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Downtown USA

Travel Blog

We recently visited the USA for the first time in many years, primarily to enjoy the experience of travelling on one of the america’s great trans continental train journeys (see Riding the California Zephyr). We also spent some time in five major cities: New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Each has its own distinctive character but there were some features common to all five:

Dramatic skylines

Of course  downtown areas of American cities have long been characterised by impressive clusters of skyscraper buildings. For European visitors such as ourselves, arriving in New York and confronting its towering skyline is still a spectacular sight, especially at night. We were fortunate to be able to enjoy part of the this skyline from our bedroom window, the highlight of which was the Chrysler building, the world’s tallest building when it was built in 1931 and still the world’s tallest brick building.

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Chicago has always struggled to match the majesty of New York’s skyline, especially the status of having the world’s tallest building (twice during the 1970’s) but it still manages to impress

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Anish Kapoor’s Cloud  Gate sculpture known locally as ‘The Bean’

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The Chicago River

Chicago also offers spectacular rooftop night time views to rival that Of New York’s Empire State Building

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New York looking to Freedom Tower and Lower Manhattan

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Views from Chicago’s Hancock Tower (now called 360 Observatory), the latter picture showing the Navy Pier and Lake Michigan

Neon Lights

Leaving aside the advertising overkill in New York’s Times Square, neon lighting is still very striking in American cities. We found this especially true of California whose film industry has done so much to help create the distinctive atmospheric (and frequently very dark/noirish) mood associated with neon e.g. Sweet Smell of Success, Blade Runner and Vertigo (see movie scenes below)

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Elmwood Cinema, Berkeley

In Los Angeles, even some of the metro stations use neon as part of the station identity

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Of course some of the most famous neon landmarks can be found in Hollywood

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The intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine St.

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The infamous Frolic Room which dates from the 1930s

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A neon lit film poster on Sunset Boulevard.

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A choice of beer

Prior to arriving in Los Angeles, we stayed in Pismo Beach which felt almost like slipping back into an early 1960’s surfer movie.

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Sometimes, passing a late night urban cafe/restaurant could seem like you were witnessing a scene from an Edward Hopper painting, as in this picture from Chicago’s Rosebud restaurant.

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Public Transport

Despite the fact most American cities primarily cater for the motor car, it is still arguably much more interesting to navigate large cities like New York, and even much of Los Angeles, by public transport. In New York this includes the best free ride in town, the Staten Island Ferry

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Otherwise, the best way to visit New York’s urban highlights is via its much maligned subway system. A few stops will take you through some very diverse neighbourhoods.

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Chicago’s best ride is the CTA loop, an elevated subway track which provides a great view of the downtown area

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San Francisco is known for its cable cars designed to cope with some of the city’s very steep gradients, but these are purely for tourists. Just as attractive are its fleet of trams many of which date from the 1930’s.

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Los Angeles also has an historic ‘tramway’ the Angels Flight funicular. Built in 1901, it was designed to climb the ascent up to Bunker Hill. Sadly, we discovered that it ceased operating in 2013 for ‘health and safety’ reasons (which meant we had to navigate the very steep climb to our hotel on foot).

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The Angels Flight funicular

Finally, New York and Los Angeles boast two of America’s most beautiful railway stations, Grand Central and Union Station respectively.

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Glorious libraries

In a country with seemingly minimal commitment to public services,  the grandeur of these two railway stations is somewhat surprising. It was almost just as surprising to discover some of America’s great American city libraries during our visit.

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New York Public Library

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Boston Public Library

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Chicago’s magnificent old Central Library, now the City Cultural Centre

Art Deco

Despite the demolition of many classic buildings from the art deco era, thankfully it was still possible to find some remaining gems in all the cities we visited. In New York, one of the standout examples is the Chrysler building dating from 1931

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Chrysler Building exterior and lobby (below)

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The 1929 Chanin Building in New York

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Empire State building 1931

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Chicago’s Carbide and Carbon Building 1929

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Los Angeles 1928 Oviatt Building, Cicada Restaurant

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Los Angeles Subway Terminal building 1925, part of the city’s first underground subway station

The ever changing city

All the cities we visited seemed to be undergoing significant change and renewal. New York, in particular, was a very different city from our previous visit in the 1980’s. The gentrification of Lower Manhattan is now virtually complete. Google has taken over the Port Authority Building and chauffeur driven luxury 4 x 4 cars sit outside Prada in SoHo.

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Thankfully, a few outposts from the heyday of Greenwich Village have survived, such as the Bitter End Club, where Bob Dylan played in the early 1960’sdsc05115

In midtown Manhattan, Hudson Yards is the sight of the largest ever American construction project. It is a mini city being built on stilts above a huge railway yard (rather than a lagoon like Venice).

