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EASTERN EUROPE & RUSSIA, Part 6 — TURN OF EVENTS LEADS TO PARIS!

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If you’ve been following along on this journey (Helsinki/Tallinn/Riga/Klaipeda/Vilnius), then you know we had Russian Visa issues prior to leaving the US.  After the earlier-than-planned exit from Russia and with time left before our scheduled departure back home, the question then became:  Where should we go for the remainder of the trip?  You now know how the story ended, with four glorious and unplanned days in Paris (runners-up were Vienna, Prague and London).

Other than our honeymoon plus a day trip from Brussels several years ago, we’ve not spent any time in Paris.   A big consideration in deciding where to go was rearranging the flight home to LA.  Happily, I worked with AA and was able to move things around while still in Moscow, maintaining a terrific mileage ticket (85k) flying non-stop from Heathrow to LAX in First Class!  Obviously, I did not want to lose that, so we added a Paris-London flight and continued onward.  Moscow-Paris offered tons of options, ultimately selecting Luftansa with a bit of a layover in Frankfurt.

Courtyard; Park Hyatt Place Vendome
Gorgeous weather; Jardin de Tuileries
Salade perfection; Les Jalles
Musee d’Orsay

What did we do? Roamed the streets near our Place Vendome hotel, immersed ourselves at the  Musee d’Orsay, did a return trip to spectacular Giverny (below), ate at some classic bistros — including Le Grand Colbert (yes, that one — made famous in the movie Something’s Gotta Give), and just had an extraordinary time. We also had great fun perusing the incredible hotels and their remarkable floral arrangements. I am a serial advance planner, so there’s typically lots of emails back and forth with hotel concierges to make sure nothing is missed.  This stay was more about “What do you feel like doing today?”  The final day was a win/win, with the hubby going to the Louvre plus scouting the very best place to exchange currency, and I endlessly browsed the stores (strictly for research purposes).

Giverny — tulips!
Wisteria and the Lily Pond at Giverny
Exquisite purple tulips
Still reaping benefits after so many years!
Basilica of the Sacre Coeur in the distance

So another post-tax-season holiday comes to an end.  Three weeks of magnificent sights, terrific service, fun with (first-week) traveling companion Julie Shuer, and meeting so many wonderful people.  There were oopsies as always:

  • What happened to my other pair of jeans?? (Lost somewhere at stop 1 or 2)
  • Why are four keys not working on the laptop — it was only a few drops of champagne??
  • Why was the hubby the smart one to take a pair of shorts??  (It got warmer than I expected)
  • Where the hell were all the band aids I needed for all that walking?? (Can never pack enough)

Minor inconveniences (maybe the computer was a bit more than that).  As always, it is a great privilege to explore this incredible world.  Final pix below ..

Brasserie Lipp — classic roast chicken and frites and the most scrumptious Napoleon for dessert.

What’s this?  The secret entrance to the world’s most reclusive jewelry designer – Paris-based  JAR (Joel A. Rosenthal).  Not that I would be granted an appointment (even if I could afford it) for it’s a very small and exclusive club that owns his pieces and for whom he creates.  But that didn’t stop my wish to find the iconic doorbell to his atelier.  The hubby encouraged me not to embarrass myself by bothering to ring.  Point taken.

That doorbell is the only clue.
Discreetly above the door in the Place Vendome

 

If there’s one of these wherever we travel, it is our last supper tradition.
We’ll miss this beauty …
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EASTERN EUROPE AND RUSSIA, PART 5 … MOSCOW

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We did it!  We made it to the Russian capital after lots of changes and Visa stuff (see previous).  After leaving Vilnius, we had a stopover in Riga prior to the flight to Moscow.  Travelers leaving the EU for Russian Federation countries go through a completely different checkpoint, with a very careful examination of one’s Visa.  Ours were in place and off we went.  By pre-arrangement, a car and driver greeted us at the Arrivals Hall for the short drive to the hotel.  By the way, greeters now hold up electronic devices showing one’s name (none of those old-fashioned signs requiring writing).

We were situated in the central part of “downtown” Moscow, minutes from Red Square, elegant shops, the historic Bolshoi Theater and other fine hotels.  Moscow is an ideal city for walking, with very wide boulevards.   Most of the major arteries require one to cross the street via underground tunnels as opposed to surface crosswalks.  You’d have to put a gun to my head to drive in Moscow, because the routes are extremely convoluted and the streets signs make no sense.  Other than that, it’s great!

