Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A tale of two Soviet cities

Who sent us to Siberia???
Our introduction to Russia was Listvyanka, a charming little town we stayed at for two nights to see Lake Baikal, the largest deepest freshwater lake in the world. Unfortunately all we saw of it was pictures as we had blizzard conditions our whole time there. Fortunately we stayed at a charming little hotel with entertaining Russians, a large warm common area and lashings of home made Russian food.

Are you crazy?
More vodka, please...
Our tour guide was talked into a Russian bath experience and when he came out in a bath towel exclaiming that he was not sure what to wear, he was informed that wearing anything was not going to be an issue. For the next two hours our fearless tour leader was initiated into Russian sauna etiquette: 20 mins approx in sauna being whipped with birch branches, 10 seconds writhing naked in snow, 20 mins more sado-masochism in sauna, 10 seconds plunging into ice bath, interspersed with food, copious amounts of vodka and story telling; the ultimate male bonding experience. The night was spent listening to Russians singing folk songs and playing the guitar for us, being shown photos taken of the place in better weather, and drinking. It kept on long after all us non Russians went to bed.

Tulips at the Kremlin

Red Square and Kremlin
Moscow was our next stop and would rate as one of our favourite cities, especially in May when the gardens with exploding rows of multicoloured tulips were magnificent. Highlight of Moscow would be the Kremlin. Walking towards it through Red Square you see St Basil's Church, built by Ivan the Terrible to help atone for many many sins, and the lavish GUM department store complex (appropriate for the new Russia?) opposite Lenin's tomb, where he can still be seen perfectly preserved. Around the corner some fabulous gardens, sculptures, fountains, and the eternal flame of the unknown soldier. Inside more gardens, huge cannons and several ornate Orthodox churches and then finally (with a separate ticket) the Armoury, containing the most amazing collection of carriages I've ever seen.

The Moscow Metro is one of the oldest, deepest and best decorated in the world. The escalators seem to go on forever with some of the stations 80m down. A lot of the stations are very beautiful with elaborate ceilings, chandeliers, mosaics, sculptures and more. There are specialist tours just of the Metro, and apart from all that, it's the best way to get around Moscow.

We also visited the amazing Novodevichy Cemetery. Normally I'm not the type to photograph graves but this is no normal cemetery. The Communists wanted to recognise accomplishments so they would make the graves a celebration of what the workers did. There was a huge variety to see as we wandered through: a clown perched on a seat, ballet dancers in embrace, a journalist with typewriter keys arranged in stone, an airforce pilot next to a propellor and on and on. It was a very interesting and creative way of celebrating and remembering a person's life.

Cheeky cupid
Artwork galore
Our last port in Russia was St Petersburg, home of the Hermitage Museum, one of the biggest and fanciest museums in the world. There are apparently over three million items in the Hermitage, so if you want to spend three seconds at each item be prepared to set aside about 104 days. This is definitely an art lover's dream but overload kicked in pretty quickly for me.

Plenty to see and do: you can go to Catherine's Palace and see beautiful rooms and great gardens, or the Peterhof, home of over 170 fountains, or the Peter and Paul Fortress where everybody goes to sunbathe the minute the sun comes out, or the Church of our Saviour on the Spilt Blood where Emperor Alexander was assassinated. Or you could just go to a local jazz club, have a nice dinner and listen to some music (we did all of the above). Russia was expensive but a lot more interesting than I expected with a very European feel.
A local jazz club

Catherine's Palace

Setting the mood in the palace

Palace gardens

Peterhof fountains

Church of the Spilt Blood

Where the blood was spilt

Peter and Paul Fortress
Sunbathing at the fortress