Moscow, St. Petersburg, Helsinki and Paris April-May 2013

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  1. Slow_Mustang
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    Slow_Mustang Silver Member

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    Reaching Moscow on AF


    Our trip was planned for visiting Moscow, St. Petersburg, Helsinki and Paris. Not being close to a Russian consulate, we used the www.gotorussia.com to get the Russian visas. Train online bookings for the high speed SAPSAN train from Moscow to St. Petersburg can be made on the Russian Railways website for the cheapest fares – google translator can be used for translating Russian to English to fill out the order form - but the American CC’s are not accepted by them since our CC's don’t have an embedded security chip. So, after going through the process and not being able to complete it for lack of an acceptable CC, I had to find a third party to buy tickets for me. RailEurope turned out to be the cheapest online agency for buying the train tickets. AAA travel dept. also uses their services, so one could buy the tickets through AAA for the same price. Same goes for the Allegro train from St. Petersburg to Helsinki, although in that case there is the third option of buying it from the online Finnish Railways site . After all the preparations and sweating out getting the Russian visa, landing in Moscow was a non event. We filled out the customs declaration forms on arrival and officially entered Russia. The first thing after baggage claim was to look for an ATM. A mild panic set in as the CitiBank ATM debit card was not accepted by the machine. Fortunately, the credit union ATM card, even though it too did not have the security chip, did get accepted and I got the Rubles. Next step was to get a taxi from the official taxi service inside the airport. A 45 minute ride brought us to the Moscow Hotel National (a Starwood property) located across from the Red Square/Kremlin. We settled in at this hotel for the next 5 days.

    Moscow had a lot to offer. The word Kremiln means a walled fort. There is one in the center of the city and another 5-6 on the periphery. The Moscow Kremlin across from the hotel has the president’s office, some other govt. buildings, four cathedrals, Armory Chamber and the Diamond Fund. The Armory houses the clothes, silver, carriages etc. of the Russian royalty while the Diamond Fund houses the crowns/jewellery and some gold ingots/precious stones. The general entrance includes visits to the cathedrals in the Cathedral/Sobornaya Square, and separate tickets are sold at the entrances to the Armory Chamber and the Diamond Fund. The Armory Chamber and the Diamond Fund close down during lunch hour. The Red Square is a large open square adjacent to the Kremlin with Lenin’s Tomb, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow museum and the GUM department store as its main attractions. GUM building is very modern looking with lot of stores and a food court in it. Lenin’s Tomb was closed and I believe they open it to visitors starting in May. Preparations were under way for the May Day celebrations at the Red Square. Along the wall of the Kremlin is the tomb of the unknown soldier with an eternal flame and is guarded by two soldiers. Radisson Hotel offers 2 hour Moscow river cruises on their own boats, which are quite enjoyable. Some of the metro stations are very ornate and worth visiting. Arabat Street with its restaurants and souvenir shops is quite lively. Café Khachapuri offers an interesting cuisine, as do many other restaurants in the area. We tried as many Russian food items as possible. Right next to the National Hotel is the Ritz Carlton with its restaurant and bar on the 12the floor with a commanding view of the Red Square/Kremlin. The Radisson Hotel looked quite luxurious too. We took a private day tour out of the city and while leaving the city we drove by a Home Depot type store with lot of illegal immigrants from the ‘xx-stan’ states waiting around for day jobs. Because of high unemployment among them, some resort to becoming pickpockets in the metros stations/trains. The illegal immigrants with high birth rates are becoming a big problem for the Govt. to deal with. Many roads in the city were dug up causing traffic jams. There are half a dozen or so long distance train stations in the city for trains to different destinations.

