Category Archives: Travelogue

Travelogue RWC 2019: Fuji

01-04 October 2019

We flew in from Jeju Island in South Korea to meet up with our friends from home, Michele and Ian, with whom we’d be spending our last few days in Japan.

Having not visited Fuji on our previous trip to Japan in 2015, it was an easy choice to get out of the rush of the big cities for a breather for our friends after a week in Tokyo and for some slower movements for us after a whirlwind trip.

By the time our plane landed, our friends had already done the admin for our rental car, so we jumped on the rental company’s shuttle to go and collect our vehicle.

We had been quite considerably upgraded from a Mazda 5 to a Toyota, which was a very luxurious people carrier with all sorts of bells and whistles, like a neon interior light that ran around the edge of the roof and the colour of which could be changed using the panel on the roof. Who know what else that panel controlled – all the instructions were in Japanese – and we were too cautious to press and prod randomly quite yet.

It took about 2 and a half hours to get to our Airbnb rental (motorway all the way it was an easy drive but with a speed limit of 100kph it was slower going than we’re used to).

Our host, Tom, was there to meet us and delivered a painstaking hour-long tour that explained every knob and button in the house… And there were hundreds of them since the house had every possible modcon and accessory, including electric windows, jet bath, an automated toilet and a sound system that could permanently damage your ears if you cranked it to full potential!

With lots of nodding and subtle hunting, we managed to marginally expedite the tour, which concluded with a Google Earth virtual tour of the neighbourhood since we’d asked where we could get fed and watered.

Our house, although not situated in the country as we’d imagined it would be, was in a very convenient location, walking distance from a few blocks of wall-to-wall entertainment.

We headed out on foot, crossed the tracks and scanned a few of the narrow streets looking for something of interest.

We found a tiny little bar, attracted by the signage outside that broadcast its English menu and English staff acting as voluntary tour guides that were enthusiastic to share info about the area, Japanese culture etc.

We entered to find 8 stools facing the barman, who had an assortment of liquors displayed on the shelf behind him. There was a Western couple on the two far right seats and two Japanese gents on the two far left ones, leaving four in the middle for us. Perfect.

We settled in, ordered Japanese beers and sake, and tuned into the conversation the barman was having with the couple on the right (from Manchester), giving them the lowdown on what there was to do and see in the area.

Our barman, Don, was from California and had been called to Japan on short notice 3 years earlier with the opportunity to be an emergency substitute English teacher; loved the experience and wanted to stay on so partnered with a local to open this bar. He had great advice on what we could do to keep ourselves entertained.

Don ordered us pizzas from the place across the road and, with Christian playing DJ, we spent several hours in our lovely cosy pub, bonding with the stream of Japanese people that floated in and out for a stop on their pub crawl.

When it was time to close, Don walked us down to an all-night Karaoke bar where we had a nightcap and broke the wailing Japanese ballad medley with a catterwauling group rendition of Yellowcard’s song “Ocean Avenue”.

Needless to say, Wednesday started late. Fortunately there had been a midnight mission to 7 Eleven so we had supplies to make lifesaving toasted sarmies for breakfast.

It also took quite a long time for us to get ready and moving, largely fuelled by the fact that our house was so conducive to lounging about and Michele had a load of washing to do, which was an excellent reason to stay put.

Mid-afternoon we were ready to face the world.

Although the famous Chureito Pagoda was walking distance from home, we took the car as we wanted to go and see the lake from there and that was just far enough to nix any ideas of an ambitious walk. Good thing too because there are 398 steps up to the pagoda so we needed to be fresh!

The Pagoda was built in 1958 at a cost of cost 10 million Yen (mostly funded by the citizens) by the mayor of Fujiyoshida to enshrine the citizens who died in the wars since 1868 (Sino-Japanese War, Russo-Japanese War, WW1 and WW2).

It’s a 5 storey traditional pagoda that looks familiar, so must be quite iconic and used quite broadly as a Japanese symbol.

Having been pre-prepped by Don, we didn’t hesitate to climb the stairs behind the pagoda to get the archetypical photo with the pagoda on the one side and Mount Fuji on the other.

Then it was on to Lake Kawaguchi, the second biggest of the Fuji Five Lakes, but the most popular and set up for tourists, with hotels and shops around the shoreline and lots of boating, sailing and other watersport activities available for hire.

We sat quietly and admired the water over and ice cold Coke, jokingly trying to convince Ian to hire a panda pedalo.

He was more interested in getting a steak. Having been very sporting about eating the local foods during our trip, which is lots of noodles, rice, soups, veg and quite low meat, we were keen to support that idea.

One of the friends we’d made at Don’s bar the night before was a butcher and had told us the name of his shop, so we hatched a plot to go an surprise him with a visit.

Onishi Butchery was just around the corner from the Lake and within a few minutes we were at the counter ordering Wagyu steaks, bacon and pork skewers. Our friend was delighted to see us and since we had no shared language between us, there was lots of smiling, giggling and photo-taking to fill the gap.

The steaks were delicious! Christian pan-fried them at high heat to sear them and then cut them into strips so we could savour the juicy flavour in small bites.

Don had warned us that everything opens quite late in our town, to tie in with people coming back from work, so he only opens his bar at around 18h30 and, for example, the ramen place opposite him only opens at 20h00, so we knew not to head out too early.

It was easy to keep ourselves entertained at our house, with our big screen online TV and each other for company. Had we not committed to returning to Don for a Japanese beer tasting, we could happily have stayed home.

But we went. And good thing too because not only had Don gotten in beer stocks especially for us, but he had also lined up a special guest star – a South African friend of his, all the way from Klerksdorp! Ian’s home town!

It was very interesting to hear his experiences, his take on Japanese life and his opinions on what’s happening back home based on the news and updates he gets.

We stayed probably longer than we should have, sampling 5 different Japanese beers and washing them down with regular tots of sake. Don had specially gotten a bottle of gold tequila to celebrate Ian’s birthday and was intent on making a dent on the bottle, pouring massive quadruple tots at a time for Ian.

It’s wonderfully liberating to have a night like the one we had and be able to walk home afterwards. And the fresh air breathed new life into us and we cranked up the house for a bit of afterparty.

Needless to say, Thursday started late – and with a fry up of the magnificent bacon we’d bought at the butchery.

Using the opportunity for a down day, we enjoyed our house, watching music videos, chatting, taking an afternoon walk around the neighbourhood and buying a vast selection of local meals from the 7Eleven so we could fill in the gaps of what we’d not yet tried in restaurants along the way on our trip.

In the evening we logged into Netflix and watched both seasons of Derry Girls in one big binge watch!

With square eyes we saw in midnight to wish Ian a happy birthday before all toddling off to bed.

We had quite an early start on Friday with our hosts needing us out by 10 so that they could prepare the house for the next residents who were to be arriving that afternoon.

It was good discipline for us given that that job for the day was to roadtrip down the coast through Shizuoka to Hamamatsu, which would serve as our homebase for the night while the boys went to rugby and Mich and I entertained ourselves.

By getting out earlier, we were afforded time to make a few stops on the way.

The first was the Aokigahara Forest which is dubbed ‘Suicide Forest’ because of the astounding number of people that have chosen it as the location to meet their maker.

With the forest bedded on lava from a Mount Fuji eruption, the mineral content has impacted that ecosystem such that there are only select plants, insects and animals that thrive there, making the forest quieter, eerier and even more isolated than a normal humanless forest. I imagine that sort of solitude can’t be good for someone who is already teetering on the brink.

More trees, but less sinister, at Miho Pine Grove where legend has it that a fisherman called Hakuryo happened upon a beautiful robe called “Hagoromo”. He was going to take the robe for himself when a maiden appeared and said it was her robe and she needed it to get back home. Begrudgingly the fisherman complied on condition that she show him her celestial Dance, which she did and off she went.

Emerging on the other side of the pine grove, we accessed the beach; black sand and interesting waters that graded from clear to azure to deep blue on the horizon. A picture perfect spot with sea, sand, forest and Mount Fuji (in the distance in the background) all in one shot.

The thinking had been to have a lovely lunch on the beach to drink in the scenery… But there were no restaurants along the beach so we had to make so with a little place one road in from the beach, that had a stellar online rating. The fact that it was an Italian restaurant didn’t deter us at all since a) South Africa was due to play Italy in a World Cup match that evening, b) we could have seafood pasta in keeping with the beach theme and c) it still looked, felt and sounded like a Japanese restaurant.

We were spoilt for service with 3 Japanese ladies clucking over us, desperate for us to have a good time and enjoy their food. They gave us complimentary soup starters and iced coffee for afters and the one older lady got quite enthusiastic about South Africa when she realised – from a lengthy exchange of charades – that we were there for the game. Her warcries and vigorously air-punching had the Frenchies at the table next to us in stitches.

From there it was just over and hour into Hamamatsu.

We had tactically booked a hotel directly across from the station so it would be easy for the boys to jump on a train to and from their rugby match at Ecopa Stadium, half an hour away.

Mich and I waved them off and did a reccie of the neighbourhood and then returned to our hotel for our complimentary welcome drink while game planning our own evening.

A quick Google revealed that we were in the thick of the action and the Rugby World Cup Fanpark seemed a logical place to start.

From there we needed to tick the Irish Bar box, so found ourselves at the Lord Nelson, where we were fortunate to be seated next to an American Brit who had been raised in Yokohama and spent a year in, of all places, Polokwane! He had a whole new perspective to add and, having lived in Hamamatsu for a few months, was very helpful in directing the rest of our evening.

We took his advice based on the food recommendation, knowing that the boys would be starving after the match and having not eaten since lunch. They were. And were very grateful that we’d already ordered an assortment of things – depe fried camembert, kettle fried potato crisps and a roast beef bowl – so the food came very quickly.

Our pub crawl took a turn for the worst after that though when we got stuck in our second pub, where we integrated with a very cosmopolitan cornerful of people and things went south very quickly, including Christian swapping shirts with a very chatty Japanese chap!

Travelogue RWC 2019: Jeju

29 September – 01 October 2019

After having very nearly almost missed our flight from Busan, we were relieved to touch down on the runway in Jeju for the next leg of our trip.

Our hotel was in the town centre of Jeju City, so it was an easy bus ride to get there. We only had large-note paper money so feared being turned away but the bus driver, taking pity on our bedraggled selves and big cases, waved us onto the bus for free instead. The wheel turned though when we got off a stop too early and had to haul ass uphill -and in the drizzling rain that had just started – to get to the Ramada sign that we could see in the distance but that seemed to not get any closer.

Having had quite a heavy weekend and with our East Coast tour starting early the next morning, we decided to play it safe with a tame dinner in our neck of the woods.

It was still lightly drizzling, which we hoped would lift for the next day, but which we knew better than to rely on the weather report for a forecast after the completely random predictions from the weekend in Busan that had seen 99% chance of rain be dry as a bone and 44% be the downpour that had come out of nowhere and drenched us.

Good fortune was on our side though and we awoke to blue skies. Well, patchy blue skies, but that would do.

We met our tour guide, Jin, who ran us through the order of events for the day, predicting rain for 3pm and reassuring us that we’d be done with the outdoorsy stuff by then so it wouldn’t interrupt play for us.

Jin gave us a rundown on Jeju while we drove out of the city.

Geologically, Jeju Island is a shield volcano, first erupting 1.8 million years ago and continuing on and off until recent times. It is bigger than most think before they visit; 3 times the size of Seoul and almost 3 times the size of Singapore, so ideally tourists need 3 or 4 days to see the whole island.

