RUSSIA & SCANDINAVIA, 2000
Day 1, Tuesday, July 11 Houston - London
Call a taxi at 12:15, picked up at 12:40 to catch the 1PM shuttle to the airport.
|1||British Air||Houston - London||4:20 PM - 8:10 AM|
The British Airways plane is scheduled to depart at 4:10, but actually 4:20 (not bad) and we still arrive ahead of time in London. The plane is an old model 747-400 (basic facilities) and is hot and crowded. Exceptionally fat lady in center seat She (all two of her) arrived ahead of me and raised both arm-rests so she could sit down (couldn't have fit with them in the normal position). So as a result both the passenger to her right and I each have about a half-seat for ourselves. Not recommended for a 9 ˝ hour flight. The flight is supposedly full, and nobody would be fool enough to trade seats with us. They also run out of some of the dinner entrees by the time they get to our seats in the rear of the plane. Not a good start. At this point I would rate B/A as my least favorite airline (KLM, Continental, Peoples Express, Northwest, BritAir)
Day 2, Wednesday, July 12 Arrive London
After arriving at Gatwick we have to transfer to the other terminal to catch the train into London. Unfortunately the inter-terminal tram is all fouled up and instead of running every 3 - 5 minutes, we wait for about 40 (I happened to have noted the time when we got to the shuttle stop). We could easily have walked it in much less time. Then after taking the train to Victoria Station, there has been a mix-up in the shuttle busses and lots of people play musical-busses in order to get things sorted (?) out. We finally get to the hotel about 10, but as expected since it's before noon, the rooms aren't ready. So leave luggage under lock and look for somewhere to eat. Not too easy since the hotel is way-to-XXXX-and-gone out the west end of town (no, not out of town, but off the guide-book maps). Not much to choose from and long way to get to see something interesting (it's even about a half-mile to the nearest tube station). At least I do find a post office to mail a package to a friend in Plymouth. There's a brief intro meeting (tour director) with the group to give us general tour information, wake-up times (early) etc. Disaster number 1 for the tour director: most of his tour papers are in a Grand European travel bag. Someone else picks it up (theft or just another GE tourist????). Anyway, it's gone and we certainly can't get past Berlin without it since among other things, the travel vouchers are there. and all the Belarus visas. Decision is made to start the tour anyway and hope it shows up somewhere in time, or the tour will be stopped/cancelled in Berlin. The hotel is supposedly air conditioned, but that apparently means (as in most of the other hotels we use) the windows can be opened (and some can't). Very nice room otherwise. Hotel: Hilton Olympic, Kingston High Street
Day 3, Thursday, July 13 London to Amsterdam
Up early since we have to catch the EuroStar train which goes through the Chunnel to the continent. It's 2:45 by train but only about 20 minutes in the Chunnel. After passing through a small section of France (without stopping) we arrive in Brussels to transfer to our coach (nice Volvo but the overhead storage compartments are way too low to get much more than a coat or shopping bag into) but it starts to rain. Unfortunately this sets the model for the next several days. We don't get to see much of anything of Brussels: basically it's just get the bus moving to get us to Amsterdam by mid afternoon. It does clear a bit then which is fortunate since we have a canal boat cruise scheduled. Unfortunately, the passenger area is completely enclosed (no deck space) and the plexiglass looks like it hasn't been washed since sometime about a month ago. It's not easy to see much, and totally impossible to take any pictures. After the boat cruise, there's a brief bus ride through Amsterdam for 'sight seeing', including the "red light district". Not all the ladies pull the drapes when they see the bus. maybe thinking that here's lots of potential clients. The hotel isn't near downtown, so despite a nice dinner, it's somewhat disappointing not to see more of Amsterdam and it's sights. Some good news - the missing travel bag showed up in one of the side offices in the hotel. Apparently dumped there rather than being turned in at the desk. Arrangements made with DHL for guaranteed 24 hour delivery to Berlin on Friday. Unfortunately. Nice hotel, no a/c, and too far out for any evening excursions. Hotel: Novatel
Map does not show London->Berlin or Denmark->London at the end.
Day 4, Friday, July 14 Amsterdam to Berlin
Off at 7:30 in the rain. Mostly rain all day, but that's ok since it's a travel day (400 miles of the Autobahn). I've seen freeways in the US - not much difference except that there's no speed limit. The bus is limited to 100KPH (restrictor installed) so we are in danger of being tail-ended by lots of vehicles. There's an optional dinner tonight (Ziko's) which is pretty good. They also sell travel videos including one that pretty much matches our tour so I splurge for a copy. (note from later: the cover says 110 minutes but should have read 1:10, i.e. 70 minutes. Lost in translation??). After dinner, there's a nice tour of the town but not all that many of the lights are on since it's too near summer solstice and it's still 'daylight'. We do drive through their version of the red-light district (section of Unter den Linden where, if the lady is registered with the police, curb-side display and solicitation is completely legal - and in almost-full action). The hotel is in the former East-Berlin (don't call it East Berlin to someone from there: it's Berlin and the other is definitely West Berlin) and was the hotel for the Parliament members and guests. It's been fully upgraded (but something of a waste since it's scheduled to be torn down later this year and a new hotel/shopping/business complex will be built). The big surprise so far is how much of East Berlin/East Germany has been fixed up (new facings but still the old interiors) or completely demolished and re-built. There are several old original buildings, however but they are mostly on the back streets. There are only a couple of small sections of the "Wall" left. Regarding that "Unfortunately": DHL doesn't deliver as guaranteed and claim that they don't work on weekends (despite 'guaranteed 24 hour delivery); we may be up the creek. Hotel: Radisson SAS
Day 5, Saturday, July 15 In Berlin
Although it's not made any more and in fact has become something of a collector's item, the (formerly) most common car in East Germany was the Traband - basically made of pressed cardboard. If it was ever involved in a collision, just get a broom and dustpan. Shortly after they were discontinued, we could buy one for less than $100. Now they go for over $1000.
