Back in the USSR? This time with a visa!

I am falling right behind on my goal of 1 blog post a week. In a desperate effort to get moving, I went and found the most complete draft on file, also the only one I wrote AFTER vacation instead of quick notes on a bus this summer. Maybe there’s a reason Dostoevsky and Tolstoy wrote such long novels. I was also inspired toward verbosity by my brief visit to mother Russia and I have had to split up the story into 2 parts. In part one: explore the bureaucracy of communism, the truth behind the soviet stereotypes, and an encounter at the Metropol Hotel.


Airports Are Ugly

I have flown through the Moscow SVO airport before. It’s not especially exciting, but their primary state run airline is dirt cheap so I find myself having layovers lasting on average 3-4 hours there. This time I had a 20 hour layover on the return flight. I can’t imagine many airports I would willingly spend 20 hours inside. As Douglas Adams once famously wrote, “There is a reason why no language on earth has ever produced the phrase ‘as pretty as an airport’.” Since the first time I read this I have had the singular experience to be in some of the best and worst airports in the world, and I can say with certainty that the Moscow International Airport is not a place to linger.

There are few places you can sleep inside the airport, like hourly rental sleeping pods, or even the airport’s very own hotel (the one Snowden hid out in). I looked into these and discovered that the prices are almost as much as the plane tickets. Even if you’re willing to camp out on the crowded and uncomfortable airport seats, there is no way to get WiFi unless you have a Russian phone number, so be prepared to be both uncomfortable and bored. In order to take advantage of any less expensive hotel (or WiFi) option, you have leave the airport, but unless you are from a very narrow list of close Russian allied countries, you can’t leave the airport without a visa. And you can’t get a visa at the door, you have to apply for and pay for that visa well in advance of your arrival.

You Need a Visa To Get In

Tourist visas to Russia require a letter of invitation. These are usually arranged by tour guides which seems like a giant scam, but that’s a whole other rant. Transit visas can bypass the letter requirement if you have proof of your ongoing flight. The transit visa can be used for up to 3 days if you’re flying and 10 if you are travelling by train.

Thus, my trip to Moscow actually started in June with the Russian Consulate in Busan, South Korea. Since they weren’t open on my day off, I got up very early in the morning on a Friday and bused into Busan to file my paperwork. I was able to fill out and download the application online and print it at my office, however the application took several hours to fill out because in addition to all the normal information, they wanted the exact dates of all my international travel for the last 10 years. They also wanted complete information on all my secondary education, and on my parents, and to know if I had any education whatsoever about nuclear weapons (I do!). I felt like I was filling out a background check for the CIA.

I nervously handed over the painstakingly researched application form and paid the 100$ fee, hoping that nothing would disqualify me from going and returned to my home to wait a week for the results. I shouldn’t have been worried. Communism loves bureaucracy and to make people jump the hoops and I have become an expert form filler. A week later I made the trek back to the consulate and my passport was returned to me with a shiny new 1 day visa inside. I booked a hostel and an airport shuttle and more or less forgot about it for 2 months.

Midnight Arrival

When I landed in Moscow, it was just after midnight and amid a flood of Chinese tourists, but it didn’t actually take all that long to go through customs and immigration. Since I was technically on a layover with a connecting flight, I had checked one bag through and was only carrying my day pack and a basic change of clothes with me. My visa was scrutinized intensely. This guy busted out a jeweler’s lens to stare at it in minute detail. Eventually, finding nothing wrong, they allowed me to pass out of the international terminal and onto Russian soil.

There is an oddity about the Moscow airport in that the WiFi requires you to give a phone number where they will send you a code to log on. It’s “free WiFi” but you can’t access it if you don’t have a Russian phone number. It’s frustrated me every time I’ve flown through, and I’ve never been able to get it to work. Really, it’s free if you’re Russian, but it’s a taunting WiFi dream to international travelers. Knowing this, while still in Norway, I had downloaded the offline version of the Moscow map in Google maps (which is a lie), and the Russian language on Google translate (which I never actually used) as well as information about my hostel, just in case.

I got some money changed to Rubles, and I found my driver. If my flight had landed during the day, I might have tried out the public transit, but at midnight thirty I was happy to see a man holding a sign with my name on it and ready to take me directly to the hostel, even if the ride did cost more than the room. It was a long and empty ride through Moscow. I’m not sure if it was just the late hour but the roads were empty. And they were huge! City roads, with business and sidewalks, not like highways, just roads that were 10 lanes across, 5 lanes in each direction. I stared at them wondering how people crossed the roads on foot and even more if these behemoths aided in the flow of traffic. Do enough people in Moscow own cars for this to be actually useful or is it just for show?

Hostile Hostel?

Checking into the hostel was another long rigmarole of paperwork: fill this out, sign this, make a copy of my passport and visa, etc. I chose a cheapish hostel thinking since I only was going to get maybe 6 hours of sleep, I didn’t need much but I also carefully selected one that was highly rated with plenty of good reviews and a location that would make it easy to get to Red Square in the morning.