    St. Basil's Cathedral, Red Square
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    Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Eternal Flame
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    A Kremlin Cathedral
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    An Ornate Moscow Metro/Subway Station
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    Radisson Hotel Boat for the Moscow River Cruise
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    Last edited: Dec 23, 2014
  2. Slow_Mustang
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    On to St. Petersburg

    We checked out of the hotel a bit early for our taxi ride to the SAPSAN train station as the Moscow traffic can be unpredictable. But we did not run into any traffic jams and made it to the station in about 20 minutes from the National Hotel. The door to the security area opens an hour before the departure time. We waited in line for a while for the door to open before we could have our luggage X-rayed and walk over to the platform. The long platform was covered, which helped on this cold and wet day. The train had the two first class cars at the far end. It left on time and in a short while they started with the beverage service (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) followed by lunch and then dessert/coffee/tea. It took about four and a half hours to reach St. Petersburg. We took advantage of the fixed price taxi booking service provided by the SAPSAN staff and were met by a rep right outside our train car at St. Petersburg, who took us to a taxi and we were dropped off at the hotel in less than 30 minutes. The W hotel is conveniently located near the Hermitage Museum, Neva river and the main artery Nevsky Prospect. There were quite a few restaurants and coffee shops/bakeries within walking distance of the hotel. The St. Petersburg ambience is quite different from what one sees in Moscow. It is more European than Russian. People seem to be of a different stock. The town was won in a battle from Sweden some centuries ago, which explains its distinct flavor, different from that of Moscow.

    We walked along the city canals, Neva River, visited the Hermitage Museum/Winter Palace, the cathedrals and the Peter and Paul Fortress, went shopping and enjoyed food at different restaurants in the city. Some days it was cold and windy and the sun shining overhead provided little warmth. The trees were barren, the grass was dead and the fountains in parks and everywhere else had not been turned on yet. Gostiny Dvor shopping arcade on Nevsky Prospect is a large shopping mall and the Sennaya Plaza near the metro station of the same name on Sadovaya Street is a busy place for food/snacks and for bargain price shopping. Blinis with red caviar are available everywhere including at the fast food places. Gogol restaurant close to W on Malaya Morskaya Street is quite unique. Named after a famous Russian literary figure, the menu is organized as chapters of a book and the setting is that of a living room, as if the author lived there. The illegal immigrants from the ‘xx-stan’ states, although smaller in numbers than in Moscow, are a matter of concern to the locals. St. Petersburg is the northernmost city with a population of over 1 million. The hotel drapes were not overlapping and eye shades helped to block out the light during evenings that never seem to end.

    SAPSAN train at the Moscow train station
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    No, this restaurant is not owned by Rob Reiner
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    Mail order bride anyone?
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    The Cathedral (spilled blood)
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    Now we know what kind of food they serve in heaven
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    Hermitage Museum offers different guided tours. The general museum tour lasts 1 to 1.5 hours and is quite educational. For the other two (Diamond Room tour/Gold Room tour) you have to show up early, as soon as the museum opens, otherwise they sell out for the 1-2 tours/day that they conduct. Everything has to be purchased with the general admission as you cannot come out to buy one later and there is no place inside either. The tours have to be taken such that their timings don't conflict and one must try to start walking towards the meeting point for the tours 15-20 minutes before the scheduled tour start times. It is billed as the largest museum in the world. A better suggestion is to buy the tickets online to avoid any lines or the disappointment of seeing a sold out sign.

    We chose not to visit the Peterhof Palace as various reviews on the internet described it to be covered on the outside, and large areas on the inside blocked off due to extensive renovations, and the fountains (in the browned out Palace gardens) had been turned off for winter. There was no point in taking a taxi tour of a place outside the city which could not be enjoyed due to ongoing renovations and palace grounds dead due to winter cold, with fountains turned off.
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  3. HaveMilesWillTravel
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    Thanks for the interesting trip report. Brought back memories from years ago. One of these days I have to visit Russia.
     
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  4. marcwint55

    marcwint55 Gold Member

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    Thanks for the report. We are leaving on Tuesday and our first hotel is the National.
     
