Blog

What To Do With Wrinkly Grapes

img_4523

Prep Time:  5-10 minutes

Bake at 285 degrees for two hours; check and stir them around at one hour

AND HOW DO YOU MAKE THESE SWEET GLOBULES FROM HEAVEN?

Grapes are sweet treats, that are cheap and plentiful right now.  I recently bought too many and they started getting a little wrinkly.  Not something I want to pack in my lunch, but I definitely didn’t want to throw them away.

This is a perfect opportunity to turn them into something tasty that can be used in salads or as a garnish on fish or chicken.  I’m not a raisin fan, but a grape that has been baked slowly to reduce and caramelize – oh mama, this is too good to miss.  And easy to do.

First off, pluck those aging grapes and give them a good bath.  Roughly dry them and place on a baking tray covered in parchment paper, or a silicon mat.

img_4515
This silicon liner cleans like a dream and is re-usable. Parchment paper works great and can be tossed. Do not use on a bare tray, unless you want to use a lot of elbow grease cleaning it later!

Heat the oven to 285 degrees.  I use the Roast setting.  Slide the tray into the oven and set the timer for one hour.

After one hour, check to see how they are shriveling.  I’m going for a nice juicy shrivel – reduced in size, concentrated in sweetness, but still some soft chew left in the buggers.

img_4518
Juice will be seeping out, and they are going to start looking like old wrinkled grapes from a winery assisted living center. Just move them around some to help the juice dissipate a bit more quickly.

Let roast one more hour, or until the wrinkle level you prefer.  I like them to be soft and squishy.  They are great warm in a salad (or cold) and make a great garnish for fish, chicken, pork or lamb.  Amazing on duck!

img_4521
Cooked down, they aren’t all that cute – but oh, the flavor!

Let them cool and then store in a container.  Will keep in fridge for several days; but I bet you eat them faster than that!

img_4523

Oktoberfest in Mt. Angel, Oregon USA – World’s Largest Hairball Spit Up By a …..

img_4478
The nation’s largest Glockenspiel, it is a four-story clock tower that tells the story of the town’s history through hand-carved figures.  They spin and the music plays four times a day.

It always strikes me as odd that we seldom take advantage of the wonders of the world right in our neighborhood.  Okay, in my case, the state of Oregon, but unless we have company coming, there always seems to be reasons not to get out and check out some pretty awesome stuff nearby.

Mt. Angel, an hour south of Portland, is home to the World Famous Oktoberfest.  They might not have invented it, but it is easily one of the largest in the United States.  The town has 3,500 permanent residents, and most own lederhosen or dirndls..  Every September, the city roars to life and 350,000 people descend on the tiny town.  The town may be small, but it boasts more giant beer halls than you can imagine.  Huge, permanent structures, they each have bands, dance floors, and rows and rows of tables.  All of which, of course, can hold gallons of beer.

We attended years ago, when we had six small kids.  My memories are of corn on the cob, dipped in butter, and trying not to lose the children.  People packed shoulder to shoulder is a great place to misplace short family members, and that’s all I can recall.  This time, we came as two old farts, looking for a good time.  And found it!

My Bucket List of Life is eclectic.  I know most people want to visit Machu Picchu, but ever since I found out that the Mt. Angel Abbey houses the World’s Largest Hairball Ever Spit Up by a Pig, I knew I had to make a pilgrimage to see this baby.  And now…….here we were!img_4324

There was a Volkswalking event at Mt Angel, so off we went.  Me?  Excited!  George?  Not so much, but he is definitely the faithful husband.  Despite the fact it was raining.

George is a giant sucker for a fund-raiser breakfast, because they always have pancakes.  This was no exception.  I had to run to use the Porta-Potty and when I came back, he was waving breakfast tickets at me.  No self-respecting German breakfast can’t have sausage.  George was in heaven.  When I mentioned to the lady tossing meat on our plates that I was vegetarian, she stopped cold.  In a low, compassionate voice, she said “I’m so sorry.  Are you able to eat eggs?”  Her voice held the same sympathetic note as if I told her I had terminal cancer.  img_4320I assured her that eggs were fine and she visibly brightened.  This really is a German town, I received much the same response in Berlin.

They bagged my meat for George to take home (wouldn’t want to waste good sausage) and everyone was happy.

Our volkswalking map in hand, we headed on our route through town and then up the hill to the Mt. Angel Abbey.  A Benedictine monastery, it was founded by a group of monks from Switzerland in 1882.  The town had just named itself Roy, but within two years it was changed to Mt. Angel, which was the English translation of the Swiss monastery.  The abbey sits on the hill above town, and with the views from the top – you really think it is closer to Heaven.

It is a pleasant hike (on a sunny day) up the hill to the abbey, and kudos to George for doing it.  There was a tempting festival shuttle bus running groups up the hill, but he refused and said he would walk.  By the we reached the top, he was ready to ditch viewing the abbey and take the bus back.  I finally convinced him that he would regret not seeing the largest hairball ever, and it would be a defining bonding moment for the two of us.  Resignedly, he plodded onward with me.

img_4402
A view from a bench at the Abbey. It was gorgeous on a rainy day; just imagine this scene with blue skies and the green fields of spring.

