Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

Out of Russia again

29 August 2018

Kaliningrad to Frombork, Poland

Kaliningrad is proud of its past as Konigsberg, based on the historical photos on display, but it seems that little of this remains after two World Wars. It is now a busy city with lots of traffic, trolley buses, trams, Sovietsky apartments and statues and a few grand houses and buildings from more prosperous times. We managed our navigation by retreating to the footpath as much as possible.

On the way to Kaliningrad South station we stopped at a mobile phone shop where Ian bought a phone for under $100 to replace his recently deceased one. Then we noticed and followed the red line that had been painted on the footpath to guide World Cup visitors from the station to the FanFest.

A large statue in the Soviet style, presumably of Kalinin but not identified, dominates the approach to the station. As at many Russian train stations, this one requires the scanning of all luggage at the entry, so we unloaded everything and went in, to discover that there are only two trains each day to Mamonovo near the Polish border. We had missed the first and the second one was not until mid-afternoon. Timetables for local trains are not available online. Therefore we decided to cycle all the way.

Riding out of Kaliningrad was not too bad. We stayed on the footpath where possible and once out of the city fringe the traffic gradually decreased, the countryside became more scenic and the weather improved.

We reached the border at about 1pm, cruised through fairly quickly and were greeted in Poland by three stork nests, of which we saw none in Kaliningrad.

Now we are in Frombork, a small town on the Vistula Lagoon with a massive cathedral and memorials to Copernicus who lived here.

The tiles on the cathedral roof are being replaced – wonder who pays for that? Delicious dinner of fish and fried potatoes.

Kaliningrad

28 August 2018

Nida, Lithuania to Zelenogradsk by bike – Zelenogradsk to Kaliningrad by train

A nice breakfast, a quick trip to the Nida lighthouse and then we were off to the Russian border for our traverse of the Kaliningrad enclave.

The passport formalities were a breeze with even the Russian border officials verging on friendly. Just past the border, after paying 150 roubles ($3) national park entry fee, we spied a moose. A female (no antlers) was standing in the middle of the road about 200m away. We managed one poor photo but were thrilled all the same.

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The rest of the Curonian Spit passed easily in cool, sunny conditions. The Russian half of the spit affords few scenic opportunities but we did get some views of the lagoon and Baltic Sea. There were plenty of mushroom pickers out with their buckets and little knives.

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Zelenogradsk, at the southern end of the spit was bustling. It must have been a splendid seaside resort in its heyday and is still popular but is looking a bit the worse for wear with abandoned apartment buildings on the seafront and failed attempts to preserve the sandy beaches. Nevertheless, it has many attractive buildings, parks and a refurbished mall.

We caught a train to Kaliningrad. The tickets cost $1 plus $0.26 for a bike but in other respects the railway system needs to lift its game.

Firstly, while the Kaliningrad is currently on Eastern European Summer Time along with the Baltic States, the Kaliningrad trains run on Moscow time (one hour later). So we went to the Zelenogradsk station at 14:45 to catch the 15:15 train but had already missed it! Fortunately, we could catch the 16:10 train at 15:10!

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Secondly, the new trains are almost impossible to board. They are schmick, fast and quiet in the Bombardier mould but are really designed for elevated platforms. Kaliningrad has ground-level platforms so the carriage floors are almost 1.5 metres up. Steep external steps have been added but they are more like ladders than steps. Able-bodied passengers can just cope but it is difficult to lift luggage up to the floor of the carriage and precarious to climb as the handrails are inconveniently placed. We struggled with our bikes and helped several old women in and out. One of them had already barked her shin before we got to her. The accessibility of these new trains is a DISGRACE. It is hard to imagine that elderly passengers will persist with them.

Kaliningrad is hectic with a mix of Germanic and Sovietsky architecture, mostly needing maintenance.

Klaipeda and the Curonian Spit

27 August 2018

Klaipeda to Nida, Lithuania

We went out for an early morning exploration before breakfast.