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Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the development of the once rather rundown downtown area is still continuing with the recent addition of two striking adjacent 21st century arts buildings, the  Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, and the recently opened Broad Art Gallery, which contains the impressive modern art collection of Eli Broad, an art loving businessman.

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Disney Concert Hall

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The Broad

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Inside the Broad

Alongside the obvious wealth of much of the downtown areas, it was difficult not to notice the large amount of homelessness, especially in California (where the weather is not so severe in Winter). They might be propped up at a tram stop or have left their belongings in a supermarket trolley. It was clear that many were in urgent need of mental health care

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San Francisco

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Los Angeles

Being election time, it was encouraging to see that Proposition HHH, a proposal to raise $1.2 billion to support care of the homeless was on the ballot (and was indeed passed)

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Other proposals seemed less charitable

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Seen outside Los Angeles City Hall

Back in new York, we witnessed a lone protester trying to draw attention to the downside to one of the presidential candidates. Sadly, very few people seemed to be listening.

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A Tale of Two Cuisines

One of the great pleasures provided by American cities is to sample the differing culinary choices on offer. In New York we stopped by the legendary  Katz’s Delicatessen in the Lower East Side, which has been serving Jewish food since 1888. It did not disappoint in terms of atmosphere, quality and portion size.

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In sharp contrast, the eating experience in the Venice Beach’s Abbot Kinney Boulevard (Los Angeles) was distinctly contemporary –  from the condiments to the wacky ice cream flavours on offer. dsc06421dsc06424

If the food wasn’t healthy enough then you could always nip along to the beach and tone up your muscles.

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Movie locations

American cities have been the location for countless films. Here’s a small sample of the many locations we came across (or more often, sought out)

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Two locations from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, San Francisco

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The Bradbury Building, Los Angeles, location for Blade Runner and many other films

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Touch of Evil mural, Venice beach

 

Riding the California Zephyr

Travel Blog

Crossing America by train is a superb way to enjoy some of the country’s most spectacular scenery as well as an opportunity to get to know some fascinating fellow travellers sharing the epic journey from Chicago to San Francisco.

The Zephyr originally ran from 1949 until 1970 when it was withdrawn due to falling passenger numbers. Amtrak, the American rail network revived it in 1983, and it still takes the same 52 hours it required in 1949 to traverse the nearly 2500 miles of the route to the Bay Area of California. 

Here is a a more detailed map

We started our journey at Chicago’s magnificent Union station, the location for many famous films such as The Untouchables, Dark Knight and Blade Runner

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On leaving Chicago we quickly moved into the flat cornfields of Illinois. The train made periodic scheduled stops which sometimes provided a chance to alight and stretch the legs such as in Galesburg.

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An old preserved pacific steam locomotive Galesburg railway museum

Despite the many miles of prairies and small towns of Illinois and Iowa, there was a range of interesting sights along the way, such as election posters and small town high streets which had seen more prosperous times.

A milestone on the journey was crossing the Mississippi River in Burlington Iowa.

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After our first evening meal, it was soon time to retire to our compartment for the night which involved converting our seats into bunk beds – not the most spacious sleeping accommodation but all part of the fun. It required quite careful organisation to maximise the limited available space. The bedtime experience is certainly unique, especially the additional roll you get from being in the upper deck of the carriage at the tail of the train. The continuous blast of the train horn during the night as it roared through the mid-west added an almost 1950’s cinematic touch to the ride. In case you want to share the sound    take a listen.

Our first night’s sleep ended as we arrived at Denver’s Union station at dawn. It was quite magical pulling up at the platform just as the sky turned pink on a chilly morning at 7.00 am. We emerged for a 30 minute break to admire the recently restored station which was buzzing with commuters rushing to grab their morning ‘artisan’ espressos. Judging from the station, it certainly justified Denver’s reputation as a thriving hi-tech and financial centre, the ‘Wall St of the Rocky Mountains’.

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Climbing through Colorado, the scenery was becoming very attractive as we snaked though the Rocky Mountains (including 33 tunnels), crossed the Continental divide at over 9000 feet, and began travelling alongside the Colorado River via some spectacular canyons. dsc05647dscf4013dscf4020dscf4034

dsc05665 To enjoy such scenery from both sides of the train we took a seat in the observation car

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Apart  from the beautiful landscape,  the most memorable aspect of the journey was our encounters with fellow passengers, whether in the observation car or during mealtimes, when the choice of sharing the dinner table was left to the catering manager.

