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IMPERIAL RUSSIAN WATERWAYS

VANTAGE TOUR

June 28 - `July 13 2005

 

This is a report describing the tour on which I took 20 some friends including my son-in-law and two granddaughters. This was the 14th time I have been to Russia-Ukraine but the first occasion on which I selected a commercial tour company rather than organizing my own tours directly with Russian agents. I was a bit concerned about not having absolute control over the entire itinerary from scratch. On the other hand I was glad not to have to do a huge amount of logistics and coordination prior to departure and during the tour. The result was that I was very impressed with the whole Vantage Tour Company operation. They exceeded my expectations throughout. The wealth of information they provided prior to the tour was especially valuable and unexpected. The full description with photos is here.

 
 

Tues 28 June -

Arrive at Dulles Airport at 1230 - Check in started at 1315. All went well. We secured isle seats. Unfortunately, I found that the 10 booklets on Russia in binders, that we had planned to give to our friends, were too bulky and heavy so I discarded them and kept only 2 sets of the text to pass around. I also had numerous maps of Russia and other lecture material, so barely made it on weight as it was. The security personnel insisted on opening and testing individually each of the rolls of high speed film. We were surprised and pleased to find a Vantage representative in the gate area. He had a roster and checked each individual scheduled for the flight. The flight departed late due to a thunderstorm. Air France uses a Boeing 777, so it was comfortable. The flight was fine, with a good crew. Leg room was satisfactory and the meals were good.


 
 

Wed 29 June
The Paris airport was a different story all together. There are insufficient directions posted to enable passengers to move through the complex routing between terminals. There are insufficient and unhelpful personnel to help passengers. Between terminals one has to board a bus that makes a long circuitous route and has many stops at which one is not sure to get off or not. But the worst incident came at the check in for boarding the airplane for Moscow. They made a mistake with the tickets and computer and argued at length if we would be allowed to board or not. Never mind that we had through tickets from Washington to Moscow. Of course they had to check each roll of film again. The AirBus plane to Moscow was not comfortable either.

We arrived at Sheremetev Airport about 4 PM: later than a Lufthansa flight from Washington would have arrived. As always, it took over an hour to clear passport control and customs, even though the customs officials only check 3rd world or other dubious looking passengers. By that time we were delighted to see the Vantage representatives waiting in the crowd. One should never arrive at Sheremetev without having arranged ahead of time to be met by some responsible persons, with transportation. One must expect at least an hour or more to clear the airport, so that one cannot plan on doing much if anything in Moscow that afternoon if arrival is after 1 PM or so. We took advantage of the time there to change dollars into rubles.

The Vantage bus was good. But each time I go to Moscow the traffic is worse. Fortunately for the drive from the airport, but not anything else, the Northern River Port is on the northern outskirts of Moscow and on the direct Leningrad highway between the two. We arrived at the ship just in time for dinner and the welcome orientation talk. This was well done. Dinner was excellent. No need to comment repeatedly, that the two restaurants were spacious and well appointed, the food varied and outstanding for each meal, and the waitresses and waiters first rate. Each day we received a listing of the menu for the following day and were asked to indicate our preferences from a list of excellent choices including wine for dinners.

We enjoyed the evening touring around the Nikolai Chernyshevski. It is an excellent cruise ship and the crew is first rate also. The standard cabins are practically identical to those on the Pallada and the Fyodor Chalyapin. American travelers need to be accustomed early to the size and layout of the Russian 'bathroom'. The shower is comprised of a flexible hose from the sink and the drain is in the floor. There is not much room to turn around. But at least the water pressure was strong and the water temperature hot.


 
 

Thurs 30 June -

I had planned on taking the group to the Borodino and World War II Memorial museums after the morning bus tour and the Vantage representatives were ready to assist. But, unfortunately, it being the last Thursday and Friday of the month these museums were closed.

