June 5-7, 2002
Morning came early, even though 8:30 really doesn't seem like it should be such an early hour. I hit my snooze button several times before finally deciding that there were things to be done.
After pulling myself together, I went downstairs to find out about the hotel's Internet connection capabilities. None of my service providers have Russian dialup numbers, so I had to call Germany last night to connect. The hotel guide pamphlet in my room said the hotel provided an alternate solution, and that I could obtain further information at the desk.
When I got to the desk this morning, I asked about this. The answer: "The information is in your room." Of course, my room had sent me to them. After looking around in various drawers for a while, the clerk was able to provide me with a sheet of instructions that provided a simple method for setting up a connection with local provider ... and it is MUCH less expensive that having to make international hotel modem calls!
With that number one priority out of the way, I went up to the hotel's superb breakfast buffet. In addition to the "good stuff" - salmon, tomatoes, herring, cucumbers, and so forth - a wide variety of cereals, juices and the dreaded artery-clogging stuff is also available. Indeed, since we really missed both lunch and dinner yesterday, I went back after the usual Scandinavian fare and had a couple slices of bacon and some great roasted mushrooms.
While we generally explore cities using our own devices, in Saint Petersburg we're going to be shown the city and its environs by a local tour guide. We met Alla in the lobby at 10:30, and she ushered us into her van. As we rolled through the streets of the city, she told us all about its history.
Our first stop was St Isaac's Square, where we saw the exterior of the cathedral with the same name, plus a statue of Peter the Great on a horse, ringed below by his daughters. We also stopped at the river, where we were able to see many notable buildings and get a feel for this part of the city's layout. From there, we drove onto the city's first island, where Peter I built the Peter & Paul Fortress that was the city's original structure in 1703. Peter designed it as a defense against the Swedes, but he had already defeated them by the time the fortress was completed. It wound up being used primarily as a prison until 1917.
Contained within the Peter & Paul Fortress is the Peter & Paul Cathedral; contained within the Cathedral are the remains of all of Russia's Czars from Peter the Great until the revolution (except Peter II and Ivan VI). Like many other buildings in the city, the Cathedral is undergoing renovations in anticipation of St Petersburg's 300th birthday next year. Thus, its towers - including the bell tower, which remains the tallest structure in the city - are shrouded in scaffolds.
Outside the cathedral is a statue of Peter the Great, showing the strange proportions of his tall body and his little head. We walked past it and out to the waterfront. On the way back to our van, a sign told us all the things we shouldn't do in the fortress, and a license plate frame seemed to reflect a touch of Americana.
We then proceeded to the Hermitage. This is the most remarkable gallery in the world! The rooms are spectacular, and the number of masterworks by famous artists is simply amazing. The facility goes on and on forever, and we barely scratched the surface. We might have to return for a further look at some point before our departure.
We entered the museum through the Winter Palace, which is the largest part of the Hermitage, and we proceeded up the Jordan Staircase to the first large room with its golden columns. We went on to the next room, and then to many, many more rooms. The quantity and quality of the art here is unsurpassed; the rooms themselves are beautiful and wonderfully arranged to facilitate viewing of the paintings and sculptures.
After the tour was complete, we went outside to wait for our van. I returned with Robin and Stephani to the hotel for lunch. We ate in the Mezzanine Café, with the hotel's skylight far above us. We were tired and hungry, and so we went with simply sandwiches on baguettes. Then Stephani and Robin went out to shop ... and I came upstairs to type this!
It's now nearly 18:00, which is our appointed time to assemble for ballooning. It appears that we won't be able to fly over the city because of the weather, so we'll head out to the countryside and try there. Afterwards, I imagine there will be a late dinner ... and then another late night. I'll keep you posted.
Later: When I said "the countryside," I expected fields and forests. I did not expect that we would be launching from the courtyard of the Catherine Palace at Pushkin. It was an amazing location and an amazing flight.
We arrived at the Catherine Palace, and although we could see an airship already set up inside the courtyard, the main gate was closed and we couldn't figure out how to gain entrance. Eventually we obtained instructions, and we drove into the courtyard from a side gate.
The Catherine Palace is beautiful, and being inside the courtyard took our communal breath away. As the airship took off and flew over the palace, the three non-corkscrew balloons began their inflation process. Then it was time for our crew to begin the inflation of Corkscrew-Balloon III (also known as The Screwmaids).
Because this is nominally a "balloon festival," we had four balloons and an airship flying tonight. The airship completed its flight first, and then all four balloons took off. As we rose from the courtyard and drifted away, the evening sun cast our balloon's shadow across the walls of the Catherine Palace.
Our flight was beautiful, primarily over forests and fields. The most noteworthy aspect of it was our own amazement at the fact that we were actually ballooning over Russia.
We landed in a large grassy field with thousands of dandelions that had gone to seed. We drifted for several dozen yards, skimming mere inches above the ground, so low that the basket knocked the tops off the dandelions and sent the little parachute seeds everywhere. When the crew grabbed our landing ropes and stopped our progress, they too cleared a path in the dandelions as they were dragged through the field. After packing up our equipment and being treated to a short fashion show by Mike, we climbed into the Previas and headed back to the hotel.
Even the main highways around here are littered with bumps and potholes. Our landing site was in a very remote field, and the road (if you can even call it that) that we had to traverse in order to reach the highway provided us with the bumpiest ride of our lives. Still, how could we not be fabulously happy after the day we had?
We returned to the hotel after midnight; it was just beginning to get dark. Now it's after 1:00, and I've got a club sandwich from room service that I'd better go consume as a bedtime snack. Tomorrow will come soon, with its own new set of adventures.
It's really hard to keep you informed of our activities, because we're so busy! Immediately after a quick breakfast, we head off on our sightseeing itinerary with our super guide, Alla. Today she dropped us off at the hotel at 17:00, at which point there was a little time to have lunch and to do anything else that needed to be done (such as transferring digital photos from the Compact Flash card to the notebook computer). Then, at 19:00, we headed out to our launch site. After our flight, we got back to the hotel at about 1:20 ... and then we ordered room service dinner. Bed at 2:30 or 3:00.
Throughout our adventures, we're all snapping a lot of pictures, so there will eventually be more thorough documentation here. For now, though, here are a few highlight photos, though, to give you an idea of what we did.
The fountains and palace of Peterhof:
Our evening flight, again from the Catherine Palace:
The weather did not allow us to fly today, but there was plenty of sightseeing to fill our calendar!
Our primary stop was the Yusupov Palace, the site of Grigory Rasputin's demise. According to legend, it required poison, several rounds of ammunition, and drowning before the monk's light was extinguished. It all took place at a secret dinner meeting in the Palace on a night back on December 15, 1916. The various rooms where the killers and the killed met have been reconstructed in wax, and we were able to visit and stand in those very rooms and look at the figures just as they appeared on that fateful night.
Next: More Saint Petersburg