Adieu

Last horse passing down Clifton Road on the way to the Common.  Last look at the passion flower on the way to the bus stop.  Lots of “lasts” as we pack up items into the garage, dump the recycling and get ready to sail away this evening.

By the way, we recycle everything here.  I just noticed an article pointing out that one truck load of recycled food waste can keep 20,000 TV sets running for an hour.  A small country must think of things like that.  Wouldn’t hurt for the big ones to give it a thought as well.

I took my good bye walk out to the Common yesterday.  It stretches invitingly for miles and miles.  Hard to resist setting out to find a new unexplored path.  Along the way I found proof of Autumn in the falling horse chestnuts, or conkers as they’re called here.  Do you know the game of “Conkers”?  Kids have played for hundreds of years, tying strings to or through the nuts, suspending the string from their fingers, then banging away at the opponent’s conker.  The one splitting first is the loser.

Just another quick very British news item before I go.  An article/poll “claims that the way one votes can indicate sexual preferences, and that Labour voters are more likely to enjoy spanking and sex outdoors.”  Alan Johnson, former Home Secretary, in answer to the interview question, “Spanking or the great outdoors?”, replied, “Spanking is underrated.  It’s the satisfying smack of skin on skin.”  So much for policy questions or inquiries of historical importance.  Sound familiar?

I regret that I cannot continue posting from the Queen Mary.  She charges too much for wi-fi connection.  So, I look forward to seeing many of you soon, and I thank you all for listening.

Copenhagen and Home

My impression of Copenhagen comes from an early morning bus ride from the ship to the airport.  Fortunately we went directly through the center of the city with some commentary.  My main impression was of bicycles, thousands of them.  The picture from the bus window shows a representative clump.  Note behind the building with the distinctive dragon tower.  It’s the old market exchange where merchants met to sell their goods.

We returned to discover our old friend the badger competing with the fox for treats after hours in the garden.  They will fall on hard times when we’ve gone.

Today I took a break from packing to take one last walk up in Little Venice.  We met by one of the old green taxi stands.  There were once 100 of them scattered around the city as places for taxi drivers to take a break for a cup of tea and something to eat.  Now I think there are only a dozen or so.

From there we set out to explore the area around the Regent’s and Grand Union canals.  Once green fields owned by the Bishop of London were developed in the 1820s and onwards as housing for upper middle class folk.  Now it’s millionaire territory.

The highlight fact for me was the horse escape ramp you see pictured.  As you know, horses pulled the canal boats until 1953.  If one happened to fall in its handler would pull it along by the tow rope to one of these ramps and haul it out.

You see the picture of the pineapples topping a fence.  Pineapples were widely grown in greenhouses in the area.  They were so expensive that hostesses wishing to impress would rent one to put on her table for the evening.

Warnemunde II

Peter led us up to Schwerin town after we finished the castle tour.  Most of the beautiful historic buildings are now used as regional government ministries so have escaped Soviet destruction.  We walked into the central square overseen by the church, begun in 1100.  Note that red brick, remembering that they don’t have stone in the area–only clay.

In the square–where there was an open air religious event, very unusual in those parts–we gathered around the Henry the Lion column.  The panel in the picture depicts Henry’s entry into a town where he had ordered a royal welcome.  You see the result.

On the way back to the bus Peter pointed out a “stumbling stone” in the pavement.  These simple brass inserts, scattered all over Germany, remember those taken by the Nazis.  This one acknowledges a Schwerin resident “taken without his consent” to Berlin and then to Poland where “he was murdered at an unknown date.”

Later in the afternoon I walked into the seaside village of Warnemunde.  It’s a pretty little place which was buzzing with Sunday activity.  There were children dancing around the lighthouse; people munching fish sandwiches along the quay; a huge fully rigged Russian sailing ship inviting visitors; and a display of the winners in a sand-sculpting contest.  If you can’t tell, the theme was Sinbad the Sailor.

Warnemunde

I peeked out the window to see rows of windmills in the water around the German port of Warnemunde(means “at the mouth of the River Warne”).  All staggered out to an early call to the buses, for some were taking the long drive to Berlin while we chose to join the group for Schwerin, the seat of the regional government and the former holdings of the Dukes of Mecklenburg.  A champagne and caviar table at the end of the buffet went far toward perking me up.

We rode through lovely fertile countryside, seeing lots of deer and other wildlife.  Another good reason for setting out early.  No cranes though.  Peter, our excellent guide, said that you could often see them this time of year as they rested on their long trip back to Africa for the Winter.  This is the former East Germany, so we got a lengthy lecture on the evils of Soviet occupation and the continuing damage to the people so long oppressed.  He talked about how this fabulous land, now contributing tons of grain and other crops, barely produced anything under the Communist planned economy.  He pointed out what good farmers the people in the area had been and how they managed to garden small plots scattered around to have food for their families.  Peter also rather bitterly said that German taxpayers are still paying an extra levy to improve the lot of East Germany.  I guess some EGs, even though they get the extra help, feel “lesser than” the westerners.

We stopped at a viewing point for a first impression of the home of the Mecklenburgs.  Interestingly there is no stone in this area, so all buildings are constructed of brick plastered over to look like stone.  The castle is all constructed of bricks made just up the road.  We hopped on a boat to circle the island on which it stands for the full awe-inspiring effect.  Then we crossed the connecting bridge, walked around the back to admire the orangery where flowers and fruits were grown in winter, and into the front hall.  The structure is used as the meeting place for the state government so all isn’t as it was for the Dukes.  However, there’s plenty to see.

