Russia 2019 day four: Moscow

Earlyish start today. I went to the Kremlin.

It was a bit messier than planned – my bottle leaked, soaking everything in the main compartment of my bag. So there I am sitting on a bench underneath Park Kultury trying to fit everything in the side pockets and the handy pockets in my t-shirt.

I joined the queue at the ticket office and when I eventually got inside, I discovered that I’d been queuing for the desks selling Armoury tickets. You can just walk in and walk up to the Cathedral Square ticket desk. There are even ticket machines. Still, the queue gave me time to obsessively flick the pages of my guidebook in the sun in an attempt to dry it without all the pages ending up stuck together.

Quick security check at the entrance tower and I was walking across the bridge and through the Trinity Tower into the Kremlin grounds.

I’d like to say walking into the heart of medieval, imperial, Soviet and modern Russia was a magic moment but I was stuck to the back of several tour groups with no sense whatsoever of where I was, where I was allowed to be and what was going on.

I was standing outside the Kremlin’s newest building, the concrete and glass Soviet addition that now houses the Kremlin ballet. To my right was the cathedral complex and if I wanted to step into the road, it had to be on the crossings. Kremlin guards are very quick to blow their whistles at anyone who steps into the road – and there are quite a few roads crossing the open square.

First up was the Patriarch’s Palace, quite tall and very narrow with silver domes. Under the arches and into Cathedral Square was Ivan the Great’s Bell Tower on the left, the big square gold-domed Dormition Cathedral on the right and the Archangel and Annuciation Cathedrals behind. Plus a lot of tour groups.

I started in the Side Chapel of St Varus in the back of the Archangel Cathedral while I figured out where I was allowed to go. There was a queue going into the Annunciation Cathedral so I sat and sketched the Dormition Cathedral while I waited – even worse than my St Basil’s sketch which did at least all fit on the paper! – and then followed them in.

I was later to learn that all the cathedrals are pretty similar inside – vivid frescoes up to and all over the ceiling and the inside of the domes, huge pillars, tombs around the outside and a massive gold altar screen covered with icons. No photos, obviously, but each one came with a six-page leaflet that contained a diagram and pictures of special items and icons. Gradually, I covered the three big cathedrals, the smaller Church of the Deposition of the Robe and the Church of the Twelve Apostles inside the Patriarch’s Palace. I say that they’re all the same but that doesn’t mean it’s not a spectacular sight.

It’s also a pretty spectacular sight to see the Kremlin walls from the inside, with the occasional glimpse of the domes of St Basil’s peeping over. And then there’s Putin’s house behind the cathedrals and Putin’s office on the other side of the square and the Arsenal next to the Trinity Tower. Oh, and the cannon that’s too big to use and the bell that’s too big to hang, with a small bit broken out of the bottom and that broken bit weighs eleven tons. And there’s even a bit of park and a hot dog cabin and the Kremlin’s own rose garden and water feature.

I knew the Kremlin would take me a while, even without the Armoury, but before I knew it, it was mid-afternoon. So I headed to the Saviour’s Gate Tower, the exit. Except that the path was closed, I wasn’t stupid enough to walk in the road, the tower was fenced and the outer door was closed. How do you leave the Kremlin when the exit is closed? How do I get out? Am I now a prisoner in the Kremlin? And for a while, it felt like I was. How do I get out? Back through the Trinity Tower, it turns out.

My plan was to go to the rooftop terraces of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the big white cathedral with gold domes just down the road. My visit there last night when it was closed had identified a cafe outside and I desperately needed liquid. I’d drunk whatever hadn’t escaped into my bag by 10am to make sure nothing else could spill and it’s ludicrously hot in Moscow at the moment. I went into the cafe, was shown to a seat at the bar and given a menu.

Twenty minutes later, I still hadn’t had my order taken. I know it’s a posh cafe of the sort I shouldn’t really be in and the staff are busy but I needed liquid and I could have drunk it and been on the roof by now. Being invisible on the bus yesterday was great but today when I couldn’t get a drink… eventually I left in a fury, leaving some unmistakable English in the doorway in response to what I assume was “thanks for coming, have a nice day!” from the girl who seated me. Do not bother going to Kiosk cafe outside Kropotkinskaya metro station, it’s a total waste of time. Now, the ice cream stand outside the cathedral, that was able to provide me with a bottle of Fanta in under 30 seconds.

I bought my terrace ticket and climbed 240ish stairs. Good stairs, the sort of stairs that belong in a cathedral built in the 1990s, just a lot of them. Well, there have to be. The roof is a long way up.

I could see everything from up there. I definitely saw five of Stalin’s Seven Sisters. I may have seen the other two, I’ll need to check when I get home. I saw the entire Kremlin laid out in front of me. I saw the Starbucks building next to Paveletskaya that I can see from my own window. I saw a lot of gold domes.

Back downstairs two roof circuits later, and a brief sit on the steps in the shade for a drink, I had a proper look at the inside of the cathedral. Very big and open and clean and bright, just as elaborately decorated as the Kremlin cathedrals but in a way that made it feel bigger, not smaller. A lot shinier too. An American tourist on the steps outside said they made Jesus & co look a lot more “realistic, like African or Egyptian or something”. We’ll leave her idea of where Jerusalem and Bethlehem actually are alone – the baby Jesuses (or Josh, if you prefer) in the Nativity scenes she liked so much had the faces of skinny white models in their early 20s only with her head shaved.

