San Francisco and Yosemite NP

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San Francisco – what a cool city! The home of the Giants (although much to Mitch’s disappointment the current baseball champs were playing away while we were there), the birthplace of the gay rights movement (think recent blockbuster, Milk) and best of all, a foodie’s paradise!
We were very fortunate to stay with the U.S. Servas national secretary, Mary Jane for 4 nights in her beautiful home at the top of a steep hill near the Mission District.

View from Coit's Tower of the city

View from Coit’s Tower of the city

With stunning views of the cityscape, the water and the bay bridge, breakfasts cooked for us and lunches packed each day, and motivating conversation about what our futures may hold we had another fantastic Servas experience.
After a bit of confusion with the car hire company Mary Jane (who’s 81 but looks in her mid 60s and took the crazy San Francisco traffic in her stride) picked us up and took us on a little driving tour of the UN plaza, past city hall, theatres, numerous murals painted on the sides of buildings and up to Fisherman’s Wharf where we visited the old cannery, now the Argonaut Hotel.

Exploring the awesome 'walk in' fountain at Levi Straus Plaza with our lovely host Mary Jane

Exploring the awesome ‘walk in’ fountain at Levi Straus Plaza with our lovely host Mary Jane

In San Francisco when someone takes over an old building they try to keep a sense of the history and so the hotel has beautiful wooden beams and old iron gates which were in use during its time as a cannery. There’s also a fantastic timeline exhibition just past the lobby explaining the history. Well worth a five minute look. We had a quick wander around the National Parks Info Centre next door which took you through an overview of San Francisco’s history going from a tiny 200 person village, to bustling sea port and then base for the gold miners. A great introduction to the city and all free!
We had dinner that night with some of Mary Jane’s friends and fellow Servas hosts, Marci and Susan and enjoyed some spirited conversation about American politics as we watched the Republican, or GoP (Grand old Party), presidential candidate debate. It was entertaining but also a little scary as none of them discussed any sensible, progressive policies and the likelihood is that one of these middle aged, white (all but one), conservatives will become the next president.

Alcatraz and Angel

Welcome to Alcatraz

Welcome to Alcatraz

The following day we went back in time to the 1960s with a boat trip out to infamous Alcatraz Island which kept some of America’s most notorious criminals, such as Al Capone, locked up and thwarted numerous escape attempts. If you want to visit Alcatraz in peak season be sure to book at least a month in advance, or if you miss out as we did, book the double pass to include a visit to Angel island in the afternoon.

Hearing from her inmates about life at Alcatraz

Hearing from her inmates about life at Alcatraz

The tours are very well run and include a free audioguide around the old prison with stories told by former inmates and prison officers.
Angel Island is much larger and there’s a great little guided tram ride around the island which is very informative and takes in some beautiful views back across the bay to the city. It’s a beautiful island and I’d like to go back to do some cycling or hiking around it.
As we were back in the city mid afternoon we decided to walk up to Coit’s tower which looked to be just across the road from the ferry terminal. In fact it was up several steep flights of stairs which got our hearts racing! There was a bit of queue for the lift to the top but it’s set up so you queue around the base which is painted with about five incredible murals detailing San Francisco’s past. Even if you don’t fancy heading up, Coit’s tower it’s worth a visit to look at these alone. However, I would recommend spending the few dollars to go up to the top on a clear day to take in the fantastic panoramic view of the city.

Cable cars being turned around

Cable cars being turned around

Next up we found our way to the beginning of the Powell & Mason cable car where the workers spin the cars around manually on a turntable and excited tourists queue for about an hour to ride the iconic cable car up and down San Francisco’s famous hilly roads. It’s a bit pricey at $7/person but it was fun to sit up the front, holding on to a pole while leaning out and watching the driver operate the cables.SF - Jen and cable car

San Fran for Foodie’s
The following day was set aside for all things food. We started out with the Saturday organic farmers market at the Ferry Building, great for sampling the fresh seasonal fruits, I loved the ‘plucots’, a cross between plums and apricots, although definitely not suited to a backpackers budget.

Colourful displays at the ferry building markets

Colourful displays at the ferry building markets

You’re better to head to the people’s market to stock up on seasonal fare if you’re watching your pennies! For lunch we caught the BART out to Berkley and killed some time wandering through the lovely green campus before making our way to Alice Waters restaurant, Chez Pannise. The restaurant opened in the 60s and was one of the first to embrace using local, organic ingredients. I’d read all about it in American food critic’s Ruth Reichl’s books and so was very excited to treat ourselves to lunch in the more affordable cafe upstairs. Lunch was great, everything was healthy, tasty and fresh however I think my expectations were a little high as I wasn’t totally blown away. The star dish for me was the roasted squid with mixed bean salad while Mitch enjoyed the quail.

Lunch at chez Panisse - squid? Don't mind if I do..

Lunch at chez Panisse – squid? Don’t mind if I do..

We walked off the food that afternoon around the enormous Golden Gate Park which had some lovely gardens but is also a gathering place for much of the city’s homeless which was a bit confronting. There are various galleries and museums you can visit in the park as well as doing a Segway tour but we decided to save that for next time and were content to snooze in the sunshine.

