Suzanne recently returned from a fabulous 6 days exploring Russiaon an educational trip with Cox and Kings. If I’m honest – before I went on this tour – my imagination was rife with recurring thoughts of the KGB, food queues and spies standing on street corners following the group with their dour expressions. How wrong I was! The new Russians crammed full of the most breath taking gold domed architecture alongside modern skyscrapers, monoliths and sculpture – it has to be one of Europe’s jewels – not to be missed and our tour guides were so friendly and knowledgeable! Our tour encompassed the lively capital –Moscow– before continuing north by train through the countryside to the jewel in Russia’s imperial crown –St Petersburg.
Our first morning tour of Red Square included the magical iconic coloured and twisted multi-domed St Basil’s cathedral set at one end, Lenin’s mausoleum alongside the high Kremlin wall and the famous GUM department store flank all four sides of the square. GUM in previous eras had food queues stretching out into the square. These days GUM is synonymous with wealth with its curved glass ceiling and bridges criss crossing the space and queues for all the right reasons ie Beluga caviar, top shelf vodka and fancy shoes! My hands were firmly in my pockets and resisted everything but a coffee!
We then enjoyed a tour of the Kremlin complex – inside the huge walls – where time has stood still. It was one of those moments when you just had to pinch yourself to know you were actually inside one of the most notorious strongholds of all time. Being frisked by a good looking Russian in his uniform was an added bonus. It may come as a surprise that the Kremlin’s chief glories – are actually golden domed cathedrals. I was also surprised to find out that all the famous bands who have played in Moscow like the Rolling Stones and Madonna actually played inside the Kremlin in the concert hall. We were so lucky in choosing a Saturday to visit as we were treated to the first Kremlin parade of the season – uniformed bands, elegant soldiers on horses and goose stepping guards with rifles. Afterwards a tour of the Kremlin’s Armoury museum was fascinating with a collection of gold horse carriages and many Faberge eggs.
Sumptuous dining experiences abound in the many top hotels and restaurants in the city. One of my favourites was the Ritz for lunch in a glass terraced restaurant with delicious food and views of Moscow before being whisked off to the underground which is like no other. Forty four of the stations have been declared architectural monuments with their detailed sculptures, paintings, chandeliers, marble and exquisite opulent design.
Whisked onto the late afternoon train the group left their guide and sped through the countryside which still had some snow in amongst all the rural houses up to St Petersburg. The train was surprisingly civilized. Four and a half hours later – we set foot into a city dubbed the `Veniceof the North’ with its palace lined waterways and the relics of tsarist days are virtually intact. St Petersburg is so far north – you get really long days in the summer when the sun does not set hence the term ‘White Nights’ in June and July and short days in the winter when everyone keeps warm by going to the world class ballet or opera at the Marinsky theatre.
Our first morning took us to some of the churches and cathedrals including the Peter and Paul fortress – the oldest building in the city with their opulent painted frescoes, baroque interior and tombs of all Russia’s pre-revolutionary leaders. The next day we toured the Winter Palace, now the Hermitage museum which is Russia’s best gallery of world art and one of the most prominent art museums in the world.
One of my top tips is to visit the Grand Hotel Europe in the evening. We had one of our most memorable meals with an orchestra on the stage in a theatre setting lined with opera boxes overhanging the restaurant and waiters buzzing about in their penguin suits. An evening not to be missed. Every Friday they have a Tsaichovsky evening with ballet dancers from the Marinsky who dance for this sumptuous hotel. They also put on a jazz evening every Saturday. I would highly recommend just visiting this hotel and going in any of the bars which all had wonderful atmosphere. A lot of the rich and famous have crossed its doors including Leonardo di Caprio and Pavarotti and we visited the bedroom complete with grand piano!
Our last day meant we travelled to the Tsar’s village on the outskirts of St Petersburg,Catherine Palace was the summer palace of the Russian Tsars. The amount of wealth and grandeur here is astonishing and this is where Russia’s leaders entertain the visitors from other countries. One room was entirely coated in gold and one room in amber with so many frescoes on the ceiling it was astounding.
Russia was indeed a surprising, sumptuous, vibrant country which overtook my expectations ten fold.