The trip from Kristiansand in Norway to Hirtshals in Denmark on the 27th July on Fjordline’s catamaran only took two and a half hours and was uneventful. We reached the camping site near Haderslev, Denmark after about four hours and we were glad we hadn’t booked a holiday there like so many of the other campers with fixed sites as the rural odours of the countryside were a bit much!

We continued early the next day to Lubeck to spend a few days with friends. Katrin one of our friends surprised us with a trip down the Kiel canal (of great interest for years to Maurice) on a paddle steamer complete with a wonderful lunch. It was a long day as there was only one loch in working condition so we went around and around in circles in Kiel harbour for three hours before we could continue into the loch and down the canal to Rendsburg. We got back to Lubeck about 10pm and after starting out at 6.45am. It made for a long but very enjoyable day and the weather was good, about 30 degrees and the sun was shining.

We detoured on the 31st July to Dollern (east of Hamburg) on the way down to Holland to have lunch with friends and then continued to Mander where we spent the night before driving on to see the towns of Gouda and Delft and then on to Hoek von Holland to catch the ferry on the 1st August to Harwich. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of traffic in Holland especially around the spaghetti junctions near Utrecht and Rotterdam.
We arrived into Harwich and went straight to Hitchin where we spent a couple of days getting minor things fixed at the caravan company where we bought our motorhome.
Over the next few days we caught up with Maurice’s niece in London and our friends in the Chilterns and had a nice day out on the Thames on our friend’s boat. The weather was kind to us and we had a mostly sunny day.
We had wanted to visit Bath to see the Roman Baths in particular. The two hour trip took us nearly four hours with many delays on the highways and we then drove around looking for a parking spot (none to be had) and somehow also managed to get into the pedestrian area with thousands of tourists wandering around. We decided to head away when we eventually found our way out of town and continued on to Stroud to meet up with a friend we made in Bali. We were not so disappointed as we decided to go back to Bath another day. We spent a couple of hours chatting with our friend and then headed for the campsite between Cheltenham and Gloucester.
We were going to continue up to the Lakes district however the weather turned foul so we decided to stay put and instead visit
that area for a few days.

Five pounds (56p to the dollar) got us a day ticket to visit both Gloucester and Cheltenham and the bus stop was directly outside the camping site. We spent most of the day in the Gloucester visiting the Cathedral with it’s magnificent architecture and sculptures inside and out. It was to date the most beautiful cathedral we had visited. We went past the house where Beatrix Potter of the Tales of Gloucester fame lived. She was one of my favourite storytellers as a child and still is.
The sunshine was warm as we walked to the renovated docks area which had a very good shopping centre and many cafes and one with particularly good coffee. From there we caught the bus to Cheltenham and walked around the pretty town doing a bit of shopping. There were no such amazing landmarks there but interesting buildings and lovely gardens and a very impressive Municipal building with scores of beautiful hanging baskets and an ornate fountain in front of it.
Cheltenham had a distinctive English feel about it, different from many other towns in England now with it’s multi cultural population.
On Tuesday we decided to travel the hour back to Bath and this time we found a park and ride just ten minutes by bus from the centre of town. The Roman Baths had the only hot spring in the UK so we hurried there before the masses arrived. We were early enough and were
amazed at the amount of excavation and restoration done in that area which is in the middle of town. There is apparently much more to excavate however the foundations of the buildings above the ruins have to be made stable before they can attempt any further work.

Bath had such interesting architecture and was larger than I thought with many impressive Georgian buildings and rows of townhouses, many churches, monuments and beautifully sculptured gardens. The river meanders around the town and the hills surrounding it made for an interesting looking landscape.
We had to try a “Bath Bun” so went to an establishment called “Sally Lunn’s Historic eating house and museum” which is over 300years old.
The round slightly sweet toasted bread bun with jam and clotted cream was delicious.
There were thousands of tourists in town who all dispersed quickly when it started to rain rather heavily. This continued
throughout the day interspersed with bouts of sunshine. We visited the house where Jane Austin lived and where she wrote her many novels.
The lush crops were about to be or had been harvested in the various counties we visited with bales of hay lying in the fields and a procession of tractors with trailer loads of hay being transported around the countryside. It made for a beautiful patchwork of green, yellow and brown landscape everywhere.
We saw huge fields of hops around herefordshire, most hidden behind tall hedges.

We left our good campsite of “Briarfields” near Cheltenham and wound our way along the backroads and across undulating fields
to near Chedsworth to see the best example of the ruins of a vast Roman Villa which was discovered by a gamekeeper who found
small mosaic tiles while out ferreting in 1864. The site lay buried since 360AD but has since been protected as a heritage site.

We headed to North Wales throught the Cotswolds and the counties of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Wiltshire to spend night
at a rural campsite 10minutes from the ferry terminal at Holyhead. We had an early start (before 6am) so as to get to the
terminal for a 8.55am sailing to Dublin. Once at the ferry terminal and after the usual check in and passport checks there was always more than an hour’s wait so I used this time to write the blog and sort photos.

The Welsh sound like the Swedes on steroids. Most of their signs are unpronouncable and luckily most have English subtitles.
We saw a lovely sign on a deliver van with the stores name “Wing Ho” and underneath “All the Chinese you need to know” Very clever!

