FolkestoneJack's Tracks

A winter election

Posted in Croydon, England by folkestonejack on December 12, 2019

This has been a strange election, one of more importance than usual, but also one where all the normal conventions seem to have been tossed in the air. If I am honest, none of the choices thrill me. However, far worse in my mind is the casual discarding of truth and respect. This election will set the course of the country far into the distance, so a solid foundation of facts has never been more necessary. Instead, we have a terrifying mixture of lies, half truths and disinformation. It’s scary to think where that will lead.

Croydon Central

In some ways I am in the lucky position of having a vote that can make a difference. My constituency, Croydon Central, has form as a seat that has swung between the Conservatives and Labour with some very small majorities (75 for the Conservatives in 2005, 165 for the Conservatives in 2015 and 164 for the Conservatives in October 1974). It’s a constituency nestled between a safe Labour seat (Croydon North) and a Conservative stronghold (Croydon South).

The polls initially suggested that the vote in the constituency would be tight again. This probably explains the deluge of election pamphlets that have come through our letterbox, been delivered by door-to-door canvassers or handed out in the street. So far we have received ten from Labour, two from the Conservatives, one from the Brexit Party and one from the Liberal Democrats. I also received one Green Party flyer, but for the wrong constituency. The dedication of the volunteers has to be admired – one of the Labour party leaflets was pushed through our letterbox between 1am and 6am on the day of the election.

I placed my vote in the darkness of the early morning, at my local polling station in a Scout Hut, then headed in to work as the sun rose. I wonder what the view will look like in 24 hours time.

Hughenden Manor

Posted in England, High Wycombe by folkestonejack on November 30, 2019

An outing to Hughenden Manor, just outside High Wycombe, provided the perfect opportunity to get some fresh air after a week sat behind a desk. Having said that, I thought I had made a mistake as I set off by train. Thick fog bathed the countryside and underneath lay an icy white frost. Not exactly ideal conditions for a trip to a country estate! As the fog burned off to reveal beautifully clear blue skies I knew that I had made the right call.

Hughenden Manor

Hughenden Manor was the home of Benjamin Disraeli, a two time Prime Minister (for six months in 1868, then from 1874 to 1880) and founder of one-nation conservatism.

It’s a slightly odd beast, having been purchased as a plain white struccoed manor house in 1848 and then stripped back to the brickwork and transformed with one architect’s interpretation of the fashionable Gothic features of the day. Pevsner described these ‘would-be-Jacobean embellishments’ in cut and moulded brick as ‘excruciating’, saying that it gave the place the look of a Victorian institution rather than a country house.

It’s not hard to spot the ‘sharp, angular and aggressive’ details that so offended Pevsner but Disraeli clearly loved the place. Our guide told us that he rejected the remote Chequers (for sale at the same time) in favour of this place.

The manor house has changed hands relatively little over the years before passing to the Disraeli Society in 1937 and then to the National Trust in 1947. The existence of comprehensive interior photographs, taken not long after Disraeli’s death, enabled the National Trust to restore the interior to something that would have seemed reasonably familiar to Disraeli, allowing for those rooms that have been switched around.

Christmas decorations in the library

The story of Disraeli’s career and his life in the house was really brought to life as we took a tour through the rooms, with our guide pointing out the most interesting features and curiosities (such as the surprisingly large number of royal portraits lining the walls of his bedroom). Unsurprisingly, it was the library that captured my attention the most.

The library at Hughenden holds a collection of 4,000 books with the earliest dating to the 1470s. The collection comprises volumes from three generations, including some of the 25,000 work’s collected by Disraeli’s father. The library was originally located in one of the rooms facing the gardens, but was switched around with a drawing room by Disraeli’s nephew Coningsby as the sun was started to affect the leather bindings of the books on the shelves.

In 2015 the library suffered from an overnight leak which resulted in the collapse of plasterwork from the ceiling, plus water damage to the furniture and those books on open display (such as an ornately bound copy of Goethe’s Faust, a Christmas present from Queen Victoria in 1876, only recently returned from conservation freeze-drying). It was lovely to see the library looking so good in the circumstances.

The Ice House

It was long known that Hughenden Manor had been used during wartime, but the exact nature of the work carried out had proven somewhat elusive until a visitor in 2004 was overheard telling his grandson where he used to work in the building. Once the small matter of the Official Secrets Act was addressed the wartime story of ‘Hillside’ (as it was codenamed) was revealed.

In 1941 the estate was requisitioned by the Air Ministry and became home to a top secret mapping unit, responsible for producing accurate maps that could be read in the low light of a bomber cockpit. A new exhibition, opened in July 2019, explores the process of mapmaking at the manor house and a separate display in the external ice house shows how the space was adapted as a photographic studio. It’s a fascinating story and an important one – the maps produced here were used in critical missions such as the Dam Busters raid and the bombing of the rocket factory at Peenemunde.

Overall, my visit to the manor house and the nearby church of St Michael took around three hours. I came away understanding quite a bit more about one of those figures in history that I have heard mentioned so many times, but had very little sense of. It was fascinating to learn about his relationship with Queen Victoria and to hear the tale of her sad pilgrimage to his house and grave a few weeks after his death.

A trip in the winter months means that you are never going to see the gardens at their most colourful and the statues might have been wrapped up for the winter, but the compensation is to see the house decorated for Christmas. The theme for this year was a 1940s Christmas which would see rooms decorated with paper chains, a tree made from a patchwork of rag rugs and shimmering lametta. All rather lovely, it has to be said.


I took a Chiltern train to High Wycombe and then made the 15 minute walk to the bus station to pick up a bus (300) for the 5 minute ride up to the bus stop on the A4128, opposite the end of the driveway up to Hughenden Manor. It’s still an uphill slog from here, so if you are not at your fittest the National Trust’s suggestion of a taxi is not a bad idea. Half-way up the drive you can stop off at the 13th/14th century church of St Michael and see the Disraeli family vault.

St Michael’s church, Hughenden

There is a bus stop on this route a bit closer to the centre of High Wycombe but the bus driver bombed past this without any hope of spotting anyone waiting (probably untypical, but perhaps safer to board at the bus station where the route starts) and then bombed past my stop too (thankfully the walk back from the next stop wasn’t too painful). The ticket cost £3.30 return, paid on the bus, though you can also buy slightly more expensive day tickets from the counter in the bus station.

The cost of an adult admission to Hughenden Manor came in at £11.80 (£13.00 with Gift Aid) at the time of my visit with a welcome voucher for a free tea or coffee for taking public transport. The grounds of Hughenden Manor open at 10 o’clock, followed by the house an hour later.

I took the opportunity to join a guided tour of the house (at 10.40) just before it opened for the day, which really helped bring the place to life. There are few explanations of what you are looking at inside the house so the guides really help you make sense of what you are seeing and how this fits into Disraeli’s life (even down to details such as the worn piece of carpet where Disraeli liked to pace in front of the fireplace).


Gormley retrospective

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on November 27, 2019

The Royal Academy’s Gormley retrospective is in its last few days, closing on 3rd December, but we somehow managed to squeeze in a half hour long wander round the 13 rooms. The exhibition provides an interesting selection of artworks from Gormley’s small scale experiments from the 1970s/80s through to the room-filling architectural constructions of recent times.

It is hard to think of a sculptor who has made as much of an impact on the public consciousness as Antony Gormley, from the unforgettable sight of his figures staring impassively out to sea at Crosby to the iconic figure of the Angel of the North. I’ve made trips to see both of these and they have been every bit as impressive up in situ as they have seemed in the many photographs that I have seen in the press over the years.

Familiar figures

The familiar cast-iron figures on display at the Royal Academy are presented in a much more intimate setting than I have seen before, attached to the floor, ceiling and walls. It’s hard to know where to look and easy to become disoriented as you look up. At one point I found myself apologising to the person behind me for stepping in front of them before realising that I was talking to one of the cast-iron figures. In other rooms you can see Gormley’s abstracted steel slab figures and a single figure made from a metal lattice.

I am a little claustrophobic so it takes quite something to tempt me into a confined space, but I was intrigued by the vast room-filling steel structure called ‘Cave’. AS you approach the doorway to the room all you can see is the angular metal structure filling the door frame. The choice is yours – walk around the outside or step inside. I couldn’t resist and headed in.

At the entrance it looks as though you can see light ahead but once inside the darkness takes over and you have to feel your way through until you reach an open space at the centre. Eyes gradually adjust to the subtleties of light on the metal, much like his Room at the Beaumont Hotel. The effect was soon spoilt by an idiot (me) who found his phone lighting up like a Christmas tree. I’ve always been very conscious not to be that person whose phone rings in the theatre, so was mortified to be that person in an art gallery…


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Cats in charge

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on November 27, 2019

A mid-week outing to Piccadilly provided an opportunity to see some of the many Christmas lights strung up across the west end, take a wander through the Gormley retrospective at the Royal Academy and admire the annual Christmas display in the windows of Fortnum and Mason.

Cats in control

This year’s display in the windows of Fortnum and Mason reveals a series of animated scenes from a Christmas factory operated by cats. Each window shows a different part of the operation, with my favourite being the salmon smoking operation (complete with a cat with a pipe sitting under the grill). As if that wasn’t enough, the whole frontage of the shop has been turned into an illuminated advent calendar. It’s quite a spectacle and already a popular photo-op judging by the crowd on the opposite side of the road. It’s worth a look if you are in the area.


Powerful words

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on November 15, 2019

Every now and again you see a play so powerful that it transports you away from everything you know and makes you reflect on your understanding of the world. Tonight, was one of those rare occasions and quite unexpected.

The play in question was #WeAreArrested, a joint production of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Arcola Theatre. This is a powerful retelling of the true story of Can Dündar, a journalist whose decision to publish the truth about illegal actions by the Turkish state saw him imprisoned and separated from his family. The play deliberately downplays the specifics of the location to focus on the possibility that this could be happening anywhere.

The eloquent script was beautifully delivered by a cast of three with a bit of magic, a dash of humour, a bit of Adele and even a prison cell recipe for cheese toasties! It’s quite the most marvelous and inventive piece of theatre that manages to conjure up and tear down a prison with words. Quite appropriate, as we were watching the show on the International Day of the Imprisoned Writer.

An after show discussion with the writer, cast and creative team provided many fascinating insights, but also brought home the continuing deterioration in freedom worldwide. Hundreds of writers have been imprisoned for their work. Not in some distant unimaginable land, but in Europe. A recurring theme throughout the discussion was the simple understanding that you can’t take anything for granted in today’s world. It’s a sobering thought.

#WeAreArrested runs at the Arcola Theatre from 13th November to 7th December 2019

Chihuly at Kew

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on October 19, 2019

The main reason for my visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew this weekend was to see the glass artworks of Dale Chihuly before the current exhibition closes on 27th October 2019 after a six month long run. I was far from alone in making the most of the beautiful weather to take a look, with plenty of eager folk ready and waiting at the gates for opening time.

Summer sun in front of the Palm House

The current exhibition, Chihuly – Reflections on nature, features 32 artworks in 13 locations. The outdoor exhibits are concentrated in the section of gardens from the Palm House to the Japanese Gateway, making it relatively easy to make a stroll between the exhibits armed with the handy map provided. The Sapphire Star looks particularly stunning with the autumnal red backdrop provided by nature (even though the sun had hidden itself at this point of my visit).

The scale and intricacy of the sculptures is extraordinary, especially those on view in and around the Temperate House. Most of the pieces on display have never been seen in the UK before and the centre piece, a stunning new arrangement of tumbling blue glass, specially designed for the Temperate House, just looks amazing from every angle you see it (you can look up from ground level or look across from the balcony around the glasshouse).

An indoor display of smaller, but equally exquisite and playful pieces can be found in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.

A stunning display in the Temperate House

Chihuly’s daring glass installations are as wonderful as ever, looking perfectly at home amid the natural forms of the plant kingdom. I don’t think any of the photos in any way do justice to the astonishingly sinuous shapes or their vibrant colour, but it might give some idea of how special these artworks are.


