hey ho, on the devil’s mount


"Sorry, your listening post is on another hill."

“Sorry, your listening post is on another hill.”

In Grunewald, overlooking much of west Berlin, stands a steep green hill called Teufelsberg. This means “devil’s mount”, and while the ominous associations lift for a moment on learning the name was after the nearby Teufelssee (“devil’s lake”), they return full force on learning that the hill is not natural, but artificial, built from the ruins of a dead Berlin. Between round-the-clock aerial bombing from the RAF and USAAF, and the Red Army taking the city a street at a time with rifle, hand-grenade and 203mm siege howitzer, Berlin was more rubble than city in 1945; and when the Cold War began in earnest, the blockaded West Berlin had no way of shipping its remains beyond city limits. Thus: a giant hill made of piled-up destroyed buildings, with an indestructible Nazi training college underneath it, and an odd observatory-looking NATO listening post on top.

I hadn’t even intended to go to Teufelsberg, but the Technikmuseum and the Gatow airbase were both closed on Mondays for whatever weird Berlin reason, so Plan C it was. Navigating was more difficult than it should have been; Google Maps’ listed paths are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike reality. Realising this and adopting the traditional hill-climbing method of “up”, I accidentally stormed up the smaller Drachenberg instead, and after spending a while catching my breath on the windy open plateau there, had to come halfway down again in the blazing sun. Still, it was a lovely walk; trees have been planted on Teufelsberg, the leafmould and wild grass have covered the detritus of the war. It feels like any other wooded hill, but where the path wears away to the bones of the land beneath, it’s not rock that is exposed, but brick, concrete and rebar.

Count how many times the fence has been broken and then repaired. Or, go insane trying. Either's good.

Count how many times the fence has been broken and then repaired. Or, go insane trying. Either’s good.


Ascending the much more heavily wooded Teufelsberg, for real this time, I couldn’t work out what the actual status of the listening post was. A website offering tours said it had shut down and I couldn’t find its successor; Wikipedia gave a very muddy and uninspiring account; and coming to a fence at the top, whose many, many repairs showed evidence of a constant, vicious running battle between fence-maintainers and people with wire cutters, made me no more optimistic. But persevering along the path I found a gate, where several extremely scruffy-looking people with beanbags and a small child asked me for money. As it turned out, the complex has been overrun with hippie-ish squatters who charge entrance based on no authority whatsoever. They said €7, €5 for students (and had a clipboard to make it seem all legit). I said I was a student and showed them my young person’s railcard. They were in no real position to argue.

Sub-dome with matching armchair.

Sub-dome with matching armchair.

The squatters have padlocked most of the buildings up (the fucking hypocrites), but what remains is an intriguing post-Cold-War sprawl of lovingly-if-messily maintained gardens, recycling stations and hoards of furniture arranged with Germanic pedanticism, all in the shadows of huge dead NSA structures sprayed with really quite impressive murals in all sorts of lurid colours and degrees of fatuous countercultural nonsense. I don’t know the engineering behind the listening station, and all the significant kit is long gone, but what remains is a series of tall buildings capped with puffball globes made of fibreglass hexagons. The highest and largest building has two lesser globes on the roof of a squat office building, and a single greater one between them, on a tiered column lined with shredded tarpaulins.

Above: Domes. Below: Popular theory as to purpose of domes.

Upper left: Domes. Lower left: Popular theory as to purpose of domes.

Said main building is easily accessible and is basically a graffiti gallery; all very run down, but not stinking of piss, which is a mercy. The roof has been lined with a fence made of wooden forklift pallets, there are separate bins for different recyclables and you just know they empty them every day; very German squatters. There’s no electricity, though, and health & safety is generally thoroughly Ukrainian; to get to the highest point, inside the top dome, you need to climb about fifteen flights of stairs in pitch blackness (thank heaven for the LED function on modern smartphones. The dome itself has almost no views, just a port in it, but the echoes are incredible, and I spent a good fifteen minutes up there whacking pieces of detritus into each other and stamping my feet to see how it would sound.

Leaving, I discovered the fridge of drinks by the clipboard hippies was on an “honour system”, so I donated a euro for a rainbow-labelled COLA-MIX in order to a) rehydrate b) maintain my self-destructive habit of buying oddly named sweet drinks in foreign parts. It wasn’t that bad, in truth. Going downhill was even more of an odyssey than coming up, as I once again put my trust in Google Maps and was once again betrayed. Trying desperately to follow my phone’s directions along paths which weren’t there, I ended up on mountain bike tracks which testified to the daring, not to say total suicidal lunacy, of local mountain bike riders, and ended up at the right place by luck as much as judgment. Overall, I had the time of my life, but it’s probably a good thing I didn’t have anyone else with me; between the steep hills, mild peril and totally improvised navigation, I suspect most companions would have got quite annoyed with it all. But I’ve always found that the best way to have an adventure is to point yourself in the vague direction of something interesting and follow your nose.


