Monday, July 29, 2013

Rolling Around In Rostock - Germany

Our Baltic cruise had one last stop, Warnemünde, Germany. There isn't hardly anything to do Warnemünde, but the cruise lines stop there to give people an opportunity to catch a train for the day into Berlin. We had just been to Berlin. Read about that HERE. So we decided to do some exploring on our own. We rented a van right at the port and drove first to Rostock, Germany. First, are you saying Rostock correctly? It's row-shtoke. Long o.

St. Mary's Church Rostock

Our first stop in Rostock was St. Mary's Church, or Marienkirche. It was built in 1265. Although it might not look like much from the outside, inside it's quite unique. What do I mean by unique? Check out Mr. Bones here.

Skeleton St. Mary's Church Rostock

How cool is that? Obviously not a REAL skeleton, but still, look at the way he's totally chill. Just relaxing on the altar, propping his head up. Made the place feel more like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland than an 800 year old church. Thumbs up in my book.

Astronomical clock, Rostock

This is the astronomical clock that is in the church. It was built in 1472 and is the only one of its kind still working with the original clockworks.

Astronomical clock, Rostock

It's been keeping the time and date correctly since it was built. This is the calendar which will be valid until 2017. Let's hope we don't get another end of the world prophecy happening because some astronomical clock in Germany has dates that only go to 2017. (Remember that Mayan 2012 nonsense?) But who knows? Maybe this little clock maker from Nuremberg knew something that we don't. Pause for dramatic effect. Duhn duhn duhn!

Fountain Of Joy Rostock Germany

This is the Fountain of Joy, or as it is known locally, "The Porn Fountain." It was built to celebrate Rostock's rebirth after WWII. I don't know about you, but nothing says "Hey, we were bombed really heavily during WWII and we worked really hard to rebuild our city and now we are going to celebrate" to me more than naked people in a fountain. Maybe that is what they did to celebrate. Germans cavorting and frolicking and rolling around naked in the water. Yay! WWII is over! Let's get naked!

It was a warm day for Northern Germany and we drove over to the coast for a look at their beaches. You might be thinking "Where does Germany have great beaches?!"

Now you know.

Northern Germany Beach

People may not associate Northern Germany and the Baltic Sea with great beaches, but they are there. The beaches in Northern Germany have white sand and plenty of sunshine.

Northern Germany Beach

It seemed that every German in a 100 mile, I mean 160 kilometer radius (think metric!) was there. The breeze was light, the sand and sun were warm, Europe was out in full force. Germans are known for their love of nude sunbathing at the beach, but we didn't see any. Much to my disappointment. Not that I really want to see a naked German, I just feel that my European experience won't be complete until I see some naked sunbathing. Maybe I should have stripped down and see if any Germans would follow my lead. Come on Germans! Let's tan our tushies!

But alas, I stayed fully dressed (much to the relief of my children).

Northern Germany Beach

We explored the beach and old pier pilings.

Matt enjoyed our time in Rostock a lot. He stayed here for a few months 20 years ago when he bounced around former East Germany.

Northern Germany Beach

Look at how cute my German-American husband is. You might not think he is cute, but after 18 years together, he still makes me weak in the knees with that smile.

Coming up next - Schwerin Castle!

Would you ever feel comfortable sunbathing naked on a beach? How would feel if other people were sunbathing naked around you? Let me know in comments below! Thanks!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Fourth Of July, European Style

How did you spend your Fourth of July? I know the 4th has been long past and a post about fireworks and hotdogs and sparklers seems a little late, but you see, we didn't get any of those things on our Fourth of July. Let me go back to explain.

My typical Fourth of July was a big neighborhood bar-b-que out on the grass of a friends yard. It was kids running around in swimsuits with sticky Popsicle dripping off their chins. It was groups of friends finding ladders to put fireworks on so they seemed bigger. It was groups of friends melting the plastic top of ladders with the heat from the fireworks. It was the local cop showing how big a bang you could make through out the whole neighborhood if you threw a firework down in the storm sewer (he was such a good example). It was neighbors who would duct tape a firework to an old remote control car and drive the firework down the street while it spewed sparks and flame. Yeah, we knew how to have a good time. 

If you live in the United States, your holiday was pretty close to this, maybe minus the neighbor who was intent on burning everyone's ankles with the small car that was on fire. Our holiday wasn't close to this at all. We spent our holiday in Russia, and then finished it up on an Italian cruise ship. It was kind of strange.

When we came back from our long, and exhausting day in Russia, (read about that HEREHERE, and HERE) we found invitations to an exclusive and private event on board. An event only for Americans  I started to get excited. I hadn't seen any other Americans on board other than our partners in travel (and crime) in Europe, The Point Family. There had to be some more if the Costa cruise line was going to throw us all a private party, right? 