Cycling the Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge emerging from the fog

Golden Gate Bridge emerging from the fog

We were up early again on Sunday to hire some bikes from the ‘Basically free bike rental company.’ For $32/person day hire you get an excellent Cannondale bike (I’m thinking of upgrading when back in Aus!), lock and helmet and you can visit their sports warehouse enroute and get the value of your hire back to spend in store, hence ‘basically free.’ It’s a great deal for backpackers on a budget and the shop is huge. We ‘bought’ a little camp stove which we’ll need for later in our trip. The cycle route itself from Fisherman’s wharf, out across the bridge and around the coast to Sausilito is easy to follow with only a few hills and fantastic views throughout. It’s especially easy to follow in peak season as all of the other tourists are going the same way! We took our time and loved cycling across the long bridge, the tops of which had just emerged from the morning fog typical of the Bay. I recommend buying your ferry ticket and getting your loading token before exploring Sausalito as the queues get long in the afternoon. In fact, if I was to do it again I’d consider doing the loop in reverse as there were very few people getting off the ferry coming from San Fran with bikes as coming from Sausalito, it was pretty chaotic!
On the way back to Mary Jane’s we stopped off to sample Smitten Ice cream’s made to order organic ice cream.. I had sweetcorn and berries while Mitch enjoyed the pretzel, cookies and cream. Both were delicious and unbelievably creamy.

Yosemite
We decided to book a guided tour with Incredible Adventures rather than visiting Yosemite independently as I was put off by the advice I’d read online by having to bear proof all of your food, the cost of accommodation and our lack of camping gear.

First stop for view out across yosemite

First stop for view out across yosemite

It was a great decision as we could relax and enjoy everything the park had to offer without worrying about driving and finding our way around. We were a fairly small group of 13 from Australia, France, Japan and the Phillipines. The journey out to the park is about a 3.5 hour drive from SF which was broken up by a visit to a farmers market, a stop to swim at a gorgeous natural lake and waterfall and a short walk through a redwood forest to view some Giant Sequoia trees. The trees were beautiful and indeed, enormous, however it was a really busy touristy spot and we were a little underwhelmed compared to our visit to similarly ancient trees in Strahan, Tasmania a few years ago. The campsite was just outside the park in the valley where it was verrrry hot. It was a great spot though, just across the road from a river with a little beach which was the perfect way to cool off at the end of a day of hiking.

Loving life at yosemite

Loving life at yosemite

View of May Lake from Mount Hoffman, Yosemite

View of May Lake from Mount Hoffman, Yosemite

We did a number of wonderful hikes taking in the incredible scenery of the sheer granite rock faces, spotting chipmunks but unfortunately not sighting any bears.

Distant view of slack line from Taft Point

Distant view of slack line from Taft Point

I loved the views from Taft Point with the vertigo inducing drops from the high cliffs, left in their natural state with no railings or barriers. Some brave (read mental) slack liners had set up across a 2000 foot drop and we were lucky to be there in time to watch one guy venture across.

Slack lining at Taft Point

Slack lining at Taft Point

The whole group pitched in to cook breakfast (breakfast sandwiches – scrambled eggs and sausage in a bagel) and dinner (chicken, avocado and salsa tacos) followed by s’mores around the campfire. One of the Aussie girls in our group broke our guides group record of eating 5 s’mores in one sitting. They are incredibly sweet and she was looking a little worse for wear after number 5!
Visiting Yosemite put us way over budget however it was completely worth it. If you’re visiting San Francisco it is a must do however I would say you should allow a few days to visit. Some tours do a day trip but at such a long drive out it would be exhausting and I doubt you’d visit much beyond the valley. The high country is where the best hiking, views and cooler weather is at. It’s definitely a place I’d like to return to, perhaps at a different time of year to see the Autumn colours or in winter to see the rocks covered in snow.
I’d also like to return to San Francisco to visit the Sonoma wineries which we didn’t have time for and to visit more of the restaurants which we swapped on this visit for Mary Jane’s excellent home cooking!

Another amazing dinner with Servas host Mary Jane

Another amazing dinner with Servas host Mary Jane

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Califooorniaaa

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Another city, another amazing Servas host! After a 12 hour flight with Aeroflot from Moscow (which was fine: $500 cheaper than the next competitor, below average airline food but comfortable enough with plenty of movies to choose from) and a 2 hour queue for immigration we were delighted to be picked up by our host, Dennis. To help us stay awake he took us on a little tour of the quaint Venice canals, pointed out huge murals on the sides of buildings and went for a stroll along Venice Beach. After a long flight it was great to be outdoors and breathe in the smell of the ocean and.. something else. There were waves of cannabis, legal in California for medical purposes, and from some beach front stores for $40 you can purchase a doctor’s note to buy it if you have ‘anxiety’ or ‘sleeping problems’, hence why it was so popular! We also visited Muscle beach where Arnie used to work out and enjoyed cheering on some folks who had drawn a crowd with their impressive work out on the rings. Most importantly we found an ice cream shop selling delicious butter pecan flavour.