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Autumnal adventures at Kew

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on October 19, 2019

A beautifully clear and sunny start to the weekend made a welcome change from the rain of the past fortnight. It was enough to tempt me out for a long overdue return to Kew Gardens. I have been meaning to return ever since the Hive was installed in 2016 and since the Great Pagoda was re-opened after restoration in 2018. Somehow, I have not managed to find the time until now. Better late than never, as I seem to say rather too frequently…

A view of Kew from the top floor of the Great Pagoda

The Hive is a remarkable construction, made from 169,300 pieces of aluminium, which was originally designed as the British Pavilion for World Expo 2015 in Milan. It was re-installed at Kew in 2016 and has since become a firm favourite of visitors. The structure was designed to give visitors a multi-sensory experience that captures the essence of the life of a working bee.

One of my colleagues visited in 2016 and gave a terrific account of the experience. It has been in place for a few years on, so doesn’t get quite as much attention as when it was brand new. In some ways that’s good, as it is quite something to stand there on your own and absorb the gentle and quite astonishingly beautiful soundtrack of a 40,000-strong honeybee colony. A lovely way to start my visit before continuing on towards the always impressive Palm House and on to the southern section of the park.

The Hive

The Great Pagoda was built in 1762 as part of the landscaping for Princess Augusta, the founder of the botanic gardens. On its opening the rooves of the 10 storey pagoda were decorated with 80 hand-painted carved Dragons but these only lasted 22 years. It was a delight to read that the restoration work on the Great Pagoda would see the return of dragons after a 234 year interval. The result is every bit as spectacular as you can imagine from the description.

I hadn’t intended to take a look inside, but on a whim decided to buy a ticket at the Pagoda and after climbing the 253 steps was rewarded by a stunning view across to the Temperate House while it was still bathed in sunshine. From this height the shadow of the pagoda across the gardens is pretty impressive too and surprisingly photogenic in its own right. The pagoda is only a few weeks away from its winter closure, so I was glad to have got my timings right on this occasion.

One of the drgaons perched on the Great Pagoda

Quite apart from these permanent attractions at Kew Gardens, my visit was timed for the end of the exhibition of works by Dale Chihuly, of which more in the next post. Overall, it was a splendid day out and, as ever, I underestimated the time you can spend in the gardens. There are still many sections of park that I have not reached. After a series of visits to Kew in the autumn, I must remember to make my next visit in the Spring and get a very different burst of colour.


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Cats of Varna

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

Take a wander through the streets of Varna and you are highly likely to find yourself in the company of a feline friend or two. The street cat population in Varna had been steadily increasing in the opening years of the 21st century. I haven’t see any recent figures, but a census in 2016 recorded 2000 stray cats and 630 stray dogs in the municipality. Through my tourist eyes it was rather lovely to see the cats everywhere, but I can appreciate that the local perspective might be a little different.

One of Varna’s delightful cats

On our visit, it was rare to turn a corner and not find five cats waiting on the other side. It was a delight to see cats chasing birds through the Roman ruins, appropriating museum exhibits as perches (such as a boat and gantry in the Naval museum) or the rather charming sight of a cat waiting patiently alongside an angler for the occasional fishy treat from the end of a fishing rod.

Thankfully, we didn’t see the famous green cat of a few years back, apparently the result of a cat sleeping on tins of powdered paint and steadily absorbing more and more of the colouring. It’s never good to see a painted cat, no matter what the circumstances.


Socialist Varna: The Pantheon

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

Another striking sight from the Socialist era is the Pantheon in the Sea Garden, officially titled the Monument of the Fallen Fighters against Fascism and Capitalism from the City of Varna and Varna District in the period 1923-1944 (Паметник на загиналите борци против фашизма и капитализма от град Варна и Варненски окръг в периода 1923-1944 г.).

The Pantheon

The Pantheon was initially constructed as an ossuary to hold the remains of the fighters who fell between 1923 and 1944. Their remains had originally been buried on Turna Tepe hill, where the massive park monument now stands, but re-located to the new location on the completion of the structure in September 1958. However, there was general agreement that the new structure was insufficiently impressive. As a result, new designs were drawn up for a sculpture of two fighters to sit atop the structure – one carrying on the fight alongside his wounded comrade. The revised monument was inaugurated on 6th November 1959.

Underneath this eye catching composition a series of seven scenes depicting the fighters in their struggle against fascism are presented on stone reliefs around the monument. It’s a little hard to make out some of the scenes, but these seemed to range from the sabotage of railway lines to an enthusiastic welcome home (or is that a stoic farewell?) for a soldier. I’m sure there must be a more accurate description of what the scenes actually show but I certainly couldn’t find one.

Today, the eternal flame no longer burns and the honour guard has long since gone. The Pantheon no longer holds the remains of the fighters, which were returned to their families for burial in 1995. Nevertheless, after some years of crumbling the authorities have recognised the importance of the monument, allocating money for repairs and illumination.

For many, the idea of spending money on the Pantheon and the other communist era monuments is appalling, arguing that they should be turned to dust. Others take the view that such a dark history needs to be remembered through these monuments, with a bit of explanation, lest history be allowed to repeat.

Socialist Varna: Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

The Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship in Varna is an astonishing structure, constructed by 27,000 workers using 10,000 tonnes of concrete and 1,000 tonnes of re-inforced steel between 1974 and 1978. It was a design that was 20 years in the making, from the first design competition to the opening ceremony.

It is hard to imagine how impressive (or oppressive) this monument must once have seemed when it first appeared on the horizon. The authorities picked their spot well, building the monument on the Turna Tepe Hill where the Russian army positioned its headquarters during the 1828-29 Russo-Turkish wars. It is visible from a long way out and can clearly be seen even as far away as the lighthouse guarding the entrance to Varna’s port.

Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship

On our visit we walked from the centre of town, through the Sea Garden. At one time you could have crossed the busy roads that surround the monument using a pedestrian underpass but this has long been shuttered off and the steps down quite overgrown. Once we made our way over we began our climb of the 300+ step ‘ladder of victory’ to take a closer look. In theory the sun should illuminate the monument best in late morning, lining up perfectly along the staircase, but we were a bit unlucky with the clouds.

The concrete steps are steadily deteriorating, missing chunks here and there, but still perfectly climbable. Along the way we could see some of the 180 floodlights that used to illuminate the monument, quietly rusting in the undergrowth. In similar fashion, the loudspeakers that used to blast out Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad) look they have been long silent. The eternal flame, once fed by four gas cylinders below, has been extinguished and the bronze looted.

The rusting loudspeakers

The sculptors Evgeni Baramov and Alyosha Kafedzhiyski worked with the architect Kamen Goranov to create the monument. On one side you have four Soviet soldiers bearing arms and on the opposite wing you have three Bulgarian mothers greeting them with bread and salt. It is a striking, if somewhat brutal, composition.

Today, the once immaculate lettering between these two sculptural compositions is falling apart and quite indecipherable from what is left. One of the soldiers has been daubed with red paint in recent times and graffiti surrounds the lower part of the monument.

At one time you could enter the monument and climb the internal stairs to the top to inspect the figures at close quarters and get an even more impressive view across Varna. However, the staircase (located through an opening inside the arch, on the left hand side) is now protected by a locked gate and every other opening is barred by metal grills.

A couple of surveillance cameras paid for by the Varna Regional Administration now keep an eye from the top of the monument. Although this was a disappointment, it is an encouraging sign that there is now more interest in the future of the monument and perhaps this could lead to action on the proposals to adapt the monument into a cultural space.

A view of the monument from the port

We were far from alone on our visit. I reckon around a dozen visitors were making their way up and down the steps, mostly fitness fanatics and joggers. The only exception were a couple of old ladies who slowly made their way up the steps and settled down at the top underneath the watchful gaze of the four concrete Soviet soldiers. At the end of our visit we headed back to the main road and took a 409 bus (runs every 15 minutes) back to the centre of town.

I read a few sources before my visit, but one of the most interesting was the account from The Bohemian blog detailing a couple of visits to the interior in 2012 and the associated entry on the terrific Monumentalism website.


Eight highlights from Varna

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

On our long weekend in Varna we made it to a selection of the tourist attractions in the city, but by no means all. These are my personal highlights…

The Archaeological Museum

The importance of Varna (or Odessos as it was known) in the ancient world is really apparent as you explore the rich collection of the archaeological museum.

The exhibits in the collection of Thracian gold are astonishingly intricate, including a couple of beautiful gold appliqué horned bulls. At well over 6000 years old these are the oldest known gold treasures in the world. It’s no wonder to learn that the ‘Varna Gold’ has toured the museums of the world in the 47 years since it was discovered at an archaeological dig at the Varna Chalcolithic necropolis. Alongside this, there are other exquisite exhibits from the time, such as a clay anthropomorphic head.

The Archaeological Museum

The first floor rooms take you on a chronological tour through the periods of Thracian, Greek and Roman history. There are so many wonderful finds that it is hard to pick out individual items from the long list of highlights, but these would include a panther shaped fountain from the late 5th/early 6th century; three animal headed drinking cups (rhyta) from the Borovo treasure; ceramic lamps in the form of theatrical masks from the 3rd century; a limestone altar with a striking horned bulls head dedicated to the Thracian horsemen from the 3rd century; and a bronze votive hand from the 1st/2nd century.

One of the most surprising (perhaps shocking) exhibits was an incredibly graphic, crude and very rude relief from a brothel at the Roman baths dated to the 2nd/3rd century. I would blush to describe it in any more detail than that.

As if this was not enough, the upper floor includes a striking collection of Bulgarian icons including a good many that depict the fate of martyrs in gruesome detail.

It’s an absolute bargain at 10 leva for admission (approximately £5 at current exchange rates).

Roman baths

The Roman Baths of Odessos (2nd-3rd century) make an impressive sight, despite their ruined state. In their brief spell of active use these were the fourth largest public baths in the European provinces of the Roman empire, taking up 7000 square metres (the largest three were located in Rome and Trier). As the empire fell into decline these maintenance-heavy baths were abandoned and the building materials robbed to build a smaller, more economical, set of baths.

The fourth largest Roman baths in Europe

Today, the baths sit in a residential area, ringed by apartment blocks. You can get a good view from the exterior fence but its worth paying the modest admission charge of 4 leva (approximately £2) to get a closer look at the fallen building blocks. Unlike many Roman sites there are few explanations here but plentiful illustrations showing you what each chamber would have looked like in use.

As an added bonus, the local cats treat the Roman baths as their playground and could be seen stalking birds and each other through the grounds.

Sea Garden

The Sea Garden is said to be the largest landscaped park in the Balkans, occupying a four kilometre stretch of prime coastline with a footprint of 90,000 square metres. It’s much loved by the local population, which generated a campaign to protect it when development was threatened. There are museums, restaurants, fairground rides and monuments inside the park but it’s just as lovely doing nothing more than taking a relaxed walk.

Monument to Yuri Gagarin in the Sea Garden

Among the sights to look out for in the park are the Pantheon, a monument to the fallen fighters of 1923-1944; a bust of Yuri Gagarin; an alley of trees planted by cosmonauts; and a monument to the border guard (built in 1918 to remember the sacrifice of the fallen soldiers of the 15th Border Brigade of Varna’s Eighth Infantry Regiment). There’s even a wall made up of old Bulgarian motorbikes at one spot!

Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral

The Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral is one of the most familiar landmarks in the city centre. The first stone was laid by Prince Alexander I of Battenberg in 1880 and the structure was complete by 1885, but interior painting and decoration would go on for decades (for example, the colourful floor tiles were added in 1911 but the large stained glass windows were not added until 1960). It was modelled on a temple at the Peterhof Palace in St Petersburg.

The cathedral was mostly paid for by public donation and a lottery of 150 000 tickets. On top of this, Russian Tsar Nicholas II donated 45 icons in 1901.

Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral

Today, the cathedral sits at a major traffic junction so it seems perpetually busy as you approach (not that this is particularly visible in my photos – most of these were grabbed in the split-second change of lights). However, all that disappears when you step inside.

