Sunday, 23 April 2017

Saint Petersburg and Moscow

With meticulous preparation for all travels as always, this has been another smooth and delightful European cities' trip in spite of chilly weather as well as language barrier. Essesntials were down jacket, wooly hat, and thermal gloves for the wintry April; and also Google Translate for communication with the majority in St Petersburg and, more importantly, survival among all in Moscow. Not to be missed were some delicious Russian foods, of which honey cake, spinach dumplings, and the wide variety of pies available in both savory and sweet versions were phenomenal. Not only was it surprisingly clean everywhere, but "comrades" were also expected to clean up after themselves in a self-service cafeteria, for example, so that tables would be ready for use by diners to come. Unpleasant moments were minimal yet unforgettable. Patience with border controls was required on arrival in St Petersburg for all foreign visitors with and without a tourist visa, same, if not worse, for departure at Moscow DME airport, where discrimination against non-Russian travellers could not be more obvious.

Never once had I encountered significant challenges organizing any trips in the previous five years. What prompted such exception was without a doubt the Russians' English illiteracy. Except for staff at LED Information Desk, most receptionists at the chained-brand hotel and a few at ticket offices at major tourist attractions in St Petersburg, who could be deemed "just good enough to communicate in English", any others in both airports, the highly rated hotel and restaurants in Moscow, etc., could not speak a word in English. It also appeared taxi drivers welcomed only Russian passengers. Worst of all, Metro in Moscow was not at all English-friendly either. Everyone relied on on-board announcement, in Russian only of course, to know at which station the train was stopping, since stations' names, shown in Cyrillic alphabets, were not visible anywhere at platforms until after the train departed - in other words, one had to get off the train before knowing where he or she was. I believe these contribute to the fact that most tourists in Russia travelled in groups and by tour buses, while individual international tourists like ourselves, were barely seen. 

DAY 1 - ST.PETERSBURG - Alexander Nevsky Monastery + Palace Square

The flight landed at LED on time at 14:35, but after the lengthiest border controls, followed by baggage reclaim and the 1-hour journey to the city it was almost 17:00 when we checked into the hotel near metro station Vladimirskaya. The nearby Vladimirsky Cathedral did not look that nice because of renovations and so we quickly glanced it through before heading southeast to Alexander Nevsky Monastery. It did not take long to stroll around this Russian Orthodox complex that consists of a monastery, a neoclassical cathedral & 2 baroque churches. Failed to reach Kazan Cathedral before it closed at 19:30, we managed to get lots of really good shots instead, right before sunset under a clear blue sky without being disturbed by crowds of tourists, of both the most beautiful church in the city and Palace Square. Beware of people dressed in historical costumes at the Square! They had their way to tirck tourists into paying a thousand, but not the seemingly reasonable 300 mentioned at the beginning of the conversation, for taking some thematic photos with them against a backdrop of the Hermitage. Dinner of our first day in Russia - savory Russian pancakes with "slow-cooker chicken" and "cabbage and egg", with a small portion of pelmeni on the side.

DAY 2 - ST.PETERSBURG - St Isaac’s Cathedral + State Hermitage Museum + Church of the​ Savior on the Spilled Blood + Russian Museum

First of all, I must mention that no wonder the honey cake is an iconic Russian dessert found worldwide - even the one available at breakfast served at this inexpensive chained-brand Station Hotel was surprisingly good. A satisfying breakfast was just what we needed to kick-start this chilly, snowy, and fun-packed day. After a brief stop at Kazan Cathedral before everything else opened, we walked westward, past the Admiralty Building, the current headquarters of the Russian Navy, then arrived at St Issac's Cathedral and spent some time admiring this spectacular church as well as climbing to Colonnaded Walkway for panoramic views of St Petersburg, unfortunately, in heavy snow. The most popular State Hermitage Museum was next. We beat the queue using online pre-purchased vouchers, which was proven to be necessary, as we had to spend hours just to cast a glance at every section. Under time constraint we lunched at a café right there and could not have anything fancier than a sandwich. It snowed a full day. The city turned snow white just in time at around 16:00 as we approached Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood for some snowy photo shooting. The inside of the church was magnificent but smaller than expected. With adverse weather conditions, we could not do much more than paying a visit to Russian Museum, which opened till 21:00 only on Thursday, exactly the day we were. For dinner, we had generous portions of salads, a grilled fish, Russian Apple Napolean Cake, chocolate cake, some berry juice and dried fruit juice.