Our first such encounter involved a man who without much prompting, began pouring out his life story about the rise and fall of his rental business (he ended up in jail) and  which climaxed with him tearfully rueing the fact his sister had financially (and morally) betrayed him whilst he was in jail, and he was only now recovering from bankruptcy and depression.Another  passenger casually revealed she had just left her man in Alabama (‘a bad situation’), was carrying all her belongings in a suitcase, and starting a new life in Oregon. Aside from these rather down beat stories,  we met many delightful passengers from very diverse backgrounds, the only common factor being the joy of travelling by long distance train.

Come the need for rest or privacy, we could retreat to our compartment and bed, but the hardy Amish family in the picture spent the whole journey at their observation car table.

Our last two stops in Colorado included Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction. The last call on the notice board (in the second picture) had to be taken seriously for those passengers stepping off for a short break. We later learned we had left one passenger behind in Reno – a regular occurrence according to our conductor.

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Grand Junction

As the sun lowered and we crossed over the state border into Utah, the view from the train became quite riveting. It began to feel like the wild west.

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As the sun set over the Utah desert we passed by two largely abandoned towns, Cisco and Thompson Springs, which had featured in the film Thelma and Louise. One of those moments when it was frustrating not to be able to get off and explore.

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Cisco

During our second night we stopped at Salt Lake City, and then travelled across the salt flats before entering Nevada. Breakfast was served as we pulled into Reno. Before long we had crossed the state boundary into California. Our first two stops were Truckee and Colfax

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Truckee

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Colfax

At this stage an Amtrak employee provided commentary (from a script) as we traversed the Sierra Nevada and passed through the Donner Pass. Not everyone was fully engaged with his revelations.

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By now we were a little punch drunk on the scenery but just as intrigued by the range of passengers we were meeting – a hirsute delivery driver regaled us with his tales of panning for gold in the hills, an activity I assumed had long since been abandoned.

After a largely neglected lunch – the rather bland Amtrak menu had become a little repetitive, we soon descended into Sacramento, the state capital, followed finally by the long coastal skirting of the San Francisco Bay Area. Compared to the grandeur of Chicago’s Union Station, it was somewhat anti-climatic to arrive not at San Francisco but the neighbouring small city of Emeryville, amazingly nearly an hour ahead of schedule.

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Dollicia, our wonderful attendant

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A little exhausted, but still feeling a residue of euphoria from our memorable journey, we were glad to be met by friends, and could soon enjoy watching the sun set over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge whilst we sipped our beer across the bay in Berkeley.

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Puglia – Italy’s seductive stiletto

Travel Blog

Occupying the southern ‘stiletto’ or ‘heel’ of Italy, Puglia is a long way physically, but more notably culturally, from  the sophisticated modernity of Italy’s northern cities like Milan. Whilst tourists are attracted to its beautiful coastline, the quaint trullis (dry stone conical buildings) in the towns of the Itrian valley, and not least the area’s marvellous cuisine, when visiting the centro storico of towns like Gallipoli and Bari, it almost feels like being transported back to another era when, to coin a cliche, life was a bit simpler and more relaxed. How long this mode of living survives is debatable, as it feels like a rapidly diminishing feature of 21st century Europe.

Here are a few cultural impressions arising from our recent visit:

Fishing and seafood

Being sandwiched between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, it is not surprising fishing plays a significant role in the local economy. Ports like Gallipoli and Bari still have a large number of traditional fishing boats bringing their daily catch on to the shoreline.

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Gallipoli

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Bari Port

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The spiky creatures in the picture are sea urchins

Street Life

The streets of Bari’s Barivecchia and Galiipoli’s centro storico comprise narrow passages opening out on to communal piazzas which usually contain a church. Whilst wandering the streets,  there seems little private space. Living rooms and kitchens are open to the public gaze and friends and family engage in conversation whilst children are free to roam.

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Gallipoli at night

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Barivecchia

Every doorway has a distinctive character

Whilst some doorways lead into courtyards

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Often it is possible to glimpse men playing cards or a barber shaving a customer

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As in other Italian cities, football is still avidly played and watched

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Men tend to dominate public space often engaged in animated conversation or simply playing cards

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In contrast, women will often be looking out from their windows or balconies

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It seems religious festivals are a regular occurrence which made for some atmospheric lighting along Gallipoli’s passages

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Chiesa del SS Crocifissio

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Food

Puglia is renowned for its cuisine. It is Italy’s biggest supplier of olive oil and durum wheat (for pasta), and fruit and vegetables are in abundant supply. As such, it is no surprise many foodies make a pilgrimage to the area.

No need for Tesco express here

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We enjoyed some superb meals comprising locally grown produce at a fraction of the cost you would pay elsewhere in northern Italy or Britain.

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Antipasto in Peccato di vino, Otranto

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Solito Posto, Gallipoli

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Terranima, Bari

In an area with such a string emphasis on public engagement, cafe culture is vibrant.