After a buffet breakfast, today starts about 8:30 with a city tour by bus and some sections on foot (yea!). Unfortunately this morning, it's wet and windy which limits the enjoyment somewhat. After lunch (???) there's an optional tour to Potsdam and the Cecilienhof Palace (Re: Treaty of Potsdam in WW II). We get an inside tour to see the various leaders rooms (since Stalin was 'host', he chose who got which rooms and guess what …) Since this is fairly well out of town, we get a bit of a sight-seeing drive on the way back including an (outside only) visit to the Sans Sauci palace. IMO, this could have been skipped. At least it has stopped raining for a few minutes. Dinner isn't included but fortunately I saved some snacks from lunch.
Day 6, Sunday, July 16 Berlin to Warsaw
Off at 7:00, or at least we are supposed to be but instead are waiting for a DHL special delivery (which took VERY special arrangements; read $$$$) which gets here at 8:20. We have a long day - both mileage and frontiers. It's just over 400 miles and will take over 12 hours, thanks in part to 2.5 hours at the Germany / Poland border. There's more intermittent rain all day. Once we get across the border, we see over 300 trucks westbound backed up waiting to clear customs (may have a long wait since often customs doesn't work on weekends). The highways have definitely deteriorated once we left Berlin, but are still much better than what we find later in Russia. Once we left Berlin, we also see the first of the "International Social Workers" who line the highways all through the former East Germany, through Poland, Belarus, and Russia. Sometimes their apparel makes it very obvious why they are there; others are much better dressed, attractive, etc (just standing besides their car). At first, for these latter 'types', I think the car has broken down, but they are seen too often. We are told later that with wages being what they are, these ladies are there strictly by choice since they can make so much more this way than by the regular (to us) occupations. They seem to congregate on both sides of highway checkpoints, local versions of truck stops, and highway (?) intersections. I won't mention them again, but they are indeed seen quite often until we leave Russia for Finland. The dinner in this hotel wasn't so great (first of the UFO entrees), and the tendency to minimal number (and wattage) of lights in rooms which will be a constant problem, sometimes major, is first seen here. Otherwise, one of our better hotels. Hotel: Mercure
Day 7, Monday, July 17 In Warsaw
This turns out to be one of my favorite cities on the trip. Definitely a nice place to visit. I definitely want to come back. After waking up, I go for a short walk in a light drizzle - not bad, in fact, nice. Later, 8:30 - 12:15, we get a city tour. As I said, this is one of my faves. Considering the damage in WW II, the rebuilding had to be almost total, but it was to an 'as it was' standard, not some new-fangled high-rise. Beautiful. The afternoon is free, but due to the rain, I decide not to walk back to the "old city" (#*$&%!!). In the evening, it's a wonderful Chopin concert in the 16th Century Ostargski Palace…on an old piano. I bought a CD by the performer (Iwona Klimaszewska) and got her to autograph it. The best evening so far, but there will be a couple later that are also extremely good. We are again warned, after tonight, don't drink the water. Don't even brush our teeth using it. Bottled mineral water only. Another warning: Imodium Advanced doesn't help (verified).
