Welcome to my tales of cookery school, food and travel

The first 30+ posts of this blog describe my experiences as I complete a nine month cooking course - the City and Guilds Diploma in Food Preparation and Culinary Art. I did this after I moved out of full time employment and it was purely selfish - I love food, cooking, eating and drinking. Subsequent posts are about, food, travel and adventures.

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Monday, 4 July 2016

Russia - I'll be back

I didn't really sum up my thoughts about our time in Russia but for what they are worth, here goes.

St Basil's Cathedral, now a museum, on the edge of Red Square
(which isn't red at all) 
Obtaining visas at first seemed an incredible obstacle, but that was a view formed by dealing with ill informed travel agents. Although it is an administrative pain in the neck, it is really quite straightforward to get a visa, just make sure you've got all your paperwork as stated on the Russian Embassy website.

We arrived with too many preconceptions: there'll be issues at immigration; we won't understand anything so we'll get ripped off; people will be suspicious; it will be difficult to get around; we'll be stopped and asked for our identification; it will be grubby and disorganised and nothing will run on time.

We breezed through immigration in record time. A short delay in arrivals while we waited for our pre-booked shuttle to arrive. Our driver looked exactly like an Eastern European gangster in a James Bond film. Far from being ripped off, when we arrived at the hotel we were informed they had changed shuttle providers and the cost was half what we'd been quoted.

We found Moscow and St Petersburg to be pristine, modern, vibrant cities and they are both easy to navigate.  As mentioned in a previous blogknowing the Cyrillic alphabet before you go really does help. The trains are frequent, fast, and efficient - in Moscow there's a train every two minutes, and at the end of the platform a clock ticks down from 2 minutes so you know exactly how long before the next one.

There seems to be a deep concern for preserving heritage and history, both the good and the bad. The good is obvious. Beautiful palaces, museums, stunning churches, extensive gardens, galleries overflowing with centuries of international art. 

You see the double headed eagle, symbol of the Romanov dynasty on everything from bridges and monuments to porcelain and furniture. Though one of our guides tells us some refer to it as the Chernobyl Chicken! 

Chernobyl Chicken
On the canals in St Petersburg

The bad depends on your viewpoint. The Tsars lived off the backs of the people, but come the revolution, the Bolsheviks didn't destroy the palaces but rather re purposed them. For example, the Winter Palace became the Palace of the Arts.  The separation of Church and State meant the Churches didn't fare so well: some were destroyed, others, such as St Basil's in Moscow and the extremely beautiful St Isaac's in St Petersburg, were turned into museums.

At the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg we found one of the prisons where the Cheka imprisoned anti Bolshevik activists. The information panels don't shy away from detailing the imprisoning without charges, executions without trial, mass executions and burials in the forests.

Guides are invaluable, particularly in St Petersburg where everything you want to visit is on the hit list of the literally thousands of people flooding off cruise ships every day. We used Moscow Private Tours and their offshoot St Pete Private Tours. In Moscow we organised a half day around the main sites to orient ourselves. 

In St Petersburg we organised a half day just at the Hermitage and then another day a trip out of town to Peterhof Summer Palace. This is a stunning palace, designed by an architect who never met a surface he didn't want to gild, with extensive gardens and lots of fountains, both elaborate and also a few trick fountains for the unwary - as if it wasn't a wet enough day! 
Inside Peterhof (oops - no photos!)

Some of the fountains at Peterhof Palace
Aside from their excellent English and wealth of knowledge about the subject matter, guides posses a priceless skill - queue jumping tour groups and very sharp elbows.  They also are a match for the Soviet era hatchet faced room guards who are constantly harassing you to keep moving! no photos! no touch!  And all three guides we employed had great personalities and a good sense of humour. 

The entrance foyer for the Winter Palace
Probably the most difficult thing to comes to grips with in Russia, especially for open and friendly Westerners, is the distance Russians naturally keep in interactions. This is quite difficult to explain, but I'll try. It is summed up in  the word фамилъярность which translates as familiarity, or acting as if you are better friends with someone than you really are. Now you may think my Russian has come on in leaps and bounds - no. I lucked onto a column written by a Moscow based translator and interpreter who explained that no matter how long your acquaintance, for example with a work colleague, you would never ask about their parter or spouse, or their state of health.  It seems to be about maintaining a distance, not letting people too close, and here's another of my amateur theories - I think it stems from the days when you lived a very private and circumspect life, didn't discuss your politics or beliefs, and didn't tell anyone anything. You never knew if it would lead to a late night knock at the door.  

While providing all amenities and perfect comfort and even our hotels were discreet. Easily missed, just a door like any other. 
Veliy Hotel, Moscow. Five minutes from the Kremlin

Casa Leto Hotel, St Petersburg

Final observation - all our guides and lots of the hotel staff were aged 25 or 26 - I think there was a lot of celebrating around 1990. Check your history for a clue.

White Nights - about 10pm in St Petersburg

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