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Celebrating a Milestone in Russia - St Petersburg and Moscow


Sep 26th, 2010, 10:04 AM
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Celebrating a Milestone in Russia - St Petersburg and Moscow

Where: St. Petersburg and Moscow

When: 11 days in September

How: I worked with a travel consultant at MIR Corporation, who booked everything for me, from flights to guides and drivers, hotels, transfer to and from airports and to and from train, as well as organizing the visa for me.

Background: This had been a dream trip of mine for a long time. My interest in Russia goes back to elementary school and I’d never been. I turned this into a splurge vacation for myself in honor of a certain unmentionable milestone birthday. I say “splurge” because ordinarily I travel independently and would gladly organize everything myself, and do it somewhat cheaper than this ended up being. I had done enough initial research to know that it would be difficult but not impossible to do this trip on my own. I probably could have but given the purpose of the trip, I really just wanted to go and enjoy and have all the work done for me. I know this is controversial to some to say this, but I fully intended this to be a trip of a lifetime, and I didn’t want any hassle to come my way.

Why MIR? The reasons I chose MIR were many. Obviously I wanted some degree of independence and I did not want to be limited to the confines of a group of folks who’d celebrated a few more milestone birthdays than I have (no offense intended, that’s just not my cup of tea). I also didn't want to spend the vacation getting on and off buses and following a guide around like sheep wearing a headset to hear her audio. And finally, I still am an independent traveler. I wanted time on my own to see the cities on my own. With those constraints, my consultant at MIR asked for my proposed itinerary (what I wanted to do in Russia, a financial budget and a time budget, as well as possible times I wanted to go). She came back with the first itinerary, I found a couple of things I wanted to change and we finalized it. That was in January! So I had a long nine months to prepare, but MIR sends out an extensive reading list that I tore right into. I also sent the same itinerary request to Exeter International, and they came in nearly double what MIR quoted me (which was a HUGE difference), the biggest difference in the packages being 5-star hotels and first class train between cities. It was a no brainer for me...MIR was it.

Reading list:
Lenin's Tomb by David Remnick
Among the Russians by Colin Thubron
Russia: a Concise History by Ronald Hingley
Catherine the Great: A Short History by Isabella de Madariaga
Ten Days that Shook the World by John Reed
The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg by Helen Rappaport
The Amber Room: The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treasure by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark
City of Thieves by David Benioff (fiction but a great story)
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (ditto)
¼ of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Getting by
I taught myself Cyrillic using “Teach Yourself Beginner’s Russian Script” which was the best book I bought on the subject. I also bought a few language books with CDs to listen to as well as use the free One Minute Russian and Survival Russian podcasts on iTunes. I knew enough to more than get by and most always once I tried to speak Russian, the person I was talking to would speak English. I highly recommend learning the Cyrillic alphabet at the very least. It will help to navigate in train stations, find restaurants and for me, read many of the cards next to artwork in museums that weren’t in English. So many times I wanted to know who the artist was and I was able to sound it out!

Getting there and getting around
I flew from Boston to Frankfurt to St Petersburg on Lufthansa. The transfer was flawless and I breezed through immigration in St. Petersburg and my suitcase was first off the belt. Great start! My first driver was right outside the baggage claim waiting for me, and he pointed me to ATMs on the far side of the arrivals hall.

I took the Sapsan high speed train between St. Petersburg and Moscow, second class, which was comfortable enough and served its purpose. I take trains all the time to get to work and to NYC on the odd occasion and this was no better or worse than any of them.

Coming home I flew Moscow to Munich to Boston, also on Lufthansa. I was concerned about only having 90 minutes to connect in Munich, but I did it in 35 minutes, with a full security search, a stop in the bathroom and buying water on the way. We were delayed 2 hours leaving due to something burning in the galley, but the pretzels stuffed with sausage and mustard they serve more than made up for the inconvenience!

There are not enough superlatives in my vocabulary to adequately describe or thank the two guides that MIR organized for me. In St. Petersburg, I met Katya and she worked with me for four days. We were close in age and over the course of spending four full days together, we became close friends. It was a great opportunity for me to talk to someone my age one on one and ask questions about her life here and how it may or may not differ from mine and how it changed post-Communism. Likewise for her, I believe. She really, really knows her subject matter. She took me on a city tour, tours in the churches, the summer palaces, the Hermitage. There was nothing she didn’t seem to know. I mentioned I was looking for a fur hat for my Dad and was frustrated at the quality and price out on the stands on the street. So one day she took me to the state fur store, where prices and quality are much improved and we found exactly what I wanted for about what I wanted to pay. To me, she really went out of her way to help me and that was above and beyond what I ever expected.

