Off the tourist track in Prague

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Along with gorging on pork products and mocking tiny wax statues, Karen and I had a few adventures in Prague that were decidedly off the beaten path. One of them even involved GEARS, which required Karen to show near-infinite patience. (So I guess I can forgive her for flatly refusing to visit the Kew Museum of Water and Steam while we were in London even though we went right past it on the bus.) 

For a while now I've been aware of the existence of a particular type of elevator/lift that’s become increasingly rare for reasons that will soon become obvious. A paternoster lift is sometimes described less colourfully as a “circulating multi-car elevator”. Invented in the 1860s by Peter Ellis, an architect from Liverpool, a paternoster consists of two parallel lift shafts containing a chain of open-doored cabins that move continuously in a loop, up on one side and down on the other. The name is derived from the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, because the chain of cars is thought to resemble the beads of a rosary. A bit of a stretch if you ask me, but I guess it’s better than “Circulating multi-car elevator” or “Death-a-vator” or “Lift of Doooooooom”.

Paternosters work like this: riders approach the car and step into the cabin as it’s moving. On reaching the desired floor, they step out. Simple and efficient. (Other than the ever-present chance of amputation of course, which is why they are becoming increasingly rare.) They are apparently quite popular in Germany, which has more than 200 still in operation. And luckily for me there are a handful in Prague, which I came to know about through the lovely people at Taste of Prague. (Tag line: “Because you didn’t come to Prague to lose weight, did you?”) 

(There’s a whole lot more I could say about Taste of Prague, not least that we did a really good food tour with them that included handmade ice cream sandwiches and artisanal gin and tonics, but for now I will just say that their Prague Foodie Map is awesome and included the almost-hidden line of text that led me to drag Karen across Prague to a semi-obscure YMCA building to see and ride in my first paternoster elevator, helpfully noted in the Taste of Prague interactive map of paternoster elevators. Honestly, how can you not LOVE these people? The next time I go to Prague I’m thinking about just paying some kind of flat fee so I can hang around with them and pretend that they are my friends.)

Anyway… the paternoster. It was Monday morning and Karen was in a very indulgent mood, so we headed out from our spacious and well-appointed AirBnb to find the YMCA building, where I was expecting to have to go on a little hunt to find the elevators. 

The unassuming entrance to the YMCA

Instead, we walked into the main entrance just past the reception window and there it was, chugging away.

I think the guy at the reception desk might be used to having the occasional freak appear in his lobby to try out the lifts, though it’s just possible that other people don’t actually jump up and down a tiny bit and make clappy hands. Let’s just say I can get enthusiastic. Once I regained my composure Karen gamely climbed into an ascending car with me. Two people is generally the limit for a paternoster cabin, but that’s no big deal because there’s always another on on the way! We rode to the top floor and then got out to assess the next, much more daring move.

Here’s the top floor. Karen insisted that I include the regular boring lift on the right in this photo as well, and that I let everyone know that many of the staff of the building seemed to be using that instead of the paternosters. Because obviously they are losers.

Astute Go Stay Work Play Readers may know what’s coming next. The obvious question with this sort of arrangement is “What happens and the top and bottom?” And that, dear readers, is what I was about to experience because I went over the top!

There’s a giant turning GEAR at the top and bottom of the lift shafts, fitted with a very very heavy chain that forms a continuous loop. The cabins are hung on this chain and when they reach the top they are pulled up and over the giant gear and proceed down the other side. Simple. The same thing happens at the bottom in reverse.

Naturally you’re really not supposed to go over the top because in addition to the ever-present danger of amputation, the giant chain meshing with the giant gear is clearly not the kind of thing you want to get up close and personal with. However, there is plenty of room in the cabin to squish yourself against the back wall, carefully tucking in any appendages, and see what happens.

Here’s what it’s like if you’re Karen and are patiently putting up with me.

And here’s what it’s like from the inside! Sorry this is not the greatest and most compelling video ever, though I like to think the long stretches of inky blackness add drama.

I’ll admit I was slightly nervous the first time I went over. It does really get quite dark, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. In the end it was no big deal and the movement of the car going over the giant wheel was relatively smooth, and there was light at the top, and you would really have to try to get any bits stuck in the gears. I went up and over four times, and Karen was very patient with me, though she resolutely declined to join in the fun. That didn’t matter though, because later that day we had another off-beat adventure that also deserves a mention.

I’ve already said that we stayed at an AirBnB in Prague, but it turns out that AirBnB are now offering “experiences” as well as accommodations. These experiences range from the sublime to the ridiculous. (As far as I can tell that last one is a real thing!) Karen and I discovered our experience at a tiny shop called Skoba in our Prague neighbourhood. Skoba specialises in making blank paper notebooks using recycled materials. Their workshop promised to teach us traditional bookbinding techniques, and it slotted into our schedule perfectly, capping off our stay in Prague with a fun, relaxing and very enjoyable afternoon of arty crafty activity.

