RUSSIA and the BALTICS, 2003

the "Pollen-Sinus-Allergy-Cough-and-Wheeze trip."

Day 1, Saturday, May 10 USA - Helsinki
Overnight flight (Latehansa #441, 3:45 PM). Call for taxi at noon to catch the 12:30 shuttle - driver of which would give Dale Jarrett and the "Big Brown Truck" a run for the money in any NASCAR race. I've taken this first flight before - endless at 10 hours. Latehansa strikes again... we don't even start boarding until over 10 minutes after the scheduled 'push-back' time.

LateHansa 441Houston - Frankfurt3:45 PM - 8:55 AM

At least I get more Latehansa 'frequent groaners' miles. (In-flight Snacks - if we're lucky) Snack-meal is almost decent, but ... and it's another one of the older A340s so shake-rattle-and-pop through a long hot flight.

Day 2, Sunday, May 11 Arrive Helsinki
LateHansa 3060Frankfurt - Helsinki10:30 AM - 1:40 PM

Surprise - an actually decent breakfast, particularly since it had to have been loaded many hours ago. Helsinki is +8 hours ahead of Houston, 1 hour ahead of Frankfurt. First to Frankfurt (8:45 AM-more or less) - why go past Amsterdam - this just makes for a longer trip. Another Frankfurt airport hassle - shuttle busses. So even though our 'arrival gate' is near where I want to catch the next plane, the bus goes all the way to the main terminal meaning a L -- O -- N -- G walk back to where we catch the next shuttle bus two spots down from where the first plane came in. "Far and Wide" must get a great 'kickback' from Latehansa), transfer to another plane for the flight (more Latehansa #3060, 10:20 AM) to Helsinki (1:40 PM) for a 2 1/2 hour flight and a mini-snacklet. Finally arrive (1:40 PM) in Finland's capital, Helsinki, for a relaxing (? - it better be because after no sleep on the LONG plane trips ... I really need some sleep) 2-night stay. Great wonderful surprise - tour director is Harry Watson again (2000 Russia trip). Hooray!! Tonight enjoy a Welcome Reception with our Tour Director - but it's rescheduled for tomorrow night since only about half the 28 tour members will be here by 6 PM. By 8PM Helsinki time, I have been awake for 32 hours. It turns out the hotel is a different SAS than I thought - reasonably close to downtown - market - harbor, so 'dinner' is from a sidewalk vendor in the market square. (In-flight Micro-Snack) Radisson SAS Plaza

Only about a week a ago, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, and Moscow were all regularly reporting lows below freezing, but that's all changed now. Temps will turn out to be lows in the 50s… but it's starting the rainy season.

Day 3, Monday, May 12 Helsinki
This morning enjoy a sightseeing tour that includes views of Finlandia Hall, the Parliament Building and visits to the colorful Market Square, the Sibelius Monument and the unique Rock Church of Temppeliaukio. Afternoon, walk back to Market Square for more 'lunch / dinner.' Last day for a while to choose our own food. Also the last day to dare to drink the water until we get back to Finland. It's bottled water for everything. Don't even get a drop in our mouth while showering. Once we go into "Russian" territories, they just about won't let us out on our own - almost all meals, such as they are-usually quite decent and better than the other trip - though I can remember a couple of exceptions - are included. (SB) Radisson SAS Plaza

Day 4, Tuesday, May 13 Helsinki - St. Petersburg
Off at 7:30. Not much hassle at the border (1 hour). Lunch of sorts in Viborg at 12:30 and meet our first Russia guide (Ylena from St. Petersburg) who will be with us until Novgorod. Today we drive to the old capital of Czarist Russia (crossing another time zone line, now +9 hours to Houston), St. Petersburg, our home for the next of 3 relaxing nights. We have time for a walk around part of the Peter/Paul Fortress (in the rain) before going to the hotel. Trees are just beginning to show green. Hotel (same as last time) is on the southern outskirts of town. "Special" (in quotes) dinner at the hotel. (BB,L,D) Pulkovskaya

Day 5, Wednesday, May 14 St. Petersburg
Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, St. Petersburg is considered to be Russia's most magnificent city. Russian baroque architecture meets our eyes as we travel along Nevsky Prospect viewing St. Isaac's Cathedral and seeing again the Peter and Paul fortress and the Czar's Winter Palace. After part one of the city tour, a special visit is made to the famous Hermitage Museum, housing one of the world's largest collections of fine art. Then lunch at an Uzbek restaurant for a 'real' Russian dinner. Nice! Then more city tour. Finally back to the hotel for a buffet dinner. (BB,L,D) Pulkovskaya

Evening: Optional tour: Ballet: A performance of one of the renowned Russian ballet companies performing "The Nutcracker" for an evening of graceful dance and outstanding music. (very good last time - even better this time) I've seen the "Nutcracker" in Houston - this is noticeably better.

