Mother Russia! The biggest (literally) misunderstood country in the world. Given recent events, most of you reading are probably like my own mother when it comes to Russia; panicky, nervous and takes every attempt to avoid like the plague. Russia, and its people come with a certain assumption: aggressive, brut, dangerous. My Russian experience couldn’t be farther from that. I traveled to Russia over the Easter holidays on Travel Talk Tours 6-Day Highlights of Russia tour and had the absolute best time! My only complaint is that I wish the tour was much longer, 6 days was not enough.
The Process: The process to get into Russia and apply for your visa is a bit annoying but I like to think of it as weeding out the haters; only the true любители’s (lovers) of Mother Russia will make it in. The application itself was a bit lengthy (only for Canadian, AUS, US and a few other countries), New Zealanders have a much shorter application. I was required to list, with dates, all the countries I’ve visited in the last five years. 😐 The application itself was basically the exact same form I filled out for my UK work visa.
- Visa, valid from the exact entry and exit dates of the trip £76
- Passport photo £6
- Flights from London £100 (I went over Easter that’s why it was it cost more)
- Tour £239 + £160 in local payments
- Travel Insurance £65 (I didn’t have any prior to this so I bought a full year package before we left, it’s not required to enter, but the visa application asked if I had any and I was scarred Putin would reject me if not)
The tour company I was with provided all the necessary paperwork and letters of invitation for the visa, which made things MUCH easier. When we arrived late in St. Petersburg, it was a rainy night. We went straight to the Oktiabraskaya Hotel, which was incredible. Our room was MASSIVE, clean, and had a nice view of Ligovsky Prospect, one of the main roads. The next morning, we all had an early rise to get ready to view the past capital of Russia. We all headed down to the dining room and was met with an absolute FEAST fit for a Tsar! I have NEVER seen such an array of food at one meal time, especially breakfast. Anything you could ever dream up for breakfast was there before your eyes, Mother Russia had enough food to feed the Red Army. There was a full dessert section, scrambled cheesy eggs, hard boiled eggs, over easy eggs, bacon, ham, roasted potatoes, scalloped potatoes, crepes, a full yogurt, granola and cereal bar, sandwich section, 6 types of juice, 10 types of tea and coffee; I DIED. Even if the rest of the trip turned to complete shit, I would look back fondly on my adventure solely because of that endless supply of breaky.
Right before the trip, a friend recommended I read a book called ‘The Bronze Horseman‘ by Paullina Simons. This book takes places in Leningrad (what is now Saint Petersburg) in 1941, right before Hitler invades Russia. The story is about two sisters, Tatiana and Dasha, their family, and the events that take place around the war, including meeting Alexander, an officer in the Red Army. It’s a tale of great love in a time of horrific events, it will leave your ovaries hurting and start you on an adventure to find your own Alexander. This book kept me locked in my room on Saturday nights furiously reading to find out what happens. I haven’t been so enthralled in a book in years. Aside from Harry Potter, this was my first time reading a series and then walking the same footsteps in real life as the characters did, which I think helped add to my overall experience in Russia. I highly, highly recommend it if you’re going, heck, even if you’re not, just read the book. Trust.
Our first day we went to the Fields of Mars – which is where Alexander and Tatiana would meet – and I felt giddy the whole time (my eyes were dashing every which way in search for my own Alexander, update: didn’t find him). The Field of Mars is named after Mars, the Roman God of War. It’s a massive park (over 9 hectares) in the middle of Saint P. Previously, it was used as a military training ground, then as a memorial areas used to burry the honoured dead from the February Revolution of Leningrad. The Eternal Flame is also located here and was used to light a similar memorial in Moscow in 1967.
Our incredible tour guide, Tatiana (coincidence) took us over to the mind-blowing beauty of the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilt Blood, one of 40,000 churches in the country. During my travels, I’ve seen many a religious building; from Catholic Churches, to Mosques, to Temples and Synagogues. Never have I come across such incredible, intricate and colorful structures as Russian Orthodox Churches. You could spend months examining the handcrafted woodwork, century-old frescoes, the staggering amounts of gold and wealth confined within. This is one church I would pay over and over again to see. On the tour we learned that people in Russia learned to read from icons depicted in churches. Peter the Great commissioned the educational reform and forced people to become literate in order to build careers.
Next up, we went to the Hermitage, an expansive beautiful robins egg blue coloured building lining the Neva Riva. The Hermitage is one of the oldest museums in the world and was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great; it’s Russia’s national museum of art and culture. Just like the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilt Blood, it doesn’t disappoint. People comment that the Louvre is the world’s best museum, but I would argue that. Yes, the Louvre has an incredible collection of extremely rare pieces of art, but, the Hermitage itself IS a work of art. The building dates back hundreds of years, with each room boasting its own color scheme design of rich wood carved mantelpieces, velvet wallpaper, gold encrusted mirrors, grand marble staircases and tiled floors, and frescoes included within the overall makeup of the building.