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Caffe Trieste, Martina Franca

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Caffe Colella Battista, Bari

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Caffe Parisi, Nardo

In a Starbucks free land, it was surprising to find Puglia has its own cafe chain called Martinucci We found ourselves drawn towards its sumptious pasticceria, not least the pasticiotti –  local shortcrust pastries with various fillings.

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Lemon and almond pasticiotti

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Martinucci, Lido Marini

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Martinucci, Bari

Puglia’s urban highlights

Lecce is probably Puglia’s most attractive town with respect to its well preserved baroque architecture and university, but we fell for the following three places:

Ostuni

Known as the ‘white city’ for obvious reasons

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Gallipoli

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 Bari

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Aldo Moro University 1925

And finally, to inspire a burst of song, the statue in Polignano sul Mare of Domenico Modugno, the composer and singer of Volare (flying)

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Summer in the city – Lisbon

Travel blog

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Fortified every so often with a bica (espresso) and pastel nata (egg custard) Lisbon is a great city to explore. It has overtaken Barcelona (which shares many similar characteristics)  in our affections partly because of its more manageable scale, but mainly because it seems more at ease with tourism and the transition from tradition to modernity. Apart from a few tourist favourites, like the castle and the number 28 tram route, it is possible to wander its neighbourhoods in relative solitude, and enjoy the multitude of pleasures Lisbon has to offer.

Champions of Europe

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Our arrival coincided with the city celebrating Portugal having just won the Euros final in Paris  the previous evening. We just missed the open top bus parade, but hundreds of fans were still in joyous mood parading the streets with their flags, banners, etc.Sporting triumphs do help to unite people, even if only temporarily, and Portugal, still suffering from the financial crisis of 2010, could certainly do with some reason to cheer.

The hilly city

Moving around and between Lisbon’s neighbourhoods usually requires engaging with steep ascents and descents because the city is built over seven hills. Aside from the health benefits of navigating these hills, there is also the reward of arriving at one of the many miradors which afford the opportunity to gaze across the cityscape and admire the views.

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Lisbon’s wonderful trams

If you don’t have the energy or inclination to walk there’s always the trams. With most of the fleet dating from the 1930’s, riding on a late night tram along the cobbled streets of Alfama or Graca, whilst almost brushing the old terraced housing, it is easy to imagine you have been transported back to pre-war Europe.

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(and Train Station)

Rossio Station (formerly Central Station) which dates from 1887 has a most stylish facade and interior which not even being partly occupied by Starbucks can spoil.

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Besides the sea

Being mid-Summer, you might expect the heat to be oppressive. However, being next to the sea, Lisbon enjoys pleasant cooling breezes, and if it does get a bit too hot then you have an excellent choice of beaches near to hand. One option is the train along the Tagus estuary to the beaches at Estoril and Cascais.  Alternatively, a short ferry crossing and bus journey will take you to the miles of sand dunes and windswept beaches of the Costa Caparica.
A mini-train will take you along the beach until you decide to hop off and ponder the colourful old beach houses before relaxing on the beach seemingly miles from the urban milieu of Lisbon.

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Crossing back over the Tagus river by bus provides a different perspective from the 25 de Abril  bridge, a magnificent suspension bridge not dissimilar to San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge.
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25 de Abril Bridge taken from the superb Atira-te ao rio restaurant in Cacilhas

Further inland, The Vasco de Gama Bridge provides the second crossing of the Tagus. At nearly 11 miles long, it is Europe’s longest bridge. I am sure Thomas Telford would have been impressed, as we were, by its beautiful design.

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Street Art

Whilst Lisbon has more than its fair share of ugly graffiti, genuine artists have left their mark on many of the city’s buildings, often brightening up unattractive paces like this metro under-passage.

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There are more traditional sights to be found in Lisbon including groups of older men gathered around communal tables to play cards and socialise.

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Plenty of bookshops

It’s also pleasing to find bookshops still thriving. These include Bertrand, reputedly the world’s oldest bookshop dating from 1732 (although the original bookshop was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1755)

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Sa Da Costa antiquarian bookshop dating from 1943

In the LX Factory in Alcantra, the old printing press lies dormant but almost poetically is surrounded by books as part of the Ler Devager bookstore.

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Stylish cafes

Lisbon is blessed with some very beautiful and historic cafes. Here are some of our favourites.
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Pastelaria Versailles 1922

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Cafe Nicola 1929

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Cafe Benard 1912

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Pastelaria Sao Roque

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Confeitaria Nacional 1829

Splendid seafood

Being next to the sea and having a great culinary tradition, it is not surprising that seafood lovers are abundantly catered for in Lisbon. Much of the best shellfish can be found in cervejarias (‘beer-houses’) like Ramiro below. It’s the most popular cervejaria in Lisbon, but it is worth tolerating the lengthy queues, not just to enjoy the fantastic crab and lobster, etc. but to witness the almost theatrical atmosphere inside.

