On Our Own in Russia (2004)


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Europe » Russia » Northwest » Saint Petersburg
September 10th 2004
Published: November 27th 2008
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The Kremlin. The Kremlin. The Kremlin.

Imperial Russia. I'm impressed!

September 7 Tuesday



Woke up real early today for our 7:45 am flight for St. Petersburg. Good thing we got our suitcases in Lylah’s trunk the night before. Thank yous , hugs and kisses for our perfect hostess, Lylah Moonlight, and Emy and I were off to Russia via Paris.



From Paris, it was just another 3 hrs or so before we landed in St. Petersburg. Emy was held up in the airport immigration for a good half hour. By the time they released her and allowed entry to Russian soil, they have managed to tamper her passport presumably to check if her passport photo was not something surreptitiously slipped in!!! Gosh, you find a sea of unsmiling faces comprising your reception committee in this communist country and it’s enough to give you cold feet. Worse, there are no airport buses or shuttles to the city center. One has no choice but to negotiate with taxi drivers who seem to have all appointed a “Mafia Boss” for the taxi ride to town. For Emy and I, it was a whopping US $70 to get to Hotel Pribaltiskaja.



We were in the hotel way past
St. Basil'sSt. Basil'sSt. Basil's

Icon of Russian Grandeur.
5 pm. Just enough time to get acquainted with the hotel facilities and enjoy a buffet dinner. From our Hotel window, we can look out to the Gulf of Finland. Over dinner, we met with a Filipino and Singaporean family who were on a tour which started in Helsinki, Finland. We all agreed dinner could be better. Actually, it was sloppy. These Russians have a lot to learn. And we are certainly not in a cheap hotel! Ours may not be in the city center but it’s one of the best they have in St. Petersburg. Good thing the 3rd world babes were too tired to complain.




September 8 Wednesday



Soon after our breakfast which we finished by almost 11 am, we were ready to take the hotel shuttle to town. From the drop off point near the grand colonnade of Kazan Cathedral, we entered the cathedral and witnessed a Russian wedding where the bridesgroom and bridesmaid each held a red crown over the heads of the bride and groom. I didn’t understand a word throughout the ceremony but I bet the groom is so very happy with his very beautiful bride. We then walked all along Nevskij Prospekt to the golden spire of Admiralty. Taking 360 degree turns, Emy and I took photos with the following in the background: Admiralty, Palace Square, and the Winter Palace which is home to the Hermitage Museum. For only 250 rubles equivalent to less than US$10, we joined a guided tour of the Museum with this English speaking museum guide. But let me explain the process: first you go to this office to say you want to join the tour, they give you a slip of paper to go to this window and pay, then you get back to the office for the tickets. Then you go through security and wait till your guide is ready with the touring party. I believe that is the communist way. Hmmmm.




The Museum is a must see. The extravaganza alone will bowl one over. You can imagine the tsars and tsarinas waltzing away the night in all those huge halls. The Jordan Staircase looks better on photo though, but what the heck, Emy and I took snapshots of each other on the staircase!!! Never mind that a Japanese group was ogling us as we tried to walk down the stairs like a Tsarina would. Hmmmp! Gosh, these Japanese are really all over town. And these Japanese tourists are getting younger and younger…….Back to the collections, these prove what a great shopper Catherine the Great was. From the Italian masters, to the Dutch painters, to the Spanish famed artists, and on and on. The whole collection spells W O W. I particularly liked the sculpture Crouching Boy by Michelangelo. We also didn’t miss da Vinci’s Madonna and Madonna Litta, Rubens’ Descent from the Cross (there are many other versions by other artists on the same theme, all equally good) and Rembrandt’s Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac and Portrait of an Old Man. There were also the contemporary works of Cezanne, Matisse, Monet, Degas, Gaugauin, Renoir, Pissaro and Picasso. The 1812 Gallery is as impressive as the military men’s portraits tried to convey machismo, along with the lavishly decorated Malachite Hall, Pavillion Hall and White Dining Room. Wow, these tsars and tsarinas really lived it up!




