Category Archives: Alla Tours

Berlin

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Berlin

Berlin, Germany is an odd place to visit for a few hours. It’s not nearly enough time to get past the painful palpable past and reconcile that with the vibrant metropolis it is now. It was an ambitious excursion from our Baltic Sea Cruise. Once again I went with Alla Tours to be our guide.

The trip required us to be on a bus just past 7am to embark on a 3 hour ride. We stopped once for a bathroom/snack run as we made our way on the autobahn toward Germany’s capitol. Our tour guide was named – wow, I can’t remember his name. If I’m honest, I wasn’t a huge fan. He tried to be witty but the sarcasm was too heavy (even for me) and it didn’t play out well with the devastating history we were unfolding.

Our guide let’s call him, Hans, pointed out various buildings and the shopping district. There was some disappointment that most stores were closed because it was a Sunday. I didn’t mind since we wouldn’t have time to shop, plus it lightened the traffic a bit. One fun fact that Hans mentioned is that the public trees in Berlin are numbered, that way if there is an issue the person in charge of trees knows which tree to attend to. I would’ve thought Hans was joking if I didn’t see numbered placards on trees throughout the day.

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Our first stop in Berlin was to see the Berlin Wall Monument which included a Topography of Terror Exhibit. So much for getting your feet wet, dive right into the genocide of millions of innocent people. We only had 20 minutes here, 20 minutes to read how more than ten million people were exterminated and killed at war (spoiler: lots of people died in horrific ways). Twenty minutes to get a glimpse into the horrors that Poland went through and the bravery with which her citizens resisted the Nazis and the Soviet invasion. It’s a somber place.

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About five years ago I visited a woman on hospice. I was there as a volunteer, we sat for a few hours and she told me about herself, I just listened. Jadwiga was born in Poland in the 1930’s and she had a sister. She and her sister lived with their parents until they were all relocated to a camp when she was nine years old. They spent at least two years in that camp, only she and her mother survived. Her father and sister died of starvation which was sadly not uncommon in the camps. Here’s the twist that I didn’t expect, her family was Catholic. The people of Poland had Germany attacking from the east and Soviets invading from the west. Many civilians were killed immediately, many more were sent to camps or relocated to remote locations including Siberia.

Sometimes I’m stunned by how much I didn’t learn in school. Hitler viewed Polish people as inferior. His plan for Poland was to colonize it leaving some Poles to do manual labor and assist with the war effort. In an attempt to reduce the chances of a rebellion, Polish people that were seen as intellectuals or having the ability to persuade an uprising were killed – teachers, priests and members of the “leadership” class. Oops, our twenty minutes are up, time to get back on the bus. I bought a pretzel from a street vendor and we moved along. If you want to learn more here’s a link – Polish Victims of Nazi Germany

The next stop was Checkpoint Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie was the most famous border crossing along the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961 to slow the defection of Eastern Germans to Western Germany. At the time, Eastern Germany was struggling under communist rule and Western Germany had much more robust economy.

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The separation of Berlin began after the collapse of Germany in 1945 when the country was divided into four zones. Each zone was headed by a superpower – American, British, French and Soviet. In 1946 the allies of the Western Zones (American, British & French) came together during a break down in reparation agreements, leaving the Soviets in the Eastern Zone. The allies wanted to build a new economy in Western Berlin, Eastern Berlin was under communism. This all played out during the Cold War (1947 – 1991).

So we basically got let out of the bus near Checkpoint Charlie and were told to be back on the bus in half an hour. It was lunchtime so we went to a cafe to find some food, we wound up at Coffee Fellows. I’m just going to out myself as someone who previously believed the stereotype that German workers are efficient, this place cured me of that. We spend 22 of our 30 minutes waiting for a smoothie and a sandwich, that left us 8 minutes to explore.

In that 8 minutes we browsed souvenir shops and street vendors who were all selling gas masks in various shapes and sizes. There was also the image of two men kissing, that image was everywhere – mugs, bags, posters, pins, magnets, t-shirts, any standard souvenir item you can conjure. Naturally I had to find out who these two men were and what the significance was…

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In October of 1979 Regis Bossu took the famous photo of Leonid Brehzhnev and Erich Honecker. Apparently the men got excited over a ten year agreement of mutual support which involved ships, machinery, fuel, along with chemical and nuclear equipment. Explosive stuff no doubt. The “Fraternal Kiss” photo inspired a painting titled – My God, Help Me to Survive this Deadly Love – by Dmitri Vrubel (1990). His painting remained on a section of the Berlin Wall until it deteriorated and was repainted in 2009.

