Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Vibrant Vyborg

A small city in northwestern Russia very close to the border of Finland, Vyborg was once a member of the Hanseatic League of trading cities of northern Europe. The picture above is of a statue of a moose in the largest park in downtown Vyborg.

After a long period of decay, Vyborg is once again showing signs of life. With many buildings that remain from the Middle Ages, when it changed hands between Sweden, Finland and Russia, it is a nice place to stop when travelling from Helsinki to St. Petersburg.
I stopped in Vyborg for lunch once at the end of the Soviet era, and at that time the city seemed very dispirited. I remember seeing an old man walking along carrying a load almost too heavy for him on his shoulders in a heavy downpour, and thinking that he embodied the long-suffering Russian people then.
The main attraction of the city is Vyborg Castle, which dates from the 13th century and is open to visitors for a small fee. It is the site of medieval re-enactments and has a small museum. Also worth a visit is the medieval round tower in the city center that is now a folkloric restaurant with tasty food and sometimes entertainment. The market nearby is a good place to buy handicrafts from the area at reasonable prices. Some of them are similar to what can be found in Finland, since Vyborg was incorporated into Russia only in 1944. There are interesting Russian Orthodox and Lutheran churches, and pleasant parks. One park downtown contains the city's library, a monument of modern architecture created by Alvor Aalto--the wavy wooden ceiling in the auditorium is considered especially interesting.
Vyborg has several good hotels, but checking the ones I could find online I could not find an available date in summer to get a price. This is a good warning to book ahead if you plan to visit this summer, when Vyborg welcomes many tourists, especially from Finland. For information on the city, consult http://www.city.vbg.ru/.
In a subsequent post I'll tell you about a specialized school I visited in Vyborg. Below is the medieval round tower.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Musings from Siberia

The following is a page from the travel journal I tried to keep in Russia. I wasn't very successful because the trip was demanding and usually at the end of a long day I just crashed.
"Here in wonderful, wild Siberia. Had dinner last night in the apartment of a noted and recently deceased artist. It was filled with colorful paintings and had a view to Lake Baikal and the snow-capped mountains beyond. Just below the apartment building many small boats are anchored in a marina on the river.
"My room in (a different) house looks out on the Angara River also, but across empty fields. The Angara is the only river that flows out of Lake Baikal, we learned. There is a small guard house just below my window."
So you don't get the wrong idea, the guard was hired to keep intruders out, not to keep people in. It wasn't THAT kind of visit to Siberia. In fact, I have not heard of any tours of the gulag in Siberia. If there are tours of slums in Brazil and South Africa, and of Nazi concentration camps, can gulag tours be far behind? There's a possible entrepreneurial opportunity.
In fact, we heard very little about the gulag on our Siberian tour--perhaps it is all too recent in the memory of locals. Understandably, they want to emphasize the positive aspects of this vast, mysterious region. Below is the view from my room toward the Angara River.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Moscow plus Four Years

It may have been my imagination, but I thought the traffic in Moscow earlier this month was not quite so bad as it had been on my last visit in 2007. There were no instances of traffic coming to a total standstill, as had happened frequently before. Perhaps it was because I was in a different part of the city, mainly east and southeast instead of northwest. Or perhaps it was because home for me is Montreal, a city that is suffering through the worst traffic woes I have ever seen this summer on account of crumbling bridges, roads and sewers.
There also seemed to be fewer building cranes in Moscow than I saw earlier, and I noticed that the enormous cavern next to Red Square that used to be the Roosiya Hotel is still vacant, with no sign of activity. If such a prime space is left empty, Russia's economy must not be quite so robust as I thought it was.
However, there are also signs of improvement. The domestic air terminal Sheremeteyevo 1 is clean, pleasant and efficient. Even the bathrooms were marble and sparkling clean, quite a change from the usual Russian public bathroom. Domodedevoyo Airport south of the city center also seemed to be relatively clean and well-organized, better than Sheremeteyevo 2 in the northwest. Both are a long expensive taxi ride from downtown and Metro connections, while they exist, are not convenient, particularly if you are tired after a long flight.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hotel Vladimir, Vladimir, Russia

A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to stay for two nights at the Hotel Vladimir in one of the major cities of Moscow's Golden Ring. The Golden Ring, which has long been on my list of top places to see, is a group of old Russian cities located mainly northeast of Moscow. Vladimir is a relatively large city for the area, and for the better part of two centuries in the Middle Ages it was the capital of Russia.

Today it boasts three world heritage sites according to UNESCO--two cathedrals and the Golden Gates of Vladimir, part of the ancient fortifications of the city. It is unfortunately also well known for its high security prison, which has housed noted inmates like Vassily Stalin, son of Joseph, and Anatoly Sharansky, a well-known dissident in Soviet times. The prison is still operating today and according to our guide has recently been the subject of a documentary film for National Geographic.

The Hotel Vladimir is probably the best place to stay in town. It is low rise and older, with wide corridors, nice hallway carpets and pleasant rooms. It has the sumptuous breakfast buffet that hotels in this part of the world seem to offer as a matter of course. Rooms are clean and pleasant, but if you visit in summer ask for a room facing toward the rear. The main street of the city is just outside, and you will want to open the window because there is no air conditioning.

