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Trip Report Just Got Back -GCT Russian Waterways Trip Report

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Over a year ago my DH and I began planning our Grand Circle Russian Waterways trip with another couple. We finally departed May 22 on a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, made our connections and arrived in Moscow on time at 4pm on May 23. The crush I expected getting though immigration and customs did not materialize and the arrival was all in all much better than I expected. It was still great to be met by a Grand Circle Representative and to be brought to the hotel by bus.

We arrived at our hotel, a Holiday Inn north of the city, which was very nice. Our tour guides took us on an orientation walk after which we had a blinis (a kind of crepe stuffed with just about anything) for dinner and did some shopping for water at the local grocery store since we were advised not to drink water anywhere. We were pretty happy with ourselves that we could eat and buy things on our own.

Our first full day in Moscow started with a city tour. The weather was cold and rainy. You can¡¯t see much out of a bus window when it is covered in rain. We made the best of it though, got out of the bus in the rain a few times. Our tour leader, Julia, kept everyone on pace and spoke English perfectly.

We visited the Cathedral of Christ our Savior with its beautiful frescoes and icons.
We also saw a monument to Peter the Great that looks like Christopher Columbus on a ship, not surprisingly since it was intended to be a Columbus monument somewhere else. We took our first ride on the Metro. The stations are quite magnificent, and each one is different.

We ended up in Red Square. Wow. There is a bronze circle in the pavement called Zero Kilometer where all distances to other places from Moscow are measured. Our friend tossed a coin over her shoulder standing on the circle for good luck. Along one side of the square is the GUM, originally a huge department store, but now full of very pricey boutiques. We had lunch inside GUM, in a cafeteria frequented by locals. It was very interesting. We had soup, Russian salad and blinis.

At the far end of the square is St Basil¡¯s Cathedral, the one you know for its fabulous onion domes. What a sight, even in crummy weather! On the other side of the square is the Kremlin wall and Lenin¡¯s Tomb in red and black marble. There is also a little Chapel of our Lady of Kazan.

We enjoyed trying to read the Cyrillic alphabet. There are a few letters that are the same as English (e.g. T, M, O), and some which look the same but mean something else (e.g. C is S, P is R, and H is N), and many that we don¡¯t have, some derived from Greek and some not. So CTO§± is STOP and PECTOPAH is RESTAURANT.

A nice surprise was an included trip to Red Square by night. The weather had cleared and all the buildings were lit up beautifully. It was a thrilling experience. There were a lot of high school students celebrating what they call ¡°Final Bell¡± which means their last day of school; they were shouting to each other and having a good time.

The next day, GCT had an included trip to the Museum of the Armed Forces which covered World War II and a speech by four veterans giving firsthand accounts of their experiences. The people who attended said it was very moving. We decided to go to Arbat Street instead with a cousin of our travel companions who lives in Moscow. We walked around and bought some souvenirs and then had lunch at a Georgian restaurant. This style of food is known to be very flavorful and it didn¡¯t disappoint. It was great having someone who speaks Russian order off the menu for us with a sampling of dumplings, salads and meats. (By the way, salads are not what you think. They are all a conglomeration of vegetables and marinade. Think potato salad with lots of different stuff in it, like beets, pickles or cabbage)

We went to see the Moscow Circus, which was quite exciting. It is all in one ring surrounded by stadium seating. It is more of a production than a traditional circus, very professional, very skillful, with seamless transitions between events. There were jugglers and tumblers, high-wire acts, comic routines, and many animal acts including highly talented parrots, seals, camels, lions and horses (no bears, oh my). What¡¯s more they had ice skating and swimming acts as well. It was amazing, colorful and thoroughly worth the time.

The next day we visited the Kremlin, the seat of power and government in Russia for centuries. There are four cathedrals on the site. There are also a number of low yellow buildings built in the 18th and 19th centuries which at one time housed all Soviet government officials (including both Lenin and Stalin and later Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and in which Putin and Medvedev have their offices now). A huge white marble building built by Khrushchev housed the Palace of Congresses of the Soviet Union. We visited the Armory Museum which houses the state treasures ¨C Tsar¡¯s crowns and coronation thrones, ambassadorial gifts, Empress¡¯s marriage and coronation gowns, Imperial tableware and coaches, Patriarch¡¯s robes, icons and covers for Bibles, most of them of silver or gold and encrusted with pearls and precious stones. There were a few Faberg¨¦ eggs, including one that contained a tiny five-wagon train in gold filigree which actually runs.

