Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, the Tsars and the Bolsheviks, romance and intrigue, Dr. Zhivago and James Bond movies, spies, chills and thrills, and finally the Iron Curtain and Perestroika. All this and more, made us yearn to make Russia our next holiday destination. No package tours for us….we were too used to exploring on our own!. But well meaning advice from friends that it was unsafe to travel in Russia on one’s own, coupled with the fact that sign boards were in Cyrillic script and English not freely understood, put us in a fix. It was then that we chanced upon Compact Travels. They were recommended to us as agents specializing in Central and East European tours. Since we had already spent days browsing the internet and drawing up a list of places we wanted to see and things we wanted to do, we called them up. We got Puja on the line and explained to her the kind of holiday we had in mind. She was efficiency personified and got cracking on the job immediately.
She gave us a couple of itineraries with costs involved and when we visited Compact Travels for the first time, we finally got to meet the young and dynamic Subhash Motwani. We realized at once that we shared with Subhash a common passion for travel. In the course of our meeting, we used some of his invaluable inputs, to rework the itinerary to include just enough history, culture, adventure, entertainment and time to savour the local flavour and cuisine. Finally, our holiday was beginning to take shape to our satisfaction. Our itinerary became more interesting….we were even sent detailed menus of our meals, which added to the thrill! We had to visit the Russian Consulate in person for our visas, but Puja accompanied us and it was smooth sailing as all our documents were in order.
We left Bombay in the third week of June, and through Compact Travels, joined 7 other international tourists on a tour of Pulsating Poland. It was an enriching and fun experience and we thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it.
We left Warsaw and flew into St. Petersburg via Moscow. Immigration took a little while as they scrutinize the travel documents and hotel reservations in detail.
We landed in around 9.30 pm to a city bathed in sunlight ! Yes , we had landed during the White Nights, when it is summer and there’s hardly any night ! This in itself was an experience!
Our hotel was very centrally located , just off Nevsky Prospect, where all the action lies. After submitting our passports to the hotel desk for registration in accordance with Government regulation, we set off to explore on our own since we were assured that it was perfectly safe to do so . So much for our preconceived fears when we were back home! So we stepped into the street at 11.00 pm with the sun still out. What a glorious sight met our eyes! The streets were teeming with tourists and we felt as if we were in some West European capital. True , the sign boards were in Cyrillic script , but we made note of buildings and monuments and kept them as landmarks to return back which we did only at 1 am. By the way , the city was still wide awake ! I must mention here that our hotel was situated right opposite the beautiful Church of the Kazan Icon, its golden domes glinting in the fading sunlight.
The next morning, after a scrumptious American breakfast, we were met by Luba, our guide and Elena, our driver, in the lobby. We had a car to ourselves and so started our tour of St. Petersburg.
Cosmopolitan St Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia, Moscow being the largest..It is situated on the Neva River. During its history, the city changed its name 3 times, from St Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad and now finally , back to St. Petersburg
A city tour included a visit to the Peter and Paul Fortress on Hare Island. The Fortress contains 4 museums including the Peter and Paul Cathedral ( 1727) with its gilded spire and figure of an angel, considered the guardian of the city. The lavishness of the altar, the iconostasis, the paintings and the icons , have to be seen to be believed. The Cathedral is the burial place of practically all the Russian Emperors. In 1998, the remains of the last Russian Emperor, Nicholas B and his family, who were shot in 1918, were buried in the Cathedral.
Our next halt was St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a unique architectural monument. It’s massive dome covered with pure gold , dominates the skyline. It took 40 years to construct and 112 granite columns decorate it from the exterior. Inside, it boasts a profusion of gilt, variegated marble, malachite, murals and mosaics. It can accommodate 14000 people, standing.
St Petersburg is situated on 42 islands, and Vasilievsky or Basil’s Island is the largest one. Today it houses the Admirality , and the Aurora Cruiser is a major tourist attraction as it was from this ship that a historic blank shot was fired in 1917, to signal the storming of the Winter Palace and the beginning of the Soviet Revolution.
