On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part VI) – The Siberian Capital

photoOn board the Golden Eagle, our ubiquitous Train Manager, Tatiana, conducted almost daily Russian classes.They were both useful and highly entertaining. By the time of the Farewell Evening we were able to join in a vigorous rendering of “Kalinka maya” during our music-bar/lounge evening.

Dan, our Oxford Professor, was also tireless, presenting, explaining, enlightening. His series of lectures, complete with a freshly assembled final reading list, included numerous topics. Among those covered were the conquest of Siberia and the valuable fur trade which drove the Russians towards the Pacific. Other topics were Red Siberia that depended totally on the train as Lenin understood that “if the trains stop that will be the end for the Reds” and pre WWII Siberia, initially beaten by backwardness, yet only 10 years later ready to face Nazi Germany, in part due to the world ‘s largest steel plant at Magnetigorsk. Post-war, the enormous oil and gas discoveries are seen as a source of developing wealth. In turn, the exciting story of the backbone of Russia, the Trans-Siberian Railway, its evolution and importance for freight transportation, gave us understanding to what we could observe daily on the tracks, the roads even today not good enough for regular year-round travel.

photoA final lecture on Siberian exile up to Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet Gulag prison system, explained the tragedy of a region which swallowed 20 million people, even if, in the past for the peasants, Siberia stood for freedom from serfdom. Prisoners still exist and more recent high profile deportees included Mikhail Khodorovsky although his forced exile, currently in Switzerland has rendered him less relevant to Russians today.

Soon enough we reach Novosibirsk created around the Trans-Siberian Railway bridge over the river Ob. The city developed so fast that for a time it was spoken of as the Chicago of Siberia. Now with 1.5 million people, and the Siberian capital, it has one of the youngest populations in the world. These Siberians see themselves as the “purer essence of Russia” and remain warm and hospitable, quite open to outside influences, visitors and fashions (including some of the highest heels on ladies shoes that I have seen anywhere). This is now a wealthy region since the post-soviet privatisation of Sibneft and the largest oil refinery complex in Russia, run by Gazprom Neft. Oil and gas produce 70% of Siberia’s budget, replacing the former local military industries.

photoInevitably the focus of this city is Lenin Square. A solid statue represents Lenin as the Revolutionary Leader facing towards a distant horizon. He was characterised by Pasternak as one so focused as to be “narrow minded to the point of genius”. In the various provincial stations such as Belogorsk where we stop along our journey, Lenin is usually portrayed in full speech, arm upraised in emphasis as at the famous Finland Station arrival, to inspire the Bolshevik revolt. However at the mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow, the embalmed figure is closer to Pasternak’s observation that “…for decades after…the spirit of narrowness is worshipped as holy”.

On the square, we visit the Opera House. Larger than the Bolshoi in Moscow, it has a huge stage of 1,300 sq.mts. Sometimes referred to as the “Siberian Colosseum”, it was prepared to accommodate the rousing parades of the Stalin period when at times outside temperatures dropped below minus 40 centigrade. The company also produces a steady stream of excellent ballet dancers. Ballet school studies are free of charge.photo

Our final visit of the day is to the open air Railway Museum outside the city. The exhibits range from ultra streamlined snow ploughs to the barred compartments and cells of the former prisoner transport carriages. Returning to the city and the Golden Eagle, we pass the Akademgorodok, a former concentration of Soviet scientific brain power. Now financed privately by venture capital from Intel and Schlumberger it is nick-named the “Silicon Forest”.

Back on the train our maps show that Semipalatinsk is only a few hours south of Novosibirsk. There, the Soviet Atom Bomb program was developed involving over 450 nuclear tests and accompanying radioactive fallout. It was also the town where, after Omsk, Dostoyevsky was forced to complete his last years of exile, this time as a soldier. His years of hardship and reflection were followed by the great novels, most notably The Brothers Karamazov a book which contains the complex parable of Christ returning to earth but being confronted by The Great Inquisitor, seen as yet another window onto the Russian soul. The parable was a challenge for actors to present on stage but was rendered brilliantly by Sir John Gielgud (and worth looking at on You Tube) making Dostoyevsky relevant for all times.

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part V) – Twenty minutes at Omsk!

photo211So it is an early morning run! Off the train and round the station, up the stairs and along the platforms, in and out of security. The Omsk stop is a brief interlude on a journey through the dense swampy forests of the “taiga” and the many scattered settlements of wooden houses. We have travelled 1400 kms from Moscow. It took Dostoyevsky 25 days to cover the same distance by winter sleigh when transported from St.Petersburg.

Having been spared  execution for his utopian socialism, Dostoyevsky was sentenced to four years hard labour in one of the Omsk mining prison camps. These provided coal, silver, iron and gold for Imperial Russia. He later remembered “…in summer intolerable closeness; in winter unbelievable cold”. Although the production of minerals and the fur trade dominated, yet it is the image of the salt mines that became notorious. From these times a painting such as Ilya Repin’s famous Realist depiction of “The Volga Boatmen”(1870) gave a fearful picture of penal slavery. Upon return to St.Petersburg, Dostoyevsky went on to write The House of the Dead about life in the camps. Now, in Omsk, there is a commemorative Library/Museum of Literature named after him.

