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Russian about 8

Wednesday 25 September 2019

The train from Moscow to St Petersburg is right up there with the best in Europe. It lopes along at 250 kph, with comfortable reclining seats and a choice of combination meals served by pretty, but grim-faced young female cabin crew. A screen showed the outside temperature got down to zero but whizzed back up to a steamy 6 for arrival in St Petersburg. I think I saw the control handle captain (according to his decorated outfit) stride through, full of importance.

St Petersburg looks like the old low-rise section of Paris, but wider and grander. And the same goes for our hotel, the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe. It’s like a palace; the last update was 100 years ago but every ancient detail is in perfect condition.  Our room is as tall as it is wide, with a huge tiled bathroom where the underfloor heating cannot be reduced to much below fire-walking pit temperature. The hand-held shower, although the size of a little, old-style telephone, surprises with its generous output. After a shower you can dry yourself by either using the monogrammed towel or rolling across the hot floor.  We are sleeping in the biggest bed I have ever seen – just short of boxing ring size. It would hold five people with ease. Maybe there will be a knock on the door and a couple of staff will hop in with us. Female, I would hope. 

Breakfast is served in what may have been a massive ballroom, with stained glass windows and a grand piano on a stage. The food selection is vast, including that provided by a jolly, rotund omeletteier, and a hotel toaster which prompted the following review. 

Hotel toaster review

Known as the Extremesky Tallboyavitch, this toaster has a mean little infeed, a funeral speed journey low on fire power that then feeds into a totally inappropriate delivery portal like the interior of a cathedral. It also wears a barred hat, awarded to it by the great grandson of Ivan the Terrible for terrible services to toasting. An English lady in the waiting line (like picking up the kids from school) remarked, “I say, it is taking rather a long time. I suppose we English invented toast and they don’t understand that too well here.”

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A major reason we wanted to visit St Petersburg was to see the Hermitage (local pronunciation ‘ermitarrge’) Museum. Its several buildings front the huge Palace Square featuring a granite tower made from one piece of stone weighing 600 tonnes. The square also features people who dress up in bygone garb and offer to pose for pictures, after which they nail the hapless photographer for whopping modelling fees. Professional pickpockets practice their art in the square too, taking care to pay off the cops who control the territory. The journalist in me would love to sit down with one and report on training, skill levels and sprinting speed. Our guide shrugs his shoulders: “part of the culture, I guess,” he says.

The Hermitage Museum holds the second largest art collection in the world, to say nothing of sculpture, installations, porcelain and historical jewellery. If you spent three minutes to look at each exhibit it would take you three years to get through them all. And that doesn’t take into account the enormous number of pieces in storage. 

Art aside, the museum buildings themselves are breathtaking. Each gallery stops you in your tracks with its grandeur and soaring architecture. They are palaces restored or recreated. 

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The effect of all this is overwhelming. I quickly became numb to yet another wave of exquisite beauty festooned with gold. It was like drowning in honey. The Museum of Contemporary Art brought me down to earth a little because I love the impressionist school, Monet in particular, of which there were many outstanding examples. And Michelle picked out a few pieces in the Diamond Room that I will remember if I win a couple of lotteries.

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Monet, my favourite painter


Each day tourists descend on the museums like stampeding wildebeests, many from the cruise ships that tie up at St Petersburg. Nobody wants to miss out on taking selfies backdropped by the main attractions. Intolerable overcrowding is now the norm in the most sought-after tourist attractions like these. It is a case of see it now or never. 

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A doctor examines Michael Angelo’s Crouching Man who was complaining about a sore back

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This statue depicts one of the contestants in the original Olympic Games giving a urine sample because of suspected drug use in the flying 100 yards.


Last gasps in Rome

Saturday 23 June 2018

I was wrong about our hotel room being the work of the Smart Car designer. I found the real designer (Dr Confineo Shrinkiarie) and the car he designed after he’d finished our room. As you can see, the Smart is quite large compared to this electric two-seater. There are quite a few of these types of cars buzzing around Rome – yet another car-choked city that is looking for solutions. It is going to happen in Melbourne and Sydney eventually, so better to get used to a micro-mini electric now. This one has room for two passengers side by side, with storage provided by a plastic box fixed high up at the rear. Another type, a Renault, where you have to rent the battery by the month, holds two people, but one behind the other, and no storage. Clearly, these cars force choices upon their owners that we’re not used to.

I should add that when Michelle booked our hotel room, the promotional photograph showed a big bank of cupboards, a small table and chairs, and tea and coffee making facilities – all which appeared to part of our room. Wrong. This turned out to be a public space where we sat for breakfast as a couple of the friendly girls (they might be back-packers) who work in the hotel, grapple anew every morning with breakfast – including toast which is made off-site. Hence no hotel toaster report.

