Monday, 22 September 2014

Irkutsk, Lake Baikal: wonders in remote Siberia

Why Irkutsk in Ultima Thule, being so distant from any sea, impossible to reach in a sailing journey?
I can't give an answer to that. Because I wish I could go there someday, perhaps. Because Irkutsk makes me dream.

The final destiny of Michel Strogoff's adventure became a lively and attractive town.

Coordinates: 82°18′ N, 104°17′ E
Population: ~ 800 000

Located in deep Siberia, where the Angara river starts from the Baikal lake, Irkutsk was founded in 1652 by the cossacs and developped as a fur trade outpost, and later as the center of a gold rush in the 19th century. Wealthy families competed in richly decorating their wooden houses, as we will see.

With the trans-siberian railroad in 1898 came wider trading and industry. Looking at a map, you see how far the town was from any civilization center, and from the sea. The arrival of the trans-siberian was a turning point in the life of Irkutsk. After a dark, depressing era as an exile and deportation site during Stalin reign, Irkutsk is now a coloured University town, with museums, theaters, opera, symphonic orchestra, parks and promenades.

Irkutsk, the "Paris of Siberia".

To start, a very beautiful Railroad Station:

Иркутск =Irkutsk

Then, take a tram to the town center.

The Irkutsk Kremlin

« (...) avec ses coupoles, ses clochetons, ses flèches élancées comme des minarets, ses dômes ventrus comme des potiches japonaises, elle prend un aspect quelque peu oriental. La ville, moitié byzantine, moitié chinoise, redevient européenne par ses rues macadamisées, bordées de trottoirs, traversées de canaux, plantées de bouleaux gigantesques, par ses maisons de briques et de bois, dont quelques-unes ont plusieurs étages,(...) enfin par toute une catégorie d’habitants très-avancés dans les progrès de la civilisation et auxquels les modes les plus nouvelles de Paris ne sont point étrangères.»

Michel Strogoff, Jules Verne

The Epiphany Cathedral, built in 1718, was restored from a fire in 1815.

The golden bulbs of the ortodox Epiphany Cathedral shine in the morning sun.

Built in the russian baroque style, it's façade is decorated with full-body icons of the saints and golden frames, thus gaining an uncommon coloured look.

The Church of Our Saviour , the oldest stone building in Siberia (1706), now a museum:

At any corner you can find interesting architecture:

The Irkutsk Ethnographic Museum (1782):

The Fine Art Museum - Sukachev collection.
Siberia's best collection оf fine art, including several early icons, Russian art оf the 18th, 19th, аnd 20th centuries, including а few works оf Repin.

The perfect dacha for a retreat in deep Siberia.

The Drama theater (1894)

Chekov wrote, in "Letters from Siberia":

«Irkutsk is an intelligent and refined city. (...) It's definitely Europe !»

But an unique issue in Irkutsk is the amazing quantity and variety of wooden architecture, typical of traditional house building in Siberia. Hundreds of them still remain, some in ruins, many restored, dating from the 18th and 19th century:

The "Europe House", built in late 19th century for a rich merchant family. Now, the Tourist Office works here.

" Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think."

The Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

The wood is pine or cedar, and for strong foundations the very resistent siberian larch.

Like wooden lacing.

Well, why "the Paris of Siberia" ? Because in the shopping area you can find the latest nouveautés from Paris, or you could: today there are mostly international brands and some few local boutiques.

Ul. Uritskogo, the first ever pedestrian street in Russia.

Boutiques and international shops line along Ul. Uritskogo.

New shops and a terrace café in Sedova street.

The Irkutsk market is an ethnic mosaic rich of colours, scents and savours.

Lake Baikal

« Une immense nappe d’eau se déroulait aux pieds de Michel Strogoff.C’était le lac Baïkal.»

The Baikal lake is fed by crystal clear water from glaciers and some 300 fastflowing rivers. Its pristine water is said to be the most transparent in the world.

The trans-siberian along southern Baikal.

It's the deepest lake on earth (1600 m), containing 20% (1/5 !) of the world's freshwater. For 636 km of almost intact coastline, you can find beaches, capes, cliffs, bays, forest - each one unmissable in any other part of the world.

The climatic influence of the lake is also remarkable: in this continental region of deep cold and very hot temperatures (-50º, +37º records ), the temperature around the lake is much smoother.

Cape Burkhan, one of the most visited sites, and a summer paradise.

The Baikal lake is rich in semi-precious stones -  jade, lapis-lazuli, jasper...

At Irkutsk, several options for excursions are offered : some by train (the Baikal Express line tours around the lake), some by boat.

