Bill and Ellen's Russian Adventure
Reading the various guidebooks and talking to friends had us approaching our trip to Russia with great trepidation. Stories about Aeroflot, a 9-hour flight, the Russian bureaucracy, the Russian roads and a general unfriendliness to tourists had us quite worried about our ability to cope. Late instructions on how to handle money and valuables only contributed to this general unease.
I am happy to report that while some of the above is true, it still was an excellent trip. Meeting the artists in the villages and being treated with the most wonderful hospitality is not something we will soon forget. In the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg we visited world class museums and attractions. We enjoyed excellent Russian food everywhere we went. Probably the most important aspect was traveling with a really nice group of people. Our Sunbird hosts Aleksey, Jim, and Gabe not only planned an excellent trip, but were also there to provide help, advice or guidance whenever needed. Gabe's dad, George, was travelling with us and his fluency in Russian helped in so many situations. The companionship of fellow box collectors Tom, Linda and Eileen made all the bumps in the road a shared adventure and all the nice experiences all the nicer.
Our Aeroflot flight from New York to Moscow was pleasant and uneventful. On arrival in Moscow we were greeted by Jim's cheery face and taken to our hotel right on Red Square.
Moscow is amazing. Very successful, active and vibrant, it looks like something is going on 24 hours a day. The area around Red Square is very exciting. We had a spectaculer view of St. Basil's from our hotel room, "up close and personal" day and night. The Kremlin, exquisite churches and cathedrals and to top it off, GUM, the amazing shopping center/department store all within a short walk. No empty shelves of the past, GUM was chock-a-block full of famous designer clothing stores. Prices for upscale European items seemed on a par with the US. It was a very exciting beginning for tired travelers.
The next day we journeyed on the famous Moscow underground metro to the permanent flea market, Vernisazh. FYI, we tried to exchange travellers checks at a bank near the market and it was very difficult and time consuming. The market has almost a theme park atmosphere: interesting wooden structures, trained bears, women in costume, and just about any Russian handicraft you could want to buy. In addition to stalls selling lacquer boxes, there were dolls of all sizes in costume, amber jewelry, stacking dolls, fur hats, printed shawls, antiques and the list goes on and on. My wife is still moaning about the things she passed up. Vernisazh was the best place to buy Russian crafts both for variety and price. The group split up with a Sunbirds guide for shopping and met up for a delicious shashlik (shish-kabob) lunch right in the market.
In the afternoon we went to the famous Tretyakov Museum to see a great collection of Russian art and artists, with the extra attraction of seeing originals of works duplicated on lacquer boxes. The ground floor had a collection of icons that were easy to miss (because of the physical layout, you could only see them on the way out) and yet were incredibly beautiful. We also had a memorable dinner at Russkoye Bistro, the Moscow mayor's attempt to have a "Russian McDonalds". The food was so inexpensive, we tried nearly everything on the menu. It was fun and a lot better than McDonalds. Our hosts were dubious, but the group was universal in enjoying the meal.
Day2 started early as we headed for Vladimir and Palekh. A short stop at a supermarket outside of Moscow showed us shopping comparable to the average in the US. Shortly after was our first exposure to the famed Russian roads and the "Russian slalom" (maneuvering to avoid potholes). I'd have to say that, in spite of the ominous reports, they were rougher than expected. It was a tribute to our drivers and the Toyota vans that nothing mechanical or human was broken.
Vladimir was a welcome stop with a beautiful cathedral, a nice lunch and an interesting little museum in the historical entrance to the city. It was then back on the roads.
On arrival in Palekh we went directly to our "hotel". It was a shock. Thirty rooms with a shared men's room and a shared ladies' room. No hot water, no shower. Not a good start. Because the checking-in process was lengthy, we walked around the village, stopped at a local grocery store to buy toilet paper (not supplied by the hotel) and headed off to the only restaurant in town for dinner. What a nice surprise! The restaurant, which was all wood paneled, had large (from approx. 3ft high to 3ft to 8ft wide) paper mache pictures on the walls painted by Palekh artists. The atmosphere was exciting and the food was both delicious and plentiful. We were also invited to an artist's house after dinner where we were served another sumptuous spread. It was our first experience with the friendliness and generosity of the artists in their homes. This was repeated often in each of the villages. We also had our first chance to buy boxes directly from the artists.
After such a lovely evening, the hotel seemed more tolerable; in spite of the fact that the night was cold, the heat was turned off and that shared bathroom was accessed through a dark hallway as the electricity was turned off as well.
It was not difficult to wake early for the next day, which started with a very nice breakfast at our new favorite restaurant. From there we were able to visit Golikov's house, now preserved as a museum both to honor the man and the history of Palekh box making. It was most interesting for that and to see how people of that generation lived.
We then made our way to the Palekh museum where we were treated to 80+ years of Palekh box making and hundreds of years of icon painting. It was truly a thrilling experience to see some of the extraordinary works in person that I had previously only viewed in pictures. Of all the terrific experiences on this trip, this was probably #1 for me. The number of exquisite boxes in the very simple setting made it a small jewel of a museum.
Next we visited two of the box making "artels". Seeing the process from start to finish impressed us with the amount of time and skill involved in the non-painting parts of the process. It's like building tiny wood boxes, only you first have to manufacture the wood. The actual construction requires the tools and techniques of the finest wood shop. We then had the opportunity to view and purchase factory boxes.
After lunch we went from artist house to artist house. This is going to start to sound repetitive, but everywhere we went we were welcomed with the warmth of friendship. Artists showed us their work (often not available for purchase) and discussed it with the easy hospitality that seemed to permeate this village. These visits lasted long into the night and made for a long and pleasant day.
