There is much more to Russia than its two great cites, and a river cruise is a great way to see it all.
by Wasatch on June 13, 2008
Of the places we visited in Russia, Kostroma is where I would most like to return. Once the home of major Soviet military installations, Kostroma was closed to visitors until the 1990s, making it a place so secret that it wasn’t shown on Russian maps. Kostroma is an attractive small city on the Volga River. It is large enough (350,000) to have an interesting old town of classical buildings and old wooden houses, but small enough that the streets were not clogged with traffic. I used every possible moment to wander the streets.Be sure to get down to the waterfront for the view across the Volga. Our local guide said that her grandmother used to wade across the river in the summer, before Stalin's dams deepened the river for ship traffic in the 1930s.The spacious town square is surrounded by fine classical buildings constructed after a devastating fire in 1773 destroyed most of the ancient wooden city. The building with what looks to be a lighthouse on top was the fire station, with a fire lookout tower rising from the roof. Also on the town square is the largest old city market (the arcaded buildings) remaining in Russia, more than a dozen buildings. Construction began in the 17th Century. The usual warnings about pick pockets apply if you visit the daily farm market.Close to the town square, the baroque Convent Church was the prettiest church we saw in Russia. Face the fire station at the town square, and walk a couple blocks down the second street to the right.The 15th Century St Ipaty Monastery at the confluence of the Volga and Kostroma Rivers, is the town’s principal sight. The monastery choir performed two folk music numbers. Since only church music can be performed in a church, the short concert was in the hall of one of the residential buildings. This short concert ended with a knockout performance of the Song of the Volga Boatmen, selling many $20 CDs.A number of other churches and a wooden buildings museum are recommended by the guide books, but we did not visit them.The last stop on our bus tour was the city market on the town square. We quickly abandoned the tour at that point to explore on our own since the dock was so near– follow the street between the town square opposite the court house/government office building and the arcaded building opposite going away from the firehouse. After the arcades, the street runs along the city park. Turn right at the end of the park and the dock is two blocks down hill.St Ipatievsky Monastery(1275 AD) is main reason far a visit to Kostroma, although I preffered the town square area and the Convent Church. The star of the show at St Ipaty is the Iconostasis of Trinity church. The Goudenov Tsars built Trinity, but the Iconostasis was sent by one of the Romanov Tsars. History aside, this icon screen blew away any and all of the others we saw in two weeks in Russia. If you find icons attractive, this is as good as they come. If you find icons boring, you will like this. The secret is gold– lots of gold, from floor to ceiling and wall to wall.St Ipaty is loaded with history. Prince Michael Romanov received a delegation from Moscow come to appoint him Tsar on the porch of St Ipaty's church. St. Ipaty is located outside the center of town, at the confluence of the Volga and Kostroma Rivers, a pretty setting and our bus stopped for a photo op just across the river bridge. Note the typical design of the Monastery– mostly a fort, with churches inside.Our tour included the usual two number concert by the Monastery Choir (CDs $20). Since only religious music can be performed inside a church, the concert took place in the arrival hall of one the Monastery’s residential buildings. Fine acoustics, and the rousing rendition of the Volga Boatman sold a lot of CDs.A must see is the old wooden church near the Monastery. Go to the far end of the parking lot, turn right to the end of the block, on the right. This church is in need of restoration, and is third rate compared those on Kizhi Island, but if you haven’t been there, go see it.Not all Russian river tours stop at Kostroma, but they should. It is not worth saving a few hundred dollars if it means a shorter cruise that skips Kostroma. By all means, if taking the river trip between Moscow and St Petersburg, be sure to get one that stops at Kostroma. Unfortunately, Amadeus, our cruise company, dropped the visit to Kostroma in 2008 & 2009.
