As our plane swooped in over the countryside surrounding Moscow, my first impression was that either there were enormous diamonds in the fields, or the roofs were made of tin. The sun reflections were dazzling. My second impression, later as we walked around Moscow, was that Mr. Hershey must surely have been influenced by the shapes of those golden onion domes that top the cathedrals--they are shaped exactly like chocolate kisses. We spent the first two nights in the Hotel Rossia, the biggest hotel in Europe. It overlooks Red Square and the Kremlin and the famous St. Basilís cathedral--one of the fanciest and most beautiful buildings in the world. It was lighted up at night and looked like something out of a fairy tale.
To our surprise, we found very little English spoken in Moscow, and it was difficult to get even the most basic questions understood or answered. Even hotel clerks, who ought to know pretty good English, didnít. We were interested of course in seeing the famous Gumís department store, so I asked several of the clerks where it was and how to get to it. They didnít know what I meant. I pronounced it "Gums" and then "Gooms," and said "Big department store," but they were baffled. So I turned to a tourist who was in the lobby, and she told me where it was. Just two blocks from the hotel!
The third night we spent on the ship, the MS Russ, and a bus tour took us back to Red Square. A few Gypsy women, with babies or small children, held their hands out to the tourists, begging. We were told that the Mafia gets ten percent of their take. We were told to keep the back door of the bus closed, or they would come in and steal things. Except for the Gypsies, everyone seemed to be very prosperous and busy.
An optional tour we took was to the Moscow circus. This turned out to be unlike any circus we had ever seen--no animals except a tired-looking bear, and very few trapeze acts. Mostly magic acts and some dancing. The tourists were quite disappointed. The bear did some ice-skating, but I donít think his heart was in it. I think he would have preferred to be out in the forest eating berries.
We had a tour of the Metro, the subway system. To get down to the trains we had to use escalators that were FAST. We had to step lively to get onto them, and then at the bottom to get off very quickly to avoid being crowded by the people behind us.
Then came our two-week river cruise, which took in many villages on the way to St. Petersburg. We had many tours of the various towns, with guides who spoke fairly good English. One guide was a teacher of English, yet she used phrases like "this idea was concepted" and "this is the railroad yard; railroad cars are composed here and recomposed."
I had thought the food on the ship might be a little less than desirable, but it was very good. Some of the stranger menu items: caulflower-egg pudding; broth with pizza; cottage cheese pancakes with raisins. Any time we ordered an omelette, we got what we would call a custard.
We felt rather cut off from the world, with no television. There was a television set in one room on the ship, but since all the programs were in Russian it didnít do us much good. Each day there was a printed sheet with the dayís world news, and it was announced over the radios in each room as well. Also, the person who read it to us told a couple of jokes each day, usually very very lame ones. One was fairly funny, and demonstrated how free they are now about talking about their political situation: "In Russia they used to do tonsillectomies from the other end. Why? Because before 1991 nobody dared to open his mouth."
Our trip ended in St. Petersburg, another beautiful city. Altogether we saw many many old churches and cathedrals and golden domes, and museums and art collections, and the most sumptuous and ornate palaces you can imagine. And we climbed more steps than I thought there were in the entire world. I had read about the "Steppes" of Russia, but I wasnít prepared for this.
A very interesting trip.
For the detailed and exact story of our trip, written by Grant, who kept a daily diary, click here.