Travel – Architecture and Cities

 

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I love it that every city I visit is different. Sometimes people ask me what is my favourite city out of all those that I have visited, and of course that’s an impossible question, but I sometimes try to work it out.

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There is a big difference between cities that were built as cities and those that simply evolved over centuries, from settlements beside rivers or the sea, into those that exist today. There are the great cities of the world, London New York Paris etc, and then there are cities, none the less great to those who live there, but not one of the places that everyone feels they must go to.

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London is a city that has evolved over centuries from a small settlement in Roman times to the metropolis of today. The City of London is formalised architecture the result of the great fire in the 17th century which led to the city being laid out but for the rest it has grown and evolved over centuries resulting a whole mixture of styles uses and inhabitants, some would say a whole series of villages strung together.

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As a contrast the centre of St Petersburg was planned and built and preserved, despite wars and changes, such that even today you can get the feeling of being just a step from the world of Tolstoy and the characters of War and Peace. Sometimes that purity has an almost big chocolate box feel about it, almost too good to be true, but such a pleasure to explore, and a living cultural museum.

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Eastern cities reflect the rises and falls of their history and culture and have become a world of enormous contrasts, where ancient powerful histories have faded and been replaced by new modern recoveries of prosperity, interlaced with the growth of informal settlements resulting from the migration of poorer inhabitants from the countryside to the city in search of a better life.

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Some cities are defined by nature, the physical environment dictating the shape and limits of the city, and nature itself being the limiter of its expression. Then there are the new, purpose built, modern cities of the 21st century, pragmatic, functional but none the less appealing for the imagination of their design.

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Which are your favourites, well you pay your money and you take your choice but for me, despite my efforts to analyse, I don’t know, I still love them all because what ever they look like, however planned organised or random and chaotic they are, it’s the inhabitants that define them

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Traveling and The Perspectives of Time and History.

 

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History is never far from our minds when we travel, the history of a place a society and that history is a measure of the time that elapses until we finally get there to see it. St Petersburg in Russia, an infinitely “historical” city, is a great place to feel that sense of history and time and explore it.

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The fortress of St Peter and St Paul set on an island in the Neva River gives lots of scope. The island contains the Peter and Paul Cathedral that is the burial place of Tsars from Peter 1st, Peter The Great, through to Nicholas 2nd who was reinterred there in the 1980s. 340 years of history in one room from the founder of the city to the last Tsar executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The fortress was also a Tsarist prison and for those imprisoned by the Bolsheviks. There is a morbid fascination in looking at a cell that housed someone later shot, but there is comfort in knowing that was 100 years ago, so it seems a long time and as such safe.

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Also on the island is a small space museum dedicated primarily to Russian rocket technology in the space race of the 1960s, with particular reference to the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961. So only some 40 years after the chaos of the revolution and the assassination of the Tsar here is a celebration of putting the first human in space, a tiny period of time in historical terms, for such an enormous change.

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Not being technologically minded and being born before technology, it looks, even to my unpractised eye rather primitive. You can see from the space suits that these were physically small men strapped into what looks like something resembling a modern day baby’s car seat, blasted into space in a solid sphere with virtually no control and returned to earth safely. Now only 50 years later we carry phones that are far far more technologically sophisticated than those machines.

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Elsewhere in the city is the Museum of the Blockade, the 900 days siege of Leningrad as it was then, in the 2nd world war from 1941 to 1944. During that terrible siege people faced famine, and you can see in a glass case a sample of the daily ration distributed to citizens at one stage in the siege. For us there is safety in the 70 years that have elapsed which separate us from that horrific time, but then we realise that it all took place only 20 years before the same country put the first man in space, a blink of the eye.

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Time seems distorted by our perceptions of what is fearful and what is admirable

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Travel – Experiencing Religion.

 

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When we travel or journey we go to see things, particularly buildings, amongst our other experiences, and it is unlikely that we will not see something religious in our journey, usually some buildings which are the outward manifestations of the religion that lives where we are visiting, and also its history.

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The existence of religions and their place in society are obvious and not for this discussion, but how it manifests itself in the places we visit has long fascinated me. When you consider the buildings that we most often visit, they are usually magnificent, a testament to the place of religion in the society, or at least its historic place in society.

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If society has seen a golden age at some point in its history, so there will be churches, cathedrals, temples, mosques that bear witness to that. This is true across the world. Europe, India, Asia all have magnificence to show us which links to their golden ages.

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Sometimes those countries have now become less golden, less powerful and the religious images that we see have become as much a travellers place as a focus in the society. The buildings they use now are more modest although not less devout.

