Published: July 13th 2011July 6th 2011
are easily parted. Well, not so much his ruble but certainly his Kopeck. And so it was that, after three days spent crossing the vast distance across Siberia from Irkutsk, we eventually arrived back in to Europe. Along the way we had a great view of the Russian countryside and all the local towns along the way.
It was often stated during the cold war that both sides had enough firepower to blow the other back to the stone ages. Having viewed a lot of the Russian towns in Siberia and along the route it appears that America would have had a substantially easier time of doing this. However despite this, the train, amazingly, arrived on time after a 3 day trip - Virgin trains take note - bringing us into Moscow, home of 10 million Russians.
10 million Russians who seem to delight in throwing Kopecks on the floor at every opportunity. Now granted they are worth about 0.25p a time but still the sheer amount of them added up to quite a bit over the three days we were there.
Having set foot off the train our first mission was to combat the Moscow subway system.
The first hurdle in battling this 12 line behemoth is to overcome the beauty of the stations themselves. Largely made of white marble with decorative lighting, stained glass features and paintings and carvings on the wall – it was easy to see why some people advised us simply to spend a day on the subway.
However, all of this beauty does not help that all the signs are in Cyrillic and that the numbers are not that easy to spot when trying to find your way between the lines. Fortunately a couple of locals helped direct us to the correct line and we were soon on our way to the hotel and probably the best shower I will ever have in my life, with three days of grime to remove.
The next morning we got up to head over to the Kremlin and to have a look around Red Square. Alas, we were not prepared for the difficulties of crossing a five lane wide road. By the time we had eventually circumnavigated it we were left with a battle with lengthy queues and, even worse, a search for one of the “ubiquitous” ATM's so that we could pay
to enter the Kremlin. By the time we were eventually ready to tackle the Kremlin we decided that there wasn't enough time left to do it justice.
Instead we headed over to Red Square and into possibly the grandest shopping centre I have ever seen. Even more amazing is that it has possibly the stupidest name in the world “The GUM.” Having headed around the shopping complex we headed over to St Basil's Cathedral. Now, as one of the iconic sights in Moscow my first impression of St Basil's Cathedral is that it looked like the church that Mickey Mouse would build, possibly crossed with a circus tent. Up close it was not much more impressive as, probably in the restoration, they had decided to paint a brick effect on the outside and inside of the building. What was worse was that they didn't bother to match the paintwork up with the brickwork beneath it!
That said it was pretty impressive on the inside. Not actually a single church but a collection of 9 separate churches all built pretty much on top of each other. The restoration on the inside was still a work in progress but it
was still truly inspiring. It was even better when we given front row seats to some a cappella singing in one of the churches. Granted I couldn't understand a word of the Russian that was being sung but it was still breathtaking none the less.
After we had been round St Basil's we headed out for another of the infamous Lonely Planet walking tours around the nearby area. During the walk we were able to take in many of the Russian Orthodox churches in Moscow. Granted, we probably did little more than scratch the surface but there must have been a church every 100 metres in some parts. Most of them were either in some state of disrepair, or restoration as a result of the Soviet era but it was good to see that many of them had managed to survive in some form and were now being restored.
Waking up early the next morning we were slightly delayed in leaving the hotel due to me eating probably more for breakfast than is good for me. However, we were soon on our way round to the Kremlin, for the second time.
After battling with the simply baffling
ticket purchasing system where you are left with little clue as to exactly what buildings you can enter in the grounds, we were soon standing in the centre of the Kremlin.
Placed at roughly the centre of Moscow, much of the Kremlin's buildings are still used by the current government to run the country. As a result of lot of the buildings, including the majority of the 700 room palace are still off limits to the public. However, in the centre of the Kremlin you do have access to the garden, largely uninspiring, and the 5 churches in the centre of the square.
Now, in addition to housing some very impressive churches, the Kremlin also houses one of the biggest cannons ever built, and never fired, and the biggest bell in the world, weighing in at a mighty 202 tonnes – which has never tolled. We also had a look at the very impressive Church in which all the tsars of Russia had been buried. It was beautifully decorated with lots of images of the Archangel Michael, the protector of the Russian tsars. We also got to have a look in some of the exhibitions, which was an
unexpected bonus, and an ideal time for Steph to tell me that she likes Fabergé Eggs, mainly for the detail. Personally I always thought they looked a little gaudy but hey, it's not like I'm going to buy one any time soon.
Another surprise package of the visit to the Kremlin was the Parade of the Presidential troops. Backed by the sound of a marching band and with flags flying, they put on a pretty impressive display, let down only slightly by the at times comical goose stepping throughout.
When we had eventually exhausted pretty much everything that we could do in the Kremlin we headed over to Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Another traditional Russian orthodox church this took the prize so far in the trip as, arguably, the most beautifully decorated building I had been in. Granted the scale of it, combined with the choir singing when we first entered the main hall all helped it along a lot but even without that the building was awe inspiring. It got even better when we found out that there was a downstairs to explore as well. This contained a really good art exhibition and ultimately the stupidest
icon I have ever seen in any church which tarnished the entire experience somewhat.
Our day ended with a meal in a Georgian restaurant. Given the Russians' flare for themed dining I was expecting some sort of Olde World themed tavern. What we actually entered was a pseudo Mediterranean style village as it is based on Georgia the country and not a period in time. After Steph had stopped giggling at my stupidity for getting it so wrong we did enjoy a nice meal of local Georgian delicacies – well the veggie options anyway.