We arrived into Dublin port after the two and a half hour crossing and Ireland gave us it’s usual welcome with some heavy rain although travelling on the highways there was very easy with very little traffic as we made our way across to Ballivor in County Meath to visit friends. I cooked an Indonesian meal for thirty people one night and it was nice to have a large kitchen to prepare the meal.

Everyone we spoke to said that up to the time we arrived the weather had been good but it rapidly changed into Autumn weather with heavy winds, rain and it got cold enough to have to wear several layers and
raincoats again. It didn’t matter much as we were visiting friends and family for the two weeks we were there. We helped celebrate three birthdays, two in Dublin and one in Wexford as well as having our routine health check ups. Maurice had managed to break a tooth when he nearly knocked himself out and cut his head back in Tallinn so he had that repaired as well.

Good as new we drove down for the night to another of Maurice’s cousins who has a house surrounded by fields and cows near Avoca in County Wicklow. It is a beautiful part of the country with rolling hills and quaint villages. She took us to “Kilmacurragh” the National Botanic gardens in Wicklow where many exotic trees and plants from the Himalayas and South America had been planted by the Acton family in the 18th century.
Unfortunately most of the family and their gardeners died during the first world war and after changing hands a few times was given to the National gardens in 1996. It was very overgrown and it took nearly four years to clear the site and find many of the exotic trees and shrubs in the garden. There was also a Japanese cedar tree which looked like a clump of trees and which had an amazing root structure around which we walked. It was like something out of “Lord of the Rings”.

The following morning after breakfast we drove the hour down via
Kilmuckrigde to visit our friend from Ballivor who had rented a holiday cottage by the seaside there with some of her family. In the afternoon we drove an hour to Wexford where we spent a few days visiting old and new friends.

We stayed at the campsite on the Irish sea and were rocked at night by the very strong winds. We went back to Kilmuckridge to spend the night with our friends and then headed for Rosslare on the 29th August after saying our goodbyes to friends in Wexford to take the
overnight ferry to Roscoff on the southern French coast.

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The 16th July on a cloudy day we drove about six hours through Sweden to Norway to stay the night in Ringerike after getting lost in Oslo’s maze of highway construction around the city. We stopped in Honefoss and went into the shopping centre for some supplies. It looked very small but as in many places with harsh winters it was enormous with two large storeys underground.
We enjoyed the leisurely drive through the mountains and stopped at the Gardnos meterorite park. It did not look like the
desert craters you often see with meterorites but was heavily forested and green because of all the rain in Norway and also
because it was 500million years old and 5 kilometres across.
The weather deteriorated as we got into the mountains and we had heavy rain and a cold 7 degrees but as we drove on down to the
Sognefjord it was a bit warmer and the temperature doubled.
We stayed a couple of nights at the beautiful little town of Undredal right on the Sognfjord and boasts the smallest church in Norway and goat’s cheese. There are 100 inhabitants and 500 goats.
The following day it was Summer again 25degrees and sunny. We drove the 6kms back to Flam and took the 2 1/2hour round trip
on the Flamsbana (train) up the mountain to Myrdal which was very scenic and we had a stop to see the magnificent Kjosfossen
waterfall on the way and back. The trip cost about $75 each which was very reasonable considering a 250ml bottle of water from
the cafe cost $5.
The railway museum in the the dock area was interesting but apart from that there were only souvenir shops, one cafe selling
espresso coffee and a couple of icecream vans. Flam seemed to be a stop for cruise ships which didn’t seem to be too popular
with some of the locals by the sign we saw on the plastic wrapped bales of hay with “no cruise ships” written on them.

Norway has such an abundance of water – fjords,lakes, waterfalls and rivers. On some of the mountain tourist routes there was still a lot of unmelted snow and ice. Cows, sheep, goats and horses appear to roam freely in many places which made for cautious driving especially in some of the older darker tunnels where in one we found three sheep huddled together.

Most businesses and shops seem to work Monday to Friday 9-5pm and even most of the cafes in the towns were closed on Sunday even in peak tourist season.

The camping places didn’t seem to open until 11am but worked later until 10pm. A lot of the the service stations only had a self service facility. The price of diesel was a hefty $2.35 a litre. Prices in Norway we found pretty steep.
Coffee or an ice cream are $5-$6 and a small pastry could be up to $10. At the camping site near Bergen they wanted $20 forone day’s internet which we declined as that didn’t guarantee good access.

To catch the ferry for a trip along the narrowest fjord the following day we walked a few metres to the small dock area in
Undredal and switched on a light which flashes to let the local ferry know to stop and pick us up. The ferry started from Flam to Gudvangen and the round trip took about three hours depending on how many stops it had to make at the few small villages along the fjord. The Naeroyfjorden was spectacular with steep rising mountains on either side.
The local ferry had a loudspeaker to give us points of interest on the way in six different languages. The cost was about $70 per person round trip and well worth it.

Our friends in Norway recommended we take a route over the mountains “the snow mountain road” down to near Laerdal and we were glad they did as it was a spectacular drive with patches of snow that had not turned completely to ice, dripping into many
areas to form lakes. In some places the snow looked like sand on a beach.

We drove on to Fodnes and took the ferry to Manheller which only took 15 minutes and from there to Sogndal to spend a couple of nights there at the camping site at the base of the fjord. The camping sites along the fjords have the most ideal positions.