Gathered around the table

Václav was our host, seen at the head of the table above, and it turned out that we were his very first participants in his very first public workshop. We started by searching through a large collection of old books and papers to find the materials to make the covers and dividing pages of our soft-sided notebooks.

The assortment

The cover pages were reinforced with a coating of sticky-back plastic, and cut to size with handy templates, or on this excellent giant chopper. 

The notebook pages themselves were already cut to size, but we got to add custom divider pages from the pile of stuff. Most interesting was the actual glueing together of the pages.

We had to secure the pages together in a wooden clamp...

...and then fold them over to expose a tiny bit of the edge of each page, which were then roughed up with sandpaper...

... and smeared with special book glue. 
(I always wondered how they got enough glue along the vanishingly tiny edge of a piece of paper to make them stick together. Now I know. And so do you. Just another service from the good people here are Go Stay Work Play Live World Headquarters.)

Then the whole thing is covered in a strip of cloth. Very clever!

The covers got glued on after along with end papers, and we even got to add an accordion pocket inside the back cover, with a pencil sleeve. The most magical part was after the glueing, when Václav took each rough book to the special cutter in the back of the shop and carefully trimmed the top and sides of the notebooks so they looked perfect and super-professional. 

The magic cutting machine. I was hoping for more cast iron and giant screws and maybe a gear or two, but as you can see, this was a boringly modern device. Though still impressive in that it chopped through 200 pages with ease.

My finished notebook, showing the back end paper and pocket, and a Koh-i-noor pencil, which turn out to be Czech in origin. (Fun fact: Koh-i-noor patented the first graphite pencil lead in 1802! They also originated the practice of labelling the hardness of pencil leads with the H/B plus number system, which is still in use today. There are 21 gradations, but you probably knew that already.)

The bookbinding workshop was a great experience, and during the brief pauses when we were waiting for glue to dry, Václav even provided homemade cake and beer (I think it’s required by law to provide beer in any gathering in Czechia involving more that three people or lasting more that 30 minutes.) The whole thing turned out to be a really excellent finish to our Prague experience and gave us a chance to wind down a bit and have a quiet afternoon following the previous few days of marathon walking and whole-pig consumption. And of course we each got handmade souvenirs to take home with us along with sore feet, and a third-degree pork overdose. Love ya, Prague!

Here's the finished product, featuring the cover from a vintage Czech technical magazine. This woman is clearly creating some kind of chemically-enhanced lacrosse stick. Or possibly toilet plunger. Yay science!

The Prague Blog

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A long break from blogging... I know. Here am I, safely back in London with no massive international stadium show looming, bobbing along in the boat, and rarely bothering to set an alarm in the morning, and yet still not finding the time or motivation to blog. What possible excuse could there be? Well, I've started to work on a new theatre show, for one. And for another, this:

Karen was here! And there was champagne!

My bestie Karen was here for a leisurely two-week visit. She even stayed ON THE BOAT, which is a Lucky Nickel first. I think it worked out pretty well, despite the cramped quarters. Though she claims to be somewhat high maintenance, Karen managed #boatlife quite well, with minimal fuss. This is likely due to her long experience camping, meaning that she could understand if I got cranky about things like leaving the tap running while brushing teeth, or made her ask permission before using the hair dryer, or if occasionally when she was having a shower there was a brief gap in hot water delivery.  (I'm sure Karen will add her comments below.) Though I hasten to add that simply based on luggage storage, let alone the challenging logistics of moving around this space with other people present, and the limited supply of water, one additional person is probably the practical limit for this particular tiny B&B.

The couch apparently served acceptably well as a guest bed.

And what did we get up to while Karen was here? Well, she had a few touristy London things on her list, many of which we managed to do in fine fashion. Which means we did not whip ourselves out of bed at the crack of dawn to hit three different world heritage sites before breakfast, then hop a train to Aberdeen for the day, then go to a West End show. Instead, each morning we had several cups of coffee and a pleasant breakfast on the back deck of the boat, set off at the crack of eleven, and generally limited ourselves to one site, two pubs, and half a kilo of cheese per day. A perfect pace. We hit Kew Gardens, and saw the Cabinet War Rooms, and even got an exclusive tour of the Foreign Office, thanks to a fellow Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Reader. And we visited the V&A and Kensington Palace, where they're exhibiting a collection of Princess Diana's dresses.

The famous Elvis Dress. Interestingly, we discovered that I am almost exactly the same height as Princess Di, meaning that I could probably pull this off. (Note: This will not happen in my lifetime.) (Also note: Please do not make me put a clause in my will specifying that I am not to be cremated while wearing a replica of the The Elvis Dress. Or even the ACTUAL Elvis Dress, purchased through a Go Fund Me Campaign for the express purpose of putting the boot in for eternity. Though naturally I would totally rock that look.)

