Pegontheroad in eastern Europe

Old Jul 4th, 2015, 09:54 AM
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Pegontheroad in eastern Europe

I was going to title this "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." but decided to go with a title more prosaic but also probably more accurate. My trip included Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn (Estonia), Riga (Latvia), Vilnius (Lithuania) and Gdansk, Ketzryn, Torun, and Warsaw, Poland.

It was a month-long trip and probably too ambitious (thus the "worst of times" part), but my jet lag has started to lessen enough that I'm feeling more human and thinking it's time to start a trip report before I forget anything more than I've already forgotten.

I flew from Spokane to Seattle via Alaska Airlines, and then Lufthansa to Frankfurt and Helsinki, where I stayed at the Hotel Helka. I don't have much to say about Helsinki because jet lag really knocked me out, so that I slept much of the time. I feel rather embarrassed about that, but it was pretty typical of my stay in Helsinki. I did explore the area around my hotel, and one day I took the bus out to Seurasaaren Ulkonmuseo, an open-air island museum with historic traditional houses and farm buildings. I wandered around there for a couple of hours and really enjoyed it.

Other than strolling around the neighborhood and going to the train station to get tickets for the train to St. Petersburg, that was pretty much it for Helsinki. While I was sitting in the train station, I talked to a couple of young women--sisters from Chicago-- who were arranging to go spend a week at the cabin of a friend. Interesting girls. One of them had taken Chinese in high school and then in college, and was planning to go to Japan to teach. When I thought about them later, I hoped that they wouldn't let that spirit of adventure diminish. It is such a precious gift to have.

At the train station, I picked up $100 worth of roubles at a Forex Bank. I didn't care about the exchange rate. I just wanted to have Russian money at hand when I left the train station at St. Petersburg. I took the Allegro train to St. Petersburg. It was comfortable and fast--about three and a half hours. I spent the journey mentally complaining about the noise of some of my fellow passengers and mentally criticizing the overweight couple in the seat ahead of me who were very lovey-dovey, snuggling and giving each other little kisses. Eventually the male half of the couple started talking to me. He was very nice, and I was quite ashamed of myself for my judgmental thoughts.

When I arrived in St. Petersburg, I asked the taxi driver who approached me how much it would cost to get to my hotel. I'd read that it was expensive, but it turned out to be only 1000 roubles--$18 dolllars. The driver, Joachim, said that I could also get a taxi which would take me sightseeing. That seemed like a good idea, so I took his card and then called him a couple days later.

We talked a good deal during our travels. His father is German and his mother Tatar. He had been a merchant seaman for many years. Now he's driving a taxi, which apparently does not pay as well. He said that life was better before the break-up of the Soviet Union, which surprised me. He said people had every thing they needed--a place to stay, food, education. Eventually he brought up politics and asked what I thought of President Obama. I said I liked him and that I'd voted for him twice. His reaction was totally different, of course. In his argument, he brought up America's involvement in Syria and Libya. Since I know nothing about any involvement in those places, I couldn't say much. He was totally supportive of Putin, apparently not at all troubled by the so-called "civil war" in Ukraine.
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 10:02 AM
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I've been wondering how your trip went Peg--looking forward to reading more!
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 10:13 AM
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Thanks, interested in more...
I am leaving for SP and Moscowe in 10 days.
( a much shorter trip).
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 10:18 AM
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Moscow...
people felt" safer" in communist economies.
Those who had connections got rich...the rest lost jobs, pensions etc..
My Russian teacher told me her sister in Moscow has a monthly
pension of six thousand rubles ( about120 dollars)
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 10:18 AM
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Signing up.

"He said that life was better before the break-up of the Soviet Union, which surprised me."

My St. Petersburg landlady said the same thing. Her husband had been in the navy and now had a very small pension. Capitalism is all very well for some people, those cut out to be entrepreneurs and the young and healthy, but can be very hard on others, especially those thrown into it unprepared when not young.

I am surprised that your Tatar taxi driver was not concerned about the situation in Crimea. The Tatars were deported from Crimea under Stalin and the survivors hadn't been back all that long. Plus I have seen reports of conditions there that sound rather grim.
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 10:20 AM
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Hi PEG,

"I flew from Spokane to Seattle via Alaska Airlines, and then Lufthansa to Frankfurt and Helsinki..." No wonder you had jet lag!