We were all but exhausted by the time we got back to the hotel. Kind of late since we passed by St. Isaac’s Cathedral too and by the time we got to the drop off in Kazan, the 6pm shuttle was already full and we had to wait another 20 minutes - in the rain - for the next shuttle. Oh, did I mention that on the way back to the shuttle pick up point, Emy had this “slip” ? It sounded more like she dropped her bag but gosh, she DROPPED along with the bag. No wonder it sounded like a real heavy thud! We really must be walking a lot…… When we got back to the hotel, we tried looking for the Placinos but the front desk said there was no one who checked in by that name!!!! After about an hour, we got a call from Robbie. They were in the hotel lobby and we asked them to come up to our room. What a reunion!!!! Maryann said she thought we would never have a chance to see each other again. Well, it was our luck to meet up again , and in Russia at this time at that! After some aperitif consisting of caviar sold by this Russian waiter for only $10 spread over some wafers I got from Czech Republic, we trooped down to the dining hall for dinner. Nothing exciting about Russian meals, I must say, but the company is superb! Naturally, we laughed to our hearts’ content on the Emy slipping episode. Poor Emy!



Before calling it a night, we agreed to meet the following morning at the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, also known as the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.


September 9 Thursday



This one is a St. Basil’s Cathedral look alike, but I wouldn’t know that since I haven’t seen St. Basil’s in Moscow. Just the same, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood with all its multi-colored onion domes and frescoed paintings is a great sight! The story goes that Alexander II was assassinated on the very spot and that the church served like a memorial for him. The Placinos joined us touring the interiors of this great church. One has to look up much of the time, craning one’s neck to appreciate the beauty all around……..truly marvelous. After this tour, we decided to do a bit of shopping in Gostinny Dvor and to check in on Alexandrinsky Theater, the oldest theater in Russia, to buy ballet tickets. We managed to get tickets for the 7 pm ballet (Swan Lake with Kolegova as lead) before splitting up. The Placinos had to get their bags packed to board their boat for the cruise, while Emy and I decided to stay in the city center to explore. First we had lunch in a simple café in front of Alexandrinsky Theater where a lunch of Beef Stroganoff and Chicken Kiev was good for its moderate price. Not bad, until I ordered a cup of cappuccino which costs just as much as lunch! Really, I will never understand the Russian pricing system --- from food to taxi fares to souvenir items. The good news though is that there was this sweet young waitress in the café who gave us tips on where to go and how .



And so, before the 7pm ballet performance, Emy and I managed to take the metro to go to the Peter and Paul Fortress, took photos of the Cathedral of Peter and Paul with its graceful spire, and a splendid panorama of the Admiralty and Winter Palace from across the River Neva. Taking the same metro back to Gostinny Dvor, we shopped again until it was almost performance time. No chance to visit the Russian Museum right beside the Church of Resurrection nor Michail’s Palace and the Summer Garden. Swan Lake was in 4 acts; though there was some debate after the 3rd act if there is a subsequent act. We thoroughly enjoyed the ballet but gosh, how ignorant can we get!



Another experience awaited us before we split up. Emy and I negotiated with this taxi driver to take us back to Hotel Pribaltiskaja. First the driver quoted 30 euros which of course was simply exhorbitant! Down to 20 euros, until we managed to settle on 250 rubles or about US $10. All this haggling is taking a toll on my nerves. By the time we got back to the hotel, we were completely exhausted.