I’ve never felt so poor in my life gawking at my dirty reflexion in the gold encrusted mirrors. We saw priceless works by Rembrandt, van Gough, Matisse, and celebrated Russian artists. Easily could have spent several days in there taking it all in. Absolute must-see when visiting Saint Petersburg.
The following day, we went and explored the Tsar’s Palace (pronounced Ta-Zar) in Pushkin Town, about 20mins from the city center. I’m literally running out of words to describe the grandeur of this entire country. All I know is that the Russian Tsar’s did not go without. Again, just gold on gold on gold highlighted by rich pastel interior and exterior walls. I’ve never seen such displays of wealth, the pictures below will hurt your eyes from the blindness of the shine.
After exploring the Palace, we had some free time. I decided to go and view the famous Faberge Museum. My mom always told me how incredible and detailed these little eggs are so I decided to head to the headquarters of the iconic trinkets. We paid the small entrance fee and was given slippers to put over our shoes. After venturing through several rooms, I noticed a lack of eggs and an abundance of glassware and jeweled pieces. Turns out, the House of Faberge is more of a designer name which creates much more than just eggs. It was interesting, but not at all what I was expecting.
After being put into our place by the wealth of the city, it was time to board the Crimson Express – also known as our sleeper train, which makes up a small part of the Trans-Siberian Railway. I’ve been on a few trains before and had communist-esk expectations for this one, but yet again, Russia blew me away. The train was so nice, very clean, with helpful cheery staff (not a lot spoke English), and the beds were cushy and spacious. There was even a 24 hour restaurant and bar – which we took advantage of around 1am, each enjoying some top quality Russian vodka shots. As you do.
We arrived in the nations capital bright and early for a day full of sightseeing. First up, a tour of the Kremlin, Russia’s government building. The Kremlin is sort of like a mini city on it’s own, it has everything you need within its’ fortified red walls. Every major Moscow landmark is located within walking distance of the Kremlin. You have Saint Basils Cathedral (aka Candy Land Church), Lenin’s Mausoleum, the Red Square, other smaller churches and religious sites and all the major parliament buildings and shopping. If you ever get the chance to go to Moscow, I highly recommend going to view the Red Square by day and again by night – completely different experience. Much less tourists and crowds, and the buildings look even more imposing at night.
The next day, we got a bus tour of the city, showing us some of the famous sites outside walking distance. This included the Moscow State University, one of Stalling’s Seven Sisters. Stalin commissioned seven gigantic skyscrapers to be built all across Moscow using American technology. He wanted to prove to all western countries that Communism is just as good as Western ways of doing things, so he had these colossal buildings made as well as the incredibly detailed subway systems. If you go up to where the Moscow State University is located, you get a vantage point over the whole city from which you can view the other sisters in the distance. Most of the buildings have now become high class hotels or government offices.
A trip to Moscow wouldn’t be complete without checking out the subway system. If you thought above ground was excessive, wait until you see the detailed murals, marble and metal statues that line the stations. Each station doubles as a bomb shelter! Fun fact. Stalin had the stations constructed for millions of rubbles, while more than half of his country was dying of starvation. Great guy, eh?
Overall, Russia was an absolute gem. I can’t wait for the day I can go back there and explore more of this diverse and challenging country. Russia blew me away even after only my short six days there. Everything you’ve heard about this country has been blown out of proportion. The people are beautiful, nice (when approached), the history is complicated and fascinating, the sites are breathtaking (and ridiculously massive), and there’s SO MUCH left of the country to see. I was warned by both my tour guides and some locals that Russia is NOT Moscow and Saint Petersburg, there’s so much more out there to see and the past and present capitals aren’t an accurate portrayal. One day I will return, until then, спокойной ночи.
Fun Facts about Russia:
- If you won a medal in the Olympics, you got the honour of meeting Putin in the presidential palace in the Kremlin.
- Our tour guide told us that his parents (and their generation) viewed Stallin as a national hero, but his generation (age 50-60) viewed him as a terrorist. (He told us this on the Kremlim grounds and I was afraid we were all going to be sent to a gulag)
- 9 million people a day use the transit Moscow.
- Moscow has the world’s highest number of billionaires.
- Russia is bigger than Pluto!!
- Each Russian consumes 18 litres (4.8 gallons) of alcohol a year! :O
- There are 9 million more women than men in Russia
- Beer was not considered an alcoholic beverage in Russia until 2013 – I wonder if that above stat about alcohol consumption was found before or after 2013 …
- The word ‘vodka’ comes from the Russian word ‘coda’ which means water
- It wasn’t until Putin that minimum wage was created
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