Our trip to Russia

For those of you who know us, every year we alternate picking a place to surprise the other for our Anniversary with John taking on the milestone Anniversaries (5,10,15, etc.). Last year John picked Louisville, KY for ball room dance lessons, and was all set for doing the big 30th anniversary when both kids convinced him to let Mary Ellen take over. Take over she did and with wonderful results. We spent 10 days in Russia, starting out in Moscow and ending up in St. Petersburg with an amazing tour with a private tour guide and driver all run by Exeter International. Mary Ellen managed to use up quite a few of the Frequent Flyer miles laying around to get round trip First Class tickets on British Airways.

Although there was some concern about going to Russia in this time of turmoil, the result was one of the more spectacular and memorable vacations we have taken.

Any trip to a foreign country starts out with you needing to learn a few words. While the Russian Cyrillic Alphabet may look a bit funny, it is actually quite phonetic and surprisingly, once you know the pronuncaiation of the characters, you can read quite a few signs. If you recognize five basic characters, many of the rest become easy. ? sounds like the letter S as in Silly. ? sounds like the ee in See. ? like D as in dog. ? sounds like a rolled R as in Radio. ? sounds like F as in Funny

With these in mind, try your hand at a few of the signs that we saw in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

With these in mind, try your hand at a few of the signs that we saw in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

  1. ??????? ????? - Russian Vodka
  2. ??????? - Cinnabon
  3. ?????? - Bistro
  4. ?????? - Sbarro
  5. ???????? ???? - Starbucks Coffee
  6. ?????????? - McDonalds
  7. ?????? - SubWay (actually it is SubVay as there is no W sound in Russian)
  8. ?????? ???? - Burger King
  9. ???????? - Restaurant (well they drop the T at the end)
  10. ?????? ???.? - Krispy Kreme, but don't ask what the dot character is.

Now that you are an expert in Russian, let's tell you about our trip.

Friday August 15th 2014 - Moscow

We spent the day touring the Pushkin Museum, the Movodevichy Convent, and Christ the Holy Redeemer Cathedral. We had a private tour of Christ the Holy Redeemer Cathedral which included a visit to the dome for a spectacular view of the Moscow cityscape.

Things that stuck with us from this day...

#1 - People are nothing if not creative thinkers. What's a Czar to do if he wants to divorce his wife but the church recognizes death as the only valid form of dissolving a marriage? Murder? Nothing so uncivilized. Force your wife to retireme to the Movodevichy Convent and take her vows... making her "dead" to the material world... now that she's dead you can remarry. But it only works 3 times.

#2 - Got to marvel at a strong central government flexing its muscles. Christ the Holy Redeemer Cathedral: 44 years to build. Seconds for Stalin to blow up. Decide to replace with a giant Palace of the Soviets and find out that it won't fit and instead replace it with the world's largest open air swimming pool. Discover that the pool water is ruining the nearby paintings and then rebuild the original cathedral in only 4 years.

Friday August 15th 2014 - Moscow

Later that afternoon we took a private arts and crafts class where we painted our very own Matryoshka dolls.

We have always associated these with Russia, but it turns out they are are a fairly recent folk craft dating from 1890.

Saturday August 16th 2014 - Moscow

We spent the day walking around the Kremlin and Red Square (which is neither red nor square). There was a lot to see including


Finally we go to the most iconic St Basil's Cathedral. It was no surprise to see many brides getting their pictures taken in front of the Cathedral.

Saturday August 16th 2014 - Moscow

The subway never looked as elegant as it does in the Moscow Metro stations. We went to three separate stations and they were all as ornate as this, but dramatically different and still expansive.

Sunday August 17th 2014 - Moscow

This morning we set out for Izmailovsky Market for the weekend "Bazaar". Great souvenir shopping.

Sunday August 17th 2014 - Moscow

After visiting the market we stopped at the New Tretyakov Gallery and walked thru the graveyard of the fallen monuments.

At least they weren't painting them like superheroes as some Bulgarians were doing.