Another exile whose death sentence was commuted to hard labour, was the scientist, journalist, explorer Ferdynand Ossendowski. He described his stay in Russian prisons in a novel entitled “In Human Dust” which Lev Tolstoy claimed to be one of his favourite books. At Omsk, although considered a “left socialist,” he joined Kolchak’s “Whites” after 1917,then escaped to Mongolia. His epic survival adventures are recounted in his memoir “Beasts, Men and Gods” that some have described as being “…like Tolkien, but for real !” (it is available online as a free eBook, due to the efforts of the Gutenberg Project ). It also gives a great inside view of revolutionary period Siberia and inspired what Publishers Weekly called one of the world’s great adventure strips. Created by the Venetian Ugo Pratt,  “…possibly the greatest artist working in the comic world”, the hero Corto Maltese is modeled on Ossendowski, particularly in what is considered asIMG_1482Pratt’s masterpiece “Corto Maltese in Siberia“, a full length graphic film (see You Tube) that adds a different dimension to our Golden Eagle journey, while teasing that “an adult who enters the world of fables, cannot leave it”.

So Omsk, once the “wild, wild, East” with its pickpockets and prostitutes, is today transformed into a city of over a million people where Gazprom oil refineries are the largest employer. The Prof. and I try to get a glimpse of the city from around the train station, but the stop is only 20 minutes and we barely make it back before the scheduled departure. Our relieved train attendants grin upon seeing us, wag their fingers and refer to us as “hooligani!”.photo-3

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part IV) – From the Czars to Stalin

4-Vysotsky-2Reaching Yekaterinburg, another surprise. Not only another modern city, but one with the tallest building outside Moscow, a 54 floor business tower surprisingly named after Vladimir Vysotsky – singer, poet and satirist (“Vodka is our enemy, let’s finish it off”). He was a rebellious and charismatic figure, often seen to discomfort the powerful, who died in mysterious circumstances, aged 42. There is a Vysotsky Museum on the third floor (and he was even quoted by Baryshnikov in his thriller film “White Nights”).

Certainly the “feel” of this city is quite different. The locals in conversation are happy to consider themselves “Eurasians” having the best of both sides of the continent. Rebellious “Ural Rock” music is highly fashionable. Some young people openly say there is no need to discuss a return to authoritarian Imperial rule as “we already have a Czar”. They mention the Pussy Riot incident at the Cathedral in Moscow but refer to it as Russian Performance Art. In contrast,the white cross marker for the murdered Czar Nicholas and his family has been replaced by the Church of the (Spilled) Blood. It makes an important and interesting focus for our city visit.

photo-8 - Version 2The original execution site, the Ignatiev house, was demolished under Soviet rule but the cellar has been faithfully reconstructed within the church. The patriarch of Moscow has a huge house nearby and many people speculate about the close links between the official church and the Kremlin. In any case, a cult is growing around the Romanoffs, who have been canonised. Czar Nicholas is presented as an ideal father and husband and many young people with children are joining the church in growing numbers. The Bible has become a mandatory subject in grade schools. All this is explained to us by locals as being part of the increased search for basic values as, according to them “Russian values today have become money and sex”.

Not far from the Church of the Blood, we noticed a poster advertising performances in one of the twenty city theatres, much patronised particularly during the long winter months.It was a production of “The Master and Margarita”, based on one of the great novels of the twentieth century by Mikhail Bulgakov, which was highly critical of a stifling bureaucratic society. Tickets were sold out.

Returning to the Golden Eagle, we exchange notes with fellow travellers who had gone to stand with a foot in each “continent”, the marker for the Europe/Asia border. They had been subjected to a good-humoured mock “passport check” followed by celebratory champagne.

2442497027_ccd0043b10_zThere is further animated discussion on the train after another documentary film “Joseph Stalin; Red Terror” is shown. We recollect how our Moscow guides had illustrated Stalin’s despotic power with a story, maybe apocryphal, but credible to most, explaining the map of the Moscow metro lines. They mostly run north to south but in the middle is an absolute circle. Stalin insisted on approving all plans personally. When by chance he placed his coffee cup in the middle of the proposed map, it left a perfect circle. No one dared to even point this out, so there it remained and the circular metro line was built. During our debate, someone remembered that a recent Moscow television poll to determine public perception of Great Russians placed Stalin at number three, Tolstoy at number forty!

We go to the dining cars for the evening meal, but not before some enthusiasts ask for a 6.30am wake-up call, anxious not to miss anything as, already well into Siberia by then, the train was scheduled to make one of the short “in-between” maintenance stops at Omsk, Siberia’s second city and once a major place of exile.


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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part III) – From Tatars to Lenin.