I should mention at this point that the Vantage host group who ran the 'hotel', (that is the staff dealing with the passengers) as distinct from the ship crew, (who also were always excellent) always went out of their way to help and provide extras. The chief, Eckhart, made phone calls on his cell phone and lent us a battery charger for one of our digital cameras that could not connect to the Russian 220 volt outlets. He was instrumental in enabling me to make contact with the Russian historians I needed to meet.
Breakfast was excellent - a very full buffet in the Swedish style with more than enough variety to suit every taste. This was the routine for the rest of the cruise.
The city bus tour began at 8 AM, on time. Traffic was the worst I have seen in Moscow. It took a full hour to drive downtown. In general the bus tour was good. As a rule I don't like bus tours because they don't enable the travelers to see very much out the windows. We did pass the major places and at least had a full stop at Novodevichi Convent, another on the embankment opposite the Kremlin and a very brief stop across the street from the Cathedral of Our Savior. The large tour group was divided into 5 sections, each assigned to a specific bus and with the same excellent Vantage tour guide for the duration of the tour. Then in each city and at each major stop there were also local guides. As usual, the local guide took over during the drive and tried to provide descriptions and historical background information. As usual, much of this fine commentary was not very effective since the bus would be past the place being discussed before people could act and folks on one side of the bus cannot see out the other, especially not to take photographs.
The stay in Moscow as marred by more rain than I have seen there in the past, but we managed to cope with that. It was not raining too much during the stop at Novodevichi nor during our walk through Red Square and GUM. We were able to see the State History Museum, the equestrian statue of Marshal Zhukov, St Basil and the Kremlin walls from a distance, the rebuilt Resurrection Gate and rebuilt Cathedral of the Icon of the Virgin of Kazan, and of course the interior of GUM, very briefly. A pet peeve of mine is that tour guides do not go the couple of blocks behind GUM to show tourists the Zakonospaski or the Preobrazhenski Monasteries. Nor do they do the simple walk on Varvarka street to describe one of the most concentrated groupings of medieval buildings that remain in the shadow of the ugly Rossia hotel.
But the Vantage company has found a real gem of a restaurant - Kitai Gorod - built right into the casements of one of the short remaining sections of the medieval brick wall of Kitai Gorod. There we had a lunch of Russian dishes while enjoying and ambience of the medieval decorations. I have walked past this section of the wall many times but had not entered the restaurant.
After lunch, since the Borodino Museum was closed, I took Mike, Amanda and Elizabeth for a walk through Kitai Gorod to see the important places the tour had skipped. First off was the Church of the Life Saving Trinity of Nikitnikov. Unfortunately the exterior was covered with scaffolding, but I have many photos from previous visits. We went inside the lower church and had a good discussion with the concierge, and bought a candle and some small icons. (No photos, however, as usual in a functioning church). Then we viewed the Monastery of the Sign on Varvarka street and the other buildings at the east end. Then we walked through the government section, past the Church of St. Nicholas the Wonder worker of the Beautiful Bell. (closed). We viewed the government buildings on Ilinka street and the up-scale shops on Nikolski street. The main objective was to show them the Preobrazhenski Monastery (now much repaired since previous visits) and the Zakonospaski Monastery (not so far along in its renovation). Since it was raining, we cut short touring by foot around downtown and went to the Revolution Square Metro station to view the interesting statues that adorn the place. Then we returned via Metro to the Northern River Port. We bought water and soda at the last stop and walked through the park to the ship. Luckily it was not raining at that point.
Then we changed for dinner and the opera. Vantage pulled off an extraordinary treat for us. I was surprised that we had tickets, super- excellent orchestra tickets - to the Bolshoi Opera - such tickets can cost $50 easily. And wonder of wonders the performance was a brilliant one of Boris Gudunov, my favorite of favorite operas. Moreover, this was to be the final performance before the theater closed for renovation. The busses left the river port right on time. But unfortunately it took 1.5 hours to drive down Tver street, even in the evening, against what should have been the major rush hour flow. The result was that we were a few minutes late for the curtain and of course could not be seated in the orchestra during performance. It is the two opening scenes of Boris that are so spectacular. Fortunately we were able to sneak into the back of some of the boxes in the 3rd tier in time to see the coronation scene. Then, during intermission we were able to go down and find our assigned seats. Needless to say the sets and costumes at the Bolshoi are spectacular. The cast was first line, not lesser lights one often finds in Russia during the summer. We even were enabled to make photos of the house and of the performance also. The singer who played Boris really knows his business and is a fine actor. At the end, when Boris dies suddenly, this fellow fell down the steps from the throne with a very loud thud.
This was a major treat and highlight of the tour. Departing the Bolshoi in late evening we found considerable traffic back to the ship. There I was stunned, really shocked, to learn that quite a few of the tour group (not my friends) had departed the opera very early. Amazing, but an early indication on the level of real interest of many passengers in things Russian. Well, with traffic so bad they arrived at the ship not very long before we did. Served them right.
One of my Russian friends had rushed to the ship too late to catch us before departure to the opera. But he left a phone number and plan to see me the following morning. Once again Eckhart was very helpful in making phone contact for me.


