September 15, 2009



In the following texts there is a series of Blogs about a truly extraordinary tour of Russia's Golden Ring organised by a Latvian Tour Company.

These Blogs were written each day and emailed back to colleagues, family and friend. They are therefore spontaneous, written in the moment at the places and amongst the people where the experience took place. No sanitised or considered prose, just straight from the heart.

I have tried to express what I felt at the time I felt it. It is too easy to write accounts when you've returned home, and to do this is to lose the emotions and the context that they occurred within.

The accounts below are true, but I hope they are also readable and amusing – that was my intention. If you want to read more, then go to: Wikipedia


"How was your 24hours in the Bus?"

Well it wasn't quite 24hours, but it was quite a lot. We left the centre of Riga at 21:00hrs on a 17seater Mercedes Sprinter Bus (pictured), all but 2 seats being occupied; quite a tight fit. We were crewed by 2 drivers who changed over about every three hours, and by our courier. The whole coach, excepting myself and the guy from Portugal spoke Russian for the entire journey; probably for the entire holiday. Latvian could not be heard.

The coach sped out of Riga on Freedom Street vying with trams, potholes, atrocious cobbles and traffic that could be 5 wide in places. Oh and watch out for trams; their track is a dreadful cobbled band down the middle of this thoroughfare, and when they stop for passengers the other lines of traffic must also stop for the passengers.

As we continued on the road out, the street lamps finished and our Courier warned us that this journey was the worst of the week; 1200Kilometres (Lands End to John O'Groats). Every two to three hours the Sprinter stopped sprinting and we paused at a garage for toilets and coffees and for driver change over. We were warned that the road condition would deteriorate before the border, and particularly so afterwards (see pictures of the main road into Moscow).

For some reason we were navigated through part of Estonia to get through to Russia and we took the Estonian customs around midnight. Not a lot of bother here, except for the miles and miles of heavies parked up on this country lane. Russia is playing games with Estonia and any LGVs can be held for about a week before border formalities are completed.

We didn't have to wait a week, but the Russian Customs kept us stationery until 3am. The final act was to order us to evacuate the minibus and bring all our luggage inside for scanning. Everybody's passport was inspected at length and in detail with some feigned surprise about some aspect of each one just to put fear of rejection into each passenger.

Meanwhile the luggage stood in front of the non-operating scanner with no operator around. After about 15minutes of this game we were told to go as "the scanner operator cannot be found". We set off into the night and the road got more potholed and the joins between the concrete sections got more apparent. At 7am we paused at a Russian motel for breakfast, and I made the mistake of putting the toilet paper down the WC instead of into the tin bin; oh and I forgot to pay the attendant her 5roubles.

Onwards we rolled with still hundreds of kilometres to 'MOCKBA' on the signs. At about 100Kms to go the road became Motorway (more of a dual carriageway in reality) and there was only a little improvement in surface quality. Then we hit the outskirts of the Russian capital and ground to a halt in gridlock.

But our drivers were not afraid of a challenge and we found our way around Moscow and parked up at Sergiyev Posad (Се́ргиев Поса́д) at 16:30hrs. Unfortunately the kind weather that had accompanied most of our 19hour transit let go and the onions domes pierced a gloomy grey and caused it to weep. I got a few photos of the The Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius (Тро́ице-Се́ргиева Ла́вра) before the rain drowned everything.

We are now camped in a hotel at Alexandrov - 1hour past Sergiyev Posad, AND we have persuaded the Ostrov Hotel into giving us access to their Wifi.

Enjoy the photos, hopefully more tomorrow.

a russian dawn: ten hours on a minibus from Latvia into Russia, only ten more to go.

Bumpy Road: This is the main road in Russia from the Western border direct to Moscow

The Dormition Cathedral (Church of the Assumption) within the St. Sergius Lavra at Sergiyev Posad

Cathedral of the Trinity; Тро́ице-Се́ргиева Ла́вра (The Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius) at Sergiyev Posad

Church of the Holy Spirit. Built in 1476 within the St. Sergius Lavra at Sergiyev Posad (Се́ргиев Поса́д)

From Russia
[a PICASA album by RedSimon]


Food was always going to be "interesting" for me on this trip. With my vegetarianism and general food fussiness and Juris' unwillingness to sit down for a meal, Russia was always going to be a culinary challenge.

The first Russian meal was taken at 7am in some motel on the road after only 10hours of our journey. Faced with a menu that appeared only to contain the names of Russian cars from the 1950s I asked Juris if there were any scrambled eggs. His request was returned with the reply "three fried eggs".