My last stop of the day was back at the top of Red Square in search of postcards for my scrapbook. I found some lovely arty ones but no traditional real postcards, real photos of places and things, particularly church interiors. Never mind, I’ll be back in Moscow in two weeks (when the Tattoo will have left Red Square – hopefully nothing will move in to replace it) and I’ll have another look then.

Tonight I need to pack because I need to be at the station for my bullet train to St Petersburg between 8.30 and 9am tomorrow. It’s only two metro stops away but it’ll mean leaving my room with breakfast inside me by 8.15am at the very latest.

Russia 2019 day three: Moscow

Today started slowly because it could. Tomorrow I will probably get up early to queue for the Kremlin (when I get back to Moscow in a couple of weeks my hotel literally overlooks the Kremlin & it would be so easy to run downstairs to do it then – but leaving it until the last day of this odyssey seems risky) and I need to be at the station for my train at about 8.30 on Saturday morning.

My first stop was Red Square again because this is Moscow and it’s like a bright light for a moth. This time I went to see Lenin. Long queue but it was in the shade. Most rigorous security so far, in a city where there’s a metal detector and a bag search in every doorway (although the bag search, as with every bag search I’ve ever had, seems to looking for an alarm clock & curly wires sitting right on too).

There’s a line of graves at the bottom of the Kremlin wall, each stone topped with a carving of the head of its occupant. I found Stalin (the one with a small crowd around it) and Yuri Gagarin is in there too somewhere, the only other one I’d heard of. And then into the mausoleum. Silence, no photos, ushered along a walkway in a dark black & red room that wouldn’t be out of place on a Peacekeeper Command Carrier – and there’s Vlad lying on top of the tomb. Not a wax figure or even a bronze carving. That’s Lenin, his actual body, dead 95 years, lying right in front of me, an actual dead embalmed body. He’s in good condition for someone so very dead.

I walked down through the market. The back doors of the huts are padlocked when not in use but I noticed that if you want to break in, you only have to undo four screws to remove the metal loops the padlock goes through. High security there.

At the bottom of Red Square, I got on the hop-on-hop-off bus. Go upstairs, sit down. So I did and once we started moving, the steward came up to sell the tickets. Only she stopped before she got to me. Well, we were at the next stop. She had to deal with new passengers and she’d come back. Only she didn’t. So I got a map, another set of headphones and a free ride round the Heart of Moscow circuit, taking in the Kremlin, Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Bolshoi Theatre, big shopping centre, FSB/KGB headquarters, Kitay Gorod and back to St Basil’s.

Then I came home for a late lunch, an escape from the sun & heat (what happened to Russia being cold?) and a nap.

I went out again at 6. I wanted to go on the cathedral roof but I was too late – that’s going on the list for tomorrow as well – and then out to Kiyevskaya to visit the Hotel Ukraine.

First of all, the entire area around Kiyevskaya station is a building site. But there’s a shiny new shopping centre right opposite and as it happened, I needed food. Best supermarket so far. And the shopping centre itself is shiny inside. I spent a while enjoying the lights and fountains at the lifts and then the fountains outside before going in search of the hotel.

It’s about a 20 minute walk to the hotel and no obvious route except through a housing estate. It reminded me a lot of Pripyat but I think that was down to the number of trees rather than anything else. And at least, I came through a gate in the dark estate onto a huge bright road and the enormous hotel on the other side.

It’s had new owners since I stayed there. There are expensive shops around the bottom, including a Rolls Royce dealer. There’s a doorman in proper fancy uniform and guards on the metal detectors and inside it’s all white marble and high-end boutiques. No wonder it’s a pain to get here from the metro. No one staying here nowadays is arriving by public transport. Actually, there’s very little sign of it being a hotel – no reception desk. You wouldn’t bring a school group here now. I immediately knew this wasn’t a place someone dressed like me should be, especially not clutching a plastic bag of shopping. So I left.

When I got back to Paveletskaya, I realised for the first time that the entrance is green and has gold murals round the ceiling so I paused to take photos, which is when an older lady stopped to ask me where the station is. In Russian. I got the tone of voice and the word вокзал which I knew from my brief Ukrainian lessons to mean station – the real railway, rather than the metro station we were in. Paveletskaya main station is on the other side of the main road so I pointed and said, in English, “over there” and then, just to make sure I’d understood the question, I made a train noise and when she said да, I pointed again. I’d been asked for directions in Russian and been able to understand and respond (not entirely sure “over there” was helpful but the best I can do) and that’s the greatest achievement of my life so far.

Then I came home triumphant and made a cheese sandwich in a hotel I don’t feel too much of an urchin for.

Russia 2019 day two: Moscow

It turns out my bit of not-so-central Moscow is really noisy – lots of people driving noisy cars far too loud and far too fast and I can’t tell whether that’s on the road below or on the Garden Ring, which is one of three roads encircling the city centre. And then at 10.30, either a war broke out or huge fireworks.

Breakfast in the morning was very typical Ibis/chain hotel so bread & butter, croissant & jam, orange & apple juices for me and then I went to see Moscow.

First obstacle: the metro. Thanks to my lack of Cyrillic last time, I’d been very impressed by Martyn managing to navigate it but it’s not so hard. The ticket machine speaks English and spat out a single journey ticket and then the metro itself astonished me by being absolutely identical to the one in Kyiv. Same escalators, same layouts, same signs, same trains, same interchange stations.

