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Trip Report Russia - from Moscow to St. Petersburg (with Estonia and Finland)

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Russia from Moscow to St. Petersburg (with Estonia and Finland)

We took a great trip to Russia (from Moscow to St. Petersburg) with Grand Circle Travel in August. We also took the post trip to Estonia and Finland. It was everything we hoped for in a trip. The guides were very knowledgeable and personable, the quarters on the boat were quite spacious and the food was excellent. We had a variety of activities both on and off the boat. We were there during an unseasonable hot spell, temperatures were over 90 some days. It was exciting to see Red Square and St. Basil’s church, like something out of Disney World. It was a great trip. I’m posting my (Very long) trip journal here. Let me know if you want more info. I'd be glad to share any hints or tips. --Charlotte


Tuesday, August 12th: Frankfurt to Moscow
Arrived in Frankfurt at 5:30 AM – it was a 7 hour flight. The flight to Moscow left at 7:10 and took 2 ½ hours. About 20 of us arrived at the Moscow airport about the same time. The M/S Tikhi Don ship is lovely, It had just recently been completely refurbished. Our cabin was much larger than we expected and very well appointed. There are approximately 200 Grand Circle travelers and we are divided into groups – we are the orange group with Igor as our Program Director. We had a ship safety meeting as well as a Moscow orientation meeting. Dinner was at 7:30, open seating for all meals. Lovely dining room. Disinfectant always before meals. Tasty meal – eggplant salad, potato and corn soup, beef stew and chocolate mousse for desert. Went for a little walk around the dock area. All in all, much nice than we expected. We are near a lovely park with flowers.

Wednesday, August 13th: Moscow
Breakfast was limited – no omelet stands, although a nice assortment of cheeses, meats and cereals. We were on the bus at 9:00AM for our Moscow city tour. First stop was the site of the 1980 Russian Olympics (US didn’t participate in protest of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan). We saw the original ski jump and swimming arena. Next we boarded the metro. What a pleasant surprise. Each station is completely different, ornately decorated with chandeliers, marble stones, amber and museum-like statues/sculptures – 4 to 5 stops later, we arrived at Red Square. The word “red” comes from the Russian word which many centuries ago meant "beautiful.” Again more traffic. Red Square was smaller than we expected it to be, bordered by St. Basil’s cathedral on one side, GUM department store on another and the walls of the Kremlin, with Lenin’s tomb. We didn’t expect GUM (goom) to be right on the square, it was fun and funky, actually a mall and it reminded us of the mall in Melbourne, Australia. We stopped in for ice cream, quite expensive at 4.00 US for a 1 scoop cup! St. Basil’s church, with its colorful onion domes, dominates the square, and is just as beautiful as we hoped it would be. It was unseasonably hot in Moscow (well over 90). The group met at 3 to return to the ship (again in heavy traffic). We relaxed until 5, when some of us met to take a walk and check out the way to the subway. Temperature was still quite hot, but it was a lovely walk through the park. We looked around in some shops, and then headed back to the ship. Dinner was salad, sorrel soup, steamed fish, coffee and an assorted fruit and cheese plate. We met again at 9:30PM for a Red Square by night trip. We saw all the buildings lit up with no crowds and about 30 degrees cooler. It was perfect. We statues of Pushkin, Tolstoy and others, all lit, so much different than during the day. Then to the Young Maidens Convent, absolutely lovely, reminded us of the beautiful convent we saw in Bruges. The bus dropped us off in the Red Square and we walked all the way across, seeing GUM, the Kremlin walls, and St. Basil’s – all fantastic – like Disney World!
Thursday, August 14th: Moscow
Left at 9:15 for the military museum. Not the most interesting of museums… It covers the history of the Soviet and Russian military since 1917, occupies 24 exhibit halls, plus open-air exhibits. Over 800,000 military items including uniforms, medals and weapons. Among the highlights are remainders of the American U2 spy plane (brought down in the Urals in 1960) and the victory flag raised over the Reichstag in 1945. One of the more interesting (and humorous) paintings was a huge mural with the face of the actor Robert Mitchum as a soviet soldier – we were sure that the museum had no idea who the soldier actually was. Also a (long) and quite one-sided view of WWII from some Russian veterans. We were then driven to Arbat Street, one of the most upscale streets in Moscow. It was very hot. We left for the National Russian Folklore Show. Folk dances of the nationalities that inhabit Russia – 50 dancers, lots of costumes. Very energetic. Back to ship for a late meal.

