Russia, Baltic States & Copenhagen 2016 Blog

Featuring 5 nights in St Petersburg...

St James

Sunday 19 June, 2016. Singapore.

Today was quite the nicest day for a rest stop between two long-haul flights.
The day started with sunshine and warm temperatures. That long sleep and good breakfast set up the inner woman for a day of exploring.
As arranged, I met the folk who wanted to see the Gardens by the Bay and we zoomed off in taxis. Quick walk down to the entrance to the Flower Dome and Cloud Dome and my duties were done until 6pm.

It has always delighted me to walk amongst the tall trees and take note of the plants and flowers now climbing their way up the trucks. Each visit I make I notice the plants are that much higher.

On to the MRT and a quick (air conditioned) trip under the city to Little India.
I have long wanted to explore this area when I wasn't pushed for time, so today was perfect. Starting at some known landmarks I just let myself wander this street and down that alley to see what was around the corner and who was living their lives here. Yes there were a lot of Indian references but also a glimpse of the surrounding cultures and evidence of the cultural harmony of Singapore.

I smiled when I came across a car battery powering a Chinese Buddhist shrine, the modern in the middle of the ancient. Well, I was smiling until I realised I was in the red light area and probably needed to move along quickly.

That evening as I met the group for a late check-out everyone looked happy and relaxed, in a much better place to face an airport and another long-haul flight. They were even happier when we had all successfully received out $40 vouchers for being in transit Changi airport. I am sure the shoppers among us were keen to spend theirs and their partners before we did anything else. Happy Days.

Tuesday 21 June, 2016. Copenhagen, Denmark..

It was an early start with our 12 hour flight from Singapore arriving a 6.25am!
The biggest shock was seeing RAIN, it’s been ages since I've seen an area so damp.
My immediate impression was of tall, block, brick building with clean lines and neutral colours. Bicycles lined up everywhere and few people. Our hotel is a close to the Tivoli Gardens, train station and lots of cafes.
In the afternoon (after a wash and rest) I wandered off with some of the group to make sure everyone knew where those essential things like: money exchange/bank, supermarket and reasonable cafes are. The Victorian drama of Tivoli and the train station rather tickled my sense of humour. Great to see both places busy even after a 180 years.
After the walk around, the group dispersed, and my job was done so there was room for some Mandy-time. I started off to walk the outside block of Tivoli. The railing is decorated with posters from various attractions and events of the gardens. They look like vintage circus posters with an iron rolled top and stiff rectangle shapes., Then it was off to find Rosenborg Have, an old palace set in a park.
The jolly thing looks like a rather impressive chateau with a moat and fancy guards. Next stop a quick view of the meteroite in the front square of the Natural History museum. The rock was much larger than I was expecting but thrilling to be able to touch it and imagine it flying through space with a tail of flames. It looks like something from a Superman comic - solid iron, pitted and heavy. On to the 1807 cannon ball. Again I had read about this object and was thrilled to find it imbedded in a building's wall. No one was taking any notice of this curiosity until I started peering up and writing down the inscription.
Napeoleon either had bad aim or the building is a lot stronger than it appears.
I wonder if the other side of the cannon ball appears in the internal room?
So then it was just a walk back to the hotel taking in the various lovely parks and older buildings. NIce to finally get a chance to lie down and catch up on sleep.

Thursday 23 June, 2016. Copenhagen, Denmark-Vilnius, Lithuania.

We left the wet of Copenhagen for the brilliant sunshine and warmth of Vilnius. The flat landscape interspersed with woods and rye fields was green and lush. Vilnius is such a charming place with its old town, ruined fortress on a hill and modern skyscrapers. It was comfort itself to reach Hotel Radisson and rest after a busy hectic traveling day. It was also a minor miracle that all our luggage appeared after the self-check-in at Copenhagen. I know we have self-check-in at Air New Zealand but it’s a harder concept in a busy, noisy foreign airport. Then there were all the added extras like the EU tax refunds and currency exchanges to consider.
After dinner, many of us went up to the 22nd floor to take in the view. This evening six hot air balloons were flat against the grass on the right side of the hotel. There is a wide flat grassy area up the river bank. I watched the men fill the envelopes with first cold air and then burning propane gas. The dull colours of the flat balloons turned into bright reds, greens, blues and whites as the aircraft gently rose into the air and floated in front of our windows and towards the east following the air currents in the direction of the ruined fortress. There was a lot of sighs as the balloons went by. Some of the ladies mentioned that it was on their bucket list fly in a hot air balloon.
The sun was still up at 11pm but we were all asleep by then. Being the shortest night of the year meant it was never going to get properly dark.

