Monthly Archives: September 2012

Russia, Changes

There’s always the risk when you provide information that it will change.  And that has happened.  And it’s good news.  I think.

Yesterday I reported on the difficulties of booking Russia if you’re a United States  resident/citizen.  Today the New York Times reports,  “…looser restriction under a new visa agreement that the two countries reached this month.”  Now travelers can stay for up to 6 months on a tourist visa.  Visas now last for 3 years.  The new visa costs $180, saving money.

The changes also eliminate the irritating requirement that traveler to Russia get an official, formal invitation.  Sort of.  That’s really good news. Apparently, now we can book hotels online without fear and frustration. However, the new procedure, according to the NYT, “still mandates that travelers provide a voucher from a tour operator or letter from a hosting party….”   Huh?  What will that involve?  To be continued….

The rest of the information I provided yesterday still applies.  And recent Russia visitor Sue sent us some more info that might help if you’re heading to Russia:

7.  if you use them, pack wash clothes.  They’re ordinarily not provided by hotels.

8.  if you like soap bars larger than a business card, pack them too.

9.  This one really surprised me….in public places like museums, even The Hermitage, don’t flush toilet paper.  A basket is provided for used toilet paper (!!!).  Sue recommends packing & taking a roll with you.

10. if you’re traveling in cold weather months and check your coat, which can be done safely, it needs to have a hanger inside the collar.  According to Sue, Russian coats seem to come with built-in hangers, but she had to sew a piece of ribbon inside hers so it could be hung on a hook.

11.  If you’re inside a church and decide to take photos, there’s probably a fee for that privilege.  Like in other Eastern European countries, the staff in museums, cathedrals, etc  watches you carefully while often pretending not to.  If the church requires a fee for taking pictures, and most do, pre-pay  to avoid berating & embarrassment.

12.  “Expect to see lots of beggars, particularly near subways.”  Where in the world is that not true?


Going to Russia

Ruth & I will be in St. Petersburg soon.  Planning any trip on your own that includes Russia gets very interesting.

At first we thought we’d spend a week in this city, but the visa process was long and relatively strange.  Lonely Planet taught us the rules but also made us wary.  US travelers need a visa in their passports. An up to 30-day, one entry tourist visa is available.  If a friend invites you to Russia, you can also obtain a private visa but Lonely Planet warns, “…he or she will undergo some serious hassle to get you an invitation.”

It’s apparently wise to apply for a visa long in advance of travel.  Don’t expect to get one if you’re a US citizen in, say, Germany.  Lonely Planet warns, “you won’t usually be able to obtain a Russian visa anywhere but at home.”  To get a visa you must send the embassy several documents:  your passport with at last 6 months of validity left, a photo, a completed application form (to get one, you must register online), and an invitation from a hotel or travel agency.  Something called a letter of support might do too.  It was the invitation requirement that caused Ruth and me to look for another way.

And we found it.  Visitors to St. Petersburg can enter Russia for 72 hours without a pre-arranged visa if they arrive by cruise ship or ferry and also book a city tour with a licensed company.  Lonely Planet calls this “rather restrictive” but a good way to see the city without the visa hassle.

So we contacted a visa agency we had used before and learned that the process would cost around $800.  Since we could spend 3 days visa free, Ruth & I booked a cruise and will decide later if the visa-way is better.

Acquaintances have provided lots of advice that might be of interest to anyone headed for Russia.  Just this morning Ruth’s friend Sue emailed:

1. depend on bottled because the water in St. Petersburg looks & smells so bad you’ll never be tempted to drink it.

2. don’t expect help with luggage in hotels and don’t leave anything out in your room that you “expect to keep”.  Lock luggage.

3.  you can order roubles from, among other businesses, AAA where it takes a day or two to get them.  Sue said it’s best to take some currency.  You can get money at a bank, if the bank is open.  She didn’t mention ATMs but described her bank experience.  It sounded culturally fascinating.

4.  most menus have English, except at McDonald’s of all places, where you have to ask for an English menu in the form of a plastic card.

5.  a highly recommended, portable souvenir–Russian chocolate bars, which Sue described as mostly dark and of very high quality.