Klaipeda was controlled by successive German states until the Treaty of Versailles on 1919. Its Germanic heritage is immediately apparent in the buildings, squares and town layout. The old town has survived (or recovered from) the privations of the 20th century. So too have many cobblestone streets which shook us awake.

The Soviet Boroughs looked shabby but not as bleak as we expected. They stretch for kilometres in repetitive blocks south of the centre. We visited the brutalist St Joseph’s Catholic Church. Finished in the 1990s, it is a massive concrete structure that resembles an ugly power station. Perhaps the architects were unable to throw off the Soviet yoke. Sunday Mass was underway so we discreetly peeked inside and went on our way. Under a leaden sky, St Joseph’s was scowling across the road at a more conventional Orthodox Church.

After dodging some heavy rain showers by taking refuge in bus shelters, we sped back to the hotel for breakfast.

We took the pedestrian/cyclist ferry across the lagoon and headed south on pleasant bike paths along the Curonian Spit towards Russia. This slender, sandy, forested peninsula stretches for 100km separating the huge Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. It is a popular holiday destination but the high season is over now and the crowds have thinned.

On the way we were befriended by a young Lithuanian cyclist, Marius, aged 17 from Kaunas, who rode with us for awhile. He was curious about us and said that old people (ha ha) in Lithuania don’t do sports like we were doing. He is in year 11 at gumnasium and plans to study IT at university. He told us that he broke both his legs in a skiing accident in Norway a few years ago and that since his recovery he has taken up cycling and is now a serious road rider. We formed a peloton for awhile with Marius ‘making a tunnel in the air’, as he described it, but eventually we released him from this responsibility and he soon vanished ahead of us.

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About 20km north of Nida we took a break from the bikes and a board-walk to the top of a high but eroding dune for a spectacular view of the lagoon, spit and Baltic Sea.

We are staying in Nida on the shores of the lagoon just shy of the Russian border. This is place is popular with local tourists. The houses are well designed and maintained and brightly painted in a blue, white and Swedish red colour scheme. There are few cars driving around the village which is thronging with pedestrians and cyclists.

Out of Russia

17 August 2018

St Petersburg to Ivangorod and Narva

We have our train tickets and are waiting at Baltiyskiy Vokzal for our train to Ivangorod on the Estonian border.

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Major railway stations in Russia are called ‘vokzals’. There are several explanations for this and they all relate to Vauxhall Station in London. The more entertaining and least respectful are similar to those stories about why Europeans call those large hopping marsupials kangaroos. The most credible explanation is that the first Russian railway station was built at a popular pleasure garden in Pavlovsk that was modelled on Vauxhall Gardens in London. That railway station became known as a vokzal and subsequently so did all major stations.

We spent our last morning in SPB travelling on the Metro to look at the stylish stations and their environs. In Soviet times, a large investment was made in the Metro and the stations were lavishly and tastefully styled in neo-classical and art deco themes to celebrate and elevate the workers who built and used them.

Marble, brass, bronze, mosaics and cut glass adorn these proletarian shrines. Friezes of noble male and female workers and busts of Lenin are everywhere. I’ll let the pictures do the talking but suffice to say the system is clean, well-maintained, efficient and heavily used.

Trains run at 3 minute intervals so there’s no need to rush to catch that one at the platform as another will be along in a jiffy. Single trip tokens cost less than a dollar. Polite young locals leap to their feet to offer their seats to silver-haired passengers.

Many of the stations are deep underground. One can barely see the bottom from the top of the vertiginous escalators. Smartly uniformed women sleep in booths to monitor possible hooliganism.

We boarded the train with a few other cyclists and it steadily filled until an on-time departure.

We struggled to make our bicycles seem small and only a small inconvenience to the other passengers and train staff. Others successfully hid their uncontained pets from the conductor.

Hot and stuffy, we pulled out into the sunset and rattled and bumped our way through industrial areas, weekend dachas and vegetable plots then scrubby farmland. The dilapidated villages looked romantically rustic in the late summer evening light.

