Sunday, August 28, 2016

Kremlin with Anticipation

This is the second-to-last installment of Megan and Briana's Semi-Unwise Foodie Road Trip Across Eastern Europe, aka Eastern European Grand Tour of 2016. For the beginning of the adventure, please see this post here

I've been trying to think if I should start out this post with something sappy, like, "we left St. Petersburg as a grey sunrise dawned upon the city . . ." or something like that, but that would make the trip seem a lot more peaceful than it was.

Because let's be honest. Even in the most ideal of situations, travel in Eastern Europe is never smooth sailing.

I can't remember exactly how the trip to the train station went, but I think we went the wrong way at one point . . . good thing we planned in extra time to get lost and confused, because that always happens when you travel with me. Hurray.

But we made it to the train station and got on the fast train to Moscow (403 miles in 4 hours). Moscow in the summer is like most big cities in the summer: hot, crowded, smoggy, and smelly. Yet I love it. I really do love Moscow. I love its metro system, I love its history, I love its people. Some of my best moments of this trip were just sitting in Alexandrovski Garden, eating breakfast and watching the crowds pass by. Moscow has such a distinctive feel--in American terms, it feels like a mixture of New York and D.C., . . . but Moscow is its own entity entirely. And I love it.

[Red Square on a summer's day.]

We didn't get many pictures in Moscow together--Briana was scrambling to get settled in her new place before I left (and I had to leave all too soon because my visa was going to expire), so most of those Moscow days are simply committed to memory. But I was so grateful for another chance to see this remarkable city. Again, I hope I get another chance to go back. It's impossible to know where life will take me or the history of this world, but I do know that there seems to be a magnet drawing me back to all things Eastern Europe. 

. . . but the trip saga still isn't over. I had one last stop before heading back to England's green and pleasant land and then onto the land of the free and the home of the brave . . .


Rumors in St. Petersburg

Once upon a time in Tallinn, Estonia, Briana became very sick. That meant that I wandered the streets of Tallinn myself without my loyal partner in crime, and we both wondered if we'd make it to Russia. But, luckily (after some rest), Briana felt well enough to continue our journey into Mother Russia . . . and we found ourselves on a Soviet train to St. Petersburg. We are sure this train was built in 1981, which, my friends, makes it a Soviet train.

[Here we are contemplating the wisdom of our life choices . . . specificially whether it was the best idea to take a train into Russia.] 

But we made it safely to St. Petersburg and eventually found our hotel (seriously, it was the hardest hotel to find--it was close to the center of town, but it was like it was in some kind of alternate universe and we always had such a hard time finding it . . . weird). 

Briana was still sick, so she took our first day in St. Pete to recover, which means that I had full range of the city and could do whatever I wanted. So naturally, that meant . . . 

1. Finding the coolest bookstore in the world. I am in love with it. 

[love love love love love.]

[The only sad thing about this picture is that I couldn't take any books home with me because I had zero room in my already stuffed-to-the-brim travel backpack.] 

2. I also went to the Anna Akhmatova Museum. I love this woman and her poetry. And it was neat to be able to see the house she lived in. 

["Anna Akhmatova Museum."]

[Had to have evidence that I was actually there.]

[Gardens by her home. I couldn't take any pictures inside, but I made sure to write in the guest book to let that corner of St. Petersburg know that an American girl loves Anna Akhmatova's poetry.]

3. I just wandered in general. Parks, monuments, river, canals, islands . . . Petersburg lends itself to wandering. 

[The Summer Gardens]

[Walking along the Neva]

[Peter and Paul Fortress]

[Spac-na-krovi Cathedral]

That evening, Briana was feeling well enough to go outside and we went to the Mikhailskii Theatre to see Swan Lake. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I've had in my life. Truly. It was absolutely incredible. I've seen ballet before, but watching the Russian ballet was something completely different. The sets, the costumes, the orchestra, the ballerinas--everything was just perfect. I was so impressed with all of the ballerinas. Also, the prima ballerina played both the White Swan and the Black Swan--she was magnificent. There were times in the ballet where I was almost moved to tears it was so beautiful. Definitely a memorable experience. 

