A Travellerspoint blog

May 2009

More London, Again

sunny 14 °C

After coming back from Latvia, the feeling of everything being about to end was strong, so I thought I’d have a final weekend in London, staying at the newly re-opened (“last Wednesday, Sir”) St Pancras YHA. Also newly re-opened is St Pancras station, which is a star among railway stations (sorry about the fogging on the photos).

I planned to get a photo of its impressive front, but somehow forgot. There are several storeys facing the road in a kind of red brick gothic style, I don’t know what all the space was used for, but had the impression that it was barely used at all so am glad to see that it is getting new life as a hotel and apartments. Inside, there has been a massive redevelopment. Trains are on the upper level
along with a statue of John Betjeman
and a couple, obviously just re-uinited or about to separate for a journey

Downstairs there was enough to amuse me for my entire visit to London, a branch of Foyles, lots of cafes and various interesting shops.

I didn’t actually stay in a railway station for two days, however, I had films to see. First was the Swedish Let the Right One In, about a 12 year old boy who is a bit of a loner, picked on by the other boys, but then he makes this friend, when a new girl moves in next door. So, at one level it is a sweet movie about two outsiders finding each other and forming a bond, but the wrinkle is that she’s a vampire. Such is the sacrifice that her dad will make that he goes out and kills for her. The oddity of this as a vampire movie is that the audience is left empathising with the vampire.

On the Sunday, I had a fairly hefty walk as I planned to see Camden Market. On the way, I found St Pancras Old Church
which has been here since the 11th century, although it has had a bit of refurbishment along the way. There’s a cute story about burying all of the Church’s treasures so that Cromwell’s men wouldn’t steal them, but then not being able to find them again. It was only when the church was being rebuilt in the 19th century that they were found. Mary Wollenscroft is apparently buried in the graveyard, but I never found her grave. This
is a sundial which one Baroness Burdett-Coutts saw fit to give to the public (she was heavily involved in slum clearance in London (which has curious links to my reading in The Forsyte Saga), the first woman peer).

I’d heard that Camden Market had burnt down, but that was a bit of an exaggeration: much of it was still going strong,
completely crowded and still selling much the same sort of stuff it has always sold,
even though they have become mainstream in the meantime, such as Doc Martens. Even the street outside was chocker

It was nice to see that there were still some freaks among the civilians, young and not so young. DSCF1090.jpg

Down in Camden Lock, someone was actually using the canal

It was then a fairly long walk along to the top of Upper Street in Islington, and an unfortunately rushed walk down that street – so many interesting looking cafes, but I had no time to longer, as I was headed for the brutalist splendour of the Barbican
to see another film, 400 Blows, one of Truffaut’s early movies and said to be one of the defining moments of the French New Wave. I’ve seen a few movies from that movement that have left me completely bewildered, not as to what was going on but why they made it into a movie, but this one I enjoyed. Antoine is a troubled school boy, where he has a hard time behaving and is given progressively worse punishments. He kind of brings things upon himself: when asked why he was not at school and has no note, his answer is that his parents both died. Not sure how long he thought he’d get way with it but it wasn’t long. Home life isn’t much better – he has to sleep in a cot in the kitchen, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a relationship either with or between his parents. There is an almost farcical scene when, to get some money, he and his mate steal a typewriter (of all things) from his father’s work but are caught when trying to return it. This is the final straw, the cops get called in and it is off to borstal, on his mum’s recommendation. This suits him, in that he’d always wanted to be by the sea.

Posted by NZBarry 08:33 Archived in England Comments (0)

And Back to London (Again)

sunny 14 °C

As I post this, I have reached that point in my journey when it is time to quit England. I am currently in Carlisle, so the easiest way to quit England would be to go the few miles north to Sotland, but that is not the way I go. No, tomorrow, I will be back in Wales.

My first night in the hostel in Riga, my room mate, a musician from France, suggested I go round the corner to a restaurant called the Lido - a place I had seen advertised and thought would be awful, but I let myself be persuaded. It was kind of awful, a buffet set in an extremely fake medievally themed room, with an old lady comatose in the window (I happened to walk past three times during my stay and she was always there, although not always comatose, otherwise I might have thought her a mannequin). Worst of all was the drink I bought, thinking kwass might be a local brew of beer. Apparently it is a very popular Russian drink, essentially a fermented malt drink - the recipe I saw online would have me add (to about two gallons of water) a single large raisin for flavour. I guess making it a large one makes all the difference.

In my wanders over the three days, I saw a lot to appeal. Oddly enough, the Old City was OK, but it was the newer part, the hundred year old Art Nouveau areas that really appealed. Here are some more or less random buildings that caught my eye:

These are known as the Three Brothers, some of the oldest standing buildings in twon, from the days of the Hanseatic League. I was sure that this building was some sort of church, but it turned out to be an academy.