by Wasatch on June 4, 2006
Arrival at the Moscow airport after 17 hours of airplanes put us in bad mood, a 115-minute wait at passport control, unclear signs, and pushy mobs of Russians. When we finally reached the arrival hall, things began to pick up. As promised, a person holding a sign saying "MS Tolstoy" was waiting right at the door. Transfer was handled by a driver and an English speaking member of the crew. When we finally arrived at the ship, about 10:30pm, dinner was still being served in the dining room.Moscow’s 9 to 12 million people, depending on which source is right, live in a city covering nearly as large an area as los Angeles, 390 miles² versus 450, making it an usually spacious city for Europe. Green space is further increased since most of the people live in high-rise apartments. Moscow was founded in 852 A.D.and became capitol of what would become Russia more or less in the 16th Century in 1157. In 1712, Peter the Great moved Russia’s capital to St. Petersburg where it remained for 300 years until the 1917 Revolution. The Communists restored Moscow as the capital in 1918.Moscow Day One. It rained all day. That morning, we got on one of four busses for the approximately 130 passengers and met Masha, our excellent English speaking guide, for a tour of Moscow. After driving around seeingthe sights form the bus, we disembarked and rode Metro, stopping at four of the most notable Metro stations, finishing close to Red Square. We entered Red Square by the National Historical Museum, revealing an impressive view of Red Square, GUM, Lenin’s Tomb, and, at the far end stood grand St. Basil’s Cathedral. After Masha did her thing, she turned us loose, to meet in 30 minutes in front of St. Basil’s. We immediately headed for the small, wildly colored church on the corner behind us, where a full blown Russian Orthodox Service was in progress. Seeing and hearing the service, contestant chants by the priests and choir, was a not to be missed experience.Then we entered GUM for our first encounter with a Russian restroom, a type we call a squat toilet—no seat, just two steel pedestals where you stand and squat.After a brief lecture on recently repainted St. Basil’s and lots of picture taking, we reboarded the bus behind the Cathedral and headed to an impressive view of the Novodevichy Convent from the shores of Swan Lake, the one Tchaikovsky wrote the ballet about.Back to the ship for lunch, then off to the Tretyakov Gallery to spend the afternoon visiting what is by universal acclaim, the greatest collection of Russian art anywhere. That said, if this is the best of Russian art, I can think of a lot of better ways to spend my time than looking at Russian art. We quickly abandoned the guided tour, walked through the place in quick time, and went outside to explore the streets until bus departure, a much better use of our time than looking at Russian art.Dinner aboard was preceded by the Captain’s Reception and Cocktail Party. Having experienced this traditional absurdity twice before, we went early, grabbed a glass of the invariable cheap champaign, some hors d’oeuvres, and left.Moscow Day Two. The morning tour of the Armory and Kremlin was a highlight of the Moscow visit, once it finally got started. Unfortunately, like passport control, the Kremlin is run by a government seemingly devoted to making tourists miserable—73 minutes to get inside the Kremlin walls. With hundreds of visitors lined up in the Alexander Garden, the government had one metal detector operating at the gate. The Kremlin is an old fortified city within the city. The red brick walls of the Kremlin extend for 1.3 miles, rising to 240 feet at some of the towers. About half the original towers are now gone. They were built a regular intervals spaced at twice the maximum range of guns in the 15th century so that gunfire from the ports in the towers could cover the entire wall. Inside the walls, the Kremlin, as the original Russian seat of government and religion, is a city of palaces and churches. The Armory Museum was built by the Tsars to display their wealth—Faberge Eggs, porcelain table settings for a couple dozen people, royal dress, Ivan the Terrible’s throne, Catharine the Great’s State Carriage, armor, guns—an altogether staggering display of conspicuous consumption. Unfortunately our tour did not include a visit to the diamond collection. Then we had a guided tour across the grounds of the Kremlin, with a visit to St. Michael’s Cathedral. We left the Kremlin into Red Square, and walked past St. Basil’s to the waiting bus.That afternoon, we took an optional tour to the Pushkin Art Museum (also offered, an optional tour to the grounds of the Novodevichy Convent). Almost all the people on the Pushkin bus went to see the Museum’s noted collection of French Impressionism (one gallery had a dozen Monets, the next room, 11 Renoirs), and some of them ran into trouble trying to find it. A reception had closed the route the guide directed us to take, and the floor plans were only in Russian. I had Baedeker’s, with a floor plan in English, so we maneuvered directly to the Impressionist Galleries. On our way back for quick walk through of the rest of the museum, we rescued some of our group who were still floundering about trying to find the Impressionist galleries with time running out. Other than the Impressionist collection, there are some Kadinskys, Picasos, and a nice collection of artifacts from ancient Egypt. Much of the museum is given over to copies of great works from around Europe, originally made for use in art training programs.After dinner, there was a choice of optional tours to the Moscow Circus or “Moscow By Night.” We took Moscow By Night, which turned out to be another highlight of the Moscow visit. First stop was some of the city’s newest contemporary buildings and a walk across the bridge over the Moscow River with views of the Kremlin. Next stop, the Victory Monument, a vast memorial to Great Patriotic War (WWII) located on a hill with a panoramic view of the city. The Monument includes all sorts of monumental stuff, a war museum, 3 to 4 churches, and 1,400 fountains lit from below by red lights arraigned in a series of pools descending Victory Hill. Our final stop was the city overlook atop Sparrow hill, the highest. place in Moscow, and here we learned why the tour brought us into Moscow on Friday. We met Moscow traffic in a midnight traffic jam on a bridge. We could see our destination from the bridge, perhaps ¼-mile away. It took 45 minutes to get there. We got back to the ship about 1:am.
