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Monthly Archives: January 2017

Things To Do In St Petersburg

Make use of free-admission days

Some of St Petersburg’s top museums organise free-entrance days. For the State Hermitage Museum it’s the first Thursday of the month, and for the Kunstkamera the third Thursday each month. Other museums are admission-free throughout the year, for example the Vladimir Nabokov Museum or the Sigmund Freud Museum of Dreams. In many Orthodox cathedrals you also don’t have to pay an entrance fee. While the church architecture is stunning enough from the outside, just wait until you enter – the icon art is breathtaking.

Relax in parks and gardens

If you love the green spaces, don’t miss St Petersburg’s parks and gardens. There are plenty to satisfy any taste: the small, hiddenYusupov Gardens, the royal Mikhailovsky Gardens, the calm Tavrichesky Gardens, or the famous Summer Garden with its marble sculptures. The recently reopened New Holland Island in the city centre is St Petersburg’s latest cultural hub and a haven for artists, writers, professionals and tourists alike.

Stroll around Alexander Nevsky Monastery

The Alexander Nevsky Monastery is the most important Orthodox monastery in St Petersburg; its Church of the Annunciation was the first resting place for the tsarist family. The monastery is magnificent both inside and outside, but for many visitors the major attractions are its four historic cemeteries (which charge a small fee) – this is where you’ll find the graves of Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Roerich and many other great names of Russian culture.

Learn about modern Russian art

You don’t have to spend a fortune on tickets to see modern art in St Petersburg. Some of the city’s most progressive art galleries – Anna Nova (annanova-gallery.ru), Marina Gisich (gisich.com), Art Re.Flex, KGallery (kgallery.ru), Bulthaup (design-gallery.ru) and Name Gallery (namegallery.ru) – don’t charge admission, giving visitors access to enough paintings, sculptures and installations to fill an entire day. On the opening nights you’ll be treated with a glass of champagne and some appetizers; check the websites for dates of new exhibitions.

Browse the bookshops

Bookworms will love St Petersburg’s oldest bookshop, Dom Knigi, and the Bookvoed chain of stores (bookvoed.ru; centrally located shops are open 24 hours). If you aren’t planning on buying a book but still want to read one, you can just pick a title, sit and read it from cover to cover – no one will ask you to leave. These bookshops offer a beautiful collection of art books, obligatory Russian classics as well as a lot of books in English.

Visit a flea market

The biggest flea market in St Petersburg, located in the north of the city, is a place you’ll be telling your friends about for a very long time.‘Udelka’, as the locals call it (because of its location near the Udelnaya metro station), is an extremely atmospheric place that offers a huge variety of artefacts such as antique icons, hand-painted samovars and, of course, the busts of Lenin. It’s open every weekend.

Explore the underground

The St Petersburg metro (metro.spb.ru) is one of the most attractive and ornate underground systems in the world – not to mention the deepest. Each station has stunning architecture and its own history. The most beautiful stations are Avtovo, Zvenigorodskaya, Narvskaya, Baltiyskaya and Kirovskiy Zavod, so make sure you break up your journey to admire them. The metro is not only a very impressive place but also the most popular way to travel around the city – it’s cheap, fast and efficient – and no matter how far you need to go, you’ll pay the same fare.

Hang out at anti-cafes

The ‘anti-cafe’ (or ‘time-cafe’) concept – which originated in Moscow – has become very popular in St Petersburg. The name means you are not charged for the coffee, snacks and sometimes desserts on offer; instead, you pay for the time spent there. This is perfect if you’re looking for a quiet space where you can relax, play board or computer games or even work if you need to. The oldest anti-cafe in St Petesburg is Ziferblat, but Miracle, Freedom and Ziferberg are also worth checking out.

Take a free tour

Every day at 10:45am, St Petersburg Free Tour (petersburgfreetour.com) offers a 2.5-hour walking tour through the centre of the city, departing from the Alexander Column on Palace Square. The walk covers all the essential sights, and the guides are very passionate and enthusiastic. While the tours are absolutely free, they’re also quite popular so don’t forget to book beforehand.

