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16 April 2018 / leggypeggy

A glimpse of days gone by in Iceland

Church at Árbær Open Air Museum

Visiting the church

Inside the church at Árbær Open Air Museum

Our guide talks about the history of the church. The pulpit is in the corner on the right

Parts of the United States and Canada are copping a battering this week with slow-moving storms generating record snowfall and low temperatures. Thousands are without power, air travellers are stranded, and icy conditions are making roads especially dangerous. Treacherous times.

Upper Michigan and Wisconsin are predicted to get as much as 18 inches (46 centimetres) of snow. It would be the perfect time to stay indoors, but braver souls make the most of it.

My nephew, Charlie, and his wife, Hannah, celebrated the arrival of ‘spring’ in Minneapolis by donning their bathers (swimsuits) and barbecuing on the roof of their snow-covered apartment building. I was delighted to see their sense of the ridiculous and chirpiness in the face of adversity (scroll down).

Bedroom, Árbær Open Air Museum

It also reminded me of our recent travels in Iceland and our willingness to tramp around in the snow to visit the Árbær Open Air Museum in Reykjavik.

Originally an established farm, Árbær was opened to the public as a museum in 1957. It is one of five locations that make up the Reykjavik City Museum.

Árbær Open Air MuseumStone building, Árbær Open Air Museum

Today the museum has more than 20 traditional buildings that form a village with a town square, houses, a church, stables, a barn, a blacksmith and more. Most of the buildings were originally 19th century homes in central Reykjavik, and relocated to Árbær.

We arrived a bit before the museum opened (at 1pm September to May, otherwise 10am) and for a while I thought we’d be the only people on the tour, but in the end there were about 25 visitors, including several families.

Houses, Árbær Open Air Museum

Our guide (I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t remember her name) gave an informative tour, explaining the different buildings, as well as the contents and histories of some of the residents of the past.

She gave us a real feel for life in earlier times in Iceland, and even demonstrated how to card wool. It was nice to see her in period dress. It also tickled me that she was also the person featured on the front of the museum’s brochure that we saw displayed around town.

Wood stove, Árbær Open Air Museum

Being the avid cook that I am (check out my cooking blog), Im always very interested in seeing the old kitchens and equipment. Every house in the museum had a wood stove. Im pleased to say that I have one too—not as old as the one pictured above. Sadly, it doesn’t get used as much as it used to.

In summer months, the museum presents art-and-craft demonstrations including traditional handicrafts. Visitors can also see haymaking, vintage cars and livestock. There is also a cafe.

P.S. I didn’t add captions to all the photos because many are self-explanatory.

P.P.S. Aren’t Charlie and Hannah good sports!

Hannah and Charlie celebrating spring in Minnesota

Hannah and Charlie celebrating spring in Minnesota

12 April 2018 / leggypeggy

Giraffes slip silently on to the vulnerable list

Giraffes in Etosha national park, Namibia

A sad and disturbing article appeared on one of my news feeds the other day. It’s not new news. In fact, the article was from the December 2015 Smithsonian magazine, but the problem it describes isn’t going away.

According to the latest ‘red list’ compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the giraffe—the world’s tallest animal—is at risk of extinction after suffering a devastating decline in numbers over the last 30 years. Numbers have plummeted from 157,000 individuals in 1985 to 97,500 at last count, and the giraffe is now listed as vulnerable.

Giraffes face two main threats, cities and towns encroaching on their habitat and poaching. Poaching has become increasingly problematic. Hungry villagers sometimes kill the animals for food, and there are reports that many giraffes are slaughtered for just their tails. They are considered status symbols in some cultures and have been used as bracelets, fly whisks and even as a dowry when asking a bride’s father for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Giraffes in Etosha national park, Namibia

The biggest problem for giraffes, though, may be the lack of attention over the years. ‘I am absolutely amazed that no one has a clue’ about the dwindling numbers, said Julian Fennessy, executive director of Giraffe Conservation Foundation. It’s a silent extinction with some populations numbering less than 400. ‘That is more endangered than any gorilla, or almost any large mammal in the world.’

Duke University conservation biologist Stuart Pimm said ‘There’s a strong tendency to think that familiar species (such as giraffes, chimps, etc.) must be OK because they are familiar and we see them in zoos.’ In fact over the last century, giraffes have silently been going extinct across Africa. They have already disappeared from seven countries—Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Guinea, Malawi, Mauritania, Nigeria and Senegal.

