Rubles & A River...Yes, We are in Russia

Oct 17th, 2012, 11:10 AM
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Rubles & A River...Yes, We are in Russia

I really debated if I wanted to write a trip report about this early August trip to Russia. I felt I might not be able to "do justice" to a country when I felt really "blah" about the experience. But in the end I decided I would write about my journey since every trip isn't always a spectacular adventure and maybe I can provide nuggets of information for future travelers....so here goes...

An 11 day cruise along the Volga River from Moscow to St. Petersburg sounded like a great way to see Russia a year ago when mom and I booked the trip. The reality was we learned a valuable lesson...cruising is not our preferred method of travel. However, we did have several memorable moments and saw some beautiful sites & sights.

Background:

My friend RM coordinates several group trips for women every year. Last year a friend and I went on RM’s Vietnam, Cambodia & Thailand trip and had a good time with a small group of 9 travelers. When RM announced she was putting together a river cruise in Russia, my (and my mom’s) curiosity was piqued. Russia wasn’t at the top of our “travel wish list” but when this opportunity presented itself we thought it might be a good way to see Russia without having to handle all the detailed travel planning ourselves. Mom and I had been on Caribbean cruises before, me on 2, mom on 1. We weren’t thrilled with those cruise experiences, but we were willing to give a river cruise a try, thinking maybe it would be different. Some parts were different and some were the same as we’d experienced on the large ocean ships.

My initial thoughts were it might be nice to be on a boat and not have to live out of a suitcase, packing up every couple days to move to another city or town as we would have done on a land trip. I was also a bit (OK, a lot) intimidated to try and plan a trip to Russia, where I had no inkling of the language. I presented this scenario to my mom and she agreed. In hind-sight I think I pressed a little hard for this journey. I won’t go as far to say I twisted mom’s arm to come along with me, but I do think she agreed in part because she knew I was really interested in seeing Russia, perhaps more so than she did. However, she assured me that if she really didn’t want to go she could have/would have said no.

A sign that things may not be so enjoyable was the arduous Russian visa process, which after hearing from other ladies in the group about their experiences, ours was a cake-walk, but it was slightly frustrating and at that point we seriously considered backing out of the trip and loosing our deposit, but we soldiered on.

Once we paid our deposits, about a year before the trip, I got busy searching for airfare. I quickly realized tickets to Russia from Savannah, Georgia do not come cheap. So I offered mom the option of using our Delta sky miles. I didn’t have quite enough in my account so we moved some of her miles into my account and off I went in search of award tickets.

The night owl internet browsing tendencies of mine paid off this time. One night, it must have been close to 1am, I found 2 round trip business class tickets into Moscow and return from St. Petersburg for 150,000 miles each. Out bound was on Delta via Atlanta and JFK and return was on Air France via Paris and Atlanta. I snapped them up quickly and I’m glad I did, because after that the only redemption levels I saw were 300,000 or more each for economy class! I gave myself a pat on the back for this find; at least I thought it was a good deal.

Of course, when booking almost a year in advance I expect airline schedules to change and this itinerary was no exception. Initially when I booked the tickets the outbound to Moscow had only one connection in Atlanta, but about 6 months after booking Delta discontinued the Atlanta – Moscow route. This meant we were rebooked and our itinerary went from Savannah to Atlanta to JFK to Moscow on the outbound ticket. Well, this wouldn’t have been so bad; except we now had to leave Savannah at 5:30am instead of 11:30am…UGH…here I go again with the wake in the middle of the night to get to the airport on time scenario. However, I’ve got to say in the end the early morning departures (we had an early one out of St. Petersburg too) were somewhat acceptable since we did have business class seats!

The cruise company was AMAWaterways and the boat was the AMAKatarina. The boat was perfectly fine, it was clean, comfortable and the staff and crew were professional and friendly. Being the “foodies” mom and I are, we knew going in the food would not be stellar and we were spot on with that. The dining room servers and bartenders were all very nice, their levels of English comprehension varied with some understanding more than others, which was not an issue for us, however it was for some of the other travelers (you can’t please everyone all the time!). The food was fine, we did not starve, however I had a terrible bout of gastro-intestinal discomfort for the first 5 days which made eating very unappealing…who do you know who comes back from a cruise 5 pounds lighter? That would be me!

