RUSSIA BY LAND, NOT BY SEA. SEVEN DAYS IN MOSCOW & SAINT PETERSBURG with ALEXANDER+ROBERTS, Sept.7-14, 2018
(Photos by the author unless otherwise noted. Click on them to enlarge and read the captions, and use your forward arrow to scroll through each group. A link for comments is at the end of the essay).
When I told a friend I was going to Russia, she gasped, “Why Russia?” I don’t like Comrade Putin anymore than most Americans, but I don’t think foreigners should have boycotted travel to the U.S. due to the Iraq war. Politics aside, I assumed most educated travelers knew of the cultural treasures of the Hermitage and other venues in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. It had been on the top of my wish list for many years. I didn’t like the idea of seeing Russia on shore-excursions from a ship, though I understand why so many prefer to travel that way. Na vkus I svet, tovarisha nyet (In taste and in color there are no comrades). When I saw a reasonably-priced land-tour to Russia with Alexander+Roberts with a moderate single supplement, I was hooked. The tour included 3 nights in a deluxe hotel in Moscow, a high-speed first-class train from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, and four nights in a deluxe hotel in Saint Petersburg with guided excursions daily. I booked through Carter Goodman at vacationstogo.com. VTG uses an air consolidator that booked a round-trip business-class seat from JFK to Moscow at a huge saving over fares on competitive airlines.
Fri/Sat. Sept. 6/7 JFK-Frankfurt-Moscow
I had never flown Lufthansa and found the personnel very cordial and helpful, and all spoke perfect English. The flat bed seating was comfortable if a bit narrow. The food and beverages were excellent. Alas, changing aircraft in Frankfurt is a nightmare. Groggy with little sleep at 5:00 am, the long walk between terminals was torture. It must have been two miles with only a short interval by train, the worst connection experience in my decades of travel. Next an agonizingly long and sluggish line at security and a more intense scrutiny than in the U.S. At least there was a business-class lounge near the connection gate.
The leg from Frankfurt to Moscow had no special business-class seating, just the normal configuration of six seats across, with the middle seat on each side blocked in the first dozen rows. There was no extra seat width or foot space. I arrived at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport 3 ½ hours later. Getting through passport control was surprisingly quick compared to international arrivals in other European airports like swarming Lisbon or Heathrow. There was no ATM in the luggage retrieval area, only an exchange desk. Fortunately, I waited for an ATM later and cashed just 60 dollars at a miserly exchange rate of 49 to the dollar when the interbank rate was quoted at almost 70.
Our Moscow guide, Lyuba Mitina, a Moscow native was waiting in the lobby with a sign with my name. She proved to have a superb knowledge of her city and her country’s history. Another couple from Massachusetts had already arrived and I learned to my surprise there would be only 7 of us in the group and the other four would arrive later. A+R has a maximum of 16 pax, so I was pleased they didn’t cancel for such a small group.
I left a hot and humid western New York State and was surprised how similar the climate was in Moscow, with blue skies on a bright sunny morning. The van took over an hour to get to the hotel because many streets in Moscow’s city center were closed to traffic in preparation for the anniversary of the city celebration that weekend.
What a surprise to find central Moscow so modern and sparkling. I had imagined lots of dour Stalinist tenements, not glitsy streets like New York’s Fifth Avenue. I was pleasantly impressed by the hotel, the Marriott Royal Aurora, on stately Petrovka Street, within walking distance of Red Square. With Gucci across the street and another dozen top-designer shops nearby, it did not seem like Russia. As a single, I was surprised to have a full-sized junior suite with a king-size bed, a large flat-screen television, a separate work area, a large desk, rapid internet, and a safe to guard my passport and extra cash.
After unpacking I and went for a stroll along Petrovka Street past many top end shops, two malls, the Bolshoi building in Theater Square, ending at Revolution Square where the city had mounted numerous stands and a carousel for the weekend celebration.
