"Look here, steward, if this is coffee, I want tea; but if this is tea, then I wish for coffee." - Punch, 1902.

July 11, 2016

Russia, St. Petersburg: The Singer Cafe

St Petersburg is built on a marsh. This fact seems implausible as you gaze on palaces, boulevards that stretch beyond vision and bridges topped with statues.

Commissioned by Tsar Peter The Great more than 300 years ago, this created city was to be a window to Europe. Lustrous and heavily opulent, it not only mimicked the grandeur of Paris, it ventured to outstrip it.

Piles of bones belonging to those workers who were forced to fell, drag, drain and build, are said to lie beneath the pavements of its main thoroughfare Nevskiy Prospekt. In the beginning, this three-mile long central street was merely a wide clearing in the forest along which wolves roamed ...

In winter, icy fogs roll down St Peterburg's canals and streets - or the city can be wrapped in snows eight inches deep. There is almost perpetual darkness.

But in summer the city enjoys 'White Nights' of long Nordic daylight. We'd just missed this. However, Nevskiy Prospekt was a tide of ever-moving traffic well into the early hours and the switch on the city lights was not flicked until 10.30 pm.

We were unable to celebrate the stretched out days as it rained ceaselessly during our stay. St Petersburg is so renowned for its weather, the Church On Spilled Blood contains no painting but is decorated entirely with mosaics, inside and out.

We had arrived from Helsinki with a front from the west which included a dramatic electrical storm and were kept at sea for 10 hours until the winds dropped enough for us to dock. The River Neva pours into the Baltic Sea via a network of tributaries, and its mouth where the port is located, is a patchwork of tiny islands tricky to navigate.

We waited in the Gulf of Finland only miles from the shore peering at the black coastline through a blanket of water and mist. Fortunately, here, the sea was calm. Our ship, The Princess Maria, crawled towards her destination on her hands and knees.

The rain stayed with us for the day and a half that we had remaining to explore the 'Venice of the North' as Goethe dubbed it. We retreated to the Café Singer.

On the second floor of the bustling Dom Knigi 'House of Books' shop, the café reflects the art nouveau elegance of its building - Venetian green plaster, antique wood, leather upholstered chairs and potted palms. Its gaping arched windows allow you to gaze directly at the Kazan Cathedral.

With seven storeys and a cupola with a landmark glass globe, the premises symbolised Singer's status and influence at the start of the 20th century. After the dismantling of the Tsarist autocracy in 1917, it became a publisher's and the home of Dom Knigi.

We lunched on smoked salmon with potato salad. My habitual green tea came with honey and lemon on the side. I took neither preferring the purity of the tea itself. Spooky had a sweet, spiced tea.

The salad had been prepared nouvelle cuisine style, the delicate fish and potato salad mixed together and pressed into a round mould.

Having cleared our plates, we weren't ready to venture into the rain just yet, so ordered a dessert of pancakes with hot blueberry sauce and vanilla icecream. Heavenly. Unfortunately, we ate many pancakes and blinis during our time on the ship and on Russian soil and now, back home, are trying to re-establish a healthy regime.

However, we needed to stoke up before joining the long queue for The Hermitage that zig-zagged across the vast, waterlogged Palace Square. We would be waiting an hour and a half. This was Thursday, the day of free entry and the rain had helped to increase numbers.

We huddled under our one umbrella as closing time approached. Fate smiled on us, and we were among the last sodden group to be allowed entry that day.

I was reading Ten Days That Shook The World - the first person account of the 1917 revolutions written by American journalist John Reed. He climbed the marble staircase of The Winter Palace in November with the Bolsheviks as they took power from Russia's Provisional Government.

Reed writes:
"... we walked into the Palace. There was still a great deal of coming and going, of exploring new-found apartments in the vast edifice, of searching for hidden garrisons of yunkers which did not exist. We went upstairs and wandered through room after room. This part of the Palace had been entered also by other detachments from the side of the Neva. The paintings, statues, tapestries and rugs of the great state apartments were unharmed; in the offices, however, every desk and cabinet had been ransacked, the papers scattered over the floor and the living room beds had been stripped of their coverings and wardrobes wrenched open.

The most highly prized loot was clothing, which the working people needed. In a room where furniture was stored we came upon two soldiers ripping the elaborate Spanish leather upholstery from chairs. They explained it was to make boots with ... "

As well as seeing some of the art treasures the Tsars had amassed, I wanted to see where this landmark event had taken place.

Although Communism crumbled 25 years ago, Russia's second city appears to trail behind the fast-paced consumer-driven west - restaurants with white tablecloths and artificial flower arrangements that focus on food rather than appearance, the regular whiff of strong unfiltered cigarettes.