FIRST NIGHT ON THE TOWN ..

I had purchased tickets to the Boshoi Ballet from home as I did not want to miss this iconic and historic landmark — founded in 1776.  It is absolutely pristine.  I have no idea what we saw — did not recognize the music or the story — but that was hardly the point; it was all about the experience.   What an impressive and beautiful facility.

OPULENT AND STUNNING INTERIOR
THIS SETTING COULD BE ANYWHERE

We had a tour guide for the first morning — walking in Red Square and pointing out the various buildings and landmarks.  That was extremely helpful to get our bearings.  The timing was fortuitous as this was just days from the inaguration so some buildings (the Kremlin, etc) soon closed for the duration of our stay.

THE KREMLIN (PART OF IT); MR. P’S OFFICE IS BELOW THE DOME

Below is a great view (left) Cathedral of Christ, followed by Church of All Saints, then (far right) St. Basil’s Cathedral (Red Square) — all historic and all visible from far away.

Day 2, we got confirmation of what we had hoped not to hear:  Nothing could be done about the incorrect exit date on our Russian Visas issued at home.  A series of mis-communications with the passport/visa agency (highly recommended to us) resulted in our Visas expiring after 5 days instead of the original plan to provide for our time in St. Petersburg.  The hotel GM tried with both the US and Russian authorities but to no avail.  I’m not sure what exactly happens if one overstays one’s exit date, but I wasn’t going to be the one to find out.  Stern warnings were heeded.

VIEW OF MOSCOW CITY – CENTRAL BUSINESS DISTRICT

The hubby and I evaluated the situation – split the allotted time between two cities (separated by a four-hour train ride) or ..?  We decided to stay in Moscow and really see the city, then return to StP on a future trip.  All of you who have been to St.P and raved about it lest not think we “suffered” — I rerouted the remaining days on our trip to Paris. That’s a winning solution for sure.   It was a lot of moving about, paperwork and the like, but in the end one cannot speculate about what didn’t happen.  It’s all good.  And we think the magnificent Ritz Carlton Moscow personally felt a bit responsible for all the travails as we received upgrades and were showered with amazing service.

Our time was spent trying restaurants, museums, shopping and walking — pretty much what one does in any European capital.  Along the way, we made a new friend in Jenny (below) who politely asked if we needed help as we pondered our map en route to dinner.  She spoke beautiful English and walked us to our destination while we chatted all the way.  We exchanged contact info, and she provided great travel tips while we were still in the city.  All I can say is, come visit us in LA so we can return the favor!

Some of the trip highlights:

CITY LIGHTS AND MOSKVA RIVER FROM 6OTH FLOOR
AMAZING DISPLAY AT NOVIKOV IN THE HOTEL
GARAGE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART
ENDLESS WHITE DAFFODILS IN GORKY PARK

 

PROFITEROLES, MOSCOW STYLE, AT SIXTY
ADA “COMPLIANT” IN MOSCOW
RED SQUARE VIEW FROM OUR HOTEL

And how about the frame shown below, found in our room the night before our departure.  How’s that for attention to detail?? Bravo.  And now it is on to Paris …

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EASTERN EUROPE & RUSSIA, PART 4 — BEAUTIFUL VILNIUS

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After an overnight stay in the Baltic Sea coastal town of Klaipeda (popular for cruise ships), we met up with our pre-arranged and excellent guide Regina Kopilevich (Vilnius-based and fluent in four languages: English, Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish).  At Regina’s suggestion, our meeting place was the city of Kaunas (formerly Kovna) for the start of our tour.  I had emailed Regina information I had on the hubby’s family history, emanating from the nearby towns of Marijampole and Simnas.   She traveled by bus to the impressive war memorial, Ninth Fort.  As you can see below, it is something to behold.  From there we drove to the other cities — Marijampole is the largest and most affluent.  We can’t say for sure that we pinpointed distant relatives, but just being in the area gave us a sense of them.

Ninth Fort Memorial

We then drove to Vilnius for our stay there, where we spent the entire next day with Regina walking from place to place.  Travel companion Julie tracked our steps — we did good over the week!  Among the highlights were the small but impressive Holocaust Museum (The Green House) and the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.  When one remembers 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were murdered, it is overwhelming.  But for the grace of God, there were some very brave “Righteous Gentiles” who risked their lives to protect some of the Jews and they are appropriately honored in the State Museum.  Some still survive today.