[The Mikhailskii Theatre]

[SO EXCITED!!!! Also, look at the Russian woman photobombing in the background. Awesome.]

[SO EXCITED!!!!!!! take 2]

The next day, we did some more sightseeing. We went to the Winter Palace and the Hermitage, were awestruck by the sheer wealth, size, and grandeur of the place, and then met up with another one of Briana's friends and had delicious Georgian food and then went to this really posh cafe for milkshakes. 

[In front of the Winter Palace. Briana and I chose the best colors to wear on a grey St. Petersburg day. Namely, bright yellow and neon pink. Go us.]

[The Hermitage.]

[In the Winter Palace. Look at those staircases. I was singing "Once Upon a December" to myself the entire time.]

[Dancing bears, painted wings]

[Opulence. I has it.]

[This was a picture commemorating the Battle of Borodino during the War of 1812. I decided that this is probably Prince Andrei from War and Peace dying on the battlefield. Poor guy.]

[So. much. gold.]

[On the steps of the Winter Palace.]

[Posh Petersburg Cafe.]

[They had everything there. Cheese, fine chocolates, vodka, sausages . . . Briana's friend Helen said that she always came here when she had to bring something nice as a gift for an interview.]

[Drinking milkshakes on a rainy St. Petersburg day.]

As always, there's never enough time to see or do everything that I'd like to in St. Petersburg. But it was nice to be able to get there twice this summer. Hopefully someday I'll be able to spend a longer time there. It has so many stories to tell. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sprint Across the Baltics.

Somehow, someway, somewhere in our trip planning, Briana and I thought that it would be a great idea to do all of the Baltics in three days. 

I think it went something like this: 

M: "Do you want to visit the Baltics?"
B: "Of course I want to visit the Baltics."
M: "Me, too. So it looks like we have to be in Russia by the end of July . . . so based on our other travel plans [which, by the way, at this point included Sarajevo . . . yeah, didn't happen this time around], we'll have about three days to do the Baltics." 
B: "Hmm, can we do it?"
M: "Oh, we can totally do it. Let's book a plane from Kyiv to Vilnius right now." 
B: "Okay, let's do it." 

Something like that. Or it might have looked less planned out and more like this: 

B: "The Baltics?"
M: "You know it." 
B: "Great. We have three days." 
M: "Cool. Let's go." 

In any event, we ended up sprinting across the Baltics. 

First Lithuania, then Latvia, and finally Estonia. 

Vilnius, Lithuania: 

[Oops. My thumb wanted to be in this picture, too.]

Riga, Latvia: 

[Loved, loved, loved these streets.]

[Old Town.]

[I really liked Riga. A lot, a lot.]

[So usually, dirty water just looks gross. But this looks like some version of the chocolate river in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In other words, it looks magical and pretty.]

[Monument to Freedom and Fatherland. We tried to figure out what it said on the monument and were making guesses (because Latvian is a crazy-ridiculous language), but we were totally wrong. Google Translate taught us what it really said.]

["Don't jump. I love you."]

Tallinn, Estonia: 

[Entrance to Old Town.]

[The doors in Tallinn were really cool, too.]

[Case in point.]

[German architecture and Russian cathedrals.]

[What a view.]

[My aunt served a mission in the Baltics and she told me about the best blini restuarant there called Kompressors. And man alive, those blinis were goooood. However, I didn't realize how big they were going to be, so I got two of them--a sweet and a savoury. Oops. They were huge. Hurray for take-away.]

[Again, that view is just stunning.]

[Ominous much? Les Miserables much? Adele much? *Let me phooootograph you in this light . . .*]

The Baltics are fascinating. You can definitely tell that they are trying to wash clean of Soviet (and German) occupation. They feel more European than Ukraine or Russia (and Estonia feels like a Nordic cousin). Their languages are old. Very old. So are their city centres, which were all lovely. I'd like to go back and visit not just the capital cities, but the towns in the country and the coasts . . . the Baltics definitely have an important story to tell.