is absolutely huge with thousands of objects and hundreds of galleries, but we enjoyed wandering through them.


My favourites included a wooden library built by Nicolas II, with intricate dark woods and a second floor; the large painting room which was protected by volunteers during the war; and the Peacock Clock, a golden automata sculpture, built by an English clockmaker.


Even relatively empty rooms were impressive, as evidenced by the above gallery in construction.



We also got to try Russian pies at the suggestion of the local guide, where I got to try kulebyáka, or coulibiac, a pastry filled with salmon and egg.  I had actually wanted to try making it at home last year, whenever we bought a large piece of salmon from Costco.  From Costco to St. Petersburg, I remain, sadly sick.

Russia and Poland: Day 5


Rostov, has, according to the quietly wise bus driver, a fantastic Kremlin, even better than the one in Moscow, in his opinion.  This morning we went to go see it–and it did not disappoint.  Walking in, we climbed to the walls, which afforded us a nice walk around the outer perimeter of this castle.  The domes here are a beautiful slate blue, which picks up colours from the generally overcast sky.  The whole time in Russia, save last night, was generally cloudy, rainy and overcast, which makes for bad photos, but I’m not complaining–I like the cooler temperature.


Driving out on the road in the Russian countryside, this part of the country honestly look a lot like Ontario.  The leaves have begun to turn here, giving us a warm rendition even if the weather hasn’t been cooperating.  Lane discipline on the roads is a bit varied, sometimes drivers straddle lanes a bit in a bid to hedge their bets on the faster one.


Yaroslavl, unlike Rostov, is a much larger place and does not have a Kremlin:  Made of wood, it burnt down.  Wooden objects here are carefully strung with lightning probes to  presumably attract strikes.  What it does have is a new church, the Assumption Cathedral, opened in 2010.  Built within the last twenty years at a cost of a hundred million dollars, financed by a wealthy benefactor.  It is strange to walk into such a massive structure built with modern materials in a traditional style.  Our feet echoed on the marble floors, perfectly clean after only a few years of use.  The beautiful gilded altar shines with a brilliance unlike some of the faded items in other churches.  Out front, the church is bracketed in view by two monuments to men and women in World War II.


On a tour with a local guide earlier in the day in Yaroslavl, I saw one of the few elements of the former Soviet Union, an administration building built in 1982, on a city center with markings for public assemblies, musical performances, sports events, and car shows, the latter thrown in as probably a more modern use of it.  I couldn’t figure out if the markings were half courts for basket ball or for military reviews.


One of the quirky museums in Yaroslavl was the private museum of Music and Time, essentially a house hold of collected objects including clocks, music boxes and bells, all of one man, an illusionist named John Mostoslavsky.  Apparently Russia’s first private museum, what I loved about this little attraction was that the guide demonstrated several objects and allow us to try some of them.  Old gramophones were played, their tinny recordings set free in motion; I got to actually sit down and try a harmonium, an organ which requires pumping a bellows with your feet as you play.


We walked along the Volga river, wide and cool this afternoon in Yaroslavl.  Breaking away from the group, we spent some time sitting in the park at the crossing of the Volga and Kotorosl rivers.  In the distance, a red rollercoaster lift hill poked above the trees, but in our midst were people having a good time on a Friday night:  A group of kids having a drink, a trio of women on what seemed like a hen night.  Dancing to the music of the musical fountains, the toasted each other, pink fabric blowing in the wind.

Siobhan and I had dinner in a nice cafe, then took a nice long walk back to the train station, through busy and quiet neighbourhoods.  Walking back gave us a chance to see regular Russians going home with their groceries, young people headed out to have a good time, people going to work.

Russia and Poland: Day 4


A note about breakfast here in Russia.  As with most European countries, there are meats and cheeses– plenty of them.  However, there are also blini, thin pancakes, which often come with sour cream or preserves.  You can eat them in a savoury pairing with meat or even caviar, but for breafkast usually it’s something sweet.

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This morning we took a short walk into Suzdal’s market center, conviently located near our hotel.  Like a shopping plaza, it too has a row of shops flanking one side, complete with cell phone stores, a toy store, and a pharmacy.  The center on the other hand, is a cobble stone affair, where you’d normally think parking goes, and is apparently where farmers used to come and sell their wares.  Old women line the side of the market, selling home made pickles and preserves or items grown in their gardens.  The produce is unusual for us:  Curious mushroooms of different types, berries of colours and shapes that are unfamiliar.  We wonder what these ladies think of the history they’ve seen in their lives as they’ve likely seen Russia change in the past sixty years.

The stores are interesting in their contrast:  The mobile phone shops are colourful and unified in their corporate branding, the old doors and overhangs betraying their modern style, while the clothing and toy stores seem more disjointed, filled with all manner of varied Chinese merchandise with walls in old Soviet colours.


Suzdal is quaint and idyllic this morning as a gaggle of French tourists make up the majority of visitors, plus a pair of Asian women intent on posing with every person and object in the square.  They rush up to a lone man behind the Kremlin, sitting on a cot playing old folk tunes on his accordion.  As tourists walk by the back road, onwards to the wooden museum, they drop coins in his bag, to which he plays little flares in his tune and shouts out “Spasibo!” to them.  At the end of his performance, you hear a gruff cough as he awaits more audience.