In Moscow, I had Irina as a guide and she was equally talented and friendly and also had the same breadth of knowledge that Katya did. She had some wonderful restaurant recommendations for me and also pulled some strings to get me in the Diamond Fund, which I had not expected to see!

In both cases, I had guides until 2 or 3 p.m. each day (except on palace days when it was until 5 or so), and then the remainder of the day was on my own. This ended up being a perfect balance of guiding/learning and exploring on my own.

Club Agni Hotel -- In St. Petersburg, this small boutique hotel (I’d say almost a guest house) is fairly well situated. It is directly off Nevskiy Prospekt, and maybe 15 minutes to Church on Spilled Blood and 25 minutes on foot to the Hermitage. I had a standard single room with a full sized bed, which was very comfortable. My only complaint might be the size of the shower, which was smaller than I’d seen in all my travels. Breakfast was included every day, and was your standard corn flakes, yogurt, juice, coffee, tea, a couple hot items and toast. Free wireless internet and a perfectly silent room made this a delightful stay. I would most definitely stay here again, but be sure to remember that it is a challenging walk when burdened with various shopping bags! The desk staff did know some English but the breakfast room folks did not.

Hotel Budapest – In Moscow, this is a Fodors choice and I would say a decent one. The location is about 10 minutes’ walk to Red Square and the Kremlin and there are slews of restaurants and a few metro station options nearby. It is most definitely a business class hotel. I found it was completely deserted on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights and the following mornings at breakfast, but Tuesday morning it was quite crowded. Wireless internet rates are extortionate, as are mini bar charges. Internet was $13 an hour. The room was bigger than at the Agni and the bathroom much more comfortable, but the bed was hands down the worse I’d ever stayed on; it felt as if I was laying on only a box spring, it was that hard and uncomfortable. Breakfast (also included in room rate) however was exceptional and the staff spoke excellent English and were friendly enough.
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Sep 26th, 2010, 10:07 AM
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St. Petersburg
Teplo, 45 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa, near St. Issac’s Cathedral. I didn't have a reservation, but I went early and figured they might be able to squeeze me in before the later diners come in, which they did. Where I was seated was an outdoor garden patio with umbrellas and wicker furniture. It was still warm and light enough out to enjoy this. I ordered an unbelievably good cream of pumpkin soup (really the highlight of the meal), beef stroganoff and garlic baked potatoes. Service was a bit slow but ok. 800 rubles total (about $26, which surprised me, given how expensive I’d heard everything was!)

Kavkaz Bar, Ulitsa Karavannaya 18. This was a recommendation by my guide in St. Petersburg as we drove past it earlier that day, and my first Georgian meal of the trip. The restaurant was somewhat more formal than Teplo, with white table cloths and a dark, candlelit atmosphere. I had the cheese bread (like pita fried with goat cheese in the middle), meat dumplings and tomato/onion salad with olive oil and some spicy red pepper. The meal was overall very tasty and warming (it was cold that night, I remember) and really had me curious to try more Georgian cuisine. I also had a glass of wine. I don’t remember exactly, but I think this was about $35 total.

Fasol, Gorokhovaya 17. Fasol is at the far (close to the Hermitage) end of Nevskiy Prospekt. It is much more modern than any other place I’d eaten and the menu is fusion, not so much traditional straight-forward Russian. There I had potato pancakes with sour cream (basically they were like hash browns only not so greasy), beef stroganoff (the best so far, slightly spicy) and for dessert blini filled with cheese and topped with warm strawberries. I also had sangria made with Russian red wine, which was good. All in, this cost 1080 rubles, with tip it would be 1200 so about $40. Very very reasonable and the service was excellent.