Berlin & Northern Germany, 2016



gravity’s rainbow

Prora and Peenemünde are practically adjacent, maybe 40km as the V-1 flies.* However, we were taking the Billmobile, and unlike the V-1 it has no easy way of crossing the twelve of those km which are water. So, after a breakfast of bread, Nutella, cheese and nondescript meat at Prora, we were in for a long drive back across Rügen and the north of Germany – the sky overcast and full of kestrels, the roads well-maintained and punctuated by utter idiots. Peenemünde is, as any fule kno, pretty much the birthplace of modern rocketry: home to the Nazi development programme which spawned the V-1 cruise missile, V-2 ballistic missile, their hundreds of less-well-known but still visionary siblings, and, through captured tech and scientists, the Soviet and American space programmes. In the usual chaotic Nazi way, several separate organisations worked in parallel but not always collectively on rocket-themed tools of destruction. Laboratories, factories and launch sites crowded the island, but most were bombed to powder during the war and the remains thoroughly looted for technical secrets by the occupying Allies.

"Once zer rockets go up, who cares where zey come down? That's not my department," says...

“Once zer rockets go up, who cares where zey come down? That’s not my department,” says…

Peenemünde is a secluded peninsula, suggested by the mother of Nazi rocket genius and karma houdini Wernher von Braun as “just the place for you and your friends”. Like Prora, it’s technically on an island, Usedom, which in this case is part German and part Polish. Usedom has any number of odd little tourist attractions – Wildlife Usedom with a growly tiger, something involving Teutonic knights whose poster had a bunch of them under a wheeling bald eagle (note: bald eagles are not native to the Baltic or, indeed, to Europe), a €7 hall of mirrors. Comprehensively and almost literally overshadowing them is the vast disused power plant housing the Peenemünde museum.

Note the massive Nazi death-rocket in the foreground.

Note the massive Nazi death-rocket in the foreground.

The power plant, built to power the military base (especially the production of liquid oxygen for rocket engines) was at the time of its construction one of the most advanced in the world, with pioneering particle-ionising technology to hide its smoke – the same that’s used now to reduce. It survived the war and the subsequent loopy GDR mismanagement, and is preserved as a “living museum” of the technology – and of the sad state of affairs under communism: the switch from mineral coal to low-grade lignite (all the good coal mines being the other side of the Iron Curtain), then to natural gas, and then back again when East Germany had supply problems with that; the underpaid, overworked plant staff having to jerry-rig** their own sandblasting machines and make wheelbarrows and fenceposts in their off hours to comply with GDR consumer goods requirements. Most of the boilers, the coaling infrastructure and the flue cleaners remain, although the turbines are all gone.

Crane and coal-crusher, from when they could actually get anthracite.

Crane and coal-crusher, from when they could actually get anthracite.

We took a lunch break for currywurst and chips before heading back in, this time for the true attraction: the rocketry museum. The collection was superb, with crumpled nosecones and hull pieces off A-4s (as they insisted on calling V-2s), pulse-jet components off V-1s, and models of all the weirder projects – the effective but aesthetically unbalanced Hs-293, the directly violent-looking Fritz-X, the thoroughly silly Rheintochter, the outright suicidal Me-163. Lots about the Wasserfall missile, an early surface-to-air rocket: its advantages were that unlike the V-2 its fuel could actually be stored, its disadvantages were that it cost as much as the bombers it was intended to destroy, and its terminal guidance system still hadn’t actually been invented when the war was lost.

Right: GPS. Left: GLONASS.

Right: GPS. Left: GLONASS.

It’s a complete museum, technical, conceptual and, inescapably for a war museum in Germany, moral, shot through with (reasonably eloquent, though patchily translated; one reference to “hydraulic” rockets was particularly confusing until we worked out it meant “liquid-fuelled”) comments on “the ambivalence of technology”. A gallery of utopian science-fiction visions and the lives and works of pioneers like Goddard and Tsiolkovsky was paces away from an unflinching look at a world of grim, emaciated slave labourers, striped pyjamas sewn with a pink triangle; in the next room, bricks and dust, wartime newspapers with photos of blitzed-out London streets; and, down the hall, a thoroughly-referenced meditation on mutually assured destruction (with graphs!). I thought the impact of the actual V-weapons was a bit overdone, as the RAF routinely inflicted more death and devastation in a single thousand-bomber raid than everything invented in Peenemünde put together. Actually, the RAF got a look-in, with a room devoted to Operation Hydra – the biggest bombing operation against a single point target (as opposed to a city) of WW2 (and, presumably, of all time). Although Peenemünde was more or less neutralised by the raid, and V-2 production went (literally) underground, it was a poor showing for British aviation; most of the bombs went into the sea, or landed on the slave workers’ barracks. Oops.

V-2 fuel mixing system. Each hole holds an individually milled brass shower head and about twenty smaller milled brass pieces, spraying a vortex of alcohol fuel and liquid oxygen. All this was powered by a large milled aluminium pump which itself required two more types of fuel. No wonder they lost the war.

V-2 fuel mixing system. Each hole holds an individually milled brass shower-head thing and about twenty smaller milled brass pieces, spraying a vortex of alcohol fuel and liquid oxygen. All this was powered by a large milled aluminium pump which itself required two more types of fuel. No wonder they lost the war.

I had been hoping to venture north into the actual ruined launch sites of Peenemunde (breaking through a hole in the a fence and wandering down miles of abandoned road to investigate a bombed-out rocket stand probably still riddled with live ammunition… no, that doesn’t deter me, that’s the point) but Prufstand VII, the most impressive bit, was an irritatingly long way away, and the guides I found were vague as to distances but specific as to the presence of impassable mosquito-ridden bogs. Most importantly, Bill was knackered after two full-on days, especially with another 300km of driving to do. So, next time, I suppose.

