Russia photos on Flickr!

Internet has been really hard to come by on the river between Moscow and St. Petersburg but now that I am in St. Petersburg I hope to find internet more often.

I have been uploading some photos to Flickr and you can see them here:

Day 8 was by far my favorite day on the trip so far and I can't wait to share it with you!

Russian Soul and the Circus

Day 4 was another day of touring Moscow but this time the theme was the "Russian Soul". Konstantin was our tour guide. There was minimal traffic in the city on this Sunday morning when we started out. Konstantin was candid with us about the suppression of religion under communism and the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church and religion in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Our first stop was Christ the Savior Cathedral. During communism churches were destroyed or used for storage or offices. This church had been destroyed and when the Soviet Union fell, the state rebuilt this cathedral. We arrived as the bells called everyone to church. I learned that in the Russian Orthodox religion church goers stand for the service which can be two hours or longer. I didn't go in the church when others did but heard it was beautiful and the choir was singing as church was in session. Instead I took advantage of some emerging sun light and took some pictures of the outside of the cathedral.

I find that I am drawn to archetecture and art when I travel. The "onion domes" on Christ the Savior Cathedral were typical of religious structures in Russia and I loved them. The sun would come out and light up the gold domes. The contrast of the gold domes with the white church and blue sky was breathtaking. Add to that the church bells singing for 15 minutes and you have a beautiful moment in Russia.

Our next stop was to Novodevichy (New Maiden) Cemetary. This is the "second most important cemetary" in Russia. The most important cemetary is where Lenon and the Zsars are buried. I am going to assume that the Russians have a bit of a different view of death than we do. I have never taken a tour of a cemetary in the States, but this tour was more like a history lesson of whos who in Russian history. Another long lecture. I ended up listening but wondering off and observing the different Russians tending to the graves of their loved ones.

The grave plots were like little wild gardens filled with flowers and greenery. The cemetaries I have been to in the States have been well manicured and have short cut grass everywhere. This cemetary felt wild and romantic. Loved ones planted new plants or tended to exsiting ones. Konstantin (our Program Director (or tour guide)) told us how every year he goes with his mother to visit the grave of his father. They then drink to his father (without clinking glasses). I think I recall that his mother tends the father's grave just like I mentioned above.

Something else that was amazing and different about the Russian Cemetary was that so many of the headstones were incredible works of art. It was as though we were getting a history lesson and an art show.

Day 4 ended with a trip to the Moscow Circus. I tend to think that things like this are only for tourist but our group was the only tourist there. Everyone else was Russian. I haven't been to the circus in years and remember them as these big over the top productions. I wasn't sure how the grown up version of myself was going to feel about it. I have to admit I was charmed. There were a few things that triggered concern like the real tiger (pictured below) that you could take your picture with, or the bears that were muzzled in the show, but over all it was an evening well spent.

The acrobates at the end took my breath away and I could feel the magic of the circus working it's way into my soul. It was a spectacular evening!

Russia: Moscow city tour and Red Square

Day 3 of the trip, but really the first full day in Russia was fairly busy for a slightly jetlagged version of myself and my Mom.

We jumped on the bus with our group (we are the purple group) with our "Program Director" Konstantin and our Moscow tour guide Sophia and headed to Red Square. Immediately I remebered why I am not a fan of "tours". Someone is always talking at you.

The minute the bus started to drive away someone was on the microphone telling us things. Now I don't mind a little instruction, but after ten minutes of straight lecture in a bus, you lose me. Unfortuantly that is what happend on the city tour. We hit a traffic jam and Sophia the tour guide just kept talking. I know it was her job, and I bet there are people who enjoy this kind of lecture, but I am not one of them. I don't talk about my job on this blog but I will say I work in education and have learned alot about how people learn. The straight lecture is no longer considered an effective way to teach someone something. As I mentioned above, I was over it after 10 minutes. Additionally I start to lose interest when things were pointed out to me that I think are not important or things that I don't have enough time to study. For example, a lot of hotels were pointed out to us on our Moscow City Tour as we drove by them. Why is this hotel important? Can I look at it so I remember it? Here is the this, here is the that, here is the Ritz. All of this being pointed out after the traffic jam so the bus was going along at a good clip and we would fly by whatever it was we were supposed to be looking at. Not my kind of thing.

