Venice of the North

Italy or Russia? St. Petersburg’s waterways boast a decidedly European flair.

While my parents were still in town, I was able to sneak away for a 3-day weekend to this wonderful spot many call the Venice of the North. As Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg wears many hats – Baltic seaport, former capital city, and European enclave.

St. Petersburg was founded by Czar Peter the Great in 1703. Peter, a great fan of the sea, sought to bring European prestige to Imperial Russia by installing a seat of government in the port city. The founder of the Russian Navy (among his many accomplishments), Peter spent time in his youth traveling across Europe. In Holland he learned to sail, which resulted – as my friend Niek informs me – in the inclusion of many Dutch terms in Russian sailing lexicon. The move to St. Petersburg was a calculated one, ushering in a new era of military fortitude which now included the Baltic Fleet and a decidedly European aesthetic.

Today St. Petersburg is considered to be the cultural capital of Russia. The Hermitage, Russia’s most prestigious art museum, is located on the banks of the Neva River. Many famous writers have called St. Petersburg home – Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky to name a few. Today the city remains a haven for artists, attracting like-minded types from across Russia and Europe.

The breadth of art in St. Petersburg is absolutely stunning – from the immense Hermitage collection to the hallowed halls of the Russian Museum, you can find whatever you seek. During our morning spent at the Hermitage, I was most impressed with its gilded architecture such as that seen below. Walking the halls end-to-end, there is simply too much to take in. We opted to flutter in and out of various rooms, catching a few famous works, but mostly drinking in the grandiose feeling of it all. I suspect a highlights tour would be a great way to enjoy the museum in another way.

When many people think of Russia, an image of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow comes to mind. As lovely as that church is, it really does not hold a candle to St. Petersburg’s finest gem, The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.

Engaging from the outside, we were absolutely blown away by the sights awaiting us inside. Stunning mosaics of lapis blue and gold are stunningly beautiful pack the entire church with floor-to-ceiling Bible scenes and Orthodox icons. I’ve seen many churches and mosques around the world but this one absolutely takes the cake. Certainly a sight that cannot be missed.

Following that stunner, we wandered over to the Russian Museum close by. Recommended by a friend, the Russian Museum proved to be truly charming. I would compare it as the D’Orsay to the Hermitage’s Louvre – much more my pace and with an accessibility that would appeal to any viewer. Works by the Russian Impressionists such as Malyavin and Futurists like Natalia Goncharova (my new favorite artist) were placed in timeline order, allowing us to weave our way through Russian Art History with ease. I cannot wait to return to the folk art collection, which is exquisite and deserving of a truly proper look.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral proved another highlight of St. Pete’s. With its gold-plated dome and full columns made of lapis and malachite, the church takes gilded to a whole new level. Preserved during Soviet times as a “museum dedicated to atheism”, this literal gem of St. Petersburg is another must-see.

Getting around in St. Pete’s is quite easy – it’s a walkable city. Should you need a lift, Uber is also available (and highly recommended so not to get ripped off). With all the trekking we managed, we also took the time to enjoy a number of delicious restaurants, both recommended by friends.

Mansarga (seen in the Cyrillic below) is part of the Ginza Project group of restaurants, which boast fabulous reputations in both Moscow and St. Pete’s. With a direct view across to St. Isaac’s gold dome, it’s the perfect setting for a delicious meal with no crazy pretense. In fact, lack of pretense was the name of the game in St. Pete’s. The people were lovely and never did I feel in over my head when out to dinner.

For a special occasion, the restaurant at the Grand Hotel L’Europe is the absolute tops. Saturday night is jazz night and never have I been so looked after by a slew of friendly waiters. One even bothered to bring my father a bowl of borscht so he would not be “lonely” while my mother and I finished our appetizers. Truly a 5-star meal in every way.

We loved our stay at the Hotel Indigo with its panoramic view over the rooftops. Watching a storm roll across the bay one night with a beautiful sunset the next, we could ask for better.

The St. Petersburg trip proved a wonderful getaway from the hustle and bustle of cosmopolitan Moscow. The high-speed Sapsan train made our 4-hour ride fly by with all the luxury and comfort of a Korean KTX train. I’m already looking forward to my next visit, hopefully in the fall when the leaves are changing. For now, I’ll leave you with this gem of a pic, the latest in Russian fashion. On to the next, my friends!

Privet, comrade!

Moscow Must-Dos

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Having visitors is the perfect excuse to be a tourist in your own city. With my parents in town for a week, I made great headway on my Moscow bucket list and learned a lot more about this country I now call home.