Giraffe, Etosha national park

The first giraffe I saw in the wild

So why am I especially concerned about giraffes? Because they were some of the first big animals I saw in the wild during our overland truck trip in Africa. The first encounter was in Etosha national park in northwest Namibia.

We arrived at the park in the afternoon and set up camp. We were old hands at this by now, so it wasn’t long before Chris, our driver, hustled everyone into the truck so we could go exploring. We saw Thomson’s gazelles first and then came the giraffes. Individuals and small groups, adults and juveniles, then larger groups. The collective noun for a group of giraffes is rather obvious—a tower.

I have more than 40 pics from that day that include giraffes—in the bush, nuzzling offspring, grazing, waiting for a turn at the watering hole, drinking, canoodling?

Giraffes, canoodling? in Etosha national park, Namibia

Giraffes—some details
They are magnificent creatures so here’s a bit more about them.

As I already mentioned, giraffes are the world tallest animals. Males grow up to 18 feet tall with females reaching 14 feet, (or 5.5 and 4.3 metres, respectively). Males weigh up to 3000 pounds (1360 kilograms) and females are about half that.

Their body parts are big too. The tongue is purple and about 21 inches (55 centimetres) long. The neck and legs are 6 feet long (and to think I call myself leggypeggy!) The measurement that really struck me was their lung capacity. Their lungs can hold 12 gallons (55 litres) of air—nine times more than human lungs.

This was another surprise. According to PBS Nature, giraffes sleep about 20 minutes or less per day. Staying awake allows them to be constantly on alert for predators. They usually get their sleep in quick power naps that last just a couple of minutes. I wouldn’t mind perfecting that.

Giraffe waiting to drink, Etosha national park, NamibiaGiraffe drink, Etosha national park, NamibiaGiraffe drink, Etosha national park, Namibia

Giraffes are herbivores, which means they eat only plants. Their long necks allow them to reach leaves, seeds, fruits, buds and branches high up in mimosa and acacia trees. They can eat hundreds of pounds of leaves per week, but can go without drinking for weeks at a time because of the moisture in the vegetation they eat.

Just like our fingerprints and a zebra’s stripes, a giraffe’s coat pattern is unique to each animal. The pattern and the small hump on a giraffe’s back are similar to those of a leopard. Years ago, people thought the giraffe was a combination of a camel and a leopard, and called them ‘camel-leopards’.

And some final comments. I haven’t added captions to most of the pics here. They were all taken on the same day in Etosha national park. I’ll do more posts about Etosha, but I wanted to share the situation giraffes face in a post of its own.

Giraffes at dusk in Etosha national park, Namibia

Giraffes at dusk in Etosha national park, Namibia

2 April 2018 / leggypeggy

A magnificent church to mark Easter

St Isaac's Cathedral, St Petersburg

St Isaac’s Cathedral on the first day we saw it (sunny day)

The view from St Isaac's Cathedral, St Petersburg

Looking out from the roof of St Isaac’s Cathedral (cloudy day)

St Isaac's Cathedral tower staircase

Maybe not a bazillion stairs, but still a lot

I thought about saving the fabulous Fabergé eggs until Easter, but I couldn’t resist doing a post about them a couple of weeks ago. So instead and to mark this important Christian holiday, I thought I’d bring you the remarkable Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg, Russia.

Poor John and I first encountered this church on our free walking tour of the city. We think walking tours are a great way to get your bearings in a new city and to discover some of the best places to visit on subsequent days .

When we returned the next day, Poor John, as usual, was keen to climb the church tower. So after a bazillion stairs (yes, I’m exaggerating) we had fantastic views of St Petersburg. Then it was back to earth to visit the actual church.

View from St Isaac's Cathedra, St Petersburg

View from the top

St Issac’s breaks several records. It is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in St Petersburg. It’s also the largest orthodox basilica and the fourth largest (by the volume under the cupola) cathedral in the world. It’s dedicated to Saint Isaac of Dalmatia, a patron saint of Peter the Great, who was born on that saint’s feast day.

It is the fourth consecutive church to be built on its location and its construction was ordered by Tsar Alexander I. Designed by the French-born architect, Auguste de Montferrand, the cathedral took 40 years to build, starting in 1818. Overall cost was a million gold rubles.

The building sits on 10,000 tree trunks that were sunk by countless workers into the marshy banks upon which the cathedral sits.

