Thursday, August 14, 2014

From Russia with Love

This post actually has nothing to do with the James Bond film, but I like the title and the post is all about Russia. I warn my readers now that this will be a long one since we were in Russia for just shy of two weeks. I could split it into two posts, but I'd rather not. If your eyes glaze over and you give up, no problem. Hey, I'll never know! 

Because we booked our Viking River Cruise through their UK office, our flights would originate and end in London. We could make our own arrangements from Zurich, but no one would help us find our way to the ship in St. Petersburg. We decided we wanted to be part of the planned transfer to the ship so went to London a day ahead of time. Don't look at a map - we know the geography doesn't make any sense. Getting our Russian visas was a hassle and an expense, but on the day of travel, there was no problem. This trip was special because we shared it with our longtime friends, Lynn and Howard Adams. We made memories that we will all cherish.

Our cabin in the ship was our hotel room for our entire stay. We spent three days touring St. Petersburg before we set sail towards Moscow. Beginning at the Hermitage set the tone for a fabulous experience. It is a beautiful building before you even look at the art inside.


Welcome to the Hermitage

Throughout the building, the floors were made of beautiful inlaid wood.  

You need days or weeks if you want to see everything the Hermitage has to offer. Ours was definitely an abbreviated tour. When we saw the painting of the woman with the folk instrument, we had no idea that we would hear it being played at a concert in Moscow.


Our first night, we had the opportunity to see Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. I have only been to one other ballet. (Can you guess which ballet? hint: I have two daughters. If you guessed the Nutcracker, you're right.) I can't judge the quality of the performance, but we enjoyed it. No photography was allowed during the performance, but we saw plenty of people taking video anyway. Some were caught and scolded, some not.

at the ballet
empty royal box

Greeters entertained us with their music (also hoping for donations or purchases of CD's) while we waited. The palace officially opens at 10:00, but our group was allowed entry at 8:30. It made for an early morning, but so worth it to be there before the crowd we saw later. Catherine's Palace needs to be seen rather than described. Enjoy the sampling of photos.

In Russian, Catherine is Ekaterina. Therefore, the E 's in the frescoes are not for Ellen. Darn!

walls remind me of Wedgewood

love the reflection!

We opted for the walking tour of St. Petersburg rather than the bus tour. That meant we would never go inside the Peter and Paul fortress (seen here from a distance), but we would get more of a feel for the city.

St. Petersburg has a metro, but be forewarned that the escalators are very long and move more quickly than we expected. Unfortunately, one of the men in our group somehow got "stuck" in the escalator. He lost his balance and fell backwards directly into a woman in our group. She proceeded to fall onto her husband who of course also fell. I saw all this happening and was the fourth in line. I didn't have time to think, I just jumped to the side and avoided the collision. (thanks for the LFR's, Dad) Luckily, the escalator attendant stopped the movement and everyone was able to get up (with help). There were no serious injuries, but it was very scary.

Cyrillic and Latin letters here
Catherine the Great

main street of the city

St. Petersburg has many tiny monuments. Of course, I loved this one. Cats saved the day at the Hermitage. The art was stored in the basement during WW2. Afterwards, they found the building overrun with rats. Solution: bring in cats. They got rid of the rats and we were told there are still cats living at the Hermitage (although we didn't see any). There is a waiting list to adopt the art enthusiast kittens. 

upscale grocery market


chocolate Lenins

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (named because Alexander II was killed there) was the first onion dome church we saw. The interior scenes are all done in mosaic. (below - same church seen from the water)

St Petersburg square

Peter the Great

Our cruise provided lots of different kinds of entertainment. After one day in St. Petersburg, we saw a Cossack Folkloric Show in a tent set up next to the ship. Fun! The evening included a complimentary shot of vodka.

Our last day in St. Petersburg took us to Peterhof, the palace of Peter the Great, where later Catherine  also lived. 

entering Peterhof

The double headed eagle, a symbol of Russia, is seen everywhere.  Our tour escort told us:  sometimes it looks east and sometimes west -  it doesn't know where it's going. Here it is actually a three-headed eagle. No matter where you are, you will see two heads. 
chapel of Peterhof

Pictures were not allowed inside - what you see are postcards.

Catherine wanted paintings of her navy's successes. The artist she hired wasn't doing well since he had never even seen a naval vessel. She approved the blowing up of one of their own ships for the artist to watch and learn! She was satisfied with these paintings. 


After touring the interior, we explored the beautiful grounds.

