I know what a first world country looks and feels like, I grew up in Australia, the USA is first world. Germany has no right calling itself first world or comparing itself to these countries. It is SO more civilised than those, its off the charts. It has cycle ways and I don’t mean paths I mean complete networks with their own lanes, road signs and traffic lights and not just in the cities but in every village and hamlet as well, and not even just there, they link every village, hamlet and city, its amazing. Its towns, especially in Northern Germany are beautiful.
This is when the ‘Sorensen Effect’ started! Mike is an architect friend based in Margaret River- www.sorensenarchitects.com.au, He is also Pete’s snowboard buddy for our trips to Japan.
Mike spent many years in this neck of the woods, and in fact, met his wife Britta here. He has a history here and a deep passion for its towns and villages.
Casual emails became lengthy essays on where and what we should visit and why. ‘You gotta go to Plon it’s a really pretty lake area, oh and from there north west to Bergenhusen, a little village famous for its storks (and I worked there) then on to Flensburg, a wonderful port city on the Danish boarder.. oh and call in to Momo and say hi to Malene...’
Unfortunately Mike was right, every town and village he suggested out shone his waxings.
From Münster we headed north past Hamburg (sorry Mike) to Plon. Which did in fact, turn out to be a ‘really pretty lake area’.
From Plon it was on to Bergunhusen (as per Mike’s recommendation). We found a campsite in a small town just outside called Suderstapel (also has a population of storks). We were given a fantastic campsite right down on the riverside.
We arrived in Langballigau, a quaint seaside village just outside Flensburg, in the early evening. After setting up, we had planned to go for a run but instead walked around the boat harbour and along the jetty stopping for local bevies and, being a seaside village,... local seafood snacks.
Act two had always required a camper van. The initial plan was to get hold of one in Helsinki then touring Scandinavia in an anti clockwise direction before heading through the Baltic states, into the Caucuses and beyond. Unfortunately the world is yet to become anarchic and nations still have stupid rules about ownership and registration etc of vehicles so after some intense research we found that the best place to buy a camper van was in Germany where at least one company could also register and insure it for us.
Hence we found ourselves not in Helsinki but in a small town outside Dortmund next to the Dutch border.
We arrived in Helsinki early the next morning and were transferring to another ferry, late afternoon, for our onward voyage to Germany. Helsinki has numerous ports, so, after passing through immigration, it was a tram, train and bus ride to the other side of town and the port we were leaving from.
The port itself was in the middle of nowhere but the bus had passed through, what looked like, a rather pretty seaside suburb. With time to kill, we caught the bus back, bought some picnic food for the voyage and strolled back through the suburb, along its beachside promenade, past its quaint boat club, up its well manicured stream, past its challenging links golf course, through a small logistics zone and finally to the ferry terminal in time to board a much more utilitarian ferry to Germany.
We arrived in Travemunde late evening and as there was no accomodation available there, we caught the bus to a town down the road called Lübeck. We woke the next morning to realise that Lübeck deserved more than a transit stop... but more on that in the next blog... We headed to the station to enquire about tickets for our onward journey...damn its expensive! It was actually cheaper to hire a car, so that’s what we did. For the first time in months I got behind the wheel, for the first time in years it was on the wrong side of the car!! Tentatively at first, ie why turn left when you can make three right hand turns, we headed toward Münster in northwest Germany.
Sorry for the delay in transmission, but as the stage is reset for act 2, we have realised we never finished the final dramatic scene of act 1- St Petersburg!
St Petersburg, what can I say but... awesome. It’s a grand, self confident, port town.
Pete was mainly interested in the actual palace interiors and the replicas so we spent a good few hours wandering through the various halls admiring the grandiose interior design. You can see why the peasants revolted that’s for sure!!
Another must see is Petergof, the grand summer palace of Peter the Great. There are various sections in the palace, the Upper Garden, the Lower Garden and the Palace (museum).
The other aspect of St Petersburg that just blew us away was the incredible foodie scene. We were fortunate to have some good (well informed) foodie friends in Bangkok that gave us the tips of must visit places. We almost conquered them... we will just have to come back!
One of the first places we ticked off was Smoke BBQ. We were hanging for some good smoked bbq food and it didn’t disappoint. They served your usual bbq fare of ribs, brisket etc but they upped it with their starters and the presentation and taste was up there with any degustation restaurant. We had a delicious dish of smoked beetroot, beetroot purée and a sour cream foam.
We found a quirky bar to have some after dinner drinks. Run by 2 young locals and only sitting about 10 people. There were several people sitting around the bar and they encouraged to come in and sit down. It was a fun night laughing and chatting and people buying us drinks!
The Perm to Moscow leg was our final journey together, our posse would separate in Moscow, Karen flying back to Bangkok while Pete and I complete the last of the Trans-Siberian route to St Petersburg.
