DAY 41: THESE RUSSIANS ARE CRAZY!


A beautiful day to visit Peterhof Palace (aka: The Summer Palace).

Everyone dreams of having a holiday home by the sea right? Turns out Peter the Great did, so in 1725 he built Peterhof Palace right on the shores of the Bay of Finland. More commonly known as the Summer Palace, this 102 acre estate was the summer home of the Romonov family and was our first stop of the day. It was a gloriously sunny 21C day in St Petersburg today, and as the bus drove us the 50km out to the Summer Palace, we saw some of the more modern parts of the city -including the requisite blocks of apartments from the Soviet era. Even in these outer suburb areas the differences between Moscow and St Petersburg were very apparent with the buildings being generally in better repair, the sidewalks being clean and all the parks and grassy strips being mowed and well maintained. A much more pleasant city to drive through, though Russian driving seems to be consistently crazy everywhere!

It took us about an hour to get out to the Summer Palace and when we arrived we were flabbergasted by the number of buses already there. Tatyana our guide told us that the Summer Palace was the most popular tourist destination in St Petersburg in summer and that on any given day during the peak tourist months of July and August there would be 12 or more cruise ships in town, each carrying 2,000-4,000 passengers! In addition, there are at least 4 trains arriving every day from China full of tourists. That’s a lot of visitors! No wonder the Summer Palace was so busy. 

Enjoying the sunshine and crowds at the Summer Palace. The Romanov family’s private chapel on the right was beautiful, if a tad ostentatious! 

 

Peter the Great built the Summer Palace as a simple little vacation home  by the sea for the family.

 

The Orangerie – a small pavilion built to house the fruit trees so they wouldn’t die in the harsh Russian winters  (turns out -25C kills just about anything!).

The Grand Cascade was especially busy, packed with tourists snapping their photos of the golden statues and marble staircase. This is the main set of 22 fountains laid out in front of palace itself, modelled on those at the Chateau de Marly in France. All of the fountains operate without the use of pumps – it’s all done by harnessing the power of basic fluid mechanics. Water is supplied from natural springs and collects in reservoirs in the Upper Gardens, 27m higher in elevation than the fountains. The elevation difference creates the pressure that drives most of the fountains of the Lower Gardens, including the Grand Cascade.

The centre-piece of the Grand Cascade is the Samson Fountain which  depicts the moment when Samson tears open the jaws of a lion, representing Russia’s victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War. It is doubly symbolic as the lion is an element of the Swedish coat of arms, and the war was won on St Samson’s Day. From the lion’s mouth shoots a 20-metre-high vertical jet of water, the highest in all of Peterhof.  

The Grand Cascade,, seen from the balconies above. The central canal opens right out into the Baltic Sea which can be just seen in the distance.
A side view of the Grand Cascade, with the Summer Palace in the background.

 

The Samson Fountain represents Russia’s victory over the Swedish Empire.

Luckily, with over 100 acres of parklands to stroll through, we quickly lost most of the crowds. It was so nice to spend a few hours enjoying the quieter parts of the gardens with our little group of 12 people. There are many flowerbeds and manicured sections in the garden, but much of it has been left pretty well untouched – green forests carpeted in grass and moss with rivulets and streams winding their way through to the sea.  Interestingly most of the Summer Palace and Gardens have only been restored and rebuilt in recent years as they were all sacked and mostly destroyed during the Siege of Leningrad* of WWII, when German forces surrounded  the city and held it under siege for almost 3 years.

(*A note about the name of this city: Turns out St Petersburg has had a few different names in its time. Originally, when it was part of the Swedish Empire, it was called Nyen; then, when Russia won the Great Northern War and it became Russian, the town was called St Petersburg. In 1914, following war with Germany, the name was changed to Petrograd to remove the German-sounding “-burg”; following the death of Lenin in 1924, its name was changed to Leningrad. Finally, in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a referendum was held and the city’s citizens voted to change the city’s name back to St Petersburg. A complicated history that reflects the city’s strategic importance.)

There were lots of perfectly manicured sections of lawn and beautiful flowerbeds in the gardens, punctuated by more fountains.

 

Strolling through the quieter, more natural parts of the Summer Gardens.

 

We walked all the way through the gardens to the end of the Grand Canal, where we caught a hydrofoil back to St Petersburg.

There were a number of pavilions, marble statues and fountains spread out around the gardens, providing us with an excuse to stop and take a few photos. Several fountains are designed with the specific purpose of soaking visitors (apparently Peter the Great had a sense of humour too – can you imagine those ladies in their giant, ornate 18th century dresses strolling through the gardens, only to be wet by a “joke fountains”?). There were heaps of kids running through these fountains, happily getting soaked. We restrained ourselves… only just! It was just a little bit too chilly to contemplate spending the rest of the day with wet jeans.

We walked all the way through the gardens to the end of the Grand Canal where we caught a hydrofoil back to St Petersburg city. Hydrofoils are cool – it went so fast and didn’t even feel like you were in a boat at all.

The shores of the Bay of Finland, Baltic Sea. Looked inviting, until you stuck a toe in and felt how COLD the water was!

 

Catching the hydrofoil from Peterhof Palace to St Petersburg.

We had lunch together as a group once we were back in town at a local restaurant; they served us a hearty, 3-course Russian meal of vodka (as an entree I guess), borscht (translation = beetroot soup), beef stroganoff (translation = beef and mushroom stew) with veggies, and for dessert some blini (translation = sweet Russian pancakes) and berries. As with all the food we’ve eaten in Russia, it was great; very tasty and oh so filling. We really needed a nap after a lunch like that, but no such luck!