And now for the trip…

Journey to Moscow

The “trek” to Moscow started when we arose at 1:30am for a 5:30am flight out of Savannah, in my usual early bird fashion we arrived at the airport early, so early the TSA security lines weren’t even open yet…note to self, security at the Savannah airport doesn’t open until 4:30am. At which time there is a massive line because not only Delta, but US Air also has a 5:30am flight.

The flight to Atlanta was smooth and the connection was a breeze for our flight to JFK. I was happily surprised the JFK flight was departing from the new international terminal (Terminal F) at Atlanta, it is lovely, and everything is new and shiny. The terminal had only been open for a few months. The flight to JFK was smooth and on time, which meant we now had a 6 hour layover. Fortunately we had access to the sky lounge, which was barely a step above the regular terminal waiting areas, but at least the bathroom was super clean!

We caught up with 3 of the other ladies who were on the cruise with us and chatted before boarding the plane. The flight from JFK to Moscow boarded on time and with air traffic what it is at JFK we took off about an hour late, which was ok with us, that gave us an extra hour in business class!

We have flown business class before but never in a cabin with the lay-flat beds, so this was great for getting comfortable. We still didn’t sleep much, but at least we got to actually lie horizontally! The service was great, the food was good, and it was a pleasant flight.

We arrived in Moscow pretty much on time and it was nice to be in the first wave of passengers to deplane. We got to passport control quickly and there was barely a line. The agent scrutinized our passports and visas for a couple minutes then stamped our passports and we were done. We did carry-on only so it was an easy walk through customs with nothing to declare and we found our driver without any trouble on the other side of the sliding glass door.

We waited with our driver until our 3 travel companions made their way to the meeting point, about 20 minutes. This gave me enough time to stop at an ATM to get some Rubles. This was easy enough; I had my pick of about 8 different machines.

Being a Sunday the drive from Sheremetyevo airport to the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski was only about 30 minutes. This easy drive to the hotel lulled us into a false sense of what the traffic situation can be like in Moscow. Let’s just suffice to say the remaining time in Moscow included several days of sitting on a bus for hours in stand still traffic trying to get to or from the center of the city to where the boat was docked. Yes drawback number 1 of being on a cruise, the boat does not dock in the center of the city.

The hotel was lovely, the staff was nice. We were thrilled with the fact that when we arrived at 11am we were able to check into our room. And speaking of room, it was massive. This had to be the largest hotel room I have ever stayed in while in Europe. The room was comfortable and clean and the bathroom was spotless.

Even with the comfy business class seats, we were pretty “zonked” so we decided to take a nap for a few hours. Bless my mom’s heart, the woman can and does fall asleep in any bed she crawls into and she was fast asleep within minutes of putting her head on the pillow. Me on the other hand, did not get that “sleep gene” and for the next 4 hours I rolled around trying to get a little rest. I will say the beds were very comfortable; however the pillow left a lot to be desired.

By late afternoon we were ready to freshen up and have a glass of wine. After we each showered we meandered to the lobby bar for some wine and to wait for the rest of our group to meet for dinner. There were already 2 ladies from our group enjoying refreshments and we joined them. This was my mistake number 1, when we sat down I noticed one gal had a glass of white wine in front of her, and I asked her what she was drinking. She told me a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. Mom and I happen to enjoy sauvignon blanc wines from New Zealand so we each ordered a glass.

After making our way through about half the glass I asked the gal if she knew how much the wine was and she said she didn’t know. I had an idea that a hotel lobby bar was going to have pretty high priced wine; there have been times in my travels when I’ve paid $20-$25 for a glass in a hotel. But the wine level in our glasses was decreasing and the rest of our group was delayed at the airport and was running late, so mom and I ordered a second glass of wine while we waited to go to dinner.

Finally the rest of our group arrived and we were ready to go to dinner. I asked the server for our check and nearly had a heart attack when I opened the check holder. Yes, we had just paid $36 per glass. $144 for four glasses of wine, do you realize how many bottles of wine I could buy at Trader Joe’s for that amount…A LOT! I have learned my lesson; always ask to see the wine list before ordering. I signed the check and we were off to a Ukrainian restaurant down the street from the hotel.

By the time we arrived at the restaurant it was close to 10pm and honestly I was not terribly hungry. The poor young man serving us had to handle a party of 16 American women. I’m sure his frustration level was stratospheric, especially given the fact he didn’t speak any English. However, he was a very good sport about the situation, or at least it appeared to me that he was. The dish I had was an eggplant and tomato salad, but mom was the real winner of the night with a delicious warm lentil salad served in a hollowed out loaf of dark bread.

