Tuesday, September 19, 2017


Russia's turbulent past, both ancient and modern, influence everything I've seen — the many nations and climates, the Mongol hordes, the Tsars and their expansionism, the Tsars and their internecine murders, the Revolution of 1917, the communist era USSR and its fall in 1989, and the newly independent Russia. It's hard to know where to begin.

Downtown Moscow

Few Russians speak any English. Villages look as if they haven't changed in centuries; wooden homes are often in disrepair; blank faces; fishing shacks along the rivers and lakes. Towns have many buildings of the communist era — grey, forbidding buildings and dirty markets. Cities have modern skyscrapers and gridlock.

Customer service seems limited but is probably d/t language difficulties and lack of travel to other countries where Russians could see how others do it. Perhaps lack of training. I miss the smiles elsewhere. However, it is good on my cruise ship.

Meals are ordinary with lots of root vegetables and soups. Always tasty and well-balanced, but definitely a lack of haute cuisine. Not that I expected that!!

The landscapes are flat and bland along the cruise route.

St. Basil's cathedral, now a museum,
in Red Square, Moscow
The tours from the ship have been excellent, with bilingual local tour guides in every port. We see an overwhelming number of Russian Orthodox churches and cathedrals (too many for the majority of pax), some in use and others turned into museums during the communist era. Here, though, is the history of this nation from medieval times to the fall of the Tsars. The art is staggering in its beauty, especially the icons that have been saved.

IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2017
        All rights reserved

Friday, September 15, 2017


MS Zosima Shashkov
The Russian cruise line, Vodohod, owns this ship and 52 others. Zosima Shaskov is a 3 star ship, some are 5 star. I chose to cruise with a Russian line, crewed by Russians, so I could see what it was like. I don't need a huge suite, a butler, and haute cuisine. This line had fares 2/3rds less than the Viking line and others like it, and a very reasonable solo supplement (SS). Viking' SS is 100%, making it ridiculously expensive for a single, and they don't offer single cabins. These ships look like ships and are not like the longships that ply the rivers such as the Rhine. I booked with Express to Russia and joined the ship in Moscow. 

The cruise port is about 40-60 minutes drive away from the city centre d/t dreadful traffic jams. The nearest Metro station is a 20 minute walk away and difficult to find across two big parks. Signs did not help those who walked.

My single cabin is small, but more than adequate, and is kept spotlessly clean by Tatiana, my steward. I have a pull-up leaf that gives me a comfortable desk to work at next to my bunk, a small fridge, AC/heat, a big window, and an effective but unusual shower in my private bathroom. I have plenty of storage space too. The cabin is on the top deck below the sun deck and lifeboats, so I have a high-up view. I'm right in the bow next door to one of three bars. 

The wireless router is nextdoor to me and I get Wi-Fi in my cabin. Most don't. The other benefit is being so far from the ship's engine. We sail at night and I cannot hear it at all; nor can I hear anything when we lock through the huge locks. Now we are out of Moscow and in remote areas, I have to use my SkyRoam hotspot to boost the signal or go on 3G. I'm glad I invested in it.  

The ship has 228 passengers: a few Canucks, many Americans and Chinese, and a handful of French and Italians. All are well travelled. The downside has been that all, but me and four others who are independent travellers, are here with tour companies. It meant we were forgotten by the organizers of the cruise and failed to receive the daily program, had not been assigned the city tours and buses. We were not included in the cocktail party, which I crashed, or get drinks with meals!!  I quickly sorted that out with the cruise/tour director and was welcomed and adopted by Red One. That's my group for local tours and the coach. All became better fairly quickly after that.

Breakfasts were a zoo to begin with as 228 hungry people descended on a buffet at the same time. The size of the dining room meant they couldn't have two identical buffets. I learned to go late to breakfast after the rush. Lunch and dinner seating is assigned and served by staff.

Food is plentiful with Russian dishes. The fish is indeterminate and not very nice. Vegetarian dishes are better. Lunch is four courses and dinner, three. We have choices for each course. Mealtimes vary depending on the day's activities.

Sailing from Moscow at sunset

I have found the ship's reception staff do not always understand English sufficiently well to help passengers adequately, but the tour leaders' English is excellent. The Cyrillic alphabet means I can't read any signs or other info. The ship has translations, but Russian street signs and the Metro do not. This is not the country to visit independently. Several passengers arrived in Moscow a few days before the cruise and struggled on their own to explore the city, use transit, and shop. (Warsaw was easy in comparison, partly because they use the Latin alphabet and most speak English.)

