Monday, November 12, 2018

Grand stairways are a Hallmark of Russia's Palaces and Museums: Moscow

A guide said it best. "Moscow is a city of unnecessary steps."

Actually, that goes for all of Eastern Russia you are likely to encounter on a river cruise between Moscow and St. Petersburg. We go to see the grandeur of the Romanovs and are faced with seemingly endless grand stairways to negotiate in addition to the expansive distances of palaces.

The good news is that the stairs are shallow and are accompanied by grand banisters.

Faberge Museum
The bad news is that museums like the Hermitage and Faberge in St. Petersburg, the Tretyakov in Moscow are in former palaces.

Then there are the palaces themselves; Governor's Palace in Yaroslavl, Peterhof Palace and Park outside of St. Petersburg, Catherine Palace in Pushkin, and Yusupov Place in St. Petersburg. Those are just the beginning. Everything important seems to have been installed in a palace. Without elevators, of course. 

On a recent Viking river cruise in Russia, I didn't climb to the tops of any towers but I did make it through everything else.


Traffic is like this day and night.
Advisory: According to the Bloomberg Report, Moscow, population 16 million, is the world's most congested city. Believe it. River ships are parked several miles out of town and it will take 45 to 60 minutes to reach inner Moscow. Thus, a 5-hour tour becomes a 3-hour one at best.

Kremlin walls from Red Square
The Kremlin - it means fortress - is not the gray, barred, foreboding place the Cold War implanted in Western minds. It is a walled - red brick with bright green-trimmed towers - city and visitors must pass through metal detectors to enter, but it is spacious, colorful and frankly, beautiful.

Cathedral Square, where, as the name implies, you are surrounded by gold-domed churches, is spectacular. I found myself slowly turning in circles trying to take it in.

The Kremlin Armory houses some of Russia's most precious possessions, from royal coronation wardrobes, crowns, carriages, armor, gifts and thrones to 10 royal Faberge eggs. You could easily spend a day here, but ships' tours are much shorter and crowds can be claustrophobic. Still, it is worth the effort. Items are poorly identified; labels are on brown paper and placed at the bottom of display cases. You definitely need a guide.

Tip: Two floors, nine rooms, 44 steps to start the tour, 11 more up to the exhibits. Railings, but steeper, smaller steps than most.

Red Square is large and stunning, with the extravagance of Gum's (Russians pronounce it Gooms) Department Store facing the Kremlin Walls and the iconic striped and patterned domes at one end. It is especially dramatic at night.

St. Basil's
The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts is the largest collection of Western Art in Moscow. Although it is housed in a building designed as an art museum, accessibility is limited. There is an elevator but as in most Russian museums and palaces, access is usually limited to the wheelchair-bound. Didn't get here so no step count.

Unknown Lady, 1883, by Ivan Kramskoy, Tretyakov Gallery.
Tretyakov Gallery is the result one affluent and astute collector's determination to assemble the best of Russian art from icons to modernists and make it available to the public. By 1892 Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov presented 2,000 works to the state. The collection has since been added to and divided, separating Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and Modernists into a museum of their own at another location.

"St. Demetrius of Thessalonica," 1108-1113, Kiev mosaic.
Ships' tours will probably take you to the former, which is an absorbing survey of artists and movements little known to Westerners.

"Troyka, Young Apprentices Pulling a Water Barrel," 1886, by Vasily Perov.
Tip: Galleries with high ceilings are lovely but they mean more steps: 96 over two and a half levels.

Moscow's public toilets are above average and invariably tucked underground in the Kremlin and parks. "Paper optional" after midday.

Tip: Ranged from 18 to 30 steps down.

Canal Cruises are an enjoyable way to see Moscow from a different angle. Nippy but quite dramatic at night.

Tip:  Ours was 20 steps down from street level.

The Metro lives up to its reputation with marble floors and walls, chandeliers, mosaic, often propagandized art. Stations crowded but spotlessly clean, cars even more crowded. These lines are deep underground.