The ferry services from every side of the fjord were excellent and we didn’t have to wait more than 15minutes at any of the ports. The longest services only took 20minutes and some only 5minutes. The camping site at Kjornes was ideal being only 1 kilometre from the town of Sogndal.

We found a small cafe (the only one open on Sunday) run by an Italian and his Norwegian girlfriend. They had only been open
for five weeks and served excellent coffee. The Italian had come to Norway 18months previously as he could find no work in Italy.

Another day we spent driving along a national tourist route along the Lusterfjord to Turtagro with spectacular views along
another mountain road. We felt as though we were on top of the world. We stopped on the fjord in Marifjora where I had stayed
in 1989 which was a small town with a lovely hotel called the Torvis.

Our Norwegian friend Olaf ordered good weather for and he kept his word because for our entire stay in Norway we were blessed with hot, sunny days with temperatures of 26-30 degrees even in Bergen which is normally renowned for constant rainy days.

We decided to drive up to the National park in Nigardsbreen to see a glacier. A small boat took us across to within half
an hours walk of the glacier face. There were many guides to accompany people onto the glacier if you wanted to walk
or hike on the ice but we didn’t feel the need to do that and the glacier was a spectacular sight from it’s base anyway.

Back to Sogndal for a coffee and some supplies and then we travelled the length of the Sognfjord driving up and over the
snow road instead of the driving through the longest tunnel of 24 kilometres. There was luckily very little traffic along the
way. There were no camping sites close to Lavik so we took a ferry to Oppedal and drove to an idyllic spot nearby in Brekke
with a new camping site “Botnen” which was still partly under contruction. It was 26degrees at 6pm when we arrived.
It was really wonderful to have good weather as the fjords and mountain scenery were so much more spectacular with blue skies
and sun.

The drive the next morning to Bergen took us through the most tunnels we had encountered. The best camping site was about an
hour by bus and light rail away from Bergen but it was a relaxing ride after being in the van for many days and cost about $20
each for a return journey. It was 1989 when I had last been to Bergen and I had forgotten how beautiful the old hanseatic
city was with it’s large harbour, beautifully manicured gardens, rows of colourful wooden houses in Bryggen and the fish market at the harbour’s edge. We found some good small cafes and interesting narrow streets with a lot of street art on the walls.
Once again when we veered off the main tourist drag we were on our own. We spent the afternoon and early evening wandering the treets and getting our bearings.

We planned our trip to Norway and didn’t realise that the tall ship’s race to Esbjorg from Bergen was from the 24-27th July
with an expected 500,000 people and over 70 tall ships and over 3,000 crew. We therefore got up early on the 23rd when some of the ships were due to arrive and made our way to town and up to the Floibanen (funicular)and travelled up to the top of the mountain to see the amazing view of the picturesque city and a couple of the ships sailing into the port. We were fortunate to start off early as the queue for the funicular was very long by the time we came back down again.

The Russian ship the “Kruzenstern” was the largest and second to arrive and we went on board to see the ship which had a complement
of 186 sailors of which 120 were cadets. It made the Leeuwin on which we used to sail look tiny. There were lots of tourists
wandering around the harbour and through the fishmarket and the atmosphere was lively. There was a lot of seafood for sale, fresh and cooked but was very expensive. The giant crab with it’s enormous claws was over $100 a kilo.
We stopped at a bench and had our pre-prepared sandwiches instead. We treated ourselves to a good coffee once or twice a day and most cafes had good free wifi. I had bought some fresh salmon the day before and we had a meal of that in the van.

I took so many photos of the fjords, the mountains and rivers but it really was impossible to capture the majesty of the scenery in a photo but that didn’t stop me!

We found a lot of people of all ages quite obese and we thought that the cheaper junk food on offer may also be to blame. There
was the usual McDonalds and Burger King with their special offers of burgers, chips and drinks and we saw so many people walking
along carrying cans of coke. So many women in particular also did not flatter themselves with the clothes they wore which seems to be a pattern in most countries.

We left Bergen on the 23rd July and the drive to our next stop was via a long and winding road to the next ferry.
We crossed the Hardangerfjord in bright sunshine towards an 11 kilometre tunnel. When we exited the tunnel into the town of Odda it was to cloud and rain for a couple of hours as We drove along another snow mountain road with spectacular waterfalls on both sides of the road. Many of the old houses there had grass roofs and some even with trees growing from them.
The temperature got down to 14 degrees and then by the time we readched the town of Roldal it had risen again to 28degrees.
The next morning we drove the 4 1/2 hours to our friends in Arendal.

Arendal is a very picturesque town and it was lovely to see our friends again there. It was 2years since we had been there and that was without Van Mauriceson. The house is on a small island is in a lovely position on the edge of a forest. We spent two relaxing days there and went on a couple of short walks around the northern and southern tip of the island and had a great fish meal and evening in Arendal
town. The weather knew we were leaving Norway for as we left Kristiansand on the 27th July to catch the ferry to Hirtshals in Denmark. It was raining and cooler again.

Travelling in Europe is a challenge when choosing clothes or rather keeping Summer and Winter clothes out at the same time not like at home in Australia where you pack your winter clothes away until the following winter and the same applies for Summer clothes!

We will return one day to Norway to explore some more of their extraordinarily beautiful country.