I made a note that prices in Vladimir are lower than in Moscow, but that does not apply to this hotel. In fact, for dates in June I found a quote online of $82 for a single, $96 for a double, higher than rates at the Alpha Hotel in Moscow.

I suspect the note about lower prices referred to souvenirs, which are everywhere in these small towns and cities.

One of the difficulties with visiting the Golden Ring is that you really need to travel by car or tour bus to see some of the most interesting places, and if you do, Vladimir is a reasonably central base camp.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Not your mother's Aeroflot

I recently flew on Aeroflot Russian airlines (http://www.aeroflot.com) from Moscow to Irkutsk and back, and was pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness and newness of the plane, as well as the service. Best of all, all announcements were bilingual in Russian and English.
I did suffer a little nostalgia for the good/bad old days of Aeroflot when a surly unilingual air hostess pushed my travel companion down in her seat when she tried to go to the washroom while the seat belt sign was illuminated. In Soviet times Aeroflot was an accurate introduction to the difficulties foreign visitors were likely to experience on the ground. Today, though, the airline is thoroughly modern. My only complaint was that I could not figure out how to order an alcoholic beverage in economy class. I think the drill is you have to order and pay for it in advance of the meal, but I'm not sure. Another change is that Aeroflot no longer serves Canada, so there is no non-stop flight from Montreal to Moscow as there used to be.
I flew in a comfortable Airbus, and on its Website the airline boasts that its fleet which consists of both Airbus and Boeing aircraft, is among the newest in Europe. No more lurching Turpolevs, and at least on the Irkutsk route, no more scrambling for seats because seats were often unassigned and overbooked.
The flight to Irkutsk is long, six hours, but proved to be smooth and I felt a sense of security knowing that if any problem did arise, we were over land and for most of the trip there was little on the ground to hit except for trees.
Aeroflot is advertising special fares on some routes within Russia, including a return fare as low as 2,000 rubles (about $75) to Mineralnye Vody in southern Russia, a spa town and gateway to the fractious Caucuses region.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Moscow Hotel Bargain

Last week during a visit to Moscow I spent several nights at the Alpha Hotel, part of the Izmailovsky Park complex of hotels. This is a large but pleasant hotel that caters to tour groups big and small, and the cost of my room, which included an enormous and tasty breakfast buffet, was included in my tour price. When I checked the price online, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the cost of a room at this time of year starts at only $77. Checking prices for September, I found that they were higher, but still as low as $102 per night. The summer price is about half what I paid last time I was in Moscow in 2007, for a hotel situated equally far from the center.
Rooms at the Alpha are basic but very clean, and mine had a tub, hard to find even in Russian homes. The Alpha, which is part of a five hotel complex comprising 7,500 rooms, keeps to the old Soviet system of having an attendant on each floor. You are supposed to leave your room key with her when you leave, and she also keeps track of the minibar and telephone charges. Long distance rates were moderate--about $10 for a five or six minute call to North America.
One big advantage of the Alpha is its location, literally just across the street from a Metro station. The station is listed on my Metro map as Park Izmailovsky, but now seems to be known mainly as Partizanskaya, and it connects directly to the stations near Red Square downtown. Another plus is that it is next to a very large park and to the Izmailovsky souvenir market, an ornate Disneyesque place with turreted buildings that is reputed to have some of the best prices in Moscow for souvenirs. Unfortunately the market is open only on weekends.
With such bargain room prices (for Moscow) there had to be a drawback to this hotel, and there is, especially for summer visitors. Rooms are not air-conditioned, and it looks as if the city is in for another very hot summer. If you leave the windows open for air at night, it can be hard to sleep because of traffic noise--rooms on higher floors are better. I was so tired because of the fast pace of my tour that I didn't have much trouble sleeping, but it is a consideration.
Rates quoted above are from the Website http://www.moscow-hotels.net.

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Monday, June 06, 2011

Amazing Siberia

I just returned from three weeks in Russia, including my first visit to Siberia, storied land of suffering and exile. I can report that there is a lot more to the place than those old tales, however true and valuable they may be.
Irkutsk, capital of eastern Siberia, is a booming cityof about 600,000 inhabitants with lots of traffic and new building. Made famous by the Dekabrist revolutionaries of 1825, it has long been considered the pearl of this vast, underpopulated region. The noble revolutionaries of the 19th century and their wives who voluntarily joined them in exile brought cultrue to this remote, forbidding area. Some of the mansions they built here still survive, along with numerous old churches and even a large Roman Catholic church built by Polish exiles.
Today Irkutsk is home to a large academic community and appears to be benefitting from some of the wealth generated by Russia's oil, gas and mineral development. There is still poverty, but the general mood seems upbeat.
I travelled to Irkutsk as part of a tour organized by Friendship Force, (http://www.friendshipforce.org) an international organization that brings together diverse groups of people who visit one another's homes. My host in Siberia was very generous and welcoming and did a lot to make my stay very pleasant. The same applied to a different host in St. Petersburg. I'll tell you more about the trip with pix in the coming weeks.

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