Looking forward to more....
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 10:30 AM
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Danon: I don't know how much you know about St. Petersburg, but I wasn't able to visit interiors of those beautiful buildings because of the incredibly long lines. It looked as though there was a wait of a couple of hours in those lines.

There must be ways to cut short those waits--perhaps buying tickets on-line or else going very early. Since I was carrying 3 guidebooks, I left the St.Petersburg guide behind when I left. It may have contained recommendations for how to avoid those long lines.

Not being able to visit interiors was a disappointment.

Thursdays: When I visited eastern Germany, I heard a comment about the Communist time that says a lot to me: "We pretended to work, and they pretended to pay us."

I think the same thing was true of the fall of the DDR. It was okay for young people but very hard on older people who couldn't adapt to the changes in the economy.
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 10:49 AM
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Welcome back, Peg. Looking forward to tagging along on the rest of the journey.
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 11:00 AM
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I think the same thing was true of the fall of the DDR. It was okay for young people but very hard on older people who couldn't adapt to the changes in the economy.>>

exactly what I have bee given to understand by our german friends who live in what was east Germany. Our friend's father was something quite high up in the DDR, and he took the change of regime very hard. our friends, OTOH are very happy and have a red plastic Karl Marx in their living room. What Opa thought about this is not recorded.
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 11:00 AM
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Nice start to your report, Peg - you always have such an interesting take on things and such an enquiring mind.
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 11:27 AM
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"Danon: I don't know how much you know about St. Petersburg, but I wasn't able to visit interiors of those beautiful buildings because of the incredibly long lines. It looked as though there was a wait of a couple of hours in those lines."

thanks for the warning...I am not going to wait in line
for hours no matter what.
Would like to visit a couple of churches, get a 'feel' for the city, walk around, see something of the Soviet era, take a boat ride , attend a Kirov performance,...

Like many here, I have seen palaces and art museums all
over Europe. If i get in ...fine, if not...oh,well.
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 12:18 PM
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Joachim took me on a tour of various city buildings. The architecture in St. Petersburg in just gorgeous! We stopped at the Church on the Spilled Blood, and I got out of the car and wandered around it. It is simply breathtaking. What an amazing imagination it took to create a work like that--the color, the decoration, the fantasy!

Unfortunately that was another of those places that was just swamped and that required a long wait to enter, so I just had to swoon over it from the outside. We toured the rest of the city center, with Joachim identifying the various building--the Admiralty, the St.Peter and Paul fortress, St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Winter Palace, and the Summer Palace.

On another day, we went to Tsarskoe Selo and the Peterhof. I'd love to have seen the interiors of all these places, but they needed more time and more patience than I possess, but I saw more of the wonderful architecture on a boat tour of the canal/ river on my last evening.

If I had it all to do over, I'd arrange guided tours of these places so that it would be easier to actually get into the buildings. I think I'd also allocate more time for this city, which has so much fabulous architecture.

Okay, now on to commonplace stuff, like food and lodging. My hotel, the palatial Official State Hermitage Hotel, was reasonably priced, about $116 per night, but when I added an extra day, that day was more expensive, $168. Still not bad. On the other hand, the breakfast was outrageous--$28. My inner cheapskate shows up when I'm faced with an expensive breakfast, so I decided to wander off to find a coffee shop, which I did three out of the four days I was there.

I really, really hate to admit this, but I am an unsophisticated and fussy eater. My excuse is that my culinary tastes were formed by my childhood on a farm in North Dakota and in a small town in Montana. I don't eat unfamiliar things, and if I can't find something that looks appetizing, I am likely to hit a McDonalds or--in St. Petersburg--Tres Amigos, a Mexican-ish restaurant. Three nights in a row! I had the same thing every night--which consisted of beans, sour cream, tortilla chips, tomatoes, and I'm not sure what else. Oh, also the American table wine--coca cola.

I know, I know, I should be ashamed!