The highlight of the trip, though, was when we left London for a five day trip to Prague! We'd decided early on that part of Karen's visit should involve us both traveling somewhere together, and that somewhere should be a place neither of us had visited before. It turned out that Prague fitted the bill perfectly. It’s easy to get to, beautiful, and full of diverting sites and fun things to do and great food and cheap, excellent beer.

Here’s a view of Prague including it’s craziest building, the TV Tower. And you see those tiny specs that seems to be crawling up the tower? They are giant sculptures of faceless babies. Crawling up the tower.  Because: of course.

Giant faceless babies crawling up a remarkably ugly tower. Prague rocks. 
(Also, the TV Tower contains a One Room Hotel with, naturally, unparalleled views. It can be yours for a best rate of 549 euros per night. Though that includes breakfast and free wifi, so really it's a steal.)

We did a lot in Prague, so I'm not going to try and tell you everything. (Like I won’t bother telling you about how, when at Heathrow security the guy at the X-ray machine was heard reminding people to remove from their bags all liquids, gels, pastes and custards. Custards? Whaaa? Do they actually have a big problem with explosive custard?). But I will tell you about lunch on Thursday, because it kind of set the tone for the whole trip. We’d booked a fantastic Airbnb in a nice neighbourhood but arrived a bit early to check in, so we had lunch in a traditional restaurant just down the street. The waitress was unbelievably patient and translated the entire menu for us, meaning I got to order this plate of wonderfulness:

These are dumplings filled with cured pork and served with the most amazing sauerkraut in the history of mankind. It was sweet and warm and I think I imagined it but in my dreams it’s studded with raisins. This sauerkraut elevated the humble cabbage to stratospheric heights. And it was so good that we had dessert, which was MORE DUMPLINGS. This time with blueberries and sour cream and melted butter and grated soft cheese, prompting Karen to comment, “I’ve been in this country an hour and I’ve gained ten pounds.”

Thursday night we managed to meet up with my friend Iain from London who moved to the Czech Republic a few years ago (and who's appeared in the blog before, in the bit about a very very long queue.) Iain gave us an impromptu walking tour that included one of Karen’s must-see sites in Prague, the Lennon Wall. Not to be confused with V. I. Lenin, the wall is an ever-changing mural of graffiti that originally featured John Lennon-inspired images and pieces of lyrics from Beatles’ songs. Started in 1980, it became a place where young Czechs could write grievances about the government in a movement they termed “Lennonism”. It’s been completely painted over twice, but each time it’s soon covered again in images and messages of love and peace.

Part of the Lennon Wall

Me posing with a fun bit of the wall

Friday we did an organsied walking tour which wasn’t really as fun as the one the night before, but did give us a good excuse later that day to eat MORE PORK, in the form of roast pork knuckle (or, as I took to calling it: roast hog foot). And since there were three of us, we also ordered a plate of mixed roast meat including duck and bacon. And more dumplings. And more sauerkraut. And beer. (In fact, from this point on you can probably just assume that in any picture that doesn’t actually show beer, there’s probably a beer just outside the shot. In Prague, beer is literally cheaper than water.)

That edifice in the back is the pork knuckle, which is basically most of the back leg of a pig. It had an astounding amount of meat on it. And then we turned it over to discover...

Warren, me and Karen. Another thing I’m not going to mention is that after dinner we walked around the old town a bit and Karen definitely did not buy a bowl of potatoes cooked with bacon and sauerkraut for dessert. And of course Warren and I didn’t have ice cream.

Just to be clear, we actually also did a lot of non-food related things in Prague, and I averaged 14km walking per day so I managed to return less spherical than you might think. For instance on Sunday we basically walked all day, taking in random sites (and pastries) and stopping on a whim to drink a beer on a quiet side street. That’s how we happened upon a truly odd site. This is one that had been on our radar when planning the trip, though we’d actually planned to not bother with this one until we realised it was literally a half a block away.

The Infant Jesus of Prague is… weird. To be slightly more specific, the Infant Jesus of Prague is a small wax and wooden statue of the infant Jesus that’s displayed in the Church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague. (That’s not the weird part.) The tiny statue - less than two feet tall - was likely created as far back as 1555, and is an object of veneration for many who visit the church. (That’s weird, but only in the conventional way that I find all organised religion weird.)

Here’s one of the eleven zillion photos online of the Infant Jesus of Prague. Or, as Karen and I like to call him: Sweet Baby Jesus of Prague. Or SBJOP for short.

The really weird thing is this. The original statue is quite plain, depicting Baby Jesus wearing a plain white robe. But that’s not how he looks when you visit the church, because this particular 48cm high wax statue has a massive wardrobe of ornately embroidered robes and giant hats for every occasion. The nuns of the church regularly take the statue down and dress it in a different outfits, coloured according to the liturgical calendar. And devotees from around the world send new outfits for the Baby Jesus, some of which are displayed in a small museum inside the church.