Our first stop was Red Square. We were told that "red" at one time meant beautiful. It was an overcast Saturday and the square was fairly busy. We each had a headset with a receiver so we could listen to our guide Sophia. The Kremlin wall borders Red Square and St. Basil's church (I need to check my spelling on this one) anchors it. This is one of the iconic churches that shows up in typical Russian Postcards. Here is my Mom with the headset in Red Square.

Here is our tour guide Sophia with the purple flag we used to find her.

Mo, my Mom and I waiting for the group to head on to the "Metro Tour".

From Red Square the Purple Group walked over to the Metro for our "Metro Tour". Moscow has a pretty good metro system. The oldest metro stations were beautiful and full of small details. Each station was different and it was only when you started to get out of the city center that the stops started to be plain.

This day was a little hard for me. I was still a little jetlagged and I am sure that contributed. I don't usually take tours because I am on someone else's time schedule. I like to be on my own time schedule. If I see something interesting I want to stop. I like to have long lunches and just watch the country go by. On a tour this is not an option. You are on a strict time schedule and if you are late you inconvience 45 other people.

The Russia trip was very different than the Ireland trip two weeks ago. In Russia we were on a strict time line and the Russians were very punctual. AC, Mo, and I had already decided we were going to fly the coop that night and the events of the day just made me even more excited to be out on our own. My mother and Mo's mom were very conccerned about this and even got the program director involved. Our plan was to take the metro into the city center and watch the soccor game. Russia was playing Greece and Mo had seen a bar on our great day of driving that she wanted to check out.

Riding the Metro in a new city is a little challenging at first, but gets easier the more you ride it. The three of us did fine and managed a few train changes. We got to where we thought we were supposed to be and tried to find the bar. After walking around for a half hour we decided to get back on the metro and head to Red Square at night.

The square was lit up and still a very popular place (even at 12:15 a.m.). There were a lot more Russians out enjoying the evening and we had a great time walking around. At one point a young man asked AC if "she had the time". We thought he was asking what time it was but realized later that he was asking her if she had the time to talk to him, kind of like a pickup line. We were laughing at oursleves later when we realized this. Lost in translation I guess.....

We made our way back to the ship and had a few more adventures on the metro. Even though we never found a bar, we were so happy we had a chance to start exploring Russia at our own speed. We ran into some of the wait staff when we got back after 1am and had a good time talking to them and learning more about how Russia and Moscow worked. Tomorrow.... more tours..... and the Circus!


Russia: LA to Moscow

Day 1-2 were basically getting to Russia. The day started at 3am with a drive to LAX and then a flight to D.C. and then on to Moscow. The flight to Moscow took 10 hours. Ten hour flights are hard. This was not my longest flight, but felt like it sometimes. We were booked on United and it is the first international flight I have been on that didn't serve free alcohol. I don't usually drink on my flights but it is one of the perks I like to think about and this bummed me out (just a little). The United plane seemed old and run down compared to other planes I have been on recently and two of the overhead bins opened when we were taking off! Additionally there were about 40 Russian high school students returning to Russia after a year of studying in the United States. Sleep was not on their mind and we were sitting in front of the group. Fun times. I know it doesn't sound like it, but I think I am getting used to the uncomfortable-ness of international travel. Despite all of the things going on on the plane I slept a little and watched a few movies.

Arriving in Moscow, AC, my Mom, and I made our way to the Grand Circle Group. Other members of our tour had been on the plane with us and we all congregated together and tried to exchange money at the ATM and cash machine. It was a bit of a process becuase there were so many of us and only one of the two machines was working. It all worked out okay and I ended up helping other members of the group exchange their money after a group asked me if they could watch how I did it. AC said some people in line thought I worked for Grand Circle because I was too young to be on the trip with them.....

Here is the group walking to the bus.

The trip from the Airport to the boat (which are both in Moscow) took three hours. Can you say Traffic? There is definately some gridlock in Moscow. I slept on the bus and woke up to pouring rain. Our weather was calling for rain but I wasn't sure if we had missed it or not. I guess not.

