The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball


200 years ago – with troops massing all thru Europe, and Napoleon fighting for the life of France – the Duchess of Richmond decided to have a ball in Brussels.

According to our informed source – so many people wanted to attend the ball – it was held in a barn!

Fast forward 200 years – and with re-enactors massing all around Brussels – the ‘Duchess’ is holding her ball again – and of course we must attend.

Word has gone out that French uniforms will not be acceptable – and gentlemen and their ladies must dress properly. The Ball will include a lovely sit-down dinner, hosted by the ‘Duchess’ and her consort – and of course ‘Wellington’ and his officers will be in attendance.

We are booked into the ‘Salve’ BnB – with in easy walking distance of the Chateau where the Ball will be held. Our friend – the Saper – is joining us – we shall be attending the ball together.

We dress for the occasion – and I must admit – we look quite fine! My seamtress has done a wonderful job on my gown, and my escorts look dashing in their top hats, canes, and dancing shoes. We look so good that one of our hostess’s neighbors comes over to see what is happening and insists on taking pictures. Our hostess even provides us with a carriage ride for the short distance – and we make our proper entrance to the Ball. The company is fine and beautifully dressed. And the Chateau is magnificant.

Properly dressed waiters in period wigs serve everyone champagne and hors d’oeuvres – and we gossip and chat till Wellington arrives. He invites us to join him on the veranda for a fife and drum concert, performed splendidly by a troop from the loyal Colonies.

They march in, perform to the attention and applause of all, and then we mount the stairs for a splendid dinner.

Our dinner companions are Dance Masters from the Colonies, a wonderful couple from the Prussian Allies, the ‘Saper’, and a Spanish Couple who enterain us all with tales of the problems Spain is having with both Louie Boneparte and their herditary King. To their minds, neither is worth the uniform they wear!

After dinner, it is time for the ball proper to begin. While my dance card is hardly full – I do have the first few dances claimed – and I hope to find partners for them all.

We begin with a traditional Polonaise – which gives us all the opportunity to check out the other dancers, and to admire the gowns of the other ladies. There are some stunning gowns, and to be honest, I suffer a bit from gown envy. Where do they find such lovely materials to work with – I shall definitely have to have a word with my two seamstresses – The Regency version of keeping up with “The Jones’s ”

The dances roughly alternate between Long line dances and Quadrilles. I of course try to dance them all – but it is a challenge to hear the Dance Master over the hubub in the room. Several times – in several languages – he asks for people not interested in dancing to retire to the sitting areas – or to make use of the terrace, but I suspect that watching the dancing is simply too much fun!

Suddenly the dancing is interrupted by a young man in uniform accompanied by two Prussian officers in muddy traveling cloaks. They run into the room – calling for the attention of Wellington! He hands him a message – and Wellington reads the note to himself and then informs us that Napoleon has ‘humbug’d’ him – and is even now approaching the city! Women gasp white the officers in attendance grab their hats and swords and promptly follow Wellington out of the room.

The remaining dancers finish the dance, but clearly the mood is no longer one of gaiety and laughter – war has come too quickly upon us.

We make our way to the cloakroom – and head back to our lodging. Tomorrow we are off to the Bivouac.

Signing off to put on her uniform and prepare for battle – The Soup Lady.

Picking up the last few pieces in St. Petersburg


We’ve done 2 to 3 museums a day since we arrived in St. Petersburg – and still have 3 more to see! First on our list is the Museum of Applied Art and Decorative Design.
Click here to see some great photos!

Described as oft overlooked – and well worth a visit – we pin-point it on the map and head out. The building is actually a school of Applied Art – and classes must be finishing up for the term. There are students everywhere – clearly getting marked on their final projects. The museum itself is interesting, but the lack of English signs has us guessing on the exact use of many of the objects. But perhaps their usefulness wasn’t really the point – it’s the level of expertise in design that would appeal to this particular crowd.

The museum was created by a rich industrialist just before the turn of the century – around 1870 – and has, like most of Russia and St. Petersburg, suffered from hard times. Like all the other museums, art was hidden away – first from the Germans – and later from the Soviets. Only now, with “The Thaw” has the work come out of hiding, and been put on display. We admire the ceramic stoves – essential for surviving a St. Petersburg winter, and can’t believe the quality of fabrics over 100 years old.

After visiting the museum, and wandering freely thru the classrooms – we visit the attached art store – and after selecting paintings ranging from $500 to $10,000 – I opt to buy some rather nifty pieces, priced right at $50 each. The art store owner tosses in some prints as well – and we leave happy with our purchases.

Our next stop is either the Museum of Zoology (they have a full whale skeleton) or the Menshikov Palace. Since I’m alone on being interested in whale bones – we opt for the Palace. Built in 1711 – it was the first stone building in St. Petersburg, and is currently decorated in the style known as Petrine Baroque. This much more understated style is in contrast to that of all the other Palaces, which have been restored to a more giltery style from 50 to 60 years later.

Interesting place – I’m not sorry we went, but it’s definitely not on the must see list.

Tonight is our last kick at the can for Theatre – and we’re seeing Don Quixote – the Ballet – not the movie or the opera! And it is something special. Yes – again there are the fab sets, the amazing costumes, the glorious music. But I do think the leads this time are the very very very best we’ve seen! The male role was made famous by Rudolf Nureyev, and while again – I’m no specialist – I thought the male lead we watched fly around the stage was clearly amazing.

Sitting behind us in the nose-bleed section were a class of young (about 12 years old) ballerinas. Clearly inspired by what they saw – you couldn’t ask for better audience members. They clapped and clapped – enjoying every minute.

Wonderful ending for a wonderful day.