Friday 24 June, 2016. Vilnius, Lithuania.

Vilnius has an interesting layering of historical buildings and monuments. A walk around the old town takes in medieval to neo-classical to Soviet to modern... all shoulder to shoulder and in a jungle. Today the streets were empty as most of Vilnius had left the city for the country or seaside to celebrate a long weekend. This peaceful state of the city was our gain as we could stroll freely and gather easily to listen to Anna's commentary on the highlights.
There were a few brides about and they were beautiful with their white dresses and bright flowers.

Saturday 25 June, 2016. Vilnius, Lithuania.

Up at 5am to make sure all the things neccesary were done so 10 of us could go hot air ballooning. I met 9 excited people in the hotel lobby and we ventured out onto the broad grassy area eager for an adventure. When we arrived, there were 2 vans, four men and no balloons. Then, up roars another van and the Commander appears.
Many Baltic people speak English is a chopped manner with lots of nouns and little else.
"You nine from Radisson?" he asked.
"Well, we are actually 10." I say, holding up 10 fingers.
""We have problem. Wait moment." Commander frowns and goes into an excited huddle with the other men. As I know this is the usual response to anything that changes I spend the discussion time taking group pictures and encouraging the troops.
"Okay. 4 in one and 6 in other. Divide."  Easily managed and our two couples are directed to one balloon and the remaining 6 singles are told to go to the last balloon.
At this point there is still no air in the balloons, baskets are empty and the police have decided to park nearby to watch the action (or the people).
Commander comes over and the balloon wrapped in its cover is pulled from the back of the metal box of a trailer. Rolled out onto the grass it looks enormous.
I approach Commander to see I we can help. I am quite such 6 middle aged and older women can help the 2 strong, fit young men. At first he refuses then he lets us help hold the business end of the envelope open so the power fan can blow air into the balloon and get it ready for the hot air. I loved this part but was worried that I might be airbourne before I needed to be.
Commander comes up. "Right foot here", indicates the rope on the envelope. "Hand here", holding up the balloon side. "Turn face away" Okay. Whoosh on goes the fire and the flames roar pass into the envelope and the balloon moves from horizontal to vertical. From being the last to get ready we have gone to being the first. "In". We climb up and inelegantly tumble into the basket. Its close quarters, but everyone has a view. And before you can say, 'Fasten your seat belts', we are in the air. The wind moves us to the north up over the modern area of the city and past the suburbs to vast wooded areas.  The landscape remains very flat (anything higher than 10m is called a hill in Lithuania). River, pines, hidden houses, forest trails and straight roads. We fly 27 kilometres until we reach farm land.
The best part for me is the silence when the burner is off, we are like birds, in touch with the air, drifting on the air currents.
Landing was a fast approach across the top of a tree and promptly on the ground, wildflowers, bees and terra firma, champagne to celebrate, and a great drive back to Vilnius where I get to know Commanders back story and hear more about his love of flying.
And that was only the start of the day. More to follow...

... after a quick breakfast it was off to the KGB Museum. Arriving at the building the group's mood instantly went sober... the stones lining the lower level of the building had the name and dates of people killed by the KGB and its actions. Inside the building, the director met us. A tall handsome man with the manner of a teacher/actor he immediately brought us into the world of Vilnius during the Russian occupation. In amongst the facts were personal stories of his family - the cruelty we know about, but the gossamer touch of real people and their tragedies bring it close.
We left quiet and reflective. On the bus to travel to Trakai, a castle set in a calm lake. The group needed a lift so the guide Anna and myself organised a boat ride. To under sail on a summer's day was excellent for the blood pressure. After this break we landed on the island for an explore of the castle. This castle has been restored but in good faith with the original.
On the way we had a sweepstake as to what the All Blacks : Wales score will be. We had three winners: one who guessed correctly the All Black score, one the Wales score and one with the nearest difference between the two. Their prize was to provide the drinks at dinner.
That evening we had a riotous evening with the folk music and the drinks.

