Thursday, December 27, 2007

We arrive for the final few days of our trip after one of the longest bus rides we have ever undertaken. 280km in over 6 hours. The temperature outside the bus may have been around 0, but the inside temp was closer to 30. Not very pleasant and we even opened the sky light for a hour or so to let in some rather fresh air.

The attractions in St Petersburg are further apart so we did a coach tour to get our bearings. The traffic here is not a lot better than Moscow, which meant we had plenty of opportunity to hear about the local history, and stop for a snowball fight or two. I promise the camera was not damaged (due to Claire's poor aim [if you consider a perfect hit to the hip poor!]).

Our guide's knowledge really became apparent during our tour of the Hermitage, which ranks as one of the worlds top four museums. This is a complex of 5 buildings - Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, Hermitage Theatre, and New Hermitage - originally built for Catherine II.

Nikolaev Hall in Winter Palace
Da Vinci's 'Madonna and Child'
Some nice looking chairs. Pity you weren't allowed to sit on them....
Claire checking out another Russian bride doing wedding photo's.
After the information overload of the day it was quite relaxing to sit back and take in a tradional Russian folk show of singing and of course some Cossack dancing. Certainly a show to be remembered.

Our last day of the tour began with another bus ride. This time to Catherine Palace where we were blown away by the decadence of the rooms. This lady certainly knew how to spend money. The first room we entered is known as the Gold Room and you do almost need sunglasses. To top it off there was a small choir just waiting to sing for us. The palace is still undergoing reconstruction and we were able to watch some of the parquetry floor being laid in one of the dining rooms.

Once back into town we headed to Peter and Paul Fortress which lies across the Neva River from the Hermitage. It is here that all the Tsars are buried.

Outside fortress with Hermitage behind
One for the random funny sign collection. This one at the Peter & Paul Fortress seemed to include such important items as 'No Ski Jumping', 'No jumping off tall buildings' and 'No karate chopping trees'.
For the record it is around 4pm in the afternoon and you can see it is already dark. Only 6 hours of sun (if it shines) to soak up. Our last stop was St Isaac Cathedral and yep we could take pictures inside a cathedral!! At last we can show some of the effort that goes into decorating Russian style. The first thing to note is there are no chairs. Everyone stands during the service and even the Royals need permission in order to sit. Services also take up to 6 hours. The interior of the churches are decorated to a common theme with the altar always being on the eastern side and between 3 and 7 rows of iconostasis surrounding it. Believe us, everything has a spot. One unique aspect of this cathedral is that nearly all the 'paintings' lining the walls are actually mosaics.


Saving the best for last was a night at the ballet. A performance of Swan Lake in the Hermitage Theatre, an intimate setting for about 200 guests. In a setting that small, everyone had a great seat.

They didn't like people taking photos during the show, so the best we got was this view of the curtain.So in ending this series of posts, we had an amazing time in Russia and would recommend it as a destination to anyone considering it. We hope everyone had as good a Christmas as we did.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


After 3 days in Moscow we jumped on the overnight train for the 12 hour trip to Pskov (near the Estonian border). We arrived on Christmas eve after little sleep and headed off with our local guide to the Pskov Kremlin for sunrise.

The Veche where declarations were made to the people.

We also visited a Izborsk Fortress just outside town, to sample some of the magical spring water. The fortress is situated on quite a steep rise making it difficult to attack.

Magical Stream
Claire taking in some magic
We also gave the Russian tradition of Banya a try. Now this involves sweating it out in a sauna and being beaten with a birch branch (not painful) and then running outside and jumping into the nearest lake before repeating the process. The lake was slightly too far away for us so we were content to throw a bucket of cold water over us. Invigorating and exhausting all in one.

Our tour group threw a Christmas party for us which included some tradional russian dancing and of course a visit from santa (yes he waited until after midnight).

Claire was a good girl
Steve was a good boy
On our way out of Pskov the next day we headed to the fantastic Pechory Monastery. Again there were no cameras allowed but we did take a group shot of the tour in front of the cathedral.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


To finish off our travel year we took off in search of sub-zero temperatures and hopefully a white Christmas. Destination: Russia.

Based on the BBC weather forecasts we thought it wouldn't be too cold (around the zero mark). Well that was until day 2 when our guide mentioned that the temperature for the following day would be a maximum of minus 11. We didn't want to ask what the minimum was meant to be.

For those that think Australia has traffic jams then think again. 25km from the airport to the hotel took us 3.5 hours. This is longer then the flight over! It seems that everyone of the 10 million residents has a car.

We met our guide for the next 7 days and headed onto the metro to explore the Red Square and surrounding areas. The metro system (or underground) is almost a tourist attraction in itself. Many of the stations are decorated very ornately with sculptures and murals. Our guide explained that many of them were used as subtle propaganda to promote communism.

Artwork at Novoslobodskaya Station

The Red Square is boarded by the Kremlin (specifically the Lenin Mausoleum), St Basils Cathedral, GUM shopping centre and the Historical Museum. This square has played a major role in politics for much of the last 100 years and now is where many moscovites spend new years eve.

St Basil's has a very ornate exterior but inside is not as big as you would expect. It contains 9 individual chapels and is quite a maze to find your way around.

St Basil's Cathedral

The Kremlin is a huge complex that contains not only government buildings but also 3 cathedrals, a palace and the Armoury. A wander around this took up most of the afternoon and we still didn't see it all. The cathedrals were spectacular but no cameras were permitted inside.

