Monday, July 29, 2013

Thought-provoking experiment on racism

This video made its rounds on social media recently. I saw a version of this experiment on Oprah a couple of decades ago and it shocked how quickly people can learn to discriminate against other people who are different from them. I didn't realize until recently that this experiment, developed and run by diversity expert Jane Elliott, has been around since the late 1960s.

video uploaded in youtube by LudwingMedia

This experiment is so powerful that it will take an entire dissertation for me to write about what my thoughts on it. Instead, let me quote/paraprhase one of the top comments posted on this video by guardian3847:

At 1:30, Mrs. Elliott begins a study that will be talked about for years.
At 3:00, she re-creates segregation and racism in her classroom.
At 7:45, she flips the entire class on their heads.
At 10:00, Jane Elliot shares a very profound discovery.
At 11:43, the students learn something that the world is still struggling to.


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Full weekend

This last weekend was pretty full but pretty good. Things kicked off when I went to Puyat Sports Superbowl in Makati Cinema Square (the bowling lanes, not the Chinese restaurant :)) with four of my good friends from work: Pia, Kat, AJ, and Mark. We all joined our group's bowling team and given that most of us hadn't played in a year (I, in fact, hadn't played in about 4-5 years or more!), we felt it was necessary for us to get some practice games in before the official tournament. For someone who hasn't played in years, I think I did quite well. My scores were 121, 120, and 100. Clearly I had gotten tired by the third game, but nevertheless, I still averaged about 113 per game. Still lots of room for improvement but not a bad start.

Apart from getting to play bowling and the fantastic company, another highlight of the evening was having a pizza dog from Magoo's. It's probably been like a decade since I last had a pizza dog from Magoo's and I just really love it haha. I remember saying "na-miss ko 'to" to Kat said "mukha nga" hahaha.

The next day, I drove all the way to Las Pinas to visit Suzanne at her house. It was actually her mother's 80th birthday celebration which is why she came home from the US. Since she wanted to see the gang while she was here, she invited us to join her. I woke up pretty late on Saturday - around 1pm I think - so I arrived at Suzanne's house at around 3pm. Alvin and Doray had already left but Raffa and Joh were still there. I came just in time too because the buffet was about to be packed up already. Suzanne was going to be here for about a week more so we agreed to meet up again for either bowling or karaoke (or both). I haven't been out with this set of friends doing bowling or karaoke in ages so I am definitely looking forward to next weekend when I get to spend time with all of them again.

After resting a bit at home, I then joined my colleagues for the birthday party-cum-despedida of Eman, who was leaving for another company. There were about 20 of us there, and we had a whole lot of drinks that kept us in good spirits the entire night. I brought a bottle of Absolut Citron and a partially consumed Russian Standard vodka but there were a lot of other bottles there and we actually didn't get to consume everything. We also brought a portable karaoke mic with us, making sure we were all entertained.

Sunday was a bit of a calmer day as I just spent the evening with my family. After my nephew's Tae Kwon Do class, I took him and my mom to Pino Resto Bar along Jupiter for an early dinner before hearing mass then heading home. Before that, however, I went to the Smart Araneta Coliseum to get concert tickets. I'm watching The Killers on September 26 with my friend Beck and One Republic on November 6 with my other friend Meg. The Killers were supposed to perform here in the Philippines a few years ago and I remember buying my ticket already when they cancelled due to a personal family emergency. I'm crossing my fingers that this concert finally pushes through (they are going to be in Singapore a few days before their concert here because they are slated to perform in the Singapore Grand Prix). I'm definitely looking forward to watching these two concerts.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Live version of "Angels or Devils" by Dishwalla

I first learned about this song by Dishwalla when I was still gigging with my band years ago but it was on one of the more eclectic radio stations that I heard this live version which completely blew me away. This acoustic rendition completely outclasses their recorded version and I think this may be one of my favorite vocal performances of any rock or pop song ever.

video uploaded on youtube by mrmikebeaton

Normally, I like full band performances a lot more than acoustic versions but this just has to be an exception. Lead singer J.R. Richards' voice is just absolutely astounding and superb here and his expression and emotion gives me chills. Not sure what led me to search this version recently but since then, I have been listening to it over and over again.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Two weeks after Wimbledon