I took green line 2 from Paveletskaya to Teatralnaya and exited at Ploschad Revolyutsii. I’d looked up how to get to Red Square from here but I couldn’t remember and it didn’t matter. I followed a lane and emerged on a street hidden under iridescent butterfly hangings and as I walked along, I got a glimpse of red towers ahead. This was the street I’d planned to end up on…

But Red Square wasn’t quite as easy as that. It was occupied by an International Military Tattoo. Getting in and out was only through metal detectors and bag searches, which I imagine is pretty permanent in this day and age but the north end of the square was all Christmas-style market, in wooden huts, and the southern end was the parade ground. You couldn’t really see Red Square. The Kremlin walls and towers rose up over it all but St Basil’s Cathedral, which is lower down the hill, was almost invisible behind rows of seating. Obviously, all this meant foot traffic was pushed down fenced walkways which meant the first real look you got of St Basil’s was from virtually underneath it. So I went inside. I’d planned to do it, I’m just not sure I’d planned to do it so quickly. There was a short queue for tickets (you get in cheaper if you’re Russian!) but no queue for entrance.

In my attempts to find the exact name of one of the churches I took a photo of, I’ve read quite a few opinions on the interior and most of them agree that it’s disappointing compared to the outside and borderline not worth it. These people are wrong.

This cathedral was built by Ivan IV, known as the Terrible although originally it meant more like Awesome (like a winter storm at sea, not like the way we use it now) to celebrate various victories. It’s nine churches clustered together, none of them big enough to fit more than about twenty people in. No European soaring open light spaces here for thousands or coronations.

Despite its size, there are only two floors. The downstairs has fairly low ceilings and every surface that can be painted on has been. The Vatican has nothing on this. The main attraction of downstairs is the Church of St Vasily the Blessed, the most recent of the churches and the one that the whole structure accidentally acquired its everyday name from – Vasily being Russian for Basil. The cathedral itself is officially named the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat (it used to have a moat) but that’s a bit of a mouthful. Vasily’ crypt is all gold and icons and all the slightly tarnished splendour you’d imagine for the resting place of an actual saint.

Finding the stairs is a bit of a challenge. So is climbing them. They’re clearly newer than the rest of the cathedral but some of the steps are ludicrously high, there’s an awkward turn two thirds of the way up and they’re very narrow.

Upstairs is as much of a maze as downstairs, only it’s a little more open and sometimes you come across a big area open to the sun, especially at the top of the stairs that criss-cross the southern end. Some parts of the maze are therefore very light and some are very dark and narrow. There are a lot of frescoes and colours going on here too – I like the airmail effect of red, white and blue stripes by the stairs. You fall from one church to the next, never knowing what’s going to be through the next door, what you’ve already seen, where you’re supposed to go. There’s a map near the southern end but I’m pretty sure it’s the wrong way up and ‘you are here’ doesn’t match up with what I’m seeing at all.

It was while I was lost in a darker part that I heard a choir echoing through the maze and if it’s difficult to navigate, imagine trying to follow an echo that’s coming from everywhere at once. It turned out to be a four piece male voice choir in what seems to be the Church of the Holy Trinity, judging by the spiral on the ceiling. They’re very good but it sounds better echoing around the walls than coming from four men in white shirts.

At last I left. I wanted to see it properly from the outside too and the only place you can really do that right now is from the south. I found a bench and sketched it for my scrapbook. I can’t draw but even if I could, there’s just so much going on. Every church is a separate structure, there’s endless decoration from top to bottom, domes poking out from behind domes, practical square bits at the bottom, a tree blocking part of it.

By now I’d made up my mind to run back to the hotel, partly for lunch but mostly for spare camera batteries. But I had a deadline. Scheduled electricity maintenance meant a planned power cut between 2 and 6 and it was already 12. I decided I’d go to Alexadrovsky Sad station instead of fighting my way back through Red Square and that was how I realised how triangular the Kremlin is. Would have been far quicker to just go back through Red Square. Still, eventually I found the Kremlin ticket office (and queue) and Kremlin entrance (and queue) and got to the metro. Best way home: change to line 5 at Park Kultury.

At Park Kultury, while changing lines, I spied the souvenirs. I’d been keeping an eye out. Moscow’s Oyster equivalent, the Troika card, comes in wearable forms and I wanted a ring. You can’t operate the Tube by waving your hand over the turnstile. You can pry the chip out and put it in things but TfL really don’t like that. Moscow loves it. So now I have a pearly white ceramic ring on my finger, preloaded with ten journeys and can enter the metro by touching the gate and it’s like actual magic. Not to mention it saves finding a card or getting out my wallet every time.

I finally got back with thirty-five minutes to spare. I didn’t stay long. I grabbed my stuff and tried to put some money on my ring and failed – you can only do it on the website in Russian and the app, which is in English, wouldn’t accept my cards. I had to do it in person at the metro station. I dropped some stuff on my bed – two used metro tickets, the box for my ring containing the instructions and my unique ID number, my phrasebook and camera case and personal alarm (I’d managed to set it off at Park Kultury without even noticing – well, I noticed something. Thought I’d get on the train and escape because there’s a quiet alarm at the station but no one’s reacting. Got on the train – it continued. Alarm in the whole metro system and no one seems to care! Oh… no… it’s me.

I decided I’d go to Gorky Park while I waited for the electricity to come back on. The nearest station, it turns out, is not Park Kultury but that’s where I went. I crossed the bridge over the river and saw the statue of Peter the Great which I’d assumed to be in St Petersburg, which is after all his city and his capital. I saw that from a rooftop last time. A church? Where is there a church convenient for viewing it? It took the entire length of the bridge for me to realise it was from the white and gold Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was only built around 1997, I think. This is why I had to come back here as an adult!