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From the train windows we note the silver birch trees everywhere, a constant presence in the Russian landscape (and in our imagination,from “War and Peace”to “Doctor Zhivago”). In Soviet times, this national tree of Russia gave its name “Beriozhka” (little birch) to all state souvenir stores. We are told that it stands as a symbol of the Russian Girl. The trees, quite fire resistant, are still used in housebuilding and in many other ways, from acoustic guitar material to twigs in the sauna. The bark has antiseptic properties, it helps make diuretic tea and is even used for making shoes. By the time we reach Vladivostok one fellow traveller, John, remarked that he had seen quite enough birch trees for a lifetime!

photo3Having travelled overnight we reach Kazan, or the Quazan of the Mongol-tribe Tatars, our first major stop since leaving Moscow. Here we also cross the mighty Volga river, the “Mother Volga” of Russian lore, the longest and largest river of Europe, on its long journey to the Caspian Sea. The Tatar language is official. Never write or say the word “TaRtar” warns our guide as it means “from Hell”. In Tatar, the word Siberia means “sleeping land”. Our first visit is to the imposing new (2005) mosque, but the first impression is BOOM TOWN! New buildings are everywhere. “They are spending like there is no tomorrow” observes Dan our Oxford Prof “and the reason is oil “the black gold”, mostly extracted by the Tatarnaft company. There are new apartments all over the city, the first 30,000 given away FREE! Oil has made Kazan one of the largest industrial and financial centres in Russia. Oil money has produced that spectacular new mosque. There are also old mosques from the days when Catherine the Great, still remembered fondly because of it, permitted religious tolerance. There is also a new Orthodox cathedral.

In the afternoon we are able to visit the ancient and renowned Kazan University.Former scholars include the brilliant mathematicians who could calculate that two parallel lines would eventually meet (yes,in outer space!). A famous wind tunnel of the physics department made use of the former cathedral building closed down during Soviet times. Equally interesting are the academic “failures”, among them Lev Tolstoy considered “both unable and unwilling to learn” and the young, revolutionary Lenin expelled in 1877 for “student disturbances”. Lenin.Background - Version 2He remains a significant and polarising figure throughout the former Soviet regions (in February, on one day alone, some 90 Lenin statues were toppled in the Ukraine). We anticipate seeing the largest Lenin memorial, a huge head almost 8 mts (25 ft) tall, at Ulan Ude, an important stop towards the end of our journey. Here at Kazan University we see a unique flowing-hair Lenin presenting an inspiring image. We all instantly rename it the Leonardo di Caprio Lenin as it bears an uncanny resemblance to the Hollywood actor.

But our train awaits, so on towards the Ural mountains, the division between Europe and Asia, another overnight journey. There is still time for a film on the last Czar of Russia, some briefings on the next day’s Yekaterinburg visits, vodka and caviar in the restaurant, piano music in the comfortable lounge bar.

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part II) – From Moscow out!


We began with an assembly at the Royal Aurora Hotel in Moscow. The travelers had gathered from various parts of the world. Some had taken a comfortable river cruise from St.Petersburg, most had been met after arrival at Domododevo Airport. En route to the city we were greeted by numerous hoardings featuring a large Gerard Depardieu, a new Russian passport holder (and 13% taxpayer), advertising something forgettable. Others announced the release of some torrid film called “Sin City 2”. There are many new Orthodox churches with beautifully gilded domes, countered by 7 storey Munich-style glass walled motor car showrooms. Traffic lights on major roads have a 60 second numbered countdown for drivers. We pass branches of  “Makdonalds” (several recently closed down in retaliation for sanctions, though officially on “health and hygiene” grounds). The Dostoyevsky monument stands out  in front of the Russian State Library. Nearby, a flower-selling cabin is offering a 24 hour service.

Unlike the old Soviet days, when even luxury hotels, like the huge Rossyia, were controlled by the floor ladies and it was advisable to bring your own toilet paper and rubber washbasin stoppers, our hotel was fully equipped (while the old Rossyia has been demolished  to be replaced by some complex inevitably designed by the ubiquitous Norman Foster). Like all Marriott managed hotels, the Aurora included a drawer containing a Bible, a Book of Mormon and a company mission book, in which Bill Marriott assures us that “if you treat your employees well, they’ll take care of the customer”. There were magazines offering very complicated watches, and cocktails, also a large catalogue of jewelry by ultra refined Boucheron from Paris (who have a branch in the hotel building). The nearby GUM department store even contains an unofficial but very Apple Store-like retailer.

The Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express has prepared drinks, dinner and briefing in the elegant Petrovsky Room. Our fellow participants have come from Montparnasse and Monceau, Ballerat and Peppermint Grove, Hawick and Clapham, Totness and Cardiff. Some others from Anchorage and Manhattan, New Forest, Toronto and even Taiwan. All inspired by the romance of this journey, a rich mix of stories and experience.

We are introduced to our traveling on-board physician, Dr Judy, from the Cotswolds, and even our own Oxford Don, Professor Healey from St.Antony’s (so all aspects seem covered, taking note of Paul Theroux’s warning that travelers may not know where they are going, but tourists don’t know where they have been).

Next morning Golden Eagle have arranged a privileged early entry to the Kremlin Armoury buildings. We walk past President Putin’s office on our way to the building that contains the most important exhibits, including the Imperial Faberge Egg - Trans Siberian Railwayrenowned Fabergé display. This includes a tiny Trans-Siberian train of five carriages, which used to be rolled up inside an egg. It can stand freely, while the little mechanical engine can pull the carriages two whole inches.