Podvorie, which is a Fodors-rated restaurant between Pushkin and Pavlovsk. This ideally located restaurant (sandwiched between Catherine’s Palace and Pavlovsk), believe it or not, is an authentic Russian theme restaurant. If I hadn’t read that it is legitimately rated, I seriously would not have gone in myself (being really averse to theme-anything…). It is a replica wooden cottage that looks better suited to the Russian wilds. Upon entering, a huge furry bear greets you with shots of vodka (at this point I say “Ok, I’m in!”) and there are singers and musicians strolling around stirring up joviality with just about every Russian song that foreigners might be able to hum and clap to. The wooden benches and chairs are decorated in typical rural Russian rustic-ness and it gives off a warm homey feeling. But the food, the food. It was like the endless supper!

First came the wine, a bottle each of their red and white, both of which were quite good. And water and vodka, just for good measure. The appetizers were pickled tomatoes, onions and pickles, slices of spiced pork, tomato halves with some sort of fish salad on them and the piece de resistance: cold beef stroganoff, which honestly I would have eaten for a month of Sundays. It was phenomenal; you know the kind of dish you’d keep sneaking back to the fridge for another bite. More wine, more vodka. Here comes julienne mushroom cream soup, which for a mushroom-phobe was scary but I actually liked it. I had my first ever borsch (No “t” on borsch here, please!) which was a slightly spicy, heavily onioned vegetable soup, pretty tasty. Then the main course was grape leaves stuffed with seasoned meat, which I really liked. Dessert was a blini with ice cream and cappuccino and more vodka. Honestly I was seriously headed for a nap at that point (and still had one palace left to see)! Too much food (but damned if I was going to leave any of it there). I don’t know what this cost as it was included in the price of my MIR package. But it was a fabulous meal and experience overall.

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

Yolki Palki, a chain I’d seen in St. Petersburg that my guide said had decent Russian food. It was really pretty good to be honest and its location right near my hotel couldn’t be beat after a long day of traveling. I had red caviar with warm rolls. Katya told me to spread soft butter on the warm rolls and then top with caviar, and I have to say it was delicious! Then I had stewed beef with cranberry sauce and honeyed chili potatoes, both of which were filling and tasty. I finished with cherry struedel, which was awesome. Here I tried the non-alcoholic cranberry drink which was less tart than our cranberry juice and really very refreshing. Service here was really spotty but it filled the need. I think the bill was under $35.

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

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

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

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

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

Kitezh. It was less than a block from the hotel, so I went back to change and spent some time organizing my bags for tomorrow. It turns out I am in better shape than I thought and shouldn’t kill my driver tomorrow (or leave him with a hernia) the way I’ve redistributed my loot between suitcase and carry-on.

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

Teremok. All over both cities, more so in St. Petersburg. Both of my guides said this is “good” fast food. I took advantage of it for lunch once (a ham and cheese blini and borsch) and more than a few times for sweet blinis (cream cheese and pineapple, oh yeah!). What is really cool is that a blini and a drink is about $2.85, which makes it a bargain!
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Sep 26th, 2010, 10:10 AM
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Will you share what this cost???
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Sep 26th, 2010, 10:12 AM
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Sep 26th, 2010, 11:00 AM
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There were four places that were burned into my brain for as long as I could remember whenever I thought about visiting Russia: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, Hermitage, Red Square and the Kremlin. I could not, and I think I still do not, believe I was going to see them!

St. Petersburg
My first day I ran as fast as I could down Nevskiy Prospekt (ok, with a slight detour into Teremok for my first blini!) to see Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. And walk and walk down crowded Nevsky, just like in Paris, window shoppers out for the day. Lo and behold look left and there's Kazan Cathedral (which is interesting in and of itself) but I knew from studying my map that if I look right I'd see the church I'd only dreamed of and there it was, sitting right on the edge of the canal. Holy crap. Really, that's what I said. And I walked the canal to it, around it and back to the front, really controlling myself because it's on a tour later this week, as much as I wanted to go in now. But the exterior, nothing in the world can prepare you for this. Part of me says "ridiculous hodge podge" but the other part says "gorgeous, just beautiful". Nothing can describe it really. The colors, the architecture, the domes, the details. It is too much to take in on its face; I really had to stand and circle and just absorb it. And if you think it’s gorgeous in the daytime, come back at night. It is truly like a fairy tale!

The same day, I continued on down Nevskiy Prospekt and knew Nevskiy arcs right and lets me right out into the middle of....and another gasp. Wow. There right as I rounded the corner was the Winter Palace in all of its turquoise splendor. The square is massive, the detail on the palace is insane and the color is so bright, I already knew my camera hadn't been able to do it justice. And this is another place covered later this week, so for now I just have to be happy having seen it.