Tip: Thirty steps down to station at European Center, followed by two long escalators. Standers stay to the right or you will be knocked down by those in a hurry walking down the left side.

Leia Mais…
Thursday, May 31, 2018

Meeting the Terracotta Warriors and their Horses

China's Terracotta Warriors are atop many a bucket list and worthy of the effort to see them.

Xi'an, about an hour away, is an excellent headquarters from which to start. It was the first capital of China thanks to the country's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang (201-210 B.C.), who ordered the warriors for his tomb. Then named Chang'an, Xi'an served as capital for 13 dynasties until the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 A.D.) moved to Beijing. Many interesting things to see there, but the warriors are our first priority.

Levelers be warned: The Chinese build big, now and in the past. Long pedestrian boulevards, multiple series of steps, gigantic statuary.

The formally named Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum complex is understandably enormous. Not only must it accommodate large crowds - most of the visitors I saw were Chinese - there is much more to be excavated and displayed in the future. Emperor Chin was young and his reign was a short one, but his plans for his tomb were mammoth.

In addition to the army - 700 figures have been unearthed so far but there are perhaps 7,000 more archers, infantry, horses, cavalrymen, charioteers and chariots to go - the Emperor's own tomb is even larger and expected to take generations to unearth, catalogue and deal with.

Fortunately for Levelers, the ground upon which it all sits is level. Unfortunately,  the buildings are erected over the army excavation pits (there are three of those), which means stairs to navigate.

Warning: Women, the Chinese use squat toilets and that is what you will find here. There may be a Western-style one, usually marked with the handicap wheelchair symbol, but I did not see one.

There is a bit of a walk between bus parking and the ticket office and a much longer walk between it and the museum.

Tip: Save your time and energy; take one of the open-air shuttles to eliminate a sizeable portion of the walk.

Begin with the museum for closeups of the finished figures, photographs of the excavations and an overlook into the pit below.

Tip: As you can see in the photograph (to the right), there is a ramp entrance that circumvents those 26 steps that go up and then down for a total of 52.

The inside is dark with the two spectacular bronze chariots pulled by four bronze horses and examples of every type of warrior and their armor plus numerous photos and an overlook into the finds in situ.

Tip: Levelers will have 22 steps to exit to pit No. 2, where the army continues, in various stages of disrepair. 

Slowly the enormity of it all begins to sink in as you exit the four steps down from the rear.

  It hits with a thud of disbelief at the third pit.

Tip: Eleven steps up, 16 steps down.

The seemingly endless quonset hut-shaped structure is awe inspiring in its vastness. So are the ranks of soldiers and horses within it.

The emperor was going to be very well protected in the afterlife.

Elegant Wellness Getaway 

The Inn on Fifth in the center of downtown Naples, FL, America's Happiest, Healthiest City, inaugurates four four-day "ReNew You" sessions this summer. Held Aug. 14-18, Aug. 24-28, Sept. 10-14 or Sept. 21-25, a cadre of nutritionists, chefs, trainers and other experts will be gathered for the wellness retreat for small, intimate groups.

Included in the starting price of $1,231 are four nights of luxury accommodations at the Inn on Fifth, all retreat programming from yoga and tai chi to meditation, tours and walks on the beach, 10 meals, detoxing salt scrub, healthy in-room snacks and access to a hospitality suite. Plus free time to explore the city, its boutique shopping and optional spa treatments.

For a more detailed schedule and reservations, go to

Leia Mais…
Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Should Levelers Try an Expedition Cruise?

Lonely Planet declared 2018 the year of the expeditionary cruise.

As a Leveler, should you try one? If you have always wanted to, yes.  Otherwise, maybe.

Expedition cruises can be expensive; they go to extreme areas that require special equipment and attire, skill to navigate and reach with limited accessibility. Serious expedition ships are smaller, less luxurious, without the amenities of casinos or show rooms, but are hospitable and comfortable. All of which limits potential passengers, many of whom prefer effortless experiences that follow set itineraries.