Our final day in Moscow was spent looking around the Novodevichy Monastery and Cemetery. Whilst I'm not normally a fan of walking around cemeteries, the sheer oddness of this one made it a sight to see, Not only was it the burial place of many a famous Russian, Boris Yeltsin being the most recent addition, but it also has a lot of wacky tombstones all related to their previous professions. These included a man walking through some sort of arches (no idea what he did) a whole host of musical instruments and, probably the best, a tank rolling up a hill (hard to guess what he did.)
As for the monastery, this was quite famous as it was the nunnery where a lot of the female peers ended up. It is also where one member of the royal family ended up bricked into a tower for trying to overthrow the Tsar. At which point she promptly tried to do it again from inside the monastery! The monastery itself was pretty good as it had clearly had a lot of restoration done to it. There was an exhibit giving more insight into why the churches were attacked by the Soviets, but most of it was in Russian.
It was quite a relaxed and enjoyable way to say good bye to Moscow. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of our last overnight train to St Petersburg. Despite our attempts to get in at a reasonable, but still early time in St Petersburg, they had changed the time of our train meaning that we would now arrive at 4:40am. Luckily our hostel was a few minutes walk away from the train station – completely unplanned - and so shortly after we arrived in St Petersburg we were asleep on the armchairs in reception waiting until we could check in to the room.
Alas, being open 24hrs was the only good thing about our hostel. Having to wait for hours to check-in only to be told that our room had been available as they had made a mistake and expected us the night before was annoying. Being given a tiny room that you had to walk through two dorms to get to was more annoying. By the time we arrived in the room little larger than the bed and found that there were no meaningful curtains in a city, that during summer, never gets dark, I was positively miffed. Still it was only for one night and then they were going to move us as they had double booked the room.
Determined not to let this spoil the day we headed out on yet another walking tour. Granted it was just a tour of one street but at least it meant that, for the first time in 5 months, we did the walking tour without getting lost – yay!
In my opinion there is only one problem with St Petersburg, it is far too grandiose. You start off looking at the simply amazing architecture as you walk down Nevsky Prospect towards the Hermitage Museum and, by the time you arrive there, it all just gets a bit lost on you. That said it is still stunning and hard to imagine that it was built in such a short space of time by Peter the Great, after he moved the capital there from Moscow.
We decided to the Hermitage on our second day and spent the first day walking around, taking in the city. We also went in the Cathedral of the Saviour on Spilled Blood founded on the spot where one of the Tsars was blown up by the peasants, it was built in a similar style to St Basil's only without the dodgy paint job and beautifully restored on the inside. It was decorated entirely with beautiful mosaics and, as with all Russian churches, had the obligatory Iconostasis, but with the doors removed so that you could not only see the quite simple alter but also that the artwork continued behind the Iconostasis as well. This was easily one of my favourite buildings of the entire trip, though still probably on the second best church that I had seen in Russia.
We finished our tour of the city by heading up the tower of St Isaac's Cathedral for a view over the city. Looking at St Petersburg spread out before you was impressive to say the least, though for the 261 steps I had to go up to see it I was expecting maybe a little more. This probably had more to do with the complete lack of hills in St Petersburg meaning that you just couldn't see as much of the city as I would have liked to.
After a really good day of sight seeing we returned to our tiny box room where, with the assistance of Virgin and BA we were able to sleep through the night wearing the eye masks we had been given quite some time ago and carried around most of the world.
The next morning we checked out and headed over to the Hermitage Museum. Being possibly the largest art museum in the world, and set in the former palace of the Russian Tsars to cover all of the exhibits in the museum would require you to walk a measly 26 kilometers. Alas, this does not take in the excessively long and slow moving queue. Given that we arrived there slightly late as it was, having had to pack up everything, and we soon decided that we did not have enough time to do the palace, nor the entrance fee, justice. It was therefore with a heavy heart that we left the Hermitage museum queue and headed off instead to the smaller ..... palace.
That this was a smaller palace for more minor members of the royal family gave a clear insight into the opulence of the Tsar's during this period. Now equally famed as the house of Rasputin's murder who was poisoned, stabbed and shot by his dinner hosts before being thrown into the ice river – just to make certain – the palace was stunning. Marbled floors, walls painted by famous artists and its own indoor theatre, all beautifully preserved or restored.
As a treat, it was my birthday, we ate out for dinner as we had not done it in a long time! Therefore, in what I'm sure is not too much of a coincidence , we were soon sitting down in Cafe Idiot. I'm assured that this was not named in anticipation of my arrival but, if I understood the broken English of the menu correctly, in memory of Fyodor Dostoevsky, the former owner of the establishment before he lost it on a bet and wrote books instead. (It was named after a character in one of his books.
Whatever the name of the establishment the food was very good and we were soon tucking in to some borscht followed by pelmeni (a kind of dumpling) and plov (which is kind of a like a veggie risotto, not as creamy, covered in cheese) which we washed down with some mors (a cranberry style drink) and a free shot of vodka. We then headed back to our now new and stupidly large room – it was meant to sleep 14 and instead had 2 – but still without curtains. The next morning we had a rather slow morning of packing up before saying dosvidaniya
to Russia and hei