We went window shopping yesterday determined not to actually enter a shop. However, Michelle did enter a spectacle frames shop and emerged considerably richer in frame and poorer in money. I also unintentionally entered a menswear shop and emerged richer in jacket but only modestly poorer in money when compared to Michelle’s Specspenders(copyright). To recover from these disturbing events, we lined up at the leading gelato palace on the main drag down to the Spanish Steps. I should mention that, in addition to pasta, there is another dietary nightmare throughout Italy: gelato. There was a long queue stretching outside the shop, signifying top gelato quality, but once inside we beheld one of the wonders of the eating disorder world: the liquid chocolate wall. We’ve all seen chocolate fountains, but a whole wall, running at two billion calories per second into a trough and being recirculated? Being a chocaholic, that was a eureka moment for me. However, I couldn’t dwell on it for too long because once you are holding a cone full of gelato you have to apply yourself immediately to the task of oral disposal. Authentic gelato melts very quickly and wants to run down over your wrist before you can intercept it with your tongue. You can’t talk to a serious gelato consumer in the act. Concentration has to be absolute.

As a counter to bodily pleasures we took a cultural tour of a palace – the 1000 room Palazzo Doria Panphilj – off Rome’s via del Corsa. An audio player carries the voice of the current head of the family that owns it – along with massive other property assets. Listening to Prince Johnathan talk you through a huge collection of priceless paintings and sculptures you’d swear he came from English aristocracy, but he’s legally Italian, having been sent to England for his education and to acquire a super-plummy accent. The family’s history is as intriguing as its wealth. Johnathan is not from the family’s blood line at all, but was adopted as a baby from an English Catholic orphanage, along with a girl (turning her into a princess) and they run the family. Johnathan is single, has a male partner and they have two surrogate children who will no doubt take over the role as custodians of the estates in the future – although the ownership of the properties is now held in a government trust. They all live within the palace in apartments upstairs, unfortunately not included in the tour.



End of days

Monday 25 June

We’re now time travellers, having left Rome and our miniscule room on Sunday morning to join thousands of confused, desperate people trying to make the best of gross overcrowding at Rome Airport as they wait in queues to get into other queues – which can often be the wrong queues.

Our Singapore Airlines flight left at 11 am after which we were served lunch but had to pretend it was dinner, so we could then pretend it was night-time and obediently go to bed early in the afternoon. After a long period of pretend darkness, we had a pretend breakfast at about midnight, but it was really six o’clock in the morning. And exiting the aircraft doesn’t restore reality, because the interior of Changi Airport looks the same no matter what the clock may tell you.

Because we were doing most of this trip on points, we had to take what tickets were available – meaning an 18-hour stopover at Changi. The way around this was to book a block of hours at the Urgent Lovers’ Airport Hotel which claims to be the only airport hotel in the world with a swimming pool. The plan was to sit by the sunny pool, swim and listen to the roar of jet engines. But this was hard to enjoy in the middle of a thunderstorm. Paying to lie in the rain is not good value, either. We changed plan and booked in to a free bus tour of Singapore along with a team of other disorientated travellers, most of whom wanted to sit in the bus and go to sleep. But our lively tour guide had other plans. She made us get off the bus to behold the water-spewing Singapore lion, the Bay Sands Hotel and a famous mosque that was closed. By this time the thunder storm had gone elsewhere, and we would have loved the pool, we were trapped on the bus tour. When we finally made the airport hotel, we were too exhausted to swim or lie by the pool. Because our body time was the middle of the night, we fell into bed – which will result in insomnia on the plane tonight. I realise, of course, that these types of problems are well known to all overseas travellers, but I note that they are much worse on the way home when you’ve spent your money, seen or failed to see what you went away for and are wearing part of an additional person around your waist.

That’s all folks. As usual, I am heavily indebted to my extraordinary tour guide and wife Michelle whose talents could easily be applied to troop movements in the armed forces. I am also indebted to you, my little band of readers, who give me a reason to set all this stuff down. I’ve been doing it for years, and now see the value of retaining created memories – which I suppose is the reason we travel.



Monday 21 My 2018

Korfooo! as our American sailing friends pronounce it, was a bit of a fizzer. Michelle and I had been coughing for a few days and it reached a point today where Michelle decided to stay state-room bound while I went and ‘did’ Corfu. Trouble was, Corfu did me. Alone and without a map, I took off to the right of the wharf, walking along the coast, with the plan to circle inland and end up in the old town, far left, which is supposed to be charming.