When we finished dinner mom and I walked back to the hotel and made a stop at an ATM so mom could take out some money, but we hit a road block, for whatever reason mom could not access any money. This became an issue and we had to call her bank at home, even though she called to put a travel notification on the card prior to leaving. Her bank rep was very nice, but couldn’t determine why her card was refused and it was refused at more than one ATM, we tried several. The bank rep put another notice on mom’s card and we could try again to get cash in 24 hours. And that is how our fist day in Moscow ended.
LowCountryIslander is offline  
Oct 17th, 2012, 11:50 AM
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Hi Marcy, I'm really looking forward to the rest of your report.

I feel as you do about cruises but until our last one (of the British Isles so DH wouldn't have to drive on the wrong side of the road) DH has adored them. He's no longer so keen on them but we have one with Viking lined up in May from Odessa to Kiev with time before in Istanbul (a favorite) and after in Moscow (have never been.) We cruised the Baltic in order to have easy access to St. Petersburg, which was phenomenal but I'm not pressing to return and did the Yangtze cruise to see many places we could have seen no other way reasonably. So I guess they have their place and can serve specific purposes but overall I'd sure rather be calling my own shots, have more than one day in most ports, and just enjoy the freedom of on your own travel.

Looking forward to hearing more of your experience in Moscow-and of course all of the rest of the trip. BTW we had a similar experience in St. Petersburg--ordered a bottle of champagne in a Russian restaurant thinking the price was exorbitant but thinking we'd splurge for 4 of us, then found out it was only a half bottle. We caught the waiter in time and switched to beer.
JulieVikmanis is offline  
Oct 17th, 2012, 12:34 PM
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I'm glad you decided to do this report as I'm finding it full of good information. I had always planned to do a river cruise for Russia as I thought that was the way to do it easily. Now I'm re-thinking this plan, based on your report.

Why did your friend decide on AMAWaterways rather than Viking or Grand Circle? Do you think a different company would have made a difference?

It is my impression that if you stay with the tour group (on the boat) then you do not need a visa for Russia. What made you decide to do a land only tour and book your own air travel? Did you think this was the best way to approach the trip or do you have a different opinion after the trip is over?

Was your hotel very expensive or are all the prices high in Russia. I can't imagine $144 for 4 glasses of wine. Sorry you had such a bad start to the trip.
adrienne is offline  
Oct 17th, 2012, 12:47 PM
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If you arrive by SEA in Russia and stay with your cruise or official tour guide after docking, you need no visas, but arriving by land you will need one.
lincasanova is offline  
Oct 17th, 2012, 12:49 PM
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"....however the pillow left a lot to be desired."

Hubs laughs at me but I carry my down bed pillow with me every year when we travel to Europe. If that isn't under my head my neck is shot the next day and that makes me a cranky traveler !!! Interesting report, anxious for more.
LuvToRoam is offline  
Oct 17th, 2012, 01:27 PM
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Forgot to add that I'm enjoying your perspective of this trip. Waiting for more like everyone else!
lincasanova is offline  
Oct 17th, 2012, 01:49 PM
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I, too, am eager to read more.

My friend and I have been discussing the possibility of a Moscow-St. Petersburg cruise in 2013, so I'll be interested in further details. We both have traveled in US, Canada, Europe, and Asia, but I'm not certain we're up to handling a trip to St. Petersburg (our main focus) on our own. The river cruise seemed the way to go.
kmbp is offline  
Oct 17th, 2012, 02:06 PM
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I also am not a cruiser nor a tour taker but have taken several riverboat trips including one in Russia with Viking. One reason we took took the Russia trip on a riverboat was that the rivers of Russia have served as their "highways", boats on the water and sleds in the winters, connecting the historic towns along the river banks. I will be interested in learning what what wrong on your trip and am so sorry you had a bad experience. It still remains one of our most interesting and educational trips. We recently took AMAWaterway's Mekong( again as probably the only way to see what we did) and felt they were a notch or two above our two experiences on Viking. In Moscow, we were able to take the subway from our boat's dock in a park area. In St. Petersburg, we had to use the buses to get to the city center and spent hours in traffic.We enjoyed our independent time in both cities. We were required to get our own VISAS which we did through an agency.
HappyTrvlr is offline  
Oct 17th, 2012, 06:01 PM
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Julie...
I completely agree with your statement, "I'd sure rather be calling my own shots, have more than one day in most ports, and just enjoy the freedom of on your own travel."

adrienne...
My friend picked AMAWaterways based on the fact they used the best boat in Russia, newly refurbished and half the number of cabins of other boats. In Russia, the ships have to be operated by Russian companies, so AMAWaterways actually charters the AMAKaterina (the boat actually has a different Russian name, but AMA branded it for their tours). From walking through other boats when we docked (at times boats have to dock 2 and 3 deep at the smaller stops)AMAKatarina was the nicest I had seen. So, I don't think another company would have made a difference in my opinion, actually I take that back, my opinion would probably have been worse on another boat.

