Day 1 and 2 in Vilnius

Debbie did a great job describing our tour and experiences in Vilnius…if you haven’t read it, click here to read her post.

I took photos too!  There are so many lovely textures and contrasting architectures; it was great to see.  All of it was overshadowed by the emotions that came from seeing the old ghettos, learning of the persecutions, hearing about the mass executions.  Here are some glimpses of what we saw.


Riga Market

In Riga, Latvia, the Germans built 4 huge buildings as hangers for Zeppelins to be used during WWII.  The Germans were defeated before they hangers were used and the buildings today are used as a huge indoor and outdoor market place.  We walked through the markets to get a sense for how the locals do some of their shopping.  Here’s some of what we saw.

And that’s our Tour Director Kori in the first photo

End of Day 5 through Day 10

Before taking the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki, we toured the upper part of Tallinn. It was really lovely- beautiful narrow cobblestone streets, cafes and very pretty squares filled with young people, music and life! Our tour guide was wonderful, as she took us through a misty morning overlooking the streets of the lower part of the city. The upper part of the city was home to the nobility and wealthy. They “looked down” on the merchants and average citizens below. Mike captured some great shots from this vantage and will post them soon.

The ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki was huge– in fact, our tour bus was not the only bus to take the ride with us! The ferry ride was about 2 hours, and we travelled in the business section of the ferry— complete with a full bar and lots of food! We arrived in Helsinki and took a tour of the city. Most memorable was the Rock Church (Mike will post them). Helsinki is a modern city, and our hotel was truly in that mode– upscale ikea! It was a bit of a whirlwind, because we left the next morning for the train to St. Petersburg, Russia!

the Church of the Spilled Blood

The train ride to St. Petersburg was very comfortable, much like the Acela from NYC to DC in design and in duration. However, it was strange to have our tickets and passports and visas checked so often, and finally by two female russian guards with whom we were afraid to be anything but solemn. Leaving the train station in St. Petersburg and boarding the bus for a sweep around the city before we got to our hotel gave us a taste for the incredible sights we have seen for the last few days! We started at the Church of Spilled Blood– not an operating church but more of a museum— looks like it belongs in a cartoon or at an exhibit in Disneyland!  (Our excitement was tempered by the theft of camera lenses from 2 of our tour mates before we boarded the bus to return to our hotel!) The architecture, the colors, the opulence, which really appear in most of the sites we’ve seen here, is unlike anything i’ve ever seen before, anywhere. For a country that is relatively poor, (I’ve always seen pictures of breadlines), the richness of these buildings (many with gilded gold leaf) paints a very sharp contrast to the life of the average Russian citizen.

Our group is large, so we have been broken into 2 groups on many of the tours:  Faberge and Caviar. We are in the Faberge group and our guide, Alla, has been wonderful. She, like all of the guides we’ve been fortunate to have, is so knowlegeaable about all of the sites and the history of Russia, but she has given us insights into the lives of the citizens of Russia today who have lived through the dismantling of the USSR– and what it means to their everyday lives. She told us that the draft is mandatory but there is little protection (or food) for the soldiers, many of whom die from starvation or malnutrition. It is not uncommon for parents to send their sons abroad so that can avoid service in the army here. She also told us that before the dismantling of the USSR, education was free as was health care, but that is no longer the case, and as a result, many people may be worse off now.  And the basic distrust that the Russians had for so long of their neighbors and acquaintances (they might be KGB or informers), persists.  It seems to be a difficult  and worrisome existence for everyone except the young adults who do not really remember or who did not experience life in the USSR.

We saw some interesting things here— the KGB museum, although our tour guide was really odd. The oppression and brutality of the KGB was seen throughout the museum– from its interrogation rooms to his execution rooms. It was a difficult tour.

We saw Petershoff (Peter’s castle) which was magnificent! And Catherine’s palace, also magnificent ! (pictures to follow I promise).  And this morning we toured some of the highlights of the Hermitage (they say it is so large that it would take 9 years to see everything in it!). What struck us is that while the art and artifacts are beautiful masterpieces, the true masterpiece is the building. It is incredible!

We saw one and half ballets! We saw all of Swan Lake which I loved (great costumes, set and music!), and half of Corsair— I couldn’t keep my eyes open!

All the theatres are within an easy walk from our hotel.

Our hotels throughout the trip have been wonderful and centrally located, but the hotel in St. Petersburg has been our favorite. (Grand Hotel Europe). It is perfect!

Tonight is our last night in St. Petersburg. We fly to Moscow early tomorrow morning. But tonight we will have a special group dinner in one of the hotel’s restaurants (the food has been too plentiful, fattening and delicious!)

It’s hard to believe our trip is nearing its end. It has been a really wonderful 30th wedding anniversary trip for us!

Moscow- Day 11

We got up – bags outside the door at 5:45am- on the bus an hour later, on the way to one of St. Petersburg’s 4 or 5 airports– to the much dreaded Aeroflot flight to Moscow. What a surprise! The plane was a new airbus and the flight was a shuttle that took less than one hour– smooth and uneventful. They even served a meal! The airport in St. Petersburg was out of a Kafka novel! totally unadorned, complete with a very very long tunnel with endless cement walls and a rapidly moving platform transporting us through. Upon our arrival in Moscow, we were met by our local guides and our motor bus, and we went directly to St. Basil’s square for our group picture before getting back on the bus.

We then left the Moscow city limits and went to Stalin’s bunker. It was built without the citizen’s knowledge, under a sports stadium. It has an underground tunnel connecting it directly with the Kremlin 17 km away! The bunker was amazing to see. Our guide gave us some information about Stalin and his family and his ruthlessness. We sat around a large circular table in what was his “war room”. And we dined, true Georgian cuisine (Stalin was born in Georgia), in the dining room in the bunker. The red wine was plentiful as was the all the other food– pickled peppers, pickles, eggplant stuffed with nuts. It was a great afternoon!

Before going to our hotel, we visited the Church of the Savior Christ– a magnificent structure that is an operating church now. It had been completed leveled by Stalin and restored to its original design and magnificance only in 1995— opening for worship and to the public in 2000. (Pictures to follow)

All over Russia we have seen brides taking pictures in front of cathedrals, in front of waterways and in all other scenic locales. They come in long stretch white limos with flowers on the hood ornament. They are getting married and taking photographs every day of the week! Mike captured some of them and will post pictures shortly.


St Basil’s Cathedral

After taking a nap, we left the hotel and walked toward the Kremlin and Red Square. The Square was closed to the public today for some kind of motor race event. When we walked over there this evening, the workers were dismantling the exhibitions, but we still could not walk in. The view from our room is incredible— we see St. Basil’s church (it looks like it belongs in Candyland!)

We wound up having dinner (verenikas and borscht!) in the hotel! It was unnerving to see an elderly overweight Russian man come into the cafe with his rather young and beautiful girlfriend– and his body guard, dressed in full army fatigues and carrying a machine gun, standing just outside the cafe! They left quickly, and that made the verenikas much easier to swallow!