One day… the lesson is going to stick. When travelling in less affluent countries: spend the money on a private room! The hostel bed was around 10$ and a private room would have been about 30$. It’s a big difference and at the time I was thinking about every little penny because I wanted to keep my budget down and Moscow was already costing me 100$ just for stepping out of the airport. I had spent a single night in Paris in a dorm and slept pretty well, but that was Paris.

Gallery image of this property

The hostel itself did not live up to my expectations based on ratings and photos. Looking back I can see those are real photos, but they were clearly taken when the interiors were brand new or at least recently deep cleaned. In reality the place was much more dark, dank, cramped and dirty than the photos represent. Even by the light of day. Now, I’m not saying it was a shithole… it did meet my minimum standards of clean and the staff were very polite in a cold sort of way, but I did not rest well.

Like many hostels in Europe, I was expected to make my own bed. The staff do not consider it their responsibility to put sheets on the bed, nor to remove them. I struggled with this as it was almost 1am and I had a top bunk and everyone else was asleep, so I couldn’t turn on the light. Also, the bedroom door seemed to have no lock at all. The bathrooms were very tiny and when you’re sharing a single bathroom with all the other women in a large hostel, that’s a challenge.  One of my roomies snored so loudly that it made my bed actually vibrate. I could feel her snores. I put in earplugs, headphones, and squashed pillows, blankets and towels around my ears to no avail. When I got up to get dressed, there was no place private to do so.

The hostel included WiFi, which did work well, yay, and a free “breakfast”. In the morning I discovered this meant a choice of two sugar cereals, luke-warm milk, watery coffee, and packets of what I really think were yogurt powder. I couldn’t read the Russian labels and I didn’t try to eat it, but they were packets filled with what felt like a powder with pictures of bowls of yogurt and fruit on the front. And somehow this breakfast is rated 7.7 on Booking.com. In fairness, that is the lowest internal rating and every other criteria is rated 8.4 or higher. I don’t know what your life has to be like for this to be a 7.7/10 breakfast, but I never want to live it.
Gallery image of this property

Just, please, if you see me talking about booking a hostel dorm in a developing country or a current/previous communist country STOP ME. I’m not trying to be a snob, but sleeping properly is so important to my well-being and my ability to enjoy waking activities and I just can’t sleep properly in those conditions. I envy the people who can.

Metro Mishaps

Despite these setbacks and the severe lack of sleep, I was still determined to make the most of my day in Moscow. I had a detailed and timed itinerary that I hoped would allow me to see everything I wanted to before it was time to go back to the airport. The first thing I discovered is that the Google Map of Moscow isn’t great, and the offline function doesn’t really do anything. Here’s a pretty building I found while searching for the metro.

It took me ages to find the Metro station that was meant to be a 5 minute walk from my hostel in part because Google, and in other part because the Metro stations in Moscow don’t have any helpful signs with pictures or symbols to identify them. Maybe they say the name of the station on the outside, but I was looking for a big “M” or an icon of a subway train which has been a constant in every other metro system I’ve used. This is actually the logo for the Moscow metro and it was not on any of the buildings or any signs nearby.Image result for moscow metro

When I finally realized that the big square beige building was the metro station, I had walked past it at least 7 times because I thought it was a government building like a post office or police station. It was much easier every other time because at least they all look the same. Of course I didn’t take a picture at the time, and now looking at stock photos of the building I see that it clearly has a big red M on top and a sign out front, so I can’t explain why it eluded me so. I blame sleep deprivation.

Once I found the entrance, I was happy to learn that the metro system itself is actually very easy to use, and cheap too. Rather than go through the hassle of buying a ticket for every trip, I just bought a 24hr pass for about 3$ US. That’s a whole day pass for less than the cost of a single trip in most EU countries, by the way, and goes a long way to explaining the powdered yogurt situation.

On top of its ease of use and affordability, the Moscow metro is famous for it’s unique and beautiful (on the inside) metro stations . At some point in the soviet era, it was a gift to the people to make each public transit station a work of public art. No one could visit them all in one day, but I tried to get some pictures inside the ones I did use. They are very very Soviet, but amazing works of art nonetheless.

Red Square Obscured

When I emerged from the station at Red Square I was instantly lost. I had expected the world’s largest public square to be visible from the metro station that shared it’s name, silly me. I adopted the time honored method of picking a direction and watching where my GPS dot went on the map. The first landmarks I ran across were actually the Metropol Hotel and the Statue of Marx. I recognized them from my plans as places I had intended to go later in the day, but it did help orient me to find Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral which was the top of my list for the day.

Sadly, I still don’t know what Red Square looks like, since there were about a million white tents set up and a large area blocked off and converted into a stadium for an upcoming festival. I walked slowly and perused the kiosks selling a narrow but colorful array of Russian souvenirs. I didn’t stop to buy, however because it looked mostly mass produced.

I also walked past the line to Lenin’s tomb, where he is preserved and laid out in a rather grotesque honorarium. Entrance to the monument is free, but there is no way to reserve an entry time, so people queue for hours for a chance to gawk at the dead body. I told myself it would be interesting if the line was short enough, but by the time I arrived around 10am, it was already all the way down the block and didn’t seem to be moving very fast.

