Tag Archive: monuments


Well, it’s no secret that I love food. I’m a big fan of travelling places just to eat the food. That includes my trip to New Orleans with Ivo last year. He could not understand for the life of him why we were going to New Orleans just for food. He understood once we got there. Normally, thanks to excessive amounts of pole dance training, belly dance training and soccer training, my habit of eating 1 large bar of chocolate per day was not an issue for anything other than my likely future as a diabetic. Unfortunately, when you travel long term you either tend to put exercise on the backburner or, like me, you can’t find pole studios to exercise at regularly and training on a street pole is both dangerous and likely to get you arrested.

So thanks to the surprisingly delicious and varied food (of which I will be discussing in my next post and putting recipes up for), excessive amounts of tasty local brews and my affinity for Milka chocolate bars I have been putting on what for me would be considered a fair amount of weight while losing muscle. I may walk 20-30 kilometres per day, but that isn’t enough to compensate. Time to work on eating a healthier diet and drinking a bit less methinks. Unfortunately, that was an extremely difficult thing to do in Ukraine. Needless to say I did not succeed. My time spent in Ukraine seemed to revolve around food, football and fun. By the time I got to Kyiv  we were well into the semi-finals for the Euro Cup 2012. This meant spending a fair amount of time in the Euro Cup fan zone drinking, people watching and cheering on Spain.

Of course, I needed to eat to soak up the alcohol and I actually did do A LOT of walking in Kyiv so needed to keep my energy up. My first full day I took the metro to the city and walked in a very roundabout way to check out some of the side streets of Kyiv that most people don’t really get to. I was able to see the National Opera House which was a beautiful old building in serious need of a good scrub. In the former soviet countries there is a never ending stream of carbon emissions pollution. Old trains and old soviet vehicles with no requirement for a yearly emissions check coupled with no real regard for environmental standards in what manufacturing there is means the second you step outside your door you end up covered in grime. It became a habit of mine to wash my hands the minute I walked into a restaurant to eat and wipe them with sanitary wipes. Watching the black water run off my hands even though I’d only been walking around for an hour was fairly disgusting.

Anyway, my point is, most of these beautiful old buildings, like the nearby St Volodymyr’s Cathedral,  you see look grimy and grungy and dirty and any other synonymous adverb you’d like to come up with. I can only imagine that this type of pollution probably is not good for the buildings and the life of them could be extended by a good scrub. I wandered around after finding the National Opera House before I somehow managed to find myself somewhere outside the fan zone. As Kyiv was a host city, the fan zone was insanely huge. I found a restaurant to sit at and have a drink and some food and just before I was about to leave, lucky me, I was once again hassled by a dodgy Ukrainian. I don’t know what it is about Ukraine, I realise the poverty and unemployment rate is high, but I have not had trouble in any other country really except Ukraine.

What these men do is they try to scam you by getting you to pick up their bill. They don’t speak English and they are extremely annoying. The fact that I am a traveller and don’t look Ukrainian (and don’t speak any Russian) screams money to them. This particular man was an enormous and badly smelling guy carrying a glass of what appeared to be whisky. I had my headphones in and heard someone speaking to me so looked up and found this creep staring at me. I told him to go away, of which he apparently did not understand me or my hand gestures and decided I actually wanted him to sit down next to me and continue drinking. At this point I signalled for the waitress who brought me my bill and took my payment immediately so I could get the hell out of there.

I decided after that to just wander aimlessly (my favourite way to see a city) and see where I ended up. For some stupid reason I decided to walk up Andriyivsky Uziz which was very much uphill and I hate uphill climbs. However, the view was pleasant enough and I ended up at a random amphitheatre where some German people were performing covers of old songs. This was obviously part of the entertainment being provided by the city for the Cup as it was right next to a futsol court where anyone could play and a man was there with a couple of footballs to provide the people playing. After an enjoyable 30 minutes or so of listening to the random German singers I went and sat down in the stands outside the futsol court to watch a pickup game some guys were playing for a good 3 or 4 hours. Definitely makes me miss playing, but they were fun to watch. Especially once this super hot guy joined in and decided to take off his shirt. I didn’t think it was warm enough to warrant that, but it seems like men in this part of the world like to wear shirts as little as possible, regardless of the temperature, and it isn’t just the attractive ones unfortunately.

