Along Independence Avenue

The final day in Minsk, Belarus.

Early morning. It was neither raining nor foggy so my travel companion and I headed out of our 1950 constructivist-style housing estate to see what Minsk had to offer.

Our first stop was the Great Patriot War Museum, which consists of a huge monument to the Heroes of Belarus, a modern museum telling the story of the war and a park. It is not easy to miss as the monument towers high above the landscape. We had a photo opp on the monument and then went into the museum. After showing our Student Identity Cards, yes it is possible to be a student over the age of 26, we obtained entrance tickets and a photographer’s sticker. There is a route round the museum and our attempts to deviate from it were thwarted by the curators.As in all things Minsk, it is large and the exhibits are on a large scale. There are information signs in reasonably good English but the museum custodians have yet to learn the art of the short, snappy comment.

After the Great Patriotic War Museum (Why still use the old Soviet terminology?)we opted for a bus ride. This cost 55 kopecks and took us downtown. Along the way we could see places we had visited the day before and helped orientate us a little.

We got off at the Gum Department Store, which is a huge shopping emporium reminiscent of 1950s and 1960s shopping experiences. The imposing staircase, which you see in front of you when you open the doors, harks back to an earlier, more expansive, age when shopping was truly an experience. The window displays say the store is only 65 years old but it has the feel of a much earlier age. I especially liked the Art Deco details on the heating grills and columns. One of the floors, I noted that a light fitting was topped with some Soviet Era symbols – a hammer and sickle being one. After perusing real fur coats and the socks (a passion of mine) we headed off in search of a cafeteria. This turned out to be on the top floor in some kind of atrium. The cafeteria is a relic of earlier times. A glass fronted display cabinet with little bowls of salads and desserts, a serving area for the main courses from which you pick your favourites, bread and drinks. I got some kind of meat in a nice gravy with mashed potatoes, a sweet roll and a red liquid with some fruit at the bottom. It is a school dinners experience so you deliver your tray stacked with empty dishes to the washing up window.

After the shopping experience, we headed down the street taking some photographs of grand buildings. We stopped off to take a photograph of Felix Dzerzhinsky, who helped to found the Ceka, and a couple of wall plaques. Then it was into the Post Office.

The Post Office is rather grand as befits a main Post Office. It has stained glass windows and serving windows in a semi-circular pattern around the room. Directly ahead of the entrance is the little shop. This is a wondrous place for collectors. There are printed envelopes with the most amazing designs and letter writing sets. As a collector of Soviet-style printed envelopes I was agog and came away with a handful. I regretted not buying more as they were so delightful The nice manager directed me to some of the collectors editions. There were too many to choose from so I am saving that pleasure for another visit.

Then it was on to Independence Square. Now this is an interesting collection of buildings. To the right, a run-down building which houses a cake shop, a supermarket, a bank (!), an exchange office and, apparently, a hotel.

There is a statue in front of the “hotel” which may have something to do with the foundation of the city. It makes a nice photo. Behind the back is the red Neo-Romanesque church of Saint Simon and Helena, a Catholic church. We had the chance to catch the final minutes of mass.

Then, we went around the front to the main square. Here are the huge government buildings (Dom Urada), a magnificent statue of Lenin and the State Pedagogical University. The square is a hugely impressive site.

We took a break in one of the government buildings which hosts a café-restaurant. Then, it was on to the railway station. Here you see the station, the City Gates and lots of huge buildings and shops.

From here we entered the Metro. It was the rush hour but we still did not have to wait more than a few minutes to buy travel tokens. Using the metro was simple – we followed everyone else and put our token in the slot. I have to say that on my next visit I want to ride the metro and see all the stations. The three I saw were amazing in their design and I am a total sucker for Art Deco and permutations of it.

Alas, we got lost yet again. A few pedestrians managed to understand my mangled request and directed us towards our housing estate. On the way we found a small restaurant where we ordered Grandmother’s Stuffed Cabbage Leaves. Very Polish. Later we visit s cocktail bar which was reminiscent of the kind of thing you used to find in Soho London in the 1980s. Very tacky and tasteless. Hygge, the Scandinavian style currently, popular in London, has not reached these parts.

Then, we were lost again for the final time! 3 nights in Minsk and got lost 3 times!

Urban Walking


Kings Cross Development

Urban Walking or Urban Hiking is a trend which has spread over here from the States. The idea is that you abandon your car, bus, train or even bicycle and go out for a walk in the city. Obviously, those of us who are Urban Photographers have been doing this for years but any trend which gets people out of cars and walking is good.

A few years ago a friend gave me a book full of London walks which included places like the Regents Canal and the River Lea in East London. It was full of suggestions of things to see and places to stop for a snack. Very useful it was too. The last time I did a proper bicycle trip, I went around the Trent Valley starting off at Gordon Hill in Enfield and was pleasantly pleased to run across a walking couple who had the same book. They were able to point out things I had missed on my ride.