Day 6, Thursday, May 15 St. Petersburg
Today is all optional tours: (BB,D) Pulkovskaya. Morning: Petrodvorets: This lovely complex of palaces and gardens was the summer residence of Peter the Great. Enjoy a walk through the extensive gardens with its beautiful fountains, cascading waterfalls and statues. Inside we see the opulence in which the Russian Tsars lived. (repeat, skip)

Afternoon: Yusupov Palace and Rasputin Museum: Located on the banks of the Morka River, this takes us to the elegant baroque palace, former residence of the Yusupov family. Our visit includes the former bedrooms with their original furniture plus the museum where we learn of the final hours of Rasputin. (repeat-take-still good)

Evening: Russian Folklore evening: a colorful evening of traditional folklore. The music and costumes evoke the spirit of old Russia. (Yes! This was good last time - definitely repeat.) Late dinner at the hotel included.

Day 7, Friday, May 16 St. Petersburg - Novgorod
Off at 8:30 in the rain, but clears later. First a stop along the way in Lyuban at a small private home to see how the Russian "Peasants" live. Deliver some 'mechanical pens' and colored paper pads (I remembered from the 2000 trip) for the grandkids. Again very good potato pancakes and home-made preserves, and strawberry vodka (also home-made.) Then off again.

Today we visit Novgorod, essentially unchanged during the last 1100 years. This city of the past contains ornate churches and cathedrals dating from the 11th-century. Hope they have done something about the mosquitoes - note to self: be sure to pack the mosquito spray; I don't want to do *another* all-night "Great Mosquito Hunt". Ylena leaves us here (darn) and we get a new guide for the rest of the trip (Anatolyi). Local guide is Natalia again.

Optional trip: Countryside Customs: A fascinating tour giving us insight into the old customs of the Russian countryside. We visit the recently revived St. George's Monastery whose church dates back 900years. This is followed by a visit to the Museum of Wooden Architecture - a collection of original houses in a traditional village setting, some dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. Hear about the old ways and see the household items of a bygone era as if time had stood still. (new-take)

Nice surprise: the hotel now has screens on the windows and air vents - only minor mosquito problem. Wow! Now I can open the windows since there's no a/c. (BB,~L,poor D) Beresta Palace

Day 8, Saturday, May 17 Novgorod - Moscow
Crossing the River Volga we make our way through a land once inhabited by the famous Russian composer Tchaikovsky and an inspiration for many of his works. Then we arrive for a leisurely 3-night stay in Russia's historic capital and largest city, Moscow. (Different hotel from the other trip, Ukrainia was in a nice location and nice views; bah, humbug, but the breakfasts here turn out to be super!) (poor BB,L,*BD*) Radisson Moscow

We also get another (bad) surprise. By this far south, every thing is in bloom and what started out as a comparably bearable pollen-sinus-allergy problem is now major. Soon everyone on the bus is coughing and choking. This problem will continue for almost the entire rest of the trip. Even when we get back to Helsinki, by then, things will be starting up there as well. At least I don't get the stomach problems from the water/food, but this is almost as bad.

Option: Metro and Red Square by Night: Tour the underground palaces of Moscow's subway system. These beautiful stations include stained glass, statues, marble walls and floors, chandeliers and mosaics to rival those in Rome. To top off our evening, we head to Red Square to view St. Basil's and the Kremlin's red brick walls illuminated for night viewing. (repeat - take - nice)

Day 9, Sunday, May 18 Moscow
Great BB - individually made-to-order omelets and all the rest as well. Best of the trip! Two full days in Moscow with guided sightseeing. Today we have a local driver (rules state that our regular driver has to have a day off part way through the trip). Replacement can't figure out Moscow streets and how to get to the hotel so we wait and wait and … Once he finally gets there, then some of the streets are blocked so we end up walking extra distance to the Kremlin for a tour of the Armory inside the Kremlin, once the treasure chamber of the Czars! Included lunch in the "Palace of Congresses" in the Kremlin. Then since the driver again can't figure out how to get to where we are, we change the schedule and walk on to Red Square again in which we view St. Basil's many-domed cathedral built by Ivan the Terrible, Lenin's Tomb and the Kremlin Wall. Also time for a quick walk through the GUM store. More walking to the bus (and the driver gets paid for just sitting on his butt all day). A special visit will be made to Reserved seats await us one night at the Moscow State Circus. (**BB**,L,D) Radisson Moscow

