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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Rodin to Napoleon to Victor Hugo: All in a day's work.

Someone has actually trade marked this!
Saturday:  October 29th, 2011

We got our wonderful guides back today, Michel and Chantal.  We planned a late start because we were going to stay in the city late.  MA and I walked to their flat around 11:00 AM and we were off to the city about an hour later.  Saturday is a busy day in Paris with all the tourists.  We don’t know how Michel does it but he always finds a parking place near where we want to get out.  On all the streets we were on today I can count on one hand the number of empty curb parking spots I saw.  Traffic and pedestrians are everywhere, and I mean everywhere!

Our first stop was the Rodin Museum, a place MA really wanted to see.  And bless his heart, Michel got all of us Air France discount tickets.  The only thing I knew about August Rodin is that he was a sculptor and he is famous for his “The Thinker” statue, which is the most famous of his artwork. In fact it's the first thing we saw when we entered the courtyard. 

We wandered about the grounds taking in more than a dozen other very interesting sculptures. Inside the museum there were many smaller sculptures on display and also two Van Gogh’s and a Renoir. I liked Rodin as an artist because you don’t have to try and figure out what he is saying with his art.  The guy could really imitate the human body.  I think of him as the French equivalent to Michelangelo. 

We had a lunch in the Rodin café which for me was a very good tuna sandwich.  MA had quiche.  As they say when in Paris, “Eat like the Parisians”. Not sure where tuna sandwiches fit in there, but surely the quiche did!

After the Rodin Museum, we walked around the corner to the “Hotel des Invalides” which was built to serve injured and disabled French soldiers, kind of like French “Walter Reed Hospital” that also serves as a residence for the disabled. The “Invalides” was built during the reign of King Louis XIV in 1670.
The service motto there is:  “That those who have risked their lives and lavished their blood in defense of the monarchy….may spend the rest of their days in peace.”  We saw a few WWII era soldiers in wheelchairs near the entrance to one of the wings of the buildings. The “Invalides” is also a military museum and the final resting place for the Emperor, Napoleon.  We did not get to see his elevated wooden coffin because it was near closing time.  But over it is a huge golden dome, very impressive.
I wish I'd thought of that!


Making our way out of the east door Michel’s Toyota was just down the street and we were off to the next adventure. We drove around allowing us to take in some more of the sights including the Place de la Concorde.   During the French Revolution the statue of Louis XV of France was torn down and the area renamed "Place de la Révolution".
The new revolutionary government erected the guillotine in the square, and it was here that King Louis XVI was executed on 21 January 1793. Other important figures guillotined on the site, often in front of cheering crowds, were Queen Marie Antoinette, Frace, Charlotte, Madame du Barry, Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, Antoine Lavoisier, Maximilien Robespierre, Louis de Saint-Just and Olympe de Gourg.
The guillotine was most active during the "Reign of Terror", in the summer of 1794, when in a single month more than 1,300 people were executed. A year later, when the revolution was taking a more moderate course, the guillotine was removed from the square. Execution of Louis XVI took place in the “Place de la Révolution”. The empty pedestal in front of his had supported a statue of his grandfather, Louis XV, and it was torn down during one of the many revolutionary riots.

The square was then renamed Place de la Concorde as a symbolic gesture of reconciliation after the turmoil of the French Revolution. It continued to undergo a series of name changes in the nineteenth century, but the city eventually settled on Place de la Concorde.
I hope you enjoyed the history lesson!

From there we made our way to the Place des Vosges, a beautiful square built by King Henri IV in 1605.  It   is a true square, 140m X 140m and contains the former residence of Victor Hugo.  Michel again immediately spotted a parking place but as we got out of the car it started to rain lightly so we kept under the covered arched walkways. We were looking for a nice place to eat, but our first stop was a reject when the snobby waiter’s first words were “Cash only! No credit cards, thumping the menu where that was spelled out.” 
Even our Parisians friends were taken aback so we decided to dine elsewhere, settling on Café Victor Hugo.  I had a “Croque Monsieur” sandwich with “frites” and MA had Fettuccini, Michel and Chantal enjoyed steaks.  It was a good change of restaurant as the waiters were very accommodating.  In fact, that’s been our experience all week, very, very nice and helpful folks, all over the city. 
Place de Voges
Michel wanted to treat us to a special ice cream he likes a lot so we piled into his Toyota and drove over to the Isle St. Louis, directly behind the Notre Dame Cathedral.  I got some great night exposures of that famous Gothic structure.  It was still raining lightly and turning chilly so we decided to call it a day and headed by to Nogent-sur-Marne and our hotel.  It was a great day of seeing some special places in Paris with some very special friends.
Notre Dame at night