Hit the Baltic beaches

The northern coast of the Gulf of Finland, with its sandy beaches flanked by pine trees, is a very popular summer destination for St Petersburg residents. A relaxed atmosphere, fresh air, clean beaches and plenty of good restaurants make this a must-visit. If you’re in the city in winter, you can go for a walk on the frozen gulf – the views are overwhelming.

Exploring Yekaterinburg

Named after Peter the Great’s wife Catherine, the capital of the Ural region lies on the border of Europe and Asia and has long been a prosperous city. Yekaterinburg played a major role in trade between the east and west throughout the 1700s and 1800s, increasing its status and wealth; more recently, mining and industrial work has propelled the city into the limelight. And it keeps reaching for the stars: Yekaterinburg is one of the host cities for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and the Russian government has injected billions of roubles to improve its infrastructure in preparation for the big event (including the upgrade of the Central Stadium and the construction of new metro stations).

City life

Although Yekaterinburg is spread out, most of the highlights are located in the historic centre. English-language guided walking tours aren’t mainstream yet, but in 2010 local blogger Dmitry Kalaev asked his followers to vote for Yekaterinburg’s most interesting sites, which resulted in the development of a 6.5km Red Line trail (ekbredline.ru) in 2011.

Starting at Ploshchad 1905 Goda, the main square in town, the walking route passes by 35 attractions as voted by thousands of residents, including beautiful old merchant houses, Russian Orthodox churches (Church upon the Blood is the city’s biggest cathedral, built on theRomanov death site), the first school, the first theatre, the oldest house, the peculiar QWERTY monument, street art, museums and more.

Yekaterinburg’s latest museum isn’t on the route but if voting were to happen again, residents may advocate it be included. Opened in 2015, the Boris Yeltsin Museum (yeltsin.ru) is part of the swish Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center, with quite the impressive (and somewhat unusual) collection of exhibits. There are replica rooms, video clips, sound and lighting effects and plenty of immersive displays spread out across nine rooms. If learning about Russia’s first president isn’t high on your list, head to Russia’s tallest skyscraper outside Moscow for a different perspective. The 188m-tall Vysotsky Tower has unrivalled city views from the 54th floor, and sunsets from here on a clear day are very Instagramable.

Sightseeing will, no doubt, whet your appetite and there’s plenty on offer in the culinary stakes. Russian favourites – such asborsch (beetroot soup) and pelmeni (ravioli dumplings) – are easy to find, with ample restaurants offering a Ural take on the well-loved dishes (try reindeer meat). Pozharka and Dacha are both good restaurant choices. International cuisine is popular too, with everything from Japanese and Chinese to Uzbek and Georgian easy to find.

The Russian banya

One of the top things to do in Yekaterinburg – and all of Russia, actually – is get piping hot, then get whipped and drenched in cold water (or better still, roll around in the snow). Welcome to the Russianbanya!

No bathhouse experience is as talked about as the Russian bath. If you can swing it, your best bet is to get yourself an invite to a resident’sbanya, as there’s nothing quite like the real deal. Your second best option is to book a banya session at one of the many complexes around town, where experiences range from simple home-style bathing practices to out-of-this-world extravaganzas.

Ruskie Bani (bani66.ru) was one of the first public banyas to open in Yekaterinburg in 2002. Here guests can choose to relax in traditional-style wooden banyas or splurge in contemporary fit-outs with fancy showers and Jacuzzis. Pelmeni and other Russian food can be ordered, and staff members are on hand to offer a variety of treatments including massages, steaming sessions, herbal-infusion soakings and… beatings. Visitors can choose from birch, oak, juniper, eucalyptus or fir brooms for the only-in-Russia experience.

Chapaevskiye Bani (m.chapaev-bani.ru) offers a slightly more luxurious option, and guests can stay at the Palais Royal next door if they want a multi-day banya indulgence.