Day 8, Tuesday, July 18 Warsaw to Minsk, Belarus
Off at 7:30. Another long driving day with occasional rain. The highways in Poland (2 lane) at least go through the small towns instead of around them so we get to see some of the interesting part of the country. Freeways are very boring. There are also lots of stork nests, carefully protected. It's considered very good luck if a stork builds a nest on your property. There is a long 2+ hour stop at the border - partly due to the fact that we are behind an Austrian tour bus, and they don't have their papers ready and in order, in fact, some are "missing" so everyone waits. Behind us is a Belgian "school bus" being used by a group of high-school grad students off on an around-the-world tour: 4 girls, 2 guys. They travel, eat, and sleep on the bus. They don't speak much Russian so our tour director helps them by explaining what they will need when it's their turn plenty of time to do that since we're still waiting on the Austrians. Once we finally get past customs, the highway in Belarus is "4-lane" but the quality is less than in Poland; in fact, the Polish highways are now looking very good. Our lunch stop is in Brest where we are greeted with the traditional bread-and-salt (a much lighter, sweeter, bread than the usual fare - tastes wonderful). Along with a very nice (not UFO) meal (all meals are included from here on until we leave Russia) we meet our Russian Intourist guide, Misha, who will be with us from here until we cross into Finland (and the best laid plans often don't work out). According to Misha's commentary / description, all (government) buildings are "most important" (are there any other kind?) and all town squares (and monuments) are "very important". Since he doesn't discuss other (non-governmental?) buildings, I guess they don't really exist. Other than this bias, he's a wonderful help (and a couple of us will be very glad of that later.) Misha normally works just in Moscow, but has been sent down by Intourist for us (takes 16 hours by train from Moscow). After bouncing along the highways (?) for a while, we make our afternoon rest stop - and our first real encounter with "Russian mosquitos" - freelance souvenir sellers who know just when and where the tourist busses usually stop - and swarm around us innocent victims. Here they will take only US dollars (and we find out soon that in Belarus, it takes about 800,000 - 1,000,000 "Rabbit" roubles to equal one US$. Hotel: Planeta
During the afternoon travel, Misha starts us on learning the Cyrillic alphabet and its phonetics. Believe it or not, PECTOPAH does indeed stand for, and sound like, 'restaurant.' After another lesson tomorrow, we can begin to read some of the Russian words on the buildings and signs - at least those which, when carefully pronounced, sound like their English equivalent. After more bouncing, we finally get to Minsk (very nice city) and our hotel. We were warned that it wasn't up to western standards, but it has been recently refurbished and, IMO, is my favorite hotel for the entire trip - nice, and retains the character of the original, and the country. I've stayed in much lesser hotels in the US and the UK. One "interesting" incident - we are all called at various times during the night (12AM, 2AM) by a certain type of lady (ISWs) wondering if they can. Seems like someone made our room phone numbers available to them for many, many, many rabbits. It also seems like the hotel security staff is one duty to make sure if these ladies go upstairs (the lobby and 2nd floor bar are open territory/hunting), they get a cut of any fees.
Day 9, Wednesday, July 19 Minsk to Moscow
Off at 7:30. Very long drive from Minsk to Moscow. First, however, a tour of Minsk. New apartments are being built and allocated (1 person = 1 room; large families = 3-4 rooms plus tiny bath and kitchen). I think it's here (may have been in Moscow) where we pass "the field of fallen heroes". No, not a cemetery (not quite). It's something of a park where they move (dump) the statuary of Russian heroes no longer "in favor."
When we get to the Russian border, it only takes about 30 minutes (the big check was Germany/Poland and Poland/Belarus; the latter was VERY long). The only problem, some Belarus "get rich quick" types come on board the bus and tell us that there is a new "Insurance" fee of $20 per person. Insurance? The company (Grand European) is well insured and we are supposed to have our own travel insurance. Also, it's less than 100' before we get out of Belarus. What can happen in that distance? However the local security says that we have to pay or they won't raise the barrier. The tour director "coughs up" the extra money - it will go on the company expense account. As we drive on, we can look back and see them splitting the "take" with the security forces.
We have lunch at the Phoenix Motel outside Semolensk. The public restrooms are out of order, so they open up some of the guest rooms for us to use if we are brave enough. This motel has rooms of the kind that I had worried about in nightmares (would definitely have slept on, or even under, the bus). Afternoon is our second alphabet lesson and some common phrases for use in Russia. Mid-afternoon, we have our first "bush stop" (supposed to be our only one - previously had as many as nine) but Not bad - I've had to do the same thing on occasion in the US. Just before we get to Moscow we start seeing lots of the Russian "Daschas." You've heard of them - "President Putin spent the weekend at his country Dascha" etc. These weren't Putin's daschas. They were for the ordinary people who come out on weekends to tend the small plot of land they own around the dascha where they raise vegetables, flowers, etc. either for themselves or to sell (they need the money.) So don't think of something like vacation homes for the politicians, for the wealthy, for the Russian Mafia. Think what the ordinary Russian citizen may be earning and that they are just for weekend camping out/in/? Come up with a new picture yet something like the cross between an outhouse and a chicken coop not quite cardboard and tar-paper, but on average, not much better.
We finally arrive in Moscow. The hotel is one of the 7 Stalinesk (sp?) "Gifts" to the city - very tall wedding-cake design. It's actually much nicer than I had hoped for. There's even a small refrigerator in the room and it works (COLD mineral water!) It's been a long day, so after doing laundry, off to bed. Heavy rain tonight. (If we can't take any more Russian food, there are always the American Embassies / American franchises: MacDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut. They are everywhere throughout the trip) Hotel: Ukraina
Day 10, Thursday, July 20 In Moscow
It's my birthday. I had hoped to meet Margarita and Povilas here today but learned just before I left that they would be spending this month in Italy. Bah, humbug, and other comments.
