Falling through the wardrobe. Our journey to Fäviken. Day 54, 55 & 56

Falling through the wardrobe. Our journey to Fäviken. Day 54, 55 & 56

Now I may make a few chronicles of Narnia references here because in all honesty it is the only way I can describe the untouched beauty that is Sweden and the lands surrounding our next dining destination, Fäviken. First we have to get there.

Our time in Moscow spent we are flying to Sweden with a quick stop in Copenhagen. I must tell you airport security is a serious deal in Russia, our bags are searched, rough looking Russian women pat us down in a variety of places! Then we go through a full body scan and passport check, now I am not complaining because I am happy to be safe on airplanes. I hate flying at the best of times. Time for takeoff, we wave a final goodbye to incredible Russia and before I know it we arrive in Copenhagen.

Ah beautiful Copenhagen, a new food capital of the world. I know this to be true because there is a store that sells premium caviar and champagne right here in the airport. We’ve got time for a few taste tests don’t we Jess? Then they tell us our flight is boarding for Sweden, what do you know? We are getting back on the exact same plane we just left. Russian babushkas jostle their ways to the front of the queues, enormous Swedish Vikings step through crowds like mighty oak trees. Jess and I simply huddle and swim with the rest of the little fish.

image

Stockholm beams city lights below as we fly in for a gentle landing. We will be back to explore soon but we board our sleeper train to Äre and the adventure begins.

Now I use the word sleep in the broadest way possible. Sleeping on this train is in fact next to impossible. Pine trees whip by as we shake and rattle our way through mountain tracks and deep valleys. It is the equivalent of sleeping on one of those hideous roller coasters that Jess enjoys so much. Also there is a constant banging from the mirror that isn’t quite attached in our room. Jess is suspended on the third bunk high in the air, held by what looks like a repurposed car seat belt, I force my eyes closed on the bottom bunk, one hand on the ground to steady myself after rolling out of bed for the fifth time in the last hour. I have considered holding my breath in the hopes of slipping into unconsciousness but rolling over too fast and bashing my head on the overhead lamp has seen to that already. This is the beginning of our journey.

The hellacious night is over and we arrive like the walking dead in Äre. A little ski village nine hours from Stockholm. Now just to wait for our cab, it’s nine in the morning, he’ll be here at 4 30. We are in a rather mountainous location with our bags weighing a combined weight of around sixty kilos. Wonderful. Find me somewhere to sleep. Ah a nearby bus bench brings some relief until people start throwing us money because we look completely homeless. Maybe it’s the smell? The day drags out before finally our taxi arrives.

image

image

On the road to Fäviken; the road twists and turns until it is nothing but a gravel track winding its way in and out of the mountain. Hoping to spot a mighty stag or perhaps even a wandering moose I glue my face to the window and watch the world go by. The leaves are an autumnal orange and the woods seem to sparkle from the sun overhead. Suddenly we are there. A red barn glows like the holy grail of food that it is. Warm fires crackle as we are met by the lovely Sara and shown to our room. This is Fäviken.

image

The room is a cute little sleeping quarters with furs on the bed, it’s more like staying in someone’s home rather than a hotel. With only thirteen guests per evening it’s great to mingle and share a glass of champagne in the heat of the Swedish sauna. Regardless of the insane journey it took us to get here we are here. It is instantly worth it when I see the kitchen and get the opportunity to meet the wonderful chef Magnus Nilsson. We throw on our finest gear and get ready for what turned out to be one of the most amazing meals of my life. You can read all about it here.

image

image

After such an incredible meal one would think we would be finished with eating for a while. Then came breakfast, once again we head back into the stunning dining room where there is an enormous spread laid out on the table in front of us. Ham from the estate, cured reindeer, a local cows milk cheese, a wild bird pate underneath a rich blackberry jelly, quail and chicken eggs from this mornings harvest, porridge made right in front of us, fresh juices and steaming hot Swedish coffee. There is also of course more bread with that fantastically rich cultured butter. It’s a spread.

image

I never realised what an incredible start to the day pate on toast is. Mixed with estate ham and mounds of cultured butter my arteries may loath me but my stomach is utterly overjoyed. Quail eggs with all their lovely delicacy pair wonderfully with a little herb salt and some trout roe harvested at Fäviken. I love it here, if I could move in I would, I’d be a million kilos in less than six months but it would be a good six months.

image

With breakfast finished we take another quick wander around the estate, scoping out some crates of wild garlic for chef and checking out the onions pulled fresh from the garden. Then it’s time for us to leave this wonderful place, it’s strange but I feel a sense of sadness leaving this place, the beauty is unmatched anywhere I have been in the world. I think in many ways it reminded me of home, maybe that’s why I’m not so keen to leave, but the journey must continue and Stockholm calls.

image

image

image

Surely it must be nearly lunch time?

