About Me

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I'm a 30 something who loves to travel.  I have a full time job and enjoy writing (or blogging) about my travels.  I've traveled through several countries in Europe as well as Russia and Egypt.  I also enjoy domestic travel in the United States, including Disney.  My long term travel goal is to do a round the world trip.  

Friday, April 30, 2010

Novgorod to Moscow

Day 23: Novgorod to Moscow: Past Klin where Tchaikovsky lived, then a short drive to Moscow where we enjoy a first glance at the city sights, including Red Square. (Breakfast and Dinner included)

Hotel: Hotel Izamailovo Beta Block
Breakfast: 7:00 Bags to the bus/depart: 7:30

I'll start with a brief history of Communism in Russia...
Although Moscow's history is much more diverse then simply Communism, the remains of Communism are much more prevalent then they were in St. Petersburg. Moscow is first mentioned in historical chronicles in 1147, it's been burned down several times and been at the center of many battles. But I think the more modern history of Moscow is more interesting so I'll stick to that.

After the Bolsheviks took power they moved the Capital back to Moscow, in fear that the Germans would try to take St. Petersburg if it were the Capital. In an effort to maintain power the Bolsheviks and Lenin imprisoned and killed opponents, the same as had been going on in Tsarist Russia, just at a higher level then the Tsars. Several attempts were made on Lenin's life, resulting in Red Terror - tens of thousands were executed or put into labor camps. Meanwhile the continuing civil war caused widespread famine and death in Russia. Both the red army, led by Trotsky, and the white army (Tsarist with the support of the US, British, French and Japanese) ravished the countryside of Russia. Lenin and some Bolsheviks broke off from the Socialists and started the Russian Communist Party. After the war, Lenin tried to rebuild industry and agriculture in Russia, as well as fighting Anti-Semitism. In January of 1924 Lenin died, but not before criticizing Stalin and saying he is too harsh and should be removed from his post.

After Lenin's death there was a struggle for power between Stalin and Trotsky, eventually Stalin took power, the party chose him because they thought he was the lesser of two evils. Trotsky and his supporters were exiled; eventually, Trotsky would be assassinated by Stalin. Stalin went on to ban the Russian Orthodox Church, and executed the Priests. His vision for Russia was to take the peasant society and make it an industrial world power, which he did. He took away the farms and property of 4/5ths of the population in order to achieve his goal - if they refused - Stalin sent the secret police in. Those in violation were sent to Gulag Camps, by the 1930's there were 10 Million people in forced labor. Stalin ordered the deaths of 90% of the 17th Congress, because he did not trust them. Paranoia and hysteria reigned supreme - 1 and a half million people were killed within a 2 year period in Stalin's effort to eliminate dissenters - this was known as the Great Terror. Those who were sent to Gulag Camps didn't fair any better, they did back breaking work and the death rate was close to 100% in some of these camps. Throughout all of this Stalin was revered as the father of Russia and loved by all, YEA for propaganda.

In 1939 Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. This made Hitler's attack on Russia even more successful, Stalin didn't expect it and dropped the ball on the response. In World War II over 8 and a half million Russian soldiers and 20 million civilians were killed in the war. At the Yalta Conference Stalin demanded control of conquered German areas in the East, the Allies agreed.

After the bombing on Hiroshima, Stalin studied the effects of the Atomic Bomb: Hitler's invasion of Russia was 4 times worse - Russia would be able to survive an initial strike by the US - a little scary if you ask me. In March of 1953 Stalin suffered a stroke and died 3 days later. I have heard that they knew what was going on (stroke) when he was dying, but refused to help him, waiting for him to die.

Nikita Kruschev took over power after Stalin and started the De-Stalinization of Russia, which allowed more liberalism in Russia and the Eastern Bloc. The Russian economy grew faster then many Western economies. But he also encouraged the building of the Berlin Wall and persecuted the Russian Orthodox Church. He deployed missiles to Cuba, causing the Cuban Missile Crisis. After that Kruschev was ousted.

Leonid Brezhnev took power in 1964. I like to think of him as the leader of Russia when the Soviet Hockey Team lost to the USA Hockey Team in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. But he did other things, like sending his military into Afghanistan. It is also believed that he ordered the failed assassination of Pope John Paul the II in 1981.

In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of Russia. Under his leadership the economy failed and there were severe shortages of food. Gorbachev worked with Ronald Reagan (who promised to win the arms race) to bring an end to the Cold War. He relaxed control over the Soviet Caucuses and eventually brought an end to Communism in Russia, along with allowing the unification of Germany. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
And so it was time to drive to Moscow...

We left a few minutes late this morning because Tony had accidentally taken a towel from his room and the hotel wanted it back. Our first stop this morning at 10:30 was interesting... It's almost like a rest stop, well more like a gas station with a shop inside and a restaurant next door. They had animals in cages (like a bear and a fox in a cage, along with other animals), it was a bit weird as they obviously were sedated, either that or they have all lost their will to live. I used a really crappy bathroom, but it was better then the free one. Maggy said the free bathroom was the dodgiest bathroom she had ever seen in her life, and she has been to Egypt so it's saying something. (That was what I had originally written and in all my life this was the second worst bathroom, the worst was in Belarus. The bathrooms in Egypt weren't that bad.)