Wimbledon, the third tennis major of the year, concluded two weeks ago but I was still in the middle of blogging about my trip to Russia and I didn't want to interrupt it. Anyway, big tennis fan that I am, I thought I would be amiss if I didn't write about it, no matter how late. So here are some of my thoughts:

First, I am extremely pleased that Andy Murray won. The pressure on him to win in Wimbledon has been immense, being a Brit playing in a country that hasn't had any homegrown success on the men's side since Fred Perry won the Men's title in 1936. (Let us not forget, however, that Virginia Wade from the UK won the Wimbledon Ladies' Singles title in 1977.)

Andy has been in the top 4 for many years now and I have always felt that if he had played in another era, he would have won a few major titles already. Unfortunately, he plays in the era of two of the greatest ever (Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal) and of another who is likely to join them on their lofty pedestal (Novak Djokovic). Don't look now but of the "big four", Andy is the one who is holding two Grand Slam events at the same time. Plus the Olympic title. That he became a multiple Grand Slam event titlist on home soil makes this victory even more meaningful.

Here's a though: on the men's side, every Grand Slam event this year been momentous. Andy Murray becomes the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years. Before that, Rafa Nadal won his 8th French Open title, the only time any man has won 8 singles trophies from the same major event. And to start off the year, Novak Djokovic became the first man to win three consecutive Australian Open titles.

While most people were massively shocked by Rafa Nadal's first round loss, somehow I wasn't. Or well, not so much. I could see during Roland Garros that Rafa was getting fatigued, and it seemed like he was just running on adrenaline after winning more matches than anyone else this year. Too bad it happened in Wimbledon. The good news is that he didn't really have a lot of points to defend. Also, despite that early loss, he has still won more points this year than any of the other men and he remains on top of the race to London.

Personally, I think it is Roger's Federer's second round loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky that ranks as the biggest shock of the tournament. This loss snapped Roger's streak of 36 straight Grand Slam events where he got to at least the quarterfinals. That is happened in Wimbledon which he won last year and on Centre Court where he has raised the trophy 7 times before is even more shocking.

Not far behind though is Serena Williams' loss to Sabine Lisicki. Williams lost the first set to Lisicki before putting on a master class in power tennis in the second set and jumping out to the 3-0 lead in the third. Given how well Serena has been playing this year and how far ahead of the rest of the pack she seems to be, it seemed crystal clear what the final result would be. And when Serena had multiple breakpoints to go up 5-3 and serve for the match, most people would have expected the match to end a few minutes later. Instead, Sabine took a page out of Serena's book and fought back come from behind to win.

Of course, Sabine was overwhelmed with "stage fright" or big-match pressure in the final and couldn't overcome Marion Bartoli, who won on her second chance at the Wimbledon title. Big congratulations are in order for Marion, whose unorthodox style of play and quirky behavior make her really interesting to watch.

Massive, massive props also to the Bryan Brothers who have won a non-calendar Golden Slam in doubles, by winning four in a row (from the US Open last year to Wimbledon this year) plus the Olympic title. (The only true Golden Slam was won by Steffi Graf back in 1988 when she won all major titles plus the Olympic gold all in the same year.)

This last Wimbledon has to be the overall most eventful and dramatic major tennis tournament in a really long time. So many stunning early-round losses, significant results, and shocking sexist comments from TV broadcasters. I'm definitely looking forward to the US Open to see how things pan out for the top contenders.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Russia: Travel Tips

Before I get into the tips, here's a quick summary of all my blog posts about my incredible trip to Russia.

