In January 2007 I was in the city of Riga in Latvia…
Have Bag, Will Travel
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In January 2007 we made our third visit to the Latvian capital of Riga and on 28th January we took a ride to the nearby seaside resort of Jurmala…
We walked along the frozen shore and enjoyed every minute of kicking through snow and picking our way along tracks made of ice. None of us had seen a beach frozen solid before and none of us had walked on water before either.
“How would you like a high-rise building, just like one of ours, in Warsaw?” – Viacheslav Molotov (1952)
An appropriately functional entrance ticket.
At two hundred and thirty-one metres high the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science is one of the most notorious examples of Soviet Realist architecture of the 1950s and you can’t miss it because it is the tallest building in Poland and the eighth highest in the European Union. It was commissioned by Josef Stalin as a gift from the people of the Soviet Union.
What a great gift!
Actually, not only Warsaw but similar gifts were given to Prague, Bucharest, Kiev and Riga. How lucky were Berlin and Budapest to miss out.
Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…
First of all today we reacquainted ourselves with the fabulous Art Nouveau buildings that were all quite close to our hotel. There had been a lot of restoration activity since we were last here and the pace of regeneration to repair years of neglect was very impressive.
The buildings looked different this time bathed in soft winter sunshine with snow on the roofs and when we had done enough neck craning to peer upwards towards the statues and friezes we left this part of the city and walked once again through the spacious parks towards the city centre.
Three fishers went sailing out into the West,
Out into the West as the sun went down;
Each thought on the woman who lov’d him the best;
And the children stood watching them out of the town;
For men must work, and women must weep,
And there’s little to earn, and many to keep,
Though the harbour bar be moaning.
Three wives sat up in the light-house tower,
And they trimm’d the lamps as the sun went down;
They look’d at the squall, and they look’d at the shower,
And the night wrack came rolling up ragged and brown!
But men must work, and women must weep,
Though storms be sudden, and waters deep,
And the harbour bar be moaning. – Charles Kingsley
I recently posted about the fisherwomen of Portugal and how they are celebrated and remembered in street art.
In case you missed it…
For International Women’s Day I have featured one aspect of the life of a fisherwomen…
The long day waiting for the fishermen to return home safely…
A tough job for sure!
On a visit to Riga and the Hotel Latvia in March in addition to enjoying the Skyline cocktail bar we decided to eat there as well.
The food was excellent and there was a reasonably priced self-service buffet but what was especially good about his meal was that it happened to coincide with‘International Woman’s Day’ and there were free cocktails for all of us and flowers for the girls.
To be honest I had never heard of ‘International Woman’s Day’ before, it certainly isn’t that big in the United Kingdom, and to be honest I have to say that I thought it was a bit odd to have it on a Saturday, which is a day really reserved for sport, but it turns out that this was just an unhappy coincidence because IWD is held every year on March 8th and is a day of day of global celebration for the economic, political and social achievements of women around the world.
It all started in New York when in 1908 fifteen thousand women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.
Then, in 1917, with two million soldiers dead in the war, Russian women chose the last Sunday in February to strike for ‘bread and peace’. This turned out to be hugely significant and a contribution to the overthrow of the Romanovs and four days later the Czar was forced to abdicate and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote.
That historic Sunday fell on 23rd February on the Julian calendar, then in use in Russia, but on 8th March on the Gregorian calendar that was in use elsewhere.
It has since become very important in Eastern Europe after a 1965 decree of the USSR Presidium that International Women’s Day was declared as a non working day in the USSR “in commemoration of outstanding merits of the Soviet women in communistic construction, in the defence of their Motherland during the Great Patriotic War, their heroism and selflessness at the front and in rear, and also marking the big contribution of women to strengthening friendship between peoples and struggle for the peace.”
Another interesting thing is that although Latvia doesn’t care to remember or celebrate much about the Russian occupation they seem happy enough to continue with this day off from work arrangement.
In these days of equality it is important to be fair of course and I am pleased to say that ‘International Men’s Day’ is an international holiday, celebrated on the first Saturday of November. It was first suggested by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1999 and was supported fully by the United Nations.
At two hundred and thirty-one metres high the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science is one of the most notorious examples of Soviet Realist architecture of the 1950s and you can’t miss it because it is the tallest building in Poland and the eighth highest in the European Union. It was commissioned by Josef Stalin as a gift from the people of the Soviet Union and was supposed to be symbolic of the victory of communism over capitalism.
Next to it are the gleaming structures of the modern business quarter of Warsaw which represent the victory of democracy over tyranny, of free market over central planning, of capitalism over communism.
We drove back to the city to rendezvous with our Latvian guide for the afternoon who was going to take us on a walking tour of the city. We had no idea when we started the tour that this experience was designed as a severe endurance test based on the welcome to the Soviet Army initiation week for new recruits.
She was a lovely woman, and rightfully very proud of her city but she hadn’t fully made the transition out of the ‘do as you are told’ communist era and she pushed us through the city at a punishing pace, even at one time refusing a perfectly reasonable request to stop for a just a brief moment to purchase cold drinks and telling us off for buying postcards from a street trader.
