My Travel Map

My Travel Map

28 August 2011

St. John's, Newfoundland

I had three days between when I returned from Moscow and when I had to take back off again for a conference in St. John's, Newfoundland in Canada. I must admit, I was very excited to see a different part of my native country, and I had heard good things about Newfoundland, despite all the silly jokes. I wasn't let down.

If two countries were able to reproduce, then Newfoundland would surely be the love child of Canada and Ireland. I was absolutely floored by how similar Newfoundland was to Ireland, in literally everything from its geography, climate, architecture, accents, and culture. The first thing to reveal this to me were the technicolor houses. All shades of color seemed to have been used throughout town...and as with Ireland, I suspect this is just a little something to keep spirits a bit higher when foul weather sets in.

My next wave of realization came when I stumbled upon George Street, a pedestrian only affair consisting of over 50 bars and pubs. I got in on a Friday night, and needless to say, the place was rowdy. The majority of the pubs are in the true Irish style, traditional music sets and all! I found a great place with modern Canadian folk though (think Great Big Sea or Spirit of the West), which was just what I wanted from live music in Newfoundland.

St John's sits on a harbor on the Eastern tip of Newfoundland Island. The island itself is truly massive, another fact I had not at all appreciated before getting there. I was floored talking to some Canadian tourists in the bar when they told me it took about 7 hours to drive across it on the Trans-Canada Highway, which is by far the fastest way across the island! Looking in more detail at a map however, this is not surprising; Newfoundland Island is as big or bigger than many Eastern US states. So, I resigned to the fact that I would only see the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador's capital (St. John's) as well as a little sample of the small area around it. I'm hoping to get back to Newfoundland at some point though, as it truly is a beautiful and fun place (in the summer).

On the walk up to Cabot Tower. The mouth of the harbor was heavily fortified up through WWII, being such an important point on the trans-Atlantic journey, both by air and sea. It was quite interesting to find out that St. John's had one of the busiest airports in the world for some time since most flights had to stop there for refueling between the Eastern North American coast and Europe.

Cabot Tower, one of St. John's key landmarks. It sits atop Signal Hill on the northern edge of the harbor's mouth. It's named after John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), and was built to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Cabot's "discovery" of Newfoundland. Truly, First Nations people had discovered Newfoundland more than a millennium earlier, and then it was "rediscovered" by Norse (Viking) explorers in the Dark Ages. I was interested to hear that Newfoundland is still a very popular destination for modern Nordic people, some of which even make the journey by sailing ship from Scandinavia! Apparently, the Norwegians are big fans of this trip...I met several at the bars.

I mentioned the geography of Newfoundland reminded me a lot of Ireland. By "reminded me", I mean it was damned near identical! A lot of the photos here are coastal landscapes...I won't say a lot about them, but everything from the ruggedness of the coast to the colors of the rock and flora are just like Ireland. Someone even remarked that they look so close because it really is the same rock that makes up both places. Whatever it is, the resemblance is remarkable and definitely explains why so many Irish decided to settle there (explaining the incredible similarities between cultures).

Looking down at seabirds on the cliffs.

This amazing sea fog rolled over me while I was walking back down from Cabot Tower...

Looking across the mouth of the harbor to the lighthouse on the southern side. With mist like I just showed, it's no doubt how important lighthouses are to sailors around such rocky and jagged coast.

On the walk up or back from Cabot Tower, you go through this delightful little part of town: the Battery. Named after the guns that used to defend the harbor, it is now a sleepy little fishermans community of shanty houses clinging to the cliffs.

Newfoundland has a long and proud fishing heritage. The Great Banks just off the coast were once the most fertile seas in the world. As with most seas though, they have been overfished and fish populations are now devastated. Seafood is still the major ingredient on all menus in town though, with cod being a local favorite. One of my favorite things to try was the cod tongues. They are exactly as the name describes, the tongues cut out of cod, battered, and fried up in oil. They taste a bit like calamari, with a slight cod/fish flavor (no kidding) and less-rubbery consistency. Another great one was cod au gratin...cod baked up with mashed potatoes smothered in cheese...mmmm. Apparently, seal fin pie is also a popular one, though I couldn't find that anywhere.

