Wine, Whales and Penguins – All on the way to the Cape of Good Hope

Our journey continues with a lovely breakfast at the Cape Heritage Inn (oh, I do love this place), fond good-bye’s from our hosts, and our first attempt at driving on the Left in South Africa.

Unlike St. Croix, which is also drives on the Left, but with normal US cars – these cars have been built for drive on the Left. That means that the driver’s seat is on the right, and the controls for simple things like windshield washers and turn signals are reversed. Victor struggles manfully with the controls – while I attempt to navigate us out of Cape Town.

Our first destination is a Winery called Groot Constantia. It’s the home of Grand Constance – world famous for being Napoleon’s wine of choice while he was on St. Helena. Naturally – we have to try some. It’s quite yummy, and the personalized tour of the wine making facility, while not new news, is still very interesting. Our wine tasting paired the wines with chocolates that had been custom made to match – yummy.

All of this takes quite a bit of time – so we decide to eat lunch at the Vineyard, and we share a traditional African meal, Bobotie. It’s a ground meat pie, topped with a fried egg, and served with yellow rice that’s been flavoured with raisins. It is huge and delicious – and very filling. We relax (perhaps a bit longer than we should), and eventually head out ever Southward.

Our next stop is Boulder Beach near Simon’s Town. It’s home to over 2,000 Penguins – who have been living, fishing, mating and having babies in this rock strewn bit of South Africa since 1982 when 2 breeding pairs first arrived. The Penguins are everywhere – they live in depressions under the African shrubs that dot the hillside, and they splash around in the waters of the Indian Ocean that lap the shore. Because of all the huge rocks, the waters here are just rough enough to bring in the fish, but not so rough as to make it hard for the Penguins to get in and out. It’s a perfect place – and they clearly love it.

Part of South African’s National Park System – there’s a fee to enter, but it’s clean, well kept, and well – full of Penguins. It was great.

We take lots of pictures – my favourite shows a tiny baby staring directly into my camera from under his mother’s protective wing, and then head on South.

Every Southward we go – past adorable towns, beautiful beaches, and African Scrubland. We arrive at the entrance to the “Cape of Good Hope National Park”, and pay our $13.50 Canadian each to go in. A bit steep – but clearly this is a place for tourists – and South Africa knows a tourist trap when they see one. If you went to Cape Town – wouldn’t you go to the Cape of Good Hope?

The well maintained road winds along the top of the ridge – with the Light House at the tippy top of the final peak – Cape Point – clearly visible in front of us. When we arrive at the base we realize there are two options for going up to the Light House – climb a zillion steps, or take the tram. We decide to do neither – Victor has plans for later today, and wants to see and get gone. So we turn around, and head to the lower road that runs along the shore. Here we end up at the actual Cape of Good Hope – and reward ourselves with a bit of a walk, a bit of a stare into the ocean – and a photograph! The waves that roll in are unhindered in their journey North from Antarctica and are huge. They crash onto the rocks at our feet – then fall back into the ocean for another try. It’s beautiful. We spot Ostriches that have made this scrubland their homes – and they are apparently raising a family based on the number of what I think are Ostrich chicks at their feet. We also spot Baboons who have decided that the tourists here are easy pickings. They aren’t the least bit concerned about us – unless we happen to have some food. They climb on cars – try to get into car windows, even test the door handles. Wily beasts…

We now head back towards Noordhoek, where there is a Food Market on Thursday evenings. The idea – grab food from a stall, and enjoy sunset! Sounds good – so we head North. We pass folks doing a bit of whale watching in the Indian Ocean (I can see the spouting of the whale as we drive past) and somewhat surprisingly – a shanty town.

Housing in this part of the Cape has been quite a bit better -so the sudden appearance of the shanties is a bit of a surprise. It’s the one and only we’ve seen since we left Cape Town. In general this part of South Africa is less barricaded and blocked in – which feels better to our western sensitives.

And after a few wrong turns, and some GPS confusion, finally find ourselves at the Market. This is a hugely popular local event – the food is reasonable, and the view spectacular tonight – not a cloud in the sky.

We check out the offerings – there are about 2 dozen stalls, set up with cooking facilities and serving Pork Belly, Fish and Chips, Pork Steaks, Greek Food, Vegetarian options, BBQ Pork Belly Sandwiches, even Tuna Steak. So many choices, and all priced at around $8. I opt for the Pork Belly with cooked yams, Victor gets the BBQ Pork Belly Sandwich, and then goes back for the Tuna Steak. He also gets a bottle of white wine, and we relax on a picnic table to watch the sun set into the Atlantic Ocean. Peaceful and so lovely.

After dinner, We carefully drive on to our lodging for tonight. We’re staying at the highly rated Tuscan Villa Guest House in Fishhoek, and it’s worth it’s rating. Our double sized room features another of these huge bathrooms – with a large shower and huge freestanding tub. We’re warned yet again about the water crisis – and asked not to use the tub. Well – we weren’t planning on it – so you are ok. Our charming hostess explains that the fines for ‘over use’ of water are extremely high, and she’s being forced to use the shower at her son’s place to avoid having the guest house deemed an over consumer. That kind of thing is really hard to control too. We promise to be careful, and she wishes us good night.

We remove the fresh lavender stalks that have been carefully laid on our towels, our pillows, and the bath mat, and settle down for the night.

Tomorrow we are heading North to the wine tasting district of Stellenbosch.

Signing off out of total exhaustion – The Soup Lady

We only regret what we never did…

Random thoughts

Blogging is a bit like thinking – sometimes it’s easy to do – and sometimes it’s a bit like wadding thru a very sticky mud puddle – and it mentally seems easier to just not do it. Which explains the quiet at this end of the blog trial I suppose. It’s not for lack of doing things – it isn’t even for lack of travel to blog – it’s fear of slogging that has kept me away from the keyboard. But enough self- pity I say – put fingers to the keyboard and get going!