 
 

Friday 1 July
We went by bus to the Tretyakov art gallery. En route we stopped to take photos of the massive and ugly statue of Petr I standing on a ship. Vitali and Alexi were waiting patiently outside. Alexei gave me several books and the manuscript from his archival research. He agreed to return to the ship on Saturday morning to bring me more books. The tour of the Tretyakov was fine. The special museum guide was quite knowledgeable and focused on some of the most important of 18th and 19th century Russian painting. But for my taste insufficient time was devoted to study of the Tretyakov's real gems - the medieval icons.
We had a box lunch on the bus. Since it was raining and the museums I hoped to see were closed, we went with the tour group for a brief subway ride to three stations, from Theater square (and Revolution square with it) to the Smolensk station via Arbat. At the Smolensk station we saw the Ministry of Interior skyscraper. The bus made a round about circuit back to the ship, enabling us to see some of Novi Arbat street and other places, but without much descriptions of the important churches and buildings en route. Once again dinner was excellent. I can skip comment about the meals on board - all were really first class. I should mention here that we also had a special 'captain's reception party' and a final 'captain's going away party' with champagne and much musical entertainment.
After dinner we went by bus to the Old Moscow Circus. This time we were on time. The performance was typical, nothing like a Barnum and Bailey 3 ring affair. The don't have wild animals nor as many various spectacular acrobats. One fellow had trained parrots and there were tumblers and a clever juggler plus of course clowns.


 
 

Saturday 2 July
Once again Alexei came to the ship after we had already departed for the Kremlin. But he left and the ship information desk kept for me 3 more books of Russian history.
The bus drive to the Kremlin went well, it being Saturday. We stopped near the State History Museum and walked to the Tomb of the Unknown and perpetual flame in time to witness a change of the guard. Then we went through the Alexander gardens to the Borovitski tower to wait for opening time. It was raining only a drizzle. For the first time in my several visits we were allowed to take photos in the Armory Museum. That was another real treat. We bought a CD of the Kremlin and more camera batteries. It was raining harder when we left the museum and walked to the Cathedral Square. Unfortunately entrance into the Cathedral of the Dormition was blocked by a kind of parade ceremony going on there. But we did manage to go inside the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel. This is the location of the tombs of the Muscovite Grand Princes up to Peter I. We took some photos that came out well.
On leaving this cathedral, unfortunately, the local guide lost control of the group. She simply let them stand around and gawk at this pseudo parade, which, although the soldiers were in fancy looking dress uniforms, was not that spectacular. I kept trying to get people to go immediately to the remaining Cathedral of the Annunciation, to no avail. I was presuming that eventually the guide would gather everyone up to go inside the most important of the three cathedrals from an artistic point of view. But apparently she thought we had run out of time, so we lost that opportunity. Since we actually didn't do anything all afternoon, there was no reason to miss the Cathedral of the Annunciation. This was the most disappointing occurrence during the tour. We instead simply walked past the "Tsar bell' and the "Tsar Cannon", and out the Trinity Gate to the bus. More rain deterred me from taking the family around the city, so we had the box lunch on the bus and returned to the ship early.
On board we had a nice folk singing performance and got underway for the cruise. The 'life boat drill' was fun. It was still light when we went through locks 6 and 5 on the Moscow-Volga Canal, so everyone had a chance to see the remarkable engineering involved in these locks, that have a change of water level of 8 meters each.