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The common features of these buildings of the golden ages are scale, colour and intricacy. The more powerful the place the bigger, the more intricate, the more magnificent they are. They have become works of art at the same times as being place of worship

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We live in far more secular societies than existed in the days when these buildings were made, and the buildings have become increasingly symbolic as well in being less a part of daily life.

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Historically you can see the way in which a Cathedral started as perhaps a small church and grew as empires and nations grew, but you also see that as power and authority diminishes, the buildings don’t become less important, indeed the opposite albeit for other purposes.

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The one part of the world where this does not seem to have happened is Sub-Saharan Africa. There the emergence of what can be called the major religions, Christianity, Islam etc. came relatively late in their history and only fairly recently came to replace traditional spirituality. But even there a building and its symbolism are very important even if the building starts as an old tent, and then as congregations grow a bigger tent and then a permanent structure which candevelop and grow further. Many evangelical churches and religions are emerging like that now in Africa and also in China.

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When we see these places from the slightly artificial perspective of a traveller, looking at the same time at religion, history and culture, they can teach us an awful lot about human beings too and what has driven and continues to drive them

Moscow Choices.

 

 

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Moscow is a multi trip city, its big, steeped in history, and lots going on, but there are some places that warrant a definite visit.

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The Tretyakov Gallery, which is housed in a fascinating building, is a State gallery that houses some 130000 Russian paintings. It dates back to the 19th century although the main building that houses it is early 20th century. The history of Russian painting is there and it is a gallery designed in a way that you can walk and look without other people imposing.

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Red Square is well known to all, as is the façade of the Kremlin in Red Square, but a visit inside the Kremlin is a discovery of a varied and fascinating world of architecture and churches and gardens. It is a structure that conjures dark and forbidding images in our minds but those are wrong images. The forbidding façade of the Kremlin doesn’t do justice to what is inside.

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Outside the kremlin can be found the Tomb if the Unknown Soldier. Many cities have such memorials but what is unique about this one is sadly the numbers of soldiers it commemorates who died in Second World War nearly 10000000. That is a number hard to get ones head round and far more than any other nation that fought in the war, it’s the equivalent of roughly the entire population of greater London.

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That sad statistic takes me on to the final place in this piece the Museum of The Great Patriotic War. Being interested in history I have seen war museums in various countries but this one is the most inspiring I think. The museum is set in Victory Park and the museum itself is 14000 sq. metres of exhibition which extraordinary fascinating exhibits and it is very a very moving, experience especially when you come onto another terrible statistic, that over twenty million civilians and soldiers died. It teaches you to understand just how much that terrible period is part of the life around you and inside its people.

 

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Moscow is a big place in a huge country, but these ideas will give some sense of it today and historically.

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The Crimean Peninsula

 

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There are times when you are on the coast of the Crimean peninsula, or Crimea, when you get the feeling that you are in the South of France, in Provence, before it became famous and developed and expensive There is that familiar mix of a rocky coast the scents of pine tress, the warm waters and beaches, good wine good food and sun! But it’s a lot cheaper that is certain!

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A good place to stay is in the city of Simferopol, the main city of Crimea, which, whilst not being exactly in the centre is very well placed to get around and see the south coast and the mountains. There are hotels but a good plan is to rent an apartment and a driver and get around the peninsula. A driver and a car are not expensive and really convenient.There is an interesting park dedicated to metal workers with statues they have created, and when you get thirsty try the local Kvas, a drink made from fermented bread.

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Crimea is famous for its wines and they are really good. There are many beaches and small ports. Balaklava is a good place to go hire a boat spend the day at sea going around the coast, swim off the boat, catch fish, find a beach, make a fire, cook the fish, drink the wine and have a great day. Or sit at night on the beach with a group and watch the shooting stars and the sky lanterns that people send up

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The history of the Crimea is a vivid and warlike, one, which makes for a lot of sites for historians or those interested. The Crimean war, the naval bases of Sevastopol and Balaclava and the history of the second world war. Then the famous Swallows Nest on the South Coast. Of course also Yalta, a beautiful town in addition to its historic significance, and see the palaces dating back to the days of the Tsars.

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The scenery of the Crimea is not just beaches but mountains too and a great outing is to take the 3.5km cable car up Ai-Petri, which, whilst not being the highest mountain has amazing Vistas down the South East coast and at the top there are great hikes, and exploring.

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Its hard to get to Crimea these days since the Russian takeover but if you want a Riviera experience without the crowds and cost, a great place to go filled with welcoming and interesting people.