Friday, August 15th: Moscow
Left early for the Tretyakov Gallery which houses one of the most extensive collections of Russian art and artifacts in the world. It was named after the financier and entrepreneur Pavel Tretyakov (1832-98), who donated approximately 2000 works of Russian art from his own private collection to the city of Moscow at the end of the 19th century. Along with his paintings, Tretyakov also generously donated his own house and surrounding buildings. Highlight of the museum were the collection of icons. Would have liked to have stayed longer and looked at the icons at a slower pace. We had our first lunch at a local restaurant. Quite good. Quick shower and snack and met again for the trip to the Yuri Nikulin Circus or Old Circus, named after Russia's most famous clown and the former longtime director of the circus. It featured more of the clown acts that became popular during the 17th and 18th centuries in Russia. Also featured acrobats and gymnasts, gal with the 2 dozen hula hoops, animals included dogs and lions (no bears). Very large permanent circus, only 1 ring, over 100 years old. Famous clown school. Good fun. Back to the ship for a late dinner.

Saturday, August 16th: Moscow
Set off early once again, this time for the Kremlin. Less traffic today, Igor says everyone heads for their dachas. Kremlin is Russian word for citadel, and that's exactly what the Moscow Kremlin was: a medieval walled city on a hill. It’s the seat of government and a self contained city with palaces, armories, and churches, a medieval fortress that links the modern nation to its legendary past. We passed through the gates into a lovely large courtyard. First stop was the Armory containing many halls, with each specializing in something different, ancient Russian regalia, ceremonial tsar's dress, church hierarchs' vestments, gold and silverware by Russian, European and Eastern masters, arms and armories, royal carriages and horse ceremonial harness. The carriages were incredible, elaborate, rococo and baroque styles – maybe 2 dozen were exhibited. Costumes, coronation gowns, one queen, Catherine (?), never wore the same gown twice and upon her death, 15,000 gowns were discovered. The Faberge eggs were exquisite – 10 of the 36 were displayed, One had an entire train set with tracks (in miniature) that fit inside the tiny egg. Then into Cathedral Square – it was laid out as the city's first great public space in the early 14th century. The square is centered on the Cathedral of the Assumption, built in the 1470s by Ivan the Great as the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church until Peter the Great moved everything to St. Petersburg in 1710. We went into the Cathedral, which looked liked the Alcazar in Spain with its multitude of columns, except these columns were painted with icons as opposed to the stripes in Spain. Not a square was uncovered. We were treated to a 5 singer choir with magnificent voices. We left the church at noon and were just in time to see the parade that happens Saturdays at 12:00 in the Cathedral Square. Very impressive with the horses, guards, and band. Then it was back to the ship for a late lunch. We set sail at 4 and said goodbye to Moscow. We sailed all night through the Moscow Canal. This night was the Captain’s Welcome Party. Dinner was great fun!

Sunday, August 17th: Uglich
Sailed through many locks during the night. Sailed through lovely countryside, small row boats, fishing boars. People away for the weekend. So many campsites along the canal. Finally reached the Volga (largest river in Europe: flows to the Caspian sea, almost 2,500 miles, links 5 oceans and seas to Moscow through its canals). We listened to a talk by the captain, this morning, on the restoration and refurbishment of our ship and saw quite a few before and after pictures. We were impressed! Next was a talk about our first stop, Uglich. Weather remains unseasonably hot, almost 90 with bright sun. Not what we expected in Russia. About 2:30 we could see the town of Uglich coming to view and admired the fantastic. Uglich is a small town of about 37,000 residents, on the Volga, 136 miles north of Moscow. It was a favorite of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. His son Dmitry was murdered in Uglich in 1591, and the brilliant red Church of St. Dmitry on the Blood was built to honor the slain young prince. We did a walking tour of Uglich and were fortunate to be up close to a small men's choir as they serenaded us. It added to the atmosphere. We had plenty of time for shopping at the vendors' stands between the town and the ship and I bought a beautiful hand crafted matryushka doll. We were back on board for a shower and dinner and were entertained by our photographer/musicians in the evening.