I had had no idea what the weather would be like but it was hot. I found shade in Gorky Park and then walked down to the fountains to discover that in ten minutes, they’d start their music and light show. People were sitting around the edge with their feet in the gutter so I joined them. The lights aren’t visible at 3pm and the fountains aren’t really in time with the music but it’s fun to watch. I walked around the fountains. At the bottom, you’d get a view right through the fountains to the huge chunk of Soviet gate at the park entrance if not for the spray. On the far side, there was a man on roller skates dancing to the music.

I went to Oktyabrskaya and took the metro back to Alexadrovsky Sad and finished my circular walk of the Kremlin, past the Unknown Soldier – I know the guards march in peculiar Russian style but right then they were standing still. Back at the top of Red Square, the arches were closed. And the next set. And the next. Red Square was completely closed! You can’t close Red Square! I walked through the expensive shopping centre and back down to the benches at the southern end where I’d sketched At Basil’s, only now the sun was setting and it was harder to see and definitely harder to take photos. Rather than wind my way north or circumnavigate the Kremlin again, I walked along the top of Zaryadye Park and three little churches on the same street back to Kitay Gorod station and home just in time to join the queue returning at 6 and wanting to use the one lift operating for three hotels (this one is attached to the Mercure and the Accor and we had the only lift that worked during the power cut). There was a woman behind me who huffed and whined the entire time we were waiting for the lift. It was taking too long. It’s on the ninth floor now, oh great! It’s going to be half an hour before we get back to our room and I have to change! It would be quicker to walk. If it had taken much longer to arrive, my responses to these would have become audible – well, they already are but it’s amazing how deaf people become if you stare at the lift while you snap “Then just walk!”

The power finally returned a few minutes after I got back to my room – yes, lady, on the ninth floor, the lift goes to all floors, not just yours – but the wifi took a bit longer to come back to life. I used the time to paint my sketch of St Basil’s and now with some colour, it makes more sense and also looks so much more wobbly.
Last job of the day: more food shopping. I ignored last night’s Магнит and tried the Daily минимаркет next door. Mistake. This was the kind of upmarket posh place that has pale wooden shelves instead of real shelves, looks like a National Trust giftshop and sells neither bread nor plastic cheese slices. So to the Billa. I’d seen it on the map when I’d searched for supermarkets and I know Billa. Unfortunately it’s further than it looks. I’ll stick to Магнит for the rest of the week.

Russia 2019 day 1: flying to Moscow

Getting on a plane at Heathrow at 8.40am means getting up really early and so when the plane is delayed by an hour because the company that cleans the planes didn’t turn up last night, it’s very annoying.

It was the biggest plane I’ve ever been on and the first one where ‘turning left’ meant anything other than trying to invade the flight deck. It had two aisles! I had to walk through a section of lie-flat beds! The expensive economy seats were big and padded and they were given pillows and blankets!

I got to the back of the plane, to the rows of squished seats that I recognised, other than that there was a section in the middle that doesn’t usually exist. By dumb luck, I’d managed to get one of the last two window seats when I’d checked in and there was a pillow and blanket and a complementary set of earphones waiting for me. I’d never been able to sit so far behind the wing and the end of it seemed so far away.

I set my entertainment screen to scroll through the flight map and info. We flew over the border between Germany and Denmark and over the southern Baltic – I saw Kaliningrad and Poland and the long sandbar that connects them to Lithuania. Meals were brought round, although they only had egg and cress sandwiches by the time they reached us at the back. No Martyn to feed my meal to on this trip to Moscow.

We overshot Moscow, did a big circle over the countryside to the east and came back. It takesca long time to empty a big plane like this, not helped by my neighbours refusing to move until everyone else had gone. So I was last off the plane and last in the passport queue.

This was the big I was nervous about. Didn’t I need a landing card to go with my visa? What if I’d filled in the customs declaration form wrongly? It turns out the nice Russian border control lady will scan both passport and visa and then print your landing card from the info provided on them. The customs form is only relevant if you have anything to declare and $110 is not worth noticing.

Next was currency exchange. I’d had a feeling it would be easier to get roubles from a cashpoint and I was right. I found the bank, was closed into a tiny glass room with a Russian banker and dropped my shiny fresh dollars in the slot. She counted them twice, looking at them carefully, and then put them in an electronic counting machine before barking something at me in Russian. And then when I failed to respond, because my Russian is very phrasebook-page-one, she did what the English do and repeated it but louder and more aggressively. It was only when I said that I don’t speak Russian that she tried “to roubles!”. If I worked in a bank in an international airport and was handed some foreign currency by someone with luggage who looked blank when I spoke to them, I would conclude they were a non-Russian speaking foreign tourist a lot sooner.

So next time, just use the ATM.

Next was the Aeroexpress train to my local station. Easy. The ticket machine speaks English and takes cards. I could follow the signs to the station. I’d noticed on landing that airside at Moscow DME isca building site; now I learned that so is the passenger side. The station looked just like the one at Rome airport – long arched building over a long platform with a track each side – and the train arrived the same time as me, a double-decker just like the one in Rome, only in the red and grey of Russian rail.

For an express train, it didn’t go that fast. We passed a lot of birch forest and then the Moscow suburbs, made one stop and then went to Paveletskaya station, which is the Aeroexpress terminus but also my local metro station.