Out of town

Yekaterinburg is perhaps most famous for the Romanov family tragedy. On 16 July 1918, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, their five children and four of their employees were assassinated by Bolshevik troops in the Ipatyev house basement, where the Church upon the Blood now stands. The cremated remains were discarded in a mine pit about 15km out of town, the site now known as Ganina Yama. Today there’s a monastery made up of seven wooden chapels (one in honour of each of the murdered family members) on the site, called Monastery of the Holy Martyrs – a somber reminder of the devastation that took place a century ago.

For something a little less morose, day trips to national parks offer visitors the chance to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Olenyi Ruchyi (Deer Springs; olen.ur.ru), about 90-minutes’ drive from Yekaterinburg, has some fantastic hiking trails that traverse birch forest and lichen-steeped caves. Bachovskie Mesta (бм-парк.рф), less than an hour’s drive from the city centre, is a scenic vastness of pine and birch grove forests, meandering rivers and small calm lakes. Russians come here to hike, horse ride, cycle and drive snowmobiles in winter.

There are plenty of other nature parks nearby, too – after all, Yekaterinburg is located in the heart of the lustrous Ural Mountains. You just need a sense of adventure and a Russian dictionary or a guide, as beyond the main cities (and often even in cities) Russian is the only language spoken. Of course, if you’re travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway you’ll no doubt get some Russian language practice anyway – whether you want to or not.

Make it happen

Yekaterinburg is one of the biggest cities on the Trans-Siberian route and a popular spot for those looking to break up the long journey;Koltsovo International Airport services plenty of domestic and international flights.

If you can’t get enough of the city panorama from the viewing platform of the Vistosky Tower, Visotsky Hotel is located on floors 37 to 41 of the same building, with a luxury spa for guests on the 52nd floor.

Reasons To Visit Ukraine, Kyiv

Legends of Andriyivsky Uzviz

Nicknamed ‘the Montmartre of Kyiv’, this street is one of the cultural gems of the Ukrainian capital. Every house here can tell a story, every corner hides a legend. With numerous galleries and workshops,Andriyivsky Uzviz has always been the melting pot of Kyiv’s artists, luring them with its bohemian atmosphere and attractive hilly setting. Here you can admire the gracious architecture of St Andrew’s Church and buy handmade souvenirs from one of the local artisans.

Delicious Ukrainian cuisine

Ukrainian food is not only very tasty, but also quite affordable. When in Kyiv, you simply can’t refrain from trying traditional Ukrainian varenyky (filled dumplings) and the legendary borshch (red beetroot soup). For a genuine Kyiv urban snack, try the perepichka (sausage in a fried bun) at Kyivska Perepichka near Teatralna metro station, and taste a magnificent cinnamon roll atBulochnaya Yaroslavna bakery on busy Yaroslaviv Val street.

City of Golden Domes

This proud nickname reflects the architectural splendour of Kyiv’s churches, as well as the prominence of the Ukrainian capital for Orthodox Christians. Visitors are easily amazed by the beauty of the Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra monastery complex and the grandeur of St Sophia’s Cathedral, both Unesco World Heritage sites. You can spend days admiring the medieval frescoes and baroque facades, descending into holy dungeons and watching stunning panoramas from the bell towers.

Outdoors fun along the Dnipro

Kyiv spreads along the wide Dnipro river, which divides the city into the right and left banks. Numerous islands in between offer a great range of outdoor activities. Truhaniv island is the perfect spot for relaxing walks or cycling with beautiful river views. During the summer, Hydropark becomes leisure central with sandy beaches, water activities and fancy bars. You can also take a boat cruise from the River Port (rpea.com.ua) for spectacular views of Kyiv hills.

Gigantic Soviet monuments

Kyiv was the third-largest city of the Soviet Union, so it’s no wonder that Soviet heritage in the form of colossal apartment blocks, socialist-realist frescoes and bizarre modernist buildings is found pretty much everywhere in the Ukrainian capital. But there’s one structure you simply can’t miss: the enormous Rodina Mat (meaning ‘Motherland’) memorial, part of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. With a height of 102m, it’s a distinctive element of Kyiv’s skyline.