And for our TLC friends, we remembered to pray for the class and Barbara Eversberg’s lesson.  We thank her for stepping in for MA and Paul.  Our prayers were about 2:30 your time but the Lord didn’t care about the time!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Friday, October 28, 2011
Just call us a couple of sardines!
We made our way back into central Paris on the train(s). We left the hotel around 10AM and walked the 3 blocks to the train station.  MA tried her French out again with the railway clerk along with a big smile and he was very helpful.  We started out at Nogent-sur-Marne, a Paris suburb, we took the RER “E” train to Val de Fontenay, got off and transferred to the “A” train to Charles de Gaulle Etoile and got off for one more transfer to the M-6 train to Trocadero. It’s not really that hard once you do it a few times.  We got on the wrong train once yesterday and did not make the same mistake today.  If you’re wondering about the “sardines” we talk about, that’s what we felt like yesterday crammed into one of the trains we took at rush hour.
Our destination was a museum area west of the Eiffel Tower.  It was fun taking pictures of each other trying to “hold up” the Tower, even with the cloudy skies.    The place was as crowded as it was the other day.  We got back on the Hop-on Hop-off bus hoping to find the Rodin Museum.  We failed! Michel says they will take us there over the weekend.
So instead we opted for coffee at a sidewalk café.  Afterward we stopped to get some dental floss, which turned to cost 6 Euros, about $9 USD! Next time we’ll bring some from home!  Obviously the cost of living here is quite expensive compared to Houston. 
We walked on back to the bus. The clouds had finally parted briefly and I took some more photos of the Tower this time with some blue sky.  Our bus ride around and through Paris took us to the Louvre, the largest museum in the world. They have built a modern metal and glass pyramid which now serves as the entrance. It’s quite a contrast with the 18th century museum building. Many locals considered it an eyesore but it has now become another landmark of the city. We didn’t go in on this trip, you need several days to see everything there, like the Mona Lisa!
But while we were there enjoying the courtyards, we met another Nikon D3s photographer, Paul, from England.  He was telling me he had also been taking photos for the last two days in Paris and went to download his images only to discover his card reader erased all of his photos.  My heart sank for my fellow photographer.  His mission now was to revisit all the sites again and retake the lost photos.  When MA’s laptop would not process my photos from my Nikon, I didn’t force it by downloading drivers and all,  just for that exact reason.  On a lighter note, take a look at the photo with MA pointing to the top of the pyramid!  Obviously we were really enjoying the day together, holding up Paris landmarks.
Back to the bus and on to the Notre Dame neighborhood again.  This time we explored some of the older parts of Paris there around the cathedral.  We wandered around the Latin Quarter, home to all kinds of restaurants and another beautiful old gothic cathedral.  The organist was practicing while we were inside, very inspirational.We stopped for ice cream and watched the proprietor make a crepe for another customer. 
One more bus ride, this time to the Champs Elysees at which point we decided to head back to Nogent a little earlier than yesterday hoping to avoid the “sardine hour” on the subway.  That was not to be, in fact we were actually unable to even get on the first train it was so packed.

By around 5:30 we got back to where we are staying and shared a pizza at Les Bureau (The Office) Restaurant. We called it a night until 3AM when I got up to catch the World Series online.  Go Cardinals and good job Texas!
Michel has completed his Air France two-days of training and physicals so we’re meeting them later this morning for more adventures.  So far our flight on Tuesday has not been cancelled and Michel says there is to be a vote to possibly end the strike on Monday.  He’s totally not worried about this at all.  MA meanwhile is checking out alternative options to get us home.  If there’s a way and a need, she’ll find it!   
See you tomorrow........WW

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thursday:  October 27, 2011

Train Spotting!