Some I really did not like, mainly because they were out of place. This is a museum, in the Old City
and this is a bar

But it was the Art Nouveau style that really got to me: some streets were entirely given over to it, and the thing that impressed me was that no matter how impressive the individual detail one building might have, the next would be entirely different. I did go to the Riga Museum or Architecture to find out more about it, a place which claims to have 7000 exhbits. All I know, I went in and all they had to show me was a big banner, leant not a damn thing. But I was in the hostel talking with a couple of the guys, and we decided that the aesthetics of the buildings have so much in establishing the tone of Riga as a very relaxing place to be, and contribute to one's own sense of well being. So it is little wonder I spent most of my non-working time just wandering slowly around.


This is the fellow creditted with doing so much to get Art Nouveau going in Riga

As for reading, I decided to take a break between volumes of The Forsyte Saga, and went for last year's Man Booker Prize winner, Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger. It started off well enough - a fairly presumptuous letter to the Chinese Premier to clue him in to the current state of India. After a while, the narrative dropped back to simply telling the life story of the White Tiger, Balram. He had humble origins but somehow got the determnation to get ahead, and with India the outsourcing capital of the world, there are opportunities for those willing to do what is ncessary to grab them (in Balram's case, it is revealed very early in the novel that what it takes is to kill someone). A couple of people on the bus out to Riga airport noticed me carrying it and did a bit of a rave about it, but I wasn't left overwhelmed - it is a bit slight, a bit Slumdog Millionaire, a bit Nabokov lite.

The Baltic Air flight to London was straightforward. I have to confess to a minor error on my part in making the booking - I had found a decent enough price on a flight discounting site, but thought I'd check out the airline's own site. The price there was expressed in Ltvian Lats which, when I looked up the exchange rate was something like three to a pound. That made the flight a bargain, so I was happy to add extras, spending up large on the website to get myself a pork steak lunch wine, etc. I felt a bit sick, however, when I realised I was using the conversion rate for the Lithuanian currency - 1 Latvian Lat is actually about 1.3 pound, making everything just a tad expensive.

Arrival back in London was a bit of a slap in the face. Eastern Europe is so peaceful and quiet, and the people for the most part seemed pretty cool. But getting on to the train to London soon dispelled the sense of peace acquired. Someone was wrenching the table on the back of my seat, up and downm up and down... and it was making a horrible screeching sound. I thought it might be a young kid doing it, and that the parent might ask whoever it was to stop but no, this went on for a long time. But when I finally lost it and asked that she stop, the perpetrator was a teenager. All my request that she stop produced was her smiling at me, redoubling her efforts and she and her mates mimicing my accent among themselves. Luckily for my sanity they all got off at the next stop.

Posted by NZBarry 16:10 Archived in Latvia Comments (0)

To Riga (Latvia)

sunny 12 °C

I didn’t quite say all I wanted to about Tartu. My first night there, the fellows running my hostel recommended I dine at an establishment called Crepp, just down the main street. After walking the length of the street to conduct an exhaustive comparative study of all the menus on offer, and popping into a pub for a pint to process all my research, I had to agree: I found myself salivating over the idea of some fancy steak dish the menu attached to the outside promised. So it was a little disconcerting to go into Crepp and find that the menu I’d seen was for their upstairs restaurant, which was not open. I was instead in their salad restaurant. I decided I would make the best of a bad situation by ordering the meatiest looking salad on offer, a meatball salad. I have to say that the salad itself was quite delicious, but the meatballs were little larger than peas. Feeling cheated, I slunk home.

I did far better the next night, at a place called Truffe, one of these buildings (apparently they lost some in the War and had them replaced by Stalinist neoclassical buildings, but I can’t tell which are the old and which the new):

Quite apart from a lovely dinner, I found myself mesmerised by some of the music playing. I have no idea what language the particular songs I really liked were being sung in, it may have been Estonian but they were also playing English and French sons so I can’t be sure. Nonetheless I told myself it was Estonian triphop.

I have a couple of other buildings that caught my eye. These wooden ones stood out as being a bit of a contrast to the prevailing mode
and then there was the Art Gallery (behind which was the Tartu Public Library, in which I ensconced myself for several hours work)

In my quest to find the Tartu Barge, I had quite a wander along the river
it was very peaceful
and I almost forgot that I was within a half hour’s walk of the city (although the three playground were a reminder). The river itself was not behaving very well

One other joy of Tartu is that they had a brand new bookshop, a branch of the one I liked in Tallinn, so I was in and out a few times for coffee and to enjoy

I stayed in a hostel which was basically just an apartment in a typical apartment building, the thing that made it special was the three guys running it. They seemed to be having a great time, kind of like college room-mates (they were American, Australian and English) and running the hostel as an extension of their home, which made for a very comfortable space. One fellow visitor had arrived a couple of weeks earlier for a two day stay, and was extending it day by day.

My hostel in Riga was a far more hostel like place, although a very very good one (except for the six flights of stairs) – a ten room communal apartment converted a year ago with a clear sense of style, (when I got back to England, I read a bit of a rave about it in the Guardian), lots of black, white and red

The building itself is an example of Art Nouveau, a movement which started around 1897 – apparently Riga has the greatest collection in the world

Something quite a long way from being Art Nouveau is the Riga Central Market

During the war they were used as Zeppelin hangars, but have been returned to use as a market
with a few flowers for sale outside

Here is where I sequestered myself to do a couple of days work, in the Riga Graduate School of Law library, two glorious examples of Art Nouveau
(sorry about the infection my photos seem to have caught).