As Lincasanova mentioned, the only time you wouldn't need a Russian visa is if you are on a cruise entering via a seaport. Because we flew into Russia we needed visas.

I booked this trip because it seemed to "hit the highpoints" of Moscow & St. Petersburg with a few villages in between. It did deliver on that, again, it's just that I like to have a bit more control over my travels and that is not what this trip was like. But, I was willing to give that up for the convenience of having the trip planned for me. I've done group (land) tours before and enjoyed them immensely, but on those trips I did have more control then on this particular cruise. I've "lived and learned", and my philosophy is that if I didn't go, I wouldn't know!

The hotel in Moscow as booked by my friend coordinating the trip. Mom and I each paid about $165 each for one night, so it was $330 for the room, but this did include a lavish breakfast buffet (more about that later)

kmbp...
I thought the cruise was the way to go too, although it wasn't my kind of travel, I also didn't want to undertake the effort to plan a trip to Russia on my own. It was a "give up something to get something" type of scenario. I gave up my control to go see a part of the world I was interested in.

HappyTrvlr...

I have to say there wasn't really one specfic thing that went wrong, this just wasn't our style of travel. My friend who coordinated this trip had been on an AMAWaterways cruise in Belgium & the Netherlands earlier this year and she would agree with you about them being a notch above other river cruises, I got the distinct feeling their other European cruises are slightly more "posh" then the Russia trip. But, our "mantra" throughout the trip was, the AMAKatarina is a "top notch" boat/experience for Russia...everything is relative.
LowCountryIslander is offline  
Oct 17th, 2012, 06:04 PM
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All Aboard!

But first breakfast and a morning walking tour! The buffet breakfast at the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski was enormous. There was not anything anyone could have thought was a breakfast item that was not available and this included caviar and champagne, boy the Russians know how to live it up at breakfast!

Mom and I enjoyed a few things from the buffet but the pineapple juice was the best I have ever had (mind you I haven’t been to Hawaii yet, so this could change). Honest to God it tasted just like someone had squeezed a pineapple in our glasses, it was fresh and delicious and not overly sweet as I sometimes find it to be.

RM had arranged for our group of 16 to do a walking tour of the Zamoskvoreche area around the hotel. This area has lots of twisting streets and was at one time the area where many artists lived. RM hired 2 guides for our group of 19 and we split into two more manageable groups. Our guide Olga was terrific, her English was excellent and she was very informative. It was a pleasant two hour tour.

RM arranged with the hotel for all of us to have a late (1:30pm) check out. After the walking tour, mom and I meandered back towards the hotel and stopped in the Starbucks across the street to cool off for a few minutes with an icy coffee beverage. Once properly caffeinated we went back to our room, did a final pack and met the rest of our group in the hotel lobby at 1:30pm for the transfer to the boat.

The shuttle vans RM booked for the transfer were clean and comfortable and this was our first peak at what Moscow traffic can truly be like and it wasn’t pretty. We slowly wound our way from the hotel to the old ferry terminal where the river boat was docked.

As we boarded the boat we were serenaded by what I would call an “Um-pah” band, my first thought was, “Hmmmm…maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all”. Our cabin was not ready and we waited in the lounge for about 30 minutes before we could get our keys (not such a bad wait time). Once we got to our cabin it was maybe another 15 minutes before our suitcases arrived.

Our first impression of the boat and cabin was “not so bad”, it was clean, small but not too small and we were thankful we opted for a cabin with an individual balcony. It was nice to be able have a little outdoor space.

The rest of the afternoon was spent getting to the other ladies in our group at a cocktail party RM put together for us and then it was time for our first dinner.

The next two days…

Were spent touring Moscow. One of the nice things about this particular cruise was the majority of the daily excursions were included in the price of the tour, so we did not have to pay extra for these. There were several special excursions you could opt for which were extra, but there were only 3 or 4 of those as I recall and mom and I chose not to do any of the extras.