There are 700,000 people living on Jeju and this number is growing with people coming to find a more balanced life than in the cities, like Jin himself who had moved down from Seoul. He spoke fondly of the life and culture on the island, proud that it has no beggars, no thieves and no gates. Jin called it a “cousin’s culture”, where everyone is proud of their heritage, works to preserve it and looks out for their people – and he said it can be tough for outsiders such as himself to break into such a tight circle.

Jeju is also a self-governing province so visa-free for over 180 countries, saving the red tape for countries they term as dangerous, like Afghanistan. Otherwise they welcome foreigners and if those foreigners purchase property for $500k or more they will get a permanent resident visa. The clearly progressive goverment is also pushing electric cars to try reduce pollution, so they subsidise up to 50% of the car’s purchase price to encourage more environmentally friendly road usage.

By this point in the story we had arrived at Manjanggul Cave, a volcanic lava tube that is 7km long, although the accessible bit is only a kilometre. Expecting it to be a narrow tunnel, it was a surprise when we took the steps underground to discover a massive cave.

The walkway had subtle lighting guiding the way, but it was still very dark because if they light it too much then the moss will grow and ruin the cave, and the small lights could only brighten so much of the caves that were easily 3 or 4 metres wide and 5 or 6 metres high in mostly places, but also ballooned into much bigger caves periodically.

The info boards explained in layman’s terms why and how the caves and passages were formed so it was very interesting, even with no geological knowledge at all – and we could know what we were looking at with the likes of the 7.6m high lava column (formed when lava pours down from the ceiling and congeals; Jeju’s is the highest in the world) and Turtle Rock (a dried lava shelf that happens to be exactly the same shape as Jeju Island).

The caves are very cold (between 10 and 15 degrees) and dank, with water dropping from the ceiling so as much as it was a great experience, it was an equally great experience to resurface.

Jin told us that there had been citizens that had hidden in the caves during the genocide of the Jeju Uprising directly preceding the Korean War in 1948, where 10% of the population was killed in the process of trying the quash the rebels. I can’t imagine how awful that must have been!

The next excursion was a visit to the Jeju Gimnyeong Maze Park. We were provided a map and challenged to get to the bell in the centre. Constructed with over 2200 aromatic, green and very samey-samey Leyland Cypress trees, it was a fun challenge to twist and turn through the narrow leafy passages to complete the task.

Jin then took us to Woljeongri beach for a coffee stop to relax and admire the azure ocean and strip of golden sand beach. Fortunately, the weather had held so we were able to walk up and down the beach. With its fringe of shops and restaurants and idyllic waters, it was easy to see how this was described as a perfect holiday resort town.

Lunch was the next exercise and we were signed up to try the pork for which Jeju is famous; tender rashers marinated and served in a spicy basting. Jeju, however, is also infamous for pork of another kind, where old traditional houses used to use pigs as their sanitation systems. Outdoor toilets channelled the waste to adjacent pig pens, where the pigs would eat the matter and then of course later be eaten themselves. Quite efficient. But also very gross.

Rested and refuelled, we headed to Seongsan Ilchulbong for our hike up the crater. As a Tuff Cone Hydro volcano formed by the ocean about 5-7 thousand years ago and detached from the mainland, what has evolved and remains today is a perfect dormant crater easily accessible from the island which, after climbing the 553 stone steps to get to the top, allows spectacular panoramic views of the island, neighbouring Udo island and the ocean. Completely worth the effort.

At the bottom of the crater is a cove where the Haenyeo lady divers can be seen. These (mostly old) ladies are known for diving for conches and abalones without any equipment. They sell their hauls and supply the restaurant in the cove, which I suspect must be some of the freshest seafood you’ll ever have the pleasure of eating.

Hot and sticky from our walk, we were surprised with a bonus stop that hadn’t been described on the itinerary; a lesson in aromatherapy massage.

We were led through very pretty and perfectly manicured gardens to a very Zen looking and sounding room which had rows and rows of golden basins sunk into the floor. Jin sat us down in an area facing a wall of glass window overlooking the gardens.

We were told to put our feet into the basins which were half-filled with scorching hot water. We could add a little cold, but were told to try and tolerate as hot as possible.

The water already had rosemary drops in it (so it smelt delicious since I only associate rosemary with roast chicken) and Jin squeezed in some rose and peppermint oils. The aroma off the hot water was heavenly!

Jin guided us through a series of breathing exercises, through nose-only first then deep breaths through mouth only, to use the scents to open up sinuses and chest. Then we were given salts to use to scrub feet, lower legs and then hands, ending off with a pat dry and rubbing rosemary moisturising oils into the bits we’d just exfoliated, while Jin drizzled a few drops of peppermint and rosemary oil on the top of our shoulders and back of the neck.

With feet glowing and shoulders buzzing, it seemed a shame to have to put socks and shoes back on to return to the bus pausing for commemorative photos in the pretty gardens en route.

Our last stop for the afternoon was the small village of traditional Jeju style houses. In an effort to preserve the heritage, the goverment pays for the repair of the houses so there are still people living in them to provide a living museum of sorts.

We saw the infamous pig-cleaning toilet setup (!!) and Jin showed us other adaptions that the Jeju people have had to make to adapt to their environment, eg with the island being very windy, they have to tie the thatched roof down with rope. Bearing in mind Jeju was expecting its 6th typhoon for the year on Wednesday (no doubt “44% chance of…”), the government must be shelling out pretty consistently to keep repairing these relatively fragile constructions, so good on them for their continued commitment.

With the tour done and so much seen, we were herded to the bus to try and get ahead of the dreaded rush hour traffic on our return to town. The driver put foot to get us there, as the rain started. Jin’s prediction had been off by a couple of hours, lucky for us.

It was tough choice to decide what to have for our last supper in South Korea, but we settled on Chicken & Beer as a sure winner. We consulted Google Maps and got to a very traditional (and by traditional I mean ‘no English menu’) restaurant. It took some charades and a translator app for us to muddle and order through, but we got the Soju and Cass right away so there was some wriggle room with the rest.

We needn’t have feared; we were served a massive platter of chicken – some crumbed and deep fried and some in a sticky sweet chilli sauce – with all sorts of side dishes. The kind of feast you need to just dive into sans reservations and then wet-wipe yourself back to presentable afterwards. Which we did.

Since the rain had started coming down harder while we were eating, we were compelled to get another bottle of Soju to wait out the storm and soak in our last night.

Travelogue RWC 2019: Seoul

24-27 September 2019

While we were in the neighbourhood (relatively speaking, having been in Japan), we thought we’d take the opportunity to hop over to visit South Korea.

We had booked the flight from Sapporo to Seoul several months before so were dismayed when we got an email notification a couple of weeks before travel that the flight was cancelled. It worked out for the best though because we found another flight on another airline at around the same sort of timing – and for half the price!

Once on the plane we surmised the cancellation was owing to not meeting minimum numbers because our new flight was not even half full. Their loss; we had a very comfortable 3 hour flight with our new hosts on Jin Airlines.

It was very exciting approaching Seoul with an aerial view. It’s awesome for most cities to come to life after the amount of 2 dimensional planning we put into our trips, but Seoul looked especially surreal from the air with its massive bodies of water and long snaking causeways carrying the tiny little cars inching across them. Or maybe that was just the airport; it remained to be seen.

From our pre-trip research, we knew that public transport would easily get us to our hotel, the Holiday Inn Hongdae, which we’d booked expressly for its location directly above the train station on the line that ran straight from the airport without requiring any connections.

Although the Info desk did a hard sell on the M-Pass, an all-inclusive travel card exclusively for tourists, some quick mental maths decided for us that doing single tickets as we went would be a more economical option.

With no such thing as to let offices, we were on our own with the self-help ticket machines. Fortunately, there was instruction in English and our destination was easy to spot so we were soon on our way into Seoul.

The hotel was as easy to find as it had promised online, but the ‘no view’ description of the standard room we’d booked wasn’t quite as accurate. Turned out that we did have a view… Of the elevator lobby on our floor! We had an interior room with a window facing across the atrium and onto the lifts and passage so not only did we have a view, but so did the other people of the 16th floor! Or they would have had, had we chosen to keep the blinds and curtains open.

We had pre-booked a 2 day tour, not wanting to risk missing anything on our short hop through such a massive city. The first day was to be a city our and the second a trip to the Demilitarised Zone separating North and South Korea. With our tour guide doing the heavy lifting, there was no pressure on us to do anything of consequence on our first night so we decided to explore home base.

Since we were in the heart of the Hongdik University area, there was lots to do and lots of students already out and about doing it.

Across from our hotel was a pedestrian street lined with bars and restaurants shouting out who knows what from busy lightboxes covered in Korean hieroglyphs. Through the middle ran a long strip of park, where countless young people were gathered in little groups sharing a pizza, a picnic or a laugh. A very relaxed atmosphere; chilling and enjoying the evening.

We were hungry and ready for dinner, but deciding between all the options was quite overwhelming. On the one hand we’d intended not to fall back on western / chain food. On the other, having no idea what the Korean writing meant, it was near impossible to figure out what the traditional stuff was that was on offer or how much anything costed.

We ended up doing a full circuit to the end of the pedestrian area and back before settling on a place almost across the road from our hotel, with our choice based purely on what we (thought we) could decide from the bright pictures on the lightbox outside.

We had dakgalbi; a spicy chicken stir fry mixed with cabbage, carrots and thick fingers of udon noodles and served at the table in a skillet which is placed on the element fixed on the table top. A thick vein of grated cheese runs through the middle of the stir fry and you stir in the cheese as it melts in order to blend as you eat. Stringy mozzarella is no mean feat with chopsticks, I can tell you! We ordered Level 2 of 4 on the spicy scale and it was HOT. Definitely not for sissies!

Very pleased with ourselves for sticking to our traditional guns, we did an after dinner walk around the other side of our hood, which looked a lot sleazier, with more neon and what looked suspiciously like strip clubs. It wasn’t entirely a surprise since this neighbourhood had a reputation for clubbing and, clearly, other nocturnal activities.

We weren’t getting sucked in though since we had an early start, with our guide picking us up from our hotel at 8.15 the following morning.

Early start or no early start, we were determined to make time for a hearty breakfast at the hotel. We were expecting a continental and local combination but were surprised and delighted to find bacon, eggs and sausages, over and above the predictable local fare.

With full bellies, we met with our tour guide, Stella, who took us to our bus. We were the second of five stops to gather our group for the tour; the usual motley collection of Brits, Aussies, an American and us.

Our induction to the tour was Jogyesa Temple built during the Joseon dynasty in 1395 and refurbished in 1910. Stella told us a bit about it, most of which we missed acclimating to her accent but the gist seemed to be about praying to a specific one of the three massive golden Buddha’s depending on what you were asking for. She also told us that with big movement to Christianity and bigger movement to atheism, Buddhism in general is shrinking in South Korea.

From there we needed to zoot over to the Gyeongbokgung Palace (“the palace greatly blessed by heaven”), which was completed in 1395, but deconstructed and rebuilt several times after Japanese invasions. Being the first royal palace built in the Joseon Dynasty, it’s where their 500 year history began and is the grandest of the 5 remaining palaces in Seoul.

The rush for us to get there was to view the changing of the guards, which is a spirited affair with a large band procession leading and timing a procession of guards wielding flags and weapons. All dressed in brightly coloured tunics, they certainly present a very different representation of authority than their camo-clad modern counterparts.