Tomorrow is a travel day – we’re going to quickly do some souvenier shopping, then head out to catch the flight to Belgium.

Saying good night – and goodbye to Russia

The Soup Lady and The Intrepid Traveler.

Communal Living – Soviet Style – Still happening in St. Petersburg


During the Cold War days – finding housing in St. Petersburg was virtually impossible – so many families ended up in communal flats – one appartment shared by 2 or 3 or more families – one shared kitchen, one shared bathroom – but seperate bedrooms.

Why do I bring this up? It turns out that this life style still happens in St. Petersburg. Even though the housing crisis has long since eased up – owning your own flat is simply beyond the possible for many families – particularly if the parents are divoriced, or you are not sure you’ll be staying in the city, or you are a student. Our new friend proudly announced that she had just managed to get her own flat – and her son is 9.

We managed to experience Communal living – St. Petersburg style – personally – not by choice however.

When we arrived at the MIR hostel and discovered it was 5 very long, very hard flights up and had to change, we also knew that the Suricata couldn’t host us for the last night (the 11th) of our stay. They had previous bookings – and we were not willing to share a bunk room with strangers.

So the manager of the Suricata – Sergey – arranged for us to stay in another hostel for the last 2 nights of the stay. He even helped us move our luggage – and to give him full credit – called each night to be sure we were fine. Our new landlady spoke no English – and he was concerned.

He didn’t need to be – sometimes you can manage to communicate even if you actually have no words in common. I learned she had an altar to her dead husband, discovered she was from the Crimera and I found out that she’d only been managing this ‘hostel’ for 3 days.

She worked hard every night scrubing and cleaning, and supervised two ‘workers’ – who were being paid to do the painting and repair work. She was always up before we were – and went to bed much later.

The physical space definitely had it’s issues. The hostel is on 2 floors – each one has a kitchen and a bathroom. But since each floor sleeps 10 people at least – we’re talking 1 bathroom per 10 people. And unlike the Suricata – the shower is in the bathroom – so one person taking a shower – no one is going pee! I’m thinking that it’s a good thing that a) it’s still under construction, so the entire 2nd floor is off limits – and 2 of the 5 ‘bedrooms’ is unoccupied. We had no issues – but it did make me worried.

There was no WIFI, the kitchen was insanely small, the sink in the one bathroom was cracked, the shower on our floor had seen much, much better days, and the beds were so soft you couldn’t even sit on them without sinking down to the floor. The kitchen walls were badly in need of painting, which they were working on – so I feel a bit bad saying anything. The stairs in the hall leading up to the ‘hostel’ were cracked and sagging cement – a tad scary – but I figured they had held up this long – they should make it 2 more days!

Plus – there’s the communal living issue. One room of the flat was Tanya – the host’s – bedroom – another bedroom was occupied by a young girl attending school in St. Petersburg (clearly not a tourist), and the third room was ours. It was fairly obvious that having tourists was a completely unexpected surprise – and while they were very nice about making sure we were comfortable – some standard hostel attributes were missing. No common, no tea or coffee available, and limited cooking supplies. We all shared the one toilet – and tried politely to keep out of each other’s way. Tricky in a tiny kitchen with a table with only 2 chairs. The Intrepid Traveler is fairly sure that the other ‘guests’ didn’t have kitchen privileges – based simply on their never using them!

But we took it on the chin – the company was interesting, the location very good, and there was only 1 flight of stairs. Our kind of place!

After putting our stuff in the new hostel, we still had time for 2 museums – and a really good dinner for under $5 per person!

Our first stop was the Imperial House of Porcelain – where they have a simply amazing collection of Porcelain items – some made by the Imperial House – some coming from France, Germany, or even Great Britian. I particularly liked the ‘People’s of Russia’ series of huge ‘dolls’, carefully sculptured into dramatic poses – and wearing ‘clothes’ painted to resemble the traditional clothes from that region.

Our 2nd stop was the Andrew Nevsky Monestary – and while the church was very nice, we felt that visitng trhe graves of artists and composers like Dostoyevsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, etc. was back to that Russian streak of Macabre.

As we were leaving the Monestary – we spotted their ‘tea-room’ – and decided to check out their dinner offerings. I had a wonderful Borscht – I’m definitely getting addicted to this typically Russian beet soup – or maybe it’s just the sour cream. The Intrepid Traveler opted for one of those mystery meat balls with rice – it was yummy as well.

Well fed, and suitably ‘cultured’ – we head for the Mariinsky. Tonight we have tickets to Carmina Burna – and I’m excited. As well I should be – it’s perfect. Double orchestra, double choir, kids choir on the side for balance, 3 soloists – the only thing missing is the ballet component – but even the Mariinsky must have to compromise somewhere.

The concert is completely, totally, absolutely outstanding. Perfect. There is round after round of curtain calls – and we love it. The conductor decides that the audience deserves an encore – and from the stage calls for the orchestra to play and the singers to sing. More perfection!

Moral – if you find yourself going to St. Petersburg – immediately get tickets to the theatre. It’s worth every single penny.

And the 2nd dress circle – aka Balcony – is perfect. First row – as centered as possible. Stay away from the 3rd circle – it’s the highest balcony – and I got scared going to my seat. I couldn’t stand facing outwards to slide into my row – and had to file in facing the back wall of the Theatre. That’s scary!

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Avoid the crowds at the Hermitage – you won’t be sorry!


Upscale cafeteria with an open kitchen concept. Good Food - Reasonable prices. What's not to love?

Upscale cafeteria with an open kitchen concept. Good Food – Reasonable prices. What’s not to love?

View from the next to top level balcony - dramatic, awe-inspiring, amazing. I loved it.

View from the next to top level balcony – dramatic, awe-inspiring, amazing. I loved it.