Time’s up back on the bus. Hans kept pointing out buildings and making snide remarks about Angela Merkel. I was getting tired of the bus and my daughter was sick. We got out a few more times, once in what used to be East Berlin and then back to the western side to wander near the museums and visit a street market. Did I mention that it was a thousand degrees that day?

About 6 hours in we went to the Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe. Hans explained that Hitler’s bunker was in that general area, he was not keen on pointing it out or directing foot traffic in that direction. The prevailing thought is that Germans did not want to commemorate or lend public space to Hitler so the bunker is inaccessible. I opted to spend my time at the Memorial and as was the case all day, there was not enough time for this sacred place.

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Back on the bus this time we were let out near the Brandenburg Gate where Ronald Reagan made his famous “Berlin Wall” speech. The gate was under significant repair so I didn’t get a decent photo. There is a placard where President Reagan stood for that famous speech. It’s also close to the German Parliament building which features a glass dome. Hans also pointed out the Victory Column, affectionately called – Chick on a Stick.

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We started making our way back to the autobahn which would lead us back to port in a mere three hours. It was an exhausting day. Berlin deserves at least a week to explore, I would have liked to get to know her better. Her history is so heavy yet I saw glimpses of whimsy and chic within the city, I hope to visit again.

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From Russia With Love…Part 2

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From Russia With Love…Part 2

The second day of our St Petersburgh Alla Tour was another jam packed itinerary which included – the Metro, a cruise on the Neva River, Yusupov Palace (Rasputin Exhibit), Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood,  St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the grand finale – Peterhof Fountains & Gardens.

The Metro in Russia is home to some gorgeous underground spaces, sadly we did not see those (kidding, maybe). We took a ride on the subway to the Admiralteyskaya (good luck spelling that) stop, which is 86 meters below ground. Greek Mythology and nods to Peter the Great were displayed in the metro mosaics that we came across. I think these guys are trying to catch the subway – img_8970.jpg

The Neva River was chilly so my daughter and I stayed in the cabin while the rest of the tourists froze their оценить off. The picture below was taken from the river cruise, it features the Saints Peter and Paul Fortress & Cathedral –

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Next up was the Yusupov Palace which hosted a Rasputin Exhibit. Fun fact: Rasputin was a close family friend and adviser of sorts to Nicholas II and his family. He was particularly close with the Empress of Russia, Alexandra Feodorovna, who credited Rasputin with keeping her son (heir apparent to the Russian Empire) alive. Alexei suffered from Hemophilia and it is thought that Rasputin was able to assist in some way.

The Romanov family’s close relationship with the wandering monk led to public outrage and ultimately the murder of Rasputin on December 30, 1916, which occurred in the Yusupov Palace. Speaking of Rasputin, I found myself in a rather twisted rabbit hole while Googling about the guy. Here’s a link if you’re feeling brave – Rasputin’s Junk on Display…

After the palace it was time for the church tours. Technically both churches are categorized as museums now which is an important distinction in determining who pays to keep the lights on. The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is a gorgeous display of what you would expect in a Russian church – multiple onion shaped domes covered in gold and gorgeous mosaic tiles that create the icons which adorn the walls.

The church was erected to honor Alexander II who died after being fatally injured by a carriage bomb, plotted by the Peoples Will (an extremist group) on March 1, 1881. The location where the fatal injury was dealt is marked within the church (below).

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Like most of the historical sites in St Petersburgh, the Church suffered damage during the Siege of Leningrad which lasted from September 1941 until January of 1944. For two and a half years the residents of Leningrad (now St Petersburgh) were trapped in the city. Suffering through air-raids, artillery barrage, starvation, and no access to outside supplies resulted in up to a million deaths (through the siege and evacuations).

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St Isaac’s Cathedral built between 1818 and 1858, was also damaged during the siege. It is filled with beautiful mosaics and a gorgeous stained glass Jesus.

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The final stop of our two day St Petersburgh Tour was Peterhof Fountains & Gardens. We didn’t have time to stop for lunch so Demetris, our driver, got bagged lunches for the 13 of us. They were delicious, our guide and driver really took care of us (Thank you Alla Tours).

Construction of Peterhof began in 1710 at the direction of Peter the Great. It’s been dubbed the “Russian Versailles” and it is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

According to Wikipedia – “The Peterhof Palace is a series of palaces and gardens located in Petergof, Saint Petersburg, Russia, commissioned by Peter the Great as a direct response to the Palace of Versailles by Louis XIV of France.”

I can’t speak of the actual palace at Peterhof but the fountains and gardens were spectacular (feature photo). You could spend a month walking the grounds here and you wouldn’t get bored.

