MOSCOW, ST. PETERSBURG AND A TOUCH OF THE TUSCAN SUN!
A HYBRID ITINERARY
Let me explain!
The itinerary for this trip is something of an amalgam -the first week in Russia touring Moscow and Saint Petersburg -- and the second week in Tuscany -- a homestay with several side trips into the local countryside.
I didn't organize this itinerary, at least not the details. While I did make the air travel arrangements, (i.e., getting to Moscow and Rome,) my good friend Katie Meyer of Meyer Travel Group, handled the Russia itinerary. Many thanks to Katie - she's got a ton of experience doing tours to Russia, even back when it was the Soviet Union.
The Italy itinerary was something of an afterthought arranged through G-Adventures based in Toronto.
Regarding week two: It's Spring Break in France and we had originally planned to spend the week touring with our daughter Katie. Until early February, Katie had been teaching in the small French town of Fameck, about 30 kilometers across the border from Luxembourg. But Katie left her job in early February and returned to the US after we'd booked our flight to Moscow via Luxembourg.
So what do you do when you have a free week in Luxembourg? (You may be wondering -- where the heck is Luxembourg? Good question. This is hard to describe - best to look at a map - but briefly, it's a tiny country sandwiched along the northeast French border next to Germany.)
Non-refundable tickets are at stake - I guess we could throw them away and start over! HA! For those who know me it's LOL time!
With such a narrow timeframe, finding something interesting to fill out the week turned out to be a major challenge. Believe me when I tell you that it's hard to justify much more than a day in Luxembourg! And it's so early in the travel season - snow is still on the ground in many of the northern climes - our options are very limited. I skimmed though several possibilities but none fit our now-empty schedule.
But the Tuscany homestay does fit. Exactly. Meet in Rome on April 15, return to Luxembourg April 21, fly home on April 22. As scheduled.
So there you have it!
April 4, 2012: Anxiety Attack!
I hadn't given this trip a whole lot of thought until the past few days. I spoke briefly with Katie Meyer last week and clearly she had everything in hand, at least as far as week one was concerned.
So I logged in to my American Airlines AAdvantage account all set for an effortless check-in.
This isn't right!! We're supposed to fly to Luxembourg via LAX on SwissAir! We have a hotel booked in Luxembourg Friday night! We're supposed to fly out of Luxembourg to Moscow via Munich Saturday morning on Lufthansa at 9:15 AM! We're supposed to meet up with Katie Meyer Saturday afternoon!
But my itinerary - which by the way I confirmed a mere 48 hours earlier - now shows us overnight in Zurich and not even getting into Luxembourg until Saturday morning, an hour later than our departure flight to Moscow.
Stay calm, I demand of myself! Calm. Take a deep breath! OMG - I could never be a travel agent!
Who do I call? Stop. Think. Of course, don't be stupid! American. Call American!
I call American: " Due to recent severe weather near Dallas Fort Worth airport, all of our agents are currently busy. Please call back later."
Later? Later?? I need to speak to someone NOW! What weather? Quick Google search: "Tornadoes tear up neighborhood near DFW!"
OK. Think. Swissair! Call Swissair!
I call Swissair. What if they don't speak English? What if I can't understand them! Panic. What if I miss my connections? I won't get there on time! My visa dates won't match!
A pleasant female voice comes on the line. I switch on the speaker phone so I can hear better. I try to explain my problem without getting hysterical. "Please hold."
A minute goes by... two minutes... she comes back on the line. "Are you OK going through Heathrow?" she asks. Yes. "Please hold."
It feels like eternity until she comes back on the line: "I've rebooked you on Iberia leaving at the same time. Change to British Airways at Heathrow. You'll arrive in Luxembourg ten minutes earlier than you were scheduled. Is this OK?"
Yes, yes, it is, I exclaim with a sigh of relief.
I disconnect then fret until the confirmation e-mail shows up. It's confusing. Really confusing. Here's what it looks like:
SMF-LAX Alaska Airlines (operated by Delta Connection)
LAX-LHR Iberia Airlines (operated by American Airlines)
LHR-LUX American Airlines (operated by British Airways)
ZRH- LUX SwissAir
Yikes! I brace myself. So many opportunities for missed connections and lost baggage! My anxiety level is sky high as I try to explain it all to Teresa.
"Well it sounds like you got it looked after," she calmly replies.
We have the same deal. We fly to Egypt tomorrow ad our airline is booked with Alaska airlines but i had to confirm with delta! Wish u the best of luck on the remainder of your trip! I pray for us tomorrow! This is also our first tour group experience I'm a lil warey of me not having total control of the whole process! Cheers to travel!
Egypt sounds fascinating. Are you blogging? We have found that if you choose the RIGHT group company it can make the travel simple. Have a wonderful time!
April 5 & 6: Unscrambling the mess!
I want to get to the airport early. This is bizarre. The reservation is through American. The flight is on Alaska. The check-in is at Delta.
Fortunately they are not busy - it takes the counter agent more than half an hour to figure out the mess of bookings and airlines! The good news is that our bags are tagged through to Luxembourg. I cross my fingers!
The bad news is no boarding passes until we get to LA.
We get to LA. Find the American Airlines check-in desk. Another twenty minutes for the agent to unscramble all the flights, but we finally get our boarding passes and seat assignments then head to the gate. Thank goodness we have extra time!
Our boarding group is announced. Our boarding passes are scanned. We are told to step aside. We are beckoned to another counter. The agent informs us our booking has been cancelled. I stare at him, dumbstruck! "I don't believe this," as I start to protest!
"Wait!" he says. "We've already rebooked you!" He grabs our boarding passes, tears them up, hands us new ones, and points to the agent at the scanner. "You also have your boarding passes for Heathrow," he tells us.
