the Hermitage, revisited

As I said, the first post, written from a youth hostel in Moscow after less than 6 hours of sleep on a half-assed computer, did not do justice to our time in St P. I therefore promised (did I really?) to write a bit more later.

I also realised that I have a lot of photos that fit neatly into little themes in sets of between say 5 and 25 photos. To break the routine of ‘next day, next day, morning, next day, afternoon’ writing I will put up these little sets in between the chronological diary that I’m putting up.

As you guessed, this is the first instalment. There’s not much writing to do for this one. The Hermitage was an amazing building – I said that, I guess – and one of the things I took quite a few photos of while inside were the chandeliers. So I thought I’d put together a little set of chandelier photos.

(Remember you can click on the photos in the gallery to see the large image!)

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Moskva 2 (part 2) – fair is foul and foul is fair…

… hover through the fog and filthy air.

You’d think Shakespeare had been to Moscow in summer!

After leaving the Museum of Cosmonautics – and looking at the custom-made fence around it, another cool detail:

Detail of the fence around the Museum of Cosmonautics. Nice!

That’s of course Sputnik…

We immediately noticed it was hot and smoggy. How hot? Well… you can just make out the temperature reading on the ‘news ticker’ in the middle:

38 degrees at 3PM!

And apart from the heat, we also noticed it was, well, fairly smoggy. How smoggy? Well… this was just a random shot in the distance:

Smog at 2 PM

Don’t worry, it would get a lot worse. We then went on to a Ferris wheel, when my camery battery died at the least opportune moment, i.e. just strapped in to the seat, and with my camera bag safe below in a locker… but on the up side, I would only have taken one or two photos of Moscow and they’d have looked just like the one above. What remains is our memory of Moscow covered in a blanket of smog, a rare sight.

Then we made a walk to the town centre, specifically the main touristic shopping street, Arbat (IIRC), where we bought our first souvenirs and dipped our hot feet into the cool water of the fountain of Princess Tourandot (the heroine from Puccini’s opera Tourandot). By then, she smog was clearly getting worse and the sun turned into an unhealthy colour for 6PM this time of year:

The sun turning orange...

:(

It was around this time that I started to notice that my eyes weren’t entirely happy either, as they were slowly starting to itch. However it was starting to cool down so we just decided to carry on our walk through Moscow, on to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (I just read that it’s the largest Orthodox church in the world. The St Isaac’s in St Petersburg that we visited earlier is no. 2. I guess we’ve been very efficient at visiting the top Orthodox churches :P). Whilst the others enjoyed a toilet break, I went on my usual photo spree :)! It’s a very nice church indeed, and the smog actually helps to bring it out, with all the white…

It didn't look THAT big!

Even so close the effects of the smog are clear

But all good things must end, so when the others were done relaxing I had to let this go and on we went. On a nearby bridge we then truly witnessed the effect of the smog, which was now getting rapidly worse.

That's the Kremlin barely visible

I personally like this next photo, although I can’t really explain why.

The lonely man in the smog (or something)

And so the first lines of this post are explained – although the smog makes for pretty pictures, it’s still smog. It smells of barbecue (and makes your clothes smell of bbq too, after a day outside), it makes your nose fill up with black soot, it makes your eyes itch and I could even imagine (could just as well have been real) a foul taste in my mouth.

High-key was never easier :p

Then up the good side again – it also helps making high-key photos lol :).

And this was the last we saw of the sun before she simply disappeared behind the smoke not to be seen again:

Bye-byeee...

And if I zoom in close on the sun, I can see a sunspot. Daylight astronomy in Moscow, thanks to the smog. That or I need to clean my sensor. I’ll pretend it’s a sunspot, it’s a nicer story.

In the evening we caught the train to Nizhny Novgorod, where more adventures and heat awaited us, and although the smog got worse and worse, even penetrating into the train station and, would you believe it, the metro station! I did not take more photos. Difficult with all your luggage and stuff to do, like finding your platform, and trying to buy vodka (99 rubles – about £2.50 – for a half litre, the juice we mixed it with was almost more expensive).

We did one more posed photo, one normal…

We are enjoying ourselves...

