Russia and Scandinavia
Jul - Aug 1995
Diane and I had very different reasons for embarking on a tour of Russia and Scandinavia in 1995. Diane had been on a working holiday in London since the start of the year and wanted to learn more of her grandfather's Denmark before returning home to New Zealand. I on the other hand had become interested in all things Russian after poring through Tolstoy's War and Peace epic, curious about this great big continent I knew so little about. The only point at which our paths converged, coincidentally, was when we boarded the same tour bus in London on that fateful summer day in July 1995.
It was a Contiki tour that we had signed up for and a Contiki coach that transported us to the far reaches of northern Europe and Russia. I first bumped into Diane in the lobby of our London hotel on the evening prior to departure. She was slumped all over a couch with the gloomy air of a person whose visa for Poland had not arrived in time and whose send-off party had not bothered to turn up either. It was none of my concern and I had no business interfering, of course, but an attraction to drama and adversity made me step up and introduce myself anyway. It was a memorable moment, however brief. We just managed to exchange names and make a fumbled agreement to hook up again later before I was swept away with another motley group for dinner, most of which was taken up by an American-Indian girl providing me with an exhaustive account of all the injustices suffered by her and her people. I was tired. It had been a long and sleepless haul that started in a rush to catch my plane in Cape Town only a day ago and ended with me playing tour guide around Buckingham Palace just moments earlier, so I was more than relieved to escape the dinner mob and grab a few hours sleep before the start of the tour. We set out for Harwich Port on the east coast of England at the crack of dawn the following day, Sunday 16 July 1995, and boarded a large overnight ferry that carried us mechanically across the North Sea to the port of Esbjerg on the west coast of Denmark. Our tour had begun.
We travelled three hundred kilometres across rather unremarkable Danish landscape from Esbjerg to Copenhagen and spent the night at a campsite just outside the city limits. It was here that I made a move on Diane, if you could call it a move, seeking her out late at night in her cabin on the fabricated basis of returning a map I had borrowed earlier. Only she wasn't in the cabin, and the stares I got from her gaggle of roommates was a tell-tale sign that my cover had been properly blown and that Diane was in for a ribbing. The following morning we were given a guided tour of the Danish capital that included the Amelienborg Palace and a cruise of Copenhagen's canals and waterways. The bronze statue of Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid was an obvious attraction among the rocks of the Langeline promenade, although perhaps not as popular as the beers we sampled afterwards at the Carlsberg Brewery in downtown Copenhagen near the Elephant Gate entrance. But the real fun came later in the evening at Tivoli Gardens, an amusement park in the heart of Copenhagen since 1843 where Diane and I locked horns over a small difference of opinion. Neither of us were prepared to give an inch, of course, but Diane's superior doggedness soon wore me out and I was obliged to use the only means at my disposal to bring the argument to an unnatural conclusion; by suspending her upside down, threateningly, and to the horror of passers by over a suitably filthy municipal rubbish bin.
Our passage from Denmark to Sweden was by ferry across the Øresund Sound from Helsingør in Denmark to Helsingborg in Sweden, the narrowest point between the two countries. The last thing we saw as we floated listlessly out of Denmark was the picturesque setting of fifteenth-century Kronborg Castle in Helsingør that was immortalized as Elsinore in Shakespeare's Hamlet. We boarded our coach again in Sweden and endured a six-hundred kilometre overland trip from Helsingborg to Stockholm through rolling countryside and swathes of forested landscape that, if nothing else, revealed the real source of IKEA's multi-national empire.
The city of Stockholm is situated in an archipelago at the mouth of Lake Mälaren overlooking the Baltic Sea, and has a cultural history dating back to the thirteenth century that is well illustrated in the medieval Old Town, or Gamla Stan, made up of cobbled streets, medieval alleyways and archaic architecture. The temperature dropped quite dramatically in the evening and sent a few of us in search of hot drinks at a late-night pub somewhere, only to be served a concoction called a Hot Shot through an order lost in translation with a local and baffled bartender. The colourful and multi-layered Hot Shot may not have tasted anything like the hot drink we had expected, but the effect was much the same and kept us just as warm and comfortable for the remainder of the evening.
