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Europe and central Asia 2015

by Harry R. Matthews


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Introduction

In early August, 2015, Lorraine and I began a 4-part trip that started with relaxation and became steadily more adventurous. We flew to Dubrovnik on the Adriatic coast of Croatia in the Mediterranean Sea and after a few days joined a 100-passenger cruise ship/yacht for 8 days. We visited ports in Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Sicily and southern Italy before disembarking near Rome. The small ship took us to smaller less-crowded ports where we went ashore when we weren't swimming off the back of the ship. We also climbed an active volcano and watched another from the ship as the volcano sputtered away at night.

From Rome we flew to Berlin where we joined a 3,000-passenger ship, Regal Princess, for a cruise to ports around the Baltic Sea. It was a bit "sublime to ridiculous" but we actually enjoyed both ships, in different ways. Tallin, Estonia, was our favourite Baltic port. St. Petersburg was impressive but less charming. Other ports were in between.

From Regal Princess we left the sea for canals and lakes, on a river boat from St. Petersburg to Moscow. We were disappointed that the boat spent about half the "cruise" moored with other river boats fairly near St. Petersburg or Moscow. They were very poor locations for touring either city. However, while we were actually cruising, we enjoyed the scenery and visiting smaller Russian towns. After leaving the river boat, we enjoyed a few days on our own in Moscow. It was the end of the tourist season and relatively uncrowded. We found the Russian people that we met very helpful and the younger ones spoke excellent English. Serendipitously, our Mariott Courtyard hotel was about a city block away from the Tchaikovsky Music Centre and with the help of local patrons we were able to buy tickets and enjoy an outstanding cello recital.

The fourth, and last, part of the trip was by train, through several countries of the former Soviet Union. Our little cabin, with its tiny en-suite toilet and shower, was not as comfortable as the Indian train we went on a couple of years ago but it was much newer and "high-tech". The upper bunk gave me plenty of exercise. The staff were excellent and the restaurant car was "cosy" with good Russian food. The train took us south from Moscow to Volgograd (previously Stalingrad) which was the site of a massive seige during World War 2. We continued to Khiva in Uzbekistan and then into Turkmenistan. Newly-rich with natural gas and a contract with China, Turkmenistan was rushing to develop a modern high-skill economy. In some ways the capital city, Ashgabat, was the most interesting city that we visited in central Asia and stimulated much discussion. After visiting the "Gates to Hell" -- one of the strangest sights I have seen -- we continued to the fabulous Silk Route cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. These historical cities should be at the top of any traveller's "bucket list". Lorraine and I left the train in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and flew back to San Francisco via Istanbul.

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