I grabbed that option and then attempted to get something to go with it, and ended up with fried potato chips. I don't mean long straight "French Fries" style chips, I mean literally small odd shaped chunks of potato fried. A slightly strange choice but tasty and welcome after a night spent on homemade cheese sandwiches that were becoming a little jaded. Juris opted for a soup which looked very much like a Moscow Minestrone.

I can't remember eating much else for the day, but did manage tea and chocolate on arrival at the hotel. Breakfast was at 07:30 and was pre-chosen to be fried eggs. I suppose we were a little late to the breakfast room, and that might explain that my fried eggs were cold, but extremely yellow and very tasty. There was cheese sandwiches, Yoghurts and teas and coffees to share for the table. I should correct my last blog on location; our hotel is in Alexandrov and not Vladimir.

After breakfast we headed off on a marathon that lasted 13hours (Vladimir and Suzdal) and I believe covered almost 300Km. Lunch was taken at a very large supermarket in Vladimir. I got baked Salmon, boiled potatoes with mushroom sauce, vegetables and an Angel Delight with a drink of Pineapple juice for less than £5.00.

And what about the ONIONS. Well those of course are the Onion domes (or cupolas) and we saw several dozen of those. Suzdal (Су́здаль) is quite extraordinary with countless walled monasteries each containing several onioned places of worship. It was explained to us that churches were generally built as pairs; a large grand one for summer use and a much smaller heated one for winter use.

Our guide took us around The Saviour Monastery of St. Euthymius and right on cue a small choir appeared to give us a song, and by sheer coincidence this was available on CD if we were interested. Mmmmm five young Russian men in Black Dresses; they've got to be haven't they! The sounds of these five were quite exquisite, ranging from the pretty one who had clearly had some kind of an accident around puberty, to the deepest bass who clearly had NOT had any kind of pubertical problem. It filled the vaults and rose up into the cupolas and was truly moving.

At the same location we were treated to a display of bell ringing for midday. 18 bells were rung and all by just one man using ropes and foot pedals.
Suzdal also has (The Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life which was quite remarkable and even the churches within it had onion domes fabricated from layers of moulded bark. Wooden structures only last about a century in Russia because of the humidity.

A steaming day ended in the steamer; the Russian Sauna or Banya. Only a few of us opted for this, but did include the courier and one driver and about 4 of us including Juris and I. No clothes were to be worn at all, and the driver appeared with a large carrier bag that contained much alcohol and some Russian Suchi (yuk!).

Anyway we sweated in an extremely hot sauna room within a large specially built complex in the hotel garden (Ostrov Hotel). This includes showers, cold tub, dining room, lounge, beds and a changing room. All very relaxing. Soaking in cold water were the birch twigs which you beat the skin to stimulate the blood. Most of the others beat themselves, but Juris and I chose to beat each other instead. I did use the cold shower but not the cold tub. The green tea was very refreshing, but after an hour I felt faint and left Juris probably to return far too late and far too Vodka'd.

We have a 7am breakfast tomorrow so I suspect the Mercedes will be Sprinting over hundred more of these horrid holey kilometres. But if today's collection of shots is to be believed then it will be worth it.

The Transfiguration Cathedral at the Saviour Monastery of St. Euthymius, Suzdal

Church of the Transfiguration from Kozlyatievo (1756) within the Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life, Suzdal

Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin, Suzdal

The Church of the Intercession on the Nerl in Bogolyubovo

Bogolyubovo convent, near Suzdal
From Russia [a PICASA album by RedSimon]


I love Bells, any sort of Bells.

In many of the sites on our tour of the Golden Ring we found bell towers where a single person could ring up to 36bells via series of ropes, chains, pedals..

There are a few photos below which give a flavour of this.

The final photo is a short video showing a demonstration rig of bells and the technique used to ring them.

Zvonnitsa belltower, A 16th-17th century tower at the Spaso-Evfimiev Monastery

Ringing Bells Spaso-Evfimievsky Convent. One man can ring 36 bells with ropes and pedals

Bell Tower of the Rostov Citadel. The bells of the Rostov Ouspenie Cathedral number 15, were all cast in the 1680s, and the largest (Sysoy) weighs 32tonnes

Zvonnitsa belltower
From Russia [a PICASA album by RedSimon]


Q: What is Black and White and read all over.
A: A newspaper. But Russia is RED all over, even if no longer in the Soviet or Communist way.

Today I wanted to share with you a few thoughts on two days in Russia.

When I visited Saint Petersburg (Санкт-Петербу́рг) 3years ago I was aware that this was not really 'Russian' in the same way that Paris is not really French, Berlin is not really German ... All are cosmopolitan operating to a culture that is partly based on multinational forms and partly on a dynamic that grows from the compression of so much into that metropolis.