On the plane, Teresa still has her window seat but I've been moved to the bulkhead exit row - my chosen seat is long gone. I settle in and begin to appreciate the extra leg room almost immediately. No window but I can live with that!
Thanks to my luxurious bulkhead accommodation I actually sleep for nearly five hours, an unusual accomplishment for me. It's an uneventful flight and we make our way through Heathrow airport eventually finding our departure gate.
Our boarding group is called. Our boarding passes are scanned. The agent beckons us aside once again. Now what? I let Teresa do the talking - she's so much more rational right now.
They have our bags - that's the good news. They were on our cancelled booking - but they're here! We just need to confirm that they are ours. We show our baggage receipts. Hooray! We can board and so presumably will our bags.
I settle into my seat and start to write this note.
Thank you for noticing that I was more rational. I ended up sitting next to a Danish man and learned so much about his life in Denmark. It was fascinating.
Post Script: Our bags never showed up!
April 7, 2012: Moscow
The previous evening we had emerged from Luxembourg passport control and anxiously scanned the conveyor belt for our bags. Nothing. We'd patiently waited until the belt had finally come to a stop. Then, acknowledging the obvious, we spoke to Christine at the nearby Luxair counter, who quickly determined that at least one of our bags was still at Heathrow - and the other... ?? We explained that we'd be enroute to Moscow tomorrow, so she filed our claim with British Airways and told us she would contact us by telephone or email as soon as she had more information.
A ten minute walk brought us to the Hotel Campanile Luxembourg, a smallish multistory hotel with a homey feel and welcoming staff. We settled in at the hotel lounge, a wi-fi zone, and ordered up two half liter Bofferdings, the local brew. Ahhh....
It was a bit of a struggle to stay upbeat - but heck - at least we had made it here!
The flights to Moscow today went smoothly, and hey - we didn't even have to worry about checking our bags!
We sped through passport control, visas in hand, and exultantly emerged to a warm welcome from Katie Meyer and the rest of our Russia tour group!
With another two hour time change it was nearly 6 PM by the time we got settled into our room. Group dinner and orientation at 7:30 PM, so Teresa and I darted over to the open air market adjacent to the hotel to search for socks, underwear and laundry soap. I figured if I was going to be wearing the same gray cargo pants and olive green REI t-shirt for the next few days, at least I'd have clean socks and briefs!
Dinner was a buffet, nothing fancy but noteworthy for several unique dishes such as beet root and bean salad, marinated whole tomatoes, pickled herring and beef tongue... Mmm...
Just before calling it a night, Katie Meyer called the airline for us and quickly ascertained that both of our bags had been located. Fearing that they'd turn up again after we'd departed Moscow, we arranged to have them delivered to our next hotel in Saint Petersburg.
April 8, 2012: "I didn't recognize him without his shoe!"
The breakfast room was packed, but the food was plentiful: kasha (buckwheat), yogurts (both natural and processed), cheeses, sliced salami, sausage, bacon and scrambled eggs, cereals, and a variety of baked goods including breads, rolls and croissants.
We boarded our bus at 9 AM for an overview tour of the city's highlights. Turns out that Moscow (called Moskva by the locals) is sprawling, and it's dominant architectural motif could only be described as Soviet concrete - enormous rectangular-shaped high-rise buildings constructed during the 1960's and 70's to house as many people as possible. But the most striking feature of this city is the various onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches scattered around the central city. But with at least a foot of dirty snow on the ground in various stages of thawing it was difficult to judge the overall appearance of the city - suffice to say it was not impressive.
However, one of the most interesting stops was the Novodevichy (New Maiden) Convent and Cemetery. The buildings of the convent, consisting of several brightly colored onion-domed spires, were impressive, but it was the adjacent cemetery that captured our attention: Many of the headstones were strikingly elaborate constructions, some consisting of either statues of the deceased or carved silhouettes, while others were wholly abstract such as the grave of former President Boris Yeltsin. We passed by intricate memorials to Raisa Gorbachev, Anton Chekhov and even Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev's was especially detailed and modernistic with a carved image of Khrushchev's bald head, although as Teresa was quick to point out, "I didn't recognize him without his shoe!"
We stopped at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, originally constructed between 1839 and 1883, and completely demolished by Stalin in 1932 following which a swimming pool was built on the site. But starting in 1994, over a little more than five years, this church was completely rebuilt according to its original plans and is now virtually identical to the original!
We stopped briefly at Red Square to admire the adjacent St. Basil's Cathedral with its iconic mult-spired, multi-colored onion domes. We'll return tomorrow to see Lenin's tomb and perhaps even catch a glimpse of the great man himself!
Our final stop was the Inmilova Arts & Crafts Market with its row upon row of Matryoska (nesting) dolls, colorful music boxes, fur hats, animal skins and local knickknacks. It was also a novelty experiencing an open-air market with daytime temperatures hovering in the low 30's (F).
Afterward, drinks and dinner at the hotel - what a relief from the cold outdoors.
e-mail status report: A message late today from Christina in Luxembourg tells us that she has possession of our wandering bags and they will be enroute to Saint Petersburg by tomorrow!
April 9, 2012: The Kremlin is not St. Basil's!
What do you mean, the Kremlin isn't St. Basil's?
I have to confess that up until today I'd always thought that St. Basil's Cathedral was the Kremlin. But GUESS WHAT?? It's NOT! And that, dear friends, is why we must travel! Otherwise, we just don't know what we don't know!
