Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Long Road Home

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Weather: Dark

We had to get up around 2:30 AM, Moscow time to get to the airport for our 4:30 AM flight. 2:30 AM in Moscow is around 6:30 PM the day before on the east coast. Security at the airport was rather cursory, with minimal customs requirements to depart. The particular airport for our flight was built for the 1980 Olympics. It didn't appear to have gotten much attention since it was built.

Again aboard Lufthansa's steerage class share partner to Frankfurt, we had an unremarkable flight. Upon arrival in Frankfurt, many of us were surprised to learn we would have to go through screening once again before boarding the flight to Atlanta. Most surprised were those who had made vodka purchases in the Moscow duty-free shops. Apparently, the Germans don't trust Russian security procedures (and I can understand why). Several bottles ended up in the large trash bins next to the screening area.

John's cold has continued to degrade and he's feeling worse and worse as time goes on. I gave him my last cough drops and the last of my kleenex. Both were gone before we got over the Atlantic. As much as I tried, I couldn't manage to sleep. Poor John couldn't either.

By the time we landed at 2:40 PM in Atlanta, we were both looking worse for wear. The customs entry took another hour and a half, including yet another security screening. By the time we got on the bus for Columbia it was almost 5:00 PM. Having had little to eat on the plane other than a couple of protein bars, I was starved. I found a Wendy's in the airport food court and had a small feast.

On the bus, our tour leader drags out some kind of recording that pulls various pieces of Tchaikovsky music strung along with a story of Tchaikovsky's visit to the US to conduct at Carnegie Hall. She was enthralled. John and I went from bemusement to boredom quickly. Thank goodness I had my iPod.

I finally got back to my parents' house around 9:30 PM, twenty-seven hours from the time I got up in Moscow. What a trip!

Moscow Nights (More Like Days, Rather)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Weather: Redundant.

Up and on the road to town early (Leningrad Highway - some Russians are still hesitant to let go of their Soviet Past), we headed directly for the Kremlin. Our tour guide, Natasha, gave us an overview that just about repeated verbatim the information Valera had given us the day before, including the particularly weak joke about their lower house of parliament, the Duma. Duma means "to think" in Russian - - apparently the people of Russian don't think their leadership does that very often.

The Armory is housed in the Romanoff Palace within the Kremlin. On display was a particularly impressive display of Tzarist regalia, including the coronation gowns of Catherine the Great and Elizabeth I. Catherine's, rather small and almost painfully so was quite a contrast with the more bovine Elizabeth. Per Natasha: "A big girl, no?" Also smaller than expected was the coronation robe, in gold silk and ermine, of Nicholas II.

The collection of Faberge eggs was less than impressive - - only five shown of the ten held in the collection. We did not get a complete response as to where the rest were. I found the display in Richmond, VA much more impressive.

On that note, there was a room filled with Royal Coaches that demonstrated the evolution of Tzarist travel from somewhat primitive, Catherine I, which had no mechanism for steering. Turning required lifting the entire carriage and facing it in the desired direction. With each carriage, the technology and decoration became more elaborate and ornate.

Other displays of silver, gold and vermeil ranged from beautiful to outrageous.

We then visited the Diamond Fund, where fewer pieces were on display than one might have expected. There were only three or four cases containing what looked like family pieces. I'm sure most of what remains, or at least a significant portion got out just before the revolution with the Dowager Empress. There was one beautiful tiara of diamonds with pear-shaped pearls dangling. One may see that piece adapted for costume purposes in the near future.

We stopped in some of the cathedrals on Cathedral Square before leaving the Kremlin for Red Square. John chose to line up to look at the still-dead Lenin.

I declined. I buddied up with another member of our group for a little shopping in Gum Dept. Store (which, by the way, is a mall). It it quite the upscale location with stores including Prada, Louis Vitton, numerous jewelry stores and Adidas.

We then began looking for a cafe to find a bite to eat, but only located the mall food court, complete with S'Barro (which looks like "C'bappo" in Cyrillic) and fried chicken. Not content with "mall food" we ventured out of Gum to search the area. The first candidate was not acceptable. The second, Cafe Norma Club, turned out to be a topless bar, certainly not my market! Wandering back through Gum, we left Red Square and found another food court in a new shopping location nearby. This one had a kiosk marked "brasserie." It wasn't great, but it seemed a little less "touristy" than anything else we'd seen.