Josh and Jess

Your mission should you choose to accept it. 48 hours in Moscow. Day 52 & 53

Your mission should you choose to accept it. 48 hours in Moscow. Day 52 & 53

Moscow, the home of the Cold War, home to spies, the Bolshoi ballet, the mighty Kremlin, gizmos and gadgets and of course some of the most incredible secret history of all time. We are here, the busy capital, history hangs like the proverbial iron curtain. Streets of stone feel hard underfoot, a grey cloud balances on top of giant domed churches and just the slightest drop of rain trickles down on the walk through the streets.

Following last nights train ride debacle Jess and I decide that day 52 will be a day spent getting our bearings and finding where exactly things are in this great city. Aboard the metro once again, definitely the easiest way to get about in Moscow, avoid gypsy cabs as much as you can. A metro ticket will set you back around a dollar Aus and it can take you anywhere in the city. Red square feels like it may be a little big to tackle on our first day so we check out some of the other exciting features nearby. I also feel like we’ve been lacking in the food department of late so I want to find something as Russian as possible before we jet off for Sweden and the incredible Faviken.

The Gum shopping centre is the largest in Moscow, located just off Red Square, the building itself is hundreds of years old and an easy way to while away a couple of hours while we work up our appetite. Hundreds of stores stock everything from Louis Vuitton handbags to gorgeous, silky black imperial caviar. Taste tests please! A mosey about the many shops certainly works an appetite and there is a restaurant here that serves food “soviet style” what that is I have no idea but my stomach is ready to find out.

image

image

image

Stolovaya no 57. Where the food is served soviet style. What is soviet style? Is it served in communist fashion with some getting a small portion whilst others get large? Is it served cold like the war? Is it served combined with flavours from other countries like the mighty USSR itself? Not really. What it does involve however is standing silent in line pointing at the different foods you would like whilst intimidating looking servers slop all over your plate. It’s a little prisoney I will admit. Oh, also as Jessica found out, if you hold up the line asking for meatballs with your rice you will be shouted at. Fortunately what this place does have is kicking Russian food and a dining room packed full of locals. The slop on our plates is meatballs, chicken Kiev, another sort of braised chicken wrapped in brick pastry kind of thing and of course cabbage. Loads and loads of stewed cabbage, a little sweet, a little sour, a little demolished. Eat up with loads of fresh rye bread stuffed with a multitude of savoury fillings.

image

image

image

Ok back home now to try and score some fairly elusive tickets. Swan Lake is playing at the world renowned Bolshoi Theatre.

When in Russia.

image

Behind the great red walls. Day 53

The Kremlin, Red Square. Every American spies dream, the impenetrable fortress of the Russian government. The walls stand like burly security guards, vivid red waiting for their moment. The towers extend into the heavens, casting great shadows over us as we toddle across the stone square. Welcome to Moscow. It is both intimidating and incredible. I can’t believe we’re standing here.

image

Our morning begins with a serious chill, the frost I had become close friends with has since moved on, only to be replaced by a tyrannous wind that brings with it rain and sleet. The streets we walk are icy and the world of the Moscow inner city seems frantic with movement. Shopkeepers scurry to pack their tables inside, the coffee sipping locals now crouch around the dwindling glow of a cigarette. It seems a fitting day to visit the inner kingdom that is The Kremlin. Even the metro seems oddly empty, locals have left the streets, even they recognise a bad day for travel, the mercury dips below two degrees as we shuffle aboard the train bound for the Red Square.

We exit the station scarves strangling our necks and jumpers weighing down our bodies. Ready to face the dreaded weather we pull open the door… To nothing, a still calm has come over the square. The cold remains but the wind is no more. Colourful street vendors are setting their stalls brimming with Faberge eggs and fur hats, for some strange reason disney characters are walking the streets, because we tourists came to the Kremlin especially for a photo with Shrek? Perhaps even the weather finds this place intimidating. Standing beneath the mighty palace walls one cannot help but feel small and young. I feel ready to explore, to know the history and the stories that lie behind these great red walls.

image

St Basil’s Cathedral stands proud in the background, an explosion of technicolor domes and spires. Actually this space is the combination of several different cathedrals dedicated to various saints within Christianity. Now a museum to the public. The building hums with a wisdom of age as we climb the crooked steps into the base of the church. Gold emblems blossom on walls, religious icons stare from high above and the church becomes more and more of a labyrinth as we explore. A quick turn here reveals several iconography, a turn there holds the stories of the passion of Christ, it is beauty that words fail. Belief in something that even history cannot fully comprehend is a complex thought that leaves many a man wondering, but standing in this space one cannot help but feel the soul breathe.

image

image

With a little religion comes a lot of history, The Kremlin is in fact the name given to several buildings within the safety of the great red walls. The senate resides here, government officials walk stiff in tailored suits as the cold air takes hold. We walk through the walls and into the giant square, the arsenal cannons peer from behind hedges, guards stand at attention with rifle at their side. Wow, what have we gotten ourselves in to? The security check alone would be enough to deter the average tourist.