We spent the early part of the day exploring and learning about the Kremlin. The word Kremlin means fortress, and in fact the Kremlin is a huge walled fortress in the center of Moscow, and not to be confused with St. Basil's Cathedral which sits next to Red Square across from Lenin's mausoleum.
By the way, another interesting factoid: Red Square is not called Red Square because of the Soviet Communists, rather the Russian word krasnaya can mean either red or beautiful.
But I digress. The Kremlin consists of a number of buildings, some old and some new, clustered around a large plaza, Cathedral Square, which includes three enormous churches notable for their multitude of golden domes. We spent several hours inside the Armory, now the museum of the Kremlin, which is filled with artifacts collected from hundreds of years of tsarist rule, and includes crowns, robes, gold and silver service and tableware, and many remarkably well-preserved coaches and carriages. We viewed ten of the original Faberge eggs in the Armory collection originally commissioned by Tsar Alexander III as annual Easter gifts for his wife, starting in 1885.
We also explored the interior of the Dormition Cathedral (one of the three) which looked like... well, another cathedral!
We headed over to Lenin's mausoleum only to find it closed (for the second day in a row). Turns out it's only open four days a week and only from 10 AM to 1 PM. I was disappointed not only because we didn't get to see Lenin's mummified corpse, but because the headstones of the other Soviet leaders are located in a secure area behind the mausoleum and we could only wave to Stalin and Brezhnev from afar!
By mid-afternoon it was raining heavily so we ducked into the GUM shopping mall which is adjacent to Red Square. Once a model of Soviet inefficiency, the GUM department store, which under the Soviets was notable for its empty shelves, is now a high-end shopping mall full of designer stores. We had a light lunch there then rejoined our group for the ride back to our hotel on the Moscow metro, noteworthy for its many well-preserved 1930's art deco stations.
While I chose to relax for the evening, Teresa freshened up then joined Katie Meyer and a handful of others heading off to a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet. When she returned late in the evening she enthusiastically described both the venue and the performance in glowing terms.
April 10, 2012: a new(er) city
Today is a travel day, Moscow to Saint Petersburg. We'll be taking a high speed train which will cover the 500 mile distance in 4.5 hours. I'm kind of thinking that one more day in Moscow might have been good - I would have liked to do a little more walking to get a better feel for the city, and perhaps taken another stab at seeing Lenin! On the other hand, the weather has been abysmal - so cold that I've been wearing all my cold weather stuff - heavy coat, gloves, scarf, knit cap, undershirt and sweatshirt - thank goodness it wasn't in my checked bag - I would have frozen to death! When there hasn't been an icy rain the wind has been bone-chilling! The skies have been a constant dark gray and cast a pall over the city. There's a lot of snow on the ground which has hardly started to melt, and it's covered with dirt and grime.
On the ride to the train station, we studied the architecture of the city, row after row of what I would call horizontal skyscrapers - some of these buildings must stretch for more than a kilometer and most are no more than 5 or 6 storeys.
Toward the center of the city there are a number of wedding cake buildings, a style of architecture popularized by Stalin in the 1930's and 40's. I'll post a photo later, but these buildings are multi-tiered, with each ascending level smaller than the previous - each looks like someone went crazy with a frosting bag and piping tip!
In a nutshell, Moscow is gloomy - not a city I'd be inclined to return to.
The train was very modern, similar to bullet trains we've traveled on elsewhere - reasonably spacious, well appointed. No compartments, just rows of seats.
Passing through the countryside, there was still a lot of snow on the ground. Elena, a long-time friend of Katie's who is acting as our Russian guide, pointed out the many dachas - small cottages - basic summer getaways.
It was nearly 6 PM when we pulled into the Saint Petersburg station. We boarded a bus for the short ride to our hotel while our local guide, Galena, gave us a brief overview of the history of the city. She told us that it is a relatively new city, less than 400 years old, planned by Peter the Great as the Russian capital, and it remained as such until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. As a planned city the architectural style is more consistent, with broad boulevards lined by buildings with colorful facades. We immediately noticed that there was no snow and the ambient temperature was at least 10 degrees warmer than Moscow. And it was sunny!
Just prior to our arrival at the hotel, Elena approached us and reluctantly informed us that the customs office at the airport was refusing to release our bags for delivery to the hotel. They were demanding a huge tax she explained - she was clearly upset and told us she would accompany us to the airport after dinner to try to retrieve our stuff. She'd been told they were open 24 hours.
After getting checked in, our group enjoyed a private buffet dinner arranged by Katie Meyer. Katie has been truly magnificent in her attention to detail on this tour. The spread included a wonderful variety of items - once again, the beef stroganoff was a highlight - one of my favorites! Galena explained that Count Alexander Stroganov created the original recipe in Saint Petersburg.
After dinner we met Elena in the lobby and she wisely chose to call the customs office to confirm that someone would be there for us. No luck, she was told - closed - try tomorrow! She shared our frustration and annoyance, then we headed to our room to again wash our clothes in the sink!
April 11, 2012: Nyet!
The dining hall was packed this morning. I had called the front desk beforehand, uncertain as to whether breakfast was included, but it was! It was a nice spread, nearly comparable to a cruise buffet! I immediately threw back half a dozen cups of extremely good coffee before my brain finally kicked into gear - I'd slept fitfully, awakening several times during the night to fret about our bags. What would we do the second week of our trip if we still didn't have our stuff?
There wouldn't be time today to get out to the airport - we had a full agenda and I certainly didn't want to miss anything.
Back on the bus we spent the first 90 minutes passing from one historic site to another while Galena explained the significance of each: The institute where Dmitri Mendeleev created the periodic table of elements - on an outside wall where he worked there is a large painting of his original periodic table. Further on we passed a plaque on the building where Pavlov did his famous dog experiments. Then the apartment where Tchaikovsky lived... past the statue of Peter the Great astride his horse... the Hermitage Museum... St. Isaac's Cathedral... the Church of the Spilled Blood... Peter and Paul Fortress... original home of the Soviet KGB. What an astonishing amount of history!