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I arranged a Kremlin tour in English and off we went for a full four hours. Lidia, our extremely kind and knowledgeable guide, gave us a real run for our money. Helping to timeline all of those World History classes (Were Catherine and Peter the Great related? When did the Romanovs first come to power?), she wove us through the wealth of Russian history inside the Kremlin walls.

Much less intimidating inside than the exterior lets on, the Kremlin grounds contain a number of incredibly ornate Orthodox churches, multiple museums, and other government buildings including the Senate Building (constructed in 1776…). With our heads full and spinning, it was time to enjoy another of Moscow’s delights – the gourmand scene.

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View from the bridge above Strelka Bar
Starting at Strelka Bar, one of my personal favorites, we enjoyed plates of cheese, pickles, mushrooms, and other Russian delights. Seafood is prized here, despite Moscow’s inland location, and the port of St. Petersburg plays a pivotal role in Moscow’s foodie scene.

Reservations are key – it’s the first question you’ve asked upon arrival in any restaurant. Most allow you to reserve online through English translation. Little kindnesses await – from locals on the train who volunteer their knowledge of local spots to doting waiters.

We took advantage of Moscow’s culinary delights all over town with dinners at White Rabbit, Jaime’s Italian, and LavkaLavka – a farm-to-table spot dedicated to clean eating.

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While the weather proved challenging (it snowed on May 11) and remained chilly throughout the visit, we certainly made the most of it.

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Taking in my first ballet on the Bolshoi Theatre’s New Stage proved every bit as magical as advertised. I’m looking forward to my next visit already.

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My parents also had the chance to observe the country displaying all its military might. May 9 marks Victory Day here in Russia. Celebrating the end of the Great Patriotic War (known as World War II in the US), the holiday is a very big deal here in Moscow. A huge parade takes place on the day itself, preceded by weeks of traffic jams due to parade practice road closures.

From jet flyovers to the debut of the new Arctic ATVs, Victory Day is intense. The whole event is full of pride and military regalia, made clear as we sat watching the events in Red Square online.

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One of the cooler activities of the day is the Immortal Regiment March, a relatively new tradition in which the people gather to commemorate those who served in the war. In Gorky Park, near my house, the parade ends with surviving members holding their various regiment numbers aloft, allowing descendants of their brothers-in-arms to locate them and pay their respects.

Clearly we packed a lot into our time together in Moscow. But perhaps the highlight of the whole visit was yet to come with a weekend visit to St. Petersburg. Stay tuned for tales from the Venice of the North 🙂

 

A week in Moscow

I welcomed my first visitors to Russia this past week – my friend Meg came from Korea and her boyfriend Niek from Holland. They were ace guests and we had a fantastic time catching up. They covered a great amount of Moscow while still enjoying a chill vacation. They didn’t even let the lingering snow squalls get them down! Inspired by their wanderings, here is my Moscow Top Ten.

Roll into town on one of Moscow’s fabulous Aeroexpress trains – there’s one from each of Moscow’s three airports.

Make your way down to Red Square fairly quick for selfies in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral (bluebird day on order, of course).

Explore the ridiculously ornate confines of St. Basil’s itself (not what I expected, I’ll admit!) with special ambiance from a men’s choir who just happened to be performing inside. 300 rubles to get in – no line, no waiting.

Book a cruise on the Moscow River out of the Radisson Ukraina Hotel – fine dining and a 2.5 hour tour of Moscow’s sites from the water. Highly recommended: the early evening cruise to watch the lights come up over the city in dramatic fashion.

Not to be missed – drinks at the Mercedes Bar on the 31st Floor of the Hotel Ukraina. Book a comfy couch and enjoy the 360 view of Moscow, including the Russian White House and new Moscow City.

Strelka Bar in the student neighborhood of Bolotnyy is always an exciting spot. From the rich but casual decor to the fabulous food and drink, it’s a stop not to be missed.

After you’ve had your dinner fill, enjoy the breathtaking views across at Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Once the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool, this site has been restored to its original trappings, in all it’s golden glory. Don’t miss the views from the top deck nor the surprisingly cool crypt below – discovered by Meg & Niek!

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Be sure to tour the Kremlin. With a private guide, my friends hopped in and out of the churches on the Kremlin ground. I’m told you absolutely cannot miss the incredible riches of the Armory. PC: @meg_hayne

If the snow is falling, a tour of the Moscow metro is perfect no matter the weather! My four favorite stations not to miss – Komsomolskaya, Arbatskaya, Elektrozavodskaya, and Novoslobodskaya.