So let’s just go over this again shall we? There’s a small medieval-era statue that people pray to, that also gets dressed up like a Barbie doll in expensive ornate outfits that people send from all over the world.

And here’s the best outfit EVER. Mexican Sweet Baby Jesus of Prague. Olé!

It was upon discovering this particular outfit, when I called Karen over and pointed and said quietly, “There’s a sombrero” that we were both overcome by sheer absurdity of the situation and had to flee, lest the oncoming divine thunderbolt destroy innocent bystanders. And this is only after we were approached by a friendly priest in the church who was clearly there to engage with the public and who, after finding out were were Canadian, inexplicably said something like, “America has 52 states. You have seven.” And don’t even get me started with the uncountable number of Sweet Baby Jesus of Prague souvenir statues that were available from shops in the area in sizes ranging from keychain to larger-than-life. Seriously organised religion - what’s the deal?

Later that same Sunday we’d planned to do another walking tour that would take us up to Prague Castle, but in the event neither of us felt like such a structured walk, so we meandered up to the Castle on our own and ended up seeing a concert of chamber music in the Basilica of St. George rather than following a paid guide through the crowded castle’s main sites.

Nevermind that the sightlines to the players were frankly appalling and many of the people in the audience seemed intent on videoing it all on their phones. What were you filming, people? You couldn’t even see the players! I think I once caught a glimpse of the cellists head, but Sweet Baby Jesus of Prague!* Maybe you could just put your phone down and listen? 
(* This is now the me and Karen's default exclamation when at a loss for words.)

After the concert, as the sun was starting to go down, we walked back towards the apartment across the famous Charles Bridge. The bridge is always packed with tourists and touts, but I stopped at one particular guy who was cutting out silhouettes from small pieces of black paper. The guy was frankly astonishing, and hugely skilled. So, for just 200 Czech Crowns (about £6) I sat while the guy stared at my profile and, with just a small pair of scissors, cut my silhouette on the spot, in about three minutes.

File 25-07-2017, 3 22 35 pm
Also he was not hard on the eyes.

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And here’s my silhouette. Though I think he perhaps softened my chin a bit, and played up the eyelashes. I kind of think of it as Animé Pam. Still, pretty good. The hair in particular is impressive.

There’s more to tell about Prague. More food and more sites and more wacky adventures, which I'll attempt to blog about some time before Christmas. But that Sunday, after all the walking and shopping and pastry and tiny sombreros there was not much to do but drag our tired feet back to the apartment, where we could rest and drink wine and catch up some more and laugh a lot. Because actually, that was the whole point.

Being back

Sunday, June 18, 2017

I'm back in London, back on the boat, back home. It's great.


I spent a few days just settling in. My flight arrived in London late-ish at night, which made it tricky getting back onto the boat. While #boatlife is largely pleasant and normal, coming back after a long time away is not as simple as arriving back at a terrestrial home. I can't just switch on the light, toss my keys on the table and settle in. For one thing, getting two large suitcases and a heavy carry-on down the long metre-wide gangway that leads to my boat is not something you necessarily want to attempt in the dark after a long international flight. Also, I left the water tank empty in January (to lessen the chances of green stuff growing in it while I as away) and filling the water tank takes about two hours at this mooring. And I'd left the batteries disconnected as well (which I forgot about, and which would have meant a LOT of consternation, since the lights are all powered by the batteries). Knowing all this I decided to book a cheap B&B nearby, which made the landing a bit softer and meant I started the next day like this:

Bacon! Sausage! Beans!

I got a taxi back to the marina after breakfast and spent the day happily unpacking and clearing out the cobwebs. (Literally. I don't know why it is, but spiders and boats go together.) It was really really good. There was nothing on the agenda other than just being home. I found a proper place for (almost) everything I brought back, and I went through the cupboards and evicted anything that had been hanging around too long in damp conditions, and I stocked the fridge. Then I went for a run on the towpath. It was great.

The boat seems to be basically fine. I had a bunch of mechanical work done on it while I was away, performed by the long-suffering Kevin. Every once in a while when I was up to my elbows in 700 hexagons or trying to figure out how to repair a giant broken pinwheel in Baku, I'd get an email from Kevin saying something like, "I've realigned the grappler flanges and reset your torque modulator, but then I found a leak in the starboard dash-pan. Shall I fix that?" And I'd write back and say, "Yes, please." And then some time later there would be another email from Kevin saying, "I've fixed the leak but in doing so discovered that the cover for the forward Frinkle-lever is cracked, shall I fix that?" And I'll write back and say, "Yes, please." And on it went for months. I guess this is the way it goes with these old diesel engines. I've more or less accepted that I will be replacing this engine one part at a time for as long as I own the boat, but at least I'm starting back from a better place than I was in.

