Our cruise was a part of a great Vantage trip. Unfortunately, I could not find the Tolstoy as an option, so I used another.
Kiev to Vilnius, August 12-September 5
On August 12 we departed for Kiev, Ukraine, arriving the next day, three flights later. Kiev was the first leg of our Vantage trip called Imperial Russian Waterways: Moscow & St. Petersburg. The four days in Kiev was an optional pre-Russia tour, as was our six day optional Baltic post-Russia tour.
A summary of our Kiev trip was described (slightly edited) by Vantage:
Visit St. Sophia Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and take a stroll down Andreevsky Street and a guided walk through Bessarabsky Market. This afternoon, you can join our optional Open Air Museum of Folk Life tour. Dinner is included tonight at a local restaurant with folkloric entertainment. Tour to the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Monastery and the Golden Treasury Museum. In the evening, join an optional home-hosted dinner.
When I booked the trip, I did not consider the Kiev extension to be as significant as Russia or the Baltics, but we loved Kiev. The Ukrainian people were great as well. It is ironic that the Russian state started in Kiev (now Ukraine is not part of the Russian Empire). Vikings from Scandinavia founded Kiev, which became their capitol in 882. Through contacts with the Byzantine Empire (many Vikings called Varengans fought as mercenaries for the Byzantines); eventually the Rus inherited the Orthodox religion and the Cyrillic alphabet.
Our hotel was right in the city center two blocks from St. Sophia. It was the Intercontinental and very nice.Our guide in Kiev was Natasha and she was excellent. The first day we had an introductory bus tour of Kiev then we visited the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Monastery that was originally founded as cave monastery in 1015. It is much more than that now, but it still has the caves. Those caves house bodies of monks today, but we did make a trip through the caves, largely in the dark! The Monastery has several churches of various ages. The churches were awesome, but the best part of this tour was the Golden Treasury Museum. The museum included gold art from Ukrainian civilizations going back 18 centuries. The Scythian gold was of particular interest. The gold pectoral decoration of the 4th century BC is the star of the collection. After the monastery, we had lunch at a local cafeteria across from the Bessarabsky Market. Lunch was in a place where Ukrainians eat, and we could see the prices were low. That may be why Vantage took us there. However, it was interesting to eat at a restaurant that was not focused on tourists. I had borscht (soup made with a beet base) that was a lot better than some awful borscht that I had years ago.
The Bessarabshy market was a large open air market for fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, etc. It was a colorful slice of Ukrainian bounty. We learned that Ukrainians prefer buying their food locally. They, as well as Russians and those in the Baltics are more focused on organic food rather than processed food from grocery stores like in the USA. The meals that we had throughout the trip include fantastic vegetables (great tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, etc.). Also, we discovered that all these countries use liberal amounts of dill in their cooking. It was good, but by the end of the trip, we were looking for food not laced in dill.
That night we opted for the Home-Hosted Ukrainian Dinner with Tamara and her granddaughter. This evening turned out to be one of the highlights of our whole trip. Tamara was an English teacher, from a family with good language ability. Tamara also spoke Spanish and visits Spain regularly. Her nice flat was in a building constructed during the Soviet Period (I will elaborate more on this later). We saw many of these buildings throughout all five countries, especially in Moscow, which is filled with dour boxy apartment buildings.
Tamara had bought her flat and it was decorated nicely, unlike the exterior of the building. We ate dinner (six of us from Vantage with Tamara and her granddaughter) in her living/dining room. The Soviet apartments were very small. The food was excellent. We ate Ukrainian and loved it. We had vodka and wine with the meal, but didn't get carried away with the vodka. The dinner conversation was even better. Tamara was friendly and opened up to us about her life in the Soviet Union, Chernobyl and the Soviet collapse and new Ukrainian nation. She told us about her father, who had great language skills, who was captured by the Germans and taken to Berlin during the war. Her father was young but in the Soviet Army. Because of his language skills the Germans took good care of him. After the war, he was not killed or sent to Siberia by Stalin as most of the Soviet POWs captured by the Germans. His language skills saved him.
Tamara told us a story about the KGB. She said they knew more about her family history than she did. She applied for a visa to go to Cuba (she spoke Spanish) and the KGB called her in for questioning. They accused her of lying on her visa application. Under the communists, you had to get a visa to leave the Soviet Union. The KGB had information on family members that had left for the West before the revolution. She did not know about this family history and she did not get the visa.