 
 

Sunday 3 July
We were up early to see the ship pass through lock 1. It had made a lot faster transit of the canal than did the Pallada in 2003. During the morning our mini-group guide gave an excellent talk on Russian history. We passed the bell tower at Kalyazin, a tourist favorite. Arrival at Uglich was fairly early in the afternoon, so we had sufficient time to see much of the town. As usual we were greeted on the dock by a young woman in local native costume with bread and salt. There was also a small band playing for us. The group visited the kremlin, as usual, and spent some time at the multitude of craft selling stalls along the waterfront and main square. Then they had what the grand daughters described as an excellent visit and meal at a local family's home, which I skipped in favor of seeing more of the key places in the town.. Obviously these families have been carefully selected by Vantage and are more well to do (if not rich) than the average Russian family.. Having seen the kremlin and near by places several times, I was anxious to get to several important architectural monuments further out. So I walked to the Alexseyev Monastery (with its Wonderful church) that has three white tent-shaped towers. Lots of photos resulted there and during my walk through the back streets of Uglich. I found also the well-restored Church of St Dmitrii. But there was a Sunday evening service at the convent so I could not go inside to see how much restoration of the 19th century frescos has been accomplished since 2003. In the main square I found the Chaika watch factory outlet and bought my wife a fine watch. Also bought more soda and water plus wooden Christmas tree ornaments. I think Uglich is the best place to get carved wooden ornaments, but the rest of the wares for sale are typical of what is found at every tourist place in Russia.


 
 

Monday 4 July
We arrived at Yaroslavl early. Before that I was up early to photograph various villages and churches along the Volga. The bus tour went first to the embankment for a stop to view the Volga and the monument set up on the spot that Yaroslav the Wise theoretically founded the city in 1010. The local guide gave a good talk there and also at the former location of the medieval cathedral that the Soviets destroyed. It is only a short walk from this point on the embankment to the fortress monastery. Between these two places are three of the most interesting 16th and 17th century churches. But naturally the guide put everyone back on the bus for the 3 block drive, ignoring these architectural gems. I chose to walk and took one of my friends along to take pictures. I have to say that the guide did give an exceptionally fine historical and architectural discussion of the cathedral, church and bell tower inside the Preobrazhenski Monastery. The girls had time to climb to the top of the bell tower to get a great view of the city. Yaroslavl had probably more preserved fine churches than any other town with exception of Suzdal and of course Moscow itself. But we went by bus from the monastery to the Church of Elijah the Prophet - the standard tourist stop. It is well worth the attention everyone gives to it, but it is a shame that tourists don't get to see some of the other great architectural gems in Yaroslavl. I used the time to walk around the outside and in the neighborhood including other churches and monasteries. Instead, the tour group spent a lot of time visiting a puppet theater to view puppets, not a performance. Then we visited several local markets, to show the girls how huge mounds of meat are cut and sold. I took them also to see Kazan Cathedral, being restored with silver domes. And we stopped at a bank to change more money. Tourist tours never spend enough time in Yaroslavl. It deserves 6 hours at least. After lunch on board, we were underway. I pointed out the Tolgski Convent now reopened on the Volga left bank and the lovely town - Romanoborisoglebsk that occupies both sides of the Volga. The group I took in 2003 was the first American group to visit this medieval village. There is an impressive cathedral high on the right bank above the Volga and 6 interesting churches on small hills along the left bank. But we didn't even slow down to observe these.
Going both down and then back up the Volga we passed an unusual pontoon railroad bridge that spanned the Volga except for an opening for river traffic. Since there is no railroad on the ground on either side and we could see tents in the trees on the left bank I presume this was a Russian Army engineer bridge building unit conducting summer training.
We arrived at Rybinsk around 6 PM - with plenty of light to photograph the huge locks adjacent to the hydroelectric station and dam. We also photographed the cathedral and some of the typical apartment complexes. We made photos also of the large statue of "Mother Volga" that stands at the exit of the Volga from the Rybinsk reservoir. Then during the evening we were treated to a special party as we sailed across the reservoir. It being the 4th of July, Vantage and the ship company had laid on a special evening champagne party with entertainment on the upper deck. At dusk they launched fireworks from the aft lower deck as everyone applauded. I was told (not surprisingly) that the company had applied for and received special permission for this fireworks display. We went to bed before the ship exited the reservoir.