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Cervejaria Pinoquio

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Bologna – porticos and pasta

Travel Blog

Bologna is known in Italy as ‘La Dotta, La Rossa, La Grassa’ which roughly translated  means ‘educated, red and fat’. Educated, because it has Europe’s oldest university (1088) and currently numbers 85000 students across its several campuses. Red, because of both the colour of its buildings and its socialist political allegiance, and fat because it is seen as the culinary capital of Italy.

Like many Italian cities, Bologna’s historical architecture is very striking but what is truly remarkable are its porticos (covered walkways) which reputedly stretch for about 25 miles.

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Via dell’Independenza, Bologna’s main shopping street.

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The racks of vintage magazines by the historic Libreria (bookshop) Nanni

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The portico leading up to the San Luca Sanctuary is the longest of Bologna’s porticos, stretching for nearly 2.5 miles with 666 arcades. It appears to be a popular route for dedicated local runners

Apart from their beauty, the ubiquity of the porticos mean you can easily navigate the city without the need for an umbrella (apart from crossing the odd road).

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In addition to the porticos, Bologna was once famous for its proliferation of towers, sometimes seen as the forerunners of the modern skyscraper, such that it has been dubbed as once being the mediaeval Manhattan.It is thought that they were constructed mainly as a show of status and/or defensive refuge. Only a few survive, the most notable being the original ‘twin towers’, 12th Century Due Torri. Only one of these, the  Asinelli Tower, is still intact, and it can be ascended (via 498 steps) for a superb view of the city.

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The start (and finish) of the climb.

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Bologna is a foodie’s delight.In the quadrilatero, just off Bologna’s main square, the Piazza Maggiore, you can find some of Bologna’s finest food stores as well as places to sit and enjoy a taste of cheese, ham, tortellini, etc.

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Tortellini is Bologna’s most popular pasta choice, but you will also find several other pasta shapes rarely found in British restaurants or supermarkets e.g cappelletti, cavatelli, gemelli, and orecchiette

One notable venue for sitting down to enjoy your takeaway food is the Osterie del Sole, a wine bar dating from 1465, which serves only wine and beer, and which positively encourages you to bring your own food.

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It is not the most obvious place to discover as there is merely a vino sign above a doorway. We initially popped in naively hoping for a mid morning coffee. Whilst exiting, we noticed some of the local senior citizens had already gathered for a convivial morning drink.

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Equally historically atmospheric is the Donatello Ristorante adorned with dozens of pictures of past patrons.

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Bologna is more socialist than devoutly Catholic. However, on the edge of the quadrilatero, we came across a local priest trying to raise money by selling a range of religious items under the shadow of an engraved mural celebrating Padre Marella, a Bologna priest who had helped destitute boys.

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He seemed to be doing quite well as he was counting a hefty wad of euros.

One of the highlights of our visit was unexpectedly gaining access to the Cathedral bell tower on the Saturday night of our visit (it was a fund raising event). It was a chance to see Bologna in its night time glory.

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The church on the distant hill top is the San Luca Sanctuary which is linked to the city by the world’s longest portico,  2.5 miles in length.

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Much to our delight, an Edward Hopper exhibition was widely advertised during our stay.

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Spot the interloper

Bologna is close by a number of very attractive towns including Ferrara which was ideal to explore by bicycle.

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Yes he is talking on his mobile whilst his daughter is riding on the back.. Glad he wasn’t trying to text as well.

Despite the warm sunny weather the town was awash with umbrellas

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And just to show Bologna’s youth are able to merge past and present media, hundreds of devoted female teenagers queued patiently to have their copies of Succede (‘It Happens’) by Sofia Viscardi, an Italian teenage blogger and YouTube star, signed by the author.

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Trieste and Verona – two sides of Italy

Travel Blog

DSC03172Situated in the adjoining Italian regions of Fruili-Venezia Guilia and Vento, and only 160 miles apart, Trieste and Verona present two very different experiences of Italy.

Trieste seems off the radar of most tourists visiting Italy which is a shame as it’s a beautiful city with a fascinating history. Bordering Slovenia and Croatia, and having belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Trieste is a cultural melting pot. It doesn’t feel typically Italian and this was reinforced during our stay when we witnessed some First World War commemorations in which  men dressed in their distinctive military costume were parading with the accompanying Trieste national flag.
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Following the Second World War, Trieste was declared an independent city state by the UN, sandwiched as it was between Italy and Communist Yugoslavia, and it was only given over to Italy in 1956. Many locals are committed to restoring Trieste’s free city status, the Free Trieste Movement  

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To experience its historical links with Vienna you only have to visit one of Trieste’s classical cafes such as Caffé San Marco with its emphasis on reading whilst enjoying great coffee.

