Friday, December 24, 2010

2010: Travel Lessons Learned

I didn't travel as much this year as I usually do (Miami, Russia, Paris) but I felt like between planning and anticipating and actually going, I had a whole lot of travel on the mind. Looking back, I've come up with a few lessons learned.

1) No matter how many times you've been somewhere, it can still feel new again. Honestly, I had lost count how many times I've been in Paris. I know, that's a terrible problem to have. But looking back at my passport stamps, I count six, so this time was seven. As much as I relished being able to hit the ground running without having a learning curve, going at Christmastime lent itself to a completely "new" Paris. No tourists, no English spoken here, no crowds, but in their place there was cold weather and snowy fringes left behind after an earlier storm. The Christmas scene in Paris was breathtaking. It was not suffocating like a Hallmark-induced, Labor Day-onward commercial explosion. It was rejuvenating, liberating, and dare I say, spiritual. Paris was looking beautiful for a completely different reason this time of year. It felt new to me again, and it carved its own special memories in my heart.

2) I indulge greedily in the differences. Russia blew me away. That, in fact, may just be the understatement of the year. Perhaps, the understatement of my travel life. Looking back now, I think about what struck me most, what made the biggest impressions on me and what are the fondest take-aways from that time, and it was realizing and appreciating what made Russia and its culture different. I love that the language and the written word are so different (and that I managed to figure them out, even a little). I love that their art and culture is rooted in a history so different from ours. I love that what survives there is based on a spirit that has twisted and suffered under unimaginable influences but somehow persevered. Everything from the pastel colored palaces in St. Petersburg to the grandiose Russian living room of Red Square to blini with caviar and vodka shots makes me smile. No, I can't see that at home, or many other places I travel to, which is why it is all that more precious to me now as I look back.

3) Sometimes, travel changes just work out for the better. American Airlines tore me away from my weekend in Miami unexpectedly early. At first I was disappointed and then frazzled, but I was also relieved. It had not been the best weekend for me; I'd been suffering through it quietly, and I really welcomed the opportunity to jet home early, no matter how hot, sweaty and inconvenienced I was and how many delays and plane changes were ahead of me. I will never look upon a travel diversion again as a bad thing...sometimes, they are the lucky twist of fate.

4) Don't listen to the haters. As people found out I was going to Russia, I got all sorts of unsolicited advice. A docent at the Museum of Russian Icons said "I would not go there now with all the bombings." Friends of my parents said I was crazy for flying on 9/11, another said "I would never go there alone." Well look folks, I went and I came back safe and sound. Instead of thinking that my experience was just a stroke of luck, I instead tend to believe that their perceptions and my actual experience are a reflection of the differences between us and how we approach travel. Honestly, if I didn't do something out of fear or concern for things real or imagined, I'd never go anywhere. Seriously. Travel smart and lean on your common sense.

5) Never say never. Paris was not even on the short list this year, or the next few years even. Russia was always a "bucket list" dream destination. But the desire to celebrate my 40th year in style and also my wanderlust and craving for Monet all played a role in how my travel itinerary played out this year. I've never outwardly ruled out a destination (well, perhaps Iraq or Afghanistan, for now) but it's just sort of funny how my destinations come about. Right now, I'm thinking Croatia or Poland for next year. I wonder what I'll be talking about 12 months from now...

6) Don't try to recreate perfect. Twice I was tempted to recreate what was, to me, a perfect experience. The first came in Moscow when I had the meal to end all meals. I mean really, it was unbelievably good. I remember every detail and recall that the next day I wanted to go right back to have the same meal again. It was that good. My guide encouraged me not to. "Don't mess with perfection", she warned me, and pointed me in the direction of another really, really good meal. She was right. What if I'd gone back the next night and it was sub-par? What if I ordered something else, or worse, the same thing, and it just wasn't as good? She had a point. A couple months later, my sister and I returned to rue de Buci to find our favorite eclair shop, only to find that our little nook of pastry perfection had been converted into an upscale boutique furniture shop. Distraught, we walked away remembering our last time there, and knowing that it will forever be "perfect". Sometimes remembering experiences as they were is far better than trying to recreate the magic.

That's it for now...wishing you merry travels and lots of destination dreams!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Paris Day Three - Last Day

How crazy is that to read...Day Three, Last Day? Believe me, it has gone by way too fast, but on the other hand it also feels like we have been here for a week at least. The ground we have covered, especially the ground we have covered on foot is just ridiculous. Abby keeps saying we need to get a map and mark out everywhere we walked. But I'm not sure she really wants to know, especially as she sits here next to me with cold, wet towels around her swollen ankles and my bottle of Aleve in hand.

This morning we made a bit of a nutritional error. We thought we'd be smart and have an omelette instead of the carb laden breakfast of cereal, croissant, etc. The girl who works the breakfast room whipped up three-egg omelettes for us and served them with a slice of ham. We ate them fine enough (with a croissant or two slathered in Nutella, of course, and a fine pot of coffee) but it wasn't long before both of us felt not so well. Neither of us actually got sick but there were moments this morning when I had my doubts about living long enough to see the Monet exhibition. Seriously. I should have known better than to trust a small hotel kitchen with potentially toxic eggs and breakfast meat. Never again.

That aside, we still managed to set out by 10:00 and we zipped up the Metro 1 line to La Defense, which I'd only seen once and Abby had never been to. Defense is the "business sector" of the city where they have managed to hide away all the skyscrapers and financial district. At the heart of it is a massive metal arch structure called Grande Arche de la Defense. It's like the contemporary art version of the Arc de Triomphe, and in fact, lines up directly with the Arc de Triomphe as you can look straight down the Avenue to the Arc de Triomphe about 2 miles away.

Here at Defense though is the largest of all the Christmas markets. This one opened at 11:00 so we killed some time walking around a very windy and cold plaza and taking pictures of an enormous statue of a thumb (don't ask, I'm honestly not sure!). Once in the market, we realized we had really done the markets when there was nothing that we hadn't seen before in terms of offerings, food. It was much too early for mulled wine (even I must admit) and the smell of the food cooking was turning both of our stomachs, so we didn't last long at this one. I did finally find something I wanted to buy here, though. One stall was selling real flowers that had been set into glass pendants. I picked out a tiny forget me not for me, and a gorgeous red flower for Mom for taking care of my boy while I'm away. But that was it. After a picture in Santa's chair (he apparently starts his work day later than noontime), we were done for in terms of Christmas markets!

We zipped back down the Metro 1 line to the Champs Elysees where Abby and I visited Louis Vuitton. Abby (the world's largest Louis Vuitton fan) calls this the Mother Ship, because it is indeed their flagship store. Last trip here, I believe the highlight of it all was her first official Louis purchase. We went back because I saw a scarf in the window that I liked. In the end, we both bought a scarf, and I believe the highlight of Abby's trip was when the sales person said she "found" her in the Louis computer system from last time she made a purchase here. Oh brother...

From here, we walked down Avenue d'Iena toward the Eiffel Tower. We both have been here before, but believe me when I tell you that I never tire of seeing it. No matter how close or how far from it I am, it still makes me smile. We approached it from the side rather than straight on, and passed through a really nice neighborhood where we kept seeing peeks of the tower between the buildings and through the trees. Finally we arrived just across the bridge from it, so we crossed the Seine, taking pictures most of the way. Today ended up being quite sunny and finally shone through with a blue sky and big white puffy clouds. All thoughts of snow were long gone. We walked around and under the Tower, through a small neighborhood to the side of it, through the park around it. Honestly, this is my fourth or fifth time I've been this close and still, I find new ways to see it, both with and without a camera lens.

Around 2:30 we took a cab back to the hotel to leave our Louis Vuitton bags and walked to Les Deux Magots, which is a famous cafe where many of the famous writers or days past used to sit and argue and smoke over their coffees and absinthe. Today it was jam-packed with mostly Parisians, which was cool. Abby surprised herself with a very good haricot vert (green bean) salad. I had a croque monsieur sandwich again with mixed salad. We were trying to warm up from the time we'd spent out in the wind near the tower, so we had chocolate chaude, hot chocolate, which is literally melted chocolate in a pot, as well as a pot of coffee. Yee ha. I had a coffee cream-filled soft cookie for dessert and Abby had an eclair. Clearly, we'd recovered from our earlier digestive distress.

At 4:00 we made our way to the Grand Palais, where we had reserved tickets for the raison d'etre of this trip: the Monet exhibition. Before I go into insane amounts of detail (and feel free to skip it), let me just say now that it's over, it was completely, entirely, absolutely worth it. As one who loves Monet like I do, I cannot imagine NOT seeing this. I am smitten all over again.

The premise of the show was to make the French appreciate Monet again, instead of dismissing him as too ordinary or pedestrian. I'm not sure if it worked. We interviewed a few French people as part of Abby's thesis research and they already loved Monet. So would this win over the haters? We're not sure.

The exhibition was organized mostly thematically and a bit chronologically. The first couple of rooms covered his very early paintings. The subjects were things I never even knew about, like harbor scenes, and it was before he adopted the slightly out-of-focus, abstract eye that he is known for now. He did portraits? Still lives? Who knew?

I think what was most striking for me was the series works. It is one thing to say that Monet was known for his studies of light and shadow. To see one of his Rouen Cathedrals and say "oh, that's the effect of morning light" is one thing, but to see five done at different times of day and realize the different light just by your own power of observation, is quite another. Do that with the haystacks, the poplars, the waterlillies, Venetian scenes, British Parliament, Antibes oceanfronts. Honestly, seeing them side by side, like they haven't been since he painted them is just incredible. And it made me realize just how good he really was at what he did. One of the discussions on the audio guide said that on his first day in Antibes, he had started forty canvases. Forty. He painted over 2000 paintings in his life. To do just one that is worthy of this acclaim would be enough. To do 2000 is incomprehensible. To be able to see nearly 200 in one place at one time like we did today is a blessing. Truly a blessing.

In the end, over 40 museums from all over the world loaned works to this exhibition. We were keeping track for a while but it got overwhelming. The MFA in Boston loaned 5. The Met, three. It seemed like the now-closed-for-renovations Orsay here in Paris emptied their attic and basement for this, because I've been to the Orsay four times and there were dozens from the Orsay I'd never seen before. What was ironic is that I got to see both of the paintings from Russia that I saw the "we're sorry, this work is on loan" cards for at the Hermitage and Pushkin back in September!