I spent one entire day, from open to close, in the Hermitage. Half was with my guide, half was meandering on my own. Good god, what is there to say. It far, far, far exceeded my expectations. I saw more than I thought I would, I liked more than I thought I would, the museum was better organized, had signs in English both to point visitors to the toilets and to at least identify each work of art. Katya gave a wonderful tour, but so many times I wanted to slow down or deviate. I started keeping a list of things I wanted to go back to and see again or see in slow motion. She covered just about everything, soup to nuts.

I don’t even know where to begin. The Titians were gorgeous, especially his Danae and Christ Carrying the Cross. There were two younger Raphaels, one Katya said was done on wood and transferred to canvas later. There were two Leonardos too, I mean damn, how many times do you get to see two at once? Then the Michelangelo, oh good lord, hurt me now, just sublime with the back and leg muscles just perfect. And just when you start to get the feeling that life can’t get any better than four Velazquez, three El Grecos and an exquisite Goya (and I don’t even like Goya!) you round the corner into “the Rembrandt room”…

And really, I should have had Katya warn me it was coming. I’d been anxious to see Rembrandt’s Danae ever since I saw the Sundance special Hermitageniks, one episode of which covered the tragic terrorism caused by a psycho who threw acid as this painting to get attention. Thanks to quick thinking conservators and the heavy hand of Rembrandt himself (he painted in such thick layers that his paintings are excessively heavy), they were able to repair most of the damage. This painting is just absolutely breathtaking, and it was sitting there the minute we rounded the corner into the room. I didn’t cry even though I thought I would but it was really just a moment of joy to see it. But to see 23 other Rembrandts too? I was truly blessed. I think the others that really made an impression me were Flora and the Young Woman with Earrings. Rembrandt painted these using his wife and later lover as his models, and the care and warmth that he painted in them is palpable. His Holy Family, as simple and straightforward as it is (set in a traditional Dutch home-setting rather than a manger) is also something I will never forget. It was just amazing.

So at that point I felt like if it ended here, I’d be fine and happy. Then I stumbled on to a room of Canova sculptures and nearly lost my mind. There was The Kiss of Cupid and Psyche like in the Louvre but also Three Graces and an absolutely stellar Mary Magdalene. Seriously, with about 7 others, this was just heaven. I could not believe my luck.

Where this museum does fall a bit short is the Impressionist work. I felt the six Monets and four Van Goghs that are there were not necessarily the best. None of the Monets had his classical Impressionist eye; they were much earlier before he got deep into waterlillies and painting things at different times of day. There were two Degas that I could find, both ballet pastels. One was just gorgeous in orange, yellow and pinks. There was a fairly good assortment of Renoirs, the best of which was the Portrait of Jean Samary, and I told Katya the story of how Renoir was in love with her and tolerated her lack of commitment to the painting of the Boating Party.

Sharing a room with the Van Goghs were four Rodins. I’m certain at this point that I’d seen them all before: Age of Bronze, Eternal Spring, Poet and Muse (maybe not this one) and Cupid and Psyche. But how nice to see them with all the rest of this bounty!

There is more than just painting and sculpture to the museum. Katya took me through the State Rooms, stopping in the Malachite Room and the Throne Room, where later on I saw a bride and groom dancing for their wedding photos.

Also there was an exhibition of art looted by the Nazis. Well, they called it “Art from Private Collections” but Katya says now that the art is out, the Hermitage doesn’t want to give it back. Nice. But there were a fair number of Renoirs, Monets and VVGs there, but again, nothing that is terribly earth shattering. I think the best of the Impressionists is definitely either in Paris in the case of Monet and Renoir or Holland for Vincent.

Our first stop on our city tour (with driver) was at Peter and Paul fortress, which is like Tower of London, only smaller and has less to it. There’s some quarters for the staff and the cathedral and the national mint. The fortress is out on an island, but it was never actually used as a fortress. It was, however, a political prison. The cathedral is where the whole Romanov family is buried as well as all the tsars. It was sort of poignant to see the Romanovs there after having read the book about their last year and been so affected by it.