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This train took us to Ivangorod on the Estonian border

We’ve made it to Estonia. Good night.

The Impressionists

16 August 2018

Until today we had not been inside a St Peterburg Russian Orthodox church so we selected the Church of the Assumption of Mary, located on one of the embankments overlooking the Neva but some distance away from the tourist crowds. This impressively beautiful church, surprisingly, hardly rates a mention as a tourist attraction. I put on a head scarf and Ian wore long trousers. It was quiet with few visitors along with a Russian film crew that appeared to be filming for a documentary. The interior is overwhelmingly ornate. During the Soviet era it was put to other uses (warehouse and skating rink) so it was in bad shape until renovations were done during the 1990s.

Nearby are a couple of museums, one on an ice breaker ship, another in a submarine, both on the Neva. The St Petersburg Mining University, also nearby, features two dramatic sculptures at the entrance – The Abduction of Proserpina and Hercules and Antaeus.

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It is hard work riding around on a bike because of uneven surfaces, high kerbs, lack of opportunity to cross the road and heavy traffic. To be fair though, St Petersburg has many pedestrian crossings and motorists respect them if you step out assertively. Traffic light-controlled crossings are common but some allow only 30 seconds to cross 6 or 8 lanes with a high median strip in the middle (count down indicators are everywhere – these are a big help).

Day 2 at the Hermitage enabled us to view the Impressionist exhibitions in the General Staff Building – this is the yellow semicircular building on the other side of Palace Square that looks across to the Winter Palace. On Wednesdays opening hours are extended to 9pm we we went in the early evening when there were no queues and fewer visitors. This building has been extensively and expensively renovated – it’s pretty schmick. We enjoyed seeing many famous works by Degas, Monet, Picasso, Cezanne, Kandinsky and others.

 

Tourism central

15 August 2018

St Petersburg

After a breakfast of black coffee and pishki (donuts) we visited the Hermitage. We joined what seemed to us a long queue at the entrance for visitors with the foresight to buy tickets online and thereby avoid queuing. Once the doors opened our non-queue moved fairly quickly and we were in. The place was already thronging! It became clear during the morning that the purchase of online tickets is well worth the small additional expense as the huge queues in Palace Square were glacial throughout the morning.

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Cannibal Tours at the Hermitage

An early, fortuitous decision to turn left when everybody else turned right put us in the almost deserted Art Deco wing. It was brilliant with extensive, artfully presented prints, magazine covers and dismembered books including Russian translations of Homer and Kipling. This was the best presented and most overlooked section we saw – delightful.

Rejoining the masses we were overwhelmed by the marble statues, Dutch masters, throne rooms, furniture, peacock clock, parquetry, ceilings and crowds. The salon-hung Rubens room was stunning. Bacchus is more than Rubenesque.

The presentation of all these riches does not do them justice with the emphasis being on the quantity of treasures more than the specialness of any or each of them. Lighting is often patchy and glary and even poor Napoleon’s face is in shade.

Climate control in the building was certainly struggling either due to the unseasonably hot summer that is drawing to a close or the tens of thousands of warm bodies wandering around. Unfiltered sunlight streams in onto irreplaceable paintings and furniture and windows are wedged open for fresh air.

Unfortunately, the palace was designed for the genteel elite and not the lumpen masses and crowd flow is difficult with many choke points and cross currents. There were a few brave souls in wheelchairs doing it tough and spending a fair bit of time waiting at the scarce lifts.

The queue for the women’s toilets was epic while men strolled directly to vacant urinals or stalls. (Sorry for the graphic details but this worldwide problem isn’t going to be fixed until we can talk about it plainly.)

The third floor was dedicated to a 20th century Italian Arte Povera exhibition. The works were presented dismissively and warranted more care and attention.

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‘I just haven’t got a thing to wear’, says Venus.