There are several beautiful buildings, including a chapel with a giant pipe organ.  Their library houses gorgeous handcrafted bibles from the Middle Ages.  Sadly, the library was closed while we were there, so no pictures.  But the museum was open – and the hairball awaited!

There were young, helpful monks running around, and we stopped to ask for directions to the hairball.  One young man expressed surprise that I knew about it, and not the fact that they are now brewing their own beer.  Geesh, is that boy out of touch!  Must be the monastic life, of course I was there to see the hairball!

This is one of the best curio type museums I have ever seen.  You just have to check this place out!  It is all of the gifts given to the abbey since 1882.   There isn’t any order to the exhibits, except perhaps for most of the taxidermy.  Somebody had a serious collection of dead, stuffed stuff.  img_4412Not only do they have a room filled with stuff like a full-sized buffalo (with a distinct smile on his face), deer, cougars, birds, etc., but there is enough left over to have a stuffed racoon hanging near the 1840’s porcelain commode set.

In one memorable case there is a 19th century French naval hat, like the one worn by Napoleon, alongside an elderly stuffed great blue heron – who could really use a few new feathers.

The best case, of course, held the my object d’art – the World’s Largest Hairball Ever Spit Up By a Pig.  No idea if this is in the Guinness Book of Records, but are you going to call a bunch of monks liars?  Here it is:

img_4422

Apparently, a pig can digest just about anything (even bones); but they can’t digest hair.  It turns into a ball, eventually being coated with a waxy-type surface.  Periodically, just like their barnyard feline friends, they cough it up.  I don’t want to know what this pig ate to get this much hair.  Some things are better left to the imagination.

They also had a couple of stuffed calves that had been conjoined twins, where the second twin didn’t develop.  If you want to see a calf with two hind ends and the front legs coming out of the back, this is the place for you.

George took one look at the hairball and decided he wanted to take the shuttle back to town right away.  I had to chase him down to find out he was on his way to the shuttle.  Guess it was a bit too much for him.  I waved goodbye and finished the museum.  The monks have a gift/coffee shop called The Press, where they formerly did printing.  I had a great cup of coffee and admired all the different rosaries for sale.  I bought a great souvenir coffee mug and bought an incredible looking pretzel roll to be savored later.  Packing them carefully, I walked back down the hill.

Fall is definitely in the air and the flora and fauna are waning.  There were still a few beauties to be found:

 

Back in town, I found George enjoying a snack.  We watched the Glockenspiel showing, enjoyed a roasted ear of corn (sans butter) along with a dog who loved even more than me.

We walked the town, enjoying the sights and sounds.  An Oompah Band played in the city gazebo, while a man led a group of kids dancing to the music.  Adults and kids of all ages wore their Bavarian costumes like they were daily wear.  It was absolutely terrific.  I had a veggie burrito that ended up being a tortilla stuffed with shredded lettuce.  Oh well, it was all veggie.

A special day deserves a special treat and I wanted a big old fresh made pretzel.  As we were leaving, I spied a fresh made pretzel sign at Mt. Angel Sausage Company.  I jumped in line and waited for my pretzel.  To my horror, they took this beautifully baked pretzel and dumped it in the deep fat fryer.  Don’t add any calories to this treat…..!  Yes, I should have tossed it, but I didn’t.  One bite won’t hurt…..oh….my…..god……this was the best pretzel I have ever eaten.  Deep fried bread with salt.  What’s not to love.  No matter that it had to be 7,000 WW points.

img_4495

At one point, I handed George my pretzel to hold for a couple of seconds.  I glanced away and then back.  He was guiltily chewing a bite of my pretzel.  I snatched it back and yelled “If I am going to eat a 7,000 point treat, I am going to enjoy every flipping bite – go buy your own!”  There are just some things a person doesn’t share.

It was an incredible day.  Except for George eating my pretzel, it was perfect.  Okay, some sunshine would have also been nice.  We drove back home, wondering how it would be to live in a little bit of pretend Bavarian heaven in Oregon.

The next day, I needed my wallet – and discovered it was missing.  I had lost it during the Oktoberfest day.  After a fruitless day of calling the Mt. Angel police, city hall, Chamber of Commerce, Mt. Angel Sausage Company and every vendor whose name I could recall – no wallet.  It takes two seconds to lose a wallet and all day to unsuccessfully find it.  At 4:45 pm, I got a call from my bank – somebody had turned it into a branch of my bank!  It was too late to pick it up, and I worried all night that parts of it would be gone.  I drove to the bank the next morning, and there it was – all intact.  Nothing missing.  Am I lucky, or what?

Truly, it was a special day.  Air Canada had found a bag that we left on the plane from our last trip, and mailed it to me.  How many people get their wallet back, their airline bag returned AND see the World’s Largest Hairball Ever Spit Up By a Pig?  I am one lucky grandma!

 

Mt Hood – Huckleberry Hiking

IMG_4196
A nice hiker stopped and took a photo of us with a view of the top of Mt Hood. This is actually a ski run that George used to ski on in his teen years. He blanched when he figured out how many decades ago this was…..