We stopped for lunch at a small street just off Nevsky Prospekt, Saint Petersburg's main thoroughfare - Nevsky was a famous Russian prince... how odd - I used to work with Dave Nefsky - a distant relative perhaps? Teresa and I ate at a small pastry shop that specialized in both sweet and savory pies. We didn't know what we were ordering, so we pointed to items that looked good! My favorite was a pastry filled with ham, cheese, olives, and mushrooms; and for dessert I had a chocolate covered poppy seed roll filled with almond cream - it was sooo rich, but I forced myself to finish it!
We made our way to the outskirts of the city while Galena told us the story of the siege of Saint Petersburg which lasted 900 days, when the city was surrounded by Nazi troops and there was widespread starvation. We passed a monument dedicated to the 20+ million Soviet citizens who perished during the Second World War.
Galena told us that although the Nazis seized the outskirts of Saint Petersburg they never were able to claim the city itself. They occupied the Summer Palace built by Catherine the Great, ransacking it and setting fire to it before being pushed back.
The Palace, now fully restored to its original grandeur, is spectacular - and reminiscent of the Palace of Versailles. Galena explained the history of the palace, including its construction, emphasizing the changes made by each successive tsar. We walked the still dormant expansive grounds where the snow had only recently melted.
It was well past 4 PM when we boarded the bus for the return trip into the city in anticipation of the evening performance of Swan Lake, performed in the ballet theater of the Hermitage Museum.
We were dropped off at the enormous Palace Square adjacent to the museum and were astonished to find thousands of Russian troops massed there. As we watched this grand spectacle, a military band struck up the Russian national anthem, and every soldier stood erect facing the flag in the center of the plaza. Various formations of the army, navy and air force began to march in a circular formation around the plaza. Elena informed us that we were witnessing a rehearsal for the formal Victory Day parade in a few weeks. When you travel, it's always the unplanned and unexpected that prove to be the most memorable experiences.
We eventually made our way into the theater which was surprisingly small, with a center stage and a semicircular seating plan. Of course Teresa and I immediately scoped it out and chose the best possible seats!
The performance was superb - the costumes, the sets, the dancers - and I actually remained awake for its entirety!
Although it was 10 PM when we exited, it was just starting to get dark - Saint Petersburg is so far north! The plan was to return to the hotel via the Metro - only four stops on line #2. Elena told Teresa and I to remain on the train until we got to the connecting station for the airport bus. It was after 11:30 PM when we were dropped off at the airport terminal. We made our way to the customs office located next to the Lost & Found where they were holding our luggage. We identified our bags and showed our passports, then filled out some paperwork. Then we waited. And waited. And waited.
I was only slightly mortified when the customs agent demanded 6000 rubles to release our bags. Fortunately Elena had come prepared - she had the cash and told us to let her do the talking. So we did. (Sometimes it's hard for me to keep my mouth shut!)
We finally emerged from the airport, bags in hand, well after 1 AM. We were all exhausted when we got back to the hotel at 1:30 AM and stumbled up to our rooms, while offering Elena our grateful thanks for her help.
Addendum: Saga of the Lost Luggage
Dateline: Saint Petersburg, Russia, April 12, 2012
(Editor's Note: The following post has not been edited. Please be advised that the author is blowing off steam and may not be totally rational!)
At approximately 01:30 AM on April 12, 2012, seven days after departing California for Russia, the Roses located and claimed their missing checked luggage. Remarkably, the contents had not been ransacked and were totally intact.
There was, however, the issue of the unaccompanied baggage customs tax, courtesy of the Russian Federation, to the tune of four euro per kilogram which totaled just under 6000 Russian roubles, or approximately US $210.00 cash.
Fortunately our wonderful Russian guide, Elena Hodak, not only spent countless hours tracking down our stuff and arguing with the Russian authorities, but accompanied us to Saint Petersburg airport after midnight to negotiate the ransom for our illegally detained property!
Honestly, I thought we would never see our stuff again.
Nyet, nyet, nyet... you must pay! That the airline lost our bags and caused them to surface, unaccompanied a week later, was totally lost on the Russian bureaucracy!
We'll be sending the bill to American Airlines, I guarantee it! They can also pay for the $30 taxi ride back to the hotel. I only wish I could send them an invoice for our aggravation!
One more thought: This has been one of the most frustrating travel experiences we've ever had. But - this is the true Russia experience! And a little perspective is in order: It was not much more than twenty years ago that the Soviet Union abandoned what was likely the most dysfunctional economic system in human history!
Nevertheless, Russian has a long way to go before it will ever become a major western tourist destination!
April 12, 2012: Too many choices!
It was a short night. Decisions, decisions... what to wear! Clean underwear. Clean socks. Clean shirts.
The bus was waiting outside the hotel at 9:45 AM. As we boarded, our group almost didn't recognize us... they were especially startled to see how cute Teresa was with nice clothes, good hair and a little make-up!
On the agenda for today: the Hermitage Museum, one of the greatest in the world. We've been to the Smithsonian, the British Museum, the Louvre, the Prado... but this museum... what can you say? It was the most astonishing collection! Galena guided us and focused mainly on Russian history and historical artifacts from the tsars through to the revolution, although we did spent a substantial amount of time viewing the French Impressionist collection.
The afternoon was free, so Teresa and I made our way back to Nevsky Prospekt for lunch, stopping at the "potato" restaurant for a quick bite. (Ask her about the potato restaurant if you want to know more!)
