Day Eleven — Epic Odyssey
Russia is our last and largest country on the World Tour itinerary. It will take us approximately 20 flight hours and eight legs to cross its vast expanse of 6,000 nautical miles. Russia comprises about 40% of our entire world tour journey! Our first stop is St. Petersburg (ULLI), the most European of all Russian cities, founded by Peter the Great in 1703. It is a quick two-and-a-half-hour flight from Prague, but on final approach, we suddenly lose our GPS due to a military blackout. This unexpected technical difficulty is startling, but thankfully, the Garmin avionics step up and allow for an easy transition during a critical phase of flight. St. Petersburg Airport is certainly ‘busy and big’, but our welcome is somewhat lacking in ‘warm and friendly’. In fact, one burly Russian official, who spoke little English, abruptly hands us his phone, containing the terse warning in English, “Take another picture of me and I will arrest you.” So, cameras and phones are quickly spirited away! Immigration is more challenging here, certainly more prolonged, with English not nearly as widely spoken. The pilots are required to remain with the planes while they are refueled, so the rest of the group goes on ahead to the hotel. The Four Seasons Lion Palace Hotel, located across the street from the beautiful St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and just blocks from the Winter Palace, Hermitage Museum, and Mariinsky Theater, was originally built in 1820 as the palace for Princess Lobanova-Rostovskaya. It is quite impressive.
After getting settled, we are warmly greeted by Vicky’s charismatic friend, Eugene, a St. Petersburg native and opera singer, who has volunteered to be our tour guide for the next two days. After a quick taxi ride, Eugene escorts us to what appears to be a private apartment, accessed through a small side alley. We are warmly welcomed by his friends and then ushered into a small dining room containing two large tables, extravagantly set with dishes, glassware, flowers, linens, and an assortment of beautifully prepared foods! Salads rolled appetizers of eggplant and hummus, chunks of chicken in a ground walnut and olive oil sauce, whole platters of fish loaf with vegetables, olives, and pickled red cabbage. Earthenware carafes contain homemade red wine, with bottles of juice, water, and, of course, vodka! Eugene explains that his friend, our host, has prepared for us a traditional Georgian feast, a special treat in celebration of his homeland. He describes each of the dishes, as we sit down to a spectacular dining experience! What we didn’t at first realize, is that this magnificent spread is just the appetizer course — after which we will take a brief intermission to attend a Russian Folk Performance — and then return for the main course after the show. Midway through the appetizer course, the pilots finally join us after their grueling refueling ordeal at the airport. It is a truly memorable Georgian evening, distinguished as much by the warm hospitality, as by the fabulous food and highly entertaining folk dancing and singing! What a wonderful welcome to Russia!