We continued onwards to the small town of Yuryev-Polsky, where a small convent with its two sets of spires and a old church are nestled within houses just off from the main street.  The old church was built in the thirteenth century and two centuries later, fell apart. The resultant ruins were reassembled, not quite perfectly, as pieces were left over. The intricate carvings on the sides of this four story church used to drape around like precious lace, but now seem a patchwork of patterns. It looks like a collage of stone chiseling, and has shrunk to two stories. Presumably the draftsmen and engineers of that time reworked the church to be more stable.

The convent has two sets of spires with a tower in its courtyard. From the bells of the tower, a cacophony of notes play into the town.



The town of Yuryev-Polskiy seems pretty small. The central axis appears to be a supermarket, taxi stand and small vegetable stand. We had lunch in a restaurant basement which had inexpensive lunches of salad with mayonnaise, borscht and pancakes.

Outside, locals pulled up in all manner of vehicles from Ladas to Lexuses, and picked up items from the mini market and visited the vegetable seller, who had a table of watermelons from the Baltic for fifty cents a pound. One was cut in half with plastic wrap draped over for us to inspect. In the back of the stand were perhaps another hundred watermelons as well as a truck filled with purple potatoes.

Our final stop was the town of Rostov, situated on a lake. The sun, for the first time this trip, came out, casting a warm ambient glow on the water and the golden domes of the Kremlin here, still in the distance.


Siobhan and I walked out and spent some more time along the water. The sun was beautiful and glorious.





Russia and Poland: Day 3

The cathedrals of Russia are different than those of other countries.  Unlike Gothic churches which feature vaulted ceilings and flying buttresses, with large open spaces for congregation, all the cathedrals here seem smaller and more intimate.  In some cases almost a third is partitioned off with a wall of religious paintings.  Also, large columns feel drawn down from the ceiling, putting up load bearing posts at regular intervals on the main floor plan.  Where a long unobstructed path would be for a center aisle, sight lines are obscured but for all the most important people, presumably royalty, tzars and the like.  These buildings appear more to be as private altars or collections of religious icons than for a larger audience.

Someone once told me that religions icon paintings, especially those painted with high detail and gilded, were high definition televisions of their age.  As a result, a wall of hundreds of them is just so impressive.


The Assumption Cathederal in Vladimir, our first stop of the day leaving Moscow, is an example.  The building is topped with golden onion domes, sitting on a hill that overlooks the town, former capital of Russia.  Inside are almost square sections, like a tic tac toe board, with columns at the intersections.  In five of the segments, patterned like an X, sit a dome, usually with parapets that have windows cut for light.


Suzdal is a small village a few hours out of Moscow, first mentioned in the ninth century.  As the guide explained, because it had no rail line, it seemed to have been spared by war, leaving it with over thirty church spires.  These spires, some brick, some wooden, some coloured, some not, poke out of the landscape of trees and fields periodically.  As a fertile area for agriculture, tourism is now growing in the area, where previously thirty hotels have now expanded to a hundred for tourists to come visit.


One such place to visit is the strangely named Museum of Wooden Masterpieces is a collection of old wood buildings.  Two of these buildings are a wooden churches, one for summer and another for winter. The cost of heating was such that building a separate, cozier structure made more sense.  The churches also have rooms for visitors from other towns, since apparently many traveled from far.  The part I found the most interesting today was the construction of various houses for the villagers.  These buildings in the center are actual real historic houses, which are generally small affairs with single rooms.  A large fireplace with strategic placement allowed for cooking, drying out clothing, a warm bed and heating the house, all by using different angles of the stone structure inside.   As Russian winters can be six or seven months long, most of the day and night would be spent in these single rooms, herbs and dried foods hanging from the rafters, family members tucked into various nooks and crannies.  The wood work in building these houses and churches is really fascinating, especially in a time without power tools or very much precision.

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A little bit out of town, sits a monastery which also has a cathedral in a similar design.  Inside, unfortunately, all the artwork has been removed, leaving paintings alone on the stone walls.  A group of monks, or locals dressed like monks, performed in four part harmony for tourists coming in, their voices brilliantly echoing in the tall stone ceiling.  Outside, a carillon tower in a separate structure played on the hour, its bells sounding into the hills around the village.


russia-day3-goldThe major cathedral in the Kremlin of Suzdal, was our last and perhaps most picturesque spot.  As with many cathedrals here, the inside featured gilded paintings of religious icons.  However, this church in the fortification or Kremlin of this village, is topped by royal blue and gold domes, which peer over the white walls around the group of buildings.  They are immediately noticeable from the main street, even driving by in a car.  Its door is fashioned in a very interesting technique:  The large piece was gilded, then painted in a form of lacquer, which was etched off to produce gold on black illustrations.  It reminded me of a grade school craft project we once did, except we used crayons instead of gold leaf.

We walked out into town for dinner, where most entrees appeared to be served with potatoes and a coleslaw of cabbage and carrots.