Monday, August 18th: Yaroslavl
Sailed during the night and we arrived at Yaroslavl early morning. After an early breakfast, we toured Yaroslavl - a town of about 600,000 at the junction of the Volga and Kotorosl Rivers. The town is almost 1000 years old, founded in 1010 by Kiev Prince Yaroslav the Wise. We went inside the Church of St. Elijah the Prophet and were mesmerized by the magnificent icons and frescoes of the church. Another choir sang for us – the counter tenor was fantastic! We were entertained with a bell concert outside the church. It was interesting that the 13 bells are all different sizes, and they are all tied together. The sound is made by the bell ringer pulling various strings. We loved the sign at the entrance to the Spassky Monastery in Yaroslavl. “We want you to buy your souvenirs here!" Then it was back to the city center where we had some time on our own. We went to the local market where we were surprised by the abundance, variety and freshness of the local produce, meats, fish, and veggies. Very clean and inviting displays. Then to the felt boot factory – a dismal place. The working conditions seemed to be brutal. Hot steam, smells, women are paid ~100/week, working 5 days/week, considered a very good salary. Then back to the ship where we started to sail almost immediately. Sailed along the Volga, beautiful fertile land, cows keeping cool by hanging out in the water. The Volga freezes in the winter and the ice can get up to 3 feet deep. At 4:30 we met on the upper deck for our matryoska painting contest. We were given paints and a doll and we set out to paint. Good fun! Next was a vodka tasting – 3 varieties – no sipping – chug it down immediately, followed by something pickled – tomato, herring, etc. After dinner, our entertainment was again by our photographer/musicians featuring classical Russian folk music.

Tuesday, August 19th: Goritsy
Early morning tour of the Kirillo-Belozerskiy monastery (the largest Russian Orthodox monastery in the world) and the Goritsy nunnery. We had a great tour guide, Andrei, with a good sense of humor. At one time there were approximately 1,400 monks living here, now there are 2. The monastery has a large collection of 15th and 16th century icons with diadems (attached halos). Both the monastery and the nunnery have historical associations with Ivan the Terrible. The monastery features at both the beginning and end of Ivan's life. Before he was born, his parents prayed here for God to give them an heir. Then when Ivan was dying, he begged the monks here to pray for God to forgive him his bloody deeds. The monastery dates back to 1397 when monk called the Reverend Kirill who came from a wealthy family, decided to leave the easy life and look for a remote place where he could become closer to God. The new monastery prospered and became a refuge. It was turned into a fortress that resisted attacks for many years, but couldn't resist the Bolsheviks. The monks were shot or sent to labor camps. However, the monastery managed to preserve much of its historic grandeur and was selected one of the "The New Seven Wonders of Russia". The setting of Goritsy Nunnery is beautiful - a graceful building with pure white walls. The nunnery was famed for its wonderful flower gardens, and the skill of the nuns in making exquisite icons and embroideries, some of which survive. The weather was overcast but humid. There are quite a few lakes in Gorisky. Residents all participate in a ‘jump-in” festival in winter. If you do, you get younger. Lots of ice activities- ice hockey, skating, fishing… We left Goritsy for Khizi about noon. Wonderful bucolic scenery. Saw the flooded church of Krohino. At 3:15 we had a port talk on the history of Khizi island. At 3:30 we had a presentation on the folk instruments of Russia and had an opportunity to play. I played the balalaika. At 4:30 we had a blini party with Chef Pavel doing a demo of blini construction (mainly eating for us). Good fun. Another good dinner. Liars club by the Program Directors. They were great! Lots of laughs!