And while I was away I picked up this stowaway - a small tree that took root in one of my fenders... Impressive rate of growth!

I left the boat at a pleasant if far-flung marina near Heathrow, which is great for getting home from the airport, but absolutely rubbish for getting in to central London. The other day the trip to Brixton took almost two hours. So while the marina itself is nice, and allows me to plug into mains power and refill the water tank as often as I want, it's just not sustainable long-term. Maybe I'm being snobbish, but how do people manage when the commute is that long? One of my fellow boaters, Bob, commutes and hour and a half each way every day, all the way the Southwark. I'm not even working and I can't hack it.

On the other hand, being in a marina means you can get to know your neighbours a lot better, as evidenced by Bob's invitation to a BBQ on the weekend when I got back.

It was great to meet a few other people on this pontoon

My plan is to cruise slowly back towards central London, hitting all my favourite mooring spots along the way. Summer is a great time to be on the boat, and I'm especially looking forward to having Karen here for a nice long visit in the coming weeks. We've got a lot of highly blog-worthy stuff planned, so standby for that. In the mean time my main activity is reminding myself that the nagging feeling that I should be doing something is one that must be resisted.

Saturday I went into central London. I had a bunch of life admin stuff to do which involved starting at Tottenham Court Road, walking through Soho to Oxford Circus, and then going from there down Regent Street to Covent Garden. It was about as central as central London gets, on a Saturday afternoon. Tourist hotspot. Zillions of people. Normally I'd think nothing of that. Now, coming back to London after two different terrorist incidents, it was all a bit different. You can't help but think about it. There are noticeablely more police on the streets now - especially in busy areas like Covent Garden. And they're not your regular bobby-on-the-beat either. These ones have big automatic weapons prominently displayed. It's jarring, but also reassuring. (Thank you Sadiq Khan, screw you Trump)

On Monday I found myself on the south side of the Thames at Westminster, needing to get to the north side, across Westminster Bridge. It's a bit different now. Before I left town nothing separated the wide pedestrian walkways from the traffic. Now it's like this:

Welcome home.

You can't argue with this kind of thing. Even in a world without whacko nut jobs I suppose it kind of makes sense for there to be a nice heavy chunk of steel or concrete between people and vehicle traffic. And I can't deny I felt more comfortable walking across the bridge because those barriers are there. On the one hand it was reassuring. On the other it was sad. (And also makes life tricker for London's already beleaguered cyclists, because it reduces the width of the bike lane.)

I kept walking, and was immediately cheered by the sound of bagpipes. There's ALWAYS a bagpiper on Westminster Bridge. And there he was. Score one for Normal London. Also reassuring was the fact that there were tourists everywhere, taking pictures of Big Ben. Another point for Normal London. But the tourists were also taking picture of the dried brown flowers and little tributes dotted along the bridge. Hmmm...

Lacking anything else to do I kept walking, past Westminster Abbey and through St. James' Park and past Horse Guards Parade, until came across this at Admiralty Arch at Trafalgar Square.

I'm pretty sure those barriers weren't there the least time I looked.

However, balancing that are the LGBT traffic signals at Trafalgar Square installed last summer ahead of Pride Week. They were only supposed to be there for the festival, but a year later they're still installed, with no plans to remove them.

IMG_4175 (2)
If you look closely you can see two of the seven different designs of traffic lights

Sort of unbelievably, I'm coming up to my seven year anniversary in London. I arrived in August of 2010. That seems utterly bizarre. It's true that I've also spent close to three years away from London on international jobs, but that's still a significant amount of time. Enough that I think I can somewhat credibly call myself a Londoner. Enough to know that I'll never really know the city. And enough to know that probably no one ever does. But it's also enough time to know that London is not defined by barriers on bridges or policemen with machine guns. London is about the bagpiper at Westminster, and the tourists at Big Ben. But it's also me straining my ear on the tube to eavesdrop on a conversation in Russian a few seats away to see if I can pick up any meaning, and it's a BBQ on a narrowboat dock with a few English people and a lovely couple from Holland, and one rogue Canadian. And it's those crossing signals at Trafalgar Square.

I struggled a lot with how to close off this blog, because it's hard to avoid clichés. ("If I don't stop for a Shake Shack Sticky Toffee Flavoured Concrete at Covent Garden then the terrorists will have won!") So I guess I'll just keep on doing what I'm doing. Living in London, loving London, and appreciating that I can continue to do both those things. And also definitely trying one of those Shake Shacks things because dammit people, I'm only human!