 
 

Tuesday 5 July
We continued to pass through the Sheksna River between the Rybinsk reservoir and the White Lake. The most interesting place along this stretch is the Goritski Monastery, where some cruise ships stop in order to take tourists to the Belozero Monastery. The girls joined in one of the Russian language classes while Mike enjoyed participating in a class on Vodka. Then in the afternoon the girls participated in a blini making class after which everyone enjoyed a caviar and Vodka party with blini before dinner. I should mention here that for this and the many other special parties the waiters and waitresses at the ship's two restaurants dressed in gorgeous Russian costumes. We had two young men who doubled as musicians at parties and photographers during the rest of the tour. They made hundreds of photos of the tourists and posted them on a bulletin board for selection and purchase.
During the afternoon I gave a short lecture to my friends (and others who cared to listen) on Russian geography and history focused mostly on the Kievan period.
We crossed the White Lake in about 2 hours and entered the Kovzha River. At 11 PM the ship was just entering lock 6 on the canal between the White Lake and Lake Onega.


 
 

Wed 6 July
We were up early at 6 AM as the ship entered lock 1 on the canal. So it took 7 hours at night to transit this short stretch. Clearly the ship had to move slowly through this narrow section. Around 6:35 we entered Lake Onega and the ship picked up speed. It only took us about a few hours to cross the lake. We arrived in the afternoon at Petrozavodsk (Peter's factory) an industrial town founded by Peter I. Several of the Russian 'rocket' ships - hydrofoils that take people all over these lakes and rivers were arriving as we did. During the early afternoon the group enjoyed a visit from some local Russian students. Then we had a bus tour of the town. This included a stop as a restored Alexander Nevski cathedral and the perpetual flame memorial to the heros of World War II. During the war Petrozavodsk was captured by the Germans. After this we attended an excellent Karelian folk show of singers and dancers. We then had time for shopping in local stores and also at several kiosks at the dock where I bought some interesting local souvenirs.. It is always good to go inside typical Russian stores to see what in available to the local residents and at what prices. Even at Petrozavodsk the selection of European goods such as Swiss chocolate and French wine and German biscuits and cookies was excellent.
When we returned to the ship we were greeted by a fun 'surprise' party in the restaurant. The ship purser and some of the crew including the waitresses had staged a 'mutiny' and were dressed as 'pirates' They had Eckhart and some of his associates tied and gagged and sitting on the floor. They were released to us and we all had another fine dinner. It was so light still at 2 AM that despite a very clear, cloudless sky no stars or planets were visible. The ship remained at Petrozavodsk until early AM hours for the short cruise to Kizhi Island.


 
 

Thurs 7 July.
We were up at 6 AM for a beautiful sun. We were at Kizhi Island. Breakfast was early so the entire group could assemble at 9 for the walking tour. There were 7 large cruise ships tied together with ours closest to the dock. This is one of the most visited tourist stops in Russia. The passengers on the other ships did their tours first and departed early, so we had less of a crowd during our walk We visited the two wooden churches, (Transfiguration and Intercession) went inside the latter, and also went in a large farm house that was moved to the island as part of the architectural museum. Inside we watched some ladies at work on typical crafts such as embroidery and spinning flax. Outside we saw a wood carver, pottery maker, and watched some costumed local youths singing and dancing.
We departed Kizhi Island at 1 PM, during lunch. During the afternoon the girls listened to a Russian fairy tale session and then had their third session learning to paint Matroshka dolls. At the later vote by the full travel group Amanda received a 2nd place prize for her doll. The ship cruised south across Lake Onega and to the Svir River. In late afternoon we attended an enjoyable Russian tea party during which some staff members described the functioning of Russian samovars. We entered the Svir River around 7 PM during dinner. That night, as during each night, they showed a movie with a Russia theme. We sat on deck watching the villages pass until 9 and then enjoyed piano music in the lounge until 10. There was usually music and dancing each night in the upper lounge.