We arrived at the ship and were greeted by traditional music and some traditonal welcoming bread that you dipped in salt. I must have been sleeping when they went over this because I have no idea what it was for, but hey... when in Rome..... (AC is laughing in the background in this photo)

The ship, the M/S Tikhi Don, is a river boat. There will be about 200 Americans on this boat with us. The rooms are simple and clean. Having never been on a cruise before, I can't compare them to anything but I will say that they seem nice and have a big window that opens. There is a sun deck and a bar. Coffee and tea is always avaliable. Meals are at set times and we all eat together.

Dinner our first night was good and the wait staff were helping all of us to learn Russian. Each day Grand Cirlcle Travel has an itinerary in your room. On the back of this itinerary is the dinner menu. I posted the menu in our room so I could look over my dinner options. What can I say, I love to eat! Dinner includes an appetizer, soup, entree, and dessert. I ordered the half portion of the entree having learned that trick in Ireland!

Appetizer: Philadelphia Cheese and Vegetable Terrine arranged on crispy lettuce seasoned with beet root vinaigrette.

Entree: Beef Stew "Cossack Style" with potatoes, carrots and mushrooms served in a traditional clay pot.

Dessert: "Chocolate dream on Pinapple carpaccio". (Dark and white chocolate mousse on a thinly sliced and marinated pinapple escorted by blackberry sauce.)

Mo and her mother arrived during dinner and it was great to see them. After dinner we strolled around the ship and were surprised to find it was soon 10pm. The sun sets about 10:30 in Moscow and will never set when we reach St. Petersberg! We headed to bed for a very welcome deep sleep.

From Russia with love

I know everything has been Ireland, Ireland, Ireland, but that is because I only had one (short) week between my Ireland trip with the sisters and my Russia trip with my Mom, and Mo and her Mom, and AC.

Mo, AC, and I all work together and the Russia trip came about because Mo and her Mom have been looking for a trip to Russia for the last FIVE years. Five years, lucky for me they found one and here we are.

A few words about this trip.

1. This is an organized trip or, tour if you will. It is a river cruise starting in Moscow and ending in St. Petersberg. We are going with a group called Grand Circle Travel. Grand Circle Travel or GCT has been a good company to go with so far. They offer a lot of information about the trip once you sign up and even helped with the Russia Visa process.

2. Grand Circle Travel has a target audiance of retired Americans. Secretly I cringed a little when I first realized this. Traveling with a company that specifically targets retired Americans is not usually how I roll. I felt a little bit like a travel snob when I started getting travel packets and it looked like I was going to be on a boat full of "blue hairs". (I know all my Mom's friends who are reading this right now are shaking their heads...) But I started thinking about it and realized that whoever was on the boat were people just like me who wanted to see Russia. If the majority of them were retired Americans, it just meant I would get to hear some great stories and think about what I wanted to do with my life when I "retire".

3. This is my Mom's first real international trip. I know she will say she has gone to Mexico and Canada, but come on! Mexico and Canada are right next door to the U.S., they don't really count. I know this is the first time she had to spend 10 hours on a flight from DC to Moscow (Boo to 10 hour flights). I think it is good that we went through GCT because my Mom will be with her "peers" and the fact that everything is planned and organized will make the trip less stressful. I think there will be a little stress with being in a new country, but I have a feeling Grand Circle Travel does everything they can to make the trip stress free and as memorable as possible.

This is my first cruise. I am looking forward to it. I am a little nervous about being on a boat after the Alaska Eagle boat delivery last summer, but hope things will be okay. I am looking forward to taking this trip with my Mom and enjoying the night life in Russia. I have a feeling I will be enjoying the night life with Mo and AC but maybe Mom will join us too.


Russia bound!

I know it's all been Ireland, Ireland, Ireland but my Mom and I are on our way to RUSSIA for 16 days right now. I have a few Ireland posts to complete but look for Russia updates over the next few weeks if I can find Internet! So excited!!!!


Notes about driving in Ireland

I hated driving in Ireland. I just need to admit it.