Day 10, Monday, May 19 Moscow
Hooray. We have our regular driver back. Another great BB, then off for more city tour. Along the way, we get caught in total traffic gridlock due to a wreck. Harry puts on one of his Russian military caps with lots of deco and plays traffic cop. I will never be able to figure out how our driver (Jani) managed to squeeze that big bus through a place I wouldn't even try with my mini-van. Lunch (not included) at a shop on Arabat street (shopping area). Then since everything else has been done, there's an extra added optional: river cruise from 2:30 to 4:15 from near the Russiya Hotel back to our hotel. No dinner included, but I had a huge BB and something to eat at lunch, so ...(BB) Radisson Moscow

Day 11, Tuesday, May 20 Moscow - Smolensk - Minsk
Our last super BB. I'm sorry to leave this hotel! At checkout, discover a 'padded' hotel bill - bunch of things I supposedly ate from the mini-bar. At least I get them to cancel the approx. $60 bill. Several others also had the problem - happens to several people throughout the trip. We have to be careful to check anytime the hotel wants our credit card number when we check in.

Off at 7:30 for a long, rough drive. Along the historic road to Smolensk, we follow a route traveled throughout history by countless others including Hitler and Napoleon's retreating Grand Armée in the grim winter of 1812. Traveling south from Smolensk (lunch stop at a 'dump' motel), we cross the Pripet Marshes on our way to the capital of Belarus (also known as White Russia), Minsk. We are late into Minsk due to very long delays on the Belarus side of the border (normal for Belarus). Our sightseeing will include both the Leninsky Prospect and Victory Square. Tonight, enjoy local Belarus cuisine at a gala dinner (pass the tums, gasx, etc.) with Russian Champagne - but since I don't drink, and we can't drink the water …. They have done some re-modeling of the hotel. (BB,L,D) Planeta

Day 12, Wednesday, May 21 Minsk - Vilnius
This starts the new part. Inedible breakfast. Get a normal start, then have to double back to drop off keys (how anyone could forget those 1-pound weighted monsters in a purse/pocket …) We have our only 'bush stop' along the way this morning. Then today, with some difficulty (some locals claim to be officials and with the connivance of the security police, again extort more $$ from the tour director claiming a 'new' fee has just been added) on the Belarus side, we cross the border into Lithuania, the largest and most densely populated of the Baltic States. Into Vilnius by noon to a nice new hotel in a good location. Lunch isn't included so I'm still hungry. During the included sightseeing tour of Vilnius in cold rain under very overcast skies, see (barely) the Gedimino Square with its towering Cathedral dating from 1784. No chance for pictures. Hope I don't get sick! It's the worst (weather) tour of the trip. Visit to the Jesuit University and see the incredible "Gates of Dawn". At least we finally get some food - a super BD in the hotel!! As for the hotel, watch out for the 'alligator' doors in the elevator. Faster than a snapping alligator! Snap! Gotcha! (EB,D) Holiday Inn

Day 13, Thursday, May 22 Vilnius
Excellent breakfast. We learn to 'stock the tummy' on these good mornings! This morning we visit the medieval Castle in Trakai. Neat place. This afternoon is at leisure so walk back (10 minutes) into the old town. Much better weather today and lots to see that we "saw" yesterday. There's a nice "Amber Museum" and I get some special red- and white-amber specimens. Again, a chance to meet internet friends - but there are problems - so no meeting. (EB) Holiday Inn

Afternoon: Optional tour: (Cancelled due to lack of interest. Darn! I had been looking forward to this one!) A History of Occupation: Visit the cells in the basement of the former KGB building where thousands of Lithuanians were interrogated before being deported to Sibera. Then onto the State Jewish Museum which documents the holocaust in Lithuania when 94% of the Jewish population fell victim. Continue out to Paneriai forest south west of Vilnius and view the Genocide Memorial where 100,000 people were executed by Nazi forces.

Optional Traditional Dinner and Local Entertainment: A Lighthearted evening of fun with music and dance in colorful traditional costumes. We enjoy a typical meal of regional specialties while being entertained in relaxed surroundings by Lithuanian performers. (yes) Great! Good food and lots of fun! We (audience) get to participate in the entertainment.

Comment: As it turns out, I like Lithuania and Vilnius best of the whole trip, except for old town Tallinn.

Day 14, Friday, May 23 Vilnius - Riga
Our first stop this morning is to visit the "Hill of Crosses" in Siauliai - a symbol of resistance against Soviet occupation. There are supposedly about 250,000 crosses of a wide variety of sizes here. I buy and place a small cross for a friend in England. It's also the place for our 'picnic' (bring our own) lunch. Then after an easy border crossing, into Latvia to view the summer palace of the Duke of Kurland in Rundale (outside only).

