From Russia With Love
August 27, 2005
We didn't get started this morning until after 11:00, so we had quite a bit of ground to make up! We started by exchanging Euros for Rubles in the exchange in the lobby and then we stopped to speak with the concierge about tours. Just before noon, we finally set out towards the Kremlin and Red Square. Most of Red Square was closed because Lenin's tomb was open for viewing from 10:00 until 1:00. We are going to try to get into the queue tomorrow morning to see that.
There were several "sellers" along the entrance to Alexander Gardens today - it was a bit like a small flea market with everything from books, newspapers and stamps to t-shirts, photographs and other miscellaneous souvenirs on offer. You could have your picture taken with a monkey or with a man dressed up as Tsar Nicholas (based on the exhibit we saw in the Scottish Museum, he was a dead ringer for the Tsar). We stopped to look at one particular item (which I don't want to name specifically as it is a gift) and were quoted 300 Rubles for it. We walked on and came back about 90 minutes later when the man was packing up for the day and we were quoted 250 Rubles for the same item, which I then bought!!
We walked through Alexander Gardens and stopped to take several pictures at the tomb of the unknown soldier. It is truly beautiful - this area of the garden is dedicated to the memory of all those who fell defending the city from Hitler's invasion in the Battle of Moscow in 1941. The tomb and gardens are also a favorite among newlyweds - as we saw today (the weather was gorgeous), the grounds make for lovely photo opportunities.
We reached the entrance gates to the Kremlin at the Trinity Tower. You must have a guide to enter the Kremlin, and although we were approached by an English speaking guide (perfectly legal), we decided to opt for an organized tour on Monday instead. The main reason for our decision was that the guide today offered a 75-minute tour that did not include the Armory Museum, which houses the treasury. The tour recommended by the concierge for Monday lasts 3 hours and includes the Armory collection of "gold, silver and jewelry, Faberge eggs, carriages and Czarist thrones."
So, having made that decision, we walked back the way we had come and entered Red Square, which was once again open. We continued on to St. Basil's Cathedral and the River Moskva. St. Basil's was originally called the Cathedral of the Virgin of the Intercession. It is probably the most recognized landmark in Moscow because of its multi-colored onion domes. It was raised by Ivan the Terrible in 1555-1561 and legend has it that Ivan put out the eyes of the architect for fear that he would build a more beautiful church elsewhere. A chapel was added in 1588 to house the remains of St. Basil the Blessed (the holy fool) whose name soon became synonymous with the cathedral.
We also passed the Savior Gate to the Kremlin (opens on to Red Square)- this is the entrance used by high-ranking government officials. In addition to the numerous (numerous, numerous, numerous - Mark thinks that every single person in Moscow under the age of 30 was married today!) wedding parties we saw in Red Square, we also encountered a group of bikers from St. Petersburg, Finland, the Netherlands and Germany. The combination of bikes and limos in the car park made quite a site!
We crossed on to Moskvoretsky Bridge and took about a million pictures (okay, maybe only 999,999) of the Kremlin, Red Square and St. Basil's from this vantage point. After our photo extravaganza, we decided it was time for lunch (even though it was almost 3:00 - that's what happens when you don't eat breakfast until after 10:00). We stopped at an outdoor restaurant near to the infamous Hotel Metropol and had a very nice meal. After we finished lunch, we walked through the Gum Market - although I saw lots of beautiful things, I didn't buy. We continued in a round about way back to the hotel where we are ensconced for the night. I know it doesn't sound like we are doing much, but all of this sight seeing does wear us down - I guess we just aren't as young as we used to be!!
August 28, 2005
We overslept this morning and decided to skip queuing for Lenin's tomb in favor of heading toward Izmailovsky Park, where there is a weekend market. On our way enroute to the Metro, we passed a government type building and I decided to take a few pictures. A member of the military approached me after the third snap and asked that I not take photographs. I complied, put my camera away and headed into the Metro.
Mark's version of the "incident":
Bonnie overslept this morning.....
Here is the dialog, as I remember it, involving Bonnie's "Photography of a Restricted Government Building"
"Look at that cute military guy guarding that building - I think I will take a couple of pictures."
Mark (The one who has read all the good spy novels):
"I don't think that is a good idea - do you see the size of his automatic weapon and the weapons of some of the other individuals in this area? I don't think people with automatic weapons like to be photographed and also, I believe that this particular government building which he is guarding is the infamous Lubyanka Prison which is legendary for the KGB's torture treatments of dissidents and "spies" that took place in the basement."
"Oh, I'm sure that all that silly KGB / spy stuff is over with - we're all friends now right??
Click, Click and Click
"Well, your "cute friend" at the entrance just radioed to his comrade behind us and pointed towards you....