After that stop we played a game with a matryoska doll of Russian leaders that Maggy had and then she gave us some more history on Russia. At 2:30 we had a stop at McDonalds, I tried to order my cheeseburger with only ketchup (I was afraid of what else they might put on it), I thought we sorted it out, but I ended up with extra ketchup and everything else (mustard, pickle, and onion). It could have been worse; I think, they originally thought I didn't want any ketchup. After lunch we drove to Tchaikovsky's House, on the way we passed a public bus that was missing a tire, it was just riding on the wheel, and no one seem fazed.

We arrived in Moscow at 6:15, picked up Galina, our Moscow guide, and Maggy gave our passports to someone else to go get our Belarus Visas. Galina talked to us a bit about Moscow and Russia on the way to Red Square for our group photo. On the way over to Red Square I saw a kid walking around with a stuffed mouse, what? Who would want a stuffed mouse? And no, it wasn't Mickey. Don't kids want giraffes like me? So we walked into Red Square where the Red Army has marched countless times. We were quickly lined up for our picture, we took a couple and of course I was squinting in the one they picked, owell, but St. Basil's is in the background. In Red Square they were cleaning up from the concert the night before, the one that Tania and I had watched on TV, I guess it was live.

After our photo Galina took us on a city tour, she showed us the KGB and a bunch of other stuff, I think my brain was getting overloaded at this point. She explained to us about the double headed eagle that Russia uses. I explained before that it came from the Byzantine Empire, and was taken by Tsarist Russia. Under the Tsars the two heads represented the church and the Royal Family working together. When communism fell they needed a symbol, so they took the double headed eagle again, now it represents the government and something else, but the running joke is that the other thing is the mafia.

When we got back to the hotel the girl who had taken our passports wasn't back yet, she was stuck in traffic, and so the hotel would not let us check in. Around now the trip was getting to me, I was tired and it had been a long day, I even commented to Kate that I was ready to kill someone, no one in particular, just that I was on the edge. I had been one of the last to get into the hotel and I heard Maggy announce that we couldn't get our rooms yet and that we were going to leave our bags in the lobby (with someone watching them) and the rest of us would eat. Everyone was bunched up in the middle so I was waiting till they cleared out to put my bag in the middle with the others. Renae asked if I was going to dinner, I said I was just waiting for everyone to move (I think I sounded a bit short with her). Right after Fraser came over and told me I had to put my bag in the middle... Well I lost it... I yelled something about how I could see what was going on, Fraser tried to explain himself, but I just yelled at him more. I hear he mumbled something about me being a bitch, he's not the first, wont be the last even though I really am a nice girl. Once I put my bag down I went up to dinner with the few people who were around to witness my outburst.

After dinner several people went to do internet in one of the other buildings in the complex, our hotel is part of a multiple building complex that was used for the 1980 Moscow Olympics (the ones the US didn't attend) so the hotel was nice, though the rooms were out of date, but the elevators rocked! While waiting I waited on line at the reception desk to find out about the internet in our lobby, eventually I found out they were only open 9am to 7pm - when we would be out of the hotel, naturally. Anyway the girl with the passports got to the hotel at 9:15 and I was in my room by 10:00. I did a little laundry in the room, since Moscow is the only city in Russia with "safe" water (I still only used bottled water for drinking and brushing teeth). When Tania got in she wanted to go use the internet so I went with her and spent 50 minutes updating everyone as to what I was up to. I had planned on doing something with Kate and Andrew, but I felt bad that the family hadn't heard from me in a while. I finally got to bed at 12:45.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cherry Blossoms

Part 3 of my trip to Washington DC.


I was lucky enough that my trip to Washington DC was during Cherry Blossom festival. For years I had heard about these mythical Cherry Blossoms, but had never seen them, but I was intrigued. About 2 weeks before my trip I found out that I would be there for the Cherry Blossoms. Tried as I might, I didn't find out too much about them, none of the sites I looked at even talked about where to go see them. In retrospect, it seems obvious to those in Washington, but when all you know about them is that they are trees, you need a little more detail. For those with inquiring minds, they are around the Mall and the Potomac River.
Luckily I was there with my friend who knew slightly more then that they were trees. But we quickly learned a lesson. Driving is NOT a good way to see them. We were in the area around the Mall at rush hour - BAD, it was also during a school break so there were tons of tourists around in addition to the regular people. Being in a car gave us mobility, but also made it hard to stop and take pictures, a real problem when the sun starts going down. Low light and movement don't go well together. Also, my friend didn't have the best knowledge of getting around the area of the Potomac. Eventually we were able to stop, I got out and took some pictures - it was fairly dark by now and I didn't really know how to use my camera that well and I didn't have a tripod. I got to learn how to straighten pictures when I got home. But the cherry blossoms are pretty.

The following day I was on foot (with a very heavy backpack) and had some time to kill so I decided to go back. It was a gorgeous day - 80 degrees and sunny. The mall and the area around the Potomac was packed. I found a band on the Cherry Blossom festival stage. Well the Potomac with the Cherry Blossoms is really pretty and a great setting for photos, you'll be seeing many of them in the coming photo's of the week.

I didn't get to fully experience the festival, I just got a glimpse of it. I can't say I would kill myself trying to get back for the Cherry Blossom Festival, but it did seem like a nice way to spend a spring day in Washington DC.

This was also my only opportunity to buy souvenirs from my trip. I bought myself a Christmas tree ornament, and bought my mom a Cherry Blossom tree starter kit which I gave her for Easter.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Photo of the Week: Washington DC


From my recent trip to Washington DC this was my first encounter with Cherry Blossoms. You can read about my experience seeing them on Wednesday.