 
 

Friday 8 July
We were up at 5 AM to see the sun rise in the north east on an azimuth of about 45 degrees. The ship docked at Mandrogi. This is a fascinating result of some Russian entrepreneur's cleverness. It is an entirely artificial new 'village' created on a river bank area this fellow bought. It is ideally situated to attract all the river cruise boats going both ways between Moscow and St. Petersburg. And during winter, with everything frozen for hundreds of miles on all sides, they fly tourists in by helicopter. The owner has assembled a large group of artisans from all over. They are masters at making everything from Matroshka dolls, pottery, wood carving gold work, lace, jewelry, icon painting and about all the traditional Russian crafts that tourists want. The company has built various dachas, a hotel, craft work shops, restaurants, gift shops and even a post office, telephone call center and Internet cafe. The whole operation much exceeded my expectations. Granted it is the epitome of a tourist "trap" destination, but the prices are reasonable and the quality excellent. Amanda partook of the invitation of the potter and in a few minutes at the wheel made a decent round bowl. We departed at 1 PM. That evening we were treated to the 'captain's farewell' reception on deck followed by a fine dinner. The chef presented Elizabeth with a birthday cake. For evening entertainment they had a 'talent show' by the passengers. I thought most of the acts were designed to be silly or humorous, but Amanda came through again with the only really serious performance, as she sang quite well. I stayed up until 1:30 AM in order to see Oreshek fortress as the ship passed it at the entrance to the Neva River. We were only a few yards from it in the narrow channel and it was quite visible to me, but unfortunately too dark for my camera to register it.


 
 

Saturday 9 July
We arrived at St. Petersburg around 8 AM. The cruise ship dock is located at the southeast of the central city, since they don't want the ships to have to pass under any of the many bridges. But it is a lot closer to downtown than is the river port in Moscow. Of course St. Petersburg itself is a much more compact city. In St Petersburg I had hoped to see Vvdenski, the curator of the military collection at Tsarskoye Selo. Eckhart tried his best to contact him by cell phone beginning on Saturday morning and throughout the stay, but unsuccessfully.

We had the usual city bus tour that rushed past many places which I am sure most people could not see and certainly could not photograph. City traffic on the Saturday was not bad. We started out from the ship, drove along the Neva to the Alexander Nevski Lavra (no stop or photos) and then down the length of Nevski Prospect to stop on the Strelna, the point of Vasielevski Island where the Naval Museum is, opposite the Winter Palace. It is a good place for photography in the early light. Then we drove the short distance over to the Peter and Paul Fortress. There the guided tour was of the cathedral of same name, but not of any of the fortress itself. As a minimum tours should include a stop at the water gate and also let people go onto the rampart or one or two bastions so they can look out at the Neva and Winter Palace. The bus then drove past the buildings of the 12 colleges, but this interesting part of the city was really ignored. Then back across the Neva to stop on the Marienski Palace side of St. Isaac's Cathedral, next to the equestrian statue of Tsar Nicholas II.. It is a good place for photos. But I was quite surprised that we went no where near the statue of Peter I - The Bronze Horseman - or the Decembrists square or Admiralty. The tour then went past the Field of Mars and along Millionaire's way to stop behind the cavalry riding hall so we could take photos of the Cathedral of our Savior on the Precious Blood - but at a distance.
The tour went back to the ship for lunch with the afternoon planned to be 'free' if anyone wanted to return downtown. No sense going back to the ship to waste time to and fro. So we simply stayed off the bus and walked past the cathedral to Nevski Prospect. We first had to check at St. Catherine's Catholic church to find out what time Mass would be. Sure enough the timeees for Sunday services would interfere with our tour to the Hermitage. We expected there would be a Saturday evening service and were proved right. With the time in mind we then covered most of Nevski prospect on foot including going into the Cathedral of our Lady of Kazan, photography of Kutuzov and Barclay de Toly and shopping in the main book stores. We found the important books we were looking for. We then crossed the Moika and found a McDonald's for lunch. Very reasonable prices too. After that we walked back across Nevski P. and through the arch in the General Staff building to cross the square at the Alexander column. Then we walked again across the Neva in order to spend a couple hours in the Naval Museum. This is well worth a visit. It is rather dark and the various exhibits and models are not well lighted, but we did manage some photography.
Then we walked again past the Peter and Paul fortress to the huge Museum of Artillery, Engineers, and Signal Troops, which I have visited many times. I already have hundreds of photographs of items there on the web site, so the main purpose was to show the girls the most important things. Like the Hermitage, the Artillery museum is so huge it is not possible to see more than a small part in one afternoon. Moreover most of it is closed to the public anyway, so my previous visits were always by prior arrangement with Dr Krylov, the Director. We did find one new and special temporary exhibition hall. This is an exhibition devoted to the small arms designed by Kalishnikov, probably the most famous arms designer of contemporary times (AK 47 for instance). I had brought some books on edged 'cold' weapons for the museum curators. When the curator on duty in that room learned I knew so many of his comrades he rushed into a back room and brought out a working AK-47 for us to handle. He showed us how easy it is to disassemble and let Mike handle it.
Leaving the museum after much too short a visit, we walked to the nearest metro and took the underground back to the Gostini Dvor stop on Nevski Prospect. Going up the escalator we had a brief encounter with a typical pickpocket who tried unsuccessfully to get my wallet. This didn't bother me too much but I think it somewhat unnerved the girls. We then attended Mass at St. Catherine's right across from the Gostini Dvor. It was then getting a bit late so we took a cab back to the ship in time for a special private party Eckhart had arranged for our small group. I thought this was a very special gesture on his part so didn't want to be late, even though the cab cost $30.00 as opposed to about .50 cents on the metro.


