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And…. it’s a wrap – by David

It’s 4am and we’re all awake, with jet-lag headaches.  Time to do laundry, open the mail, pay the bills, clean up 5 weeks of email, her haircuts, start the summer reading packets for high school, and just generally dive into life.

All in all, the trip was a nice success.  Chalk up one more year that lots of careful planning and preparing for the worst, resulted in nothing bad happening.  Every apartment and tour guide and train/bus/plane between cities and all that, worked out as hoped.  The only sucky thing was Anna, and then Renee, getting sick….  but who knows how many other exotic germs we picked up and fought off.  Well, that plus losing one credit card, but since that’s happened before, we were well prepared and it wasn’t painful.

When we’re on the go we only really have bandwidth to think about what we did today and what we’re planning to do tomorrow; but now that we’re home it’s already fun to look back through all the blogs from the early part of the trip and remember “oh yeah, we did that in Copenhagen, that was fun… ”   That’s why we bother with this blogging… for all of our loyal followers, of course, but also for us… next month and next year.

Sometimes I do lots of statistics in the last blog post but I’ll just do one this time:  we walked 523,591 steps…   1,047,000 feet, or just about 200 miles.    And our knees and ankles survived it!

Bye for now… hope to see you again next year on this channel.




Last Day!   – by Renee

Today was our final day of touring in Moscow… tomorrow morning we head for home.

We took a car trip out of town to Sergiev Posad, one of the “golden ring” monastery towns around Moscow. They are all close enough to ride in a few days, but far enough for the Tsars to banish their “ex”-wives, or hide from coup plotters.  There are many nunneries and monasteries in this 700-year old town, including St Sergius, which is the most important monastery in the Eastern Orthodox religion, and has at least 9 distinct churches within its walls, one of which is the most revered church in the entire country…. the bones of St. Sergius are in a 400kg gold cabinet ordered up by Ivan the Terrible.  Every good member of the religion tries to make a pilgrimage here at least once in their life.

(But first we saw this very pretty convent which, like most others, was a storage area during Soviet times but has been renovated)


It seems that every citizen of China tries to make a pilgrimage here too, in a big bus, with the goal of taking lots of photos.  

But despite the crowds, we had an amazing visit. 

The monks in the monastery look exactly like they would have 700 years ago…. with the addition of a phone up to their ear!  They used to announce dinner time with bells, but now there’s an app for that!

We had perfect weather, beautiful grounds and churches, and a few other interesting stops along the way.
First stop was a house/museum filled with tools, furniture, toys, and clothing that a Russian farmer and his family would have used.  We saw how they made thread, washed clothes and learned that Russian beds were very short because they felt that only the dead should lay down (and if you laid flat your blood would not flow) they slept sitting up!  

The kids were amused, as the man who lives in this house let them feed his pet squirrels 

We also visited a artist studio where matryoshka dolls are made… and saw the process from wood block to final painting.  

This lathe was used by the grandfather of the man who runs the studio today.

Many are of course mass produced, but they are definitely respected as an art form.  I bought a Santa Claus which is one of a kind.

We had a traditional Russian cafe lunch (stroganoff  and dumplings) and took some silly photos.

We met our friend Olga’s father today. It was very nice of Andrei to come to our hotel to meet us.

Tonight we went back to the RYM (GUM department store for our last ice cream.  In a throwback to the Soviet times, yesterday they had 8 flavors…today they had vanilla.  

A few more thoughts from Moscow:

– Moscow traffic is terrible.  Tomorrow we are leaving for the airport at 7am (flight at 11) because if you leave central Moscow after 7 it can take 1.5-2 hours to get to the airport 

– Central Moscow is in the middle of a huge public works upgrade to get ready for hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2018.  Every sidewalk in town is ripped up, roads are closed, lanes are closed… it will be really nice when it is done, but it’s no fun right now trying to move around town.

– David and I agree that there are at least 5 museums that we would like to have visited but didn’t have time, so there’s plenty to do for our next trip to Moscow.

– There has clearly never been a “Russians with Disabilities Act”….  this city (and especially the Metro) would be horrible to navigate in a wheelchair.