Next site to visit was the Church of Spilled Blood, a wonder of Russian architecture and artistry built in 1883 at the site of Alexander II’s murder in his memory. The Church contains over 7500 square metres of mosaics; the exterior surfaces and interior walls and ceilings are completely covered in intricately detailed mosaics of biblical scenes with very fine patterned borders setting off each picture. Even with all the wonders we’ve seen in St Petersburg over the past couple of days, this was still beyond anything we had seen before and left us both speechless with wonder. The skill of the artists involved and the cost to build it must have been extraordinary. There was an elaborate shrine marking the exact spot where Alexander II’s assassination took place, covered in semi-precious stones. The floor of the shrine are the actual cobblestones where his blood was spilt. A rather dramatic testament to the violence of his death.

The ornately decorated exterior of The Church of Spilled Blood.

 

There are more than 3500 square meters of mosaics covering the exterior of the church…

 

…and 4000 square meters covering the interior surfaces.

 

Every wall and ceiling dome was covered in mosaics depicting Biblical scenes.

 

The skill of the artists involved in creating these masterpieces is awe-inspiring.
The Church of Spilled Blood was built in honour of Emperor Alexander II and the shrine built in his memory was majestic.

In a rather typical Russian-style juxtaposition, this sombre, awe-inspiring trip was followed by a visit to the Russian Vodka Museum, complete with shots of different vodkas to try and traditional Russian snacks such as giant gherkins, smoked salmon on dark rye bread, and pelmeni(translation = small meat-filled pasties). It was sooooo touristy and the special vodka museum guide spoke terrible English, with a thick accent that would have been perfect for a Dracula movie. I guess every holiday needs a bit of cheesy touristy trash and boy did we get some today! It was fun though, in a naff kind of way, and the difference between the “basic” vodka and the “gold”, “platinum” and “imperial” grades was remarkable.

Some interesting factoids about vodka that we learnt today:

  • Vodka is made up of water and ethanol. That’s it.
  • The word “vodka” is a diminutive of the Slavic word for water (voda), and therefore literally means “little water”.
  • Vodka can be made from potatoes or grains, with rye, wheat and sorghum being preferred traditional starting materials. 
  • Traditional Russian vodka is standardised to 40% ethanol (80 proof), whereas in the rest of the world it is usually 30-37.5%.
  • Vodka is traditionally drunk neat, in one hit.
  • The first records detailing methods of production of vodka in Russia are from the 9th century.
  • Russians drink 12L of vodka per capita per year – that’s 1L per month for every man, woman and child in this vast country!
  • Mikhail Gorbachov tried to curb Russians’ enthusiasm for this beverage while he was President with a public health campaign that encouraged people not to drink before 10:00am. The campaign was a failure. These Russians are crazy!
The last stop on our brief tour of Russia: the Russian Vodka Museum.

So that, ladies and gentlemen, was our brief tour of Russia. Tomorrow we are back on our own (no more tour group) and on a train to Helsinki. What a day – what a week!  

 

DAY 40: FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE


Today we fell in love….

It’s official: we love St Petersburg! We had our first full day in this glorious city today and it was awesome. Some reasons why we love St Pete’s:

  • The architecture. There are so many beautifully restored 18th and 19th century buildings, and within the old part of town (which is all a UNESCO World Heritage sight) building heights are limited to 3-4 storeys maximum – so no high-rises to spoil the views. 
  • The waterways. St Pete’s is sometimes referred to as “The Venice of the North” as it’s built across 14 islands at the delta of the Neva River, where it spills into the Baltic Sea. But it’s so much nicer than Venice because the waterways are wide and free flowing, and the city is not sinking or stinking. It was lovely watching boats cruise along the Neva River, and we saw lots of St Pete’s locals hanging out on the grassy riverbanks enjoying the sunshine.  
  • The parks. There are lots of green spaces everywhere and the grass is mowed! Sounds shocking, I know, that somewhere in Russia, someone cares enough to mow the lawns in a public space, but we saw it here in St Petersburg! Most of the main streets here are wide boulevards (or prospekts as they are called in Russian) with green, leafy strips down the centre of the road, adding to the general feeling of green-ness.   
  • The people. Generally people here seem friendlier, less grim. People smile! Heaps of people speak English and there is an air of openness that was completely lacking in Moscow. It’s still Russia, don’t get me wrong, but a far more welcoming version. In many regards this city feels so much more European, which was the really the whole reason it was built, so makes sense really! Our guide Tatyana said that people from St Pete’s are generally regarded as being very relaxed and laid back for Russians; she told us a great Russian joke that puts it really well: “You know, 90% of Russians live in constant stress; 10% of Russians live in St Petersburg”.
We separated ourselves from the tour group for a couple of hours today to stroll along Nevsky Prospekt (the main street through St Pete’s) and enjoy the atmosphere. We took heaps of photos of the buildings, the canals, the river, the people – way too many to bore you with here, but the collage below should help give you an idea of why we enjoyed our walk through the city so much.
 
A selection of snapshots from our wanderings down Nevsky Prospekt – the main street in St Petersburg.
Part of the reason we enjoyed St Pete’s so much today was also because we went to The Fortress of Peter & Paul and to The Hermitage – two of the most impressive places either of us has ever visited. 

The Fortress of Peter & Paul is the original citadel built in 1703 after Peter the Great and his army defeated the Swedish Empire in the Great Northern War. The construction of this fortress was the first step Peter the Great took in moving the capital of the Russian Empire from Moscow to St Petersburg. His idea was to move the imperial capital and at the same time, make sweeping changes to modernise Russia – to bring it into line with what Peter the Great had seen in 18th century European cities such as Paris, London and Rome. St Petersburg officially became the Russian Empire’s capital city in 1712, and remained the seat of the Romanov Dynasty and the Imperial Court of the Russian Empires, as well as the seat of the Russian government, for 185 years until the communist revolution of 1917. (Interesting side note: We found out today that before 1712, the monarchs of the Russian state were called Tsars and Tsarinas; after Peter the Great’s sweeping changes however, Russia became an Empire and thus they were known as Emperors ad Empresses).

