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(Side trip) Russia
I had spent the night on the kitchen floor of a wonderful hostel, which is also a school, the Countryside College of Southwest Finland, because there were just way too many of us for the available space. The first people to arrive had taken all the rooms with beds, the next people had taken all the extra mattresses to put on a floor somewhere, and the last arrivals including me were told to try Utopia, it was the unit farthest away so more likely to have space available. Utopia! That sounded good to me! But I couldn’t find it. I tried the gym then but it was so wild in there, young men playing basketball, an outrageous noise they would call music blasting from a stereo, and already lots of mattresses around the edges. It was not my scene. That’s how I happened to choose the kitchen floor. At least it was quiet and peaceful there.
I had arrived at camp so late because I was one of the first ones on the ferry. We firstcomers had stowed our bikes in a cubbyhole near the front of the ship but we couldn’t get out until all the trucks blocking the way had left. By that time 200 people were ahead of us.
Dinner was set for 9 p.m. but it was 10:30 by the time I had found my piece of floor and had marked it as mine with my air mattress and sleeping bag. I had been sharing the floor with one man but when I came back from dinner a second was asleep there. We are getting used to these unusual arrangements. Dinner was a feast, making me regret I had eaten the baked potato (but not the strawberries!) on the ferry.
Breakfast was as outstanding as the dinner. Besides that the whole place was beautiful. It was an agricultural-horticultural school but not only the grounds were gorgeous. It was like someone loved the place and had made it special, beautiful and comfortable, not just functional. I wanted a layover day right there.
Joan felt ill again and was sagging so after sending my e-mail I started the ride. It was another long one, 172 km., with a bail-out option at 118 km. I thought the ride was boring and I was not having fun. Besides that I had so little energy that I could only poke along. The countryside looked identical to that in Sweden, fields and forests, forests and fields. They are pretty but I have seen enough. One difference I noticed was that some of the farms have a several stories tall, narrow building. Could it be a silo? Siloes are usually cylindrical. I saw no cattle or horses or pigs or sheep. There were many warning signs about moose but as far as I know no one has seen a moose.
When I finally arrived at the bail-out location I put my bike on the truck and thought I would just get in the bus parked there, but nothing doing. There was a list, the first fifty that had arrived would go on that bus. I would have to wait for the second bus. I found a place to sit and worked on my pocketmail device but with little enthusiasm, feeling just too tired.
The inevitable happened on the bus. It had no sooner started down the road than I fell asleep, not to awaken until we were in Helsinki. The bus delivered us to the Grand Mariner Hotel, and when it stopped in front of this obviously fine edifice, one wit called out, ‘Driver, there must be some mistake, this is the Odyssey group?’ The Grand Mariner was the nicest hotel we had seen in a long time, a far cry from a space on a kitchen floor.
But we didn’t have time to savor the atmosphere, we had to check-in with TK&A, check-in with Reception, retrieve our bikes, take off the pedals, turn the handlebars and stow them in the hotel’s parking garage, get our stuff out of the gear trucks, sort through everything and pack a small bag to do us for Russia and until we get to Berlin in a week, have a shower, go to dinner, and return all the stuff we didn’t need for the next week to the gear trucks before 9:30 when they would be locked. Whew! It was too much! I took a shower as soon as I could get a turn, my first shower in three days and I could hardly wait! I felt somewhat restored then and managed to accomplish everything, even getting to dinner in time for the second shift.
I had two terrific roommates, Dr. Sharon and Judy Bradley, both of whom had ridden all the way to Helsinki, but I was the tired one and left them packing and puttering while I went to bed. I was sleeping on the sofa and with the hotel’s lovely fluffy pillow I was on Cloud 9 and asleep in no time.
Helsinki Layover Days
- St. Petersburg - Helsinki
When we saw Helsinki’s beautiful Grand Mariner Hotel with all its comforts some of us were regretting our decision to spend 3 of the 5 Helsinki layover days on a trip to St. Petersburg. But it was too late for a change of mind, unless of course one didn’t mind forfeiting all the money already paid for the Russia trip. That was not reasonable and all but one or two of us went as planned. Denise, one of the riders, had planned a trip for 40 people and made every arrangement for us, a mammoth and time-consuming task, all we had to do was pay our share of the costs. Russia was on the original Odyssey itinerary, and helped entice me, for one, to join as it was one of the few countries on the list that I hadn’t already visited. But along the way TK&A dropped Russia, leaving many of us disappointed and frustrated. That was when Denise stepped in to fill the gap. When I learned of the trip she was planning I jumped at the chance to go. Then at the last minute when TK&A realized the extent of the discontent, they said they would arrange a trip for all those willing to pay their own way. They worked with a travel agent who quickly put together a couple of itineraries and the reservations flooded in. About 90 people signed for one of the TK&A options. They were less costly than ‘Denise’s trip’ which caused some angst, but then Denise’s trip had some perks that the others lacked. There were other people who wanted to go to Russia, but refused to go on principle, saying that TK&A should pay for the trip since it was in the itinerary when we all signed on and the trip started. But of course there was no way TK&A would do that. They did offer however, to credit each participant’s account for the hotel in Russia if we would vacate our rooms in Helsinki for those nights. Unfortunately for Denise’s group, the offer doesn’t cover the hotel costs because it was based on the cost of the hotel where the TK&A group is staying. Our hotel is more than twice as much.