This was a 24 hour journey and I wanted to make an effort. Opting out of the dining car, we took along a picnic dinner of traditional Russian goodies: rye bread, smoked salmon, cream cheese, red caviar, pickled herring, beetroot salad, a herring salad a bear pate (which we forgot to open) and vodka. Washed down with individual bottles of bubbles and gin & tonics. On the iPad we watched “To Russia with Love”... Party time!
On one of our shorter journeys, on an open third class carriage, we met a group who didn’t speak a word of English and whilst we had internet we used ‘conversation’ in google translate. We had so many people all down the carriage laughing along at the attempts to communicate with us. It was a lot of fun.
KC has been continuing her online Russian lessons. She is very willing and eager to try her skills. The funniest moment - calling the waitress stupid instead of perfect!
She also has resigned to the fact, quite graciously, that she is Australian. We point to KC and say England and then us - Australia. Australia causes so much excitement, and responses like “kangaroo” or “Dundee Crokodill”, that England is forgotten. One guy said he is really hoping to go to Australia, when KC asked why - he said because they have good beer! If they speak Australian, we do try to explain, one from England, two from Australia but we all live in Thailand through this is quickly brushed over and we are all Australian again. Poor Karen, we’ll have to start calling her “Kazza”.
We arrived on a Friday evening, at peak hour, so decided that the metro was the best option to get to our accomodation. A little difficult as KC had a wheelie suitcase, as opposed to the backpacks that Pete and I have, and Russian metro stations aren’t particularly suitcase friendly. She got a good work out at each station.
After a few hiccups we eventually found our apartment. It was now Friday night and we needed drinks...and dinner. Luckily we were staying in a very hip area, so finding both was not difficult. We settled on a bar close to us where had a few pints of German beer and grazed on shared plates of local treats.
While Pete finalised the last blog the next morning, KC went out to explore. By the time we met up with her later she had discovered some interesting streets and sights around Red Square so, with KC as a tour guide, we retraced her steps.
The entrance to Red Square was blocked off by military police, as it was, bizarrely, when we first visited back in 1993. The reasons though could not more starkly show the cultural change. In 1993 it was because Yeltsin was sacking parliament and the older generation were protesting against social change, today it was blocked for a ultra-HiSo wedding!
The General Manager from Eat Me in Bangkok, Maria (who is Russian) recommended a cafe nearby called Dr Zhivago, where we enjoyed a late lunch. It was very quirky. Neo-Old fashioned theme with typical Russian food - which was very good! Sipping on our Aperol Spritz (the in-drink in Moscow) we had various blinis (Russian pancakes) of lamb, game and fish followed by a crayfish julienne (ramekin pie) for me, salad and more blinis for Karen and grilled monk fish for Pete.
There was a free classical concert in the amphitheatre of the Zaryadye Park, starting at 6pm, so we left Gorky Park and headed back. Unfortunately, after sitting on wet seats for 30 mins watching a famous black & white Russian war movie, I found out that the concert would start after the movie, 8pm. Given we couldn't understand the movie, we didn’t hang around. None of us were that hungry so we decided to picked up a bottle of wine and some snacks and took them back to our apartment.
The next day we strolled down the streets of one of the more exclusive areas of Moscow, past trendy cafes, restaurants, Mazarratis and Porsches on our way to the Kremlin. I suppose the Kremlin is a ‘must do’ in Moscow, as it is the founding site of Moscow and the ultimate symbol of political power in Russia.
Pete was keen to revisit Zaryadye Park as he discovered, on leaving the previous day, that the enormous dome actually houses an indoor park and wanted to check it out. We decided to grab some lunch in one of the cafes in the park. Just a light meal as we had a special dinner planned that evening.
KC was heading to the airport at 3.00pm the next day and, as she really likes Georgian food we, followed a recommendation of a local friend, and headed to a nice Georgian cafe for lunch.
After lunch, we said our goodbyes to KC who was sadly heading back to Bangkok. We have certainly covered some miles together on this epic journey, 10,000km across 7 time zones, Russia is without a doubt- massive. It was great that KC could join us on this part of our travels and after 3 weeks we were all still talking, surprisingly, since we were with each other 24/7 with several 24 & 30 hour overnighters in the same compartment!
Having fair welled Karen, Pete and I moved from our luxurious apartment to a hostel closer to the train station and settled in to a 7sqm room with no air conditioning, as opposed to the 25sqm with air conditioning that we booked (sorry mistake on website!!!!)... budget back on track!!
That evening we caught up with Maxim, an ex-colleague of mine from my TopTalent days, who heads up the Moscow office. It was good to catch up with a local who gave us some extra tips for our time left in Moscow and also for St Petersburg. After our drinks, we headed off to visit the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. It was massive, definitely worth the walk. It sparks a love it or hate it reaction from the locals. It is described as grandiose and gargantuan. It was completed in 1997 in time for Moscow’s 850th birthday.