MA and I were on our own today.  We decided to take the train(s) into Paris and buy a two day fare on the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus.  In Paris it is known as Les Cars Rouges.  For $26 Euros you get to ride around all over Paris for two days, get off when you want and get back on to see the next place.  We’ve done this in London and Barcelona and love it.  I’ve included a map for you to look at and follow our journey around the city.
We got up and got going around 9:30 this morning.  We walked about 3 blocks to the local train station and purchased round trip tickets.  We had to change trains 4 times but we made it to nearest Metro stop by Notre Dame Cathedral with only one false directional error that we had to reverse.  I had wanted to return there and photograph the rose windows. 
As we were walking along we met George Lavecky, a nice gentleman from Australia.  George was traveling Europe to catch up on many of his family members. He asked me if I would take his picture.  After we took our photos I asked him if he wanted to join us in the walk around Notre Dame. He was one nice guy as all the Australians that I’ve met are. 
We said our good-byes and walked over to the Hop-On Hop-Off bus and we were on our way around Paris in a big red double-decker.  I focused on street scene shots as we drove around. We decided to get off at the Opera so we could walk into the Lafayette Galleries.  This is one big department store.  I mean, it was huge!  Every name brand that you can think of has retail space in the Lafayette.  I came into the store because of the ceiling.  It is gorgeous.  You’ll just have to wait until I get back and can download my Nikon to see it.  While we were there we had lunch at McDonald’s.  Yes! I know! Wayne you go all the way to Paris and eat at Mickey D’s!!!! Well we were hungry and it was convenient.  J

We got back on the bus and traveled around town down the Champs Elysees.  Cops and firemen were everywhere.  Apparently there had been a fire just off the main street and because of the emergency vehicles, traffic was a mess.  The Car Rouge managed to get us around the Arc de Triumph and up to a place called Trocadero.  MA and I got off there because of the view of the Eifel Tower.  My only regret is the pool of water where you could have seen the tower’s reflection was drained for cleaning.  So the shot of the Tower I wanted was not to be.  But I still got some great photos of “the Lady” as the Parisians call it. 

We walked down the hill and across the bridge until we were directly underneath the Tower.  There were thousands of people there with hundreds in line to walk up the stairs!  Plus the place was crawling with police and military.  The soldiers were walking around with submachine guns at the ready.  Thankfully they were not needed.
We took our photos and got back on the bus and rode it back to Notre Dame.  MA did a little shopping and we decided to have coffee at the corner “brasserie”, which is French for café.  We lingered there for some time and decided to venture back to our hotel. 
To do that, we had to reverse our train ride.  We started out just fine but got on one wrong line, had to get off and go back and get on the right train. Did I mention the commuter leg where we were literally pushed in like sardines! We made it back to Nogent-sur-Marne in time for supper at the Hippopotamus Grill.  We passed on the hippo and had a steak and baked potatoes.  Our hotel was a short walk from there in sprinkling rain.

Tomorrow we plan to do the same thing, getting off at different places and maybe going to Montmartre again, a kind of bohemian neighborhood but with a fun atmosphere charged with young people, city views and cafes!  See you soon.