I will stop gushing long enough to admit it was not perfect. First, the crowds in the first four rooms or so were insane. At one point I was 10 people deep in front of a painting. But I found the longer that I was patient, the more people dropped out. It was like the Monet marathon. Everyone had the best of intentions as they started, looking at every painting, reading every label, listening to every soundbite. But by halfway, the galleries were half empty and I was able to view Monet the way I do: first from a distance of about 15 feet out, then up close to see the brush strokes, then back up again. The crowds would not allow for that sort of viewing, but thankfully by the best of the series paintings, I could. And second, I have to admit that the big culmination of the show sort of fell flat for me. They worked the series paintings up to the big finish: the waterlillies. Unfortunately for this exhibition, the Marmottan has the best collection, so these sort of felt like also-rans to me. It was just a bit of an anticlimax. That said, it was still an amazing exhibition and an experience I already relish. I have a 300 page catalog at home (hard-cover, I had it sent home to me before we came over!) waiting to be cracked open and devoured, and I can hardly wait.

It took us nearly 2 1/2 hours to get through the exhibition, and by then we were hungry again. I tried my best to find Abby her beef borguignon (who knew it isn't a staple at every French restaurant?), but by the time I did, it was a 20 minute wait and nearly 8:30. She dragged me out and we ate at an Italian restaurant near our hotel. It wasn't bad, despite the fact that I couldn't believe I was eating Italian in France. We both had the gnocchi gorgonzola, which was quite good; the buffalo mozzarella which was ok (but not Sorrento-quality!) and the profiteroles for dessert. It hit the spot anyway, despite not being the beef she wanted. I managed to wash down a few glasses of beaujolais, so I was happy.

We got back to the hotel around 10:30 and packed. I phoned Alain our happy taxi driver from Friday and he's picking us up at 10:00 tomorrow, so we're good. And with that, we say "A bientot" to Paris. Until next time.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Paris Day Two

Today started out innocently enough. We both slept well and soundly. Up at 8:30 and enjoying the hotel breakfast by 9:30. For 14 euro, it is all you can eat here. It's pretty extensive. While Abby behaved herself at breakfast, I broke the bank. Anytime, anywhere there are croissants with Nutella, I'm done for. So with OJ and corn flakes to start, I had two amazingly fresh croissants with all the Nutella I could handle. Sigh. In order to balance the carbs out, I did have yogurt, thinking the protein there wouldn't leave me madly hungry at 11:30. I was wrong.

We zipped out on the Metro (the 4 to the 1 to the 9, all transfers were fast and flawless, the way public transportation should be) and we walked through the cute little park to the Musee Marmottan for their version of "the Monet exhibition".

For those playing along at home, the whole reason I am here is THE Monet exhibition, which is tomorrow. It is nearly 200 paintings from all over the world, brought together in the Grand Palais. The Musee Marmottan, which is the collection of Monet's family, refused to loan any works to the big exhibition, instead choosing to run their own at just about the same time. And blessed I was that they did.

The museum is small anyway, and I'd been three times before, so I'd seen everything it had on display. But for this, they emptied the attic, and then some. I really had very low expectations that I'd see anything new. I was pretty blown away. The ground floor rooms focused on Monet's friends (works they did of him and his family), Monet's caricatures and his travels to other parts of the world. The caricatures were interesting to see because they were very much unlike the work we know so well from him; they are more like exaggerated cartoons of people he knew. But at one time, they paid his bills. The room devoted to others' paintings of him (and his wife) was interesting, because I primarily "know" him as the round little old man with the long white beard and mustache. At one time though, he was clean shaven, svelte and tall dark and handsome, go figure. There was a pair of paintings of him and his wife done by Renoir, which was just fabulous. One of the quotes nearby said that Renoir was the only person to speak to Monet in the French familiar "tu" form, which speaks to me of how much respect others gave him and also how close Renoir was to him.

There were letters and books and sketchbooks, two palettes with his paint still on them, and a pair of his glasses with thick, yellow-tinted lenses. Later in the exhibition we learned that his cataract surgery late in life left him with an exaggerated sense of color, which he tempered with the yellow lenses.

This exhibition had several "series" of Monet's on display, a few I'd never seen. The basement large room is used to display the larger panels in his collection, and prior to this, it was mostly waterlillies. Today though, there were series of weeping willows, the rose arbor at Giverny, the Japanese bridge at Giverny, flowers generally and of course, the waterlillies. It was interesting to see how they'd brought together paintings for each "series" and presented them cohesively, as if to prove that series painting was Monet's thing. I loved it.

My main complaint, though, was that while the placards describing each room were in both English and French, the labels on the artworks themselves were only in French. There is a reason why these exhibitions were held in the tourist off-season, and that was to make Monet more accepted by his countrymen. If they held this in the dead of the tourist season, it would be full of Americans. Really. Today we were the only Americans I saw there; it was all French speaking people, to my ears. But that doesn't mean that I still don't want to learn from the labels. My French is good enough to get around and make conversation, but not learn from art labels. Ok, rant over.

Now that I mention it, I haven't seen many Americans here at all. I know it is off-season but I'd expect a few more tourists. Usually when we see people who are obvious tourists, they are Japanese. Maybe it's just the holiday season.

From the museum, we hopped the Metro back to Trocadero, where we had lunch overlooking the Eiffel Tower. I told Abby that I don't really feel like "I'm here" until I see all three of: Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. Today we satisfied the last. Lunch was at a brasserie at Trocadero. For repeat visitors, a croque monsieur (grilled cheese) or croque madame (grilled cheese with egg on top) is what you dream about. To balance out the nutritional value slightly, I had it was a mixed green salad, but I think probably the kir royale cocktail and the tarte tatin (apple tart) that I had for dessert negated any benefit from the salad. With all that protein though, we were super-charged for the afternoon.

We walked over to Trocadero, overlooking the Tower and the fountains leading up to it. Unbeknownst to me, there was yet another Christmas Market set up around the fountains, with an added ice rink and snow park that the other markets didn't have. We contemplated having a stroll through the markets and over to the Tower, but it was colder and threatening rain, so we're gambling that tomorrow might be a better day for that.

On we went down the road to the Alma Tunnel area, where I showed Abby where Princess Diana died and the flame statue that to this day remains a memorial to her. Nearby was our destination: the Pierre Berge and Yves St. Laurent Foundation, which was hosting the David Hockney exhibit. While I am not at all a fan of modern art, this one blew me away. Hockney happened to start playing with his iPhone one morning, drawing the sunrise as he saw it out his window. Then he started drawing the flowers that were put in his room every day. The scenes and still lives of fresh flowers that he drew are what made up this exhibition. It had 20 iPhone and 20 iPads, each of which cycled through either a series of 4 or 5 flower "paintings" or presented an animated progression as he did one from a clean slate through to the end. It was fascinating for me, I suppose because I am a techno geek. The catalog has an interview with him, in which he explains how he started doing this, how he literally emailed the exhibition to this gallery and how he is unsure how to get paid for this medium, since it can be shared repeatedly without being tracked, just by forwarding an email or sharing a file. Wow.

Our surprises for the day were two. First, Abby saw Pierre Berge, one of the names of this gallery, bringing a couple through the exhibit. This was significant to her as Berge was not only the founder of the gallery but YSL's partner and manager. She was awestruck by his presence. Then, as we sat watching the iPads cycle through all their images, an older gentleman walked by, and she thought, and we confirmed with a quick Google here at the hotel, that it was indeed Warren Buffett. That impressed me. So now we know what the incredibly wealthy do two weeks before Christmas, they go to Paris and follow us around!

After this exhibit, we hopped the Metro up to the big department stores. I knew from my trip research what to expect in terms of decorations, but I neglected to factor in the utter chaos the big stores would be on the second to last weekend before Christmas. Calamity, chaos or just really big crowds, it was overwhelming and panicky. The sidewalks were shoulder-to-shoulder and ten deep off the street. We made it up to Printemps, saw a few windows, went inside a bit and cut back outside when inside was too crowded. I knew I wanted to see the 4-story Christmas tree inside Galleries Lafayette, but the sidewalk was insanely crowded and not moving very fast. We cut across the street, walked toward Lafayette and crossed back over. We made it inside, but it was bumper to bumper people again. We did get to the center, where we had a few seconds to look up, take a few photos of a gorgeous tree hanging from the main atrium of the store, then run before we got trampled. I'd wanted to go up a few levels to take pictures from different angles, but there was a line for the escalator at least 50 people long: they were doing crowd control on the upper floors, I kid you not. So we evacuated and headed back to the hotel to crash for a bit before dinner. I'm glad we saw it all, but it wasn't the relaxing holiday vibe we are both after.

Before dinner we strolled down to St. Sulpice church (our hotel is on rue St. Sulpice, just up the block from the church). There, we found another Christmas market. It wasn't as spectacular as the one from last night; it was probably 10 stalls and a big temporary building of "vintage" stuff. Abby found some vintage Louis Vuitton. I managed to find a ring I loved that wasn't vintage but made by the guy running booth. It was an orange sapphire set between two thin bands of diamonds. And it fit perfectly...sigh. Unfortunately it was over one paycheck's worth of cash, so I boldly walked away. But it will remain the ring I dream about for years to come, I assure you of that!

Dinner tonight was at a restaurant I'd found in my research. Le Temps Perdu is near our hotel so very convenient. We decided to get the 25 euro fixed price menu, which was an appetizer, main dish and dessert. We both had onion soup, which was even better than last night's. Then we had fried steak with bernaise sauce. Mine came a bit too rare so I sent it back to get it recooked. Abby thought the meat was a bit too fatty but I enjoyed it once it was not bleeding on my plate any longer. It came with au gratin potatoes, which I liked. I had the "floating island of the house" dessert. This was a pool of vanilla cream with a large puffy meringue floating in it, all drizzled in caramel sauce. Good lord, it was delicious. We both had a kir royale and I ordered a carafe of beaujolais, which I loved. I'm finding the new beaujuolais I have had to be very light and very fruity, which I will keep in mind for Christmas!