Was it that they drive on the LEFT (wrong?) side of the road? Or the lack of street signs? Or the round-a-bouts? Or the roads the size of California bike lanes? Or the maps that only show main streets?

Why YES! It is all of those things that I didn't like about driving in Ireland.

The irony is that I never once drove on our trip in Ireland. I was the navigator or the person in the backseat. But now that the trip is over and I have had a little bit of time to think about it, I realized that I will never take a trip like this again. I really didn't like being in the car for that long. I didn't like not knowing where I am going and I REALLY didn't like not having a good map.

Some of the the driving lowlights (instead of highlights) included the lack of street signs. We stopped and asked for directions a lot and everytime but once the stranger who helped us would give directions based on landmarks. Every Irish person we talked to about driving in Ireland told us how bad the signage was and not to trust it at all. They even admitted to getting lost in Ireland, and they were IRISH. This made us feel a little better, but we spent the first four days of our trip being lost and frustrated. Not a good way to start things out. Another thing about the street signs is that they were always placed behind a plant or tree of some kind so if there was a sign, we couldn't read it!

An obvious lowlight was driving on the left side of the road. The Middle Sister did a great job but I think it was unsettling to all of us. Almost psychological. It was really strange and not fun to be the person sitting in the front passenger seat. Needless to say, I don't see a driving trip to England anywhere in my future.

Round-a-bouts (going left) were also not our favorite thing. We hit our first one right after picking up the car and went the right (correct) direction. After this we did okay at each round-a-bout. If we missed our exit we just went around again. We also liked them for "U-turns" when we ended up going the wrong way (which happened a few times on my watch). But overall they were not very fun. They would show up in the middle of major roads or in a tiny town. They were everywhere.

Another thing that was hard was finding a good map. We had a map of the country provided by the rental car company and it was okay. We bought a detailed map at a gas station and it was okay. I think I looked for a good map everytime we stopped. The truth was that the maps we found (even the city maps we got) were not very detailed. They would give main roads and such, but never the smaller roads. This made it difficult to know if we were in the correct area when we were trying to find something. Which is why we were always asking for directions.

I live in California and there are a lot of BIG cars and BIG roads. I knew the roads and cars in Ireland were going to be smaller but I guess I didn't quite realize how that was going to look. The roads looked like bike lanes. And I hated driving on them. Additonally a lot of the roads we took did not have shoulders on them so it was hard to pull over so people could pass us. They also were not straigh so we were cautious at ever turn. Another layer of stress to driving in Ireland I guess.

People asked me if the drive was pretty and I have to say here is something else I didn't know about driving in Ireland. Yes, the drive could be pretty. I saw a lot of cows and sheep. But most of the time there were little mounds of plants right next to the road and that is all we would see. It was like being in a green tunnel. The roads were simular to the curvy roads I find in the California wine country or on Pacific Coast Highway. And the speed limit was 80-100 kilometers per hour! That is really fast on curvy little two lane roads.

So we would be driving along, in the green tunnel, with no shoulder to pull off on, behind a tracker, trying to find a sign to make a turn, using a map that sucked, and still we managed to make it around Ireland. Would I do this again. No! But live and learn. I can't think of another way to see Ireland so now I can check that off my list.

Having a car in Ireland gave us a certain amount of freedom and allowed us to see the things we wanted to see and go where we wanted to go. All the "hassel" of driving in Ireland was the price we had to pay to do this. It was a higher price than I thought it would be.....

A few pictures from the road:

The Middle Sister driving

Our Ford Focus STYLE

Typical road with narrow lanes and green hedge and no shoulder.

Just another tracker on the road. We saw these all the time. I even saw one on the main moterway.


Ireland: Dublin

The sisters and I ended our trip in Dublin. We spent three nights there and explored the city seeing the Guinness Storehouse tour, Jameson Whiskey tour, Dublin Castle, Trinity College and the Book of Kells, shopped Grafton Street, and even saw what we thought was a street race but ended up being just a showcase for some Formula One cars. It was a FULL few days.

