St. Petersburg, Russia
Ka-Boom! The noon cannon at
Naryshkin Bastion bellows across
the Neva River in a midday ritual dating back
to 1873. An ethereal
cloud of blue gray smoke drifts over the hundreds
below on St. Petersburg’s most popular beach right in the
heart of town.
Standing here against the stony base of the Peter and Paul
I gaze in amazement across a jubilant and playful crowd set against
skyline of one of Europe’s most dazzling cities.
Much has changed since Perestroika and the
painful transition from
Communism to Capitalism. Today is an exciting time to
where its citizens relish in their newly realized freedom and
success. Everywhere there’s a sense of freshness and celebration,
if the entirety of society has emerged to embrace their individuality.
Evidence of Russia's New, But Guarded Social Freedom
Petersburg is an absolute jewel
of a city: an urban landscape planned
meticulously from scratch by an appointed
architect of Peter the Great.
Grand boulevards, neoclassical buildings, sumptuous palaces, bewildering
cathedrals, innumerable monuments, lavish parks and ornate bridges
blend to give St. Petersburg its unique, elegant character.
Built on 43 islands connected by some 400 bridges, St. Petersburg has
been called the “Venice of the West.” Perhaps the most enjoyable way to
savor its ambiance is by hiring one of the creaky water taxis that put through
its squiggly maze of twisting canals and meandering rivers. Susan, her
overflowing shopping bags clinging to her side, and I scamper from our
dinner at the restaurant “Cat” just
in time to check out a sunset departure
from the banks of the nearby Griboedov
Canal. This experience is one our
readers must pledge to put at the top of
their “must do” list.
A treasure trove, St. Petersburg
is crammed with over ninety museums.
The Hermitage of Catherine the Great alone
boasts over three million
exhibits: from classical statues to gilded carriages,
tapestries to exquisite rare paintings. Some galleries are found
former mansions of the pre-Revolutionary Russian aristocracy, such the
Yusupov Palace. Restored to its original furnished splendor, this
townhouse includes its own Turkish bath and private theater
guests. In the musty cellars underneath this opulent
residence, our beady-eyed
guide named Paulo whispers his spooky
narration of the untidy murder at this
very site of the infamous Russian
mystic, Grigoriy Rasputin.
Exhibit in Palace Museum
A trip to St. Petersburg simply
must include excursions to countryside
estates of Peterhof, Tsarkoe Selo and
Pavlovsk. Peter the Great
commissioned his magnificent Peterhof in 1714 to be a
rival to any
palace and park complex he has seen in Western Europe.
required over 5,000 laborers over a period of nearly ten years to
the expansive gardens, fountains, pavilions and the palaces that
the Gulf of Finland. Peter himself designed most of the 150 fountains,
including the tricky ones that shower unsuspecting visitors roaming about
the Lower Park. Susan and I opt to take a city bus that winds through the
outskirts of St. Petersburg’s on its way there, just to see a slice of daily
Another full day excursion is to the area surrounding
the town of Tsarskoye Selo
(The Tsars’ Village) for a look-see at three former
royal estates. The marvel of
Tsarskoe Selo is Catherine’s Palace, an
extravagant property on a scale rivaling
the luxury of Peterhof. Twenty of the
staterooms including the grand gilded
ballroom and two of the 25 dining
rooms are open to the public. One of the parlors
is decorated floor to ceiling
in delicate Florentine mosaics created entirely with
genuine Russian amber.
The formal gardens and manicured lawns surrounding
the palace cover over 1400
About a mile away from Catherine’s Palace is
This estate gains its notoriety from being the residence of
Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II.
The Romanov family lived here from 1904 until
their arrest 1917. Nicholas and
Alexandra, together with their children, were
subsequently exiled to Siberia. Nearby is
the enchanting Pavlovsk Palace, one
which Catherine had commissioned for her son,
Paul. Despite severe damage
sustained during World War II, the palace and all its
furnishings have been
fully restored to be just as they were in 1786. Susan and I are
amused that the
Russian docents and guides speak of the tsars and royal rulers on
a first name
basis, with an attitude as if the aristocrats were now modern day folk heroes.
Traditional Family Values Continue
Children and adults play in a fountain off St. Petersburg's Nevski Prospect
Leaving with fond memories of St.
Petersburg, Susan and I press on to Moscow.
A truly romantic way to travel to
Russia’s capital city is by the overnight train that rattles
its way southward,
scooting through an earth-colored patchwork of farmlands and
dense forests of
fragrant Sylvester Pines. Moscow’s train terminals and Metro stations
of art in themselves, sometimes being called Russia’s “underground palaces.”