After dinner we walked down Boulevard St. Germain to that neighborhood's Christmas market. It was a bit bigger, but by now we'd seen all the goods at the other markets. We were really in it for the mulled wine (no supplements tonight) and we window shopped a bit before heading back to the hotel. It's amazing how big your pocketbook feels when the stores are all closed.

So tomorrow, the big Monet exhibition at 5:30. I'm not sure how we'll fill the day just yet, but I know we will...

Friday, December 10, 2010

Paris Day One

I'll have to cut to the chase on this one since I have now been up for 36 hours straight and am eagerly awaiting sleep.

We made it here fine. Brilliantly in fact. Both flights were completely uneventful, except for us thinking Kevin Garnet of the Celtics was sitting in front of us. I'm not sure why he'd be flying in the cheap seats on IcelandAir during basketball season, but it gave us something to talk about and someone to stalk to the restrooms. In the end, we don't think it was him. He didn't answer to Kevin or flinch when I yelled "rebound" and I tend to doubt he'd carry a pink floral laptop cover like this guy had. Anyway...

I had wanted to try to take the RER train from Charles de Gaulle into Paris. It is only 8 euro (compared to 50 or so for a taxi) and twice as fast. However the line to buy tickets was about 20 people long and not moving, so this led us to find a taxi and meet our new friend Alain. I had my doubts about Alain when I first saw him chain smoking in his taxi outside Terminal 1. But he jumped out, wrestled my sister's suitcase from her, and loaded our luggage in eagerly and as we climbed in back, the smooth melodies of Frank Sinatra were oozing out of his CD player. He shut the CD off as he started the car, and we both objected. I said to him in French "no, no, no, we love Frank!" And he growled back "French car, eet eez sheet...cannot start with CD on, not nice American car like you have." And so our love affair with Alain began. This nice middle aged guy sang Frank with us all the way into the city center. He complained about the traffic, saying "eet eez sheet"...so Alain apparently only knows one obscenity in English, and we got it twice. When we finally got to our hotel, he asked when we were leaving the city for the airport again, offered us his card, asked us to pre-book him the night before, and that he'd take us back to the airport "wizout zee supplement sheeet". So we're hooking up with Alain again on Monday and getting a cheaper fare without the airport supplemental fees. Yee ha.

We quickly changed and headed right back out. Our first unplanned stop was a macaron shop nearby. My sister hadn't tried any the last time we were here and we were feeling a bit peckish. We bought 6 and kept them for our walk. She was duly impressed with the caramel and chocolate ones, a fact we'd keep in mind later on.

Our first, and hopefully only, tragedy of the trip was our much anticipated return to rue de Buci for the eclairs at Bonbonniere de Buci. Alas, we made it to the street and walked up and down a few times, and have finally conceded that the cute little neighborhood market street has been overrun with more upscale shops and boutiques and our beloved Bonbonniere was run out of town. We tried an eclair on Buci just in case, but neither of us had a strong feeling either way whether it was as good or just a suitable replacement.

We made our way to Notre Dame and took in the Christmas tree that is prominently decorated right out front. We made a pass through the inside as well to see the nativity that is there, but we both were underwhelmed with what looked like something from the Hallmark Paper Store rather than something suitable for the church.

Everything here seems to be decorated for the season: cafes, restaurants, museums, shops, car dealerships. And it's all done with the same swagger with which the French are able to wrap scarves, that is, very classy, with taste, and not like you'll ever be able to pull off yourself at home! It is just gorgeous.

After Notre Dame, we walked toward the Marais neighborhood, stopping at a crepe stand where we both had a crepe. (Remember, we last ate in Boston at 6 pm Thursday, it was now about 8 am Boston time!) I had a caramel crepe that was literally a plain crepe baked and folder and then filled with ladels of caramel sauce. Abby had butter and sugar, which she said was rather light on both butter and sugar.

We made it to the Carnavalet Museum for the Louis Vuitton exhibition. This is not something I would have gone to on my own, but Abby loves Louis, so there we were. I actually learned quite a lot about the Vuittons (there was not just one running the show over the years) and that they started out primarily as luggage and trunks producers. The trunks they had were really impressively handcrafted and well-preserved over the last 150 years or so.

After Louis, we returned to Au Pied du Couchon, which translates to "Pig's Feet" or, as we effectionately call it, the Pig Place. We ate here last time, and recall the onion soup to be beyond parallel. And it still is. It was tastier this time due to how cold it was out (warmer than home, but still cold to be outside, about 34 degrees). I had the mashed potato and black pudding main dish and creme brulee dessert. My sister had duck which I tried and was very tasty. As it is beaujolais season here, I did have two glasses to go with my meal. Well, I'm not sure if beaujolias is meant to go with black pudding, but that's what I had. And enjoyed.

Now refortified and ready to go, we took the Metro to the base of the Champs Elysees and walked the Christmas markets in this neighborhood. The markets are hard to explain, but in essence, many neighborhoods have them. They allow vendors, crafty people and food people to set up booths with things to sell. The wares run from chocolates, candles, woolens, jewelry, wooden toys, fleece items...you name it. The food is everything from cotton candy to sausages to foie gras on toast to mulled wine. We got hooked early on one particular booth that had mulled wine with "supplements", meaning rum, calvados or vodka shots. Good glory...the hot wine, the heat from the alcohol, it was a dangerous combination, but one that fueled us all the way up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, a walk about 2 miles, and on no sleep and very little food. Abby asked at one point why she was disturbed that we were walking with open Solo cups of alcohol, happily imbibing. I said I was more disturbed by the 14 year old kid who served it, but hey, vive la France. Who am I to complain? If this is wrong, I don't want to be right!

This market also had a santa in a sleigh who they'd strung between two towers and on the half hour, they'd send him across and back again, as he (a real man) would wave to the kids and talk to them over the microphone. Abby and I both immediately commented that we didn't know Santa spoke French, but DUH apparently he does, in FRANCE!

We made a couple pit stops on the way up the Champs Elysees to admire the window displays in Louis Vuitton (of course) and buy more macarons in Laduree, which is known for this brilliant confection (and in our opinion, wins hands down, especially with the salted caramel one!)

So once we made it up to the Arc we hopped the Metro and headed back to our hotel. Abby is already sound asleep, and I'm not far behind. We have two museums and a whole lot of Christmas markets to see tomorrow. A bientot!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I packed boots!

If any of you have known me for any period of time, you probably are well aware that I loathe winter. I despise cold, whine my way through sleet and become downright profane with snow. So as I finished my packing last night, I never thought it would come to this: I packed snow boots.

I've been following posts from my fellow travelers on the Fodors travel forum, and Kerouac, an ex-pat living in Paris, posted a set of photos he took yesterday morning. This is probably all you need to see. To a life-long Bostonian, that's nothing to even think twice about. But to a part of the world that rarely, if ever, sees the white stuff (they don't even have plows, shovels or salt trucks in Paris), this is crippling. The media reports this morning are full of stories of people who were sleeping in cars last night because they couldn't get home. That happens in Boston maybe once every 7 years when we get two FEET or so of snow in a very quick period of time, not the trace that Paris got yesterday.

And here I go, snow-loather extraordinaire, off to the land of newly fallen, and hard to handle, snow.

On the brightside, the space taken up in my small suitcase by these boots will results in my not missing a beat, I hope. Here I come Christmas markets, mulled wine and Monet exhibition. I just need to squeeze out 7 more hour at work. I'll be meeting my sister and my luggage at Logan right after work, and away we go. I just hope the snow is done for now and we're able to land at Charles de Gaulle tomorrow morning! I remain confident that any day in Paris, even in the snow, is better than any day at my desk at work.

I'll be back with reports from the road....au revoir!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Paris T minus in the teens

Honestly it feels like I've just done this: gathered the trial sized items, started to pile up the city map and travel guides, wondered how much really will fit in my carry-on. But here we are, only two more weekends between us and Paris. Can it be?

Of course I'm excited about the Monet exhibition, the whole reason we're going, but now I'm growing more excited about seeing Paris at Christmastime, something I've never done. Hell, I've never been to Europe later than early November before! I've seen pictures, so I know what I'm in for. It looks truly stunning. I want to share them with my Dear Sister Traveling Companion but I want her to be surprised. Already she said of one of the Christmas markets "I want to have my picture taken with the French Santa Claus". Oh boy, does he know what he's in for?

So on the agenda, we have Monet at the Grand Palais, Monet at the Marmottan, a Louis Vuitton exhibit, a David Hockney exhibit and perhaps a stroll through the Louvre. But other than that, I feel like we're pretty open. I wouldn't mind strolling the markets, drinking mulled wine, finding that foie gras on toast and really drinking in the Christmastide.

Now to see if three days of clothes really can fit in my carry-on....

Saturday, November 6, 2010

T-Minus a little less than five weeks

Since I last wrote I've had the surprising addition of my Dear Sister to my long weekend excursion to Paris. She lucked out with her three day delay between the time I floated the idea by her and booked the trip myself when she said she couldn't go and the time when she became cash flush and could go. The fare went down nearly $100.

So I've changed the hotel room to accommodate us both and bought her a ticket to the Monet exhibition. As time draws closer, I get more excited. I love the fact that we've both seen the main sights in the city and can concentrate on a few art exhibits (Monet both at the Grand Palais and the Marmottan, the Louis Vuitton at the Musee Carnavalet and the David Hockney iPhone exhibit at the Foundation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent). That will allow us time to enjoy all that is Christmas in Paris and maybe just a leisurely stroll from patisserie to patisserie.

I've sort of abandoned the idea of taking a day trip to Rouen. As much as I want to see the town, I've found there's more to Paris this time of year than I expected. I did a bit of research and it seems that there are neighborhood Christmas markets during the month of December, one of which is right in the neighborhood where our hotel is, near St. Sulpice church. The three main department stores also have large window displays for the holidays and the Champs Elysses is lit up as well. I've never been to Europe so close to Christmas before and am excited to have a sort of non-commercial holiday experience.

I'm also beyond excited to eat. Let's not kid ourselves here, Paris is the best city in the world for food. And wine. And pastry. So I'll be partaking in all of the above, and maybe some crepes and croque monsieurs as well. Diet be damned. You only visit Paris once. Well, maybe seven times...but you get my drift.