Wednesday, August 20th: Lake Onega - Kizhi Island
We traveled through about 14 locks during the night. It was a beautiful morning - the weather has finally become more seasonable – 70’s rather than 90’s. We had a talk on modern Russian history from Brezhnev to the current president, Medvedev, given by Igor, followed by a port talk on Svir Stroy. And another cooking demo by Chef Pavel on pelmeni and vareniki (dumplings, both meat and fruit). Next was a tour of the Captain’s Bridge with a very interesting and lively Q&A. What a charming guy! Lake Onega is the 2nd largest lake in Russia (1st is Ladoga which we’ll see tomorrow). Beautiful fertile land along Onega. Then we saw Kizhi island looming into view. It’s one of the largest outdoor museums in Russia. The main attraction is the collection of historic log buildings brought to the island beginning in 1951. The biggest of the structures is the Church of the Transfiguration which was built on the island in 1714, in honor of the victory of Peter the Great over the people of Sweden. The church was used during the summer for major holidays. All four sides of the church are identical, so everyone on the island would have the same view. Next to the summer church is the winter church, the Church of the Intercession, built in 1764. It wasn't uncommon in Russia to have paired churches for winter and summer. Winter churches were smaller and required less heat for the fewer number of worshipers who attended in the winter. Inside the winter church, we saw the brilliantly colored icons. Another impressive structure is the church bell tower. The Church of the Transfiguration, The Church of the Intercession, and the Bell Tower have a total of 31 onion shaped domes. No nails were used in the construction of these buildings – everything is held together with wooden pegs. To protect the buildings from fire damage, a fire boat sits just off shore ready to spray the buildings with water. Kizhi focuses on peasant life and customs in the Russian north and includes 83 wooden structures, most of which date back to the 18th or 19th century. The museum has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1990. The open air exhibit includes churches, homes, and other old wooden buildings that were either built on Kizhi or have been collected from around northern Russia and preserved on Kizhi. The weather was perfect! After the tour, we went fishing with the captain. Very few fish caught. More for the laughs than anything else. Captain was charming as usual. At 6, we had an Inner Circle cocktail party and learned that about 2/3 of the passengers were Inner Circle members. Our entertainment was again provided by Troika, our photographer/entertainers and Dimitry, the classical pianist.

Thursday, August 21st: Svir Stroy
Our first misty day in Russia. Svir Stroy is a small village of about 1000 residents located on the Svir River about 150 miles east of St Petersburg The Svir connects the two largest lakes in Europe – Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega. We walked through the small village for a visit to Svetlana’s house, the home of the mother of Fyodor, one of the crew. Svetlana served us tea and 3 types of piroshkies: cabbage-filled, jelly-filled and cottage cheese-filled. Very sparse and very clean home 2 bedroom home. As our gift, we brought Snickers Bars – she was thrilled and said she’d have to hide them from her kids. Fyodor was getting married the very next day. We left Svetlana’s and after some more shopping it was back to the Tikhi Don. After lunch we had a talk with the Program Directors on “Controversial Topics.” We could ask them anything we wanted about the country. Communism, economics, etc. They all seemed to be very straightforward and honest. We relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. I finished painting my matryoshka doll and Pete rehearsed his starring role in tonight’s performance. At 6:30, we had the captain’s farewell party with drinks and hors d’oevres. We had our most elaborate meal with a flaming dessert. The Program Directors outdid themselves with their minimalist performance of Cinderella, and Swan Lake performed by some of the men travelers, was hysterical. Both were some the funniest performances we’ve seen. Many other skits. Pete was a hit with his spoon playing. Fun evening. Tomorrow St. Petersburg.