Here again we left the tour. The group went for lunch and then back to the hotel. We went to lunch at McDonald¡¯s. What a hoot. We then took the metro by ourselves to the outskirts of Moscow. When we got out of the station, we negotiated with a taxi for a ride to the golf course. Try that when you don¡¯t speak Russian and they don¡¯t speak English. Thankfully the numbers are the same so a pad of paper and pen got us the price we needed. I had brought the address in Cyrillic off the internet so the taxi more or less knew where to go. This was the first golf course in Russia. It only has nine holes. Since I had made arrangements before we left, they were expecting us. We rented clubs and hired a cute caddy named Shasha and we were on our way. It was fun and a great break. How many people do you know that have played golf in Russia? When we were done, we had the club call a cab for us that dropped us off at the nearest metro stop. The stop was in a beautiful mall. It was very upscale. We had dinner at the Moskva Bar in the mall. Then we took a tour of metro stations we hadn¡¯t seen before by taking the long way back to the hotel. After a long day, we were exhausted and went to bed early.

After getting the luggage packed and ready for delivery to the boat, we boarded a bus for the Tretyakov Gallery. On a bridge we passed three iron trees decorated with padlocks. A Moscow tradition of newlyweds is to lock a padlock onto one of the trees and throw the key into the river, symbolizing that their marriage (wedlock) is forever. I happened to have a small lock with a key so of course DH and I had to do it.

The Tretyakov Gallery contains 150,000 pieces of art. There are some amazing paintings of life in Russia. The names of the artists are unfamiliar but the art is beautiful none-the-less. It did help to have a guide telling us what we were seeing. An image of Palm Sunday was slightly amusing, as Russians had never seen palms or donkeys; it didn¡¯t look too much like them. The icons were beautiful too.

In the afternoon, we boarded our ship, M/S Rossia which has been newly refurbished and is very comfortable. The food was fabulous. Each day was a different theme. I am still amazed that they are able to feed 211 people at the same time and have the food be so excellent. Included daily was a glass of wine with dinner which was totally acceptable. There was plenty to do on the boat. Daily entertainment, quizzes, competitions (e.g. in painting matrioshka dolls), lessons (in speaking Russian, making blinis or playing the balalaika), lectures (e.g. on Russian history) and (most importantly) vodka tasting were available which gave us an understanding of Russian culture. The Captain¡¯s Dinner consisted of caviar and smoked salmon salad, soup with a meat bun, creamed seafood in a pastry shell, veal roast with vegetables, and Pavlova.

We had a Nautical Lecture by the Captain of the Ship, translated by the Hotel Manager (as she said, his English isn¡¯t too good, but it is more important that he be able to navigate the ship!) The waterway from Moscow to St. Petersburg consists of a stretch of the Volga River, several canals and river systems, lakes and locks. Along the way are many beautiful bridges, a sunken belfry and a sunken cathedral, numerous interesting villages, and of course churches. The villages along the side of the river were interesting as well and there were many people fishing from the shore. Going through the locks is always interesting no matter how many times you do it and we had more than a few to go through on this trip.

Our first stop was the village of Uglich founded in 937 AD. It has several churches with onion domes, one decorated with stars. We went into one of the churches which was beautiful. Then overwhelmed with the crowds waiting to get in to the other churches, DH and I split away from the group and walked back to the ship. There were plenty of souvenir-buying opportunities and, after a trip to the ATM, we had fun shopping in the open air stalls.

Next day, we stopped at Yaroslavl, a town founded in 1010 by Yaroslav the Wise. We were bussed around town a bit seeing the area. Then we visited a factory which manufactures felt boots. The factory was very noisy and smelled of raw wool and was probably not up to our standards of safety. We bought some slippers in the factory store. A few young girls bought decorated boots that they wore to dinner that night. They were beautiful, but definitely for younger legs than mine.

We visited the Monastery of the Transfiguration, dating from the 11th century. The Cathedral inside was built in the 15th century; it lacks the usual onion-shaped domes and has an unusual rounded roof. We heard a bell ringer play for us. Then we went to the first actual market where locals buy food and clothing. The produce was gorgeous, better than we sometimes have here at home. We bought cold medicine since some of us were beginning to cough and we bought some chocolate and dried fruits. Then back to the boat.