The photo below is in front of the home of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese government official living in Lithuania, who undertook the enormous risk of hand-writing visas to save more than 6,000 Jews during the war.  He was heroic to say the least.

Happy face or sundial?? (Sundial is correct).
Proof we were there ..

Sunday in Vilnius finds the streets bustling with multi-generational families and young people out everywhere, especially with the beautiful weather.  Of the cities visited so far (Helsinki and Tallinn, Riga and Klaipeda), hands-down Vilnius is one I could come to again.  It is a truly beautiful city;  “Paris of Eastern Europe” is an apt description that comes to mind.  But a large part of what makes for a memorable stay anywhere is a great hotel.  The Kempinski Cathedral Square fits that to a “t.”

How does this connect to Jackie O? The Radziwills (who are named on this door) were a powerful Lithuanian family; Jackie’s sister Lee was married to a descendant. #funfacts

Full disclosure:  We did not like a previous Kempinski stay (Munich) — it was the first city we started in for a post-tax-season trip (2007).  It really left a bad impression so we have avoided the chain ever since.  From now on, I will certainly think differently.

We had an absolutely beautiful suite with a balcony overlooking Cathedral Square, the central location in Vilnius — particularly the older part of the city.  The staff was extremely helpful with restaurant recommendations, friendly conversation and wonderful service.  Little did we know how much we would come to rely on them …

View from the room of Cathedral Square

 

Curious choice for the password; no?

 

Salmon “cones” filled with mascarpone at Da Antonio. Yum.

 

There was quite a bit of conversation with Regina as to our plans to continue on to our next stop in Minsk via train.  She and others confirmed that a 5-day transit visa for Belarus is automatically granted at the airport, but not the train station.  On that basis, I refunded our train tickets and purchased flights via Belavia Airlines for the short flight to Minsk.  On the day of our departure, we said our goodbyes to Julie who was returning to Tel Aviv before we headed to the airport.  The fun began then when we were asked to produce our Visas for Belarus.  It turns out that the transit Visa has some limitations, specifically when one’s onward travel is to Russia.  Even the words “let me speak to your supervisor” were of no avail.  We were denied the flight.

While attempting to get the flights refunded and purchase tickets from Vilnius to Moscow, I emailed an SOS to the Kempinski:  “Help!  We need a room — we are coming back to the hotel!”  The GM kindly responded that they were full but would find/block a room for us.  And no less than four of their personnel were waiting at the front of the hotel when we returned several hours after departing.  We were so happy to have a place to stay and did not have to go searching.  When some additional rooms opened up the next day, we moved yet again to a wonderful room.  We cannot say enough about their help and look forward to a return visit. As it turned out, we had a much-needed break to do nothing (i.e., roaming the streets, shopping, etc.)  Next, on to Moscow …

::Random photos from roaming around Vilnius::

Two items you will not see side by side in a US convenience store: ice bars and escargot.

 

Larry David comes to a Vilnius skateboard store.
Hmmmmmmmm
Doggie drinking fountain
Relaxed pose on a warm day — last dinner in Vilnius at Fiorentina
When dog lovers are away from their own …
We co-opt whatever we can find.

 

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EASTERN EUROPE & RUSSIA (PART 3) — RIGA & KLAIPEDA

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Did you know that some countries require an International Driving Permit (IDP) in order to rent a car? I apparently skipped over that part when I booked our car with Hertz. Ooopsie.

Per the previous post from this trip, we rented a car in Tallinn for the drive to Riga and beyond.  I found out about the IDP when we were at the Hertz office.  Certainly we cannot be the first people to overlook this minor detail. My thinking was we would apply on the spot, like we did when we suddenly needed a Visa last year (see post). Nope; they require a hard copy of the document even if it could be obtained. Of course, maybe — just maybe — they will reluctantly rent the car IF we sign a waiver and pay an extra 20 Euros per day and assume all liability. Remember the advice from that last post?? Don’t take “no” for an answer.

Had this been my first driving experience in a foreign country, I might have thought twice. But this is about the 20th country so what the heck. I will be extra careful!

