Travel and a bit of shopping
First published in Travel Ideas, August-September 2019
I only learnt of the Russian custom to say “let’s sit down for the road” or “Присядем на дорожку” after I returned from a trip to Russia recently. It serves as a quick prayer and Russians literally sit in silence for a few seconds before heading off into the distance. There are even flight attendants who follow this tradition.
I decided to adopt this ritual as well. Maybe it could serve another purpose such as realising you’ve forgotten something. Perhaps it gives you that moment to look around you for one last time, at a place you might never see again because there are always new destinations to explore. To me, it means I will always be reminded of Russia, no matter where I go.
I didn’t really think I’ll ever see Russia again. I’ve travelled to Saint Petersburg and Moscow with a girlfriend nearly two decades ago and I rode the Trans-Siberian Express (from Moscow through Siberia to Ulan Bator, Mongolia) a few years ago. Surely that means been there, done that, I thought.
Happily, it did not. When an invitation from Insight Vacations came to join their Easy Pace Russia trip (https://www.insightvacations.com/za/trips/easy-pace-russia-summer-2020) I leapt at the chance. There is something about Russia – the intrigue lingers. Or, rather, it grows.
Winston Churchill has often been quoted as having said that Russia is “a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma”. I couldn’t agree more. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
I thought I knew a lot about Russia, having read tomes of travel writing and a bundle of classic novels set in Russia, both before and after my previous visits. I might have known quite a bit before I left on this trip but it’s nothing compared to what I have now discovered and experienced, and heard, especially from the Insight Vacations Travel Director and some Insight Vacations Local Experts.
Listen to this. Some of the exquisite wallpaper, depicting landscapes and rural scenes, in Catherine Palace in the small town of Tsarskoe Selo, now called Pushkin, 25 kilometres outside Saint Petersburg, was originally made by groups of monks in specific monasteries. Some of the monasteries practice this art of making chinoiserie to this day but as the super-wealthy oligarchs have developed a preference for textured wallpaper resembling that which is found in palaces, the monks no longer want to painstakingly produce wallpaper for restoration projects in former royal homes. The reason is that the oligarchs are prepared to pay so much more!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. If Russia was South Africa Saint Petersburg would be Cape Town and Moscow would be Johannesburg. Saint Petersburg is a relaxed city where you can stroll to the must-see cathedrals, walk along the canals and hang out on the city squares. Moscow is fast-paced with thriving business districts and traffic that never ceases.
Saint Petersburg might be called the ‘Venice of the North’ by some but it has so much more to offer than its waterways, canals and bridges. Admittedly, you should not miss strolling along the Moyka and Fontanka River and Griboedov Canal.
Griboedov Canal is fairly narrow and winding with its pièce de résistance, the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. This church with its candy-striped onion domes and multi-coloured exterior was built to commemorate the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.
The tsar’s carriage was passing along the Griboedov embankment when two bombs were hurled at the carriage, one of which mortally wounded Tsar Alexander II. Funding to build the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood was provided by the imperial family as well as private donors.
In 1932 the Soviet government closed the church. During the Second World War the church was used as a temporary morgue. After the war the church was used as a warehouse for vegetables. At this time some Saint Petersburgers referred to it as the Church of the Saviour on Potatoes. Contrary to popular belief, it does seem that Russians have a sense of humour then.
The interior of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood features more than 7500 square meters of intricate mosaics. Photography is allowed, not flash photography though.
As part of the travel itinerary with Insight Vacations you cruise by hydrofoil along the Neva River and Baltic shore to Peterhof Palace (also known as Petrodvorets), the summer residence of Peter the Great, who commissioned this summer residence to rival the Palace of Versailles in France. Approaching from the Neva you first see 64 cascading fountains that flow into a semi-circular pool. The fountains are interspersed with 200 bronze statues that appear to be made of gold.
Peterhof is not as big as some of the other palaces but it is incredibly lavish. The ceremonial staircase sets the tone; the ballroom, throne room, portrait hall and white dining room defies description as there is so much to see and marvel at.
Our group visited the aforementioned Catherine Palace as well as the Yusupov Palace (both of these were optional trips and are highly recommended).