We were deposited in the Gamla Stan district the following morning and given a guided tour of The Royal Palace of Stockholm, which besides its obvious grandeur and history also offered sweeping views of the Gamla Stan and city below. I met up with Diane at the Polish embassy later on where she had been successful in finalising her visa for Poland. We drifted aimlessly around the Swedish capital for the remainder of the day, enjoying an unplanned agenda at our own pace and without the garrulous tour guides. Our pedestrian adventure lasted well into the evening after losing our bearings altogether, and we spent a lot of time and effort although in not unpleasant company finding our way back to our Stockholm hotel in the dark.
Our tour crossed from Sweden to Finland in a ferry the size of a small country, and we enjoyed spectacular views from the top deck as the vessel threaded its way lazily through the tributaries of Lake Mälaren into the Baltic Sea. Diane and I stayed on deck until the sun disappeared, which at that latitude was very late at night, and were still there in the early hours of the next morning even after deteriorating weather conditions had sent everyone else below. It was a defining moment for both of us, the beginning of a relationship I suppose, and the photograph of a wind-swept Diane taken during the course of that memorable evening was one that I would show to everyone back home in the weeks that followed, and was, and still is, my all-time favourite picture of her.
Finland was the third and final of our Scandinavian destinations, if Finland is actually part of Scandinavia, but it had not been allocated much time in the tour itinerary and our visit to the capital city of Helsinki was as brief as it was frenetic. We flew about the city at breakneck pace to see some of the sights, starting with a tour of the Lutheran Temppeliaukio Church that had been carved out of solid rock, a monument to renowned Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, and ending with a visit to the 1952 Summer Olympics stadium whose flame had been lit by Paavo Nurmi, The Flying Finn, an exceptional athlete who established twenty-two world records as a medium and long-distance runner earlier in the century.
Diane and I escaped the throngs of tourists and tour guides and spent the remainder of the day freewheeling around the city of Helsinki at our own pace, treating ourselves at a pleasant coffee shop and using the last of our Finnish markka at a supermarket where we wrestled the local vernacular in an attempt to purchase basic provisions for our onward journey to Russia and Belarus. We finally came to rest and enjoyed a light picnic in Sibelius Park, a relaxing stretch of seaside parkland complete with sculptures, fountains and walking paths situated along the banks of Seurasaarenselkä Bay. At least I think that was where we were.
We arrived in St Petersburg after a four-hundred kilometre overland journey from Helsinki that circumnavigated half the Gulf of Finland, and survived a tense border crossing near a medieval town called Vyborg which Russia had nicked from Finland during World War II. The dissolution of the Soviet Union as a communist state had occurred as recently as 1991 and was clearly still coming to terms with the new rules of the game. It took the wary border officials several nail-biting hours before they let us into the country. I was thrilled to be in Russia at last though and closer to all the things I'd only heard or read about until now, the home of Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, the Red Square and all those crazy little Matryoshka dolls. And Anna Kournikova, of course. We were immediately struck by the onion-domed architecture of The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood that greeted us on our arrival in St Petersburg, a magnificent cathedral worthy of the best of puzzle boxes that was appropriately named in honour of the ill-fated Tsar Alexander II who was assassinated there in 1881.
The Russian Empire had been dismantled by Lenin's Red October Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and gave way to a socialist USSR that would last until 1991, exacerbated no less by widely publicised doctrines that disparaged all things communist or Russian. This left an impression of Russia as a cold and military grey sort of place. Like a Gulag in wintertime. Certainly nothing, at any rate, like the Peterhof or Summer Palace on the shores of the Gulf of Finland that is sometimes referred to as the 'Russian Versailles'. No sign of cold or grey here. The lavish and imposing Grand Palace, for instance, looked as though it had been made out of solid gold.