The Fortress of Peter & Paul remained the heart of the city throughout the 185 years it was the imperial capital. Within the fortress walls there are a number of 18th century buildings left from the original citadel and the Cathedral of Peter & Paul, which was spectacular. Gold-encrusted wooden carvings at every turn, and more detailed, ornate sculpting than our eyes could comprehend. As well as being the original church of St Petersburg, this cathedral has particular significance because this is where the bodies of all the Russian Emperors and Empresses of the Romanov Dynasty are buried – from Peter the Great to Nicholas II and his family who were murdered in 1917. Tatyana, our guide, gave us a great tour through the fortress and a history lesson in the process. The photos below will hopefully give you an indication of the splendour within the cathderal.

The Fortress of Peter & Paul, with the central spire of the cathedral towering above the trees. For the 185 years St Pete’s was the capital of the Russian Empire, no buildings were allowed to be built taller than this spire. In the older part of town this edict remains, which means no ugly high-rises to spoil the beauty of the city.

 

Cathedral of Peter & Paul – exterior.

 

Entering the cathedral, already awed by the sumptuous interior.

 

The central pulpit and icons of the Cathedral of Peter & Paul.

 

Within the cathedral lie the tombs of all the Emperors and Empresses of the Romanov Dynasty, including the recovered bodies of Nicholas II and his family who were murdered during the Russian Revolution of 1917. DNA tests on the remains have confirmed that the entire family was murdered, including the Princess Anastasia who was originally thought to have escaped.  

From the Fortress of Peter & Paul we walked through some of the older parts of St Petersburg, past a multitude of churches and monuments  (some of which are highlighted below), on our way to lunch. Lunch was an awesome selection of Russian kulebyaka(translation = pies);; we shared a beef one, a rabbit and mushroom one, a veggie one and sweet lemon pie. Very tasty and oh so filling – we both wanted a nap after lunch, but no such luck ’cause we were off to The Hermitage!

Generous slabs of Russian kulebyaka for lunch.

 

The Cathedral of St Isaac – St Petersburg.  Destroyed during the Soviet era, this has now been rebuilt and restored.

 

The Russian Museum. This museum holds only the works of Russian artists.

 

Palace Bridge, St Petersburg – one of hundreds of bridges in this great city.

 

Palace Square – so large it makes buses look like toys.

The Hermitage is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world; founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, it has been open to the public since 1852. Its collections comprise over 3 million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world; items from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome; numerous tapestries, sculptures and furnishings from all over Europe; and a huge section dedicated to Russian art and culture. The collections occupy a large complex of 6 historic buildings along Palace Embankment, including the Winter Palace (the former residence of the Russian Emperors and Empresses) and the private theatre of the Romanov family. 

There is no way we could see all of the exhibits in a day, but our guided tour certainly covered the major highlights. The former private rooms of the imperial family were especially interesting – seeing how opulently they lived and the splendour they were surrounded by on a day-to-day basis. Most awe-inspiring were the baroque rooms, with their ornate gold detailing, velvet furnishings and detailed wooden floor mosaics. In all honesty it was the most splendid display of wealth we have ever seen; beyond what we could have imagined. As amazing as all the museum displays and room decorations were however, after about 2 hours, our eyes were glazing over and it all began to blur together. The Hermitage is one place we would love to come back to, but at our own pace. To have a few days to enjoy the museum would be great, but for now we are satisfied that we have at least had a taste of the majesty of The Hermitage.   

Again, we took heaps of photos, and its doubtful that the photos we’ve chosen here will do it justice, but at least it will give you an idea of just how rich those Russian Romanovs were. 

The entrance to the Hermitage, off Palace Square.

 

The first ornate Baroque room. This one had been Catherine the Great’s private art gallery.

 

The Rococo designs within the Romanov’s private theatre was beautiful.

 

Just a small example of the furnishings that filled every room throughout the Winter Palace.

 

The splendour of the ballroom. Just enough gold to impress your guests when holding a ball.

 

One of Catherine the Great’s private sitting rooms. All red velvet, white plaster and gold.

 

The furniture in the private quarters of the royal family was no less ornate than in the public rooms.

 

This room housed portraits of all the generals who helped Peter the Great defeat the Swedish army.

 

Frescos on the ceiling, marble pillars, golden chandeliers – this is just a sitting room

 

The main throne room, with the double headed eagle of Russia emblazoned behind.

 

This is called “The Golden Sitting Room”. Wonder why?

 

The Dutch Room was designed to house paintings by Dutch artists.

 

The Spanish Room holds sculptures and paintings from various Spanish artists.

 

The Italian Gallery contains thousands of frescos on the walls and ceilings by Italian painters. Apparently no two are identical.

 

Us, all excited after our tour through The Hermitage.

After such an action-packed day we were exhausted, but managed to fit in a meal of tasty pirogi (translation = Russian meat-filled dumplings, like ravioli) before coming back to our quiet hotel room for a well earnt rest. What a day! It was fanastic to see so much of St Petersburg and to see what a magnificant city this is. It’s history as a centre of art, culture, science, education and international trade has definitely left its mark of this city – this day has been by far one of the most exciting to date. So much more to see and do – but you’ll have to wait for tomorrow’s blog for more!

DAY 39: WE’VE BEEN TO PSKOV – HAVE YOU?


Pskov kremlin, Pechory monastery and being whipped with birch leaves at a real Russian banya.

What a day! We woke bright and early this morning to sunrise over the forests of north-western Russia and watched from our train window as wilderness turned into villages and rural farmland. The scenery was beautiful, but it was a little shocking to see how rustic some of the little villages we passed are. The houses were more like small wooden shacks than modern homes, and there wasn’t an ounce of tarmac to be seen anywhere. It’s hard to imagine that in a supposedly civilised, first world country, such basic living conditions persist. It seems outside of the major towns and cities, life in Russia hasn’t changed much in centuries (except for the introduction of electricity). I guess we expected it, having seen footage on movies and in documentaries about rural Russia, but the reality is still a bit shocking. This is what I would expect in Africa, not Europe. How do some of these isolated hamlets survive through the harsh Russian winters?? All I can say is Russians must be tough, really really tough.