I left off after the battle of Waterloo – and perhaps that’s part of my problem. We in the Napoleonic Re-enactment world have been working ourselves up for the 200th anniversary of Waterloo for years – and naturally there’s a bit of a let-down afterwards. It’s over. Done. Finished. There’ll be big re-enactments for 205, 210, etc – but I suspect that until 225 – there’s won’t be an event to so capture the imagination of so many of us. We left Waterloo with little fan fare. Took down our tents, hugged, saluted, and cried a bit with our friends from around the world and eventually turned ourselves and our car in the direction of Antwerp.

Why Antwerp? Why not Antwep I say! We’d never visited it – and we were very pleased to discover a wonderful old city, filled with nifty stores, including the largest puzzle/game/toy/miniture Train Store I’ve ever spent hours wandering thru. This store had everything. It was a modeler’s heaven, a puzzle maker’s paradise! And nice. We also took time to enjoy some of the restaurants of Antwerp, to visit some of the museums, and generally tour the town. Bottom line – great place to visit. Do include it on your next trip! We left Antwerp and headed for London. While I would have loved to have taken the Chunnel – flying was most efficient – so fly we did.

We then spent time visitng with my daughter and her new husband, checking out Crowne & Queue – my daughter’s new business venture. The highlight was an over to top fancy meal at the chef’s table at XX – way too expensive, but never-the-less a delight.

We were planning to drive to Bath for another Ball – but ran into trouble at the rental car place. We’d reserved an automatic – Victor can drive standard – but doing it on the left in London traffic seemed to be asking for trouble. Anyway – we showed up on time – to be told they had a bit of an issue. Too many reservations for automatics – not enough cars. Ok – no problem. I’d be arguing that going to Bath by train was much more logical – so train it would be!

The trip to Bath was delightful. The train clean and lovely, the British countryside quaint. Bath – as billed – is a tourist town on the too cute side! Beautiful gardens (that you pay to enter), a downtown full of shops catering to tourists – and our reason for coming – a Jane Austin style Ball. Bath has an entire week of Jane Austin festivities in September – but this was June.

Our friend Michel and Ardwena have come to this ball several times – and sold us on the idea. It so worked for timing after the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels – so why not. We check into our B&B – ok, not amazing – and not cheap – and wander up to visit with our friends. We do a lovely lunch – then discover that today and today only they are holding the Bath Area Model Building Show! The location is a huge open armory like building – but the models on display are well worth checking out. We spend our time going from booth to booth – then head back for dance practice.

A short break after that – not quite enough for dinner unfortunately, and we’re all dressed up and ready to dance.

Michel looks particularly fine in his silk ‘court’ outfit – heavily embroidered – and seriously fine. I think Victor is suffering from male suit envy! Victor has opted for a wool civilians outfit – and I think he’s re-thinking it. Wool – even light wool – is warm in the summer! And definitely hot when worn for dancing. Never-the-less – the folks at Ardwena’s and Michel’s BnB think we’re all very fine – and there’s a 45 minute photo session while neighbors gawk and snap away. Then it’s on to the Ball.

Michel even asks me for a dance – sometimes I’m glad I occasionally dress as a woman! Michel is a wonderful dancer – light on his feet, bright smile, and the occasional well needed light pressure to make sure I do the right thing. Such a pleasure to dance with.

After the Ball we go looking for a late night dinner – but Bath has rolled up the carpets. It’s drinks or nothing – and drinks just don’t seem right. We all tottle off for bed. Tomorrow we’re heading back to the City – Ardwena and Michel are spending a few more days in Bath before we all fly home to Montreal on June 30th.

Some excitement at my daughter’s – my tooth breaks! I’m paniced – but not in pain. So I call – long distance – my Canadian Dentist – who agrees to see me as soon as the plane lands in Montreal on the 30th. We finish the visit with my daughter and her new hubby – fly home – and I do the dentist thing. Note this folks – teeth were never meant to last 67 years – particularly teeth that have had filled in cavities 50 years earlier. That’s why it broke. The Dentist does the repair – and I’m all good.

2 days later – I’m traveling again – this time to Wells Beach, Maine for our annual beach holiday. It’s the 4th of July – and there are fireworks here, there, and everywhere. Sophie and I stand on the beach in stunned amazement as firework displays light up the sky up and down the coast. Most amazing – the personal fireworks! I’m used to seeing professional displays – but now they are selling almost professional level fireworks to anyone! So between the longer displays from the towns are individual displays put on by neighors to our right and left. I feel very very fetted. My kids arrive, my kids leave, the weather is wonderful – the seafood awesome, the hours spent relaxing with my feet in the sand well spent. A delightful holiday.

I spend part of it teaching Sophie to read English – and we manage to catch the library in Well’s at least 4 times. Books are your friends….

Finally it’s home. And I’m so happy to see my own bed, and my own garden I could cry. Ok – I probably did shed some tears. My pond looks wonderful – it’s been an awesome green season in Montral – too much rain for some folks – but my garden is happy, happy, happy!

Not wanting to grow any moss under my toes, I left just 2 weeks later for a quick trip to St. Croix and San Juan.

St. Croix is delightful as always – such good restaurants, such fun stuff to do and see and experience. We even spend a day on board a private sail boat – hours gliding over the waters looking for turtles – and then relaxing and snorkling a quiet reef. Fun – although my sister and my grand-daughter do get a bit of sun burn. The Captain of the boat lent me a ‘rash guard’ shirt – water friendly, long sleeves, sun proof and long in the bum. I immediately want to get one for myself – so my hubby goes out shopping the very next day and gets me a lovely blue one. Perfect.

Trip highlight – Trip to Buck Island! It’s just my grand-daughter, one of my sisters, and myself – and about 15 strangers on a huge Sailboat. But the snorkeling is outstanding. Truly outstanding. We see turtles, rays, a baracuda, and a shark (he’s sleeping in the reef – and we paddle above and around him for at least 10 minutes. I particularly loved poking my hands at the schools of small fish – watching them scatter – then re-group seconds later. Too much fun.