This is what our private party turned out to be. A lounge singer with an electric keyboard and hors d'oeuvres with punch and champagne. What could be more patriotic than that?

American Flag Cake

And don't let me forget the marzipan cake they had in the shape of the American flag. (Don't Europeans know that Americans don't like marzipan? Nothing could be less American than a marzipan cake. You want to make an American cake? Call up a store bakery and get the recipe for their Crisco-based, fluffy white frosting. That my friends says American cake.)

They had a recorded instrumental version of the national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner. Of course we had no flag to look at while we listened to the song. 

American Flag Cake

The marzipan cake concoction would have to do.

After the national anthem things started picking up. We had a total of 11 Americans show up for this little shindig. And don't forget Holly, our English-speaking-not-American-but-British host for the party was mingling around. And I finally, FINALLY felt like there was a place in Europe where I could be as loud and funny and annoying as my little American heart desired. Solidarity my American compadres! 

This little group did start to emit some laughing and noise (maybe that was just us and Mr. and Mrs. Point) and other cruisers were walking by our party wondering what was going on in there. But they couldn't come in. Why? Because it was private. Americans (and British Holly) only please!

We left the Fourth of July celebration without watching one firework and without eating one hamburger. But we were still buoyed by the glasses of free punch and the marzipan cake which turned out to be quite good if you scraped off the lacquer-like marzipan outside. As we walked out, the European guests who had gathered outside the door parted to let us through. Yeah, we kind of felt like rock stars. For the rest of the trip, we walked a little taller. And every time someone got in our way we thought, 'Excuse me, but don't you know who I am?'

Americans in Europe

Monday, July 22, 2013

Finishing Up Russia

Hi there! Sorry I was away so long. I was in the process of moving from Heidelberg to Wiesbaden. We only moved from Utah to Heidelberg 11 months ago so we still had stuff in boxes from that move. Yes, moving twice in less than a year is as awesome as you think it is. And we may move again next summer. Please, don't be jealous.

Anywho, back to our Baltic cruise. We were in Russia!

Neva River, St. Petersburg Russia

This is the Neva River that flows through St. Petersburg into the Gulf of Finland. St. Petersburg is rather flat and our tour guide told us how the city suffers with floods every fall from the heavy rains further inland. By this point, we knew our tour guide was a little different, but according to her, Russia suffers the worst flooding in the world and nobody understands how hard it is for the country and the city of St. Petersburg. On a funny side note, every time we crossed over the river, she would say, "This is the River Neva." Except with her accent it came out like this. "This is the Reeva Neva." For some reason I found this hysterical.

We continued to drive through the city on our way to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. We got the feeling that she was only taking us to see things that she wanted us to see. So when we would drive past an interesting sight, she would let us know if it was worth our time or not. Mostly not.

St. Petersburg Russia

Through out the day, Miss Russia-kicks-the-whole-worlds-butt Natasha told us that St. Petersburg only gets a handful of sunny days in the year. Something like 60 total. Natasha told us several times how thankful we should be that we were here on a sunny day. So I started thinking, who should I be thankful to? Her? The Russian weather gods? Possibly Peter the Great? No! I know! Stalin! Stalin totally arranged for us to have good weather just like he arranged for the great subway stops for his people. (What am I talking about? Read about earlier in our day HERE.)

St. Petersburg Russia

Thanks for the sunshine and blue skies Stalin!

St. Petersburg Russia

Hermitage Museum St Petersburg

Finally she took us to a spot on the "Neva Reeva" where we were allowed to get out of the van and take pictures. This is the Hermitage Museum. Founded by Catherine the Great in 1764, it is one the largest and oldest museums in the world. It is located in six different buildings including this one, the Winter Palace, former part time home of the Russian royalty. We opted not to go to it during our time in St. Petersburg. For one, it is usually quite crowded. And two, it is not air conditioned and it can get quite hot in there in the summer. I wasn't really in the mood to squish my body against thousands of other tourist bodies so we enjoyed this view from the river banks.

Russian Cruiser Aurora

Here we are in front of the Russian war ship, the Aurora. Aurora was built in 1900 and was used in four different Russian wars. Remember earlier when I told you our tour guide told us about how Russia is always getting picked on and is never the aggressor? Yep. Nothing says "I am a peaceful country," like having war ships and tanks scattered through out your city.

You can tell from this picture who here makes a living saluting every day. I'll give you one guess who it is. Psst... come here. Guess what? It's not me. (Me whispering to you.)