Naval Museum

The Bulgarian Navy is headquartered in Varna (in a rather splendid baroque building on Preslav Street) and there are many buildings around the city associated with this, including the Naval Academy, Naval Hospital and the Navy Club. The Naval Museum, established in 1923, focuses upon the maritime history of the country; the wars fought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and the modern navy.

Torpedo Boat 301 outside the Navy Museum

It’s a relatively compact museum so doesn’t take long to walk around, with some interesting exhibits on display in the yard outside and a little farther beyond. These include the torpedo boat Drazki (1907), torpedo boat 301 (1957), a Mil Mi-4A helicopter, a Kamov Ka-25Bsh helicopter, a S-2 Sopka coastal defence missile and the record-breaking Cor-Coroli yacht.

Admission comes to 5 leva (approximately £2.50 at current exchange rates) but a look inside the torpedo boat outside costs an additional 2 leva (though it didn’t seem to be open when we visited).

If you are interested in the modern fleet you can also get a good view of the Bulgarian Naval vessels in port from a wander along the pier to the Varna Seaport Lighthouse.

Park Monument

The Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship in Varna is an astonishing structure, constructed by 27,000 workers using 10,000 tonnes of concrete and 1,000 tonnes of re-inforced steel between 1974 and 1978. It was a design that was 20 years in the making, from the first design competition to the opening ceremony, but would only last 11 years in actual use. In its day it would have been an impressive place to visit, including a bookshop and library in its apparently spacious interior.

Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship

Today, access is blocked off and the site is monitored by surveillance cameras. I’ve covered the detail of our visit in the next post, but in short – it’s well worth seeing close up to truly appreciate the extraordinary scale of this monument.

City Art Gallery of Boris Georgiev

I found it a little hard to pin down what we were seeing at the City Art Gallery in Varna, which seemed to be almost entirely taken over by displays of very recent art when we visited. However, there are some cracking pieces hidden among the halls, including sculptures by the likes of Ivan Funev.

The highlight of the collection is a hall containing 13 exquisite artworks donated by the family of Bulgarian artist Boris Georgiev (1888-1962). Although Boris was born in Varna his life took him far across the globe and into the orbit of some of the most famous individuals of the 20th century. His work was championed by Albert Einstein, who became a close friend, and he later became close with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru on his travels to India. Portraits of all three are among those exhibited here.

Sveta Paraskeva Petka

The colourful red and white striped church of St Petka is a little off the main tourist trail, but still only a short walk away from the Archaeological Museum. The construction of the church began in 1901 and the first service took place five years later. The interior is beautifully painted and the decoration is quite stunning.

Sveta Paraskeva Petka

Other sights we checked out that are worth seeking out included the Monument to Tsar Kaloyan, the Portal-Monument to the 8th Coastal Infantry Regiment of Varna and the church of St. Nicholas the Thaumaturge.

There are other attractions in Varna that we didn’t get around to, including the Retro Museum, the small Roman Baths, the Varna City History Museum, the Ethnographic museum and the Museum of National Revival. Beyond the confines of the city you can also find the Aladzha cave monastery and the natural wonder of the Petrified Forest (also referred to as the Stone Forest).


Three days in Varna

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

A long weekend in Varna on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast seemed like an increasingly bonkers idea the closer it approached, but turned out to be a perfectly timed opportunity for a break from an extremely busy autumn at work and an ideal escape from the ongoing madness of Brexit, which seems to have left no stone unturned in its quest to permeate everyday life in the UK.

Welcome to Varna

A big part of the appeal for me was the opportunity to see one of the most striking monuments from the socialist state, but there is plenty more to Varna. Must see sights range from a museum chock-full of archaeological discoveries to the strikingly beautiful Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral. I am also reliably informed by my better half that the many cats of Varna were a highlight too, though I can’t claim to have planned the visit on this basis!

Our visit came at the beginning of October, which is either the end of the Summer season or start of the Winter season as far as the main attractions go. This distinction is more important than I realised at the time of booking, as the winter schedule sees many museums close over the weekend and on Mondays. However, aside from that, it was rather nice to visit at this time of year. The sights were relatively quiet, the first signs of autumn colours were visible in the Sea Garden and there was no problem getting a table at any of the restaurants in the city centre.

The economical cost of a trip to Varna was a big plus. Over a long weekend we spent around £100 (excluding accommodation) on a couple of three course meals, all our museum tickets, bus fares and an ice cream or two. Our accommodation at the Rosslyn Dimyat hotel was on the luxurious side – a stay in an apartment larger than my flat in London cost no more than I would pay for a budget hotel in the UK. The hotel was situated in a quiet-ish location opposite the Sea Garden that might not suit everyone but plenty of more central options are available too.

The clocktower

Flights from the UK can be a bit tricky, with many scheduled to arrive in the early hours of the morning. We opted to fly with Austrian Airlines via Vienna which got us into Varna around midday.

On our arrival, in early afternoon, we took the 409 bus from the airport to the city centre. The transfer was quite straightforward once you worked it out. The same bus stop outside the terminal buildings serves buses in both directions so you have to pay attention to the bus signs, lest you make an unplanned trip to Aksakovo rather than Varna city centre. The 409 runs every 15 minutes and a ticket costs just 50 pence (1 leva) which you pay to an official on the bus rather than the driver (they tear off a paper ticket from a wad). Surely the cheapest airport transfer anywhere?


Banksy in Croydon

Posted in Croydon, England by folkestonejack on October 3, 2019

The overnight appearance of a Banksy ‘shop’ generated a lot of attention in the media. It’s not often that Croydon gets in the news for the right reasons, so it made a nice change. It’s also not often that you get to go out for your weekly shop and admire some Banksy artworks along the way!

The pop-up-shop, named Gross Domestic Product, has been set up by Banksy as part of a legal action with a greetings card company over the use of his trademark. The result is an extraordinary shop that never opens its doors and never switches off the lights. It will only be with us for a couple of weeks but in the meantime it was great to have the opportunity to take a look at the products on display and the accompanying descriptions.

Banksy in Croydon

I thought the cot continually observed from above by a set of moving surveillance cameras was particularly accurate and chilling. The label next to it described it as a Baby Mobile, stating: Banksy has created the Ultimate ceiling mounted stimulus toy to prepare your little one for the journey ahead – a lifetime of constant scrutiny both state sanctioned and self imposed. Other favourites included the three wall display drones (instead of the more familiar ducks) and a toilet duck leading a series of yellow ducks.


Energy Observer visits London

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on October 3, 2019

The experimental Hydrogen powered ship Energy Observer arrived in London tonight at the end of a Northern European tour, part of a six year long odyssey that is set to take in 50 countries (with 101 stopovers). I thought she made an impressive sight as she passed under Tower Bridge, though this was probably not the most popular of bridge lifts, coming mid-way through the rush hour!

Energy Observer approaches Tower Bridge

Energy Observer is the first ship in the world to be powered by hydrogen generated on-board through seawater electrolysis. The ship also uses a mix of renewable energy technologies (solar, wind and hydropower) and two types of energy storage (li-ion batteries and hydrogen). The project is a French initiative to develop a more environmentally friendly method of ship propulsion with zero greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s not the first innovative renewable energy powered vessel that the Thames has seen (the Swiss solar powered ship Planet Solar visited in August 2013) but it’s never been more welcome to see ground breaking ships like this in the face of the urgent need to tackle climate change.

Energy Observer is set to stay in London until the 13th of October and a travelling exhibition about the ship and her technologies can be visited in St Katharine Docks, Marble Quay.

Open House London 2019

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 21, 2019

The annual delight of Open House London has once again delivered with an impressive list of over 800 interesting buildings to explore, ranging from private residences to skyscrapers. I made a rough plan for a circuit to three sights in the City of London and then added another three on the fly, taking up roughly five hours.

My wanders through the city took in the modern art on display at the ING UK offices at 8-10 Moorgate; the brutalist masterpiece at Salters’ Hall; St Bartholomew the Great, the oldest parish church in London; the recently re-opened Butchers’ Hall; the tranquil St. Michael Cornhill; and the stunning interior of Lloyd’s Register Building at 71 Fenchurch Street.

Salters’ Hall

One of the more intriguing buildings in the city is Salters’ Hall, a brutalist masterpiece unveiled in 1976 – one of the last buildings conceived by Sir Basil Spence. The building has undergone extensive redevelopment by dMFK from 2013 to 2016 to bring it up to date and help ensure continued returns from their income generating office space. The revamp also saw the restoration of the interiors designed by David Hicks. The fluted ash paneling in the hall is particularly gorgeous.

The theme of salt is repeated throughout the building in many ways, from a top floor lobby intended to resemble a salt mine to a striking staircase chandelier with lumps of salt rock crystal. The dMFK revamp saw the re-orientation of the building and the creation of a new entrance pavilion, with a reception design inspired by salt formations, echoing the work of Hicks. It is wonderful to see.

The Worshipful Company of Salters has its origins in the medieval salt trade and their first hall was constructed in the 15th century, close to the city’s salt trade in Bread Street. Today’s hall is the seventh. An interesting display in their small basement museum space presents models of the fifth, sixth and seventh halls – all strikingly different. There are no known images of the first four, the last of which was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The sixth hall was demolished after suffering substantial damage in World War 2.

A small part of the last hall survives in the form of wrought-iron gates with birds and beavers in front of the entrance pavilion. These were originally to be found in St Swithin’s Lane and date from 1887. The gates were originally commissioned for an exhibition so the animals have no particular significance for the Salters, though their arms were added later.

Stained glass in Butchers’ Hall

Another unexpected highlight was Butchers’ Hall. This is the home of the Worshipful Company of Butchers, one of the oldest livery companies in the city. The current hall is the sixth and relatively young, built on the footprint of its predecessor after its destruction in the war. It has been closed for for four years while a significant volume of demolition and construction works took place all around it, re-opening in September 2019. The closure allowed an upgrade of the hall to make it fit for the 21st Century and they were understandably proud of the results.

Butchers’ Hall holds plenty of surprises. I particularly loved the stained glass and representations of the company arms throughout the building. It’s not often that you get to see pigs and cattle represented in stained glass!

A short walk away from the hall brings you to the Smithfield General Market buildings, once home to the largest wholesale meat market in the UK. It’s hard to appreciate just how revolutionary this place was in its mid-nineteenth century with hydraulic lifts to being meat up from the underground railway to the market floor. I hoped to get a place on one of the tours here, but they filled up very quickly. I’ll settle for a return in 2024 when this place re-opens as the new Museum of London.

Wanders around West Smithfield reveal many other buildings that were added to serve the market, such as the Port of London Authority cold store (1914), which had capacity for 78,000 carcasses, and the geometric designs of the modern Poultry Market, replacing the Victorian original after a terrible fire lasting three days in 1958. It’s an area I know very little about but there is clearly much more to discover.

Contrails over the city

I walk to work through the city five days a week, but rarely do I look up and see what is around me. One of the beauties of the Open House weekend for me is that it encourages you to look at your surroundings in a new light. On this occasion, some of the most enjoyable moments were the simplest – such as navigating my way through some of the tallest buildings in the city and looking up to see the reflection of the Lloyd’s Building captured beautifully by one of its newer neighbours.

One of my regular commuting routes through the alleys and lanes of the city takes me past the church of St Michael, Cornhill, but I have somehow never stepped inside until today. It hadn’t occurred to me that what I was glancing at while commuting was a 17th century church given the George Gilbert Scott treatment with the addition of a Franco-Italian Gothic styled porch and extensive interior re-decoration. The colourful circular stained glass of Christ in the east wall is stunning.

In similar fashion, an unplanned stop at the ING UK offices at 8-10 Moorgate gave me a chance to see inside a building round the corner from my workplace. I hadn’t expected the gallery of modern British painting on display on the top floor rooms with artists that include Lowry, Stanley Spencer, John and Paul Nash. The open air terraces front and back offered some interesting perspectives on the neighbourhood too – having spent decades walking along Moorgate at ground level it was strange seeing the rooftop level view of the street!