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We had a couple of quiet days to catch up on sleep at our friend’s house in Vantaa after the long train trip from Russia.   We drove into Helsinki city on the 10th July and visited the indoor and outdoor markets as well as an Asian shop to get supplies for the van.   We had a lovely Italian meal and then made our way to the Tallink Silja cruise ship which had many more facilities than any other ferry we had used.   The only cabins left were those below the car deck but otherwise it was a very comfortable crossing, stopping firstly at Mariehamn at 4.15am. There was a lot of engine noise as we docked so I decided to go on deck for a while with the other half dozen die hards and photograph the sunrise and have a look at the many islands. The trip took 17hours and we put our watches back an hour on arrival in
Stockholm.   It was a lovely warm,sunny day (we were getting used to these!) as we drove to the campsite 20minutes from town in the suburb of Bromma.   We got the last spaceat the campsite and there were over a hundred vans there and many  nationalities.

Stockholm is a collection of many islands with beautiful views across the water from the hills around Sodermalm island and from some of the 16 other main islands.
There are very good train, bus and ferry services around the islands and the 24 or 72hour pass allows you transport on all of them.
We left the van and caught the train into the city island of sodermalm and then a ferry to Djurgarden to the Vasa museum which took about ten minutes.  It houses the most amazing example of a 17th century ship which was the focus of the museum. In 1628 it had only sailed 1.3 kilometres before sinking in Stockholm harbour on it’s maiden voyage (it was badly designed and top heavy!) with 64 cannons on board.   It lay on the sea bed in Stockholm until 1961 when the mammoth task of salvaging it started. Seventy percent of the ship was intact and the rest lay nearby with very little extra timber needed to repair it.   It was in such good condition and had not rotted because the sea there  had no wood worms to eat the wood.  It was enormous and the most amazing sight.   The museum building
was built around it and it reached up to seven floors in height.
It was a beautiful day and many locals as well as tourists were making the most of the weather and picnicking in the parks and on the various islands. We caught the ferry back to Sodermalm and walked over to Gamla Stan (old town) island where we wandered around the very impressive buildings.
We made our way over to the changing of the guard at 12.15pm which has been a daily event since the fifteen hundreds.  It lasted about half an hour with a great military band playing and a lot of pomp and ceremony. The guards on duty do not have to stand ram rod straight and can look around unlike those of many other countries.  This seemed to make more sense
really if they wanted to notice everything around them.
Stockholm listed three free tours and we decided on two of them. The Soder tour at 2pm with grisly stories of the burning of witches in the 17th century and other interesting ones of life in Stockholm which was quite different from a usual city tour.   We had a break and then caught the metro (tunnelbana)to the old town and joined the 6pm old town tour.
Both were excellent and we met Jess from Perth on the Soder tour. It was nice to meet someone from home.

There was an huge number of tourists in town but with so many different islands to explore it only felt crowded in the old town “Gamla Stan” where the Royal palace was located and where the various tour buses and groups were gathered.
The views from Soder (after climbing many steps) over the Baltic were spectacular especially given the bright sunny day.
Someone said that it was advantageous to go on the free tours as the guides do want a good tip at the end of the tour and they are therefore more enthusiastic and seem to ibe more spontaneous than on a regular guided tour paid for in advance.
Apparently Swedes are the second largest consumer of coffee in the world and judging by the abundance of  cafes this appeared to be correct.   We found Stockholm to be more expensive than Helsinki or Moscow especially the entrance fees to the various museums which were up to 255 Swedish Krone or over $40 per person. We were lucky and  could cook our own meals and take lunch with us so we  just splurged on a couple of coffees a day.
Maurice’s arthritis was playing up the next day so he stayed in the van while I went back into town and out to Djurgarden island to go to the ABBA museum. I was a big fan of their music back in the seventies so I loved it. Their music appealed to many obviously as they were coming up to 400 million record sales!
The map I had bought of Stieg Larsson’s millennium “The girl with the Dragon Tattoo” showing the locations used in the books was not very accurate so I had a long walk after taking the metro two stops too far from where I wanted to be. Just what I needed – more walking!
I bought a coffee from the Mellqvist kaffebar where the author Stieg Larsson visited regularly when his office of the magazine “Expo” where he was editor-in-chief was in the same building. He was a journalist and a leading expert on anti-democratic, right-wing extremist and Nazi movements. He died at only 50 years of age and his 65 million selling books in 45 languages were only published after his death in 2004.
I made my way to a closer metro station and went back to Van Mauriceson, picked up Maurice and caught the train to Hasselby Strand where we were met by our friend Christian and his children.
It is fun to see the development of the children that we visit on our travels. We were kindly invited to dinner at his parent’s house near one of the many lakes in that area. It was a hot humid day and we had a delicious Swedish meal (seafood on a potato cake, BBQ’d beef and pork with new potatoes and rubbarb and strawberry pie) sitting next to the pool.
On the 14th July we set off for Alingsas just north of Gothenburg to catch up with friends for a couple of days that we last saw two years previously in our first year of travel.   Cajsa let me use her kitchen so I cooked an Italian meal for them one night.   It was a change from cooking in the van. When we do eventually get back to our house in Perth the ktchen will seem huge.

On the 17th July we headed through north throug Sweden to Norway.

It is hard to believe that we have already been traelling for two and a half years nearly after departing Perth on the 1st Apri 2012!