The traditional siberian village Listvyanka, where the typical wooden houses are well preserved, is also worth a visit :

The picture above, starting this post, is Crossing the Angara at Irkutsk, by Nikolai F. Dobrovolsky (1886). .

Friday, 5 September 2014

Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Islands - 'not bloody' anymore.

This quaint northern town is surely linked to the Ultima Thule fever in victorian era. The greek explorator's route must have passed nearby. The roman Agricola, who then ruled over Britain, sailed round the island and saw 'Thule'. The Faroese Islands? the Norwegian coast? Or the scottish northern islands ?

Under the governor Agricola, around the first century,

"It was then that a Roman fleet for the first time circumnavigated this coast of the remotest sea and established that Britain is in fact an island. Then too it discovered the islands, hitherto unknown, which are called the Orcades (Orkneys) (...) Thule, too, was sighted by our men, but no more; their orders took them no farther."

The Romans did place Ultima Thule in these parts - the hyperboreans of Thule were Picts - and Thule meant for them the end of the world and the beginning of the unknown, as for us is deep space beyond stars and galaxies, today.

Kirkwall (from the Old Norse Kirkjuvagr - meaning 'Church Inlet' ) is the biggest town and capital of Orkney Islands, off the coast of northern Scotland.

The town is first mentioned in the saga Orkneyinga (1046), as the residence of the Earl of Orkney.

Kirkwall is a port with ferry services to Aberdeen and Lerwick.

The colorful seafront and harbour.

Coordinates: 58.9° N, 2.9° W
Population  : ~ 8 500

The Town Hall, on Broad Street.

The stylish Broad Sreet.

Left of the Town Hall, the 'Orkney Island Knitwear' shop, a tourist's favourite.

The town centre is around  Bridge Street, Albert Street and Victoria Street.

Old houses on the left, with gable-end chimney over the street frontage.

Those were 17th and 18th century houses of wealthy merchants.

The music shop, Bridge Street.

The 'Little Island' gift shop, Albert Street

'Orkney Soap', Albert Street

'The Orcadian' bookshop, Albert Street

The Big Tree of Kirkwall

Much of Orkney is treeless. Trees are scarce at this latitude; but a capital town like Kirkwall couldn't do without one, so a single tree was left from an old garden to decorate Albert Street.

The Big Tree in Kirkwall was said to be the largest tree in Orkney. This lone sycamore is thought to be around 200 years old, and its condition is rather poor presently.

At the heart of the town, between Albert Street and Victoria Street, stands

St. Magnus Cathedral.

This is the one unmissable landmark in town.

It is the most northerly cathedral in the British Isles, a fine example of medieval Norman-Romanesque architecture, when the islands were ruled by the Norse Earls of Orkney

The Saint Magnus Cathedral was founded in 1137 by the Viking Earl Rognvald, in memory of Saint Magnus Erlendsson.

This superb medieval cathedral is built of red and white sandstone.

The interior vaulting and the massive pillars are fine examples of Norman architecture.

Sandstone of different origins create a pattern giving a polychrome effect.

The church had Gothic later additions, like the rose windows from the 13th and 15th centuries and some of the door arches.

South end rose window.

The transept window

West front main door, with a beautiful red-and-white pattern on the Gothic pointed arch.

South transept door.

The Orkney Museum

The Tankerness House Museum, in one of Scotland's best-preserved sixteenth century houses, is mainly visited for the Pictish and Viking collections. It opened as a museum in 1968.

The Orkney Museum, in Broad Street, tells the story of Orkney, from the Stone Age through the Picts and Vikings times to the present day.

Scar Dragon Plaque:
This exquisite Viking plaque is made of whalebone. Plaques like these were probably used for linen smoothing.

Pictish stone, in the Orkney Museum.

As for seating and having something warmly served, cafés or tea rooms are easy to find in downtown Kirkwall.

The Strynd tea room.

Scone with jam and cream.

The Café Lucano on Victoria street:

A touch of modern Kirkwall.

Of course, there are several pubs too, some in historic houses.


This bloody town's a bloody cuss —
No bloody trains, no bloody bus,
And no one cares for bloody us,
In bloody Orkney

The bloody roads are bloody bad,
The bloody folks are bloody mad,
They'd make the brightest bloody sad
In bloody Orkney.

Everything's so bloody dear,
A bloody bob for bloody beer,
And is it good, - no bloody fear,
In bloody Orkney. 

No bloody sport, no bloody games,
No bloody fun; the bloody dames
Won't even give their bloody names,
In bloody Orkney.

Best bloody place is bloody bed,
With bloody ice on bloody head,
You might as well be bloody dead,
In bloody Orkney.

Captain Hamish Blair, 1940