Following the formal proceedings, Stella lead us through the palace gates towards the Royal residence and only when she started her narration did she realise we were short a group member. We’d lost Sanjeev. Among hordes of people. After being told that we had to stick together because it was so easy to get separated.

Stella flapped around panicking and rattling rapidfire Korean into her phone to who knows whom while the rest of us swapped stories, took photos and DID NOT MOVE, as we’d been emphatically instructed by Stella several times.

Sanjeev found us again quite by chance, was quite sheepish at having caused the fuss and we were without a further word about it and living the Dynasty life of concubines and heirs and quirks that come along with the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

The next excursion caught us quite by surprise since it wasn’t listed on the tour we’d booked. We were taken to a Hanbok store and dressed up in traditional outfits. I got a rather fetching poofy white satin number with big bright purple flowers and Christian chose for himself, quite by accident, a King’s outfit with regal blue jacket with silver embroidery.

Once dressed, we were turned past hair and accessories for clips and costume shoes before being presented to the photographer for couples and groups shots. Not something we would have opted to do, but made for some fun memorable pics and we had a laugh with our tour mates.

… which made for better company and more conversation at the group lunch where we enjoyed traditional Korean Barbecue, beers and Soju.

Back in civvies, we were taken to Bukchon Hanok Village; one of the last bastions of traditional Hanok houses from the Joseon period. Retaining the old city appearance and being in such short supply, the houses sell for millions of Dollars, even though the residents are not allowed to alter the appearance of their houses and often have to park their fancy cars outside the suburb and walk to their house.

The tour ended off a climb (in the bus) up the hill so we could get a spectacular panoramic view of Seoul. It’s indescribably massive. On the one side was sprawling suburban living creeping up the side of a mountain; on the other was a sea of skyscrapers as far as the eye could see.

While city blocks seem to be step-repeated, as if a big 3D Lego stamp had made its way across the horizon. We had noticed on the ground that the skyscraper buildings were clustered, to the point that a collection of identical buildings would have massive numbers painted on the side so you could tell them apart. Presumably this is what happens when a country (re)builds itself with the astonishing efficiency that South Korea has.

The bus had to drop some of our our mates in Myeong Dong, which is a famous shopping and street food area, so Stella gave us a half hour to explore before resuming the drop-off circuit. So so so many stores selling make up and cosmetics; quite overwhelming with all the special offers and sampling… But a Mecca if that’s what you’re after!

We were exhausted when we got back to hotel; so much so that I dropped off into a little nap before heading out again.

Our intended mission for the evening had been to find us an Irish pub to log on the Index, but Google Maps was playing up and not showing walking routes, wanting us to catch a complicated combination of trains to get just down the road (!), so we were unable to find the first one we pegged and gave up on the plan in favour of a dinner on the main drag in Hongdae instead.

On Thursday morning, Miss June, as she introduced herself, met us at our hotel promptly at 10am, as planned. We joined the bus with its existing 8 other passengers and Christian was immediately barnacled by a surveyor from London who – as Christian expressed to me in Afrikaans – he was afraid would never stop talking or asking arbitrary questions.

Fortunately Miss June (eventually) clamped on her headset and started the narration for the tour, much to Surveyor’s disappointment.

Miss June told us that Korea was liberated from 35 years of Japanese occupation in 1945 at the end of the Second World War when the Russians came down from the North and the Americans came up from the South, slicing the country in half at the 38th parallel.

Before WWII Korea was a unified country and all the factories and plants were in the North, so when the country split all the infrastructure was in the North and they had a better economy than the South, which had been rural and farming land.

The Korean War then broke out in 1950 with the North invading the South; with Western support the war was brought to a close in 3 years, but at a massive price. From the Korean war 70% of the South’s capital, Seoul, was destroyed as was so much of Pyeoungyang that the Americans said there was nothing left to bomb.

Miss June told us that there is no physical border between North and South, but a 2 km limit line is observed on either side of imaginary line and NOBODY moves in that No Man’s Land.

We also learned that all the water we could see from the air was the Han River, which is visible from more or less anywhere in Seoul – and is protected by barbed, electric fences and armed guard towers because it flows down from North Korea so needs to be defended against any spies coming from the neighbour. Defection is less of a concern with only 30 thousand people having successfully defected, mostly to the China side because the South Korean border is so heavily armed.

In places you can see North Korea from the bus, beyond the defences and across the river. The other side is noticeably browner and less vegetated which our guide told us was because only 15% of North Koreans have electricity and cut down trees for warmth and cooking.

There are ghost town villages on the other bank, where the Northern authorities won’t let people live because it’s too easy to escape when the river is so shallow in low tide. Understandable especially now that the tables have turned and the North Koreans are starving and malnourished. Or so the South Koreans are told.

Conversely, our guide shared a heartwarming story about how her parents’ generation sacrificed so her generation could be educated and rebuild their country. Her mom even wore the same single pair of shoes for over ten years to save to pay for their schooling. Now her generation is spending considerable energy instilling in the younger generation why unifying Korea would be a great thing since the younger people don’t feel the loss of relatives and friends trapped across the border and have all the creature comforts that their successful society provides.

By now we’d reached our first stop where we alighted to view the Unification Bridge, built over the Imjin River which runs into the Han. Although in perfect working order, the bridge stands unused since nobody is allowed to cross the border. The bullet-ridden train exhibit on our side of the bank bears not-so-subtle inference as to the consequences.

There is a community of around 200 people that live within the Imjin line on the Southern side, which is technically under the United Nations Command and those people don’t do conscription (21 months) or pay tax.

The bus took us to Dorsan Station; a fully decked out train station, all ready to go for a train service that would connect South Korea all the way through to the UK… When and if unification would allow for it. Miss June speaks so optimistically about the possibilities that it’s hard to tell if it’s wishful thinking or if it’s something these people believe that they can will to happen.

In the foyer of the station there is a collection of several framed photos of the North and South Korean Presidents meeting, smiling and shaking hands – wives in tow, like it’s a social – as if there might be possibility of such connection. But the display seems so contrived that again it’s hard to decide if I’m viewing with Western cynicism or if this is a show being put on to string the hopefuls along.

From the station we entered the Demilitarised Zone, our bus climbing slowly up the hill to get us to the Dora observation point.

Using the fixed binoculars, we could see across the border to the abandoned factory complexes and surrounding residential towns, and beyond to the third largest city in North Korea.

The factories had until 2016 been a collaborative project where 700 South Koreans would commute in and out to the factory to work alongside their Northern colleagues, producing all sorts of things. The Northerns workers welcomed the income and the Southern manufacturers provided the materials and utilities and gained from the cheap labour. Finished goods were taken back across the border and dispatched from a control centre that now too lies dark and lifeless.

Now that the collaboration has been stopped, the factory complex lies dormant, the feeders villages have been abandoned and the horizon is dark after dusk since the Southerners are no longer providing electricity to the area.

Miss June said that sometimes you can see soldiers moving around, but we saw nothing.

The bus then took us to the 3rd Tunnel, so named since it was one of the 4 tunnels that the South Koreans discovered that the North Koreans had been digging, ostensibly looking for coal (they had even painted the inside of the tunnels black as ruse clues of coal) but practically preparing for an invasion. With all 4 tunnels pointed toward Seoul and each enabling 30,000 armed soldiers to pass through within an hour, it would irrefutably have been a devastating surprise attack.

We caught a little trolley down into the tunnel and were able to walk all the way to the barricade that is established at the limit line.

In times gone by, these barricades had 24 hour armed guards stationed to detect any signs of North Koreans crashing through but fortunately for those poor sods, technology enabled camera surveillance to save the soldiers the immense discomfort of long and boring shifts in the dark and dank dead-end passage.

We ended the tour with a quick stop at the Unification Village, to see how normally the local people go on with their lives, within the limits of the DMZ. Conveniently, their tax free status allows for slightly relaxed rates on supplies, snacks and souvenirs.

On the return journey, Miss June helped us to map out the rest of our evening. First priority was a visit to the old town wall at Dongdaemun and then down to Gangnam which was bloody miles from anything but just had to be done.

The bus dropped us off with some of the other passengers near the palace so we could jump on the subway to get to the city wall.

Now wise to the ways of the subway, it was more a case of finding exact change than navigating the route and we were soon off in the direction of the Dongdaemun Cultural Centre.

At the tourist desk they armed us with a map of the area and a wall passport in case we were ambitious enough to want to walk the whole city wall (a fortress maybe 19km long, built around Seoul at the very beginning of the Joseon Dynasty), gathering collectors stamps at the ancient gates we would pass through.

We did not, and so we made our way to the nearest gate, got our snaps, walked a section of wall up the hill to admire the view… And then retraced our footsteps, ticking the To Do List and moving on to Gangnam.

A collection of connections later we emerged in Gangnam at sunset. And clearly the end of the workday. The station was heaving, the pavements full of dressed to impress people and the road full – of more than its fair share of fancy luxury vehicles.

The neon was soon to own the night and so we threaded our way through the pedestrians to seek sanctum in a traditional Irish pub to wait out the chaos… And earn an eye-watering #2 on our Guinness Index!!

During our sundowner, we researched what traditional meal we were yet to try and ended up making our way back to the main drag for dinner, to have boiled beef bowls of broth at Bonga that were served steaming to us at the table. So hot that they had to be delivered on a trolley. Very dramatic indeed. And delicious.

The streets were still full of life, with most shops still open until 10, but we were a good hour away from our lovely Hongdae homebase so worth catching our ride back sooner rather than later.

The subway was still heaving and showing no signs of letting up. Amazing nightlife for an arbitrary Thursday night in September!

Travelogue RWC 2019: Sapporo

22-24 September 2019

We had quite an early start (for a holiday) so had packed and laid our clothes out the night before to save us time in the morning.

But, having slept with the blinds open, we were awake earlier than we needed to be so were up and out well ahead of schedule.

We were delighted to find our Uber app worked in Japan so we hailed a car to take us to the airport and were soon in a lovely Toyota people-carrier (with a driver in a suit and tie nogal!) headed for Yokohama station.

The ticket buying process can be quite traumatic, with the foreignness of the rail system compounded by scant instruction in English but once we knew what train to catch, it was pretty simple. And the Japanese are very civilised, lining up in neat rows as marked on the platform and waiting for passengers to disembark before approaching the train, unlike most countries where boarding passengers act like they’re storming the Bastille.

Once at the airport it was quite easy to find our way as it was (unintentional) good fortune that we’d chosen to fly with the most popular carrier so their signage was *everywhere*.

The queue took forever – not what we’d have expected from our experience with Japanese efficiency – but of course the queue waited quietly and shuffled forward a little as each check in was completed, and the lady at the check in desk was super polite with lots of smiling and head-bowing. It really feeds your Zen when everyone around you is being so nice and understanding.

We whipped through security and grabbed a sarmie from Starbucks before jumping on our flight, lucky to get a spare seat next to me so I could stretch out for a nap.

Even though we’d left 10 minutes behind schedule, we landed on time and had the good sense to not even attempt the self-help train ticket machine, so were on the platform mere minutes later as the train pulled in to take us to Sapporo. Where, again, we’d had the good sense to choose our hotel exclusively based on its proximity to the main station.

It was a wise call and despite a short awkward minute where a Japanese policemen – who didn’t speak a word of English – did his very best to give us – who didn’t speak a word of Japanese – directions. Fortunately “out of East gate, turn right and go straight until you see it” is manageable under those circumstances and we were soon on our way into the direction the man had pointed us. It was the right direction, which was a bonus.