To get into the station, I had to dump all my luggage through an x-ray scanner and then finding the exit was surprisingly difficult. I finally emerged into fresh Russian air onto another building site. I’d looked up my walk to the hotel on Google Maps so I recognised the tower that needed to be on my right, the Starbucks that needed to be on my left and the castle-shaped building that stood at the top of my road. And my hotel was visible a few minutes down, with a big red Ибис on the top that was recognisable despite the Cyrillic letters, which I knew spelled Ibis in Russian. I’m finding so far that I need to read everything, reading in Cyrillic is slower than reading Latin letters and everything I’ve read so far makes sense. Драив on the side of a taxi – I spelled that out slowly. D. R. A. EE. V. Draeev. Russian, that says drive!

I checked into my hotel. I was offered a room on s lower or higher floor and of course chose the higher. I’m on the ninth floor. There’s not much view but the Starbucks building is visible – it’s tall and tower-like and it’s clearly important because it’s lit up at night.

I charged my phone a bit – twelve hours uncharged and three hours playing music on the plane had flattened the battery a bit – and then went looking for a supermarket. There’s one on the street behind my hotel. I bought apple juice because яблоко was the first Russian word I ever learned (obviously. How can you navigate Moscow without knowing how to ask where your apple is?) and bread (хлеб) and other bits and pieces and then I came home and did nothing for the rest of the night. I assume I heard fireworks and not a huge gun battle at 11.30. And if this bit of Moscow is loud (it is), imagine how loud my last two nights are going to be in a few weeks when my hotel is literally backing onto the Kremlin.

Malta day 4

Another thunderstorm tumbled at about 5am, the breakfast room (which is mostly a conservatory & is probably the pool room in the summer) leaked a bit and it was kind of raining, right up until I went outside.

I successfully found the bus stop for the fast bus to Valletta, we manoeuvred around a prang between a Mercedes and a bus and then the hop-on-hop-off bus man said the words “harbour cruise”. So I did. As I walked away with a handwritten paper ticket for a boat leaving in an hour and a half from a different peninsula, it occurred to me that maybe it was a fake ticket. Well, if it was, never mind. I’ve never been caught out before and once in 10+ years isn’t bad. I didn’t opt for the quick Sliema ferry. I had time to kill and a card full of bus journeys to use up. I took the bus to the headland at the bottom of St Julian and walked back to Sliema.

The boat was real and the ticket was real. And it was the pretty boat, not the functional one, the one in the style and paint job of a traditional Maltese luzzi. Boarding it as soon as it got in from its previous trip saved me sitting on the seafront in the boiling sun but if I was going to be first on a boat, I was going to take my choice of seat, not shelter under the deck, so I sat in the full glare of the boiling sun on a seat that bobbed gently up & down. I could see my left arm getting sunburnt so I hid it inside my t-shirt and draped my jacket over my head. Yes, I looked ludicrous. But I was avoiding the worst of the sun

It got cold once we were out on the water. Once we were moving, I decided to sit along the side of the boat in the shade instead of at the front and that worked quite well until we were sailing up the creeks between the Three Cities, when it got very cold indeed. I moved back to my seat at the front for the return journey, right in the sun.

Now what? I had two or three hours. That’s not time to do anything. I returned to Valletta and used the bus wifi to look up airport bus timetables. Ah ha! The X4 would take me to a place called Pretty Bay, 15 or 20 minutes beyond the airport. I could look at the view and catch the earlier bus back to the airport on its return loop.

Pretty Bay is pretty but it does have a big container porr at the south end. But the water is proper blue, there are rock pools and a stretch of yellow sand and if you want a quiet bit of beach,this probably isn’t a bad choice. Then I got the bus back to the airport where I sit right now, finishing up orange juice and eating the first meal-like thing since breakfast.

Malta day 3

Today, after breakfast (someone burnt the toast & then retrieved it from the toaster with her knife!) I wrote Thursday & Friday’s blog and then went out. It had rained a little bit in the morning but by the time I got to the bus stop, the sun was out. I hid down the road in the shade to figure which bus I should be getting – the info said only one was going to Valletta but I know that every bus that came to the other stop yesterday was going there. As it turns out, they are, but they’re marked for the far end of the loop they’re making before they all finish up back in Valletta. The one I got on went to San Gwann and the back streets of Sliema before ending up at the main bus station. It was hot, I had to lean against the cold window but it had free wifi – Malta’s very good at that.

Now I could understand how Valletta works – or at least, where it starts and finishes, which had been a mystery. Valletta is a walled city occupying the end of this peninsula. I entered through the City Gate, which is a combination of huge dry most, massive lumps of yellow limestone and a big stone doorway. Immediately on the other side is Parliament, more yellow limestone but this time very much of the future, and the new royal theatre, an open-air built in the bombed-out remains of the old one. It was hot. Really hot. I wandered a little way down the main street then spied a sign for the Sliema ferry. That meant a sea breeze so off I went. Valletta is very hilly. As I made my way down to the shore I found a 4×4 that was holding up traffic by not being able to get up a steep hill and another hill with grippy sttips cut into it.

At the bottom was the ferry – much more the size I’d imagined for the Gozo ferry, more like the Browner’s ferry. Sliema, on the other side, was very different to Valletta, all high-rise towers, no limestone at all. I got my return ferry ticket & sat at the front upstairs. The wind was cold as we sailed across, the sort of freezing cold I’d hoped for. And when we reached Sliema… it was like being in any town in Britain. M&S, Burger King, Zara, Matalan, an entire seafront of British high street shops. Great view of ancient Valletta, though. And right in the sun. I walked along the seafront and then decided it might be best to get the ferry back over to Valletta and hide in its narrow alleys.