The dome, St Isaac's Cathedra, St Petersburg

The Dome

Ceiling, St Isaac's Cathedra, St Petersburg


The main dome, which we saw from above and from inside the church, rises 101.5 metres (333 feet) and is plated with pure gold. Outside it’s decorated with twelve statues of angels by Josef Hermann. During World War II, the dome was painted grey to shield it from attack by enemy aircraft.

I was intrigued to learn that the design of the cathedral in general and the dome in particular later influenced the designs of the United States Capitol dome, the State Capitol in Wisconsin, and the Lutheran Cathedral in Helsinki (which we saw last year).

Under the Soviet government, the building was stripped of all religious furnishings. Then in 1931, it was turned into the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. Following the fall of communism, the museum was removed and regular worship resumed.

A bit more about the cathedral
The exterior is faced with grey and pink stone, and features a total of 112 red granite columns with Corinthian capitals. Some of the external doors are breathtaking.

These bronze doors (inside and out), covered in reliefs by Ivan Vitali, are patterned after the celebrated doors of the Battistero di San Giovanni in Florence, Italy, designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti. I saw a placard that said some of the doors weigh 20 tons.

Iconostatis, St Petersburg

The iconostasis (wall of icons and religious paintings) has eight columns—six of malachite and two of lazurite.

Upper view of iconostatis, St Petersburg

Looking up from the iconostatis

Centrepoint of the iconostatis, St Petersburg

Centrepoint of the iconostatis

The iconostasis (a wall of icons and religious paintings) is framed by eight columns of semi-precious stone—six are made of malachite and two smaller ones are of lazurite.

The interior was originally decorated with many paintings by Karl Bryullov and other Russian masters of the day. When these paintings began to deteriorate due to the cold, damp conditions inside the cathedral, Montferrand (the architect) ordered them to be painstakingly reproduced as mosaics, a technique introduced in Russia by Mikhail Lomonosov. This work was never completed.

Our visit
We spent ages in the cathedral. I was gobsmacked when we entered. The exterior, while stylish, and the climb up to the roof, plenty of steps, don’t prepare you for the sheer size and magnificence of the interior.

I consider this to be a don’t-miss destination in St Petersburg.

Bronze door, St Petersburg Cathedral

One of the bronze doors

Overhead mosaic, St Petersburg Cathedral

Overhead mosaic

St Isaac's Cathedral, St Petersburg

Inside the cathedral

26 March 2018 / leggypeggy

Poor John relieved he didn’t have to dance

There was no chance I was going to get Poor John up on the dance floor, but we still had a fantastic time at the wedding of Keith and Carol.

I worked with Keith for many years in the 1990s, and was delighted when we were invited to attend their celebrations in Adelaide.

It was a union of a Scotsman and an Irish lass, so the guests (including many of Carol’s family from Ireland) were treated to kilts, some speeches in Gaelic and the most wonderful Irish dancing by a troupe from the Roberts Academy.

Keith and Carol

Keith and Carol

That’s why I’m writing this post. I had enough sense to catch most of one of the performances. What a treat.

Keith and Carol did a routine too. You can see that Keith is not a born dancer. Full marks to him for making the effort. We wish them our warmest congratulations. They make a great match! No honeymoon just yet while Carol’s family is still enjoying Australia.

P.S. Poor John’s last appearance on the dance floor was in 1982 when he was dragged on stage in Tahiti by a dancer wearing a grass skirt and a couple of coconuts.


25 March 2018 / leggypeggy

Don’t be a square—visit the Cube and its urinals

Image from the video show at the d'Arenberg Cube

Laughing cat from the video show at the d’Arenberg Cube

d'Arenberg Cube

The d’Arenberg Cube on a cloudy day and with covered grapevines in the foreground

We hadn’t been in Adelaide for long when our sister-in-law, Charlotte, asked if we’d heard about the d’Arenberg Cube in McLaren Vale. We knew of their wines, but the Cube was new to us, so off we went to have a look.

This fabulous structure, opened just a few months ago, looks like a giant two-tone Rubik’s cube in the midst of being solved.

men's room, d'Arenberg Cube

Not your typical toilet sinks

Video, d'Arenberg Cube

Part of the video

In 2003, d’Arenberg’s chief winemaker Chester Osborn came up with an idea to build something that depicted the complexities and puzzles of winemaking.