DAY 3 - ST.PETERSBURG - Grand Peterhof Palace and Grand Cascade + Russian Vodka Room

It took a little more than an hour to get to Peterhof by metro, train, and then bus, but it was well worth the travelling time and also efforts put to purchase train tickets using only body language. Peter and Paul Cathedral would have looked like a giant piece of art if its top half was not under renovation. Peterhof's fame as the "Russian Versailles" was not at all overstated, although an adjective "tiny" was missing. Photography was forbidden in staterooms, whereas Grand Cascade was a popular shooting background crowded with group tours. Promenading the beautiful palace's gardens all covered in thick layers of snow on a sunny day was exceptionally pleasurable! A tasty hot lunch at Brynza just nearby fuelled us up so that we could survive the chilly weather and enjoy the rest of the day back in the city. We opted for a Russian chebureki with pumpkin, fried onions and cranberries, one stuffed with pounded potato and fried mushrooms, together with Russian soups - meat solyanka and borscht. Back in the central the recently restored Trinity Cathedral and the well-preserved Nicholas-Epiphany Naval Cathedral were within walking distance from Baltiyskiy railway station. I wish we could claim the luxury of time to watch a 2-hour performance in the grand Mariinsky Theatre before continuing on our way to Russian Vodka Room for a gourmet dining experience - Russian Soup with Giblets, Salted Cucumber and Pearl Barley, Thick, Spicy & Sour Russian Soup with Mushrooms, Siberian Red Deer Cutlet with Wild Berry Sauce, Russian Puff Pastry with Siberian Muksun Filling, Kartoshka Rum Ball Russian Style, and of course some Vodka.

DAY 4 - ST.PETERSBURG - Peter and Paul Fortress + Spit of Vasilievsky Island + High Speed Train to Moscow

It was just as cold but the sunshine brightened our last day in St Petersburg. First stop was St Petersburg Mosque, the largest mosque in Europe outside Turkey when it opened in 1913. Situated just 5-minute walk away southwest was Peter and Paul Fortress where snowy scenes of the entire complex and panoramic views across the river were focal points. After a brief stop at Prince St. Vladimir's Cathedral, we took a bus just to cross the river to reach Spit of Vasilievsky Island, historic economic heart of St Petersburg marked by its twin red Rostral Columns and white colonnade Old St Petersburg Stock Exchange. It was also a perfect viewpoint of Peter and Paul Fortress and the Hermitage Museum. Russian pie feast at Shtolle was also a highlight of the day. English menu, English-speaking staff, yummy savory and sweet pies, reasonable price and altogether made it an excellent farewell lunch. Our train departed at 17:10 from Moscow Station in St Petersburg and arrived at 21:00 in Leningrad Station in Moscow. We should have bought dinner beforehand, as there were only tasteless and empty sandwiches available for sale on board, and as luck would have it, we had enough cash with us that day.