Sunday August 17th 2014 - Moscow

Took a river cruise boat along the Moscow River for lunch.

Who knew we would spot Christopher Columbus sailing for the new world with Peter the Great's face? The prevailing rumor is that it was intended as a gift to the United States, but nobody wanted it and they ended up replacing the head with one of Peter the Great.

Sunday Aug 17th 2014 - Moscow

Definitely not a one cheese shopping experience. The G.U.M mall just off Red Square has everything. However our tour guide commented that everone jokes that they are never sure if the numbers on the tags are the actual price or the phone number of the person to call to ask what the real price is.

Monday August 18th 2014 - St. Petersburg

We took the high speed train from Moscow to St Petersburg and checked into the Astoria hotel where we had this great view of St. Isaac's Cathedral from our room.

Tuesday August 19th 2014 - St. Petersburg

After getting to admire it for over a day from our window, we finally visited St. Isaac's Cathedral. Interesting fact is that the Nazis never targeted St. Isaac's Cathedral during WWII because it was an essential landmark used by German planes. The Russians painted the dome gray to try and reduce its effectiveness as a landmark. But it's a massive structure no matter what color it is and is quite visible throughout the city.

Tuesday August 19th 2014 - St. Petersburg

Today we toured the Winter Palace and the Hermitage Museum. We really appreciated having the private tour guide who knew everyone as she simply walked us past the long lines of people waiting to get in and the other guides who all knew her just let her jump in front of them.

Yes, that is really gold leaf everywhere. The Palace is abosolutely amazing inside with every room filled with paintings and treasures. You can also see some Trompe-l'œil on the ceilings which they use pretty extensively to give you a 3d effect instead of having to do it with plaster.


Wednesday August 20th 2014 - St. Petersburg

Today we ventured out into the countryside and visited Catherine's Palace.

Although the Nazi army never succeeded in occupying St. Petersburg (siege of Leningrad), they did occupy the surrounding countryside where they destroyed and looted much of Catherine's Palace. There is a bit of a mystery as to what happened to the original amber room which would make for a good National Treasure sequel.

We had a private tour of the Amber workshops where much of the work is done to restore the Amber Room in Catherine's Palace to its former self.

We also visited the privately owned Faberge Museum housed in the Shuvalov Palace.

Wednesday August 20th 2014 - St. Petersburg

The bear is a symbol of Russia and for lunch at Podvorye ( «Coach House» ) restaurant we were welcomed to a free shot of vodka by a very friendly (but stuffed) bear.

This was Mary Ellen's first time to try Borscht while John got his first try of Russian Crepes.

Thursday August 21st 2014 - St. Petersburg

Today we took a hydrofoil across the bay to visit, Peterhof, the Summer Palace of Peter the Great.

The grounds are extensive and water fountains, falls, and spouts are everywhere feed by a series of pipes bring water from a lake kilometers away. Here we are shown in front of a small fraction of the water works. We were fortunate enough to see two rainbows in the mists of the fountains.

We ate lunch outside of the Orangery. Which gave Mary Ellen an opportunity to sit and soak up the sun ?

Thursday August 21st 2014 - St. Petersburg

Toured the Chinese Pavilion which is like a jewel box.

Here we witnessed Russia's full employment strategy. It took no less than 6 people handling our paper work before we were admitted to the museum.

Friday August 22st 2014 - St. Petersburg

Beacons on either side of the St. Petersburg Stock Exchange at the tip of Vasilyevsky Island. Yes they are using flames for the lighthouse, but in this day and age they seem to guide the tourist and wedding parties instead of ships as they did in the past.

St. Petersburg has much in common with Venice. It's a collection of islands surrounded by rivers and bridges.

Friday August 22st 2014 - St. Petersburg

Visited the The Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood which you see along one of the many waterways in the city.

This church was built on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The Bolsheviks closed it in the 1930's, turning it into warehouse for vegetables and later a morgue because it was so cold inside. Sometime afterwards a fire started in the walls, melting half of the mosaics and they spent the past 40 years cleaning and restoring them.