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Coffee is central to Trieste’s economy as it is the HQ of Illy, Italy’s premier coffee roasting company, founded by an Austrian-Hungarian who based the production in Trieste as it was the main gateway port for the Austro-Hungarian empire. This allowed the imported coffee beans to be roasted and transported inland to Vienna, Budapest, etc.

You can still catch a tram from the port up the steep hillside to Opicina village where there is a main line railway station with connections to Vienna and beyond.DSC03230

If you get the tram towards Opicina, you can then walk across the hillside above Trieste to the village of Prosecco which gave its name to the local wine which has overtaken champagne as Britain’s favourite sparkling wine. Without even ordering it, we were served a half litre carafe of draft prosecco during our first restaurant meal (for 5 euros).

Trieste’s main claim to literary fame is being the place where James Joyce lived from 1905 until 1915, and where he completed Dubliners, his collection of short stories. I wonder whether he was timely with paying his rent, as he had no less than nine different addresses in ten years, all of which feature on the James Joyce walking trail. Apart from numerous plaques, there is a splendid statue of Joyce which marks the anniversary of his arrival in Trieste in 1904.

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The Pirona Pastry shop above which Joyce lived during 1910

Some additional twilight images of Trieste’s splendid harbour

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William Shakespeare  helped to establish  Verona‘s reputation as a romantic city, even though the Casa de Guiletta, complete with balcony, is a Disneyesque fantasy. It doesn’t stop thousands of young people leaving romantic messages in the alleyway to the house.

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Verona does of course have a magnificent (genuine) Roman amphitheatre (alas we were too early in the season to catch Adele). It would have been a superb venue for Pink Floyd to add to their classic 1971 performance in the ruins of Pompeii.

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As in most western countries, newspaper reading in Italy is sadly in decline – news kiosks are one of Italy’s most endearing institutions, but it is heartening to see some people still find time to enjoy the habit.

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During our stay in Verona we were struck by the hordes of Italian school children and students being shepherded around the historical sites and art galleries. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t always seem thrilled by the experience.

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Palazzo Ducale, Mantova

Mantova, a short train ride from Verona, is a beautiful sleepy town full of character. It has been designated Italian city of Culture for 2016 and the centro storico is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Any stay in Italy is an excuse for us to indulge in great food and wine, and this was no exception.

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Osteria La Mandorla, Verona

 

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Osteria Il Bertoldo

Turin – the city of neon lights and stylish arcades

Travel Blog

 

Turin seems to be a paradox. Whilst possessing over 10 miles of pedestrianised arcades (the largest area in Europe) through which to wander and enjoys its beautiful shops, cafes and restaurants, it is also home to Fiat and some of the worst air pollution in Europe.

The most striking feature of the city is the vast array of linear arcades offering perfect protection from the elements. They look particularly appealing at night.

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Piazza San Carlo

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Via Po

What adds a strongly retro flavour to some of the arcades is the presence of neon lights.

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Corso Vittoria Emanuel

Of course being Italy, and Turin being the home of Lavazza coffee, it is not surprising the city has a wealth of wonderful historic cafes. We regularly punctuated our exploration of the city  in order to venture beyond the stylish cafe facades to get our next shot of caffeine. Standing at the counter and watching the barista effortlessly serve up your next perfect espresso is one of the great joys of being in Italy.

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Caffe Vittorio Veneto 1878

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Caffe Universita

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Baratti e Milano 1875

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Caffe Fiorio 1845

The latter cafe doubles as a gelateria or ice cream cafe, and most of the cafes serve decent food, which is no surprise given Turin’s high culinary status.DSC02309

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Porto Di Savona 1863, Turin’s oldest restaurant

Another historical claim for Turin is that it saw the birth of the Italian film industry. Today film culture is especially celebrated in the National Museum of Cinema housed inside the majestic Mole Antonelliana tower.

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Inside, there is an interesting mix of displays with the strongest emphasis given to the Italian neo-realist movement of the late 1940s which featured such powerful films as Bicycle Thieves and Rome, Open City.

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Elsewhere in Turin we came across some contrasting cinemas varying from the 1934 art deco classic, the Lux, to the 1958 Cinema Romano,  the first officially recognised art house cinema in Italy, and the more contemporary art house cinema, Cinema Centrale.

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Turin featured very strongly in the 1969 British cult film, The Italian Job, which included scenes in the city centre’s streets and most famously the rooftop test circuit of the Fiat Lingotto Factory.