Once I moved away from the coast, I became lost in a maze of streets. I found a highway and caught a random blue bus, paid the fare and did a nice trundle through the burbs with a lucky finish in the old town. After enjoying a leisurely walk along the gracious, tree-shaded streets I stopped to sip lemonade in a narrow alley restaurant, claimed a user pees, and asked the waiter for directions to the port. “Ten minutes. Down the street and turn right,” he said. He lied. I found myself headed towards a mountain that I took for the one behind the FAB when, in fact, it was the one on the other side of the island. Needless to say, I got lost again, this time deeply so. I followed some touristy looking people into a bus station with green buses but was told I needed another blue bus that stopped across the road and it must head in the opposite direction to my walk. I waited on the bus stop for half an hour. No blue bus. Then I spied a taxi sitting under a tree.  I pleaded my case to the driver. “You would never have got back to your ship the way you were going,” he said to establish his superiority, “but today God sent me to find you.” You’ve got to love the Greek philosophy.

If you want to eat extra upmarket on the FAB you go the Pinnacle Grill, via a surcharge of course. There, on the drinks menu, cocktail subsection, you will find the revered name of the master ‘mixologist’. He has a degree in general and specific mixing, and is qualified to mix other products such as paint, cake ingredients and Araldite. My friend Bob (a retired photography professor) tells me that American universities offer degrees in all kinds of subjects. For instance, you can become a bachelor of driving instruction. At the Pinnacle Grill (where nothing is actually grilled) I ordered Devon sole. When the waitress brought it, she instructed me not to start eating it until I got a boner. I was mystified by this exciting prospect until a nervous waiter appeared and announced he was the boner, but this was his first time. A virgin boner, no less. With a few flourishes he removed the bone from the sole – well, most of it anyway. I’m sure he will do better next time.

Kotor, Montenegro

Tuesday 22 May 2018

The mountains dwarf the FAB

It was worth getting up at sparrows to witness sailing into Kotor, surrounded by towering wooded mountains diving straight into the sea. The FAB was able to run close to the shore so that we could watch the city, with its typically Mediterranean buildings and houses, and its people, waking up to another day in paradise. Most of the buildings huddle near the shore because of the construction challenges as you go up the mountain sides. We saw one quite substantial house that had slithered down the slope during a heavy rainstorm, and now clung to the rocks like a surreal work of art.

Of all the ports we’ve visited aboard the FAB, Montenegro impressed me the most. With its huge hillsides that finish in picturesque villages, this is probably the place I’d come back to first. We hired a driver for a four-hour excursion which took us over (and through) the tall mountain that dominates Kotor, and then on to the capital, Cyrillic, where there is the presidential palace (the president doesn’t live there and it’s not much of a palace, in spite of a couple of fancy-dressed guards in the doorway), and the mausoleum housing the bones of the last royal family. Montenegro has had bits of it taken away and returned, but today is an independent, democratic country with a relatively tiny population of 624,000 – and dropping, except for the 15 per cent of Muslims who are quickly pushing in the opposite direction.  It gained independence in 2006 and its culture is a blend of its neighbours Croatia, Serbia, Italy and Turkey. It can’t afford armed forces but relies on its membership of NATO to be looked after by big brothers. UNESCO also has a say in how the country is run and its heritage preserved.

Our driver, Nicholas, was born in Montenegro. He drives his taxi during the tourist season and becomes a deck officer on a container ship for the rest of the year. He is passionate about his small country and wants to increase tourism – already its main industry. Sensibly, there is a big road building program under way, with some of the major projects being managed by the Chinese. The Riviera style foreshore has already become a playground for the rich and famous, who can hide away from public stare. We walked past a row of private motor yachts that probably totalled a hundred million dollars. Novak Djokovic, although now a Serbian citizen, was born in Montenegro. When he got married he booked out the famous Saint Stefan Hotel, the dearest on the strip, and invited his guests to stay there for the nuptials. The hotel sits on its own island, joined to the mainland by a single narrow road which can be patrolled to turn away the uninvited. But the hotel buildings themselves are not spectacular. They look more like a military garrison or a prison.

Nicholas told us about some dietary practices in Montenegro. Olive oil is a staple remedy for many ailments. True believers take a shot of it every day. If you are planning to do some heavy drinking, you should down a tumbler of olive oil before you start. If I did that I’d never get to the grog. His grandmother, who reached the age of 92, was not only an olive oil enthusiast but started each day with a shot of homemade grappa with a fearsome alcoholic content. She also favoured smoked pork or goat. A specialty was cheese made from donkey milk. Donkeys are not great milk producers, making rarity the chief attraction of the cheese.

Now we go to sea and should arrive in Venice tomorrow – a long as the captain hasn’t lost the map..