An Aussie Discovers Russia by Sue Kuti

To our surprise, we found a mild autumn evening the day we arrived in Moscow, not the freezing cold that we were expecting. After a long two hour drive from the airport to our hotel, we were delighted to find a magnificent building on our arrival, our home for the next four nights. We were not sure what to expect after our no-frills experience at the airport! The traffic was dense, chaotic, and our trip seemed endless after a 5am start.

We checked in to our hotel, The Hilton Leningradskaya , one of the seven sister buildings built by Stalin. What a magnificent foyer – marble, chandeliers, but best of all, friendly staff. The view from the room showed Moscow’s busy traffic and Thomas the tank engine in a floral display on the gardens of the metro – an odd subject choice!

Our next task was to find a restaurant close by for dinner – not an easy task as our choice was extremely limited!  We walked around the corner to find a rather elaborate restaurant that was totally empty apart from the staff! The hostess eagerly showed us the menu but we couldn’t take our eyes off the decor – a confusing merge between wedding venue and cabaret – after considering the fact that there wasn’t another customer in sight, we thought it best to politely decline. Eventually we found one restaurant , although we were told that we needed jackets – well, we did have jackets, they just happened to be in leather! We argued that no one else in the restaurant seemed to be suitably attired, so we were reluctantly shown to a table. With our noses out of joint but too tired to look for another, we reluctantly followed.

Although we were not off to a good start, we were in for a treat – the food as amazing. We had the best fried chicken we had eaten in our lives, and after an initial icy greeting, the staff warmed to us - it was a good end to a long tiring day.

The first day of our touring in Moscow was a Metro Tour. We were guided through the magnificent Metro built by Stalin to impress the world. Each station had a different theme – all lavishly decorated with marble, mosaics, sculptures and chandeliers. Apart from the architecture, we were amazed by the efficiency of the system that managed to transport 15 million people a day with each train only two minutes apart, something my city of Sydney badly needs. Our next stop was Old Arbat Street – a pedestrian zone that has now become a tourist street but still interesting and worth a visit.

Our next treat was the Kremlin, the symbol of Moscow’s political power and its religious heritage. The golden domes of the Assumption Cathedral, the Bell tower of Ivan the Great, the huge bell that Katherine had commissioned that was so large that they couldn’t lift it out of its mound for many years, only to find that when they did that it had cracked..... the Kremlin exemplified one human being's ego that had gotten out of control, trying to impress and achieving nothing. There were many magnificent buildings and some ugly ones as well. The Armoury was truly amazing. I was expecting to see lots of weapons but was pleasantly surprised to find a collection of royal thrones, crowns, carriages, and a collection of magnificent Faberge Eggs and of course there was plenty of weaponry as well.  What a fabulous day!

Day two was to be the tour of Moscow and Red Square. We saw the seven sisters built by Stalin – each more impressive than the other. Despite the bitterly cold and wet day, we managed to get a panoramic view of Moscow from Sparrow Hills.  Then off to Red Square – an amazing square framed on one side by the Kremlin and the other by the GUM shopping arcade - a magnificent building housing three floors of exclusive shops! (A bit like the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney on steroids). Of course the highlight of Red Square is the onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral – so ornately decorated. Ivan IV built this to celebrate his victory over the Tartars in 1552. Inside, the Cathedral is decorated with more modest paintings than the ones we had seen at the Assumption Cathedral the day before, but we were fascinated by the mazes that connected 5 chapels.

Although our tour ended, we decided to wait for the evening when we could see Red Square lit up like a Christmas tree – well worth the wait.  The evening ended with the inevitable – being ripped off by a Russian Taxi driver. What targets we were – tired, cold and wanting desperately to get back to the warmth and luxury of our hotel. Our taxi driver assured us that he was legitimate – after all he said he had a meter. This should have warned us as we had been told there are no metres in the taxis and just negotiate the price first. But too tired to be alert, we agreed and the metre was on – it was just the longest route he could take for a 15 minute drive – so 80 AUD later we arrived – annoyed at our own stupidity but glad to get to the comfort of our beds!!

Our last day in Moscow was a tour of the Tretyakov Gallery. Here we viewed the religious art confiscated during the Soviet era – an amazing collection of paintings, sculptures and graphics created over centuries by Russian artists.  We ended our day with a walk around the streets of Moscow.