The factory closed in 1982, but the unusual structure towering over the track contains an art gallery designed to showcase the personal art collection of the late Gianni Agnelli, formerly head of Fiat.

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The factory itself also underwent a conversion to a shopping centre, offices, etc. The whole Lingotto redesign was overseen by Renzo Piano, the architect responsible for the controversial Shard building in London, Europe’s tallest building to date. The rampart used to enable cars to gain access to the roof is still evident next to the shopping centre.

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To get to Lingotto, we travelled on the latest section of the Turin metro network opened in 2011.

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It would seem that more investment in public transport is needed in Turin to help offset the pollution which was very evident during our stay.

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View from Mole Antonelliana tower

Earlier in December, the city made all public transport free to try and reduce the dangerous levels of pollution recorded in the city. It would seem that Turin’s prosperity based on the success of car production is now literally contributing to the choking to death of its citizens. It was sad to discover its once great tram network criss crossing the city has been reduced to just six routes. It seems not enough Italians can forgo their love of cars.

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One way to improve Turin’s air quality

Paris, December 2015

 

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We love visiting Paris in December when the Christmas lights adorn many of the city’s landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, Saint Germain, the ferris wheel on Place du Concorde, etc. and when there are relatively few tourists to detract from the city’s charms.

However, this December proved to be a different, less comfortable experience for three main reasons. Firstly, we were visiting the city exactly a month after the November attacks which were responsible for 130 deaths. There was a noticeable armed security presence at various points in the city, and the Place de la République, which was the focal point for subsequent public demonstrations of solidarity, still contained a large array of expressions of grief and sadness, as well as social and political comment.

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On the Friday evening, after enjoying a meal in the 11th arrondisement, the streets and cafes seemed as lively as ever, but as we turned a corner on Rue Charonne, we were confronted by the huge collection of tributes left outside  La Belle Équipe restaurant where 19 people had died. The personal messages, pictures and flowers combined to create an intense feeling of tragic loss.

 

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La Belle Équipe

The shoes left at the scene of the Place de La République were the remainder of a silent protest to mark the presence in Paris of the Climate Change Conference. Street gatherings had been outlawed by the state of emergency imposed after the November 13th killings, and so 10,000 pairs of shoes were left in the square as a form of symbolic protest, a few of which remained when we visited.

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Whilst emerging from the metro at the Arc de Triomphe, we noticed traffic was barred as a large team of tankers sprayed water around the famous landmark. Rivers of yellow paint were running down the streets leading from the Arc. It transpired that Greenpeace had flooded the area with the paint as a publicity stunt aimed at the Climate Conference. From above it was meant to symbolise the power of the sun.

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News agency photo

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We came across another artistic response to the threat of climate change at the Pantheon where an Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson, had installed a dozen large blocks of ice (or ‘mini-icebergs’) which were gradually melting during the Climate Change Conference.

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Needles to say there was some concern expressed about the energy consumption used to transport the ice all the way from Greenland to Paris.

It was evident from the array of political posters adorning the city’s billboards that there were important regional elections taking place, and in the first round the Front National had performed (not too surprising in the aftermath of the November attacks) to the dismay of many in the capital.

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They were less successful in the final round of elections the following week, but had still managed to poll more votes than in any other national election in France.

On a lighter note, there was much evidence of the popularity of Frank Sinatra, as on December 12th it was 100 years since his birth. We marked the occasion by watching his 1968 film, Detective, at the Cinema Mac Mahon, which famously featured in Jean Luc Godard’s 1960 classic new wave film, A Bout de Souffle.

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Finally, a few Winter images of our favourite Parisian park, the Luxembourg Gardens, which whatever the season, never loses its appeal.

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Impressions of Modern Russia

Travel Blog

10 Cultural Observations from our recent visit to Russia

We arrived in St Petersburg from Helsinki by high speed train which was a very smooth way to cross the border into Russia, especially when compared to the chaotic and lengthy queues we experienced when departing from Moscow airport.

1. Moscow and St Petersburg are very large

Being used to navigating most European cities on foot, this was more of a challenge in Moscow and St Petersburg given the wide roads, high volume of traffic and jaywalking laws.

The Moscow road in the picture looks wet not because of any rain, but because of what seems to be a regime of daily road washing. Impressively, most public spaces in both cities are virtually litter free, gum free and graffiti free.

The building on the left is the infamous Lubyanka Building, formerly the main KGB interrogation centre and prison, and now home to the FSB, the security department which has replaced the KGB. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s current president, rose to power as head of the FSB from 1998 to 2000. It has become ever more powerful during Putin’s reign.