We start off with a visit to Red Square (get there early since they close most of the square at 9 for people to have space to line up to get into Lenin's Tomb). We visit inside the Kremlin on another time. Then we have a long city tour with a few stops for mosquitos attacks. Lunch is at the Hotel Russia (but it's awful - greasy kid stuff - greasy UFO, extremely greasy fries - almost inedible - worst meal of the trip). Nice view across the city, Red Square, and the Kremlin, however. After lunch, there's an optional visit to the Trotsky Museum. Skipped that to try to locate a place (Radisson Hotel) to cash travelers' checks Seems like they don't accept TC in Russia … and VISA cards are only occasionally accepted. Never mind Master Card, American Express, or Discover. Worthless. Tried the ATM, but rejected. (later note: asked at the bank later and told that they have had so many bounced transactions they seldom accept anything from Russia). Finally another tour member and I locate the Radisson and cash some travelers checks ($2 service charge per individual check regardless of value of the check). It's next to one of the main train stations - what a mob scene there!!! Dinner is back at the hotel (once we find our way back) and is basically one large bowl of soup. Fortunately it's excellent since to most of us, it was just the 'starter.' Something of a vegetable beef stew - very good but we left somewhat hungry that night. After dinner, it's the Moscow State Circus (included activity). It's good, but mostly juggling and animal acts. I had expected more wire and trapeze action. Good, but not my favorite night. Think of an improved 'traveling circus' that sets up at county fairs. Heavy rain again tonight.
Some interesting items to purchase here: laser cut decorative crystal. Somewhat like the use of the laser for eye surgery, cutting/burning only where focused, they program the laser to burn internal holes inside the crystal to make designs such as animals, buildings (Kremlin towers, etc) and whatever other design would be desired. Not too expensive.
Day 11, Friday, July 21 In Moscow
Morning activity is an optional tour of the Kremlin and the Treasure House. It's heavy cloud, and starts to rain while we wait in line (40 minutes) for the Kremlin to open to tourists. It's a 2-hour tour of the Armory/Treasure House and very interesting. Then a walking tour through some of the rest of the area including the Cathedral of the Assumption. Both yesterday and today, as we left the Kremlin/Red Square area to go back to the bus, as we got there we were accosted by some women carrying small babies wrapped in heavy cloths. They appeared to be southeast-Asia (Pakistani - for example; I don't know.) They spoke/mumbled/hummed some kind of sounds as they would criss-cross through the group clutching at various ones of us obviously wanting handouts. Yesterday the weather was ok, but today it's still drizzling. We kept trying to indicate to them to take the babies away - in out of the weather. Then it started raining harder. Instead of running for cover, they just held the "babies" over their head. Conclusion: plastic props.
Dinner at the hotel is better this time. The afternoon is free (re-pack) and a good supper. The evening is an optional tour of the Moscow subway system (6 or 7 different stops, all decorated differently). They are wonderful architecture and design, and very beautiful. Of course they wouldn't last overnight in NYC, but are clean and graffiti free. Wonder how they manage that. There's time for a late walk through Red Square, then a stop along the river for an evening 'cocktail' supplied by the tour director and driver. (The driver has a cooler area up front
and keeps drinks, water, etc there for the passengers. He of course makes a bit on the sales, but it's well worth it.)
Disaster number 2: while shopping, one of the couples had their travel documents folder stolen: passport, visa, airline tickets, credit cards, money, etc. They will not be allowed to go on without passport and visa. Fortunately, they were able to get to the American Embassy before it closed and got new passports, but no luck with the Russian Visas. Since it's Friday, and the Visa office isn't open on weekends, they will have to stay in Moscow until at least sometime Monday. Misha will stay with them, and then they will try to catch up with us sometime later. One of the hang-ups: do things the Russian way. They need two different Russian documents and can get neither one until they get the other. (Misha eventually sorts that out by getting Intourist involved.) Poor Misha: since he leaves us here to baby sit our careless friends, he gets short changed on tips: only about half what he would have received if he had stayed with us all the way (see some comments below). Misha is the only male guide we have during the trip. All the others are female; about half are young. All are doing it as a second or third job.