Our next stop was the Church of the Savior, more commonly known as the Church of the Spilled Blood. Now I've seen a lot of churches and cathedrals - I'm somewhat jaded when it comes to churches, but this cathedral has got to be one of the most spectacular I've ever seen, with its painted exterior of multi-colored spires, and the elaborate colorful mosaics that cover virtually every square inch of the interior.
There was a cluster of souvenir stands just across from the church so we wandered through... lots of nesting dolls in various configurations... world leaders, saints, angels, rock stars, etc. "Tschotkes" is what Katie Mayer calls this stuff! Icons of Madonna, Jesus, a variety of saints. Innumerable carved Santa figurines. Giant ceramic mugs. (I love giant ceramic mugs so I bought one with an image of Peter the Great on his horse!)
We returned to Nevsky Prospekt and checked out a few buildings we'd passed earlier. The Singer Sewing Machine Factory, now a bookstore; a high end grocery market; the Grand Hotel Europe; and block after block of brightly colored pastel buildings. We decided to walk back to the hotel by following Nevsky Prospekt for well over an hour until we reached the Neva River. No hotel in sight. Should be around here somewhere!
We stopped a passerby, showed him our hotel card, "Nyet. Far. Take the Metro!" We stopped another passerby, showed her our hotel card, "Nyet. Far. Take the Metro!"
Hmm... maybe we should take the Metro! We entered a nearby station. Line 4. We checked the map. OMG! We had walked more than three miles in the opposite direction! Doh! We passed nine stations and changed lines before finally emerging at Moscow Gate in front of our hotel. Our feet ached and we were beat, but we quickly ducked into a supermarket next to the hotel and bought two half liters of Russian beer, then plopped down in the hotel lobby to unwind and avail ourselves of the free wi-fi.
After hanging out for nearly two hours we stumbled next door to a small pizza and spaghetti parlor where we encountered several other members of our group munching on pizza and quaffing Russian ale. We invited ourselves to their table and joined in, downing even more beer and chowing down on some fairly decent Russian pizza!
It was after 11 PM when we made it back up to our room, totally wiped out. We were sawing logs before our heads even hit our pillows!
April 13, 2012: pizza and borscht.
What time is it, I wondered as I peeked out from under my pillow to catch the gaze of my sweet wife who was staring at me with one eye open. Wow - my first good night's sleep - no luggage to worry about!
For the third day in a row the sun was shining and the sky was blue! Breakfast, then back on the bus. Off to see Hare Island upon which stands the Peter and Paul Fortress with its narrow golden spire reflecting off the surface of the Neva River. We studied the river closely, surprised to see that it was full of ice floes - this was the day that the frozen river upstream had suddenly thawed and broken up, sending huge chunks of ice to the sea. What a sight - the reflection in the water of the golden spire interspersed with ice fragments!
Within the fortress, inside the cathedral, Galena showed us the tombs of the tsars including Peter the Great and his wife Catherine, as well as that of their daughter Tsarina Elizabeth. In a separate chapel off to the side we also viewed a memorial to Tsar Nicholas, Russia's last tsar, and his family, all murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, their remains only recently interred here.
There was an interesting little gift shop selling illustrated books of Russian fairy tales (in various languages) - quite unique I thought, so I bought a copy.
In the afternoon we toured the Cathedral of St. Isaac, built by Peter the Great (who else?) Impressive no doubt, but my reservoir of shock and awe was starting to run low.
I had seen a young man outside the Hermitage Museum the other night selling vibrant water color drawings of various iconic sights, so we asked to be dropped off by the square so I could look for him. He'd had an especially impressive image of the Church of the Resurrection that I decided I wanted. Teresa thought it was unlikely that we'd find him and I had to agree - it seemed like a long shot.
But - there he was! Same young man! After a quick negotiation I procured two drawings, the other being Catherine's Summer Palace. I hope we can find a good place to hang them after they've been framed.
We were surprised once again to find that troops were assembling for another rehearsal, so we settled in on the sidelines to watch. For nearly 45 minutes we observed as the rows of regiments were reviewed by what appeared to be senior ranking officers, then marched in formation around the perimeter of the plaza. It was cool to see, even the second time around and this time I was able to capture much of it on video. (I'll upload it to YouTube and provide a link later on.)
We did some last minute shopping although we really didn't find much of interest, then headed back to the hotel via the Metro. We knocked on the door of Katie Mayer's hotel room and lo and behold there she was, so we spent the next hour or so reviewing the events of this past week and discussed future travel plans both hers and ours. Katie has another tour in June, this one to the Baltic states.
Once again we joined several members of our group at the pizza joint next door. I ordered a large bowl of borsht with sour cream, apparently a house specialty. Only in Russia: pizza and borscht!
April 14, 2012: From the Kremlin to the Vatican
In anticipation of losing our luggage again - (once burned twice shy!) - we shuffled our possessions between bags so that most of what we'd need in Italy was in our carry-ons. We gathered down in the hotel lobby with the rest of the group then boarded the bus to the airport.
We had an earlier flight than the others so we bade our farewells then headed for our check-in counter. We watched apprehensively as our tagged luggage rolled down the conveyor belt and disappeared into the bowels of the system.
A few hours later we were back at the scene of the crime: Luxembourg Airport.
Loitering by the baggage claim, I heaved a huge sigh of relief when our two bags abruptly popped up and out onto the belt!
Less than thirty minutes later we were checked into our hotel: "Oh, no passports... we know you!" Our second stay here and we are already old friends!
Two half liters of Bofferding. Free wi-fi. Buffet dinner. Ahh... the good life!