My new passion is Volkswalking – something done around the world.  What a wonderful way to get out and enjoy the outdoors and good company – without pressure, and at very little cost.  Cheap fun is the BEST!  Especially when recovering from the cost of a trip to Europe…

Walkoregon.org has a great listing of local walks throughout Oregon and southern Washington.  We live on Mt Hood, and I was excited to see a walk that was only a few miles down the road.  We drive an hour to get anywhere, and here was fun right in the neighborhood.

George works hard during the week and his natural state of grace is to be a couch potato on the weekends.  Get his feet up in the recliner and place a remote in his hand – well, it has to be something like a fire or volcano erupting to get him up.  As Mt. Hood is considered active, and wears the dubious title of Most Likely to Erupt in Oregon, one day we might have to test whether it could blast George out of his Lazy Boy.

I was really excited when he agreed to go on the Mt Hood walk.  Before he could sit down, I had him dressed and in the car, clutching a pancake in one hand and coffee in the other.  Up the mountain we drove to Government Camp and to the Mt Hood Cultural Center at the east end of the community.  If you haven’t ever been there, it is a fun little museum and well worth the time to go through it.  They also have a great gift shop filled with locally made goods.  I’m a sucker for a good gift shop.

The great thing about Volkswalking is the lack of pressure.  Portland has a 5K/10K/Marathon every weekend.  Rain or shine, there are spandex clad bodies, trendy water bottles, fitness apps, phones clamped on their arms, with tattoos spouting fitness philosophy across their chests.  They bounce and stamp at the starting line, waiting for the gun.  It can be intimidating to the older, less fit crowd.  I don’t have a tattoo, but if you looked closely (and please don’t) I’m sure my cellulite spells out something across my backside.  Something motivating like “Need Port-a-Potty.”

The Volkswalking folks are wonderful.  Nice little folding table, donation jar set out, and they want your name and phone number so they can check on you when you don’t come staggering back home.  How caring is that?  There might not be a commercial vendor handing out free cappuccinos and energy bars, but there is nice little bowl with free hard candy in it.

Starting time is a range – like 9:00 am to Noon.  Sweet, no need to get your Depends in an twist – there is plenty of time to get there, smile, chat and then off for a walk.  It’s fun for all ages, and it’s sweet to see little kids walking with Grandpa.

The Mt. Hood walk was level 3C – which meant it had some elevation and paths that might have some difficult terrain.  If we had had to walk with a fast-paced group, George wouldn’t have been able to keep up.  It was terrific to take our time and navigate the mapped out walk.  As George’s feet have lost that Lovin’ Feeling, we opted for the 5K walk.

The first part of the walk was through the mountain cabins, which range in size from tiny cabins to four story chalets staffed with snow bunnies to serve hot wine.  Back in the 1930’s there was a builder named Steiner who handcrafted fairy tale log cabins on Mt Hood.  Door knobs were made of gnarled wood and doors, stairways and furniture fashioned with unique pieces of wood, which he roamed the forest to find.  He died in his 80’s, wandering the mountain while looking for a good piece of wood.  He built around 100 cabins, 85 of which have been identified.  They are prized possessions, as each cabin is a unique piece of art.  Every year in August there is a tour of select cabins for the public.  And we spotted two, built side by side!

img_4210

Trails criss-cross the mountain and we were given a detailed map to show us our chosen path.  We were among the early participants, but were soon left in the dust.  I’m a fairly fast walker, and moving slowly with George is a challenge for me.  Ever the martyr, I decided I would suck it up and make the best of it.  It wouldn’t kill me to go slowly, and if a slug happened to pass us, well, I would yell enthusiastically – “Way to go, Mr. Slug!”

You know, sometimes it really pays to get over ourselves.  Rather than fussing and fuming (my usual modus operandi), the beautiful day seized me.  The weather was terrific, not too hot or cool.  The forest has an earthy perfume that fills the senses and, if you let it, calms the soul.  It was the perfect place to breathe deep and enjoy the beauty around us.

The huckleberries were ripe and abundant.  I don’t remember if I have ever seen so many.  Huckleberries are tiny little blueberry like things that grow on low-growing shrubs in the forest.  And it takes a very long time to fill a bucket.  It takes a very long time to fill a baggie.  Personally, I have never found them worth the effort, but George loves them with the single-minded devotion of a native Oregonian.  The last time I saw someone selling them, it was for $45 a gallon, which works out to be about fifteen cents an hour in hard labor.

img_4239
Look carefully and you will see the little blue huckleberries. Even right on the trails there were tons of the little buggers – just ripe for the picking.

It worked out great.  While George carefully picked his way along the trail, I stopped and picked him huckleberries.  It was like holding out a carrot in front of the old donkey – it kept him coming.  As soon as he reached me, he stuck out his hand and I filled it with a bit of berries.  It was peaceful standing in the forest, picking berries, while listening to the birds and wildlife.  Way better than Xanax for relaxing!

img_4233
Nature creates crazy wonders, including this tree which grew in a unique shape. I can’t begin to figure why it decided to grow this way, but it made a nice seat to take a break on.