Mom and I were put in a group of “slow walkers” for the first day. However, the Moscow guide for this group was truly atrocious. I have experienced my fair share of tour guides in the past but this woman was the worst. She was leading the “SLOW” walkers and had this group crossing streets with 4 lanes of fast moving traffic and one man in a wheelchair was left at the intersection with himself and his wife to deal with crossing the street. This guide also really, really, really, liked to talk. By the end of the day I was ready to pay her more to stop talking.

Mom and I are not ones to complain, but when RM asked us how our tour experience was with this guide, we told her the truth and the next day we were able to join the daily tour group where the other women we were traveling with had been and we were much happier and mom had no trouble keeping up the pace.
These two days in Moscow were HOT, I’m talking Africa HOT, Tarzan couldn’t even take that type of heat, which I’m sure is part of the reason I feel the way I do about Moscow. I was hot, and tired, and feeling crummy and my opinion of Moscow was that it is a gray, grimy, congested city. And the lunch boat tour we were on during one day did not help with my impression. I understand why we were provided lunch on this day boat that traveled up and down the Moscow River. It was easier for the cruise company to keep us in the center of the city for lunch instead of fighting traffic to get back to the cruise boat for lunch and then shuttle us back into the city for the afternoon, but the day boat was not very comfortable and the food served was barely edible.

However, there were some highlights during these two days. We visited Red Square and the sight of the domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral was a treat to see. They really do look like swirly dollops of colorful ice cream to me. We toured the Armory Museum and I loved seeing the royal clothing and carriages and the Faberge Eggs! The Kremlin grounds were interesting. One afternoon when we had several free hours mom and I high-tailed it to Red Square found a seat under an awning at Café Bosco and had lunch as we watched the throngs walk by. Now that’s our type of vacation activity!

The next stop on the cruise itinerary…

…was the town of Uglich. This town was founded in 1148 by merchants and is home to some of Russia’s most beautiful churches and cathedrals. We were scheduled to arrive at 6:30pm, so we had the whole day to do whatever we wanted. There were several scheduled activities but mom and I chose to sleep in and then spend time on the front deck checking out the scenery. There wasn’t much to see, but at least the weather was fantastic, beautiful blue sky, nice breeze, it was great to sit outside. The Uglich lock we passed through was the prettiest lock we went through on the cruise.

When we arrived in Uglich we gathered on the on dock and met our local guide, Vladmir. We spent about 2 hours on a walking tour of the town and saw the Church of Dmitry on the Blood and the Chambers of Princes of Uglich. Vladmir was a good guide, his English was excellent and he was a wealth of information. During this visit we were entertained by a local municipal men’s choir. The singers were excellent. During the rest of the trip we encountered similar performances in other venues, but this group was by far the best we had seen. In fact, they were so good; mom purchased their CD of Russian folk songs.

On the way back to the boat we passed through the “souvenir tat gauntlet”. I was hell-bent on not buying anything, but a stall with reasonably priced nesting dolls called to us and we stopped. Fortunately for me there was a doll that was different from all the others lined up on the table and it just happened to go with the décor in my home. So, for $15 I succumbed and bought the doll…it looks great in my living room now!
LowCountryIslander is offline  
Oct 17th, 2012, 08:37 PM
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Very interesting trip report. Thanks for posting! $144 for 4 glasses of wine. That's highway robbery...
Kurosawa is offline  
Oct 18th, 2012, 12:14 AM
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<> Why is that? Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world and the Baltschug Kempinski one of the best and most expensive hotels in Moscow. And if you don't look at the wine list before ordering then whose fault is that? Russia produces wines so there would have been less expensive alternatives. I don't order without looking at a menu when at home, much less so abroad. You can't compare the Baltschug to Trader Joes.
The other observations eg Moscow traffic & hot weather in August are purely from lack of research or from other posters who give wrong impression of weather patterns in Europe.
Not everyone "gets" Russia and going on some sort of organised tour can make it worse as it is not the best way to see Russia.
Odin is offline  
Oct 18th, 2012, 02:50 AM
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"Russia produces wine", you are right, it does, it is one of the larger producers in the world and it is generaly so bad they prefer to drink Georgian (until the war). Great line LOL

OP keep the story coming
bilboburgler is offline  
Oct 18th, 2012, 04:57 AM
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Thank you for this report. I have read some of your other excellent reports of your travels with your mom and appreciate your insights.
I have been thinking of going to Russia for years with some hesitancy. Just read Snowdrops which made me further hesitant, even though the author loved it.
Please keep it up.
Micheline is offline  
Oct 18th, 2012, 05:22 AM
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Odin...