People told me to skip the Guinness Storehouse tour, but you can't go to Ireland for the first time and skip the Guinness Tour. It would be liking going to Southern California and missing Disneyland! So we walked over on a rainy day and joined the many people visiting the storehouse that day. This tour was self guided (yea!) and the building is pretty cool with lots of glass and open space. I think I heard someone say it was designed after a beer glass.....

The Gravity Bar on the top floor had a great view of the city but was PACKED (people were even sitting on the floor) so the sisters and I decided to have our Guinness on the food level below the bar.

An Irish bartender early in the trip told me the best place to have Guinness in Ireland was in a Pub and he was correct. Guinness in a Pub is smooth and almost creamy. Guinness at the Storehouse was bitter and not nearly as good. But everyone has to go to Disneyland at least once..... and so I did.

The Jameson tour was another Disneyland of Ireland stop and this one was way more like Disneyland in a funny way. All it was missing was the singing kids on "It's a Small World"! Just Kidding.... well sort of. The Jameson distillery that we toured was no longer a working distillery so there were a lot of videos and pictures and stories. This is in direct contrast to the Bushmills tour we did. Bushmills was a working distillery and that tour was better. You really got an idea of the process involved in making Irish Whiskey at Bushmills. Jameson was a tiny version of that.

On a side note: Both distilleries had a "12 year Reserve" that they said could only be bought at the sight but we found it in the Airport!

The sisters and I opted to take a tour of Trinity College before seeing the Book of Kells and it was the best tour I had in Ireland. Our tour was led by Stephen, a Trinity College student, and he was funny in that slightly sarcastic Irish way. He had a catch phrase he used a lot on the tour which was "In typical Irish fashion". He would use it to describe things that hadn't worked out the way they were supposed to. For example, there was a building that had been built in the 1960s that was supposed to look like the Gardens of Babylon but when the building was finished and they went to plant the plants on the outside all the plants died. Stephen then said, "In typical Irish fashion, the stone used for the construction of the building was too alkaline for the plants, and killed everything." There was a lot of "In typical Irish fashion" on our tour and it was like a bell going off in my head!

In typical Irish fashion - stores open between 9-10ish. If not by 10 then just keep waiting.

In typical Irish fashion - street signs are a joke in Ireland so you must navigate by landmarks.

In typical Irish fashion - there is always a round-about if you need to make a U-turn.

We had a lot more "In typical Irish fashion" in Dublin and I kept reminding myself "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." It is the phrase I use to remind myself that each place I visit (even places in the U.S.A.) have there own way of doing things and I just need to find a way to fit into that. I just wish I had known "In typical Irish fashion" earlier in the trip.....

Let keep the "In typical Irish fashion" going! Saturday morning we found that the streets of Dublin were starting to be blocked off. The photo above is the main street right by our hotel. I asked a Police Officer what was going on and he said it was for the street racing. Cool! A street race we would be able to see right down the street from us. On Sunday we heard some engines and made our way to see what was going on.

There were a lot of people millling about and there was a turn on the "track" right near us so we thought we would be able to see a lot of action. After a bit two race cars slowly drove up and the crowd cheered. They reveved there engines, made the turn and slowly drove away. We waited, and waited, and waited. Finally we asked a guy if they were going to race. "No" he said "You couldn't race in the city". So they just drive around to showcase the cars? "Yep. Ireland loves an excuse to close off the streets and drink."

Wow. Dublin was basically shut down (for three days) so these cars could drive around. I was glad we didn't need to take Public Transportation becuase all the busses were re-routed. I was glad Dublin was a walking city and that we were in the middle of everything because we would have been stuck. I am all about "When in Rome" but this just seemed crazy to me. I have to chalk it up to "In typical Irish fashion"......

When I was asking about all the racing stuff, I asked if the roads would be cleared by Monday morning about 7am as I needed to catch the Airport bus. The officer told me yes but In typical Irish fashion, the streets were still blocked and the sisters and I had an adventure trying to find the bus to the airport. I guess I should have learned by then (but it takes time to process things sometimes) that there was no way people who were up all night were going to get up early to clear the streets. I mean stores open between 9-10ish...... If they are not open, just wait longer......