Tourist Stuff: Mud Volcanoes!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

I survived! Opening Ceremony on May 12 (link here) and the Closing Ceremony on May 22 (link here). Both went reasonably smoothly, though Closing in particular was somewhat miraculous given that they were still building the stage on the afternoon of the ceremony, when we started rehearsing. Though I hasten to add that this is no reflection on my colleagues who were in charge of the staging. Mostly it’s just that these sort of events invariably have a tedious period of sport that happens between the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, which means you have set up the Closing Ceremony in about 36 hours. So the fact that we had a stage at all is amazing. If you do click through on those links I think you’ll find that these were two quite prop-heavy ceremonies, so I’m greatly relieved that we actually pulled it off.

Now we’re even finished the packing up and moving out of the Props Tent, leaving a week or so of sorting out files and reconciling budgets and going in late and going home early. And the weather is sunny and warm now so I suspect there may also be a measure of sitting on terraces with a cold beer. In other words, a bit of hard-earned down-time.

Last day at the stadium. And not a minute too soon.

However, with the clock running on my time in Baku, I still had a few things to tick off the list. So in preparation for my first two-day weekend in months I decided to enlist the help of the Intrepid Raul for another wacky adventure, this time to see the famous mud volcanoes near Gobustan, about an hour’s drive out of Baku.

I say world famous though really, who outside of Azerbaijan even knows what a mud volcano is? This is probably partly because about half of the world’s thousand-ish mud volcanoes are in Azerbaijan. Mostly they’re quite small and relatively docile protrusions caused by more of Azerbaijan’s famous stores of underground petrochemicals bubbling up to the surface. Astute GSWPL Readers will recall another instance of leaky flammables near Baku, though that one was a bit more dramatic. Unfortunately, mud volcanoes are decidedly petite and mostly don’t erupt dramatically or spew giant globs of earth miles into the air or disrupt the flight path of incoming aircraft (errr.. except sometimes… see below). 

Tourists usually combine a trip to the mud volcanoes with a viewing of the much more famous petroglyphs at Gobustan, which I visited on my first sojourn in Baku. On that trip there wasn’t the time to tack on the Mud Volcanoes, and it felt like something that really needed to be seen. So trusting to Raul’s extensive experience of the local Baku buses, we set off on a sunny Saturday.

Despite Raul's encyclopaedic knowledge of Azerbaijan public transit, we were stymied partway there and had to resort to a taxi. This was, for me, a happy occurrence, because the last few months have been long and hard and I’m now generally inclined to grant myself whatever little indulgence comes along. So while I’m sure the hour on the local mashrutka would have been a culturally much more authentic, I was secretly quite happy to fork over the cash and be conveyed in relative luxury right to the target destination.

And how was the destination? It was kind of... other-wordly. 

It really is an odd landscape. Apparently NASA scientists have concluded that Mars is a lot like this, geologically speaking. But with fewer Ladas parked nearby.

The mud volcanoes ranged size from really tiny - a few inches across - to about 15’ high. Not huge at all. And some are more active than others. Generally though, they look exactly like the picture that appears in your head when you hear the phrase “mud volcano”.

See? It’s got the bubbly bit in the middle, and the slow flow of stuff on the outside, and the characteristic slope-sided shape of something that’s been building up for ages. 

The only thing that was lacking is the explosive eruption part though even that’s not strictly true. Azerbaijan's mud volcanoes appear small from the surface, but they sit on large reserves of gas and (according to Wikipedia):
"About 200 eruptions have occurred in 50 volcanoes in the territory of Azerbaijani Republic since 1810. Eruption of mud volcanoes is accompanied by strong explosions and underground rumbling. Gasses come out from the deepest layers of the earth and immediately ignite. A height of a flame over volcano reaches 1000 meters (Garasu volcano). Toragay volcano erupted 6 times from 1841 to 1950."
Apparently a huge eruption occurred in 2001, spewing mud and flaming gas into the air in an explosion that could be seen from 15 kilometres away. The fire was still burning three days later. And whole new islands have been formed in the Caspian when undersea mud volcanoes have erupted. Luckily, nothing quite that exciting happened when Raul and I visited. Though I did get a sort of fuzzy slo-mo video which, despite the lack of focus, is slightly mesmerising.

And I took atmosphere shots of the cracked earth

And our cab driver took a shot of me and Raul on top of the biggest of the not-very-big mud volcanoes

And then of course we had to take a selfie of me and Raul and the cab driver, whose name was Elvin. Or possibly Elman. But definitely not Elvis, despite the sunglasses.

And then there was not much left to do but get back in the cab and drive back to Baku. Because as interesting as the mud volcanoes were, there's only so much time you can spend staring at mud. Plus it was windy, and I was a bit tired. It always takes a while to get over the "what-the-hell-just-happened-why-doesn't-my-brain-work-anymore" feeling that comes from completing a big job, so I'm just taking it easy and counting down the days until I get home.

Soon.  So soon!

Kyiv, Part Two (Finally, the perogies!)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

When last we left our hero, she was standing in a frozen bell tower marvelling at the view and slowly turning into a Pamsicle. But that’s not the whole story.