Views from the train at 6:00am – plains somewhere outside of Pskov.

 

Views from the train at 6:00am – rustic Russia at its best.

 

Views from the train at 6:00am – village about 120km outside of Pskov.

The countryside gave way to blocks of flats again and soon we were in Pskov. This town of 200,000 people is the capital of this region and was once an important trading port and defensive citadel for the Russian Empire due to its strategic position (it is only 30km from the Estonian border and is built along the banks of the Pskova River, a wide navigable waterway which gives access into the northern waters near Finland, Denmark and Sweden). Due to its historical importance, Pskov attracts its fair share of tourists, with the cathedral and the ruins of its kremlin (translation = “fortress”or “citadel”) being the main (only) attractions. 

After arriving by train we were escorted to breakfast at a local restaurant and then taken for a walking tour of the historical centre, the kremlin and the cathedral by a specialist local guide who was great – she really knew her stuff but managed to keep it light-hearted (for Russia) and interesting. The town itself is prettier than we expected, at least around the historical centre. The buildings along the riverbank were especially lovely; they were well-preserved examples of Classical and Neo-Classical architecture. The fortress and church were interesting enough, though its obvious that the wealth that this trading town once had is gone, with much of the fortress in ruins. They made for a good couple of hours of sightseeing though and it was so nice to be out of the big city and just enjoy the sunshine and relative quiet of a small town!

 

Look at us – we survived our overnight Russian train adventure!

 

Riverfront buildings in Pskov – very pretty 19th century architecture, well preserved.

 

On the way to breakfast in Pskov, walking through the historical centre of town.

 

The walls of the Pskov kremlin and the Pskov Cathedral.

 

Entering the gate of the Pskov kremlin.

 

Inside the Pskov kremlin, which is unfortunately mostly in ruins.

 

The Pskov Cathedral has the characteristic 5 domes of all orthodox churches  – a central golden one to represent Christ, and four others to represent the gospels.

From Pskov our bus took us to the Pechory Monastery, about 40km from Pskov. This monastery was first established in 1452 after a fresh-water spring and some caves were discovered at the site. The water from the springs reputedly has health-giving properties and the caves are considered sacred as they helped sustain the life of the founder of the monastery through a harsh winter, according to the legend. We now know this is most likely because they are geothermally heated and remain relatively warm (i.e. around 10-12C) all year round, though this doesn’t lessen the religious significance of the site for many Orthodox Russians.    

The monastery itself is home to about 100 monks and contains within its walls a number of 19th century buildings that function as the monks’ living quarters, mess hall, etc; a chapel; a fount from which the sacred spring waters could be drunk; and a central church, built atop the sacred caves. We did a brief tour of the monastery, and a few members of our tour group partook of the sacred spring waters and went in to say a prayer at the church. Being the heathens that we are, Shane and I did neither – though we still enjoyed the serenity of the monastery, and admired the artwork and architecture.

One of the buildings within the Pechory Monastery grounds. This one serves as their mess hall.

 

The main church at the Pechory Monastery, built on top of the sacred caves.

 

One of the 19th century buildings within the monastery that serves as the monks’ quarters.

 

The chapel at the Pskov Monastery, built beside the fount where the sacred spring waters bubble up to the surface.

By this point it was well and truly lunchtime and we were famished, so we were really looking forward to our third venue of the day: an authentic Russian banya (translation = sauna) where we would be served lunch and get the chance to try the banya. Like many cultures where winters are long and very cold, Russians love their sauna; the idea being that you broil yourself in a 65C sauna, whipping yourself with birch leaves while you’re in there to help stimulate circulation and release the toxins, then you run outside and jump into the nearest frozen lake or river. Being summer there were no frozen lakes or rivers nearby, but there was a conveniently located icy cold swimming pool. 

At first neither of us were that keen to do the broil/beat/freeze combination, but after Tatyana our guide assured us it was awesome, we gave in. Swimming costumes endowed we went in to the sauna first with a few of our fellow tour groupies and sweated out about 1L of fluid, whilst whipping ourselves and each other enthusiastically with bunches of birch leaves and twigs. Then, just as the heat got too much, we raced outside and plunged our sweaty selves into the cold swimming pool. Sounds nuts I know, but it was AWESOME! Talk about refreshing! I have never felt so very very alive as I did after 3 rounds of that crazy Russian banya stuff! Especially because, after each round of broil/beat/freeze, you have to have a shot of vodka (it’s traditional apparently). 

Us, dressed and fed, outside of the banya where we broiled, beat and froze ourselves repeatedly. 

Following our broil/beat/freeze adventure, lunch was served and it was delicious – chicken and lamb grilled over hot coals with cabbage and potatoes. Delicious and very filling – as we’ve found all Russian food to be. Beef stroganoff, beef dumplings, potato pancakes with sour cream – it’s all pretty heavy and filling, but soooo tasty.  After lunch, with full bellies and feeling cleaner than we had been all day (no showers on the train see), we jumped back on our bus for the long road trip to St Petersburg. It took us 4 hours to get from Pskov to St Petersburg (our last stop in Russia), and it was one crazy, bumpy ride at about 140km/hr the whole way. Man Russians drive like maniacs! Fortunately the drive was uneventful, with the scenery being an unchanging limitless forest of trees, interspersed with large tracts of grassland sprinkled with summer wild flowers.     

From what we’ve seen, Russia is made up of endless plains of grasslands….

 

…and forests (full of bears, moose, deer and all sorts of other wildlife apparently).