From St. Croix – it’s on to San Juan. We stay for 4 days in a super expensive – very la-di-da resort called El Conquistor. Highlight there – the funicular that takes you from the main part of the resort down to the marina where our rooms are located. Very cool. We take 2 tours – a walk thru the rain forest – which would be better if they’d had rain. San Juan is in the midst of a 2 year drought. That said – the swim in the waterfall – pretty much the point of the entire hike – is wonderful.

Highlight – the Kayak tour of the Bio-Lumincent Bay. My sister and her hubby are experienced Kayakers – my grand-daughter and I less experienced. But never mind – how hard can it be? Well in the dark, going thru a Mangrove Swamp – pretty hard. We’re in a line of 12 Kayaks – and the idea is to pass down warnings – Low Branch, Low Branch – Pow – found the low branch…

Between us we keep the Kayak moving forward – and eventually wend our way out to the Bay. It’s amazing. No – beyond amazing. Glorious – memorable, stunning – surprising – must do! You put your hand in the water – and it lights up! As your Kayak moves forward – you frighten the fish – who in their attempt to swim away create streaks of light in all directions. It’s perfect.

Our last dinner is at a local restuarant – and the highlight of that meal was a surprisingly good Nutella Soufflé. Oh was it yummy. We leave the El Conquistor behind and head ito San Juan Proper. My sister and her husband fly home – leaving my grand-daughter and I on our own. We’re staying in a hostel in the old city – a 6 floor walk-up that is perfect. Perfectly located, AC works a treat, and we can find food for reasonable prices nearby. What more does one need.

We relax, tour the forts and museums of Old San Juan – and do a bit of long delayed shopping. We admire the cruise boats – giant towering things that dwarf the buildings of the old city – and dodge the crowds coming off the boats. Eventually we too must head back to Montreal – my grand daughter has school – and I’ve gotten word that my dear friend Michel has suddenly died.

At first my response to this news is denial. I was just dancing with Michel – how could he have died? When he returned with us from Europe back in June – he’d told Ardwena that he was feeling very tired – but they had gone to Maine anyway, spending quality time with his son and two of his grand-sons. When they’d gotten back to Montreal – he’d continued to complain about chest pains – but not gone to the doctors.

On August 13 he went out for a jog, came home and apparently collapsed in the basement. They found him hours later when it became obviously that he wasn’t coming up for breakfast. He ws 69. I hate to end a blog on such a note – but Carpe Dium. Seize the day.

Michel and Ardwena had been doing just that – the Ball in Brussels a good example of an opportunity they didn’t want to miss. None of us will live forever – and I once read that it’s the things we didn’t do that we regret. Make a list – get the things you have always wanted to do – done!

Seize the day. Travel, visit with family, call friends, go to the theatre – just do it. There is time to count your winnings when the dealings done.

Signing off to go to find another ball to dance at in Michel’s honor …. The Soup Lady.

That Bum stole my Wallet!

I have met nothing but the nicest people here in St. Petersburg – friendly, super helpful – glad to have tourists and willing to put up with our occasional oops.

I think the folks that have to deal with the tourist mobs in the bigger museums must be saints. I’ve seen tourists doing some pretty rude things – and the folks who do the security, protect the art, sell the tickets, take the tickets – have never been anything other than polite and pleasant.

Granted genuine smiles are few and far between – clearly ear to ear grins are not natural to the Russian face – but I’ve been treated to a few – and they are better for their rarity.

People get up on the metro to offer us their seats – particularly the Intrepid Traveler – she hasn’t had to stand on a bus or metro since we got here. They carry our luggage up and down stairs – sometimes without even asking permission! They just grab and go. On the bus just now, this charming gentleman carried our bags off for us – then turned around to lend us a helping hand. I mean – this is above and beyond!

And there are tons of people who speak at least a smattering of English. We never lack for help – people on the bus will tell us where and when to get off once they realize what we are looking for, store clerks help us make the right change, even taxi drivers, once we’ve negociated the fare – are nothing but pleasant. One lady actually physically threw herself in our way to prevent us from getting off the bus at the wrong stop.

But all that didn’t protect me from becoming a target for a Russian Thug.

We’d tried to attend services at the Cathedral of Spilled Blood – which meant getting up at 6:00 AM – and while we were suitably dressed – we were still turned away. Services at the Spilled Blood are only for locals.

That put us up really early – and with no coffee. So we opt to walk down to Nevsky Prospect and find an open coffee shop. The CoffeeShop Company fit the bill. It was open, it had coffee, it had inside tables with a view to the street – and it had food.

What more can you ask?

We had gotten our coffee and were just relaxing and chatting when the Intrepid Traveler noticed that 2 ‘larger’ men had sat down directly behind me. I didn’t see them – but she noted that they were pretending to read an English language newspaper while looking hard at my back-pack and hat. Unfortunately, she didn’t say anything to me, although she did mention her concern to MP after I went to the bathroom.

But before that – We continued to chat, I paid our bill – and eventually I got up to go to the bathroom. It was occupied, so I stood and waited my chance. I think this is when he got into position – but I must admit to not being aware of him at all.

I entered the bathroom – but when I opened the door to exit – this man was directly in my way. It was a narrow hall – and he bumped into me hard. I promptly apologized and went back to our table, thinking nothing of the encounter. Since the bill had already been paid, we just gathered our belongings and left.

When we got back to the Hostel about 20 minutes later, I realized my little brown wallet was missing. I assumed that I had dropped it at the restuarant – although I couldn’t imagine how. I ran back to the restaurant – but no good – no wallet.

The Intrepid Traveler and I saw MP off on the metro (she’s heading back home) – and I immediately called my credit card company. I told them to stop both my credit card and my access card – if only they had listened!

