Nicholas Quirke was finishing his day organising some emergency practical home matters. It wasn’t how he anticipated spending time away, but he was grateful to the army of family and friends who helped him to solve this minor crisis and it did mean he got to speak with them. Despite the issues, he managed to have more leisurely day. He had planned to go inside the Kremlin but the queues were infuriatingly long and he decided to take a walk instead. Though it was a milder temperature, three degrees, it was a decidedly damper day, gloomy, drizzle and grey. Though the greyNess probable had more to do with the many large chimneys pumping out acrid smoke into the atmosphere and seemingly over the iconic stand out buildings than jut cloudy. it was hard to see what was smoke and what was cloud the pollution seemed so bad. Lessons need to be learned in Eastern Europe. This subsequently made his walk along the river less pleasant than it should have been. He discovered a series of eight outstanding churches all in a row running alongside a modern parkland which instructed Everyone, over tannoys, to not smoke, not drop litter, or drink and not to have ‘Sad Faces’! He lunched at the now familiar Flora not Fauna and then went back to the hotel to freshen up before his trip to the theatre. What an extraordinary experience, It was wonderful to be in a theatre steeped in such a rich history, a theatre where Chekov made his name, seeing a production of a Tolstoy play. It was fascinating to see that the theatre staged a different play every day and the plays had been running in repertory for years, the production he was seeing, Kriester’s Sonata, had its opening night on 2nd December 2008. The staging was wonderful, simple, effective, the set and costumes all in black and white, the actors present and sounding commanding and from their physicality he got some idea as to what was happening in the story but it was like being a detective looking for the clues and trying to workout what was happening. Hard work. He enjoyed a human drama in the audience before the play began where a couple seated on the front row were moved out of them by the usher to seat the people with tickets. It still left a seat on the aisle free and the lady from the couple stood and hovered. Suddenly the man just moved in and sat down and an argument began. He was compelled tom capture the moment on camera. Despite an announcement in Russian that even he understood to be, ‘Turn off your phones. Don’t take photographs, he was surrounded by people who not only texted during the performance but did indeed take photographs. He found himself policing the audience around him and rebuking them, much to their disgust. The curtain call was a joy to behold with the actors being presented with flowers by audience members. It was a treat and insight into Russian theatre going and for the reverence with which this theatre, which was packed, is held. Nicholas was moving on the next day and at the hotel began packing. The next stage of his journey would take him on a train for 5 days and it was likely that there would be no WiFi available and meant that he would not be able to publish his updates. It would be like going the dark side of the moon. he was well prepared with novels and work to do. Looking forward to a period off grid he went to sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was exhausted after 7 hours of sight seeing. With 3 days in Moscow he had thought he would take it easier and not maintain the frenetic pace that his journey had dictated to him thus far. However, his hunger to see and experience the world unfolding to him was too great a lure to resist and after a quick breakfast he took to the streets and gave his feet a punishing they would not forget. Nicholas had mastered the lack of WiFi on the streets by checking maps Before leaving and heading off in the direction he expected the location to be. He was really pleased with the location of his hotel as it was close to the sights he was eager to see and with Red Square top of the agenda for the day he began his day. His route was through the theatre district and he stopped to enjoy the sight of the Bolshoi which was an immense building and excited by his proximity to this legendary company he attempted to buy a ticket. The queues were long and he decided to attempt later. A ticket tout persisted in trying to sell to him but Nicholas was now so wary of being ripped off he was adamant in his refusals. There was a plethora of Christmas fairs and stalls and music and they all somewhat spoilt the views of the buildings. Once he reached Red Square and tried to imagine the troops and tanks being paraded and overseen by the Soviet Premiers and Politburo, the frivolity of the festive decorations and market made it difficult conjure up the images. Never the less, the walls of the kremlin, the incredibly eccentric architecture, Lenin’s impressive, austere Tomb and the strange beauty of St Basil’s Cathedral were awe inspiring. The interior of the cathedral was quite extraordinary. A warren of small rooms off beautifully decorated cloisters before opening up in the 2nd tier to a magnificent alter, littered with astonishingly beautiful Icons. He negotiated the perilous steps back to the square to enjoy the streets And park surrounding The kremlin. He had somehow spent 5 hours without pause drinking the glories that surrounded him and headed for a well earned, if frugal Late lunch. Nicholas had trained at the Drama Centre where the central discipline was Stanislavski’s method. therefore, he felt it imperative that he visit the Moscow Arts Theatre museum, where he was greeted by a security guard delighted to show off his English pronunciation. The exhibition was a vast collection of photographs, costumes, hauntingly beautiful set designs and memorabilia from the productions. It was amazing to see and learn that some of the productions were 5 or 6 years in rehearsal. The experience had an added lustre as a small group of children were rehearsing a play amongst the historical treasures. it was an oddly moving experience and Nicholas was surprised to discover he had spent over two hours studying the exhibits. By the time he left it was dark and his feet hurt. He was too tired to conjure up the energy to get tickets and go to the ballet so he got something to eat and went back to the hotel. In Brighton, it was customary on a Sunday for him to watch a movie with His son Cole, not one to break a tradition easily, he logged into Mubi and treated himself to the stylish hokum Charade. It was a relaxing end to a glorious day.