Friday, August 22nd: St. Petersburg
Here we are in St. Pete! We left early this morning for our first glimpse of St. Petersburg. Day started off sunny, but as Igor says, it’s always changeable. It started to rain as we got to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. We got off the bus for a quick photo stop – exterior was beautiful. St. Isaac's Cathedral was built between 1818 and 1858, designed to accommodate 14,000 standing worshipers, was originally the city's main church and the largest cathedral in Russia. After lunch at a local restaurant, it was on to the Hermitage and the Winter Palace. The Winter Palace is the most famous building of imperial St. Petersburg, not only as the residence of the Tsars, but also as the home of the Hermitage, the world's largest museum of art. The present structure, completed in 1762 was designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli. It’s opulent and baroque. The palace served as the winter residence for every ruler of Russia since Peter III. When the Bolshevik government transferred its capital to Moscow, the Winter Palace has been associated primarily with its role as the Hermitage Museum. It has room after room of masterpieces done by artists such as da Vinci, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Van Dycks. The Hermitage is huge, way too much to absorb in the short time we were there, however, our tour guide Svetlana, was determined to make sure we didn’t miss a thing on her watch. The Hermitage was a real contrast -- some of the rooms were beautifully restored and the antiquities, sculptures, and paintings beautifully displayed. The opulence and architecture was amazing. The rooms on the first floor are breathtaking, with many of the rooms restored as they were during Imperial times. Other rooms were drab with the windows open onto the rare paintings, and the light coming in through thin lace curtains. There was no air conditioning in many of the rooms, making the space stuffy, and no thoughts of the placement of the art – it seemed as if someone took a hammer and nails and just banged them into the wall without any thoughts. Seeing the paintings exposed to the sun and heat made us cringe. Hopefully the continuing restoration will include plans to prevent further deterioration. We had an opportunity to stay a couple of hours more, but by this time we were museum-ed out and just wanted to get back to the ship. The group met again for an orientation walk around the dock. Much more city-like than the docking area in Moscow. ATM, internet and the metro, all very close. I took the same orientation walk again after dinner, just to get out and walk.

Saturday, August 23rd: Catherine Palace/Ballet St. Petersburg
Early morning departure for Catherine Palace/Museum in the town of Pushkin – a lovely suburban area of St. Peter, serene with lots of grass and trees. Nothing prepared us for the incredible enormity of the place, called the Versailles of Russia, it’s a combination museum and palace. We were greeted by a band playing all American music. The palace constructed in blue, white, and gold, was named for Empress Catherine I who ordered its construction in 1717. The palace as it's seen today with the grand Baroque facade, was designed by Italian architect Rastrelli, who also designed the Winter Palace. Rastrelli was forced into early retirement when Catherine the Great—no admirer of the Baroque style—came to power. Catherine palace depicts the world's architectural and gardening arts of the 18th and 19th centuries. Its three parks occupy the area of almost 50 square miles, with over 100 architectural constructions: from magnificent palaces and grand monuments to hidden bridges, intimate pavilions and park sculpture, views of whimsical lodges, elegant classical buildings, marble monuments. There are also gothic style, and Turkish and Chinese styled buildings. Catherine's Palace itself, contains exquisite decorative objects, furniture, Russian and West-European paintings, unique collections of porcelain, amber, arms, decorative bronze, sculptures, etc. The entire place was incredible. Each room of the palace was more opulent and exquisite than the next – the gold and mirrors and clocks and table decorations and setting have to be seen to be believed. Grander than anything we’ve ever seen. We were fortunate that the sun came out and we were really able to appreciate the area. The floors were some of the most intricate parquet, so we had to put on little paper slippers in order not to damage the floors. Boy were they slippery! However, the true glory of the Palace (or so the legend says) is the story of the Amber Room - the most mysterious of the world's works of art. The exquisite room made of several tons of the golden tree resin - the lightest gem in the world - is often referred to as the "Eighth Wonder of the World". The idea of decorating the interiors with amber (material had never been used before) was of Andreas Schlueter, the court architect of the Prussian king Friedrich 1. It was first displayed in Peter's Winter Palace. Empress Elizabeth ordered the Amber panels to be transferred to the Catherine Palace. The panels were not large enough to complete the new decor, so mosaic and mirror insets were added - four of them contain pictures made of semiprecious stones like quartz, jasmine, jade and onyx were added. In 1941, when Nazi troops were approaching Leningrad, hasty preparations were made to evacuate the most precious exhibits to a safer place. But the Amber Room was too fragile, so a decision was made to hide it under double walls with paintings of low value over them. When the German troops occupied the Catherine Palace, the trick was disclosed. The Amber Room was dismantled and shipped to what is now, Kalinigrad and was exhibited in the local castle. At the end of 1944 the Red Army approached Kalinigrad and the Amber Room was packed into boxes and evacuated. There its trace gets lost, never to be found. There are many versions of what really happened to the Amber Room afterwards, but the fate of the Amber Room remains a mystery. In 1979 a decision was made to reconstruct the Amber Room.  The new Amber Room opened 
May 31, 2003. The restoration works began in 1979 and cost about $11 million. 6 tons of raw amber were needed for the restoration. Then it was back to the ship for lunch. Weather remains perfect… cool and sunny. After lunch, we heard local university students talk about their goals and interests. Gave them a chance to practice their English and us a chance to ask questions. Then we had an early dinner so we would have ample time to fight the traffic and be at the ballet in time. We saw a fabulous performance of Swan Lake at the Mariinsky theatre (established in 1783, following a decree by Catherine the Great). The current theatre building opened in 1860. The theatre‘s magnificent decor of gilt chandeliers and light blue upholstery created the perfect atmosphere. Dance legends like Nijinsky, Pavlova, Nureyev, Baryshnikov and others have trained and danced at the Mariinsky school and theatre. It was an incredible day and evening! We could now imagine what it was like to be living like tzars in the old Russia.