We noticed already in St Petersburg that Russians, and especially the women, pose so funnily unfunny for photos… as if they are Zooper Modelz or something. Totally disinterested expression, shoulders straight, and always the husband or boyfriend telling them to move an inch or a foot to the left, no, to the right… so funny. We naturally started to copy and mock this ridiculous behaviour, and so this is one of a couple of ‘Russian pose’ photos. Enjoy it… because we sure as hell aren’t ;)!

... oh no, actually we are not!

Bye bye Moscow!

Moskva 2 (part 1) – a great museum and expectations shattered

The second day in Moscow was very busy, so I’ll write about it in two parts.

First, several plans for the morning boiled down to being just one plan: visiting the Museum of Cosmonautics.

The gigantic "launch statue" at the Museum of Cosmonautics (MoC)

And to be fair, when I thought of a Russian museum, about something that Soviets did rather well, I thought of long corridors with rows of cupboards and showcases, maybe poorly lit or adequately but boringly, lots of homemade plastic scale models, a general sense of non-maintenance… you get the idea.

Well, I am glad to say, I was wrong. Very wrong. The ‘MoC’ easily rivals any of the great museums in London for its lightness, openness, completeness, and even, yes, enthusiasm!

Larger-than-life set piece in reception hall

The layout is effective, starting with a big entry hall with highlights, and from there you can take several routes through the history of Soviet and Russian space exploration. Everything is covered, roughly chronologically, and you realise just how friggin much the Soviets have done in space. From Yuri Gagarin (and of course even before!) to Mir and everything in between.

Stuff of Yuri Gagarin, I presume

So we had a wonderful time exploring this museum – and I managed to make myself feel important by buying our group’s ‘photography permission ticket’ (well from the shared money pot) and getting the accompanying bright orange wrist band, that I wore proudly for another 4 days until it started to discolour and lose shape… time to take it off :). I still have it though, maybe I should have washed it… nah.

Fun with reflective visors :) (note my orange wrist band :p)

As I said, the museum is very thorough, it’s got not just the models, displays and memorabilia – although it has lots of each of these. It also does things like this:

A diorama depicting a space pioneer at work (shamefully forgot his name)

This was touching and very telling: a memorial to two legends of the Soviet space program (evidently), whose names I can’t find nor read from the paperwork. Anyway, what I want to say is: these are actually fresh flowers.

Yes, fresh real flowers

That’s how much they care about their history. Very cool.

In the category of ‘stuff that they use in space’ this of course was my personal favourite:

Not magnetic but maybe this was Even Lighter (TM)

Then this gives a fairly good general idea of just how much stuff they have to display. It’s only a small part of one of the halls, but most of the museum is like this… models from the ceiling and on the floor, info boards, the lighting is perfect, the decoration on the wall adds to the whole experience (see the ‘space window’ in the back). Awesome!

A typical hall inside the museum

And then one final misconception to be shattered: that museums are just cool, emotionless summations of facts. Actually the last bit of the museum consists of numerous works of art – mostly paintings – that are inspired by (or commissioned by, that is not always clear), space. OK some paintings I must admit were no more than Soviet-style glorifications, space propaganda as it were, but others were genuine expressions of awe, or sometimes fear, of space. A nice touch, I thought, to the otherwise factual side of cosmonautics.

At the end a gallery with a few rooms of paintings

After that, we threw ourselves into the Moscow heat and smog for more adventures… to be continued!

Moskva

So, with some delay, I will put up entries about the rest of our trip. Better a bit late than a lot of never!

Obviously we were very busy, too busy to write a lot on blogs etc, and the easter we went the scarcer internet access became too…

Moskva

And the dreaded smog, which on the first day wasn’t so bad. We went on a trip past the highlights – the Red Square and the Kremlin mostly. Despite the heat it was fairly bearable.

Still, as here on the Red Square, the smog was visible:

Red Square in the smog

After walking around for a bit, past squares, the KGB building (in ‘nice’ Soviet style ie square, grey and concrete), the Bolshoy theatre, and a Karl Marx statue, we ended up at the Red Square. We thought it was rather impressive and the history is clear.