"And that was the longest, and that was the end."

“And that was the longest, and that was the end.”

* There are lots of large, confident black-and-grey crows around, along with the hundreds of sparrows, wagtails, blackbirds, swallows, house martens, sedge warblers and various other small nice birds of the Baltic coast. It’s nice.

** Technical term.


Berlin & Northern Germany, 2016
Prora PeenemündeTeufelsberg

the colossus of Rügen

(Click on the images for higher-res versions!)

North of Berlin, the autobahn ran through dense (but orderly) forest and then opened out into broad fields under the grey morning sky. Wind turbines have sprouted across Mecklenburg-Vorpommern like daffodils in spring, their blades striped orange. Occasional showers came down, brief but intense, but by the time we reached the island of Rügen the day was bright and the sky blue. Over the bridge by Stralsund, with its striking Marienkirche and picture-perfect Hanseatic seafront, was Rügen itself, with an unexpected number of of car dealerships and railway lines, and on its east coast, Prora.

Youth hostel in Block V, bottom left; Block IV, largely abandoned, centre; Block III, mostly museums, top right. There are eight blocks; the entire complex is nearly 5km long.

Youth hostel in Block V, bottom left; Block IV, largely abandoned, centre; Block III, mostly museums, top right. There are eight blocks; the entire complex is nearly 5km long.

Prora is a holiday camp of cyclopean proportions, envisioned as a key point for the Nazis’ “Kraft durch Freude” (Strength through Joy) organisation -a mass tourism initiative intended to overcome class divisions by uniting the German Volk in affordable but healthy holidays, with lots of outdoorsy pursuits, hiking, sea cruises etc etc. It appears from history that Hitler learned of the Butlins camps being built in the UK in the mid-late 1930s and, more or less, turned to Albert Speer and said “outdo them.”) The result was a resort built for 20,000 people, continuous blocks of flats punctuated by piers overlooking a huge crescent-shaped beach on the east coast of Rügen. Its completion interrupted by the war, it was used in a vague way by East Germany and mostly abandoned, with large parts in ruins. Part of block V contains the largest youth hostel in Germany; we were in Room 101 (gulp), which as Block VI is now rubble stands as the northernmost surviving part of Prora.

It goes on like this for miles. Literally miles.

It goes on like this for miles. Literally miles.

(The pier structures joining them up were never completed, so the most Prora has ever been is eight separate gigantic blocks of flats; the southernmost and the two northernmost are ruins now, and the remaining five are now numbered, south-north, I-V. With me so far? Good. Here’s a map, the surviving blocks are red on the right.) That block, of which the youth hostel occupies less than a third, is well over half a kilometre long.

The hostel felt rather in keeping with the original KdF intentions – clean, austere, healthy, affordable but with no emphasis on class, with the implication that this was merely for hiking, swimming naked, etc etc etc. * Initially, though, our hopes of exploring Pripyat-like abandoned ruins deflated; the place was much busier, much more orderly and much better fenced off than expected. Sets of Nazi-built bungalows were in regular use, now basically just suburbia; stern, efficient German fencing covered the rest of Block V, and most of what we could see of Block IV had already been redeveopled into some surprisingly nice flats. The foundation of the pier structure between V and IV was just an inaccessible foundation which I barked my knee trying to climb, and the railway-and-technology museum, by the time we reached it, was only open for another half hour and wanted €10 for its single room of cars and trains (although it was a big room, and they did look like quite good cars and trains.) We returned to the hostel for an early dinner, bockwurst and kartoffelsalat – a typically German cheap meal, the sausage nondescript flavourless meat, the potatoes lost in a sea of mayonnaise, but it filled us up and didn’t cost much.

The idealised German tourists, their complexion a healthy bronze.

The idealised German tourists, their complexion a healthy bronze.

We set out again, looking to make the best of it. The pier foundation by our room, between block V and the now-gone block VI, was at least accessible if nothing more than a cartouche of sea-wall overlooking the beach; a statue of two very naked bronze German holidaymakers (the woman with massive shoulders and tits-as-an-afterthought, the man horse-faced and standing, silver spray paint on her nipples and his cock) watch over the actual, considerably less sculpted (in every sense) holidaymakers on the beach. We strolled down the white sands, full of little shells and leftover sandcastles – you can see nothing of the resort from the beach, it’s grown quite a bit since Hitler’s time.

Harbour structure - now just sand, bricks and spray paint.

Harbour structure – now just sand, bricks and spray paint.

At the very centre of Prora’s crescent, between blocks III and IV, stands the pier structure which was meant to take Baltic cruise ships; the superstructure and the jetties were never finished, all that’s left is a graffiti-stained redbrick wall, and inland the site of the Festhall is a tangled wilderness of little pine trees and fragrant pink roses. But, pressing on, we found a proper half-built structure with that tasty crumbling STALKER feel; a look through a shattered window found some sort of abandoned bowling alley, a wriggle under the fence and negotiating with a shattered wall got me in (it was, indeed an abandoned bowling alley). That was a bit better.

Bowling alley! (Of course I went in.)

Bowling alley! (Of course I went in.)