Our next stop was Goritsi, a tiny village of 600 people founded in the 16th century. We drove through the countryside to visit Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery which has a museum of icons. The icons were beautiful but mostly behind glass, making it difficult to take photos. I regretted not paying to take photos in some of the churches we had already been to and paid every time they asked from here on. On our way out, we dipped our hands into the local lake, doing which is supposed to get you 10 years younger.

Our next stop was Kizhi Island to visit the museum of wooden buildings, a World Heritage site. It is a long way north, and gets very cold in the winter, especially as it is quite exposed. It pretty much lived up to its reputation as the weather was cold and windy. (A local joke says they have nine months of winter and three months of waiting for summer)

Kizhi Island is quite small. There are two churches, a summer church built in 1714 and a smaller winter church built in 1764. We visited the winter church. Like all the buildings in the village, it was made entirely of wood, with no nails or other metal fittings. We also visited several of the buildings including a large farmer¡¯s house, a small 600-year-old chapel, a windmill and a bath house.

Next morning, we docked in the village of Svirstroi. Grand Circle Travel arranged a visit to a private home. We were invited to tea in the home of Tatiana. She made us delicious tea in a samovar and served us savory and sweet pastries. She showed us pictures of her home and family, and answered questions about her family life and the village life.

We re-boarded our ship and set off for St. Petersburg. In the evening, we had a superb Captains Dinner, followed by a talent night. Travelers played in a Balalaika concert and sang in a choir. A group of men did a hilarious take-off of Swan Lake, and another group did an enactment of a Russian fairy tale, complete with a Curtain and White Horse which were played by our companions. All in all, it was a fun evening.

On our first day in St. Petersburg we had a tour of the city. This was our first real experience of the horrible morning traffic going from the dock to the city. It is definitely advantageous to have the hotel stays rather than commute from the dock each day. The city is very colorful, as lots of buildings are painted in peach, yellow, pale green or blue. We drove past the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Then we paused to take photos of the beautiful blue Monastery of the Resurrection, built for the Empress Elizabeth. Then we had a visit to the Fortress of Peter and Paul. In the courtyard of the fortress we saw a group of monks pausing while one of them took their photograph. The Cathedral of Peter and Paul is unusual for a Russian church in that it has a spire rather than the typical onion-shaped domes. The interior of the Church in the fortress was beautiful, with gilded statuary and icons. The Church houses the impressive marble tombs of the Romanov dynasty, including Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. The remains of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family and faithful servants were interred in a chapel on 17 July 1998, the 80th anniversary of their murder. The Russian mint is also contained inside the fortress.

Back on the bus, we stopped to take photos of The Savior on Spilled Blood Cathedral, an amazing onion domed church. Unfortunately, the weather again was overcast so the colors were not as vibrant as they could have been. Across the street, a girl was being photographed on her wedding day; one of many we saw on the trip. It is a tradition for newly married couples to be photographed at various important sites in the city and we saw plenty of them in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

After lunch, we boarded a hydrofoil for a trip to Peterhof, a complex of palaces and gardens reminiscent of Versailles. The gardens are noted for their amazing fountains, especially a Grand Cascade outside the Grand Palace. We went through a small palace known as Catherine¡¯s Block, where she was living when she launched her coup and became Empress. We walked in the gardens, avoiding the trick fountains, and returned to the city by bus.

This was our first night in our hotel in St. Petersburg, the Ambassador. It also is a very nice hotel and the orientation walk revealed local restaurants, a place to buy water and ATMs. The metro is a good 10 minute walk away.

Next day we went first to St. Isaac¡¯s Cathedral, whose gold covered dome you can see from just about anywhere. It has a European exterior, but the interior is all Russian Orthodox. Gilt carvings, icons, mosaics, frescoes, stained glass, blazing chandeliers, ¨C all very splendid. The carved doors were reminiscent of those in Florence. The mosaics were very fine, they looked like paintings.

