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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Russia - St. Petersburg 7.3

  • Peterhof
  • Peter & Paul's Fortress
  • St. Issac Cathedral 
  • Restoran
I felt slightly anxious last night.  Despite my best intention to go with the flow and be relaxed about our itinerary, after the luggage delay and not really doing much yesterday, I thought there were still quiet a few important sights we haven't seen in St. Petersburg and time was running out. 

So we decided to get our act together, and asked for  a morning call at 8:30 AM this morning.  After a quick breakfast stop at a nearby cafe, we were at the ticket booth behind the Winter Palace boarding the Hydrofoil to Peterhof at 10:30 AM. 

30 minutes later, We were at the Peterhof.  There was no shortage of tourists when we arrived.  It was hard not to be dazzled by all the water fountains and golden status as we walked through the lower garden.  Tip: If you go to Peterhof, resist the urge to get distracted by the Grand Cascade.  Save the photo ops for later, and head straight to the Palace entrance first.  Once we got to the entrance of the palace, all the a lar cart admissions for various exhibitions, and a very long line getting into the main palace were aggravatingly confusing. 

It took us awhile to figure out which line was for the Palace admissions.  Of course it was the longest line right in front of the Palace main entrance.  10 minutes after we were in line, a staff member announced something in Russian. People waiting in line looked annoyed by the announcement and some left.  We were confused and tried to get some answers.  Another staff member used broken English explained that the ticket booth was closed.  Not willing to give up so easily, we went back to the announcer again for more information.  It must be our lucky day, because the announcer actually pointed to the main entrance and gestured us to go in! We were like two VIPs in the New York night clubs scene, walking through the crowd, and going straight past the red velvet rope!!  What just happened??

Once we got in to pay for admissions, we realized what a great timing we had.  Turned out, it was 11:55 AM, and the ticket office was about to close.  We were the last visitors in the morning!  If we would have been turned away, we would probably have missed the palace after coming all the way to the Peterhof. I could not believe our luck! THANK YOU, GOD!

The interior of the Palace reflected the Russian Royality's aesthetic preference with a lot of intricate details and gold plated panels. However, since photography was not allowed,  I could not remember much. 

We tried to figure out how to get to the upper garden after the palace, but it did not seem that the upper garden was open to the public at the time of our visit.  So we went back to the lower garden for more water fountains.  It was a really hot day, and we saw quite a few Russian women all decked out with high heels in the garden.  I was impressed!

By 2:30 PM, we were back in St. Petersburg and on our way to Peter & Paul Fortress.  Personally, if I never visit another fortress for the rest of my life, I would not miss it.  It just does not excite me.   However, H loves it and I was happy to go with him.  It was pretty neat to visit the Cathedral seeing the actual tombs of all the Russian Czars and their families.  The Trubetskoy Bastion was another captivating site for us to get a glimpse of the turbulent Russian past. 

After Peter & Paul Fortress, we went back to the hotel for a quick break.  Our legs were hurting with all the walking we had done the past few days.  But there were still a lot to see and we still had the whole night ahead of us.  

We dragged our tired feet out of our comfortable bed. (Seriously, the W bed and blanket were the MOST comfortable ones we slept in! Obviously we were not the only ones who felt this way because the W actually sells their beds & blankets online.)  The evening started out with the visit to St. Isaac Cathedral.  Although we only had 5 days in St. Petersbug, but coming to visit in the summer time had its advantage.  Everything opened late, and the sun was out until midnight, so we were able to do so much more in one day.  Tip: The opening hours for Cathedral and colonnade walkway varies depending on the time of the year you visit, and the admission fees were higher if you visit after 6 PM. Check the website for accurate information. 

St. Issac Cathedral was one of the most impressive cathedrals we have ever seen.  It was grand and majestic.   After we toured the inside of the Cathedral, we decided to have dinner before returning for the colonnade walkway.  

Restoran was on Vasilevsky Island, a short walk from St. Isaac Cathedral.  As soon as I walked into the restaurant, I fell in love with it's minimalistic and elegant decor.   Although our server was struggling with English, he was attentive and made great suggestions on what to order. 

Since Restoran has an extensive appetizer selections, we skipped the main course and ordered several appetizers.  It was really a lot more fun to sample different dishes this way. 

Russian Collection - Salmon tar-tar with pike caviar, vinaigratte with sprat, forshmak, olivier with veal. 

I loved the pike caviar! It was similar to the flying fish roe in Sushi restaurants.

Zakuska - lard, onion, garlic. 

This was H's favorite dish.  The server mentioned this dish usually would be ordered with vodkas.  I could see that the salty jerky texture like lard being the perfect match for vodka drinking. 

Solyanka - Country style fish soup (Left)

Siberian dumpling (right)

Pancake with salmon caviar & Sour-cream

Salmon caviar had a much stronger fishy flavor.  I wanted to order the sturgeon caviar instead, but with the heavy tag of more than $200 per plate, I simply could not stomach it. However, I did like the combination of caviar, sour cream and pancake together.  

