Russian Dolls: Moscow & St Petersburg

You’re about to get bombarded with whatever little tidbits I remember from our wonderful tour guides Lena and -oddly enough- Lena, because the last six days (3 in Moscow and 3 in St Petersburg) definitely deserve a post.

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For many who lived through Soviet Russia- be it the end or the very beginning- going inside the country’s borders may seem an impossible image to conjure. For anyone too young to have experienced that fear-tinged awe, it feels like going back in time. Moscow is built on the remains of Tsarist grandeur, now punctuated by large open spaces, an initial brash injection of commercialism and the garish architecture of the 1980s.

It’s difficult to describe Moscow, other than a rather brilliant contradiction. It’s history is so varied and each era – from the Tsars to Stalin- has left its mark. Perhaps the best example of this is Red Square, injected with a flavour of Russian history from every era. The large open space is surrounded on one side by GUM (a grand shopping mall previously frequented by Soviet and Tsarist leaders alike), Lenin’s mausoleum (a modern take on the Egyptian pyramid- fitting, considering the chemical mummification of the leader himself that lies inside) and potentially the most distinctive feature of all: St Basil’s Cathedral. Imagine the opulence of a traditional Russian ballet brought to life- it looks like a castle plucked from a fairy tale.

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Places worth visiting:

  • I’m not a particularly religious person and I’m slightly ashamed to say that being at a mixed religion school has made me something of a cynic, but there was an awe-inspiring quality to Christ the Saviour Cathedral. It’s humbling to see the intricate icons painted so lovingly; the devotion is clear in each brush stroke. And this is not a Cathedral that has had an easy ride, either. In 1996 it had to be rebuilt, an exact replica of the original costing 650 million Roubles- all of which was raised by the people of Moscow.
  • Moo Moo on Arbat Street provides a homely respite from shopping in the Russian cold as well as authentic cuisine- a great place to try Bhorsh!
  • The armoury holds Russia’s prize possessions; the treasures of its heritage- from Faberge eggs to thrones and carriages.

And then there was St Petersburg…

Intrinsically more modern than Moscow; when it was founded by Peter the Great, he used it when introducing his new reforms as an example to other cities across Russia. The difference is clear to see. St Petersburg comes across as surprisingly European- pastel washed palaces and rows upon rows of town houses, though like Moscow, most people live in apartments. All of this runs alongside the river and is accented by monuments at every corner; a not-so-subtle tribute to the city’s past. Often called the Venice of the north, St Petersburg is formed from 500 bridges across 42 Islands. In short, it’s very beautiful.

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Places worth visiting:

  • The Peter and Paul Fortress
  • Perhaps Russia’s most infamous- and slightly mythological- man, Grigory Rasputin has become eponymous with the scene of his murder, the Yusopov Palace; though the house is more than worthy of a visit in its own right. To be honest, any mansion that comes with it’s own theatre and concert hall (in which we had a private musical performance during our tour) is a must-visit and as Tsarist Russia’s second wealthiest family after the Royals, the Yusopovs’ former residence is a prime example of pre-revolution extravagance.
  • Despite it not being a regular feature on most St Petersburg bucket lists, be sure to catch a folklore show should you ever be in Russia. We saw one at the Nickolayevsky palace and it was the surprise highlight of our trip; the dancers were so energetic and their pride in their dancing/singing was so evident, you couldn’t help but smile and cheer along.
  • And if your tour is just a one-stop wonder, why not pay a visit to the Hermitage museum to see a collection of Russia’s finest all in one place? Probably best not to attempt seeing everything, though- viewing each item for at least 15 seconds would take a whole 7 years out of your life.
  • If, like me, your trip is split between these two cities, try taking the night train from Moscow to St Petersburg- definitely an experience if nothing else.
  • The Amber room in the Catherine palace has been honoured as the 8th wonder of the world and whilst plenty of photos may be available online, you really need to see it for yourself to truly appreciate it’s beauty.

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To eat:

  • Bhorsh soup
  • Pierogi
  • Stroganoff at the Stroganoff Palace (St Petersburg about £50 a pot)
  • Traditional Russian dumplings
  • Bellini pancakes with caviar

Tips:

  • Most public attractions and museums will not allow entry if you are carrying a backpack (however a bag held on any other body part is fine)
  • There are metal detectors everywhere- even bowling alleys insist on security. Don’t be put off by this though, most checks are not too rigorous.
  • Unless you’re native to Russia and are used to it, don’t drink the tap water- it comes with the risk of Giardia.
  • It’s advisable to always carry ID; a photocopy of your passport will do.
  • Whilst having a tour guide gives you the best of Russia in just a short period of time, it doesn’t offer the chance to truly immerse yourself in Russian culture. Perhaps my view is shaded slightly by the presence of Moscow Fashion Week during my stay- and my distinct lack of presence at the event.

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