Back at the hotel I planned a short nap before our welcome dinner. I had just begun to doze when Lyuba phoned to say they were waiting for me in the dining room. I had failed to change my watch from Frankfurt time, an embarrassing faux pas for a former tour leader. The couple from Massachusetts were already eating their Caesar salad when I arrived. The other 4 members of the group did not get in until later. The guide had not been invited to join us so the welcome dinner was rather subdued for just the three of us. There was no welcome cocktail and only one glass of wine with dinner. After the salad, the waiter brought a distastefully-overcooked fillet of beef with vegetables, followed by a chocolate dessert. I thought A+R was a bit frugal on the bar, but then I read the hotel drink menu that listed a glass of single-malt Scotch for the equivalent of 30 dollars, so I was glad I packed a liter to lubricate my travels. Surprisingly I didn’t feel any jet lag and started a novel I brought with me, Red Sparrow, by Jason Matthews, a former CIA operative. It starts out in Moscow and grabs one’s attention immediately, so it was the perfect choice for the trip.
Sat. Sept. 8. Moscow.
I did my pushups and sit ups before heading to the dining room where I found an enormous buffet including an eggs-to-order station and lots of international hot and cold dishes from smoked salmon to blinis with sour cream, bacon and cold cuts. It was hard to resist the pastry table since I don’t buy those delectables at home. Our departure was a kindly 10:00 am so I had time to go online for mail and the news headlines. The driver took us by a comfortable van to Red Square where Lyuba led us around, patiently allowing time for photos. Saint Basil’s Cathedral dominates the square more than the ominous red-brick Kremlin walls and Lenin’s tomb, which we gratefully skipped due to a long wait to see the mummified cadaver. We walked around inside the GUM department store (Glávnyj Universáľnyj Magazín) with its three huge arcades and over 200 elegant shops. Built in the late 1890s, it was once a state department store, now a privatized upscale mall.
The reason for our late start and lingering in the GUM was that St. Basil’s Cathedral does not open to the public until 11:00 am. It is far more beautiful on the outside than the inside which is divided up into numerous small chapels with no room for worshippers. Only priests and select religious attended the ceremonies while the masses worshipped outdoors. There were attractive icons and walls covered in lovely floral murals. In one small chapel, a choral group of four men sings acapella in a brief recital as tour groups move in and out throughout the day.
By noon we were back in the van driving around the city center with a stop at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Originally built in 1839-83, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture had its world premiere here in 1882, with huge drums substituting for the cannons. The church was totally destroyed when Stalin blew it up in 1931 to build a new headquarters for the Supreme Soviet, but that building was never finished due to World War II. Boris Yeltsin’s administration reconstructed the original church in 1995-2000. No photos are allowed in the interior but you can find some online.
The church is on the north side of the Moscow River where numerous tourist boats traverse the calm waters. A boat ride would have been perfect on such a lovely day, but it wasn’t included in our agenda. Next, we drove up to the university area to a hilltop observation area called Sparrow Hill which offers a splendid view of the city included the Luznicki Stadium, the national football stadium, with a seating capacity of 81 thousand, one of the largest in Europe.
I was amazed no one in the group needed a rest stop since we did not get to our lunch spot until almost 1:30 pm after 3 ½ hours of touring. The others must have been as dehydrated as I was on this hot, sunny day, though the van carried bottledwater. We were welcomed to small private dining room at a Korchma (Ukranian café) named after a Nickolai Gogol novel, Taras Bulba. Here we were joined by Dimitri, a retired KGB colonel, now a lawyer. Even the guide had not been informed why he was included, especially since he had almost no English and Lyuba had to translate for him when she would rather have eaten her lunch. Lunch was rather mediocre to my taste, featuring a salad, hot borsch, a kind of beef stew baked in individual pots, accompanied by rye, white, and black bread and, finally, white cake with a whipped cream-like frosting.
After lunch we left the van and walked a block to the Metropolitan metro station to begin a subway tour of some of the most decorative stations. The Metropolitan was built in 1938, unfinished until after the war, during which it became a bomb shelter.
For a larger sample of the many artistic works, google “Moscow Subway Art.” We exited the metro at Theater Square which we could not enter without passing through airport-like security barriers where bags were searched and bodies scanned to prevent terrorist violence during the crowded anniversary events. From there it was just a few blocks walk back to our hotel.