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  5. Slow_Mustang
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    Helsinki
    The Allegro train station for Helsinki was a mere 15 minute drive from the W hotel. The entrance for the Allegro trains is from the left side of the building as one stands on the street facing the main front entrance. We waited again for the doors to open to the security area before boarding the train. This train stopped at a number of stations. In Helsinki, the Holiday Inn that we had chosen to stay at, is right outside the train station, and very centrally located.

    It was not planned this way, but we happened to be in town during one of the annual most celebratory times for the city. On the 30th April evening, all stores closed by 6 PM and everybody headed towards the Esplanadi for a party. Everyone had a bottle of champagne in his hand but the crowds were behaved during the party. There was a huge gathering in the Senate Square too with street drinking/partying and music. Everyone had a white cap (from their high school graduation), some on the heads of senior citizens having a yellow tinge with age. Groups of young people had different colored pants on to signify their major in college. It was quite an enjoyable event. The following day May 1 is set aside for family picnics. All the parks were packed with people relaxing with family/friends and having picnics. May 1 is a big holiday there with all stores/offices closed. Even our hotel restaurant was closed and they had some kind of punch and cookies available in the lobby as their way of participating in this event.

    Crowds at Esplanadi
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    Jumpsuits of different colors aligned with their major at college
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    Revelers at the Senate Square
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    A street musician making music with bottles partially filled to different levels
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    And a reindeer shank dinner at Salutorget (Esplanadi 15) to top off the day
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  6. Slow_Mustang
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    Helsinki Contd.


    We visited the Stockmann’s department store close by and then took a bus to Seurasaari (once every 20 minutes). There is a grocery store in the basement of the McDonald’s close to Holiday Inn, where one could pick up some food at the deli for the Seurasaari visit.

    The Seurasaari bus stop closest to the Holiday Inn
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    The map posted at the entrance
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    One of the many old dwellings which have been relocated to this open air museum
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    Iron age market is off of the bridge going towards Seurasaari
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    A Finnish native all bundled up at Seurasaari
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  7. Slow_Mustang
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    Helsinki Contd.


    At the dock for the Soumenlinna ferry at the far end of the Esplanadi, there is a large open area with many food stalls; fried herring and meat balls made with reindeer meat is what I tried.The ferry takes 15-20 minutes to reach Soumenlinna. Ticket is purchased through a vending machine and is to be validated before getting on the ferry. All the restaurants at the island were closed for winter.

    The ferry
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    Sign on arrival
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    Map of the walking tour
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    A sign at a coffee shop
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    Fortress Wall
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    A day trip to Estonia was considered but passed over due to lack of time and so much going on in the city. Weather here was even colder than in St. Petersburg. On the 1st evening we took a ride on the Finnair bus, starting at the bus station right outside our hotel to the airport terminal 2; and from there we got down one level to the hotel shuttle bus stop for the shuttle which took us to the airport Holiday Inn for an early morning, next day flight to Paris via Amsterdam.
     
  8. Slow_Mustang
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    Slow_Mustang Silver Member

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    A couple of days in Paris to wrap up the trip....

    What can I say about the city of lights, it was as enchanting as ever. We visited some new places and walked some of the familiar streets. As the outbound flight was in the morning, we chose to stay at the airport Sheraton for the last night. That enabled us to store our luggage there and go to the city for a two day stay at the Intercontinental with just one bag. The Air France bus to the city is the best option when traveling with luggage, but this time, with just a bag to carry we opted for the train to the city, which starts a couple of levels below the Sheraton.

    The Jewish Memorial
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    The ever present, hard to resist decadence
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    The cultural side of French shows interest in Indian dances by having this show of various dance forms of India
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  9. Slow_Mustang
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    Some more of Paris...

    A Japanese restaurant in Little Tokyo on Petit Champs Elysee
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    A walk through Jardin des Tuileris
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    Things are not always what they appear to be, in Jardin des Tuileris
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    At the airport, a vending machine for the tickets for the train to the city; must have 10 Euro coins/person or a CC with security chip.
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