Paris: City of Lights

Paris:  City of Lights

Wednesday, October 26, 2011:  9:00PM
I have to start with an apology for the lack of travel updates.  Our voltage converter burned up and we had no computer for two days.  Also, the laptop I am using will not process my RAW images from my camera, so there will be no WW photos until I can figure out how to process the ones I’ve taken.  I may just take some with a Canon camera for the blog.
Anyhow! Bon jour from Paris.  We left home for IAH around 1PM, got the car parked and hopped on the bus to Terminal D.  A very friendly van driver whose name was Tim (my brother’s name) got us to the Air France door.  We ran into our only obstacle at check-in when the clerk told me my carry-on was too heavy and I had to check it.
MA and I relaxed in the Continental President’s Club for an hour before heading to the Air France gate.  We found Michel coming in with the flight crew.  We had economy class seats in row 31 but Michel told us to wait by the galley as we boarded the aircraft.  About 15 minutes went by and he upgraded us to two business class seats.    I have to tell you, I could get used to the service you get in business class.  MA and I got a kick out of watching Michel go through the safety procedures.  He was very attentive and we felt special being his friend.
The flight was about 9 hours and we arrived in Charles DeGaulle airport on Monday morning.  After we cleared customs and immigration we went to where we thought Michel said we were to wait for him to pick us up.   We waited for quite a while, decided maybe we weren’t in the right place, asked several folks for assistance, got several different answers, and it was almost two hours later before we finally all hooked up thanks to MA getting someone to call him on his cell phone to find out where we were to go.
Michel and Chantal live in a Paris suburb called Nogent-sur-Marne which is about twenty minutes east of central Paris.  He dropped us off at the hotel and went on home to rest after working the flight all night. We’re staying at the Citea Hotel which is about two blocks from their “flat”.  MA picked this one because it has a kitchenette. We arrived at 11:00 AM and check in time wasn’t 2:00 PM, however the nice clerk had a room and she allowed us to check in early.  I think it’s because she and MA soon discovered they each spoke Spanish and they became fast amigas.
We went up to the 2nd floor and room 204.  The good news is the hotel is right on the Marne River which is a nice view to have.  The rest of the news is we are right next to a high-traffic commuter bridge with all the accompanying noise, including the French sirens that sound exactly like they do in the movies.  If you close the window, which greatly reduces the noise, the room soon gets really stuffy.  They’ve turned off the A/C system for the winter.  But as always, we go with the flow and keep on thanking the Lord for His provision.
Still on Day 1 here! We got unpacked and decided to walk to a grocery store to get some food and bottle water.  We like doing our own breakfast because the local continental breakfasts start at 9 Euros a person, about $25 a day! For that same $25 we got bottled water, milk, cereal, yogurt, coffee, coffee cake, etc., enough for the whole week.    
Later in the evening we walked to Michel and Chantal’s for a wonderful supper.  Like me, Michel is the family “chef” and his three-course meal was the perfect introduction to French cuisine.  The conversation was nonstop, some in English, some in French.  MA struggles with her French sometimes but Chantal is a great coach for her and somehow she makes herself understood and continues to learn and improve.  Chantal says, as others have also, that she speaks French with a Spanish accent.  Did I mention the hotel maid staff all speak Portuguese?  That’s MA’s other language.  Go figure, we came for French and she gets to speak Spanish and Portuguese every day!

Day 2 we all piled into Michel’s car for what was to be a wonderful 10-hour adventure in Paris.  We started out at Vincennes, a medieval castle and armament factory.  It is still used for that purpose as evident by the number of military personnel we saw.  Michel had purchased river boat cruise tickets for us all, so we continued on into Paris for a two-hour cruise along the Seine.
We boarded the “bateau” near the Eifel Tower and cruised all the way down past Notre Dame. Since we were so close to the Eiffel tower, after the cruise we decided to take a closer look.  The sky was beginning to turn cloudy and I warned everyone that rain was soon coming.  We had barely enough time to walk directly under the tower.  What an awesome sight that is. As we started toward the car, it started to pour and we all got soaked! Undaunted, we then drove to the theater district and had lunch at a local “creperie”.  The owner waited on us, and MA soon found out he was from Venezuela.  They had a great conversation in Spanish about her Pan Am days and the many times she flew there. I won’t say crepes are my number favorite meal, but we were fascinated but the many, many variations in which they come.

Michel then took us to Notre Dame where we were able to photograph the Gothic cathedral in the twilight and a little bit later after the lights came on.  It is enormous buildings with pointed arches which in turns support the vaulted ceilings along with “flying buttresses” you see on the side. Catholic Mass was going on inside and that, combined with the singing and the incense really gave us a feeling for the full atmosphere of that grandiose place. The signs said no flash photography but I noticed several folks just ignoring the “rules”.
From there we were off to get an excellent photographer’s view of the Eifel Tower. At 9:00 PM all the strobe lights on the Tower came on and it looked like a sparkling jewel for five minutes. This occurs every hour on the hour. Then the tower “rests” in all its lit up splendor.  From there we were off to the Champs E’lysee and the Arch de Triumph.  We thought about things later! If we had to leave the next day, surely thanks to Michel and Chantal, we had “lived” Paris, if only for a day.

Our day started around 12:00 noon with a drive to Versailles, home to the French kings, the last of whom was Louis XVI and wife Marie Antoinette.  Versailles is on the west side of Paris and we are on the east.  We drove on the Paris version of “Loop 610” and got there in no time.  The first glimpse of the chateau reminded me of the Russian palaces we saw in St. Petersburg this summer.  Visitors are greeted with a huge golden gilded gate.  After paying our 18 Euro entry fee we began our tour.  I have to admit old King Louie had a fine house.  The French are in the process of restoring a lot of the paintings, walls, and ceilings.  You name it, they are fixing it.  Versailles is a three story chateau in the shape of a big letter H with each segment hundreds of feet in length.  One interesting note, there is a room where the Treaty of Versailles was signed ending WWI. 

