Planes, Trains and my favorite – Automobiles

There are a lot of ways to get to where we want to go for our travel needs. Planes allow us to get there quickly. Trains give us the opportunity to get there fairly quickly while taking in some pretty amazing scenery. But for me there is nothing like driving to a chosen destination. Automobiles can provide speed. And the viewing opportunities are endless because you are not tied to a specific track; and your schedule is your own.

PLANES: to cover the most miles in the shortest amount of time there is nothing to compete with flying. Even with delays that seem to happen with far too much regularity, if you have a time crunch, there is no match to covering 500 miles in an hour. Our airline choices have become greatly reduced in recent years with airlines swallowing each other up left and right, leaving less and less competition to keep airline prices in acceptable ranges. The seat areas get smaller, while the prices get bigger.

Taking off in ominous skies in Phoenix enroute to Kansas City on US Airways

After a long delay finally taking off in ominous skies in Phoenix enroute to Kansas City on US Airways

The three main airlines I fly on are: Delta, US Airways, and Southwest. I wish I could say one outweighs the others when it comes to customer service. But it seems to be a real crapshoot as whether you get a good crew or not. Some make you feel like you are bothering them and they are there to basically get a paycheck. Others make you feel like you are the only passenger on board. Some crack jokes and keep everybody’s spirits in a light and lively mood; some try to crack jokes and fail miserably and should just stick with serving; and others are simply good at making your flight pleasant and comfortable.

Pros and Cons of each airline – including perks of flying status on some airlines

Delta: allows purchase and cancellation of one-way flights; $200 change fee; great Delta Sky Club (SkyTeam) – can enter with Platinum AMEX, First Class ticket, or Gold Medallion or higher; three free checked bag; possible but not often free upgrade; boarded by zones; minimum five miles earned for each dollar paid.

Delta Airplane

US Airways: allows purchase of one-way flights – but if you book a round-trip ticket and cancel one leg, they cancel the whole flight > charge a $200 change fee and difference in airfare to rebook leg they canceled; only Emerald or Sapphire or International first class has access to OneWorld Clubs (or you can pay $50 for a one day pass) – a Platinum AMEX, First Class domestic ticket or Silver Preferred won’t get you in; Silver Preferred allows you one free checked bag and free upgrade for you and a companion if available; boarded by zones; earn 100% or 150% of miles flown depending on status.

US Airways airplane

Southwest: allows purchase and cancellation of one-way flights; two free checked bags, but they do charge an early bird fee if you want a chance to get checked in early so you don’t have to end up in a middle row seat; no cancellation fee – they bank your credit for use on a future flight; no first class or sky miles clubs; business status is achievable for better seating options; board by lining up on either side of a line up of numbered posts – A,B or C and 1-60; minimum 6 points (miles) earned for each dollar spent.

Southwest Airlines airplane

TRAINS: now we need more of these in the US. It is one thing I love about being in Europe. You don’t need to or really want to drive long distances there. There are trains traveling at all times of the day and night to pretty much any destination you can think of in Europe. If you’re in a hurry, take one of the many speed trains. If you aren’t, take one of the more leisurely paced trains and take in the diversified landscapes that dot the European continent. And if you are in one of the major cities, there is no better way to get around then by subway or light/metro rail. Quick on and quick off.

Sipping on a cold one in the subway in Prague - those Czechs like their beer anywhere and everywhere

Sipping on a cold one in the subway in Prague – those Czechs like their beer anywhere and everywhere

One of many historical train stations dotting the European countryside - usually with a church in the background

One of many historical train stations dotting the European countryside – usually with a church in the background

On the train, taking in scenery and an opportunity for some reading enroute from Vienna to Ljubljana, Slovenia.

On the train, taking in scenery and an opportunity for some reading enroute from Vienna to Ljubljana, Slovenia.

There are regions in the US that have taken this form of transportation to heart: NYC, Boston, Washington DC, and many points in between; Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Miami. Amtrak has been around for decades and it would be great to see the kind of train access between states like there is between countries in Europe. Obviously from a cost perspective in this day and age this is very prohibitive. The size of each country is roughly the same when compared in square miles, but we have only about 40% of the population that Europe does, so that leaves a lot of vast unpopulated miles to cover that building and maintaining rail systems in these areas would be very expensive.

Amtrak train

Respite from the rains above in a subway below New York Cities busy streets

Respite from the rains above in a subway below New York Cities busy streets

When I am in the US and am not in a hurry to get to my destination there is no better way to travel than by automobile. I don’t really have any addictions, but I do have several passions: traveling, eating, writing, reading, golfing, walking and CARS!! I have a need for speed!! The kind with four wheels. Our family has a diverse collection cars to take us to our chosen destinations: SUV’s to take us through snowy mountain passages and rough terrain; sports cars to hug those curvy roads; sedans to float along the open highway; UTV to go off-roading into the desert.

