Monday, 26 October 2009

Last Waltz in Warsaw

Bright flame against dark bleak boots
Rests a high-heeled red wedge shoe
Dense crowd files past in silence as red shoe comes into view    

Blood red shoe belonged to
a young girl; who was she?
Scarlet shoe, evocative of youth, vitality
Was the wearer dancing
on the eve before the train?
Realise as she saw steel gates she'd never dance again?

Did she think it was a shower to cleanse
For personal ablution
Know Hitler's evil Nazis sought the - 'Final Solution?'

Red wedge shoe amongst dull black ones
Grabs fraught crowd's imagination
Staring through plate glass at lost, murdered generation

Survivors helped by loved ones
Survey grim gruesome scene
Memories, never gone, sweet lives that might have been

Sad, silent crowds, eyes brimming
Leave wood huts that house decay
The sun is out, but it feels cold, no words for them to say

They gassed them over there, guide tells
Fire burned all evidence
Arriving every day by train, imprisoned by wired fence

Couldn't burn them fast enough
Cruel SS dug deep pits
Mass inhumane cremation - no choices - just submit

I own some high heeled red wedge shoes
I wear them when I dance
Young owner of these red wedge shoes never had the chance

 To grow old; be free; born just like me
In a democratic nation
Imprisoned, murdered, victims of vile mass extermination

Day trippers board their tour bus
Goodbye Camp Birkenau
Silent, stunned, shocked - as one ask, 'Could this happen now?'

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Friday, 23 October 2009

Tsars In Their Eyes

I’m writing this with a large shot of Russian Lemon Vodka and a dish of salted pretzels by my side as I relive my experience of our ten day trip to discover Russia by river. After two days spent on board in St Petersburg our river cruise was to take to Moscow for two days. The distance between the two cities by water is 1400 kilometre (840 mile) made up of rivers, lakes, reservoirs and canals. We were to travel on a German boat carrying 260 passengers, hence the 231 fellow Germans on board and 29 passengers from the UK, including myself and Morty. The summers in Russia are hot and sometimes humid, the winters are famously cold, but we were travelling in the first week of September, the Russian autumn, before the snow falls begin, usually in October.

How would we view the Russia we were to see after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s? How have the Russian people dealt with this freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of trade? How has a country ruled by the Tsars until the 1917 Revolution and then ruled by strong Communist regimes led by such as Lenin and Stalin managed these extreme changes? We were about to gain a little more knowledge and understanding about the Russia of the past and the present on our brief but illuminating journey through a relatively small area of this vast country.

I need a sip of vodka here when I recall the very old Aeroflot aircraft that was to fly us from Gatwick to St Petersburg. I promise you the tyres were bald! However the scheduled economy flight was comfortable arriving after less than four hours at St Petersburg, and once through immigration then transported by coach to St Petersburg’s River Port on the river Neva, where we were soon happily unpacking our gear and ready to explore. Now then, we’re not Group Tour kinda people but, mainly because of my cowardice going to seemingly dangerous destinations, we opted for the organised City tour of St Petersburg, once Petrograd, then Leningrad and now St Petersburg once more.

Peter the Great built the city of St Petersburg 300 years ago as a port for his navy and as a major trade route to Russia’s inland waterways. As with many of the beautiful buildings and colossal engineering achievements we were to see in Russia they were built using forced labour with a huge cost to human lives. This beautiful city was built on marshland so amazingly it consists of 42 separate islands connected by 70 canals and rivers all to be crossed by around 300 bridges. Does an image of Amsterdam and Venice enter your imaginations? We had just two days before we sailed so do I need to tell you how little we were able to see of the 200 palaces, the 50 museums, the 20 theatres, 60 stadiums and 4500 libraries. We benefited from the fact that the city smartened itself up for it’s 300th anniversary in May of this year as royalty and world leaders flocked here to pay homage so all the buildings in the city centre and along the Neva were freshly painted and all the onion domes were freshly gold leafed.

The Hermitage museum was top of our list for our second day but having read that to spend a few moments looking at each item would take nine years we felt slightly fazed. We managed a few hours and with spinning heads saw more art by Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Gauguin and Monet than I have seen in my life as well as the bejewelled state rooms that were once the Home of Tsar Peter and Catherine the Great.