Money Woes: When the tour was going into Latvia, one of the members was looking through her purse for no longer needed money from other countries. She found two 1000 Ruble notes and thinking that they were Russian (=$70) wanted to change them into Latvian Lats (~$2.10=1 Lat) for about 35 Lats. When the clerk in the exchange only gave her a few coins, she was quite confused and upset. But after some comparison, it was determined that they had been Belarus "Rabbit" Rubles (2000R=$.95=0.45 Lats). No wonder she only got a few coins, particularly after the exchange fees!

We finish the day in the Latvian capital of Riga, our home for the next 2 nights. At least, that's what is in the brochure. It seems that the big "EuroVision" music contest is being held here this weekend and we get dumped out of our hotel and packed off to "Hotel Abominable" in a village about 60km outside of town. I've been in better 2-star hotels in Rome and London! The outside and the lobby look very nice … then we go upstairs to the rooms. NOT good. Much repairs and maintenance needed. Meals only somewhat decent. WAY below standard … and nothing to do… and we're stuck here for TWO NIGHTS!! We're definitely due a 'hardship' refund. The company brochure says if changes are made, they will provide equivalent, but this definitely isn't! (EB,D) Hotel Majori Aka "Hotel Abominable"

Day 15, Saturday, May 24 Riga
Our sightseeing tour of Riga visits the 13th- century Dom Cathedral with time to admire the medieval architecture of the Tris Brali. (EB) Hotel Abominable

Optional tour: Traditional Latvia: Leave the city of Riga behind and embark on a historical trip into Latvia's feudal past. First stop to have a nice lunch at an old village inn and sit down to a hearty meal of Latvian Cuisine while being introduced to some of the folk rituals (???-nothing done for this part) of the peasants. Then we visit the open-air ethnographical museum to see how the "peasants" actually lived. A fine collection of houses, churches, and local craftsmen ships dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. (yes - good)

After we get through here, it's back to Riga and 'old town' for an hour. Then, unfortunately back again to that (censored). Another hot, miserable night. No a/c and can't open the windows due to the pollen problem which is still with us, and even if we did, construction is going on outside the hotel until almost midnight.

Day 16, Sunday, May 25 Riga - Tallinn
Today we enjoy a scenic drive along the Gulf of Riga to the capital of Estonia, Tallinn (been here twice before and looking forward to a third time!) where we enjoy a sightseeing tour through the well preserved streets of the old Hanseatic quarter with its medieval walls and 15th century Luhike Jalq gate (I'm looking forward to seeing this for the third time!). St. Catherine's Passage is my favorite old-town street anywhere. We visit the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. No optionals here, unfortunately. (EB,D) Scandic Palace

Day 17, Monday, May 26 Tallinn - Helsinki
The morning is free (we don't check out of hotel until noon; bus to port for the ferry at 1:30) so plenty of time in the morning to walk back into old town (10 minutes away) for more exploration. No shopping for me, but this is my second favorite place on the trip.

Board our ship to cross the Baltic Sea to Helsinki. We luck out - scheduled on the "SuperCat 4", a mid-size twin-hull ferry almost as fast as the hydrofoil. Only 1:40 for the crossing. Yea! Tonight, enjoy a festive farewell dinner (which turns out one of the poorer meals of the trip)! (EB,D) Radisson SAS Plaza

Day 18, Tuesday, May 27 Helsinki - USA
We bid farewell to Finland (and pollen - I quit having too much pollen troubles as soon as I get inside the airport. I had expected to still be having major problems on the plane, but almost nothing!!!).

Latehansa 3029Helsinki - Frankfurt7:00 AM - 8:45 AM
Latehansa 440Frankfurt - Houston10:05 AM - 2:00 PM

Huge surprise! For the first time ever, Latehansa is on time. And although the breakfast onboard wasn't that great, the other two meals (2nd flight) were, for air meals, very good. And we get home on time! (NO SB, just flight meals). Home by 3:15. Time to get to the post office for my mail, and a quick stop at the grocery store for fresh food.

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge

1Latehansa LH 441Houston - Frankfurt3:45P - 8:45A10:001:35
2Latehansa LH 3060Frankfurt - Helsinki10:20 - 1:402:3014:05
3Latehansa LH 3029Helsinki - Frankfurt7:00 - 8:452:451:20
4Latehansa LH 440Frankfurt - Houston10:05 - 2:009:5514:00