Friday, April 23, 2010

St. Petersburg to Novgorod

Day 22: St. Petersburg to Novgorod: We leave the 'Cradle of the Revolution' and journey past collective farmland to Novgorod, which when translated means 'New Town'. This afternoon, a guided tour of the town and its famous church and millenium bell. (Breakfast and Dinner included)

Hotel: Hotel Sadko
Breakfast: 9:00 Bags to the bus/depart: 9:30

This morning we were dropped off the Church on the Spilled Blood at 10am for a free morning. Marie was trying to arrange for a canal tour this morning, she had spoken to someone the day before, but no one mentioned that today was a holiday and everything was running with limited service. The only times we could get for the canal cruise would make it really tight for meeting the bus at 12:30 if we wanted to eat lunch too. We finally got one that was supposed to leave at 11 for 7 euro each. But by 11:15 the boat hadn't moved yet and they didn't know where the driver was, so we all got off and went for lunch instead, Subway.

At 12:30 we met the bus and headed off to Novgorod. Maggy had gotten our stuff from Dodgy Serg and gave it out once we were on the bus. Then she went over our Belarus Visas and gave us some history on Novgorod. Novgorod is 1047 years old, we didn't know it then but we found out later that today is "Novgorod Day," it's Novgorod's Birthday! Some history: the city was trashed by the Nazi's and Ivan the Terrible left his mark here, he sent his storm troopers in and killed 60,000 people. What a happy place!

At 4:00 we arrived at our hotel, which was really nice. But Contiki had not made our reservation and they weren't ready for us, but they had rooms at least. At 4:30 we went on our tour of the city while the hotel got our rooms and dinner ready. The city isn't terribly big, and a bit run down, but it was Novgorod Day so they were having a festival and everyone was out and about. We saw the Cathedral of St. Sophia, the gold gilding had come off the domes and you could find it on the ground, I found some. We also saw the Millennium of Russia Monument, celebrating the 1000th anniversary of Prince Rurick's arrival. We drove over the Volkhov River back to the hotel at 6:00 and had dinner at 7:30. With my free time I packed up my souvenir bag so it could be stored in the bottom of the bus so I wouldn't have to drag the stuff around anymore, I had collected quite a bit of stuff.

At dinner I sat with Skye, Tom and Michael. Skye and I decided to follow Maggy's advice, to go to the communist grocery store next door, then we were going to walk into town. Tania decided to come with us, but she didn't last long as she needed something back at the hotel and didn't even make it into town with us. The communist store was interesting, everything is behind counters and you tell the people what you want and they get it for you. Ahhh, so this is how the communists created jobs for everyone, by making everything excessively labor intensive. The girl behind the counter looked bothered by me and my buying candy, I love Russian hospitality.
We continued into town and it was nice since there were so many people in town. We looked for an internet cafe that was supposedly in town, but never found it. As it got later Skye and I started to feel a bit uncomfortable in town and decided it was time to go back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel I finished packing while Tania and I watched a concert that seemed to be going on in Red Square, we wondered if it was live. It was funny to watch because we couldn't understand 95% of what they were saying, but every now and then they would say a word that was close to the English translation and it would catch my ear, like "internet," but I still didn't know what they were talking about.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Solio Iphone Charger

Right after Christmas I got the Solio Iphone solar charger. It touted that you could have extra power for your Iphone by charging the solar charger with either the sun or your computer. It sounded great, but in the end it's a complete dud!

The first problem is that it takes around 20 hours of direct sun light to fully charge, but since you can charge through your computer I was able to get over that. I ended up never charging with the sun - winter on Long Island isn't known for long sunny days. But the device was still quite usable until it started to provide less and less power for my iphone, about 3/4 of power instead of full power.

After 3 months I charged it from my computer fully before my trip to Washington DC. While in Washington I needed to charge my cell phone, well the solio charger provided no power to my iphone.

When I returned home I sent an email to Solio explaining the situation. The first question they asked was what wire I was using - the one that came with it was my response. My next email told me that I needed the updated wire, they gave me a discount code, but I was still paying money and shipping for a new wire (which looked exactly the same as the one I had and the website link provided no information on it) for a 3 month old device. Seriously??? If the charger was a year old I could see needing an updated wire or something, but 3 months? And it's not cheap, at $80 it's at the high end of chargers prices. I was NOT happy. I packed up the charger and went to the Apple store and returned it, Apple gave me a store credit. Not perfect, but then again it was 3 months later. Now i'll buy a new charger, but will do a little more research first.

Incase you were wondering. No, I do not recommend this to anyone.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Photo of the Week: Nuuanu Pali Park, Hawaii


Nuuanu Pali Park, Honolulu, Hawaii. Well actually I'm not sure what the picture is of, but I was in Nuuanu Pali Park when I took the picture.

Friday, April 16, 2010

St. Petersburg Day 3

Days 21: St. Petersburg Sightseeing: Plenty of time in St Petersburg to get acquainted with the fascinating history and way of life. Our sightseeing tour includes the great Winter Palace, the incredible Hermitage Museum; visit Petrodvorets with its palaces, parks and fountains. And for a taste of local flavour, anyone for caviar and a vodka chaser? (Breakfast and Dinner included)

Hotel: LDM Ulitsa Professora Popova
Breakfast: 8:30 Bus departs: 9:00

The Niet Niet Ladies at the hotel had struck, apparently they had a substitute Niet Niet Lady and she wouldn't give the room cards back, Maggy was able to fix it before we left. Is it really that hard to exchange pieces of paper for room keys? While the hotel seemed to be pretty clean, the water definitely had an odor to it, you definitely could not brush your teeth here, and you had to keep your mouth closed in the shower. But at least I had a shower in my room, Scandinavia made me appreciate that.
Our first stop of the morning was a photo stop at the Arora Battleship. During the war with Japan there was a 45 minute sea battle in which 45 Russian ships were lost, the only to survive was the Arora. Next was Peter and Paul Fortress, resting place of the Tsars.

