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TAKING THE KIDS

Some sites have a ho-hum factor

November 02, 2003|Eileen Ogintz | Special to The Times

John KIBURZ, 11, really didn't care that his parents had taken him to one of the world's greatest museums. After eight palaces in three days, John couldn't look at one more painting, throne or gilded room, even if he was in the Gold Room of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, during the city's much-celebrated 300th anniversary this summer.

"He was on the floor," said his mom, Betsy Kiburz of St. Louis.

Though kids aren't always the best companions at historic sites, they can make travel more interesting when they are given the freedom to make some choices about places to visit.

My 19-year-old son, Matt, is a good example. He wasn't very enthusiastic by the time we got to the Hermitage after touring the Peterhof Palace (built by Peter the Great), St. Isaac's Cathedral, the State Museum of the History of Leningrad, the magnificent Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood (built on the spot where Czar Alexander II was killed in 1881) and the war memorial (dedicated to the more than half a million people who died resisting the Nazis in the 900-day siege of Leningrad during World War II).

I could have stayed all day at the Hermitage, wandering the lavish rooms of what once was the Winter Palace, happy to glimpse even a fraction of the vast collections. Matt kept looking at his watch, trying to will our guide to move faster so we could head to a store that some of the crew on board our ship had told him about, where he could find the latest DVDs and CDs for just a few dollars.

"Not another palace," Matt moaned when we left the Hermitage. I made the mistake of suggesting more sightseeing. "I'm not even walking by another church."

It would have been no different in a less exotic city closer to home, I realized. Matt's take on a place often is entirely different from mine. That's one reason it's so much fun -- and frustrating -- to travel with kids, no matter their ages.

As part of a Radisson Seven Seas cruise to the Baltic last summer, we spent three extraordinarily busy days touring spiffed-up St. Petersburg. More than $1 billion was spent to restore its scores of museums and monuments -- to the chagrin of the locals, many of whom still live in substandard housing, our guides told us.

The chance to show their children this grand and historic city, which happens to be Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's hometown, was the reason so many of the families I met aboard the ship had chosen this cruise.

My son said there wasn't enough time to sleep during the stay in St. Petersburg; I'm sure he would have slept until noon given the chance. He and the other kids we met during the trip certainly didn't feel compelled to see as many of the sights as the parents did. Perhaps the kids have the right idea: Experience what you can, then quit before you've lost all interest and patience.

"College kids are traveling a lot more, to more exotic places, than they were 20 years ago," said Kathie Gartrell, who oversees National Geographic Traveler on Campus, a new magazine aimed at this audience. "We hope to tap into their perspective. They're not at all intimidated by travel."

I was surprised by some of the places Matt wanted to see in St. Petersburg.

At his suggestion, we headed to the newly restored Grand Choral Synagogue, where we chatted up a young American rabbi who was working there.

If not for Matt, I wouldn't have found myself spending the morning with Russian military officers at a dusty shooting range so that Matt and his dad could try hitting targets with Kalashnikov rifles and other weapons. Matt called it a high point of his visit.

We also checked out Peter the Great's trick water system, which sprayed unsuspecting visitors, and bargained at an outdoor market for Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers nesting dolls. We sampled Russian caviars. We took pictures with a Russian's pet bear in the park.

Maybe we didn't see as many palaces or churches as I would have liked, but we laughed a lot. And in the long run, that's more important.

Taking the Kids appears monthly. Write to Eileen Ogintz at Eileen@takingthekids.com.

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