Her story about Chernobyl was compelling. The reactor disaster took place April 26th, 1986, a few days prior to the Mayday celebration in Kiev, which included a large parade, etc. The authorities were still covering up the Chernobyl event and went ahead with the outdoor activities, exposing people to radiation. Tamara's husband was in the home guard and called up for service, so she knew something was up, but the truth did not come out for over a week. She was attempting to take her son to the South, away from the radiation, but the authorities with Geiger counters found their hair and shoes to be radioactive. They were told to throw away their shoes and wash their hair. Also, they were not to walk on the grass. According the Tamara, the way Chernobyl was handles resulted in a total lack of respect and trust in the government.
Tamara and others, such as our guide Natasha explained that the collapse of the Soviet Union left the new government with nothing. They had to start from scratch. Further, several industries, especially those tied to the Soviet military and government just closed, leaving people with no jobs. After 20 years, Ukraine and Russia are coming back, but from a very low point.
Our evening with Tamara was so enjoyable, we overstayed until 11pm (supposed to leave at 9:30) causing the driver to delay getting home. I gave the driver a tip, as did others in our party.
The second full day, we were bussed out of the city to Pirogovo Open Air Museum.
Vantage described the Museum as follows:
"Located on the picturesque outskirts of Kiev near the Goloseyevsky Forest and the village of Pirogov, is this remarkable collection of open-air exhibits. You'll view more than 300 original examples of wooden architecture transported here from different regions of the Ukraine, including churches, windmills, village houses, and workshops. The buildings are filled with folk art, traditional household utensils, clothing, and tools from the 16th to the 20th centuries, used for such crafts as weaving, pottery, and barrel making."
The part of the museum that we visited was essentially a Ukrainian farm village (authentic buildings moved there from other parts of the country). All of us participated in making our own decorative Pysanka egg. We put wax on the outline (already on the egg), dipped the egg in colored water, then removed the wax. DW kept our eggs. Mine is not a work or art.
The next day we did a walking tour from our hotel to see Andrew's street (St. Andrews Cathedral looms overhead, but it was closed due to renovation). We say many street vendors, artists and such things. We ate a couple of meals in this area, since the restaurants were there and good. The walking tour explained that the gleaming St. Michael's Golden Domed Cathedral near our hotel (not St. Sophia) was rather new, since the Soviets had destroyed the original. I had read that Stalin destroyed over 95% of the churches in the Soviet Union. The others he converted to warehouses or other non-religious uses, with a rare few still holding services. We were told that anyone that attended church was blacklisted from all the good jobs. Their children could not join the Pioneers (commie boy and girl scouts).
St. Sophia survived Stalin and the Great Patriotic War (WWII), and it was full of seven hundred year old art, restored in recent years.
Our last day in Kiev was without any planned tours, so DW and I set out walking. We walked down Andrews street until we managed to find the Dnieper River. We found a small chapel on a small island in the river, a McDonalds (clean restrooms and cheap coffee-no senior coffee for 50 cents), a river boat terminal and more, then walked up the hill finding our way to Independence square. This is where the "Orange Revolution" took place during the winter of 04/05.
Viktor Yushchenko was elected as a result of the Orange Revolution (he was the opposition leader at the time). Ukrainians have very disappointed in his leadership. He clashed with his sometime ally Yulia Tymoshenko, who was Prime Minister under Yuschenko. She lost the last election to a pro-Russian named Viktor Yanukovych. Now Yanukovych is prosecuting Yuschenko for the gas contract she negotiated with Russia while she was Prime Minister. Ukrainians are shaking their heads over this shameful course of events.
They tell us that all the current leadership is corrupt and they have lost faith in them all. Tymoshenko still has a lot of supporters and many of them were protesting in Independence Square while were where there. There were only a handful of counter-demonstrators.
Our last night in Kiev included a farewell dinner in a Ukrainian restaurant, we had chicken Kiev. Wow, chicken kiev in Kiev! The dinner included a folk dancing and music. I was conscripted into dancing at the end.
Vantage provided all our meals on the river boat, as well as all breakfasts and some lunches and dinners. Most of the time, we had dinner provided our first night at a new location. We were on our own for a few meals each in Kiev, Moscow and St. Pete. I had researched on trip advisor and with guidebooks the restaurants close to our hotels. We generally did well with our own meals. Prices for meals were highest in Moscow, lowest in Kiev. We ate excellent pizza at Mia Piace restaurant about a block and a half from the Marriott. We had a great meal at a Czech restaurant, the Pilsner Urquell chain. The restaurant is about two blocks upTverskaya away from Red Square.
