Staying in San Telmo

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It was a fine nineteenth century building in the same state of repair as most in San Telmo. The paint was flaking from the shutters, the stonework had fallen from the balustrades; the stucco was criss-crossed with graffiti.

The sign outside called it a hotel, the WiFi code called it a hostel. More than anything, though, it recalled the cheaper guesthouses of Bangkok.

The room was hot and airless. The fan did not so much cool the air as swish it about, and made a noise like the treadmill at the gym. The walls were dirty, the floorboards were splintering, the French doors had swelled too much to shut. There was the inevitable dead cockroach in the corner, as ubiquitous in hotels at this level as Molton Brown toiletries at the top end. It was there when I arrived, it was there when I left five days later, and it is probably still there now.

There was a sort of a patio linking the room to the bathroom, but it had a high wall blocking the view to anything but rusting tin sheets, broken windows and ferns growing up the inside wall. If I stood on a chair, though, I could look over at the place where they slung the broken furniture.

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San Telmo is a characterful neighbourhood, the oldest in Buenos Aires. It was a poor barrio, centred upon a Jesuit mission, until 1767 when the Spanish drove the Jesuits out. It briefly went upmarket in the mid-nineteenth century, but a yellow fever epidemic put a stop to that. The rich left and their empty homes were carved into tenements and filled with immigrants fresh off the boats from Europe. Artists later moved in among them and lent the barrio the bohemian air it retains.

There was neither the money nor the mindset to tear down the old buildings and replace them with new, to extend or to bring into line with each ephemeral fashion, so everything stayed much as it was, photogenically decaying.

In the mornings, the smell of strong coffee and freshly-baked empanadas hangs in the air all over the barrio; in the evenings, the smoke converges from the many parrillas* as thick slabs of prime beef sizzle on grills. The convenience stores stay open late and do business through bars on the doors. The jobless sit listlessly in doorways; some sell odds and ends laid out on blankets.

There are rusting tram tracks up Calle Estados Unidos, although trams have not run on them for half a century. Dozens of Quilmes bottle tops have been trodden between the cobblestones outside the bars.

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I assumed that the cars parked up the street had been abandoned years before, until one of them grumbled past my hotel. It was as if all the cars from all the scrapyards of Buenos Aires had come spontaneously to life to roam the city’s streets. One was missing a bonnet, another a windscreen, and a few seemed to have been in the sort of accidents which make the front page of the newspaper, yet remained in everyday use.

Mercado San Telmo is outwardly unchanged since the last years of the nineteenth century when the barrio’s European immigrants went there to buy cheeses and hams from back home. It takes up the whole of the block between Estados Unidos and Carlos Calvo, opening out in the middle to an attractive wrought-iron and glass atrium.

There are hole-in-the-wall stalls selling beer and choripanes, baguettes toasted on the grill and stuffed with chorizo and slathered with chimichurri sauce**; but they seem, sadly, to be getting edged out by shiny coffee stands which could be anywhere from Washington to Wellington, from Cape Town to Cape Cod.

There are still butchers and greengrocers, as there have been for going on 120 years, but much of the market is now given over to antiques: to tinplate toy cars, brass letterboxes, old tango posters, military uniforms, radios, typewriters, and telephones. The antique shops continue down the lower end of Carlos Calvo and round the corner along Calle Defensa, interspersed with wine merchants, bodegas and design shops, all the way to Plaza Dorrega where the world-famous antiques fair, Feria de San Telmo, bustles every Sunday morning.

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A block to the south, there are two good galleries side-by-side, Museo de Arte Moderno and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, then the gentrified end of San Telmo fades into the dangerous edges of La Boca.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Literally ‘grills’. In this context, restaurants specialising in grilled meat, especially the celebrated Argentinian beef.

**Made with finely chopped shallots, dried chillies, garlic, dried oregano, olive oil and red wine vinegar

Subterranean Sightseeing: the Moscow Metro

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On the surface, the tourists troop round the Kremlin; they snap selfies in front of St Basil’s, explore GUM and the State History Museum, stroll through Alexander Gardens and stop to watch the changing of the guard; they tick off the Bolshoi and Maly theatres, the Tretyakov and New Tretyakov Galleries, Gorky Park and the Seven Sisters.