At one point we turned onto a trail that ran cross-wise across the mountain.  It also turned out to be an active mountain biking trail, which changed our peaceful meandering journey.  These guys are serious about quickly getting down the hill.  Fortunately, George was wearing a bright red shirt, so the bikers could see him up ahead.  They were unfailingly polite, but it was a bit disconcerting to suddenly find yourself leaping up a bank to get out of their way.  I wanted to get a good picture of them, but by the time I had leaped to the side and tried to whirl around to snap a picture – they were past us.IMG_4247

In my new found Peace in the Forest personality, I began to feel sorry for these hurly-burly macho types whizzing down the mountainside.  Here we were, contentedly munching berries, admiring the sun shining through the trees, conversing with the slugs on the path.  The bikers were bouncing crazily, heads snapping, arms locked as they careened wildly.  We all seek our levels of fun and adventure, but overall, I think I had more fun.

With our breakneck pace, the organizer of the walk found us while picking up her signs to go home.  She was totally gracious with our tardiness, and very encouraging to us both.  As we were talking to her, I realized George and I both had tell-tale purple stains on our lips from the huckleberries.  Not hard to figure what caused our delay.

I’m proud to say that George made it almost the whole 5K.  We eventually came out onto the Government Camp Loop, which runs through “town.”  It was also near a tavern George loves that has good hamburgers.  We stopped and had lunch, and then I hiked to the other end of the loop to get the car.

 

The Mt Hood Brewery offers their own microbrews and the Impossible Burger – which is vegetarian.  Much better than the typical garden burger.   It normally comes with fries, but I ordered a salad.  I would have skipped the cheese, but forgot!  With the cheese I computed it at 11 points.  This was more than I wanted to use, so I skipped the bun, bringing it to six points.  The tomato was vine ripened and super good.  And the cheese was real cheese, so I was happy to exchange it for the bread.

George decided to sit on their veranda and sip a microbrew while I walked to get the car.  Apparently, he thought it would take me a lot longer.  When I got back, he was happily tucked into a giant brownie with ice cream, along with the beer.  He looked like the kid caught with his fingers in the cookie jar.

While I was walking along the road, I saw an active ant colony.  As long as they aren’t in my house, I find them to be fascinating creatures.  One little guy caught my eye, hauling a load as big as himself.  Others would rush up to him and then away.  I bent down and realized he was carrying a dead ant, the same size as himself.  Determinedly, he would haul it for a bit, and then stop to rest.  It made me wonder what the story was for them both, and felt a bit sad.  For all I know he was taking it home to eat, but I prefer to think there was another reason.  That’s the nice thing about walking; there is time to ponder and create stories to go with them.img_4262

If you have never checked out the trails of Mt Hood, right from Government Camp, don’t delay!  The September weather is beautiful and the mountain is surprisingly green and lush, despite the summer dry spell.  Enjoy!

img_4264img_4225IMG_4207

 

IMG_4229

Day 13 & 14 Scandinavia – Oh Crap, It’s Almost Over

img_3940
It’s a bit breezy on our veranda as we head back to Southampton, England – and ultimately home.

Our last port has been visited and now we are headed back to where we embarked.  It will take us two days to reach Southampton, England.

This is the time of our vacations when I fight depression.  I just don’t want it to end.  The idea of packing up and trying to jam in any ship activities that we have missed makes me want to pull the covers over my head.  It’s been so much fun; why does it have to end?  Attitude is everything, and wasting the last two days in a depressed funk, is ridiculous.  So I suck it up, hitch up my big girl panties and see what we can still do.

This cruise has had an ambitious number of ports, and we are pooped.  Laying by the pool for hours, sipping on drinks with umbrellas, has never been my idea of fun.  But now is a great chance to lay back and recover.  George and I found a reclining couch for two and snoozed/read the morning away.   I did get some activity by participating in the World Wildlife Fund fundraiser walk.  And I got a nifty t-shirt to prove I did it!

img_3928
Everyone was trying to enjoy the last ship days. We had one of the bed couches on the right side. It was lovely.

The pool and buffet are only one floor apart, so we had lunch there.  I think the entire ship was there that day!  It was like people realized they only had two days to eat everything in site before going home.  It was crazy!

img_3936

Well, I still had my winning voucher from the casino.  I had no illusions about taking home a jackpot, but here is my chance to have some more fun pushing a little button repeatedly.  No surprise, but a few hours later and I have a grand total of .18 cents.  I save the voucher as the memory of a very good time.  It was hours of fun during the past two weeks on my $20.  I could easily spend that much on a meal, and would go home with some extra lumps of cellulite on my thighs.  I think I came out ahead!

Not wanting to miss out on an educational experience, I attended an interesting lecture on Rasputin, the religious healer of the hemophiliac son of the last czar of Russia.  It was so good that I stayed for another lecture on 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Ship Life for the Crew – which was fun, as well.  I missed the bingo, karaoke, scrapbooking, choir and dancing lessons.  That’ the trouble with these ships – there’s nothing to do!

This is the first trip that we haven’t killed ourselves eating in the specialty restaurants.  Of course, we had a lot fewer sea days; after a long day trekking around a new port, it is a lot of effort to come back and get mentally geared up for a new culinary adventure.  We usually try to get some great food on shore, and I’m happy with that.  The specialty restaurants, however, are really good.  George loves his spaghetti and meatballs and I had nixed all the Italian restaurants in the ports.  Which made me feel guilty….so on the last night we decided to hit his favorite place – The Tuscan Grill.