We had a quiet afternoon and then braved peak hour traffic to see the Smolny Cathedral. The blue and white church dominates quite an austere, institutional part of the city near the great Neva River.

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Good parking!

We returned to our hotel via the Neva embankment, Lenin Square, many bridges, a few canals, one bicycle lane and lots of crazy traffic.

We enjoyed a Georgian aperitif to keep us going until our dinner date with Vlad & Sasha at 10:30. Leaving our bikes at the hotel, we took the Metro from Spasskaya to Markovskaya. The escalators are vertiginous, taking us way down below street and river-bed level. With memories of the seige of Leningrad, the subways are extra deep to serve as bomb shelters.

The Metro is spotless, beautiful, fast and heavily-used. Neo-classical and art deco themes vye for attention. We will explore the Metro more thoroughly before we leave. When a terrorist bombing near Spasskaya in 2017 discouraged residents from using the Metro for a few days the city came to a standstill.

From Markovskaya we walked down Nevsky Prospect to the Caffe Italia. My initial ambivalent impressions of this famous street were totally revised. It is beautiful in the evening and away from the tourist ground zero. It’s necessary to walk to appreciate it. Even cycling is too fast and the traffic too distracting to see into the narrow shopfronts and appreciate the many eye-catching things.

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Moscovskyy Vokzal – railway station

We had a very pleasant time with our new St Petersburg friends. Rosalie ate pasta with petrushka – not Stravinsky’s ballet – petrushka means parsley. We shared a taxi home as the Metro was mostly closed after midnight. The taxi driver was quite adventurous in the almost empty streets.

And so to bed way past our bedtime.

Changing plans

14 August 2018

St Petersburg, Russia

With a healthy dose of cynicism, the locals here in St Petersburg call these “Baba Yaga” buildings. Baba Yaga is a Russian mythical, witchy woman with a house on chickens legs. One of Musorgsky’s pictures at the exhibition was the house on chicken legs. He probably had something else in mind.

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A small bombshell went of in our heads last night when we discovered that the only ferry sailing from St Petersburg to Tallin THIS MONTH was on 26 August – no good for us. We’d already decided we’d had enough of fast Russian drivers on narrow country roads and had planned to bale out and take the ferry to Estonia. As there are twice daily sailings between the other Baltic ports we didn’t bother to check. However it seems that there is much less demand for travel to or from St Petersburg and we’d been caught out.

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After some scrabbling around we confirmed that we can take our bikes (assembled) on a slow train (you know, like Australian trains) to Ivangorod on the Estonian border. This mini-crisis has precipitated a decision to skip Moscow and save those days for the Baltic States.

So, we left Sasha and Vlad’s apartment but agreed to have dinner together before we leave St Petersburg and before Vlad returns to his job in the Karelian forests.

We spent the day on the streets of SPB and found it challenging. It is a huge city with chaotic traffic and poor accessibility for bikes and pedestrians. One wouldn’t want to navigate the streets and footpaths in a wheel chair. In fact we’ve seen no wheelchairs and few cyclists.

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Rimsky-Korsakov outside the Admiralty

The city has many canals lined with kilometres of grand or once-grand buildings. The waterfront is rather like Bordeaux but on a larger scale and without Baron Haussman’s finesse. The repair and conservation tasks must be daunting and are not on schedule.

Speaking of daunting tasks, we are catching our breath today and will make our first assault on the Hermitage tomorrow with a two-day pass.

We briefly visited New Holland Island, a depressingly regimented cultural centre and theme-park developed in recent years by Roman Abramovich, billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club and confidante of Vladimir Putin. NHI’s claims to be the coolest, hippest neighbourhood in SPB are belied by the military-style security guards and the chummy totalitarianism of its attendance rules. It is well-manicured but we found it oppressive and left.

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Pink flamingos trapped on New Holland Island

We enjoyed a belated breakfast in an unassuming cafeteria near the Mariinsky Theatre although the food seemed more lunch-aligned. To be fair on that establishment, I think we may have selected from the lunch-time spread. We were attracted to that because a tray of freshly baked stuffed capsicums had just emerged from the kitchen. The food was wholesome if a little bland. The cappuccinos were terrible. My rule henceforth: in Slavic countries stick to black coffee.