Tourist Stuff

St. Basil’s did not disappoint. It was crowded as heck, but it is a fun building. Everyone has seen at least one picture of the iconic colorful onion turrets and it was definitely a treat to see it in person. I wandered around trying to find the best angle for a photo, but since large swaths of the surrounding area were blocked off for the upcoming festival, it was a little challenging.

It’s possible to go inside for a fee, but online reviews all agreed that the cool part is on the outside. Bonus, there was a marching band practicing in the temporary stadium field nearby, so I got to watch a little bit of counter-marching through the fence and experience some serious cognitive dissonance as they played the 1812 Overture (for non-Americans, that’s because it’s a staple of our own Independence Day celebrations).

Checking the clock, I realized it was time to head over to the gardens and try to find the entrance to the Kremlin. Only, because the entire breadth of Red Square was fenced off with a giant temporary stadium and lots of souvenir booths, I couldn’t follow my pre-planned route and Google maps was turning out to be f*ing useless. Once more I adopted the “pick a direction and walk” method, which resulted in me walking nearly all the way around the Kremlin, which is not a small building. In the middle of my walk, the sky went from a bit overcast to “wrath of Neptune”.

I always have my travel umbrella but it would not have withstood the torrential downpour that issued forth from the skies. Lucky me, at that precise moment, I happened to be passing under the only cover for several blocks in either direction, a bit of scaffolding along one corner of the Kremlin’s outer wall. Even standing under the scaffold with my back to the wall, I could feel the spray from the force of the rain around me. I sat there as other pedestrians scurried to the shelter and wondered if my plans to explore outdoors would be totally rained out, and what I could possibly do instead with no working internet. But before I could even really start to work it out, the rain slowed to a drizzle and I felt confident in resuming my walk armed with my little umbrella.

When I did reach the entrance, I found another huge line for the people who already had tickets, and I continued on through the gardens in search of the ticket office.

What’s With All These Lines?

I know there is a stereotype about lines in Russia. Or at least there was when I grew up in the cold war in America. We were told about how people had to just stand in long lines for hours to get bread, or sometimes not even knowing what was being passed out at the head of the line or if there would still be any by the time you got to the front of the line. They were communism horror stories told to show us how terrible the USSR was and how great America and capitalism were by contrast. I know it was propaganda, but I’m not sure it was untrue. I had already seen the huge line for Lenin’s tomb, but I knew that was a free event, and no way to buy tickets in advance.

Looking at the line to buy tickets to stand in the line to get in at the Kremiln was just insane. I freely admit that I ignored my note to myself in my calendar to book those tickets online in advance. Everything else in Europe I booked before I even left Korea, but Russia only takes reservations for the Kremlin 2 weeks in advance. While I was in Sweden. I made a note to do it, and I saw the note, and I ignored the note. My own fault. However, looking at the lines, I am not sure I would have made it through the “advance ticket line” even with enough time to really see anything.

I am a bit sad I didn’t get to see the Kremlin and especially the museum with the historical art and artifacts of pre-communist Russia. However, if I do make it back to Moscow, I will dedicate a whole day to the Kremiln alone, knowing what I know now.

Fun With Costumes

Instead of sulking about it, I decided to move on and see what other fun things I could find. I was not disappointed. Shortly past the ticket office, the scenery livens up and I found some more public gardens, statues, fountains, and a quite charming pair of street entertainers dressed up in “historical” costumes and posing with tourists for tips. They made me smile and so I probably gave them more money than I should have, even though it was less than they asked for.

Continuing on I managed to find a slightly more accurate historical costume depiction where it seemed like a professional group was showing off the history of Russia and perhaps it’s trade partners with booths showing different herbs and spices, old astronomical tools and charts, paints and dyes, and other medieval type crafts and pursuits. It was all in Russian, though, so I wasn’t able to glean much from the informative talks the costumed historians were giving to the other folks in the park.

Thwarted at Every Turn

After a quick gander at the statue of Karl Marx

and the Bolshoi ballet because I was standing right there,

I headed up to the Metropol Hotel to see what I could find in the way of a fancy lunch. I had found a few places on line that seemed to indicate there was a high tea available, and while the website of the hotel still had it displayed in some places, the actual “high tea” page was not working. Still, I had seen the restaurant menu and knew it would be ok even if I just had lunch.

The very first thing I saw was a bunch of construction and a sign saying the restaurant was CLOSED for repairs and upgrades. My optimism and adventurousness was wearing thin at the edges around now. So far, all of the things I’d set out to do with my very limited time in Moscow had either been harder than expected or totally impossible. I was also VERY hungry since the last meal I ate was a deli sandwich I got in Oslo the night before. I am not counting the bowl of sugar coated flakes at the hostel as a “meal”.

Clinging to the very last shreds of my “lets have a good time anyway” thoughts, I found the main entrance to the hotel to see if they were serving anything anywhere because I really didn’t know what else to do or where else I could go for a much needed lunch.

Although the staff at the hotel bar had no idea what tea ceremony I was talking about, (even though it’s on their website!) they were happy to seat me at a comfy chair in the lobby and bring me a menu. I ordered a “Stranger in Moscow” to drink, and salmon blinis for lunch.