I came back across Red Square to meet the bus on the other side of St. Basil's Cathedral. Time did not permit to take a look, but various reports confirmed that there would have been little to see.

John shared his observation from Lenin's Tomb. The preserved body, which has been on continuous display since his death, was presented in a remarkably regal manner. The bier and body are draped in purple velvet. Lighting focused on his face and hands, the only skin exposed. John noted that the treatment was just like the way Russian religious icons are made. The ornate metal coverings on icons are traditionally made the same way, with only the images of exposed skin remaing exposed on the icon. Interesting treatment from a people who didn't believe in God.

From there, we headed to Arbat Street, a pedestrian street reported to have the best in shopping that we would see while in Moscow. Such was not really the case. There were countless souvenir shops and kiosks, all carrying the same theme and variations of matrioshka dolls, printed floral wool shawls, fur hats, Soviet military regalia, t-shirts, books, etc. I did manage to find two final pieces to bring back to friends.

A couple of sights along the way. First is a statue/tribute to Peter the Great. Originally, this was to have been a tribute to Christopher Columbus and given to the US about the same time as the Statue of Liberty, but the politics of the period never got the piece completed and it was repurposed.

This is KGB Headquarters.

Here's another shot of the Bolshoi, under renovation.

The Tchaikovsky Concert Hall (We heard that the American, Van Cliburn, won the first piano competition there in the 1950's. We heard that every time we drove by it, and a couple of times when we didn't.)

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, shown in the shots below is a reconstruction of one that was "blown up" by the Soviets in 1933. The original was built in the 19th century. At one time, Stalin had begun construction of the enormous House of Soviets that was to have had a giant statue of Lenin on top. The scale was to be such that a helicopter landing pad was planned for his outstretched palm. The building was never constructed and it ended up as the site of a swimming pool and outdoor recreation for many years. the Soviet government fell and the cathedral was reconstructed in a period of less than five years. It turns out that much of the building had been saved and stored prior to its first destruction. It may be hard to see, but there are bronze relief sculptures on the walls of the building that had been saved.

According to
The reconstruction raised considerable patriotic feeling amongst many Russians, although some Muscovites opposed the project on aesthetic grounds, claiming that the hastily built replica of the original church lacked elegance and balanced proportions.

Citibank's presence was quite frequent as we drove through the city.

Our last scheduled stop for the day was Tretyakof Art Gallery, which John and I declined to visit. It had already been quite a long day and the thought of being rushed through yet another stop was undesirable in the least.

Dinner was another incident of familiarity on the verge of breeding contempt. When John requested a second glass of iced tea, Nastja returned with a tray of four glasses. I'm sure the gesture was as much for her own saved steps as our liquid needs.

I bid a brief but grateful farewell to the restaurant manager, Andre. If he is representative of the other restaurant managers in the employ of Viking, I would recommend others with special dietary needs to explore Viking Lines. I'd like to say that the food was exceptionally good, but it wasn't. Our Swiss chef did have a very nice and with the soups. Salads were often an adventure - he showed a fondness for overuse of parfait glasses for the salad course.

Before we arrived on board, I had considered that I might be hungry for much of the trip. I didn't lose a pound. Ice cream ended several lunches and most dinners.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Arrival in Moscow

Monday, October 9, 2006
Weather: More of the same.

A leisurely morning as we sailed into Moscow. The Cruise Manager threatened us, yet again, against buying icons.

The building pictured here is the port building on the Moscow River where the boat was moored. John and I have determined the architecture style as "Soviet Gothic." It looks rather impressive from a distance, but if you look closely, you see that the styles are a mishmash of modern and classic elements that are rather poorly constructed. We took a walk around the building, which is showing significant signs of deterioration.

Our stop after lunch, the Monastery of Sergio about an hour northeast of the city. John and I both purchased new and very cheap icons, hoping neither will attract attention during our exit on Wednesday.

The monastery, also a fortress, is in remarkable condition compared to others we've seen on this trip. John thinks this crowd collaborated with the Soviets to avoid the destruction that occurred elsewhere.

Two of the churches we entered on the site turned out to be shops, but the Church of St. Sergius, complete with silver sarcophagus containing his remains seems to be the closest to what pre-Soviet-era Russians had. Dark, sooty and heavy with incense.

Picture taking was forbidden inside the monastery, so the distance clip above is the only image I have to post.