Epic taco salad for dinner on first night in LA

Epic taco salad for dinner on first night in LA

After a quick pitt stop at Dennis’s place we headed out to join some friends of his at a Mexican restaurant down the road. We made the mistake of ordering a dish each (at $7 it hardly broke the bank) a taco salad and meat plate. I had forgotten about the gargantuan American portions and could barely eat half of the delicious salad which was served in a big crispy taco basket with a layer of black beans on the bottom, melted cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, salsa, sour cream.. Yum!

The following day we set out early to spend the day at Universal Studios. Dennis kindly dropped us off at the metro station and for $1.75 each we spent an hour getting across town to Universal City where we met up with an Edinburgh uni friend, Lyndsay.

Universal Studios - water world special effects

Universal Studios – water world special effects

We enjoyed the 3D simulator rides such as the Minions and the Transformers, were impressed with the effects at the Water Show World, loved the Studio Tour with the King Kong versus dinosaur 3D simulator and enjoyed a Duff beer alla The Simpsons. However we were slightly underwhelmed by the animal actors and special effects shows which talked more about what could happen rather than wowing us with demonstrations.

The Getty
The following day Dennis kindly dropped us and our bags off early at The Getty museum, an amazing art gallery displaying oil magnate, Paul Getty’s private collection which incredibly is free! The building was designed by architect Richard Meier to blend in with the surrounding mountains. The free architecture and gardens tours were excellent, the docents are extremely knowledgeable and passionate. Interestingly, the gardens were designed by a different artist and represent a living, moving sculpture.

The Getty

The Getty

They’re really beautiful and worth a visit in themselves with a tranquil stream flowing through the middle. We didn’t have a lot of time to explore all of the art work but enjoyed two temporary exhibitions, one of Greek antiquity sculptures and Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography. The latter displayed works from seven different artists who have explored alternative approaches to photography. My favourite was Matthew Brandt who took photos of three different lakes, developed them and then submerged the prints in a water sample from each of the lakes. The different minerals and chemicals from the water affected the photo so the landscape influenced the final artwork. Cool stuff!

View over the cactus garden to LA from the Getty

View over the cactus garden to LA from the Getty

Emily & Jeff’s Wedding
Lyndsay generously offered us a lift out to Thousand Oaks where we were headed for another old university friend’s wedding. Thousand Oaks is a strange town which seems to be somewhat in the middle of nowhere and feels a bit artificial. It’s also a place to have a car as pavements are somewhat sporadically placed! We were pleased to be treating ourselves to two nights at the Hyatt where most of the wedding guests were staying and loved relaxing by the hotel pool. It was a little odd that the room didn’t come with many amenities however you could order from a list of luxury items (such as a fridge!) to be delivered to your room. It was fun getting to know some of the other wedding guests at drinks the night before and great to enjoy some American tucker at the local pub – mac and cheese with chorizo topped with salt and vinegar crisps!

Iconic American school bus transports guests to the wedding!

Iconic American school bus transports guests to the wedding!

The wedding itself was beautiful, set in a stunning walnut grove and decked out with white chairs, decorations and fairy lights. The bride and groom smiled their whole way through the evening and we had a lot of fun celebrating their marriage. We loved the buffet dinner with the Yukon mashed potatoes, the best I’ve had in my life! The wine mixing ceremony led to a wonderful combination of a South African Pinotage and Californian Pinot noir. There were also a lot of fun extras including a silent disco, croquet and DIY s’mores around the campfire. S’mores are made by toasting a marshmallow over the fire until golden on the outside and gooey in the middle and then sandwiching it between two biscuits and a few squares of chocolate which are melted by the hot marshmallow. Decidedly sticky and ridiculously delicious!

Enjoy cocktails with the bride - Foodies reunited!

Enjoy cocktails with the bride – Foodies reunited!

Driving Highway 1 – Santa Barbara
We picked up our not so sexy sedan hire car in Thousand Oaks and Mitch handled driving on the right (read wrong) side of the road like a pro. We found our next Servas hosts in the pretty Spanish inspired town of Santa Barbara. Darrell and Carol have a gorgeous house set up on the hill overlooking town.

Dinner with SERVAS host Darrell, Santa Barbara

Dinner with SERVAS host Darrell, Santa Barbara

We boosted our vegetable intake with a delicious stir fry for dinner with a tasty bottle of red that Darrell had just brought back from Mexico. They were a lovely couple, really interested in us and the purpose of our trip. They also shared some of their travel experiences in Israel and Spain and gave us some great suggestions for the rest of our road trip. Carol grew up in Brooklyn and returned to her roots serving up a tasty Jewish Babka (chocolate cake/bread) for dessert.
We were up early the next day for a hike around the surrounding mountain trails with Darrell before it got too hot. There was a little sea fog so we didn’t see out as far as the Channel Islands but got great views across town and to the sea. We spent the rest of the day exploring Santa Barbara by foot.