After a needed nap, I still felt overfed and tired, perhaps jet-lagged, and had no desire to go out. I relaxed online, did my notes, and posted some photos for friends and family on facebook. Posting photos daily with brief descriptions allows me to tap them later for my blog. If I waited until the end of the tour I would have a hard time remembering one church or palace from another. The ice bucket arrived as requested and I relaxed with my novel until an early bedtime.
Sun. Sept. 9.
After my morning workout, I enjoyed another huge buffet breakfast. I ate before any others in the group since I need time to use the facilities before heading off on another excursion. That allows me to read U.S. papers online, check weather reports, and enjoy comments on my facebook posts.
Departing at 10:00 am again, today the van took us to the Tretyakov Gallery, a private museum with the best collection in the country of Russian art from the 11th to the 20th centuries. It was bequeathed to the state in the early 1900s by Pavel Tretyakov, a wealthy textile merchant. In the same building complex is the Church of St. Nicholas where we stopped to observe a service in progress with acapella singers. Worshippers have to stand; there are no pews, a penance for which they should have been able to skip the line for confessions. I wondered if we tarried here because devout Lyuba had missed mass that morning.
Entering the Tretyakov Gallery, I expected a small collection and was overwhelmed by the immensity and variety of the art, over 130 thousand pieces. from medieval icons to modern Russian artists. This is a treasure house for the Russian people to appreciate their cultural history. Photos are allowed without flash, but I snapped only a few as a reminder of the visit. Most impressive is an enormous piece by Alexander Ivanov (1837-57), The Apparition of Christ to the People. I was also impressed by the beauty of Sergei Zaryanko’s Portrait of Princess Maria Vorontsova (1851). After an excellent guided tour in the gallery, we took a timeout for a cafeteria lunch with reasonably-priced options. All the museums and palaces we visited had clean restrooms.
After lunch we rejoined the van driver for a visit inside the Kremlin walls, marveling at the size of the interior of the former fortress and its large number of museums and churches. We entered the Armory Museum first with its impressive collection of gifts to the tsars from visiting heads of state and ambassadors from many countries. Numerous glass cases display the gold and silver dining service items, bejeweled weapons, medieval armor, bibles with gold-leaf illuminations, and other lavish gifts. I photographed a sample of the exhibits until a guard admonished me that photos were not permitted. If our guide had warned me I honestly didn’t hear her so I have some shots to post below. I would have loved some photos of the spectacular carriages used by the tsars. There is a separate room housing the crown jewels and an impressive diamond collection. Here the no-photo signs were clearly posted.
After the Armory visit, we walked to the Kremlin’s Cathedral Square, the center of religious life in old Russia. Here we faced enormous lines from hundreds of people off the river boats that shuttle between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Our guide found a way for our small group to skip around a huge line and enter the Cathedral of the Assumption where we spent more time than I would have liked, but we did skip two other churches. The Cathedral was the seat of the Russian Orthodox church during the Tsardom and at present. It is the burial place of the Metropolitans and Patriarchs of the church. We had a short time to walk around the grounds and view an enormous cannon that had never fired (I missed the explanation) and a huge bell with a chunk broken out of it that had been excavated in restoration work. We had seen so much today I don’t think any of our group regretted ending the tour by 4:30 pm and returning to the hotel for an evening at leisure, no meal included.
After a short nap, I freshened up and had my first exposure to Moscow at night. I had spotted a roof-top restaurant on the fourth floor above a Bulgari boutique just a few blocks from the hotel. Russian-owned Chips is obviously a young-people’s hangout judging by the volume of the western rock music. I enjoyed watching the youthful faces though many were immersed in their cell phones. The young wait- staff spoke excellent English. I enjoyed a large draught pivo (beer) and some prawns with French fries with a nice view of the perpendicular streets covered with colorful LED lights. Flashing my Visa card (I saw few American Express signs anywhere in Moscow), the waiter brought the scanner to the table and expedited payment faster than usual in other countries.The whole experience amazed me because I had not expected Moscow to be so westernized and the young people as hip as any back in the States.