The Hermitage – aka the Winter Palace – is arguably the most famous museum in the world. For us – it was the raison d’etre of our trip to St. Petersburg – and seeing it was a huge priority.

It turns out that this is true of almost every single visitor to St. Petersburg – and apparently all of them decided to visit the Hermitage on the same day we did.

I’m not kidding about the crowd. I couldn’t even estimate the number of people that filled the room with the Peacock Clock – but I will tell you that I got scared. Both the IT and I are fairly short – by any standard – but in Russia we are considerably undersized. So in a crowd – it’s easy to lose sight of each other – and where we are going. I quickly lost sight of IT – and barely could spot MP – who is easily a head taller than us both!

We made it across the room and decided – enough is enough. We are NOT going to continue following the crowd – we’ll visit ‘less visited’ sections – and circle back later in the day – audio guide in tow.

Great idea. We headed down – away from the packed in tour groups – and slowly wandered our ways thru rooms filled with Roman and Greek antiquities. Not covered by the audio-guide – these rooms – clearly much less visited – had prepared explanations in most languages – full of interesting details and tons of facts. So neat. There’s a Diamond Room down here – available only by tour-guide, and only for an additional fee. We’re going to do this another day.

The intriguing thing about the Hermitage – in addition to it’s outstanding collections, are the room decorations themselves. This was a sort of Palace for Catherine the Great – she came here to relax, and wanted the art that surrounded her to fit in to the room it was exhibited in. So there’s distinct Egyptian visual themes to the room with Egyptian antiquities, and she even had rooms copied from the Vatican made into walk ways and Galleries to display her German and Dutch works (Rubens was clearly a huge favorite of someone’s!). Glorious. Just Glorious.

By about 2:00 pm the tour groups have seen it, done it, and left. We have the museum more to our own – although hardly empty, and we can now enjoy the sections we missed. Where before we had to peer over 30 heads to admire 1 of the 2 original Leonardo Da Vinci paintings, now we can contemplate them in piece and quiet.

The cafeteria in the Hermitage is described in the guide book as dire – and I must say it lives down to it’s reputation. Memo to us – bring our own food tomorrow.

Finally even we must admit defeat. There is still literally dozens of more rooms (maybe over 200) to see – but our feet aren’t willing to take it any more.

We drag outselves out – and walk to the Fresh Market. This is another of those cafeteria type restaurants – I’ve never seen their like elsewhere – but they are hugely popular with the Russians judging by the number of Russian guests we see. You grab a tray – go to a station and order your meal. When it’s ready – sometimes within seconds – sometimes after a quick cook-off – you head for the cash. Upscale cafeteria with nice cutlery, real plates, and low prices.

We order freshly made noodles with meat – and sit down outside to enjoy both the fresh air – and the view of Nevsky Prospect – the main shopping avenue of St. Petersburg.

Very nice, very reasonable.

Now we must head back to the Theatre – this time we are in the ‘Old’ Mariinsky Theatre with it’s gilt and ornamentation. Like the new theatre, the sightlines are awesome, and while we’re in the upper decks – the stage is visually extremely close.

The Ballet this time is not nearly as ‘classic’ as Sleeping Beauty – Called the Fountains of Bakhahisarai, it’s an interesting story about a Polish girl who is kidnapped by a Tartar the night of her wedding (Polish dancing, Love scene). He kills her entire family (lots of amazing sword fighting, sabor duels, and slashing with pikes), falls in love with her, and carries her off as a captive to his home.

At home – (nice harum dancing to enjoy) – his top Concubine realizes she has been displaced – and manages to kill the interloper (stunning interplay between 2 incredibly talented primo ballerinas – then a great death scene). For this – she is put to death, and the Tartar mourns his lost loves (war dances to cheer him up fail to do the job).

The staging is completely amazing. Real spouting water fountains, dozens and dozens of dancers filling the stage (at one point – we counted over 100), glorious music – very well played, and of course the dancing.

Oh – the dancing. Not only are the soloist beyond reproach (is it possible to lift your leg that high? do that many spins when you are in the air? Leap that far? Carry that high? Fall forward onto your knees from an on-pointe position?) – but the ensembles are even more fun to watch. Even the lowest member of the ensemble would be considered amazing if they were to perform on our stage. No expense is spared on costuming – and from our vantage point the forming and re-forming of stars, loops, lines, etc. is wonderful to watch.

Much applause – lines at the toilets and the cloakroom, then It’s a taxi home again tonight.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and Friends

It wouldn’t be an Adventure if things didn’t go wrong


Our plans for today – a Monday – are fairly simple.

MP has a list of ‘must see’ items – among them the amber room at Catherine II’s Summer Palace in Pushkin. We get another rather late start, those lazy breakfast and sleeping in mornings are going to be the doom of us – and head out by metro/bus to Pushkin.

The directions, as per the Lonely Planet Guide book are simple. The Palace is only open from 12 to 2 for individual visitors – so arrive around 12.

Oh – how I wish I’d done some internet searching BEFORE venturing out to Pushkin.

Going by metro/bus wasn’t the fastest option – it took about an hour to get from our central location to the bus stop nearest the Palace. Part of that time was wasted trying to find the correct bus stop at the metro station. Fortunately, while people may not speak English – they are great with numbers and pointing – so we eventually end up in front of a MacDonalds – getting on the right bus!

We ride, and ride – the country side of the paintings we’d seen in the Russian Museum unrolling in front of our eyes. Pushkin is a town that grew up around the Tsar’s Palace, and it’s really a bedroom community for St. Petersburg. Lots of flats and square concrete buildings dating probably to the Soviet era. Landscaping is pretty pedestrian – clearly not a priority for the flat owners. Too bad too – with a bit of care these buildings might look quite nice. Today they look badly in need of a paint job and some basic concrete repair work.