Sunday, August 24th : Peter and Paul Fortress/Peterhof St. Petersburg
Peter and Paul fortress built in 1703, was designed by Peter the Great, and served mainly as a political prison. The main attraction is the cathedral. It had none of the onion domes we’ve seen in other Russian Orthodox churches, but a single gilded spire about 400’ high. It was the city’s highest structure until a TV tower was built recently. In the middle of the fortress stands the impressive Peter and Paul Cathedral, the burial place of all the Russian Emperors and Empresses from Peter the Great to Alexander III. The Cathedral was the first church in the city to be built of stone. On top of the cathedrals’ gilded spire stands a magnificent golden angel holding a cross. Its rectangular shape, bell-tower, and landmark needle are features borrowed from the protestant churches of Western Europe. The inside of the cathedral was filled with fantastic icons. The Russian mint also has a facility here and is housed in a separate building. We find all the wealth of the aristocracy to be mind boggling. Time for lunch of Chicken Kiev and the next adventure of the afternoon – a 50 minute hydrofoil to Peterhof, 18 miles west of St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland. Peterhof is referred to as the “Russian Versailles,” although we thought Peterfhof was much grander thanVersailles. (although Versailles was his inspiration). Peter's granddaughter, Empress Elizabeth, expanded the Grand Palace and extended the park and the fountains, including the Grand Cascade which has 64 different fountains, and over 200 bronze statues, bas-reliefs, and other decorations. At the center stands Rastrelli's statue of Samson wrestling the jaws of a lion. Peter had a great sense of humor and devised joke fountains that sprayed unsuspecting visitors who stepped on a particular paving stone. Peterhof was also ransacked by the German’s and was the first Russian site to be restored. Much of the works of art and all the dinnerware were packed up and shipped to Siberia just minutes before the Nazis took over Peterhof.

Monday, August 25th : Yusupov Palace St. Petersburg
A dark rainy morning for our trip to the Yusupov Palace located on the Moika Embankment. In 1830 the palace became the property of Prince Yusupov, one of the richest and one of the most powerful people in Russia. The furnishings and décor of the palace are elegant, featuring original interiors of the 19th-and early 20th centuries. The rooms are decorated in various styles: baroque (the theater), Empire style (gala halls), Oriental style (the Turkish study), neoclassicism (some rooms of the ground floor) and others. The interiors are filled with rich decorations including paintings, carvings, marble, mirrors, crystal chandeliers, silk, and exquisite furniture. Grigory Rasputin was murdered in the cellar of the Yusupov Palace on the night of December 16 1916, his death proved to be an almost greater mystery than his life had been. We saw the wax figures of Rasputin and plotters of his assassination. In 1987 the theater of the palace was opened to the public: it became the place for music concerts and literature evening arrangements. The theatre was very impressive with its 2 levels and room for an orchestra, especially when one realizes that this is a private residence. Then it was back to the ship. We had lunch and then quickly left again for the canal tour of St. Petersburg. Would have been much more enjoyable in the bright sun. It was a cloudy, misty afternoon, buildings were lovely, but lost luster in the mist. We had a quick stop to see the Choral Synagogue, the 2nd largest in Europe (largest is in Budapest). The building was erected in 1893 with permission of Alexander II in 1869. Reconstruction of the Large Choral Synagogue is performed by Mr. and Mrs. Safra from 2000 to 2003 (who gave 5 million for reconstruction). There was a kosher restaurant alongside the synagogue. Would have like to have seen the interior… no time. Again heavy traffic coming back to the ship and we didn’t get back until almost 7. Our last dinner on board. We said goodbye to folks we met – people were leaving St. Petersburg at different times. Those of us staying on for the post trip had our meeting with Igor about the post trip.