Our present location very much is REAL Russia in the same way that Barnsley is real Britain (well maybe NOT in this case!!!).

To me Russia seems stern and cheerless, at least as manifested by the people we have met so far. There is a common thread of petit bureaucracy, or is it just some personal games that Russian people like play.

The Russian border guards that held us for 3hours in the middle of the night and yet achieved less in the way of security than a security man who watches you go into your local supermarket. Piss off Putin (or at least the Prime Minister whose limbs are at the end of the strings that you pull. Every country NEEDS tourism, and Russia probably needs it more than most. WELCOME tourists with pleasant and gentle border procedures and let your guests feel that they should be in your country.

In Sergiyev Posad (Се́ргиев Поса́д) we entered an almost empty car park and were told that our mini coach could not be parked there, and yet there was no obvious alternative place from which to access the attraction. The way to deal with such barriers is on a sliding scale from "Please nice Mister Security, will you let me in", to the much more tempting "F..k Off you commie b....r, Lenin is dead and whatever nasty Mafia man you are working for, mine is even bigger and nastier!" You just need to judge which one will work for you at the time.

I got told off in Sergiyev Posad for photographing the Iconostasis (altar screen comprising dozens of gilded icon portraits). This was in spite of having paid 100rubbles for the privilege of taking photographs at this attraction. When a man in a black dress whispered in my ear I didn't know whether to get excited or afraid. When I spotted the long beard I judged that fear was more appropriate, and even the worst cross-dressers in Leeds don't do excessive facial hair AND wear a frock!

He achieved very little, because I had already got the shots I wanted and I share these with you here. The iconostasis is my shot, and the lovely candle lit icon is by Juris.

On our first night in Alexandrov (Алекса́ндров) Juris and I went into a mini supermarket. There was no bread left (come back Lenin, all is forgiven), but Juris assured me that there was a very good selection of Beers and Cigarettes and all at dirt cheap prices. The people in the shop all looked cheerless, but maybe this was only a pre-Vodka state!

They were all simply dressed in ill-fitting clothes, and their complexions were dull and colourless, their eyes dark and without any twinkle. I concluded there were as grey and as thin as the very concrete apartment blocks that the Soviets provided for the Comrades from Poland and Czechoslovakia right through to Vladivostok.

Q: What is Black and White and read all over.
A: Russia is grey (and therefore black and white all over).

I told Juris that when I talked to Russian people they always seemed hostile to me, and that what I had asked for was too much trouble. "You want Lemon with you're tea! Why should I give you Lemon? Lenin never gave me Lemon, Stalin never gave me Lemon, Kruschev never gave me, even Gorbachev never gave me Lemon, and it is certain that Putrid Putin will never give me Lemon. Here Englishman, take your tea and I hope the effing Lemon will poison you". Juris assured me that this was not the case.

However, I am left with an overriding impression that foreign visitors are 'difficult' for Russians to deal with. Perhaps it is the many years of the Cold War which meant hardly anyone visited. Maybe it is the years of Secret Police which made it good practice to suspect every unknown face in case anything said or done might get reported back and result in a spell in a Gulag. Russians I think have too many reasons not to be over friendly to any outsiders. But perhaps Russians (and maybe ALL Russia) and outsiders are the poorer if this mutual suspicion is true.

I've got a couple more photos here to put two fingers up to this Russian petit bureaucracy. The first is taken in Rostov inside one of the many delightful churches. It shows one of the 'impromptu' choirs which miraculously appear when tourists gather in groups and when there are CDs to sell. Don't tell me NOT to take your photographs, if you are into marketing yourselves in this way, then a consequence is that you get photographed, so there!

The second is a picture of a Police car. You DO NOT photograph Policemen or their cars; so I did. After this I stopped buying the 100Rubbles Photo ticket at each site; they were never checked and if you get income from admitting tourists you MUST expect them to use cameras.

I even cheated the Nuns at Tolga Monastery, Yaroslavl out of their 200Rubbles photo ticket. But if you've seen the indecent amount of brand new gold on their cupolas and all over their iconostasis then it would have been quite improper of me to have contributed for more. Very beautiful, however, and we heard the Nun's choir singing for themselves (not for CDs).

They also rang a full chime of their bells lasting several minutes to announce the start of a service. Quite fabulous, one of travellers was moved to rejoin the Catholic faith solely from his time spent here. I lit a candle here to my father; he died on August 31st 5years ago.

After Rostov, Yaroslavl. Our day, which started with departure from the hotel at 07:30 and it is now 19:55 hours and we are only just starting back with possibly 180Km till Alexandrov .

