Russian Rendezvous (July 15th - 16th, 2011)

July 15th, 2011
Russia started with a dead body and gray skies...

and with us having to set our clocks up an hour (which we had also done the day before). Our 7am excursion started far too early. Carol, Clark, Lisa, Brad, Terri, Kris, and I took a tour with SPB tours for two days in St. Petersburg. Our guide was Irina. Our driver was Slav.

Irina immediately told us that the name of St. Petersburg isn't correct. It is actually pronounced Sankt Pete-ors-borg. The city was named after Peter the Great. It was later changed to Leningrad. Then, during the perestroika (reconstruction), there was a referendum to change the name back to Sankt Petorsborg. (Russians call it Pete.) Irina called it the Venice of the North (but I thought that was Amsterdam).

Irina mentioned that Russia just recently had their first heatwave of 40 degrees Centigrade. We are used to this in Texas, but St. Petersburg has few to no air conditioners.

Our first stop of the morning was to see the Sphinx off the Neva River (Neva means swamp in Swedish). While taking photos with them, we were quite surprised whenever a few angry cops walked by and stopped only a few feet away.
Terri and Kris at the Sphinx
All of a sudden, you look down into the river and there is a boat with three Russian officials toting a water-logged corpse down the river. It smelled terribly. The next day, Irina lets us know that the person was a photographer who fell overboard during a photoshoot in May. They just recovered the body.
Article about the photographer

We also saw an incredibly massive green building called the Winter Palace, the City Square, and Headquarters of the Russian Army.
From left to right:  Kris, Terri, Kristy (me), Clark, Lisa, and Brad ~Photo by Carol.
Back in the van, Irina explained about the Russian White Nights. From the middle of May until the middle of July, St. Petersburg only receives about 30 minutes of dark a night. Also, the Russian alphabet is quite strange. H is O and B is V in the Russian language.
Writing on a traditional souvenir shop
Next we were off for a drive through the Nevsky Prospect. We drove past St. Catherine's Palace and "Husband's Death" - the grand department stores in Russia. (Although, Irina explained that Russians usually shop over in Finland to save money. It's a two hour trip from St. Petersburg to Finland.)

We saw a Catherine the Great statue, learned there are 500 bridges in the city, and learned there were 64 Romanav's once upon a time all with their own palace.

Next up was a metro ride. Irina sufficiently warned us of being pick-pocketed. She gave us all a token, we took the longest escalator I have ever seen into the Vladimirskaya subway, and rode the subway one stop to a local farmer's market. (Kris thought it was pretty ridiculous that we rode a subway just to say we rode the subway, but it was one of the most authentic experiences we had in St. Petersburg.)
Soldiers in subway  ~Photo by Carol
Subway exit

Right outside of the subway, little old babushkas sell fruits and flowers. Clark got yelled at by one of the babushkas (in angry Russian) for taking a photo of them. We didn't get yelled at for taking photos in the farmer's market though. Some of the fruit looked so fresh and smelled so good. I really wanted to buy some of the wild strawberries.
Babushkas  ~Photo by Carol
Ladies of the Russian Market  ~Photo by Carol

Amazing wild strawberries
Mushrooms in market
Our next stop was the 4th largest dome cathedral in the world - St. Isaac's, City Hall (originally the Mariinsky Palace), and the Nicholas Monument. There are actually 1,000 palaces in the city and 21 bridges that are all drawbridges.

From left to right:  Clark, Carol, Brad, Lisa, Kris, Kristy, and Terri  (and some bald guy)
Almost everywhere we went, we were advised to watch our cameras.  Petty theft is rampant.

We next saw the Hotel Astoria where Adolf Hitler once had a party. Then we were off to a souvenir shop for a little shopping and a little water closet time. (Gift stores have the nicest, cleanest restrooms in St. Petersburg.)
Nesting dolls in gift shop.  ~Photo by Kris
We were then off to the Senate and Synod buildings and Presidential library (large yellow building) and a Peter the Great sculpture before going for a hydrofoil ride.


During the drive, Irina explained that there are very few taxis in St. Petersburg. Due to this, people needing transport will often hail any car and negotiate a price for the ride. Sounds dangerous to me.

We took a hydrofoil (high speed boat ride) over to Peterhof. I was looking forward to this ride, but I fell asleep.

Irina sat by Carol and Clark
Brad (left) and Terri (right)
Peterhof is a very large park. Peter the Great had a strange sense of humor. He put five trick fountains in the park. (The trick fountains were created to douse people with water when they least expect it. For instance, you'll be viewing a fountain from a nearby park bench. Someone walks past you and steps on a specific stone, and the trick fountain sprays you -the innocent bystander on the bench- and the person who stepped on the stone.) There is also a fountain made into the shape of a pyramid using 500 heads.
Kris, Terri, and Kristy (me)
Photo by Kris
Photo by Kris
Photo by Kris



One of the trick fountains
The front of the palace has a statue of Samson and a lion.
Samson is ripping open the lion's mouth to signify victory over Sweden. 
(The lion is on the Swedish flag.)
Terri enjoys sitting on the lion.
This palace also has a statue in front of the architect who planned the palace.

It rained on us a bit in the park, which is par for the course in Russia where they only get 36 sunny days or so per year. This didn't dampen our trip to the old palace and stables or the Pushkin Statue (Pushkin changed a palace into a children's orphanage).