Later, we broke away from our group to wander about on our own. We strolled down Nevsky Prospekt, the main street where the rich Russians rub shoulders with the poor Russians as this wide street is full of fashionable shops, souvenir pedlars, artists and smart restaurants and the homeless. We sat in a pavement Bistro (Russian for fast-service) by an ornate canal with a view of a church called Church of the Spilled Blood where Alexander 11 was assassinated in 1881, and ate a late lunch of Chic ken Kiev and drank Russian beer.

Tired on this our first day, we took a half hour taxi ride back to the River Port and our boat. The St Petersburg river port is in a very down at heel area, in stark contrast to the dripping wealth in the city centre. Grim high rise blocks of neglected flats, pot holes in the roads and pavements, broken windows, unkempt small parks, beggars, drunks, lots of broken down cars and yet there were lively street kiosks with entrepreneurs selling everything from root vegetables to tobacco and CDs. We know we have to return to St Petersburg for a city break as our appetite is whetted, staying in one of the many luxurious hotels being built and armed with a city dedicated guide book, to do this fairy tale city justice.

The young women of St Petersburg are extraordinarily beautiful, slender and dress in the height of fashion. It was no surprise when reading the English printed edition of the St Petersburg Times to see four full pages of personal adverts from Russian women looking for Western husbands, an equal amount of adverts from Russian Marriage Agencies plus personal adverts from Western men searching for Russian brides. Considering the average wage for a surgeon, a university lecturer or a cleaner is $30 a week then it begins to make economic sense for the Russian women and a different kind of sense for the Western male. Need I say more?

Another surprise was the currency issue. Aware that roubles are unobtainable in the UK the bank advised us to take currency in the form of US Dollars- not traveller’s cheques or sterling. Imagine our surprise when we saw everything from the most expensive boutiques to remote villages on the inland river banks pricing their goods equally in US dollars and Euros with Roubles a very poor third. On the boat itself when we paid a bar bill with US Dollars we were given any change in Euros. Consequently, the $150 we innocently changed to Roubles at an expensive percentage on our arrival became even more expensive when we couldn’t spend them and had to change them back to US Dollars on our departure from Moscow airport at an even more exorbitant percentage. If we’d just taken Euros at least we could have returned to the UK with some convenient money to spend on our next European holiday!

The overland distance to Moscow from St Petersburg is 650 Kilometres. The river route is 1400 kilometres, so were to sail on ten separate waterways to include Europe’s largest lake, its longest river and the world’s longest man-made canal. This waterway journey was to take us five days and we had schedules stops along the way. What did we see of another kind of Russia?

It was a new experience for us as we left St Petersburg and sailed along the river Neva in the early evening only to wake in the early morning to discover were on Lake Lagoda, Europe’s largest lake. We knew it was large because we couldn’t see land to the front, to the rear or either side of us so it seemed like we were on an ocean! This confirmed for me that I never want to do an ocean cruise as I so missed the interest of the river banks, the woodlands, villages, forests and the comfort that land wasn’t very far away. Historically Lake Lagoda is known for its vital role during the 900 day Siege of Leningrad from the German blockade of 1941-1944 when vital supplies were carried across it, even when frozen solid, to the starving population as they held out against invasion. Sadly, we were warned not to drink any tap water in St Petersburg as Lake Lagoda is close to death with pollution from phosphate pollution due to lake side industry and this is where St Petersburg gets it main water supply.

Therefore it was enchanting to eat breakfast on the boat as we sailed into the beautiful River Svir the river that links Lake Lagoda to Lake Onega over a distance of 137 miles. The Svir is landscaped on both bank s by beautiful pine and fir forests with plenty of activity as we saw lumbering, log piles and men working on timber rafts. We were beginning to take to this cruising lark, sitting on the sun deck, sipping Lemon Vodka and espresso coffees. In no time at all we were sailing into Lake Onega, a lake complete with 1300 islands, surrounded by forests and we were to stop and visit one of these islands in the north of the lake (linked to the Arctic by the White Sea canal built by Stalin using forced labour) to Kizhi Island renowned for its miraculous wooden churches and a reconstructed 18th Century village. Our local guide was a little too beatific as she fervently described the meanings of the many religious icons in the churches and her halo was hurting my eyes!