Helpful souls on the bus push us off when we arrive at our destination. We walk around a corner – and there it is – in all it’s Russian dome glory! The garden that surrounds the palace looks amazing – but it is completely fenced off from us common types. Clearly you must enter from the palace ticket office.

As we walk towards the Palace, along a small creek that has been carefully scluptured with water falls and lava rocks, we notice the begining of bad news. There is a mob of people outside of the gate. Carefully lining up – no barriers, no controls – just huge long long lines.

As we get closer – we realize that there are 3 ticket booths – each with it’s own long line. We join the shortest (but not fastest unfortuantely) and then IT and MP go out hunting for lunch.

I wait patiently in line for their return.

Lunch consists of Russian Fast Food – mystery meat rolls in a yummy bread crust. I do enjoy these things – but I wish I had some Ketscup. They are really the predecessors of our Tourtiere – only hand sized!

Anyway – once MP and IT return, I decide to investigate further. It turns out that Lonely Planet was completely, utterly wrong. Things have drastically changed at Catherine II’s Summer Palace. Today you are given a time slot based on when you arrive at the ticket booth – and the slots range from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm. That’s all good – but we have theatre tonight – what times are they giving out now? Given the disorganized queuing process – 3 booths, 3 lines – worst queuing method ever – it’s not a surprise that there’s no sign saying what the next times to be distributed are. In fact – there’s no information – just endless queues. I’m totally reminded of some of the opening scenes in Robin William’s film – “Moscow on the Hudson”.

Finally I can’t take the lack of information any longer, and I go stand next to the exit line at our booth – and try to peer at someone’s ticket. Noticing my interest, they kindly ask if they can help – and I explain I’m trying to see what time slots are being assigned. 5:00 PM is the answer.

Won’t work. It’s 12:30 now – we are definitely not going to hang around the palace – you can’t even visit the garden until your time slot – and then miss ‘Sleeping Beauty’.

So we pack it in – no Amber room for MP today.

According to Lonely Planet – there is another palace, almost as nice, within a short bus ride of Catherine II’s monster. It’s called Pavlovsk – for Paul I. And it sounds really perfect. We walk back to the bus stop – and after several false starts – get on the right bus to Pavlovsk. After a ride quite a bit longer than we’d hope for – the bus actually takes us right to the ticket booth of the Palace. And there is no line. Perfect.

Oops – not so perfect. The palace is closed for Sanitary Cleaning. What? Not announced, not planned, not on the schedule – just – the palace is closed. A private tour guide is standing at the ticket booth giving grief to the poor defenseless ticket agent – who can only sigh, shake her head, and repeat – it’s closed.

Having few options – we decide to make the best of what is rapidly becoming a disaster – and at least visit the park.

The garden is lovely – no two ways about that. And it is huge. I keep thinking what an amazing place to ride horseback – or to wander in a lovely dress and a parasol. We are passed by a bride and groom in a horse drawn carriage – what a lovely day and place to celebrate your wedding. (sigh)

We enjoy the surroundings, then get back on the bus to head back to St. Petersburg. Seriously hungry by the time the bus meanders back to the metro stop, we opt to eat an early dinner/late lunch of rice with a meat sauce. Then it’s onto the metro and we head back downtown.

Thinking we had plenty of time – we get off at one of the downtown stations – and we plan our walk to include another of MP’s must sees – the Bronze Horseman. This iconic statue was made famous in a poem by Pushkin, and is the northern most anchor of a large public park. We wander past St. Issac’s Cathedral, admire the horseman, take photo’s of the Russian’s enjoying the garden around the horseman, admire the river, and than continue our walk towards the Theatre.

We thought that our Ballet began at 7:30 – and are surprised at how quiet the area around the new ‘Mariinsky’ was. Where are all the guests? The staff admitts us – points us to the cloakroom to deposit our back-packs – and then shows us the elevator (wow – an elevator). We get off on the 4th floor – but when we try to enter the theatre – the very pleasant hostess tells us that we can only stand. Surprised – we walk in – to discover that the ballet started at 7:00

Oops. It’s the middle of Act I – the child has been born, and the fairies are doing their dances. We sit on the steps (we couldn’t stand for even 10 minutes to be honest) – and watch in amazement at the spectacule. This is ballet as it should be. Even from the 4th level – we’re so close to the stage I feel like I could reach out and touch the dancers.

The ‘new’ hall is all blonde wood and muted colors – but unlike the concert hall in Montreal which also features a new design – here the acoustics are wonderful, and the dancing sublime.

Time flys by – we get to take our seats for act II, relax during Act III – but most enjoy Act IV. After the evil fairy is defeated – there is the wedding feast – and all the fairy tale characters – from Puss in Boots to Red Riding Hood and her wolf show up to celebrate the marriage. The dancing in this section is no longer the restrained classical style of the first acts – instead the dancers and the audience are caught up in the fun and delight of the fairy tale characters. Oh – such fun.

I haven’t seen much ballet – in fact I can’t remember the last ballet I saw. But it doesn’t take an expert to realize that this is ballet at a vastly surperior level. The ballet corp is both numerous and well trained – at one point we counted over 100 dancers on the stage. There were kids as well – all sorted by height, all dancing with a level of experience that is shocking for us to see. It is as if they have been dancing forever – and I suppose perhaps they have!

Perfectly sculptured legs, dramaticly high leg lifts, and men who leap and soar seemingly weightless fill the stage. We can’t help but be impressed, thrilled, delighted and pleased.

