Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Crime in Russia

Pictured above is the Lukyanka, headquarters of the Russian federal security services. It is known to readers of spy books as Moscow Centre.
 Crime is a fact of life everywhere, but seems to be on the rise in Russia. This is my conclusion based on a totally unscientific survey of my own experiences travelling with tour groups to Russia over a number of years.
On the most recent tour in September, two members of our group of 19 had items stolen, and two others were badly ripped off by taxi drivers in St. Petersburg. The trip before that, a child on the Moscow Metro tried without luck to pick the pocket of the one group member who was a former FBI agent.
This time, two women were overcharged when they took airport taxis without booking them first at the Pulkovo arrivals hall. There, you can book a taxi for your destination under a sign that says "Pulkovo Taxi." A trip to most central destinations costs about $16, around 1,000 rubles. However, if you get a taxi yourself outside the airport, you may pay as much as $100 for the same trip.
Also in Petersburg, a member of our group lost her purse when it was snatched right off the seat in our hotel dining room. She lost her passport, smart phone and tablet and a couple of credit cards. Luckily, she was able to get the passport replaced the next day at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, but with considerable inconvenience. She was also able to cancel her credit cards and deactivate her smart phone.
Shortly after the theft, a plainchothes police officer arrived to take down the report in longhand. The theft had been captured on video, and I believe she eventually retrieved some of the lost items. However, I found the boldness of the crime surprising. Apparently the people who stole the purse had followed several of our group into the restaurant from the street. That is one of the downsides of group travel--a gaggle of people speaking a foreign language is more likely to attract potential thieves than a single individual or couple. Some other group members foiled attempts to pick their pockets on the Metro in Peter.
Later, near Moscow, another woman had a smartphone and tablet removed from her bag. So, more than a quarter of our 19 members suffered thefts, attempted thefts, or rip-offs. Most of the problems occurred in Petersburg which, as a major port for Baltic cruises, attracts more Western tourists than Moscow.
I have heard from reliable sources that street crime is a big problem in many cities of Western Europe too. Perhaps I live in a bubble in Montreal, but street crime is not something people here tend to worry about.
The rate of petty crime in Russia is certainly not a reason to forego a visit, but it is good to be aware of the possibility and take precautions. For instance, always carry photocopies of your passport and credit cards in your luggage. Leave them there or in a hotel safe when you sightsee. Also scatter cash in various locations, so if need be you will not be wiped out totally. 

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Russian Monasteries

The picture above shows one of my fellow travellers with a stray cat outside the Nikitsky monastery near Pereyaslavl Zalessky, a town north of Moscow.
Another monastery, this one called Gethsemany, near Sergiev Posad. With sturdy brick walls, it was a prison during Soviet times but is back in operation now as a seminary and monastery. Most of the attractions in the towns around Moscow known as the Golden Ring are church buildings of some kind. The Russian Orthodox Church was suppressed in the Soviet period, particularly in the early years when many priests and nuns were killed. However, it survived and is now quite popular--you see a lot of people wearing the Orthodox cross (with an extra crossbar) and some homes again have icons on the wall.
On this trip I happened to meet some young Russians who had recently visited the Kola Peninsula on the White Sea, and asked whether they had seen the film "Leviathan," which is set in that bleak and beautiful region and shows the Orthodox Church in quite an unfavourable light. They said they had not, and they did not think it had been shown anywhere in Russia. For more information on the Kola Peninsula, check the site www.kandalaksha.su, maintained by the same man who used to run a useful travel site called www.cheap-moscow.com. He is now living in the North.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Kremlin Comings and Goings

The Assumption Cathedral in the Kremlin, Moscow. It is
also known, somewhat confusingly, as the Dormition Cathedral. It is where the Czars were crowned
and inside its walls are covered with rows of glorious gold icons, including a very famous one from Novgorod in the early 12th century of St. George and the Virgin (not the dragon.)
I didn't notice much new in the Kremlin this time, except for President Putin's helipad near the Moscow River. By using it on his fairly infrequent visits, we were told, he avoids the horrendous traffic and causing problems for other drivers. Most of the time he works in a suburb southeast of the city, or works out at his gym in Sochi.
I asked our guide about what is happening with the site of the former Roosiya Hotel, just across Red Square from the Kremlin. The Roosiya with some 6,000 rooms used to be the largest in the world, but was demolished a number of years ago and the site boarded up. Now the plan is to turn it into a park--a good idea since green space is scarce in central Moscow, but perhaps also a sign of the economic downturn the country is suffering at the moment. 
I always enjoy seeing the Kremlin again, and this time there were a lot fewer tourists around than I had seen in June, 2011. Most of the tourists seemed to be Asian or Russian, with westerners in short supply. I didn't get a chance to take a picture of it, but on the bridge just south of the Kremlin there is still a memorial of flowers marking the spot where opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down earlier this year.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Russia Trip

I got back two weeks ago from another trip to Russia, which was fascinating as usual. It's great to finally have my blog fixed so I can return to telling you about my travels. The statue above in in the Moscow Metro, Komsomolskaya Station. The Komsomol was the youth wing of the Communist Party.

The good news from Russia is that it is actually quite affordable now, for the first time in many years. A steep devaluation of the ruble means that for foreigners, prices are low. I stayed at a nice small hotel in St. Petersburg, the Kristoff, for $80 U.S. for a room including a generous and delicious breakfast buffet. The hotel is on Zagorodny Prospect, within walking distance of most of the city's attractions. Meals both in Petersburg and Moscow mostly came to $10 or less, which is cheaper than anything except the food courts and fast food places here in Montreal.