Nicholas Quirke was disappointed. He was arriving in Moscow and had been promised 3 foot of snow and sub zero temperatures. In preparing for the visit he had bought thermals and masks and boots and socks and gloves. He was ready to face ’The Beast’ itself in the East. On the train from Kyiv he had prepared his outfit. New thermals, thermal socks, gloves, his snow boots and a neck scarf. His face mask and ears muffs were at hand should he not be able to withstand the lacerating cold. He arrived to bright sunshine, the mildest of temperatures -1 and no snow. Not a hint of snow! He was reminded of going to New York in the winter and being told ‘Don’t go North’! It will be terrible and you will get stuck in the snow’. It was sunshine all the way. It somehow dimmed his excitement at being in one of the cities, in one of the lands, that had held a mystique for him from a very young age. It was the city of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pasternak, Bulgakov. Chekov’s Three Sisters yearned to come here and Stanislavsky trained his actors here and here he was, finally, behind the iron curtain. Which, of course had been opened some time ago but had definitely been the lure for him as a youth. He once again observed that here was a city that had not let go of Christmas. Nicholas later discovered that the Russian Orthodox Church and the state follow the Gregorian Calendar and Christmas is celebrated on January 7th him though why 11 days later it was still like the build up to Christmas was beyond him. Determined not be robbed by a taxi driver again he attempted to use Uber or their equivalent, Yandex which didn’t arrive and instead, wise to their wily ways, negotiated with a taxi driver a fair price which he knew to be around 300 RUB but paid 500, approximately £6. He had thought he was in some nice Bijou hotel La Maison Residence but the Taxi driver dropped him in a back alley with nothing but fire escapes. It felt wrong, and he tried one of the doors the Taxi Driver had pointed to. A helpful Local directed him to the Main Street and got him to his smart residence. He had really landed in the smart area, not the area of bread queues and poverty he had been led to believe the communists kept their citizens in as here was Gucci, and Vuitton, Tiffany and Dior all vying for customers in this festive wonderland. Rested and refreshed from his non stop travels Nicholas set off to accomplish two missions one was a pilgrimage to find the Moscow Arts Theatre, where Stanislavski’s legendary Production of Chekov’s ‘The Seagull’ was staged, a key moment in world theatre. The second was to locate a Vegan Restaurant which again seemed not to be a problem. The world it seemed were all waking up to the Vegan life. As he had in Kiev, without maps to follow, he decided to have a walkabout and see what the streets of Moscow were like. The buildings, like the main boulevards, were immense and as he stood and watched the traffic he was awed by the scale and magnitude of what he saw; it was epic. He took some risks and took a few turnings and eventually found the theatre. He had tried to book tickets online in the UK but it had not been possible and sadly, despite his excitement at being in such a hallowed theatre, it was still not possible. They told him they were sold out. He felt disheartened but also realised that the feelings related to his mounting hunger. So he tried to remember what the Happy Cow map had said and he turned left, right, left and kept straight on till he found Flora no Fauna. Delicious food. He encountered a pop star having a photo shoot and he joined the throng photo shoot for a couple of snaps. Back in his hotel room and preparing for a nights sleep, he discovered the sad Demise of Mr Derek. He’d also took a look at the Moscow Arts Theatre and found some seats for the 20th. With the aid of the hotel concierge he managed to get himself a seat. “But it will be Russian, how will you understand?” The concierge asked. “It’s all about the experience”, he said.