Dessert: Kissel - berries jelly with cream
Flavored Vodka
Cranberry, Siberian buckthorn, and pepper vodka.
Cranberry vodka was my favorite one. 

H and I love to share dishes when we dine out.  In New York restaurants, we often have to request for extra plates and utensils when we share dishes.  Coming to Russia, we did not expect the service to be good. To our surprise, the service had been exceptional in most of the restaurants we went.  Every dish that we shared were split and served on two plates.  A new set of utensils was provided for every new dish.  I almost felt bad for all the extra work our server had to do with us sharing dishes. 

I was glad to walk off the meal by climbing to the top of St. Isaac Cathedral.  It was around 11 PM and the Sun slowly came down over the horizon and cast a golden glow over the city of St. Petersburg.  The city from this angle was serene and beautiful, in an understated and nostalgic way.... 


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Russia - St. Petersburg 7.2

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  • Kilikia Restaurant
  • Nevsky Prospekt 
  • Kupetz Eliseevs Gourmet Store
  • Mariinsky Theatre
Did it ever happen to you when you travel that there were days when you just could not get anything done for one reason or another? 

This day was THAT day for us. 

Despite a morning call at 10 AM, we still managed to leave the hotel around noon.  Yesterday around this time, we already went to the airport, got our luggage back, and ready to head out again!  I blamed it on H as he was taking his sweet time getting acquainted with the hotel toilet if you know what I mean....

Anyway, the sky was cloudy like yesterday morning, and we were debating whether we should bring an umbrella or not.  Since H carried an umbrella for nothing yesterday, he decided to chance it and not bring one.  Of course you know what happened next. 

We headed straight to Kilikia restaurant to try Armenian food for lunch as we were both hungry.  The food was mediocre at best, so I am not going into too much details.  Bottom line: Don't bother. 

By the time we finished lunch, it was pouring cats and dogs.  We had to ask the restaurant manager to call a taxi for us so we could go back to the hotel to get an umbrella.  Once again, I blamed H for not bringing an umbrella in the first place. 

Of course, after we went back to the hotel and got the umbrella, the Sun had came out.  

We decided to visit the Russian Museum in the afternoon.  As we were trying to buy the tickets to get in, the credit card machine was not working, we did not have enough cash, and the museum ATM machine would not take our bank cards.  Oh yes, I blamed it on H when I suggested getting more cash earlier, and he thought it was not necessary. 

As you can imagine, H was having SO MUCH FUN today. 

It was about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and we had tickets for the  Ballet at 7 PM.  The day was pretty much a bust.  We gave up any attempt for sightseeing, and just walked along Nevsky Prospekt people watching and window shopping.  

It was our third day in St. Petersburg, and a couple of things had caught our attention:

1. Russians love flowers. First day when we came out of the airport custom, we saw many Russian men holding bouquets of flowers waiting for their loved ones.  There were many flower stands/shops in the city.  It was a common sight to see couples walking on the street with woman holding a bouquet.  Who knew Russian men were so sweet and romantic. 

2. Russian women are gorgeous.  This should not come as a surprise, we all know that already.  But walking on the streets of St. Petersburg, not only there were many tall, blond, beautiful women, most Russian women were also very fashion conscious.  We saw many women walking on the street with full makeup, 8 inches stilettos, and dressed to the nines during the broad daylight.  I definitely felt under dressed!

3. Parking on the sidewalks.  This one was a bit confusing, we saw a lot of cars parked on the sidewalks in all directions.  Is it legal to park on the sidewalk in Russia? 

4. Drinking on the streets.  Drinking in public is illegal in the US, so it was really fascinating to see many people carrying bottles of wines/liquors/beers on the streets drinking in public.

We had passed Kupetz Eliseevs gourmet store the day before and I was drawn to the colorful window display right away.  There were the beautiful stained glass windows.  Inside the store, the whimsical huge pineapple was in the middle of the store with chandeliers hanging from the leaves, which made the surrounding tables more so inviting.  The cold cuts, caviar, or dozens of various desserts looked enticing.  I am a total sucker for ambiance, so it was a no brainier for us to take our coffee break at Kupetz Eliseevs this afternoon.  

After the coffee break and a quick nap back in our hotel room, it was time to head out again for the white night festival ballet performance at the Marrinskly Theatre.  It was the premiere of Le Jeune Homme et La Mort. Unfortunately, I am sorry to say that I didn't like it.  I was hoping to see the classical ballet, and Le Jeune Homme et La Mort was not.  After the intermission, we were seated for a long time and the curtain would not open.  The audience grew impatient and started clapping several times trying to get the performance started.  Finally, we knew the reason for the holdups.  After the VIPs returned back to their box seats, lights were dimmed, curtains were lifted, and the performance finally began.  I was really aggravated! How could the theatre make all these people wait for a few inconsiderate A-holes?  

Anyway, the second part of the ballet was better.  Although there was no story lines, we got to see the dancers' skills and techniques.  I wish we could have seen a classical ballets such as the Nutcrackers or Swan Lake. 