My last day in Kyiv was much more successful on the sightseeing front. Turned out my hostel was a mere 2 or 3 kilometres from the famous Cave Monastery so I decided to go check that out. Walking there I somehow ended up in an area I’ve started calling Embassy Row. Every country has a major city with embassies and they all tend to congregate in the same areas. You can tell these areas in the poorer countries because all the houses in the area are really nice and half of them are embassies. Turns out Nigeria has an embassy in Kyiv, which I found hilarious considering I had just that morning been speaking with Ivo about Nigerian scams.

I made it to the monastery which is actually a massive area. The caves themselves are tiny and super cramped with all the faithful coming to pray to the monks of old. There is no electricity in the caves and you must buy a candle to light your way while you are down there (only 2 Hryvnya) to see anything. It was fairly claustrophobia inducing and I felt somewhat like an intruder down there watching all these people stopping at every tiny coffin (how small were these monks?) to pray and kiss the top of them.  It’s a rather voyeuristic experience and one which frankly I wasn’t terribly comfortable with. If you aren’t Orthodox and there to pray you don’t spend very much time down there so I left after about 10 minutes (they really are very small caves) and decided to explore the rest of the monastery.

The monastery itself is actually split into two different levels. The bottom level is free to enter and there are many little churches with beautiful frescoes covering every wall and the ceiling, while only the iconoclast (the front wall of the church) is covered in gilding. I spent a good couple of hours wandering around the gardens and exploring the churches here before deciding to make my way towards the upper level of the monastery. As it turns out, the upper level of the monastery charges an entrance fee and I personally object to functioning buildings of worship charging entrance (I thnk they should only request donations) so I did not go in. For those of you who are interested the entrance is only about 4-5 euro I think. I still didn’t enter on a matter of principle though. Based on what I have heard of the building you could probably spend another 2 hours wandering around the upper monastery though.

I chose to start walking towards the city as there are a great number of things to see between the monastery and the city centre which Lonely Planet does not report on at all, so pick up a city tourist map. The first monument I came upon was the Famine Memorial. This is an eternal flame and obelisk (of course) to victims of the Ukraine famine back in fjkfewk. If you approach from the main road, rather than the side you also come upon a harrowing statue of a starving child. Below the obelisk there is a small museum dedicated to the famine, but I think finding out I would have to pay to visit the upper part of the monastery put me in a mood where I didn’t want to pay for anything so I didn’t go in. If anyone does, let me know if I missed something good.

The view from this memorial is amazing by the way. The monastery, the famine memorial and the whatever this Obelisk memorial was are all on the edge of a hill that overlooks the river running through Kyiv and you can see the tops of the churches in the monastery if you look to your right. It’s a pretty awesome sight. If you continue walking towards the city you come to yet ANOTHER obelisk (you’d think after all these years they’d get a bit more creative) with a different but equally beautiful view over the river, a park and a different part of the city. And this time when you look to the right you have both the famine memorial and the cave monastery in your sights. Very picturesque.

From here it was mainly walking through parks until you come to Mariinsky Palace just near the main city centre. I’m not entirely sure, but I think you can only view it from outside the gate as the gate appeared to be closed and no one was wandering around inside it. I used the rest of the afternoon to walk back to the city centre, look at some of the random monuments in the city centre and hang out in the fan zone before heading back to the hostel for the evening. I found out the night before that my wonderful dog, Ichia, had died the day before and frankly just wasn’t in the mood to hang out in the fan zone that night for the game so watched it at the hostel instead. At this point I’m almost wishing I had gone to the fan zone as Italy provided the crowd with a surprise upset where they slaughtered Germany when Germany should have won the game hands down. That’s the price you pay for being cocky I suppose.

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After spending a fair amount of time in former U.S.S.R countries and seeing a plethora of Soviet style bloc apartments I still haven’t quite summed up my feelings on the buildings. I have developed an appreciation for them, from an historical point of view. AGB did his master’s on Soviet apartments in Lithuania of all places so I was able to glean a fair amount of information re these eyesores and gain a bit more appreciation for them than I had previously held.

When most people think about Soviet bloc apartments they think of the hideous concrete establishments where people live in sardine-like squalor.

Now, I’m not advocating that we never tear any of them down due to their historical significance. It’s not like they are churches or mosques or synagogues or libraries. I doubt you ever could get rid of all of them anyway as they are so much cheaper to live in for people who make a very insignificant sum. When I heard what the average Belarusian with a decent job makes my jaw dropped. It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it was still a bit of a shock. And I thought the US was guilty of slave labour. There is no way people on that salary can really afford a house on a two person salary.