The Mariinsky Theatre must have an impressive depth of repertoire and skill at bumping shows if their forthcoming program is anything to go by: Aida one night, Faust the next followed by Parsifal, Onegin, etc in quick succession.

We couldn’t check in to the Capital Hotel until 2pm but the almost comatose concierge let us stash our bags behind his counter. I hate to think how long he’d been on duty but his head was hitting the counter as he repeatedly lost his struggle and dropped off.

We looped past some of the big landmarks, braved a bus lane on Nevsky Prospect for a few blocks and then tried for a better coffee in the unfortunately named and decorated Buddy Cafe. We should have known better. We eschewed milk and asked for espresso but what we got was ristretissimo – ridiculously short in a largish cup.

There are few outdoor cafes so we must learn to spot eateries without the usual cues of tables and umbrellas. We ate excellent Georgian cuisine in a rather swanky restaurant near our hotel while a thunderstorm sent the evening crowds scurrying for shelter. The staff didn’t visibly turn theirs noses up at our shabby appearance.

Oh, and by the way, there were many impressive, gold-trimmed churches.

We are cool

13 August 2018

Ozerki to Zelenogorsk by bike – then by train to St Petersburg

In all senses – it rained overnight and by morning the temperature had dropped. As it was Sunday there was little traffic so we rode off towards St Petersburg. We passed a red and white lighthouse almost completely obscured by trees, several abandoned shops, a few small villages and some unlittered beaches. The bus stops along the road broke the monotony of the landscape that is mainly forest, forest and more forest.

The traffic increased during the morning so it was a relief to find an off-road walking and bike path (in variable condition) for the last 5 or so kilometres into Zelenogorsk from where we took a train to St Petersburg. Ticket purchasing was aided by Google translate – I held up my phone so the woman could read what we wanted in Russian and I could avoid revealing my bad accent.

St Petersburg is a big place, but not too bad for cycling on a Sunday. There are trams and trolley buses and lots to take in. We made our way to Vasilievsky Island to find our Warmshowers hosts – not easy to do but we eventually succeeded. Sasha (designer and illustrator) and Vlad (cook or chef) live in a tiny apartment in an 8 storey building. The area around here has many medium and high rise apartment buildings, not all in a good state of repair.

After drinking a cup of Karelian tea, we went out to walk a km or so to the Gulf of Finland along an expensively engineered and landscaped canal that should be a public recreation asset but has an air of delapidation. Near the sea is a view of many massive high rise buildings, football stadium, huge freeway, cruise ship terminal and the Lahkta Centre, an 87 storey skyscraper.

Close shaves

12 August 2018

Vyborg – Primorsk – Ozerki, Russia

That is referring to the traffic not the barbershop!

Warm weather continues here. We have slept without blankets now for weeks as it does not cool down much during the night. There was some overnight rain last night; the morning sky was overcast and the breeze was cool.

The road to Primorsk was patchy (the bitument that is) and the traffic initially heavy-ish but it diminished a little as we progressed. This area is not especially scenic, featuring forest much of the way, a stretch of railway, occasional glimpses of the sea and few towns of interest.

Primorsk was the only major town on our route today. It could be described as dismal but there were a few bright spots that made a good impression. The first was a bread kiosk that Ian noticed, where we bought a piping hot bread ring with savoury filling and a bread pasty filled with melted stretchy cheese – yum! Why aren’t there more of these everywhere? They were too hot to eat immediately so we consumed them at the outdoor table of a cafe (one of few in the town) while we drank coffee. The cafe was divided into a family friendly decorated in brilliant colours and an adult area in more muted tones.