An air of power cuts through the bitter cold that now grips Jess and I. We are here, I can’t believe we’re here. For any tourist this is the culmination of weeks of effort, sending our passports away, having to be sponsored for a tourist visa, the security check, the customs officials. This is a journey of a lifetime. This is travel that not everybody gets to see, and it is beautiful. Superbly austere the Tsar Cannon sits in the grounds outside the many museums and cathedrals here. Now Jess could make a remark here about the size of the balls…but that would not be in my lovely fiancées nature. With photos snapped we walk into the Cathedral of annunciation, now a museum dedicated to Russian royalty. We are greeted by the wedding coat of Alexander III’s bride to be, a stunning fur trailing metres behind and studded with gold, that’s just one of the dozens of royal artefacts on display here. From slop bowl to solid gold there is plenty to dazzle the eye here.

image

image

image

Outside the wind has returned, bringing with it a little winter love. Snowflakes drop down in amongst the stones of the aged square, white powder falls onto our jackets as we huddle together in this sudden winter wonderland. There are many other cathedrals dotted in amongst the Kremlin and we take the time to visit them all. The tomb of communist maestro Lenin is also here, but for some reason it is not open today? Hmm perhaps he needed a bit of freshening up seeing as he lies embalmed under glass with the whole world staring at him?

image

image

I must say if you’re a traveller keen on history, beautiful architecture and an inspired city, add Russia to your list. Filled with wonderfully cheery locals, picturesque cityscapes and an incredible lust for living it is a destination that Jess and I have both loved. However our journey must continue. Sweden calls and with it the culinary delights of one of the most peculiar food destinations in the world.

But that’s for later

Josh and Jess

Make tracks. Day 51

Make tracks. Day 51

Only being in Russia for a few days, we have mastered the St Petersburg metro. With tickets in hand, Josh and I check out of our apartment, double check the map and head to the station. Today is the day we travel to Moscow.

There are two trains to travel from St Petersburg to Moscow, the first is the newest acquisition, the Sapsan express. Travel time is less than four hours sitting in a luxurious carriage with plenty of room and a drinks service. The other is one of the oldest trains you’ve ever seen. With a rickety eight hour journey where you’re tucked together with many others, numerous stops and a bathroom you just would never enter. When travelling on a budget, there are just some sacrifices you have to make.

We arrive at the station with plenty of time. Match numbers and symbols on the schedule board and stand where we think the train will be. Josh panics. What if we miss the train? What if we are standing in the wrong gate? Never fear, I’ll just ask someone. I get snobbed by many Russians, no English. Ah a ticket booth, surely they will know where we need to be. A window is closed in my face and many hands shoo me away as I don’t need a ticket. Great! Feeling deflated I return to Josh, who finds a lady that points to our ticket and our train and says yes.

Ticket reads: seat. We board the train and walk to our number. We look at each other confused. The room is two double bunks where two people have already made up there beds for the journey. We see our numbers, we are both on the top. With limited luggage room Josh struggles to heave the bags onto one of the top bunks, watching us the other passenger points to the other top bunk and jumps up. Thank god! We now have a ‘seat’ on the bottom that we both squeeze into. This is going to be a long eight hours.

We pass the time by watching movies on our iPods, listening to some much needed music and playing iPhone games like candy crush and pop quizzes. The occasional town outside giving our eyes a rest from our screens. The countryside is really beautiful, quite different than the Zurich to Munich trip we took a week ago. Towns are small and houses look like quaint little cottages in the distance. Six hours pass quite quickly and our two room mates wake, put on their coats and hop off at the next stop. Finally! A carriage to ourselves! We hear laughter in the hall and look out, two older Russian babushkas are headed our way. They point to their ticket, and then to the bottom bunks. Great, time to get up to our seat. We climb up and are twisted within each other trying to get comfortable. The women below seem to have robbed a shopping centre. Their luggage explodes with perfumes and knick knacks, finally they look like they are ready to settle in. Lady number one seemed to be having difficulty talking off her shoe. Lady number two assists her. Laughter ensues. Both ladies are hysterical as they try to pull, push, jiggle and heave off the shoe. Two men show up. They also pull, push, jiggle and heave until finally her foot is free. We laugh with them, and then at them. Then we laugh at each other. Looking at how uncomfortable we both look being shoved up and into a corner. Then I think we start laughing at the situation. This is travel. When there are so many stories to look back on and laugh, remembering all the good and not so good times you share together.

image

image

Finally we hear Moscow being called. We enter the metro, take a few wrong trains and then land at our hotel. With the sound of the rain outside we slip into bed. Even though we didn’t achieve much today, we both feel a rest is needed. And what better way than with some English tv. A few comedies later and we fall deep into our dreams.