 
 

Sunday 10 July.
Today we had a bus trip to the Hermitage - Winter Palace. We passed rapidly by the Smolni convent, but at least did cross the Neva to stop briefly at the cruiser Aurora. It is always best to enter the Hermitage with a tour group as one then passes quickly though the doors on the square side rather than get into the mass of people entering on the river side. We split from the group tour in order to focus on the sections I wanted the girls to see. The tour also was scheduled only until around noon with a bus back to the ship and then 'free' afternoon. Not to waste time, we planned on staying in the Hermitage until closing at 4 PM. This we did and we managed to see all the main things. It was for this occasion that I brought along 6 rolls of special, very high-speed 35 mm film, since a digital camera is too slow to capture unlighted subjects in a museum without using flash. When going from one section of the Winter Palace to another we made the mistake going 'out' through one check point and found ourselves in the entrance corridor. But a very helpful official enabled us to pass through another check point back into the museum without another ticket. Mike had no problem phoning home from a pay phone in the lobby.On leaving the museum we rushed back to the Arts square at the Russia museum, where the bus back to the ship was waiting.
After dinner we had another special evening. We drove by bus back through the city, again past Smolni, past the Marble Palace, and Tauride Palace, then down through town past the Sheremetev and Anchikov palaces. But I don't think many people understood what they were seeing. The destination was again the Hermitage, this time at the river entrance to the Hermitage Theater. For this again I give Vantage terrific credit. We were able to see a fine performance of Giselle, a favorite classic of Russian ballet. Again back to the ship, it was of course still quite light, so we walked across the avenue to shop at some local grocery stores. Water in the cafe in the Hermitage was 600 rubles for a small bottle, but at a local store only 21 rubles for a very large bottle.


 
 

Monday 11 July
We were on the road early at 8 AM by bus in heavy traffic to Peterhov. We passed the Constantine Palace at Strelna but no one noticed. We arrived at Peterhov at 10:30. I was surprised and disappointed that the planned tour was not of the main palace, which is closed on Mondays. Instead we did go inside the 'Catherine block" - which is closed usually when the main palace is open. Of course we did see some of the grounds and fountains. For me it was nice to see inside the Catherine block as I had been in the main palace several times, but I think for most folks the main palace would be preferred. I asked our guide about that and was told that this schedule was on purpose since the main palace at Peterhov is rather similar to the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo and they wanted to show us something different. True enough, But still, the visit to Peterhov was too brief. We arrived at 10:30 and departed at 12:30 back to the ship for lunch at 2 and dinner at 5. So there was plenty of time to see more of the grounds and various other palaces at Peterhov, while the time at the ship between lunch and dinner was too short do to anything significant. Seems to me this is something that could be corrected easily.
For the evening, Vantage managed another coup - a tour de force. This was attendance at the Marienski Opera theater. I had not been inside since 1964 and was delighted at this opportunity. The performance was part of the St Petersburg summer festival "White Nights' as they call it. Specifically it was a gala all Bernstein concert with soprano and violin soloists first and then an on-stage performance of excerpts of West Side Story. The singer-actors were all young performers from a conservatory and quite eager in their antics. Once again at the ship we walked through the local neighborhood to shop for ice cream.