Ready for a road trip through the curvy mountain roads in northern Arizona

Ready for a road trip through the curvy mountain roads in northern Arizona

Plenty of room in the SUV for dogs and luggage

Plenty of room in the SUV for dogs and luggage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now when my family travels to a destination where we need to rent a car, we splurge on a fun ride as much as on our accommodations. Nothing like winding your way through the Vermont countryside in a road hugging Camaro or cruising along on the Pacific Coast highway in a Porsche Panamera.

Girls road trip to Yosemite from San Francisco in a snappy Mustang convertible

Girls road trip to Yosemite from San Francisco in a snappy Mustang convertible

Cruising through the curves on the 17-mile drive on the Monterey Peninsula in a Porsche Panamera

Cruising through the curves on 17-mile drive on the Monterey Peninsula in a Porsche Panamera

The view through the front window of a 2012 jet black Camaro as my daughter and I wind our way through the Vermont Countryside

The view through the front window of a 2012 jet black Camaro as my daughter and I wind our way through the Vermont countryside

 

Eli helping Dad navigate the roadways from Phoenix to Kansas City

Eli helping Dad navigate the roadways from Phoenix to Kansas City

St. Petersburg – Part 1: Drunk on beauty

Following is a post written by my first guest blogger (and daughter), Allison Malecha, assistant editor at Grove Atlantic Publishers, a published poet and a great travel companion. Allison is a graduate of Columbia University with a degree in Comparative Literature and the Humanities – with a focus on the languages of French and Czech. Allison has traveled the world extensively, with extended studies or internships in Paris, Prague, Amman, Oxford and Florence. She brings to her writing a very old soul with a very young heart. 

St. Petersburg is a city that has had many names—Saint Petersburg at its founding by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703, Petrograd in 1914 after the fall of the tsarist monarchy, Leningrad following Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924, returned to its original moniker in 1991 after the fall of communism, and nicknamed “Piter” throughout. My phone, set to Czech, still called it Petrohrad.

However you title it, the city is Russia’s second largest, and it is the northernmost big city in the world, with just under five million inhabitants. From 1713 to 1728 and again from 1732 to 1918, the city was the capital of Russia (the governmental seat then moved to Moscow)—and its monumental architecture and wide Parisian boulevards fit that bill. But the fact that the city is basically an assortment of swampy islands bisected by the Neva River, which runs from Lake Ladoga in the northeast to the Gulf of Finland in the west, keeps it from achieving anything like a grid. Partly because of this, and partly because I spent my seven days in the city with a friend who is fluent in Russian acting as my 24-hour guide, I still had trouble navigating the 10-minute walk from my friend’s apartment to Nevsky Prospekt, the famed artery of St. Petersburg, until the very end of my trip.

A map of St. Petersburg showing the highlighted attractions and the many waterways off the Neva River that flows through the city from Ladoga Lake on the east side to the Gulf of Finland on the west side

The first step, though, to seeing St. Petersburg, or any of Russia, is just plain getting there. You need a visa, and to get a visa, you need an invitation, which you can buy for around $30 on this website. It looks fake and feels fake and is fake, but it works. The same site also directs you to the visa application, which you fill out online and then finish processing at a visa issuing office. The total cost for me was around $150, but the price varies depending on time constraints and type of visa.

Once inside the St. Petersburg airport, I wasn’t asked a single question by the customs officer, and with the tap of a button inside her glassy cubicle, I was let loose on the whole beautiful city. I had flown in from Prague, and the colors of St. Petersburg’s buildings looked sober to me in comparison: yellows, beiges, and peaches instead of greens, pinks, blues. But I soon learned that these more stately exteriors hid many vibrant treasures: from the Hermitage’s Golden Drawing Room to the jewel-encrusted eggs cushioned in gleaming display cases at the newly opened Fabergé Museum.

The Gold Drawing-Room at the Hermitage

The Gold Drawing-Room at the Hermitage

My first full day was Thursday, May 1st, and since the Hermitage Museum offers free entry to all visitors on the first Thursday of every month, my friend and I stood for an hour and a half in the cold to avoid paying for tickets. Once inside, every goosebump became well worth it. My mom has mentioned Versailles here, but the rooms of the Hermitage, Russia’s most famous art museum and the former residence of the Russian monarchs, made the Hall of Mirrors look chintzy in comparison. Truth be told, I couldn’t describe a single painting or sculpture I saw, but I can remember feeling awe in a room done entirely in gold leaf, putting my hand around a crystal doorknob the color of a ruby and the size of a tennis ball, and craning my neck in each room to gaze at the wooden ceilings, intricately carved and painted pale blue and white, or cream and gold, or in splashes of color formed into murals.