We leave the theatre promising ourselves not to arrive late the next night – and consider walking home. Nope – we’re wiped – Taxi it is. Problem – where do we live. I know where it is of course – but I have no address – certainly not one to give a taxi cab driver who speaks only a spattering of English.

Decision – take us to the Hermitage – we’ll walk from there.

He does – we do – and it’s bed time!

The host at the hostel is thrilled to see us – they didn’t realize we were going to the theatre – and had expected us back much much earlier. But all is well – and we’re wiped.

Signing off – MP, IT, and you know who… The Soup Lady!

The Magnificent Russian State Art Museum is definitely not to be missed!


Lonely Planet suggests seeing the Russian Museum on the afternoon of Day 4 in St. Petersburg – after you’ve spent the morning at Catherine’s Place in Pushkin.

Are they NUTS?

This huge monster of a drop dead fabulous art museum should never be squeezed into a space on Day 4. It’s right up there with every other top museum I’ve ever seen – glorious art, and amazingly beautiful rooms that in fact once functioned as rooms. And it is huge. The collection is so massive – that there are at least 4 other Palaces used to display bits and pieces, and probably a collection twice the size of what is on view put away in storage.

To say that we found it fascinating would be an understatement. And unlike the Hermitage (aka Winter Palace) – it’s not mobbed. In fact, it’s actually a bit hard to find the entrance. It’s an understated wooden door – quite near the Church of the Spilled Blood. So it was obvious to combine the two on the same day.

We left the hostel after a light breakfast, and walked the short distance to the Church of the Spilled Blood. This church is famous for being built over the exact spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, for having over 7000 sq. meters of mosiacs, and for going 1 million ruples (a huge sum at the time) over budget. And it is well worth the visit.

We opted for the audio tour – which not only described the assassination in great detail, it also drew our attention to many of the intricacies of the mosaics that we would have otherwise missed.

Upon existing the church – we were quite literally at the door step of the Russian Museum – our next stop. Inside the museum and directly across from the entrance was a rather lovely cafe where we enjoyed a quick lunch before we braved the intricacies of Russian Art.

Wow – who knew that Russian Art was so amazing. I particularly loved the art from 1900 onwards – as Russia went thru it’s revolutions, wars, and hid behind the iron curtain, its artists were producing amazingly beautiful pieces of art – and who knew? The art from Russia that I saw as a child was what the then Russian government wanted me to see – but it was hardly representative of what was actually happening. Cubism and Surealism had found their way East – and quite the impression they made too.

But there was more – so much more! In addition to wonderful art, there are the rooms of the justifiably impressive Mikhailovsky Palace. We ran short of time – We had originally thought to do an English language boat tour tonight – that’s going to have to wait – but we also have reservations for a Geogian Restaurant – and that’s going to have to happen!
We quick march back to the entrance to the Russian Museum, gather our back-packs – and head out on our way to dinner. We walk past the front of the Palace – ya know, I think that might be the main entrance… – past the Mikhailosky Theatre (we’ll be back) – and to our restaurant of choice – the Aragvi. We’d ventured in the day before to check it out – tiny, cozy, priced ok – and it looked yummy.

We were welcomed graciously – and seated at a lovely table with a view over the canal. Based on my husband’s experience in Russia – I ordered a jug of Geogian Wine – and the very knowledgeable waiter proceeded to explain the menu to us. He recommended two starter dishes – a ‘fried’ chicken in a prune and spice sauce, and a dish described as dough stuffed with cheese.

Not sure about the portion sizes, we opted to have the wine and these 2 starters – and decide on the rest of dinner later.

Great plan! The 2nd dish was a huge huge pizza shaped dough stuffed with delicious cheese. By the time we’d drunk the wine and eaten the 2 starters – we were full! Stuffed even. So we opted to skip the main course and go to dessert. We shared one dessert among the 3 of us – a sampler of Georgian dry pastries that was also excellent.

Rolling out around 10:30 – meals take time in Russia apparently – we walk back home.

Nice dinner, nice day – great company. I’m begining to really like St. Petes.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and her travel buds – MP and IT

Carnival Time in Berlin – Who Knew?


I couldn’t have planned the timing of our trip to Berlin better if I had tried – but I’m ahead of myself a bit. I’ll back-track and then move forward in time sequence.

Our landing in Berlin at the smaller airport of Schoenfield was uneventful – luggage arrived, bus to metro organized – no problems at all.

We opted to take the bus in all the way to Hermannplatz – we could have switched to the Metro – but riding the bus gave us time to get a feel for the outer limits of Berlin – probably the only time we’ll actually see where ‘real’ people live!

Once we arrived at Hermannplatz – finding the Cat’s Pajama’s hostel was also simple. And what a lovely hostel it is too. And yes – Pet very very friendly! But that doesn’t bother us a bit.

Our room is a small, but a very nicely located double -on the third floor with shower en-suite – Overall – it compares nicely to more expensive places – it even has a 27″ flat screen TV (not that we’ve even turned it on yet). First time I’ve seen that in a hostel. And at least every other day maid service. In a Hostel! Top that Marriot.

As expected – there’s a huge kitchen, 3 full fridges for people to store their food in – and there’s a party happening tonight. Free bratwurst and Free beer – all you can eat and drink.

Nice way to be welcomed to Berlin, eh?

Turns out that this is the start up to Whit Sunday – or Pentacost. The Intrepid Traveller knew this was a big deal in the Catholic Church – what we didn’t know is that it’s a big deal in the Hermannplatz area. Once a year – on this Sunday – there is a huge – huge – huge Parade! It starts at noon on Sunday – and lasts till 9:30 in the evening. Over a million people will be watching. And it all happens right outside the door to our hostel. It’s a diversity parade – if you have a group – you can join. The ‘floats’ and I use that term very generously – range from wagons pulled by the participants to highly decorated vans and trucks. The music is loud and raucous – the dancers in many cases barely clad. Head dresses and tail feathers with thongs of various sizes were the norm – not the exception. There were groups of drum core teams, there were lots and lots of folks representing various Native tribes – from all parts of the world. Africa, South America – you name it.

