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Friday, February 29, 2008

The Eastern adventure

So, after so many problems with the visa, so much money spent and so many lessons missed, I managed to get to Russia 2 weeks ago... and the result was somehow disappointing (but it was quite an adventure indeed).

Moscow is a huge, ugly and unfriendly city, where nobody speaks English (first hint for travellers, learn some basic Russian stuff, especially the alphabet in order to decypher the name of the metro stations). The visitors should actually avoid any kind of contact with any kind of police, they are always ready to annoy foreigners with any excuse (some of my friends had to go to the police stations just to have their passports checked, other one had to bribe 25 euro to avoid further 'problems').

About the metro stations, they are quite impressive indeed, but the network is not very practical actually, since the distance between stations is enormous (so it takes a long walk to find the closest one). The prices are really expensive (it is said to be the most expensive city in the world), which is surprising, considering that the quality of life is rather poorer than in other big capitals such as Paris, London or even Istanbul.

Sometimes it is just impossible to find normal shops or pubs, and regarding this I can give another hint: the best pubs are the Kruzhka (there are several around the city, young people and cheap prices until midnight, there is one really close to the Red Square), and the best club we managed to find is the OGI Projekt (nice music and even foreigner students around), located in a backyard in the middle of somewhere, without any external indication -- so virtually impossible to find if you don't know before.

But not everything is bad in Moscow, there are still some nice sights. The Red Square (one of the musts of any traveller) is quite impressive, with the colourful domes of Saint Basil's cathedral, the red walls of the Kremlin, the Lenin's mausoleum (which was closed, by the way) and a horrible iceskating rink in the center.

The Kremlin itself, with several white-and-golden churches and other historical buildings deserves also a visit. Besides that, the reconstructed cathedral of Christ the Savior, the monument of Peter the Great or the Seven Sisters (Stalin-style skyscrapers) are other points of interest, but there is not much more to see around (there are some other curious places such as the incredibly high Ostankino tower, the soviet leftovers of the VDNKh exhibition center or the Vernisage street market). About museums, I had only the chance to visit the Tretyakovskaya Gallery, which contains a nice sample of Russian art.

The second biggest city of Russia is Saint Petersburg, often called 'the window to Europe' of Russia, and in fact it is a more open-minded city, with even some information in English around (amazing!). Only few hours walking around the city center are enough to notice that it is far more used to tourists and visitors than Moscow. The main street (Nyevsky prospekt) is full of nice historical buildings (theatres, palaces, churches...), pubs and shops of any kind. It is definitely work to walk around by night, when all the buildings are illuminated.

The view of Dvortsovaya Ploshchad (where the Hermitage Museum is located) is impressive, but again there is this terribly ugly ice-skating rink in the middle destroying everything... what's wrong with Russians? why do they need to ice-skate exactly in the middle of their most beautiful squares? Anyway the Hermitage museum is definitely worth a visit. It is free for students of any citizenship (which is surprising, since usually foreigners -even students- pay 2 or 3 times more than russians in tourist places or museums), and it is such a gift... from Velazquez to Picasso, from Rembrandt to Gauguin, the collection is amazing. So it is the place in which is located, a complex formed by 6 palaces, main one being the incredible Winter Palace.

There are some other interesting places, such as the Peter and Paul fortress (a pity that there are a lot of streetworks in there right now). Prices in St Peter are a bit cheaper than in Moscow (but still 'western European'), and the metro network is similar: again long walks to reach the closest stop. The city is not as huge as Moscow but still very big... it took more than one hour to our bus to get away from the traffic jam trying to escape towards Estonia.

So it seems that Russia is a big experience for travellers, although I didn't have the chance to see anything else but its 2 biggest cities. Don't miss the chance to make some trip by train: the third class wagons (platskarny) are twice cheaper than 2nd class (kupeyny) and are quite an experience. And take it easy with the vodka... it can be so cheap! (less than 4 euro per liter for the cheapest brands).