From Russia with Love
Moscow: Kremlin and Red Square
More Moscow Sights (Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Tretyakov Gallery, Church of St. John the Warrior, Gorky Park, Cosmonautics Memorial Museum, Vernissage Market, Kremlin at Izmailovo, and Arbat Street)
The Moscow Metro
The Golden Ring: Sergiev Posad
The Golden Ring: Vladimir and Suzdal
St. Petersburg: Peter and Paul Fortress
St. Petersburg: Fantastic Walking Tour (Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, Kazan Cathedral, St. Isaac's Cathedral, Nevsky Prospekt, Alexander Column at the Dvortsovaya Ploschad, Field of Mars, and other)
The Hermitage
Palaces Around St. Petersburg (Catherine Palace, Pavlovsk Palace, Peterhof Palace and Gardens)
More St. Petersburg (including the Alexander Nevsky Cemetery)
Russian Ballet
Russia: Final Thoughts
Russia Travel Tip: Navigating the Moscow Metro
Russia: Travel Tips

Walking next to the Neva River

A tourist visa to Russia is expensive (about P7000 for a normal visa and P9000 to rush it) but it is surprisingly easy to secure. All you need is to fill out the form and pay. No bank statement, no certificate of employment, no personal appearance.

Peterhof Palace and Gardens

Despite this, you may want to do a bit more research on how to get a visa. We had to go through a travel agent because apparently, you need some kind of voucher from a Russian entity that the travel agent will secure for you. Because we went through a travel agency, our hotel bookings were also coursed through them. As such, we had to settle for the hotels suggested by our agency rather than my preferred hotels based on my research on Trip Advisor.

Cosmonautics Museum

Not a lot of people speak English in Moscow but hotel receptionists normally can. As such, if you plan to buy train tickets from Moscow to St. Petersburg (or anywhere), I recommend telling your hotel receptionist what you want to buy and having them write it down in Russian/Cyrillic. This should hopefully help you get the tickets you need. (It is quite different in St. Petersburg though, where a lot of locals can speak English. Maybe because there are so many tourists who travel here from Finland that people have tried to learn English to help them communicate better with tourists.)

Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood

In Moscow, intercity train tickets can be purchased at the train terminal behind Komsomolskaya metro station. You can purchase tickets with a credit card. Make sure you bring your passport with you when you buy tickets. It's also advisable to keep your train tickets with you until you leave Russia.

Komsomolskaya Metro Station

Moscow metro stations don't have the English names written anywhere. As such, it's strongly recommended to try and learn the Russian alphabet. Also, metro maps are normally available at your hotel reception and they have the English name of each metro station on them next to the Russian name. Make sure you get a good map to help you go around.

Bas-relief on the pedestal of the Alexander Column

If you are a relatively experienced traveler and are good with maps, you might be better off buying a Lonely Planet book and visiting some of the sights in Moscow and St. Petersburg by yourself with no tour guide. Looking through all the tours we took, I think I may still have taken almost all of them except for Peterhof, because that tour lasts only four hours. Since it is easy enough to go there with no guide (via hydrofoil from the dock near the Hermitage), it would be better to visit Peterhof by yourself and spend more time in the palace and gardens, looking at all the fountains. You don't need a tour at the Hermitage but our guide shared a lot of great information so I think it's still recommended to take a guided tour if you don't mind spending a bit more, then just lingering in the museum after the official tour is over.

The Pavilion Hall in the Hermitage

I would definitely recommend getting on a private car tour to Vladimir and Suzdal since it is about a 4-hour ride away. Three Whales is your best option because it's a lot cheaper than other similar tours and their guides are great. The Three Whales Sergiev Posad tour is also good value for money, especially for groups of up to 6 people so the cost per person is lower.

Trinity Cathedral in Sergiev Posad

Souvenirs are significantly cheaper along the Golden Ring (Sergiev Posad, Vladimir, and Suzdal) than in Moscow. In Moscow, souvenirs are also quite cheap along Arbat Street and Izmailovo Market. Of the places we visited, St. Petersburg has the most expensive souvenirs. (A souvenir shirt in Moscow costs 250-300 rubles; in St. Petersburg it is 400-450.)

Tsar Cannon at the Kremlin

The hotels we stayed at were: Arbat Hotel in Moscow and Hotel Moscow in St. Petersburg. You can read about my reviews of both of these hotels on Tripadvisor. Links: Arbat Hotel review and Hotel Moscow review.
The State Bedroom in Pavlovsk Palace

Different cathedrals, museums, and other places of interest are closed on different days. As such, when you try to plan out your itinerary, check out when these places are closed and schedule your itinerary accordingly.

Inside St. Basil's Cathedral

When planning to watch a ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre, buy tickets early. I think tickets are available for purchase online up to a few months in advance. Based on experience, it's easier to get tickets for shows at the Mariinsky Theatre.

