Roaming Round Russia

To travel to Russia is nowhere near as daunting as you may have imagined!

Forget escaping to white beaches, or skiing down black runs in the French Alps, a mid-winter escape calls for vodka and semi automatic weapons.

At least that was my thinking as I set off to visit St Petersburg and Moscow.

On the advice that St. Petersburg was the more accessible Russian city, with English street signs and a European feel, I decided to make it my first stop.

St Petersburg brims with canals, palaces and churches and it's easy to wander everywhere on foot, surrounded by reminders of its history, great wealth and abundant culture.

For art lovers the State Hermitage Museum mustn’t be missed.

I’m yet to visit a museum that comes close to matching the Hermitage’s collection. The museum is housed in five buildings including the Winter Palace, former home to Russian emperors, and the palace is an attraction in itself – lavish staterooms, ornate staircases and gilded ceilings.

The collection is even more impressive and varied, from Egyptian mummies to rooms devoted to Matisse, Picasso and Rembrandt you'll wander for hours, happily.

Visiting is an endurance exercise.

The crowds were huge (book tickets online) and the collection is overwhelming. 365 rooms display a fraction of the three million pieces in the Hermitage’s collection, most of which remains in storage.

In mid-winter it was overheated and bottled water wasn’t allowed inside, so it’s not an excursion for the fainthearted.

Days could easily be lost at the Hermitage, but St Petersburg is filled with reasons to pull out a camera. A walk down Nevsky Prospekt, the main shopping street, leads to the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, modeled in part on St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow but much more ornate.

There’s also the Vodka Museum, filled with vodka paraphernalia and accompanied by a snooze-inducing audio tour. However, it’s worth enduring the museum to enter the tasting room and sample three vodkas chased down with salo (cured sliced fat) on rye bread, pickles and herring. Just the things to keep you warm on a Russian winter’s night.

Four hours on the fast train and I arrived in Moscow, which quickly worked its charms on me. Moscow has a New-York style energy, a vibrancy that comes from its history and the politics that continue to unfold, combined with a very Russian feeling that anything could happen at a moment’s notice.

Moscow is a sprawling city and any English signs to help orientate are few and far between.

This isn’t helped by the tourist maps being in English which are impossible to match with the Russian signs. Yet the metro was surprisingly easy to navigate and while the locals didn’t look friendly, every time I asked for directions I was helped with the universal language of awkward hand signals (them) and butchered Russian pronunciation (me).

Red Square and the Kremlin lie at the heart of Moscow. St Basil’s Cathedral on the top of Red Square didn’t disappoint with its whirlwind of curves and colours. In front of the cathedral is Lenin’s mausoleum. Lenin is clearly well preserved, looking like he’s straight out of Madame Tussauds, but the thought of anyone’s final resting place being under a display case makes for a disturbing visit.

At the elaborate Moscow metro stations, filled with bronze and marble sculptures and fresco ceilings, all signs of Stalin have been removed, whether painted over with new images, or just painted over and left blank. Yet behind Lenin’s mausoleum is the burial place for a dozen important Russian leaders, and Stalin’s grave stands out as the only one lavished with garlands and wreaths.

Moscow is filled with places to visit, catering to all interests: Gorky Park, the Bolshoi Ballet, the former KGB building and extravagant meals at Café Pushkin. Trying to squeeze so much into four days meant enlisting the help of tour guides. Maria met me one hour after I arrived in Moscow and helped me get my bearings while learning about Russia’s complicated history. As the weather hit minus 12 we detoured and Maria led me to her local market to buy the staples she swore by – camel wool mittens and swan feather tights (they worked!)

After two days of sightseeing I was ready to try something more unusual.

Paul, a university student running 360-degrees tours, was the ideal guide to help me tick off one of my bucket list items – learning to fire a gun. At the local rifle range I was given a few rounds of ammunition, two targets and handed a modified AK-47 and a sniper rifle. The instructor propped the rifle up on a stand and warned me about the kick back as I took aim. It was an absolute rush of adrenalin and a much-needed bolt of that I-can’t-believe-I’m-actually-doing-this feeling.

After a week in Russia I left with a renewed appreciation for vodka, my fill of hearty Russia fare -beef stroganoff, pierogies- and a long list of places to (hopefully) visit next time in Russia.

mildred issue