Last time Dear Sister and I were in Paris, she was dreadfully sick with pneumonia. We (or maybe I) had no idea how sick at the time but I'm hearing now that she didn't enjoy it as she should have. Here's raising a glass (Kir Royale) to making sure she does this time.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Scratching the itch

Coming home is always an experience of mixed emotions. There is the joy in getting reacquainted with those whom you missed (parents, sister, cat) and the fun in telling your travel stories to anyone who'll listen and even to those who won't listen. There is the sorting of the photos, making the photo album, getting the watercolor you bought framed. But it always seems that after about 10 days, once the luggage is put away, the jetlag and residual headcold have worn off, reality strikes again. This happened to me last week and it was painful. In fact, it was more painful than I ever remember it being.

Is the gloom and pseudo-depression that set in a sign that it was just a really good trip? Does it mean that Russia was everything I expected and more? How is it possible, then, for something so good to leave me feeling so bad?

Wednesday and Thursday last week were painful for me. Perhaps it's the combined effects of the bum hip, an irresponsible personal trainer and a lethargic gloom of reality that fell over me at work. It really was over, and I was in a funk. I felt like I was coming down with something, just could not get behind myself.

So I did what any rabid traveler would do: I started looking at a quick fix. I have my sights set on a longer trip to Poland in the spring, but I am not going to last that long. I need to address the burn I feel now, now. And that's when IcelandAir sprung an amazing fare on me in its weekly email. And as soon as I said the words out loud -- "I'm kicking around a long weekend to Paris" -- I knew it was virtually certain I'd found the scratch for this itch.

I thought about it for a couple of days, reminding myself of the massive, history-making Monet exhibition that is on in Paris until the end of January, and I went to see what dates IcelandAir could whisk me away. I waited another day, confirmed I could get Mom to look after the cat, and I did it. In about 10 minutes I had air, hotel and a ticket to the exhibition. I am going just for three days, but I am going. Immediately, the fog lifted and I was on fire again.

Paris is an interesting contrast to Russia. I've been to Paris 5? 6? times before and I know it. I've seen most of it and I know my arrondissements. I can hit the ground running on day one. I just need to decide how and where to spend my time, which is a half day Friday and all day Saturday and Sunday. I will fly home at 2:00 p.m. on Monday, so I can get a good breakfast and lunch in Paris before I come home.

I picked a hotel in the 6th that is ordinarily $370 a night and got it for $200 a night. Not cheap, and more than my airfare, but remember, we're scratching an itch here. So because it's only 3 days and I've been before and I just want to see the exhibition, maybe day-trip to Rouen and otherwise just hang out, I'm challenging myself to make this trip carry-on luggage and Paris map only. No big suitcase, no pile of guidebooks. I'm going to just go and be on this trip.

We'll see how that works out. But for now the countdown is on again. And I feel better.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Russia - Coming Home

Don't take any of the following as having any bearing whatsoever on how much I enjoyed my trip. It just seems as though as perfect as the preceding 10 days were, my travel day home was fraught with missteps, near disaster and a whole lot of hassle.

You might remember that my suitcase seemed a bit heavy but that I thought I'd taken care of it with a careful packing the day before I left. Well, in fairness to the driver who I nearly killed under the load of this bag in St. Petersburgh, one of the wheels on it had been broken in transit, so it wasn't exactly as mobile as it should be. And apparently all my working out with Jon made me not realize the suitcase was as heavy as it is, because at check-in in Moscow, they made me "repack" right there at the check-in desk, unzipping my bag for the whole world to see my dirty laundry, literally. Problem was, I'd already packed all the heaviest stuff in my carry-on, in anticipation of this ritual which I'd done before. There wasn't much more stuff I could take out of the larger suitcase and carry on. I was meant to shed 6 kilograms, about 12 pounds! In the end, the agent let me carry on a shopping bag of stuff, so Dad's fur hat, a castle replica with a music box and three sets of matroyshka dolls all came on board with me.

Moving on to immigration, you might also remember how I said I "breezed in" to Russia when I arrived? Well on departure, the immigration agent was suspect of me because I did not look like my picture. Even when I took off my glasses, they were still doubtful. (I was pretending that I'd lost some weight in the 8 years since I had that photo taken, to ease the pain of this entire experience). I'll tell you, having Russian immigration officials, four of them, criticizing your picture and entry documents is a near intestinal-releasing experience. All I needed was three stamps on three documents to send me on my way, and it took them 20 minutes and a superivsor to get those stamps. But when I finally had the documents handed back to me, hallelujah! I ran for duty-free...where I had room in my bags to buy exactly nothing! Oh well.

Fast forward a bit to Munich, where I "only" had 90 minutes to connect to my flight to Boston. I had to go through security again though, despite never leaving the secured zone of the airport; literally off one plane, on to the bus to the terminal and into the terminal and directly on to the next plane. But the security agents saw the two Faberge eggs (replicas, not the real thing, but they apparently look like primative bomb parts) in my carry-on and, you guessed it, I had to unpack the entire carry-on for inspection. I actually think this was more the satisfaction of a bet between the two security guards, because while they were both looking at the x-ray of this bag, I heard them say twice "Faberge", so my guess is they were just trying to prove that's what they really were. But in my eye, this engorged carry-on wasn't meant to be anything but unpacked once, and that was supposed to be in the comfort of home, but I did it. I had no choice. And I repacked it too. And still managed to make the flight, even with a toilet and water stop!

And finally...Munich is one of those airports where the plane can taxi forever to take off. I mean we taxied so long that at one point I expected to look out the window and see Logan on one side and the Tobin on the other. We finally arrived at what looked like the take-off runway, and then the pilot came over the PA and, as is customary on Lufthansa, made the announcement first in German and then in English. All I heard at first was "blahblahblah PROBLEM blahblahblah PROBLEM blahblahblah PROBLEM". I knew something was awry even before he announced in English that there was a strong electrical burning smell in the forward galley and we'd be returning to the parking stand to investigate. Excellent. Long story short, it took them an hour to identify a coffee maker that was smoking (as in burning, not lighting a Marlboro) and they tossed that off-board on to the tarmac. Literally. Then another hour to confirm all other systems were go. Then we taxied again and took off. The 8 hour flight became 10 1/2 hours. But finally I arrived home. Safe and sound. I supposed it is better to find the smoking coffee maker before take off than somewhere mid-Atlantic.

Looking back even while still a bit jetlagged, the entire trip on the ground in Russia was just so wonderful, that while temporarily inconvenienced, I would not let the travel day jade my experience. Stuff happens. I am home safe and sound and with a wonderful trip under my belt.

Stay tuned for more...I have a few thoughts for longer essays on some of the things I blogged about in brief. Thank you for reading along with me though and for all of the feedback via email! You're fanning the flame for future travel writing!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Russia, last day

Subtitled: Kremlin crawl, changing of the guard groupie, underground strings and the tears that they bring

Last full day in Moscow dawned again bright and sunny, and blissfully remained so all day. We were in and out of doors for most of the day. I started the day off as I did yesterday, with the massive breakfast buffet, learning it is better to stick with the mixed berry granola, and a cappuccino at my local Starbucks. Irina showed up right at 9:30 and we walked to the Kremlin for our pre-assigned entrance time of 10:00.

I thanked Irina profusely for the recommendation of last night’s dinner and said that I was contemplating a return tonight. She shook her head and said “ah, no, you leave it be; you cannot repeat perfection.” And she promised to come up with something good for me tonight.

I should preface my telling of the Kremlin tour by saying the Kremlin is not Red Square. It is where the president works first and foremost, so security is tight and very strict. It is not free and open to the public at any old time. There are permitted entry hours and you can book ahead. You also have to go through quite a few metal detectors. We waited in line sandwiched between two elderly tour groups and I silently thanked the travel gods for gently nudging me in the direction of MIR. Bullet dodged there!

Our first stop in the Kremlin was the Armory. This was a fanciful trip through the history of Russia’s tsars and emperors, where they had collections of silver, ostentatious gifts from other countries, original carriages that they used. You can tell with my rather brief description that, while I did enjoy seeing it, it was not the highlight of the visit. What I enjoyed quite a bit more were the dresses worn by Catherine the Great and Alexandra, the last Romanov tsarina. Catherine’s in particular were particularly noteworth because those she wore when she had just come from Germany had about a 12 inch waist (not kidding!) and after 20 years of Russian cooking and good living, well, it was quite a bit bigger. The other part of the collection that was just beautiful was the Faberge egg collection. There are so few in the world (I believe 36?) and about a half dozen are here; the rest are in private collections. They were stunning. That’s all I can say about them without using every other insufficient superlative in my vocabulary.

An unexpected side trip in the Kremlin occurred when Irina got access for me into the Diamond Fund, which ordinarily has to be booked ahead. This is a vault deep under the Kremlin that houses, among other things, the crown jewels. She felt it was important that I see them since I’ve seen Great Britain’s and they are compared to those and the Shah’s Jewels in Iran. Since it was timed entry, there were maybe 20 people total in both rooms. After getting buzzed through two vault doors by security guys who looked like Secret Service, I found myself in the first room which held uncut and cut gems that are part of the collection, not in any particular jewelry settings. It was almost unbelievable that these were actually real because they were so big. Any gem you can imagine was here in one way shape or form: emeralds as big as a plum, gorgeous smoky quartz, rubies, diamonds, sapphires, amethysts, lapis, jade, opal, pearl…it was endless. This room also contains jewels set into pins, tiaras, brooches in the last 20 years or so, but those are only for exhibition and no one wears them.

The Emperor’s Crown though, and the scepter and orb, were just incredible. It was so hard to comprehend they were real. I cannot even begin to describe how blinding the diamonds were, how beautiful the Orlov diamond on the tip of the scepter was. And I got to stand there by myself and just admire. It was surreal. (In London you get whisked by the crown jewels on a moving staircase and cannot get so close or spend any time admiring them).