Next stop was to St. Isaac's Cathedral, the fourth largest in the world after Rome, London and Florence. This really was pretty and reminded me a lot of St. Paul’s in London. The iconostasis is all mosaics with malachite and lapis columns, just gorgeous. Apparently after the war, they removed a Foucaults pendulum which hung from the center of the dome and replaced it with a stained glass dove. Both here and in the cathedral in the fortress, there was a pulpit, which is not used in Russian orthodox churches because everyone, including the priest, worships at the same level. The reason why the pulpit was there in either place was because the architects were French or Italian and didn’t recognize that fact.

On my own, I visited the State Museum of Russian Art. With such limited exposure to Russian artists at home (Kandinsky being the only one I can think of), I found it odd to be in a museum where I knew none of the art at all, and I was enjoying the art for the art itself, and not because I felt I had to because it was a name I recognized. The museum is all Russian art, and I quickly realized that before Peter the Great, it was all icons. Then when he came to power, he sent a bunch of artists to Italy and Holland, and they came back painting like artists we know elsewhere. There was one painting I’d seen around town on various signs and swore it was a Sargent. But instead it was an artist named Serov. I didn’t instantly recognize anything, which, coupled with the intense heat of this museum, made it hard to tolerate as the last visit on a jam-packed day. I jotted down some artists and their works that I really enjoyed and shared them with Katya the next day. She said my choices: Serov, Repin and Vrubel, are the “big three” in her mind and she was thrilled that I had such a good experience on my own.

I stopped into Kazan Cathedral, which for me was a very interesting experience. I have visited a Museum of Russian Icons at home, but even after that, I still didn’t quite grasp the whole meaning or purpose of the icon. Taken out of context and put in a museum rather than where it belongs in a church, an icon looks just like a work of art. But this cathedral has Our Lady of Kazan up on the altar. When I walked in, the line in front of the icon was over 50 people long, and the faithful wait in line patiently, then climb the steps up, cross themselves three time, kiss the icon, say their prayers and just meditate. When they walked away it was a mixture of just complete sadness or weariness or relief. It was just something to see, that whatever they seemed to need from that icon, they were just so earnest in their attempts to get it. I'd never seen anything like that at home.

Catherine’s Palace was one of the summer residences of the tsars, this one, obviously belonging to Catherine II. It was done in the very ostentatious baroque style (don’t be impressed that I know that, I just learned it today) and essentially what that means is really over-the-top over done ostentatious architecture. But somehow here, it just works. First, I absolutely adore the blue the exterior is painted in. I see it a lot, and Katya said that the “marine colors”of blue, seafoam green and yellow were very popular on the palaces. The white trim and gold accents are stellar and almost blinding in the sun. Inside, the palace is similarly over-decorated in the Baroque style, but I guess when I think of “tsar’s summer home” I think big and gorgeous and “show me your wealth”. This does it.

“The” draw of Catherine’s Palace though, is the Amber Room. A German emperor had given Peter the Great panels of amber to line the walls of one room, and not just line them but create patterns around niches, frames, borders, etc. Floor to ceiling amber. This was, as you might imagine, quite an expensive gift (which Peter reciprocated by giving 50 healthy Russian soldiers in return). Well, that was all well and good until the Germans invaded Russia in WWII and made these palaces their barracks. What wasn’t already secreted away to Siberia either got ransacked, damaged or taken by the Germans. You guessed it, the Amber Room panels went missing. And in a drama similar to the Gardner Museum Heist, they remain to be found. The German government paid for a complete restoration of the Amber Room, whether out of responsibility since they gifted the originals or because they took/stole/broke/drowned them somewhere. The room reopened in 2005 and let me tell you, it is completely unlike anything I’d ever seen. It helps that I love the color orange, but this was just amazing. All of the detail and carvings and the walls are actually mosaic and not full slabs of amber. It really was a special experience to see it, mystery notwithstanding.

Pavlovsk was Alexander I’s summer home. It was designed by a Scottish architect (Catherine’s Palace was by an Italian) and it is in the classical style, so much more subdued and cozy. I could actually picture living here. There were no grand rooms, no ostentatious gold leaf, but just a warm, cozy feel. After we saw the interior, we walked around the gardens which for the most part were not landscaped and manicured like at Catherine’s Palace, but more wild.