I actually skipped telling you about a remarkable little museum that’s also on the grounds of the Kievo-Pecherska Lavra. And when I say little I am truly not kidding. The Mykola Syadristy Museum of Micro-miniatures is all about being very very very little. Housed in one of the the many buildings on the monastery grounds, it seemed like an odd place for such a secular sort of thing. But with the entry fee set at a mere £1.18 and the Lonely Planet recommending a visit, there seemed no reason not to check it out.

And I'm glad I did. Because apparently you CAN put a camel through the eye of a needle. 
Or even four camels and pyramid.

Mykola Syadristy’s artworks are so tiny they can only be viewed under a microscope, which does not make for great blog photo ops (these are from his website). The work is so delicate that practitioners have to enter a sort of meditative state and work only between heartbeats. Apparently it’s also important to hold one’s breath while working to avoid inhaling a masterpiece. (Note: I did not make that up. Apparently it’s happened to a well known UK micro-miniaturist.)

This ship is 3.5 mm long with rigging 0.003mm thick. 
That’s 400 times thinner than a human hair.

There are fewer than twenty works on display in the museum, so it didn’t take long to see them all, which meant that even after monk mummies, the bell tower, microminatures and lunch, I still had time to wander further along the river towards the enormous statue known as Rodina Mat.

“Nation’s Mother” is a 62m tall behemoth that towers over the banks of the Dneiper. In fact, she towered slightly too much for communist authorities, who truncated her sword so it didn’t rise higher than the tops of the monastery churches.

The Rodina Mat sits atop a very large plinth which sits atop the Museum of the Great Patriotic War which sits atop a dimly lit and mostly empty coat-check facility. I suppose I should say a few words about the museum, but really I mostly enjoyed it because it gave me the chance to thaw out for a bit while wandering the seemingly endless and mostly Ukrainian-only display cases about Ukraine’s part in WWII. Also the coat-check was completely adequate.

I will, though, say many words about the dinner I had on Friday night, because it was splendid. I went to a traditional Ukrainian restaurant called Pervak. It was huge and warm and friendly, with an extensive menu of Ukrainian treats. Here, finally, I had my first perogies in Ukraine. (Though they’re know there as varenyky. I think perogy is actually from Polish.)

For those who’ve never had the pleasure, varenyky/perogies fall into that very very broad category of dumpling-ish things that involves stuffing a bit of dough with something yummy and then boiling it. Where I grew up varenyky are almost always filled with a cheese and potato mix, though sometimes I’ve seen cabbage or even blueberry, at a stretch. The variety of fillings available in Ukraine is truly impressive. The ones I had that night were filled with rabbit. Rabbit perogies!  Other stuffings I saw on menus included kolbassa, chicken, mushrooms, liver, spinach, feta cheese, green peas, poppy seeds, cherries and apple. Not all at once.

Here are my bunny perogies, served with a lovey array of toppings: crisp crackling, salo (see below), grated cheese and sour cream.

Of course I also had Chicken Kiev. Because you’re not allowed to leave the country if you don't. It was unremarkable, but it had to be done. The meal was accompanied by the aforementioned flight of beer that cost 78 pence, and I finished things off with a dessert of bandareky, which were crepes wrapped up in a triangle shape filled with tvorog and baked with cream. So all in all it was a not exactly a light dinner. It’s good thing I skipped ordering from the Lard Menu.

The lard they refer to is known in Ukraine as salo. It’s basically raw pig fat and is unaccountably hugely popular and iconically Ukrainian. I tried a tiny bit in the bacon market. And while you might think I’m about to say it was surprisingly tasty, in fact it tastes EXACTLY like you are imagining cold pig fat would taste. I doubt that even smoking it on fruit branches would help. Sorry, Ukraine, but no thank you.

Saturday morning I lounged around the flat a bit more and then kicked off the day’s tourism with some more perogies and an uplifting visit to the Chornobyl Museum. The Chornobyl disaster, which occurred on April 26, 1986 was the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. (Actually, if you don’t know enough about world history to be aware of the Chernobyl disaster then you’re not allowed to read my blog. Please leave now.) Interestingly, it’s now possible to take a day trip to the actual exclusion zone around Chernobyl, a mere 110km from Kyiv. Apparently it’s very safe as long as you don’t eat or drink anything from the area or pocket any souvenirs. I elected to skip this because it would have taken up precious perogy-eating time. (Also, it's CHERNOBYL and I'm not crazy.)

The Chernobyl Museum was a bit overwhelming. Like the museum of the day before, all the displays were in Ukrainian, but this time I had an English audioguide that was - and this is putting it mildly - exhaustive. The main displays of the museum really only take up two large rooms, but the audioguide was particularly poorly signposted so I had a lot of trouble keeping track of what I should be looking at to match what I was listening to. It turned out the problem was that the guide was so extensive that while I was already wandering through the second room I was listening to commentary about a displays that were within about 8 feet of the entrance. I sort of gave up at that point.