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Russia - St. Petersburg 7.1

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  • Gosti Restaurant
  • The Hermitage Museum
  • Kavkas Bar
  • Evening Cruise

Around 10 AM, we were woken up by a phone call from the front desk.  The hotel manager told us that our luggage had arrived at the LED airport, but the LED airport would not deliver the luggage to the hotel.  UGH!!!! With a sleepy voice, H was annoyed and demanded an explanation.  The manager told us that the airport personnel told them since the luggage was lost in Moscow, they needed the authorization from the Moscow to deliver the luggage.... blah blah blah, some more of the same non-sense. 

H kept on talking, "This does not make sense.... Why didn't the airline......." I jumped up from the bed and decided that I could not take another second of all these useless argument.  "Let's just go get the luggage! I have enough of this!"  I knew there was nothing the hotel staff could do. The whole conversation was nothing but aggravation.  We asked the hotel to call a cab, I got ready in the same clothes that I had been wearing for more than 36 hours, and went to the airport to get my luggage. 

It was already the second day in St. Petersburg and I had already spent enough time and energy on the whole luggage situation.  I was determined not to let the luggage waste more time and ruined my experience in Russia.  At least I found my luggage!  I could always deal with the travel insurance later when I got back to New York. 

2500 rubles of taxi fair and 2 hours later,  my luggage was in the hotel room and  I was in my fresh clothes putting the whole luggage episode behind us. 

"Let's go eat!" I was happy and hungry.  Gosti Restaurant caught my eyes yesterday when we were on our way to Gogol restaurant.   The place was warm and inviting that made me want to go just for the ambiance alone. 

With the server's help, we ordered: 
1. Cured cheese & Spinach boureck (My favorite!)
2. Olivier - Russian Salad with Roasted Prawns (Many Russian salads have mayo as dressing, which I was not a fan of.)
3. Cold Borsch (it was just okay)
4. Prawn & Pumpkin risotto (Not too crazy about the combination of prawn and pumpkin)

As I was writing, I realized that out of four dishes we ordered, I only liked the boureck. However, because the impeccable service, the ambiance, and perhaps just our low expectation of the Russian cuisine in general, we enjoyed the experience and came back a few more times during our stay in St. Petersburg. 

It was a cloudy day that looked like it would rain any minute, so it would be perfect to visit The Hermitage Museum.  We were happy to be spared of the long line for the ticket booth since we purchased our tickets online in advance and were able to head straight to the entrance. 

The museum is housed in the Winter Palace, which is as extravagant and dazzling as it can be.  Although we had the audio guide, it wasn't good at all.  A guided tour for the Hermitage is definitely worth considering.  Oh, and embrace the crowd, it simply can't be avoided. 

Three hours later, we got out of the museum.  The cloud had parted ways and the sun came out.   We walked over to the canal and booked the only English speaking midnight cruise, Anglotourismo, that the hotel concierge recommended.  (The tour does not accept reservations over the phone and it is cash only.)

For dinner, we decided to try Georgian cuisine and came to Kavkaz Bar, which is close by the boat tour.   The restaurant was away from the main street, so we had to ask around to locate it.   However, the effort was well worth it.  It was probably my favorite meal in Russia in terms of flavors. 

We ordered these dishes to share: 
1. Caucasian style goulash soup.  It was very different from the eastern European goulash with the flavor and seasoning.  I was never a big fan of goulash soup, but this goulash soup did not use the typical tomato base.  It totally won me over.  Hands down THE BEST!    
2. Khinkali. The Georgian meat dumplings.  They were similar to Tibetan momo dumplings.  
3. Kovurma-Lagman. Home made noodle stir-fried with meat, mutton, vegetables and spices.  Another dish that both H & I loved!  It was full of spices and so rich in flavor. 

It was interesting to see that everything was a la cart on the menu, down to sauce, bread, and butter.  Side dish was translated as "Garnish" in this part of the world.  We also  ordered some baked potato (yum) and Georgian bread (totally plain) as garnish.  

Georgian cuisine was quite a departure from the typical Russian food and I really liked it a lot.  It was a pity that this was the only time on this trip that we had Georgian cuisine. 

Coming out of the restaurant, it was around 10 PM.  The sky was still bright as if it was 3 o'clock in the afternoon.  We went back to the hotel for a quick nap before we came out again for the midnight cruise. 

At 12 midnight, the moon finally came out, and it was a full moon!.  This would be the only time we saw the moon on this trip.  Turns out, the English tour was really not necessary.  We barely could hear our tour guide and there was really nothing interesting to explain.  We also brought a bug spray, but didn't really see any mosquitoes around. 

It had became our travel ritual that if the city we visited offered a boat tour, we would definitely take it.  Although St. Petersburg skyline lacked the wow factor of skyscrapers, it was still beautiful.  The Neva river was packed with boats of all sizes and became quite a party scene with all the booze cruises and music blasting. 

The bridges opened at different times through out the night.  Our tour lasted about 1.5 hours and we saw two bridges opened.  By the time we got back to the hotel around 2 AM, our legs were aching from all the walking we did that day.  It was a great day.  I got my luggage back, and we had crossed two "Must Sees" from our itinerary. Very productive indeed. 


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