Yet despite the occasional opulence of a bygone era, it was clear that the idea of a new and improved Russia was still a work in progress. The bone-jarring roads and highways were in dire need of repair, for instance. A flourishing black market that favoured American dollars over the depreciating ruble would need some attention, and who knows how long it will take to temper all the distrust and suspicion at border crossings. But some signs of change were visible, even if it was only in the form of that gastronomic bastion of western civilisation, Macdonalds, who wasted no time installing themselves in the new democratic Russia. Mind you, Macdonalds was a welcome reprieve from the inedible food and toxic water we'd experienced in Russia so far and it quickly became our cuisine de choix for the remainder of our stay. Widespread crime is also a feature of a country in a state of flux, and our hotel and surroundings on Nevsky Prospekt was little different to my impression of Dostoevsky's murky St Petersburg streets in Crime and Punishment. This did little to deter Diane and myself though, our relationship having advanced quite rapidly by now, and one of my lasting memories of St Petersburg is the two of us perched on a stone wall in a dark and remote corner of the city at two o'clock in the morning somewhere, having lost all sense of time and place and throwing what little caution we had left to the wind.
The Winter Palace was another magnificent edifice intended to reflect the might of Imperial Russia. It forms part of the Hermitage Museum and boasts the largest collection of paintings in the world. And while Diane and I are largely ignorant of the finer points of art in general, even we had to be impressed by the Michelangelo's, Rembrandt's and da Vinci's that flashed by as we skated, at pace, through the vast polished halls of the Hermitage with our feet swaddled in stockings that had been provided more for the purpose of muffling noise and keeping the floors clean than for speed and rapid travel.
We left St Petersburg for Moscow via Novgorod, one of Russia's oldest cities dating back to the tenth century, and an overnight stopover in Tver, a former capital of a medieval state situated at the confluence of the Volga and Tvertsa rivers. On arrival in Moscow we headed straight for the Red Square, as you do, and were immediately struck by the imposing Kremlin complex at one end and the colourful St Basil's Cathedral at another. The name Red Square is derived from the the Russian word krasnaya, meaning red, or beautiful. Nothing to do with the red bricks, apparently, or even the Red Army for that matter.
The souvenir shops on Red Square were well stocked with ubiquitous Matryoshka dolls, sets of wooden figures of decreasing size placed one inside another and varying in theme from fairy tale characters to Soviet leaders. The dolls were at least more cheerful than the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin, founder and architect of the Russian Communist Party which we were allowed to view under intense scrutiny at the Lenin's Mausoleum on Red Square. One of our friends on tour, an American called Marty, had sustained a severe road injury as a child that left him with an awkward and unbalanced gait, not unlike a drunk trying to find his way home at night. This immediately attracted the attention of the Mausoleum's armed and watchful guards and it was all we could do to plead Marty's case in desperate and demonstrative sign language to avoid an international arrest.
Moscow's Metro train system was hands-down the most lavish we'd ever seen. It had been one of the Soviet Union's most extravagant projects in which architects were ordered by Stalin to design a structure that 'embodied brilliance and a radiant future'. The opulence did little to help Diane and I navigate the rail network though. After a late night out we decided to catch the Metro back to our hotel, and it only dawned on us once we were aboard and moving that the station names were just as indecipherable as the voice over the intercom was incomprehensible, and we had no idea in which direction we were travelling. This resulted in an interesting and desperate, though ultimately successful exercise in manually matching the Cyrillic symbols of the Russian language on our crumpled Metro map to the corresponding letters on the platform signs in the few seconds it took for the train to whiz by, and by that means slowly work our way back to the hotel.
There were plenty of Russian Army memorabilia up for grabs at outlets all over Moscow, such as the Soviet 'ushanka' bomber hat that Diane paraded unashamedly in the Red Square at night. The vendors selling them only accepted American dollars as currency and their persistence added some colour to the Moscow vibe, but it was really the buildings and architecture of the Red Square that made Moscow such an attractive spectacle and tourist draw-card. The Kremlin, for instance, is a fortified complex that serves as the official residence of the Russian President and overlooks the Moskva River to the south, St Basil's Cathedral and Red Square to the east, Alexander Garden to the west, and has five palaces, four cathedrals and the enclosing Kremlin Wall and towers.