The bum had already used my credit card (good news – after $40 the bank had gotten suspicious and shut it down), and then used my access card. The bank was slower on this, the TD representative had blocked my 2 credit cards – leaving the access card open. So the Rotten Bum managed to pull out some funds before they stopped that as well.

Most annoying – in the wallet was my student card and drivers license. It could have been much worse of course – those were the only 2 id’s in the wallet – but still – now I have to replace them – and I have a yucky feeling about St. Petersburg.

I doubt I could have prevented him from taking the wallet – they are fast, with quick fingers – and I’m not really very defensive. IT and I have talked about it – and aside from her thinking they were odd – we had little warning.

Oh well – live and learn. I’ll have to deal with the driver’s license when I get back to Montreal – and I’ll have to let the banks do their thing about the fraud.



Never mind – The Intrepid Traveler and I continued with our plans for the day – laundry and blogging. She even got a nap. A nice dinner at home with a bottle of Pinot Noir from Moldova and early to bed.

Tomorrow will be a better day.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Again with the bummed out plans… Yusupov Palace and Beyond

I love it -  only 135 of your closest friends can join you - but it's right in your home! Yusupov Palace St. Petersburg

I love it – only 135 of your closest friends can join you – but it’s right in your home! Yusupov Palace St. Petersburg

I’m getting seriously annoyed with Lonely Planet. Ok – It’s not completely wrong – in fact, it’s right about 90% of the time – but when they blow it – they mess me up.

We had spotted the Fabrege Museum the first day we walked St. Petersburg. It’s a brand new museum, only open for about a year – and besides being in a glorious palace, it has the largest collection of Fabrege Easter Eggs in the world.

Clearly – I want to see this. The guide book suggests that the only way to visit is by guided tour, and to arrange that – you must email them. So I do. And they reply – yes it’s by guided tour – English at 12:15 and 4:30. I reply by email – please reserve 3 tickets for Monday.

We arrive – to be told – just asking for a reservation isn’t good enough – we don’t reserve tickets unless you give us a credit card number. Nice to know now of course. At this point, the English tour is sold out for 12:15 – you can join it anyway if you pay twice the normal price, or you can take the 4:30 tour – or you can come back in the evening and do a self-guided audio-tour.

Wait a sec – you think I want to pay twice the normal price to make a tour group oversized so no one gets to enjoy it? What kind of logic is that? I don’t think so. But the evening option sounds actually grand – the only problem, MP is leaving tomorrow and we have theatre tickets for tonight.

Re-group – quick discussion – and a new plan is formed.

MP will forgo Faberge – she wasn’t that set on it – and we will do the long planned and not yet attempted boat cruise on the canels of St. Petersburg. There’s an English version that leaves at 1:30 – so that’s perfect.

New plans all aligned – we implement! We buy our boat cruise tickets – we buy food for lunch al fresco – we go to the boat and enjoy our lunch waiting for the cruise to start.

And it’s lovely – albeit a bit cold! The sun is shining, but this is an open deck on a moving boat on a river that just recently thawed! It’s a tad chilly. But clearly this is the norm – the boat crew hands out blankets as a matter of course!

Snuggled in our warm fuzzy blankets – we watch the palaces of St. Pete’s slip by. The cruise takes us within spitting distance of our hostel entrance – then out onto the Neva River. We loop Peter and Paul Fortress – getting a closer look at the crazy people sun bathing – and then head back to the dock.


Once off the boat – we start the rather long journey to the Yusupov Palace and from there to the Mariinsky Theatre. We will not be late this time. We end up in the Hay Market section of St. Pete’s – all cleaned up and renovated today, but the home of the anti-hero of Dostoyevsky’s 1866 – Crime and Punishment. Hard to imagine that today in the sunshine – but Dostoyevsky was living in the slums in this area at that time – and accurately placed his characters among these streets.

Today there is a lovely narrow canel running down the middle of the road – and folk singers entertain the folks exiting the metro station with Russian Dance music. It’s a fun spot – spooky history aside.

Lupper (combo of late lunch, early dinner) is at a neighborhood ‘cafeteria’. Walk down some stairs into the basement – and you are in a square room, 8 tables and a tiny cafeteria line. Grab a tray and point out what you’d like. The owner/chef/cook/bottle washer puts it on a plate and reheats it for you in the Microwave. MP has Goulash, IT and I split some delicously flavorful rice and a piece of chicken. The only 20th century nod, beside the microwave, are 2 huge flat screen TV’s broadcasting a soccer game. Fortunately the sound is off – so our dinner is quite pleasant. While early, the palace is not empty – a smattering of older women and young student types fill the other tables. No one gives us a second look – and we are free to relax over our meal.

Next stop – Yusupov Palace – famed for being the site of Grigori Rasputin’s murder – December 17, 1916.

We get our tickets – do the line, back-pack, line routine – and only then discover that the visit to the room where Rasputin was poisened and stabbed is a no go. Only 10 tickets a day are available for individual tourists – all the rest go to tour groups – and they are sold out. But we smartly decide that since we’ve already paid to visit the palace – we’ll just have to skip that part.

Great plan – the house is amazing. This was the home of the Yusupov Family – who can trace their routes back to a Tarter Lord who threw in his fortune with Peter the Great. As a reward for his service, Peter gave him money and land – and from this begining the family fortune grew. The Palace is more stunning than the Hermitage in many ways. Part of it’s advantage – aside from the magnificant public spaces – including a ball room to die for – is it’s ‘live-ability’. Unlike the Hermitage, which one can’t imaging actually living in – the Yusupov Palace feels more like family. There’s a state dining room with floor to high high ceiling wood walls, glorious grand staircase – marble of course – and the mandatory chapel. There are also the rooms used to display their many art works – all of which became the property of the state after the rebellion. Today the walls are bare – but there are photo’s of the glory that once was.

The best part?

The Home Theatre.