The five-storey building cost $15 million, and includes public and private tasting rooms, several bars, a 360-degree video room, an art gallery and a restaurant.

Ground floor is devoted to the video show, the art gallery and a—what should I call it—a sniffing room. Two walls are decorated with paper flowers and two with plastic fruit. You can squeeze a rubber bulb attached to a flagon, and smell the bouquet of various wine ‘flavours’.

Fruit wall, d'Arenberg winery

Fruit wall

We had a guide on this floor, and she told us to be sure to stop by the toilets on first floor to see ‘the most photographed urinals in Australia’. That claim is a bit of a stretch. Hey, the place has only been open for a few months. But I can imagine them achieving such a record over time. The artworks above are from the women’s toilet.

Our guide advised us to send in the men first to make sure the ‘coast was clear’ and then rush in with our cameras. We did as we were told. But we did that on the way out.

After starting with ground floor, we made a beeline to the wine tasting area. Surely 11:30am is not too early to be trying wines? We tried four—two whites and two reds—and I bought six bottles of the two wines I liked the most. They weren’t cheap and I’ll save them for special occasions.

The wine-tasting floor has some fun furniture, amazing views over McLaren Vale and displays including some of the awards the winery has won. I rather liked the belt buckle they won in Houston.

View over McLaren Vale

View over McLaren Vale

My history with d’Arenberg wines
I’ll always recognise a d’Arenberg wine—it’s the distinctive red stripe on the label. I first encountered their wines in 1976 in Cairo, Egypt. 
Poor John was in the Australian Embassy then and I was studying at the University of Cairo. People in the embassy were able to bring in Australian beverages to serve when entertaining. He’d ordered in d’Arenberg wines and Swan beers (Western Australia). Good memories.

And now for the urinals!

Urinals, d'Arenberg Cube Urinals, d'Arenberg Cube

16 March 2018 / leggypeggy

Hail, hail the gang’s all here

gang gang pair

Gang-gan Cockatoos—pic from the Canberra Ornithologists Group’s website

Cheryl and John, our next door neighbours, stopped me in the driveway earlier today to ask if I’d seen the gang that had visited them that morning.

The gang being about 10 colourful Gang-gang Cockatoos, which are one of the Australian Capital Territory’s emblems. These distinctive birds also appear on logos for the Canberra Ornithologists Group and ACT Parks, Conservation and Lands.

According to the Ornithologists Group’s website, Gang-gangs are typically seen in the gardens of Canberra’s inner suburbs, especially those near bushland reserves. And they are most commonly around in the cooler months (it’s autumn now in Australia). We’re lucky to be close to the bush landscape of Mt Ainslie, so no wonder they hang around our neighbourhood.

We get them in our backyard sometimes (they like the cones on our bookleaf pine tree), but never so many at one time. Cheryl, John and Cheryl’s dad (he’s in the video too) say they’ve never see a group as large as this.

The video was taken on a phone and is a bit fuzzy, but you get the idea. One cockatoo remains steadfastly on Cheryl’s head and, at one stage, there are three perched on her right arm.

As an aside, Cheryl and John are having a garage sale tomorrow. Let me know if you want the address—they aren’t selling birds and I’m not buying anything!

P.S. Sadly, I think the video isn’t working for many people. So annoying. Maybe it’s because I have a free WordPress account that doesn’t support videos. Happy to email you the file.


12 March 2018 / leggypeggy

Fabergé eggs are showstoppers

Lilies of the Valley Imperial egg (1898), Fabergé Museum

Lilies of the Valley Imperial egg (1898), the surprise at the top are small portraits of the Tsar and the two eldest children

The world owes Viktor Vekselberg a great big thank you! Oh, you’ve never heard of him? Neither had I, but in 2004 this Ukrainian–Russian billionaire businessman had the wisdom, foresight and money to buy a collection of Fabergé Imperial Easter eggs from the Forbes publishing family in New York.

As a result, he is the single largest owner of Fabergé eggs in the world, owning 15 of them (nine Imperial, two Kelch, and four other Fabergé eggs).

Vekselberg paid just over $100 million to buy the nine Imperial eggs. He says he bought them because they are important to Russian history and culture, and he believed them to be the best jewellery art in the world.

Duchess of Marlborough (1902), Fabergé Museum

Duchess of Marlborough (1902), not an Imperial egg

He also bought 180 other Faberge pieces (more about those in another post).