So I did. I walked to the end of the peninsula looking over at St Elmo’s Fort and ate some lunch on the rocks. I walked round the fort via the narrow back streets of what is apparently the old red light district, round all the historical stuff, saw the Three Cities on the other side of the Grand Harbour, the Siege Bell and then walked back into the touristy streets where I got on the land train. It basically did the same route I’d just walked but it kept up a commentary and we went found a few places at the south end of the city that I hadn’t seen.

I finished off my tour of Valletta with St John’s Co-Cathedral – best on the inside but closed after 12:30, also I need to find out why “co”-cathedral – and the main square and armoury. That done, I bought some postcards and went to the bus station.

They don’t make it easy there. I eventually had to look up buses that would go to Qroqq 2 on the app and then go and look up the bay on the departure board and found my bus not in the main bus station but a separate set of bays at the bottom of the road. And then I discovered if you go a direct route, Qroqq is only 5-10 minutes on the bus, virtually in easy walking distance.

I thought I had plenty of good to last 24 hours but when I’d eaten pretty much everything within twenty minutes of getting home, I realised I needed to go shopping. I found a quicker way to Gala Center, this time via Gzira, more or less. This is why I’m confused about exactly where I am – all the town’s and villages I’ve ever heard of seem to overlap just here.

At 10:50 that night, there was a bright flash of light – not the notification light on my phone. Then what? Then a huge rumble of thunder, one of the biggest I’ve ever heard. Ah. Yes, it had been ridiculously hot ever since I’ve been here. A thunderstorm is always what follows excessively hot weather. It tumbled on and off all night and had a second go at a real thunderstorm about 4.30am. It’s now 9.17 on Sunday morning and although the thunder has finished, it’s still drizzly and grey – which suits me far better than the sun.

Malta 2019: days 1 & 2

Day One

I’ve never flown Ryanair before. It was fine, except that pretty much everyone on the plane had paid to upgrade to Priority to get a cabin-sized bag as well as their free small bag and there wasn’t room in the overhead lockers to put all the suitcases. The people opposite me were upset that their Priority bags didn’t get priority in the lockers and that they hadn’t been allowed to board early to get first use of the lockers. That’s not what Priority is on Ryanair and it definitely doesn’t work if there’s only one person on the entire plane (hello!) who hasn’t paid for it.

We took off over Poole Harbour & then went over Southampton and Portsmouth before flying across the Channel to France, at which case my geography dissolved and I settled down to my tablet. The lady at the end of my row was up & down, apparently not sure whether to take her designated seat in front of her husband, the empty seat next to him or the entire empty rows at the front. Well, when the cabin crew handed the lady directly in front of me a sick bag & turned on her fan, I thought I might make use of those empty rows.

The front of the plane was basically empty. I helped myself to an entire row and enjoyed the freedom of leaving my stuff on the seat next to me for the next two and a bit hours. I saw an unidentified Mediterranean island, I saw spectacular mist and waves and I watched the Malta-Gozo ferries chugging across the Channel before we reached the airport. Being right at the front, I was 7th into the building, 6th past passport control & then 1st out into arrivals.

I decided the best way to deal with the bus was to get a 12-journey card rather than pay cash (and therefore keep enough small coins) for every journey. It would have been nice to hang around at the airport for five minutes – sunset and palm trees! Not a combination I generally see in Norway or Iceland – but the X2 was already about to depart. True, for the first five minutes the LCD display inside said X3 & I had to adjust my plans before realising i was on the right bus after all.

I got off at the wrong place. I thought Qroqq 4 came straight after University so I jumped off at the hospital. Still, my phone said it was only a 16 minute walk to the residence & I reached Qroqq roundabout in under ten minutes.

I knew my room was in student accommodation but I’m so glad I’m not a student here. All the windows look out over internal shafts. My room is quite luxurious – you’d have to jump to reach the other side rather than step and light comes down the shaft. There’s a perpetual rumbling noise a bit like a giant fridge, the lights aren’t quite bright enough & the fire alarms keep going off. It’s absolutely fine for £43 but I think it would be pretty grim to live here for a year.

Day two

I got up early for breakfast (toast good, juice bad, cereal worse) and then went out. Quick stop at the tiny shop near Qroqq for food supplies, then to the bus stop. 9:05 in Malta in January is not meant to be so hot. There was nowhere to shelter from the sun while I waited for the bus and by the time it turned up, I was about ready to collapse from heatstroke. The bus didn’t help by having its heating going. By the time I reached the Gozo ferry, I knew I’d be seeking out the shadiest breeziest spot on the deck and staying there. Maybe I’d stay there and go backwards and forwards all day until I’d cooled down enough to function. In fact, standing right at the front un just a t-shirt was freezing and then I finished the job by deciding the best way to explore Gozo was on the top deck of an open-topped hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus.

We went all over the island. There was an audio guide but mostly it crackled and only one ear worked. Gozo was not built for buses. We took some very tight corners & some very narrow streets and you could have stepped off the narrow balconies onto the top deck. It was windy and the sun kept going behind clouds so most people sat with winter coats and hats on.

The only place I actually hopped off was at Dwejra. That’s where the Azure Window used to be, a 50m high Durdle Door, before it collapsed in a storm in winter 2017. However, the guidebook mentioned “distorted crater-like topography” and of course I liked the sound of that. It’s limestone but in places it looks like pumice and in places it’s as much shells as rocks. Very weird to scramble on.

But what I enjoyed in Dwejra was the helicopter. A big chunky one, the kind that does search and rescue. It swooped over the beach twice, looked like it was going to land, then winched down two people. Yes, I went to see what was going on. No, I wasn’t the only one. It swooped away again and then returned and winched up two people, together. They both looked like they were in helicopter uniform. There was no sign of any rescue needed. I conclude that it was training. It was very interesting but also very noisy.