Nicholas Quirke was finding himself seduced by Kyiv. What had started as visit fraught with annoyance and anxiety had turned into a surprise treasure chest of positive feeling. In fact as the day progressed he found himself almost thankful to the taxi driver who had completely fleeced and mad a fool of him. And in every way that driver had made him a complete and utter chump. Not only had he forced £44 out of him (Nicholas might as well have stayed in luxury in a proper hotel rather than in some hovel in a ghetto) but he discovered the hostel was actually a 10 minute walk away, and the Beautiful St Sophia Cathedral, his nemesis had pointed out to him on the roundabout drive, turned out to be St Vladimir’s Cathedral. That man was laughing at Nicholas in every single way. But the angels of travel must have had an eye out for him after all, as St Sophia was on his itinerary of things to look at and he set off to the cathedral, a beautiful, bold Yellow concoction. On discovering it was actually St Vlod’s he needed to find his true destination. However, with no WiFi and refusing to pay the obscene overseas roaming charges that EE wanted he had no idea what direction, if any Sophia lay in. He decided to follow a path and see where it led and he must have possessed a sixth sense, for on reaching a junction And turning left he followed a road that led him directly to the cathedral. He could have taken any turning down any Boulevard and he would not have reached his goal. He gave thanks to whoever guided his steps that day. Nicholas found himself entranced by the captivating colours and hues of the buildings in Kiev. They were sumptuous buildings Of many different colours and every footstep revealed a new treat and led him unknowingly to his goal. The Cathedral was inspiring. Parts of it and the frescos dating from 10th century After a deep study of the church and its artefacts he then made his way to St Michael’s, another magnificent example of the baroque architecture with five gold domes. Feeling hungry, he stopped at every road side cafe and then discovered a vegan cafe in a beauty salon, Yaro. He enjoyed the delights and started to walk back to the hostel to collect his bags and go to the train station for his night train to Moscow, a few 13 hours away. He walked to the station as once again, WiFi less he could not get himself an Uber. It was a short but educational walk. Two Stroud out that he thought Kyiv needed to sort out, the first Which had its charm but appeared to be wrong was that the Ukrainians, the Kievanites, had not let go of Christmas. Decorations adorned the cafes and buildings and Christmas songs were still belting out in the streets and restaurants. And the other, a more urgent and worrying issue was, Polution! A haze sits over the city, as large industrial chimneys pump fetid smoke into the sky. It seems a great injustice to its citizens and the beauty of its architecture that the sky, the air, should be so damaged in this way. Greta needs to get here.. Nicholas collected his ticket, found his platform and waited to board the train. No solo carriage for him this time. He was sharing with a Russian couple Anatoly and Irina And they were joined for a short while by Elena but she left. They managed using translator but once the WiFi went they had to sit and show each other pictures and videos. Nicholas was a little concerned that he was on the top bunk. It was not an easy climb up. By 11 pm they were in bed and by 12 asleep and woken for the migration routine, and then an hour later for the entry regime. The guard studied Nicholas’s passport long and hard but eventually could see nothing wrong and they were left in peace.