Day 12, Saturday, July 22 Moscow to Novgorod
Wake up "call" here: a light tap-tap on the door and someone whispers "wake up" (whisper supposedly so not to wake up someone else - wouldn't have heard it if I weren't already awake.) If you like mosquitos (real ones) stay tuned. Supposed to be off by 8, but it's actually about 8:45 due to disaster 2. Misha cosigns some travel vouchers and helps plan ahead for various possibilities. Eventually we do get away. Lunch is in another motel about like the Phoenix (more UFO) but we don't (thankfully) get to see the rooms this time. The afternoon wasn't supposed to be a "bush stop" but after seeing the facilities that are available bushes looked very good. The highway (???) is really bad. Much re-dis- / con-struction going on. Can't really tell which, but it doesn't seem to be making any real difference and this is one of the main highways in Russia being between Moscow and St Petersburg. We make it to Novgorod in mid-afternoon for a tour of the oldest city we get to visit, and its own small "Kremlin" (Kremlin means fortress.) We have the best (local) tour guide of the whole trip (Natasha Natalia) who is an academic-high-school instructor (Masters equivalent from the University). Here salary is: US$20 per month equivalent. It costs here the equivalent of $10 per month just in travel, so she also works as a tutor (English), part-time tour guide, and some other job I didn't quite get. Delightful, lovely lady with a 9-year-old son to support. I don't know what her husband does, but they just barely get by and Novgorod is cheaper than St Petersburg or Moscow. I gave her a much-larger-than usual tip - about equal to her one-months pay. The hotel for the evening is fairly new, Austrian built. It's nice except for the damn mosquitos (real ones, not those souvenir sellers). There are no screens on the windows or for the ventilators. No way to keep them out. I don't try to go to bed until after 10:30 (still light enough outside to play tennis without extra lights) but have to give up on sleep by midnight. I spend the whole rest of the night on a "great mosquito hunt" and kill 47 by 5 AM. Every time I thought I had them all, more would get in through the ventilators (not a/c, just moving air). The walls are bloody, literally. The hotel was originally built by the Austrians, but bought out by the Russian Mafia (really). Some of us looked into the Casino there and hastily left. Talk about "heavies" and watchers watching the watchers. Otherwise a great hotel except for those damn mosquitos. Grand European should have provided each traveler with a large can of mosquito spray. Hotel: Beresta
Day 13, Sunday, July 23 Novgorod to St Petersburg
Our first clear day. Off at 8:45. It's only 2:45 to St Petersburg. Since we had our Novgorod city tour yesterday, that will mean more time in St. Petersburg. On the way, stop in a very decorated private home. An elderly family had the idea of opening their little home to tours - and it worked. They are now either the envy of, or despised by, others in the little village. We stop and are treated to home-made pancakes and preserves. They do also have souvenirs for sale (what else is new). I'm sure the tour company pays them a small fee for the privilege. Their home, while small and plain basically, has been nicely decorated outside, and well furnished (considering) inside and the pancakes are great. We get a new local guide, Galina, who will be with us for our St. Petersburg stay. After a city tour, part 1 (we see lots of wedding parties because it's a tradition that newlyweds make a tour of certain locations in the city and leave flowers) we get to the hotel for dinner. After that, it's a Folklore (song and dance) evening at the Nikolaevsky Palace. It's wonderful - my personal #2 event of the whole trip. (It's also the first time I've seen someone actually play the 'saw'). Tour guide, Harry, is dressed up as Czar Nicholas II (he looks the part perfectly) and is one of the 3 spectators taken up on stage to take part in some of the dances. Absolutely wonderful evening. Hotel: both better and worse than Moscow (better facilities, but smaller and the bed isn't as good. Also can't (dare) open windows even though the mosquito problem isn't quite as bad here. It's a humongous two section hotel. It's well out away from downtown, however. One morning I counted 19 tour busses parked outside.
It's still pretty much "white night" time even though it's a month past Solstice. Through much of the trip, it's still almost full light at 10 PM, and starts getting light about 3:30 or 4 AM. Hotel: Pulkovskaya
Comments on tour director, Harry. He's in his 50s, ex-British-military, Russia enthusiast (and some of all this has affected his personality). He's one of the top 2 most knowledgeable tour directors I've had - extremely well versed on the history, people, culture, etc of the area. Excellent organizational skills, but is very autocratic and doesn't really encourage us to ask questions. His (my words) "I am the Czar, do not question me as to why to do something, just do exactly as I say … and don't ask me to repeat things; we should have been paying attention the first time" attitude has split the group into those who very much dislike his attitude and those who just shrug it off and are very happy with his skills, knowledge, etc. He's also rescued several people from "Brezhnev's Revenge" with a special form of liquid Imodium. This split leads to disaster 5 later. Even with all this, I'd be glad to have him as a tour director again (and luckily, do, on the Baltics tour).
Comments on tour driver, Marinus: He's from Amsterdam. Has been driving tour busses since he was 19. Excellent driver, nice personality, hard to ruffle, even when loading overloaded, overstuffed suitcases into limited area. Wonderful sense of humor. Supplies our needs for drinks (soda), water, etc. Highest rated driver I've had. Due to the Harry-conflict, some people didn't tip him (*BAD!!*) so I double-tipped him.
Day 14, Monday, July 24 In St Petersburg
Today is an all-optionals day. First off is a trip to Catherine's Palace in Pushkin town. It's 140 rooms of which 59 have been restored. Only 30 are mostly done now and that's about all we actually get to see. Here, the Russian preference for 'natural' really shows up in the grounds. Despite being a major (and very expensive, etc.) palace, we don't see what, in the UK for example, we would expect: manicured lawns. It looks more like what I would have expected to see if my neighbor hadn't mowed the yard while I was gone - high grass and 'wild flowers'. We also had another interesting experience with gypsy (?) beggars here. A couple of women, with lots of kids (probably not all theirs) would "sic" the kids (usually just wearing a pair of pants/shorts and maybe a ragged shirt) on us begging for handouts for food, clothes, etc. After we 'got away' from them one time and continued around some buildings, we saw the kids running after us for more begging - discarding their shoes, shirts, and sometimes other clothing - so as to again appear so very poor and needy. The women had them "well trained." After we gestured a threat to toss a couple of them in a nearby pond, they left us alone.