Seating only 138 souls – the still working theatre has the mandatory swirls and curls of rocco decor, 2 row of balcony seats, a working curtain, fly space above the stage to allow for quick set changes, and changing rooms for the actors. Ballet was often performed here we are told – and many of the best performers in the city came here during the Tsarist heydays. I particularly liked the entrance – a ‘grand’ staircase entrance to the partare for guests of the family, while they of course used their private box exactly in the center. It is very easy to imagine the space filled with fluttering fans carried by ladies in long dresses accompanided by strutting men in wasitcoats,

It’s that special.

After our tour – MP is still hungry – and there’s time before the theatre starts – so we pop into the Shamrock – a local Irish pub – Russian style. There MP gets a bowl of Solianka, a traditional Russian meat soup – served with sour creme of course. It’s yummy.

Tonight’s theatre is Aida – 3 hours of opera that flys by. The soprano who sings the role of Aida’s tormentor – the haughty daughter of the Pharoah – is completely outstanding. I totally bought her self-righteousness and displain for the lower classes – which as a slave makes Aida below her notice. She convinced me – and I loved her for it.

The tenor singing the role of Rameses – half of the pair of star crossed lovers – was also excellent.

But what really made the show were the incredible stage sets. Where do they find the space to put all these sets? The Opera calls for 8 different locations – and each one was fully realized in this over the top spectacular production. The trip to the temple of Isis is done by boat, the inside of the temple of Vulcan features red lighting, Mysterious Priestesses, smoking gigantic urns and numerous priests – and the triumphant return of Rameses to the city left me agasp.

I guess if you’ve got an endless supply of dancers and singers – you might as well get them all on the stage.

But again it’s the perfection in the ensemble routines that leaves me speechless. There is something happening at the theatre every night for 2 months – but they are only performing this particular Opera twice this month. How do the ensembles remember the complex staging over the weeks between performances? I have no idea.

Appaluse, line up to retreive back-pack, line-up to go the the bathroom – and home.

Signing off – Mr. Piorkowski, The Intrepid Traveler, and The Soup Lady

Pushkin – Russian to the core

The Suricata Hostel is located on one of the prettiest streets in St. Petersburg. I’m not just saying that – it’s in the Lonely Planet Guide Book. But they aren’t talking about the Hostel – they are talking about #12 nab reki Moyka – just 2 doors away from our ‘palace’ at #8.

This of course is not the only museum and library dedicated to Pushkin – Russia’s National Poet – but it is the house where he died – and thus worthy of a visit. Besides – it’s so close!

I know of Pushkin not thru his poetry – but thru his dueling. He is famous in re-enacting circles for having fought and won at least 28 duels – it’s only duel #29 that did him in – and this museum is all about that last duel.

Curiously – they make no mention of the other duels – so the unknowing tourist is likely to assume that this final duel was unique. It was of course different – Pushkin died – but hardly unique in that Pushkin fancied himself an excellent dueler – and went into this one confident of victory.

The museum starts with the now traditional line, back-pack check, line. You buy your ticket in one location, check your back-pack in a 2nd, and enter the museum proper via a third line. Russians love queuing apparently. They certainly design enough of them!

The 2 floor apartment where Pushkin and his family – wife and 4 young children (the youngest was just 8 months old when he died) – lived was rented to them by one of the Princess of the Russian Court. I’m going to guess that the rent was reasonable – because how much can a poet really earn? He was known to have financial issues – and he apparently married for love as his wife was not wealthy on her own.

As in most buildings in the historical heart of St. Petersburg – you enter via a courtyard gate. The grounds within the courtyard are larger than the one at #8 – and of course better maintained. This is a museum after all. But the layout is strikingly similar – carriage entrance under the main floor of the front block, all other blocks in the building are entered from the courtyard.

To access Pushkin’s flat – you must go down the servants entrance into the ground floor. There you can see memoribilal of Pushkin – copies of letters, pages out of his notebook, and most interesting – a letter in French declaring him a member of the ‘Cockold Society”. It is this anomous letter that set off the unfortunate chain of events that brought Pushkin to the dueling grounds.

According to the audio guide – and all the historical records I could find – Pushkin’s wife was a notorious beauty – and she had 2 older sisters who could not begin to compare. Several years before the famous duel, these sisters had moved into this home with Pushkin and his wife – their pictures hang on the walls of their ‘apartment’ – a series of 2 to 3 rooms to left as you look at the building from the street – but by all accounts the dining area was shared by all. Clearly what impacted the sisters would have impacted Pushkin and his wife.

In addition to his financial woes, Pushkin was known to be sensitive about his honour – hence all the duels. Despite the fact that Natalya had just given birth to their 4th child – Pushkin apparently was convinced that she might be having an affair – and the letter pushed him over the edge.

According to the audio-guide – Pushkin was sure that the letter was written by the soon to be husband of his wife’s sister. Given that this sister was currently living with them – and that the forth coming marriage would put the gentleman in question physically in great contact with Pushkin’s wife – clearly the letter was intended to be inflamatory.

Shockingly to me – I could read the letter! It was written in French.

We then entered the main staircase to the home – it had two entrances at the time – one from the covered ‘courtyard’ entrance, and one from the street. During the 2 days Pushkin spent in this house dying, visitors came and went thru these doors – and still posted are the updates one of his friends was writing to keep the flood of well-wishers informed – and out of the house.

Dramatically – the couch in Pushkin’s study that he lay on while dying is still in situ – and DNA analysis of the blood on the couch matched the blood on the waistcoat he was known to be wearing during the duel. Also on display – his death mask and a lock of his hair.

Creepy – seriously creepy.

Enough for now – I’m going for a Latte. Anyone joining me?

Signing off – The Soup Lady and her travel buds.

I have walked in the footsteps of Lenin

I grew up with the Cold War in full force. We feared the Soviet expertise in Space – they had launched a satelite before we did – and that scared and challenged everyone I knew. I had heard of Lenin of course – but growing up in Atlanta didn’t equate to much of a world history orientation.