Me in front of the Hermitage

Me in front of the Hermitage

Ruby red crystal door knob, the size of a tennis ball, on a door at the Hermitage Museum

Ruby red crystal door knob, the size of a tennis ball, on a door at the Hermitage Museum

Ceiling at the Hermitage

Highly ornate ceiling at the Hermitage

The large-scale extravagance of the Hermitage is mirrored in miniature at the Fabergé Museum, just off Nevsky Prospekt along the Fontanka Canal. One of St. Petersburg’s newest treasures, the museum has only been open to the general public since April and still must be experienced through a Russian-language tour. But it is worth finding an interpreter, or screwing comprehension altogether, to ogle the imperial eye candy on display. The French and German-trained jeweler Carl Fabergé began making his priceless ostrich-egg-sized artifcats—often fashioned from mother of pearl and spackled with gems—for Tsar Alexander III in the 1880s and continued it as an Easter tradition for his successor Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia. The yolks of these eggs are the real treat—pint-sized portraits or gem-covered toys that reveal themselves through impressive feats of mechanization. The museum’s collection doesn’t end with the eggs, though; Fabergé designed everything from cigarette cases to dinner plates to icons, a staple of traditional Russian households. And it’s all housed in the elegantly restored Shuvalov Palace, which once saw some of the finest fêtes in St. Petersburg come through its ballrooms.

The only picture I was able to take of the Faberge' Exhibit at the Shuvalov Palace

The only picture I was able to take of the Faberge’ Exhibit at the Shuvalov Palace

As in any big city, St. Petersburg’s art doesn’t end indoors. For each of the five million living, breathing inhabitants, there seems to be a stony-faced statue. St. Petersburg boasts more statues than any city I’ve ever seen: scientists and tsars, politicians and literary greats, and a Lenin and Pushkin for every neighborhood. Carved into the walls of subway stations and building facades, guarding the many bridges, and standing proudly in every square and half-square of the city. Some of my favorites were the self-effacing Raskolnikov (Dostoevsky’s murderous protagonist in Crime & Punishment) on Stolyarny, and the immense Lenin in front of Finland Station, one hand clutching at his armpit, the other thrust outward at an invisible crowd. The day we visited, we were the revolutionary’s only audience, along with a cluster of snowflakes the clouds had suddenly let loose from the sky. The most renowned statue, though, is the Bronze Horseman, along the bank of the Neva and not far from the Hermitage. Catherine the Great’s 1782 tribute to her idol Peter, the statue is mounted atop the “Thunder Stone,” which the Russians claim to be the largest stone ever moved by man at 1,500 tons.

Lenin statue in Lenin Square in front of Finland Station

Lenin statue in Lenin Square in front of Finland Station

Unlike in most European cities, almost all of these statues are secular in nature. But as anyone who has read Russian literature—and if you haven’t, Crime & Punishment is an excellent place to start—knows, Russian Orthodoxy is integral to the nation’s culture, and remained so even through 60 years of communist state-imposed atheism. The orthodox church’s onion domes strongly flavor the skyline: from the coal-colored domes of Vladimirskiya, which Dostoevsky frequented while writing the Brothers Karamazov, to the Candy Land-esque spires of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The name of the latter hints at its origin story: it was built at the end of the 19th century by Tsar Alexander III in honor of his father, on the spot where he was fatally wounded by a bomb-throwing anarchist. I could have walked around the building for hours, analyzing its deep rainbow shades and flourishes of gold. But after waiting in line for a ticket, I walked inside the cathedral. Though every wall is covered floor-to-atrium in mosaics, I felt less that awe-inspired. Not because I’m unreligious, though that’s true, but because my head immediately became filled with the snaps and clacks of cameras capturing every tiled face and lit candle. I couldn’t concentrate, and after one tour, I pushed my way back outside.

Church of the Spilled Blood

Church of the Spilled Blood

Earlier that same day I had resented Fabergé’s no-photography policy—compounded by the fact that its museum store seemed indefinitely closed for business—but my experience at the Church on Spilled Blood (for short) made me think they might have had the right idea. Sometimes, the beauty of a city, especially a city as overflowing in beautiful things as St. Petersburg, is better sipped in silence.