Tuesday, August 26th : St. Petersburg to Tallinn, Estonia
We left St. Pete at 8. It was a rainy, cold and generally miserable day. The long ride made a little easier by Igor’s quizzes on Russian history. We finally got to the border at 10’ish. There was a long wait to exit Russia and a longer wait to enter Estonia. Igor presented us with his version of the Russia/Estonia problems. We had a delicious lunch at the fort, right on the border. Time difference is 1 hour later, so it was closer to 12 when we had lunch. The luncheon chicken soup was incredibly rich and tasty. The potatoes were meaty and delicious. Main dish was roast pork, also excellent and a chocolate bar for desert. It was back on the bus for another 3 hours and we arrived at the beautiful 5* Radisson Hotel in Tallinn. We unpacked a little and then gathered again at 4:30 for the usual introductory walk – ATMs, busses, main points of interest, etc. Tallinn, with a population of 400,000, is the capital of Estonia and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland, 43 mi south of Helsinki. The hill of Toompea, with its cobblestone streets filled with medieval houses and alleyways has incredible views and is generally quieter than the larger Lower Town, where most businesses and restaurants are located. The main square reminded me of the town of Sarlat, in France. Dinner was at the Pepperpot – no electric lights, all candle lit. A very hearty dinner. Stopped in the interesting supermarket on the way back to the hotel. Reminded me of a much smaller version of Harrods in London.

Wednesday, August 27th : Tallinn, Estonia
After a delicious breakfast including lox and 3 different types of herrings, as well as incredible varieties of dark, heavy breads, eggs, and anything and everything imaginable, we set out for a city tour of Tallinn, some walking, some by bus. We started out at Swan Lake and briefly glimpsed the castle built by Peter the Great. Then we saw the chorus shell and the ferry terminal where we’ll be Friday. Bus dropped us off at the Upper Town and we walked down stopping at points of interest along the way. Took most of the day. Back to the hotel where we rested for a while and then met again for dinner at a local restaurant.

Thursday, August 28th : Tallinn, Estonia
I decided not to join the group for the optional trip to the farm and instead found the hop on/hop off bus. There were 3 separate routes with about 6 stops on each route and each route was about an hour or so. Unfortunately, the weather was overcast and there were some heavy downpours. I left the main station at 10 and didn’t get back until 4:15 – best 20.00, I spent this trip! I stopped at the Botanical Gardens, would have loved to have spent more time but the rains started. Next hop off was the new art museum, the Kunstimuuseum (KUMU). Just recently opened, it’s a modern, sculptural space with galleries, an education center, an auditorium, and a library. The old museum was cramped and dark from the Soviet times. The Estonians are proud of the grandness of this museum with its huge amount of wall space. The most interesting were the works of the artist Errick Haamer – whimsical and colorful with lots of unusual characters. As I left the museum, it started pouring, it got dark and the wind was fierce during the 15 or so minutes or so that I waited for the bus. At 3:30 on the dot, the bus appeared. I took one more trip to Old Town and then to the supermarket, where I sampled some of the goodies offered, got a salad and a couple of slices of pizza, went back to the room and watched some of the Olympics.