 Santa Barbara old Mission

Santa Barbara old Mission

We started with the old Spanish Mission which is very pretty and the blooming rose garden provided the perfect spot for our picnic lunch. We continued on to Karpeles Manuscript Library and Museum which we were the only people visiting and received great explanations of some the pieces from the lady on the front desk and enjoyed looking at exhibits such as the first computer in space, old peace treaties, and the first camera. It was a really interesting and diverse collection and worth popping in for twenty minutes or so. The courthouse is a beautiful building from the inside and out. The mural on the second floor is wonderfully colourful and you get great views from the top of the tower. We didn’t spend much time at the art and craft market along the harbour front as we were getting a bit hot but liked watching the stand up paddle boarders and other water sports from the pier. There’s a great shuttle service which for 50c takes you back up the hill which we happily took advantage of. Back at Carol and Darrel’s we cooled off in their pool before heading out to a Mexican place for dinner where a highlight was the horchata, a rice milk drink which was a bit like an iced chai latte.

Driving Highway 1 – Santa Barbara to Morro Bay
Our first stop was only about 10 minutes out of town up a big winding hill to find a cave containing American Indian paintings.

Native American Chumash cave paintings

Native American Chumash cave paintings

The cave was small but it was really interesting to compare the paintings with Aboriginal paintings. It was thanks to Carol and Darrel’s local knowledge that we found this old cultural gem which was unmentioned in our guide book.
We drove on through Solvang, an old Dutch influenced town which seemed very touristy and not much else so we kept on, stopping occasionally at vista points to take in the vast mountain views.

Clam chowder at Pismo Beach

Clam chowder at Pismo Beach

We enjoyed walking along Pismo Beach and, a little windswept, found our way to Splash cafe to try their infamous clam chowder for lunch. It comes served in a large scooped out bread roll with the top alongside for dipping. It was delicious, creamy and full of plenty of clams! We were full so had to get take away cinnamon rolls from the Great West Cinnamon Bun bakery – the one topped with cream cheese icing was ‘to die for.’

Cinnamon rolls - the one with cream cheese topping was delish

Cinnamon rolls – the one with cream cheese topping was delish

We followed Darrell’s advice again and treated ourselves to a hot springs mineral spa at Avilla Beach hidden up in the trees. It was wonderfully relaxing and we had beautifully soft skin afterwards. That evening we walked along the beach at Morro bay and watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean whilst admiring the giant rock jutting out of the sea. The perfect end to day 2 on the road.

Morro Bay at sunset

Morro Bay at sunset

Driving Highway 1 – Morro Bay to Monterey
After another Mexican meal of huevos rancheros for breakfast we were set for a big day on the Big Sur. Our first stop was one of our favourites on the route, admiring the enormous elephant seals at Piedras Blancas.

Elephant seals

Elephant seals

Due to the time of year we only saw the males as the females were out at sea apparently fishing for squid. We observed a few of the males practising some sparring techniques and heard from the ranger about their lifestyle breeding patterns. They really were incredible to watch and amazing to see such enormous creatures up close.

Elephant seals sparring

Elephant seals sparring

A little further up the road we stopped at Julia Pfeiffer State Park to find the McWay Falls where a waterfall tumbles off the cliff straight onto the beach.

Big Sur - McWay Falls

Big Sur – McWay Falls

It was really very pretty but given the long line for the car park, we think it might have been a little overhyped.. Similarly our Lonely Planet advised a stop to check out a cove about a mile’s walk down a steep path to a rocky beach. Again, very pretty but perhaps not worth the detour. Simply driving along the Big Sur (a long stretch of coastline rather than a particular place or beach) and taking in the impressive cliff tops and views out over the ocean are what makes this drive special. I couldn’t help but compare it to Australia’s Great Ocean Road which I’d driven with my Dad back in March. Both provide stunning scenery, wonderful view points, winding roads and unfortunately, lots of other tourists!

Bixby Creek Bridge - Big Sur

Bixby Creek Bridge – Big Sur

Things were looking up as we neared Monterey and decided to stop at Point Lobos State Park. The car parks were rather full but we secured a spot near the seal look out and sat on the rocks being greatly entertained by two gorgeous sea otters. We went for a stroll up around the look out and heard the sea lions barking at each other before we saw them. Not as up close and personal as the elephant seals we’d seen earlier in the day but on our way back a deer and fawn crossed right in front of us!
That evening we joined our next Servas hosts, Phillip and Heidi for drinks at their local with a few of their friendly colleagues. I enjoyed sampling a local Monterey white wine and then meeting the rest of the family including Ginger their wonderful Labrador-pitbull cross.
The next day we visited the Monetery Bay Aquarium, dodging the $40/person entrance fee as Heidi and Phillip were members! It was a little smaller than I expected however as a research and conservation organisation they had some excellent talks and feeding presentations.

Point Lobos state park

Point Lobos state park

We spent the afternoon back out at Point Lobos on a hike around the coastline where we saw more sea otters, birds, seals and deer. It was definitely my favourite State Park of those we visited and worth the $2 to get a map of the hiking trails.
We cooked Thai green chicken curry for the family that night followed by cranachan which all went down a treat. It was interesting to talk to Heidi and Phillip about their work and I was particularly interested in Phillip’s mediation technique – the game of 3 Rules.