I got back on the next bus. The audio guide actually worked on this one but it was ten minutes behind where we were so we didn’t know what to look at until it was far too late. In Victoria/Rabat there’s a street leading to the bus station that’s one way except buses. I’m not convinced that’s a system that works very well.

We returned to the harbour & rather than rush for the next ferry, I found a table & had late lunch so I could get calmly on the following ferry. It seems to go so quickly – well, it doesn’t move quickly and it was a bit tougher on the way back but the journey was over do soon. I enjoyed the ferry.

I expected the bus back to be chaotic, what with an entire ferry-load trying to get on but they all went for the non-express buses with Valletta on the front. Ok, the X1 doesn’t technically go to Valletta but it doesn’t exclusively go from Gozo to the airport. But it meant I could sit at the front, where I could see where we were going and where the windows aren’t filtered to make sunset appear half an hour earlier (this was a problem on the X2 yesterday – from my seat it was pitch black outside). The driver went a little too fast – if he has to hang onto the side of his cabin when we go round a corner, he’s going too fast – but it was fun and we got back to Qroqq 4 far too soon. I nearly missed it. By the time I realised we were getting close, it was already the next stop.

I stopped at Gala Centre for food on the way back – it’s inside a Seat dealer, there’s no obvious entrance to the supermarket although there are two exits and there’s no obvious way out of the building either. Still, I got 2 litres of Happy Day orange juice and some food and then I went back to my room.

Kiev 2018: Sun 4th (day 5)

There are many things to hate about Kyiv Boryspil. Like that the spelling on the door is not the same as the spelling on my boarding card. Like the fact that you have to go through an x-ray machine just to get into the building, because emptying your pockets in the doorway with no tables handy is loads of fun. Like the fact that it’s taken an hour to connect my tablet to the wifi.

Today I went to St Volodymyr’s Cathedral, said to be the prettiest (if not the most important) in Kyiv. In Kyiv. On a Sunday. Well, now I know what a Ukrainian Orthodox service looks and smells like. It’s prettier outside, that dark brown Art Nouveau thing is not as much to my taste as the mounds of gold in the other churches.

I walked down to Shevchenko Park where trees have eyes, all the benches are weird and children wear manes made of golden autumn leaves. Back to the metro at Khreshchatyk and along to Arsenalna to visit Rodina Mat, Nation’s Mother, a 91m statue of a warrior on the hillside, surrounded by a war museum. It’s just next to the Lavras but I didn’t walk to walk the extra distance on Thursday. I had lunch down there and then walked back.

Back at Maidan I did some shopping, finished lunch, collected my luggage and made for the airport. This time the Skybus was a coach and half empty, which was nice. Wifi’s not very good on it.

I also hate that there are only three places in this entire airport where you can get food or drinks – all takeaway bar things. Kyiv Boryspil, you need something like a mini Smiths.

Kiev 2018: Sat 3rd (day 4)

Today I went to При́п’ять, Pripyat. It was a new city, built in the 1970s, with an average age of 26 and all the amenities you could want. Today it’s a ghost town, totally abandoned. Why? Because the town was built to house the workers in & around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Short story: unnecessary safety test about 1am in April 1986 resulted in a fire which resulted in a steam explosion which resulted in the worst nuclear disaster in history. I read about it a lot. Today I visited it.

We met at 7.30. This was the bit of this whole trip I’d been nervous about – finding a single bus in a strange city and having my passport checked against the details I’d provided when I booked, even though I’d double and triple checked. Both went fine. In fact, I was the first there and it wasn’t a single bus, it was five buses. I was on the last one, one of at least two English-speaking buses, with guides Олександра and Oльга – Alexandra & Olga.

Having arrived first I sat and watched everyone else arrive. Every single other person, once it was established which bus they were on, asked “Is there time to go to the toilet/ATM/McDonalds/food shop before we go?” as if those weren’t things you were supposed to do before you got to the bus. I also noticed that almost all the tour guides smoke. Well, if your job is to expose yourself to radiation…

We drove an hour and a half to the first checkpoint where Special Group Permission was eventually granted and our passports were checked by military officials. While we waited for the bus to cross, we were advised to use the last “civilised restrooms” of the day – not so civilised, really, but better than the “radioactive – but not because of the radiation” ones we might encounter later on. Now we were in the 30km exclusion zone.

It was at this point that we were given our Geiger counters. They’re yellow and look like big GPS units except that they click incessantly and beep frantically if radiation levels get higher than national average of 0.3 µSv/h. At the checkpoint it was 0.16.

We drove to Zalissya, an abandoned village. It’s in the woods now – they’ve grown up around everything in the last 32 years. Here we went in a small hospital, a mini supermarket and the house of a girl called Yulya. These buildings are in worse condition than they should be for mere abandonment – the walls and floors have been torn apart by looters looking for copper wiring and valuables.

We drove straight past Chernobyl city and to the checkpoint at Leliv, entrance to the 10km zone where we didn’t have our passports checked. Not far along the road we got our first glimpse of reactor 4 under its new dome. We stopped at Kopachi, another abandoned village. This is where you see the photos of dolls – the only building still standing is the kindergarten and it’s surrounded by hotspots, which is where radioactive residue was literally washed off with soap and water which then soaked into the soil. Geiger counter says 2-3 around here but you can get it up to 13 at the roots of some trees.

