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Gostiny Dvor – The Good: half of the shops are on ground level with both an exterior rain-sheltering arcade and an interior path that leads from one end to the other of this long mercantile block. Service was friendly and if the shop-owner did not have what we needed, we were given direction to another shop that might. Recommended: the ice cream shop in the far left corner (from Nevsky Prospekt)
The Bad: There are two floors and if there is an elevator, we did not find it.
The Grand Hotel Europe on Nevsky Prospekt – The Good: A gorgeous lobby, and elevator to the Mezzanine location of the relatively inexpensive and very attractive Mezzanine Café, or the elegant but pricey Caviar Bar. Recommend: the Caviar Bar Appetizer menu and a cocktail for your last-night splurge.
The Bad: Must get on the right elevator to descend to the ground floor, or face elegant but slippery marble staircase. Two appetizers and two cocktails at the Caviar Bar ran us close to $100 US including tip.
The Mariinsky Theatre (formerly known as the Kirov under the Soviets): The Good: Beautiful theatre, only a few steps to seating on the ground floor. Just looking at the baroque interior is entertainment; the world class opera and ballet is a bonus.
The Bad: Ladies room is down a steep flight of stairs; no visible elevator.
The Hermitage Museum – The Good: Wheelchair service gets you royal treatment from tour guides and tourists alike. Elevators are available – only to wheelchair users and pushers. Unbelievable art hung in an amazing baroque palace.
The Bad: Only two restrooms, at very beginning and at very end of tour. Need 60 hours at least to really appreciate all that is here; our tour took 3 hours. Still 3 hours of wonderful is better than none!
Peterhof: – The good: miles of wonderful level strolling paths in a garden fantasy of fountains, pools, pavilions, and statuary. You enter at the top of the Grand Cascade; there is a ramp entrance down to the right in the direction of the Pagoda Fountains. (If you miss this ramp, the staircases down at the middle and the far side are VERY long.) Lots of benches for sitting and admiring. The Pavilions were Peter the Great and his Catharine took refuge are charming and much as they might have been in Peter’s time.
The Bad: No elevators in the historic pavilions and stairs to upper floors are steep with minimal handrails. Path up to walkway on levy for view of Baltic Sea is steep. Line to see inside main palace is long. (We skipped it.)
Catharine’s Palace: the Good: the exterior of Catharine’s palace is lovely – if you like Wedgwood china you will love the effect of white and gilt trim on blue.
The Bad: the line for seeing the interior of Catharine’s palace is very long. I’m sorry we missed this, as friends had told me the Amber Room is a DON’T MISS, but it was starting to rain, the wind was picking up, and we lost our nerve.
Pushkin – the Good: The school where Pushkin studied is very evocative of the life of aristocratic young scholars – lots of fascinating artifacts.
The Bad: NO ELEVATOR, and a brutal spiral staircase thronged with Russian school children on field trips. Also almost no benches for resting between ascents. Pushkin’s room is on the 4th floor (effectively the 5th). We got only as far as the 3rd floor; I couldn’t force Mom’s bad knee any higher.
Traveling with the truly aged has both challenges and benefits. The pace will be slow, but there are advantages that come with age.
For example, friends had warned me how difficult it would be to enjoy the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, with all the Asian tourists jostling and elbowing to get to the front of the crowd and take their obligatory pictures. But I was traveling with my 91-year-old mother, who had reluctantly agreed to use a wheelchair for the Museum tour. The large group of Japanese tourists who were part of our tour bowed deferentially to this silver-haired lady in a wheelchair, beckoned us to the front of the crowd to see each of the important pictures, made sure Mom could hear the guides commentary, and even insisted we go to the front of the line in the loo for access to the handicapped stall – It is good to be a dowager! (I shared all the privileges as the designated pusher.)
As the trip evolved, there were a number of ideas that worked well to smooth Mom’s journey. Here are some top tips:
First cardinal rule: Take all the help you can get!
Traveling with an elderly companion requires extra alertness, awareness of hazards, and forethought. Tour operators and airline personnel have lots of experience on how to make an older person safe and comfortable – don’t hesitate to ask for help and take advantage of their knowledge.
Mom objected to using a wheelchair at first – “I’m not THAT old!” but when she realized how many lines she could avoid standing in, and how many short cuts between terminals would be opened, she relaxed and played the queen enthroned with gusto.