When I wrote about the wine price in the trip report I prefaced my remarks by saying that I knew in a hotel lobby bar prices would be expensive and that I've paid up to $25 for a glass of wine. If you want specifics, that $25 glass was at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. My comment about comparing the price to Trader Joe's was simply to bring a bit of levity to the report, but clearly you did not take it that way. I knew the price would be high, I didn't think it would be that high and I wrote about this experience so others reading this report might learn something from my experience.

As for not researching a destination, you do not know me or my travel style. I am an avid travel researcher and I knew Moscow would be warm in August, 100F degrees, was a bit more than I had expected and I'm sure the sweltering tour bus added to my discomfort. But I live in the Southeastern United States, so heat and humidity are something I'm very used too.

I guess you can lump me into the "not everyone gets Russia" category. However, as I have mentioned above I was willing to go on an organized tour in lieu of planning a trip on my own because I did not want to take on the herculean task of trying to plan a trip to Russia on my own.

As for Russian wine, while on the boat that is all we drank, not because it was the only thing on offer, to the contrary, they had wines from all over the world on the boat, it just happened that we found a fairly drinkable Russian chardonnay and went with that for the duration.
LowCountryIslander is offline  
Oct 18th, 2012, 05:54 AM
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LowCountry - I am enjoying your trip report so much! Russia is on my list of places and we are definitely not cruise fans. We have also considered doing a river cruise so I am reading this with interest. I think we have a similar style so I might put a bit more effort into planning my own trip rather than cruising.

Thanks so much for all the details and please continue!!
jamikins is offline  
Oct 18th, 2012, 06:37 AM
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The next day…

…brought us to Yaroslavl, which was established by Yaroslavl the Wise in 1010. This city is one of Russia’s oldest cities and can trace its roots back to the Vikings. We arrived at the dock at about 10am, met our local guide and boarded buses for a tour of the city.

We visited the Governor’s House which had a nice art gallery and were treated to a music and dance presentation performed by local residents in period costumes. We did a brief walking tour of the downtown area and then spent time touring the Transfiguration Monastery. We also saw what had to have been a minimum of 5 wedding parties at one of the cathedrals we visited. We were told since the months of June, July & August had the best weather most couples choose to marry in those months. Literally there were 5 wedding parties lined up on the cathedral grounds waiting to go into the church to be married.

We were back on the boat just before 2pm. This afternoon mom and I decided it might be fun to participate in the nesting doll painting lesson. Was it fun? Yes, but only because I am such an awful artist, we couldn’t help laughing at the doll I had painted, I need to stick with my day job and thankfully I never had any aspiration of becoming an artist!

Delayed by fog…

Because we were delayed by four hours due to fog during the night the 1pm arrival in Goritsy was moved back to 3:30pm. This meant more time in the lounge for mom and me.

The stop in Goritsy was really to experience a home visit. Mom and I decided we did not want to do this. Honestly, to us, it just felt way too staged. Instead we got off the boat and walked around the dock area which had about 20 market stalls selling alls kinds of souvenirs.

It took us all of about 15 minutes to check things out. When we first started walking through the stalls I spied a vendor displaying really lovely nesting dolls, I’m talking intricately painted and sets of 10 dolls, not the 5 or 7 in a set we had been seeing. These dolls were done by a real artist. I didn’t want to “pounce” right away though and took another 10 minutes perusing the other merchandise at the remainder of the stalls.

When I realized the first stall was the only one with these nesting dolls we went back. There were 2 that were just outstanding quality. Mom fell for one of them and decided to buy it. I’m so glad she did, it really is lovely and goes very well in her home.

On our way back to the boat I stopped in a little convenience store because I was on the prowl for a specific type of bottled water we had in Moscow. It was lemon basil flavor and it was refreshing and delicious. I was happy to see this convenience store had one bottle left and I quickly snatched it, paid for it and we were then heading back to the boat.

I guess we could call this a relaxed day, because other than getting off the boat for about 30 minutes, all we really did was sit and read. I’m certainly not used to vacations like that!

It only took until cruise day #7 for us to hit a memorable moment…

Kizhi Island was a highpoint of this trip for mom and me. This island is situated in the northern end of Lake Onega and home to some of the most incredible wooden architecture in Russia, and in my opinion, the most striking I have ever seen. This island is linked to Novgorod the Great. In 1764 the locals built the Church of the Intercession with its towering walls and 22 onion domes without using a single nail.