 Precisely at 11:00 am the water began flowing through the many fountains making a fantastic display.

us with Lynn and Howard


St. Petersburg has lots of canals and is sometimes called the Venice of the north. Part of our tour of the city was on the water.

Peter the Great instituted a law: new buildings had to be of light colors. They provide a contrast to the long, dark, and dreary winters. The lasting result is a beautiful city - very different than other cities I've seen so far.

After three very busy days in St. Petersburg, our ship left its comfortable docking and started the journey through rivers and lakes on our way towards Moscow. The map is not meant as and advertisement for Viking, but to give an idea of the geography and distances. 

We went through 18 locks - they were all a bit different.

It was fascinating to watch how the water level changed so we could continue our journey. We went through some of the locks during sleeping hours and we were happy to miss watching them.

You can see from the map, that we made five stops between St. Petersburg and Moscow. These were all partial day excursions on land with the rest of the day spent on board the ship. While on board, our three tour escorts gave lectures on Russian history and politics which were fascinating. (Romanovs; 1917-1985; Gorbachev and Perestroika; and Putin, Medvedev and the Russian Economy) They shared first hand experiences of living under the different regimes. What we in the west may have thought was great was experienced much differently by the locals.  

We also had the opportunity to learn some Russian. I only went to the first of the two lessons. It's just too hard and not fun. 

Our first port of call was Mandrogy which wasn't more than a very small artists' colony.

We bought one of his carvings of "Father Frost" which is what they call their figures that look like Santa. We were told many folks don't celebrate Christmas. Father Frost comes at the New Year arriving on foot or on skis. He is accompanied by the Snow Maiden, a little girl always shown dressed in blue. Father Frost does give the children gifts, but first they must sing a song or recite a poem.

Matryoshka dolls were for sale everywhere in an amazing array of sizes and detail. At this stop, we could have painted our own, but opted not to. Not the kind of souvenir we wanted to bring home. It was fun to see the pros painting and their finished work.

Below you see Father Frost Matryoshka dolls being painted. All got the bottom layer of red and then the artist began with the white paint.

street performer even here


Putin has come to this island and tried his hand at painting. He is not a good artist - no other way to say it.

leaving Mandrogy

Between St. Petersburg and Moscow, we saw lots of interesting sites from the ship. Here are some of them.

thriving timber industry

Fishing on shore or in the lake, both look very peaceful.

Kizhi Island

Next port of call: Kizhi Island.

The main reason to stop here was to see their onion dome churches built from wood. The larger is currently under renovation with the top lifted up off of its base. The smaller church is active and therefore required the women to cover their heads when entering. (but men must remove hats?)


After entering the church, parishioners cross themselves and kiss the picture of the patron saint. Some people also touched their forehead to the picture. We saw this done in the city churches as well.

love the double bass sound!

Ship entertainment possibilities included an evening of vodka tasting. Each participant was given five shots of different vodkas. Tom and I paid for one entry, but I tasted each offering as well. It is amazing how much you can taste with just a tiny sip. They all burned, but the last of the five was so awful!!

The chef also prepared some Russian specialties and one night was "Russian night". The wait staff was all dressed in costume. We tried to sit in the same area every night to get our favorite waitress, Tina. She doesn't look Russian, because she isn't. She's from the Philippines; she was very sweet and friendly. 


More random sites along the way:


 I was surprised at the number of onion dome churches we saw. First, we saw no other style churches. Second, numerous churches were destroyed during Soviet times, but many still stand today.

me on our balcony

There were so many photo ops!
monastery on shore

 "Sailors" from our ship staff cleaning the ship - doesn't look fun to me.

On the way to Yaroslavl, we entered the Volga River where Mother Volga greeted us. Tom got up early to get these pictures. 

hammer and sickle on base

love the reflection

Yaroslavl is a much bigger town than our previous stops. It's more of a small city.