– They are 50 years behind the US in designing for fire safety…. we were shocked by the number of exit doors that were chained shut, and also that opened inward with no sign of panic bars or such.

– GUM does have the coolest iron arch and glass roof we’ve seen

Tomorrow we are up early for a long (20 hour) day to get home….poor Aunt Ginny isn’t on the direct flight from Helsinki, and it will take her 25 hours to get home.  See you on the flip side for one last post!

Boxing Day (By Alex)

Last night, there was a boxing match in the Red Square. There were lots of flashy lights.

The GUM also looked very pretty at night (almost Main Street U.S.A-ish).

Today, we did a driving tour of Moscow with a guide.  Our first stop was a statue in a garden, of the sins that adults put upon children.  It was very strange.

It was interesting seeing their representation of concepts in real life. The most interesting was war. Look closer at the grenade.

I bet that the Disney corporation would love that Mickey has been added to a grenade in Russia.

Our next stop was the bridge with love locks. I was glad that they had ‘trees’ instead of being directly on the bridge.

However, I still do not understand the purpose of love locks. They tend to be symbolic, but they seem unnecessary and a waste of money. They also theoretically could be considered vandalism.

The bridge also had a flower heart that could get the award for tackiest thing in the world (even passing the Weird Al song that is called ‘Tacky.’). I guess people get wedding photos taken here.  

Our next stop was the Church of Christ the Savior… the home cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church.  This was originally built to honor the people who died as a result of the War of 1812 (NOT the American one, the Russian and French one).

There were lots of creepy street hawkers dressed in furry character outfits outside who were caressing and stroking the hair of tourists (it was as weird as it sounds). They then ask for $20 USD for hugging you, more if you take a photo. However, they can not enforce this, as it is illegal to do this. Anna almost got caressed, but Aunt Ginny pulled her away.  This really bugs me.. why do they do this?

The inside of the church was very pretty. It was incredibly ornate. We were there during a mass, and again ran into a guy from Walnut Creek who we met at the show that we were at yesterday. It was surprising at how empty the head church of the Orthodox Religion was. Our tour guide estimates that 5% or less (maybe even less than 1%) of Russians actively go to a sermon for their religion on a regular basis.

After that, we went to a very prestigious graveyard. Many famous Soviets are buried there, including Gorbachev’s wife. Andrei Tupolev (founder of the Tupolev aircraft company) is also buried there. I will now include some photos from the graveyard.
This is Tupolev

This is Stalin’s wife… she committed suicide but he went to see her grave every day.

One person that we found that reminded us of Uncle John is John Beaver Marks, a former member of the South African Communist Party.

Boris Yeltsin also is buried here.

Our second to last stop was the Moscow Victory Square. It had a cool, thin, and tall (but not particularly structurally sound) obelisk.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped by the Russian White House, the house of the Russian Government. It is incredibly pretty.  This is the place where Yeltsin gave a speech on the top of a tank, to stop a coup

The place where we stopped was very close to the Ukraine Hotel (now a Radisson). The Radisson had a diorama of Soviet Moscow. It was interesting seeing what has changed since then, and what has not.

After lunch, we got ice cream at GUM that uses the same recipe as the Soviet times. 

We got caramel, vanilla, strachiatella, and strawberry. I liked the vanilla the best, and strawberry a close second. All of them had a weird taste, due to the strictness of the Soviet laws regarding ice cream. (Note from Renee:  the way you get ice cream here is it comes in the cone from the factory.   No double scoops they just hand you a cone .   Price was great at about $.80 per cone)

To finish off our day, we saw the inside of the St. Basil Cathedral.There are small ‘churches’ under each dome. As a result, it felt like a reverse Tardis. Massive on the outside, tiny on the inside.

I did not like the inside, especially since each ‘church’ had only 2/3 of the room able to be walked in for religious reasons (1/3 is blocked off).

We have an early morning tomorrow, so we are going to bed now. This is what we did today.