During the Soviet era, the expression Potemkin Village meant a misleading show piece making Russia lookbetter than it actually was. The Soviets were good at this, and Moscow and St. Petersburg are PotemkinVillages on the grand scale. The great advantage of a Russian river cruise is that it stops at some moretypical villages, towns, and cities which gave us a much better picture of Russian life than what is seen inthe two great cities.Places visited (in order):Moscow: Days 1-3 days, depending on when your plane arrivesDay 4 Uglich- a small village of great historical importanceDay 5 Kostroma- a noted monastery in a delightful classical style small cityDay 6 Yaroslavl- another monastery in a larger (600,000 pop.) cityDay 7 Goritsy (St Cyrll of White Lake Monastery)Day 8 Kizhi Island Open-Air Museum of 18th-Century Wooden Village BuildingsDay 9 Mondrogui—Russian Colonial Williamsburg. Days 9-13 St. Petersburg- Russia’s other showpiece cityThe Rivers Volga, Svir, and NevaThe two largest lakes in Europe.The rest of this Review will cover the stops between Moscow and St. Petersburg, each of which has aseparate review.UGLICH dates back to 1148, and while it is a backwater of some 40,000 today, Ugligh played a major rolein the history of Russia, about which you will learn from your guide. Our visit had three part– first, a tourof the remains of the Kremlin (a Russian word meaning fort) whose cathedral had the most spectaculariconostasis we saw on the whole trip. Here we first encountered one of the standard parts of tour ofreligious buildings in the hinterland—the church choir performed a couple numbers, and announced theyhad a CD for $20.Part II: free time at the souvenir stands lining the dock.Part III: A typical diner with home brewed vodka at a home in Uglich. First course: cabbage soup and carrot salad. Second course, boiled potatoes. Third course: apple cobbler. The 16-year old daughter of our host family spoke English better than most American teens do.KOSTROMA was the most attractive stop along the Volga because it was large enough (350,000) to havean interesting old town of classical buildings and old wooden houses but small enough that the streets werenot clogged with traffic. I used every possible moment to wander the streets, and wish we had had moretime here. Prince Mikhail Romanov lived here when a delegation from Moscow arrived and invited him tobecome Tsar, starting 300 years of Romanov rule. The last Romanov Tsar, Nicholas II came to Kostromain 1913 to dedicate the foundation of a great statue in the city park in honor of 300 years of Romanov rule. The last Romanov Tsar threw a handful of gold coins into the cement. The foundation now supports astatue of Lenin. The spacious town square is surrounded by fine classical buildings constructed after a devastating fire in 1773 destroyed much of the ancient city of wooden buildings. The building with what looks to be a lighthouse on top was the fire station, complete with a fire lookout tower rising from the roof of the building. Also on the town square is the largest old city market (the arcade buildings) remaining anywhere in Russia. The usual warnings about pick pocks apply if you visit the daily farm market.Fifteenth-century St. Ipaty Monastery at the confluence of the Volga and Kostroma Rivers, is the town’s principal sight, including two numbers by the choir. CDs, $20.Close to the town square, the baroque Convent Church was the prettiest church on the trip. Face the fire station at the town square, and walk a couple blocks down the second street to the right.Because of its military installations, Kostroma was closed city, not even shown on Soviet maps, until 1991.Linen is an local industry, and the usual pier side souvenir stand offer a variety of linen goods. The ladies will love the lace table cloths.YAROSLAVL is the regional capital. With 750,000 people, the city is borderline on traffic congestion. We visited some attractive churches and another monastery. Instead of a choir concert, we had a demonstration and concert of northern Russian bell ringing, unique in that the bells do not move, only the clapper. The bell ringer controls a bunch of bells with strings wrapped around his fingers. CD, $20 (wait until Kizhi, bell CD for $12).Our visit fell on St. Cyril’s Day, honoring the inventor of the Cyrillic alphabet. A religious procession marched through the grounds of the monetary near the end of our visit, and was most interesting to follow as long as we could.GORITZY is the stop for transfers to busses for a visit to the Monastery of St. Cyril of the White Lake, eliciting several comments along the lines of, "Oh no, not another monetary," but the people who put this tour together know what they are doing. It was not just another monastery, and afterwards, all the initial grumblers were confessing they were glad they went. This is/was the largest monastery in Russia, ruling 400 villages and 20,000 serfs in its heyday. The role played by the Orthodox Church in subjugating the populace is obvious from the massive fortifications surrounding the monastery. The monastery contains a small museum displaying 200 remarkable icons from the 15th to 17th century, a far better show than Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. The gift shop offered a variety of quality crafts at decent prices. Be sure to request a “Certificate of Authenticity” if you buy any amber. You don’t need it for anything, but makes a great souvenir with all the scroll work and incomprehensible words. KIZHI (pronounced key-she) ISLAND MUSEUM OF WOODEN ARCHITECTURE will do as Russia’s answer to Colonial Williamsburg. Wooden churches and farm buildings, mostly for the 19th century were reassembled here as an open air museum starting in 1951. The star is the Church of the Transfiguration, built in 1714 and crowned with 22 onion domes whose well weathered aspen wood shingles shine like silver. The big church was a summer church, unheated. The smaller church next door with 11 onion domes, was the winter church.We quickly left the guided tour with its excess of information and too much standing around and found there is a small plaque at each building with a brief English description of what it is.Several of the farm houses are open and furnished in with original furniture of that era. Leaving the boat, most of the museum is to the right of the end of the dock. Almost everyone returned to the dock (souvenir shops) when their trip around the loop walk brought them back even with the dock. I kept going, and a short distance away, I came across another farmhouse museum, the largest and most interesting of all. Nearby was a display showing how the buildings were conducted with out the use of nails. They were all build from cut pieces of wood that fit together, something like Lincoln Logs. Any nails you might see were added in 20th-century reconstructions.The oldest church dates back to the 14th century, and a bell ringer would occasional play some bell music, CDs,$12.MONDROGUI is about as authentic as Disneyland’s European villages. Described as a village of artisans, it is a big tourist trap, with somewhat more expensive souvenirs than most places. Nevertheless, there is a wide selection of souvenirs, and the buildings are fun to look at. Some cruises have a Russian BBQ lunch here in the big tents. Ours didn’t.By some accounts, there is a vodka factory and museum here, with free tasting, but we didn’t find it.