From left to right: Kris, Kristy, Clark, Carol, Lisa, Brad, and Terri
We all got crepes at the park (Irina called them pancakes...Carol called them blintzes). I had a chocolate and banana crepe. Terri had ham and cheese. Kris got chicken, cheese, and bacon (but they put a salad on top) and a dessert crepe. They were good, but not filling at all. While eating lunch, Irina spoke about Sputnik. She explained that Sputnik means companion in Russian. She also told us that Bolshoy means Grand.
Russian crepes (photo courtesy of Carol)
Kris and the rest of the gang chow down on the crepes.  (photo courtesy of Carol)

The menu at the crepe place.
One of my favorite captures of the trip.
I got this photo of these two cats sleeping on a ledge when we came out of a restroom.
After leaving Peterhof, we were off to Catherine's Palace and Alexander's Palace (last imperial family palace).

Photo by Kris


Panoramic photo by Carol
The gang at Catherine's Palace
We had to put on booties.
Carol and I soak it in.

Catherine I presume?  ~Photo by Carol




We also made it to the Egyptian Gate and Admiralty Steeple. Next Irina told us that the Russian death rate is actually larger than the birth rate, but, due to immigration, their population is actually steady.

While at Catherine's Palace and many other places, we saw at least 10 brides dressed in their wedding dresses. Irina explained that many people are getting married younger and younger, but there is only about a 50% success rate. She said that they have a lot of new "toy churches" in the city too.
One of the many wedding parties we saw.
They don't consider the Holy Trinity Cathedral (church with a blue top) to be a toy church, but Irina told us that she used to figure skate in the building.

One thing I thought was really neat about Russian construction is that when buildings were under renovation, they put up paper that looks like the building to hide the work.
Hiding the construction
We went to the Grand Choral Synagogue where we were accused of stealing a nesting doll. While here, I refused to go into the marriage room. This seemed to puzzle Irina. I had to explain that I don't go into churches. She proceeded to call me the anti-christ and said I needed to be saved.
We were accused of stealing the middle nesting doll of the dolls they had on display.
Gorgeous synagogue where we were accused of stealing.
Inside of the synagogue

July 16th, 2011
Today started later than planned, but it started. Our first stop was at a McDonalds.
Russian McDonalds  ~Photo by Kris
We made a quick trip to an artillery museum, and then we were off to the Pete and Paul Fortress and Cathedral.
Artillery Museum  ~Photo by Kris
We only really spent time at the cathedral, so I was stuck outside in the rain while the others went inside. I did get to see a marching band perform. Kris said they went through all of the tombs with Irina explaining the history of each one, and, when they thought they were through, she pulled them over to see a bunch of portraits. Whenever he said, "but we have someone waiting for us outside" she said that she hoped I had found cover. Nice, eh? (Need I explain that I'm not so impressed with Russian hospitality?)
While I was stuck in the rain, they were seeing this.  ~Photo by Kris
Pete and Paul Fortress and Cathedral
The band played in the rain.
We stopped for photos with some neat red pillars called the Rostral Columns that used to be lighthouses.

Irina told us about this time that there are significantly more Soviet women than men, "so women try to look most beautiful." Due to this, fitness clubs are doing very well. They even have fitness boats.

We viewed Hare, the smallest island, and the Museum of Political History.

We also stopped at the cruiser Aurora for photos.

We drove past the old KGB house (the ugly building behind a tv screen) and saw Elizabeth's palace (which is now a convent).

We then went to an old 20th century mosque for photos.

Dome of Mosque
Next up was Yusupov's Palace - Russian Orthodox - run by the Ministry of Teachers. We spent quite a bit of time there.


The gang coming down the stairs at Yusupov's Palace.




Something caught their attention.
I think it was this guy.
Or this strange statue?
Or maybe this gorgeous stained glass?
Irina with Carol and Clark
Then we were off to eat what Irina called pierogies, but they weren't like any I had before. They were more like nasty meat pies. I just ate the outer covering. Everyone said that the dessert and cheese pies were way better.

The pierogies tasted like feet.
We spent over an hour in the Hermitage Museum, but we were supposed to spend more time there. We got a bit overwhelmed with all of the items seeming to be the same.  I know there were things in the Hermitage that would have fascinated me, but we were only seeing portraits.

Clark, who has a broken leg, pushes a bored Kristy through the Hermitage.  Irina was not amused.  ~Photo by Carol.
Kris did manage to find an incredible chess set, and we did find something made from three of the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  (Again Irina was not amused.)
Chess Set photographed by Kris
Hermitage
Sleepy bus driver
Building in the Hermitage Square
Last on the official agenda was the Church of the Spilled Blood. It was a pretty elaborate church. I waited around the back for everyone to come out.  Ellen caught me waiting for everyone.
Me not acting very Russian (since I was smiling).
 Irina was not happy that I wouldn't go inside.
Church of the Spilled Blood
Brad and Lisa by fabulous fence at the back of the Church of the Spilled Blood
After the Church of the Spilled Blood, where a bunch of people on the cruise were pick-pocketed and stripped of all of their items, we went to the Wedding Bridge. The wedding bridge is covered with locks from people who have gotten married. They bring a lock with their names engraved, and they lock it on the bridge for good luck. We saw a bride and groom (and wedding party) taking photographs on the bridge. They actually released a pair of doves. Terri was the only one to get that shot. We saw so many wedding parties this trip!

Kris and Kristy on lock bridge
Skitler hung out on the lock bridge

Another wedding
Yet another wedding
There goes another wedding.

Another wedding party awaits their turn.
We weren't ready to leave quite yet, so Irina took us to see a statue.  We told her we wanted to see something unique and non-touristy.  She got pretty offended, but she took us to see the Rascal.

When we got out of the van, we heard and incredible rehearsal for an opera. I stopped and marveled for a bit before we walked over to see the statue of Ostop Bender aka "The Scoundrel" of the 12 chairs.
The gang at "The Scoundrel"
We also saw Anna Pavlova's home.
Check out the crazy letters!
Artwork in hotel we snuck into to use the restroom.
We were all quite exhausted when we got back to the boat.

Toaster Mafia out...
See us in the reflection?

 To be continued...



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