After our tour of the palace we elected to rent an electric cart to cover the grounds.  The immaculate gardens and grounds are immense, with tree-lined paths going everywhere. There is a reservoir in the shape of a cross with each segment covering a half mile. Shrubs and plants are manicured-perfection; the statues are pure white, all in all a beautiful place.  From there we went into the small town of Versailles and had dinner, spaghetti this time.

There’s more!  After dinner, Michel took us into Paris where Chantal and I photographed an old metropolitan (subway) entrance gate, the Moulin Rouge, the immense Scare Coeur cathedral which overlooks Paris from the Montmartre neighborhood.  We would have loved to walk around this part of Paris but MA and I were worn out we all decided to head on back. 
Thursday and Friday we are on our own.  Michel has some training at Air France to do so plus he’s going to get the scoop on the pending flight attendant strike that could derail our return home planes.  Anyhow, we are planning to go into Paris by train and get around by subway and the hop on hop off bus.  We’ll let you know how that goes.

I found some free photos to download from a Paris tourist office so you can see some of the sights as I described them.  I’ll take some JPG photos of our next venture into Paris.  Au revoir for now!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Houston to Paris


MA and I are off to Paris with good friend Michel who is an Air France flight attendant.  I've know Michel for years and he said if I ever wanted to go to Paris now was the time.  It just so happened that MA wants to practice her French and I've always wanted to photograph the Eifel Tower so we are going.  We leave Sunday afternoon and arrive in Paris Monday morning.  We have lots planned so we will keep you informed.  Stay tuned,   au revoir

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Arrived Houston 5PM, Home at 6PM

We were up and moving at 5:30 am (Copenhagen time), grabbing some coffee and light breakfast in the cabin.  Our bags were pack the night before and placed outside the cabin.  Princess takes them down and sorts them according to your departure and bus.  We departed the ship at 7am and we were at the Copenhagen airport by 8am.  Our bags were waiting for us.  We rolled them into the terminal, checked in with Continental, cleared security and went to the gate to board the aircraft.  Our flight left at 9:30.  MA had paid extra for the bulkhead seats for the legroom.  It's like sitting in 1st Class without the service.

This was a memorable flight.  After we got on board and sat down a Danish couple with a baby sat across the aisle from us.  They brought a car seat for the kid to sit in during the flight.  The mother moved to the seat next to me.  Halfway through the flight the flight attendant brought this bassinet and began mounting it on the bulkhead wall in front of us.  The bassinet trapped MA in her seat.  The mother then offered to exchange seats with MA.  They brought the baby over to our side and put him in the bassinet for him to sleep during the flight.  The kid would have nothing to do with that and began crying and yelling.  We were really upset at this point.  I grabbed my Bose quiet headphones and put them on but this guy could be heard through them.  The mother finally gave up and handed the kid back to the dad who put him in his car seat.  The baby went immediately to sleep.  From that point on the flight was uneventful.  

We arrived in Newark, NJ Airport with a two hour layover and went on the Houston.  We arrived around 5pm and got home at 6pm. We both brought head colds from Russia with us.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Aarhus, Denmark & Oslo, Norway: Last two stops