Nearby was a small market where about half a dozen vendors were selling their produce – dried fish displayed on a car bonnet, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, zucchinis, fennel seeds, spring onions, basil, dill and fresh flowers. There were also memorials marking the 70th anniversary of a WW2 victory in 1944.

Back on the road again we experienced a few close encounters with drivers who did not feel the need to leave us much space. However, overall the traffic was not too bad. At one point we passed close to the sea and followed a short side track to view the beach. The area had been comprehensively trashed by previous visitors which, to put it politely, detracted from our enjoyment.

We are staying overnight in a tiny village, Ozerki, in accommodation that is pretty basic but overpriced, comparable with our benchmark of 2010 – the Cape Jervis Motel ($80 for run down, not clean enough room with no potable water provided). Ozerki doesn’t have a lot to offer apart from a shop called Продукты (Products – accurate if not imaginitive) and the Russian Orthodox Church of St Nikolaya Chudotvortsa. We bought fresh cucumbers and tomatoes from a roadside stall near here and cheese from Продукты and made a salad to go with our instant noodles. We can still cook!

Tomorrow – St Petersburg!


									

Gulf of Finland

11 August 2018

Vladimir’s house is one of the newest in Torfyanovska and not quite finished. Hope he can get it done before winter sets in.

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Yesterday was pretty warm and it was the same today. We had a long ride down the highway to Vyborg but there was a shoulder of about 1m in width and the traffic was not too bad. Blueberry sellers set up stalls along the roadside hoping for passing trade but most vehicles are travelling too fast to stop for them.

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Soon after setting off we saw a cyclist ahead of us. We had time for a quick chat as we caught up. He was Sergei, travelling without panniers or proper cycling shoes, but covering big distances. He was aiming to reach St Petersburg today – that’s about 200km. Originally from Russia, he now works in a nuclear power plant in Bavaria.

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On the approach into Vyborg there is a high bridge giving good views of the marshy waters of the Gulf of Finland and the Vyborg castle. We watched some action on the docks where gypsum and coal are either coming or going. This city has been part of Finland in the past but Russia claimed it back after WW2.

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Our Russian language skills are rudimentary at best but we are improving our abilities in reading the Cyrillic script. We have acquired Russian sim cards, explored the sights of historic Vyborg and watched a street procession with stilt walkers, band and mime artists.

Accommodation for tomorrow has been a challenge – it is in short supply, maybe because Russians love to escape to the country each weekend. We have found something, maybe a bit dodgy … stay tuned for details!

Into Россию

10 August 2018

Kotka to Torfyanovka

We made an early start but still had a chance to greet Igor with dobroye utro before we left.

A neighbourhood supermarket provided us with breakfast necessities and a neatly manicured park between a smart athletics stadium and the river provided shade, a polished granite picnic table and perfect conditions for a simple breakfast.

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Track and field athletics is popular in Finland with many stadia and prime time TV coverage featuring lythe and muscular Nordic athletes.

We enjoyed a splendid cycleway almost all the way to Hamina on the Gulf of Finland. Soon after, we rejoined the King’s Road which provided perfect cycling through rolling farmlands and forest to Vaalimaa on the Russian border.

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We sang the hymn from Finlandia as a parting gesture to the Finns as we approached the border.

We sailed through Finnish and Russian passport control after remembering, in the nick of time, the correct answer to the trick question on the immigration card about visa sponsorship. The border guards waved us forward to the front of the vehicle queues. Bicycles rule!

We’d chanced upon a quiet time with only short queues heading east but the long, stationary line of trucks trying to head west made us think of those foolish Brexiteers and their self-destructive decision.

It is immediately obvious that we’re in a different country and not just because of internet access issues. There are no neatly manicured parks or polished granite picnic tables.

We’re staying in an AirBnB in a settlement adjacent to the border and life looks pretty tough. Nearby is a decrepit sandy and weedy soccer pitch where the local team was training as we arrived. I think the AirBnB tariff will represent handy income for our host.

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Food and beer at the 24-hour supermarket/restaurant was cheap and quite good enough.