There was entertainment of a sort at Tres Amigos. I was sitting in a sort of patio area, when I heard music in the next room, so I stuck my head around the door and saw a couple doing a "Mexican" dance, which turned out to be more like a tango. Later I heard more music and checked again. This time it was more along the lines of "Dancing with the Stars," with the girl wearing a skimpy costume and the guy on the order of Maxim Chmerkovskij. So that was the big excitement for that day.

I did really a lot of walking in St.Petersburg, so I saw not only the gorgeous palaces but the more prosaic buildings, the ordinary people. One day I saw a cyber cafe and attempted to send an email to my sister, but that didn't go well. The keyboard was utterly indecipherable to me. I couldn't even find where to hit "send." I decided that for my next trip I absolutely have to have an ipad or whatever you call those things, so that I can let my family know I'm still alive.

I did a lot of walking on this trip. I tried to find the church so that I could go to Mass on Sunday, but it was no go. I did get plenty of exercise, though.
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 12:47 PM
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I suspect Peg that so far as Mass goes, it's the thought that counts!

Shame that you didn't get to go inside the buildings you admired from the outside but it's a good tip about guided tours - something to bear in mind if we ever got to St Petersburg. I've no idea about food in Russia so I can't tell if the Mexican option was the best one - but if it made you feel comfortable, it was definitely the best option for you.
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 12:51 PM
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Way back in 2004, when I was in Russia, I was in line to enter the Hermitage when I was approached by a "guide". For a small consideration he got me inside ahead of the line on a "guided tour" which consisted only of getting me in the building. I thought it was worthwhile. There were no serious lines anywhere else.
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 01:01 PM
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I'm enjoying your report, Peg! We enjoyed the open air museum in Helsinki too. Looking forward to reading more. Glad you are recovering from your jet lag!
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 02:18 PM
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Hello from UK Peg. Looking forward to this though not sure how much I will manage to keep up with.
I too am surprised about the long lines. Cruise ships? I was in StP in 2006 and dont remember any queues at all.
A friend here is about to set off to Siberia tomorrow and had a hard time getting the visa. Sounds like it has been made more complicated since I was there. Fingerprints and stuff. How was it for you?
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 02:32 PM
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Gertie: I am really envious of your trip to St.P when there were no lines. Amazing!

Getting the visa was a pain in the patootie! I had to fill out an online application, which is made more difficult because I couldn't save the partially completed application if I needed to look up something such as past employment information, education information from 40 years ago, European destinations I've visited in the past 10 years, etc. I must have started that thing over 5 or 6 times.

I also had to obtain an invitation from my hotel, which I had to prepay, of course. That was not totally uncomplicated either.

I kept calling the visa office in Seattle and was not satisfied with the responses I got there. I finally called Red Star travel agency in Seattle, and they really clarified what I needed to do. Finally I had to send my passport, a copy of the passport, a photo of myself, and $297 to Red Star travel, and I got the passport with my visa. They were a pleasure to deal with.

I assume some of the crowds were from cruise ships, but part of the problem was that the weather was beautiful and the locals were out in force. Old town Tallinn was crowded, too.
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 03:10 PM
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My hotel was pleasant, with little touches that I appreciated. One evening there was a little tap on my door, which turned out to be evening maid service. The maid put a little piece of cloth--linen, I think--on the floor beside my bed so that I would step on it instead of the rug. Then she turned back the bedspread and left a little piece of chocolate.

The next morning, the concierge ordered my bus ticket for me and told me they'd have a cab ready to take me to the bus station. I did have that $28 breakfast the day I left because I needed sustenance for the trip to Tallinn, which I knew would take 7 hours.

The bus trip was loooong, and I didn't realize there was a toilet on board. We did finally stop at a wide-spot-in-the-road type bus stop, where I found a very primitive toilet. The hole-in-the-ground type. I didn't care, though. I was just so glad to find anything at all.
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 04:32 PM
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" I needed to look up something such as past employment information, education information from 40 years ago, European destinations I've visited in the past 10 years, etc."

Hate to say it, but I just made up most of it...could not be bothered.
Nobody cared...
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Old Jul 4th, 2015, 05:27 PM
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Danon, you are bad! You probably color outside the lines, too.
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