Saturday 2 July, 2016. Leaving the EU, Enterin

Leaving early in the morning (8am) we exited Tallin to drive across flat terrain on long straight roads. I have been told these roads were made this way so they could be used for emergency aircraft runways, one of my passengers also mentioned that they were easier for tanks to fire along. Today the roads were in good condition and the pot holes levelled out. It took four hours to travel 150 kms to the border, taking in two stops for technical issues like coffee and toilets. We had a wee hiccup when the driver Dema was requested to move the bus by the local plice which caused the EU computer to click over into his regulation rest period in the wrong place. We waited patiently for the timer to count down so Dema could start the engine once again.
The group was really good at listening to my suggestions for the border: stay quiet and calm, no bribery required and listen to instructions. The Estonian border control was straight forward and when we crossed no-man's land nothing. On the Russian side there was a wait for the bus ahead to be processed and then we all trooped into the small low building which would determine if we would all get into Russia or not. The female official had no smiles for me and immediately started in Russian. "English" I prompted and handed her the passport list with all the Russian visas numbers. Stamp, stamp, passport scan and a wave to the right. 'Welcome to Russia', I thought.
I waited 15 paces further on in the building to welcome each of the group into Russia with a hug. Russia With Love as one of the gentleman said. Meanwhile the bus is getting the once over by the officials:inside with torches, engine, open all the compartments and lets under underneath. In a nearby lane a container lorry was being scanned by a very sophisticated device on a crane.
Just as I start for the exit door a Russian official starts shouting at me, "Bus not finished. You must wait!!!" Okay, okay just stop yelling. Everyone done, bus clean - well back on and on we go... until there is another stop and passport check 300 metres up the road. All done. The small town on this side of the border soon finishes and the line of vehicles lined up to enter the EU stretches for a kilometre. The lorries parked by the road, some empty of drivers, some sleeping number over 50 and line the road for several kilometres. Flat land, straight roads and very few people about, The roads are not so good and the cars are more rusty and old. Dachas appear and vanish. 150 Kilometres to St Petersbugh and arrive at 4.30pm.
Rain drizzles from the sky and the beauty of the city is hidden behind a gritty surface of traffic and grayness. Tomorrow all will look better. Arriving at the hotel we are greeted by Russian Champagne, soft beds and respite from the cars.

Sunday 3 July, 2016. St Petersburg, Russia.

The day we arrived in St Petersburg the spirits were not high, the long drive from Tallin, Estonia and the tension of the border crossing rather drained the adrenalin... the approach into St Petersburg from the South took us through many estates of blank tall soviet -style apartments blocks. These towers of apartments appear anonymous to us, the same regular rectangles with small parks, a building for shops and the children's playground. Our Baltic guide Anna had described to us the comfort of these apartments when her family moved from sharing two rooms in one communal house with one toilet and one kitchen between 17 people - and her continued pleasure in having her own space. Its just difference from our own expectations.
But... yesterday the sun shone and St Petersburg appear like a socialite ready for a photo shot. The buildings in their soft hues of pale yelllow, blue, pink, coral and grey were a charming backdrop to the green of the parks and the jewel splashes of colour from the planted flowers. The river sparkled in the sun and the canals seemed cool and calm. Above all the city the sky remained a clear blue with some cloud. Locals were enjoying the sun and many acres of flesh were on display on the grassy verges of the river (some that might have done with some covering up.) As usual the tourists were chattering flocks of birds, their guides moving them in braided lines between talking points.
We started our day with an overview of the city centre and finished it with shopping. I thought it was a good day to teach our taller, broader tour members the elements of crowd control... this concept was essential to keep the group together, the thieves out and the whole shooting match on the move. The expression, 'herding cats' was muttered a few times as the tail-end Charlies got to experience the life of a Tour Leader.

Monday 4 July, 2016. St Petersburg, Russia.