It was the Berlin version of Mardi Gras on a penny-wise budget – but playing to an audience of over a million. The Intrepid Traveller and I can’t think of anything in Montreal that would pull such a crowd.

Before the parade started – we had to go to church of course. I picked the Cathederal of Berlin – I mean – why not. And we picked High Mass. So we were treated to a full orchestra, a choir of about 30 young ladies and a male soloist, the church organ with it’s over 7000 pipes, the current arch-bishop of Berlin, 5 more priests, countless alter boys and girls, enough incense to full the huge church – and confirmation!

It dawned on me about 1/2 way thru that the only way to really enjoy church music is when it is played to an audience of devotees. And it is glorious. The building resonated with the music – the audience hung on every note. Magnificant.

So – Pentacost services, Carnival Parade – and for dinner – Doner and Pizza. Hey – it’s Berlin.

Signing off to plan tomorrow’s adventures.. The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveller.

The Basics on Getting Out and About – Pre-Planning matters!


How do you start planning a trip? Do you decide when, pick a place – and then find out what’s going on there? Or do you do the reverse – decide what you want to do – find out when it’s happening – and then move foward?

I take a combo approach.

First step – Pick some place interesting to visit. That’s the most random part for me – because basically anywhere I’ve never been – and sometimes places I have been – are on the hot list. Budget matters too of course – we’re very restricted – $3000 for 4 to 5 weeks of travel – including air fare – doesn’t leave a lot of room for places to sleep and food to eat. So Cheap places tend to perk up to the top of our list – seriously expensive to visit places – like London – tend to perk down. But there are other concerns besides value for our Canadian bucks.

We love interesting places – historical places – places off the more beaten paths. While that may explain China in 2007 and Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in 2005 – it doesn’t explain Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Brussels in 2015. Nope – this next trip is not off the beaten path – but it will deviate from the norm in terms of how long we’ll be staying in each city.

Unlike most of the folks I’ve chatted with – we’re spending 2 whole weeks in St. Petersburg. Our inital thought was to have enough time to do the Hermitage slowly – 4 days felt right to us based on our inital reading. This contrasts with the more normal visit of 1/2 day if you are off a cruise ship – or even 3 days as is described in many guide books – including Tripadvisor.com. Honestly – how can you possibly see anything in 3 days in a city as complex as St. Petersburg? On tripadvisor – the 3 day plan puts the Hermitage, the Faberge Museum, and the State Russian Museum – all in one day. Are you supposed to run thru the museums? Just find the greatest hits and go?

Not my style.

Berlin was a must do for the Intrepid Traveller – she’s never been – and historically it’s a really interesting place. Great museums too – so win win as far as we’re concerned. A week there is the minimum. But then – for us – a week in a city is pretty much a minimum regardless of the city!

And last but not least – Brussels. We’re cutting that one short – just 5 nights – but the Battle of Waterloo looms large – and I hear the trumpets calling me to battle! (More on Waterloo and fighting for the Emperor in another blog).

So on to inital planning.

Once The Intrepid Traveller and I had agreed on where – it was a question of when. I first check weather, and then check for when a place gets crowded. I want to avoid the worst weather, and I definitely want to avoid high season. Shoulder seasons work best for budget travellers – restaurants have better specials, theatre offerings are more geered towards locals, lower cost housing is easier to find.

High season is definitely to be avoided!

So – St. Petersburg in late spring sounded perfect. And we totally lucked out with that option – because low and behold – there’s the ‘White Night’ Festival. We here in Montreal know all about ‘Blanc Nuit’ – but for us – it’s held during our coldest month – an attempt to cheer us up during the doldrums of winter. In St. Petersburg – it’s about 24 hour long days! And even better – it’s all about theatre – the major ballet troops (at the Marlinsky and Mikhallovsky Theatres) are performing one outstanding ballet after another. By shopping early – I scored center seats in the 3rd tier – I could have paid a lot more and been on the partiere – but hey $20 to see ‘Sleeping Beauty’ – I’m so on it!

Even better – the opera troops are also performing almost nightly – for similar prices if you are willing to buy early and sit in the 3rd tier. Tickets to Aida and La Travaita – here I come.

So – take advantage of what’s happening when you are there – don’t berate yourself for not being in New Orleans for Mardi Gras – plan ahead.

Planning to Feed the Mind. The Intrepid traveler and I adore going to Museums. 42 museums in 5 weeks in Italy is probably our record – spurred on by free museum week in Florence. So before a trip – I research. What is happening in all the major muesums. How do I get tickets? Are there senior prices? Are they closed on specific days – are they super busy on other days? Knowing this information helps prevents standing forelornly in front of locked doors. And more importantly – when you hit the ground in your city of choice – read the signs, get the newspapers – even the touristy ones, and chat up your host. What happening this week that’s special? How do we get to see it? You never know until you look around and ask.

For St. Petersburg – I’ve already bought my passes to the Hermitage – and for Berlin, I’m pricing out the Berlin Museum Card. The options can be overwhelming – which feels frustrating – but the results are generally worth it.