Yet more icons when we stopped south of the White Lake at Goritsy for a tour of a 15th Century monastery. Goritsy is isolated yet, in readiness for future tourism, building luxury hotels and a tourism centre. Perhaps if we returned there in ten years time we may well find it completely unrecognisable as the West catches on to what could be a major resort with fishing, water sports, wildlife and a monastic retreat?

Since the fall of Communism, Russians are now free to worship again. Apparently the number of Russians returning to the Orthodox Church is extremely large. However, there is also a movement to bring back the Tsars and others who are discontented with the progress being made under the move to democracy who wants to see the return to Communism. Isn’t the Church a hard disciplined ruler? Weren’t the Tsars hard selfish rulers with no thought for their subjects? And as for Communism?

Our next waterway was the Volga Baltic canal which begins by linking Lake Onega and the River Kovya and runs for 229 miles. This was so exciting as we were lifted by remarkable locks by as much as 370 feet and dropped again sailing through yet more splendid scenery then entered the
legendary White lake, known as the Tsars Fishing Ground as government boats sailed around taxing the fisherman but not those from the monasteries as Tsars knew better than to tax God!

This gets personal now so another sip of Lemon Vodka. My grandfather was born in Russia and I have the name of his village but no amount of web research could locate it. Rybinsk Reservoir was formed by Stalin damming the Volga in 1941. In order to do this Stalin failed to inform the 700 villages and their occupants of his plans and they were given days to collect their belongings and find alternative accommodation. Wouldn’t you possibly have wondered if this was where your Granddads village may have been? Drowned in true Stalinist style? Even worse for me was that Stalin used educated political Gulag prisoners as construction workers who died at the average of one hundred a day. Suddenly I felt like a spoilt Westerner and could feel the sadness and death all around me as I viewed this feat of engineering.

The complicated network of man-made canals and rivers link the River Volga to all five of Russia’s major seas and flows about eighty miles from Moscow itself so its linked by the Moscow Canal. Again, beautiful to sail along and experiencing another series of lifting by several locks but once more built during the 1930s by Stalinist methods using Gulag prisoners who dug the canal out shovel by shovel. But I mustn’t dwell on this. We had one more stop, until we arrived at Moscow’s Northern River Passenger dock, at the town of Uglich. This industrial town has a small Kremlin, or fortress, preparing us for Moscow, and another church complete with icons where we heard the ethereal singing of a Russian choir. Morty succumbed to a famous Chaika watch made in the factory in Uglich. These are mechanical watches and our guide book advised us to buy one from a market stall as this was more likely to have been made from stolen parts and more reliable than those mad
e in the factory itself. For six pounds it’s still ticking! Animal lovers don’t read this as I bought a divine sable hat and I can’t wait for our winter ice and snow and for people to sing Lara’s Theme to me. My sable hat, when worn with my Russian Baltic amber pendant, makes me feel like A Russian Princess.

The Moscow River Port is about a half an hours drive into the city centre and smarter than St Petersburg dock, so once we’d moored up and knowing we only had two days to see the city we chose the group City Tour. At least this tour took us around the main attractions and trust me, you wouldn’t want to drive yourself. There are six lanes in and out of the city and it is chaos. The other benefit of group tours is avoiding the queues as group tickets makes admission to museums and major sites hassle free. A serious warning about pick pockets as this applies in any major city. Once again, how could this visit give us a chance to contemplate the 2500 historical and architectural monuments, 70 museums, 125 cinemas, 50 theatres, 4500 libraries, universities as well as the obvious such as the Kremlin and Red Square? The Kremlin was a stunning array of palaces, minarets, domes, battlements and towers in every shape and colour. I preferred standing outside the Kremlin rather than enter the Cathedrals and churches as by this time we were both Iconned-out but were more than happy to visit the State Armoury Chamber which was full of the wealth of the Tsars in the form of chalices, Faberge eggs, jewellery and thrones dripping with diamonds-no wonder there was a revolution!

The cobbled Red Square was as impressive as we expected, so impressive that we paid a second visit by night to see it illuminated, though Morty wanted to visit Lenin’s Tomb but sadly it was closed, and we saw the multi-coloured onion domed St Basil’s Cathedral which symbolises Russia -better than the postcards! We did stroll round GUM, Russia’s largest shopping centre. GUM is
like a palace in itself with fountains, waterways, and glass roof, selling the most expensive International designer labels I’ve ever seen under one roof, in contrast to the empty shelves in Soviet times.