After the tour, some of us are talking with one of the street vendors (there are often a whole row of souvenir booths/tables set up. One of the vendors turns out to be a recent college graduate who is also working on a masters degree in Economics/International Relations and studying more foreign languages. She says that she may not pursue that field however: the expected pay is much less than she can make selling trinkets to the tourists during the summer tourist season.
In the afternoon, it's a trip to the Yusopov Palace and Rasputin Museum (same building). For me, it was much more interesting - more of home than a "grand palace" like Catherine's. Nice, enthusiastic young guide (Yelena = Helen). In the Museum part, they have a couple of rooms with a) life size figures of the conspirators waiting upstairs while Rasputin is to be murdered downstairs, and b) the downstairs display with Rasputin. Interesting. Our guide is well versed in the history of the event.
We also had a really "fun" experience while on the bus today. The bus was on a side street and ready to pull out and turn onto a major street. However there had been a "fender-bender" near the intersection and the cars couldn't be moved until checked out by numerous authorities/organizations. After waiting and waiting for a while, "Czar" Harry puts on his great-coat with it's medals, his tall hat, etc., get off and "screams" out: "ATTENTION!" This brings all activity to an instant halt. The next "command" is to "CLEAR THE INTERSECTION" and in just seconds, it's all cleared away. The bus can then pull out, "Czar" Harry gets back on, and off we go. The Power of Authority in Russia. (Did I mention that "Czar Harry" is the "spitting image" of Czar Nicholas the Second - and has authentic, not reproduction, uniforms, etc.)
We were originally scheduled for an 8 PM performance of the Ballet, but one of the tour ships is in and booked that performance, so we rush back to the hotel then to the Hermitage Theatre for ballet (excerpts from various ballets, not one single ballet - definitely a 'plus' IMO.) This is #4 ranked event of the tour for me. After all this, it's back to the hotel for a very late UFO dinner (leftovers??).
In St. Petersburg, they are building some new apartments for the 'common' people. For 2 rooms plus small kitchen and bath, the cost is about $35000 US.
We had word earlier that our missing travelers had gotten their passports and visas arranged and would be joining us sometime tomorrow..maybe.
Day 15, Tuesday, July 25 In St Petersburg
All trips included today. First is a visit to the Hermitage (walk through of all the various buildings). It's about 2 ˝ - 3 hours. Since I'm not really "into" museums, … I'm very glad that I got to see it, but for me, one visit was enough (not a put-down, just personal preference). We did have a very nice guide (Sonya - my 2nd fave local guide). Lunch was at the 1001 Nights (Uzbeck restaurant). Unfortunately the seasoning didn't agree with some, including me. I had to call on Harry later (about 6:30 as we started dinner) for some of his Imodium - one dose worked very well and fairly quickly. We make a quick stop at St Isaacs' Cathedral then back to the hotel for the rest of the afternoon. Our missing ones finally make it back to rejoin us - barely get here in time for tonight's big dinner. Misha comes with them to make sure they make the train trip safely, but doesn't officially rejoin the tour.
The evening is our "Gala Farewell to Russia" dinner. I had to eat carefully since the Imodium hasn't totally settled yet - but very close. Harry is again dressed up as Czar Nicholas and has his local lady-friend with him. Unfortunately, disaster 3 - we hear later that they broke up that night. Conflicting rumors as to whether they patched things up a few days later.
Day 16, Wednesday, July 26 St Petersburg to Helsinki
Wake up call here: on the phone "Dobre ootre (sp?). This is upwaking." Off early, not because of the distance, but to allow for the time (length, and when) of the border crossing. Remember the Russia/Finland border is direct Russia/West 'front line' during the 'cold war.' Lunch at Vyborg (last meal in Russia) then skip desert and coffee to rush to the border. Another last: on the way we pass several of the ISWs (for the border guards? for a last 'quickie' by visitors leaving? for a convenience of incoming visitors to Russia? It seems to be a favorite locale.) But we are just a few minutes late as the border guards take an hour off for their lunch so we have a fairly long wait. There are a total of 5 checkpoints on the Russia side and we 'thread' our way around, through, and past partly abandoned fortifications. There's only one quick checkpoint on the Finland side - officer gets on the bus and walks down the aisle stamping passports - takes about 20 minutes for 47 passports and bus papers. Fast. Once across the border, there is somewhat of a sense of relief / freedom / ?? that comes over us. We get into Helsinki about 4:30. Dinner isn't included so most of us head to the food court at the Forum (big high-rise shopping center) for various types of 'fast food.' (The steaks here are very good.) The hotel is nice, and we have the first cooler night of the trip. I only opened the windows a little bit. Still haven't had to use any cover. (Most hotels we've stayed at also supply minimal pillows. I've been solving that problem by rolling up the duvet (sp?) as on pillow then stacking the smaller one on that.) Hotel: Ramada Presidenti
Quite a few people sick by now. Someone came down with some virus/cold/flu and it's really spread. I'm definitely beginning to feel sick.