The WiFi Is a Lie

When I went to explore the WiFi options, I discovered that the special nature of the Moscow airport WiFi was actually the rule of thumb for all Russian WiFi. I asked the staff if there was any way to log on, but without a room number or Russian phone number it was impossible. They didn’t even have a guest account available for customers of the bar or restaurant.

The more places I went, the more I realized this is just the way it works. Even Starbucks, a place famous for it’s free WiFi was inaccessible to anyone without a Russian phone number. So, if someone tells you not to bother with a SIM card because there’s plenty of free WiFi, well, they are both right and wrong. The WiFi is free, but you can’t use it without that SIM + Russian phone number. If I had known, I would have made the SIM a higher priority since it seems they are not too hard to find, but by the time I realized that WiFi was going to be impossible, I was more than halfway through my day and had no way to look up where to buy a SIM!

This obstacle was suddenly one straw too many in a morning full of them and I slowly began to leak from the eyes. I try really hard not to sink into despair or self pity when things don’t go my way on a trip, but everyone has a wall, and it gets closer with things like lack of sleep and low blood sugar, both of which I was suffering from at the time. It’s likely that I would have recovered after a some food and a rest, but that day I didn’t have to do it alone. A very kind fellow solo-female traveler sitting one chair over asked if I was ok and invited me to join her. She let me vent a little about my morning and then we quickly moved on to talking about our travels and experiences.

Lunch is Saved!

It did so much to lift my spirits and we chatted all through a leisurely lunch. The blinis were nice, a little sweeter than I was expecting for a seafood pairing, but not really much different from crepes.. maybe a little more oily? but not unpleasantly so. Out of curiosity I looked up the difference, and it’s yeast. Blinis have it, crepes don’t. The smoked salmon was delicious, and even though I had eaten lots of it in Sweden, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. Plus it was served with sour cream and salmon caviar so there was a nice blend of textures and flavors.

The Stranger in Moscow was a vodka drink made with Campari, ginger, and blackberry syrup. The presentation was stunning. The drink was quite different from the cocktails I have had before. It was more bitter than sweet which is usually a good thing for me and I attribute that to a healthy portion of the Campari, but there was a slight “cough syrup” aftertaste that I associate with Jagermeister or almost any cherry liquor. My best guess is that the type of blackberry syrup they used carried that flavor, which many people find appealing in drinks. It was also served with a tiny bowl of dark chocolate chips which made an excellent compliment to the drink. Quite a unique cocktail experience overall.

My lunch companion told me about the book “Gentleman in Moscow” which is set in the Metropol Hotel and I am now on the wait list to check that out of the library. In case you’re curious, a standard room at the Metropol runs close to 150$ US/night, but my drink and lunch were a much more reasonable yet still high for Russia $27 US together. I still wish I could have found that tea ceremony, but I am happy with the experience I had, especially with company to make it better.


Here’s a little slideshow with more photos from the first half of my day in Moscow. Please pardon the lack of music. I’ve been using YouTube Editor, and recently it’s decided to delete everything good and useful from it’s online service and I haven’t found a replacement yet. Stay tuned for part 2 where I go “off the beaten path”.

Advertisements

Miniatures

I have always loved tiny versions of regular things. As a child, I was most fascinated by toys like my tiny working blender where I could make about 2 oz of chocolate milk at a time, my tiny Barbie spoon which I would use to make a dish of ice cream last longer, and a series of miniature fuzzy animals. Living in Japan in 3rd grade may have been the most ridiculous overexposure to the cute and the tiny since I was easily able to get tiny art supplies, tiny erasers shaped like tiny food, and tiny key chains shaped like tiny everything. As an adult, I have stopped acquiring stuff so much, but I cannot help but squee at the sight of well reproduced miniatures. Thus, when I found out that Europe has a proliferation of miniature theme parks, I was captivated. After careful consideration, I chose to visit 3: The Mini-Europe in Brussels, The Madurodam in Den Haag, and the Miniature Wonderland in Hamburg. I was not disappointed.


Mini-Europe, Brussels

The weather this summer was insanely hot, and the northern Europeans are simply not prepared. It cut into my outdoor activities severely, and I almost didn’t make it to this park. Lucky me, there was a single cloudy and cool day during my week in Brussels. It doesn’t make the best photos, but overcast skies certainly make a happier me.

The park is right next to the Atomium a huge statue constructed for the 1958 World’s Fair. I honestly believe that nearly every strange structure in a city can be attributed to this cause, not the least Seattle’s own Space Needle and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. You can go inside. I did not.

General admission is not too expensive at 15.5€ and it’s so full of amazing things that I felt it well worth the cost. I recommend bringing snacks and drinks since the on-site Cafe is overpriced.

Once inside, there is a winding path through a whirlwind tour of Europe. It is seriously all of Europe. The most famous buildings and historical sights of each country (at least as decided by the Belgians). It’s enormous.