After the Armory tour, we walked along the Kremlin walls and found Cathedral Square, so named for the several churches that border it. (I learned that they call their churches cathedrals if they have an iconostasis separating the worshippers from the altar. If there is no iconostasis, it is just a chapel, and usually only has one dome.) There was only one church I had my heart set on getting into, and it was the one that is on the cover of my guidebook. I was anxious to see if I’d have to ask to go or if that was on the itinerary; surely we would not visit all 7 churches. I was thrilled to discover that Assumption Cathedral was the first we were to visit, and that was my church. The exterior of the church is pretty unassuming: mostly white with a few golden domes. But inside, the frescos are floor to ceiling, wall to wall and they are exceptional. On top of that it has one of the most impressive iconostasis that I’ve ever seen (not that I’ve seen many ever, but I’ve seen quite a few this week). Taking it all in was almost sensory overload but still very impressive. I was thrilled. Irina said that this is “pretty typical” of Russian Orthodox church, which seems like a lot of work to me given how many churches there are, but it’s an interesting fact.

We walked the rest of the Kremlin area and she took me into one more church only to show me the special exhibition of Lalique glass that was there. That was pretty interesting and nice that she thought that I would like to do that.

I was growing weary as by now it was nearly 1:45 and it had been a long time since the fuel from breakfast was running out. So we walked to GUM and went upstairs to their food court (which, thankfully, is a far cry from the food court in the malls at home). She suggested an “Asian” place but I sort of balked at it. Then I realized that their idea of Asian is actually Turkish, not Japanese or Chinese like I expected. So I had what she had: mutton on a spicy rice pilaf with tomato and onion and I ordered a side of Russian potato salad, which was pretty much like ours.

Fully refortified, we headed back out and did the rest of the tour of Red Square. There wasn’t much I didn’t already know about it, so it was a brief pass through and she left me at the Historical Museum, which we agreed I would see on my own. This was the end of my time with Irina, and she hugged me and thanked me. She said that clients like me are the reason she keeps doing this; it was a pleasure for her to show someone so mentally and emotionally invested what her country is all about. I think Mom and Dad would be proud, because both of my guides said this about me. It’s sort of like bringing home a report card that says “Amy is a joy to have in class.” But really, it is just my natural inquisitiveness and passion to learn. I asked Irina for her address because I want to send her the book Make Way for Ducklings, since she showed me those statues yesterday and had never read the book.

Anyway, I did go through the History museum, but without a guide it is sort of useless. None of the exhibit labels are in English. Some of the rooms have one card explaining everything in every case in the room, but it’s tied to the wall, so visitors can’t walk around the room with it. I considered it a wash and left after the second floor. If you’re vaguely interested, it seemed to trace the history of Russia back to Paleolithic times; I am not kidding, there were displays of rock from thousands of years B.C.!

One of the things we passed by earlier in the day was the eternal flame which is in Alexander Garden and commemorates all who have fallen while serving the country. It is guarded by three guards, two of whom do not move an inch the entire hour they are on duty. At the top of every hour, they change guards. Irina suggested that I come back for that later in the day, as it had just happened when we were strolling by.

So at 4:00 I was there, in the spot Irina said was best. At about 10 of 4:00, the main guard comes out from near his guardhouse and inspects the two on either side of the eternal flame. Then he returns to the guardhouse and from way down the path on the right, three freshly rested guards come goose-stepping down the long path. I will tell you, the silence when they approach is deafening. And seeing them march gave me chills. The sound of their feet hitting the pavement just resonates in you. They swap out the two immobile guards, who then goose-step back the way the new guards came. In all, it takes about 6 minutes total. Not like in London where there are bands and a parade, more like Arlington National Cemetery where it is subdued and serious. But I was hooked. It’s sort of an adrenalin rush for me to see them approaching that way. And I noticed that when the old guards retire, they go first to the flame and pay respects, turn and face front and center toward the crowd, then goose-step off. Oh yeah, I decided right then that I was coming back, front and center.

So left to my own devices then for an hour, I went shopping because while I didn’t want a Faberge egg before I saw them, now I did. Fortunately I only had to look in two shops in GUM before I found the replica of the one I liked in the Kremlin collection. And feeling a bit peckish, I stopped at a blini shop and had a blini filled with chocolate. Sigh.

I was back and in my appointed spot at 4:50. I saw the first inspection of the outgoing guard. I also made friends with two older Canadian businessmen while we were waiting. I managed to give them the skinny on what they needed to see in the 6 hours they had before they were jetting off to St. Petersburg, but I convinced them that they needed to stay 5 minutes to see what was about to happen. And the changing of the guard happened again, just as before, and I snapped a marvelous photo of it when the guards turned forward. Just awesome.

So at 5:00 I headed back to the hotel and scoped out the restaurant that Irina suggested, a Russian place called Kitezh. It was less than a block from the hotel, so I went back to change and spent some time organizing my bags for tomorrow. It turns out I am in better shape than I thought and shouldn’t kill my driver tomorrow (or leave him with a hernia) the way I’ve redistributed my loot between suitcase and carry-on.

Dinner at Kitezh was nice. It was not nearly as good, or as expensive, as last night’s meal, but this was really a great way to end my trip. The décor is old Russia, very rustic with thick wooden tables and farmhouse style walls and ceilings. The waitstaff all wear linen rustic “costumes” which were sort of cute. I started with a glass of kvass, which is a non-alcoholic drink made from fermented bread. It tasted like an apple cider but not as sweet and not like apples, if that makes sense. I decided the rest of the meal would be a greatest hits experience from this trip, so I had salmon caviar, again, and beef stroganoff, again. I know, not terribly creative and not daring (there was bear, moose, bunny and deer on the menu, but come on now!) but I wanted a meal I would savor and enjoy, and who knows how long it will be until I have either of those again. Dessert was the “Kitezh fruit roll” which on its face sounds a bit non-specific. It turns out it is like a jelly roll with sour cream (bless their hearts) and strawberry and kiwi in it. With espresso and a glass of wine, the bill was 1640 ruples, or about $55 plus tip.

I decided to end my stay where I started it, at Red Square. The sun had just gone down and I made my way through the underpass the gets pedestrians across the 8 lane thoroughfare separating the neighborhood my hotel is in from Red Square. I was not even halfway through the underpass when I heard the string octet. I had heard them several times during my stay in Moscow but somehow never seen them. Tonight they were right where I would pass them twice. And twice, I stood and listened, for just one more. Again, and again. They grabbed me with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, kept me with Beethoven and some Mozart. Once I empted my change into their hat. A second time I threw them some bills. But Vivaldi started the emotions rolling and I realized that this was it. Tomorrow at this time I will be closer to home than I am to here. These 8 guys and girls in torn jeans, baseball caps and sneakers, all playing classical music’s greatest hits, will be here when I’m not. And that really overwhelmed me.

But I shook off the tears and continued my way back to Red Square, and realized it was 7:50, 10 minutes before the last changing of the guard. You guessed it, I went back. I wanted to see what happens at the end of the day. Long story short, the flame is brighter in the twilight and all the guards go home for the day. So in that sense it is very unlike Arlington National Cemetery, where they guard that tomb day and night.

I took one more long lap around Red Square, taking mental pictures this time more so than digital pictures. It was a long, drawn out goodbye, but I figured I’d waited so long to get here, I needed to leave when I was ready.

Back here in the hotel in the rock hard bed, I am extremely thankful for these 10 days. They far exceeded my expectations and my dreams. There is not one single thing I would have wanted to be different. Now I just want to hug my family and my boy and sleep in my own bed tomorrow night. With a mere 17 hours of travel between now and then, I bid Rossiya a fond “do svidanya”!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Russia Day Eight

Subtitled: Soviets past, Ducklings, still more art and the perfect meal

Today dawned with blue skies and bright sun, but Irina warned me to carry my umbrella anyway to keep the rain away. At least half of our day was to be spent outside, so she wanted to do her best to keep make it that way.

I forgot to describe breakfast here at the Hotel Budapest, and really must because as a breakfast person, I find it ideal. I was pleasantly surprised to find three types of granola in addition to the standard rice crispies and corn flakes. I opted for berry granola both days so far, but may go with vanilla or chocolate the next couple days. There is a hot buffet with sausages, eggs, hash browns and oatmeal. There are also several types of bread and pastries, yogurt and fruit salad, juices and coffee or tea. I usually have the cereal with yogurt, fruit and a pastry. That sort of breakfast will hold me over until a late lunch, believe it or not.

This morning I got up a half hour earlier to so I could walk to the Starbucks I stumbled over near my hotel last night. I had a cappuccino, which tasted so good after going without for so long.

Our driver picked us up at 9:30 sharp and we drove to Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery. Given that it was a Sunday morning and no one was on the roads, we zipped right there. Irina said she had a surprise for me nearby that she wanted to show me. We parked across the lake from the convent, which made for a wonderful photo opportunity, but within the park we were in, there was a set of statues that would be familiar to most Bostonians: Robert McCloskey’s Make Way For Ducklings statues. Apparently Barbara Bush gifted them to the children of Russian some years ago and this is their home now. I instantly recognized them and felt a rush of homesickness, oddly enough. Irina was relieved that I did indeed know them, because she says so many Americans do not! It makes me wonder if it is not local popular culture in any case.

The Novodevichy Convent essentially has a history of taking in wives or sisters of tsars once the tsars get tired of them. The women would be sent there to live out their lives, essentially becoming “dead” to Russia when they take the veil. The grounds is made up of a cloister, the Smolensk Cathedral, a belfry, a small gorgeously decorated chapel and a second more rundown church, all surrounded by a fortress (god forbid these women make a break for it!). The convent is still operating, as is the cathedral. Irina asked me to don my headscarf and we went inside for the service, since it was that time on Sunday morning. We went in just as the faithful were taking communion and sharing bread with each other. The choir was just beautiful (but professionally trained and hired, so they ought to be) and the symbolism of these people coming together every Sunday, obviously seeing each other week after week was touching.