In polar climes, the ships usually provide parkas and waterproof boots, but you will need very warm gloves, head-coverings and waterproof pants in addition to normal winter attire.

Expedition cruises have itineraries but wind, seas and weather determine where you will go and what you will see. 

Levelers may not be up to all of a daily excursion. Thanks to a sinus infection that affected my balance, I wasn't when I took Poseidon's cruise to Greenland last year, but thoroughly enjoyed what I could do.

Staff made entering and exiting zodiacs safe and easy. We even transferred from one zodiac to another at sea.

While others clambered up rocky, icy slopes I stayed at lower levels learning about the geology, ecology and plant life from expert staffers who were delighted to show off the environment they loved.

When we visited a village, while others continued to reach the highest points allowed, I had time to interact with residents,

examine the museums and collections of things they valued and watch artisans at work. 

Let me give you some of the details. It was Sea Spirit's first cruise of the season and winter had been unusually harsh and long. That meant there was thick ice where there shouldn't have been, limiting the ship's access to several prime spots in the itinerary. Disappointing yes, but we visited spots others didn't see.

TIP: Cruises later in the season will be more expensive but you are more likely to see what the itinerary promises and with less physical effort.

As the cruise came to an end, it was obvious we would not be able to get far enough inland for standard transport to the airport at Kangerlussuaq. Instead, with military planning and precision, our luggage was airlifted off via helicopter, we were loaded into zodiacs in groups, delivered to an abandoned fishing camp and shuttled via helicopter to the airport.

In short, an exciting for most - intimidating for a few - experience and a story to tell for years to come.

And isn't that what an expedition cruise is all about?

Leia Mais…
Thursday, November 2, 2017

Down the Danube from Budapest to Bucharest: Romania

Morning in Gurgiu
Unless you opt for an extension, Romania gets short shrift on the Budapest to Bucharest Danube cruises. Passengers disembark at Gurgiu in the morning and bus to Bucharest for the night before flying home. The cruise includes lunch, a tour and dinner at the hotel. However, with most flights leaving early in the morning (my friend and I had a 2:30 a.m. wake-up call) no one hit the night spots.

Too bad because this city, one of the largest in Europe, not to mention the Romanian economy, deserves more.

The drive in was quite interesting as our guide, Sorin, told us about Romania with a welcome dose of humor. It was all forest when the Romans arrived, but soon became the agricultural center it still is. Wine culture has a 2,000-year history here and prior to World War II wheat was a major export. Smokers of Marlboros and Kents are enjoying Romanian tobacco.

Tip: The country is filled with smokers but laws eliminating smoking in restaurants were finally passed in 2016.

When a cow leisurely crossed the highway we learned Romania is an open range country.

Vlad Tepes, the Impaler
King or Count, Drakula reigns.
 Dracula, be he the original King Vlad III, "The Impaler," of history or author Bram Stoker's version, is a national hero, especially in Bucharest.

Under Vlad III, "Bucharest was a free trade place," said Sorin. "No taxes, duty free, free parking. Vlad was very good for the country. People respected Vlad."

Whereas his grandfather bribed the Turks to stay out, Vlad fought them, killing 20,000 and impaling them on stakes "like shish kebab," Sorin described, adding that Turkish assassins killed the king, cut off his head and took it to the sultan in Constantinople.
Bram Stoker is on a Romanian postage stamp, tpp.

When Irishman Bram Stoker modeled and usurped the name of his character after the King, public interest was inflamed. The Castle of the Carpathians underwent a name change after lovers of the book decided it was where Count Dracula was buried. The Count has been very good for the Romanian economy and there is even a statue of Bram Stoker in Romania for having made the area so famous. The Irish bar is one of the city's most popular.
Romanian born Bela Lugosi portrayed the classic Dracula.