While ogling the array of tiny architectural marvels from a distance, I came across a series of informative signs at the front. They were… interesting. Among other things it gave credit to UK for modern democracy (as an American my response is, “um excuse me?”) and also represented rampant European colonialism as “the spirit of adventure”. I know each culture teaches history in their own way, but… I suppose if the history can’t be accurate, at least the architecture is pretty spot on. (top: mini Brussels, bottom: real Brussels)

Some vignettes were reproductions of old villages, but most were modern familiar and famous sights. At the starting point for each nation, there was a button to push that played what I’m fairly sure were the national anthems. Some exhibits were also animated, many activated by another button. As you can imagine, kids raced along to be the first to push each button.

Because they’re miniature and placed on the ground, most exhibits are at eye level or below. I took some bird’s eye photos, but my favorites are the ones where I was able to get level with the model ground, as though I were standing inside. I used the selfie stick a lot to get better angles, and wished I had a better zoom since many of the amazing details were hard to capture. The three I loved most were Galileo testing his ideas at Pisa, Don Quixote and Sancho in la Mancha, and a tiny blue TARDIS in London.

I was blown away by the level of detail, the cathedrals especially. It’s hard for me to say how accurate they all are. I found the models of places I’ve been before to be a bit lackluster, while I found the ones I haven’t seen in person to be amazing. I visited several of these cities after Brussels, so you can see for yourself how they stack up. (top: mini Copenhagen, bottom: real Copenhagen) 

More than anything, it reminded me of the “bigatures” that were used in the LOTR movies. These models were often gigantic, the size of a sofa or even a car, yet because the originals are multi-story, towering masterpieces, it still counts as “miniature”. (left: mini Maastricht, right: real Maastricht)

It took me hours to navigate the entire park, and I am ashamed to admit there were one or two countries in the mini-EU I hadn’t heard of before. Overall, it was an amazing visual experience, and a fun photography day since I got to do a lot with experimental angles and effects. I took hundreds of photos, but here are the 50 I think are best.


Madurodam, Den Haag

The Madurodam is far more focused than the Mini_EU. It is exclusively about the Netherlands, while Mini-EU covers all of Europe.  The attempt at being interactive was really more of a pain than an enhancement. Mini-Europe had a plethora of buttons that played music or activated moving parts. Most of the animations at Madurodam were coin operated so cost extra, and the informative audio clips, while free, required you to scan a card to hear it and see the educational video. I was constantly having to rearrange my camera and sunbrella (umbrella for sun) to dig the card out of my pocket. 

Despite this inconvenience, I did enjoy the miniatures. The quality of the constructions was high, and I liked the fact that there were more scenes of neighborhoods or city blocks rather than just a single monument in isolation. It’s hard for me to speak to the accuracy, and I didn’t recognize as many landmark buildings, since my travels in Holland were somewhat limited. Photography was if anything more fun since I was able to get much closer to the buildings and there were more interesting and active scenes, rather than stark and empty buildings (although both styles have an appeal). The one building I did get to see for real was the Dom Tower at Utrecht (left: mini, right: real life).

One thing that Madurodam had that Mini-EU lacked were the shows. There were several locations where one could go into a small theater and watch a kind of puppet/animation show about some aspect of Dutch history. The shows reminded me of 80’s Disney animatronic entertainment, and some used puffs of air or sprinkles of water to create realism. 

One was about the namesake Maduro, one about the rebellion against the Spanish with William of Orange, and one about the founding of New Amsterdam. The performances were lovely, and I’m grateful that they were all available in English as well as Dutch, but the content left me feeling very uneasy.

George Maduro was a military officer who fought in WWII and eventually died in Dachau. His parents donated the money to start the park as a living memorial to their son. I’m quite sure that the video of his heroics is hyperbolic, but it is the one I mind the least, since it is after all a monument to his memory. Nonetheless, it does seem he was an extraordinary young man, who became a leader at a young age, escaped a German prison, became part of the resistance smuggling Allied troops through Spain, and finally perished in a concentration camp. The presentation was a panoramic movie screen that used a combination of actors in historical dress, photos of historical events, and shadow animation to give a sense of the battles and prison experiences of Maduro’s life.

The Rebellion against the Spanish was part of the 80 Years War, or the War of Dutch Independence. It was a combination of religious rebellion (Catholic vs Protestant) and of course the tangled web of European nobility and the right to rule (collect taxes). The Dutch were tired of being controlled by the Catholic Spanish, and William of Orange provided a central figure to rally around. The presentation was captivating. We entered a war room of the mid 1500, decorated with all appropriate trimmings. We sat at a large table and the video projected a revolutionary leader apprising us of the dire situation, and of the need to go to war for Prince William. We were made in large part to feel like active participants in the planning of the rebellion.

The last performance I visited was the most elaborate. We started off by going in a dark ship’s hold. The space was decorated with ship’s stores and some animals and it swayed slightly to represent the waves at sea. A ship’s captain narrated the journey of the Dutch pilgrims to the Americas, including a small storm with special effects. When the “ride” was over, we emerged into the harbor of New Amsterdam where we stood on the quayside and watched the invasion of the British. Well before the American war for Independence, this battle was fought between the Dutch and English for control of the colony, and the port city later named New York, after the English won. We were encouraged to take up “firelighters” to ignite the cannons before us and try to sink the English ships. Very fun and interactive, but sadly historically inaccurate and loaded down with propaganda.

