Tsarskoye Selo

or Catherine’s Summer Palace and Gardens are located outside of St. Petersburg. My journey began on the very efficient metro. Because SPb is built on marshland of the Neva River, the subway tunnels are VERY deep and I descended a single escalator for several minutes to arrive at the platform. For me, it was unnerving because a terrorist suicide bomb attack occurred on the SPb metro in April and while I wasn’t afraid of that, I was apprehensive of drowning in a submerged tunnel. (I blame the movie Poseidon Adventure for my irrationality on this one!) Anyway, after about 20 minutes, I stepped into the light and risked life and limb again by hailing a marshrutka. These are privately owned and operated nine passenger vans fitted out with about 18 seats and room to stand. They dart around on a fixed route that mimics the bus route but they start and stop anywhere along the way, often with a screech of brakes or peel of rubber. My van was loaded with about 25 tourists headed to the Palace about an hour before it even opened.

You can buy tickets online. And you can buy guided tours. I was unable to do either because they were sold out when I checked (about three weeks before my travels). Meaning I stood in a VERY long line just waiting for the doors to open to buy on the spot tickets. That line only got longer during my visit. It snaked through the grounds and moved at a snail’s pace. Once you got the privilege of entering, there were new queues for the ticket counters. It was a chaotic mad dash to choose the shortest line…but really there are no lines because this mass of humanity just pushed forward to the clerks. You were crumpled and pushed in a variety of languages with a minimum of courtesy.

After ticketing, you realize signage is quite horrible and I had no clue which new line to stand in. This was the beginning of my aversion to Japanese tour groups. Somehow, they are trained or told that queueing is for wimps, velvet ropes are for moving, photography not allowed signs only mean put away your selfie stick, selfies are required in each and every room, and the best way to see things is to snap a photo and another of the descriptive placard and move on…all in front of other tourists who are admiring the view. My only possible explanation for this behavior is they are given 30 minutes to see and do it all before reboarding their bus, so they really see nothing but where they’ve been in photos. It’s both sad and annoying.

Anyway, whether I was in the right or the wrong line, I saw the rooms and delights of Catherine’s Palace. Seeing the Amber Room (no photos allowed at all and they policed it) was worth everything before or after. It is amazing. Every inch of wall covered with amber mosaic or mirrors, lit by wall sconces, and glowing with golden warmth. (It is a replication of what was destroyed during WWII.) My other favorite “wing” was filled with devastating photos of the palace’s destruction, mostly by the Nazi regime, but also by Soviet nationalization and neglect. And then, quite abruptly, I ended up outside in a lovely garden, certainly the scene for engagement proposals and wedding photos. I spent more time wandering the paths and admiring the outbuildings, then retraced my journey all the way back to my home at Sky Hotel…thinking all the while that this is a place that needs to be Disneyfied for line control, signage, docents, food service, and making everyone “happy”. There are too many people to organize and yell at if you don’t. OR, I should have booked my tickets and tour six months in advance!

(u)   x(o)x

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Historic Heart

How thoughtful to put most of the sites of St. Petersburg within the “historic heart”. In addition to the hoho bus, I followed Lonely Planet’s Neighborhood Walk out of order to capture more photos, experiences, and flavors of this area.

The Russian Museum is a focused collection of…you guessed it…Russian art, housed in four palaces scattered along my walking path. I enthusiastically bought the combined ticket with a “do it in a day” mentality and quickly discovered the impossibility of that plan. My first stop was Mikhailovsky Castle, built in the early 1800’s for Tsar Paul I, a cruel tyrant who was suffocated in his bed. This Palace became a Military Engineering School before being restored to its original glory.

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After lunch at a chain sweet/savory pastry shop named Stolle, I immersed myself in more art and interiors at the main museum palace. Ultimately, closing time came before I was done! On the way home I saw another familiar chain and enjoyed a hot chocolate to take my mind away from some very tired feet.