Next: Pripyat, the town built to house the workers. Soviet Paradise. Best city for best people. Average age: 26. Definitely has something in common with Disney’s Discoveryland. It’s a ghost town now. You can’t live here. Well, you probably could. Radiation here mostly averaged 1 µSv/h except in hotspots, the hottest of which was on the bottom of one of the Ferris wheel cages, which got up to 270 and which Alexandra has seen at 350. We walked through the abandoned overgrown streets. It’s hard to get a sense of scale. Old photos says this is a wide road and those blocks right over there are on the other side of the road. But we were looking at them half an hour ago.

We had lunch at the canteen at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. Reactor 3 was still producing electricity until 2000 and now reactors 1, 2 & 3 are in the process of being decommissioned so there are still workers here. The canteen is both very Soviet and very Discoveryland. We had to go through radiation control before we were allowed in – a frame that measures how radioactive you are, that is, how much dust you’ve picked up. We passed with flying colours.

After lunch was reactor 4 itself. You’re only allowed to take photos of the New Safe Confinement from one angle, no photos of the facility or the protection. It’s a big fence with razor wire on top, exactly what you’d expect and the new NSC control building is a two-storey portacabin. Nuclear secrets revealed. What’s amazing is that exploded reactor is right there. Like right there, under the big steel cover. It’s due to keep it safe for 100 years and in the meantime they’re hoping to dismantle and clean up the wreckage underneath by 2065. Radiation here 1.01 µSv/h.

By now we were about done but there was more to see. There was Radar Duga-1, a secret Soviet military installation disguised as an abandoned Soviet kids’ summer camp, right down to the painted bus stop at the junction. It’s a pair of big antennae, like 150m high fences that were supposed to detect USA ballistic missile launches – except that it never worked. By the time the zone was evacuated it worked in test mode. Secret Soviet military installation is interesting but it was getting cold, the sun was setting and everyone was too tired to take much interest in it.

We left the 10k zone at Leliv, via another radiation control frame, made two stops in Chernobyl itself to see some of the clean-up robots and the monument to Those Who Saved the World and then a final radiation check back at Dytiatky before returning to the real world. Alexandra read my Geiger counter and declared I’d been exposed to 0.004 mSv today – higher than the other two people with them on the bus at 0.003 and 0.002, although Conrad left his on the bus most of the day. Olga managed 0.003 as well but Alexandra, who had hunted down the hotspots, had managed 0.006.

An hour and a half later, on Ukrainian roads in the dark and we were home.

I have a lot of reading to do about radiation and nuclear power.

Kiev 2018: Fri 2nd (day 3)

Today I got up early (earlier…), had breakfast (the bread was nice and crispy on the bottom today. High hopes for crispy top as well by Sunday) and went out into Kyiv.

My first destination was St Sophia’s Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with Kiev Pechersk Lavra, the monastery where I went yesterday. And when I say “along with”, I mean the two are considered one entry on the list.

I paid my 20UAH to go into the grounds. It’s a good cathedral although I start to wonder if someone around the 11th century had a lot of green and gold paint to sell off. The trees here were yellow and the grounds were relatively quiet and the sun came out so I sat on benches and looked at it and maybe took a few selfies.

Then I went back outside & spotted another gold-domed church at the other end of the road. This is St Michael’s Gold Domed Monastery and it’s another 21st century reproduction of an ancient building destroyed in the last seventyish years. I suspect the Kyiv of 100 years ago would look very different. This church is bright blue and you can see it beautifully from outside the walls so I enjoyed it for a while and then walked round the back to the funi.

For another 8UAH you can go down to the river and the Podil district. From down by the river I could see the floodlights of a stadium up on the hill – the very same ones I can see from my window. I hadn’t gone as far as it felt. The road would go up the hill, turn right and end up on Maidan. Bit steep though.

I took the funi back up & went into the grounds of St Michael’s through the side gate. This is one of those rare ones that’s free to enter. You can go inside the cathedral free too. There are two things inside Kyivan churches – old ladies sweeping the floor and people kissing the icons. They even keep a cloth on the frame to wipe them clean. I’ve never been anywhere where I’ve seen religion taken so seriously.

I was right about St Michael’s, it’s prettier from outside the walls, although from the inside you can see how very very blue the cathedral is. I walked back up to St Sophia’s and down the hill to Maidan, popped into the Billa for more supplies and came home for lunch.

After lunch I set off for St Amdrew’s Descent, which starts near St Michael’s. No need to walk all the way up there, not when it’s one stop on the Blue Line to the metro outside the funi. 65p to be too lazy to walk up the hill in the drizzle. It probably took longer, though.

St Andrew has a good church. I’d seen it from the river this morning. It’s closed for renovations so you can’t go inside. Behind it is a nice winding steep street with interstate yellow buildings. It doesn’t take long to realise it’s just a steep street lined with souvenir stalls. I’m sure St Andrew did walk here when he put his cross on the hill but this vitally important sight is not as exciting or beautiful as it was made out to be.

At the bottom was a big square with a Ferris wheel. Can’t be a serious capital city without a wheel in this century. Attached to the square was the ruins of an old shopping centre, with neither insides, roof or windows. Beyond that was another square, clearly a hub for minibuses and trams and just up the road is what I think the guidebook called Kyiv’s oldest surviving church. No gold here but the customary green domes very much present.

Once I’d wandered this square two or three times, gone in the big sweet shop and got lost, I found the metro. I could have walked along parallel to the river and returned to the one at the bottom of the funi, where I’d emerged earlier but this one was closer and still only two stops from home.