I didn’t have the best cultural connection with the Dutch. While I found the individual Dutch people I met to be courteous and friendly, the culture as a whole felt to me like one of wealth and entitlement. Madurodam was far from the only place I encountered these attitudes while there. Basically every Dutch written info blurb or tour guide about this country did this at least a little, but the shows at Madurodam were best at putting them in a clear and succinct way that helped me identify my unease.

They’re rich and proud of it, but more they know they got rich with the Dutch East India trading Co. and rampant colonialism and they’re proud of that. Like ‘we are so awesome cause we built better ships than those horrible English and we got billions of euros of equivalent wealth by exploiting “unexplored” regions of the world’. Oh and ‘we invented democracy a 200 years before America when we fought a revolution against the Spanish (for King William) and we are responsible for everything good about New York, which was completely devoid of people (Indigenous People don’t count, right?) when we arrived to build it’.

I did not know anyone was still bragging about colonial wealth. A lot of people (mostly white and Western) benefit from it, but most of us at least try to acknowledge it was a horrible atrocity. They seriously brag about it here all the time. At Madurodom, it was laid on so thick I felt like I was drowning in it. Holland and I are not destined to be friends until this country gets woke about it’s role in global wealth inequality and gets rid of the saying, “God made Earth, but the Dutch made the Netherlands.”

The miniatures were of excellent quality, and it was a cute park. Despite the colonial superiority complex, I still took a million pictures, which I have winnowed down to the top 50 in this video.


Miniature Wonderland, Hamburg

The miniature museum was astonishing. It is completely different from the other two miniature parks. Both Mini-EU and Madurodom were outdoor parks that focused on reproducing famous architecture in miniature with great detail. Miniature Wonderland is an indoor attraction (climate control!), and focuses on the tradition of model trains. If someone had told me “model trains” I would not have gone, and I would have missed out. I don’t know what most people think of when they hear “model trains” but I think of the train, the tracks and maybe some engineering specs with a side note of mini-landscapes. At Miniature Wonderland, the landscapes the trains travel through are far and away the stars of the show. The trains are fun, but in many ways, merely an added detail. Although, I did see the Hogwarts Express pass by once, and that was a nice touch. I took so many more pictures here than at the other two parks I couldn’t actually narrow it down to 50 photos, so there are 2 videos. Here’s the first one.

Famous places were replicated, but in the style of a model train set, rather than a single building. As a consequence, there were many reproductions of famous landscapes, as well as cities, and towns. There was so much detail not only in the buildings but in the humans! There were thousands and thousands of tiny miniature humans engaging in every activity imaginable. There were passengers in the trains and people inside the buildings. I even found some nude bathers in a secluded lakeside retreat!

In addition, everything moved and lit up, not only one or two attractions, but nearly everything. Every building and car had working lights. Of course the trains moved, but also ski lifts, and airplanes, and dolphins in the sea! Some were button activated, others on a timer. It was enchanting. Moreover, the lights would change from day to night and different things would be visible. At night, all the buildings lit up and you could see the delicate window dressings, or be a peeping tom and see what people were doing inside. During the day, the landscapes and building exteriors were on display, while the insides of buildings were dark and hidden. 

The museum spans two floors in a large warehouse building near the water. Although there is a gift shop, and a restaurant, most of that space is dedicated to the models. There’s also a central control area where several employees monitor the trains movements and other activities around the scenes.

My only complaint is that many of the viewing areas were cul-de-sac, so once you got in to see the point of interest, you were sort of trapped fighting the tide to get back out. Mini-EU had a single path with easy to follow arrows that kept the flow of people moving and avoided clumps or jams. The Wonderland was much harder to move around.

A local woman visiting with her husband noticed I was on my own and took it upon herself to point out the curious and interesting details around the various sets. She would run off and then come back to show me something else, and before she left she made sure that I wouldn’t pass by the Lindtt Chocolate factory which gave out actual pieces of chocolate!

I watched Mt. Vesuvius explode and pour lava made of light down onto a tiny replica of ancient Pompeii.

And we all flocked to the airport whenever a plane was ready for landing or departure.

There was even a miniature miniature park!

Tickets are sold for an entry time, and you can stay as long as you like afterward (until closing). Early morning and late night tickets are cheaper, and I got a deal on a combo harbor boat tour. I enjoyed the boat trip, but seriously underestimated the amount of time I would want to spend inside the miniature display, and while I was shuffling out as the exhibits were being shut down for the night I felt I had still seen less than half of the stunning hidden delights tucked away in the extraordinary displays. Here’s 50 more of my top photos from the second half of the displays.

Fairground Museum Paris

My travel tastes tend to range from the classic bucket list items to the hipster “you went where?” items. On my first trip to Paris, I visited the major must-dos like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Élysées, the Sacre-Coeur, and the Père Lachaise Cemetery. At that time my “off the beaten track” experience was going to see my friend perform Burlesque at La Féline Bar. Sadly, I never had the chance to write this trip as my life in 2015 became rather hectic shortly afterward. I did upload my photo albums, however, so you can still see those on the Facebook Page by following the links on each location above.