Stained glass in the Colcutt Building

Another unplanned stop on my circuit took me inside the oldest parish church in London, St Bartholomew the Great, with the unexpected and arresting sight of Damien Hirst’s gilded sculpture ‘Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain’, which is on long term loan to the church. The image of the apostle with his flayed skin is not easily forgotten. I suspect I have visited the church in the past, but it was well worth spending time to admire the detail afresh – especially with the sun beautifully illuminating the tomb of Rahere (1143), the courtier to Henry I who founded the priory.

Finally, my circuit of the city concluded with the stunning interior of Lloyd’s Register Building (the Colcutt building) at 71 Fenchurch Street which features a committee room with an incredible painted barrel-vaulted ceiling influenced by the Sistine Chapel. It was quite an architectural highlight to end my Open House weekend on!

The barrel vaulted ceiling by Gerald Moira that took 17 months to complete

So that was a few more of the 800+ buildings on the Open House London list ticked off, but many more still to see. Roll on Open House London 2020!


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Ships in the September sun

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 14, 2019

A late burst of September sunshine conjured up a very summery feel on the Thames, drawing plenty of folk out for riverside walks, sunbathing and even the occasional barbeque. It looked like a lovely day to be out on the water too, which was just as well with over 300 small boats taking part in the Great River Race from Greenwich to Richmond.

RFA Lyme Bay leaves the Greenwich Peninsula behind

I took the opportunity to enjoy the good weather too, with a walk along the Thames and see the departure of some of the unusual ships to have visited these waters for London International Shipping Week. The first of these was RFA Lyme Bay (3007), a Bay-class landing ship of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, whose departure was assisted by tugs SD Shark and SD Seal. A little later Pharos, a lighthouse tender operated by the Northern Lighthouse Board, followed downstream en route to Dundee.

There were a few unexpected surprises, most notably the sudden appearance of a US Army Chinook (13-08132) and an Apache gunship (09-05582). These helicopters were heading home after attending DSEI 2019, the controversial defence trade show. Another surprise was the appearance of Ocean Dreamwalker III, a one year old luxury yacht complete with its own helicopter.

Pharos spent a week berthed alongside HMS Belfast

I haven’t walked around the Greenwich peninsula in a long while and it was a bit of a shock to see how many new high rise apartment blocks have appeared. The whole development is planned to take 20 years, with work on the tallest buildings at Meridian Quays not expected to start until 2028-2029. It already feels incredibly densely packed so goodness knows what it will be like then.

In a similar fashion, I spent quite a bit of time staring at the northern stretch of riverside between Trinity Buoy Wharf and the Thames barrier trying to recall what industrial buildings had existed where the first two phases of the luxury apartment blocks of the 40-acre Royal Wharf development now stand. There are still further changes to come with work progressing on the distinctive buildings of Mariner’s Quarter in phase 3 of the project.

Some reassuringly industrial sights along the Thames Path

It was astonishing to see how a few decades of development have erased the industrial riverscape here, but such is progress. It was almost a relief to find that the Thames Path still winds through through the unpolished industrial scenery of Angerstein Aggregates Wharf!


A test of geography

Posted in England, Lithuania, London, Vilnius by folkestonejack on August 27, 2019

The last day of our short stay in Vilnius disappeared in a whirlwind of churches and museums, while still leaving plenty behind that we could slot into a future trip to Lithuania. Soon enough it was time to head to the airport and we decided to take the quick and cheap option of travelling by train, with the bonus of a quick look at the plinthed L class steam locomotive at the station.

L class 2-10-0 freight steam locomotive plinthed at Vilnius Central Station

The journey from Vilnius Central Station to the airport station took just seven minutes, with a short walk across the parking lot at the other end to reach the terminus building. The departures hall is located in a modern extension to the 1950s airport building – still relatively small by European standards, but not particularly crowded when we passed through. There is talk of building a new mega airport midway between Kaunas and Vilnius to cope with the anticipated increase in passenger traffic.

Our homeward flight with LOT, the Polish national airline, once again saw us boarding an Embraer 190 but this time we were lucky enough to have a seat that lined up with the windows (not entirely sure if this was down to the individual plane, or the fact that we were towards the back of the plane on this occasion). This was much appreciated as our flight took us on a loop around Vilnius, giving us one last splendid look down on the old town before heading west. I was struck by how green the city looked from the air.

A last look at Vilnius

The routing today took us over Berlin (instantly recognisable with the distinctive shape of the former Templehof airfield and hexagonal terminal building at Tegel) then on to Rotterdam, before taking us across the North Sea.

Our progress was sufficiently good that air traffic control deemed it necessary for us to get a closer look at the London array on two loops of the North Sea. I don’t recall having seen the 175 turbines of the London array before on my flights, which is odd as it is the second largest operational offshore wind farm on Earth and an incredibly impressive sight.

A closer look at the London Array

I always enjoy the test of geography that any homeward flight brings, trying to spot familiar landmarks that will tell me which approach to London our flight is taking. Today was no different. After completing our North Sea crossing I could see a distant view of the Sheppey Crossing, then the distinctive shape of Coalhouse Fort, the Sikh temple in Gravesend, but then…. where were we? I couldn’t see any of the landmarks I expected along the Thames.

A large stadium loomed into view and I was struggling to think what that could be until I recognised the swimming pool next door, and then – much more obvious – the Crystal Palace Transmitting Station. Suddenly the unfamiliar seeming landscape clicked into place and I could see my local park, my old primary school, the local railway depot and my childhood home! We had clearly veered south and I hadn’t even realised…

After heading further across South London we made a turn over Battersea Power Station for a westerly approach to London City Airport, landing a few minutes early. Fifteen minutes after disembarking I was on the DLR platform, ready to head home by train. The wonders of London City Airport.


Nine highlights from Vilnius

Posted in Lithuania, Vilnius by folkestonejack on August 26, 2019

A three night stay in Vilnius gave us enough time to see many of its highlights, helped by the extremely compact nature of the old town. It only takes around 20 minutes to walk from the Gates of Dawn, the only surviving 16th century gateway into the city, to the banks of the river Neris at the northernmost fringe of the old town.

A view of Vilnius from the bell tower of St John’s Tower

Although it has seen its share of damage and destruction, Vilnius has suffered less from the ravages of war than other cities in Europe. It is still easy to see how it has charmed visitors throughout history, including Napoleon. It is said to be Europe’s largest baroque old town, though in truth there are plenty of architectural treats in gothic and classical styles too.

Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania

The scale of the Lithuanian empire at its peak, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, was vast. The Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania lay at its heart, having evolved from a sprawling castle complex into a renaissance marvel, until it was torn down by Tsarist Russian occupiers in 1801. Two decades of construction culminated in its impressive re-creation in 2018, on top of the foundations of the original buildings.

Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania

There are four routes that you can the through the Palace, allowing you to pick and choose exactly what you want to see. We opted for the complete ticket on this occasion, but can easily see ourselves coming back to do only the new exhibitions on a future visit. Personally, I enjoyed the first route the most (history, archaeology and architecture) with its comprehensive walk through of Lithuanian history and fascinating exhibits (my favourite would have to be the 15th century floor tiles depicting a whale swallowing the prophet Jonah).

It was interesting to read about the overlaps in European history, such as the involvement of Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) in the siege of Vilnius in 1390 or the installation of a member of the Vasa dynasty as Grand Duke of Lithuania in the 1580s. It has to be said that there was plenty of detail to absorb, but the unfamiliarity of this history made it worth spending the time. I didn’t feel the need to take so long on the second route (imagined historical interiors) or the third (weaponry, everyday life and music).

Floor tile showing Jonah being swallowed by a whale

The fourth route took in the temporary exhibition ‘Wall Stories. The Disappearing Heritage of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A Photography Exhibition‘ (18 May–1 September 2019) which was absolutely fascinating. It was quite sobering to see the photographs Raimondas Paknys has taken of so many churches, monasteries, castles and manor houses in such an advanced state of decay in Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. It certainly made me view the sights we have enjoyed in a new light and appreciate the ongoing battle to maintain them.

Gediminas’ Tower of the Upper Castle

Gediminas’ Tower is the only surviving tower of the brick built Upper Castle, albeit damaged and re-constructed many times in its long history. It offers a terrific rooftop platform with 360 degree views across the city and an audio-visual presentation of Vilnius through the ages.

Improvement works are taking place on the hill at the moment, so the panoramic views of the city can only be observed from the top of the tower. The gently sloping route up the southern side of the hill is closed during the works so the only options are the steeper cobbled path and wooden staircase on the northern side or the funicular (if it is running).

Gediminas’ Tower of the Upper Castle

At the time of our visit the tower also included a small but fascinating display on the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way, an astonishing political protest that saw two million people create a 419.7 mile human chain across the three Baltic states. The photographs on display include one showing the chain in front of the Gediminas’ Tower.

Cathedral Basilica

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Vladislaus is another sight that has seen much re-building. The current classical cathedral is the sixth re-build of the church on this spot since the first cathedral was constructed in 1251. The alterations to the cathedral can be traced all the way to the twentieth century, when the Soviet authorities converted the building into a picture gallery.

Cathedral Basilica

The baroque-styled chapel of St Casimir is a highlight of the interior, including an unusual three handed painting of St Casimir. The story goes that the painter had intended to change the position of the hand in his composition and painted over the surplus hand, but despite his efforts it re-appeared three times. Finally, he decided that it was as St Casimir wanted and left it in.

St Casimir is the patron saint of Lithuania and his statue is one of three that was placed atop the cathedral in 1792 only to be removed by the Soviet authorities in 1950. The three statues were restored to their position in 1997.

Church of St Anne
Šv. Onos bažnyčia

The gorgeous red-brick gothic confection that is the church of St. Anne is one of the images that first drew my attention to Vilnius and it was every bit as stunning as the pictures had suggested. The church dates to the turn of the 16th century and uses 30 different kinds of brick to create its elaborate and gracefully soaring form. It is said that Napoleon, who spent 18 days in Vilnius in 1812, voiced a desire to take the church back to Paris in the palm of his hand.

Church of St. Anne

Next door is another gothic church and monastery, dedicated to St Francis and St Bernardine, which shouldn’t be overlooked on account of its more restrained exterior. The combination of wooden baroque fittings with rib, star and crystal vaulting is stunning.

Three Crosses Monument

The three crosses, sited atop the tallest hill in Vilnius, are visible from many spots across the city, including the square outside the cathedral. The sight is not new – wooden crosses appear in drawings as far back as the 17th century. A more permanent version was created using concrete by architect and sculptor Antanas Vivulskis in 1916 after funds were raised by the residents of the city. The Soviet regime blew this up in 1950 and the remains are scattered below the current monument, built in 1989.

Three crosses monument on Crooked Hill

The terrace in front of the three crosses provides a splendid view at sunrise and sunset. I chose the later, taking the sloping road up from T. Kosciuškos g. (which runs alongside the Neris river) and then made my descent via the steeper wooden steps to the south (taking care to navigate the occasional broken step) and along the narrow path beside the river Vilnia until the bridge near St Anne’s church.

The view was certainly worth it, but if the walk up seems far too daunting there are plenty of places to get good views in Vilnius with less effort – and a few with lifts!

Church of St Peter and St Paul
Šv. apaštalų Petro ir Povilo bažnyčia

There are no shortage of churches in Vilnius, but it’s really worth making the effort to visit the church of St Peter and St Paul, a short walk away from the old town. The external appearance of the baroque styled church, completed in 1701, gives only a few hints of the splendour of the interior decoration. An astonishing 2000 pieces of stucco decoration have created a stunning visual spectacle that hits you the moment you step inside. As you wander around, soaking up the detail, that first impression deepens.

Church of St Peter and St Paul

The detail that artists P. Perti and G. M. Galli have worked into the interior is quite extraordinary. You have columns borne on the shoulders of figures dressed in classical outfits, battlefield scenes, fantastical creatures like winged mermaids, biblical stories and so much more.

You could quite easily spend hours here trying to pick out all the stories on display in stucco form, from early Christian martyrs to the last judgment. In addition to all this, there are some rather wonderful later additions including a pulpit shaped like a boat and a chandelier representing Noah’s ark.

