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

“…some radiant joy will gaily flash past.”

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I love cities at night, and St Petersburg is as magical as any of them – the vast palaces and government buildings floodlit under the moody clouds, Petropavlovsk’s walls picked out with an illuminated strip, the golden spires above the Admiralty and Cathedral of Peter & Paul shining bright as daytime. St Isaac’s muted and half in shadow, the streets around it filled with young women on horses offering rides to tourists and boy racers in black Jaguars weaving through traffic like they’re in a Bond movie and accelerating like they’re in a MiG-25. Nevsky Prospekt shines with ten thousand points of night. On a Friday night in summer, warm and slightly muggy, the streets are full of nightclub spillover: drunks tripping over fences and flirting loudly in several languages, pouty young people swaggering as if they’re the most beautiful things ever made. Passing the roadside bars, holding anyone’s gaze feels uncomfortable; the girls look at you like they’re about to name a price and the boys look at you like they’re about to shout “davai, cyka” and shank you. Club music and flavoured spirits pollute the air.

The many bridges of the Neva, low and flat like those of the Thames or the Seine, have a secret which is not obvious to the casual observer: they lift up, Tower Bridge-style (but without any of the magnificent yet structurally superfluous Victorian bling.) Not as and when boats arrive – as if they’d disrupt traffic to let any old tramp freighter mess up the view of the Winter Palace – but all together, in a nightly sequence which is apparently worth celebrating all on its own, when all the freighters stacked up outside are allowed to come through and head up towards Lake Ladoga.

The waterfront by the Hermitage at 0130 hours is a more local, more authentic-feeling scene than the clubs, which could be literally anywhere in Europe: numbers of the more sober(ly dressed) tourists, trios of Russian men pouring vodka into three cups and chatting seriously, the entire riverbank flashing yellow with the hazard lights of people pretending they’re not parked illegally. The mighty bascules of Trinity Bridge lift up, red lights shining at their tips, and a vast fleet of riverboats streams through, gunwales crowded with partying Russians, filling the Neva with running lights and diesel smoke. Someone lets off some fireworks, Chinese lanterns drift into the air, and the boats actually big enough to need the bridge lifted, a string of hefty Baltic coasters straight out of Tintin, grumble from bridge to bridge in line astern.

We wandered there for a while, just enjoying the activity: a group of Russians having a sing-along, street-sellers flogging candy-floss and boiled corn, couples dancing energetically by the roadside, a band of boys in wifebeaters with electric guitars rocking out under the sightless eyes of the statues on the Winter Palace.



St Petersburg 2015

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

he who has an army has one hand; he who has a navy has both

(Click on the images for full-sized versions. I’m trying something new with a gallery for the Krasin pics, too…)


Peter the Great, without whom “Russian Navy” would mean as much as “Mongolian Coast Guard”.

The Central Naval Museum in St Petersburg is, in the Russian style, the largest naval museum in the world. It plays the same cheeky shit regarding “Tickets: 400 ru! билеты 150p” and then not having any signs in English; but thanks to Misha the first wasn’t an issue, and thanks to Dr Boff, there is nothing which floats and kills whose function and history I can’t at least make a decent guess at.

These, for instance, are model ships.

The galleries were mainly ruled by model ships, some as big as minibuses, crowded around the fringes by one-in-the-world historical artefacts: massive two-headed eagles, a showcase full of undersea telegraph gauges, stout brass Gatling guns, kayak-sized midget submarines. They had an actual spar torpedo, a model of a ship designed to use them, and a painting of one in use – I had a lot of fun explaining the utter insanity of spar torpedoes to Misha and Olga.* Rather than the comely lasses with big bare knockers Britain favoured, Russian figureheads seem mainly to be large hairy men with holy books and phallic weapons. Draw your own conclusions.

All I know about Russian naval history is the endless violent tragedies and disasters, and the museum was brilliant for filling in the rest – especially Russia’s Baltic struggle with the Swedes. But there were plenty of disasters too; the Russo-Japanese War display was particularly good, one room for the ships that got bottled up and wasted at Port Arthur and Vladivostok (with sad poignant paintings of dozens of masts and funnels poking up from the bottom of a bay) and another room for the ships they sent to rescue them, which got slaughtered at Tsushima, with lurid propaganda posters of exploding pre-dreadnoughts.** There was a spiral staircase off the battleship Potemkin (namedrop!) with some shell holes, and an entire gallery of Aurora memorabilia.

The Potemkin Steps. No, not those Potemkin Steps. The other ones.

We had some borscht and sandwiches in the cafe, then drove west down Vasilievsky Island’s southern embankment. This part of St Petersburg has a genuinely nautical character rather than just happening to be a city on the sea; the cruise ships like to moor here, the western horizon is crowded with immense forests of dockyard cranes, and on the far shore, immense flo-flo mobile dockyards and dismembered sections of submarines sit gently rusting. With limited time, we had to pick how to round off our navy day: the submarine S-189 or the icebreaker Krasin.

Note the weird ice-humping hull shape and unbelievably strong hull.

The  Krasin has been everywhere and done everything. Her original hull was built in Newcastle, as the Svyatogor; her most expensive refit was in the USA during WW2, and most of her superstructure and modern fittings are East German postwar reparations, but most of her life has been in Russian service crushing Russian ice. She was jacked by the Royal Navy to fight the Bolsheviks during the Revolution, scuttled to blockade Arkhangelsk, then raised again and, on His Majesty’s service, used to crush submarine barriers around Scapa Flow. Handed back to the Russians in a deal negotiated by one Leonid Krasin, the Svyatogor was renamed after him in the twenties. In one of the true adventure-novel moments of the twentieth century, she rescued a lost Italian polar expedition when their airship crashed, and at another point rescued another icebreaker which wasn’t icebreaky enough. She’s been about as close to both poles as it’s possible for a surface ship to be; during the war she took a trip across the entire US for refit and gave the Panama Canal a rare sight of an icebreaker, on her way to armed convoy duty in the Arctic circle. In declining years, as the new generations of nuclear icebreakers replaced her and changes in the world meant ice just didn’t need as much breaking, reducing her at one point to hauling used cars; she was only saved from the breaker’s yard by Russian historic nostalgia. But she’s been refitted magnificently, all polished brass and lovely wooden panelling, and is apparently now back to working order. Not a fitting end; a fitting continuation.

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* It’s seriously just a massive bomb on the end of a stick. Many larger, more heavily armoured ships of the period were designed to simply ram instead – no guns, just armour and engine. Mid-late 19th century naval tech was weird.

** Fun fact! A significant proportion the ships on both sides of the Russo-Japanese War were built in Britain. You really can’t trust perfidious Albion.



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

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 Transylvanian 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 Museum – Nevsky Prospekt, Saviour on Spilled Blood, The Russian Museum – Central Naval Museum, Icebreaker KrasinNeva 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 night – Downtown Petersburg, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter’s Aquatoria – Peter & Paul Fortress, Artillery MuseumNevsky Prospekt, Saviour on Spilled Blood, The Russian MuseumCentral Naval Museum, Icebreaker KrasinNeva bridges – The Hermitage – Krasnaya Gorka, Kronstadt