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St. Crowdedburg – by David

(Alex, I hope my title of this post is up to your standards)

We saw some old friends today…. the same 40,000 people who we met in line at Versailles and in front of the Mona Lisa on our first trip, and who we ran into again at Tianenmen Square last year, were all at the Winter Palace/Hermitage today.   You hate to get sucked in to the maelstrom, but when you go to (city), you just can’t avoid going to (big #1 sight in that city that everyone else goes to).

The good news is that we sprung for a tour guide, so we got to zoom right in and skip the lines.  Which is good because the skies opened and dumped a thunderstorm on everyone in line, as we were in the building.

Sadly for the kids, this was yet another fancy old palace with lots of crazy, over-the-top rooms, and then an art museum with lots of old paintings. Fun fun.  We’ve now seen the palaces of all the late-19th-century empires…. seen one, seen ’em all….  although this one was probably the most over-the-top.   And this was the first time we’ve had a professional guide, which to the grown ups was very interesting and informative…. e.g. seeing the table and room where the leaders of the government hat deposed the Tsar were sitting when Lenin and the Bolsheviks stormed in and threw them out in 1917.

Let the photos speak:

Anna’s favorite room ….. NOT

The throne….

The crowds at the #1 sight in the museum, the “Peacock Clock”…

In the morning we saw a few small sights, including the cathedral with the most famous “icon” gold-framed painting of Mary in Russia (the painting gave battle strategy advice in his prayers to the Russian general who defeated Napoleon).   But the thing that I liked most (and Anna was right there with me) is a wild art-nouveau building on the main street built by Singer sewing machine company in 1902. It had quite a history over the years, but it’s still standing and is now the HQ of a high-tech firm.  Very cool.  This is the kind of “fancy” design that Anna likes…..much better than baroque/rococo.  It’s hard to see but the bronze and glass sculpture of the earth on top is excellent.


Some random things from St. Pete:

– Many many weddings….apparently the line is very long, so you if you go in today to get a license they’ll tell you which day in November you can get married.  And then on that day you take your picture in a famous spot and then drive around with big rings on your car.

– We continue to see a surprising number of old 1950s and 1960s American cars everywhere we go.

– Yesterday, stopped at an intersection, we heard a “bang” from the truck in front of us, and watched one of its rear wheels roll across the road while the other one was folded up under the axle….. it just failed on the spot. Our tour guide just laughed and said “that’s how things really are in Russia”

– We were surprised to hear this morning’s tour guide hem and haw about whether she felt life is better now than in the Soviet times (she was 15 when things changed).  We gave her every opportunity to say great things about the new world, and she just didn’t quite feel that way.  Not sure why not…. we didn’t push it.

– Other than a few standouts, the city center is just mile after mile of 6-story, stone/brick/plastered buildings jammed up against each other, mostly in pretty run-down shape after surviving 150+ years of war, politics and weather.  Except for special cases like the Faberge museum, there doesn’t seem to be much incentive to do maintenance.  Even this wild pink one on a back street is just nothing special to anyone… just apartments.

– Quaint street market with a long row of “babushkas” selling berries and flowers they had picked in the forests.

– The world’s first shopping mall/department store built on orders of Catherine the Great in the 1750s (before America was a country) … it’s huge …. yes, it fills the whole picture. Now it’s like K Mart / Walmart / Target combined.


Happy Bergday Anna! (By Alex)

As today was Anna’s birthday, we had a birthday breakfast with egg cubes and pastries.


Egg cubes

Today, we took a tour of St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg was called ‘Leningrad’ during the Soviet times.

