Vladivostok to Paris.....
Thank you to those who have been patient awaiting some happy snaps from my trip - and to those who have been less patient (you know who you are!) - bite me! I can at last give you the reader's digest version of my holiday with some photos. Clearly some serious culling of the 1500 photos I took had to be done, as well as some tasteful editing.
So here goes... you in the back row, dim the lights and pass the popcorn around!
So we started our holiday in Vladivostok in the far east of Russia. The food was a combination of Russian and Asian, and the city was not the prettiest I have seen, but down on the waterfront it was making a good attempt at being the Paris of the East. Shame about the old people bathing in the ocean in their dirty underwear.
Now you can't say that the Russians don't do their Museums classy..... This museum in Vladivostok had no English to help us out - but we found it wasn't needed with priceless installations like this one to illustrate the military communications in action. Apparently bald, stiff women, wearing their headphones over their earlobes are the top elite of the Russian Military....
Don't let anyone ever tell you that Siberia is a barren land. It was green and lush.. and went on for miles... and miles... and miles....
On our way across the continent, we cooled our heels in Listvyanka for a few days. This lovely town is on the shores of Lake Baikal - which is the largest freshwater lake in the world. It was quite stunning, although the waters proved far too cold for me to want to swim. That said, it was quite the spot for some tourists to dress in matching outfits... just in case they lost each other in the milling crowds perhaps?
I just adored the English menus that we encountered during the trip. Irrespective of how bad the English was, they did guide us to what we should eat, and other times, like this example, they were pure champagne comedy. I just want to know how it can deliver to me the "constant pleasure"....
One thing that we encountered nearly everywhere (except in the far west of Russia in fact), was elderly people selling their goods. Sometimes some potatoes, other times a pile of watermelons, and in the truly sad cases, a single cup of sunflower seeds. A micro-second after I took this photo of this very typical and stylish Russian peasant, she berated me geatly. Apparently, there is still a hangover of fear from the communist days....
For some reason, many people have this idea that the Trans-Siberian train is a luxury train trip. Let me dispel that myth now... this is how illustrious accomodations for 6.5 days on the train. What you also don't see in this photo is the two bunks that were above these beds - four people in this space - many days - no showers..... SMELLY.
For a building that would strike the fear in many communist era Soviets, the Lubyanka Prison is surprisingly unimposing.
When a country "needs" a thermometer, here mounted on one of the walls of a building inside the grounds of the Kremlin, that needs to go from +50 to -40 degrees Celsius - you just have to be impressed with that!
Ah St Petersburg... part Venice, part Paris and all parts Russian schmaltz. How beautiful it is!
If anyone has read any Solzhenitsyn, more specifically "The Gulag Archipelago", this is where it starts - on Solovetsky Island in the far north - in the middle of the White Sea. A former monastery was used to become one of the Soviet Union's most brutal Gulag camps earlier last century. It has been restored as a monastery, but the sinister history remains.
At the top of a hair-raising hill, the monks built a quaint chapel, which was turned into housing for the most severely punished of the inmates of Solovetsky Island.
Spotted around the island are memorials like this to honour the dead from the island of Solovetski. This particular monument is at the base of the hill from the charming chapel above. Inmates were pushed off the hill and allowed to fall to their deaths. Of course, this is all alleged.....
Despite the tragic history of the island and the fact that it is brutally cold, it is also stunningly quiet and relatively unspoilt. Sunbathing on the White Sea anyone? I think there was a warm day in August......
The main street of Solovetsky Island.... at peak hour. Is this an island ripe for the tourist dollar or what?
We left the far north of Russia to descend to the bottom of the Crimea. The coast of Yalta, on the Black Sea, is quite stunning. Gorgeous water, steep mountains that descend to the sea, palaces dotted along the coastline..... If you can see through the melee of tourists that is!
No holiday of mine is complete without photographs of food I consumed. Much of the Russian cuisine was a tad staid, but here I present to you "Toreador's Delight"... or in other words, Bull's Testicles.
This beautiful vista belongs to the port city of Balaclava - which disappointingly couldn't sell me even one aforenamed object. But it did have a secret under-mountain Soviet submarine hideaway......
On a pedestrian footbridge in Odessa were literally hundreds of locks with couples names on them. Almost romantic except for the chastity belt overtones.
Something I hadn't seen anywhere in Russia, and only once in the Ukraine...Smoking is accepted everywhere - so I was stunned to find one place where it wasn't!
So here at last we make it to the road to Chernobyl. (Hint: the first town name on the sign is Chernobyl in Cyrillic.)
So here is the little trouble maker - Reactor No 4. We were allowed surprisingly, and somewhat disturbingly, close. Although apparently we weren't supposed to take photos of the reactor at this distance....
After hanging around the reactor area for a while, we moved on to the town of Pripyat, which is in fact the nearest town to the reactor and was totally evacuated. It is commonly referred to as a ghost town. Here we got to see the sites of the local international hotel...
Here is your salubrious foyer area leading to the five star dining room for nightly entertainment.
OK, I will stop the comedy schtick for a bit. Some of the rooms, like this one, have some furniture left behind, but most of them have been totally gutted, including removal of the toilet pedestals. Windows have been smashed in, paint peeling from the walls, 20 years and a lot of looting has left the town unrecognisable.
From the rooftop entertaining area, views toward the fateful Reactor 4 (in the far distance) are a creepy reminder of what this town was once about. The 50 000 residents of Pripyat were essentially all employed in and about the reactors. The money and conditions were superior to other areas of the Soviet Union, and it was considered a prosperous town.
Twenty-two years and trees are growing everywhere - even on rooftops. Feels very apocalyptic.
Grafitti like this on the outside of the building, with the dismembered elevator buttons in the foreground, is ghostly and quite a reminder of what is now lost.
The local fun park provides a stark contrast of the fun once experienced here - and the children now, more than likely, deceased.
Overgrown and rusted out - the dodgem cars are a far cry from what they once were. Between the cracks in the bitumen, this area had amazingly high levels of background radiation, leeching out from the ground underneath.
Local boats were left were they last were moored and rusted away. Any equipment that was in the area, including the cars and trucks used in the cleanup, still remain there as they are too radioactive to be removed.
The local pool and sports facility were used for years after the accident by staff that remained in the area operating the remaining reactors, until they too could be safely shut down.
We at last reach Paris, where I can read signs, understand the locals and enjoy the food. It smacks a little of commercialism now, but I had to visit the shelves of Shakespeare and Co, even if just to stock up on plane reading material.
Not only was the food to be eaten in Paris totally magic, but also the locations were indescribable. Here in the Musee D'Orsay, I supped on a divine lunch, sipping champagne (adding "French" to the front of that statement is redundant you know...). I understand the museum has a few paintings and stuff to look at as well. Apparently....
From the steps of the Sacre Couer at the top of the Montmartre at sunset.... divine. Just needed wine and cheese and a handsome man to make it totally perfect.
Yet again some photos of food for you to salivate over. A lunch where I can have wine, pate and other delicious morsels, whilst overlooking the rooftops of Paris, with the Eiffel tower in the distance - is wonderful. Hmm, wonderful sounds not quite enough... really wonderful?
Another thing I take LOTS of photos of is flowers. I haven't inflicted them on you lovely people, for fear of boredom. But this one, I couldn't resist. In the Tuilieres gardens, in front of the Louvre, a simple flower garden, with a majestic statue behind - magic.
So there is the reader's digest version of my holiday snaps for you all. I had an amazing time and have some spectacular memories of the whole experience.