Walking the streets gives us a connection to our urban environment and is particularly useful in these times where we are becoming more isolated from our neighbours. In the part of North London where I live the streets are changing rapidly and by walking them I am able to see how it is changing. Shops open up and then disappear. Buildings are pulled down and become student accommodation. Small shops are amalgamated into bright airy supermarkets.The population is slowly changing and this is evidenced from who is sitting in the new hipster cafés and bars – it is becoming gentrified. I read this morning that the largest Jewish community is moving out to Canvey Island as it is now expensive to live here. That is a decision which will affect the look of the streets if the kosher shops and bakeries follow them.


If the town planners would get out of their cars and come out of their offices to walk the streets they might have a greater understanding of the layout of this urban jungle. A recent housing development sported a mock direction sign showing the distances to different local services and amenities. The distances and timings they gave were based on paper plans. Anyone who has walked the streets knows that in reality these places are not quite so easily accessible by car. However, if you walk down the small path skirting the waste ground and then along by the terraced houses built for the family of the railway construction workers you can be in the centre in around 15 minutes. The walk, by the way, is much pleasanter than the car journey. On the way, you will see apple trees, imaginative gardens, blackberry bushes and meet your neighbours.


I recently did an urban walk with a friend. We started out at Kings Cross and went in search of a pub. We strolled along the Regents Canal and ended up in a very nice Victorian pub which still had it’s original fireplace and stained glass windows. We bought a drink, had a friendly chat with the landlady and sat enjoying the summer sun in the yard. Then, we continued walking until Camden Market. We had a look at a second-hand bookshop and moved on. Eventually, we arrived at Primrose Hill. I remembered a pub I had seen at the corner of England’s Lane. We asked directions and we directed to a bus stop. Since the bus stop was on the route we followed the directions. A road sign directed us to Belsize Park and we had a lovely walk up to it and a stroll around the streets looking at the restaurants and pubs on the way. Eventually we came across a delightful tapas bar where we stopped for supper. It was a lovely day and a lovely way to see the city. The tapas bar was a big hit and a wonderful “find.”


It was a delightful way to connect with the city once again and I strongly urge people to walk their streets to get to know them.


Making the most of a research trip

My novel-in-progress, Weaver of Words, has reached the point where I need to fill in some topographical, historical and cultural details. Luckily for me, this stage has coincided with the start of the summer holiday season so I can get out there and do the research in person. Much as I like siting at my desk, cup of coffee by my side, whizzing around the internet there are some things which are best experienced and researched in person.

For my novel, Stūra māja: In the Shadow of Fear, I walked the streets of Riga looking at the topography through the eyes of my main character. I had gained a good idea of the layout of the streets from printed maps, Google Maps and  the original television version of Henning Mankell’s Dogs of Riga  but I need to experience the places for myself. Having walked the streets, I then visited the Museum of Occupations and looked at photographs of the streets during the Communist period. I visited the KGB headquarters three times to be sure I knew the layout and experienced the building.

Whilst I cannot actually go back to 1968 and 1973 (the key dates when most of the novel is set), I can visit the chapter locations in person and visit museums and exhibitions. Earlier in the year, I paid a visit to Warsaw so I could visit a Polish block of flats from the era (it resembled a prison with narrow corridors lighted by low-output strip lighting  and metal doors to each flat), walked the streets and seeing the parks and buildings my characters would have seen and then went to the 30th of the Palace of Culture and Science  to experience it for myself. Now, I know the view my characters could have and how cold it is  up there. This is something I could not know without being there.

For my research trip to the Czech Republic and Poland I have to fit a lot in. Suddenly, seven days does not seem enough even though I used to know the locations quite well and am not seeing them for the first time. I will, however, be seeing them through different eyes. When I lived in the Czech Republic I was caught up in the experience and living though the transition from Communism to Capitalism. Now, I am looking as a writer and a historian.

I think careful planning is important when making a research trip. Think about what you want to find out, how you are going to find this information or experience, where you want to go and how much you can physically do in the time. As a result of trial and error, I have developed a series of Excel spreadsheets to keep all the information in one place.

2016-07-07 (2)

This image shows part of the sightseeing and research spreadsheet. I have broken the trip down into days and then into the places I need to visit. I have tried to group the locations in locations e.g. Chodov and Haje so I can visit the cemeteries and the remnants of Communist street architecture.Another day, I got to Havirov following the bus route of the two main characters. I have factored in a drink in the pub-restaurant (restaurace) they visit – that is a bit of pleasure as well as work.

I know some people think this is a bit OTT or even anal but it means I have a list of where I need to go and what I need to do. By arranging everything in my spreadsheet, I am trying to make sure I don’t miss anywhere out.

By taking the time to plan in advance, I have uncovered some exhibitions I did not know about before and which will provide useful background information. There is always so much going on in Prague that the variety of events is somewhat overwhelming and my spreadsheet is providing structure to the trip. It is something I recommend a researcher to do. After all, you have paid a lot of money to do this research so you need to make the most of it.