 
 

Tuesday 12 July
We again departed early by bus, this time for Tsarskoye Selo and the Catherine Palace. I had found Vvdenski's excellent book on the history of Imperial Russian uniforms at the bookstore on Nevski prospect and hoped to find him to autograph it, but failed in this. I had asked our guide to be sure to take the bus group past the large memorial to World War II on the southern edge of St. Petersburg and this she did.
We arrived at Catherine Palace around 10 AM. The tour included only the main palace and we departed around 12 noon. Again this was too short a time and we didn't walk at all around the gardens - park to see the Hermitage or even go to the Cameron Wing. I would have shown people also the Pushkin statue and Lyceum and the Alexander Palace as well. Most folks simply went back to the ship by bus. And some folks then went on the optional canal boat cruise. At least Vantage had offered an optional afternoon tour to the Pavlovsk Palace, for up which I signed the girls and Mike. Since I had been inside in the winter, when one could not walk around the grounds, this time I spent the several hours doing that. The many photos I took will add nicely to those of the insides of this very 'homey' palace.
We were back to the ship by 2:30 even with the tour of Pavlovsk. I think it would be much better to spend a little more time at both Catherine and Pavlovsk Palaces. As it was, the result was we didn't have enough time to go down town anyway. The evening was largely taken with packing the bags for early departure


 
 

Wednesday 13 July
Homeward bound, we were up and out before dawn, as early as that was. The trip to the airport went quickly since there was very little traffic. Check in was typical for Russia. We had to wait as usual for boarding, but that wasn't so bad. The AirBus flight to Paris was decent. But it was at the Paris airport that disaster hit us. This is the worst airport I have ever been through, including Saigon. Again, there are hardly any signs and one has to guess which bus to take between terminals, and carrying one's small bag through the mob and heat is no small task either. Arriving at the departure gate one has to join a mob of assorted nationalities all pushing to be first. Fortunately we indeed had chosen our spot well so we were among the first through the gate. At last, we thought, down one more ramp and onto the aircraft. But NO. It was down another flight of stairs and into another waiting room. Eventually we boarded yet another bus, this time one dedicated to our flight. The bus was packed with small children falling all over at each bump and lurch. The bus went for miles across the runways to a parked aircraft. We were then held on the bus (and we were on the first bus) for no discernible reason. Finally we were allowed in small groups to cross the final 50 yards or so to one of those portable stairs up into the aircraft. At that point I was stumbling and shaking and couldn't make it up the stairs with my bag. None of the aircraft crew deigned to lend a hand, but merely watched. Finally a young student passenger took my bag and helped me up the last half of the stairway.
As I mentioned, we were lucky to be the first to board, because at least we did get into or seats and had a place to rest. It took then over another hour for the shuttle buses to bring the rest of the passengers on board a few at a time. Obviously we were quite delayed for departure. The moral is to avoid the Paris airport at all costs. Or to use the standard real estate concept with modification, think Lufthansa, Lufthansa, Lufthansa. As always we passed through customs at Dulles in a breeze, another moral, always use Dulles vice JFK airport.

In summary, this was an excellent tour. I am sure those participants who knew little of Russia got a lot out of it without being overwhelmed. And it was an opportunity for my friends, most of whom are experts on Russia, to learn a lot more. The extra highlights were: Boris Gudonov at the Bolshoi Opera, ballet at the Hermitage Theater, concert at the Marienski theater, and photography in the Armory Museum in the Kremlin. "Nice touches" were the dinner with a family in Uglich, the 'pirate' party on board, and the meeting with students at Petrozavodsk. Very enjoyable additions were the many and varied other 'events' on shipboard during the cruise. The one serious shortcoming, which was avoidable and the fault not of the Vantage guide but rather of the local Moscow guide was the failure to take the group inside the Annunciation Cathedral. Lesser disappointments were the shortness of the tours of Peterhov and Catherine Palaces.