We did have the misfortune of stopping at a truck stop for a wee break during our trip up here. The toilets were really bad, not the worst we’ve seen in Russia, but certainly not up to Japanese or Korean standards. Public toilets here have generally been the stuff nightmares are made of – and that’s the ones you pay for! We’ve been told flat out to avoid the free ones as they are “not safe” (not quite sure what that means, but I’m OK with not finding out). It costs about 30RUR ($1AUD) at most paid loos, though I’m not sure exactly what you’re paying for, ’cause it ain’t for maintenance, that’s for sure! I’m not generally a fan of anti-bacterial wipes and sprays, especially in Aus where things are pretty clean, but here in Russia, hand sanitiser is a must I think.

Anyway, enough about the horrors of Russian privies, we’re in St Petersburg now, happily tucked up in bed at our hotel, having enjoyed the pristine hygiene of our private ensuite bathroom (ahhhhhh….). Already St Petersburg seems so much more civilised than Moscow – the streets are so clean, the buildings are well maintained and the grass in public spaces is actually mown! We’ll be able to make better comparisons tomorrow, after we’ve been for our St Petersburg city tour and seen some of the sights, so do svidanya until then! 

DAY 38: BACK IN THE U.S.S.R.


Grandeur of by-gone era, buried 74m underground.

Greetings blog fans. Today’s Moscovian adventure took us under the city, once again into the city’s Metro system, to check out the frescos, stained glass and fading grandeur of the Moscow Metro. This metropolitan subway system opened in 1935 with a single 11km line and 13 stations; today it has 188 stations, 12 lines, covers more than 300km and is 74m underground at its deepest point. With 9 million daily users, the Moscow Metro is the world’s third most heavily used rapid transit system, after Tokyo and Seoul. So we’ve now officially used the world’s 3 busiest metro systems!

The Moscow Metro has been described as one of the USSR’s most extravagant architectural projects. Stalin ordered the Metro’s artists and architects to design a structure that embodied svet (translation = “radiance” or “brilliance”), and which would encourage Russian citizens to look up, admiring the station’s art. With their mixture of architectural styles, iconography, sculptures and artwork, the stations are considered one of modern Moscow’s great tourist attractions. We happily spent a couple of hours going from station to station, looking at depictions of the mighty Soviet Republic and its achievements. 

1. Komsomolskaya Metro Station. The imposing Baroque celling, painting in yellow is decorated with eight mosaic panels of smalt and precious stones. The theme of the panels represent the Russian fight for freedom and independence throughout history.

Komsomolskaya Metro Station.

2. Novoslobodskaya Metro Station. Best known for its 32 stained glass panels, which are surrounded by elaborate brass borders and illuminated from within.  The overall theme of this station is “Peace Throughout the World.”

Novoslobodskaya Metro Station.

3. Mayakovskaya Metro Station. This station represents a Soviet future as envisioned by the poet Mayakovsky. There are a total of 34 ceiling mosaics by Alexander Deyneka all designed to show this bright future; the idea being that passengers could look up and see the bright Soviet future right above.

Mayakovskaya Metro Station.

4. Shosse Entuziastov Station. The design theme of the station is the struggle for freedom during Russia’s history. Sculptures and pictures relating to revolutionary subjects adorn the walls. 

Shosse Entuziastov Metro Station.

5. Ploshchad Revolyutsii Metro Station. Near Red Square, this station pays homage to all the Russians who took part in the 1917 revolution. There are numerous bronze statues of grim-faced revolutionaries, many with their knees rubbed to a lustrous shine as Moscovites believe this will bring them luck.

Ploshchad Revolyutsii Metro Station.

6. Partizanskaya Metro Station. This is our “local” station and is dedicated to the Soviets who fought against the Nazis in World War II. The grand sculpture at the top of the stairs is called “Partisans” and bears the inscription “To partisans and partisan glory!”

Shane looking very excited about the famous sculpture at Partizanskaya Metro Station.

The Metro tour was our only excursion today as we had to check out of the Izmailovo Hotel Gamma-Delta and prepare for our biggest adventure yet: an overnight train from massive metropolis of Moscow to the tiny town of Pskov (population 200,000). We were a little daunted by the thought of spending a night on a RUSSIAN train, but so far, so good. We DID invest in upgrading to a first class, private 2-berth carriage, so at least we have a door on our carriage we can lock, and we have some privacy. The “standard” bunks in third class are just open with nowhere to store your stuff securely, which we were not comfortable with at all; this way at least we can sleep securely.

Leningradsky Train Station where we boarded our train for Pskov.

 

Our first class sleeper cabin – tonight’s home away from home. 

Note: You may have noticed from the photo above that Shane has acquired a new haircut. He left me to go searching for food and came back with that haircut. Apparently he asked for a “short back and sides”. Guess his Russian still needs some work…, or maybe that’s what a “short back and sides” looks like in Russia??

Pskov is right up in the North-West of Russia, virtually on the Estonian border; it will take our train 15 hours to cover the 743kms – that’s REALLY slow going! We left Moscow Central Station at 4:00pm and will get to Pskov at 7:00am tomorrow morning. This ain’t no Japanese shinkansen, that’s for sure, but the pace gives us lots of time to see the countryside rolling past our window. It didn’t take too long for the apartment blocks of Moscow to give way to forest and fields, and with daylight persisting until well past 10:00pm, we’ve had hours to sit and watch the scenery go past. The forest here is really dense, and so much of the ground we are moving past is swampy; makes you realise that even though there is a lot of untamed wilderness in Russia, it would take immense resources and effort to tame it and make it habitable – especially since most of it is under snow 9 months of the year.

Our train journey tonight will take us 743km north-west from Moscow to Pskov.
Moscow from the train – more giant apartment buildings…
…which gave way to scrub and forest.

It will be interesting waking up tomorrow morning and seeing some of rural and “wild” Russia, because, as much as Moscow is part of Russia, it’s also a big city and is not necessarily reflective of what the rest of this massive country has to offer. We’re hoping that seeing Pskov will at least give us the chance to gain some small insight into what the rest of Russia is like. So spokoynoy nochi (translation = good night) from somewhere out in the Russian wilderness and we’ll tell you all about Pskov tomorrow!