The bodies of Nicholas II's family were found in 1991 and were given a state funeral, by 1998 DNA testing showed a 98.5% chance that the bodies were Nicholas II, Alexandra, Tatiana, Olga, and either Maria or Anastasia. The bodies of Alexei and Anastasia have not been found.
Once at the Fortress we went inside the Cathedral, Anna showed us the tombs of the Tsars and explained about the Cathedral. There was a lot of construction inside, they were bringing the body of one of the Romanov wives from Copenhagen and they were setting up for her tomb. They seemed to be preparing the whole cathedral for the event. We also saw the room where Nicholas's family is interred, 2 places are left blank for Alexei and Anastasia. Our last stop in the Cathedral was to listen to the choir, they were truly amazing signers. I would have bought their CD, except it was 20 or 25 euros and I didn't foresee myself listening to it much.

After Peter and Paul fortress we had a stop at the Faberge Egg store. Tsar Alexander III started the tradition of purchasing these for his wife for Easter each year. Tsar Nicholas II would continue this tradition by purchasing them for his wife and mother. I purchased an egg charm for myself, it opens up and inside is a basket of flowers, this would be my big purchase of the trip, and a lovely one at that. I also got my mother an egg with a carriage inside, mom deserved something nice.

At 11:40 we were dropped off near the Nevsky Prospect McDonalds and had free time till 1:30. Today we had KFC for lunch, the workers hear understood enough for us to order. We ended up with enough time to not really do anything other then walk down Nevsky Prospect a bit. Our 1:30 meeting today was for our tour of the Hermitage, which I was very excited to see.
The reason we went to the Hermitage today instead of yesterday is that yesterday there were 5 cruise ships in town and the place would be mobbed, this is the value of having a tour guide. As excited as I was I was literally falling asleep standing up and walking, that would explain why I was walking like a drunk and bumping into people. It was kind of bazaar, but I do remember seeing many of the rooms in the Winter Palace and some of the famous works of art throughout the museum, I'm glad I got a book on the Hermitage. From what I remember it was a remarkable place with all the formal gold and jewles you might imagine. After the tour I decided not to continue walking around the museum for obvious reasons. I decided to find the internet and write home instead. Well I waited on line for 15 minutes at a coffee shop counter to buy 20 minutes of internet. The guy in front of me complained to some woman who had cut the line, she just showed her Hermitage id, said she worked there and gave the look of death. When I got to the cashier I was told they couldn't sell anymore time because they were closing in 15 minutes, NIET NIET!!!!! I must have given her the look of death because she called over the manager who explained it again. I swear, I almost jumped over the counter and strangled someone. It made me very cranky for a while, but I was able to save other people from wasting 15 minutes of their time on line, at least there was that.

We walked around a bit, saw some brides (these were not the first brides we saw in St. Petersburg, we had seen at least one everyday we were here) and walked over to the Church of the Spilled blood and a miracle happened, I actually bought a matryoska doll, yea! I even bargained for it. She tried to sell me another one that wasn't as nice since it was closer to my price range, but I liked the one I picked out much better.

At 5:00 we were picked up and taken to two photo stops, St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral and the palace where Rasputin was assassinated. Rasputin became a fixture with the Tsar's family and many believed he was really controlling the Tsar's decisions, some thought he was the Tsarina's lover too. In December 1916 those loyal to the Tsar thought he had too much power and assassinated Rasputin. They tried to poison him, but that didn't work so they shot him. When he was still moving after being shot they clubbed him and dragged him to the Neva River and threw him in - the cause of death was drowning.
From there we went to Moo Moo's for dinner. The restaurant is named after a Russian story about a dog named Moo Moo. The short version: Moo Moo rented a room from a Russian woman who did not like dogs. One day she took the dog, tied a brick to him and threw him in a lake drowning him, poor Moo Moo. From there we went to the Russian Folklore show.

Most of us were a bit ambivalent about this part of the Russian Optional package, but everyone seemed to enjoy the folklore show. During the show they did audience participation, and one of the woman in the show had been eyeing Fraser all night. Fraser tried to get Corey to switch with him so Fraser could be a row closer and right next to the stairs. Not sure what why Corey wouldn't switch with him, but it really pissed Fraser off. I could see why he wanted to switch, but I'm not sure what the big deal was. Fraser did get pulled up on stage anyway, and seemed to have a great time up there. During intermission they had fruit, Champaign and caviar. I was almost tempted to try the caviar, just to say I did it. Marie said it was good. But then Kate tried it, I was almost gagging just looking at her trying not to gag on it. After she got it down she proceeded to explain how all the little eggs exploded in her mouth, yuck! I didn't try it, and doubt I ever will. On the bus back Maggy played our day song, Rasputin, for us, and Fraser danced...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I wanted to eat at the furniture store

This is part 2 about my trip to Washington DC.
I arrived in the city around 7:30 at Union Station. The station was pretty nice (for a train station) with a bunch of food places (including some that were a little better then the typical train station places.) But I went straight for the taxi stand. My first image of the city was of the Capital, I liked that, it gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling. There's just something I like about seeing the seat of government, it makes the government feel accesable, even if it's not. It actually reminded me of when I was in Rome and the first thing I saw when I got out of the Metro was seeing the Coloseum. My taxi took me quickly to my hotel - The Henley Hotel on Massachusets Ave.