Monterey was our last stop before dropping the car off in San Francisco. It was great to have a sense of independence which came with having our own car (even though it wasn’t a convertible mustang!), take in the rugged coastal beauty and see so much wildlife in their natural habitat. Highway 1 – a must do for road trippers but try and avoid going during school holidays!

A few days in Moscow

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A city of contradictions
Moscow is a city of contradictions. We arrived from St Petersburg via the fantastic high speed railway (expensive but worth it and great views across lakes and wetlands) and made our way to the metro to find our hotel. This involved going down really steep (and fast moving!) escalators but also a few stairs.

The metro stations of Moscow are beautiful. We did a self guided tour around the circle line and I was impressed that they have cleaning ladies attending to the art. Probably getting prepped for 2018..

The metro stations of Moscow are beautiful. We did a self guided tour around the circle line and I was impressed that they have cleaning ladies attending to the art. Probably getting prepped for 2018..

On two occasions, young men scooped up my bag at the bottom of the stairs and dashed up to the top with me hastily trying to keep up, unsure at first if this was theft or a kind deed. In a city where nobody smiles (this is seen as a sign of idiocy) and spoken English is a rarity, frowning, elderly women patiently helped us negotiate the metro, speaking slowly in Russian with lots of pointing. Apparently, once you scrape the surface of this huge city, the people are more friendly and seemed to appreciate our regular ‘spasiba’ (thank you) as they helped us.
The weather was another amazing contrast. One day we awoke to an intense thunder storm with crazy heavy rain. By lunchtime though the dark clouds had vanished and we were left with blue skies and sunshine. This happened on two of the three days we were there.
An expensive city
Moscow is also an expensive city. Despite the fall in the ruble, the exchange rate was not very favourable.. Fortunately, in order to obtain the complicated Russian tourist visa we’d had to organise accommodation in advance so had already paid for our lovely private hotel room at the great value and centrally located Mercure Arbat. The biggest tip off of our trip so far was on leaving Russia at Moscow airport. Unable to spot any water fountains once through security we bought a bottle of water each and Mitch had a cappuccino which cost us an extortionate $25! Mostly we ate at ‘fast food’ outlets or canteens where we paid between 500-750 rubles for a meal ($15-$20 AUD).

Enjoying lunch at Korshka Kartoshka

Enjoying lunch at Korshka Kartoshka

The food was quite satisfactory but we didn’t stumble across anything as good as we’d had in St Petersburg and we paid more. I quite liked the baked potatoes from Korshka Kartoshka which are served with the potato inside the jacket mashed up with cheese and butter and topped with a filling of your choice (feta and dill for me, chicken, ham and mushroom for Mitch). We also mistakenly sampled the national spirit, vodka, when ordering ‘honey mead’, which was extremely alcoholic but actually very tasty as vodka goes!

Icecream soviet style

Icecream soviet style

A good cheap snack to have a taste of the Soveit era is a cheap 50c ice cream from expensive department store rym gum.
A great city (but better in 3 years)
The free walking tour was excellent and our guide was fantastic. She was knowledgeable, enthusiastic and had the best sense of humour of all the Russians we’d encountered thus far. We learned that the government is already beginning to clear up the city in preparation for their controversial hosting of the 2018 football World Cup. Currently there isn’t a tourist information centre. Don’t worry, come back in 3 years and there will be. This flattened site with all the construction work? Come back in 3 years and it will be a beautiful park. Want a cheap hotdog from a street vendor? Too bad, they’ve already got rid of most of them as part of the clear up.
We also learned more about Russia’s pre Romanov history (which had been the focus in St Petersburg).

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square - beautiful design but would it save St Ivan's soul?

St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square – beautiful design but would it save St Ivan’s soul?

Our guide entertained us with tales about Ivan the terrible (who was pretty terrible – he killed his own son and future tsar in one of his rages and apparently had the architects who designed and built the beautiful St Basil’s Cathedral blinded so they couldn’t recreate it elsewhere) and current events. For instance the flag was raised at the Kremlin supposedly indicating that Putin was home however we’d seen that he was in St Petersburg meeting the FIFA chief that day.. Our guide’s response: he is Putin, he is everywhere!

Lots of cool statues around the city, after missing out on seeing Lenin 'in the flesh' Mitch makes do with a statue

Lots of cool statues around the city, after missing out on seeing Lenin ‘in the flesh’ Mitch makes do with a statue

It was pretty hot at 32 degrees so we decided to have a walk around some of Moscow’s parks that afternoon to make the most of the good weather. Unfortunately we hadn’t taken into consideration that it was Sunday afternoon and many Muscovites had had the same thought so it was pretty packed! The sculpture park was excellent, amazing sculputures everywhere.

Awesome pirate ship - how come this doesn't appear on all of the postcards? So cool!

Awesome pirate ship – how come this doesn’t appear on all of the postcards? So cool!