Queue for Lenin mausoleum

After having looked around we queued up for the Lenin mausoleum, when I think I set a personal record for ‘longest wait for shortest event’ – after IIRC nearly an hour of queueing (and dealing with the by-that-time predictably rude staff of the cloakroom) the whole walk past comrade Lenin was over in just 30 seconds. Weird experience, this dark, low, and cold room with just The Man in bright spotlight, surrounded by pairs of guards. When a grandmother was complaining to her granddaughter in the dark of the stairs going down, two of them as connected by strings lifted their finger to their lips and produced a hushed ‘shhh’ (and produced another when the woman wouldn’t shut up :p).

I was personally rather charmed by the Big Red Building (that I only now find out is the State Historical Museum) on the one side, more than by the church on the other side (that I thought was less pretty and interesting than its lookalike in St Petersburg).

State Historical Museum

Then for a visit to the cathedral (affectionately called ‘marshmallow church’ by us), and like similar churches we weren’t allowed to visit the interior proper, well at least we could take photos here (as opposed to the churches in the Kremlin so I’m going to be short about these later).

I happen to like churches a lot – architecturally speaking :p – but this cathedral just doesn’t do it for me. It’s fairly boring, inside but mostly outside. I can’t see what all the fuss is about. It’s simple, except for the domes and even these aren’t wildly wowing. This is the inside:

St Basil's Cathedral

Finally, we went to the Kremlin, which had lots of cathedrals and churches in which we could not take pictures, and old unfriendly ladies shouted at us when we tried, and we then took a little nap of around an hour before leaving again, back to the hostel.

On the way in the metro we bought tickets to see The Nutcracker ballet performed in a theatre near the Bolshoy Theatre (if you say it quick enough it’s like it was in the Bolshoy). That was very pretty although I personally nodded off a few times – not because it was bad or dull, but because the short night especially on the night train was taking its toll!

Kremlin

After the ballet we had a drink on the terrace of a fairly expensive pub where the young waiter was keen to show his 19th-century English – “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, how may I be of your service” or suchlike words, we hardly knew what he was saying :). But the vodka was good. Then we went back to the hostel, where it was amazingly warm, I Skyped with CC for a bit (what would turn out to be my only direct contact with her for the entire trip :'( ), and we all tried to sleep – difficult when even when you were just lying still without even a sheet on you and just light clothes you STILL dripped with sweat :O.

I realise this entry is longer and more detailed than the previous, hectically written in a youth hostel; I might retrowrite another St Petersburg entry then later. This was a day in Moscow – more to follow! I’m planning on not just day-by-day accounts but also ‘specials’ as not everything can be told by the diary :).

Brighton, Stansted, Dusseldorf, St Petersburg to Moskva

Good times...

Quick impressions written from the Godzilla hostel in Mockba…

PHOTOS ARE UP ON FLICKR! FOLLOW LINK SOMEWHERE ON THE HOME PAGE

Brighton – Stansted

Woke up WAY TOO EARLY hehehe, nothing exciting (except us) on the trip to Stansted. Easybus worked quite well, good one to know for next time I’m travelling from Stansted. Otherwise… yeah it drizzled so I was quite keen to say f*** ya, England, and good-bye.

Stansted – St Petersburg

Flying was smooth and easy – mental note: Air Berlin, good company, again nice to get some service while flying. Fun to fly a prop plane again :), a nice stopover in D, except that on the way out at customs I first had to get back out of the queue all the way back to drink my cola, then passing through the scanner it went off for no reason, and then the man had to have a look in my backpack to see what these two large metal tins were. Well, cookies, duh! Anyway, that was the biggest worry so nothing much really.

Second leg was even less eventful than the first, we all slept a bit, and then the first impressions of Russia! Glad we have a Russian speaker with us or we might still be at the airport (well not really that bad but it helped so much, so thanks, Ted!), found a 1950 minibus that whisked us into town, and we were quite impressed to have our hostel right in the centre of everything! Ten mins away from the Hermitage, five from the Church of the Spilt Blood (or something). Unfortunately, as it turned out, it was also the most posh part of town so we spent quite some money on food etc. Well, it’s holiday.

St Petersburg was a good introduction to Russia in that it’s still very European, it could be in Italy or France except of course for the Cyrillic everywhere. It;s also one of the most beautiful cities I’ve seen, up there with Prague, Florence and Paris.