Kremlin Intrigue – by Renee

Today, our first full day in Moscow, we went on a 4hour tour of the Kremlin.  I have to say it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. There were government buildings from the horrid Soviet architure to some dating back to the 12th century…but what surprised me were the number of churches.  The entire complex is 69 acres….and there are at least 10 churches.  All left over from the days of the Russian Tsars, but surprisingly the Commrads didn’t destroy them.  

There are a bunch (like dozens) of canons captured from when the Russians beat Napolean.  The worlds biggest bell (cracked, and has never rung) and the worlds largest canon (also never fired).

Unfortunately when we ventured inside the Amory and churches, no photos allowed. We saw the tombs of almost every single Russian ruler, an amazing collection of carriages and sleighs (some of which belonged to Catherine the Great), an interesting selection of stuff….Catherine the Great’s wedding dress (she came at age 13 to be married and apparently the 17 inch waist was a bit aggressive even for her ….she fainted twice during the ceremony)…and a full range of jewel encrusted books, crowns, thrones and other such stuff.  Luckily for the kids our guide Svetlana only showed us the highlights….you could have spent a full week in just the Amory.

This evening we attended a Russian Folk Dancing Show….really amazing, esp the male dancers.  The girl dancers were also good (I’m sure) but their parts were slow and (a little) boring.   We decided that this show was much more interesting that the ballet (which Aunt Ginny suggested).

By the way, Moscow is a really great city.  Clean, quite (no horns honking) and safe.  It’s “white nights” and people are on the streets quite late at cafe’s and just strolling around.  We are being careful (of course) but honestly it feels safer than NYC.

The GUM department store at night. Does it remind you of Main Street USA?

Since David didn’t have any photos with PEOPLE in them yesterday, I’m going to give you a bunch. of photos that I took when we arrived….

Giant poppy….part of a small festival happening right in front of our hotel.  

Anna teaching Aunt Ginny how to take a selfie.  

Street scene.   

One of Stalins 7 wedding cake/buildings.  

Bob’s Big Boy in front of the Hollywood Diner

Yoda made out of Lego.  Not sure why.

View from my window here at the Metropol hotel.

Russian Craft Market

Hunting for Red October – by David

We had a de-lovely train ride to Moscow, we’re settled in to a famous old deluxe hotel right near the Kremlin/Red Square, and we went out for our initial “adventuring” of the area.    

We headed toward getting delectable treats at the Red October Chocolate Factory, but it was too far to walk reasonably. So we made do with …..

Krispy Kreme!  They were delicious!

(Depressingly, all the photos of us posing in front of the main sights are on Renees phone and she’s asleep.  We’ll post them tomorrow)

Of course we saw St Basil’s Cathedral … the main sight. Virginia has wanted to stand on this spot for her entire life, and she was delirious with joy to do it.  We’re honored to be able to share the experience with her. Many pictures were taken.  We’ll go inside later.

Here’s the Kremlin…. we have a tour in the morning.

We walked through he famous GUM department store

We had a dilemma on where to go for dinner, but we discovered we’re only a few blocks from the #1 rated restaurant in the entire city, out of 13,799 restaurants!  So how could we pass it up?  They serve “pelmeni” stuffed dumplings, which you can either think of as Russian ravioli or Russian pot stickers.  They were delightful and we may have to go back.

It’s late and we’ve reached the de-limit of our blogging ability.  Good night!
Some tidbits:

More spilled blood…. this is the spot where Putin critic Boris Nemtsov was murdered last year

Long black Mercedes’, BMWs, Maybachs and such are the vehicle of choice in the fancy neighborhood….   here are 8 at one time in front of the Hyatt.  You’ve probably paid for them with the ransom you’ve paid to Russian hackers.

Omigod, they’re multiplying!!!!

Don’t cry over spilled blood – by David

OK, the title is a little harsh, but sometimes you just have to let the puns fall where they fall.

We got in line early to go in the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood…  the church that is on the cover of every single St. Petersburg tour book.  

To understand it, you need to dive into Russian history… which teaches you that everything in Russia has layers of complexity just like the stacking dolls. So…..