And two hundred feet below ground, there is a parallel Moscow with its own set of tourists, making their way between subterranean sights. Little groups of them huddle around guides, then disperse to kneel with SLR’s or stand smiling with smartphones at the end of poles, and bustle onto trains to get to the next big sight. Solo travellers make their own way round with Metro maps stuffed into guidebooks to mark the page.

The older stations, built under Stalin from the mid-thirties, were designed to impress with an extravagant blend of brass and bronze, marble and mosaics, stucco and chandeliers, as if the architects interpreted a little too literally the old Soviet promise to build ‘palaces for the people’. There are artistic flourishes in the smallest details, like a ventilation duct shaped around a bronze wheatsheaf with the openings seeming to be part of the sculpture, instead of the rectangular aperture topped with a grille you would see more or less anywhere else.

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When Stalin died, Khrushchev ordered a stop to his vanity projects and, by the late fifties, the Soviets started to build functional Metro stations to a standard design, like everybody else in the world. But most of the stations which a visitor is likely to pass through, and all of them on the Circle Line, could qualify as Must See sights.

Komsomolskaya has an opulent Baroque look with rows of limestone pillars, chandeliers and a stuccoed ceiling with mosaics of Russian heroes. It looks like it might have been designed for the Romanovs but was actually meant to celebrate the Komsomol, communist youth league.

There is an Art Nouveau look to Novoslobodskaya, which was built around a series of 32 stained-glass panels, rimmed with brass, slotted into Ural marble and illuminated from behind.

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Belorusskaya has floral motifs worked into the stucco of the ceiling, interspersed with mosaics of peasants and artisans in Belarussian costume. The walls are faced with pink and black marble with niches lit by bronze uplighters.

Chandeliers hang from the ceiling at Kievskaya. The arches cutting through to the platforms are edged with gold-coloured braiding. Between them are large mosaics of scenes from Ukrainian history.  

At Park Pobedy, by contrast, the side walls and ceiling are free of ornamentation. The visual impact comes from pleasing curves and highly-polished grey and red marble, reflecting in the chequerboard floor and directing attention to the paintings on the end walls of the defeat of Napoleon.

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Life-size bronze statues crouch either side of the arches which lead to the platforms at Ploshchad Revolyutsii. They represent soldiers, workers, peasants, sportsmen, hunters, parents and a border guard with an Alsatian dog who is supposed to bring luck if you stroke his nose (the dog’s, not the guard’s).

Elektrozavodskaya is named, as only a communist regime would think to do, after a lightbulb factory. Its ceiling is clustered with 318 inset lamps which – designedly – look like oversize household bulbs; its walls have gilded grilles and bas-reliefs.

Mayakovskaya is gloriously Art Deco. It won the Grand Prize at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The long central hall is lined with arches faced with stainless steel and pink rhodonite. Niches are scooped out of the vaulted ceiling, ringed with filament lights and filled with mosaics themed around ‘24-hours in the Soviet sky’.

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But the Moscow Metro is only incidentally a tourist attraction. It carries 9 million people across town every day, more than the New York Subway and London Underground together; more than any system outside Asia.

The trains average 25 mph, against 17 in New York, and come at around one minute intervals. Regular minutes, that is, not the infamous ‘Northern Line minutes’ with 240 seconds each.

It is free, it seems, of all of the Northern Line’s legendary inefficiencies*: the trains which somehow end up further away the closer they get, or which are announced but never arrive, or have one destination on the front but go to another, or just disappear into a tunnel and break down.

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What is more, a single journey costs the equivalent of 45p, or 63¢, instead of $3.00 (£2.10) in New York or the hilarious £4.90 ($6.95) in London, yet the system still turns a profit.

© Richard Senior 2016

*The Northern Line is a standing joke in London. I lived on it for years. I was usually standing but rarely joking.

Paterai Prison: the Best Bars in Tallinn

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The weeds were waist-high at the foot of the watchtower; the windows were smashed, the door rusted open.

The whitewash on the main building had weathered to beige and flaked away and exposed the crumbling brick beneath. Razor wire coiled haphazardly round the edge of the roof. Windows were missing panes of glass behind the bars; some had been bricked up and a few, in what must have been administrative rooms, seemed stuck open.