For my second trip to the city of lights, I made it to the Catecombs, a couple art museums, and a bike tour of the hot spots, which I’ll be writing about later. My more obscure find was a tiny museum of Fairground Arts, the Musée de Arts Forains. It’s actually not a public museum, but the private collection of Jean Paul Favand. It includes object d’art from fairgrounds around Europe in the 19th century. The museum has done extensive restoration on the artworks, and patrons are free to ride and play many of the “exhibits” on display. It was enchanting beyond all expectations and lasted just under 2 hours.

No Bag Storage? Starbucks!

Since the collection is private, the museum doesn’t keep regular opening hours, and tours are by appointment only. I was slightly desperate to go, but the only time a tour was available during my 6 days in Paris was the afternoon of my very last day, the day I was planning to catch a bus onward to Brussels. I had no choice but to choose that day, and move my bus to a later time. I’m so glad I did.

I had to check out of my Airbnb by 10am, and my host did not offer any variety of luggage storage. Neither does the museum offer any sort of cloak room or bag-check room. I checked a few websites for storage options, but it turns out that there are only a few places around town where it’s even possible and they are mightily expensive. I was travelling light (backpack only, yes, that is my actual luggage for the whole 7 week trip), but it was still at least 10-12 kilos, which can become tiresome to carry for many hours.

My tour was at 2pm, and I didn’t want to walk around Paris with all my luggage, so I headed straight to Bercy where both the museum and the bus would be found. I zeroed in on Starbucks for a clean bathroom, an iced latte, and a place to sit while waiting. This long haul travel is giving me some new appreciation for the use of American stand-bys. I’ve become addicted to iced lattes in hot weather, and the French seem to think that ice in coffee is anethema. Even McDonald’s McCafe failed at providing iced coffee options, but Starbucks is the same world wide with a few exceptions for seasonal specials.

I love French coffee, and I could have sat at a cafe the whole time I was waiting. No one kicks you out of a restaurant in Paris. Oddly Starbucks was a cheaper option since a coffee here is a tiny shot of espresso for 2€ or maybe a small cafe creme for 3.5-4€. At Starbucks, I got a Venti iced latte for 4.65€. I don’t want to be the tourist who goes abroad and only visits American chain stores, but sometimes, especially on a long trip, it’s nice to have the choice. Free clean bathrooms, cheaper large (iced) coffee, air-con, and free wifi do make it an ideal place to kill time if you have to.

Getting There

The museum was easy to find, although it looked a little foreboding from the outside. The grounds are covered in fences and the buildings all have shuttered windows. The tour guides only speak French, but they were kind enough to make an English language pamphlet that contained the pertinent information about each area of the museum we would visit. I read through it while waiting for the group to assemble, hoping that it might help me follow along.

When we finally assembled and began the tour, my feelings were primarily childlike glee. My joy wasn’t the only childlike feeling I had. Standing in the courtyard listening to the guide talk in French I had a sudden flash of understanding of how every kid must feel when tour guides talk and there’s nothing to look at or do. I tried to listen, but he talked so fast I couldn’t catch much. Fortunately, as he pointed out to us, it’s really a visual tour. The courtyard was pretty and I enjoyed the gargoyles and decorations amid the trees and flowers, but I was impatient to get inside.

The Giant of Bercy

This is the story he was telling while we were standing outside. I found the English version later. According to legend, Kind Louis XIV came to Bercy to attend mass at a nearby cathedral. Of course, all of his subjects were expected to kneel before their king during his royal visit, but when the time came for this obeisance, one man remained standing. When the guard were sent to investigate, it turned out the man was kneeling after all, but he was a giant who loomed above the crowd even in genuflection. The giant was a vintner named Martin, who used this unique chance to meet the king to talk about the taxes on wine merchants in Paris.

Charmed by the giant and amused by his complaints, the capricious king decided to grant the Pavilions of Bercy a tax exemption. The 106 acre region became closed off behind walls and ware houses with railroad tracks leading to the Seine where wine shipments could be transferred by boat. The buildings that now house the Musée d’Arts Forains were at one point warehouses and market buildings.

It wasn’t all wholesale business, however, and Bercy was also known for it’s wine bars and guiguettes where patrons could sip by the glass or by the bottle in convivial company.  Such an atmosphere prompted festivals, fireworks and other fun, giving Bercy it’s reputation as a joyful place.

The Venetian Rooms

As soon as we stepped inside I realized the photos I found online do not come close to representing the atmosphere of this place. Beautiful pieces of art displayed around a centerpiece of a merry go round from a classic Venetian style carnival. There was no roof, as a modern carousel might have, and most of the seats were elaborate gondolas and carriages with a few ornate animals with saddles. Our guide invited us to hop in for a ride and we whirled around to a recording of the original music.