Wednesday was a full day at sea and I spent it nursing a sore throat, head cold and cough.  I felt so bad that all I wanted to do was sleep.  MA came to my rescue with a bottle of Robitussin cough syrup, the last bottle on the ship I’m told.  With rest and sleeping most of the day and all night I woke up Thursday morning feeling better.  MA said that some guys would do anything to get out of wearing a tuxedo for formal night. (Not true, I was really under the weather.)
The Emerald Princess sailed west from Tallinn, Estonia to Aarhus, Denmark, docking at 7AM on Thursday At Aarhus, MA decided not to go ashore so I took off, camera in hand, around 9AM.  My goal was just to walk around and find some photography subjects and walk back.  What I noticed about Aarhus was that, like Copenhagen, everyone rides a bicycle.  Life in Aarhus seems simple and satisfying to the Danes who live there.  I walked through a university and saw students going and coming to class and getting on their bicycles to get around town. 
After about a three mile circuit I made it back to the ship and met MA for lunch.  Later we got together two new friends, Heather and Dave from San Diego, for team trivial pursuit.  A gentleman from Long Island, NY joined up with us and after the twenty questions it was a two-way tie for first place, our team being one of the two. But we lost the tie-breaker question which was:  The Eiffel Tower is painted every seven years, how many tons of paint does it take?  The answer is 50.  We guessed 7, the other team 90.  They won the Princess water bottles. The questions we should have gotten right for the outright win were: Which country has zero exports? What does the H.G. stand for in the name H. G. Wells?  Answers were Vatican (we said Monaco) and Herbert George, we said Henry George. Who was it who said cruises weren’t educational?  J
On Friday morning I made a coffee run to the buffet and went back for a light breakfast and brought that to the room.  We had decided that if it was raining, as predicted, we would just stay on the ship. But although it was very cloudy, there was no rain so we set out to find the Hop-On-Hop-Off guided bus tour that takes you around the high spots of Oslo. 
We ran into Giovanni and Eleanor at the gangway and the four of us set off for today’s adventures.  We walked about three long blocks to the bus stop.  We decided to get off at Vigeland Park, a park with human statues by none other than a guy named Vigeland.  The statues portray human life in different stages.  One of the statues is of a small boy with his fists clinched and the statue is called, “The Angry Boy.”  It just so happens we came across a real life angry little boy while waiting for the bus.  His father kept his cool and calmed him down.
We made the entire loop of Oslo and came back to downtown getting off at “City Hall”.  MA wanted to go inside to connect with the free Wi-Fi but it was closed.  Instead we found a spot just outside where she turned on the I-Pad and got online.  She was quite tickled to find numerous happy birthday wishes in her email. 
We walked back to the ship walking along the waterfront where local fishermen were selling shrimp from the back of their boat.  I’ve included a couple of photos of them.  After lunch we set about packing for the trip home tomorrow. The crew takes our bags the night before and we next see them at the airport tomorrow.  The bus for the Continental flight leaves at 6:30am. The flight leaves at 9:05 with a layover in Newark and then “home sweet home”. 
This trip, like all the others, has been memorable, not only for the places we visited, but also the great folks we’ve met along the way.  We booked our next trip already, next year, Transatlantic from Ft. Lauderdale to the Azores, then Cork, Ireland, Southampton, UK, Normandy, France, Oslo (again), and ending in Copenhagen.
For now we are anxious to see our great friends in TLC, to see Susan and Jacob in their new home in Nashville, and Jim and Sue and kiddos up there in Chicago. 

That’s all for this time folks! Thanks for tuning in! J

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tallinn, Estonia: A Walk around a Medieval Village

Our new Canadian friends Giovanni and Eleanor, whom we met on the St. Petersburg tour, became our guides for Tallinn, Estonia.  Our original plan was to meet them at 8AM; however, MA suggested that we delay that to 9AM.  I called their room and left a message which they never got. Fortunately they waited ashore for us, then Giovanni came looking and spotted us coming leisurely back from breakfast. We apologized profusely, got our things from the cabin and were off for a walking tour for this 14th century town.
Eleanor had found an online guided walking tour of Tallinn. We started out first on the shuttle bus ship to town and then began our walk going through the lower village, via the north gate and along the north wall.  This older village had a huge wall which surrounded it.  Eleanor had all our points of interest mapped out so I didn’t even have to think about where we were or where we were going next. This gave me a great opportunity to concentrate on my photography.  Giovanni and Eleanor did the guiding. MA kept track of me. 

Tallinn has some beautiful churches, two of which were being restored with scaffolding and tarps covering the exterior.  Most of the churches are Russian Orthodox; however, I did find one Lutheran church. 
Our walk then took us up to the upper village and the famous town square and town hall.  Tallinn was established in 1400 and the town hall was built around 1413. It is still used as the town seat of government.  I took MA into a local shop and bought her a pair of amber earrings for her birthday, amber being the gem of choice in this part of the world. 
We then said good bye to Giovanni and Eleanor who had more exploring to do and made our way to the shuttle bus stop.  All in all we found the Estonians to be cheerful and hospitable.
Today (Wednesday) is a day at sea and we are ready for some down time reading, playing trivial pursuit in teams with another great couple, Dave and Heather from our dinner table group. And did I mention lunch?  Today’s special is authentic British “fish and chips”, offered once on most cruises as a special lunch feature and something we look forward to.
Tomorrow the ship docks at a place I’ve never heard of, Aarhus, Denmark, then Oslo on Friday, and fly home via New York on Saturday, then back to Worship at Second Baptist Sunday morning!  Later!