The stunning creations of P. Perti and G. M. Galli

It seems that all these artistic wonders did not go unnoticed by the Soviet authorities, who repaired the damage caused by the Second World War and then carried out considerable renovations from the late 1970s to early 1980s.

National Museum of Lithuania, The New Arsenal

The museum in The New Arsenal had not been in our plans at first, but the lure of an exhibition of artwork by Bronius Leonavičius drew us in. I was glad that it had, as we wouldn’t otherwise have seen a rather extraordinary collection of historic carved wooden figures and crosses, by far the most interesting room in the museum and worth the price of admission on its own. It has been a while since I have been followed round the museum by one of the museum attendants – something that I became quite familiar with in Eastern Europe on my visits a few decades back (thankfully without the loud sighing when I didn’t spend long enough in a room!).

The exhibition of works by Bronius Leonavičius was small but stunning, presenting his wonderful illustrations of agricultural life for the classic Kristijonas Donelaitis poem about the seasons. These draw particularly on the landscape of Vištytis, where it is said that when the crow cries it can be heard in three countries. It was sufficiently compelling that we found ourselves visiting a second exhibition of his works at the Kazys Varnelis House Museum. Both exhibitions run until 10th November 2019.

St. Johns’ Church Bell Tower

One of the best viewpoints in Vilnius can be found at the top of St. Johns’ Church Bell Tower, right in the middle of the old town. It is both the highest and oldest belltower in the city, re-built with baroque styling after a fire in 1737. A small lift with capacity for 4 people takes you almost to the top, with just a wooden staircase and a slightly awkward brick step to navigate to get to the open air viewing terrace.

Looking up towards the higher floors of St. Johns’ Church Bell Tower

Given the slightly tricky route up to the open air terrace I was surprised to find a bride up there in a long white wedding gown – it certainly put my own clumsy clambering up to the top into perspective! I’m sure it must have made an amazing backdrop for the wedding photographs as would the university below (we could see couples in a couple of the courtyards posing in their wedding outfits).

Tasting Menu at Amandus

I am not a foodie, but I do enjoy a good tasting menu to explore local flavours and creations that I might not choose on my own. One restaurant caught my eye – Amandus. I made a booking and thought nothing more of it, which made the surprise of the evening all the greater. I had stumbled on the very best meal of my life…

Amandus is the creation of a young award winning Lithuanian chef, Deivydas Praspaliauskas, and has been open in the heart of the old town for just a couple of years. The atmosphere in the basement restaurant was rather wonderful and throughout the evening there was a frisson of excitement each time a dish came together at the pass (all diners are served each course at the same time).

So many wonderful flavours. It’s hard to pick out favourites from such a consistently wonderful sequence of appetizers and mains, but among the dishes I loved were tapioca and squid ink popcorn crisps; quinoa doughnuts; cucumber with a smoked sturgeon dip; beetroot and licquorice bread; sea bass ceviche with hazlenuts, fennel and cucumber; duck and carrot broth poured over a pearl barley risotto with confit duck; steak with 60 day aged garlic sauce and flavours of rosemary and star anise.

The explanations that Deivydas gave as he served up each dish helped breathe more life into the combination of ingredients, but especially with the dessert – hedgehog in the fog. The dessert, influenced by a classic cartoon, was as much of a spectacle in its assembly as it was a delight to eat: liquid nitrogen ice cream poured over sorbet, meringue and crumb. Simply dazzling.

A parting gift from Amandus

As if this wasn’t enough, Deivydas explained that he had fulfilled a cherished dream of becoming a chocolatier and wandered round the restaurant with a treasure chest of chocolates, selecting bars for each table as a parting gift. It topped an evening that was quite wonderful from start to finish. We had no particular plans to re-visit to Vilnius, but think that will have to change now!

Observations, tips and other stuff

It is worth noting that there are some money saving options for visiting the sights run by the Lithuanian National Museum (Lietuvos nacionalinis muziejus) that we only discovered at the end of our trip and too late for us to take advantage of them. These are only mentioned on the Lithuanian version of the website.

One is a Historical Triangle ticket (7 euros) which is a one-day ticket covering three sights (New and Old Arsenals and Gediminas Castle Tower) and the other is a three-day ticket to all six of the museums they operate in Vilnius (12 euros). The latter would have been quite useful had we known about it, but it was only offered to us at one of the last museums we entered!

Most of what we planned worked out alright, but there were a couple of failures. The outdoor display of railway vehicles was open but unhelpfully swamped by equipment and advertising for a beer festival, while the famous street art of Putin and Trump we hoped to see had gone. Instead the wall had been painted pink with the message ‘Make empathy great again’. I’m not sure how long it has been gone, but visitors were still reporting visits while I was planning the trip.

One sight that got left off our schedule at the planning stage was Vilnius University Library, after reading that tours are currently unable to enter the most beautiful halls due to restoration works. Something for the next trip.


Day trip to Trakai

Posted in Lithuania, Trakai by folkestonejack on August 25, 2019

Our travels in Lithuania have brought us to Trakai, an easy day trip from Vilnius. Trakai is most famous for its picturesque red-brick island castle, which sits at the heart of a national park rich in historical sites and over thirty lakes. It’s hardly surprising to discover that such a photogenic sight should feature so heavily in Lithuanian guidebooks and promotional tourist brochures, but there is much more to the city than this.

The island castle

The city was once one of the most important cities in the country, alongside Vilnius and Kaunas, as well as the residence of the grand dukes of Lithuania. It has long since lost its importance as a political centre, but still draws plenty of tourists to see the island castle, which was restored and substantially rebuilt in 1962. Today, the city has a population of 5,373.

On our arrival by train we took the longer and shadier route to the island castle, around the edge of Lake Berardinai, taking our time to enjoy the scenery. Despite the early hour we discovered a busy community on the little jetties dotted about the route populated with sunbathers, fishermen and wild water swimmers. One had a wonderfully improvised chair made from a car seat. It all felt very tranquil and incredibly relaxing. The waters looked incredibly clear.

A tranquil walk alongside Lake Berardinai

The first stages of construction of the island castle have been dated to the 14th century, but the castle continue to evolve for some time after. The name itself is a little misleading as there were originally three islands, with rock and gravel in-fill used to create a larger island. There are plenty of lovely views to be had by circumnavigating the exterior walls.

Once inside, you discover that the castle is comprised of two very distinct parts – the bailey in the lower part and the former ducal residence in the upper part, accessed by drawbridge. I don’t think anyone could be under illusion that this is anything other than a substantial twentieth century re-build, but the historical displays help explain what was left before that work started.

The museum in the upper part of the castle presents the history of the territory, the castle and the local Karaim and Tatar populations. I particularly liked a display of coin hoards discovered in the area. A series of rooms in the bailey provide a home for a historical museum with an array of historical artifacts from porcelain to pipes with no specific connection to the castle. It’s all interesting enough, without being good enough on its own to justify a visit.

A view of the ducal residence

After leaving the castle we pondered the option of taking a boat trip on the water, eventually choosing a shortish trip on a double deck boat from the Trakai lakefront. A half hour circuit on Lake Galvė gave us a decent view of Užutrakis manor house and a different perspective on Trakai Island Castle.

Count Józef Tyszkiewicz created the Užutrakis estate in 1896-1902 with a neo-classical palace designed by Polish architect Jozef Huss. After the Soviet occupation of Lithuania the palace saw a variety of uses, including time as a sanatorium for KGB officers, a Pioneer camp and a rest home. Through all this the park suffered, but the restoration has seen the reinstatement of copies of many of the sculptures and vases that were destroyed in that period. It sees use as a concert venue in the summer and we could still see a stage set up for this purpose as we passed by.

The palace on the Užutrakis estate

On our return to Trakai we sought out some of the other sights around town as we slowly drifted back to the station, heading first to the Trakai Peninsular Castle. It turned out the grounds were out of bounds during our visit, having been fenced off for restoration works, but the small museum of liturgical art at the entrance was fascinating. The museum holds some curious exhibits and if nothing else, you can enjoy watching fellow visitors getting spooked by a strange diorama with a priest with a swiveling head!

Other sights we visited or stopped off at in Trakai included the church of the visitation of the blessed virgin Mary, which includes a striking silver-plated image of the Virgin Mary and the oldest surviving frescoes in Lithuania; the orthodox church of the nativity of the most blessed virgin, which was undergoing considerable restoration work when we stepped inside; the statue of St. John Nepomuk, standing atop a pillar; and an old wooden post office. There are other sights a little farther away that we didn’t get to.

Overall, our day trip to Trakai offered a wonderfully relaxing escape with some interesting sights along the way. It’s definitely worth a visit.


Travelling to Trakai could not have been simpler. Information on the train timetables is readily available online and unusually clear. Tickets can be purchased online, at the ticket desk in the station building and I think you can get them from the conductor too. The intervals between trains can be quite significant, so needs a little thought. We opted for the 8:16 train to give us a whole day in Trakai, which the next train, at 11:30, would not have given us.

The local train at Trakai

The short journey by double-deck train to the terminus at Trakai takes just over 30 minutes, delivering you to a small terminus at the edge of the city. The bus station is a little closer, but not much. The walk from the railway station takes around 30 minutes by the direct route, along the road, or 45 minutes if you take the path alongside the lake that we chose. It is possible to switch from the lakeside path to the road just before the peninsular castle.

Our visit coincided with the last Sunday of the month, which sees many museums open to the public free of charge, and a day of ancient crafts and trades inside the castle. An unusually busy day, particularly with the fine summery weather, but never to the extent that it stopped us from doing anything we planned. It did look as though we had stumbled across rush hour for the castle though, looking at the crowds crossing the two bridges to the island castle!

There were plenty of options for boat trips on the lake – on a busy summer’s day we found a couple of options on the waterfront at Trakai, next to the first bridge; a couple of smaller boats across the bridge on Karvine island; and more options still across the second bridge just outside the castle gates (ranging from yachts and small craft to the left of the gates and the largest boat we saw on the lake ‘Skaistis‘ to the right). I don’t think you would have difficulty finding a boat trip on a summer weekend.

Boats on Lake Galvė

The length of circuits offered ranged from half an hour to an hour. Prices ranged from 5 euros for a trip on one of the smaller boats to 12 euros on one of the larger craft, with the yachts coming in at a higher price still. Everyone was eager to pick up passengers. The Skaistis advertised a regular sailing schedule, running once an hour, while other boats just left when they had enough passengers on board. We took up the option of a short cruise on the comfortable double-deck Holiday Boat which cost us 5 euros (cash) at the jetty.

There was a tourist ‘train’ running on the road between the railway station, bus station, castle and the manor house (3 euros for a day ticket). We also noted an offer highlighted on the noticeboard at Trakai station for a combined day ticket covering the tourist ‘train’ and boat to Užutrakis manor house (7 euros, excluding weekends). Tickets are available on the tourist train, at the Trakai tourist information offices or through the local hotels.

The Tourist Information office at Trakai (located close to the lakefront, near the first bridge) offers some helpful maps of Trakai and the grounds of Užutrakis, as well as a range of other leaflets about local attractions.

It is also well worth purchasing a copy of the slim but handy guidebook ‘Trakai: A guide through the Historical National Park’ by Karolina Mickevičiūtė Juodišienė, published by Briedis (ISBN 978-9955-26-417-0). The guidebook provides some useful maps and covers the history of Trakai, the sights in/around Trakai and introduces the Karaite cuisine. I picked up a copy inside the castle for five euros and it also seems to be available online through the publisher’s website.


Summer break in Vilnius

Posted in Lithuania, Vilnius by folkestonejack on August 24, 2019

I have long wanted to visit Vilnius but the flights from my nearest airports were always a little awkward or required a change of planes half way. In early 2019 this changed with the opening of a direct flight from London City to Vilnius operated by LOT, the Polish national airline. The route operates twice daily during the working week using Embraer 190s, with one flight per day on Saturday and Sunday.

Our LOT Embraer 190 approaches gate 5 at London City Airport

The new route has come about following an invitation to airlines from the state-run Lithuania Airports group to tender for the route, with the aim of linking up the financial hub with the Lithuanian capital. On top of this, the new routings that the authorities have been subsidising have helped open up a rapidly growing tourist market. The strategy certainly seems to be working. In 2018 Vilnius saw the largest increase in passenger numbers of any European airport, with a 30% leap taking it from 3,761,837 to 4,922,949 passengers.