Some more ‘beaten path’ options I tend to avoid include tour buses. I’ve had great experiences on tour buses – the trip in South Korea to the temples springs to mind – but more often than not – bus tours are about the common denominator. You rush past stuff so fast, you can barely read the signs, let alone see things. And too often your fellow tourists are – well – tourists! So generally we avoid the bus tours – considering them expensive and too fast paced. Instead we opt for the slower, more patient route of simply walking a city – or riding public transit! Never underestimate the joys of public transit. Bus routes in most cities are clearly explained in pictorial fashion, so our lack of language skills doesn’t kill us. And they are cheap. You can spot stuff that looks fun – and hop off if you feel like a visit. With no time contraints – and no herding into pricy lousy restaurants for mandatory rest stops.

Ok – enough for this blog – Next up – feeding the Body – so do follow me – I love followers! Signing off to create a blog on eating in strange and wonderful places… The Soup Lady

Planning to feed the body

Ah restaurants! One of the intense joys, and most frightening aspects of extended travel in an unknown city is deciding where to eat. I’ve picked winners so good I was blown away – and losers so bad, I feared for my digestive system. But along my culinary journey into the unknown – I have learned some important lessons – which I happily share.

Not to backtrack – But Montreal is home to some amazingly fun Festivals!


Ok – I know – I am part way thru a trip in Business Class to Bali – and I’m writing this while sitting in the Air France Executive Lounge enjoying free drinks, free food, and comfy chairs in Paris. So a blog on the Festival of Lights in Montreal is going to appear out of the Blue.

But bare with me on this.

Montreal – in February – is cold and dreary. And the PTB (Powers that be) in the city decided that having a festival in February – which didn’t conflict with Mardi Gras (March), New Years (January), Jazz (June), Laughter (July), Graffait (who knows), etc. was a great idea. And thus the Festival of Lights was born.

At the end of the Festival – which runs for 10 days of entertainment and restaurant craziness – is Nuit Blanche. Also not a new idea – or even an idea unique to Montreal – but with typical half French/half English style, organization and verbe – springs to life in our Beautiful City. The basic idea – keep the lights on all night – with free entertainment in basically every venue in the city that can host a crowd – churches, museums, bars, you name it – there’s something happening! Frozen Pianos, Casual Art, Singers, Jugglers, Musicians, Art happenings, Art tours – the city bumps and grinds and parties till Dawn.

For The Intrepid Traveller and I – it’s an occassion to stay up just a bit later than normal – and its a time to take in (for free) a show that we would never ever even consider attending. Our selection criteria is simple – has to be inside (we get cold), has to have seats (we can’t stand for even 5 minutes, let alone hours), and it has to be multi-lingual – my french is horrid.

Several Nuit Blanche ago – we discovered the caberet at the National Theatre School. They take a long thin space, fill it with chairs – put performers in front and in the middle of the space – and just go at it. The first year they must have had more funding – because there were at least 20 performers. Each year the number of performers has decreased – but that’s been more than made up for by the quality of the acts.

This year was the best ever for quality – a group of 4 young men who cloned the harmonies of the Beatles – in French. They looked, acted, and played the parts – even if the songs weren’t familiar – the joy and abandonment felt absolutely right. We loved it.

What we actually loved even more was a performance of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucassion Chalk Circle. This was put on in the big theatre of the Theatre School – by the junior professional and extremely talented students there. As is typical with the Theatre School – no expense was spared on costume, set design, and quality of performance. These kids are not interested in impressing me – it’s the Montreal andToronto Theatre folks who come to see and hire that they want to amaze. We’re hangers on that profit from the opportunity to see the future in performance today.

So – enough on the Festival of Lights. It’s over for another year – but listen up if you aren’t from Montreal – this is a reason to come to our fair city. And if you do live in Montreal ask yourself – are you missing something amazing?

Signing off to go back to blogging about travel – The Soup Lady

Yoga, Pilates, Ecstatic Dancing and Tibetan Bowl Meditation


When in Rome – do like the Romans. When in Ubud – do Yoga, Pilates, and Meditations!

As I quickly discovered – Ubud is the hot bed of Yoga, Organic Food, Pilates, and like activities – including Mediation in Bali – and since Bali is one of the major places to go for these kinds of activities – that means that in Ubud – Yoga is big. Really Big. Almost every other building either featured Yoga based Home Stays, Yoga Studios, or both! Curiously – all this healthy life style stuff is smack dab on top of a society where the average wage is $200 a month. Interesting counterpoints are simply bound to happen, eh?

So where to go in Ubud for the best Healthy Life-Style experience? I’ll be frank – I don’t know. I did one Pilates class at Ubud Pilaties, one Sunrise Yoga class at Intuitive Flow, and 3 Ecstatic Dances at the Yoga Barn. In addition – I also did a Tibetan Gong and Bowl Meditation at the Yoga Bar. I have my favorites – but as to a definitive ‘best’ – nope – not going there!

But since I’m always willing to share my opinons – I’ll start by comparing the studios – then I’ll talk about the classes!

The Yoga Barn in Ubud is a giant, multi-level space where hippies of all ages hang out. As I blogged early in this series – it offers a board spectrum of different types of Meditation, Yoga, and Movement based classes, courses, and community events. It also is the home for the Bali Yoga Spirit Festival – one of the top 5 Yoga related festivals in the world. Clearly – I was absolutely going to try some of these activities out – it was really just a question of picking and choosing.

I ended up doing 3 Ecstatic Dances and a Tibetan Bowl meditation class at the Yoga Barn. I would have simply loved to do more there – the Yoga and Meditation Music Experience class sounded fun, and I’d have liked to participate in the Spirit Festival – but time and airline tickets proved limiting factors. Maybe next time I visit Bali…

The Lady in Pink’s palace was located in a ‘village’ near but not in Ubud. We were a 15 minute walk to the outskirts of the city – and over a hour walk from the Yoga Barn. Clearly we were taking taxi’s to sessions at the Yoga Barn – and best intentions aside – that seemed to contribute to us doing less – not more – there.