In the distance on the left of this shot (looking back out of the harbor mouth) is Cape Spear...the easternmost point in North America (funny since it's on an island, but whatever...Key West claims the southernmost point in the contiguous USA). Some friends from the meeting and I ended up renting bikes and taking off both north and south from St. John's, including all the way out to Cape Spear, which was a bit of a haul, but beautiful.

Another example of the beautiful and complex coast...

The fishing village of Quidi Vidi...just outside of town

Yes, they have a brewery, and the beer is GOOD!

Further up the coast along Marine Lab drive

And Cape Spear...we were treated with some extra special sights here in the form of whales! There was a pod of humpbacks off the coast, and they treated us to a hell of a show. We even saw two of them fully breach out of the water! It was amazing!

It's funny, I had expected to see puffins, hoped to see iceburgs, and planned on not being lucky enough to see the whales. As it turned out: I saw whales practically every time I was in viewing distance of the Atlantic; I found out that I was there in totally the wrong time of year to see ice burgs at St. John's (though there were some truly unbelievable pictures of the towering behemoths making micro-machines out of tanker ships and molehills out of coastal cliffs and hills); and didn't see a single puffin (they live on islands off the coast supposedly). The whales were such a great surprise though! I've loved these animals since I was a child, and to see them obviously doing quite well off the coast here was spectacular.

Newfoundland is amazing. It's as simple as that. The people are great. The food and culture are awesome. The painted colors of St. John's row houses are warm and inviting, and the geography is breathtaking. It is a true gem of a place.

21 August 2011

Moscow, Russia

Moscow, the capital of the Russian Federation. For most of my life, I knew so little about Russia and it's people. On my second trip to the country, I found I had learned much about it, but still knew so little. It still blows my mind that there continues to be such tensions between the NATO nations (Western Europe, UK, US, Canada, etc.) and Russia. Russians can be somewhat xenophobic, which can be apparent when visiting. It's definitely not the friendliest of places, though it also didn't live up to all the warnings I received about Moscow. And despite what I was warned against, I often smiled at strangers who made eye contact with me (which is a common practice of mine). A friendly smile does indeed mark you as a visitor, but it is not always met with a scowl. I even found a few smiles returned. Behind this xenophobia and seeming unfriendliness, a true Russian friend, if you're lucky enough to make one, is a genuine one.

Where else to start on Moscow but the Kremlin. It is the center of Moscow, and thus, the center of Russia. The Kremlin is the old, walled palace complex. Princes, Tsars, Communist dictators, and now Capitalist dictators have all administered over the city and Russia from this fortress on the hill beside the Moscow River. Moscow dates back at least to the 1100s; it is a very old city with a rich and, like much of the rest of Russia, often dark history.

The Kremlin is quite interesting since it is comprised of architectural styles from a range of different eras. The medieval-Italian walls and towers, the neoclassical palaces, and the modernist blocks all make up the complex. Entrance is highly controlled since it is still the administrative capital. Walking over the Moscow River, a friend pointed out the building where President Medvedev works. The place is obviously still in business. It is clearly fortified, with zig-zagy barricades in place at the one road-entrance to prevent any suicidal rush attacks by tank or other ground vehicle. There are plenty of heavily armed soldiers visible at the entrances too, and I'm sure there are plenty more hidden away inside and in plain clothes and hidden sniper posts all around the complex too. These walls and towers have served as the barrier between Russia's rulers and the outside world for almost a millennium now. I also found out that those stars at the tops of the towers around the walls (each tower is unique too) are made of ruby glass and are supposedly very expensive. They light up at night too, like faint red beacons.

The famous red walls of the Kremlin

The Russian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with eternal flame and all. Interestingly, it is supposedly tradition for newlyweds to come here on their wedding days, in full dress, to pay homage to their fallen comrades of yesteryear. They also do a regular changing of the guard, which is quite impressive, if not for the serious demeanor of the soldiers and officers then for the straight-legged, almost ballet-like, high kicks they perform while marching.

Wandering around those crimson battlements, one comes upon this, the first entrance to Red Square. Those iconic Soviet military parades, with row upon row of tanks and soldiers and ICBM's on proud display, rolled through this very place.