What you get in post-communist Russia is that some things are very new, some are still old. Like the one night we left St P, we had dinner, nothing too fancy, crepes with cottage cheese, drinks, and ice cream, and paid 1460 RUR the four of us (around 30 EUR), then went to the Metro and paid 40 RUR (less than 1 pound) the four of us to get to the train station. It’s like that.

Hermitage

Of course the first stop next Morning, and words can’t describe this amazing museum. I tried but even my photos won’t. A W E S O M E. It’s such a beautiful building AND such an amazing collection, one on its own would be astonishing, together they are just… indescribable.

Then the rest of St P kept wowing us by being so pretty, we took a boot trip, lol boat trip (i’ll explain that joke but it won’t be as funny as when we saw it ;) ), always nice to explore a city that way. Then we walked all the way around across a series of bridges to the fort where was also a beach (with half naked Russian sprawled over it, yuck :p), then back and we relaxed a bit. Which is really easy when it’s still light at 11PM and 25 degrees with a light breeze….hmmmm

The rest of St P was more like that, we walked loads on the second day and saw theaters and churches, and then went to take our dreaded night train thrid class to Mockba!

St Petersburg – Moscow

Which turned out to be so nice :)! We were sharing the carriage with older couples, an older Russian lady, a young Chinese couple – who were going back after having done China – Thailand – Moskow – St P by train 2nd class and were now going back via Mongolia 3rd class to save some money (I just got an idea for a potential honeymoon, CC :p ;)! ), and families with young children.

We’d bought some classy vodka, 99 RUR (yes that’s just over 2 quid for half a litre), the OJ that we mixed it with was almost more expensive, but it gave us no hangover and when the lights went down at around 11.30 (and outside it was still not dark).

OK we’re about to make a move here… more later, and don’t forget the first batch of photos on Flickr!

Paris Paris!

Argh, too busy these days. Good busy though, so I’m not complaining.

Paris aye?

As some of you may know, I was in Paris with a few friends the last weekend. And I drove them up the walls by taking photos, photos, and yet more photos. Over 800 in total, and if you do some fancy maths to subtract bracketed exposure it’s still a respectable 680+.

Show us Marcel!

Forget it :p. Been too busy. I did have a chance to do some quick highlights though, and although these don’t do the trip – or Paris – any real justice, these photos are good enough that I dare show them to you.

(non-photo nerds can skip this paragraph) I had three lenses with me in Paris, two of which saw ample use.

As my main lens, this time I decided again on the trusty Tamron 24-135mm, because of its greater reach than the CZ16-80mm, and also because I was bringing my Sigma 10-20, with which it then wouldn’t overlap. I know the Tamron is great in bright sunny weather – which is what we got – and I also know to keep it away from direct light into the lens – which I managed to avoid almost always.

As mentioned, I also brought the Sigma 10-20mm, because an ultra-wide works wonders in cities AND because it’s just great fun to work with; and it didn’t disappoint.

Finally my 50mm didn’t see much use because it’s too short to get details, too long inside a cramped city, and we never were out in the dark really to use its wide aperture.

Stop blathering about your lenses and SHOW US the photos!

Alright OK… here’s the slideshow then!

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(let’s just see if I can squeeze in the gallery too… so that those of you who want to see the photos in detail can click on them)

Escapism? Photos of sunny Brighton

With so much to write about (Israel, a rampant gunman in the UK, oil in the Gulf of Mexico, elections coming up in The Netherlands, and a World Football Championship on the way, as well as my new job), why not not write about all that?

But instead get that ancient photo of the West Pier out of the way and blog some new photos…?

…yeah that sounds good to me.

I finally got round to shooting a few more ‘typical’ photos on the Palace Pier today. I’m still not great at people-in-masses, but it’s an improvement over all I had. Actually I haven’t put any of my ‘people pictures’ in the gallery below because, well, I still don’t like them much (both the people and the photos of them :p).

As you can see it’s a series made with my übercool ultra-wide angle lens, the Sigma 10-20 mm. Unbeatable in weather like this – look at the deep blue of the sky and the colours of the sea – woo hoo!

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