However – within about 10 minutes walk from the Palace were Intuitive Flow (for Yoga), and Ubud Pilates. Liane had already purchased bulk tickets for sessions in both places – so clearly they were on the hot list of places to go.

Despite planning on doing more – I ended up just doing one class each at these smaller studios. Enough to get the idea, but not enough to do any accidental damage.

Ubud Pilates first. I loved the feeling of this space – open to the gardens on 2 sides, closed by bamboo screening on the other two sides – the feeling was calming and comfortable. The teacher worked on a slight raised platform, which made it much easier to see what she was doing – and I loved the tiny gardens on the two open sides – the sound of running water is so relaxing.

Pilates for the uninformed – and I’m pretty uninformed – consisted mainly of laying on a mat and doing core exercises – knee pushups – full pushups – crunches and the like. All done slowly – concentrating more on breathing correctly than on high number of repetitions. It wasn’t exactly hard to do – but fear of harming my back made me stop after only a few reps of each exercise. Anna – 80 years young – is one of the strong students – and some people go every day. If I wasn’t so keen on seeing Bali – I’d have loved to do more of this – and I was highly impressed with how well the Lady in Pink performed. Something to think about when I get back home I suppose.

Is there a Pilates class in my future? Who knows!

Intuitive Flow is more of a broader based exercise space/program. Unlike Ubud Pilates – it is on the 2nd floor of a building, has windows on 3 sides (all of which were slid open) – and has a marvelous orientation towards the East North East. You can enjoy watching sunrise over Mt. Agung – Bali’s active volcano – and can admire the way the birds celebrate the birth of a new day while you hold Yoga poses.

The specific class we attended was a pretty much a beginner’s version – and I quickly learned that Backwards Leaning Dog isn’t going to happen for this body. I simply couldn’t hold that position without my back talking to me – and what it had to say wasn’t very nice. The good news – the very nice instructor (slim, pretty, in awesome shape) quickly caught on to my seriously beginner status – and just would say – you are doing fine when I collapsed into the Chakra position of knees on floor – head on floor – arms out.

I did find that there were some stretches I could do with ease. Other positions needed the leader’s gentle hands on my back and sides and shoulders to get things just so. I seriously have tense shoulders – relax your shoulders and breathe were constant reminders. Really should work more on that.

So – 5 stars for Intuitive Flow (mostly for that amazing view), and 3 stars for the Pilaties – it was more expensive, and the leader didn’t really come by to help me out at all. Maybe I was doing everything perfectly – but I think it more likely that she made the business decision of working with the people most likely to return.

On to the Yoga Barn. I’ve talked about the Ecstatic Dances – Friday night and Sunday morning – several times. These are dance till you sweat thru your clothes events – or as the DJ said – we’re trying to get a natural high. No talking – no thinking – just free movement. Lots of fun – and a 5 star – must do rating – for these. If you end up in Ubud on a Friday night or Sunday morning you must go. Only one hesitation – I have serious trouble turning my over active brain off – even in Ubud, even at the Yoga Barn.

Good thing I don’t mind my own constant internal monolog, eh?

Tibetian Bowl and Gong Meditation – that’s a class of a different animal completely. Held in the same space as the Ecstatic Dances – wide open, roofed, amazingly beautiful wooden big plank floor – it’s strictly limited to 35 participants. The mats are carefully arrange in a giant 1/2 circle around the leader – leaving most of the space open between our heads – pointed towards the bowls when we lie down – and the bowls themselves.

The session begins with us all filing into the space as they call our names – a strangely intimate way of counting heads. We climb the stairs barefoot to the upper level, put our belonging against the wall or in the provided open shelves, and pick a mat. We sit in lotus position, quietly waiting for the instructor to begin.

He starts by lighting candles and placing them at the cardinal points – then he invites us to lie down on the mats – heads pointing towards the bowls. No instruction, no advice – just the suggestion that we relax and let the music of the gongs and bowls carry our thoughts away.

I make a serious first mistake – I lie down flat on my back. Which is not totally comfortable for me. I should have gotten onto my side – and put a pillow between my knees. It would have been more comfortable and more conducive to meditation.

Then the leader started to play the bowls and gongs – occasionally letting them continue to ring as he walked around the space holding different kinds of incense over our heads. I know it was different – partly from the smell – and partly because I opened my eyes. One time the incense was thin long sticks – another time it looked a bit like an ear of corn on the cob. Great smell either way.

I know that for some people – this became a period of serious relaxation – there was definitley a guy snoring to my right. For me however, the uncomforable position, and my wide ranging mind spent most of the time occasionally listening to the bowls – which were highly melodic and very comforable to hear, and mostly musing on my own thoughts.

About half way thru I became aware that the wooden floor was conducting the vibrations of the bowls and gongs into my bones – a strange singing sensation. I’m not actually sure this was expected – and since we had been asked to be silent until we got back down to where we’d left our shoes, I had no way to ask.

That tingling sensation lasted well into the night – and made it a bit difficult to sleep – although it had totally disipated by the time I got up the next morning.

So bottom line on Tibetian Bowl and Gong Mediation – I need to take a meditation class for beginingers before I try this again – it bothered me that I wasn’t sure I was doing it right. Which is probably wrong too.

But would I recommend it – absolutely Yes. It’s a wonderfully peaceful way to spend an hour or so – and it’s so important to find Peace in Your Life. Definitely 5 stars.

Signing off to go consider where to find a beginner’s beginning meditation class – The Soup Lady

** Appreciation Challenge – I appreciate the existence of Pilates and Yoga – even if I con’t ways get a chance to participate.