Another lovely hotel, with a snug but ample room and more complentary toiletries than most people have in the average bathroom cupboard, including a gift bag with treatment face mask and toner sachets.

That would be for later though, because Sapporo beckoned. And the hotel provided as standard a complimentary smart phone that was docked in the room and preloaded with all sorts of local content and had a free internet-connected SIM.

A quick search revealed that, coincidentally, the Rugby World Cup had overlapped with the Sapporo Autumn Fest so we were in for a treat. And we wouldn’t be doing the same magnitude of mileage on foot that we had the previous day because all the action was literally in our road.

We finally had use for our jumpers because it was noticeably nippier in the North Island than it had been on the Tokyo coast, so we suited up and headed out.

We wandered down a few blocks not really knowing what we were looking for … and couldn’t miss it.

One of the city’s major landmarks is the TV tower which, as you can imagine, stands tall and has flashing lights and whatnot making it a pretty perfect landmark! And a couple of blocks from home, so even more useful!

Besides being useful and big and tall, it was also hosting a German Beer Fest as part of the Food Fair and based on the aromas, it was doing quite a convincing job of all the sausages that were being served.

We weren’t to be deterred though – it seemed very wrong for our first experience of the Sapporo Food Festival to be German sausages and beer, when this was the home of the classic Sapporo beer and ramen noodles! – and resumed our walk to Odori Park.

At the start of the long central park strip was the World Cup Fan Park. The Namibia vs Italy game was on so there was already cheer and merriment and had we known this was the landmark for the quite unrelated Autumn Fest, we’d have had a much more confident start.

Beyond the Fan Park were blocks and blocks of festival, with food and drink stalls set around each side of each block of the park, making for a train of food festival magic, with all sorts of traditional fare, local delicacies and (apparently) a selection of the best of Japanese fare. All in one place.

You can imagine how busy it was.

But still, “busy” is a relative term in Japan. There were orderly queues in front of each stand, people splayed (neatly) on the lawns and not a piece of litter anywhere. Despite the fact that, confoundingly, there are no bins to be seen anywhere. I’m assuming that being the disciplined society that they are, they hold onto their garbage until they spot the blue-moon set of 4 recycling bins and then sort and deposit.

We grabbed a Wagyu beef and potato croquette at a sideline stall that miraculously had no queue and savoured the deliciousness while surveying the other stalls in the area. Reckoning that it was peak time, being Sunday, we adjusted our plans to skip the sampling at the festival in favour of moving the next night’s dinner plans up one.

Being in the hub of the city, it was an easy walk to Ramen Alley which, as the name suggests, is a narrow and dark walkway with nothing but ramen restaurants on either side. Maybe 30 or so of them.

We looked at the pictorial menus at the doors and peered in to see our options. All the restaurants are tiny, maybe 9 square metres and seating no more than a dozen people. The majority of the restaurant is the kitchen, where the chef has a raised section with his frying station and boiling pots facing the customers and his sink behind him. We sat at the corner of the stooled L-shape counter and he leaned over to pass the food down to us.

We shared prawn dumplings to start and then Christian had a spicy miso ramen with pork and I had soy sauce ramen with beef. Both were really tasty – and took forever to eat with chopsticks!

In keeping with traditional things, we used the Ireland vs Scotland game as an opportunity to visit an Irish pub and lucked upon the oldest Irish pub in Hokkaido, called Brian’s Brew, and forked out a princely sum for an on-tap Guinness that scored a #4 on our Guinness Index!

Fortunately the local Sapporo Classic was decent – and way more economical – as we ended up staying for the England vs Tonga game as well. The locals were passionately supporting Tonga and many, for who knows what reason, even had supporters shirts and accessories so it seemed as though it might be a regular thing.

We woke up to a cold and rainy Monday… So we rolled over and went back to sleep, welcoming the excuse to rest.

Surfacing later, we easily navigated the streets back to the (one of many) McDonald’s we’d earmarked for breakfast (which was now probably best classified as lunch) the share the Tsukimi beef burger combo (bacon, egg and melted cheese) and the teriyaki chicken combo. Even the McD’s was neat and orderly and everyone throws away their rubbish and leaves the tables clean. Amazing.

Disappointed to find that the Asahi and Sapporo breweries were both closed on Mondays and not prepared to do the food festival in Odori Park in the rain, we wandered along the blocks-long covered pedestrian shopping avenue, popping into shops of interest, poring over peculiar things of interest.

When we thought we’d run out of mall, we followed a sign that said “underground walkway”, thinking it was an alternate pedestrian crossing at the busy intersection. It was not. It was the gateway into an entire underground city!

We spent another couple of hours browsing and tasting samples and trying things on and – miraculously, after spending the most part of the day shopping – only walked away with an anorak for me.

It was still pouring with rain so we returned to the hotel to get off our feet for an hour’s downtime before dinner, which we’d already decided (after the kind of lengthy discussion you only have on a rainy day shopping excursion) was to be tonkatsu (crumbed and deep fried meat).

There were several tonkatsu restaurants in easy reach from the hotel so we relied on online resources to guide our choice and were very happy with our deep fried feast, served as a set meal with a soup and bowl of rice.

Tuesday morning greeted us with bright sunshine and blue skies which is bloody typical when there was no time to enjoy it, with our flight to Seoul requiring us to be at the airport by 9am!

Still, it was a blessing to be able to shimmy to the station at ground level which was much quicker than the alternate underground route we’d mapped the day before in case we had to avoid making the haul with baggage to the station in the rain.

We’d also had the good sense to buy return tickets to the airport when we arrived in Sapporo so we could dash straight to the platform and ended up catching one train earlier than the one we’d planned.

Of course this meant we got to the airport too early to check in… But that’s never a problem when there’s a food court!

We stuffed ourselves with udon noodles and potato croquettes and then ambled back towards the check in gate.

New Chitose is pretty entertaining for an Airport. There’s a working chocolate factory where you can watch through the window as the chocolate is mixed and swirled and paletted into moulds and then turned out, packaged and sold in the adjacent shop.

There’s a massive kids passage full of play areas and games and a fun restaurant – and lots and lots of Hello Kitty!

And there’s lots of sampling of delicious Hokkaido specialities, so we bounced from store to store, tasting different flavours of cheesecake, layered biscuits, custard tarts… And… And…

… And it was almost a relief when we had to get to our boarding gate for the flight to Seoul.

Travelogue RWC 2019: Yokohama

20-22 September 2019

Always up for a travel adventure, I heartily agreed with Christian’s suggestion of attending the Rugby World Cup 2019 since it was to be held in Japan.

Having been to Japan 4 years earlier, we decided to split the trip into the key bits we hadn’t seen on the previous trip, with an add-on hop to South Korea, to which neither of us had been before.

With the rugby ticket lottery so far in advance, our travel arrangements being made months before and a lot (more than usual) going on on the home front, the trip kind of snuck up and it was quite surreal arriving at the airport for our departure.

We had been squirreling Skywards Miles hoping to upgrade our flights for the long haul to Japan, but there was no chance; the flights were full to bursting. The first leg (Joburg to Dubai) was not so bad in a big new airbus, but it was a bit of a squeeze in the 777 on the second leg (Dubai to Tokyo).

On the brightside though, the menu reflected that our holiday had truly begun, with a salmon teriyaki for breakfast and sweet and sour perch with fragrant Japanese rice for lunch. Even the drinks trolley had switched tea for green tea.

The plane was packed with rugby fans – lots of Saffas and a collection from all over the UK – so the fact that Emirates (excuse the term) flights matches live was a massive hit. And the plane very soon ran dry of its beer stocks and a great deal of its single-serving bottles of hard tack, mixed with a splash of cola in very impractical little plastic cups. I wish I’d taken a photo from the back because I’d imagine that it’s pretty rare that almost an entire planeful of people watch the same thing when there are over 2500 content options to choose from!

We cleared customs just before midnight and were glad we’d booked a driver to take us to our hotel. He was ready and waiting for us and obliged our request to wait while we got a SIM card with a smile and a head bow.

Our hotel was a little tricky to find, but after circling the block we were deposited at the front doorstep. Reception was on the 20th floor and we were soon checked in to our 15th floor room… And out the door to get ourselves welcome drinks from the 7-11 on the ground floor, which we enjoyed while surveying the harbour across the road.

After our very late night, we had a bit of a lie-in on Saturday morning. Our pre-scoping of Yokohama had revealed very little tourist value so the rationale was to renew energy levels at the expense of sightseeing time.

A peep out the window revealed a grey and overcast day. It was little surprise as the weather forecast – which I’d consulted for packing planning purposes – had been “20 degrees and raining” for the day.

Decked in jeans with hoodies and rain ponchos in our backpack, we hit the streets.

And didn’t even get to our trusty 7-11 downstairs before Christian turned backs and traded jeans for shorts. Their 20 and our 20 are clearly very different. The coastal mugginess added a blanket of warmth – and if the rain stayed away, it would be perfect!

Our first impression of Yokohama by day was how clean it was. Every road was spotless, without as much as a cigarette butt or a stray plastic wrapper flapping in a gutter. Even with all these filthy foreigners in their town, Yokohama had sustained its pristine Japanese orderliness. They’ve got it so right.

Moving down the street revealed the magnitude of this skyrise city. Our hotel, at 20 floors, was dwarfed by our neighbours! And the vast number of massive blocks and shops along the street front alluded to a live-work-play apartment lifestyle.

We took a turn past the Rugby World Cup Fan Park, which was already buzzing with activity. We passed several people also in Springbok jerseys and did the obligatory head nod and ‘howzit’, expressing kinship like we all knew each other.

First stop was Chinatown for lunch. It might sound off for our first excursion in Japan to not be a local venture, but this Chinatown is credited as being one of the best in the world. Plus, it was the farthest point from the stadium relative to our hotel, so made practical sense too.

We wandered up and down the narrow streets, adorned with patterned buildings, decorated with gold trim and bright red lanterns, and completed with street-level food stalls, boiling, steaming and frying all sorts of deliciousness.

Our first course choice was an easy one. A delicate Peking duck parcel, like a tiny schwarma. It oozed flavour and the duck was tender and juicy with a crisp crisp skin. For main course we chose to sit in a restaurant because the streets were so full – and they had an English menu. We had pork mince noodles (essentially a salty sticky spag Bol) and a chicken stir fry.

By contrast, our walking tour took us to Motomachi with its structured streets and elegant grey buildings, skirted with the world’s top label brand stores.

There happened to be a ‘Charming Sale’ on for the weekend so the pedestrian walk was heaving with people amped to get their bargains. And the many restaurant snack hatches had queues of people waiting patiently for their turn to be served.

With severe baggage restrictions on our internal flights, we resisted the urge to investigate any of the stores or their sales and moved along swiftly to the Landmark Tower, from where there are supposed to be magnificent views of the city and beyond.

Being a grey day though, there was small promise of being able to see anything, so we just went to the mezzanine viewing level which had pretty good near-sight views of the harbour.

We were now perfectly positioned to jump on the metro at Queen’s Square to head through to the stadium, giving ourselves lots of time to get there based on the warnings that the trains get crammed and the security process into the stadium was bound to be beyond thorough.

With precious little English instruction to guide us, we managed the 2 train combination to get to the stadium and were in our seats (nosebleeds, riiiight at the back) with an hour to spare before start of play.