Paterai Sea Fortress is a sprawling sextant-shaped building arranged – as an estate agent would say – over four floors, including the basement. It was built as a cannon battery in 1840 on the orders of the Tsar to protect the shipping lanes to St Petersburg; later it was converted into barracks, and later still to a prison. But it was long ago abandoned and left to decay.

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The main wing curves around the waterfront and looks out across Tallinn Bay. Two smaller wings extend from the rear and meet at a point and enclose a courtyard with standard Soviet exercise blocks, three metre squared, surrounded by walls too high to see over, open at the top, but covered with mesh. A gangway for the guards runs between them.

I had read that it was possible to arrange guided tours but instead just turned up and walked in. I doubt that I was supposed to, but the gate was open and the security guard never looked up.

There was an eerie silence in corridors which once must have echoed with the slamming of doors, the jangle of keys, the clunk of locks; sobs and screams, jeers and shouts, the thumps and squeaks of scuffles, running feet and the sickening thuds of batons swung with abandon.

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The paint was bubbling from the walls, and each accretion from each regime was visible; the chequerboard floor tiles were half-hidden under dust. A ventilation duct had burst open and its panels hung limply from the ceiling.

The administrative rooms had the look of being ransacked, or cleared out in a hurry by ham-fisted soldiers.  Drawers left open, doors hanging off cupboards; chairs knocked over and never picked up, the contents of files strewn across desks and over the floor. Smashed typewriters, telephones and office bric-a-brac spilling out into the corridor.

The dusty shelves in what used to be the library were bare, except for a few rows of toppled booklets, stray pages from books and screwed up newspapers with the headlines of twenty-five years ago.

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A few of the cells still had skeletal bunks squeezed in rows under vaulted ceilings – it was thirty to a cell in Soviet times. The rest were hauntingly empty, expect, perhaps, for a solitary chair and paint which had peeled from the walls in strips and covered the floor like autumn leaves.

There was nothing to stop me nosing about wherever I liked and I wandered, as if at a gallery, down each of the long, empty corridors, stepping through gates which used to seal off each section, peering into rooms never knowing what I would find inside, with only natural light spilling through windows and into the corridor through open doors, and occasionally being plunged into total darkness and having to use the torch on my phone.

One room was filled with old chairs, spewing out stuffing, upside down bunks, collapsing cupboards, more Soviet newspapers, leg braces, and the remains of a notice with a heading in Russian which my phone translated, nonsensically, as “what to do if grab”.

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Another room had a sink in one corner, missing its taps and stained dark brown, and a squat toilet whose walls were papered with fading pictures torn from magazines of young women who might well be grandmothers now.

The tiles in one room of the old prison hospital were still gleaming white, but the grouting around them was filthy with age and neglect and the paint, as elsewhere, was peeling away in sheets and the damp was blackening the plaster beneath.

Operatory lights were still attached to the ceiling, angled at the frame of an operating table and a mottled dentist’s chair. There were big broken bottles, scattered syringes and a box marked ‘ТАБЛЕТКИ’ (pills), and cabinets and machines and tables and chairs which looked as if they belonged in a hospital bay; but there were, as well, discordant notes like a flat iron, a house brick and the rusting head of a pitchfork. It looked like conceptual art.

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It occurred to me, when I was at the far end of the corridor on the top floor, that the security guard would be likely at some point – I had no idea when – to lock the front door, shut the gate and go home for the day. It occurred to me, too, that no one knew I was inside.

Perhaps I might hear the door shut; and perhaps I might be able to run to an open window, or wrestle one open, and shout down to the security guard; but, then, this was the security guard who never noticed me going in.

I hurried a little after that, down to the claustrophobic basement where one room was filled with old bicycle wheels – surreal, but I was conditioned to the surreal by then – and out into the courtyard, where I waded through weeds to the exercise blocks, then quickly up, down and along the other wings.

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In a melancholy room lined with heating pipes, spotted with damp, and lit through a small, high window, there was a trapdoor in the floor and a rusted hole in the ceiling above it where a hook used to be. This, apparently, was where prisoners were hanged.

There was no way that I was going to risk spending the night among the ghosts of this bleak and silent monolith. I made for the exit and slipped out again. The security guard never looked up.

