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.

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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

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