Christian enjoyed watching the players warm up, while I used the opportunity to write this travelogue.

The game was sold out so the stands were packed with spirited rivals, making for lots of pre-game chanting and warcries. Even for the uncommitted rugby fan (nudge nudge, wink wink), there was going to be plenty of energy and entertainment value both on and off the field to make for a memorable event.

We managed to work out way down to much better seats early in the first half so had a brilliant view of the field, along with 63647 other people. Our team, nothing if not consistent, started strong but then made some rookie mistakes, conceding 2 tries and losing the game.

After the game we made our way back towards home and stopped in at a metal bar called Thrashzone that served a wide selection of craft beers.

As the only Westerners in the tiny bar (with a capacity of maybe 40 or 50 people), we were fortunate to seat ourselves next to an English-speaker who had been a pro snowboarder in Canada for 10 years before returning home to Japan. He told us a bit about Japan and asked lots of questions about South Africa. We were the perfect ambassadors on the wonders of our country (consistency of rugby play aside).

It had been a long time since lunch and we had an early start in the morning so we made our way back to the hotel and grabbed a heat-and-eat meal from our trusty 7-11.

It was clearly quite late for dinner so we were limited in what was left and each chose a spaghetti meal; Christian’s with chicken and mine with shrimp.

Our pasta meals were heated in a minute and a half and, admirably, were still steaming when we got up to our room – and were surprisingly delicious. Easily on par with some of the Italian restaurant chains at home.

We wolfed them down while watching a completely unfathomable Japanese game show and then called it a night, leaving the blinds open to wake us for our next day’s adventure, taking us to Sapporo.

Travelogue Baltic 9: Stockholm


25-27 June 2016

The arrival into Stockholm’s Archipelago is breathtaking. As many as 24,000 islands filter from the Baltic to the city. The scenery calms from the windswept, wild beauty of the uncivilised woods, meadows and beaches into the mellow countryside of pretty little villages and summerhouses, then into the harbour, where at the mouth of Lake Malaren lie the 14 islands that make up Stockholm.

The Vikings passed through this Archipelago long ago, but the official story begins in 1252 when the fort was first built. A town grew around it and boomed when Sweden became a major Baltic power. Under Gustav III, the city began to flourish culturally and is now known for opera, cutting edge crystal design and Nobel peace prize ceremonies.

Our plan for Day 1 was to cover the islands closest to where our ship was docked in Frihamnen (Djurgarden, Skeppsholmen and Sodermalm). The hotel we were moving to the next day was across town in Soder so we would cover the further away sights from there in Day 2 (Gamla Stan, Kungsholmen and Ostermalm).

Little plays to plan though and after a brisk walk into town, we discovered that Djurgarden is essentially a big park – and the southern end of a massive “city national park”, which had been reserved for deer hunting until someone came up with the genius idea of preserving the green belt and opening it up to the public.  A very impressive commitment by the state since such a vast amount of prime real estate must be worth a mint!

Djurgarden is also home to the Nordic Museum, which looked great from the outside but didn’t stand a chance in luring us in from the bright sunny day (which we’d learnt was a gift not to be squandered in the Baltic!).

Further down the road is the famous open-air museum, Skansen, containing 150 buildings brought together as a representation of Swedish life, from farmer to aristocrat. While it sounded like it might be a better museum than most, the long queue and the promise of much more ahead prevented us from paying it a visit.

We took time to stop at the ABBA Museum and get our photos taken in one of those life-size posters with the faces cut out – so, yes, we are now immortalised as part of the Swedish supergroup! – on our route past Tivoli (same name as the one in Copenhagen; not sure if there’s a connection) funfair to catch a ferry to the next island.

We made a quick calculation at the ferryport and coughed up for an Access pass card which would cover us for all public transport for the full duration. They only do 24 and 72 hours, which is unfortunate since we needed for 48, but 250 Krone all in was still compelling versus 40 Krone per journey – and the hassle of getting tickets each time.

The hop from Djurgarden to Skeppsholmen is so short that it’s a wonder they didn’t just build a bridge instead. We posited that maybe ships pass through so the bridge would have to be too high. Or maybe there are so many islands that building a bridge feels like a slippery slope that would necessitate more bridge building. Or maybe it’s just a habit thing; there was a framed history on the wall, all in Swedish, which hinted the ferry might’ve been in operation since 1860 (as a small, open air service for a handful of people at a time).

Skeppsholmen had been home to the Swedish naval fleet since 1640. Everything had been built in “the era of the fleet” but have served as museums, restaurants and schools since military operations were phased out from the 1940s. New buildings, like the Moderna Museet, have been added and new uses are being found for dormant building, eg reopening the Torpedo Workshop for use for the performing arts.

A short bridge connects Skeppsholmen to a small island called Kastellholmen, named after the small citadel – Lilla Kastellet – at its highest point. Built in 1848, it is now a conference venue. Both islands form part of the city national park so are very green and make for a pleasant walkaround. Sad but true that some of the most wondrous places were only initially populated for their military purpose.

Our intention had been to go to Sodermalm next, for the remainder of the afternoon, but we got a bit sidetracked when we found our self-guided tour left is on the far side of Skeppsholmen so the most logical path was to walk along the bridge onto the mainland, along the harbour and then walk through Gamla Stan (the Old Town), which was the main item on Day 2’s agenda, holding and surrounded by most of the buildings of historical significance.

Nevermind though, it was lovely day so we embraced the change in plan and admired the scenery.

We’d been a bit ruined on being impressed by scale after grandiose St Petersburg, but otherwise Stockholm would be none slouch in weighing in on a Big Fancy Building competition.

The Royal Palace, at the foot of the Norrbro Bridge, contains 608 rooms making it one of the largest palaces in Europe. City Hall on Kungsholmen Island is built from 8 million bricks and 19 million mosaic tiles, houses the Municipal council and hosts the Nobel Prize Banquet each winter. Riddarholms Church was founded in the 13th Century, has been the Royal mausoleum for 400 years and is known for its distinctive open work metal spire.

Lots and lots of big fancy buildings – I just hope we can still tell them all apart when putting together the photo album!

Gamla Stan was packed and, being a 30 degree day, sweaty. The roads, being authentic in an authentic medieval town, are narrow and roughly cobbled so it’s not ideal for sightseeing, being herded and bumped around. It did smell good though from the number of open-fronted bakeries and ice-cream shops preparing and selling fresh waffles and ice-cream cones on the streets.

I’d hardly say we did it justice, but we did do it… all the way through to the bridge on the other side which connected to Sodermalm, our originally intended destination for the day.

We’d run out of steam a bit to start a whole new island, so picked a waterside pub instead from which to do some sedentary spectating.

We’d chosen well, being across the road from the ferry port, and even more serendipitously, the ferry arrived exactly when we needed it.

This took us back to Tivoli where we intended to grab a bus back to the ship from Djurgarden. Sadly, our luck had run out and we’d missed the last bus (by less than 10 minutes!), so we had to walk back but, as always, the walk back felt much shorter because we knew where we were going, so it wasn’t so bad.

Our return to the ship was bittersweet. We were glad to be back, but sad it was our last night.

Making the most of the time we had left, we did the rounds of a few of our favourite things  (like quesidilla and rare roast beef slices at the Park Café) before returning to our cabin to shower for dinner and pack (we’d been instructed to pack an overnight bag and leave our luggage in the passage by 11pm).

We’d been seated in the same section of the dining room all week, so had gotten to know our server (Melbert) and his assistant (Cesar) quite well. It was sad to be sharing our last meal – but they upped the ante with a whole basket of Christian’s favourite seeded rolls and a bonus plate of starters AND main courses. We may never adjust to real life meals again!

Disembarkation is, as you can imagine with anything with 2000 guests involved, quite a process. We were initially assigned to Group 8, designated to meet in the Safari Club at 06h45, but this would leave us waaaaay to early to check into our hotel so we pleaded and were reassigned to the second last group (30; 08h50).

This meant we didn’t have to get up at silly o’clock (although the sun would have risen several hours earlier) and had enough time for a full breakfast at the Windjammer, which was serving until 8.30!

In typical fashion, it was raining. We’d gotten first glimpse on waking that there was a light drizzle… and it hadn’t abated any by 9 when we left the Serenade of the Sea for the last time.

Our intention had been to use our Access passes to catch a bus to our hotel but the weather made that proposition far less attractive – especially since we now had 3 big suitcases to lumber. We flaked and caught a taxi to Solna.

Solna was to the East on the mainland and I’d chosen our hotel there for a few reasons:
1) diametrically opposite to the harbour so we’d sightsee from homebase to centre point and back each day
2) it was in the direction of and looked like an easy commute to the airport
3) there’s no such thing as bargain accommodation in Stockholm, which made the Radisson an unusually economical choice
4) breakfast included (which we would need after the gluttony on the cruise)
5) free wifi

The hotel was great. Even though we arrived very early (before 10), they happily checked us in and gave us our room… which was ENORMOUS  (and not just as compared with our cabin)… and on the 11th floor with a spectacular view. The hotel also had lots of amenities (sauna, gym, restaurant), attached to a shopping mall, and had a bus station and a train station across the road so very convenient. You never *know* these things from the online ads and descriptions, but this was all we’d hoped for and more.

We resigned ourselves to a truncated walking tour for the afternoon – based on the weather – and thanked our lucky stars that a) we’d gone so off course the previous day and b) we still had our (3) brollies.

The only things I really wanted to see were the Changing of the Guard (at 1pm at the Palace) and some of the sights from the Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo et al).

We grabbed a Metro into town and effortlessly changed lines to get out at Gamla Stan. It was a lot more manageable than the day before, possibly because it was Sunday but probably mostly because of weather. With the rain little more than a fine intermittent drizzle, it was actually a pleasure for sightseeing – although won’t have made for such great photos as compared to a lovely blue sky.

We hightailed to get to the Palace for the stroke of 1, but needn’t have rushed. The Changing of the Guard is a lengthy affair – 70 or so marching band, complete with drummers and full brass section, so it takes some time for them to snake through town to get to the Palace. Of course, being elevated at the Palace (there’s a long steep ramp up to the entrance) gives a great vantage point and it was a sight to behold watching the soldiers slow-march from the mainland along Norrbro toward us.

… and then turn left past the Palace.

… and go around the corner.

Good to know for next time that they circle the building and do most of the show on the other side! I surmise we had placed ourselves at the back entrance.

There was quite a crowd around the other side – and people have terrible umbrella etiquette! – so we saw little, but could hear everything.  And we were surrounded by beautiful buildings and statues and a formidable church, so there was plenty to gawk at.

Our Plan B for the afternoon was exploring a pocket of museums in Ostermalm, just off town Central so, since the weather was still a bit bleak, we put the plan in motion.

Old hats at public transport by now, it was a quick ferry to Djurgarden and a tram across the bridge into Ostermalm.

Taking the opportunity while on home turf, it seemed only fitting to try the Museum of Swedish history. Their feature exhibition was on Vikings, with an impressive collection of artefacts, providing bone-chilling detail on the hard core existence people of that time lived.

There were a couple of skeletons that had been recovered and laid with buttons, gold thread and jewellery that had survived their owners, but it was the skeleton of a horse and dog that got me. They’d obviously been sacrificed “to the gods” and the horse had been killed by conk to the head and the dog on its back. Not nice.

The Museum had put some effort into making the exhibit more upbeat though and there were several interactive options in the courtyard, including archery and crafts but, like the napkin folding and towel animals classes on the cruise, we gave them a skip.