PS: We arrive at about 22:20hrs.
PPS: The weather so far has been very warm, often bright and sometimes sunny. My new H&M shower proof can be returned unworn.

Candle lit Icon in Church of the Holy Spirit, at Sergiyev Posad

Iconostasis in Church of the Holy Spirit, Sergiyev Posad

Rostov, a delightful Russian Choir gives a recital just before announcing their CD is available

Illegal Photo: Russian Police Car (Lada Samara) at Vladimir

Tolga Monastery on the Volga River at Yaroslavl was founded in the early 14th century
From Russia [a PICASA album by RedSimon]


Our journey yesterday (Thursday) was again very long, and once again we had to eat on the road. In fact we called in at a large Supermarket at 18:30hrs and were given one hour to eat and shop.

Juris found a place in the Food Court which did meals by the weight. Take a small plate and pile it up with half a kilo of food for 90 Rubbles, or take a larger plate and fill this with a whole kilo of food for 140 Rubbles. I took the larger plate and helped myself to fish baked with vegetables and cheese on top, and then piled on sauted whole new potatoes, broccoli and a cheese/carrot salad. Juris saw that my plate was not full enough, so having filled his he piled on mine a chicken leg and others.

I wanted a piece of Apple Strudel and Juris told me this also had to be piled on the same plate - it all came under the same weight. In fact our plates were only weighed by eye, and if you kept your pile quite short you were spared the weighing scales. 260Rubbles for 2 meals and a soft drink, hardly a fiver!

Eating eventually leads you to the toilets. I've been spared any really horrible toilets, but I do think that putting your used toilet paper in a bucket is totally inhuman. Almost as bad is the quality of the toilet paper. It is a ghastly beige colour and very thin.

I feel sure that the paper from the bucket is 'recycled' by washing and joining back together! At one place, having paid the attendant to enter the toilets she then offered me about 4sheets of toilet paper rolled together; there was none in the cubicle!

Thursday had started by visiting Rostov (Ростов), a really ancient walled monistical community, and totally gorgeous. Several magnificent cathedrals are contained within this citadel and onion domes of every hue thrust into the sky. Such communities were always solidly constructed for defence, and needed to stand up against possible Mongol hordes as well as neighbouring 'Russian' kingdoms seeking expansion.

But it didn't always work, and in Vladimir (Влади́мир) it was explained that when the population sheltered in the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir (see photo) against attack, the aggressors lit fires around the church and caused the death of many inside from the heat and smoke; the church survived and was redecorated later (in gaudy baroque).

This part of Russia benefitted from having rich fertile black soil, unlike much of Russia to the north and west which has the much less good sandy soil so typical of the Baltic. With such soil, a rich agricultural thrived and on its back the monasteries built good businesses and very comfortable gilded communities for themselves. Take a look at Fountains Abbey, it was the same there as well.

In Yaroslavl (Яросла́вль) about 50 churches were built in only some 70years. Even now the street plan of Yaroslavl is like a wheel with roads going from the hub to the 'tyre' and each road ends with a church. It was impossible to visit all of Yaroslavl, or to take in all of its features.

Yaroslavl (Яросла́вль) celebrates a 1000years of history in 2010 and many domes were being freshened, interiors cleaned, and resoration work was all around. UNESCO is granting Yaroslavl the status of World Heritage site, with a certain amount of controversy and disapproval of some works currently ongoing.

This town lies on the River Volga (and Rostov is connected by River/canal too), some millions were spent on new facilities to encourage the river steamers to bring new visitors into Yaroslavl, but it hadn't worked. Unfortunately, between the lovely churches and historic aspects of Yaroslavl is a modern reality of a large city with Chemical works and heavy industry, and the thoughtlessness of Lenin and Stalin of how to combine history and industry; it is quite nasty in parts.

Enjoy !!!

The Church of St. Gregory of Nazianzus. 1670–1680s, Rostov Veliky (Ростов Великий)

Rostov Kremlin. Church of Resurrection of Christ (1670), Rostov Veliky (Ростов Великий)

Golden Gates of Vladimir (Zolotye Vorota). Supposedly the earliest stone structure still standing in Russia, originally constructed in 1164. Originally it sat in the middle of an immense defensive city wall instead of a traffic island.

Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir (Успенского собора во Владимире). Built 1158-60 and 1185-89, the building survived being set alight by the Mongols in 1239 even though the people sheltering inside it did not.

Yaroslavl Churches: [Left] Church of Archangel Michael in Yaroslavl (Церковь Михаила Архангела. Западный фасад), [centre] Redemeer Church of the Transfiguration On-the-town, [right] New Cathedral on the site of the Dormition Cathedral
From Russia [a PICASA album by RedSimon]



Something of a lightning tour of Russia's capital.