Check in at the hotel was quick and effiecient and I was assigned room number 702. I was excited about this hotel, it's a historic preservation building and from the website it seemed like it had a lot of character, not just a typical chain hotel. Well the hotel was nice and clean and did have a bit more character. But, it wasn't that special. The room was small, it didn't have a desk, I had to wiggle the cable wire to get a clear picture on the TV and it didn't have THAT much character. I felt like every room might have had a different shape and set up, but that they probably have all the same bedding, window treatments, furniture, TV's. Basically the character of the hotel didn't go much past the lobby and the outside of the building. I also didn't like the set up of the bathroom - it had a lot of empty space and the sink area was really small.

But the good things were the bedding. The bed was comfortable, though not exceptional. But the bedding did seem to be of a higher quality and the pillows were comfortable. Being as I spent about 9 hours a day in the room (mostly sleeping) a comfortable bed was the only thing I really cared about in the end.

After checking into my room I dropped my stuff off and went in search of food. I wasn't terribly hungry, but I knew I would be if I didn't eat. This was another problem with the hotel, there was a restaurant there, but there was nothing to eat within a 2 block radius and forget it if you wanted something quick and easy to eat, McDonalds was about 5 blocks away. At one point I saw a diner like place and got all excited, but it turned out to be a furniture store. Later on I noticed another furniture store that looked like a diner. Later on in my trip I realized that if I had done my walking in the other direction, I probably would have found a nicer McDonalds within the same distance.

The two things I learned on this night was that this hotel was poorly placed if you wanted food, and that in Washington DC furniture stores look like diners.

So I did end up eating at McDonalds, I got french fries and a soda. I have to say I'm not sure it was my best decision though. As I was walking up I passed some homeless people and at the same time 2 guys walked up to me and asked where the nearest Metro stop was, a homeless person answered, then asked for money. I'm so not into giving homeless people money so I just went to McDonalds where the clientel was a little off. There was a family of 4 who looked like they spent a fair amount of time in McDonalds, and a homeless woman who was talking to herself. Then the homeless guys came in. As a single woman in a strange city (and one not know for how safe it is), it didn't feel terribly comfortable to me. But nothing happened to me and it just served as one of those nights when you notice everything that is going on around you, but traveling will do that to you.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Photo of the Week: Jefferson Memorial

I'm actually a Lincoln fan, it's the whole Civil War buff thing that I have going on. But the Jefferson Memorial is very photogenic. Not only do I like this picture for the composition and the content but I took this with my little point and shoot camera that I had to figure out on this trip. I also didn't have my tripod, I never seem to have the thing when I need it.

Friday, April 9, 2010

St. Petersburg Day 2

Days 20: St. Petersburg Sightseeing: Plenty of time in St Petersburg to get acquainted with the fascinating history and way of life. Our sightseeing tour includes the great Winter Palace, the incredible Hermitage Museum; visit Petrodvorets with its palaces, parks and fountains. And for a taste of local flavour, anyone for caviar and a vodka chaser? (Breakfast included)

Hotel: LDM Ulitsa Professora Popova
Breakfast: 8:00 Bus departs: 8:30

When I think of St. Petersburg I think of Tsarist Russia: The Romanov Dynasty. I think to appreciate St. Petersburg you need to know a little history about St. Petersburg and the Romanovs', I'll have some blurbs throughout about the history.

Ivan III (AKA Ivan of Moscow or Ivan the Great) was the first to take the title Tsar (Russian for Caesar), Emperor of all the Russias. Ivan took the Byzantine symbol of absolute authority, the double eagle, as his personal symbol. His grandson, Ivan IV, was the next to take the title Tsar, he is known as Ivan the Terrible. Ivan the terrible married Anastasia Romanov, after her death there was significant turmoil in Russia.
In 1613 a descendant of Anastasia, Mikhail, was found and became the first of the Romanov rulers and so the Romanov dynasty is born. Peter The Great (very long story short) became the Co-Tsar in 1682 and sole ruler in 1696. Moscow and Russia was stuck in the Middle Ages and Peter had a great love of the anything modern, or Western (Western Europe). He had a vision to create a new Westernized Russia. His first order of business, a Navy. Then he went West to learn about ships and different aspects of Western life, such as medicine. When he returned he wanted to change Russia - he forced Russia forward to be more Western. He envisioned a new city, on the Baltic, he built his own log house in a city to be known as St. Petersburg, which would be the new capital of Russia. It was a city in Russia that was never to surrender, and was built at any cost, it is also said to have been built on the bones of Russians (essentially slave labor with little or no tools and a high death rate). Peterhoff Palace, his Summer Palace, was designed to outdo Versailles. He told who to build what (Palaces) and where. Today the city is the remains of these palaces, which is one of the reasons it is a nice and attractive city. Other things that Peter The Great brought to Russia: the first newspaper, hospital, museum, schools, geography, astronomy, mathematics, a Navy, Army, Capital, even a new crown, Russia was now a global power, well sorda.