St. Petersburg: From Russia with Love

We arrived in St. Petersburg on Sunday morning, August 14th and were off the ship
by 7:00 AM.  We had chosen an independent tour company called Alla Tours. They were less expensive than Princess Tours but more importantly, we would be a group of 16 instead of 60. Also they offered a night tour and at my request, focused ours on night photography opportunitie. We met our guide Anya and our bus driver, Vladimir.  Half our group spoke another language, similar to Russian, but we made friends with a couple from Toronto, Canada, Giovanni and Eleanor and a couple from San Diego, Jane and Harris.
Our first adventure was a drive around St. Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great in 1703 when he defeated the Swedes.  He built a fortress there and then began designing the city. Russia was a monarchy ruled by Romanov Czars. The revolution began in 1905 culminating in 1917 with the abdication of Czar Nicholas who along with his entire family, was shot by the Bolshevists. Russia then began its communist history.
St. Petersburg was an epic battleground in WW2 when the Germans invaded. The Germans were stopped at the gates of St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, and in retribution stopped all food supplies into the city for 300 days. During that time they waited and watched the people starve.

Backing up in history, during the reign of the Romanovs, the Czars accumulated an enormous art collection which is housed in the Hermitage Museum AKA the Winter Palace.  Peter the Great also built a summer palace known as Peterhof.  Catherine, his wife, not to be out done, built her palace in the opposite direction.  We visited both palaces and there architectural style is what I can only describe as “Gilded Russian Decadence.”
Part of the day 1 tour was a subway ride.  To find the train one descends down, down, down on an escalator, at least 300’ below the surface.  As subways go it was about the same as Barcelona’s or Paris’, except everyone on the train looked tired or depressed.  We got off the subway and took the escalator up, up, up and walked across the street to a Russian market where merchants sell vegetables, fruit, meat, and bread.  I could have prepared a great meal with what was available. 
Church on Spilled Blood
Next we visited two churches: St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Church of the Spilled Blood. I thought the Spilled Blood referred to the Crucifixion, but soon found out it referred to the spilled blood of the Czar Alexander II who was assassinated there. I took a lot of pictures here because it is overwhelmingly beautiful.  
Our lunch stop was at a local Russian restaurant and we were served a coleslaw like salad, borsht (beet) soup, chicken croquets with a sauce, boiled potatoes, ice cream, coffee or tea.
Next was The Hermitage. Once a residence of the Czars. Today it is the State Museum of Art, housing the largest art collection in the world.  If you name any master artist in history, something from his work can be found here in the Hermitage.   Personally, I have never seen so much opulence and extravagance in my life.  I can see why the people revolted and how Communism came into being. 

Interior Church Spilled Blood

We made it back to the ship at 5PM on the first day and MA and I prepared for the night photo tour. In addition to us there were 10 others who signed up. For the tour, I had offered to share night photography tips with my fellow photographers, some of who had never even read their camera manuals. 
We met Alexis, our tour guide and Vladimir was again our driver.  It really didn’t get dark enough for good night photography until 10PM so in the meantime, we checked out some interesting bridges and a really beautiful blue and white chapel. It was there where we saw a glimpse into young-people’s idea of a night out.  They rent stretch limos loaded with champagne and drive around town seeing the sights and drinking. Things had apparently gotten a little out of hand and two of the guys got into a fist fight and were left behind when the limo took off without them.

While waiting for darker skies, we photographed the Hermitage from the outside, also the Teva River front.  Everyone had a great time. I hoped I had inspired some up and coming photographers.
Day two began at 8AM when we met Anya and Vladimir outside the passport control building.  Our tour took us to the river front where we boarded a hydrofoil for a cruise to Peterhof, another palace built by Peter the Great, said to rival Versailles.  It sits on a beautiful 300 acre manicured park that has at least 150 fountains.  I can only describe this place as “gilded opulence gone wild”.  We weren’t allowed inside, but from what I saw on the outside, I can only imagine what it looked like. 
We met our driver again and picnicked on the bus as we headed for our next stop.  Lunch was typically Russian: a sandwich of chicken between two soft “blinis”, (like crepes), an apple, apple juice and a chocolate bar.  The best part was the apple. MA liked the chocolate bar best!


