Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Eastern Europe - Days 11 through 16 - Russia
Our first stop in Russia was St. Petersburg - home to most of the Russian nobility. St. Petersburg itself was a gorgeous city - I think it looked like a wedding cake with beautiful pastel buildings and white scroll work around the outside of each one. On our first day, we had a sightseeing tour of St. Petersburg, stopping at several churches and the main square. We were all pretty tired from the overnight train, so it was back to the hotel and then out to a ballet. Getting to the ballet required negotiating the local metro system. St. Petersburg has some of the longest escalators on the lines in their metro system and the line we were on was no exception to this. I don't think you could see the bottom of the escalator from the top, and it was a bit scary not knowing where you were going.
The ballet was wonderful - a very modern interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. It was a very classical style of ballet, but the setting and costumes were more modern, making for a wonderful evening. What a treat to be at a ballet in Russia!
The next day we were off sightseeing. The first stop was the Church on Spilled Blood - a beautiful onion domed church which was the sight of the shooting of one of the Czars. The church had been restored recently after falling into disrepair during the communist era. Many churches in communist Russia were "secularized", and used as skating rinks, swimming pools or warehouses instead of churches. This church was no exception, and the beautiful mosaics that lined the inside of the church had recently been restored to their original state.
That evening we boarded the last of our overnight trains. We didn't know it at the time, but a bombing and derailment had occurred the previous night on the same train line, so security was extra tight on the train. Fortunately our train journey was uneventful.
We arrived in Moscow and were escorted on another city tour. Most of Moscow's tourist attractions centre around Red Square and the Kremlin, so the city tour wasn't as exciting as in St. Petersburg, but it was a wonderful city to visit. The next day I got the chance to visit both sites again. We started out by visiting Lenin's mausoleum - a bit creepy and very strange. It was very dark in the tomb, and there was very little time for your eyes to adjust to the change between sunlight and darkness, so I just about ended up tripping down the stairs in the tomb. After re-emerging from the tomb, it was over to St. Basil's cathedral. Although St. Basil's is probably the most famous cathedral in Russia, it's fairly simplistic on the inside - nothing like the ornate tile work in the Church on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg.
After that, it was off to the Kremlin. I was fortunate enough to arrive at a time when they were performing a military exercise, and got to see a few of the soldiers who still work at the Kremlin in their duties. From there, it was off to see some of the churches at the site - there are 5 that are open to the public, and most of which were still in their original state. Someone did point out that it was fairly ironic that the churches inside the Kremlin, which was supposed to be the secular head of state, were the best preserved churches in Moscow. The Kremlin also had a fantastic exhibition of Cartier jewellery. Given the remarkable lack of obvious security around the site, we had a discussion over dinner as to whether the jewellery was real or not, as there were hundreds if not thousands of carats of diamonds and other precious gemstones. (All of which was very sparkly!)
After that, it was back to the hotel for a farewell drink and some dinner. I had an early flight out, so I called it a night pretty early. I'd arranged for a cab to pick me up at an insane hour of the morning, and drove to the airport. Of course, what was supposed to take 1 1/2 hours only took half an hour without traffic, but I got to the airport with plenty of time to make my flight. I had a *long* layover in Frankfurt, which doesn't have much entertainment in the airport, so I ended up spending $30 on a sandwich and coffee, but at least the staff at the restaurant let me sit for a couple of hours without too much hassle. After 6 hours, it was finally time to board my flight back home, and I arrived in Calgary 9 hours after that.