by Wasatch on June 5, 2006
This “Experince” review is specific to what we experienced on the MS Tolstoy. For a discussion of how to pick ariver ship cruise, see “Experience—How To Pick a River Cruise”First off, and this is very important, there are several reviews of the Tolstoy on the Internet. Ignore them. The ship changed owners and was completely remodeled for the 2006 season, and what we experienced inMay, 2006, was nothing like what those earlier travelers reported. It is misleading waste of time to evenread them. A couple examples: earlier passengers complained that breakfast was too skimpy. Now,breakfast is a buffet. Earlier reviews complained about the fairly typical Russian ship bathroom where theshower head is located above the toilet and you have to sit on the pot to take a shower. Not so on the 2006Tolstoy. There is separate shower, but, like most advanced river ships, the bathroom is cramped.We decided on the Tolstoy because we were satisfied with our previous cruise on the Danube which wasoperated by the same company (Amadeus Waterways), the ship was refurbished during the winter 2005-2006, Amadeus cruises include wine with diner (only one glass on the Tolstoy) and an early bookingdiscount from RiverDiscounts.com helped make the price right.More than 70 ships operate the river cruise between Moscow and St Petersburg, and, up until 2006, theTolstoy was the cream of the crop. It was built in 1982 as the Soviet leadership’s cruise ship—Brezhnev’sSuite was three doors down the hall from our cabin—and, as such, is a level of comfort above thecompetition (a newly built ship which may rival or exceed the Tolstoy came on line in the spring of 2006). As only some of these ships provide cruises in English, keep in mind that all my subsequent comments onship comparisons are limited to the English speaking trips and ships.The Tolstoy is the only ship with a swimming pool, but it is very small. There is a bar on the deck of thepoll with unusually comfortable chairs for a cruise ship. The maximum passenger load of 150 is less thanany other ship. The typical ship carries 200 to 240. Even with its smaller passenger load, the Tolstoy has alot of public space. Public areas are: the sun deck—forget it in bad weather; the bars/lounges;theater/concert hall; and library.Good ship: plenty of room inside for everyone to sit in one of the public areas. Bad ship: not enough seats. Good ship: comfortable chairs. Bad ship: uncomfortable. I’ve yet to find a good ship in this category, butthe Tolstoy was better than our two previous experiences.We were tied up in St. Petersburg between two of the 240 passenger ships, and the Tolstoy’s sun deck wasclearly larger than the others.Why a library? If you want to read, it is the only quite place. Tolstoy’s library was quite attractive, andlarger than any others we have seen.Dining room. Good ship: all tables are window tables. Bad ship: lots of interior tables. The Tolstoy hadonly three interior tables (12 seats).There are two parts to the crew on a cruise ship—those who make the ship go, and those who serve thepassengers. Since passengers rarely interact with the ship operators, whenever I refer to the crew, I’mtaking about the passenger care staff. While the crews on our two previous cruises were fully competent,Tolstoy’s crew went above and beyond. They were cheerful and friendly without being pretentious aboutit. There were enough very good English speakers around that language was never a problem. Thefollowing is a post-cruise email from one of the staff. Note how well this Russian native can writeEnglish, and note the attachment to the passengers, which was reciprocated by the passengers. “We have new passengers aboard the Tolstoy now, and we miss you immensely. The new-comers seem tobe strangers after the previous guests who have become so dear during our short period of acquaintance.Take care,P.S. Greetings from Sasha, Olga, and our receptionists Lyuba and Vlada, as well as the rest of the cruisestaff .After what we had read on the Internet about the food on Russian river cruises, we were more than pleasedwith the food quality. No doubt to give us taste of the country, the chef programed a number of Russiandishes, which tend toward the bland– there is just so much that can be done with cabbage, beet soup, andboiled potatoes. That aside, food was generally prepared very well, and include the best prepared pork andchicken I have ever eaten. There was a tender and juicy pork cutlet, ½ inch thick, that was easily cut by fork. Try that at Denny’s. Soups were uniformly outstanding. There was also a sauna, a gift shop, a TV room, but only Russian TV although the brochure said someEnglish language satellite stations would be available. Deluxe rooms and suites had in room TV/DVDswith a small collection of DVD movies available at Reception. Electricity was standard European 220v,but a hair dryer was in the cabin. There is a safe for keeping valuables. Coffee, three types of tea, andanimal crackers were avilible free, 24/7. All other drinks except one glass of wine at dinner were extracharge. There are cabin controls for heat and air-conditioning, but the fan got really noisy above low speed.The crew included a Professor of Russian History who delivered a series of lectures on post Soviet Russia,a three person folk music group, and two musicians who entertained each evening in the main lounge. There was also a doctor and masseuse on board.Each evening the bed turndown ladies left a schedule of the next day’s events in every cabin.Standard cabins on Russian ships come at 88, 92, or 110 feet² Mark this off in your living room, andremember it includes the bathroom & closet. Suits/deluxe cabins are generally larger. On the Tolstoy,standard cabins are 110 feet², deluxe cabins, 220, and suites 330. However, there is a wrinkle. Some shipshave standard cabins where one bed folds up against