The weather was much better by this time so we renewed interest in the Millennium Tour.

The internet was rich with information on how awesome the tour is and how it’s not to be missed, but details were scant on when, where or how. Dated articles directed to the Stockholm City Museum on Sodermalm as the starting point for the tour (“on Saturdays” with no time given, not that it mattered seeing as it was Sunday anyway) or to source a map for a self-guided tour… but the museum is closed for renovations (until 2018!!)

We’d asked at the tourist office in Gamla Stan and they directed us to the tourist office in Central so, since Ostermalm neighbours Central, we hopped on a tram to find the tourist office.

The Girl With The Tourist Office Uniform (disturbingly) had no idea what we were talking about. We told her that The Girl In Gamla Stan had told us about tour maps and, with a little looksee under the counter, TGWTTOU found a Millennium Tour map!

It was in German, Italian and Spanish.

But it was a map.

And, we later found out, it was supposed to cost us 40 Krone (ZAR 80), so SCORE! (As much as a trilingual Trilogy map not in English can be considered a score).

Thrilled at our find, we made our way back to Sodermalm, negotiating our way deftly through the (now very familiar) Gamla Stan.

All this around and abouting was thirsty work so we combined lunch-on-the-go with lunch at McDonald’s so we could use their free wifi to translate the map.

Stieg Larsson’s stories of crusading journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, and his unlikely side-kick, a tattooed wildchild with a penchant for violence called Lisbeth Salander reveal more of Stockholm than its signature dramatic waterside views, designer shows and classic cafés. Larsson chose his real-time home, Sodermalm, to be the homebase of the good guy characters in his fictional works, quite pointedly having the official and evil influences across the bridge from his beloved island.

Our little tour took us past:
1. Bellmansgatan – Mikael’s attic apartment
2. Monteliusvagen – a gravel walkway overlooking Lake Malaren and the old town. Eerily misty from the rain!
3. Lundebron – Lisbeth’s original apartment
4. Mellqvist Kaffebar – hip café where Mikael met both Lisbeth and Erika, his mistress. Now just called Kaffebar.
5. Synagogue on 13 St Paul – nondescript and quite unexciting
6. Gotgatan – a main feature road where Millennium offices are and where Lisbeth shops at a 711
7. Fiskargatan 9 – Lisbeth’s new 21-room apartment  (which she only uses 3 rooms of)
8. Mosebacke – a square with a statue of entwined sisters in the shadow of the looming water Tower
9. Kvarnen – an old world tavern  (the stained glass windows say 1908) where Mikael enjoyed a drink and Lisbeth used to meet her rock-chick friends. Now 178 Krone for 2 beers!

We had planned on a traditional Swedish meal at Kvarnen for dinner – elk meatballs, smoked reindeer sort of thing – but the prices were outlandish (R400 for meatballs and mash), so we Googled a Plan B.

Sodermalm is known for being very trendy, in a sort of grungy urban way. We’d seen our first litter, more graffiti and a few hobos, which was dramatically different to the refinement of the Central district or the natural beauty of the leafier islands. But it is also (allegedly) rich with traditional food options so it was a question of cross-checking location, price and opinions.

According to several reviews, Meatballs for the People on Nytorgatan (600m away) was the place to go for atmosphere, flavour and price. Sounded like a win.

It was relatively easy to find… but closed for the summer! What?! And such a pity too because the venue looked so fun and the menu spot-on!

The sign in the window did recommend one of their other 3 sister restaurants, the closest of which was just around the corner so we thought we’d give it a try.

The restaurant we found ourselves guided to was a trendy lounge bar with an even more trendy artisanal menu. Not a thing we wanted to try and CRAZY prices!

Out of steam and ideas, we decided to go back to Solna and let fate decide.

Smugly using our Access cards to the fullest, we jumped on the Metro and crossed town to get home, grateful to have the mall annex on our hotel to fall back on. And ended up at Burger King.

All was not lost on the meatball front though and we were delighted to find that our hotel included meatballs in their breakfast buffet! Nice one, Radisson!

Travelogue Baltic 8: Riga


24 June 2016

Riga was a specific inclusion on our cruise request when we were shopping for quotes, after having seen it in the tail-end of a travel show and it seemed so quaint and pretty. There was also a cruise option a night shorter but that excluded the Latvian capital, which seemed a shame since it’s a relatively far-flung destination unless you’re already in the neighbourhood, as we would be. We were just very lucky that this cruise fell on our first choice of dates as well – a universal sign that this was the perfect Honeymoon choice.

And now here we were. In Riga.

Having learnt from our too-early start in Tallinn, we had a leisurely start to the day. Slept in a bit, hit the gym, casual breakfast at the Windjammer… and a good thing too because when we arrived we found out that the day before was their big Independence Day (celebrating the fall of the Communist regime) so the whole city was only opening at 12.

This gave us a chance to have a bit of an unfettered walk-around… everywhere, as it turned out. Riga is very small!

The shuttle from the ship had deposited us just short of the Opera House. A great big beautiful building with manicured gardens in front and a river with bridges equal in form and function alongside. Of course, it seemed a bit like Mini Town after Peterhof!

Across the gardens we found what turned out to be the Freedom Monument. A bit short on information, we tried to eavesdrop on a tour group, but we’d missed the gist of the story so moved on.

Our attentions – once we were past the McDonald’s that was doing a roaring trade, of hungover party-goers no doubt – were caught by a cylindrical castle covered in ivy. There was a weapons museum attached to it, which we would like to have seen, but it was closed on the grounds of it being The Day After ‘n all.

No mind, we could see an impressive rooftop of sorts from there so headed in that direction. It was the Church in the town square. This was clearly a major attractions because everything was at a glance geared to tourists; souvenir shops, waitrons in traditional dress, boards offering traditional dishes. On closer inspection, this was Dome Church and actually Dome Square, so we headed off to find the Town Hall Square.

We took the long way around so that we could incorporate walking along the river and in 2 short blocks time we were at the Daugava River, where we found a statue of a big fella in a glass case. Fortunately his story had an English translation:

Legend has it that a long time ago a tall strong man cold Lielaps Kristaps (Big Christopher) carried people across the River Daugava. While sleeping one night, Kristaps heard a small child crying on the other side of the river. He immediately rose to fetch the child and began to carry him. Half way across the child became so heavy that Kristaps barely managed to get to the other side. Exhausted he lay the child to sleep in his shack and fell asleep himself. When Kristaps awoke the next morning he found a large chest of gold where the child had been. When Kristaps died the money was used to found the city of Riga.

So there you have it. As good as gospel.

The other story (according to the tourist brochure) is that, being at the mouth of the Daugava River, Riga became an important port along the Vikings trade route, catching the attention of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of merchant guilds who dominated the Baltic maritime trade along the coast of Northern Europe.

A little less romantic a story, but a trifle more believable.

Having walked the full length of the outskirts – from bridge to bridge – we then returned to the Old Town, there were signs of life, as everything opened up again, as is the way of the day after the night before.

We consulted the map to see what was left to do. The cityscape includes a 13th century cathedral, a castle, a few dreary Soviet highrises and dozens of Art Nouveau buildings. It’s a haven of museums with the Latvian War Museum, Art Museum Riga Bourse, Latvian Museum of Architecture, Museum of History of Riga and Navigation, Barricades Museum, Museum of Ancient Baltic Jewellery, Museum of Photography… Museum of film / sport / porcelain… you name it, they had a museum for it!

We went to none of those!

We did spot something called The Cat House, which piqued our interest because we’d seen the logo on lots of stuff in tourist shops.

Opposite the Great Guild stands 2 turrets, a black cat with an arched back sitting on each.  Legend has it that the Guild denied membership to a well-off tenant who was so infuriated him that he had the 2 cat sculptures made and put on the turrets with their tails turned towards the offices of the Guild. One of the Guild elders in a court proceeding turned the cats to a more appropriate angle.

But the statement was made, the annals written and the t-shirt gotten (literally in this case).

The Old Town is a UNESCO Heritage site and looks like a fairytale with its cobbled streets, but feels Parisian with its buzzing social life. Now with the town in full tilt and us having seen what needed seeing, we took our last half hour to sit and catch a breath, watching the Latvian day go by.

Travelogue Baltic 7: Helsinki

22 June 2016

Having done little to no research for Helsinki, our Cruise Compass gave a sweetly succinct history to prime us:

In 1550, the king of Sweden had big dreams for newly founded Helsinki. Unfortunately, a series of disastrous fires, plague and war kept the town from growing…. until another series of events changed its path forever. After Russia defeated Sweden and annexed Finland in 1809, Czar Alexander I moved the capital – and the university – from Turku to Helsinki to be closer to St Petersburg. The city flourished, but Russian rule was short-lived. The Finns declared their independence in 1917, endured a devastating Civil War, and emerged with a new Republican government. Helsinki has since been its sparkling capital. Noted for its graceful architecture and elegant gardens; the Senate Square’s neoclassical style has Russian written all over it. Finnish art nouveau also defines much of the cityscape, with the mermaid fountain near the fish market its symbol.

Seeing as everything we’d read about Helsinki spoke of how small and compact it is and since we could see what looked to be a church spire of consequence on the not too distant horizon, we skipped the ship shuttle into town in favour of making the walk part of our own tour.

Right from leaving the docks there were signs of life: pierside restaurants, people on bicycles and pushing prams, a large and lovely park… only problem was that our location didn’t feature on the map we had. It was from the Cruise Compass and we rationalised that either it was because people getting the ship shuttle didn’t need to know or, more cynically, that without the knowledge would be compelled to take the shuttle.

With the spire to guide us, we simply felt that we were getting the full experience; the suburbs that others didn’t get to see. It helped that it was a beautiful sunny day (but not too hot) and that the city is so pretty and green.

It must’ve been a good 3km walk to the city centre, but we did manage to tick off a recommended sight or 2 en route.

We entered Helsinki at Kauppatori Market Square, located at the harbour end of the esplanade. A lively and colourful spot with everything from fruit, flowers, vegetables and freshly caught fish to local handicrafts, the market was a buzz with locals grocery shopping and tourists stroking woollen merchandise and sampling Finnish and Lapland delicacies. Strawberries must be a thing in Helsinki because scores of people were eating them straight out of little baggies or punnets.

Our rudimentary ship map indicated that there was a tourist office just off the square, which made for a logical first stop.

The tourist office is very jacked; lots of maps and brochures, lots of fluent and friendly staff and access to buy tickets to anything that needed.

A quick flip through the “Hel Yeah” book and we’d pegged our first 2 activities.

The first was Suomenlinna, only accessible by water, by a 15 minute ferry journey. The ferry departs from the east side of the market, opposite the presidential Palace. With 6 minutes until the next ferry to Suomenlinna, the lady at the counter chuckled good naturedly at our fluster as we stuffed our research materials in our tog bag and rushed through our thanks and goodbyes.

It was only upon reaching the ferryport – maybe a minute later, on the other side of the market and 100m away at most – that we realised why she was amused. We were possibly the only people in Helsinki rushing. There is no traffic, the people are relaxed and the public transport is superlative.

Suomenlinna is an irregular bastion fortress constructed on uneven terrain and on separate islands. Suomenlinna is also a UNESCO Heritage Site and one of the largest sea fortresses in the world, drawing over 800,000 visitors a year.

The main route across the fortress runs from North to south and takes in all the sights, so we got us a map and that’s what we did.

The brochure shared much of the back story to give context of what we were seeing.