Moving inland along the building revealed the only one of the pier structures actually completed, a long curved Nazi-deco building which contained a fish restaurant and something which advertised itself as a nightclub but looked extremely closed. Beyond it, in Block III, were several now-closed museums, one trying much too hard with its signage to attract us in, the other barely trying at all, and an empty adventure playground/agility course, where healthy young Germans can move from tree to tree along zipwires and suspended platforms, in a death-defying fashion. Moving further along down the coast, we found Block II, half-converted into flats with nice glass balconies. I’d seen some cranes, far, far to the south, from the Block V pier and assumed they were in the town of Binz, south of Prora. They were actually working on Block I – and Block I isn’t even the southernmost part. “Bloody hell, but this place is huge,” I thought, for neither the first nor the last time that day. Even the abandoned ones were quite emphatically fenced off, and mostly building sites; still, we’d seen enough that the trip didn’t feel wasted, and headed back home.

It's difficult to imagine, but there were meant to be sets of these piers at the end of each block. They were double-ended; this is the landward one, but opposite it one would have jutted out into the beaches. As far as I know, this is the only one ever completed.

It’s difficult to imagine, but there were meant to be sets of these piers at the end of each block. They were double-ended; this is the landward one, but opposite it one would have jutted out into the beaches. As far as I know, this is the only one ever completed.

But at last, coming back, we lucked out: the southern end of Block IV, in the process of redevelopment: gutted but accessible, and we wasted no time in going in, climbing to the top floor and wandering around the huge dusty concrete emptiness, enjoying the crumbling construction and the views of the brilliant blue Baltic. There were holes in many of the staircases, it was all thoroughly enjoyable, and we came back to our room late in the long dusk to drink tea and look out over the sea.



* What? It’s not a bad idea just because the Nazis liked it. Hitler was a vegetarian, remember, and I don’t usually accuse my veggie friends of Nazi sympathies.

Berlin & Northern Germany, 2016
Prora – PeenemündeTeufelsberg

to show everything in a false light

Nevsky Prospekt! St Petersburg’s high street, the gold-spired Admiralty building at one end, the long journey to Moscow at the other. The prospekt never sleeps, said Gogol in his short story of the same name,* and it’s as true now as it was 180 years ago. By day the eight lanes growl with ceaseless traffic and the pavements are thronged with shoppers; at night, a million coloured lights illuminate the grand facades and the swarms of happy drunks. Colossal buildings of varied architecture and great beauty, mostly unchanged since Tsarist times, line the prospekt: the glorious art nouveau Singer building;**  the imposing St-Peter’s-Basilica-of-the-North Kazan Cathedral; the Great Gostiny Dvor, an 18th-century shopping centre whose cream-and-yellow arcade seems to go on for miles and miles.

and miles and miles and miles (nb: this is the short side)

and miles and miles and miles (nb: this is the shortest side)

We started by the statue of Chizhik-Pyzhik, a little bronze siskin on a plinth jutting out of a canal wall; locals drop coins on the statue for good luck, hoping that one will stay on the little platform. Nearby, the Summer Gardens, a lovely formal maze of trellises and fountains, is scattered with weirdly bad imitation-classical sculptures; various lissom Ladies of Legend with bulging eyes and inconsistent detail pose on plinths, having their marble nipples bitten by doves and asps. As it turns out, the statues are recent replicas, with the originals (Venetian, from the 1710s) moved indoors.

It's not "I could do better than this with a spoon in mashed potato" bad, it's just not great. Especially by local standards.

It’s not “I could do better than this with a spoon in mashed potato” bad, it’s just not great. Especially by local standards.

Via the Field of Mars (once the Place of the Victims of Revolution, once the Tsarina’s Meadow, once the Amusement Field; these places have as many names as Romanian border towns) and Millionnaya Street, lined with unusually ornate buildings even for St Petersburg, we crossed the vast Palace Square, passed through the triumphal arches built into the General Staff building, and turned onto Nevsky Prospekt itself in time for lunch.

Atlas statues at the Hermitage, at the end of Millionnaya Street.

Atlas statues at the Hermitage, at the end of Millionnaya Street.

Declining a “traditional English pub” (with your-face-here boards starring Queen Liz and a Beefeater), we had blinis from a blini hut in on a side street, and were accosted by a pack of quite fearless sparrows. Exploring a bit, we found that most curious of things in Russia, a shopping centre with 1920s-style architecture.*** Further on, construction hoardings hid most of the once-glorious imperial stables, across a full of tourist buses opposite Jamie’s Italian.

Not-St-Basil's, feat. paintings of itself.

Not-St-Basil’s, feat. paintings of itself.

The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (henceforth Not-St-Basil’s) is a magical thing, clearly taking some design cues from a certain giant red cathedral in Moscow, but both more muted in its colours and even more insanely ornate in its detailing. Not-St-Basil’s is recent; when Tsar Alexander II was grenaded by an anarchist in 18whenever, it was considered only proper to reroute three roads and a canal in order to build a gigantic billion-rouble pimp-cathedral on the spot, which has stood ever since. The centrepiece is a shrine over the original cobbles where Alex II was fatally wounded. The communists, with their usual utilitarian churlishness, used it to store potatoes.


Inside, it is (like everything Orthodox), fabulously ornate; the structural design is quite simple, with flat walls and wide arches, but every surface is covered with mosaics of staggering beauty. The central screen is a medley of gorgeous precious and semi-precious stones, with information boards in several languages explaining where all the different fancy rocks came from. The canal beside it is lined with market stalls selling Soviet tat, painters flogging canal views, buskers playing violins and musical saws, a woman trying to get people to ride the pony she was leading around.