The next day we headed for picturesque Kholuy. A lovely river bisects the town connected by a wood bridge. We first visited the factory where, once again, the box-making routine was described and demonstrated. Here they were very clear on demonstrating the difference between theme boxes that were painted many times and individual one-of-kind boxes. We had the opportunity to purchase both.
Our next stop was the Kholuy museum. Just as in Palekh, a fairly modest setting for an absolutely wonderful collection of Kholuy's best.
After a short stroll through the village the group split up to have lunch in various artist's homes. Each of the collectors were accompanied by one of our Russian speaking guides. My wife and I were lucky enough to have lunch with Victor Yolkin and his wife, Nadezhda Yolkina. The meal was delicious and the conversation most interesting. Mr. Yolkin lamented the lack of creativity in the younger generation of artists. We were introduced to their son who just graduated from the art school and was copying one of Mr. Yolkin's pieces. My wife commented on how proud they must be to have a son following them in the pursuit of art. Mrs.Yolkina responded that they expected to be in about 5 years. No question that high standards are set in the Yolkin household.
After lunch, we went to the "Union" hall where we met and were shown the work of many of Kholuy's master artists. I was impressed by meeting them and to see so many beautiful boxes. After visiting several more artists' houses, we set off on the bumpy road to Mstera.
We arrived in Mstera late at night, just in time for the now expected huge meal. The next day was a full one. Mstera has two museums, one a separate entity and one in the factory. Both had many beautiful examples of Mstera artistry. The Mstera factory was set up nicely to sell, with both artist originals and copies. We were also treated to a meeting with Mstera's master artists in their new attractive building. The available boxes were beautiful.
Lunch in Mstera was extra special. We were invited to the home of Vladimir and Olga Filkin who treated us to a picnic/barbecue in a birch forest overlooking a river and a meadow. What a lovely setting. The meal and the company were great. Their black Great Dane, Lord, was also a lot of fun.
In the afternoon we visited a number of the Mstera household names in their homes: the three Molodkins, Sosin, the wonderful Lev Fomichev and many others. It was just an incredible day.
In comparing the three villages we visited, Mstera was clearly the most commercial and I mean that in a positive way. Quality boxes were available from the factory and the artists. It also seemed to me that the people, for the most part, were the worldliest. Kholuy was the prettiest and next in the terms I described above. Palekh was more old-fashioned and was clearly the least commercial. If you accidentally happened into Palekh, I don't know if you would ever discover that it was devoted to producing such exquisite art. What was common to the three villages we visited was how welcoming the artists were and how well we were treated as their guests. I can't imagine the amount of planning that our Sunbird hosts put into this part of the trip. The logistics must have been horrendous and yet were accomplished flawlessly.
After finishing up in Mstera, we headed for Suzdal. Suzdal is lovely: an outdoor museum of beautiful old wooden structures (churches, windmills, houses, etc.), beautiful churches, cathedrals and a Kremlin. The half-day didn't seem to be enough time for this relatively tourist-friendly little jewel.
It was then a bumpy ride back to Moscow and a nice relaxed dinner and saying goodbye to our new friends. We flew out early the next morning to St. Petersburg with our new guide Mischa. Contrary to the guidebooks, our flight to St. Petersburg was flawless. The Moscow terminal was relatively uncrowded and the flight was on time. FYI, exchanging travellers checks in the St. Petersburg airport was easy.
Our hotel in St. Petersburg was by far the best we stayed at in Russia. It was new and only eight rooms having been recently converted from a very large apartment. It was the only hotel where we felt welcomed and wanted and not a burden to the staff. The area around the hotel was great fun with a cathedral every bit the match for St. Basil's. After a walking tour of the city, we set out to visit the Hermitage.
The Hermitage does not disappoint. It is enormous and somewhat complex, but it is truly a world-class museum. The treasures from the czars are incredible and the various art collections are no less incredible. Art treasures from France, Italy, Belgium, etc. just dazzle the eyes at every turn. It was exhausting but well worth it. We had a very nice dinner and then took a relaxing and interesting canal-boat tour of the city. We were lucky to experience the "white night". At 11:30pm it was as light as a late afternoon. It didn't stop us from having a great night's sleep.
The next day we journeyed an hour by bus to Peterhof, the czar's summer palace. Again the wealth of the czars is very much in evidence. The inside of the palace has rooms that rival the Hermitage and the grounds are nothing short of spectacular. Our trip back was a short half-hour on a hydrofoil and then another uneventful flight back for our last day in Moscow.
Our last day in Moscow Alexey took us to Arbat Street. Clearly, it's a street for foreign tourists to buy high quality arts and crafts. It was nice and relaxing and we it topped off with a terrific lunch at a Georgian restaurant.
And then it was back home on a very pleasant Aeroflot flight.
Reflecting back on this wonderful trip, just as warned, Russia has a long way to go to become tourist friendly. In many places (hotel registration, cashing checks, airport check-ins etc.) the tradition of an uncaring bureaucracy continues. In addition Russians who speak English are the exception. I can't imagine visiting Moscow or St. Petersberg without being accompanied by a Russian speaking person. In the villages, it would be impossible without someone knowledgeable of exactly who or what is where. It was the people at Sunbirds with their extreme dedication who made this trip full and enjoyable for all of us.
Bring toilet paper.
Bring a flashlight.
Bring cash, traveler's checks were a nuisance except at the airports. Large denominations were not a problem.
Bring handiwipes, three days without hot water made these indispensable.
Bring a magnifying glass.
Men, an electric shaver is better then a cold water shave.
Bring an extra suitcase or carry-on for all your loot.