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After 90 minutes of draw dropping beauty we made our way back to port. It was an exhausting day of touring but I needed to stay up to watch my niece and her boyfriend perform in the Princess production of Fiera!

Stay Tuned…

 

From Russia With Love…Part 1

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From Russia With Love…Part 1

One of the ports on our 11 day Baltic Sea Cruise was Saint Petersburg, Russia. To be honest, it was never on my travel bucket list, I didn’t know much about it. We booked the trip last minute so I could see my niece and her boyfriend preform on the ship. They both got jobs as entertainers and this cruise was one of the itineraries during their 9 month contract. I started digging in a bit and somehow convinced my husband to send our daughter and me.

To prepare for this port I watched The Last Czars series on Netflix. It was really well done and fairly accurate according to people who know more about Russian History than me (nearly everyone). Saint Petersburg featured prominently in the series as it was the capitol of the Russian Empire from 1712 – 1918. Nicholas II was the last Czar of the Russian Empire, he ruled from November of 1894 until he abdicated the throne on March 15, 1917. Spoiler – he was a shitty Czar. Whether that was due to malice, ignorance or ineptitude is up to debate, perhaps a toxic mix of all three. If you plan to visit or just need something to binge watch, I recommend the series (Netflix feel free to send me something for the plug).

With my newfound interest, I decided to book a tour during our two day stop in Saint Petersburg. After stalking cruise experts online and reading dozens of reviews, I went with the Grand Group Tour with Alla Tours. The group sizes were much smaller than the ship excursions and the prices were better with similar itineraries.

The morning we arrived in Russia I was a bit nervous. I grew up during the Cold War, Russia was enemy #1 for a big chunk of my youth and let’s face it, they get bad press on the regular – land grabs, election rigging, poisonings, scary stuff. So I open the curtain to my cabin balcony and THIS greets me –

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Russia is that a missel or are you just happy to see me?

That was a bit intimidating…according to our guide, Roman, it is an 87 story sky scrapper (not a scraper, a scrapper) which is owned by a petroleum company. Oh and Roman said it looked like a corn husk. Roman also said the Crimea land grab was fake news so draw your own conclusions.

Our first stop was the Palace Square which features the Alexander Column, the Winter Palace and the General Staff Building. It was gorgeous and we got a clear morning which is rare as SP only averages 60 sunny days a year.

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Winter Palace completed in 1762 was the first building constructed in the square and became the primary residence of Russian Czars. While visiting the Palace Square we ducked into a souvenir shop which, immediately offered Russian wine and vodka to all the customers, it was 8am (slurs speech, it’s 5pm somewhere Ruskii). My daughter tried on those big furry Russian hats, eyed the Faberge eggs and ultimately fell in love with this Russian nesting doll –

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I didn’t buy it at the time because $45 seemed outrageous. Then when we got home I found it on Amazon so, someone will get this at Christmas….shhhh.

The Hermitage (1764) was our next stop, the place is infested with gold and precious works of art. We had the good fortune to see works by da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and countless other artists at a mind numbing pace.

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Danae, Rembrandt (1636 w/later revisions). This painting was seriously damaged in 1985 when some jackass threw acid on it. Extensive restoration and repair were done with some of the damage left intact so as not to entirely redo the painting.

After a couple of hours, my daughter was going numb from the barrage of information so she started to amuse herself by photo-shopping Michael Jackson’s head on famous works of art. I thought it was genius.
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After the Hermitage we went to a restaurant for lunch which consisted of Borscht and Chicken Kiev. I enjoyed it, DD is not a fan of beet soup but she tried it and the chicken was better received. We were given pastries with a cream inside as dessert, yum. Next stop was the Peter & Paul Fortress and Cathedral.

The Cathedral featured the remains of the Romanov Family, including Nicholas II the last Czar. Their bodies were not interned until 1998 with the exception of Prince Alexei (born as heir to the Czar) and Princess Maria. The remains suspected to be of Alexei and Maria were not discovered until 2007. These bone fragments have since been tested and identified as the missing Romanovs though the Orthodox Church has not yet interned them with the rest of their family. The entire family was murdered in July of 1918 after being held captive by the Red Army in the city of Yekaterinburg (pssst…watch the series, you will not be bored).

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We finished the day with a trip to Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin. It was exhausting, crowded and monotonous – gold, mirrors, chandeliers, hall, followed by more gold, priceless antiques, rare works of art and yes, more gold. Keep in mind this Palace, along with the other cites we visited had extensive renovations after being devastated in World War II. I kept thinking of the people that went hungry while all this gold was being brushed on for the renovation.  Here’s the backyard –

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…and more gold for the road, stay tuned for the rest of St Petersburgh!

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