Happily, there was another tiny museum not far away that turned out to be totally charming. The Museum of One Street focuses on the history of each building on Andreyevsky Spusk (Andrew’s descent), a steeply descending road that goes from Old Kyiv and St. Andrew’s Church to the lower city called Podil, which is at the level of the Dneiper River. The street is one of Kyiv’s most popular tourist attractions, and the museum is one small room crammed with display cases that chronicle the cultural history of the street by telling the stories of the buildings and their inhabitants.

Full of glass cases - there are thousands of articles on display. The street's most famous resident was the famous writer Mikhail Bulgakov, who lived at number 13. But mostly it was just fun to peruse the overstuffed cases. And, happily, the museum provided printed English guides to the cases, so I could sort of tell what was going on.

By the time I was finished with two museums and the walk all the way up and back down Andreyevsky Spusk, and a cup of coffee, and a very gooey chocolate brownie, the sun had set and I started the walk to the metro. I was heading towards the Poshtova Square metro station when I happened on this:

It’s the Kyiv Funicular! (For those not familiar with the term, a funicular is a railway that goes up and down a hill. There’s actually one here in Baku and though I’ve run up and down that hill on countless hashes, I’ve never actually taken the funicular. Another item for the To Do list before I leave town...)

I found the discovery of the Kyiv funicular an utterly charming addition to my day and was unaccountably pleased to pay the ridulously low fare (about 5 pence) and take a seat in a car with a lot of other people and one young dog with muddy paws. In fact, I was so happy with the whole business that it didn’t even bother me when the muddy paws ended up all over my light coloured jeans. Once we got to the top I wandered home to the flat, and repeated my excellent habit of glass-of-wine-and-lounging before going out for dinner.

On my last day in Kyiv I finally did a guided walking tour, which is a bit backwards from my usual habit. I normally find it’s a good introduction to a new place to find a walking tour on the first day. (GSWPL Top Tip!) In this case, it was a grey and chilly Sunday morning when I made my way to the Maydan Nezalezhnosti (the famous Independence Square). I was aiming for one of the “free” walking tours where the guide is usually a young person who survives on tips, and was half expecting that I’d get there and the whole thing would be cancelled because no one would show up because it was early and cold and Sunday and February. It turned out I was partly right, because I was the only person who showed up was the guide, Vlad, a very pleasant young man who spoke excellent English.

Despite the low turnout, Vlad carried on. The tour itself was mostly unremarkable, maybe because I’d already been in town for a few days and maybe because I was getting slightly touristed-out. We hit the usual mix of monuments and churches and local landmarks like St. Michael’s Monastery and the Golden Gate (not Golden or a Gate) and Vlad kept up the running commentary. But because it was just the two of us, it was also a bit more personal so I got to hear some about his life, and the revolution, and he even taught me a new Russian word (Скользкий - Slippery!).

One of my favourite stops was a small sculpture in a tiny bit of urban park. Apparently, this little guy is an favourite character from a 1970’s soviet cartoon called Ёжик в тумане - Hedgehog in the Fog. It’s the story of a tiny hedgehog (the Ёжик “YO-zheek”) on a scary journey through the fog to see his friend the bear for tea. (It’s on Youtube, and worth a look.)

Here’s me and the Ёжик.

He’s made with a shaped wooden base covered in wire mesh, and his spikes are all long wood screws poking out of the mesh. He’s carrying a little bundle of jam, as a gift for the bear.

By the time I finished with the Ёжик and Vlad, and had given him a nice tip (Vlad, that is, not the Ёжик) it was about lunchtime. And what does that mean? More perogies, of course! After lunch I managed a quick visit to St. Sophia’s Cathedral, but by that time I was definitely weary and dreading the late flight back to Baku and the inadequate night’s sleep I knew would follow, and the foggy, tired day of work that would come after that. It was nice to have the flat to go back to where I could finish out the day with a quiet bit of packing and one last glass of wine. It seems that three and half days is long enough in Kyiv in February, though I suspect that in the sunny springtime I might have felt different.

Still, Kyiv definitely gets two thumbs up from GSWPL. It’s cheap, friendly, relatively untouristed and with a good mix of attractions. And of course there’s the bacon and perogies. What more could you want?

And finally, you may have noticed there was a slight delay in service last week. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will of course recognise that I have been admirably consistent in posting bi-weekly in the last year, barring occasional hiccups. But as I write this we’ve just finished the second week of rehearsals. This means that the time has come to allow myself a break from the blog so I can concentrate on the last two and a half months of this job with the fewest distractions possible. Normal service will resume in June. Or when I get around to it. Or not. Basically, you'll get what you get. Which, when I come to think of it, is actually really what GSWPL normal service is.