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(u)   x(o)x

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Preplanned and Prepaid

There is so much I wanted to see and do in St. Petersburg, partially because the inconvenience and expense of getting a Russian visa is a big drawback for casual travel there. So, I planned a LOT and booked tours and tickets online weeks ahead of time to insure I had a spot in the queues and didn’t have to carry a lot of roubles or constantly fish out a credit card. My first full visiting day was active…the hop on hop off bus, a visit to the Fabergé Museum, and an evening performance of Russian folklore, song, and dance. I learned my hotel provided breakfast (more on that another post) so I economized and only ate one other meal each day…this day it was at a dumpling house where I had the traditional Russian dumplings accompanied by dill and sour cream. My sense of place improved as I walked around the neighborhood and discovered how close I was to iconic sites, public transportation, and nearby grocery and atm.

The Fabergé Museum opened recently and will become a must see site. There are nine Imperial Easter eggs on display…intricate, delicate, and gorgeous. Other rooms filled with porcelain and cloisonné serving pieces, gold and silver jewelry and trinkets, and beaded and gilded religious art, emphasized the wealth and beauty that Russian aristocracy enjoyed. Housed in the neoclassical Shuvalov Palace on the Fontanka River, the refurbished interiors are an incredible backdrop for the talents of Carl Fabergé and others to be admired.

The Feel Yourself Russian folklore show was a totally entertaining touristy event, primarily attended by tour groups. I would have loved to take photos but that was not allowed in hopes of patrons buying cd’s and dvd’s, which they didn’t. There was an intermission of champagne and caviar and vendor tables of cheap matryoshka nesting dolls and fringed scarves. The singers and dancers were dressed in colorful traditional clothing…combine Fiddler on the Roof style with Christian Dior fabrics…and they were all talented, energetic, and fun to watch. I couldn’t help feeling the performers believed they were staging a sham just to please a Westerner’s vision of what Russians are like. A little like thinking all Americans are cowboys or indians. I had a blast!

(u)   x(o)x

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Old And

Renovated. Rebuilt. Run down. Ruined.

Treasured. Memorialized. Exploited. Feared.

Vibrant. Lovely. Peaceful. Seedy. Scummy.

Compatible. Competitive. Complicated. Confrontational. Controlled. Killed.

My travels to St. Petersburg and through the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania revealed contrasts that are as difficult to describe as they are to experience. Let’s begin at my beginning…

The morning after flying into Tallinn I rode a bus for about six hours to arrive in St. Petersburg. In the bleak Soviet styled river town of Narva we spent an additional two hours at the border crossing between Estonia and Russia. The Estonian side was policed by armed border guards, dogs, and a tall, spiked, iron fence. Despite only giving them my American passport, they knew I lived in France and came looking for me to obtain my French credentials. Crossing the river to the Russian side was more nerve-wracking and definitely more barb-wired. First, an armed guard boarded the bus and stamped our personal entry document. Then, at a second militarized checkpoint, we disembarked with our hand luggage and were “processed” by passport control. After reboarding, the bus proceeded to a gated guardhouse (the kind James Bond would have smashed through) where another armed guard came to make sure all of our documents were stamped. I was grateful a Russian citizen was sitting next to me explaining the instructions in English. Despite this, I still felt vulnerable and like I was losing my freedom. My mind ran rampant with fragments of stories about detainees. Don’t smile. Don’t look anyone in the eyes. Don’t say hello.

The drive through northern Estonia was mostly green. Pine and spruce and birch forests. Farm fields of rye and barley, rapeseed and rolled haybales. Wildflowers, including Queen Anne’s lace the size of sunflowers. An occasional village, an occasional farm, a more than occasional occupied stork’s nest. The drive through northern Russia was also green and interspersed with shack villages whose proud owners cultivated the most beautiful and colorful flower and vegetable gardens on their small plots. The outskirts of St. Petersburg offered crumbling on the outside concrete apartment block complexes- a sea of grey Legos hiding the pastel palaced Imperial old city.