Greatly more iconic than those parades is St. Basil's Cathedral, a symbol of Moscow. Like Westminster Clock Tower (Big Ben), the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, and Christ the Redeemer, St. Basil's is an instantly recognizable landmark that makes one think immediately of its home city.

I found out after my trip that my timing to see the landmark was quite fortuitous. They had just finished a face lift for St. Basil's 450th anniversary! The architect was commissioned in 1555 by none other than Ivan the Terrible (Tsar Ivan IV). The architect decided to make a cathedral in the Russian Orthodox style that mimicked a bonfire. After completion, legend has it that Ivan had the architect blinded, so that he could never build anything as beautiful again. Supposedly, there is no other building like St. Basil's in Russia or the rest of the world, so maybe the legend is true!

Taking your eyes away from St. Basil's in Red Square and looking towards the Kremlin, you see this interesting structure that almost blends into the city-scape. This is Lenin's tomb. Still a heroic figure in Russia, Vladamir Lenin has been preserved and is entombed inside this interesting and massive mausoleum.

Lenin is very much still idolized in Russia; Stalin on the other hand is definitely not. The atrocities that occurred under his rule, particularly those millions of Russian citizens who were shipped off to the gulags in Siberia to die as slave laborers, have not been forgotten. Reading up on Russian history however, informed me that Stalin was just one of the latest in a long history of brutal and vicious Russian dictators. I don't envy the Russian leadership; they play in one of the most cutthroat, traitorous, power-hungry political arenas in the world. Russian political history is fraught with power struggles, political purges, and assassinations covered up like untimely or accidental deaths.

The ultimate slap in the face of Communism (and Lenin too!): the GUM (state department store) shopping mall, which is housed in this beautiful Russian-style-Victorian complex across Red Square from the Kremlin (and Lenin's tomb!).

Inside GUM, it's the ritziest of ritzy. Prada, Gucci, whatever you want, they've got it if it's high-end, designer fashion. They even have a Dyson vacuum store (can you say stupid rich trend?). I mean, this place used to be a state distribution center during the Communist-era, and now this? And this seemingly epitomizes the new-Russia (Moscow and St. Petersburg only in actuality). I was blown away by how seemingly obsessed those with money in Russia are on flaunting their wealth! I don't think "millionaire next door" is a phrase that applies to Russia's wealthy. If they have money, they're apparently spending it to show that they have money. This goes well beyond GUM and the blatantly expensive fashion's apparent everywhere, from trendy, overpriced restaurants, clubs, and cafes to the variety of multi-$100K cars racing around (literally) on the streets. Interestingly, this is probably not a new trait of the wealthy Russian mentality. I mean, look at the architecture; it is equally ornate and flashy. I think this is just part of the Russian wealthy-elite birds of paradise or something!

While in Moscow, I covered the larger distances between sights using the famous Moscow Metro. One good thing Stalin did insist on was the best public transportation system for the people. The Metro stations are elaborate! Many have chandeliers, works of art, and expensive architecture and decor. Each is different too, themed on one thing or another. Shown above here is the statue in the Izmaylovo station, which is themed to commemorate the Great Patriotic War (WWII). The pillars lining the platforms have machine gun decorations and you are greeted by this massive statue of peasants armed to defend Mother Russia from the invading Nazis. It's really quite impressive; every visitor to Moscow should take a ride around in the metro and get out and wander around each of the stations. I found the Moscow Metro to be much more user friendly than the St. Petersburg equivalent. Some of the signs have the station names in both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, though the announcements are still only in Russian (understandable...I mean you are in Russia! It's not like any American metro services say anything in Russian, right?!). Also, the trains come right into the platformed stations in Moscow, unlike the unmarked, dark tunnels that the doors open onto at stations in St. Petersburg.

So I ventured out to Izmaylovo to see this place, the Izmaylovo Market. Part flea market, part antique market, part carnival even, the market is housed in a series of old, colorful wooden buildings and structures just a short walk from the station (just make sure you get off at the right one...there are a couple with the name Izmaylovo...if the train comes above ground, then you've gone too far). Walking up to the market is just bizarre, with all those bright wooden buildings making it look like some crazy circus or carnival. Once inside, it is a seemingly endless maze of market stalls. It's really a lot of fun if you're into markets.