After breakfast, we were bussed to the airport and flew to Moscow. We had the Vantage Program Manager, Irene, with us, so all was well getting through immigration and bussed to our hotel in Moscow. The hotel was the Moscow Marriott on Tverskaya Street. Tverskaya runs right into Red Square. Our hotel was about a mile from Red Square. Vantage was the only tour company with Russian River cruises that offered hotels in Moscow and St. Pete. This was a great advantage to us instead of staying on the riverboat, since the traffic in both cities (especially Moscow) is awful.
We were able to use ATM machines in the hotels to buy Rubles (29 R to the $). The max purchase was normally 6000 Rubles.
Speaking of traffic, I must address that we saw wanton disrespect for parking laws. In Moscow, not so much in St. Pete, there seemed to be cars illegally parked everywhere on the sidewalks, streets (blocking lanes) or part on the street, part on the sidewalk. We were told that the Militia (Police) didn't ticket illegal parkers since Moscow is the seat of government and they don't want to ruin their careers by ticketing a high level official. Still, speeding is enforced, since there is an incentive for the Militia to grab them. One of our busses got a ticket on the way to the monastery because the tour guide on the bus stood up at the jump seat. The illegal parking makes traffic even worse. However, Russians love their now found car freedom. Almost no one had a car in the Soviet Union. There is still the center lane on the main highways for the big shots in government and members of their Congress. This is the lane that SovietApparatchiks used with their Zils.
Vantage describes the Russian part of the trip as follows:
"Witness Russia's enigmatic contrasts firsthand on this new and improved itinerary for 2012, the best Russia program in the travel marketplace. You'll stay in centrally located hotels in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with classic Russian landmarks just steps away. Unlike other tour operators, Vantage also includes a home-hosted visit in Uglich, and a meeting with local students in Yaroslavl. You'll sail for seven nights aboard the exclusively chartered MS Tolstoy, stopping in villages in the serene Russian countryside. Your wonderfully paced cruisetour culminates in dazzling St. Petersburg, where you'll stay at a centrally located First-Class hotel, and visit the renowned Hermitage Museum, housing the czars' amazing art collection. Don't miss this cultural tour de force that touches upon every facet of Russian life."
Back to traffic, Many Muscovites avoid it with a great Metro system. Stalin had it built with art in the stations, some extoling the virtues of Socialism. We did ride the Metro from Red Square to the Arbat a trendy area of Moscow. The two stations we saw had statues and marble, etc.
Our first day in Moscow did include Red Square, St. Basil's Cathedral, New Maiden's Convent, Gum Shopping store on the square. We drove by Cathedral of Christ the Savior (original destroyed by Stalin), now rebuilt new and dazzling. We saw the one monument to Peter the Great, a statue in the river. Peter was a sailor and the monument includes Peter and a ship and sails.
Going to Red Square was huge for me. It was awesome, but unfortunately the square was filled with set up stuff for a show that was planned in a few days. It didn't obstruct the Kremlin and St. Basil's, but still, you could not get the panorama like I wanted. We didn't try to see Lenin, since the wait was three hours. He's dead, why don't they bury him?
Our guide told us that Stalin killed 30 million people in the Soviet Union, while the **** invasion resulted in a loss of 27 million. After the war, there was a serious imbalance in the male-female population.
We did the optional tours that day to the Tretyakov art gallery (Russian art) and Moscow by night. The gallery was good and the night tour was great, since traffic was light and we took some great photos. Also, saw some things like the memorial to those that lost their lives in WWII. There was a fountain that gave off red colored water for a while that was compelling.
We probably should have skipped the art gallery, since I wanted to go back to Red Square to go inside St. Basil's, but we had paid for the tour in advance and could not get a refund. Vantage should have provided us a schedule up front. Still, Vantage did a great job with this entire tour.
The second day in Moscow, we took an optional tour to the Sergiev Posad Monastery about 45 miles NE of Moscow. The monastery is the heart of Russian Orthodox Church and important historical place in Russian history. The tour was great.
