|St Basil's Cathedral, now a museum, on the edge of Red Square |
(which isn't red at all)
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 blog, knowing 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.
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!
|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|
|The entrance foyer for the Winter Palace|
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|