But you really know that you are in Russia when you stand in front of a magnificent and somewhat surreal structure as the colourful St Basil's Cathedral on Red Square. It was built in the sixteenth century on orders from Ivan the Terrible and designed to represent the flame of a bonfire rising into the sky. And if that doesn't do it, then a night of Cossack Dancing and outings to the Moscow Circus and a Russian Ballet, complete with champagne and black caviar, will drive the cultural nail home completely. The ballet was a hoot. Our shoestring budget bought us a stage performance well short of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, but the bizarre antics of the dancers were so side-splittingly funny that it was all that Diane and I could do not to explode with laughter, and having contracted the giggles from which there was no return we were obliged to beat a hasty retreat from the theatre to avoid any further embarrassment.
Our tour departed for the walled city of Smolensk three hundred kilometres south-west of Moscow, stopping off at the site of the Battle of Borodino where the largest and bloodiest single-day action of Napoleon's doomed 1812 invasion of Russia was fought. I found it hard to believe that I was standing on the same battlefield where Russia had engaged the invading French forces in skirmishes that were characterised so vividly in Tolstoy's War and Peace. By a series of tactical retreats that lasted three months, Kutuzov's Imperial Army lured the French deep into western Russia before turning around to face Napoleon's Grande Armée near the village of Borodino. The battle that ensued was bloody, and Napoleon, despite gaining control of the battlefield could only claim a Pyrrhic victory after suffering far more casualties than the Russians, and was denied the decisive win he desperately sought when the Imperial army extricated themselves from the battle and withdrew the following day. Napoleon's eventual retreat from Russia was dogged by a frigid winter and persistent attacks from Russian peasants and Cossacks so that by the time the French Army escaped and crossed the Berezina River in Belarus in November 1812 they had suffered a staggering 400,000 casualties in a doomed campaign that was a turning point in the Napoleonic Wars. In the meanwhile, many of our own tour group had succumbed to colds and flu in Russia as well, and for a while it seemed that our own retreat from Moscow was just as disheveled as that of Napoleon's hapless French Army.
After another long and intensive border crossing not for the faint-hearted we finally left Russia and headed towards Minsk, the capital city of landlocked Belarus about four hundred kilometres south-west of Smolensk. We stopped at a small village called Khatyn just north of Minsk whose entire population had been massacred by the Nazis in 1943. All except village smith Yuzif Kaminsky, that is, who recovered consciousness after the executioners had left in time to find his burned son who later died in his father's arms; an incident that was later honoured in the form of a statue at the Khatyn Memorial. It was a peaceful yet unnerving place, particularly the array of bell-towers scattered throughout the memorial grounds that chimed every thirty seconds to commemorate the rate at which Belarusian lives were lost throughout the second World War. Another monument displayed three birch trees, and an eternal flame instead of a fourth tree as a tribute to the one in every four Belarusians who died in the war. Altogether, over two million people were killed in Belarus during the three years of Nazi occupation, almost a quarter of the country's population.
Our next stop was at the Mound of Glory just north of Minsk, a fascinating memorial honouring Soviet soldiers who fought during World War II. As its name suggests, the memorial was situated at the top of a mound and was an impressive work of art and architecture. The mound itself was situated in the middle of nowhere, and in the time we were given to explore the area Diane suffered an attack of stinging nettles and I, having wandered off aimlessly, nearly missed the bus for the remainder of our journey to Minsk. Our stopover in Minsk was unfortunately short-lived, and reduced almost inevitably to an all-nighter at our lodgings before setting off again at the crack of dawn across bumpy Belarusian highways towards Poland. We descended into Warsaw late at night after a five-hundred kilometre journey from Minsk and a staggering six-hour delay at the border of Belarus that gave even the most rigorous of Russian border-crossings a run for their money. Our weary travel companions went straight to bed, but I, however, had Pete the Inebriate as a roommate and was only allowed to retire after several pints of Russian grog and a long and meaningless, not to mention incomprehensible conversation.