Russian McDonald's

By this point, some of our kids were hungry again after the Russian pastry meal that they had deemed "yucky" earlier. So what better than McDonald's, right? While Matt and Mrs. Point ran in, Mr. Point and I stayed in the van. Our tour guide would not allow Matt and Mrs. Point to go in alone. She went with them. Our driver got out of the van and stood on the sidewalk, almost like he was guarding it. At this point I got it. We were being babysat by them. As in, "Watch those Americans. Don't let them go or see or do anything naughty. Keep an eye on them."

Russian McDonald's turned out to be fairly the same as most other McDonald's around the world. Alexander had a Russian cheeseburger. Since vodka is such a standard drink in Russia, I wanted to see if McDonald's had a vodka dispenser right next to the Coke. Matt reported back that they didn't. Although we did drive past a vodka museum where you can taste different vodkas. Our tour guide babysitter told us it was one of the only museums where you can legally be drunk.

Next, we were off to the focal point of the afternoon. The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood.

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded in the street by a grenade in 1881. The wounds bled heavily and soaked the street with the Tsar's blood. He died several hours later. His son, Tsar Alexander III, built this church as a memorial to him. Hence the name, on Spilled Blood.

The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

The spot where the Tsar was hurt has been completely left alone and is now a shrine encapsulated by the church. It is still the original cobblestone street that ran down the side of the canal in 1881.

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

The church has suffered heavily during the history of St. Petersburg. It was ransacked and looted during the Russia Revolution (1917). It was used as a morgue during WWII. And then after the war, it was used to store vegetables, leading to the sardonic name of Savior on Potatoes (those Russians are such smart alecks).

Church of Our Savior On Spilled Blood

Restoration of the church started in 1970. After 27 years of painstaking work, it reopened to the public in 1997.

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

At 7500 meters of mosaics, this church is said to have more than any other in the world. That's a lot of Russian tile my friends.

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

Here is the back view of the church. The domes on the top of the church are called onion domes and are used on churches through out Russia.

Some facts about Russia are they are on the Russian Ruble. One Russian Ruble is equal to three American cents. That's right, $0.03. And to say thank you in Russian is spasiba. So, spasiba for reading this.

St. Petersburg Russia

After one last walk down the canal, it was time to head back to the cruise ship with our friends (and guards) Natasha and Sasha.

St. Petersburg Russia cruise ships

We cleared customs and immigrations and went back to the port. We didn't know if we would ever have the chance to be in Russia again. But upon seeing these six cruise ships plus ours for a total of seven docked here seeing St. Petersburg, we started thinking that we just might have a chance.

Until next time Russia!

PS A strange thing about this day was that it was the Fourth of July. A big holiday in the United States, but not so big in Russia. Stay tuned to read about how we celebrated the 4th on an Italian cruise line in Russia!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Rushing Through Russia

Okay, where we were again? Oh, that's right. I was in RUSSIA! 

Did you miss the first part? Click here on The Peterhof to read about our time at the palace and gardens.

We had just finished up our visit to the Peterhof palace and gardens in St. Petersburg, Russia. As we were walking out of the garden, we saw a young bride and groom in their wedding dress walking through the garden with a photographer. Our tour guide, Natasha, turned to me and said in her little Russian accent "We have a bea-u-tiful tradition here in Russia. When young peoples get mah-rried, they take their families and a photographer, and they go to a bea-u-tiful place to take pictures of the day they got mah-rried and it's a bea-u-tiful tradition here in Russia."

It was at this point that I realized our tour guide had a couple of screws loose. I started thinking, I don't know what's wrong with Russians, geez! When we get married in the States we never even think to take pictures with our families in bea-u-tiful places. Wow. What a novel concept that it would seem Russia has invented. We should all thank Russia right now for letting us in on this fabulous Russian tradition they have. So the next time you look at your photo album, say "I wouldn't have done that if it wasn't for Russia."

We decided to head over to the underground metro stops in St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg Metro, Russia

St. Petersburg's metro is said to have some of the most beautiful, highly decorated, and opulent metro stations in the world.

St. Petersburg Metro, Russia

The metro was started before WWII in St. Petersburg, but construction stalled during the war due to lack of money. In 1955 the metro stations finally opened. 

Avtovo metro station, St. Petersburg

The metro stations were completed under the direction of Joseph Stalin. These metro stops were for "The People." He directed to have them built and decorated to show the great power and wealth of Russia. Kind of strange since 20 years before building these, Russia couldn't even feed its people. For more info, click  Soviet famine 1932-1933.