Our favourite was a huge pirate boat with a sailor up the front. No idea who it was or what it was representing but just its sheer scale was incredible. We also enjoyed a wander around Gorky Park and a snooze in the shade.
A city of holidays
Given the forecast for rain we decided to visit the Museum for contemporary history or the Russian Revolution Museum on Monday morning. I was eager to find out more about the fall of the Romanov dynasty and about Lenin and Stalin’s rise to power. Unfortunately I’ll have to read about it myself as it turned out Monday’s are a holiday. Similarly, they give Lenin’s corpse a rest from the tourists on Monday and so Mitch was disappointed to miss the opportunity to visit the former soviet leader’s tomb.

View over Kremlin from St Ivan's Bell Tower

View over Kremlin from St Ivan’s Bell Tower

However, we were lucky to get tickets to Ivan The Great’s Bell Tower that afternoon which also gave us access to the grounds of the Kremlin. Surrounded by a 15 foot high red brick wall, the Kremlin is an imposing fortress. On a backpackers budget I think this is the best way to visit the Kremlin. It’s only 200 rubies per person and so long as you aren’t interested in visiting all of the church’s inside but happy to admire the architecture and magnificent golden onion topped domes from their exterior, tickets for the bell tower only are the way to go.. Climbing the Bell Tower gives a great birds eye view across the Kremlin complex and out across Moscow. It also gives you free access to the grounds and gardens.

Our primary purpose for visiting Moscow was to get the cheap Aeroflot flight to LA however I was surprised by how much I liked the city. It didn’t have the same atmosphere and beauty as St Petersburg, and I don’t feel the need to revisit but it’s worth a few days visit if you’ve gone to the effort of getting a Russian tourist visa!

Uncovering history, art and good food in St Petersburg

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St Petersburg, like Canberra was a planned city, the design of Peter the 1st, or the Great as he was commonly known, in the early 18th century. Peter was keen to build trade links with Europe and so he relocated the country’s capital to a former swampland and encouraged visitors to the city to bring stone with them, which was lacking in the area, for building.
We had a sketchy start to our arrival in Russia’s former capital after Air Berlin cancelled our direct flight, rerouted us through Moscow with only an hour to connect and re-check in our bags, so we missed our connection and eventually arrived at 2.35am, about 14 hours later than anticipated. Fortunately our hostel organised a taxi for us and he sped us through the empty streets whooshing through the puddles and delivered us to our door.
We stayed at Soul Kitchen Hostel which I couldn’t recommend more highly. It’s in a fantastic location in the centre of the city next to a canal and our four bed dorm had a double bed each(!) with curtains enclosing each bed for privacy and all of the extras useful for travellers. Most amusing was the toilet cubicles which had a sensor and played classical music!
History of the City
Despite our late arrival we got up in time for the free walking tour led by local lad Vlad the following morning. The tour started in the enormous Palace square with the imposing column honouring Alexander I for leading the victory over the French in 1814. At 47m it was deliberately designed to be higher than Napoleon’s column in Paris!
I was struck by the number of beautiful, imposing buildings on nearly every corner we passed on the tour. Apparently it was typical of the Baroque period to design large buildings with the purpose to impress. They certainly succeeded and the city is a visual delight.
You can’t visit the Palace Square without noticing the Hermitage which stretches along one side. It was the former winter palace of the Romanov Royal family and so alongside the opulent rooms is one of the world’s greatest art collections.

Atlas statues - original hermitage

Atlas statues – original hermitage

The original Hermitage is a smaller building next door which got its name as it was intended to be Catherine the Great’s ‘little escape’ and housed her private art collection.
Some other highlights of the tour included learning more about the history of Catherine and Peter ‘the Greats’. The Bronze Horseman Statute (so named after a Pushkin poem) was my favourite as the most impressive in the city.

Peter the Great statue

Peter the Great statue

It depicts Peter as the strong military leader atop his horse which is rearing over a serpent symbolising the crushing of Russia’s enemies. The statue was built 6 decades after Peter’s death and was commissioned by his granddaughter in law, Catherine. Catherine was a German princess who married Peter III (the Great’s grandson). He only ruled for a few months before some statesman who disliked his leadership, politics and heavy drinking backed Catherine for the throne and she overthrew him in a military coup. Peter was imprisoned and died ‘mysteriously’ a few months later while Catherine was empress for more than 3 decades. However, she wanted to be remembered as the legitimate ruler and heir of Peter the Great which is why she commissioned the statue in his honour but with an inscription to Peter and herself underneath.
We also learned about the underground metro system which goes deep under the city to navigate underneath the Neva River and some stations are up to 86m deep, involving a 7 minute journey down the escalators!
I also thought the history behind the name of the city was interesting. The original name, St Petersburg, combined Latin and German and continued until 1914. During World War One Germany and Austria were Russia’s enemies so it was decided to change the name to the more Russian sounding ‘Petrograd’. This only lasted a decade until 1924 when it was changed to Leningrad after the revolution. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 that a referendum was held and it resumed its original name. I found it fascinating how the country’s wars and history determined these name changes.
Surprisingly Foodie City
We also learned about the story behind stroganoff. Count Stroganov was the head of a wealthy family and lived a long life, well into his 80s. He’d always appreciated good food but at such an age found himself missing a few teeth. He asked his chefs to create a dish that he could still enjoy and there was born stroganoff!
We had a tasty lunch of cabbage soup (much nicer than the stuff my mum ate for days as part of a diet some years ago) and some delicious Russian schnitzel pancake (I don’t know the actual name) which was like a veal schnitzel covered in egg and fried so it resembled a pancake.

