Author: Kiera Reilly, C’93
As the Director of Penn Alumni Travel, I have been fortunate to see much of the world, traveling with fellow Penn Alumni and friends on Penn Alumni Travel programs. While the sites we see are often iconic, sometimes, it’s the stolen moments of unexpected serendipity that stay in your memory and make each trip special.
In the summer of 2005, we were on the Historic Countries of the Baltic cruise. The itinerary included stops in Gdansk, Poland, several former Soviet republics – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Copenhagen and Stockholm. It was a wonderful trip – a small ship with 100 passengers from various institutions around the U.S., including Penn. Everyone seemed to get along well, no matter your alma mater. I still remember climbing to the top deck late one night (with the infamous white nights of summer, dusk started around 11 p.m.) to find a few of the Penn travelers sharing Cuban cigars with alumni from LSU.
I had never been to Russia before, so arriving in St. Petersburg was fascinating. It was hot, and humid, and the city just shimmered. Since our ship was small, we were able to dock relatively close to the central part of the city. As we took a bus to tour the major sites, there were young brides and grooms everywhere, taking photos against the city’s landmarks.
Everyone seemed to smile when we saw another pair of newlyweds.
We toured the Peter and Paul Fortress, visiting the tombs of the czar and his family. We had an early morning tour of the Hermitage– the architectural details of the building itself were amazing, not to mention the vast art collection.
We traveled outside the city, visting Petrodvorets, (Peterhof Palace), which lived up to its reputation as being the “Russian Versailles”, and Catherine’s palace, Tsarskoe Selo,, walking through the recently restored Amber Room (no photos allowed). En route, it was fascinating to see the Soviet architecture – such beautiful palaces and museums from long ago contrasted with the blocky modern buildings of the former USSR.
All these sites were amazing to see, but it was something I experienced not on the itinerary that remains lodged in my memory. The cruise director on our ship had lived in Russia for several years, and she shared tips about St. Petersburg with the passengers – where to have lunch, what to do if encountering gypsies, and suggestions for places to visit, including a Russian Orthodox church service. Intrigued, I decided to visit the church not far from where our ship docked. Christel Pailet, Director of UCLA’s travel program, decided to join me. The cruise director informed us that orthodox services go on for hours, so she said we could stop in, stay as long as we liked and leave on our own timeline. She also recommended that we cover our heads and shoulders. We brought along a shawl and set out – about a 10 minute walk from our ship.
From the outside, Russian Orthodox churches are beautiful and massive. Inside, this church seemed small and intimate. It was dark, with only minimal light streaming through small windows. There were maybe 15-20 people inside. There were no pews so everyone stood. There was chanting coming from above, from monks or priests we couldn’t see. It seemed like the chants were coming from the heavens. Every once in a while, the worshippers would bend over and touch the floor with their hands. Christel and I stood in wonder, watching, listening, not understanding anything being said or chanted but transfixed by the spirituality of the service.
Then, we noticed what we assumed to be a priest. He was standing slightly off center on the ground level. He was speaking in hushed tones with a woman who was clearly upset. Tears were streaming down her face. He seemed to be comforting her, or maybe it was a confessional, we could only guess. Then, he would stop speaking to her, say some words aloud for the service, and resume speaking with her. After about twenty minutes we left, fascinated by what we had witnessed. We wondered why this woman was so upset and what the priest was telling her for comfort. Other worshippers came and went while we stood and watched. When I saw Christel recently, she said it was one of her most memorable travel experiences. I couldn’t agree more.
This year, Penn Alumni Travel is visiting the Baltics again. I look forward to visiting these countries as I join the Penn travelers on the May 31 departure. Two famous historical figures will come aboard the ship for lectures – Lech Walesa and Mikhail Gorbachev. Plans are underway to repeat this trip next year, and as these departures sold out very quickly, you should make your reservations early!
View more photos from Penn Alumni travel here.