© Richard Senior 2016

On Nevsky Prospekt

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“There is nothing finer than Nevsky Prospekt, at least not in Petersburg; for there it is everything. And, indeed, is there anything more gay, more brilliant, more resplendent than this beautiful street of our capital?” Nikolai Gogol, Nevsky Prospekt

There were once wooden blocks set into the cobbles to muffle the sound of carriages. Nevsky Prospekt, they reckoned, was the quietest high street in Europe. Not now. Ducatis howl, Porsches snarl, and a pair of rally cars crackle and pop as they tailchase towards the Neva. Smoky old Ladas keep up as well as they can.

The crowds spill out of the five Metro stations along its length and stroll across the series of bridges which span the canals while skaters and bladers weave between them and leafleters step out, proffering flyers for bars and restaurants and ‘gentlemen’s clubs’.

There are hot dog carts and ice cream carts every few hundred yards along the pavement. Tour reps stand ready with maps and tickets and credit card readers, and sightseeing boats chug along the canals which bisect the street; the commentary echoes under bridges.

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It is a four-and-a-half kilometre slice out of Russian history. Mussorgsky lived at No 13. He met at Balakirev’s apartment at No 84 with Tchaikovsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Shostakovich gave his first public performance at No 52; Anton Rubinstein gave his at No 30. Tolstoy lived at 147. Pushkin dropped into the cafe at No 18 on his way to the last duel of his life. Dostoevsky edited The Citizen magazine at No 77. Nadya Krupskaya lived at 97; her fiancé, the barrister’s assistant, Vladimir Ulyanov lived at 83. He got involved in radical politics in his spare time and, like Dostoevsky, was arrested for it and sent to Siberia. He returned, under the assumed name of Lenin.

Neither the Soviets, who renamed the city Leningrad, nor the Nazis, who laid siege to it for over two years, changed much about Nevsky Prospekt. Some buildings were wrecked in the War, but rebuilt – if not as they were, then at least sympathetically with the rest of the street. ‘School No 210’ was built in 1939 and is as austere as its name suggests, but it is the only Soviet building on the main strip. There remains a painted sign on the wall from the days of the siege, which reads:

“Citizens! This side of the street is more dangerous during artillery bombardment.”

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The facades of Nevsky Prospekt are still, by and large, what they were when Lenin returned in triumph to Finlyandsky Station. Some date from the time of Catherine the Great, most from before Nicholas II.

The morning air is no longer “filled with the smell of hot, freshly baked bread” as it was in Gogol’s time. Chronic shortages at the bread shops on Nevsky Prospekt sparked the riots which set off the revolution which swept away the Tsar. The bread shops would disappear, as well; and the silversmiths, the perfumiers, the French confectioners and English merchants and the civil servants who parade through the pages of Dostoevsky and Gogol.

But, when communism fell, the banks, the insurers, the luxury shops and the five-star hotels came back to this Russian Champs-Élysées. Макдоналдс, Бургер Кинг and Старбакc кофе came with them: two burger joints and a coffee shop, whose world-famous logos help decipher the Cyrillic script. Sberbank remains; so does Intourist, once the state travel agency, staffed by KGB agents, now in joint venture with Thomas Cook.

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The Art Nouveau landmark, Dom Knigi, offices of the Singer Company in Tsarist times, is still the city’s largest bookstore, as it has been since Lenin’s first years of power. Tourists flock in and go upstairs to sit in Café Singer. They cross the road to see Kazan Cathedral, modelled on St Peter’s Basilica; and stroll round the corner, along the canal, to the onion-domed exuberance of the Church on the Spilled Blood – built on the spot where a Tsar was shot dead.

Back on Nevsky, they walk a block to the west to the pink-painted excess of the Stroganoff Palace, where beef stroganoff was supposedly invented, and on, then, to the top of the street with the gleaming spire of the Admiralty building directly ahead and, to the right, the most opulent of St Petersburg’s opulent buildings, the Tsar’s Winter Palace.

They might cross the Neva to Vasilyevsky Island or head north to Mars Field and the Summer Gardens or south to St Isaac’s Cathedral, but they will, without doubt, end up back on Nevsky Prospekt.

© Richard Senior 2015