Dublin hotel - Central Hotel

Restaurant of note: Rusticstone

This ends my day by day account of my trip in Ireland but I have a few more thoughts I want to share coming up. Look for:

Notes about Driving in Ireland

Ireland B&Bs

Ireland restaurants of note

and Ireland Take-Away



Ireland: Carlingford to Dublin via Newgrange

Day 12 we headed to Dublin via Newgrange. We kind of felt like Newgrange was a waste of our time. It probably had a lot to do with the fact that the tour guide on our mandatory tour sucked. I didn't go inside the tomb (if it is a tomb) when the rest of the group did and heard another tour going on. I learned way more from that tour guide!

From Newgrange we returned the car in Dublin (YEA) and took a bus into the city. We stayed at the Central Hotel and it truelly was in the middle of everything. Good for seeing things but bad for sleeping. The weather continued ot be gray and raining but we looked forward to exploring the city.

Dublin hotel - Central Hotel

Restaurant of note: Rusticstone

Ireland: Carlingford

The sisters and I spent two nights in Carlingford at the suggestion of JJ, who ran the B&B we stayed at in Portstewart. He said when he and wife go on holiday, they like to go to Carlingford. Sounded good to us so that is where we spent the night on Day 10 and Day 11.

I mentioned in the previous post (Ireland: Portstewart to Carlingford) that it had started to be gray and rain. Day 11 was no change. Carlingford is know for being between the mountains and the sea and having lovely walking routes. We were going to take a few of these and even got some maps from the B&B but then were told we should not do any that went too high in elevation as the cloud cover would block visability and we would need a compas to find our way home. Seeing as "high elevation" is about 300-500 feet we decided to skip those walks.

Instead we stayed closer to Carlingford Lough (the ocean) and explored the city. Carlingford has a lot of medival ruins that the city has built itself around. There is a a King John's Castle (of Robinhood fame) and a haunted city gate.

Carlingford is a "Tidy Town" and we realized we had stayed in a few "Tidy Towns" in Ireland. If you have seen the movie "Hot Fuzz" you would probably been laughing at this like we were. In our un-eductated American way, we didn't realize this was a real thing that towns did when we saw "Hot Fuzz". Now that we had a better understanding of "Tidy Towns" every time we would see a sign for one we would start cracking up. Basically a "Tidy Town" is a competition town participate in and Carlingford won a national award one year. Maybe that is why they had street signs! (In previous Ireland posts I lament the lack of signage...)

We really enjoyed Carlingford and had a great time at PJ's Pub (or the Anchor Bar as the sign calls it) and had one of the best dinners I had in Ireland at The Oystercatcher Bistro. Our B&B was fabulous and my only improvement could have been with the weather.

Carlingford B&B - Carlingford House (my second favorite B&B in Ireland) night 2

Restaurant of note: The Oystercatcher Bistro (My favorite meal in Ireland!)


Ireland: Portstewart to Carlingford via Belfast and Glenariff

Day 10 the sun went into hiding soon after we started our trip south. We got a little "gentle" rain but for the most part it was a gray and overcast day. The Middle Sister wanted to check out one of the fabled Glens on our way south and picked Glenariff.

Glenariff is one of the nine Glens of Antrim in Northern Ireland. A "glen" simple means a valley but if you talk to a local about the Glens they tell you how they were a place where fairies and other Irish myths lived. It was easy to believe as we walked through Glenariff, the "Queen of the Glens". Purple wildflowers led us to waterfalls that cascaded into clear pools on there way to anther waterfall. It was an amazing place.

From Glenariff we headed to Belfast where the Little Sister wanted to see the Ulster Museum, Queens' College and the botanical garden. Lucky for us, they are all right next to each other.

My favorite thing about Belfast was something we discovered called ice cream with a "tray bake". Basically it is a huge bowl of ice cream (the desserts in Norhtern Ireland are HUGE) with something baked in a tray cut up and put on top. Imagine a brownie cut up and put on top of a bowl of ice cream but they have all these other things they make in "trays" that they put on the ice cream. Things like rocky road tray bake or chocolate mint tray bake or caramel tray bake.... Yum!

Carlingford B&B - Carlingford House (my second favorite B&B in Ireland)