On the train yesterday, we saw some sights in the countryside that created a very distinct first impression. Look at the photos below for what I mean.​

St. Petersburg is very different from those photos. Here is the basic layout of the city:

  • There are long blocks and short blocks
  • Long blocks are incredibly long (Open Street Map says that the nearest long block to us is 447m long from center of intersection to center of intersection)
  • Short blocks are approximately a normal city block
  • Buildings are almost always 6 stories or shorter
  • Most buildings are built in a semi-ornate style. There are no giant glass skyscrapers
  • Rivers and canals are everywhere, and approximately 600 bridges go across these rivers and canals

Our guide started with a very unusual and special treat, by showing us the neighborhood around our hotel that she grew up in. She took us into a building that was a good example of how the average (slightly wealthier) Russian lives in St. Petersburg and also explains how Communal Flats worked during the Soviet era. Our guide grew up in a communal flat during the Soviet time, but does not remember a lot as she was quite young then. Each family got one room, and there was a kitchen and bathroom shared between 5-6 families. Apparently, no one had lots of space. She did mention that all communal flat owners had to exchange communal flat rights for an actual flat after the Soviet era ended, which ended up being very expensive for the owners.

[What happened was, a rich person would want to own the whole floor of a building, which was occupied by many families.  He would buy apartments around town or in the suburbs, and then trade those to the people who lived in communal flats, the ownership of which was given to them when the soviet era ended.  -David]

We then went to a market where Mom bought honey. They had millions of matryoshka dolls, some very interesting…

After that, we went to the St. Nicholas Cathedral. I liked the blue outside a lot, even if it was moderstely ornate.

The inside was very ornate. However, we were not allowed to take photos. I can tell you that there were idols everywhere and there was lots of gold.

We then went to a synagogue. The outside was incredibly beautiful, and a very pleasant orange color.

Once again, no photos were allowed inside. However, this was a lot less ornate, and mostly white plaster. There was an altar that had some gold, but not insane amounts.

Speaking of insanity, our next stop was St. Isaac’s Cathedral. This place had a lot of ornate interior design. I should probably start out by mentioning that this is all real gold. It seen as deceiving God to use fake gold paint in the Russian Orthodox religion. There is also restoration going on to convert frescoes to mosaics, as frescoes are not designed for the St. Petersburg climate. I will stop talking, and give you a collection of photos from the church. Enjoy.

After that, we went to a square with the headquarters of the Russian military and the Hermitage museum. We did not go into the Hermitage, as we are doing that tomorrow.

There was a sign warning about the Hermitage cats, and we saw one of them. They scare off rats and mice, and the babies of Hermitage cats are apparently very valuable.

For lunch, we had Russian food. I had some amazing dumplings.

In the evening, we went to the Fabergé museum. They had some amazing eggs and other jewelry. The Fabergé House was the jeweler that Czar Alexander III and Nicholas II went to for all of their jewelry needs. I have added lots of photos of the museum, so enjoy.

This is what we did today.

In St. Pete – by David

Just like I said about China, traveling in Russia is harder than in more-Western countries…. I call it “friction”.   The money, the language, the culture, are just harder to navigate.  But we figured out how to get rubles, and how to get to our hotel from the train station, and we worked out some complications with the hotel rooms, and we’re finding our way around St. Petersburg.

But most important, the hotel wifi is pretty good and doesn’t block our blog site.  Everyone say “hi” to the KGB and NSA snoops who are watching us blog.

We booked 4 days here on the schedule and we surely won’t run out of things to do like we did in Bergen and Helsinki…. there are over 8,000 historical buildings in the city, and of course everyone says you could spend a week at just the Hermitage art museum. (We won’t, of course)

On the train we saw that Finland is mostly forest…

And there’s lots of barbed wire and guard shacks at the Finland/Russia border…

And the escalators to the subway go insanely deep under ground… (233 feet at this station)

And there’s not a lot of electronic controls on the subway trains…. just a “go” lever and a “stop!!!!!” pedal and holes where other controls used round…

And we saw a really famous old church…

And I convinced the “make your own souvenir medallion” guy to let me use the machine and  actually make my own….

And we saw a nice sunset at the end of Nevski Prospect, the main boulevard in town which had more people than the population of Bergen + Oslo on the sidewalks

We went to Jamie Oliver’s restaurant for dinner, which caused Anna to wonder why we went to an Italian place in Russia created by a British guy who is famous on American TV.

And we watched a nice jazz concert in the square and had nice pastries for dessert.