Anyway if you have never travelled around eastern Europe, I wouldn't suggest Russia as the first place. It is difficult and expensive to get there (visa, compulsory insurance, plane tickets and so on), the prices are also expensive, it is really difficult to communicate in English, and life is sometimes so uncomfortable for visitors. There are places in which you can taste the east much more easily (and cheaper!): Romania, Serbia or Ukraine are some of the recommended options (being the latter the closest to Russia and also the cheapest).

Now I am back in Tallinn, but the adventure doesn't stop. A week of lessons and studying in Barcelona, and then... Cuba! that's gonna be another adventure, for sure.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Everlasting fairytale

'Everlasting Fairytale' is the slogan of Tallinn 2011 (European Capital of Culture) and it is somehow true... when you walk around the narrow streets of Vanalinn (literally, 'the Old City') you feel part of these tales of princes and princesses, dragons and knights. The stone-paved streets, the small colourful houses, the slim and sharp towers in the skyline... you can even find people in medieval customs inviting you to try some delights in restaurants decorated as if they were inns and taverns of ancient times. Danes, Swedes, Germans and Russians have passed by the city leaving part of their culture. Mix it with the genuine Estonian spirit and you will get an unique city in the whole world.

Despite this medieval look, Estonia is probably one of the most looking-forward countries in the world. Hi-tech, wifi and credit cards everywhere, and a strong desire to move towards the west. At first sight, the fact that Estonia was part of the USSR only 17 years ago is just unbelievable. Tallinn is a pefect western (even Nordic) city with all the european commodities, modern glass skyscrapers and shopping malls. The people speak English and watch American series, and they feel Finland (70 km away by sea) to be their closest neighbour, much more than Russia or even Latvia. But it takes just a walk outside the center to notice the Soviet past of the small Republic. Suddenly, you can travel 20 years back in time in the street market just next to the train station, where you can easily find, for instance, uniforms of the Red Army.

Anyway, Tallinn is a must for all those who want to experience how is it possible to jump from the USSR to the EU in such a short time, and besides that, its beautiful Old City definitely deserves a visit. The Oleviste church (once the highest building in the world), the medieval Town Hall (from the times of the Hansa league), the palace of Kadriorg (bulit for tsar Peter I) and so many other sights, within a pictoresque and well preserved medieval town (UNESCO world heritage) are quite a big surprise for most visitors.

Visiting Estonia means also the chance to meet the Estonian people. With a strong personality, Estonians are usually quiet and apparently cold -- just apparently, get to know them and you will appreciate their warmth. But they are totally honest, and they would never fake a smile if they really don't want to smile at you. If you are (as me) lucky to have Estonian friends, you will notice soon that you have good friends indeed.

PS: about the neverending story of the Russian visa... I got it! tomorrow I will pick my passport from the Russian embassy in Tallinn and then jump into the Tallinn Ekspress. Destination: Moscow, Oktiabrskaia station. For sure, a lot of adventures are awaiting in the city of the Kremlin and the Red Square. I will try to keep you informed ;)

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Between two worlds

Long time ago since my last post (shame!) and now I am just sitting here, in the reception of a hostel in Istanbul, just next to Taksim square, after an incredible week here. The word 'unexpected' is definitely one of my favourite ones... who could expect this trip to Istanbul, when I was just getting ready for Russia (not that I am not going there, but it is not sure at all, this visa issue is getting *so* complicated)/

Istanbul, the last stop of the Orient Express, a city where 15 million people live just between two continents: Europe and Asia, and between two worlds: East and West. And for sure, I will never forget the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen so far, drinking tea on top of Leander's Tower (a fortress surrounded by sea, reachable only by boat, in front of the Asian side but technically located neither in Europe nor Asia), with the sun just getting behind the skyline of the old Istanbul, dominated by the minarets of Ayasofya (Saint Sophie, former orthodox cathedral and then mosque) and Sultanahmet (the Blue Mosque).

Another magical trip, but I won't stop here. What is next? tomorrow I will be in Berlin... let's see. Keep in touch.

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