Today started with tragic news, a special friend had been killed in a car accident. I think the hardest time of being on the other side of the world is when you know you cannot be for significant events. I will miss my friend’s funeral and the opportunity to be with others to mourn his passing and also to celebrate the life of a wonderful man.
But being in the role of a Tour Leader means pulling oneself together and getting on with a public persona. The first stop today was Catherine’s palace. This opulent summer residence of Catherine the Great was the vision of an ambitious Queen. Destroyed by the departing German army at the end of World War II it is today a fabulous, golden testament to the Russian artisans who restored the rooms in order to make it open to visitors.
The first view of the Palace are huge gates gilded and ornate behind which the long blue, white and gold façade screams ‘Look at me, I am glorious and rich’. The second look brings into focus the long queues of people waiting to get in. Being in a group with an allotted time we skip through the group door and straight to the head of the line. There is so much to see in the public rooms I don’t know where to begin – there is just an overwhelming sense that the Russian Czars had immense wealth and power. Gold adorns most walls, doors and ceilings. Spaces are filled with paintings, furniture and objects d’art. I did feel I should be wearing a court dress and lots of jewels. After the interior we escaped into the gardens which is an extensive park with an artificial lake, follies and small building where Catherine could entertain herself, her lovers and her guests. As we strolled by the lake house a male choir was heard and we stopped to hear the group sing the Vulga Boat song. The five male singers sang without music their voices filling the great acoustic space. A magical moment.
After more minutes filling the lungs with the sweet air of the park we were on our way to lunch. A hilarious affair as I was encouraged to drink vodka like the Russians. We had many a toast to everything from the All Blacks to the Russian Federation. The lunch ended with a congo line of happy kiwis.
On the bus ride back into St Petersburg we encouraged Michael, our Russian guide, to sing songs in Italian, Spanish, Russian and English. ‘Why, why Delilah?’ was a crowd favourite. But then it was time to move from the vision of one, Catherine the Great, to the vision of many, the siege of Leningrad. This tragic part of St Petersburg history was even more personal as Michael’s grandmother had lived through the 900 day of siege. I left the monument appreciating how brave humans can be, even in a situation which seems unbearable: no food, water, heating nor knowledge when the bombing was going to stop and rescue might arrive.

Wednesday 6 July, 2016. St Petersburg - Moscow, Russia.

After brilliant days of sunshine the day began with monsoon type rain. Due to security our bus driver had to drop off several hundred metres from the Moscoka Train Station and it was a splash and a dash to get to the front door. Honestly, it was one of those moments when I was wondering ‘What were the Soviet’s thinking?’ as I dragged my luggage up many steps through security, up more steps and then down again. A vast grey space full of noise and the obligatory statute of some stern looking man awaited us. We stood dripping waiting for the platform number to appear and then the sea of people moved through one door, more security and onto the platform. No train. A few minutes then the train roared in, a wave of people got off and we washed up the concrete to our carriage. More waiting for the carriage doors to open and the neatly presented conductor to mark us off one by one. Finally a seat, and a very nice seat at that, doors closed and we were on our way, straight line all the way to Moscow. The Tsar was asked about the route between St Petersburg and Moscow, he ruled a line on the map and that is the track today.
We arrived to sunshine in Moscow… and extensive road construction; it seemed at every ring road, avenue and street was being renovated, improved or narrowed. After checking into the hotel Michael (our Russian Guide) and myself took the group down to Red Square. There almost a domestic between Michael and I as I wanted to turn right at the hotel entrance and he wanted to turn left. We tried his way on the way down and mine on the way back… does it need to be stated that turning right involved a shorter route and less road works. It always pays to ask the hotel receptionist for local knowledge.
Red Square was beautiful (red means beautiful in Russian) St Basil with its colourful cupolas against a blue sky and the red walls of the Kremlin fresh with renovation. As it is unpredictable when Red Square will be accessible it was lovely to give the group an opportunity to be there so easily. Back to the hotel and bed.

Thurssday 7 July, 2016. Moscow, Russia..

On the first day in Moscow it helps to get an overview of the city, how it is laid out and the size of some of its buildings. Moscow University is dominated by one of the seven sisters, huge block buildings the Soviets built to stamp their red stars on the Moscow cityscape.
On to Victory Park and the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (WWII). This too is built on the grand scale and records the heroism of the battles, the Russian cities and its people. It’s all so big it’s very difficult to describe but the most intimate moment for me was when we emerged from the museum and the nearby Orthodox church was ringing its bells, the sound bounced off the curve facade of the museum, wrapping us in music.
Break for lunch in Arabat Street, a pedestrian street fill of cafes and shops. Novodevichy Convent was the highlight of the afternoon with its history and old Russian charm. Once the place for Tsars to dispose of inconvenience wives it became very well rich and powerful. Next to the convent, still active today, is the cemetery of notable people. I forget all the names of all the important people I just remember the gravestones which reflect the life of the deceased. A ballerina, an airplane, a Russian flag and so on… most life size or bigger.

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Written by: Mandy Page

Mandy is one well-travelled person, having visited all 7 continents! Over the years her travels have taken her to the UK, Europe, the USA, Canada, Vanuatu, the Philippines, South Africa, Kenya, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Mexico, Russia, China, Burma, Croatia, Slovenia, Vietnam, India, Laos, Cambodia, Argentina and Antarctica plus a few more.

Mandy has always had an adventurous spirit, especially for places more unusual. She particularly enjoys introducing others to these destinations and making it possible for people to realise a life’s dream.

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