September 10 Friday



We got to the airport by 9am only to be told that we should go up the stairs to check in our big suitcases. No lifts! Wow, these Russians talaga!!! We found 2 porters, promptly tipped US$2 which brought big smiles on their faces, and got our bags checked in . While waiting, one of the 2 porters never stopped smiling at us that Emy and I were almost tempted to hand him more tips. There was only one departure lounge so we had to wait outside until the lounge is “cleared” by the previous batch of departing passengers. The Aeroflot plane ride from St. Petersburg to Moscow only took an hour and a half. The stewards looked like air marshals, the stewardesses looked either like spies or prostitutes. By the time we got to the Shereme airport and picked up our bags, we were deluged by waiting taxi drivers ready to haggle over the taxi fare. One even got this English speaking woman who fits a hustler’s role to a T to convince Emy and I that taxi fare from the airport to city center is fixed at 2000 rubles, about US $70. I haggled, but not so successfully, down to 1500 rubles or about US$50. Another stressful episode.



Sheraton Palace Hotel in Moscow’s Tverskaya Road is a haven. Most of the staff speak good English and the doorman (Pappie) , a huge black man, looks like an adorable bear. We only took some time to drop our bags, put some order in the room, get some fruits (free) near the lifts, and Emy and I were ready to explore. Pappie said it is just a 15 minute walk to the Red Square. Pappie was off by a good half hour!!!! By the time we got to Red Square, we found just enough time to take photos of the Kremlin Wall and the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral. It looks almost the same as the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg except that St. Basil’s has a lot of free space around it. It is a perfect photo op. Lenin’s tomb was already closed so Emy and I decided to go back the next day without our cameras as they don’t allow it. We walked back the same way along Moscow’s Tverskaya Street which is the main shopping area. Along the way, we passed a number of Mc Donald’s , Pizza Hut, Benetton, and the awesome Yeliseyevsky Store, an ornate and elegant food store complete with chandeliers!!!! We bought some croissants and salami for breakfast the following day.




September 11 Saturday



No cameras slung on our shoulders, but heavily wrapped in leather and wool jackets, we made our way back to Red Square. This time, we took the metro. We got off at the Teatralnaya, which literally means Theater Square. And so it was, since the Bolshoi Theater is just across the metro station. There was this stocky man who asked me “What do you want to watch?” in a tone that demands your full attention. A squeaky voice (mine) said “ballet”. Then on the ticket window while inquiring on the ticket prices at Bolshoi, this guard stands right behind you in a manner that you feel this imaginary cell which does not allow you to make any abrupt motions lest you get it in the head from this guard. The end of this episode is we finally bought our tickets for ballet for 850 rubles, about US $30 for the 7pm performance tonight. If they charged us US$100, I’d probably be too nervous to complain.



We went back to the Red Square and lined up for Lenin’s Tomb. We were too late. Instead, we lingered over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before finally deciding to buy tickets for a guided tour of the Kremlin’s Cathedral Square. This again is a must-see
in Moscow. Too bad we didn’t have our cameras with us. Our local guide Luva (meaning love in Russian) felt so sorry for us. There was the Cathedral of Annunciation where the royals were baptized and married , the Cathedral of Assumption where the royal heirs were crowned, and the Cathedral of Archangel Michael where the tsars were buried. The Cathedral of Annunciation was also the private chapel of the tsars and tsarinas and the church has a private passageway linked to the palace. There was also Ivan the Great’s Bell Tower in the Square. Not far from the Cathedral Square is the Tsar’s Bell. The largest bell in the world, it cracked even before the bell was rung. A few steps away we found the Tsar’s Cannon. The guards across were ready to blow their whistles as soon as a tourist takes even a half step beyond the ropes. And some yards before the exit, we found the tsars’ entertainment center all dressed up in multicolored domes and bright yellow painted walls. Oh, so much to see and no cameras!!! I promised myself I’d go back the following day with my camera even if that means having to pay for another ticket to the Kremlin.



Food in Russia must be so bad I can’t even remember where we had our dinner before the ballet. I think it’s in this fastfood in a department store called GUM. Again, I was confused with the Russian pricing system. You eat buffet dinner in a hotel for under 400 rubles, yet you pay as much as 900 rubles for a fastfood meal! I’m completely out of my wits……guess the Russians just price as they wish without real regard to value. Like a metro ride is just 8 rubles yet a taxi ride can rip you off at 3000 rubles.