On the way to the Kazansky station, we pass near Lubianka square. The ex-KGB building is being renovated. The organisation is now known as the Federal Security Bureau. There is talk of the Feliks Dzerzhinsky statue, removed in 1991, being returned. This founder of the Cheka, set up to counter so-called internal threats, ordered the execution of thousands of political opponents without trial. Now his bust is already back at the Moscow police headquarters. In a 2013 poll, some 45% of Russians would approve the return of the 15 ton monument. At present the memorial to the Victims of the Gulag stands near the empty original plinth. Dzerzhinsky himself was twice sent to Siberia during Czarist days, a reminder of a more recent deportee, the oligarch who developed the Siberian oilfields, Mikhail Khodorovsky, whose ordeal evolved from an economic and political opposition to a simple defense of his human rights. Sent to Siberia near Chita (where our train is scheduled to stop briefly  on the way to Khabrovsk and Vladivostok) in 2005, Khodorovsky was finally pardoned by President Putin and released last December. He is now based in Switzerland.
On the train, regular briefings/talks/debates are scheduled, as well as the 2-part BBC documentary  “Putin, Russia and the West” also providing a background to the Khodorovsky confrontation. Other topics will include a discussion on Stalin and a film on Genghis Khan. We will be fully invophotolved with the different regions every day and will hardly have time to access the comprehensive  and relevant DVD library on board.

For now, champagne awaits us in the Imperial Waiting Room of the station, our enthusiastic young train attendants are introduced, a band plays and we board the elegant blue coaches of the Trans-Siberian Express. There are fifteen carriages: accommodation for our 50 passengers, two restaurant cars, a bar lounge with live music, a kitchen car, a staff car and a generator. Each guest compartment includes private toilet and shower facilities. Secure safe-deposit boxes are a standard feature. The attendants take turns to be on duty 24 hours. Ready to begin our classic journey of over 10,600 kms, the train moves out, towards Tatarstan and its capital Kazan tomorrow.



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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part I) – Romantics of the world Unite ! –


Ernest Hemmingway could not have encouraged us more directly when he observed that “It is good to have an end to journey toward,but it is the journey that matters, in the end”.

So here we are, in Vladivostok, having crossed 8 time zones in 12 days since leaving Moscow, travelled over 10,651 kms, passed through 10 different railway administrations and marveled at world’s deepest freshwater lake – Baikal – which is also known as the “Golden Buckle” of the “Iron Belt of Russia”. This iron belt is the Trans -Siberian Railway, the backbone of the country and considered a window onto the Russian soul.

Vladivostok or “Ruler of the East” is our final destination on this classic journey. Approaching on the blue Trans-Siberian Express we saw the lights of the 4-kilometer bridge over Amur Bay to welcome us (which for some, would stoke up memories of Europe’s own super-long bridge, the Vasco da Gama in Lisbon). Since Khabrovsk,where it joins the Amur, we followed the Ussuri River. It forms part of the border with China and was a major scene of the 1969 conflict over Damanskii/Zhenbao Island. A disabled Soviet tank is still on a trophy-like display at the Chinese Military Museum in Beijing. Our cellphones keep announcing “welcome to CHINA…”. We are not far from North Korea.

photoThis is the last stop on the world’s longest railway line. Our bags were transported to the luxurious modern Hyundai Hotel from where the views of hills and streets are an echo of San Francisco. A last evening event is at a panoramic restaurant, to exchange opinions and ideas with our travel companions. We are warned about the traffic, as a mass import of right-hand-steering Japanese cars adds to the already normal chaos of right side road driving.

On the morning sight-seeing tours we see the spectacular 2 new suspension bridges (similar to Istanbul’s two new additions); the Golden Horn Bay Bridge in the city centre ,and the elegant new link to Russky Island. This last one has pylons which rise 321 mts above the water using cables designed by French company Freyssinet to withstand a wind-force of 250 kilometers per hour. They are higher than the Eiffel Tower.

Surely,we must come back to explore this once closed and secret corner of Russia, now open to the world. But first a break to absorb and digest impressions from what is an unforgettable journey. Truly memories for a lifetime!



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Southwestern Iberia – A Caravan of Dreams


Standing near the narrowest point between Africa and the Iberian peninsula is Djebel-al-Tarik, a mountain named after a Berber general. He led a mixed Arab and Berber army that helped establish a spectacular civilization whose remains still fascinate today. Tarik’s Rock is better known as Gibraltar.

The Arabs brought with them a developed way of life that included the use of coffee, chess, Algebra, silks, carpets , perfumes and maybe most importantly, advanced irrigation methods, vital for a dry sun-burnt land. There was much more , including those strong pointed arches that feature in their landmark structures still seen in major Andalusian cities.

At Cordoba, the Mezquita or Great Mosque, into which a catholic altar was inserted after the Reconquest, has one of the most remarkable architectural interiors in Europe, a “forest”of stone arches that is a treasure in itself.