Under Nicholas I the Decembrists tried to start a revolution for a Constitution, they failed and the Absolute Monarchy stayed. Speaking of a rebellion or a constitution could be cause for exile or death under his reign. Nicholas's legacy was as the Police Officer of monarchy in Europe.

Alexander III rounded up the assassins of Alexander II and had them hanged, and the reform that had recently come to Russia was over. Alexander III built The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood on the site of the successful assassination of Alexander II, hence the name.
The following year Alexander III died and Nicolas II took over, but Nicolas was unprepared to be a Tsar. The poor were as poor as ever and revolution was in the air. Nicolas was considered out of touch with Russians and there was little faith in his ability to rule. Nicholas tried to expand into China and Korea and ended up in a fight with Japan. In 1904 Alexei was born, he was the 5th child and the only son. It was later discovered that Alexei had Hemophilia. The Empress Alexandra was introduced to a Monk and mystic, Rasputin. Rasputin became a fixture when Alexandra believe he could heal Alexei, but others saw him as a greasy womanizer with too much power. In December 1916 those loyal to the Tsar assassinated Rasputin.

Jan 9, 1905 workers, students, and priests marched on the Winter Palace, they wanted a representative government, and peace with Japan. Nicolas was out of town and Bloody Sundaywas born when the protesters were attacked, between 100 and 1,000 were killed.
Nicholas eventu
ally gave in to the populous and created an elective assembly (the Duma) and a constitution. When World War I broke out Russia was dragged in, 8 million Russians were killed, wounded or captured. At the same time Lenin's slogan was "peace, land and bread."
On Feb 23 1917 bread lines turned to riots, Nicholas came home from the front and was forced to abdicate and give power to the Duma. The last European Monarchy had fallen. Civil War broke out and the Bolsheviks eventually took power. Some Romanovs were allowed to leave Russia, some were killed and Nicolas's family was moved around a bit. In July of 1918 the family was woken up in the middle of the night, taken to the basement, told to pose for a family photo and were killed by the Red Army. There bodies were soaked in acid and burned.

And so my first day in St. Petersburg went like this...

We left a little late this morning, since some people slept late and Maggy was being nice giving them a few minutes to get ready after waking them. Our first stop of the morning was the Peterhof Gardens at Peterhof Palace. We did not go inside the palace as we would be seeing other Palaces, but the gardens are breathtaking. The exterior of the palace is gorgeous and the workmanship and gold simply amazing, and to think of all the Russians who died building it and the Russians who died of starvation after it was built, yet all this wealth in one palace. The fountains are magnificent and you could see the great effort put into outdoing Versailles. Once we finished looking around we had a bit of free time to look around at the market outside the palace. I didn't know it at the time, but this was one of the places where you could get better prices on Russian souvenirs. I got a scarf for mom. But the most interesting thing was using the bathroom. I waited on line and had to pay 60 euro cent (or 40 rubles). The toilet paper was hanging on the wall outside the stalls under my favorite sign of the whole trip.

After Peterhof we made a stop at a church, St. Peters, to see and experience a Russian Orthodox Church. There was a little boy outside begging, he had an eye on Michael and followed him for a bit, it was pretty funny. Inside the church there were lots of little old Russian ladies praying. In a Russian Orthodox Church everyone stands, so there is no seating inside, except for seats for the Tsar and his family. During Communism many churches were destroyed, those that weren't were converted into warehouses, pools, skating rinks, anything other then a church, consequently there are not as many churches in Russia as there should be. After the church we were on our way to the Siege of Leningrad (Communist name for the city St. Petersburg) Memorial.

Several of the great world powers have tried to take Russia. King Charles XII and the Swedes tried during Peter the Great's reign, but failed and the great Swedish Empire collapsed. Tsar Alexander pretty much started a fight with the French (he aligned with the English) and Napoleon Bonaparte tried to take Russia. The Russians retreated from the French burning the land as they went, Napoleon followed deeper and deeper into Russia and finally met the Russians in Borodino, 75,000 men died and both sides claimed victory. The Russians retreated and left Moscow to the French, but not without burning the city. Napoleon ordered the retreat, but the Russian winter came early, they had little or no supplies and Russians attacked the retreating army. By the time they reached the Polish border the army had been decimated. On June 22, 1941 Hitler's secret plan for the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa began. The Russians were slow to respond and within 4 months the Germans were outside Moscow and laid siege on Leningrad. In 1942 Hitler went after Stalingrad (now known as Volgograd), but Germany's supplies lines were insecure and winter came early (early September). Stalin released restrictions on the church and appealed to patriotism to rally for the cause. In February of 1943 the German 6th Army surrendered. Leningrad had held out for 900 days, but never surrendered. By April 1945 the Red Army was in Berlin. There are a couple reasons for the Russian success: a large military was simply able to outnumber a better army; the scorched earth policy, where the Russians burned everything as they retreated leaving little for the advancing army; harsh Russian winters and long supply lines for invading armies; and well the Russians are used to hardship, there is more then one point in Russian history where it is believed that Russians resorted to cannibalism for survival, their own government treated them worse then any invading army could.

And so we stopped at the Siege of Leningrad Memorial. Downstairs they have a museum, they showed a video without sound of the hardships the residents of Leningrad, but Anna explained everything in the video. The city was under siege for 900 days, and over 1 million people died, despite the fact that many people were able to leave the city. At one point the daily rations consisted of 175grams (a small loaf of wonder white is 340 grams) of sawdust laden bread people supplemented by eating pets, rats, birds, wallpaper paste, leather belts and eventually some resorted to cannibalism. Some days as many as 30,000 people died, many just falling over in the street. Despite the hardships they never surrendered and human spirit remained alive, including acts of kindness and performances by the philharmonic and the symphony.