Anyway, I have seen these blocs in Narva, Estonia where they are most definitely crumbly old buildings left over from mid-20th century Soviet rule. I’ve seen them in Leipaja, Latvia where they aren’t just crumbly old buildings, they actually do appear to be falling apart at the seams. I’ve seen them in Belarus, where there is a mix of crumbly old buildings (like the one I stayed in at Postalayet’s Hostel) and brand new buildings that actually look just like decent, nice apartments on the outside, but inside are the same Sardinian sized black holes of oppression.

Brest, Belarus was one of the places with these apartment blocks going up everywhere. Brand new buildings with double glazed windows, but still containing the small inner proportions I’ve grown accustomed to. The outside of the buildings were tiled or painted and actually looked quite nice. That being said, it’s still Belarus, it’s still a socialist country and it still suffers under Lukashenko’s rule. I actually quite enjoyed Brest though. It was a much more pleasant city than Minsk. Not that Minsk was unpleasant, but there was an air of rebellion in the air and the city was much more similar to Western Europe than Minsk was.

The main pedestrian thoroughfare was a wide, cobbled café lined street and I spent a fair bit of time attempting to order food and drinks there. My first day there I stopped at a café that looked good and asked the waiter if he spoke English (he didn’t) and for a menu. Thankfully ‘menu’ is a cognate in Russian. Anyway, he brought me a menu which I attempted to use my translator on (didn’t work very well) and eventually found something that looked like pork in Cyrillic (no pictures on the menu) pointed and ordered. Turns out it was a pork chop with potato or something. After sitting awhile to digest my meal I decided that dessert sounded like a good idea. I spent a good 10 minutes attempting to translate the dessert menu (don’t even bother) before the same waiter who brought me my menu in Russian brought me an English translation of the menu. Seriously? Really? He couldn’t have done that before?

Anyway, I discovered apple strudel (yum!) on the menu and ordered that. I’ve taken to ordering apple strudel damn near everywhere I go and have discovered that apple strudel is very different everywhere you go. I was brought this pastry/ice cream/apple concoction that looked more like a pastry made into a cup with a bit of cooked and raw apple and ice cream in it. In Romania the strudel are more like regular square pastries filled with various fruits. All of them have been delicious though.

So other than the café lined pedestrian walkway what is there to see in Brest? Not a whole hell of a lot to be honest. The only thing is Brest Fortress and there isn’t a lot of the fortress left. It’s now more of a monument to the sheer awesomeness of the red army I think. It’s a bit difficult to tell as nothing is in English. That being said, I could easily have spent a few hours there if I had a picnic with me. To get into the fortress you walk down a long and wide cobbled walkway (it’s a good couple of minutes from the car park to the entrance) leading to a gateway with a giant soviet star cut out from the wall. To top it off, there is “inspiring” marching soviet type music to get you in the patriotic mood.

It’s actually quite beautiful and park like within the walls for the most part, but they still have their random military monuments. The first one you come to is a set of 3 tanks where you can pay $3 or something to that appeal to get dressed up in red army uniforms and have your picture taken in front of the tank. Based on the advertising poster for this kitschy tourist activity they have uniforms for everyone, including babies. Personally, I find this type of blind, indoctrinating patriotism to be a bit concerning, but it’s what they grow up with.

Continuing on into the park you walk over a lovely little bridge that leads to the statue of the ‘thirsty soldier’. It’s a statue of a soldier crawling desperately to find some water. It was also a very popular statue to have your picture taken in front of based on the amount of time it took me to get a photo without a million people in front of it. You can also find a rather large set of cannons to have a play on. Of course, no monument park in Belarus would be complete without the obligatory obelisk and eternally burning victory flame. This was the largest obelisk I have ever seen… seriously. I haven’t seen the Washington Monument in Washington D.C., but if it was anywhere near as tall as this one I would say it would be a fairly impressive site. Along the bottom of the obelisk were rows of commemorative carvings to unknown soldiers where people frequently lay wreaths in tribute to them. Judging by the number of shops I saw selling these wreaths I imagine it’s a fairly popular pastime.

The last major monument which I found fairly disturbing was a giant concrete/rock structure carving thing of the head of a soldier called “Valour”. It was the creepiest soldier monument I have ever seen and I think it tells you something about the type of government that builds these types of monuments. Some of the people who lead/rule countries in this world is of great concern to me and I have to wonder how these people make it into power in the first place.