<begin history lesson>

Right around the time of Abe Lincoln, Tsar Alexander II “The Liberator” was a very liberal guy on civil rights, doing lots of good things like empowering courts, creating local government councils, etc.  He was for a while very popular with the serfs because he signed a proclamation ending their slavery. (He wasn’t so popular with the barons, because they lost their slaves, and also their sons now had to be drafted into military service for the first time).  But it’s not that easy…  although he did land reform, the serfs had to pay the barons for the land, and they didn’t have much money, so they had to borrow from the barons, so they owed their soul to the company store and had to work the barons’ remaining land to earn the money, so they didn’t have time to work their own land. So there was a big famine, and resentment built up because the serfs really wanted to be given the land, not to pay for it, and besides, the acreage they were allowed to buy wasn’t enough to farm profitably.    So opening the door to their freedom just engendered more resentment, and radicals started trying to assassinate the Tsar.  He survived a few times, but they finally hit their target with a bomb.    His son became Tsar and, not wanting to be assassinated himself, pushed back hard against the radicals, and also rolled back many of the reforms.  Which just annoyed the people more, which built up over time into the revolution(s) and the overthrow of the last Tsar, Alexander’s grandson.

</end history lesson>

So, here’s a guy who tried hard to do all the right things, but unintended consequences just sent things down a different path.  No good deed goes unpunished.

But he did get a big church.  This church was built on the site of his assassination to honor him, and the cobblestones on which his blood was spilled are still there under a special altar.   Thus the very unusual name of the church.

Today we saw the interior…. 7,500 square meters of mosaic.  Pretty wild… 


One tour book said “Why go to St Petersburg and see Italian artists in the Hermitage museum?  If you’re going to go to Russia you should see Russian artists.” So we actually, intentionally went to an art museum to see the art!  Not quite first time ever on our trips, but close.   And…. it was pretty good.  The audio guides were very informative but not overly-detailed, and we pretty much just picked the one painting in each gallery that was most eye-catching and learned all about it.  So we saw a lot of interesting Russian art over 600 years and learned a lot.   Anna and Alex both took a lot of art classes in middle school, so they had some context for understanding the skills of the painters and improvement over the years

They liked doing really big paintings with many characters and lots of complicated and subtle themes

Sadly, we still couldn’t do a boat tour because the water level was too high. So we went to a famous donut shop that’s been making the same donuts on the same equipment (and it looked like the same donut-making ladies) since the 1930s.   About half of our 40,000 friends were in line for donuts.

And we found a very cool open air street market with lots of people selling lots of stuff and hardly any tourists.  Fun to walk through.

So… that’s all for St Petersburg.  In 4 days we saw 14 of the top 16 sights-to-see, plus a whole bunch of other stuff.   On the train tomorrow to Moscow, and home on Tuesday!

Some PS’s:

– We’re amused that just about EVERY mid-20s female (is it OK to call them “girls”?) wears the exact same outfit… black or blue jeans, Nikes or Adidas, long white shirt untucked, and very short leather or leatherette jacket.  Anna may bring this “look” to Woodside High School.

– Stacking dolls!

– More stacking dolls!  From Peter the Great to …. Angela Merkel?????

– Baskinh Robbhhc

Peterhof Palace – by Renee

OK…speaking as someone who has seen a few palaces, the “Peterhof” Summer Palace is by far the best.  (David agrees)

This is the front of the palace from land….Anna got a cool photo of two Russian military planes flying over.

The main focus of the grounds are more than 150 fountains.  The interesting thing is that they are all powered by water piped from the mountains miles from the Palace, so they don’t have to pump the water, the royal engineers just figured out how to let gravity do all the work and varying the size of the nozzles as needed.

Pretty impressive… apparently Peter the Great had visited that “other” palace, Versailles, and was unimpressed that the fountains could only run for a short time before they had to pump more water by hand.  His goal, nicely realized, was a lot of fountains that run continuously from 10am-11pm as long as it’s not freezing outside.

The grounds are mostly trees and grass (don’t even THINK about stepping on the grass — it is NOT allowed .  They are very particular because their short growing season makes it a challenge to even have grass.)

