Victoria & Albert Museum Showcases Treasures From Royal Courts

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has just opened a new exhibition about the development of trade and official relations between Russia and the United Kingdom.

“Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars” brings together more than 150 objects for a look at the interaction between both courts from the accession of Henry VIII in 1509. He and later Tudor monarchs were eager to expand contacts with Russia to tap into the lucrative fur trade, selling English wool and luxury items in return. The artifacts show how the courts affected one another through the reigns of two English dynasties.

Timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the founding of the dynasty of the Romanovs, the exhibition focuses on gifts and cultural exchanges between the two royal courts instead of the rather humble trade that financed them. Included are Shakespeare’s first folio, a little-seen portrait of Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s suit of processional armor and royal jewelry.

The exhibition also includes objects loaned from Russian institutions, such as this odd silver basin showing a dolphin from 1635. It’s part of a collection of English and French silver given to the Tsars by the British royal family. Examples of this kind of silver are rare in England because most of it was melted down to finance the English Civil War. What’s interesting about this basin is the way the dolphin is portrayed – more like those seen in Greek and Roman art than what dolphins look like in reality. It appears the silversmith had a Classical education but not much contact with the sea!

%Gallery-180975%There’s also quite a bit about the Muscovy Company, an English firm given a monopoly on trading rights with Russia from 1555 until 1698. The company’s captains made a fortune trading with Russia and even tried to open a route to China by sailing north of Siberia. The so-called Northeast Passage was as bad of an idea as it sounds and many sailors froze to death in the attempt.

The Northeast Passage remained a dream until 1878, when the Finnish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld sailed the Vega from Europe to Japan via Siberia. Sadly for him, the Suez Canal had opened nine years before and there already was a shorter route to China.

“Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars” runs until July 14.

[Photo courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

Bikini-Clad Snowboarders Take To Siberian Slopes (Video)

Snowboarders worldwide usually dress warmly, covering as much skin as possible to avoid frostbite if not hypothermia. Russians are normally no exception to the rule, with winter temperatures dropping to sub-zero levels with great frequency.

To catch the attention of winter vacationers and lure them away from Moscow to Sheregesh, a Siberian resort, this video has bikini-clad snowboarders having fun on the slopes.

“We can’t guarantee a show like this every day but we’re pretty relaxed out here in Siberia,” said a Russian tourism spokesperson in a Travel Mole post today.

With some of the best snowboarding powder in Europe, Sheregesh hosts travelers every winter for its popular snowboarding and skiing during a season that lasts from November till March.

[YouTube Video via Sirdi Sa]

Russians ready to travel, voting on destinations

While only 15% of Russia‘s 142 million population have ever traveled abroad, in the last decade Russia has been one of the world’s fastest growing outbound travel markets and the world of travel wants to know what they are all about. The My Planet Travel Awards, voted on by the Russian public, promises to tell the world what Russians are looking for when they travel.

“The inaugural My Planet Travel Awards continue to surpasses all expectations, as international hotels, resorts, and service providers sign up to be part of Russia’s unique travel awards” says

Following a huge nationwide awareness campaign covered by the All-Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK) and a public online vote, the awards will culminate with a gala dinner in September 2011 at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Moscow where the winners will be announced.

Guests at the gala dinner will include up to 400 people from Russia and around the world, including nominees and other representatives of the travel industry, celebrities, journalists, relevant government agencies and trade associations.As the My Planet Travel Awards have been created to reflect Russian ready to travel. Hoping to map their tastes in travel, the voting process is conducted in the Russian language as is a promotional YouTube video.

Yesterday it was announced that Hong Kong is the latest and 100th nominee to join the My Planet Travel Awards 2011 and will be represented in the category Best Hotel in Asia, Australasia and the Indian Ocean.

Flickr photo by Ed Yourdon

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Coming Attractions: Panama

Watch out world, ‘cuz here comes Panama–that skinny little land-bridge of a country that’s famous for straw hats, yellow-fever infestations and American meddling.

Just how skinny a country is it? From the time the pilot lowers the landing gear to the time your flight actually lands in Panama City, that’s how much. One minute you’re looking down at the turquoise Caribbean and exactly four and a half minutes later, you’ve landed on the other side of the country, where–if you can see past the skyscrapers–you’ll observe mammoth cargo ships lining up in the Pacific Ocean to enter the canal.

Imagine a 13-year old mixed-race girl from a broken home who spends her childhood in a reform school later to discover that her abusive deadbeat father left her a massive trust fund. That’s Panama: young and eager, a little messed up, filling out nicely . . . and ridiculously rich.

Now that Panama gets to keep the cash she earns from her famous canal, the country has gained the kind of newfound respectability that comes from having new clothes and holding democratic elections. Witnessing Panama’s overnight transition from banana republic to middle-class retirement haven is like watching the Univision version of Extreme Makeover: it feels so tacky but you can’t change channels because you just have to find out what happens next.What’s happening now is this: a LOT of money is flowing into Panama, some of it from legit investors and some of it from Colombian entrepreneurs (and such as). Until recently, dysfunction and dictators kept away the Bills and Carols from Oklahoma City so that Panama’s nature remained underappreciated and remarkably intact. Meanwhile, neighboring Costa Rica has turned into another Orlando but with ziplines and monkeys. Panama’s real estate boom threatens a repeat of that trend, but for now, the real nature lovers and hardcore birdwatchers are all heading down to Panama’s vast network of well-protected national parks. They quickly realize that this is a beautiful, safe and fun place to travel.

The time I spent in Panama was filled with virgin tropical rain forests that were packed with amazing wildlife but wonderfully devoid of annoying tourists. Also, the beaches are phenomenal: literally hundreds of miles of beautiful coastline line the Atlantic and Pacific. Yes, all you scuba divers-you can dive in both oceans on the same day and enjoy two completely separate experiences.

The great Panama Canal is an awesome attraction in and of itself. Canal cruises are exploding in popularity so that nearly every major cruise line now tries to work it into their annual itinerary. If you prefer to head off the beaten path, then check out the deepest darkest Darien region or the San Blas islands and the Caribbean homeland of the Kuna Indians-Panama’s indigenous population. The fascinating Kuna culture is definitely one of the more exotic elements that has fortunately begun to be included in the country’s growing tourist development.

As a former American colony, English is widely spoken alongside Spanish, so that in many ways, Panama is a bilingual country. Other benefits include relatively good roads, a surprising collection of fine hotels, and a greater degree of rule of law than your average Central American country.

But is it really so peachy in Panama? Pretty much. Obviously, there’s a bunch of shady stuff going down–when Panama City billboards advertise savings accounts in Russian, well then, that’s got dodgy written all over it. And yet this kind of minor-league, white-collar stuff actually encourages all the stuff tourists love: lower street crime, good restaurants, and broader acceptance of credit cards. The fact is that nobody really knows what’s going on in Panama–the important thing is that it’s going and the sign in the window says, “Open.”

Helpful hints
The worst thing about getting to Panama is that you might have to switch planes in Miami-a two-hour flight away. Better options include direct flights from Houston (2 hours), Washington, DC (4 hours) or Los Angeles (5 hours). Panama’s Tocumen International Airport feels like an upscale Orange County mall minus the skateboarders. If you go shopping, remember that real Panama hats are made in Ecuador, so check the label. Another quick tip: get out of Panama City. Other than the old city (a romantic, yet tumbledown cluster of Havana-like architecture), the city is trying its darndest to be the next Las Vegas. Better to trade the traffic jams for the nice villages and tropical landscape of the countryside.