Planning the trip proved to be incredibly straightforward. Vilnius has a brilliant tourist information website which should be a model for other cities – packed with clearly presented information, maps and smart guides for Vilnius (ranging from where to find the best coffee spots to the best photographic opportunities). There are also some handy tourist guides covering the castles and historic sights in nearby Trakai.

Our flight, LOT 272, took us from London City Airport to Vilnius in just over two hours. The plane looked pretty fresh (hardly surprising at only 7 months old) but one curious feature was that none of the seats in economy lined up with the windows, meaning that you had to look over your shoulder or lean forward to see out of a window. In spite of this, I did manage to spot the unmistakable waterways of Hamburg and the 98km long Curonian Spit on our way to Lithuania.

It was pretty easy to navigate our way through the modest airport, though it’s worth a moment to pause and admire the decoration adorning the facade of the 1950s Soviet airport terminal. The figures include children playing with kites and toy planes; an airman gathering his parachute; an engineer clutching plans in front of an engine; a workman leaning against some propellers in a factory; and a pair of aviators looking to the skies. The interior of the arrivals hall is pretty splendid too.

Interior of the arrivals hall at Vilnius airport

You are spoilt for choice on arrival with a couple of easy public transport options – a bus taking about 20 minutes to reach the city will set you back 1 euro while a train taking 7 minutes is even cheaper at 0,70 euros. We took the number 88 bus and just half an hour after landing found ourselves walking through the Gates of Dawn and into the old town. The city centre is incredibly compact, packed with historic sights in every direction. It is hard to imagine an easier European capital to visit.


Wet, wild and windy

Posted in Brands Hatch, England by folkestonejack on August 10, 2019

A summer saturday at Brands Hatch to see the next generation of DTM cars seemed like a terrific idea when I booked in the depths of the British winter. Who could have imagined the combination of a UK wide power cut with the threat of unusually wet, wild and windy weather!?

It was something of a miracle that the trains were running relatively smoothly to Eynsford, while other lines faced severe delays caused by fallen trees. After an hour of hiking I was once again passing through the familiar entrance to the circuit, ready to hear the roar of DTM engines reverberating through the Kent countryside.

The climb to Druids

My hike was rewarded with a fascinating morning of free practice and qualifying in very changeable conditions, followed by a thrilling race in the afternoon. One of the commentators described the conditions as four seasons in one day, just short of the snow. Free practice was a good illustration of that – starting in the dry, working its way from light rain to heavy rain, before ending in brilliant sunshine.

Qualifying started on a damp but drying track. Only a quarter of the session had elapsed when the red flags came out following a heavy shunt at Paddock Hill Bend for Pietro Fittipaldi, grandson of F1 legend Emerson Fittipaldi. It was quite some bad luck for the WRT team as both their cars crashed on the same lap, leaving their mechanics with a mountain of work. Thankfully, both drivers were ok.

The session resumed after twenty minutes, accompanied by a fresh burst of rain. The remaining quarter of an hour or so was a thriller, with the drying track really mixing things up. For a long while Jake Dennis topped the times and the possibility of a first pole for the Aston Martin seemed tantalisingly in reach.

Setting fire to the timesheets early on in qualifying

Conditions on the track were clearly tricky to judge, but by the end of the session slicks were definitely the way to go and as the field switched over the times started tumbling. Marco Wittmann (BMW) timed his run perfectly to claim a last-gasp pole position with Rene Rast (Audi) alongside him on the front row. The second row was filled by Loïc Duval (Audi) and Paul Di Resta (Aston Martin).

The race itself was a thriller from the off, with Paul di Resta carrying out an audacious move around the outside of Paddock Hill bend to take an early lead and pull clear of the chasers. It wasn’t to last – the officials judged it to have been a jump-start, though it really didn’t look like that on the big screens. The result was a five second penalty taken before the pit-stop. Others had even worse luck – Jake Dennis was clouted into the wall at the start and had to retire without getting a lap in.

The race was far from dull, offered overtaking moves throughout the field – including a daring overtake by Marco Wittman through the middle of two cars at Paddock Hill Bend (taking positions from Rene Rast and Jamie Green at the same time). It was thrilling to the end, with everyone keeping an eye on the battle between Wittman in the lead and Rast in the rapidly closing Audi. At the flag the gap was down to 0.3 seconds and who knows what might have been with another lap.

Through the middle

It was a wonderful reminder of how thrilling the DTM can be and what a wonderful circuit Brands Hatch is for the spectator. It really is better to be at the race track here to appreciate the challenge, particularly the change in elevations, which never really comes across on the TV. I thoroughly enjoyed my day seeing the new breed of DTM cars and the new entries from Aston Martin. I didn’t even mind getting soaked with the high winds and sun to dry you out quickly!


HNLMS Luymes visits the capital

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 26, 2019

On my way into work today I had the pleasure of watching a naval vessel arrive for a four day stay. It’s a while since I’ve been around at the right time to see the spectacle of the bridge opening for a warship but it certainly doesn’t get any less spectacular. The seagulls seemed much less impressed with my presence, preferring to use me for target practice!

Zr. Ms. Luymes shortly after passing through Tower Bridge

The visitor on this occasion was the hydrographic survey vessel HNLMS Luymes (A803) from the Royal Netherlands Navy. HNLMS Luymes arrived at the beginning of the rush hour, passing through Tower Bridge just after 7am. The ship, a familiar visitor to the capital, was accompanied by the tug Svitzer Cecilia, who assisted in turning the ship around to face the bridge after passing through. HNLMS Luymes is currently scheduled to be berthed alongside HMS Belfast until 1pm on Monday 29th July.

The vessel is soon to undergo a scheduled mid life upgrade in the shipyards of Damen with her classmate HNLMS Snellius, which will see the ships updated with new hull plating, the renewal of the radar and an upgrade to the communications equipment.


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Royal International Air Tattoo 2019

Posted in England, Fairford by folkestonejack on July 21, 2019

Every five years or so, I make a trek down to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire to enjoy the spectacle of the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT), the world’s largest military air show. This edition saw 245 aircraft from 25 countries, on static display or in the air, ranging from small turboprop trainers to heavy transports.

The airshow celebrated a number of anniversaries this year, including the 100th anniversary of British Airways and the 70th anniversary of the founding of NATO. The first of these saw an eye-catching flypast with a British Airways 747-400 in a splendid retro BOAC livery accompanied by the Red Arrows on the appropriately designated flight number BA100. A gap in the clouds opened at the perfect moment and illuminated the spectacle beautifully.

British Airways retro-liveried 747-400 (G-BYGC) performs a flypast with the Red Arrows at RIAT 2019

I was particularly delighted to see a MiG-21 flying at the air tattoo for the first time since 2001 courtesy of the Romanian Air Force who sent over their modernised air-defence variant. These supersonic fighters are true veterans, having first entered service with the Soviet Union in 1959. An impressive 11,000 fighters rolled off the production lines and have been flown by 60 nations. I had seen one on static display on a previous visit, but it was a treat to see one in the air.

The MiG-21 was not the only Soviet creation on display. The Ukrainian air force had sent over two of their Sukhoi Su-27 (‘Flanker’) fighters from the 831st Tactical Aviation Brigade at Myrhorod and an Ilyushin Il-76 (‘Candid’) transport from the 25th Transport Aviation Brigade at Melitopol Air Base. For a jet that first appeared in 1977 the Su-27 looked as impressive today in its manoeuvrability as I’m sure it must have done for astonished audiences when it first appeared at western air shows.

The Patrouille de France take off to perform their acrobatic displays over Fairford

Other highlights included a beautifully painted C-130E Hercules from the Pakistani Air Force; an exhilerating display from the Finnish Air Force’s F/A-18 Hornet; and wonderful acrobatic displays from a number of national teams such as the Red Arrows, the Patrouille de France and the Frecce Tricolori.


It was a straightforward journey for me – an hour by train from London to Swindon, then around half an hour on an airshow shuttle bus to the showground. Once you are inside the scale of the show is astonishing, stretching around 2 miles alongside the runway and taking up in excess of 300 acres. Thankfully, there is a free bus inside the grounds (with 8 stops along the length of the showground) so when the feet start to give up you can take it easy.

I stayed around to the end of the show on the Saturday and discovered an absolutely massive queue for the shuttle buses back to Swindon. Once on board the return journey took an hour, without really seeming to hit any massive jams. I was thankful I was coming back to an overpriced hotel room rather than trying to make an evening train.


London from the air

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 9, 2019

On my homeward flights to London I have often caught the occasional glimpse of a sight or two that I recognise, but rarely have I seen such an extended run of the familiar as we followed the path of the Thames in to Heathrow today on our much delayed flight.

The flight took us over the millennium dome; the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf; London Bridge and the City of London; Waterloo; Victoria Station and Battersea Power Station; the National Archives; Kew Gardens; and the Cavalry Barracks at Hounslow. The last of these was especially interesting to me as one of my ancestors was stationed here in 1800-1801 when the site was still relatively new. It is currently scheduled for closure in 2020.

The Cavalry Barracks at Hounslow

The Cavalry Barracks are historically significant, being among the oldest and most complete barracks in the country. The first buildings on the site date back to the first wave of construction in 1793 and there are 14 grade II listed buildings on the Site, some of which are in a poor state of repair. In addition to this, there are 19 locally listed buildings on the site.

Earlier this year the local council released a planning brief for the cavalry barracks which sets out their vision for a new neighbourhood that will integrate new build with the site’s heritage. It will be interesting to see how this progresses.


Architectural treats in Helsinki II

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on July 8, 2019

The architectural delights of Helsinki are one of the many compelling reasons to make a visit to the Finnish capital, from masterpieces of neoclassicism to designs pushing the boundaries of modern architectural style. It’s all here and easy to enjoy on a walking tour of the compact city centre.

One interesting development is the sale of the Finnish State Railway offices (1909) at Helsinki’s Central Railway Station for conversion into a Scandic hotel. The winner of the competition to transform the station was the Finnish architectural practice Futudesign whose proposals include a beautiful new courtyard with a curving facade between the hotel and the station itself. The new hotel is scheduled for completion in 2020.

Architectural wonders can be found across Helsinki

The abundance of art nouveau treats was a highlight of my last visit and I managed to see a few more on this trip, remembering to keep looking up to the rooftops for unexpected details (such as a pair of polar bears in Katajanokka and a bat hiding under the windows on Annankatu) but I am very well aware that I have still only scratched the surface.

At the very end of my trip I discovered a marvelous new english language book, Art Nouveau in Helsinki, which was first published by Helsinki City Museum in 2019 (ISBN 978-952-331-579-2). This book presents 200 highlights from the 600+ art nouveau buildings in the city, arranged by neighbourhood, with maps that make it easy to follow in the footsteps of the authors.

I didn’t have enough time to exploit my new book purchase so that will have to wait until the next trip, along with a plan to visit the rooftop view from the Hotel Tornio to make a comparison with the 1930s panorama taken from the hotel by Olof Sundström that you can see in the Helsinki City Museum! It’s always good to have a reason to go back. My list is already getting quite long…


Day trip to Isosaari

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on July 7, 2019

The island of Isosaari is one of the most interesting additions to the portfolio of sights in Helsinki. A military outpost at the outermost reaches of the archipelago, Isosaari first opened to the public in 2017. It’s easily reached by a ferry from the Market Square that takes about 40 minutes and there is enough to draw your attention for a full day out.

You might think wonder why you should visit another military island, given that these are not exactly in short supply in Helsinki. In my opinion, Isosaari has a completely different feel to its less remote neighbours. It’s not so obviously fortified as Suomenlinna and Vallisaari, with the military structures here more spread out and relatively well hidden in the natural landscape. It also shows more evidence of its relatively recent use for the military, including some areas that are still fenced off.

Travel to Isosaari on the M/S Isosaari!