A couple of shots from the bus window as we drove through Moscow.

"Mamma Mia!" opening soon!

A new stadium.
Can't remember what building this is.

A taste of Moscow traffic (which was terrible everywhere).

When we stopped at the Moscow River, I got a couple of clips of the fountains.

The remainder of our evening was a concert from one of Moscow's Conservatories. The Mockba Orchestra, composed of traditional instruments, balilaika and doma, along with an accordion-like instrument supported by flute, piccolo, oboe and light percussion. We were more than trepidatious after our ballet in St. Petersburg, so we sat near the door in case a quick escape was called for. Our fears were quickly allayed. The featured soprano started out with a sloppy "Una Voce Poco Fa" from Il Barbera Di Siviglia, followed by a stronger "Habanera" from Carmen. Unfortunately, her dress seem lifted from a bad local production of "Beauty and The Beast" complete with Austrian shade skirt. (Austrian shades, they're not just for palace windows anymore!)

A shot of the concert hall - quite comfortable and lovely accoustics.

After the concert, I got another clip of the fountains lit up.

During our late dinner on board, the level of familiarity with the serving staff has gotten quite informal. As I reached for my spoon to start the soup, Nastja (who has really taken quite good care of me on this trip) swatted my hand away until she could double-check that the ingredients were consistent with my gluten-free diet.

More to come...

Yet More Spilled Blood

Sunday, October 8, 2006

Weather: Gooey!

We arrived in the city of Uglich overnight and were roused early for a morning tour of the Kremlin (not the Kremlin).

First up was a large church and bell tower. This church boasted green domes similar to those we saw in Yaroslavl. Inside was another impressive wall of icons surrounded by frescoes of various bible stories.

This first clip is as we crossed the bridge into the Kremlin. The bridge is undergoing restoration, as you can see.

We were treated to another quartet as well. I did get a recording, surreptitiously.

Nearby is the Church of St. Demetrius of the Spilled Blood, shown at the top of this post. (lots of spilled blood in Russia - frequently celebrated by building a church).

Dmitri, the son of Ivan the Terrible's seventh wife, was living in exile in Uglich. At the age of nine, as the story goes, supporters of Boris Godunov set upon the boy during a walk one day and slit his throat. Other stories conjecture that the boy, an epileptic, fell upon his own knife during a seizure. This is the house they lived in - according to the tour guide, the oldest in Russia (yeah, ok!).

The rest of the morning was spent among the souvenir-hawkers, some of whom were successful in separating me from my money. We passed a local firehouse under renovation, but didn't see any hunky Russian firemen.

I collected my prize from the music quiz - a massage. The masseur was an almost-burly man, who spoke little English, "am finish." The technique was more Swedish than deep-tissue, but refreshing enough, overall.

I followed the massage with a long nap, waking just in time for the Captain's Dinner, a five-course, otherwise un-noteworthy affair. John, still suffering with his cold (most loudly when he sleeps) declined dinner and the Passenger Talent Show that followed. Many among the SC tour group had convinced themselves that I would be eager to participate. (I was not.) A dirty look and a terse comment from our tour coordinator communicated her disappointment.

More to come...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Taking a Break

Saturday, October 7, 2006

Weather: Glorious!

For the first time since arriving, we woke to a partly cloudy sky of blue. We passed through the Reservoir Rybinsk and passed the Rybinsk Port during breakfast. There was a lovely church near the riverbank (now on the Volga) with European domes and a large golden spire. It will be another quiet morning.

We will spend the afternoon in Yaroslavl, founded in the 11th century - more churches and monasteries. It has been explained that the reason for so many monasteries and nunneries is that when a member of nobility fell out of favor, these places served as their residences of exile or banishment, rather than landing in prison. In an effort toward self-preservation, they would build their own and sponsor its survival as a form of insurance policy, should the political environment at court turn against them.

The Church of Elijah the Prophet, a five-domed cathedral filled with frescoes, similar to the Church of Spilled Blood mosaics in St. Petersburg. We heard a brief impromptu concert by a local male quartet (tapes and CDs for sale on the table in front of them). Their blend was beautiful and the acoustics marvelous.

From there we hit a lacquer box exhibition and sale, quite overpriced. John snapped a picture of me in front of the local theatre. Our guide said that Yaroslavl was the origin of theatre in Russia.