Avtovo metro station, St. Petersburg

As we walked through the metro station, our disillusioned tour guide Natasha told us what a "good guy" Stalin was. How he had the people's best interests at heart and how he defeated the Nazi's from over taking the innocent country of Russia. (I'm not kidding. She said things like that.)

Avtovo metro station, St. Petersburg

These are some the support columns in the station that are inlaid with gold and crystals. The station was more beautiful than some palaces and castles I've seen. I'm sure that the Russian people were very grateful to have such beautiful metro stops. But maybe, I don't know, instead of beautiful metro stations they would have rather, say, not lived in fear of being dragged out of their house in the middle of the night and killed in front of their family? For more info click Stalin's Great Purge.

Avtovo metro station, St. Petersburg Russia

So our tour guide thinks that Stalin was pretty okay. He did give them nice metro stations after all. And Nazi Germany attacked Russia when all Russia was doing was minding their own business. Hmm... okay. And then she went on to tell us what a good guy Vladimir Putin was. In my little, blonde, brain I heard the sound of breaks screeching and I just wanted to ask her if she really believed that or was she giving us a Russia-has-to-look-so-great-to-the-Americans-white-washed version of history? I know there are things in my own country's history that I am not proud of, but at what point do you say "Yeah, my country did some uncool things, or leaders in my country did some uncool things," instead of saying "Yeah, my country can do no wrong and we are better than everybody else."

Avtovo metro station, St. Petersburg Russia

But I really didn't want to cause an international incident so I just kept my mouth shut and nodded my head. She also told us about how Napoleon attacked their fair country and he wasn't able to overtake it. The way she spun it was Russia has just sat there for hundreds of years, minding its own business, and it keeps getting attacked by all the bullies and poor Russia, they just want to get along with people. Okay then.

Russia may not be communist anymore (much to the dismay of our tour guide because you know that guy Stalin? He was the BOMB) but signs of its Soviet past were everywhere.

Avtovo metro station, St. Petersburg Russia

The Soviet emblem of the hammer and sickle were on many walls and buildings through out St. Petersburg.

These walls are made with real, Italian marble that they had shipped in to build the metro stations.

The St. Petersburg metro is one of the deepest in the world due to the water table so we had to take long escalators up and down to reach the stations. At the stations, our tour guide actually told us how to use turn styles and escalators. Now this is just getting weird. Does she think we don't have turn styles and escalators in America? Or does she just think Americans are slightly less intelligent than the rest of the world?

Here is our friend, Mr. Point riding the very long and apparently, very complicated escalator to the surface. Mr. Point is a bit of a history buff and he would ask Natasha questions about the Russian Revolution and if we could please go and see some of these places. Natasha shut him down, and all us actually, whenever we asked anything about the Russian Revolution. And she told us these places were too far away. We drove by one of them not once, but twice without her saying a word.

After the metro stations, the troops (our combined eight kids) needed reinforcement so we found a cute little Russian cafe that sold Russian pastries.

They didn't like the sight of meat and onion filled pastry. Even though it was really good.

Russian pastry

They also had apricot, apple, and strawberry filled pastries. Our kids liked those a little better.

Barack Obama nesting doll

Next we went and did a little souvenir shopping. I ask you, what says "I've Been To Russia" more than a Barack Obama Russian nesting doll? 

For the next few hours we drove around St. Petersburg taking in the sights. I apologize in advance for the quality of the pictures, but they were taken out of the window of the van. 

Russian Submarine

Here is a submarine in the Neva River that flows right through the main part of St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg Russia

As we drove around we would catch little glimpses of places like this. Palaces that would rise up right out of the former communist sprawl of the city.

St. Petersburg street car, Russia

Their metro stations may look like palaces, but their street cars were easily over 60 years old. They continued to use the same battered trams because they were unable to buy new ones, due to the cost of replacing all the tracks in the streets.

St. Petersburg Russia

This gem of a home just popped up as we were riding along. I have no idea the historical significance of this place. I was just fascinated by the intricacies of the building.

Soviet St. Petersburg Russia

And just after we would see beautiful palaces, we would see blocks and blocks of Soviet era apartments and sprawl.

St. Petersburg has a long Soviet history. When the city was founded it was called St. Petersburg. In 1914, the German name of St. Petersburg was changed to Petrogradthe Russian-ized version of St. Petersburg. Then in 1924, it was changed again to Leningrad, or Lenin's City. After the fall of communism, it was changed back to St. Petersburg in 1991. Even though the city changed its name back, it seems that shaking its communist past will be harder than just a name change.

St. Petersburg Russia

In addition to Soviet era apartments, there were Soviet era tanks and cannons scattered all over the city.

Soviet Tank, St. Petersburg

Okay. I think that is good for today.

Coming up next, our time at the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood.

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