It was actually the second attack, too; Alexander got out of the carriage to shout at the failed first bomber, and the second shouted "it's too early to thank God!" and naded him.

It was actually the second attack, too; Alexander got out of the carriage to shout at the failed first bomber, and the second shouted “it’s too early to thank God!” and naded him.

Wandering through the dvori (courtyards/mews at the centre of residential blocks), with their graffiti, hidden churches and statues of Pushkin, we stumbled on the Russian Museum by happy accident. Despite the name, it’s a thoroughbred art gallery, its collection incredibly varied and deeply Russian: paintings and statues of centuries of ugly nobles, wooden altarpieces of blank-faced saints being hideously tortured, paintings depicting the ever-smiling Suvorov urging his men over the Alps, or fleets of stripy 18th-century warships like seventy-four-gun humbugs. It’s all fairly recent, Russian Russian rather than Novgorod or Kievan, the only real pre-Peter stuff being the green-skinned, fish-eyed Mary and Jesus altarpieces from a time before anatomy.

"This is fine. I'm fine."

“This is fine. I’m fine.”

As well as the tsars and tsarinas, it celebrates Russian creators: we found a jovial, flaky-looking bronze of Repin, a smooth, blank-eyed marble of a shirtless Gogol. The taste for openly sexualised depictions of underage boys was a bit odd, but I suppose that’s the 18th century for you. On a plinth, under a glass dome, is a plaster cast of Peter the Great’s surprisingly tiny head. The prestige piece actually took me by surprise: the Reply of the Zaphorozian Cossacks, which [for my money] is the joint best painting (alongside Ivan the Terrible) by Ilya Repin, who [for my money] is the joint best painter to come out of Russia (alongside Vasily Vereshchagin). Do click the link – the story behind the painting is hilarious, and the painting itself – even in digital format – is an incredible mix of expressive characters.

Reppin' Repin.

Reppin’ Repin.

Oddly for such a prestigious collection, most of the paintings are very poorly lit and displayed; many (including the Cossacks) hang opposite windows, meaning you get terrible glare off the shiny oilpaint and aren’t able to appreciate the whole painting at once. I’m used to the National Gallery, which was purpose-built to house art and has its lighting overhead, while the Russian Museum is a converted palace and so can’t help its window placement.


It had rained while we were in the gallery, and a rainbow shone over the prospekt; the Singer building and Kazan Cathedral both looked striking in the golden post-storm light. Footsore and arted-out, we headed on home, dreaming of black tea with honey and bowls of candied cranberries (Russia has found a way to make cranberries edible: coat them in so much sugar they resemble mint imperials. It’s genius.) Behind us, Nevsky Prospekt bustled with ceaseless life.



* Which is hilarious, and definitely the most Russian love story I’ve ever read. The short story is worth tracking down, but if you can’t be bothered, the Wikipedia summary is almost as funny.

** As in, the sewing machine company. I only know about them because my mum had one.

*** Odd, because the exterior looks very 1920s-30s, a period when Russia’s new management were not the type to build shopping centres – they didn’t even acknowledge the necessity of money for a while. I did some research, and it turned out to be pre-Revolution; the almost-Art-Deco architecture was simply ahead of its time.



St Petersburg 2015

Border crossing, monuments by nightDowntown Petersburg, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter’s Aquatoria – Peter & Paul Fortress, Artillery MuseumNevsky Prospekt, Saviour on Spilled Blood, The Russian Museum – Central Naval Museum, Icebreaker Krasin – Neva bridges – The Hermitage – Krasnaya Gorka, Kronstadt

fools and bad roads

(Click the images for full-size versions, rather than hideous artifacted thumbnails.)

St Petersburg is a planned city, only three hundred years old; unlike the older great cities of Europe, the core is not a medieval labyrinth that all accept as being basically stupid to drive in. Unlike, say, London or Moscow, it also doesn’t have a “central business district”, just business areas scattered around the city; these areas are, according to Misha, not very well served by its Metro (which is much less extensive than Moscow’s or, while we’re on the theme, London’s). It does, however, appear at a glance to have great road infrastructure, with the main prospekts that radiate out from the Admiralty building all being huge eight- or ten-lane monstrosities for most of their length.


One of St Pete's many, many nice buildings. Note the golden spire of the Admiralty building in the distance.

One of St Pete’s many, many nice buildings. Note the golden spire of the Admiralty building in the distance.

Thus, everyone tries to drive to work. This alone would be mental in any dense city of five million souls, but Gogol’s line about Russian roads is still relevant 150 years on. So even hours after rush hour, the immense prospekts are a clotted, potholed struggle of grumpy car-bound Russians, exacerbated by failed signage, random roadworks or some plonker taking up a lane by lurking with hazards on, looking for a parking spot. Oh, and the actual traffic accidents; they drive a lot less violently than Muscovites here, but we saw a few of those as we attempted to drive to St Isaac’s and, even worse, attempted to find parking.

“Why is this place so fucked up?”
“You mean the junction here, or Russia in general?”
“That as well.”

St Isaac's.

St Isaac’s.