Cute Military Guy With Automatic Weapon Whom Has Just Been Radioed By
His Comrade (Who also has Automatic Weapon):
"NYET, NYET PHOTOGRAPHO!!!!!!!!" While running towards Bonnie and waving his automatic weapon...I thought for sure he was going to throw her into the basement of the Lubyanka - and my next thought was how I am going to explain to her father how I let this happen?!
Bonnie complied, put away her camera and we scampered away into the Metro. For some reason, even though it was only ten o'clock in the morning, Bonnie immediately started searching for a glass of wine...
Continuing with the real story ... with quite a bit of pantomime, we managed to buy two round-trip tickets for the Metro and proceeded to use our English/Russian Metro map (which, incidentally, you need a magnifying glass to read) to determine our course. We boarded the correct train (we were so proud of ourselves), but managed to get off one stop beyond where we wanted to be (we weren't so proud of ourselves). We blundered around a bit and then found the right street to walk the distance back to the correct Metro stop. We enjoyed the 2-mile hike quite a bit as this area was (from what we could see) a typical middle-class Moscow suburb with a variety of small shops and businesses.
Unfortunately, when we arrived at the market after our roundabout journey on-foot, we didn't have much enthusiasm. Particularly, when we saw it was very much like the T-Bird Flea Market in Fort Lauderdale with new junk on sale - we thought it would be more like the markets we used to go to in Germany with old stuff. Live and learn! We got back on to the Metro without further problems and returned to Moscow center.
Today reinforced how odd it is to be in a city where you can not read a single word - we consider ourselves to be somewhat seasoned travelers and we pride ourselves on speaking at least a few words of numerous languages (I can order red wine in four languages - albeit with horrible pronunciation!), but neither of us has attempted even the first word of Russian. Here is a picture of a section of our room service menu in Russian. As you can see, it is totally incomprehensible to us all who use the roman alphabet - I mean how do you pronounce a 3 or the symbol pi!!!. It truly is intimidating. Maybe before the next trip, we will have time to pick up a few words, at least enough to be polite.
August 29, 2005
This morning, we went on a tour of the Kremlin. Mark and I aren't much into organized tours, but this one wasn't too bad with only 12 people. We started out in Red Square and walked through Alexander Gardens to the entrance at Trinity Tower built in 1495. We stopped to admire the enormous Tsar Cannon made in 1586, which was likely never fired in anger. We also stopped for a few moments at the Tsar Bell. Weighing in at 200 tons, it is the largest bell in the world. It was cast in 1733-1735, but unfortunately, before it was removed from its casting pit, a fire swept through the Kremlin and well-meaning firefighters doused the hot bell with water, causing a 11-ton chunk to break off.
Next, we entered Cathedral Square and made our way into the Cathedral of the Assumption. It was built between 1475-1479 and was used for the coronation of Russia's rulers. Floor to ceiling of every available surface is decorated with frescoes and icons. Next, we made our way past the Cathedral of the Annunciation. This was the Chapel Royal, used for the christenings and marriages of the Tsars. Ivan the Terrible was made to add a separate private entrance to the cathedral in 1572 after his fourth marriage, when he was barred from using the main entrance.
Finally, we toured the Armory, which would really be more aptly named the Treasury. It is a beautiful museum with wonderful displays of coronation robes, crowns and thrones of the tsars as well as gifts given to the church and state. Also on display were 10 of the 50 existing Faberge eggs that were made for the Tsar and his family every Easter, complete with a surprise inside!
After the tour, we returned to our hotel and sorted out train tickets for travel to St. Petersburg tomorrow. The Concierge was most helpful with this task. We ventured back out for an early dinner (around 4:00), and returned to the hotel once again in the early evening. Our timing was just about perfect, as we were in our room about 30 minutes when it started to pour down with rain (and me without my Eeyore umbrella, which as you may recall, is now being enjoyed by the niece of our taxi driver in Garmisch!).
August 30, 2005
Today is dedicated to the memory of my grandfather, Carl Wilson, on the occasion of his 85th birthday. I love you, Grandpa - I cherish every memory with you.
We checked out of our hotel around noon today, and then ventured on to the subway once again. We headed out toward the American Embassy, where we thought there was a micro-brewery with free wi-fi access. We never did find the brewery, but we did walk along a fairly lengthy pedestrian area with lots of shops and restaurants. We briefly stopped to look at a few Matryoshka dolls - it was so funny because immediately the proprietor came up to us and said American football - I have Gators and U of T! He meant that he had nested dolls painted like American football players. Go figure!
Also, talking about odd items in the middle of Moscow, we had CNN International on to find out about Katrina - Mark said "that was Robert Hartwig they just interviewed". He is an economist with the Insurance Institute, and was giving an interview about the estimated cost of the damage. I used to work with him at the NCCI in Boca Raton!!