I was keen to see the island now, while it is still relatively untouched by redevelopment, as it is likely that the transformation from military outpost to tourist destination will see some of the more interesting features disappear. A good example of this is the nine hole golf course on the island – one of the most difficult in Finland.

The golf course was built one hole at a time in the 1980s while it was still a closed military island, but has been opened to the public with the island. At the time we visited there were dedicated days or evenings for golfers, outside of general visiting hours, but once the island gets all-year round holiday living it seems unlikely that there will be a place for the golf course. A quick look around shows what makes it special with uneven ground, beaches, trees, roads, water and bunkers of the military kind!

Our day trip took us out on the first boat of the day. I had made the booking in advance, but the numbers we saw gathered on the pier at the Market Square didn’t suggest that you would have great difficulty walking up for this one. It was a lovely crossing, taking you to the island via a brief stop at Vallisaari and with a terrific view of Suomenlinna (which never gets boring). On our way out the Viking XPRS was on her way in from Tallinn and the former steamer M/S J.L.Runeberg (1912) was on her way out to Porvoo, adding to the interest.

The Torpedo Station at Isosaari

On our arrival we joined a walking tour, which is the only way that you can get to see the Peninniemi peninsular and the Torpedo station. The official website didn’t mention that the tours were in Finnish only, either in the text or on the booking form, but this was clearly indicated on the signpost before you board. I would have booked regardless, as I wanted to see that part of the island. Our tour guide bravely offered to say a few words in english at each stop, but we were very grateful when a chap who spent some time on the island while in the army kindly translated the key bits for us, throwing in his own anecdotes along the way!

The fortification of Isosaari can be traced back to the Crimean War. Although the Finnish archipelago was a long way from the battlefield, the islands saw some of the actions in the Baltic campaign of the Anglo-French fleet against the Russian Navy at their base at Kronstadt, at Bomarsund and at the fortress islands of Viapori (Suomenlinna). In the last of these attacks around 80 ships from the Anglo-French fleet anchored off Isosaari and bombarded Viapori repeatedly for 40 hours. The strategic importance of Isosaari was not forgotten and after the war the island was fortified as part of the outer ring of defence for St Petersburg.

One tangible link to the Crimean war remains on the island – the grave of 33 year old seaman George Quinnell, who was serving on the frigate HMS Amphion. It is said that he was decapitated by a cannonball fired from Santahamina (another military island, still in use by the Finnish armed forces) during a scouting mission ahead of the battle in 1855. A party of sailors from HMS Albion and HMS Exploit recently visited the grave to pay their respects to the forgotten sailor.

The grave of George Quinnell

The island was fortified under Russian rule, but after the bitter civil war the same fortifications and barracks were used to form the Iso-Mjölö prison camp which held around 1,500 of the most dangerous Red prisoners. The conditions were pretty terrible but worst for the prisoners condemned to die, held in a Russian casemate that was little more than a dug out with a dirt floor and covered with earth. Many died of diseases or were executed. In 1955 a memorial for the prisoners was erected on the island over the site of a mass grave.

Under the new Finnish administration the island continued to play an important defensive role, but instead of protecting the Russian coast the islands were now manned as a protection for the Finnish territories against the Russian threat. Many of the existing armaments and ammunition that had been left behind were re-purposed. This process of adaption continued, for example the Finns installed a gun from a First World War battleship on the island during the Second World War.

One of the more interesting locations on the island, accessible only on a guided tour, is the old Torpedo Test Station (1936). The Finns inherited Russian T/12-torpedoes upon independence in 1917 and experiments with them were carried out here from the 1930s to 1950s. This was particularly important after World War 2. Our guide explained that the Peace Treaty forbade torpedo boats but not torpedos, so this experiment was a way round that.

Inside the Torpedo Station (1933–36)

After torpedo testing operations moved to Upinniemi (1956) the peninsula was used for corrosion testing until 2017 (the corroded frames were still in evidence inside and outside the main torpedo station building). There was also a military weather station located here between 1929-1953 and 1984-2008, though some of the buildings associated with this have long gone.

The island was more than just a military base, as you can see from the infrastructure. Our tour took us past some of the terraced housing blocks built in the 1960s to accommodate around 30 families and a couple of schools. The first school building, now a dilapidated wooden building, was still in use as a school house until the 1970s despite having no running water. The second school building was in better condition. There were still a handful of pupils attending when it closed in 2002. Only one person lives on the island today – the southernmost inhabitant of Helsinki.

Some of the buildings on the island are likely to be demolished, like the L shaped barracks building that was in use until 2012, while others will be used as part of the facilities for visitors. There are a couple of restaurants on the island, including one in the Rikama Hall serving up a very reasonably priced buffet of seasonal produce that came highly recommended. There is also a public sauna included in the price of the ferry ticket!

Plaque on the stone monolith erected in remembrance of Colonel Johan Rikama (1895-1954)

The island has plenty of natural wonders, from stone fields that shows the ancient shorelines to sandy beaches. A walk along the southern shore, dodging bits of rusting iron poking out from the rocks, is rewarded with the sight of a stone monolith erected in remembrance of Colonel Johan Rikama, an important player in the development of the country’s coastal defense. A second plaque, towards the base of the monument, remembers Lieutenant General Eino I. Järvinen, who died during the inauguration of the monument in 1955.

I always appreciate the insights that a tour guide can bring to a visit. I was fascinated to learn that one of the guns was, in its day, so powerful that no binoculars were powerful enough so instructions for firing were given by spotters in Tallinn. Sticking with the Estonian theme, we were also told that Estonian refugees landed on the island in the 1940s and settled there – a bit awkward as there was also a German outpost on the island! The Germans eventually requested they be returned but the Finns refused.

On one of the last stops of our walking tour we were shown a circular gun mount at one of the Russian built casemates, completed in 1915. The Finns inherited the Russian guns after the revolution but didn’t know how to fire them. The Germans arrived and showed them how. All instructions around the gun added at this time were in German, but the next wave of army soldiers coming in didn’t know German… back to square one! After all that effort, the gun was never actually used in anger.

Old School

Our time on the island was a delight. The tour was absolutely fascinating and highlighted many things we would otherwise have missed – well worth doing, despite the little hiccup about the language. The whole Peninniemi peninsula had been closed for the public until May 2019, so we were very lucky to have the opportunity to take a walk around this part of the island.


Helsinki’s new living room

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on July 6, 2019

The portfolio of tourist attractions in Helsinki continues to grow with a variety of new sights from art galleries to museums. The most unlikely of these new additions to the tourist itinerary would have to be Helsinki’s new Central Public Library – Oodi.

As a librarian, I quite often seek out libraries in new places (which has something of a busman’s holiday about it I know) but here there were clearly plenty of tourists and they couldn’t all be librarians! I made a couple of trips – the first to see the library in action and then to take a few photographs in its quieter moments. It didn’t get any less impressive the more you appreciated the detail of what they have done here…


The first thing that strikes you as you approach Oodi is the prominence of the position, situated opposite the Finnish Parliament and next door to the main railway station. It is telling that such prime real estate has been used for the public good rather than sold off to the highest bidder. It shows how serious the Finns are about the legally enshrined role of libraries in the promotion of lifelong learning, active citizenship, democracy and freedom of expression.

Stepping inside, you soon come across a declaration that matches this – proclaiming that everyone has the right to be in Oodi and that hanging out there without a reason is allowed and even recommended. The statement goes on to say that Oodi is everyone’s shared living room and you can really see that is true as you survey the different workspaces, seating areas and quiet corners across the library.

The ‘Book Heaven’ on the top floor is simply extraordinary with the vast open expanse of shelving interspersed with indoor trees and seating. It is a wonderfully light, comfortable and well used space. If you need a breath of fresh air you can step outside onto the citizens’ balcony for a view over Töölönlahti Park. The shelves hold works in twenty languages and even a selection of board games too.

Book heaven on the third floor!

The facilities were incredibly impressive too – 3d printers, sewing machines, massive roll printers, kitchens and even game rooms with the latest consoles. No wonder this place is as heavily used as we saw it. The librarian in me was impressed by the automated book return (complete with conveyor belts) and features like the intelligent docking stations with Hublet tablets that can be borrowed to access digital content or just browse the internet while in the library.

Throughout my visit I was struck by how beautifully thought out the space was with nothing forgotten, from the dot pattern on the glass to stop birds from flying straight into the windows to a pram park and a secret doorway into the fairy tale room. This is a really inspirational place – a sight to restore your faith in the power of libraries to make a difference at the heart of the community.


Helsinki for the weekend

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on July 6, 2019

The last leg of our travels around the Baltic brought us back to our starting point in Helsinki on a surprisingly spacious intercity train from Turku. Our trip was set to finish with a three night stay at the Radisson Blu Aleksanteri Hotel, taking in a few old favourites and some new sights that have appeared since we visited two years ago.

Hämeenmaa-class minelayer Uusimaa with Helsinki Cathedral in the background

It is the third time that I have stayed in the Finnish capital and I haven’t tired of it yet. I guess there will always be a bit of the excited 12 year old in me every time I walk in to the Market Square and take in the view across the harbour to the Viking Line and Silja Line ferries; the restaurants on the innermost islands; then out beyond to the fortress island of Suomenlinna.

There was no shortage of vessels to admire, including the icebreakers off the Katajanokka peninsula and a warship that made a rather unexpected appearance in the harbour on our second day. The icebreakers are really impressive ships and a Finnish specialty – around 80% of the icebreakers in the world have been designed here and 60% were also constructed here. The most powerful ship in the home fleet, Polaris, can navigate through an ice field 1.8m thick without stopping and plays a vital role in keeping Finnish ports operational all year long.

Icebreakers in Helsinki

On our first day in the capital we spent a pleasant morning wandering around Katajanokka before catching up with our longtime family friend for a quite delightful visit to the Ars Fennica 2019 exhibition at the Amos Rex and Helsinki’s quite incredible new Central Library. The Ars Fennica is the biggest prize in the Finnish art scene, along the lines of the Turner Prize to make a British comparison, held this year in the Amos Rex, a rather astonishing subterranean space under the Lasipalatsi (glass palace) which opened in 2018.

The five candidates for the Ars Fennica in 2019 presented a wonderful dilemma for visitors trying to pick a winner. I loved the large screen video installation from Ragnar Kjartansson (‘Scenes From Western Culture: The Boat’), Miriam Bäckström’s javelin like sculpture ‘Psychopath’; the imagined romantic landscapes of Petri Ala-Maunus and the utterly charming creations of Egill Sæbjörnsson. At the end of your visit you are given a marble to send into a series of tubes to vote for your favourite. Wonderfully fun.

Egill presents us with a mini exhibition chamber within the exhibition, a space where his imaginary friends, Ugh and Boogar, two 36 metre tall trolls, have presented their latest paintings. You can sit down here and read about their adventures (and fear of Moomins) through a specially produced book ‘The Trolls in Hellsinki’ before taking a look at their efforts. Almost seductive enough to win my marble – but not quite!

An unexpected tale to be discovered at the Ars Fennica 2019

An unexpectedly wonderful late lunch at Fazer À la carte, on the 8th Floor of the Stockmann department store, served up a Scandinavian treat – a creamy salmon soup with huge chunks of salmon, herby cream and dill; followed up by a delicious risotto. After some persuasion (unusual for me) I ended up with an astonishingly good white chocolate panna cotta with champagne sorbet and marinated strawberries.

After parting company with our friend we took advantage of the long daylight hours to make an evening visit to the zoo on the island of Korkeasaari, which you can reach by ferry from the Market Square. The zoo charges reduced entrance fees in the evenings and offers the hope that some of the more elusive animals might make an appearance after the departure of the noisier daytime crowds. I think that worked out quite nicely.

The second day of our stay took us out on the water to Isosaari, one of Helsinki’s outer islands and a military base for over 100 years. After military use ended in 2012 the island was opened up for tourism, welcoming its first visitors in June 2017. I picked up on this far too late during our last visit, so it was great to have this opportunity to take a look around.

