In May 2014, I fulfilled a long held dream to go to Russia – not, I realise somewhere lots of people dream of going to. But, I studied the Russian Revolution and the end of the Romanov family, and the subsequent early years of the Bolshevik/Communist rule at school years ago, and I had long wanted to see these places for myself. Specifically, I wanted to see the palaces lived in by the Tsars for myself.
You have to want to go to Russia – just applying for the visa is hard – the application form is lengthy, and among the expected questions such as job and criminal past, asks random questions about your post high school education and your entire job history, including managers’ names. I believe it’s got harder since then, so it’s not somewhere you can go on the spur of the moment and expect to get a visa on arrival.
Anyway, I put the effort in, answered all the questions, paid my money, got the visa, and I enjoyed my time there, so it was worth the effort.
The first few days were spent in Moscow. The trip didn’t get off to a great start, as I got lost on the metro just trying to get into the city from the airport – when you can’t read the alphabet, and the signage is poor, you’ve been given the wrong instructions AND the name of the station you want has been recently changed, getting lost wasn’t hard to do. Finding my way to the hotel was somewhat harder, but still remains one of my best travel achievements. I was actually on a group trip, and the rest of the group was slightly impressed that I had managed to get to the hotel after getting lost. Most of them didn’t even try the metro. By the way, the stations on the Moscow metro are beautiful, extravagantly decorated with statues and ornate ceilings and lights.
Moscow was lovely. We spent our time seeing the main sights, especially the Kremlin. We had a guided tour of the grounds and churches one morning, with a very knowledgeable guide. We went into a number of churches in the Kremlin, some of which had been used by the Tsars and their families. They’re very different to Western churches. Our churches tend to have unpainted but ornate stonework, stained glass windows, tombs and memorials to the great and good, and especially the big cathedrals are light and airy. These churches were nothing like this – the walls were covered in frieze after frieze, all painted straight onto the stone/plaster, all religious in nature, no stained glass windows that I can remember, and almost dark and gloomy. Sadly we weren’t allowed to take photos – in fact there were women in the churches whose job was to ensure tourists take no photos and don’t touch anything.
We also went in the State Armoury, which is a museum housed in the armoury, which is in the Kremlin. This houses all sorts of items – some not so interesting, such as lots of armour and guns, but some very interesting, such as the carriages and clothes and jewellery used and worn by the Romanov family. Some of those items were absolutely stunning. Again, sadly, we weren’t allowed to take photos.
Elsewhere in Moscow, we saw St Basil’s Cathedral, which is amazing to see – the colours on the walls and onion domes are so beautiful. We also saw GUM in Red Square, which these days is a shopping mall, with Western and designer shops and boutiques in it. Originally it was built as a shopping centre, then converted to offices by Stalin in 1928, and then back to shops in 1953.
After 3 days in Moscow, we caught an overnight train to St Petersburg – my first overnight train. It was ok, the bedding was clean, the toilets less so by the end, and I managed to get some sleep.
I liked St Petersburg from the minute we arrived – possibly simply because the metro was better sign posted, and in English! I also felt at home as the area we were staying in reminded me of America, with straight roads arranged in blocks, like in America. Generally St Petersburg was lovely, with the main street Nevsky Prospekt wide and lined with shops and restaurants, and canals and waterways everywhere.
We spent our first couple of days exploring the main sights in the centre of St Petersburg, such as the Hermitage, which is in The Winter Palace, and is where the Romanov family lived prior to their deaths. I wanted to see the palace itself, the rooms, the architecture, the furniture etc, as this is what I’m interested in – history. However, we were on another guided tour, and the Hermitage is actually an art gallery and our guide was determined to show us the art. We were obviously able to see the building as we walked round but stopping to admire it wasn’t really an option. We were briefly shown a few rooms at the end of the tour which are now home to the royal family’s furniture. The Hermitage was impressive, very very grand. There was one piece of artwork I liked – a cheeky little cupid statue.
Other highlights in the city centre include St Isaacs church, another deconcestrated church, which is gorgeous, with beautiful friezes on the walls, and ornate pulpits and an alter. At one point I just sat, soaking in the atmosphere. There’s also The Peter and Paul Fortress, across the River Neva, which was a fortress, but is now a collection of shops and museums, and a cathedral which is the resting place for several members of the Romanov family.
The highlight of the trip to Russia for me was the day we spent seeing 2 palaces, Catherine’s Palace and Peterhof. Both are outside the city centre, and both were therefore in the path of the invading Nazi Army in 1941. Leningrad, as it was known then, was blockaded by the German army for over 2 years. Half the population either died or fled, and by the time the city was liberated the remaining citizens were surviving on minimal food, including bread which was more sawdust than bread. The 2 palaces were almost completely destroyed and extensively looted, although both have now been extensively restored. This does mean that the palaces that are open to the public aren’t exactly original, but both are impressive. Very impressive.
We saw both in one day, which is not ideal, as each one really needs a day to see it properly. Our first stop was Catherine’s Palace, and here we saw the interior, and saw the opulence of the Romanov family. Room after room of beautifully decorated rooms, filled with grand furniture, and artwork, and gold. One of the ballrooms was so impressive, it felt wrong to be wearing jeans; we could almost hear the orchestra playing, and hear the ball gowns swishing on the floor as the guests danced. The most impressive room was The Amber Room, which for some reason you’re not allowed to take photos of. As the name suggests, it’s filled with amber. In fact the entire room is made of amber – furniture, ornaments, the walls. The original amber is long gone, possibly looted and taken to Germany by the Germans, although it has never been found. The whole palace was awe inspiring.
From Catherine’s Palace we went to Peterhof. This palace is on the coast, overlooking the Gulf of Finland, and has lovely sea views. This was the main aim of the trip for me – my holiday would not have been complete without going there. At Peterhof, we didn’t go inside the palace. Instead, we walked around the grounds. The highlight of Peterhof is the fountains, and there are lots of them. Some big, some little, some very impressive, some small and simple. There’s even a fountain to play in. The main fountain is the cascade fountains, situated in front of the palace, and is very impressive .That was our last day in Russia, hence rushing round 2 palaces in one day. The next day I came home, so pleased I had finally been to Russia. The beauty of the buildings in Moscow and St Petersburg made them both lovely cities to visit, and I have always found the history so interesting, so it was lovely to finally see all the places I had read about over the years.