Rich entertainment scene

Kyiv is a vibrant capital with a wide array of events taking place daily. Fans of classical music can enjoy heavenly notes in the unique House of Organ and Chamber Music inside the St Nicholas Cathedral, which was designed by Wladyslaw Horodecki. Ballet enthusiasts will be enthralled by performances of the world-renowned National Ballet of Ukraine at the Taras Shevchenko National Opera Theatre. Kyiv nightlife is a microcosm of its own, with choices ranging from hipster Closer (facebook.com/closerkiev) to dynamic Carribean Club (caribbean.com.ua).

One of Europe’s largest open-air museums

The Pyrohovo Museum of Folk Architecture is a perfect place to explore how Ukrainians lived over the centuries. Exhibiting 300 examples of folk architecture from all parts of Ukraine and more than 40,000 household items and objects of traditional culture, Pyrohovo is a one-of-a-kind outdoor museum experience. It also regularly hosts open-air festivals to showcase the old Ukrainian rural lifestyle.

Ukrainian Art Nouveau

Kyiv’s eclectic cityscape makes it a perfect destination for architecture lovers. On a single street, you can find baroque buildings next to Soviet-style apartment blocks, or elegant Art Nouveau palaces overlooking newly built skyscrapers. Kyiv’s so-called Modern architectural style is the equivalent of European Art Nouveau; its pioneer was Wladislaw Horodecki, sometimes referred to as ‘the Gaudí of Kyiv’. His architectural genius gave birth to the stunning Neo-Moorish Actor’s House and one of the most enigmatic Kyiv landmarks, the splendid House of Chimeras.

Monumental Kyiv metro

From colourful frescoes depicting medieval Kiev Rus heritage at Zoloti Vorota station to white marble busts of scientists and poets at Universytet station – not to mention the labyrinth of Soviet underground transfer passages – Kyiv metro is truly impressive. It’s also record-breaking, with Arsenalna station considered the world’s deepest. Both the immense heritage of Ukraine’s Soviet past and the main transport of city dwellers today, Kyiv metro is a curious attraction and a true highlight of the Ukrainian capital.

Affordability

Kyiv often tops the lists of the most affordable European destinations, particularly in recent years – and for good reason. For example, one metro ride will cost you about 0,15 euros, while opera tickets start from just 1 euro. Food and accommodation costs are also much lower than in central and western Europe especially since the devaluation of the hryvnya, which makes the Ukrainian capital a very tempting budget-friendly destination.

King Arthur in Britain

The real King Arthur

Arthur’s story is full of romantic embellishments, and historians have identified many figures who could be the real king. Was it Owain Ddantgwyn, who ruled the Dark Ages kingdom of Powys around 500 AD and was victorious against the Angles, Saxons and Picts? Or Riothamus, a 5th-century Roman British leader who fought against the Goths ?

The truth is, no one knows which (if either) of these warriors the legend was based upon, but that hasn’t stopped the story from becoming woven into folklore. Ever since its popularisation in the 12th century, the legend has inspired countless writers and artists, from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s solemn poetry to the surrealism of Monty Python, and most recently Guy Ritchie’s blockbuster King Arthur: Legend of the Sword(released on 24 March 2017).

A legend is born

With any good story, you must start at the beginning. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century work Historia regum Britanniae(History of the Kings of Britain), Arthur was conceived on the site ofTintagel Castle in North Cornwall.

Much of what was taken as fact from Geoffrey’s book at the time has now been dismissed as a cocktail of legends, family stories and his own fervent imagination, but the association has stuck.

The castle ruins date from the 12th century – it may even have been built as a ploy to tap into interest in Arthur’s story and draw pilgrims here – but it’s dramatic nonetheless. The location would have been an important trading post during the Dark Ages, when Arthur is said to have ruled, and relics from this era are still evident.

If the tide is out, you can step inside Merlin’s Cave, carved into the bedrock beneath the castle, which is just about mysterious enough to pass as a plausible hideout for the famous wizard. Be warned: you’ll have to clamber down the rocks onto the beach to access it.