When we were walking back to the bus Anna stopped to talk to a guy on the sidewalk and let us know that if we needed to exchange money to see this guy. The black market exchange guy, nice! At 2:00 we were dropped off at the Church on the Spilled Blood for 3 hours of free time. Almost everyone went to Nevsky Prospect for lunch. I had Subway with Kieren, Marie, Kate, Andrew, Donna and Stephanie. Ordering lunch wasn't too bad, the people working there understood meatball and pointing at bread, relief! After lunch a bunch of us went to St. Isaacs Cathedral for a view of the city. Then we wanted to go to the Kunstkamera Museum (the deformed baby museum or the Museum of Anthropology & Ethnography), but other people were coming from there, the line was 45 minutes to get in - there wouldn't be time to go. We went back the the Church on the Spilled Blood because there was a market there. I looked at the martryoshka dolls, but couldn't decide on one, but I did get a flask for my brother-in-law.

Dostoevsky is a famous Russian writer and apparently they love him here, they even have a museum about him. In the fall semester of school I read a book by him, Notes From the Underground, it was awful! I don't specifically remember all that much about the book, except that reading it was torture. I have a friend who is a Russian language student and she says his other stuff isn't any better. I would not spend my free time going to see his statue or museum.

We went back to the hotel at 5:00 to get ready for the ballet and to have dinner. At 7:00 we left for the Ballet, we were seeing Giselle. When we went to find our seats someone was in my seat, he seemed confused about where he was supposed to sit and I didn't have the answer, but I knew he was in mine. Anna came in just after that and got rid of him. Our seats were very good, they were Orchestra seats in the front row of the back section, my seat happened to be at the end of the isle for the front section - I had an unobstructed view of the stage. The ballet was really good, quite amazing how they could tell the story through dance. I will admit I did fall asleep at one point during the first act, but I think everyone did, and almost everyone liked it. I think 2 of the guys left during intermission to hit the town. But buying the program was worth every penny, without it it's hard to tell what is going on onstage. The ballet finished at 10 and then it was back to the hotel for bed since I was exhausted.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Amtrak

Last week I went down to Washington DC for work. I traveled down there by Amtrak, it was my first time in about 15 years (so pretty much my first time) that I had been on Amtrak.

I got a ride from someone at work up to Penn Station, much better then the subway with luggage! At Penn Station I was able to easily get my tickets for Amtrak using the Quik-Trak system, just scan the email confirmation and it prints the ticket. I was about 40 minutes early for my train and had considered trying to get on an earlier train, but the line was so long for the ticket counter that I doubted I would have time, instead I sat in the seating area and read a magazine. Penn Station for Amtrak is not the best setup, you have to go downstairs to get to the train, which is a bit of a pain if you have luggage and really seemed to slow the process down a bit for boarding. But I quickly found a seat on the train car next to the cafe car, incase I got hungry.

The seats seemed wider with a better recline and more comfortable then a seat on a plane and there is a ton more space for luggage, and to think I was worried about my carry-on size bag! The aisles were much wider then a plane so it was easier to get your luggage around on the train. I also noticed that there was a power point for laptops at every seat, hmmm, this seems better then a plane so far! Also better then a plane was that you didn't have to go through security and you could show up 15 minutes before departure to board. Since you don't have to go through security you can also bring liquids and other sharp objects, like a scissor.

But what wasn't as nice as on a plane is that the train stopped every 15-20 minutes with people getting on a off, of course there were also all the announcements that come with people getting on and off the train. Because of this the train seemed to take forever, actually about 3 and a half hours - a flight is about an hour and 15 minutes. I should say my reading lap wasn't as focused as I find them to be on a plane, but the train generally had better lighting. And well there was no one coming around giving me a drink and food, so pack your own.

The odd thing for me, was that being by myself I felt strange leaving my stuff at my seat to either go to the bathroom or to go to the cafe car. For some reason I've never felt this on a plane. Maybe it's because you kinda get to know your seatmate (at least they become your neighbor even if you don't talk), or because the passenger manifest has their name as being next to yours. Or maybe the fact that you get on the plane and everyone gets off as the same time makes it feel safer to leave your stuff. But on Amtrak people are coming and going at every stop. But I felt odd leaving stuff and that I was more likely to have something stolen. It's probably irrational, but it's how I felt.

I would definitely consider Amtrak again for a trip to Washington DC or to Boston. Though plane tickets are often cheaper, for a short trip with a little bit of luggage Amtrak is less of a hassle, though I think I would look more at the Acela service, it's a bit more expensive but it also takes an hour less. I would caution that I've heard on the late night trains the clientele isn't the highest, so I personally would avoid those trains.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Jetiquette Pledge

I thought I would give a shout out to the Jetiquette blog and their Jetiquette Pledge...

http://www.dearskysteward.com/civilized-travelers-are-making-the-jetiquette-pledge/

hey, can't we all just get along??? Play nice and be considerate travelers.

I'll just share my jetiquette story of a nice, friendly traveler I met along the way.