The Amber Room is but one of the reasons to undertake a trip to Catherine Palace. The legendary Amber Room (no photographs allowed), consisting of ornate panels with amber, gold leaf and mirrors, was a gift to Peter the Great in 1716. During World War II the Amber Room was looted by the Germans and it subsequently disappeared; it was never found again. In 1979 a mammoth project was undertaken to recreate this amber installation and in 2003, after decades of work, it was inaugurated at Catherine Palace.
Yusupov Palace is famous as this is where Grigori Rasputin was murdered by a group of nobles, led by Prince Felix Yusupov. Rasputin was a Russian mystic and self-proclaimed holy man who exerted undue political influence over the imperial family in the early 1900s, according to the nobles, who also suspected that he was having an affair with the tsarina.
Yusupov Palace has retained most of its original furniture and art. Highlights include the intimate palace theatre and the Moorish drawing room.
Standing on Palace Square, looking at the turquoise-green and white façade of the Winter Palace, it’s hard to fathom that this is where the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1905, when soldiers fired upon unarmed demonstrators, and parts of the October Revolution in 1917, occurred. Even less so when horse carriages and chariots pull up to take eager tourists on rides and a myriad tourists take selfies to brag about back home.
The Winter Palace is the main building of the Hermitage Museum, the largest art gallery in Russia, and one of the largest and most respected in the world. It is said that if you had to spend a minute looking at each exhibit on display in the Hermitage, it would take you 11 years (some sources say 6 or 9 years) to see it all.
Once you emerge from the Hermitage it takes a few minutes’ walk to St Isaac’s Cathedral, the fourth largest cathedral in the world. This cathedral, now a museum, took 40 years to build. In the Finnish language they have even adopted the idiom ‘to build a church of Isaac’ (rakentaa kuin Iisakinkirkkoa in Finnish) to indicate something that takes an inordinate amount of time to complete.
That evening we returned for a performance of Swan Lake at the Hermitage Theatre. If I had to choose one highlight of the trip (there were many) it would be this experience. If you are lucky enough to be in Saint Petersburg when performances are taking place and tickets are available, do not hesitate for a second; grab this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
From Saint Petersburg we boarded the high speed Sapsan train to Moscow. Hence we got to travel to the capital city in supreme comfort.
When we saw where Insight Vacations has put us up, it came close to being nigh impossible to coax our group from the over-the-top luxury at the Radisson Royal Hotel Moscow. It is the former Ukraine Hotel, a name that is more recognisable to taxi drivers, we were told. A breakfast spread second to none included Russian ‘champagne’ and caviar with sour cream.
The first outing was indeed a Russian revelation, as our Insight Vacations trip information forewarned us. We started on the Red Square with its landmark buildings such as the St. Basil’s Cathedral, the glamorous GUM department store, Lenin’s mausoleum, the State Historical Museum, the dainty Kazan Cathedral (not to be confused with Kazan Cathedral, the mother cathedral of the city of Saint Petersburg) and a glimpse of the Kremlin behind its distinctive brick red walls. A few blocks away it felt eerie to stare at the former KGB building with its innocent-looking yellow façade, even more so when we were told that the ground floor used to house a prison where inmates were tortured on a regular basis.
An Optional Insights Experience takes you to walk within the walls of the Kremlin where you will stand agape at the crown jewels, the Fabergé Egg collection and other tsarist artefacts.
The name of the Red Square has nothing to do with the colour of many of the buildings, such as the Kremlin walls, or communism. Originally the Russian word, kрасная, which means ‘red’, was related to the Russian word that means ‘beautiful’.
To get to the Red Square we used the Moscow metro. About 9 million people use the Moscow metro every day, more than New York and London combined.
The original stations on a single line of eleven kilometres were built in the reign of Stalin. He envisaged these stations as “palaces for the people”. It was designed in such a way that train travellers would be encouraged to look up. Each station has its own unique theme and design. To this day the marble pillars, mosaic displays, baroque ceilings, stained glass panels, chandeliers and brass statues fill visitors with awe.
Urban legend has it that there is no word for ‘fun’ in Russian. Strictly speaking, this is not true though in Russia the concept of having fun differs to how having fun is perceived in the rest of the world.
I couldn’t imagine having more fun that I did on this Insight Vacations trip to the two main cities of Russia. I still can’t answer the many riddles that Russia offers, but much of the mystery has been cleared. I can testify that Russia as a destination is a fascinating and extraordinary enigma.