Seeing the colorfully lighted pedestrian streets from the roof-top restaurant, I wanted to take a stroll and enjoy the scene. It was a hoot to see so many Russians and tourists gathered outside cafes and patronizing venues like Starbucks, Burger King, and KFC, the latter very crowded. I was delighted to find a cart with a sign for morozhenoye and enjoyed a chocolate cone to end my evening, returning to the hotel to post photos and read mail online with a nightcap.
Mon. Sept. 10: Moscow to Saint Petersburg
After my workout this morning, I found the hotel dining room quite crowded with many Asians and one group of Castilian speakers too far from my table to engage in conversation and satisfy my curiosity. There was a line at the egg station so I skipped that, inspired by the tempting selection of breads, cold cuts, and cheeses to compose a huge Dagwood sandwich.
This was a morning at leisure and I would have liked for the agency to have given us a boat ride on the Moscow river or some other brief activity before our afternoon train to Saint Petersburg. I had time to pack my suitcase and garment bag and meander down the street to another upscale department store, TSUM, Tsentralnyĭ Universalnyĭ Magazin, with shops like Valentino, Versace, Tom Ford, Boss, and others whose astronomical prices delivered me from temptation but entertained my curiosity. Forty-seven thousand rubles for a pair of shoes! All the men’s-ware displays featured heavy, dark-colored fall clothing I would never wear in Mexico.
I returned to the hotel for the noon checkout and joined the group in the lobby waiting for our 12:45 transfer to the train station. Lyuba led us through the mobs of passengers through the airport-like security scanners and said dasvidanya after seeing us aboard our first-class car. I was thrilled to find such a huge reclining seat more comfortable than on a jet liner. Shortly after the start of our high-speed, four-hour ride to Saint Petersburg, two attendants served wine or beer, cheese, and nuts, followed by a three-course lunch with three options. The monitor in the car posted our speed at different times, ranging from 158-215 kilometers per hour, not all that high-speed. The passing terrain was mostly flat with lots of pine and birch forests and occasional dachas.
We arrived in Saint Petersburg around 6:15 pm where our new guide, Elena, led us on a 15-minute walk to the van and a 20-minute drive to the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe on Nevsky Prospect. Having read novels about historic Russia, I expected the Prospect to be like Paris’ Champs Elysee, but it is a disappointing commercial street without much grace. The hotel has spacious, luxurious public rooms, but the guest rooms are small, and my standard single was claustrophobic. It’s a common complaint of single travelers who pay the single supplement and expect treatment equal to that given couples. That happens rarely and singles often get much smaller rooms.
Once more the evening meal was not included, probably due to lunch aboard the train. Elena recommended a nearby café, Abrikos (Apricot), where four of our party dined with satisfaction. I asked Elena for a more upscale Russian restaurant and she recommended Tsar, just a few blocks from the hotel on Sadovaya Street. It was just what I was looking for. Old but elegant with crystal glassware on the tables, a live sax musician, courtly waiters, and a Russian menu with a huge variety. This was my only fine-dining experience in Russia. I ordered pelmeni (dumplings) stuffed w crab, followed by king crab legs and a green salad, finishing with mille feuille with fresh raspberries, accompanied by a half bottle of white wine and bottled water. The waiter added a complimentary cherry vodka when he brought the Visa terminal. It was a great welcome dinner to Saint Petersburg even if the agency didn’t provide it, and worth every ruble.
Tues. Sept. 11. Saint Petersburg.
I got to the lovely dining room early as usual and waited for an omelet at the egg station. I was thrilled to find on the pastry table a poppy-seed strudel that I had not tasted since my last visit to Vienna. Since museums do not open very early, I had time to go online before our 9:30 departure to the Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace, the primary motivation for taking this tour. The weather had changed from humid summer in Moscow to overcast skies with a chilly wind, so I was glad I brought my leather jacket.
