Thanks to a seventeen year career in travel at the Smithsonian Institution and a lifetime of personal travel, I have visited almost every country, or former country, over the past 35 years. From the Arctic, Amazon and Antarctic to Easter Island, Fiji, Vladivostok and Beijing, north to south, east to west, I have circled the globe many times. And each trip is as new and exciting as the first.
So what motivates someone from a small town in North Carolina to become a peripatetic traveler? The answer is simple, individuals. I can list hundreds from my first trip to my most recent. When American Express Travel reached out to me to partner with them and share the stories of these inspirational #Journeymakers, my only hesitation in saying yes was how to limit it to just two people.
I have been very privileged in the trips I have been able to take, but more so in the people I have met. I would like to introduce you to a few over the next weeks. Thanks to American Express Travel for asking and for helping me share those #Journeymakers who inspire travel . You can find many more stories celebrating #Journeymakers here and add your own!
I traveled to Russia five times last year. Imperial, pre-revolution Russia has always fascinated me. The exceptional arts and culture that flourished during the Romanov rule and the rapid demise of the richest dynasty the world has ever known draw many travelers to St. Petersburg. But traveling to Russia in 2014 and 2015, you are also keenly aware of the present tensions between Russia and the West. (By keenly, I mean on one private jet flight we had to change our flight route to not fly over the Ukraine where a commercial flight had just been shot down.) I preferred to stay in the world of the Romanovs. That was not going to happen.
On one of my visits I met the extraordinary Natalia (or Natasha) Sokolova. Natalia was to be my private guide for two days in St. Petersburg. She became my friend and my touchstone for better understanding the Russia of yesterday and beyond the headlines of today. I hope to get a picture of her soon to add here!
Natalia is a professor at St. Petersburg State University. In between semesters she also guides, luckily for me.
We met as I disembarked my Viking River Cruise ship at the river port. I told her I wanted to see the lesser sites (really an oxymoron in St. Petersburg as all are fabulous) that most tourists don’t have time to see. I meant Romanov but she took me much further.
How did she teach me? Let me take you through two sites she chose to show me.
The Alexander Palace
The Alexander Palace is next door to the much more famous Catherine Palace in Pushkin. Renovations there are only beginning, but because of that the past feels very close. Nicolas II was born here and it was also from here that he and his family left for exile and their ultimate murder. A fact I knew. What I did not know was that when he and his family walked out the through the room pictured here to exile, they walked past a portrait of Marie Antoinette, given to them by the Ambassador from France. Walking this same parquet floor past this prescient portrait brought that moment to chilling reality. Natalia not only described the history of the palace but we both marveled at the clothing of the children, report cards and toys that showed their daily life and were a world removed from the grandeur of the Catherine Palace.
But it was in walking through the grounds of the Alexander Palace that Natalia took me through the past to the present. We saw the fence where guards had taken money for locals to peer and gawk at the royal family gardening under house arrest. We walked over the grounds that the Nazis had used as a burial ground near the lake and the nearby memorial for the Jewish population they had also murdered. Facts of history, but told with a sense of the horrors and of how deeply the 900 day siege of Leningrad during WWII impacted and still impacts the world view of many Russians today.
The Museum of Political History
Despite the “Soviet” sounding title, this museum is a brand new gem that few westerners visit. Comprised of the former Art Nouveau home of Matilde Kschessinska, the mistress of Nicolas II before his marriage and an adjoining mansion. Here are a few of the highlights:
- The Beautiful décor of one of the Mariinsky Ballet’s most famous Ballerinas
- The room that Lenin commandeered as his office on his return to Russia and the balcony he spoke from in the iconic painting.
- A portrait of Stalin, behind bars. When I asked the Director to explain he said, “Stalin enslaved our nation, now we have placed him behind the bars.” I asked who determined the interpretations in the museum and he said that though a state museum they were not controlled.
- The exhibits end with the economic revolution or earthquake that accompanied the end of the Soviet Union. Lauded in the West, I did not appreciate the hardships and fearful uncertainly that every Russian experienced and still experience today as they live through one of the greatest economic shifts ever attempted.
We did not discuss President Putin or Crimea or her feelings about his leadership. We did have lunch in the restaurant where he celebrated his 50th Birthday and had the same menu. But I did leave after this visit with little deeper understanding of the country beyond the Romanovs, and a new friendship that I value.
Happy anniversary American Express Travel and here’s to 100 more years of travel and JouneyMakers who take us all where we may not think we want to go.
I am honored to partner with American Express Travel in celebration of their 100th Anniversary to recognize a few of the amazing people I have met during my travels who have made my travel memorable… even transformational. As always the opinions and writing are my own, but I am thrilled to give these “Journeymakers” a wider audience. They deserve it. Who were Journeymaker’s in your travels? Tell the world about them here!