The interior of the Palace has a lot of gold, but again less, and done more tastefully, than the French.  Apparently Catherine the Great was not a big fan of gold, so many of the rooms were beautifully decorated in greens, reds, blues, and even Chinese black lacquer .  This was a big hit with Anna who doesn’t like too much gold! (Sorry, no photography allowed inside)

The Nazis really wrecked the Palace when they occupied this area — hauling off artwork and statues, destroying as much as they could.  Thousands of trees were destroyed, the foundations were broken apart, and much of the Palace was severely damaged.  As soon as the war ended, repairing the Peterhof was at the top of the list and work started immediately.  We did see some photos of some of the statues being buried in a deep pit before the Nazi invasion, protecting them.  Also some of the artwork and even the carved wooden paneling of Peter the Great’s office was stored under St. Issacs Church and survived the war.

After a tour through the Palace and all round the grounds (which are bordered by the Bay of Finland on one side) we headed back to St Petersburg and rode the subway to see the 3 most beautiful subway stations ever. These are out in the suburbs – immaculately clean and very heavy on the propoganda for the Worker’s Paradise.  

My favorite were the crystal columns.   It’s hard to see but these designs are inch-thick glass

NYC should figure out how these guys have their entire subway system kept so clean — really impressive.

By the way, another thing that I’m impressed with is the Google Translate app.  You just find some Russian writing, hold your phone camera over the text, and it translates from Russian to English… AMAZING.  This has been SO helpful, esp translating all these crazy Russian and Finnish pharmacy drugs I’m taking.  Which appear to be helping (well, also the antibiotics I brought from home probably are helping too).  Bottom line…I’m feeling better.

We are loving the food here in Russia — esp after NOT loving the food in Denmark, Norway,  and Sweden with the exceptions of the meatballs.  Even the hotdog today at the Peterhof was good… in those other countries we would likely have faced reindeer or moose, something Aunt Ginny and Alex would not have liked!  St Petersburg is a big, international city with fancy stores, international chains (although only a single Starbucks that we’ve seen) and you can get any kind of food that you want.  Tonight Aunt Ginny left us to go find pizza as we returned to a favorite Russian restaurant.  Excellent food and quite a good dessert menu (although we decided to skip the Gorgonzola and beer ice creams.).   This is the apple crumble served in a waffle cone.

We planned to do the canal boat tour tonight and see some of the 600 bridges of St Petersburg, but the wind from the west had pushed the Baltic Sea into the canals and raised the water level too high.  We will try again tomorrow.

Surprises about Russia so far:

– Fewer smokers than in Denmark

– Nicest grocery stores (in terms of items available).  One store had 30 variations on ketchup including plain old Heinz.

– Widest range of fruits and vegetables for sale (both on street stands and in the stores)

– Unusual weather pattern  – St Petersburg only has 45 sunny days PER YEAR on average.  You never leave your apartment without two shirts, a sweater, a raincoat, umbrella, extra pair of shoes in addition to sunglasses and a sun hat.  Polina, our guide, called it “dressing like a cabbage” (we would call it lettuce… lots of layers)..  She showed us as photo of the Peterhof on April 15…many inches of snow on the ground.

– They have giant gutters off every building…and they just dump water directly on the sidewalks.  Good for the roof but bad for those of us walking.

– They are very aware of Donald Trump.  We have seen many nesting doll sets with Putin and Trump and today saw a 20-something wearing a sweatshirt wth a giant Donald Trump head on the front of it.

– Don’t even try to ask questions about politics, Putin, the KBG, or “are things better now that when it was the Soviet Union?”.  Our tour guides have no desire to talk with David about this despite his giving them plenty of chances. And they keep repeating the party line about ‘our president’, the Crimea situation, etc.

– I put what I thought was butter on my rice porridge, only to discover it was something closer to condensed milk.. this morning the kids had some too!

– How few American tourists there are who are NOT on a cruise (with a restricted visa).. .in fact I don’t think we’ve seen any.  There are a few Europeans here at our hotel, but most are Russian internal tourists.

One more day here, with a lot to cross off the ‘to do list”….