We received ear buds before our priority entrance at 9:45, ahead of the public opening at 10:30, so we got a head start on the mobs that would follow us, up to 50 thousand visitors daily! The ear buds allow the guides to speak softly to their groups to prevent what occurs in some tourist spots with scores of guides shouting to their groups and creating an unbearable noise.
The entry halls and ballrooms of the Hermitage are truly palatial, adorned with carved wood features shining with gold leaf, crystal chandeliers and sconces.
The primary collection is in the smaller rooms. It is impossible to see even a majority of the collection in one visit so our guide led us to the most famous works. We scooted through the Egyptian and Greek rooms, skipped the Roman antiquities, and started in a room featuring the Italian masters Caravaggio and Titian, including his famous Saint Sebastian. I loved a beautiful ceramic Nativity by Giovanni Della Robbia, reminding me of his sensational pieces in Florence. I had recently read the new biography of Leonardo DaVinci by Walter Isaacson, so I knew that few of his works are available to the public. Amazingly, the Hermitage has two of his paintings, Virgin and Child and Madonna and Child, both given standout space on a large wall.
One can’t begin to mention much less describe more of the thousands of works, but I marveled at a gold-leaf 17th century clock in the form of a peacock. It is turned on for the public rarely but an adjacent video shows how the head, talons, and wings open and close.
After 90 minutes in the palace, we crossed the square to another building in the Hermitage complex to see the impressionist works. I photographed only a small sample of the great collection of pieces by Monet, Renoir, Manet, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and more. Next we climbed to another floor to see post-impressionist works by artists including Picasso and Kandinsky.
The cafeteria was very busy but we had time to grab a sandwich and beverage and use the facilities before exiting the building about 2:00 pm and walking a short distance to a nearby dock on a canal where we boarded an exclusive boat for a tour of the canals and the Neva River. The “Venice of the North” is famed for its 300 kilometers of canals and rivers crisscrossing the Neva River Delta, 101 islands, and 342 bridges. Along the shore-fronts we passed many of the palaces of the nobility, financed by the exploitation of their serfs. As late as the 19th century, over 90 percent of farmers did not own their land and paid rents to landlords who worked as agents for the nobles. Serfdom was abolished by Tsar Alexander II in 1861, but forms of indentured servitude and involuntary labor persisted long after.
From the dock we walked back to the bus park to find our van. Dozens of tour buses running their air conditioning, belching diesel fumes, made for abominable air quality and exacerbated my allergies. From the Hermitage we drove to the Cathedral of St. Isaac (a 4th-century Roman martyr and a patron saint of Peter the Great). The current building dates from 1818 to 1858, reconstructed over several earlier churches and ruins from World War II, expanded to create the 4th largest cathedral in the world. It had been confiscated by the Bolsheviks and turned into a museum, but reopened to religious services after the war. The photos below illustrate some of its splendor. Three of us waited while four of our group opted to climb the 252 steps to the observation tower. They were back in half an hour and we arrived back at the hotel by 5:00 pm, too tired for any more touring.
There was time to recharge the cell phone/camera, grab a a short nap, read some U.S. news headlines, then download photos to the laptop, posting some on facebook. At 7:30 I walked around the corner to the café Abrikos that some of the group had enjoyed the previous evening. Here I defied Dr. Atkins and carb-gorged on dumplings and potato pancakes with a large draught beer. I still had time to relax in the room for 90 minutes with my novel and a nightcap before sleep. It had been a long but memorable day, filled with exactly the kind of travel experiences I had hoped for in Saint Petersburg.
Wed. Sept. 12. Saint Petersburg.
After another huge Dagwood-sandwich breakfast and poppy-seed strudel, I went online while waiting for our 9:30am departure. First we drove to a photo stop on the Neva River where ships once docked. The waterfront offered a great view of the Hermitage, the palaces of the nobles, and the Fortress of Peter and Paul, our next stop. The fortress overlooking the Neva River was built by Peter the Great to defend his new city. The interior square is dominated by the Peter and Paul Cathedral with its ornate gold-leaf columns and altar works. It is the burial place for the Russian Tsars and Empresses from Peter the Great to Alexander III. A small side chapel holds the remains of Tsar Nicolas II, his wife, and five children, murdered by the Bolsheviks.