We left the convent and went around the corner to the cemetery. This is the place where anyone who is anyone of modern Russia seems to be buried (except for those I saw in St. Petersburg last week). The cemetery serves almost as a historical museum of popular Russia. The trend seems to be to make the stone on the gravesite indicative of what the person is known for. A pediatrician is represented by a carved likeness of himself holding a baby. A pianist has a baby grand headstone. Military officers have busts of themselves decorated with all of their medals. Artists have photographs of themselves and an engraving of their theater’s logo. One ballerina had an exquisitely carved statue of herself in white marble representing her in best known role. The popular people I knew that we saw were the author Chekhov, Boris Yeltsin, Raisa Gorbachev and Nikita Kruschev. Irina said that nowadays a governmental commission decides who gets buried in this cemetery because demand for that honor is high and space is running low. It really is a wonderful walk through Russia’s culture though and quite an experience to see.

Our driver stopped half way between the cemetery and the Pushkin Museum on Arbat Street so we could pick up a quick lunch. Irina knew of a Fresh Foods shop and we had tasty roll-up sandwiches and a drink. We got to chat and inevitably the conversation came around to the economy and politics. What was interesting to me is that Irina says that all of her American clients tend to be Democrat and she has never met a Republican. She asked me what I feel about Obama now and how I would vote in 2 years. A long conversation ensued and I think she was surprised at how frank I was with my opinions. She said that Medvedev is up for reelection at the same time, so 2012 should be a good year. Russia, she said, has split priorities for that year with both the election and the Olympics in Sochi.

One other thing that was interesting is that she does not save for retirement. She said generally Russians do not trust banks or investment houses, so if they have extra money, they spend it on something that will last, like a house or car. I asked her what she will do when she retires since right now the government does not support anyone either, and she says that the pension system has not been fully developed yet in the new Russia, so she hopes it will be sorted out by then. She was certainly not terribly concerned!

Our next stop after lunch was the Pushkin Museum, which is a collection that is split between two buildings. The older building houses a collection of plaster casts of popular sculpture and a wonderful Egyptian antiquities collection as well as a revolving exhibition space. The exhibition on show today was a collection of Russian art from an Armenian museum. While all of the labels on the art in this exhibition was in Cyrillic, I was able to identify several of my new favorites from this trip by sounding out some of the names. I am quite pleased with myself!

This part of the museum has quite a collection of plaster casts, which often gives the museum the reputation of only having “copies”, which is not true. There is however a large room that is made to replicate the main room of the Bargello in Florence, and has a life sized replica of Michelangelo’s David. There is also a room that has copies of many of Michelangelo’s other pieces, including the Pieta, Moses, Bruges Madonna, and the Medici chapel sculptures. That was pretty cool. The Pushkin also has six Rembrandts which were just awesome in every sense, but not as spectacular as Danae or the Return of the Prodigal Son which I saw last week.

The new building house painting and sculpture that was collected by two wealthy Russians. It covers pre-impressionism, Impressionism (my favorite) and post-Impressionism. I think I really perked up most when we entered the floor of Impressionism. The first painting that popped out to me was an absolutely breathtaking Degas, the Blue Dancers. It is the Degas masterpiece in this collection and quite possibly the most beautiful Degas I have ever seen. It uses his deep blue pastel and it hard to say whether this is really four separate dancers dancing, or one single dancer that Degas has just chosen to represent as she pirouettes around his drawing paper. Needless to say, I loved this.

Anything after the Degas would have been gravy. But there were several other Degas, seven Renoirs, six Rodins. One Rodin, Love Running Away, I had actually never seen before and it was very alluring. There were five Van Goghs, including one that actually got sold while he was alive, one painting of his doctor in Arles that was discovered on the floor of a chicken coop (apparently the doctor didn’t know what he had been given by his patient, and used it to patch a hole!) and one very interesting unusual setting for Van Gogh, a circle of prisoners pacing in a prison courtyard. I was impressed, for sure. I was also smitten with 11 Monets which were much better quality than what I had seen in the Hermitage. There was a Vertheuil landscape that was pretty, a very nice white waterlillies and two Rouen cathedral scenes.

When I was done here, Irina walked me to Arbat Street where she left me for the day. She gave me several options to return the hotel, including two walks and a Metro trip. Ultimately I opted for the Metro, only because I had been up on my feet and walking since 9:00 a.m.

I walked up and down Arbat, which is a pedestrian street with various souvenir shops, restaurants, two Starbucks and the only Hard Rock Café in Russia. I did the requisite Hard Rock shopping and walked back Arbat to a Georgian restaurant that Irina recommended. This, my friends, turned out to be THE meal of the vacation, I suspect.

You may recall that I fell for Georgian food last week in St. Petersburg. This meal though, exponentially surpassed that meal. This was a meal I will look back on in days, weeks, months and wish to do it all over. Bear with me here…

The restaurant is set in a very kitschy looking “typical Georgian style country house”, said Irina. Inside, it looks like the inside of a water mill, with a water wheel, an interior river with big fish and turtles and hard wood planks and chunky dark wooden furniture. I flipped through the menu, which thankfully had English subtitles that seemed a bit shaky in translation at best. Let’s just say that I am hoping that “mutton in bowels” really means “bowls”. I took the safer choice and ordered for an appetizer a Georgian cheese baked in a shallow iron dish with diced tomato and Georgian spices (which are spicy, but not necessarily peppery hot, not like a jalapeno but more like paprika). I also ordered the stewed veal in a tomato broth with onions and a lightly spiced tomato broth. This came with a thicker consistency but lighter texture pita-type bread that I ate by tearing it open and spooning the meat into. I did order a side of mashed potatoes, which normally can hold their own in any meal, but the rest of this was so good, they stayed mostly uneaten! I also had a glass of house red wine and a bottle of water.

Somehow, the appetizer came at the same time as the meal, and the cheese, the cheese! Oh my! It was steaming hot and had just a little bit of browning on the top. It tasted like a cross between a strong goat cheese with a touch of bleu in it. The veal was tender and juicy and with quarters of the bread rounds was just yummy. But can you even imagine the cheese WITH the veal in the bread??? Oh I can, and I did. Good Glory! I firmly believe that when you reach the Pearly Gates, you will be served this meal. Seriously. It was that good.

Oh but we are not done yet, my friends. The waitress, who was the sweetest and friendliest I have had here, asked if I wanted dessert. I asked her to bring me whatever is the typical Georgian dessert and a cappuccino. After a little bit of a wait, she delivered a layer cake that was presented just amazingly on a large plate, with swirls of honey, drops of berries and cocoa powder, with something written in Georgian on the top of the plate (hopefully it wasn’t “Do you know how much you’ll be working out to burn this meal off?”) I should have asked, but instead I pulled a very Japanese-tourist move and pulled out my camera. I put it on Food setting (seriously, my camera has that) and took two shots. It looked too pretty to eat, but to hell with that, I was going in for the kill.

The cake was alternating layers of cake soaked in a hazelnut liquor and mocha mousse, and covered in what I think was something similar to toffee shavings. Hallelujah, I reached the promised land! While this ended up being my most expensive meal ($80 plus tip), it was well beyond “worth it”. I am so tempted to go back tomorrow night for my last meal in Russia!

That was it for today. I successfully took the Metro back to the hotel and crashed on the rock solid bed at 8:00. Tomorrow is Kremlin and Red Square tour and that’s it.

As the vacation draws to a close I really am feeling sad that I am leaving and I find myself actually not wanting to leave; I feel I have so much more to see and do. I have loved this more than I thought I could. It has ended up being a better experience than I expected, one that I will treasure for all I saw, all I learned and for the two wonderful guides I had that made my experience that much better.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Russia Day Seven

Subtitled: No big hug, Russian life and Snickers in Red Square

In case you didn’t feel the undertones in yesterday’s blog, Moscow is not St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg, to me, at least felt a bit like Europe. I don’t remember if I mentioned it or not, but it was a cross between Vienna for some of its architecture and Venice for its canals and every day use of palaces that anywhere else would be turned into museums.

Moscow is not warm. Moscow is cold. And I don’t mean that in a terribly derogatory sense by any means. But if you look at cities I have loved, they are the type that make you feel warm and fuzzy just thinking about them (Rome, Edinburgh, Florence). Moscow does not do “warm and fuzzy”. There's no big hug. Moscow does a lot of grey cement, block structures. Moscow does boulevards too wide to cross on foot. Moscow holds on to history and displays it in everything it does. This is a city that has an insane amount of pride in its history and will not, or is it cannot, let it go. Now, that’s exactly why I like it.

Back when I started this whole crazy 40th birthday trip, I wrote that I had a huge hole in my world history education. Now that I know more about what Russia and its people have been through, I say “why the hell shouldn’t they show this all off?” I can appreciate the fact that there is Victory Park where military battles won are held in high esteem, the fact that there are military statues and soldiers and coats of arms on just about every building and monument that isn’t nailed down. Well, they’re all nailed down, but you get my drift. I’m just now realizing that they are just immensely proud and they cannot forget. They cannot forget the millions of people that died during World War II (which they call the Great Patriotic Battle of 1941-1945), in numerous wars against Turkey, against Napoleon and the French. Holy cow, Napoleon was here? See, I didn’t know that. What’s funnier is that the Russians commemorate their victories over Napoleon with triumphal arches that so closely mirror the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Napoleon’s celebration of his own victories. Ha!

So let’s just say that yesterday I wasn’t feeling the love. Today at least I understand it better. And I owe a lot of that understanding to Irina, my new guide who introduced me to Moscow. It was a gentle introduction, an easy way to say hello and get to know the city. I will admit right now, this city is just too vast for me to have done on my own. Things I wanted to see like KGB (sorry, FSB now) and Lubyanka prison are just out of the way and would be a special trip with nothing else nearby. For once, it was actually better to do it as a drive-by, which we did. We spent about 3 hours driving around and seeing a lot of the city and even things I hadn’t even planned on.

We of course started off driving by Red Square and the Kremlin walls. The Kremlin, in case you aren’t aware, is a fortress and among many other things including churches, armory and museum, it houses the current seat of the government (meaning, Medvedev works there). We also saw the White House, which is where the Prime Minister (Putin) works. Irina also walked through Victory Park with me, which is a large memorial/museum/obelisk/military park that is meant to honor those who served or were lost in the Great Patriotic War. The other thing I learned is that the Kremlin and Red Square are two separate spaces. Adjacent, but separate.