By 2013 and through his Link of Times foundation, Vekselberg had the eggs and other items on public display in the Fabergé Museum, which is housed in the Shuvaloy Palace, one of the most beautiful palaces in St Petersburg, Russia.

Mind you, renovations on the palace took six or seven years.

Blue Room, Fabergé Museum

The Blue Room houses the Fabergé eggs

Blue Room, Fabergé Museum

The Blue Room actually has some blue

So what makes these eggs so special?
Nothing prepared me for the spectacle of just how stunning these eggs are. Vekselberg is right when he describes them as the best jewellery art in the world.

The story of the eggs began in 1885, when Tsar Alexander III decided to give his wife, the Empress Maria Fedorovna, an Easter egg. Peter Carl Fabergé was commissioned to make this first work, known as the Hen Egg (apologies for not getting a pic of this one). It’s an enamelled egg that opens to reveal a golden yolk. This opens to reveal a golden hen that also opens. The last ‘surprise’ is a tiny replica of the imperial crown plus a ruby pendant. These last two pieces have been lost.

Cockerel Imperial egg (1900), Fabergé Museum

Cockerel Imperial egg (1900),

Maria was so captivated by the gift that Alexander appointed Fabergé  ‘goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown’ and commissioned an egg for the next year. After that, it appears Fabergé had complete freedom to design all future Imperial Easter eggs. The only requirements were that each contain a surprise, and that each be unique.

The eggs have their own room—the Blue Room—in the museum, and each egg has its own glass case.

Coronation Egg (1897), Fabergé Museum

Coronation Imperial egg (1897), the ‘surprise’ is an exact replica of the coronation carriage

Order of St George (1916), Fabergé Museum

Order of St George Imperial egg (1916), the simplest of all the Imperial eggs

Some of the most significant Imperial eggs are the Coronation Egg (1897) made to mark the coronation of Nicholas II and Alexandra Fyodorovna, and Order of St George (1916) made during World War I. A replica carriage was the ‘surprise’ in the coronation egg. The Order of St George egg didn’t contain a surprise (war-time austerity), and was not designed by Fabergé, but followed the family’s instructions. I’ve read conflicting information about this egg. I’ll trust what’s posted in the museum—this is the last Imperial egg ever made and Nicholas II gave it to his mother, Empress Maria Fyodorovna.

Chanticleer Kelch egg (1904) Fabergé Museum

Chanticleer Kelch egg (1904), one of 12 eggs made for Siberian gold mine industrialist, Alexander Ferdinandovich Kelch. These were gifts for his wife, Barbara

One of the most elaborate eggs is Lilies of the Valley (1898). Tsar Nicholas II gave this Art Nouveau egg to his wife, the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna. Lilies of the valley were her favourite flower. The egg is made of gold, diamonds, rubies, pearls, glass, guilloche enamel, casting, stamping, engraving, gilding and watercolor.

The museum has five or six more rooms filled with other Fabergé treasures, and I’ll cover the in a separate post. The eggs deserve to be showcased alone.

I’ve added a caption (title and date made) to each egg pic (you may have to roll over the pics to see the words).

By the way, 57 of the 65 known Fabergé eggs still exist, and 43 of the 50 Imperial eggs survive.

Renaissance Imperial egg (1894), Fabergé Museum

Renaissance Imperial egg (1894)

Some tips about visiting museums
Arrive early and buy tickets in advance if you can. We got to the Fabergé Museum 20–30 minutes before opening time. We hadn’t bought tickets ahead of time (we weren’t sure we’d be able to go), but I think it is an online option. We were near the front of the queue and we whisked in quickly.

Start in the second room. Poor John has a tactic that works very well. Whenever we enter a museum, we head straight for the second room. Everyone else stops in the first room so it’s packed. If that’s where you start, you’ll jostle along with the ‘herd’ for the rest of the visit. Meanwhile, the second room is deserted.

Amazingly, the eggs were in the second room. We were practically the only people there for at least 20 minutes. We then stayed ahead of the crowd and, before leaving, we doubled back to see the treasures in room one. By then room two was packed and it would have been hard to get close to the eggs.

Two questions
Do you have tips for visiting museums, galleries and the like? If yes, please share. And do you have a favourite egg?

Bay Tree Imperial egg (1911), Fabergé Museum

Bay Tree Imperial egg (1911), also known as the Orange Tree Imperial egg