April 15, 2012: Agriturismo?
An early flight on Luxair had us in Munich by 8:45 AM then it was on to Rome via Lufthansa.
We took the Leonardi Express train from the airport to the train station, a half hour ride, then searched for our G Adventures meeting point:
Make your way to the GUSTO self-service restaurant in Termini station. This self-service restaurant is on the ground floor, towards the Via Marsala (Platform 1) end of the concourse, and is next to the United Colours of Benetton shop. Make your way through the restaurant, past the tills to the tables at the back, and look for your G Adventures leader who will be wearing a G Adventures Core Value T-shirt. There will also be a G logo sign displayed on the table.
We walked through the GUSTO restaurant but didn't see anyone matching the description provided. It was only 1 PM so we decided to have lunch there while we waited for someone to show.
Not long after, Teresa spotted a couple of women who she thought looked like they might be in our group, so she approached them - she was right! We joined them and a few minutes later we spotted our group leader, Cinzia Caggianese. By 2:15 PM all the group participants had identified themselves, so Cinzia gave us all a brief orientation. We'd be taking the train to Chiusi at 3:15 PM arriving about 5 PM, then we'd be driven to the town of Chianciano Terme, about a twenty minute ride.
We arrived at the Agriturismo La Pietriccia and met the owner Stefano Mazzetti, a genial Italian who explained that he tried to operate La Pietriccia as a self-supporting, combined winery, vineyard, restaurant and bed and breakfast. He also explained that most of the food and wine he served was grown on site, and that he was a stong partisan of the slow food movement.
We were shown to our room - we counted six rooms total - ours had an outside terrace overlooking the vineyard. We returned to the dining room at 8 PM where Cingia reviewed our itinerary for the next few days. We were then served the most delicious five course meal prepared by Stefano ("I am also the chef!"), including a meat entrée that combined pork and baby goat.
April 16, 2012: Chianciano Termi
Stefano told us that breakfast would be available from 8:30 AM to 10:30 AM so we slept late and got to the dining room around 9:15 - it was a light spread with cappuccino, croissants, cereal, yogurt and assorted pastries.
Cinzia had planned on a day hike but after a heavy overnight rain the route was too wet and muddy. It was still overcast and threatening more rain so she made arrangements for wine tasting instead in the afternoon and we headed off into town on our own, by foot.
The town of Chianciano Termi is small and we walked its entirety in less than two hours including a brief stop at a supermarket. Most of the shops were closed - some sort of holiday perhaps? We returned to our room by 1:30 PM and rested before rejoining the group and heading for the winery about a mile down the road.
Riccardo Rosati, the owner of the winery Agricola Fontanelle, together with his two brothers Leonardo and Valerio, described how the winery had been in the family for several generations, and was started by his great-grandfather.
Over the course of about three hours we tasted more than half a dozen red wines and savored the differences with fresh crusty bread, salami and prosciutto. It was after 6 PM when we bade our farewells, having purchased a large stick of dry salami and two bottles of excellent vintage 2007 red wine.
We barely had time to sober up before dinner at 8 PM when we were presented with another magnificent meal prepared by Stefano, including an appetizer plate with both soft pecorino and hard pecorino cheese (made from ewe's milk) with honey, walnuts and balsamic vinegar. The entrée was sliced beefsteak served with the house wine from Stefano's vineyard, and dessert was profiterole cream puffs.
April 17, 2012: Tour de Tuscany
I never caught the name of our cycling tour leader - he materialized around 9 AM looking as if he had just completed the Tour de France, and produced a dozen really nice, nearly new racing bikes. He adjusted each bike individually and selected helmets for each of us, then explained we would be cycling to the walled hill town of Montepulciano, about twenty kilometers away.
Fortunately the sun was shining as we energetically rode off into the nearby hills via a twisty but paved road. At first there was no grade so we coasted along comfortably, but the slope gradually increased and before long we were huffing and puffing. I geared down as much as I could but it felt as if my legs were spinning in circles while I seemed to be going nowhere. I finally gave up and walked the bike but was soon joined by several others. We finally crested the hill and remounted, then went flying back downhill.
Our leader took us off the main road and onto a gravel path and once again we were forced to labor uphill. Before long my legs felt like they were on fire! We struggled along our hilly route - at first I thought it was just me who was out of shape but it soon became obvious that the level of difficulty for the group had been significantly underestimated.
We finally arrived at the outskirts of Montepulciano and stopped at the Tempio di San Biagio, a somewhat austere cathedral completed in 1529. We then entered the walled fortress town and ascended to its highest elevation, the Piazza Grande, a central square that faces the Palazzio Communale, the town hall, and the adjacent Duomo, another cathedral. While pacing the square I imagined the filming of the Twilight movie New Moon. Nope - no vampires although it was still daylight!
We had a light lunch at a small sidewalk café adjoining the square, then made our way back to the main road and eventually to Chianciano Termi. It was a tough ride and I think it's safe to say most everyone was exhausted.
We reconvened for our scheduled cooking class at 4:30 PM under the tutelage of Chef Stefano. He demonstrated the preparation of spaghetti pasta by hand, followed by a sausage making lesson using a mechanical grinder that compressed pork and onions into a sausage casing. "I prepared it myself from the pig's intestines!" he proudly exclaimed.
We peeled and mashed potatoes then mixed them with cheese, flour and salt, and after rolling and dicing we had a large platter of gnocchi. Lastly, we mixed ricotta cheese and placed it in a crust for a dessert pie.
Stefano took over from here, sending us to our rooms to rest and clean up, and when we returned an hour later he had turned our culinary-challenged conglomeration into an eye-catching and moderately tasty meal!