Once again, as in 2011, I travelled with Friendship Force International (www.friendshipforceinternational.org.) I stayed with a local host in a lovely home in a Moscow suburb for a week, enjoying some of the famous Russian hospitality and extensive sight-seeing, and met some very interesting fellow travellers from the U.S., India and Japan. The local hosts were most accommodating, and the program included visits to two of the centres of the Russian space program. The suburb where we stayed was formerly a closed city, but now it is wide-open and seems to be thriving. Traffic was amazingly heavy, and within just a couple of blocks of my host's home, which was new and very comfortable, a series of five luxury hi-rise condo buildings is going up.

Keep reading in the next weeks for more information on my trip. It's nice to be back, but I miss Russia already.

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Viking to Revive Ukraine Cruises

Next year Viking River Cruises (www.vrc.com) will bring back its Ukraine cruises along the Dnieper River and through the Black Sea to Odessa. And if you book soon, you can get free air fare even from Canadian gateways, which would offset to some extent the fact that cruise prices were quite a lot lower before the recent hostilities in Ukraine.

The minimum price for an 11-day cruise now is $4099 per person, a hefty sum. I sailed with Viking along the Dnieper and to Crimea and Odessa in July 2010, and you can read about that trip by scrolling back to posts from August and September 2010. It was a fascinating voyage to a region I had long wanted to see. It was relatively affordable because the old ship Viking used then had tiny but totally adequate single cabins.

The 2016 cruises will be quite different--a new deluxe ship that lacks single cabins, and no port stops in Crimea, now controlled by Russia. Instead, there will be four nights in Odessa, and several stops along the Dnieper south of Kiev. For travelling couples, the free air fare offer could, to a large extent, make up for the higher cruise price.

There is no question that river cruises tend to be costly. However, they also usually include many land tours, all meals and free wine or beer with meals as well as on-board entertainment. And the pleasure of not having to pack and unpack frequently makes them a popular option, especially with older travellers.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Air BnB Competitor

If you enjoy homestays but for some reason don't like www.airbnb.com, the elephant in the private accommodation room, consider www.homestay.com. This is a newer competitor that guarantees your host will be there to greet you when you arrive at the homestay, and will be there during your stay.

Some people apparently own several places and rent them out through airbnb, turning the homestay into a more impersonal experience. On the other hand, booking a place through airbnb seems to be quite easy based on the Website. You just enter your destination and dates, and can browse through listings available for those dates with prices in U.S. dollars.

On homestay.com, it wasn't clear at least to me exactly how you would book as a guest. Perhaps my computer is too old to work well with their Website. And for the listings I could find, prices were listed in local currencies usually, which adds an extra step for the user. And not all prices were low--a homestay in Playa del Carmen, Mexico costs $100 per night for one person.

Homestay.com is a start-up, so it is unlikely to have as many members as its big competitor. But if you want to be assured of a personal experience and are willing to jump through some hoops, it could be a good choice.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Trois Rivieres, a Remnant of New France

Sometimes you don't have to go far for an interesting travel experience. I've lived in Montreal for many years, but only recently visited the city of Trois Rivieres for a day. This is a very old settlement on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, about half way to Quebec City, the provincial capital. It is a fairly industrial town, but with a vibrant old city dating from the era of New France.

It's not widely known in the U.S., but New France used to include much of the interior of the U.S. At one time it stretched west of the Appalachian mountains to far beyond the Mississippi River. Prior to the American Revolution, France controlled the Ohio territory which stretched as far as Minnesota. In 1803 the U.S. purchased the Louisiana territory in the interior south and west from France. Today the only remnants of New France in North America are the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, an overseas department of France off the coast of Newfoundland.

 The old part of Trois Rivieres is easily covered by walking, though you may have to pay to park near the Musee Populaire--$9 for the day. The Musee Populaire itself is a modern building with rotating exhibits and many kid-friendly activities. At the moment there are items relating to Quebec strong men such as Louis Cyr, 20th century toys, and the history of a French-Canadian family that lived on an ordinary street in the town. Exhibits are labelled in both French and English.

The most fascinating though creepy part of the museum is a prison tour. The prison next to the musem was active from the 1820s until it was closed in 1986. A guided tour, available in both French and English, will show you where inmates lived during their usually fairly short stays, and where a few of them ended their days by being hanged. Conditions were appalling, so it is fortunate that few prisoners stayed more than a year or two.

Admission to this museum costs about $20 Canadian, so be sure to time your visit to coincide with a prison tour if you want to get the most out of it.

Another museum, and totally free, is the Manoir Boucher de Niverville. It is the refurbished home of the Seigneur who controlled the land around Trois Rivieres under the old regime. Seigneurs were similar to European nobility, and were given land grants by the king of France to help in the settlement of the territory. Exhibits here show how the privileged class lived in the 17th and 18th centuries.

If you have any concern with church architecture, don't miss the Cathedral of the Assumption, a neo-Gothic building with beautiful stained glass windows. I was surprised to learn that the windows date only from the period of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, though the church is a lot older. Its size and beauty are a potent reminder of the strength of the Catholic Church in Quebec until the 1960s. Nearby, you can see plaque marking the birthplace of Maurice Duplessis, Quebec Premier during the period of the 20th century many people call "La grande noirceur" or the Great Darkness.

I had just one meal, lunch, in Trois Rivieres at an Irish pub-style restaurant called Le Trefle. A club sandwich with french fries and coffee came to about $18 with tax and tip.

For more on Trois Rivieres, consult www.tourismetroisrivieres.com/en.