Church of our Saviours Blood

Church of our Saviours Blood

After lunch we visited Our Saviours Church of Spilled Blood, a stunning Russian Orthodox Church with colourful facades and chimneys. It is named because it lies where Alexander II was assassinated by early Marxist radicals.
Making the most of the rare sunshine we continued exploring the city by foot for the rest of the afternoon and enjoyed a stroll through numerous gardens, the grounds of the Peter and Paul Fortress and alongside the river. Feasting on the Russian cuisine

For dinner we ventured to the recommended Soviet Cafe to sample some more local cuisine in a restaurant decorated and furnished in 1970s soviet style. Of course we had to try borscht (beetroot soup) which was lovely and quite different from how I’ve had it before. Not a thick purée but a meat stock, packed with vegetables but still retaining the purple colour. It was complimented nicely by a dollop of sour cream and fresh dill. Mitch washed this down with a glass of Kvas, a mildly sweet drink which is essentially a non alcoholic beer made from fermented rye bread. It is the old proletariat drink that the farmers and workers used to drink instead of water. I opted for birch juice, which was lightly flavoured and slightly sweet. This was followed by two Russian dishes whose names I have forgotten – a sizzling plate of roast potatoes, pork, onion and tomato, and crispy ham and mushroom pancakes with sour cream which were somewhat lacking in flavour and a bit greasy. We were tempted to carry on and find out what ‘drunken checkers: horseradish vs cranberry’ involved but after our late night opted to keep that a mystery.
Getting Arty
We visited the Hermitage the following afternoon with a tour guide organised through the same free walking tour company. Our guide, Tania, was fantastic. We were able to skip the long queues and actually find some of the more interesting pieces on display.

Our favourite art work at the Hermitage - a mechanical clock, still working, a gift from one of Catherine the a great'so lover's

Our favourite art work at the Hermitage – a mechanical clock, still working, a gift from one of Catherine the a great’so lover’s

The Hermitage is an enormous labyrinth and although we’re on a budget it was a great decision to go with a guide. She was also full of lots of anecdotes about the artists and the paintings and some of the myths and legends behind them. I was hesitant about visiting the Hermitage as I’m not a big art buff and was concerned we’d get lost in amongst the huge collection. Having been I can’t believe I considered skipping it. The palace rooms at the beginning are incredible. Many are lavishly decorated with gold and marble (interestingly they mixed the marble so as to create a warmer affect given the chilly Russian climate) and must be seen to be believed.
We had a short break after 3 hours with Tania and then visited the General Staff building across the square which houses a fantastic collection of the 20th century masters – Renoir, Matisse, Monet, Van Gough, Picasso..
We were tired and hungry after our arty afternoon but we joined the hordes of shoppers on the main avenue Nevsky Prospect and battled our way through until we found Pelmenya, a restaurant recommended for delicious dumplings not only Russian but with Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Ukrainian varieties.

Dumplings!

Dumplings!

We enjoyed sampling most of these and particularly liked the varenky, both sweet (cherry and sour cream) and savoury (filled with melted cheese served with a yogurt, garlic and dill sauce). The Russian variety – pelmeni, were ok but were filled with an unidentifiable minced meat (perhaps chicken) and not as tasty as the varenky or pumpkin and carrot manti. We also had a side of three varieties of sauerkraut: traditional, Georgian and Korean – all delicious! My only regret invisiting this restaurant was that we weren’t with a larger group to try more!
We had some time to kill before the infamous White Nights opening of the draw bridges which commences at 1.25am throughout summer so found ourselves a craft beer bar and sampled some of the local brew. They had some tasty pale ales but Mitch unwisely choose a cherry stout which was a little hard going! The draw bridge opening was as anticlimactic as expected and although it draws a large crowd both on land and from tourist boats I’d only recommend it if you happened to still be up and close to the river at that time.
On our last morning we loaded up with some snacks for the high speed train to Moscow. Highly recommended are the deeply filled pies from chain baker, Stolle (we had one mushroom and one green onion, really tasty and filling) and the traditional pyshka, Russian donuts.

I loved St Petersburg. Admittedly we were very lucky with the weather but I felt like the city had a really positive atmosphere, I was wowed by the architecture and surprised by how tasty the food was. After our flight hassles we only had two full days but I would highly recommend at least a long weekend in St Petersburg.

22-25 July 2015

This Is Saxony!