This restaurant has the best real estate on the ship.  It is located close to the water level at the back of the ship.  The view is amazing.  We were too early for gob-stopping sunset photos, but it was still beautiful.

img_3957

It’s pretty difficult to pass on fresh, homemade pasta.  So I didn’t!  Ordered as a side dish, the portion was about a hefty cup, and really tasty.  It was also dotted with butter, okay more realistically floating, and delicious.  George went for his favorite, spaghetti and meatballs and Ellie attacked a fillet mignon.  I opted for sea bass on a bed of spinach.

Before you think I did a fairly good job of healthy choices, I cannot tell a lie.  I also had  bread dipped in olive oil and fresh oregano.  And did I mention the deep fried calamari appetizer?  The glutton gods froze my camera clicking finger and brain – so I forgot to take pictures of the bread and appetizers.  Wine?  Oh yes, a lovely sauvignon blanc.

Yes, the calorie/point calculator  was spinning wildly (my slot machine should have spun this fast) – so let’s go ahead and add the homemade limoncello and dessert.  Ever virtuous, I passed on the tiramisu and went with the mango sorbet.  Truth is I would have thrown up if I had eaten the tiramisu, but I managed to lick down the sorbet.

Waddling back to our room, we were too full to go to the last show, which I felt really bad about.  The entertainment is top notch, and I hated to miss it.

The one sour note came when I was packing our bags.  The luggage has to be packed and set out in the hallway by 10 pm the evening before we disembark.  Nothing makes you know the fantasy is coming to an end quicker than seeing all the luggage sitting in the hallways.

I freely admit that I am compulsive, and prefer not to have help packing the bags.  George is happy to grab an armful of clothes, toss them in and shut it up.  I use packing cubes (wonderful invention), and everything is sorted and organized.  No, I don’t have a table of contents to reference each item, but it is a good idea.

While emptying out the drawers, I stubbed my big toe on the couch.  Of course, I hit it just right and it ripped the top of the nail off.  Well, not quite off – it was hanging there, attached on one side, bleeding and throbbing.  It hurt so much that I forgot to use curse words.  I just went “Oh” and looked at it in disbelief.

The good news is that I didn’t do it on the first day of the trip.  It would have been a major inconvenience, not to mention painful experience.  This way, I just got to limp with a tragic martyred look on my face for the last day.   It also gave me an excuse to drink more wine at the Tuscan Grill.  Pain relief, right?

It did take the wind out of my enthusiasm to roam the boat.  I make a vow to not take the elevator.  Stairs are great exercise and also a food deterrent.  If you have to climb seven flights of stairs to get to the buffet, you think twice about it.  But limping up the 95 stairs to the Oceanview Cafe was more of a challenge than I could attempt.  I still took the stairs, but stayed within a floor or two of our room.

We leave the ship at 7:15 a.m. and take a shuttle to the airport.  I can’t believe it is over.  George is happy to leave, Ellie can’t wait to see her friends, and I’m going to have to be pried off the ship’s rail.  I truly love my job, love my life, and would love to stay on this cruise and do it all over again.

 

 

 

Days 11 & 12 Scandinavia – Berlin, Germany – It Was the Best of Times and the Wurst of Times

img_3882
Sunset in Germany as we drove from Berlin back to our ship in Warnemunde. There is a modern art aspect to the multitudes of wind generators against the skyline. I think they are rather lovely. Germany has a large focus on getting away from a petroleum based energy source.

Day 10 – Sea Day

This will be a short paragraph on Day 10.  We woke up late, ate, rested, ate again and read our books. The previous four days had been an energy sucking (but fun) experience, and we were ready to relax.

We had thought we had two days at sea and then would be in Berlin.  Wrong!  We had one day to Berlin.  This took the wind out of my sails a bit; I was really looking forward to two days of rest.   This cruise has had a lot of stops.  I know there is a possibility that I won’t be returning, so I feel compelled to get in as much as possible.  Doesn’t always make for a relaxing vacation – but I can be a inactive at home.  This is my chance to see a bit of our world.  That’s why a Sea Day is lovely – it is a chance to recoup from the previous days adventures – and the couch is there for me to curl up on with my book.

Day 11 – Berlin

George has decided to pass on Berlin and explore the local sites of Warnemunde and Rostock, which is a 15 minute train ride.  Rostock has the oldest continuing university in Europe, founded in 1419.  Both cities were heavily bombed in WWI and WWII, because of naval and aerial factories.  When Rostock went to rebuild their city center, they chose a happy Swedish village model for their architecture, in order to take the focus away from the grim past. Continue reading “Days 11 & 12 Scandinavia – Berlin, Germany – It Was the Best of Times and the Wurst of Times”

Day 10 St. Petersburg – Weirdest Bathroom Trip Ever

img_3666
Raining hard when we woke up, so no sunrise. This is the sunset as we sailed out of the harbor leaving St. Petersburg.