The Mariisnky II

Finally, Russia is an absolutely fantastic country. It'll be an expensive holiday so save up for it and go for a visit (probably during spring or summer so that it isn't too cold). You won't be disappointed.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Russia Travel Tip: Navigating the Moscow Metro

Aside from the alphabet barrier, getting on the Moscow metro can be slightly confusing specifically when it comes to the line interchanges. Transferring metro lines on these interchanges threw me off a few times, so here's one important note: pay close attention to the station names. On some interchanges, the metro station name is the same on both the intersecting lines (this is true sometimes on the brown/circle line). But in most cases, the names of the stations on the same interchange but on different lines are still different. To illustrate, here is a map of the Moscow metro (English version):

Moscow Metro map from

A couple of examples of interchanges that feature the same station name on both lines: Kievskaya applies to the all stations on the brown-blue interchange.

It's the same with Belorusskaya on the brown-green interchange.

However, in some cases, the names of stations on different lines in the same interchange are different. For instance, the brown-purple interchange features stations with different names: Krasnopresnenskaya on the brown line and Barrikadnaya on the purple line.

Or let's look at the much more complicated lime green-red-orange interchange where you have Christye Prudy (red line), Turgenevskaya (orange line), and Sretensky Bulvar (lime green line).

I got confused by this a few times because I'd sometimes end up looking for the wrong station name at the interchange. Case in point. Let's say I was going from Kitay-Gorod (purple line) to Mayakovskaya (green line).

The shortest path is to take the purple line going towards the "left" of the map, then switch to the green line at the purple-green interchange. I saw that the station before Mayakovskaya is Tverskaya so while on the purple line, I incorrectly thought that I would get down two stations later at Tverskaya. But remember, at that point I was still on the purple line. So in this case, the station on the purple line where I had to alight was actually Pushkinskaya. Only when I get to this station would I switch lines at the purple-green interchange to Tversakaya on the green line.

Did that make sense? Hopefully it did. The same also applies to the less-complex St. Petersburg metro.

I wanted to include this in my Travel Tips post but then I realized it was becoming too long so I thought of writing a special blog post dedicated to navigating the metro. Most of the time, I managed to figure things out before I got completely confused. In any case, when on the metros in Russia, make sure to pay close attention to the correct station names, especially at the interchanges. Next post: Travel tips.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Russia: Final Thoughts

So while writing a post that was initially supposed to combine final thoughts with travel tips, I realized that it was starting to become too long. As such, I decided to split them in two. One post for travel tips and this one for some final thoughts.

GUM (ГУМ), a shopping mall that borders Red Square

On my first day in Russia, I tripped and almost fell on my camera. When we were at the Kremlin, I was so intent on taking a photo that I kept inching my way to the left while trying to frame a shot properly. I didn't notice a small knee-high post on my left. I ended up falling over it. Only thought: don't let the camera hit the ground. Almost did. Thankfully, I managed to catch my fall with my free hand without injuring my wrist. It was extremely embarrassing though.

Golden domes inside the Moscow Kremlin

Surprisingly, learning the Russian alphabet is not as hard as you'd think. Don't get intimidated by it. Both my mom and I were able to read Russian well enough to get by and get around. My geekiness sort of came out though since I somehow remembered the greek letters, it might help you with a few letters. In the Greek alphabet, Г is Gamma (G), Д is Delta (D), Л looks like Lamdba (L), and П is Pi (P).

Inside the Tretyakov Gallery

Not a lot of people in Moscow speak English. When my mom and I tried purchasing overnight train tickets from Moscow to St. Petersburg, we were trying to get first class seats. The lady behind the counter couldn't understand us. She was telling us there were no seats available and was about to sell us the second class seats. Apparently, I figured out later on that she may have thought we wanted the cheapest seats and that she was trying to say was there were no third class seats left so she was giving us the next level up which was second class. Thankfully, a lady who could speak some English came up behind us and helped translate. She helped us get the correct tickets. Lucky for us!