DAY 37: ICONIC MOSCOW


Red Square, St Basil’s Cathedral, The Kremlin – we did it all!

There are few sights so characteristically Moscovian than the ones we saw today. It was awesome! 

A few highlights from our day sightseeing in Moscow.

Our day started nice and early with a tour group “meet and greet”. Our guide for the week, Tatyana, is about 30 and is one of Russia’s “little people”; that is to say, she’s built like a gymnast not a potato-farming giant. It’s great to have someone who speaks fluent English and Russian that we can rely on – English is NOT widely spoken ’round here and since neither of us speak Russian (not even SLOW, LOUD Russian), communications over the past day or so we’ve been here have been restricted to pointing, nodding, grunting and the like. Our tour group is small (14 people), which is exactly why we chose this company – I can’t stand the thought of being part of a huge, impersonal tour of 50 or more. Half the group is from South Africa, and the other half are Aussies, with ages ranging from 20 to 87. Everyone seems friendly enough, though we haven’t really had a chance to chat to any of them for long because our day was so packed full of activity; I’m sure we’ll get to know them better over the next week or so.

Aside from its small group sizes, one of the other reasons we chose “On the Go” as a tour company is because they don’t lock you up in an air conditioned bus and just drive you around town; you get to ride local public transport, eat at local restaurants, the guides are English-speaking locals, etc – it’s a bit more “authentic” shall we say. As close to just jumping in an doing it on your own (like we did in Japan and Korea), without actually having to do it yourself. This does mean, however, that you are on public transport with everyone else, and in Moscow, this means having to be particularly vigilant about safety. 

We’ve heard all sorts of horror stories about the pick pockets and gangs of thieves targeting tourists on the Moscow Metros system and in Red Square, so our philosophy was to take as little with us on our sightseeing trips as possible and to vigilant (“Be alert, not alarmed” – thank you Howard for that little motto). After 5 weeks on the road we also look scruffy enough that may also act as a deterrent. Most of our tour group, however, have obviously not heard the same horror stories, as they went out for the day with big handbags (the ladies mostly), flashy sunglasses and lots of jewellery. *SIGH* 

Shane and I had one lady in particular picked out as the most likely victim, just because she’s older, seems a bit vague and had this giant handbag with just a little zip on her. Sure enough, first bloody day, first Metro ride, and she was targeted by a pack of young Gypsy girls. I saw them out of the corner of my eye surrounding her and managed to pull her out of the situation before the thieves had gotten anything, but they had already half unzipped her bag. The poor lady was completely freaked out, but thankful that nothing was stolen. I know pickpockets are an issue everywhere there are lots of tourists, but man it’s crap having to be constantly on alert and watchful of everything and everyone around you. We’re lucky back in Aus that we don’t have to worry about stuff like that day-to-day.

Red Square and the Kremlin were busy but not packed so it was easy enough to avoid the worst of the crowds and any suspect characters, so the rest of the day was incident-free in that regard. And maybe having something like that happen on the first day made some of the other people in the tour group with their flashy jewellery and giant handbags rethink their sightseeing accoutrements. 

Anyway, we didn’t let that little hiccup upset our day ’cause we had some epic sights to see! From our local Metro station we went to Lubyanka Square, just a few hundred metres form Red Square and home to the Bolshoi Theatre (interesting factoid: bolshoi means “big” or “grand” in Russian); the “Lubyanka Building” a nondescript block that used to be the KGB headquarters (now home to the FSB – Russia’s Federal Security Service); and the Moscow Hotel – once the only hotel in town, designed to impress visiting foreign dignitaries with its enormity and grandeur (it is still a hotel, but way outside our budget at about $3000+ AUD per night).  

The “Lubyanka Building” – former home of the KGB.

 

The Bolshoi Theatre (with the beautiful blue awning of a local ice cream vendor in front – my photography skills need some work).

 

The huge and opulent Hotel Moscow. Dressed as we were, we wouldn’t even have been allowed in!

From Lubyanka Square we went towards Red Square proper and entered via the Resurrection Gate, past the State Museum of Russia. Having seen so many news stories, movies and films set in Red Square we thought we knew what to expect, but the sheer scale of it was not something we were prepared for. If there is one thing Russia does well, we have decided, it is BIG. The Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, obviously had the land, the resources and the audacity to do everything on a mammoth scale. It made us feel very, very small (which I guess is the point right?).

Outside Red Square, just about to enter via the Resurrection Gate.

 

Entering Red Square via the Resurrection Gate.

 

Inside Red Square, with the State Museum of Russia behind us and the Western wall of the Kremlin to one side.

As Tatiana informed us, the name Red Square comes neither from the colour of the bricks of the buildings and walls around it (which, in fact, were white-washed at certain times in history), nor from the link between the colour red and communism. Rather, the name came about because the Russian name for this square is Krasnaya Ploshchad, and the word krasnaya can mean either “red” or “beautiful” in Old Russian. 

Before it became Krasnaya Ploshchad this was the market square for the town of Moscow for centuries. Its rather grand size and appearance only began to take form, however, Moscow became the capital of the expanding Russian Empire in 1340. From then, successive rulers added to the square, building the churches and officially state buildings that now characterise this iconic location, including: 

  • Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan – originally built in 1612, the cathedral was destroyed in 1936 until Stalin, but rebuilt in the 1990s.
  • In 1555 Ivan the Terrible was responsible for the construction of one of Red Square’s most famous landmark buildings: St Basil’s Cathedral. 
  • The State Museum of Russia is housed in a 19th century, purpose-built building.
  • Lenin’s Mausoleum contains the embalmed body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. (We had the opportunity to line up to spend 30 seconds inside the mausoleum viewing Lenin’s embalmed body, but decided to forgo this for some lunch instead. It was amazing to see the length of the queue however – people line up for hours in order to get their glimpse of Lenin’s body.)
  • My personal favourite: the GUM department store. Once the only department store in the entire Soviet Union where “foriegn” goods could be bough. The Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin (translation = main universal store) is now a high-end shopping mall and is beautifully restored and maintained. We had lunch here and spent a hour or so perusing the shops, including the most expensive grocery store in Russia where the ladies behind the counter wear the same uniforms they would have worn under Soviet rule, and crystal chandeliers light your way.