the wall during the day and the opposite bed convertsinto a couch, turning a very cramped bedroom into a relatively roomy day room. Standard cabins on theTolstoy did not do this, making them petty much useless for anything but sleep. Some passengers solvedthe space problem by alternating getting up time, wife stayed in bed until hubby showered & dressed & leftthe cabin. In his type of cabin, you will spend almost all your waking hours outside your cabin, so theTolstoy extensive public areas are all to the good.We opted for a deluxe cabin which was large enough to include a small desk, two bedside tables, arefrigerator, a TV, and two arm chairs that were more comfortable than most of the seats in the publicareas. Unfortunately, it had two windows with flimsy curtains instead of one, but I had two pieces of blackplastic which turned them into real curtains.Back to the cabin: the bathrooms on some Russian ships are so small that you have to sit on the toilet totake a shower. Not so on the Tolstoy, but there is room for only one person at a time in the bathroom. Twocan squeeze in if one is in the shower.The Tolstoy had such flimsy curtains that they were useless for room darkening (in St. Petersburg, sun setwas at 10:45pm, and it never really got dark at night). To darken the room, we took some black phasicalong big enough to cover the window and used spring loaded cloths pins to attach it to the flimsy curtain. If you want it really dark, take a double layer of black plastic, it is light and doesn’t take much room whenrolled up in your suitcase.
This Experiences review covers our cruise stop in St Petersburg. Moscow and ports in between are discussed in other entries.During the Soviet era, the expression Potemkin Village meant a misleading showpiece village makingRussia look better than it actually was. The Soviets were good at this, and Moscow and St. Petersburg arePotemkin Villages on the grand scale. The great advantage of a Russian river cruise is that it also stops at more typical villages, towns, and cities which gave us a much better picture of Russian life than what isseen in the great cities, but, the great cities, even if not the real Russia, were definitely worth the time allottedby the tour, if not a few days longer.Peter the Great built St. Petersburg in the 18th century to be the great capital of the great Russian Empire,and for 300 years, St. Petersburg, not Moscow, was the seat of government. Only Paris rivals St.Petersburg for monumental buildings, but Paris is built of cold gray stone while the palaces of St.Petersburg are a riot of pastel colors. Like Washington, DC and Brasilia, St Petersburg is one of the handful of national capitals that wasoriginally constructed as the nation’s capital. Peter the Great started the job in 1703, creating a citydesigned to impress, and impress it does.Day 1: Morning trip to The Hermitage. It is not clear exactly what the Hermitage is. Simply put, it is one of world’s greatest art museums—350 rooms, 2,700,000 works of art—but it is also more than that. It consists of 1,2, 3, or 4 buildings, depending on how you want to count. The Winter Palace, now part of the Hermitage, displays art in the grand rooms of the Tsar’s official home. The decor overwhelms the art. The Large Hermitage was built by the Tsars as an art museum. The Hermitage Theater is only used for performances, no tour visits. Our guided tour took us through the most of the major palace rooms and works of art—Da Vinci, Renoir, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Rubens—but if you want to see all the grand place rooms, abandon the tour. Afternoon bus tour of St Petersburg. With a number of photo op stops, and a visit to a souvenir shop nearthe university—with very attractive prices.Day 2: Morning tour to Peterhof, the Tsar’s summer place on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, about 15miles west of St Petersburg. Peterhof consists of 7 to 8 palaces and churches set in a large park, Englishgarden on the ocean side of the Great Palace, a French garden on the other side. Our tour took us throughCatherine’s Palace, because, according to the guide, there was not enough time to tour the Great Palace. Inaddition, we saw the Great Cascade and the English garden with its fountains and follies. If I had to doover, I would leave the tour and go through the Great Palace and visit the Grand Cascade, which is next tothe Great Palace. Catherine’s Palace was too modest. I’d rather see the Grand Palace's more ostentatiousdisplay of gold and velvet. That afternoon’s 75 minute Canal Boat tour was a highlight of the trip. This is the way to see St Petersburg. I wish it had been longer.Day 3. Morning tour of Catherine’s Palace in the nearby town of Pushkin. This is a “don’t miss” while inSt Petersburg. By now, I had lost track of how many palaces the Tsars had, but this was their favorite. The first room visited is the aptly named “Grand Hall", with a short concert, CDs, $20. The star ofCatherine’s Palace (named for Peter the Great’s Wife, Catherine I, not for Catherine the Great, is the Amber room, a room where all the walls are covered with a mosaic of amber. The German Army occupied Catherine’s Palace during The Great Patriotic War (WW II). After the German retreat from St. Petersburg, the Amber room had disappeared. The KGB searched for the room for 45 years without luck. Finally, a reproduction was made, being completed in 2003. There are several photos in the palace with pre-post WW II scenes showing the destruction caused by the war. We had a choice of optional tours or free time for our last afternoon in St Petersburg. While she packed for the return home, I ventured into the city via metro. This was an experience, and it has or will have itsown “Experience” review, “Getting Around”. That evening, we went to the ballet at the Hermitage Theater, built by Catherine the Great.