A 320 ft (98m) former minaret is today the tower of Seville cathedral. The Giralda, as it is known, towers like a marker by the tomb of Columbus inside the church.

Overlooking Granada, the mysterious Alhambra (Calat Al-Hamra or Red Castle ) has inspired all who visit. An early American ambassador, Washington Irving, expressed the (surrounding?) nostalgia in his stories recorded as “Tales of the Alhambra”. Garcia Lorca, one of Spain’s greatest poets and dramatists, writing in Granada on memory, a mood of forgotten times, claims that “at the heart of all great art is an essential melancholy”. While guitar great Andres Segovia captured that feeling in his famous, lingering rendition of Francisco Tórregas “Recuerdos…”

South of the mountains , the coast gradually curves until it reaches what was considered the end of the occidental world, Al-Gharb or “The West”, now the Algarve. The furthest point is at Cape St Vincent and the dramatic setting of the Sagres peninsula, 200ft/60m above the Atlantic Ocean, whose enormous panoramic seascape truly deserves the description of “a balcony open to infinity”.

CapeSagresIt was here that the enigmatic fifteenth century Prince Henry (known as “the Navigator”), Grand Master of a knightly religious order, an ascetic usually portrayed in black, established a naval research center which introduced navigation by the stars. For 40 years, Henry gathered astronomers, cartographers, seamen, traders and adventurers keen to discover new trade routes to India and the riches in the spice trade. Still surviving today is the great wind-rose (32 segments, 135ft/43 m in diameter), a huge compass-chart laid out on the ground to record th strength and directions of prevailing winds.From this research centre ships were to sail to West Africa, Angola, Guinea, then round the Cape of Good Hope to Mozambique and towards Goa,Macao and on to Jakarta and Japan. Historian William Manchester noted eloquently that in just one generation, a few hundred small ships “discovered more of the world than had all mankind in all the millennia since the beginning of time”.

Still today, that magnificent coastline is a magnet and a challenge. Surfers come, some regularly from the coastline – even from as far away as Cadiz, and even others from California, Hawaii and everywhere around the world, because Sagres is the most consistent point, a westernmost point, where currents meet and the waves are good.

Also inspired were the 1960’s truly iconic California band, the Doors. They made a major classical-jazz-rock crossover impact with a piece of music which was released as “Spanish Caravan”(see The Doors – Spanish Caravan, at the Roundhouse). In it a lightning guitar riff, echoing the “Asturias”of composer Albeniz, is taken up by the legendary Jim Morrison who expresses the yearning romanticism towards that era when he sings:

The Doors ..Roundhouse First Night FRONT“Carry me, Caravan take me away

Take me to Portugal, take me to Spain

Andalusia with fields full of grain

I have to see you again and again…”

and adds

 “Trade winds find galleons lost in the sea

I know where treasure is waiting for me…”


Sentiments that world surfers have expressed many times in their search for the highest wave, often in the fiercest storms. Among those is self-proclaimed “psycho”(“I got to be a little crazy”) Hawaiian veteran from Oahu, Garrett McNamara, a daredevil surfer who has been on the highest waves ever surfed, claims some of his favorite beaches are on the western side of the Vila do Bispo area near Sagres but sees the Ericeira/Nazaré region, north of Lisbon, as a Mecca of European surfing.

article-2059755-0EBF0C3100000578-598_634x381His 78ft/23.77 m wave, recorded at Nazaréin November 2011 is still the official accepted world record although his training companion Andrew Cotton as well as Brazilian Carlos Burle have also been seen on the 100ft “killer”waves of the Praia do Norte at Nazaré Canyon, geologically deeper and longer than the Grand Canyon, USA (see the fantastic Carlos ride of of Oct 28th 2013).

Mc Namara appreciates that “the world has no idea of the marvel that is this country”. He considers Portugal and its coast to be the best kept secret in Europe and southwestern Iberia to be always a land of dreams to be rediscovered, as Jim Morrison sang “again and again”

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Towards 2015. In The Footsteps of Napoleon


My guest this month is an intrepid traveller, history buff and guide extraordinary, Alain Poirot

Alain is a long term resident of the Provence and passionate follower of Napoleonic campaign reenactments. Battlefield re-enactments add a different dimension to memorials. They bring out the full spectacle, the identifying colored uniforms,the regimental flags and the moving patterns of what was a chess game of life and death.

They are a glimpse into the past, an attempt to understand historical experience in a way that will frequently elude the armchair campaigner writing detailed footnotes. It is possible to claim that no landscape feels as haunted as the scene of a battle. Otto von Bismarck expressed that clearly, “The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions, but by iron and blood “.

Over many years, Alain has walked over battlefields, from Waterloo to Austerlitz and on to the grim field of Borodino on the road to Moscow.

Lev Tolstoy, writing in “War and Peace”, saw it all as being “…opposed to human reason” and thought that “in historical events, great men-so-called-are but labels serving to give a name to the event.” Napoleon himself claimed that “soldiers generally win battles; generals get the credit for them”, and yet, for more than a century, military theory and practice was constantly measured against the genius, and myth, of one man, Napoleon Bonaparte, who knew very well that, not being a genuine monarch, he could never afford defeat.