Gorgeous stained glass at Novoslobodskaya

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The Khokhloma handicrafts are not to be missed. I just came across this fabulous video about them today. A trip to Izmailovo Market, in all it’s touristy glory, is not to be missed. Also check out the small but friendly Museum of Vodka while you’re there!
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Gorky Park hosts ice skating in the winter, bike riding in the summer (bring your passport to rent!) and is also the home of my favorite contemporary art museum, The Garage.
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A winter palace of lights outside the Bolshoi Theater

And, finally, #10 – a ballet at the Bolshoi. Although I have yet to accomplish this one, I have a feeling that all may change with the arrival of another set of visitors next month… Book your tickets decidedly in advance! In the event they’re all sold out, the theater offers tours of the venue in English on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I’m told the line for English forms on the left. God speed 😉

A few other items of note before endeavoring to visit Moscow…

  • Learning the Cyrillic alphabet really helps – with many letters similar to English, it’s really not hard!
  • Downloading wayfinding apps like Uber (yes, they have it!) and Metropolitan (metro map) will go a long way
  • Buying a SIM card also helps for wayfinding – 700 rubles (roughly $11) for 1 month is available at any airport

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this virtual tour of my current home city – and that my attempts to entice future visitors will not be in vain (direct flights from JFK, just sayin’…)! I’ve really come to appreciate Moscow and all of its wonderful surprises. Please come see what all the fuss is about – I have plenty of room!

Troika Riding

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Fresh fallen snow, charming horses, and sleigh bells

приветствие from the frozen tundra! Yesterday I had the most amazing chance to get out to the Russian countryside and take a sleigh ride.

We traveled northwest from Moscow for about an hour and arrived at a fairly large farm. Immediately we spotted the horses in the yard, being run by adults and children of all ages. A friendly Bernese Mountain Dog trotted over to greet us and hens clucked underfoot.

Upon arrival, we were seated on benches of packed snow which were covered in thick blankets. Beyond a rickety barrier made of branches, a horse show was put on for our entertainment. Highlights included a horse jumping through a flaming hoop and a couple “dancing” on horseback. My animal rights heartstrings tugging at me, I accepted this as a cultural opportunity and enjoyed the beauty of the animals.

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Troika, a Russian style of sleigh riding, means ‘group of three’, and describes the number of horses harnessed to the sleigh

Soon after the show (which came replete with ear-piercing traditional music and an impromptu jig by a member of the audience), our sleighs arrived! The horse pictured in the middle (above) is a Clydesdale.

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Over the river and through the snow we went
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Our packed sleigh riding party with my friends Kyle and Sarah in the front with me
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The grey day provided the ultimate epic background to bring out hints of red in the horses’ manes as they raced through the deep snow

Despite being packed into the sleigh like sardines, we were plenty chilly after our ride, so we took shelter in a tin longhouse on site. A snack was already laid out for us, warming atop the crude antique stove.

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Blini! So timely as blini play a starring role in the upcoming Maslenitsa Festival which celebrates the sun’s return (blini = round like the sun). We drizzled these crepes with fresh sour cream, jam, and honey. Delish!
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Who doesn’t love dress up? Well, maybe this girl. But they gave us a chance to dress in traditional Russian costume and take photos with the troika sleigh.
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My friends Kyle and Shin were amicable participants and I played the willing group photographer
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The farm was a working one and we toured the facilities after eating. I fed the goats my apply core and we meet a goose along the way.

All in all, the trip was yet another once-in-a-lifetime deal here in Russia. I’ve ridden snowmobiles before but nothing compares to the tug of a horse-drawn sleigh as you make tracks across an open plain. It was magical.

Stay tuned this coming week for my school’s celebration of Maslenitsa, the pagan holiday turned cultural tradition which ushers in the coming spring. Cheers to that!

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Winter Wonderland

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Palace of Lights outside the Bolshoi Theatre

Before arriving in Moscow, I’d been warned about those tough Russian winters. Now that I’ve made it to January, I’m thoroughly enjoying my time here in Moscow.

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Entrance to Red Square

With the days getting longer and temperatures averaging around 25 degrees Fahrenheit, life is on the up and up! I’ve been spending more time downtown, exploring with friends, trying new museums, and even a few Meet-Ups. I really respect that Muscovites don’t let the winter get them down. Everyone was down at Red Square last weekend, enjoying Christmas Markets, ice skating shows, and the festival of lights.

This past weekend, however, was just icing on my cake. Through one of my school-led excursions, I had the opportunity to try my hand at dog sledding for the first time! And let me tell you, what an amazing time it was…!

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We headed south early Saturday morning, before the sun was up. Miraculously, when it did rise, the clouds cleared away and we were greeted with bright blue sky. Turns out I could have used those sunglasses I haven’t used in weeks!