Both foreign visitors and nearly 8 million daily commuters arrive into the
of marble interiors, vaulted ceilings, classical sculptures and
Moscow Station: Ground Level Platform
The architecture of Moscow is
richly diverse, making tramping around on foot
during the day lots of fun. The
city’s neighborhoods have a proliferation of
Baroque and Georgian style mansions
and apartments- each uniquely
decorated with ornate limestone carvings, dramatic
arches and quirky gables.
I’d swear there’s a bakery on every block, as the
smell of fresh-from-the-oven
rye bread seems to greet us at every corner.
Moscow’s skyline is dominated
by the landmark “Seven Sisters;” a set of nearly
identical high-rise buildings
designed in a distinctive gothic style to be city
signature of the late Joseph Stalin.
Although you do see utilitarian style
buildings here and there, Moscow’s
architecture of the past few years is bold,
progressive and aesthetically pleasing.
You can’t help but notice the erratic
traffic of trucks and cars, moving like a frenzied
school of panicked herring.
As our day guide Tanya explained with a twinkle in
her eye, “As we Muscovites
say, ‘to be qualified to drive here, you have to have
been born here.’”
Wondrous Ferry Boat Ride Along Moscow River
The Kremlin (city fort) with its
palaces, onion domed cathedrals and historic
monuments remains as Moscow’s
glorious centerpiece. Here in the vast
museum within the State Armory building
Susan and I are mesmerized by
what had been the private collections of Russian
tsars over hundreds of years.
Golden carriages, jeweled thrones, gem-encrusted
crowns, glittering Faberge
eggs and eccentric treasures from all over the world
captivate our attention.
And as if these galleries weren’t overwhelming in and
of themselves, we
continue into the mind-boggling vaults of the State Diamond
Fund. This seemingly
endless exhibition of the royal jewelry in precious stones
culminates with the fiery
crown of Catherine the Great, lavishly inset with
5,000 glistening gems. Here too
are the colossal Orlov and Shah Diamonds, which
rank among the largest cut
diamonds in the world.
Stunning Museum in Kremlin
One of Many Churches within Kremlin Wall
Susan and I stagger out from the
Armory in an inexplicable mood to go shopping.
And it’s our good fortune that Arbat Street is only footsteps away! The street,
which was converted into a
pedestrian-only walkway in 1985, slices through
what has always been the
bohemian district of the city. Today boutiques,
antique shops, jewelry stores
and funky restaurants claim most of the storefronts,
while a mishmash of street
vendors, local artists and hucksters in the middle of
the street create a
colorful maze for foot traffic. It’s a great place to find a kooky
two, like a set of stacking wooden dolls, lacquer boxes, hand-carved
or laser-etched crystal prisms.
Moscow Farmers Market
The sidewalk cafes secretly serve
as a great place to people watch…and the
Arbat district is a favored daytime
haunt for eccentric members of the community.
Susan and I settle in for an iced
cappuccino and one of those decadent Russian
afternoon desserts like Sharlotka,
a sponge cake filled with yellow custard and
a berry puree, smothered with
dollops of heavy whipping cream. (Oh yes, be
forewarned that traditional Russian
coffee is laced with vodka and hazelnut liqueur.)
Street Scene: Arbat
Vendors in one of many tented shops in the middle of Arbat Street. Do
remember to purchase a book
of stamp collections from street sellers. They are one of the most
amazing, colorful purchases you'll ever
make with pocket change.
Not far from the Arbat district
is yet another shopping center known as the
Petrovsky Passage. Here you’ll find
the international fashion boutiques like
Givenchy, Max Mara, Nina Ricci and
Bally. These glitzy stores along Petrovka
and Neglinnaya streets are the most
prestigious in all of Moscow. After an
uncontrollable spree of window-shopping,
Susan and I trot empty handed over
to the Gosudarstvennyy universalnyy magazine,
or as the Muscovites say “the GUM.”
Designed in 1893 in an elegant style
featuring wrought-iron works and distinctive
glass ceilings, the Gum is largest
department store in Russia. We sleuth through
some of the more than 1000 shops
and ferret out some affordable mementos
to wrestle back home.