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Wanderlust

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I don’t make long term plans about travelling a journey. I like to ponder where I want to go and then other than taking time to deal with the formalities of travel, visas tickets and satisfying the official permissions of life, I like to just go and do it. There is this edginess in side me that needs to get moving. It is as if life at home, however pleasant, familiar, comfortable and enjoyable it is amongst the familiar, ones family and friends, is unsatisfying. That edginess starts, you become distracted the next destination looms. I am addicted to cigarettes and chocolate but even they don’t create that same edginess, they are mild and comfortable compared to the need to get moving again.

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I need to decide where to go. At the end of many journeys has been the sense that I want to go back to where I have been to see and learn more, to take advantage of what I have seen and learned already and delve deeper into that world. But inevitably I go somewhere new. It’s rare to retrace my steps. Travelling is a bit like a life lesson that you know, that the first joy of a place or an experience can never be repeated, it feels pure and new only once and so you don’t retrace your steps but you go to new places all the time.

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I wonder often when I come back from a journey what the most satisfying and enjoyable moment is, and I often think that the most exciting moment of a journey is the beginning, the moment you set out on that road to who knows what. You close the door behind you and are gone, the world maintains its daily routines but at that moment you seem to detach yourself, start to look and watch things that you do every day as if you are detached from them.

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Travelling is not all easy. You face difficulties, disappointments and even dangers and you know that is going to happen again, but you learn never to expect the easy outcome, the place you are going is not designed to make you happy, it’s designed to make the inhabitants happy. You know that on your journey you are going to bump into things, and see with open eyes things that you take for granted, see the extremes of kindness and misery that you don’t need to face at home.

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Does this urge to wander, to move, to travel to experience change you? I think so. When I return to the familiar to the people and things I love, I know I am different to the person who walked out the door some time before. It does change you. Travel and you realise that there is little in life that is black and white however convenient it may be. Nothing is ever quite the same again.

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Then, satisfied you get your feet under the table, you ruminate on what has gone before and try to put some words together to describe it and before you know it that edginess is back, the wanderlust is rising up again. Why? I think its because the greatest joy in travel is to be able to experience all the time everyday things as if for the first time. To be able constantly to rediscover that feeling of not taking anything for granted and finding novelty everywhere.

 

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The Travel Bore

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I learned a long time ago that when returning from a journey, heart and mind filled with reflections on the things I have seen, people met, the places explored, the scents, emotions, secrets and sensations experienced, its really not good to talk about it too much.

Camera loaded with amazing photos, tales of people met, places seen and dangers overcome fill you, as you sit comfortable in the knowledge that you have something very special to offer now that you are home again and with friends. There is a fine point between simply saying that the travel was great and being a travel bore. Even sitting with another traveller it can become a competition trading the most beautiful, the most ugly, the highest, longest and most dangerous, oh and of course the oldest. Comparing notes on outlandish activities you would not do at home, and the sensuality of travelling is not wise, its easy to become a travel bore.

How much people really want to know you have to gauge. How many times people say would love to see your photos, but still they are unseen by all but you, except for one with a fabulous beach which is all they seem to want to see. You wonder why, you are slightly hurt. You have the wonders of the world to lay at your audience’s feet, but somehow they dont really want to know. “They are envious” you whisper to yourself, “they don’t care, they don’t understand”, but in truth they know that if you start you will never stop, and they will have nothing to say because for them such things are abstract compared to the appalling weather we have been having lately. You can hope that one day they will come to you and say “tell me all about Timbuctu” and then you can expound, but in truth they just want to know where you were and whether you enjoyed it. You are safe returned, that is enough. To hear the rest would be unsettling. So here is an ode to the travel bore!

The Traveled Man

SOMETIMES I wish the railroads all were torn out,

The ships all sunk among the coral strands.

I am so very weary, yea, so worn out,

With tales of those who visit foreign lands.

When asked to dine, to meet these traveled people,

My soup seems brewed from cemetery bones.

The fish grows cold on some cathedral steeple,

I miss two courses while I stare at thrones.

I’m forced to leave my salad quite untasted,

Some musty, moldy temple to explore.

The ices, fruit and coffee all are wasted

While into realms of ancient art I soar.

I’d rather take my chance of life and reason,

If in a den of roaring lions hurled

Than for a single year, ay, for one season,

To dwell with folks who’d traveled round the world.

So patronizing are they, so oppressive,

With pity for the ones who stay at home,

So mighty is their knowledge, so aggressive,

I ofttimes wish they had not ceased to roam.

They loathe the new, they quite detest the present;

They revel in a pre-Columbian morn;

Just dare to say America is pleasant,

And die beneath the glances of their scorn.

They are increasing at a rate alarming,

Go where I will, the traveled man is there.

And now I think that rustic wholly charming

Who has not strayed beyond his meadows fair.

 

Ella Wheeler Wilcox 1896