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Ksenia picked us up at 5.30am the next morning to avoid the morning traffic of Muscovites on a Saturday out of the city.
One of the main streets had 11 lanes one way and there were many accidents with people changing lanes.  We saw two such accidents in our short time in Moscow and a mangled car on the way down to Vladimir.   There were some interesting passengers in the cars on the way down there – an exotic bird, a black cat and a van inside a van going to Poland.

Moscow was built on a ring road system whereas St Petersburg on a grid system.  Ksenia told us that there was no fine for travelling up to 20 kilometres over the speed limit, $15 for 30 kilometres over the limit, $100 for 40 kilometres over and at 60 kilometres over the limit your licence was lost!   They didn’t have a licence points system at all.

The trip to Vladimir (on the so called Golden Ring) our first stop should have taken us 3-4hours but took more than 5hours with many stops in a traffic jam.  There were not many people driving in Moscow that early but once we got out of town there were many people were on the road to
their Dachas (country houses) for the weekend.
We stopped in Vladimir for about an hour to have some blinis for lunch at a very square old soviet cafeteria building  and a look at the old churches and view of the valley below. We continued a further hour on to Suzdal, a very old town on the Golden Ring stopping at the fruit sellers along the road.

Ksenia took us to a lovely garden restaurant serving freshly made Russian food. We were glad we had her with us as there were no English menus and no one spoke English or German unlike our host at our B and B who had lived briefly in Germany and spoke German. Many of the older generation had learnt German in school and the younger generation learnt English.
There were numerous small hotels, guesthouses and B and B’s and the one we stayed in the “Vintazh Otel Surikov” was a lovely B and B right on the river.
The other guests were all Russian but one spoke good English and was very friendly. Vladimir put on 60’s rock and roll music during the day as he renovated an old Mercedes and another old Russian car.  We were given a hearty Russian breakfast of porridge, bread with butter, cheese and ham,pancakes with fruit and a large cup of Turkish type coffee.   Sunday was the first really hot day we had had with 34degrees and sunny which we really enjoyed. It got humid later in the afternoon and rained on an off from
about 5pm.
Nothing was too much trouble for Vladimir and he found us a retired teacher Yuriy as an guide who took us on 2hour walking tour around the town. He spoke good English and gave us the history of the town.

The very old town was set up during Soviet times (1967) as the first tourist town and a large hotel was built in honour of this.  The town was also used as the setting for many Russian and foreign films, one of which was “Peter the Great” and stars such as Omar Sharif and Vanessa Redgrave were in Suzdal for the film.   Apparently there was a large film set built close to the river near where we stayed depicting  Moscow in the 1700’s and after filming closed the Americans wanted to donate the entire set to the town however two generals at the time had other ideas and took it all to their dachas (country houses).
Yuriy walked us through the town and into various convents and churches and pointed out interesting houses along the way.
The entire village was made of wood many centuries ago however much of it has been rebuilt with bricks and mortar after much of it burnt down.
Suzdal is known as being the place that Moscovites and others from reachable cities came to for the weekend. It was surrounded by vast fields and the small town of 11,000 had 30 working churches and a few more that were derelict or under restoration.
We walked later through the town to meet Ksenia for dinner at a Russian restaurant called “Traktir”. We had a typical Russian meal with a delicious beetroot, garlic and walnut salad, a white radish and parsley salad followed by an eggplant and tomato dish and potatoes with horseradish sauce. Maurice had “blinis” pancakes with fruit to cap off the meal. Ksenia had to read us the menu again as it was all in Russian and no English subtitles or separate English menus.   There had been two busloads of Italian tourists in the town but they were given a set menu so no language was needed.
Ksenia drove us to a orphanage/church complex on the other side of town which was beautifully laid out and later to a very old abandoned large church in the fields which looked fascinating in it’s derelict state  even though there were plants growing from it and it was falling apart.

Maurice and I wanted to go to the monastery for a look the next day (Monday) but it was closed  Monday so we went for a nice walk instead and could see why people from the city love the fresh air of the countryside and the lack of people.
Ksenia picked us up and we went to a ceramic factory where we bought a couple of little hand made china pieces and then drove into a very ordinary small Russian village with quaintly painted houses to buy a large quantity of berries for her mother to make jam and also buy some goat’s milk from other villagers.  The roads were pretty rough with many potholes but a lot of work was being done to the old houses.   Most were very colourfully painted and decorated.  We drove the hour back to Vladimir where we farewelled Ksenia who had shown us so much Russian hospitality. We caught the train back to Moscow (which took four and a half hours) deposited our bags, had a meal outside the station and then departed at 11pm on a very new and superb Siemen’s train to Helsinki. The very friendly conductress brought us coffee in fine china when we boarded the train and again and gave us bottles of water and a breakfast bag with muffin,juice, yoghurt and chocolate. We had comfy pillows and duvets and electronic passes to enter our cabin.  It was a fantastic train service . The thirteen hour trip from Moscow landed us back near  Helsinki at 12noon  to another sunny warm day.  We turned our watches back an hour.

In many of the countries we visited,  the cities are thriving but there is still a lot of poverty in the country areas with little infrastructure.
It was interesting to hear from Ksenia that pensions in the country areas were far less than in the city where the cost of living was greater. A couple of people admitted to us that Russians in general were better off under the Soviet system with educational opportunities and medical services for all whereas now if one cannot pay for a service they don’t receive it.