After an overlong lecture of how Russia created Quartz crystals for radio sets in the 1950s at the Museum of Stone (Музей рукотворного камня) in Alexandrov, we then had a 2hour visit to the Kremlin (Alexandrovskaya sloboda) in this town.

Now a rather tired Nunnery, the Assumption convent (Успенский монастырь) was rather a pleasant time ambling on a guided tour of the many buildings within this walled fortress. Tsar Ivan the Terrible (Ivan IV Grozny) thought it rather pleasant too, and after conquering the lands all around he decided to take over the place for his residence for 17years. We visited the very building that he used for himself.

And all the time we were treated to lovely musical bells - which I have recorded. There may have been a wedding in progress, or other function that caused the bells to be rung; delightful whatever the reason. Also at this place we were treated to "Tea with Carrot". This turned out to be a lovely light tea made from tea bag and water from a Samovar. A small iced cake was served with it, and this may have had some carrot in it, though it was quite like a Rock Cake. I managed to tip my cup into my lap and spent the next hour looking as though I was incontinent.

Moscow came next as was a dash around. We landed up at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (Храм Христа Спасителя) and walked around it. We made to walk across a large open square and were halted by a young uniform who informed us that we could not go that way. We paused to consider this, and whilst we did this lots of individuals walked exactly the way we wanted to go and were not confronted. So we pressed on with our original route, and came to closed barrier with just enough room to squeeze through - which many people were doing. we started to go through until the arrival of the young uniform who told us again that something was happening and that we could not go this way.

We started to return, only then to be told by another young uniform that we could not go that way. Clearly in Russia the 'Lenin hand' does not know what the 'Stalin hand' is doing. We left these too toy soldiers (or toy police - I don't know which) to look extremely stupid all by themselves and just carried on as though we had never met them! What point is there in such regulation?

Anyway we then headed to the Metro and made for Red Square, but this was a very nervous underground trip for me and I really couldn't take in the special nature of Moscow’s Metro system. On arrival at Red Square Juris and I managed to lose the rest of the party which I found quite exasperating. But Juris did manage to phone our guide and as they were still by the Eternal Flame we regrouped quickly.

Red Square was something of a disappointment, particularly so because they had erected some giant metallic stadium within in for a public event and this ruined all views. Public spaces such as this should NEVER be filled with anything except tourists with cameras.

We beat a retreat to some square with a giant monument in Victory Park that commemorated the 1382days of the second World War, and took some refreshment. I also used a plastic portaloo at the extortionate price of 20Rubbles (about 40pence). There was no seat, and no way of washing hands, and I know EXACTLY what Russian poo looks like.

We have been stuck in one of Moscow's infamous gridlocks for about an hour whilst I typed this. The schedule for the rest of this day is make for the border and Novgorod and home. I am ready to leave Russia now, but I can definitely say that this has been quite an extraordinary journey in so many many different ways.

02:20hrs we are forced to park up on the gravel verge as a passenger side rear wheel is punctured and totally destroyed. Given the state of these roads it is surprising that tyres last more than a week or so. Some of us remain inside the vehicle, some meander around on the verge watching the relentless convoy of ill-disciplined trucks heading hard for St Petersburg in the black night. The road is a vile 3-lane section, sometimes giving the extra lane to our side and sometimes to the other side.

04:45 we pause at a Hypermarket on the edge of Novgorod. We will stay here until 07:00 and sleep until public transport awakens and can take us to visit Novgorod. No WiFi in this car park, so I cannot transmit from here.

07:00 we begin a tour of Novgorod Kremlin lately being spruced up for its 1150 Anniversary. Russia started in Novgorod.

At 13:30 we head home, a long drive on not very good roads, but we are promised a meal break just before the Russian border. But it doesn't happen (the meal I mean, not the border) and our starving souls are given a rebate instead of hot food.

Then the border, and only one hour to clear it this time, but once again we had to march off the bus with our luggage and it was so well inspected that when the guy checked our passports in his kiosk he could not know how many bags we carried or what colour it was. And the stupid fact is that we left as much stuff in the minibus as we carried into the building. Hundreds of carrier bags with shopping, clothes, gifts, food .... all completely unchecked.

22:30 reach Flat in Riga. Phew !

I am left with lots of positive feelings about this holiday, even though a lot of what I have written here may seem critical. The British LIKE to criticise, rather than to praise. This trip was very very arduous, but it never pretended to be otherwise. It was also full of interest and excitement. I am glad to have had the privilege.