On my last day in St. Petersburg, we took the hydrofoil across the Gulf of Finland to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer village. The hydrofoil trip took about 30 minutes and was pretty smooth. It started out warm and sunny in St. Petersburg but we ran into some heavy clouds and cooler temps when we arrived on the dock in Peterhof. We were just in time for the daily “turning on of the fountains” which, literally starts from a trickle, and as the music to the anthem for Leningrad picks up steam, the water bursts forth from all the gilded fountains all around the park (hundreds of them, it seems!)

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

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

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

While I give Catherine’s Palace the edge on the building itself and the interior, you can’t beat the fountains and really well landscaped gardens at Peterhof. They just have to be seen.
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Sep 26th, 2010, 11:30 AM
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Our last stop was at the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, which I’d already seen from the outside but waited to see the interior with a guide. Katya had told me that the church was never actually used as a church. Between religion being discouraged for so long and the church being used as vegetable storage during the siege, I didn’t have very high expectations for the interior. Was I ever wrong. The interior is exceptional. I cannot come up with enough superlatives to really describe it. Imagine every inch, from floor to ceiling and back again, covered with colorful mosaics that look like frescoes. I was just completely blown away. Somehow this building was saved in the siege and not destroyed. It took some damage but nothing that wasn’t quickly fixed (comparatively speaking). That is so fortunate though, because I doubt they would have made repairing this such a high priority because of how much work that might have been. I just could not believe my eyes. It really was exquisite.

I had about 3 hours the last morning in St. Petersburg before I left for Moscow and in reading the Fodors guide, I saw that they very highly recommended the Alexander Nevsky Lavra, which is the highest status monastery in the country. There are only three that are given this high status. It is also where Alexander Nevsky himself is buried but he and I did not manage to come eye to eye, which I’ll get to momentarily.

Fodors says you have to pay to get into each cemetery on the front of the park where the monastery is. I wanted to visit one of them because of the famous people buried there. So I paid 200 rubles (about $6.70) to get in there. This was a really quaint pretty cemetery. First grave I found was Dostoyevsky’s. Then I followed the path around the back and found “musician’s corner” where, among others, were the graves of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Call me a geek, but I loved that.

Unfortunately after that it was sort of anti-climactic. Fodors says visiting the rest of the grounds is free, but it’s not. I had to pay 130 rubles ($4.30) more to get near the churches and I couldn’t get into either of the two churches without a headscarf. I really should have known better, but I hadn’t used one all week and didn’t have my scarf with me this morning as it was safely, tightly packed into my suitcase. Oh well. No tomb of Nevsky for me. Fodors also says the monks bake their own bread there and direct you to it, but that proved false as well, at least today. So no Nevsky and no bread, it was time to bail on this place. This was definitely not a “Fodors Choice” experience as the guidebook said it would be!

I will admit to complete ignorance when it comes to what happened in Russia in WWII. I had no idea that all of these palaces and churches were either looted and ransacked or burned or bombed out during WWII. There are photos around both palaces showing the devastation. To think that they’ve been restored mostly to their formerly glory so (relatively) quickly is beyond impressive. I asked Katya if that created a lot of jobs once the war was over and she implied that it wasn’t necessarily a job you signed up for, it was a job you were assigned and you just did it, even if for very little pay. So I’m guessing it was more something you did because you were told to.

Red Square and the Kremlin, on a map, are about 3 blocks due south of my hotel. However, streets here are about 8 lanes wide, and tough to cross. I had to walk 4 blocks east to cross and then cut back via an underground passage. But all along I could see the red brick of the walls of where I was headed. I finally crossed over and walked right up to the gates of the Kremlin. I was just so incredibly anxious to see it, I could barely contain myself. Finally through the wrought iron fence of the gate, I could catch a peek at St. Basil’s Cathedral. Holy cow. Then I smiled my face off as I walked across Red Square towards it, passing GUM department store, Lenin’s tomb and a few towers on the way. Honestly I couldn’t believe I was there. It was like Russia’s living room and the vibe was amazing. Lots of people having pictures taken in front of these monuments. Brides and grooms celebrating their wedding day. I was there just as the lights were coming on and the sun was finally setting. Dare I say it was magical?

St. Basil’s looks completely not real. I felt as if I’d walked on to a movie set. The colors are so vibrant and it is just massive. I couldn’t wait to get into the Kremlin and see all the churches there. I could catch peeks at some of the domes but not all of them and wouldn’t get to the Kremlin until a tour a few days later.