Anna wanted a certain dish at dinner but panicked because it had “leeks”, but it was OK because we explained that “leeks” are not the same as “leeches”.

Lots of touring scheduled for tomorrow (Anna’s birthday)…. good night!

Helsinki 3 – by David

We had a nice walking tour of the old downtown area, and learned the history of Finland and stuff.  

Turns out they had a VERY complex series of alliances in WW II:   As Germany and Russia went back and forth from being friends to fighting, Finland tried to roll with it. You wouldn’t notice unless the tour guide pointed it out, but when you see a modern building the middle of a block between older buildings, that’s because the Russians bombed that spot.

They did have a good trick…. at night they turned off all the lights in the city, and lit torches on the uninhabited rocks out in the bay, so the Russians bombed the rocks.

In the end they paid Russia a bunch of money after the war, and went on their own.

We walked up to the Rock Church, only to discover that they were actually having services in the church and not letting tourists in.  The nerve of them!

Here’s what a reindeer looks like:

And then Renee got together with an old friend from 25 years ago, and I washed all the laundry (we’ve been warned that there are few laundromats in Russia)

It’s 9pm, 68 degrees, beautiful sunset (well, in a couple of hours), the cruise ship tourists have left, everyone in town is out in the sidewalk bars listening to live music and enjoying the summer.  Renee and I just had a very nice dinner of  roast reindeer with lingonberries (sorry, Rudolph), cauliflower soup, and rhubarb pie while the kids had pizza with Aunt Ginny.    Quite a nice evening.

And just to validate the decision we made last year at this time that “next year, we go somewhere cool”….. tomorrow it’s 97 degrees and humid and hazy in Beijing.

Onward to Russia tomorrow.  We have no idea what kind of Internet connectivity to expect….   maybe the blog will continue, maybe not.  

Helsinki Day 2 – by David

We had a low key day.   It says a lot that the #3 “thing to do” in Helsinki is riding the streetcars, and the #10 thing is to take a day trip to Tallinn! We’ve done many of the top ten already, except a few old churches and art museums which we usually skip.

The #1 thing is to take a short boat ride to the big island in the middle of the harbor, which was set up as a defensive fortress by both Sweden and Russia in the 1700s.  So we did that, and had a nice time walking around. It was quite a spectacular day weather-wise.

Here are some photos

Lots of old artillery

Anna always loves playing on rocks… she says she likes rock beaches more than sand beaches.

The channel to the inner harbor threads a very narrow gap between two islands…. it was amazing to see this ship appear out of nowhere

Renee felt better after a day of resting, so we all went to see a movie (Spider Man).  I may be getting the bug, hope not.

Helsinki – by David

We had a nice 90-minute ride on the fast ferry across the Baltic Sea, to Helsinki, and we’re settled in to the Radisson.

Anna is feeling much better, but…. Renee now has Anna’s bug. So she slept for the afternoon.  And Aunt Ginny is here… she met us in Helsinki and will go to Russia with us. But she’s jet-lagged, so she slept for the afternoon also.

The kids and I had a nice few hours of what Anna calls “adventuring”, Alex calls “wandering aimlessly” and I call “getting out to get a feel for the town”.  Basically just randomly walking…”when you come for a fork, take it”… and looking for interesting things.  

We found a cool market in the old ferry building

With a silly butler

And a small science museum in the old university observatory

And a very nice old German church

Note:  Anna has decided that she loves brick buildings.  So she told the church “I approve of your awesomeness”.

Note 2:  When Anna was trying to remember something we had done on a past trip, she called it “the place with the thing with the water with the thing where we did the thing”.   Alex and I were suitably perplexed and we never did figure it out.

Note 3:  One of the Finnish words on the Diet Coke label is “Tyydyttynyt”… it’s the “saturated” in “saturated fat”.  Ouch. Finnish seems to be right up there with Welsh.

Tallinn Day 2 – click for details

The blogging software is very frustrating to all of us, and tonight’s post was sent out before we added photos.

If you click the “Tallinn Day 2” title just above this, and then on the web page click the “Previous” button, you should be able to see the full post.