My ATM card works now that I'm back into a 'safe' country. Good thing - I'm out of cash. Again note for other travelers - take US cash, not travelers checks. Also our ATM card may or may not work in the former Soviet areas (fine through Berlin and from Finland onwards). Take quite a bit of the cash in $1 and $5 bills (not old ones - they might not be accepted either).
Day 17, Thursday, July 27 Helsinki and Tallinn, Estonia
Wake up calls here: the tv comes one. OK, time for one of my highlights - a repeat visit back to Tallinn. Fortunately this time we take a hovercraft (seats about 250 passengers) so it takes only 90 minutes each way instead of about 4 hours. Another disaster time: after yelling at everyone each and every time we would be needing our passports, guess who forgot their's today (not me!). So we go over by ourselves and are met by the local guide in Tallinn (Maia - another delight) and are joined later (2 hours until the next hovercraft) by Harry. At least disaster 4 wasn't too bad. After a nice bus tour then a morning 'tea', we walk some more, then have lunch (included). After that, more walking, and then time to explore the lower 'old town' on our own (my fave part of Tallinn). Catch the hovercraft at 4:00 (5:00 Helsinki time) for a return. Lots of Finns take this trip over for shopping due to the low prices in Tallinn … go over with an empty suitcase and come back with a packed one. The savings more than pay for the trip. Dinner not included so back to the Forum for another steak. Most of the tour takes this option. One who wanted to, but couldn't is traveling on an Equadorian passport and wasn't told that he needed a Visa for Estonia. (Grand European messed up here!)
Day 18, Friday, July 28 Helsinki to cruise ship
The ship/ferry doesn't leave until late, so we stay in our hotel until mandatory check-out time (noon). Make one last trip to the Forum for lunch (no lunch stop later) but this time it's Italian food (no, not pizza) and a visit to the Stockman's department store. Back to the hotel to check out, then go for a city tour (bus tour with a couple of stops) and drive to Turku to catch the ferry to Stockholm. Our ferry, at 68000 tons, is the largest passenger/car ferry in the world. It can carry 3000 passengers (and is sold out) plus 400 vehicles. Buffet Dinner is included, and the cabin is nice - about the size of the smallest hotel room I've been in so far on the trip. Not bad at all. It's still light late, so we can look out and watch as we pass through some of the thousands of islands between Finland and Sweden. It's a bit cool, windy, and damp on deck, however. Overnight on the ship
Day 19, Saturday, July 29 Cruise to Stockholm
After a light breakfast on board, we arrive at 8 AM (Finland; 7AM Sweden). We have a morning tour of Stockholm with a local guide, then lunch on our own (hot dog stand; operator is from Michigan) then my #1 event, getting to see the Wasa. After being launched in 1647, it sank 20 minutes into its maiden voyage and was found 300 years later in the fresh-water harbor. Since it was fresh water, it was well preserved and could be raised. After 30 years of work on restoration, it's now on display in a special dry-dock museum. Wonderful!!!!!!!! I could easily have spent all day there. When we get back to the hotel, the rooms still aren't ready, so we have to sit around for about an hour. Definitely getting sick; coughing is much worse. Most of the people on the tour are now sick. Not good news. Hotel: Birger Jarl
One interesting sight in Stockholm: several tall ships in port, midway through a big race which goes from Gdansk to Helsinki, travels across to Stockholm (not part of the race), then continues back down to Germany. They are scheduled to leave later today out to a staging point (small island port) for the race to resume tomorrow. Wish we could have seen some of them under sail. I had heard lots of nice things about Stockholm, but somehow, perhaps since we saw little of it, it wasn't my favorite city.
Day 20, Sunday, July 30 Stockholm to Copenhagen
Long drive today, so off fairly early. Stop at a lakeside resort for lunch - nice beach and pool area and lots of visitors out getting the sun. Slow getting away so missed the first ferry across the sound, but catch the next one 20 minutes later. No big problem. Special farewell dinner is very good at 7 then a night-time visit to Tivoli Gardens (but only allowed one hour; should have been 2 at least). The hotel gets my lowest ranking of the trip, though: size, food, bath, etc. 2-star?? Maybe. Hotel: Imperial
Day 21, Monday, July 31 In Copenhagen
Morning is sightseeing trip: Rosenborg Castle (nice) and some other sights including the "Little Mermaid" that everyone has to see. After lunch, out into the country to see Fredericksborg (Summer Palace) and an inside visit, then the Peace Palace of the 1720s (Queen's residence) and an outside only visit. Last is to Helsingor (Hamlet's Elsinore). Drive the shoreline back into Copenhagen, then walk down the pedestrian street area for dinner in a little sidewalk café. Essentially, the trip is over now.