We have a gorgeous view from our room; we overlook the flat roof of the immigration building.  As the wind blew and the rain poured, I admired the way the waves of water seemed to dance on the tar paper roofline.  Ahhhhhh, the day looks like an adventure.

Our call time for the excursion was even earlier this morning.  We had to report at 7:00 a.m. for another ten hour guided mass sojourn to the summer palace of Catherine the Great.  Ellie is feeling a bit better, but definitely moody.   More than a bit of teen attitude.  Grumpy, I mean Grampy, would rather have a case of jock itch than get up to stand outside a palace in the rain, but he gamely agrees to go.

I have to give it to George.  Yesterday was a long day, and this day won’t be any better.  A guy with a fainter heart would have refused to get up, but here he was.  Grouchy as hell, but there.  Alternately cajoling and/or threatening my loved ones, they got up, dressed and agreed to do it one more time.

This was the day that I could check one more item off my bucket list.  Years ago I read about the Amber Room in Catherine the Great’s palace.  She is one of the more remarkable women in history, and when not sending people to their death (like her husband, the Czar) she made some remarkable achievements.  I mean, she was Great, right?

Did you know she wasn’t Russian?  She was a 14 year old girl of great aristocratic lineage from Germany, but her family had lost all their money.  The future czar was a bit odd, but crazy about Prussian (German) soldiers.  She sucked it up for the family and married the royal prince.  At 14, the same age as my granddaughter, Ellie.

img_3326
A small piece of the palace facade. I couldn’t get the entire U-shaped building in one picture. This sucker is HUGE.

Catherine was smart as a whip and fell in love with Russia. When her husband became czar, she started taking an active role in ruling while her husband spent his time marching soldiers around the parade ground.  He loved the Prussian army model so much that he started dressing his human toy soldiers in Prussian uniforms and hanging out with his mistress all the time.  This totally alarmed the Russian military leaders.  Catherine had given birth to an heir, so if they got rid of the czar, she could rule as regent.

The czar had a bizarre fatal “accident” one night when he just happened to fall on a knife.  It was never proven Catherine ordered his death, but she didn’t hesitate to step into the role as regent.  Apparently her son was a slow grower, because she ruled for over 30 years.  She was incredibly smart and started schools, founded over 200 towns in the first urban planning seen in Russia (possibly Europe), fought wars and built one heck of a palace.

The Amber Room story is pretty cool.  The King of Prussia was the original owner of an amazing room made of amber panels.  Because amber is petrified pine resin, it has a very low melting temperature.  The room took a ton of maintenance because it kept falling apart.  It was driving the king nuts, and costing a fortune, so he didn’t want it any longer.  What to do with a priceless room made of amber that is a total pain in the royal butt and bank account?  Peter the Great came for a visit and admired it.  Why not give it to  Russia as a totally unique gift – a diplomatic coup, impress the crap out of the unsuspecting czar, and get rid of a never-ending home maintenance money pit.

Long story short, it was a wonder and no complaints on the maintenance problems.  Maybe Russia is cold enough that the amber never overheated.  Catherine moved it from Pete’s place to her own.  For 200 years it was the pride of the palace – until WWII.  At some point in the 900 day siege of St. Petersburg (by then re-named Leningrad), poor Catherine’s palace was bombed and looted.  Among the stolen treasures was the entire Amber Room, often billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World.  And it is still missing to this day.

Modern day Germany felt pretty bad about this, and in 2003 replaced the missing panels as a gift to Russia.  How could you not want to see a room with such an exciting history?  You won’t be seeing any pictures of the room here, cameras are forbidden.  I am also sorry to say that I had built up a vision in my head of what it would look like – and it fell quite short.  I had regaled Ellie with the tale of the room and when we were there, she looked at me and said “I thought it would be more spectacular.”  Sadly, I felt the same way.  Don’t get me wrong, it was wonderful and interesting in a rock collecting type of way.  But Eighth Wonder of the Worldish?  Not quite.  Obviously better than the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City, Kansas (also on my bucket list), but a little bit disappointing.  That’s what can happen when you let your imagination get carried away. Continue reading “Day 10 St. Petersburg – Weirdest Bathroom Trip Ever”

Days 9 St. Petersburg, Russia – Going for the Gold

The early morning skies were misting and cool as we came into St. Petersburg.  I had missed sunrise, but I’m not sure there would have been much to see.  As I was hanging over the railing looking through the misting fog, the building complex above appeared in the middle of the bay.  I have no idea what it was, but believe me it was spooky dooky.  These were large buildings, and they appeared to be on ground, but it was smack in the middle of the bay.  The abandoned, derelict concrete buildings on either end  had a fair sized pond between them, and the whole thing was ringed with a low concrete wall.  A narrow opening (see above) went into the pond.  Definitely not large enough for anything military (so no dead Russian sailor ghosts), but perhaps something for fishing?  Very perplexing and it lent a definite air of mystery into our trip.  If anyone has an idea what this was – let me know!

We have a two day visit to St. Petersburg.  Visas are not required for cruisers, but it also means we have to stay with a government sanctioned guide.  This is not only expensive, but our time is just not our own.  No wandering around town seeing the sights on our own.  We could have purchased visas, of course, but the added expense for two days didn’t seem worth it.