April 18, 2012: a private tour
Today was a free day and some in our group chose to head to Florence or Sienna, but we've been to both and couldn't see any reason to return. We discussed Cortona since it's a central location in the book Under the Tuscan Sun, but getting there required an eighty euro taxi ride, way too much - no direct bus service - and Cinzia described it as just another small town among many in the area.
We thought we might go hiking so we asked Stefano and he suggested a walk to the spa resort of Bagno Vignoni, a popular tourist venue about 12 km away. He was also planning on driving over to the town of Montepulciano (where we'd cycled to yesterday) and asked if we wanted to go back and have a closer look - we really hadn't had much time yesterday.
At first we declined but Stefano seemed to be full of ideas for spending the morning so we agreed to join him - he was quite enthusiastic about personally showing us around the area. We were joined by Marci and Rachael, two young women from our group. He drove us through the back country way off the beaten track and we got to see some of the most beautiful scenery - although we didn't have a clue where we were. He stopped in the tiny hill town of Castiglioncello del Trinova - only two families still live there but it's full of tourists in summer - the town dates back to 1117 and is an active archaeological site. Stefano has a friend there who owns a restaurant and he served us refreshments on the terrace. We were served glasses of grape juice - local, no additives - dark purple and a syrupy texture - it was the most delicious juice we'd ever tasted!
We then drove with Stefano to a nearby lake where he and his friends used to hang out and swim as teenagers - they would scrape mud from the lake bottom and plaster it on themselves just like at the nearby spa! We drove to the hot springs at Bagno Vignoni where Stefano soaked his bare feet in the thermally heated stream and he showed us the adjacent spa. Finally he dropped us off at Montepulciano around 1:30 PM and we explored the town more fully, having a late lunch before catching a bus back to Chianciano Termi.
Unfortunately for us, just as we got off the bus there was a sudden cloudburst and by the time we had walked the one kilometer back to the B & B we were drenched. After hanging our wet clothing to dry and cranking up the radiator we stayed indoors for the rest of the afternoon.
Around 8 PM the rain let up so we ventured out, walking about 3 kilometers into the center of town to look for a place to eat. We searched everywhere and finally found a trattoria that was open - no surprise, others from our group were already eating there - it seemed to be the only open restaurant in town! Fortunately it had the two items essential for our well-being: red wine and cold beer!
April 19, 2012: Sucking air!
We met Stefano at 10 AM for a tour of his farm. He spoke eloquently of his goal of using as much locally grown produce as possible in his restaurant, much of it from his own farm. We'd already seen his vineyard from our terrace, and so we followed him about a kilometer down the road to his olive orchard. He explained that producing olive oil was an extremely labor intensive process and that each tree only produced about one liter of oil, probably no more than 600 to 700 liters total each season. He also explained that most of the olive oil in grocery stores came from megafarms selling it for less than five euros per liter - and that he could not possibly compete as his cost of production was more than ten euros per liter.
He led us to another farm nearby where most of the local olive growers deliver their olive harvest for processing into oil. It's a local operation with a huge olive press, and Stefano contributes part of his crop in exchange for having his olives pressed there.
In the afternoon we made our way back into town and decided to revisit the trattoria where we'd eaten last night. I had a platter of spaghetti that was very different from any I've had before - very thick noodles, and the sauce had large chunks of tomatoes mixed in. Very tasty! We braved another sudden downpour on our way back but managed to avoid getting soaked by ducking into a local supermarket.
We met again with Stefano at 6:30 PM for a tour of his winemaking and food storage cellar. He said he can produce as many as 15,000 bottles of red wine each season, and also cans as much as possible of his own fruit and vegetables for use in the restaurant. Lining the cellar walls were row upon row of canned fruits and vegetables as well as juices and preserves, not to mention hundreds of bottles of wine dating back to 2005.
Returning to the dining room we experienced an olive oil tasting session, sampling four different qualities of oil - first swirling the oil in our mouths then deeply sucking in air to expose the flavors and to appreciate the various levels of acidity of the various oils. Stefano pointed out the differences between the cheaper, lower quality oils and the more expensive higher quality products. He complained that "people have no trouble drinking a $25 bottle of wine in only 30 minutes but complain over having to pay $25 for a bottle of olive oil that last two months or more
Dinner was notable this evening for two dishes: one, a pasta dish with mushrooms that had an earthy flavor; the other, a delicious liver pate on bread crust.
April 20, 2012: Under the Tuscan Rain
Early this morning, two minivans arrived to take us on a day trip to explore local Tuscan towns and other unusual sites. Our first stop was the Abbey of Sant' Antino - Cinzia had hoped we could experience the chanting of the Benedictine monks during prayer, but we were disappointed to find that the next service would not be until later in the afternoon. We wandered through the abbey, built around 1100 - and viewed the adjoining rectory where the monks showcased a beautiful flower garden against the backdrop of another distant hill town.
Next was the town of Montalcino, another hill town - Cinzia explained to us that all of the Tuscan villages were built on hilltops so that the inhabitants could spot potential invaders at a distance - each town was essentially a walled fortress with heavily reinforced entry gates. There was also a fortress that towered above the town, the Spalti Fortrezza, consisting of a main building, four towers, and an elevated catwalk surrounding a central enclosure. While Teresa chose to stay below, I climbed up to the tower (accompanied by Marci) to take in the magnificent views of the surrounding countryside.
Just as we were rejoining the group below, a sudden storm blew in and we began to be pelted with torrential sheets of rain. We huddled just inside the courtyard hoping for it to pass, but with no end in sight we finally forged ahead (with umbrellas hoisted) into the town center and nearby market. It was a quaint little town with narrow, twisting cobblestone streets lined with shops, but the open-air market wasn't much compared to others we've seen. The rain abated for a short time but then the deluge resumed, so we finally made a beeline for the minivans.