There’s a picture of the library with all its locked cabinets.  Books were precious.  I don’t know if you can tell, but the shelves in the picture come out a ways from the wall.  That’s so the Duke could slip out unnoticed in the public part of the house if he wished.  One passage comes out in a fake grotto down on the water.

We passed through a number of grand rooms with lovely ceilings, floors, murals, ancestral portraits, views over the lake, etc.  I include a picture of the Audience Room, meant to make an impression on visitors.

The last photo is of the ghost who inhabits the castle.  He’s a dwarf who roams about the village predicting happy or tragic events by the color of his clothing when you see him.

 

Tallinn II

I just had to throw in a few more photos of this beautiful city.  First is another medieval merchant house on the central square.  Notice the winches dangling from the front.  That’s how you could haul your goods up for storage in the drier, safer upstairs.  Saved hauling it up narrow stairs as well.

Next you see the flower market up against the old city wall.  It’s open 24 hours a day so lots of jokes about husbands buying posies on their way home late at night.

The goat I just threw in because I found her charming.  And finally there’s the city on the hill as we sail away.  Just a delightful place to visit.

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Meanwhile back in Wimbledon.  We got back in the middle of the afternoon facing the reality that no steward would appear with champagne and caviar on a silver tray.  We’ve managed, but just barely, since.  Tonight good old Marks & Spencer is furnishing us an Asian meal of all sorts of treats.

Wednesday David and I celebrated the departure of all the tourists from the city by going to see “Kinky Boots.”  So much fun.  One of the open-top tour buses passed as we came out.  Maybe six or eight people up top.  So nice when those tacky tourists go home.

Tallinn

Now tell me honestly; what do you know about Estonia?  Me either, but I believe it was my favorite stop.  Beautiful, friendly people, hard-working, been through a lot, great attitude. After the great beauty of the place, the first thing I noticed was all the yarn shops and knit wear for sale.  It seemed to be in every other shop plus the market stalls.  Our guide explained that being warm in an Estonian winter was very important.  I was reminded of the fact someone in Helsinki pointed out–some days are light only from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.  They welcome the snow because the reflection of what sun there is adds to the fiction that there’s light.

They were greatly oppressed as a part of the Soviet Union, and now they’re in the EU but struggling.  Rents are high; wages are low; there’s a 20% flat tax.  Now EU sanctions are hitting their best export, grain and other foodstuffs to Russia.  You see the photo of the gray building with the bricked up basement windows?  That’s the former KGB headquarters.  The local dark humor says that you could see Siberia from those blocked windows.  I don’t know if you can see, but there’s a sign on the building announcing that it’s being turned into apartments.

Entering through a gate in the fortification wall, we walked around the beautiful old city which seems a step back in time.  The yellowish building with the elaborate doorway is the headquarters of the Black Head Society, a guild for young unmarried businessmen.  Very important to be a part of a trading organization, both financially and socially.  We went on past the larger headquarters of the Merchants’ Guild.  That would be the older, married men.  Very important indeed.  On past the church (simple, pretty, Lutheran), remarking that the Estonians and Czechs were the least religious people in the world.

We made our way behind the church through Bread Alley where all the town bakeries used to be into the lovely town square.  You see a picture of the oldest house, built in 1338.  A 14th century apothecary, still in business, stands across the way.  The guildhall, again still in business, occupies the middle of the square.  All the surrounding buildings are stuccoed and painted in soft pastel colors.

Next we took a break in what’s left of St. Catherine’s Church, a part of the large Dominican monastery which stood there long ago.  It’s used as a theatre.  Our treat was three costumed musicians singing and playing medieval music on lute, pipe and hurdy gurdy.

 

St. Petersburg III

I believe I’ve gotten to Catherine the Great’s everyday sled.  That’s the painted one upholstered in velvet.  It’s a two-seater with the driver standing on a platform at the back.  The other one is her special Carnival gold and silver model.  She would board it outside the palace in the square to open the Winter Carnival festivities.  Just like a Mardi Gras float, right?

We passed through a corridor where all the Czars’ families walked along from their quarters to dinner.  That elaborate wooden mirror purchased by Peter the Great hung high up on the wall just before the dining room door.  Mirrors had to be high up, just for decoration, because the Church forbade anyone looking at her/his image.  A few rooms later we came upon the solid silver shrine to Alexander Nevsky.  That’s the big black thing in the photo.  Polishing no longer allowed.  It was meant to house his relics in a monastery, but they couldn’t get it through the door.  Hence it resides at the Hermitage.  Then the malachite room, the room with the massive six Boule tortoise shell and brass doors, and many more, each as glorious as the last.

That got us to the paintings.  Enough Rembrandts to fill the Huntington Museum of Art, Rubens’ first student painting, one of Da Vinci’s earliest,  the Valasquez work featuring Saints Peter and Paul together–another Church No No, and more wonders than you can ever imagine.  We visited the Hermitage in the late 60s, and I can tell you they’re way more organized than they were then.

Anywhere we went getting from the ship to downtown we passed the rows of mansions built along the Neva.  Peter invited Europeans to come to live in his new progressive city, offering them free land.  They did so, building in the manner of the countries they came from.  There are all these pastel palaces, many crumbling, lined up one after the other.

As we leave St P I have a couple more pearls to share.  First, 100 cats live in the basements of the five Hermitage buildings as rat catchers.  Each has its own bed, and twice a year there’s a special day when families come.  They walk through, seeing paintings with cats in them.  Then they get to visit the pussies downstairs.  Second, St. P enjoys approximately 28 fully sunny days a year.  That’s it.  Third, we could see the stadium being built for the 2020 soccer World Cup.  They’ve been working on it since 2008/9.  First contractor took the money and disappeared.  Same for the next.  Would you believe a third?  The fourth has been told to finish the job or go to prison.