Perhaps the most outstanding palace complex in St. Petersburg is the green and white fantasy of the Winter Palace or Hermitage on the banks of the Neva. It was the residence of all the Russian Emperors till the Revolution of 1917.. The collection of art in the Hermitage is over 3 million pieces, and it would take years to see it completely.
No trip to St. Petersburg could ever be complete without a visit to the curiously named Church on the Spilled Blood. Its brightly coloured onion shaped domes beckon you fervently, and it is definitely a famed landmark of the city. It received its name because it was constructed on the spot where Emperor Alexander B was assassinated. The cupolas are decorated with bright mosaics, enamels and tiles , giving it a uniqueness difficult to rival. The interiors are covered with masterpieces in mosaic. No tourist can leave without a picture taken here .
St Petersburg is dotted with palaces, churches and cathedrals, each one splendid in its own way. Depending on time and one’s interest in history, it is possible to visit them.
We made a spur of the moment decision to include a visit to the Yusupov Palace, a palace filled with mystique and intrigue. It was here, on the night of Dec 16th 1916, that the famous or infamous Rasputin was murdered. .The palace itself is a classic statement of refined wealth and grandeur and even boasts a private auditorium!
Our time in St. Petersburg was not devoted to just churches and palaces. Since we were there during the period of the White Nights, it was great to explore the streets which didn’t turn dark at night. We roamed the boulevards and took in the sights and sounds. Not for nothing is St. Petersburg called the Venice of the North. It has these little waterways and canals and elegant bridges with decorative wrought iron railings and lamps, giving the city a charming look. We took a ride in one of the boats and had a great time identifying the magnificient edifices and monuments !
Soon we were familiar with the local landmarks, be it the pink Stroganhof Palace, (of Chicken Stroganhof fame), the semicircular and imposing Kazan Cathedral, the Catherine Monument, the Merchants Yard converted into a plush shopping mall, or the Bronze Horseman…….the romantic name given to the monument of Peter the Great by the poet, Alexander Pushkin. We made it a point to savour Russia’s local gastronomical delights, and to this end we sampled their hearty soups ( borsch ) and Pozharskije…a dish of chicken balls with rice. And of course we downed Russian vodka and had our share of caviar!. A trip to Russia , to our mind, would not be complete without sampling its cultural performances, So we attended the outstanding Russian Circus one day, and on another day ,a traditional cultural show , showcasing their gorgeous costumes and music , and finally a superb Ballet, ‘Korsar’ at the world famous Marinskij Opera House.
While planning our holiday to St. Petersburg, we had decided that we just had to make a couple of day excursions to the well known summer palaces of Pavlovsk, Tsarskoye Selo and Peterhof. Extensively destroyed by the German troops during World War B, they have now been restored to their former glory. Tsarskoye Selo ( Tsars’ Village) is mainly associated with Catherine the Great and Elizabeth. It is also closely connected to Pushkin, Russia’s well loved poet, whose monument is given pride of place on the palace grounds. The Catherine Palace is a gilted concoction of frothy blue and white in Baroque style.It’s most famous rooms are the Grand Hall with its abundance of gilt and mirrors, and the Amber Room with its amber panels in Warm hues of honey, gold and topaz. The Catherine Park is extensive, with pavilions, lakes, etc.
The park and palace ensemble of Pavlovsk was a gift from Catherine B to her son , Paul. It is one of the most tastefully decorated palaces and has an extensive collection of porcelain , paintings and furniture. On another morning , we set off for Peterhof, the favourite residence of Peter the I. The 1000 hectare park is dotted with pavilions and ornamental fountains giving the effect of cascades. It is indeed a sight to behold ! Facing the sea is the Monplaisir Palace where splendid parties used to be held. From here, one can also gaze on the Gulf of Finland.