View of Kremlin from Bridge

Soldiers outside the Palace of Congress at the Kremlin
Tsar Bell - pity it was never used
Ice sculpture replica of Tsar Bell

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with the eternal flame is just outside the walls of the Kremlin and has a changing of the guard every hour.

Eternal flame at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier

During our time in Moscow, one thing we did notice were the number of wedding parties around. It seems the Red Square is quite popular for photos, although this group chose a backdrop of the truckshow. I don't think we will be copying this idea!

Random wedding photo in front of Truck Show. Not our preferred photo location....

During the free time we headed out to Gorky Park. Sadly it was shut but there was ice skating on offer. Rather then construct a rink, they just let a few of the paths ice over.

Ice Skating at Gorky Park

After a bit of walking around we did manage to find the Sculpture Park. 100 rubles entry for tourists, 10 rubles for a local. Our Russian isn't good enough to pass off as a local. The sculptures were a mix of modern sandstone and older statues.

One of the many statues of Lenin
Seeing as the temperature was -9 or so, the Moskva River did ice over a little. Made it interesting to watch these ducks swim over for a peice of bread

Duck walking on Ice
A highlight of the time in Moscow was a visit to the Star City Cosmonaut Training Centre. One of the instructors gave us an insight into the life of a cosmonaut and the training involved. Quite surprising how short most cosmonauts are. They also have a replica of the Mir Space Station.

Claire entering the Space Station

Steve at the controls

Dinner table, bin, plate, cooker, & control panel for exercise equipment

Lastly, we managed to get some snow, unfortunately not enough to play in.

Claire waiting for Steve to finish taking photos
Still waiting...
and waiting.....
are we there yet......
finally....At least the sun was out!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Time for another trip within the UK. We decided to make a long weekend of it and headed to Bath. The original plan was to hire a car and check out some of the surrounding coutryside but it seems not many hire places are open to return the cars on a Sunday. Back to the train and the bus.

The B & B we stayed in was only a few minutes walk from all the attractions and had a fairly nice view over the town to the hills behind. Fantastic breaky overlooking the back garden to get the day started.

One of the highlights was the Roman Baths. Located right in the center of town we had walked past it before we realised what it was. We made a smart choice in touring the baths on Friday before the masses arrived on Saturday. The water is about 40degrees and seeing as the air temp was around 6 the steam was rising.

We also headed out the Stonehenge on the Friday afternoon. The tour we chose went via the village of Lacock - the highlight being Lacock Manor which is closed during winter. The reason for Stonehenge itself is not know but the audio tour gave some interesting theories. We tried to hang around for the sunset but it was too cold and it closed at 4pm! (Sunset is around 4:15 at the moment) The surrounding country side was gorgeous.

Saturday saw the sunny weather disappear and it turned freezing. As part of our mission to acclimatise for christmas in Russia, we decided to remain outdoors (need to get longer coat, better shoes, better gloves....). Steve hit the gardens and out came the camera for some wildlife shots. Squirrels in particular, although the duck with the curled tail feather was quite cute. Once we made it into the main shopping area we understood why we had been encouraged to do as much as we could on Friday. There were people everywhere. I think it rivals Oxford Street.

The good weather returned on Sunday so we took the opportunity to walk along the Kennet and Avon Canal towards Bradford-on-Avon in the hope that we would see one of the many locks in operation. No such luck but it was a pretty if somewhat muddy stroll. It would have been nice to do the full 10miles instead of the couple of km but we weren't sure what transport there was to return to Bath by and we did have a bus to catch.

Monday, October 29, 2007


The Golden City as it is also known, capital of the Czech Republic and sits either side of the River Vlatva. We took the 1 hr 45 min flight over after work on Friday for two busy days of sightseeing. Surprisingly Heathrow was more efficient than we had expected, however our plane was late, so in hindsight we didn't have to leave work early. We took a punt with accommodation and chose 'the secret hotel' off the website. It worked out well for us as the 4* hotel was 2min from the metro, for about half of the normal discounted price. Bargain.

On Saturday we headed to Hradcany to see the Castle which is far more then just a Castle. It is also the location of a Cathedral, Basilica, and the Royal Palace, as well as other associated buildings. Unfortunately the Palace was closed for the weekend but it is still a full days worth of sightseeing. The Castle was completed in many stages and the style of building reflects that from gothic to renaissance influences often next to each other.

The many different aspects of the Castle.

St Vitus Cathedral was built over 500 years and contains 21 very ornate chapels. The Wenceslas Chapel would be the stand out with the ceilings and walls covered in frescoes. As usual we took on the challenge of climbing to the top of the Cathedral, with the South Tower providing the 300 steps to the viewing platform. Quite a tricky process as there is only a single narrow spiral staircase.

South Tower of cathedral
Wenceslas Chapel

The trusty Insight Guide Book came out on Sunday as we walked all over the Old Town and checked out the rest of Prague. We stumbled across a display from the local military. What started off as a performance from the marching band turned into a display of gun handling, complete with firing off a few rounds. Not sure that all of the tourists (or pigeons) were quite ready for it either.

Again we did really well with the weather during our trip. Albeit a little cold (3-10 degrees) it was fine and provided a good opportunity for some night photos on Saturday night.

Apart from the annoying balloon on the right this would have been a really good photo
Charles Bridge