There’s a [citation needed] on St Isaac’s claim to be the fourth biggest cathedral in the world, but it is certainly not small, and the views from its high tower (its foundation ten thousand tree trunks driven into the ground) were glorious, even in the intermittent rain. It’s an unusual building, Orthodox by way of Russian neoclassical, resembling a foreshortened St Paul’s with a much cooler colour scheme – patchwork marble cladding, chocolate-coloured granite colonnades, acres of green-black bronzes and the obligatory vast golden dome. One side bears scars from Nazi shelling, but it was mostly unscathed; Misha told me the fascists left it up as a landmark to navigate by, and the internet told me the Russians used it to help triangulate on German artillery positions. Nearby is the Bronze Horseman, on the “Thunder Stone”, which is meant to be the heaviest monolith ever moved (but is surprisingly small), and the gleaming golden tower of the Admiralty building, which all roads lead to.

View from St Isaac's, looking directly towards the Winter Palace (the mint-green building in the centre); the gold spire is the Admiralty building, with Petropavlovskaya fortress behind it.

View from St Isaac’s, looking directly towards the Winter Palace (the mint-green building in the centre); the gold spire is the Admiralty building, with Petropavlovskaya fortress behind it.

One of the striking things about central St Petersburg – the old pre-Communist part – is the level of detail and decor lavished on the buildings. The most mundane structures are palatial in their trimmings as well as their size – here an apartment block has a mural of horsemen chasing each other, and Doric colonnades on the balconies; there a building with an apothecary in the ground floor sports the sculpted faces of Hippocrates and all his friends, with a rod of Asclepius standing proud on the highest level of its turret-like corner. And it’s everything, every building – no boring cubes, nothing which doesn’t look like a lot of time and money was spent on blinging it out. An endless series of decadently decorated baroque, neoclassical and Empire style palaces, in pastel shades of yellow and orange and pink and green, all trimmed in white to look like expensive cakes. Above the streets, there’s a huge, constant tangle of wires – tram and trolleybus power cables lower down, then cables suspending strings of streetlights, and finally the endless cobweb of telephone cables.

The Bronze Horseman on the Thunder Stone. "To Pete, from Cath xox."

The Bronze Horseman on the Thunder Stone. “To Pete, from Cath xox.”

As a result of all this finery, buildings which anywhere else would be hellishly impressive – the Admiralty building, an 18th-century fortified naval arsenal filled in with new administrative buildings sporting giant anchors and the heads of the Argonauts; the Winter Palace, a spearmint fantasia of white, green and gold; and the General Staff building, a pair of immense yellow blocks fused together by triumphal arches – are only slightly more fancy than the old residential districts we walked through to get to them. Due to the architectural difficulties of Petrograd being basically built on a marsh, they’re mostly not even any taller; only the golden spire of the Admiralty building, topped with a shipshape weathervane, rises above the rest.

Hydrofoil. (Winter Palace in the background.)

Hydrofoil. (Winter Palace in the background.)

Crossing Palace Bridge for a better view, we saw the squat bastions of the Peter & Paul Fortress over the choppy steel-blue Neva. Hydrofoils from Peterhof decelerated and settled back into the water, with names like МЕТЕОР on their streamlined hulls. Huge, weirdly low cargo ships were sliding under Trinity Bridge on their way to the Baltic; all the Neva bridges are capable of lifting up, but you wouldn’t know to look at them, or at the boats. Across the bridge on Vasilyevesky Island is the old Bourse, Peter the Great’s stock exchange – a decayed classical temple of money, turned over by the Communists to the worship of military history instead but sadly closed for refurbishment. Either side of it are two rostral columns, huge hideous red things with stylised bronze galley prows sticking out of them. (Googling what a rostral column is makes the horrendous, gigantic, universally loathed Peter the Great statue in Moscow make very slightly more sense.)
We surveyed the Hermitage and General Staff building in the pissing rain, then retired to “a place I know, it’s kind of hipstery” for tea and dinner – I had beef stroganoff, in sauce that tasted like that creamy IKEA stuff, Misha had a fragrant, many-spiced curry which recalled the taste of genuine Indian but with none of the fire. Then, seeking something sheltered to kill the evening, we found that “Peter’s Aquatoria” was nearby and didn’t close til 10pm. It is one of those places which words don’t do much justice to: a big exhibition room with 1/87 models of large areas of 18th-century St Petersburg and surrounds, arrayed around a central pond (geographically counterfactual, but whatever). The Admiralty building, still fortified and full of half-built ships, ice-cutters and sleds frolicking on the frozen Neva nearby; the Twelve Ministries and what’s now the Kunstkamera, back when half of that was fields; Kronstadt; Peterhof Palace, with 2cm-high figures dancing in the gardens; the now-gone “Peterstadt” that Peter III (the weedy, useless one who lasted six months) built for no reason, all realised in unbelievably complete detail, with ships and carts moved around by subsurface magnets, smoke issuing from chimneys, windows and lanterns lighting up as the day-night cycle rotated – a set of wonderful miniature aerial views of Petrograd as-was, which you could normally only get with a time-travelling helicopter. We spent hours taking in the detail. At the end of the exhibition they showed us a rack of fridge magnets, which had been printed with photos of ourselves taken without permission; this struck me as staggeringly creepy, but Misha bought me one and I accepted it as a generous gift from a good bro.

Tiny scale Oranienbaum Palace.