Friday, August 29th : Tallinn, Estonia to Helsinki, Finland
Spent the morning walking around Old Town for the last time. Walked up to Toompea, the high town and then to the lower town. One last time in St Catherine’s Passage, lovely buildings remaining from the 15th – 17th centuries. The buildings are now mainly artisan studios. The City Tower opened at 10 and I climbed up the tower and got some excellent photos– no tower left unclimbed in Europe. We were leaving for Helsinki at noon on the huge Supercat ferry. We got underway about 2 and it took about 90 minutes for the crossing across the Gulf of Finland. The bus comes on the ferry with us, and the hotel is very close to the harbor, but with the road work and the construction, it took about ½ hour to get to the hotel. It’s more than adequate, not quite as nice as the Radisson in Tallinn. We met at 5:15 for our orientation walk. Helsinki is a fun town, big open square, lots of activity – on the same latitude as Nome, Alaska. Home of Sibelius and Saarinen, the architect. Everything is quite expensive. We rode the city tram in the figure 8. We had a delicious dinner of salmon and potatoes with goat cheese. Finns are very green, they recycle everything, everything is organic. Even the rubbish cans in the hotel room is divided into paper and plastic. Saw the Finnish synagogue.

Saturday, August 30th : Helsinki, Finland
Delicious breakfast – lots of smoked fish and heavy breads. I’ll miss these breakfasts. We met at 9 for the city tour – learned that even thought Finland sided with Germany during WWII, the government did not allow any of their Jewish population to be exiled to concentration camps. Sense of humor is like Australians – a little off the wall. Julia, was our most delightful guide – she was married to a Finn, but was from the UK. Great presence and sense of humor. We stopped at the Temppeliaukio Kirkko or Rock Church. This very untraditional Lutheran church was constructed between 1968 & 1969. It has a circular dome design and is hewn out of solid rock reaching down far below ground level. Temppeliaukion is somewhat of an engineering marvel and at first it was considered controversial because of its "spaceship" looking design. The concave glass and copper roof appears to be emerging from the ground and that is virtually the only part of the building that can be viewed from the outside. The landscape around the outside of the church is stark and lunar in appearance. Two young architects, brothers Timo & Tuomo Suomalainen, won a competition for its design, never heard of anything like it anywhere else in the world. The acoustics are incredible, music is playing all the time. It’s used for concerts even though it is still a functioning place of worship. The inside design is clean and unadorned – no altar, the pews are made of light birch wood, and the walls are jagged rock. Glass panels perfectly placed in the copper roof allow for extremely good natural lighting on sunny, clear days. All signs are both in Finnish and Swedish even though only 5% of the population is Swedish. No one knows why. They also say that the prime minister of Finland is a dead ringer for Conan O’Brian (the prime minister is female). Next stop was the Sibelius monument to honor national composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). All during its construction, the project was controversial. The entire Finnish population was divided into 2 camps, the conformists wanted some sort of figure, and the modernists wanted something abstract. So the result was 2 monuments by Eila Hiltunen's, an abstract and a likeness (turns out the likeness is of Omar Sharif (not of Sibelius). We were on our own for the rest of the afternoon, so the ladies and I took a ferry over to Suomenlinna island. It was a short ferry trip away from the market square. This is a popular spot for weddings and we saw quite a few wedding parties heading over to the church on the island. Most of the buildings date back to the time when Finland was ruled by Sweden and by Russia. The island is also a home to a 250-year-old naval fortress, also known as Suomenlinna. It is one of the seven UNESCO's World Heritage Sites in Finland. We walked around the island and met quite a few from our group. Then it started to cloud up and got a little cooler. We took the Rick Steves walking tour of Helsinki from market square back to the hotel, stopping in at Stockmans, the Harrods of northern Europe. Tonight we had our last group dinner. We said our goodbyes.

Sunday, August 31st : Helsinki, Finland to Home
Wake up call was at 3:45, bags out by 4. We had juice, coffee and croissants. The van picked us up at 4:30 and we were in the airport and thru security by 5:30. Flight left on time at 7. Arrived in Frankfurt and made it home safe and sound by 6. Terrific post trip.

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