We asked Alain a number of leading questions  about his fascinating interest.

LGQ : How long have you been going to Re-enactments ? 

First time was in 2001……. I had read many books on the subject but had never been to any of the battlefields. We travelled by coach from Épinal in the Vosges all the way to Moscow and back, following in the footsteps of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Of course, going to Russia added to the spirit of adventure.


What made quite an impression on me, was visiting  the site of the Berezina  river crossing in what is today Belarus. Nothing has really changed there since 1812 ! The houses in Studzienka  (the village where the two bridges over the Berezina were built) most likely look much the same as they did in 1812 …(thanks to communism) still entirely built of wood. The fields and forests are still there…no industry,  no modern buildings. One can virtually believe that Napoleon and what was left of his army saw the same landscape.

The word “ Bérézina “ has in french become synonymous with disaster. The battle of the Berezina took place on  26-29 november 1812. In itself the battle was a victory for the  French as they managed to cross the river over the two bridges built on the orders of General Eblé and his 400 mostly Dutch bridge engineers. For the Russians it was a military defeat as about 50.000  French soldiers crossed safely to the right bank of the river. However…after the crossing of the Berezina one could say that the “ Grande Armée” did not exist anymore. In the next few days the temperature dropped to – 20/30 celsius.

The next tipping point for me was the bicentennial of the battle of Austerlitz in 2005 , near the Czech city of Brno.There I realized the importance of the 100 and the 200-year commemorations. More participants, more money is made available to organize such an event . There is much more adrenaline ….it is like drinking champagne  instead of wine !

LGQ: What got you involved ?

Reading books on the subject

LGQ: What preparations do you have to make?

All the practical elements : hotel reservations / equipment /  visas for both Russia and Belarus have to be arranged / reading / maps

LGQ  : Which battles have you attended?

The first re-enactment I saw was  of Borodino in 2001 (in Russia about 100 km from Moscow). I was with a group of  French people, all passionate followers of Napoleonic history. That year I also visited the battlefields of Austerlitz and of course the Crossing of the Berezina.

DSC_0745The next re-enactment was in December 2005 . It was the bicentennial of the battle of Austerlitz,  still remembered today as Napoleon’s greatest victory. It was also the battle of which he was most proud ( he defeated the combined forces of the Russians/Austrians and the Prussians ). This is a battle which is still studied today in Military Academies all over the Globe.

I also went to the 2006 Austerlitz re-enactment and realized there the importance of the 200 year commemorations. They are special occasions…more excitement…more action… more spectacle .The battle which took place on December 2 , 1805 has given birth to a now very famous exclamation …”le beau soleil d’Austerlitz”

Napoleon had observed during the previous days of the battle that the morning mist regularly filled the lowland and was then slowly burnt off by the winter sun .He used that mist to disguise his troops and make a surprise attack on the Pratzen plateau. The Russians who held the Pratzen plateau were routed and it was a turning point in that day’s battle as Napoleon had split the enemy line.

On the 5th of December 2005…..the fields were covered with a thin layer of snow….it was freezing and the mist was there as well as the sun . It was perfect !

 LGQ : What do you feel you get out of it ?

Going back into the past. History.The closest I can come to how it really happened.

It is amazing what  fascination all those different nationalities have for the personage of Napoleon, whether they are French, Belgium, German, Polish, Russian, Czech, Italian, American, Canadian, etc

LGQ: Why do people participate in re-enactments ?

Going back into a time capsule…the attempt at capturing the real events… It is like living an adventure

In Borodino, participants in the re-enactment also recreated for themselves the  encampments near the battlefields with tents  identical to those used in 1812,  open wood fires for keeping warm and for preparing the food.

In December 2005 at Austerlitz,  people camped outside, near the battleground in freezing cold weather…..

In the real invasion of Russia there were 30.000 dead on Napoleon’s side and 60.000 on the Russian side at Borodino alone. About 650.000 men from various nations set out with the Grande Armée and took with them 28 million bottles of wine .

LGQ: Which future events are you preparing  for?

Waterloo  2015 and St Helena  2021

It is also amazing to see that the participants in those re-enactments come from various countries like Belgium/ France / Switzerland / Poland / Czech Rep / Italy / Russia / Belarus / Holland / USA / etc etc

These events have caught the imagination of literally thousands of men and women across the globe. At the last Borodino reenactment  there were over 100.000 spectators.

Napoleon is usually played by either Frank Samson of France or Mark Schneider of the United States of America.

The role of Napoleon at Waterloo 2015 has not been attributed yet  but will be given to either one of these two men….A fierce competition is going on between the two for this prestigious role.

DSC_0788At the major re-enactments of Austerlitz 2005 and Borodino 2012, Napoleon was played by Mark Schneider ,an actor from Virginia who looks a bit like Napoleon, he is an excellent horse rider who has earned the reputation of playing the role  vigorously.