Our last stop was the Winter Palace or Catherine’s Palace, about a 45 minute ride from downtown.  No expense was spared in building this place. Gold seemed to be the design theme.  There is a room with walls of amber called “The Amber Room” and we were told not to take pictures in this room, although I never figured out why.  There was a sleepy-eyed Russian woman guard in there who kept her eye on me.  I discreetly fired off several no-flash shots while she dozed off.  It’s what I call photo shooting from the hip.  I was expecting the KGB to stop me at the exit but I got away with it.
Amber Room

Our tour bus took us back to the ship in plenty of time for sail away.  MA and I were both tired of going and going and climbing and climbing stairs and were glad to be back on board.  The ship’s next stop was in Tallinn, Estonia, so stay tuned.


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Helsinki Walking Tour: Short & Sweet

Temppeliaukio Rock Church

We arrived in Helsinki about eight this morning and the ship docked at nine.  We got ready for the day, had our usual breakfast upstairs and hurried off at 9:30.  We had no plans other than to get on a shuttle bus and walk around town.
We did want to see three churches in Helsinki because all three are unique:  the Temppeliaukio Rock Church, the Lutheran Cathedral of St. Nicholas and the Russian Orthodox Church.  The shuttle bus let us off in central downtown and after directions from a helpful Helsinki guide we started walking.  By the way, just like Copenhagen and Sweden, the Fins learn English in school and they speak it better than many of us do!  Said another way, I would hate to have to learn Finnish and try to pronounce some of the long, complicated words I’ve seen. 
Our first stop was to be the Temppeliaukio Rock church. We followed the guide’s direction walking down the main street until we came to a statue of a guy riding a horse, turned left and went up the hill. We spotted the church which at first glance looked like a flying saucer on the ground.
This is because it was constructed by blasting a huge underground hole out of rock and carving it into a giant bowl shaped facility.  A copper roof was installed which is what makes it look like a UFO.  We did not get a chance to go inside because it was closed until 12 Noon. We did hear that the acoustics inside were absolutely amazing.
From there we retraced our steps stopping at the local McDonald’s so MA could catch use their WiFi to update the I-Pad and send a new “Word with Friends” Scrabble word to her granddaughter Jillian.

Lutheran Cathedral

Our next destination was the Lutheran Cathedral of St. Nicholas, a huge white church on top of a hill dominating Senate Square.  It was magnificent. The interior has a central dome with other domes around it supported by huge columns. 
There is a gigantic organ at the back of the church and I could only imagine the music coming from its pipes.  Protestants are not into statues but there was one of Martin Luther inside the worship area.  As in Sweden, most Fins are Lutherans today.

Russian Orthodox Church

From there we walked to Market Square and found the local farmers and merchants market.  There were all kinds of vegetables for sale as well as fruit, clothing, fur garments, and souvenirs, sidewalk cafes and harbor cruises for tourists.  MA pointed out a woman who was knitting as fast as a machine without even looking at what she was doing, never missing a stitch. 

From the market we looked uphill to the Russian Orthodox Church.  We got to the front doors only to find it too was locked. Still, from the outside, it was another impressive church with its rooftop domes. 
At this point we headed back toward the shuttle bus stop, stopping at a sidewalk café for two small beverages that cost us $25!  Oh well, it’s the atmosphere and people watching we decided we were paying for. There was a van that stopped right by our table.  It was filled with Chinese tourists one of who seemed to point his camera right at us, as if we were natives who would show up on his blog. I gave him a big smile, aimed my camera back, and we all laughed with thumbs up signals. From there we popped in to Stockman’s which is the biggest department store I’ve ever been in.  Reminded me of IKEA times ten!

Next we made our way back to the ship for a late lunch.  MA took her book and headed for the pool (it was about 72 degrees today with full sun) and I worked on the photographs I wanted to show you here.
Tomorrow we arrive in St. Petersburg, Russia. In our wildest dreams did we ever think we would someday find ourselves in that country!!  Both of us are looking forward to the next two days of seeing some amazing sights.  I am doing a night photography class for our tour company tomorrow evening so we won’t blog again until Sunday night.
Next stop: St. Petersburg