As well as planning the actual research, I have designed some new business cards. I am hoping that if I cannot find all the information I need some kind archivist will help me out. It’s just more professional to be able to handover a business card than to scribble your details on a post-it note. Just in case anyone is minded to Google me, I have also updated my website. I do want to look my very best.

As a footnote: I have saved quite a bit of money by booking all my travel online.


If any of my readers has advice they would like to share be assured it will be gratefully received.



Giant Statues and Giant History Recorded

From my Facebook Page ( and TripAdvisor review

I have started writing up my reviews of Budapest on TripAdvisor.

Giant Statues and Giant History Recorded

There are few places left in Europe where you can see the monumental monuments and statues the Soviets placed to remind the conquered of their station in life. Memento Park is one of them.

Despite the Disney World approach to selling the park it does have a serious purpose. That purpose is to act as a reminder of how much the Soviet System brutalized the populations it tried to rule and subdue. The statues remind us of the enormity of the ego of the Soviet invaders and the belief system they tried to force on people e.g. Socialism with an Inhuman Face. Once you get past the tacky tacky souvenir shop, itself a comment on the tackiness of Sovietsky, then you are in a surreal world of monster statues.

Not all the statues are really really huge. Some are just normal pass-by without noticing size, some are just about noticeable and some are so huge they can probably be seen from outer space. The huge ones generally represent the fallen Soviet heroes or commemorate heroic events by the Soviets; the smaller one remember the fallen, the quietly heroic and the people who made a difference to life in the country.

The park is a place of wonder and reflection. There’s a huge pair of boots near the entrance which were Stalin’s boots. One could say, that they remind us that he got “too big for his boots” which is why he was deposed and most statues of him destroyed. Lenin fared better. Karl Marx, who stirred up the whole revolutionary business in the first place, sits at the entrance looking rather academic.

The park is accessible via metro from Gellert Station and a 150 bus. The bus trip goes through residential areas and a bit of countryside before stopping near a dirt track. When you get off the bus, the Statue Park is behind you . Look around for the boots!

In the Beerhouse

After spending a good few hours tramping around locations for my Hirve Park novel, and nearly getting blown over bythe wind up on Toompea, I have parked myself in The Beerhouse.  It is a rather jolly brewery, eatery and historical theme place.

On my previous visit, I sat on the terrace watching the tourists but this time have ventured inside. The inside is a rather dark place where the brewing is going on. There are seats all around so the punters can eat and drink while the brewing process is happening.

Out back is an enclosed courtyard which has been themed “Old Estonian.”  Along with several different beers which are brewed on the premises they also do “Ye Olde Worlde” food. The serving staff are dressed up as peasants. For some reason, none of the restaurants or pubs have their staff dressed as German Burghers or Russian Noblemen. I find this very strange. These peasants need liberating! Actually, we  punters need liberating from these themed pubs.

I recommend the beer but the food is rather expensive and more modern minimalist than peasant food. In my humble opinion, I think the brewery and eatery over by the Port is far superior.


Selfie in theBeerhouse, Tallinn

In the Beerhouse, Tallinn

Summer in Tallinn

I arrived in an extremely hot and sunny Tallinn this morning and the weather is such a contrast to my last visit. I came over in 2013 during the November half-term holidays and the country was being battered by gales, lashing rain and freezing cold. All my tour plans had to be abandoned in November as there really is no point in sightseeing when you are in danger of being blown over by the wind. Today, the weather is a glorious change.

Hot sunny weather encourages restaurant and cafe owners to fill the pavements with tables and chairs so their customers can dine al fresco. This year it seems there are more pavement cafes than ever. Then again, there appear to be hoards more tourists than ever. I swear it was impossible to see the cobbles in Raekoja Plats and the streets around the Olde Hansa restaurant. There seems to be a lot more street hawkers trying to sell Olde Worlde food dressed in Olde Worlde costumes. For those who don’t know their history, olde worlde times were tough for the peasants and the streets stank of human and animal waste. Modern-day Tallinn smells of roasted nuts and pork crackling. This, many would argue, is an improvement.

There are also a lot of beggars on the streets. I noticed this too in Oslo three weeks ago but I am not sure how genuine the beggars are. They could be like the ones we get in England: criminal gangs targeting commuters on the trains and hanging around outside town centre supermarkets. Since Estonia is a modern economy on the up and up, you would think their social security system provided for the old, out of work and down on their luck.

On the positive side, I came across a nice brewing pub called the Beer House (intelligent name that) which opened off a side street from the Town Hall Square back in 2002. I had a large beer sitting on the terrace and a very hearty caesar salad. I was served by a woman wearing some kind of olde worlde serving wench outfit, but I didn’t let that bother me.

I had a nice time wandering around the Old Town. The last three visits have been in the depths of winter so it has been nice to wander around in the sun. I discovered that the bus from the hostel begins and ends outside the Kohvik Energie, which is my favourite Soviet Era cafe. I went in for a €1 cup of coffee and a cake topped with bright red jelly and tasting vaguely of cream cheese. Yum.