I personally think the pride and joy of the Brest fortress should be the Orthodox Nikalaivsky Church in the middle of it just behind the scary looking giant soldier head monument. This quaint looking (on the outside) little church is the oldest Orthodox church in Brest and has survived, despite its use for various soviet activities throughout the years. I didn’t know if I could go in so I didn’t go in to check it out, but I imagine the inside would have been excessively gilded and gaudy on the inside.

I would definitely recommend a trip to Brest if you go to Belarus (especially if you speak Russian). It has much less of a military presence than Minsk, it’s definitely more western and there’s that hint of rebellion in the air. It’s fascinating to compare it to Minsk and to compare the way they live under a socialist regime compared to the way they want to live in a freer society. You can see the effects of creeping capitalism everywhere and it’s a great place to just sit and people watch if you feel like relaxing for a few days.

See Belarus photos here.

What I’m reading now: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

What I’m listening to now: Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix audiobook by J.K. Rowling

Riga & Liepaja

Sorry I’m falling behind on my keeping you all updated. I’ve been insanely social and busy, shocking as that may be to some of you. I headed down to Riga, Latvia with the intention of going over to Sigulda and Gauja National Park. Turns out, I loved Riga so much I never made it to Sigulda or Gauja and stayed an extra night in Riga. Riga has been my favourite town on my travels by far (I’ve now made it all the way over to Vilnius, Lithuania). There are varying reasons for this methinks. First of all, it has a really hoppin’ Old Town, but there is also just as much to see (if not more) outside of Old Town as there is in it. I also chose to stay in a hostel due to the fact that I had no internet up in Soomaa so didn’t have time to contact a couchsurfing host and met a lot of really awesome people, which led to a great time.

I got to Riga after 3 days with pretty much no caffeine, no chocolate and no alcohol. Those three days taught me that I’m an addict of chocolate, caffeine and possibly alcohol. However, I’m alright with that, so we’ll overlook it. I got to Riga, dropped of my bags at the hostel, found a phone company to buy a new SIM card and headed to a beer garden for a nice, cold local beer and some grub. For dining in Riga I recommend avoiding the beer gardens unless you are just having some drinks with friends or are there for the live music. There is a great little buffet that is insanely cheap (or as cheap as Latvia can be) called Lido’s and they have a restaurant right near the beer gardens. Go to Lido’s instead.

I ended up staying at the Naughty Squirrel Hostel in the Old Town and I highly recommend it. The owner is an Australian expat and the staff consists of Latvians which means you can get lots of insider information from the locals and there is a great friendly atmosphere. It’s a cheap, clean place to stay (quiet as well) and if you value a bit more privacy but still want cheap and to self-cater they do have a very well stocked kitchen and private rooms available. No, I was not asked to advertise for them and I’m not getting any kickbacks if you book with them through the link on the name. I just highly recommend them.

Anyway, between great conversations with travellers who weren’t constantly trying to one up each other on where they had been and what they’ve done (admittedly something I am shamefully guilty of doing) and cheap beer we had an amazing time. In the evenings we would play kings cup (a drinking game), go to karaoke (my first time. I sang ‘Don’t go breaking my heart’ by Elton John and Kiki Dee with a new friend of mine), or go pub crawling. I even got some pole dance in! I did the obligatory street poling but when we went to a club after karaoke, Jarrod, the owner of the hostel and my new best friend, showed me a dance pole in the lower level of the club. I’ll admit I was so excited that I was not being at all ladylike and was doing butterflies and DVD covers with my dress up around my neck. Thank goodness for full coverage knickers. On top of that, when we went on a pub crawl the next night, the first club had an actual dance pole and I spent the entire time at that club either amazing the crowd with my mad skills (I had to back up my bragging at the hostel) or teaching the guys and random drunk girls how to do basic tandem pole moves. All in all it was a freaking awesome night.

Street poling in Riga between karaoke and a nightclub.
Who doesn’t love a good jagged edge!

Other than the amazing nightlife in Riga there is so much to see, most of it outside of Old Town. Below are just a few of the things that I did that there are to see and do.

Museum of Occupation– This is an absolute must. If you are only stopping in Riga for a day you cannot miss this museum. There is so much to see in there and the way it is set up you really have no idea how long you are there. It covers both Nazi and Soviet occupation in Latvia and has excellent descriptions on the artefacts and information on the occupation in Latvian, English, German and Russian. I went wandering around Riga with two Canadian girls that I met and we spent 2 hours in the museum and didn’t even realise it. They also have a small selection of books on Latvian occupation in English, which I greatly appreciated.