We took an overnight train to Moscow, reaching at the pleasing hour of 8 am. Breakfast came with the ticket, and we were met at the platform by our new guide. In fact, we started our sightseeing immediately. On the topic of trains, I must confess that visiting the metro stations is a must. They are a major tourist attraction with their stained glass windows, icons, chandeliers and mosaics…….almost museums in themselves!
Moscow conjures up images of the Kremlin and the Red Square, of snow and military parades, and we were thrilled to get our first glimpse of the Kremlin across the Moskva river. Later, we actually arrived at the site, and began our sightseeing with a visit to the Armoury and the Diamond Fund.
The Armoury is Russia’s oldest museum containing precious objects from nine centuries. Here one may gaze on collections of gold, silver and enamel ware with precious stones, liturgical items, and crosses, Faberge’s eggs, Russian arms,, coronation outfits of the Emperors and the Empresses, crowns, ceremonial chariots and more. The Diamond Fund is a treasure trove of valuable jewellery and precious stones, diamonds and pearls, rubies, emeralds and sapphires, crowns, tiaras, and ceremonial regalia. It was indeed a feast for the eyes !
The Kremlin, formerly a Royal citadel, is currently the official residence of the President of Russia .It is a unique monument of history and culture in the very heart of Moscow, overlooking the Moskva River.. Its beauty and character grew up gradually over the centuries, and hence is rightly called a ‘ chronicle in stone’. The walls and towers were mostly erected in the 1480s. There are 20 towers in all, the most beautiful being the Saviour Tower. The Kremlin’s Main square is the oldest square in Moscow and is also called Cathedral Square. It is ringed by some exquisite monuments of medieval architecture, namely the Annunciation, the Assumption and Archangel Cathedrals, Ivan the Great Bell Tower ensemble, and the Patriarchal Palace. Not far from the Saviour Gate are the administrative offices of the President of the Russian Federation, the Great Kremlin Palace which is today used for holding official receptions by the President, and the Senate Palace which is the official Residence of the President.
Walking along the beautiful and well laid out Alexander Gardens was a treat…….We were literally walking in the footsteps of former Tsars, and past and current Heads of State! The Red Square is Moscow’s most famous square combining churches and civic buildings of six centuries. It brought to mind images of military parades The granite Lenin Mausoleum is in the middle of the square and there is the changing of the guard every hour.
One cannot miss St. Basil’s Cathedral at one end of the square. It is an irresistible profusion of colours and shapes .The ensemble of onion shaped domes, cupolas, towers , arches and spires, bear a distinctive pattern and hue, and have fascinated visitors since it’s construction in the 1550s.
At the other end of the Red Square is the State Historical Museum and the famous departmental store GUM which is like a shopping mall.
Another day in Moscow was spent exploring the streets, and coming unexpectedly upon a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, a personality much admired in Russia. We also visited the famous Tetriakov Museum, which contains a fantastic collection of icons, and the beautiful Novodevichij Covent.
We also made time to visit Kolomenskoye Park This is an open air museum or historical preserve built in the 16th and 17th centuries and used to be a village residence of the Russian Tsars. It is famous for its outstanding wooden architecture, samples of which are brought from all parts of Russia.
A visit to Moscow would be incomplete without a walk down the famous Arbat Street with its colourful cafes ,and souvenir stalls with quaint names like ‘ From Russia with love’. Which brings me to the shopping, of which there is plenty to choose from….be it amber or gold and silver jewellery, hand embroidered clothing or papier mache articles, lacquered boxes and painted wooden Marushka dolls, vodka or caviar and of course beautiful imitation icons .Malls with the latest designer brands are all around. One is spoilt for choice.
So, as one can see, there is something for everyone in Russia ! We went in the summer when the ‘night’ is just an hour or so of twilight and the other hours are clear as day, but they say winters have their own breathtaking beauty, so who knows…….our travels might just take us back to Russia one day and we may even undertake the great six day train journey across Siberia ! It’s worth dreaming about, anyway !!