6.  you’ll win a lot of points if you learn to say thank you in Russian–spa-see-ba.  But Sue said to slur the s & p together, so I’ll have to hear it before I can use it.


#1 For Now, Dubai

Emporis is a database in Germany providing building information.  When I wrote previously about the world’s tallest buildings and quoted Emporis, I heard from them and now receive their press releases.  I appreciate this and am fascinated by both Emporis’ research and the current global tallest building race.  Ten days ago I received a note from Jana Aßman of Emporis’ Press Department with some fresh and rather surprising information.

Quiz time!  What is the European city with the most skyscrapers?  I would have guessed, Frankfurt?  No.  The correct answer is Moscow, Russia. Surprised?  Me too.  At the present time, Moscow has 87 skyscrapers at least 328 feet tall.

#2.  Name the European city that has the tallest building in Europe. Hmmmmm.  London?  No.  Again, it’s Moscow.  Its under-construction International Business Center will contain Mercury City Tower that will be 1,111 feet high with 70 floors upon completion by the end of 2012.

What accounts for this building boom in Russia where Ruth and I are headed next week?  According to Emporis Data Analyst Matthew Keutenius, “Many Russian and foreign investors focus on prestigious building projects.”

This got me to wondering why there’s a simultaneous global recession & building race on this planet.  I suppose there are still enough monied investors who thrill to this global contest, the Architecture Olympics if you will.  It does seem to be something of a conscious competition with Dubai currently taking gold with Burj Khalifa, a sky-punching tower that’s more than twice as tall as its 2nd highest structure, Princess Tower.  A mind-boggling 88 of Dubai’s skyscrapers top 591 feet.

What about Africa?  I figured that Johannesburg, a long-time high-rise city would have Africa’s tallest building.  And this time I was right.  The Carlton Centre is 732 feet tall and still #1.  Africa’s 2nd tallest building is under construction.  The Maputo Business Tower in Mozambique will be 47 stories and 623 feet when completed in 2014.

South America?  Sao Paulo came to mind as the high-rise capital of this continent, but it doesn’t have South America’s tallest building.  That’s, at least for 5 or 10 more minutes, the Gran Torre Santiago, a 980 foot bullet shaped monolith in Chile’s Costanera Center.

Australia?  Melbourne, of course.  I’ve been up in the Rialto Towers that closed its observation deck in 2009.  It’s still said to be Australia’s tallest office building.  But it’s not Australia’s tallest building.  That’s Q1 on Queensland’s Gold Coast which also is the 5th tallest residential building in the world.

So, one final question before the migraine takes over….what’s the world’s tallest residential tower?  The answer depends on how “residential” is defined.  Massive high rises today contain condos but also stores, entire corporations, etc.  Someone decided that if at least 85% of a building is residential, it qualifies as residential.  So, circling back, the winner here is clearly Princess Tower in Dubai.

However, 3 taller residential towers are under construction, one of which is Mumbai’s World One in economically suffering India. AAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!


Comune di Jesi


Some towns stay in your memory long after you’ve visited them.  This is especially true of Le città in Italy–Ravenna, Viterbo, Bergamo, etc.   For me, Jesi is in the top five.

We went to Jesi in Le Marche in the Province of Ancona because Ruth and I rented a farmhouse near Urbino with a friend.  Tom, a fine artist and Renaissance man, was living in Rome at the time.  The 3 of us are huge fans of painter Lorenzo Lotto, who was also a Renaissance man.  Really.  Born in 1480, Lotto created unconventional altarpieces and mysterious portraits during a long career. He died in 1556.  His works are full of offbeat details that lead to discussions. In Jesi’s Civic Museum, for example, there’s what at first appears to be a fairly typical painting by Lotto of the Holy Family. However, Jesus seems to be sliding down Mary’s lap because she’s paying more attention to a book than to Him.  His child’s face shows wariness regarding Joseph’s outstretched arms.  While in his 30s, Lotto lived in remote Le Marche for 2 years and painted a lot.

Much of what he did is still in local towns like Jesi, so we went to its Civic Museum, Pinacoteca Civica, in late morning and found it closed until mid-afternoon, which is fairly typical of Italian museums.  Excellent.  We had plenty of time to explore Jesi.