Nicholas Quirke was shocked into the realisation that he hadn’t thought about crossing borders and what might happen and was therefore astonished, in fact he thought he was dreaming, when he was woken at 00.55 to find a young man in uniform in his compartment asking for his passport. It turned out the train was leaving Hungry. Once the train started its journey again at a slow and creaking pace it crossed a iron bridge, which in the dark, as the girders loomed large and close to the window, was terrifying. He could see the icy water below and the snow and frost clinging to the banks and trees making the whole experience surreal and disturbing. It was not long before they entered Ukraine and Passport control and customs inspected him and his luggage. Of course everything was in order though the small voice of his brother in law asking if he had a Visa for the Ukraine did have him wondering if he had missed something and might be marched off the train. Good job he was sleeping in his thermals. Everything was in order, though he was alarmed to find the train had stopped and repairs to the wheel below him seemed to be taking place. It was impossible to sleep so he went back to reading. He felt so awake he did not think he would sleep. That, of course was the last thought he had as the next moment it was 6.30am and he woke to a more bleaker vista. Who knew the`Ukraine was so vast. They were already 5 hours into the country and there were still 11 hours to go. He quickly rose and started recording the view and was relieved that he would be finally able to see if he could charge his phone and iPad and try to connect to WIFI. The carriage however was locked and he was captive in the sleeper. The guard too was fast asleep so he would have to be patient. Nicholas was alarmed. once the door was unlocked as it only opened onto a third class, third world sleeper Carriage and to cross into it he had navigated An old style carriage connection where you could see the track running below. There seemed nowhere he could charge his technology. He was going to have to wait till he got to Kiev. A whole day without would be good training for his Trans Siberian Express experience. It was already like sensory deprivation. They stopped for an hour in a city. But when he suggested he leave to get food they said no and laughed. He had a bowel of his noodles. Were the others on the train in the same situatioin? The carriage was then shunted back and forth before finally being attached to a new train. His hopes were up. He could charge the tech even if WiFi was beyond. Nicholas found the towns and villages they past through extraordinary, completely from another time though the industry and its debris remain the same the world over. Pollution is real. Without WiFi he was able to enjoy the views, read and the as the heat on the train was soporific he slept quite a bit too. ~By now he had struck up quite a comradeship with the train guards, it seemed he was the only passenger making the long journey from Wien, the others had disembarked, to be replaced by other more Slavic and noisy ones. By 3pm it was starting to get dark and when he eventually arrived in Kyiv it was night. ~His first impression was lots of Neon. For the first time he felt himself to be in a truly alien place. Despair having an electronic translator he was unable to use it as it needed WiFi!. Nicholas cashed in his Euros for Hryvni and went to get a taxi. to take him to his hostel, which boasted a double room with a balcony. The driver charged him the equivalent of 40 pounds for a 10 minute journey. Demanding that it was on the metre twice what his room in the soviet style apartment block was costing him but he didn’t have the fight in him to argue it. His accommodation demanded he pay in cash and as he had barely any left he had to goi and search for a cash machine. This was frustrating and taking time, his confidence in his journey taking a blow, he had an argument in a bank, almost lost his card in a machine before eventually finding somewhere to change his 500 Czech Koruna. He bought something to eat And enjoyed a conversation with a Ukrainian English teacher who told him his accent was beautiful. Amazing how a small bit of flattery can cheer up the most disgruntled, agitated soul. He went back to his hostel, which really was like something from Krystof Kieslowski’s ‘Decalogue‘, ‘A short film about Killing’ , ate his food, connected himself to the WiFi and posted his adventures. He prepared himself to enjoy a day in Kiev before he took another train bound east the next evening.
Nicholas Quirke was calm but also enjoying a little frisson of excitement at the day of travel ahead of him when he woke from another refreshing nights sleep. His short sojourn in Prague had felt special. It was a mesmerising city that he would like to return to. He would also return to the quirky, comfortable accommodation he had chosen to stay in; Charmed that it was on the river and charmed that they called it a Botel. Despite only having two trains to navigate he did have a low level of anxiety around the journey. He had ordered a taxi for 9.45 and would get to the station with 50 minutes to spare before his train to Wien departed. He had intended to get a light lunch for the 4 hour journey but was unable to find anything appetising or Vegan on the concourse at Praha and instead grabbed a banana and some water but when they wouldn’t sell him the banana till he had weighed it, his low level stress kicked in and he refused to buy anything. The familiarity of cutting his nose off to spite his face in these situations did not escape him but he had to accept that this momentary lapse of decorum meant he would endure 4 hours without sustenance. In Southern Rail style every other train but his announced the platform it was departing from and his anxiety increased as departure drew nigh. Needless worry he had time and plenty of space on the train to enjoy the brilliant sunshine that saw Praha pass into a memory. It was good to see the fairy tale homes of Bohemia pass by, but every time he tried to capture the charm