Suomenlinna construction began in the 18th century (1748) when Finland was still part of the Kingdom of Sweden. It served as a Swedish naval base during the Russia Swedish War in 1788 before surrendering to the Russian army in the Finnish War in 1809. When Finland was incorporated as an autonomous part of the Russian Empire the fortress became a Russian base for the next 110 years, until it became a prisoner of war camp in the Finnish Civil War of 1918. In WWII it served as a coastal artillery, anti-aircraft and submarine base.

In 1973 the Finnish garrison vacated the islands and handed it over to the ministry of Education and Culture and today it is home to 800 or so permanent residents. It has the dubious honour of having served its role in the defence of 3 states – Sweden, Russia and Finland – with guns that still face west as a reminder of the period of Russian rule in the 19th century.

The islands are a completely open-air museum with guests free to explore the dark and murky tunnels inside the bastion walls. It can’t have been pleasant manning those bastions. They are far from comfortably and if chilly now on a perfect summer’s day, must’ve been freezing in winter!

Those first bastions lead to the Great Courtyard which has served as the main square since 1760s and now houses the tomb of August Ehrensvard (who must’ve been someone special, but there was no mention of him in the brochure and little more than his name and date – presumably of his death – in Roman numerals on his tomb).

The church on Suomenlinna did feature quite highly both in the materials from the tourist office and the Suomenlinna brochure. It was built to serve as a Russian Orthodox garrison church, but converted to a Lutheran church in the 1920s alongside Finnish independence. Its steeple doubles as a lighthouse for both air and sea traffic but besides that it’s a church among churches in a very church-intensive part of the world (and very plain after all the glitz and glam of the St Petersburg cathedrals!)

More interested in the military stuff (apparently), we beelined for Kustaanmiekka, which offers a view of the original bastion fortress as well as the late 19th century Russian defence line, complete with sand banks and artillery emplacements. Ramparts on Kustaanmiekka were built to house gunpowder during the Crimean War in the 1850s but with their big wooden doors and the grass grown over their rooves (presumably to hide and buffer the gunpowder reserves), they would fit just as well in The Shire.

What was more impressive was the collection of families on the postage stamp sized beach… SWIMMING!

To give perspective, it was a lovely summer’s day *for the Baltic*, meaning early 20 degrees without windchill, and clasping jersey neck together when the icy wind took up, which it frequently did.

The path next led to King’s Gate, built in 1753 as a ceremonial gateway to the fortress. The gate is built on the site where a ship carrying the fortress’s founder, King Adolf Frederik of Sweden, was anchored while he inspected the construction of the fortress. Royalty really did have it lush.

Last stop was at the Vesikko Submarine, the highlight of the tour for Christian. Built in the 1930s and having served in WWII, the Vesikko is literally one of a kind since, according to the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, Finland was forbidden to have submarines and all except this one were scrapped. It was moved to its present location and opened as a museum in 1973. Fully restored, Vesikko is an opportunity to get a feel for the confined spaces submariners worked in and find out more about the tech of the time. Christian’s report was that it was very small and cramped inside and that he was surprised that it was only manned by (up to) 4 people.

Feeling culturally enriched already, the only pressure left was getting to the 2nd excursion on time. SparaKOFF is a historic tram that has been converted into a pub and offers passengers a unique sightseeing tour on a 40 minute lap of the city. Of course, the next ride was on the hour, which was in 9 minutes time from when the ferry docked… and station was 600m away.

Again the only people rushing in Helsinki, we power-walked around the market, down the main shopping street, alongside another pretty park – a rarity to finding one right in a city centre – past the elegant cafés and the smartly dressed people casually occupying them, past the lilting quartet playing Vivaldi, barely eyeing the impressive architecture, but delighting in finding the corner to turn right at… and then alarm as we realised we didn’t know what we were looking for… until we saw it.

There it was. The red party tram.

On the other side of the red traffic lights.

We thought we’d just missed it.

But this is Helsinki. And the tram driver had seen us. So he waited for us.

What a fun way to see the city! The tram seats about 24 people at tables for 2 or 4 and has a wooden bar built in at the back end. With big bay windows either side and tram tracks that run past just about everything of interest, it’s the perfect way to get a lay of the land. And have a local beer or draught for a well-rounded experience.

From what we’d mentally navigated on the tram, we made Senate Square our first visit on foot. The Square sits on a site that originally held 17th Century buildings; it is considered a masterpiece of city design and neo-classical architecture with its current 19th century tenants. The Government Palace, Cathedral (a behemoth and a beauty, easily the most recognisable building in Helsinki), University buildings and The National Library of Finland surround the Square, with boutiques and restaurants in between.

The one thing we saw from the tram that we didn’t get to on foot was Temppeliaukio Church, which sounds very impressive, carved out of solid rock, with a dome spanning 70 feet, covered on the interior by 15 miles of Finnish copper wire. It is both a popular tourist destination and working church.

In the short time we had for our afternoon in Helsinki the big takeaway is that it’s very pretty. They’ve taken care to keep a lot of green in their city and it gives the whole place an overarching air of relaxation. The buildings are elegant, the people are graceful. It’s easily navigated on foot or, preferably on a sunny day like that one, enjoyed on ass, at a cafe or on the grass of one of the parks.

If we’d have an overnight in Helsinki there are several things we saw at the market that we’d have liked to try for dinner, ranging from fresh seafood delicacies to more meaty Lapland delights.

But we didn’t have an overnight so it was back to the ship for us. As always, the walk back felt so much shorter now that we knew what we were doing and we were back at the port within half an hour, having hatched a plot to pub crawl the ship to ensure that we had explored the whole thing.

Travelogue Baltic 6: St Petersburg – City Tour


21 June 2016

Our second day in St Petersburg started quite the opposite to the first. Both of us had a restless night, fearing we’d oversleep… and got up half an hour earlier than planned (which was *early* seeing as we had to be on the bus by 7 15!)

Fortunately, on this cruise there was no such thing as too early for breakfast and, in fact, the main dining room was ready and waiting to serve us. The main dining room offers a combination of buffet and table services, with waiters at the ready to bring you a plate of your own design. That seemed – even after the opulence of St Petersburg – a bit too decadent to be practical when there was a buffet right there, so we dished for ourselves and were soon happily munching our gravlax/bacon/eggs/sausage etc, at leisure with plenty of time to spare. As is typical, people at the table complained at how long their food was taking (no more than a few minutes), but they were damned if they’d get up and serve themselves!

Passport Control was even quicker than the previous day as they just checked the existing stamps, and we were among the first to meet on the platform, before the coach had even arrived.

The drive into town seemed that much quicker the second time around; possibly because more familiar so we were anticipating the destination with some sense of the route (you know how the way home always seems quicker than the way to a new place).

Our first familiar sight was the Neva River, the main waterway in the 6 islands that make up St Petersburg. We’d passed over it yesterday; today we stopped alongside it to cash in a wish by rubbing the brass gryphon heads that sit alongside the Egyptian sphinx statues.

This was also an ideal vantage point to get a good look up and down the wide river. It’s obvious to see why it is called the City of 1000 Palaces. St Petersburg is nothing short of magnificent with the grandiose facades along the riverfront of a bygone era where bigger was better and detail essential. No cost was spared in the elaborate designs and adornments that distinguished one mansion from the next in the single continuous row. Even the exterior paint job is meticulous, with a pretty consistent palette of dusky pastel colours with the slatted columns painted white.

We made another roadside stop further down the river at the Rostrums. These are tall terracotta twin columns with ships’ props embedded. At the base of each is a huge statue of a Poseidon/Neptune type chap. This section of the river was even wider (apparently it’s a kilometre wide – in the middle of town! – at some points) and the row of riverfront palaces as grand and consistent, side-by-side, as far as the eye can see in every direction. This city is nothing short of magnificent, in every conceivable sense of the word!

Even the roads are broad, which is unusual for an olden times city. Bearing in mind it was by now around 08h30 on a workday, traffic was thick, but not unmanageable (especially for us, long-suffering Jo’burg drivers). I suppose everything is relative though because even in the 1800s there was considered to be too much carriage traffic… but then the solution was simple: only nobleman could use the roads. That wouldn’t fly nowadays where it’s all for one and one for all and the parking is even free to be fair to everyone.

The next stop was St Isaac’s Church. The previous day’s tour had ended with a visit to a souvenir shop. We’d been assigned 20 minutes to shop but since Uda had flippantly pointed out some pretty notable sights through the window a few blocks earlier, we sprinted down the street retracing our bussteps to get a photo of the church, Palace and statue she’d printed out. Little did we know that we were returning to these the next morning!

The Church is a behemoth of a building, able to seat (well, stand, since Russians stand while worshipping) 14,000 people! It is adorned within an inch of its life and surrounded by the more of the same massive mansion block buildings in every direction. Words cannot describe the scale of everying in this city to the point that your imagination can form a true picture from my words!

The statue across the road from the church is of Nicholas I, Catherine the Great’s grandson. The (magnificent) palace behind it was built for his granddaughter, Maria, who refused to live in it because she couldn’t bear the thought of the view being her grandfather’s ass. Proper First World problems.

The big excursion for the morning was a visit to the Hermitage Museum. It kicked off with a bang when even the entrance Baroque staircase was a sight to behold. The decoration accent colour is gold. As in gold leaf, not golden coloured paint. Not my idea of a good time, but gives you an idea of the reckless abandon with which construction and decorating was undertaken. It was mostly the Empresses (Catherine I, Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great) that are credited with the elaborateness and, as Christian said, it was easier back then when the Csar/ina had complete control over all the wealth and could spend on whatever they chose. He further said it was a good thing too because otherwise we wouldn’t have these magnificent things to admire now, in a world that’s a lot more selective in its opulence.

The Hermitage tour kicks off with the Winter Palace, built for Elizabeth but used first by Catherine the Great. Catherine ceded to Alexander I, her favourite grandson. Then his brother Nicholas (from the statue) became Emperor. It’s a tricky story to follow.

“Hermitage” literally means “place for solitude” since the buildings were never meant to be public. Ironic for a building now this busy – as in queues out the door, down the street, around the corner, across the road and through the park! Fortunately we were there as it opened and had a pre-arranged group ticket so were just ahead of the rush.

The Small Hermitage is 2 buildings running parallel with a garden between them. This is where Catherine housed her art, which she was known to have never liked (but collected because collecting was fashionable). Since the art was hung as her private collection in her place of solitude, she is known to have said “only me and the rats can see it. And I think the rats like it more”

It is a formidable collection of legendary artists – so legendary that even I know them and I know less than nothing about art!

The first masterpiece I recognised was Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”, which he is credited as painting in 1669, the year he died, but had etched 30 year’s prior so really was a life work. This painting was in a whole section of tens of Rembrandt originals… and I’ve now got an appreciation for his talent. While I’m sure one is supposed to appreciate brushstrokes, paint texture and whatnot, the ones that appeal to me are where the paint is smooth and the likeness so good the painting could be a photograph.

The Hermitage also houses 2 of the only 14 Da Vinci originals that can be found outside of Italy, both of Madonna and Child (the religious icon lady, not the singer).

The full tour was about 2 hours and took us through the Winter Palace, Small / Old / New Hermitages and the Hermitage Theatre. We also saw some of Rafael’s paintings and a Michaelangelo sculpture, so were only a Donatello short of a set of turtles!