Jesi is a città as unusual as Lotto.  In the 14th century, its citizens built massive walls atop Roman foundations and erected houses on top of them. Now a town of 40,000, its streets seem cramped but then open into lively squares with lots of shops, cafes, etc.

Piazza della Repubblica is the town’s main gathering place, and on it is a wonderful 18th century baroque theater, Teatro G. B. Pergolesi.  Born in Jesi in 1710, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi was a hot composer of comic operas and sacred music.  He was so popular that Bach arranged some of his music. One reason why he isn’t better known is that he died of TB when he was only 26. Jesi is very, very proud of him and named its main street Via Pergolesi.

Also worth seeing is Studio Per Le Arti Della Stampa, a printing museum in The Palazzo Pianetti Vecchio.  Printed materials have been coming out of Jesi since 1472.  It was the 1st Marche town to have a printing press, which was invented in the Holy Roman Empire around 1440.

Speaking of the HRP, Frederick II was born in Jesi.  Nicknamed  stupor mundi, or wonder of the world, Emperor Frederick was excommunicated 4 times but led Crusades.  He’s worth learning about.

Jesi is the kind of place where locals spend a lot of time strolling about celebrating the very fact that they’re lucky enough to live here.  Its nickname is “The Milan of Le Marche” which is that off-the-tourist-radar destination Lonely Planet calls “Italy in Microcosm”.






Bend, Oregon’s High Desert Museum


Meet Donald M. Kerr.  When he was 12, his interest in birds of prey grew into a mission that in 1982 brought a museum-like facility into being to teach people about wildlife.  Donald’s dream became Bend, Oregon’s High Desert Museum, now a 100,000 square feet facility on 135 acres.

Like any great museum, High Desert has both permanent and temporary exhibits of 5-compass quality, but don’t go expecting a focus on traditional art.  What you’ll see and learn about are animals.  The current but temporary “The Bison: American Icon” addresses the importance of the buffalo to Plains Indian cultures as this animal was becoming a national symbol.  A timeline dramatically shows its decline.  Around 1800, there were 30,000,000 bison roaming North America.  In 1910 there were only 1,023 remaining in the United States.  “The Bison: American Icon” closes January 6, 2013.

Often under the High Desert Museum’s name is the phrase  “Wildlife and Living History”.  Its living history aspect is fully realized in Hall of Plateau Indians, subtitled “By Hand Through Memory”.  Because permanent exhibits have a regional focus, the Plateau is the Columbia River’s and the Indians are the people struggling to keep their identity as swarms of settlers passed by and/or moved in.  The culture clash is ironically understated in a recreated 1963 Reservation Home.  All of the household objects came from Native American families including, I assume, the Hoffman TV.   I tuned in briefly as The Lone Ranger, that highly articulate masked man, explained a routine plot development to Tonto who replied, “Me not understand.”

The sounds that accompanied “By Hand….” were an irregular, distant drum, the wind, and native birds.  On the other side of the entry kiosk was the Hall of Exploration and Settlement where the sounds were of bagpipes, hammering, and crows accompanying exhibits with names like “Manifest Destiny on the Move”.

The High Desert’s wildlife is both inside–a rescued bobcat that was once someone’s pet, well-cared-for Desert Tortoises, darkling beetles, etc–and outside where winding trails take visitors to an otter habitat, a Birds of Prey Center, a 1904 ranch and sawmill, etc.

Entering visitors are given a daily schedule of  talks, and at 11 am a staff member named Matthew showed up with a great horned owl with pulsating white neck feathers (a Gular Flutter, I would soon learn).  After his talk, Matthew told me that there were about 25 rescued birds 0n-site that, if released, could not survive on their own.  The next presentation was a porcupine nibbling a carrot.





The High Desert’s next exhibit runs from September 29 to April 7, and I predict wild popularity and big crowds.  HDM’s newsletter entices, “Hummingbirds will be zipping around you in our largest gallery, where they will join hundreds of butterflies.”  Hummingbirds & butterflies?  How magical is that?   Thanks to HDM, I’ve already learned that hummingbirds exist only in North and South America and that the rufous variety migrates seasonally from Alaska to Mexico.

If, like the hummingbird, your travels take you anywhere near Bend, Oregon, check out the High Desert Museum.