Saturday, March 18, 2017 - DepartureWe slept until 9:30 a.m., and went down for our final buffet breakfast. Like yesterday, there was a pianist in the dining room. As we arrived, she was playing a classical version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Craig got a crepe with caviar and sour cream, and I had a crepe with homemade caramel, waffle bits, cinnamon, and sugar. We had venison sausage, beef stroganoff, cheese, scrambled eggs, cheese danish, coffee, and cranberry juice. We also got to try something we had never tried before: honeycomb. Delicious!
The dining room was very busy this morning, and the staff was having a hard time keeping up with the normal standard of service to which we have become accustomed. My purse didn't even get its own little red velvet stool, LOL! Oh well, it's probably for the best. Wean it. Time to come back to reality!
As we left the dining room, the hostess knew that it was our final day and wished us a pleasant trip home. This kind of personalized service is really exquisite. From the first day at this hotel, the bellman and doormen have addressed us by name.
We went back to the room, showered, and packed up all of our things. We have two carry-ons full of souvenirs; I love Russian folk art!
We were going to be picked up at 1:30 p.m., and had planned to be ready by 1:15. Just as I was about to pick up the phone to call for the bellman, the front desk called to offer one. They asked us to take the do not disturb tassel from our doorknob so he knew it would be ok to enter. This place is amazing!
Andrey and Tamara were waiting for us, and we drove to the airport. Being Saturday, there was no traffic, and we made a couple of stops for photos of churches. The Trinity Cathedral has blue domes decorated with metallic gold stars, and a monument made out of cannon pieces out front.
According to Wikipedia:
In honor of the victory in the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-1878, when the Russians liberated Bulgaria from a Turkish invasion, a memorial column was constructed in 1886 in front of the northern facade of the Trinity Cathedral. Its foundation was 140 trophy cannon barrels used to beat back the Turks during the liberation of Bulgaria. The monument stood eight meters high, and was crowned with the winged figure of victory with a wreath made of oak leaves in one hand and palm branches in the other. An iron spiral staircase was located inside. Ten cannons surrounded the outside of the monument. In 1929, the monument was dismantled and sold by the Soviet Government to Germany for cash.Another was a fanciful round pink church commissioned by Catherine to celebrate the victory over Chesma. It is across the street from Chesma Palace, which is halfway between the Winter Palace and Catherine Palace in Pushkin. Catherine the Great used to rest here when journeying from one to the other. The Wedgwood green frog china service that we had seen at the Hermitage had been commissioned to be used here (Chesma Palace was also known as Kekerekeksinen, or Frog Marsh Palace).
We arrived at Pulkovo Airport shortly before 2:30 p.m. Andrey helped us to take our baggage inside. He is very excited, because his daughter and 4-year-old grandson will be arriving from London via British Airways on the same flight which will then take us to Heathrow. He was the ultimate professional, a skillful driver who was polite and customer-focused. We thanked him and bade farewell to him.
We enjoyed viewing statues from Dmitry Shorin's project "I Believe in Angels" in the departure terminal. These were angels with airplane wings.
Tamara helped us to check in and walked us as far as immigration / security. She was a very professional and knowledgeable guide, and we learned so much from her! She was attuned to our interests and adde little touches of personalization to the itinerary. We said thank you and goodbye to Tamara, and then headed through immigration and security.
We went to our gate. I bought us each a Fanta, and I bought myself a chocolate eclair. I went into a souvenir shop to look at the nesting dolls, and the prices were astronomical. We really did get a great deal buying them straight from the source in Sergiev Posad!
Our British Airways flight boarded about 10 minutes late, but still took off on time at 4:40. We had an empty seat between us, so we were able to spread out.
The flight is only 3 hours long, so we weren't too surprised that food was only available for purchase. But there were no complimentary drinks - only tap water. Really, British Airways? Is that the non-potable bathroom tap water? Nonetheless, I felt like I needed at least something small to eat and drink.
The service was so inefficient! We were in the 3rd row of economy, and it took at least 15 minutes for them to get to us. One flight attendant rung up the credit cards while the other ran all the way back to the galley to get each item one at a time. By customer #3, they were already out of certain menu items. We decided to split a single "Aberdeen Angus beef and red onion chutney bloomer" sandwich (4.75 GBP) and a 500 ml bottle of water (1.80 GBP). The sandwich was good, but the whole thing was a joke. I would gladly pay an extra $10 on my ticket price to get complimentary soft drinks and a sandwich, without all of this nonsense!
When we arrived at Heathrow, we didn't have the most accessibility-friendly experience. Craig had to go down a flight of steps to de-plane, and we had to board a bus to Terminal 5. The woman at the wheelchair area was honest and said that we would have to wait at least 30 minutes for a wheelchair, and that might jeopardize our ability to make our connection. She said that there was a wheelchair we could use if I didn't mind pushing it. Though it was a bit awkward with carry-on bags, large winter coats, etc., I did so. Everyone at the airport was extremely helpful, and pointed us to lifts and trains to get us to the proper terminal and gate.
At security, several passengers offered to help us to reclaim our belongings. It was very nice of them to offer to help rather than being annoyed by us being in their way and slowing down the line.