We had an interesting walk through a grocery store. Each category of products were housed in kiosks around the perimeter of the store with fresh produce in circular counters in the middle.

After our guide wrangled a couple of dollars out of us to see another monastery, John and I decided to skip that and walk back to the boat along the riverfront park.

A little Russian graffiti just to perk up your day.

We came upon an empty church with a sign indicating a date of 1644. This was supposed to be a photo, but I forgot to reset the camera when I handed it to John.

Most entertaining were the numbers of cars decorated with interlocking gold rings and artificial flowers affixed to the roofs. They reminded me of funeral sprays, but John identified them as a new add-on piece for his wedding business in SC. "It's the new thing I saw in Europe last month!"

Also interesting was the people-watching on the walk back. Lots of teenagers carrying and drinking bottles of beer in small groups of three or four.

The day ended with dinner and a lovely talent show given by the crew. Acts ranged from line dancing to a "tribute" to the fountains of Peterhof, to a couple of singers (one of whom sported some lovely gold caps on her teeth).

By the way, dear diary, I placed second in the music quiz, winning a free back massage! I hope they will allow me to upgrade to a full massage. Will the masseur's name be Olga or Ivan, I wonder?

More to come...

Don't Look for Party, Party Will Find You

Friday, October 6, 2006

Weather: Misty and subversive - penetrating as a KGB probe.

Full steam ahead to Goritzy where we visited the Monastery of Saint Cyril on the White Sea. The monastery was founded after a monk from Moscow had a vision from the BVM to go north and found a monastery. It also served as a fortification against attacks by the Poles and Lithuanians. Our guide, Nadja, was a young woman who presented with an unusually aggressive voice with a very typical "central casting" accent.

There was a good bit of construction/restoration underway. Our tour included an onsite museum which held the icons from the main cathedral of the monastery. We also walked down to the water which tradition offers the hope of keeping you young if you bathe in the water annually.

Much was made of the opportunity to shop after our somewhat brief tour. John mused as to whether the cruise line received a percentage of tourist sales. I wondered whether the shop stalls were sublet to the individual peddlers, this ensuring that the peddlers would be open upon our arrival in port. My conjecture is based on the fact that the buildings housing the shops were painted in the same white with blue trim as sported by each boat of the Viking River line.

I did succumb to the pressure and picked up a lovely, if overpriced lacquer box decorated with a scene from "The Firebird." I also picked up souvenirs for some friends and family. I will continue to shop for other friends tomorrow in Yaroslavl and Uglich.

John has managed to strike up a couple of conversations with a couple of the sailors on board. In the Latin tradition Publius and Furianus, we have named these boys Pavel and Feodor. During his first encounter, Pavel's interrogation began with "Why are you on the boat?" followed by inquiries about smoking habits. All Russians seem to be smokers - no wonder Philip Morris has a factory in St. Petersburg.

While passing through a lock after dinner, we felt a couple of bumps. It turned out that the boat was not centered in the passage and we'd hit the east side of the lock wall. Feodor was feverishly working at the back when we heard running footsteps coming toward us from the bow. We turned to see Pavel dashing our way and stepped back to give him easy trespass.

The rest of our evening was spent in an unusual musical quiz. The band would play a song which the audience was to identify with a particular country. Then a question about that country was asked, not necessarily music-related. First prize is a massage, which I could sorely use about now.

After the quiz, we attended a vodka tasting hosted by Andre, the restaurant manager. He stumbled through some very broken English trying to explain the Russian approach to vodka. Our Grand Inquisitor was there and in standard form, "Where do they get the water?" Two of the "Pick-a-little" sisters were also there, disrupting the proceedings at every opportunity. Andre's most valuable advice of the evening was sharing how much to drink and when to stop. "First shot is feeling warm and burning as vodka hits stomach. Second is relax of mind and soul. 'T'ird" is feeling happy and like everyone around. 'Fourt' is begin to love everyone around and want to tell so. Now is time to stop. Because is thin line between love and hating. Next round is fight to start."

After the tasting (I only took 3 shots of the 5) I went back to the cabin. John went back on deck and struck up another conversation with Pavel and Feodor. Interesting was that as soon as one of the musicians on board, Pyotr the accordionist, came on deck, the conversation came to an abrupt end. One wonders if the sailors are warned against fraternizing with the passengers.

More to come...