Now I have got into the ship's routine and know my way about, I'm enjoying my time very much. At the beginning, with everyone here with tour companies, it was difficult to find people willing to talk to me as I was a stranger to them and most had come with relatives and friends. I've had to work hard to get to know them and some still are not accessible. The tour leaders, who don't have to watch out for me, have taken me under their wing and I'm grateful.

© Photos by Pharos 2017
All rights reserved

Monday, September 11, 2017


Warsaw's old town was built in the 1600s but was flattened in World War Two by the Nazi and Russian invading armies. It has been recon-structed since to look the same outside and in. The main square seen above and right is where the action isand it's touristy. Some good restos here though.

The cathedral of St. John the Baptist, on the way to the square was also reduced to rubble. Today it's worth a visit — gothic but with some ultra-modern touches that I liked. The stained glass on the north and south walls is superb and contemporary.

I tried to find a pamphlet about the history and windows, but not one was to be found and all the signs were in Polish, so I don't know the details of what I saw.

Especially striking was this modern sculpture of Christ, the shepherd, in a side chapel. I don't know who the side panels represent, but there were only ten — clearly not the apostles. I could not replicate the gold colour in the very poor light. It was stunning.

Walking through the main streets, take a detour into the side lanes. They are devoid of souvenir shops and less colourful, but most attractive. Here's where the residents live.

On a bit further and you reach the two walls of the old town and the barbican or bastion. These were rebuilt in the mid-50s from old etchings using reclaimed bricks from other parts of Poland. It is a huge tourist attraction and worthy of it.

Tucked into an alcove by the barbican's main gate, a painter does well selling his pictures.

This is part of the New Town outside the double walls. Also reconstructed faithfully. These are some of the better homes from the 1600s and there are others close by that are bigger, detached, and of 1700s design -- very elegant homes today.

©Photos by Pharos 2017
All rights reserved

Sunday, September 10, 2017


Although I expected the Museum of the History of Polish Jews was going to be a somber visit, I wanted to have the experience. Poland is a country sandwiched between Germany and Russia and has been invaded, occupied, and ravaged by expansionist nations throughout its long history. Poles have known cruelty and deprivation on a scale few countries have. The Jews suffered more.

The museum is situated on a grassy square that was the heart of the ghetto in World War Two. I approached it from the east, and found the huge modern museum is overlooked by a 36-foot high, black monument. This commemorates the persecution of the Polish Jews and the uprising in 1943 of the Warsaw Ghetto. It looks like a wall and symbolizes both the ghetto walls and the Western Wall in Jerusalem. On the first side was a bas relief of such misery, one cannot but be moved. It signifies the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis in July, 1942.

On the far side of the monument that faces the museum, is a black sculpture of the Jewish insurgents who rose up to fight their oppressors in 1943. Men, women and children are shown with guns and Molotov cocktails. These are the Heroes of the Ghetto after whom the monument is named. The irony here is twofold: some of the stone used in building the sculpture was stockpiled by the Nazis for their own monuments, and the Russians erected it in 1948. This dominating feature of the site stands on the exact spot where the first clash took place in the uprising.

The museum beyond is a vast glass-cladded, ultra-modern structure, angular and sharp. Visitors are dwarfed by it (left). I tried to imagine what the ghetto looked like from where I stood at the entrance (below). I've read quite a lot about this period in Polish history but, because the site is surrounded by apartment buildings today, I simply couldn't.

The previous day I bought my ticket online for about $7.60 Canadian. This proved to be quite a bargain; so did the audio guide at $3.30. I had to pick an entrance time that prevents lineups and staggers the flow of visitors through the displays.

The museum opened in 2013 and inside is the complete opposite to the exterior. There is not a straight line or a sharp angle to be seen. The walls curve and swoop, sometimes oppressing and sometimes freeing; at times dark and at other moments filled with light.

The image, right, is the entrance hall and the stairs lead down to the exhibits. Security is a serious business here and visitors go through the same process as they do in airports — metal detectors, scanners, bag searches, etc.

Down I went and started at the beginning of the Polish Jews' 1000-year history.