The square is huge (330mx70m) and is flanked along the Western side by the imposing walls of the Kremlin and along the Eastern side by the GUM department store. Tatyana, our guide, took us on a 3 hour walking tour of the square, feeding us tid-bits of information (just enough to impress us, not enough to bore us – a good balance), and giving us time to take our touristy photos of everything. After our walking tour we had a couple of hours of free time for some lunch and to revisit our favourite spots. It was great! Shane and I took hundreds of photos, but have picked out the top 10 or so for you to enjoy.

The rather austere facade of Lenin’s Mausoleum.

 

The red walls of the Kremlin dominate the Western side of Red Square.

 

The beautiful 19th century building that houses the GUM department store/mall.

 

The colourful domes of St Basil’s Cathedral were even more impressive in real life than in pictures or on TV.

 

Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan was rebuilt in the 1990s after being destroyed under communism.

 

The famous clock tower of Moscow, famously televised all over Russia to count down the New Year.

 

Inside the GUM supermarket. Shane was a little concerned we would get asked to leave, given our scruffy clothes and obvious lack of bling.

 

The rest of the GUM shopping mall is beautiful and gave us a cool place to relax over lunch for an hour or so.

 

Lunch at GUM in Moscow anyone?

 

Another shot of St Basil’s Cathedral – Shane’s favourite photo stop of the day.

 

And one last epic shot – looking back towards Red Square from the banks of the Mokva River.

After lunch we rejoined the group for a walking tour of the Kremlin. (Note: When signing up for “walking tours” of Moscow, be aware that distances here are HUGE. A couple of the older and less fit members of our tour group really struggled with the distances and pace, which made it a bit awkward at times. For us this was nothing – we’ve trekked up mountains in less time than that! Japan has really upped our tourist fitness.) 

Ah, the Kremlin. Another enormous Russian edifice designed to make visitors feel small and insignificant. Kremlin in Russian means “fort or “citadel”, and Moscow’s Kremlin is the fortified complex which has served as this city’s heart and centre of government since the 14th century. Situated at the geographical heart of Moscow, overlooking the Moskva River and Red Square, the Kremlin compound includes a handful of government buildings built during the Soviet era, five 19th century palaces, 4 cathedrals and the enclosing Kremlin Wall with Kremlin towers. Since the Russian revolution of 1917, the Kremlin has served as the seat of government and includes the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation (we did not get to see Putin during our tour).

The Kremlin was huge, overwhelming, impressive, fascinating and just a little intimidating; Shane and I both agreed that it would have been great to have a few hours to explore the complex on our own, but that’s the compromise when doing a tour isn’t it? You get a guide to hold your hand when you need it, but you also need to do your bit and “stay with your herd”, as it were. Still, it was fantastic to see what we did. Again, we took way too many photos (we’re such TOURISTS!), but have tried to limit our selection to the highlights….

View of the Kremlin and its enclosing walls from outside. You can see the profile of the green-roofed Great Kremlin Palace, which now houses official government departments.

 

The first building we saw within the Kremlin compound: The Palace of Congresses. This Soviet-era box was built in 1961, atop a much prettier 19th century palace, we were told. The building sinks 18m into the earth and contains over 700 offices as well as a 6000-seat auditorium.

 

The Senate Building. Originally built in the 19th century to house Russia’s first People’s Senate, the building has, since 1991, been the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation.

 

The Cathedral of the Assumption is the oldest church in the Kremlin (built in1432) and also the most important; this was officially the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church for centuries and was where Russian Tsars were crowned.

 

Cathedral of the Archangel (left) and the Cathedral of the Annunciation (right). The Archangel Michael was chosen as the patron saint of the rulers of Muscovy in the 14th Century. The Cathedral that bears his name was erected in 1505 and is where Russian royals were buried.  The Cathedral of the Annunciation was originally built as the domestic church of the Tsars; this is where they went to mass, celebrated christenings, etc.

 

The Tsar’s Cannon was made in 1568 and was designed to frighten enemies with its huge size. It’s more than 5m long and each cannon ball weighs more than a ton (it has a 890mm gauge!). Do you think the Tsar that commissioned this was trying to compensate for something?

 

The Tsar’s Bell. This is the largest bell in the world, weighing over 200 tons and standing more than 6 metres high and 6.6 metres across. It cracked and broke during its construction; it has never been rung.

 

Crossing the bridge, leaving the Kremlin. A soggy tend to an awesome day! 

We had a specialist guide join us for our Kremlin tour and whilst she certainly knew her stuff and was very passionate about the subject matter, the commentary was just WAY too detailed and within a couple of hours we had glazed over from information overload. Then the heavens opened up and it started to rain, which was fine for us as we had checked the weather this morning and had umbrellas with us; most of our tour group did not have ‘brollies however and were soon not only footsore, but also soaked. Upon request the tour was finished a little sooner than scheduled (no complaints from us, there’s only so many churches and palaces you can digest in one day anyway!), and we all headed back to the Metro (everyone clutching bags far more tightly to their chests this time). By this time we’d been out sightseeing for almost 9 hours and we were sooo ready for a shower and some dinner! We are now bathed, fed, exhausted, but very content. An awesome day in Moscow, with more to come tomorrow!

DAY 36: RUSSIA – SO BAD, IT’S GOOD!


We survived our first full day in Russia – woo-hoo! 

We took it pretty easy today; both of us are still a little jet-lagged (we were awake by 4:00am Moscow time this morning, partially due to the fact it felt like 9:00am Seoul time and also due to the sun streaming into our room), and there were enough sights and activities in and around our hotel to keep us entertained for the day.