We drove down successively narrower roads until we reached a one-lane road into the forest. Once we’d gone as far as the van could take us, we got out on foot and walked the rest of the 1km into the woods.

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We heard the pups before we saw them – a dozen or so huskies clipped to a tree line, chomping at the bit to meet us and mount up. They were sweet dogs, very friendly, and smaller in stature than the size many would assume huskies to be. But they were made of pure muscle, for certain. The dogs were begging for attention and we were happy to oblige.

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Storing our bags on low hanging branches, we assembled around the fire to keep warm. The temperature held around 20 degrees for most of the day and in snow pants and thermals, I was quite cozy.

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After a Russian-translated demonstration, the first of our group mounted up. Pushing down hard on a metal kick-stop, our instructions were to wait for the head nod from the leader as he took off on the snowmobile ahead. With one foot already a-top a thin ski rail, you release the brake and quickly bend your knees to steady your balance as the dogs take off!

The part they hadn’t mentioned prior to the trip was that we would be travelling solo on the sled – no partner or leader to accompany. This meant once I’d cleared camp, it was just me and the six dogs, riding a snowy path, dipping under fallen trees and around bends in the road, and utterly silent along the trees save for the sound of the dogs breathing.

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It was a gorgeous 2km ride. The blue skies shown through the heavy tree cover. I could have stayed on that sled for many more miles. Reminded me of times in Vermont, like the ice fishing and winter hikes. Just an incredible day.

In a few weeks time I’ll have the opportunity to go troika riding – Russia’s version of horse-drawn sleigh rides! I’m so looking forward to another day outside and hoping for more of the those elusive, and so appreciated!, blue skies. Check back for more pictures and stories to come.

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Riding troika

Melikhovo

It was early Saturday morning when we struck out for Chekhov’s estate, Melikhovo, 75km south of Moscow. We hit a great deal of dacha traffic on the way which delayed us considerably. Just as people from Maine head out to camp and Canadians visit their cottages, Muscovites head to their dachas (pronounced dat-cha). But let’s just say there’s a tad more traffic on a Russian highway than on Mt. Ephraim Road. In Russia, you cannot move a vehicle from the scene of an accident until authorities arrive so you can imagine the back up (hours…days?).

A country home typically situated on a generous plot of land, a dacha provides a refuge from city life. As the Russian pension is quite slim, retirees often turn their dachas into farmland, supplementing their pensions by growing vegetables and raising livestock to either sell or sustain themselves. The dacha traffic gave me time to do some research on Chekhov – the man, myth, and revered legend.

Born in 1860, Anton Chekhov had a difficult childhood plagued by an abusive father and financial instability. As a young man, while studying medicine at university, Chekhov took over financial responsibility for his entire family. To make ends meet, he wrote satirical short stories. After earning his degree as a physician, Chekhov contracted tuberculosis, which plagued him the rest of his life. He continued writing as it was more fruitful than practicing medicine (my how the times have changed…). His story, The Huntsman, was one of the first to gain him literary cred.

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We raked leaves on the grounds in front of Chekhov’s home for a few hours to earn our admission ticket.

 

In 1892, Chekhov acquired Melikhovo with monetary help from his publisher. He soon became a staple of the countryside – helping to build roads, schools, and acting as the local physician. His services were so popular, in fact, that he would raise a flag to denote his availability as local peasants were known to show up on his doorstep as early at 5 o’clock in the morning. A skilled herbalist, Chekhov managed to keep the region rid of cholera as the epidemic swept through Russia in the late 1800s. He composed a number of works while at Melikhovo, including The Seagull. He retained the estate until 1897.

The kitchen adjoining the Chekhov residence. Note the intriguing tea kettle stove.

Finally out in the countryside, I was first struck by the birch trees. There are so many, stacking side by side, their white bark etched like chalk upon the dense forest. The green reads like the fields of Vermont and I felt instantly transported back there.

We spent a few hours raking leaves on the grounds, giving us time to enjoy the crisp autumn weather. The fresh air felt great and the gardens were simply beautiful. We were next treated to tea and hard sushki, which you might remember from the celebration upon our first arrival at school.

After watching a Chekhov play performed, we toured the grounds under the incredible translating efforts by one of my Russian colleagues, Lena. It was then I learned of Chekhov’s great efforts towards the area locals and his role as doctor-in-residence. By the end of the day, we were all tired and ready to pack it in for home. But I couldn’t help taking a minute on the porch to appreciate those blue-grey skies against the lush green grass. Fall in Russia is a gorgeous thing to behold.

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A Russian samovar – literally “self-boil”.