Inside the Commandant's House at the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg

Strange and slightly intimidating experience at the Izmailovo Market. We passed by a shop that was selling a shirt with the Sochi Winter Olympics logo that I was interested in getting. On our way into the market, I heard the guy manning the shop tell another patron that the shirt cost 300 rubles. I thought of getting it on the way out, but when we passed by again, the guy said 500 rubles. I was thinking about getting it but the guy then asked "how much?" I was still thinking if I still wanted to get it and then he said in a more forceful and confrontational way "how much?" I guess he was getting slightly impatient or maybe he thought I didn't understand him because before I knew it, he screamed at me "How much?!!" Okay, at that point I just had to step away.

The vibrantly colorful Kremlin in Izmailovo

McDonald's is relatively cheap in Russia. A Big Mac sandwich here costs about 87 rubles (or P100). I don't know how much a Big Mac meal costs though since I wasn't sure how do order the meal. :) Note however that because it is quite cheap, there are always very long lines at McDonald's.

Dining room in Catherine Palace just outside St. Petersburg

It was my first time to fly Aeroflot, Russia's largest airline and its flag carrier. It was pretty decent, with a good selection of movies, including some relatively new ones. I finally got to see Skyfall, The King's Speech, Rise of the Guardians, and Ocean's Thirteen.

Magnificent mosaic ceiling and interior of the Church of The Savior on Spilled Blood

I didn't realize until we were heading back to Manila that Aeroflot is part of Skyteam, with which I have a miles program. Thankfully, my miles were credited after the fact. Moral of the story: (1) know which airlines are part of your miles program and (2) always keep your boarding passes after your flight, just in case.

A beautifully sculpted grave in the Alexander Nevsky monastery

Next post: Travel Tips.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Russian Ballet

We got to see two ballets when we were in Russia, both times in St. Petersburg. Russian ballet was an absolute must-see for us and I'm happy that we were able to experience it twice during our holiday. We attempted to see one in Moscow as well but it didn't exactly work out.

Jewels ballet at the Mariinsky

The Bolshoi Theatre is the top place in Moscow to see a ballet. One key thing to note when attempting to buy tickets to a ballet here is that you have to buy them way in advance. Purchasing tickets 1-2 weeks before the playdate won't cut it. I waited until we got our visas before I attempted to buy tickets but by then, every ballet at the Bolshoi was already sold out. A couple of seats did became available for Romeo and Juliet a couple of days before but each cost a whopping 8.000 rubles (that's more than P10,00) so we decided not to watch. We did visit the Bolshoi Theatre while we were in Moscow and took some photos from outside.

The Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow

The Mariinsky Theatre is the main place in St. Petersburg for musical theatre. During the Soviet era, it was called the Kirov Theatre and this is actually where Filipina prima ballerina Lisa Macuja developed her exceptional skills as a ballet dancer.

The lovely green facade of the original Mariinsky Theatre

My mom and I were choosing between two ballets: Jewels and The Young Lady and the Hooligan. We opted for the longer ballet, Jewels, but as I was checking the performance information, I noticed that it would be showing in the Mariinsky II, the newly-built modern-styled theater right next to the original Mariinsky. Both my mom and I were interested in watching a show in the older theater so when I saw that The Young Lady and the Hooligan would be staged there, I decided to get the most inexpensive seats for that show as well.

The old Mariinsky (left) and the Mariinsky II (right) stand on opposite sides
of a canal and showcase a contrast in architectural styles

Jewels is an award-winning ballet that features impressive choreography. It is comprised of three separate ballets, all of which are named after jewels. The costumes of the dancers appropriately match the jewel they represent: Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds.

Scene from the Rubies suite of the Jewels ballet

The Mariinsky II looks very modern and thus, out-of-place in a section of the city that is filled with old architecture. I have to say that it has a resplendent amber-inspired interior (see the left side of the photo below). If I remember correctly, it was on the third level that several costumes from past ballets were on display for people to see and enjoy.

Inside the Mariinsky II

The theater is supposed to feature cutting edge technology that would allow sets to be very quickly and seamlessly changed; apparently, up to six shows with different sets can be shown here in one day. The layout of the seats was also supposed to have been done in such a way that everyone in the audience can see everything on stage. The seating area, however, is not as luxurious as I was expecting of a theater of such great significance. It kind of reminded me of the RCBC theater in Makati. I will say though that we were quite lucky to watch a ballet here because it opened on May 2 which meant we got to enjoy a show here on its 6th day of being open. Talk about good timing!