Tiny scale Oranienbaum Palace.


St Petersburg 2015

Border crossing, monuments by nightDowntown Petersburg, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter’s Aquatoria – Peter & Paul Fortress, Artillery MuseumNevsky Prospekt, Saviour on Spilled Blood, The Russian Museum – Central Naval Museum, Icebreaker Krasin – Neva bridges – The Hermitage – Krasnaya Gorka, Kronstadt

cause no trouble

The bus journey from Estonia to Russia was cheap, comfortable, came with wifi, and included my first proper land border crossing! I’ve travelled a lot, but always either via airports or among Schengen countries without internal border controls (for now, ha.) So an actual border crossing, at an actual physical border, was a new and slightly intimidating experience.

Narva Castle.

Narva Castle.

It was a two-stage process. On the Estonian side of the border (and the river Narva) stands an old Sword Brethren fort called Narva Castle: quite a vertical affair, with its main tower whitewashed and red-roofed. On the Russian side, its counterpart, the fortress of Ivangorod, is low, square, grey and far more intimidating. In Narva, two hard-looking blonde Eestis boarded the bus, took everyone’s passports – mine the only wine-red British one in a big pile of brick-red Russian ones – went off for a while and then brought them back. This was expected; leaving Estonia is the easy boring part, it’s getting into Russia that gets tasty.



We drove across the river, and stopped to dismount at a border post which resembled nothing so much as the grimmest, tackiest service station you’ve ever seen, with armed Russian soldiers instead of petrol pumps, and queued up for what Misha described as “some old school Papers Please”. I handed my passport over, with its new, expensive Russian visa sticker in; the passport control lady took ages scrutinising it, and then said “not in order”, handed me another form and a pencil, and sent me back to fill it in. I did, sweating slightly, and pushed to the front of the queue for a second go. She took the passport; the door next to her booth opened, and three large young Russian soldiers came out. She looked at me, looked at them, nodded to them. I just about wet myself.

And then… they just walked past. “Welcome to Mother Russia,” said Misha.

We had a long drive through green but mostly purposeless-looking land, which gave me the same odd feeling as I got in the Ukrainian countryside, and some parts of Australia – everything feels spread out and uncared for, with great big fields nobody’s doing anything with. I’m sure my perspective is affected strongly by growing up in the south of England, where everything is small, ownership is carefully delineated, and just about everything is being used in some way – but the grand open spaces and ragged field-forest boundaries of the Russian countryside give me an impression of having so much space they don’t really know what to do with it.

View from the top of the Mishablock.

View from the top of the Mishablock.

We arrived at St Petersburg at dusk, although dusk is about a third of the day here. I thought I was ready for it, but the scale still took me by surprise. Everything is mind-bogglingly enormous, and mine is not a mind that boggles easily. Misha and Olga’s flat is in a sixteen-storey block, a mid-sized component of a residential complex which dwarfs any I’ve ever seen. This complex is just one segment of an estate you could drop the entire Barbican into ten times over and never notice. And a glance at a map shows dozens of these estates, in neat but gigantic rectangular plots, with building sites raising still more. After a meal of stuffed peppers and tea with honey, we went for a spin down Moskovsky Prospekt, which makes Unter den Linden look like a country lane.

The House of Soviets, silhouetted against the flawless dark blue of one of those weird Baltic nights, was immensely imposing. It was originally designed and built to house local government (although it never did, thanks to the war, and now it’s just private offices), and it stands, a gigantic Stalinist-neoclassical pile set back from the prospekt by a square full of fountains, across from a pair of equally cyclopean buildings meant to house government ministries. I felt a definite sense of awe, not only at the staggering scale of the buildings, but at the ensemble they’re in, the immense amount of space and effort devoted to framing them and giving them a proper sense of grandeur and glory; the pride, the ambition, the optimism the designers and builders felt still shines through, past all the decades of by-turns disappointing, banal, gloomy and hideous reality.

IMG_20150707_002111 (1)

Uncle Lenin at the House of Soviets. (Crummy phonecam picture.)

At the southern end of Moskovsky Prospekt is a monument to the Siege of Leningrad, unusually gloomy and un-triumphant as these things go this side of the Iron Curtain. Most of the grand Soviet monuments I’ve seen have their heroes lantern-jawed and muscular. But eight hundred thousand people starved to death here, and so their bronze avatars are tall and ragged, bony and hollow-cheeked. Leningrad was a victory of endurance as much as arms. Inside a huge broken bronze circle, “900 nights” is written in gold letters, lit by memorial flames which burn whether or not anyone is there to watch them.


I commented to Misha that British war memorials only ever depict soldiers. This is because we have, as a rule, been lucky enough to fight wars where only our soldiers die, but also because our conception of wartime heroism is pretty much limited to the battlefield. But the USSR’s self-image needed general participation, needed to represent the factory workers and the peasants as well as the frontoviki – not to mention the fact that, as the front ebbed and flowed across half of Europe, all these people were often on the front line. So Soviet military iconography includes a very broad cross-section of society; and here, while the soldiers and sailors stand heroically with bayoneted 91/30s outthrust, and the pilots look grimly at maps and horizons, the nurses have submachine guns on their shoulders as well as stretchers, male and female factory workers haul girders and cast metal; the elders and children heft guns or carry kit or simply lean on each other for support. And beneath the huge obelisk at the centre of the memorial, the man with the hammer stands a proud equal to the man with the PPSh-41.