Last year we visited Siberia, which was a hoot.  It was a sunny day in late March, but freezing.  Snow on the ground, as you can imagine.  We were all bundled up like human-sized Yeti wannabes.  The residents, thinking it was a sunny warm day, were all in shorts.  I guess it is all relative.  The residents were definitely not friendly and I had a guy spit at me when I said hello.  And immigration was a nightmare.

St. Petersburg is a tourist mecca, so we were sure it would be different.  And it was.  The people we encountered were all wonderfully warm and helpful.  Immigration?  Not so much, but they weren’t rude, either.   We stood in line to get out and stood in line to get back out any time we left the ship.  No eye contact, except to verify our picture matched the passport.  No verbal communication, unless it was to correct something (I had Ellie walk up with me).  Not warm and friendly, but those poor folks see thousands of people a day, and it can’t be easy for them.  I would have taken a picture, but there were signs up saying no photography.  Not wishing to see the inside of a gulag, I kept my camera in the bag.

We almost didn’t make the tour.  Ellie had been suffering from a head cold for a few days.  During the night her ears had started hurting.  She was definitely not feeling well.  George, ever hopeful for a reason to stay on ship, declared she needed emergency medical intervention and stay on board for the day – and he would happily volunteer to play nurse.

As mother of six, I’m not easily panicked about a head cold and earache.  Her ears were definitely aching, but she didn’t have a fever, and her throat wasn’t red.  George was adamant that we have her seen by a doctor.  Now mind you, the tour starts at 7:30 a.m.  This is 6:30 a.m. and the medical clinic doesn’t open until 8 a.m.

George, convinced her throat might close and need resuscitation, insisted she stay.  Then happily reached for his book.  Ellie, hearing of her imminent approaching death, started to get alarmed and felt worse.  I started getting cranky.  Another fun day in paradise….

I called the 24 hour nurse on duty and she said Ellie would need to see the doctor.  I explained the time crunch (we now had 45 minutes).  She said she would wake the doctor and he would see us, but it would cost double.

Madly, Ellie and I jogged to the tour excursion site and asked if we had time to make an emergency run to the medical center.  They are used to everything – they put tour stickers on us and said “RUN!”  George, sipping his coffee, strolled to the excursion site and took a seat.

We raced to get to Deck 2, which also was the disembarkation site.  Explaining our problem, the staff escorted us downstairs to the medical center.  Which was closed, with a sea water Titanic door, of course.  We got a special tour of the crew quarters and entered through the staff entrance.  The nurse appeared, took info, called the doctor and he came stumbling in.  He said she had no fever, no red throat and yes, her ears were plugged.  His diagnosis?  Head cold.  He handed us some antibiotic spray for her ears that might help and a bottle of Dayquil.  And a bill for $300.

We ran back to the excursion site, but they had left.  We raced back to other end of the ship, where we had just left, and after a huge search – found George.  And left for the tour.  Poor George, outwitted again.  It would have been cheaper for us not to use his excursion ticket, and let him stay on the ship.

Our first day out was a guided tour (of course – no choice!) to the Peterhof palace, authentic Russian lunch and a tour of a modern art museum.  Our guide, Svetlana, was gracious, warm and helpful.

Tip:  When traveling to Russia in August, remember EVERYONE is taking a tour (because they have to) and the lines will be long.  So long that you cannot see either end, and the thought of a toilet is more important than food and water.  Although, when not longing to pee, there is a fear that you will die of starvation.  Imagine the longest line you have ever been in at Disneyland and multiply it by 27.  Then add another thousand people.

Svetlana earned her tips.  She got us in the  line and told us to wait while she tried something.  Pretty soon she came back, motioned for us to go quietly with her and not say anything.  With an air of authority, she quietly marched us past an estimated 7,000 people and stopped next to a Princess Cruise group (we are Celebrity).  She conferred with their guide (must have been a friend)  and motioned for us to join their group.

Oh my goodness.  How rude to the multitudes of people behind us.  And we loved her for it.  I know, when I’m at the Pearly Gates asking for admittance, they will probably have this on their Top 100 Reasons She Should Not Be Admitted list; but it was such a sweet surprise.

The Peterhof was the summer palace of Peter the Great.  So named because, well – he was pretty Great.  I’m not a Peter expert, but he was quite remarkable for his time.  Both in stature (he was nearly seven feet tall), and for his westernization efforts of Russia.  He was the first Russian monarch to travel to Europe at the beginning of the 18th century.  He went to France, which began their close cultural relationship, and fell in love with the architecture and gardens.  He returned to Russia and decided to create St. Petersburg.  Mind you, this was a large swampy area of small islands.  No prob if you are a Tsar; just set your slave peasant labor pool onto it and create a city.  He wanted a good seaport to open Russia up to Europe.  Big changes for a big, isolated kingdom.

He built himself a summer palace, which is now known as Peterhof.  A tiny little cottage on the Bay of Finland.  Ha.  It is now much grander than the original he started in 1705, as it was added onto by various rulers.  Let it be said that the rulers and rich of Russia loved gold.  I’m sure they had gold plated toothbrushes.  And commodes.

img_2918
This is a typical hallway in Peterhof. Don’t get excited, it isn’t solid gold – they used gold leaf. I could, however, probably retire on the proceeds of one doorway.