We are on a Russian train, heading for St. Petersburg, a 6 hour journey. The train is rather slow, very old, but reasonably comfortable or would be if we didn’t have legs. We sit in tiny compartments, three facing three, knee to knee. There is no place for our feet. One has to work out an arrangement with the person opposite. For me that is Ron Morlino, who is keeping his feet together so I have mine spread apart, on either side of his. My feet are swelling and about to pop, I would dearly love to put them up but there’s no way to do that. Ron and I have ‘aisle’ seats (actually there’s a wall and a sliding door separating us from the aisle), so it is easy enough for us to come and go as we please. But when another one of our compartment mates wants to leave, he has to clamber over us; Rod (Mendy’s Rod) just tried that and managed to kick both of us in the knees. I haven’t ventured forth, but Ron has been to the WC and reports that when the toilet is flushed the tracks are visible. I am not surprised, this train is all but an antique. Never mind, it seems to be running smoothly most of the time.
We were met at the train station by our guide, Goula, and taken to the St. Petersburg Hotel which was only a 6 or 7 minute drive. Registration was simple, they kept our passports and visas and gave us a key, and that was it. Sharon and I went to the bar to buy bottled water and we also bought a bottle of beer to share in our room. I went to the cash window which was still open even though it was close to midnight and bought some rubles, getting 520 rubles for $20. The exchange rate is 26 rubles to one dollar.
The St. Petersburg Hotel is on the Neva River and close to the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Hermitage. It is simply furnished, there is hot water and towels, soap, and shampoo. It is good enough. ‘Dr.’ Sharon, my roommate, is easy-going and makes a superb roommate. It was late when we arrived, we were hungry and she was prepared with cheese and crackers enough for both of us, perfect with the beer that we that we had bought to share.
Our first full day in St. Petersburg began with breakfast in the hotel. It was a bit slim but there was coffee and tea, fruit-flavored yogurt, one apple and one slice of cheese each, short weiners, slices of salami and very stale sliced bread.
Our guide, Goula, was waiting for us and we left on our tour. First we had a short bus tour of the city while waiting for the Hermitage Museum to open. She explained that the ship moored in the Neva River just in front of our hotel is the Cruiser Aurora. It was from the Aurora that the Bolsheviks fired the first shots (blanks) to signal the start of their Revolution. That was October 25, 1917. Now the Aurora is kept as a symbol of the Revolution. We saw the outside of several significant buildings like the Peter and Paul Fortress, and the Winter Palace which is now known as the Hermitage Museum. At the end of the Palace Bridge were two fat red columns, the Rostral Columns, which were once light beacons for ships. They are unusual in appearance because ship prows project out of the columns. There are many bridges and canals in St. Petersburg because the city is built on marshlands and islands. The broad Neva River and two others flow through the heart of St. Petersburg. We saw the outside of a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church with onion domes and bright colors, the Church of the Resurrection of Christ. What a heavy name for such a delightful church! It is also known as the Church of the Spilled Blood because it was built on the spot where Alexander II was killed by a bomb. It is my favorite sight in St. Petersburg.
The Hermitage is an enormous museum, someone calculated that it would take 19 years to see it all. Thank goodness for our guide, Goula, who cut to the chase and showed us all the best paintings in just a couple of hours. We saw work by Rembrandt, da Vinci, Van Gogh, Goya and others. There was a golden carriage that was Elizabeth the First’s everyday carriage. It was pulled by 4 or 6 horses. She was an extravagant lady. Another example of her extravagance; she changed her clothes three times a day and when she died left 14,000 dresses!
We were taken by bus to Nevsky Prospekt, the main shopping street and let out to find a quick lunch. Some of the American fast food places including McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut are on that street but not where we were. I found a place to get a slice of pizza and though the service was very slow I made it back to the bus in time.
In the afternoon we visited the Peter and Paul Fortress built in the 1700’s by Peter the Great for defense of the island. This was the beginning of St. Petersburg. Inside the Peter and Paul Cathedral we saw the tombs of all the Czars including the recently added remains of Nicholas II and his family and servants. We also toured the prison in the fortress, now a museum, where political prisoners were kept. Every sentence was a life sentence. Outside each cell was a photograph and the birth and death dates of each prisoner. Most died of disease and poor health rather than old age. It was a very bleak existence. At the end of the afternoon we made a brief stop at a souvenier shop (of course!) where the beer, vodka, coffee, tea and ice cream were free. That was a refreshing stop! Then we were driven to the hotel where we had less than half an hour to get ready for the evening’s outing.