Here is Vantage's description of the tour:
"St. Sergius Monastery or Laura is one of a few Russia's most important monasteries to which even the Tsars thought it honorable to make a pilgrimage on foot. The monastery territory has turned into a real museum of architecture. The picturesque complex of buildings of Trinity, which has organically blended with the lovely surrounding scenery, has been shaped in the course of several centuries. Within its walls there lived and worked medieval writers and philosophers, icon painters, carvers and jewelers. It was a major cultural center of Old Russia and the monasterical sacristy has accumulated priceless works of art donated by Moscow Grand Princes, Tsars and Boyars. Over the years of its existence, the museum has enriched the art collection by more than ten times. The ancient collection is logically supplemented with the collections of Russian folk and contemporary art. Now one of tourist attractions here is the market remarkable for wide choice of souvenirs made by local craftsmen, especially pieces of woodwork decorated in a variety of techniques. Lunch is included."
The monastery was founded in1345. Peter the Great found refuge there from his enemies. It has been described as the most important monastery in Russia. There were several churches with more ancient and stunning art.
Riding in from the SHO airport north of Moscow and riding the bus back and forth to the monastery, our guides pointed out key buildings and housing for Muscovites. There were a few new luxury buildings for Russia's many new millionaires. However, most of the housing that we saw was Soviet ugly. Our guides pointed out Stalin era apartments, which appeared a little more solid that the late ones, but according to our guides, these apartments are very small. The Stalin apartments built in the 30s were designed for collective living, with several families living the same apartment. It was common for 50 persons to share one toilet and one small kitchen. I had read in Orlando Figes book "The Whisperers" that the Soviets originally set out to destroy the family with communal living. Stalin later abandoned this, but many people were housed in these collective apartments.
Khrushchev, the Soviet leader that denounced Stalin's brutality had a goal to provide people with individual flats with a small kitchen, living area and bedroom. Some larger families got two bedrooms. However, we were told that once assigned to a flat, if your family increased, it was very hard to upgrade.
Our guides pointed out the many Khrushchev apartments. We saw them all over the former Soviet Union, but the most in Moscow. They were boxy prefabricated looking and ugly, but they did provide housing that the people were overjoyed to receive. Single family homes are still rare in Russia, but some of the new rich building them.
Another story told to us by our guides (all of them) is about dachas in the woods. Russians love their woods and 70 % of them have summer dachas. The rich have dacha palaces. Apparently, under Khrushchev, when Soviet agriculture was failing miserably and the Soviet Union was importing grain from Canada and the USA, that leader had a plan. Everyone was provided with a small piece of land (I believe it was something like 30-40 meters in size). With this land people were required to grow crops of some kind, like vegetables, etc. I remember reading about this in the 60s, and that these individual plots were productive and constituted 40% of agriculture in the Soviet Union. Wow, love that private property. The Soviet state still owned the property, but after 91, the Russian state allowed the people to buy their land for a nominal sum. These individual plots allowed people to build dachas. Most were wooden structures and small, but people expanded on them and more these days have electricity and toilets with septic tanks. Russians love to go out to their dachas on the weekend.
Mushroom picking is a favorite pastime and all the guides explained that you just know which mushrooms are edible. One funny joke was that all mushrooms are edible, but some you only eat once.
Our final day in Moscow took us to the Kremlin. We queued up with many others entering the Kremlin and our guide took us to see the Armory Chamber, the Assumption, Archangel's and Annunciation Cathedrals, the Church of Laying Our Lady's Holy Robe, the Patriarch's Palace and the Twelve Apostles' Church, the Ivan the Great Bell-Tower complex and the collection of artillery arms and bells. We saw were many of the Czars were buried, as well as the largest bell in the world that never worked because it was too big. This makes me think that the bell could have been a symbol of communism; it was too big to work.
The Armoury museum was special. There were exhibits after exhibit of important Russian items, as well as several Faberge eggs. There was one honoring the Trans-Siberian railroad that was awesome.
After our tour of the Kremlin, were left Moscow for the river port, north of the city, where we boarded the river boat MS Tolstoy. The Tolstoy was once the pride of the river fleet, but newer ships with larger cabins have taken over top spot. Still, we found the Tolstoy to be pleasant; however our cabin was very small. I think it had 110 square feet. We adjusted and enjoyed the river cruise. The river cruise was taken on the Moscow-Volga canal that eventually interconnected with lakes in the North and into the Neva River to St. Pete. Our guides told us that over a million people died building the canal for Stalin. Labor camps filled with political prisoners (mostly middle class people) were deadly for most in these cold regions of Russia. Of course, we learned that Peter the Great used forced labor to build St. Petersburg, however his death toll was in the thousands. Still, past Russia's leaders have not been timid about how they use the labor of their people.