Springtime in Riga

The drive from Tallinn to Riga is about 4 hours on very decent roads. We were in a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser with built-in GPS so it was a comfortable and easy drive. Our hotel is in the old part of Riga, a city of some 700,000. Right away we got a sense that this was going to be better than Tallinn with a lot to see. I had booked us for dinner at Vincent’s — rated the #1 restaurant in Riga; deservedly so. This is a serious establishment with serious food, service and excellent presentations. The reputation is well deserved and should have a Michelin star.

Dessert at Vincent’s in Riga

We hired a guide for half of one day who took us on a walking tour through the center of the old town; the Riga Synagogue — the only one that survived here as the others were burned down in 1941, some with congregants still inside; and on to the Central Market, and Holocaust Memorial.  A cousin on my mom’s side had emailed me of my family’s history in Riga so it was especially touching to be there.  Fortunately they were long gone prior to the war.  While the effects of the war and Communism are apparent in historical details, the city is bustling and thriving in the freedom obtain barely 25+ years ago.

Last surviving synagogue in Riga — hundreds of thousands murdered in the war.
Riga Synagogue with shamas (guide); photo notwithstanding, he was hilarious.
Holocaust Memorial; Riga
Central Market in Riga

 

View from 26th floor of the tower — slightly higher than the Eiffel.

The second and last terrific dinner in Riga was at Biblioteka No. 1, which setting is — you guessed it — a library.  Stocked bookshelves surround the tables with big windows looking out on a park-like setting.  The food was delicious!  Traveling companion Julie is a major fish lover and swore by the freshness of the sturgeon, gravlax and pike perch, among others.  My ox cheek was fabulous and the composed dessert of mango and pinapple flavors with sculpted meringue == wow.  See below!

Beautiful setting in the park
Pike Perch
Dinner in Riga at Biblioteka
Dessert — mango, pineapple, meringue at Biblioteka

I routed us for an overnight in the coastal town of Klaipeda which was fine, but not much to report about.  Julie enjoyed the small Jewish sites there.  It is a stopping point for the cruise ships who offer day tours to Vilnius and other parts not too far away.  Separate from experiencing a lot of the Latvia/Lithuanian area, there wasn’t much to see.  But big things awaited us as we continued on to our next destination:  Vilnius.

Inventive doorhangers; best I can say about the hotel in Klaipeda

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EASTERN EUROPE & RUSSIA (PART 2) — HELSINKI & TALLINN

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Baby, it’s cold outside! You know those temperature reports: “Real temp” vs. “Feels like”? Well, that summed up the weather in Helsinki in the latter part of April. Perhaps because there’s so much water around and blustery winds, the temps felt really cold.

All bundled up for a day out in Helsinki

We forged ahead with a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Suomenlinna, a sea fortress accessed via a ferry ride. We walked around the area on uneven cobblestone paths and decided to head back to the mainland. Better to spend time walking around Helsinki, visiting the Helsinki Cathedral and the Rock Church.  The latter is a magnificent structure carved out of rock with such incredible acoustics that no amplification is required.

The enormous white Helsinki Cathedral serves ably as a guidepost for finding one’s way around as it is visible over the top of virtually every other building.  Finding our way back to the hotel was a cinch once the Cathedral was in view. Our traveling companion Julie Shuer joined us the second day so we caught up and, of course, did some shopping at the enormous Stockmann “store” — Helsinki’s version of Harrod’s although not as high-end. One could buy virtually any product under the sun there. After a few small purchases, we met up with the hubby and went to Juuli for dinner. It was at that point that I discovered I was without my wallet. Ugh. The only place it could be was back at Stockmann, now closed for the night. I asked the hotel concierge what the chances were of getting the wallet back; he assured me that it was nearly 100% if found in the store.

In front of Helsinki Cathedral
Waterfront of Helsinki

My track record is pretty pristine while traveling — almost no lost items.  I usually leave my wallet in the safe (with the passports) but obviously not this time. Fortunately, the store opened at 9am; we were leaving on the 10:30 ferry for Tallinn.  I was there when the store opened.  Sure enough, there it was at Lost & Found completely intact — cash, credit cards, etc.  You gotta love the integrity of the Finns. I had a previous glimpse on the ferry when I dropped a glove and at least four people alerted me to that.  Thank you for your honesty!

Longtime friends & traveling companions.

The Viking Line “ship” for the 2+ hour ride across the Baltic Sea (Bay of Finland) was akin to a small cruise ship and much bigger than I expected.   Bingo, entertainment, slot machines and duty free shopping — really, can’t folks just sit for a bit?