Russia more than exceeded our expectations and especially the attitude of most people that we encountered who were not the western portrayed dour and uncompromising people they were made out to be.  Some officials were like that but no more so than in any other country.  We both hope to return one day.

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Some of the wonderful metro station on the circle line in Moscow.

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We got tickets the next day for the Kremlin and made our way around the vast complex inside the red walls comprising of Mr Putins
offices, administrative buildings, enormous Parliament, several chapels, the cathedral and the lovely gardens and a heliport.
We could only enter one chapel and the cathedral and wander around the gardens.  We decided not to see the armoury and treasury.  Unlike many other countries it is unknown as to where Mr Putin lives and the flag is always flying so it is also not known when he is in the Kremlin.

Since reading the novel “Gorky Park” and having it mentioned in other books I wanted to visit the actual park.  It covers an enormous  area on the bank of the Moscow river and it has many recreational Summer facilities with table tennis tables, outdoor volleyball area and other sport’s buildings, bike hire, boat hire on the various lakes and numerous outdoor cafes and
restaurants and plenty of benches to sit and enjoy the park. Several people were sunbaking on the concrete bank next to the river and a giant space station model was being dismantled and taken away with several large trucks.

A large area was being prepared for an outdoor concert and another area for a garden show.
We had a coffee on the river at the base of the Glass bridge and then crossed the bridge and walked to catch the metro to take some photos from a viewing point overlooking the city and to see the University building (one of the seven sisters).

We happened to ask three Chinese students coming out of the university how to get to the viewing point (two were from Harbin and were amazed to hear that we had been there and one was from Xi’an). The one from Xi’an who owned a car and immediately said that it would be too far to walk said that he would take us in his car.   He kindly took us  there and showed us where from where to catch the metro and wished us well.  He was in his third year of study at Moscow university and had studied Russian and Russian literature and was completing his master’s degree. He already had a job lined up in Moscow as a Russian and Mandarin tourist guide for the following year.  Such a nice chap.   Thank goodness that he did take us in his car or we would have been more footsore than normal that day. We paid a nominal amount and took a chair lift from the viewing point
down to the river and had a nice stroll from there to the metro station where we met a Russian commercial lawyer on his second day of holidays. We had a good chat to him on the train (he had studied in San Diego) and he said “I’m so excited to meet you!  We were the first Australians he had met. He also welcomed us to Russia and hoped that we would return.
We went back to “Receptor” a basement restaurant that Ksenia had recommended, had a nice meal and returned to the hotel.
We had only been in Moscow for four days however we managed with Ksenia’s tips to see a lot more of the city than we would have on our own.

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The temperature rose rapidly to 29degrees by the time we arrived in Moscow on the 1st July which pleased us after all the cold weather over the last couple of months.
The forest stretched along the route and we passed many small townships with very poor looking wooden houses and dirt roads. The train made a couple of stops at larger cities with many old and new looking appartment blocks. We arrived at the Leninskaya Station in Moscow at 7pm to bright sunshine. The Moscow metro is more extensive (the population is more than four times that of St Petersburg) and no signs in English so it was a little more challenging to use until we got used to their system and
could decipher the Cryllic station names. We still had to ask people which exit to use as there were several in many of the stations.
One nice young man helped us with our bags as there were many steps as well as escalators and then another young man helped us with directions. When we finally arrived at street level we met the same young man again who asked three ladies if they knew the street we wanted.  He left us with”Welcome to Moscow” and the ladies  were delightful with one speaking English.  They walked us to our hotel and wished us a pleasant stay. A great introduction to Moscow. One chap on the way to the station said “Americans” to us and we said “no Australians” and he gave us the  thumbs up and a nod. Most people assumed we were American despite more tourists from England and Australia visiting Russia.
Contrary to many perceptions of Russians as dour and rude, we found the opposite with many people of all ages helpful and friendly if they could assist us and there was a lot of laughter and conviviality between groups of Russians in parks and in the cafes and restaurants.

We were a exhausted from having little sleep the night before with our midnight boat cruise in St Petersburg so we found a lovely garden restaurant down the road where sat outside in the garden in short sleeved shirts.  It was a wonderful feeling to be warm again. We had a glass of  Aussie Hardy’s merlot and a nice meal before Maurice went back to the hotel and I walked the ten minutes to see Red Square at night where the
Kremlin,Lenin’s tomb,GUM shopping centre and St Basil’s church were illuminated and looked beautiful. The square was named “Red” because Red in Russian meant pretty.

The next morning was again warm and sunny when we caught the metro and found our free tour guide. She gave us a very comprehensive two and a half hour tour around the central city area, Red square and the GUM shopping centre which has a history all of it’s own especially in the Soviet era.  It was set up as a showcase for foreigners and very few locals who could afford to buy goods there.  It is still has very exclusive shops that most locals and tourists can’t afford.   Our guide was a very friendly and well informed young person and very knowledgeable about her city and it’s history. The “Free” guides make their living from tips and a lot depends on the number of people on the tour. Our group consisted of twelve people – 2 Canadians, 2 Americans, 3 Israelis, several English tourists and us.