The food on our whole trip was good. The Tolstoy's food was a pleasant surprise. Everyone seemed pleased with the food. Of course, on a riverboat, breakfast is a buffet, which was excellent. Eggs, bacon, sausage, blinys, cereals, fruits, yogurts, rolls, muffins, croissants, pastries and breads provided plenty of choice. They had oatmeal and called it porridge. Unfortunately, sometimes it was not hot enough for me. Lunch and dinner offered a choice of entrees, usually three. Sometimes lunch would include a sandwich. Dinner would offer a choice of pasta, fish, chicken, pork or occasionally beef. I found the food to be good, but the one time I had beef (Beef Stroganoff), it was not memorable. The fish was generally good and not overcooked. We always had soup and/or an appetizer and later a dessert. The presentation of the food was quite good. Tolstoy had two special events: 1) bliny and vodka tasting (both were good), and 2) a Russian tea special (after a presentation on Russian tea). We had meat pies with our tea that was good. What I liked about the food was that it was Russian and we came to learn about Russia, food included.
On a sensitive subject, quite a few people on our boat (155 tourists) came down with what DW called "the trots." DW came down as well and after going to the bland diet it cleared, but after she started eating normal again, it came back. After we left the boat, she got better. Of course the ship's doctor provided pills, as well as other travellers. We were provided with bottled water, but our bodies were probably not used to the local diet. I have read that many travellers from North America have this problem in Russia, so if you go there take some Imodium. Montezuma has cousins in Russia.
The river cruise included stops every day for six days in the six cities: Uglich, Yaroslavl, Goritsy, Kizhi Island, Mandrogi, ending in St. Petersburg. We stayed one night on the boat in St. Pete before we transferred to our hotel. I had purchased the book "RUSSIA BY RIVER" prior to our trip, so I was able to follow our trip on the river/canal.
I won't try to summarize Russian history here, but we learned a lot of their history. I had read "The Russian Chronicles" prior to our trip as well as other books in the past. Russia had basically two Czarist dynasties, theRurik and the Romanovs. Czar means Caesar in Russian. Russia felt it was the successor to the Byzantine Empire, which fell to the Turks in 1453, so Czar was adopted. Russia held itself to be the "Third Rome."
We had heard the incredible story of the "False Dmitris" before we arrived at Uglich, but we heard it in detail when we visited the church in Uglich were Dmitri, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible was murdered. Apparently, Boris Godunov, we engineered his way to become Czar probably had the real Dmitri murdered. Officially it was reported that Dmitri committed suicide during an epileptic fit. The report found:
According to the original investigation, Dmitri was playing a game of darts with throwing knives when he suddenly went into an epileptic seizure (which he was apparently prone to do), and, as poor luck would have it, the eight year old boy stabbed himself in the neck with his own knife.
Almost no one believes that Dmitri did himself in this way, but the story really gets interesting. The false Dmitris were imposters to the throne. The first of which False Dmitri I was able to take the throne based on the identification of the real Dmitri's mother. Apparently, the mother was sent to a convent by Boris Godunov, so she had an incentive to kick Godunov out of Czardom. What is fascinating is that she also identified a second False Dmitri after the demise of False Dmitri I. Any way, we saw the church in which the real Dmitri was murdered. It is called Church of St. Dmitri on the Blood. Later, we had another home hosted meal with a local Russian lady that spoke no English. About 10 of us had another great meal with her, as her home in Uglich. The food was heavy on vegetables and included an excellent soup. She had a nice garden next to the house. Despite the lack of a common language, the dinner was a charm and it included vodka.
There was still a statue of Lenin in Uglich, as we saw in another small Russian city. Many were pulled down after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but not in Uglich.
A larger city than any other on our river cruise, Yaroslavl was named after Yarslav that slayed a bear with his ax that the local pagans sicked on him. This subdued the city, and its people converted to Christianity. The bear is included in the symbol of the city. We saw the impressive Transfiguration of the Saviour Cathedral of the Spassky Monastery constructed in 1506-,1516. Also saw the church of Eliah the Prophet. By the way, we did see a lot of churches, monasteries and cathedrals in Russia, but they are such an integral part of Russian history, I did not tire of this endeavor.