Anyway, getting back to our day ... we left Moscow on the 18:30 train and had a fairly nice journey. There was a young man from St. Petersburg in our car, who had worked at a summer camp in Pennsylvania, so his English was excellent. He was especially helpful with respect to the menu and was very interesting to talk with. We arrived St. Petersburg just after 11:00 PM, and had a car and driver from the hotel to meet us.
We got checked in with a welcome glass of champagne - and, we were upgraded to a bi-level suite with a living room downstairs and the bedroom upstairs. Pretty nice!!
August 31, 2005
Today, we took a brief walking tour of the city, starting with St. Isaac's Cathedral, which is literally at our doorstep. The cathedral is one of the largest in the world, and although it is a museum today, it is occasionally opened for worship on high church holidays (such as Easter), when it can hold up to 14,000 people.
From St. Isaac's, we walked through Decembrists' Square, named after the uprising that took place here in December of 1825 in which rebel soldiers were unsuccessful in their attempt to overthrow the tsarist government. We continued toward the Neva River and walked along the embankment for a few blocks (it was sunny today, but there was a very cold wind blowing, particularly by the water) before turning toward Palace Square, the site of the famous storming of the Winter Palace in October of 1917. We walked through the courtyard of the Winter Palace, now the home of the Hermitage Museum, but decided to wait until Friday for a visit.
We then walked down the grand avenue of Nevskij Prospekt, with its multitude of shops and pectopah (Russian word for restaurants, and is actually pronounced as something like "restarah" thanks to the Cyrillic alphabet). There are many canals running through St. Petersburg and we followed one of these to the Church of the Resurrection of Christ. It looks quite a bit like St. Basil's in Moscow, doesn't it?
September 1, 2005 and September 2, 2005
First thing yesterday morning, we went to the nearby American Express office to get tickets to leave Russia on Saturday. We are on a Russian carrier to Paris, leaving St. Petersburg at 10:00 AM. Our Russian Visas expire on Saturday, so we looked at several alternatives before deciding on Paris - nothing like waiting until the last minute!!
Afterward, we made our way to the Hermitage Museum, which Mark had discovered had free admission on the first Thursday of each month, which happened to be today! Their collection of paintings by artists such as Manet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Rubens, Monet, Gauguin, Matisse, Renior, Picasso (you get the picture) is absolutely overwhelming (Jeremy - they even had a Seurat). There are also two small paintings by da Vinci and a sculpture by Michelangelo. The largest part of the museum is housed in the former Winter Palace of the tsars. It is fabulously grand - you get a real sense of how it must have been to live in such opulence. Some of the rooms have been maintained just as they were when the palace was used as a residence. The museum is just so huge that we were completely knackered after 3 1/2 hours, and had to surrender. We came back to the hotel and retired to the Terrace Bar on the 6th floor, sat back in exhaustion and enjoyed the fantastic view of St. Isaac's.
We skipped breakfast this morning in favor of lunch at one of two Irish pubs in St. Petersburg. Mark had the most enormous burger either of us have ever seen - it was at least 7" in diameter. The food was pretty good and relatively inexpensive. Sometimes, you just crave a simple meal!
After lunch, we walked along one of the canals to the shopping district along Nevskij Prospekt, where we shopped for a few souvenirs. We nipped into a nearby cafe for a refreshment - the cafe was really nice - completely and newly renovated. It is fairly obvious that the tourist areas (like Nevskij Prospekt) were first to be restored - other restoration efforts are quite prevalent around the city, but it takes a lot longer than 15 years to undo the damage caused by 80 years of neglect. And outside of the cities, life continues just as it did 50-60 years ago and it will likely be another 50 years before any progress is made in these outlying areas.
At the risk of everyone thinking that I am obsessed with describing the public toilets in Russia, I have one more story to add. Please bear in mind that, in addition to keeping our families updated on our travels, this journal serves as our personal record to preserve the memories (good and bad) of our adventure. So, if you want to skip this section, feel free to fast-forward to week 8. With that said, the public toilets around Palace Square are "housed" in two buses, one for men and one for women - talk about a mobile bathroom! The fee for use was the standard 10 rubles. The stalls were so small that you couldn't fully close the swinging doors on the stall - you just basically left them propped open to create a screen - actually, it was still very private. The toilet bowl itself is stainless steel with no seat. I couldn't figure out how to flush - another customer came in and helped me to turn the water on to rinse out the bowl (there is no flush, per se). She also very politely explained to me (in Russian, but I was able to understand from her hand motions) that as a typical Western foreigner, I had mistakenly deposited the paper in the bowl, when the proper procedure is to discard it in the wastebasket next to the toilet. I was very surprised to find that the same etiquette applies in the toilets in the Hermitage museum. Not to be indelicate, but the inability to flush can make for a rather visously unpleasant and maloderous experience, particularly in a place such as the Hermitage with thousands of visitors on a daily basis.