Mariinsky II Theatre

The Young Lady and the Hooligan featured Elena Yevseyeva and Ilya Kuznetsov, both of them award-winning performers who have gained prominence for their skill and artistry. Watching them perform, I could completely understand why. They were both exceptional!

The Young Lady and the Hooligan

This ballet lasted about an hour but it was still a great experience, made even more wonderful by the fact that we were enjoying this performance in a historically and culturally significant venue. While we sat at the highest level, we did get front row seats in that section which gave us an unobstructed view of the stage and the old but still magnificent interior of the theater.

Inside the original Mariinsky Theatre

As expected, both performances we saw were sensational. The lead dancers and soloists were flawless and their impeccable technique and incredible expression were on full display. That we got to see two shows in two different theaters fully rounded out our incredible Russian experience.

Ready to watch the show

Two things surprised me though. First, while camera use is not supposed to be allowed inside the theater during a show, you could see so many people unabashedly taking photos and even videos! I ended up taking my cue from them and snapping a few photos myself during the performances but only within the first minute or so and also during curtain call and it was never with a flash. I don't understand how so many people kept taking pictures with flash which could so easily distract the dancers (thankfully, no one seemed to get thrown off.). The second thing I noticed was the lack of standing ovations. Maybe stellar performances at the ballet are so commonplace here in Russia that people are not that bothered standing up to show their adulation. Maybe here it's the curtain call that is the true sign and the highest form of respect. Still, I felt that the leads and soloists of both shows deserved standing ovations.

All suited up

The Bolshoi website recommends getting dressed up when watching a show and you will indeed see a lot of people in the audience, especially the women, dressed to the nines. There were quite a few people, however, who came in just wearing a shirt and jeans. You can buy tickets for the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky online through their respective official websites. You can also select which seat you want to get. Of course, while my mom and I focused specifically on ballet, there are lots of other performances (such as operas and orchestras) that are staged at both theaters. Make sure you take the time to see a show in one of these venues when you visit Moscow and/or St. Petersburg.

Next post: Final thoughts.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

More St. Petersburg

Our hotel was located right across Alexander Nevsky Monastery and we had a good view of it from our window. The claim to fame of this lavra is here you will find the graves of some of the most famous and important Russian artists.

View of Alexander Nevsky Monastery from our hotel room

It was a bit of an effort to figure out where different people were buried, but we thankfully found the ones we were looking for. Among them are author Fyodor Dostoyevsky...

Grave of Fyodor Dostoyevksy

...and composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Grave of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The metro in St. Petersburg is not as spectacular as its Moscow counterpart but that doesn't mean that some of the stations here aren't worth a photo op or two. The Admiralteyskaya station with its appropriate mosaic design is the stop closest to the Hermitage and the deepest metro station in the city.

Admiralteyskaya metro station

We saw the beautiful St. Petersburg Mosque from a bit of a distance when we went to Peter and Paul Fortress.

St. Petersburg Mosque

We passed by the Nikolsky Cathedral (or St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral) on our way to the Mariinsky Theatre. I would have loved to go in to see its beautifully carved wooden iconostasis but we didn't have enough time. Nevertheless, we got to admire its elegant blue and gold facade.

Nikolsky Cathedral

This monument has the most interesting name - To Leningrad the Hero City Obelisk. It was erected in Vosstaniya Square in 1985 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Victory Day.

To Leningrad the Hero City Obelisk

It was in this area on May 9 that we luckily chanced upon the Victory Day parade. We spent most of that day at the Peterhof and after getting dressed at our hotel, we got on a bus which was supposed to take us all the way to the Mariinsky Theatre. However, most of the roads were closed and we had to get off the bus near Ploshchad Vosstaniya. As we made our way to the metro station, we saw that the parade in this square had just started. Talk about great timing!

Victory Day parade

We had our final dinner in Russia at Chaynaya Lozhka, which had a branch not far from our hotel. This place serves relatively inexpensive blini, a traditional Russian dish and we felt that it would be good to have something local before we flew out.