St Petersburg 2015

Border crossing, monuments by nightDowntown Petersburg, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter’s Aquatoria – Peter & Paul Fortress, Artillery MuseumNevsky Prospekt, Saviour on Spilled Blood, The Russian Museum – Central Naval Museum, Icebreaker Krasin – Neva bridges – The Hermitage – Krasnaya Gorka, Kronstadt

tall olaf and fat margaret


St Olaf’s is a curious building to look at. In style, it’s just a fairly simple church, with a plain sloped roof over the nave and a square tower supporting a sharply pointed spire, all in that boxy, whitewashed Baltic style. But in scale it is enormous. Getting to the top, through an amazing assortment of different rickety wooden steps and winding stone spirals that hide in those white walls, was an adventure in itself.


The viewing gallery is at the base of the staggeringly tall spire, whose steep sides are a patchwork pattern of old green and new brown copper, narrowing to a sharp point aimed straight up at heaven.* Health and safety measures are refreshingly Eastern European, and only a waist-high metal fence and a narrow wooden pathway stop you sliding down that hot, curved copper to oblivion on the cobbles. From the tower, you can see all Tallinn: the red roofs and white walls of the Old Town, bounded by marching lines of medieval watchtowers; the glass and concrete of the newer city, shining in the hot white light; the huge, clear shapes of the coastal giants; the tarmac expanse of the port complex, as it embraced a pair of Baltic cruise liners; a smudge on the far coast we fancied was Finland, under the cobalt-glass sky. A party of game old Japanese ladies passed us as we came back down the vast tangle of stairs, and we privately wished them luck.

Back when cartography was FUN.

Back when cartography was FUN.

Next was Fat Margaret, a short stroll through shady cobbled alleys later. She is, as you might expect from her name, a stout old thing, stony-faced and round-bottomed, with a neat stone arch linking her to her little sister, and three decks of gunports running through her two-metre-thick walls to cover the harbour. Plaques on the street outside said nice things about the British and the Royal Navy.  An excellent video display on her first floor showed the history of Margaret, who was once known as the “Rosencrantz Tower”. The Meremuuseum inside is run by the same group as the seaplane hangar, and the big-ticket items have been moved there, leaving behind a lovely, intimate history of Estonian sailors, traders and ice-fishermen, full of model ships, spyglasses, two-headed eagles, a century and a half of black-and-white photos and a millennium of mad old maps. On the roof, a number of picnic tables sat under parasols, and a lady manning the little bar there provided us with milkshake floats and supporting evidence for Russian stereotypes about Eesti slowness.**

Early 19th century map of the various Russian batteries and minefields securing the Gulf of Finland.

Map of early 20th century Russian defences securing the Gulf of Finland. Yellow stands for high-density minefields, orange for low-density minefields. The greatest concentration of gun batteries, to the left, is between Helsinki and Tallinn.

Outside the walls, on the west side of town, were lawns, flowerbeds and curious public art installations: giant ants, weird abstract shapes, curious mirrors. Someone had set up an “Olympics of Creepers”, an assortment of climbing plants from around the world, each with their own bamboo cane to “race” along.*** (Eesti slowness jokes at the end, please.) Getting a little footsore, we strolled back through the new(er) town, certain landmarks now familiar – the weird, cool, shining gold apartment block with the luxury shops in its cut-back lower levels, the amazing, oppressive brick Art Deco oddity, the scrappy car park which always seemed to have some new kind of vermin in it – to Liivalia and a bolognaise dinner.

The Creeper Olympics. No, not the internet kind, the plant kind.

The Creeper Olympics. No, not the internet kind, the plant kind.

But Misha doesn’t seem to need sleep, and after filling up we went back out again to the Old Town, locating “Catherine’s Passage” and investigating the tat shop hiding in a cellar there; and to Old Hansa, dark and full of guttering candles, for honey beer in big earthenware tankards. At another tat shop, I bought a tiny Estonia lapel pin and a fridge magnet made of Baltic pine and amber. The streets were deserted late in the evening (“after dark” would be inaccurate; white nights, remember) and we found ourselves back up on the Toompea, looking down on the city as it glittered with a hundred thousand points of light. I watched one enormous red dome-shaped building on the eastern horizon, could swear that it actually seemed be getting bigger – but it was only after a few minutes that I realised it was the moon, full and red and enormous.




* It is believed the spire has been struck by lightning at least ten times. It’s rude to point.
** A Russian joke:
An Estonian waits at a railway station. Another Estonian passes by, pumping a hand-car. The first one asks: “Iiis iit faaaaarrrrr tooo Talllinnn?” “Notttt verrryyyy faaaarrrr,” the other answers. The first gets onto the car, and helps work the pump. After two hours of silent pumping, the first Estonian asks again: “Nooowwww iis iit faaaaarrrrr tooo Talllinnn?” “Noooowww iiitt iiiis verrrryyyyy faaaaarrrrr.”
*** The American plant was a clear winner with the Japanese one fairly close behind. The British creeper was pathetic and hadn’t even started.


Tallinn 2015

Old Town and Toompea Linnahall, Patarei Prison, Seaplane MuseumA Brief Interlude on the History of Tallinn – St Olaf’s, Fat Margaret, Old Hansa