Walking at a slower-than-normal pace with an arm crooked to offer support can be as exhausting as power-walking, and being constantly alert for hazards and obstacles is wearing on the brain. Let your older companion take a nap and use the time to stretch and exercise your body, move fast, take in a few extra sights and sounds of the exotic place you are in. You’ll feel great – and grateful for all you are able to do. Trust me, your older fellow traveler will be happy to vicariously share any independent adventures over the dinner table.
Bright and sunny morning. Seating for our complimenatary breakfast was up a steep flight of stairs on a mezzanine above the buffet service counter – not a good way for Mom to start the day. Our accomodating hostess made space for us at the side of the counter. Breakfast very Russian: 2 kinds of porridge (neither one oatmeal), tomato omelet or hard-boiled eggs, white or rye bread, waffles, yogurt, apple/orange fruit salad, cucumber/tomato salad, cold cuts, cheese, and coffee strong enough to float the spoon. (This was standard fare for our Russian mornings).
Maxas picked us up promptly at 11:15 for the ballet performance at the Mariinsky theatre, a wonderfully baroque structure inside and out. This matinee was a “graduation performance” of the Mariinsky Ballet Conservatory (known as the Kirov School of Ballet under the Soviets) – 3.5 hours of varied performance – everything from modern dance to Pierrette/Pierrot mime to pseudo-West Side Story to a court dance from a Glinka opera (Glinka is big in St. Petersburg). Mom had the aisle seat, which she held onto even after “the biggest man in all of Russia” sat in front of her.
The audience was almost as varied as the ballet, with lots of doting grandparent and parents, adorable kid sisters in braids and ruffled dresses, younger ballet school classmates holding themselves very upright, as well as scruffy boy friends and girl friends of the graduates in tattoos, jacket and jeans.
Some bits were just wonderful – the first with the company in flowing slips or simple tights and just exploding like fireworks as the music and movement called for it. Another bit which was comedic but required tremendous athletic elevation and extension from the cocky little bantam rooster balletomane.
Maxas is a student of Soviet history and an aficionado of classic ballet and symphony, so he was a wellspring of information. I was so impressed not only by his depth of info but also his instant understanding or and consideration for Mom’s limitations – we did a lot of driving around points of interest after the ballet rather than walking as he originally planned; the restaurant where we had lunch/tea after the ballet was quiet with an English menu in large print, and he was careful to look directly at Mom and speak as clearly as possible. This helped a lot.
After tea we drove along the Neva River admiring the green lawns, the over-flowing flower boxes and plantings, the gilded domes and spires of the Admiralty Fortress and St Isaacs Cathedral. We did some bride-spotting – at least six Saturday bridal parties emerging like butterflies from their BMW, Mercedes, and Hum-Vee stretch limo cocoons, getting their ritual pix taken. Fashion note: Russian bridal gowns a little more ruffly and top-of-the-wedding-cake-y than at the Stanford Chape; I saw one with a bright red sash on cream, one with a white lace corset laced up the back, one with a 12-foot tulle veil/train fighting the wind. I also noted Russian bridesmaids’ gowns tending more to bright-colored chiffon rather than black satin.
In the evening Mom decided that she needed a drink before dinner even more than she needed dinner. I had spotted a bar with nice outside seating the day before. We set off sheltered from the rain by my faithful blue umbrella, by a wonderful long arcade around the shopping mall – and by a few side trips into the shopping mall. We got to the place – no outside seating in the rain even if we had wanted. The place was full, but a kind young server lady took pity on our dampness, age and infirmity and found us a table. It was only after we had placed our order for a Jack Daniels with Ice, water mit gaz, a Greek salad and some spicy chicken wings that I noticed a number of hookahs being employed at at least half the tables around us. There we were, two little silver-haired Alices surrounded by puffing caterpillars blowing smoke rings. Mom got a huge charge out of it once I had explained what was going on.
On the way home we got a bonus bride-spotting – In the Gostiny Dvor arcade a guy was shooting a lipstick commercial involving a “bride” in slogan T-shirt and tulle, throwing her lipstick to the panting bridesmaids in pink slogan T-shirts. Then he had them all jumping for the lipstick – bride included. Cute!