Poland had 3.3 million Jews, the largest Jewish community in the world at the time of the Holocaust. Their ancient ancestors had arrived from western and southern European persecution along trade routes and found a safe place to settle here about 1000CE. By 1500, many lived in organized Jewish communities with laws that protected them and peace from the religious wars in the west. This was their golden age in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It lasted until 1648.

The exhibits change from the medieval and later eras to exploring the Jewish way of life and the 18th century of learning and spiritual quest. They also explore the rise of anti-semitism in the Russian Empire. By WW1, a third of the Jewish population had emigrated, most to the USA.

The First World War left Germany and Russia in tatters and the Polish Jews enjoyed a second golden age. We see that cultural shift in politics and the arts, as well as daily life. It was brief.

The Nazis and then the Soviets invaded Poland early in WW2. This section of the museum focuses on how the Polish Jews experienced the myriad laws that separated and isolated them from their countrymen and women into ghettos — 600 across the nation. In 1942 the Nazis began to deport the Jews to Treblinka. In two months, 300,000 were transported from the Warsaw ghetto to their deaths. This exhibit is hard to see and I noticed several visitors in tears. Of 3.3 million Jews before the war, only about 300,000 remained in Poland, now a Communist state.

Many left for the new state of Israel. Those who stayed faced a Soviet anti-Semitic campaign in 1968 that all but eliminated the intellectuals and experts — they too emigrated.

Since the collapse of Communism in 1989, there has been a small renewal of Jewish life and this new museum has been part of it.

The exhibits put faces and names to the events in Poland for me. They tell the stories of real lives: the Jews' resilience and hope, the darkness they endured and despair. Reading took me part way there, but the excellent archival material and artefacts brought me to a whole new level of understanding.

I highly recommend putting a visit to the POLIN at the top of your list if you visit Warsaw. It was an amazing experience — so brilliantly done in every way.

The light shines in:

© Photos by Pharos
All rights reserved

Saturday, September 9, 2017


Strains of a Chopin ├ętude accompanied my lunch in the hotel's courtyard delighting me in a quiet green oasis. No sounds of the bustling city of Warsaw intruded as I sipped my Polish beer. I can spell the name of the beer but cannot pronounce it. My server tried to teach me but it was beyond me — ZYWIEC....

I was mulling over what I had seen on the half-day tour that I always take first in any new city. With only two days to explore Warsaw, I found it tricky to decide.

Poles are very proud of their country that has endured much because it is sandwiched between Germany (once Prussia) and Russia. They have suffered much cruelty as regimes have invaded, occupied, and decimated it and its population often. Now Poland is independent and grateful after years of communist rule. All ages know what happened to the 320,000 Polish Jews who were herded to Treblinka in WW2 to be murdered in the gas chambers. They commemorate the Ghetto in several ways.

I've spoken to several young people today and discover they are well informed about their history and don't like the current party in power that is right-wing and undoing much that Lech Walesa and his Solidarity party instituted a couple of decades ago. Immigration and refugees is the main issue here, as it is in many countries.

Warsaw is an odd mix of Communist greyness — some dull buildings remain — surrounded by glass skyscrapers that are ultra-modern.

Frederic Chopin's statue
Parks abound and are well-used. I was especially enchanted by the Park Belwederski that has a wonderful statue of Chopin, a native son. On Mondays talented musicians give free live concerts of his wonderful music. Royal palaces from the 1700s are dotted around the park too, and many canals and lakes beautify them. I didn't get inside as I was on a half-day city tour that did not include entrance to the museums and art galleries.

Most Poles in Warsaw appear to speak English, which is an asset, as I cannot begin to speak Polish. It's a tongue-twisting language that bears no relation to any language I've ever heard before. But they use the Latin alphabet which means I can at least decipher the signs that are the same as on my map.

The Jewish museum that stands where the old ghetto was located in WW2, was tantalizing and I shall return tomorrow.

So was the Old Town. That I shall save for my last day and it will probably take all day too. This has been rebuilt following WW2 when most of it was flattened by the Russians as they poured across the Vistula and turned Poland into a Stalinist country and city. I peeked into the cathedral and was astonished by the modern stained-glass windows; I saw the outside of the Royal Palace with buskers in the square outside; and the museum here calls loudly to me, as do the cafes that line the square. Monday will be the day to go before I leave for Russia on Tuesday.

As always, the best way to explore is on foot. My walking shoes stand ready by the door....

The Vistula river runs north-south through Warsaw

IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2017. All rights reserved.