Day 10 St. Petersburg – Weirdest Bathroom Trip Ever

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The steps on the backside of the house ring these fountains as we walk towards the bay.
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These are metal tree sculptures with water jets. From a distance it was hard to tell that they weren’t living trees.
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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.

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A hug outside after finishing the palace tour. Now to go through the gardens
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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.

Day 8 Scandinavia – Tallinn, Estonia is Terrific!

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The sunrise picture wasn’t great, but the sunset as we left Tallinn for St Petersburg was peaceful and beautiful

Our best day yet!  We didn’t know what to expect in Tallinn, Estonia.  I’m sorry to say that Estonia doesn’t come up in my everyday conversations – but it earned a warm spot in all of our hearts today.  What a fun place!  If medieval cities get your blood pumping, this is the town for you.

We all liked Stockholm, but it didn’t hit a spot in our Top 10 Places to Relocate for Six Months list.  But Tallinn is right up there.

The weather finally cooled a bit and there was a brisk breeze in the harbor.  Ellie, still a bit under the weather, slept in and George and I dined on the buffet balcony.  I love sitting there in the morning.  Tallinn is a apparently a popular cruise ship port, the ships just kept arriving.  It is fascinating watching the pilots parallel park a 900 foot ship between two giant behemoths.    A Disney ship pulled in and blew its huge horn – and the opening bar to the Disney theme played.  Everyone on our ship started laughing and smiling.  Even on a competitor’s vessel, we all love Disneyland and everything it represents. Continue reading “Day 8 Scandinavia – Tallinn, Estonia is Terrific!”

Day 6 Scandinavia – Stockholm is Spendy!

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I woke up with the sunrise and jumped up to take a picture of the sky as we neared Stockholm. Then I looked at my clock and realized it was 4:19 a.m. Sunrise comes early here! I definitely went back to bed.

In the past, when I thought of Stockholm, it was a vision of snow, ice and skis.  Never, ever was it a vision of 85+ degrees, high humidity and bottles of sunscreen.  It is HOT!  Welcome to the tropical destination of Sweden!

Sweden is such an interesting country.  I am a bit embarrassed to reveal just how little I knew about it.  Did you know that the city of Stockholm is comprised of 14 islands, which are part of the Stockholm Archipelago which has between 24,000 – 30,000 islands?  Too many to count?  Sorry to say, I had no idea.  And they are 24,000 of those most beautiful spots on earth.  At least in the summer when you can get around to them.

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Some of the islands we passed on our way into port. All the islands are heavily wooded, and many have beautiful summer houses on them.

I thought Alaska was beautiful (and it is), but Sweden really has the wow factor.  And the cruise ship comes so close to some of them that we could wave gaily to children and talk to each other.  Okay,  we were hollering, but it was amazingly close.  And it made George more than a bit nervous. Continue reading “Day 6 Scandinavia – Stockholm is Spendy!”