Tuesday, June 30, 2015

It's Independence Day, 2015

Happy 4th of July

For everyone in the United States of America, enjoy your long weekend and your freedom -- and the fireworks!

Next post: July 7, 2015

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Rasputin remains among Russian notables

Figure at right represents Grigori Rasputin in his last hours

Grigori Rasputin — just who was he?

In Russian folklore, he is described as a peasant and a mystical faith healer.

Tableau shows soldiers and officials awaiting word on Rasputin's death

And his is still one of the well known names of the 20th century when it comes to people talking about Russia.

Rasputin was a confidant of Czar Nicholas II, the last monarch of the country.

He became so disliked by the hierarchy during Nicholas II time, that they conspired to have him killed.

And thus, he takes his place at the table at the 
Yusupov Palace in St. Petersburg, where he was reportedly poisoned. Other versions of the story deny that fact.

Rasputin was invited to the palace on the night of Dec. 16, 1916 on the pretense of a housewarming party for Yusupov’s  wife.

Room in the Yusupov Palace

In the wine cellar, Rasputin reportedly got drunk on wine and was offered arsenic-laced petit fours of which he may or may not have eaten. 

After about an hour, and with Rasputin drunk and still alive, Felix Yusupov went and got a gun and shot Rasputin. But that didn’t kill him. Rasputin managed to exit the building and was then shot once again before he left the property.

His body was carried back inside and when it made a sudden movement, he was shot once again in the forehead.

Yusupov Palace bedroom

The body was subsequently dumped into the Malaya Nevka River where it drifted into an ice mass. It was recovered on the following Monday.

On our recent cruise of the Baltic Sea that included St. Petersburg, the Yusupov Palace was one of the stops on the itinerary. The building exuded the richness of those who were in the hierarchy during those times.

Yusupov Palace sports its own theatre

A tableau shows soldiers and officials awaiting word of Rasputin’s demise.  Another tableau, located down a narrow staircase that leads to the basement, shows Rasputin sitting at a table with soldiers present to assure that he wouldn’t leave the building — at least not alive.

But he did leave alive only to be shot in the back before leaving the property.

Stories throughout the past century have painted him in a number of different ways with questions still unanswered about the reality of his life and his death.

Sculpture of wrestlers located in Yusupov Palace

Our tour guide said Rasputin may not have been as bad a person as others have depicted.

Either way, his name and story are as often repeated along with those who actually ruled the country.

Next post: June 30, 2015

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Peterhof, the Versailles of the North

Peterhof Palace and water — they go together.

And a lot of people take the water route from St. Petersburg, Russia to the attraction, such as my wife and I did  on our recent 9-day cruise of the Baltic Sea capitals.

We boarded a hydrofoil in the downtown area for the journey on the River Neva that empties into the Gulf of Finland.

On our mid-May journey, we enjoyed clear to partly cloudy skies with temperatures on the cool side (mid 40s at night and low 60s in the day). But I felt it was a little cooler that day on our trip to Peterhof. Or maybe it was the wind.

Getting off the hydrofoil at the dock, we experience what I thought was a 25-30 mile per hour wind which chilled my bones.

But we journeyed on. My wife was in her transporter and I pushed her the 100 yards or so from the wharf to the main attraction, the Grand Cascade. 

Peter the Great first envisioned what is called the Versailles of the North. It was was founded circa 1714. Reports indicate that Peter wanted to commemorate the victory over Swedish forces in the Northern War that was going on from 1700 to 1721.

Children attempt to outsmart fountain, get drenched

The battle in 1709 was near Poltava in the Ukraine, and considered  the turning point of the war.

He therefore dedicated the whole complex of Peterhof to the victory over Karl XII.

The facility includes several palaces and three parks with the main attraction being the Lower Park with 150 fountains and four cascades.

The lower park is relatively level which makes it easy to walk. But the lower park covers an area some 200 yards wide which makes for a good distance to cover.

One of the more unique items was the fact that all the fountains were gravity fed. No pumps are used.

Another interesting item was a number of fountains that were activated by visitors either stepping on a rock on the ground or trying to reach for fruit on a table.

Many visitors get soaked attempting to outsmart the fountains.

Our tour of Peterhof and the lower gardens ended with a somewhat strenuous uphill climb to the exit.

Next post: June 23, 2015

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

St. Petersburg church site of assassination

Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia
(Note: All pictures show artwork inside the church)
St. Petersburg, Russia and the surrounding area offers more than one can easily see in two days.

But on our recent Baltic Sea cruise that included the venerable city, we tried to. The Norwegian Star, as does other ships that travel to the area, anchors overnight giving passengers the opportunity to experience a wide variety of activities.

Interior of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood

There are cathedrals, museums, palaces, and governmental buildings that dot the landscape and boats on the Neva River that give tourists a different perspective on the surroundings.

The challenge of seeing this historical city was time-consuming and although we saw everything that we wanted in the two days we were there, there was still a lot more to experience.

Tourists crowd Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood

Although watching numerous videos on the city and country prior to the trip, I still was not fully prepared for the wonderland of opportunities that awaited us.

I should have bought a few picture books before leaving, and also a large map of the area.

My wife and I had booked a two-day personal tour with Alla Tours.