Poland's capital city of Warsaw was charged with enough history and architecture to last it a long time. A visit to the Ghetto Heroes Monument commemorating the ill-fated Warsaw Uprising of 1943 was rather disturbing, as most things from World War II are, and Diane and I did our best to offset the gloom by exploring more of the city at large and the quaint Old Town on the banks of the Vistula River. At Diane's insistence I bought a new pair of shoes to replace the ones I'd lost in Russia somewhere, but I just as quickly forgot them at a lay-by in Warsaw's Central Station where I'd stored them earlier. Short of time, I ran the full two or three kilometres through a maze of indiscernible street names back to the station and haggled with a clerk who insisted on a reward of chocolates for her patience and my negligence. Mystified by her Polish humour and too tired to care, I quickly pressed a tip into her hand, grabbed the shoes and took to my heels through the same maze of street names I'd memorised earlier, and back to the point at which my recovery operation had begun and where Diane stood waiting anxiously for my return.
Our tour left Poland and headed towards Germany and its capital city of Berlin, about six hundred kilometres west of Warsaw. We stopped for lunch in Poznan, one of Poland's oldest cities situated on the banks of the Warta River, and survived a border crossing into Germany that lasted a civilised hour and a half. We arrived in Berlin in the evening and immediately made our way to Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall, that infamous concrete barrier that separated East and West Berlin during the Cold War and which now, since the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc and reunification of Germany, was a tourist attraction that had more in common with a traffic intersection than the deadly restriction of movement it had imposed as recently as six years ago. We wandered along sections of the Berlin Wall that had managed to escape the demolition of 1989, doing our best in equal measure to interpret the bizarre graffiti daubed all over its facade, and avoid the motivated hawkers who, for a handsome fee, were offering everyone the unique opportunity to retain their own piece of the wall.
Our tour of Berlin started at one of Germany's most popular landmarks, the Brandenburg Gates, located near the Reichstag building in the vast Tiergarten city park that is pinned to the centre of Berlin by the sixty-seven metre Victory Column monument. The Brandenburg Gate was often a site for major historical events and is today considered a symbol of the tumultuous history of Europe and Germany, but also of European unity and peace. Left to our own devices later on, Diane and I had a crack at navigating Berlin on the S-Bahn rapid transit system, but as we always seemed to be going in the opposite direction to what we intended, as with the Moscow Metro a few days ago, we eventually abandoned the effort in favour of a lazy afternoon lunch instead.
Our trip to Germany would have been incomplete without a night out at a German beer hall, where crisp German beer is served by dexterous waitresses in Steins and litre-size mugs. The evening lasted until breakfast the next morning and our coach was a quiet and sombre affair for the entire three-hundred kilometre onward journey to Hamburg. Our tour had been on the road for nearly three weeks and was now rushing towards its end in the same way that the final grains of sand in an hourglass seem to fall faster than the first, hurrying to get back to its starting point in London. We had just enough time for lunch and a quick leer through Hamburg's seedy Reeperbahn red-light district before boarding an overnight ferry back to Harwich Port in Old Blighty. The late nights and endless partying had taken its toll on our health, but after a good on-board dinner and by sharing a sedate cabin deep in the bowels of the ferry with the same, non-raucous group with whom I had first crossed the North Sea in the opposite direction three weeks earlier, I was able to enjoy more sleep in one night than I had for most of the entire tour.
Our tour of Russia and Scandinavia came to an abrupt end with a final and impromptu dinner at a pub in London's Highgate. The crowd dispersed soon afterwards to resume normal life again and when the dust settled there were just the two of us left standing. Diane and I spent our last couple of days together in London as planned, trying to put off the inevitable, and I had just enough Sterling left over to take her out for a Chinese on Russell Square, the dinner that I had promised her on tour. We spent our final afternoon together sprawled on the sunny lawns of St James Park where we tried to make the most of the little time we had left, and even joked about getting hitched and having two kids named Jessica and David one day, but were so overcome with fatigue from the tour that we both fell asleep unconsciously on the open grass just a stone's throw away from the Queen's digs at Buckingham Palace. It was a sombre journey on the express train from London to Heathrow later that same evening, which went by all too quickly, and a sad day in London altogether when we were eventually obliged to part company at the international terminal, the future entirely grey, and return again from whence we had first arrived.