Look out Moscow, we have arrived.

Jess and Josh

King for a day. Day 50

King for a day. Day 50

Sunshine this morning, dapples the frosted window, light streaming through the semi open curtains. We awake with full tummies following last nights feastings, the day is upon us and once again Russia calls. The streets seem busier than yesterday and despite the sunshine the friendly breeze whistling by still has a somewhat icy stare that cuts to the bones.

We are on the metro, the deepest metro in the world, the escalator actually drops off the edge of a cliff swooping down into the abyss that is the Russian underground. Demons in long coats and fur hats duck and weave past us at ferocious speed whilst we crane our necks feeling a lot like Dante falling into the inferno. The trains lie concealed behind a border of thick steel, sliding back like the doors to some spaceship ready to hurtle us to worlds unknown. Also the language is in some alien scribbled character that Jess and I struggle to make out.

Our train somehow arrives in the right spot and we are on the Nevsky Prospekt. The Champs Elysées of St Petersburg. The busy street is filled with locals and tourists alike peering in shop windows at the multitude of items on offer. Expensive furs hang for obscene prices and Jess and I quickly realise that this place may become a serious budget breaker. However there are some great things to do for free here along the Prospekt. The metro stop drops you just outside the wonderful Kazan Cathedral. The giant bronze horseman guards the entrance to the Winter Palace stood proud on a vast pillar of stone, the horseman is an impressive sight to behold and even in the grips of autumnal frosts the gardens prove a delight to wander among.

image

image

The Winter Palace stands alone as one of the most hideously, beautiful things I have ever seen. I know this is such a contradiction in terms but it is truly the only thing I can think of to accurately describe this palace. On the inside it holds a radiating presence that captures the very essence of Mother Russia, from the outside…it’s frickin green. Not a soft forest green that softens in the light, rather a green that looks like a lime plucked from the branch before it’s time, before the sun has transformed it into something wonderful. I suppose though if the building were a perfect green you would struggle to notice the amount of gold fixtures that deck the walls and smother the windows with their presence.

image

image

Welcome to a place of royalty. Now a museum of cultural history, this “Louvre” of St Petersburg houses artworks from across the globe, but the main attraction is the palace itself. It’s stunning fixtures, jaw dropping chandeliers and marvellous marble. Walking through the space is walking through history. Red carpet rolls underfoot, soft sunlight beams through priceless crystal hung overhead and the scent of mahogany causes the senses to stray. The Winter Palace is completely awe inspiring, it was not until we arrived here that we’d ever seen something so magnificent. For you Russian travellers this is a free exhibit for students of all nationalities, its been a while since I was at Uni but the student card still holds weight. If not it’s a short 250 Rubles and I promise it is well worth any expense.

image

image

image

The summer gardens are a delight to walk through, the leaves on trees softening into golds and orange before floating down from above onto the damp lawns below. We walk the grounds staring at the sun spotted trees weathered with age before we walk upon the great church. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. The glorious holy space brings a gasp to Jess and I as we climb the steps and heave our weight against the enormous carved wooden doors. Inside is even more incredible than outside. Giant pillars of emerald green marble, frescos of saints cover the walls and pink and copper porphyry glistens along the alter. This is the church where Alexander II was assassinated during the Russian revolution. Blood was spilt on this holy space and it has left its mark both on the building and on the Russian people. An amazing place to visit when in St Petersburg.

image

image

image

image

With the history of Russia running through our brains I’ve almost completely forgotten my stomach. Almost. The humble potato, a comforting companion to all foodies, whether they be crisp, roasted in duck fat or whipped and smothered in butter, the potato is friend to all. Here in Russia this is no exception, it is a friend to pickled mushrooms, sauerkraut, or for me a lightly spiced concoction of beans and fresh tomato. Now it may look like somebody has vomited into a babies nappy but I assure you it is delicious.

image

With dinner done it is time to head home, tomorrow we take the train to Moscow.

Time to make tracks.

Josh and Jess