We spent a couple of hours in the metro riding the circle line to see the most beautiful of Moscow’s metro stations (see separate post).  The metro in Moscow cost 40 roubles for one ride or just over a dollar and unlike St Petersburg they gave out business like cards with a barcode which you placed on the ticket machine for entry.
We got off at one station and boarded the next train about 2minutes later and moved onto the next one and we repeated this for about eight stations. Moscovites all say that their metro stations are better than the ones in St Petersburg but we liked them all with each one having it’s own distinctive architecture and murals or sculptures and lighting. It was refreshing
several times to see younger people standing for older locals.

Ksenia who we had befriended at the Ayurvedic centre in Kerala picked us up about 7pm in her new two door Mercedes so we travelled in style to an Indian restaurant on the top floor of an oblong Soviet style building which overlooked the whole city.   The view was wonderful and so was the meal. There were many Indian people eating there as well so we knew it would
be good. Ksenia then took us on a tour of Moscow and although it was cold (again!) and raining it was lovely to see the city by night. It was Midnight in Moscow by the time we got back to the hotel.  Everywhere we went in the city was very clean and tidy.
Apart from 24hour supermarkets,cafes and restaurants(of which there were many)other shops didn’t seem to open until 10 or 11am and stay open until about 9-10pm. We saw workmen also working late into the evening to make the most of the daylight hours.

We set off for the GUM the following day having been told there was a flower festival and well known Russians (not that we could spot them) were giving out free icecream and balloons. You could have as many icecreams as you wanted and Maurice went back for seconds.  We walked quite a distance to see the impressionist gallery next to the Pushkin Museum then to see the Roerich museum who wanted $23 entry so as we had seen one of his exhibitions in St Petersburg we omitted  that gallery.  We  instead walked across the road to the Church of Christ the Saviour one of 600 orthodox churches in Moscow and which was very ornate.
A large bridge took us across the river to an island and to a small cafe (one of many) in old warehouse complexes which had been converted into hundreds of cafes, offices and restaurants. We then crossed over another bridge and on to the metro to Arbat – a very touristy pedestrian street. We saw one of the seven skyscrapers that Stalin had built named the “seven sisters” and modelled on the Empire state building. They are all used for different purposes – the  Hotel Ukraina, Kotelnicheskaya embankment appartments, the Kudrinskaya Square Building, the Hotel Leningradskay, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the main building of the Moscow State University, and the Red Gates Administrative Building.

We walked back towards our hotel after a mammoth walking expedition and found “Trattoria Montivoli” a very authentic Italian restaurant with excellent food at the top of our street before staggering back to the “Element”  hotel.

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The next day was a bit warmer but cloudy again when we caught the metro to the other end of the city and then walked to St Isaac’s church to climb the 250 steps to the cuppola to view St Petersburg from above. It is a sprawling city with most buildings only five or six storeys  high with many parks and gardens.
It was a short walk from there down to the aquataxi and we travelled along the river and stopped at the garden of the Summer Palace with it’s beautiful fountains and sculptures.  All of the sculptures were copies of the original ones which had either been stolen or had been deteriorating. In the main there were Russians strolling in the gardens and we stopped in the herb
and spice garden to have lunch.
We strolled through the large gardens with the river on one side and a canal on the other and from there we wandered the suburbs on the other side of the canal.  The architecture was not as ornate as in the city centre but was still interesting.

There were so many  coffee shops and restaurants all over the city and although coffee is quite expensive $5 for any kind of coffee. Most coffee we ordered was lukewarm accompanied by cold milk unless you specified otherwise.
We saw a number of vehicles with exclamation marks on their back window. Probationary drivers had to keep this sign on their
car for two years and they also had a curfew – what a good idea.

Despite the rain we decided to go on the midnight to 3am boat trip down the canal and onto the river to see the raising of the bridges to allow for the passage of merchant ships. They stay open from 1.30am to 5.30am so drivers have to make sure that they are over the side of the island on which they want to be before 1.15am.  It is quite a spectacle with all the bridges
lit with coloured lights and hundreds of tourists line the riverbank and many others are on the many boats.  We arrived back at the slipway
nearest the winter palace at 3am and we had a brisk walk of 45minutes back to our hotel. It was interesting to see the Nevsky Prospekt (eight traffic lanes and seven metre wide footpath on one side and about 5 metres on the other) without thousands of people and very little traffic. Many of the coffee shops and restaurants along the street were open 24hours.

We departed the following day on the “Sapsan” train from one of the three main stations – the Moskovskiy which was luckily only a short distance from our hotel. The trip from St Petersburg to Moscow took four and a half hours. The train service was very good and all the fast trains in Russia are produced by Siemens Germany so the standard was of course excellent.

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We had been recommended to see the Yusupov Palace which was located on one of the innercity canals. They were an extremely wealthy family and close friends of the Tsar.  Their palace was very opulent and and included a very ornate private theatre which could hold 200 people.
There were few tourists the day we went which was very pleasant. The Yusupovs bequeathed all of their art and other collections well before the revolution to the state and they had moved to France before the uprising. The Yusupov palace was also well known as being the place that Rasputin was murdered by Prince Yusupov and friends before his body was thrown into the canal.
From there we went on to see the Roerich art exhibition at the Russian museum (another impressive building). He painted in the late 1800’s to the 1940’s and had spent a number of years in India. His paintings of the Himalayas were unique and beautiful.
As in many countries,foreign tourists pay a higher price for entry into most museums which is fine in third world countries but I’m not sure that it applied to a city like St Petersburg.
We had an early dinner and went back to the hotel where I changed and headed off in a taxi to the beautiful Marinsky theatre to see the ballet “Sylvia”. It was a wonderful production with two intervals. I was going to treat myself to a little bottle of champagne but at $25 I thought it was a bit excessive so I bought a bottle of water and looked around the theatre instead.