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2. The metros are works of art

Both Moscow and St Petersburg exhibit a wonderful spectacle of art in many of the cities’ metro stations.
​In the St Petersburg metro, you descend huge escalators as far as 280 feet below ground, with virtually no advertising, just beautiful up-lights and people alone in their thoughts or in conversation. Many of the most beautiful stations on the Moscow metro can be found on the Koltsevaya line (line 5) which circles the city.
What is more, the state run trains are super efficient. One train per minute on every line and minimal crush. Navigation can be a challenge if you can’t translate Russian, but never mind if you head off in the wrong direction, there’s another back in a minute.

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3. Disneyland East

Approaching the Kremlin and engaging with the (mostly Oriental) tourist queues, it felt like we were entering Disneyworld. Magical towers, lots of men and women in uniform, the changing of the guard ceremony, Lenin’s ‘waxwork’, Stalin and Putin lookalikes, and at night, a show stopping fireworks display.
To complete the escapist illusion, the adjacent historic GUM, formerly state department, store, has been transformed into a tawdry Mecca to western designer labels for the Moscow nouveaux riches or guests from the hideous neighbouring Four Seasons hotel.
Behind the decorative Kremlin walls lies the Senate building, hidden from public view, where Putin wields his (autocratic) authority.

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4. There is still some political dissent

Despite Putin’s mafia like state, there still seems some to be some evidence of political dissent – we came across a vigil/protest on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge by the Kremlin where Boris Nemtsov, a prominent Russian politician, had been murdered in February, days before he was to lead a march opposing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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In addition, the English language Moscow Times, available in our hotel, was surprisingly critical of the Putin regime, although recent changes in the newspaper’s ownership may reduce its independence.

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The police aren’t always alert to political protests

 

5. Some great (and virtually empty) art galleries

The Hermitage in St Petersburg contains a superb vast collection of impressionist and post impressionist art as well as pre-revolutionary Russian modernist art. Because it is labelled as the Schukin and Morozov collection (after two Russian collectors responsible for acquiring most of the paintings) in the recently renovated General Staff building across the square from the Winter Palace, few tourists seem to find their way there (we virtually stumbled on it by accident).
Even the newly installed entrance to the collection is very striking.

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There is also the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow which includes some interesting Soviet art.

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Yuri Pimenov 1927

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6. Lots of uniforms

Wherever we went, men and women in various uniforms would appear- cadets marching on the street, quartets of armed guards patrolling the metro, security officers galore, etc. It would seem to be the main source of employment in Moscow and St.Petersburg. Whose threat might warrant such a vast investment in security?

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7. Some beautiful old hotels

Both St Petersburg and Moscow have some very attractive restored hotels dating from the late 1890’s and early 1900’s which, given the recent collapse of the rouble, were very affordable, Below are pictures of: Moscow’s Hotel Metropol, a wonderful turn of the century art nouveau building, the Hotel Indigo in St Petersburg, and finally the exterior and interior of Moscow’s Hotel Baltshug Kempinski which dates from 1898.

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8. Food and Drink

Coffee chains, global and Russian, seem to be taking a hold and are popular with Russian students and ‘hipsters’. Restaurant food is a choice between traditional Russian restaurants and those aspiring to offer a more modern  menu. Alas, many of these suffer a confusion of identity trying to fuse Italian, French, Japanese and other cuisines in one menu. Even more depressing is the invasive music, making it seem more akin to visiting a dance club.

Two interesting differences in restaurant etiquette compared to dining in western Europe include firstly, having your empty plate whipped away by the waiter as soon as you’ve finished a course regardless of whether your dining companion has finished their course, and secondly. when requesting water, being given the choice of warm or cold.

On the street, it is quite common to see older women trying to make a living from selling some fruit and vegetables. You don’t have to look too far for evidence of the huge inequalities of wealth in modern Russia.

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9. Old vs the new

Moscow, in particular, exhibits a constant clash of its Soviet communist past, a revival of the Russian Orthodox church and its emergent capitalist culture. The middle picture features the former Krasny Oktyabr (Red October) chocolate factory and is now the focal point for a small island of art galleries, cafes, clubs, likened to London’s Shoreditch.

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The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of Stalin’s ‘seven sisters’ skyscraper buildings.

Below, the sun sets over Moscow’s ‘Canary Wharf which towers over the Kremlin.

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Picture                                              The Russian Orthodox church vies  with new office towers.

Moscow’s contrasting generations

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10. Beware of some of the taxis!

PictureComing out of Moscow’s Leningradksy railway station, we struggled to find any official taxis and after much bartering, ended up in what seemed like a private car which had a very strong smell of alcohol. The driver insisted on mentioning the Syrian war as he strove to locate our hotel on his sat nav. Half an hour later we were relieved to arrive safely at our destination.