Somewhere along the canal, we went through some locks, which were interesting. One sight along the river was the top of a church steeple sticking out of the canal. The church had been mostly flooded by the creation of the lake through a hydro-electric dam.
After our tour of Yaroslavl, we participated in a table discussion with four University students. It was interesting to talk with them. They all are on Facebook and planned to be teachers. They all spoke excellent English. We learned that teacher's pay is very low and primarily women are drawn to the profession. In response to my question, one of the young students stated that there was little sympathy for communism in Russia. Some of the old people still many hold such sympathies, but especially not the young.
Yaroslavl was where hand painted boxes is best purchased in Russia. They were beautiful, but very expensive. A small one costs $100.
The St. Cyril monastery dates back to 1397 and was impressive with its large white walls. A Nunnery was also close by. We were provided with a singing presentation from a small group that offered a CD after the event. The singing was good, but not something you would want to play on your CD player at home.
This stop was the farthest north of our whole trip. We were in the north country of Russia and Finland was close.
Kizhi was a kind of open-air museum. The most famous of them is the Kizhi Pogost, which contains two churches and a bell-tower surrounded by a fence. The site was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. A large number of historical buildings were moved to the island. They include Church of the Resurrection of Lazarus from Murom Monastery, which is regarded as the oldest remaining wooden church in Russia (14 century). There are several bell-towers, peasant houses, mills, barns and saunas. I found a WC and discovered that it was an outhouse.
Kizhi was special in that it was a piece of old rural north Russia, with its unique wooden structures.
This stop was probably the least important on our river/canal trip. The island included mainly dachas for wealth people from St. Pete. President Putin has vacationed there. A lot of Russian tourists were there.
St. Petersburg proved to be the icing on the cake of our Russia travels. It is truly an elegant city compared to Moscow. It felt more European than where we had been before. We stayed on the boat the first night, so we had to be bussed into the city for a city tour that included the Peter and Paul Fortress (where the city was founded) and a general city tour. We saw St. Isaacs Cathedral and the Church of Spilled Blood from the outside. Later we were able to visit the Church of Spilled Blood (the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated) and see its fantastic mosaics. We did not make it to St. Isaacs or the Yusupov Palace. There was just so much to see in the city, we did not have time. The Cathedral at the Peter and Paul Fortress was impressive. You can see the spire from far away. The Czars from Peter the Great through Nicholas II are buried there. The inside of the Cathedral is stunning.
Our hotel in St. Pete was the Radisson, located on Nevsky Prospect, the main street of the city. We were about a mile from the main square. Many restaurants were close to the city. We had a good meal at Villa Aston near the hotel and another good meal at a Georgian restaurant about a half mile toward the city center called Kavkaz Bar.
One thing about St. Petersburg, tour groups abound. We saw cruise ship tours nearly everywhere we visited. Amazing how they run people through all these Palaces and Cathedrals. Our group usually was able to enter earlier than when the places opened. At Catherine's Palace, Peterhof and the Hermitage, our tour started before the general public was allowed entrance. Still, we had to contend with competing tour groups. Sometimes this led to our going through some places a bit too fast, especially at the Hermitage.
Not sure, but I believe we had the folklore show the first day in the city. Vantage describes the show:
"The North-West region of Russia is considered to be a "non-conventional" place for Cossacks. Yet a long time before the City of Peter was founded, in the 15th century, the Cossacks had been on guard in Ivangorod, the North-West border of Russia. During the times of rein of Ivan the Terrible Cossacks were protecting more than ten military reservations. In St. Petersburg from the day of its founding Cossacks were on duty of personal guard of the Emperor. In 1769 there were formed three Life-Guard regiments: Regiment of The Life-Guard of His Majesty, Regiment of The Life-Guard of His Highness, Integrated Regiment of Escort of His Majesty. The memory of them is kept in the names of streets and bridges, historical quarters where they stayed and military churches. In St. Petersburg from the date it was founded lived, worked, studied, taught and performed representatives of all kinds of Cossack forces. Many generations of Cossacks made significant contributions into art, culture and science of our city. Young and talented Cossack Ensemble "Bagatitsa" set up in 2005 in St. Petersburg carefully keeps and successfully presents centuries-old traditions of the great nation. Exciting Cossack songs and dances, the energy and humor, amazing Cossack costumes, high quality of performance bring joy to every person in the audience. This is proved by extreme popularity of Cossack shows in Russia and abroad. We are sure; there is no other Show like this in the world!"
