Russia is a destination which evokes many different images to Silver Travellers. Dr Zhivago and Faberge, Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy, the Cold War and Glasnost. But for most of us, Russia means two cities, the former capital of St Petersburg and today’s capital, Moscow.
For most British visitors, St Petersburg is the highlight of a Baltic cruise but I’ve long been intrigued by both cities so, fired up by the TV adaptation of War and Peace (apparently a mistranslation for ‘War and Society’), I chose a twin-centre escorted tour with Riviera Travel – three nights in each city with a four-hour transfer by high speed Sapsan train. Unless you speak and read Russian, this really is the only way to visit, as very few signs or information panels are written in English.
Two hours ahead in time but barely three hours’ flight from London, Moscow is closer than Madeira or Malta, an exotic and enigmatic destination on our doorstep that is guaranteed to both surprise and delight. Russia’s two showcase cities are light, bright and beautiful.
Moscow airport is just 12 miles from the city centre but the coach transfer is slow. Traffic here is hideous – up to ten lanes at a standstill – but at least it gives passengers the chance to take it all in. Far from being grey and drab, the architecture is varied and often stunning. Stalin’s ‘Seven Sisters’ are seven huge blocks reminiscent of 1930s Manhattan, but there are gorgeous 18th century mansions too with coloured facades, as well as ultra-modern office blocks clustered in a business district similar to the City of London. Expect broad tree-lined avenues too and an abundance of parks, both large and small.
Our base for the first three nights was the comfortable Marriott Courtyard hotel in a quiet residential street about 10-15 minutes walk from the Kremlin and Red Square Evening meals are not included but we found an abundance of cafes and restaurants nearby. Many have at least some staff with basic English and can provide a menu in English.
Book a tour with a company such as Riviera Travel and your excursions will be accompanied by local, English-speaking guides. Our daily programme offered leisurely starts and included some free time afterwards for relaxation or independent exploration. Moscow is huge and our first morning’s tour took us to places outside the city centre, with a free afternoon to explore the area around Red Square. It’s surreal to see tourists with iPads walking across coloured lines that once acted as markers for military parades beneath the red walls of the Kremlin. And to browse the boutiques behind the elegant facade of the GUM shopping arcade which stands across the square from the Kremlin and the rainbow domes of St Basil’s Cathedral.
Highlights of the second day was a guided tour of ornate Metro stations decorated with paintings and statues to socialism, and on the third day, a tour inside the Kremlin itself, once home to the Tsars and now location for President Putin’s office. What a surprise to find four ornate churches with golden domes; sweeping lawns; and elegant administrative buildings in lemon and white. The fabulous Armoury Museum inside the Kremlin walls is packed with presents given to the Tsars, as well as coronation costumes and Russian craftsmanship including fabulous Faberge eggs.
The 550-mile train journey to St Petersburg passes in four comfortable hours at speeds of up to 220 km an hour. The scenery is samey – trees, the odd lake, more trees, drab looking villages, and yet more trees, but it’s a relaxing way to travel, pitching us up in the former Russian capital by early evening. Here we were based at the Novotel, a modern hotel close to the station and just off Nevskiy Prospekt, a long, straight boulevard that leads to the Neva river and the fabulous Hermitage, winter palace of the Tsars.
Founded on marshland by Peter the Great in 1703, this elegant city opening onto the Baltic Sea was designed to provide a ‘window on Europe’. Renamed Petrograd in 1914, then Leningrad after the Revolution, it was besieged by the Nazis from 1941-43 and has only regained its original name and some of its former glory since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Again, Riviera’s itinerary included an orientation tour by coach with some short photo stops at highlights such as the Church on Spilled Blood and St Isaac’s Cathedral, but the highlight for everyone was the guided tour of the fabulous Hermitage which faces onto the vast expanse of Palace Square. Think bling at its most extreme and then double it. The tour is a delightful combination of state rooms designed to impress and an art collection that ranks amongst the best in the world.
Next day we visited the Tsars’ summer palace, the Peterhof, a short drive from St Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland. Badly damaged after occupation by the Nazis, it has been painstakingly recreated, and the vast park with its multiple fountains compares favourably with Versailles. Later that day, we took the optional boat tour around St Petersburg to see the exteriors of other aristocratic palaces and enjoyed an evening of traditional music and dance at one of St Petersburg’s many classical theatres.
Anyone who likes a city break that surprises, informs and entertains will love these beautiful, safe cities. As I wandered off on my own to see Maxim Gorky’s Art Nouveau property, I couldn’t have felt more secure. Yes, your guides will tell you to watch your bags – just as you would in any city – and they’ll agree on a code word to use if they sense pickpockets around, but we never needed it.
They provided us with fascinating insights into Russian society, often at variance with our Western perceptions. Our tour manager too was excellent even when faced by random road closures and other glitches which seem to be a part of daily life here.
Be warned though. This is not a trip for anyone with mobility problems. You can clock up a lot of steps, not just on a palace tour, but sometimes just accessing your tour bus during those random road closures or parking restrictions. If you are slow on your feet or require special arrangements, you will hold up the whole party. And if you are uneasy in crowds, this might not be for you either. The Hermitage, the Peterhof and the Armoury Museum all get very busy with summer tour groups and you’ll certainly have to adopt the Russian knack for elbowing through at times.
One last but essential thing to know – although your tour operator will organise your tours and activities – a holiday in Russia does require a degree of effort for UK travellers. We are just one of three countries in the world that currently need a visa which involves applying on line and then going in person with form and photo to have your fingerprints taken at a visa office in London, Manchester or Edinburgh.
But if you have ever had the slightest inclination to visit Russia, I urge you to make the effort and book up. Now. Your perceptions will be challenged, your senses overloaded and you’ll go home eager to read the first Russian author you can lay your hands on. Unforgettable and all just three hours from home.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Riviera Travel – Escorted Tours.