According to Sorin, "in 1973 they found the grave of Vlad 30 minutes outside Bucharest," although Romanians prefer to keep quiet about it, lest it affect tourism.

Glimpses of Bucharest 
 Upon arriving in Bucharest we go directly to our restaurant situated on a scenic lake.

This banquet-specializing spot is capable of handling five buses or three weddings at a time, complete with musicians and folk dancers.

The restaurant is known for its fish but our meal is classic Romanian fare, salad, beef soup, cabbage rolls and "mamalika," polenta.

The ride back into city center offers a hint of how beautiful Bucharest can be, unlike the Communist era depressing multi-story apartment blocks we saw on our approach.

Our walking tour started at Calea Victoriei in front of the statue of King Karol I, their favorite German King who brought electricity, rail and tramways, votes for women (thanks to his wife, one of Queen Victoria's many daughters), built Symphonic Hall, the library and increased prosperity. He and his steed stand facing the National Art Museum, formerly the Royal Palace.

From there we head into what Sorin called the German Quarter, others Old Town, a warren of streets and impressive buildings, the handsomest of which seemed to have become banks.

Cafes bustled with activity and I Ionged to linger in one but had spied the tiny Stavropoleos Monastery Church up ahead. Our pace was a hasty one and I knew it deserved  more time than was allotted so I hurried ahead.

Built in 1724 as part of a larger inn, its style is wildly eclectic and to me, completely satisfying. Byzantine, Ottoman, Moroccan or Romanesque, it has it.

I've later learned its style is called Brancovenesc, described as eclectic and developed during the reign of Prince Constantin Brancoveanu, 1688-1714.

Rich frescoes inside and out, even richer icons and relic receptacles demand attention, but my favorite spot was the side garden, a sanctuary of peace and reflection.

Tip: The pace of this tour is steady, but it is over flat, paved surfaces without any elevation changes. 

The Harrod's of Bucharest.
There were so many buildings and stores I wanted to see the insides of but couldn't (not to mention the museum, theaters and palaces),  it made the tour as frustrating as it was interesting. 

 Tip: Bucharest is a human-sized city. "We don't like skyscrapers, towers," Sorin said. "Better two, three, four stories." As such it's good destination for Levelers. Flat, too.

The day was hot, though, so the air- conditioned bus was a welcome sight.

Our next stop, "the People's House," brought home what Romania had suffered through since World War II.

Sorin had told us some of the story, how after the Soviet takeover in 1948, "the Russians tried to make us like Russia." Private property was taken over by the state. Productive individual farms were turned into unproductive state-run communes. Farmers were sent to work in factories, businessmen on farms. Nothing worked; hunger and starvation ensued, far worse than in the other Baltic states. One half miillion people were imprisoned, another quarter million were disappeared.

When Nicolae Ceausescu took over the country in 1965 then became president in 1974, he exchanged Socialism for Communism.

"We lost 1,500 during the anti-communist revolution," said Sorin. "He tried to make us like North Korea."

Eventually 100,000 political prisoners were released and individuals reclaimed their property.

The People's House.
As if the economy weren't bad enough, Ceausescu began on the People's House, an oversized testament to his ego. It is the second-largest administrative building in the world (the U. S. Pentagon is the largest). Looking at it from a block away it is as ugly as it is big, totally out of proportion and lacking in grace.

It also lacks air conditioning; Ceausescu didn't like air conditioning. It also lacks more than 100 steps of the finest marble that Ceausescu had torn out. He was short and they were too big for his stride.

He never made a speech from the grand balcony he had built for that purpose. He was deposed, he and his wife tried and executed before it was christened. Michael Jackson was the first to speak from it.

From there we were delivered to our hotel, the JW Marriott Bucharest Grand another souvenir from the Ceausescu era for it is where foreign dignitaries stayed. I can assure you they were very comfortable.

Tip: If you need anything here, ask the staff. They are extremely accommodating, especially concierge George Soreata who was invaluable in helping me check in for my flight home.

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