The Golden Ring
The first town on our tour of the Golden Ring was Sergiev Posad. The autumn colours were a treat and the countryside a great contrast to the busy streets of Moscow. We were to see a number of Churches in different towns, all varying in style and grandeur from Baroque to the simpler frescoes of the 12th century.

The town of Suzdal where we were to spend two nights proved to be a picturesque town. Local markets and interesting local houses kept our interest and the highlight of a meal in the house of a local was a treat. Another highlight was the Museum of wooden architecture. Here we could see the traditional log houses and Churches and get a glimpse of the living conditions of the ordinary peasant and the well to do. We enjoyed our two night stay in Suzdal enjoying the autumn countryside and the golden hues of the trees.

On our return to Moscow, we visited Bogolubsky where we saw the Church of the Intercession which was built on a mound protecting it from the flooding of the area. We were amazed to see pictures of the church in different seasons from Snow covered to being an island surrounded by crystal clear water. Our last stop was Vladimir with its Golden Gate and its churches.

The Fast Train to St Petersburg
We expected a slow four hour drive back to Moscow but not the incredible Sunday night traffic caused by the Muscovites who were returning from their weekend escape out of Moscow and into the wonderful countryside – apparently a weekly event! Our amazing guide and driver did everything they could to get us back in time for the train including driving on the tram tracks. There was many a prayer that the tram wouldn’t meet us head on!

But all was well and we boarded the modern Sapsan, a fast comfortable four hour trip to St Petersburg. We were well stocked with food and drink – though there was a buffet car on board. After our long day, we finally arrived in St Petersburg – what a treat – St Petersburg is modeled on Amsterdam with its canals and bridges. Quite a contrast to the starkness of Moscow!

Our first tour on the following day was to Pushkin, the former aristocratic village located 40 minutes out of St Petersburg. Here we would hear the many stories of Peter the Great who displayed his love for Catherine, with a Palace of course. The massive baroque palace was set in large European style gardens, again a blaze of golden autumn colours. On our free afternoon we took a canal cruise. Well worth the trip as we were given a different view of this magnificent city. Being autumn, we had the boat to ourselves. Bliss!

The following day was devoted to exploring the need a week to get through only a part of this amazing collection that spans many a period of art.

Our final day was to be spent touring the Peterhof Palace and Gardens. The weather would not permit us to take the hydrofoil but the Palace did not disappoint. This was to be my favourite tour. Yes the Palace built by Peter the Great as his grand summer palace was magnificent but the gardens were breathtaking – the famous gold fountains  of the Grand Cascade, the many green houses and “little” houses that faced the Gulf of Finland. Although the weather was brisk, we were sad to leave behind the tranquillity of this place!

So our trip concluded – 4 wonderful days in St Petersburg. Peter, my husband, and I discovered the Russian Museum – again an amazing collection of art. To end our stay we went to the Singer Café on Nevky Prospect – what a treat – great view of the street and its buildings and of course the best poppyseed strudel we have eaten ( and we have eaten a few over the years!) We bid goodbye to Russia – sad to leave but looking forward to reuniting with our daughter who is living in London!

My Personal Thoughts On Russia
Russia is well worth the visit – an amazing experience of architecture and history.  The opulence of the palaces and the vastness of Stalin’s Russia are a contrast though carry the same theme to impress and impress they do! I couldn’t help but continually think "no wonder they had a revolution". It is always the average person who pays the price for such o opulence and I think they carry  that history with them.

My favourite was definitely St Petersburg and it is certainly the way to do it – Moscow first and then St Petersburg. The Golden Ring is well worth a visit to show the calmer side of Russia. Russia is vast and we only scratched the surface of it. I think the river cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg would be a great experience. Of course you need to pick the right time of year to do this and to allow at least 13 days, a luxury that we didn’t have.

My disappointment were the Russians who felt that tourists were there to be taken advantage of. And yes, we were warned. Nevertheless, our guides impressed us with their knowledge and friendliness, and the hotel staff were always helpful and attentive.

Yes, I would definitely put Russia on everyone's "bucket list" of places to visit!

About Author:
Sue Kuti of Smallgroup Travel (TravelManagers trading as Smallgroup Travel).

Sue is an experienced Travel Manager who is passionate about travel. Over the past few years she has organized small group tours to many exciting destinations. She has been awarded Travel Weekly Best Consultant South America 2009 and Travel Weekly Best Consultant Adventure 2010. Sue runs small group tours to Vietnam, China, Southern Africa, Japan,Turkey and of course Latin and South America.

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