January to March 2013 - Russia, the Caucasus and across Europe by train.

For a change, the first part of this year’s sourcing trip was actually a holiday! Arriving in Moscow for New Year was wonderful – the city was buzzing and everyone was dressed for celebrations (ie furs and seriously high heels… in deep snow!) 

We enjoyed the first few days with family, over-indulging and stomping through the drifts.
But we added some culture with Tosca at the Bolshoi, which was just gorgeous.

Then to business with trips to Sergiev Posad and other parts of the Golden Ring to meet up with some of our long-standing sources- artists creating superb Fedoskino and Matryoshki – we managed to get hold of 4 world-class lacquer miniatures (you’ve just got to see “The Ballerina”!) 

Besides a hot-bed of arts & craft, the architecture & scenery of the Golden Ring are spell-binding. Suzdal, for example, is a village of 5000 people yet has 120 churches.  Beautiful.  
Then back to Moscow for Orthodox Christmas, which entailed another trip to the Bolshoi, this time for the Nutcracker!
But it’s not all champagne and caviar – we had work to do and so we headed south to Tbilisi, Georgia. And what a revelation that was……

 

Gorgeous C5th churches perched on mountain peaks across the Caucasus, picture-perfect snowy villages, isolated valleys spread with vineyards, Georgia is definitely one of the most beautiful countries we’ve been to. Fab scenery combined with rich and vibrant music, fantastic food and wine (Georgia started making wine 7000 years ago – they’re good at it).  Equally special are the Georgian people. High-spirited, cultured and hospitable; every guest to the country gets a very warm welcome. 

We started our journey in Tbilisi-the capital. It has it all –a dramatic setting on the banks of a river valley, narrow cobbled streets, traditional old sulphur bathhouses (visited by Pushkin & Alexandre Dumas) and fantastic museums.

We spent our time exploring the city and searching for exquisite cloisonné enamel (Georgia is well known for its stunning enamel jewellery). We also managed to make a short trip to Vardzia, deep in the Caucasus mountains, guided by our wonderful host Tengo. 
Vardzia is a stunning C11th cave village in southern Georgia; a huge complex stretching to 13 levels with chapels, monasteries, wine cellars, tunnels etc. It is a strange and beautiful sight and a deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site.

On our return to Tbilisi our hosts, Tengo & Ekaterina introduced us to Iosef,    a superb jeweller who’s been working with cloisonné enamel for some 30+ years. One of his latest projects was a beautiful enamel icon for the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi. This piece took 3 1/2 years to make and was commissioned by the Patriarch of Georgia. Not bad provenance!
We could’ve happily stayed in Georgia MUCH longer but we had an appointment with a very different place… Istanbul and all its history awaited.

 

After Tbilisi, Istanbul is huge and overwhelming. The first couple of days were spent looking at the magnificent sights of the city, avoiding carpet touts and generally trying to find our way around.   

We explored different areas of Istanbul, going much further afield than the city centre and Grand Bazaar but our disappointment and frustration grew. Everywhere we went we saw mass produced, low quality souvenirs. Talking to the locals confirmed our feelings; most of the “local” crafts in Istanbul are actually made in China. 

We headed off to Cappadocia to clear heads and stayed in Urgup, a small town with friendly people and a calm atmosphere. Walking around the outskirts of the town one evening we were delighted to find a small studio owned by Bulent, an experienced silversmith, creating beautiful, original jewellery using high-purity silver, Iranian turquoise, amber and Afghan lapis.

We bought many of his superb pieces and commissioned several designs. As a treat, Katia then took a hot air balloon flight over the fairy-chimneys!

Re-enthused, we returned to Istanbul and saw this ancient city in a new light. We walked the length of the Bosphorus and admired gorgeous summer palaces and pretty fishing villages, where interactions with locals were relaxed and friendly. We began to learn that, amongst the tat, the Silk Road lives on and Istanbul is still the route for exceptional wares from Central Asia, Iran and the sub-continent! 

We found some quite sensational textiles from Central Asia in Turkey including a few examples of world-class Uzbek Suzanis (the ultimate bedspreads of silk embroidery on hand-woven silk cloth.) 

We also found that real Turkish pottery is still made in the smaller potteries in Antalya and that Nevsehir is a good source for kilims from the weavers. So, we’ll have to return and explore further!


However there was a train to board, which would take us across Eastern Europe, much of the way on the route of the famed Orient Express. 

We boarded the Bosfor Express on famous Sirkeci station and left Istanbul in style. Thanks to a friendly carriage attendant, we were upgraded to first class, opened a bottle of Cappadocian wine, played some Georgian folk music and, chatting to some Romanian passengers, prepared to cross into Bulgaria. Unsmiling border guards thoroughly searched the carriages whilst we stood outside in the freezing cold at four in the morning. The next day our train slowly passed through uninspiring countryside but then we crossed the Danube, entered Romania and the world brightened.
We had decided to stop in Bucharest, the next step of our journey, for only one day after reading a rather unflattering review of the city in one of our guidebooks - “ It’s grimy; it’s gritty;…there is nothing much to see except a communist-era mega-palace; there are dogs, beggars and scammers galore…” We were prepared for the worst, but instead found Bucharest and it’s people stylish, positive and extremely friendly. The city has some fantastic museums (although Ceausescu’s Palace of Parliament is sheer madness) and great restaurants, bars and clubs. We loved the people and the vibe of Bucharest and wished we could stay longer and explore more, however the Ister Night Express left the following evening for Budapest, our next stop.

We spent two days and two nights exploring both sides of this city and enjoyed the gorgeous cityscapes, absorbing as much information about Hungary’s fascinating history, culture and crafts as such a short time allowed, and visiting the ‘third coolest bar in the world’ (according to Tripadvisor!)

Our next step was a fast intercity to Vienna. No sleeper this – the super-fast service only took four hours to get there and we had two full days to explore this gorgeous, historic city. Vienna floats between the past and present with effortless elegance. The scale, the evidence of immense sweeps of history, the magnificent imperial palaces, baroque interiors and above all the Hofburg, where much of Europe’s history was played out, entranced us.

By night, we walked as much of the city centre as we could. Turning a corner one evening, we realised that, by happy accident, we’d chosen the night of the annual Opera Ball, perhaps the most important event for Austrian society. The dress code is white tie and tails and ball gowns. We watched the cream of European society arrive in beautiful cars or horse-drawn carriages, to drink fine champagne and dance the night away. Alas we’d forgotten to bring our eveningwear!  

This whole journey had been a wonderful adventure and the route home by train, with short stops in several very special cities had given us some initial insights and ideas for sourcing for the next years. But, despite the shortness of each visit, we were surprised and enchanted at ever turn by people, history and the continuing existence of wonderful arts & crafts in this age of mass-production.
We loved this year’s different journey and had found some vanishingly rare and gorgeous items…. and even our flight to Gatwick from Vienna by Easyjet couldn’t spoil it!