Our city tour was on a Saturday, where we had the roads mostly to ourselves, thankfully! We drove by a lot of places I’d heard about like Lubyanka Prison, the giant St. Peter’s statue on the ship. We stopped and walked through Victory Park, which is a large memorial/museum/obelisk/military park that is meant to honor those who served or were lost in the Great Patriotic War. One of our longer stops was actually at this park, which I think was meant to be a quick walk through. At the far end of the park was a local arts fair. Different arts groups from around the city get together on Saturdays and show and sell their various craft works. Irina thought it would be a non-touristy experience to walk through the different booths and in so doing, I became a minor celebrity. They were all pretty impressed that an American bothered to stop and talk to them and look at their work. A local journalist wanted to talk to me to see how this crafts fair compared to those in America. I deferred on that question, because I honestly don’t know!

We also stopped at the Church of Christ Our Savior. This church was a church that took 40 years to build. Then in the 30s the Soviets wanted to build a palace there, so they tore it down in 40 minutes. The palace never came to fruition, so it became a swimming pool until the 90s, when it was rebuilt in 5 years. The exterior is white with the shining gold domes, but the interior was really pretty. Instead of just the iconostasis (screen with icons at the altar), there is a smaller chapel at the front of the church with icons built into it. A church within a church, if you will. Alas, I have no pictures as it is a working church and that’s not allowed.

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

Near the overlook where we saw the stadium is Moscow State University, the most prestigious college in the country, with over 70,000 students enrolled, half of whom are Muscovites. How are those for facts? Actually what is interesting about this was that the main building is one of Moscow’s “Seven Sisters”, one of seven skyscrapers built by Stalin to expand Moscow’s skyline. This is the prettiest of the 7, if that architecture style can be called “pretty”.

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

I did fall hard for two artists in particular. The first was Repin, who I’d seen in the State Museum in St. Petersburg. His works were so dramatic and told such a story that I just could not take my eyes off of them. His Ivan the Terrible Killing His Son blew me away. And then there was Vrubel, who has an entire room all to himself. He reminds me so much of a cross between a Van Gogh (for the colors he uses) and Klimt (for the look of secessionist art).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the things we passed by earlier in the day was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Eternal Flame which is in Alexander Garden and commemorates all who have fallen while serving the country. It is guarded by three guards, two of whom do not move an inch the entire hour they are on duty, the other who blows a whistle and chases wandering toddlers (or worse) off the platform and back behind the cordons. At the top of every hour, they change guards. Irina suggested that I come back for that later in the day, as it had just happened when we were strolling by.

So at 4:00 I was there, in the spot Irina said was best. At about 10 of 4:00, the main guard comes out from near his guardhouse and inspects the two on either side of the eternal flame. Then he returns to the guardhouse and from way down the path on the right, three freshly rested guards come goose-stepping down the long path. I will tell you, the silence when they approach is deafening. And seeing them march gave me chills. The sound of their feet hitting the pavement just resonates in you. They swap out the two immobile guards, who then goose-step back the way the new guards came. In all, it takes about 6 minutes total. Not like in London where there are bands and a parade, more like Arlington National Cemetery where it is subdued and serious. But I was hooked. It’s sort of an adrenalin rush for me to see them approaching that way. I ended up returning to see it twice more that day.
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Sep 26th, 2010, 11:51 AM
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I spent the last couple hours the night before I left Moscow in Red Square. On my way from the hotel to the Square in the undergound passage under the street I heard a string octet which I think I'd heard a few other times but had never seen. When I came upon them, they were just starting Vivaldi's Four Seasons' "Spring". I was riveted. Here were 8 young people with their bass, cello, viola, violins, playing in ripped jeans and baseball caps. I kept saying I'd stay for one more, than another. They were great, but the crowd that had gathered to watch them were all just so friendly and getting into the music. I finally tore myself away to go say goodbye to St. Basil's, Red Square and the Kremlin. It wasn't easy for sure. This trip ended up being so much more than I had even hoped. And I dare say it won't be a once in a lifetime trip. Maybe twice. ;-)
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Sep 26th, 2010, 01:31 PM
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amy, thanks for this terrific report. Russia is a dream trip for me too so I will definitely save this.
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Sep 27th, 2010, 06:38 AM
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Thanks, mvor. Now that it's over, it definitely feels like a dream.