it had swiftly turned Into barren or dystopian industrial landscapes he loved to record. The weather too had turned and a grey pallor descended on the view as the hurtled through the Republic to Austria and eventually turning to mist by the time they reached Vienna. Nicholas had a 2 hour stop over which was a good opportunity for him to finally eat something other than a bag of ready salted Crisps from Mobile trolley on the train. The train he was to board, the sleeper from Wien to Kiev had been one of the more problematic journeys and the last ticket he had been able to purchase as they were not sale till 30 days before travel date, neither could he have an E-ticket but instead was sent a code which he would have to use to get a physical ticket on the platform. He was terrified that he would mess this up somehow and it was the first thing he did when he got off. Once he had located and printed his travel document he felt liberated and could eat he settled on a Vietnamese Cashew nut and tofu wok dish and as he sat down to eat was joined by a charming Slovak, Michael, who was returning from New Zealand where he was working as a tour guide. They exchanged stories of travelling till Michael needed to get his train but not before Nicholas coerced him into a selfie and foisted his blog address onto him. He did not have long to wait before his own train arrived and it was with delight and excitement that he boarded the Soviet style sleeper carriage at the back of the train. There was nothing that disappointed other than there was no WiFi in the carriage which could mean communication break down. The compartment, which It transpired he had all to himself, was cozy, exotically carpeted and exactly what he imagined. It held an air of unreality as it was from a completely different era to the train it was pulled by. He felt like he was in a film, though he wasn’t sure which: ‘Closely Observed Trains’ sprang to mind. Night was falling as they departed he was not going to see much of the vista which started to speed by. It was getting colder and frosts were now visible and as they left Austria and entered the flat lands of Hungry snow had started clinging to the trees. He attempted to capture the eerie night view, crossing the wide Danube and the stations and platforms of towns he had never heard of, but his technology fell short of achieving the veracity he was after. It felt desperately romantic even when they stopped at Budapest, a city he had been to before, a thrill touched him. Travelling by train was time consuming but it really felt like you were seeing the world. The same feeling of his mind expanding that he had as he drove across America flooded through him and its lure was so potent he never wanted it to go away. Without internet he decided he would finally re-read a Maigret Novel, ‘A Battle off Nerves’ he had bought with him. And stretching himself out on his bed he settled down for the night. He did not close the blind as he wanted to see the world hurtling by if he woke.
Nicholas Quirke was feeling like he was the last person on earth to visit this fabled city. In the past few weeks several friends had trod this path, though none, he noted had entered the city via the congruent train lines of Europe and he felt smug about his carbon footprint on that score. Therefore, he imagined there was nothing new he could present and even his idiosyncratic eye would disappoint. On waking, from a deep and fitful sleep and only the slightest ache from his ever attention seeking sciatica, he realised he had not finalised plans for the day in Prague but with such a short visit a ‘Hop On, Hop Off’ sightseeing Overview of the city would satisfy his purposes. After he breakfasted in the ‘Poop’ restaurant and had bought his bus ticket he headed into the city. Nicholas withdrew some krona from a bank and found the experience strangely frustrating and feeling the need to collect himself he used the ‘HappyCow’ App to locate a Vegan cafe. He suffered his usual mishap with ‘Maps’ which had him circling himself. It seemed the cafe did not exist and he settled for a stylish looking patisserie and worked on the route he wanted to take. He had to collect his actual ticket from the waxwork museum, a fact that amused him especially as only yardS from this attraction he discovered Madame Tussaud’s, The Czechs, it appeared had a taste for effigys and museums in general and he spotted one for the Senses and another for sex machines. The next 5 hours wets happily spent getting on and off buses, learning about the sights and history of yet another European city whose 20th Century was fraught with the occupations of tyrannous regimes from the Nazis and Heydrich, architect of the final solution, to the communists from 1948 to 1989. He visited the beautiful harrowing and haunting Memorial to the victims of Communism, drank in the baroque, bohemian architecture , the spires and towers, and swallowed the vista of churches and bridges. Bridges over the water, over the city , a bridge from which more than 300 hurtled to their death till a special fence was built to stop them. He was reminded of defenestration, and saw a Modernist television tower with babies crawling up it and a spot where two freedom fighters met their end. He also spotted the king of grogs blossom. It was a day of stories and drama and He watched it all till he created his own drama by leaving the bus and getting lost. But then he would never have had the happy accident of finding a ghost sign and the chicest piece of graffiti ever. What an exquisite city. An inner radar though got him back to familiar territory and after buying supper he went back to the hotel. He had made prolific use of his GoPro but sadly the media was not downloading and to release the tension It created in him he took a break from the nautical life and had an evening stroll along the river bank again to Think and plan for tomorrow; another day of trains across Europe. Specifically as for Nicholas it would be the first time he had experienced a sleeper train. Thus, with sleep on his mind, he packed and retired for the night