After more than an hour in the church, we had a drive around parts of the city with a rest stop at a souvenir shop for toilets and coffee. We seemed to be marking time due to a later lunch appointment in the country. I would have added the famous Church of the Spilled Blood, praised in all the tour literature but not included in our itinerary. Finally we set out for Tsarkoye Selo, 30 kilometers south of Saint Petersburg, to visit the Catherine Palace, stopping for lunch first at Podvorye, a tourist restaurant set in a replica of an izba, traditional country farmstead . One might call it a tourist trap because of so many buses outside and tables crowded with scores of tourists, most from a river cruise. But the Russian food was excellent with little plates of cold cuts, pickled vegetables, cabbage salad, red and white wine and vodka. A delicious hot borsch was followed by golubtsy (stuffed cabbage rolls) and, finally, a cranberry blini with ice cream.
We had an afternoon appointment at the nearby Catherine Palace, residence of various tsars. Construction was begun in 1717 but the original was demolished and replaced beginning in 1756. The palace was totally destroyed by Nazi armies retreating from Leningrad during World War II, then reconstructed againby 2003. Catherine II Catherine the Great was not even Russian but rather a German noble woman who consummated her unhappy marriage to Tsar Peter III by leading a coup against him, installing herself as empress from 1762-1796. The palace grounds and gardens cannot compare to those at Versailles, for example, but the interior salons are spectacular. Because of the damp ground outside, we had to don paper booties over our shoes to protect the floors. There were numerous groups of Asians, mostly Chinese, making movement through the palace difficult, but Elena knew how to maneuver around them with our small group. Below are some photos of the public rooms and reception halls.
The most spectacular room in the palace is the amber room where, sadly, no photos are allowed. The original enormous plates and decorative pieces of amber were crafted in the 19th century and decorated various German palaces until disassembled and gifted by King Frederick William I of Prussia to Peter the Great in 1716. Alas, most of the palace was destroyed by bombing during WWII and the amber room was a total loss. Not until 1981 did the authorities form a workshop that began recreating the room using ancient photos. Since Russia doesn’t have amber and had to import it from Germany, Poland, and the Baltic states, neither did it have Russian amber craftsmen. Stone cutters and wood carvers were hired who, with remarkable self-taught skills, spent years restoring the room in all its splendor.
We were treated to a private visit to the workshop that still carries out restoration and decorative projects for the palace. A bilingual docent explained the history of the room, its destruction and restoration, showing samples of different quality and colors of unfinished amber pieces. The 100 employees make decorative pieces for other parts of the palace and for sales in the shop where we were invited to spend rubles if we chose. After plenty of time for shoppers, we departed the palace and returned to our hotel by 6:30. After our huge lunch, there was no need for dinner and I had the evening at leisure to catch up on my note-taking, upload photos, and post some to facebook. It had been a busy and tiring day but a good one.
Thurs. Sept. 13: Peterhof, the Fabergé Museum, & the Church of the Spilled Blood.
I started the last day with my usual workout before enjoying another huge Dagwood sandwich composed from the restaurant’s tasty selection of cold cuts and cheeses and, of course, some poppy-seed strudel. I had survived six days without changing more dollars to rubles, but I had emptied most of my wallet by the last day, including 35 one-dollar bills I had brought with me. I was pleased to find an ATM in the lobby with clear English and excellent speed and withdrew enough rubles to cover tips for the guide, the van driver, and the driver to the airport on departure.
We departed the hotel just after 9:00 am and drove for about an hour to Peterhof, Petergof in Russian and German (gof= courtyard or garden of Peter). Peter I, or Peter the Great ruled from 1682 to 1725, introducing European enlightenment ideas to backward Russia. He wanted a western-style capital and built Saint Petersburg at great cost in treasure and lives. He began the modernization of the Russian navy and made Russia a world power. Hi palace in the countryside, begun in 1714, was mostly completed by his death in 1725.
