Tuesday, July 25, 2017


Our guest columnist today is my friend Sheila (we go back to 1964) who left LA when Sam, her husband, swooped down and carried her off to Israel where they have lived ever since.  Sheila came to the US from Shropshire, England.   Recently, she and Sam toured Moscow and St. Petersburg with a National Geographic group.  Here is her account of what they saw.  In view of all of the Russia blathering currently in the news, this is timely indeed.


I have just returned from a 10 day organized trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg.  It was amazing.  I cannot speak about living in Russia, working, bring up children, caring for elderly parents or any of the other situations affecting our modern lives, but as a tourist, I can honestly say it was fantastic.

Tourism is an extremely important fact of modern Russian life and everything is done to make it a great experience.

There may have been restrictions or places we were not allowed to visit, people we could not see, but it was not obvious.  We could not go into the major sites without a local Russian guide and if you touched something inside that you were not allowed to touch, there was a charming Svetlana there to tap you on the shoulder, but these restrictions were no more than I have seen in other places.

There was no sign of any sanctions.  We were in a supermarket unsupervised and it was enormous and filled with everything.  Because we looked a bit lost a charming young man wanted to help us and maybe practice his English.  We went unsupervised to a restaurant and I have to admit to gaining pounds just by looking at the pastries on offer.  All the major designers had stores and car dealers were everywhere.  Only saw one LADA place though.  All of the others were foreign.

I never felt that the people were living in fear, but they certainly respect where they live and everything was very clean.  I believe they pressure wash the streets in Moscow twice a day, come rain or shine.

The weather treated us very well, a mixture of everything but snow ... it was, after all, June/July.

I was really amazed by the extent of religion in Russian history.  All the churches, cathedrals or useums were filled from floor to ceiling with art.  Nothing has been destroyed, even during the times when religion was banned the past was left standing.  There was war damage, but that is being restored to its former glory.

We were on the bus one day in Moscow and saw thousands of people waiting patiently for buses.  Apparently these were people from the countryside who had come to a place in Moscow to visit a church where there was bone (or some artifact) from a Saint and they stood for hours in the rain just to visit this site.  Obviously religion has never been far beneath the surface in the hearts of ordinary Russians. 

The lives of the Tsars with all the splendor and extravagance was unbelievable to see.  The gardens were wonderful and parks still play a very important part in the development of the Russian infrastructure.  Because they have plenty of space and plenty of rain, the public gardens are a joy.  The buildings are very elaborate, very crowded, but still a must.

I have to admit that the ornateness of the buildings was a bit heavy.  It was a bit difficult to imagine living in all that gold.  I also kept wondering how many people it takes to keep it clean and shiny.  The Hermitage Museum was overwhelming.  I am not the biggest art lover (or expert) so I was ready to leave before the end.

There were very few restrictions on what we could photography and I personally am glad I bought a couple of guide books because taking a million photographs on the telephone ... it all merges and you really forget which was which.

A tour of the Moscow Metro is a must.  Russian history is well shown amongst the commuters and trains.  Chandeliers, works of art and rushing people and trains are a strange combination.

We traveled on the Metro, regular trains, bullet trains, boats and even a hovercraft.  Imagine a boat in St. Petersburg with a bunch of slightly tipsy Israeli tourists singing away, quite a sight. 

We saw many groups of young Russians who were graduating and dressed in their prom outfits being photographed at the famous sights.  Obviously, youngsters the world over are pretty much the same.  except that I made a comment about one young lady that she looked like Kim Kardashian and she looked puzzled. 

The souvenirs on sale were very touristy.  Row upon row of babushkas, the stacking Russian dolls, which my grandchildren love, the ubiquitous golden-domed buildings, everything you would expect us tourists to buy.

And tourists there were - many - Chinese, Japanese and, of course, Israelies. 

We stayed in five-star hotels, the Crowne Plaza in Moscow and the airport Hilton in St. Petersburg.  Extremely modern, amazing range of food at breakfast and king-sized beds.  The Hilton even had a heated bathroom floor.

We ate at many different restaurants and the food was very good, always accompanied by a fresh vegetable salad.  Many places provided entertainment.

We went to a few shows, excellent, beautifully-dressed ladies and very athletic men who looked good and could they sing!

St. Petersburg is the more interesting of the two cities.  It has more charm.  There is a very famous festival that occurs in June and July every year, called the White Nights and it is when they open the bridges over the river to allow the cruise liners to pass through.  A special event.

We did the tour with National Geographic and I have to say that this is a trip that is best done as part of an organized tour.  There is too much to see and Russia is big.  To be able to hop on the bus to go from the hotel to the places to see was great.  We had the most charming and knowledgeable guide who sometimes walked a bit fast for us, but she was wonderful.

We flew with Aeroflot and it was good, the food not so much, but the service was fine.

All in all, I am very happy we took this trip.  I did not go with any preconceived ideas of what modern Russia would be like and thoroughly enjoyed everything

My three-year-old grandson just came in and started to play with the Babushka - another babushka, another babushka, another babushka ... . 

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