I don't know whether I will stay under the Red Flag (actually it's now Red White and Blue) again, but I would encourage others to consider coming to this giant country, though consider it most carefully first.

Museum of Stone (Музей рукотворного камня) at Alexandrov (Александров). Attached to the institute of synthetic crystals, where Quartz, Diamonds and other precious stones were industrially created. The shabbiness of the buildings and potholed and puddled roads and paths is typical of Russia today.

Terrible Residence. Tsar Ivan the Terrible (Ivan IV Grozny) lived here from 1564-1581 within the walls of Assumption convent (Успенский монастырь) at Alexandrov (Александров)

Ivan Infanticide. Il'ya Repin's historical portrait (1885) Ivan IV killed his son. Photographed in Alexandrovskaya sloboda

Red Square, Moscow. The stepped square building in front with the black band is Lenin's Tomb, MacCartney's Tomb has not yet been built.

Red Square, Moscow
From Russia [a PICASA album by RedSimon]


It may not have been clear in my last Blog about our last day, so I will itinerarise this extraordinary day (or daysssssssssss!)

[08:30]   Breakfast in Ostrov Hotel in Alexandrosov.
[09:00]   Walk to local 'Institute of Stones' (Музей рукотворного камня) for a long-winded account of creating Quartz.(see: Museum Website)
[11:00]   Pack up coach and drive out to Alexandrosov Kremlin for 2hour visit.(See Wikipedia )
[13:30]   Head for Moscow on bus.
[18:00]   Depart from Moscow for Novgorod
[19:30]   still driving in outskirts of Moscow.
[Night]   We are driving on a very busy road for Novgorod but sharing this with trucks heading to St Petersburg. All very frantic, on a 2 or 3 lane highway (not dual carriageway) and road condition is diabolical
[02:20]   puncture on road, stop to change rear wheel (nearside tyre change - for the Closing Code)
[02:40]   restart on the road
[04:45]   Park up at Supermarket for shopping and sleep
[07:00]   Catch local bus into Novgorod and get out at Kremlin.
[09:00] Guided tour of Novgorod Kremlin for 3hours, Juris and I leave this after one hour.
[13:30] head for home.
[18:20] Brief stop just before Russian border for tea and biscuit.
[18:30] Stop at Russian Border
[19:30] Clear of Russian and Estonian Customs and now dashing for Riga.
[21:00] First stop in Riga - just in time for one couple to catch the last bus for their 3.5hour journey to their seacoast home.
[22:20]   arrival at the flat of a friend of Juris.

More than 36hours on the move and about 1000kilometres travelled.

This holiday was always going to be an adventure, and that it certainly was. The holiday 'itinerary' was subject to constant change and uncertainty, but our two drivers and Courier kept it all together and ensured we didn't miss out. Restful it was not, but what was received in return will be remembered long.

We often fed ourselves by making sandwiches on the bus from cheese bread and sausage that we bought (everybody on the bus did this).
Page and Moy would have had a fit to see the state of our coach after one week of sleeping, picknicking and travelling.

The Mercedes Sprinter was quite an amazing vehicle, and though we were squeezed in, it was never badly uncomfortable. We covered huge distances at great speed on attrocious roads, and the surprising thing is just how the suspension coped with a well laden vehicle travelling it about 100kmph on potholed, cracked, and bumpy roads.

Our hotel in Alexandrosov Ostrov Hotel was very good - especially the all important plumbing. But we didn't see much of this hotel - just bed and breakfast.
I think praise should be given for our team from SIA RIgatur for this week.

However, I hope that I may be excused if next time I choose a holiday with shorter days, and more chance to eat hot sit-down meals.

Inside our Mercedes Sprinter Minibus; 3,000Kilometres like this !

Rear Wheel blow out at 02:20hours

Troitsky Cathedral. Cathedral of St. Trinity (Троицкий собор) within Alexandrovskaya sloboda

Pre-Soviet in Soviet in Veliky Novgorod (Вели́кий Но́вгород. Parts of Novgorod date back more than 1150years, and they knew a lot more then about elegance than Lenin or Stalin

Soviet in Veliky Novgorod (Вели́кий Но́вгород
From Russia [a PICASA album by RedSimon]


When Russia took over its neighbours in the 1930 it created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR); Союз Советских Социалистических Республик​ – CCCP in Russian.

SOVIET was the only way forwards after that and uniformity in ALL things was very much the order of the day. This can be seen most clearly in architecture and in town planning; it is the SAME wherever you go from the Baltic Sea to the Japan Sea. Everything is built in series, mass produced, monotonous, monolithic, mono.