Dinner and dessert blinis at Chaynaya Lozhka

There is still one key Russian experience I had that I have yet to write about. Next post: Russian Ballet.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Palaces around St. Petersburg

We visited three palaces located just outside St. Petersburg. We spent a full day visiting two of them which are located next to each other - Pavlovsk and Catherine Palaces - while we spent most of our last day at the Peterhof Palace. All of these are about an hour away from St. Petersburg but are all worth the trip.

Of the three palaces we visited, Pavlovsk Palace is the most subdued. It doesn't have the grandeur as the other two palaces; its facade is not as striking and its room are not as massive.However, it is exactly these qualities that give Pavlosvk palace a very homey feel. It was built by Paul I in Pavlovsk near Saint Petersburg and used as an Imperial residence so it makes perfect sense that this house is like a comfortable mansion set amidst sprawling greenery. After the death of Paul I, the palace became the home of his widow, Maria Feodorovna.

Pavlovsk Palace

Our tour guide Irina (she was also our guide at the Hermitage) took us through several different rooms in the palace. We had to put on covers over our shoes so as not to damage the floor and you also have to pay extra (200 rubles I think) to take pictures inside. Irina talked in detail about each room, although I did miss some of what she said as I was too busy taking photos.

One of the most interesting things on display was what is called the Sèvres porcelain toilet set (see photo below) located in the State Bedroom. Irina told us that when the Germans invaded Russia, the curators of the palace started packing  the palace collection and moving them to safer locations to hide them. Supposedly, the mold that was used to create the Sèvres porcelain toilet set was destroyed. Whether this is true or not, this set on display at the Pavlovsk is the only one of its kind that was ever produced.

After our trip tour inside the palace, we had a few minutes to spare. So we walked about the park outside the palace for a bit and take photos. My mom also had a bit of time to buy souvenirs.

After spending a morning in Pavlovsk, we headed to Catherine Palace which is a short drive away. This is probably the most lavish and visually stunning of all the palaces we visited outside St. Petersburg. Located in Tsarskoe Selo, it was named after Catherine I and used as a summer residence of Russian tsars.

Catherine Palace

One of the most impressive and jaw-dropping rooms in this palace is the Grand Hall or Hall of Lights, a ballroom used for important receptions. Arched windows, electric lamps, gilded walls and mirrors make this room explode with sheer brilliance. In true baroque style, a majestic sky-themed painting covers the entire ceiling.

The Grand Hall is probably trumped by only one room - the Amber Room - and you can read more about it here. Unfortunately, it is the only location in the palace where photographs are not allowed. There is a long corridor that spans the entire length of the palace, connecting the different rooms here. If you stand at one end and look through the corridor, you can see door after door after door. I think our guide Irina called these the infinite doors. In any case, it was definitely worth a picture. You can also see the immense number of people visiting the palace that day.

The palace is set amidst a beautiful park. Apparently, it didn't look like this naturally. The park was landscaped and even the lake is man-made. Nevertheless, it is very beautiful and peaceful.

Our final day was spent at the Peterhof Palace. It is known as the Russian Versailles because Peter the Great commissioned the palace complex and its beautiful gardens and fountains to be modeled after Versailles. We were there on May 9, Victory Day, and we were very lucky that when we went to view the Grand Cascade, we got to view a fireworks display. A few minutes earlier or later and we would have missed it completely.

Peterhof Palace

Known as Petrodvorets from 1944 to 1997 during the Soviet era, Peterhof Palace is located at the Gulf of Finland so we decided to have a closer look at this easternmost part of the Baltic sea.

Photos are not allowed inside the palace so all of our pictures here were taken around the garden. I can't recall now what our guide told us but I think there are close to 200 fountains here, all of different sizes and designs.

We spent about 4 hours in Peterhof but I would have liked to spend a bit more time to see more of the gardens and fountains and so we could also purchase a few souvenirs (it's really tough to buy stuff when you are on tour, even if it is private, due to the time limitations). Apparently you can easily get to the Peterhof Palace via hydrofoil (450 rubles one-way) from the Neva River near the Hermitage. If spending more time here is more important to you than learning historical details of the different rooms in the palace, traveling on your own might be a better option than taking a private tour.

Next post: More St. Petersburg.