It was like a trip back in time to my European travels of the 1980s and 90s - strange, delicious, refreshing. I hope it doesn't catch up soon.

June 13, 2015

U.K, Manchester: The Richmond Tea Rooms

Wave to the city, wave to the sky, wave. On a pilgrimage to see the poet rock musician Patti Smith we ventured west from our home city of Sheffield across the Pennines to Manchester.

We'd already seen her perform an acoustic set upstairs at The Millennium Galleries in Sheffield in 2010 with the gradually darkening sky and cityscape visible through the galleries' vast plate windows. She moved like a panther, her hands playing out the stories of her poetry. In this gig she was to appear with her band and deliver the entire Horses album.

We were also due to meet Spooky's niece, Elizabeth, to celebrate the end of her finals over a meal on Rusholme's Curry Mile. We had also planned visits to The Manchester Museum and The Whitworth Gallery.

But first we lunched down a backstreet in the city's gay village, near Piccadilly station.

The Richmond Tea Rooms occupy a former cotton mill but their decor could not be further from this industrial past. Pillars and wooden floorboards are disguised by a dream world theme from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Everything is candy coloured and Spooky thought it a "bit girly". Animals and birds burst from wallpapers, cushions and fittings, and chandeliers dangle from the ceilings. Lewis Carroll, or Charles Dodgson to use his actual name, would probably have approved of the location in this reactionary city. Born in Cheshire, he wrote political pamphlets in addition to penning poetry, lecturing in mathematics and practising photography.

I expected to find a giant white rabbit somewhere among the ornate chaos. There was none, but the waiter pointed out rabbits lurking on walls and seats everywhere. I just had to look a little harder.

From pink menus we chose Dragon Well and Jasmine Green tea, and to see us through the museum visits, a mushroom omelette with chopped herbs and a Tweedle Dum Croque Madame.

We ate them to the crackling tinkling sounds of jazz age hits, watched from the wall by a portrait of the young Dodgson.

Mid way through the lunch, an email arrived from the PR for Hurtigruten, who was sorting out our next trip to Norway, to say the dates we had hoped to travel on weren't available. This meant we had to check flights and match up new dates and the flurry of email activity made carrot cake necessary.

We didn't manage to resolve the departure date for Norway, but satisfactorily full, left the tea rooms to make for the museum.

En route we were distracted by the newly-refurbished Central Library on St Peter's Square and a quick detour proved much longer than anticipated.

The ground floor has been converted into a buzzing, interactive archive space with records of Manchester's social history displayed electronically and in the form of original documents in cabinets, such as records of the occupants of workhouses and photographs of the back-to-back slums.

Upstairs on floor one is the silent reading room lined with leather tomes. An ornate gilt clock stands in the centre of the great hall and an extract from this passage from the Old Testament runs around the rim of the dome ceiling.
Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting get understanding. Exalt her and she shall promote thee; she shall bring thee to honour when thou dost embrace her, she shall give of thine head an ornament of grace, a crown of glory she shall deliver to thee.

Proverbs 4:7

There is a small display dedicated to Anthony Burgess, which includes first editions of his novels since Burgess studied English at the University.

The library, which opened in 1934, was modelled on the Pantheon in Rome which Spooky and I visited in 2012. It's colossal size and highly advanced engineering combined with its age, left me open-mouthed. Alongside the Alhambra in Granada, I rank it among the world's most outstanding buildings.

Manchester Central Library is not on this scale but still inspires awe, as well as a thirst for knowledge.

At the museum in the old redbrick part of the University, we only had time to pop into a temporary exhibition on the statues of Rapa Nui, which includes the Moai Hava, one of the smaller 'half statues', and visited the Vivarium, where we watched four tiny orange rainforest frogs smaller than my thumbnail playing out a love drama on the rough bark of a log.

We had to miss The Whitworth Art Gallery, but as we walked down Oxford Road towards Rusholme, I showed Spooky The Faculty of Arts where I studied French and a quadrangle of grass where I would revise in the sun.

Rusholme has flourished into a destination in its own right.

Traffic calming islands have been introduced in the centre of the Wilmslow Road and dozens of restaurants Indian and Arabicfight for custom where once there was a handful of small Asian grocery stores. In between, Arabic jewellers with their intricate gold dazzle. And pastry shops add neatness and colour with their cubes of pink and green marzipan.

After meeting Elizabeth and her boyfriend, Tom, and a fish tikka which was far too big for me to finish, we took a taxi to The Apollo.

Patti Smith astounded her audience and critics alike. She would have approved of The Richmond Tea Rooms as a lover of Rimbaud's visionary poetry.

Perhaps she took tea there before her anarchic and brilliant performance. Gloria.