John and Pamela Meyerhoffer(Courtesy John Meyerhoffer)
Hotel we liked... Our "hotel" was the Viking Kirov, a sleek 20-year-old ship that was refurbished completely in 2009. Unpacking only once was a huge convenience, possible because our "hotel" moved with us. One hint: Book an E cabin. These are considerably larger but come at a lower price. You'll have a porthole instead of a window, but the upside is that no one will be wandering on the deck just outside your cabin.
Great local meal... Because we were sailing with Viking, all meals were on the boat. But the Kirov's chef used vegetables [PHOTO], meats, and cheeses [PHOTO] from the local markets to make authentic Russian dishes. The beets (served in traditional borscht) and beef Stroganoff were two of our favorites. We were hoping for caviar—alas, none of that—but the vodka was plentiful. Nostrovia!
Our favorite part... The Catherine Palace. We were the first to arrive, and we were greeted by a dancing brass band [PHOTO]. The palace is made up of room after magnificent room, and we were able to see it all without the crowds [PHOTO] Another highlight: the famed Amber Room. When we visited in 1996, it was in the early stages of being repaired after destruction during World War II. Now the room is restored to its full floor-to-ceiling glory.
Wish we'd known that... Smoking is so prevalent. Smoke-free areas are few and far between. Also, had we known about the beautifully decorated subway stations in Moscow, we would have made time to get off at each one for a peek. The opulent decor in the stations, from chandeliers to sculptures, is untouched by graffiti or vandalism—we suspect the highly visible guards help with that.
What we should have packed... To bring home with us? Our knowledgeable and humorous onboard guide, Victoria! [PHOTO] Besides providing interesting information about all the sights along the way, she shared her thoughtful perspective on the history of the czars, the former Soviet Union, and current-day Russia. She also recited poems by the man she reveres as the greatest Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin.
Worth every penny... The extra fee to visit the Armoury in the Kremlin [PHOTO]. Here you can view a collection of the amazingly intricate Fabergé eggs, encrusted with precious gems. Also on display are the czar's carriages, the czarina's gowns, and the family's crown jewels. A visit to the Yusupov Palace [PHOTO] was also worth it. This was once the private home of a wealthy St. Petersburg family. Rasputin was murdered here—or at least his murder began here. You will stand where he was poisoned and stabbed. For their role in Rasputin's death, the Yusupov family was exiled.
Never again... Will we wait so long to visit a country that holds such history and mystery. Now I'm rereading War and Peace and learning more about the Romanoff dynasty. This trip truly piqued our interest in Russia—past and present.
Total rip-off... The souvenir stands and street peddlers that sell inferior goods at superior prices. The sheer variety of matryoshka (nesting) dolls [PHOTO] was mind-boggling and felt tacky. Also be on the lookout for fake plastic "amber" and imitation papier-mâché boxes that have printed photos pasted on the top rather than hand-painted works of art.
Fun surprise... Catching sight of brides in their gorgeous wedding gowns at numerous sites around St. Petersburg and Moscow. Russian tradition calls for a civil ceremony in the morning and a party in the evening, and it's good luck to toast with champagne [PHOTO] and then break the bottle on the sidewalk. More traditions: In Moscow, newlyweds place a padlock on a metal tree, and in Yaroslovl, the locks are placed on a bridge railing [PHOTO], and the key is thrown in the river.
Overrated... Lenin's Tomb. It's only open for a few hours in the morning on certain days, which is inconvenient. We learned that Lenin's body is kept in a preservative solution, then makeup is applied, and then the corpse is dressed for display. The whole process seems somewhat ghoulish—and apparently the Russian government spends millions of dollars a year to maintain it all. We're with the locals who say, "Bury it."
Moment when things got tense... When we saw a young man asking his love for her hand in marriage. She declined! We captured the scene by the Grand Cascade [PHOTO] at Peterhof Palace. It wasn't tense for us, but it certainly was for the young gentleman!
We're still laughing about... A Yaroslavl café sign announcing "Free beer!"...tomorrow (in small letters) [PHOTO]. A sleeping guard in the Hermitage [PHOTO]. And a bear serving vodka to John [PHOTO].
Bonus! Our top tip: When booking this river cruise, select a date when the trip goes from St. Petersburg to Moscow rather than the reverse. When you take this route, you'll have time to reserve the limited tickets available for the Bolshoi Theatre and the Armoury.
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