We stopped at Bagno Vignoni for lunch, the same place we'd been to with Stefano - Teresa and I were glad we'd been able to experience it when the weather had been agreeable! The small restaurant adjacent to the thermal pool was quite authentic - sort of cave-like, and an interior lined with ancient brick - it certainly seemed authentic. The menu was pretty typical except for the piccione, baked pigeon, which I ordered. It was served on an olive oil-drenched toasted bread crust seasoned with tangy spices, and was tasty though not very filling - really only a few bites of dark meat - not too gamey - kind of like turkey!
The rain had not let up when we emerged an hour later and about half the group chose to head back - fortunately we had two cars at our disposal. Teresa and I and several others forged ahead - we really wanted to visit Pienza, home of Pope Pius II (elected in 1458), but better known for its trove of pecorino cheeses! We saw that part of the movie The English Patient was filmed here - supposedly Pienza has the appearance of a Hollywood-imagined quintessential Italian town. (Older readers may remember Franco Zefirelli's Romeo and Juliet which was also filmed here in 1968.) I must admit - the town really had the feel of a massive Hollywood movie set!
When we emerged from our vehicle, lo and behold... the rain suddenly stopped and the sun emerged! We walked the length of the main street, Corsa Rosselino, which was lined with wine and cheese shops, and ended up buying two large cheese rounds - one, a soft (new) peccorini, and the other, a hard (aged) peccorini.
In all, it was a challenging day - the cold and rain had worn us down, so after returning we rested in our room. While relaxing I took the opportunity to review our travel plans for tomorrow - back to Rome then Luxembourg! Hard to believe this adventure is nearly over!
Later in the evening we gathered for our farewell dinner and Stefano broke open a bottle of Chianti that he had specially selected for the occasion. He aerated it before decanting it into wine glasses then warmed it slightly before serving it. It was a festive dinner with abundant wine and good food, and many photos were taken as email addresses were exchanged.
April 21, 2012: Kiss Me!
The downside of staying in one location for nearly a week is that you have the opportunity to spread everything you own all over your room, so getting it all back together becomes a major logistical challenge, especially with the addition of two bottles of wine, two liters of olive oil and two two inch thick cheese rounds weighing four pounds each and measuring six inches in diameter.
But somehow we did it and at 9 AM we were out front waiting for our ride to the train station. It was tough saying goodbye to Stefano - truly this week could not have been what it was without his larger-than-life presence and his endless supply of geniality and generosity.
Jennifer, a young Amerasian woman from Baltimore currently living near Darwin in the Australian Outback, was the first to head off after a quick round of hugs. But there was still time for a last minute round of gelato for all - luckily there was a stand at the station!
Teresa and I were the next to depart, accompanied by Corina, a thirtysomething young mom from Albany (NY); and Rachael, a twentysomething from Sydney. We thanked Cinzia and said goodbye to Wendy and Sean, a couple (about our age) from San Diego; Margaret, an older traveler from New Zealand; and of course, Marci, our 26 year old Rose family clone who promised to come visit us in California.
It was a quick train ride to Rome and before we knew it we were exchanging hugs with Corina and Rachael and then we were on our own again!
It was getting late when we arrived in Luxembourg but we made it to our hotel quickly - third time's a charm! A tall rabbit dressed in pink wearing a sign saying Kiss Me! greeted us at the door as we encountered the "tail" end of what looked like an insurance salesmen's convention. (They were all wearing short sleeve white dress shirts with ties, except for the ones dressed as pink rabbits!) It looked like a lot of fun - they were all drinking and laughing and singing loudly! We would probably have fit right in but unfortunately no one saw fit to invite us to the party! :-(
Tomorrow morning it's back to the airport, destination LAX, then home!
Some Final Thoughts
May 5, 2012
We spent a week in Russia.
Frankly, I believe it's a tough place to live (for its citizens), and an especially tough place to visit (for tourists). But the question is, is it worth it?
There are certainly easier and more beautiful places to tour - Italy immediately comes to mind - it is still the number one travel destination (understandably), but what we experienced in Russia, despite our baggage travails, was pretty darn amazing. I don't think I've ever seen anything remotely comparable to Russia's colorful cathedrals - St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, and the Cathedral of the Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg. And the Hermitage Museum was easily the equal of the Louvre or the Prado!
So yes, it was worth it! But - I would never attempt to travel here on my own. The logistics are a major obstacle - simply getting a travel visa is a daunting challenge. Without the benefit of an experienced tour operator (such as Meyer Travel Group), Russia could easily become a nightmare! For example, I don't know how we would ever have retrieved our luggage without an experienced guide at our side.
I've always maintained that the most memorable events when traveling are those that occur unexpectedly. For example, stumbling across the Saint Petersburg Victory Day parade rehearsal by the Russian military was a genuine eye opener. I recall watching similar parades on television when Russia was the Soviet Union and the chills I got seeing row after row of marching troops followed by those enormous fearsome missiles!
Most importantly, we did not encounter censorship! That's not to say it doesn't exist - I don't really know for sure. BUT: We never had difficulty accessing the Internet anywhere - Google, Facebook... there was no indication that we were being blocked from accessing whatever we wanted. I don't want to sound naive, but compared to China, where Facebook was essentially unattainable and I couldn't even access my own website (yes, I know, I'm so subversive!), there seemed to be a lot of transparency and no one seemed to be looking over their shoulders!
I have several video clips of the military rehearsals... each is only about a minute long. I'll upload several of them to YouTube and link them here. You can click below to see them.