There was a happy return to glorious sunshine this morning so we took breakfast early and stepped out to complete our sightseeing. However, although the sun was out there was a stiff breeze and it was quite cool so once outside the door we turned straight round and went back in to get our hats and scarves.
It was the sort of blue sky that you could feel fairly confident that it would be there all day but just in case we went first to the Palace of Culture and Science with a plan to visit the viewing platform almost at the top.
On the ground floor the Museum of Technology wasn’t open and I sensed that Kim wasn’t desperately disappointed by that. In fact Kim generally likes Monday sightseeing in Europe because as a general rule most of the museums are closed for the day.
At two hundred and thirty-one metres high the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science is one of the most notorious examples of Soviet Realist architecture of the 1950s and you can’t miss it because it is the tallest building in Poland and the eighth highest in the European Union. It was commissioned by Josef Stalin as a gift from the people of the Soviet Union. What a great gift!
You can’t say that the communists are always inefficient because construction began in 1952 and was completed in 1955 in a total of two years and sixty-six days, although to put that into context the Empire State Building in New York is 65% higher and was completed in less than half that time – one year and forty-five days. Five thousand Russian builders were moved to Warsaw for the construction project which used forty million bricks and the completed building has almost three thousand, three hundred rooms. Most of these are offices so visitors are entirely restricted to the ground floor and a maze of marble corridors.
It might have been free to go to the top on Sunday, I’ll never know, but it cost twenty Zlotys each today, that’s about £4, so nothing really to complain about. We made our way to the lift and waited and soon the doors opened and we stepped inside. It was gloriously old fashioned and sat on a stool in the corner was the lift operator whose only job was to close the doors and press the button for the thirtieth floor.
This has surely got to be one of the worst jobs in the World, sat in a windowless box and taking people backwards and forwards all day. I bet it takes some mental preparation in the morning before setting out to work. We went up in complete silence, it didn’t seem appropriate to attempt conversation, I can’t imagine what you could say that she hadn’t heard a million times before. She had a severe demeanour which said ‘don’t bother me’ and being stuck in the lift with her if it broke down would have been a hundred times worse than when I was stranded in an elevator with a turtle!
It was a fast lift, it took less than twenty seconds to get to the top so if the attendant is working flat out that is about one hundred and eighty times an hour or one thousand four hundred and forty times for a full eight hour day. I imagine that when she gets home at night and someone asks how the day went then the only appropriate response is “oh, you know, up and down”.
It was cold on that observation platform I can tell you as we wandered around the edge and looked over the city. Not a beautiful city I have to say and from this position it was easy to see how the modern city was reconstructed with the long straight boulevards flanked with communist style buildings and structures. Despite the brutality of the architecture it is however easy to look out and simply admire the post war determination of the people of Poland to rebuild the broken city.
A lot of people in Warsaw don’t especially like Stalin’s gift but it looks set to stay. This is unlike a previous Russian building gift that was built in the city centre during a previous period of Russian occupation.
It is said that the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky* Cathedral, completed in 1914, was the grandest building that ever stood in Warsaw. Constructed of Finnish granite and clad in finest Russian marble it had five gold plated domes, and a seventy metre high bell tower. By all accounts, inside the cathedral proved even more dazzling and copper and oak doors led to a lavish interior exhibiting oil paintings and icons, mosaic panels decorated the cavernous structure and the entire building was heavily adorned with precious stones.
Despite its grandeur it was not a popular building and when Poland gained temporary independence in 1918 the decision was quickly made to demolish it and in 1922 the tower was dismantled and between 1924 and 1926 fifteen thousand detonations were set off to reduce it to rubble – I suppose it saved the Nazis a job twenty years later!
The Russians built quite a lot of these things as gifts and whilst we clearly unable to visit the lost cathedral here in Warsaw we have previously visited the similarly named Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (there is also one in Sofia) when we visited Tallinn in Estonia but the best was the restored Cathedral in Riga which I imagine may have looked very similar to this one.
* Alexander Nevsky was a thirteenth century Russian military and religious hero.
In 2005 the Russia TV Channel ran a poll to identify the Greatest Russian. The competition was plagued with controversy and not unsurprisingly for a Russian election accusations of vote rigging and irregular block voting but at the end of it Alexander Nevsky emerged as the outright winner. But it was a very odd result with Pyotr Stolypin ( a staunch monarchist prime minister of the last days of the Romanovs) coming second and Josef Stalin who is estimated to be responsible for the deaths of as many as sixty million people coming third! At about the same time German TV ran a similar poll but votes for Adolf Hitler were not allowed.
Getting off of the train was another interesting experience because there was no platform in any sort of fashion that we would recognise and it was necessary to leave the train down steep steps that stopped about fifty centimetres from the tarmac and involved a final jump that only the most able bodied would ever be able to manage.
There were no signs of measures to address disability discrimination here I can tell you.
In fact, on account of the lack of engineering refinements on board, the whole railway journey experience seemed fraught with danger and this was well illustrated by a sign on the heavy metal doors that seemed to indicate that male passengers in particular should be careful not to trap delicate bits of their anatomy in between the closing doors as this could be very, very painful indeed. And to emphasise this the letters can be rearranged into that well-known warning ‘tite bals nastie’.