Moscow is unquestionably the
cultural hub of Russia. The Bolshoy Theater,
Moscow’s oldest and most famous
venue for opera and ballet, is just a couple
of blocks from Red Square. The
city supports over 60 theaters and 80 theater groups.
international music events are regularly scheduled here in association
Moscow Conservatory. Taking in a performance at the Tchaikovsky Hall is a
for music lovers. Concertgoers are delightfully surprised by the avant-garde
circular configuration of the auditorium and as well as the gargantuan organ
more than 7,800 pipes. Although the performing arts season runs from
June, the Moscow State Circus entertains every night of the year.
unnerving high-wire acts and precision acrobatics have
contributed to its undisputed
world famous reputation.
There is much to see on the
outskirts of Moscow, including Kolomenskoe,
Moscow’s premiere historical and
cultural park. Situated among groves of
ancient oak trees planted by Ivan I
some six hundred years ago, this peaceful
hillside showcases several wooden
forts and early Russian homes, including
a modest log cabin built for Peter the
Great in 1702. Three magnificent
churches on the site date to the early
1500’s. At the lower end of the park during the 1700’s
Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich
constructed a fanciful wooden palace, hailed by Russian historians
eighth wonder of the world.” Jealous of this architectural accomplishment,
the Great ordered the dismantling of the structure 1768. Only a small
now humbly displayed in Kolomenskoe’s Front Gate Museum.
Another must-see attraction
outside Moscow’s city limits is the Kuskovo Estate.
Dating back to 1777, this
palace was the home of one of Russia’s wealthiest
Remarkably, the interior furnishings, priceless heirlooms
and gorgeous artwork
have been returned to their original places in this jewel box
Not far away from Kuskovo lies an
unspoken treasure, known to few foreign visitors
to Russia. It’s the Russian
Central Air Force Museum, the largest and finest aviation
museum in Russia. The
Molino Air Force Base was transformed into the museum in
1960. If you’re not a
Russian citizen, you need special government permission to visit
I are so appreciative that our guide somehow miraculously made the
for us. Our docent, a former air force pilot, presents us with pamphlet
with jaw-dropping facts. I had no idea the Russian’s were first in so many
achievements nor that the United States provided Russia with over a
fighter planes during the World Wars. As I my head spins
trying to grasp all the Russian
aerospace accomplishments, we suddenly step
outside the hanger and onto a tarmac
lined with a astonishing conglomeration of
150 supersonic commercial planes, dive bombers,
reconnaissance aircraft and
missile carriers…all in working order!
As we enter the last week of our
travels Susan and I embark on an excursion through
Russia’s famous “Golden Ring.”
Golden Ring follows one of Russia’s oldest
trade routes, leading into the rural
areas north-east of Moscow and forming a circle a
little over 400 miles in
length. The Ring’s main towns, which date back to the early 1100’s,
began as outposts of the early “Rus” capital of Kiev. Thanks to determined
today’s visitor sees Russian life as it was centuries ago.
Likhomsky Home is now an elegant B & B.
Our journey departs from Moscow
and continues through the towns of Vladimir,
Suzdal, Kostroma, Yaroslavl, Rostov
Velikiy, Pereslavl-Zalesskiy, Sergiev Posad.
One picturesque village follows
another; each with a unique version of a kremlin
(city fortress), cathedral,
monastery and market place.
Church of the Resurrection (17th C) in Kostroma as seen
from our hotel window
Summer Open Air Market in Kostroma
St. Ipathy's Convent along the
Golden Ring road
Kremlin Cathedral1670 in Rostov
Postcard perfect images of rural country life
abound: farmers harvesting wheat
by hand, horse-drawn carts laden with hay, old
women haggling over prices in
weathered market stalls. The open-air museums of
wooden architecture in Kostroma
and Suzdal feature 18th century
peasant homes, farmhouses, churches and windmills.
Staff members, dressed in
native folk costumes; demonstrate how many homes
were erected without the use of
a single nail.
As Susan and I return to Moscow and
prepare for our flight back home, we
already share the sense of longing to
return. The charms and intrigue of this
wondrous country compel us to revisit
this enchanting land and its endearing
Café Idiot: 82 Nab. Moiki Tel: 3151675
Cat: 24 Karavannaya Ul. Tel: 315 3800
Zazou-Lizou Café 48 Shpalernaya Ul.
Tel: 110 0928
Elf Café: 13 Zemlyanoi Tel 9172014
Fisherman’s Shelter Izba Rybaka
Savoy Ul. Rozhdestvenka 3 Tel: 929 8600
Teatro Teatral'nyj Proezd, 1/4 (across
Bolshoi Theater).Tel: 9276068