True fact – I really only knew there was a World History when I hit University. Sad statement on a Southern education circa 1960.

But I digress – I’m here in St. Petersburg – visiting the Museum of Political Life – and walking where Lenin walked in 1917 – 1919. His office was right where I’m currently standing – here in the glorious home of one of the Prima Ballerinas of the time – the Bolsheviks took it over after she fled Russia when the Tsar was arrested. Lenin paced these wooden floors – He opened those balcony windows to address the mobs.

Such is the adventage of travel – that moment when you and history collide.

The museum of Political Life – like most of the museums we’ve visited – is huge. I don’t know how many rooms – but it wraps in and around 3 or 4 different buildings – sometimes I’m walking up or down marble steps, sometimes I think this must have been servants quarters. The exhibits start in 1900 – we’re talking fairly current history here – and focus on the Russian perspective. We start in the latter days of Nickolas II – see his letter of resignation, and stand in the train car that took him and his family into what he hoped would be temporary exile.

The Bolsheviks come to power, the split happens between Lenin and the ‘hard’ liners – Stalin comes to power, things go from bad to really seriously bad. Hitler invades to everyone’s surprise – Stalin had assumed that since he and Hitler shared so much in common – including a love of torturing any one who disagreed with them – that Hitler would leave Russia alone. Wrong.

The war ends with jubilation in the streets of St. Petersburg, but that feeling of new hope, new beginings dies young and the cold water starts. The museum continues thru the Thaw, and ends in 2000 – Yeltsin gives his new year speech announcing his surprise retirement, and Putin takes over.

The exhibits run the gambit from collections of old papers and photographs to multi-media effects – the culmination of which is the side-by-side faces of Yeltsin and Putin on New Years Eve 1999 – one annoucing he is retiring, the other announcing that he is taking over the Presidency of Russia.

I leave the museum not totally sure what hit me – or even how much more I really know about recent Russian History. I do know that in comparison – Canadian History is dull, dull, dull. Thank goodness. I’m reminded of the ancient curse – “May you live in Interesting Times”.

Signing off to consider how little she really knows about history… The Soup Lady

Coffee, Pastry – and Peter and Paul Fortress – St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is over 300 years Young!

Today we visited the original city of St. Petersburg – founded by Peter the Great is 1703. The site of the original city is an island of great military importance located in the middle of the Neva river. The fortress is the traditional star fort – that means that the walls zig zag out and in – and cover each other from all sides.

But sometimes the best adventure comes on the way to your destination!

We started the day on the metro – getting off at the stop nearest the Fort. Our original plan was to first see the Museum of Political Life – but it was closed. What is it about this trip that things are closed or otherwise unavailable. Did we not do enough research. Really! Anyway – this actually turns out to be a good thing because when we do get to visit the Museum – it’s a full day adventure in and of itself! Russians seems to do museums on a truly grand scale – but more about the Museum of Political Life later.

Moving on – we pass a lovely pond, kids feeding ducks – people drinking coffee. In mugs. Wait a minute – those are not take-away paper cups – those are mugs. Where’s the restaurant?

It’s actually hidden inside an artifical cave dug into the park. On one side is a set of steps on a grassy knoll – no hint that a restaurant exists. On the side near the duck pond (well – more of a dove pond actually – based on the number of birds of each type) is the door to the restaurant. I do a dead stop, hard right into the restaurant. I’m dying for lack of coffee at the Suricata – and here’s the perfect antidote! And it’s very reasonably priced. I’m in heaven.

IT gets tea, MP gets 2 latte’s, and I get a latte and a pastry. Latte is fab – pastry contains goat cheese. So I eat the top and bottom – IT gets to enjoy the center portion!

Suitably refreshed – we head on to the fort.

Street view - note entrance to courtyard. The door you see to the right only leads to one of the flats

Street view – note entrance to courtyard. The door you see to the right only leads to one of the flats

Having never suffered from battle – the fort is entirely original. There’s a rather lovely cathedral inside that contains the tombs of most of the Romanof rulers – even Nicholas II is interned here – his remains and those of his family recovered and moved here in 1998.

The very best part of the fort is the Commandant’s House. The begining rooms which cover in way too much detail the founding of the island and the building of the fort – are fairly dull – but once you get up stairs – the museum really picks up the pace. My absolute favorite parts were the section on the house styles of St. Petersburg – and an absolutely hilarious silent movie section featuring a couple having an arguement. The wife throws the husband’s brandy, newspaper and pipe out the window – the husband responds by throwing the wife’s latest purchases – and the delivery boy out the same window! I laughed so hard – I embarassed IT!

The section on house styles in St. Petersburg – at least in the historic heart – was very interesting. We’d recognized that the Suricata Hostel was rather uniquely designed with a central courtyard – but it wasn’t until we saw this exhibit that we realized that all the houses that haven’t been heavily renovated are of this design. The entrances from the street are ALL for businesses on the first floor, or in the case of the most fashionable apartments or small ‘palaces’ – entrances to grand staircases.

The normal residents all enter via the courtyard – and from there into the houses. Cool.

Naturally – the most elegant homes would have 2 staircases – one for the owners – and one for the servants.

I couldn’t resist taking pictures of the doll house they had built to show how the houses are laid out on the inside – this despite actually living in one!

Other exhibits I found interesting talked about how indoor plumbing arrived in the city – including fixtures like necklace showers – an obvious pre-cursor to the rain shower.

I totally enjoyed this museum – and I really liked their toilets. They were the only free toilets we saw on the island!

Another highlight of the Fort was the quick view of the beaches we had. St. Petersburg is dark for a lot of the year – and this time of year – when days are really long, and night lasts only 4 hours – are highly valued. So if the sun is out – out come the sun bathers! IT, MP and I are wearing our long sleeved shirts and long pants – these folks are lying on cobblestone walkways in their bathing suits!