We met our tour guide just after disembarking the boat and this guide was wonderful. We could tell she was passionate about sharing the history of this island with us and she was very proud of this beautiful spot. Not only is there a cathedral on the island but there is also replicas of the homes the peasants would have lived in during the time the island was permanently inhabited. Today, the guides who work here live on the island from May until October when the island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site is open.

I’m sure it helped that the weather on this day was sparkling, but both mom and I enjoyed this day the most out of the previous 7 on the cruise.
LowCountryIslander is offline  
Oct 18th, 2012, 07:14 AM
  #18  
 
Join Date: Mar 2008
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Very interesting, looking forward to Petersburg.
Cathinjoetown is offline  
Oct 18th, 2012, 10:49 AM
  #19  
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Another home visit and more souvenirs…


The last stop before St. Petersburg was Svirstroy. This small town is only about 100 miles from St. Petersburg and the big “draw” here is…yup, souvenirs. As soon as we got off the book there were several dirt streets of vendor stalls selling all kinds of souvenir paraphernalia. We had the option to do another home visit with a tea party, but we took a pass on that.

Mom and I meandered through the vendor stalls and I did stumble upon an artist who had a drawing of the cathedral on Kizhi Island I was very taken with, so I purchased it. At 2pm we were back on the boat, having lunch and heading toward St. Petersburg.


The much awaited and much anticipated St. Petersburg…


Our 3 days in St. Petersburg were jam-packed. The first day we disembarked the boat at about 9am and took a hydrofoil (docked next to the river boat) to the Hermitage. Fortunately by hydrofoil the trip to the museum was only about 20 minutes, had we gone by bus, it would have been close to one hour.

The Hermitage was all we had hoped it would be. The wealth of art in this museum is staggering. The three hours we spent in the museum was only a little peek into what this museum has to offer. Our guide, Veronica was excellent and she really knew how to steer us around the worst of the crowds, because, believe me, there were hoards of people!

After a group lunch at a rather non-descript banquet hall (where else could they feed 160 cruise passengers!) we had a bus tour of the city. This was a typical group tour “event”. By that I mean, we only went into one of the places to see the interior and that was the Peter and Paul Fortress. The other “stops” on this tour included St. Isaac’s Square, and Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood. At each of these spots we got off the bus, and were given about 20 minutes to take pictures. Not my most favorite way to see the sights.

Our second day in St. Petersburg we spent the morning in Pushkin exploring Catherine’s Palace and the evening at a ballet performance. Other than our time on Kizhi Island, this was my favorite day of the trip.

We arrived at Catherine’s Palace at about 8:30am which was a God-send. In one stellar move, AMAWaterways coordinates with Catherine’s Palace to have our group from the boat arrive about one hour prior to the palace opening to the general public. So, even though there were 5 tour buses of cruise passengers, it was no where near the number of people going through the palace when we were leaving.

Catherine’s Palace was astounding, and the most stunning, draw-dropping part of touring this palace was the amber room. I had no idea amber could not only be a lovely honey color, but it can also be red, or orange. After a guided tour we were able to spend time exploring the grounds and it was a terrific morning.

In the evening we went to a ballet performance of Giselle in the Little Hermitage Theater. I have to be honest and say I was not expecting much of this ballet. I truly thought it was going to be a “second-rate tourist show”. Boy was I ever wrong. First the theater was lovely and much smaller than I was expecting, but now knowing it was built just for Catherine the Great, it makes sense that it was not a huge venue, since it was for her private entertainment. And secondly, the ballet company was first-rate. The performers are considered celebrities in Russia, of course I don’t remember any of their names, but the two principle dancers were extraordinary.

A morning at Peterhof gardens was how we spent our last day in St. Petersburg. The morning had beautiful clear blue skies and we took a hydrofoil from the river boat dock to Peterhof. What a great way to enter Peterhof gardens via the hydrofoil dock, talk about impressive.

The gardens at Peterhof are lovely, but the real reason to visit here, in my opinion, is the fountains. I can see why this is called the “Russian Versailles” and we didn’t even go into the palace, we only toured the gardens. When the fountains were turned on, at about 11am, it was even more magical.

At about 2pm we were back on the hydrofoil for the one hour trip back to the river boat. We had the rest of the afternoon at our leisure and we could have gone into the center of the city, but mom and I were both tired, and we needed to gather our belongings and pack up for the early departure the next day.