by Wasatch on June 11, 2006
The brochure price for a river cruise is not as all inclusive as the brochure would lead you to believe. Besure to read ALL the fine print to learn what is not included in the “all-inclusive” price. Here is what wespent for two on top of the advertised price:Taxes & fees: $180Passports: $150-180 (depends if new or renewal) Russian Visas: $390Tips: The cruise company suggested $15 a day per person for the crew plus $6 a day per person for theCruise Director. Other sources said $5-6 for the crew per person, $2-3 for the Cruise Director. Localguides, $1-4, bus driver $1-4 (Hint for tipping: a 50 ruble bill is just about $2 in 2006).Souvenirs: $520.Optional Tours and tips for bus tour guides/drivers: $500. Optional tour prices ranged from $18-44 foreach half-day tour (3 to 4 hours, plus admissions). This is noticeably cheaper than optional tours cost in theEU.Carry lots of US$ or Euros in cash. Many merchants will take $ in payment, and they do not seem to ripyou off on the exchange rate. We met a couple who could not cash American Express Travelers checks ata bank in St. Petersburg. Note: there is an Amex office in both Moscow and St. Petersburg where you cancash their Travelers’ checks. Good luck on finding it. Generally, exchanging currency at a bank gets thebest rates. As in all foreign currency exchanges, you will never get the price advertised. There areunstated fees.It was sometimes cheaper to pay in $ than to use rubles from an exchange at a bank. To convert rubles to $ in your head to figure out prices: The exchange rate was $1=26+ rubles when wewere there in May, 2006. 26 to 1 is almost 25 to 1, which is workable math. Multiple the ruble price byfour, and shift the decimal point two places to the left. Thus, 250 rubles = $10 (250 x 4 = 1000. Decimalmove two places = $10) Actual value = $9.58, so our estimation system came pretty close. If you want toget even closer, after preforming the above calculations, subtract 5% (take 10%, then divide by 2).Look for early or last minute booking discounts. Sometimes these come from the cruise companiesthemselves, but often they are only offered through certain travel agencies who specialize in this sort ofthing. We used early booking deals through River Discounts for our three river cruises as we couldn’t findany lower rates anywhere else. As for airfare, sometimes it cheaper to do your own, sometimes it ischeaper to use the cruise company’s special rates. The only way to tell to search and compare.If you find an unlikely last minute discount, there will be high extra fees for expedited visa service.Don’t forget to check on the current damage being done to your foreign travel budget by GW Bush’s stupideconomic policies, which have raised prices far more than the soaring price of oil. In the last year of theClinton Administration, $1 bought €1.15. Today, the rate is $1= 0.78. A €20 meal in 2000 cost$17.40. That same meal today costs $25.60. Last year, $1 bought almost 30 rubles. When we were inRussia, $1= 26 rubles. That is about a 15% price increase in everything an American tourist buys inRussia, and the Central Bank in Russia is subsidizing dollars. Last year in Prague, we got 26kr for $1. The rate now is 22kr for $1. The $18 diner for two we had last year costs $21 this year.
by Wasatch on June 12, 2006
The usual sources of tourist information have dire news about public restrooms in Russia. On the whole,we found the facilities better than we expected.Some charged a fee, 5 to 8 rubles (20-30¢). Many were free. All were clean, but many look shabby. They ranged from squat toilets* (fee, in the GUM Department Store on Red Square) to Austrian quality.**Be on the lookout for is the location of the toilet paper. It was quite common for there to be a single roll forthe entire restroom located outside the stalls. You have to tear off what you think you will use and take itinto the stalls with you. Error on the generous side. Remember to check– this is not a lesson you want tolearn the hard way, or perhaps I should say the messy way.All our a bus tours had restroom stops, ranging across the full gambit of quality per above. If you are onyour own, look to McDonald’s or the lobbies of the better hotels. The larger tour buses are toilet equipped, but we were not encouraged to use them. At least some werelocked, necessitating a request to the bus driver through the tour guide to open the thing.Always carry a pocket/purse pack of Kleenex and Immodium. If you are changing planes at the Frankfurt airport, be sure to visit one of their restrooms and watch whathappens when you flush the toilet– it washes and dries the seat.WC is widely used as an identifier. In Russian, look desperate and say, “twah-let”.* The stall contains a hole in the floor with two raised footrests on either side. Squat and let loose. ** We have found on our travels that Austria has, on average, the nicest public restrooms of any country.