I wonder who are buying the luxurious million dollar apartments springing up throughout the city considering the average wage. I have never seen so many casinos in one street as I did driving through Moscow. Who are the people driving the Ferraris and the Lamborghinis? Are they UK football club owners?

Limited time meant we had to make a choice between using the famous Metro at night or the Bolshoi ballet. In fact, we have vowed to return to Moscow as well for a City Break, stay in the centre and take in more. After all, we didn’t even manage a visit to Gorky Park! The Metro, by night to avoid the commuters, was an eye opener. One token buys unlimited distance within the network. The trains travel at over 80mph and there is one arriving every 55 seconds. The doors remain open for exactly one minute for boarding and getting off with an automatic announcement saying they are closing-and then they do. I was scared stiff in case I didn’t get off in time! Of course it is the beauty of the stations that enthral. They are like palaces and museums with chandeliers, mosaics, original art, stained glass, statues and sculptures and they are all different as we discovered as we got on and off at different stations.

Our ten day visit was over and in contrast to the rickety old Aeroflot plane we arrived in our return flight to Heathrow was in a very modern Aeroflot airbus with halfway decent in-flight food and not a bald tyre in sight.

Did we enjoy Russia? Do we recommend you to visit? Yes, whatever way you choose, be it a City Break to St Petersburg or Moscow or a leisurely cruise with a city break at each end you won’t be disappointed -I promise.

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Sunday, 18 October 2009

All Fur Coat and No Knickers

I'm in a quandry when it comes to judging restaurant food these days. There was nothing wrong with the above first course of pigeon breast on a cauliflower puree. But it had no substance - All Fur Coat and No Knickers. As if some cooks these days think a big plate, a miniscule portion and an arty farty bit of garnish pass for great cooking.

There was nothing wrong with the above deep fried prawns, a fig chutney and dressed leaves. It tasted good but somehow uninspiring. Somehow not honest.

The above side order of Triple Cooked Chips were fantastic. I would have liked three times as many chips and a bowl of mayo as a main course and nothing else.

I know what it is. On almost every plate of food this cook places in front of the diner the various components of the dish Do Not Touch Each Other. Like they've had a row or have a contagious illness. They never meet, never blend, touch either on the plate or in the mouth. This is perfect food cooked without love.

And I would like to meet the chef who introduced the paintbrush to the kitchen. You know - when the chef puts a puree on a big plate and drags the paintbrush through it. I would like to meet the chef who ever first did this and then I would like to smack him.
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Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Riverside

We've been eating at The Riverside At West Bay since the 1970s when it looked like this.

It looks like this now. The food has changed, under the same ownership, as much as the building has. The first picture is my starter of fresh king scallops. Perfectly cooked and presented.

My main course was Catch of the Day served with a lovely soupy, garlicky sauce. I ate it all and then used my spoon and good bread to wipe my plate clean.

I couldn't decide on the desert so I had a medley as in the above photograph. Service was friendly and relaxed and the view overlooking Lyme Bay added to the eating experience.

At the end of the evening Arthur Watson, the owner, asked if we had enjoyed our evening. I was emboldened with good food and good wine and suggested to him that he would have been far better as a presenter of seafood on the television than Rick Stein and Arthur replied 'Maybe, but I am ten years older than he is'.

But you are better looking, have a far more interesting voice and wittier than he is. Shame the TV Celebrity Chef thing just missed you Arthur. I loved what Floyd said about Chefs. That we all misunderstand the language. If we cook in a kitchen we are a cook. If we run a Restaurant kitchen, then we are a Chef de Cuisine. Although I believe the popular phrase now is Executive Chef.

I was married to a Chef and we once holidayed in Brittany and ate every evening for a week in a small family restaurant with three generations running the kitchen and front of house. The food was historic and on our last evening I approached the Grandmother who kept a watchful eye on everything, and told her in my basic French that my husband was a Chef.

'Chef de que?' she asked.

'Chef de Cuisine' I replied.

Floyd was right wasn't he?
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