Day 22, Tuesday, August 1 Copenhagen to ship
Wait - hurry up - wait - hurry up - wait day. Late start since the ship doesn't sail until late (again). Then rush a while to our lunch stop in Odense (pronounced Owens) then hurry again to catch the ferry (deadline for loading luggage). It's a much smaller ferry (about 18000 tons for 1600 passengers) and the room is much smaller - also an inside cabin this time, but I'm too sick to really care. Sail at 6; supper (fair) at 6:45. Minor problem - the purser didn't tell the restaurant manager to reserve tables for us so we have to wait which they decide where and how to seat us. Buffet dinner, at least. To bunk early for lots of coughing. Yuck. Overnight on the ship
Day 23, Wednesday, August 2 Cruise to (London) England
We finally arrive in England at noon, then load (overload on the luggage area) onto a short-haul bus for the trip into London. Get in about 4:30. Drink a coke for dinner - really feeling bad. Probably at least 40 of the 47 people on the tour are sick - might have influenced what happens later.
We have a "gala" farewell drink party scheduled. Disaster last: one of the travelers gets up and makes a nice thank-you speech to Harry for his help (mentions the good points, ignores the bad.) Someone who really dislikes Harry takes offense and starts a verbal fight and then throws wine in the speakers face. Normal reaction - try to shove the SOB away. Unfortunately, happened to have a glass in his hand, which breaks, and causes some cuts. Definite fight now. Lots of yelling and pushing. Party breaks up shortly after that. It's a fair chance that after that, and some of the reviews that may come in, Harry might lose his job. Bad deal all around. (Nothing Harry could have done to prevent/stop the fight at that point)
At least we finally get a real air-conditioned night in the hotel tonight - first night I need a sheet for cover. Hotel: Hilton Olympia
Day 24, Thursday, August 3 London to Houston
Time to go home. Early wakeup call since I'm in the first group out, and we leave for the airport at 6:15. First a drive to Victoria Station to catch the Gatwick Express (luckily BritAir has an early check-in site at Victoria Station so I don't have to haul my big suitcase everywhere.) After arriving at Gatwick, a long wait, but customs and passport control is quick and easy. The plane is supposed to leave at 10, but they were still about 60 passengers short so we had to wait for them. At least the plane is a later model 747 this time but it's still cramped, and a very long flight.
|2||British Air||London - Houston||10:45 AM - 2:15 PM|
We still make it in pretty much on time, but then the baggage carousel breaks down for about 30 minutes. Long, hot wait. No hassle at Customs (I have all the "souvenirs" in my GE carry-on just in case), so quick out to catch the shuttle and then a taxi home…finally (and a call to the doctor tomorrow for some antibiotic medication.) I'm "dead tired." With the 6-hour time difference, it's been a very long day since we had a wake-up call at 5AM London time.
General comments on the Russia part of the trip:
Overall it was definitely much nicer than I had thought it might be. I would definitely like one more trip there and will probably take the GE "Russia and the Baltic States" trip which is Helsinki to Helsinki and includes Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The people we met were invariable nice and friendly (even the Russian Mosquitos). I'm glad the Russian cities sequence was Moscow to St Petersburg or it would have been somewhat of a let-down as we progressed. The hotel rooms, although basically on the 1940s or 1950s standard were decent and clean. The food was somewhat monotonous (all those UFOs and varieties of Borscht soup). I did get a bit tired of 'yet another guilded palace' and would have preferred to see some other things (which things???) The weather was milder than I might have expected, but lots of rain showers. Locals report that the summer is/has been warmer and wetter than normal.
General comments on the Scandinavia part of the trip:
Were we there? I was strongly reminded of the old movie, "If it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium". We really didn't get to see much of anything here…just passing through. In order to see Scandinavia, I'll have to take another tour … but maybe that's what the GE people are hoping for.
Favorite stops / options / events (personal bias here, of course):
1. Wasa Museum in Stockholm
2. Folklore song / dance in St. Petersburg
3. Tallinn old town (I had expected this to be #2)
4. Ballet in the Hermitage Theatre in St. Petersburg
5. Chopin Concert in Warsaw
Suggestions for having a "better" trip:
1. Don't use London as the gateway. Start in Amsterdam thus saving one day on the start and 2 on the end of the trip (and also $$) The London time is just a waste, and the savings on EuroStar and the second cruise could make a significant difference.
2. Use one of the saved days for an extra (full) day in Amsterdam. We really didn't get to see any of it. The canal cruise was nice, but that's all we really got to see.
3. Use another of the saved days for another day in Warsaw. We got to see some things, but not enough. From what I saw, Warsaw would have been my favorite city - probably "still" is, but we missed so much.
4. Use the third saved day for more time in Stockholm - I've heard that its such a wonderful city to visit but again we didn't have nearly enough any time there.
5. Even if it means going to hotels "one level lower" - try for more hotels in the central city near the points of interest. Too many times we were stuck out on the edge of the city.
6. Be sure to keep the tour in the same direction: Moscow to St Petersburg.
Total Mileage, London to London:
Coach, 3608 miles
Ship, 597 miles
EuroStar, 300 miles
Hovercraft, 89 miles
Total, 4594 miles
Air miles: 4848 miles each way
Total travel: ~14,450 miles
(Note: if you haven't figured it out, UFO = "unidentified fried object" Is it chicken, veal, beef, pork, dog, horse, road kill??)