To give you some sense of orientation: Moscow is essentially built in 4 concentric circles, with the Kremlin at the heart of the city. The inner-most circle, Bulvarnoye Koltso (Boulevard Ring), marks the location of the original city walls of Moscow, from the 12th century. Most of the historical sites are contained within this compact centre (we’re heading there tomorrow and Monday with our tour group). The second concentric circle is the Sadovoye Koltso (Garden Ring); this was where the walls of an expanding Moscow were moved to in the 16th century. The third ring is far more modern, built in the 1990s as a highway “ring road”. As Moscow has brown, the fourth concentric circle has been built. Just finished recently, the fourth ring is a massive 14-lane highway (7 lanes each way) that links all the outlying parts of this massive city (Moscow is one of the largest cities by area – 2500 square kilometres!).

As you can see on the little map below, our hotel is between the third and fourth ring roads. We are a fair way out of the historical centre (too far for these little jet-lagged cabbages to venture on their lonesome), so for today though we focussed our solo efforts on Izmailovo – the area immediately around our hotel.

The ring roads of Moscow. Only the third and fourth ring roads are clearly visible here in yellow, but our hotel is clearly marked (we’re about 25km from the city centre). You can see the Moskva River dissecting the city in half too.

Izmailovo is a suburb of Moscow famous for its park: Izmailovo Park. This 3000 acre forest is one of the largest city public parks in the world. We have it at our doorstep (nice view hey?!) and can confirm: it is huge! The park was originally the estate of the Izmailovo boyars (a minor branch of the the Romanov family), but was converted to public space after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The castle and church, originally built in 1664, have been maintained as a tourist attraction since. They’re small by comparison to the sites we’ll visit in central Moscow, I’m sure, but it was great to see something so uniquely Russian up close – especially the “onion domes” of the church, which are so uniquely synonymous with the Russian Orthodox faith.

Strolling through Izmailovo Park (only recommended in broad daylight, especially for beginners).

 

Part of the very well preserved Izmailovo estate.

 

The classic “onion domes” of the Russian Orthodox church, once part of the Izmailovo estate.

The wonders of Izmailovo don’t stop there though… In one corner of the park, land has been cleared and two of the worst/best (depending on your tastes and perspective) tourist attractions ever known to man have been built:

  1. The Izmailovo Kremlin Wedding Wonderland; and
  2. The Izmailovo Flea Markets.
Being the tourists that we are, we visited them both. *GRINS*
Us being good tourists and heading over to see the Izmailovo Kremlin Wedding Wonderland & The Izmailovo Flea Markets.
The Izmailovo Kremlin Wedding Wonderland is a oober-naff mini-version of the Kremlin, built out of timber and painted bright colours. It serves a dual purpose: a wedding venue for those with gaudy tastes (we accidentally gate crashed just such an event going in there this morning – oops!), and a tourist attraction complete with souvenir shops and over-priced food stalls when there are no weddings on. Hideous, and yet so cool….like an awesome Eurovision song – catchy, colourful, sparkly, but ultimately lacking in talent and substance.
The beauty of the Izmailovo Kremlin Wedding Wonderland belies its kitsch underbelly.

 

The pleasure/pain of the Izmailovo Kremlin Wedding Wonderland.

 

Shane did not love the Izmailovo Kremlin Wedding Wonderland.  What’s not to love I ask you??

After the joy/disappointment of the Izmailovo Kremlin Wedding Wonderland, we strolled over to the flea markets. These are reportedly the largest open air markets in Russia, with over 6000 stalls selling everything from antiques and clothes, to animal furs and kitsch souvenirs. What can I say? Russia: so bad, it’s good!

Matryoshka dolls for sale at the Izmailovo flea markets.
Hand-crafted Christmas ornaments from the Izmailovo markets have a distinctive Russian look to them.
Impromptu watermelon stall (aka: car) at the Izmailovo flea markets.
Need a Russian fur hat, medal or flag?
Wolf pelt anyone? Need a wolf pelt for your lounge room floor maybe?

After lunch and a bit of a nap we hung around our hotel for the afternoon reading and trying to get used to it being 5 hours earlier than our bodies think it is. Luckily our gargantuan hotel is big enough that it kept us fairly entertained for the afternoon, though it has a bit of a “1980’s cruise ship” feel to it (like “The Love Boat” meets “Dynasty”). Our room decor is a bit 1980’s too, though it is impeccably clean and HUGE compared to what we were used to Japan – we even have a king size bed! Mind you, they probably need giant beds here in Russia coz we have definitely noticed that most Russians are big. Tall, broad and just generally BIG. I am not longer a giant like I was in Japan; in fact, I am not even short in Russia – I am a midget! *SIGH*

We found out today too that coffee is 3 times the price of beer and about 5 times the price of vodka in Russia. We had 2 cappuccinos and just about keeled over when the bill came to 330RR ($11.00AUD), especially when Shane’s 500mL of beer at lunchtime cost him 100RR ($3.30AUD) and we’ve seen vodka for 200RR ($6.60AUD) per litre! The key seems to be to drink the alcoholic stuff only and leave the coffee for the tourists (ahem). (Shane’s excuse for “needing” a beer with lunch, by the way: “But you can’t drink the water here [true], and I need to quench my thirst [also probably true]. The only option in beer [not true… well, kind of, at least nasty bugs can’t grow in anything alcoholic].”)

Anyway, gotta run – we’re meeting our tour group and guide tonight after dinner for our introductions and briefing. Will let you know who we’re sharing the next week with tomorrow. Do svidaniya from Moskva  blog fans!

Izmailovo Hotel Gamma-Delta – our “1980’s cruise ship” themed home away from home in Moscow.
The hotel lobby area – so many lights, so much sparkly stuff!
The gargantuan monstrosity that is the Izmailovo Hotel Gamma-Delta (seen from Izmailovo Park).