I have photos from both Latvia and Russia, and you would find it hard to differentiate between them. In both places, decay and lack of repair is evident to the buildings, the roads, the paths. It is crumbling, dishevelled, stark, cheerless and depressed.

In Russia my fellow travellers remarked as to how the Government had forgotten its people and was investing in other things; living conditions deteriorated, roads ruined. In former Soviet Satellites such as Latvia the bankruptcy of the state means that there is no money for maintenance or improvement.

For me, one of the conspicuous aspects of Sovietness is the way that “utility” usurps all. If there is a requirement to build a factory, an industrial farm, or a housing district, then it is built without sensitivity for surroundings, history or culture. The delightful historic sites of Suzdal, Yaroslavl or Alexandrov lived cheek by jowl with Soviet Industry or Housing. Bland blocks next door to Millennium Monuments.

In Europe, the historic is often an entire district, not just a single building or site. The Castle, Cathedral or Museum are likely to be “gloved” by medieval streets of equal age to the thing that you went to see. Not so in the Soviet world, Stalinist abuts Ivanist and even Peterist. In the countryside, pristine landscapes can be shockingly attacked by concrete tower blocks standing out of place and without sympathy.

There are no planning laws here to stop such assaults on the landscape, no requirements to blend or to integrate, If there is a requirement to build something then that utility is fulfilled by the meanest means, and everything is demeaned by it.

There is beauty in The Bear, but there is a lot grizzly stuff surrounding it.

Wooden bungalows (and some houses) exist all over the old Soviet Union. Quite individual if rather basic and rotten now.

Alexandrov (Александров). A busy crossroads showing the potholes and puddles at the junction

Common and Community. Wooden homes for the common folk, and behind the more modern community towers for the Soviets at Alexandrov (Александров)

Soviet Storeys. Concrete tower blocks in Alexandrov (Александров)

Soviet Style. The Soviets built all tower blocks uniform and monotonous. These flats have been 'styled' by their owners who have infilled the previously open balconies with windows. The Yellow 'Transit' Van is actually a Russian GAZ Gazelle
From Russia [a PICASA album by RedSimon]


On Saturday we woke up in a Farm workers' Hostel. It is a Lodging house for the workers who pick fruit and vegetables in the season. (email: This place is called Jaunmarupe and is 20Km from Riga in the countryside.

Facing our little lodge are three giant chimneys. These are for the Community Heating plant, which provides the heating for the flats in the nearby hamlet. It also powers the greenhouses of the large Sabiedribamarupe fruit and vegetable farm which our lodge belongs to.

Riga Residence, a lodge for workers at sabiedribamarupe farm.

Not as bad as it sounds, and even though we had bunk beds, we made creative use of these. The plumbing in our accommodation was private and was good. Three nights spent here, and it only cost 50pence by minibus to get into Riga Centre.

Saturday was the big day of the Riga Festival (RīgasSvētki2009 and there were many activities.

A Classic Car Rally was held, and we witnessed this being led into the city centre with full Police escort and blaring sirens. Quite dramatic. However once the cars got onto the November 11th Embankment it was impossible to take photographs are people crowded them in. A pity.

Henschel Heavy. One of about 100 historic vehicles which were lead in police convoy accompanied by blaring sirens through the streets of Riga to display on the November 11th embankment

We went to the Ship Museum where free concerts were given all day, and heard a very moving mixed choir in the regal splendor of the central salon. Later I returned and saw some medieval dancing but recognised that the boy at least had been ballet trained.

Singing Ships. Free concerts all day in the Riga Ship Museum.
This one is a choir.

We took a little trip up the cast iron tower of St Peters Church and shot the view across Riga from this high spot.

Tower of St Peters, Old Town, Riga

Juris went away to attend a Buddhist lecture on meditation, so I wandered the sites on my own and we joined up later. We met on the Stone Bridge to see some Jet Ski racing on the Daugava river, and then into the old city for something to eat. After that we went to the Dome Cathedral (which doesn't really have a Dome) and sat down to hear the premiere performance of a “Russian Requiem” by Lera Auerbach (Listen Here).

This was very powerful stuff, which clear contrasts between the Boy’s Choir of Estonian National Opera and State Choir “Latvija”. In between stood the woman’s choir and in front Annely Peebo (soprano, Estonia), Nikita Storojev (bass, Russia), Tonu Kaljuste (Estonia) conducted the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra. The solo boy sang exquisitely and far better than any sodding girl could (or should!!!). Charlotte Church and her ilk have a lot to answer for, debasing church choral music.

The Bass of the Russian men, sometimes underpinned by the deepest Organ pipes made the whole thing truly spectacular if rather long.