Adding link to photos: http://tinyurl.com/25feh39

I bought a new camera as I fatally dropped my 7 year old 3.1 megapixel Nikon Coolpix a month before the trip. I got the Nikon Coolpix S8000 (14.2 megapixel) and LOVE it.
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Sep 27th, 2010, 07:37 AM
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I loved your trip report. I was in St. Petersburg and Moscow in 1989. Boy has it changed! There was no food as delicious as you described. Now I want to go back! Mmm...Georgian cuisine.
(And, I second your recommendation to learn the Cyrillic alphabet before going to Russia. It's not as hard as it looks, and it makes traveling a whole lot easier.)
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Sep 27th, 2010, 08:39 AM
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amyb, thanks so much for this fabulous word-journey ... pictures more vivid than even your Coolpix could show. Sometimes a thousand words are worth -- an album of photos. So I'm waiting awhile to savor, before clicking your photo link. just to add 2 comments:

(1) as Songdoc quietly asked at the start, would you be willing to share with us the approximate cost (aside from airfare) of this 11-day adventure? Don't be shy, or fear we'll think it too extravagant... I believe people understand the great value that your agency provided (that is, of course, combined with your own conscientious prep & planning).

(2) For my book club, I just yesterday finished reading a stunning book which will thrill you if you have not already read it -- fiction, but based on heroic truths -- "The Madonnas of Leningrad" by Debra Dean about the terrible, grueling WW II siege, and the courageous staff of the Hermitage that guarded & hid the collection, and saved the Palace from destruction. Told in memories of a survivor -- and the Danae is key to her memories too. It's available in paperback, go out and get it today!
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Sep 27th, 2010, 09:38 AM
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Thanks for the comments, travelerjan. I had read The Madonnas of Leningrad a year or so ago; it is a great read!

I've gone back and forth on sharing the cost and really am not a fan of sharing it on a public forum. Relatively speaking, I will say that ordinarily I go to Europe twice a year on my own, and the pre-determined budget I set when I planned it was the equivalent of two trips. MIR hit the number exactly, not a penny more.
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Oct 6th, 2010, 06:32 AM
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Wow! Thank you for sharing this report. My husband and I have just started researching a trip to Russia for next year, and your report had many of the details we had been wondering about. There are not many reports on Russia and this one is excellent! Organized and easy to read. I noticed you made a point to eat Russian cuisine, which we would do as well. Those restaurants all sound wonderful!

Did you feel you had enough time in both cities? Would you plan it differently if you did it again?
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Oct 6th, 2010, 07:37 AM
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amyb, I just saw your trip report! What a fantastic way to spend a milestone birthday!!! Now you got me thinking where I should go for MY milestone birthday (coming up in a couple of years)...
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Oct 6th, 2010, 10:08 AM
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janice, I felt for a really good taste of both cities, this was perfect. I still have a few places in each I want to see, but I did cover a lot of ground too. My one regret, if you could call it that, was not getting out of the cities other than for the summer palaces, but I was limited to 12 days by work. Now I want to see the Golden Ring and some places outside of Moscow. As Katya my guide said "you have plucked the flowers off the cake" and now I need to eat the cake. But I will, next time... ;-)

yk, you make me laugh! I encourage you to do so. It makes swallowing that number a lot easier! Heck, I'm already thinking about the NEXT milestone trip! But this was just so good, it'll be hard to top!
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Oct 16th, 2010, 05:16 PM
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Loved your report and your photos!!! We are going back to St. Petersburg next September on a river cruise which will end in Moscow.
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Oct 18th, 2010, 10:18 AM
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Thank you Shoshona! I am sure your river cruise will be wonderful! My "next" trip there will be to see places between Moscow and St. Petersburg.
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Oct 18th, 2010, 11:03 AM
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This is fabulous... I haven't read it all, but now I can find it!

I was also there in 1987 and possibly planning to go back in May 2011. Will give me some good ideas and help! Particularly loved the pre-trip preps and ideas.
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Oct 18th, 2010, 12:34 PM
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What a wonderful trip report! I was in Moscow/St. Petersburg in 1992 and in 1995 and you've brought me back with your wonderful descriptions. But definitely I did not experience what sounds like such fabulous meals that you had! thanks so much for sharing your trip.
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Oct 18th, 2010, 07:27 PM
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I am not a foodie, but your descriptions of the meals had me drooling. Thanks for sharing so many wonderful details!
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