We naturally saw the requisite bride and groom – Peter and Paul Fortress is a well known spot for taking wedding pictures, and we sat in the giant metal chairs that form a piece of abstract art in a different part of the Fort.

We also visited the Prision. Many famous people were held here – most often political desentors – like Leon Trotsky, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. A sad commentary on life in Tsarist Russia – and of course the Bolshevick’s who followed as well. The prison was only decommissioned in

Double Staircases in an 'old' St. Petersburg House

Double Staircases in an ‘old’ St. Petersburg House

Doll house view of old St. Petersburg house.

Doll house view of old St. Petersburg house.


Instead of taking the metro home – we opt to walk across the Neva on the suitably named Troitsky Most. A lot colder and windier then we’d thought – we are well chilled by the time we reach the summer garden – and gleefully opt for a quick dinner out.

Our unfortunate choice was the Barcelona – I know – why Spanish in Russia – but hindsight is always better. Good news – the Sangria was delicious.

Signing off – The Soup Lady, The Intrepid Traveler and Mr. Piorkowski

Is Travel Broadening?

Travel plans – or is it true that Travel is Broadening?

I love travel – I hate flying. Too bad teleportation is still in the future. I had hopes when I was younger that by the time I reached the impossibly OLD age of 65 – someone would have figured out the technology.

But no. You can send information around the world in seconds – but yourself – 35 hours of travel time from Montreal to Bali – going either way around the globe. You have got to be kidding me.

Speaking of Bali – I officially blew it. I could have done a round the world trip – flown Montreal, Paris, Singapore, Bali, Toyko, Vancouver, Montreal – but I lost focus when I saw I could get first class for only $1000 more – and opted to go and come via Paris. Missed opportunities.

So – is Travel Broadening? I think the answer depends on your definition of broad. If you mean fattening – I think that depends on who you travel with. When I travel with the Intrepid Traveler – we live cheap and simple – and we walk everywhere, eat little. So nope – that kind of travel is not that kind of broadening.

When I travel with my husband, it’s a bit trickier. I don’t generally put on weight – but I do have to watch how much I’m eating because the meals tend to be more elaborate, longer, and often fattening just because they last so long! But still – in general – I’d say that for me – travel isn’t that kind of broadening. I have friends who complain that a trip = 5 extra pounds, but I don’t think that’s the way it has to be.

What about the other kind of broadening – learning about new places, new cultures, learning new things. Again – this can depend. I’ve chatted up fellow travelers and discovered that they are accidental tourists – not travelers. They came armed with a certain point of view – and are determined to leave with the same. Been there – done that – don’t need to do it again seems the dominating characteristic. And they don’t give places enough time. I’ve been guilty of skimping on time too – so I know what I’m talking about. It takes time to experience a place, to get past the running around – need to see that museum today – headset and start just being there.

Sometimes people can’t help but limit their exposure to a new place. In South Korea we ran into a delightful Indonesian family that had very severe diet restrictions – so they had to cook all their food at the hostel. And they couldn’t even use the pots and pans provided – they brought their own. Trust me – they missed out on a lot of what South Korea has to offer – the food there was amazing. But I get the need for restrictions – it’s a tough choice.

What can you see in a city like St. Petersburg or Rome in just 2 days? It takes a day just to figure out how to get back to your hotel. 2 days is enough to say been there – but not enough to say – BEEN there. Which is why the Intrepid Traveler and I generally try to a lot a whole week per city.

It’s still not enough – but it’s a gesture in the right direction.

And then there’s preparation. I always want to read up on a place before I arrive – in case there’s something that needs to be organized prior to travel, in order to give myself a chance to get more comfortable with what I’ll see, and to map out the must do vs the can do options.

My preferences for planning are a combination of Tripadvisor (if 1000 people love it – you should at least check it out) and print media. I find on-line sources are too often about selling you something (their services, their bus company, their tour plan), and less about reporting what is and is not great about a particular activity. Guide books are quickly out-dated – we have all carefully followed a suggested route to discover that the thing we most wanted to see changed it hours, closed, is under re-construction – what ever. So checking on-line (watch those last updated dates!) and a guide-book and tripadvisor – and common sense – all of these play a part in organizing the perfect trip.

All of this muttering is leading up to my next blog – clearly another trip!

Keep eyes peeled.

Signing off – The Soup Lady!

English in Korea – It happens!

Koreans love English words. They use them everywhere – not always correctly of course – but with delight and enthusiasm. I love it – but it does throw one off occasionally (ok – often actually).

Example 1: English on a brochure cover means nothing! – Here in Kim’s Guest House there is one labeled ‘Spring Tourist Guide’ on the outside – without a word in English on the inside! It’s completely in Korean. So why put English on the cover? Your guess is as good as mine.

Example 2: The signs – There is so much English on signs here in Korea – I sometimes forget that people may not actually speak the language. It’s quite a funny feeling. You pass a store – the slogan is in English – like Paris Baguette with its ‘Fresh and Ready’ – and no one inside speaks English at all! It happens a lot – and it is always a bit of a shock. Street signs are often translated, stores advertise ‘Sale’, you see ‘Bank’, ‘Steak and Pasta’, and ‘Korean traditional Restaurant’. But while it makes it clear what service they are offering, don’t expect more than a ‘hello’ in English – you might be pleasantly surprised – and then again – you might be reverting to sign language pretty quickly!

Check out this picture – it’s advertising a water park – English on the sign includes ‘California Water Park’ and ‘Open’ – but I’m willing to bet that no one who works there speaks English – why should they? Clearly this is for Koreans to enjoy – despite the clearly California look of the bathing beauties.


Example 3: Marketing Slogans – or What exactly did you mean by that? Consider this one for the city of Gyenogju – “Meeting place – The Scent of Culture – Time to Surpass”. What do you think they were trying to say? I get meeting place – but Scent of Culture? What ever does that mean? Do you think they were hinting that the place smelled? Can’t be, right?