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Workaway
Unfortunately our plans to cycle for a week alongside the River Maine visiting wineries fell through and so we found a workaway host that was en route to spend some time with instead. Workaway is similar to wwoofing in that you stay with a host, work 5 days a week, 5-6 hours per day in exchange for food and accommodation. It differs in that the work doesn’t have to involve organic farming. It can be anything that will be useful to the host (this is advertised on their online profile so you have some idea in advance) including gardening, cleaning, babysitting, teaching English, renovations etc.

An army of dogs
Our interest was peaked in our first host as it was described as a perfect stay for animal lovers, living in an old semi-converted mill helping to look after the 6 dogs and a few Icelandic ponies. One of the dogs had just had puppies so the work would also involve playing with them. This hardly sounded like work and we were soon booked in for 8 days in Saxony, near the border with Thuringen.

Our host picked us up from the train station and was lovely and chatty despite having slightly sketchy English. On arrival at the tiny village of langenleuba – oberhain (a small bakery and a hairdresser were the only services) we were greeted by an army of dogs. It turns out there were 8 adult dogs (two of them only a year old) and 6 puppies! Our host had been at work all day so they were super excited to see her.

In amongst the dog army

In amongst the dog army

Now, I would describe myself as an animal lover, and a definite dog person but when you’ve got 4 Scottish setters, 2 Great Danes and 6 puppies jumping up and barking all around you and you’re trying to get into the courtyard and not let them out, while carrying your luggage, even I was a little overwhelmed!

The smallest and biggest representatives of the dog army - Cora and Ido

The smallest and biggest representatives of the dog army – Cora and Ido

I thought we would never learn all of the dogs names but we came to love Schmoozy, Ido, Leisel, Mina, Ricky, Dicky, Fronnie and especially little Cora – the chiwawa which made me change my mind about handbag dogs!
We were pleased to have a room with a little living room off it at the top of the mill which was a dog free zone and a nice haven for some quiet at the end of the day.

Sunset view from our bedroom window

Sunset view from our bedroom window

We also got lovely sunsets across the fields from up there.

The work
The mill and outbuildings were huge and only a few of the rooms had been renovated to living standards. We spent a day clearing out the loft area above the horses stables which was full of old boxes, tools, horse harnesses, milk pails, junk and stuff that looked like it been there since the 18th century. Everything was really dusty, there were cobwebs everywhere and I was charged by a few spiders released from under boxes. It was not a fun job and I’m not sure our ‘beats being at work’ slogan applied on that day!

Building the electric fence for newt paddock for the horses

Building the electric fence for newt paddock for the horses

Mostly though our work involved grooming the horses, mucking out their field and stable, fixing fences, building up new electric fences, moving hay and trying to help clear out some courtyards. We also helped a local farmer one day to shovel and move 8 tonnes of horse manure. Our host was lovely and clearly genuinely loved all of her animals but as a single person with a demanding full time job we felt like she’d possibly taken on too much with the property and continual acquirement of animals.

Job done - 8 tonnes of manure moved

Job done – 8 tonnes of manure moved

We helped her get by but we were mostly doing daily chores and so we were left feeling unsatisfied and somewhat melancholy about how unsustainable the arrangement was. She had no time to walk the dogs so they were always hyper and when we ventured out with them (only five, not the whole lot) I nearly got my arm ripped off as they tore through the gate, so excited to be out and then they constantly pulled on the lead. I think in this situation, love for the animals was not enough, our host needed more time for them. She also didn’t have much time for us, not that we minded too much, but we mostly organised our own meals and rarely ate together as she was home from work quite late. We did cook for them once (with the minimal ingredients we could find!) which consisted of kartoffel puffe (potato cakes) and home made apple sauce.

An outing
There were some highlights from our trip there though. We had a sunny Sunday afternoon off and our host offered to take us with her neighbour to a beer Keller in the next town.

At the beer kellar

At the beer kellar

We jumped at the chance as in Bamburg our servas hosts had explained that kellars didn’t really exist anymore and when we saw signs for them it generally meant a beer garden. After a hot morning of physical work mucking out the inquisitive Shetland ponies a few beers in the sun sounded perfect. Little did we know how random our outing was to be.. Our first clue was being advised to bring a jumper as the kellar may be cold. Hmm, strange given that it was 30 degrees outside. We arrived at a lovely looking pub in Penig and were given hard hats and taken down, down, down underground to a genuine beer cellar, used in the 15th century for storage! It was about 9 degrees down there so pretty chilly and the whole experience was quite bizarre given that after establishing that we only spoke English, the guide proceeded to give the whole tour in German with no translation from our hosts! We understood bits and pieces, it was interesting but really, quite strange.
Saxony - Amerika train stationThe theme continued with our next stop – Amerika! The hamlet seemed to consist of a disused train station and an American flag and a pub. We only stayed about five minutes because there really wasn’t much there.

We also had fun being in the Saxon countryside where the dialect was really strong. Mitch’s German is basic but usually he can gleam an understanding of what people were saying whereas in Saxony, it really was another language.

So it really wasn’t all bad, in fact, mostly we had a good time, it just wasn’t what we had expected from workaway. Having just spent 10 days at our second workaway we can definitely say that each experience is very different as we had a fantastic time there. More about that soon.