Image may contain: people sitting, night and indoor

After the ride, we stayed seated but turned to face a wall which was decorated as the Grand Canal. The lights dimmed and we were treated to a beautiful light show that had clearly been made just to fit the size and shape of the room. We went from outer space, to under water, to a cityscape, a gondola ride on the river, a ballroom and a theater as the lights and sounds created this beautiful illusion.Image may contain: night, bridge, outdoor and water

The adjacent room was an animatronic opera with singers mounted around the room on the walls just below the ceiling. The lights and speakers moved as different characters (including Columbine, Harlequin, and Cassanova) sang and the robots moved. It was like Disneyland’s tiki room or hall of presidents.

It was easy for me to wander away from the group or start behind as they moved on and get photos of the rooms with no people. Since I couldn’t really understand, I didn’t feel like I was missing out. Sadly, the rooms were so dark that most of my photos are only any good for jogging my memory of the experience.

The Carousel-Salon

In the 19th century, the Fairground was quite popular, and the Carousel-Salon was a style of fairground that included the pipe organ, the carousel, a ballroom for dancing, and of course, a bar.

Our guide cranked up the pipe organ, which was stunningly loud, and I took the time to get a closer look at some of the statues and carvings around the room. The detail of craftsmanship in these pieces was impressive. It was clear that the fair or carnival was much more than it is today. When I think of the clunky state-fairs of my childhood covered in bare bulb blinking lights and cheaply airbrushed panels on easily disassembled rides and booths, I can see how much we’ve lost in the last century of fairgrounds.

Once the pipe organ ended it’s song, we were invited to ride again. This time, a more familiar carousel with the faux tent roof and a few horses that trotted up and down as the ride goes around. My only complaint is the the tours allow more people than there are seats. The guide ran the ride twice but I didn’t get to ride a moving horse either time. Despite this small disappointment, I had tremendous fun riding the antique carousel inside a room filled with similarly antique carnival rides, games, and decorations.

Vue d'ensemble du manège de chevaux de bois du Musée des Arts Forains

We rode a pedal powered carousel as well. It was made up of a circle of large brass bicycles. This carousel was all about the thrill of speed. When the device was in use, warnings had to be issued that if a patron should lose their footing, they should not try to catch the pedals. Apparently the speed and force of the pedals resulted in more than one lost foot. The cycle carousel was capable of reaching 40mph (65kph) which in 1861 was dizzyingly fast! Once upon a time it also ran on electricity or steam, but the museum’s ride was purely pedal-powered. Don’t think that makes it less impressive. With every seat filled, the cycles seem more like a roller coaster ride than a carousel.

Vue d'ensemble du Manège de Vélocipèdes du Musée des Arts Forains

There were many other oddities, pieces from other rides, and classic fairground games to look at as well. German swing boats, card tables, shooting galleries, and exotic animals lined the walls around us. Electric lights and moving pictures will still a novelty often found only at such public shows. One of the most famous shooting games is the French Waiters. I’ve seen similar racing games in most modern carnivals and fairgrounds. Shooting at your target advances your waiter and the first one to the finish is the winner.

The Theater of MarvelsMusée des Arts Forains (2015-07-30 02.59.30 by Laika ac)

Next we entered a room full of oddities and treasures. It was Jean Favand’s own Cabinet of Curiosities including oddities such as a tree that could grow a leg and a dwarf in a boot. The center piece was made to look like the balloon of Baron Munchausen made by the collector himself. Esmerelda, the patroness of the funfair is depicted dancing. There was a huge papier-mâché elephant with a glamorously dressed rider, and Unicorn Cave is made from petrified wood, preserved plants, and mythical creatures.

Musée des Arts Forains (2015-07-30 03.03.52 by Laika ac)                              Musée des Arts Forains (2015-07-30 03.34.26 by Laika ac)
Our guide showed us a game called Palio di Sienna that was played by spinning a top through arches to hit a bell,and we all got to participate in a racing game that seemed like a combination of skee-ball and the shooting racer. Instead of hitting a target, you roll a ball into numbered holes for points, and your racehorse advances a little or a lot depending on how many points you got. The group played four times and I sat only one. It was very popular!

We ended the tour with a waltz in a music room. A self playing orchestra like the ones I would later see in Utrecht played a waltz comprised of 12 different musical instruments. Members of the tour group paired off and danced joyously around the dance floor while waxwork oddities looked on. Great historical figures like Victor Hugo and Thomas Edison stared down, dressed in disguise, and an unimaginably queer unicornitaur (like a minotaur, but the head of a unicorn?) stood by a grand piano ready to deliver a song that would never play.

Image result for musee des arts forains


The fall in Korea has been keeping me busy. I volunteered to teach a debate club this semester and I’ve been trying to get out to a few more local social groups, maybe join a book club or two. We’ve also had a lot of school holidays. Last year, the three main fall holidays came together for one glorious 10 day vacation, but this year they’re spread out across three weeks. Counter-intuitively, this has actually made more work for me, and given me less time at my desk to work on this blog.  I would also like to shout out to the beautiful photogs who donate to Creative Commons because they saved my bacon from my tragically dark-derpy camera, and provided beautiful royalty free images for me to share. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this hidden gem of Paris.