Helsinki City Museum

Finally, I took a wander out to the Helsinki City Museum on our last day. I had read quite a few negative reviews on TripAdvisor so was uncertain what I would make of it, but I absolutely loved it. I thought it was one of those inspiring museums that really get you to engage and offer a fresh take on a subject you think you know. I spent much longer inside than I expected and was a little late back at our hotel for our trek out to the airport!

Highlights of the museum included some interesting perspectives on Helsinki, such as a display about how skateboarders see their city; an interactive display of historic panoramas of the city; a wonderful photo library; an interactive model of the city in 1878; and a compelling temporary exhibition ‘Objection’ on stories of dissent.

The exhibition ‘Objection‘ is perhaps best described as a cross between a series of art installations and historical documentation. The most fascinating of these was the tale of Hjalmer Linder, once the richest man in Finland, who spoke out about the bloodshed in 1918 after visiting the Suomenlinna Prison Camp. The letter he sent in to the papers saw him branded a traitor and set him on a path to ruin that would ultimately claim his life. I was completely absorbed by this terrible story and the other installations in the exhibition.

Panorama in the Helsinki City Museum

Our weekend in Helsinki was mostly focused around seeing the ‘new’ sights on offer and catching up with our family friend, rather than visiting what might normally be considered the top tourist sights. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much more there was to see in the city since our last visit and we had no trouble filling up our time. In fact, we’ve already started a wish-list for our next visit…


Warships on the Aura

Posted in Finland, Turku by folkestonejack on July 5, 2019

The corvette Karjala is one of the museum ships on the Aura, moored alongside the minelayer Keihässalmi, a short walk away from Forum Marinum. The Karjala was one of the first Finnish built warships after World War II along with its classmate the Turunmaa, constructed between 1963 and 1968. I took a look on board and was astonished by the fascinating story waiting to be discovered…

The Karjala

Although the Turunmaa class gas-turbine powered gunboats were originally designed to suit the needs of the Finnish archipelago their state of the art electronics and propulsion systems drew much international attention. The design was seen as a terrific export opportunity for the Wärtsilä shipyard, but despite talks with Ethiopia and Venezuela this led nowhere. The authorities did not grant Wärtsilä an export licence, fearing how the Soviet Union would view Finland muscling in on their territory.

The Karjala had a massive crew for its size (a total of 70, split between 30 regulars and 40 conscripts) and a wander around the decks soon revealed beds everywhere that it was possible to squeeze them in. The ship was preserved just as it was when it was decommissioned in 2002, bar the personal possessions. Today, the extensive accommodation is a plus point with the bunk beds seeing use for volunteers during big events such as the Tall Ships race.

The ship has certainly had its moments of drama. On the positive side they successfully shot down a missile they had fired themselves. On the negative side the ship had a near disaster in 1970 when a shell exploded while being loaded in the Bofors 120mm gun. The explosion sent part of the shell flying backwards through the ship and into a recently vacated toilet at knee level. Astonishingly no-one was killed. Three crew members were injured.

The Karjala saw service with the Finnish navy from 1969 until 2002.

The minelayer Keihässalmi

Other warships on display nearby, on the water and in the open air shed of the Forum Marinum, include the Wilhelm Carpelan (a transport vessel built for the Imperial Russian Navy, which served with the Finnish navy until 1977); the motor torpedo boat Tyrsky (built during WWII and later converted for use as a patrol boat); a 1930s coastal defence ship, the Ilmarinen.


Eight highlights from Turku

Posted in Finland, Turku by folkestonejack on July 5, 2019

Our stay in Turku was packed full of museums, art galleries and historic sights. Our pick of eight highlights reflects what we found the most interesting – sometimes quite unexpectedly so!

Turku Castle

Turku Castle has a history stretching back over 700 years, guarding the mouth of the Aura river and the approach to Turku. At its peak Turku Castle was the centre of power in Finland and the entire Swedish Empire, as well as being one of the most impressive castles in the Nordic region.

The castle followed the familiar path from medieval stronghold to renaissance palace, peaking in the late 1550s with the creation of richly decorated salons for the 18 year old regent, Johan, Duke of Finland. Once all the renovations were complete in 1588 the castle boasted 165 rooms. The glory days of the palace were remarkably short lived. The castle went into a steady decline following a terrible fire in 1614 that destroyed all the wooden interiors and fittings.

Turku Castle

The castle would go through a series of new uses that saw it adapted as a crown distillery, prison, garrison and storehouse in its later history. It was converted into a museum in the 1880s but plans for a full restoration were thwarted by the Soviet bombing of the castle on the first day of the Continuation War in 1941. The incendiary bombs spared little, destroying the roofs, the wooden structures of the interior and the 18th century castle church. The castle was once again left in ruins.

The restoration between 1946 and 1961 largely adopted a minimal modern Finnish design, though the chapel was fully restored to its original appearance. It makes an interesting change from the well-preserved or heavily restored castles that I have seen in other locations. We spent a good few hours wandering around the medieval and renaissance wings of the castle.

The Queen’s Hall

A terrific display of models helps explain the development of the castle and the displays in the bailey add to this with plenty of historical detail.

The latest temporary exhibition in the castle, A few words about Women, runs from 8th March 2019 until 8th March 2020. It’s well worth spending some time discovering the fascinating life stories of six women in 17th century Turku who ran successful businesses and worked as notable employers. One of the women featured was the ancestor of our family friend in Helsinki, adding an extra element of interest for us!

Turku Cathedral and Cathedral Museum

Turku Cathedral was consecrated on 17th June 1300 and since then has been the most important religious building in Finland, befitting of the most important city in the country for most of its existence (the capital only moved to Helsinki in 1812). The fire that ravaged the city in 1827 made no exception for the cathedral – the interior and the roof of the cathedral were destroyed.

The cathedral was refurnished after the fire, so much of the interior decoration can be dated to the next three decades – such as the beautiful ceiling frescoes in the altar choir painted by Robert Wilhelm Ekman between 1845 and 1854. The cathedral museum holds some of the rare items not to have perished in fire or pillaged in war, included a 17th century funeral coat of arms salvaged from the fire.

Turku Cathedral

Many important figures from Finnish history are buried inside the cathedral, including military commanders, bishops and royalty. However, we were looking for the Schulz ancestors of our longtime family friend in Helsinki – discovering their tombstones on the floor in front of the altar and just inside the entrance. It was hard to imagine a more prominent position!

Forum Marinum

Forum Marinum is a pretty extensive maritime museum by any reckoning, comprising two exhibition halls taking in an impressive sweep of maritime history that covers the ferries of the Baltic Sea, the Finnish navy and much more besides. The museum also has a collection of over 100 ships and some of these can be visited at the riverside in the summer months, including the tall ship Suomen Joutsen, the the barque Sigyn, the passenger ship Bore, the corvette Karjala and the minelayer Keihässalmi.

One of the museum curators took some time to tell us about the astonishing collection of in-board and out-board motors. If you told me that I would pick this out as a highlight of our visit to Turku before we arrived I would have suggested that you were nuts, but it really is quite something else to enter a three storey tall room and see motors on display in every inch of space available.

A small selection of the 300+ in-board and out-board motors

One collector is behind this incredible display, Jouko Kurri, which spans 17 countries and a period of over 70 years. When the collection was first presented here there were 150 motors, but today there are 312 and no room for any more. It is apparently a devil of a job to catalogue and it’s not hard to see why!

The collection holds so many interesting stories, from Soviet attempts to copy successful western designs through to motors that double up as chainsaws. However, my favourite would have to be the rarest – a wooden outboard motor created by a farmer in the early 20th century. The farmer had watched rich city dwellers heading to their summer houses by motor boat at the weekend and thought – why should they be the only ones to be able to do this? Impressive stuff.

Amphibian 3000 hydrocopter

The museum is overflowing with ships – outside the museum, throughout the museum halls, on the river and in a sheltered open air gallery. One of my favourites was the Amphibian 3000 border patrol vehicle which could be used on water, land and on ice! The hydrocopter on display was built in 1979 and saw service with the Hiittinen coastguard station until 2002.

Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova

The Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova is a museum of history and contemporary art, built around the Aboa Vetus’ archaeological site. Once you descend to the basement level you find yourself wandering the ruins of six medieval buildings, once home to the wealthy merchants whose grand houses were prominently positioned near the waterfront in the Convent Quarter (including the preserved vaulted cellar of the Schulz family).

Biological Museum

The Biological Museum was one of our quirkier visits from our trip and one that we were lucky to be able to get into, as the museum has only recently re-opened after water damage that saw it close for renovations for around a year.

The Biological Museum

It’s a small museum housed in a beautiful wooden building (constructed in the National Romantic style) which presents 13 dioramas that show the wonders of Finland’s natural world from the Turku archipelago to Lapland. It doesn’t take long to walk around. A large part of the charm of the museum is that it hasn’t changed since it opened in 1907. Some might not see this as a plus, but so long as you don’t mind seeing stuffed animals in beautifully set out landscape scenes you should be alright.

Museum diorama

A sheet with the English names for the animals is available from the reception desk and we had fun learning some of the Finnish names for animals along the way.

Kakolanmäki Hill Museum

The Kakolanmäki district is currently undergoing a hefty amount of transformation as the former prison buildings (out of use since 2007) are in the process of being converted into luxury apartments. There is a brand new funicular up the hill, with something of a troubled history, but when we visited it was out of order so we took the zig-zagging path up the hill. At the top the locals we spoke to denied any knowledge of a prison museum, leaving us scratching our heads for a bit.

In the end we stumbled across the museum by accident. It turned out that we needed to ignore the main prison block and head to Cafe Kakola (Kakolankruunu) and speak to the cafe owner. The museum, open only in the summer months, is located in a stable block in the grounds of the old prison director’s house which the cafe owner has to unlock for you to get inside. Three rooms explain the fascinating history of the museum, illustrated with photos and a few exhibits.

Kakolanmäki Hill Museum

The story the museum tells is fascinating. The prison was built by convicts imprisoned in Turku Castle with the first detainees transferred in 1859. The prisoners were employed quarrying the distinctive Kakola granite and when this ended the quarry was filled in with water and used as a pool, complete with springboard, nicknamed ‘the Kakola Riviera’. The prison closed in 2007.

St Michael´s Church

St Michael’s church (Mikaelinkirkko) is an unusual mix of styles. On the outside you have a red-brick, neo-gothic design, but on the inside you have a much warmer art nouveau design.

The church was the creation of Lars Sonck, a 24-year-old architectural student, whose successful design caused much consternation when it won the competition to design the new church in 1894. Although little known at the time, Lars Sonck would go on to be one of the foremost proponents of National Romanticism alongside Eliel Saarinen. Sonck was responsible for many of the most significant buildings in Finland including Tampere Cathedral and Kallio Church in Helsinki.

Interior of St Michael’s church, Turku

The church was damaged in the Winter War of 1939-40, depriving us of the original art nouveau windows, while later works in the interior saw other art nouveau features painted over in an attempt to match the interior to the gothic exterior. Thankfully, these changes were reversed in the restoration of the 1960s. The interior is quite simply stunning and well worth seeking out.

Luostarinmäki handicrafts museum

The open air museum at Luostarinmäki allows you to wander the streets of nineteenth century Turku and step into some of the oldest wooden buildings in the city. Unlike most other museums of this type, these 200 year old buildings are still in their original location, an area spared by the great fire of 1827.

The long term survival of these buildings was not guaranteed. The town planners charged with re-building Turku saw the district as a fire hazard and planned to demolish the cottages. The slow progress with this work provided the opportunity for preservation.

Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum

The first proposal for the museum was made in 1908 in the wake of the loss of other wooden buildings in the district, but it took a while for the idea to gain acceptance and it was not until 1940 that the museum opened to the public. Unusually, when the museum first opened there were still people living in some of the houses that their families had occupied for over 100 years. Over time these passed to the museum as generous bequests.

Sometimes these places feel like deserted ghost towns, but not at Luostarinmäki. Most of the buildings we took a look in had costumed museum staff on hand, ready to explain the crafts they were engaged in.

In addition to the sights listed here, we made visits to a couple of art galleries (the Turku Art Museum and the Wäinö Aaltonen Museum of Art) and enjoyed a visit to the Sibelius Museum. All very enjoyable.