And then, the Hermitage! What can one say about the Hermitage? It is one of the largest art collections in the world, housed principally in the Winter Palace of the Tsars. We had a two-hour tour, past gilded statuary, towering ceilings, throne rooms, intricate parquet floors, musicians¡¯ galleries, mosaic floors, and then the art. Priceless icons from the 13th century, and paintings by Rafael, Leonard da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Rubens, Caravaggio, Goya, El Greco, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Rodin, Van Gogh, and a whole room full of Picasso.

The ¡°White Nights¡± were beginning so the sun was going down around 11 PM. The sky stayed light all night.

Next day we headed out of the city to Catherine Palace. On our way, we passed the Moscow Arch, a huge iron arch marking victory over the Poles; an enormous building meant to be an administrative center with a statue of Lenin in front; this one, with arm outstretched, is described as Lenin throwing a Frisbee, or Lenin hailing a taxi. Finally we reached Catherine Palace, originally given by Peter the Great to his wife Catherine as a summer residence and then expanded both by the Empress Elizabeth and by Catherine the Great. The Catherine Palace is classical in style and all in blue with white accents and lots of gold. It suffered much more than Peterhof did from the German occupation (one gallery contains photos of the palace immediately after the war; the destruction is unbelievable), and is still being restored. Fortunately, all the original plans exist, as well as watercolor paintings of every room, and these are being used to guide the restoration, only about half of the palace has been completed. Little of the original furnishings remain. Again, the opulence, the scale, the gilding are amazing. One special room is the Amber Room, where everything in the room is amber (six tons of it). It was destroyed during the war; the reconstruction was completed in 2003.

We returned to the hotel, had a short rest, then a light supper and off to see Swan Lake at the Alexandriesky Theatre. I was ill so I didn¡¯t go, but DH and our friends went. The ballet was wonderful but mostly because of where it was, in a beautiful theatre with ornate ceiling and gilded boxes and a royal box. In reality it was a company that performs for the tourists and it was noted that it looked like the B-team. Timing was a bit off, etc. Next time, I would arrange tickets in the primary theatre in St. Petersburg. However, it was still worth going, it is after all ballet in Russia.

The next day, we went to the Yusupov Palace. The palace is much smaller than the royal palaces, but no less opulent. In the ballroom, a quartet of singers performed a couple of Russian songs. Their sound was amazing. The Palace contains an elaborate private theatre. The basement apartment is the place where Rasputin was murdered, and in the basement are some was figures showing how the arrangements were made, and how Rasputin had to be poisoned, bludgeoned, shot, and then drowned before he would stay dead.

We got back to the hotel and immediately headed out to lunch; more blinis. Then we walked back to the Savior on Spilled Blood Cathedral to catch it in better light. We had Kvas that we bought at a local store (tastes like prune juice). We walked past the Grand Hotel Europe and checked out the menu at the caviar bar. Beluga was 5900 rubles and ounce. Never mind. When we got back to the hotel we had our usual afternoon vodka cocktails in our rooms. Later, we had our Farewell Dinner at the hotel. Then, all that was left was the packing, the exchanging of e-mail addresses and then the dreaded flight home. We almost stayed in Russia as we slept through wake up and were finally woken by the knocking at our door to pick up the luggage at 3:15am.

A great trip. A great county. A great people. I highly recommend it.

To answer some of the questions I have gotten:

Food is expensive, but you can find some not so expensive options like McDonalds, the local market, etc. One night we bought ham, cheese and some bread for dinner for about $5.

Lacquer Boxes are very expensive so I bought a little 3¡± square imitation that actually looks pretty good. I also bought a linen apron, felt slippers, a Khokhloma bowl, a tea cup and saucer, an amber pendant, a shawl, a Santa figurine, two champagne glasses (we collect them for our anniversary) and a matrioshka doll, a birch bark box and some other little things like a flask with Russian insignia.

The metro in Moscow is easy and cheap.
Not many people speak English.
We felt safe wherever we went.
Ice cream is the cheapest ever!

I was apprehensive of travelling with a group, but it wasn¡¯t that bad. Considering the language issues, the passport registrations in each hotel, the museum entries and all the other groups travelling, it was probably the easiest way to go. I would do it again.

Once I pick my next destination, I am usually doing more research than checking prior postings. If you are thinking about this trip and have more questions it would probably be better to contact me directly; please feel free to do so.

I will create a new post when my photos are up and ready to view.

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