We made an early start to the Peterhof Palace located on the Gulf of Finland.about an hour (by metro and minibus) from St Petersburg.
Mini buses at several metro station to take people to outlying suburbs.
The day was beautiful and sunny (the best we had had for about two weeks). The palace made the Hermitage and Winter Palace look plain by comparison with extremely ornate glass and gilt decorations in many of the enormous rooms and ballroom.
The scale of the palace, bath house complex and grounds was staggering! There were separate payments for the different buildings – the palace,  chapel,bath house and lower garden and it was about $80 for the day for the two of us but we didn’t visit all of the buildings. The separate sprawling bath house with enormous sauna rooms and bathing areas was amazing and included resting rooms and dining room. The gardens and forrested areas stretched for kilometres and the fountains were beautiful.
Tsar Peter could watch the ships coming and going along the coast from his palace,bath house and the gardens.
We walked a a great distance down to a folly and a restaurant where we had a cup of tea and rested our feet.
There was a photographic exhibition in the garden detailing the work by hundreds of labourers and artisans in the restoration of the palace after WWII. It was quite amazing to see how it had been totally reconstructed over the years.
We did have to wear disposable slippers inside which kept the exquisite flooring in it’s pristine condition.

The tour groups arrived by bus – scores of buses – but there were few individual tourists so we were not herded through each room. It was the largest number of tourists we had seen anywhere with hundreds of groups (many Russian) moving through the palace and gardens.
The little red squirrels were very inquisitive and not shy at all. They darted through the gardens and trees at lightning speed.
We enjoyed a picnic in the gardens like some of the Russian tourists who had brought their own food and drink.

We caught the shuttle bus and metro back to the hotel and collapsed after all the walking we had done.

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We had bought a two day pass to see the Hermitage museum and the Winter palace on the embankment of the Neva river. The majestic buildings were painted a pleasant green colour with white and gold coloured trim although the colour had been changed many times over the years. The Hermitage and palace was composed of five different adjoining buildings and the main building was three storeys high. There were many tourist buses and people waiting in line to buy tickets however we had bought ours online and just had to exchange them for “real” tickets and didn’t have such a wait. Most rooms of the museum and palace were not overcrowded and some of the corridors and not so popular exhibits were void of many or any tourists. Each room had a “Ludmila” (as Maurice named them) watching to see that nothing was taken or damaged and to tell people off who were using flash photography.
We saw a few who had nodded off on the job as we walked through the exhibition rooms and hallways.
We found it amazing that we could take photos in most rooms except for the temporary exhibits and one room housing a few of Monet’s paintings. We were stunned that there were no ropes or barriers to stop you from even touching some of the paintings by Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir, Gaughin and other famous artists.
You could have your nose within centimetres of the paintings which was in contrast to the Frida Kahlo exhibition in Rome where the floor had sensors if you stepped within a metre of the paintings. If anything was touched alarm bells rang and it seemed that the Chinese groups were the main culprits.

We were told that if one spent a minute examinging each artifact and painting in the museum, it would take eleven years to see everything.
I can’t say that we examined each artifact and we managed to in seven hours (with a coffee and lunch break) the three floors of the main building of the museum and of the palace quarters. We had bought a two consecutive day pass so decided to leave the other three minor buildings to the next day.
The only disappointing aspect of the entire place was the lack of dining facilities. Unlike the palaces of Schoenbrunn and Versailles there was only one very small cafe with three tables with coffee and very basic snack food and an internet cafe where it was difficult to get around the tables with computers and there was only some stale fridge sandwiches and a sad looking greek salad on offer. The lack of any other kind of restaurant for a site with so many visitors was astounding. When we commented to the staff
about the lack of dining facilities they just shrugged.

The remaining four buildings we tackled on the second day. We were there before the doors opened and made our way around many exhibition rooms before encountering some of the groups trailing through the vast rooms. We covered two floors of three of the buildings by lunchtime which included more of the most amazing collections of Van Dyke, Rembrandt, Pisaro and Degas. To access Peter the First’s original small palace we had to walk around the entire hermitage and palace to the other side. There was a walkway over the river but not accessible. In great contrast to the rest of overwhelming magnitude of the place, what remained inside of Peter’s palace were a couple of extremely modest sized rooms.

Our tickets was also the Menchikov palace on the other side of the river.  The staff member omitted to tell us that it was about two kilometres away. She made it seem as though it was just over the bridge near us. It was refreshingly empty of tourists and beautiful but on a much smaller scale than the winter palace. Menchikov was Peter the First’s right hand man and a bit of a rogue who after Peter died was exiled with his family to Siberia.
The metro system is very good but to get to many of the most important monuments and sites means walking great distances and although we enjoyed walking for the for the first couple of days we were exhausted and the many cobblestoned streets were hard on the feet. Even so some young girls teetered on them in their very high shoes.

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