Our stop in Yaroslavl included a visit to the Governor's House with people in period costumes who performed and danced for us.

monument to soldiers and women of the great patriotic war (WW2)

Yaroslavl is celebrating its founding in 1004! Wow! There is still a remnant of Soviet times - a statue of Lenin. 

our hosts

In Uglich, we had a unique experience: a visit in a Russian home. We were served a light breakfast (I would have eaten less on the ship if I'd known we were going directly to the home), tea and homemade vodka! 
They also answered questions about their lives during Soviet times, Perestroika and now.  

our tour escort, Tatiana, in red
Homemade vodka with our host on the label

We were able to go inside this church even though a service was in session. (I had to buy a photography permit.) When a service is not in progress, the door in the center of the iconostasis  is closed. The panels on either side of the door are the same in all churches: Virgin Mary with child on the left and adult Jesus on the right. The panel next to Jesus represents the saint for which the church was built. Only the priest or other church officials goes through the door. To this day, boys will be baptized behind the door, but girls not.

heads covered


Uglich's  statue of Lenin

A popular Russian soft drink is called kvas.
We found some for sale by the cup. Later we found it sold in bottles as well.Tom and I both tasted it - tastes like fizzy molasses. If you've never tasted it, you're not missing anything!

Another activity on board was a few chess games for Tom. We met another chess enthusiast and their games led Tom to a game with a third  passenger. By the end of the trip, Tom remained undefeated.

Tom's opponent, Robert was an interesting character. He gave us a copy of the book he'd written (Stop War America) about his days in Vietnam and in the anti-war movement afterwards. He is also the only person I have ever seen drink red wine mixed with sprite! I will never taste that combination.   

We saw this chess board for sale - it looks dangerous to me! Even though we expected to buy another board for Tom's collection, we did not buy this. He was looking for the reds vs whites from the Russian civil war, but we didn't find it.
More sites from the ship:

When Stalin was in power, he decided to build the waterway we traveled which required the flooding of villages. Most people left in advance, but a small number of old people tied themselves to trees in an attempt to save their village. It didn't work - Stalin flooded it anyway. This church is all that is left of a flooded village. 

Finally we made it to Moscow.


another Mother Volga in Moscow
The Moscow metro is both functional and beautiful. It is a tourist destination in its own right. We stopped at a few stations and each was unique.We didn't have any escalator accidents in Moscow, but theirs were also long, steep and fast. The experience in St. Petersburg made me more tentative on the Moscow escalators.

Ceiling artwork is done in mosaic

Another metro station was decorated with sculptures. 

entrance to Moscow metro
metro ceiling

Hammer and sickle left over from Soviet times.
The Moscow metro is also much less tourist friendly - it does not have any Latin letters, but we were told that would change. 

Changing of the guard at the equivalent of a tomb of an unknown soldier from WW2.

one of the gates to the Kremlin
Red Square with Kremlin on right

Lenin's tomb on Red Square

Why is it called Red Square? Red means beautiful in Russian.  

Red Square with GUM department store on left and St. Basil's cathedral at far end

Although no photography is allowed, we did go inside St. Basil's. It was very different than I expected. There is no big, open space inside, but instead a maze of small chapels.

entry to St. Basil's

Peter the Great was a navigator before being a ruler. This monument, by day and by night, commemorates his founding of the Russian navy.

One afternoon in Moscow, we were treated to a concert by virtuosos performed on Russian folk instruments. The concert was as fantastic as our tour escort led us to believe it would be.




This is Moscow's solution to the problem of couples attaching love locks to bridges. Moscow built metal trees and the locks became the leaves and blossoms. I think they actually look nice from a distance, but they are all locks!

Russia has become quite capitalistic and it was amusing to see familiar American chains with their names in Russian. We noticed more of this in Moscow than St. Petersburg. 

Selling espresso out of the back of a truck

One of the "seven sisters" of Moscow - huge apartment "blocks."

underground shopping mall

modern Moscow
 Our water tour in Moscow was by night. The city is beautiful all lit up.

rear of St. Basil's

front of St. Basil's

Our last day in Moscow, we toured the Kremlin including the Armory. The highlight was seeing the beautiful Faberge eggs.

 The Kremlin's Cathedral Square is just that: a square with churches every way you turn.

Ivan the Terrible bell tower

world's largest bell

The large bells from the Ivan the Terrible bell tower have not had an easy life. The first two were broken when their supports were destroyed by fire. Each time a bigger replacement was made. The one to the right is the final attempt to replace the "Czar's bell". It was also damaged before it was quite finished when another fire ensued. Water was thrown on it causing cracks and it broke when the supports gave way. It is one huge bell and has never rung!

it was hot - I'm cooling off in the sprinkler

Sign says "please keep to the gravel paths". The old Soviet attitude toward rules has changed over the last 20+ years.

Moscow traffic
As I started by saying "From Russia with Love", I'll end with us standing inside the Russian word love!

What an interesting and fun trip!

Stop! You're done!

(thanks to Tom for sharing his pictures)