We decided that the bear was symbolic of Russia for a good reason as we were feeling a bit mauled after a couple of days in Moscow (but we had some really nice times too).
The mauling started with our first trip on the Moscow underground. We had caught the train from the airport and then planned to take two metros to our accommodation but our first metro ride was in the wrong direction. All street signs and railway stations are written in Cyrillic. There is very little English signage nor do many people speak English and unlike Iran where people helped us when we looked lost the Russians mostly ignored us.
But that was a minor issue compared to our accommodation problem. First we could not find the place that we booked. When we finally phoned the agent, Tanya, she told us that the apartment was unavailable because the previous tenant had broken the bed (hmm?) but she would take us to another apartment which would not cost us any more. The offered apartment had a nice bed and a clean bathroom but a grubby kitchen and a generally fairly grotty appearance. Since we had been up since 4.45 am and it was now 4.45 pm, we accepted the place and paid the money. Then we discovered that there was no hot water. Oh well we thought, in the morning there will be hot water. In the morning, there was still no hot water so we tried to ring Tanya but couldn’t get through. We adjusted the settings on the hot water system thinking that might fix the problem but when we returned in the afternoon, there was still no hot water.
We summoned Tanya to the apartment but the best she offered was to book a room at a nearby hostel so we could have a shower that night and the next day - you must be joking! She did agree to refund our money but then suggested that a colleague had an apartment nearby for a 100 euros a night (not bad by Moscow prices). We lugged our huge luggage plus groceries we had bought for our stay about 500 meters up the street but the place was a real grot hole much worse than the one we had been in.
So we pleaded to be shown to a hotel. The nearest happened to be the Hotel Peking which had a very nice room - a mini-suite available for 8,800 roubles (about $A350) per night including breakfast. We took the room even though we were about 1,500 roubles ($A60) out of pocket. It was great to have a really nice place to stay.
We also had problems when we tried to go into the Kremlin. First we bought tickets to the Armoury museum thinking that it included the whole Kremlin precinct (actually we misunderstood the sign). Then we couldn’t find the way into the Armoury - you had to go in the staff entrance but it was raining, there wasn’t anybody at the door and the people who were around were no help. And then we discovered that the Kremlin was closed for the afternoon although it had been advertised as being open all day. We think that this was associated with a visit from the Chinese leader.
Despite these problems, we had some good times in Moscow.
Most people have probably seen the multi-coloured domes of St Basil’s Cathedral next to Red Square and the Kremlin. It has to be one of the most distinctive buildings in the world and was great to see in real life - a superb building particularly from a distance but Ann said that it was not worth “that apartment.”
We also had a delightful, if expensive, dinner on the roof terrace of the Pushkin restaurant where the Russian oligarchs dine. We dined with Lucy McIninerny (Claire Michelanney’s niece) and her friend Ken who were teaching in Moscow. Lovely company, lovely food, even a bottle of D’Arenberg helped pass the evening and it was still light when we left at 11.00am.
We did look at the Kremlin from the outside - the golden domes are spectacular. And the Armoury museum has a good collection - a lot of religious artefacts including several Faberge eggs. One of the more interesting exhibits was the room full of old coaches which dated back to the 17th century - most were huge vehicles but usually elaborately decorated. It was bad luck that we did not get to see the rest.
After two nights in Moscow, we took the night train to St Petersburg. We had a first class compartment which was OK without being too flash - we were on the slow train though.
Our stay in St Petersburg was very interesting but not without its problems. But first a bit of history and geography. St Petersburg is Russia’s most northerly city and is situated on the delta of the Neva River and on the Gulf of Finland. It was established as the Russian capital by Peter the Great in the 18th century. It is a very beautiful city known as the Venice of the north because it is bisected by the river and many canals. The city actually sits on a series of islands. There are many beautiful parks and gardens and during our visit these were filled with the powerful perfume of lilac trees in flower. Due to its northerly position St Petersburg enjoys almost 24hours of sunlight during the month of June (the time of our visit). These days are known as the White Nights and are celebrated with parties and concerts etc which go on until the early hours of the morning.
St Petersburg started out well - our host met us at the train (it was cold and windy - maybe 10-12C and the weather stayed much the same for the next 4 days). However our room wasn’t ready when we arrived so we went for a walk but did not have the correct code to open the gate when we returned - it wasn’t locked when we went out. Ann eventually rang the intercom of the Austrian embassy next door and a lovely Austrian lady helped us to alert the receptionist at the hotel to open the gate.
Our room however was really nice - a small apartment with good furnishings, a small kitchen, breakfast materials, a nice bathroom and hot water. It is in the embassy district and right opposite the registry office. My god, the Russians were marrying in droves - we have never seen so many weddings!!! Another interesting cultural sidelight was the 24 hour flower shops and the numbers of people we saw buying and carrying bunches of flowers.
We went to the Hermitage - the fabulous and hugely popular museum in the old royal winter palace in the centre of St Petersburg. We arrived about 10.20am (it opens at 10.30am) and there was already a line about 100 metres long. This was a Russian queue which means that you do whatever to worm your way to the front. (We discovered on this on the Metro which we used quite a lot in Russia and became much more confident - now for Paris and London!!). Rather than wait,we allowed ourselves to be talked into using an unofficial guide to get us in for a 1.5 hour tour - she wasn’t very expensive 25 euros each (for us and four others) and the tour was OK as far as it went. But she did not take us into some of the main rooms and we missed the arrangements for the special treasury rooms which were separately ticketed tours.
Nevertheless we did see some of the Hermitage collection including some art by renowned masters such as Rubens although we were not overly impressed. There was a room full of good silver, lots of grand rooms beautifully furnished and decorated mostly with lovely parquetry floors - overall the palace was much brighter than others than we have seen. But we came way a little frustrated and reluctant to come back and battle the mob to see any more.
We also went to Peterhof built by Peter the Great and was the summer residence of the Romanoffs - it is about 30 kilometres outside St Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland. After some initial problems finding the hydrofoil (the departure point was not as stated in the guide), we took the half hour trip to the palace. It is renowned for its superb fountains allegedly vying with Versailles (we will have to see).
The grounds and the fountains are very grand and very elaborate - hopefully the pictures do them justice.
Unfortunately there was a thunderstorm about lunchtime and that put a stop to any further sightseeing there.
On Sunday morning we had tickets for the graduation program of the Kirov Ballet School at the gorgeous Marinsky Theatre. The program lasted for 3 hours with two short intermissions and highlighted all the balletic skills of the graduands who mostly danced either pas de deux or solos with two short choreographed acts which included the full ensemble. A troupe of the younger dancers (15-16yos ) performed one small act also. Ann was delighted with it.
And so we move on. Russia proved to the most challenging country so far. We probably would have found it easier on an organised tour but you live and learn.