Freedom Monument– Other than being an insanely large obelisk with a Lady Liberty-esque woman on top, there is more than one reason to go. The monument is next to a beautiful park that is split by a canal. We ended up sitting there for the better part of an hour eating ice cream and people watching. Highly recommended.

Russian Orthodox Cathedral– I have come to love the gilding of the Orthodox churches. It is so disgustingly gaudy and speaks of so much wealth that I find it fairly hypocritical of my idea of the Christian faith. It’s one thing for a church to be beautifully decorated, or painted with beautiful murals or to have beautiful stained glass windows, but the Orthodox cathedrals I’ve seen go above and beyond. It’s distractingly painful to the eyes and speaks of immense wealth in the church (at least formerly, if not anymore) and makes me wonder how much of that wealth goes to those in need. Regardless, they are always worth a glance. You aren’t allowed to wear shorts in the Cathedrals and it is exceedingly disrespectful to the religion if you do. Women should be wearing skirts and have their heads covered, but if you are a tourist you can get away with wearing pants.

If you walk out past the central markets (you should go to the central markets for lots of cheap, fresh, delicious food though) past this wretched soviet building you eventually come to a curve in the road. I can forgive most tourists for not making it out that far because there isn’t really anything out there, but I think it is worth going to that particular curve in the road. You’d recognise it when you got there because there is a little monument and the foundations of a stone building. This was the spot of one of the largest synagogues in Latvia but in 1941 I think it was the Nazi’s burned the building with hundreds of Jews inside. There were no survivors.

One more place in Riga that I have to highly recommend, due to my obsession with all things garlic, is Ķiploku Krogs (Garlic Bar). Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING on the menu has an element of garlic. I was in garlic heaven. I went really hungry, but wish I had a bigger stomach because I wanted more. It was also all very decently priced. It was  in a cozy, cellar type building (I think they also have an upstairs) and I very willingly had the garlic and herb bread with extra garlic butter and garlic pesto sauce, the garlic and onion soup (literally just soup made with garlic, onion and broth) and the garlic chicken with ratatouille and rice. Unfortunately I did not find the chicken to be garlicky enough, but I added some of the garlic butter to the rice and it balanced it nicely. Had I been hungry enough I would have tried one of the many garlic desserts, but I just couldn’t fit it in. I couldn’t even finish the main course! For those of you who have been to the Stinking Rose in San Fransisco, this puts that place to shame. If you like garlic you have to visit this restaurant.

Everything on the menu was garlic. Heaven.

Liepāja

So as I stated previously, I ended up staying an extra day in Riga. Originally I really wanted to go up to Cape Kolka, but with bus scheduling and all that I was going to miss the Riga Latvian beer festival so I ended up not going. I will definitely be back in Latvia at some point because there is still so much I want to do, but I’ll spend a bit more time there. At that time I can do Sigulda, Gauja and Cape Kolka.

I did, however, make it to Liepāja, a very small and eh hem…quaint…seaside town. It’s not the main seaside resort town (probably because of the wind and the downtrodden feel of the whole place). I pretty much went just to go see the beach. There frankly isn’t a lot to see there (I was there on Sunday during low season so their 2 museums were closed and I didn’t want to interrupt mass at the churches.) There is a Soviet prison that you can go to and you can either do a 2 hour tour or if you really want an interesting experience you can stay there for all of about $15 and be treated like an actual prisoner with bed checks, being woken up in the middle of the night and forced to do things like push ups and what have you. I was feeling fairly lazy and wasn’t terribly interested in seeing the prison that no one has ever broken out of (allegedly). It was a Soviet prison so they were probably killed before having a chance to escape. I spent the day people watching though and enjoyed a lovely Latvian meal before having to catch my bus down to Klaipeda in Lithuania.

More to come.

What I’m reading nowAmidst Latvians During the Holocaust- Edward Anders. This man was Jewish, lost almost his entire family during the Occupations and World War II. He managed to survive along with his mother and brother (his brother died of illness during the war) by claiming to be half-Jewish on their fathers side and then claiming to be ethnic Aryan German when they sought refuge in Germany. It’s a great read about his perspective living with gentiles during the war and gives an overview on what he did when the war was over and his attempts at recognition for those who died during the war or attempted to resist Nazi and Soviet ideals.

What I’m listening to now: Whatever is playing at the pub that I’m sitting in. Sorry, couldn’t tell you what it is.