Arriving at St. Petersburg’s main bus terminal without google maps and not understanding the signs, I attempted to get roubles from an ATM and got rejected. Frantic, I searched the station and found a different bank’s ATM to get 500 roubles…less than $10. Knowing I needed exact change (40 kopeks) for the bus into town, I bought a coke-no help there. So I exited the station and walked toward where I thought the city buses would be based on a map I printed in advance. Attempting to follow my predownloaded plan, I boarded a bus with fingers crossed and found out that each bus has a “rider” who is also the ticket agent. My rider spoke only Russian but I was lucky to have a passenger who could interpret the ticket/money exchange and confirm my bus plans. However, I overstopped my exit and walked several blocks back toward where my hotel was located. On the way, I passed a phone store and practically hugged the clerk who spoke English and sold me a SIM card. Feeling slightly more confident, it was hotel by numbers as not much was signed. Although I wasn’t sure at the time, I found the iron entry gate into a shabby cobbled courtyard, located the crumbling on the outside building, searched for the elevator around a hidden corner and pressed 6, and voila! stepped out into a tiny but pleasant front desk area brightly lit and with a glass-doored refrigerator holding beverages and snacks. Checked in, bought a water and a chocolate bar for dinner, acclimated to my quirky room and crashed. My fears and confusion had turned some easy bus rides into an emotionally demanding day.

(u)   x(o)x

 

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This is Soooo My City

There’s a new festival today-Fête de la Mojito! I just love it when the french decide to use ice. 🙂

(u)   x(o)x

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Le Canicule

Otherwise felt as the heat wave. Practically all of France has been suffering le canicule since last Sunday and while relief may come as early as tomorrow, this particular wave is the worst since 1945. Specifically, and based on geographical region, le canicule is only declared when three successive day and night cycles exceed certain minimum temperatures. In Bordeaux, those temps are 35° daytime and 21° nighttime. (95°/70°). Our recorded temps have been over 100°/80°. There is no opportunity for the infrastructure (stone buildings, paved roads, etc.) to cool off and even a breeze is as hot as the Sahara! Except for cars, most places do not have air conditioning, or it’s not turned on in a way to be cool…only cooler than outside. There are few places to go to escape…but my favorite is the local Picard store…which sells only frozen food! On Sunday, I’m buying a used portable a/c unit…a luxury that may not be cost effective to operate. But during le canicule, I will gladly max out my electricity bill just to avoid being in a 24/7 sauna. In the meantime and on the happy side, clothes take only minutes to air dry!

(u)   x(o)x

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Afternoon at the Louvre

It sounds like the title of an Impressionist painting, doesn’t it? During my recent day trip to Paris, I decided to visit the Louvre and particularly a temporary exhibit of Vermeer. I had to orchestrate things carefully to catch my evening train since my timed entry to Vermeer was quite late and the two lines for entry took about an hour. So, I did things backwards. I ate lunch in the museum restaurant, then shopped in the museum gift shop. Then I headed to the top floors to view the European painters and stayed totally clear of Mona Lisa and David. This is what I liked the most…

(u)   x(o)x

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Mini V to the Pyrénées

Four women driving off to the mountains. Looking to explore and adventure. Of various ages and abilities to hike, get a sunburn, tolerate a hammam, and operate a stick shift. All desiring to return someday.

(u)   x(o)x

 

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Happy Father’s Day

Daddy ride on your shoulders, Dad borrow your car, Grandpa sit on your lap, Gramps hear your story, Uncles learn to play poker go over for a bbq, Brothers being good men, Husband once father forever, and Son, someday may be Daddy ride on your shoulders. Even if it’s a cat.

(u)   x(o)x

 

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My Wimbledon

From May 14…I had no plans or expectations for Mother’s Day. So it was easy to accept R and T’s invitation to join them at a historic tennis club in Caudéran named Villa Primrose. I’ve been there before on a neighborhood tour and for lunch…I imagine it’s smaller, yet similar to golf clubhouses, although you overlook the courts. In other words, very nice with a lot of tanned and buff “players” emphasizing my very visual lack of outdoor sports participation!

I had the most wonderful time watching tournament qualifying matches for internationally ranked men’s singles. The speed and force of play amazed me and yes, my head bobbed from side to side just like in cartoons. The rituals surrounding line calling and scoring and collecting loose tennis balls fascinated me. It was bright and hot in the stands and I wished one of the “shade umbrella children” would have been my personal attendant!

We chose to stay for a two bottle of wine brunch on the terrace…delicious salads, crêpes, pastries, and fried and hard boiled eggs, along with every kind of charcuterie I’ve ever seen. Good thing we rode bikes to the Villa…I think I wobbled a bit on the way home!

(u)   x(o)x

 

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