Our biggest problems were before we got to Russia, in getting our airplane tickets. Screw up was piledupon screw up by both Orbitz and Lufthansa. At one point I counted 18 phone calls needed to get Orbitzto understand that their computer and Lufthansa’s computer did not have us on the same flights, andnobody was sure which one was correct. Our next trip was booked on Expedia.The government of Russia seems committed to discouraging tourism, and they do a good job of it:1] A visa will cost about $200 per person, done through a visa service for $60-80 extra fee. Theoretically,you can save the service fee by doing it yourself, but that’s a bad idea. You will have to get a letter ofinvitation from whoever is booking your trip– we tried, and it never came. Best to use the recommendedvisa service, who will have all the papers the Russian government requires. 2] Arrival at the Moscow airport after 17 hours of airplanes put us in very bad mood– 115 minute wait at passport control, unclear signs, and pushy mobs of stampeding Russians. It took about three minutes to clear passport control on our return to the USA. 3] The Kremlin is government property– 73-minute wait to get through the gate in the Kremlin wall– hundreds of visitors lined up, only one metal detector operating. 4] The State Hermitage wasn’t quite so bad. It only took 45 minutes to get into the museum. 5] Signs in the government operated metros in St Petersburg and Moscow are only in Russian.Metro is complex, and the signs are in Cyrillic. I had a metro map in Russian, but the Cyrillic alphabetcomes in two very different written forms. My map was mostly in one version, the metro signs in the other. Also, especially in St Petersburg, there is a high risk of pickpockets (see my Experiences entry on safety).We arrived in Moscow on Friday and did our 2 days of touring Moscow on the weekend. It wasn’t untilwe experienced St Petersburg on a workday that we fully appreciated the Moscow tour guides’ commentsabout how lucky we were to have to deal with weekend traffic. Lucky meant taking only 45 minutes to go1/4 mile in a midnight traffic jam.Returning from Peterhof to St Petersburg, a trip of 12 to 15 miles, one of the busses from our group took overfour hours to make the trip.Since our travel agent indicated that the MS Tolstoy’s Cruise Director went above and beyond in fixingproblems, I’ll tell you some of the things she did. On arrival day, the Tolstoy’s restaurant served dineruntil 11pm. Since we didn’t get there until 10:30pm due to passport control, we got to eat when werebeginning to doubt it would happen.The bus that took over four hours to return form Peterhof, 15 miles away, missed lunch and was scheduledto go to the canal cruise after lunch. The Cruise Director kept in touch by cell phone, sent the bus directlyto the canal tour dock, and dispatched box lunches to the canal dock so the passengers would not misslunch.The next day, traffic also delayed the daytime tours, and the whole ship was scheduled to go to the balletthat evening, which never could have happened with the normal four course diner schedule. The CruiseDirector split dinner into two seatings. Salad and the main course were served as soon as we got back tothe ship. Then, after the ballet, we went back to the Tolstoy’s dinning room about 11:30 pm for soup anddessert.Each bus tour was accompanied by a tour guide/lecturer and one of the ship’s English speaking staff whobrought up the rear of the group to make sure everyone was there. One morning in Moscow, I asked tourguide Masha if she had ever lost a tourist. Emphatically, she said, “No!!” So it happened about two hourslatter. The missing person had established a reputation as a pain in the a__ within the first half hour of theWelcome Briefing, and was well known to members of the group of which he/she was traveling. They alltold the guide, “Don’t worry. He/she is like that. Went off on her own. He/sh will get back to the ship.” Nevertheless, the tour guide was upset. Lots of cell phone calls were made. Two of the ship crewaccompanying the touring groups were dispatched to search the neighborhood, and regularly reported bycell phone that they had no luck in finding the missing. Eventually, a call came from the ship that the straylamb had returned by taxi, to Masha’s obvious relief. Two points here: 1] lots of people would abandon the guided tour from time to time, but they followed protocol– tell the tour guide and the ship person you are leaving, and establish where and when to rejoin the group; and 2] note the effort the staff made to find the missing. They can’t be faulted in the least. They won’t let you get lost unless you really work at it.Dinner frequently took 1½ - 2 hours on the two other cruises we went on. The Tolstoy dining room crewwas much more efficient. I never timed it, but I never got antsy, which means it can’t have been muchmore than one hour at the worst.The bottom line is that this was a very well run operation, and problems were seldom caused by anythingthe cruise people did.