There's Lenin again. This is a typical stall there. If you're looking for original, touristy or otherwise, souvenirs, then this is the place to go. You can even buy a whole bunch of old Soviet stuff, from medals to propaganda to old weapons (guns, grenades, bazookas, etc). I even found a mint condition German MP40, the WWII submachine gun. Outside the market, a man was even selling tasers. This place is a junk collectors heaven.

Russian icons. Russia is famous for these religious paintings on wood, and has been since the middle ages.

Of course, the matryoshka dolls. The more traditional and more fun, new ones (like Lenin, Medvedev, Putin, and even Michael Jackson) are seen on display here.

They have grilled food too, but it is ridiculously overpriced. My Russian is nowhere near the ability to bargain either, so I went without. It all smelled amazing though...especially the salmon kabobs.

As I mentioned previously, this shows the wooden architecture. It was most impressive. I was blown away by how many things in Russia are made of wood. I know it makes sense when you consider Siberia, but still, it was quite remarkable. The workmanship and quality of just ordinary things too (tables, chairs, walkways, etc.) was incredible too. If you need some high quality, inexpensive wood furniture or decorations, go to Russia.

Back in the center, there are reminders of the Soviet-era all around if you pay attention. This was just a little mosaic at the top of a random door on a random street.

This bas-relief on the large building on one side of Red Square seems to be installed by the Soviets.

I think this one is on the State Duma (legislative) building. I also saw the old Soviet State broadcasting building, the ITAR-TASS, from which propaganda and highly controlled and skewed news was broadcast throughout the Soviet empire. Another interesting and dark landmark is the Lubyanka building, former headquarters of the KGB and current headquarters of its domestic predecessor, the FSB. The Lubyanka is imposing, even more so when considering how far underground it supposedly goes. Many, many, many people have died in the Lubyanka, probably most by way of executioners bullet to the head. Outside in Lubyanka Square, there used to be a massive, 6-meter-tall statue of "Iron Felix" Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Bolshevic Cheka, which evolved into the KGB. This statue was one of the first things to go after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, which goes to show much much fear and hatred there was for the Soviet secret police.

One of the "Seven Sisters" as seen from Old Arbat Street. There were supposed to be seven of these Stalin Skyscrapers all around Moscow, but there are only six today. The grandest, the Palace of the Soviets, was never built. The original Cathedral of Christ the Savior was torn down and a massive foundation was dug. The Palace was supposed to be higher than the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty combined, crowned with a 100-meter-tall (330 feet) aluminum statue of Lenin, and cover an enormous area. WWII interrupted construction and, combined with unstable ground so close to the river, ultimately canceled the project. The Soviets then turned the massive foundation into a public pool, which was supposedly quite popular. After the fall of the USSR, the Cathedral was rebuilt on the spot, much to the chagrin of swimming enthusiasts. Now, Old Arbat Street is also something to check out. Way too over-touristy for my standards, but it is historically relevant as the old bohemian district. There are plenty of places to eat and shop, the old architecture is great, and being a pedestrian-only street, it is a great place to go for a nice stroll.

The largest of the standing Stalin Skyscrapers is the main building of Moscow State University.

The Moscow River and another Stalin Skyscraper in the background. It's really amazing that most of these are apartment blocks now and one is even a Radisson hotel! Stalin must be rolling in his grave!

Along Ulista Kuznetskiy most, a beautiful old street with plenty of bookshops, neat cafes and restaurants, and great architecture, including this old bank which just totally had me fixated. Like St. Petersburg, I enjoyed my time in Moscow. It is a great city to walk around, just keep your head about you as there is a very legitimate and powerful underworld of organized crime. Moscow is a very expensive and cultured city...the New New York is what they're calling it, but I think it's well deserving of just being Moscow. It is rich in history and culture and now money too. There are supposedly more millionaires in Moscow than in any other city in the world right now, and as I mentioned before, they aren't too humble about displaying their wealth. I really look forward to getting back to Russia to explore more outside of its two great cities!