The show was put on by "The Russian Army Chorus," formerly known as "The Red Army Chorus." The show included uniformed singers that were fantastic (wow, could they project their voices), musicians with traditional instruments like the balalaika. The male and female dancers were fantastic. Amazing how they kept up the tempo of the dancing for so long.
The next day we filled up our bus with our luggage (we were in Yellow group, which included most of the people going on later to the Baltic excursion). We were off to visit Catherine's Palace, with its fantastic Amber Room that was recreated, as was much of the palace that was damaged by the Germans in WWII. Some of the palace has still not been renovated (Catherine the Great's private quarters) due to the severe damage and cost of reconstruction. The part of the palace (most of it) that we saw was artfully renovated and awesome. This palace is a must see for anyone coming to St. Pete. The palace was originally Catherine I's, who was Peter the Great's widow. Eventually Catherine II, "the great" took it over as well. The Germans pilfered the original Amber Room and it has never been found, but the replica is stunning. Amber is made in to jewelry and comes from petrified tree sap from centuries back.
After a lunch there locally, we then visited Pavlovsk, another palace with a different style. It was a smaller palace where Paul I and his wife lived. It had a Greek and Roman theme, which we were told offended many in Russia, particularly the Russian Orthodox Church. The palace was too Western.
Pavlosk, as Catherine's palace was severely damaged in WWII, since it was occupied by the Germans. Most of the contents were saved by the curator (as opposed to Catherine's Palace), who removed them prior to the German advance.
The next day was a full day. We had a wonderful tour of the Hermitage, later a Rivers and Canals tour, then finally the Swan Lake ballet at the Mikhailovsky Theater (by the successor to the Kirov Ballet).
Our tour of the Hermitage was terrific, but too short. I suggest that the tours be extend by an hour in the future. As usual, our guide was excellent, but we literally whizzed through the Impressionist. We did spend a fair amount of time with the many Rembrandts, maneuvering cruise ship tour groups to see the really important paintings. I did linger behind to see the Van Gogh's and Monet's, my favorite impressionists. I am not a Gauguin fan. Apparently, the museum acquired the paintings after the communists took over (confiscated from wealthy Russian families). We also saw one statue by Michelangelo and a couple of Da Vinci's.
The Rivers and Canals tour was good, since we were able to see some buildings that we might not otherwise see, as well as see some things, like the cruiser Aurora up close. The Aurora was the cruiser taken over by the Bolsheviks in the revolution against the Provisional Government. The cruiser played a huge role in that government's demise, by firing one cannon shot (a blank), that intimidated them into surrender.
Swan Lake was great. The ballerinas were amazing how they glided across the stage on their toes. I had a seat on the back row of the first level with an AC duct above me that didn't allow me to sit up completely straight, but the performance was so awesome, it didn't seem to matter. The scenery on stage was fantastic. Best Swan Lake that I have seen.
The next day we toured Peterhof. Peterhof was Peter the Great's palace. The palace itself was awesome, but not as impressive as Catherine's. However, the gardens and fountains were special. Peter designed the fountains himself by tapping into a spring for water. No pumps or modern devices are required even today; the same system is still essentially functioning. The main fountains right behind the palace was like nothing I have seen, and the grounds had smaller fountains of different designs.
One guide pointed out the former KGB headquarters in St. Pete were Putin once worked. She said they had a saying that the building was the tallest in the city, since you could see all the way to Siberia.
In the afternoon, we returned to St. Pete and made our way to the Church of Spilled Blood, where we entered and took several photos of the interior. We were a bit exhausted, since I was starting to catch a cold and DW just had suffered as described earlier.
The next day, we started our Baltic bus 6 day excursion, driving to Tallinn, Estonia. About 40 miles from the Estonia border, the Russian roads became very poor, the bus having to slow down. Once at the border, our bus lined up for immigration at the Russian side. The bus in front of us was required to empty all the luggage for spot checks. I cannot imagine why the border guards were inspecting luggage for people leaving Russia. Our guide said it was a holdover from "the old regime" (Soviets).