The long trek home…


Our Air France flight was scheduled to leave St. Petersburg at about 7:30am. The cruise price included a transfer from the boat to the airport. There were about 20 other passengers scheduled to be at the airport at about the same time and the cruise company scheduled our departure for, get this, 4am! Now, I know I am always erring on the side of arriving at the airport early but this was ridiculous for a number of reasons. Reason #1 – for once, there was no city traffic (what did you expect at 4am!) and we got to the airport in less than 20 minutes. Reason #2 – the Air France ticket counter did not even open until 5:30am. Reason #3 – the waiting area by the 4 boarding gates was security controlled (I get that, but…) and so small we could not get to the gate area until about 40 minutes before boarding. So, yes, I was up at 2am for a 7:30am flight. You can probably guess that even though I was in bed by 9pm, sleep did not come easy this night, all I can say is thank goodness for business class seats in this instance!

The flight from St. Petersburg departed on time, but not before the flight attendant fumigated the cabin once the plane door was shut. I had not experienced that before. We were told it was an EU code to spray.

The flight was about 3 hours long and mom and I dozed off and on for a couple hours. We arrived in Paris on time and did not “park” out on the back forty, the plane pulled right up to the terminal and a jet way was hooked up in minutes. Being at the front of the plane paid off again because we had just about 1 hour and 30 minutes to connect to our flight to Atlanta.

As we emerged from the gate area, breezed through security (there were no lines to speak of) we made our way into the large, well lighted, terminal area where every type of upscale name brand had a shop and like a phoenix rising from the ashes we both spotted that lovely shade of light green we tend to dream about on occasion. Yes, I am talking about a Lauduree macaron shop. I looked at my watch, mom looked at me, we both looked at the line at the take away counter and smiled and said, "Why yes, yes we do have time to make a little sweet treat purchase of 6 macarons". Let me say the lemon basil variety is simply delicious!

After our little purchase we found our gate, had a seat and in less than 30 minutes we were boarding the flight to Atlanta. Have I mentioned how nice it is to be in Business Class? Let me say it again, because this time it was Air France. Delta (on the way over) was nice, but maybe because we were already exhausted (and it was only 10:30am), but sinking down into that Air France seat, getting comfortable and having the marvelous Valerie as our flight attendant felt like heaven.

Because I’d been up since 2am Russian time, I wasn’t going to refuse the glass of champagne that was offered, however the peach and cherry juice also on offer looked darn good too. The meal on the flight was delicious; from the foie gras starter to the guinea hen to the dessert trio to the calvados (I just had to try it!) we were two happy ladies. After the meal we reclined our seats and I don’t think my head had even hit the little pillow before I was sound asleep. I probably slept for close to 4 hours, that’s a record for me!

When we were a couple hours from landing a light meal was served. At first mom and I were not going to get the meal and instead have something at One Flew South in Terminal E in Atlanta since we would have a few hours to kill there. But, then the duck, mashed potatoes and grated Parmesan cheese started to be served. I swear I have never had a more scrumptious airline dish, this was French comfort food on a plate and everyone around us was lapping it up too! There would be no need for a visit to One Flew South now!

As we began our decent Valerie, our flight attendant, asked if we had a good rest and wished us a good flight to Savannah. Afterwards, I turned to mom and asked if we had ever mentioned to Valerie where our final destination was. Mom said, “We didn’t”, wow, however Valerie did it, she knew exactly where we were heading!

Our last leg of the journey on a Delta flight to Savannah was the only flight on the entire itinerary where we couldn’t get business class seats, but we were ok with that since it was only a 30 minute flight. Well, the travel Gods were shining down on us and thanks to Gold Sky Miles status we were upgraded just before boarding, so in the end we did fly all the legs in Business Class and it was a welcome end to a long journey.
LowCountryIslander is offline  
Oct 18th, 2012, 11:30 AM
  #20  
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I'm trying this for the first time, so bare with me if it does not work this time.

Below is a link that should take you to the shutterfly photo book I made for this trip. Unlike a link to the actual online album of all 400 photos from the trip, this should take you to the electronic copy of the hard cover photo book I created. If it doesn't I'll try and figure out a way to post some of the trip pictures...I don't want to subject everyone to viewing all 400 trip pics! ;-)


http://share.shutterfly.com/action/w...2AZOGrho5ctXyA
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