DAY 5 - MOSCOW - Red Square + St Basil's Cathedral + Moscow Kremlin + Metro Stations & Churches

For those with a tight itinerary, Red Square is definitely the place to spend the day. Just 15-minute walk away from our hotel near metro station Kitay-Gorod situated Moscow's most photographed attractions including St Basil's Cathedral, GUM shopping mall, Kazan Cathdral, Resurrection Gate & Iverskaya Chapel together with Zero kilometer of the city of Moscow, State History Museum, The Kremlin, etc.. St Basil's Cathedral quickly became our most favorite church worldwide. Unlike a visit to any other church as normally expected, inside of it were numerous exhibitions displayed in little chambers. Behind the church was another perfect backdrop for some more nice photos free of tourist crowds. Again, online pre-purchased vouchers came in handy for entry to the Architectural complex of the Cathedral Square of Kremlin, in which we enjoyed very much sightseeing of both the exteriors and interiors. After a quick lunch at the food court inside GUM, we went here and there by metro as taking underground journeys was definitely one of the top ten things to do in Moscow. Each station's decoration is palatial, with exquisite artwork and decorations, making it easily one of the most beautiful subways in the world. There were several charming churches not far in the north, of which Nativity Church at Putinki was particularly interesting. We also made a brief stop just to see the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of the Seven Sisters. For dinner, Grabli, the balloon-themed restaurant, offered a spectrum of choice and we grabbed this opportunity to savor a hot meal with plenty of vegetables cooked in different ways and sauces, some classical fruit juices, and a dessert. On the way walking back to the hotel, Bolshoi Theatre as well as some other buildings around Kitay-Gorod looked lovely when illuminated at night.

DAY 6 - MOSCOW - Novodevichy Convent + Cathedral of Christ the Saviour + some more Churches

It would have been a much nicer experience if Novodevichy Convent did not have its important parts closed for renovation. It was outrageous that the full ticket price of RUB300 still applied. Next, we visited Zachatyevsky Monastery and then Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world. The nearby Daily Bread was a good choice for lunch - a pot of hot sencha and some vegan creamy pumpkin soup served with freshly baked bread to warm ourselves up, flavorful salads made with quality ingredients, a slice of honey cake, and the best walnut-loaded carrot cake I had ever tasted. We continued east and spent the rest of this day admiring a number of churches such as Church of St. Gregory of Neo-Caesarea in Däbritz, Church of St. Nicholas of Myra in Pyzhi, and Church of the Resurrection in Kadashi Sloboda. Nearer to evening we managed to take a few more excellent shots around Red Square under a clear blue sky. It was also the time when we finally got a chance to visit the sumptuous GUM, which comprises three elegantly designed floors with a glass roofed central courtyard spanning the whole length of the mall. Unlike others within the food court, Stolovaya № 57 offered a lot more great options at reasonable price - choices of vegetables, grilled fish, chicken, fruit juices, baked apple with cranberries, and Russian chocolate rum ball.

DAY 7 - MOSCOW - All-Russian Exhibition Center + departure from Russia

Our last breakfast at Brusnika konditerskaya-kulinariya did not disappoint. After trying slices of deliciousness like cherry strudel, napoleon, Russian Honey Cake (low-sugar version), poppy seed Russian Makovnik Cake, chocolate mousse cake, and decadent Russian Cake Prague the previous days, we went for tartlet with cherries, tartlet with lemon meringue, nut biscotti, and coconut cookies. And of course body language accompanied by "two big freshly squeezed grapefruit juice" displayed on Google Translate saved all troubles. All-Russian Exhibition Center, a permanent general purpose trade show and amusement park, was worth seeing, despite large-scale renovations and constructions. A walk around this “Soviet Disneyland” did not take long and so we decided to go for a last-minute bite of Russian specialty at Varenichnaya number 1 - a small portion of Vareniki with Spinach, two pieces of Kartoplyaniki with Mushrooms, a Meat Set with Siberian Pelmeni, Vareniki with Veal, with Lamb, with Chicken & Mushrooms, a refreshing Strawberry Lemonade, and Finlandia Vodka. Luggage collection from hotel, followed by a metro ride from Kitay-Gorod to Domodedovskaya, and finally a journey on bus 308 to DME airport took a total of two hours and we managed to have luggage checked, pass security checks and border controls by 16:45, about an hour before boarding time. We could not help enjoying one last moment with some of those eye-catching fine patisseries and raspberry juice at a cafe where we did not feel unwelcome.