Anyway, Giselle was only in 2 acts, and while we claim not to be experts, we are sure that the Bolshoi theater performance (Inna Petrova as Giselle, Dmitriy Gudanov as Count Albert) is better than the Kirov performance in St. Petersburg. The little pamphlet I got says the theater has been in existence since 1776. Nothing in the pamphlet offered any information about the theater siege in 2002 where Russian troops lobbed nerve gas into the theater and resulted in deaths of over a 100 including theater guests and tourists. While delighting in the ballet performance, we couldn’t help stealing glances at the Russian guards posted almost at every corner of the theater. They sure look oh so ready to pounce on anyone who makes a drastic move. That explains why we deliberately slowed our motions and tried not to make any abrupt movements. Going back to the hotel, we took the metro and happened to check in on some famous Moscow underground stations which are so lavishly decorated. Emy counted off some 17 lamp posts spread at 3 meter intervals as we plunged down an escalator to take the subway. Designed as bomb shelters, we were even more amazed to see chandeliers, stained glass, mosaics, and ceiling paintings in some train stations. Only in Russia, indeed!


September 12 Sunday



We found this huge Catholic Church some 15 minutes walk away from the Sheraton Hotel. Perhaps because they are a minority, it was so refreshing to see such devout Catholics gathered in prayer. After mass, Emy and I took off again to try our luck at Lenin’s Mausoleum. We got in line, but because we brought our cameras with us, Emy was held up in the gate and not allowed entry. I got lucky and passed the gate without a hitch even while I had 2 cameras in my bag! Bading adieu to Emy with a promise to be back soon so I can get her bag while she makes a dash for the tomb, I followed the line to pay my respects to Lenin. All around his tomb , they posted guards and trust me, each one is a Lenin look-alike, without the beard of course. But these guards could even pass off as wax figures, especially so since they hardly move, or even breathe!!!! Panting for breath, I managed to sprint back with a few breaths left to Emy despite one guard insisting that I get back on the line making out for the exit. I pretended not to understand, and when you’re panting for breath it’s easy to play dumb……Well, all’s well that ends well.



After this episode, we went back to see Luva to get on another tour of the Kremlin. Emy changed her mind even before Luva formed a group. She opted to do her shopping. I stayed, and met 3 Texan buddies with rounded bellies. With my 2 cameras, I got real good fotos of Cathedral Square, the Tsar’s Bell and Tsar’s Cannon. The 3 Texans had no cameras so I took their pictures too and promised to email them the fotos. On the way back to the hotel, I bought some icons for pasalubongs(gifts).


September 13 Monday



Another rip off at US $100 for a 30 minute taxi ride that took us from the hotel to the airport. Again, Emy got held up exiting Russia….. this time , because her passport seems “tampered”. Of course it was, the Russians in St. Petersburg tampered it when we entered Russia!!!! Frankly, the first time we were hassled in St. Petersburg, I felt like it was really an ordeal. Got real worried then. This time around, I wasn't sure how I'd feel if we were not allowed out of the country. For one, there were still a number of sights Emy and I missed. hmmmm.........you like how I'm thinking? Well, Lady Luck either smiled at us or smirked at the thought, and we were finally out of Russia. As we settled in our seats on the plane, we reminisced over our Russian ordeal. Funny..........it's hard to review this ordeal in our heads without remembering the wondrous adventure of stepping into the palaces haunted by Catherine the Great and the last Tsar Nicholas of Russia, or our funny misadventures watching the ballet performances in St. Petersburg and Moscow, the awesome and mind-boggling beauty of the Red Square and the Kremlin. Never mind that we didn't really enjoy a decent meal in Russia, that we were hassled getting in and out of the country, or that we were ripped off by those taxis and limousine service. This is one adventure we truly enjoyed!


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