Viking Xprs isn’t just for people.

The Tallinn accommodations were outstanding at the Swisshotel on the 22nd floor with an amazing view.  Modern and spacious with a bathroom I could take home with me.  Like many other European cities, the old town has a central area — town square — with shops and restaurants.  We enjoyed seeing the Tallinn synagogue which was built roughly 13 years ago.  We were told there are about 1500 Jews in Tallinn, and the synagogue has 100 families as members.  They boast the only Kosher restaurant in the city within the synagogue itself.

 

We had an outstanding meal at a restaurant called Tchaikovsky with terrific service, food and some pretty decent music while we dined.  It was a exquisite evening and they clearly are serious about the entire experience.  Next up:  getting our rental car and heading to Riga, Latvia — about four hours away.

Beautifully set tables at Tchaikovsky
Tuna tartare wrapped in cucumber
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TRAVELING TO EASTERN EUROPE AND RUSSIA (PART 1)

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It’s post-Tax-Season, 2018, which means just one thing for me and the hubby: And we’re off! Both of us are frequently asked where we are going next. Per the map below, our itinerary is Eastern Europe and Russia.  The route is counter-clockwise: fly to Helsinki; ferry to Tallin (Estonia); drive to Riga (Latvia), Klaipeda and Vilnius (Lithuania); train to Minsk (Belarus); fly to Moscow and finally train to St. Petersburg (Russia).

Eastern Europe/Russia Trip Route

Once we get to Tallinn, traveling to the various stops is easy; each one no more than a couple of hours from the other. With a rental car, the travel is flexible and the time-line is our own. The flight from Minsk-Moscow is only 90 minutes. Therefore the longest journey within these three weeks is the train ride from Moscow to St. Petersburg (less than four hours via high speed train). This trip is your basic “planes, trains and automobiles plus a ferry” with a great deal of travel to experience.

Similar to the beginning of our trip last year in India, we are delighted to welcome a traveling companion.  This time it is longtime friend, Julie Shuer!  Beverly-Hills based Julie is flying to Helsinki from Tel Aviv (her second home) to join us for about a week, or through our stay in Vilnius.

As I have done in the past, the trip will be covered in a series of consecutive (numbered) posts. There’s always a lot to write about from my POV; hence, look forward to hearing both the good plus any unforced errors (always possible) along the way.

I can report I had terrific communications with various hotels from home before we left. Items like transportation awaiting us upon arrival (particularly important in Moscow & St. P); advance bookings for must-not-miss restaurants, museums and the Bolshoi Ballet(!); and a Lithuanian guide who will escort us to the Bialosky family roots in two small towns along the way to Vilnius and at that stop — all confirmed.

I love hearing about your experiences too. Let me know which of these destinations you’ve been to. A great many of you have been on a Baltic sea cruise, including the the typical stops in Helsinki, St. P, Tallin and Klaipeda. I consulted cruise line itineraries for our route — why reinvent the wheel, if you know what I mean.

Happy to say we arrived at the beautiful Hotel Kamp in Helsinki.  Not without the usual drama .. right up to the day prior to departure and the Russian Visas (long story still unfolding) and then there was the transfer in Paris.  Suffice it to say,  I was THE LAST PERSON to make the Finnair flight, and would have missed it altogether without the coordination and good graces of the hubby, pilot and head purser.  How does one’s carry-on get scanned with flying colors for the first three checkpoints, only to then have all my meticulous packing/organizing summarily dismantled and everything taken out and “reorganized” as I’m minutes from missing the flight?  The words “don’t take no for an answer” were never more fitting.

“No, you can’t get on the plane” said the first check-in person which a supervisor ultimately overruled; “no, your wife is not going to make it” said the gate person which the pilot and purser overruled (no, the hubby was NOT leaving without me).   That stop in Paris was a 90-minute cardio workout if ever there was one…

 
First flight above (to Paris); second flight below (to Helsinki).
Booked with AA miles.
I love checking out different airlines.
Will we fly them again? (ATN not likely; Finnair – Yes!)
Finally, look who made it all the way to Helsinki …  My duck!  I use her as my rating system (4 ducks = nirvana).  Let’s see where else she pops up.  The hotel was nice to provide a companion, but I think one traveling duck is enough.  And mine’s cuter.