Vantage describes our Baltic excursion:
Enhance your explorations with this fascinating extension that takes you to three beautiful and historic cities along the Baltic Sea. You'll begin with a full-day transfer from St. Petersburg to Tallinn, with a stop in Navra for an included lunch. Then enjoy a city tour of Tallinn, Estonia's capital, whose medieval "Old Town" is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You'll continue on to Riga, Latvia's grand capital. You'll visit the city's opulent 19th-century Opera House, walk through the Riga Market, and the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For your final Baltic capital, you'll visit Vilnius, Lithuania, stopping at the Holocaust Memorial at Kaunas. You'll also admire the Baroque architecture of Vilnius on a walking tour, plus, enjoy an optional excursion to the town of Trakai, with a visit to its medieval castle.
Estonia was the country that appeared to have improved the most from the Soviet collapse. Modern buildings abounded and we saw few derelict or depressing looking buildings. The people seemed prosperous, although we understand the unemployment is high since the financial crisis hit the Baltic States hard. Estonia is on the Euro. Many Finns and other Scandinavians love to vacation there, since it is cheaper than their country and only a short ferry ride from Finland.
Tallinn had a couple of big cruise ships in port, but we were largely outside on our city tour, which included a lot of walking. Tallinn still has its medieval walls and is almost like a large version of Rothenberg on the Tauber in Germany. My cold was in full swing, but I continued with the tours, since I did not want to miss anything. Our hotel was the Radisson, as it was in St. Petersburg. We had a great view out of our hotel room to see the city. Also, there was bar/restaurant on the top floor with a great observation platform.
On our way to Riga, Latvia, we drove through an Estonian city close to the border that was a favorite place for vacationers. Our PM from Russia had vacationed there when she was young.
Riga is the largest city in the Baltics at about 800,000. It was an elegant city with many Art Nouveau homes. Also, its medial character was evident, despite the fact that its walls no longer were evident. Our hotel was the Radisson and we had a wonderful view from our hotel room of the city, across the river. We saw one interesting house across from the old guild house were a tradesman that had acquired wealth had built his home and had two cats with their butts facing the guild hall. Apparently, he was not yet admitted into the guild. Eventually, he was and the cats were turned around.
We saw a museum in Riga on the occupation of the NAZIs and Soviets. We saw another similar museum in Lithuania. The balts were ripped apart by both sides. The Soviets came in and occupied the countries after the NAZI-Soviet Non-aggression pact. Then the NAZIs entered and promptly killed or shipped to concentration camps any Jews, Gypsies or people associated with the Communists. Then the Soviets came back at the end of the war and did what they did well, murder and sent others to labor camps in Siberia. Then the Soviets moved in Russians to fill the gap in the population depletion. There is still a significant Russian speaking population in Estonia and Latvia, 25% and 40% respectively. To be a citizen you have to speak the local language, which is especially tough in Estonia, which has a very hard language to learn.
Lithuania was our final country, last but not least. We discovered that one-third of all Lithuanians left the country during or after the war. Also, the resistance to the Soviets continued until 1956. All the Baltic countries appeared to be normal European countries, just still showing a bit of the old Soviet past with their infrastructure. The roads in Estonia and Latvia were new, but we encountered a lot of road construction on our way to Kaunas and Vilnius. Still, there were some new interstate type highways. Before Kaunas, we stopped at "The Field of Crosses" which was out in the country and had literally thousands of thousands crosses. Apparently, it started when a Lithuanian prayed for God to help heal is Daughter, which is Daughter recovered, so he put a cross in the field. Others followed and now there are thousands. Lithuania is Catholic, while Estonia and Latvia are Lutheran.
Kaunas held the Holocaust Memorial, which was in an old Czarist fort from WWI. It covered the **** and Soviet murders. All this was a sobering experience. Needless to say, it is easy to understand by the people in these countries are ecstatic over their freedom. Our guides kept telling us about freedom over and over. I think these countries are on the upswing, much faster than Russia and Ukraine.
Vilnius was another wonderful city filled with beautiful buildings, churches and people happy to be free. We saw many more people out with children here than anywhere else we had visited. We rarely saw children in Moscow, and only a few in St. Pete. Our last tour was of the Trakai castle, which was an old castle dating back to when Lithuanians were pagan. Lithuania was the last European country to convert to Christianity.
After a long flight home via Chicago, O'Hare airport (not a good airport to go through) we arrived home. I still had my cold and after a couple of days went to my doctor, since the cold just wouldn't go away. I am now on anti-biotics and hope to get well enough to get back on my bike soon.