The weather forecast had called for rain clearing by 11:00, so I didn’t take an umbrella. It was pouring when we arrived at the palace and I didn’t know we would be standing in line a long time waiting for Elena to buy our tickets. One of our group shared his umbrella but the blowing rain managed to soak our shoes and slacks. After an uncomfortable twenty minutes exposed to rain and sleet, we finally got inside the palace where we lined up for paper shoe covers, checked coats in the cloak room, and battled the lines for the rest rooms. The tour was less enjoyable due to dozens of large tour groups, mostly Chinese, many of whom had to take a selfie in each room. Even their group leaders and guides showed their exasperation with the delays. But the palace is spectacular and well worth a visit.
We had plenty of time to see the rooms open to the public before heading outside to the lovely gardens and fountains. The “Russian Versailles” is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Amazingly, 80 of the original statues still grace the grounds. Below are some photos of the grounds.
On and off rains, heavy at times, detracted from the enjoyment of the gardens and limited how much time we spent there before heading to the Orangery café. Given the mobs inside the palace, the café was surprisingly quiet and we had no problem finding a table for the seven of us to share. Choices included dumplings, pizza, sandwiches, and pastries, water, hot coffee and tea, and soft drinks. We lingered for about an hour before heading back to our van to make our 3:00 pm appointment at the Fabergé gallery. Since the museum was near the hotel, we were able to run in quickly to change damp clothing for dry.
I had expected a small gallery for the Fabergé collection, but the venue is the enormous, venerable 18th-century neo-classical Shuvalov palace, now owned by the government but rented to a private foundation whose mission is to bring lost art works abroad back to Russia. There are 4000 items in its collection.
Peter Carl Fabergé (1846-1920) was a Russian jeweler who designed for and supervised the artists who produced the spectacular pieces of gold and silver, royal jewels, and 52 incredible eggs of which only 50 have been found. The museum has just nine eggs that belonged to the royal family. Most of the production was for the last two Tsars, Alexander III and Nicholas II. When the royal family was murdered and nobles exiled, the market for such expensive items disappeared and production stopped. The eggs were usually Easter gifts from nobles to royals or royals to nobles. The eggs symbolize birth, and religiously, rebirth in the resurrection. The gold eggs covered in enamel, painted and bejeweled, open to reveal surprise gifts. Arguably the most incredible egg in the collection is the Coronation Egg of Catherine II which held inside an exact replica of her carriage modeled in miniature from the original in the carriage collection in the Hermitage. The artisan worked 15 months of 16-hour days, painstakingly recreating the intricate vehicle. Below are photos of some other impressive pieces.
After a long a time for very few purchases in the shop, we finally departed the museum at 4:30 and the van driver dropped me off within a few blocks of the Church of the Spilled Blood that had not been included in our itinerary. It had been built as a memorial commemorating the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Owing to its reputation, the church was quite crowded inside, and I understood why it had not been included for us since it was so similar to St. Isaac’s Cathedral with its enormous mosaics and multiple icons. A canopy covers the exact spot where the Alexander II was murdered by a terrorist bomb in 1883. He was the popular tsar who freed the serfs, albeit the lives of the poor were hardly improved as a result.
My short walk back to the hotel took me past the huge Russian museum, not included in our itinerary, but I was too tired to even think about another huge collection of antiquities. I had barely a half hour to freshen up and change for our farewell dinner in the Caviar Room of the hotel where a guitarist and soloist entertained almost no other guests. The repertoire was entirely western popular songs, and I especially appreciated Besame Mucho. The dinner was rather disappointing with a choice of poached halibut or beef stroganoff and a sugary cake with ice cream. Once again, we were rationed to just one glass of wine, not a very large pour since the bottle had to cover seven glasses. The agency did not invite the guide, although she may have been happy to have a night to herself. We broke up early since three of the group had to leave long before dawn. The remaining four of us had a leisurely 11:00 am transfer to the airport.
Fri. Sept. 14. Saint Petersburg to Frankfurt to N.Y. JFK.