Frank Samson is a lawyer  who has studied Napoleon’s native tongue. He, of course, is a bit dismissive of the American, a Napoleon played by an Anglo-Saxon , Quel horror ! ( please note that the role of Wellington is presently played by a New Zealander !?) The organizing  committee of Waterloo 2015 face a difficult task taking a decision. Albeit…in the late 1980’s, six Napoleons turned up at a reenactment event at Waterloo!

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The Mediterranean Winter in Malta – “Bring me the head of John the Baptist”

DSC_0003Cool temperatures and glorious skies mark Malta in November. Clouds tinged with gold, red, crimson, blue against creamy-yellow limestone, echo Titian, Veronese, and maybe even Turner. A fabulous blend of colours –  Nature always remains the greatest artist.

The Maltese archipelago is a remnant of the geological land bridge, over 40 million years old, that once linked the continents. It is the shallowest stretch of the Mediterranean, dividing the sea into its eastern and western halves and, underwater, connecting Sicily and Tunisia.

Local people identify Gozo as Calypso’s isle where Odysseus was kept as a love slave over 7 years for the pleasures of the goddess-nymph. Eventually, helped by Athena,  he was allowed to go, but not before being offered immortality as a last temptation.

Away from myth, the temple blocks of Ggantija are composed of stones, several tons in weight, that are considered by Unesco and confirmed by carbon-dating, to be the oldest buildings in the world. They were left by a neolithic people who made their home there, long before the pyramids of Egypt were constructed, but who disappeared mysteriously around 2000BC.

Christianity came with the legendary shipwreck of St Paul on his way to Rome where he would be tried and executed by the sword.  On Malta’s high point near the ancient capital of Medina, the “Silent City”, St Paul’s catacombs at Rabat still mark ancient Christian burial grounds

It is the Knights of St John, however, who left the biggest impact on the main island . The warrior-monks transformed it into a fortress and, after victory over the Turks in the Great Siege of 1545,  the island became known as the Shield of Europe. The Knights’ familiar eight-pointed cross was said to symbolize the main elements of the Sermon on the Mount as well as the different national groupings or “langues”.

VallettaCoCathedralFloorOverviewIt is in their Cathedral of St John that one of Europe’s greatest art treasures can be experienced. Just entering the main church there is a feeling of celebration and exuberance, apparent from floor to ceiling. High above, the ceiling paintings by Mattia Preti recount the life story of St John the Baptist. Behind the altar, marble figures portray the Baptism of Christ but it is the floor that soon becomes the focus of attention. Like a tapestry of color in marble, filling the whole nave, are some 400 brilliant decorative tombstones of Grand Masters  and major figures of the order, each with a story and image. This alone would make a visit to the Cathedral unforgettable. It is, however, just a preamble to the Oratory which contains a powerful and graphic portrayal of the “Beheading of John the Baptist” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

The Oratory was a place for meditation and prayer by young knights newly inducted into the Order. It was also a place of judgement. Caravaggio was commissioned to fill a whole wall, more than 3×5 meters, with an altarpiece. Traditional portrayals of St John the Baptist range  from the optimistic depiction of St John as a child in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks”(in Paris and London), to scenes from his life, such as those painted on the walls of the cathedral in Prato by Fillipo Lippi, focusing on the dance of Salome as a principal element.  Alternatively he appears as a teaching figure on the side of God holding a book, such as in the exquisitely detailed Ghent altarpiece “The Lamb of God” by Jan Van Eyck.

Caravaggio, however, chose a radically different approach to his subject.Variously called  “The Painting of the 17th century” (!) or “the first work of a modern art”, the artist presents a scene involving the spectator in the moment after the beheading, the used sword still lying on the ground. Caravaggio usually painted from live models, so his contemporaries saw his art as “not painting but truth”. Here only the expression on the dead saint’s face is peaceful. A bright ray of light highlights the central scene, in the background prisoners look out from a building said to resemble the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta.

The stark theme breaks away from illustrating a biblical past to a vision of an artist familiar with murder,violence and brutality. It is a work that speaks to a post-Auschwitz age where “only following orders” became the standard, emotionless explanation for unspeakable horror.  It has consequently been described as one of the most important works in western painting even though darkness seems to prevail. The artist, having been made a knight himself in the same Oratory, was shortly a fugitive once more, escaping from an impregnable prison. In absentia, he was ceremonially disrobed by the knights in front of his masterwork, a cloak being pulled from a stool in the original place of induction.

On the wall facing the “execution” is Caravaggio’s  “St Jerome Writing”. Faintly behind the figure, a cardinal’s hat can be seen hanging from the wall of the hermit’s cell. He almost seems to be contemplating the events opposite. St.Jerome, an early Church father is shown with a skull symbolizing the transience of life while a candlestick suggests spiritual illumination. Like the larger picture it is painted mostly in brown but also underlined by a defining strip of red, in this case the saint’s robe Originally in a different location, it was moved to the Oratory after being stolen in 1984, held for ransom, then recovered in 1986.  Another attempted theft, this time on “St John” badly damaged the picture. It is unlikely that either work will leave Malta again.

Escaping from Malta, a paranoid Caravaggio went on to portray himself as a severed head of Goliath held by David and as a head on a platter in “Salome With Head of John the Baptist”.Shortly afterwards he was dead, in mysterious circumstances, at the age of 39.