A year or so ago I was flying home from Pittsburg and earlier in the day had put my cell phone in my suitcase. I forgot about it until 1 minute after I gave it to screening as checked luggage - it was too late. Murphy's Law - my flight was delayed. I asked a nice gentleman seated near me if I could borrow his phone to call home and tell my family. I would like to say, naturally he let me do it, but I suspect there are people out there who wouldn't but my family and I appreciated it.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Photo of the Week: New York City

I took this picture of Long Island City, NY from Manhattan. I'm always a fan of night shots, but I like the way this one has the reflections of the city on the water. It's not quite as crisp as I would like, but I still like the effect.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Helsinki to St. Petersburg

Day 19: Helsinki to St. Petersburg: An early start this morning as we head to Russia. Stopping en-route at Vyborg - your first taste of old-style Russia, we continue to our hotel in St. Petersburg. (Breakfast and Dinner included)

Hotel: LDM
Breakfast: 6:45 Bags to the bus: 7:15 Bus departs: 7:30

Today we were leaving Scandinavia, which meant a lot of different things. Firstly, we were leaving 19 people behind, which I was sad about. I was also sad to leave the relatively slow paced Scandinavia, where the sun was always out, people were nice, they spoke English and nature was abundant. I was going to miss this place. But we were exchanging it for Russia: dirty water, dirty cities, corruption, bad bathrooms, people who don't speak English, and the remnants of czarist and communist Russia, I actually was excited about this.

I got up early this morning, 5:30. I wanted to actually get a shower before going to Russia, St. Petersburg in particular, and I wanted to try and call home again.

I woke up Nancy when I got up, which I felt bad about since she had come in even later then me last night, but she would be one of the few to see us off this morning. I did get to talk to mom and let her know I wouldn't be calling from Russia and that I was ok. Then had breakfast and everyone made their way to the bus. Nancy, Leah B, Karl, Sara and Ash saw us off this morning. Later on I heard that a bunch of people from the Scandi part of the tour went to Estonia for the day.

The rest of us got an introduction from Maggy and Ash as we hit the road for Russia. We were also introduced to our day song - Rasputin, fitting for a trip to Russia. Our first stop was just after 10am before the Russia border. This was our opportunity to go to the bathroom, get money, eat and get supplies for Russia. It was suggested that we split a case of 4 large bottles of water with someone, that that would be a good start for Russia since the water wasn't safe to drink or brush our teeth with. Around Moscow it was realized that some people considered this community water, some people must have taken more then they purchased and we ran out, leaving some people screwed out of the water they had purchased - nice.

We left there at 11:05 and went out of Finland, the customs guy came on the bus, looked very grumpy and stamped all our passports, yea, I got a stamp. We drove through no-mans land to the Russia border. We were told to go in the building and get on line, apparently we weren't supposed to and were sent back to wait until 12:15. On line I got to talk to a couple people, Fraser and Brittany and some others. The line moved well sometimes and then other times one person would take a half hour. One person had a lot of trouble getting in - he had lost his passport recently and so there was something with either the new passport or the new Visa that was a flag - they even took him to another room. In the meantime Maggy couldn't find out much about what was going on. Everyone finally finished going through customs at 3:00 and we actually got into Russia at 3:30, then had to change our watches ahead 1 hour.

After all that Maggy gave us a bit of history about Russia and as interested as it was I still fell asleep. At 5:15 we stopped in Vyborg, which used to be part of Finland, and were told to use the bathroom and find the train to St. Petersburg. Well I couldn't find the train since I don't read cerilic and the bathroom is best described as a cultural experience. My cold and congestion (I had felt better for about 1 day and then felt sick again) were a good thing in Russia, it's good when you can't smell the bathroom.

On the bus Maggy spoke to us about the trip and what to expect. At the hotels they have "Niet, Niet Ladies," when you check in you give your passport to the hotel and they give you a hotel card (in place of the passport). When you come and go from the room you exchange your hotel card for your room key. By the elevator was the Niet Niet lady who exchanges the key for the hotel card. She's a grumpy lady and says Neit Niet to everything - she's the stereotypical old Russian lady. Niet Niet ladies aren't only in hotels, any time you need something you'll have to deal with a Niet Niet lady. At some point I looked out the front window and saw the infamous "death lane," we were in it and straight ahead you saw headlights. hmmm, I probably shouldn't do that again. In Scandinavia the cars were all very nice and well cared for, in Russia they were all old junky looking cars. The roads are lined with trash and the road isn't in good condition, and we were on "highways."

Before our next stop we were introduced to our wake up song - Wake Me Up Before You Go Go by Whamm. We got to our hotel at 8pm, LDM means "youth palace." Maggy had warned us that it was neither youthful nor a palace, she wasn't kidding. Just to emphasis this, Fraser got stuck in the elevator, most people ended up taking there bags up the stairs, thankfully I was only on 1, which was actually up 4 flights of stairs. We had dinner at 8:30, it was pork and rice and it wasn't too bad.

After dinner Anna, our local guide, took us on a Champanski Tour of St. Petersburg. We had stops at Decembrists' Square to see St. Isaac's Cathedral, Mariinsky Palace, the statue of Peter the Great (the Bronze Horseman) and the Astoria Hotel (where Hitler planned to have his celebration after he won St. Petersburg in the war). Our other stop was in front of the Central Naval Museum. We also saw the deformed baby museum (we didn't go in), Stroganov Palace, and Nevsky Prospect. We got back around 10:30 and Maggy set up Dodgy Serge's samples and took orders from everyone. It was a long day, but a good one.