To Russia with Love(and back again!)

I have always wanted to take a trip to Russia, I suppose it was my inquisitive nature as a retired Cold War warrior feeling the need to visit Red square, flanked ether side by the Kremlin and the huge equivalent of Macey’s. The latter being the exclusive domain of the richer classes.

The opportunity to take a five-night break for very little cost over two cities, was an offer not be refused. Two nights in Moscow followed by four nights in St Petersburg utilising the ‘fast train’ between the two cities. On arrival at Gatwick airport, we flew with British Airways direct to Domodedovo airport on the outskirts of Moscow, the flight seemed surreal as there were less than thirty passengers aboard the enormous Boeing 747.

The airport was situated one and a half hours by slow train outside the city, the tracks cut through the forests of silver birch trees with small villages and farms along the route. The train was a fairly simple affair with hard seats and slat floors, but warm and comfortable for a March day. We arrived at the terminus and made our way to the adjacent underground station.

The underground system in Moscow is a clean and perfectly tiled system. Once you got to grips with the Cyrillic letters the map seemed easy to follow, it wasn’t long before we arrived at the Hilton hotel. This was a shock as we did expect an element of austerity but this was far from it, chandeliers and gold framed artwork adorned the walls. Our room was a sumptuous and well placed for easy access around the hotel. I suspect the cost was far more than we paid for the whole holiday per night, but they wanted to sell rooms, I guess.

The next day we went to Red square on the underground, Moscow in March can be -10 with a wind chill factor dragging down the temperature to -20. This particular year it was 16 degrees feeling like early summer. Of course, we were dressed for cold weather and sweltered in the heat.

We walked through Red square which seemed so much larger than on the television, the tomb of Lenin in front of the Kremlin building was quite awe inspiring, with St Basils and its colourful and individual domes, glistening in the spring sunshine. The level of tourists walking around was far more than I expected to see. It was a surreal experience, here I was in the centre of power during the Cold War as a tourist taking in the sights.

We did the obligatory visit to the Bolshoi ballet as well… Ok it was standing outside during the afternoon but we were there! We spotted it earlier in the day during a scenic city bus tour which is highly recommended, together with the other important sites. The advantage of this is the running commentary in English which was so helpful.

The fast train to St Petersburg was a pleasant four hours. We had allocated seats with a sound system, very similar to taking a transatlantic flight. All announcements were both in Russian and English so we were well informed throughout the journey.

Once outside Moscow the industry faded away and the forests of silver birch went as far as the eye could see. The ability to take in the scenery became difficult as the train achieved over one hundred miles per hour blurring the view. The trees eventually diminished and as we passed through small towns the landscape turned into farmland, with lazy cows in tidy fields adjacent to small homesteads.

As we neared St Peterburg the ground became flatter and the outskirts of the city showed evidence of industry with old signs and abandoned industrial units. The city centre was completely different than we had seen during our stay. The cold weather seems to drive a cold behaviour, things seem dark and grey, cars and busses all depict a dark persona. But here in St Petersburg, you could have been in the centre of any western city, London, Paris, Boston, it was light bright and airy with the inhabitants bustling about their daily tasks dressed colourfully and a smile given freely. It seemed warmer here than in Moscow, understandably the locals there were just too cold to be interactive, they just needed to get home to the warm.

Our time was comparative short here, we took in the sights and walked extensively visiting art galleries, museums and the wealth of large statues of past great people, towering on plinths at prominent points around the city.

The one place that was unbelievably impressive was the Winter palace, the courtyard to the front with the huge arch and statues guarding it was quite awe inspiring. This arch has been used many times over the years in films and television programs, but in the flesh, it was awe inspiring.  The palace was open for visitors but having spent a whole day walking the exhibitions and galleries, we realised that it was impossible to see it all. This was a two-day visit even if you walked quickly!

To see the painting of Cezanne, Picasso and Van Gogh as such close proximity was a surreal experience. There were there in plain sight and you could get within a couple of inches to inspect the fine detail. The only security was an elderly lady sitting on a chair with a fierce look and a cold stare. No one would mess with these individuals!

In many ways St Petersburg was a western city which had been unceremoniously dropped onto a communist society, it acted western, it felt western but retaining its charm. The pre 1917 culture has been preserved and displayed proudly to the ever-increasing numbers of tourists visiting from all over the world.

Would we go back? Yes, most certainly, the culture and history from all eras is preserved and shown off in a professional way encompassing both cultures.

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