Ceiling mosaics at Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood

We visited what one could consider the top tourist spots in and around the city.

But I need to digress a little. We scheduled the private tour because of my wife’s challenges following a stroke four years ago. We felt that we wouldn’t be able to keep up with a larger group such as those booked through the cruise ship.

Mosaic on ceiling of a young Jesus

My wife can cover short distances on foot, but longer distances are a challenge.We brought along a transporter from home for her.

It appears we were right in making the decisions concerning the tour and the transporter. The two days were at our pace, but still a challenge. And it was comforting to know that we didn’t have to worry about keeping up with others. We had our own personal tour guide and driver and were whisked across the area in a private vehicle.

Mosaic artwork of Jesus

There’s just too many things to see over a two-day period, but we tried to see them all. We had considered going to a ballet the first night, but after careful consideration, decided to pass on it.

Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood

We rode on a hydrofoil from downtown St. Petersburg to Peterhoff Palace, which is called the Versailles of the North. There was the in-city boat ride along the canals and out onto the Neva River, not to mention visiting the Yusopov Palace, Catherine Palace, Church on the Spilled Blood, the Hermitage Museum, St. Peter and Paul Fortress/Cathedral and St. Isaacs Cathedral.

And also, a stop for lunch at a downtown diner.

We met our tour guide around 9:30 a.m. on the first morning with our first stop being the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. (Note: All interior artwork in the church is constructed of mosaics.)

Although beauty abounds in the city, the church name comes from the fact that it is situated on the site where Emperor Alexander II was attacked in 1881 after a run-in with some anarchists.

Reports indicate the czar was in his carriage as it passed along the embankment. An ananachist conspirator threw a grenade which exploded near the carriage. Unhurt, the czar exited the carriage and began accosting the suspected anarchist. Another anarchist threw a bomb killing himself and mortally wounding the czar. The czar was taken to the winter palace where he later died.

Construction of the church began in 1883 and was competed in 1907.

Probably the most outstanding element of the church to me are the mosaics. Because painted artwork would not hold up due to environmental conditions, it was decided that the artwork would be mosaics of which there are 7500 square meters in the church. 

Over the course of its history, the church was ransacked and looted and also used as a temporary morgue during World War II. The structure was also used as a warehouse for vegetables and then later turned into a museum.

Next post: June 16, 2015 — Peterhoff Palace

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

We hoped for the best and that's what we got

Beautiful skies and hungry seagulls as the Norwegian Star departs Stockholm

In making plans for a trip, one usually hopes for the best.

But it is also prudent to prepare for when things don't go exactly right.

Travel insurance should be included in one's expenses especially on roundtrip flights to Europe and a cruise to the Baltic states.

I’ve never taken out travel insurance before, but this trip was taking us far, far away. And we had a lot of money tied up.

There were three or four issues of which I was concerned and which insurance could help if needed.

One was making all the airline connections that would insure a good time and arriving at the dock in time to depart.

Another was the weather  -- before leaving the US and then once there.

And oh, I kept up on the news of the day surrounding Russia and the other countries that we were scheduled to visit. 

Was something going to happen that would cause our ship, the Norwegian Star, to have to skip a port or two? I had hoped not, especially not wanting to miss St. Petersburg, Russia, my priority stop.

And another issue, not anything to do with travel insurance, was how my wife, who is a stroke survivor, and I would make it through the airports.

There was also the matter of getting around the different cities, whether walking or pushing my wife around in a transporter.

We’ve been back almost two weeks, and its hard to believe that things went as smoothly as they did.

We missed one air connection, but was booked on the following flight and kept on schedule.

The weather also concerned me. I checked the reports for the Baltic area, and a week before the trip (early May), the forecast called for rain almost every day.

That wasn’t the case. There was a smidgen of rain in Warnamunde, Germany and a light rain in Stockholm, Sweden. The rain in Sweden was so light that I managed to take a two-hour walk throughout the city and barely got wet.

The temperatures were on the cool side with nighttime readings in the 40s and 50s and daytime readings in the 50s and 60s. Those are the kind of readings that I like.

Mostly, skies were clear to partly cloudy. But very windy at times.

Before leaving, I was concerned about the tropical low forming off the coast of South Carolina. But it didn’t have any effect on our plans.

The politicians managed to keep the status quo, for the most part, and there weren’t any so-called uprisings in the nations surrounding the Baltic Sea. 

The Finnish navy was investigating an underwater object, but it didn’t turn into an issue that would cause any problems.

Wife Linda on her way through the Paris airport

When booking our flights, we indicated that my wife would need assistance at each airport because she can’t walk long distances. 

I can’t believe how well prepared airports are for assisting the handicapped. Connections, although one was pretty close, were made conveniently with representatives meeting us at the plane and ferrying us to the next location.  I appreciated that.

Quaint cobblestone streets sound inviting. They aren’t for the handicapped or those assisting them. The going was also rough when one was pushing someone in a transporter over these “cute” roadways.

The 9-day cruise, and touring of the different cities was a challenge. But it was something we wanted to do and felt like we were up to the challenge although we were “challenged out” after two days on the go in a busy St. Petersburg tour.

Nine nights on the boat and six countries. It all seems a blur now. But a blur that was well worth the effort.

Next post: June 9, 2015