Today he remains a figure of interest and speculation. Did this genius murderer fugitive exhibit violent behaviour as a result of lead poisoning from the paint used at the time? Was he unstable due to the trauma of losing most of his family to plague when aged six? Certainly dark stories penetrated by beams of light became his trademark. Many consider that Rembrandt could not have existed without him, and  his major works, particularly “St John” in Malta, are seen as the most spiritually intense  paintings in the history of art. This, his largest work, is the only one he ever signed using the red, painted blood of the beheaded saint, an ultimate acknowledgement.

For anyone exploring the ideas of western culture,  a visit to Malta is essential. The Chief Executive of one of the world’s major auction houses, Stephen Murphy has emphasized the need to experience , to see, a work of art : “ We have a saying in our company, when our people are assessing or valuing something, they will say “ I haven’t stood in front of the painting yet” No matter how many times they may have seen images of it, they are not ready to give their opinion.”


Seeing the Caravaggio’s in Malta can be a life-changing visit. What better place for a meaningful winter break?

Disclosure: LG visited Malta courtesy of  Hilton Hotels and EasyJet, organized by the Malta Tourist Office.

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Books, Beats and City Lights

ginsberg-dylan-mcclureWriting in the 1950’s but projecting “to Posterity” , Irish poet Louis MacNeice, envisioned a time when reading and even speaking would be replaced, “By other less difficult media.”

Today bookshops are vanishing, the internet rules and knowledge is too often submerged by a flood of information. However, in San Francisco, still standing out as a major source of mind-energy is the famed City Lights bookstore in North Beach. Its principal founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, defined his endeavour as a “finger in the dyke holding back the flood of unknowing.”

ferlinghetti-1Presenting itself as a literary meeting place since 1953, City Lights now at 60, both a bookshop and a publisher, places itself firmly “where the streets of the earth meet the boulevards of the mind.”

Placards in the windows proclaim “Open doors, Open books, Open minds”. Ferlinghetti, self-styled as an earlier bohemian, enabled the Beat Generation by publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl ( ‘’ I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”) following the ground breaking live reading at Gallery 6 in 1955.

Behind the poets, the new approach was marked by the train-of-thought writing of Jack Kerouac adding a new dimension to the easy going City-on-the-Bay. In his seminal novel “On the Road” the hero, Dean Moriarty, asserted that “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who…burn, burn, burn, like fabulous roman candles.”

Many had experienced that feeling of jazz music “splitting the earth” and Kerouac was delighted that “Everybody in ‘Frisco blew. It was the end of the continent, they didn’t give a damn.”

d5271702lDefense of free speech, liberation of the word from censorship became another rite of passage to the developing counterculture. Obscenity trials involving the publishing of Howl by City Lights and presenting Michael McClure’s “The Beard” on stage were eventually won. They made possible other publications such as the first printing of Henry Miller’s provocative novels in the United States, and drew much attention to the writers on the Bay.

Above all, it was knowledge escaping from the academy, and for the poets a revival of the oral tradition with the writer as performer ; Kerouac demanding that we “ Shout Our Poems In San Francisco Sreets – Predict Earthquakes”.

By 2001 City Lights was established as an official landmark. Ferlinghetti had become the first Poet Laureate of San Francisco and a street, Via Ferlinghetti was named in his honor.

Jack Kerouac Alley materialised as a pedestrian precinct behind the bookstore while the Gallery 6 poetry reading is remembered on Fillmore Street with a bronze plaque outside the site of the former building. All very formal and official and yet the voice of the Beats continues to resonate .

Among the many to acknowledge their influence was Stuart Brand whose work did so much to make technology liberating. He considered meeting the Beats to be his great transforming moment and an antidote to corporate brain-lock. It led to Haight-Ashbury, LSD and the psychedelic revolution, where poets talked and musicians listened.

“My words man, my words” exclaimed Jim Morrison of the Doors, while the coming of Bob Dylan was seen to disturb the peace and discomfort the powerful.

jobs_stewart_brandFinally Steve Jobs , whom Stuart Brand defined as a total hippy ( “I was an early hippy and Steve Jobs a late hippy, we were paying attention to the beatniks”), expressed his admiration for the way Brand had linked various ideas together in his Whole Earth Catalogue to provide the tools to “change civilisation”. Brand still offers controversial ideas on TED conferences and lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.

Each generation rediscovers the vitality of what became known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Charismatic actor of our times, Johnny Depp, when advised how to read Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues for a film protested “ I’m not reading as him, I’m reading it as me. It’s my interpretation of his piece.” Depp insisted, however, that without On The Road or Howl there would never have been a Bob Dylan or “The Times They Are-a-Changin”.

tv-poetry-9609-1In tribute to the indispensable collections emerging from City Lights, Johnny Depp emphasizes that “the riches I was able to walk away with from these heroes, teachers and mentors are not available in any school that I’ve ever heard of.”

City Lights Bookstore remains a shining beacon in San Francisco, a reason in itself to visit the city.

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