There are many royal palaces in St. Petersburg and the surrounding area.  The wealthy lived a lifestyle far different than the people who served them.  We walked through room after room of gold and beautiful antiques.  Sadly, many of the palaces were destroyed and damaged during WWII.  St. Petersburg is famous for their 900 day siege by the German military.  Aerial bombings and looting destroyed much of the former grandeur.  There has been a remarkable effort to rebuild and restore the palaces.  Unless you have knowledge of the horrors of the damage, you wouldn’t have any idea it had taken place.

img_3006
This is a chair used by Peter the Great. Note it has five legs. At seven foot tall and rather hefty, he felt more stable in a chair with five legs.

I was dazzled, Ellie was interested for the first 50 rooms and George wanted to sit down after the first room.  In fairness, we had been on our feet for quite awhile before ever reaching the first room.

After the palace tour, we had a tour of the famous gardens of Peterhof.  Inspired by the gardens of Versailles, Peter began creating the ultimate garden.  160 acres with 150 fountains.  It was truly incredible.  The fountains are all unique and large.  At the time it was created, one fountain had the highest spouting water in Europe.  All gravity fed without pumps.  An engineering marvel.

img_3057
The steps on the backside of the house ring these fountains as we walk towards the bay.
img_3076
These are metal tree sculptures with water jets. From a distance it was hard to tell that they weren’t living trees.
img_3101
A man of whimsy, there are several fountains that are activated when stepped upon. Unsuspecting guests would walk across a path and the fountain would erupt. This was a young boy who was having the time of his life. His parents dressed him and told him to walk across. He was dancing with joy.

We eventually reached the bay and our guide informed us it was a short one mile hike to the hydrofoil boats that would give us a ride across the bay.  Poor George, he was ready to quit, but he gamely kept on.  He was happy to have the 45 minute ride to rest.  We all were.  The boat was extremely comfortable and we sailed across the water in style.

Next stop was our authentic lunch at an authentic restaurant.  I had asked for a vegetarian meal, but they didn’t get the memo.  The guide tried to get something for me, and said they were giving everything they had vegetarian.  A glass of champagne, a shot of vodka, and a nickel sized piece of toast with caviar on top.  Followed by chicken salad, beef borscht, beef stroganoff and a cherry tart.  As you can imagine, the caviar and cherry tart really balanced out the alcohol.

Yes, I drank the champagne!  I tasted the vodka and decided to pass on it.  No problem, George drank my vodka and Ellie’s champagne and vodka.  Plus his own.  George, who had eaten a hamburger a couple of days ago, decided to be vegetarian (I think to support me) and didn’t eat his beef stroganoff  or borscht.  He loved the chicken salad, however and would have eaten my cherry tart, except I whacked him with me empty champagne glass.  Reviews of the food were less than warm, it really didn’t look good and there was a general consensus that it stunk.  You know it’s not good when the guide doesn’t ask “How did you love the food?  Great, right?”  There wasn’t any mention of lunch after we boarded the bus for our tour of the modern art museum.

Both George and Ellie were glaring at me about the next stop.  Modern art?  What the heck were we doing?  To be honest, I wasn’t that excited about it either.  When I booked it, I didn’t realize we couldn’t scamper off and do our own thing.  I thought if it wasn’t great, we could go sightseeing.  Oops.

Perhaps it was the champagne and caviar bite, but I absolutely loved this place.  Even Ellie enjoyed it.  George loved that there were benches to sit on and enjoy the view.  We were accompanied by a bonus surprise.  One of the artists exhibiting his work consented to show us the museum and give the artist’s perspective.  He was followed by a photographer who was documenting it for publicity purposes.  The guide was surprised and happy to have him – and it was amazing.

He talked about the artists, and what they were trying to communicate through different mediums.  I won’t bore you with all the details, but I ended up having such a great time.  Some of the exhibits were tactile and we were encouraged to touch and feel.  The last exhibit was by our artist.  In the center of a dark room, he had lined a curving path  with rows of plastic bubbles hung from ceiling to floor, illuminated so they glowed.  Each one us walked through the bubbles, touching them and feeling a bit like we were enchanted.  The champagne was probably still working its magic.  George wasn’t too enchanted (the vodka talking?), but he was really tired and wanted out of there.  He walked through the bubbles with a “I’m pretending this is fun” look on his face – to the enjoyment of the group.   I’m not doing a great job of describing it – but the group had great fun and the guide looked amazed.  I’m sure her tours here previously have not been as inspiring.

Back on the bus and the guide described the city as we went back to the ship.  Ten hours of adventure and we were all ready to stop.  None of us had eaten anything nutritious the entire day, so we ate quickly at the buffet and went to bed.  Getting ready for the next ten hour tour tomorrow.

img_3053
A hug outside after finishing the palace tour. Now to go through the gardens
img_2957
When you have a royal family, this is how you show a collage of family members. Actually an artist took 8 girls and dressed them in different outfits and painted pictures of them over and over. Pin up girls of the 18th century?

The video below is my tour through the bubbles, while still enjoying the influence of the lunch bubbly.