As I hit Riga, I finally finished the first volume (of three) of The Forsyte Saga. Soames Forsyte started out as rather a horrible man, but he found his humanity when he had a daughter, and really does lover her unconditionally. There is this whole feud going on because Soames and Irene split, and she married Jolyon and had a son. So these is hell to pay when her son (another Jolyon) and his daughter (Fleur) meet and fall in love - they have no idea of the old history. Soames is able to get over it, though: if Felur really wants to marry Jon (as he's known) he will accept it. This, combined with his outstanding probity as a lawyer makes him end the book as its hero, rather than the villain.

Posted by NZBarry 15:57 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

To Tartu (Estonia)

sunny 12 °C

By way of posting about current travels for a moment, today I left Birmingham for the last time. It was quite a journey: 4 different trains and 11 hours between quitting my home in Lichfield and arrival, but I am back in Whitby. This is one amazing spot, possibly the best in all my travels (but there have been so many great places, it is hard to say). It is the kind of place to which I would make a beeline if I was to win LOTTO or find out that my father was actually Bill Gates or otherwise come into sufficient money to retire. I have just sat in the Board Inn, which overlooks the mouth of the River Esk, and watched the light fade from the day, Captain Cook in stark silhouette observing from the opposite bank. I don’t think I have seen a more beautiful thing. Then, the light gone, I climbed the 199 steps up to my hostel among the ruins of the ancient Abbey. Who could ask for more?

I should perhaps mention as a warning that there is full frontal nudity at the bottom of this post, so go there now or stop when I say.

When I last posted, I was speaking of Helsinki. I think the one thing that lingers in my memory apart from what I have already mentioned is the buskers I encountered on my Easter Sunday walk through the near deserted city. They were not your ordinary class of buskers: one was playing the double bass, another a couple of blocks along had a clarinet and the last had an instrument I do not know the name of. It was the size of a largish zylophone, and sounded like a zylophone but with extra features, as if combined with a small pipe organ. The pipes were to the front, and by hitting a key with his plonker, the musician would make them sound.

But I was only in Helsinki until early on Easter Monday. I caught the ferry back to Tallinn, had a last look at and coffee in my favourite bookshop and caught the train south. Although brightly coloured, that did not hide its Soviet origins and the interior accommodations were decidedly Spartan

The journey down was uneventful and unspectacular, trundling through a nondescript forested region for most of the way, broken only by the occasional factory around which a town clustered. I began to doubt my destination, which was driven by the fact that it is not possible to travel from Tallinn to Riga in one day unless one has an early start. When early came around I, of course, was in Finland. So I took some advice and people said that rather than stay in the border town of Valga, I should only go as far as Tartu. They were right.

Once again, I fell in love with a place. Tartu was also a Hanseatic town, important because it is on a river connecting two lakes, one of which borders Russia. There were several hundred barges in use, ferrying goods backwards and forwards. Sadly, they fell into disuse around the end of World War 1, and then the timbers were found to be important for other purposes and not even one survives. The extraordinary thing is that in the last few years, a group of people in Tartu has, working from old photos and descriptions and learning all the skills necessary, first made the tools necessary to hand build one of these barges and then they built one.
It was out when I went to look at it, but the photos show it to be more of a small sailing ship than what I would call a barge. The same group is presently getting ready to make a Viking ship. They also throw quite a Christmas party: a fellow in the hostel told me of going and getting fairly sizzled, then having to spend time in the sauna prior to a refreshing dip in the river. Not so bad, perhaps, until you know the river was frozen solid and the dip was by way of a hole cut in the ice.

As for Tartu, unlike Tallinn it has not undergone all sorts of upheavals and transformations and so it is a place of quite startling formal beauty. A key place is the University, which has been around since the early 17th century after establishment by the Swedes. There was a bit of a gap during the 18th century and it was re-established in its present buildings very early in the 1800’s, becoming very important in scientific and philosophic thinking.

People like this fellow
helped – he founded “descriptive and comparative embryology” (no, I don’t know either).
So, the University is probably the most beautiful of the buildings in Tartu
I had lunch in the main canteen, which is in this building
and has pieces like this inset into its walls

Behind is the city park, which I liked because it was a bit rugged and had a touch of the wild about it and it had a ruined Abbey
although to be fair, it could only be said to be half ruined as one end is still in use as a museum

One thing that really features in Tartu is its street art (the third one down does feature complete nudity). The first I really paid attention to was this conversation outside the Wilde Hotel

One is indeed Oscar, but the city is honouring the other, a fellow called Eduard Wilde. You have to like a place that has this outside its town hall, simply known as Two Students Kissing

But there is one piece which I walked past without really paying attention, and when I did I was slightly disturbed, not because they’re nude or right in the middle of the central square, but because this is a father and son, and the son is said to be a mere 18 months old!


Posted by NZBarry 15:52 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

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