We made it to the gate, and after a short wait, were able to board early. I had to leave the wheelchair at a designated point, so that Craig could walk the final stretch onto the plane with his cane. While he was getting out of the wheelchair and I was gathering all of our belongings to carry on with us, a first class passenger offered to help us.
So even though the official system at Heathrow didn't really have its act together, individual people (employees and passengers) were extremely kind and helpful.
The flight from London to Boston was packed with Bostonians returning home after spending St. Patrick's Day in Ireland. We were happy that we had headphones and Bob Dylan music, because their conversations grew tiresome quickly. We were served a delicious Thai yellow curry; some of the best airline food we have had.
We landed in Boston at around 10:20 p.m. After all of the walking over the past 10 days, Craig was exhausted and availed himself of a wheelchair in Boston. He doesn't usually need to do this as the walk isn't very long, but he just couldn't do it himself tonight. He is so appreciative of the kind folks who provide wheelchair service.
We made use of our Global Entry status to breeze through immigration and customs. Steve was kind enough to pick us up shortly after 11 p.m.
EpilogueRussia was fantastic. Many people ask us why we haven't done more traveling in Europe. Many also ask us why we chose to go to Russia. A trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg is the best of both worlds. You get to experience traditional Russia, yet you also get to see the influence that Europe had on the ruling class. The two cities run the gamut from the Middle Ages through the time of the Tsars through Soviet times to perestroika, glasnost, and beyond. In 10 days we were only able to scratch the surface.
The trip far exceeded all of our expectations. Being immersed in such a rich culture was inspiring. We would highly recommend Moscow and St. Petersburg as the perfect starting point for anyone with an interest in Russia past or present. Russia left us wanting more. We would love to return for the Golden Ring or a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Growing up during the Cold War, Russia and the Soviet Union were always portrayed to us as dangerous or full of intrigue. What we learned about the region was highly controlled by propaganda, the same way that their knowledge of the United States was shaped by propaganda. It was great to go there and be able to experience the country firsthand, meeting actual people, and solidifying our belief that we humans are all the same the world over.
Tamara and Andrey
Column of Glory
Dmitry Shorin's project "I Believe in Angels," Pulkovo Airport
Thanks to my friend and colleague Maria and her friends Valiria and Natela! Meeting local people is one of our favorite things to do, and we very much enjoyed seeing Russian art history through your eyes. As Maria promised, a visit to the Tretyakov Gallery really reveals the psyche of the Russian people through the years, and gave us a contextual lens through which to view everything else that we would see over the next week. We enjoyed the Friday night ritual of dinner at McDonald's, and learning about both of you. Thank you for sharing your faith with us. We really enjoyed our conversations.
Thank you to our awesome A&K guide Olga! Seeing your smile at 4 o'clock in the morning when you picked us up at the airport set the tone for the entire trip! You quickly tuned in to the fact that we enjoy local experiences, and brought us to fantastic little local pie shops. You are extremely knowledgeable, and taught us so much! You are well-prepared and professional. You are versatile and can switch up the program on the spot when necessary (taking us to explore the beautiful Metro when traffic was prohibitive). We feel that we made a personal connection with you, and we shared many laughs together (especially when painting matryoshkas)!
Big thanks to A&K guide Tamara and driver Andrey - you were extremely professional, knowledgeable, and always took good care of Craig and helped with his mobility. As the trip progressed, he grew more tired and had more difficulty walking. You both were always very conscious of this, and helped to make sure that he could get around. Your willingness to go above and beyond, such as taking us to the Gulf of Finland, is greatly appreciated. We very much enjoyed our time together. Thank you, Tamara, for indulging my matryoshka obsession, as well. I love the spacewalk!
Thanks to Cody at A&K in the USA for arranging the trip for us. The addition of the matryoshka factory and toy museum was perfect! Your attention to detail is amazing.
And last but certainly not least, thanks to Katya at A&K Moscow for giving us a warm welcome to your country! We enjoyed chatting with you and appreciated the fact that you encouraged us to contact you if we needed absolutely anything. We appreciate your hospitality.
It may have been our first A&K trip, but we hope it will not be the last.
Since returning from Russia, I have been enjoying reading Soviet literature, including Solzhenitsyn's harrowing expose of gulags "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and Victor Pelevin's absurdist satirical cosmonaut novel "Omon Ra." My favorite, however, is Mikhail Bulgakov's satirical and lyrical "The Master and Margarita." This rollicking tale of the devil's mischevious visit to Soviet Moscow and its impact on a critically panned author and his true love is at once utterly charming and scathing.
Craig has been to the neurologist about his facial swelling. It is related to his MS medication, so he needs to discontinue it and switch to another form of treatment. This was quite stressful, as there are many options with varying degrees of risk vs. reward. We had been so happy with his medication thus far, as Craig had no relapses while taking it. After considering the alternatives, the best option was an infusion which was not yet FDA-approved, so we decided to apply for a clinical trial. As luck would have it, two hours later that same day that we visited the neurologist, the FDA approval came through. The drug is so new that it is not available to our hospital yet, but Craig is on the list, and once itis available, he will start treatment.