by Wasatch on July 1, 2006
Another Member’s journal titled “Capitalism in Russia” discusses some micro-economic trendsattributable to the introduction of capitalism in 1991. Here, I discuss the macro-economic impact ofcapitalism in Russia.There are three sources of information on the effects of capitalism on Russia in the post-Soviet era: 1]what we saw on our trip, 2] what we learned from the ship’s on board lectures on Russian life, and 3]statistics, including the extensive public opinion polling now going on in Russia. A recent article in Newsweek summed up the poll results: “Most Russians remember Russia in the1990s as a country of instability, lawlessness and banditry. They believe that Boris Yeltsin bankruptedthe country, handed its assets over to his cronies and spent most of his time drunk and dysfunctional.Russians see Putin, on the other hand, as having restored order, revived growth and reassertednational pride. Why? For the average Russian per capita GDP has gone from $600 to $4,500 duringPutin's reign, much, though not all of which, is related to oil prices. Poverty rolls have fallen from 42million to 26 million. College graduates have increased by 50 percent and a middle class has emergedin Russia's cities. Russia today is a strange mixture of freedom and unfreedom. (The country publishes90,000 books a year, espousing all political views.) Polls in Russia show that people still ratedemocracy as something they like and value. But in the wake of the 1990s, they value more urgentlyconditions that will allow them to lead decent civic and economic lives.” – Newsweek.What Newsweek found in the polls squared with what we saw and heard in Russia, and with the hardstatistics: so far, capitalism has been a disaster in Russia, and is well on the way to destroyingRussia’s incipient democracy.In 2005, Russia’s GDP grew 6%-10%, depending on whose statistics you use, the highest rate ofgrowth since the end of Soviet rule, or maybe 2004 was. The average annual economic growthunder the Soviets was 17%, the longest sustained and highest rate of economic growth in worldhistory. During the 1990s, Russia’s first decade of capitalism, Russia was the only nation on Earth toexperience negative economic growth. It took until 2003 for capitalism to return the nation to theincome level of the last year of the Soviet regime. Russia’s per capita income is somewhere between 12-29% that of the USA*. The true economiccondition of Russia became obvious the further away we traveled from Red Square or old St.Petersburg. This is a real advantage of the Russian waterways cruises– you get out of the showpiececites into real Russia (about 12% of all Russians live in the two showpiece cities). Don’t be misled into thinking the natives are Commie brainwashed braggarts by the obvious pride thethey take in their nation’s progress. Russia is little more than one generation away from Tsaristpeasantry, life much like what the West experienced under feudalism, and the very bad pre-revolutiondays and even worse WWII are the people’s standard of comparison, not Beverly Hills 20901. Compared to life back then, things are good today, but they were better under Communism. Compared to Communist rule, capitalism made income, poverty, housing, inflation, unemployment,crime, health, prostitution, life expectancy, health care, standard of living, and the schools worse thanthey were under Communism. Today, although the average income has finally passed the best Sovietyears, the economic situation of a large part of the population, especially the elderly, is still worsethan it was under Communism because the income distribution was much fairer then.A friend summed up Soviet life like this, “In my former life, I frequently traveled on the EasternShuttle. I once sat next to a member of the Count Basie Orchestra. He was on his way to Moscowwhere he had played many times over the years. His observation was ‘no bums on the street; everyonehad a job; no crime; no ass.’ ” Note that the Soviet Communists had better family values than theRepublican Party USA-- no crime, jobs for all, and no prostitution or promiscuity.From 1990 to today, under capitalism, Russia is the only industrialized nation in the world toexperince a decline in life expectancy, excluding the effects of AIDS.The change from Communism to capitalism was a change from a shortage of affordable goods to aneven worse surplus of unaffordable goods. This is a meaningless difference for all practical purposes, except that capitalism was decidedly worse, especially in its first few years.Pres. Putin enjoys great popularity because he has somewhat alleviated the worst evils of capitalismby attacking the leading Russian capitalists.At great social cost, capitalism, after 15 years, is beginning to show some small signs of progress, butit remains to be seen if and when capitalism will ever manage to make the average Russian’s lifebetter than it was under Communism. So far, on the economic front, the Commies are wining(democracy is a separate issue)-- had the 7.7% annual GDP growth of the last Soviet decadecontinued through 2005, the average Russian PPP-GDP would be over $25,000, more than doublewhat capitalism accomplished. Had the historic Soviet 17% growth rate continued, Russian incomewould be almost double America’s $83,000 a year. This is what Khrushchev was talking about whenhe told America, “We will bury you.”* I give a range here reflecting that fact that it isn’t easy to determine the average Russian’s incomebecause the ruble does not freely trade in international money markets. Going by the officialexchange rate, the average income per capita is ~$5,000 a year. Economists generally agree thatPPP-GDP, an adjusted figure taking into account the purchasing power of a currency in comparisonto the dollar, is a better measure. Russia’s PPP-GDP is ~$12,000 a year. This means that anAmerican can buy $12,000 worth of stuff in Russia by converting $5,000 into rubles. This works tothe visitor’s advantage, except that it is off sett by price gouging tourists who pay higher admissionfees and higher tax fares than do the locals.
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