It was nice to have a leisurely morning to linger at breakfast and finish packing before meeting Elena in the lobby for our 11:00 am departure. She accompanied us on the 25-minute drive to the airport to be sure we got to our gates though that was hardly necessary with short lines at our three different airlines. I had over two hours in the VIP lounge while waiting to board. The priority line at security was long and slow but so much smaller than the line for economy passengers. Again, business class on Lufthansa to Frankfort no had no special seating, only the middle seat blocked. My layover allowed me just 90 minutes for the interminable walk to the connecting gate, then waiting for an enormous security line. I would have missed my connection had I not begged a guard to let me cut in the line, after which I still had several hundred meters to run from gate 50 to the boarding gate at 69 where I arrived soaking wet and cursing under my breath.
The food and beverages on the eight-hour flight to New York were excellent and the attendants were gracious and efficient. Thanks to global entry I was out of passport control in five minutes, but luggage was slow to arrive. I watched the carousel roll for 45 minutes until no more bags appeared and mine was not there. Except it was. On telling an agent my bag had not arrived, he checked his manifest and said it was listed as arrived. I didn’t recognize it because it was in a large opaque-plastic bag, damaged, with clothing spilling out. I had watched the bag go by for 45 minutes without realizing it was mine. I was not a happy camper where Lufthansa is concerned and would surely avoid Frankfurt if future travel plans have an alternative. Several passengers did not get their bags and we had to file forms in a nearby office, costing me another half hour before I could finally get a cab to my hotel in midtown Manhattan. It was too late for any connection to Rochester so I was glad I had booked three nights in the big city. I finally collapsed into a hotel bed at what was 6:30 am in Saint Petersburg. It’s a shame that flying so often dims some of the luster of a wonderful trip. And this was a wonderful trip, beyond my high expectations.
This was my first trip with Alexander+Roberts and I was pleased overall despite comparing the tour less favorably to seven trips with Tauck Tours where I had been spoiled with amenities, evening activities like concerts, superior restaurants, and more generous wine and spirits. The price was much less than on a Tauck Tour however, and the trade-off of just seven passengers certainly enhanced the value for the money. (I only book Tauck’s small groups now since the large groups have become excessive). The itinerary in Moscow and Saint Petersburg exceeded my expectations. All excursions, entrance fees, and transfers were included with none of the expensive optional extras some tour companies charge. We were asked to tip only the guides and the van driver, though I added more for the hotel maids. Our guides were excellent leaders and history teachers who inspired me to follow up with more reading. If the dates and price meet your convenience and pocket book, I certainly recommend taking a look at what Alexander+Roberts has to offer.
A Note on Language:
You can travel to Russia without knowing any of the language, at least in major cities, four-star hotels, and good restaurants. I would be more doubtful in B&Bs and small café’s. I studied the Russian language in college 50 years ago and never followed up, so I had lost all but the alphabet, the courtesies, and numbers. I found excellent Russian lessons online with easy pronunciation help. If you can master the alphabet, you will enjoy reading the posters and public announcements on city streets. In most musuems and other public places, there was no sign for “exit,” just выход (vykhod), but that presents no problems, especially when traveling in a group. On street signs and metro stops, for example, the names are repeated below the Cyrillic in the Latin alphabet. For independent travel off the beaten path, I would recommend some serious study. My language review of an hour or more daily for a month allowed me the pleasure of using all the courtesy words, asking questions, and enjoying the posters, and it certainly provided a great workout for the brain.
YOU NEED A VISA TO TRAVEL IN RUSSIA
A visa from the Russian consulate is obligatory except for cruise-ship passengers staying less than 72 hours. My fellow travelers had to pay about 300 dollars each to an agency for the two-hundred dollar visa plus handling charges. Because of my Mexican residency card, I was able to obtain a visa at the Russian Consulate in Mexico City for the equivalent of 70 dollars. That requires two trips to the consulate and lots of patience since there is only one window for the line of applicants and agencies slow up the wait. An agent in front of me had passports for 90 tour clients! Mexican citizens can use an agency but non-citizens have to appear in person. I saved a lot of money but it was not a pleasant experience.
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