From the Aural to the visual and we regained the November 11th Embankment in time for the Fireworks competition. Nine companies competed for the honour to be selected for the next Riga Town Firework Event. The public voted for each display by SMS message to the local TV station which had a stage on the Embankment.

As the 9 sets of Fireworks went off the bangs echoed across the river and between all the buildings of the Old Town. The fiery sparks lit up the sky and twinkled off the ripples of the Daugava River. A wonderful end to this our first day.

Zeppelin and Mast. The Central Market (Rigas Centraltirgus) was opened in 1930 on the site of Zeppelin Hangars abandoned by the Kaiser in 1922. Behind stands the tripod Riga Radio and TV Tower (Rigas radio un televizijas tornis) which was built by Russia and opened in 1986
From Latvia 2009
[a PICASA album by RedSimon]


On the day before we left Riga for Russia we explored some other aspects to Riga.

Sunday started damp; it had rained a little during the night and the grey clouds told of a gloomy day ahead with the possibility of precipitation.

Although late to bed because of the Fireworks, an early start was necessary because Juris had a lecture to attend. We walked to the end of our lane and took one of the Minibus coaches into Riga. These are privately run as an addition to the efficient council run bus services. Using Shagged out Charabancs probably imported from Germany or another neighbour ours was a 15-seater Renault but with no actual limitation to 15 passengers. It works and returned us to Riga centre in 25 minutes for just 0.45Lats (about 60pence).

We walked down slightly tired streets past jaded buildings that clearly had seen a much more prosperous time about 100years ago, and then many new economic dawns that had turned out to be very short grey days instead. 

So some of the buildings are original and have a patina, whilst others have been yuppified or more recently become abandoned future projects.  Latvia has been well and truly credit-crunched and is at least financially bankrupt.

We gained entry into an original building and took our places within a modest apartment converted to a Buddhist Mission.  There a guest speaker from Germany gave a long exploration of the concept of "Voidness" and I won't attempt to explain it as I am sure Google will do a better job. He spoke in perfect English and every paragraph or so was then translated by another man into Latvian. For more than 2hours we explored Mantra, Tantra and the Heart Sutra and then we walked back into the real world.

Well not quite. The gloomy afternoon suggested an indoor pursuit so we headed to the central Multiplex and viewed Tarantino's latest film "Bedigi slavenie mergli".

Tarantino's oeuvre really isn't my cup of tea, and "Inglorious Basterds" (in English) is a fanciful and fictitious festival of gore really NOT to my taste at all.  It was an interesting experience, however, because the film was screened in "English" with both Latvian and Russian subtitles.  However, much of the dialogue is actually spoken in French or German and would have had English subtitles to interpret.  Lacking these English clues I was failed by my French and absence of German. The violence translated.

This film is supposed to be on a theme of revenge, well in my opinion it is merely a self-indulgent revenge by Tarantino on the public for not liking his last two movies.

And so Riga centre where we opted to take a boat trip on the Daugava River.  On a grey evening the boat cruised slowly up the river towards Lithuania until it reached the new Red Bridge before turning and heading back towards the Baltic Sea end of Riga. There were only about 6 passengers and no commentary, so it was quite a solemn little passage.  As we were turned to regain our dock, the sun broke through the evening clouds and some photos were possible.  People who boarded this cruiser after us enjoyed a much sunnier cruise.

We turned for our lodge at Jaunmarupe, managing to miss a couple of buses on the way, but flagging down the 2003 Taxi Bus for the bouncy return.

From the Daugava River showing the arched roofs of the Zeppelin Market and the Soviet-built tower Stalinist Academy of Sciences building.

View from the Daugava with the spire of the Dome Cathedral (left) and St Peter’s (right)

From the Tower of St Peter's Church looking towards the Dom Cathedral and the Daugava River beyond

Riga Skarnu Street, in the Old Town showing the stepped end wall of St Johns Church

Riga Brivibas iela. 'Freedom Street', this street runs straight through the city and hardly curves at all as it becomes the A2 and takes traffic away from Riga. The Freedom Monument is also visible and behind the Russian Orthodox Nativity of Christ Cathedral.
From Latvia 2009 [a PICASA album by RedSimon]


With 6 hours to pass between flights at Stockholm Airport, I chose to leave the airport and catch the Arlanda Express into Stockholm and walk around Gamla Stan - the Old Town.

Original message was sent from Stockholm Arlanda Airport.

See photos

Gamla Stan: A typical side street

Piazza Stan: A square in Gamla Stan near to the Royal Palace

Palace Stan: The environs of the Royal Palace, Stockholm

Soldier Stan: One of the many soldiers guarding the Royal Palace
From Stockholm [a PICASA album by RedSimon]