Or here’s another one that amuses me – In Gyenogju, they make a special Barley cake (they sometimes refer to it as ‘bread’, but it is really 2 pancakes with red bean paste spread to hold the pancakes together). What is remarkable about it in my opinion is not the cake (it’s pretty bland) – it’s the number of ‘bakeries’ – often 2 or 3 on the same block. They all have the special ovens, and use the special boxes to make these cakes. How can there possibly be enough sales to keep them all in business? We got to try (for free) cakes from 2 different bakeries – and I must admit they tasted different. Can’t say I cared for either – but they definitely didn’t taste the same. But its the marketing in English that cracks me up. On one store – the Sign cheerfully proclaimed “The Barley Way to Health”, on another it announced that here you’d find the “Rich Chewy Texture of Sticky Barley”. Yummy sounding, eh? On a third I saw “100% domestic glutinous barley” – well, that’s definitely reassuring. Do some people import the Barley? Or perhaps not all Barley is Glutinous.

But my favorite language mis-adventure happened yesterday in the Gyenogju National Museum. This is a wonderful museum that attempts to explain – in a variety of languages, just a bit of the very complex history of this remarkable city. The artifacts on display are well presented – and the audio tour quite complete, if a bit robotic sounding. But it was the free English tour in one section that was over the top. There was an older gentleman responsible for giving the tour – and he proudly explained that he was a retired English teacher. Problem? His English was literally incomprehensible. At one point we thought he was talking about growing rice, and he really meant that they had a lice problem in 800 AD – which he explained by scratching himself.

But I really shouldn’t complain. The ability of Koreans to at least attempt to communicate in ‘my’ language puts us in North America to shame. We ran into trouble at the Metro – and despite our lack of Korean – and our helper’s lack of English – we muddled through. He didn’t give up – even when it was clear that we couldn’t communicate at all. Even if it meant carrying our bags up a staircase – forcing us to sit and wait while he got help – throwing in the towel just wasn’t option – Thank goodness.

And this willingness is official – Museums here have signs in 4 languages – and not just the name of the object – the entire description is translated. Even the subway maps and signs on the metro cars use both Korean and English names. I’ve been on Metros and Buses that announced the next station in Korean and English, can’t be to help the locals. I’ve even heard cross-walk signs speak English. Bank machines and Metro card vending machines always offer an ‘English’ language button, and Audio tours in even more languages are the norm – and not just in Seoul. It’s all pretty impressive – and very tourist friendly.

So as a prospective tourist to this intriguing country – you can rest easy. You might not quite understand everything – but I can guarantee you that the Koreans will make sure you have a wonderful time. It just comes naturally to them. What a country!


On the Road to Gyeongju – South Korea

My favorite seat on a bus is in front – I love the 180 degree view you get – and I must admit to watching the bus driver. So imagine my surprise when our bus driver here in South Korea – while driving – washed his hands, the steering wheel, the gear shift, the side window – then put on white gloves in order to eat lunch. That’s new and different.

He also removed the fancy leather shoes he was wearing when he put our luggage on the bus, and is now wearing comfy clean white sneakers. And he has his own set of ear phones. Wonder what channel he listens to while he drives?

I’d been told that buses here are the way to travel – and I have to admit – it’s nice. There’s satelite TV (in Korean – but that is the language here), very comfy seats that recline, clean windows (Montreal – smarten up – it is possible to have clean windows on buses), and curtains.

Leaving Seoul and heading south – we started on an 8 lane highway, driving past a surprisingly beautiful city scape of skyscraper and towering sound barriers interspersed with old-fashioned residential neighborhoods followed by huge apartment complexes. I’m guessing zoning in non-existent.

Eventually the 8 lanes became 4 lanes about an hour out of Seoul – as we steadily head south toward Gyeongjue – our next destination. The highways cuts through hills, and the signs of civilization are everywhere – this is not Vermont, people.

We are passing traditional looking (but new construction) buildings, and modern factories mixed between rice paddies and farms. If you can farm it – you farm it. I even saw vegetables planted between the highway and the fences that mark private property. Everywhere peach trees are in bloom – their flowers a brilliant offset to the freshly churned but not yet planted rice paddies. There are also Ginseng farms – recognizable by the sun shades. I’m definitely going to have to try some Ginseng.

Another observation – the use of sound barriers when the highway goes past residential areas is astonishing. And they are huge – I’d guess 40 to 50 feet above the highway. Some have glass tops, many have become supports for green vines. And there is no graffiti anywhere. This was true in Seoul as well. A surprising change for us North Americans.

Arriving in Gyeongju – we check into our next guest house – a traditional style house off an alley between two motorcycles repair shops. Like most traditional homes – the front gate is plain and unassuming – but when you round the corner into the yard – you discover that there is wooden building with 4 traditional rooms – which means you sleep on the floor.

To enter the room, your shoes come off – you climb up onto a wide wooden porch, unlock your double wide doors, and then slide back rice paper screens to reveal a 10′ by 14′ room. Korean’s heat their floors – so the floor is raised off the ground. But to get to the attached bathroom or kitchen – you must step back down to ground level – about 18″. And there are ‘kitchen’ shoes and ‘bathroom’ shoes to wear in those areas. Traditionally – the floor would be wood – but this is a modern constructions – so the floor is linoleum that looks like wood. Regardless – it’s still shoes off to enter!

Our bedding is simple comforters that we unfold to sleep on – and re-fold in the morning. There is a 27″ flat screen TV – and electric lighting – two welcome modern touches.

The biggest surprise – the pillows are barley stuffed. The intrepid traveller takes both – I’m sticking with my travelling temperpedic’s thank you!

The only other piece of furniture is a small low table with folding legs. Handy for putting stuff on.

And that’s it.

We grab dinner (read about that in another post) and make ourselves comfy. It’s very quiet – and while the floor is hardly soft – I’m so tired that I think I could sleep on anything.

Signing off –

The Soup Lady and her side kick – the Intrepid Traveller.