One of our longer stops was actually at this park, which I think was meant to be a quick walk through. At the far end of the park was a local arts fair. Different arts groups from around the city get together on Saturdays and show and sell their various craft works. Irina thought it would be a non-touristy experience to walk through the different booths and in so doing, I became a minor celebrity. They were all pretty impressed that an American bothered to stop and talk to them and look at their work. A local journalist wanted to talk to me to see how this crafts fair compared to those in America. I deferred on that question, because I honestly don’t know!

We walked our way back to me our driver (who, by the way, is not even a figment of hotttt Sergei!) and we immediately got stuck in traffic. I should say that on weekend days like today in Moscow, the streets are practically empty. We were zipping around the city like we owned the place. During the week though, it is pretty much bumper to bumper traffic everywhere until well past sunset. In this case though, traffic was stopped for a political motorcade, which our driver quickly figured out was Medvedev himself making his way from the presidential home up the road to our left to the Kremlin which was down the road to our right. We were second in line at the intersection, so I could see the half dozen or so chaser police cars clearing paths at well over 60 mph! A few minutes later another set of police cars then 3 armored cars surrounding a limo went whooshing by. It was all pretty impressive, but holding things up for about 15 minutes overall seemed a bit much!

I think Irina and the driver wanted to take advantage of light traffic because we fit in a visit to Church of Christ Our Savior too, which we had planned for Monday. This would save us having to drive or take the Metro out to see it. This church was a church that took 40 years to build. Then in the 30s the Soviets wanted to build a palace there, so they tore it down in 40 minutes. The palace never came to fruition, so it became a swimming pool until the 90s, when it was rebuilt in 5 years. The exterior is white with the shining gold domes, but the interior was really pretty. Instead of just the iconostasis (screen with icons at the altar), there is a smaller chapel at the front of the church with icons built into it. A church within a church, if you will. Alas, I have no pictures as it is a working church and that’s not allowed.

What was really cool was seeing the Olympic stadium from the 1980 Summer Games and the ski jump that is used to practice on right nearby. The entire area around Olympic stadium has become a massive sports complex.

Near the overlook where we saw the stadium is Moscow State University, the most prestigious college in the country, with over 70,000 students enrolled, half of whom are Muscovites. How are those for facts? Actually what is interesting about this was that the main building is one of Moscow’s “Seven Sisters”, one of seven skyscrapers built by Stalin to expand Moscow’s skyline. This is the prettiest of the seven, if that architecture style can be called “pretty”.

Around this time we headed back toward the Tretyakov Gallery where we would spend a good part of the afternoon. But first, about Irina. We got a chance to talk quite a bit. Her English is definitely not as strong as Katia’s and I would say she is a bit older than I am. Oddly enough, she lived in Boston (Somerville) for a year back in 1991, so she is familiar with things like the T, Harvard and clam chowder, all of which she used today to put things in perspective for me. She was astonished at first to hear this was my celebratory birthday trip that I’d wanted to do for ages because she didn't think there was much here to make it a "dream" trip, but then after a while she said that she understood my interest. I have been very fortunate to have had two great guides. I’m really looking forward to the rest of my itinerary with her in the next couple days!

The other point she shared with me that I found a relief and perhaps validation that I have made the right choice. She asked me what made me choose MIR Corp to put my trip together. I told her that I’d gotten quotes on itineraries from both MIR and Exeter International (the top two Russian travel specialists) and that Exeter came in almost $6,000 higher. She was flabbergasted. She said she’s worked for both and there is nothing different she’d do for one or the other, so I’m getting the same tour services I would with Exeter. So other than the 5-star hotels (which believe me, after this bed, I’m sort of nostalgic for 5-star!), I’m getting exactly what I’d have gotten with Exeter. Great news!

Anyway, back to Tretyakov Gallery. We started there with lunch. Irina pointed out to me some typical Russian specialties, so I had chicken baked in a cracker crumb mixture, a Russian omelet (don’t ask, I just wanted protein!) and a cabbage salad with cranberries, which essentially was like cole slaw with no mayo and those weren’t cranberries, I think they were more like lynchberries (is that a word?). Anyway, it was good to sit and relax a bit before we went through the museum.

Non-museum types may want to move along for a few paragraphs. I loved this museum! It is such an odd thought to go into a museum not knowing a single artist or work and come away completely smitten. As I mentioned earlier, there was indeed a shift from painting icons to painting non-religious works on canvas. But artists were so used to 1) painting on wood (as icons could only be painted on wood) and 2) painting portraits of icons that the first attempts to do otherwise were, you guessed it, portraits on wood! For the first 50 years or so it seems that all anyone painted was portraits. No landscapes, no seascapes, no still lifes. Then once artists got exposed to art from Holland and Italy in particular, they started to expand their horizons. And since they were really learning from where they studied, you see a lot of Rembrandt-esque, Vermeer-esque, Monet-esque type work. Nothing terribly original.

I did fall hard for two artists in particular. The first was Repin. His works were so dramatic and told such a story that I just could not take my eyes off of them. His Ivan the Terrible Killing His Son blew me away. And then there was Vrubel, who has an entire room all to himself. He reminds me so much of a cross between a Van Gogh (for the colors he uses) and Klimt (for the look of successionist art). My sister will have a fit when she hears this, but when I said he reminded me of Klimt a bit, Irina said he was a contemporary of Klimt’s so that totally made sense. Just...wow!

Irina is really sweet and doesn’t seem to want to leave me on my own much. Rather than abandon me at the museum and have me make my way back to the hotel on my own, she gave me an hour in the museum by myself and then took me on the Metro right back here, which I thought was great. I threw my museum guidebooks and umbrella in the room and went back out on my own, determined to see the inside of St. Basil’s, despite the fact that Fodors said it is not worth it. Well, they were right, it’s not.

I meandered around Red Square a bit, noshing on a Snickers bar as I was feeling a bit peckish (how decadent is that, anyway? Strolling through Red Square eating a damn candy bar…if only I’d had candy corn, it’d be even better!) I decided then to take a pass through GUM department store. It took me about 10 seconds to realize it’s not one store but actually a collection of several stores, many with names you’d recognize (Burberry, Hermes, Puma). It is more like a mall than a single store. But let me tell you, if you ever do make your way to Moscow, check out GUM’s food department. Good lord, it goes on forever and there isn’t much you can’t buy there! Heavenly!

I then started to head back out of Red Square to find some dinner, and I heard singing coming out of Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral. I wasn’t sure if I could or should go in, but I followed another non-headscarf wearing woman in. Now another thing I learned is that Russians worship either standing or kneeling, so there are no chairs or benches in any church. They can also get about 10 times as many people into the floor space. This tiny little church was packed. And might warm, and smelling of incense. But the sense of community and belief and the music that carried them all in there was really heartwarming.

Color me crazy, but I was still full from lunch, so I only had a bowl of borsch (which I am really loving) and a chocolate banana blini for dinner at a Teremok stand I found. I also came across my first Starbucks in Russia. Oh how I ache for a frappucino!

I managed to take some night shots in Red Square tonight, so hopefully those came out as good as the ones from St. Petersburg.

That’s it for today…it was eventful! A bit of a lie in tomorrow as we don’t leave here till

Friday, September 17, 2010

Russia The Other Half of Day Six

Now I’m here. It is pretty humbling, I’ll tell you. Let’s rewind. The train ride was fine. It went by pretty quickly and having free wireless helped. We ended up about a half hour late, which was eating into the time I wanted to spend doing things tonight. To add to the delays, my driver never showed. I waited about 20 minutes and gave up. I figured I could spend the rest of the weekend standing and waiting in the train station (which was pretty Soviet era run down) or I could make my own way to the hotel.

If I thought St. Petersburg was culture shock, I’m glad I did not start my vacation here. St. Petersburg felt like an extension of Europe; it most closely felt like Vienna to me. Here so far looks and feels like no where I've ever been. Buildings are just huge and blocky, all grey concrete, at least where I am. There is absolutely no English anywhere. In St. Petersburg you’d see some translations in the metro or on some street signs. Here there is nothing. There were also dire warnings in my guidebook about taking taxis. But at this point, I really had no choice. I bargained a fare and got here around 6:30. I dropped my stuff and headed right back out.

Red Square and the Kremlin, on a map, are about 3 blocks due south of my hotel. However, streets here are about 8 lanes wide, and tough to cross. I had to walk 6 blocks east to cross and then cut back. But all along I could see the red brick of the walls of where I was headed. I finally crossed over and walked right up to the gates of the Kremlin. I was just so incredibly anxious to see it, I could barely contain myself. Finally through the wrought iron fence of the gate, I could catch a peek at St. Basil’s Cathedral. Holy cow. Then I smiled my face off as I walked across Red Square towards it, passing GUM department store, Lenin’s tomb and a few towers on the way. Honestly I can’t believe I’m here.

St. Basil’s looks completely not real. I feel like I’ve walked on to a movie set. The colors are so vibrant and it is just massive. I can’t wait to get into the Kremlin and see all the churches there. I can catch peeks at some of the domes but not all of them and won’t get to the Kremlin until Monday.

At this point, it was nearly 8:00 so I scrapped my plans to go to Arbat and headed to Yolki Palki, a chain I’d seen in St. Petersburg that Katya said had decent Russian food. It was really pretty good to be honest. I had red caviar with warm rolls. Katya told me to spread soft butter on the warm rolls and then top with caviar, and I have to say it was delicious! Then I had stewed beef with cranberry sauce and honeyed chili potatoes, both of which were good. I finished with cherry struedel, which was tasty. Service here was really spotty but it filled the need.

Back at the Hotel Budapest now, which is definitely leftover from the Soviet times. Never, ever had I felt a bed so hard! This will be an interesting 4 nights sleep! It seems quiet though and is about 10 times larger than the guesthouse I was in in St. Petersburg. I do have a much bigger shower though, so that’s something!

Internet here is 410 rubles for an hour (about $13), so I’ll just log in to blog, post photos and quickly check in with my family.

City tour tomorrow and then Tretyakov Gallery with my guide.

Russia Half Way Through Day Six

Subtitled: Dead artists, nearly-dead driver and faster than the speed of light

Slept well and slept in this morning. I tell you, that hotel is the quietest I’ve ever stayed in. I didn’t hear a peep any night I stayed there.