Chasing Camelot

According to Geoffrey’s depiction, Arthur held court in Caerleon in south Wales. The Roman amphitheatre, which today forms part of the excellent National Roman Legion Museum, provides a handy embodiment of the Round Table, but it’s far from the only place to vie for the title.

Cadbury Castle in Somerset has been linked to Arthurian legend since Tudor times. Excavations of the Iron Age hill fort show that it was indeed fortified at the time Arthur is said to have lived, and that it had a degree of wealth, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility, although if the recent claims of a retired Bangor University professor are to be believed, the real site could have been at a small but strategically important Roman fort on the outskirts of Huddersfield, West Yorkshire.

Visitors to Scotland’s capital would be forgiven for thinking the hill that looms large over Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat, is in some way linked to Arthur’s legendary court. Evidence is scarce and it’s more likely that the name is a corruption of ‘archer’s seat’, but the walk up the crag still offers arguably the best perspective on a city packed with history.

One other popular theory is that Camelot was actually in Carlisle, in Cumbria, with Arthur’s Round Table a Neolithic earthwork henge located outside the city. If you do make the pilgrimage here, tie it in with a visit to Hadrian’s Wall, which was where Arthur’s last battle, Camlann, was said to have been fought, though historians disagree about whether it was near Birdoswald Roman Fort or Castlesteads, just outside Carlisle.

Lancelot and the Round Table

Near England’s northeastern tip, Northumberland’s Alnwick Castle is, according to 15th-century writer Thomas Malory’s account, the castle of Lancelot, the greatest knight of Arthur’s court – and the man who ultimately betrayed him with his beloved Guinevere. Its imposing walls house several rooms of wonderful Italian art.

At the other end of England, while the magnificent round table that hangs in Winchester Great Hall in Hampshire does look the part, it most likely dates from the 13th century and was restored during King Henry VIII’s reign – hence King Arthur’s striking resemblance to the Tudor monarch.

Shropshire’s claim

This rural county between Wales and the Midlands has more King Arthur sites than most, perhaps because one of the contenders for the ‘real’ Arthur did actually hail from near here. If Owain Ddantgwyn, known as ‘the Bear’, was Arthur it’s likely he would have ruled from Wroxeter, now a small village outside Shrewsbury, but then one of the most sophisticated cities in the country.

The King Arthur Trail (shropshiretourism.co.uk) highlights many places of interest including mystical Whittington Castle, where some say the Holy Grail once lay hidden in the castle’s chapel, while the nearby Bronze Age Mitchell’s Fold Stone Circle (english-heritage.org.uk), on Stapeley Hill, is known locally as the site of the famous ‘sword in the stone’ – the legendary moment when Arthur proved his right as king by retrieving the sword.

Epic adventure

There are countless sites across Wales with Arthurian connections, including Llyn Llydaw and Llyn Ogwen, both in Snowdonia National Park, which both claim to be the watery resting place of Arthur’s sword, Excalibur. Llyn Ogwen is a popular stopping off point for people attempting the dramatic scramble up Tryfan.

Tryfan is one of Snowdonia’s most recognisable peaks and the legendary final resting-place of Sir Bedivere, the knight who returned Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake – it is also one of the locations for Ritchie’s film.

Away to Avalon

According to the legend, the injured Arthur was taken to the magical island of Avalon following his bloody clash with the usurper Mordred, and both he and Guinevere are buried there. Popular culture puts the real Avalon at 7th-century Glastonbury Abbey or nearby Glastonbury Tor, which would have towered over the marshy Dark Ages landscape like an island in the sea, and is regarded as one of the most spiritual places in Britain.

Other possibilities for Arthur’s resting place include Bardsey Island, off the northwest tip of Wales – said to be the burial place for 20,000 saints – and Craig y Ddinas in Brecon Beacons National Park, where Arthur and his warriors lie in wait until they are called upon once again to defend Britain.