The next stop wasn’t far from the Hermitage, but took some effort for a bus in the traffic. We found a good drop off point outside Michael’s Palace – another magnificent hunk of building, which cost 7 million Roubles to build in a time when the entire social budget was 700k!

Our destination was the Church on Spilled Blood, which is located on the spot of assassination of Alexander II (son of Nicholas I). He was very popular because he abolished serfdom and made military conscription compulsory for all (previously noblemen were exempt). He also encouraged Finland’s autonomy, liberated Bulgaria and sold Alaska to the USA. Obviously though you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs and thus this was the 8th attempt on his life – and was aimed at overthrowing monarchy. Terrorists threw a bomb under his carriage. He wasn’t injured but the General next to him died immediately. The Csar – being the good guy he was – got off his carriage to see if anyone was hurt or needed help and the assassins got him with a second bomb. He was badly injured and died 2 hours later in the Winter Palace.

Alexander’s son commissioned the church at the place of his death in his honour. He was so popular that the nobles donated a million Roubles and the common people another half bar. 700 square metres of mosaics don’t come cheap! … Although they do save a fortune on pews since Russians pray standing.

We were running a bit ahead of schedule so Uda called ahead to see if we could go straight to lunch. We were initially batted, but the host venue called back about 5 minutes later saying we could come in 15, so we took a walk down to Nevsky Prospekt (the main shopping street) to get better photos of the big church monument thing that commemorated the victory in the 1812 Napoleonic Wars.

Lunch was served at the Museum of Fine Arts. Based on how particular they were about our time of arrival and the fact that we were served at tables in the middle of the foyer, I surmise this to be a limited offer for which they close the museum over lunch.

Salad was already plated at our place settings, with caviar canapés and bread on the table for self-service. Then followed a bowl of borscht and a plate of chicken stroganoff. Strawberry sorbet to close. It probably was a treat of a meal… but we’ve been spoilt by the restaurants on the cruise ship. We may never be able to eat normally again!

Last on the itinerary was the Cathedral of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, another baroque construction, consecrated in 1733. This was the first main cathedral built in St Petersburg, as a memorial to their 18th century military glory and is the burial place for the Imperial House of Russia.

Peter the Great’s daughter Catherine had been buried in 1708 in the wooden church that stood on this spot and which laid foundation for the creation of this Cathedral to house the Royal tombs of the Romanov Imperial House, and which is currently the final resting place of 46 members of the dynasty.

We were starting to piece together the story and from what we could tell it was:
Peter the Great (unified Russia, moved capital to St Petersburg)
Catherine I (Cinderella
Peter II (Peter the Great’s grandson, last of the male direct line of Romanovs)
Anna (Peter the Great’s niece)
Ivan (Anna’s niece’s infant son, ruled for a year… as an infant)
Elizabeth (seized throne from Ivan; Peter the Great’s daughter)
Peter III (Anna’s nephew; assassinated within 6 months by his wife, Catherine the Great)
Catherine II (Catherine the Great, ruled 34 years)
Paul I (Catherine’s son; ruled 4 years, 4 months, 4 days, strangled in his bed)
Alexander I (Paul’s son, ruled 24 years and died of typhus)
Nicholas I (Alexander’s brother, ruled 30 years and died of pneumonia)
Alexander II (Nicholas’s son, assassinated at Church on Spilled Blood)
Alexander III (Alexander II’s son)
Nicholas II (Alexander III’s son, married to Alexandra)

The Romanov line ended with the October Revolution where the Bolsheviks murdered Nicholas and his family so that there was no chance of returning to a Csarist regime. The whole family were buried unceremoniously at the time, but much later disinterred and brought to their own designated tomb in the Cathedral.

Quite a maudlin end to the day, but reaffirms St Petersburg as a place rich in history and stories of great victories and great tragedies.

Driving out of the city once again, it’s such a contrast of the beautiful elegant mansions built in the age of opulence versus the functional-to-a-fault grey compounds so obviously built by the Communists. Still enormous though, which seems to just be the St Petersburg way.

It was with regret that we said our goodbyes to St Petersburg as it grew smaller on what should have been the sunset, but of course wasn’t seeing as it was the longest day of the year, with darkness of less than 40 minutes so the sun was still high in the sky at 8 o’clock at night!

Travelogue Baltic 5: St Petersburg – Peterhof

20 June 2016

The day started with a mad dash. We had overslept and woke – with panic! – at 07h48, almost an hour later than planned since we needed to disembark by 08h30 and of course still needed to get breakfast on board!

Fortunately the weather was good so less layers (and no brolly hunt!) meant quicker prep and we were pounding the passages just over 10 minutes later, hair-wash day ‘n all!

Christian, ever-cautious planner as he is, insisted we go past the meeting place (on the other end of the ship from the Windjammer breakfast bar) first. Turned out to be a good call as we were issued our stickers and instructions on where to meet the bus (in 45 minutes; on the other side of immigration) leaving just enough time to have a flash breakfast. Well, hopefully enough time; there was still the gamble of how long passport control would take (but it was a risk we were willing to bear).

We probably did ourselves a favour by being that little bit later judging by the queues, which were virtually non-existent. Other passengers hadn’t been so lucky, had overestimated the time required and consequently been sitting on the bus for the better part of an hour already.

A visa is required for shore excursions in Russia. If you make your own plans, you need to arrange your own visa. If you do the ship’s excursions you travel on a “Captain’s visa”, which really just means it is included in the package and doesn’t require any additional paperwork. We’d done the latter since it was so much easier and visas are an expensive exercise, so sailed (pun intended) through passport control.

We were perfectly to time, arriving at our assigned coach just before 9. Our guide, Uda, greeted us warmly. She gave it another few minutes before expressing that we were waiting on the last 5 guests on our roll for the day. When they still weren’t with us 10 minutes later, she did a few rounds of hurried counting up and down the aisles, double-checking herself. Counting sounds like hard work in Russian (although they probably say the same about us).

Starting with the usual pleasantries, Uda told us we were lucky to have such a warm, clear blue-skies day, sharing that St Petersburg usually only enjoys around
60 sunny days a year. She wasn’t surprised at all that it had been cold and wet in Tallinn the previous day. So much for summer!

The drive into town was about 20 minutes. Uda filled the time with stories about the city, its history and its name.

The city was obviously named after St Peter. The name was changed during first World War because St Petersburg sounded too German, so it was changed to Petrograd (“grad” means city in Russian) to make it sound more Russian. In 1924 it was then renamed Leningrad after Lenin died and was only changed back to St Petersburg in 1991 with the fall of the Communist Empire.

The city is held in esteem to this day by the rest of the country, having gained hero status in the 900 day siege in WWII. The city held the Germans at bay for almost 3 years, but not without loss. Desperately starved of food, the siege shrunk the population by half (mostly because of starvation and exposure) to 1,5 million people. Soldiers and workmen were rationed to 250 grams of bread (or similar substitutes when there was no bread) and general populous half of that. To top it all off, they were subjected to one of the coldest winters, with temperatures dropping to up to 40 degrees below, with no electricity and no heating.

Now the city is back up to 5 million people, thanks to the immigre who come to work and study (this is the cultural and educational capital of Russia) and is the second biggest behind Moscow, which is 600 km away and has in excess of 15 million people.

It sounds like St Petersburg has had more than its fair share of strife, in the early days attributed to its position as strategic trade route between Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. This sparked the 21 year war (1700 – 1721) with Sweden. Peter the Great won back St Petersburg against Charles VII of Sweden – a highly revered military leader of the time so it was quite the coup – and established his summer Palace, Peterhof, as monument to the victory. His vision were completed OTT, using the Palace of Versailles as his muse, complete with mansions, gardens that went on for days and endless fountains.

Peterhof was our destination for Day 1 of the tour.

On our way out of town, Uda shared with us about how the people of this city lived and live. In olden times there was a big divide between the haves and the have nots.  St Petersburg is dubbed “The City of 1000 Palaces” because it is so grand with a more than representative sample of mansions and stately buildings. The royal and noble people built enormous places, ridiculously decadent in both size and decor. The ground floor would house the hundreds (or in some cases, like the Winter Palace, thousands) of staff required to maintain the place. The owners would then occupy upper floor/s, hosting parties with reckless abandon… if they were there at all.

The Bolsheviks confiscated these inner-city palaces from the aristocracy during the Revolution and nationalised them, turning them into communal flats. The palaces were reallocated room by room, such an entire family would occupy a single room, sharing kitchen and bathrooms with other families. The palaces went from being decadently airy to providing an average of 5 square metres per person.

Uda told us that most families had a dacha (modest chalet) or cottage (quite roomy generally double storey house) outside the city too. This is where they would escape the city in the summer to go to the forests or swimming at the lake (presumably dropping everything on those 60 sunny days she spoke of). From what I can gather, these may have been the family homes that they occupied before moving into the allocated quarters in the redistributed Palace accommodations. Uda’s family dacha was 100km south of St Petersburg, she told us, which had been very far out back in the day, but was the perfect “just out of town” now that the city had grown so much (sounds a bit like Hartebeespoort back home).

We arrived to Peterhof, able to see immediately the grandeur old Peter had intended. Enormous buildings in yellow with white columns and trim, expansive cobbled and gravelled courtyard and walkways, sculpted and manicured gardens in perfect symmetry as far as the eye could see and fountains. LOTS of fountains.

The tour ended up being a walk through the gardens, pointing out notable fountains from the 150 on the property. Not naturally being one excited by such things, it was impossible not to be impressed. If not by the magnitude of the project, then by the impressive application of rudimentary physics and technology, using gravity to move the unbelievable amounts of water to these (largely aesthetic) features. There is no internal recycling of water at all. The water moves from springs about 4km away to the storage lakes, through the fountains and then out to the Baltic Sea.  30 cubic kilolitres of water a day!

There were some fountains of deep symbolic intent – eg the Eve fountain in the Western end of the garden symbolising the end of paradise, with her matching Adam on his own fountain in the Eastern end – and some where enormous effort had been put in above and beyond the fountain, like a checkerboard cascade which had been designed to match the Palace’s blue and white checkerboard floor and which had all sorts of statues (including some oddly out of place dragons) on either side and at the top.

Peter I also had some whimsical ideas like the water road he had put in. With jets on either side of the sand road, twice a day the road became impassable because of the solid water arch they created. He also conceptualised the trick fountains, where jets strategically hidden behind benches would be activated when certain stones in the cobbled pathway where stood upon. There were some proper upside down smiles from some of the grumpies on our tour who got “tricked”!

There was a “should have been” trick in the monument just outside of the trick fountain garden, where legend was rhat one could gain a wish by throwing coins at the metal figure. It was fortunate if your wish was for more coins because this come true simply by visiting the other side of the statue!

On our way out of the gardens we passed Catherine the Great’s swimming pool. It’s enormous. Pity the pool guy who had to maintain that! Can’t imagine she had much time to linger in the pool though, what with her husband being killed and her claiming power via coup d’etat n all. It is now the only mechanically pumped fountain in the Gardens.

The end of the circuit deposited us back in front of the Palace building, with a magnificent view surveying everything we’d walked over the past few hours. And that was only the Lower Gardens. Who knew what the Upper Gardens held.

Despite ourselves, we’d enjoyed it. We had been very fortunate with the weather; I’d imagine if it were cold and or rainy, we’d have had less good humour for the anecdotes and water features.

The stories of the Royal family, their eccentricities, extravagances and anguishes was intriguing.  Mental note to self was to figure out the chronology of the Catherines, Peters, Alexanders and Nicholases!