I partook in the same breakfast as always. I missed the blini which were a surprise addition yesterday. The nice lady cook wasn’t there today, so they must not do them without her. After breakfast I managed to get all of my luggage closed and locked, so I considered it a win and went off to do something that did not involve adding to my load (aka shopping) in the three hours I had until my driver came for me.

Reading the Fodors guide last night, I saw that they very highly recommended the Alexander Nevsky Lavra, which is the highest status monastery in the country. There are only three that are given this high status, and this was one. It is also where Alexander Nevsky himself is buried but he and I did not manage to come eye to eye, which I’ll get to momentarily.

I also surveyed the map last night and wasn’t thrilled by walking that much to get there, so I ventured off on my first metro ride here. I bought two tokens, dropped one in the turnstile and made my way to the metro lines. This is where learning my Cyrillic alphabet really paid off. I am pretty adept at navigating subways/metros, so I "just" had to identify in Cyrillic the last stop on the line in the direction I want to travel. Then find that line going in that direction. What threw me is that when I got to the platform, all the passengers are standing and waiting at what looks like elevator doors. Odd. So I queued up too. The subway stop behind the doors, the doors open and these elevator doors open, and we boarded that way. I saw other lines where this was not the case, but this particular line was like that. The escalators are long, like in Washington DC (Hello Veritgo!) but otherwise the metro in St. Petersburg was pretty unremarkable.

So I arrived at the correct stop and walked to the monastery which was right across the street. Fodors says you have to pay to get into each cemetery on the front of the park where the monastery is. I wanted to visit one of them because of the famous people buried there. So I paid 200 rubles (about $6.75) to get in there. This was a really quaint pretty cemetery. First grave I found was Dostoyevsky’s. Then I followed the path around the back and found “musician’s corner” where, among others, were the graves of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Call me a geek, but I loved that.

Unfortunately after that it was sort of anti-climactic. Fodors says visiting the rest of the grounds is free, but it’s not. I had to pay 130 rubles (about $4.35) more to get near the churches, which I couldn’t get into without a headscarf. I really should have known better, but I hadn’t used one all week and didn’t have my scarf with me this morning as it was safely, tightly packed into my suitcase. Oh well. No tomb of Nevsky for me. Fodors also says the monks bake their own bread there and direct you to it, but that proved false as well, at least today. So no Nevsky and no bread, it was time to bail on this place. This was definitely not a “Fodors Choice” experience as the guidebook said it would be!

I reversed course back to Nevsky Prospekt via the metro. I came across another Teremok and since I didn’t know how long it would take to get lunch on the train, I had my last blini with cream cheese and pineapple. Very cool.

My driver was prompt and lugged said suitcase from the third floor reception, where I’d carried it, down to the street. What was crazy is that the Muskovsky train station, where I needed to be, was all of two blocks away. Granted I would not have wanted to walk with my load, but it took nearly a half hour in St. Petersburg traffic. And still more strange was the only song I have heard here and understood was on the radio in the car while we were stuck in traffic. It was Erasure’s “Always”, which is a flashback from another trip many, many years ago. I found myself getting a bit misty leaving St. Petersburg. I think what sealed it for me was when the driver said “You go to Moscow?” I said “Yes, but I love it here, I don’t want to leave.” He gave me a big grizzly bear like response “Ahhhhh, Moscow just like big little village.” I’m not sure if that’s a resounding endorsement or not, but he laughed and smiled when he said it.

Then, in another flash of great service, the driver parked in a lot across the street, and schlepped my luggage across a street and a plaza, into the station and all the way to the door of the car of my train. I felt bad because he was an older guy and he kept stopping every so often to catch his breath and wipe his brow. Finally I sent him on his way because I didn’t want his death on my hands. I tipped him handsomely because I was also terribly relieved I didn’t have to manage both of my bags on my own.

So now I’m on the Sapsan train, the faster than Acela version of high speed rail in Russian. This trip used to take over 8 hours. For me on the Sapsan, it should take around 4. We were a bit late in leaving and I think there are two stops on the way. This thing reaches speeds of 260 kph, which is about 170 mph.

I am clearly the only American around me. I’m fine with that but I really did expect more tourists.

My plan for Moscow tonight (I should get there around 5:15 pm) is to drop the luggage and head out to Red Square. It should be light until around 8:00 so I’ll get that wow experience (I hope) and some photos. Then I’ll head to the Arbat neighborhood, get some Hard Rock Café paraphernalia and dinner. I'll check out the internet connection when I get back tonight.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Russia Day Five

Subtitled: Any friend of sour cream is a friend of mine, all palaced out and boosting the economy

Last night after I wrote I went out to take more night photos. I still wasn’t terribly hungry but on the way back I stopped at Teremok (Russian take-away food) and had a bliny with cream cheese and pineapple. Oh it hit the spot. And with a Diet Pepsi, it was about $2.80! Seriously that’s way better than a McDonald’s dollar deal! But I have noticed this country is very fond of both sour cream and cream cheese. Borsch? Mix in a few heaping tablespoons of sour cream and stir it in till it is smooth and creamy. Cream cheese in any and all dessert blinis and tarts and pies appears to be the rule. I'm good with that, I’m on the vacation diet so this is all permissible, of course.

Today we were up and out by 9:15 to take the hydrofoil across the Gulf of Finland to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer village. Katya and Sergei picked me up and this would be the last day of our threesome. Katya brought me red caviar and Russian chocolate as a gift to enjoy later on, which I thought was really sweet.

The hydrofoil trip took about 30 minutes and was pretty smooth. It started out warm and sunny in St. Petersburg but we ran into some heavy clouds and cooler temps when we arrived on the dock in Peterhof. We were just in time for the daily “turning on of the fountains” which, literally starts from a trickle, and as the music to the anthem for Leningrad picks up steam, the water bursts forth from all the gilded fountains all around the park (hundreds of them, it seems!) I caught the whole thing on FlipVideo, which I’ll post when I get home.

Katya gave me a tour of the interior of the palace, again in our surgeon’s booties to protect the floors, which given how mucky it was outside, is probably a good idea. This was another palace that was pretty seriously damaged in the war and also extensively restored. The photos of it really tell the story. Restoration is actually still ongoing, and Katya said if I were to return in 10, 15, 20 years I may see more rooms still that have been restored.

Peterhof was gorgeous inside, but I was fully won over by Catherine’s Palace yesterday and to be honest, was a bit overloaded on palaces. The only thing I can equate it to is too much candy corn. As good as it is, there’s a limit.

We walked around half of the grounds (it’s something like 100 hectares, and we only covered one side) and walked down to “Mon Plaisir” which was this little “cottage” with glass walls that Peter had right on the edge of the harbor where he could look back to St. Petersburg and across to land that used to be Finland before Lenin took it back. The location was just perfect and the crisply manicured gardens around it were beautiful. This was one of the sunnier parts of the day so it was really enjoyable.

While I give Catherine’s Palace the edge on the building itself and the interior, you can’t beat the fountains and really well landscaped gardens at Peterhof. They just have to be seen.

We spent just about an hour talking and walking through the gardens. It was more like hanging with a friend. She’d tell me about books she’d read and was particularly knowledgeable about Catherine the Great’s diaries, which sound really amusing. But we also shared stories about friends and family, relationships, work, school. Again, I came away with a feeling that someone was just like me here. I’m really starting to believe that fate had our lives intersect, because meeting her really added to an already incredible experience.

One most excellent thing that I haven’t mentioned about having a private guide is that she cuts to the front of just about every line. Everywhere we’ve been, there have been lines and she just goes to the front, flashes her guide pass, and in we go. That, my friends, is exceptional service, I have to say.

We ate lunch in the palace café. I had a ham and cheese pastry and a cup of coffee. We phoned Sergei to pick us up and headed back to St. P.

Our last stop was at the Church on Spilled Blood, which I’d already seen from the outside but waited to see the interior with a guide. Katya had told me that the church was never actually used as a church. Between religion being discouraged for so long and the church being used as vegetable storage during the siege, I didn’t have very high expectations for the interior. Was I ever wrong. The interior is exceptional. I cannot come up with enough superlatives to really describe it. Imagine every inch, from floor to ceiling and back again, covered with colorful mosaics that look like frescoes. I was just completely blown away. Somehow this building was saved in the siege and not destroyed. It took some damage but nothing that wasn’t quickly fixed (comparatively speaking). That is so fortunate though, because I doubt they would have made repairing this such a high priority because of how much work that might have been. I just could not believe my eyes. It really was exquisite.

Officially that was the end of my tour services, but I had mentioned to Katya that I was looking for something special for my Dad and had had some trouble finding good quality and cost. She had just the fix for that, and we made Sergei drive through rush hour traffic to Gostiny Dvor, which is a mall downtown. We also made him circle the building until we found, discussed and thoroughly vetted the decision to buy said object (Dad’s reading now so I can’t say what it is!) Sergei’s a champ though and he took it in stride.

So the three of us said our farewells. We exchanged emails (not Hott Sergei, unfortunately) and hugs. I gave Katya an amber pendant (as we'd joked about the number of them I'd already bought this week) and a card and let her know she is always welcome with me in Manchester. I only hope someday she is able to take me up on that.

I did head back out for still more shopping. You may notice the Russian economy has experienced an upswing this week. The results of it are all in my previously half-empty suitcase. Seriously, I didn’t feel as though I have bought much but now that it’s all jammed in there, I’m thinking I’ll be curbing this habit in Moscow. Yikes.

I ate at Bliny Domik on Kolokonaya Ulitsa, quite near my hotel. I had borsch (with sour cream of course!) and the main course was meat dumplings with baked potatoes in a wrought iron skillet topped with sliced tomatoes. If you like hearty hot meals that fill you up (think: great winter supper!) then this is for you. It was great. I think all told it was 24 dollars! I also stopped at a coffee shop for a pastry before I headed back here to pack.

No idea what I’ll do for a couple hours in the morning before it’s time to head to the train. Maybe the Dostoyevsky Museum…not sure, certainly not more shopping! I’ve just finished Katya’s chocolate….sigh! This vacation thing is very cool.

On to Moscow tomorrow. I'm not sure what the internet connection is like in the next hotel. If it is seriously expensive, I'll try to just blog and upload photos but not respond to emails till I get home.

Do svidanya!