We were going to the ballet! Everyone was excited. All of us dressed up the best we could. Some of the women had brought a dress to wear which looked a little incongruous with their Teva sandals but that was what they had. I just added a scarf to the black pants and blouse I had worn all day. We had excellent seats in the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly known as the Kirov Theatre) and were impressed by the blue, white, and gold interior, the chandeliers and the silver embroidered curtain. The ballet, La Sylphide, finally started and it was enchanting. I was entranced. The dancing was unbelievably wonderful. La Sylphide is a Scottish fairy tale, the music is beautiful and the story easy to follow. It was only two acts and too soon it was over. We had dashed up the stairs during intermission for a snack, I had champagne and a thin roast pork sandwich but it wasn’t enough. I was hungry and so was most everyone. After the performance the bus took us back to our hotel and about 20 of us went to the dining room. We sat down and waited and waited and waited. No one waited on us or even acknowledged our presence. Eventually two or three groups left to forage elsewhere, but my table and one other stayed put. Finally a woman approached and explained that they did not have enough food for all of us and what did we want to eat! With patience and effort we finally were able to discover what it was they did have and eventually we were served. We all had a glass of the famous Russian vodka but I diluted mine with orange juice, not usually done in Russia. Some ordered black caviar, I had a bowl of a hot savory Russian soup with bread and butter. It was delicious. Dessert for me was ice cream and fruit salad. It was a simple dinner but had required more than two hours. It would be a short night’s sleep.
Our second and last day in St. Petersburg began with a drive to the Summer Palace which was called the Puskin Palace in Soviet times to honor the poet by the same name. Before that it was the Catherine Palace and now it is called the Tsarkoie Selo Palace. It is only about 30 km. from the Winter Palace but I guess it must have provided a change of scene for the Czars and their families. It is very big, painted blue and white on the outside, with gold onion domes on the palace church which is a part of the palace. The interior is dazzling, painted in white with gold leaf used extravagantly on all the trimmings, mirrors and chandeliers, inlaid parquet floors, and the unique Amber Room, dubbed the eighth wonder of the world where the walls are entirely covered by glistening amber. It is a sight to behold!
On the drive back to St. Petersburg we stopped for a look at an enormous monument to the soldiers and workers who defended St. Petersburg during the Second World War. Then Victor, our driver, suggested a little detour to see a most unusual very vibrant pink and white striped little church, the Chesme Church.
Finally we escaped the bus and the tour, intent on treating ourselves to a fine Russian lunch. We had nearly two hours but it wasn’t enough. We were eating at the sidewalk cafe of one of St. Petersburg’s most expensive hotels, the Grand Hotel Europe, but they were s-l-o-w. We must have been there an hour before our orders were taken and it wasn’t that it was that busy. All that I managed to get to eat was a bowl of hot bortsch soup and bread and butter.
Then it was time to go to the train station for the return six hour journey to Helsinki. We rode in a Finnish train this time, more modern and comfortable with reclining chairs and a footrest. On the train we met some of the other riders who had gone to Russia on the TK&A arranged tour and exchanged stories. Some of those people had had the bad luck to be robbed. Tom Rail was robbed on a city bus losing his wallet. Shar lost her wallet containing money and credit cards, taken from her zipped backpack. Liz lost her wallet and passport in the same way. And Larry Gore’s camera was stolen when he put it down while talking to someone.
We had the great good luck to have sunshine every day and only an occasional sprinkle of rain. Goula told us that there are only 60 days of sunshine a year, and of those only 30 are completely sunny all day. But even in the sunshine I did not find St. Petersburg to be a very attractive city. Perhaps it was because everything is too huge to get the whole picture and I had too little time. The streets are wide, the river is wide, the buildings are immense. And it was hard to overlook the decrepit state of most of the buildings, there are so many and they virtually all are in desperate need of repair and cleaning and paint. Some buildings are being restored, but so few in comparison to the need. The people evade paying taxes so one wonders how any restoration can be proceeding at all. Goula, our guide, was charming and frank, sharing with us Russian jokes and what it is like there for her now. She was raised during the Communist regime. We all enjoyed our time with her and hated to say goodbye. She invited us and encouraged us to come back, saying there was so much to see, even ten days wouldn’t be enough. But I think my curiosity about Russia has been satisfied. The very best part for me was the ballet. I will hope to attend more performances when they are touring.
Produce for sale in Market Square near the harbor
The Imperial Yellow Lutheran Cathedral by Carl Ludvig Engel (Right)
City of Saint Petersburg
Saint Petersburg’s architectural wealth and its setting on the Neva River delta make it one of the loveliest cities in Europe. The city, sometimes called The Venice of the North, was originally built on islands of the delta and on the adjoining mainland. Marshy areas between the islands have since been filled in. Saint Petersburg’s many waterways and bridges, along with its impressive architecture, impart a distinctive flavor to the city.
State Hermitage Museum
The Hermitage in Saint Petersburg originated as the private gallery of Catherine the Great's art collection. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the State Hermitage Museum and its imperial collection became the property of the Russian people. Today, the collection is housed in five buildings, including the Winter Palace. The Hermitage contains European paintings dating to the Middle Ages, a representative assortment of Russian art, and an extensive collection of Asian art.
Photo's from Scotland, Page 56
Odyssey Riders and Staff
Nutcracker Suite, Op.71a
TCHAIKOVSKY, Pyotr Ilich (1840-93); Russ.
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